Monthly Archives: March 2011

On Buying a House

beige wonder

What we wanted in a house: something classic with lots of character and woodwork from a lost and forgotten time. What we bought: this generic beige garage front monstrosity. Yet we feel good about our house every night as we lay in our bed, staring up at the eleven foot ceiling in our oversized master bedroom suite.

Last year we bought a newer house. We knew what our dream house would look like, because we already saw it. Too bad for us someone else bought it. House hunting is like a lottery that way; sometimes you just have to be lucky. Then sometimes you have to make your own luck.

generic floor plan

Barring the historic old houses that are few and far between (unless they are all in the same historic neighborhood) most houses from the last thirty to forty years have the same floor plan. The main floor always has an oversized entryway, a useless dining room, and a big open space for the kitchen, another dining room, and a living room.

The rooms along the back are not really rooms at all, they are one big cavernous space with different types of furniture and flooring. This floor plan makes no sense for a family where everyone ends up doing something different in each space. You have to share each function with everyone else in this big space whether you like it or not.

We struggled with this standard floor plan until we found a few houses with finished walk out basement. The term “walk out basement” is an oxymoron. If it was a real basement, you couldn’t walk out of it (unless there is a tunnel to the surface world). The walk out basement houses really have an extra story, with the lowest level only half buried like some eco-friendly earth home. It works though, and with another refuge we can escape the big room in the main floor and finally get some peace and quiet. We can also crank the sound on our home theater in this half buried lair while the kids are sleeping soundly two stories up.

Based on our prior house, we found the main floor to be the most important space. As nice as the basement is, most of the time will be spent on the main floor, i.e. the floor with the kitchen. We feel that a good minimum amount for the main floor is about 800 useable square feet. Because we want to maximize the space, the formal dining room in our new house became the office. The main floor is not a good floor for a spare room.

I suppose in a nicer climate the walk out basement would not be necessary. We love spending time outside on a nice day and we have to literally drag the kids inside on bright and warm summer evening. But we live in Iowa and Iowa winters can be brutal, nigh Apocalyptic. The extra space in a finished basement comes in handy during those cold dark days when neither child nor man should venture outside.

Typical Iowa Winter
During a typical Iowa winter, you best keep indoors.

Orientation matters. The modern garage front eye sore has most of its windows on the back of the house. There are usually no windows on the side. So if the back of the houses faces north, you will never see any sun. If the back of the house faces south or west, then the sun will be bearing down on you as you play in the backyard in the evening. If the back of the house faces east then the house itself shades the backyard. We think the perfect orientation is a house where the backyard faces east. That way you get sun in the morning and shade in the later afternoon.

back lit

evening shade

Location matters, as the old triple word saying goes. We wanted to be in a good school district, close to a park, close to my office, and close to all of our friends. The area of search really starts to narrow with those criteria and we passed over many a fine house next to an interstate on ramp or an hour from everything. Put all those factors together, plug in the price we were willing to pay, and out pops the house we bought. Not as romantic as finding the house of our dreams but romance does not come with an Energy Star rating.

The scariest part of buying a new house is selling the old house. We knew were were losing money, but then so was the person we bought from. If the market was great and we sold our house for a higher price, we would have paid a higher price for our next house. In a terrible market, more expensive houses take a bigger hit than less expensive houses. It all evens out.

To save money on closing costs, we sold our house using a broker who charges 4.5% instead of the standard 6%. Getting on the multiple listing service was key. “For sale by owner” seems lucrative, but not if you can’t find a buyer. As a side note, all the houses that we looked at that were for sale by owner were priced to high. Most of these folks had no idea what they were doing. We almost bought a “for sale buy owner” house. Having agreed on the price and the provisions of purchase agreement, we went over to the owner’s house to sign the papers. Then they dropped a bomb on us. They wanted to put in a clause that would let them back out if they found a better price. We were not going to be their fall back buyers. When you look at a “for sale by owner” house, you are opening yourselves up to all kinds of crazy.

My only other advice is to sell your old house before buying a new one. We sold our old house first and arranged the closings to occur on the same day. Technically, we were homeless for about two hours. Most importantly, we were never paying more than one mortgage at the same time. One mortgage is enough!


The Assassination of Jesse James by Ben Affleck’s Little Brother

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is a beautifully filmed historical thriller. If you like good looking films, history, and tense thriller, you will love this movie. Like its title, though, this film is too long. The unnecessary length is made worse by narration that gives fills us in on the nuances of the characters and the story. Narration ordinarily speeds along story but not when the oratory is interspersed with long shots of staring actors. Four years after its release, the film is not getting any shorter, so the length is just something that those who love beautiful films are going to have to put up with. 

The heart of this movie is Casey Affleck’s unsettling performance as Robert Ford. Despite Ford’s earnest nature, people lose their smiles when he enters a room. Watching his Robert Ford reminds me of an awkward job interview or being at a party in the quiet group while a group across the room is laughing uproariously. Affleck’s Robert Ford knows he is unlikeable and not well thought of, but he nevertheless feels that he is meant for greater things.What makes Casey Affleck’s performance so remarkable is that he shows us why no one likes Robert Ford, while at the same time getting us to like the little bastard. He is the Rudy of outlaws. 

The performances may be imaginary, but like any good historical drama, we know how “The Assassination of Jesse James” ends. At least anyone who knows spit about American history knows how the story of Jesse James ends. For those who need a refresher course, the title of the movie and the prologue spell out for us the penultimate event of the movie, the part where James Ford shoots and kills Jesse James. Yet, despite all this foreknowledge, the titular act is just as tense as in any thriller and maybe more so. 

Again, Casey Affleck shines, er quivers, as a very vulnerable and human Robert Ford against the larger than life specter of doom that is Jesse James. We know he will shoot Jesse James just as surely as we know the ship will sink in “Titanic“. James Ford does not know this has fear and discomfort radiates into you. His partner in this tense affair is the accomplished Sam Rockwell, who transports his unease from the screen directly into our bellies. To round off the perfect casting, the biggest name on this movie is Brad Pitt as the gregarious and melancholy Jesse James. This gives us a real life parallel of not so well known Affleck and Rockwell as the underdogs against the extremely popular Brad Pitt. The casting is just brilliant. We know James Ford bested Jesse James but can we imagine Ben Affleck’s little brother and the red shirt from “Galaxy Quest” beating Achilles and the embodiment of death? Not really, and thus the suspense. 

As much buildup as there is toward the death of Jesse James, the tail of the film devotes a good (and by that I mean a very watchable) half hour to the life of James Ford after the act. We see that unbearably annoying sycophant grow into a brooding adult, one who’s happiness and social status are constantly assaulted by a country that reviles him for killing Jesse James. Though a criminal and mass murderer in life, Jesse James becomes something of a saint in the minds of the American people after his death. Robert Ford, who muses on how Jesse James’s victims might feel about the outlaw’s death, is a pariah. And the man who killed the man who killed Jess James is seen as a hero. Although not mentioned in the film, Jesse James’s murderous brother Frank turned himself in and was acquitted of all his crimes, i.e. the multiple murders of innocent people. If ever you thought American sensibilities have degraded in our modern century need only see this film to remind yourself that we are so much better than those murder loving simpletons of the late 19th century. 

For that reminder alone, I give this film four out of five stars.

Untimely Reviews – Daybreakers


Daybreakers” is an above average vampire movie because this one takes vampires seriously. This one has no antiquated vampire mysticism or silly vampire romance. Vampires are often portrayed as a romantic interest, but there is nothing romantic about the military industrial vampire complex.

I love movies that stick to their premise, even if that premise is ridiculous. The funny thing is, if you accept vampirism as an infectious disease, the rest of “Daybreakers” pretty much writes itself. We humans make the false assumption that natural resources are limitless, and a world of vampires make the same false assumption about their food supply. If everyone infected with vampirism infects someone else, and so on an so one, eventually everyone is a vampire. Whose blood are they going to drink then? “Daybreakers” is nearly a vampire disaster movie.

Preventing a vampire disaster, which incidentally means the end of human kind, means creating a human blood substitute or curing vampirism. In an odd twist, curing vampirism makes the former vampire not only more courageous and bad-ass, but also dressed like Han Solo.
Going Solo
Of course, if clone troopers couldn’t stop Han Solo, the vampires don’t stand a chance.

The actors in this film deserve some extra kudos. Their contacts meant to give them vampire eyes were clearly given them trouble. Plenty of stunt men were also set on fire. The casting of William Dafoe was a treat in itself, considering he once played a particular memorable vampire. Nicely, though, there were no clearly fake computer animated vampire mutants to annoy us.

Our world isn’t plagued by vampires, but it is full of terrible movies about vampires. “Daybreakers” is no two star wonder. It’s a solid three star genre buster. It’s a cure for bad vampire movies.

I Blame Bambi

I Blame Bambi

Must Disney’s “Bambi” be the root of all guns and shooting talk in our house? This exchange was from last year. Little man had just turned 4 and little woman was not yet 2. I hadn’t meant for a whole blog takeover by Comic Life 2, but little man saw the comic about his sister and wanted one of his one. Mom said to him that Dad made one about his dinosaurs. Nope, he wants one just like his sister’s. Parenthood is a never ending struggle for equality.

Untimely Reviews – The Mist

The Mist

Fair warning, I am going to give away the entire ending to the 2007 movie “The Mist” in this Untimely Review. This particular Untimely Review is really more of a discussion of the ending of “The Mist” than an actual review. To sum it up, this is a good monster movie but I do not recommend it solely because of the ending.

If all I saw was the ending of the “The Mist”, I may have liked it. Not the movie, just the ending. It continues the trend of bummer endings, which has gotten to the point where a happy ending would be the twist, and actually one-up the competition. Heck, “The Mist” one ups all prior bummer endings. To any movie watching veteran, this is something new to see. Are all of the folks who want to experience the ending for themselves gone buy now? Good. What the hell! He kills them all seconds before they were rescued!

They are all sitting in some dude’s SUV. This is the end of their plan to find rescue. They are out of gas. They have no food or water. They can’t see feces through the super scary mist, but they can hear the grumblings of monster. Those sounds are definitely monster grumblings and not the loud droning hum of a 45 ton tank leading a convoy of trucks. They all glance at each other in silence. Then that some dude shoots everyone else in the head, including his own son. The filmmakers tastefully show us only the muzzle flash through the windows. That some dude steps out of his SUV and (BAM!) there’s a tank leading mile long convoy of trucks. Army dudes are walking all over the place hitting alien spider nests with flamethrowers. Oh, and the fog is instantly gone.

The film makers are certainly working to shock us, but I’ve seen it all before. I remember an Outer Limits episode where Whil Wheaton inadvertently destroys the entire planet. That super bummer of an ending was a fun twist, for a 40 minute TV episode. You cannot expect to have much in the way of exposition in 40 minutes. “The Mist” is 2 hours and 8 minutes long. After that much time watching these characters trapped in a supermarket, I expected better. By better, I mean, having everyone in the SUV, except the child, discussing their suicide plans. Maybe they should have also discussed alternative survival strategies, like say finding another car with gas or taking some gas from one of the hundreds of abandoned cars all around them. We could have seen them wait in the car for a few hours, perhaps days, until they are so besieged by other wordly beasties or otherwise put in a situation in which suicide is an action consistent with the characters. 

Lets put all the philosophical debate over the ending aside. The whole point of the ending was to give fans of twist endings a boner. That Stephen King approved of the ending is also irrelevant, because he probably also got a boner from it. What made this ending such a travesty wasn’t that it was so unexpected that they would find rescue only moments after the main character offs everybody. No. The real twist and awfulness of the ending is that a character that clings to hope and survival against all odds would offing everyone in the first place. That is just not something the previous two hours tells us the characters would do.

Such a shame. “The Mist” had some feisty and scrappy characters who engaged each other with some smart dialog fought through their situation with determination and ingenuity. Stephen King has always been great about giving us character driven stories. Nothing in his stories happens unless the characters make it happen. The only deus ex machina is in the premise, here a mysterious fog full monsters rolls into town. For example, when the out of town lawyer walks out into the fog, we don’t question why he would chose certain death. Earlier conversations between the character let us know that not only might he not believe there are monsters in the fog, but also that making a decision in defiance of the locals is his way of coping with an impossible situation. Objectively, his decision is as stupid as it is sad. Subjectively, we understand why he made that decision and we are O.K. with it. 

The ending of “The Mist”, though, is entirely deus ex machina.  I imagine the film makers have been wanting to get a boner from this ending for some time. When “The Mist” came along, they did not think twice about plugging the predetermined fate of the main characters at the end of “The Mists” story. The main characters chose suicide even though they fought for survival during the entire rest of the movie. I do not really understand it, and I am not O.K. with it. 

Our Dinosaurs

Our Dinosaurs

Can’t get enough of Comic Life 2. My 5 year old loves to draw dinosaurs. These aren’t even his best work. We were drawing dinosaurs together one day and cutting them out to make puppets. Then we scanned them.