On doing things you cannot do.

Monday, September 17, 2018

My first job out of college was in book publishing, as a direct mail assistant in the marketing department of Princeton University Press. In fall 1989, I moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where I had never been prior to driving down for my job interview, and where I knew no one.

I interviewed in August, and got the job, and then my mom and I drove down to find a place for me to live. It turned out that housing in Princeton was hard to come by, and very expensive. I had no idea how bad this situation was when I accepted the job offer. (Sometimes I wonder if I would have taken the job had known this.) But I got lucky and found a place I liked that I could afford, subletting for $400 a month ($800 in 2018 dollars) a very small room in a very old house from an interesting person who worked as a corporate chef and caterer. The house was so old it had a name — it was the Bernardus Van Zandt house, and when friends came to visit for the first time they thought they were at the wrong address.

I moved to Princeton over Labor Day weekend, which gave me plenty of time to get settled, because I didn’t start work until Tuesday. However it turned out that I didn’t need plenty of time, because I had not very much stuff, so it took me less than a day to move everything from my little car into my little room, and to get it all set up the way I wanted. To put up my bookshelves and put together my stereo and get my books and music organized the way I liked, and put my clothes away in the built-in wardrobe and dresser that were in the room.

My housemate was there for a bit after I got there, she welcomed me and told me where the nearest grocery store was, but then she went away (as it turned out she often did), leaving me in a place where I knew not a single person, and had not a single thing I needed to do before I went to work on Tuesday.

As noted, this was September 1989, pre-Internet, and I was never a huge television watcher, but at that point in my life watching television was still a standard default activity. I had noted a large television in the dining room when I made my initial visit, so I didn’t bring a TV with me. So after I’d finished setting up everything in my little room I went downstairs to kill some time by watch some television only to discover that the TV wasn’t actually a working TV, it didn’t get any reception. (Later I learned that it had been set up to watch videos, but I don’t think I ever got that part to work either.)

So there I was in this house, by myself, with no TV, and nothing to do. And I wasn’t going to be making hardly any money, so I was completely focused on not spending money. And I didn’t know where anything was anyway.

Hm.

I remember deciding to go out and get things for my room, I needed some more shelving, so I did that. That took a couple of hours. Okay, only two more days before I needed to go to work.

On Sunday or Monday I decided that I could go to the mall and just look at stuff. I remember being at Sears, in the TV section with the US Open tennis tournament on. That was so nice! To stand there and watch TV. I wondered how long I could hang out in the TV section of Sears watching tennis, I wanted to stay all day. But that didn’t seem like a good idea, and also it seemed sad and pathetic. Watching TV at Sears because you have no TV and no money and no friends and nowhere to go. Welcome to the rest of your life.

I clearly remember that moment at Sears as the point when I realized that I may not have thought this through quite as much as I should have, that I had no idea what I was actually getting myself into, moving to a place where I knew no one. I guess I had been thinking it would be like college. For college I went somewhere I’d never been before and where I didn’t know anyone and that turned out fine. But that was completely different. At college you are surrounded by people who also have not been there before and do not know anyone, and the whole environment is structured to get you all to meet each other. Regular life is not like that. At all.

I didn’t end up staying at Sears all day. I went back to the house and figured out how to occupy myself until Tuesday. I listened to music and read and wrote letters to my friends telling them about the Bernardus Van Zandt house, and how to get in touch with me. I bought groceries and fixed meals for myself. Then I went to work on Tuesday and met people there and things started to feel more normal.

All of which is background to this story. The background is that I was living in a big house where I was by myself most of the time, I had no friends near by, and I had limited resources.

Because my room was small, and because it wasn’t exactly a full-on house share, it was more like “and this is your room” situation, I had decided I should get a futon as a bed, which would give me both a bed for sleeping and a place to hang out and read or visit with friends (assuming I might someday have friends). I bought the futon mattress in Buffalo before leaving, packed it in my little car with the rest of my possessions and brought it down with me, and slept on that on the floor for the first few days. But it wasn’t completely comfortable, and I seem to recall there being fleas, which was not ideal to be sleeping on the floor (and which I recall my hybrid housemate/landlady being embarrassed about, figuring they must be from her dog, Daisy.)

In the center of town was a store that sold futon frames, and I think my mom had offered to pay for the frame for me. (It is possible I was buying that myself out of money I had saved, but I am reasonably certain that if I had to buy it myself I would have just slept on the floor, so I’m going to go with the parents-buying-me-a-bed theory.) So I went to the store and picked out what I wanted — a nice, substantial, solid wood frame that folded flat for a bed and up for a sofa — ordered it, and then went and picked it up when they told me it was ready.

I had a Mazda 323, which is a small car, but it had a very deep trunk and the back seat folded down, and I am a small person so I can push the driver’s seat all the way to the front and you would be amazed at how much you could fit in that car when it was configured that way. That was a good car.

So I go pick up the futon frame and it is in a very large, rectangular box, with some of that plastic strapping on the outside so you could move it and carry it. They load it into my car for me, it fits and everything, and I drive up the Great Road to my house.

It is quite heavy, but I am able to get the box out of the car by myself without too much trouble, and I can heave it along the driveway, then slide it up the outside stairs to the porch landing, then over the door threshold and through the front door into the front hallway.

The house had a very wide entrance hallway, almost like a room; it was probably ten feet across and stretched completely from the front to the back of the house. It had two openings to the living room on the right and an opening to the dining room on the left. My housemate had an old Sigmund Freud style couch in the back, across from a telephone table. The stairs were at the back of the hallway, across from the Sigmund Freud couch, behind the telephone table and an old steam radiator, running up toward the front door.

The stairs went up along the wall then hit a landing and took a ninety-degree turn to the left (when you were going up the stairs). It was maybe six or seven steps to the landing then an equal number of steps after the landing. Both the hallway and the stairs were carpeted with a worn, low-pile carpet.

So I’m able to slide the box from the front door through the hallway to the stairs, and turn it onto the stairs and slide it up the stairs, but when I hit the landing I realize I need to get this very heavy, very wide box to make a ninety-degree turn in order to get it all the way to the top. My housemate is gone for the next few days so I am doing this by myself, because (a) I see no problem with doing this myself, (b) even if I did see a problem with doing it myself, I do not have anyone I can easily call to come help me, and (c) I am ready to stop sleeping on the floor.

So despite this slight complication with the landing, I decide to forge ahead with this plan of getting the very heavy futon frame into my upstairs bedroom by myself.

I try to maneuver the box and figure out how to get it to make a turn on the landing but the approach I take is obviously not the right approach because I get the box stuck on the landing. It is on its flat side, but there’s not enough room to flip it, and also it is too heavy. And I end up kind of stuck on top of it. Hm. But I keep working to try to figure it out and in the process of maneuvering to get myself underneath it or to somehow get some leverage so I can turn it and get it the rest of the way up the stairs, I manage to get myself not just kind of stuck but really actually stuck.

Like really stuck.

Like stuck like I am like holy shit I am by myself in this 200+ year-old house that sits on 100+ acres in the middle of central New Jersey on a stair landing trapped behind a box filled with a solid wood futon frame that I cannot move. I can’t move the box, and I can’t move myself out from behind the box. And I am by myself.

Did I mention that I was by myself?

This is nearly a decade before most normal people had cell phones, and even if cell phones had existed at that point, I probably would not have had one with me. (In fact if I were doing this today, I probably would not have a cell phone with me.)

So my housemate is gone for three days. I am trapped on a stair landing behind a really big, really heavy box. I have no access to a phone. I cannot get myself out from behind the box and I cannot move the box. (Turn push urrggh push urrggh. URRRGGHHH. Nope. I cannot move the box.)

Well sh*t.

What are my options?

Option 1: I can remain trapped behind the box and wait until my housemate returns to free me.

Option 2: I can remain trapped behind the box and wait until someone (work? my mom?) realizes I haven’t been heard from in quite some time and calls the authorities to figure out what has happened to me.

Options 3: I can somehow figure out how to move this box which is too heavy for me to move.

Option one feels tedious and extremely embarrassing. Option two feels significantly more embarrassing, and at least as tedious. Neither of these is an acceptable option.

I have to go with option three.

So I take a deep breath and dig down deep inside to summon my inner superwoman — like you hear about on the news when a child is trapped under a car and the kid’s mom or some average joe bystander lifts the car to free the child — and I manage to push the box up AARRGGHHH, get out from behind it, and turn it so it is going in the right direction.

FREE!!!

Pant, pant, pant.

Then I slide it the rest of the way up the stairs.

I get myself to the top of the stairs. I turn the box and slide it into my room. I take the futon frame out of the box and set up my bed.

All’s well that ends well.

And I suppose the lesson I should have learned from this episode was that I shouldn’t try to do everything by myself. But the lesson I actually learned was that you might end up in situation where you are sure you can’t do something but then it turns out you can.

So, as far as I am concerned, here is the point of this story:

Sometimes things are hard. Some day you might find yourself alone, trapped on a stair landing behind a really heavy box that you cannot move. Except you can. Because you have to.

You might choose to take something different from that story. But that’s what I’m going to go with.

Especially right now.

Things Can Always Get Worse

Friday, May 4, 2018

 

I feel like this should be my motto: Things Can Always Get Worse. (It pairs well with the Currie Rule.)

The place I worked throughout most of the 1990s and a little bit of the 2000s was run by a person who was very good at a few parts of his job but very bad at all the rest. He resembled in many key aspects Dilbert’s Pointy-Haired Boss.

His second-in-command was a woman who was, for lack of a better term, Insane. She lied and manipulated information. She told people she was a CIA agent. (Which may have been true, who knows.) She spoke with a British accent which made her sound very authoritative. She had stout legs and wore low heels and you could hear her coming from across the office, clicking her way through the tiled mail room. Click, click, click. She wore scarves and chunky necklaces. When she said, “Many people have said….”, you knew she was lying. The “many people” was a dead giveaway. (Hmm… who does that sound like?)

Eventually she did something so over the top that she got herself canned. I don’t remember exactly what it was, or maybe I never knew for sure. I have a vague recollection of it involving her trying to get someone else fired, but doing such a bad job lying that it was too much even for the Pointy-Haired Boss.

She was fired during the work week and escorted from the building. She was allowed back on Saturday to clear out her office, along with an escort. I was there that Saturday, working, and I think maybe they were supposed to have been there earlier, or to come in on Sunday, but changed plans but I wasn’t notified. I don’t think I would have gone in on purpose when they were there. I remember it being very tense and wishing I wasn’t there.

There was much rejoicing at our place of work after Insane Person was fired. Ding, dong the witch is dead, the witch is dead, the witch is dead. (She actually had a witch’s hat in her office. I ended up with it. It lives on a hat rack in my garage/studio/office. A friend came to my office once, saw the hat and said, “I always knew you were a witch.”)

We were all thrilled after this turn of events, the source of so much turmoil and so many of our problems was gone. Gone!

They hired someone new to replace her. And the new person was very nice, not evil at all. But she also appeared to be not at all qualified to do her job. Even after months and months to get up to speed, she seemed to have very little grasp of what was important or how things worked. She barely participated in meetings and rarely provided anything of value when it came to analysis or decision-making.

At one point I found myself saying, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually miss Insane Person. At least she knew what was going on.”

This was a great and lasting lesson for me.

I learned that no matter how bad you think things are, they can always get worse. You may solve one problem, and it may even be your biggest problem, but that doesn’t mean all of your problems are gone. You may just end up with a bunch of new problems that you never even thought about before.

This is what I’ve been thinking about lately.

But instead of focusing on the bad things that might happen, I will end on a positive note, with a link to my ’80s friend Howard Jones who tells us that the opposite is true: Things can only get better.

If you say so, Howard. If you say so.

A Story from the Past

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

I wrote a post a little over a year ago that involved several side stories about my friend Sue. I got one private response that said, “More Sue stories please!”

This is for you, you know who you are.

=====

I listen to Fresh Air while I do my work bookkeeping and I was catching up on some work on Sunday and listened to a show that had a review of the recent Tonya Harding movie (I, Tonya). This piece reminded me of one of my favorite Sue stories.

I am confident that this event actually happened, however at this point I can’t figure out the timing. It was definitely around the time of the Olympics, but it was obviously before the kneecapping incident had been exposed. I searched but was not able to find any corroborating video.

Here is the story.

I was at a bar in DC, possibly Sign of the Whale on M Street, waiting for my friend Sue to meet me for a beer. As noted, this was around the time of the 1994 Olympics; figure staking was on TV and the commentator talking heads were discussing the upcoming competition. For inexplicable reasons, they were talking to Jeff Gillooly about his insight. I’m watching this and being confused by the whole thing. Why are they talking to Jeff Gillooly? Why does anyone care what Jeff Gillooly thinks?

Sue shows up and I express my bafflement.

I say they’re talking to Jeff Gillooly about the figure skating. Sue says, “Jeff Gillooly? Why are they talking to Jeff Gillooly??”

Then she gives one of my favorite Sue one-liners of all time.

She says, “Who died and made him Dick Button?”

I do not know why I thought (and continue to think) that was so funny but I did. And I have no idea if anyone else will think this is funny, but every now and then something will make me think of that story and that line continues to crack me up, even now, lo these many years later.

Who died and made him Dick Button.

A Scrap Exchange Story

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

I’m writing this story for my friend Ann, because work is hard right now, our Yelp reviews of our life (a new feature of my life I started last year when I was sick and had to go into work to fix Ann’s computer — “This place sucks! They make you come in to work when you’re sick as a dog! Who wants to work at a place like that?”) all start with “This place sucks!”

So this is a story that has everything I love about The Scrap Exchange in it. To make me remember that The Scrap Exchange is unique and beloved Durham institution, and is also a magical place.

Or at least it used to be. And maybe it sometimes still is.

Here is the story.

In June 2016 I signed up to work at an event in Fairfax, Virginia, to which we were hired to bring our Events by the Truckload program. Every now and then we get hired to do an event in the DC area, and I usually work those, partly because I can sometimes catch up with friends while I’m up there but also because I know that the roads can be very confusing and the traffic can be very terrible and you might make one wrong turn and be stuck for two hours trying to get back to where you were supposed to go. It seems better to have me drive because I am (a) less likely to make a wrong turn in the first place and (b) more likely to be able to recover from it if I do.

This particular event had some evening hours on Friday and we were supposed to get there before 5 p.m. but I know enough about DC traffic to know that you should not aim for 5 p.m. because you will be playing Friday afternoon Beltway traffic roulette and who knows when you will actually get there. You should try to get there by 3 p.m., which should get you there before the mayhem. So that was the plan but I got a bit off schedule in the morning. We were still in the right range but running a bit behind. But we needed to keep it moving.

So we have all of our stuff together and Chellie, the outreach manager, walks to the rented box truck with me, pulls up the rear door and shows me what we have in the truck for the weekend. I quickly look through it to make sure nothing is missing. Barrels of stuff, bags of extra stuff, scissors, tape, postcards, flyers. Looks good.

I load in my cooler, Dana and I settle ourselves into our respective seats, and we drive off to our big adventure.

I drive up the hill to go out the side parking lot driveway, out on to Chapel Hill Road, take a right on Morehead, left on Duke Street. We are stopped at a red light at Duke Street and Chapel Hill Street, by the main police station, about two miles from The Scrap Exchange, and the car next to us rolls down his window and points and says, “Hey, do you know that your back door is open?”

And I’m like Oh, No. We didn’t close the door after we looked to make sure we had everything.

So I pull over and look in back and I’m like yup, stuff fell out. It’s one of the bins with tape, which we need for the weekend, and also my cooler, and probably some other stuff too. We need to go back.

So we retrace our route and I’m expecting to see a trail of detritus strewn along the roads but I don’t see anything at all until we get to the driveway to the parking lot and then I see Scrap Exchange postcards blowing all over the place. I’m like okay well here’s where it happened. But I don’t see bins or my cooler or anything other than the postcards.

I drive down to the parking lot, don’t see anything there. Drive back up, pull over and start picking up postcards and looking for where the bins could have fallen. I can’t figure out what happened, where is our stuff? Obviously this is where the stuff fell out because there are postcards everywhere but there’s nothing else here. What is going on?

As I’m standing there looking perplexed, two guys in a car drive up and say, “We took your stuff back down to the store, we saw it come out of the truck and we picked it up for you and took it inside.”

And I’m like Oh! Okay, thanks!

So we drive down and I walk inside, the outreach manager and our greeter staff person are just finishing up repacking the bins and putting everything back together. They are laughing — Oops! Forgot to close the back door!

Paola says, “That was one of our community service volunteers who brought the bin in, he lives in the neighborhood.” She recognized him from volunteering.

So now I’m now laughing too. This is so Scrap Exchange. Our little neighborhood of helpers. Of course one of our neighbors would see this happen and of course he would know The Scrap Exchange from volunteering and of course he would take the time to pick the stuff up for us and bring it back.

But I’m starting to really worry about timing, we need to get on the road. But I feel bad about all of the postcards blowing all over the street so I tell Chellie and Paola to tell Robert to go clean up the postcards. (Robert is a neighborhood friend who picks up trash and helps us keep our parking lot clean.) They say they’ll have someone take care of it.

So we load the stuff back into the truck, we CLOSE THE ROLL UP DOOR, and drive off.

The rest of the weekend more or less unfolds as planned. We make it to Fairfax, we do the event, people make fun stuff, Sunday night we drive back to Durham. Monday I take the day off to recover.

On Tuesday, I’m in our weekly senior staff meeting and I notice that Ann has a necklace I haven’t seen before. She makes jewelry from all kinds of things you might not think of as jewelry-making material — bottlecaps, rusted metal, etc. She lives on a busy road with a lot of automobile accidents and for a while she had a car crash series of jewelry, she would pull stuff out of the side of the road and turn it into a necklace or earrings. Tail lights, reflectors, pieces of bumper. Stuff like that.

So I see her necklace and I tell her I like it. She reaches up and puts her hand across it like a QVC commercial and says, “Oh, thanks. It made it from stuff I pulled out of the street when I was picking up the postcards that fell out of the back of the truck.”

And I’m like okay now this truly a classic Scrap story:

—Stuff falls out of truck.
—Someone who knows us sees it fall out, picks it up, and brings it back to the store.
—Someone tells me the door is open before I get on the highway and drive off into oblivion.
—The guy who brought the stuff back to the store sees me looking for it and tells me where my stuff is.
—Ann cleans up the street and makes a necklace out of the trash she picks up.

The end.

All that, as my friend Ann likes to say.

All that.

Tax Day

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Tuesday was tax day. I hope everyone got everything in and filed on time. I personally enjoyed the extra three days this year, because I do my taxes old school, on paper, and the last part — where I ink everything (I write the numbers in pencil to start, so I can fix my inevitable mistakes writing down the right thing on the wrong line, or the wrong thing on the right line), and make copies and take it all to the post office — always takes three times as long as it seems like it should, so I always end up running around at the last minute and then being mad at myself for running around at the last minute. That part is always the worst.

But this year, I was much better about it, and I was able to spread the painful part out over three days. On Saturday I reviewed everything and made sure I had printed all the right forms and transferred my numbers to the forms. (I have an Excel workbook where I can plug in everything, separate tabs for each of the forms I use, so if I make a change it flows through to the 1040 worksheet, and then I transfer that to paper.) On Sunday I reviewed my final numbers and made sure they added up properly on the paper. (Sometimes there are problems between the Excel numbers and the paper numbers, because Excel has dollars and cents, but on the form I round to whole dollars.) Then I did my state forms with the final numbers from my 1040. On Monday I inked them and got envelopes and made sure I had the right address for my Federal form, and then figured out my estimated taxes for 2017 to try to get back on track and all caught up again with my taxes. (I fell off the horse halfway through last year and just gave up, decided to deal with it all in April … $4,000 later, I am now caught up.)

Then on Tuesday — last chance! — my plan was to go to Kinko’s and make copies (which is a very important step if you do your taxes on paper, I forgot that one year when I first was starting … but I had faxed a copy for my dad to review, so he was able to send a copy of the faxed forms back to me for my records) and then go to the post office and mail them and I would be done.

My work day starts at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays so I figured if I left at noon that would give me plenty of time to hit Kinko’s then the post office then get to work.

I left a little bit late, around 12:20 p.m. and when I got to Kinko’s there was a line for the copiers. A line?? I was not expecting this. I do not go to Kinko’s much these days but I do not recall having to wait in line at Kinko’s. Then I realized that I’m usually at Kinko’s at like 10 or 11 p.m.,  so maybe that’s why.

It took a few minutes, but not too long, and I did get my copies made, but by the time I was done, it was 12:50 p.m., which meant that I had to get to work. I would have to take a break from work and go to the post office after my meeting.

So I went to work and had my meeting and did whatever else needed to be done, and I headed toward the door to go to the post office, having also picked up someone else’s tax forms that needed to be mailed. (He had done them online, but wasn’t able to e-file for some reason, and his housemate who shares my office was supposed to mail them for him but she had forgotten. I said I would take them with me when I took care of mine.)

Ann saw me leaving and asked if I was going for doughnuts (our code word for the weekly bank run, shhh don’t tell anyone) and I said I was going to the post office, but there was a post office near the doughnut bank if she needed to get something there and wanted to go with me.

So Ann and I took care of her doughnut banking and then went to the post office and we got there at 3:50 p.m. and there were like 10 people in line at the automated machine and about 20 people in line for the counters. And it wasn’t like they didn’t have anyone working, there were 4 or 5 clerks working.

Big day at the post office!

Ann was stressed because she was leaving on a trip the next day and she still had a bunch of stuff to take care of. Standing in line at the post office for 20 minutes was not on her list of things to do that day. I told her we should enjoy the break in the day, take some deep cleansing breaths there in the post office line.

Breathe in …. breathe out …

See, isn’t that nice?

I mailed my three envelopes (2016 Federal tax, 2016 State tax, 2017 Federal estimated tax; I’m going to adjust my withholding to cover the state taxes, so no envelope for that), and my friend’s two envelopes, which he did badly and ended up needing extra postage. (H­e put them in 9 x 12 flat envelopes instead of folding into a letter envelope; they each needed $1.19 in postage instead of $0.49, and he put two Forever stamps on but that’s only $0.98, so I spotted him the 2 x $0.21 = $0.42 so they could go out on time.)

Ann bought some Jimi Hendrix stamps. (I told her to get the Oscar de la Renta,but they didn’t have those.) And we were on our way.

And the original point of this post was not to give a minute-by-minute account of my day on April 18, 2017, but sometimes when I start writing, these things happen. We’re just going to have to roll with it.

The ACTUAL POINT of this post in the first place was to tell a story about something that happened to me in 2015 when I was getting my accounting degree at UNC.

The UNC law school runs a VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program to help students (and anyone else who wants to come to the law school for help) file their taxes. They recruited MAC students to participate, and this was definitely something I was interested in. I had experience with taxes, and taxes are stressful for people, so I wanted to be able to help out and make things easier.

You’d think that most students would have simple taxes but it was actually fairly complicated with the way tuition and fees are reported, and education credits that are available, and whether someone is a dependent or should file on their own. There were more things to trip you up than you’d think.

I had one couple who had bought insurance through the Federal exchange, and this was the first year for reporting that so it was all new to everyone, and they had the most complicated situation imaginable (without being self-employed … being self-employed and getting insurance through the exchange and being eligible for a subsidy is the most complicated situation imaginable).

They had waited to enroll until the last moment before being penalized, and then the husband had gotten a job halfway through the year that had insurance but the wife stayed on the exchange insurance for the full year. They had three Forms 1095-A and I thought I handled it properly but then I couldn’t get the system to take Form 8962 so I knew I’d done something wrong.

I ended up having to do a bunch of research and learning completely new terms like “tax family” and I finally got it figured out and submitted. After I had it all resolved I was talking to my tax professor about it and she said, “You probably know more about this than anyone else in this building.” And that was true, I probably did.

I did 4 or 5 sessions of VITA, and it was nice to be helpful, but I actually thought I might have been better off knowing less. Sometimes I felt like I was over-thinking things, I was aware of complicating factors that most of the time turned out to not apply, and it would have been easier if I hadn’t known anything about them in the first place because it turned out the same in the end.

But whatever. It was fine and I’m glad I did it.

However, there was one piece of information disseminated by the UNC Law VITA program that was simply wrong.

I was reading their little information sheet about filing, and we did the returns on computers using the IRS tax program, so almost everyone filed electronically, but they did include information about mailing your form for anyone who wanted to do that.

The information sheet stated that if you wished to file a paper form, you should mail it at least two weeks before the filing deadline so it would be in by the due date.

I hope that everyone who reads that statement is as horrified by it as I am. This is even worse than not knowing what a phone book is.

How can you not know that the deadline of April 15 is the date that your form needs to be MAILED, not the date it needs to be received and processed by?

How can this be?

I wanted to tell them about how back in the day post offices would stay open until midnight, and the late-night ­copy shops would be filled with last-minute filers making copies of their forms before running off to the late-night post office to mail.

I remember one April 15 riding my bike to Kinko’s then heading downtown where the main post office building was closed but they had a postal truck stationed outside with postal workers taking stamped envelopes and putting them in bins on the truck. It was such a relief to hand the envelopes over to someone, to know that I made it in under the wire.

Tax day was this shared experience, all of the procrastinators in America frantically filling out forms and running around copying them and finding envelopes and stamps and rushing to get everything in the mail. Everyone doing the same thing on the same day.

And now … not so much.

I guess it’s everyone sitting at their computer trying to hit the “send” button before midnight, crashing servers and such. Just not the same drama, if you ask me.

But anyway, I hope everyone finished everything and got it all in. And that no one had to wait too long in the line at the post office.

A Story from a Long Time Ago

Thursday, October 27, 2016

I will introduce this story by saying that I have a freakish memory. So much so that sometimes I wonder if there is not something better I could be doing with my brain than remembering details from other people’s lives that even they do not remember. (At least this story is about my actual life, not someone else’s.)

I saw in the paper a few weeks ago that Hal Ketchum was playing in Durham. I have never heard Hal Ketchum’s music and I know basically nothing about him, but it made me laugh because of the following story.

In June 1995, I broke my arm playing soccer. I was living in Arlington, Virginia and working in Dupont Circle, and had been commuting to work by bike. Given the broken arm, I had to find a new mode of transport. After a few morning trips on the Metro, I decided I would walk to work until I was able to ride my bike again — turned out that summertime Metro riding with a broken arm was not that much fun.

So I’m heading off to work walking across Key Bridge and I’m wearing a t-shirt I’d had since college that had on it a comic strip character drawn by someone I had been friendly with in school. The character was named Sidney. I’m about a third of the way across the bridge and I see a person walking toward me from the other direction and he gets to where he can see me and he says, “Hey! You’re wearing a Sidney t-shirt!” And then he says, “What did you do to your arm?”

It was Ted Rex, the person I had been friendly with at school who was the creator of Sidney and the designer of the 6 year-old t-shirt I was wearing. (Later he told me that he recognized the t-shirt long before he could tell who I was.)

[Random aside: He is also the person who told me about the space shuttle Challenger explosion in January 1986. We were sitting next to each other on the bus. After he told me the news he said, “Yeah. And it’s so weird because yesterday was Mozart’s birthday.”]

So we stop and exchange pleasantries and I tell him what I did to my arm and then we move along in our opposite directions on our way to our respective workplaces.

And then later when I’m thinking about it I’m thinking that this is odd, because the last I knew, Ted was living in Falls Church. I’m like what was he doing walking across Key Bridge at 8 o’clock in the morning? It was Forth of July weekend, so I thought it might be related to that, and also that meant we had a break in our normal commuting schedules and I didn’t walk to work for a few days and I was sort of mad at myself for not asking more questions. I was stuck in a state of mild confusion trying to figure out what was going on.

But then the holiday weekend ended and it was back to the regular routine, and I walked to work and ran into Ted on the bridge again, so I got to ask him all of the follow-up questions I should have asked in the first place.

Turned out that his housemate in Falls Church had gotten married so he had to move out and he was subletting a place in Georgetown for the summer waiting for his friend Chip to finish a post-law school clerkship and then they were going to rent a house to live in.

Coincidentally, my housemate was getting married in a few months so I too was looking for a new place to live.

Ted and I were on the same work schedule and we had basically the same route to work, in opposite directions, so we saw each other every day and would check in on how the house-hunting was going. Which of course was grim. (People who believe that renting is better than owning have never tried to find an affordable apartment within walking distance to the Metro in the Washington, D.C. area.)

One day I took the Metro instead of walking, and when I got home that night, there was a message on the answering machine from Ted.

He said he missed me walking and hoped everything was okay. Then he said that Chip had been in town and they were looking at houses and had an idea — they wondered if I wanted to go in on a house with them.

This was an intriguing notion.

The market for small apartments was terrible, as was, it turned out, the market for small houses. Ted and Chip figured that if the three of us pooled our resources, we could get a much better place than we could each on our own.

I continued to look for the perfect apartment, but I also started looking at houses with Ted. This was much more enjoyable than looking for an apartment, if only because I had someone to suffer with.

We looked at many, many houses. Most of them were completely unsuitable for three unrelated people to live in, or completely geographically undesirable, or completely out of our price range. Or some combination thereof.

We finally found one house, on Jackson Street, that we loved, but someone else rented it before we could get our name on it.  After that, Ted kept comparing every house we looked at to the Jackson Street house. Finally I was like, “Ted, that house is gone. It doesn’t matter whether this house is better or worse than the Jackson Street house because we can’t live in the Jackson Street house. Stop thinking about the Jackson Street house. You need to move on.”

We then found this completely AMAZING house on Washington Boulevard. It had five bedrooms and three full bathrooms and was built by an architect for his family. It was exactly in our price range. The only downsides were that it was on a busy street and it was a bit far from the Metro. But it was definitely within walking distance to the Metro and it was very bikeable and I was able to convince Ted that the busy street would be fine. Because everything else about it was perfect, we both loved it.

Chip was still in Virginia Beach and we were going to have to make a decision without his input because we needed to get everything signed so we didn’t lose it. So we signed the lease and I fronted the $2,000 for the security deposit.

It was a huge relief to find a place and I was really excited about living there.

Ted and I continued to see each other every morning on our walk to work. During one of our morning chats, I said I was going to a concert at Wolf Trap that night. Ted said he had just been there. He said he had seen Hank Ketchum. And I was like, “Really? Hank Ketchum?”

I said, “Hank Ketchum, the guy who draws Dennis the Menace?”

Ted said, without hesitation, “Yeah.”

This seemed very odd to me. “What was he doing?,” I asked.

Ted said, again with a completely straight face, “Drawing pictures.” He mimed the action of someone up on a stage drawing a cartoon, “To music.”

And I just looked at him. I was like “Really?” And I didn’t really believe him but whatever, it was Ted and I had to get to work. I let it go and we went off in our opposite directions.

I don’t remember exactly how I found out that it was Hal Ketchum at Wolf Trap, not Hank Ketchum. Maybe someone told me or maybe I looked it up. (Or, now that I’m thinking about it, I probably saw a list of scheduled shows when I was at the concert that night.)

Later that week, Ted calls me at work. He sounds very serious. He says, “Uh, hey, I have some bad news.” He pauses. “Chippy came up and I took him to look at the house and he didn’t like it.”

And I was like, “What???”

This sent me into a panic — my office started spinning. We had just signed a lease on a house for $2,000 a month, which was way more than I could afford by myself, and I put my $2,000 down for the security deposit, and I did not know what it meant that Chip was saying he didn’t like the house.

“What do you mean he doesn’t like it?” I said. “He doesn’t like the location?”

“No,” Ted said. “He doesn’t like the house.”

And this was completely not making sense to me because the house was great, there was no way we could find a better house than that. I’m like how can he not like the house?

I think Ted could feel my panic so he let me off the hook early. He says, “Oh, I’m just kidding. Chip loved it.”

And I start to breathe again but now I want to kill Ted. I was like Oh my god, I hate you. And I may have said that. And then the next thing that comes out of my mouth is, “And it wasn’t Hank Ketchum at Wolf Trap either.” (As if this mattered at all at this point, I have no idea why I brought this up.)

I can tell that Ted is laughing on the other end of the line but he plays it straight. He doubles down, he says, “Yes it was.”

I say, “No it wasn’t. It was Hal Ketchum.”

Ted says, “Oh. Well Hank Ketchum opened.”

Half Full, Half Empty

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

I was cleaning up some files on my computer the other day and ran across a message I wrote to a friend in spring 2015 describing the origin and context of what my law professor had dubbed The Currie Rule.

(I was in an accounting program, but I took all of the business law classes that were offered. Which was totally a good call, understanding basic legal concepts at this point in my life is completely useful.)

I’m posting a slightly reworked version of the message here because I think it is funny that this became a thing in class, and also I think that it is an oddly accurate representation of my world view.

That glass may look half-full now, but someday it will be empty.

****

So my law classes are taught Socratic method — professor asks question, student answers, general discussion ensues. Back and forth, questions and answers.

I talk some in class, but I try to not talk too much. If other people are willing to give answers, then they can just go ahead. Sometimes in the law classes I end up talking because the 24-year-olds can be so dumb, they just have no common sense. So a lot of times when I talk it’s to say something completely obvious that no one else seems to be able to think of. My professor appreciates that about me. (In the Mod One class I had with her, she told me I was “exceptional.” Yay, me.)

I don’t remember exactly how this came up, but it was in the partnership class during Mod Two, we were talking about getting everything written into the partnership agreement in the beginning, making sure everything is figured out up front, including how losses will be handled.

The professor asks why you want to do this in the beginning. Why do want to go through all of this detail from the start, talk about both profits and losses?

Some bright young thing gives a narrowly correct answer — something like because you need to file the paperwork in the beginning. Professor says, “Yes, that’s true … what else?” Another 24-year-old with another technically correct but incomplete answer, “Yes … what else?”

Sometimes this goes on for a while. I don’t remember how long it went in this case, but eventually I decide that the 24-year-olds aren’t going to come up with the answer. I raise my hand. Professor sees my hand and calls on me, “Yes, Ms Currie?”

I say, “Because in the beginning, no one ever thinks anything is going to go wrong. No one starts a business to lose money. And then once you’re losing money, you don’t want to have to figure out what to do. Things are already a mess and then it just turns into a bigger mess.”

She said, “That’s exactly right.”

So then for the rest of the year in her classes, any time the answer had to do with things going south and people losing money, she would call on me.

“Why is this, Ms Currie?” she’d say.

And I’d say, “Because no one ever thinks they’re going to lose money.”

She called it The Currie Rule.

In the ethics class that she taught in Mod Three, we had a class on sexual harassment. I was in the day’s second session. When I walked in to the classroom, she saw me and said, “Oh, there you are Ms Currie! I was looking for you in the earlier class.”

She said they were talking about office romances. She said she was looking for me to invoke The Currie Rule. All I could think of was about losing money, I was confused about how that related to an office romance.

She said, “No one ever thinks they’re going to break up.”

I said, “Oh yeah, that too.”