Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Most tax preparers are working 50 hour weeks between now and April 15th. But I took a break from taxes last Saturday and drove out to Perryville to watch Katie and her friends digging new beds for her garden. It was fun to see how quickly and competently they turned a raggedy old patch into a fine, well laid planting space. And it will be even more fun to eat all the produce that comes out of it.

Here are some pictures of the action.

Katie and Travis have an acre of land around their house. In addition to the garden, they're planting some fruit trees and berry bushes this season. In no time at all, Katie will have fresh peaches and blackberries for her pies and jams. Yum!

On Sunday it rained. Very hard. One of those storms that blows over quickly, but makes a big noise passing through. Mick and I went to a museum with a friend from our Buddhist center, a woman named Mary. She took us to see a special exhibition of contemporary Southern artists. It was pretty interesting stuff. And we were happy to discover that the museum also has a charming standing collection of modern art pieces. Even Mick saw a few things that he liked.

Admission is free to all the museums and state parks in Arkansas. You might have to pay a couple of dollars for a special showing or a tour or something, but the basic admission costs nothing. I really like that.

The cold came back on Monday morning and its been in the thirties ever since, never getting much warmer than about 45. There is frost on my windshield every morning. I'm back at my desk doing tax returns from dawn to dusk this week, so the cold hardly matters to me. Still, I'm eager for Spring to take some of the edge off the bare trees and chilly mornings.

It does not show well in this picture, but Honey carried a spoon around in her little fist almost all day on Saturday. She wanted to dig like everybody else was digging. It was my job to watch Honey while Katie worked (lucky me!) and we spent a lot of time studying the dirt together, noticing how clods differ from rocks, and how you can make different kinds of holes with your spoon.

As always, I had a great time sharing Honey's ground-level, here-and-now viewpoint for a brief time. Its better than a vacation to hang out with her. Whoever invented grandchildren was a genius!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My Life in Taxes

I am truly amazed that I got a tax preparer job so quickly after starting to look for one. I sent out only about twenty inquiries, and got five interviews and three job offers within three weeks. Granted, tax season is underway and the workload is peaking right now. So my timing was good. And it also helps to be vastly overqualified(!).

I took a job with a small CPA firm about 12 minutes drive from my house, on the other side of the river. The little tan building on the left in this picture is my new office. Its on Main Street in North Little Rock, and I love it that I get to cross the river every day.

There are three CPAs in the company and five support people. Everyone but me is a native Arkansan. Clients are mostly mom-and-pop business owners, although the firm also provides bookkeeping services for several local churches and nonprofits.

I spend all my time doing tax returns. Sounds awful, I know, but honestly, I really enjoy the work. Call me a voyeur, but I love peering secretly into people's financial lives.

There's the truck driver still working at aged 71, and the single mom school teacher who qualifies for poverty tax credits because her income is so low. One retired lady had about $30,000 in income last year, but gave away about $9000 to charity. Another lady's business was down 75% from the year before but she didn't lay off anybody because every employee is a relative. People have refinanced their homes and tapped their retirement savings to keep afloat. It looks pretty bad.

But it feels pretty good to be helping these folks maximize their tax refunds and minimize their tax expenses. Take the school teacher, for example: taxes make up her single largest expense, other than her house payments. It really helps her if we can shave something off her tax bill - and we did.

I realized that I might meet some of these folks face-to-face sometime, (which kind of puts a damper on my voyeurism). And then that very thing happened: Mick and I had lunch at a small restaurant near my office and the next morning, I was handed the owner's tax return to prepare. Its kind of like being caught peering into his bathroom window, now that I know exactly how much the business lost last year, and that his parents are still supporting him. I'm going to have to ponder this situation a bit. Figure out how to handle it.

The downside of my new job is that I spend less time with my own family. I had grown to enjoy hanging out so much with Mick and I miss him. I also miss being able to make a last-minute trip out to Perryville to see Katie. We did get to babysit for Honey last Saturday, and tonight, Katie and Honey were in town for dinner with us. Every time I see her, Honey has a bigger vocabulary and some new tricks. At a birthday party last week, she adopted the phrase "Happy Birthday!" and now she says it about 80 times a day. Its her favorite expression. Imagine that!

All week, I've been working with a new tax client, the father of four sons who recently brought his family to Arkansas from the port city of Karachi, Pakistan. [Side Note: I was assigned this client because no one else could understand his accent, and they hoped I would be able to understand him, since I'm also a foreigner.] Anyway, he is a ship's captain who had been unemployed for nearly two years before landing a job here in Little Rock last winter. He'd never paid taxes in the US before and I got to tell him that most of the money withheld from his paychecks would be refunded as soon as we file his return. Now that was a rewarding conversation!

My job will revert to part-time after April 15, and that will be fine with me. Meanwhile, the work reminds me that everyone has issues, and that some are making even greater transitions than me, and hopefully, all of us are landing on our feet.

My fondest hope is that everyone will be in happier circumstances when I do their taxes this time next year - that the worst is behind us now. Its a modest hope, I know. But gee, wouldn't it be nice?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ice, Snow and Warm-Hearted Arkansas

On the phone last weekend, my dad was telling me about the deep blanket of snow he could see from his apartment window in Virginia. Cars buried to the roof. It sounds like trouble for anybody who needs to travel in the area, but thankfully, Dad is safe and warm and well supplied. He'll be OK.

We got hit with snow Sunday night and it fell all day on Monday - about six inches here in Little Rock. This is a picture of the street in front of our office Monday morning at about 11 am. Everything shut down Monday, Tuesday and also Wednesday. We were able to drive to work and back for two days, but when the slush freezes overnight, driving becomes impossible until it melts. Schools are still closed today, and its c-o-l-d.

Everybody says, "This is very unusual weather for Arkansas!" and I believe them. I saw kids and parents out making snowmen and sledding on the neighborhood streets yesterday. I asked a guy how his family copes with all the snow days and he told me that eating chili and going sledding is their family's tradition. In other words, they make the best of it.

We have not been able to visit with Katie during this weather because of the road conditions, but she sends us pictures. Here's Honey enjoying her home-made sleigh ride. And here she is wearing her new boots and asking for permission play with my dogs.

Our poor old dogs hate the snow. We have to put a leash on Chloe and lead her out into the yard because she doesn't like walking on the snow. And Tashi starts shivering, despite her thick Tibetan fir coat, I think because her feet are cold. I can't say that I blame them.

I got a job as a tax preparer for a small local CPA firm, starting tomorrow. That's another whole story, and I'll write about my job search later, but I want to share just one thing my new boss told me: although Arkansas and Mississippi are the two poorest states in America, they rank first and second for the percentage of citizens reporting charitable donations on their tax returns. Sweet, eh?