December 31, 2006

Not On the Road Again

As I may have mentioned, I spent this past month going from Chicago to Michigan, back to Chicago, then back to Michigan, only to return to Chicago to return to Michigan again. It has been a month of planes, trains, automobiles, subways and busses. I now am back in Chicago and plan to stay here for quite a while. I used to think having a job in which traveling was a requirement sounded like fun, but over this past month I learned I hope to never have a job like that. It just takes too much out of me.

This past week I've done a lot of bonding with my couch, catching up on laundry and restocking my fridge which previously only had lettuce, Nutella and soy sauce. Saturday though, I did some major cleaning and took down my Christmas decorations. After three hours of vaccuuming, folding laundry, doing dishes and dusting, I sat down on my bed and surveyed my apartment. It felt good to sit and be in my own place and be without any travel plans in the near future.

It occurred to me that most of you have not seen my aparment, so I've attached a few pics below to give you a feel for my pad. They were taken with my cell phone, so I apologize if the quality isn't the greatest.

This is my living room. There are two French doors which stay open all the time. To the left of my living room is my kitchen. It's ghetto fabulous and not really worthy of a photo.

This is part of the main room of my apartment. As you can see, this is my desk (with my dying plant just to the right of it - more on that later.) Just beyond the French door to the left is my living room.

To the right of my desk (note the dying plant again) is my dresser which faces my bed. I was standing in the entryway when I took this photo.

This is my bed (taken from the entryway of the French doors). Just beyond my bed is a wall of windows with a Juliette balcony. I can step out onto it, but it's not large enough to put a chair or anything out there. You can see to the right of my bed in the photo is a doorway which leads to my closet and bathroom (again - not worthy of a photo).

So that's it. That's my home. Let me know when you'd like to see it in person. I should be around. I'm certainly not going anywhere for a while.

December 28, 2006

My Friend, Uncle Sam

My flight home Christmas night did not land in Chicago until 1 a.m. - about two hours later than originally scheduled thanks to problems with a connecting flight in Philadelphia. Since I walked into my apartment after 1:30 a.m. and had to be at work in less than 8 hours, I wasn’t the happiest girl in the world - that is until I read my mail.

As usual, after an extended weekend away from my apartment (my standard mode of living over the past month), my mail was crammed in my tiny mailbox. I began to sort through it quickly while throwing down my bags and surveying my dying plants. Something caught my eye - a large envelope from the IRS. Usually personal messages from Uncle Sam send a chill up my spine, but this was a letter I had been waiting for quite some time - since June to be exact.

While taking classes for my paralegal certificate this past spring, we quickly covered employment law. That brief lecture, though, inspired me to take on a former employer of mine.

At the start of 2005, I took a job as a content developer at Cognitive Arts, a company specializing in creating online and print manuals for employee training. I spent my five months there writing about auto and general liability insurance. I was hired as an independent contractor to work on this project despite not being able to read my own insurance policies when I started. I didn’t really understand what it meant to be an independent contractor beyond the fact that no taxes were taken from my paychecks, and I received no benefits.

I might not have had such a fierce determination to take on Cog Arts if they had not treated me and every other person there like dispensable pieces of machinery. We worked for their bottom line, and the company gave us nothing in return. This was topped by the fact that they let me go in the shadiest manner possible and then asked me to plan a celebration for the end of our project.

When I filled out my taxes in January, I then understood what it meant to be an independent contractor. It means you owe a shit ton of taxes is what it means. When all was said and done I paid over $1,800 to Uncle Sam due to my independent contractor status. And I was pissed. I was still pissed a few months later when my professor began lecturing my classmates and me about how the government defines an employee versus an independent contractor. It was clear for all intents and purposes that in the eyes of the government I was an employee, despite what my former employer may have said. I did a little research, found some forms, filled them out, attached a paper citing the appropriate legal authorities, sent them on to the Department of Treasury and waited for my reply.

That reply was waiting in my mailbox Monday night. And in the words of the government “in reply to (your) request for a determination of your federal employment tax status with respect to the services you performed in 2005 to Niit USA, Inc., we hold you to have been an employee for federal tax purposes.” In other words, I took down the man - and to the tune of I am hoping around $1,000. Needless to say it felt pretty damn good and my excitement delayed my sleep probably about as much as the flight from Philadelphia. But this time instead of trying to sleep in a cold airport terminal I was restless from visions of the ways I plan to spend the money I rightfully earned.

The lesson here: the system does work and it feels pretty damn good to take on the man, provided you win.

December 13, 2006

Seventy-nine Christmases

When I saw my grandfather over Thanksgiving weekend, I did not know it would be the last time. There probably would not be too many more visits, I knew, given how his health had declined so drastically from when I saw him last. But I would be home in less than a month and would see him again this Christmas. I got the news Sunday that grandpa passed away. My Christmas plans would now never come to fruition.

The day after Thanksgiving, my mom and I drove to the nursing home where he was staying temporarily, recovering from a fall a few weeks ago. I questioned my mom on the drive as to what to expect when I saw my grandpa. The last time I had seen him was last Christmas. His health was not great, but he was alert, walking around, his usual, ornery self - but that was grandpa. Jump forward a year’s time, and there was a marked difference.

We found him resting in his bed just before meal time. My mom left his room to find a nurse and see if we should wake him to eat. I stayed in his room, sort of hovering over his bed. Looking down, I could not help noticing he had diminished in stature. How his frame had shrunk from the grandpa I remember from my childhood - the man who used to pick my cousins and I up, tossing us from his dock into the lake. I had not expected to be greeted by that grandpa, but he had lost weight over the past year and his hair was thinner, whiter than I remembered too.

My grandpa began to stir, and I noticed his eyes flutter open. Smiling, I looked down at him, moved toward his bed and quietly said, “Hi grandpa. I hope I didn’t wake you.” Smiling back, he looked at me and shook his head no. The fall my grandpa had taken left him unable to speak. The most he could get out at any one point was a word, so I didn’t expect much conversation in return. I sat on the edge of his bed and held his hand, saying how good it was to see him and that it had been too long. Still looking up and smiling as I spoke, he blew me a kiss - the best way he could communicate his feelings at that point.

My mom walked in with the nurse and shortly thereafter, my grandpa, mother and I made our way down to eat. I helped my grandpa get situated in the dining room while my mom brought my grandma. My grandma was in the same nursing home, but for very different reasons. While my grandpa was dealing with his physical health deteriorating, my grandma’s mental health has succumbed to Alzheimer’s. My mom and I did our best to keep conversation going as they ate lunch, while I did my best to choke down the huge lump building in my throat.

As I sat there, I could not help but notice the cruel irony of my grandparents’ situation. My grandma has the physical ability to speak, but her mental state is such that she does not. My grandpa had the mental ability to understand his surroundings and conversation, but physically, he no longer could communicate. It is a situation people are not explicitly presented when they enter into holy matrimony. No man and wife expressly thinks they will make it though decades of marriage only to find him or herself one day sitting across from their spouse, unable to communicate in any real way.

Throughout the meal, my grandpa kept glancing in my grandma’s direction, and after looking at her for a moment, would give her a wink or blow her a kiss. It touched me more than words can express. To me that simple gesture - one which my grandma could not understand - was my grandpa telling his wife thank you for our four beautiful daughters. Thank you for our five grandchildren and their children. Thank you for a lifetime of memories. And thank you for loving me more than other person has. And while I know you cannot understand all this the way that I wish you could, I cannot help but express it the only way I can.

And that was when I learned one of the final lessons I will probably learn from my grandpa. Say the things you want to say and should say and can say to those you love. Say them often. Say them out loud. Scream them if you must because there may come a day when you won’t have the ability, and a wink will have to say everything.

When we left my grandpa, he was lying in bed, much the same way we found him. My mom said bye and mentioned how she would be back in a few days. Then I leaned down, gave my grandpa a kiss, squeezed his hand and told him how great it was to see him. Walking out, I said to take care and that I’ would see him again soon. I followed my mom out of his room and did not even make it through the doorway before tears spilled from my eyes. They were the same tears I cried when I found out he died a little over a week later.

No one in my family can truly say they were shocked by my grandpa’s passing. With each day it became more apparent that he was ready to go. My mom had told my sister a few days before his passing that she should try to see grandpa soon. My mom had doubts he would make it to Christmas. My nephew happened to overhear this last bit of information and asked who wasn’t going to make it to Christmas. My mom, the grandparent in this situation, explained that her dad, his great-grandpa, was probably not going to have another Christmas. My nephew, in his 6 years of wisdom, responded with, “Well, how many Christmases has he had?” The answer was 79. My nephew processed this number, probably compared it to his own six Christmases, and seemed pretty satisfied with the answer - as well he should be. Seventy-nine Christmases are a lot to celebrate. And even though I do not get to see my grandpa for one more Christmas, I will take comfort knowing he had already done this 79 other times.

December 6, 2006

Bridging the Gap

Today I learned that a violin bridge costs about $6. I looked this up online not long after the bridge on my violin snapped. For those who may not know, I played violin from 5th grade until I graduated high school. And every year since, I’ve at least picked it up. I am always amazed when I do that I remember songs I played over a decade ago. Tonight was one of those nights. However, when I picked up my violin to tune it, the bridge, which had been holding up my strings since 1997, finally gave out. It snapped like a twig, and my hopes of playing a note or two any time in the near future vanished too.

Now I’m looking at bridges and thinking if I’m going to get a new bridge, I might as well restring my violin while I’m at it. And actually the pegs seem to slip more and more, so maybe I’ll swap those out too for a new set while I'm at it. But if I’m going to get new strings, I really should re-hair the bow because it doesn’t grab the strings all that well anymore either. So really this $6 piece of wood is now probably going to cost me about $200.

What was to be a small purchase is becoming an investment - an investement in something that I only use a few times a year, at best. I always told myself I didn’t want to become one of those people who said “I used to play the violin.” I did not like the sound of the past tense, but my violin playing is pretty much past tense these days. I guess it's time to consider if I want to bring it back to the present.

December 4, 2006

Frosty, The Inflatable Snowman

I love Chicago. I do consider it to be one of the greatest cities in the world. From the lakeshore, to shopping on Michigan Ave., to fine dining, nightlife of every kind, theater and live music galore, it is hard to make the argument that Chicago is not a world class city. As I may have mentioned, I went home for Thanksgiving this year, and while I was there realized another reason why I truly love living in the city.

Christmas is marked clear as day on most calendars on Dec. 25. But even calendar makers recognize this holiday is too big for just one day, feeling the need to denote Dec. 24 as Christmas Eve. Now if we were to go by most traditional calendars, it would appear Christmas is celebrated on those two days, but as anyone with functioning eyes, or ears or a nose knows, Christmas beings invading all of our senses before Thanksgiving. From smelly store displays to radio stations that play Christmas music non-stop beginning the second week in November, it is impossible to escape this holiday. It is because of this that usually by the time December hits, I don’t feel like celebrating Christmas all that much.

However, there has been one thing that irks my Christmas spirit more than anything else in recent years. It inspires in me an intense hatred and horror to which I shudder to think about even now. And if anything, it is a trend that has only increased over the past few years. I am talking about the rise of the inflatable lawn ornament.

I ask you, when will the madness stop?

I refer to inflatable lawn ornaments as the lazy man’s Christmas decoration. It takes no effort or thought or design to go to Wal-Mart, purchase an eight-foot tall inflatable Santa Claus for $29.95, blow it up and place it strategically front and center in your yard. There is a word for this kind of Christmas decorating - tacky. I am sure the inflatable lawn ornament is marketed to the same people who buy hundreds of yards of Christmas lights and string them on anything that can withstand the force of gravity. However, these people have all gotten lazy and now are resorting to buying inflatable lawn ornaments by the army.

I remember a few years ago, while I was home for the holidays, passing an inflatable lawn ornament display which has yet to be topped in my eyes. There was a small, white house, not nestled far off the road on a street a short drive from my parents’ house. This house had a fenced-in front yard, which I guess was no larger than 10 feet by 12 feet. In that cramped space were four inflatable lawn ornaments - a Santa, reindeer, snowman and Christmas tree - all over 7 feet tall. As I passed it in disgusted horror, all I could think was, “How do they get in and out of their front door?”

I ask you, what happened to the good old days? Growing up, the start of Christmas was signaled when my mom would drag up our strand of lights from the basement. She would plug them in to check for loose bulbs, only to moments later call my dad to come check out why this or that darn strand was not working. Then without fail, the next day she or my dad, or sometimes both, would put on their hats and gloves, grab the ladder and brave the cold to hang lights outlining the roof of our one-story ranch house. They would come in cursing the cold most years, but later that night when we turned the lights on over the darkness of our street, our house would be baked in the soft glow of little white lights. That’s when I felt Christmas had officially begun. It saddens me to think there are children growing up today who in 20 years will associate the start of Christmas with the sound of mom or dad firing up the air compressor.

I think word is starting to spread, though, about the ridiculousness of these “decorations.” Smart, rational people realize their absurdity. And those who don’t really should take note because they don’t know what they may be missing out on. Case and point: A good friend of mine recently went to check out a daycare for her daughter. Much to her horror, as she drove up to the home which was to house her child during working hours she was assaulted with a barrage of inflatable (and other) lawn ornaments. She went in the home, because she is a polite person, but the interview did not last much longer than 10 minutes. This is why she is a good friend of mine.

As I said, I was in Michigan for Thanksgiving. My parents live in suburbia, also known as “The Land of the Inflatable Lawn Ornament.” Being there, it was hard to ignore the inflatables. Just driving in and out of my parents’ subdivision, I had to pass two inflatable turkeys, which I am almost certain were replaced by giant snowmen and reindeer on Nov. 24. And I was disturbed to note that the latest inflatable design to hit the market is a snow globe with a functioning carousel housed inside. There were at least a half dozen within a one-mile radius of my parents’ house.

But as I was driving around, I learned another reason why I love living in Chicago and not suburbia. In Chicago, most people live in apartments. You know what most apartments don’t have? Lawns. You know what you can’t buy if you don’t have a lawn? Inflatable lawn ornaments. Sigh…. So simple, yet so beautiful. As I have said before, I love Chicago.

And to any of you reading this that currently have inflatable lawn ornaments displayed in your front yard, I make no apologies. You should not own them. Do yourself a favor and deflate your “Christmas decorations” right now.