Thursday, May 28, 2015

Big Banks and Local Real Estate

After spending a good portion of the last two days dealing with various aspects of what the modern banking and title insurance world has done to land transactions, I need to get these thoughts down while they're fresh. There were glib and corporate-speak fluent title insurance folks and big multi-state banks, employees of which probably weren't born when I started searching title giving powerpoint presentationsyesterday on new rules. The new rules on real estate settlements are based on the assumption that 5 pages of gobbledegook out of any comprehensible order is easier to understand than 2 pages.

Then all day today I was trying to get ready for a sale while seeing all sorts of new numbers getting dropped in by the distant bank a day before closing. It was about onion layers of electronic security, electronic auditing meaning that this or that item can only go on such and such a line of a settlement statement, verifying addresses because you're several time zones away, recharacterizing this or that number. To them, land transactions are about software, drop-down menus, bureaucracy and micromanaging every business partner in a world where the system has become fragmented such that no one person has any real sense of what a land sale or financing means.

Real estate in essence is about ground, buildings, trees, stone walls, threads of streams, road frontage, granite monuments, houses, bits of barbed wire stuck in pine trees, 5/8" rebar set by surveyors. It is about what we do when we walk outside. It is about work and dirt, hills and trees, lots in subdivisions with basketball hoops in the cul-de-sac. Land sales are about mortgages-  documents pledging land and buildings as collateral for loans to buy same. How this most basic part of our social fabric has turned into such a clumsy and inefficient, aggravating mess I do not know.

Having the tail end of one simple sale generate inbox entries that fill an entire screen, and so many steps that don't bear much relevance to the sale of a house and land, I cannot guess how the system keeps going.

Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau were supposed to help with the bad stuff, the really bad stuff that happened as a result of ninja loans (no income, no job, no assets), credit default swaps (a ponzi scheme) and bond rating practices that rubber-stamped the whole works as top choice grade A real estate investments. The problems were caused by big financial institutions. The regulatory and legislative responses seem to cater to the same players, setting up the next meltdown.

Love your land while you can. There's no place like home.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Where Next, Matinicus?

Where to start. Maybe tonight, as I was sitting in Megan's truck on the wharf looking out past the harbor and ledges to the horizon. Maybe how Ellen was courteous when I first looked at a property here. As to being on the island for more than a short summer vacation, she said something like 'it all depends on what you're willing to do without.' Other phrases come to mind. "It's so isolated." "There's no store." "There's no reliable transportation." "It's too expensive."

Those things are all largely true and even more largely complete bullshit at the same time. Yes, we are two dozen miles from Rockland. Shopping opportunities are limited. Transportation is a constant wild card.

As for isolation: our suburban culture has unfortunately infiltrated Maine during my lifetime, wherein we know the Kardashians better than our neighbors. Not so on the island- for better or worse. I've met more interesting people from more far flung places and made more connections with people from all over and been more connected to my neighbors while on this tiny speck in the ocean than I ever did living right outside the state capitol, or in Portland or Boston. It is expensive here, but not really any more so than inland, just different. Transportation is a bear, I'll give ya that.

In my gut, I feel it's not the expense, the distance or the logistical headaches that have drained off the population. Instead, it is a narrowing of what people expect or want in their lifestyle. There is a coercive pressure to be in the suburban big-box (or Little Boxes) social environment. There is a fear that kids will be stunted if they don't do team sports, and have 30 peers in the same grade from the same town and take  the right lessons so they achieve some particular merit badge. If instead they work on the water or garden or learn to hang with kids of all ages and adults or learn to fix machinery or engage with nature, they are bound to be island-queer and incapable of coping with society. I do not believe this is true. At all. All of the things that may seem like deprivations or hardships end up creating more adaptable, socially aware and better rounded young people.

I am afraid for the community. The community is what makes it possible for us to be here and live. There are people who ensure the phones work, that the power works, that there is emergency medical response, that town business gets done. Often, these tasks are all done by one person, or two or three. At one point, I helped; in the school, the town office, on a couple of occasions as a gopher during work on power lines (it was wicked fun to run the bucket truck). Now, I mostly just play a few songs on the dock in the summer, but that may be a dubious contribution depending on where you live and what time you want to start sleeping. Last winter, I was not here to help when things were very tough. I wasn't here to help share the infrastructure costs for our public utilities. There is a valid concern that since the school closed and the population thinned out there won't be a critical mass to support essential services such as the air service and power company.

I'm scared, but also bewildered. There is a big disconnect. I am here on Matinicus. It is not northern Greenland. I have reliable internet, indoor plumbing and a machine that washes dishes for me. I am sitting on a very comfy two seater couch next to the wood stove. I am not feeling deprived or isolated. On the other hand, I also have an utterly magical environment where I can bike to one work site down a gravel road with a grass median, walk to the harbor when it's time to get on the boat to work, and can feel the aliveness that only comes with a lot of physical activity outdoors, while at the same time producing legal work online and over the phone.

From my viewpoint at the harbor, here by the stove on my internet, and on my bike on the grass medianed road to the land tending job, I wonder why the place isn't swarming with people.

There are really only two possible explanations. Our society has become soft, unimaginative, totally chickenshit and missing out on the beauty, struggle and spontaneity of life, or I'm a nutjob. Don't answer except among yourselves. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Scooter

--> The scooter purchase was not one of my better spending decisions. It was intended to fulfill the manifest destiny of all Matinicus kids to have a means of transport with a carbon footprint early in life. One of the many empowerments  of this place is that children can learn to handle machinery in a fashion and at an age that is not customary or legal in other places. 2nd graders just do not typically show up to school at the wheel of a golf cart or 4 wheeler.  My girl Lydia began to drive at the age of 12 and a half in the old silver Mazda.

This particular scooter, however  was  sold at Christmas time by a particularly shady online vendor and arrived in a mangled carton, the contents of which did not closely resemble the promised merchandise.  Since we were talked out of using a credit card,  there was very little recourse. We made the best of it.

Lydia’s first ride took her joyfully down to the crossroads, where the fuel tank detached  and began merrily skipping along at her heels. She was oblivious and I could not run fast enough or yell loud enough, and waited for the small mushroom cloud that would follow.

There were a few other rides. I used it a few times. Mostly it sat. Briefly inspired a couple of years later,  Lydia and I fueled it up only to watch gas leaking out of the tank almost as fast as we poured it in. I think I painted the hole or did some other band-aid repair.

That was years ago. Today, Fiona wheeled old Smokey out of the barn. I first barked at her to put it back in its dusty corner. I then agreed to try to start it, confident that it would go no further.  I pulled the starter cord to no avail, but then was gradually overtaken by the challenge and found myself unscrewing the spark plug, checking fuel and fuel lines, looking for a choke, pouring some gas into the spark plug hole and finding the fuel bulb underneath.  I am no one’s idea of mechanically inclined, but that damn thing fired up. Cough.

At that point, the Matinicus magic kicked in. I’m sure these things happen in other places, but they only happen to me here. What ensued was a daylong series of triumphs followed by some other part falling off or breaking. It was a challenge and adventure and a great way to blow a day with your 13 year old learning and sharing the joys of internal combustion.

The next thing to be fixed were two totally flat tires. The front one was inflated in about 20 seconds. The rear tire, through some truly inventive engineering was set up such that the air stem was located deep in the wheel rim and separated from the rest of the world by the brake disc. Noway nohow was a pump going in there. After undoing the chain, tensioners on both sides, rusty wheel nuts and trying to keep mental track of everything that came off, we got the wheel separated from the frame and the disc off of the wheel.  The tire inflated in 20 seconds- just like that!

Having the wheel fiddled and worried back into place, we fired her up and Fiona took a series of rides starting on the lawn, where an engine cover fell off, and then down the main road with joy rolling off her in waves.

She was ready for a road trip, so I followed her all the way to the south end to check on Morgan’s chickens. When we finished there, I pulled the starter cord which only flopped out loose. The curse appeared not to have forgotten us or our scooter.

I took off the pull starter and found what I had hoped not to: that one of the tabs that turned over the engine had broken off. Then I idly jabbed my pointer finger at the metal part the tab would contact to turn over the engine and out popped the broken plastic. We reassembled that part and it seemed like the starter  turned properly with only one tab.

Putting the whole works back together I pulled and again the cord stuck and then flopped loose. Off it came again and this time I saw that the whole plastic wheel was split and non functional.

I felt it would be tragic if a little plastic wheel crippled Smokey Bessey as she is now known.  I also knew that there was no identification of any brand on the scooter,  so I ruled out the possibility of finding a replacement for the plastic wheel.  Adhesive would have to do.

As I was thinking about the plastic part,  approximately 4 and one-half feet of steel ribbon erupted from the starter casing. This springing spring was the message from above to give it up. I made a couple of attempts to reseat it. Then I again fell prey to the challenge and the Matinicus magic, and using Kreskin-like spoon bending powers of mind, stubborn fingers and streams of profanity, managed to get the spring re-packed.

That victory gave me the courage to try to glue the wheel.  After a recess, the wheel seemed sturdy enough. As I was putting this collection back together, the jackass in the box sprung back out and it took another 20 minutes to wind it in there. If you have not attempted this before, here is my advice: Don’t. If you do, wear  eye protection and yell at your boisterous children to give you some peace for a little minute. You then must wind the thing very tightly and not let it move in any direction whatsoever,   because it desperately wants to go every which way.  After that, you must slow time and molecular motion down to near absolute zero so you can get the end hooked in where it goes before the coil expands just enough to be too big for the housing. Then you must do this several more times.

After bolting the works back together for the fourth time, the starter pulled normally, but before the motor caught, the plastic wheel had again given up. I apologized to Fiona and visualized dumping the scooter under the No Dumping! sign behind the recycle shed.

One stupid plastic part. Too bad there’s no information about this machine anywhere. Before we went in the house, I looked at the starter housing cover, which actually had a small sticker bearing the “Zhijiang SunScooter Limited” name.

A quick internet search revealed that Zhijiang Sunscooter Limited was a “modernized enterprise,” but little of use, especially no parts places. A less quick search for more information on the model and the company and replacement parts vendors gave up nothing. Amazon, however, after the first search said “no products matching your search” (when does that ever happen?) showed an ad for the identical item for $8.00 and change plus shipping.

 Now we wait. happily and fondly hoping.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A Little Taste of Reality- that most of us are out of touch with

Piecing things together was difficult. There was one carcass outside the front fence. Fiona found one a ways into the woods. We counted 3 piles of feathers in the yard and two across the road in the woods. Four chickens were cowering in the shrubs. One was wedged way under the shelf in the potting shed. One came back several hours later and really did not want to go back into the coop. If each feather pile accounted for one chicken, that still left one missing.

Morgan got the chickens to take out to Matinicus- the supposedly rough and dangerous offshore pirate island. In the interim the chickens were free ranging in the Meadow Drive Subdivision in Camden- a more self contented and complacent environment would be hard to find. And yet it was here in insulated Volvo retirement professional comfort land that the massacree transpired.

They were a delight to have around with their conversational lawn pecking and the way they'd all come running to greet whoever might come out the door. All was tranquil for 10 days or so.

We had been warned about turkey vultures, but in my smug insular suburban ignorance I could not imagine a bird capable of flying off with a full grown laying hen, much less 5 of them. Morgan the owner of the chickens seemed much less upset than the rest of us, and surmised that birds of prey had made off winged-monkey style with our (her) chickens.

Morgan was not sad. I was sad. And even though in my well fed 21st century complacence I had no need of these birds, I felt a sharp pain of losing a food source and income stream that must have gripped farmers through centuries when predators or disease came calling. Even though it bore no relevance in my life, I felt scared and panicked by losing these productive animals. In earlier days, the loss might have meant starvation, accelerated poverty or increased vulnerability to disease.

These latent instincts erupted at 8 or so in the evening when I saw through the dusk and  puckerbrush a fox prancing off with one of the chickens that must have been hiding from the vultures. I exploded out the door yelling obscenities at the fox and tramped through the prickles, charging to where the fox had been. The chicken had been dropped there, except for the head which was nowhere to be seen and which pretty well meant Goose, the favored black hen was not coming back to the yard.

Today, the kids and I went to the middle school to play baseball. It was the best of the first world: green grass, warm weather, sport, family, and an absence of starvation and fear, with none of the bad parts such as over-stimulation from fingertip activated electronic devices, digital era angst over all that is wrong with the world, high fructose corn syrup and similar perils.

When we returned to the scene of the crime, a silent but creepy spectacle greeted us. At least a dozen very large black birds were alternating between wheeling slowly around over the yard and perching in the bare hardwoods. This was our yard, but it felt like something between medieval dragon invasions and a Tolkien movie.

As E.B. White might put it, I was reminded of one of the harsh realities of farm life- or real life depending on how one looked at it. What it really amounted to was that regardless of our self satisfied suburban domination of the environment, nature still totally kicks ass.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Oak Runners and the Soothing Effect of Sore Hands

Oak runners protect the bottom of a lobster trap and let it slide as the trap is pulled upward toward the boat. Hopefully, the trap on that journey is crowded with keepers. Since lobster traps sit on the bottom of the ocean for months on end, the wooden runners rot eventually.

For the dub like me who is always trying to get the most gear out with the least effort, the decision when many a trap is heaved onto the operating table is whether the rotted runner(s) can make it another year, or whether they will instead partially or fully come apart and fall off a week into the season. The decision is made by observation, by pulling on the runner, an internal tug-of-war between laziness and diligence or just whacking it with a hammer or my faithful blue wrecking bar to see if I can break it.

Since the hammer has disappeared-probably for some project dreamed up by the younger two kids-the wrecking bar calls for some digression. When I was on North Haven one winter, I worked a for Rex, the Plumber. Rex had tools going way back. He'd call for "that green wrench." I would look stupidly about and only see tools with the standard brown rust and grease finish of proper workmen's implements. Rex might grow tired of waiting and fetch the item himself. Where I saw dark brown, he could see the green paint which was probably very cheerfully applied during Prohibition, and in an American foundry at that. In somewhat the same way, my wrecking bar has only a few flakes of paint left, but it'll always be bright blue to me.

Back to oak runners. The trick with the blue bar and with that task is to hack away at the runner and dislodge it without destroying the rest of the trap wire. Therein lies the irony of the rotted runner. That same runner which will fall off a week after I set it will fight me to the death before it lets go of the trap. Those corroded screws and worm eaten pieces of oak can be mighty obstinate. I'm sure there is something to be learned from an oak runner that won't let go for anything, but which will punish my laziness if I don't do the work.

Runners are one part of the gear work. I have many vintage traps. They need bungee cords, acres of patch wire, netting restitched, vents replaced and hoops restrung. The decisions are much the same. Can this thing make it a year? Will I be sad with myself when it disintegrates two weeks from the start of the season?

After a winter on the keyboard or the fretboard, my fingers are not used to the jamming, pounding, scraping, cutting, puncturing and general abuse of trap work. Yet they and I are happy. It's been chilly, windy and showery at times, but the sun is strong, birds are at the feeder and the peepers sing all night.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Push-Pull

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Weather and banking regulations have me feeling dragged northeast by the wind and southwest by the tide. Pushed in one direction and pulled in another. Or several.

Weather

I’d very much like to be cleaning rope and painting buoys and trying to make fishable pots out of the crumbling misshapen mismatched collection of gear in my yard. I would like to be doing that as the grass gets green under my feet and the air softens up on my brow. If, however, I were to show up there this afternoon, much shoveling of snow crust would be required to even get a glimpse of my rope pile. The snow banks look slightly shorter, but I have this uneasy sense that they’ve only compacted and become more obstinate.

George sent me a picture of my house a few weeks back- at least the visible portions. I’m afraid that the snowbank halfway up my window may be trying to sneak inside through the sash.

As a result, I am pulled to get back home, but pushed back into place on the mainland for another little while waiting for a thaw. When it comes, it will happen quickly. Right?

Financial Institutions

Without rehashing my well worn descriptions of financial and personal struggle, I can say I have worked hard the last couple of years to be a good doobie and build up the real estate law work so that when I can’t be on the island, I can still meet my basic responsibilities.  

This usually goes along well enough in terms of actually doing the work- examining titles, fixing problems, running down all the numbers and details and providing reassurance to buyers and sellers that the sale will go through. For the last almost 3 years, the work has grown and gotten more enjoyable through a lot of sweat, tap-dancing and steep learning curves.

Less enjoyably, real estate practice is not what it was when I started assisting other attorneys while still in school. The secondary mortgage market wags the title insurance dog that dominates the practice.

Enter a new, bigger, clumsier and far less friendly dog: new banking regulations. Because of the excesses of coked out sleazy mortgage brokers, financial professionals as creative as they were sociopathic and greedy, cyber criminals and complacent parties elsewhere throughout the real estate business, the rest of us who did not create the problems- lenders, attorneys, insurance underwriters- all have to cope with dizzying new requirements for security and fairness in lending. This is noble but stupid; an ass-up-the-tree foolish idea that more small print forms will assure that borrowers are better informed and personal information better protected by creating more layers of process.

Keeping up with escalating bureaucracy and regulation has become an additional part time job and a far less satisfying one.

For an independent firm trying to stay up on this stuff, two things come through loud and clear. First is that small producers like me are hanging on by our nails and are at risk of being choked out of the business because the requirements favor larger firms. Second is that the regulations address risks posed by those selfsame big firms, big banks and the right hand/left hand syndrome that happens in those environs.

Pardon me, but a large city law firm may get infiltrated or have information get misdirected in one way or another, but nobody, nohow is getting by Cyndy and Christine, who between them know everyone who ever lived in our county for several generations.

Small banks are much more responsive, nimble and able to deal with risk, and much less likely to engage in the kind of drunken gambling that brought the market crashing down in 2008. Small law firms are much more likely to be aware of fraud risks and much less likely to have cyber vulnerability.

Those things being said, I’m feeling very much the endangered species. I’m feeling pulled toward success by learning the business and keeping up with changes, but at the same time pushed away by a system that values conformity and bureaucracy over responsiveness and dedication. Pushed toward Matinicus again. The big thaw can’t come soon enough.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Fargo-by-the-Sea





The day is a few minutes longer on each end and what a difference. Aside from accidentally working a little longer, it is a great thing.

It is still January, but a couple of days ago, I was swept by the vision of being home, with gear work happening in my yard. I heard the boats of those more diligent and quicker into the water than myself,  the crows, pheasants, gulls, fourwheelers and songbirds, felt the wind and smelled the woodsmoke, salt air, and smoldery trash fires. It is only a couple of months off.

I live in the real estate law world during the off-island season. My time is occupied with deeds and mortgages, easements, surveys, puzzles and problem solving, getting the deal done, but hopefully not in a way that will bring regrets and litigation later. 

I still run into deeds with descriptions telling me to look for an old spruce stump with barbed wire in it. As I look at the predecessor deeds, the title records often suggest that the spruce stump has sat unchanged since the Taft administration.

Land conveyances have changed and remain the same. As much as we have precision in land surveys with distances down to the hundredth of a foot, and courses expressed in magnetic year specific directions in degrees, minutes and seconds, achieving clarity and permanence on the face of the earth- an earth inhabited by humans- is still a challenge.

It is endlessly fascinating until such time as there is some light at the treeline after 4:45 p.m. when thoughts drift to spring.

As well as things have gone since the boat came out of the water, and as trying as it was having the boat in the water but not moving much on account of many previously documented malfunctions, I just can’t wait to get back at it. I’m choosing of course to ignore the first couple of days of flat tires, dead batteries, mouse droppings, reluctant oil burners and trying to remember where that thing might be that I need in order to deal with those other things. One neighbor described it as looking for shit you need to fix shit to fix the other shit.

***

I was coming across to North Haven on the ferry for office work and realizing again with some amusement that I find myself during winter in places which are very inviting and lively with people in the summer. It’s a a left-handed, square peg Offseason thing. I wintered over on North Haven one very eventful year, but have only tagged up briefly any time when the weather was hot and there were leaves in the trees.

I spent a number of winters on Matinicus, and never pined for Applebees or pavement. I never struggled to find something to do. It was the opposite problem- a sense of panic that I would run out of winter way before I felt caught up on tasks I couldn’t do in the summer.  The queue would form in my mind shortly after January 1.

Spring is always a miracle in our latitude, but is particularly moving on Matinicus. I’ve been on the mainland the last few winters and missed out.

It’s not the same to show up with the grass already green. I like watching the straw-sepia tone of the land melt into green, yellow and blossom shades, and the slate gray water with the crinkled horizon inhale all that soft blue out of the sky and back to the sea.

The magic starts in March, although it is not the Glinda pink sequined kind of magic. It is the sort of magic that makes people say something like ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with everyone else, I’m just fine.’ March is well suited to irritability, paranoia, Netflix-athons, misinterpreting-or choosing to ignore- that look from or tone of voice of your family members, very early “happy hour,” and would be the perfect time for Salem-style hallucinatory justice proceedings.

The wind only leaves any gravel on the road because the road is frozen down tight;  until it isn’t at which time ground clearance is important. It’s Fargo-by-the-sea.

Then there are cracks in the windbeaten fa├žade. Some time in mid to late March, a day arrives when the wind lets go and the sun takes hold. A few such days will follow before the panic sets in over the coming season of early mornings and short rest, grass that grows an inch an hour, visiting friends and relatives, lobstering, outside fixup projects and trips off island for events that just couldn’t be scheduled in February such as weddings and graduation ceremonies or court appearances.

Those few days are a sweet spot between one crush and another.