Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Man and His Dog


“There is a gossamer thread connecting this position to reality"

As a tax professional in a Big Firm I often advised clients on very complex provisions of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), especially in the area of corporate reorganizations.  The IRC contains all the tax laws that apply to corporations, individuals and all the other types of entities that exist in our complex world. Sometimes I would lose sight of the fact that what I did each day was to interpret, apply and scheme actual laws. I am not an attorney, but I got to play one each day within the tax arena of my professional life.

Numerous times in my career I did work along side tax attorneys.  This usually occurred where a client was completing a complex corporate event, such as a reorganization or initial public offering (IPO), and needed to secure expert corporate legal counsel.  The tax attorneys I engaged with in such instances augmented the overall advice that their firms were giving to support these transactions. 

In most cases the local tax attorneys were low ego guys content to provide behind the scenes expertise as part of the advisory team.  I envied the law firm tax attorneys a little in that they primarily played in the big transactions while avoiding the more mundane aspects of tax compliance that one could not entirely avoid at Andersen, regardless of area of specialty.  Of course being part of the mundane day-to-day issues of our clients also allowed Andersen tax professionals to have more in depth client relationships than the law firm tax experts.  I was fortunate to partner with humble tax attorneys most of the time (which I would contrast to the not so humble attorneys from east coast firms I tangled with on occasion), and I enjoyed the environment of brainstorming ideas with them when it came to plotting  complex tax strategies.

I first met Matthew Stanton, a less hunky, more professorially version of Matthew McConaughey in late 1989.  I was working with a client that was spinning off one of its subsidiaries and Matthew was advising on the early stages of the transaction.  Matthew had recently left law firm A to join law firm B.  I was familiar with both firms from an outsider's perspective and asked Matthew if he cared to share a comparison of the culture of the two firms.

Matthew responded: "Let's just say that when I left Firm A and joined firm B it improved the moral fabric of both firms."

I am sure Matthew didn't coin that saying but that was the first time I had heard it. I thought it pretty clever.  Matthew was a charming rogue.  I could easily imagine him in a parallel life riding a motorcycle down a winding country road with nowhere to go and that being just OK with him.  He was a quick-witted conversationalist who hardly ever responded in the manner I expected. Matthew was about ten years my senior and still single.  There was a tint of bitter sweetness to his existence: He seemed comfortable in his separateness but very ready for that one relationship to make his life something more.  I don't mind admitting I thought I might be in his shoes in ten years and wondered if I would consider that a happy place.

By the mid 90's I had a significant client base in the cable television (CATV) industry.  Every year the CATV Tax Professionals Institute (CTTPI) planned a technical tax update event that was part knowledge share and part boondoggle.  Mike Starver, a good friend and client, served on the CTTPI planning committee and always persuaded me to lead a discussion at one of the CTTPI technical sessions.  For the price of a little preparation and a one or two hour presentation I got to network, dine and play with the exciting tax people of the CATV industry in places like Vail, Monterey, and West Palm Beach.

 The CTTPI held the 1994 tax conference in Vail/Beaver Creek Colorado.  At the end of the program's first day I stepped outside the meeting room into the bright late afternoon sunshine of a perfect fall day in the Colorado mountains.  I sat by myself on the patio for a few minutes until I noticed a golden retriever tied to a nearby Aspen tree.   Among the curses the Andersen life visited on me was the belief that I didn't have time for a dog.  Seeing this friendly fellow basking in the afternoon glow compelled me to go over and say hi.

The patio door opened and I turned around to see Matthew emerging from the conference room into the great outdoors.  Matthew was also presenting at the CTTPI conference.  

"His name is Tucker.  Be careful, he will make you stay and play all day.  He has that effect on people."

"There are a lot worse ways to spend a day and probably few better.  How old is he?"

"Tucker is five. He is the best dog in the world."  With that Matthew untied Tucker and the two of them headed out for their walk.  Matthew asked me if I wanted to join but I could tell this was a ritual that they each probably would enjoy more without a third wheel.

The next afternoon I was attending the session that Matthew was leading on some long-forgotten aspect of tax mumble jumble that had impact on the CATV industry.  I do though remember two things from Matthew's presentation: First, somewhere in the discussion Matthew used the phrase "There is a gossamer thread connecting this position to reality" when describing the Internal Revenue Service's strained attempt to apply tax rules to a situation outside the reach of such rules.  The phrase was out of place, yet poetic and relevant and just the unexpected twist of words I had come to expect from Matthew.  Second, I noticed the eye contact Matthew maintained with the lady sitting next to me, Tina Jansen.

Tina was the Vice President of tax for a prominent east coast cable company and the President of the CTTPI.  Attractive and capable, the lady from Boston appeared to be a little smitten with the rogue attorney from Denver waxing poetic about arcane tax provisions.  At dinner that night I learned from Mike Starver that Matthew and Tina were in fact an item.  I am not one to indulge in relationship gossip but there was something hopeful in these two people coming together.  Matthew had Tucker, maybe soon he would have Tina, maybe these crazy people (like me) who spend too much time in tax universes that really don't matter can find what does matter after all.

That spring I spent a lot of time reviewing dozens of CATV partnership tax returns at the offices of the company where Mike Starver worked.   During one of our many conversations I asked Mike what the CTTPI was planning for the next fall event.  Mike told me that the planning had not progressed too far as of yet.

"So how are Matthew and Tina doing?  Is he going to move to Boston or is she going to move to Denver?"

Mike got quiet for a moment.

"John, I thought you had heard.  Matthew died about a month ago.  I don't know all the facts.  Somehow his dog got away from him and was loose along a busy expressway.  Matthew darted across the road to try and corral his dog and got hit.  He died before they could get him to the hospital."

Why does a man risk his life to save a furry companion?  It is of course out of love, faithfulness, and a duty to those that rely on you.  Tucker found safety that day.  Tina took Tucker home to Boston.

Why does fate do what it does?  Why does a man so long by himself get so close to the life he will love only to loose it for a piece of that love?  What gossamer thread connects people and events and circumstances in a way both poetic and painful?

It has been twenty years since Matthew untied Tucker and went for a walk under the golden sun.  I like to believe there is a place beyond this - -and when we go there we unite with what makes us happy.  In that place a man walks with his dog and there is pure contentment.

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