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Tax Time

I’ve never met anyone who liked to do their tax returns. Maybe those people who become accountants or those who take the H&R Block training courses enjoy the intricacies of trying to decipher what the tax form instructions “really mean.” But for the rest of us, the process is not only confusing and tiring, it seems to bring out the worst in us.

Judith and I have been doing our own taxes as long as we’ve been together, except for a couple of years—first when she began her own business and I was unsure of my competence in untangling the Internal Revenue Service’s maze of forms, and again when we sold our home and bought another, and I wanted to make sure we crossed all the T’s and dotted all the I’s. (I had had some experience with that situation many years before and was audited by the IRS.) Enlisting the services of a CPA gave us (as it turned out) a false sense of security; a subsequent exchange of letters with the IRS revealed that not only was our return filled out incorrectly, we had not claimed a legitimate deduction, and had paid more taxes than they said we had to. All the other years, we bought commercial software for the computer and more or less successfully negotiated the rapids by ourselves. At least, we didn’t get audited.

That is not to say that it’s been easy. Our relationship, fortunately, has been strong just prior to those hectic weeks. Otherwise, I’d fear we might not have made it through. We’d be sitting together, staring at the computer screen, our insides knotted by uncertainty. “What does that mean?” she’d ask, a frantic edge to her voice.

“I don’t know,” I’d respond. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“Click on ‘Help’”

I’d be sure that the so-called “help” screens were not going to give us any useful information, but I’d follow her request and we’d read the oracular explanations in the little windows. Almost invariably, I was right. We’d agree to guess the correct response to the questionnaire, and go on. Often, several screens later, we’d find that we had guessed wrong, and have to thread our way back to the faulty entry and change it. Sometimes, we couldn’t find the appropriate screen until after the return had been printed out and we could see where in the fourteen pages of the return we should have responded differently.

The nearest emotional situation to tax preparation that I can think of is—or was—in my high school years. Written tests were not so bad. It was when the teacher called on me with some question that almost certainly was designed to humiliate me.

“What am I thinking?” was the implied question, no matter what words she or he used. Whether or not I knew the subject under “discussion,” I knew that the question was a live grenade tossed at me. Well, maybe I had been momentarily distracted by a little side conversation with another student. “Wake up!” the teacher would be saying, “Pay attention!” After years of hearing of the woes of teachers trying to impart knowledge to unresponsive students, I realize that I might not have been as polite and considerate of others as I should have been. There seemed always to be more interesting things to think about than the contents of a text book

Turbo Tax® must have been designed by a school teacher. A high school teacher. There’s no other explanation for the maddening obscurity—unless it’s the tiny minds of bureaucrats in the IRS warrens. Whatever the source, the effect on the taxpayer is abject obloquy.

Actually, I did pretty well in school, once I figured out that I had to get to know how the teachers’ minds worked even more than what the particular subject under consideration required of me. Sit still, keep your eyes toward the front of the room—but never directly at the teacher, because then you’re sure to be called on. Never raise your hand, but constantly rehearse an answer for when she called on you. Don’t sit clear in the back of the room, if you have a choice, but in the third row—close enough that she doesn’t think you’re trying to escape, but not so close that she calls on you just to end the frustrating polling of unprepared students. Students who choose to sit in the first row are all alike, over-achievers and desperate for adult attention. (Maybe that’s redundant.)

Doing a tax return can be a challenge, it’s true. But only if I’m doing it alone, so that I can cover my feelings of incompetence and not have to admit to someone that I’m guessing. When my wife, who thinks I’m smarter than she is (sometimes, anyway), is sitting at my shoulder watching me struggle and second-guessing my guessing, it doesn’t do much for my self-esteem. By the time we’re done with the tax return every year, we have to spend a week or two in decompression, suppressing any remark that might be construed as criticism and smiling often at each other. It’s not a pleasant time.

Unless, of course, we come away with the smug realization that we’ve not only escaped nasty letters or worse from the tax people, we’ve managed to turn the process into a tax refund.

It’s a feeling similar to having studied that chapter in the book the night before and have the answer you know the teacher is digging for among all the other sullen students in the back of the room. When she gets around to you, you try to suppress a smile as you feed her exactly what she wants.

It’ll be another week before she calls on you again, and another year before you have to again look at that Turbo Tax Welcome Screen.

 

 

Donald Skiff, March 6, 2007

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