Monday, January 28, 2013

Once a Process Engineer, Always a Process Engineer

My husband has been a tax preparer and site coordinator for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program for several years.  VITA helps low-income taxpayers by preparing their taxes at no charge, by ensuring they get the maximum refund, and by helping them with options for saving their refunds.  Earn it – Keep it – Save it.

He asked me last fall if I would volunteer at his site and be a Greeter.  Greeter!?!  Pah!  If I’m going to volunteer for VITA, I’m going to prepare tax returns.  I took the classes this month and passed my certification tests on January 18.

My first opportunity to put my new-found skills into practice was at a “soft opening” on January 24.  In theory, a soft opening allows new tax preparers – like me – the chance to work with real clients on real returns with an experienced volunteer looking over their shoulders.  In reality – the new tax preparers showed up but only one of the experienced volunteers made it.  The nice, gentle, hand-holding session turned into baptism by fire.

I did fairly well.  I made a couple of mistakes that our quality review process discovered, fixed, and told me about, so all in all it was a good learning experience. 

My number one lesson learned:  I was all over the map preparing the returns.  All my mistakes were either mistakes of omission or mistakes of preparing forms in the wrong order.  I needed a process. 

So I did what every good former process engineer does:  I researched the tax forms and the most likely scenarios in VITA and drafted my own personal tax-preparation process.  OK, so it’s not done in Visio graphics – actually, it’s on a recipe card – but having it in front of me as I prepare taxes should help me become both more accurate and more efficient.

We were told in class that it would take three returns to “get the hang of it” and then the fourth return would “kick our butts.”  For me, it was the fifth return.  Looking back, if I had had my process in place, I could have saved her (and me) a lot of time preparing her itemized deductions and looking up why she couldn’t deduct private school tuition or HOA fees.  Itemizing didn’t help her.  Her refund was exactly the same with the standard deduction.

I expect my "tax process" to evolve and improve through experience using it.  By the end of tax season I should have a process that would make the IRS proud.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Reinventing Life

My friend and former co-worker, Brad S. Bunker, lost his job in a layoff about seven months before I retired.  Since then he has completed, edited and self-published not one, not two, but five novels.  Five!   So this is what he’s been doing in his man-cave.

I recently read his book, Shoes, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It’s a story about kids, family history, and a century-old treasure hunt.  I picked this one first because Brad had shared the story line with me years ago, while we were still working together.  It was really fun to read the book and see how the story ended.

I spoke with Brad about his books and about writing.  He told me he doesn’t research, doesn’t outline – he just gets an idea in his head and starts writing.  Brad says, “I believe everyone has a story just waiting to be told.”

Brad has inspired me.  I always planned on writing after I retired from corporate America.   Not just blogging, but really writing.  I had an idea for a novel.  I gave my heroine a name.  I spent several weeks researching the history and culture of the country where she will grow up.  Basically, I spent my first seven months of retirement planning to write.  Before I chatted with Brad, I had yet to put the proverbial pen to the proverbial paper.  Brad cut to the chase.  No excuses, just great stories. 

You can buy Brad’s books on, or through his web site,

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Chi Running - What did I Learn?

I am certain that everyone who does the ten lessons of Chi Running finds that some of them come easily, others with a little more difficulty, and still others that require continuous practice in the hope of someday getting it right.

Cadence (lesson 9) came easily to me.  It seems I've always run with a pretty consistent cadence.  Leaning (lesson 2) also came pretty easily, although I strongly suspect I’m still using leg muscles to sustain the lean.  The upper body position and swinging the arms to the rear (lesson 7) are pretty easy to sustain, as long as I remind myself to do so.

Pelvic rotation (lesson 5) and swinging the legs to the rear (lesson 6) were both exercises of discovery, as both exercises built on previous exercises and asked you only to focus on it happening, not forcing it to happen.  When I focus on the pelvic rotation I can feel it happening.  Does that mean if I’m not focusing on it, it’s not happening?  (If a tree falls in the forest…)  I know my legs are flying out the back, both from viewing my footprints in the sand and because I no longer see them prancing out in front.

The “aha” exercises, for me, were lesson 3 (passive lower leg), lesson 4 (sand pit exercise), lesson 8 (knee bending), although I’m still not good at the y’chi part of lesson 8, and lesson 10 (cadence and gears.)  The “aha” notwithstanding, I still have to remind myself, minute by minute, to release the tension in my lower legs and let the “wheel in the back keep on turning.” 

I am still struggling with engaging my lower abs and not tightening my glutes (lesson 1).  The authors recommend learning to release the glutes while keeping the lower abs tight.  Seems I always get it backwards – the lower abs release but the glutes stay tight.  The authors also say that people who hold tension in their glutes have control issues.  Hmmmmm.

The authors also recommend continuing to practice the Chi Running focuses.  After all, Chi Running is a practice, to be approached with the mindset of continually improving yourself and/or your skill.

The lessons are done, but the learning is just beginning.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Chi Running Lesson 10 – Gears and Stride Length

In Chi Running, every runner has four different gears.  And like the gears on a bicycle, we use them for different running scenarios.  Directly quoting Chi Running, the gears are as follows:

First gear is your lowest gear and your slowest speed.  It’s the speed to use for your warm-up.

Second gear is the speed you would run if you were going out for an average training run.  It’s an easy, conversational pace you run when you’re doing longer distances.

Third gear is a distance race pace, meaning any distance over a mile.  Whatever distances you would race, this would be the speed you would try to average.  It’s at the high end of your aerobic capacity, so you’ll be a little more out of breath.

Fourth gear is a sprint or anaerobic pace.  You could not carry on a conversation at this pace.  In an anaerobic state, your lungs cannot provide enough oxygen for your muscles to sustain this speed indefinitely.  It’s only for short distances.

In Chi Running, you “shift gears” using your lean and your stride length.  A lower gear has less lean and a shorter stride; a higher gear has more lean and a longer stride.  Cadence – the number of times one foot hits the ground in a minute – always stays the same.

In the exercise for Lesson 10, you use the countdown timer and the metronome to practice the first three gears.  Start with a 5-minute warm-up (first gear), then for the next 10 minutes shift between first and second gear every minute.  After that, shift between second and third gear every minute for the next 10 minutes.  After that, play with the different gears for the remainder of your run.

Since my smart phone isn't smart enough to run two apps at once, I started the metronome and ran to about the 10 minute mark on my usual course.  Then I let the ballet training kick in.  Since the metronome was beating 88 bpm, 88 right footfalls – or 11 counts of 8 footfalls – equal a minute.  I "shifted" gears every minute per the exercise.

Keeping pace with the metronome was pretty easy in first and second gears, but when I leaned into my third gear I found I wasn't quite keeping pace.  Aha moment – if I can learn to keep my cadence at 88 bpm with the longer stride, I will run faster.  

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Chi Running Lesson 9 - Cadence and Metronome


The Chi Running technique advocates a consistent cadence – regardless of speed.  Chi Running defines cadence as “the number of strides per minute that one leg takes.”  Per the authors, speed comes not from making your legs turn over faster, but from increasing your stride length.  During my “treadmill break” I measured my treadmill cadence at 88 beats per minute over three different speeds – so at least I've got it right on the treadmill.   

The first step of Lesson 9 was to measure my cadence on the open road.  The instructions were: after a 10-minute warm-up run, set the countdown timer for a minute and start counting the number of times the right foot hits the ground.  This will establish your baseline cadence.

The authors recommend using a metronome to practice running at a consistent cadence.  Metronome?  Of course I have a metronome.  It’s sitting on top of my piano.  But I suspect it would be quite challenging to haul it around with me.  There’s an app for that, too.  I downloaded “Mobile Metronome” from the good old Google App store.

So, armed with my smarter-than-ever phone, I ran for ten minutes, started the one-minute countdown timer, and started counting the number of times my right foot hit the ground.  Would you believe – 88?  At least I’m consistent.

I set the metronome to 88 beats per minute and finished my run.  Per the authors’ direction, I tried to vary my speed.  It was easy to keep cadence running more slowly, but I found it more difficult to keep cadence as I leaned into my run to go faster.  It seemed I wanted to take fewer steps, which felt like slowing down.  Counterintuitive, I know.  I’ll practice this more in a couple of days when I work on Lesson 10.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Chi Running – Lesson 8 – Y’Chi and the Knee Bending Exercise

It seems quite appropriate, after my recent foot-injury scare, that this be the next exercise in the series.  To quote the authors, “This exercise is designed to give you a clear sense of running without pushing off with your feet.”  Hoping that if I can really, truly, stop pushing off with my right toe, I can really, truly increase my distance without re-injuring my foot.

The first step in this exercise was to warm up with a 10-minute run, then to do four repeats of the knee bending exercise.  What, exactly, is the knee bending exercise?  It’s a three step drill.

Step 1:  Run in place by just bending your knees and picking up your heels.  Do this with your hands holding the sides of your legs – to make sure you’re not lifting your knees.  Do this keeping your lower legs limp and relaxed.  Do 30 – rest 30 seconds – repeat three times.
Step 2:  Start running in place, add a lean, then run for about 20 feet, making sure you don’t tense your ankles as you lean.
Step 3:  Repeat step 2, and at a spot about 10 yards from where you started, add the arm swing.

The Y’Chi part comes in between steps 2 and 3.  What, exactly, is Y’Chi?  It’s the Chinese term for using your mind to direct the energy and movement of your body through your eyes.  In the context of running, the authors recommend visualizing your body filled with energy, focusing that energy on a point in the distance, and running to that point without ever breaking your gaze.

After doing the knee bending exercise, continue to run at a comfortable pace with your countdown timer set to repeat every two minutes.  When the timer goes off, stop and do the knee-bending exercise again, going through all three steps. 

Countdown timer?  Yikes – I don’t own a countdown timer.  Thankfully – there’s an app for that.  I downloaded “Ultrachron Lite” from the Google App Store and set it for a two-minute countdown.

During the 3.5 mile course I ran, I was able to do the knee-bending exercise five times.  I think I’m getting the feel of a true midfoot strike, but I’m still not relaxing my lower legs nearly enough, and yes, I caught myself bouncing – which means I’m still pushing off with my toes.  As for Y’Chi – well, I am way too easily distracted.  I lost my gaze every single time. 

The smart-phone countdown timer was probably not as efficient as the multi-function watches you see in the running stores.  I had to manually reset it each time for the 2 minute countdown.  I may have to invest in a real runner’s watch.  I may have to get a part-time job to support my running habit. J