December 5, 2009

The Best Block in Chicago, part two: NaCoBakMo, Day 7.

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:33 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

OK, the whole cookies-and-blogging-and-living-the-rest-of-my-life thing is really challenging, especially when one insists on writing interminable blog posts to explain a simple cookie choice. But apparently I have a lot of pent-up need to unburden myself, having taken such a long hiatus from blogging. So please bear with me, and certainly you should feel free to just jump right to the recipe and have done with the crazy lady rambling part.

Because even the cookies that are supposed to be simple are turning out to be very time-consuming I still was unable to get caught up on the posts yesterday. As a result, I’m going to try again for a twofer today, lest my mind become even more hopelessly muddled about what day it is and which cookie I’m on and, um, what am I doing here anyway? But I’m not promising anything, as I still have half a batch of last night’s cookies to get in the oven and today’s cookies to bake. Also, I think we’ll decorate the house this weekend. Huzzah!

If you’re just joining us, here is the explanation for what the hell is going on with National Cookie Baking Month. In short, I bake cookies, you make a $25 donation to the Irving Park Community Food Pantry, I send you cookies. Let’s see if we can help feed some hungry people.

Now, back to my story.

As I explained yesterday, Mr. Unfocused and I were looking at that house 1 1/2 blocks away only casually. We truly did not expect to be swept away in a haze of real-estate inspired desire. But our house with its gut rehab lacks true character, and the allure of old wood trim and medallion attic windows and gracious proportions was too much to bear. We, the Unfocused Family, supplied with ample good taste and sensitivity, could be the ones to bring this house to its glory. We saw ourselves charging to its rescue and creating a showplace. We imagined the glittering parties we would host: “Why, thank you so much. Yes, isn’t that the perfect color? It really reveals the soul of the house, don’t you think? And, yes, the architect did a fabulous job reconfiguring the upstairs bedrooms to give us that spectacular master bath. It’s so hard to find someone truly sensitive to a restoration. I interviewed fifteen firms before settling on them—they were obviously the only ones for the job. Did you see my dream kitchen yet?” And I would lose weight and we would all be well-dressed and eventually we would even get rid of our shitty old Tauruses and park matching new Audis in the life-changing two-car garage. Oh, God, it makes me sick to my stomach to think about it now.

Somehow purchasing this money pit was going to propel us to a totally new tax bracket and standard of living, because we would no longer be losers sitting on the sidelines of the speculative housing market. Nope: we would be playing the real estate leveraging game to its fullest. Up, up, up; bigger is better; square footage is king; location, location, location. By buying this house and modernizing it (sensitively, of course) we were going to double the value of the property, making the rehab investment seem as nothing. We would reside in our little pocket of historically accurate perfection confident in our growing equity and the go-go economy to keep us paying the huge payments. As we became increasingly serious about the house I had some doubts about the money, but we looked around at how other (way wealthier) people we knew were juggling their debts from various property investments, and this idea seemed positively tame in comparison. More debt? No problem: that just means more wealth. And God knows the banks were doling out their largesse in the form of giant laundry sacks of unmarked bills. We would be stupid not to take our share.

We took pictures. We got a realtor. We made guesses about what our house would sell for. We juggled numbers. We had my dad and his wife walk through it. We thought about what the rehab would involve.

We made an offer.

Now, making an offer on a house in 2006 meant stepping on a roller coaster, something for which I was not fully prepared. Mr. Unfocused was in his element, though. He makes deals for a living, and he was impressively cool and detached as we went back and forth with the sellers, consulting with our realtor, eventually reaching just the number we had been looking for in the first place. Seriously, if you need a litigator, you should totally hire him. He orchestrated that negotiation brilliantly.

It was late on a Friday afternoon when we got to our number, but the deal couldn’t be completed until Monday morning due to availability of all the parties for document signing. We were giddy with excitement. We needed to share the exciting news, so when we saw our two-doors-down neighbor was out, we headed over to her porch. Her youngest was outside, so the kids all started playing together and were soon lost in the imaginary world du jour. I was nervous about telling her, because we are pretty close. But it had to be done, so I took a deep breath and plaintively inquired, “So, will you still be friends with us when we move a block and a half away?”

She was surprised and sad, but generous in her congratulations. She brought out a bottle of wine and we toasted our new house and laughed and drank and chatted. At some point one or both of us pulled some kind of delicious snicky-snacky out of our kitchens, and we enjoyed a nice early summer evening just hanging out, listening to the sound of children at play. It was perfect.

It was so perfect that by the time we went to bed that night, I was growing very uneasy. It’s a lot harder to share a glass of wine with the neighbors when you’re not a couple of doors down to notice whether they’re home or not. When you’re not running into people as you come and go, it’s necessary to go out of your way to schedule things. It’s the playdate writ large for adults: let me check my schedule and get back to you. And the way our lives work, if it gets to the point where we have to look at a calendar, it feels like work to do it. Mr. Unfocused and I are seriously guilty of spending just about every evening in front of our computers out of sheer exhaustion and awareness of the daunting effort required to do something—anything—else. Without my neighbors to just holler “Hey!” to I’d never see anyone.

As a stay-at-home mom, I like living in the middle of a bunch of houses and feeling like part of a community. I like catching glimpses of the comings and goings outside through the picture window in the living room, not because I am a busybody, but because it makes me feel less lonely. The new house was really quite isolated for a city house, resting so picturesquely on its corner lot. It faces an empty lot which serves as an extra-large side yard for the house adjacent to it, meaning that coming and going from my front door I would never see anyone. It didn’t feel like a part of any block at all. For someone who didn’t spend all damn day in the house it would be fine, but to my horror I began to realize it was going to make me feel like I was on a deserted island. And how could I leave these people I had come to love? This place which made me feel like I was home?

The hours passed, and I lay there unable to sleep, thoughts screaming through my mind. I considered my house. It is spacious but not cavernous; it is nice but not lavish. No, we don’t have a garage, and, yes, the sight that greets us when we open the front door every day is a jumble of bicycles and scooters and snow shovels and boots, but, despite that, it’s a good house. It takes care of us. We use every inch of space just about every day with the single exception of the guest room—a room we’ll need when it’s time for the kids to have separate bedrooms. (Actually, we’re just a bit concerned about what will happen when we arrive at that milestone. Where will the self-sustaining mountain of unfolded laundry reside, if not on the guest room bed?)

Even after a long, painful, and expensive renovation, the other house would not have been set up to suit us as well as this one does. And the extra space would just have meant more rooms to furnish, more rooms to clean, more places for crap to accumulate, more reasons never to get rid of anything or exercise restraint in consumption.

I was wide awake now. Midnight passed, then 1 a.m., then 2. By 3 a.m. I couldn’t take it anymore. I woke Mr. Unfocused and told him we couldn’t buy that house. Pretty soon he was wide awake too.

We went downstairs to the living room, turned up the heat, and talked for two hours. In that time it became pretty clear that my objections weren’t the normal kind of panic that can accompany a big decision. Mr. Unfocused was (justifiably) as angry with me about this as he’s ever been about anything, and I felt absolutely terrible about the entire thing. But what could I do? I simply could not leave our house. It felt wrong in every single bone of my body. He asked, incredulously, “It’s only a block and a half away. Are you trying to tell me that we will never be able to move out of this house ever?” Well…yes. Yes, that is what I am saying. We’re on the Best Block in Chicago. How could we ever move?

Thankfully, sometime around 5 in the morning he accepted it. We made the deal go away, and ultimately he rejoiced in the freedom that such awareness offers (“I NEVER HAVE TO LOOK AT ANOTHER HOUSE AGAIN”). It turned out to be for the best, anyway; if we had really and truly gotten ourselves into that level of debt I would probably have had a true nervous breakdown to accompany my visions of a modern Dr. Zhivago situation last winter, and we might well not have been able to cope with the financial burden of a renovation. We would be living right now with nonfunctional plumbing and insufficient electricity to power our laptops.

It’s not that it’s impossible that we might someday move, of course. This crazy situation of living so far from our children’s schools is not good; to say I dislike spending 3 1/2 hours on the school commute each day is a colossal understatement. But it is a testament to how strongly I feel about our neighbors that we didn’t skedaddle out of here last year. Well, that and the complete collapse of the global economy and the American housing market.

So, dear neighbors, this is my love letter to you. And it is in your honor that I will bake 2,000+ cookies in support of the Irving Park Community Food Pantry, one of the organizations that makes our neighborhood—with all of its economic diversity—one of the richest places in the city.

Now for the cookie. As I mentioned in my previous post, the basis for this recipe comes from the 1970s-80s era Old Irving Park Cookbook. It must have been popular because it appears twice as the submission of two different families. It would be perfect for this project except that this is less of a cookie and more of a brownie, and, while amazingly delicious (try this recipe NOW), my attempts at making it travel-friendly have given me some trouble. I might have to trash this batch because my adjustments appear not to have had the desired effect. The experience has given me some ideas to try, though, and I hope to have a more shippable version of this for you in a week or two. I’m giving you the recipe as it appears in the book, not as I made it, because I think you’ll appreciate it more than the hodgepodge I came up with.

Crème de Menthe Squares

1 c sugar
1/2 c butter
4 eggs, beaten
16 oz Hershey’s syrup
1 t vanilla
1 c flour
1/2 t salt

Bake in greased 10.5″ by 15.5″ pan for 25-30 mins. (Note: it will be very puffy when it comes out of the oven, but will collapse like a soufflé.) Let cool completely, then frost with:

1/2 c butter, softened
2 c powdered sugar
2-3 T green crème de menthe

Refrigerate or freeze until firm. Then melt:

1 c semisweet chocolate chips
6 T butter

Let chocolate mixture cool. Spread glaze over mint layer.

These freeze well. Best kept refrigerated.

UP NEXT: A simple (ha!) sugar cookie.



  1. readersguide said,

    As someone who did just what you didn’t (well, not exactly, and there were good reasons), I think you did the right thing. We bought a house whose good points are that it’s a mile from my work and from my daughter’s school (and in the school district). Like your old house, it was originally a house, built in 1906 which was subdivided into two flats in 1960s and inhabited by students for 40 years. It was a wreck. We bought it and brought it back to life with soul-revealing colors. It IS great, but it was expensive and the rehab was horrendous. It nearly killed us. (But our old house was far away and in the wrong school district and much too small and not in the most perfect neighborhood in the world, so we had to do something.)

  2. Jeanne said,

    Your neighborhood sounds ideal. But 3-1/2 hours on the road? That’s a nightmare.

  3. Readersguide, I’m both jealous and not. I’m sorry to hear it was so painful, but glad you ended up with a great house you love.

    Jeanne, to be fair, sometimes when I’m lucky it’s only 3 hours!

  4. Pop and Ice said,

    I am behind on my cookies because I have been exhausted and sick. I WILL catch up, I swear! Maybe I can start catching up tomorrow when my muscles and hands start to unclench.

    Anyways, I have a housing story to tell as well. In 2002 we moved from a rental house into a nice bungalow within our school district. I bought the house while my husband was in Japan. Yes, the poor man never got to look at any other houses because (a) he was in Japan and (b) I declared I was in love. We lived in the house two years and I finally conceded it just wasn’t laid out proportionally and to fix it would be harder than moving. So I found a bigger, more proportional house 2 blocks away in 2004. And we bought it. And we moved. And we couldn’t sell the other house, at least for what we wanted. It’s been a rental ever since and it drives my husband nutty. And you can imagine what the Detroit housing market is like.

    So I’ve been in my bigger, more proportional home for five years and…..I miss my old Master Bedroom and Master Bath. Some of the best sleep I ever had was in that beautiful side bedroom decorated in a lovely, peaceful green. And when I mention this to my husband he about shoots into the ceiling. I don’t blame him. Wish that real estate intervention guy had been around before we moved without selling the first house.

  5. Pop and Ice, please don’t worry about catching up. Take care of yourself and your family, and when you’re ready for some more cookies you can jump back in. This is absolutely not worth getting yourself crazy. Just feel better!

    It’s funny how houses can get into your bones that way. Maybe it will be time to paint your “new” bedroom green sometime this spring?

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