Category Archives: Essay

Maybe the IRS Should Hire Sears to Write their Tax Return Instructions

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frustrated-writer-2For the first time ever, the entire United States had a three-month extension on filing income tax returns. (Did you get yours in on time? The deadline was last Wednesday.) I finished mine with two days to spare, despite my original intention to have it done by mid-April. A portion of our income comes from investments, so our return is a little complicated, and different every year. We get lots of forms with lots of figures on them, with the warning that Internal Revenue is also being furnished with a copy.

Now, some of those figures have clear directions where they are to be entered on the 1040. But the notes for others say “check the instructions for where to report.”

Have you seen the instruction book for the 1040? It’s, like, 108 pages long. And if I only had to fill out the 1040, that would be fine. But there are bunches of “schedules” and hundreds of other forms, and pretty much you need to fill them out before you know whether they apply to you or not.

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Every February I begin to work on my return. I have a folder where I keep important receipts and statements all year long, but some of the documents I need don’t come until late—this year in late April, though I usually get them a month earlier. So I devote an hour most Sundays to accomplishing what I can—sorting my papers, starting to add up different categories, printing out the tax forms I think I need, and reading and rereading directions.

Man, the government does not make it easy to determine what’s taxable and what’s not. And the worksheets seem really random. “Write the smaller of line 5 or line 12 on line 37. Subtract line 37 from line 22. If line 37 is larger than line 22, enter 0. . .”

When July 1 came around, I still wasn’t done, so I began working on taxes every day. Eventually I found out where one of my mystery numbers gets entered by looking at a form for something else entirely.

There’s got to be another way.

My sons generally do their taxes on the day they’re due. They both had last minute questions about payments they’d received that I had no experience with. We were all frustrated with reading and rereading instructions, trying to figure out where to enter the amounts and whether they were taxable or not. I think next year I’ll go on vacation from April 8-16 so they have to figure it out on their own.

The IRS writes terrible instructions. The processes are unnecessarily unwieldy. You almost have to hire an accountant to figure it out for you. And I’m cheap and stubborn and don’t want to. I don’t trust tax software—I’ve heard horror stories.

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In contrast, my Kenmore appliances have perhaps the clearest instruction manuals I’ve ever seen. The language is similar to what ordinary people use to communicate every day. You don’t have to be an engineer to read these documents. They don’t send you to different documents or to multiple locations within the book to find the answer to your questions. The name of every control button is given to you, along with its function. Each process is broken down into logical steps. One or two readings and I’m golden.

I wish the government would hire Sears’ technical writers to draft their tax booklet.

Don’t Worry

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For most of my life, I’ve been a worrier. Probably because I spend a lot of time with someone who frequently says, “But what if [insert horrible catastrophe here] happens?” The fear sparked by that question has caused lots of drama and sleepless nights over the years.

You know how it goes. You think through multiple scenarios and script what to say or strategize what to do. Then while you wait for something to happen, you second-guess all your plans and modify them. And then you think of another situation that you might have to deal with, and you have to come up with a possible solution for it while remembering what you are going to do about the original potential crisis.

A few years ago, while carrying several of these burdens, I analyzed how many times these worst cases actually materialized. A conservative estimate is one time out of ten. How many hours—no, years—of my life have been consumed with worrying over nothing?

One day, my dear friend asked me, “What are we going to do if [cataclysmic event] happens?” and I said, “Can we worry about it if and when it happens? I’m too busy to worry about it now.”

“But shouldn’t we be prepared?”

“Why waste time preparing for something that may not even happen?”

The funny thing is, once we acknowledge that a possibility for disaster exists, I think our brains work on it subconsciously, because on those rare occasions that we’ve actually faced a genuine setback, we’ve handled it satisfactorily in the moment. Or maybe God really does have our backs.

Now it’s your turn. Do you panic when you think of possible disasters? Do you ever waste time worrying about something that doesn’t even happen? Are you able to turn off negative emotions when dealing with hypothetical situations? Share in the comments below.

Mockingbird Blues

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Mockingbird Blues

I’ve now experienced everything.

Last week I was bullied by a bird.

I was minding my own business, walking Ralph, when a bird started trash-talking me. I tried whistling at her, but that just made her hopping mad. I continued on my way—and she dive-bombed me!

From the marking on her wings, I guessed she must be a mockingbird. (Thank you, Hunger Games movies, for giving me that bird-identification frame of reference.) I know birds can get aggressively protective of their nests when they have little ones, but there are lots of trees in my neighborhood, and I have no idea which one she calls home.

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There she is, in my neighbor’s tree, bad-mouthing me.

On the way back from our walk, we navigated the entire cul-de-sac. Bad idea. Mrs. Bird snuck behind me and whomped me on the back. (All right, she weighs two ounces, but I felt that!)

Every day for an entire week, that birdie terrorized me. I tried talking tough to her (“Don’t you dare bother me!”), I shook my keys at her, I wore a floppy hat. Nothing stopped her from swooping at me from behind.

There were two mornings when my plans included doing yardwork. I couldn’t—I was too afraid.

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Yeah, she looks innocent, but she’s terrifying.

I haven’t seen her this week. Maybe her eggs hatched and she’s busy feeding her babies? Maybe her babies died because she spent so much time chasing me that the babies starved? I don’t know what changed. It’s a mystery of life.

Lemon Surprise

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A few years ago we had our yard landscaped, and we acquired three citrus trees: an orange, a grapefruit, and a lemon. This year we had a bumper lemon crop. I still have lemons on the tree that need to be picked. We love to squeeze fresh lemon juice into our drinking water—so refreshing!

Last week I picked a doubled-brown-paper grocery bagful of lemons. These are Meyer lemons, and they grow to the size of little Nerf footballs, with knobby little protuberances on them. My friends have told me to freeze fresh lemon juice in ice cube trays, then store the cubes in baggies in the freezer and use them as you need them. Sounds like a good idea!

I bought a bunch of plastic ice cube trays at the dollar store, got out my 40-year-old electric juicer, and squoze away. I’d been grabbing the lemons one at a time out of the bag.

When I was down to my last tray, I peeked into the bag to see how many lemons were still in there.

The good news: only three left.

The bad news: there was also a scorpion wiggling around in the bag.

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No, this is not my scorpion, but he looked alot like this. Photo by janeb13 on Pixabay.

We live in Arizona. We are no strangers to scorpions. We go for months without seeing any, and then one will tour the bathroom. We have flyswatters hanging on nails throughout the house; they are my weapon of choice against scorpions.

I took the bag outside and dumped it out on the patio. The scorpion, a common tan bark scorpion, and a big one at that, about four inches, lifted his enormous claws, stuck his powerful tail up in the air, and marched right toward me. I could have just stepped on him, but he was huge—what if I missed? He looked like he could hold a grudge.

Not seeing anything good to whack him with, I ran into the house to get my flyswatter. When I came out, he was nowhere to be found.

The next morning, I let Ralph outside, and I noticed all the water had evaporated from his bowl on the patio. So I picked it up to refill it. . .

. . . and there, underneath, was the scorpion. He took one look at me, said, “What?! You again?!” and brandished his claws and stinger at me.

I ran inside for my flyswatter, and when I returned—he was gone again.

It’s been almost a week since then and I haven’t seen him.

But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.

D is for Dachshund

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My Father’s Day present to my husband in 2011 was a dachshund, something he had been begging me for. He and my daughter Erin went to an adoption event at a pet store. He selected a rescued dachshund who had been found in the state forest.

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We don’t really know her back story. The rescue outfit called her Precious. She was about five years old. Greg renamed her Rudi, the same name as the dog his father had owned.

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Rudi’s eyes eventually grew cloudy due to a buildup of cholesterol in her corneas. She lost a lot of her vision. She sometimes scratched her eyes, and had to wear the cone of shame joy.

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She loved to go for walks and would pull you along for the ride.

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She liked to be outside and sit in the sun.

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She was a good companion.

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As she aged, she slowed down. One day, about two years ago, she had several seizures. We took her to the vet right before closing time. The vet ran some tests and kept her overnight. The next morning, she was dead. The vet thinks she had a brain tumor.

It’s hard losing your dear friend, your furry baby. We only had her for seven years. For months, I said “No more dogs.”

But Greg wanted to try again. Before Christmas, we searched the pound for another dachshund. But most of the dogs were pit bulls. Then Greg noticed a little chihuahua trembling in a corner. He needed us.

That’s a whole other story.

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Pandemic Silver Lining

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Pandemic Silver Lining

I don’t like to be inconvenienced. It makes me grouchy.

When the first pandemic warnings came out, it felt like overreaction to me. So there’s a virus. Too bad.

When my supermarket-stocker son told me his store sold more in two days than they’d sold from Thanksgiving to Christmas, I was mystified. Why were people buying up all the paper products and canned foods?

One by one, all my weekly activities that I love got canceled: hand bell choir, church choir, folk dancing, bible study, Sunday worship, the quilting ministry, symphony concerts. Even the folk dance festival that I helped put together got canceled. I got grouchier.

My husband went into the hospital on March 11 for spinal surgery. He’d been struggling with vertigo for many months and tried a number of different treatments, but his dizziness and falls persisted. He had spinal stenosis, and surgery was his last option. The night before he asked me, “Is this elective surgery?” I didn’t know how to answer; his quality of life was so bleak. I decided that if his surgery was deemed not necessary, the hospital would have to tell us so.

Unfortunately, Greg hasn’t yet bounced back as expected. As of this writing, he’s been transferred to a skilled nursing facility. The last time I was allowed to visit him was March 20. As hard as that is on me, I suspect it’s even harder on him and our grown children who haven’t seen him since before the surgery. But as an older person with a compromised immune system, he’s probably in the safest possible place.

My older son just learned that the restaurant where he’s worked for 17 years has closed for good. I panicked when I heard that, but he’s already strategizing his job hunt.

I’m not telling you all my problems to elicit sympathy for me. Everyone has had to make sacrifices during this time. I know that most people have it worse than I do.

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My real reason for writing this is to tell you what I’ve observed.

Members of every group I belong to have called me or texted me to ask how I’m doing or if there’s anything I need. Not just my children and my friends, but also my pastors and ministry leaders. Not just once, but multiple times. My son’s restaurant, before it closed, cooked food and gave it away for free. People are going out of their way to help others and anticipate needs. I went to the fabric store for some thread, and people were there picking up materials to make medical masks for the hospitals.

It just so happens that I have everything I need. My house is well stocked. But not being forgotten touches me deeply when so many people are struggling. It even makes me less grouchy.

Thank you for all you do in your communities. And if you need help, just ask.

Arizona State Drink Outrage

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Arizona State Drink Outrage

I just found out that ten months ago, my state legislature passed a bill making lemonade the official state beverage.

The bill was suggested by a high school student.

I was never consulted.

Shouldn’t there have been a referendum? Shouldn’t the good voters of Arizona have had the privilege of choosing the state beverage?

Because the obvious choice for state beverage would be lemon water. (What’s lemon water? Water with fresh lemon juice squeezed into it.)

Much of Arizona is desert. It’s hot and dry. Arizonans sip water all day long to stay hydrated.

But our water doesn’t always taste so good. When we moved here more than thirty years ago, our tap water smelled like chlorine. I would get a glass of tap water halfway to my mouth and change my mind about drinking it. Many Arizonans buy bottled drinking water or have reverse osmosis water systems to remove the stinky chemicals and pollutants from their water. (Actually, our tap water tastes much better now. Or maybe I’m just used to it.)

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I don’t like to drink liquids that contain sugar. That includes most lemonade. But restaurants usually carry only one “diet” beverage—diet cola. And cola has caffeine in it. Which wouldn’t be a problem in the morning; but if I drink caffeine at dinner time, I’m bouncing off walls all night.

So my go-to restaurant drink is water. But, as I said before, the tap water isn’t very pleasant. If I know the restaurant serves tap water, I ask for water and lemon.

And like many Arizona residents, we have a lemon tree in our yard, so we have fresh lemons a good part of the year, so it’s our standard drink at home, too.

Lemon water is the natural choice for Arizona state beverage. Saddling us with the sugary version is gross injustice foisted upon us by our elected officials. It’s an outrage.

Now it’s your turn—does your state have a state beverage? (Go Google it. I’ll wait.) Is it a good choice, or what would you rather have as your official drink? Share in the comments below.

In Praise of Geography

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world map 640px-BlackMarble20161kmBack in the olden days (late 1950s—early 1960s), geography was taught in elementary schools. Not all elementary schools, apparently, since my husband can’t recall ever studying it, but it was a subject at the parochial school I attended.

I think the first year it was offered was third grade. I remember being disappointed with our textbook, because it didn’t really deal with other countries, which, as a child of immigrants, I hungered to learn about. Instead, it dealt in general terms about land masses and oceans and mountains and map representations. It bored me, but I suppose it laid the groundwork for what was to come.

I can’t remember exactly what came next, but I suppose we learned the names of each continent and ocean and where they were located on a map and on the globe. We learned that we lived in North America, between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and that our neighbor to the north was Canada, and to the south, Mexico. My next-door neighbor, Mrs. Brennan, grew up in Mexico, and she gave me a Mexican doll, which I brought to school for geography show-and-tell.

DSC01850In subsequent years, our study centered on the various countries located on specific continents. We were tasked with learning capital cities and prominent cities, principal exports, languages spoken, forms of government, characteristics of the landscapes and peoples, special customs, and being able to locate the countries on a map and tell what their borders touched.

As an adult, when I taught elementary general music, I would bring in a little geography, showing on the map a composer’s country of origin, or where an ethnic song or dance came from. I would show our location in Chandler, Arizona, and how you had to travel across the United States and sometimes across oceans and other continents to get there.

I’d like to say I remember everything I learned in geography as a child. But so much has changed. Countries have changed names, borders have been redrawn, and sometimes I don’t recall what was what. However, I do have a general idea where to look for places on a map.

I think the study of geography is important, and should be required at least one year at the elementary, secondary, and college levels. It’s such a shame when adults don’t know the difference between Austria and Australia or between longitude and latitude.

#ALP: Star Spangled Banner

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#ALP: Star Spangled Banner

Can anyone sing it well? How do you feel about standing for it? If you could write a new anthem, what would your lyrics say? Is a professional ball game a suitable venue for the national anthem, or are we just asking for trouble playing it in a sports arena?

  • Use this prompt any way you wish—for a poem, memoir, painting, short story, photograph, no limits. Enjoy!
  • If you’d like to share a blog post (G-rated, please, and sensitive to the feelings of others—anything slightly objectionable will be deleted), create a pingback or leave a link in the comments below.
  • Be sure to visit at least two other participants to see how they interpreted the prompt.
  • Tag your entry #ALP (for ARHtistic License Prompt) to help others find your work on social media.

#ALP: Veggies

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#ALP: Veggies

Love ’em or hate ’em? Do you consider tomatoes and corn vegetables? If you were making vegetable soup from scratch, what would you be sure to include?

  • Use this prompt any way you wish—for a poem, memoir, painting, short story, photograph, no limits. Enjoy!
  • If you’d like to share a blog post (G-rated, please, and sensitive to the feelings of others—anything slightly objectionable will be deleted), create a pingback or leave a link in the comments below.
  • Be sure to visit at least two other participants to see how they interpreted the prompt.
  • Tag your entry #ALP (for ARHtistic License Prompt) to help others find your work on social media.