You can’t go home again

My MN House - Moving In Day

This is the suburban Minneapolis house that I bought (all by myself) in 1997. I signed the purchase agreement, and a few days later my parents came up to see it. I took them on a tour, and they tried to convince me to get out of the deal before the closing date. Looking at the exterior, you can probably see why.

What you can’t see here is the interior, which had been completely redone. New carpet, custom cabinets in the kitchen, hardwood floors in the bedrooms, and a glass block window in the tub/shower. It looked nice, and I liked it even though it was only 640 square feet. Yep, it was TINY!

I dreamt about this house last night. In my dream, J.P. and I had bought the house back . . . apparently without looking at it. When we moved in, we found that the kitchen counters were too low. They were about table-height, and the sink was only about 18 inches off the floor. How am I supposed to do dishes in that sink?!? (The house didn’t have a dishwasher when I lived there.)

Then I noticed that someone had installed a dishwasher. They’d cut a hole in the wall about three feet off the ground and stuck the dishwasher in it. No trim around it, no water source, nothing. Just shoved it right in there until the door was flush with the wall. I’m not sure how the whole dream came about, but it was weird.

When I actually lived there, I did make some improvements to the outside. My parents and their neighbors helped me paint the exterior, I had new windows installed, and I got rid of those horrible shrubs and did some other things around the yard. Here’s what the house looked like on the day I moved out (click either picture to view the Flickr notes and see exactly what was done):

My MN House - Moving Out Day

Because my parents thought the place was a dump (they weren’t completely wrong), I worried the entire time that I lived there. What if I can’t sell it? What if no one wants to buy it? What if I take a loss on the sale? What if, what if, what if?

Here’s a question I didn’t consider: What if it sells the first day it’s on the market? I shouldn’t have worried all that time, because that’s exactly what happened. It went for $5,000 more than the asking price, and $33,600 more than I’d bought it for three years earlier. I was so relieved! And the profit enabled J.P. and me to buy the house we have now.

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Bridezilla

Have you seen Bridezillas on the We network? It’s not something we ordinarily watch, but we happened to catch it tonight. Oh. My. Gosh. How can these women live with themselves? Why would anyone want to voluntarily sign his life over to live with one of them (though some of the grooms aren’t exactly prizes themselves)?

It got me thinking about our wedding. No, not because I was a bridezilla! In fact, I think I was pretty much the opposite. J.P. was living in New Jersey, and I was in Minneapolis. We were building a house in Pennsylvania, so he was in charge of working with the builder. I did a lot of the wedding planning, but he did help when he was in town.

I was 31 and he was 30. I think that made a big difference in our planning and in our wedding itself. It wasn’t about the “perfect day.” And it wasn’t about me, me, me. It was about having a good day with our family and friends, and about starting our marriage on the right foot. Oh yeah—and it was about saving money, because we financed most of it ourselves.

I looked for a dress at regular bridal shops, but I got so tired of the whole racket. Snippy clerks with attitude, ordering a dress that’s three sizes too big, and then stressing about whether it came in, whether it was right, etc., etc., just wasn’t for me. I was pretty lucky to find a dress at a consignment shop. It had never been worn, and it was $375. One of my mom’s friends altered it and sewed the bustle, so that didn’t cost me anything. My mom and I made my veil from materials we got at the fabric store. Another $100 saved.

You can’t see it all that well in this picture because I was wearing a leather coat during our escape from the church. It was April, and it was Minnesota, and there were snow flurries. I didn’t care—I just wanted to be warm! If only you could see our faces—we were smiling from ear to ear.

Leaving the church

I didn’t really have any specific colors in mind when the bridesmaids and I went shopping for their dresses. We stayed away from the bridal shops that day too, and we managed to find black dresses that were affordable and that looked good on all of them. So our colors were black and white. And there were no dyed shoes. I didn’t care if they all wore the same shoe, so they wore their own. Why spend a lot of money on that?

We ordered our invitations from the internet, and made our own programs and favors. A lot of that was going to ultimately end up in the trash, so I wanted them to look nice . . . on a budget. And I think they turned out well. Our favors were chocolate truffles that I made with help from my mom and her friends. We put two truffles in each little white box and topped the box with a gold origami crane that J.P. folded. I don’t think many of the truffles got thrown away!

You’re probably starting to think this was quite the homespun/redneck event, but we put the money into things that counted. We did have the reception at a country club, but even that was a pretty good deal. The food was great, and dessert was included as part of the meal. So instead of having traditional wedding cake, we had cheesecake. In my book, cheesecake’s better anyway, so I was perfectly fine with that.

We had a live band for the dance instead of a D.J. But . . . here comes the redneck part . . . it was kind of an old-time band. They played It Had to be You for our first dance. And they played lots of polka music, which was perfectly fine with my family (you should’ve seen me trying to teach J.P. to polka!).

Overall, it was a really good day. We often say that we’d do the whole thing all over again if we could afford it—it was so much fun. But the best part? It made me his wife.

In the limo

Take this job – Part 3

Click the links to read Part 1 and Part 2.

If you made it all the way through part 2, you know how my first job sucked the life out of me. This, the third and final part of the series, explains how the company affected other people.

You know all that money that gets withheld from your check every payday? Well, your employer is required to send that money to the federal and state government on a very strict schedule. So let’s say you get paid on Friday. By Tuesday or Wednesday of the following week, all of the employees’ tax withholding has to be deposited (don’t quote me on these timeframes—it’s been 15 years, and I’m not as up-to-date on the laws as I used to be) with the government.

As my employer’s business expanded, it offered a tax filing service for the payroll clients. When clients purchased the tax filing service, the company would debit their bank accounts on the check date for the total tax amount. Then my employers got the “float” (interest) on that money between the check date and the date it had to be deposited. Great arrangement, right?

Well, in reality there were a couple of problems with it. One was that the owners didn’t set up a separate bank account for the tax monies–they just deposited them into the operating account. And the other problem was that small start-up companies often have trouble keeping up with expenses. There were legitimate business expenses of course, but there were also things like the Chevy Blazer that their teenagers drove, the owners’ trip to New York so the husband could run in the marathon, and their vacation on a Windjammer Barefoot Cruise (meanwhile, we employees were paid dirt).

Often, they would debit Company B’s account on a Friday and use the funds to pay Company A’s taxes on Wednesday. Then on Thursday they’d debit Company C’s account and use that money to pay Company B’s taxes. And so on and so on. This tactic worked pretty well at first. But then they started to land bigger and bigger clients, with bigger and bigger tax liabilities. Pretty soon, Company C’s debit amount didn’t cover all of Company B’s payroll taxes, and the snowball began rolling down the hill. I’m not sure how long it went on, but I believe it started before I left the company in March of 1994.

As a result of this “business practice,” there were some companies whose taxes were being paid late (tack on some interest and penalties), and later, some companies whose taxes didn’t get paid at all. As you can imagine, the clients weren’t too happy when they started getting notices from the IRS. It took a while, but eventually the IRS began to piece the puzzle together–about 100 companies with tax deposit problems, and the common denominator was the payroll company that they used.

Everything came crashing down in the fall of 1995. The company was looking for investors and trying to avoid bankruptcy when they were raided by the federal government. The whole thing was captured by the local TV news crews. As my roommate (who had also worked there) and I watched the 10:00 news, we saw images of men removing file boxes that bore our handwriting. Our stunned former co-workers appeared in the background. It was surreal.

In all, approximately 100 clients were affected to the tune of $5.7 million, and they were still on the hook to pay the IRS. So in effect, they paid double their taxes (once to my former employer and again to the IRS), plus many of them ended up paying penalties and interest.

The owners were tried, but not for embezzlement or theft. Apparently there were no laws that directly applied to the situation. They were charged with defrauding clients, mail fraud (because the tax forms they filed indicated that the taxes had been paid), conspiracy to interfere with the IRS’s collection of taxes, and filing false tax returns. Some of my friends were called to testify, but fortunately I never was. The husband was sentenced to approximately five years in jail and the wife received a four year sentence, plus they were ordered to pay $5.7 million in restitution.

I wonder if any of the clients has seen a penny of that money.

Take this job (from hell) – Part 2

Click the link to read Part 1 of the series.

In 1991, I graduated college with majors in business and music, and I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life (still don’t, come to think of it). So I started temping while I looked for that first “real” job.

After about a month, I landed a position with a small company in Minneapolis. This company consisted of three people—the owner, a sales guy, and me. It wasn’t an accounting firm, but we did bookkeeping services and payroll for other companies using a DOS-based (remember those days?) computer program.

::mrtl-style tangent::
On the very first day at this job, I had one of my most embarrassing moments ever. I was wearing the navy blue double-breasted coat dress I had worn at my college graduation because it was the most business-y thing I owned at the time. At one point in the morning, I smoothed the back of my dress before sitting down and noticed an odd sensation as my fingers brushed over my left butt cheek. I craned my neck around to find a gaping hole in the seam. And there was no pinning it because both pieces of fabric had frayed at the edges.

What to do? Naturally, I went to the mall at lunch and bought a new dress. Of course, because my shoes were navy, my selection was somewhat limited. I ended up with a navy blue flower print dress that didn’t look anything like the ripped one. But I worked with two men. They wouldn’t notice, right? Wrong. When I returned to the office my boss said, “Is that the dress you were wearing this morning?” I admitted it wasn’t and told him the story. Ya gotta be able to laugh at yourself.
::end mrtl-style tangent::

Because it was a small company and because I was new to the corporate world and eager to prove my value, I didn’t mind spending a few extra hours here and there to finish up an assignment even though I was salaried and didn’t earn any overtime pay. And besides, I was new in town and didn’t have much of a life anyway. It was something to do!

Before long the owner’s wife, D., quit her other job and became the office manager. I can’t say there are many people that I “click” with right off the bat. But she felt like an old friend right away. Even though she was nearly 20 years older, we got along great. The business expanded, and we began hiring additional employees. Most of them were young women like me, and in fact, three of them had been my college roommates at one time or another.

Of course, having my friends work there was a lot of fun. And the fact that we young and still single made it that much more fun. We often did things together after work or on the weekends. A few of us—including D.—worked out together one summer and I ran my first (and only!) 5K race.

The workload increased, and more than once I (and others) pulled an all-nighter during our busy year-end crunch of producing W2’s and filing payroll tax forms on top of the regular work. But it wasn’t a frequent occurrence, and we were basically just doing what had to be done.

Then I moved into the newly-established pension department. With very little training I began administering 401(k) plans—basically calculating contributions, distributing market gains and losses to the employees, and printing quarterly statements. The business expanded some more, and pretty soon three people were working under me.

My work schedule went from the occasional 50-hour week to a fairly regular 80-hour week. Of course, I was still salaried, so didn’t receive any overtime. I started to keep track of my hours, and there were several weeks where I clocked nearly 100 hours, and even one where I put in 105.

Now, let’s pause for a moment and look at the facts, shall we? Here I was, 23-24 years old, doing a job I didn’t know very well, and trying to supervise three others doing the same job. I didn’t have any background in management, except for the course that was required for my major. Translation: I really sucked at this job. But I was in so far over my head that it took me a long time to realize it. For example:

  • At one point during all the crazy hours, D. was very pleased to give me a bonus for the hard work I’d been doing. I eagerly ripped open the envelope to find . . . a check for $100. A measly hundred bucks! I couldn’t believe it—I was PISSED. But I didn’t say anything because a.) I knew the business was struggling to stay in the black, b.) D. was a friend as well as my manager and I knew she was trying to be nice, and c.) I was stupid and naive.
  • I wasn’t the only one working long hours—the rest of the pension department was too. One Monday, D. demanded to know why one of our team members hadn’t shown up for work on Saturday (this was a regular Monday-Friday office job). As if he needed an excuse!
  • I often left the office after 9:00 PM. And I was SO tired all the time. But I stayed up late every night because I knew if I went to bed before I was ready to absolutely collapse, my mind would race and I’d never be able to sleep.
  • More than once, I was brought to tears by something that happened on the job. In fact, it started to become a regular weekly occurrence. I was so tired, angry, and overwhelmed that it didn’t take much to start the waterworks.

Why did I stay? I think there are a lot of reasons.

  1. I wanted to do a good job, and I guess I was attempting to compensate for my lack of experience by putting in extra time (even though much of that time was spent spinning my wheels).
  2. I’d never had another “real” job to use as a comparison. I thought everyone who wanted to get ahead worked crazy hours. And because many of my college friends were “on the inside” with me, I didn’t have a reality check from people who had different experiences. All of my friends’ experiences were the same as mine!
  3. The job was my life, and not just because I didn’t have time for anything else. I had good friends there, and I don’t think I realized that those friendships could continue post-employment. (As it turns out, last month in Minneapolis I had dinner with three of my former co-workers, nearly 11 years after leaving the company.)
  4. Despite everything, I really did like it there. It’s difficult to explain how that could be the case, but I guess it felt like a little (dysfunctional) family.

The light bulb came on for me when P., the manager of the payroll department, quit. I had been there for nearly three years, and she had been there almost that long. We’d sort of “grown up” together at that company. It was almost like her leaving gave me permission to get out too. And it’s funny—she started a mass exodus. Within just a few months, I think 10-12 people left.

As bad as it was, I’ll always be grateful for the friends I made there and for the experience I gained. Of course I learned the payroll business from the ground up, and that definitely helped me to get the next few jobs after that. But the experience also taught me a very important phrase: “It’s just work.” Work will be there tomorrow and the company will be there tomorrow, even if I’m not. And you know what? That phrase applies to every job I’ve had since then too.

_________________________

Did you make it this far? Would you believe I still have more to say about this job? Stay tuned for part 3 . . .

Take this job – Part 1

When I started this post I was planning to do a meme that I saw over at The Stolen Olive. But I was having so much fun with the first question that I decided to scrap the meme and just write about different jobs I’ve had over the years.

In high school, I was a grocery store cashier for a couple years. This was back in the days when you had to key every price into the register—no scanners back then. I loved ringing up orders. My fingers, conditioned from years of clarinet playing, could fly across that keypad in record time. Of course, there was the time I charged a guy $10.90 for a half gallon of milk. Hey, I didn’t say I was accurate—only fast.

During my freshman year of college I had two horrible jobs. First semester, I worked in the dining service dish room. Hey, remember when you mixed your unwanted Brussels sprouts in with your leftover softserve ice cream? And that day when you stuffed all those wadded-up napkins in your half-full glass of chocolate milk? Yeah, I was the one taking those trays off the conveyor belt, scraping off the food, and then putting the dishes in the dishwasher that was bigger than my dorm room. At the end of the shift we’d have to practically climb inside it to get it clean. And the lovely smells; ah, those were the days.

As you might imagine, second semester I wanted something different. Better. So I signed on with the alumni office as a telemarketer. Yes, that was SO much better. Every night instead of hanging out at the library or watching TV with friends, I’d head over to the the science building where the auditorium had been converted to a phone center. For three hours, I would call alumni and ask for donations to the college. That job was a character builder, let me tell you. But it was also a good stepping stone. For the three years after that, I worked as the statistician for the telemarketers—keeping track of the pledges, sending out the pledge forms to alums, and doing other odd jobs around the office. It was wonderful, and even though I graduated 15 years ago, I still keep in touch with my boss from that job.

As my freshman year drew to a close, it seemed like all of my high school friends were getting really cool summer jobs. I didn’t want to be left out of the fun club, so I applied with a family in Denver to be a nanny for their three girls, ages 11, 5, and 3. Now I don’t know about you, but when I hear that someone has a nanny, I imagine that they live in a huge luxurious house, take fabulous vacations, and basically have a lot of money. These people? Not so much. They lived in a three bedroom split-level in the suburbs and were struggling to repay their dental school loans. But hey—I was used to that! They were great, the kids were well-behaved, and I loved it. They basically treated me like another member of their family. It was a sad day when I had to say goodbye to them and the beautiful mountains to head back to the flat frozen tundra that is North Dakota. I still keep in touch with them too. The girls? Yeah, they’re now 29, 23, and 20. Ugh.

The summer after my sophomore year, I started out as a cashier in the souvenir shops at Valleyfair. I was miserable working 12+ hour shifts on my feet with a bunch of irresponsible high school kids. And I hated watching for shoplifters, taking wet money that people had pulled out of their shoes, and being subjected to overtired tantrum-throwing kids. Who needs all that? After a month I gave it up for an office job in St. Paul.

The next job that I want to write about was my first “real” job after college. It truly deserves its own post, so I think I’ll stop here for now. Tune in later this week for Take this job (from hell) – Part 2.

You asked for it

A long time ago, I decided not to post pictures of myself on this site. And not only am I posting a picture (mostly) today, but it’s a dorky one from high school! But I aim to please, and you guys wanted to see my 80s hair. I hope you’re not disappointed by its lack of bigness, but the giant fivehead and turned-up collar should be some consolation.

Senior Portrait

It’s a fivehead all right, but just look at how nice and smooth it is. Back then, the photographer retouched it to remove a few zits. Today he’d have to retouch it to remove the lines that have appeared in the last 19 years. Well, he would if I hadn’t learned to cover the vast expanse with bangs.

And here I am with some friends—we played in a clarinet/flute quartet that year. Nope, I couldn’t get enough band geekdom during the school day; I had to go for the extra-curricular band geek activities.

Quartet

I’m the one in the Forenza sweatshirt (remember those from The Limited?). The yearbook staff took all the extra-curricular photos that day—band, speech team, honor society, student council, etc.—so not only do I have bad hair, but when you look through the yearbook it also appears that I owned only one shirt. It’s difficult to tell in the photo, but the shirt had kind of a polo collar attached to it. And you guessed it—that’s turned up too.

Since I blurred my own face, I didn’t think it was fair to expose my friends’ faces. The girl on the left was homecoming queen, and the one in the Coke shirt was our class president (I was VP). That’s N. on the right. She was pretty much the opposite of me—cute, petite, blonde, athletic, and perky. And she was my best friend. She lives in North Carolina now, and we still talk a couple times a year.

Those were the days—sometimes I wish I could travel back in time and spend about a month there. I would definitely choose this time of year, with homecoming, football games, crisp fall air, and the smell of burning leaves.