Monday, February 20, 2023



Trying to figure out my income tax this year has been about as challenging as being a contestant on Jeopardy.

After my husband passed away nearly 11 years ago, I gathered up all of my paperwork at tax time and headed to H&R Block. As I sat there, answering the endless list of questions the employee, in an insomnia-inducing tone, read to me from her computer screen, I began to think, "Heck, if I had that computer program she's using, I could do this myself.”

I later found out, after I paid $400 to H&R Block, they did offer that same computer program for only $65. So every year since then, I’ve been using it to prepare my taxes...and have had no problems whatsoever.

Until now.

The problem this year began when I received the 1099-R form for my late husband’s pension – better known as my annuity – from the government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM).  There's a box on the form that says “employee contributions," and that box has listed an amount of $79,000 every year since my husband retired back in 2007. I mean, it’s the total amount he contributed toward his retirement while he worked there. There's no reason for it to change.

At least I didn't think there was...until now.

On this particular 1099-R form it says "unknown" under employee contributions.


A million thoughts raced through my mind when I saw that. The first was that maybe the amount of the contribution was "unknown" to them, but I knew what it was - $79,000, the same as it always had been for the past 16 years! My second thought was perhaps my husband somehow had returned from the grave and once again was “contributing.” 

I soon learned, as I prepared my taxes, the word “unknown" is not allowed on the IRS form – it has to be an actual number. 

I noticed a toll-free number listed on the H&R Block program that said “We’re here to help!" So I called it, fully expecting to be on hold for an hour while being tortured with endless choruses of bad music. To my surprise, a woman immediately answered.

I explained the situation to her and asked what I should do with the “unknown” box. There was silence on the other end. Then, after telling me she didn't know, she had no idea why it would be unknown, and it made no sense to her, she said she would have a tax professional call me back. She put me on hold for a moment and then said Ernest would be calling me between 1:45 and 2:00. So I waited by the phone.

At 4:15, I still was waiting. So I called back. Once again, my call was answered right away, by a different woman. She explained that it often takes over two hours after the designated time for a tax pro to call because it all depends on how long the person before me takes with his or her questions. She said she would double check, however.

She put me on hold, then returned and said, “Oh…it looks like your call was accidentally canceled. Unfortunately, everyone is booked up now until tomorrow morning." 

Let’s just say I wasn’t dancing with joy at that moment.

So she rescheduled the call for 10:30 the next morning. I couldn’t understand the name of the tax pro she said would be calling me, but it sounded something like "Hahmah." I immediately had the feeling the person was someone whose English probably would be a real challenge to understand.

And unfortunately I was right.

The call came promptly at 10:30 AM, and the woman, as anticipated, had a very heavy accent. I asked my question and she replied, “I don't know." Then said nothing. I repeated the question, using different wording. Again she said she didn't know. More silence. So I finally asked her what I should do. She told me to call Block's toll-free helpline number again.

I called and talked to yet another employee, who said she would connect me to a tax specialist. I was transferred to a woman who listened to my question and then said, "That sounds like a tax question.”


She then explained she was a software specialist, not a tax one. She said if she were me, she either would contact my nearest H&R Block office or the IRS. 

I looked up the number of the nearest H&R Block office, but the online reviews, which included such glowing comments as "The employee put us down, then reprimanded us as if we were children, and didn't help us at all," and "If I could give minus-stars, I would," made me decide against calling them

So, because I was so desperate at that point, I called the IRS, even though past experience had taught me it probably would be less painful to have my appendix removed with a butter knife while I was fully awake. 

The woman who assisted me was about as warm and personable as a boa constrictor. She snapped at me, made me feel like a drooling idiot, and when I said I was using H&R Block's software, she abruptly cut me off in mid-sentence and said, “I don’t know anything about their forms! They aren't affiliated with us at all."

I said, “But aren’t the forms submitted to the IRS all alike? Isn’t a 1040 a 1040?"

She finally said, “Contact the OPM. They are the only ones who know why they suddenly put ‘unknown' in the box. How would anyone else know?”

When I sounded discouraged, she said, in a suddenly overly friendly, cheerful voice that dripped with sarcasm, “Have a nice day!  Glad I could help!” 

I actually flung my phone.

But then I picked it up and called OPM…about 35 times. And each time, I heard the same recorded message saying they were experiencing a large volume of calls and to try again later. 

So I’m at the point now where I’m going to raise the white flag of surrender and just enter the $79,000 I've always entered in the "contributions" box and file my taxes, come what may. H&R Block states if anyone who uses their program gets audited by the IRS, they will be right there, in person, to help.

Judging from all of the “help" I’ve received from them thus far, I’ve decided not to buy any new clothes this year…because I'll probably be wearing prison orange very soon. 

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Sally Breslin is an award-winning syndicated columnist who has written regularly for newspapers and magazines all of her adult life. She is the author of several novels in a variety of genres, from humor and romance to science-fiction. Contact her at:






Monday, February 13, 2023



Back in 1998, when I bought my first computer, the way I got online was to hook it up to a telephone line. This was called a “dial-up” connection.

The problem with dial-up was it took forever to get online. After I climbed out of bed in the morning, I’d hit “connect” on the computer, then go take a shower, eat breakfast, walk the dogs, do the newspaper crossword puzzle and reorganize my underwear drawer. Right about then, the computer finally would connect me to the Internet.

I can remember downloading computer programs that gave an estimate of the amount of time the download would take to complete. It was something like, “High-speed Internet – 10 minutes. Dial-up connection – 17 hours.”

“I want to get high-speed Internet!” I’d frequently whine to my husband. “One day you’ll walk into my office and find me covered in cobwebs because I had to wait so long to download a program using dial-up.”

“Dial-up is just fine,” he’d answer. “You don’t run a business or anything, so what’s your hurry? The computer eventually gets you where you want to go. Besides that, high-speed Internet is a lot more expensive than dial-up.”

“Well, it would be nice to wish someone a happy birthday and not have the message get there three days later!”

He shrugged. “Well, then just send the birthday greeting three days earlier.”

When we moved in 2009, the first thing I decided to do was switch over to high-speed Internet. Just about every house on my road had theirs through the same cable company, so I gave the company a call. A representative was sent over to check out my property.

“Yeah, we can connect you,” the guy said. “But you’re going to have to pay for over a half-mile of cable for the link-up because you're so far away from any of the other houses that have it. So it will cost you roughly about $20,000 to install.”

I couldn’t help it – I burst out laughing, thinking the guy was joking.

He wasn’t.

I told him I wouldn’t pay $20,000 for a cable connection even if a group of half-naked male bodybuilders arrived to install it ($10,000 maybe, but not $20,000).

When I complained to my husband about the cable, he said, “Well, I guess you’re stuck with dial-up then. You’ll just have to learn to live with it.”

But I soon discovered there was another option – high-speed satellite. I checked into it. The price was right and the guy guaranteed it would connect my computer to the Internet so fast, the breeze would part my hair. I didn't hesitate to order the installation.

The difference with the satellite hook-up was amazing. When I turned on the computer, I was connected to the Internet in the blink of an eye. And when I downloaded a program, it was finished within minutes. I was able to do 50 times the amount of stuff I’d previously been able to do in the same amount of time.

Well, these last couple of weeks, I’ve been suffering from a bad case of the winter doldrums. This basically means I have the ambition to do absolutely nothing – that is, other than play online games. I’m not talking about all of those fancy-shmancy high-tech ones that require an encyclopedia-sized book of strategies to learn how to play – I’m talking about exciting stuff like solitaire and Scrabble. And after playing solitaire for a solid week, I reached the title of Bronze Grandmaster 6. I have no idea how many levels there are, but I’m pretty sure if it’s like the Olympics, I’ll have to work my way up to Gold Grandmaster, because bronze is only third place. 

But when I turned on my computer the other day, prepared to increase my solitaire rating, I was puzzled to discover my high-speed Internet had slowed back down to a crawl.

“You have 35 unread emails,” the screen said.

Three hours later, all 35 finally appeared. Normally, it would have taken only a few seconds.

“What’s going on?” I muttered. “I have high-speed Internet!” I began to suspect I was trapped in some sort of time warp that had transported me back to the dial-up era of 1998.

I tried everything to speed up my computer. I cleaned out all of the unnecessary junk and photos I’d stored in it. I restored the hard drive to a previous date. I had my virus-protection program scan for problems.

Still, the computer crawled.  So I hooked my back-up computer to the satellite connection. It was even slower than my main computer.

That left me only one other option – something I usually resort to doing only in a dire emergency because the mere thought of it gives me a migraine and stomach cramps…I called technical support at the satellite-dish company.

“Hmmm,” the agent said as he checked my account. “I see here that you are registering a 99-percent usage on your computer this month. We prefer you to keep your usage at around 70 percent.  So we have reverted you back to dial-up speed until your usage drops back down to the recommended level.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “You mean you’re punishing me for using my computer too much? I can’t waste my time sitting around for hours, waiting to get online! I have important things to do (like reach Grandmaster 7 in solitaire)!”

“Sorry,” he said. “It’s our policy.”

“But nobody ever told me I had a limit! I’ve been with your company for years, and this is the first time this has ever happened!”

I was pretty upset when I hung up, mainly because I knew I’d have to ration my computer usage so I could drop back down to the company’s required level. And considering my only goal during the winter doldrums was to increase my solitaire status, I was more than frustrated, especially when I then tried to play solitaire, a game that is timed, and the computer kept slowing down in the middle of it until it stopped to reload, or whatever, and I couldn’t make any moves at all. The time clock, however, still continued to keep ticking, which I didn't think was fair.

Two nights later, one of the managers from the satellite-dish company called to tell me he’d decided to restore my service to its full high speed and set my current usage for the month back to zero.

“You mean I’m not on punishment any more?” I asked. "Exactly what was it I did to make you change your mind?"

He didn't answer my question. Instead, he said, “Just remember I’m making an exception only this one time. Next time, you’ll have to wait it out. Or, if you want unlimited usage, you can subscribe to one of our premium programs."

I began to get the sneaking suspicion the whole incident had been nothing but a ploy to convince me to spend more money. I didn't want to spend a penny more than I already was spending, so I thanked him and then immediately rushed to my computer. When I was able to get online again in only a few seconds, I was so excited, I nearly kissed the screen.

Then I proceeded to play solitaire…non-stop.

Platinum Grandmaster Level 10,000, here I come! 

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Sally Breslin is an award-winning syndicated humor columnist who has written regularly for newspapers and magazines all of her adult life. She is the author of several novels in a variety of genres, from humor and romance to science-fiction. Contact her at:






Saturday, February 4, 2023


Maybe it's because I'm getting old and my skin is thinner, but I seem to be more sensitive to the cold lately. In fact, this recent Arctic blast has affected me more than any cold weather in the past. A couple hours ago, I was sitting here with my teeth chattering so loudly, they were drowning out the TV show I was trying to watch. 

When I was a kid, I'd go out and play when the weather was so cold, my top and bottom eyelids would freeze together. Yet, I would stay outside until dark…or until my face was so frozen, it could have replaced one of the faces on Mount Rushmore.

Today, when the wind was howling and the wind chill was a balmy 35 degrees below zero, I decided to go shopping. Not the smartest decision I’ve ever made, especially when the TV newscasters constantly were shouting, “Don’t go outside today unless it’s absolutely necessary! Any exposed skin can freeze, turn black, fall off and land at your feet within five minutes!”

But heck, even in the summer heat, I don’t “expose” much skin, so I wasn’t concerned.

In my opinion, going shopping in weather that would cause even a polar bear to suffer from hypothermia was a necessity. Even though I’d stocked up on a month’s worth of what I considered to be essentials just the week before, I realized I’d forgotten a few important items, like baking powder, which I needed to bake my weekly stash of cookies, and rice, so I could brew a big caldron of chicken-rice soup and keep my innards thawed. When it comes to food, believe me, I'll battle everything from avalanches to molten lava to get it. I’d never venture out in sub-zero temperatures to buy something like toothpaste or dishwashing liquid, but I’d drive through a raging blizzard for a bag of Hershey’s kisses or a box of brownies.

The minute I stepped out of the car and into the store's parking lot, the wind viciously attacked me and beat me to within an inch of my life. By the time I set foot in the store, I’d lost the feeling in just about every part of my body. And my eyes were so watery, everything was a blur. I couldn't tell the difference between a head of cabbage and the bald head of the produce clerk.

In my defense, I’d dressed in layers for the cold – long underwear, two sweaters, a coat, scarf, mittens, woolen knee-socks, fur-lined boots, a thermal hat and flannel-lined jeans. And after about 10 minutes in the store, I began to feel like one of the rotisserie chickens. The fact the thermostat seemed to be cranked up to about 95 degrees didn't help, either. I stripped off my coat and yanked off my hat and scarf.

 As I walked down the aisles, I couldn't help but notice how many people were staring at me…well, actually, specifically staring at my head. A few minutes later, I happened to pass a mirror in the cosmetics department and stopped dead. My hair, what little of it I still have, was sticking straight up due to the static when I’d yanked off my hat. And on the sides of my head, the hair had formed what looked like two horns. In spite of myself, I started to laugh. I resembled a cow, especially considering my added girth in so many layers of clothes.

By the time I got back home, I was chilled to the bone, mainly because my car takes about 17 minutes to warm up and the drive was 16.5 minutes.

I knew the quickest way to thaw out would be to crank up the heat in the house to the "surface of the sun" setting, but ever since the last fuel bill nearly caused me to need a defibrillator after I opened it, I’ve been trying hard to be more frugal when it comes to staying warm. So I decided I’d put on my sweat clothes, drink some hot tea and wrap myself in a fleece blanket, and I’d be toasty in no time. 

When I finally curled up on the sofa, I was so bundled up, I looked as if I were about to enter the Alaskan Iditarod.

Unfortunately, I gulped down my first sip of hot tea so fast, I was worried I'd blistered my throat to the point where I might need a skin graft. I recalled seeing a woman on TV who'd needed a graft and said the doctor had taken some skin from her buttocks for the procedure because he’d figured she wouldn't miss it there.

It definitely wasn't a pleasant thought...

But at this very moment, my two dogs are helping to keep me warm. I have one lying on each of my feet.

Trouble is, I think it’s destined to be a proverbial three-dog night.

Maybe even four.

And the fact that the Mount Washington observatory just reported a record-breaking wind chill of minus 110 degrees up there isn’t helping any. It gives me the sudden urge to gulp down more hot tea – like a gallon of it…even if it means I’ll end up having to sacrifice some of the skin on my buttocks.

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Sally Breslin is an award-winning syndicated humor columnist who has written regularly for newspapers and magazines all of her adult life. She is the author of several novels in a variety of genres, from humor and romance to science-fiction. Contact her at: