Headed Home: The end to a twenty-three year run

My wife has lovingly referred to it as my tour. There was the Wisconsin tour, the Mississippi tour, and now the Iowa tour. Lest you get excited, there were never amps to be lugged about, press agents, or even screaming fans, no, it was my tax gig. For 23 years I have held sway in over 30 cities in three states as I taught tax law and planning to my faithful tax planning students. I hopefully educated them on at least several new tax codes, gave them some hot planning tips for managing their clients and employees, and maybe even provided a little entertainment mixed in with the lecture. Along the way, I visited multiple casinos, far too many hotels, and even learned a little Cajun. I visited at least half a dozen universities and witnessed the aftermath of two hurricanes, several tornadoes, and multiple blizzards. I met over 1500 tax planners, EA’s, CPA’s and attorneys and made friends with most of them. Today, as I sit in Ohare International Airport, I thought it appropriate to jot down a few passing thoughts as this phase of my life comes to a close.

I just finished an in-person presentation in Sioux City, a pretty little city tucked neatly in the corner of three states; Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota, which in its early years, served as the railhead for some historic cattle drives. It is not my true final gig as I have one more in-person to be held in Ankeny, Ia, and then one more on-line performance in a couple weeks. When that last one concludes, it will be in fact my very last one ever. The groupies say that I will be back, but I am no Brett Favre or Tom Brady. I have been saying it was my last year for the last six years, and this time it really is. I know that a year from now, I will miss the stage, I am after all a true ham when you give me the mic, but I won’t miss all the late-night drives, many done in rain or snow, the prep work, and the nervousness the nights before and the mornings of. I may appear cool, calm, and collected, but anyone who tells you they don’t sweat a little as they take the stage, is, shall we say, bullshitting.

I started this little career back in the year 2000, when the owner of the firm I was working for, turned down the request to be the speaker for these tax schools. He instead sent one of my mentors, Phil Harris, to hit me up for the job. I still remember a nervous Phil sitting down across from me and making the most tenuous job offer ever. It didn’t help much when he started out with “you aren’t my first choice.” He went on to tell me he would offer me half what he had intended and just a two-hour slot. I, being full of myself, needing the revenue, and just plain hopeful that I would impress him, accepted the job. Two hours turned into a half day, and by year two, I was the entire second day of a two-day conference. Along the way we built a two-way trust between Phil and I, and we became the two-man show known as Tax Insight. Phil gave them the theory and the law; I gave them the planning and the practicality. We wowed our crowd with famous hits like, The TCJA, Qualified Charitable Deductions for Everyone, and the ever-popular Passive Activities and You.

Six years ago, as I was ready to hand over the mic to younger talent, Phil became ill and within a year had passed away. Thus began my run of one more year’s. I was devastated by Phil’s passing and knew I had to stay on with the transition, year one, and then the attempted sale, year two, gifting to Iowa State University, year three, Covid-19 forcing us to move on-line, year four and five, but as year six approached I had to redraw the line in the sand, With that decision, year six would be, with acquiescence to my wife, the farewell tour. We even entertained making up shirts with the names of all those cities our tour had passed through, but saner minds prevailed, and the shirt idea was nixed.

It has been, despite my whining here and there, a spectacularly great decision. I learned much along the way; taxes, business planning, the histories of people, places, and things, and even some odd tidbits, like always make sure you know where the wipers and light switches are on your rental car especially when driving through Mississippi in the dark. As I leave, I want to thank my co-workers who unbegrudgingly filled in for me back at the office while I galivanted around the countryside, my boss who not only put Phil onto me, but gave me the time off to do it, and especially to my wife, Deb, who supported me, cheered me on, and eventually even became my paid handler, coincidentally the best I ever had.

But all things do come to an end, and this will be my swan song. I am extremely proud of the work I have done and will be forever grateful for the experience. If there is a lesson here for my readers, never be afraid to take the chance. You just might surprise yourself as to what you can accomplish and where the decision might lead.

Thankyou Phil

A Saint for all Reasons

Disclaimer, I intend no offense to Catholics or the many saints that exist, but did you realize that there is a saint for almost every purpose. Did you know that Saint Alexander of Comana is the patron saint of charcoal burners. That will come in handy next time I am forced to grill. Meanwhile Amand would be the patron saint of bartenders, another one of my many occupations. Anthony the Abbot would be the patron saint of gravediggers. And let us not forget the patron saint of women seeking husbands, Anthony of Padua. Shouldn’t that one have been a female? And those are just the patron saints that start with the letter A. If you want to check out the complete list for yourself, go to: https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/24191/documents/2019/11/Patron%20Saints%202.pdf

This morning our church was celebrating All Saints weekend and the conversation about saints came up. We were asked to consider the people in our lives that have passed on and though too many came to mind, I found myself thinking of my brother. He was only seven when he died. I was only eight. We were thick as thieves in our short lives to that point but we had already survived a lifetime of hijinks. There was no dare that he wouldn’t throw down and there was no challenge I didn’t accept. “I bet you can’t jump from that rock to this one.” I bet you’re too scared to jump off the hay loft.” And then there was the “I dare you to jump from that fence post to this one.” Though most of them resulted in various injuries, that last one was way too close to serious, not that mom or dad ever found out thanks to the unwritten code that we just didn’t tell on each other, ever! We clearly needed a patron saint of our own, like maybe Cajetan, the patron saint of gamblers.

My brother Karl and I circa 1959

Looking back and thinking about the impact on my life, I am nominating my brother for the patron saint of risk takers and I am thanking him for impressing on me the value of taking a risk. Without his encouragement, er goading, would I have grown up to accept and deal with the risks in life that gave me the opportunities to succeed, or the ability to take chances when they took me to the next level? Or for that matter, to have and have benefited from the experiences of my life? Without the willingness to take acceptable risks, would I have ever climbed a mountain or jumped from a plane? That last one definitely traces back to the leaps we took from the top of the hay mow. In short, life might have been far less exciting without the occasional walk on the edge.

Don’t get me wrong. There are risks we should never take, especially when they might impact others. But if it’s an acceptable risk, if we understand what we control and that within that element of control, we can build in the safety net we need, maybe then we might be willing to take the leap. One of the strongest traits of a leader is the willingness to take the risk that is necessary to advance the cause. Without risk takers imagine all the inventions, all the historic events, businesses, and all of the discoveries never made. Would we have ever walked on the moon or would we just be earthbound wondering what was out there? What would the world be like without risk takers?

Today I thought about my brother who all those years ago dared me to take the chance. For that he is MY patron saint.

For Karl

Apparently It Skips a Generation

Sharing our childhood home with my grandparents created so many endearing memories, most of them the sights and scents of my mom and dad, and my grandmother canning in our tiny farmhouse kitchen. There was the hundreds of mason jars lined up on the table, the big blue canning kettle and the steam rising off the boiling water ready to seal the fruits and vegetables into those mason jars where they would slowly disappear from our fruit cellar as the long winter gave way to spring and our garden thawed out, readying itself for the next growing season. Every once in awhile something brings that memory flooding back. In those moments, I can still remember the smells wafting from the kitchen all the way to my upstairs bedroom, that aromatic mixture of pickled corn and beets, dill pickles and relish, fruits and ah yes, the apple sauce. Oh that glorious mixture of apples and cinnamon. That recipe so perfected by my dad.

When canning came to an end each fall, and all the canning equipment had been stowed away, we would stack the shelves of our basement fruit cellar with enough canned vegetables and fruit to last us through the winter. We were self sufficient and I always remember mom and dad’s pride as they recorded the inventory. Nothing in our garden had gone to waste. As the winter wore on, each meal would be augmented with something from the cellar, fresh, aromatic, and delicious. But my favorite was always the apple sauce. We would have it on ice cream. We would warm it up and put it in a bowl with a little splash of cream, or as my grandfather liked it, spread across a warm slice of grandmas’ homemade bread. There just wasn’t anything it didn’t go well with.

Recently, after trips to every apple orchard pumpkin patch in the area, with grandchildren in tow, my daughter handed me a pint of the golden nectar. She has been working on it for the past several years and she just might have perfected it. Somehow, through experimentation, old recipes scratched out on weathered notecards, and of course hours of shared applesauce sessions at her grandfather’s side, Bailey has come as close as humanly possible to my dad’s apple sauce recipe. It now sits proudly on my counter awaiting the moment I crack the seal and carefully ration out my first serving.

Where my wife and I have never seemed to successfully carry on the tradition, my daughters have prevailed. They have become the gardeners, the chefs, and yes the canners I never was. The art had skipped a generation but thanks to my daughter, I now have a pint of homemade, ready to savor, dad’s special recipe, apple sauce, and along with it, a chance to bask in the memories it has evoked. Memories of being that eight year old kid, sneaking down the stairs , and sneaking a peak of my dad as he worked side by side with my mom as they canned more than just food for the winter, but memories for a life time.

You’ll have to excuse me now, I have a bowl of warm applesauce and cream waiting on my evaluation.

My New Best Friend

I need to preface this piece. Today marks the 21st anniversary of 9/11 and it must be recognized that the loss on that tragic day can never come close to the loss I am writing about in this piece. The courage and bravery of those involved in any and all aspects of that day must never be forgotten.

Last week Deb and I, along with another couple, Larry and Annette, had decided to ride the Sugar River Bike Trail from Albany to New Glarus. Not wanting to ride down and then ride back on the same trail, we had been clever and agreed on a way to leave my car at the end of the trail in New Glarus and Larry’s car at the trailhead in Albany. We would drop off our spouses and the bikes in Albany, drive both cars down to New Glarus and then return to Albany in Larry’s car. Once we completed the ride, I would drive Larry back to Albany to get his car. Perfect plan. What could go wrong? Maybe a disclaimer here: Neither Larry nor I felt particularly proud of our respect for the environment demonstrated in this plan, but hey, we at least rode bikes at some point.

If you have been a faithful reader of my blog or for that matter, patient enough to sit through any of my many stories, you will know that my keys and I sometimes part ways. As we finished our ride and were locking up the bikes, I looked across the parking lot at my waiting car. It took me all of a second for the painful reality to hit me. No, my keys weren’t lost, not this time. In fact, I knew exactly where they were and let me add, they were safe and secure. The problem was that they were safe and secure in Larry’s car, the car that was now 16 miles away in a parking lot in Albany. Facing me now, was the hierarchy of who do I confess to first, my spouse, who would immediately lecture me, rightfully so, on the virtues of making sure I kept track of things, or Larry and Annette, enjoying their well deserved ice cream while anticipating Larry’s ride back to Albany and his parked car, and blissfully ignorant to the events now unfolding just a few feet away..

I opted for neither and headed straight for Kennedy’s Ice Cream stand where I shamelessly asked the owner if she knew how I might actually get back to Albany other than by riding my bike back up the trail…. alone! Even as my loving wife was figuring out what was going on, the owner tells me she will call her husband and he and his truck can take me there. Now all I had to do was break the bad (embarrassing) news to Larry and Annette. Their response was both expected and priceless. The expected; “You’re kidding, right?”, the priceless part; in that exact same moment of shameful confession, the owner calls out to me and says. “He’s on his way.” Praise the Lord, I’m saved! An hour later, Larry and I have returned with Larry’s car, my keys, and a new best friend. In that half hour trip back up, we have heard my hero’s life story, identified at least three intersections in our lives and have considered buying his restored wooden Criss Craft boat, or at least ready to ask him for a ride in it.

Here is my point. We all experience losses in life. Some of those losses are catastrophic; the loss of health, the loss of life, or even the loss of a loved one. Others are far less critical such as the loss of some item or, in my case, the loss of pride. As hard as it was to admit the mistake to my friends, the amazing result was the forgiveness I received and the incredible acts of kindness I experienced at the hands of strangers. The agony of my shame was overshadowed by the reward of renewed faith in the community of strangers. Going forward, I may just make it a practice to lose things so that others can have the chance to rescue me. On second thought, probably not the best of plans.

It was Just a Perfect Night

Sometimes things just work out. I had driven downtown to meet my wife and daughter. My daughter had just finished her first yoga class as an instructor and we decided we should celebrate with a dinner and a drink. The first eating establishment we tried offered too small a menu. The next, closed for the evening. The third try offered no parking and no outside dining. Ready to give up, we found ourselves at The Madison Tap at the Robinia Courtyard, a place none of us had been before but had heard enough good things said about them, to give it a try.

As we were shown to a small table in the courtyard, a band began to set up. As the instruments and the musicians started filing in, it became clear we just might have stumbled into one of those happy accidents. Who doesn’t appreciate a chance for live music. As we finished our meal and contemplated a second drink, someone in the band started hanging up their banner. Much to my surprise, the band turned out to be Mama Dig Down’s Band. In my preretirement career, I had become indirectly associated with the band and knew the band’s organizer and lead singer as well as several of the band members. Tonight was going to be a reunion of sorts and I just had to hang out and listen to them play.

If you are unfamiliar with the band or may have never heard them play, they are a multipiece brass band offering a wide range of music but specializing in the New Orleans Jazz style. Oh yeah, and they are great! As Mama Dig Down opened their set, the courtyard literally began to vibrate with the resonate sounds of their lively brass music. Soon patrons began spilling out of the bar and into the courtyard and in no time at all, the crowd was rocking to the sound. In fact, it was nearly impossible to not begin moving to the rhythm of the band as the horns wailed out their jazz beat and the drums drove it home. For a moment, if you closed your eyes, you could imagine yourself standing in the middle of Bourbon Street in the center of the French Quarter. The effect was magical.

I had not started the evening in the best of moods, but I certainly ended it in a great mood. Nothing raises one’s spirits like live music shared with the people you love in a setting you wound up at completely by accident. Thank you Roc and Darin and Mama Dig Down’s Band for a perfect evening. So perfect, not even the parking ticket under the wiper blade of my car could wipe the smile from my face.

The Christmas Letters

It is five days until Christmas Eve. I have purchased my gifts, the few I actually purchase. I have even wrapped them and actually put name tags on them. My wife has always been frustrated with me for having to tell everyone to whom the gifts I wrapped must go on Christmas morning. I am ahead of the game this year though I am unsure of why that is.

The main gifts I give to my family each year are actually letters of affirmation given to each of my daughters, their husbands, my grandchildren, and of course my wife. I try to include a memory in each letter that brings the affirmation into focus. This process was started a long time ago when my oldest daughter turned sixteen. Soon my younger daughter was looking for her letter and before I knew it, I was writing letters for each of their birthdays and Christmas. As family members were added, they were also included. Though I love to write, just as I am doing right now, keeping those letters fresh and more importantly, meaningful, is no easy task. This is especially true at Christmas when they all come due at once. As the date approaches, I start looking for excuses to end this process and just call it a wrap, but then I am reminded of how important they have become to each of the recipients, my younger daughter’s spouse actually used the letters I had written for him over the years to ask me for her hand in marriage, and so I begin to write.

The amazing thing about this process is how easily the words flow once I begin each letter. Before I know it, the letter has written itself. The beauty of this whole thing is the incredible feeling of peace it gives me. The chance to share the pride I have for each of them, the love and respect I feel for each of them, and the chance to reminisce with a memory, makes it all so rewarding. And then there is the satisfaction of watching them pour over them Christmas morning. One Christmas, intending to measure the expectation, I pretended to have forgotten to write them. The outcry was a rather rewarding experience. And so I continue to write.

My letters this year are all written, last one was finished just last night. As always, it was a very satisfying endeavor. Now I wait anxiously to see how they will be received Christmas morning. Whether you are a seasoned writer, a reluctant one, or even a hack, I encourage you to adopt some form of this project. Life flies by too fast for us to not acknowledge its passing with some form of milepost. Mine has been these letters, each one representing a blink in time. It really does seem like it was just yesterday when I wrote that first letter to my then sixteen year old daughter. Christmas morning her seven year old son and her four year old daughter will open theirs. I am so glad that each year I can be sure that they will be looking for the next one.

One last thought, as the father of two strong willed daughters, these letters are sometimes the only chance for me to get a word in edgewise. Think about it.