TAX OFFICES AND TRAVEL MAGAZINES (ironic juxtapositions) By John Watts

I find it bitterly ironic how H&R Block Income Tax offices are often liberally supplied with great travel magazines in their front lobbies.  This of course, is meant as a fun diversion for all those huddled, weary masses that come in with their fateful appointments, to leisurely peruse and feel at ease while they wait for their agent to announce them.  But I consider it to be the sadistic brand of rubbing that it IS which I will soon explain.

Truly death and taxes are the only 2 certainties we can count on people quote repeatedly.  And surely, when it comes to expenses and taxes, it always seems that the surprises are RARELY happy ones; especially when you are married and praying for a break from the necessity of bills and repairs that always interfere to prevent those elaborate dreams from springing forth.

And every year, spring tax sessions are situated at the very worst time in the year, just when one is on the verge of planning a big airline trip and getting a passport purchased.

These past few years have proven particularly brutal; due to the gouging we received from an exorbitant federal tax payment that was so sizable, it was broken down into 7 partial payment installments for the remainder of the year. It seemed to be a dark, overhanging cloud that we could never be free from.

But it all starts innocently enough with that deceptive first step—nodding to the H&R Block receptionist (a very nice lady who we have known for years now) and sitting oneself down with write-ups and glossy photos from National Geographic Traveler Magazine.  Each time I know what can happen, but each time, I hold on to the faith that last year was an anomaly as this year I followed the H&R rep’s advice and picked the right way of filing.  “How hard can it be?” I remind myself.  “The only options for declaring are 0, 1, or 2.  I have no children, no small business or complicated BIG TOYS like yachts or beach condos to worry about including.  It should not be rocket science or some Egyptian hieroglyphic not meant to be deciphered by people like me.  Our specialist likes us and will naturally guide us to the right number.

So I flip through travel articles all touting BLUE BLOODED travel spots that only higher income folks or really nifty 20 year old, extreme sports DUDES could manage to get to or pull off.  Still my brain takes in the aromas and essences of each impossibly exotic locale.  Fancy cooking in Tuscany?  The windmills and tulips in Holland?  Or how about the national parks in Madagascar?  Subconsciously, I adjust my ever altering TOP 5 WISH LIST of MUST SEE places and make allowances for new bucket lists.  When it comes to travel articles, I am an incurable softy and romantic who believes that if my THUMB can make up vast distances so easily on a map scale, then surely it is in the realm of possibility for a side trip on a 3 day vacation?

Meanwhile, soon my travel reverie is interrupted by our trusty H&R representative who says “good to see you both again COME ON BACK to my office!”

What ensues is the typical uneasy chit chat that always kicks off these tax appointments.  I congratulate our rep. person for the new wall prints she has amassed in her office and we she again comments on how busy the tax season is again for her.  I straddle back and forth between thinking of the professional reason my wife and I are there, while also kind of hoping that we have developed a friendship based on familiarity with our representative which might, this time, translate into a better state and federal tax story for us on this given night.

It just seemed like the fates would be kinder to us if we were personable and conveyed our sincerity to her.  Besides, it’s not in my nature to just stick to discussing the intricacies of taxes and all the loopholes and categories.

One hour passes.  My fidgeting grew more pronounced.  My wife is in charge of all receipts and intelligent questions.  I just smile and try to read body language and tones.  By now I know that I am entirely incapable of grasping the finer points of every tax and income scenario discussed.

When it comes to things that impact my little life, I am completely vulnerable and un-empowered.

I leave to get coffee in the break room.  My wife and I make sure to include the teacher’s 200 dollar expenses charity that we always look forward to mentioning.  Our rep. nods her head and again makes me feel very noble and deserving as she acknowledges all the many sacrifices that teachers like me routinely make.

Of course, this is all mere window dressing and play acting.  The few simple points that we think we have masterfully conveyed and advocated for, only ends up as mere drops in a bucket.  As the point of weariness really kicks in by the end of the second hour, I am about to be told news that will SINK my heart like a stone and crush any chances for any  upcoming trips I was considering for at least the next year again.

Turns out that the total federal tax that we OWE, with its accompanying partial payment plan, is regrettably substantial yet again.  I stare at the floor, stunned.  My wife looks back at me and makes the same cryptic comment—‘well it looks like our big trip will again have to wait another year.”  We robotically agree to whittle down the total amount over time as well as giving the IRS 3 of our Grandchildren, once they reach college age as well as agreeing to never retire until the age of 70.

We sign electronically and walk back to our car feeling defeated.  Before the waiting room door closes I glance back once more at those glossy National Geographic Travel magazines which seem to be leering at me now.  This is the last straw.

Of course in the hours ahead, other kind people will try to cushion the blow and restore perspective:  “Don’t forget that the money we owe from the tax returns, wasn’t ours to begin with.  You can pay it each month or in a lump sum come spring time.  We just so happen to be paying on the back end.”

But this year’s results hurt worse than the previous years, even when total payments were higher.  Probably because I assumed that we had corrected our status by now on our filing status and were heading further away from the previous recession.

Still it is a deflating marathon session that seems to bring the entire rest of the calendar year down to earth with little wiggle room left for dreaming.

BOYD MATSON (and me)

But dreams die hard and are much too resilient to be silenced after one bad tax appointment night.  Vicarious travel opportunities abound in this virtual world of ours.

And inevitable seeds still get planted in my head after reading all those ideal travel magazines in my H@R waiting room.  This year I was particularly jealous and envious of a travel writer whose column I saw repeatedly in the National Geographic Travel magazines.  Even his name speaks to the impossibly unattainable for most of us timid, pedestrian souls.  In fact it sounds made up from a Hollywood script writer–Boyd Matson.

If you didn’t already know this, Boyd Matson is a famous, unbelievably successful travel explorer and writer.  I am not.  Certainly not the famous part.  But I can relate to Boyd because he and I have both been in some tight jams in the course of our journeys.  And the actual terms of what constitutes success can be argued and negotiated. Of course his are always slightly more exotic and ambitious than mine, but then again I don’t have a ground crew, paid for travel expenses, or hiking caddies to carry my gear around.  Comparisons are silly of course, and sadistically futile in this case.  Still, I only do so in the spirit of praising BOTH of us along the way.

Boyd is a renowned travel writing legend, for TV and magazine, for National Geographic.  Just his name alone conjures up the most accomplished, self-reliantly noble creature left in the male gender.  To make him even more preposterously perfect, he is even a good writer with a strong gift for self-depreciation.

Why in this one travel article alone, Boyd writes of his arduous trip in the Andes Mountains on the spindly trails where the Inca Indians had at one time, hiked down 3,500 steep Inca stone steps in a heavy snowstorm over a 15,000-foot pass.  He did all this jostling on rocks with a bad knee too and with his wife and kids in tow.

Reading his account in National Geographic, I was riveted to read about the 2,000-foot climb his party had to do to get to the next base camp as the sweat pored profusely over Boyd’s face while he tries to dry his ears with a bandanna in order to hear. And then to top it off, Boyd has to endure ten straight days of rain, which transformed the trail into a mudslide.  While he admits to enjoying some beautiful scenery on a beautiful day, his knee later locks up and our intrepid Boyd Matson is forced to descend the next 2,200 feet using trekking poles like canes.

The key as I saw it, was not to look at Boyd Matson’s very extensive and impressive resume; with nuggets such as **competing in the Marathon Des Sables” a 7 day 150 mile foot race in the Sahara, **Recorded rare adolescent elephant behavior in Botswana’s Okavango Delta or **Competed in the ‘Race of no Return” in the Gobi desert, another 7 day 150 mile foot race.  To say nothing of his having climbed Mount Kilimanjaro 3 times.

Surely as a journalist, photographer, explorer and yes even humanitarian and charity worker, Boyd Matson is a pretty tough act to follow, although I do have extensive experience photographing rare black squirrel populations in my Sugarland, Virginia neck of the woods.

So instead of matching up accomplishments in a global manner, I focused instead on the specific dramas and universal emotions wrought from it that we can all relate to.  This gave me heart as it reminded me that I too have had mishaps and horrendous dilemmas to sort through so I most certainly know at least SOME of what Boyd must go through.

The first thing it made me think of was a recent dog walk I undertook recently in the 15 minutes allotted before my commute to work.  I glanced outside first to notice that there appeared to be only a few showers falling down, unlike what the meteorologists are predicting.  So I go to my closet and try to find my raincoat but can seem to find the correct one.  Either it is too thick or too thin.  So I decide to do without the fuss of wearing one.

But I was wrong.  The rain was just invisible.  It was actually coming down heavy.  As I approached my half way point on the forest path, I am soaked like a drowning rat.  My dog and I attempt to hide under the tree canopies but it is of little use.  My pants and shirts were soaked.  Before I knew it, I was racing against the clock having to change work clothes before the commute.

Back to Boyd Matson: Then on day 13 of the same expedition, his party was on their tours highest pass when, for a solid hour, BB-size hailstones pelts the party. And to add to all this, Boyd casually mentions that around this time fighting breaks out between the Peruvian Army and the Shining guerillas, in the valley near Espíritu Pampa.  For that, he decides to reroute the second half of the trek.  Blindness, loss of limbs and being eaten alive by insects are all realistic fears that are better left unspoken for this party.

Back to John Watts: The next day I am out on a trail in my Sugarland Run neighborhood (probably the exact same area where Monacan and Mannahoak Indians once roamed centuries before) when my dog Ranger suddenly veered off the trail past several pricker bushes to relieve himself.  Unfortunately, I could not extricate my dog back around said pricker bushes back the way my dog and started, so I decided to HURL my leash and handle around to the other side–this is a technique that often works for me in a pinch when the dog is being stubborn or mentally thick.  However in this case the synthetic, unforgiving chord get wrapped around the sinew of saplings and branches so hopelessly that I could not figure out how to free Ranger.  I ended up with calloused fingers having to spend many minutes trying to unravel and untie Ranger’s dog leash while he waited for me to come through.  I was forced to humbly grin and explain my predicament to bemused neighbors walking past with their dogs.  By the time we make it back to the house, we had missed the season opening episode’s first minutes of “American Idol.”

John Watts travel narrative:  Or how about the winter when I was talking to my sister in law on the cell phone while walking the dog with the other hand.  As I came upon an overlook where my path was, I decided to take a short cut over the 4 foot hill and return to the asphalt without taking any diagonal directions.  As I was planting my foot on the downward part of the slope, I slipped on some invisible ice and tumbled on my backside with the cell phone still in my hand, tobogganing my body forward for several yards.  On the other end of the phone, all my sister in law heard was a horrific scream issue forth as I was hurled to the earth as if by an unseen force.  Somehow I managed to hold on to the dog leash AND the cell phone in either hand before scrambling myself back up to my feet again.  Like Mr. Magoo in the cartoon, I often narrowly avert serious injury by being able to obliviously take a bad looking fall with no serious consequences once I stand up again.

So getting back to my disastrous H&R Block tax visit—thanks to Boyd Matson, I see my own life as adaptable and very adept at making due with the cards dealt me.  In fact NO doom and gloom tax payment sentence can keep in the dumps for long.  I merely unwind by finding an affordable path less traveled in my locality, and before I know it, am completely captivated and consumed by the adventures and near misses that await me around the corner.

Seen in this light, I am grateful to H&R Block’s everywhere for furnishing those enviable travel magazines.  They nourish my mind with ideas of places and people that I feel a connection with, as opposed to jealousy over not ever being able to experience the same scope or price range.  Someday in fact, I vow to visit those same glamorous places, body permitting.

With a lively imagination all things are possible—even a comparison with Boyd Matson!


About John Watts

I like to write transcendental community based essays and stories along with photo journalism pieces.
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