Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Taxing Times Or Give Me My Money!

Tax season is still almost three months away but I'm already taking a stab at it.  I figured so much has changed over the last year I'd better start early.

I've always done my own taxes.  I've been using TurboTax since I can't remember when.  You may have heard about it in the news recently.  It's the tax preparation software of choice for the new Secretary of  the Treasury, Timothy Geithner.  You know, the guy who forgot to report income.  I hope it was his fault and not the software's.

This year's return is going to be a doozy but it should be one that has a happy ending.  This tax year we sold and bought a house.  We have property taxes and income in two different states.  We have some major charitable donations from all the junk we didn't sell at the garage sale.  The Wife has job seeking expenses (they're deductible!?!).  We have moving expenses.  And on and on.

Our past returns were fairly simple.  The most complicated thing was investment stuff.  This year the investment stuff was relatively easy.  In preparation of buying our Nebraska home we liquidated all our taxable investment early last year.  It saved us a bundle when the market took a dump last fall.  Oh, we lost money but it wasn't nearly as much as we could have lost.  It's scary, if the economy had melted down one year earlier or if we decided to move one year later, I probably wouldn't be posting from the Midwest.  We would have lost a lot more money and the decision to move would have been dubious.  We were lucky.

Based on what I've done so far, it looks like we're going to get a nice tax refund from the Feds and California.  Nebraska will contribute a smaller but still welcome refund.  Of course, every silver lining has a cloud:  I've heard that California may be doling out IOUs this year.  Damn California ... won't let us go.

Random tangent:  Have you ever noticed that "Tai Chi" sounds a lot like "Tax Cheat"?  I wonder, does Geithner practices Tai Chi?

Monday, January 26, 2009

I Feel The Ch'i

On Saturday the Wife and I attended our first Tai Chi class being offered by our local community college.  I'm hoping it will improve my balance and help me reduce stress and relax  As I have aged, my balance has slowly diminished.  Not terribly but noticeable to me.  It has often manifested itself as uncertainty while rock hopping - I sometimes feel unstable and uncertain.  When I was younger I was more confident in my balance.  

As for relaxation and stress - I have always been someone who finds it hard to relax.  There are times when I feel stuck in a fight or flight mode. I am also very antsy and find it difficult to stand still for long.  This manifests itself in fidgeting and hikes where I forget to stop and look around.  The Wife often says when I hike I'm racing.  She's right of course.  I need to slow down and take time to enjoy the moment.

The class started with introductions.  The teacher is a typical new-wave-vegetarian-feel-the-energy type.  I was a little worried that she would talk about the flow of life-energy and other new wave hooey.  The last time I was confronted with this kind of talk, I was at work and a consultant started talking about Feng Shui and negative energy.  I reached my limit, slammed my fist on the conference table, and said "Lady, this room is full of engineers.  We don't believe in this crap."  I have to admit that this was very cathartic at the time but I told myself I wouldn't do this in the class.  I didn't have to.  While she did talk about 'energy', she kept the mystic mumbo jumbo to a safe minimum.

I went into this class knowing very little about Tai Chi.  The teacher started taking us through some joint flexes.  Tai Chi emphasizes not stressing the body.  All motions are slow, careful, and deliberate.  This makes it perfect for people who have issues with muscle and joint pain.  It also helps with balance.  The slow pace and the slow flexing is supposed to help relaxation and relieve stress.  We moved from flexes to basic stationary moves and finished the hour with more complex walking movements.  I had some trouble near the end.  Coordinating the hand movements, foot movements, and breathing was taxing and at times I nearly lost it.  If I'd been chewing gum too, I would've overloaded and fallen flat on by a$$ for sure.

To my surprise and mild consternation the positions that are supposed to reduce the stresses on the joints were uncomfortable for me.  For example, the knees are not supposed to be locked.  You stand with your knees slightly bent.  This felt uncomfortable to me and I had to keep reminding myself to stop locking my knees.  I felt my legs shaking when I was supposed to be relaxed.  I also discovered that the slow pace of the flexing irritated me.  As I implied above, I'm not a very patient person.  I kept thinking that it was time to get on with it.  Not the best attitude to relieve stress I guess.  I have to work on that and the good thing is I want to work on it.

I'm hopeful that a lot of the issues I had should go away as my body gets used to the new motions and I get over myself and learn to relax.  I hope that six sessions will be enough to beat down my stubbornness.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Walking About

Yesterday the temps went up into the low 50s and I took the opportunity to go for a walk.  This was the first of what I will be calling Walkabouts.  I'm calling them this because because I don't consider them hikes.  To me a hike must take place in nature and the walkabout will be urban.  I also like the sound of the word.  Walkabout.  Waaaalk Aboout.  I like it.

This walkabout is the first of many I hope.  Combined with the hikes I will be doing and the bike rides, this will help get me ready for my 2010 Spanish pilgrimage.  Later this year I hope to do the Steamboat Trace trail (21-22 Miles) and the Cowboy trail (321 miles) to add some more distance.

I started this walkabout in downtown Omaha at the corner of 10th ans Jackson.  I walked north on 10th and then west on Farnum.  At midtown crossing, currently under construction, the sidewalks were closed so I had to detour north to Dodge.  AS you move west on Farnum and Dodge you climb over several hills each higher than the other.  At the top of the fourth hill I decided to turn south.

I followed 52nd street south through a very nice neighborhood of brick homes.  I was surprised to find the sidewalks icy along this stretch.  I thought the homeowners would have kept their nice neighborhood walks clean.

I turned east on Leavenworth.  It was just  after 11:00AM and I was getting hungry.  On dodge I passed all sorts of eating establishments.  On Leavenworth the choices were sparse.  The first place I hit was Bronco's Hamburgers.  I went in and found all four booths occupied.  I decided to continue walking to find somewhere I could sit down and rest.  Bad decision.  The only places I passed were bars.  I finally passed a couple places that could have been good - the 11-Worth Cafe and Dixie Quicks - but I decided to move on.  Not sure why.  I think it was the idea of sitting alone while eating.  I don't like eating alone in nicer restaurants and have no problem doing it in fast food joints.  Doesn't make much sense to me either.  I ended up at a Subway in the old market and followed that with ice cream at Maggie Moos.

When I got back to the car I'd walked about 8.2 miles.  (I've added a walkabout category to the sidebar.)  I figured this distance using Google Maps since I forgot my new pedometer at home where it was of no use at all.  I did have my camera and I added some pictures to my 2008-2017 Omaha And Surrounding Cities Google Photos album.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Day Made For Bike Riding

I finally got out today and it felt great.  I washed the car, stopped by the mart to get some sweats, and took a nice bike ride.

Today turned out to be a perfect day for a bike ride.  Temps in the 30s and 40s, just a tiny bit of wind, and blue skies.  I headed up the Keystone Trail -Central and continued on the Keystone Trail - North for a bit.  All in all I did 18.4 miles.

The trail was pretty clear except for some ice hiding in a few shadows.  I coasted over most of the ice without difficulty.  Most of the icy spots were either level or small.  I only had a problem at one spot where the icy patch was a couple or three bike lengths and was on a slight grade.  I lost momentum as I coasted over the ice and I had to pedal.  ZWOOP, my rear tire swung to the left.  I managed to stay upright and not crash.  On the way back, that spot wasn't much better but the sliding of my rear wheel wasn't nearly as scarey.

The most difficult thing about the ride was deciding what to wear.  I was  caught between being too cold and too warm.  I wore long Bike pants, long thermal underwear (bottoms and tops), sweat pants, and a long sleeve T-Shirt.  I also wore my new balaclava and gloves for the first time.  I was roasty-toasty but not too hot.  It was a little chilly at the start but by the time I got back I was just starting to break a sweat.  If anything my gloves are a little too warm.

Tomorrow, it's supposed to be even warmer with temps in the 50s.  I think that calls for a long walk.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Blues

I spent the day with CNN on watching the inauguration of the 44th President.  While I'm happy for the country, the events so far have been rather mute.  It may be all the challenges facing the President and the country as a whole or it may just be the overcast skies outside my window.

I expected to be moved like I'd been in 1989.  In December of 1989, in a Oahu hotel room, I watched the fall of the Berlin wall.  I felt a sense of awe at the changes I was witnessing.  The same feelings were not present today.

Maybe it's too early for me.  Maybe I'm tired of the hype and the impossible-to-achieve expectations.  Maybe I'm just a gloomy gus. President Obama is an intelligent man.  He appears to be doing the right thing.  He is surrounding himself with differing opinions.  He is looking towards the future instead of looking behind.  He mentioned science and technology in his inaugural address possibly making him the first geek President.  But with all these positives, he is still only one man and the challenges he faces are daunting.  

Good Luck President Obama.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Cabin Fever = Puny Posting

My posting this month has been a little anemic.  I really haven't been doing much worth writing about.  Part of it is the weather.  We had some brutal cold last week.  I've said I like the cold and I do but sub-zero temps are just dangerous and I like to think I'm not foolish.  The weather has really been cranking up the cabin fever.  CSI just isn't a good substitution for a bike ride or a hike.

The temperature went back up this weekend so I did finally get out a bit.  The Wife and I had lunch at King Kongs.  This is a local fast food place that serves some good food.  The smallest burger is 1/2 lb.  I had a Double Kong w/Cheese (1 lb).  After all that meat, I couldn't finish my fries.  That was okay as I wasn't very fond of the fries.

After lunch we went to a Hockey game and watched one of the Wife's cousin play a couple games.  They won both games.  I took the opportunity, at the Wife's suggestion, to practice my action photography.  My hat goes off to sports photographers.  Taking action shots is difficult and none of my shots were very satisfying.

On Sunday we went to Sioux City to have brunch with one of the brother-in-laws (TE).  We had some good food and a good time in general.  We visited the Wife's Niece's new digs - nice place, a perfect starter home.

The rest of the week is supposed to be a lot warmer so I'm hopeful that I'll be able to get a bike ride and a good long walk in before the cold returns next weekend.

Tomorrow will be a day in front of the tube watching history.  I'm all ready - my pint of Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie is in the freezer ready for consumption.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Travel Magnets Kaput

Not sure anyone noticed but, after 118 weeks straight, I ran out of travel magnets to add to the sidebar. I'm sure we'll buy more in the future but for now, the once a week ritual of adding a magnet will come to an end.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Slip Sliding Away

Not sure where this line of thought came from.  The past few days, when I'm lying in bed lost in thought, I've found myself thinking a lot about dreams.  I'm not one of those people who think there are messages in dreams and this post isn't about that.  Frankly I believe that dreams are just the brain's way of defragging itself.  This post is about my favorite dreams.  (I know, this is an odd post.  I'm feeling odd)

When I was in college, oh so many years ago, I read an article about lucid dreaming in Omni magazine (Omni magazine ... how I miss you.  You warped my perceptions and I thank you for that).  A lucid dream is where you become aware that you are in a dream.  When this happens you can sometimes take control of the dream and do whatever you want.  Think of it as an in-your-head holodeck.  I tried one of the techniques in the magazine article and was pleasantly surprised to experience a lucid dream the first night.

It was kind of amazing, realizing that you were dreaming and wondering what you should do next.  I tried to explore the dream world I was in ... the laundry room of my dorm actually ...  unfortunately the dream was too brief.  When I woke up I felt elated... almost euphoric ... for a few brief seconds.  I'm not sure if it was the dream or just the satisfaction of success.  I experienced lucid dreaming two or three times since that first time.  Each one was followed by a peaceful contentment upon waking.  I woke up ready for the day, energized, and happy.  I stopped trying decades ago.  Not sure why.

However good I felt upon waking from lucid dreams, another type of dream has always made me feel even better.  During dreams, some people have reported flying.  Flying like Superman.  I don't fly.  I slide.

My first sliding dream started on a winding road near the top of a mountain.  Not sure which road or mountain.  Could have been the twisting road to Chichicastenango in Guatemala.  Could have been the roads up the hillsides around the Lake of the Ozarks (not mountains but I was a little kid back when I was there and they seemed like they reached the sky).  Could have been the road up to Pikes Peak.  Probably was an amalgamation of all of these and many others.  I was sitting on the ground with my legs stretched out ahead of me.  I was sitting like I was in a car seat.  I began sliding along the asphalt/gravel road.  The surface was visibly rough but the slide was smooth like it was on ice.  I slid fast.  It felt like I was in a car only faster.  The feeling of motion was exhilarating.  The dream ended with me taking a curve too fast and busting through the guardrail.  I woke up with the falling feeling in the pit of my stomach which was overwhelmed by the continuing feeling of a speed high. A rush of adrenaline.

The next time I slid in a dream I was no longer sitting down.  I moved more like an ice or roller skater.  In reality I couldn't skate even if my life depended on it.  I was wearing shoes and I was sliding on concrete and asphalt.  I moved like a speed skater - strange since I don't think I'd ever seen speed skating before I had this dream.  I whipped down the middle of empty suburban streets.  I woke with the same exhilarating speed high.

It's been a along time since I've slid.  Almost as long as my last lucid dream.

I miss the slide.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Movie: "Slumdog Millionaire" At The Ruth Sokolof Theater

We finally made it out to a movie at the Ruth Sokolof Theater in downtown Omaha.  The theater is a small, two screen affair which tends to play towards the film buff crowd, the artsy-fartsy viewers, and the foreign film aficionados.  We'd gone to similar theaters in California and we were interested in checking it out but we never saw anything that really attracted our interests.  This week they were showing "Slumdog Millionaire".  I'd heard some good rumblings about it so we used this opportunity to check out the theater.

First the theater.  The place was a lot bigger than I expected.  I was waiting for small screens and cheap seats.  The Ruth Sokolof has two large screens and stadium seating.  Very comfortable.  I think the atmosphere is better in this theater as it feels it is geared to adults.  Not having kids spilling things and talking made it seem like a better experience.  The price is a little steep - no matinee prices.  You can get cheaper tickets if you become a member but it would take 13 movies in a year to break even.  Since we've been watching DVDs, going out to the movies has been less attractive to me.  We'll see how this changes as the winter gets colder and we grow tired of the inside of our house.  

Now the movie.  The movie follows the story of a young Indian boy and his brother who fend for themselves in the slums of Mumbai.  The story revolves around the boy, now a young man, playing India's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.  It is a very well written and acted story of love found, love lost, family, and destiny.  I highly recommend it.

UPDATE (01-12-2009): Slumdog Millionaire is a four time Golden Globe Winner including best drama!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Travel Bug Is Bugging Us

Last year I posted about the problems we've had booking our Thailand trip.  After mulling it over for a month or so we decided to go to AAA to see what our options were.

We have a couple options.  The first option would be to change our destination.  This isn't our first choice since we are kind of set on a Hill Tribes of Thailand-like tour.  Several companies have similar Thailand tours but they are not offered at a time that works for us.  Our AAA agent gave us a stack of Asia books to look at.  I found an interesting China-Tibet trip that includes a ride on the Highest train in the world, a cruise down the Yangtze, and hits all the high points of China.  I think this trip may be our backup plan.

The second option is a little more promising. Most travel tour companies offer custom tours.  Our agent may be able to build a Thailand tour customized just for us.  These tours are usually private tours with your own dedicated guide and driver.  I haven't decided if this is good or not.  After our Peru trip, a group tour, I've discovered the advantages of having like-minded travelers to compare notes with.  For example, at Machu Picchu I had no idea that you could climb Waina Picchu.  If it weren't for our fellow tour mates, I would have missed doing one of the most interesting things I did on that trip.  So, if we take a private tour, would we miss out?  I wonder.

Our agent will be calling us next week to let us know what she can put together.  We'll keep you posted.

UPDATE (01/11/2009): There is third alternative that I mentioned back in November but failed to mention in this post.  We may choose to do a local vacation to Yellowstone and other sights along the way.  This is still a viable option depending on the travel agents call this week.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Photography Tips From Homer-Dog

My last two posts generated some questions about photography from GeekHiker (GH) and Phil. I decided to use them as an excuse to post about photography.

First a disclaimer.  I am not an expert in photography.  At best I'm average.  Please take any advise in this post or any other Homer's Travels post with a grain of salt.

I like photography.  Capturing that vista, or even better that moment in time, is a challenge which, when successful, gives me a sense of great satisfaction.  My picture taking history stretches, in fits and starts, back to 1995 but, after an aborted start in Alaska, really took off after Peru.  Since then I have taken a lot of pictures and here are the lessons I have learned:
  1. Know your camera.  This is advise that I don't always follow.  I've read my camera's manual a couple times but it seems I've rediscovered useful setting many times over again.  I have become very familiar with the Macro function as I have a predilection for extreme closeups.  I've experimented with levels.  Hey! My camera has a fireworks mode - what does that do?  I'll tell you what it does - it helps take great fireworks pictures.
  2. Point the camera in the right direction at the right time.  This one is probably the hardest thing to do and it's impossible to practice for.  Most of what I would consider my best pictures are a result of luck.  Not much more I can say about this one - either you get the picture or you don't.  For example, the geese from the last post - not trained geese, GH, just a lucky shot.
  3. Take lots of pictures.  I mean a lot of pictures.  A lot.  #3 goes hand in hand with #2.  Since I often don't know the perfect angle or perfect time, I attack the problem with shear volume.  Take them from many angles.  Turn lights on and off.  Use the flash or don't.  Zoom or don't.  Try different camera modes.  Move around.  As of this post I've uploaded 3,820 pictures to Flickr.  Of these I've put only 74 into my Personal Favorites set.  That means to get one picture that I consider good, I have to take almost 52 pictures.  Less than 2% good-to-average yield.  Actually it's worse.  I don't upload all the pictures I take.  I only upload pictures that I consider good enough or are needed to illustrate a post.  This means my yield is much less than 2%.
  4. After you take the picture, load up the Photo Editing application.  Photo Editors are your friend.  I used to think that editing photos was cheating.  Then I bought a book from a National Geographic photographer at a National Geographic sale.  One section of the book talks about tools of the digital darkroom.  If the experts do it, why shouldn't I?  I personally use Google's Picasa.  It's tools are simple and the thing's free.  I usually play with the contrast, sharpness, and, if there's color, the saturation.  A little tweak can turn a 'Meh' picture into a 'Wow' picture.  For more complex stuff, I use Photoshop Elements.  For Phil's question, I rarely use the flash when I can add fill light with my editing application.  The closet was well lit with the closet light and a little Picasa tweaking.
So there you have it.  That's about all the wisdom I have to share.  There are plenty of sites out there in the ether that tell you how to take good pictures.  I'm considering taking a class myself.  You can never learn too much.

    Saturday, January 03, 2009

    HONK HONK !!!


    Figures.  Twice (Here and Here ) we went to DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in search of geese.  The Refuge is known for it's hundreds of thousand migratory geese.  This year, as well as several recent years, the number were very disappointing.



    Yesterday, just before sunset, we looked out our back window and saw geese.  We saw more in the corn field than we saw at the wildlife refuge.  It wasn't no hundreds of thousands but it was still impressive watching them come in for a landing in the field.  The Wife thinks they're chowing down on the waste corn left behind from the harvest.  I think she's right.  A couple more pictures can be seen here.

    Friday, January 02, 2009

    Collections ... I'm An Enabler

    I'm not much of a collector.  I have some Star Trek toys, action figures, and ornaments.  I have some comic books (most of them bought when I was in college).  I have not added to these collections for quite a while - years I think.  You could call my photos to be a collection I guess - not as tangible.  Together we have a collection of Travel Magnets.  For me, that's about it I think.

    The Wife collects bags - purses, handbags, clutches.  This is not a complaint.  If anything I'm an enabler - I bought her a chicken purse for Christmas (It actually smells like a rubber chicken ... which it is).  The Mom and the Matron of Honor also contributed two clutches/wallets to the collection.  I am just marveled by how organized her purse closet is.  I'm also surprised how she can find them so cheaply.  For someone who hates to shop, she is a great shopper.

    Thursday, January 01, 2009

    An Early New Years Outing

    Here in Omaha the old year went out with a bang. Quite different from the whimper that often accompanies the changing of the years. The Wife and I tend to stay home and lay low on New Years Eve. In 2008 we changed it up a tiny bit.

    The celebration started around noon with a mantinee showing of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button".  This is an entertaining chick-flick.  It's a little too long at 2 hours 39 minutes but everything fit together well.  We both liked it but I wouldn't say we loved it.

    We followed this movie with a trip to Omaha's old market.  We went down early to beat the evening rush.  We tried to get into Spaghetti Works but the wait was 45 minutes so we settle for the slightly less crowded Upstream with a smaller 30 minute wait.  The food was pretty good since neither of us had eaten very much that day (Popcorn and Dots).  By the time we left the restaurant, all the parking lots were full.  We'd planned it well.


    We left the restaurant in time to see the 7:00 PM fireworks.  They were advertised as being over the Gene Leahy mall but they ended up being over the Heartland of America Park.  I'd set up my camera on my new tripod in the mall with all the other people.  People were milling around.  Kids were sliding on the frozen water despite the thin ice warnings.  I took some pictures of the lit up mall waiting for the start of the show.  It figured that the batteries decided then and there to die.  I hurriedly replaced the batteries requiring me to remove the camera from the tripod mount.  I also took of my gloves which resulted in numb fingers by the time I got the batteries changed.

    The countdown started and, when the fireworks starting going off, they were behind us.  Thus started the stampede as people jockeyed for a better vantage point.  I managed to set up in the middle of the street and get some good pictures.  The display was choreographed to music ending with Niel Diamond's "Sweet Caroline".  It was a very short fireworks display but it was one of the more intense ones I've ever seen.  Going to see the fireworks may become our new New Year's tradition.  The early start of the fireworks made it perfect for us.  Pictures can be found here .


    We ended up getting back home by 8:00 PM and watched the year end specials on the tube before kissing our happy new year's wishes at midnight and going to bed.  It was just the right amount of activity for us.