It’s always good to set challenges for yourself. On that crazy powder day, stop skiing blues and go for the black diamond already. Complete your rote English homework assignment using only iambic pentameter. Get the TSA agents to ease up, chill out, and give you a genuine smile. Find your way upstairs with your eyes closed without seriously injuring either yourself or your roommate’s cute-eared dog.
Challenges make life interesting. They get you out of your comfort zone. By the end of them, whether or not you’ve succeeded, you’ve gained new skills, maybe some bruises, and more often than not, a new story.
This post is going to be me giving myself yet another fun personal challenge. The goal this time? Turn a frustrating bureaucratic process into a super fun tale that will not make its readers feel as if they are literally being crushed by the weight of their own boredom.
This is the first year I’ve ever done my own taxes; previously my dad has had the immense generosity to take care of both mine and my bro’s, and all I had to do was forward on my W2s. This was a big task my dad took on, as my brother and I have led rather nomadic lives: flitting from job to job, state to state, even country to country. My dad, in short, is a champ. But this year he finally handed over the ol’ tax reins (happily the first year ever that I’ve had just one job in just one state the entire calendar year.)
I was a little worried. Complaining about taxes is a national pastime, and IRS paperwork has the reputation of a fiercely formidable foe. As I settled into my desk chair, the wooden floor creaking ominously under my feet, the sun set and the sky dropped from gray into an inky purple. The house was quiet, except for the scratching of a rogue mouse in the wall. I took a deep breath and prepared for battle.
About two seconds into my TurboTax experience, I realized that I actually loved it. Seriously guys. Taxes are super fun. Whoever designs the TurboTax software is a genius – it’s all big satisfying buttons and clearly worded questions and tiny pictures and moderately funny asides. It’s like one of those online quizzes that everyone loves, with the added bonus that you can see your refund total rising on the sidebar. (I admit that if that number on the sideline was actually one that I owed it would probably be less satisfying.)
So I spent a happy couple hours completing my tax returns, until finally submitting them that purple-black evening, with a mug of tea, in my bedroom with one green wall. “I am a tax genius extraordinaire,” I thought to myself cheerfully. (I am prone sometimes to over-self-congratulation.) Even Mr. Wall Mouse had disappeared.
Within like ten minutes I had two new emails. One said that my federal tax return was rejected. The other said the same for my state return.
What was happening. I’d literally just been about to hit send on a “check it out, I’m the maestro of TurboTax” text to my dad. I read the emails. The problem, they said, was that I’d gotten my birthday wrong.
I re-entered the brightly-colored-button world of TurboTax, which was starting to lose some of its shine, and checked my birthday. Obviously it was right. Obviously I know my birthday. When I was little I proudly told everyone that September 21st was my favorite holiday. This is not a date I’m unclear on. I hit “confirm,” over and over again, slowly proving myself insane as TurboTax continued to cheerfully assure me that this was in fact NOT my birthday, at least according to the federal government.
I immediately slid into a self-doubting wormhole. How did I really know that was my birthday? Maybe my parents had been lying to me my entire life. Maybe I was actually 35. Maybe I was actually 18. I called my parents in a panic but no-one was answering the phone.
In my heart of hearts, I knew that my parents were trustworthy; still, I felt like I’d suddenly become a character in a previously unknown work from Kafka (one of his duller stories.) I definitely knew my birthday, but I could tell already that figuring this mess out was going to take listening to a lot of “your call is extremely important to us” music.
The next morning I called the IRS. After slightly more than an hour on hold (65 minutes), I reached a human female. “According to the records we have from the Social Security Administration,” she told me, speaking slowly as if I were a child, “your birthday is actually August 21st. You can submit your returns using that date, but if September 21st is truly your birthday, eventually you’re going to need to correct the federal records.”
This seemed impossible. I’ve submitted tax returns for years (/my dad has submitted my tax returns for years.) I’m on my second passport. I’ve undergone an hour-long personal interview with an FBI agent for a park service background check, for crying out loud. And never did this discrepancy come up? I learned eventually that until sometime in the past year, federal agencies didn’t really share information like this. No one was checking that information matched up from form to form. Finally, several months ago, they decided to sync the various computer systems. “And now we keep discovering errors like this,” another woman, at the SSA, would eventually tell me, with an extraordinary amount of patience in her voice.
So I plunged into the act of repair. I waited on hold a few more times, applied to have my birth certificate mailed to me, and eventually drove to the SSA’s Card Center in Minneapolis, last Wednesday morning. It was -6 degrees Fahrenheit, before accounting for the wind chill. A long line of people in black and gray jackets snaked out of the squat brick building. Many people were speaking Somali, or Arabic, or Spanish. What the heck were we all doing standing in this frigid grayness? At least I’d had the training of growing up in Detroit winters.
We all made it inside eventually, where we handed over our bags to be rummaged through and then walked through an old-school metal detector, before receiving numbers that seemed horrifyingly distant in the queue. I chose a spot on one of the long metal benches, and before long two other young-ish white women settled near me, as if they were looking for someone who looked like them. They were basically the most annoying and boring people in the universe and I began to wish they spoke Somali so that I wouldn’t be able to understand them, although if they had spoken Somali, they probably would have also had more interesting stories.
The end of the story comes quickly. My number was eventually called, and I met with a guy my age wearing jeans and a plaid flannel, which seemed like casual attire for someone who had my birthday, my identity, in his hands. He carefully inspected every piece of identification I could scrounge up and finally corrected my birth date in the system. The universe was restored to order. I walked outside into a brilliant golden wash of sunlight.
It takes ten days for IRS to note the change, apparently, so I haven’t re-submitted my returns yet, but I am looking forward to getting back on TurboTax.
When I did a Google Image search for “Turbo Tax,” these sheep came up. Let’s let them have the last word, shall we?