Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Bit of Self-Reflection on a Tuesday

For those of you who don't know, I've started riding my bike again this year, and I am really enjoying being back on it again.  It has felt nice to conquer my fear of it after the little incident that occurred on it last March.  

In any case, one of the drawbacks to riding my bike is that my little area of the world is quite hilly. I suppose if I was training for the Tour de France, this would be a good thing.  But since I just ride for exercise and leisure, it kind of sucks to have very few flat areas where you can just sit back and ride.  

Because of this, a significant portion of my bike rides take place in a church parking lot that's just up the road from my neighborhood.  I ride up there and then spend a good chunk of the hour or so that I'm on my bike just riding in figure-eights around this nice, flat parking lot.  It provides a nice area for me to ride and get a decent workout, even though it's kind of boring.  

In any case, when I was riding my figure-eights today, I got to thinking about my stalled-out writing career, and the fact that I haven't finished a piece of fiction in about eight years, and haven't finished, or even done significant work on, a novel in eleven years.  I think being 39, and on the verge of the big Four-Oh, is weighing on me, because I've been thinking a lot about this lately.  I basically "gave up" long fiction when I turned 30, although it was only supposed to be temporary, so I could go back to school and get established in a good job before returning to novel writing later.

I graduated in December of 2009 and got a job in 2010, but the novel writing has pretty much remained in the OFF position.  I've made a few false starts on editing old books, and a false start or two on some short stories, but for all intents and purposes, I have simply become a small-time blogger, a work newsletter editor, and an occasional ghostwriter for friends' educational and professional needs.  And that's it.  There's nothing fiction about me anymore.  There's nothing book about me anymore.  

And I hate that.

So as I was circling the nice flat, easy-riding church parking lot today, doing my figure-eights, I was thinking about how I have done the same thing with my writing career - and my career in general - as I do with my bike riding routine. Avoiding the rigors of the hills and valleys, taking the easy way out, and just riding in circles.  

When I was 20 years old and a piano major in college, I didn't want to practice the piano two hours a day anymore, or give a scary public senior recital, so I quit music and majored in history instead.  Why did I major in history?  Because I wanted to do something important with that degree?  No, because it was the only thing I could major in and still graduate on time.

I took the easy way out.  Then, when I graduated, did I go on to graduate school, as I had long planned?  No, I decided to pursue a writing career, saying I'd go back to school when I was 30 if nothing panned out with the writing.  

When I turned 30, did I go to graduate school?  I did apply, yes, but when I didn't get accepted, I gave up and decided to do something simpler - namely X-ray school. 

Now I'm an X-ray tech, and have I gone on to get certified in another, higher-paying modality, like I planned in X-ray school?  


Instead I'm just riding in circles on the flat ground.  Taking the easy way out. 

Now, there's nothing at all wrong with being an X-ray tech.  That's not my point.  I enjoy being an X-ray tech and I'm not really interested right now in moving into a different area of imaging.  I also don't have much interest in administration.  

But I do want to write.  And there is no reason anymore, other than sheer laziness and taking the easy way out, that I shouldn't be writing again like I did in my 20's, when I completed five novels in about seven years.  

It's time for me to stop riding in circles.  It's time to stop avoiding the hills.  It's time to start seriously writing fiction again.

With that in mind, this anonymous comment I received recently on a blog post where I posted an Emily Dickinson poem, is quite timely: 
I have stumbled into your blog before, I see much less poetry these days! Write! :) Emily is wonderful but I enjoy your creativity. I'll undoubtedly peek back in a few months to look for progress. Lol 
I have no idea who left this comment, and the context implies that it's not someone I know.

So I prefer to think of it as a little vote of confidence, a little voice of encouragement, from God or the Universe or whatever you want to call it.

It's time to get to work.  It's time to write.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

How the Government Spends Your Tax Dollars

The White House website has an interesting interactive page where you can go and look at how and where your federal tax dollars are spent.  Since people are always complaining about paying taxes, especially in regards to their pre-conceived notions about how those tax dollars are being used by the government, I thought it would be instructive to take a close look, based on this information from the government's website, about where, exactly your tax dollars go.  

The following information is based on 2013 tax and spending receipts, and is based on a married couple with two children who make $80,000 per year.  Let's call this family the Smith Family.  

The biggest single category that the Smith's 2013 income tax dollars went to was Medicare.  $484.89, or about 11% of their total income taxes paid, went to support Medicare payments to doctors and pharmacies.

Almost as much, $467.09, went to Medicaid (which provides basic health care services for poor people and children).  

Another $140 or so went to various other healthcare-related services, for a grand total of $1,093.50, or about 25% of the Smith's total income tax expenditures.  

Almost the exact same amount - $1,076.13, or another 25% of the Smith's tax dollars - went to various programs falling under the category of National Defense.  That category basically includes everything related to the U.S. military and its active operations and expenditures.  I stress the word "active" because it does not include Veteran's Administration costs or military retirement and disability programs.  Those two categories fall under a different heading.  The Smith's spent $213.15 on Veteran's benefits (including healthcare and income and housing support), and $224.00 on military retirement and disability benefits.  

Therefore, the total expenditures related to the military and its services, was about $1,500.00, or roughly 35% of the Smith's total income tax dollars - making it by far the largest category. 

The next category is what we generally think of as "welfare."  It includes a number of programs, including Unemployment Insurance ($23.44 for the Smith's in 2013), food stamps and school lunches for poor kids ($168.86), Supplemental Security Income, which pays for assistance to elderly poor and disabled people ($91.60), and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which is your basic welfare check to poor people ($30.39).  That's right, the infamous welfare check cost this family of four, making a household income of $80K per year, exactly thirty dollars in 2013.  

The total expenditures for the Smith family in this "welfare" category is $814.81. However, this category includes the aforementioned military retirement and disability program, and that's actually the largest program in this category.  It also includes retirement programs for railroad workers, child care, foster care, and adoption support, and spending related to various tax credits.  

What that means is that the total amount that the Smith family paid for actual federal welfare programs in 2013 was $314.29.

What remains after these large categories are a number of smaller categories like water and land management, environmental protection, educational programs, international affairs, including support of U.S. embassies abroad, border security, the federal judicial system, and natural disaster support funding.    

All told, the Smith family spent about $4,300.00 in income taxes in 2013.  Defense expenses, together with Medicare and Medicaid, accounted for almost exactly half of these dollars - about $2,200.00.  Adding in Veteran's Administration spending and military pensions, the amount goes up to about $2700.00, or about 60% of the total.  The remainder was divided up among several dozen smaller categories.

In addition to these federal income taxes, the Smith's, of course, also paid $4,960.00 for Social Security, and $1,160.00 for Medicare.  This second Medicare tax is separate from the $484 the Smith's paid to support Medicare payments to doctors and pharmacies.  This Medicare tax, which is taken separate from income tax, supports hospital services.  

In the end, the vast majority - almost 50% of the total - of the Smith's federal taxes went to Social Security.  About 20% went to Medicare and Medicaid.  About 15% went to Defense, military, and veteran spending.  

Those three categories alone - Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, and Defense/Veterans - account for about 85% of the total federal taxes paid by the Smith's in 2013.  

Every single other federal government spending category is spread out among the remaining 15% of the Smith's tax expenditures.  Perhaps most significantly, roughly 3% of the Smith's total went to various federal welfare programs.  Only 0.3% (30 dollars) went to TANF, or the infamous "welfare check."  

I hope you'll keep these facts and figures in mind the next time you start to feel righteous indignation in how the federal government is spending your tax dollars.  It might also be important to remember that the government spends a great deal of money on so-called "corporate welfare," which is comprised of grants and subsidies to businesses.  This spending is categorized differently from other government spending and is therefore not included in the above analysis of how individual tax dollars are spent.  However, you should keep in mind that the U.S. government spends about 100 billion a year in these corporate subsidies, which averages out to about $6,000 per family in the United States.  

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Notes from the Cave

It's been a bad few months if you're a Serene Musings fan.  And since there are SO many of you, that makes for a lot of unhappy people.  Thankfully, here's a Notes from the Cave for you.

When I was a kid, I really loved the Smurfs.  The Smurfs were pretty much my #1 cartoon.  Being that I grew up before the days of Cartoon Network, Netflix, the proliferation of every show imaginable on DVD and Blu-Ray, etc., cartoons were available on Saturday morning and for an hour or two in the afternoon after school.  And that was it.  As for the Smurfs - they were only shown on Saturday morning.  For that reason, I spent pretty much every Saturday morning glued to the television, with the highlight of the morning being the Smurfs, which I seem to recall came on at 9:30 and were shown until 11:00.  

90 minutes of cartoon bliss for young Scott.

Anyway, throughout my childhood, there was one episode in particular that was sort of like Shangri-La or the Lost City of Atlantis for me.  This was because I had seen this particular episode one time when I was really young, and I had really loved it, but then I never saw it again.  It entailed a Rip Van Winkle theme, and involved the Smurfs dressing up like old men with white beards in order to teach Lazy Smurf a lesson when he woke up from his nap.  Like Rip Van Winkle, Lazy thought he'd been asleep for decades, and everyone had aged in his absence.  

Even though rerun episodes were shown every week (except for the fall, when the new season episodes ran), I never again saw this particular episode.  Practically every week, I would wonder if maybe this was the week they'd show it...but it never came to pass.  The Smurfs got canceled in 1990, and I was a 15-year-old high school student by that time anyway, and I never did get to see that episode again.  It became, as I said, a sort of Lost Episode that I often thought about over the years.  It even took on a sort of mythical quality for me.  Had I really ever seen this episode, or did I dream it up one day in my childhood?  

Fast forward to the first week of June, 2014.  My 8-year-old daughter is on a Smurfs kick right now for some reason and so we were on Amazon Prime looking for Smurfs episodes to download for her.  

And that's when it happened.  

I'm flipping through the available episodes when I see this title scroll by on the screen:

Smurf Van Winkle 

There it is!  The Lost Episode!  IT DOES EXIST!  

So I downloaded it for $1.99 and finally, after a 32-year wait, I got to watch this mythical episode once again.  

Reading about it online, I discovered that it was an episode that first aired in Season Two - specifically in November of 1982, which is when I would have been in 2nd grade. Presumably, that was the one time I saw it.  

So that's one thing I can mark off my bucket list. 

As some of you may know, we recently got a new dog.  Her name is Sophie and she is a pure-bred Havanese, which is a toy breed similar in size to a Maltese or Westie.  

They were originally bred as circus dogs in Cuba (hence the name, which references Havana), and they are very good at doing tricks and learning commands.  We've had Sophie for about a month now, she's 14 weeks old, and I have already taught her to sit, stay, come, heel, beg, fetch, and ring bells on command.  We're continuing to work on those commands and also on leash walking.  We've had two previous dogs, and neither of them ever walked very well on a leash.  So I have been determined to leash train Sophie, and although it has been a battle at times, she is picking it up.  It's really important to me to be able to take my dog on a walk and not have her pulling and yanking on the leash the whole time.  

I planned for this dog much better than the previous dogs we bought.  I even read a book, before we got her, about raising puppies, written by Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer.  His techniques really do work.  Like he recommends, I have established myself as Sophie's pack leader, and it really does make a difference.  I can see now how we made numerous mistakes with our previous dogs, Katie (who died a few years back) and Finley, who was so bad we had to give him away after a year and a half.  

We went to Disney World in April and that was really fun.  It was my first time back since I was 15 years old, and it was the first time for my kids.  We went with my sister-in-law's family, so they kids got to experience it with their cousins.  

We had a really good time, and my 12-year-old actually acted like her old self for a week.  It was so nice to have a daughter who wasn't sullen and hostile every waking moment of the day!  Naturally, she went right back to normal when we got home.  Oh well. 

In July, we are going to see my parents in Texas.  It will be the first time we've gone there since 2008, and likely the last time we go, since my parents intend to retire next year and move up here to be closer to us.  That trip in 2008 is the only time I've been in the last decade, and the 6 years that have elapsed since that trip is the longest I've gone without a visit down there.  

Seems like there should be more to talk about, but I'll spare you.