Every morning I wake up dreading the news of what new destruction the Russians have inflicted on innocent Ukrainians. Nonetheless, like most of us, I sit down at my desk to address the mundane, trivial business that life sets before me, free from the fear that, at any moment, a missile might shatter my fragile world. When you read what follows, don’t think for a minute that I have managed to silence that drum beat of horror that grows louder every day.
We usually think of tax time as April 15th, but for me it starts much earlier. Even though I have an accountant who does the final preparation and submission, there’s a lot of data and documentation I have to gather to enable her to feed it into whatever program accountants use these days so it can spit out a report acceptable to the IRS. It’s kind of like cleaning up and putting things in the house in order before the cleaning person you’ve hired shows up to do the heavy lifting.
Yesterday was that start day and I look upon it with the same enthusiasm with which I greeted every Sunday of my teaching career, the necessary drudgery that enables you to make it through the week successfully. The task requires the entire surface of the dining room table to allow for the material I’ve been compiling in a folder all year to be sorted into appropriate piles that match the income and expenditure categories my accountant expects from me. The largest pile contains all the letters acknowledging charitable contributions we’ve made over the past year. I’ll get back to those in a minute, but I first want to tell you how this initial step played out yesterday.
After I seated myself in one of the oversize dining room chairs and dumped all the unsorted papers in my folder onto the table, my cat interceded. Hamiltonian that she is, she always wants to be in the room where it happens, so she made her presence known by parking herself atop that unseemly pile and hunkering down for a morning nap. I suppose I should have reacted with irritation and lifted her considerable weight off the pile and proceeded with the business at hand, but Nutmeg is finely tuned to my moods and needs. She surely sensed how onerous the tax task was for me and decided to intercede as my rescuer.
What was I to do but quietly step away from the table, hoping she wouldn’t follow me out of the room where I retrieved the novel I am currently luxuriating in, the Booker Prize winning work by the South African novelist Damon Galgutt called The Promise. Thanks to Nutmeg I spent a much more pleasurable hour of reading than I would have if not for her intervention, while she enjoyed her extended morning nap.
But all good things must come to an end. It’s always a mystery what signals cats receive that announce that it’s time to relocate, but off she went, leaving me to begin the task at hand. My first step is to create a list of all the charitable contributions, based first on the letters I’ve collected and inscribe the name of the organization and the amount donated on my yellow lined pad. These days, many groups send their receipts electronically, and I don’t always remember to print them out, so my backup is to go through all the year’s credit card bills to capture these otherwise undocumented contributions.
I’ll digress here to say that this part of the tax preparation process always raises a lot of troubling questions. Are we giving away enough of our earnings? How much is enough? Is the proper measure the tithing that was first required in Biblical times and is still the standard of many churches? And are we targeting the right organizations? Is it better to spread smaller amounts across a wide spectrum of causes or does your money have a greater impact if you zero in on a few recipients who reflect your highest priorities? Pondering these heavy, but important questions slows down the process of completing the task, so I must return to automatic pilot to keep moving forward.
After many years of fumbling and unnecessary retracing of steps, I’ve finally learned to lay out a kind of manual spread sheet so that as I’m recovering contributions to the Nature Conservancy and Doctors Without Borders, I’m also recording book and magazine purchases for professional reasons, membership dues to PEN and the Authors Guild, purchases of supplies at Office Depot. All of these are deductible expenses for two people who spend a significant portion of time writing at home.
The pandemic has brought some unwelcome simplifications to the process. Two of the major spread sheet categories have almost completely disappeared. Once upon a time there was a page of restaurant expenditures, a portion of which could justifiably be considered business-related because they involved meetings with other writers or educators. For the past two years that page has been almost blank, with the exception of one or two outings during the brief period before Omicron when we were dipping our toes back into pre-pandemic waters. The same is true of the travel page which once told stories of destinations, some for pure pleasure or for personal reasons (definitely not tax-deductible), while others were work-related. This year the page will show only two trips – one to New York for a memorial for Rosellen’s brother (not tax-deductible) and another to New Hampshire, which falls in a grey area between social visits with old friends and the gathering of material for ongoing or future writing projects. The state has been the setting for several of Rosellen’s novels and many essays and articles by both of us.
The final step before I hand off all the necessary documents to my accountant is to dig deep back into the bowels of my closet to retrieve last year’s returns. I need to be reminded of details I may have missed like what percentage of certain expenditures have we claimed as deductible because of our home office. It will still be weeks before my calculator and I are finally done and I’ve copied the complete packet before I entrust my originals to a very untrustworthy postal service. The delays will be of my own making as another novel will take precedence over a task devoid of any emotional or intellectual nourishment.
Nonetheless, I am the dutiful child who will still submit his material early to relieve my accountant of the crush she will face when all the last-minute submitters appear. It also means that the news of who owes whom how much and why will reach me earlier than most. Only then can I lift my eyes from the columns of numbers to engage with the larger questions generated by my tax preparation. What percentage of my earnings am I handing to the government? How does it compare with the contributions of large corporations? How do we reduce these inequities? What is the government doing with my money and how do we change its priorities? If the priorities change, would I be willing to give the government more of my money?
I’m still at Step 1 of this year’s tax preparation but I’m already looking forward to being done and liberated until tax time comes around next year. Onerous as it may be, I hope I have a few more shots at it and I hope Nutmeg will once again join me on the journey.