April 29, 2016: That giant sucking sound you hear is the month of April draining away before our eyes. Or perhaps it's the IRS vacuuming money from our savings account as we pulled out our checkbook to send our annual contribution to the government. In either case, it's been a whirlwind few weeks of late nights and long, stressful days juggling finances and searching for sanity in a crazy world — not that any is to be found these days in the headlines of our local newspaper or from the 24/7 political soap opera that is the 2016 presidential campaign.
To see any of these photos larger, or as a slideshow, view our Flickr gallery.
It seems like forever ago that we were playing with rocks and mortar during our anniversary week vacation in March. That pebble mosaic project remains unfinished from a month ago, and the materials for the project remain in roughly the same spot as they were the day we stopped to return to work. The "fish" in Winter's Garden is still represented by a sheet of blue foam, our bags and buckets of rocks remain on the path near the garden and on the back patio, and the half empty bag of mortar mix is still where we left it on the dolly, spilling its contents onto the concrete patio but covered with a sheet of plastic to protect it from rain, which we've had a bit of recently. So even though we haven't checked, we suspect the spillage is now a permanent feature of the patio until we get back to the project and have to grind or chisel it off.
What has occupied our time since then has been work and the issues that go with it. For Glenn, that has meant another few weeks of uncertainty while his company goes through another round of layoffs and buyouts at the newspaper. He and his coworkers had enjoyed a period of relative calm going back more than four years to the last round of major cuts as the paper began its transformation away from print and toward digital. But as with all things digital, revenue growth has been slow to nonexistent while the erosion of print revenue has been steady, and so despite several previous waves of layoffs and belt tightening, the rout of communications workers has resumed.
The company announced at the beginning of March that it would offer voluntary buyouts to workers 60 and older during the last week of April. And because there were likely not enough people who would accept those, a handful of people would also be let go involuntarily. On April 22, Glenn said goodbye to about a dozen longtime coworkers who bit at the company's offer of six months' severance — not a great deal, but enough to convince a few folks who were on the fence about whether to leave or stay. Glenn, of course, was not eligible for the buyout based on his age — not that he would have taken it now even if he could have — so he and the rest of his colleagues had to wait another week to discover who the remaining corporate sacrifices would be. Glenn, being an editor with some seniority and responsibilities that others can't or don't want to perform, would like to believe that his job is secure for now, although one can never assume such in the current climate.
The one thing we do know for certain is that the copy desk is taking a huge hit, losing the equivalent of 11 full-time positions, so the plan going forward is that editors and reporters will now be responsible for writing their own headlines and proofing their own copy. For the most part, there will no longer be a second set of eyes checking for factual, grammatical and spelling errors before stories hit print, which has obvious consequences for quality. It also means more time that reporters and editors will have to spend on production-related tasks instead of gathering news and improving the content of stories. But that is a conscious decision of management, which is striving to preserve editorial ranks as much as possible so that there will still be people to produce content for an increasingly online-based audience. So the next time you stumble across a misplaced modifier, a grammatical guffaw, or a spectacular spelling failure in a news story in print or online, you can thank an audience that no longer wants to pay for its content and media corporations that are still trying to figure out how to make a profit while paying for properties that were significantly overvalued when they were purchased in the middle of the last decade.
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ONI HAS BEEN consumed with work, as well, but hers has been of a different nature. Or about nature, which would be more accurate. Her involvement with the Delta Science Center found her busy once again with Oakley Science Week, the city's annual event aimed at science education for kids surrounding Earth Day. This year's event ran from April 17-23, beginning with a Sunday show at the Big Break Regional Shoreline that the DSC participated in along with the East Bay Regional Park District. Because attendance in previous years has been light on the first day, Roni decided to keep the DSC's booth simple and themed it around some of the critters that can be seen at the shoreline. We visited Lindsay Wildlife Experience in Walnut Creek on April 14 to take advantage of their vast collection of taxidermied animals that can be rented by the public. Roni picked out a beaver, a heron, a quail and some other birds to display in her booth, and as usual they were a hit with the kids.
The following Saturday, the last day of the science week activities, the DSC booth traveled to Ironhouse Sanitary District where the district co-hosted the festivities, as it has the past three years. The highlights of the day were the hayride tours ISD offered of its Water Recycling Facility — always a hot ticket for the young families who make up the science week audience — and the live raptor show put on by the Lindsay Wildlife Experience, which this year brought a red-shouldered hawk and a barred owl to share. For her part, Roni had to divide time between the DSC booth and helping out Ironhouse with its booths, given that ISD is her major client. She brought back the animal displays for the DSC booth, although they were different from the ones we picked out for the previous Sunday's show; on our return trip to Lindsay to drop off the first set of displays we picked out some new ones. The great thing about Lindsay doing the raptor show was that they were able to take the rented animal displays back to the museum with them when they were done, saving us the trip.
When Roni wasn't otherwise preparing for Oakley Science Week, she was engrossed in work for Ironhouse. In addition to producing another newsletter for its customers, the district is also in the process of overhauling its website, something that Roni has been heavily involved with. We designed ISD's site from scratch for them back in 2002 and redesigned it three years ago to help freshen up the look. We have also maintained it for them, mostly by default, for all these years, adding pages and documents and photos whenever the need arose. But times change and the district's new general manager wanted a more robust site with features that would allow his staff to more easily update it and help the public access information more easily, so he contracted out with another company to do a top-to-bottom redesign. That project began last fall and is now nearing completion.
Because Roni was instrumental in the original website, they have leaned heavily on her to provide the information and materials the new company is using to produce the new site. She has been involved in conference calls and strategy sessions for months to get this thing up and running. While we are all curious to see what the new website will look like and are perhaps just a bit sad that we will no longer be handling its design – just a wee bit sad – we are constantly amazed at how long this process has taken and at what expense. When we did the design and planning for the original site, it was up and running in a few days. The redesign took longer, but perhaps no more than a couple of months. There is a lot more information on there now, all of which has to be ported over to the new design, which is partly why it has taken this long. There is also a greater emphasis on transparency these days as the sanitary district is participating in a program to make its public information more accessible, so there are many pages and documents on the site devoted to this goal. It's a big job to manage it all for whoever is tasked with it, and while Roni expects to be involved on some level after the redesign, we hope that the management aspect will be a bit easier to handle.
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PRIL'S OTHER CHALLENGE, as mentioned at the opening of this newsletter, has been taxes. We are expert procrastinators, and so of course we found ourselves waiting until the last minute to embark on the annual drudgery of launching TurboTax and rounding up our receipts from 2015. The fact that tax day fell on the 18th this year instead of the 15th due to a federal holiday was not a blessing, as it allowed us to contemplate for an additional weekend the task at hand. We knew it would be a financially painful experience this year, but we weren't quite sure what to expect.
In a new twist, Ben had to file taxes for the first time since starting his job at Grocery Outlet in March of last year. We'd filed a 2014 return for him last year because he had done some in-home care work for his aunt and had earned slightly more than the threshold requiring him to file. It was sort of a joke because he didn't owe anything and had no withholding, so there was no refund involved. Using TurboTax, it took less than 10 minutes to complete his first tax return. This year's took a little longer because he actually had a W-2 form to enter and we had to resolve the issue of his dependency.
When you have kids you become used to the idea that you'll get a cozy deduction on your tax bill because the government is nice like that. Even once they are adults you can still claim them under certain circumstances, such as if they are in school and still living at home or are only working a part-time job that doesn't bring in much cash. We figured we were still good with Ben because he is still covered by our health plan and doesn't pay us rent. (Well, he sort of does, but it is money we sock away in a savings account for him to help with moving expenses at some point in the future when he is ready to be on his own.) We thought we were still good, but the IRS sees the situation differently. It turns out that Ben is no longer eligible to be our dependent because, although he still lives with us and we largely support him, he is not in school full time and earned too much money from working part time. Not only did he not get to claim renter's credit (because his "rent" isn't really rent), but we didn't get to take a deduction for him as we had expected. In the immortal words of Scooby Doo, "Ruh oh!"
Ben wound up with a small refund from his tax return — smaller than any of us expected, since his net federal refund was lessened by what he owed the state. Meanwhile, we would have been happy with any refund, especially because we knew going in that we wouldn't be getting one. Roni had seen a banner year for her business, even though much of the income that was reported to her was offset by expenses for postage and printing, which we always count on to mitigate what we owe. Unfortunately, some of the income included a check from a large job we'd already expensed in 2014, plus we paid off our mortgage in 2014 and no longer had interest to deduct. All of this combined for a perfect storm of tax time mayhem, and in the end we wound up owing thousands with penalties on top of it.
Time to regroup as we look ahead to next year, although we don't expect the damage to be so severe. We hope!
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E WERE BOTH in the living room the evening of Sunday, April 17, looking at our respective computer screens, when Roni nearly jumped out of her chair with excitement at something she'd seen on Facebook.
"Apparently Jupiter is very close to the moon right now. One of my Facebook friends took these pictures tonight," she said, spinning her laptop screen around so Glenn could see. The photos were indeed impressive. There was the moon in all its cratered detail, and right above it to the the left was Jupiter, looking brighter than all the other stars in the sky. There was also a closeup of Jupiter, with four of its moons visible in orbit around the planet. Obviously this later shot was not accomplished with an iPhone or a point-and-shoot.
Glenn returned to his computer, but moments later Roni was puttering about the house gathering together her camera gear. She had the tripod in one hand, her Nikon D5100 and 500 mm zoom lens in the other. Of course she had to see if she could replicate the great pics we'd just seen on Facebook.
She lugged everything out to the back patio and was gone for just a minute before she poked her head through the door and called for Glenn to join her. Attaching the huge lens to the camera body and then the tripod base is challenging enough in broad daylight, but at night with just the dim porch light to see by, the procedure was much more difficult. So together we worked with the camera gear, contorting ourselves into uncomfortable positions to get the huge beast of a lens mounted and then screwed down securely on the tripod. It was more like a Keystone Cops routine as Roni then tried to adjust the tilt on the tripod head so the camera could frame the scene, and even then we still had to shorten up two of the tripod's legs so that we could achieve the correct angle. Glenn held on to the legs so the whole thing wouldn't topple over backwards. Surely this is not the way of professional photographers.
While Roni took her photos with the good camera, Glenn found his binoculars and hunkered down to try to see the moons of Jupiter. It's a hard enough thing to take pictures of the stars with a tripod-mounted camera, but when you don't have the benefit of a stable platform to hold your binoculars, you may as well not waste your time; the tiny white blob was shaking so bad that there was little hope of getting a clear view, although on the rare moments when Glenn could hold reasonably still he could faintly make out the fuzzy orbit of the moons.
We may not have had the astronomy viewing experience we'd hoped for, but we had fun trying on what was a beautifully warm night. And Roni's pictures, while grainy, still had plenty of detail that we were able to see some of the moons in orbit around the fifth planet. Be sure to take a peek at the enlarged crop included in this month's photo gallery.
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HAT'S GOING TO have to do it for this month. We are unusually short of photos because we didn't get out to take very many in April, which only serves to illustrate how caught up we've been in other matters. Both our photography and our yard have been seriously neglected so far this spring, so perhaps we can get back on track in May.