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)”

How to Harness the Wind (Crossing the Pond I)

Sailing is a prime form of technological magic that we take for granted. You stick a boat in the water with a standing sheet of cloth or plastic and expect it to start zooming wherever you like. Pretty miraculous, though. Like flying, it’s not just going fast and having wings, but how the wings are shaped. In the same way, sailboats move because of how the sails are shaped, and how they’re allowed to move.

Phoenician ship
Phoenician ships ruled the Mediterranean 3000 years ago, photo by Jennie Hill

Human cultures have a lot of coastlines, so for eight millennia, those cultures learned how to navigate long distances–without computers, electricity, steam power, sextants, or even nails. The Portugese, Phoenicians, Vikings, and the Chinese all created distinct seafaring dynasties, each in their own turn. As I’m about to start a journey across the Atlantic on a boat, I decided to try to understand exactly how they did it.

If Square, Add Oars

The oldest known ship, the Pessoe canoe in the Netherlands, dates back to 8000 BC. From Easter Island to the fertile crescent to the Inuit, people have been hollowing out a tree or lashing logs together, raft-like, in order to move across the water. Many added a bit of cloth mounted on a stick to move away from the wind, plus some oar power to keep going when the wind was in the wrong direction or nonexistent.

Continue reading “How to Harness the Wind (Crossing the Pond I)”

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)”

J.S. Bach: Sewing Machine or New Age Streamer?

Salomo, stop playing that [Bach]! You sound like a sewing machine!

CCH Pounder in the movie Bagdad Cafe

Does Bach sound like a sewing machine? Does The Art of the Fugue sound like it was dictated by a blind man? Was Bach so good at counterpoint because he heard arguments in his head all the time, given that he was apparently always arguing with somebody? Does the emotional content reflected in St. Matthew’s Passion or the Prelude from the Cello Suite in D Minor denote the kappelmeister’s relationship to his faith or the fact that half his children died before reaching adulthood?

Argumentative, industrious, myopic Herr Bach, photo at BachonBach.com

Sunday was Bach’s 334th birthday. In 1685, when he was born, Louis the Fourteenth was dominating Europe, William & Mary were wresting the crown away from the Stuarts in England, and Protestants were fleeing to the colonies to exchange war and religious persecution for malaria. Music at the time was focused primarily on the rise of the new public art form known as opera. Bach had no interest in opera. Luckily for us.

The Industriousness of Bach

Perhaps he would be surprised to know that all these years later his influence has lasted so long and extended to so many different styles. He wrote over 1000 musical compositions. While many argue that Mozart’s 600 works are more impressive because Mozart only lived to age 32, the precocious Amadeus also started composing ate age five. Bach didn’t really get going until he was in his mid-30s, plus he had a few other things going on, between being court musician here and choir-master there. And then there were all the children.

Continue reading “J.S. Bach: Sewing Machine or New Age Streamer?”