Archive for November, 2014




Days like today are why I love this desert country so much. It is the last day of November, snow is on the ground in much of the rest of the country, and today’s weather in the Big Bend is summer-like.

I am taking the day off and enjoying my empty nest.


Groove of the Day

Listen to The Kinks performing “Sunny Afternoon”






Today Alex has left to return to Pensacola. He was here for just shy of three months. The experience didn’t turn out as I had hoped or expected, but it has been a valuable learning experience for me and—when he has had a chance to reflect on it—hopefully for him, too.

The first month went very well. But two months ago he began communicating with a young woman who very quickly occupied most of his waking hours. Coincidental with this development, he ceased being present, his commitment to all work ceased, and he became poor company.

I’m not sure he would agree with me, but my perception is that his interactions became antisocial. He stopped working around the house. He also stopped writing for this blog, but more importantly, for a time he even stopped writing for himself.

When I complimented him as his personal productivity resumed, he chose to take offense rather than accepting the spirit in which the compliment was intended. He seemed inclined to blame me for his failure to accept a personal role in our increasingly strained relationship. I would have preferred that he regarded the responsibility as shared.

Unintended slights were interpreted as “disrespect,” and he stated that he was not interested in finding a resolution to our differences. He’d quit.

I have told Alex that I would welcome him back to Estrella Vista anytime, but that he must bring with him a commitment to get along or not to bother.

Ironically, I received word from our fiscal agent a few days ago that we had received a matching grant from the employer of one of our most loyal supporters. Suddenly the funds were available for us to settle a debt that the state of Florida says Alex owes it, plus to purchase the pickup we wanted to buy for him.

At the same time, one of Alex’s former girlfriends wrote a comment on this blog that accused me of “enabling” a pattern of irresponsible behavior. She accused me of some other things with which I disagree, but I would have to agree with her that we do not want to be guilty of enabling unhealthy behavior. I have always believed that the purpose of the Redemption Project should be to level the playing field, not to reward irresponsible acts.

So the funds will not be spent right now to benefit him. It is preferable that he pursues his chosen path and earns the equivalent himself.

As Alex reminded me, yesterday was the thirteenth anniversary of his father’s death. The road to recovery from parricide is long and arduous and has many unexpected turns. Anyone looking for quick and easy answers—parricide and supporter alike—will not find them here. But setbacks can be a valuable teacher, too. That is why our commitment to support of these young people is lifelong and unconditional. However that is not to be interpreted as Carte Blanche.

I continue to have faith that every person has the ability to find the best answers to life when they are free to choose for themselves.


Groove of the Day

Listen to George Jones performing “Choices”


freedom from want


The Four Freedoms were goals articulated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his State of the Union address on January 6, 1941.

In an address that has come to be known as the “Four Freedoms” speech, he proposed four fundamental freedoms that people everywhere in the world ought to enjoy: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Until then, Freedom from Want was not a commonly understood or accepted universal freedom.

Roosevelt delivered his speech eleven months before the United States declared war on Japan. In that speech, he made a break with the tradition of non-interventionism that had long been held in the US, and outlined how our nation could help allies already engaged in warfare.



The painting above was created by artist Norman Rockwell beginning on Thanksgiving 1942 and published in the March 6, 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Although the image was popular at the time in the US and remains so, it caused resentment in Europe where the masses were enduring wartime hardship.

The image is regarded as one of Rockwell’s most famous works. It has become an iconic representation of the Thanksgiving holiday and family holiday gatherings in general.

Here’s wishing you and yours a happy, prosperous, and most thankful time!


Groove of the Day

Listen to the Grand Funk Railroad performing “I Want Freedom”


beyond the obvious


Yesterday I received a visit from the local supervisor for my home health care service who, in the course of my re-certification interview, announced she was returning to her hometown of Abilene TX. It was the last time I would see her, and our visit ranged a little far afield from our primary business at hand and into the personal.

What could be more personal than “When was your last bowel movement?” you may ask? The answer for me is the Meaning-of-Life.

My health has been uncertain for more than a decade, ever since I suffered a heart attack and small stroke when I lived in Marathon. I have had two strokes since then, the last one threatening my ability to remain at Estrella Vista. Yet I am still here, much improved since the days two years ago when all I could literally manage in a day was to feed the chickens (with the assistance of a walker) and empty my bowels. Two days ago, I took a long hike on the property, cane in hand, and explored deep arroyos that could only be accessed by scaling steep terrain of fractured rock and soil. A big improvement.

Twenty-two years ago, when Holly died, we discovered the amazing power of creativity in coping with whatever challenges life could throw at us. We learned that with ingenuity there is a work-around for anything, no matter how desperate a problem may seem at the time. That is one of the lessons that Estrella Vista has to teach almost each and every day.

Even those of us not in explicitly creative fields must come up with new ideas and insights in order to move ahead. How can we shake loose our rigid thinking patterns? Creativity has been pegged to conducive environments, perfect collaborators, serendipity, and even spiritual muses, but these are all outside influences. I think that the decisive factor must come from within, from a faith that the solution to any obstacle is staring us in the face if we will only recognize it.

Creativity is defined as the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others.

In order to be creative, you need to be able to view things in new ways or from a different perspective. Among other things, one needs to be able to generate new possibilities or new alternatives. Tests of creativity measure not only the number of alternatives that people can generate, but the uniqueness of those alternatives.

The ability to generate alternatives or to see things uniquely is linked to fundamental qualities of thinking and personality such as flexibility, a tolerance for ambiguity and unpredictability, and the enjoyment of things heretofore unknown.

According to author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, these are the characteristics of the creative person:

  1. Creative individuals have a great deal of energy, but they are also often quiet and at rest.
  2. Creative individuals tend to be smart, yet also naive at the same time.
  3. Creative individuals have a combination of playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.
  4. Creative individuals alternate between imagination and fantasy ant one end, and rooted sense of reality at the other.
  5. Creative people seem to harbor opposite tendencies on the continuum between extroversion and introversion.
  6. Creative individuals are also remarkable humble and proud at the same time.
  7. Creative individuals to a certain extent escape rigid gender role stereotyping and have a tendency toward androgyny.
  8. Generally, creative people are thought to be rebellious and independent.
  9. Most creative persons are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.
  10. The openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment.

In other words, the creative individual is capable of integrating a high degree of paradox in his or her personality. To study paradoxes allows the mind to reach beyond what appears to be obvious. It transforms our behaviors from the merely reactive to proactive. Reaching beyond the obvious is the essence of creativity.

Having trouble getting started? Maybe this article will help.



Groove of the Day

 Listen to Joe Jackson performing “Obvious”


cost of housing


One fact in yesterday’s post really jumped out at me: That in the UK study, “homeowners who have paid off their mortgages are in the best position (to survive a financial meltdown), able to last for 426 days before exhausting their reserves, while those with a mortgage would have just 22 days before their money disappeared.” In the phone call that occasioned yesterday’s post, Henry told me that of all his co-workers, he is the only one who lives alone. All the others either have roommates to share their housing expenses or live at home with their parents.

These facts sent me off to the Internet to confirm what I already knew but had never thought much about: That housing expenses—mortgages, property taxes, insurance, utilities, home maintenance, and the like—comprise the largest spending category for most people.

When you’re looking for a place to live, one number rules your world: You should spend no more than 30% of your income on housing. You have probably heard that rule-of-thumb from a financial adviser or parent, a landlord, or lender. It’s embedded in online budget calculators and federal policies. There’s just one problem: It’s essentially an arbitrary number. Says David Bieri, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan: “It creates more distortions than it actually solves.”

If the 30% rule ever made sense—which economists contest—it’s almost meaningless now, when almost 41 million US households spend more. Income growth has been tepid or worse, yet home prices are rising and rents have soared, threatening to make cities from Austin to New York unaffordable for average earners. And cities are where the jobs are, and culture and entertainment, too. The cost of housing is more than it seems on the surface: it is the cost of access to a whole way of life, jobs, and amenities not available out here in the sticks.

That housing is the biggest monthly expense for most people becomes more apparent when you look at the situation of seniors and others who are living on fixed incomes. A study by AARP and Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that one in three Americans older than 50 faced a severe or moderate housing burden in 2012. That’s up from one in four in 2000.

Renters have it tougher. Nearly one-third of renters already pay more than half of their income on housing.

It’s become fashionable these days for advisers to warn retirees and pre-retirees to set aside enough money to pay for health care in their golden years. But people might be better served if they were told to make sure they first have enough income and assets to pay for housing and home-related expenses after age 65. That’s because those expenses comprise the largest spending category for older Americans, according to a report published last year by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), a private, nonpartisan, nonprofit research institute based in Washington DC.

The dollar amount spent on housing and home-related expenses decreases slightly with age. But the share of these costs in household budgets remain stable at between 40% to 45%, depending on age group. Households age 60-64 spent on average $18,720 or 43% of total expenses on housing in 2011, adjusted for 2013 dollars; households age 65-74 spent $14,732 or 42%; and households age 75-plus spent $13,111 or 44%. Or put another way: you’ll need roughly $250,000 set aside at age 65 to pay for 20 years of housing expenses.

To be fair, EBRI found in its analysis that health expenses do increase steadily with age. In 2011, for instance, households with at least one member between ages 50‒64 spent 8% of their total budget (or $4,176) on health items, compared with 19% (or $6,603) for those age 85 or over. And health-related expenses occupy the second-largest share of total expenditure for those over age 75.

Studies show that almost 90% of older adults want to age in place—that is, stay in the home and the community where they now live. But by age 85, more than two-thirds of individuals have some type of disability that makes aging in place less practical or more costly.

The typical homeowner aged 65 and over has enough wealth to cover nursing home costs for 42 months. In contrast, the median older renter cannot afford even one month in a nursing home.

Housing is the cost no one is really talking about. So what do we do about it?

Obviously the solution for all of us of limited means is to lower our housing costs. In some locations, the government has stepped in with various programs and tools—rental assistance, expanded use of technology and services to modify their homes, more services delivered at home and communities that promote independence but prevent isolation—but these are not universally available and are directed primarily to poor people and older adults.

Letting people go homeless is no solution, either. I read a report that says the cost of providing “supportive housing” in Los Angeles CA is actually less than public costs of homelessness. The typical public cost for residents in supportive housing is $605 a month. The typical public cost for similar homeless persons is $2,897, five times greater than those that are housed.

No, we need to lower the costs of housing in all of our budgets, old and young alike.

Many people would prefer to retire without a mortgage. At the moment, however, nearly a third of households age 65 and older are retired with a mortgage. You can substantially reduce the share of housing costs by paying off your mortgage before you retire. The best time to start this is when you are young.

When I was first married, Holly’s grandfather offered a piece of advice I wished I’d taken. He advised me to pay off my mortgage before I did anything else. At the time, I dismissed his counsel as too “old school” and stepped onto the treadmill and began making improvements on our home through debt financing before we could afford those improvements out of current income and savings. Big mistake. Once you step onto that treadmill, you can rarely get off without a bump.

Downsizing can be an important way to both create some additional money that can be used to fund retirement, as well as have a home that is easier to maintain. It’s nice having a large house if you have a large family, but once the kids move out it can be difficult and expensive to keep larger homes going. Downsizing to homes with lower taxes, lower utility bills and in need of fewer repairs helps.

If downsizing isn’t in the cards, you can always consider a reverse mortgage. A reverse mortgage is one way someone can use their home as an asset to fund retirement, but there are good reasons for not doing it. The fees associated with reverse mortgages can be high and is something a retiree needs to be aware of when considering this option. A reverse mortgage might be a less popular option for other reasons too, such as loss of ownership.

One of the reasons I moved to West Texas was the lower housing costs. It meant moving from a highly-leveraged home valued at over $400,000 into a property that could be paid off in seven years, even on Social Security. I have only two years yet to pay, maybe less. At the same time, I have preserved those aspects of life that are important to me. But those things do not carry the huge price-tag I was paying in Minneapolis.

Downsizing was the best solution for me. Helping others was one of the things I wanted to preserve from my old life. And it seems to me that helping others who are just starting off to eliminate the costs of housing is a benefit that is not inconsequential.

This is a long way of explaining my thoughts behind the creation of Estrella Vista.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Rosemary Clooney performing “Come On-A My House”


bye bye blues


Henry called yesterday as he does every Sunday, and reported a mood in the outside world that I can only characterize as “disquiet.” He said that people that he sees at public places such as shopping malls and in the workplace seem tired, angry, beaten-down, dispirited, overwhelmed. He said that many people appear to be holding on by a thread (if at all), attempting to extend an unsustainable way of life.

Despite what the talking heads are saying, the old economy isn’t doing so well. It is forever changed. In the most recent jobs report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there has been job growth as reported, but the two main sectors of growth were fast food and retail, accounting for a total of about 32.2% of jobs created in October.

Due in part to these low-paying jobs, many more people are resorting to using payday loans to get by. Payday loans are, of course, a practice that goes back to the Great Depression of getting credit against one’s next paycheck. With their exorbitant fees and interest rates, however, they are designed to entrap borrowers in a cycle of debt just a half-step above borrowing from Guido with the lead pipe. I recently read about one desperate borrower who got $800 within minutes from a website he found on his phone. When he called to check his balance a few weeks later, he was told he had electronically signed a contract to pay back $3,920 to a company owned by an American Indian tribe. This is apparently not unusual.

On the current Zero Hedge website, corporate executives are said to cite “softness in consumer spending,” a “challenging” climate, “fairly stagnant economy,” and “cautious” optimism. And that’s putting a good face on it.

Retailers are announcing new plans for Black Friday, the fake festival of consumption traditionally held the day after Thanksgiving. Some stores are adopting their own equivalents of payday loans by opening their doors as early as 6:00 pm on Thanksgiving itself, so that crazed shoppers can fight to get their hands on bargains, sometimes resorting to violence. This strategy will likely only shift sales a half-day earlier, with slower sales resulting on Christmas Eve. It is forestalling the inevitable let-down.

The fact remains that a massive, irreversible shift has occurred in the American economy. Adjusted for inflation and other factors such as length of the work week, the middle-class cohort earns $700 in average weekly earnings—well below its $827 peak back in the early 1970s. Note that this is a gross income number that doesn’t include any tax withholding or other deductions. Disposable income is therefore noticeably lower. If we multiply this weekly earnings figure by 50, we get an annual figure of $35,000. That’s a 15.4% decline from the similarly calculated real peak in October 1972.

The higher-paying jobs have been exported to China and India, and have become low-paying jobs forever. They won’t come back. Our factories have been dismantled and would be outmoded and uncompetitive anyway if they were somehow pressed into service. Much as we might hope that this is only a temporary thing, the “good old days” will never be again.

This situation is by no means unique to America. According to a report released in the UK, millions of people are less than a month away from the modern equivalent of the breadline. The average household is just 29 days away from this point, while others are much closer still, according to the “Deadline to the Breadline” report. Homeowners who have paid off their mortgages are in the best position, able to last for 426 days before exhausting their reserves, while those with a mortgage would have just 22 days before their money disappeared. And the typical household living in private rented accommodation is just two days away from the breadline.

It is time we turned the page and adopted new ways. The American love affair with unbridled consumption must end. “Good new days” are not possible unless we make this change, and get on with the business of living that will make us truly happy.


Groove of the Day

 Listen to Les Paul & Mary Ford performing “Bye Bye Blues”


walk away


“Walk Away Renée” is a song recorded by the band The Left Banke in July 1966. It was always one of my favorites. I am not alone in my admiration of the song. Rolling Stone placed the song at number 220 in the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”



Groove of the Day

Listen to The Left Banke performing “Walk Away Renee”



someday it will happen


Groove of the Day

Listen to Diana Ross & The Supremes performing “Someday We’ll Be Together”



Yesterday my neighbor Whitebear drove over to fetch Alex and me for a visit at his home. We were there from about noon until the sun began to sink behind the mountains.

He wanted to show me the progress he’d made building his house, an elaborate hacienda-type structure that is the home of his dreams. He flies the flag of the American Indian Movement. He seemed impressed when I told him I had once met with Vernon Bellecourt, one of the leaders of AIM.

He shares the house with his wife Julie and a large number of animals that include dogs and cats, horses, chickens, turkeys, turtles, etc. He has cultivated a bounty of fruit trees and plants that supplement his diet. His property is also home to wild deer, antelope, and large cats of various species. While there, we even saw the tracks of a mountain lion.


This is a little old, but here is a slide show showing his property:


I don’t see Whitebear very often—he keeps most people at a distance—but I consider him one of my closest friends out here. One reason he invited me to his home is that he was placing some ashes from our mutual friend Michael in a small chapel he had built, and he knew I would appreciate being a part of that. I left an offering of a single menthol cigarette, which was a favorite of our departed friend.

Another reason he invited us to his home is he wanted an opportunity to meet Alex. I’m glad Alex had an opportunity to visit Whitebear’s because it gave Alex an opportunity to see what is possible living off the grid. Even for us.

Whitebear has lived in this country longer than I have, and he has had more money to work with, too. The visit demonstrated to Alex that it needn’t be as austere and simple as the lifestyle we have so far achieved.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Robbie Robertson and The Red Road performing “Cherokee Morning Song”