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Imagine living in a space that measures a mere 168 square feet, more than 14 times smaller than the average American home. That’s the reality for one family of four who, for the past year, has been living in their “Tiny House” tucked away in the rural mountains of Virginia.  It’s here, they say, that they’ve truly learned how less can be so much more. In fact, in just one year the family has managed to save about $3,000 a month by downsizing in more ways than one.

The move began when Hari, her husband Karl and their two young children Archer and Ella were forced to give up their 1,500 square foot home last year due to financial struggles. Hari and Karl decided to take matters into their own hands, literally, by building their new tiny house with just $13,000 in materials found on Craigslist. Karl’s a bit of a handyman, to say the least. His parents helped build homes for a living and he learned the ropes at a young age.

The Tiny House is temporary. The end goal, they say, is to save enough to one day build a bigger home, one that’s 100% mortgage-free. And with the amount they’ve saved so far, they’re right on schedule to do so.

“We’re about to enter the first phase of building our new home, which is a 16×24 completion with wings so we can add onto it the more we save,” says Karl. “In the end, it’s going to measure 1,000 square feet and we’re going to build it on the same land.”

I first met Hari and Karl on The Anderson Show earlier this year. Fascinated by their story, I ventured to their home in Virginia with my Financially Fit team to see it for ourselves and learn ways we can all downsize.

Living in much smaller quarters, Hari says, has encouraged the family to be more conscious about how they spend in various ways. “Our lifestyle, how we eat, our entertainment…all that has changed as a result of living here,” she says.

For starters, the family has recently begun growing their own fruits and vegetables which lets them to eat healthier, cut down their carbon footprint and slash their grocery bill. “I’m not the best gardener, but I’m trying…learning and making mistakes all the way. That’s how you get good at it,” she says.

Hari has also been “upcycling,” as she calls it. It’s the act of taking something old and breathing new life into it. “I made one of our rugs out of some old sheets. They actually fit the house much nicer than if I had gotten something from the store, ” she says.

Both Hari and Karl recently changed jobs, but not for more money. In fact, they’ll be earning less than in their previous positions. Karl is enjoying better working conditions at a new restaurant, and Hari left teaching to pursue a career in non-profit. Being able to afford a career you love and pursuing a passion rather than a paycheck, they’ve learned, is just an added benefit to having savings and no debt. Both have more flexible hours in their new jobs, which provides more time for Karl for to work on the next house and Hari to devote to her burgeoning blog, TinyHouseFamily.com.

Their children also seem keen to the transition. Mom and dad are happy to report fewer requests for video games and toys, now that the kids are busy playing outdoors on their three-acre property.

Still another lesson that’s stemmed from the family’s overall tiny experience, is that when you choose to live modestly, it helps to have a support system along the way. “If you’re trying to downsize but are surrounded by friends who are outfitting themselves with the latest gadgets and fashions, it makes it difficult,” says Hari. “We’re lucky to have like-minded neighbors and have found that when your friends and family are on the same page as you, making a big-time adjustment like this is much easier,” she says.

Pope Is Jewish

Joyce Porter sits in a booth at the old downtown Diamond Deli, across the street from the Centre County Courthouse where her friend Jerry Sandusky is being tried on 52 counts of sexually molesting children.

She nibbles chicken salad on a croissant and uses a somewhat shocking analogy for why she maintains undying support for the most hated man in Pennsylvania, if not beyond.

“When everyone was persecuting Jesus, someone had to stand with him,” Porter said.

Joyce Porter It’s worth noting that Porter didn’t say Jerry Sandusky was Jesus, just that in her view the situation has similarities. Although she does hold the former Penn State defensive coordinator in the highest esteem.

“A saint,” she said. “A wonderful guy.”

Porter is part of a select group – the few, the proud, the ultra loyal. Each day of the Sandusky trial, a small cadre of family and friends huddle on the benches in the courtroom’s right side, not far from Sandusky’s defense table. It’s usually just 6-10 people.

Considering the charges Sandusky faces, the seemingly endless parade of witnesses providing disturbing testimony against him and the appalling nature of his alleged acts, any support is more than one might expect.

Jerry Sandusky’s wife, Dottie, and their adopted son aren’t allowed in the courtroom because they are potential witnesses. So the rooting section is a handful of others, whoever is willing to sit with what is essentially the most scorned club in town.

This is what’s left of Sandusky’s inner circle. Porter, 64, and a friend of the Sanduskys for over four decades, figures there may be more, but acknowledges that publicly showing support is not easy.

“They are probably afraid to come,” she said.

They hug Sandusky when he enters the courtroom in the morning. They chat up his attorney, Joe Amendola, during breaks. Some take notes. Others try to help the defense with research or odd jobs. A few report back to Dottie on developments, so she can avoid media coverage.

For a defendant and a legal team under siege, they appear to be a welcome refuge.

“How is everybody this morning,” Amendola said to the group Wednesday. “Bright? Cheery?”

When he can, Sandusky walks over to share smiles and the occasional laugh.

“I give him a hug every day and tell him I love him,” Porter said.

Most in the group avoid public comment. A few were willing to talk off the record or on background about Sandusky. Porter is different. She is unabashed in her support even though she knows how angry it makes people.

When a picture of her standing behind Sandusky after one legal proceeding appeared in the Altoona Mirror, she received outraged emails from family and friends.

“They were like, ‘What were you doing there? I’m shocked,’ ” Porter said. “And I said, ‘I’ve been his friend for 40 years. I’m not going to let that go. He just didn’t do these things.’ ”

They met when the Sanduskys first moved to State College in 1969. Their children were the same age. She and Dottie became fast friends. Everyone grew up together. She came to find Jerry as generous, gregarious, caring, fun and loving.

There is nothing the deputy attorney general can say to change her mind.

“One of the things that make me feel like I do is in 1985, we had a little boy with Down syndrome,” Porter said of Matt, one of her 14 children [nine natural, five adopted]. “Dottie and Jerry would take him over to their home. They were wonderful with him.

“… And my Matt just adores Jerry. You say to Matt, ‘Who’s the best?’ and he says, ‘Jerry!’ ”

Still, it isn’t easy to sit in court each day and hear about dastardly act after dastardly act. There’s some concern, but only because the whole picture, she says, isn’t being presented.

“I think if you didn’t know Jerry, you might think, ‘Wow, there’s eight of them,’ ” Porter said of the accusers. “If you know Jerry, there’s no way. There are thousands of kids [he's helped through the Second Mile charity]. And he affects people. He’s just wonderful with kids.”

Some of that is undeniable. The Second Mile did great work for many. But how does anyone reconcile showering alone with children?

“Do you do sports?” Porter argued. “Guys always go in the shower.”

Not with little boys.

“You ever go to the YMCA to go swimming?,” she said. “The locker rooms are filled with all ages. Men and women, all walking around naked. It’s no different.”

No different than showering alone in an empty locker room late at night, playing “soap battles”?

“However long as the YMCA swimming pool is open there are all aged nude people in the locker room,” she said. “And I think when you are a mother you realize boys are nudists. And I think football coaches, they’re always hanging out.”

She pauses, has a bite of her sandwich, a sip of iced tea and concedes it could be better.

“I mean, I think it looks bad for people that are prudes and in this day and age when you can’t touch a kid,” she said. “Jerry is a huggy, wonderful guy.”

Jerry Sandusky speaks with Centre County Sheriff Denny Nau. (Reuters)What about laying in bed with the kids?

“It’s a sign of him being fatherly,” she said. “Did your dad lay down with you when it was time to go to bed? I know my dad did with me.

“At nursery schools, if they are staying through the day, they rub their backs so they take a little nap. I mean we’re turning into a bunch of no-touchers. But counselors will take your knee and rub your knee when they talk to you. It’s supposed to make you more attentive.”

On and on it goes. She has her reasons to dispute any and all evidence. No matter what you think of Sandusky, the totality of Porter’s support is something to behold. This is the definition of loyalty.

She thinks the alleged victims are just out for money. She thinks they are disloyal considering everything Jerry tried to do for them through Second Mile. She thinks they embellished innocent acts. She can’t figure out what witness Mike McQueary is thinking. She just knows that she doesn’t believe anything he says.

Where much of the courtroom might see a credible witness, Porter says her natural instinct is jump and shout “liar!”

Move Or In Debt

Residents in Middleborough voted Monday night to make the foul-mouthed pay fines for swearing in public.

At a town meeting, residents voted 183-50 to approve a proposal from the police chief to impose a $20 fine on public profanity.

Officials insist the proposal was not intended to censor casual or private conversations, but instead to crack down on loud, profanity-laden language used by teens and other young people in the downtown area and public parks.

I’m really happy about it,” Mimi Duphily, a store owner and former town selectwoman, said after the vote. “I’m sure there’s going to be some fallout, but I think what we did was necessary.”

Duphily, who runs an auto parts store, is among the downtown merchants who wanted take a stand against the kind of swearing that can make customers uncomfortable.

“They’ll sit on the bench and yell back and forth to each other with the foulest language. It’s just so inappropriate,” she said.

The measure could raise questions about First Amendment rights, but state law does allow towns to enforce local laws that give police the power to arrest anyone who “addresses another person with profane or obscene language” in a public place.

Matthew Segal, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the government cannot prohibit public speech just because it contains profanity.

The ordinance gives police discretion over whether to ticket someone if they believe the cursing ban has been violated.

Middleborough, a town of about 20,000 residents perhaps best known for its rich cranberry bogs, has had a bylaw against public profanity since 1968. But because that bylaw essentially makes cursing a crime, it has rarely if ever been enforced, officials said, because it simply would not merit the time and expense to pursue a case through the courts.

The ordinance would decriminalize public profanity, allowing police to write tickets as they would for a traffic violation. It would also decriminalize certain types of disorderly conduct, public drinking and marijuana use, and dumping snow on a roadway.

Segal praised Middleborough for reconsidering its bylaw against public profanity, but said fining people for it isn’t much better.

“Police officers who never enforced the bylaw might be tempted to issue these fines, and people might end up getting fined for constitutionally protected speech,” he said.

Another local merchant, Robert Saquet, described himself as “ambivalent” about the no-swearing proposal, likening it to try to enforce a ban on the seven dirty words of George Carlin, a nod to a famous sketch by the late comedian.

“In view of words commonly used in movies and cable TV, it’s kind of hard to define exactly what is obscene,” said Paquet, who owns a downtown furniture store.

But Duphily said, “I don’t care what you do in private. It’s in public what bothers me.”

Turbo Tax

An Oregon woman is on the hook for what Internal Revenue Service investigators are calling one of the largest cases of tax fraud in the state’s history.

Krystle Marie Reyes, of Salem, Ore. allegedly weaseled more than $2 million from the state by filing a false return using automated TurboTax software, according to a police report obtained by Oregon Live.

Reyes, 25, reported $3 million in wages and claimed $2.1 million in returns, which worked its way through TurboTax’s system and was approved by the state. Soon enough, a Visa debit card loaded with the refund was in her hands.

What’s bizarre about the situation is how Reyes was caught. She reported the card as lost or stolen to the issuer, which apparently saw enough red flags to get the state’s revenue service on the case.

When Reyes was taken into custody June 6, she’d managed to spend about $150,000 over a two-month period, including a $2,000 Dodge Caravan and more than $800 in tires and wheels, according to the police report.

 

Her case underscores the debate over whether the IRS should issue refunds via debit cards.  On one hand, they’re a boon to unbanked Americans and enable consumers to see tax returns in as little as two weeks.

But that also means fraudsters can get their hands on cash faster than authorities can catch them. Reyes was running around Salem for two months before authorities cottoned on – and that was only after she practically served herself up on a silver platter by reporting the card stolen.

Oregon may have its own issues to sort out – the state reported $559 million in delinquent taxes in 2010 alone, according to Oregon Live – but tax fraud is running rampant nationwide.

The IRS counted more than 900,000 fraudulent tax returns in 2011 that totaled $6.5 billion – and that’s only counting returns that weren’t actually issued. The IRS told CNN earlier this year it couldn’t estimate how much cash has been doled out to scammers.

Real Cost Of War

Suicides are surging among America’s troops, averaging nearly one a day this year — the fastest pace in the nation’s decade of war.

The 154 suicides for active-duty troops in the first 155 days of the year far outdistance the U.S. forces killed in action in Afghanistan — about 50 percent more — according to Pentagon statistics obtained by The Associated Press.

The numbers reflect a military burdened with wartime demands from Iraq and Afghanistan that have taken a greater toll than foreseen a decade ago. The military also is struggling with increased sexual assaults, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and other misbehavior.

Because suicides had leveled off in 2010 and 2011, this year’s upswing has caught some officials by surprise.

The reasons for the increase are not fully understood. Among explanations, studies have pointed to combat exposure, post-traumatic stress, misuse of prescription medications and personal financial problems. Army data suggest soldiers with multiple combat tours are at greater risk of committing suicide, although a substantial proportion of Army suicides are committed by soldiers who never deployed.

The unpopular war in Afghanistan is winding down with the last combat troops scheduled to leave at the end of 2014. But this year has seen record numbers of soldiers being killed by Afghan troops, and there also have been several scandals involving U.S. troop misconduct.

The 2012 active-duty suicide total of 154 through June 3 compares to 130 in the same period last year, an 18 percent increase. And it’s more than the 136.2 suicides that the Pentagon had projected for this period based on the trend from 2001-2011. This year’s January-May total is up 25 percent from two years ago, and it is 16 percent ahead of the pace for 2009, which ended with the highest yearly total thus far.

Suicide totals have exceeded U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan in earlier periods, including for the full years 2008 and 2009.

The suicide pattern varies over the course of a year, but in each of the past five years the trend through May was a reliable predictor for the full year, according to a chart based on figures provided by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner.

The numbers are rising among the 1.4 million active-duty military personnel despite years of effort to encourage troops to seek help with mental health problems. Many in the military believe that going for help is seen as a sign of weakness and thus a potential threat to advancement.

Kim Ruocco, widow of Marine Maj. John Ruocco, a helicopter pilot who hanged himself in 2005 between Iraq deployments, said he was unable to bring himself to go for help.

“He was so afraid of how people would view him once he went for help,” she said in an interview at her home in suburban Boston. “He thought that people would think he was weak, that people would think he was just trying to get out of redeploying or trying to get out of service, or that he just couldn’t hack it – when, in reality, he was sick. He had suffered injury in combat and he had also suffered from depression and let it go untreated for years. And because of that, he’s dead today.”

Ruocco is currently director of suicide prevention programs for the military support organization Tragedy Assistance Programs, or TAPS. She joined the group after her husband’s suicide, and she organized its first program focused on support for families of suicide victims.

Jackie Garrick, head of a newly established Defense Suicide Prevention Office at the Pentagon, said in an interview Thursday that the suicide numbers this year are troubling.

“We are very concerned at this point that we are seeing a high number of suicides at a point in time where we were expecting to see a lower number of suicides,” she said, adding that the weak U.S. economy may be confounding preventive efforts even as the pace of military deployments eases.

Garrick said experts are still struggling to understand suicidal behavior.

“What makes one person become suicidal and another not is truly an unknown,” she said.

Dr. Stephen N. Xenakis, a retired Army brigadier general and a practicing psychiatrist, said the suicides reflect the level of tension as the U.S. eases out of Afghanistan though violence continues.

“It’s a sign in general of the stress the Army has been under over the 10 years of war,” he said in an interview. “We’ve seen before that these signs show up even more dramatically when the fighting seems to go down and the Army is returning to garrison.”

But Xenakis said he worries that many senior military officers do not grasp the nature of the suicide problem.

A glaring example of that became public when a senior Army general recently told soldiers considering suicide to “act like an adult.”

Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, commander of the 1st Armored Division, last month retracted — but did not apologize for — a statement in his Army blog in January. He had written, “I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act.” He also wrote, “”I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.” He did also counsel soldiers to seek help.

His remarks drew a public rebuke from the Army, which has the highest number of suicides and called his assertions “clearly wrong.” Last week the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, said he disagrees with Pittard “in the strongest possible terms.”

The military services have set up confidential telephone hotlines, placed more mental health specialists on the battlefield, added training in stress management, invested more in research on mental health risk and taken other measures.

The Marines established a counseling service dubbed “DStress line,” a toll-free number that troubled Marines can call anonymously. They also can use a Marine website to chat online anonymously with a counselor.

The Marines arguably have had the most success recently in lowering their suicide numbers, which are up slightly this year but are roughly in line with levels of the past four years. The Army’s numbers also are up slightly. The Air Force has seen a spike, to 32 through June 3 compared to 23 at the same point last year. The Navy is slightly above its 10-year trend line but down a bit from 2011.

As part of its prevention strategy, the Navy has published a list of “truths” about suicide.

“Most suicidal people are not psychotic or insane,” it says. “They might be upset, grief-stricken, depressed or despairing.”

In a report published in January the Army said the true impact of its prevention programs is unknown.

“What is known is that all Army populations … are under increased stress after a decade of war,” it said, adding that if not for prevention efforts the Army’s suicide totals might have been as much as four times as high.

Marine Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia, the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently issued a video message to all military members in which he noted that suicides “are sadly on the rise.”

“From private to general, we shoulder an obligation to look and listen for signs and we stand ready to intervene and assist our follow service member or battle buddy in time of need,” Battaglia said.

The suicide numbers began surging in 2006. They soared in 2009 and then leveled off before climbing again this year. The statistics include only active-duty troops, not veterans who returned to civilian life after fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor does the Pentagon’s tally include non-mobilized National Guard or Reserve members.

The renewed surge in suicides has caught the attention of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Last month he sent an internal memo to the Pentagon’s top civilian and military leaders in which he called suicide “one of the most complex and urgent problems” facing the Defense Department, according to a copy provided to the AP.

Panetta touched on one of the most sensitive aspects of the problem: the stigma associated seeking help for mental distress. This is particularly acute in the military.

“We must continue to fight to eliminate the stigma from those with post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues,” Panetta wrote, adding that commanders “cannot tolerate any actions that belittle, haze, humiliate or ostracize any individual, especially those who require or are responsibly seeking professional services.”

Navigation Hazard

A massive, 66-foot concrete dock mysteriously washed up on the Oregon shore this week. And officials are trying to figure out if the floating structure had traveled all the way from Japan after the March 2011 tsunami.

Local affiliate KATU reports that the dock has a placard with Japanese writing that they are attempting to translate. In addition, the station traced a phone number on the placard to a business located in Tokyo.

The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department sent a picture of the placard to the Japanese consulate in Portland for review.

“We don’t know where it’s from,” said Chris Havel with the parks department. “We don’t know if it’s from Japan or not but we have to eliminate those possibilities as we go forward.”

Even if the dock did travel thousands of miles to reach the shores of Oregon, it did not defy physics to get arrive there. While the structure is nearly 70 feet long, 7 feet tall and 19 feet wide and made of concrete and metal, it was also reportedly designed to float.

The dock was first spotted floating offshore but has now made its way to land. Kirk Tite was walking along the beach on Tuesday with his two sons and described the dock as a “massive hunk of concrete and metal covered in sea creatures.” They also found a Japanese symbol and imprint on tires attached to the dock, although those could simply indicate that the tires themselves were made in Japan.

“It says Shibata, Japan, which could mean it was made in Shibata, Japan, but it could also be from Shibata, Japan,” Tite said.

KATU says that after officials determine the dock’s origin, the parks department will either have it towed back to sea or dismantled on land.

Justice System?

A Myrtle Beach teen’s high school graduation on Saturday was ruined when her excited mom, Shannon Cooper, was arrested for cheering.

Although parents were reportedly warned that they would be asked to leave the auditorium where the ceremony was held if they applauded for individual students receiving their diplomas, Cooper disagreed with the policy. She told WPDE NewsChannel 15 that she decided, “I’m going to cheer, because…I’ve gone through too much to get her to this point.” She added incredulously, “I can’t let her know ‘I’m so proud of you?'”

When her daughter Iesha crossed the stage, Cooper claims that, “I got up and I said: ‘Yay, my baby made it! Just a regular cheer.'” That’s when police handcuffed her, escorted her to a van outside of the venue, and charged her with disorderly conduct. After the ceremony, her daughter broke down in tears when she spotted her mom being held in the van. “Are ya’ll serious? Are ya’ll for real? I mean, that’s what I’m thinking in my mind,” says Cooper. “I didn’t say anything. I was just like okay, I can’t fight the law.” She challenges the validity of the disorderly conduct charge since she says she fully cooperated with police. She and her daughter also assert that others were cheering and avoided arrest.

Cooper was moved to a detention center where she spent several hours. Ultimately, she was able to post a $225 bond and return home. Iesha says what should have been the best day of her life turned into the worst. “Yesterday [graduation day] can’t be replaced,” says the teen. “I’m going to remember…she’s going to remember for the rest of her life. My mama went to jail on my graduation day.”

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