Moving in with your significant other might seem like an incredibly romantic thing to do, the final step to take before marriage, kids, and a life lived happily ever after. For Meghan Daum, the main reason she and her future husband Alan wound up under her roof was that it was simply a nightmare parking both of their cars on his crowded street.
“[My mother] was not an intellectual, but she was interested in the aesthetics of intellectualism. She didn’t want to be an academic so much as she wanted a house that looked like a house where an academic would live.”
Well, that and the fact that she was tired of looking at the dirty dishes in his sink, and that he was tired of not having enough space in her closet.
As Daum tells it, the couple was stuck in a state of “nohabitation,” a term she’s coined for two people who are not quite living together and not quite living apart.
“You’re dating someone,” she says by phone. “but you’re maintaining your own apartments, so you’re going back and forth and you’re really proud of yourself because you’re maintaining your independence and you’re not moving too quickly, you’re going to give up anything but in fact, it’s like you’re not living with the person and you’re not even really living by yourself. You’re always trying to leave directly for work from your boyfriend’s apartment and realizing that you only brought one shoe or that you don’t have your toothbrush or that your contact lens case is falling in the toilet because there’s no room on the shelves in the bathroom in the bathroom. That is the state of nohabitation. You think you’re being really efficient but actually, it’s just a vortex.”
In case you can’t tell already, Daum is a woman who’s spent a lot of time thinking about relationships and real estate. Or perhaps more accurately, she’s thought a lot about real estate and because of that, she can tell you all about how real estate influences every aspect of her life.
Now, Daum’s written a much buzzed about book about her longtime obsession, the aptly titled, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House. A comedy of errors in memoir form, it begins with Daum’s middle class childhood in Austin Texas and Ridgewood, NJ. From there, it moves to her time at Vassar, her life as a freelance writer in New York, her slightly insane move to Lincoln, Nebraska and then finally, her settling into adulthood in Los Angeles, where she and Alan live with their dog, Rex.
Throughout the book, there are tales of attending open-houses for properties Daum couldn’t begin to afford, endless hours spent scouring Realtor.com, and the admission that Daum has basically figured out the financial worth of everyone she knows by going on Zillow.com, a website that determines the value of a home by comparing it to recent sales in the same neighborhood. She’s the nation’s neurosis about real estate writ small, a psychological window into the real estate bubble of the last decade, and the acquisitiveness that was rampant in the market, albeit without the tragedy that befell so many Americans. (Daum, who bought her place in Los Angeles in 2004, did not take a risky mortgage and managed to keep making her payments throughout the crash, though she has much to say about what it was like to watch the place lose value as the economic ground shifted beneath her feet.)
Daum, 40, is perfectly clear about who is to blame for the amount of space houses take up in her brain: her mother. “She was a house nut,” Daum says. “She wasn’t into clothes, she wasn’t into travel, she wasn’t really interested in being a cosmopolitan person or being a citizen of the world. She was really interested in asserting her asserting her sensibility through the aesthetics of her home. She was not an intellectual, but she was interested in the aesthetics of intellectualism. She didn’t want to be an academic so much as she wanted a house that looked like a house where an academic would live. I’m not saying this in a disparaging way, this was her canvas.”
For the first few years of her life, Daum and her family lived in a beautifully renovated bungalow in Austin, Texas, which at the time was bohemian and had a lot of intellectuals. Then, the family moved to Ridgewood, where her father began to pursue a career writing jingles. He and her mother (who later became a drama teacher) had a habit of saying that they were right over the border from Manhattan, but their daughter saw their entire existence there as tragically suburban. “We were completely and utterly in New Jersey,” she writes in her book. “We were twenty miles away and it was a long twenty miles, psychologically, if not geographically.”
For college, Daum picked Vassar not because of its famously beautiful campus or its lauded academics, but because of its proximity to Manhattan and a vague sense that the location gave her a slightly better chance at one day landing a fabulous pre-war apartment. To quote her book, with four years to kill before she could get to such a place, she majored in English and minored in moving.
After getting her degree, Daum got a dream apartment on West 100th Street, which she shared with two roommates, paying $550 a month. She got a job as an assistant at Allure Magazine, then went to Columbia for her MFA and embarked on a freelance writing career, getting assignments at The New York Times, Village Voice, InStyle, and Texas Monthly.
In 1999, struggling with too much credit card debt, too little square footage of her own in Manhattan, and a bizarre fixation with Little House on the Prairie, Daum moved to Lincoln, Nebraska. Initially, her plan was to stay for around six months. Instead she stayed 4 years and got one pretty well received novel out of the experience, The Quality of Life Report. Publisher’s Weekly called her a “rising star.” The New Yorker heralded her for her “crisp, wisecracking voice” and her “nuanced view of the American heartland.”
“I moved to Nebraska because I was broke and it was cheap there, and I needed to clean up my bed, etc, etc,” Daum Says. “But on a deeper level, I felt like I was becoming provincial in New York. I felt like I was turning into one of those people who only knew people like me, and my goals were very much the same as my immediate circle of friends’ goals and I didn’t like what I was turning into. Moving to Nebraska was the best thing I ever did.”
Nevertheless, Daum eventually got antsy for something slightly busier. In 2003, she headed to Southern California, where she eventually got a column in the Los Angeles Times. There, she’s written about everything from her views on E-Cards (which she sees as being symptomatic of the downfall of western civilization) to Rielle Hunter (ditto), to her unending obsession with finding the perfect house. (Her husband, Alan Zarembo is an investigative reporter for the LA Times.)
On occasion, Daum has been criticized for writing too much about herself, to which she says, guilty as charged. “It’s not ‘occasionally,’” she says. “It gets said all the time. It’s true. I write in the first person, I write about myself. I mean, the first thing I always tell my students when I teach is to get an expertise and really get a mastery of some subject other than yourself, whether it’s history or politics or medicine or sports, or whatever it is. And I utterly failed to do any of that.”
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.