Apr/May 1999  •   Salon

350 Degrees

by Tom Dooley

I lay in the sun until my limbs loosened like a slow-cooked turkey. I lay in the sun, relaxed, and the turkey simile occurred to me.

It was a beautiful Arizona Sunday morning. I spent 15 minutes in the Jacuzzi and then maybe 30 stretched out on a lawn chair, air-drying. I knew I would miss this aspect of apartment living.

That was a month ago. I recorded the line about the turkey, thinking I'd use it to begin an essay. What I thought the essay would be about, I don't remember.

This essay is about the difference between what happens to one and what occurs to one. It's about one's capacity to believe instead of to perceive. It's about the best way to bullshit oneself.

Lying in the sun, thinking of golden-brown Thanksgiving bird in the oven, I altered my experience. Maybe I enhanced it. But more likely I conceptualized it to the extent that I quit feeling the sun on my skin. Worse, I had to leave the sun to come inside and write down my simile before it went away.

A director told me, after shooting a movie, that it was nearly impossible for her to see anything without cropping it in her mind. This seemed like a loss of experience.

Is this a no-ideas-but-in-things thing? Is it an advice-is-just-a-form-of-nostalgia thing?

I'm thinking the truth can become a source of bullshit. If you hide behind it. If you try to use it to get what you want. If you manipulate it for its beauty. If you have the hubris to think you ever truly embrace it.

Speaking of hubris, who am I to decry my slow roast turkey? I had already felt the sun. I had relaxed. Conceptualizing the experience was the only possible development from there, unless you count skin cancer. Conceptualizing was a capacity that separated me from the plants ringing the pool area, who also responded to the sunlight in their own way.

Maybe that was a little early on to prove my whole point is bullshit. It leaves me thinking I'd better invent another point.

To beat the point into the ground though, without the director's capacity to crop, there would be no medium, no transference between cellular awareness and celluloid, cerebral feeling.

In the last month, I've been experiencing the house-buying process. My realtor said, "You're going to have to trust me. I'm going to treat you like my own son. I am 100% loyal to you." That made me suspicious and uncomfortable. It sounded like a lot of bullshit.

I wanted him to say, "Look, I'm going to try to put your mind at ease so that I can work a deal that will be mostly to your advantage, since I'm working for you, but which will also give me the maximum commission I can get. It's how I make my living. I'm not really going to treat you like my son, because while I feel compassion toward you like any other human being, if you died tomorrow I would not mourn. You represent a car payment."

Then it occurred to me that either approach would've been geared toward the same end. The latter would've just been a lot subtler, more truthful form of bullshit.

Admitting you wouldn't mourn at someone's death doesn't change the fact that you wouldn't mourn. It just allows you to operate with a clearer conscience about it, which if that isn't self-deceit of the highest order, what is?

I want to come nearly full circle. Not quite back to where I started. I'll see where I was before, and if I've learned anything, try to stop short of repetition.

Buying a house, I told my friend Chris, seemed like looking for the right person to marry. The number of similarities shocked me. He replied, "Too many things about life seem disgustingly similar, or if not similar in action, similar in ends and effects." So why, he wondered, should I bother noting the similarities?

Because doing so is bullshit, and that can be a beautiful thing. If you don't take it too seriously.

The first day of house hunting, my realtor took me to see seven candidates. I liked one of them. In the next two weeks, I saw 30 more houses and still liked the one. We wrote out an offer but never submitted it because the roof wasn't FHA approved. I looked at 30 more houses. I found four that I liked. I kept going back to that first house, thinking it was probably the one, even though there were things I didn't like about it. All the houses had something wrong with them. I didn't expect perfection in my price range, but I wanted the best I could get. I looked at 20 more. The first one finally lost its charm. It was too small, on too busy a street, with too many less tangible flaws. After I had seen over 100 houses and fallen in and out of love with five of them, I narrowed my choices down to two. I ended up buying the one I didn't think at first was the better of the two. It was only after the third time inside both houses that I realized what a terrible mistake it would have been to go with the one I'd thought all along I liked better. Now I'm committed, and I feel good about it. I know I looked at every house I could afford in Tucson, and I found the one I wanted. It's a sound investment. I got it at a good price. It'll give me everything I'm looking for in a house right now.

I had some problems letting go of those first houses I liked. I was afraid I wouldn't find something better. Inexperienced home buyers, like inexperienced automobile buyers, have a hard time believing there are plenty of other fish in the sea—from where they're standing, there have only been a few keepers landed. And when you only get to keep one, the rest all being catch and release, there's no way to know for sure if you're committing to the right one at the right time.

A few months ago, I wrote that it scared me to think relationships might be like shaving. I'd like to say it scares me even more to think they're like real estate, but it doesn't really. I don't even need to go full circle on that one. Relationships are exactly like real estate, I think, except they're more complicated, because both parties are the house, and both parties are the buyer, and the stakes are considerably higher.

The question still remains, though. When do you quit looking for a better house? How do you know if you've seen enough? The answer, I think, is you just do. You quit looking when you feel you've looked enough. You don't even bother to bullshit yourself as to why. You make, which is to say you love, your decision.

And then, I suppose, you pay or profit later, depending on how much "pride of ownership" you've put into your investment and a host of other factors totally out of your control—interest rates, appreciation, urban decay, natural disasters...

In the meantime, you have a home.