Raising House and Daughter

By Tim Donahue

    I grew up on an orchard that backed onto a mountain. For birthdays, my friends would use the tops of garbage cans as shields and we’d huck fallen apples at each other. There was a tree fort, a sledding run with a sick jump, and a stream where my action figures liked to hang out.

    Now I live in Manhattan, in a dark one-bedroom apartment with no airflow. This worked well when I was single and used the living room as a default putting green. But with a wife, a baby, and a temporary wall, the short game gave way to a default nursery. My girl is 2 and, to this point at least, she is blissfully unaware that she retreats to a windowless Pod hotel room every night. She has parks and swings out her door, but also cars, old cigarettes, and Wendy’s wrappers. The roosters and cows in the pastoral folds of her books are good for a certain amount of abstraction, but this girl, like my wife and I, needs nature!

    For three off-seasons before she came along, we satisfied our itch by renting a beach house in Amagansett. After the crowded contortions of city weeks, we heard the clatter of dune grass and walked on empty, infinite beaches under an abundance of stars. It felt good to feel so tiny. Paying the heating bills for this house built out of sliding glass doors was inane, but enchantments don’t always make sense.

    Of course, we indulged in plenty of real estate porn over these years, looking at places we either couldn’t afford or that were next to the highway. “You need a place where you can dream,” a broker told us. One December night in the city, where our jobs and logic anchor us, we found it. The listing showed a very small shack covered in pine needles with the euphemism “Fisherman’s Cottage.”

    Its best internal feature was the Pop-a-Plate dispenser screwed into a faux-wood cabinet, but it was right near the bay. Friends reminded me of the rising seas, sending links to those horrifying projections of shrinking coastlines. None of this mattered; we had a vision. On the day our girl was 3 months old, we made an offer and we were ripping out shag carpeting by May.

    To make way for the new stuff, we filled several U-Haul trucks with old walls, ceilings, and floors. Each time I pulled into the landfill, I looked at the hillsides of trash, now softened by grass and dotted with seagulls — take out the venting pipes and you’d have a decent sled run. That’s really not so bad, I thought.

    But as one who writes and teaches about environmental issues, I had to find ways to justify what I was doing: Combined, our two places were still only 1,500 square feet; we took the train when we could; I bike to work; our daughter was building her seashell collection. Still, I couldn’t get around reconciling that in order to enjoy nature, I played a part in disturbing it.

    Just a few weeks after we installed our nice hardwood floors and indulged in our first Home Depot-less days, Hurricane Sandy hit. Safe and dry in the city, we watched stormcasters rolling up their shirtsleeves and introducing haunting terms like “storm surge” and “Category 4.” We scoured the Web for images of our street that made us cringe. The real wrath did not come to us — our house was still where we’d left it — but it had taken in six inches of water that would subside into mold.

    The labor of putting it all back together was less than the dread of having to do it again, when the next superstorm, inevitably, hits. In the weeks that followed, our insurance paid for deft hands to erase all signs of damage, and town trucks came to push wayward sand back onto the beach. It’s as if nothing happened. In the spring, my daughter Big Wheeled up to the water and we watched the sun fading behind Gardiner’s Island as gently as it ever had.

    Now we have to decide whether we join the others on our block who are raising their houses. This is the logical thing to do, but it feels wrong, and it feels wrong because it is not natural. I am not a coal plant, a Keystone Pipeline, or an oceanfront mansion. My contribution to this is modest, but it is also deliberate. For now, I am left to weigh the impact of my indulgence against the joy of my daughter’s discoveries. No one is telling me what I have to do.

    Tim Donahue is a teacher and athlete who writes about education and sports.