Take it where you find it…

After ten months of watching interest rates plummet through previously unimaginable record lows, I’ve finally stuck out my hand in an effort to catch the falling knife. Almost six years ago, I was thrilled to lock in 4.25% for 30 years. I’d taken 7.5% back in 2001when I bought my St. Mary’s County condo. At the time, that was a steal – especially for a 23-year-old with no significant credit history. I refinanced that one a few times over the years and the shopped around for financing for the Tennessee house in 2007. I closed on that one about three months before the bottom fell out of the housing market in 2008. Good timing, that.

I’d gotten used to being able to move through the mortgage process pretty effortlessly. I have every conceivable piece of electronic paperwork the underwriters may need at my fingertips – often sending it off before the call asking for it even ended. I’m still good for that, but the mortgage business itself is having a bit of a struggle at the moment. Just getting a broker to call me back proved to be more of a challenge than you might think. I suppose it’s a case of having an embarrassment of riches as everyone is racing to their favorite banker to take advantage of the unprecedentedly low rates. I was warned that getting through to closing, usually a 30-day affair, could take up to 90 days because of how much of a backlog they already have in the pipeline. The rate is locked in, with an option to go lower if they should continue to fall, but now that I’ve started the process, I’m impatient to start getting my monthly savings.

Plague, famine, sedition are all loose upon the world. Maybe we’re all going to hell in a handbag. It’s important to take your happiness where you can find it in strange times, so damned if I’m not going to appreciate a blisteringly low interest rate with no points on the way to the collapse of civilization.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Diminishing supply. My to be read shelves are starting to look a bit picked over despite the regular trickle of online orders over the last nine months. Sure, there’s still an easy 400 or so lined up in the fiction section and another 150 in non-fiction, but the gaps that weren’t there when the Great Plague started are starting to be noticeable. I’d usually spend the week after Christmas casting net through used book stores and thrift shops in a geographical area that stretched north to south from Philadelphia to DC and east to west from Dover to Frederick. It’s the second of what are historically my two big, bulk buying weeks I’ve missed this year. I’m not at much risk of running short on reading material, but I do miss the hunt – and finding the occasional rare-ish first edition, or signed copy, or the one long out-of-print volume I need to make the set. Book shops are probably a low threat environment, eminently suited for social distancing, but every trip out increases the chance of being exposed unnecessarily. With vaccines now ramping up to full rate production and being shipped out by the millions, it feels like a stupid time to force old patterns to fit present circumstances. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

2. Staying put. As I sit here finalizing this post, it’s Christmas Eve morning. Tomorrow will be the first Christmas in 42 years I won’t wake up in the shadow of Savage Mountain. Like a salmon driven by thousands of generations of history to swim back up stream to the gravel beds where they were born, the trip home for Christmas was as inviolable part of my yearly calendar no matter where in the country I found myself living. Staying put this year is absolutely the right decision… even though there’s a deep, primordial part of my brain is screaming that something is wrong.

3. Shipping. I ordered a book from a shop in Indiana on the 7th of December. It shipped out on the 10th. It pinged in various places on the 12th and 13th before coming to rest in York, Pennsylvania in the 19th, where according to the helpful USPS tracking website it hasn’t been seen since. By contrast, the package I currently have in transit from southern Sweden was picked up by UPS on December 22nd and flown through the night across the Atlantic bloody Ocean. It arrived in Philadelphia, and cleared customs on the 23rd, was driven overnight to New Castle, Delaware and now, on the 24th, is loaded on a truck for delivery. I absolutely paid more for the UPS delivery than I did for the package shipped through the postal service, but if that’s the cost of actually getting what you order in a timely manner, it’s a price I’ll happily pay. I fully understand that things ordered in December sometimes take a bit longer than usual to arrive, but come on, man.

Home is a funny place…

I grew up in what many people would describe as “the sticks.” The town where I grew up was so small it didn’t warrant having its own stoplight. You had to drive to the next town down the crick if you wanted to see one of those in action. Most of the towns in the area were so small that for all practical purposes that if a particular service was available in the county, it was considered fairly local.

Once upon a time, the region was a powerhouse of both light and heavy industry. Generations of a family’s men made their living by “going down the mines.” By the time I was a kid, most of that world was dead or dying, though I’m old enough to remember the last of the coal trains rumbling through the center of town to be used out there in the wider world beyond the ridges and valleys of home. Some bits of that life have clung on grimly, but it’s a world gone now for 30 years.

You’d never know it from listening to people, though. Even now, there’s an inexplicable feeling that tomorrow or maybe the next day an enormous, smoke belching factory will spring up along the banks of the Potomac and all will be well again – that the future can be exactly as it was in the past.

I’ve got an expatriate’s love of my home town (of the region, really), even while knowing I’ll likely never do more than visit occasionally. Maybe I see its charms and its flaws a bit more clearly because I’m looking from the perspective of someone who hasn’t lived there in over two decades.

Home is a funny place. 

One of the favorite local sports is bitching that business don’t want to open, or industry has left, or that six other things are fucked up and use to be better… but then immediately bitching and complaining when someone opens a new business or has the audacity to try something different.

The county is getting its first Starbucks. Already people are out of the woodwork bitching that burned coffee, overpriced, unpatriotic, corporate chain Starbucks would dare to open a shop locally. My favorite bit of local-ism is that “Having a Dunkin would be better.” Some of us are old enough to remember when there use to be one of those, too. It went out of business, so maybe it’s not as popular an option as people seem to think.

A few weeks from now, the furor over Starbucks will dry up. Everyone will be back to bitching that they want more stores or restaurant chains. Bring on a Panera or a Chipotle or an Outback. But take my word for it, as soon as one of them announces they’re coming, that business will be awful, their food will be overpriced slop, and we don’t want them here.

You’d be hard pressed to find an area more desperate for new business and economic development… as long as it changes absolutely nothing.

Christmas pud…

Christmas pudding, or plum pudding as it’s always been called around my family table, as far as I’m concerned, is the definitive flavor of Christmas. It’s the treat that’s topped off every Christmas night for as long as I can remember.

It’s a dish so rich and tasty that the regicide Puritan and traitor Oliver Cromwell banned it in the 1650s. It’s dessert made with beef fat and a host of other sweet and savories, so you know it’s bound to be good, right?

I’ve mostly come to terms with the idea that I won’t be making my traditional Christmas trip home. Schlepping across the plague lands to a place that’s recently made it into the New York Times as having one of the highest positivity rates in the country feels like a bad idea, regardless of the justification. It’s a tradition I care deeply about, but when pitted directly against my instinct for self-preservation doesn’t really stand a chance. 

While I’ve settled myself on the idea not being home for Christmas, I realized quite late in the game that I don’t have the skill (or time) to make a proper pud on my own. Having a plum pudding to serve up on Christmas night, though, is a tradition I simply am not willing to forego even in the face of global plague. Fortunately, our friends across the water in the mother country are happy to drop one in the post and have it flown over. If the tracking is to be believed, it should be here tonight or tomorrow.

Now all I’ll have to do is manage the vanilla sauce and some semblance of proper Christmas tradition can proceed uninterrupted in spite of taking place in an alternate venue. For 2020, that’s probably doing alright. 

Selling the old rental homestead…

The little house I rented when I first arrived back in Maryland is about to be for sale.

I didn’t love the three-level split layout. I didn’t love the baseboard electric or window air conditioners. I didn’t love how the place was inexplicably hard to keep clean or how it was staggeringly dark inside.

It had a fenced yard, the owner allowed dogs, and it was available immediately. Those things overrode all other considerations and sealed the deal… because every shred of the personal belongings I couldn’t fit into my truck, were two days behind me on a trailer and arriving whether I was ready or not. 

Once I started going around the nominal property manager and working directly with the owner about things like vehicles the previous tenant abandoned in the driveway, mold in the basement, and appliance repairs things got better. I whipped the yard into shape and made the place surprisingly presentable considering it hadn’t been updated since it was built sometime around 1988. 

I’d never want to live there again, but damned if seeing it posted as a “coming soon” didn’t make me just a little bit nostalgic about a couple of memories made in that little house that that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

I hope someone snaps my old rental homestead up, gives it a bit of the TLC it needs, and makes it a proper home. It’s got the bones for it, if someone has the vision and a few dollars to spare.

On Christmas music in a plague year…

I’m not a traditional “Christmas music” guy. In fact just about the only time I intentionally listen to Christmas music at all is during the holiday migration to Western Maryland from wherever in the country I happen to be living at the time. My Christmas playlist is approximately one hour and four minutes in length and features such luminary artists as Blink 182, Reliant K, Bad Religion, and The Pogues.

The only reason I mention it is that this morning I saw a Twitter post opining that “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in all its variations should be cancelled this year due to the Great Plague.

I’m pretty sure our friendly twitter poster was going for the quick laugh, but missed the entire point of this particular song. Bing Crosby recorded the original version in 1943 at the height of World War II. American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines were posted up around the globe, and most assuredly dreaming of being home for Christmas, as democracy waged its desperate, existential battle with the forces of fascism.

According to the Library of Congress, “It touched a tender place in the hearts of Americans, both soldiers and civilians, who were then in the depths of World War II, and it earned Crosby his fifth gold record. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” became the most requested song at Christmas U.S.O. shows in both Europe and the Pacific and Yank, the GI magazine, said Crosby accomplished more for military morale than anyone else of that era.”

If ever there was a song fitting for Christmas in a plague year, this would be the one.

So, in conclusion, cancel culture really is stupid on its face.

Inner peace makes for dull blogging…

It’s the middle of the week, a federal holiday buried between vacation days, pouring down rain, and about a gloomy a day as you could find. Businesses are starting to close up and people are beginning to revisit the days of “safer at home” as the Great Plague surges around us. I’ve largely tuned out the 2020 presidential campaign, which I consider over, done with, and not to be gotten back to until closer to the inauguration (aside from occasionally flinging rocks at both sides via Facebook or Twitter).

Put another way, there’s absolutely nothing that I feel a compulsion to talk about today. I’ve taken great pains to make the house a perfectly comfortable retreat from the world. I’m not sure the dogs and I could hold off a Spetsnaz assault team, but for keeping to ourselves through the pandemic whether it lasts a few months or another year, we’re reasonably well set to minimize how much time we need to spend dealing with the world “out there.” 

The days, especially when untroubled by even needing to telework, do tend to blend together a bit though. If it weren’t for knowing yesterday’s vet appointment was scheduled for Tuesday, today would be more or less indistinguishable from Saturday or Monday or the day after tomorrow. I’m a dedicated creature of habit and it doesn’t particularly bother me in any way… but it does make fishing for new topics just a little problematic, which is how you end up with a stream of consciousness mess something like this one.

Fortunately, I can already predict that things will be back to normal tomorrow and you’ll get a full boat of What Annoys Jeff this Week. Some things don’t stop, regardless of how peaceful and docile the week seems. I should probably be thankful for that.

My new obsession…

Some people have used the last few months of forced disengagement to learn languages, write their great American novel, or somehow make themselves into more productive human beings. Meanwhile I’ve been over here mostly living the same life I’ve lived for years.. with the exception of developing a new minor obsession. I now find myself spending at least a few minutes every day looking over floorplans of houses I’ll never build.

I’ve spent time looking at floorplans for old houses, new houses, prop houses from TV series and movies, castles, Roman villas, and family compounds. At first blush, it doesn’t make much sense, but hear me out.

Even though the Tennessee house was “new construction,” the only personalization came in picking the finishes. The bones of the house were all pre-determined by others. Every other place I’ve lived was designed and built originally to meet someone else’s expectations and needs. In every one of them, I’ve found myself asking often, “Why the hell did they do it this way” as opposed to in an alternate way that would make more sense to me. Having spent my life living with other’s decisions, the only grand ambition I have left at this point is to build a house from the basement up – Fortress Jeff achieving its final form that puts walls, switches, and doors exactly where I want them and all with a general layout that makes sense for how I intent to live in it.

Even though I’ve spent months looking at floorplans, none of them has been quite right. Most of them have been miles off. Many of them, though, have had distinct elements that are perfect – or that could be perfect with just a bit of architectural rejiggering. I’m keeping an open file (a self-contained Pinterest board?) with screen shots and notes about each of them. That goes a long way towards showing what right looks like from my perspective here and now. We’ll see what right looks like after it’s had a decade and a half to percolate.

So, what does this perfect place look like? Well, my current kitchen layout basically gets transposed into a new setting, the front door doesn’t dump directly into the main living area, there’s a room for dogs – tiled and suitable for hosing down – a pocket office to keep the computer and other bits that keep the household running from dominating whatever other room they’d be in, three garage bays, and some bedrooms, I suppose. Forgive me, please, but I haven’t put much brainpower into the rooms whose purpose is largely to be places to go lay down in the dark with your eyes closed.

I know, describing it doesn’t do justice to what I’m seeing in my head. Sorry about that.

The heart, though, of any house I would ever build is almost certainly a “great hall of books.” You know, something medieval, but with excellent shelving. In fact, if the construction budget looks thin, you should probably just expect a library with a monk’s cell bedroom and kitchen attached… although giving up the garage would be extraordinarily painful.

The real trick, of course, will be figuring out how to cram everything I want into a footprint that doesn’t go sprawling across the countryside and send me into bankruptcy. Those details, though, are far less interesting than where, exactly, to put the inglenook. Hopefully my next obsession will be a self education in creative construction financing.

Taking care of #2…

There are whole books written about the “joy of home ownership.” Depending on the day you ask me, I’ll probably question whether the person talking about that has actually ever owned a home. The joy of having a roof over your head is surely tempered by the random bullshit of air conditioner repairs, flooded basements, trees falling, clogged drains, and the myriad other everyday problems that come along with owning a house. More than once I’ve thought wistfully about the ease of apartment living. File a work order with the office and things got fixed – eventually – although the “eventually” added its own degree of aggravation.

Today’s adventure in home ownership is the semi-regular pumping of the septic tank. It’s a necessity, of course, but there’s something disheartening about paying good money to haul your own feces out of a hole in the back yard. Then again, it may be best not to spend much time pondering on the fact that there is, in fact, a hole filled with feces in your back yard to begin with. Probably something that’s not worth dwelling on until it’s absolutely necessary.

Whether you’ve running your own waste disposal site or you’re on town water and sewer, you end up paying for the ability to poop indoors one way or another. If you’re lucky the basic maintenance won’t lead to needing to throw even more money literally down the sewer. The number of basic home maintenance projects I’ve undertaken that haven’t resulted in sprawling mission creep you can probably count on one hand.

I’ll be the first to admit that indoor plumbing is one of the most undercelebrated features of the modern world, but making sure it all stays in working order feels like the polar opposite of the joy of home ownership. 

What I learned this week…

It turns out some people get bored at home. I’m sure I knew there were people out there who filled every moment going places and doing things, but it never occurred to me that being bored at home was a possibility until I started seeing so many people saying as much. Thanks Facebook. 

Maybe I’ve never even considered the possibility because I’ve spent years structuring life in such a way that boredom at home isn’t something that can happen. Here in its penultimate form at Fortress Jeff, I’ve surrounded myself with books and movies and animals, failsafed the power supply, and laid in sufficient food to mostly sustain us all beyond the occasional need for fresh produce. Even if I weren’t working from home, there would be enough around-the-house projects to keep me going indefinitely… and that’s before even starting in on the yard work. 

The idea that I should somehow be bored under the circumstances simply never crossed my mind. The world has merely adopted social distancing. I was born into it, molded by it.

So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.