The Real Macbeth

When the hurly-burly’s done,
when the battle’s lost and won…


–Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act I: Sc 1: Line 3

Macbeth was a real guy. King of Scotland. Lived in a Castle near Inverness. Defeated Duncan and succeeded by Malcolm. Many things that Shakespeare used in his play were factually accurate. However, most of the characterizations of king Macbeth were historical gaffes.

Those of us who had to read Macbeth in high school, who had to diagram Shakespeare’s five act opening-climax-denouement cycle and to write papers about how Macbeth’s tragic flaw, his obsession with ambition, led to his downfall, were given the wrong impression. Macbeth the real King of Scotland (1040-1057), was not a murdering madman, but a far more complex, elusive, and interesting person whose true ambition may have been to unite Scotland.

Cawdor Castle
Cawdor Castle, formerly home to Macbeth, currently home to the Campbell’s.
Photo by kajmeister.
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Come Out to the Coast, Have a Good Time… (Crossing the Pond III)

Suppose you are a fisherman in something something B.C., in the quite far western Mediterranean, and a gale blows up which pulls your reed boat out into those great Atlantic swells. You hunker down in the bottom, near the fish you’ve caught, hang on for dear life for a couple days, surviving on fish-scale-tasting rainwater, until you scrape up on porous rock, a thousand miles from your village on the mainland. You’ve discovered the Azores.

Reed Boat
Reed boat, from atlantisbolivia.org/areedboathistory

Not so, says a Portugese government commission appointed to determine who discovered those islands to the west of Portugal, which they own, which they got to first, which belong to them and no one else, mine, mine, mine. Still, archaeologists have persisted in trying to determine who got to the Azores first, and that’s one of the mysteries we encountered in our first week after crossing the Atlantic. Who were the first people on the Azores, and where did they go? How might you own half the world? If an earthquake and tidal wave were to level your city, how would you get past it? And, lastly, is it possible to have too much chocolate?

To answer these questions, we visited Ponta Delgado on São Miguel, Lisbon, and Bruges. Continue reading “Come Out to the Coast, Have a Good Time… (Crossing the Pond III)”

The Call of the Running Tide (Crossing the Pond II)

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
–John Masefield, Sea Fever

Mayflower ship
The Mayflower, photo at mayflowernewyork.org

Sitting in the bar of this giant Princess cruise ship, sipping my non-alcoholic piña colada, I’m watching outside the window as the ship rail slowly moves upward, squeezing the visible waves until the rail is level with the horizon. Then it reverses, down, down, down, until most of the window is again filled with slate blue, frosted with whitecaps. Welcome to the Atlantic swells.

We are on a TAC, as some of the veterans here call it—the TAC and the TPC—transAtlantic, transPacific crossings. We are a week at sea, to be followed by a meander up the very western coast of the European continent. Get ready to hear about the Azores, Guernsey, Bilbao, Zeebrugge, and all the spots that meet the long blue horizon. But first, we have to get there. I am thinking of the others who came before me, though at first they mostly traveled in the other direction. Like Columbus, the Pilgrims, the kidnapped Africans, and the Irish.

Decent Sailor, Incompetent Governor, Expert Colonizer

One myth about Columbus is that as he sailed out of Palazzo Muger, he saw the ships with the 40,000 Jewish exiles who had just been expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella in August 1492. The timing was probably coincidental, though it conjures a great picture.

By 1492, the master sailors in Venice dominated the Mediterranean while the Portugese had a near monopoly on trade down the African coast. The Catholic monarchs, who had only recently merged Aragon and Castile to create a burgeoning Spanish empire, needed money to fund wars and expansion. It took a few years for that smooth-talking Genoese sailor Cristobal Colon to talk Ferdinand and Isabella into financing his trip, but by the fall of 1492, he was outfitting three ships. No jewel-selling was involved. Continue reading “The Call of the Running Tide (Crossing the Pond II)”

Free Tax Advice (Well, Not Really)

Photo from McClatchy

Sophia Loren and Spiro Agnew have it in common. Al Capone, Leona Helmsley, and Wesley Snipes are also all linked, but in a different way. And Martha Stewart and Lindsey Vonn make the list, even though their situations were completely different. What’s the common thread? Tax problems, a fitting subject for a blog five days before April 15th.

It seemed like a great time to pontificate about tax rules and hand out some free tax advice, for today is the last day I will be helping out with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. As a reminder, this program partners with the IRS and United Way to allow volunteers to file taxes for free for those whose income falls below a threshold. If your income is low, and you didn’t take advantage this year, mark your calendars next February to find out where the nearest VITA site is near you! As I tell clients, your taxes are done for free, which means you get what you pay for. Same with today’s blog. But here are a few tidbits of tax advice, both frivolous and useful.

The 861 Tax Protest Argument

Wesley Snipes tried to use what is called the “861 argument” to avoid paying taxes, which points to section 861 of the IRS code that defines income sources. Snipes and others argued that the IRS code doesn’t explicitly list all possible ways you can earn income, and therefore any income-generating activity not on the list is not taxable. Multiple tax protesters using this logic have been taken to court in the last thirty years, and none have won.

No tax protester has successfully argued that you can legally avoid paying taxes.

Snipes followed the advice of two fraudsters, Tom Clayton and Larkin Rose, who called themselves the American Rights Litigators, and then later renamed their group the Guiding Light of God Ministries. Much later, they were renamed federal prison inmates # 357-551 and #AX7-832. Not only did Snipes refuse to pay millions owed for money made as a film star, but he attempted to amend previous year filings and request millions in refunds. At one point after he was indicted for tax evasion, he tried to enter South Africa on a false passport. (He also wanted his trial venue to be moved out of Florida because Ocala is racist. The judge disagreed.)

Continue reading “Free Tax Advice (Well, Not Really)”

We, the Juries

Jury in a movie
The jury in To Kill a Mockingbird, Universal Pictures

I was called for jury duty this week. Like clockwork, the postcard arrived in the mail just about 13 months to the day from the one that arrived last year, an unbroken chain of annual requests that stretches back for at least two decades. In the abstract, I welcome the idea that we the people participate in our civil processes to adjudicate the actions of our fellow citizens. In the concrete reality of the postcard, however, I would prefer not to.

This contrast of opposites—our desire for fairness and search for justice set against the practical realities of daily life plays itself out repeatedly—it has in history, it does today. I could not help but muse on the history of juries as I watched the drama of Congressional hearings and waited to find out if I would have to traipse down to the courtroom myself.

Trial of Socrates–Imagine the Jury Pool!

The use of juries—a group of potential peers—to weigh evidence in a trial has ancient roots but a far more restricted use and history than I realized. The word “jury” originally meant simply “to swear,” or “to pronounce a ritual formula,” an idea that ultimately transformed itself into the formula of law. This slightly differs from the origin of the word for “judge,” which meant “to speak about the law.” The Greeks used juries in one of the early recorded instances of the practice, although their juries were 300 to 500 men or more. Continue reading “We, the Juries”