Saturday, April 16, 2011

Online tax filing: not as slick as I'd hoped

I've never minded filling out forms. When I was 6 or 7, I'd write my name and address into all the tiny coupons in the back pages of my mother's Good Housekeeping magazines. More recently, I got a kick out of filling out online forms and submitting them electronically rather than mailing off stacks of paper or standing in line to renew automobile license tabs. When I read that one could submit a federal income tax return electronically, I was more than happy to try it, especially because it promised a quick refund.

I should have curbed my enthusiasm.

As always, Peter did the calculations and handed me the draft. I went to the IRS web site and followed their instructions to use "Free Fillable Forms" provided, as I understand it, by a private firm under contract to the IRS. Things started out smoothly enough, but then I found some instructions cumbersome. And confusing. And tedious, like when I had to copy all the information from our W-2 forms. But I kept at it. I printed everything out so Peter could check it for me, and then with great satisfaction I clicked a button and submitted our tax return.

And got a notice saying it was rejected.

The helpful rejection notice said, "Here is the reason." But it didn't deliver. Instead, it listed the 10 or 12 most common reasons that tax returns get rejected. They included common-sense items, like misspelling a name or mis-typing a Social Security number. They also talked about forms and schedules that I hadn't even used. I went back over everything, changed an item on the transmittal cover form, and resubmitted. Rejected again. A third try, a third rejection.

I understand that computers look for exact information in the exact format they are programmed to expect. But instead of providing a generic list of the most frequent errors, the system could just as well tell me that the problem is in line 43, or that I needed to file Schedule B, or that I omitted something from the special submission form. Instead, I printed out the entire return and mailed it to an office where a human being will look at it. I predict that person will find it acceptable.

I have a brother who is volunteering through AARP, helping seniors prepare tax returns. He's heard quite a few people - not all of them elderly or confused - complain about the online system. So I hope the folks who want to eliminate lots of government jobs don't start with the people who process returns at the IRS, because the online system is not ready for prime time.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The voice of the teacher

There are certain things that I cannot do without hearing, in my mind's ear, the voice of my mother teaching me to do them.

Ironing a shirt is a prime example. As I lay the collar on the ironing board, my mother's voice tells me collar, sleeves, back, front. I know the drill and have been using it for more than 50 years. Moreover, she's been gone for 30 years. Yet it comes to me in her voice, not mine.

I don't always stick to her dish-washing system, but I hear her telling me to wash glasses first, then silverware, then plates, and finally cookware. The glasses need clean, hot water, and besides, you first wash the things that actually go into your mouth, she said. Rinse by filling a couple of the biggest glasses and pouring from them into the smaller ones. (She conserved water all the way back in the 1950s.)

Mom taught me some basics of cooking, and now that I'm back in the kitchen many little things come back to me, like how to guesstimate the amount of salt and pepper using the palm of my hand. But many of the techniques I now use I learned from Peter. I cook chicken breasts and pork chops in olive oil and garlic, not peanut oil or bacon grease. (Seriously. We had a Pyrex dish on the stove with bacon grease to be used for eggs, and I think sometimes for meat.) I deglaze the pan with a bit of chicken stock and wine; I don't make gravy.

In fact, our whole way of eating is quite different from the way my mother cooked for our family. We mostly eat chicken and fish--and it's not breaded and fried. We steam some broccoli three or four nights a week in place of the canned peas and corn I grew up on. Our salads start with deep green and red lettuces and herbs rather than iceberg lettuce. The convenience of supermarket salads-in-a-bag is one of the wonders of the modern world, as far as I'm concerned. I like to think Mom would have loved them.

When I sit down to make a shopping list, I remember her reading all the ads and making lists for two or three different stores, to get the best prices. Somewhat to my surprise, I've begun to do the same. And although I've only been cooking since I retired four months ago, I also find myself complaining that I've run out of ideas. She often paged through cookbooks and magazines. I've done that, too, but I also have the Internet, where I can compare 100 recipes for lemon poppy-seed muffins.

There's another thing that happens sometimes, when I'm cooking something that delights me. When I'm doing fish or cutlets with fresh lemon slices and a handful of herbs, when I'm whisking a salad dressing into existence (a whisk is a truly elegant device that I've only now discovered), when I'm baking the world's best blueberry muffins (even better than my own mother's!), I think how pleased she'd be to see me moving beyond what I learned all those years ago. It's what she intended when she taught me how to grease a cookie sheet and how to make a buttermilk substitute (add a spoonful of vinegar into a cup of milk). She died 30 years ago and I've missed her often, but as I've taken up cooking again I find that she's good company.


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