Saturday, April 22, 2006

Taxes Never Whisper

Last weekend, we sent out our federal income tax stuff. We had to pay extra this year.

A lot extra.

So I decided to sit down and figure out how much of our gross income we ended up paying in taxes in 2005. Here is the result: Federal/Other witholding [including Social Security, Medicare] + Property Tax + Estimated Sales Tax as a percentage of Gross 2005 Income = 33.7%

That's right. Over one-third of our income goes to taxes. After I calculated that percentage, I realized that I hadn't included motor fuel taxes [Texas + Fed = 38.4 cents/gallon]. There's probably a whole host of other taxes and fees I haven't considered. And that's fine. I'd rather not know.

The Texas Legislature has reconvened for the third time since the regular legislative session of 2005 to revamp our tax system for public school finance. Right now, local property taxes pick up the brunt of that burden, and middle-income homeowners like me are paying out the nose. State sales taxes [6.25%] mostly cover the rest. For the most part it's individuals, not businesses, that are paying the tab.

Our legislative heroes have been promising us property tax relief for the last 4 years. I'm hoping this time the political pressure is really on to get something done.

BTW - I'm back online after a week of no internet service at home.

Friday, April 14, 2006


Tomorrow is the two-year anniversary of the day we closed on our first home. It's hard to believe we've been living in this house for two whole years. I'm still getting used to the idea of being a homeowner and the accompanying responsibilities and obligations.

We've been talking seriously about remodeling our kitchen. We have no intentions of undertaking that project ourselves. I need to contact some contractors to get an idea of what we can and cannot do and how much it's going to cost.

Our yard is sloooowly getting back into shape after one Spring and Summer of neglect and a Fall and Winter drought in 2005. It appears the clover was not affected by the drought: it's back with a vengeance! Last weekend, I walked around the yard spreading "Weed & Feed" on the lawn with this little hand-cranked spreader. Results after 5 days: both the grass and the weeds look green and full. Hell. I guess green is good. I was actually worried that 90 percent of my yard would wilt and die. From across the street it probably looks okay.

Kim told me we needed some kind of fertilizer [preferably non-chemical] and some mulch for our plant and garden beds. So after work one evening, I headed to the nearest "big box" home center where I encountered a 50-yard long wall lined with stacks of bags containing countless varieties of crap [figuratively and literally] for nourishing your lawn and garden. After 45 minutes of pacing back and forth perusing the various products, I loaded a cart with some bags of peat humus. It met Kim's criteria and it was cheap. Now onto the mulch. I had my choice of pine bark mulch, black bark mulch, red colored mulch, organically grown Texas cedar mulch . . . and so on. At this point I decided to call Kim on my cell to get her opinion. I think we went with the fair trade, cruelty-free cedar mulch, or something like that. Our yard now smells like cedar.

One thing that caught my eye [and, eventually, my concern] was Dillo Dirt, a product of the City of Austin. The city uses lawn and tree trimmings and old Christmas trees collected at curbside, combined with "treated sewage sludge," to create Dillo Dirt. According to the City of Austin website, the composting process generates heat sufficient to "virtually eliminate human and plant pathogens." They also claim it meets EPA standards for "unrestricted use" in vegetable gardens. Uh huh. Well I read the little disclaimer on the bag of Dillo Dirt at the store. To summarize, it says even though the composting process "virtually eliminates" the crappy badness, you might want to wear some gloves and something over your head when handling Dillo Dirt. By the way, we really don't recommend it for vegetable gardens [!]. Don't worry about it, fellas.

Last weekend, I also picked up a gas-powered weed whacker/trimmer. With minimal assembly and a spot of oil and some gas, I had the thing up and running in about 15 minutes. And I quickly remembered that I never liked operating these things. When I was a teenager, my dad had a couple of electric Weedeater trimmers. I think he asked me to trim with them once or twice, and let's just say we both decided that was not the wisest or safest idea. They aren't as easy to operate as it would seem. There are no wheels to guide you or to maintain the trimming height. It's just a 15-pound wand with a mini-motorcycle engine on one end and a virtually invisible cutting line spinning at many thousand RPM on the other. It takes strength and finesse [and long pants and safety glasses] to operate these machines correctly. I am happy to report that I was starting to get the hang of it right about the time I finished trimming, last Sunday.

Eat your heart out, Hank Hill.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Early to Bed, Early to Work

Between office work and yard work, I haven't had much time to post. There is a laundry list of crap I want to 'blog about, but I just haven't had time.

I'm at my office at 7 AM for Pete's sake! I normally wake up at 7 AM on a weekday. Why? The Texas Legislature will begin another special legislative session on Monday to address state tax issues, which doesn't directly affect my job. However, the members will usually conduct other House/Senate committee business while they're in Austin. And that's when my job gets busier. I'm working on a pretty important project this week in preparation for a presentation before a newly-created joint legislative committee next week.

I'm not complaining. This is what I signed up for when I took this job. As frustrating as it can be sometimes, I enjoy the added pressure and the challenge. I've always worked best under pressure. My brain kicks into overdrive when there is a perceived sense of urgency. I think more critically and creatively. The bad part is that I sometimes have trouble relaxing when I leave work. My brain doesn't know when to drop down into standby mode during these busy times. It actually takes deep concentration to get it down to cruising speed. It's like I'm talking my brain down from a ledge.

Anyway . . . Why the hell am I writing? I need to get to work!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

One thousand three hundred thirteen libertarian quotes on the wall.

I don't know if I'll ever get through them all. I thought these were funny.

Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. – James Bovard (1994)

A liberal is someone who feels a great debt to his fellow man, which debt he proposes to pay off with your money. – G. Gordon Liddy

And finally, because it hits close to home [work, actually]:

The single most exciting thing you encounter in government is competence, because it's so rare. – Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1976)

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Week in Rock

This weekend I picked up a few new and a few old records and CDs.

Mates of State - Bring It Back
Destroyer - Destroyer's Rubies
A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory
The White Stripes - Elephant
Beulah - When Your Heartstrings Break

First impressions of Bring It Back: I like the new Mates of State record for the same basic reason I like all The New Pornographers records. There is an underlying, infectious AM pop influence that I find irresistable. Mates of State do it without guitar for the most part, and their musical phrasing and lyrics are more conventional than the New Pornos. But the male/female vocal harmonies are similarly sweet. It's a fun record [nice 180 g pressing, too].

I couldn't have bought Destroyer's Rubies at a better time. I need something new in music to obsess over [I've been listening to the hell out of some Belle and Sebastian, lately, and was starting to wonder if I was developing an addiction--more on that later]. Destroyer is essentially Dan Bejar, otherwise known around my house as the elf-sounding guy on the New Pornographers albums. I don't know what to say about this album. It's been in my truck CD player since I left the record store parking lot on Saturday afternoon, and I've listened to it about three times through. It may stay in the truck all week. There are stories in the songs, but what the hell is he singing about? What is he doing to my pop sensibility? How can I be hooked without any hooks? I am determined to get to the bottom of it. New obsession.

Low End Theory may be my favorite hip-hop album of all time. I had a dubbed cassette of this when I was in high school, and I'm pretty sure I listened to it until it wore out. So I'm very happy to have this album back in my collection--this time on glorious double vinyl LP. The product is dope.

We have White Stripes' Elephant on CD, but this is something I've wanted on vinyl for a while. It seemed appropriate since their entire recording process was analog from start to finish. Results are mixed. The packaging is pretty nice. Gatefold jacket; full color inner sleeves. Double LP: disc 1 on white vinyl; disc 2 on red vinyl. Unfortunately, disc 1 is warped and just barely outside my tolerance [slight pitch bending]. After spinning sides A and B, I thought I was going to return the album. Then I popped on side 3 [disc 2] and was blown away by how much better "Ball and a Biscuit" and "The Hardest Button to Button" sound on vinyl compared to the CD. The jury is still out. I think I'll keep it [but I know I could probably sell it on eBay for at least 2x what I paid].

I have one gripe about "premium" vinyl packaging: the glossy, full color inner sleeves are a pain in the ass. They always form a static cling/vacuum suction bond with the record that makes it a real chore to get the record in and out. It's almost as bad as trying to force my cat into the pet carrier to take him to the vet.

Beulah's When Your Heartstrings Break is a quiet indie-pop classic that I kinda missed the first time around, circa 1999. I've always liked the track, "If We Can Land A Man On The Moon, Surly I Can Win Your Heart", but a whole album of such lush, pop-hook laden tunes was a bit saccharine for me at the time. They eventually won me over at a show in 2002[?] at the Club Formerly Known as The Mercury. When I saw this album in the used CD bin at Backspin Records, I didn't hesitate to snatch it up. Beulah is laid back, good time rock in a similar vein to The Glands. They're not going to blow your mind, but they show tremendous respect for their influences [Beatles, Stones, et al] while adding their own signature sound to it all, crafting great sounding, quality pop rock.