Thursday, December 30, 2010

tax fun

In celebration of finally finishing the riveting Link and Learn tax training for volunteer income tax preparers, I thought I'd share a couple of the items I found particularly entertaining:
  • "To correctly apply the substantial presence test, it is necessary to define the term 'United States'". This section goes on to explain that the United States includes US territorial waters, but not US airspace, leading my co-worker and I to wonder if one wouldn't have to pay taxes if one lived in a hot air balloon.
  • If, however, you live on the ground you'll need to use certain charts to determine how much tax you need to pay, including, potentially, the Standard Deduction Chart for People Born Before January 2nd, 1946 or Who Are Blind.
  • There are also other deductions available, so you need to ask clients if they have any expenses in the following categories: "medical and dental expenses, taxes you paid, home mortgage interest you paid, gifts to charity, job expenses, and certain miscellaneous deductions". (Why yes, I have certain miscellaneous deductions that I'd like to itemize.)
  • However, you may not deduct for donations made to certain organizations, including business organizations, civic leagues and associations, political organizations and candidates, social clubs, foreign organizations, homeowners associations and communist organizations.
  • Oh, and sorry, your blood donation is not tax deductible.
And the fun doesn't stop with tax trainings. I also like seeing how clients fill in the box marked "marital status" on our benefits screening intake sheet. While the standard answers include single, divorced, separated etc., I've also seen
  • "In a relationship"
  • "None" and "Not"
  • And (my all-time favorite) "Good"

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

walk to work - the blizzard edition

Sunday: Mark and I caught what ended up being the last Chinatown bus leaving D.C. for New York. We left at 5pm and arrived in New York around 1am (a trip that normally takes 4 hours). I eventually stopped counting the number of accidents due to the heavy snow between Philly and the city. Once the bus was thoroughly stuck on a Manhattan side street, the driver allowed us out into the blizzard to find a train station. The subways were running, though with tons of delays and service changes, including the one that meant my train was no longer going to my stop. I got the pleasure of a 1/2 mile hike through what was then about 2 feet of still-falling snow, and arrived at my apartment at around 2:30am.

Monday: Snow day!

Tuesday: Since the train still wasn't stopping at my stop and I was more than a little curious to see what the rest of the neighborhood was like with all the snow, I walked the 2 miles to work this morning.

At least you can see these cars...many were completely buried.

Pile of snow about as tall as I am.

One of the better-shoveled sidewalks.

Right through the middle of this picture, there is a road. I promise.

Yes, the path goes right over the park benches.

Somehow I managed to live four years in Chicago without ever experiencing anything like this.

And here I thought there weren't any adventures to be had in the USA.

Monday, December 20, 2010


Every year my church in Chicago has a Longest Night service, a "gathering for healing and remembrance", a time of marking and honoring losses during the year, held on an evening close to the winter solstice. I was never able to go, but I often think of what that service would be like, what I would want that service to be.

In my experience of church life there's always been lots of ritual space for joy and worship and a little bit for repentance and even every now and then the implication that it was okay to be angry at God (for a little while). But no space for grief, no space for people to gather with their accumulation of painful stories and sit with them together.

I noticed this absence first when family members of a high school friend were murdered, and felt it again the following year as I watched the violence in my hometown and across Kenya from cold, distant, Wheaton. I came back from Cambodia with sadness that I could never quite separate from my physical sickness. Accordingly, I found that the only prayer that made sense involved my body, in yoga. All of these sadnesses had their private place, but I longed - and long - for something shared.

On the longest night this year, my mind wanders among the stories I've heard from my clients in the last few months. There are a few that shocked me enough that I can remember specifics, but perhaps even worse are the painful situations so common I can assume them of everyone who sits down by my desk. I've found a lot of comfort in the past couple of weeks reading Breathing Space, the spiritual memoir of a Lutheran minister named Heidi Neumark in the South Bronx. She describes a women's Bible study saying:
I told them about the mother who stopped traffic to wash her son's blood off the street. The Bible study itself is a time to stop the traffic rushing through our days and honor what is sacred to our hearts...two hours that say, "Our grief is not just something to get over. Our grief is holy ground."
I long to hear that and see that in church more often.

Our grief is not just something to get over. Our grief is holy ground.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

(not) busy

This Advent I've been reading Richard Rohr's Preparing for Christmas: Daily meditations for Advent. Saturday's reflection included the following:
It seems that we tend to think that more is better...busyness is actually a status symbol for us! It is strange that when people have so much, they are so anxious about not having enough - to do, to see, to own, to fix, to control, to change.
Every time I move to a new place I'm especially aware of my craving for busyness. In the initial days, weeks, months of getting settled into a new job and a new "family", of finding a new community, I find myself angling to be needed, anxious to be useful, to be somehow in demand. Free time can feel stifling and threatening rather than restful.

Realizing this week that I was actually a bit envious of everyone I know who is in the middle of finals was a particular wake up call. My nostalgia wasn't focused on the intellectual challenge and sense of accomplishment (though I do miss those things), but on the sense of having very important demands (or at least what I thought were very important demands) on all of my time. I realize how ridiculous that must sound to anyone who's currently living on too little sleep and too much caffeine while scrambling to get papers and exams done, but there it is.

I find myself needing the words of Isaiah: " quietness and trust is your strength".

Monday, December 6, 2010

food stamps IV

So, where we last left my food stamps case my confused caseworker had called the wrong person to check up on my salary and decided that I was ineligible. I convinced him to talk to my AmeriCorps supervisor, and apparently the fact that she used "director" in her job title did the trick. I called him again the following day (so this is somewhere around Nov. 20) and he said I had been approved, but reminded me that the HRA (Human Resources Administration) had a full 30 days to formally respond to my application. Accordingly, my award letter didn't come until the 30th day, with my benefit card and PIN arriving days after that.

But it did come, and given the stories I hear every week about ineptitude and downright obstructionist behavior in that office, I don't take the relative ease of my application process for granted.

Now to get used to pulling out that light blue card when I shop for groceries. At the market on Sunday, showing up at the produce stand with the market's EBT dollars prompted the vendor to tell me how angry it made him that "other people" ("not you, of course - you look like you work your ass off") were using his tax dollars to buy food while wearing expensive North Face jackets and genuine Yankees jerseys.

Oh, where to begin with that one...

But, on a more positive note, since my previous food stamps post lamenting the lack of conversation between the foodie and anti-hunger movements I've come across two quality recent examples to the contrary: Divided We Eat, an article by Newsweek's Lisa Miller on food and class in the US., and an interview with anti-hunger advocate Joel Berg in the very foodie Edible Brooklyn.