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“The human mind is programmed for survival, not for truth.”

Philosopher John Gray

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Life Among the Exiles

We spent a whole morning in a small restaurant listening to a talk about garbage. The sanitation manager of the town had kindly volunteered to speak to our group as part of our education in everyday French.

It certainly was everyday French. This was vocabulary we could use. We might not be able to read Proust or Flaubert in the original but, after an hour of instruction on the science and sociology of garbage disposal in the town we were ready to go out and talk trash with any passing street cleaner.

The group of about twenty people who had gathered for this educational experience consisted of expatriates from half a dozen countries. There are a lot of foreigners living in southern Europe, most of them British, Scandinavian and Dutch refugees from the frozen north. But more and more Russians and East Europeans are moving in too, refugees from both the weather and the toxic politics at home.

They are interesting people and, being separated from their native languages and cultures, they socialize with one another. Food and wine are common interests, and English is the common language although you can have some surreal multilingual conversations. But most foreign residents are at least trying to learn French with varying degrees of success, and many of them are working in education or business. They form a kind of parallel universe, hanging out in their favorite cafes, haunting the markets, and soaking up the sun when there is any sun.

The man who must take the blame or credit for this friendly invasion is Peter Mayle, whose 1989 bestseller A Year in Provence inspired a whole genre of imitations, and a whole diaspora of middle class people who thought that living in the South of France sounded like a pretty neat idea, which it is.

There is a hierarchy among the expatriates of course, and the longtime residents are at the top of it. They know the secrets we all need to know: the labyrinthine ways of the tax system, the real story about health care, the best place to buy wine, the truth about the winter weather, and so on. The rest of us are eager students of their hard-won knowledge.

We don’t qualify as full members of the expat community. We are birds of passage, here today and on the wing tomorrow. Many others do the same, coming and going for a few weeks or months according to the rhythms of weather or work, or simply whim. People are always just leaving, for Holland or Turkey or Brazil, or just coming back.

There is something appealing and almost inspiring about the disconnected expatriate lifestyle. In a world obsessed with nationalism and borders this floating population seems to offer a model of what a peaceful global society could be like. We don’t “belong” here, of course. But what the expats share is the feeling that it is rather nice not to “belong” anywhere, to be comfortable refugees on the face of the planet. When you belong to a place it possesses you, and imposes all kinds of obligations. There are far too many people who feel stuck in the place of their birth, or in some anonymous suburb where they happened to buy a home forty years ago. That’s geographical slavery. It doesn’t matter where you are or what language you try to speak, so long as you have good food, good company, and regular garbage collection. If you know a better recipe for universal peace and happiness I’d like to hear about it.

Copyright: David Bouchier

House Book

Moving out of a house after a long stay is always a tedious affair. There’s a vast amount of cleaning to be done, in the course of which many unfortunate discoveries will certainly be made: lost keys, lost papers, dead mice, and so on. There will be the painful triage when we decide what to take and what to leave behind. If you’ve been wearing the same few garments for months you either want to throw them or away or continue living comfortably in them forever. The latter decision will depend on your sex, of course. There are lots of small repairs to be attempted, and people we must absolutely say goodbye to, including really important ones like the butcher and the baker. But by far the most demanding task is preparing the house for those who will be coming to stay in it during the next few months, because this involves creating a “House Book.”

A House Book is supposed to tell the next occupant everything he or she needs to know in order to have a safe and enjoyable stay, and not set fire to the place or allow it to be taken over by stray cats. Few House Books fulfill this task adequately. They tend to be either too brief and uninformative, with cryptic instructions like “Hot water may be obtained by activating the 20 amp breaker switch”, without any indication of where in the house this object may be found, or they are maddeningly verbose and authoritarian, like an army drill manual written by Marcel Proust.

Creating one of these books is a delicate task, but it shouldn’t be difficult. Our old village house, basically, is nothing but a hollow cube of stone with a tiled roof. It has been around for some hundreds of years and could be destroyed only by a direct missile strike. In the old days goats were kept in the basement and rabbits in the attic, with the people living in between. In short the house is not a fragile object, like a piece of porcelain. There’s nothing to worry about, or so you might assume.

But in this century builders and interior designers have done their transformative work, and now there are hundreds of things to worry about: heating systems, Internet connections a temperamental stove, idiosyncratic light fixtures and water filters, to name only a few. Oh for the simple life, as Thoreau described it! “Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them,” he wrote, with his usual irritating perspicacity.

I have tried to compose a House Book that will be comprehensive, informative, friendly in tone, and legally impregnable. It was an impossible task until I decided to write it from the visitor’s point of view. They have questions, I have answers.

 What do we do about garbage? Answer: The rules of garbage disposal in a French village are beyond the understanding of any foreigner. Watch what the people next door do with their garbage, and do the same.

 The laundry machine looks funny – does it work? Answer: Yes, but there’s nothing funny about it. Prepare for all your clothes to be the same color.

 Why are there five remote controls? Answer: Because there’s French TV and British TV, and radio, coming from a satellite dish and an antenna and goodness knows where else, and I haven’t figured out how to make it all work with fewer than three remotes. The fourth and fifth remote are a surprise: try them and see.

 Where can I park? Answer: Keep driving until you get to the next village. They Have parking.

 Where can I go for walks? Answer: Anywhere, except in hunting season, when it’s best to stay home especially if you look even very slightly like a wild pig. The hunters don’t discriminate.

The House Book, as it emerges on my keyboard, is a kind of model or blueprint of domestic life in France. It tells us how we should live, and by example tries to persuade others to live the same way. It’s a good life, but only if you read the instructions.

Europe on $500 a Day

If you made any travel plans recently you are probably still suffering from sticker shock. Oil prices have driven up the cost of flights and cruises, and some mysterious inflationary disease has supersized hotel and restaurant prices all over the world. London has lost its proud title as the world’s most expensive city to Moscow of all places, with Paris not far behind. . But even less likely destinations like Nicosia, Cyprus and Seoul South Korea are up there in the top fifty. Goodbye cheap travel, at least for the moment.

You may remember a popular series of guide books that promised to show you how to travel anywhere on five dollars a day – the price of a cup of coffee in today’s Moscow. I used those guides myself, or thought I did. Recently I’ve begun to wonder whether it was a case of false memory syndrome. It seems impossible; five dollars a day?

Then a piece of evidence fell at my feet: a little pocket diary that had been hiding at the back of a shelf. It was one of those devices we used in the ancient days of paper to keep a day by day record of our vacations. In the long lost summer of 1964, I had carried it with me on a trip to Europe, and dutifully filled in the details of every single day, including what everything cost.

So I found that it wasn’t a false memory. You really could travel Europe on five dollars a day, or the equivalent in the old currencies – francs, lira, pesetas, and so on. The first night, at a hotel in Fontainbleau, near Paris, cost two dollars, with “A good breakfast.” But Fontainbleau was an expensive town. As we moved south, over the Alps, into Italy, and down through former Yugoslavia to Greece, the prices got cheaper and cheaper. The cheapest hotel was in Yugoslavia, less than a dollar, but I noted in the diary that it was “A dump.” Even in those days I had high standards.

We were travelling by motorcycle, I should add, which cut fuel costs to almost nothing, although the engine used almost as much oil as gas. For a moment, as I flipped through the diary, there was a danger of slipping into nostalgia about the good old days of cheap travel. But soon the recovered memories began to swim into focus. This type of travel was pure torture. Of course there were good and even great moments, like discovering that wonderful, fat-saturated French snack the Croque Monsieur, and coming to the brow of a hill in Greece and suddenly getting a first sight of the Parthenon, floating like a white mirage above the smog of Athens.

But the motorcycle, an antique Triumph, was painfully uncomfortable as well as underpowered and unreliable. We were soaked with rain and plastered with insects every day. Crossing the Alps was a freezing endurance test. The long drive down the two-lane road that ran through Yugoslavia was an extended suicide mission. The hotels were flea ridden and comfortless, meals were often inedible, and the cheap wine was disgusting. These facts were not noted in the diary because the pages too small for commentary, but they had lodged like a bad dream somewhere in my mind.

We traveled without cell phone, laptop or e-mail, with no reservations and no forwarding address. For three weeks we were completely detached from our everyday world, and perhaps that one thing made up for all the rest.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Joys of Travel

The task of preparing and packing for a trip weeks or months is enough to persuade a person to give up foreign travel forever. Life must be pared down to the dimensions of one suitcase and one carry-on: summer clothes, winter clothes, in-between clothes, medications, files, laptop, and all the other things a modern couple cannot live without. Arrangements must be made for paying utility bills, caring for cats, mowing the lawn or clearing snow according to season, and sometimes both. Time always runs out before all this is done, but we have to go anyway. Napoleon’s army setting out on its catastrophic march to Moscow in 1812 was better prepared than we usually are as we begin an extended trip.

When a journey begins with air travel the discomforts are ten times multiplied. Everyone now understands that the airlines are engaged in a vast conspiracy to persuade us all to stay at home, or at least on the ground. This is good from the point of view of global warming, and no doubt we will all have to stay at home soon. But right now there aren’t many alternatives if you want to get from one continent to another. We could drive to Alaska and take a dog sled across the Bering Strait, then a train down through Russia, and come into Europe through the back door, so to speak. But it would take weeks, and it’s not very practical because we are cat people, and we don’t have any experience with huskies.

So we must start with the airlines and their increasingly ludicrous and humiliating “security” procedures. Once disentangled from the airline and the airport, often a major struggle in itself, there is always the question of hotels. In general, we love hotels as a relaxing home away from home. But unless we stay within the safe capsule of the big international chains, which are hideously expensive, every hotel is a lottery. Stars mean next to nothing, guide books are always out of date, and another curious conspiracy operates in the hotel industry. They have agreed amongst themselves that no hotel room should ever be quite perfect, so clients don’t get spoiled. The requirements for a good hotel room are simple: anyone could make the list. But in real life the list is always incomplete. One hotel gives you a coffee machine, but no hairdryer; another has a perfectly comfortable bed, but the pillows are stuffed with dried corn husks; one freezes you with air conditioning you can’t adjust; another tries to bake you alive. All hotel rooms without exception are missing at least one light bulb, and one essential bathroom item. Frills like wake-up calls, newspapers, Internet connections and room service are provided on the basis of a secret lottery run by the hotel management. You may get them, or you may not, but you will never get them all.

I miss the lost age of elegant travel, even though I never experienced it. I like to read about the writer Edith Wharton’s travels in Europe in the 1920s. She crossed the Atlantic on one of the great luxury ocean liners and, once in Europe, she was considered adventurous to travel by car. But the car had a chauffeur and a mechanic on board, and another car full of servants followed right behind. Another group of servants traveled ahead to set up her rooms at each grand hotel. No security checks, no lost baggage, and never any missing light bulbs. That’s the way to see the world.

Time travel, anyone?

Copyright: David Bouchier

Reset password

Like most people I start my working day by avoiding work. Instead I read my e-mail, and then delete it. Or I just delete it, which saves time. But the e-mail program demands a password, and the other day my mind went blank so I had to do something useful instead. The secret code came back to me in time but I worried that this was the proverbial first straw in a coming hurricane of forgetfulness.

The experts who concern themselves computer security insist that we should have different passwords for different things, change them frequently, and not write them down. They have to be meaningless strings of numbers and letters, or they will be too easy to crack. If you use your cat’s name, for example, evil criminals may capture your cat in the street and torture him until he reveals it. Passwords must be obscure to be secure.

That’s all very well for those whose brains are young, un-cluttered and efficient. But that condition doesn’t last long. It occurred to me, as I stared at the blank password box that, pretty soon, all sixty million baby boomers will begin to forget their passwords. I’m a generation ahead of them, and I can guarantee it. My passwords are vanishing into the mist already.

This will be much more serious than the Y2K problem that was falsely predicted in the year 2000. We need passwords for everything: cell phones, e-mail, Facebook whatever it is, wireless connection, data storage, every web company and service we have to deal with, on line banking, on-line shopping, on-line bill paying, and really just about everything. Even the house security system demands a password, and I live here! Once we start forgetting these passwords our lives will shrink, piece by piece, until we are reduced to the pathetic state of folks in the 1970s, who didn’t have any passwords. It’s hard to imagine how we lived without them. Imagine just reading your mail or checking your bank balance without a password.

The web companies have accommodated the frailty of human memory in a minimal way, by offering a little button near the password box that says: “Forgot your password?” There is something condescending and critical about this, like your old school teacher saying: “Forgot your homework?” If you click on this icon it usually presents you with another memory test, like your grandmother’s maiden name or your parakeet’s birthday. If you can’t remember the password, you certainly can’t remember these. So you are stuck, and have no choice but to join the line of several thousand other senior citizens who are on hold, trying to call Bombay and reset their passwords.

My habit is to make passwords out of objects in the immediate vicinity of the computer, so I can look around for inspiration. But I still have to remember which object: is it the jade plant today, or the wireless router, or the model number of the printer, or the stone owl that sits on the desk? It’s anybody’s guess, really, and often you are only allowed three guesses before the site blocks you out. In a fair and just society seniors would be allowed more guesses according to age. I would like at least ten.

This password culture suggests that nobody trusts anybody about anything. I’m sure it contributes to the universal paranoia. Before we were all caught in the World Wide Web, less than twenty years ago, only spies like James Bond, and master criminals like Professor Moriarty needed codes and passwords, because they had so much to hide. Now, it seems, all of us have everything to hide: so many secrets safely hidden behind so many passwords, if only we can remember what they are.

Copyright: David Bouchier

A Better Class of Crime?

After walking twenty blocks in crowded midtown Manhattan, I discovered that a flap on my briefcase was hanging open, exposing my credit cards, cell phone, and all the other portable treasures that make modern life possible. Nobody took the trouble to steal them, and I was forced to reflect on the decline of crime and the lack of enterprise shown by our local street criminals. In London or Paris my valuables would have been gone before I had walked ten paces.

What happened to the legendary pickpockets, the linear descendents of Fagin’s boys, whose cunning arts could empty even the most secure pockets without the victim feeling a thing? Nobody can be bothered to learn the craft. The skilled pickpocket has declined into the unskilled mugger, who avoids busy city streets. The last time anyone tried to pick my pocket was in Stockholm, and the effort was so clumsy that I had to assume that the young gentleman was an amateur, or perhaps still in the early stages of his training.

The same decline of expertise has struck the once skilled profession of burglary. Where are the cat burglars of yesteryear who could climb vertical walls, like Spiderman, and slide through apparently locked doors and windows? Where are the gentleman burglars, with beautiful manners and interesting hobbies like collecting antique books? The gentleman burglar was always exquisitely dressed and could crack any safe with a few deft touches. Today’s burglars, if television pictures are to be believed, are very unfashionably dressed and can’t open anything without using a sledgehammer, a backhoe, or dynamite. A gentleman burglar, who left everything neat and tidy, would be positively welcome compared to the Neanderthals who seem to be in the business these days.

The civilized burglar lives on in fiction: Arsène-Lupin, Raffles, and more recently Bernie Rhodenbarr carry on the tradition of a craft that rewarded dexterity and intelligence rather than muscle. But they are not imitated in the real world, which I at first put down to the deplorable state of school system. Kids just don’t learn the value of practice and patience. I was about to call my senator with a proposal for an educational reform bill on the lines of “No criminal left behind,” when I realized that I myself had failed to crack the problem.

Criminal skills have not vanished, they have just moved up market. All the smart people are into white-collar crime. Not a day passes without some new revelation: college administrators getting rich from student loan scams; fire district officials and school board members on Long Island pocket pocketing millions; rapacious non-profits, charities and churches; sleazy businessmen evading taxes; bent doctors manipulating Medicare; and creative stock market operators conjuring money out of thin air. We won’t even mention lawyers and politicians. These respectable crooks have more than compensated for the decline of skills in traditional crime. They can take more money in a day than the best pickpocket could in a lifetime, and it’s all comfortable indoor work.

This crime wave among the privileged and educated classes is a bit depressing, if only because I have missed the opportunity to take part. Reading the morning headlines I feel I have been a fool all my life: paying my taxes, keeping a single (accurate) set of accounts, and drawing a sharp line between money that belongs to me and money that belongs to other people. A fool and his money are soon parted, and I suppose I must face the fact that I am not, and never have been, smart enough for crime.

It is no use hoping for more honesty, but I would like to see a bit more subtlety. This white-collar crime is all so tacky and blatant. Admittedly the perpetrators usually (but not always) dress better than their street counterparts, and often have degrees from good colleges, although I doubt they could open a safe without a key. But they have no taste. They spend their loot on golf, fried chicken and trips Las Vegas. If we must have a huge white-collar criminal class, and apparently we must, the least honest citizens can demand is a bit of style.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Roar of Spring

One of the several things that makes April the cruelest month is that suburban homeowners take it as their cue to bring out their wretched machines.

I say “home owners,” but what I really mean is “men.” Do you see many women wielding these machines? No, and here’s why. Men have problems. Tom and Ray, the car guys you hear on public radio, have identified a condition that they call “Male Answer Syndrome.” This is a hormonal imbalance that prevents men from ever saying “I don’t know,” and forces them to give an answer, even a wrong answer, to any question whatsoever. I believe that there is a similar and related disease, which I’ll call “Male Engine Syndrome” – the male’s inability to tackle even the simplest job without starting up some kind of very noisy engine.

The small, air cooled two-cycle gas engine is extraordinarily efficient. It produces more racket and pollution for the buck than any other device – although for a really excruciating pitch, the high-speed electric motor runs it a close second.

If it is true, as H.G.Wells wrote, that our machines have made us into Gods, we are unnecessarily noisy gods, like some of the more rambuctious Roman deities. Any man, however modest his condition, can make his mark on the neighborhood with a chainsaw: like Jupiter or Vulcan, he can be heard.

As spring turns into summer, the suburban power tool symphony inexorably increases in volume. Mowers are joined by leaf blowers and weed whackers, tillers and shredders. Reluctant husbands start on all the home repairs that they had avoided all winter. Out come the electric saws, the chain saws, the drills, the sanders, the paint sprayers, and the power washers. They may hate the work, but they love the noise it makes.

In part, of course, this is pure laziness; or to put it in a more positive light, it’s a man’s natural desire to avoid bodily wear and tear and premature ageing. I have seen men bring out an electric circular saw to cut a piece of wood 2″ by 1″, that could be cut with a handsaw in ten seconds. Clearly, such men are serious about conserving their physical energy. They have power windows on their cars, automatic garage door openers, and electric toothbrushes. No exertion is too trivial to be avoided.

Husbands who have to go out to work, and so leave their patch of suburbia unnaturally silent, can call in a lawn service. They have even noisier machines, mowers big enough to harvest the prairies, and super hurricane-power three-hundred decibel weed trimmers. On a fine day, several lawn services will converge on our neighborhood and run all their machines together, like a chorus from some mechanical hell.

When the local kids get home from a hard day at school, at about noon, they drag their industrial-strength amplifiers outdoors and play vile music at full volume until their parents, conscious of their social obligations, arrive home and yell at them full volume for ten minutes, before pulling the plug and putting on their own vile music at full volume

If there are any moments of near-silence, we can listen to the bulldozers tearing into the nearby woods to create yet another development of “Woodland Estates.” Somebody within a couple of blocks is invariably having oil delivered, a cesspool pumped, trees trimmed, a driveway resurfaced, or a roof replaced. The concert never stops.

If we walk down to the beach for a bit of peace and quiet, we see not footprints in the sand but tire tracks. This is a visible warning that teenagers with All-TerrainVehicles are enjoying the beauties of nature in their own way, although we can usually hear them coming for half a mile. Looking out to sea, we can enjoy a roaring vista of powerboats and jet skis.

The National Institute of Health reports that ten million Americans now have hearing loss caused by too much noise. The Environmental Protection Agency has introduced progressive regulations for quieter and less polluting engines on garden machinery. But we won’t notice the improvement until the regulations come into full force in the year 2006, by which time we will scarcely be able to hear the difference.

Laws won’t help. Making noise is one of those inalienable American rights, like the pursuit of happiness. If the issue gets to the Supreme Court, they will certainly rule in favor of the noise makers, even if they have to yell the judgment at the tops of their voices.

But there may be a technological rather than a legislative solution.

The portable CD or MPs player can maks the most appalling noises available in a private, portable form, injected right into the victim’s eardrums, without disturbing anybody else. What we need are some really nasty CDs that would satisfy men’s craving for high-decibel meaningless noise. There’s a big potential market here. “Chainsaw Symphony”; “digger Sonata”; “Dan Drives Twenty Thousand Roofing Nails while Playing his Boom Box full volume”, and so on.

If the boys must have their noise, let them have it on headphones, and leave the rest of us to enjoy the natural music of a suburban summer: the birds, the dogs, the insects, the swish of sprinklers and the gentle sounds of a million gardeners, working the old fashioned way, with their hands.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Down to Earth

What exactly should we do on Earth Day. April 22? Back in the 1970s, when Earth Day began, the answer was fairly simple: plant a tree, raise consciousness, promote cleaner air and water. It was a ritual of purification and celebration, a day for us to show how concerned we were about the deterioration of our environment, and our (perhaps naïve) determination to put things right.

Now it’s more daunting. Global warming is a mega problem. A few hybrids and windmills won’t solve it, let alone devious evasions like carbon credits. We need to change completely how we live – no more long distance flying, no more pointless short car trips, no more thermostats set to our perfect comfort zone three hundred and sixty five days a year. The penalty for failing to change these habits, so we’re told, will be a new and more comprehensive version of Noah’s flood, with our home on Long Island one of the first places to go under.

This is definitely something worth worrying about. But are we really going to change how we live? I should give up my car, become a vegetarian, and live in a tent but I won’t. I should reduce my carbon footprint, but that’s harder than reducing my waistline. The habits of a lifetime don’t change so easily. As the water rises I guarantee that we’ll see the first amphibious SUV’s splashing down the street towards the Mall, gulping gas at fifty dollars a gallon. Every morning I get stuck in a line of enormous SUVs waiting to deliver children to the local Montessori School – tiny kids being carried in vehicles big enough to accommodate a couple of water buffalo.

Global warming must take its place in the hierarchy of human problems and, given a choice of problems, we will always prefer the ones that cause the least personal inconvenience. So why worry about global warming when the cosmos itself is such a dangerous place? Here we are, zipping through infinite space on a ball of dirt so small that even the most intelligent aliens have never noticed it. Every day astronomers report exploding stars, and the annihilation of whole galaxies in unimaginable collisions. The Andromeda Galaxy is headed our way at eighty-seven miles a second, and killer comets and asteroids are coming at us like paint balls from all directions  at about twenty-six thousand miles an hour. We are threatened by giant cosmic clouds of poison dust, and super-magnetic neutron stars, and the latest speculation by scientists is that a rogue “bubble universe” made of phantom energy could appear out of nowhere and gobble up the earth quicker than Washington gobbles up our tax dollars. Then there’s the giant Hadron Collider in Geneva, which could create an uncontrollable black hole that would swallow the planet in a matter of seconds, if the bubble universe and poison clouds don’t get us first.

All this is rather disturbing, but at least it puts the anxiety about global warming in proper perspective, somewhere between cholesterol and the deficit. There’s nothing to be done about vast cosmic threats like exploding galaxies, so we can worry about them, as it were, free of charge. There’s no need to make any changes in the way we live.

But global warming and climate change are not at all like science fiction. They seem to demand dramatic action, but what? Remember the slogan coined by Friends of the Earth: “Think globally, act locally”? It set me thinking about that sly fox Voltaire. In his comic masterpiece Candide Voltaire created a character who suffered every conceivable disaster and never quite gave up his optimism. But at the very end of the book Candide concluded that the world was a madhouse, and there was nothing to be done except act locally. “We must cultivate our garden,” he declared, meaning we must just get on with it and do what we can where we are.

It’s not exactly a rousing slogan, but it’s probably all that most of us individually can do on Earth Day: plant a tree, or maybe some rice, buy a recyclable shopping bag, get the old bicycle out, cultivate our gardens: just do what we can. This is known as coping, also as common sense, or the way of the ostrich.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Taxed to the Limit

The best thing about the past, generally speaking, is that it is past. It’s over. Whatever mistakes we made can be forgotten or filed away, except on tax day when we have to relive them all over again.

It’s always with a sense of doom that I pull out the boxes and the files and start working through the contents. There it is, the whole of my life for the past year reduced to dollars and cents: every meal and hotel room, every postal packet and phone call, every printer cartridge and paper clip, every check flowing in and every check flowing out (a considerably larger number), and every regretted extravagance. Whatever fantasies I may have had about my financial habits, this is the inescapable reality. False memory syndrome has no chance when we sit down to do the numbers.

I really resent having to face this reality check every year. It’s a reminder of all the projects that didn’t work and all the bad decisions I made. Did I really need a five hundred dollar computer printer when I could have got one for a quarter of the price? Was it absolutely necessary to upgrade my wardrobe with no fewer than three new shirts, when the old ones looked almost as good as they did when I bought them, in 1986?

Quite apart from the unwanted reminders there’s the sheer clerical tedium of the job, adding up hundreds of slips of paper and trying to arrange them into some kind of convincing economic story. These numbers mean nothing to me. But I know they mean something to the IRS.

I’m not the only one who fails to understand the full Byzantine complexity of the US tax system. Almost nobody understands it, and those who pretend to understand it are usually fooling themselves. I suspect that the tax code is like the Microsoft operating system: it has taken on a life of its own, and has evolved beyond the power of the human mind to grasp.
So, for many years we’ve employed the same friendly and reassuring accountant to lead us through these mysteries. We sit in his office, as we did last week, watching in amazements as the numbers leap about on his computer screen. It’s like an economic makeover – nothing that emerges at the end is quite like what went in at the beginning. What emerges is a set of tax forms so elaborately structured and so beautifully printed that it would be sacrilege (we hope) for the IRS to question them.

If our accountant has a fault it is his honesty. He is scrupulous, careful and conservative. We need an accountant more like the famous Arthur Anderson who could turn our mundane losses into billions in paper profits, which we could then steal and go to live in the Caribbean. But our man frowns on this kind of creative accounting. Instead he presents us with a more or less horrifying sum of tax due, plus a whopping bill for his own services.

I like to think of what out tax contribution buys in concrete visual terms, perhaps some school library books or medical help for a poor senior citizen. But I can’t get it out of my head this year that our tax liability will cover the cost of just four 155m high explosive artillery shells. So I would like a kind of line item veto at the end of my 1040, a more elaborate version of the organ donor statement on the back of my driver’s license. It would be quite simple: a list of major government expenditures (including Congressional salaries and pensions) against which the taxpayer could just check off “Yes” or “No”. The President believes in smaller government. Taxpayer choice would make his wildest dreams come true.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Down by the river side

Mr. Toad and all his friends from the river bank are a hundred years old. This important literary information may leave you completely indifferent, unless you know who I’m talking about. Then you may get a faraway look in your eyes, and even begin to mutter the magic words: “Boop-boop.”

Mr. Toad is the most prominent and certainly the loudest character in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, which was published in 1908. Either you were brought up with this book or you were not. If you were you will certainly remember Toad and his long suffering companions, Water Rat, Mole, and Badger, who live an idyllic life by the river and in the Wild Wood, interrupted by bursts of wild excitement, usually precipitated by Toad, who is a kind of Walter Mitty character but more active.

Toad has enthusiasms, one of which is the motor car – hence “Boop-boop” – and his gentler and more sensible friends try to save him from himself. Some people adore the book, others find it fey and silly. But it made an impression on a lot of children, including me, because the animal characters are so good natured and sympathetic. Life by the river has its dark side, but there are no superheroes and, apart from one unfortunate chapter that you can skip, very little sentimentality. Like Lewis Carrol’s Alice stories, this is real life through the looking glass. We all know at least one Mr. Toad, just as we all know at least one Red Queen.

Until recently, when I read a biographical sketch of the author Kenneth Graham, I had never realized another and more elusive appeal of The Wind in the Willows. The characters are all solitary creatures who love their little homes. There is an affecting passage where Mole, who has been enjoying all kinds of adventures on the river, catches the scent of his own underground burrow and is overcome with homesickness.

It seems that Kenneth Graham had a lifelong dream of a little room of his own where he could just be alone, and be happy. He even went looking for it in London, believing it must exist somewhere. How many of us had such a fantasy as children – a hideaway, a room that nobody else knew about, a secret garden? Children’s literature is full of them, or used to be. It’s a deeply anti-social fantasy, so it may be out of fashion nowadays. Reading about Kenneth Graham brought my own fantasy back. My little room of the imagination was closely modeled on that of Sherlock Holmes: rather dark, full of books and papers, curiosities and scientific experiments, and discreetly managed by a kind housekeeper who would provide regular meals and ask no questions.

In The Wind in the Willows Water Rat has his cozy nest in the river bank, Mole has his tidy burrow, Badger has rather fine quarters under the roots of a tree in the Wild Wood, and Toad, in keeping with his excessive character, has Toad Hall. Through all their adventures these places always call them back.

Even as we live our lives in the chaos of other people, and enjoy it, I suspect that most of us as adults still harbor that childhood fantasy of a secret place where nothing and nobody can trouble us, an apartment 7B with no name on the door or, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, just a room somewhere with one enormous chair. Oh wouldn’t it be luvverly.

Copyright: David Bouchier
With acknowledgements to Richard Ingrams