exercises in compound storytelling

Monday, July 8, 2013


I have within the last five years sold two houses and bought one, and now have one house on the market. It has been something of a wild and disappointing ride: the recession hit the markets where I was selling, but not the market where I was buying, so let's just say I've been taking losses I can't write off my taxes left and right, while maybe acquiring some additional future taxes. When I am old and subsisting on government cheese I will look back on those losses with shall we say mixed feelings.

The first house I sold should have moved quickly; it was a quad unit in a town with a severe housing shortage, a single-employer town that was going through some serious gyrations that involved replacing a lot of older workers with younger workers. The older workers were mostly retiring and staying in town, so housing prices weren't falling at the top end. This meant I had a fair pool of candidate buyers for a property I had remodeled extensively and that inspected very nicely. Unfortunately about the time I put the property on the market my neighbor on one side had her deadbeat brother and his big mean dog come to stay with her for an indefinite period of time. This cost me months of market time and thousands of dollars and nearly cost my realtor her commission. I had notified her I was taking the property off the market and would not be renewing her contract when the brother and dog disappeared and a buyer appeared out of nowhere.

The second house was a small house with a great view in the Santa Fe area; a nearly unique property in that it was cheap and in a quiet neighborhood on the unfashionable end of town but had a half-million-dollar view of the Ortiz Mountains. I put the place on the market around Christmas, hoping to catch a crazy Christmas visitor to Santa Fe who would notice our property not least because the supply at the time in our price range was tiny. I noticed when the realtor wrote her description of the property she mentioned that it was single-story but not handicapped accessible; the significance of this did not strike me immediately. Most of the feedback we got on the property was of the form "this house is way overpriced and the price needs to come down" and we got a couple of lowball offers (with commensurate pressure from our realtor) before our buyers appeared.

The third house is a two-story (like the first) and is competitively priced; we're going to manage to lose money on this one, too, even though it has a fair number of upgrades, good xeriscaping, and has had no structural problems (unlike most of its cohort in the area). This time all of the feedback (and I do mean all of the feedback) has focused on the fact that the prospective buyer was surprised to discover that it was a two-story. This despite the fact that the pictures available on the Web clearly show a balcony with windows above and a garage beneath. My interpretation had been that the buyer's agent was attempting to squeeze the buyer into a particular property by presenting three or four options, only one of which met the buyer's criteria, and for whatever reason our house was chosen to be the attractive but unacceptable two-story.

Then a few weeks ago I read a summary of a conference held in Albuquerque about the future of Santa Fe real estate; it said, essentially, that only retirees move to Santa Fe, so houses need to be accessible to people who are in their declining years. Meaning folks who may not be able to manage stairs long term. But as I've said elsewhere I can't imagine a town actually functioning when it consists of noting but retirees and undocumented day laborers, as Santa Fe seems to want to be.

Then it occurred to me that I may be seeing a consequence of obesity trends in the area; it turns out that more than seventy percent of American adults are overweight and more than 35% are obese [link]. It's entirely possible that not all of our buyers are old; after all, ours is a family house with more bedrooms than a single retiree could sensibly use. Its possible what we're seeing is a stream of buyers who are too fat to use stairs comfortably on a regular basis.

What I think we're going to see long term is a housing market that segments into properties that have stairs and those that don't, and buyers can expect to pay a premium for the stair-free properties. Meaning that if you're fit enough to contend with a flight or two of stairs on the critical path to everything every day you can live cheaper than your less-fit counterparts. Hooray!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

you can't hide crazy

Or more accurately: you can't hide your crazy from people who look at crazy every day.

Many years ago I read Paul Fussell's book Class; where among other things he discusses who can and who can't afford to have someone else pack and open their luggage. He discreetly suggests that if you're visiting members of the upper class (even the lower upper class) its important to remember that it will be expected that the help will open your luggage, so don't put anything in it you don't want seen.

This sentiment seems almost quaint in the era, surely temporary, of the Transportation Security Administration, where every time you travel it is reasonable to expect that your luggage will be searched by a contract employee who wasn't quite prison guard material, but it's a reasonable guide for understanding another class of burly hourly workers: packers and movers.

The packers, God bless them, look directly at crazy all day every day; the movers, for the most part, just move it after it has been taped into cubes. You may be able to lie to the movers, but there's no point in even trying to lie to the packers: they look at crazy all day every day. And because the good ones are so hard to find, they may be looking at it six or seven days a week. Seriously: this is an example of amateurs vs. professionals: you're only amateur crazy, while these folk look at crazy on a professional basis. Do not try to lie to them.

My favorite stories from my day with the packers include the following:
  1. A woman out on the successful part of the south end of town called and offered triple the going rate for same-day moving. Meaning that she wanted to move the day of the call and was willing to pay. The dispatcher rounded up two crews from different moves, by turns forty and sixty minutes away and sent them to her address for overtime. When they arrived they called and couldn't get an answer. They went to a window and saw a body on a bed. Turned out the woman was being evicted the next day, and had decided to kill herself with pills and booze and leave her bloated cooling body for the movers. They couldn't rouse her by pounding on the window, so they called the cops. The cops gained entry to the premises, and she proceeded to assault one of them.
  2. Hoarders. Turns out you can stack up Lord only knows what as high and thick as you like and movers will move it, but cover it with animal waste and it gets complicated.
  3. If you have something you're ashamed of, or don't want to get arrested for, plan on hand carrying it to your new domicile. Don't tape it up and hand it to the packer and ask him or her to "just put it on the truck and don't ask." They can't do that and just plain won't. Besides, they look at things people should be ashamed of all the time. Just don't ask them to move drugs or other illegal stuff. Guns are a different matter: if their in a gun safe expect to pay more in insurance; if they're not, don't ask the packers to touch them.
  4. Turns out you can get a house full of nothing but beds and video production equipment moved from Albuquerque to "somewhere near but not in Hollywood" for the usual fees, but you should expect to be discussed if the topic of "what's the strangest thing you've ever moved?" comes up.
On balance I recommend hiring movers; get back to me a week when they've done what they said and delivered my stuff.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Santa Fe I love you but you're breaking my heart

After 15 years I am leaving Santa Fe, and not without considerable regrets.

The process of leaving Santa Fe has dragged on for several months as we have sold one house and have listed another. It's a process longer than dying of pancreatic cancer, shorter than a pregnancy, as these sort of life events go. In the process I've met some people who have given me a unique perspective on Santa Fe and who have reason to know.

There are several people who work in semi-skilled to skilled professions who see enough and get lied to enough that there's no point in lying to them. Dental hygienists being one (there's no point in claiming you've been flossing if you haven't; also, if you've started taking crystal meth since your last appointment you may as well fess up), cable installers being another. Home inspectors, handymen, and to some degree cops.

Our inspector described Santa Fe this way: "anybody who moves to Santa Fe as an adult is probably running from something." And the handyman: "most everybody who moves to Santa Fe as an adult is wounded and looking for a place to heal." I really have no idea if these two descriptions match up or not. What I do know is that Santa Fe tends to attract a certain kind of person, who for whatever reason is more taker than maker. And the town is not aging well.

This is a state capital with a lower-than-average high school graduation rate: roughly 58% versus a state average of about 66%, last I saw. And our school administrators will say flatly in open meetings they don't expect test scores to get better any time soon [link]. This is a town of 70,000 people with a distinct culture, architecture, and cuisine, a rarity in America. But its also a town of 70,000 people with its own immigration policy.

Santa Fe has a vast cash-only economy; the state's high gross receipts tax encourages cheating, so lots of people cheat. I'd be willing to argue that you haven't really moved to Santa Fe until you've had a bonded and insured skilled workman offer to "pay cash and skip the tax." Santa Fe has a shocking number of people getting paid under the table; without it the vaunted Santa Fe artist lifestyle (one job for money; one for insurance; one semi-official creative outlet) simply wouldn't be viable.

Santa Fe has used what little economic policy it has at its disposal (namely, choosing a group to give tax breaks) on artists, ignoring the fact that while art is potentially environmentally friendly it doesn't really have a multiplication factor: artists create jobs for themselves, and their agents, and gallery owners, and models and art supply stores and framers, but that's about it.

Lots of people were shocked and horrified when Bobbi Salinas-Norman turned up dead a few weeks ago, some months after her last known contact [link]. I don't know why: people like Salinas: people of a certain age, who weren't born here, who have scant to no family network, who have a plan for their lives that may not make financial sense, run rampant in this town. They practically run this place. They're the ones walking their dogs in the park in the middle of the day on a weekday, not cleaning up after aforementioned dog, getting offended if anyone suggests they take their dog to one of Santa Fe's many dog parks.

This is a town that apparently believes it can thrive as a retirement and refuge destination, meaning that there will always be enough people over 65 who want to move here and buy houses, and enough cheap Mexican labor to keep their houses livable. Where this leaves the local Hispanic population, who are on average not rich, educated, skilled, or mobile, is anybody's guess. I'm guessing that if current patterns persist they'll be squeezed out altogether within a couple of generations. Which is a shame given their unique culture. They've been living here since the time of the Conquistadors, and they've survived drought, famine, war, and statehood. Its hard to believe they'll be pushed out by simple poor planning.

This is a town that treats its dogs better than its children. The schools are like jails and the dog parks are many and well-kept. There are kennels here on par with a midrange day spa. I kid you not. Living here has shown me that while I consider myself a "dog person," in that I prefer dogs to cats and generally like dogs, I'm not a "dog person person:" dog owners here ignore leash laws, expect their dogs to be welcome wherever they are, and take no responsibility for their dogs' aggressive behavior. And those are the people who love their dogs. The ones who don't are worse: at the other end of the economic spectrum are the pit bull owners who abuse their dogs and raise them to be mean, who don't exercise them and are shocked when their dogs go crazy and maul someone.

We forget that this was one of the locations of the Catholic sexual abuse scandal; the local Christian Brothers school only recently renamed the ball field it had named for a Brother who was accused of over 130 counts of abusing minors (that would be Brother Andrew Abdon) [link]. If anyone thought it was unusual to have a field named after an admitted child molester for more than 15 years I never heard it mentioned.

But I digress. Santa Fe I love you but you're breaking my heart. It saddens me to see a city this liberal be this dysfunctional. By which I mean broken. As if by design. I wish you well, but I have no idea what that would look like.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Eno: The True Wheel

Dan Bodah has been using this as the opening track for his show Airborne Event on WFMU:

I realize the phrase "still sounds fresh" gets overused, but I swear that when I didn't know what this track was I assumed it was Le Tigre.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Augusten Burroughs: Running with Scissors

List of psychiatric medicationsImage via Wikipedia
Augusten Burroughs's 2002 memoir Running with Scissors is one of the most disturbing things I've read in a while. Granted, I don't read a lot of fiction, and I don't generally read just for freak value, but I picked this up at my local library on a whim, and by the time I got to the parts I found really disturbing it was really too late to put it down.

The basic story is this: Burroughs's mother is crazy, and she comes under the influence of a psychiatrist who is also crazy. She leaves him at the age of twelve with the doctor and the doctor's family. Hilarity more or less ensues. Some sexuality and adult situations. Some cruelty to animals.

Much of the stuff that jumps out at the casual reader is barely worth name-checking: the sex, the drugs, the codependent behavior. What's left when I ignore all of this is a story of a child who slips through the cracks, who should have gotten attention from welfare officials, but who was mostly ignored, probably on the strength of the leeway society gave psychiatrists at the time. And I suppose a lot of what happens here happens elsewhere in situations where oversight is inadequate, absent, or wrong-headed: cults, communes, foster homes, etc.

And I think that's all I really have to say about it. It struck me as a story of improperly placed trust, social status, etc. and I'm not really sure what else to say about it.

It's a reasonably good example of how an outrageous story becomes more palatable if presented as nonfiction. The story moves briskly. I don't recommend reading it.
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Monday, March 15, 2010

FBC Jax Watchdog series on FBC Dallas building program

The church watch weblog FBC (for First Baptist Church) Jax (for Jacksonville) Watchdog is doing a series on the building program at First Baptist Church Dallas, home of Robert Jeffress. The first installment is here. For those of you who don't follow the goings-on at other churches, FBC Dallas has embarked on a building program in downtown Dallas, and is asking churchgoers to give $140 million.
chairman Ronnie Floyd is telling us that to fund this GCR the money is in the "pockets and portfolios" of the church members - we see that one of the SBC's most historic churches is asking for its members to not dig into their "pockets and portfolios" to fund more missions, but to give 10% or more of all "personal assets" to build a $140 million dollar campus downtown
This of course gives us one piece of a puzzle that arose when religion reporter Frank Lockwood noted that this breaks down to $40,625 per worshiper: the executive management of FBC Dallas don't think of the rank and file as being you know, ordinary middle-class Americans making four to five hundred thousand dollars a year. They instead see the people in their church as the sort of people who have a spare forty thousand dollars stashed in their retirement funds, or mattresses, or what-have-you.
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Thursday, March 11, 2010

"meat for lunch for Lent"

NEW ORLEANS - FEBRUARY 05:  A reveler wearing ...Image by Getty Images via Daylife
There is so much I do not understand about Catholicism. So much so that when I see a sequence like the following I'm pretty sure I'll never understand what it's like to be Catholic, and I'll double-never-understand what it's like to be ex-Catholic.

Here's Ross Douthat from the Times; I think he's decrying the do-it-yourself of American religiosity, particularly of American mysticism:

In a sense, Americans seem to have done with mysticism what we’ve done with every other kind of human experience: We’ve democratized it, diversified it, and taken it mass market. No previous society has offered seekers so many different ways to chase after nirvana, so many different paths to unity with God or Gaia or Whomever. A would-be mystic can attend a Pentecostal healing service one day and a class on Buddhism the next, dabble in Kabbalah in February and experiment with crystals in March, practice yoga every morning and spend weekends at an Eastern Orthodox retreat center. Sufi prayer techniques, Eucharistic adoration, peyote, tantric sex — name your preferred path to spiritual epiphany, and it’s probably on the table.
I have to admit that I'm so American that I'm genuinely of two minds on this: I love having the freedom to make a mess of my own spiritual practice, but I'm sometimes put off by the messes other people make of their spiritual practices. See e.g. my attempts to make sense of Colin Beavan, the No Impact Man.

But then there's Mary Valle, who I have to thank for mentioning this article:

Ross, do you eat meat for lunch every day otherwise? Really? It’s lunchtime and you’re all “Time for a hamburger! I think I’ll have some chops! Whoa, is that brisket? Garcon! Wheel that meat cart over my way, if you please!”
And I swear I've walked into the middle of a conversation uninvited. In a language I do not speak. Or words to that effect.

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