How many idiots does it take to fill out a 1040?

“Oh crud, we need to do our taxes,” I recently told my husband as I do every year around this time.

After exhausting every reason to procrastinate – cleaning out the vegetable drawer, perusing old Hickory Farms catalogues left over from Christmas, clipping toenails, surfing E-bay for vintage bar signs, napping – we finally had to face the music.

Coffee and a folder haphazardly filled with paperwork in hand, my husband and I reluctantly plopped down in front of our computer to complete the dreaded annual tax forms.

We haven’t had the best luck preparing our tax forms over the years, and are conditioned to avoid the experience. Despite my law degree and my husband’s master’s degree in financial management, neither of us ever grasped the simple concepts relevant to our personal income tax forms.

In law school, I took a Tax Law course and could write a scholarly paper on whether the federal income tax is a direct tax or an excise tax based on the Sixteenth Amendment and the Supreme Court’s opinion in the Pollock case, but I struggled with my 1040EZ.

My husband’s master’s thesis was entitled “Congress, Defense, and the Deficit: An Analysis of the FY 1996 Budget Process in the 1O4th Congress,” but he couldn’t tell the difference between short and long term capital gains if his retirement depended on it.

But every year, we begrudgingly spread out our paperwork and somehow fulfill our obligations as taxpayers.

One year, we wanted to act like grown ups, so we hired an accountant while living in Virginia Beach. He was a charming southern gentleman with blue eyes, silver white hair and a matching tidy moustache. He called me “ma’am” and politely sat with us one balmy evening in the early days of spring. Over the season’s first lemonades, we casually chatted about our finances, and he gathered all the information he needed to prepare and file our returns. It was so easy, we wondered why we hadn’t been doing it this way all along.

The next year, we tried to contact our charming accountant to do our taxes again, but strangely, he never returned our calls.

We soon found out that he couldn’t call us back because he was locked up in the big house. Turns out, our southern gentleman was politely holding himself out as a CPA without a license, embezzling from clients, and obtaining money under false pretenses. Oops. Back to the drawing board.

Since then, we have been using Turbo Tax, a seemingly idiot-proof program which leads the user through a simplified series of questions designed to accurately calculate all income and deductions.  Somehow, my husband and I still have no idea what is going on.

“Do we qualify for the child tax credit?” I asked, as my husband slurped his coffee. “Hell if I know . . . just do whatever we did last year, that seemed to work,” he said nonchalantly.

“I forget, do we have Roth IRAs or regular IRAs?” I said a few minutes later. Riffling through a pile of papers, my husband found our statements, which might as well have been written in Chinese. “Roth, but what the heck is a recharacterized contribution?”

My eyes started to cross as I tried to decipher our mutual fund papers. “Is cost basis the same as purchase price?” I said, searching my faded memory bank. “I don’t know, just punch in $200 and see what happens,” my husband suggested.

After four hours, two pots of coffee, three calls to our financial manager, and at least a dozen choice expletives, we finally got it all figured out and dutifully sent our forms off to Uncle Sam.

We won’t get our return check for several weeks, but rest assured, we’ve already spent it, and lost the receipt. When our bank statements arrive, we won’t know how to balance the checkbook. And next spring, we’ll be back in front of our computer, dazed and confused all over again.  Apparently, a few more things in life are certain aside from death and taxes.

Pricing Paradise

Photo courtesy of redneckpixels.com.

Photo courtesy of redneckpixels.com.

Be it a sub-tropical seaside villa in Florida, a rugged mountain chalet in Montana, an Upper East Side condominium, or a Duck-Dynasty-esque Louisiana creekside doublewide — everyone has their own idea of the perfect paradise. And everyone hopes that someday they’ll end up retiring there.

As a military family, we have lived north, south, east and west. We’ve lived in the heat and we’ve lived in the cold, we’ve lived where it’s wet and lived where it’s dry. After more than 20 years of marriage, we still haven’t decided where we want to end up someday. But we have learned that, no matter where we find paradise, it always comes at a price.

The purple mountain majesty and fresh-caught wild salmon of Alaska will cost prolonged darkness and gargantuan mosquitoes. The Painted Desert dawns and star-studded dusks in the Southwestern states will cost egg-frying temperatures and poisonous critters that like to hide in the garage. The flip-flop friendly retirement mecca of Florida with its endless palm-studded sandy beaches and cornucopias of coconut shrimp will cost seven months a year of stifling swampy humidity, not to mention throngs of turkey-leg munching theme park tourists.

The anatomically flawless people, golf-perfect climate, and Spicoli-surfer vibe of California will cost damaging earthquakes, cray-cray politics, and jaw-dropping cost of living. The salt-of-the-earth folksiness and charming farming towns of the Mid-West will cost land-locked monotony and trailer-tossing tornadoes.  The quaintly clapboarded Northeast with its Technicolor seasons will cost frigid, salt-encrusted, pale, chapped, winters that seem to go on forever.

We’ve lived in New England for six months now, and strangely, I love it here. Even though, as I write this column, a Nor’easter is howling through our base housing neighborhood in Newport, Rhode Island, caking our windows with blown snow, depositing four-foot drifts in our yard, and causing the trees to strain ominously against the gusting winds.

Ensconced in umpteen layers of clothing and copious applications of Chapstick, I stare out our frosted window and wonder how I could consider this place paradise. Why don’t I think, as many do, that long winters are too high a price to pay for this lobster-fed, leafy New England lifestyle?

Apparently, somewhere in my snowy Western Pennsylvania childhood, I was brainwashed.

I loved winter. The sledding, the skiing, the skating, the icicles, the hot chocolate, the itchy wool sweaters, the waffle-woven long underwear, the runny noses, the cold toes, the roaring fires. To me, winter was nothing short of a total blast.

In fact, one of the worst things that ever happened to me was when I broke my femur tobogganing one night in fifth grade. Sure, the broken leg was extremely painful, but what really hurt me was missing out on the entire 1977 blizzard because I was laid up in the hospital in traction for six weeks.

While all my friends were having the time of their lives slipping and sliding down every slope, embankment and drift in town while schools were closed for two weeks, I was watching “The Don Ho Show”, avoiding another Salisbury steak on a pink Melmac hospital tray, and trying to learn how to balance on a bedpan.

After all that childhood conditioning, I now react to cold weather like Pavlov’s pooch when a bell rings. When those first flakes fall from the sky, a certain nostalgia wells up in me, and I get excited about everything winter brings.

Like pots of hot soup and mittens drying on the radiator. Like rosy cheeks and paw prints in the snow. Like black leafless branches silhouetted against clear blue skies.

For many, winter’s dirty chunks of ice, slick roadways, salt-hazed cars, and unrelenting chill are too much of a price to pay to live in northern climates. Sure, I’ll admit, when March rolls around I’ll be envying our Navy friends who are nursing their first sunburns in Hawaii and Florida.

But the bright saffron and violet crocus heads will dot the northern landscape soon enough, heralding the much-anticipated arrival of spring. And besides, winter is a small price to pay, when you consider that finding your own perfect paradise is priceless.

Snowyhouse

Tortured Tenderness

st valentineI really don’t mean to be a bummer, but I just googled Saint Valentine and learned that, not only was he not the patron saint of lovers, February 14th marks the date that he was imprisoned, tortured and beheaded in Rome in 269 A.D.

Real romantic, hu?

Apparently, the Feast of St. Valentine (a.k.a. Valentine’s Day) was not intended to celebrate romantic love until some crusty old fourteenth century English historians began propagating the legend that Saint Valentine was martyred because he was caught secretly marrying persecuted Christians behind Emperor Claudius’ back.

So, as much as we want to point the finger at Hallmark, Brachs, Whitman’s Samplers, The Melting Pot, FTD and the rest of the blood-sucking consumer industry, apparently they are not to blame for inventing Valentine’s Day.

Regardless, there’s certainly nothing wrong with reserving one day a year to recognize love, right?

As a little kid, Valentine’s Day was a fun affair filled with construction paper hearts, lace doilies, cards imprinted with Ziggy, and red heart lollipops with white edible paint.

In high school, the mere chance of getting a $1 Valentine carnation from a secret admirer was thrilling. Just in case, my best friend and I always sent each other a “secret” carnation, which was smart, considering our dating track records. It wasn’t until my senior year that I received a Valentine flower from an actual boy, but unfortunately, it was from a kid nicknamed “Goober.”

Mercifully, I was finally able to experience Valentine’s Day bliss after meeting my Navy husband. There is nothing quite like the feeling of true love, and in the early years, we spent hours picking out cards for each other, covering every square millimeter with hand written words professing how doggone happy we were to have found our soul mates.

And we meant every sappy word of it. Still do.

However, after twenty years of marriage, the mandatory traditions of this manufactured holiday can seem like the torture endured by St. Valentine back in Rome. I know, I know, buying a card and planning a romantic evening with a loved one shouldn’t be compared to being stoned and beheaded. But when you’ve got the afternoon carpool, the minivan is caked with black snow, you have to get a stool sample for the vet, and the water heater is on the fritz again; Valentine’s Day can seem more like a day in hell.

Unfortunately, middle aged couples get so bogged down with the relentless demands of life — teen angst, mortgage payments, slowing metabolisms, routine oil changes, lost retainers, low water pressure, stray chin hairs — extraneous holidays become just another item on our already unmanageable To Do lists.

These days, despite our best intentions, we do a lousy job of taking a day out to celebrate love on Valentine’s Day. My husband hurriedly runs into the 7-11 to grab any old card on his way home from work. Before getting out of the car, he finds a pen between the seats and scribbles a generic sentiment such as “Love ya bunches, Honey! XOXO” in large writing to take up space.

He finds me in the kitchen, frantically trying to feed the kids and dog, while folding the laundry and helping our daughter study for her Chemistry test. We exchange a quick kiss and our hastily scribbled cards inside envelopes with still-wet glue. He rushes to change out of his military uniform, and I spritz on perfume to hide the scent of frozen tater tots.

We dole out the requisite bedtime threats to the kids, climb into our dirty minivan, and fight the traffic to make our reservation. At the restaurant, we make our best effort at romance, ordering wine, canoodling and sharing dessert. But thanks to middle-aged fluctuations in blood sugar, we start yawning before the clock strikes nine.

I don’t think that this “hurry-up-and-be-romantic-before-I-fall-asleep” routine is what the Pope had in mind when he crowned poor St. Valentine the patron saint of love, but it’s the best we can muster on a weeknight. Besides, even the most tortured schedule should include a little time for tenderness.

Bowl Day: A Play by Play

My favorite spot.

My favorite spot.

Football-shaped bowl of nuts is on the coffee table. Starter log is sputtering in the fireplace. Dog has been walked. Wings are in the oven. Official play begins.

My husband, ensconced in his tattered college sweatshirt, cargo pants he bought himself off the sale rack at Target, and ratty old sheepskin slippers, surveys the field, attempting to locate the best seating formation for maximum game-viewing comfort. Capped beer in hand, he glances around to be sure that I am not in the room, then positions himself in front of my favorite spot on the couch.

My husband doesn’t utilize his quadriceps to gradually lower his weight into a seat like most human beings; instead, the instant he feels his knees break their upright locked position, he disengages all muscles, allowing his entire torso to free-fall toward his desired location. Interestingly, my husband, all three of his brothers, and their father are infamous chair wreckers, leaving snapped legs, warped springs, and crooked recliners in their wakes.

As if seized with temporary paralysis of his lower extremities, my husband’s knees buckle, sending his girth plummeting toward our aging couch with violent impact. *GUH-GLUNK*

Entering the room, I see my son sitting on the floor munching a bag of tortilla chips, and my husband in my seat. Hoping a bit of nagging will roust him, I harp, “Hey Hon, if you insist on watching the game from my favorite spot, could you at least sit down gently? Every time you sit there, I hear that spring clunk under you like it’s broken or something.”

“God help me,” he grumbles under his breath.

I settle temporarily for the other end of our couch, and realize that my husband’s offensive move required a smarter defense. “You know, I think you’d better poke that fire Honey, you know how unpredictable those starter logs can be.”

My husband looks at me suspiciously, but I feign ignorance, “Have the Seahawks colors changed? Didn’t they have royal blue jerseys a few years ago?” As my husband steps toward the fireplace, I inconspicuously employ a slide-lift-blitz maneuver to regain territory. But just as I reach the center cushion, our dog appears, licking my face. Nice block.

*GUH-GLUNK* “Alright guys, c’mon, let’s get some real points on the board!” my husband yells after swiftly retaking my rightful seat. To add insult to injury, he lobs his ratty sheepskin-slippered foot into my lap and slurps the last of his beer. Unsportsmanlike conduct.

“Hey Mom.”

“Yes,” I mutter, trying to hide my gritting teeth.

“Are those wings done yet?”

“Not yet,” I look over just as my son tips the bag of chips over his open mouth, triggering a mini-avalanche of corner crumbs which cascades into his mouth, eyes, shirt, and the freshly-vacuumed family room carpet, “but I’m fairly certain you’ll survive.”

Just then, the cells of my brain call a huddle, and a new play is formed. Time out.

While my husband and son laugh at silly beer commercials like simpletons, I disappear to the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with a heaping tray of hot wings.  Like some kind of modern day June Cleaver, I smilingly dole out platefuls to my unsuspecting husband and son.

And then I wait, nibbling patiently on a stalk of celery.

As expected, they dig right in, my son meticulously dissecting each tiny radius, ulna and humerus, then sucking each finger from base to tip. My husband on the other hand, plops whole wings into his open mouth, and after manipulation with teeth and tongue, pulls the bones out from his pursed lips, stripped clean of meat, fat, skin and cartilage.

“Whew!” my husband exclaims, wiping his brow with a saucy napkin, “Spicy, hu?!”

My son is the first casualty, running for a soda, while my husband tenaciously sweats through another wing or two before abandoning his position in search of cold beer to sooth his burning lips.

Thanks to a few extra shakes of hot sauce, my play worked. With the coast finally clear, I muster what’s left of my middle aged agility. Hail Mary.

Reentering the room, my husband sees me, firmly seated in my favorite spot on our couch. I pump my upturned hands in the air while wiggling my knees back and forth, in a pompous victory dance.

Score.

Super Bowl Preparedness

beprepared

Panic has set in.

Soon, folks everywhere will be mobbing the grocery stores for necessary supplies and stockpiling items in their cabinets, pantries and refrigerators. Is there another Herculean Arctic superstorm headed our way? Is a typhoon spinning its way eastward across the Pacific? Is a deadly combination of high and low-pressure systems colliding in an apocalyptic whirlwind over our nation?

Well, no.

But seeing as the Super Bowl is the second largest day for US food consumption after Thanksgiving, there is a perfectly good reason why people are shoving old ladies out of the way to grab the last jar of queso dip. After all, a Bowl Day without the traditional football-watching foods would be downright catastrophic.

So, as the mother of an Eagle Scout, I feel obligated to warn everyone to: “Be prepared.”

Before you take on the pre-Bowl crowds at the grocery stores, be sure to ready the home front. Clear the refrigerator of useless items such as milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables. Other than a few sticks of celery to accompany the wings, toss any unprocessed foodstuffs that are taking up precious space needed for Bowl day essentials.

Once the kitchen has been purged of all healthy, vitamin-fortified, low-fat, fiber-rich foods, it’s time to mentally prepare for what you might encounter at the grocery stores.

Like a Roman Gladiator ascending the catacombs of the Coliseum, like Muhammed Ali entering the ring to take on Joe Frazier, like the Greek soldiers climbing out of the wooden horse inside the gates of Troy, like the Duke of Wellington about to face Napoleon’s army at Waterloo, like The Real Housewives of New Jersey sitting down to dinner — you must be ready to wage a battle of epic proportions.

As you jot down the arsenal of foods needed for Super Bowl sustenance, breathe deeply and meditate on the past. Gone are the archaic Bowl days of yesteryear, when football fans survived on outdated canned-meat party sandwiches, pimento cheese spreads, and gelatin salads. Thanks to modern advances in processed cheese technology, the invention of Buffalo wings (origins are “hotly” debated), and the mass-production of tortilla chips in 1994, we are fortunate to have a proliferation of delicious modern Bowl day snack foods at our disposal.

Presuming you can find an available shopping cart without committing aggravated assault, enter the grocery store with a strategy. Don’t just join the stream shoppers like some kind of amusement park pony, strike out on your own and hunt down your targets.

Unlike every other grocery store trip, it is actually a good idea to bring the kids. As your secret weapons, they will enable you to divide and conquer. Send each one on a mission: “Lilly, you’re going in for three jars of salsa. Anna, you’re in charge of peanuts. Hayden, you’re almost a man now, so I’m trusting you to find those little smoked sausages for pigs in a blanket. Can you do it?!” “Yes, ma’am!” “Now, GO, GO, GO!!”

With your grocery cart filled to the brim with every snack food known to modern man, head to the check out lanes, but do not waste precious time standing in line. Simply feign some kind of cardiac episode – a la Fred Sanford’s “It’s the big one, Elizabeth!”- and fellow shoppers will surely let you cut in line so you can get to the glycerin pills you “left in the car.” It might sound far fetched, but when they see all the pork products and processed cheeses in your cart, they’ll be convinced that your arteries are harder than a coffin nail and guide you straight to the head of the line.

Finally at home with your snack foods stockpiled and beverages chilling, you can finally breathe easy, knowing that you can eat your face off come Sunday, February 4th.

Disaster averted.

Finding swagger in my wagon

IMG_2960If I have to spend one more day in this filthy, salt-crusted, paint-chipped, rusted, dog-hair-filled, good-for-nothing tuna can of a minivan, I’m gonna lose it….

This is the thought that brings me to a near mom meltdown each morning during my daily school drop offs. I swear, I used to really love my minivan, but nowadays, I can’t stop dreaming of trading her in.

I remember the first time I drove her. It was 2006, and we were stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. Our old stale-french-fry-and-Goldfish-cracker-filled, spit-up scented, dented, scratched, rusted, three-hub-capped, hunter green Plymouth Voyager was ready to give up the ghost. Having three young kids and our first mortgage, we knew that buying used was the only way to go.

Other than an almost imperceptible dent in the hatch back door and a mere 8,000 miles on the odometer, our “new” Toyota Sienna was perfect, and even had a lingering bit of new car smell. We drove away feeling like we were riding in the upholstered lap of pure luxury.

But like every new car we’ve had, it doesn’t take long for the novelty to wear off. Inevitably, Happy Meals get dropped, dogs are wet, kids get carsick, rocks crack windshields, grocery carts ding doors, and before we know it, our minivan has become nothing more than a rolling ghetto.

In all fairness, our minivan has served us well, traveling with us on an overseas military tour in Germany and sheltering us from the baking sun during a two-year tour of duty in Florida.

Now, stationed in Newport, Rhode Island, our minivan is really showing her age. After 130,000 miles, her glossy paint has faded to a dull dirty white, which is most often hazed with salt and grime. Her alloy wheels are corroded and permanently stained with brake dust. Her hood is dented and pitted with spots of rust. Much to my middle school daughter’s embarrassment, the sliding doors freeze shut at the slightest chill, requiring her to climb out the trunk in the morning car pool line. And worst of all, the interior is almost unbearable, with God-knows-what ground into the upholstery, carpeting, vents and faux naugahyde grain.

Seriously, it’s gross.

But with three teenagers in private schools and college tuition bills on the horizon, buying a new car right now is about as likely as me keeping my New Year’s resolution to stop eating seconds.

So, rather than focusing on the filth, I’ve got to think positively.

In my youth, I drove a 1975 Volkswagen Beetle for eleven years. Despite her torn horsehair-stuffed upholstery, useless windshield wipers, and finicky alternator, we developed a symbiotic relationship. I could expertly hover in that sweet spot between the clutch and gas on a steep hill in first gear without using the break. When her battery went dead, I could pop the clutch without assistance, jumping in to put her in gear after pushing her myself from the open driver’s side door. I could tune in the most obscure radio station, because I knew all the points on her radio-tape deck dial.

Despite her age, I was sad to see my old Beetle go when marriage and child rearing made her impractical. Now, when marriage and child rearing make my old minivan the only practical vehicle for our family, I need to channel that same symbiotic feeling.

I guess I have always liked the way she holds my coffee cup in her center console. I must admit, she has always kept all my favorite radio stations stored where I can reach them with the punch of a button. I guess it is kind of nice to not worry when the dog jumps in, wet and dirty after a swim in the bay. And if we traded her in, I’d have to buy more school stickers for the back window, which would be a real pain, right?

Just like me, my old minivan might be showing her age, but I guess there’s still a little swagger left in my wagon.

Let the needles fall where they may!

Seriously?

Seriously?

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I love my ShopVac.

Typically, my love affair with this handy appliance is most intimate during the post-holiday cleanup, after the decorations have been taken down, and a veritable minefield of dust bunnies, paper scraps, glitter, forgotten red and green M&Ms and, of course, pine needles is revealed.

I normally find my ShopVac coyly hiding in my laundry room, playing hard-to-get. I tease him out into the kitchen and fondle his attachments. He’s a particularly handsome upright model with a tall slim canister and an extra long hose. After I plug him in, he dominantly takes charge of the situation, powerfully wielding his raw horsepower.

My torrid tryst with my ShopVac is normally a very brief encounter. But this year, we had a prolonged tête-à-tête, thanks to a most unfortunate Christmas tree.

After two years of living in Florida, buying our Christmas trees in dingy strip mall parking lots, my Navy family, now stationed in New England, was ready for the full-on, over the river and through the woods, dashing through the snow, holly-jolly experience. I imagined a happy family outing to a local “you-cut” tree farm with rows of lovely scotch pines and Frazier firs. I figured we’d traipse off into the woods, perhaps while singing our favorite Christmas carols, and find a gorgeously fragrant, well-tended tree to perfectly fit our base house’s bay window.

However, somehow, we ended up in a bumpy field dotted with wildly misshapen blue spruces. But it was almost dusk, and we were determined to get our tree that afternoon. As we searched the weedy, tangled grove, our standards dwindled with the remaining sunlight.

Wanting to get the whole ordeal over with, we settled on a particularly painful blue spruce that we found down in a gulch at the edge of the farmer’s property. No sooner did we hand back the farmer’s bowsaw, along with the agreed upon $35, than needles began to fall from our “fresh” cut tree.

There were needles on our clothes, on the top of our minivan, inside our minivan, on our driveway, on our sidewalk, in our kitchen, down our hallway, across our living room, and scattered on the floor under the bay window. Even after the lights, ornaments and angel were in place, our “fresh” cut tree continued to drop needles, which somehow made their way onto our dog, inside our presents, in our boots, on the bookshelf, imbedded into our oriental rug, and remarkably, into a pot of spaghetti sauce.

By the time the holidays were over, and we took the decorations off our tree, there were more needles on our carpet than attached to the brittle, curled branches.

We finally bid riddance to that most unfortunate tree at the curb outside our house a few days ago. Not wanting to appear too needy, I wondered whether I should betray my ShopVac, and tackle the mountain of needles with a snow shovel or a bulldozer.

But I was only kidding myself – I knew he was the only one who could give me satisfaction. Day after day, night after night, I faithfully rendezvoused with my beloved ShopVac until we found every needle in my haystack.

Along with all those fuzz balls, dog hairs, peanuts, tinsel and pine needles, my ShopVac has sucked me in for good.

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