12 July 2007

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Apologies all around for the delay in posting this update. I have been a little woozy and somewhat physically uncomfortable since Monday. If you landed here without knowing anything about my ongoing health situation, you may want to start here and follow the back links to get enough information that you are not lost.

First, let's start with the ugly. On Monday afternoon, my doctor removed what was described to me as a "rather large" cancerous tumor from my bladder. The bad - despite expectations for an outpatient procedure, I had to spend the night in the hospital on Monday. But, the good - well, the good is REALLY good - (a) the doctors believe that they got the whole tumor; (b) while they are still waiting for the pathology report to confirm this, it appears as though the tumor was not nearly as embedded into the bladder wall as it appeared from the previously taken surgical photos, and I may not need to have my bladder removed; and (c) ALL of the people that I encountered at Moffitt were top notch.

The only way to look at this, at this point, is that Monday's surgery produced about the best possible outcome that anyone could have hoped. I am trying to temper my enthusiasm until the pathology report comes back, in much the same way that I did not allow myself to get too down about things when they looked a little more bleak. Still, it is my doctor's belief that whatever treatment remains, it is very possible that it will be medicinal in nature, as opposed to surgical - and any way you slice that, it appears to be good news.

While I was initially bummed that I had to stay overnight, I realize that it was absolutely the right thing. What upset me was that I was told it was outpatient, and the only reason I would be staying overnight was if there was a complication during the surgery. So, when I was coming to (but, still groggy), and realized I was being taken to a room, I got really worried. When I was told that things were very successful in the OR, I understood that it was just for observation purposes - not because something had gone wrong.

Random stuff - Every person within the medical profession that I have encountered since this whole mess started has asked if I am a smoker. I am smart enough to know that there is a strong link between cancer and smoking, but it seemed as though the only reaction everyone had was regarding smoking. I finally asked about this while at Moffitt. One of the anesthesiologists that was working on me told me that in all their time in medicine, they had never seen anyone with a tumor in their bladder that was not a smoker. Wow. I like the idea of being a trailblazer, but this isn't exactly what I had in mind.

More random stuff - The Moffitt Center is a first-class, top-rate facility. I realize that my hospital experiences have been pretty limited until now, but these guys did some things that really impressed me. They have complimentary valet parking - and the valet even refused a tip (we didn't have small bills - and he didn't have change - so, he told us to "get him next time" - amazing!). They gave my buddy who drove me full access to the floor's pantry - which was stocked with sodas, Gatorade, snacks, ice cream, etc. - all complimentary. Yes, I realize that I am paying for this, but it is nice to think that visitors looking to spend time with family members - some in pretty bad shape - aren't being nickeled and dimed for everything, least of all a can of soda. Speaking of visitors, there are no pre-set visiting hours. It occurred to me that these types of amenities are in place to ensure that any family and friends visiting cancer patients have one or two less things to worry about. How do you tell someone that they can only visit with their dying father or grandmother between 3-7 pm?

My buddy and I had the nursing staff (and anyone else we encountered) in stitches. I always try to be a good patient - heck, these people are the ones caring for me, and if you were in the position of giving care, who would you want to help - the guy who makes you laugh, or the guy who is a pain in the ass? Of course, my way of dealing with nerves is to just crack jokes - and my nerves were damn well shot. By the time we checked out on Tuesday, I think they were a little sorry to see us go!

Unfortunately, there is little to do right now except to sit back and wait for the pathology report. My next appointment is in 10 days or so. Keep your fingers crossed until then that all of this good news will pan out as such.

Read the rest of this article...

09 July 2007

Quick Update

I am on my way out the door to Tampa for the biopsy at Moffitt. Everyone I have spoken with there seems to think that this is an outpatient procedure, but there is the skeptical side of me that won't be surprised if I end up spending the night in the hospital. I am all for making small wishes - so, for the moment, think happy thoughts that I won't be spending the night in the hospital in Tampa!

I will post an update when I can. Thank you all for the kind wishes - it is truly appreciated.

Read the rest of this article...

05 July 2007

Is Ignorance REALLY Bliss?

If you don't know the crazy, mixed-up story of my current health issue, you might want to start here, here, and here (at least skim!). Trust me, things will make a lot more sense. Caught up now?

If you have been following this story from the beginning, you should notice that I have tried to keep my sense of humor about things, as best I can. Sure, cracking jokes is my coping mechanism, in general, but I have been making a concerted effort to be as positive as I can about what is coming down the pike. I have a friend who has been suffering from his own cancer for about 15 years - someone who rightfully should have been defeated by his disease years ago, according to his doctors. It seems to me that his attitude, which amazed me every day before my own illness was anywhere on the radar, has helped him defeat his own cancer, almost singlehandedly. If I could duplicate that - heck, I should be in pretty good shape.

I wonder, though, if there isn't a fine line between keeping a positive attitude and burying your head in the sand, when it comes to what may lie ahead. Since I started writing about my health, I have probably downplayed the severity of what has been going on. Did I just not want to confront what was coming at me? Beats me, but if you will recall, at one time, I didn't give my doctor more than a 30% chance of being right in his cancer diagnosis. As of my meeting this morning at Moffitt, I am pretty well convinced that the initial cancer diagnosis was correct.

My visit was enlightening, to say the least. The new doctor, whose specialty is listed as "urological surgeon" took one look at the photos from my last procedure and immediately said that it looks like a serious reality that I will need to have my bladder removed. He concurred with the assessment that there is a large bladder tumor, and based on the size and location of the tumor, many of the less aggressive treatment options may not be available to me. That's the bad news - the good news is that someone my age - and relative good health - should have a better-than-average chance of full recovery (with, hopefully, full use of ALL my pieces and parts).

OK...before we start doing procedures like a radical cystectomy, I am sure that we need to make sure that it is (a) necessary, and (b) all other alternatives have been exhausted. To this end, I have a procedure scheduled for next Monday (7/9) where the surgeon will perform a biopsy - he tells me that he will attempt to get as much of the tumor removed as possible. After that procedure, we will be able to better discuss any and all available treatment options. Chemotherapy looks like a possibility somewhere in my future, as well.

Admittedly, I am a little more nervous than I was yesterday - concerned, too - and, heck, pretty damn scared, on top of all that. The whole idea that "ignorance is bliss" is one thing - right up until you realize that maybe this is a little more serious than you had really considered. For the moment, I have confidence in this doctor. He tells me that he did 80 of these operations last year (bladder removal) - that is 1 1/2 operations per week. On the one hand, it sounds like he knows what he's doing - from what I have read, the most succssful patients are the ones who have the most experienced doctors. On the other hand, there are a few more bits of research that I need to do. For instance, if this guy does this surgery with this degree of frequency, is it because it is his default answer for everything? A guy comes in with a sprained toe, does he think he needs to remove a bladder? Also, of the 80 surgeries he performed, he admits that none of them were performed on anyone as young as me. Perhaps I need to seek out someone who has performed this surgery on someone my own age?

I will try to update with any new information as it becomes available. Or...I will just write my next post about something fun - like fried chicken!

Read the rest of this article...

27 June 2007

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

The Tom Petty song has been going through my head the last couple of days. It seems like the very first lesson I learned in dealing with illness (still, as of now, technically UNdiagnosed illness, I might add) is that my patience will be tested - almost daily. Patience has never been one of my strongest traits to begin with, so this should be quite the adventure.

If none of this makes any sense to you, your best bet might be to start here.

The past few days I have been dealing with a seemingly endless run of phone calls. It is the "appointment circle of life."

  • Call (the cancer center) and schedule an appointment - hear that the next available appointment is 3 1/2 weeks away.
  • Argue that there must be an appoinment sooner than that.
  • Listen as I am told that an appointment MIGHT open up, but there is no guarantee.
  • Call the urologist's office and ask if it was ideal to wait 3 1/2 weeks for an appointment, or should I start to consider other options?
  • Wait for phone call from the urologist.
  • Wait for phone call from cancer center to tell me that there is a cancellation.
  • Call from urologist - he thinks we should punt the cancer center and try another specialist (university hospital).
  • Call from new specialist to schedule appointment - need to do pre-appointment triage first.
  • Call new specialist to schedule appointment.
  • Call from cancer center telling me that an earlier appointment opened.
  • Call to urologist to confirm cancer center appointment and dispose of new specialist appointment.
  • Call to cancer center confirming new appointment.
It may not be the cancer that kills me - but this stuff will drive me nuts. Even still, the "pushed up" appointment at Moffitt isn't until July 5. It's only next week, but it seems like a forever-and-a-half.

Instead of waiting around here for the appointment next week, I decided that if I have to wait - then I am going to get out of town for a couple of days. I have some flex time at work, and the July 4 holiday coming up, so I booked a flight out of town Saturday morning. I figure that if I am still feeling healthy enough to do something fun now, why wait until after treatments start and I don't feel like (or physically cannot) do anything fun for any extended period of time.

Fortunately, I have good friends that recognize I need a little push every now and again to do these types of things. Friends that care - and live in fun places that I would want to visit. So, a free flight and free rental car later, I am off to the Taste of Chicago this weekend. Fortunately, the Cubbies are in town, too, and the White Sox are home early next week against the Baltimore Orioles. Food and baseball. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

In the meantime, Tom Petty will continue to ring in my ears. Food and baseball should work to be a good distraction. Besides, at least it's not that God-awful "Live Like You Were Dyin'" song that I manage to hear on the radio about six times a day!

Read the rest of this article...

24 June 2007

Sometimes it's not what you say...

If you arrived here by clicking a link in an email from me or don't already know the beginning history of my current health issue, you may want to start here so that things make a little more sense.

When I last wrote, I mentioned that I was due for a procedure that would help identify the alien creature that is inhabiting my body. This past Thursday, I had a friend drive me to the hospital and checked in for a procedure that was medically called a cystoscopy with a transurethral resection of a bladder tumor. In plain English, the doctor was going to knock me out, stick another tube up inside me, slice off a piece of this alleged tumor, and perform a biopsy to ensure a difinitive diagnosis. When I checked in, I wasn't sure if I would be staying overnight in the hospital or leaving after the procedure. Given my general distaste for all things medical - I was in a reasonable frame of mind.

The waiting really was the hardest part. Once they started the IV in pre-op, things started to move quickly, and I ended up becoming a little more relaxed (which I can only assume was the result of a sedative). I remember being rolled into the operating room, and the anesthesiologist making about 10 seconds of small talk and then covering my mouth with what he described as "pure oxygen." The next thing I knew I was awake in recovery.

I guess I could best describe how I felt when I woke up as disappointed. I was in no pain (the drugs were probably still free-flowing in the body!), there was no catheter attached, and only about an hour and a half had elapsed. In my mind, this wasn't very good. The doctor told me that the procedure would take longer if he felt that he was going to be able to "make some progress" on repairing/removing rather than just identification. Since the surgery took such a relatively short time, I had to figure that he got in there and didn't much like what he saw. I was still groggy, but I remember the doctor coming in to talk to me and he showed me some of the pictures that he took - but, everything was way too hazy for me to make any sense of what was happening. I arranged for a post-op appointment the following day, and went to rest, as instructed.

I didn't know what to think when I arrived at the doctor's office the next day - but, in poker terms, I was absolutely "on tilt." The receptionist greeted me with some degree of surprise, as if to say "how are you up and about and in here for an appointment?" She also had a look in her face that made me think I was about to die. Hmmm....OK. The doctor came into the waiting room looking for another patient, spotted me across the room, pointed and said "you - in here!" I guess it's a good thing that your doctor recognizes you and wants to see you, right???

He sat me down and explained, as best he could, what happened during the surgery. He told me that when he got a good look through the scope, he was confident that the obstruction in my bladder was, in fact, a "massive" bladder tumor. OK...probably didn't need to hear the word "massive," but I am hanging in there. He immediately suggested that I seek treatment at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. He mentioned two doctors names, who he described as the best "bladder guys" in the southeast. This was probably the first time that cancer seemed real to me. Incidentally, the folks from Moffitt seem pretty together - they had actually called me BEFORE I ever left the hospital the day before. I hadn't returned their call, as I was waiting to talk to my doctor first - but, I was impressed that they seemed on top of things.

I asked about the biopsy - did he do one, when would the results be available, etc.? He told me that he didn't actually do a biopsy, as he had "serious concerns" about the mass. His fear was that if he stuck a blade into the tissue to secure a piece for biopsy, he would create a "bloody mess." I only THOUGHT I didn't like the word "massive" until I heard the phrase "bloody mess." As a matter of fact, I am pretty sure that if I had never asked the question, I would probably be a better person for it today. I was told by my friend who accompanied me to the doctor that when he used that phrase, I immediately went flush and probably didn't hear another word he said the whole visit. His overall assessment was that the folks at Moffitt would have the proper tools (lasers to coderize the bleeding, perhaps) to deal with such a medically dicey situation.

Apparently, there are still some things that could be causing this, but are not very likely. One possibility is diverticulitis or diverticulosis. Really, the only reason this is even a possibility is because of the location of the mass, not because of any particular symptoms that I have. To that end, I am calling this remote. However, he does want me to go and get another scope (other end this time) just to be on the safe side. Oh joy. The other remote possibility is that it could be residual infection from the sutures from the previous surgery. Again, this is remote, too, as the location of the mass (anterior) is not consistent with where you would find an infection from sutures. If I was giving my urologist a 30% chance of being right before, I would have to reassess that to be about 90-95%.

How about some good news? First, I am feeling (physically) surprisingly well. I have been amazed by this all weekend. I expected to be attached to a catheter and hopped up on Vicodin. That hasn't been the case at all. I could probably, physically, go back to work tomorrow, but I will take the day to get some details in order and make some appointments. Second, I am glad that the doctor recognized that he needs help in this matter, and referred me to someone who is better equipped to help me. I think doctor's egos sometimes get in the way of the best medical care - and other times, when a doctor is intrigued by a diagnosis (or something he hasn't seen in 20+ years), that s/he might "try" to fix things - kind of like a mechanic who doesn't really know what is making that noise under your hood. Lastly, I am overwhelmed and humbled by the outpouring of support from the blogging community, my friends, and random others who don't even know me - or barely know me. I plan to do a separate post highlighting the other blogs who have picked up on this story, but I did want to share the idea that if laughter is truly the best medicine, I may well live a long and happy life after all.

Read the rest of this article...

20 June 2007

What do you do when you don't know what to do?

Things have been a little crazy around here lately. Lately, it seems like it is always a little crazy around here. Still, it has been a little MORE crazy than usual within the last couple of weeks. Truth is, I haven't been feeling well for some time now - I mean, I'm talking months. My symptoms are identical to a situation I had three years ago, when I had surgery to have a very large stone removed from my bladder. At the time, my urologist said that it was the largest stone he had ever seen in over 20 years as a urologist (hey - I win!). The stone was removed, but since I didn't really care for the doctor, I didn't do the follow-up to see what caused the stone or what treatments might be needed to prevent the same from happening again.

Fast forward to the present day. Back in January, I knew that I wasn't feeling well, but since my symptoms were identical to the last stone, I knew what I was in for, and I could tolerate being uncomfortable for a little while - and I didn't really fancy going back to the urologist, I suffered quietly, as best I could. Besides, I didn't want to miss my trip to Texas or the spring travel season for work while I was recuperating from surgery. In retrospect, and in no small part based on how I feel right now, I do realize that was utterly stupid.

When I got back to Florida after spring travel, I started to see a doctor and get the wheels in motion to get this stone out of me. Unfortunately, I learned that doctors are not really willing to rely on my own diagnosis and just schedule me for a surgery requiring multiple incisions. Instead, I have endured a battery of tests - the result of which is that they have found a mass in my bladder that is about 6.5 cm. Confident that this is the stone to which I referred, I again requested that they slice me open and remove the stone so that I could get on with the business of enojoying my summer. My new urologist, before slicing, insisted on doing a cystoscopy (a procedure that no man should ever volunteer for!) and getting a "look" at the mass.

Upon viewing this mass, the doctor informed me, in no uncertain terms, that I have some form of bladder cancer. Knowing that this is almost impossible, I informed the doctor that he was clearly incorrect - merely viewing my (abnormally large sized) stone as something else. Again, he questioned my ability to self-diagnose. To that end, he claimed to be confident that this is not a stone, but rather some form of cancer.

As a 35 year-old, non-smoker who is not exposed to industrial chemicals, it wouldn't seem as though I am in any of the risk categories for this type of cancer. But, the urologist doesn't see it that way. This means that I have to go in for another scope tomorrow (Thursday) to find out exactly what is going on in my bladder. I estimate the urologist's chances of being right at about 30%. However, since hearing this news about 10 days ago - I have been a little freaked out. OK...I started out a LOT freaked out, but I am much better now.

Up until now, this blog has been at least semi-anonymous. I really couldn't figure out how to tell all of the people that I thought should know, so I went for the completely impersonal approach. I deal with talking about myself best that way. I also did some inner battle with whether or not to say anything until I knew something more concrete. So - I almost wussed out on saying anything until hours before I am supposed to go in for surgery. Nothing like pulling the pin out of the grenade, tossing it in the room and then taking off running.

Let me be clear about a few things - in the last week and change, I have done a lot of reading about cancer - this cancer (that I may or may not have), specifically. I have learned even in the worst case scenario, this is not a death sentence. That's the good news; the bad news is that there is a serious likelihood of recurrence somewhere down the road. While death is not likely, some of the things that I may have to live with aren't all that appealing, either. For instance, at 35, I am not sure that I am looking forward to a lifetime of "touching, holding, cuddling, and caressing." I am pretty sure that I will not take the news very well if I am told than I need a radical cystectomy. The thought of having to drain my fake bladder every few hours manually is more than I can stand to think about. I have mentioned that I really do still think that this is just a stone, right?

I have contacted some of my favorite bloggers and asked them to post about the personal finance angle of learning potentially life-altering news. JD from Get Rich Slowly is going to feature this story on his blog in the next day or so, and hopefully, there will be a number of people who can offer up some advice - because I admit to being baffled with a lot of this stuff. And, as independent a guy as I am, going through this alone has me just a touch petrified. Hopefully, other bloggers will pick up on the discussion, as I feel this topic (personal finance as related to possible health issues) is somewhat underrepresented. I will post a follow-up as soon as I can.

Also, I ask that you try to take just a few things away from this post. The first is that I am not looking for sympathy (heck, I don't even think the cancer diagnosis is true yet!), and, even if it is true, I don't think I am going to die. I am not looking for an outpouring of support and prayer (though, I am not going to kick anyone away with a better pipeline to the "Big Guy" than myself). I am fortunate that I have decent health insurance and more sick leave than I ever thought I could use. I hope that any friend of mine who reads this takes away the idea that if your body is telling you something is wrong - and you know it - go to the doctor, go directly to the doctor, do not pass 'Go!', do not collect $200. I know that I have learned my lesson with my own version of "Scared Straight!"

This might be a good time for me to make a sales pitch for you to sign up for the email updates using the block to the upper-right. You won't get spam - and lord knows I don't post all that frequently, but you will get an ad-free, black-on-white, basic formatted HTML version of any updates from this blog only (your name won't be sold or used for any other unsavory things).

This story is updated here.

Read the rest of this article...

The Hot Rockin', Flame-Throwin' Carnival of Personal Finance

When I was a kid, I would sometimes listen to the Z Morning Zoo before school. Scott Shannon and Ross Brittain hosted, with what seemed like a cast of thousands. I always remember one of their bumpers being the "Broadcasting live from the top of the Empire State Building, the Hot Rockin', Flame-Thrown' Z-100!" Side note of Travelin' Man trivia - I was listening when they began broadcasting, though, to this day I have no idea what I was doing awake at 6 am on an August morning. But, I do remember that the first song they played was my favorite song at the time, Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger." Seems like a hundred years ago.

Celebrating firsts (sort of) with a radio theme is JD over at Get Rich Slowly. He is hosting this week's 2nd Anniversary Carnival of Personal Finance. These articles are the best of the best from the personal finance world over the last two years. It is kind of like the pro football, basketball, hockey and baseball All-Star games all rolled into one. I was grateful to have my article, Why Hoarding Airline Miles is a Fool's Game, listed. JD's top picks are marked with a star, and I also picked out a few of my favorite articles for you to check out:

Picking money over time - are we working too much? is at Money and Values. I have mentioned in the past that I have an inability to take time off from work. It is stupid. I need to - I just don't. Maybe if I keep mentioning it, I will get the hint.

I just had my performance review at work, and one of the few things for which I was dinged was disorganization. My office desk is a mess. I am one who operates on the theory that if I had time to clean my desk, I wouldn't be getting any work done. Still, I am always striving for improvement. Here are 16 ways that being disorganized costs you money.

I had a conversation with a friend recently who was worried about money. When I hear people talk about money, I immediately shift into "how can you make more money" mode. Here are 25 Ways to Make Money Quickly and Easily (and Legally)!

Dave Ramsey popularized the debt snowball, but what do you do when you have already paid down all of your debt and started your emergency fund? How about a SAVINGS snowball?

Another conversation with a friend involved the idea of being frugal. I think she interpreted the term to mean "cheap." Fortunately, Money Walks came along and posted Frugal versus Cheap. If I had this article on hand, I could have won my argument a lot quicker!

Those are my Top 5, but there are plenty more listed that may be just what YOU were looking for. Check it out!

Read the rest of this article...

19 June 2007

I Miss Omaha!

I mean I REALLY miss Omaha.

This is College World Series week (as though you didn't already know!), and I should be in Omaha. This (psuedo-)annual trip is one in which the planning for the following year begins on the plane ride back. For me, I am never ready to leave when the trip is over - so, I am most gung-ho about going back right when we leave.

I have been talking about this year's Omaha trip since college baseball season started. I caught games in Houston (Rice vs. Long Beach State) and Nashville (Vanderbilt, with MLB's #1 draft pick David Price pitching, versus Florida). I went to the ACC Baseball Tournament in Jacksonville. Heck, I am a college baseball FAN. I planned the trip with my buddy who is heading off to law school in the fall at Louisville. We are both UNC fans, and we always suspected that UNC may make the trip to Omaha with us, but neither of us ever expected Louisville to be there, too. I feel bad for my friend because I bailed out on him at the last minute.

And now I miss Omaha.

I miss the "Greatest Show on Dirt."

I miss my annual steak dinner at Johnny's Cafe. While we are on the subject, I also miss Lo Sole Mio (I would have never expected to find one of the best Italian restaurants around in Omaha!) and the Bohemian Cafe.

I miss the carnival-like atmosphere around Rosenblatt Stadium.

I miss the Henry Doorly Zoo.

I miss the Jesus water people.

I miss getting a free Slim Jim with the local paper every day on the way to the game. Hey - you need the water to wash down SOMETHING, don't you?I miss the brisk walk up the hill - usually in temperatures north of 90-95 degrees - with throngs of baseball fans all hoping to witness some of that CWS magic.

I miss the Titan House. For that matter, I miss all of the rented houses along 13th Street that have people partying from early in the morning until long after the last out is recorded at night.

I miss Zesto's.

I miss staying in the team hotel. One year we stayed in the South Carolina host hotel and one year with LSU. I will never forget having breakfast one morning with the entire South Carolina team. The starting pitcher was sitting about three feet behind me. Cool stuff.

I miss the LSU fans - and the Horns, too. These guys know how to travel. LSU folks all caravan with their giant RVs; hosting large tailgating parties - whether LSU is playing or not - with crawfish boils, jumbalaya, etc. The UT fans have the grills out smoking meats "low and slow" early in the morning.

I miss the eight flags flying over Rosenblatt - the ones that are lowered one at a time, as each team is eliminated from contention.

I miss Harold Reynolds.

I miss the "ball girls" - the ones whose responsibility include retrieving the foul balls hit onto the screen straight back over the grandstand. If the ball is caught - cheers from the crowd; if the ball hits the ground (for ANY reason) - unmerciful boos. One of the great Omaha traditions.

I think Harold Reynolds misses the ball girls, too.

I miss the live organist.

I miss how the whole town embraces "their" event - how when you walk into a restaurant, they don't ask what you want to drink, but rather who won the early game.

I miss the ticket scalpers - they actually seem nice and friendly - and you can still get reasonably priced tickets.

I miss Sammy the Owl - the only real mascot I have seen in all my years in Omaha.

Mostly, I just think I underestimated how much I would miss being a part of it all.

And, if for whatever reason, I am not able to make it back next year, I am going to be really bummed again.

Read the rest of this article...

16 June 2007

Deep Fried Jacksonville

Jacksonville is one of those cities that doesn't even really belong in Florida. It gets cold in the winter; Spanish is not the PRIMARY language spoken; and, anywhere else in Florida, hosting something called "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party" would be considered a badge of honor - not Jacksonville. No, Jacksonville is a misplaced southern city. Most folks realize that the rest of the state is not part of "The South," but rather is at the end of the off-ramp from a secret exit off of the Long Island Expressway.

I decided to take a few days last month to see the ACC Baseball Tournament in Jacksonville. From previous visits, I have found Jacksonville to be lacking somewhat in viable dining options. Fortunately, just prior to this trip, I found out that my cholesterol level was at a very respectable 151. Armed with that information, and taking into account Jacksonville's southern roots, I went out in search of some serious fried critters.

My first serious food stop was Clark's Fish Camp. This place was recommended by a serious foodie buddy, so I was really looking forward to it. Finding Clark's is a bit of a challenge. It isn't on any main road - requires a number of turns to get to from any direction, and is past a road sign that reads "DEAD END." I am kind of amazed that I made it there. I didn't get an exterior shot of this place because I arrived in the evening, with very little daylight - and there ain't much lighting on the exterior of this place to take photos. The parking lot (and adjoining street) was PACKED with cars.

Clark's is famous for their wildlife theme. Greeting you as you walk in the door is this nature scene...

"Florida Kitsch" is the best way I can describe the decorations that are not dead/stuffed animals...

This was the antler chandelier (one of many) that hung over my table....
If you want to see the food, continue down below the fold

I ordered the fried shrimp and fish combo, with fries and mac and cheese.
My buddy recommended the shrimp, and I should learn to take his recommendations very seriously. The shrimp was the star of the plate - by far. They were flavorful and plump - and were not overpowered by the light breading and frying process, which can often happen. Tilapia, which I like (in general), is not a fish that is coducive to frying very well. The nature of the fish is that it takes it's flavor from the preparation - and the frying didn't do well - it tasted like nothing. Catfish, cod, grouper (yeah, right!) - anything would have been better than tilapia. The fries were probably a little better than OK - and the mac and cheese was ordinary. It wasn't until after I left that I realized that my plate did not include the promised hush puppies. I was plenty full, so I didn't even notice them until I was discussing my dinner with a friend later on.

I screwed up on the ordering - should have just gotten the fried shrimp. However, my plan was to hit O'Steen's in St. Augustine at some point during the weekend, and I knew I would be having their fried shrimp (maybe my favorite), so I balked and split the meal with fish - my bad.

I do not often order dessert, but I was in the mood. What better way to end a deep-fried meal than with...
deep-fried cheesecake with a raspberry sauce. Mmmmm...good. I tried to get a picture of the inside of one of these bad boys, but the lighting would not not cooperate with my camera (and/or operator), and all the photos came out too blurry to use. I ate about half and took the rest back to the hotel. Bad move - this wasn't something that fared well after cooling off substantially. The cheesecake was wonderful warm. It was almost just a different dessert altogether than just to think about cheesecake. I have never even tried any of the deep-fried "fair" food (fried snickers, twinkies, coke, etc.). It just sounded good - for that night. The texture changed completely (not soggy), though, when they cooled - again, not horrible - but, it just wasn't the same experience that I had earlier. While they were no longer hot in the hotel room, they weren't cold, either - just room temperature - and it just didn't work for me.

If I am ever sentenced to be in Jacksonville again, I would give this place another shot - but, I will probably stick to the fried shrimp!

Clark's Fishing Camp • 12903 Hood Landing Road • Mandarin, FL 32258 • (904) 268-FISH (3474)

Read the rest of this article...

29 May 2007

The REAL Carnival of Dining Out III - Super-Sized Edition

I don't think that there is a big enough apology to account for my extended absence. I appreciate the emails and well-wishes from those who thought I had gone to meet the Great Blogger in the Sky - and the prodding from friends who wouldn't know where to eat, what to watch on television, or how to grab some extra airline miles or hotel points without me.

Without further ado, here are all of the latest entries for the Carnival of Dining Out. Since I have not posted in a couple of months, I am waiving the normal one-per-month rule. Those that submitted an article for each month, will have both posted.


Jennifer Miner starts things off with Best Brunch in Chicago posted at Travel Articles. Jennifer wanted to make sure that my anti-sushi bias didn't preclude her participation, so she chose a topic that even a manly-man diner such as myself would approve. Some of these suggestions might just keep me out of Lou Mitchell's the next time I am in Chicago!

KoffieVerkeerd is our first international contributor this month. The Amsterdam coffee bar scene is happening. Early breakfast at Bagels & Beans posted at DaarZijnWeWeer. Of course, it is possible that I haven't really considered the surge in the Euro against the American dollar, but 7 Euros (~$10US?) sounds like an awful lot of change to kick out for a bagel with a schmear and a cup o' joe.

Jul checks in with a stop in one of America's culinary crown cities - Brunch, New Orleans style posted at Veggie Chic. This may well be the first vegetarian-specific submission. Congratulations!

Multicultural Dining Experiences

Forget that processed "just add boiling water", 10 cents-a-bag "meal" from your college years. Newcomer Mystery Critic will show you where to find MC's Favorite Ramen Shops in the US posted at Mystery Critic Reviews of Best Restaurants.There is a definite west coast bias here, but I suspect that the west may well be where the best ramen can be found!

My good buddy, Kiki Maraschino (one of the all-time great nom-de-plumes) got her blog off the ground and sent in Que Rica! posted at Here, Eat This! (I also think her original blog name was a winner - if not G-rated!). Kiki has a great writing style, so you should definitely check out the rest of her work. Now. Go.

Dhana from Fresh Kitchen dropped in with a non-restaurant dining out experience at the local Thai temple in San Francisco. Dhana claims this to be the best Thai food outside of Thailand! And, since pictures are the way to my heart....well, I can't hotlink to the pictures, so you will need to click on the article to see them for yourself.

I will readily admit that I have never dined in a Ghanaian restaurant. Come to think of it, I don't know that I have ever SEEN a Ghanaian restaurant. If I were looking for one, though, I can think of no better place in the States than Berkeley, CA. Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah tells us aboutA Taste of Africa posted at Koranteng's Toli.

Fine/Upscale Dining Experiences

First-timer snekse writes about a new restaurant in one of my favorite cities - Darwin Bistro - Omaha, NE posted at Gastronomic Fight Club - Mischief. Mayhem. Soup. I am in the midst of planning my annual trip to the College World Series, and I may have to include Darwin Bistro on my list of potential dining options.

Repeat offender Steve Madsen gives us the latest on the Seattle dining scene with Twenty-six Dinners - Market Street Grill posted at South Bank Projects. I have participated in the Dine Around Seattle promotion when out that way in the past. It seems as though that special runs about the same time of year my business takes me to Seattle.

s'kat tells me that there aren't a lot of options in Newport News, VA, but Create Bistro is one of the best. She must know that I am a sucker for food photos, too - and that calamari looks delicious! Check out the rest of her posts, too, at s'kat and the miscellania.

From the "Maybe someday... Department," Sagar Satapathy presents Top 10 Most Expensive Restaurants in the World posted at Credit Card Lowdown. I guess for some restarantuers, this is a list that they would AIM to make. Congratulations, Mr. Keller, et al.

Counters, Cafes, Joints, Huts, and Shacks

belledame222's premier post, Fetch me my axe: "Well, let's have lunch. Everything looks better after lunch." is self-described as "New Yorker-style, first-person piece about an accidentally transcendent experience in a small seafood restaurant." I can't top that. Check out the rest of her work at Fetch me my axe.

Roderick Russell sends the first post from the great State of Connecticut! Traveler Food and Books posted at NOUMENON :: Art, Ideas, Culture & Capricious Opinion. Our run on vegetarian-friendly dining establishments continues. Taking advantage of my slacker status, Russell also brings us the first submission from New Hampshire, with Cold Mountain Cafe Review.

That's going to about wrap things up for this month's edition. My punishment for not posting for so long is that I don't get a link. But, check back periodically, or subscribe to the feed using the button at the top of the page, because I will have some new tales of my own travel coming up soon. In the past few months, I have had the opportunity to visit New York City upstate New York; Nashville, TN; and Jacksonville, FL. Who knows? I might even write about some of those trips!

Submit your articles to the next edition of the Carnival of Dining Out using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

Read the rest of this article...

01 April 2007

Carnival of Dining Out III - Only Fools Rush In Edition

Greetings. I bet you all thought that you would find the April 1 edition of the Carnival to be no different than any of the previous editions - a collection of the best blog posts over the past month highlighting the restaurant choices spanning the globe. BO-RIIIIING. Who would keep coming back - month after month - to read that drivel? Instead....you get this....(as always, divided into handy sections, for your reading pleasure)

From the world of restaurant marketing:
McDonald's Drops 'Hammurderer' Character from Advertising

New Homestyle Chicken Sandwich Shamelessly Promoted

Food statistics:
Meat Now America's Favorite Condiment

Food on the court blotter:
Supreme Court Rules Restaurant Patron Must Try Cheesecake

International (I do always love our intercontinental appeal):
Japanese Exchange Student Taken to Japanese Restaurant

OK, OK. The truth is I had to work today, and I forgot that it was April 1 (and the Carnival was due) until right before midnight. Longtime readers know that posting at this time of day is nothing new, but I am just plain beat and cannot devote the attention needed to get this done properly. So, I will return tomorrow with the real Carnival of Dining Out III, including my course-by-course review of my most recent dining out experience at the famed Olive Garden**. My sincere apologies to those who made excellent submissions and the two or three of you who are anxiously awaiting me to compile said submissions.

**The last paragraph is absolutely and completely and 100% true (except for the part about the Olive Garden thing - come on, now....get real).

Read the rest of this article...

15 March 2007

Kiplinger 100: Best Values in Private Education

College rankings are, for the most part, useless. I believe that college selection is an individual choice that cannot be summed up by rankings. Still, many students chase the same elusive top schools, as though "winning" admission to one of them is the only means by which their high school success (and future success) can be measured. Yet, what may be the #1 school for one student may not be on another students radar. I don't know how that gets factored into rankings.

Kiplinger's, as usual, provides some specific, targeted advice in their current article, Kiplinger 100: Best Values in Private Colleges. The idea behind their rankings is to compare colleges, both research universities and liberal arts colleges, on the basis of the quality of their education versus the relative costs to the students and their families. Also, the article brings to light some disturbing issues that many students face at this time of year.

When Andrew Kositsky applied to colleges several years ago, complicated circumstances prevented him from receiving much family support or qualifying for need-based aid. Rather than abandon his dream of attending an Ivy League institution, Kositsky, of Lummi Island, Wash., considered borrowing $100,000 to foot the bill. "I thought it would be worth it because I'd only go to college once. I wanted the decision to be made irrespective of money."
Then he talked to Caltech, where a flexible approach to financial aid meant that he could attend a top program without mortgaging his future. "Not only was Caltech understanding in the first place, but it was also willing to listen in case the dynamic changed," says Kositsky. His package, which includes federal and institutional aid, covers about three-fourths of the cost. Kositsky and his family pay the rest.

When Kositsky graduates next year, he plans to share his enthusiasm for math by teaching, a profession he couldn't have pursued had he been saddled with six-figure debt. This brainy kid now recognizes a no-brainer: "Looking back, I'm glad I made the choice not to take out those loans."
I suspect that all too many students (and their families) approach paying for college more in line with Kositsky's first statements - "I only go to college once..." is a familiar refrain.

So, which colleges do manage to blend high quality education, while remaining light on the wallet? The top 10 universities are as follows:


Cost After Need-
Based Aid
Need MetAid From
Cost After Non-
Need-Based Aid
Based Aid
Average Debt
1California Institute of Technology, PasadenaCA89117%

2Yale University, New HavenCT5,40910%

3Harvard University, CambridgeMA6,6499%

4Rice University, HoustonTX3,18525%

5Duke University, DurhamNC6,53422%

6Princeton University, PrincetonNJ4,90611%

7Massachusetts Institute of Technology, CambridgeMA4,06614%

8Emory University, AtlantaGA6,51037%

9Columbia University, New YorkNY4,22511%

10University of Pennsylvania, PhiladelphiaPA9,84121%


Now, this is an impressive list of schools. They are Top 10, after all. But, how realistic is this collection of schools to the average - heck, even top college students. Only one school admits more than one-quarter of their applicant pool, and Emory (37%) is still no guarantee for most students. 60% of the schools on this list (the Ivies and MIT) offer no merit-based scholarships, so if you don't want to open the pocketbook at these schools, you need to exhibit financial need. Even the schools that do offer merit awards only do so for the top of the applicant pool, or students with special talents that the university seeks.

You can find the complete list of liberal arts colleges here. The statistics are going to be eerily similar. Here, four of the Top 10 admit more than one-quarter (Davidson, Washington and Lee, Colgate, and Wellesley), but only one admits more than one-third (Wellesley - 34%). Getting in will be more than half the battle here, too. Five of the ten do not offer merit-based scholarships, either.

Scour the lists, though, as there are a number of schools that admit a good percentage from their applicant pool, and offer excellent merit-based scholarship opportunities. A brief, cursory glance yields a list including these choices:

Centre College, KY - 63% of their applicant pool admitted; 83% receive some merit aid.
DePauw University (IN), Austin College (TX), Wabash College (IN), Agnes Scott College (GA), and Illinois Wesleyan all admit more than 50% of their applicant pool and offer more than 50% of their admitted students merit-based aid.

On the university side, Trinity University in San Antonio, TX meets the same 50/50 profile. So does Case Western Reserve (OH), Whitworth College (WA), Drake University (IA), Gonzaga University (WA), Butler University (IL), and Valparaiso University in Indiana.

It seems to me that based on those results your best bets for affordable quality schooling can be found in Indiana and at some of the country's better faith-based schools. As with everything else, though, these rankings should be taken at face value, and only considered as part of the college admission decision process.

Read the rest of this article...

14 March 2007

Of Beer and BBQ

If you are arriving in the middle of this story, you might want to go back and start with Part I.

When last we left the trip through Texas, I was leaving the Avalon Diner and heading west to Shiner, Texas, and the Spoetzel Brewery - the makers of my favorite brewski, Shiner Bock. I remember my first trip to Texas back in the early '90s. One of my college buddies was getting married in San Antonio, and I flew out for the festivities. Every place we went, I would go to order my beer of choice, Amber Bock, and every place I went, I was told "we don't serve Amber Bock, we have Shiner Bock." Not being familiar with the brand - and not being much of a beer drinker to begin with, I moved on to something else. It wasn't until the night of the bachelor party when my friend was still coherent enough to know that he should stop consuming all the beers people purchased for him, that he passed me (the designated driver) one of his Shiners. I guess we could call it love at first taste - because I was hooked.

For all the times I have been to central Texas, I always wanted to visit Shiner and the brewery. Unfortunately, Shiner is about two hours west of Houston, an hour and a half east of San Antonio and about an hour and a half southeast of Austin. Usually, no matter how well I plan, I just can't swing that much drive time on the work nickel to score a trip to a brewery. This trip, though, was my own doing, and there was a group gathering at the brewery as part of the weekend festivities, so the stars aligned properly - for once!

We arrived in Shiner too late for the morning tour and way early for the afternoon gig (note to self: someone should really check to see the tour times before driving two hours!). We had time to kill, so we went - well, where else? The nearest watering hole. Heck, it was after noon somewhere, right? Right up the road from the brewery was a place (which may well have been named "Bar" or "Tavern" for all I know) that sold frosty cold plastic cups of Shiner Blonde for - get this - $1.25. This will do until the brewery tour begins.

The Shiner folks are a little squirrelly about people taking pictures inside the brewery, so I only got some outside shots. The brewery tour is cool (and free!). I learned a lot about beermaking and that Shiner Bock is now the #1 best-selling craft beer in Texas (not really surprising - those yellow bottles are EVERYWHERE) and the #4 best-selling craft beer in all of the United States. Today's trivia - Who are the three ranked ahead of Shiner Bock? Answer at the end of the post (if I could only figure out a way to post upside down!).

You get a few free samples before, during, or after the tour. They offer more than just the bock for tasting, too. I sampled the blonde, hefeweizen, bock and the seasonal dunkelweizen. The first three were good, but the dunkel is an acquired taste that I have not acquired. I thought it tasted a little thick - but, true beer lovers may love it. Me, when I say "Shiner," I mean "bock."

After navigating our way through the backroad Texas speedtraps, the caravan made it's way up to Taylor, TX - home of the legendary Louie Mueller's BBQ. I visited Louie Mueller's about a year ago, and detailed the bulk of my feelings at that time. Still, there was something so noteworthy at this stop that bears specific mention. For all the readers out there in Internet-land who are fans of menus, Louie Mueller's boasts one of my favorites. Scratched out on butcher paper and posted to the wall with masking tape, all of the days offerings are clearly spelled out. You can pretty well figure that most regulars here don't stop to read the menu.

The barbecue at Mueller's is excellent. As big a fan as I am of Williams Smokehouse in Houston (I won't link to the same article again, but if you haven't read the first post in this series, you'll know what I mean), if I had a choice between the two on a daily basis, I suspect that I wouldn't be eating much at Williams. During this weekend, though, we searched out the pinnacle of all BBQ, and while the beef brisket and pork ribs are really solid choices here, we would find some samples of those products to be superior further along in the trip (how's that for a teaser?). But, the single best thing on the menu here are the phenomenal beef ribs. Pictured to the left is the guy in our group affectionately called "The Mayor" enjoying one of these Flintstone-esque brontosaurus - errrr....beef ribs. I may go so far as to say that these ribs weren't only the best thing on the Mueller's menu, but it may have been the single best piece of meat - any style - that we enjoyed the whole weekend. Maybe after the last post, I will do an "awards" post for the best of this trip. The guys at Mueller's are probably going to hate me for posting this, as they told us that they get a spike in business whenever the local food writer mentions the beef ribs - and they usually cannot keep up with the demand on a daily basis. As a matter of fact, the rib shown in the picture was the last one sold for the day - yes, most of us didn't get to order them, as they were sold out. I managed to sample a small piece of the rib meat that someone else had ordered, and I can assure you - this is a serious nominee for best BBQ of the weekend.

Stay tuned...more to come on visits to Lockhart (Kreutz's Market, Smitty's) and Southside Market in Elgin.

Read the rest of this article...

13 March 2007

Maybe I Can Still Beat the Tax Man?

The frequent commenter that posts anonymously but signs her comments "Rache" is one of my co-workers. Not only does she read about my latest obsessions here, but she also gets the added privilege of hearing about them during the day at work. Usually, when she's had enough, she sends me an article that either supports or refutes my claims and attempts to secure herself a few moments of peace. To be honest, it is not a bad plan at all.

When she finally tired of hearing me moan about having to plunk down some dough with my federal tax return, she sent me this article from MSN. Apparently, I am not the one banging my head against the wall this tax season.

I had thought about most of the ideas brought forward before I read them in this article. Unfortunately, I don't have a "green" car, nor did I install energy efficient windows last year. I didn't pay college tuition, either. For that matter, most of the discussion points from the article are things that you would have had to do back in 2006 to have any effect on your tax return now....except one. And, I can actually take advantage.

This will cause a collective :gasp: from the personal finance blogging community....but, I have not yet contributed to my 2006 IRA. I still have a traditional (deductible) IRA. I don't make the maximum contributions because, quite frankly, I cannot afford to stash an additional $4,000 away - with no real ability to touch the money for another 30 years. I would love to - but, I just cannot afford another $4k for retirement savings. But, what if I were getting a discount on the money invested in the IRA? In essence, that what will happen, if I contribute.

TurboTax estimates that for every dollar of deduction that I have, I will save about 18 cents in taxes. So, for every $1,000 deposited into my IRA, it will really only cost me $820 out of my pocket. Since I need to pay Uncle Sam anyway, the money really is discounted. If I were getting a refund, the same theory might be true, but it would have less of a real effect on my thinking. Crazy, isn't it? Sometimes logic has less to personal finance than "personal" has to do with finance.

Still, where am I going to come up with the $1,500 it will take to alleviate my tax bill? While TECHNICALLY I have the cash to make the contribution, it would be coming from money that is earmarked for something else. I do have about $1,000 worth of Motorola stock that I could deposit (actually, I am not sure if I can contribute stock directly and I must be losing my touch with "The Google," because I have yet to find a concrete answer). I just don't know how to apply the tax issue, and I need to make a phone call to TD Ameritrade, the folks who hold my IRA account. Can I deposit the stock directly? What is the amount that is deductible? The tax basis? The fair market value? Would I be better off to sell the stock and just deposit the proceeds (seems like it makes less sense to pay an extra set of commissions to buy and sell, but it wouldn't be the strangest thing I have ever heard)? Of course, another day in the market like today, and I won't need to worry about it, as the MOT stock is just plummeting, of late.

I need to get this situation squared away soon, and still figure out where the difference between what I own in stock and what I still need to contribute to abate my tax obligation is going to come from. The clock is ticking, though, and with one month to go until the filing date, I have little time to secure additional funding.

Read the rest of this article...

12 March 2007

Why Hoarding Airline Miles is a Fools Game

Confession: I am an airline miles and hotel points whore. Yes, whore. I am the nut who will fly an extra connection - completely out of the way - just to rack up another 1,000 miles. A few years ago, when a hurricane was bearing down on Hooterville, I had scheduled work travel. I knew that if I waited for my outbound flight, there was a good chance that it would be canceled. I went to the airport early and hoped to get on an earlier flight to New York. The only option that would have gotten my out earlier was to fly from Florida to SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico to JFK - instead of a direct Florida to NYC flight. For an extra 1,900 miles, I would gladly make a detour to San Juan - and I avoided a hurricane - BONUS!

Based on the title, you wouldn't think that I would be the kind of fellow that would be accumulating airline miles, would you? Oh contraire...I love accumulating. I also love using them. I am an "earn and burn" kind of a guy. Many people often make the serious mistake of "saving up" for a destination award - a trip to Hawaii, a summer vacation to Europe, etc. The reality is that airline miles and hotel points are not appreciating assets - that is, you do not earn interest on your miles balance, and there is just no way that the miles you have today are going to be "worth" more tomorrow.

Instead of saving for a Hawaiian vacation, figure that you are saving cash for a kitchen remodel. You know that the new kitchen will cost you $25,000, so you begin stashing away a few extra dollars each month. After one year, you have saved $18,000, but now the cost of the new kitchen has risen to $40,000. You continue to save, and after another year, you have saved about $30,000 - except, the cost of your kitchen has now risen to $50,000. Face it - at this rate, you're starting to think about dining out more often than cooking at home.

How far fetched is this example? Not very, when you consider that within the last couple of weeks, one major airline and one major hotelier have introduced major changes to their award structure that has caused nothing but a serious devaluation in the currency that is your hotel points and airline miles....and they did it completely under the radar...essentially in the middle of the night when no one was looking. That is easily the biggest gripe. Without a doubt, had USAirways or Marriott announced that they were moving the goalposts with a few months notice, allowing people who had been planning on booking these affected awards the opportunity to do so, they would have created some goodwill - even while delivering bad news. By waiting until after the voting for the Freddies (the mileage geeks' equivalent to the Oscars), Marriott really steamed some folks.

Devaluation is the term often heard when disappointed folks talk about their inability to score their intended award, but INFLATION is just as critical. There are just too many airline miles and hotel points on the market right now, all chasing a limited number of available award seats and hotel rooms. It used to be that you actually had to fly or stay at a hotel to earn their respective currencies. Now, you can buy flowers, eat at your favorite restaurants, charge your groceries on a co-branded credit card, or refinance your mortgage to get points and miles. This ease in earning miles has led to a glut on the market. The more miles people "own" as assets, the more miles airlines keep on the books as liabilities. When airlines and hotels realize that there are too many awards sitting unused in loyalty accounts, they need to tighten the strings.

The bottom line is this - if you are saving for a "dream" reward, aim to have the required mileage earned in less than one year. If you cannot do that, there is a good chance you will not get the desired award at the level you are chasing. Reduce your expectations accordingly for each year it will take you to earn the mileage required, and you will be less disappointed. Also, many airlines and hotels readjust their award offerings early in the year. If you think that you MIGHT use an award - and you suspect that the award may cost more when the next devaluation occurs, book it in advance. Most hotels will gladly return the points you have allotted for a canceled award - and some don't even require you to have the points until you are ready to travel. Airlines will usually charge you a fee to do the same, but you might be willing to pay that as insurance to secure the award you really want.

Earn 'em and burn 'em - you will reduce the likelihood that you will be disappointed.

Read the rest of this article...

I Owe, I Owe - It's Off to Work I Go!

It was an unhappy weekend here at the Fortress of Solitude. Yesterday was tax preparation day. I'd been putting off this relatively easy task for a month-plus now, mostly because I was sure that my refund was going to be extremely small this year. If I was expecting enough money to fund a summer vacation, I would have been all over this at the beginning of February.

After plugging in all of the information from the W-2 and 1099s, deducting all of the deductions, exempting all of the exemptions, and ciphering until I could cipher no more, it turns out that I owe $222 to my Uncle Sam. This, of course, led me to believe that there must have been some mistake - I NEVER owe. I usually get a smaller-than-everyone-else refund, which I am OK with, because it means that I have had more of my money to do with as I please than those who get huge refunds. But, I don't OWE. In 18 years of filing a 1040 (or equivalent), I have never owed money on April 15. This year, when all of my friends are talking about spending their tax refunds on a vacation to Bermuda, I am going to be squealing as I write a check that will help subsidize their Hawaiian shirt wearing behinds.

How did this happen? Well, I did make more money this year than last (a good problem to have) from my day job. I also worked as an independent contractor this year (more than last), from which there was no money withheld. On top of that, I also owe self-employment tax on that money. Passive income was up, too. Thanks to my ING account, my interest earned was better than 20 times what I earned last year in my feeble Wachovia account. Unfortunately (fortunately, from a tax paying standpoint), my interest paid was also up on my student loans. I have a decreasing outstanding loan amount, but my interest paid increases....UGH!

From a tax standpoint, my problem is that I don't spend nearly enough. My medical expenses, including health insurance premiums, were well below the required threshold for deductibility. If I got sick more often, I would spend more money on healthcare, and I would save on my tax bill. My mortgage is abominably tiny - and therefore, so is the interest I pay on my primary residence. It is so small, that I also do not meet the minimum threshold for itemizing deductions. If I spent more money, to get a bigger house (that I neither need, nor can afford), I could save money on my taxes. I could also contribute more to charity, make a large capital purchase (sales tax savings), or sell stocks at a loss to reduce my tax burden. Unfortunately, I didn't - so, I can't.

One thing that really chaps me is the low income tax credit for retirement savings. This money is designed to encourage those who would otherwise not contribute to a self-funded retirement account to save money. Obviously, this is a win for the government. If they can get more people to save for retirement, there may be less of a burden on the social security system in years to come. Unfortunately, they think that "low income" caps out at $25k/yr for single filers. By just bumping that up to $50k, it would appear that more people would participate (I am thinking of the 20-something colleagues that I know that have no concept of retirement savings), which would alleviate some government burden in the future, and cost relatively little in present day dollars. Of course, the most important benefit would be that I would have my tax bill eased.

Today's patron saint of this blog is Mr. Pink, from 'Reservoir Dogs' who said it best. "It would seem to me that The Travelin' Man belongs to one of the many groups the government @$^%s in the $^% on a regular basis."

And, it hurts. :-(

Read the rest of this article...

09 March 2007

The Lowdown on H-Town, Part II

This is part of a series that begins here.

After returning from Galveston, we made off for dinner at Magnolia Bar & Grill. This was my second trip to this venerable Houston establishment. The last time I was in town, the weather was great and we ate outside. This trip, temperatures dipped into the 40's, so we decided an indoor table was in order. Magnolia has a large and varied menu, but their specialties include a lot of creole seafood. First up on my agenda was this stellar bowl of shrimp gumbo. The picture, as usual, does not do this bowl of spicy goodness any justice. You could not dip the spoon into the bowl without pulling up three shrimp per spoonful. The broth was spicy, but not distractingly so.

My dinner entree was another Texas gulf specialty, stuffed redfish. There were three of us at the table, and two of us ordered the redfish. My other dining companion (the artist formerly known as "Wacky Mutant Assistant Chick") went with the stuffed shrimp, which were also described as excellent. The redfish came with a lump crabmeat stuffing (like the shrimp in the gumbo, you could pick out the large chunks of crabmeat in the stuffing). The mashed potatoes that accompanied the dish were some of the best I have ever had.

Wacky Mutant Assistant Chick also grabbed a piece of their key lime pie, and put away the whole thing. Personally, I liked the fruit garnish, but I am not a fan of key lime pie - and can I just tell you how hard it is to live in Florida and not like key lime pie?

Breakfast the following morning was at the Avalon Diner, which earned a prominent spot on my Best of 2006 list. You can follow along after the jump...

Before departing Houston, "wanderingjew" and I planned to meet up for breakfast at the Avalon. Unfortunately, he ran into some car trouble and had a rough go getting to the restaurant. We ended up in slightly more of a rush than we had anticipated, but the Avalon is a worthy stop for some pre-road trip grub. Located in a non-descript strip mall in a somewhat upscale neighborhood, the Avalon Diner doesn't look like the kind of place that would normally attract my attention. But, one step in the door, and you immediately feel as though you have taken a step back in time. The decor is retro - the traditional 1950's diner feel. I love the oversized soda caps hanging on the wall.

To be honest, my breakfast was unexciting - I ordered the old-fashioned, thin, small-tread waffle, based on a Michael Stern recommendation. It was good. But, just good. Wanderingjew ordered the chicken fried steak (sorry, I didn't get a photo), and I have to admit - he won. This is definitely an instance of "when in Rome..." and when in Texas, chicken fried steak is usually a pretty good option.

The real reason I added Avalon to the Houston recap, though, was to add the photos and the full attention that my previous visit deserved, but was never written. On my last visit, I sat at the counter and observed the inner workings of a tradtional diner from a cat bird seat at the counter. There is nothing like getting the first-hand view of the interaction between the cooks and the servers at the counter. On top of the ambiance, the thin-patty burgers at Avalon are delicious. The crinkle-cut fries are the ideal accompaniment.

The burger, fries and a shake was a great meal, but on my next trip through town, I want to check out their fresh-squeezed lemonade (they also do limeade). This machine makes the magic. You can see the fresh limes and lemons in the background. I watched as they created each glass, as it was ordered. Each lemon squeezed on the spot, a little syrup and sugar added and blended perfectly and served in an old-style fountain glass.

Well fed, we departed for Shiner, Texas, the home of Spoetzel Brewery - the makers of Shiner Bock beer. More on that in the next installment.

Read the rest of this article...