Spartan Existence

So, it’s been over a year since that comment in my last post about the renewed commitment to writing. I actually have been writing quite a lot, but only in my head where no one can read it. I don’t know whether I needed a new topic or whether it was the fear that no one ever reads my posts… I mean literally, not even my family.

What ever it was, I do have a new topic and so let’s see where it goes.

It has been a longtime dream of mine to own an Airstream, but new ones are expensive and old ones are scary. How would I know if I was getting a bargain or a nightmare? But still, I’ve looked at Craigslist ads every now and then for decades. So sometime, I think just over a year ago, I saw a Spartan Travel Trailer made in the 50s in Tulsa, Oklahoma I only found it because it was mis-advertised as an Airstream and it peaked my interest. So, I showed it to Russ and we were both bit. We looked and thought and learned. We looked some more. No, we’re not finished with the renovations on the house, not even close. We looked. We joined Facebook groups. We found great websites and lots of Facebook friendlies. For better or worse, we managed to neutralize the fear. We found an Avion. We went to Hilton Head to look at it. It was scary even for our new found bravery and we like Avions, but they aren’t Spartans and we didn’t think it was a price / condition match. We actually found several things we like. Boles Aero, Vagabond, M Class, and on and on. Trolley tops are really cool and there is some stuff out there that is just so awesome that I never knew existed. Each ad we saw represented a trade off between location, condition, price, brand and whether or not Russ could stand up in it. I had Craigslist alerts set up across the entire south east. Some how I couldn’t stop the Avion query from also giving me the frequent furniture ads by the same name.

I was up one night recently doing the late late night mucking about on the interwebs and I decided it had been some time since I had looked at actual Airstreams. I put in a search and there it was, an ad 15 minutes old for two local Airstreams, only 1 of them was a Spartan. The asking price was within reach and the wording said it was negotiable. This is the begining of something new and wonderful!

Anniversaries

Today is the two-year anniversary of the day the house burned. (As it happened, it’s also the anniversary of wedding my ex). So, I’m going to take some time for looking back on what I did right and what I did wrong. And, take time to make time to get back to writing. But I’m only looking back two years to the fire. I’m just writing a post, not a book.

The most important thing I did right was when I decided to settle with the insurance company. I didn’t want a false incentive to rebuild my life “cookie cutter” style, nor to work hard at digging deep for proof of all that I owned. “Cookie cutter” was the adjuster’s phrase. If you choose the “build your house back” option, cost overruns are only covered if you build back exactly as it was. Meaning that if you upgrade to stone counter tops or move a wall, any completely unrelated cost over runs in the basement or drive way are not covered. When you live in a house 23 years, you can’t help but see some things you’d change. I had one of the more modern floor plans for my neighborhood, but the house was more than 30 years old and trends change. It was still not what you would build from scratch for the next 50 years. I moved on and sold the lot. A builder put a spec home there. He did a nice job of building a current home that fit well in an older neighborhood and it sold for a top price. I thought the clean slate was a good result for the neighborhood that I called home longer than any other and I felt good about that.

There are drawbacks to a clean slate though. When you are building back cookie cutter, there are few decisions to make because you already made them. “Same” is the answer to everything and you just watch the contractor to be sure it’s done right. When you do that, moving on in ways unrelated to dwelling and contents moves up in the queue. When everything is a new choice, the layers of choices past aren’t there building the foundation of quick new decisions. A conscious choice to start from scratch is not for the weak at heart. Those decades of layered choices are how you ended up with the life you had, and even though stuff is just stuff, it’s the stuff you use for your life and insurance isn’t designed to improve your life, only to keep you from suffering if the worst happens. The mistakes you make while remaking your home are at your own cost, just like the original ones were. The more unknowns, the more likely it is that there will be mistakes.

The biggest surprise was how long things took. I thought there would be more Amazon.com involved in my rebuild, but things didn’t fall neatly together. There was the unexpected news that we had a seller’s market going on big time. I knew that neighbors weren’t having any trouble selling in my great school district, but I didn’t know just how hard it was to buy. We even went to a neighboring area where the school scores were a couple of percent lower, but finding a home was really tough, a big time sink. I was in that price range that has the most people in it, so well-priced houses were snapped up quickly. Now, I’m driving past houses we looked at nearly daily. I’m glad we didn’t end up in any of them and Russ says the same thing. But, there were complications and delays. We were still looking at back up houses the week before closing in case the deal fell through. I hated to ask to see a house when I had one under contract, closing in a few days, but I really didn’t have confidence in closing and I really didn’t have time to fail. If it hadn’t been for my allergies and that little hint of dog smell left in the carpet I might have jumped ship and be living in the last other house we looked at instead. Of course the irony there is that the house we bought had knock your socks off pet odors, but for that house the cure was to rip out everything and seal it with Zinsser.

The biggest mistake I made might have been having the urge to get on with things and buying before I had a permanent place to be. We had the goal to replace as much as possible through thrift stores and estate sales. It was the only way to get some semblance of the quantity and quality of what we had back. When you appreciate the quality, weight and feel of an antique tool, flimsy short term pressed sheet metal doesn’t cut mustard. We had to buy things when we could find them. They might not be available again. So, in some respects, it wasn’t a mistake to do it that way. And that may just be how it is when replacing a household, but it was definitely the hot spot. The place where it hurt was in the mix. Getting the right house meant getting a fixer because of the market, ours came with delays. We piled stuff on top of stuff inside of stuff and then rearranged stuff so that we could fit in more stuff. The irony being that 5 years from now we might have bought an Airstream (or a Spartan) and chosen not to even have a stationary home. It wasn’t 5 years from now though, it was two years ago. I replaced a lot of hobbies and do it yourself tools, household items and just plain stuff. The pile of stuff FOR the house gets in the way OF the house while we’re working on it, and it gets covered in saw dust too. My son downsized and wanted to fill my basement the day we closed. Life doesn’t stop going on just because we are still really, really disorganized and stressed. Moving stuff to do stuff. Moving stuff to clean it or clean behind it, or to keep from having to clean it. etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iSd6-EvBgN4 We thought after things settled, we might take a long overdue vacation. One where we don’t carry our food and bed on our backs. One where we walk on the beach and sleep in a bed. Russ had an injury in the spring that lasted through the summer. There’s no telling how over due that’s gonna get!

The uncomfortable irony happened when we learned from neighbors that lightening had struck several times in the new neighborhood. So far, it’s been mostly tree damage. The old neighborhood was in a dip and I never worried about tornados. The new neighborhood had several new roofs due to storm damage. I noticed before we bought that several homes had new roofs, but I had guessed it was just the age of the neighborhood. Later a nearby house burned. I was coming home and saw the dreadful black plume. Every turn brought me closer to a home I’d been in for only a short time, and every turn I was unable to tell that the plume was coming from somewhere other than my home. I don’t wish loss on anyone else, but another fire before recovering from the first? I really hoped it wasn’t me. At the same time, I started going through emergency choices in my mind. I listed settling as the best choice I made, but that double edged sword also makes me wonder if it was the worst. The whole thrift replacement idea got me some cool finds, but all that time and gas… there is no reimbursement for that, and I was only able to do it because of my employment gap. I believe that if it ever happened again (please, NO!), I’d go the other route. Rent close by and rebuild. At least if you know where you’re gong to live, it is possible to know if you’re renting nearby when you sign the lease. This time no corporate apartment in an inconvenient area. Get a nearby rental house this time, and rebuild this time. Make it as fast, painless and finished as possible. I’m not sure I regret how I made my lemonade over the past two years, but the litmus test for any choice is “Would you do it again?” Right there in that moment, drawing closer and closer to a plume that could turn out to be my own? The road was long. The answer was “no.” For that house at that time, maybe my decision was right, but I hope I never find out what it would be if it happened again, and I hope you, dear reader, never have more than a passing interest in what your decision might be either.

A Rollercoaster Named Overwhelmed

My writing has drifted out to sea in the rush to get the house ready for move in. For over a month, the floors have been a plague and we’ve had to go out of town twice for family funerals, one on each side of the family. We’ve also made other trips for other family obligations. “Hurry up and wait” has gone and any sense of order is just a lofty aspiration. Things bought for the house, the booth or the Etsy stores are scattered about the house like sprinkles poured on heavy by a child. As I am writing, I am thinking of the list of the things that we’ve done over the last month and I’m not really sure how we fit it all in, but I am sure why people are telling both of us we look a little short on sleep. This has been the year when people stopped telling me that I couldn’t possibly have children and a grandchild the ages of mine, and started asking if I qualified for the discount.

These are the times when I really question myself about how it is that I choose to do things, as in- never the easy way, but this time going about things the hard way wasn’t all in choice. A lot of the things that I thought would be the easy, low stress or expedient choices weren’t. It seemed reasonable to expect that buying a house would be less complicated, lower stress and a faster recovery than rebuilding the house we lost, but the housing market in our area is so strange now that it didn’t turn out that way.

There’s enough of a recovery going to keep prices fairly high. The recovery isn’t complete though and people have trouble qualifying for higher end houses they might have bought easily not long ago. That brings them down to my price range. My price range was always where I fit, but right now it’s also a fit for far too many other people. Since the fire, a house in my old neighborhood sold in week and another sold in days.

Almost everything has been just like that, longer, harder, more complicated…it’s really just a fairly standard renovation, with overdue maintenance and an unusually bad pet problem. The trips out of town have even actually helped. We have had time to assess how bad the problem is, how well different treatments have worked, do additional research and get some additional advice. If we had been left to do nothing but work on the house, we wouldn’t have done things as well as we have been able to. But, taking it all on at once has been pretty hard to swallow. It’s that we are trying to do as many things ourselves as we can combined with our little thrifty experiment.

Buying things second hand means getting them when you find them and storing them where you can. We are taking things over in small loads when we go to ease the moving burden, both in gas and in workload. Much of the stuff we have bought is “project” quality. We plan to transform it in some way before we use it. I’m pretty sure our new neighbors may be coming to think of us as the Clampett’s of Beverly Hills. First impressions being what they are… I’m joking of course. We’ve done a lot of yard work and they can tell that we are trying to take the worst house in the neighborhood and transform it into something better.

So there’s another day in the life… My goal for July: A house that we can move into, a writing schedule that’s regular, and enough aerobic exercise to keep my energy levels high and my stress levels low.

Tripping Thrift

Those thrift stores, they’re a new store every day right? That same river you can’t step in twice? Yet, like that river they’re constantly the same and still changing. There’s always the promise of adventure. You never know what you’ll see, from something exactly like one your grandfather had to something you can’t even begin to imagine. I bought some tools once from a Canadian Hardware store, just because it was so odd for me, the original curiosity queen, not to be able to find or figure out what they were. I thought I’d eventually find something about them. Now I have a good source in a new FB group, but the tools are gone and I’m not sure if I ever took a photo. I’m not the only one who will buy a mystery item. One day a shopper was leaving a store with a thing in her hand. I asked her what is was. She said “I have no idea.” I asked her what she was going to do with it. She was going to use it to display jewelry that she made. I could clearly see that was perfect for jewelry display.

Shoppers are from all corners too. From artists to those barely getting by, from hoarders to historians, from the wealthy to the wonderers and wanderers. Some shoppers are talkative and some are afraid to even acknowledge you if you speak to them. Some are proud to recycle and explore. Others are embarrassed to be shopping second hand. Some people carry as much baggage into the store as the bags of stuff that they carry out.

On one recent visit I was making my rounds and finding a few things when I looked down on the bottom shelf and laughed. There hiding in a low corner was a food sculpture with a fork suspended in the air by a tower of spaghetti shooting up from a plate like Old Faithful. Then I heard “What’s Funny” asked from behind me. I picked up the plate and showed it. We both laughed.

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My new friend of the moment said “That’s great… Well you would appreciate this”. Reaching for a wax figure, she held it up and said “I saw this and thought ‘It’s missing its eyes’

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“Then I turned it around and it’s a wizard. It’s like life. You never know what you’re looking at.”

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I laughed again. That was awesome, profound and adorable. We talked a few minutes. She was a retired science teacher and an artist and I told her about my blog, how I was seeing how much of my life I could rebuild in thrift stores and the about the Etsy store. She asked me if I was an artist, I mumbled a bit and said well I don’t really call myself an artist. She said. “That’s okay, Leonardo DaVinci didn’t either.” my new friend is Brenda Segal, a retired teacher and artist and she posed for my post with her find of the day.

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Sometimes the treasure you find in Goodwill isn’t on the shelf.

If your search is for the tangible, you can find this awesome sculpture and other treasures, at least for today, at my booth at the
Queen in Marietta.

Our 80% Bernina Bookcase

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I headed off in pursuit of a Bernina (sewing machine) advertised on Craigslist in an attempt to replace my long lost love. It was just one more small step in the whole distressing sewing machine saga (expletives expunged). The navigator on my phone was sketchy, and the quest took longer than I expected (though I would have gone further for my preciousssss). The advertisement said McDonough, but the first road off the interstate kept on and on eastward before I reached my first turn. It was longer than the hour’s drive I anticipated. The landscape was inviting and it reminded me that if my life could be down here, I could have twice the home and land with a large victory garden and space for much less money.

I arrived at a beautiful house, but the machine was not my precious. I was newish to my search and didn’t know the Bernina model numbers well. To complicate things, Bernina repeats model numbers. I knew before I went that this was not the exact machine I was looking for, but I didn’t know if it was close enough to do for a while. The seller and I both wanted the sale to make and we were both disappointed that it didn’t.

As I left through her garage, there was the pile of garage sale leftovers. You know the pile, the one that’s about to be donated to the closest cause. I asked about the wooden bookcase in the middle of it. It had been painted poorly. The entire bottom of one shelf was bare wood, but the other bottoms were painted. It needed re-painting, but it was solid pine construction and in sound structural condition. She asked more than I wanted to pay (the all time biggest cause of garage sale leftovers). But, occasionally I will buy something that can get my gas money back, because, hey, the search costs, whether you cover it or not. I think we were both disappointed on the bookcase as well, but we did make that deal.

The bookcase didn’t fit in the car, but somehow I managed to get it in anyway and avoided being licked to death by her dog at the same time. When I bought it, I had a few ideas and knew that it would be a great for displaying items in our short lived booth at Queen .

I stopped at every thrift store I could find on the way home, another attempt to get the most from my gas money and potentially find new places to hunt for treasures. Still, at the end of a long day, what I had to show for my time was one bookcase that I almost didn’t buy.

The bookcase wintered in storage because we don’t have a good place to paint in the apartment or the temperatures that the paint requires to set properly, but with this recent little burst of spring Russ has given it new life. He painted it and put some of his unique art on it. He made a beautiful save. Russ does what we call doodling, for lack of a better word. And his fresh paint and doodling made all the difference.

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There is this thing called the 80/20 rule that applies to our bookshelf. There are a lot of 80/20 rules actually. Most derive in some way from the Pareto Principle, 80% of the effects come from 20% of causes. Productivity coaches often use some version of the principle to teach clients to focus on the most productive activities so they can boost business to the place where the mundane 80% time sink can be hired out. In our case the 80% is in the treasure hunt and it could never be hired out. And yes, that’s a great big limiting factor.

This bookcase is a great example good teamwork though and I hope a harbinger of things to come.

Charlie Brown’s Field Goal

I’m feeling really down today. It’s been a tough week. A real estate agent called and asked me to re-make an offer that I made back when her listing was new. I had an appointment to view the property to see if the condition had changed. I was all set to write the offer, close quickly, have the home search behind me and dig into the hefty renovations ahead. The agent called as I was heading out the door and told me that the seller had cancelled the appointment and raised her expectations. This was the second time I had let myself become invested in that particular home, only to have my hopes dashed, this time it was at the last minute. I felt like Charlie Brown when Lucy yanks the football away and he falls flat on his back.

I threw myself into looking anew and even made an appointment to see another home in the afternoon. I’ve stayed up till the wee hours trying to figure out what to do. Because I need a certain size, a certain location and have a fixed budget, I’m looking at a lot of homes that need work. That’s fine. I’d rather work on a bargain and make it my own castle with that little increase in equity that everyone wants as a reward for the hard work. The problem is that there aren’t any bargains. Sellers are hanging on and flippers are snapping up the foreclosures and doing shameful rehabs. You know, it just doesn’t take much time or money to take a few screws and secure the floor before you lay that $10/square yard contractor grade carpet and call it golden. I see so many disrespectful “rehab” choices that had to have been made with contempt that it makes me want to scream. Bad work doesn’t increase value, but it does increase the price.

So I’m going to talk about last weekend instead.

Last weekend was great. We went for a drive to pick up a dresser being given away by someone on Craigslist. When I saw the photo, I thought we might keep it, but when we got there… Well, it was a good solid dresser, but photos can be very deceiving. I think this dresser will end up in the booth because the feet that didn’t show up in the photo totally changed the look and period. It’s a good dresser, but not my style (Russ was a little disappointed to hear this) and there were no matching pieces either. I’d like my bedroom to match. Before it had two full and separate sets with extra pieces. I think some downsizing may be in order here.

We loaded the dresser and took off, ready to yard sale home. The first sale had a couple of antique sewing machines. I didn’t intend to buy these. I had been given quite a few sewing machines before the fire because I teach. No treadles though. I’ve wanted a working treadle machine for a while. There’s just a touch of old fashioned comfort and maybe a little bit of prepper independence in knowing you don’t actually need electricity, but the cabinet on this one wasn’t the pretty Victorian style that most people think of. It was also delaminating and the home of a dirt dauber nest. It wasn’t time to buy something like that either. My stuff level is becoming unmanageable for my situation. I really only asked the price in curiosity, but the preservationist in me came out and made the purchase when a neighbor told her to scrap the machines.

These machines did have some accessories that many thrift stores separate and sell off in parts. Once these things get separated, it is practically impossible to ever get a full compliment. That adds a lot to the value for anyone with even slightly functional interests. When people buy old machines, some are buying a tool or a part, some are buying a lamp base and some are buying craft parts for a steampunk project. For me it always has to go to the highest and best use, preserving functionality if there is any or supplying a part to restore usability to another machine comes first. Craft and art projects come last. As I was leaving the seller asked me if I had been to the estate sale nearby and gave me directions.

The estate sale was our jackpot for the weekend. There had been a seamstress in that house as well. I picked up a box and saw some magnetic pincushions and scissors. Magnetic pincusions are da bomb. No spilled pins, ever, and if you ever drop one, just wave the pin cushion over it and the pin jumps for the powerful attraction. When it’s time to dust the serger fuzz from your work space you just hold the whole thing under a faucet and the dust goes while the pins stay. I asked what she wanted for the box and she said $5. I saw enough things I wanted for that price that I didn’t look at it too carefully, I just said yes. There were another three boxes on the garage floor. She wanted another five for those combined. Russ said I couldn’t buy anything else. I laughed. He said “No, literally, it won’t fit”. The boxes were small, but we hadn’t started our day with an empty truck. He was both serious and correct.

Sometimes I’ll negotiate, but I clearly saw the value in the boxes, and when I started going through them at home, I’d have been embarrassed if I had asked for a lower price. There was an assortment of tools and supplies. The kind of thing that every seamstress has on hand, but they cost a lot to accumulate. I tossed out some things, but kept others. There was a tin of presser feet, those accessories that get separated, never again to be reunited with the mother ship. Who ever bought the sewing machine that was no longer at the estate sale would have loved to have them, and the kindred spirit in me would just hand them over if the opportunity had been possible.

There were more scissors than I have ever owned. Good sharp dressmaker shears, cheep paper scissors, quality pinking shears and some that were too dull for fabric. I can use them for paper. I’ve never had a pair of pinks that I would use on paper because it dulls the blades. This is the kind of assortment that is most useful to someone in my situation. Normally a person only needs one or two pairs of scissors because they already have some, but I can use the whole assortment. I bought sewing machine oil to use liberally in all the spots it might be needed, from scissor hinges to machine parts. It took me several hours to separate the treasure, clean, sort and dispose. All the small parts take time and I clean it all thoroughly. I’m still not quite finished and a new weekend is here already.

You know what I love? Old fashioned pipe cleaners for crafts. The kind they don’t make any more, fuzzy and thick, the ones that hold their shape with a heavier gauge wire than modern pipe cleaners have. You have no idea how excited I can get over a dozen good pipe cleaners. Having them in a drawer waiting to be used represents the kind of opportunity that filled my house before the fire and will fill my home once again in time.

For the furniture, we had to invent new ways to stack and store, and we’ll need to be in a house before we can actually restore the machines and find out if they can be made to work. I bought another large piece of furniture on Monday, a beautiful teak Danish piece advertised as a “china cabinet”, but I’m planning on having it in the study (assuming that we have a study in our next home). It’s more of a credenza with bookcase than china cabinet. It has to be refinished and those wonderful guys who loaded it left it with some damage that wasn’t there when I made the decision to buy. Three days of purchases completely consumed all of the space we freed when we got creative stacking stuff.

And so now I’m full circle, finished with all the positive stuff and thinking again how much I’m ready for a home ’cause it doesn’t do much good to accumulate opportunities if you can’t restore, reach or even find them. The problem with this rebuilding plan of mine is that rebuilding a life in thrift stores and estate sales is so hard to plan. You have to buy things when you get the chance and find a way to keep them without loosing your sanity until you have a place to put them.

Crying In the Tax Office

It’s strange how some things that shouldn’t hit hard do, and others that should don’t appear to. Maybe it’s a matter of expectations or how much reserve strength you have. Sometimes you just can’t really figure out why you react in a particular way. I didn’t cry when the house burned. On the drive home I got a little lump in my throat that wound up in a tingle at my jaws and the impulse started. The tears welled up a little, but they didn’t actually form.

My experience in the Cobb County tax office wasn’t like that. When it was over I was stunned, and I wasn’t wondering why. I waited two months to write this article because I didn’t want to say what I would have said if I had written it when it was fresh, and I’ve waited even longer to edit and publish it.

The house burned just over two weeks before my property taxes were due. I couldn’t remember if it was billed in advance or arrears and didn’t know the effect of a total loss on the evaluation, so I dropped by promptly to get a new, accurate bill and pay it.

The first trip wasn’t disturbing. They directed me to the assessor’s office and a tall slim man with a kind demeanor came out to talk to me at a low counter. He was really proud that someone in his office had noticed the front-page article about my house fire and the file had already been updated to show the loss. He was very sympathetic. I told him I appreciated that, but needed to stay in functional mode. He caught my meaning and then he stuck only to facts.

The value I would pay taxes on was not prorated in any way for the loss. It was based on the valuation of my property on the previous January 1st. I  checked because I hoped for something more reflective of the situation, but expected exactly the answer I got and I moved on to the next thing.

I asked “How do I pay?” He continued to politely repeat an explanation on WHY I had to pay a full year’s tax rather than to answer what I had asked. I said “I need a bill.” He looked at me quizzically. “My bill burned. It was in the house”

He said “Oh, I’m not sure…just a minute”, went away for a few minutes and came back with a bill. I asked if the area I had passed around the corner was the right place to go. Then he said something I knew I shouldn’t have listened to. He told me I didn’t need to worry about paying it then, I could just stick it in the mail by the 15th. He was trying to be nice, but I regret taking his advice.

I had the check in an envelope days ahead of the due date, but couldn’t remember where I had put my new stamps. The hotel room was disorganized. Then I wasn’t near a post office when I was thinking about it. The whole thing had been demoted on my mental checklist because I had partially taken care of what needed to be done and also because other things came to the forefront.

On the actual due date I was exhausted from having to think about so many different things that were no longer static in my life. I had reached the point of being overwhelmed and realized that I wasn’t driving well. I had, in fact, just driven in circles thinking about different things at different intersections when I remembered the bill and realized the post office had closed. It was a half hour drive to the after hours post office where I could get the golden postmark, but I needed to get out from behind the wheel or there might be more insurance claims for me to deal with, or worse. I mistakenly thought there must be some small period of grace and opted for the safer choice.

That turned out to be a painful overestimation of reasonableness.

The penalty bill was sent so fast that I wondered how it was even possible. I couldn’t figure out why it looked like I had under paid the bill, but I didn’t spend too much time studying it and I wasn’t in a huge hurry to stop by again to request that they forgive the penalty. I expected they would. The full payment had been mailed a mere 8 hours after the required postmark and the mitigating factors were understandable.

Had I figured out that they paid the penalty with funds I directed toward a tax payment and shorted my actual tax payment by the amount of the penalty, I would have also realized the implications of a policy like that and I might have at least have had some inkling of what I was about to experience.

I went back to the tax office and explained my abbreviated story to the clerk in the payment window and asked if the penalty could be forgiven. She started quietly repeating every trite absolution from responsibility that exists. She started with “Just doing my job” went through “The computer system won’t allow it.” and kept right on going, but part of what disturbed me was the thinly veiled power rush that lit her eyes. She told me some people had paid several times as much in penalties. Then totally confused me when she said “Just pay the 20 dollars.” That was much less than the penalty and not evenly divisible into it either.

“What?” I asked.

“Well you’re asking for hardship aren’t you? Make payments.” (something I can only see as an opportunity to pay an interest rate that resembles usury accompanied by multiple additional opportunities to repeat missing a postmark by a whisper, and earn additional unreasonable penalties).

“No, I’m not asking for payments. I can pay my bills. I’m asking not to be charged $150 for being eight hours late to the post office.” I was asking for humanity.

I had my checkbook out and had started to write several times, but stopped because she kept on. She seemed to be taunting me. It was the set of her jaw, the line of her brow and the fire in her eyes. I kept stopping to look at her. She said “It’s not like I get to keep the money.” Why would she keep going while I was actually writing out the payment? Why would she spontaneously deny a bizarre misconception?

I asked to speak to her manager.

“Oh, you want to take it there? We can take it there.” Nodding a challenge at me. How was it that she felt challenged by someone who had both hands busy writing a check?

“Yes. I’d like to speak to your manager”

“All right, we’ll take it there.”

I was shown to a small room with a partial glass wall . The clerk spent more time prepping the manager to see me than I had spent speaking with her in the first place. The manager came in. I told her briefly why I had asked to speak to her, she said to me “Well I’m sorry you FELT it that way.” She talked about how “unlike her” it was to do anything inappropriate and asked me if I would like for the clerk to apologize to me. I declined.

The manager explained to me that the penalty could not be forgiven because “I had already paid it”. The tax commissioner’s policy is to pay the penalty with funds that I had actually directed to pay my tax bill. What I actually still owed, she said, was taxes in arrears.

I wasn’t sure that was even legal. The full implication of what it meant affected my breathing. Unpaid taxes make me subject to streamlined, non-judicial foreclosure. The distinction was a matter of choices and technicalities that were very deliberately policy (and still reversible, as all policy is in a democracy).

The likelihood that mail delivery might be sketchy when the house behind the mailbox had become a charred shell of smouldering remains increases the odds of delivery issues, mail tampering or any number of other ways I might fail to receive a bill that I never expected. There was no compassion or even reasonable care to the situation that the Cobb Assessor’s office had put me in. I was a mere missed letter away from being blindsided by a non-judicial foreclosure on everything I had left.

When I told her that I had made responsible effort to acquire and pay the bill under difficult conditions she asked me why I hadn’t paid the bill when I received it. I told her it was not my habit to pay bills months in advance and I couldn’t know that my house would burn down. She made it seem like everyone should know that their house could burn down and they should, in fact, pay months early. It never occurred to me to even mention the employee who had encouraged me to put off the payment, much less blame him. I was now crying in public. I felt helpless, at risk from a government that was supposed to protect the public good, and at that moment I wanted out of Cobb County. Badly and Forever.

I don’t mind paying for the public schools that brought me to the home I chose by school district, the infrastructure that brings new business or any number of things I have no choice about. And I paid my taxes. But knowing that they deliberately set things up in a way that would foreclose on what remains of my property for an eight-hour delay was the most defeating thing that I have felt in some time.

Consider this. What I was too emotional to remember or report my visit to the tax office accurately. I was stressed. It’s possible. What if that manager wasn’t using a particularly vile form of condescension combined with bullying when she suggested that I should have paid my bill months before it was due. Maybe I “felt” the behavior of that clerk who seemed to get perverse pleasure in the pretense of power that went with her bottom rung position into existence. I did after all actually break down in tears in the office, wait months before attempting to write about it, and actually cry again when I did write.

The thing I’m definitely not wrong about is that when my payment was postmarked on the 16th instead of the 15th, they immediately assessed a penalty that they deducted from my tax payment and told me that I had unpaid taxes.

I’m glad my insurance adjuster told me not to put in a change of address until some other important mail had come. She said sometimes these situations cause things to get lost or delayed. I’m glad the USPS continued to deliver to mailbox that clearly had no home or residents. I’m glad that no one took my mail in my absence and I’m glad that I didn’t wait any longer than I did to go ask for what I thought was somewhere between common courtesy and human decency. Because if any of those things hadn’t happened, the tax office would have advertised in a paper I had no reason to monitor about a debt I would not have known I owed to take property I didn’t know was at risk over a tax bill that was paid in full after an eight hour delay.

Of course, there is a redemption period. IF I had found out during the redemption period when remedy is allowed, I could get my property back, by paying more fees, penalties, special assessments, their advertising costs and a percentage interest. I wonder just how many more tax office employees I would encounter, what the eventual penalties and fees could add up to and how long it all might take… if I even found out that it had happened within the time period under which I am allowed remedy.

And, the reason all of this would have happened would be because I had a really rotten couple of weeks, listened to a government employee, became exhausted and didn’t judge myself safe to drive on one particular night and overestimated my government.

Policies are changeable though. I hope that this one comes to be seen for the excessive harshness that it represents and gets amended.

The Weather in Atlanta Goes to Eleven.

by Russ

11 Alive is crackin’ me up.  Here’s how-

Our Atlanta area NBC affiliate, 11 Alive, has come up with a new marketing plan.  They have dubbed their weather department The Weather Information Zone. It starts off already sounding like the meteorologist has taped off a square on the floor of the studio with black and yellow hazard tape, bringing to mind Johnny Fever opening and closing Les Nessman’s imaginary office door.  This gives me a tiny inner chuckle every time I think about it.

But that wasn’t enough for them.  They had to go and develop a weather rating system, doubtless inspired by the marketing success of the Mellish Meter.  Fine, as a former hay farmer I object to someone trying to sum up the weather with one number, but I can get over it.  I am a city boy now, after all.  Why should they have stopped at the Weather Information Zone? Because the ‘logical’ name for their rating system is the Wizometer.  Yes, boys and girls, someone is publicly reporting on the Wizometer, and it has nothing to do with urine excretion: not quantity, not quality…no pee at all.

Still not enough, though.  The top score on the Wizometer is eleven.  As Enigo Montoya would say,”I do not think it means what they think it means.”  Seriously, what’s the first thing that goes through your mind when I say,”It goes to eleven?”  Did the marketing department never watch Spinal Tap?  Or are they so insular in their thinking that they only see how it applies to them? Every time they say today is an eleven, I laugh at them. (Not charitable, perhaps, but there it is.)

Someone please tell them up their on West Peachtree what’s really going on.  Or don’t; I could use the laughs.

LOL, Interupted by a Screech, or Not

Last week I heard about more “Driving While Texting” accidents than ever before. The problem has drawn heavy attention from lawmakers and law practitioners. Oprah is talking about it. The Georgia legislature is looking into the problem. A local news station is promoting pledges from its audience and running safety segments every time surf past.

We have evolved to this problem socially with emphasis on greater productivity, multitasking and multimedia ad nauseum. We took our children from one planned activity to the next with Gameboy in hand while also attending radio, video, conversation, whatever, . We used television as a baby sitter in the home and in the car. There is a constant feed of multiple stimuli in every aspect of life with no down time, constantly training us all to have divided attention. It is not surprising that we would carry that one step further to the operation of a car. The words usually used to describe a quickly growing problem like “epidemic” or “rampant” are so over used as to be meaningless, but the difficulty with divided attention and driving is growing at such a rate that “Texting while Driving” covers those concepts without any additional words to convey the magnitude or prevalence of a problem so large.

There is hope. Sometimes the solution to a problem lies in finding a way to accommodate a desire rather than trying to suppress it. There is a way to get commute time and down time or text time at the same time. Those kids in Japan wearing the school uniforms know the answer. It’s called public transportation, something we’re strangely lacking and strangely resistant to in the United States. On a recent visit to Japan I was invited to dinner by a Japanese family. The son travels a long distance to go to the better school and excused himself to go study. A friend asked “Do you study while you commute?” The mother interrupted protectively “NO, no no, that is his down time” and went on the convey that he uses that free time to relax, text, listen to music and “regroup” on the way home. Public transportation is magic. It allows one to do the impossible, to multitask down time. How great is that? And you won’t drive your car through someone else, their bumper or their living room while you do it.

I dream of the day when I can multitask my commute with down time or distractions without embarking on international travel, but unfortunately, public transportation is not practical from my home to anywhere else. The attempt to use public transportation from my home reminds of an old family story ” Lawd, you caint git there from here, yous gots ta go someplace else ta staart.” I’m also reminded of a neighbor who left Georgia saying that she felt like a prisoner of Marietta. She could never get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time, but we can have our cake and eat it too. We don’t need to pave over paradise to put up a parking lot, or make more lanes to accommodate more gridlock. We don’t have to spend our mind space primed in anticipation of hitting the brake when 70 mile per hour, bumper to bumper traffic converts to gridlock in a hiccup. We can switch to seeing faces instead of tailpipes and and let someone else do the driving. When I hear the idea of public works projects as a means to stimulate the economy, I think of all the compound ways that investing in public transportation that the public can and will use pays off. It just makes so much sense. Some day maybe my dreams will come true.

Goodwill and the Economy Co-Evolve

by Karen

Thomasville, GA Television Display

Thomasville, GA Television Display

As a long-time supporter of Goodwill, both as a donor and as a customer, I was glad to see some of the savvy marketing and new technology that they are using. I was shopping Goodwill and other thrift stores long before Shabby Chic was chic. Back when the economy was growing and conspicuous consumption was the nation’s modus operandi, I was still shopping for a good cause while also recycling unwanted household items for that same good cause. The deals were better for a shopper when I was not in the majority and the demand was lower, but they are still good now, and given the same deal at Goodwill and an overstock store, I will give the business to Goodwill or another non-profit when I can.

Russ and I have been on a big Goodwill kick lately. We have opened an account with Etsy for some of our current crafts and plan to expand with time. We have seen a few crafts that are “green” using recycled items from thrift stores to become something else. We are looking for that unique breakthrough idea that sings, and when it sings, it needs to sing “art” and nothing less.

Media shelves, Thomasville, GA

Media shelves, Thomasville, GA

It has been a blast so far. We sought out the Goodwill in Oak Ridge, Tennessee on our recent trip through the area. Would this Goodwill be different? What might we find there in the Secret City? It was a nice store and there was a much larger Science Fiction book section than I have ever seen at any other Goodwill Otherwise there was not too terribly much to distinguish it from other locations.

We did find interesting differences in other Tennessee towns. We found some with new stock as well as the regular recycled donations. I asked if new stock was becoming typical and the storekeeper told me that all Goodwill stores in her district carried new stock, that employees went on buying trips and that some merchandise had come from “the shopping network.” This was news to me, though I did not find anything at this location that moved me to the point of purchase. There are a lot of shifts taking place in charity and overstock outlets as the current economic conditions have a larger segment of the population looking for discounts, bargains and other forms of frugal spending options. These shifts have some charity organizations scrambling to replace good that were once donated as seconds, but now have a market in discount stores. At the same time, the price gap in second hand and second quality stores closes in to reflect the greater demand. New marketing techniques in Goodwill are well timed to fit in this shifting marketplace.

Custom Shelves with End Cap Racks

Custom Shelves with End Cap Racks

The best store set up that I have seen since this renewed purpose to my old passion has taken hold was in Thomasville, Georgia, a part of the Big Bend (Florida) district. Shelves were custom made here to fit above the clothing racks so that while shopping for clothing, household items and nick knacks were right there calling for attention. In electronics, the televisions sets were running just as they would be in a retail outlet allowing comparison. The aisles all had end-caps with merchandise, just like a regular retail outlet. The video, music and other media had shelves custom fit to their size so that the display was easier to process visually and took less space than it would otherwise. I bought a white ceramic owl container because it reminded me a little bit of Woodsy Owl. When I went to the checkout and complimented the college student clerk on the set up as the best lay out I had ever seen at a Goodwill (or any other thrift store) he was really psyched. He spoke enthusiastically about the manager responsible for the set up. Apparently he puts these features in all of his Big Bend locations. The part I couldn’t tell just by looking is that this manager keeps track of what is selling and makes sure that there is a proportionate amount of display space dedicated to those items. I was already impressed before the clerk talking!

After returning home, I found some other interesting Goodwill news. I saw an internet link to some items that had been donated by the newest owner of a cabin that had once belonged to June and Johnny Cash. The claim to fame caught my attention, but it was also clear that there was no claim that the items had been owned by the Cash family. I followed the link until I saw a site with a set up that looked very much like ebay. There were categorized items with photographs. I did not know that I could shop at Goodwill on the internet! Fantastic!

Effective display and effecient use of space.

Effective display and effecient use of space.

Their 100th anniversary was in 2002 and long before that date, Goodwill became to thrift stores what Kleenex is to facial tissues and Coke is to soft drinks. That is, people often use those brand names as generic, even when they mean to refer to other brands. At seven years into their second century, they seem to be looking forward very well, maximizing their market niche and continuing to do good works. In an ever changing marketplace this is no small task. As fads come and go some things are worth keeping. I hope that after Shabby Chic and “Green” have peaked there will be some follow on that will keep people using common sense to shop at economical places where they can recycle while at the same time support a worthy cause. It just makes good sense to support institutions that meet multiple goals and needs the way that Goodwill and other thrift stores do… and when we figure out that amazing new art form, you’ll be sure to find out about it right here!