What salary do I need to buy a house?

What salary do I need to buy a house?

What salary do I need to buy a house? I struggled with that question in my 20s and it probably kept me renting a year or so longer than I really needed to be. Then again, considering the housing crisis of 2007-2008, renting a year or so longer was a small price to pay to avoid potentially making the biggest financial mistake of my life.

One of the reasons for that financial crisis was not enough people asking that question. A second reason was banks being dishonest about the answer. For the record, I think buying a house is a good idea and it’s worth it. But you have to be sane about it to keep from getting into trouble.

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Remembering Rossino’s

I thought of Rossino’s, a hideaway Italian restaurant in St. Louis’ Central West End the other day. And then today, I saw the obituary for Nina Lee Russo, one of the owners of the secluded yet popular restaurant.

The obituary mentioned the restaurant closed in 2006, when the second generation wanted to retire. But the obituary mentioned some other facts that explained a few things. Read more

Lake Forest Pastry Shop, and other old St. Louis bakeries

Lake Forest Pastry Shop, and other old St. Louis bakeries

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a story this week about vintage baking. It profiled Chris Leuther, an area baker with 30 years in the business who collects old bakery equipment and recipes from long-gone, but beloved and not-forgotten bakeries such as Lake Forest Pastry Shop.

The money quote: “I’ve worked in a lot of bakeries and talked to a lot of bakers, and when it comes right down to it, so many of these places worked from almost exactly the same formula… A lot of times different places made exactly the same cake. It seemed special because it made a special memory — but that’s all it is, a memory.”

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Remembering 11 September 2001

I was on my way to work when they said on the radio something was wrong. The details were scarce, but an airplane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center. Then the other. And as I was pulling into the parking lot, the news came that one of the towers had collapsed.

The day didn’t get any better as it wore on. I remember it well. Looking back at what I wrote on that day, some details faded over the decade, but my recollection of most of the day is vivid. I can tell you more about that day than I can most of the days of the past week.

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Is your neighbor hungry?

I heard something really disturbing in church this morning. Something not terribly surprising, I guess, but something that isn’t right. There are kids in that community that aren’t getting enough to eat.

I go to church in Oakville, Mo. Oakville is a sleepy, isolated, upper-middle class suburb along the Mississippi River. On the surface, it’s the picture of affluence: Nice cars, manicured lawns, big houses. But somehow, there are homeless people there. Or people who are having to choose between buying groceries or paying bills, apparently.

If it’s happening in Oakville, it’s happening other places.

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I helped my girlfriend move this weekend

It’s been a long weekend and I’m exhausted, but I like the situation my girlfriend finds herself in now. She has an apartment in the Holly Hills neighborhood in south St. Louis.Holly Hills is a pretty swanky place to live, if you have a house. The apartment situation is a bit different. A comparable one-bedroom apartment in the working-class suburb where I live would cost about $200 a month more than what she’s paying, and some of her utilities are included. You won’t find that in Mehlville. What you’re more likely to find is an apartment like the one where I lived for nearly five years, which was in a fairly safe neighborhood, but the building was about 20 years old and was falling apart, in spite of them wanting $550-$575 a month for a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen so small you couldn’t have both the fridge and the oven doors open at the same time.

And I noticed, as I looked down Gravois Ave. towards Holly Hills Ave. from Loughborough, that this neighborhood still has class. A block up the street is an old sign that reads 4 Sports & More. Twenty years ago, that was called The Baseball Card Store. The name of the guy who owned it escapes me, but I remember going there frequently to buy baseball cards. He retired about 10 years ago. Under the new ownership, the shop didn’t last long. It’s a shame, really.

Next door is what used to be a Rexall drugstore. I don’t know if the Rexall was still there 20 years ago. It’s a payday loans place now, a sign of the times. It wasn’t as easy to get a credit line 20 years ago, so it wasn’t as easy to overextend yourself.

On the end of the strip is an old-fashioned hardware store. The couple who own it are getting up in years so I don’t know how long it’ll still be there. It’ll be a shame if it closes. It’s not like those big box stores. Those two know exactly where everything is in their store, and they can tell you exactly what to do with it. No, I’m not being impolite. The two of them really are handy. And from what I can tell, she’s the handier of the two.

Across the street, there’s Elicia’s Pizza. It’s a local chain that serves up St. Louis-style pizza. It’s ultra-thin and sliced square. As far as famous St. Louis chains, it probably ranks fourth, and it may be a distant fourth, in numbers and fame. Quality-wise, I’d rank it second behind Fortel’s. We ordered pizza from there on Saturday. I kid you not, they had it ready in less than 10 minutes flat.

I have no idea what the proper name for these things are, but there’s a big clock on a pole on the street, too. It looks like the ones you see in a movie, or on a train layout or one of those ceramic villages. And it works.

It’s obviously not the bustling commercial district it once was, with about half the storefronts closed up, but it has charm and character. Who’s going to get nostalgic at the sight of a strip mall in Mehlville or Oakville?

Closer to her apartment, it’s a residential district. On the way there, you can see $200,000 homes and you can see a handful of $500,000+ homes. It’s near a big city park. The homes are old, so the trees are mature. One of the streets is even split to allow more trees to grow in the middle. It’s a gorgeous sight in the fall.

I’m happy for her. She has a nice apartment. She’s free from a very overbearing roommate. Her utility bills are about to take a dive. She has three grocery stores within two miles. And the neighborhood looks like a postcard.

I wish I’d known about the place when I moved back to St. Louis six years ago.

The best band you’ve never heard of

I went to a Bebo Norman concert last night. Bebo Norman is a Christian singer/songwriter. I saw him open for Third Day a few months ago, and as good as Third Day was, Bebo kind of stole the show.
What goes around comes around. One of Bebo’s opening acts was the David Crowder Band. All I knew about them going in was they were from Waco, Texas. I didn’t expect much. But they blew me away.

David Crowder has an unusual voice. Sometimes it reminds me some of the lead singer for Toad the Wet Sprocket, if you remember them. And sometimes it reminds me of Elvis Costello. But I find I’m really reaching. It’s different enough to grab you, but not so different as to make you uncomfortable. There, how’s that?

He has an appearance that’ll grab you and might make you uncomfortable. He has really wild hair, thick eyebrows and a goatee that’s a good three inches long. He wears glasses with the thick black frames, similar to the standard military-issue glasses. Normally I’d call them unstylish, but they look fine on him.

The band is loud. Really loud. And in addition to the expected electric and acoustic guitars (lots of ’em), bass, and drum, they frequently mix in synthesizers, samples, and violin. It’s been a long time since a band has floored me with its sound, but these guys did. All of their songs could have been about motor oil and I would have bought all their records. Since I was pretty sure I heard them mention God a few times (it was hard to tell over all that double-time clapping) I had double excuse to buy all their records. So I went to their booth at intermission and bought all their records.

The current one is called “Can You Hear Us?” It’s loud. I don’t think David Crowder’s favorite Psalm is “Be still and know I am God.” But you know how a lot of bands are an angry loud, or at least an angst-y loud? DCB is a happy loud.

It starts off fairly slow and easy and segues into loud and fast. The album roughly alternates fast and slow numbers for the duration. I think there needs to be a radio station that does nothing but play it over and over. So I guess I like it, but I can’t nail down exactly why. It’s loud and quirky and uses a lot of instruments. But just as Butt-Head knew it takes more than bears to make a video cool (even though Beavis didn’t), it takes more than volume and quirks and lots of instruments to make a record cool. I don’t know what that is but they’ve got it.

One of my favorite bands of all time is The Cars, and I think part of what I liked about them was how they mixed quirkiness with really good musicianship. I wouldn’t say DCB sounds like The Cars. But they take that formula another direction.

David Crowder got his start by recruiting college students for worship services, which led to him co-founding a church called University Baptist Church in Waco, and eventually he started writing his own songs. I don’t know about using some of the songs for a church service, at least not in Mehlville and Oakville, Missouri, but I’ll listen to it when I’m not in church, that’s for certain.

And if I’m ever in Waco, I’ll check out his church to see how they make those songs work in that setting.

Video editing on a shoestring

When you go to a church like Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Dayton, Ohio, or St. John’s Lutheran Church in Ellisville, Mo., it’s easy to get overwhelmed with their video productions. They produce slick, professional, grabbing pieces that wouldn’t look out of place on broadcast TV.
Then you go look at their production studios, and feel overwhelmed. I know one of the computers St. John’s uses cost $10,000. That’s not counting the video decks and cameras. You can spend $50,000 to get the stuff you “need” to get serious about making movies.

I don’t have 50 grand and I don’t know anyone who does. If I were getting into this today, these are the things I would buy:

1. Computer. Get an IBM-compatible. All the critical apps for editing are available on PCs, and you can get a PC for next to nothing. Yes, you can edit on an iMac. I wouldn’t want to. At Faith Lutheran Church in Oakville, we edit on a P4 1.5 GHz. I can’t remember if it has 128 or 256 MB of RAM. It does have two 10K RPM SCSI drives. I suggest buying a PC with a gigahertz-plus CPU, DDR memory to be sure (yes, SDRAM is cheap, but speed of memory seems to be more important than quantity–you should be perfectly happy with 256 MB of DDR), and a couple of SCSI drives. Today’s IDE drives are fast enough for pure DV work, but you might not always have DV sources. Use some of the money you save by not buying a Mac to buy SCSI drives. A pair of 36-gig drives was sufficient to produce a 22-minute documentary with room to spare.

Hint: Get your SCSI drives at www.hypermicro.com. Fast delivery, good prices, great customer service. They don’t give me any freebies or any money and I have no affiliation with them. They just have the best prices on SCSI stuff I’ve found.

The budget varies. A $1,000 PC will suffice but you might want more power.

2. Pinnacle DV500. This card is very finicky, so go to www.pinnaclesys.com and look at their installation guides. Buy a motherboard or system they have a guide for. Follow their instructions precisely. I got the DV500 to work on a motherboard Pinnacle didn’t test, but it took me a week.

There are other boards from Matrox and Canopus. The boards look good on paper. I’m not familiar with them. If you compare them with a DV500 and their offerings look better, feel free to get one of them. I haven’t looked, because I was in the market a year ago and at the time the DV500 was the best. I don’t look now because I might be tempted to buy.

Whatever you get, make sure it comes with Adobe Premiere or Sonicfoundry Vegas Video at a minimum. Most boards throw in some titling software and other extras. You want them. Titling isn’t Premiere’s forte. Pinnacle’s titling app is so simple to use, it’s frightening. Remember, Premiere costs mosre on its own than these editing boards, and these boards accelerate some of Premiere’s functions.

I like Premiere but it’s what I leanred. Some people tell me Vegas is easier to learn initially.

The other thing these boards give you, besides acceleration of some video functions, is firewire ports and composite and S-Video inputs and outputs, which you’ll need at the very least for video preview, and for taking video input from analog sources.

Budget $500.

3. Monitors. A dual-head display isn’t a necessity but it’s nice if you can afford to do it. I use a 19-inch NEC Multisync (the model I have is discontinued), and Faith uses the same monitor. A pair of NEC or Mitsubishi monitors would be nice. Get a 19 and a 17 or two 17s if your budget is tight. But we survive just fine on single 19s. Budget at least $200.

A video monitor is a must because your video will look different on TV than it does on your SVGA monitors. A $70 13-inch TV from a local discount house will do fine as long as it has composite inputs, as most do today. I use an old Commodore 1702 monitor (the standard-issue monitor for the Commodore 64) and it’s fabulous, but those are in short supply today. A monitor with S-Video inputs would be nice, but I like to look at my video on lowest-common-denominator equipment. If the device has both types on inputs, hook them both up and check how your work looks both ways. Budget $99.

4. VCR. You’ll need one. The nicer the better, of course, but if all you can afford is a $60 discount house model or a hand-me-down, that’s fine. You’ll be asked for VHS copies of your work, and sometimes you’ll have to use VHS as a source. Budget $75.

5. Camera. I learned on JVC cameras so I’m partial to them. Digital-8 is cheaper, but MiniDV is the emerging standard. If you shop around, you can find a MiniDV camera for under $500, especially if you’re willing to buy a refurb. Nice extras are image stabilization and inputs for an external microphone. You can live without those, but it’s best if you can get them. And you definitely need a tripod. Get one with a fluid head for smooth motion. I bought the cheapest Bogan fluid-head tripod ($130 at a local camera shop) and love it. Budget $650.

6. Lights. Talk to a photographer. We haven’t bought any yet, and it shows.

Assuming you already have a suitable PC and monitor, you can get going for under $1,500. Later, you’ll want to add Adobe AfterEffects and a good sound editor, and more cameras, and more lights, and you’ll work your way towards 50 grand. But the most important thing is to have stories to tell. Tell great stories, and people will find money to fund your video work.

The best week of my life revisited

Well, I got word this week that my first video of significant length landed on the desk of the founder of Adventures in Missions. And he liked it.
It made its St. Louis debut the Sunday before last. I think it did its job. The subject was my church’s June mission trip to Belle Glade, and a number of the people who were there cried.

“God, send us some signs or something,” prayed the 15-year-old son of Christian author Tim Wesemann, about 30 seconds into the video.

Sign? You got it. A kid named Matthew set off an alarm in room 229 in the church where we spent our first night. So, for what seemed like an eternity, the PA system bellowed, “2-2-9.” And it beeped a lot too.

The minute he prayed and asked for forgiveness, it stopped. Things like that happened a lot that week.

That afternoon, someone looked up Matthew 22:9.

That became our theme. Which reminds me: We need to make t-shirts.

About halfway through, the words, “Wednesday, June 19, 2002: A night to remember” flashed up, simple white letters on a black screen. One of the girls turned back to me. “You got that on tape!?” I nodded. I shot at least three hours of tape that night. She reached back and squeezed my hand.

Let me tell you something about Wednesday night. I don’t know everything that was going through everyone’s minds that night, but by Wednesday, most of our kids (28 in all, I think) had been to the gates of hell and back. They were seeing the desperate situation the people in Belle Glade were living in, and although we’re middle-class white guys and gals from south suburban St. Louis, we live in luxury compared to any of them. We live in nice houses, drive nice cars, and get to eat pretty much anything we want, whenever we want. We don’t have to worry about any of our basic needs.

In Belle Glade, “affordable housing” often means four concrete walls, a concrete floor and roof, some kind of bed, and a 110-volt outlet to plug a hotplate into. A sink is a luxury. A lot of “discount” stores selling low-quality food abound. The food is affordable but not worth the prices they’re forced to pay for it. Blaxploitation at its finest. It’s pretty sickening.

And on Tuesday, there was an incident. One of the kids from our downtown VBS, an eight-year-old, got into a fight with a 13-year-old. The eight-year-old was everyone’s favorite. His was probably the saddest story we’d heard down there. But there was something else about him too. I had limited contact with him (I worked the other VBS) but I can attest to it. He drove me nuts most of the time. But I liked him.

Well, the angel they’d seen that morning flashed his other side. At one point, he had a big rock that he was ready to throw at the 13-year-old–a big-enough rock that if he beaned him with it with enough velocity, it’d do some permanent damage. And the fire in his eyes suggested he was more than willing–if not able–to do just that.

Being an adult, I’ve seen people who have such polar extremes. Not everyone in their early teens has yet–and let’s face it, Oakville, Missouri is pretty sheltered. Seeing two people willing to fight, perhaps to the death, over something that warranted at most a minor scuffle represented a major loss of innocence, especially for the girls.

And the adults from the neighborhood wanted to just let the two kids fight it out and call the police when it ended. One of our adults intervened, broke up the fight, and seperated the two, and a group of people talked to each of them. We didn’t have any more problems of that sort with those two for the rest of the week.

On Wednesday, a couple of teenagers hopped onto the roof where we were holding our other VBS. They threw off a soccer ball and football that had been thrown up there. One of them also picked up a five-pound iron weight, attached to a belt–a crude gang weapon–that was up there. A number of kids were playing in front of the building. He pitched the weight off the top of the roof. He probably wasn’t thinking. And he probably didn’t care, to be honest. The weight came down off the 12-foot roof (he’d probably pitched it up a bit higher, so it may have fallen 18, even 20 feet) and hit a little girl on the head. It bounced off, like a rubber ball. She wasn’t hurt at all. She was scared because she didn’t know what happened, and because our kids were terrified–you know how kids are, they get scared when adults think there’s supposed to be something terribly wrong–but completely unharmed.

Those were just the major events of Tuesday and Wednesday. Enough other things happened both days to fill a book each.

End long digression. Wednesday night was a crescendo. Georgia-based worship leader Joey Nicholson was singing songs and leading us in worship, and his song selections seemed especially poignant that night. Emotions were running high and our kids were exhausted. Our kids were crying, hugging each other, encouraging each other… The total opposite of the all-too-common cold and impersonal church service. At some point, one of the boys in my subgroup–Matthew, he of 2-2-9 and a source of a lot of gray hair for me, prior to that day–walked up to the stage and knelt down to pray. And he stayed there. The rest of the kids stayed pretty much where they were, singing, crying, hugging, consoling, for about two songs. He was still up there alone, praying and it was pretty clear he wasn’t going to budge. Our pastor tried to inconspicuously walk up there. Well, that didn’t exactly work. He walked up, put his hand on his shoulder, and knelt down next to him, talking to him and praying with him. The next thing I knew, all 28 of our kids were up there with them. By the time I knew what was going on, I was one of about five adults still standing. We didn’t waste much time joining them. I ran my handheld camera as I walked up and knelt down, but then I turned it off. What was going on up there was between each of us and God. I wasn’t going to invade that.

We were up there for about an hour, praying for each other.

It was a Lutheran altar call, I guess. No decisions for Christ there–Lutherans believe that’s pointless, because it’s God who empowers us to come to Him–but there were plenty of people talking to God about what their present life looked like and asking God what He wanted them to be doing with it, instead of what they were currently doing with it.

With all due respect to Promise Keepers, 10 PK rallies can’t match the intensity of those few hours that night for the 43-or-so people who were there. Yeah, it was that significant.

That was the self-indulgent memories portion. My gift to those who went, pure and simple. The remaining 19 minutes were about the various ministries we participated in while in Belle Glade. I’ll make no bones about it–it was a propaganda piece. The group that organized our trip had been talking about pulling out of Belle Glade, making our trip the last one there. After seeing so many lives transformed, I wanted to convince them not to do that.

They’ve told us their plans to pull out are history. Mission #1 accomplished.

There were 38 of us who went on the trip, but according to LCMS records, our congregation has 1380 members. Obviously it’s not realistic to send 1,380 people, but a congregation our size can send more than 38. I wanted to make the people who didn’t go jealous, so they’d want to go next year.

Time will tell if that works. Right now it looks like it will.

And I had a fourth objective too. There are lots of churches in Belle Glade. Most of the churches we came in contact with weren’t doing much outreach. I don’t know why that is, and I’m not going to speculate. But here’s what happened: 38 white guys and gals from St. Louis came in for a week. They didn’t have a clue what they were doing. But every ministry we touched caught fire. By the end of the week, every time a group of us walked down the street, someone stopped them. “Where are you from?” And when we’d answer, “St. Louis,” the people would say, “We’ve heard about you.” Then they’d tell us what we’d been doing. Then they’d thank us.

So the question in my mind was, if 38 St. Louisans can come down and spend a week and lots of great things happen, what can the churches that are down there do the other 51 weeks out of the year?

To my knowledge, the video’s been shown at two different churches, one in Belle Glade and one in Wellington, an affluent community a half hour away.

I hope they’re insanely jealous too.

Not that any of that was going through my mind as I watched. No. I was noticing how the audio needed to be normalized, and how a few of the shots desperately needed either to have been shot on a tripod or a healthy dose of post-production image stabilization, and how awful the lighting was and how nice it would have been to be able to do some post-production color correction.

Powerful? Sure. Worthy of winning a Telly? No way.

But the media director at church just told me to win a Telly. She didn’t tell me when. So there’s always next year.

But if we go back next year and I make a video about it and we win a Telly, I’ll betcha the Telly still isn’t the highlight of my year.

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