I trace my math phobia back to second grade.
I missed a lot of school due to illness that year, and during one of my absences, the teacher introduced subtraction. The day I came back, she distributed a subtraction test. I looked at the problems, printed in that odd-smelling purple mimeograph ink, and—never having seen a subtraction sign—I thought the teacher had neglected to make the vertical mark in her plus signs. I proceeded to put in the vertical line, converting all the subtraction problems into addition problems, and added everything up and turned in my test. When I got it back, it had a big fat red 0 where I was accustomed to seeing 100s.
No one noticed that I’d turned the minus signs into plus signs, or that I’d added everything correctly. No one was interested in my explanation. My mother was called, and in a parent-teacher conference, it was decided that I was having trouble with math. I needed special help.
This consisted of my mother sitting at the kitchen table with me in the evenings, a row of pecans lined up between us.
“I have five pecans,” she would say. “I take away three. How many are left?"
Obviously, two were left, but I wasn’t interested in them. “What was wrong with those three? Were they bad? Did you give them to some squirrels? Are they storing them for winter?”
My mother was short on patience, and she soon abandoned our tutoring sessions. Anyway, I didn’t actually have a problem with subtraction, once I figured out that it wasn’t addition.
Despite this shaky start, I usually made decent grades in math classes throughout elementary school, junior high, and high school, although often I had no idea what I was doing. I found geometry particularly irksome: Angle A = Angle A. Of course it does. It’s the same damned angle. Reflexive theorem, my ass. Redundant theorem is more like it.
Then came the ACT college entrance exam. I breezed through the English, reading, and science sections and blanked on the math section. I was back in second grade. I knew nothing. I panicked, and rather than try to work out any answers, I randomly colored in the multiple choice bubbles.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” my college advisor said that fall when she reviewed my test scores. My average score was high, but my math score was horrifyingly low. I was placed in a remedial math class—truly back in second grade now. Later, I took an algebra class with the best math teacher I ever had (thank you, Joe Clark), and math finally made sense.
Until 1983, the first year I, as a gainfully employed, responsible adult, attempted to complete a tax return. The EZ form did not exist then, so it was the classic 1040 that stymied me. Second grade. The ACT. Remedial math. And now the IRS, arguably the most intimidating government institution ever devised. My panic reached attack proportions. If I got this wrong, I wouldn’t just be sitting at a table with my mother, counting pecans; I could be fined tens of thousands of dollars, I could go to prison. I freaked, and my then-husband took over doing the taxes.
After my divorce, I was on my own with tax preparation again, but by then the IRS had devised the EZ form. It was simple to complete, although I knew it allowed the government to keep more of my money than an itemized return would have done.
Last year, I decided to be smarter about my money, and I engaged the services of an accountant—the least painful solution I’ve found yet. Still, a certain amount of preparation is required on my part. The 2009 return involves extensive medical expenses, which means that now, I have to sort through endless piles of invoices and statements. Yes, that’s “piles” with a “p,” not “files” with an “f.” The bills have been paid. That’s not the issue. My piles are systematic, but the organization isn’t apparent—nor is the information accessible—to anyone but me. Not without some sorting and a few spreadsheets.
Clearly, I have a lot of work ahead of me. If you, too, need to concentrate on your taxes—but you’re just not quite there yet—allow me to share with you my strategies for avoiding tax preparation:
#1: Clean studio/study/home office. My writing studio has been used for everything except writing in the two and a half years we’ve lived in this house, because I write on a laptop in bed, but now is the perfect time to move everything out of the studio, stack it in the living room, give the studio a thorough cleaning, and then reorganize as I put everything back.
#2: Bake brownies. What’s more comforting than homemade brownies? And you need to be comforted now, because you have the stress of tax prep hanging over your head.
#4: Peruse inspirational writing quotes. Here’s a recent favorite of mine: “Really, in the end, the only thing that can make you a writer is the person that you are, the intensity of your feeling, the honesty of your vision, the unsentimental acknowledgment of the endless interest of the life around and within you." --Santha Rama Rau. Yes, Santha Rama Rau, I am a writer. I am still more interested in what happened to the missing pecans than in how many are left, although I would sincerely love to see some of my pecans refunded this year.
#5: Re-pot some plants. I have re-potted the one plant I own. It’s a kalanchoe, and after two and a half years in my care, it lives only through the grace of God. I’ve killed mint. They say you can’t kill mint. Maybe they can’t or you can’t, but I can.
#6: Clean out your closet, bag up things to donate, and get around to that mending you’ve been putting off. In fact, anything domestic is excellent procrastination behavior, because you can tell yourself you’re being productive.
#7: Post-winter yard clean-up. After a long winter, the sun is out and the day is warm. Picking up a winter’s worth of dog poop is downright glorious compared to working on taxes.
#8: Write, revise, edit. Or paint, weave, pot—whatever floats your creative boat. Your creative life is far more important than tax prep. Undoubtedly, your tax return (no matter how creative) will not be a masterpiece. But that manuscript that’s been sitting in your drawer . . . it has potential.
#9: Stop neglecting your friends. You need them now, because friends are among our finest enablers, even when they don’t know it. Set up lunch with someone you haven’t been able to coordinate schedules with until now. What? You’re both free on Saturday? Since you haven’t seen one another for so long, linger for hours over that after-lunch cappuccino. Oh, and be sure to order the soufflé. It takes 45 minutes.
#10: Your creative well has been emptied, you’ve cleaned and mended, you’ve baked and re-potted, you’ve contacted friends you haven’t seen in years . . . and you have no more distractions. You must do your taxes. Snort. Amateurs. You’ve forgotten about social media. Facebook, Twitter, and, of course, Open Salon. They all await.