This will be the first year in many that I do my own taxes, ostensibly with the help of an on-line preparation program that promised me step-by-step support and comfort. I’m two days into this process, and I do not feel supported or comforted; what I feel is bamboozled. Two days in, and I am flopping around like a frog on a skillet. I don’t entirely blame the tax-prep program; I’m sure most end-users understand the complexities of state and federal tax codes and are up-to-date on the fine points of managing a retirement income.
I don’t and I’m not.
What I am is math phobic, easily confused, and quick to second-guess virtually every financial decision I have made in the last five decades, starting with my decision to become a teacher. I loved my career, wouldn’t have changed it for the world, lots of great memories, fulfilling, changed lives – all that. Sure hope that’s enough to keep us warm and cozy after I get through mangling our finances.
My wife was a teacher as well, in her case teaching math (go figure), but she’s just as allergic to this tax rigmarole as I am. She has all the qualities a feather-headed impulsive financial daredevil such as I need to bring balance to our lives; she is thoughtful, and cautious, and deliberate, and meticulous, as I say, possessing exactly the sorts of strengths I lack, but …
This thoughtful, and cautious, and deliberate, and meticulous paragon of sensibility anticipates the impact of every mistaken entry, and, so, unpracticed in tax preparation sleight of hand, sensibly reasons that this task is better done by an expert who negotiates every curve with unshakable confidence.
I’m not and I can’t.
There it is: “I can’t”.
How many times as teachers did we remind students that, “there is no such thing as can’t”? Actually we never said anything like that as can’t is a verb, which it could not be if it wasn’t… never mind. What we did, each in our own way, was to try to find an opening or point of traction. “Break the job down,” we’d say; “Start with what you think you can do.” Sometimes we’d find a solid sentence in my case, or an accurate computation in her case, and build on that, asking questions that allowed the student to discover the next step and the next.
You’d think I could get out of my own way after all these years, but everywhere I turn, there I am, being myself all over the place.
The general consensus of lofty thinkers is that when separated from the even less productive statement, “I don’t want to,” “I can’t”speaks in that voice that has been with us for as long as we can remember, the voice that promises failure. I haven’t put it into words yet, but as I write, I remember that voice chuckling as I floundered through Geometry. I used to argue that my geometric idiocy would hardly matter in the larger world; when, I’d whine, am I ever going to be asked to find a, b, and c so that the quadrilateral is a parallelogram with an area equal to 80 square units? Again, never, but here’s the thing: I know in my heart that I can’t and never could. I’ve never mastered that parallelogram; it owns me. In the dark of night, in the hour of the wolf, it mocks me.
I believed that voice the first time I heard it and believed it for much of my life. When the going got tough, I counted the ways things were not going to work out and began to look for the nearest exit. In my declining years I have determined to finish the jobs I’ve started, no matter how frustrating they become. For example, even though what seemed a simple job turned out to be a nightmare, the house has doorknobs and locks that work, except the one that is slightly off, but that’s a garage door, and I rigged things up so that if I slam the door while I kick a thick extension cord over the sill, it pretty much stays where it’s supposed to.
You’d think it might have occurred to me sooner, having been a teacher, that most challenging tasks work out a bit better if I ask for help. Many seemingly thorny issues cleared up quickly when I found folks who knew what they were doing, although I still can’t figure out how to attach the grass catcher to the back of the riding mower, despite hours spent with YouTube experts who flip the dang things on and off as if they are playing horseshoes.
OK, time to let that go.
With this tax thing, an easy(ish) out is at hand; experts are standing by to do taxes for me for a mere pittance, a gesture more than compensation, what amounts to more than half of what I cough up in a mortgage payment each month. So, there is an out, but it’s expensive and painful. And, it has the stench of defeat by parallelogram all over it. The voice of doom is coughing for attention again as I consider wrestling with the forms I cannot yet decipher, but, you know what? All I have to fear is fear itself, and if I can’t walk through mild panic as the tax season nears, how can I handle the truly dispiriting challenges that are sure to come my way? And, to be completely transparent, how can I pretend to be a responsible adult, if, as the voice instructs, I expect someone else to do my work.
I may have to admit defeat at some point; my suspicion is that no matter how nobly I’ve struggled, the IRS still expects an accurately prepared return. If I’ve exhausted every resource and battled with every form and still haven’t pulled the thing together, I’ll turn it over, and probably without regret. I’m pretty sure I’ll learn something along the way, enough to make the job a bit easier next year and the year after.
When it comes to parallelograms, however, it’s good to remember that I have the choice to pick my battles, and the quadrilateral can get along without my help.