Thursday, December 29, 2005

Home Ownership Anecdotes

I recently mounted a nice metal candle-holding thingy on our kitchen wall over the table, as well as a giant curtain rod to put a valance up above our bay window in the living room. Both projects sound simple (and were), but involved a little bit of time and elbow grease to do properly. They both involved measurements, use of a (laser) level, drilling pilot holes, putting in fastener supports, and then screwing the items into the wall. So far, so good.

I also bought a replacement wall plate for the cable jack in the study, and put that in. No problems there, except that the hole in the wall jack was too narrow and the cable didn't fit right, and actually bent. I had to straighten it with a pair of pliers, and widen the hole with a nail, but no lasting damage done.

Along the same lines, I replaced the wall jack for the phone in that room, but that didn't actually fix anything. I'm very disappointed, and feel like I'm back to square one there. I need to extend my diagnostic options -- a voltmeter will tell me what's going on with the wires (as they aren't totally dead), and more investigation in the attic might yield more results about how that room even got a phone jack (as only 4 wires come down from the attic and there are five rooms wired with jacks). Besides, every self-respecting geek homeowner needs a voltmeter, right?

And, the tale I saved for last involves exciting use of new power tools. Jess bought some new handles for the cabinet doors under the sink in the bathroom, as the old handles were very cheap looking and didn't match the rest of the room. First step was to take the old handles off, which was trivial on one door but problematic on the second. The handles are not as simple as you'd think -- they are wood, and set into the wood is some sort of metal "sleeve" which is threaded inside and out. The screw actually fits into this sleeve, and not directly into the wood. I have no idea why.

For the first handle, loosening the screws resulted in the screws coming back out of the sleeve, as desired. For the second handle, the sleeve was ... reluctant to release the screw. Instead, the wood flew apart due to the internal twisting of the screw/sleeve assembly (cheap wood!) and broke into pieces, with the sleeve still firmly attached to the screw. I did all that I could to hold the sleeve in place with some pliers, turning the screw to try and loosen it. No dice -- I was wrecking the screw head trying to do this, and gaining no ground.

Wait, I have a dremel! With cutting discs! That I've never used!

I assemble the unit, quickly read the manual (er, well, quickly glance at the manual), put the cutting disc on, put on my safety goggles (seriously, I did), and start trying to cut the head off the screw.


So, evidently I don't know shit about how to do this. The alternatives are that the screw was very mighty, or that the cutting discs were very weak. I'm putting money on the first, though. The cutting disc broke in half after a couple seconds of impressive spark-flying.

I mount a second disc on, and try again.

This time, when the disc broke, a sizable piece flew directly at my face at high speed, and bounced off my safety goggles.

That kind of freaked me out a little. It wasn't so much a "life flash before my eyes" moment as a "vision flashed before my eyes" moment. I put the fucking death-dremel away, to Jess's vast relief.

I then just did it the old fashioned way. I grabbed the pliers, and started trying to bend the screw back and forth to weaken the metal until it broke. And ... that worked. So, yeah, go elbow grease!

Next step? A true geek labor of love -- my basement boiler room has a wall with two giant pieces of pegboard. I have a couple boxes of assorted tools, nails, screws, and other "shop" like stuff. I also (now) have a box of pegboard hooks and organizing accessories.

Oh, yeah. It's gonna be organized, like the mafia, baby.

That and I gotta put up another big curtain rod over the slider to the deck, put up some more pictures, and then start on the real next step -- making a list of all our "want to" and "need to" home projects and deciding what to start on next. Our basement slider needs immediate attention, as do our carpets. Our chimney must be inspected and cleaned out, and the sooner the better, as we take a tiny chance of catastrophic failure every time we light a fire :). The walls need painting, our deck needs redoing ... oh, boy, I could go on and on :).

Meanwhile, I sweat the small stuff. Poking around in my basement, I see a large number of dead ladybugs above the ceiling tiles. Are we going to have ladybug problems come spring?

And Jess wants to host Christmas for her family next year. Better get cracking.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Nintendo DS First Impressions

Saturday morning, I opened up my first portable game system, the Nintendo DS. I have put several hours into it by now, and figured I'd post my first impressions.

First things first -- it's bigger than your cell phone. It isn't tiny. But it will fit in your (loose) jean pockets, and the clamshell design means the LCD screens will be protected.

Overall, the unit feels extremely polished. Nintendo does not mess around when it comes to usability. Initial setup was a breeze, and connecting it to my home wireless LAN was painless. I'll get to that. The one issue with the look&feel is the form factor. It's comfortable, but I think it was designed for just slightly smaller hands than mine. My hands do get a little sore after a while, and the "square" edges of the unit dig into you a bit (we're so spoiled with our roundy console controllers these days). That said, the classic nintendo D-Pad and (4, not 2) buttons are well-placed and bring you back to the days of NES right away. The shoulder buttons are a little less intuitive, but I have that problem with all shoulder buttons, not just these.

The one ergonomic hiccup is the bottom screen, which is touch-sensitive. For precision and to avoid scratches, you're supposed to use the included stylus (like a PDA). The problem is that if you're playing a game, you aren't holding the stylus unless the touchscreen is your only input option (some games can do this). Nintendo includes a wrist-strap that doubles as a thumb-tip stylus substitute (hard to explain), but I have yet to really feel comfortable using it. I end up using the back of my fingernail to gently touch the screen when I need to, and I'm sure that's not the best long-term plan.

So, what about the games? The games are awesome. Someone online said, "I'm not sure I would use a portable game system." The answer? Don't think of this as a portable system -- think of it as a $130 console that's wifi enabled and not tethered to your TV. As Penny Arcade said, the games aren't butchered portable versions of your franchises, they are full-fledged sequels optimized for the portable platform. With the processing power these machines have, you're looking at near N64-quality graphics on a tiny LCD -- the 3D racing in Mario Kart looks -fine- to my eyes. It makes me wish I had a Beetle Adventure Racing port :). Castlevania DS is not just a port of a 2D side-scroller, it's a 2D side scroller with next-generation gameplay. You harvest souls from your enemy, you can equip several souls on you, and you can fuse souls to items. It's just deep enough. The library is growing steadily and also includes all the GBA titles.

I keep hinting at WiFi, so I'll go there next even though I have very little experience with it. You can play wirelessly with others in the same room (or further; 60' is the limit they suggest), and can even play multiple people on a single cartridge with some games (it transmits the needed software to the other handhelds!). Or, you can connect to an existing wireless network, even authenticating over WEP, very smoothly. You can then play online with any Wi-Fi enabled game (Mario Kart DS is the only one I have, and I didn't try it out).

(Note, you can't play multiplayer GBA titles -- the wireless link does not emulate the GBA multiplayer cable.)

I mean, really, that's SOLID for a $130 piece of hardware.

The LCD screens are good -- I have one "stuck" pixel, but it's only visible when the top screen is mostly black. I don't mind it. I hear Nintendo will replace it if you send it to them, even with just one stuck pixel, but I'm not sure I'm going to bother. We'll see.

As far as lighting/brightness, this is my first portable, so I don't have anything to compare it to. I have yet to complain about the appearance of the screen, let's put it that way. The one time I noticed glare was with a bright office light directly overhead.

I haven't talked about the "dual screen" aspect of the DS yet, of course. The big question is, why have two screens? In Mario Kart DS, the top screen is the 3D view, while the bottom screen is a top-down sprite-y representation of the action, letting you see more of the map. In Castlevania DS, the bottom screen is the main action window, while the top screen shows you the map of the world you've explored OR your character sheet. Not amazing, but still stuff that you'd normally have to hit a button to get to. Is it the next big thing? I don't know. I do know that the touch-keyboard that pops up when you need to enter text is NICE, and made setting up wireless connectivity much easier than it would have been otherwise. Silly things like having 3 saved games, each with a hand-written name associated with them instead of 3-initials is kind of cool too :).

The rest of the system specs are just as solid and polished. The battery lasts a long time, the stylus locks into the unit well, the game carts are invisible and protected when inserted, it goes automatically into standby mode when you close the unit, etc. It's an awesome new toy and I'm thrilled to have a chance to fall in love with another Nintendo console :).

Friday, December 23, 2005

Holiday Reflections

It's ten o'clock on the night before Christmas celebrations begin in our family (Jess's family does Christmas Eve as the big family gathering).

We sat by a fire, watched a classic Christmas movie, and wrapped the remainder of our presents. We smiled with satisfaction at a job well done, and tried not to make too many guesses at what might be hiding under the tree for us both.

I know that tomorrow I will witness all that is wonderful about Christmas, as well as some of the unpleasantness it can foster. I will see a family full of love and insanity, understanding and pettiness. It's a crazy set of contradictions which boggles the rational mind but reminds me each year of how fortunate I am to have married into such a wonderfully large and loving family.

And I will hug each of my nephews and nieces all the tighter tomorrow, as I read today of an online acquaintance whose child died today, on her third birthday, from a disease called Transverse Myelitis. And I will treasure the time I spend with each member of our extended family, thinking of a man I play computer games with regularly who travels across the country this week to celebrate the holidays with a terminally ill relative who will not see next Christmas.

The world turns, the seasons change, and our lives fill with inexplicable joy and sorrow. Devour the days you have.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Merry Christmas!

There's nothing wrong with wishing someone a Happy Holidays, or Season's Greetings. I'll often do this, and will do it especially with people who I know either don't celebrate Christmas or are in mixed-faith families.

That said, I hate the idea that someone would be offended by hearing the phrase "Merry Christmas" directed at them.

Every day, around the world, people have statements directed at them which don't necessarily apply. People are offered gifts which they choose not to receive. Food and drink are offered to individuals who don't partake in them. The usual response? "No, thank you." Not, "How dare you?"

And yet the "How dare you?" attitude is the one I hear from numerous people who don't celebrate Christmas, and it's the attitude that is leading the confrontation-weary majority to cater to the easily-offended minority by wishing people blandly pleasant seasonal greetings.

Which of these does not belong?

"Would you like a cup of coffee?"
"No, thank you, I don't drink caffeine," says the Mormon.

"God bless you!"
"Thanks," says the atheist.

"Want a beer while I'm up?"
"No, thanks, I don't drink," says the Moslem.

"Want me to grab you a burger from the grill?"
"No, thanks, I don't eat meat," says the vegan.

"Oh, it's your birthday? Happy Birthday!"
"Thanks," says the Jehovah's Witness, "but I don't celebrate birthdays."

"Merry Christmas!"
"I'm Jewish, you insensitive clod. Wish me a Happy Holidays!"

This is not a strawman I'm putting up here to get cheap indignation. This is an actual reponse which I've received from co-workers and retail employees (wording might be slightly modified for amusement factor).

What I want to tell these people is that I really don't care if you celebrate Christmas or not. Part of how I celebrate is to wish you a Merry Christmas. And it does you absolutely zero harm to accept that wish in the spirit with which it was offered. I'm not saying "Accept Christ you heathen," I'm saying, "I hope on December 25 and the surrounding days, you find some merriment and joy in life."

Let's take it a step further. If my sole reason for not wishing you a Merry Christmas is fear that you don't celebrate the same holiday I do, why should I wish you any holiday greeting? Plenty of people choose to celebrate no holidays during the winter solstice period. If "Merry Christmas" offends a Jewish or Islamic person, then "Happy Holidays" will offend a Jehovah's Witness ... or a grinch, I guess. So let's not wish anybody a Happy Holiday.

I guess we could go with the overly-bland "Season's Greetings," which has no real meaning at all. Kind of hard to get offended when what I've basically said is, "Hello, and did you notice it's winter?"

That noise you can't hear is me rolling my eyes.

Part of being in a "melting pot" culture is accepting the fact that you're going to get some other people's cultures melted onto you at times. Freedom to believe should also include the responsibility to respect other people's beliefs and their desire to observe those beliefs.

If we take the approach of dialing back any cultural tradition which could possibly offend anyone, we'll eventually have a completely bland culture. Instead of melting together the greatest aspects of everyone, we'll try and find a lowest common denominator. The result won't make anybody happy, but at least it won't offend anyone, right? Is that what anyone really wants? I don't. I want a world where I am constantly in awe of the diversity we all supposedly pay lip service to.

Come on. If you can't handle being told "Merry Christmas," I honestly don't know how you function in today's society without being in a constant state of alarm, grief, and indignation. I mean, really, don't we have bigger issues to worry about?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Dear religious right: Christmas isn't yours

I'm a little frustrated by the religious right's siezing one of my little causes as their own. See, I'm a little tired of the de-Christmasification of the holiday season. I have my own reasons for this, which are quite separate from the right's, and it's awfully annoying to try and talk about it these days, without getting all the baggage of the right along with it. And the left, by demonizing the Christ in Christmas, is just making itself look more foolish. Once again, I find myself in the middle of two unreasonable groups yelling at each other, and I want to smack them both.

So, what else is a blog for, but to set up a soap box in an empty auditorium and complain?

Let me get a few things out of the way. First, I was raised in a household where for religious reasons, we did not celebrate Christmas. I am well aware of how it feels to be surrounded by symbols of a holiday you do not celebrate, to be "oppressed" by a majority, and to have thousands of people assume you take part in rituals you actually don't.

Second, I am not only an atheist, but you could say I'm anti-religion. I understand the need that people have for faith, spirituality, and ritual in their lives, but I personally think that organized religion has done more harm while satisfying those needs than good, over the years.

Third? I love Christmas. I love it like a fat kid loves candy.

Why do I love Christmas? Because, to me, it represents something worthy of inspiring awe. At the darkest time of the year, people string up lights to spread joy. Faced with months of cold and hardship, did people lock up their food stores and close their doors? No. They feasted! They shared their meager possessions with their neighbors and families. The weather is awful, the roads might be bad, and you're facing a heating bill that would scare Donald Trump, but you're still going to find time to visit your family, share gifts with friends, and give to the poor. How can you find fault with that?

At its core, I do not believe Christmas is fundamentally different from any of the other celebrations that occur near it. Take a look at the wikipedia entry for the winter solstice for an impressive list of holidays celebrated by different cultures. Read them all, and look at the themes of rebirth, feasting, giving, and light. People through the ages have always felt the need to fight off the advance of darkness and cold with their own celebrations. Obviously these celebrations took on the rich religious symbolism of the faiths which dominated each culture, but to say that the rituals and celebrations are rooted in those faiths is short-sighted.

What about the Christ in Christmas? Really, Christmas is unabashedly pagan in its origins. Serious scholars do not feel Jesus was born anywhere near the Winter Solstice, and early Christians didn't even celebrate the holiday. Neither did the Puritans, nor the modern Jehovah's Witnesses, since the holiday isn't Biblical in its origin. Yule logs, Christmas trees, stockings, the giving of gifts, the lighting of lights -- none of these are Christian. There's almost nothing Christian about Christmas; it's a clumsy grafting of the god-child birth story onto a set of rituals stolen from around the world.

And that's what makes it awesome. Nobody believes that wearing scary costumes during Halloween scares away evil spirits, and don't take my singing of "Oh Holy Night" as a sign that I believe there was a miraculous birth in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. You can honor and celebrate the traditions associated with Christmas without Christ. I do it, and so do many people, whether intentionally or not.

So take your Festivus and your HumanLight and forget about them. You're swimming against an impossible (yule)tide, and you just look like an idiot.

I'll hit on my next pet-peeve of the holiday season later this week: people who get offended when you wish them a Merry Christmas....

Monday, December 12, 2005

Welcome Home

It's been a week, and it's starting to feel more like home. I don't worry that I'm going to trip over something unseen in the hallway, and I know where (most of) my light switches are. It's going to take a while, but we're making progress.

What I'm eager to see is how I feel about Brookfield being my home town. I'm finding myself very quickly feeling comfortable there. The pace and layout of things work for me, so far.

I spent some time Saturday dealing with the folks who make this area home. I had to get a dump sticker for my car, we went grocery shopping, booze shopping, and even got some Christmas stuff from a nearby department store. And in every instance, though I felt a little out of place, I felt comfortable. People were friendly, pleasant, and made polite conversation. It was surprisingly relaxing.

Now, I grew up among plenty of hilltown residents, people in pickups, dirty jeans, and work boots. I've seen all aspects of the stereotypes, the heavy drinkers, the guys who drive around shooting signs with .22s, the kids who use racial slurs you thought died out in the 60s. I've seen it up close, so don't think I've got my rose-colored glasses on here.

But those people are everywhere. And honestly, there are all flavor of assholes in the world. The soccer mom who runs a red light talking on her cell phone is just as annoying as the guy in a trucker cap who passes you in a school zone in his pickup with the giant Chevy sticker on the back. The spoiled suburban teenager in the tricked out Lexus his parents paid for is no worse than the kid in the beat-up Corsica with 12 NASCAR stickers on it. No matter who they are, you have to deal with them the same way: ignore them and try to move on with your life.

At this point, I feel like I'm going to enjoy getting to know the towns near my new home. I think I like the idea of spending a few years here, and adjusting to a slightly different style of living.

On the other hand, there are no movie theaters within a half-hour drive. My heart aches....

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The mice have struck

No, this isn't about my new house. This is about work.

I started working for this company in January of '96. For most of those Christmases, I've decorated my cubicle. It started back in another location, with another team, an entirely different culture. We stood on cubicle walls to connect garland strands to the ceiling, and people could see our little "Christmas Village" from far off corners of the cubicle farm. We played Christmas music, bought each other cards and gifts, etc. We were a cozy little team.

Not so much, now. I could insert my rant about how "tolerance" often means the opposite -- becoming so bland out of fear of offending people that there's nothing left to tolerate -- but I won't.

Anyway, now I settle for being the only guy around who decorates. I put up one or two strands of lights and edge my cubicle wall with garland. I listen to Christmas music on my headphones. It's nothing grand, but it injects just a little holiday joy into my daily work and reminds me of the festivities coming up in a couple weeks.

Yesterday, around mid-morning, I decided it was time to crack open the hallowed drawer and start decorating. This is not a drawer I open often; it's in its own file cabinet, which contains some old sentimental notebooks (with pre-dot-com-crash dates on them), old calendars, and decorations. I got out the key and cracked it open for the first time since last January.

(Warning: If you're expecting pics, I apologize. I did not have a camera on me.)

Hmm. What's that on top of my light strand? It almost looks like furniture stuffing.

And shredded paper.

And mouse turds.

Oh, shit. I've just been sifting through this stuff with my bare hands to figure it out. My body employs a "protective step back and shiver around central spine axis" maneuver, and then I lean back in. Yup. Somebody's been sleeping in my drawer, and it ain't Goldilocks.

I take everything out of the drawer and deposit in trash. Eight years of wall calendars, notebooks from 1996 onward, HR stuff from when our company changed ownership, and all my Christmas stuff. All in the trash. Half of it was chewed to shit anyway by the mice in an effort to create a more hospitable bedding ground.

I then went into clean mode -- scrubbed out the inside of the drawer, scrubbed my own hands, and used sanitizer everywhere.

So, here it is, the next day. My office still has no Christmas joy, and now I have a completely empty, sparkling-clean filing cabinet ... that I'll probably never use again *shiver*.

Merry Christmas, rodents.

Monday, December 05, 2005

A moment's rest

I type this to you from my brand spanking new study. Well, it still looks a lot like a little kid's room, but it's my study, damn it. Pay no attention to the glow-in-the-dark stars which are attached to the wall and ceiling. These too will pass.

The move was a success, in that we are no longer where we were, and are now where we are. I am still recovering from the entire ordeal, and expect to be in this state until at least the New Year, so get used to me bitching.

Friday we went and got the truck, and I really wish there was a bigger word for the vehicle we rented. It was Penske's largest truck, and I felt like some kind of criminal driving it without any special training. It's a goddamn miracle nobody died due to my skill with that thing, that's all I'm saying.

Loading it was an ordeal and a story in of itself, but it ended happily enough, with me slamming the door shut to the thing around 9 PM and booking the in-laws in a nearby motel so they wouldn't have to drive home before moving us again in the morning. I was, at that point, about as exhausted physically as I've ever been -- right up there with how I felt after the 10K race. I didn't want a beer, I didn't want to talk, I wanted to curl into the fetal position and sleep for days.

But, no, at 7 PM we were back at work. We gathered the rest of the "loose ends," packed our bed, and I drove the much-heavier truck to Brookfield. Allow me to again state how much I hated driving that monster, especially down the back-country-ish roads near our new place. I nearly wrecked some kind of Saturn or something when I thought I had the right of way and didn't, and had some trouble convincing the truck-full-of-apartment to stop.

The unloading went MUCH quicker than the loading, with the only complication being the previous owners' stuff. As in ... the house was still full of it. As they emptied rooms, we filled them. They had a smaller truck and took three loads, which made for a long day.

But eventually everyone left, and we collapsed into our bed for a twelve hour sleep. Even after that, I wasn't really "right," but we got immediately to work anyway. We spent most of Sunday unpacking and organizing, and made our first run to the store for things we needed. Today was similar, in an unexciting and not-worth-writing-about kind of way.

Complications? Problems? Galore. Oil tank is almost empty; they are coming out tomorrow. They tried to shut off my cable after they turned it on. Johnie and Lee were still moving stuff out today. There's a statue of Mary in my front yard which has been there since they moved in, and isn't exactly easy to get out. Our rugs and flooring need replacement (which we knew), and the place has a weird half-painted look in a few places. Our firewood seems to be fire-resistant.

I could go on.

But overall? It feels awesome. These are our halls, our rooms, our quirks, our house. Our big yard. Our empty shed. Our woods filling up with snow.

Pretty kickass.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

And ... it's done

Shortly after we got our phone call this morning, telling us what we owed, we headed out.

Our first stop was the bank, where we got a Bank Check for the amount we owed. That was as simple as it sounds, so we next headed for Jess's favorite lunch spot, Shiraz in Worcester. We were done there with plenty of time to spare, even after stopping to buy cat food. Nearly twenty minutes early, we arrived at the lawyer's office and waited.

About five minutes before 1, the attorney met up with us and took us into a conference room. There, we went over the terms of the mortgage, the breakdown of the closing costs, and everything else. And we signed.

And signed.

And initialed.

And signed.

And then ... it was done. There were no surprises. No "oh, you forgot this form." No "oh, we never got this from your lender." Nothing. It all went smoothly. You hear so many horror stories, but I guess this is part of what you get by hiring your own real estate attorney. They may have been a pain in the ass to deal with for the past couple months, but when it came down to it, everything was in order.

We were out of there before 2.

It was like a huge weight came off my shoulders. It's odd that taking ON a quarter million dollar debt feels less stressful than worrying about whether it would go through, but that's the truth.

As the afternoon ticked by, we checked the Registry of Deeds online. Sure enough, our deed was recorded before they closed.

In other words ... we're homeowners. It's official. Stay tuned for updates as we move in, get settled, and find out what it's like to live in our own house.

Two hours to go

I just got off the phone with the lawyers' office. Our closing at 1 PM is on schedule. She gave us the final amount for our closing costs (a bit over $2,000 -- remember, no down payment here, and we have a $2,000+ credit from the sellers for the condition of the carpets), and told us to bring that much money (in the form of a bank check) and our photo IDs, and be ready to sign papers at 1 PM.

Two hours.

Quarter million dollars in debt, here I come.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

24 Hours to Close

It's 1 PM, on November 29.

In 24 hours, we will be sitting in our lawyer's office, signing paperwork. We'll be closing on our new home, our first house.

It seems so incredibly unreal, at this point.

It's going to be hard to leave our current place behind. We fell in love with our apartment the first day we saw it. The carpets were torn out, the fridge was in the middle of the kitchen, but it instantly felt like home.

As we stayed, the town grew to become home, too. We buy books at the annual library sale. We go to the town's art show and vote for the best painting (trust me, competition is fierce among the retirees for this honor). We attend the fall festival, buying apple crisps and entering our names in raffles. We've gone hiking in the town's protected open spaces, I've gone running and biking on the back roads, and we've taken long walks on quiet side streets in the middle of snow storms.

We have a pizza place at the end of our street that gets business from us far more than they should. The Chinese Restaurant delivery guy could probably pick us out of a line up. Our favorite "nice" restaurant is a mile down Route 20. We can get to the movies in 5 minutes, walk to the library, and easily get to every major road.

We've been here seven years, and have the memories to match. Of course I'm glossing over some of the unpleasant aspects of where we live, but overall we've been content here.

And now it'll be time to build new memories, in a new place.

They say you have to be willing to sacrifice the merely good to experience the truly great. I guess we'll see.

Monday, November 28, 2005

2 Days To Close

Since the last post, I made the decision to try and have friends and family help us move. It seems to be working out okay, but the real test will be how we feel at the end of the day Saturday.

That's right, we're moving within the week. It's terrifying and exciting :).

Other things house-related in the last week:
  • We locked our interest rate
  • We opened a checking account at Wells Fargo (got us a reduced rate)
  • Our lenders had to inspect the house again due to the amount of rain we got recently
  • I called or contacted online various utility companies
  • We packed almost everything

And even though we're closing in like 36 hours, we don't have the amount we owe yet. Our lawyer said the closing would be at 1 PM but I've asked to move it up ... no answer yet.

Things left to do before we move?
  • Secure contract with oil delivery service
  • Get final amount owed for closing
  • Get cashier's check for that amount
  • Close!
  • Pack last-minute stuff
  • Move :)

After we move?
  • Change address everywhere (work, banks, etc)
  • Send out emails with changed address
  • Send out XMas cards with changed address
  • Make appointment with chimney inspector/cleaner
  • Register to vote in Brookfield

... and who knows what else.

I look most forward to waking up and making coffee, and drinking it while looking out at my very own back yard.

I can't wait.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Movers or Friends and Family?

Decisions, decisions.

Do I hire professional movers, or try to bribe friends and family into helping with pizza and beer?

As many times as this has been asked, you'd think there would be a clear heuristic for measuring this. As it turns out, the answer depends on who you ask.

First off, finding a reputable moving company isn't easy. Every moving company I have read up on has had at least one detractor, and the general consensus seems to be "find out who a friend used." That done, I ended up with the name of Phillip Massad, a mover in Worcester who has been in business since the fifties.

I called to get an estimate, and spoke to the president of the company for a while. He quoted an hourly rate and a number of hours, which I put together to get about $800. I was thinking the number of hours was a little excessive, but several coworkers who have used movers have said it's likely to be the real number.

On the other hand, I can go to Penske truck rental and get a truck for about $50 before mileage and fuel. If I spend a hundred dollars on those, we're talking about $150 for the actual truck. Add $50-$100 for beer and pizza, and we're still talking about a $500 difference.

So what is that $500 buying me? Is it worth it? Again, it depends on who you talk to.

Jess's mother: "Don't be silly. Between your dad and your brother, it won't take that long."
Seth at work: "Pay yourself and your friends for a day and a half of work, and see if it comes out to less than $500."
Colin at work: "It's not like you're buying a day of stress-free moving. You have to babysit them the entire time anyway."
Clint: "It's an easy call. Truck rental places are bullshit."

Here are some other data points.

Against the movers:
  • These movers can only move me Friday afternoon, and not Saturday. There's a nonzero chance the sellers will still be resident on Friday afternoon. There's even a chance they'll be moving at that time. That means moving into the basement on Friday and then carrying stuff up stairs the next day anyway (granted, I may be able to find other movers who can move me on Saturday).
  • I know my friends and coworkers won't steal my DVD player or TV. I'd be more paranoid around movers.

Against DIY:
  • The move is likely to be split into two days, and finding good help for both days will be hard.
  • I may not be able to find as much help as I want, meaning hard work for those who do volunteer.
To be honest, at this point I am hovering on the edge of accepting DIY. It's just hard to give away five hundred bucks a few weeks before Christmas. Then again, that could be our Christmas presents to each other ... heh.

I don't know. I'm going to talk to Jess tonight, maybe see if the sellers have a better move timeline yet, and decide. Maybe there are other moving companies I can get information on, who can move on Saturday.

The longer I wait, the more likely I won't have a choice anyway....

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Two Weeks To Closing

Our apartment is beginning to look like it's packed. There's still plenty to do in the next two weeks (mainly the bedroom and kitchen), but it has that "empty" look to it. Very minimalist; I've told Jess I'd like to keep this look as we go forward :).

As far as the new house goes, we're a little lost as to our moving options. We have to make some decisions, and fast -- as in, today/tomorrow. Our friends are likely going to need to stay in the house for a couple days after closing, which complicates matters. We can move in on closing day, but we'll be sharing the space with them for a couple days. That's fine; it's a minor annoyance at worst. But it's not ideal. So knowing that, what do we do when it comes to the move? Options:

  • Move all our stuff on closing day, live with them or in a hotel for a couple nights. Sub-options?
  1. Do it ourselves
  2. Hire movers for manual labor
  3. Rent a pod
  • Keep the truck longer than one day, move out closing day but don't move in until they are gone. Live in a hotel for a couple nights, store the truck at their place.
  • Ask our landlady to rent the place for one extra week, live there until they are gone, move then. She may refuse unless it's two weeks, which she might buy into.
No matter what, the move is going to cost us money. The "hire movers" option will add a few hundred bucks to the price, but will it be worth it? We don't move often, so part of me says "yes," especially if we're moving at a weird time and can't count on a large turnout of helpers....

We'll be deciding soon. Time is running out :).

Friday, November 11, 2005

More on fundamentalists destroying science

You can read a "scientific discussion" about Intelligent Design here. If nothing else, you may find the summary very interesting, where Dr. Forrest talks about this whole movement as a front for some conservative religious organizations.

These people are not just trying to get a voice heard in Kansas. They are looking to discredit the entire scientific method. They won't stop with Kansas, and they won't stop with discrediting evolution. They will eventually come for geology, astrophysics, and who knows what else if we let them.

There's no doubt we're in the midst of a cultural war here. It's being fought over gay marriage, obscenity, reproduction rights, and public education standards. And their soldiers may not bring much in the way of book smarts to the table, but we should all know better than to write off the power of unreasonable belief brought into focus by the lens of a shared persecution complex.

A recent Rolling Stone article talked about this whole issue, and how both sides are dancing around the core argument of science versus religion, reason versus faith. Nobody wants to come out and say this is an us-versus-them war over "god." But it is, and we all know it.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Future is Scary. The Future is Now.

I constantly tell people who aren't necessarily "into" science just how cool the world is at this point in history. I talk about how close we are to things which we were calling fiction just a couple decades back, and ask how awesome some of what we take for granted would be if people from the last century were to see it.

Microwave ovens. Cell phones. Computers. The Internet. Organ transplants. Nuclear power. Cruise missiles. Space rockets! I could go on and on.

I am thrilled with the prospect of seeing where our future takes us.

At the same time, I am terrified of what certain people with loud voices are doing to our nation's culture.

When a state rules that science isn't science, just to appease some vocal fundamentalists, we're in trouble. Here's a nice essay about it, written by someone who is much nicer and smarter than I. We are in trouble, folks. Our shaky science education is only getting weaker with these sorts of decisions.

What's scarier to me is that people who aren't scientifically minded don't see a problem with this decision. They don't think it violates the church/state separation (which many of "us" think it does, as ID is just creationism with a search-replace applied), and they don't think it weakens science. They certainly don't feel it's dangerous, or that it's going to make our nation weaker in the future.

The fact is that it cripples science. We already were doing a half-ass job at telling kids what science really was. We need to overhaul the entire system of teaching kids about science, so they understand the scientific method much earlier in life. What I learned in "History of Science" at WPI should have been taught to me during my freshman year of high school.
An introduction to the methods and source material historians use to study science. Topics covered will range from early Greek science to Newton and the Scientific Revolution in the 17th-century. Suggested background: elementary knowledge of science.
And not just to me, but to all the people who never went further than high school. The people who are currently voting to put anti-science candidates on school boards everywhere.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

House Appraisal in, Lawyers still panic

First off, we got the appraisal in on the new house, finally. It came in at 6K over our purchase price, which is a very validating thing to find out. I had built up all these nightmare scenarios where we were going to have problems due to a low appraisal, and none of them are there. In fact, we are getting a little bit of a deal, which is nice (and kind of expected, since the sellers discounted from their expected price since we are bypassing the realtor).

On the other hand, I swear that working with lawyers is bad for the soul.

In an abstract way, I understand my lawyer's goal. His office watches out for the money we've already put it into the house, so that if anything goes wrong we pay as little as possible as a result. They make sure we, the sellers, and the lenders are all obeying the law.

What I don't get are the repeated requests for extensions on our contract. Basically as of the 1st we needed to have a commitment letter from our lender -- and we did. But our lawyers asked for a week extension on that so they could review the terms of the letter. Fine.

Now, after a week, they ask for another week, because not all the terms have been satisfied. For example, they have not seen the septic system inspection form. Since our getting the loan hinges on that form, they "seriously advise" that we allow them to hold off on saying the commitment letter portion of the contract is fulfilled until they have a chance to review that inspection document.

Part of this makes sense: if the septic inspection form is bad, and we've signed off on the commitment letter, we lose our deposit (of $500). So they want to make sure the form is good.

What doesn't make sense is not once did they tell us, up until the week extension was about to expire, that they wanted to do this. We could have had the septic inspection form in their hands on October 31st! But they never said they needed it, until it was almost too late.

It's frustrating, because now we look like idiots. Our lawyer has to call their lawyer (the sellers) and request an extension. Their lawyer calls them, passes it along, advises they accept, and of course they do. Then we call our friends and apologize to them, and reassure them that yes, we are buying the house, and our lawyers are paranoid. They agree, we laugh it off, and then we repeat the whole scenario a week later ... over a form we could have already had, if they had just asked for it.

And, for what it's worth, this law office came highly recommended.

On the plus side, it's ramping up to fireplace weather pretty damn quick. I'm looking forward to it. Big time.

Movie & TV Reviews

Instead of talking about important stuff, how about I talk about pure entertainment for a bit?

Some super-brief reviews:

Sin City (Movie)
I finally saw this recently, and I fell in love with it in the first five minutes and never stopped smiling. I had no idea how cool they were going to make this, and it fills a small part of my heart with joy that they pulled it off so well.

I feel like I need to watch it again sometime, or read a plot summary, because I was so busy ooh-aahing that I feel like some of the puzzle pieces of the chronology just didn't mesh in my head. Oh well.

Anyway, it's a damn shame I didn't see this in the theater.

Samurai Jack - Season 2
I just finished watching these yesterday, and they also put a huge stupid smile on my face. I didn't truly appreciate the genius that was Jack until I watched it with my brother-in-law and the kids. The universal smiles and laughter that went with every moment showed me just how brilliantly they had succeeded at targeting this stuff. It helped me enjoy it more, because as I watched I could see the moments that would make a kid laugh, and appreciate it in a new light.

Star Wars Episode III
This was the first DVD I've watched since I upgraded to HDTV that made me wish that I had a bigger screen, "for real." The movie is what it is -- and it's been discussed to death -- but if nothing else it's a showcase of special effects technologies. Of course, it's a showcase that begs to be appreciated by a high-end system. I kept wanting to turn the volume up and make the picture bigger. I'm very glad I saw this in the theater instead of waiting.

HBO's Rome
On the TV front, my new addiction is Rome. HBO turns their TV-making expertise on the story of ancient Rome, retelling the history of Julius Caesar and company in their usual high-end way. It's a consistent joy to watch, excellently written, acted, and produced. It's the new high point of my TV week.

And that's all I've got for now. I'll likely post again later with a house update, but this one is entertainment :).

Monday, November 07, 2005

House Buying Non-News

I don't think the phrase "no news is good news" was coined by a person with a signing date looming on the purchase of their house.

Over the weekend we packed our living room and a good chunk of our kitchen. We actually probably only spent 3-4 hours of real time packing, but it felt like more. It was important, though, because it reminded me that while packing is a pain in the ass, it's not the end of the world. We will be able to pack our house before we move, and we won't have so many boxes we need a convoy of trucks to move them.

We haven't heard anything new about the appraisal, so we're still kind of nervous about that. I faxed our loan rep a new copy of my 401K statement, so that should definitely satisfy that part of the commitment letter requirements. I re-read the letter today and saw that they need the septic system inspection documentation, so I'm asking the sellers for that info and will pass it along as soon as we get it. This is a non-issue as the system passed inspection just a couple weeks ago. It's just more paperwork.

I don't think I mentioned in here that I exercised and sold some stock options to make sure we had the funds to clear closing and moving costs. I was hoping to hold onto those for a little while yet, but I had some options which were actually profitable (though not by much) and decided to pull the trigger. Nice to have that money available.

Funny that at one point in my life I thought my stock options would buy our first house, straight out. Now I'm lucky I can scrounge up some that will pay my closing costs.

Well, funny is an odd word for that, really.

Double Standards

Folks, this is the sort of news you can't make up. People wouldn't believe it.

An excerpt of the linked story?
Two Carolina Panthers cheerleaders who allegedly were having sex with each other in a bathroom stall at a Tampa, Fla., nightclub were arrested and charged early Sunday following a run-in with patrons and police.
As Howard Stern would say, "Hey now!"

Now, out of respect for our male readers, I'll pause a moment to let the visual sink in and fade.

Still with me? Ok.

I'll close with a brief social commentary. Picture the same story, except with the folks involved being Panthers players, and not cheerleaders. Two guys caught in a stall, practicing their snap count, let's say ....

Try and imagine the impact of that story, and compare it to the impact of the one I linked. Equality? Yeah.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Ongoing drama with house

Just an update about the little things that can mess up the process of buying a home.

At this point we're waiting for an appraisal from a third party vendor who will appraise the home and determine its value. Wells Fargo will feed this into their system, compared with my other information, and determine if the loan-to-value ratio is acceptable for my loan.

In other words, it's the last thing that can go wrong. If that number comes in too low, we have some major issues to work out. So we're very nervous about this going well, even though I keep hearing it's no big deal.

The appraisal was done Wednesday. I deliberately sat on my hands yesterday but sent the loan officer a request for information today to find out where we stood. She responded and was kind enough to copy the information she received on my file. I've included it her verbatim because it's just too funny to leave out.


There's some sort of karmic payback here, a software developer suffering angst over a software problem. Either that or the appraiser is just using this as an excuse, part of a grand tradition of blaming the software for your problems.

Either way, we're held up for another couple days, which is frustrating. We wanted this off our heads before the weekend, and it won't be.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Free Business Idea

Imagine a company which combines web-based workflow software with a secure data repository, on top of top-of-the-line storage. Now tailor that software to the real estate market.

Basically a ton of information is being passed around between myself, the sellers, our attorneys, the lender, and my insurance company. It all seems so incredibly inefficient.

What if all the information, whenever it was acquired by any entity in the transaction, was uploaded into a central repository. The uploader could associate various entities with the document, giving them read permission on the data. You'd couple this with CAS (Content Addressable Storage) for privacy and security reasons, obviously. You'd also want this on top of hierarchical storage.

Whenever a document is uploaded, all associated entities are notified and allowed to download the document. A project timeline is maintained, showing the time and date when all documents were uploaded and downloaded, and by whom. Parties involved in the transaction may place deadlines for certain documents (and when you upload a document you may assign it to an outstanding deadline) and the system may be configured to send warnings when deadlines are approaching.

You tie it into fax systems, email, web, everything (yeah right, but hey, we're dreaming, right?).

This would be SO MUCH EASIER than the bullshit I had to deal with yesterday. The lawyer says the lenders haven't sent the commitment letter. The lenders say the lawyers haven't sent the P&S agreement. Both of them say they've sent what is required of them but haven't received what they require. And instead of dealing with each other, they both work through me.

What am I paying you people for? Christ. This isn't rocket science, and you certainly don't need me playing referee....

If I die of a heart attack at the tender age of 32, it's because of this shit.

(Worth noting; I work for a company that makes the software and the hardware that could make this work. Funny, that.)

Monday, October 31, 2005


Not much to report on Halloween. The home-buying situation is same as it was a couple days ago -- we're waiting for the appraisal on the new house, which has the potential to sink this whole deal if it fails ("but don't worry about it"), and we'll get our rates locked in as soon as the lawyers fax the P&S to the lenders. It should be there already, but if it's not, it'll be today.

Jess went to the house on Saturday with a full SUV-load of stuff to sell at a big tag sale. Our main concern was just not moving this stuff, so even the 60 bucks or so we made was a huge profit in my book. In the process she met all our neighbors, and they all know we're moving in. Works for me!

While she was doing that, I helped my mother move into her new apartment. The folks at the Kingdom Hall showed up in force, with a solid 3 adults, 3 teens, and handful of rugrats to help out. The move itself was insanely quick, and as Witnesses always are they were polite and generous and all that. It was kind of weird being there, because while I'm on the outside now I used to be on the inside. Their little jokes, their inside references -- I catch it all, but I'm not a part of it. Very odd feeling.

Still, I can't thank them enough for helping out. They paid for the U-Haul and turned what could have been a very stressful move into something fairly easy. After they left I helped my mother get situated, which took longer than the move itself. Overall it was about a six-hour "event" but only a couple hours of that was actual hard work.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Call the Waaaaahmbulance

A rock bounced onto my windshield yesterday, chipping it. By the end of the day I had a 9 inch crack. Now I gotta find a reputable place that'll come out to my work, make an appointment, get the insurance company involved, etc.

Just bitching, ignore me.

What use is a blog if you can't just bitch about your life in it? Where's that image of Jesus on the cross saying "I am SO writing about this in my livejournal" when you need it?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

House and Writing Progress

Things continue to progress on the home purchase. Yesterday I faxed a small stack of paperwork to Amber at Wells Fargo, took a call from our lawyers office requesting some title search documentation, and had Amber fax that to them. Nothing like playing go-between. I also sat with my insurance agent and found out what information I needed to get about the house (which I got last night and mailed to him this morning). The excitement never ends *yawn*.

On a more personal front, I finally sat down and wrote something to satisfy the next exercise in the fiction-writing book Clint loaned me. I've had mixed results with the exercises but their main purpose (in my mind) is just to get me used to expressing my creativity in a more focused way. This last one was a joy to write, even though I had been dreading it for a couple weeks (I know, you're supposed to do one a day, at least).

The exercise said to take a fight you had been in, whether verbal or physical, and turn it into a scene. The idea here is to explore writing about conflict, but also to help train you to take real life experiences and fictionalize them (i.e. lie about how they happened in order to make them more interesting :) ). My problem here is that I am not a fighter. I have never been in a real physical fight (been beat up plenty of times, ran away from plenty of fights, but that's not the same), and I try to avoid verbal fights as well. I am always trying to calm verbal fights down, get people to detach emotionally and discuss the reasons behind the conflict (perhaps to a fault). That's what I do. It's what I've always done.

But then something Jess said reminded me of something -- I used to have this real problem with arguing online. I was right, damnit, and loved to try and prove it. Looking back now I realize that I was wrong a lot of times, and even when I was right I was a real prick about it. But that's not the point. The point was I could fictionalize an online "fight" and make it a funny scene where I poke fun at my own history of being an online idealist with no real knowledge to back up his furiously defended opinions.

And so I did. It was a ton of fun to write, and looking back at it afterwards it definitely satisfied the conditions of the exercise, even if it's not quite what they had in mind.

Time to move on. I gotta try not to read the next exercise before I do it, because it makes me dread doing them. I should go in blind. But I saw the first sentence of the next exercise, and it has to do with recreating a scene in your memory which was important at the time but which you don't remember well, or something similar. Ought to be challenging, but I guess that's part of the point.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Housing Update

I only write about this because it's the biggest thing in my life right now ... and because I know that somtimes it's cool to read about the day-to-day process of this kind of thing instead of just hearing "Oh, it went fine." So, if this bores you, skip ahead to ... well, it's all rather boring isn't it? :)

The sellers are finally signing the Purchase & Sales Agreement today with their attorneys. Assuming nothing goes wrong with that, they'll be getting that to us and our attorneys quickly. This will enable us to fax it to Wells Fargo and lock in the interest rate. It also gives me enough confirmation that this will go through that I will feel comfortable contacting our landlady and giving our 30-day notice to vacate. I'll make that phone call and then follow up with a written letter.

I also received yesterday Wells Fargo's "Commitment Letter." This is their promise to loan us the money for the house assuming certain things are true. We need our attorneys to have this by Oct 31 in order to satisfy the conditions of the Purcahse & Sales, so it feels good to have it in my hands. I asked them to fax a copy to our attorneys. I'll call them tomorrow and verify that they received it.

An interesting note about how this works -- basically when we applied for the mortgage, we gave them a bunch of numbers about our financial situation. Average bank account balances, salary information, and retirement account balance, specifically. Well, the commitment letter spells out that they need proof of those exact numbers. This was a little shocking -- I expected, for example, for them to require proof that I was over (X) where (X) is some number less than my actual salary. But they evidently need exact proof.

This, of course, caused our first true panic. Our current bank balance is about half of what we claimed as our average throughout the past year. We'll be well over that figure by the time the loan closes, but my last printed statement shows the much smaller number. I called Wells Fargo this morning and spoke to the woman actually handling the loan (Amber ... Dawn handled the application process, Amber the actual loan ... is there something about mortgage reps' names?). She was just as personable as the last one I dealt with and assured me that everything would be fine. I'll fax her the statement showing less than the amount claimed as well as the income and 401K statements and if that isn't satisfactory they'll ask for more.

I keep forgetting the cardinal rule here -- they want to loan me this money. They'll look for excuses to loan me this money. Of course, they may charge me higher rates and bigger fees if I screw this stuff up, but it's highly unlikely I'd screw it up enough to lose the loan.

deep breath

So, yeah. Lots of excitement. Tomorrow the adventures in faxing begin. I'll be sending them:
  • 2004 W2
  • My last pay stub
  • Last month's bank statement (with balance = 1/2 claimed average)
  • Online statement printout from 401k (actual printed copy to come from Fidelity within 5 business days)

I also am supposed to talk to someone from Liberty Mutual tomorrow about homeowner's insurance too. This stuff never ends, FYI.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Did too much this weekend

Ok, I really didn't do that much. But Jess was struggling with a cold on Thursday and Friday. I felt a little under-the-weather on Friday but was doing okay. Saturday around noon I was feeling okay, so when we heard from Steve & Brenda that they were going to her cousin's farm store in Barre for some kind of haunted hay ride, it seemed like an okay way to spend some time with the kids.

First off, it was a good time. The kids were thrilled to see us, which is always heart-warming. And it was cold and just a little nasty out, which made the whole "late fall" feel work pretty well. We took a hay ride through their farm land, made scary for the kids by a couple of family members wearing masks and wielding chainsaws, chasing the ride on 4-wheelers. It was actually fairly entertaining, and a few of the kids were really scared. I also bought some locally brewed wine, beer, and miscellaneous food from the store, so that was cool.

But we were done. I could tell I was tapped out after that.

And then they all came over :).

It was a good time; we ate tacos, watched Samurai Jack, and caught up on a few things. So that's cool. But I was dead-on-my-feet beat by the end of it, and woke up Sunday feeling like death warmed over. And then I had to entertain my mother.

Overall, it was an enjoyable weekend, but not the "relax and recover from this cold" weekend I wanted.

Friday, October 21, 2005

It's fall. For real, yo.

So I go outside this morning, start the car, and turn on my wipers to clear away the layer of wet mist on my windshield.


Ok, so it's not so much wet mist as, well, frost.

I'd love to pretend to be upset, as I'm sure many who come in to work today will be, but I'm actually kind of happy inside. Fall in New England is where it's at as far as I'm concerned. And while I'm far from eager for Winter, I can't help but be excited by the evidence that Summer is well and truly gone and Fall is here to stay.

In other news, Jess has as an awful cold which I'm struggling not to catch (I may be failing this effort, grr) and our progress bar on the home purchase hasn't moved in a week (grr).

It's not all bad, though. I won a buck fifty playing poker online last night. See? There is good news!

Monday, October 17, 2005

Home Inspection (Invasion?)

I've been updating as things progress on the house, so I'll keep that up in the interest of completeness :).

Friday afternoon we had our home inspection. We only had a couple days to get it done so we didn't really have time to try and find someone who came well-recommended. We basically picked a reputable big-name place (Tiger) who others had dealt with and had them send somebody. The guy they sent actually turned out to be very thorough and pleasant to work with.

We learned a few important things during the home inspection, but the biggest is that we have no idea what it's like to own a home. Until this guy explained it, I had no idea how a boiler operated to heat your house. It's stupid, but it's true.

Anyway, there weren't any huge surprises during the inspection. The biggest issue we learned about that was new to us was that there were minor structural issues from when the house was put together. If you picture two "chunks" of the house, attached to each other, imagine that the process of adjoining these chunks leaves a small gap which you can look up at from the basement. You're looking up at two big beams, and there's this one-inch gap between them. Now there is material inserted between these gaps to prevent the house from shifting. Ideally, the material completely fills the gap. What happened here is that the builders left some small spaces in the material.

Picture you're filling a one-inch gap with half-inch plywood. Instead of making it so every inch of the gap had two boards in it, they interleaved them, leaving some areas with only one board and some with two.

I tried to do this in MSPaint but I couldn't really pull it off. Here's some ASCII art instead. The dashes are empty space, the X's are the beams, and the pound signs are boards in between. Here's what they did:


It's a little detail, but it shows me that this house wasn't put together by people who took their craft perhaps as seriously as they should.

Of course, he shows us this detail with the same sense of gravity with which he pointed out the totally-wrecked gutters (which they're taking care of) and the slight catch on one of the cabinet doors in the kitchen.

That's the surreal part. Every single issue earned his attention, but he did very little in terms of helping me understand the relative seriousness of the issues.

Anyway. After the inspection we sat with the sellers by the fireplace and just chatted about the whole thing. It was a nice way to end a fairly stressful afternoon, and a reminder of how good it will feel to have our own place....

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Quick house update

We spent the afternoon yesterday chasing down lenders for final figures. Last chance to get our business :).

Drew Mortgage, a smaller place in Shrewsbury who was recommended by our attorney, was a pleasure to work with but came in high on the rates.
Bank of America was also a pleasure to work with. Our representative was quick to reply and sent me detailed information via email, always a plus. I was ready to sign with them. And then...
Someone from Wells Fargo got back to me. Our rep was in training, but managed to get a co-worker to look over the file and send me an update. They were an eighth of a percentage point below Bank of America, and a quarter point below Drew Mortgage.

Decision made. I'm sick of comparison shopping. Rates change daily but consistently WF has either been tied for the best among its competitors or beating them. I'm going with them. I called today and spoke to our rep over there, and they're moving forwards with a letter of committment.

Now I just need the lawyer's office to fax them a copy of the Purchase and Sales. We can't lock the rates until they have that, and even though we've signed it, the sellers haven't.

It's always something....

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Big Busy Day

This morning we went to our Real Estate Attorneys' office and met with one of the lawyers there. She went over the Purchase & Sales agreement, told us what we need to do next, and got our signatures, and collected around 800 bucks (combined deposit on purchase offer + deposit on attorney fees).

Assuming Lee & John sign the forms now, we're committed to the purchase. This is a big step!

Very next priorities:
  • home inspection (supposed to be done by 15th, eek). Jess is arranging that today.
  • financing (done by 31st). Been on phone with 3 lenders today, figuring out best deal for us.
  • insurance - just need to do it soon

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Wells Fargo wakes up

Looks like I was unfair to Wells Fargo in my previous posts. I suggested that they were sluggish in getting back to me -- and they were -- but when I went back and read my email to them I can understand why. I wasn't really clear that I wanted the answers right away; it was easy to read into the mail a message of "we're waiting for more details before I get back to you."

So, when I actually emailed them (her, actually -- her name is Dawn, same as the paralegal at the lawyer's office) with 3 concrete questions, they got back to me right away (well, within 8 hours at least).

Rates are going up. A month ago, they quoted us 5.875. Now we're getting 6.125, which is the same rate GMAC is quoting, and the same rate Bank of America is quoting. WF gave us a slightly better rate on the 20% loan, though, once I asked them to recompute it for a 15/fixed or 20/fixed.

Right now, WF is looking good. GMAC's rates are competitive but their closing fees seem higher. Sallie Mae doesn't have any of their information online, and neither does Sherwood -- the two other places I was considering.

The next step? Signing the purchase contract.

Steps after that? Deciding for sure on the lender, faxing the contract to them to lock in the rate, and scheduling a home inspection.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Home Buying Adventures, continued

Looks like some progress is being made in our home-buying adventure. As the cliche says, once you involve lawyers in something, you lose all control.

Lee and John spoke to their lawyer, and accepted our offer, with certain limitations -- he (the lawyer) wanted to change some of the dates, and tie a deposit to the offer. He said he would prepare some documentation and fax it to our attorney, and that's the last we heard of it.

We called our attorney's office today, after finding out that the seller's attorney faxed them the revised documentation LAST THURSDAY. The paralegal at our attorney's office says they'll finish going over the documents today and we'll be able to move forward.

Frustrating, but ... oh well. We move.

As far as financing, we have two lenders we're talking to so far. I need to decide who else I'll involve, and then sit down and hammer it out later this week to determine who will get our business. So far:

Wells Frago: Were very nice on the phone, but have been unresponsive to my emails. I need to be able to do business via email, at least on some level. I can find time to hammer out a quick email, but don't have the time or privacy to handle financial matters on the phone at work. I need to know the revised rates if I were to go with Wells Fargo, and I need to talk to them about switching the 20% loan from a 10-year balloon to a 15- or 20-year fixed.

Bank of America: This is our bank, and the only people we've talked to in person. Again, the person we dealt with was very helpful and friendly. As BoA customers our closing costs would be reduced (bonus!) but this might be offset by extra legal fees if our lawyer doesn't work with BoA (he does work with WF). The rates at BoA seemed higher than WF but it was a whole month later, and the 20% loan was a 15-year fixed and not a 10-year balloon so it's not really an apples-to-apples comparison. The guy at BoA specifically said he does a lot of business via email and could answer my questions that way quickly. They'll also do all the paperwork at our local branch office, which is convenient. Finally, if our credit score is high enough, because we have accounts there they do reduced paperwork loans without any impact on rates. It's just a convenience issue but it does seem nice.

I probably want to talk to a couple more lenders. Sallie Mae, who does my school loan, is offering a reduction on closing costs because of that. GMAC, located in the same building where Jess works, has good word-of-mouth from my manager. Finally, Sherwood Mortgage in Worcester is also being mentioned as a good place by people we trust.

Do I feel like working with 5 lenders to get the best rate? Not especially. But this is serious money, so I probably should. Grr :).

Movie Review: Troy

I finally saw Troy last night, after letting it sit on my end table for over a month. Go netflix!

In brief, I was disappointed.

The movie had no life in it. Something was missing, and it was missing across the board. The scenes felt play-acted; I wasn't seeing Achilles, I was seeing Brad Pitt acting out his lines. The fights were acceptable but most were lacking any real impact. Even the props seemed off to me, and I can't explain why. Sure, some were awesome, but many just seemed like ... props.

I think Jess put it best, fairly early in the movie. "I should be feeling awed by this, but I'm not."


One other nit -- the movie is rated R. You've got naked people everywhere, but all the "naked bits" are hidden by clever shooting. What is the point of that? It's a distracting flag of disbelief, and while it bothers me in PG-13 movies I can at least understand the point. In an R-rated movie it's unforgivable and pointless.

I've seen worse movies, sure. But I was expecting better than this. I would not recommend it -- you've got better ways to spend 2h45m....

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

You want to tell who about my blog?

So Jess calls me today, and tells me her cousin Tina wants to see pictures of our home-to-be. Jess says, "I was thinking, I could just send her a link to your blog rather than sending her the pictures individually."

That makes all kinds of sense. Save labor, save electrons, all that :).

I just never thought of any of her family reading these pages. I had to sit there a couple minutes and make a quick mental assessment of what filters I have applied when I wrote these things.

To spell out the metaphor, imagine that my raw ideas come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Now, imagine I realize that certain of those objects would scare, offend, hurt, or just plain bore-to-tears people if they encountered them. Based on who those ideas were going to hit, I would make sure certain filters were in place to block the offending objects, up to a certain degree. At some point, if you don't like what you see you shouldn't be looking that closely.

To pick an extremely obvious example, I might not want my boss to get exposed to the "I hate this aspect of my work" idea. But there are more tricky ones. Do I want my conservative brother-in-law exposed to the huge rant about the proposed flag burning amendment I wrote earlier this year? He knows how I feel about some things, but I choose not to rub it in his face most of the time. But if he chooses to come here and try and figure out how I feel about issues I choose not to bring up with him, then it's his responsibility to deal with what he learns like an adult.

Basically, up until now, I've just assumed that family wouldn't be reading any of this. I know I have friends who read it at times, including folks online who I don't know very well. But I've never told anyone I work with about it. I've never told family about it. So I haven't really put that filter on what I write. It raises an interesting question. How different is my "friends, Basiners, Ars lurkers, and so forth" filter from my "family" filter?

Who can say? I can only imagine how much tougher this question is for someone, say, who wants to write professionally. Here's this awesome story obviously influenced by the way you were raised. Oh, it got published, and now your mom reads it....

Nothing like that here, I don't think. Well, maybe. A little.

In any case, I sent Jess the link, and she'll send it on its way.

Nothing will probably come of it. But, if you're reading this and you're not who I expect you to be, welcome, I guess :). Feel free to poke around and get offended. It's actually, despite all this navel-gazing, pretty fucking boring. Except for the occasional swear word :).

Monday, September 26, 2005

Offer made

So, yesterday we actually handed over a piece of paper to the current owners of our future home, offering to purchase it from them.

They go to see their lawyer on Tuesday who will review it, suggest changes, and likely start the process of drafting a formal purchase and sales agreement.

Tentative close date: November 30, 2005.

In related news, I decided to "test" my Wells Fargo representative. She sent me a "courtesy email" to see how the process was going so I replied back with an update on the situation and a couple specific questions I wanted answers to. A theoretical person I'd like to deal with would answer those questions for me in email. A person I don't want to deal with would just ignore them. The person I'm afraid I'm dealing with will reply back "call me so we can discuss."

I'll pursue financing in earnest starting October 1 ....

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Looks like we're buying

I'm scared to death. It was a weird morning.

I overheard half of the conversation between Jess and her friend Lee this morning, and it sounded like Lee was telling her that she wasn't going to sell. I was very disappointed, which was odd -- I expected to be relieved. I was sitting there going, "ok, now what, do we go shopping around for a different house, or ..." ... and then Jess came upstairs and said, "Lee wants to sell us the house."

Evidently they've decided they need to move to this other town because of the kids' school, and they want to do it sooner rather than later. They're having trouble finding "the perfect house" in their price range but they have found a fixer-upper they think they'll be buying. It's not for sure yet, but now that they've crossed that bridge (into looking at places that need a little TLC) it's only a matter of time before they find something.

So now the ball is back in our court. We've gotta call a lawyer and have a purchase agreement made up. We've got a verbal agreement on a price and what's included in it, but we still need to hash out some details.

It's highly possible I'll be celebrating Christmas and ringing in the New Year in a new house.

I'm scared shitless, as I said :).

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Mortgage Preapproval Woes

As I mentioned previously, we secured a mortgage preapproval over the phone recently. We did this using Wells-Fargo, which I've since learned is not the most customer-friendly banker out there.

That's ok -- I don't need friendly yet. I just wanted to know the loan could come if I needed it.

Well, yesterday I finally got something in the mail from them. It was the loan documents for the smaller loan, the "20" in the "80/20". I was disappointed in the amount of information provided, and also confused by the form. I have to look at it closer this evening but it looks like the loan they approved me for, at least for the 20, has a balloon clause -- we pay X/month for ten years and then pay off the remainder of the loan.

There was no verbal indication of this when I spoke to the bank, so I was very surprised to see this. It's one small strike in the "con" column for dealing with this company in the future. Given how competitive the mortgage market is right now, I'm surprised to see this being handled so sloppily.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Second Visit to the House

So, this weekend we went back and had dinner again with Jess's friends Lee and John, and Jess's parents came as well. Since he's a contractor and has tons of experience in related areas, it was useful to have her Dad along.

Seeing the house again after some time away was a good way to sync up the memories we had of the place. It was a little rougher around the edges than I remembered -- a couple areas where the gutters needed repairing, more dirt on the exterior of the house -- and the living room felt smaller while the kids' rooms seemed bigger. I don't know, just how it felt.

This time we also paid more attention. The downstairs, while finished, is not heated. It gets down to 55 or so during the winter, which is really too cold for doing a lot. You'd need a space heater, or something. If we wanted to hang out down there a lot we'd need a more permanent solution -- extend the heating or put in a pellet stove.

Overall, though, we saw nothing to make us want to run away. It's scary, now, because we're moving towards the area where we have to make real decisions. So far it's been "nothing binding," but we're getting closer by the day.

We took some pictures, this time, but it was at dusk so they didn't come out great. Here are some of the more useful ones.

That's the front of the house. It's a raised ranch, so the front door is above the ground. I'm not a big fan of those front steps and mini-porch thing, and Jess agrees. We'd be changing that fairly soon. There are some nice flowers around the base of the house, though, which could look even nicer with a little care.
This is a shot of the back yard, taken from the side of the house. At the left you can see the stairs leading up to the back deck. Immediately in front is the kids' pool which is in the process of being taken down and put away. The property extends back into the woods.
This is a shot of the back of the house, taken from near the swing set in the back. As you can see, plenty of yard. Again, the deck is a little ugly, and if you look close you can see the busted gutters. The gutters are almost nothing to fix, and the deck would be a project but not the end of the world. Under the deck now is a sandbox which would need fixing up too. You can also see the sliding doors into the kitchen and basement from here.

This is a shot of the living room upstairs. It's much bigger than it looks, because you can't even see the bay window in this shot (that you can see in the exterior shot above). Note the fireplace ... yay!
Here's a shot of the kitchen. Jess and her cousin love this picture because it shows how big the area is. There's room for a table behind the spot where Jess took this shot, even. The three of us are all sitting at an island which may or may not stay.

Last of all, here's a shot of the finished basement. It's in total disarray, being used for storage more than anything else. This would be a completely blank slate, really. It's a little intimidating thinking of what we could do down there with a little time and materials. I have visions of basement bars, poker tables, and HDTV projected onto a hanging screen, but we'll see what the bank account can actually handle in a few years.

In any case, we don't know what this actually holds for us. But it did us good to see it again, and to have someone else there to cast an impartial eye. Jess's parents really liked it -- her father was constantly pointing out little things, talking about how easy it would be to change this or that ... very reassuring. Gotta buy while he's young and healthy enough to help out! After all, I'm not going to get stuck doing all this myself....

Friday, September 09, 2005

Home-Buying, Next Steps?

We are moving forward, but we haven't done anything yet which locks us in. We have now gotten pre-approved for a mortgage from Wells Fargo, who I approached out of laziness (my work has some kind of association with them). This is basically the first bridge to cross -- can we do this if we want to? Of course, we wouldn't have taken this step if we didn't think there was a good chance we'd want to continue down the road.

My primary concerns with the property haven't changed -- the commute is long and there's no central A/C. I haven't been thinking of the A/C issue as a deal-breaker, though. Nowhere that I have ever lived has had it, and I've always gotten along fine. In some ways, it's similar to not having a garage -- I always sort of pictured it in a "house" but it's not going to ruin the place.

The commute is a tougher nut to crack. I'm a big baby when it comes to driving, but the fact is that 45 minutes is not an unreasonable drive. I spoke to my boss about the possibility of working from home more often, and she said that given the responsibilities I have and my track record, she would feel comfortable with me having a regular schedule of days where I work from home and days where I come in -- so two days a week at home is no biggie, and three might even be possible. That's actually less time in the car net even if the time spent on any given day is longer. It wouldn't be a spur-of-the-moment thing, it would be a "Dave isn't in the office on Tuesday or Thursday"
or something like that.

In terms of non-work commute, yes, it does put us farther from friends and places we've grown accustomed to. But Jess will still be working in Worcester and I'll still be working in Hopkinton. Not only that, it's not like we're moving 2 hours away -- the distance we're talking about seems like something we could handle and still manage to get together with friends regularly. Trust me, that was a concern.

So, that leaves the more generic concerns. Is this the right time? Can we afford it? And the truth is that we can afford it, but it's not the perfect time. Our credit is perfect, I'm in a stable well-paying job that I've held for ten years and Jess has worked for the same Doctor for seven years and just recently made a big leap in salary potential. We're ideal lenders, except for the savings issue. And the bank didn't even bat an eyelash at that -- they spelled out the terms of the loans, one regular mortgage, one at a slightly higher rate to make up the 20% which would normally be a downpayment. The total amount of the two mortgages is $250 higher than our rent. Once you factor in property taxes and home insurance, yes, it's a jump in housing costs -- but not an unreasonable one, considering A: how much we've been spending on travel and eating out and whatnot which we
could dial back on, and B: how much increased earnings Jess is bringing in.

So we have to decide on the leap of faith -- is this a good enough opportunity that it's worth moving a little faster than we would want? Country setting, walking distance from a big lake, wooded lot, big yard, and a house we feel comfortable in and can see ourselves settling into for a decade ... it seems like a good opportunity.

No matter when we do it, buying a house is expensive and will force substantial lifestyle changes. And we know we want to do it. We can do it now, or you can save for 2 years and do it then. We have to decide what factors play into that decision and make it.

Along the way we have to inspect the house, figure out the exact numbers with the sellers, and do whatever other due dilligence makes sense to do in terms of making sure there aren't nasty surprises waiting for us.

It's a huge deal, and it's overwhelming. But, hell, everybody does it, right? :)

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Do Something Cool: Buy a House!

Why have a blog if you don't use it to document in extreme detail something which is exciting to you but boring to everyone else?

I present to you: Dave buys a house. Or at least, Dave thinks about buying a house, sweats everything, and starts down a long road towards financial ruin and/or maturity.

First off, some background. Jessica's friend from school is the current homeowner. She, her husband, and their two kids live there. They love the house but want to move to a different school district (long story -- they were briefly separated and kids went to school elsewhere and they want to keep going there).

So, now they are on the road towards selling their house. Last time Jess visited with her friends, it came up, and Jess expressed mild interest. Last week, we went over there so I could see it. We had dinner, talked, took a walk through the neighborhood, etc.

The dry facts? It's a raised ranch with a finished basement on 0.92 acres in a country setting. Built in 1991. Oil heat, no central air. The "upstairs" has 3 bedrooms, a nice kitchen, a single large bathroom, and a living room with a fireplace. The finished basement has a huge open area with doors opening to back yard, a smaller area that's been made into a guest bedroom, a storage room, a room with a washer/dryer, and the unfinished utility area.

It's close to a large pond and much of the property is wooded, so mosquitos are an issue. It's "lived in" by a family of four, but not broken down. Needs some minor attention, mainly cosmetic. Certainly livable as-is. They're looking to sell it in the mid/high 200s, our price would likely be mid 200s.

There's a lot to like about this place, with the facts out of the way. I am rural at heart, and living on a decent-sized lot near a pond in a wooded rural area is pretty appealing to me. Right now the big things I worry about are:

I'd be much happier if I had a year to save up for a downpayment before doing this. This is the price range we'd be looking at, but we weren't planning to do this for a year or so, so we could save some, adjust to spending less money, and have Jess adjust to working.

Long drive to work (though I can work from home more often), long drive to friends. Long drive from "stuff" (though not that far from necessities -- grocery/etc). If I want rural, though, there are only so many options here, and it's not the end of the world. Not only that, Jess wants to live closer to her family. I always knew we'd be looking at the area near Sturbridge because of that.

In this price range, you won't get everything you want. Is the set of tradeoffs in this house worth it? Specifically, the lack of central A/C or even realistically the opportunity to add it?

The unknown is the big fear. What if? What if the neighborhood changes? What if something goes wrong? What if <...>? The truth, of course, is that this fear will be present -no matter what-. In this case, at least, we can be reasonably confident the seller is being honest with us. I must conquer this fear, because it'll stop me from buying -any- house.

Basically it comes down to deciding if this opportunity is worth shortcuttng our schedule for. At this point, it's sufficiently attractive to move forward -- figure out the next steps, get pre-approved for a mortgage, find out about a housing inspection, etc. Plenty of places to stop this train between now and the final deal, but we're definitely creeping forward.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

New Orleans, I barely knew you

Nothing I write is up to the task of describing how it feels to read the news stories this morning out of New Orleans.

City uninhabitable for one to three months. Looting out of control. A man shot his sister in the face in an argument over a bag of ice. 25,000 people living in a football stadium. 20 oil rigs missing at sea.

Unknown hundreds dead, thousands living in total misery.

Bad times.

My employer is matching employee donations, just as it did 4 years ago in the aftermath of 9/11. Every little bit helps.

Monday, August 29, 2005

I chopped down a tree

This weekend we (my in-laws and myself) threw Jess a surprise 30th birthday party. She was actually surprised, coming two weeks ahead of her actual birthday and on the same day she was expecting to celebrate her father's 52nd birthday. I was thrilled that she was actually surprised, and it turned out really well. People we didn't think were going to make it ended up being there, there was a picture board with images from her childhood, some of her relatives wore custom T-shirts with Jess's picture on them, and so forth.

As the evening wound down, Brenda got a fire started and people began to migrate away from the food tables and towards that area. As we looked around for wood to burn, Brenda pointed out a dead tree in the back yard. We tried to break it with nothing but pushing and pulling on it, but our efforts were doomed to failure. It was just a little too big for that treatment; maybe 20 feet tall and a little bigger around than a 2-liter soda bottle.

So, yeah. I said, "If you had an axe, I'm sure we could chop it down."
Brenda: "I've got an axe."
Me, shrugging: "Ok, then!"

30 seconds later, I'm hacking away at the base of this dead tree. Small dead limbs are falling off the main trunk and scaring spectators away, but I am not deterred.

It was incredibly satisfying, I must say. Thing started creaking and cracking, and I knocked that bitch down and then broke it up and burned it.

Good times.

I was a little sore the next day, but I mean, goddamn, I chopped down a tree.

Friday, August 26, 2005

The Insanity Begins

Yesterday, we received in the mail a single piece of white paper, with text on it printed in two very recognizable colors.

Red. Green.

The Raymond Family Christmas planning has begun. Who's coming, where's it happening, when is it, what should you bring, all that. Suggested spending ranges for Yankee Swap. Rules for the stocking stuffers. Clarification on who qualifies as "kids" ("never been married Raymond descendants," was the term, I believe). New for this year? A yahoo email address set up for handling coordination of gifts for the kids. Lots of other changes.

It's been pretty mild, weather-wise, the past week. I am absolutely ready for Summer to end, for Fall to begin. And with Fall comes the continuous orgy of fun that marks the end of the year.

Football season. Jess's birthday. Clint's birthday. Town Applefest. Mt. Wachusett Applefest. Halloween. Thanksgiving. Christmas. New Years. Superbowl.

You should see the shit-eating grin on my face right now. I love it all.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Happy Birthday

I know I haven't provided anything new here in a bit, but things have been a little crazy at home. Not only that, the stuff I'd want to write about, a lot of it I'd rather not put here for everyone to read. Nothing dark and evil, just have some birthdays coming up which are occupying my time and energy, and while there's fascinating blogworthy stuff going on, I'd rather keep it quiet until after the events pass....

Instead I'll just say that I just turned 32, and it doesn't feel any different from 31. I usually try to take a step back and evaulate my life -- my goals, my progress, and all that -- every birthday. But this year I didn't really do that. I think it's because I've spent so much time in the past few months doing just that, whether it's money stress, talking with Jess about our future now that she's out of school, or looking forward at the next year and trying to figure out how to keep myself sane while taking care of my mother.

In other words, I've done enough introspection to last a couple months. Maybe I'll reevaluate around New Years :).

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Las Vegas Trip Report - Day 3 (Saturday)

(Again, some pics mine, borrowed a couple from others, contact me if you want them down)

I woke up Saturday in fine shape, really. A mild headache, a little tired, but nothing I couldn't shake off with minimal effort. It was early again, though -- even trying to sleep in I was up before 7 and out and about well before 8. Still, I had gotten a solid five hours of sleep, a fine achievement for the weekend :).

We had a scheduled brunch with the WoW Guild at 11, so I just headed over to Krispy Kreme for coffee and conversation. Sure enough, I met Russ there and we chatted about video games and life for a bit before others started filtering in. Before long, we had a couple tables full of people waking up and multiple conversations going on (as tends to happen in big groups). Some people ate, but I held out -- I wanted to get my money's worth out of the buffet!

At 11, we got our big raid group together (I cannot tell you how many "raid" jokes went on during this trip) and went from one end of the casino to the other before packing into taxis and cars for the trip to the Rio for their buffet. Unfortunately, instead of seating all 23 of us (I think it was 23) at one table, we got split into 3 that were fairly separated. It worked out okay, though; we were all friends :). I ended up at RH's table so people were constantly coming by to chat with him. Also, with wait staff constantly refilling champagne glasses, the drinking began.
The buffet was actually very good; I was in a huge breakfast mood so I filled up on breakfast stuff, and then realized I had only seen HALF the buffet and there was all this other stuff I wanted to try. I tried to squeeze some in but goddamn was I full. So I snacked a bit here and there and sipped cheap champagne as people complained about the lack of L60 tanks and warlocks, and discussed Onyxia strategy (over my slowly-getting-drunk head). People rotated from table to table and we pretty much just mooched free champagne and talked WoW for a couple hours.

The slightly buzzed trip back to Excalibur led to a relaxed afternoon. We sat by the same old quiet always-abandoned-during-the-day Minstrel's Lounge and people smoked cigarettes and talked about their families and other serious real-life topics. I skipped out instead of boring them with my own sad tales of woe and went shopping instead. I figured I had to buy Jess something. I also won 15 bucks in a slot machine after putting in a dollar (I probably put 3 bucks into random slot machines during the trip as I walked by and they caught my eye -- generally just the progressive ones with huge jackpots), and got depressed at the lack of cool things to buy Jess. Everything was either completely cheesy or wicked expensive -- and I didn't want to go either way. With her birthday and related expenses coming up, it wasn't the time to buy anything costly.

I ended up buying a jigsaw puzzle with a medieval knight/lady theme, which is kind of cool because we always do puzzles when we travel and it sort of keyed into the whole "you aren't with me but I'm thinking of you" vibe :). Also bought her a very nice artsy card.

At 5, we met for a drink (or, you know, four) to our friends who couldn't make it. Not just couldn't make it, but couldn't make it because they are serving overseas. One of them in particular has stayed in touch while he does his tour of duty in Iraq. His squad does all sorts of highly dangerous and visible stuff like giving kids vaccinations and disarming IEDs. They've lost 4 people in the past few months, out of like 50. So the vets and former .mils in the group talked a little about what it means to serve, we read the local newspapers' stories on the 4 people who died in that guy's platoon, and we toasted them all. Ice and Jan sipped from a scotch in his honor. Very somber but solid event, with many people in attendance. Drew a lot of stares from passersby, obviously.
This took much longer than it sounds like it would have, since almost everybody wanted in on this but took time getting there. Add that to "gotta run to get my camera" type delays and we didn't get done until after 6.

After that, some of the people went off to play craps but I just sat and chatted with some people and sipped a couple beers. With less than an hour before our big dinner, I said I was bored and wanted to pass time and suggested just sitting at a nickel slots for a bit. Tara joined me, but nobody else seemed too interested.

Of course, I won 30 bucks right off the bat at that, so we bailed rather than risk any of it. I cashed in the money and we all went our separate ways to get ready for the big party.

Side note: if you think a lot of drinking was going on, you're right. I didn't dip in as heavy as some people did, but I was pretty well buzzed from about noon to midnight, Saturday. I was "smart," though, and kept finding and drinking water the whole time.

At 7 we met in a banquet hall for the big party. Basically this was like the sort of room you'd have a wedding reception in, but sized for only 50 instead of a couple hundred. We had a buffet, a cash bar, and a dance floor. We had our own band (The Bacon Boys ... Bacon being an anagram for ABCon) made up of 3 Basiners (there's actually a fourth in the band who couldn't make it at the last minute, resulting in them renting some kind of drum beat machine, which worked out fine even though we missed Terry).

The food at this event was average, but there was a bar and there was live music, and we had fun. The band members all wore kilts and were funny as hell -- the sort of thing that I guess you'd have to be there and be a part of it to understand. Various guest singers popped up -- TPJ sang his wife a ballad because she puts up with all our (and his) shit, Mouse sang all the female parts of various songs, and Alan (who I play WoW with every Tuesday) guest-guitarred and sang on one song.

After a few songs, the band reminded us that this wasn't a concert, so a few of the ladies started dancing. Most of us hung back, but the girls finally got tired of being the only ones dancing and started pressuring people to go up. Once there was a somewhat mixed crowd I finally let myself get pulled in, and had an amazing time the rest of the night dancing like an idiot. It seemed like my arrival on the dance floor broke some sort of odd balance, because from then on the floor was always full.
At midnight, we capped off the party with a huge line of drunken people kick-dancing to "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" while singing along at the top of their lungs.
It was no-shit awesome. Everybody was getting along (mostly, heh -- but what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and that includes the good gossip), we were all pretty buzzed, the music had us in a great mood, and it was just great.
By 12:30, people were finally done taking pictures and were heading off in various directions. I was wired, but I could have fallen asleep. Instead, I got talked into playing poker. I ended up at a 2-6 table with RH and Zofox, and once again made forty bucks before giving up for the night around 2:30. It was much less stressful the second time, but there was one really rough hand where I folded pocket kings after spending 20 bucks to see the flop and not getting any of it (flop was AJ4 -- and the only guy who stayed in with me bet $12 to start [it was a kill pot, stakes doubled]). General consensus the next day was that I had done the right thing, hard as it was to do. Heck, it wasn't that hard to fold -- I was up and wanted to quit that way.

(Summary for those keeping score: 100$ won playing poker, $80 in the casino, $20 in a casual game. I got silly lucky, but the only reason I managed to not get a big head about it is that I know enough to know how little actual skill I was employing, and was in the presence of people who won 5x that amount on the trip against much stiffer competition).

I had stopped drinking when the party ended, and drank water all the time while playing poker. So when I stumbled off to bed I was just exhausted, not drunk. And when I woke up, 3 hours later, I wasn't really hung over as much as just dead with exhaustion and bodily protest. The rest of the day went by way too fast, and I was at the airport by noon. The rest of the story is pretty dull (airport delays, long drives home, etc) so I won't bother with it. Let's leave the story with me winning money at poker, ok? :)

I had a great time and would do it again in a heartbeat. Can't wait till ABCon VI in Chicago!