Every one has milestone days in their life, a day that they mark as a new beginning. For some it is New Year's Day. For others it is their birthday or anniversary. Those of the Jewish faith get an extra day, adding the Jewish New Year to their milestone calendar, never the same day from year to year. And for tax accountants, April 15th is without question the end of a season of work, work and more work. In many ways April 16th is the start of the rest of my year.
I have spent 15 years on a quest for a balanced life. It's a constant shift in priorities, a challenge no different than working on a marriage or a relationship. Like anything else that you'd like to succeed, it takes hard work and perseverance.
As an entrepreneur, I've taken control of my business so that I in fact have a life. While many accountants might choose to keep up the work grind after April 15th, I have made determined choices not to. I have enough business to provide a decent living while not being a workaholic throughout the entire year. I can work seemingly endlessly for 10 weeks (February 1 - April 15th) and then stop, cold turkey almost. I take some days off and slowly ramp back up. I don't even take a week long vacation immediately. I save that for later, for a time when my whole physical being, body and soul, is present enough to truly enjoy it. I let my body crash if it needs to. I simply let go.
I go from working 6 days a week to working 2 or 3 in the weeks that follow April 15th. Instead of being at the office between 6:30 - 7:00 am, I show up between 9:00 - 10:00 am. Instead of leaving the office at 7:00 pm, I leave when I want to. If I can't focus after a few hours, I do the administrative work that doesn't require my full attention. Amazingly, my clients don't really expect me to be there. Being gone for 4 or 5 days, I've come back to less than three voice mail messages over three weeks. Emails accumulate but my away message is on. I don't check emails or voice mail from home. I simply don't have to. There is no such thing as an accounting emergency. And if clients require attention, it can wait a day or so. It really doesn't matter.
Lest any one think that I have a bad attitude, I don't. I have a steady base of loyal clients. I service their needs on a timely enough basis. Sometimes, good enough is all that you need. And this from an organized perfectionist! I am not letting my clients down by working less. I simply have learned when I'm able to step back from work. And I've learned to do it with ease and without guilt.
Thirty days have passed since April 15th, 30 days that seems to be a lifetime in many ways. Was it really just a month ago that my only focus was work? It's really hard to believe that, but it's true.
My body clock is fairly adjusted. If I wake up in the middle of the night now, I'm easily able to fall back asleep. I can stay up late, even read a book for more than a few pages before nodding off. I stay in bed long after I'd previously already been working at the office. I dilly dally at home in the morning, taking care of personal business, catching up on the parental financial responsibilities that I assumed after my dad's death last year. Those responsibilities overwhelmed me last fall. So much so that I was truly worried about how I'd handle them in the midst of tax season. Somehow I simply integrated them into my day to day life. I prioritized what truly needed to be done and put the rest aside until later. Because if I've learned anything over time, it's this - everything gets done. I can stress about my do-to list or I can just take it as it comes. I am responsible. I am organized. I create my own stress. I have the power to control that stress too.
And so in this post 4/15 month, I've had a life. I had some fun. I volunteered. I spent some of my hard earned money, my joyful contribution to a still faltering economy, one with fashion sense, purpose and style! I've reconnected with friends and family.
I finally finished a book that normally would have taken only a few days to read. Struggling to keep my eyes open in March and April after long days of work, it took me over a month. Finally ready for a reading frenzy, I read 4 books, 3 of them on my new Amazon KindleTM while traveling. I could even read a page or two of the KindleTM books on the synced application on my Iphone if I wanted to! Ah....technology!
But I chose to use some technology just for fun and pleasure. I don't let my work emails chase me on my Iphone, even though I could. I don't let my work email address merge into my GmailTM account because I don't need or want to see these emails since I am not at work. I shop the Iphone application store weekly adding practical, useful and sometimes silly fun, games and information. My phone doesn't make me think about work. In fact my clients as a rule do not even have that number. If they do it's because for some reason I called them from it and the caller ID gave it away or their friends as well as clients.
One Iphone application even searches for spas with the GPS locator. And while I didn't really use it as I have my local favorites, after April 15th I found lots of time to be pampered. Boy did I pamper myself. By 1:00 pm on April 15th it was time for spa day with Demi, the college student who helped with the administrative tasks at the office for 10 hours a week this season. We started with massages and finished with manicure and pedicures. The look of pure bliss on Demi's face was priceless. The next morning I scheduled "wax-o-rama" at Spa Soak, my favorite neighborhood place, this service more maintenance than spa. That same afternoon I ventured downtown to Bliss for my favorite triple oxygen facial with my friend Bev. I save this treatment as a special treat, showing up within days of April 15th and October 15th (the final extension deadline) every year. This spa hopping spree is my ritual - favorite treatments, new places, placed tried and true. Time to heal my body and soul, either by myself or sharing the relaxation and pamper time with friends.
I reconnected with acupuncture. Usually during tax season, I have a standing appointment at 4:00 pm on Saturday to end my work week. But this season it wasn't as automatic in years past. Twice my acupuncturist, Krishna had to cancel. A few other times I found myself canceling to instead head north to visit friends in the suburbs for some fun, a sleepover in the making. I didn't have to be home the next Sunday morning for my usual 10:00 am training session because my personal trainer Liz was traveling to Missouri and Michigan having her 1st baby showers with family. My body did not betray me this tax season as has for several years past. For that I am oh so thankful. Acupuncture now helps me to reset my body clock as well as work through the body issues that come with being a female in my 50s. This 50+ female that takes no prescription medication. And I'd like to keep it that way as for as long as I can. By taking care of me through acupuncture, massage (every two weeks) and chiropractic work (less so in recent years) plus moderate, fairly regular exercise, I have maintained a healthy body and lifestyle. It's work and yet, not work. I know that a healthy mind and body is a part of having a balanced life.
Some kind of exercise is part of most every day now, whether it's the pre-morning jaunt on the treadmill, finally reaching inclines not attempted since my leg injury over 15 months ago or a walk outside now that the weather is so inviting. I am not neurotic about it. In my early forties, there was a time that I was. Exercise is my reason for eating. I exercise, therefore I can eat. Exercise gives me energy. As Liz will soon be on maternity leave, I've found a Pilates class close to home, shuffling a few pre-scheduled plans and freeing up my Tuesday nights for six weeks to do it, no excuses. I've not been much of an exercise class person for many years. I prefer the one on one attention, the regular appointment that is mutually flexible if schedules change. Classes have simply felt too regimented. And with my compliance schedule at work my life feels regimented enough. But without replacing Liz during her maternity leave I need to move my body other than just walking. And I know that I don't have the motivation to do the weight training on my own. As it turned out the Pilates exercises were mostly familiar to me, Liz having integrated them into our weight training and strengthening long ago. Pilates is all about strength and core balance. Balance, there's that word again, even in my exercise regime.
My social networking is really social, people to people, and not computer to computer. And it often revolves around the consumption of a meal. I don't cook much anymore. When cooking for one, it's easy to cook too much...and then eat it. Privy to two gourmet carry-out food businesses within blocks of my house, it's easy to pick up something on the way home or walk from my house, if need be. And there's always my favorite delivery places for Chinese, Thai, Ribs and more. With the wealth of restaurants in Chicago, there's always a new trendy one to try, often within walking distance of either home or office. For me, eating out and seeing friends goes hand in hand. We each need to eat and it's nice to have company to catch up, to share news.
The dining experience begins on the evening of April 15th at Branch 27, a new spot in West Town. Joined by friends Ida and Janet (illustrator of Life is a Balancing Act...a fun book) it's been an annual event for the three of us since 2000 I think. Ida, my best friend, has been celebrating April 15th with me for more years than I can even remember. For several years we had an April 15th ritual where we wrote wishes for the world, ourselves, and each other on post-it notes and put them in a decorated frog box. The next year, we'd open the box and take turns reading the wishes. We kept them if they had in fact come true and put them back in the box if they had not. Our wishes for no war and world peace always went back into the box. This year was more about eating and catching up, less so about written wishes on post-it notes. Although we did happily acknowledge that our wish for a new president had finally come true. The frog box sits prominently on a shelf in my creative space with the prior years' wishes still intact. Maybe next year we should open it and see what lies within.
Two days later I dined with my friend Michele at Eve, a restaurant downtown. She'd been there once before and thought I'd like it. She was of course right. We got downtown early, the sun was still shining with enough time to wander through the new Barney's that had opened that week. From Target and Wal-Mart bargain shopping with my friend Cathy in the morning to Barney's at night. Coveting a $550 pair of sandals, I kept my credit card in check and just enjoyed the scenery of both fashion and people! I satisfied my need for a new pair of shoes the next day, for half the price and just as much style, a $40 off coupon from a City Soles/Niche, a great shoe boutique, a mere few blocks from my house. Keeping the local economy strong!
A few weeks later I tried a new Asian hot spot, before an awesome evening of music, Robin Thicke and Jennifer Hudson, in concert. From burgers and beer night in the bar of upscale, 160 Blue after facials at Bliss, I returned again the very next week before a Chicago Bulls playoff game, the stadium very close by. It would of course be the one game in the series with the Boston Celtics where the Bulls were blown out of the game. No overtime, double or triple thrillers on that trip to the United Center. No, those games were watched on television or listened to on the radio in the car on the way home to watch the game, having mild heart palpitations and losing my voice cheering wildly even if there was no one there to hear me.
From music to theatre, Rock and Roll by Tom Stoppard at the Goodman Theater to a revival of Mary Poppins, the musical (but for the slight error as to the date of the tickets which I discovered in the middle of a wonderful early pre-theater dinner that turned out instead to be the day's event as opposed to the prelude) to a moving celebration and opening ceremony of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center on a cold rainy end of April day to a road trip to Madison, Wisconsin to visit my 21 year old nephew, a junior at the University of Wisconsin, my alma mater. This, my third annual trip has been the same weekend every year, lasts less than 24 hours and is complete with ice cream at the Union, (a UW tradition), a walk down State Street, a trip to the Farmer's Market on Saturday morning (weather permitting), a shopping excursion and trip to the Madison Art Museum Gift Shop (not the museum, just the gift shop) topped off by a nice dinner courtesy of "cool" Aunt Debbie, an honor bestowed upon me by Benjamin during his Bar Mitzvah speech over eight years ago.
Benj and I have a special bond. And I do what I can to continue to nurture that bond - with him and his sister and cousins both collectively and individually. From Benjamin (age 21) to Milly (age 3), there are two boys and three girls to love and spoil as Aunt Debbie. Sami's just graduating high school, headed to NYU in the fall. Jake's will be 11 this August and Ava, 9 in September. Two decades of kids to share in the events of their lives. The younger three (my brother's children) live two blocks away from me, literally around the corner. It makes it easy to stop in and say hi for a few moments, if of course they let me leave after only a few minutes which they usually don't or at least not without protest!
Baby Milly and I had our first solo excursion on April 23rd. She's finally old enough to truly verbalize her thoughts. I always joked that I'm was not taking the three of them together. Two is hard enough but the age range is so transparent right now that it not only changes the dynamics but the things that I can now do them. Jake and Ava and I can go to museums, theater and sporting events. Milly, not so much! So I try to spend time with each of them doing something special with Aunt Debbie. Milly was giggling a plenty as we started our walk through the neighborhood. Her first solo adventure with Aunt Debbie! The only problem was her body clock was still set on Hawaiian time, having returned from a two week family vacation a few days before. As we were walking out of the shoe repair store, a new find in the neighborhood on a grand spring day, she fell asleep and stayed asleep for the entire two and a half hours that I had her. She was equipped with a some new bubble toys to take home (Aunt Debbie had been stocking up in anticipation) and a cold quesadilla that her mom would later microwave that I had picked up for our lunch en route back to my house. I scoured the neighborhood for potential new office space, checked out a new artists' cooperative, shopped at a few stores along the way and Milly slept. I'm not even sure if she'll remember her first big girl Aunt Debbie day. I see a day at Lincoln Park Zoo in her future soon.
I'm still trying to find a dance concert to take Ava too, having failed to coordinate schedules twice already due to her social calendar, not mine. She's a bright patient little girl but she remembers clearly that I took Jake to the Bull's game at the end of February. I owe her a solo Aunt Debbie day too! I already see that there's a Harry Potter exhibit opening at the Museum of Science and Industry. I suspect that will be on the Aunt Debbie schedule with at least one if not more of the kids, including the oldest ones who were the original Harry Potter fans. I've read all the books, seen all the movies. Harry Potter can easily be shares amongst the generations and will be!
This spring, the sports season in Chicago has been really fun. While not a hockey fan, I do know that the Hawks are 8 games away from winning the Stanley Cup. The young up-start Bulls took the champion Celtics to game 7 in the first round of the playoffs. It's been a long time since basketball mattered in May in Chicago. After the Michael Jordon glory years of the '90s, it felt great to be cheering in the playoffs again.
The Cubs and Sox are slugging away on the opposite ends of the city. A loyal Cubs fan, I've learned not to buy tickets for any games until at least June. You simply can not trust the weather. I don't do baseball in cold, snowy or rainy weather! I sat in the virtual waiting room the entire day on February 20th when tickets went on sale. I patiently waited my turn, over and over again, game by game, lining up assorted games for July, August, September and the last home weekend in October. Some of the early televised spring training games were background noise during the season, especially opening day. I find myself checking the daily schedule, watching the games, excited for baseball early in the season. I'm listening on the radio in the car, even listening on my Iphone with the awesome application that allows me to pick up any baseball broadcast from anywhere (in the United States I presume!). I listened to portions of four games recently while visiting my mother in Florida. My ear was half on the game, my eyes instead focused on the book that I was reading or the magazines I was browsing, having dragged them from home where they had been long since forgotten.
And on the occasion of the one month anniversary of April 15th, on May 15th, I actually went to my first Cubs game, invited by another friend Michelle; a Chicago Cubs die hard compatriot. Early in the week, the weather sounded like it would be beautiful. But then there was rain in the forecast. Boy did it rain. And rain. And rain. There was such a steady rain that it was clear that the game would be called before it even started. Not bothering to even head inside the park, we trudged through the crowds, the rain continuing its stead drip drop. We walked far enough from the bar scene to head to a restaurant where the food was more important than the drink. Oh well, best of intentions and all that! What's a girl to do? It was time to unearth my Cubs t-shirts, my arty Cubs purse and so I did, rain out and all. They didn't lose the game. They just didn't play it! Ah baseball season, how you tease me. There's so much more left to come. The Cubs are known to break hearts at the end of the season. It's our time - 100 years. Bring home the World Series boys!
After reading all that I've done in the first 30 days post 4/15, it sounds exhausting even to me. And yet, it wasn't. It wasn't like I was trying to cram as much into 30 days as I could because I was starved for social interactions, just working for weeks on end. I worked. I played. And trust me, I rested. I lounged at home, watching baseball or the season finales of my favorite shows, some still awaiting the touch of the remote at my leisure, yeah for DVR. My insistent political news addiction has finally waned. No longer do I automatically turn on MSNBC in the evenings to catch up on the daily liberal point of view.
I changed over my closets from winter to spring/summer, out with the cold, in with the new, clothes that is. I'm on a black and white and red kick this year, color coordinating my outfits, interchanging everything from my shoes to my jewelry in true Debbie style. I feel good on the inside right now; I want to dress the part.
Better yet, my creative juices are flowing. I'm writing, sharing my thoughts and experiences in a way that seemed vacant and lost for so long. 2008 was not a year of balance. I can admit that freely and I do. 2008 was the year my dad died. 2008 was the year another business venture deteriorated to the point where communication is now only possible through our attorneys, the financial issues still unresolved. When I'm not in balance I tend not to write. I see that now. But it's good to know that this too shall pass. And it did. The ebb and flow of life is just that, an ebb and flow. I go with the tide as opposed to letting the tide overtake me. For me, writing and creativity means I'm feeling balanced.
Work simply wasn't the number one priority for the 30 days post April 15th. When I finished the returns that were going to get done and went through my self-created extension ritual on the morning of April 15th, I left my office by 11:00 am, not returning until Monday April 20th. The week of April 26th, I worked Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, probably staying no later than 3:00 or 4:00 pm any of the days, not showing up until close to 10:00 am some days. I billed 11.39 hours. I caught up on some administrative chores including depositing the many checks and charges that arrived in the mail in the five days that I had been gone. Nothing like a little money to help your truly visualize the fruits of your labor.
The next week I worked Monday and Tuesday, again billing a mere 9.75 hours. For the rest of that week I volunteered for a youth entrepreneur conference, staying at the conference hotel from 1:00 pm Wednesday until 7:00 pm on Saturday. Interacting with the students as an expo judge, working on the signage for the daily events as conference staff, and serving as the "meet the experts" workshop facilitator was exhausting but more so rewarding. These young future entrepreneurs were learning skills to learn to create their own future through entrepreneurship. My added role of equal importance was to lend support to the executive director, my best friend Ida. This conference is the crowning annual achievement of her leadership of the organization which celebrated its 21st anniversary at the conference. As a past board member for 10 years, the last five serving as board chair, IIEE (Illinois Institute for Entreprenurship Education) does a lot of good. Continuing to be involved makes me feel good at the same time; albeit without now having the burden of attending board meetings and the inherent board responsibilities.
The conference ends and the next day I'm already packing my bags for my next trip. I'm headed to Florida to visit my mom for Mother's Day scheduled to leave on Wednesday morning, returning the next Monday afternoon. Each day that I'm there I do some necessary estate work that needs my attention, things that I've put on the back burner during tax season, things that I need to integrate back into my life. There are legal documents to get signed, signatures which need to be notarized. And throughout the trip, an underlying recollection that this same trip last year was the last time that I saw my father alive. Another two, two days work weeks, the trip spanning the week in a way that my Thursday and Friday off were not to be disturbed. 10.44 hours billed the first week, 11.94 the next.
And yet with only a mere 43+ hours billed in the four weeks post 4/15, somehow I've managed to complete 10 of the 63 individual returns that were extended. I've amended several returns that need correcting, started a few business ones and tended to a variety of document requests since everyone seems to be refinancing their mortgage and needs something from me to complete their loan package. Six months time to complete the extension returns. I completed 15.8% of the extension returns by barely working. Not bad. I'm on track and ramping up just enough. I'm rested enough so that I don't hate the office when I am there. Trust me, some years I truly hate the place. But not this year, yeah for me!
I can focus. I can work on one really hard return a day because only one needs to be done. My brain is not rushing. My mind and body are rested. Everything will get done, in its own time. The two day work weeks will soon come to an end. By June 1st I'll ramp back up to a full three days. And I'll be ready for it. Who can complain about a 3 day work week? Not me, that's for sure. I visualized what this life would look like. And then I spend years getting there. And now that I'm there, now that I've done it, I want it to continue. And so it will because I will make sure that it happens. Will there be hills and valleys? Of course there will. Will there be bumps in the road? Without question, there will be. But I'll pick myself back up and get back on my road to balance, my road to happiness.
Do I have things on my to-do list that need attending to, things that have been there for a while? Sure I do. Am I procrastinating about a thing here or there? Of course, I am. There's some electrical work in the house that's needed attention for a while. The garden needs tending, the spring weeds poking out amongst the foliage. I need to check-out redemption procedures on a bond long past its due date. I need to put the icky legal matters back on my plate. That time out now needs to end. But it's so good to know how far I'm come in coping with that whole ordeal, mentally and emotionally. I need to finish the estate tax work, work, but work done at home because it's family. I need to clean out the mess that has become the 2nd bedroom so that the kids can have their long overdue sleepovers. Things to do, all of which will in fact get done, whenever! Living a balanced life does not mean that life is perfect. Life never is.
And then it happens, on May 15th no less. After 30 days of basic bliss, the other shoe drops. A semi- knock out punch that I'd mentally willed to stay away and not to come any other day. Something just aggravating enough to change that oh so happy continuum that had been my life since April 15th. Three words - house, mold and money.
My next door neighbor Dan started a rehab project in his townhouse a few weeks before. We share a common wall but it's not structured as a condo association. So we're not obligated to contribute assessments for maintenance and repair. We're friendly neighbors and have jointly undertaken some repair and maintenance projects in the past. It's been easy to oblige because he does all the legwork and makes it really easy for me to participate. He takes things off my to-do list and I don't take it for granted. Having to do and coordinate everything homeowner related by myself is not always easy.
Dan's got grandiose plans for what he wants to do with his townhouse. I have no such structural plans for mine and clearly not as much money to burn. As an original owner, I bought into this neighborhood when the going was still good, before the prices skyrocketed. My house has probably doubled in value in 14 years. As I'm not looking to sell or planning to move I've not been phased by the downturn in the market. The first mortgage will be paid off in 9 years, the equity loans is at very low rates with manageable payments. I'm not over-mortgaged.
I have a lovely townhouse, artfully decorated and see no need to turn it into an urban bachelor pad! Would I like a new bathroom with more modern fixtures? Sure I would. But it is not something that I need or plan to do. My money for home improvement went into the landscaping, turning my front yard into an easy maintenance urban garden with an array of annual vines and plants and flowers that appear like magic at the first hint of spring and blossom into an every changing cornucopia of nature and color.
After knocking down some walls, significant mold was discovered in several areas of Dan's house. Now that I think about it, he called my cell phone the day he found out, clearly unhappy. I was in Florida and frankly didn't care to deal with issues at home at that moment. I was only half listening. And I guess I conveniently forgot about it for the week. As he'd left my mail in the mailbox after we'd missed each other at home several times, I'd not seen him since my return. Fast forward to the morning of 15th. We're both home, independently going to the Cubs game, the rain just threatening at that point. He was clearly stressed out and need to share the joy - not. It was time to listen and face reality. May 15th, the anniversary of when I bought the house 14 years ago, ironic timing all around.
As the only original tenant still living in the 5 units, I'm the only one to truly know that there's been flat roof/water problems for quite some time. The first time the roof leaked it was Christmas Eve and there was a pot catching the water in my bedroom until someone could come out to the house on December 26th. Luckily the drip was not directly over my bed. Who knew there was a spot on the ceiling? I never really looked at my ceilings prior to that incident.
So I listened to Dan, dollar signs floating through the back of my brain. I'm really not looking to do work on the house this summer. Not in my game plan, not on my financial agenda. I can point to spots on one wall in the kitchen and know that it's water damage. But do I really want to open this can of worms? Do I really want to know? No, but yes. At the very least, I should have it checked out. There are health considerations to mold, if there even is mold, still thinking positively.
Just when I was felling a little more at peace about money, investments recovering slowly and hopefully surely; the purse strings being more open to spontaneous retail purchases once again, money will be back on the table. Money and jobs and stress, a common combination for many in these tough economic times. I know that I've been lucky. My house is not in jeopardy, at least not the mortgage. My practice is stable and steady. If there's mold, then I'll do what needs to be done. Dan's convinced that he will get his insurance company to pay something; I'm convinced that mine won't, not being able to pinpoint the damage to any specific incident. Coming from different from financial perspectives may alter each of our selected courses of action in resolving the issue. But it will be resolved, hopefully with minimal stress, maximum efficiency and at a fair and reasonable price. If that's my attitude headed into this, then I think that I'm already one step ahead of the game.
Everything gets done some day, some way. There will always have things on our to-do list, in many ways it's never ending. Our lists change, our lives change. And so we adapt to the changes as best we can. April 15th is my light at the end of the tunnel. And starting on April 16th I get to enjoy the light for the rest of the year. On April 15th I finish toiling endlessly for the year. On May 15th, I look back at the balanced live that I created for myself in just 30 days. I look ahead to the rest of the year, knowing that the best is yet to come. Because I said so! I have had the opportunity to create my own life. I've taken those opportunities. I've taken some chances. I've stayed the course, riding out the good times as well as the bad. Balance isn't just about work and life or work and family. It's about all the things in your life. We balance work and play, friends and family, heart and soul and mind and body in continuously changing cycles. This is my life. And I'm proud of all that I've done, all that I am and all that I still can be.