Archive for June, 2013

My happy place

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

If I were asked to go to my happy place, I wouldn’t picture myself sitting near a bubbling stream, laying on a beach, or taking in the view from atop a mountain. My happy place is sitting across from Steve in a Starbucks.

There…I’ve said it. I should probably duck and cover now. Don’t hurt me. People would be more tolerant of me if I said I was an axe murderer (I’m not) than admitting that I’m a big fan of Starbucks.

So why do I like something as commonplace, corporate, predictable, and unimaginative as Starbucks? It’s just for those very reasons.

Like most people these days, Steve and I spend a lot of time in front of our computers and when we want to take a break, we always look forward to going to Starbucks. We reconnect there in a way that we wouldn’t if we stayed at home; we talk about what’s on our minds, the kids, what’s going on at work, our concerns. There’s not any stress involved because the experience is always the same and we don’t have to invest a lot of time or money yet the half hour that we spend talking and having a dry cappuccino with one Splenda (his) and a tall house coffee in a grande cup (mine) is always satisfying. We leave feeling like we’re a couple again and not just roommates.

Maybe my affection for Starbucks can be traced back to when the kids were young and we stopped at Starbucks during road trips to Southern California.  Once we arrived at our destination, because no one in our family is a big breakfast eater, and for Steve, a day without caffeine is a day without sunshine, we would hit Starbucks before heading to Disneyland. I have many fond memories of the five of us squeezed around one of their small round tables laughing and talking about our strategy for squeezing the most fun out of our vacation day.

Starbucks continues to serve as the marker for us when we travel between here and SoCal to visit Valerie. We always stop at the Starbucks in Lebec on I-5 just before the Grapevine into Los Angeles. We creakily get out of the car and try and regain some feeling in our butts knowing that we’re on the home stretch.

Our 24 year-old son worked at Starbucks in Petaluma when he was in high school and then again in San Francisco near Union Square when he was going to SF State. Having him come home smelling like coffee was certainly an improvement over when he worked at a Togos and came home smelling like pastrami. I still occasionally wear his stained green Starbucks apron when I’m cooking. Now, the green mantle is getting passed to his little sister who starts barista training at Starbucks tomorrow.

If Starbucks didn’t exist, would Steve and I be forced to be more creative about finding a place to have some conversation and connect? Possibly. But we don’t drink so I don’t see us sitting in a bar, the pollen count outside would send Steve’s allergies into a frenzy, and going out to eat is way too expensive and far too caloric.

I guess the alternative is having a Diet Coke at McDonald’s.

Sibling rivalry

Monday, June 24th, 2013

Most of the time, sibling rivalry in our family looks the same as anyone else’s. When they were little, it was, “Why do we always watch what she wants to watch,” or as they grew into teenagers, it turned into “My life during high school sucked more than your’s does.”

But because our daughters share their father’s artistic ability, their one-upmanship often goes in a creative direction. Simple and usually mundane projects that I see just as something to check off of a to-do list – wrap a present, send someone a card, or make cookies – become opportunities to exert their creative competitiveness.

For instance, when we decorate cut-out cookies at Christmas, I slap some green frosting on a tree-shaped cookie, shake on the green sugar and call it done. Not Valerie and Jennifer Lynn. Their cookies become works of art as each of them tries to outdo the other with the creativity and craftsmanship of their design. With bags of frosting and tweezers to carefully place each pinhead-sized sprinkle, they’ve turned a basic gingerbread man shape into a Bollywood dancer, Harry Potter, zombies, and Obama.

Now that Valerie is in Southern California, their creative rivalry is played out online. Valerie threw down the gauntlet to her younger sister by posting an adorable drawing shad had done of a hipster fox on Instagram. Jennifer Lynn immediately took the challenge of trying to top her sister’s creativity. But instead of doing another illustration which is really her sister’s domain, she did what she does best – sculpting – and turned Valerie’s drawing into a figurine which is going to be Valerie’s birthday present from her.

And what makes Jennifer Lynn even happier is that because her sculpture turned out so good, she can use it to up the ante on what Valerie has to give her in return on her birthday. “You’ll never guess what I made you for your birthday. You’re going to really owe me something amazing to equal the awesomeness of this.”

Valerie’s drawing

I just sit back and let them have at it and enjoy the results of their creations.

Ikea run

Sunday, June 16th, 2013

To celebrate Father’s Day, Steve had the traditional manly meal of Swedish meatballs and lingonberry jam…okay, so he didn’t get a big steak and baked potato. That’s because Steve was a really good sport and agreed to spend his Father’s Day at Ikea with Jennifer Lynn and me.  He really is a great husband. However, he said that next year, we’re going to a gun show on Mother’s Day.

The trip to Ikea-land was prompted by our recent move. We’re starting to shop for couches to replace our lumpy, cat hair-imbedded ones that we had in our house in Petaluma but are far too large for our 1600 square foot condo. I thought the slightly miniaturized Ikea furniture might be a good fit for our downsized living space.

Of course the first thing we had to do upon arriving at Ikea was head up the escalator to the cafeteria. For a little more than $11, we got 20 meatballs, an elderberry cupcake, soda, cardboard-like crackers, soup and mystery juice. They imported the meatballs but I think they forgot to import any sort of flavor with them.

As patient a shopper as Steve is, he was worn out by the time we reached the desks and we still had at least another mile of yellow-and-blue brick road to follow. He said what Ikea really needs is a bar where guys like him can retreat for lingonberry beer while their wives and daughters debate the difference between the Bladvass and Smörboll duvet covers.

Whenever we go to Ikea, I feel like an extra in a zombie movie. There are masses of people shuffling along looking like they are being controlled by some outside force. “Must find Tjusig rack. Must find Tjusig rack…” I bent over to look at the price on a rug and when I looked up, I swear I was looking into the face of the undead. The man’s face was slack jawed, glazed eyes, sunken cheeks. His wife must have been sucked into the black hole that’s called the Marketplace days ago, never to be seen again.

But back to the couches…the couches at Ikea are the first ones that I can sit in and have my feet touch the floor. While that’s great for my 5’2” frame, Steve said that if he sits down in one, he might never get up. We’ll have to look elsewhere for a couch but Jennifer Lynn did come home with a set of colorful new curtains and throw for her new room and the price was barely into double digits.

On the way out we happened upon one item that we couldn’t pass up: fried onions that literally called out our name to us. Well, almost our name.


Singing the health insurance blues…and praises

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

For many years, I’ve avoided going to the doctor for a couple of reasons. Thankfully, I’ve been in good health so there weren’t any pressing reasons to schedule an appointment. The other reason was that it was always just too darn expensive to go. Because we worked for ourselves, we have always had to buy our own health insurance, and to keep it affordable, we had a policy with a deductible so high that would only be met if I had a heart transplant. A 10 minute office to the dermatologist resulted in bills with triple digit co-pays.  So since money was tight and my body parts seemed to mostly be working as they should, I just skipped going to the doctor entirely.

However, thanks to a recent policy change, I now have some health insurance benefits through work. I’m grateful because that means that I no longer have to ignore all the small “I can live with that” kind of medical issues and I can start making my way though the preventative tests that I last had done when Y2K was a topic of conversation.

My new coverage is with Kaiser Permanente. Based on my experience in dealing with Blue Cross when my daughters had a couple of medical issues, my expectations of customer service at Kaiser were very low. Even though I always thought that one of the advantages of having Blue Cross was that I could go straight to the specialist and I didn’t have to go through a primary care physician, the reality was that it never actually speeded up the process.

For instance, whenever I called the doctors’ office with a question, it took days for them to call us back. Instructions for where to go for services and what it would cost were always confusing. The doctors never seemed to communicate with one another.

I don’t know if it was just by chance that we dealt with some especially inefficient doctors’ offices in the Blue Cross system but I have to say that in the couple of months since I switched to Kaiser, I have found their efficiency to be amazing.

I’m still in shock that my doctor emailed follow up instructions to me immediately after my first visit. Or that when I had some x-rays taken at 4:50 one afternoon, there was an email from my doctor waiting in my inbox at 8:30 the next morning explaining the results. The people who work at the pharmacy are cheery and patient. And kudos to whoever designed the Kaiser website. I’ve been able to find everything I was looking for on it: appointment scheduling, forms, maps, directions, and on and on.

It seems that gone are the days when people used to say, “Oh, you have Kaiser” with the same tone of voice they would use if you were being sent to the Gulag. I can see one downside to the Kaiser system: it might be too easy to go to the doctor. The barriers of cost and inconvenience have been removed which is adding to the overall costs of healthcare in the US.

That might be.  But for now, I’m glad that I don’t have to wait any longer to find out what that ugly spot is on my leg and why it isn’t going away.

A love note from the IRS

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

On Friday, a gift arrived in the mail for us. It didn’t come from friends or family but in an envelope from the Department of the Treasury – otherwise known as the IRS.

What was the gift? It certainly wasn’t a check. Receiving a check from the IRS might signal the end of the universe as we know it. However, when I slit open the envelope, and with fear and trembling pulled out the letter and unfolded it, what I saw printed on it in 36-point bold type was: “Amount Due: $0.00.” Cue the angels singing the church bells ringing.

You see, about six weeks ago, on a Friday – why does bad news always arrive in the mail on Fridays so that you have plenty of free time on the weekend to imagine the worst possible scenarios – we received a letter from the IRS. It said that the information reported to them didn’t match the income reported on our 2011 tax return…to the tune of about $500,000.

And just to make sure that I read the rest of the letter once I started breathing again, they threw in a couple of other items that they questioned on our tax return. Hey, what’s another few thousand dollars among friends?

Let me start by saying that if we had we received $500,000+ income in 2011 we would not have sold our house in Petaluma in a short sale, be renting a condo in Cotati and driving cars with 100,000 miles on them. I felt like calling up the IRS and frantically exclaiming, “Come and take a look at our lifestyle. Do we look like people who had a half million dollars in income!!”

After Steve pulled my fingernails out of the phone, I regained my rationality and sent an email to our accountant. I was on the phone with him first thing Monday morning to ask on a scale of one to 10, how worried should I be about this letter from the IRS? Are we talking about just needing to provide additional documentation or are we in the area of indentured servitude for us and our three kids?

He felt quite confident that these issues could be cleared up if he prepared some additional forms but there always is the possibility that the long arm of the IRS could find other reasons to reach into the nooks and crannies of our business and life. He didn’t say it but I couldn’t help but wonder, what if the IRS agent reviewing our paperwork had a fight with his wife that morning or the barista at Starbucks messed up his order and we have to bear the brunt of his bad mood?

I mailed the information that our CPA prepared for us and for the next six weeks, I was dreading seeing that second letter from the IRS in the pile of mail on the kitchen counter. But this Friday, the news was all good and what a relief. I considered framing the letter. As someone who believes in God, I say this without a bit of sarcasm…thank you Lord!