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Why This City-Loving Woman Bought a Fixer-Upper Farmhouse

My brain made me do it — against my better judgment.

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Collage of author with fixer-upper house
Courtesy of author
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I bought a Minnesota farmhouse because I could picture myself sitting on its wide front porch on a sunny day reading a book.

My brother sent me a snapshot of this historic two-story, four-bedroom house that looked to be a bargain at $12,000 in a foreclosure sale. I bought it, sight unseen, dazzled by the bucolic setting in a land of lakes and virgin forest teeming with wildlife and wild blueberries.

I also have brothers skilled in construction and home renovation, and both offered to give me a hand. What could go wrong? But my dream house has turned out to be more than a “fixer-upper” with a splendid porch.

So why would a prudent, risk-averse septuagenarian buy a farmhouse she doesn’t need in a remote area she’s unlikely to spend much time visiting? Did I mention the town registers the coldest temperatures in the Lower 48 (minus 60 degrees) in the winter and hosts ravenous mosquitoes in the summer?

Besides all that, I’m an urban creature. While I’d get a kick out of catching walleye pike, I crave city life.

Connell Cowen, a psychologist and author of the New York Times bestseller Smart Women/Foolish Choices, has coauthored Override with David Kipper, M.D., which provides some answers as to why our brains sometimes lead us astray. Why, with the best of intentions, do we make decisions that are contrary to our best interests? What’s the lure that sends us off the rails — and how do we overcome it? Based on their research in brain chemistry and neurotransmitters — the chemicals that send signals through our nervous system — I’m beginning to figure out why my eyes dwelled on the lovely porch but did not take in the dilapidated house attached to it that I may never inhabit.

Basically, our brains are looking for comfort. Depending on our brain type, we are rewarded with the comfort of feeling good in various ways that don’t necessarily serve us well. Override introduced me to the theory of two categories of brain personality, referred to as Swords and Shields. I answered 30 true-false questions that indicated I have traits of both brain categories (as most of us do) but fall mostly in the dopamine group (Swords), with a number of serotonin-type (Shields) tendencies.

Understanding your particular brain chemistry and why it makes you do what you do is key to overcoming reflexive behavioral tendencies that inhibit you from acting in your own best interests. Developing strategies to change behavior patterns depends on understanding the ways serotonin and dopamine are supposed to work, and which type you fall under.

Basically, being a Swords type means I’m more deficient in the brain chemical dopamine. Accordingly, I tend to be optimistic, not a worrier, prone to novelty and more risk tolerant than I would have thought, which goes a long way to explaining my rash purchase of a fixer-upper.

Fixer upper home in snow
Scott's fixer-upper farmhouse in it's first snowfall.
Courtesy of author

That pretty farmhouse sang to me, its siren song emanating from its front porch. I saw the dwelling as a writer’s retreat, nestled in nature, far from big-city distraction. I savored the adrenaline rush of a new adventure.

As a widow, I was intoxicated with the prospect of changing course for a fulfilling new lifestyle. I could get away from it all — the town wasn’t even equipped with 5G. I’d write, enjoy a contemplative life in a new setting, maybe find romance — except when I did find romance only weeks after buying the house, it was with a guy living in the big city.

This is not the first time I’ve found myself in a “fix” of my own making. I get myself out of them (and will this time), but I’m taking to heart lessons learned from Override. Key to overriding the reflexive behavior that doesn’t serve me well is recognizing the factors in my particular brain chemistry that propel my rash impulses. I’m learning to recognize patterns of past behavior and to take more control of my decision-making — like not saying yes to joining family members on a rugged hiking trip in Norway only six weeks after hip replacement. Upon my return home, I was back in physical therapy.

We all like to feel in control; there is probably nothing more primitive than that need. Understanding our own brain chemistry is the prerequisite for bringing real and sustainable control to our lives. I have no problem sticking to an exercise regimen, maintaining healthy eating habits or doing what I need to do in a timely manner — my trick is to do what I least want to do first and get it out of the way.

But I’m a sucker for adventure and quick to say, “Great, where? What time?” The bright shiny object for me is the novelty of a new experience.

The decisions we make have consequences that we are largely capable of preventing. So I need to ask myself: What details am I overlooking because they clash with my rapturous embrace of some fun new thing that I want to do come hell or high water?

It’s said that my Swords brain type has more fun than my risk-averse, take-it-slow Shields counterpart, but there are the consequences of hell and high water to consider. The farmhouse I coveted is all I imagined it to be — and it’s still entirely imaginary. At least for now. But I can’t quite give up the dream of sitting on that porch with my boyfriend on a summer evening.

Has anyone out there ever purchased a fixer-upper? How did it go? Let us know in the comments below.

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