The Story of Life as we Know It

We write the story of our life one thought, one daydream, one word at a time. I'm on my 50th draft of a story called "Barry" and it's very much a work in progress - red pens and Post-it notes everywhere. The older I get, the more I enjoy the revision process, asking "What if?" and "Why not?"

Monday, March 23, 2009

What makes you feel grateful?

Traipsing through narrow streets in Tangier last week, I was bombarded by toothless street vendors holding wooden camels and tin bracelets in my face, all with prices dropping faster than my stock portfolio. “No thanks,” I said, smiling and shaking my head, looking away at rooftops and stray cats. Then I saw him at the entrance to our restaurant – a young man blind in one eye, selling an accordion postcard with images of Morocco. My mind jumped to a scene in the film Slumdog Millionaire, the one where the young, blind beggar knows Ben Franklin’s mug is printed on a U.S. one-hundred dollar bill. “No thanks,” I repeated as I passed this boy and ducked inside to eat couscous and drink mint tea and watch belly dancers. He was still there when I came out, smiling, trying to sell his postcard. I gave him coins to equal the modest asking price, but though I didn’t take the postcard, I left with a permanent image fixed in my mind, one that makes me grateful for films like Slumdog Millionaire and blind boys with the courage to smile at strangers.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Fake Rock and Styrofoam Chimneys: Casualties of a Recession

I’ve been involved in real estate development for 25 years, climbing a perpetual mountain, selling the American dream. Of course, in the last 18-months, I discovered the mountain has a sheer side. Oops. Don’t go that way …

This market “correction” is painful, like sliding down a razor blade into a vinegar salt bath, like bungee jumping with a cord that’s 10-feet too long. All this pain will eventually lead to gain, right? But what have we learned? What will the stabilized housing market look like? What will new houses look like?

Personally, I hope homes become real again, authentic places where our chimneys stay intact in a strong wind and our stone doesn’t fade to gray as our hair does. A few years ago, I was involved in a project in Louisiana where we attempted to make affordable townhomes look like mansions. Isn’t that providing a service to the common homebuyer, making the house they really can’t afford look like a house they really can’t afford? Doesn’t everyone want to come home to Tara, and shouldn’t Tara have twin chimneys?

It looked good on paper, but I wasn’t buying the architect’s suggestion that we place Styrofoam cubes on the roofs, smear them with stucco, cap them with galvanized aluminum and call them chimneys. This is the coastal south, where we have hurricanes. I had to step out of the room, laughing so hard, visualizing chimneys impaled by limbs. “Honey, I thought we had a chimney …” I joked, impersonating a homeowner, “or did I just dream that?”

We caved to the “aesthetic and classical symmetry” the architect was selling and stuck twenty or so of these faux chimneys around the project. Then a little thing happened called Hurricane Katrina, and some of those chimneys morphed into packing peanuts.

When I start building houses again (and eventually I will), I hope my homes will be at least as strong and solid as the bank that holds the mortgage. Something tells me both will look very different.