Ten Forty Blues

1040 Martini

by Catherine  Breese

Today is the last day of February 2016. If you have completed your 2015 tax return at this point, one of three things must be true about you: you are expecting a refund and need the money to buy something, (say, a set of aperitif glasses or new oven), you are a tremendously type-A person, or you are required to complete the FAFSA because you have college-aged children. I am that third kind of tax preparer. And I can assure you that if the FAFSA were not hanging over my head, I would not have even begun to gather up receipts and 1099 forms.[1]  I am the kind of US citizen who so despises doing her taxes that she puts it off until the last conceivable moment to begin.  I would prefer many other unpleasantries above doing our taxes: going to the gynecologist, grouting my shower, listening to a Donald Trump speech. etc. But like death, doing taxes is compulsory.

I am not really qualified to do my own taxes–to be honest.  I end up guessing on some of the questions that my H&R Block software asks me, and I pretend to understand the explanations when I really don’t.  And, to fully uncover my incompetency, I have also to admit that I avoid anything to do with my retirement account savings because I have exactly no understanding of the tax laws surrounding those accounts. Apparently, I was supposed to be keeping track of my contributions for the last 20 years and documenting that for the federal government?  I don’t know. I didn’t do it.  And when I asked my money-man, Edward J., for the documentation, he sent me an 84 page .pdf that appears to be written in Swahili.  I don’t really have a plan for dealing with this, except that I’m pretty sure I can’t  ever retire, so I guess my children will just inherit my financial squirrel’s nest.

In the past I have paid others to do my taxes for me. But, if I have to sit there with the professional tax preparer and answer all of the questions, it seems silly not to do them myself for the cost savings.  Not to mention that several years ago we took our taxes to a preparer who made a $5000 mistake. We had to go back three times to get the thing corrected.  Frankly, I can do that kind of shoddy work myself, at no charge.

So, every year, I clear off the dining room table, get out a bunch of file folders from previous tax years, set up the laptop, and then walk away for about 5 weeks until the whole scene becomes tiresome and naggy. Then I finally sit down, cocktail in hand, and launch into the world of the IRS.  In this world, you have to put aside any desire you have for the clean and precise use of the English language.  You must immerse yourself in a pile of gobbledygook that  reads something like this: “The adjusted basis is calculated with original cost of property, plus certain additions and improvements, minus certain deductions such as depreciation allowed or allowable and casualty losses.”  I don’t know what that means, and neither do you.  I get the gist, sort of, and that’s all I expect of myself.  I mean I do actually have a university degree, in English, so I should be adequate in the reading department.  My point here is that no one really understands the language of the tax code, and thus, we are all inferring our way through filling out this mandatory menace.  If we find out we have erred, well, no one should be surprised.

Luckily…your odds of being audited are way down.  Apparently, the budget of the IRS has been so drastically reduced that they don’t have the ability to audit many of us taxpayers.  The overall audit rate for individuals is less than 1%.  You odds are higher if you make over $200,000 or claim the earned income tax credit.  Owning your own business also puts you at better odds for audit, but only slightly.  This knowledge does offer a small comfort to me, although I still feel some version of mild disgrace in the face of my inferior tax preparation skills.

So, as of today, my 1040 is complete and I have already received my refund.  In fact we have already spent it—two new tires and our AAA membership fee–not a beach vacation, sadly.  But even worse news: I have yet to complete the FAFSA.  So, off to the liquor store.  What cocktail goes best with the FAFSA, you ask?  If it’s your first FAFSA, I recommend the Old Fashioned. You’re going to need its dark brown goodness to get to the end.  If you’re a FAFSA regular, the classic vodka Martini is an ideal choice.  Chin up. You can do this; you have to.  Cheers.

[1] The FAFSA is a form you have to fill out you have a child who is in college or going to college next year.  It is used by colleges to determine the type and amount of financial aid for which your child qualifies. It is the second-most annoying and difficult electronic form that you will complete during your lifetime. It will involve you screaming  utterances such as “I don’t know my daughter’s effing PIN!” and “Nooooooo! Not back to the start page!”

She’s Not Happy Unless She’s Not Happy

by Catherine Breese

Unhappiness is the ultimate form of self-indulgence.”  Tom Robbins

she is not happyOld people complain a lot, or so the stereotype says. Recently,  I encountered a real superstar in the world of kvetches who served to reinforce my vacilating prejudices. We were seated at the same banquet table at a luncheon by chance, and this woman complained from the moment she sat down until the final applause.  She wasn’t served quickly enough, the food was bad (it was pretty typical banquet food, you knowーmeh?) and, crime of the century, we weren’t served any bread.  She griped to two different waiters about their being no bread and was scolded by another woman at our table for doing so, because, after all, “the waiter doesn’t plan the banquet, he/she only brings the food.” So then she asked to see the manager.  At one point when speaking with the manager she uttered the words, “This is the worst food I have ever eaten in my life.”  Now this woman was seventy years old if she was a day. If this were actually the  worst food she had ever eaten, well, that says a lot about the comforts of her life.  I surmise it was hyperbole, but it was terribly ill-placed.  At a table full of educated American adults, surely we can rise above petty complaints and attempt some more positive human interaction. Books, movies, travel, life experiences, heck, I would even prefer to listen to a good surgical story rather than listen to this rude old woman expound upon how she’s been wronged by a hotel banquet.  

I admit, her age probably had little to do with inspiring such bad manners.  It’s more likely that she had always acted this way. This state of perpetual dissatisfaction appears bred in some. Some rube is always driving in their lane. Some idiot is always preventing them from doing a good job at work. Some jerk is always ruining their chance at fun or victory or honor.  It is a story people tell themselves and it is self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating.

Last weekend when we were doing some grocery shopping I became keenly aware that everyone in the store, shopper and employee alike, was bitter and angry.  There was a palpable mood in the store, like  civility-be-damned and watch-out-cause-I’m-comin’-through. Every shopper for himself!  Shoppers of all ages and nationalities crashed their carts into my ankles, reached over top of me for the romaine, and forced me to flatten myself up against canned goods while they barreled down the aisle, picking up the very important items that they need for their families, their church potlucks, or their dinner parties.  At the end, the bagger overfilled my bags (tomatoes and bread be damned) and gave the buggy a mean little shove. “Have a nice day”.  So many unhappy people, so very very unhappy.

I see an obvious correlation between self-centeredness and unhappiness, but I guess it is not so obvious to the narcissist. There are people who seem to prefer to be in a constant state of dissatisfaction.  We all probably know someone like this.  Thanks to Facebook, we all probably know too many.  And I don’t have an answer. My standard solution is simply to avoid them as much as possible.

When I was eleven years old and had broken my toe chasing the dog around the sofa, my mother made me take a bath before she would take me to the emergency room.  Let me add a little visual detail here: the little toe on my left foot was sticking out at a 90 degree angle from my foot.  My mother didn’t make me take a bath because she was a cruel person, but rather because she believed in doing things a certain way.  You didn’t take a dirty child in dirty clothes to the hospital. When we went to the hospital, my parents joked and smiled with the nurses and doctors. No drama. Just polite conversation and pleasant requests. I held my breath and made not a peep when the doctor gave me a shot of local anesthetic, grabbed my toe and wrenched it back to being relatively parallel to the other toes. We all laughed on the way home.  Don’t get me wrong; I am not nostalgic for the imaginary past of my parents simple values.  I am saying, though, that being nice works a whole lot better in this world than its negative counterpart.

People who are louder and meaner and uglier don’t get their way more often, despite what they believe. Nope, they get their food spit into. (Sorry about that preposition at the end.)  They get everyone around them flustered and leave a wake of discontent and sadness.  And, I think most importantly, they don’t accomplish good in the world.

Yes, sometimes I do have a really horrific day, too. And I am just pretending to be delightfully pleasant to the tired woman at the customer service window of the DMV.  But, feigning politeness and being polite in utter sincerity have the exact same consequence: a more perfect world.