Happy Tax Day

Today is the deadline for filing personal income tax returns, and I urge all of you to exercise extreme caution in those areas where CPAs are known to work, and drink (they’re often indistinguishable), because they’ll all be out partying, and it’ll take on the darker aspects of the Teddy Bears’ Picnic. I know this, because for many years I was among their number.

I don’t know if I’ve ever written explicitly about what I “do”, but here’s the short version, in which I omit mention of corpses and other criminal activity. I have an accounting degree, and did a stretch as a tax-and-audit CPA. I was never that hot on the “compliance” part of CPA practice (which, in the 70s, was like 100% of it), so I was pretty much working for the firm of Squarepeg & Roundhole. I had taken a lot of computer science courses along with my accounting, but at the time I was in college, there was no business data processing curriculum, so I didn’t have anything like a minor. I just liked it, and begged whatever courses I could from the engineering department, which led me into some odd stuff like 360 assembler programming.

So when, in the early 80s, our clients started buying IBM PCs and pestering us about how to use Lotus 1-2-3 and do their own accounting on their computers, I got involved as quickly as I could. By the advent of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, I had migrated entirely to accounting systems consulting, which is mainly what I do now, although I also do some “CFO-for-hire” engagements. I’m not a real talented propeller-head techie, nor am I a button-down financial type; I sort of live in the crease between the two, because I know what information financial people want, and I know where to retrieve it.

I don’t really “practice tax” any more, but I have my own stuff - an S Corporation for my business and our personal return - to contend with, and I also prepare my mom’s and my mother-in-law’s. I also do some “meta-tax” preparation for a few of my business clients, wherein I pull together information to send off to a real accountant. So, I don’t approach April 15th as I used to, impersonating a flaming 747 with broken flaps on final approach to an impossibly short runway. But I still have a moderate amount of excitement sprinkling tax fairy dust here and there.

And, some years around this time, if I find myself missing the frisson, the adrenaline-charged sense of mission, the gut-wrenching sense of doom that is tax season in a CPA firm, I’ll call an old co-worker who’s still in the business, usually when I know he’ll be the most strung-out, and impersonate a problematic mutual client that we both had once upon a time. Unlike me, he’s developed the tools and methodology to deal with the demands of the profession:

I once had a managing partner who was a singular individual - a swaggering Texan, profane, unprofessional, misogynistic - but fiercely loyal to the clients and employees he liked. He used to compare the tax season to a creek full of spawning fish - we had to spear as many of them as we could while they were running, because the creek would be empty after April 15th. Another memorable quote from him: he was a little ticked one time when he’d given out a lot of assignments, and he thought we were being lackadaisical about completing them. He called a meeting, and said, “I can pimp these clients ’til the cows come home, but sooner or later you guys are gonna have to line up and start screwin’ ‘em.”

He had a woman partner for awhile who was similarly colorful. I had just come to their firm from another firm that was a lot more, well, anal and hierarchical. For instance, a junior would perform work, then have it reviewed by a senior or manager at the next level. This reviewer would note deficiencies in blue pencil, and pass it back to the junior for reworking, and the junior would note his replies in red pencil. Satisfied, the senior/manager would pass the work to a partner, who would note deficiencies in green pencil, and pass it back to the senior/manager. (Only partners were allowed to own a green pencil). One partner in particular was famous for writing voluminously, spooling out pages of cramped green kvetch. Eventually, all of the noted deficiencies would be corrected, and the client would finally be delivered of his product, along with a sizable bill. One day shortly after going to work in the new firm, I watched this woman partner storm out of her office with a set of workpapers, slam them on the desk of the miscreant who had prepared them, and screech, “You fucked it up, you FIX it!!” No green pencils in that firm.

I called my buddy this year on Friday, April 13th. He said that the Box of the Damned is full this year.


  1. Marilyn:

    Thanks for the memories. In retrospect our Texan seems colorful and amusing, but at the time I was horrified. I remember when I first realized I wasn’t in bkc-land anymore. I had done a pencil draft on yellow legal paper of a letter he had wanted me to write. He read it, signed the draft and mailed it to the client.

  2. Phil:

    Marilyn - Ha! I’m certainly not nominating him for sainthood. Who could forget the Day Of The Levitating Office Machinery? (His calculator somehow teleporting from his desk through a sizeable hole in the sheetrock across the room). Did you ever meet DD?

  3. oh, this post has me LMAO. my sis is a CPA at Moss Adams in Bellingham, I’ll turn her on to this post. The “pimping” line is priceless, as is the “Box of the Damned.” Sounds like you found a much saner route to take on talents….

  4. Very funny stuff, Phil. Isn’t it amazing how most offices seem so congenial and placid, but once the door is closed the seething and insanity begin? I’ve never been in a workplace that wasn’t nuts in one way or another. taradharma knows this to be true, we’ve worked together in the same office on a university campus. Nuttiness abounds.

  5. hey Phil. funny story, very well written

  6. Phil:

    Taradharma - I hope she enjoys it. I’ve worked with Moss Adams folks in Seattle and Everett, and they’re a solid firm. If we’re lucky, we have the latitude to gravitate to our aptitudes.

    Robin - please elucidate some of these adventures. As long as it doesn’t reflect poorly on taradharma ;-)

    Steve - thanks. It means a lot when someone likes the writing. That’s why I do it.

  7. Phil– Tara and I were sane anchors for each other in a sea of utter kookiness. We would confer regularly in near hysteria on some of the things students, staff and faculty did to each other.

  8. We owed $16,000 more in taxes this year than what we paid, so this post was painful to read. Extremely.

  9. and Phil, I’m still blathering on to robin andrea about the nuttiness that is university life. Faculty: eat my shorts. Only ten years until retirement….

  10. Shane:

    Ha ha! The pencil-color rules are still being enforced at a Big 4 firm I recently left. And a managing director at my current company prohibits any of his underlings from using a green pen. Highly amusing post. Thanks.