Sunday, November 21, 2010

Homeownership Achieved

It’s almost done. I’m almost a homeowner. Everything is signed, and everything is paid. Just waiting two more days for keys to be put in my hand and then we’re set.

Many of my friends are astonished I ever bought a house. For many years I was virulently opposed to the very concept of buying a house. This is because my first job in the software industry was working on mortgage software. Specifically mortgage compliance software, which means software to help banks generate the mountains of documentation that the government requires them to in order to protect consumers. And what I learned is that the government doesn’t actually have any rules that say that the bank isn’t allowed to screw you. They only have rules that say that if the bank screws you, you have to agree to it. Which you might think you wouldn’t do, but then when the bank presents you with 100 pages of documents, you just sign them. You, house owner: you didn’t actually read those 100 pages of legalese, did you? No, of course not. So you actually have no idea how many many ways you agreed that the bank could screw you.

So, basically, working on mortgage software is kind of like working at Burger King: pretty soon you swear you’ll never eat fast-food again.

Of course, eventually, you do.

The problem is that the advantages of renting haven’t been working out for me lately. What, you say to yourself? there are no advantagtes to renting! You say that to yourself because you have been programmed to believe that. In our country (I’m speaking of the USA), home ownership is touted as the ultimate goal: the thing everyone must achieve. If you do not achieve it, in fact, then you are “homeless,” right? And what a great sadness that is. Never mind that this relentless single-minded drive to make everyone a homeowner nearly resulted in the collapse of the entire global financial market. Nope, the main point is that, when you rent, you’re just “throwing your money away” every month.

This is, quite frankly, hogwash. When you rent, you’re paying someone for a service. That service is to maintain a house, in good repair, that you can live in. You don’t have to pay the bank’s outrageous interest on it. You don’t have to pay the property taxes on it. You don’t have to pay the insurance on it. And you don’t have to pay any repair bills on it. Something goes wrong, you just pick up the phone and your landlord takes care of it. Done. Anyone who tells you that you will save money by buying a house is outright lying to your face. I heard all that crap about cars too: You’re always driving these old piece of shit cars, and they’re always breaking down ... why, it would actually cost you less just to buy a new car! Then the warranty covers whatever goes wrong! Bullshit. I have absolutely not saved money by buying a new car, nor does the warranty cover “everything.”

But there were other reasons that I broke down and finally bought a new car at 38, and there are other reasons that I’m finally buying a house at 44. First off, I’ve had two extremely crappy landlords in a row: my Maryland landlord never fixed anything and then stiffed us on our security deposit, and my California landlord never fixed anything and ended up losing his house. So that whole concept of just picking up the phone and having this or that fixed? Yeah, not really happening. (Now, if I could have had landlords like my last Virginia landlord, that would have been a different story.) And it turns out that, the older you get, the more you really want to be able to just do whatever the hell you feel like to the house you’re living in. Oh, you will pay for that privilege, never doubt it. But sometimes it’s worth it.

So I must stress to my friends that the reasons I said I’d never buy a house still stand. They just got overwhelmed by other reasons.

But, these last few weeks, I can’t help but be forcibly reminded of the whole reason I swore off homebuying in the first place. This experience of closing the loan and dealing with all the people required for that process has been the most horrific of my life. Which I suppose says something about how overall nice my life has been, so I should really try to look at it that way, but, just for today, I’m not. I must charge you once again to avail yourself of this opportunity to look up at the masthead and seriously reconsider this expenditure of your time. Because, basically, you’re not getting anything more out of this rant. It’s mainly here so that I can purge all this venom from my system.

Now, I’ve already had a chance to complain about people who are too stupid to operate email, so I won’t repeat myself on that score. But just suffice it to remind my non-existent audience that, because I actually have to deal with these morons in person, I’m already a wee bit cranky. Next, let’s talk about how antsy people get when you actually try to read the crap they want you to sign. They can’t come out and say that you shouldn’t read it. But they’re certainly not above implying what a moron you are for reading it. “I’ve never had anyone pick up the documents to review before!” Yeah, I’m too stupid to understand what you meant there, Chuckles. Thanks. “Well, you understand that these are legal forms and we can’t really change them.” First of all, you goddamn well can change them if you want to. If you want my half a million (nearly a million, after interest and finance charges) dollars, you’ll fall all over yourself to change them. And, secondly, just because it won’t change is no reason that I shouldn’t understand just how badly I’m getting bent over here.

And, while we’re on the topic of dealing with people who could stand to be nicer, could someone explain to me the inverse ratio between value of purchase and quality of customer service? I go to the dollar store, clerks are nice as hell. At, say, the Wal-mart, employees may be mildly less helpful, but at least they still act like they’re doing their best. If I go to a high-end electronics store, it’s roughly 50-50 whether I get anyone to even pay attention to me. At a fancy furniture store, I have to practically beg for someone to wait on me. At a car dealership, they’re doing me a favor by deigning to serve me. And for a house? I am lower than the scum they have to scrape from their shoes. I exist for one thing: to sign the papers that make them money, and, if I’m not doing that, they need to figure out how to get rid of me as soon as possible.

Now, we do have a real estate agent. And he’s actually quite personable ... to a point. He already figured out that I was the pain in the ass party in the house-buying process, so he doesn’t really talk to me any more. He doesn’t respond to email of course, but he doesn’t call me on the phone either. He always calls the mother. Yesterday, I called him for something and got his voice mail; she called ten minutes later and he answered the phone. I suppose he just then walked in, eh?

And it’s radically downhill after we move on from the real estate agent. My loan officer is pretty nice, but she hates me. Well, I say “is pretty nice,” but it might be more accurate to say “was pretty nice until she got my signed papers back and now we don’t really talk.” My “escrow officer” was a complete nightmare. And the notary who had to put up with me asking questions about every document she shoved in front of me was barely capable of restraining herself from stabbing me in the eye with her pen.

Speaking of signing things, that part was completely ridiculous too. Being the freak that I am, I read all the documents. This isn’t as hard as it sounds, because mostly they all say the same thing. So reading the first ten pages or so is hard work, and, after that, you just start going, “blah de blah, yeah yeah, already read that, yadda yadda, same ol’ bullshit, moving on ...” Hell, I signed the exact same form four times at one point. Not similar forms, like when I signed the “Uniform Loan Application” (a.k.a. “1003”) three times—that was actually three slightly different forms that were just mainly the same. No, this was four different copies of the exact same form. Just in case they lost one? or three?

And most of the stuff that was ostensibly different was the government telling me how they were protecting me by making the bank disclose all their evil ways in language I couldn’t possibly interpret, or the banks doing the most elaborate CYA dance in the world by advising me that every disaster known to humankind might befall my house, and it certainly wouldn’t be their fault. Okay, advising me that my house might get hit by an earthquake: sure, I live in California now, that one makes sense. Advising me that my house might contain mold, or lead-based paint ... well, okay, that doesn’t seem that likely, but I guess. But after a while it just gets silly. At one point I actually had to sign something acknowledging that if my house happened to be located near a golf course, it might get damamged by golf balls. Really? I would have never imagined such a thing. Thank God you informed me! Never mind that the nearest golf course is 3 miles away. It could be a really bad slice.

So now it’s basically over, thank <insert deity of choice>. For some insane reason you don’t sign docs on closing day in California like a normal state. So closing isn’t for two more days, but the signing is done and I’ve paid everything they’ve asked of me. So I don’t think there’s anything that can go wrong at this point (certainly nothing was mentioned in all the documents I signed), but, hey, who knows? The main thing I’m thankful for (as we approach the holiday where I need to be thinking about such things) is that, after a few more days, I will never have to deal with these people again.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chapter 8 (begun)

To the Woods

Johnny woke up in a bunkhouse, which was what the street people called it when a bunch of them all slept together in a sort of pile.  Walker Crow said they didn’t call it that in New York, or Philly, or pretty much anywhere else, and theoretically he should know.  But “bunkhousing” is what they called it in DC.  This particular bunkhouse was behind some memorial or other off Scott Circle.  Someone had a tarp, and Dan the Man had piles of chicken that the nearby Popeye’s was just going to throw out, but he talked the manager into giving to him instead.  As always, he had showed up with his big goofy grin and shouted “Who’s the man?!?”  So it was a bit of a party, and the cops only came by once, an older beat cop who just shook his head at them and told them to keep it down and don’t scare the tourists (which of course was silly, ’cause there were no tourists in Scott Circle, at night, in the middle of the week, in the fall).  And then they just bunkhoused right there and all woke up in a mass of limbs.  Johnny didn’t really bunkhouse that often, ’cause he figured it was mainly a great way to get to know other people’s fleas and lice up close and personal, which didn’t really sound like that good a deal, but he honestly hadn’t wanted to be alone lately.  Not even alone with Larissa.

She was here, of course.  Buried somewhere in the pile of bodies.  Probably curled up underneath Jimmy the Squid, who was very protective of her.  Most of the reason people didn’t mess with Larissa was fear of Jimmy the Squid.  Jimmy didn’t talk much, but he was quick with his fists if you got on his bad side, and apparently the Navy had taught him how to handle himself.  When he decided you needed a beat-down, you got a beat-down.

So Johnny wasn’t worried about where Larissa was.  She had not left his side since they fled that alley where all the weird shit had happened.  They hadn’t really been talking about it, of course ... what was there to say?  Shit like that simply didn’t happen.  Beyond that point, the discussion went to places that Johnny had no desire to explore, and he suspected Larissa had even less.  Larissa was comfortable with facts.  This ... this was far from factual.

Johnny lay still for a while, waiting for the other folks in the bunkhouse to get up.  The light around him was blue, coming through the translucent tarp.  It was quite warm in there with all the body heat, and no one was poking him in the ribs or elbowing him in the face.  His legs were under someone, but they had taken everyone’s coats to make a sort of mattress that they were all laying on, so even that wasn’t awful.  He closed his eyes again, wondering if he should just go back to sleep, but the thought made him nervous somehow.  He guessed he’d been having a bad dream and his brain wasn’t anxious to go back there.  In fact, he suspected he’d been having nothing but bad dreams for the past two nights, but his brain had mercifully flushed them all, leaving just a patina of nerves and mild discomfort.

Suddenly the tarp was thrown back and Jimmy the Squid was sitting up.  “Up,” he grunted at everyone.  Larissa emerged from under him, and other heads appeared as well: there was Dan the Man, provider of chicken, and there was little Sanchez with his moustache that was almost bigger than he was, and here was Marge, occasionally known as Large Marge, but never to her face, picking herself up off Johnny’s legs (which explained why they were completely asleep), and there was a white head that Johnny didn’t recognize.  For a few minutes they all busied themselves getting themselves put back together.  Johnny got his coat back and spent some time walking the pins and needles out of his legs.  Sanchez folded up the tarp into a surprisingly small package and made it disappear into a pocket of his coat.  Jimmy the Squid pulled out some K-Y jelly and started to shave with a large knife.  The unfamiliar guy, who Johnny had now decided was the same fellow he and Larissa had met in Dupont Circle two days ago, was watching Jimmy the Squid with fascination.

“You can shave with that stuff?” he asked.  His voice quavered a bit, but Johnny thought maybe he just always sounded like that.

Jimmy the Squid grunted affirmatively.  “Just gotta clean the blade afterwards.  Ruin it elsewise.”

Sanchez stepped over and took the tube from Jimmy.  “Also very good for combing,” he grinned, applying a bit to a tiny comb he produced from somewhere in the depths of his coat.  He then carefully combed out his moustache and shaped it so it stuck out in both directions.  Larissa identified the moustache as a “Hungarian”; Sanchez himself called it a “Zapata.”  “Is just like mousse, eh?”  Sanchez grinned at the new guy and offered the K-Y to Johnny.

“Got a real comb?” Johnny asked.  Sanchez made the moustache comb disappear into one pocket and produced a larger comb from another.  Sanchez had a pocket for just about anything.  Once, Parking Jimmy had been talking about getting his ear pierced and Whiskey Sally said she could do it for him if they could just find a magic marker, a piercing stud, some peroxide, and a potato.  Markers were easy; people needed them for signs, so there was nearly always one at hand.  Polish Peg, ever practical, tossed in the peroxide.  Without a word, Marge held out a large, grubby hand with a piercing stud in it.  Parking Jimmy had started to look a bit nervous at this point.  “Yeah, okay, yeah, right, but so, where ya gonna get a potato from, right?” he stammered.  Smiling broadly, Sanchez reached into a pocket and produced a large white potato.

And that was how Parking Jimmy got his ear pierced.

Johnny combed the K-Y through his hair, trying to tease apart the many tangles.  New Guy stared at him in fascination.  “It really does work,” Johnny explained.  “I know it sounds weird, but it keeps you from looking like a crazy.”  He turned and offered some to Larissa, but she shook her head and borrowed Marge’s pink brush.  “Drew,” she whispered to Johnny.

Johnny blinked.  He started to ask “who drew what?” but then he remembered that that was New Guy’s name.  He smiled gratefully back at Larissa.  “Where’d'you get the lube?” Drew asked.

“Drugstore,” Jimmy the Squid answered.

Drew looked confused.  “Why not just buy the mousse then?”

Sanchez started cackling.  Jimmy the Squid just spat.  “My friend,” said Sanchez, “mousse is very expensive.  The K-Y, she is cheap.  Cheaper if you buy the fake, see?”  He pointed to the tube, which just said “PERSONAL LUBRICANT” on it in block letters, as Johnny handed it back to Jimmy the Squid.  “And the K-Y, she is versatile, you see?”

He pointed to Jimmy the Squid, who helpfully supplied “Can’t shave with mousse.”

“And there we have it.”  Sanchez winked at Drew, then clapped him on the back.  Drew looked uncomfortable with the close contact, but he’d just have to get used to that from the small Mexican.

“So, uh, what is this thing we slept behind, anyway?” Drew asked.  “There’s a statue of some guy in a robe on the other side.”

Immediately all eyes turned to Larissa.  She stepped forward, still brushing her hair with Marge’s pink brush.

“Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann, born April 10th, 1755 in Saxony, studied medicine at Leipzig and then at Vienna.  Practiced as a doctor for three years before giving it up because he thought the medicines of his time were doing more harm than good.  Invented homeopathy, publishing The Organon of the Healing Art in 1810.  Died July 2nd, 1843.  The Hahnemann Memorial was a gift from the American Institute of Homeopathy; it was designed by architect Julius F. Harder and sculptor Charles Henry Niehaus, and dedicated on June 21st, 1900 with President McKinley in attendence, less than 15 months before he would be shot and killed by Leon Czolgosz.  Hahnemann is carved in bronze, and seated on a pedestal bearing the words ‘similia similibus curantur,’ or ‘like cures like.’  The four bas-relief panels depict Hahnemann as student, chemist, teacher, and doctor.”

Drew stared at the little girl.  Sanchez just chuckled softly to himself.  Larissa finished brushing her hair and handed the brush back to a beaming Marge.  Dan the Man had wandered over as well (Johnny suspected he had been relieving himself by a tree) and slapped Larissa on the back.  “So, I’m Dan the Man, and this guy is Han the Man, eh?”

“Hahnemann,” Larissa corrected, frowning.

“Whatever!” Dan boomed.  “Sounds like my kind of guy!”  He laughed raucously.  Dan the Man did nearly everything raucously.

Jimmy the Squid stood up.  “Gotta go to work,” he grunted.

Dan the Man gave a rare frown.  He didn’t much care for the concept of work.  Sanchez just grinned at the man with the massive forearms.  “Got a job again, man?  Where at?”

Jimmy the Squid squinted back.  “Construction.”

“Good for you, hombre!  Get out there and earn those dollars.  I wish I could join you, my friend.”

Jimmy spat again.  “Could,” he said shortly.

Sanchez’s smile faltered a bit.  “Yes, well, you know, mi amigo, I am not suited for hard labor with my small frame and all.”  Jimmy the Squid grunted.  Sanchez scurried over to Marge and put his arm around her waist, his smile returning.  “And besides, who would take care of my mamacita here, eh?”  Jimmy the Squid just shook his head and walked off toward N Street.

Drew watched him walk off then shakily got to his feet as well.  “Good to, ah, good to meet you all.  Or see you again, as the case may ... ah, well, goodbye then.”  He headed toward Massachusetts.  Sanchez and Marge started walking in the opposite direction, towards Rhode Island Avenue.

Dan the Man turned to Johnny and Larissa.  “Just us left, guys.  Shall we see what sort of trouble we can get into?”

Johnny shook his head.  “Thanks Dan, but I think we’re just going to go scrounge up some breakfast.  You take care now.  And thanks again for the grub.”

As Johnny and Larissa headed back towards Scott Circle, they could hear Dan the Man calling after them.  “Sure thing guys!  Let’s do it again real soon!”

section break


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Once Upon an Email

Why do people have such issues with email?

First and foremost, it’s 2010. We’ve had email, in one form or another, for about forty years now. Over 75% of us in North America have email (about 20% worldwide). It’s not really a new-fangled thing any more.

But still I have to deal with people who want to call me on the phone. I’m working on buying a house right now, and trying to get my real estate agent, my loan officer, or my escrow people to deal with me in email is like pulling teeth. I can’t seem to convince my doctors to communicate via email either. I know I’m a technogeek by profession, but seriously: get with the times people.

Basically, it’s like this: A conversation consists of a series of responses. Perhaps the first exchange in the conversation isn’t a response, but, if you think about it, many conversations are just picking up where a previous conversation left off, so even that first bit of communication is often a response. Now, if you call me on the phone, what you’re saying is that you want to deliver your responses at a time when it’s convenient for you, regardless of how convenient it may be (or not) for me. If I call you instead, it’s really the same thing, only reversed. If you insist on us talking face-to-face, it’s even worse. When you have a meeting at work, it’s often a time when it’s equally inconvenient for everyone, including the person who called the meeting. But when we communicate via email, each person can deliver their response at the time that’s most convenient for them. If you’re a morning person, you can respond to my emails first thing in the morning, when you’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I, of course, will likely be sound asleep, or at best barely conscious. But then I can respond to your email in the middle of the night, when I’m most productive and you, perhaps, are long asleep.

Of course, we constantly hear cautionary tales about miscommunicating in email. After all, we’re told, you can’t see a person’s facial expression or read their body language, so you’re likely to misconstrue what they said. This is basically a giant crock of shit. People have been communicating with each other via letters for millenia. Hell, what do you think literature is? I can’t see Shakespeare’s facial expression while I’m reading Romeo and Juliet, but I’m pretty sure I know what he’s talking about. Ah, but people write emails hastily, we’re told. That’s the difference. Basically what this is saying is that email communication is “inferior” because people are too stupid to reread what they’ve written before they hit “send.” What kind of sense does that make? It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.

In an email, I can ask you more than one question at a time and not have to worry about you forgetting any of them. What happens if I try to ask you multiple questions in person? Just watch a press conference or listen to a call-in talk show to find out. But, in an email, all the questions are right there in front of you, easily referred back to. Not that that helps most people. The majority of the people I send multiple questions to in email don’t come even remotely close to answering them all. Personally, I intersperse my answers in the quoted email, answering each question or responding to each point; this insures that I don’t miss anything. I have been accused of being rude or mean in my emails because of this: that somehow I’m “dissecting” others’ emails to me and “attacking” the points therein. This, again, baffles me. How did “thorough” come to mean “rude”?

I’ve also been told that I say things in email I wouldn’t say face-to-face (and, to be fair, some say that other people do this as well). In my case at least, this is also bullshit. I don’t say anything to you that I don’t want you to hear, and the medium of delivery is irrelevant. I do think that most people feel they have a right to be more offended by an email than by a spoken comment though. I’ve had people get their nose completely out of joint in response to a comment that I made in email when I’ve made the same comment to them in person many times and they just smiled. Whether this is my fault or the fault of the receiver (and you can probably guess which opinion I favor), that doesn’t matter: either way, I feel fairly confident we can agree that it isn’t email’s fault.

In a business context, we’ve become utterly schizophrenic about email. Have an important business conversation in email and someone is sure to bitch you out for not just getting up and talking to the person “to avoid misunderstandings.” On the other hand, have a series of personal conversations about an important business topic and you’re bound to get bitched out sooner or later for not keeping a permanent record of the decisions you came to. When we have a business meeting, someone is supposed to take notes. Well, here’s a news flash: if you conduct the conversation via email, no one needs to take notes.

In fact, having a permanent record of the conversation is one of the main reasons I prefer email. Especially for confusing things like monetary amounts required for escrow. How am I supposed to remember what you told me on the phone three days later? I can barely understand it today. But do these people put things like that in email? No, they produce reams of incomprehensible legal documents that they want to get faxed around ad infinitum, and then they attach notes saying to call them if I have any questions. WTF???

Another thing that bugs me with email is the complete ignorance about how to use the “reply all” feature. I’m constantly reading things that tell people never to use this, because it’s “bad.” This is moronic. If you don’t want me to reply-all, don’t include the entire world in your distribution list in the first place. Other than the email equivalent of loudspeaker announcements (like company-wide emails), I always use reply-all. I’m assuming that if you CC’ed those people originally, you must want to keep them apprised of the topic at hand. And, likewise, if I CC someone on my email to you, you better reply-all when you reply. I actually have an acronym that I use when I forward an email from some moron who doesn’t comprehend how to use reply-all: OBOTR-AI, or “on behalf of the reply-all impaired” (occasionally abbreviated “AAARRRGGGHH!!!”). It’s amazing to me how difficult it’s been convincing these new house people to include Christy on their replies. Pointing out that Christy is the person who actually writes the checks doesn’t seem to do the trick. Pointing out that she checks her email more often than I do and therefore CC’ing her will get you a faster response doesn’t make an impression either. I’ve actually had to change my email signature to remind them to do it. This results in about a 50% success rate. Which I guess is about as good as I can reasonably hope for.

So here is this wonderful invention called “email” which radically increases my efficiency at communication, and I’m stuck dealing with people who can’t seem to use it. I have similar problems with instant messaging. I can easily conduct four or five simultaneous IM conversations, and often do other work at the same time, and still I have to deal with sending people an IM and then hearing the phone ring, or have them walking over to interrupt me. If I wanted to talk to you in person, I could have got up or picked up the phone myself: don’t screw up my workflow by deciding that face-to-face communication is “better” and doing me the favor of taking matters into your own hands. Even worse, don’t assume that I’m being lazy if I send you an IM when you’re three cubes away. That’s just insulting. I’m happy for you that you love to talk to people in person. Just keep it to yourself.

But unfortunately there’s no point in telling people this at the time. In the first place, they get all whiny about it. Like I’m insulting them by stating a preference for communicating more efficiently. (And, yes, it’s more efficient for them as well: just because they don’t like it doesn’t negate its advantages.) And then there’s the point that, if I didn’t have time to talk to you face-to-face, I sure as hell don’t have time to explain to you why I don’t have time to talk to you face-to-face. Overall quicker to just sigh to myself and stop what I’m doing and pray that I remember where I left off and give up and let you babble on. I hope your damn facial expressions and body language are worth it. Generally they’re not.

So I’ll soldier on and keep trying to communicate as best I can, and hope the rest of the world catches on at some point. Many people have. There are at least three or four people at work that I can count on to communicate with me electronically, and very effectively at that. I have no problem understanding what these people are saying, and I don’t miss seeing their faces. I see their faces every day anyway, sooner or later. These people give me hope that one day, when I move to the middle of the jungle or something like that, I will still be able to communicate with the world.

Well, the ones that count, anyway.