At times, preparing your income tax return can be moderately interesting. That’s a rare occurrence for me.
More often, my palms are sweating about getting something wrong, thereby incurring an audit and being summoned to a Federal Building and presenting myself in suppliant posture to an unfeeling bureaucrat who will want to go back years and years to prove her suspicion that I am the second coming of Al Capone.
Un-American as it may be, I’ve never been aggressive in claiming deductions—I just don’t have the stomach lining for it—but in the event of an audit, that would not matter. I could try to get on the examiner’s good side by disclosing, chum-to-chum, that like her, I’m a tax-and-spend, big-government liberal until it was time for her mandatory coffee break, and it would effect nothing. Her face would remain impassive, distant, disconnected. Nor would the employment of wit, irony, or unadulterated affability cause that face to reveal a human interior. I’m as sure as I can be of anything that in Tax Examiner Training, a cigar-store Indian is placed at the front of the classroom, and students are graded according to how closely they can simulate his expression. I speak with authority. I’ve been called before a tax examiner twice. Both happened many years ago, but the pain is still fresh.
However honest you try to be when filling out your 1040, the code is so arcane and byzantine that if an examiner doesn’t like the way you comb your hair, she can easily find any number of mistakes and impose sufficient penalties to mess up your life in significant ways.
Still, if you aren’t unduly afraid while filling in the TurboTax blanks, it can be something like doing a crossword. Some people like doing crosswords. Myself, I don’t care much for them.
I do like reading and writing, though. And this year, I was catching up on some recent American fiction while doing my taxes. As a consequence, I lived a zero-sum life for a while; every minute I spent preparing taxes was a minute I couldn’t give to Marilynn Robinson’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner, Gilead, a novel of singular merit.
Being thus conflicted would turn a more accepting person than I into a whiny spoiled child.
In tax prep mode, I would pore over language such as, “If you deducted more depreciation than you should have under the method you properly selected, you must decrease the basis by the amount you should have deducted, plus the part of the excess deducted that actually decreased your tax liability for any year.”
It occurred to me briefly that perhaps I had finally found the writing project that would make me rich and famous. I could translate the IRS code into clear and graceful English. Two realizations persuaded me not to attempt that. First, I’d have to understand the regulations. Second, spending the required time wading about in that linguistic muck would undoubtedly extinguish all possibility of my ever being able to write English well.
For relief from tax-language torment, I’d call into focus some bit from Gilead, such as the description of a moment in a baseball game. “In the fifth inning, a thunderstorm that had been lying on the horizon the whole afternoon just sort of sauntered over and put a stop to it all.” I try not to aim too high in my writing efforts, but, please God, before I die, let me create just one sentence as charming as that. It will never happen, though, if I have to set aside chunks of my limited time on earth for tax preparation. Sure, Faulkner wrote while working nights in a boiler room. P.D. James managed several novels at her kitchen table in the morning before going off to her civil service job. But I’m not Faulkner, and I’m not James.
One morning when I was watching the sun come up over the graveyard out back, I got a break from being whipsawed between reading a great novel (an engaging and potentially ennobling pastime) and tax preparation (an unworthy activity pursued only under duress). About a dozen sparrows and black-capped chickadees made a surprise appearance at the bird feeder that was just outside the window.
Last June, after several years of research, I’d found a gadget that would keep squirrels out of the feeder. I anticipated that fewer squirrels would result in more birds and a happier life for both birds and me. And besides that, since I would from that time forward live at the monastery full-time, the feeder would never go empty in my absence. Going forward, I would never again lack for avian visitors. But in a development that I neither understand nor accept, no birds came. Not during the summer, fall, or winter. Not any. When they had to share with squirrels, there were many. But none since. So when that bunch showed up during tax season, I was elated.
I thought their arrival might be a sign that spring was coming, even though there was not the least indication of it otherwise. Easter egg hunts were held in the snow, and night-time temperatures were zero or below right up until the tax filing deadline. That one appearance of birds and another one a few weeks later, each lasting but a few minutes, is all I’ve enjoyed to date. It was disappointing. It would have been a pleasant distraction from 1040 preparation.
All was not lost, however. My phone was not recording voice mail; fixing that obviously took precedence over taxes. I got ATT tech support on the line. The child techie and I combined our wits for about half an hour, and then she put it to me straight—“Sir, your phone is broken.” Not to worry, though. ATT would sell me a new one for $175. I declined. Surely I could find one for less than that. I could; $50 less at Radio Shack for the same ATT instrument.
I was overdue for a couple of doctor appointments in New York City, so I put tax prep on hold again. Usually I leave Saranac Lake early in the morning, drive two and a half hours to Albany with the rising sun in my face, take the Amtrak from there, tend to my NYC business in the middle of the day, repeat the travel in reverse, and get back to Saranac Lake by bedtime. But on the day of my appointments, snow was predicted on the forty-three-mile, two-lane mountain road to the Interstate, so I went a day early and stayed the night in Albany.
I spent the drive thinking about how prudent I’ve become. Not long ago, I would’ve thought myself lacking in manliness to be so careful about a little snow. But lately, negotiating a winding mountain road, blinded by the rising sun with the wipers unable to clear the windshield and traction iffy—well, I’ve had about enough of that. In winter I keep sand, a shovel, flares, sleeping bags, and other emergency gear in the car. There was a time when having to use those things in subzero temperatures trying to get out of a ditch before freezing to death would have seemed like an adventure that would make a good story. It has less appeal than it used to. People change.
To save a few bucks, I stayed with the Patels in Albany. “Stayed with the Patels” means staying in a down-market, locally owned motel. According to the Wall Street Journal, most are owned by Indians or Indian-Americans with the surname “Patel.” My place wasn’t the George V, but all I needed was a bed. It had one. I didn’t catch anything, and it cost a bit less than $60 a night, tax included.
An aside. Ann and I once stayed with the Patels in a dusty crossroads settlement in Texas and hardly noticed the discomfort of the bed with its lumpy pillows and squeaky springs or the laboriously wheezing window air conditioner or the rusty bathroom fixtures. We were new to each other at the time; possibly, that was why. But besides that, no one could have failed to be charmed by a hostelry named Cloud Nine that was located across the road from Seventh Heaven. It’s the stuff of happy memories. (These days, Ann sees things that were invisible in that earlier time; she will no longer lodge with the Patels.)
After a time, I finished the tax return and another Robinson novel, Home, and we set off to drive to Texas. As we slid down the icy driveway, it was spitting snow. The ground was frozen to a record depth of seven feet. More than 100 residents were waiting for the authorities to thaw their water supply lines. It was good to be leaving. Actually everyone who could leave Saranac Lake for a break had already gone. That’s what people do; the long winter doesn’t like to quit, and when it finally does, it leaves behind mounds of dirty melting snow. Until lilacs bloom a month or so later, the quaint mountain village—a tourist destination of considerable popularity—is unsightly and unpleasant. It felt like we were the last car out in a hurricane evacuation.
Just before setting off, I had loaded the bird feeder with fresh seed. Maybe when we return in a few weeks, warm and tan, I’ll find it surrounded by a crowd of hungry goldfinches and rose-breasted grosbeaks, impatiently awaiting a refill. And by then it should be my turn at the library’s copy of Ms. Robinson’s latest prize winner, Lila.