Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Patriarch Diaries

Some years ago, I found myself unexpectedly promoted to Patriarch of my small, but growing, clan. Soon after, it occurred to me that the entire reservoir of stories and legends about my family’s history resided, almost entirely, in my head. This wouldn’t have been a problem if we lived closer together but, being scattered as we are, late night chats around the kitchen table over a couple of beers are few and far between.

I, therefore, proposed to record the stories and legends (face it, most of them are legends) gleaned from kitchen-table discussions of years gone by. This was not to be a straight-up genealogy but rather a hodge-podge of tales, memories and lore with no logical order or narrative thread. The idea was exciting, but when it came to actually writing it, I found myself stymied by the sheer volume of available stories, the confusing plethora of loose threads, and the jumbled recollections of childhood, all swirling around in the cesspool of my consciousness.

And so, nothing was written.

It then occurred to me that writing out my memories as blog posts might spur me on.

Don’t panic. This is not me moving my blog in a new direction, it’s more about introducing a new flavor—reminiscence posts, occasional and sporadic—to it. Added value, if you will.

This, therefore, represents the first post in the blog category I am calling The Patriarch Diaries, with the ultimate intention of producing something I can pass on to my grandchildren, in order to introduce them to a time before iPads, flat screen TVs and Skype.

I have no illusions about them being grateful for my efforts, or even desiring to read them, but I think I owe them the opportunity. Being a patriarch, after all, does not come without responsibilities, and getting old should not be taken lightly.

There are, in case you are wondering, a number of indicators that you are getting old—the shocking realization that your doctor is younger than you, the apprehension that “kids today” are not quite up to scratch, the painful reminder that you can no longer do a hand-stand—but none are quite as defining as looking at an exhibit in a museum and recognizing an item on display as something you once owned.

And I’m not talking about an IT museum, where anyone in their 20s will find obsolete items they bought when they were teenagers, I mean real museums, featuring exhibits from the 1800s or earlier. This is where you might visit the recreation of a blacksmith’s shop and find yourself thinking, “My dad had a set of tongs just like that; I used to play with them when I was a kid!” while the younger adults around you have to read the information card to find out what it is.

That, my friends, is when you know you are old.

A person who doesn’t accept the responsibilities of age might simply leave it there and, perhaps, start shopping for rocking chairs instead of patio furniture, or decide a big, comfy sweater looks more suitable than a button-down collar shirt. Anyone with an ounce of optimism, however, shouldn’t miss the fact that being old is not what it used to be (60 being, as they claim, the new 40), and that the world we grew up in is as far removed from our grandchildren as the horse-and-buggy days are to us. We, therefore, possess the energy, the enthusiasm, the technology and, at least for now, the mental capacity, to pass our experiences on to the next generations. Who knows, they might find them every bit as mysterious and fascinating as the horse and buggy days do to us.

It is with this hope in mind that I dive into the cesspool in search of diamonds, or shiny nuggets, or, barring that, some interesting sludge. It may be that I come up with nothing, but I owe it to the G-kids to at least have a go.

As for my credentials, and to stamp my location in history, I leave you with this:
  • I was born during the Eisenhower Administration
  • I remember when President Kennedy was shot
  • I was too young for the draft and missed Viet Nam by a whisker
  • I was raised in an era when children were allowed out of their parent’s sight (encouraged to be, actually)
  • I came home for dinner when I heard my mother yelling my name

Although these posts are ultimately for my grandchildren, I hope at least some of my readers will read them and think, “Yeah, I did that, too. In fact, I remember…”

That's my dad, helping to plow the field.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Expat Taxes

I’ve complained about taxes on this blog before. Most notably here, but I’m sure I’ve mentioned it at other times. It’s hard not to; taxes for American Expats are stunningly complex, unfair and onerous, so it’s almost impossible to let tax time slip by without me whining about it in public.

Every year, I suffer the strain of trying to decipher an undecipherable tax code, the pain of having to pay taxes on money I earned in the UK to a country that, logically, has no right to them, and the indignity of having to register with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, as if I’m a pedophile on parole.

I have to register with these guys, so I must be a criminal, right?

I am hoping that this yearly humiliation is now at an end.

A while ago, Taxes for Expats e-mailed me with an offer: I let them do my taxes for free, and all I had to do was mention it here on this blog.

I get offers like this all the time. I turn some of them down, the rest I ignore. My blog is not a billboard and I do not seek to endorse products in exchange for compensation. But as I took a second look at this e-mail, several things made it stand out from the others:
  • There were no misspeled wrods in it
  • There were no words in ALL CAPS
  • The tone was businesslike but cordial (they didn’t want to be my best buddy, they were simply offering a business deal)
  • They had actually at least looked at my blog (others state they are big fans of my blog while making it abundantly clear they have never seen it)
  • The link to their business didn’t take me to a dodgy-looking website selling sex-aids (but I can overlook that)
  • When I Googled them, the results were favorable and convincing
So, I replied to the e-mail and proposed that they prepare a dummy tax return with the idea that, once I saw how it was done, I could just copy that from year to year. That way, I’d get my free tax preparation, they’d get a plug on my blog, and I wouldn’t have to hire them again! Win, win, win. Except, of course, for that bit about them not getting my business.

What happened, however, was this:

I was assigned to Ben, my “Personal Tax Preparer.” I thought, “yeah, right,” but I tell you, I don’t care if he was juggling a thousand other clients, he treated me as if I was the only one. We exchanged numerous e-mails, and his responses to my questions were always prompt and polite, even when I was being obtuse.

What I sent to Ben was not my current tax situation, as that is fairly straightforward—I don’t earn any money, so I don’t pay any taxes. In the near future, however, things are going to get ugly. I have several income streams coming from the US, and when I start drawing on my retirement here, things get very complex very quickly.

They also get very expensive, which was why I sent Ben this data, and why I opened the completed dummy tax return documents with a sense of dread.

The final tally, however, was over a thousand dollars less than my calculation. My new best friend, Ben, had filed forms I didn’t know existed and had referenced favorable tax laws that I had never heard of (because the IRS, quite negligently, failed to send me the memo about the new regulations).

My immediate thoughts were, “There is no way in hell I can replicate this,” and “But it’s well worth the $350 fee.”

The result is, I become a client. And I put up this endorsement because, that was the deal. (They said I could say anything I wanted, even that they were rubbish, and I would have said that if they were, but believe me, they are not. If you are an American living abroad, check these people out.)

They can also file your FUBAR for you (it’s actually FBAR, but it will always be FUBAR to me). On this point, I have to admit that FUBAR filing isn’t very complicated or time-consuming. It is, however, a right pain in the arse and I think simply not having to deal with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network every year is worth the fee.

So, here's the deal:

  • Standard tax return: $350
  • FUBAR filing (up to 5 foreign accounts): $75 ($10 for each additional)
  • All you need to do is go to their website – Taxes for Expats – and sign up.
  • There are no obligations, you just need to pay them once a tax return is completed.
  • They can (for 80% of clients) file your return electronically. In some cases, the IRS rules do not allow this, but you can just print out and snail-mail your return.
  • Once you complete the tax questionnaire (which is very comprehensive and takes a bit of time) you can just copy it from one year to the next and update the figures, so subsequent years will be easy and relatively pain-free.

So, the choice is yours: an annual festival of stress, befuddlement, anxiety and humiliation (as well as the secret conviction that you’ve done it wrong and paid too much), or you can go here, and have these guys do it for you.

I know which option I’m choosing.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


They say one of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If that is the case, then I am officially insane.

Yeah, I bought another bike.

In case you don’t know why this is insane, I refer you to here, and here.

In case you want the tldr; version: I bought a bike some time ago and it was stolen, so I got another one, and it was stolen, so I got another one, and that was stolen, too.

And so, I resigned myself to a life without a bike.

But now that we have moved out of the town center, and I don’t always want to do the twenty-minute walk into town, I bought another one.

No, it's not a girl's bike.
This wasn’t as easy as it might have been because, apparently, they don’t sell bicycles any more.

I could have bought a stonkin’ Trail Machine with knobby tires, disc brakes, hydraulic suspension and more gears than my telly has cable channels, or a sleek Road Racer made of titanium alloy with tires the width of an index card and the gross weight of a pear. Or a Commuter Special that folded to the size of a large pizza. But I couldn’t buy a bicycle.

Not me.

Not me.
These items all came sans fenders, chain guards or lights and carried price tags in the thousands. All I wanted was a bicycle I could use to make the short commute into town, not something to careen down Scafell Pike on, or to ride in the Tour de France. But, alas, none were to be found. They were, as I was beginning to feel, out of date.

More like me. Not the guy on the penny-farthing,
I mean the woman in the background.
I turned to the Internet and still couldn’t find any. I did, however, find laments from people like me who just wanted a bog-standard bike and found they could not buy one. Undaunted, I made it my mission to search every bike rack in town, looking for something, anything, that was anywhere near what I had in mind. There were a few, and I took photos of their brand names. But this led only to more frustration when the web sites turned out to be non-existent, out of date or, having been updated, not selling that model any longer.

Then one day, I saw the perfect bike. And a young woman was standing next to it, unlocking it and preparing to ride away. I could not believe my luck. Braving a possible “Creepy Man Harasses Young Cyclist in Town Centre” headline, I approached her.

“Sorry to be so forward,” I began, “but can you tell me where you got your bike. I’m looking for one just like it.”

The young woman laughed. Not a reaction I was anticipating.

“I’m afraid I can’t help you,” she said. “I found it on the side of the road.”

Turns out, she was walking along the street one day and happened upon this bike, just sitting there, with a note attached to it saying the owner no longer wanted it and was giving it free to anyone who did. So, she called the number, the woman was glad to give it to her, and she had been riding it ever since.

A charming story, heartwarming, even, but of no help to me. I thanked the woman and, as I walked away, she advised, “Keep looking, you’ll find one somewhere.”

“I’ll start checking the sides of the roads,” I replied.

Still determined, but at the end of my wits, I turned to my wife.

“What you want is a Dutch bike,” she told me.

Five minutes of browsing and a one-click order from Amazon UK later, and a Dutch bike was on its way to me from, appropriately, Holland. It arrived two days later, a unisex (it is not a girl’s bike) model with “normal” handle bars (what they call “sit up and beg” handle bars), fenders, a chain-guard, front and back lights and reflectors, a bell, coaster brakes and a front brake, three gears, a carrying rack, and a kick-stand (remember those?) And, as a bonus, it also has a skirt-guard (it is NOT a girl’s bike).

This one, I hope, is more theft-resistant. For starters, it’s not worth enough to make it theft-worthy, and attempting to steal it would involve cutting the lock that secures it to the bike rack, then discovering it could not be ridden or wheeled away because it comes with a built-in lock that immobilizes the back wheel and, once that was discovered, the thief would find it difficult to pick it up and run away with it because it weighs more than a yearling calf.

And so, clad in an eye-wateringly yellow Hi-Viz jacket and helmet (but no Lycra), I can nip into town in no time. Such has been my experience with bikes and Horsham town center, however, that, for the first half-dozen times I returned to where I had left my bike, I was visibly surprised to find it was still there.

Now, people ask me where I got my bike from. And I see more and more bikes like it being ridden sedately around the town. This, in my view, demonstrates the root of the problem: bikes can be used competitively, and cycling can be a sport, but primarily, a bicycle is a mode of transportation. People seemed to have forgotten that, but now they are beginning to remember, and bikes like mine are becoming more common.

This trend was confirmed for me when I happened by the bike shop where I had made my unsuccessful attempt to buy a bike. There, in the front window, was a bike just like mine, with a price tag to match. It was called, fittingly enough, the Townie. And it was pink.

I would have snapped that up in a second if it had been there when I was looking. No one would have the balls to steal something like that! And it would certainly make a statement.

Not the bike in the window, but this is exactly like it.
And I wouldn’t even try denying it was a girl’s bike.

Okay, it's a girl's bike.