Thursday, August 13, 2009

There's One For You, Nineteen For Me

Probably the only thing more boring than doing your taxes is reading about someone else’s tax issues, but I feel the need to write something about it before I go all Falling Down.

Sometime this last spring – late April, I think? – I received a very intimidating letter from the IRS. It informed me that my business tax return from 2007 was under review and could I please get together my documents and meet with an agent to discuss. Which seemed sort of benign at first, until I realized, “Wait … documents … agent … this is an audit!” But I complied, of course. I took two days off of work so that I could sit in my house and answer questions and provide records for a business that did nothing but lose money for five years. And closed in 2008.

At the end of those two days, I was told that I would be given a report by July 20. “It’ll probably be before then,” the agent said, “but I’ll give it that much time, just in case.” So the weeks went by and I kept waiting for another ominous envelope. And waiting. And waiting. July 20th came and went, and then on July 22, the day before I left for vacation, I got a call from the auditor saying she was going to need some additional information about my personal return, but would send out the business report and I’d have 30 days to get her the other info she needed. She gave me the gist of what I had to come up with, so when I got a thick document request in the mail, I didn’t pore over it. In fact, I didn’t even open it. But I did set about culling my credit card websites for 2-year-old statements (thank you, Chase, for the easy access to archived statements, and suck it, Bank of America, for wanting to charge me $5 each). But I wasn’t in any real hurry, since I hadn’t even gotten the report yet, and figured I had a couple more weeks at least. The auditor was calling a couple times a week with updates, but since they were just informational, I was letting the calls go to voicemail.

And then, on Tuesday, there was a message asking if we could move our Thursday meeting from my house to her office. Wait, wha? What Thursday meeting? I scrambled to get that thick envelope opened, and sure enough, there on the bottom of the second page was a date and time for her to go over the new paperwork. I didn’t think I could get everything she needed in the next 48 hours, so I called back and asked to reschedule, and mentioned that going downtown to her office was going to require me to take half a day off of work. Her schedule was full for the next month, however, and the appointment was going to take three hours regardless, so rather than drag it out any more, I quickly requested Thursday afternoon off and, two days later, hauled my computer and ten pounds of files to the IRS Service Center.

The next three hours were about what I expected. I was shuffled from a gray waiting room to a gray “Interview” room and then proceeded to look over spreadsheets and bank statements, answering questions and explaining my English major accounting process. As the details unfolded, we discovered that I’d made some small errors, but when totaled up, they basically canceled each other out. A little under here, a little over there – came out just the same in the end. There was no malicious intent or devious effort to conceal income. I doofed it up a little, but nothing major.

Which, really, just makes me more upset about the whole thing. If they had spent all this time uncovering some egregious error, I would be stressed about coming up with the money, but at least I’d feel like they had used all of this time to someone’s benefit. But as it is, I have burned more than 10% of my vacation time, not to mention hours of research, document-gathering and sleeplessness, and the IRS has spent at least 30 woman-hours to find out that … we’re square. It’s maddening. It’s absurd. It’s enough to make me dig out statements from 2006 so I can prove that they actually owe me money. Because, by gum, if they can’t make all of this hassle worth their time, I’m sure as heckfire going to make it worth mine.

Apropos Of Nothin

My Top Five Most Hated Songs, in order:

1. "Kokomo," The (alleged) Beach Boys
2. "Deacon Blues," Steely Dan
3. "Red Red Wine," UB40 (I have no quarrel with you, Neil Diamond)
4. "River of Dreams," Billy Joel
5. "All I Wanna Do," Sheryl Crow

I have nothing to say about song quality or lack thereof. I simply hate them all.

And now they're all in my head. Gah!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

You Are So Lucky On Your First Day

So while we were still grabbing clean clothes out of our vacation suitcases, it was already time to start up the new fall routine. For the second year in a row, Miss M is at a brand new school and Mr. Baby is starting at a brand new daycare, so the anxiety level was at a peak. Well, mine was, anyway. After a summer of worry and occasional tears, Miss M had recently come to terms with the start of first grade and the move to a new school, and even seemed excited about it. Mr. Baby was blissfully unaware of the changes afoot, although he had shown great enthusiasm for the playground at “new sool!”

Still not entirely sure how I was going to get all three of us ready for the day before 7:15, I had planned to drop the baby off first, thinking this would make it easier to navigate the elementary school crowds later, plus provide me with Miss M’s help to haul in the nap mat, bedding, change of clothes and diapers required by the daycare. About five minutes before I’d intended to leave, however, I realized this plan wasn’t feasible, so I called an audible and reversed the drop-off procedure. I wasn’t sure how much time it would take to get M to her room, so I gave us a wide window.

Turns out, dropping off a child who just two weeks ago was weeping about starting first grade was much easier than anticipated. Parking and crossing an un-crossing-guarded street with two little ones was the hardest part of the process. Once we got to M’s room, she was all confidence, or at least bravery. She gave me a kiss goodbye and walked off without complaint. She hugged her teacher hello and entered her classroom with her head held up, although once inside, she seemed a little less sure of what to do. I had to leave before her look of determined fear-conquering broke my heart in half.

Mr. Baby’s drop-off, unfortunately, was heart-breaking in other ways. Once we got to his school, he put on his little backpack and marched all the way into his classroom without a care in the world. It was pretty much the most adorable thing that has ever happened on Earth, except for maybe the sneezing baby panda. But then he realized I was leaving. And oh, did he have cares. His cares were audible all the way out into the parking lot. I know he’s an agreeable child, and I knew he would recover and most likely have a good day, but it was still a very rough start. He didn’t seem so much sad as … betrayed. Like, he knew all about this school thing, but no one told him he had to go without any of his people.

The pick-up report was that he had in fact calmed down quickly and been a model of citizenship throughout the day, but the next morning, he was much warier as we approached the doors. I’ve been through this process several times now, and I know, logically, that it’s going to be better before I know it, but man, that just does not make these first weeks any easier.

On the plus side, Miss M had a great first day and has remained eager and positive about her new school and class. She’s being tested and assessed and will be placed in her permanent classroom at the end of the week, so I’m hoping that she’s just as happy about where she ends up as she is about where she is now.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

It's A Long Way Home For The Summer

When I was growing up, the start of August meant we were in the homestretch of summer. There were still a few weeks left to enjoy long evenings, late bedtimes, and Facts of Life re-runs. No school I ever attended began before Labor Day. But for my kids, and all kids in Memphis, August is the very end of the line. By Labor Day weekend, they’ve been closed up in their classrooms for a month. So it was with particular pleasure that, during the last weekend of July, I scooped up the children and skedaddled out of town for the most traditional of our family’s summer activities: Corn Capital Days.

As a child, I spent all year looking forward to the two weeks we spent in my parents’ hometown of Olivia, MN. We lived in Pittsburgh during my formative years, and we would load up the car (usually a Jeep Wagoneer, although there was one memorable Summer of Fuego), with our sleeping bags, books, cooler and games, and hit the road for a non-stop, 21-hour trip across the upper Midwest. It sounds like an interminable misery, but it actually wasn’t so bad, and the promise of freedom - of Gramma’s house, of small town streets, of 9pm sunsets - made it all worthwhile.

This year was the first time in Mr. Baby’s life, and the first time since Miss M’s toddlerhood, that we were able to make the pilgrimage to Olivia for this event. (Mr. Baby had actually been to Olivia twice before, under much sadder circumstances.) We were spared the road trip aspect by Pops’ very generous gift of frequent flyer miles, shrinking the travel time from 15 hours to two, but air-traveling alone with two small children in post-9/11 airports, I think I still got a glimpse of the tension my dad used to feel when driving unfamiliar Chicago roads at rush hour. We made it without major incident, though, and after a day to recoup in the suburban buffer zone, we made the last leg of our trek down highway 212, to the seat of Renville County.

Things may change over the years, but the feel of a small town is hard to mess with. Even with the high school knocked down from three storeys to one, the shiny new playground equipment in the parks, and the tragic loss of the Ben Franklin general store from the anchoring corner of downtown, Olivia still looks, feels, sounds and smells like Olivia. The streets still come to a dead stop at the edge of town, flanked by endless seas of corn and soybeans. The summer evenings still come on with air cooled by the moisture rising from the fields. The hours are marked by St. Aloysius’ bells, although the coo of mourning doves is just as reliable for indicating that it’s suppertime. And the smell of earth and growth, dusty roads and damp furrows, diesel tractor engines and truck beds full of sweet corn, make up an olfactory environment that has remained constant throughout my life, and I suspect for generations before me.

Speaking of those generations, the other great joy of our yearly trips to Olivia was the chance to see relatives that were otherwise out of reach. In Pittsburgh, we were a family of four, with no other family for 1000 miles. But in Minnesota, we were surrounded by grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins of all degrees. My father alone has 64 FIRST cousins, many of whom still lived near the house he grew up in. The house my grandfather built with his own hands, his wife and four sons living in the basement while he finished the floor above.

I didn’t take the kids to Olivia expecting them to instantly warm to or appreciate the extended family that had traveled from all over the country to be there at the same time - 31 in total, not counting the hyper-extended family I probably passed in the street without even knowing it. I just wanted them to see the faces and learn the names, and I held some hope that the next time we came to visit, they might be a little less shy. So I was astonished when, within an hour of our arrival, Miss M had thrown off her bashful guise and was running from pool to playground with her cousins, chasing after great-aunts and –uncles she hadn’t seen in years, and doing it all without a glance in my direction. She was instantly comfortable in a way I have never before witnessed. It seemed like she just naturally knew that this was her place and these were her people.

I caught glimpses of her as she finished off her cob at the corn feed, or chased after the candy tossed at the Grand Parade, or zipped off with her uncles in the golf cart, and those glimpses looked so familiar it was startling. At the end of the day, I would track her down in whatever lap she ended up in, and she would tell me she was ready to go to bed. After my sense of reality recovered from that statement, I would tuck her into the rollaway in the basement, a large, dark room with a formica bar and stone fireplace hearth that provided countless hours of childhood entertainment for my sister and me. Both nights there, she went to sleep without a word of complaint, so exhausted and content she didn’t even have anything contrary to say about sleeping in a windowless cellar.

Unfortunately, Mr. Baby had a little anxiety that kept him from fully enjoying the trip – namely, his body-shaking terror over coming in proximity with a dog – but I think that’s something he’ll outgrow by next year. In the meantime, I’m still fulfilled by the knowledge that I can share part of my childhood with my children, as well as provide the same connection to our roots that has been the grounding force throughout my life.