Bewildered by the big real estate bubble

Admittedly, it’s a national problem, but one that’s especially acute here in New England. Home prices are soaring. Wannabe buyers far outnumber sellers.

For once, my wife and I hit this one right.

The place we just bought, as I’ve been saying, is in a remote location, and it needs some work. There are reasons potential buyers passed on it. As one I’ve met reacted, “It was more than my husband and I wanted to take on.” But thanks to our elder daughter, we have a vision, and, as we are finding, the place feels right. Besides, the bones are good. To our surprise, our bargain bid was accepted, so here I am.

And then, the city farm we just sold is in a very hot market. Readers of the Red Barn have been following some of the reasons – small-town pedestrian-friendly scale and New England character combined with proximity to Boston in one direction plus beaches and mountains in the other directions.

We watched as real-estate prices kept rising, buffeted by only one big downturn, and wondered how young couples and families could pay the mortgages. Well, rents were going out of sight, too, as are mobile homes. Around the neighborhood, the running joke was that none of us could afford to buy our own residences at the current prices. Only it wasn’t funny.

Covid, however, ramped all that up. Many people with professional jobs found that in working from home, they can live anywhere – and in working from home, they need a home office.

The real-estate collapse I had expected didn’t happen, thanks to the federal stimulus checks, extended unemployment compensation, and anti-eviction laws. Not to say there won’t be a delayed reaction.

Still, with Covid limiting a lot of ways to spend money – dining out, movies, travel, athletic events, concerts and theaters, for starters – there may be a lot of cash in reserve. Who knows if that’s a factor.

We had nine bids in five days, all above our asking price. Some were accompanied by love letters, even an excellent loaf of homemade bread, and selecting just one from that array was difficult. As was the disappointment of those who wondered what they’d done wrong.

Some of the push is coming from people from other parts of the country, who are buying sight-unseen, like the Texans with two Mercedes whose bid for a smaller property down the street was $65,000 more than the original asking price. That had a positive influence on our own property when it officially went on sale three days later.

So where are most of the hopeful buyers in Dover coming from now?

New York and California, we’re told.

Did anyone see that one coming? Or have a clue just where it might lead?

Moving past Covid

Yes, we were Zooming, as our monthly gathering of religious leaders in town has been doing for the past year, but the suggestion did come as a jolt.

For decades now, the largely informal group has been a way of supporting each other, clergy and laity, as friends and neighbors, and out of that has grown joint activity, such as our community-wide Thanksgiving, Blue Christmas, and Martin Luther King services or overnight shelter for the homeless in the depth of winter or recognition of challenges we face as congregations. It’s one of the things I will especially miss in moving from Dover.

“We need to think carefully about how we come out of Covid,” the Congregational pastor mused. “We need to give it the same attention we did going into the restrictions.”

We still haven’t had the conversation. Maybe we will on our next agenda. But she’s right. Our new normal won’t be the same as the old.

I’ve been hoping that when the restrictions are lifted and we’re all immunized, we’ll be hungry to be back in public get-togethers more than ever, including worship. But there’s also the reality that we’ve fallen out of social habits and may cling to our newer stay-at-home routines. There’s a recognition that for some, continuing the online connections may be beneficial – for invalids or people living at a distance, especially. In addition, a Zoom session can be more convenient than driving hours to a committee meeting, as we’re finding, though it also has drawbacks.

As organizations, we appear to have kept a loyal core but also seen, I sense, newer participants drift away. Can we find ways to lure them back or attract others once we’re “open again”?

~*~

You’ve probably already seen the report that for the first time since the figures were kept, church, synagogue, and similar membership in the U.S. has fallen below 50 percent. Some of the reaction has noted a difference between joining in a congregation in contrast to unaffiliated “spiritual” identity. Some other commentators have derided religion altogether, but we should also be aware of declining membership in various associations across the board. One of the things that struck Alexis de Tocqueville about American society in his travels in 1831-1832 was the degree to which we were joiners. Not just in churches but also trade and economic associations, fraternal societies, political parties, lodges and clubs, sports teams, choruses, bands, and theatrical groups, and more.

While I don’t consider myself to be especially “social,” I’m still a member of a half-dozen groups, and I’m not counting those that are essentially an annual donation and a membership card or magazine in return.

Not so for the younger generation. One daughter does belong to the county beekeepers’ group, but that’s it.

As others have noted, that’s not a good sign for building democracy or community.

~*~

But folks are understandably restless. Already, everyplace seems to be booked up for vacation travel. (Glad we have a place that’s suddenly “in.”)

That transition from lockdown to normal now promises to transpire over the summer, giving organizations a chance to anticipate the changes and readjust more slowly. There’s so much we don’t know, after all.

And we haven’t even touched on the future of retailing and other local business.

What are you looking forward to post-Covid? And when?

Think you’ll miss Zoom?

 

Let’s see how this fits in reverse

About four or five years ago, I returned to my car in the supermarket parking lot and found a magnetic strip attached to the door. Mine wasn’t the only one. Many other cars had them.

The message deeply offended me. Still does.

For perspective, let me change one word – and then a few others to match – to see how the logic flows, or doesn’t. Here goes:

So you support Trump-Pence. This means you …

  1. Are stupid (which can’t be cured)
  2. Have been duped, indoctrinated or brainwashed (curable!)
  3. Actually believe in class warfare, white supremacy or the failed concepts of Capitalism, self-made man, etc. (which makes you a domestic enemy of the Constitution and the U.S.A.)
  4. Are ignorant of the facts – which are readily available. So if you have no desire to get the facts or once learned, you refuse to change your ways – please refer back to 1, 2, or 3.

“If we lose freedom here, then there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth” – Ronald Reagan.

~*~

The original, however, accused me of supporting a Socialist, along with an entitlement mentality, Collectivism, and Marxism, all because of my Bernie sticker.

The hit-and-run messenger was cowardly, of course. Presumptuous. Prejudiced (this person knew nothing about me, after all, except for a campaign sticker). A bully, trying to intimidate me or stifle my freedom of speech.

But I’m still deeply miffed about the bigger problem of a blinding power of labels to obstruct civil discourse and thoughtful consideration of public issues.

Socialist, after all, does not necessarily mean Marxist. To the contrary, it was an element of early Christianity, if you read the book of Acts and New Testament epistles closely.

Just what’s drawn us to Sunrise County?

Naturally, there have been moments when we find ourselves second-guessing our decision to relocate to a remote fishing village at the other end of Maine. Technically, it’s a city, reflecting its peak as the sardine-packing capital of the world, though today’s year-’round population is a mere 1,300 – about the same as the enrollment in my high school minus the 700 freshmen.

I could easily do a Tendrils on what the place doesn’t have – a Laundromat, Chinese or Mexican restaurant, even a pizza takeout, for starters. It’s in an economically challenged region, to put it politely, and the county has a population of only 32,000 stretched across an area about 2½ times the size of Long Island, New York. That comes to about 10 residents per square mile. What, three households? Around half of the townships have no residents at all or at least not enough to incorporate – they have to rely on the state for local governance.

The closest city of any size and resources is St. John, New Brunswick, population 68,000, an hour and three-quarters drive mostly east – once the U.S.-Canada border reopens.

Next, and more likely, is Bangor, 33,000 population, a two-hour-plus drive to the west. (Practically speaking, it’s also the nearest Toyota dealer, when we need serious work on the Prius, the closest medical specialists, the closest U.S. airport providing commercial service or even an Interstate highway.) Portland, seemingly cosmopolitan, takes four hours – with Boston an additional two or so beyond that. (More in the tourist season, when traffic backs up forever at the turnpike toll plazas.)

Are we crazy?

Yes, I’d have to say.

We’re also enchanted.

Crucially, Eastport – on the Bold Coast in what’s aptly dubbed Sunrise County – does have an active arts community, making me think of the TV series “Northern Exposure” and its quirky characters.

And there’s all that North Atlantic water and maritime activity. What makes an ocean so mesmerizing, anyway? The appeal goes far beyond romance for those who rely on moody appearances. This new realm is also deadly and terrifying and constantly changing, unlike anything I knew growing up in landlocked Ohio, for sure. Not even the then far-off Lake Erie.

Somehow, Eastport quickly revives my memories of Port Townsend on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula, back in the late ’70s. At the time, it was an eclectic blend of working-class, outdoors types, and marginal artists, many somehow connected to the Fort Worden state park for the arts. Its proximity to booming Seattle, a mere 2½ to 3½-hour trip, plus any down time waiting for ferry connections, does put it in a cosmopolitan orb, unlike Eastport’s seven- to nine-hour drive or bus ride from the Hub of the Universe, Boston.

When I lived in Washington state, I harbored dreams of moving from our home in the desert orchards east of the Cascades Range and resettling somewhere like Port Townsend, perhaps even up in the Alaska Panhandle or on coastal British Columbia. That was crushed after the eruption of Mount Saint-Helens and career upheavals that had me reeling back to the Midwest and then Baltimore and finally New Hampshire. I really missed opportunities to spend time in the wilderness during much of that. Even small pockets of forest could be rarities.

Eastport, though, has rekindled that awareness. It’s not just the deer all over town or the eagles or the seal and then whale I saw from the lantern room of a lighthouse across the channel. There’s also the First People’s presence, which was a part of my Northwest experience. Did I mention you have to drive through the Passamaquoddy reservation to get to town?

In ways, I’m sensing the move promises me a chance to get down to some serious unfinished business. Me, with my certificate in urban studies, my yoga training, time among Plain Quakers and the more liberal end of Mennonites, my labors as a poet and novelist, and all those years in the newsroom.

We’ll see.

People of today I admire

OK, I’m counting couples as one here. And I’m excluding some nominees I celebrated earlier in the year in my ten fine couples list. Here goes:

  1. The Obamas, of course.
  2. And my wife and daughters and the two guys they bring into my life. Natchurally. Think of this as a team.
  3. Noah Merrill, the ever patient and faithful field secretary of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends.
  4. Brown Letham, energetic painter and activist and father of one very fine author.
  5. Jim and Eden Grace, holy peaceniks on a global scale.
  6. Timothy and Nijmeh Curren, Orthodox priest and presbvtera.
  7. George and Althea Coussoule, welcoming stalwarts of Dover’s Greek community.
  8. Sherry Wood. See my dedication in Hometown News.
  9. Jay O’Hara, free-Gospel minister and Quaker activist.
  10. Gary Snyder, American poet and Zen Buddhist.

~*~

So what if this adds up to more than ten individuals in all?

Who’s high on your own list?

Farewell, Dover … in a way

It’s not like I won’t be back. My next book is a unique history of the town’s Quakers, for one thing, and I’ll be promoting it. And I’ll still be connecting with Dover Friends, especially through New England Yearly Meeting. Yes, Downeast Maine is still part of New England, thank God.

Will I miss people? Definitely. Some great neighbors, the Greek Orthodox circle, the lifeguards and fellow swimmers at the city’s indoor pool would be high on that list. My fellow musicians, on the other hand, were down in Boston, and I haven’t seen them since before Covid. Our beloved conductor even stepped down in the face of its digital demands. The local writing circle, meanwhile, adds some valued faces to the list, though I can’t say we were close or even much on the same page. But that’s where I did learn about Smashwords, where all my novels quickly appeared.

Which brings up another point. This new move would be much harder if we were leaving extended family behind or, more crucially, that rare friend who connects intimately on a range of shared interests – those things that fit one’s life mission or identity. For me, that would be a nexus of Quaker spirituality, off-beat literature, classical music, natural wonder and wilderness, back-to-the-earth awareness, even folk dancing. Things like gardening and foody smarts would be more on my wife’s side of the equation.

What, you think there are tons of people who match my varied interests? Surely, you jest.

Death has already taken a toll there, as has spiraling illness, their moving away to a distance, or even insurmountable conflict. But in my new setting, I am meeting some fascinating eccentrics. More later, I’m sure.

I do wish we had more words to describe friendships, though I’m afraid any subtlety would quickly be eroded. The fact is there are few of those soul-mate connections, especially among males of our civilized species. Women seem to be naturally inclined toward that one-special-friend connection, the kind of person you have to phone (or text) every day. Or every-other hour. Not so guys, to our own detriment. Mea culpa.

Let’s also note that Covid precautions have also already detached us. We’re rarely in physical contact, no matter how much Zoom and other platforms allow me to catch up with buddies even when I’m way up Downeast Maine. And, from everything I’m seeing, that’s likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

~*~

My wife and I have both been surprised how quickly I’ve switched into my new center. Once my workstation and files were set up in our new address, that’s where my heart was. Dover is undergoing what I expect to be an amazing rebirth, but I won’t be part of it, and I’m aware of that.

Quite simply, it’s become a great place for me to visit, but no longer home. All of my goods have ether been moved to the new address or are in the storage unit we’ve rented.

In other words, the dream has stepped on.

~*~

As I look back on my years in Dover, I realize I see I hadn’t spent as much time in neighboring Portsmouth as I’d expected or at the University of New Hampshire just a town away. Even once I’d retired from the newsroom, I was largely hunkered down in writing, revising, and publishing. So much for the writer’s life!

I can say I feel comfortable in leaving Friends Meeting in good hands and wish the best for the new owners of our old house, barn, and precious gardens.

I can say Dover’s been the best years of my life. So far. You will be seeing more from that through the coming year, here at the barn.

What would you miss most if you uprooted?

 

Family honor means something

In my novel What’s Left the family-owned restaurant is a local institution, one set at the edge of campus even before her grandparents and their siblings took over and made it distinctly their own. Everybody in town seems to know them.

Have you ever been recognized because of something your parents or grandparents did?

~*~

My novel’s available at the Apple Store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Scribd, Smashwords, Sony’s Kobo, and other fine ebook distributors and at Amazon in both Kindle and paperback.

The paperback cover …