Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Family Tree Limbs

Family Heritage is a funny thing to talk about. When you have the facts, the story seems dry and mundane. When you know the people, most seem normal and boring. Well, my Uncle Frank wasn't boring, but he was sort of crazy. He was a postal worker, so we expect crazy a little (just kidding, for all those hard-working postal workers out there!).
We don't have cliff divers in our family. We don't have sky divers - well, I did once and the certificate is on my wall, but that was a long time ago, my way of celebrating my college degree. Get a degree - jump from a perfectly good plane. In today's job market that doesn't seem quite so odd.
The pout is familiar...
We all want to be related to royalty, showing our family is somehow more than it seems. When I was a young man I read that Denmark had a royal family with the last name Bernhard. I then navigated through life convinced I had royal roots, so the mundane aspects of my own life seemed less burdensome. Well, after a little research, I don't think we're related, and I'm glad of that. Not nice people, those Bernhard Danish royals. Of course, if we were related to Sarah Bernhardt, well, that's another story!
My Dad was career Navy, a corpsman. He was in Viet Nam, which I still consider worth a modicum of praise. He never talks about it. All three of my brothers were in the military. B served in both the Navy and the Army (more? I don't recall.) D became an officer in the Air Force. My youngest brother, T, won't talk about it, but he is a trained sharpshooter. He was sent to some odd places.
Dad grew up in North Canton, Ohio. I later found that a large contingent of Bernhard family members call North Canton, Ohio home. Thanks to Carl Bernhard, a distant cousin, I actually have some family pedigree for there, though not much.
My Dad's step-dad, my Grandpa Benjamin Comfort, flew planes in WWII. Well, that's what I heard, but I have nothing to prove he flew them. He was in aviation, though, to some degree. He never talked about it. He worked in the Ford plant in Detroit for all the years I knew him. Grandpa Comfort was an avid and accomplished photographer. I'm trying to recall if I ever saw him without a camera. I don't recall talking to him much, but I distinctly remember how easy it was to sit in the same room as Grandpa, just comfortable being together without talking.
My Dad's real Dad, Victor Augustus Bernhard, died relatively young, apparently of a heart attack when he was leaving a pool hall in North Canton, Ohio. When I asked Dad what he did for a living he said he didn't know. He gambled in pool halls and could be found working in the vaudeville houses in Canton. Theater runs in the blood, I think. Victor's brother was Frank. A mean old bachelor, Frank worked as a postal worker his entire life. He scared the crap out of us boys. We visited him a few times over the years. Uncle Frank kept his thick curtains closed and his house dark and frightening. An older home, this house had sturdy electrical cords on the walls running from the light button to the lights in the ceiling. Maybe this means the house had to be wired for electricity; I don't know.
I can't go back further on Victor's side with much reliability. Some of the relatives in North Canton owned a small grocery store. A few were some sort of watchmakers. That doesn't tell much of a story.
However, Dad's mom, Josephine Briner is related somehow in the mid-1800s to the Morrow family. The most famous member of that family that I know of is Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who, by the way, was a successful author. Scraps of Grandma's family tree go back to Scotland in the 1700s. I'd have to do more research to tell you more. Fortunately my Dad has cousins who are amazing at family trees and are doing the research for Grandma Comfort's sisters. One of these days I need to get a complete tree from them.
The story of my Mom's Mom and Mom's Dad is the skeleton in the closet of the family. Family tales say he was mostly Indian, but I can't prove it. I recently heard from someone related to him, but haven't yet taken the time to pursue that. Family tales also say that my mother's side had Chippewa Indian in them. Chippewas are Michigan tribes. If you ever met my Grandma Jen or her sister, my Aunt Ida, you'd probably believe it just from the way they looked. Still, most of the people on my mother's side were farmers, settling in Michigan after coming to the New World by way of Canada (which is why I can really believe one of the younger men might have met an Indian maid...). Of course, there were the members of the family in England who were caught poaching and got on the wrong boat in Amsterdam. THAT branch of the family ended up in Australia. 
A short series of Michigan Stories, a bit about living in Michigan during the year that Dad was in Viet Nam (the year the Tigers won the World Series, 1968): Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Fini. I wrote a wistful story about my childhood.
Some of my favorite posts are probably not as interesting to others. There is the one that I consider a guest post by my Mom, even though she died in 2001. It's a story of her childhood Christmas time that she wrote years ago. After my Darling Daughter asked me about what I've done in life, I thought about it and listed my accomplishments. My favorite part of that was a sweet response from one of my dear cousins. I talked a little bit about coming to Houston in 1980, which seems such a long time ago now. Well, it was a long time ago. I didn't realize how incredibly huge Houston was at the time. I talk a little more about my brothers and me, using Mom's cooking as the backdrop. Later blogs mention Mom's cooking, too. I guess I like eating and talking about eating. I delve into the recesses of my college years, but don't give away too much. My favorite post is still the one that started it all: our Mission Trip to Africa. Even that seems long ago, now.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Microsoft Outlook Problem

My youngest brother had some problems with Outlook. Every time he tried to start Outlook it failed with an error message about the .pst file.
Just to be clear, I'm certainly not a computer expert, so it's always possible that my advice is just flat-out wrong. But it's free, so that's something.
I am my brother's technical advisor for computers. He's in such trouble…
On to the problem.
STEP 1: First of all, you need to find and make a copy of your .pst files, which is where Outlook stores mail. In Windows 7 the files are hidden to protect the user. 
STEP 1A: The file(s) should be located in "C:\Users\Specific User\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Outlook" but because it is hidden you won't find the AppData folder. To see AppData, enable viewing of hidden files and folders in Control Panel > Folder Options > View. (The flag(s) you want might be called something like "Display the contents of system folders" and "Show hidden files and folders")
I also read that for Vista and Windows 7 another way to view hidden files is to press Alt when you have an explorer window open. This will bring up the standard File|Edit|View|Tools|Help bar. Under Tools, click Folder Options. Pressing Alt also works with the default hidden menu bars of Windows Mail, Word 2010, etc. I haven't checked that out, though.
STEP 1B: You might want to do a search on your computer for *.pst files. Make sure you enabled showing hidden files and folders under Control Panel | Folder Options | View and include hidden files and folders in the Advanced Search options.
STEP 1C: Grab all these pst files and put them somewhere else for now. 

STEP 2: I would delete the original .pst files, especially in the "C:\Users\...\Outlook folder" since I suspect this is what is causing you problems.

STEP 3: Start Outlook.
Outlook should open fine, but will give you some sort of error about not finding the pst files, or it might not. That's okay. We've progressed now. IF OUTLOOK DOES NOT OPEN, then you're done here. Go outside and play or something, 'cuz I can't help any more. It's an art, not a science... (To which my brother replied "More art than science. Too bad my name’s not Art.")
However, at this point Outlook is open and probably created a brand new and empty PST file for itself. That's what I wanted it to do anyway, but I am often surprised at how things DON'T happen how I think they should. Yes, I know, I shouldn't be surprised any more, but I am...
(I'm dealing with Outlook 2007 and Windows XP here, so I hope the following still applies in your version(s).)

STEP 4: In Outlook, go to Tools | Options | Mail Setup | Data Files. Select the Add... button, choose Office Outlook Personal Folders File (.pst) and go select the one you backed up (the one you think is the main one). If you have more than one, you'll have to do this step more than once. IF you get an error, and you might, then cancel and select the Add... button, choose Outlook 97-2002 Personal Folders File (.pst) and try again. 
If that fails, you're in deeper waters than I can help you with. I suspect a corrupted Outlook file of some sort, and I don't have a clue why (power failure, virus, worm, who knows?). Hopefully, though, you will now have a connected mail file.
If it does work, I'd delete the link in Outlook, move the file to the folder you want it in (which is probably "C:\Users\Specific User\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Outlook") and link it back to Outlook using STEP 4.

For my brother this eventually led to the realization that his Outlook .pst file was corrupted. It could not even be recovered with Microsoft's SCANPST. Actually, that didn't surprise me. From what I've read, if the header is corrupted in the PST file then SCANPST cannot repair it. That's sort of a silly repair implementation in my book. I suggested he take a look at Squidoo's repair tool, since I heard some good things about them.
As it turns out, my brother's PC went into total failure shortly after that. Hardware problem? That's his guess and I concur. He is really quite smart about all this sort of thing, but doesn't want to admit it. I think he doesn't want people to call him with questions…
I recommended he go buy one of the new Mac portables, but not the one with the retina display since it costs more than it should and he doesn't need the astounding clarity. For all you Mac haters out there, yeah, I get it. That new "lightning connector?" Why Apple™ didn't go with the standard micro-usb I have no idea and it annoys me. However, in all fairness, they make amazing hardware. My Macbook Pro is over four years old. I have it set for dual boot. Not only is it a good machine, but it is one of the prettiest PCs I've ever owned. It does get a little hot, though…

Hope this information helps someone. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

More On Women

Before I begin, I need to clarify a few things.
Firstly, I've collected tidbits from the internet for almost two decades, since the days when you only surfed it for jokes and recipes for cookies. Twenty years is a long time. I have a lot of early internet information in dozens of files. Some of that information will begin to find its way to this blog. It's my way of preserving history, I suppose.
Secondly, I don't have authors for most of this gathered information. Back in the early days of dial-up and on-line bulletin boards much of what was posted wasn't signed. If it was signed, it was by BillytheGoatWrangler or MySweetBaboo1241. I didn't keep those author names. So I apologize if the pedigree of the information is lost. I'd credit the sources if I knew them.
Thirdly, I am far from an expert on women. I am probably an anti-expert. There's the time I got my wife a violin for Christmas and thought it was the perfect present. That's another story. I'm not even an expert on people. I hardly know what motivates me, much less others.
Lastly, for today's post I not only found this file on my computer, I actually heard this information used in a presentation by Mark Gungor. He talks about the differences in how men and women think and I wrote a bit about it here. If you missed it, it's good stuff.
So here you go. Once again, men - pay attention.
Woman's Dictionary
1. "Fine" This is the word women use at the end of any argument when they feel they are right but can't stand to hear you argue any longer. It means that you should shut up. The discussion is over. Flowers are probably appropriate.
2. "Five minutes" This is half an hour, minimum. It is equivalent to the five minutes that your football game is going to last before you take out the trash, so women feel it's an even trade. Go to your happy place while you wait; it will be a while.
3. "Nothing" This means something and you should be on your toes. "Nothing" usually signifies an argument that will last "Five Minutes" and end with the word "Fine." You're well past flowers at this point. Think jewelry, small and sparkly.
4. "Go Ahead" (with raised eyebrows) This is NOT permission; it's a dare! If you mistake it for permission, the result will be the woman will get upset over "Nothing" and you'll have a "five-minute" discussion that will end with the word "Fine." Are you seeing a pattern here? Women link everything together in their minds.
5. "Go Ahead" (normal eyebrows) This is NOT permission, either. It means "I give up" or "do what you want because I don't care." You will get a raised eyebrow "Go Ahead" in just a few minutes, followed by "Nothing" and "Fine" and she will talk to you in about "Five Minutes" when she cools off. Essentially, you're being an idiot but you don't know it yet.
6. "Loud Sigh" This is not actually a word, but you better pay attention to it. A "Loud Sigh" means she thinks you are a complete idiot and wonders why she is wasting her time standing here and arguing with you over "Nothing."
7. "Soft Sigh" Again, not a word, but a verbal statement. "Soft Sighs" are one of the few things that some men actually understand. It means she is momentarily content. Your best bet is to not move and hope the moment will last a bit longer. Enjoy the moment.
8. "Oh" This word -- followed by any statement -- is trouble. Example; "Oh, let me get that". Or, "Oh, I talked to him about what you were doing last night." If she says "Oh" before a statement, run, do not walk, to the nearest exit. She will tell you that she is "Fine" when she is done tossing your clothes out the window, but do not expect her to talk to you for at least "five minutes."
9. "That's Okay" This is one of the most dangerous statements that a woman can say to a man. "That's Okay" means that she wants to think long and hard before deciding what the penalty will be for whatever you have done. "That's Okay" is often used with the word "Fine" and in conjunction with a raised eyebrow "Go Ahead." Once she has had time to plan it out, you are in for some mighty big trouble.
10. "Please Do" This is not a statement, it is an offer. The woman is giving you the chance to come up with an excuse for what you have done or the opportunity to get into even more trouble. If you handle this correctly, you shouldn't get a "That's Okay."
11. "Thanks" The woman is thanking you. Don't faint and don't look for hidden meaning. Just say "you're welcome." Hope for a "soft sigh."
12. "Thanks A Lot" This is dramatically different from "Thanks." A woman will say "Thanks A Lot" when she is really ticked off at you. It is usually followed by the "Loud Sigh." This signifies that you have hurt her in some callous way. Be careful not to ask what is wrong after the "Loud Sigh," as she will only tell you "Nothing." If small gifts are her love language, consider a car at this point.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Happy 19th Birthday, Lad!

The cake was yummy!
Our youngest son, JV, turns nineteen today.  Happy Birthday, my beamish boy! He's away at college and we really miss his smiling face and the way he would walk around the house humming.
Not only do I love him because I'm his Dad, but I really like him as a person. If I were a fellow student, I'd want him as my friend.
Der junge Mann (family joke) has accomplished much in these few years.
At an early age he put together a portfolio of drawings. He doesn't share them, but they showed a lot of innate skill. Darling, who is a good artist herself, once tried to teach my Darling Daughter, Youngest Son and I how to draw a tree. DD and I drew something resembling little bird tracks across the page, studiously focusing on the paper and how the tree looked. Trust me, neither of our drawings even resembled the tree (sorry, Honey, but it's true).  However, the lad not only drew a passable tree, he shaded it. Darling didn't even mention shading the tree. I'm sure it would have made mine look a little better.
The Lad also has a knack for storytelling, though he won't admit that either. He wrote a few short stories when he was still quite small. The interesting part is that I liked the characters and the plots were not linear. Good stuff.
When he entered High School he learned to play the trombone. He was pretty good at it, but could have been much better if he ever practiced. I mean, even I know that pulling the horn out twice a week for twenty minutes isn't enough. The fascinating part is that he learned so much about music. I have an app on my iPad that plays notes. I plucked at it for a solid ten minutes one day, trying to figure it out. Walking in the living room he sat down and watched me. "Let me see it for a sec, Dad." He tapped a few symbols, then played a song for me and walked away. I mean, what's with that? Now he is learning the guitar on his own. Right after we saw The Hobbit he came home and plucked out the tune for Misty Mountain. Last time I saw him he played Happy Birthday for one of his sisters. No big deal.
Where he excels is playing on-line games (it's partly genetic). For a while he was ranked in the world-wide standings as a DPS hunter in World of Warcraft. If you don't know what that means, that's okay. It means, quite simply, a w e s o m e. He got bored and moved to League of Legends where he again gained world-wide ranking. The thing about the games is he actually studies them. He stays up into the wee hours of the mornings studying the techniques of world-class players.
Too bad the games aren't Olympic sports.
Under a pseudonym he also supplied me with the information to write an app (currently only on Droid) for how to play one of the League of Legend champions. It's my most widely downloaded app. (I say that with some sadness, by the way.)
He shows strong leadership skills. As section leader for the trombones, he often told me of incidents where he had to step in and help some of the other students. More than that, one of my friends, a man at my church, told me that he respects my son. He told me "If there was ever a problem on my bus, John simply stepped in and took care of it. I never had to worry about the students." Then he added, "I really miss him this year."
Even at a young age, JV showed a deep love for other people. One of the most memorable incidents for me was when he accidentally hurt my Darling Daughter. I'm not sure which of them cried harder.
That love for people and personal stability manifests itself in his relationship with his girlfriend. In a few weeks they will have a four-year anniversary. For a nineteen year old boy, that's pretty awesome. She's a fantastic girl, and they are happy together. That's better than a lot of couples I know.
During the trip to Israel a few years ago, he showed a keen interest in the local lands and customs, as well as a magical affinity for foreign languages. He climbed Masada along with the other young folks on the trip, including my Darling Daughter. Don't underestimate that feat. The heat radiated from the rocks and beat down from the fierce sun, punishing everyone who tried to climb the narrow path to the top. He did get pretty tired during the trip. My favorite photo shows him sitting on the floor in one of the museums, sound asleep.
What impresses me most about my youngest son is his true, heart-felt desire to be close to God. His theological questions tend to be well thought out and comprehensive. They show a strong reliance on God, a belief in the Bible and a deep love for his fellow man.
That's good grounding, regardless of where he goes in life.
Happy Birthday, young man!

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Mom would have been 78 this year. Happy Birthday, Mom.
When our cousins laughed and told my youngest brother that Grandma Jen wasn't our Grandma he just smiled and walked away. "She's my Grandma," he said. When they told me, I was irate. I was eight years older than my youngest brother, and I knew it wasn't possible for Grandma to be my cousins' great Aunt. I also hate being confused and I knew Grandma Jen was our Grandma.
In a family tree Grandma Jen was our great Aunt, our real grandmother's younger sister. We have very little information on our grandmother.
Elva Gertrude Elston was born in Sanilac County, Brown City, Michigan in 1915. She left the farm and her family and moved to the big city of Detroit when she was eighteen. According to relatives she never used the name Elva, but went by the name Peggy. She was very beautiful.
My Aunt Ida (Peggy's youngest surviving sister) told me that Peggy came home to the farm for a few weeks during one of the summers. When a letter arrived addressed to "Peggy Stone" my great-grandmother apparently was ready to give the mailman a tongue-lashing. After all, the man knew the Elston family lived on the farm. That was when Peggy told her mother she was married.
I know from the 1940 census record that their young family rented 113 Warren, Wayne County, Detroit, Michigan. Elva G. Stone supplied the data to the census taker. She was 24. The highest grade she completed was H4, which I assume means four years of high school. She worked as a waitress at a Beer Garden and had worked 48 hours the week previous to the census. She worked 12 weeks in 1939 and made $180.
Also listed was her husband Earl B. Stone, age 38 and born in Mississippi. He completed eight years of school and was unemployed for nine weeks as of March 1, 1940. At the time of the survey he was looking for work. His previous job was a punch press operator in an auto parts factory. Detroit would be the place for that. He worked 16 weeks in 1939 and made $600. He is recorded in the census as a white male, but family stories declare he was half-Indian, and family fables make him the son of a chief somewhere, and born in the state of Texas. Investigation on all those claims is ongoing, but the 1940 census at least gives us an accurate birthplace and year of birth for him.
Three children are listed: Earline (age 5), Anita (4) and Janice (3). Earline and Janice were both born in Michigan. Anita was born in Texas. Mom hated the name Earline and I have no idea why it is recorded that way on the census sheet. Her name was Fran.
Mom told me one story of a blue roan horse that my Uncle Don owned. Uncle Don was going to put the horse down, convinced the horse would never recover from an infected hoof. Earl talked him into letting him try to heal the horse. He did. Mom often told me her dad was a real "horse whisperer" just like in the movie.
Earl was an alcoholic and he beat Peggy. Mom told me they were all staying in Grandma Jen's house (she would have been Mom's young Aunt Jen at the time) and Mom heard a commotion downstairs. She crept part way down the staircase and saw her father hitting her mother and pushing her head into the stair railing. Jen's husband Mac put a stop to that particular incident, tossing Earl out. Grandpa Mac wasn't a big man, but there's no doubt in my mind he could be fierce if he needed to be. Grandpa Mac and Grandma Jen were both enlisted in WWII, which is where they met. I can't imagine that Earl was a very big man, though, if Grandpa tossed him out. Well, maybe Grandpa used a ball bat or something.
Earl suffered bouts of paranoid jealousy concerning his much younger and very beautiful wife. Perhaps the concerns were valid.
Peggy (Elva Gertrude) Stone died on February 15, 1947 in Hitchcock, Galveston, Texas at the age of 31 years, 7 months and 8 days. Family stories say Peggy died in a car wreck in Alvin, Texas. The man driving was not her husband, but we don't know if he was the husband of anyone else either. I have no idea how a small town girl from Michigan would find someone in Texas, but Anita was born in San Antonio, in 1936. That's probably a clue. There is no marital status on Peggy's death certificate and it lacks a spouse's name. The certificate records the burial place as Yale, Michigan and the burial date as Feb 18, 1947.
Grandma Jen told me that when she received word of Peggy's death she sent a telegram to Earl. She had some idea where he was since he followed the horse race tracks. She got a telegram in return, saying that Earl would be at the funeral.
Earl B. Stone never appeared.
My mother never saw her father again, though Anita told me that she heard from him a number of times, "but," she said, "I was always his favorite."
Mom and her sisters lived in Brown City, Michigan with their grandparents, Lee and Minnie Elston. I posted a short story Mom wrote about Christmas which gives a glimpse of her younger years. When she was older, Mom lived with her Aunt Jen and from there she enlisted in the Navy.
So our grandparents were Grandma Jen and Grandpa Mac. Sometimes facts just confuse the real story.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Chili Cook-off

Frank: "Recently, I was honored to be selected as a judge at a chili cook-off. The original person called in sick at the last moment and I happened to be standing there at the judge's table asking for directions, when the call came in. I was assured by the other two judges (Native Texans) that the chili wouldn't be all that spicy, so I accepted.

Here are the scorecards from the event:

v     Chili #1 – Cecil’s Maniac Mobster Monster Chili
Ø      Judge # 1 – A little too heavy on the tomato. Amusing kick.
Ø      Judge # 2 – Nice, smooth tomato flavor. Very mild.
Ø      Judge # 3 (Frank) – Wow, what is this stuff? You could remove dried paint from your driveway. Took me about a half gallon of water to put the flames out. I hope that’s the worst one. These Texans are crazy.
v     Chili #2 – Dave’s Afterburner Chili
Ø      Judge # 1 – Smoky, with a hint of pork. Slight jalapeno tang to it.
Ø      Judge # 2 – Exciting BBQ flavor, needs more peppers to be taken seriously.
Ø      Judge # 3 – Keep this out of the reach of children. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to taste besides pain. I had to wave off two people who wanted to give me the Heimlich maneuver.
v     Chili #3 – George’s Famous Burn Down the Barn Chili
Ø      Judge # 1 – Excellent firehouse chili. Great kick. Needs more beans.
Ø      Judge # 2 – A beanless chili, a bit salty, good use of peppers.
Ø      Judge # 3 – Call the EPA – I’ve located a uranium spill. My nose feels like I’ve been snorting Drano. Everyone knows the routine by now. Get me a water hose before I ignite. One of the other judges had to pound me on the back so now my backbone is in the front part of my chest.
v     Chili #4 – Ricky’s Black Magic
Ø      Judge # 1 – Black bean chili with almost no spice. Disappointing.
Ø      Judge # 2 – Hint of lime in the black beans. Good side dish for fish or other mild foods, not much of a chili.
Ø      Judge # 3 – I felt something scrape across my tongue, but was unable to taste it. Is it possible to burn out taste buds? This is like eating nuclear waste!
v     Chili #5 – Ray’s Legal Lip Remover
Ø      Judge # 1 – Meaty, strong chili. Cayenne peppers freshly ground added considerable kick. Very impressive.
Ø      Judge # 2 – Chili using shredded beef, could use more tomato. Must admit, the cayenne peppers make a strong statement.
Ø      Judge # 3 – My ears are ringing, sweat is pouring off my forehead and I can no longer focus my eyes. I passed gas and 4 people behind me needed paramedics. The contestant seemed offended when I told him that his chili had given me brain damage. I wonder if I’m burning my lips off. It’s really not fair that the other judges asked me to stop screaming. Those rednecks don’t realize…
v     Chili #6 – Larry’s Very Vegetarian Variety
Ø      Judge # 1 – Thin yet bold vegetarian variety chili. Good balance of spices and peppers.
Ø      Judge # 2 – The best yet. Aggressive use of peppers, onions and garlic. Superb!
Ø      Judge # 3 – My intestines are now a straight pipe filled with gaseous, sulfuric flames. I can’t feel my lips and most of my face. I would cry but tears would probably leave blisters on my cheeks.
v     Chili #7 – Kurt’s Screaming Sensation Chili
Ø      Judge # 1 – A mediocre chili with too much reliance on canned peppers.
Ø      Judge # 2 – Ho hum, tastes as if the chef literally threw in a can of chili peppers at the last moment. I should take note that I am concerned about judge # 3. He appears to be in a bit of distress as is slobbering uncontrollably.
Ø      Judge # 3 – You could put a grenade in my mouth, pull the pin, and I wouldn’t feel a thing. I’ve lost total sight in one eye and the world sounds like it is made of rushing water. My shirt is covered with chili which slid unnoticed out of my mouth. At least during the autopsy, they’ll know what killed me. I’ve decided to stop breathing, it’s too painful. Oh well forget it, I’m not getting any oxygen anyway. If I need air, I’ll just suck it in through the 4-inch hole in my stomach.
v     Chili #8 – Todd’s Toe-Nail Curling Chili
Ø      Judge # 1 – The perfect ending. This is a nice blend chili. Not too bold, but spicy enough to declare its existence.
Ø      Judge # 2 – This final entry is a good, balanced chili. Neither mild, nor hot. Sorry to see that most of it was lost when Judge # 3 passed out, fell over and pulled the chili pot down on top of himself. Not sure if he’s going to make it. Poor dude…wonder how he’d have reacted to really hot chili!

A final note, from me - this could be a true story. What poor Judge # 3 doesn't realize is how much all this "hot" will hurt him tomorrow. First time I encountered this problem I stayed home from work convinced I had some sort of terminal disease.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Yearly Financial Tuneup

A few years ago The New York Times posed an article title 31 Steps to a Financial Tuneup.  It's still available and is an interactive site, allowing you to check off the ones you finish. It also gives estimated time for each step. I consider it one of the best sites out there for yearly financial planning.
The following list has one personal recommendation as item #0. Other than that, it comes directly from the New York Times site.
0. If you go to church check your tithing amount.
If you aren't giving ten percent, bump it up a little bit to get closer to the ten percent goal. You should know all the good your church does with the money. If you don't, think about a different church! (~ 5 minutes)
1. Save 1% more from your paycheck
This really works. Even if you can't do one percent, consider a little bit more than you do now. I know I didn't take advantage of my employer's retirement matching program when I was young - because I was stupid. This can add up for your future.  (~5 minutes)
2. Reconsider your investments
Where are you investing your money? Saving for a down payment is great, but make sure you're still putting enough aside for retirement. It sneaks up on you (or eludes you). Trust me on that one. I'm sorry I didn't contribute more when I was younger. (~30 minutes)
3. Rebalance your investments
It's good to analyze and rebalance these on a yearly basis. I do this every year. My retirement 401k lets me move money between different funds. I analyze the fund performance for the year and make changes. Does it make a difference? I don't know, but it makes me feel better. (~15 minutes, but took me an hour)
4. Find a better bank
In these years of less than one percent interest, maybe it feels like this isn't worth it. I still check around, though, looking for the better interest rates. I still like ING™ for most of my money, but some local banks do almost as well. (~2 hours)
5. Make an extra mortgage payment
If you have a mortgage, this will help pay it off early and save a lot of money in the process. It's worth it if you can afford it. (~5 minutes)
6. Open a home equity line of credit
Okay, I don't see the need for this one, but they make the point that you may not be able to open a line of credit if you lose your job. (~a few hours)
7. Increase your student loan payment
Obviously, only if you have student loans! However, make sure you're not paying off low interest loans with money that could be better invested elsewhere. (~5 minutes)
8. Seek a lower-interest credit card
PLEASE don't just get another card. If possible pay off your (only) card every month, and this isn't an issue. However, if you are carrying a balance, ask for a better rate from your current card or seek alternatives elsewhere (but watch out for balance transfer fees). Remember: Debt is a bad habit to get into. (~10 minutes)
9. Set an automated payment toward your debt
They say to set your card for automatic minimum payments from your bank, but obviously I think it should be the entire balance. Making minimum payments is not financially healthy. BUT automatic payments at least avoid the late fees, which will sink your finances in a hurry, so set those up. (~10 minutes)
10. Read the rules on your rewards card
Make sure you're getting all you can get from your rewards. Even if you read them before, read them again since they might have changed. (~15 minutes)
11. Cash in your rewards
Card rewards only lose value over time, since the programs rarely get more generous. Earn them and burn them as fast as you can. I don't do this because I like to have a pool of points for emergency plane tickets, but I'd agree it is a good idea. (~10 minutes)
12. Find a better-earning rewards card
Seek out help from fatwallet.com and flyertalk.com or try the recommendation tool at creditcardtuneup.com. I'd agree on this wholeheartedly. Do it. (~2 hours)
13. Check your credit reports for free
Check one of your three major credit bureaus reports annualcreditreport.com. If you rotate them you can get a different one each year. (~20 minutes)
14. Consider a financial planner
Find planners at napfa.com or garrettplanning.com. I haven't done this, but it seems like a good idea. (~1 hour)
15. Pare part of your budget
If you can spend the time and energy to do a full budget analysis, that's the best thing. If you can't (and most of us can't) then identify the one or two problem areas for excess spending and consciously cut those back. They say a site like mint.com can help, but so can pencil and paper or a spreadsheet. (~2 hours)
16. Read your tax return
If you do your own taxes, you must do this. If you have an accountant, check through the return anyway. Talk it over with your accountant. It's worth your time to know what tax breaks you get (and miss). (~30 minutes)
17. Enroll in a flexible spending account
Especially in today's economy, use pre-tax money for medical, public transportation or child expenses when you can. (~15 minutes)
18. Reread your will
If you have one, make sure it still does what you want it to. If you don't have a will, go make one. Check retirement account and life insurance also. (~30 minutes or more).
19. Automate your giving
If you donate money on a regular basis, go ahead and automate it. We do, just because we want less things to remember every month. (~5 minutes per group)
20. Walk a loved one through your affairs
Make sure someone else knows how to find and handle your finances if you die. Write it down so they don't forget. (~30 minutes or more)
21. Ask your cable company for a better deal
In this age of cut-throat services, check your cable costs. Negotiate for better deals or more channels or both. Or change services. (~30 minutes or more)
22. Ask your wireless company for a better deal
In the same way, check your wireless costs. (~30 minutes or more)
23. Ask your landline company for a better deal
Getting redundant, isn't it? It's still worth your time to check with your phone company or even consider dropping them entirely for a cheaper VOIP line. (~30 minutes or more)
24. Spend your gift cards
I'm so guilty of this one. I have expired gift cards or lose them and that's just money down the drain. This is the only one where they recommend spending as a good thing! (~20 minutes)
25. Check your life insurance coverage
You should do this every year as a yearly financial maintenance item. (~15 minutes)
26. Buy a disability policy
I have one of these, and also make sure it will pay expenses if I'm badly hurt for a few years. It's worth the time and trouble to do the research and get the policy. (~a few hours)
27. Consider renter's insurance
Obviously this is for renters, but it's a good idea. Check it out. (~a few hours)
28. Raise your auto and home insurance deductibles
Only raise your deductibles if you can afford it, but it does reduce the premium costs. (~30 minutes)
29. Do a home inventory
I'll just quote NYT directly for this one "Tour your home with a video camera and record everything you’d want an insurance company to replace. Put a copy of the video someplace safe other than a computer, in case of fire or a hard drive crash. And add up the replacement costs for all of those items to make sure you have enough insurance." It's a good idea. I still have to do it. (~1 hour or more)
30. Read your home insurance policy
You should do this before you change your deductibles and after you do your inventory. (~30 minutes.)
31. Shop for new home and auto policies
It's always worth a few hours to see if you can get better insurance deals. Do this before you change your deductibles though, just to be efficient. (~a few hours)

As you can see, the list is comprehensive. I've done a number of the items on the list, but haven't done them all. Take a shot at getting at least some of them done for you and your family.
Let's make this a good year for personal finances.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Fiscal Cliff Notes, Part 2

On a personal note, let me congratulate my friend Congressman Randy Weber on being sworn into the US Congress today. Now get to work!

President Obama signed the new Fiscal Cliff bill (via autopen from Hawaii) so it is now law. Officially the bill is called The American Taxpayer Relief Act, though I have to admit I don't feel very relieved. The PDF is 157 pages long. How does it affect average citizens?  I'll use myself as the basis for most comments - 'cuz I can't speak for anyone else, can I?
By the way, this isn't intended to be entirely comprehensive. I'm not a tax guy, and certainly don't want to be.
Top of the list is the two percent the government takes back after giving us a break for a few years. For the last couple years we've only paid 4.2% payroll tax on our first $113,700 earned (which is everything most of us earn). That was nice, but it's gone now, and the tax is back up to 6.2%. So if you're making $48,000 per year (or $4,000 per month) you'll see $80 less to bring home. That's a few meals out, so plan on more macaroni and cheese a few times a week.
This one was pretty much unavoidable, and we mentioned it in our e-book last October, which is still on Amazon™.
The tax penalty for marriage (which always baffled me) is not renewed. That means that most married couples filing jointly will continue to receive a standard deduction that is twice the amount for individuals. I actually used to know people that refused to get married because of the tax penalty. Now they don't have any excuse.
State and local taxes are still deductible. Texas doesn't have a state tax, and that's why I continue to live here.
Teachers continue to receive a $250 break on school supplies. I'm for this one, though it doesn't apply to me. My brother is a teacher, and he spends considerably more than that on supplies for his classes.
Tuition and education expenses are deductible if you're eligible. This doesn't apply to me right now, but it applies to my two youngest.
The Child Tax Credit is extended, so lower income parents may be able to claim as much as $1,000 for each child under age 17. I can't do this, but it is a nice thing for some people.
The Earned Income Tax Credit is also extended providing a credit for working Americans with low and moderate levels of income. I can't do this one either.
Federal unemployment insurance is extended for another year, helping people on unemployment for more than 26 weeks. This will help about two million Americans.
Homeowners who are forced into a short sale or foreclosure will not have to pay taxes on the amount of debt the lender "forgave" in the deal. This is a very good thing, and has always baffled me. Someone who is forced to lose their home isn't likely in a good position to pay taxes on the resulting debt difference. This one is only extended for a year, though.
The Alternative Minimum Tax will now be adjusted for inflation each year, which makes it more easily avoidable. This really doesn't apply to me.
The exemption for estate taxes will remain at $5.12 million (then indexed for inflation) instead of dropping down to an even million. I know this one doesn't sound like it applies, but an estate is everything owned by the deceased. It can add up pretty fast. The tax rate rises for this, though, from 35% to 40%.
People making more than $400,000 and couples making more than $450,000 will see a tax increase. The rest of us won't. They will pay 39.6% instead of 35% for income above the threshold. Capital gains taxes will increase for them also, from 15% to 20%. The rest of us will continue to pay 15% (or nothing for the lowest tax brackets).
There is a 3.8% tax on certain investments as part of the Affordable Care Act, though, and that isn't addressed by the Fiscal Cliff deal.
Those making more than $422,500 will not qualify for personal exemptions on their taxes. If you make more than $250,000 (or married with $300,000 income) your personal exemptions and deductions are limited.
The Fiscal Cliff bill didn't address The Sequester, which are the spending cuts for defense. Instead they pushed the issue out until the end of February. I'm a little amazed at that. February? C'mon, people. February will be over before you can get your Congressional seat warm.
They did pass a measure easing the conversion of traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs, removing the age restriction for doing so. This will hurt us in the long run, though it might bring in some short-term revenue. I'd like to do it, but have to think about the tax implications.
They also didn't address the debt ceiling, which is an issue that will come crashing down on their collective heads very, very soon. I expect it will become the next buzz word in the news to replace Fiscal Cliff.
Of course, there are the wacky tax breaks in the bill, some of which were listed in my blog post from yesterday.

So, Fiscal Cliff avoided? I don't think so. It has mostly been a political football and talking points in the news. The real issues remain poised over the heads of the citizens of this country. We're a country in massive debt, and we're not cutting our spending and can't afford to pay it off.
Government spending was not reduced. The national debt will increase by trillions of dollars (and I shudder when I type trillions).
As I get closer and closer to my golden years I still wonder about Social Security and Medicare. They need to be reformed, and nobody wants people to suffer during the reformation. Those issues weren't addressed either.
So what we now face is tumbling down the cliff, or dropping off one cliff after another, whichever metaphor you prefer. Either way, the American people will be bruised and battered for decades to come.