Thursday, September 17, 2009

Logic: Brought to you by Crazy People

Last June, T and I grabbed C and the dog, retreated from our former lives, and moved back to my hometown in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

At the moment 90% of our worldly possessions are packed into my Mom's garage and C is asleep in my old playroom. There's not anything wrong with this situation. We have plenty of space and C loves her Mom-mom. I just can't quite stomach the thought of being 34 and back in the nest.

Last week, in an effort to regain some or our former glory, we started looking for a new house.

We met with a woman who is trying to sell her own home sans agent.

I felt a certain kinship with this woman. There's the obvious parallel—I just sold a house in this shit economy, she's trying to sell a house in this shit economy.

(After much drama we managed to sell our house without losing our shirts. I know better than to complain about things that aren't really problems so I'm not going to gripe about this too much. I'll just say that if I were offered the choice between repeating the home-selling experience and having a flaming hedgehog forcibly inserted into my rectum every day for a month, I'd have to sleep on it.)

Back to our story.

The seller and I had other things in common. We grew up in the same town and attended the same schools. Our high school sports triumphs were reported in the same local paper. And, it turns out that her life also took an unexpected left turn.

Through the suburban grapevine we learned she bought the house with her fiancee but broke off the engagement when he cheated. She's since met a new fiancee and decided to move in with him after they're married this fall.

I felt a little guilty trailing her through her house and complimenting the built-ins and generously-sized rooms while imagining her crying on the couch and burning old photos in the fireplace. It was almost unbearable to stand in the yard and listen to her talk about her future children never playing there.

Now I feel even more guilty because we have no intention of making an offer.

The house was great but she wanted too much money. Not just more than I'd like to pay--more than it's worth. The asking price is around $50K above the likely appraised value (but only $10K above what she paid for it in 2007).

It's easy to see how real estate bubbles happen. Buyers, eager to strike out onto new adventures, reach for more than they can afford. Sellers, agents, and lenders, under the spell of profit, conjure up waves of optimism to push them along. Pretty soon everyone's underwater and wondering if granite's really that much better than formica.

It probably goes without saying that impending personal tragedy is not on the home inspection checklist.

We discussed the situation with our realtor who told us that he never places much confidence in appraisals. He believes that the value of any home ought to be determined by the buyer and the seller—the sacred truth at the center of a cosmic wiggle.

Forget the freshly refinished hardwood floors, the two full baths, and the double lot then. What's the value of a house that represents a failed former life? How about a house that represents another shot at normalcy and happiness?

If my realtor were correct, the seller would probably end up giving us the house and everything in it once we were through comparing stories. I wonder how he'd feel about that commission.

The fact is that the seller is saddled with an out-sized mortgage and we can't afford to bail her out thanks to our own misadventures in real estate. This business about buyers and sellers negotiating value is romantic but it just doesn't hold true when so many people stand to profit from each transaction—no matter what it represents.


I was listening to BBC World Report the other morning and heard a story about a new action/adventure graphic novel about the life and times of British mathematician Bertrand Russell.

I sat on the edge of the bed and flossed away as the author spoke. At the leisurely hour of 4:30 AM I wasn't entirely sure that my brain was connecting the pieces. Mathematics, comic books, Wittgenstein—WTF?

The author noted that mathematical geniuses, unlike artistic geniuses, tend to be a pretty stable group of folks...except for Russell and pals who specialized in mathematical logic and were all borderline bat-shit crazy.

Logic, math, and insanity hand-in-hand—I have some reading to do.

Maybe I'll pick up an extra copy for my realtor.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


They have lost their third child.

Tonight I lit a candle for Jethro Craig Wilhelm--such a small gesture compared to such a terrible tragedy.

He's just barely on the other side of that thin line. It seems like the right combination of words and deeds could bring him back.

If we could light a fire big enough to reach up into the night and burn a hole through the sky he could tumble back to Earth--back into his body--back to his parents who love him so much.