There's no place like home!

"Real Estate Intervention" brings tough love to homeowners while "The Lazy Environmentalist" makes going green easy

By Heather Havrilesky

Published June 21, 2009 6:20PM (EDT)

Home is where the heart is -- or, if you have kids, home is where the piles of little clothes and broken toys and refrigerators stuffed with leftovers and unkempt yards and unpaid bills are. As I've recently discovered, a home with three children and two big dogs in it is less like a home and more like a factory, one without a significant union presence that doesn't honor legal requirements regarding lunch breaks and is run by small, impulsive, temperamental humans who soil themselves regularly.

But even as your tiny, merciless supervisors ceaselessly chide you, not just for your refusal to provide three juice boxes in a row before dinner, but for your larger failings as a human being, you find yourself sallying forth each day, without pay. Every morning, without understanding why, you redouble your efforts to be a better provider, a better parent, a better maid, a better dog walker, a better everything, and every night, without understanding why, you've failed miserably all over again.

Instead of clinging to some positive mantra to help me try harder and harder and harder, thereby eventually becoming the kind of woman who wakes up one morning with a smile and calmly lays her head in the oven, I've taken to starting my day with a simple reminder: Everything will go wrong today. Yes, the day will most certainly be filled with disappointments and hassles and petty insults and unfair slights and misunderstandings. Knowing this, maybe I can try to enjoy myself instead of wanting to hurl a folding chair at someone's head, Bobby Knight-style, every few seconds.

You can never go home

Considering how challenging our factories, er, homes are, it's not surprising that we tend to get a little ornery when some interloper steps in and tells us that we're not doing it right. This might explain why real estate agent Mike Aubrey hasn't exactly been embraced in his quest to become the Dr. Phil of the housing bubble. On HGTV's "Real Estate Intervention" (11 p.m. Sundays), Aubrey, who aims to save America from the collapsing home market the way Dr. Phil saves America from its collapsing marriages, serves up some straight talk about what houses are worth in today's market.

My, how times have changed. Remember how, just a year ago, the cable channels were flooded with shows about how to do a few quick renovations and sell your house for $100,000 more? Well, "Real Estate Intervention" reflects the sea change that's occurred in the months since. No one is interested in those swat teams of chirpy professionals armed with throw pillows, plants and new appliances, intent on jacking up your asking price. Instead, we're left with Aubrey, a tough-talking bruiser of a man who has a rather unfortunate habit of referring to his male clients as "buddy."

That said, Aubrey seems sensible, pragmatic and almost completely devoid of the usual "everything's coming up roses" bullshit that so many agents seem to serve up shamelessly throughout even the worst housing slumps. He tries to demonstrate to the show's guests a sense of the declining housing market by showing them comparable homes that sold for a lot less than they're asking for theirs. But as it turns out, nothing sends most people into a folding-chair-hurling state of rage faster than implying that their house is less welcoming or less spacious or less special than someone else's.

On the show's first episode (which aired last Sunday), a couple in Baltimore refused to take Aubrey's advice at every turn. Apparently blind to the fact that their house had all of the charm and style of an '80s-era condo (and a cramped one at that), the couple seemed at first perplexed, then downright angered by the suggestion that their house was less desirable than houses priced much lower in the same area. Aubrey insisted that they wouldn't sell their house until they lowered their price by $20K. In the end, the couple opted to rent out their place -- at a monthly loss -- instead. Aubrey told the camera that he felt sure that he'd helped the couple, but something deep inside him must've been screaming "I've failed again! Damn me!"

I assumed that the second episode would feature a couple who would agree with Aubrey about the comparable homes they toured. I figured Aubrey and the couple would have a nice chat, then they'd quickly decide to lower their asking price.

Instead, it's more of the same: The husband, Brian, becomes offended at everything Aubrey says within a few minutes of meeting him.

"This property has a more classic feel to me," Aubrey says as he shows them around a spacious living room.

"I wouldn't agree with that," Brian snaps. Several tense exchanges follow. Finally, Brian refers to a spacious basement room as a place where someone could die, presumably from darkness or isolation or claustrophobia. Or maybe he means that if he lived there, he might kill himself? Or that he's currently experiencing bouts of suicidal ideation? Boy, this housing market is rough. Maybe Aubrey should bring a psychologist with him on these trips.

Minutes later, Brian has had enough. The cameras are sent outside so the couple and Aubrey are free to argue inside (with their mikes still on, thankfully).

"I'm supposed to listen to his points, and he ignores me?" Brian gripes.

"I'm not ignoring you, buddy," says Aubrey, sounding regrettably similar to a mix between Dr. Phil and a slightly aggressive P.E. teacher.

"I don't want advice," Brian adds, apparently trying very hard to beat back the urge to throw himself onto the rug and weep big salty tears into its vibrant, fashionable strands.

"Then why did you do the show?" Aubrey asks.

"We wanted to get some pricing information!" says Brian's wife, Kelly, apologetically.

Later, Brian admits, "It's a little uncomfortable, I think, to have strangers evaluating your house in any way, shape or form."

Well, at least now we know why real estate agents always seem so completely full of crap -- if they weren't, they'd be out of a job. But even better than a tour through the harsh realities of the housing bubble implosion, "Real Estate Intervention" offers definitive proof that the consumer ego, in this age of high capitalism, is so strongly identified with having made "wise" choices regarding home purchases, that to cast the slightest shadow of doubt on those choices is to invite outright scorn, if not flying folding chairs. In other words, "Real Estate Intervention" makes for some seriously good TV.

 It's easy being green

"I'm lazy, you're lazy. This is our moment."

To those of us surrounded by a mob of squealing children and untamed animals living in their own filth, these are soothing words indeed. Josh Dorfman, aka the Lazy Environmentalist, truly sees and understands us, at long last!

Committed to serving up his lackadaisical flavor of eco-friendly living to the silent, slothful majority, Dorfman has been the voice of supportive but practical planet-saving practices for years, with the usual roundup of blog, book and radio show to call his own. Now Dorfman brings his mild-mannered wisdom to Sundance for the first time with "The Lazy Environmentalist" (9 p.m. Tuesdays), a half-hour program in which he bravely addresses the ignorant, the skeptical and the downright comatose among us.

Sadly, though, the first eco-unfriendly family to greet the Lazy Environmentalist are exactly the sort of people who give indolent ass-draggers like you and me a bad name. After Dorfman discovers the Martinez family eating only on paper plates because it's just more convenient to create a big heap of trash every day than it is to wash a few dishes occasionally, he gently asks, "What about global warming?"

"I don't buy into it, I'll be honest with you," says Jess Martinez, the dad, who we can only assume also finds osmosis "suspicious" and thinks photosynthesis is a secret plot by scientists to make plants seem more sophisticated than they actually are.

Thankfully, Dorfman is too lazy to start sweating and cursing at the man right off the bat. Instead, he gently points out that, thanks to savvy skeptics like Martinez, our country generates unconscionable volumes of trash every single day, and residential trash accounts for almost 65 percent of all municipal waste.

"We're shipping waste to developing countries, because we don't even have enough room for it here," Dorfman explains.

"Have you ever been to Texas?" replies Martinez. "There's a lot of land. We've got plenty of room." Yes, let's dump all that trash in Texas! Problem solved. Apparently this man has never seen those "Don't mess with Texas" stickers, which imply that so much as a stray gum wrapper tossed out the window on I-10 could bring your motor vehicle under heavy sniper fire.

With such confused humans in the mix, the Lazy Environmentalist calls for backup: Enter "Sustainable Dave" (Do all green advocates have cute nicknames?), who demonstrates how to set up a three-part trash bin in your kitchen to keep reusable, recyclable or compostable stuff out of your garbage. Although each bin looks so small that it will have to be emptied several times a day, the setup makes much more sense than encouraging the kids to march their eggshells out to the enormous, buggy compost mess in the backyard. Not only that, but Sustainable Dave shows the family how to use a worm bin (Gross!) to quickly break down all those paper plates (Cool!). Later, Dorfman gives the family environmentally friendly plates made of sugar cane that are admirably sturdy (but probably not cheap). Soon, the Martinez family are at least partially converted to easy eco living -- recycling, composting and feeding paper plates into their worm bin -- and Texas has narrowly dodged an uncertain fate as the nation's garbage dump.

The next segment unearths another eco-unfriendly prototype: the wasteful dog lover. We're introduced to a dog groomer, Dawn Berens, who swears by the bright-red snausages that she says all dogs love for their delicious chemically induced smoked meat flavor. When Dorfman reads the horrifying list of chemical ingredients to her, she asks him, "But don't you think they regulate this stuff?"

"Who's they?" Dorfman snaps back. Hmm. Asking tough questions is not very lazy of him. After all, who among us hasn't occasionally assumed that unregulated madness was regulated -- by someone, somewhere! -- up until the point when disaster struck?

Sure, at times Dorfman's guests appear to be playing along with his green suggestions for the cameras, when we know they'll go back to their old habits once the cameras are shut off. Berens, for example, pretends to buy into the organic treats, but viewers at home know those things are $10 a bag and dogs would sooner eat the contents of that worm bin at the Martinez house. (She is, however, very impressed with something called "blueberry facial," which is used to clean doggie faces but doesn't make doggie eyes water.)

Blatantly missing from the dog discussion, however, is the uncomfortable matter of dog feces disposal: It's not good for your garden or your compost pile, and most people pick it up in non-biodegradable bags. (Even biodegradable bags feel like a flagrant foul on this front, when the feces alone would break down so much more quickly.) Lazy pet owners of the world demand an easy solution! (If you have a good one, please post it in letters.)

Of course, by merely acknowledging that some green solutions are expensive and/or impractical, Dorfman has inspired us to get our lazy acts together: The worm bin is in the mail. With just the right blend of pragmatism and humor, "The Lazy Environmentalist" may just make us green enough to sleep at night. We still won't be good enough parents, providers, dog walkers, cooks, maids or therapists to sleep at night, but at least it's a start.

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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