This is a conversation, more or less, I’ve been having with my girlfriends since my 20s: One of them paints a picture of how she was, say, at the stove frying chicken, while feeding the baby, talking on the phone to a doctor, and staunching the toddler’s bleeding. Her husband stands by taking in the breadth of the scene, in awe, and tells her later, how she is so good at keeping so many things under control.
Then I nod and say, “I would’ve jumped in and fried the chicken for you.” She nods her head vigorously because she knows it’s true. “Any woman would have,” she says.
This is when we start talking about the beach house. You know the house. It’s the cute shingled cottage—but a big cottage—that overlooks the sea, and all the cool women you know live there, and we drink cocktails and smoke and cook interesting things and everyone is witty, jolly, and gay. Or maybe we don’t cook things, because as one of my senior colleagues once told me, “After you’ve cooked 10,000 meals, you kind of lose interest entirely.” So maybe we eat salads and heat up gyoza. Either way, it’s very jolly and very witty.
Just a Few Adjustments
I’m totally there. At the same time, I feel this might be a good time to discuss some possible adjustments, before we get too close to making a deposit or talking about paint colors. I grew up with four siblings, and I’m raising three children, so I am now a full-grown woman with a pathological terror of people stealing and eating the things I love. I refuse to live my golden years in fear that someone is going to eat my manchego, and let’s be honest—there never has been and never will be a satisfying solution for food that you keep in the shared refrigerator. We will have to adjust for this.
There is also the issue of introversion, and, as we know, group living doesn’t work particularly well for us introverts. I’d love to believe that having our own bedrooms would be enough, but we know it won’t be. Also: money. For some of us (ahem) a beach house will be way out of our price ranges, even if Social Security is still a thing when we “retire.” We’ll have to adjust for all of this.
Deserts Work Too for a Retirement Fantasy
So the beach house fantasy evolves. Recently I read an article in a guns-and-ammo type magazine about four couples—very good friends—who built a compound of tiny houses in the desert. Tiny houses are good. Deserts are good, too—and not just because they tend to be more affordable than oceanfront real estate.
It turns out that the more elite the location, for example, the beach, the less likely the powers that be are to let you build a tiny home. The town zoning czars worry that your tiny house will bring down property values by being, perhaps, ugly, and they are not necessarily generous about letting you tap into the municipal water and sewer lines. Better to build our compound of tiny houses in a rural place that doesn’t believe in zoning laws. Arizona and Nevada have great deserts and—bonus—very little winter, plus the desert is beautiful. The Eastern Shore of Maryland might be another good spot, if we can overlook all the poultry factory farms.
Once we find our wide open space and start planning our compound of tiny homes—each with its own private refrigerator—we can talk about shared space. I envision a centrally located “great room” kind of building with a lovely kitchen and a wood stove and a theater-size television. This will be where the jollity and gaiety happens, as well as the cocktails and Japanese dumplings.
Every Retirement Commune Needs Outdoor Showers
We could have one of those hoop greenhouses outside the building, and outdoor showers and a nice meadow with a few trees, which is where our children will pitch their tents when they come to visit. The trees will be perfect for stringing up the hammocks they used when they hiked the Appalachian Trail.
Again, depending on Social Security, it’s possible that by “tiny house,” I mean trailer. Let’s keep an open mind about this, because trailers can be very cozy.
We’ll grow things in our hoop houses, and we’ll have an orchard, obviously, and as my friend Maria suggested, we’ll get involved in local politics. This is where rural would be better. We would become a force to be reckoned with, steering the course of our little adopted town, doing good works, and making the world a better place and stuff.
Oh! We should talk about cats. You know there will be cats. We should have a policy, probably, on whether or not we become the hub of a trap-neuter-release feral cat colony where we ear-clip the strays, and I really hope the policy is “no,” by the way. We should talk about dogs, too, because I only like dogs that are too short to reach my crotch with their snouts. After all, and I don’t think this is unreasonable, if I wanted hairy beasts bounding up to me and sniffing my crotch, I’d go to a frat party or something.
Who Would You Want To Drive You to Chemo?
And now that we’re talking about pets, let’s address the question of men. Obviously, the lesbian situation is a no-brainer because all women are included. But what if one of us has a husband? You know what’s interesting about this question? It’s that whenever I raise it with hetero women friends, they all brush it off. My friend Elizabeth said that a good marriage is “a nice enough thing,” but if her husband were raptured tomorrow, basically she’d get over it. My friend Eleanor said, “Let’s face it, in the end men are dispensable, but nobody divorces their friends.”
Intrigued, I asked Eleanor my go-to question about the value of marriage: but who will drive me to chemo when I’m old? She said, “Why would you want a husband to drive you to chemo? He’s going to be sullen and sad. Let your friends drive you to chemo. They’ll make you laugh.”
I think that we’re going to have to table the question of men and just play it by ear. I suspect the men will come and go, and eventually we’ll figure out some rules about the important things, like which bathrooms they’ll be allowed to use. Who knows? Maybe it will be possible to have wedded bliss in the tiny houses, and conjugal feminine joy in the great room where we gather for film screenings and meals.
And Out Come the Chore Charts
Speaking of meals, we have some serious soul-searching to do on the issue of chores. I’ve been in communal living situations. I know what goes down in them. There are schedules and signup sheets, and once you have schedules and signup sheets you have found yourself at the gateway to hell.
Is this beach house in the desert an intentional community? Because intentional communities can be rough. Like, if we’re an eco-village, are we required to build the common room with straw bale walls and earthen plaster? Will we collect kitchen scraps and compost them and re-use our grey water to water our gardens? Rules are always broken. My friend Eleanor is super-smart, hilarious, and exceedingly kind, and she is also an unrepentantly terrible recycler, and I worry what will happen to her if anyone finds out.
I’ll fix the flapper in the toilet, but I don’t want to mow the lawn. (Nota bene: in the desert, no lawns.)
Now look at where we are. How are we going to share maintenance costs and property tax and not have it all be a huge drag? What started as a vision of a haven with my friends plus Anne Bancroft and Rita Moreno has turned into a compound with a chore chart. All I wanted was an outdoor shower and a wood-fired pizza oven with a half dozen of my funniest friends—is that so much to ask?
A version of this article was originally published on Feb. 7, 2018.