Mr. Bill Buys His Dream House… with apologies to Eric Hodgins

For most of the past thirty years I have experienced at second hand the machinations of the real estate world. Having grown up in a world where there were real estate salesmen – just like there were insurance salesmen – a world populated by real estate professionals is almost as dangerous as one populated by financial professionals and either can be injurious to your wallet in ways that you never imagined.

Having decided to desert Sodom on the Bayou and possessing a rough idea of what we needed the search began.

All we wanted

All we wanted

Several years previously my wife had been involved in a transaction where some people of her acquaintanceship had bought a spacious home on a huge lot with an extended garage and shop as well as a pool and a guesthouse. All of this nestled in a small village that was almost more rural than suburban and far enough from the thoroughfares to be quite if not secluded. Unfortunately they either got the last one or there are simply none available now.

Expanding the search there were a wealth of two storey houses and an absolute poverty of acceptable one storey houses. One of the few was on three acres but it had been built in 1956 and was judged too out of date, on a street with too much commercial development AND next door to some kind of Asian Monastery which did not frighten me so much as my wife worried about Hare Krishna rites being performed at all hours of the day and night.

One of the services offered by real estate professionals is staging a house and putting a picture portfolio on the internet so that you can get a feel for the property before you view it. The phrase that comes to mind for me is the one about putting lipstick on a pig to see if it can fly. The first of these that I came across looked like a beautiful brick country home sitting regally at the back of a long drive at sundown. It turned out to be a 1200 square foot house with a carport on an acre so devoid of tree or topography that you could have planted wheat. Ignoring the photographs and turning a jaundiced eye to the dimensions there were no two rooms in combination that would have given you enough space to change either your mind or your socks. I was reminded of the mobile home company that used to dress children as adults ostensibly to add an element of cuteness to their commercials but in reality to hide the fact that only the vertically challenged could occupy one of their homes without doing injury to themselves.

Next on the menu was a Frank Lloyd Wright style house. In realspeak this apparently includes anything built within the centenary of the great man that has a flat roof. Although it was on two plus acres with city water and sewer it included other city amenities such as a neighbor with a perpetual garage sale. The creek at the back of the property is a glorified drainage ditch with an access road that runs alongside and serves as a highway for housebreakers. The original garage had been converted into a bedroom/office, complete with rising damp, and replaced by a sheet metal shop that has not blown away only because it is ballasted by trash. The patio off the back glass wall that exposes the living area has more cracks than Obama’s resume and overlooks the entanglement of weeds that constitutes a wooded lot. The value added by the listing realtor was to let us know that not one but TWO offers were ready to be presented the next day – weeks later we have yet to see a sale pending sign.

Forsaking the hope of Heaven and praying to wind up no place worse than Purgatory we were trying to compromise on an apparently nice – if inauspicious – brick home on three quarters of an acre lost on a little dead end street where we could remain at home and unfound for the most part. It seemed to be in most ways adequate and to escape the cookie cutter pattern of most of Pearland which seems exclusively composed of poorly built tract homes for the sub-prime mortgage market. On houses more than 20 years old that have slab foundations you have the choice of those that have been previously repaired and those in need of more repair – either imminently or in the not too distant future.

We did not quite get to that determination since the electrical system had an FPE box and enough open splices throughout the attic and lack of GFI plugs in the kitchen, baths and utility rooms that we had more pressing worries. Added to this was the fact that there was a septic system which had not been pumped in the best part of a decade – when we were rude enough to suggest that we had no desire to buy the remaining contents of their sewage we were offered a pittance and the number of a discount pumping service.

Then we learned the truth! Having lived with power outages during storms we had determined to put in a natural gas powered standby generator. You can not hook one up to an FPE box and indeed Pearland may well not approve ANY additional circuits being run off such a box. In addition where it used to require 1 permit to hook up a standby generator it now requires 6 and Pearland may well be going the way of Houston where you are now almost required to have a permit to apply for a permit. Of course the permits do not add any sort of safety or quality to the work done – they simply generate an immediate fee and an excuse for increasing property taxes thereafter.

But this was only half of the cold hard facts of life. Older septic systems work through separation and returning the water back to the ground and have been used for centuries because they are effective and passive systems especially in a rural environment. The new systems are far more complex and therefore both more expensive to install and maintain. In that wonderful confluence of the interests between government and business if you have less than 1 acre and if the costs of maintenance and repair will exceed 25% of the value of the system you must replace your old system with a new one. The results are easy enough to predict and even though we spent $1,000 to find these things out at least we didn’t spend $250,000 to find out we could immediately spend $50,000 more.

All we were offered

All we were offered

While I would never accuse the current homeowner – or their realtor – of any of these properties of trying to conceal anything from us, NOBODY, and that includes the inspectors that we hired to examine the property in our behalf, was anxious to educate us as to these pitfalls and I can only thank the good people at the county offices and potential neighbors that I met as unhurried passersby  for raising red flags. If you want to look at Pearland go a little bit farther to Manvel which is not so badly infected yet! We continue our search and will let you know about our travels on the way to Shambala.

 

 

 

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Omnes relinquite spes, o vos intrantes.

fireengine

My family has called the same house home since 1928. My grandmother had the house built after she was widowed and my mother grew up here – and even had her wedding reception here – I grew up here, my sons grew up here and my grand children have played here often. My surmise had always been that like the generations before me this would be my last address but that may be about to change.

The city of Houston has become progressively less livable. We are now three blocks from a freeway that was not there when I was born and where there was a truck farm just west of us has been a failed shopping center soon to be torn down for a midrise apartment project to help hold the daily influx of people who are certainly not Texans and often not even Americans and have no more appreciation for the values involved in being either than a dog has of algebra.

The problem of lacking these values is that these people are the natural fodder of politicians and unfortunately the political model of the large city is one of unceasing greed for tax dollars to be allocated, in small measure to reward the political faithful and, in large measure to burnish the image of the politicians eager for higher office. Thus the tax dollars paid to maintain the streets and sewers, the police and fire departments and to retire the debts of previous elected felons are diverted.

A portion – large enough to buy the next election – is wasted on giving jobs to sidewalk inspectors with no obvious qualifications while the larger portions build jogging trails on bayous whose only natural inhabitants seem to be the giant mosquito and the seasonal wino – or anything else than can memorialize an otherwise inconsequential office holder. Meantime the streets are torn up and already stretched to the limit services are treated like red-headed step children while the developers try to sidestep the permitting process in the building of their next collapsible architectural monstrosity and the citizens find their tax bills raised to exorbitant levels that bear no relationship to the market value of the asset being taxed.

In paying property taxes – and the dozen or more hidden taxes – the citizen finds himself supporting a vast network of politicians and governmental employees who don’t do any useful work, who don’t desire to ever do any useful work and who treat the very notion that they should do any useful work with the disdain of a head waiter asked to clear a table. The proximate result is a city that is rapidly collapsing on itself, a school system that produces functional illiterates, a hospital district that is more likely to kill you than cure you and a police and fire department that have become so politicized that you better have your own gun and hose if you would protect or save your home. The ultimate result is that before my grandchildren come of age Houston will be what Detroit is and so will every other major metropolitan urban area.

The most damnable aspect for me is that while I could not ask for a better group of people to live among than my immediate neighbors within a block we have an apartment project that specializes in felons recently released from the state prison. We have so many junk food restaurants that a former neighbor counted 43 rats in a single week that her cats brought her as offerings. In spite of the endless admonitions not to drink and drive we have everything from plastic pubs meant to be reminiscent of ye olde England to after hours bars for those of dubious gender that have had late night shootings to murderous effect – and many of their patrons proceed down our supposedly residential street at all hours of the night. Being conveniently located sometimes is a mixed blessing that leaves you too close to a good many things the city turns a blind eye to because they are cash cows for tax revenue.

While all of the virtues of a city are within easy reach so are all of the vices and the combination of the latter, the unwillingness of the city to do anything about them and a level of taxation entirely out of proportion to the services provided by the city the only choice left is to vote with our feet. One of the few benefits is that within a few miles we can escape Sodom on the Bayou. We can cross a county line to the south and buy our little patch of refuge down a state highway and two county roads on a dead-end road where our nearest neighbors are two llamas that belong to the people whose house is a few acres removed from ours. While they do not speak they seem to possess a reflective dignity and regal bearing that may make them the perfect neighbors.

Jeanne will have her one storey house. I will have a separate atelier as I have been told that books are banned in our new home. There will be no more one car driveway for two people who share four cars and those who find us at our hideaway may find me out on my riding mower or talking to the llamas. Whatever I do I will keep a weather eye towards the north since I know that nothing good ever comes from the north.

Brazoria County will have all the problems Harris County has – eventually – probably too soon. The problems will come first to the communities closest to Houston and they will come with a vengeance to subdivisions where the majority of residents received 100% financing on tract built homes with all of their closing costs – including points and a broker’s fee – wrapped into their very subprime mortgages. The HOA’s and MUD’s will go broke and the banks will add thousands of foreclosures to their inventories precipitating another crisis and taxpayer bailout. This is the price of equality in a democracy that started by demanding that there should be no taxation without representation and is ending in an age of entitlement by giving representation without taxation.

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It is with much reluctance that I am obliged to look upon him as a man whose mind is warped by prejudice and so blinded by ignorance as to be unfit for the office he holds… John Adams

He is vain, irritable and a bad calculator of the force and probable effect of the motives which govern men… Thomas Jefferson

With that exchange of pleasantries we have the last candid – if not honest – opinions expressed by one another of our second and third presidents until the end of the 19th century when Theodore Roosevelt would opine of Jefferson that he was, Perhaps the most incapable executive that ever filled the presidential chair… it would be difficult to imagine a man less fit to guide the state with honor and safety through the stormy times that marked the opening of the present century.

thomjeff001

While the autobiographies of politicians may be largely dismissed as self-serving exercises in personal aggrandizement biographies written by scholars are often a little harder to judge. This is particularly true when you have a polarizing figure like Jefferson who has long had both opinions and actions attributed to him that are dubious in their authenticity leaving both the subject and the biographer suspect as to motive, action and result.

Burstein’s latest offering takes Jefferson’s correspondence at face value and credits it with revealing the man – as for us we believe that a man may smile, and smile, and be a villain…

The inner Jefferson : portrait of a grieving optimist Andrew Burstein Charlottesville : University Press of Virginia, 1995 Hardcover. 1st ed. xx, 334 p. : ill. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 293-325) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Thomas Jefferson’s personal life has always been a puzzle to biographers. Even his contemporaries found him difficult to know. In Jefferson’s correspondence, however, Burstein has found a key to the inner man. This penetrating and thoughtful portait confronts widespread misunderstandings about Jefferson’s romantic life and provides insight into the contradictions that still surround our third president.

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Humility must be the measure of a man whose success was bought with the blood of his subordinates, and paid for with the lives of his friends… General Dwight D. Eisenhower

William R. Wilson (right) and brother Cpl. Jack Wilson (left) standing by a German 88 mm gun at Verdun, France on VE Day

William R. Wilson (right) and brother Cpl. Jack Wilson (left) standing by a German 88 mm gun at Verdun, France on VE Day

An end of war : fatal final days to VE Day, 1945 Ken Tout Stroud : History Press, 2011 Hardcover. 1st ed. 249 p., [16] p. of plates : ill., maps ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 223-234) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

After D-Day in 1944 British troops in Normandy had been encouraged to believe that the war would be over by Christmas of that year. The German army in Normandy had indeed been destroyed but by Christmas the Allies were still fighting through Holland, whilst the Germans had reorganised and were ready to fight back.

Tout, using his own experiences on the frontline and interviews with many veterans, recounts how the last gasps of the German Army saw some of the fiercest and most fanatical fighting of the whole war. Major offensives include Hitler’s last desperate attempt to reverse the tide of war in the Battle of the Bulge and the Western Allies’ epic struggle to cross the Rhine. Also explored are the lesser known, but no less important, battles for the Hochwald and Reichwald, and the extraordinary journey of the Polish 1st Armoured Division from defeat and exile to final victory. This last year of war is filled with stories from the tragedy of whole groups of men being frozen to death in battle areas to the triumph of logistics, ingenuity and bravery.

Soldiers, who had lived for so long under the horrors of war that as they neared the end their desperate desire to survive grew ever stronger, speak of how these last battles took their toll on a wearied army. Fighting continued up to VE Day in May and some units were in action for days longer as confusion reigned about the enemy surrender. Even after the fighting had finished, the war was not over for these men who had to round-up and guard German prisoners of war, and watch over thousands of displaced people.

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In Likkutei Dibburim, a collection of stories and memoirs by the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe, the author describes his father, Rebbe Rashab, playing lapta in Yalta, Crimea.

Apparently pub trivia has become a source of great amusement in this age where factoids have replaced knowledge and it is more important to remember who is credited with having said what than it is to understand what was said, in what context it was said and what its meaning is – in that context as well as in a current application. We contrarians hold that it is far more important to know how to apply the Pythagorean Theorem than it is to know that Pythagoras was probably not its author. If you are a major league manager it is better to know how to apply an infield shift than it is to have opinions on baseball vs. cricket or whether the Russians really did invent the game – as they have claimed.

Many historians have labeled the fifth through twelfth centuries an age of faith and would dismiss the thirteenth through eighteenth as the revival of paganism rather than reformation, renascence and enlightenment as the popular historians might have them. While this account of science in the middle east is interesting the suppositions about its influence on the west are somewhat like the Russian claim to have invented baseball – whatever their merits may be it doesn’t change the fact that it is America’s pastime and that however much like Russian Stengelize may sound he, and Yogi, were uniquely American.

The house of wisdom : how Arabic science saved ancient knowledge and gave us the Renaissance Jim Al-Khalili New York : Penguin Press, 2011 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xxix, 302 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. (some col.), maps ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

A mythic view of the medieval middle eastern world’s scientific innovations, which preceded the European Renaissance. This legacy of science and philosophy has long been hidden from the West. British born Iraqi claimant – physicist Jim Al-Khalili unveils that legacy to fascinating effect by returning to its roots in the middle east that would advance science and jump-start the European Renaissance.

Attributing all of this to the Koranic injunction to study closely all of God’s works, rulers throughout the Islamic world funded armies of scholars who gathered and translated Persian, Sanskrit, and Greek texts he ignores the facts of the centuries of learning that preceded Islam. From the ninth through the fourteenth centuries, these scholars built upon those foundations a scientific revolution that bridged the one-thousand-year gap between the ancient Greeks and the European Renaissance.

Claiming the innovations that we think of as hallmarks of Western science were actually the result of Arab ingenuity: Astronomers laid the foundations for the heliocentric model of the solar system long before Copernicus; physicians accurately described blood circulation and the inner workings of the eye ages before Europeans solved those mysteries; physicists made discoveries that laid the foundation for Newton’s theories of optics. But the most significant legacy of Middle Eastern science was its evidence-based approach-the lack of which kept Europeans in the dark throughout the Dark Ages. The father of this experimental approach to science – what we call the scientific method – was an Iraqi physicist who applied it centuries before Europeans first dabbled in it.

Al-Khalili details not only how discoveries like these were made, but also how they changed European minds and how they were ultimately obscured by later Western versions of the same principles. Al-Khalili places the reader in the intellectual and cultural hothouses of the Arab Enlightenment: the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, one of the world’s greatest academies, the holy city of Isfahan, the melting pots of Damascus and Cairo, and the embattled Islamic outposts of Spain.

Al-Khalili tackles two tantalizing questions: Why did the Arab world enter its own Dark Age after such a dazzling enlightenment? And how much did Arabic learning contribute to making the Western world as we know it? That he fails to answer either satisfactorily is the result of the failure of his central premise coupled with the multiple failures to set his facts in their proper contexts. While the book does offer a somewhat skewed view of science in the middle east it fails to show how the area was a bridge from east to west, the importance of the contributions of the east or how it was the influence of Islam that largely destroyed that bridge from the 7th through the 19th centuries.

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