Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Homeowner Blues Times Two

There was a small window of time last year when we owned three homes:  My house in Champaign, Katherine's condo in Evanston, and the house we bought together in Evanston. The condo was already on its way to being sold then (and that sale went through without a hitch), and we hoped that my house in Champaign would sell soon after.  It didn't.

I like to joke that we had a vacation home in Champaign, but the joke is as tired as my rotting roof.  

We own too many houses. 

We're like Donald Trump, but with better hair

Since my house didn't sell last year, I hired a property management company (realtor #3) who found a tenant for me and rented out the house over the winter.  So in addition to all the ways I've made money over my life (grocery bagger, meat department clerk, pizza driver, library clerk, scholarship winner, busboy, typist, receptionist, fellow, teacher, librarian), I became a landlord.  I even changed my banking password to some variant of my new role.  (slumloard666?  99givememymoney?  You'll never guess it!)

I was a reluctant landlord, though, and renting out my house was just a way to stem the bleeding of mortgage payments and utility bills for a house I wasn't even using.  Although the rent I receive from my tenants is not enough to cover my mortgage, it helps a lot, and it also makes me feel better to know that someone was sort of house-sitting for me over the winter, when the already horrible house-selling market froze up completely.  I took the house off the market. 

Would you like to buy my frozen house?

This spring I've been trying to put the house back on the market.  We were about all ready to list the house at the end of March, but the realtor I'd been working with (#4) wanted me to sign a year-long agreement, which was way too long and everyone said was a red flag.  So I fired her and got a new realtor (#5) who I'm not crazy about but it doesn't matter because all realtors suck and if I'm going to work with one, I might as well choose one I have low expectations of from the beginning.

We were just about to list the house at the end of April, but at the advice of my latest realtor I got the home pre-inspected (I think it was probably good advice), and it came back with a whole bunch of issues.  We put the listing on hold until I could deal with those things. 

Apparently, this is how the inspector saw my house. 
So now it's the end of May and I'm hoping the house will get listed this week.  Right now, as I type, they are tearing off my old roof and putting a brand-spanking new roof on the house I will never live in again.  And new gutters. Then we'll tackle the smaller stuff.


In the past year, we have put a new roof on both of our houses.  We've also had sewer issues at both houses, requiring excavation and new pipes.  That's four major house repairs at the top and bottom of our houses.  We're getting screwed at both ends of both houses.

I have no idea what this book is about, but I couldn't NOT post this.

The repair issues have gotten so bad this spring that I actually created a spreadsheet for all of our house repairs, renovations, costs, estimates to see how much we can actually afford.  For both houses.

After all our home repairs, we will have $1.59 left over for our retirement

One of the things on the list is simply selling my house.  Just getting rid of my house is going to cost us several thousand dollars, because the market has dropped so much in Champaign that despite my down payment and the fact that I've been paying down the mortgage for five years, we'll be lucky if we sell the house for what I owe on it.  Even then, I'll have to pay the 6% commission to my realtor, hence the cost of selling my home.

I know we're fortunate enough that we can afford to sell it, because many people simply don't have the money to sell a home that's underwater.  (For the record, mine isn't necessarily "underwater", but it's hovering around the water line.  We won't know for sure what it's worth until we get an offer.)

For reasons other than financial, I love owning my own home, but anyone who tells you that owning vs. renting is a "slam dunk" financial decision is full of shit.  Every experience I've personally had with real estate has been a huge money suck.  I've lost a shit-ton of money on my house, both with repairs and re-sell.  So did Katherine with her condo.  And now our new house keeps asking for money like that plant in Little Shop of Horrors.  ("Feed me, Seymour!") 

This actually looks a lot like the thing growing in our sewer pipes


So every day I have to call a new repair person and get a new estimate on one of our many projects.  I'm drowning in estimates and it's a little overwhelming.  I've instituted a rule that I will only call one repair person per day.  Otherwise I would go crazy.   

Here's one big decision we need to make.  Our new home needs a new 4-foot stretch of sewer that has been run over by tree roots.  (Over the past year our sewer has backed up into the basement several times, and we've had to get it "rooted out" twice.)  The section that needs replacing is three feet underneath the concrete in our basement, which means they have to jackhammer through the (carpeted) floor in our basement, dig out the old broken clay pipes, put in new PVC pipes, and then re-cement the floor.  For this privilege of premium indoor plumbing we get to pay $2800. (First World Problem, I know.)  

However, I've hated the floor in our basement since we moved in.  The carpet is thin and cheap, and underneath it is uneven concrete that resembles rolling hills.  All the desks, bookcases, and filing cabinets in our basement are up on shims because the floor is so uneven.  One of the renovations I'd like to do some day is to level out the floor.  I called a floor guy, but he said the floor is too uneven for him to fix.  He said I need a concrete guy.  So I called a concrete guy who came out and said, sure, he can fix it.  For $7300.

One complication is that the ceiling is pretty low in our basement already, and I worry that evening out the floor would make it even lower.  It's fine for short people like us, but when it comes time to sell someday, no tall people could ever buy this house because the basement ceiling is so low.  So for an extra $3800 the concrete guy can lower the floor another 6 inches, giving us more ceiling clearance.

The ceiling in our basement: perfect for us, bad for talls.
Here are our options w/r/t the basement floor:

1.  Do nothing.  This will require us to have the sewer line rooted out every 5-6 months ($300 each time) so that it doesn't back up into the basement, which I don't need to tell you is DIS-GUS-TING.

2.  Just fix the sewer line and nothing else.  This will involve blocking off our computer desks and most of the finished basement so that they don't get covered in concrete dust, and then having the plumber jackhammer our floor, which will shake the whole house and probably cause it to come crashing down.  Oh, and will cost $2800.

3.  Since they're going to be opening up our basement floor anyway, this seems like the ideal time to have them fix the whole thing.  But not only is this a VERY EXPENSIVE option, it will also require an assload of work on our part, and a major inconvenience akin to moving.  We will have to move everything out of the basement, which includes both of our desks and desktop computers, printers, modems, telephones, etc., our entire TV/entertainment system, couches, filing cabinets, book shelves, and storing all of it in the small corner of the basement that is unfinished (i.e. the workshop.)  Then we will be without all said computer, telephone, and entertainment options during the renovation, which could take a while because we will need to coordinate between the sewer excavation guy, the concrete guy, and the carpet guy, which we haven't even gotten an estimate for yet because the first two steps are so overwhelming to contemplate.

4. The same as #3 but lower the floor six inches, which would be a better long term renovation but would add a LOT MOAR MONEY onto the project, and possibly also time.

5. Bury ourselves in the sewer and let the new owners pay to excavate our rotting corpses.

An actual image of the roots growing into our sewer line.  That's what homeownership looks like, kids!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Disposable Stereotypes

So we're having a baby

Slowly we are preparing ourselves for the arrival of our little bundle of replicated genes.  We've officially started Moving Furniture in Anticipation of the Baby.  If this were an 80's movie montage, right now there'd be scenes of us painting the nursery and trying to put the crib together.

As a librarian and a teacher, of course we're getting our fair share of reading in, too.  Every week Katherine asks me to pick up some new book on baby rearing at my library.  We have 341,653 decisions to make, and we want to be prepared.

One decision is whether to use cloth or disposable diapers.  Considering we're both crunchy hippie granola types, it seems pretty self-evident that we'll use cloth diapers.  I use my own cloth handkerchiefs, for snot's sake!

So Katherine asked me to check out the following book from my library:  Changing Diapers: The Hip Mom's Guide to Modern Cloth Diapering by Kelly Wels. 

It's a small square book, novelty-sized, and we thought it would guide us in all the things we need to know about using cloth diapers.

But the second page of the introduction already turned us off with this disclaimer:

Hey, Dads!  Just so you know, this book is for you, too!  Please swap out "mom" for "dad" wherever appropriate.

And then it goes on to address the whole book toward "mom."  Why can't they just use the gender-neutral "parent" if they want to appeal to dads, also?

Our hackles were already raised, but then when Katherine flipped through the book she found this passage, in a chapter called "Daddies and Diapers":

If Dad needs convincing (because he's going to be doing his fair shair of changing diapers too), start your conversation with this: "Honey, how would you like to save $2,500?"

As his head swims with the idea that he really might be able to get that big-screen TV after all the unanticipated costs of having a baby are added up, he could be brought on board rather quickly.... Don't force the issue.  Why don't you leave this book near his favorite spot (maybe in the bathroom or by the TV remote) and put a bookmark right here on this chapter.
Um, no.   This book advertises itself as "hip" and "modern", but its attitudes towards men are neither.  Manipulate your man with money-- he doesn't care about the environment!  Men have to be reminded (parenthetically) that they might have to change a diaper or two.  Men have a raging boner for big-screen TVs.  How could a book on such a progressive, environmental topic be so openly sexist?

I realize that my wife and I are not mainstream in our gender roles and beliefs, but surely we're not that far off the norm, are we?  The same year that Wels' book was published (2011), the Census Bureau reported that One-Third of Fathers with Working Wives Regularly Care for Their Children. That's a pretty large population to ignore. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

More on Lying and Questionable Narrators

I seem to be unusually preoccupied with liars and unreliable narrators and fishy witnesses.  It's a theme that I write a lot about.

Because the truth is always so important to me, I'm both appalled and fascinated by people who seem to make shit up, get the facts wrong, or exaggerate excessively.  I guess I'm in the right profession for that, being a reference librarian and all.  Information Literacy is my business and my passion.

Maybe I'm obsessed with lying the same way sexually-repressed conservative Christians are obsessed with pornography.  It gives them "disapproval boners," as Jon Stewart would say.  In the same way, I get truth boners. 


The latest thing to give me a truth boner is the book The Informant: A True Story by Kurt Eichenwald. 

When I first picked up this book, which is over 500 pages long, I almost put it back on the shelf.  I don't have time to read a 500-page book, I thought.  I knew there was a movie about it, so maybe I'd just watch that instead.  But Katherine convinced me to read the book.

Wow, am I glad I read it!

I spent an entire weekend doing almost nothing but reading this book.  And I'm not a marathon reader.  I haven't read a book this fast since the last Harry Potter came out, and the only reason I read that one so fast was that I wanted to avoid spoilers.  

Why was it so fascinating?  I wanted to get to The Truth.  I knew that the book was full of lies-- foreshadowing in the first few pages practically promises it-- but I wanted to know what were the lies and what was the truth. 

It's a quick read, with lots of very short scenes and paragraphs that glide along.  Aside from great stories of the world of white collar crime and law enforcement bureaucracy, the book is a fascinating study of a champion liar.

I don't think I'm giving away too many spoilers by saying that Mark Whitacre, the main character in the book, is a lying piece of shit.  He lies to everyone.  Constantly.  His lies are stuffed with lies, sauteed in lie sauce, smothered in lies, with lie sprinkles on top.  

Even when Whitacre is caught in all the lies, and colleagues, investigators, prosecutors, even his own lawyer, say, "Enough! YOU MUST TELL US THE TRUTH NOW OR VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN!"  Whitacre promises-- absolutely promises!--  that this time he's going to come clean.  Even then... he lies.   About a dozen times this process repeats itself. 

The man is pathologically incapable of telling the truth.  

He lies to himself as well. He deludes himself into thinking that after this is all over, he will be the hero of this story, vindicated and loved by everyone.  The few times when he does decide to reveal the truth, he does it in a spectacular way with the most inappropriate people, which only lands him in deeper trouble.  

 Fascinating.  I just can't look away! 


Of course, lying is not always so cut and dry.  Sometimes people see the same event from two different perspectives, and it's not so much about the truth, but perceptions.  For example, did I yell at my wife for making a mess at breakfast, or did I lovingly point out to her that there are crumbs all over the table?

Pat Conroy has written a lot of bestselling books (the most famous is The Prince of Tides), but the one that made the biggest impression on me was The Great Santini, where he gives a fictionalized account of his father, a marine fighter pilot who terrorized Conroy's whole family with his violence and detachment.  (He's written about his father in some non-fiction books as well.  The portrait is always the same.) 

Now Conroy has published a new book, The Death of Santini, a non-fiction memoir/biography that directly addresses his family's issues.

I'm reading the book now, and although many of the stories in it are interesting, about halfway through I started to get a funny feeling.  I started to question the narrator.  Things didn't make sense.  Everything seemed to be so overwrought, with bad dialogue and behavior that didn't seem authentic to me. I couldn't understand why these characters (real people) were reacting the way they were, and it felt like facts were being manipulated to fit the narrative.  And a lot of things seemed to contradict earlier events.

Conroy writes about how his father, and many members of his family, dispute his account of his childhood.  And it's not just small things they can't agree on, like what year they visited Disneyland, but big things, like whether or not his mother, during a savage beating at a birthday party, stabbed his father in the back in self-defense. 

Conroy's account of his childhood is that his father administered regular beatings to every member of the family.  Not only was he physically abusive, he taunted and bullied them mercilessly.  They all lived in mortal fear of their father, and Conroy cannot summon one memory from his childhood where his father showed any love, concern, or tenderness:  "It never occurred to my father that part of his job description was to love his children."  

His father, on the other hand, claims that Pat always had an overactive imagination, and that he never laid a finger on his wife or children. The senior Conroy claims his son exaggerated  his awful childhood for literary effect. 

How can these two "truths" be so far apart? 

While it's interesting, and even admirable, that Conroy includes these wildly differing perceptions in his memoir, I can't tell if he includes them in order to show that his father was, on top of everything else, dismissive and unapologetic, or if he wants to cast doubt on his own memories. 


This reminds me of a story I heard once on This American Life about a woman whose father adopted a 27-year-old ex-convict who had murdered his own parents. In the course of telling this story, the narrator  recounted how her father had been abusive to her and her sister throughout their whole childhood.  He had essentially terrorized them, the same way that Pat Conroy's father did.  She was so traumatized by the experience that when it came time to interview her father for the story, she had to have a colleague do it.  

When asked directly if he had ever physically abused his daughter, her father flat-out denied it.  He even claimed to have a wonderful relationship with his adult daughter.  It was surreal, because his daughter  believed she was estranged from him.  Clearly, someone was lying.  Or had such deluded perceptions as to be unrecognizable as truth.  

Both of these stories involve abuse, and both of them have fathers denying horrible things their children said they'd done.  I know that men of a certain generation didn't think anything of hitting their children (even my father did it on occasion.)  I also know that parents of past generations didn't talk about certain things.  You didn't air your dirty laundry in public.

So I don't know what actually happened in Pat Conroy's family.  Was his father really as brutal as he says he was?  Or was he just your typical authoritarian father from the 50's whose oversensitive son resented his "discipline"? 

Is Pat or his father lying?  Or is one of them deluded? 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

44 Reasons

I got 44 reasons to hate "spring" in Chicago. 

It's May 1st, and it's 44 degrees out.

Meanwhile, in my old home of Champaign, it was 70 degrees last weekend.  Here, it was 44.

Katherine warned me that there was no spring in Chicago.  She told me that every year when she visits Champaign for the state math meet (she's the math team coach) in early May, it would already be warm and springy there, while Chicago was still cold and dreary.

You wouldn't think that 150 miles further north would make much of a difference, but when the radio people in Chicago talk about a beautiful spring day being in the 40's & 50's, I yell at them, "THAT IS NOT SPRING!!!"  Spring is in the 60's and 70's.  Anything below 60 degrees is just an addendum to winter.  


I bring up the weather because I think it may be one of the...

44 reasons why I suck at tennis.

I know I'm supposed to be a big tennis stud champion, but the truth is that I'm average.  In my 7-year tennis career I've had moments of supreme triumph and moments of utter humiliation.  And everything in between.  In 2011/2012, I had a stretch where I lost 21 out of 24 matches, including 10 in a row.  Last year, after losing three straight matches, I went on the longest winning streak of my life, with 18 straight victories, including winning the playoffs in my new league.  That was the pinnacle of my career.

My winning streak ended, and since that time I've lost 7 matches and won 6.  But the wins have been hard to come by, and the losses have been humiliating.  I've been "bageled" (lost a set 6-0) four times.

Lately, in particular, I've been in a bad streak.  Those four bagels I've suffered were all in the past 2 months.  I play the same people I've been playing, but with worse results.  I've been playing poorly, it feels like my rhythm is off, and I don't have the confidence I used to have.  What is wrong with me?

I'm a problem solver and a curious person.  I want to know WHY I don't feel like I'm playing well.  Here are some possible reasons:

Every year near the end of winter I notice that the left side of my abdomen twinges.  I hesitate to even call it pain, but I notice it and sometimes it's uncomfortable.  Maybe it's even more mentally painful than physical, because... what is it?  It doesn't prevent me from doing anything, I still play tennis, do my pushups/situps, and take walks and stuff.  But I wonder if it might have a very subtle effect on my tennis.  And it always shows up around this time of year.  (Actually, it's usually earlier in the year, but since winter lasts longer in Chicago, it's happening later this year.)

So now I'm curious: do I always get in a tennis slump this time of year?  I do remember it was February two years ago that I in a horrible slump that I thought would never end.  So maybe it's just this time of year?

In addition to being a huge tennis stud, I'm also a huge spreadsheet nerd, so I have a record of every (official) match I've ever played in an Excel spreadsheet.  So let me look back and see if my record in February/March is worse than usual...

...and it's not.  There really is no statistical correlation to my winning % in February and March than there is to the warmer months like July and August. I think there are simply too many other factors at play.  Like for, example:       

Tougher Competition
Of course the biggest factor of whether I win or lose a match has to be my opponent.  Certain people will always beat me, because they're just the better player.  That's how it should be.  And some guys I will always beat, because they don't match up well against my style. I play in a lot of different league with a lot of different types of guys, and when I play in the tougher leagues at the tougher levels, I'm going to get my butt kicked.

Of course, there are also people that I match up well against, and we trade wins back and forth.  It is in those cases where I should probably measure how I do this time of year, but frankly I don't have the time or inclination to tease out those numbers.

New Glasses
A few months ago I got my very first pair of bifocals.  They're progressive lenses, and they took some getting used to.  The first few weeks I wore them they felt weird and I didn't like them.  Any time I moved my head my sight was blurry.  And you'd be surprised how often I move my head!  But somehow, I got used to them, so now I don't notice it.

My new bifocals: Hipster Nerd.

When I first got my new bifocals I tried to play tennis with them, and it was a disaster.   I move my head around A LOT in tennis.  My far-side vision hadn't changed at all, so I could still use my old glasses to play tennis.  I kind of liked the idea of having my own set of glasses for tennis.  But now that my brain has gotten used to the new bifocals, I wonder if I need to play tennis with them on.  But with so many other factors, it's hard to know...

New Strings
When I lived in Champaign, I had my own racket guy.  He was awesome.  We played together a lot, and I'd ask him what kind of racket to get, and he'd give me a long analysis of which kind of racket matched my style.  He was also my racket stringer.  He would recommend which kind of strings I needed and string my racket for me.  Since moving to Chicago I haven't found a good, personal racket stringer like that.

I recently had my racket restrung here in Chicagoland, and I can't tell if the new strings are good for me or not.  I need my racket guy!

The Baby
I know that once I become a father, my life will be over and my tennis will suck because I'll get no sleep and have no energy and the baby will consume my life.  (It's true, single men have more tennis success.)  But it's worth noting that ever since we even found out we're pregnant, my tennis has gone downhill.  Maybe mentally I've already begun the slow slide toward playing tennis with a baby strapped to my back.      
This could really limit my game