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Archive for January, 2013

Sit Up Straight

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Mom was right. But sometimes it takes a good physical therapist to get you to heed what you were taught when you were six.  Case in point”  SIT UP STRAIGHT.  And for that matter, stand up straight, too.

For the last three weeks, I’ve been working with an amazing physical therapist to get rid of pain I’ve had in my hip for years.  I thought it was arthritis.  I thought it was hip degeneration.  I thought is was a total hip replacement in my not-too-distant future.  All I actually needed was a refresher course in what I got from mom before I went off to first grade: Slouching is not acceptable.

For Mom, it may have been the need to raise a kid who looked half way interested in what was going on.  For my physical therapist, it’s a simple solution to avoid surgery, cortisone shots, and other expensive medical procedures.

I’m living in a 66-year old body.  Things are going to hurt every once in a while.  I’m going to do dumb stuff like clobbering myself with a shovel handle or treating my finger like part of the shish kabob.  You just assume it will get better after you do that kind of thing–and it does.  Except that’s not how it works with my back.  That is not just a “wait and it will be fine” situation.  It happens a little at a time and when it starts to hurt, it’s usually not in my back.  Confusing, right?

Not if you are paying attention to what’s really going on.

The truth of the matter is that most back problems come from poor posture.  I assume that I am standing straight when I’m not, believe I’m sitting up square when I’m twisted into the curve of a too cushy chair, and that I do my work looking straight at it when at least half the time, I’m torqued around so I can do two things–or more–at once.

Believe me, being good to yourself by maintaining good posture sounds simple but is not.  It takes ongoing effort and commitment.  It doesn’t even feel natural for me to stand with my feet equally weighted because I’ve the habit of weighting my left leg more for a long time.  (Thus, the pain in my right hip….)

You might not be blessed with the same luck as I had in terms of ending up with a great physical therapist.  But you might not have to if you remember this one thing:  If you are having pain on a recurring basis, check your posture.

This is one of those “easy fixes” that we don’t hear about often enough.  Back surgery is invasive and not always successful.  It’s a whole lot harder to deal with than re-teaching yourself how to sit on the couch when you watch TV, how to sit at your computer, how to stand correctly.

I am living proof of how much of a difference this can make.  The first time this physical therapist coached me, my life had degenerated into long days of laying on the bed most of the time because my leg hurt so much.  I could not walk a block.  (Yes, this is the hiker who considers anything under five miles “just a walk.”)  I was firmly convinced that it was my leg that was the problem–and I do have a genetic peculiarity that I could blame it on.  It was severe.

But this physcial therapist would have none of that and just went to work seeing how to make the hurt move around.  Once she did that, we knew what exercise I needed to do to get the pain to go away entirely.  And it did–in a matter of a few weeks.

It is way too easy to buy in on the invasive, expensive solutions to common healthcare problems.  Before you do that for leg, back, or hip pain, see what improving your posture will do. (Others have found this also to be true for shoulders and neck.) You might be as pleasantly amazed as I am.


When You Do Your Taxes…

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Not all tax preparers are created equal. If you decide to get help with your filing this year, pay attention to more than what it’s going to cost.

By the time we are close to–or in–retirement, we’ve spent a lot of time filling in the blanks for the IRS.  A lot of us have been filing our own returns since our first paychecks.  But there are times when getting some help might be a good idea.  And if you decide to get help, be sure you are getting the real deal.

Many times, what looks like the real deal is a lot less than what you need.  Here are two examples.

When I married and moved to Colorado, we used the accountant that my new husband had been using before I made the scene.  Every year when tax time came around, we’d sort and organize and document and then take the whole carefully orchestrated pile of numbers to him, and he would “do his magic.”  Actually, it wasn’t magic at all because my spouse was a bulldog about catching his mistakes.

A few years later, we bought a business and the accounting got more complex.  Again not a problem because said spouse knew when things didn’t add up.  We did need an accountant though, and every year the bill kept getting higher. That problem was “solved” by my spouse complaining and the accountant reducing his fee a bit each time he did.  I usually get along fine with people, particularly in business settings, but I didn’t like this accountant and I couldn’t really say why.  The whole thing seemed slightly off to me.

Finally, the amount he wanted for the work he was doing got to be too much.  Period.  Said spouse started looking for a new accountant.  And what he found was amazing.  The new guy was proactive. He asked questions.  He explained alternatives.  He made recommendations about the smartest way to do things in terms of tax implications and business planning.  He got the actual filings right the first time.  He was, in a word, a resource.  This is the kind of help you need if your taxes are complicated.

In case you are telling yourself “I don’t own a business and the guy down the street is good enough,” here’s another example.  This happened just a few weeks ago.  A good friend got caught trying to sell his longtime residence when the housing market collapsed.  To deal with the situation, he decided to rent the house out for a while.  That complicated his tax return since he had to claim the rent as income.  He’d been using the person who took over when his long-time accountant retired a few years earlier without ever checking what she knew and how she did things.

The advice he got from her was way short of what he needed.  By current estimate, now that he’s using a more competent tax preparer, he should be getting over a $1000 refund for 2011 alone.  Even more jaw dropping, this same “accountant” mis-advised him on how to file the long-term resident new home purchase tax credit paperwork on the house he’s living in now, so he didn’t get that the year prior either.  That was $6500 he was due but did not get.

This man is not a high roller.  He’s an ordinary guy on an ordinary pension living in a modest home in a modest neighborhood.  That was a lot of money for him.  He might have lost it, just because of the choice he made for who to use as a tax preparer.

Put good thought into who you ask for help on this stuff.  Ask friends if they are satisfied with who they use.  Check to see if there are complaints.  Figure out who to go with before the last minute.  And if whoever you go to says “I don’t know” or “I haven’t done this kind of filing before” think twice before you put your trust in them.  And trust your gut.  If something doesn’t feel right, keep looking.

It would be nice if our tax forms were simple, and the rules easy to comply with.  They aren’t.  Take the time to find the right person if your tax situation is complex enough that you need help.  A sign in the window that says “I Do Taxes” is not enough.




We Need to Cheer

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Is it social glue or manic behavior when we root for our favorite sports team?

Okay, I confess.  I spent most of this afternoon watching “my” NFL team win after 3+ frustrating hours of not-as-good-as-we-fans-have-come-expect football.  That’s over 10% of my day and almost 20% of my waking time watching someone else play a game.  I am embarrassed to admit that—or at least I was.

I was particularly distressed once I realized that I’d done that with the time I needed to write this post.  But everything—even getting waylaid by a football game—happens for a reason.  This time around, it was to teach me that cheering for favorite team is an okay way to spend time.  So…since I have finally learned that, you get the short course.

The vast majority of us end up rooting for some team to win at something while we just watch at some point in our lives.  Many of us do it all year long, switching from sport to sportas the various  seasons begin and then end.  We spend a lot of energy at it, too.  Jumping up off the couch on a good play.  Stomping out of the room when “our” team does something awful.  Yelling at refs.  Then we rehash the weekend contests at work—or wherever–on Monday… Tuesday… Wednesday…

Why do we do this?  That’s the question I asked myself after I realized I had spent my Sunday afternoon at it.  Why did I do that instead of cleaning the garage?  Or writing the great American novel?  Or even calling a good friend for a long phone conversation?  My assumption was that I’d chosen the potato chips rather than the veggies in how I had used my time—and that everyone who chooses likewise is just as derelict.

But when I started to research why we cheer, I came across two things that have given me a major change of heart.  The first is TJ Dawe, one of the guys behind Beams and Struts, an online magazine that carries the tagline “A Project for Hungry Brains and Thirsty Souls”.  TJ is not a sports fan.  Usually those who aren’t are rather aloof about all this cheering and whoopla.  Instead he embraced discovering the “why” of it.  It was not “How do I show how wrong all these people are for doing something I don’t do?”  It was “What makes us, as a culture, do this?” TJ and his cohorts dedicate the magazine to this kind of thinking.  It’s 180 degrees from all the “we/they” stuff we’re mired in these days and was incredibly refreshing—so much so that I ended up watching his entire TEDx Manitoba talk before I got back to the task at hand.  He wrote an article on why we cheer for Beams and Struts that’s worth checking out, too.

But I digress.  What I learned—which he learned, in part from Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich–is that our current mores around sports teams have deep, important roots.

As Dawe put it, “For hundreds of thousands of years, there’s been a strong adaptive advantage in feeling the pull to be part of a group. I am them. They are me. Their efforts are mine, and vice versa. I look out for them, they’ve got my back too.”  In other words, the grumpy guy who doesn’t bother to get involved with the rest has been, over the millenia, more likely to meet a quicker demise as a result of his separateness.

We don’t hunt woolly mammoths together anymore.  We don’t go out to gather acorns or wild rice and millet with huge wild animals on the prowl.  But that sense of banding together is still wired in.  So we gather to urge “our” team on to victory instead.  A symbolic successful hunt.

When I started this article, I had a second question in mind:  Why don’t we cheer for ourselves instead?  Why don’t we use that energy to make something happen in our own lives instead of going crazy over a bunch of overpaid jocks?  I honestly believed that’s where this article would go—to a “we can do better than this” conclusion.

I can’t say that.

When we go nuts as sports fans (assuming “nuts” is legal and that you’re not so obnoxious you get kicked out of the venue), it’s a chance to be part of a “we.”  And we need “we” opportunities.

So connect and go crazy for a few hours every once in a while.  Even the zany fan behavior is consistent with the carnival nature of the sporting events of the Middle Ages, when we were closer to those “you have my back, I have yours” days.   It really is very old, important behavior for the sake of the species.

Plus, life is not always about getting things done.  Even if they lose, you’ve been a part of something bigger than yourself for a while.  And that is good for all of us.  Besides, no one ever died saying, “I should have had less fun.”


The Answer Is Soup

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

Perhaps you watched the same national news program I did tonight–where they did a piece on Detroit Soup.  I hope you were as impressed as I am.

Yes, this does involve soup.

No, it is not about feeding the needy with soup.

Detroit Soup describes itself as … “a collaborative situation..a public dinner…a platform for connection…a theatrical environment…a democratic experiment in micro-funding…a relational hub bringing together various creative communities…a forum for critical but accessible discussion…an opportunity to support creative people in Detroit.”

It is definitely all of these things, but mostly, it is ingenious.  The movement hosts a monthly  soup dinner where diners pay $5 for a bowl of soup–with salad and bread (and the whole thing looked yummy when I saw it on the news).  While they are at the meal, they hear about creative projects that people in the community are hoping to fund.  As part of the event, the diners vote on which project to support.  Proceeds from that evening’s soup dinner go to that project.

There are so many things right about what Detroit Soup is doing that it’s hard to figure out where to start in discussing them.

First, it is a local effort aimed at helping local projects.  They’ve funded a company that designed and is manufacturing coats that convert into sleeping bags.  A high school entrepreneurial team is bringing out a clothing line with custom silkscreen designs with the proceeds from a different soup dinner.  (In addition to support from Detroit Soup, their advisors are students from the University of Michigan.)

Even if you don’t get that evening’s funding, it’s a chance to give your project some visibility, which is crucial to finding other sources of startup capital.

And if you not there for funding, but rather for soup, in addition to a hearty meal that’s also pretty healthy, you get the chance to learn what’s going on in the  community and the opportunity to get involved if you want.  You get to feel like you are a part of something because of that vote you got by showing up.  You get to talk to your neighbors.  And if you have kids, you get to teach them early what grassroots efforts are all about.

What would happen if we had Soup in every city in the US?  How about Chicago Soup and Orlando Soup and Tacoma Soup?  People helping people gets a lot more done than any government program ever will.  Keeping it local and face-to-face will cull out the charlatans and cheats a lot more easily.  Working at the microfunding level gets mentors and coaches into the picture before the mistakes are massively expensive.  Best of all, the entire community scores a win with each success.

It is heartwarming to see the wealthy step up to meaningful philanthropy.  Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are willing to use a lot of what they’ve amassed for the greater good.  But we can all be part of this picture when the effort looks like Detroit Soup.  We get to be the “angel investors” just by having a bowl of soup.  We get to give people a leg up by showing up and being part of something really good.

You don’t have to live in Detroit to make this kind of thing happen.  (But how fitting that our mega-industrial car manufacturing Mecca is where this idea seems to have hatched.) Waiting for the big corporations to bring their jobs home won’t get us very far.  It’s time to get the ball rolling with soup.

How can you encourage new ideas and businesses in your community?  How can you be part of nurturing the next Golden Age of American business?  One, like the last one, that’s build on ingenuity, grit, and the help of friends.