Saturday, May 25, 2013

Can It Really Be That Long Ago?

Ten years ago, Kristy and I were entertaining some Aggie friends for Memorial Day weekend. It is not often that I remember exact details of a weekend evening, but this particular one will be with me for the rest of my life. I have started to write the "Seth book" (Kristy also has the beginnings of our story on paper). I have the outline and dates all down in a file and the "easy" sections fleshed out, but I have quickly found that it is incredibly difficult to write about some parts of the experience that has shaped our lives since that Memorial Day Eve. Below is the first section of a book that may never get completed.


Sunday, May 25, 2003 (Albuquerque, NM)

I climbed back up the ladder to finish installing the ceiling fan in the living room. Cable had patiently waited in a room that was lit only by the flashlight Kristy was holding while I had just sprinted up the stairs to answer the strangest phone call from my mother-in-law. “Russell, can Kristy come to the phone?” asked Suzanne. I let her know that the power was out, but Kristy could call back in a little while. Suzanne excitedly said, “It’s not an emergency, but tell Kristy to call us back - RIGHT NOW!”

The wiring of the ceiling fan and light fixture was quickly completed, and now, we were all interested to know why Kristy needed to call her mom in such a hurry. I tried to entertain Cable, Allison, and Abby (our Memorial Day weekend visitors) while Kristy slipped upstairs to find out what had put her mom in such an anxious state. Why would anyone start a conversation with “It’s not an emergency” and expect you not to think that it was anything but an emergency?

To this day, I can’t recall a single element of the conversation that went on downstairs with Cable and his family, but the memory of the conversation that occurred after being called upstairs is vivid. Kristy told me that there was a baby boy about to be born on May 31 (less than a week away), and the biological mother wanted to talk to us about adopting him. Suzanne and Bob (who live in Mena, Arkansas near the mother) were acting as the go-between for us. Kristy asked me if we wanted to try to adopt this baby. I remember that Kristy was concerned about money or any number of other things, but I told her, “Yes! Call her back. Tell her yes.”

I cannot pretend that we were not warned that there were some complications in the situation that we were presented. With adoption, there is seldom a warm fuzzy story behind the thought process that leads a young woman to consider that option for her child. On that Sunday evening, we were asked if we were interested in becoming parents of a newborn baby whose unmarried biological mother was a 15 year-old high school sophomore and biological father was an 18 year-old freshman fraternity pledge at Baylor University. The answer to the question of whether we wanted to be (or perhaps needed to be) this boy’s parents was an emphatic“Yes!” The answer we gave was the right one on that Sunday evening; the answer is the right one now; and the answer will still be the right one in the future. However, Kristy and I found out over the next 13 months that giving the right answer doesn’t necessarily lead to the outcome that you hoped or dreamed. This is especially true if you give that right answer in the high of learning that you are going to be a father for the first time.

Our "adventure" with Seth changed us in so many ways - some of them (most - if I am completely honest) were not for the better. Our decision that night still reverberates through our lives 10 years later. Doubt, fear, hurt, and anger (among other things) related to this time of our lives can still bubble out of me at weird times.

I am confident that Seth physical needs are being met. I pray regularly that he is being loved. AND, I have hope that one day I might understand why we were selected for this ordeal that was both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes, that hope is only way I can get that weird bubbling of emotions to calm down.

Seth, you are loved more than you will ever know. Happy Early Birthday, Son!

Friday, May 3, 2013

"Reflections of Grey" at a Discount

Reflections of Grey by J.C. Phelps
One of my favorite Smashwords authors, J. C. Phelps, is running a promotion for her "Reflections of Grey" novel until May 6. If you use coupon code "ER72W," then the price at Smashwords is only $0.99. 

"Reflections of Grey" is the third book in the Alexis Stanton Chronicles.  The first book in the series (Color Me Grey) is FREE on Smashwords while the second book in the series (Shades of Grey) is just $3.99.  I give both the first and second book in the series a 4-star (out of 5) rating. This 4-star rating corresponds to an about an 8 or 9 on my "Read Again Scale" from the old book review system.

If you are looking for a Robert Ludlumesque main character, you will find it in Ms. Grey. However, I don't think Ludlum would have written about Ms. Grey because all his main characters were men. I highly recommend giving this series a chance - especially since the introductory novel is free.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Tipping Point

Over the past few months I have been pondering why we (by we, I mean Americans) are willfully participating in tax evasion by a whole segment of our economy. It has been on my mind since we have been pounded on with the idea that the "rich" are not paying their fair share. It got me wondering if the "rich" are not paying their fair share, then who else isn't paying theirs either. I think you will be surprised that I am NOT taking about the illegal aliens getting paid in cash for their labor. I am talking about the concept of tipping the wait staff at your favorite restaurants. Don't get me wrong - I tip generously due to Kristy's experience as a waitress. I am also not saying that the people bringing me my food and drinks don't earn their money. I am just curious why we let a significant amount of their earnings go without paying the taxes that every other (legal) worker pays.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, federal regulations require wait staff, servers, and bartenders to receive at least $2.13 per hour. If the tips received don't meet the minimum wage for other employers, then the employer must make up the difference. The restaurant owner relies on two things to report the actual earnings of the wait staff: (1) credit card receipts and (2) wait staff honesty for cash patrons. I am going to present an argument that a waiter could fairly easily dodge taxes on about $10,000 of income each year while at the same time reducing the taxes owed by the restaurant owner (by the wait staff's income being unreported). I am going to walk through this scenario even though I have never been a member of the wait staff. If I am wildly wrong on some of assumptions, please point them out so that I can learn something.

Here are the assumptions that I am using for a typical family or date style restaurant (e.g., Chili's, Appleby's, Outback, Olive Garden, etc.):

  • 5 Hours/Shift
  • 4 Shifts/Week
  • 50 Weeks/Year
  • 10 Tables/Hour [I realize this is probably HIGH]
  • $40 Total Bill/Table [I realize this is probably LOW]
  • 25% of Tables will pay the tip in cash
Using these assumptions, if a waiter only under reports cash tips, then that income is the equivalent of a $10,000 tip goes unreported each year. On a $40 bill, the difference between a 10% tip and 20% tip is $4. Multiply each of the assumptions by the $4 (5 x 4 x 50 x 10 x 0.25 x $4 = $10,000). Now, I realize that some tip less than 20% (or less 10%), but over a year, it is not unreasonable to me that a waiter could average a 15% cash tip rate. Even at just a 15% rate, that would be $5,000 of unreported income.

Now, let's look at the tax consequences of the lower value ($5,000) for the unreported income. For the waitress, this represents an avoidance of about $1,100 in taxes. How is that possible? Assume a 15% federal income tax rate, 6.2% Social Security tax, and 1.45% Medicare tax. Now, multiply those taxes by the $5,000, you get $1132.50 (this doesn't include state or local income tax avoidance).  The restaurant owner would be required to pay 7.65% (6.2% Social Security + 1.45% Medicare) of that $5,000 which is $382.50 [this doesn't include state or federal unemployment insurance taxes]. This is a total of about $1,500 in taxes that we have allowed to slip through the cracks or have simply ignored.

I want to be clear. I think you should pay the minimum amount of taxes that you are LEGALLY supposed to pay. I have no issue with using tax deductions, tax credits, and tax-free investments to reduce the amount of taxes that you pay. You would be an idiot to pay more if you don't have to do so. However, I am completely opposed to ILLEGALLY hiding income for the purposes of not paying taxes on it.

I have also been thinking about how I would change the restaurant business to fix this. Here is are the items that I would change if I ever ran a restaurant:
  • Wait staff would be paid an hourly wage commensurate with their work.
    • Training rates and fully trained staff rates would be different.
    • Good wait staff would make more than the average rate.
    • Poor wait staff would make less than the average rate or be let go.
    • No tips!
    • Acceptance of a tip would be grounds for dismissal.
  • Price on the menu would be all inclusive (that is, tip and sales tax would be included). A $9.95 burger on today's menu would cost $13.50. Here's how that breaks down:
    • $10 to cover food costs, overhead, and back of house wages.
    • $2.25 to cover the additional cost of including waiter tips and additional payroll taxes in the bill.
    • $1.25 to cover sales tax.
    • We already pay this, but it is hidden by including taxes and tip when the bill comes.
  • Menu and signage would include a statement like, "Please do not tip the wait staff. They are paid appropriately to serve you with a good attitude and respect."
    • This would make me, as the owner, responsible for the wait staff doing its job - not my customers.
    • This also takes away the necessity of the patron to evaluate whether or not it should be a 15%, 18%, or 25% tip. They could simply enjoy the service and meal KNOWING what the cost was before the check arrived.
In today's business climate, my restaurant would probably fail - as most restaruants do. However, I keep hoping someone will start a restaurant along these lines in Fayetteville (We went to one in Colorado Springs during a JOWOG meeting once - I loved it.), so that I could put my money where my ideas are.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review of "The Last Roman"

  • Title:  "The Last Roman (Praetorian Series - Book One)"
  • Author:  Edward Crichton
  • Finished:  March 7, 2013
  • Synopsis:  An elite commando unit commissioned by the Pope during World War III is sent to take out a terrorist leader. In the process of capturing the leader, the unit comes into possession of a blue sphere which eventually transports them (with their modern weaponary) back to the Roman Empire during the reign of Caligula. Caligula, Claudius, and Aggripina all make it into this adventure/fantasy tale that attempts to use the odd blue sphere as the explanation for the madness of Roman Emperors.
  • Impression of the book:  This book was entertaining and fairly fast-paced. This indie author could use a 2nd or 3rd edit through the middle portion of the book, but the editing issue really didn't prevent me from staying connected to the story. This was a "shot in the dark" free book on Smashwords that I surprisingly enjoyed. 
  • Star Rating (Out of 5)
    • 3.5 Stars
As I mentioned, this was a free download from Smashwords that is an attempt by the author to prove his writing skills. It is a full length novel that provides the reader with opportunity to figure out whether or not to pay for the next installment in this series or his other books. My recommendation on this book is to give it a shot if you like science fiction and/or historical fiction. The Last Roman is a clever mix of both.


My recent experience with self-publishing a book has given me a new respect for the many authors out there trying to make it without the backing of a big publishing house. I believe that indie authors will lead the digital publishing era because of the control that route takes. Because of this, I have started sampling the free works available on Smashwords. As I complete them, I am making economic decisions about whether or not the author has earned my dollars with their effort. If they do, I intend to purchase their other books. You will be able to find my recommendations on "Russ's Smashwords Bookshelf" as I write reviews.

As of this post, I realize that I well behind on providing some of the reviews on my new bookshelf. I encourage you to surf on over to Smashwords and find the next best selling author. There are some really good story-tellers publishing there now.

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