Saturday, March 21, 2015

Checking Into Hotel California

Two articles from California caught my attention today.  One was about the four-year drought crisis, about which not much in the way of solutions has been implemented yet, and a solution so successful it almost obscures the fact that the only problem solved was making one couple insanely rich.

My own, and probably your, experience of working with people in groups at even the lowest levels like PTAs, HOAs, and staff meetings is that getting a problem to be recognized and solved expeditiously and efficiently seems impossible.  Imagine now how all the many governmental, citizen and business bodies would have to work together to take on the drought situation in that populous state which provides an inordinate amount of the nation's food (and wine!).  Their interests, given human nature, will always collide -- even though they're all in the same boat -- and powerful individuals' interests in each group far outweigh those of the general population.

Conservation is necessary, but most want the other guy to do the conserving.  And in areas like San Diego, there's not enough rainfall or groundwater even to start with, much less conserve.  Any slightly increased costs due to conservation or alternative solutions to the usual draining the rivers and reservoirs can cause backlash.  Up the coast, Santa Barbara County built a desalinization plant in response to a similar drought period in the 1980s, but promptly closed it when rains and snowmelt refilled the reservoir; that water is of course less expensive (the infrastructure and energy inputs to turn sea water into drinking water are very large).  San Diego will open their new plant in 2016 and the closed one is being looked at for reuse now, but it's four years into the current drought, remaining conventional supply is low, and the plants will only provide drinking water to some homes in those two cities.  And California uses 80% of its water for agriculture; that's a different animal than potable water for personal comsumption.

Are California's radical right-wing Congressmen, mostly from either the agricultural heartland owned by millionaires and corporations or from wealthy areas such as Orange County, working on this devastating problem?  No, you know from their public fulminations that they're fixated on Mrs. Clinton's e-mails and spending years investigating the Benghazi attack, all the while forgetting that G.W. Bush and R. Cheney slipped their e-mails through private accounts, and that they had cut $500 million from embassy security earlier in their ongoing efforts to gut the government.  But even overlooking their amusingly simple-minded hypocrisy, they really should be paying attention to the state of their state.

Now, contrast this lack of focus and organization to the empire of Rick Warren, leader of the Saddleback Church in Orange County.  He and his wife will be celebrating the 35-year anniversary of that empire's creation with 50,000 attendees at Angel Stadium right about now.  They developed a long-range plan for their own brand of church after graduating divinity school in Texas, seeing an excellent model in Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral, because they wanted no parts of the usual first assignment to some poor, rural church circuit by their Baptist denomination.  While in Orange County to study Schuller's organization, they carefully studied the local demographics -- wealthy yuppies who had lost interest in conventional religion -- and picked their sweet spot, where the 405 and 5 freeways merge.

After beginning with a group meeting in their condo and then twelve years of holding services in two high schools, and never giving up on their plan while polishing that charisma and sincerity, the Warrens have ended up with 27,000 followers in ten Southern California campuses along with 7500 more faithful meeting in homes.  Even a solid plan without the talent is not enough, of course; Warren's book The Purpose Driven Life shows he surely knows what people want to hear, in that it is the top nonfiction hardback with 40 million copies sold, second in translations only to the Bible.

Warren, Inc.'s success, assets, fame and wealth are a result of their solving a marketing problem for Protestant Christian religion.  That's all.  Sure, they have people do good deeds, but that's to weave a mantle of good publicity which is created by the labor of volunteers, so it is cheap and keeps the nonprofit status unassailable.

So out on the west coast we have one serious problem with nationwide impact and in desperate need of solutions on one hand, and a small problem of no real consequence, on the other, solved neatly and successfully.  A funny thing about human society is that one person, or family, driven by purpose or greed (or both), can move mountains, but the talents of many people together usually can't even get to the mountain.  As someone noted recently, the former USSR and Sam Walton's WalMart are both centrally planned command economies, but one got results and the other did not (but the workers, peasants and middle class lose either way).  We rightly fear dictators, CEOs and kings.  It's just that  putting all the king's men in charge doesn't inspire much confidence either.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Going Over the Wall

We were talking about other places to escape to, since a whole lot of us have been in the grip of cabin fever.  There's another aspect to consider, a more drastic one:  finding a place that would just be better all around. 

In addition to the television shows about house hunting (we happened to be in the restaurant where the couple was discussing their final choice in their move to this area; no one noticed the taping because there were no lights and only a tiny handheld camera -- and we were too far away to eavesdrop), there are more specialized ones about relocating abroad, finding beachfront or island second/retirement homes and extreme places to live .  It's television, of course, so you may find out a little but not nearly enough to base making any decisions on.  Your situation will be different, i.e., probably unlike those young couples who are looking at $400,000  homes in high cost-of-living areas on incomes no greater than your own, and with young children to support too.  That just puzzles me -- how in the world does that work?

You have to be honest with yourself, not dreamy, and if you use some of the many free research tools available you'll find there are many other sides to any other place's story.  For example, I looked at the forum discussions about some nearby locales on, and even when residents responded to inquiries from other states, big issues sometimes don't even come up.  Those who were interested in Palmyra (east of Hershey) should really have been warned that parts of the town continue to be gobbled up by larger and more frequent sinkholes.  That charming Victorian is selling for such a good price for a reason.

Weather and climate change really needs to be looked into, although it is already one of the main factors driving a completely voluntary relocation decision.  Check out for local flood zone maps and an interactive feature which shows, down to zip code level, what sea level rise will mean when you dial in any amount (try 1' - 3' for Florida, Louisiana, or the Carolinas' coast).  You can easily find earthquake fault lines and hurricane tracks, but a serious one you won't find is the deadly pollution that spreads from the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.  The cancer and neurological disease rates in riverine places like Memphis are scary.

Crime rates and tax rates are of interest too, and are easy to find.  Lovely Beaufort, SC, an old low country town surrounded with rivers and bays with all the charm, Southern cuisine and easy life that's like a siren's call to retirees, has an astonishing amount of crime, both property and violent.  Low tax states are sometimes very lacking in the area of health (like Kentucky and Mississippi).  And states famous for no income tax (Texas, Washington and Florida) more than make up for it in high property taxes, fees, and sales taxes (like Tennessee, California and New York).  Those are of much more concern to most retirees than state income taxes -- although no state tax on retirement income is of prime importance. 

I was surprised to find the retirement haven Florida is actually one of the higher cost-of-living states, and also found out while doing my part with the disposition of our parents' home and estate there that like California, homeowners and auto insurance was much higher than ours, by 300%.  You should know there are a lot of uninsured drivers there, which is why.  And I saw a sign (just one little one)  near the bay, which warned that a potential storm surge could reach up to 12'.  Yikes.

There are articles and books in print and online recommending the "best small towns" and "best places to retire," but the criteria used has to be considered before the sunny pictures and seductive descriptions take you in.  I've  noticed writers in the greater New York area don't seem to think high cost of living is important, and blithely recommend places where homes start at $300,000.  Those lists always include places that are in deep freeze for more than half the year, also.  I can do that, for a whole lot less and even for a shorter winter, right here.  That said, one list seemed more thoughfully considered than most, ranking states from 1 to 10, considering all of health, COL, taxes, and social factors:

1. SD, 2. CO, 3. UT, 4. ND, 5. WY, 6. NE, 7. MT, 8. ID*, 9. IA, 10. VA      *lowest crime

North and South Dakota -- really?  But the surveys told the author that the job market, economy, health services, social stability and general happiness there put them in the top ten.  (Also something to consider:  the ten states with the worst quality of life are all controlled by Republicans.)  I knew someone who had lived in Minot, ND, on the Canadian border.  He said there was absolutely nothing to do and one could not even imagine how cold and dark it was.  But Colorado, Virginia and Iowa look like good candidates, I think (disclaimer:  have only been to one of those three).

You can also look at, which requires you to fill in a survey and matches you with your ideal state or locale date.

Love, and other things are...where you find it.

COLI Publication Image
Cost of living by county


Tuesday, March 10, 2015


Unless you live at the latitude of the Tropic of Cancer or thereabouts, February -- the shortest but the longest month -- will try your patience to the end.  And for those who have to park their cars outside and yet must get going early in the morning after a day and night of frost, ice, sleet or snow:  if you haven't gone postal by now you should get a medal.


Thoughts (and you have a lot of time for those, and they're mostly dark ones) turn first to a vacation getaway and finally in the hour of desperation, to moving somewhere that never sees single digits on the thermometer.  I don't know about winter vacations anymore; granted, some friends have successfully managed to make their cruise ship departure or connecting flight, but hundreds of thousands have been stranded and frustrated the past several winters.  And remember, weather-related problems are yours, not the airlines'.  I know we've already lost a day or two on trips that way, losing hundreds of dollars already paid for the destination lodging while paying $5 for a tiny tube of toothpaste at the airport convenience shop.

So I watch marathons of tropical island shows on television as a pathetic alternative.  One the other day featured a frozen Canadian couple from Edmonton scouting out then buying a home on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.  Being a television production, of course everything looked fabulous and you could almost feel the caress of warm breezes.  And they have you with the first shot of those gentle water vistas, in more shades of blue than you can name.

Sobering up, you do some research to see if such a move really would be possible, with a lot of due diligence and some rum-fueled courage.  Before our friend the Internet, there were any number of books on retirement or escape destinations; I still have two old ones about moving/retiring to the Caribbean.  They're all written by (1) travel writers who sell the shine and sizzle, or (2) real estate people who are just drumming up business.  These days you can find hundreds on-line writers who fall into these categories, plus the many investment/financial folks.  Their perspective is based on  making their own livings, not securing a worry-free major life decision for you.

So we investigate St. Lucia, which has natural beauty from beaches to mountains, is not arid, and is below the hurricane belt.  I started island searches years ago by first looking up over 100 years' history of hurricane tracks online, which is where you'll find the most popular islands all located (the triumph, as they say, of hope over experience).  So, for beauty and safety from monster storms, score two for this island.   After you look into the rest of reality there, all you can say is, those poor Canadians from Edmonton.  Despite the pictures, books, online travel essays and real-estate porn, the island is more like Newark than paradise.  The beach vendors are everywhere, all day and night, and they're aggressive.  To the cab drivers, you're just another sucker.  Robberies at knifepoint are a regular thing, and the word is they're not shy about using that knife, either.  The police are all related to the locals, so whose side do you think they're on?  You can figure that the cost of everything is crazy (yes, the toothpaste is $5), since unless it's bananas, it's all imported (there is very little property tax in the whole area, but that is offset by high VAT and all sorts of duties).  And even in Bermuda, one of the few wealthy islands, half of what arrives on the dock is stolen.

It can be done: Tiffany moved to Maui!

I guess (sigh) that you can have this or you can have that, but you can't have it all in one place.  We have local government that works, police that look out for us, and an average cost of living.  They even have palm trees at two of the riverside restaurants (yes, real ones).  And it topped 50 degrees as of yesterday while the sun made a reappearance, doing a beatdown on the snow piles.

So, never mind.  But next February, I don't think any of us can promise we won't be thinking escape!      

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Cinderella Garden

The sinister reputation became widespread when the mutilated corpses of dogs were found at the edge of the garden in 1976.  Forgotten and progressively in ruins since it was given to the city in 1946, the crumbling statues and walls were being covered in dark graffiti, the authentic Roman columns reflected not light, but gloom; the sphinxes beheld it all in their silence.  The next year, when David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam, was captured, he claimed to have participated in Satanic rituals there.  Anyone who visited after this went with no good intentions.

8106840336_c7ea983d3e_z (1)

But the garden park in Yonkers, New York had been built back in 1912 with all the skill, vision and funding that could be desired.  Former Virginian and lawyer Samuel Untermyer had moved to the city after the Civil War, had prospered as an investor as well as with the law, and built his Greystone mansion on 150 acres with a stunning view of the Hudson River and the Palisades at the turn of the 20th century.  When completed, the extensive gardens (Untermyer's architect was instructed to design "the finest garden in the world") employed 50 to 60 gardeners and trained many apprentices.  The proud owner opened it free to the public on Tuesdays during the 1920s and 1930s, but by the 1970s the locals had forgotten about it all.

Untermyer was something of a Renaissance man, with wide interests beyond becoming successful in society.  In addition to being a knowledgeable horticulturist, he was active in efforts to regulate the stock exchange and establish the Federal Reserve, led a boycott of Nazi Germany and strongly supported and aided women's suffrage.  His garden featured a Greek amphitheater where Isadora Duncan once danced and soaring classical pavilions, but its claim to fame, and the part that survives today in the 43 acres left, is the walled Indo-Persian garden.  It has been called a "paradise" by many visitors and writers and is the best of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.

Or it is once again.  Just a few years ago a visitor was inspired by the garden's history and its remaining classical pieces and spurred the founding of the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy.  After much labor, design work and fund raising (as it always it with such projects), it is now open once again, daily and without admission charge. 

Samuel Untermyer passed away in 1940, his fortune depleted, and his mansion was razed.  But if anyone's spirit is still around, you can hope his is, strolling the garden at dusk and quietly enjoying the view to the far side of the Hudson.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

One Song

The first sentence of my first post here was:  "Clyph put me up to this."  Filling Blogspot with drivel, that is.  Well, he did it again:  sent me a link to a YouTube video of Jeff Beck playing an old instrumental hit, "Sleep Walk," which piqued my curiosity.

Not too many people fail to be amazed by anything Mr. Beck has done, but I couldn't believe he could make his Stratocaster sound just like a steel guitar, which was the instrument used in the song,  a number one hit for two weeks in September 1959 by Santo and Johnny.  It sounded familiar, but I had not known its title.  Never having heard of those two, I thought it was a one-hit wonder, but there's a lot more to the story.

Would two Italian boys from Brooklyn, Santo and Johnny Farina, have ever thought they'd someday be inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame?  The road to there began much earlier during World War II when their father was stationed in Oklahoma and heard steel guitar on the radio.  He thought his boys back home should learn to play that when he returned.  And so it was.  He found them a teacher who knew Hawaiian music, and they started playing local gigs first with a modified guitar, then a real Gibson 6-string lap steel.  Making $15 a show, Santo eventually could afford a stunning 1956 Fender Stringmaster steel guitar mounted on legs.  It had three necks, with eight strings each.  Leo Fender was a big country music fan, and made his instruments for those artists in the early days.

They came up with an early version of "Sleep Walk," originally titled "Deep Sleep"; it was inspired by the 1928 tune "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise," and the chord changes are similar.  The brothers shopped it around New York for a year and a half before getting it recorded at Trinity Records.  Another label heard it and bought the rights; Canadian-American released it in June 1959 and after their appearance on Dick Clark's "Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show," it became a hit.  They appeared on all the television and radio shows and toured worldwide afterward.  A second song charted, but further Top 40 success at home eluded them, as is often the case.

And is also often the case, they found, like Jimmy Hendrix, James Taylor and David Hasselhoff, a great reception overseas.  They did the James Bond cover albums, and their "Godfather" movie theme was number one in Italy, for their second gold record.  The Farinas' 1964 Beatles cover, "And I Love Her," was number one in Mexico for 21 weeks.  The Beatles hadn't been released there yet, and the locals thought that the Beatles had covered them

And "Sleep Walk" never fell into obscurity.  In 1999, it received a BMI award for 2 million radio airplays.  The list of those who have covered it would go on for a page.  Brian Seltzer's won a Grammy 40 years after the original came out.  Many people remember how it played at the sad end of the movie "La Bamba," and it was used in five other movies.

The first cover was, oddly, issued by their own label right after the Dick Clark show.  Canadian-American recruited Richmond, Virginia big-band singer Bette Anne Steele (ironic, no?) to sing lyrics to go with "Sleep Walk" written by one Don Wolf, renaming her Betsy Brye.  Unfortunately, it didn't chart, although Bette/Betsy, now in her eighties, still performs with jazz groups back in her hometown occasionally.  It is known for its use in the move "The Conjuring," which finally brought her some fame.

The story of this song goes deeper.  Inspired by that 1928 song, it in turn inspired Peter Green's "Albatross," one of the most-loved instrumentals of the rock era.  That, in turn, inspired John Lennon's "Sun King" on the "Abbey Road" album.  He and George Harrison were big fans of Santo and Johnny's tune, and they returned the love.  That two and half minutes of steel-guitar bliss was no one-hit wonder -- just a wonder, period.