Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Rental Mortgage

If you live in North America, you probably believe that it is much better to own your home rather than rent.  I mean, who would want to fill the pockets of the landlord instead of diligently paying down your mortgage, building equity and, in essence, saving and investing for the future, right?

If you do believe that, you are in the majority.  Congratulations!  You are in good company.  Your opinion is supported not only by your neighbours and the army of your fellow home owners but by countless hordes of real estate agents, mortgage brokers, bankers, construction companies, furniture manufacturers and retailers, building supplies and home decor experts, newspaper subscription-selling teenagers and the occasional encyclopedia-pushing door-to-door rat.  It's an entire economy!  My apologies for all that I have probably missed!

But prickly little me is the kind of pain-in-the-ass, know-it-all snot-face who always seems to think that common sense generally stinks and it is neither that common nor does it have much sense at all.  Annoying I am, I know.  In my defense I will say that I was particularly unnerved by the chorus of relatives who, as soon as they saw me and a female hitched together with a couple of smaller would-be-humans in tow, launched a campaign of persuasion on why and how we should, could, ought to and downright MUST buy a house.

"The kids need a back yard to run around in," was the first and most compelling reason they presented.

"But a reasonably comfortable house is, like, three hundred and fifty THOUSAND dollars!"  That was all I could think of at first.  Definitely the wrong answer!

In a consumerist society, it does not really matter how much something costs.  What matters is how willing you are to get it.  Kind of like a motivational pep-talk: If you can conceive it, you can achieve it!  The rest of it is just a simple exercise of rationalizing your decision.

I pointed out that we did not have that kind of money.  The chorus of relatives did not believe me.  After all, we could get a mortgage, like everyone else did, and by paying it off we'd have a nice little nest egg, an investment in our own home.

I pointed out that the return on investment on real estate is, on average, about 4-5% lower than the average of the stock market index.  That did not help either.  Stocks are risky, the chorus said.

I then argued that a mortgage is a risky proposition as well.  A $300,000 mortgage financed at a low interest rate may have a sweet low monthly payment but a single percentage point increase in interest rates would jack up your monthly payment by $250.  Does not sound like much?  Try a three- or a four-percent increase.  How do you budget for an extra $750 or $1,000 per month?  Do I take a part-time job at the local Starbucks?

"What about retirement saving?  Your home is the perfect place to safely put money away for that."  OK, I answered.  But how do I get that money out when I retire?  Sell my home?  Where would I live then?  Buy another home yet again?  Or set up a reverse mortgage?  Make yet another insurance company even richer?  I might as well buy whole life insurance.  To the reader: Please don't get me started on whole life insurance, or I might bore the life out of you with piles of proof why it is a bad idea.

"Buying a home is a safe investment."  This one felt like an index finger being waved at me.  But I was bold cause I knew better.  OK, you have a $350,000 home and a $300,000 mortgage.  You lose your job and can't find another.  You are forced to sell because you can't afford the mortgage, property taxes and, the repairs to the roof which conveniently just caved in.  So, your home is now worth $200,000.  No matter how you spruce up the flower bed in front of the house, you are eating a $100,000 loss and that's it!

"Paying rent is like throwing your money to the wind," chanted the chorus.  I argued that the interest on a mortgage is throwing money to the wind as well.  In addition, I'd have to throw more money to the wind in heating bills, property taxes and maintenance costs which, as a renter, I did not have to worry about since my rent includes them all.  I pointed out that the rent I pay is a fee for a service.  I pay to have a comfortable place to live in without having to worry about unexpected maintenance expenses, the logistics of hiring and overseeing trades when something needs to be fixed, without having to mow the lawn and shovel snow and without having to keep a small warehouse of tools, machines and implements to do all of that work myself.  Somebody else does that for me.  Outsourcing at its best while I am concentrating on my core competency: enjoying life.

"But you cannot make your apartment exactly how you want it."  The war drums pounded and the chorus swayed with the rhythm.  I hummed a bit on that one because, at one point of time, I did dream of living in a fully open-concept space, knocking down all the walls except for the bedrooms and bathrooms.  But, with time I realized that, as much as that might have been a nice thing to have, its absence did not bother me that much at all.  What I did realize, however, is that, with the average home ownership spanning over only six years, it was not likely I would go gang-busters on setting up a space to be exactly how I like it.  Between work, kids and trying to enjoy life as much as I can, chances are it would take me all of the six years to make the home exactly how I like it.  And then?  A rise in interest rates, loss of a good job, kids moving out to start life on their own, or god knows what other surprise life might serve me, I might find myself stuck with a big house or a big mortgage payment that I am no longer willing to carry and having to sell in market conditions that may or may not be as good as I hoped.  And if I sold wherever would I live?  Buy again?  Pay legal and real estate fees on the sale and on the purchase?  Start the six-year renovation project to turn the new home into exactly what I wanted all over again?  Egh!  Repetition is the mother of boredom.

"How do you even live in an apartment?" the chorus chanted, "there's no space for anything."  I tried to wave this one off.  I had always lived in small spaces, since I was a kid.  It isn't a disaster by a long shot.  You just get used to keep fewer things around and can focus on getting quality versus quantity.  A forced saving, if you will.

"And what about the back yard?"  Easy.  We have a large park behind our building and an outdoor swimming pool.  Sure beats twenty square meters of grass and a rusty barbeque in my book.

I seemed to be gaining the upper hand so I thought I'd move in the offensive.  What happens when the kids move out and start a life of their own, I asked.  I'd be stuck with this huge house which I now have to clean and look after and where I'd have to put GPS devices on me and my wife so we can find each other whenever we are both at home.  Or, again, I'd have to sell and buy, pay more realtor and legal fees and start the whole 6-year project of making the new home my own space.

HELL NO!  I had it!  No matter how I look at it, it seems to me that a house is a temporary thing that I don't particularly need.  So why the hell should I buy one?  So I can enslave myself paying ridiculously high amounts for a living space, miss out on all the vacations and fun I could be having in my younger years and then be burdened with unloading this harness of my shoulders when I am old?

Whatever it is, buying a house is not the only and perfect solution.  In fact, it seems to me that buying a house is just a much more expensive way to rent it.  After all, when I die, I can't take it with me, right?

Sure, if you are a gardening, a home renovation, or a home decor freak, or if there are other reasons why you need to own your space, that may be the perfect solution.  But for all the normal reasons people give, for me, the logic fails.  I am an average Joe who just wants to enjoy the short lease I have on life and buying a home is not my vision of leveraging my existence capital.  I'll rent, goddammit, until I find a good enough reason to revisit this line of thinking.  Wouldn't you agree?

My voice echoed in the empty room.  While I was engulfed in my rant, the relatives had gradually filed out the door, throwing back pitiful glances over their shoulders.  I could see the sighs in their eyes.

"Yet another silly, sad rebel," the sighs said.

PS:  OK, this wasn't a spiritually, philosophically or even emotionally enlightening post.  But it was fun writing it.  And I am still renting happily :)

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Throw Out All the Rules!

A few months ago, there was a knock at my apartment door.  It was a nice middle-aged lady selling books for children.  Stories and activity books based on the Good Book, the Bible, the life of God's son.  We all need a little of God's love in our lives.  The books were nice.  Nice illustrations of kind, loving faces, beautiful, easy-to-read fonts and words that weren't too long, easy for the little ones to read.  I found all of that out before I could even open my mouth and I was already holding a few shiny ones in my hands.

I took a deep breath and handed the books back to the lady:

"Thank you!  They look wonderful but I am sorry. We're not a religious family."

"You don't believe it GOD?!"  The lady tried to act surprised even though I am sure it wasn't the first time she heard it.

"We believe in something but it isn't god," I answered.

"But don't you ever wonder?  Look at the world around you!  When you think about it, isn't all of creation miraculous?  The plants, the leaves, the sunshine, the rivers and the mountains.  When you think about how intricate they all are and how they all bind together into this wonderful world around you, doesn't it make you think that there must be someone, a power of infinite wisdom, behind it all?"

A clockwork universe, I thought to myself.


"Really???"  The lady now seemed genuinely incredulous.  "So how do you explain all this?"

I stepped out in the hallway and closed the door.  No need for the kids to overhear a debate on religion.

"I think it is one absolutely incredibly improbable coincidence.  A little miracle in how unlikely it is and yet it still is."



"And it doesn't make you wonder..."


I wasn't trying to be callous.  I meant every word of it.  The lady seemed almost upset so I had to back up a little bit.

"Look, it is a miracle.  Life and everything around us.  And, an even bigger miracle is the fact that we are conscious of our own existence.  But I still don't think god, or at least the way he is portrayed by any church, had anything to do with it."

It took a lot more talking with the old lady to allay her fears.  I was not the antichrist.  I respected everyone's right to believe what they want, as long as they do not hurt anyone.  But we simply believed in something else.

"But you will need guidance some day, when you go through rough times."

Now this was the hard part.

"Look, I've been through a fair bit in my life already.  I've had a reasonably good share of rough times.  But I have always believed it was my responsibility to figure things out.  I believe I am a good person.  I believe that, if I listen well enough to what is deep within me, my humanity, what is deeply inside all of us, I will make the right choices.

"If god didn't want me to make decisions but rather wanted me to follow his commandments, why did he give me the power of reasoning?  And, if I was to have to turn to the church for advice, what makes any priest any more qualified than me to interpret the intent of god's will?  He is a man just like me, isn't he?  Does he have any more experience with life and the challenges I face than I do?  Or does he have a better understanding of what god intended for me than I would if I really looked deep into what god put inside me, if god ever did?"

The old lady left another ten minutes later.  We both respected each other at that time.  She still tried to shove a small book of readings from the bible as she was leaving.

"No, please," I pleaded.  "It will be a waste of a paper.  There are others out there that might need it."

"Well, GOD bless you then," she said as she departed.

"God bless you, too," I answered.  We meant the same thing.  And yet not quite in the same way.


I cannot quite recall when I decided to throw all the rule books out.  It was probably in those rebellious teen years when individuality is formed and when young people put their parents through hell because they realize that the world is not as happy-go-lucky of a place as they thought, that many things don't make sense and that it definitely can be made better.  Of course, not all teenagers go through that.  But I did.  And it is not as simple as I thought.  Even though it is.

I realized at one point that rules are there to simplify things.  To make decisions easier for people.  No need to suffer through the questioning, weighing things out, feeling and stumbling, trying to figure out how a decision is going to play out for everyone.  Especially for the big, life-altering decisions.  And no need to worry that, if you make a mistake, the burden of the blame will be on your shoulders alone.  Why go through all that?  There are customs, accepted behavours, rules, laws and even commandments out there to cut through all the muck.  Done!  Move on with your life!  If you don't like my decision, go look it up in the book.  It's all there, black on white.  Not my fault!  There's probably something wrong with you if you don't like it!

But that wasn't good enough for me.

The mother of a girlfriend of mine told me once that I was a master at over-complicating things.  She was right.  I hope I still am, to some degree.  Not so much that I want to complicate things for anyone, including myself.  But I definitely don't want to over-simplify them.  Life is complex, messy and difficult to understand at times.  But that's what makes it wonderful.  It is precisely by navigating this complexity, sorting out our own path through all the obstacles and detours and double-backs that we get the opportunity to define ourselves, shape our destiny, become individuals and be of substance, of consequence.

Why give anyone else the power to rule over my life?  To this day, I cannot think of a good enough reason.

OK, maybe a little simplicity here and there just for balance when it all just gets too much.  If I need to be at peace, I'll obey the speed limits on the highway; I'll stare at the walls sometimes, pretending I'm alone in the elevator, when I am too tired; I might even try to eat a balanced diet for a while if I have too much on my mind to listen to what my body wants.

But I'd be damned if I'll allow someone else's interpretations of life as it is shape the important choices I face.  I'll take the wisdom of the sages into account but I'll weight it against my emotions, my beliefs and my understanding of where I want to go in life.  Too much?  Complication is a small price to pay when you need to decide who your friends really are, should you follow family and social expectations, how to seek out what truly makes you happy, where you stand in life and what you bring to those around you.  No customs, rules, laws and even commandments should be allowed to interfere with a person's quest for self-fulfillment, with a person's own integrity and their responsibility to themselves and others.

There are those who would say if we all did that, our world would turn into chaos.  But my answer to that is that the only way you would think that is if you believed that people are intrinsically flawed, that they'd always make a mess of everything.  The original sin, if I recall correctly, it is called.  Naturally, if that was the case, people would need someone to rule over them, to tell them who they should be and how they should act.  THAT I don't believe.

I may be naive, I may be even stupid, but I need to believe that all of us carry a seed of greatness, the power to overcome challenges and be transformed through them into something better.  I need to believe THIS to make it through the day in face of all the proof to the opposite.

Because I don't think it is us who is flawed.  It is our rules, customs, rituals and beliefs which are naive.  There are no cookie-cutter solutions to life's complexity, especially in a world where we are trying to still find out who we are.  The answers are to be found in our faith in our own goodness, in our own integrity, deep within ourselves.  That is what should guide our decisions, not the rules of someone who does not believe in us to begin with.

So let's go through the list of rules, habits, laws and "divine" guidelines and question them all with the strength of our determination to be better.  Let's cross those out that don't make sense or rewrite the ones that could be improved.  One person at a time, one rule at a time, let each of us write our own rule books.  And let's compare notes.  And let's understand that all of us are probably right and wrong at the same time.  And that each decision we make should be revisited again and again, as many times as is necessary until we have exhausted all we can learn from it.  Or better yet, until we lose the capacity to do so.  Because the potential for learning and getting ever closer to the image of ourselves we have put our faith in is only limited by our imaginations!

Let the good work begin!

Sunday, 14 August 2011

A Step

As far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to write.  In my younger days, I felt I knew and understood a lot.  I thought I had a unique, visionary perspective that, if shared far and wide, would help make the world a better place.  I dreamed of being celebrated for spreading ideas that would enlighten humanity and would end the suffering that I felt wrapped us all, no matter what part of the world we live in.  I dreamed of being the genius that would usher in a new era, propel us all to a new level of awareness, compassion and kindness.  I wanted to matter!  Cute, laughable, possibly a touch too cocky - I know now.  But I'll hope you'll forgive my youthful enthusiasm.

Years have passed since.  No, decades.  And a lot of the things I believed in in my youth have fallen away.  The notion that the world can change overnight, if only someone would turn the lights on, has become deeply eroded.  I stopped believing in revolutions.  I stopped believing in fixing the system.  Sure, adjust it as we go, but overhaul-it-from-the-ground-up?  No thank you!  I also stopped believing in pomp and fame.  I think.

The younger generation, my older son included, will brand me as a fossil, a reactionary of some sort that wants to stop the wheel of history that keeps hurtling forward.  I sigh and look at him and hurt at how little do we know each other.  I thought I'd make a better parent, guide or friend.  But, like with many other things in life, with time and the unfaltering certainty of failure, one starts to try to accept reality.  OK, maybe not reality but one's perception of it.  Have I admitted defeat?  No, never!  I'd rather lay down and die quietly, hopefully without upsetting anyone.

But what I think I am trying to accept is a slightly better-informed view of the world where things are both really, really complicated and yet so simple it could make you cry.  Or maybe I am just jaded with my own spectacular personal disasters.  Whatever it may be.

So I sit here, still feeling that itch.  To put words down, to have someone read them, to reach out and touch someone and hope my touch would make a difference.  Yet today I think in a scale that is both a lot smaller and far grander than ever, at the same time.  I want to help change humanity from its core; one person at a time or every single one of us; in one swell swoop or over a torturous stretch of millennia.  Whatever!  As long as we get there some day.

The world we live in is made up of humans, among other entities.  And, while we need to respect all living things, we need to start with ourselves.  I have come to believe in change from within; from within our souls, hearts and minds, for lack of better terms.  If we make us better, we'll make a better world to live in.  We'll learn to be more compassionate, humble and kind and we'll probably be a lot happier in the end.  That is my Utopia these days and, since I have been an incurable optimist most of my life, I'll try to stick with that as long as I can.  If I may be proven wrong, so be it.  But I don't really see the purpose of doing anything beyond that point.  So, I dig my heels in where I am and hope you will forgive my schizoid delusions.

Let's dispense with ceremony, formalities, and other tedious phoniness.  Let's just talk.  Heart to heart.  Openly, honestly, without judgement or feeling personally attacked.  Let's share what we have learned, as misguided as it may be - who we think we are and what we think the world looks like - and hope to stand corrected in the process.

I can promise you that this blog may turn out to be completely unpredictable.  I may post to it often or never again.  I may share some very personal items or may stick to theories only.  At times it may seem really cerebral, at others it may prove to be vulgarly prosaic and uninspired.  You may read about lofty ideas and obscene realities.  I may seem like an angel one minute and a reincarnation of evil the next.

That is all fine by me.  I am not here to make friends in the formal sense of the word.  What I would hope to accomplish is to add my drop to the ocean of attempts to foster an open discussion even if it may seem like a disjointed monologue most of the time.  Honesty and openness as best as I can manage, no matter how misguided and misinformed it may be.  Feel free to comment on what your read here.  As long as I can handle what you say and I don't feel you are taking advantage of anyone, I'll keep the discussion open.  No promises, of course, but I'll try to be the best that I can be and I'll hope you'll do the same.

So, big hugs to all of your ecstatically happy and miserably suffering human beings.  I love you all!  I'll hope I can row the boat at least as good as the worst of you and I'll pray that we land in a better place, all of us, where we can rejoice and celebrate this wonderful gift, life.

Until then, we are all together, floating in the current, without a compass or a very good idea of where we want to go.  Sounds hopeless?  I hope you don't mind but I would love to share that journey with you!