A Suspension of Disbelief…

Time to start blogging again.

I’ve just been watching The Last Exorcism Part II, wherein a New Orleans Voodoo priestess plays a pivotal part. Which got me thinking…

I am a faithful sceptic. I believe in a God; a creative, intelligent force that keeps order in this universe and gives laws. So far, the Jewish God, as described by Dennis Prager in his Verse-by-verse Torah Study series makes the most sense to me. (Trust me: that is a big deal coming from me, someone who was born and steeped in the Christian tradition, with a particularly evangelical Protestant influence on my upbringing.)

This may alienate a few of the very very few readers of this blog who may reject the concept of a higher power, but so be it. But if you listen to Mr. Prager and his references to other Jewish scholars of the Talmud (and more recent times) about what the words actually mean to the preachers and practitioners of Judaism (which eliminates the mumbo-jumbo and literal blind faith of much of evangelical Protestantism’s literal interpretations of the King James Version of the Torah), then there is rhyme and reason to the Creator, and there are no fundamental conflicts between the symbolism of the Torah (particularly the creation story) and Science (with a capital S).

Although renouncing my US citizenship was a big step (see posts passim), I am not quite ready to renounce the faith of my upbringing …yet. Although the Jews do look like they know how to party.

I said that I was a faithful sceptic. That means that at most times, I am willing to suspend disbelief to expose myself to new ways of thinking about how the world works. I’ve dabbled in a bit of Wicca and other Neo-Pagan practices, a little Taoism and Buddhism, a very little ceremonial Magick, active Atheism, and the 12 Steps; I’ve prayed with Muslims, done guided meditations with others… you name it, I have probably challenged my belief systems with it.

Most recently, I was confirmed in the Church of England (c. 2005) after a debate with my wife on the evils of religion in general. She had been pointing out the latest Jihadist attacks saying that all religion was bad and unthinking. I defended the faith of C.S. Lewis and decided it was time to nail my colours to the mast*.

My faithful scepticism doesn’t mean I allow myself to be brainwashed, though that has happened, at times (I spent five years in my early 20s as a poster child for AA). It does mean, though, that when presented with an opportunity for new experiences which question how I regard the way the world works, I tend not to turn them down, which is how I was exposed to a bit of bastardised Candomblé.

 

About 18 years ago, I was living in Portugal. I had a two-bedroom flat, in a very nice location in the centre of town. A very dear friend of mine told me that his girlfriend (they are still together after that much time and three children) had a Brazilian friend who was going through a very rough divorce and was in danger of being homeless, and would I mind putting her up for a bit in my spare room; she would cook and clean in return for a roof over her head. No problem, I said, let her stay at my place.

Thus was born AGR’s Home for Wayward Women; I eventually adopted one other poor soul (a very sweet 17-year-old mixed-race Portuguese girl who worked as a waitress at one of the beach bars I frequented at the time) who had been turfed out by her mother in favour of her mother’s then-boyfriend. I shall save that story for another time, though.

S., (we shall call her that for the remainder of this post) the Brazilian woman, happened upon me in my usual (at the time) wanton state. I was going through a divorce and acting out about it. I kept myself in a constant state of drunkenness and was sleeping with anyone who would say “yes” to me. I had acquired a bit of a reputation as both a bon vivant and a ladykiller, and a woman hater. I used to quip that my favourite phrase in Portuguese was: “Tens preservativo?” (Use Google Translate for Gods’ sake!)

S. had determined that I was in need of spiritual sustenance, so she called upon a personal favour to repay my hospitality: she brought a Candomblé bruxa she knew into the house to perform an exorcism of the negative vibes emanating from me.

Over a couple of hours I was exposed to a Tarot reading, a reading of tea leaves, a reading of bones, a load of candles being lit about the house, salt lining each window sill and door frame, and protective pentagrams being drawn in chalk at each sill and frame. Thus the bastardisation I referred to, using modern New Age/Neo Pagan practices, followed by the Candomblé bit, which may be difficult for many Anglos to follow, as it was very strange.

She gave me a packet full of herbs and barks, told me to run a warm bath with them in it and submerse myself in it (buck naked). When I was ready, I was to stand up in the bath and call her into the bathroom. So I called her in. She used a wooden bowl and would fill it up with water, herbs, and barks, and call down the Orixas to protect me and look over me whilst she essentially baptised me in the mixture. Then she lit a cigar, and blew smoke over every inch of my body except the parts that were underwater (my feet and ankles), whilst chanting various incantations that sounded more African than Portuguese.

I can’t say that my evil spirits were exorcised, but I did feel an overwhelming calmness as I emerged from the experience. And she assured me that the Orixas were protecting me and that I would be all right (at the time, I was quite sceptical of reaching the age of 30, given the amount of “good times” I was having).

I don’t know whether I was possessed by evil spirits or not. I do know that I had a darkness about me and my mien. After the ceremony(ies), she assured me I was protected and that the evil spirits had left me. I felt serene (for the first time in a long time) upon her departure, for possibly no other reason than that I was willing to suspend disbelief temporarily. Once upon a time…

And so I choose to suspend disbelief whenever I can; because I never know what might come of it.

 

*I am now reconsidering, given the behaviour of so-called fellow followers when it came to a problem I had with sex ed for year 5s in the local CofE school; I haven’t been back to Church since. If my fellow members in the body of Christ can’t stand up for themselves, would they ever stand up for me? Fuck ‘em, I say, after a particularly virulent campaign of gossip against me and my daughter. And in the space of 5 years of my wife more than occasionally attending church with us, she was only witnessed to once. Fuck ‘em. Church is a club for them, nothing more, and I want nothing to do with that kind of club.

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Pet Peeves – Issues Surrounding Coffee

The following might have you thinking me a miserable git, or nodding in vigorous agreement. These are actually two different pet peeves, but revolving around the same substance: Coffee…

Coffee Pet Peeve Number 1: Coffee-flavoured milk drinks

There are a few aspects to this pet peeve that drive me nuts:

  1. Most things that people buy in “coffee shops” are not coffees but coffee-flavoured milk drinks. That is the first strike against people who order such products. Neither a latte, a cappuccino, a white americano, nor a flat white are coffees. They are coffee-flavoured milk drinks. Coffee makes up approximately 20% of these drinks at best. Do not call them a coffee.
  2. If you like cappuccinos you do not like coffee. You are not a coffee lover if you partake of these products.
  3. In order to receive the double espresso or the black filter coffee that I require, which each take about 10 seconds to prepare, I have to stand in the queue behind people ordering coffee-flavoured milk drinks, which inevitably postpones the enjoyment of why I walked into the coffee shop in the first place.
  4. The typical coffee-flavoured milk drink customer’s indecision on what flavouring (!!!) they want added to their drink as well as the time it takes to warm up the milk and the intense concentration of the barista when he makes shapes on the surface of the finished product have me tearing my hair out in frustration.
  5. And God forbid if one has only 15 minutes to catch one’s train but ends up getting stuck behind four female pensioners who decide they want just a “little treat” or some such from the platform coffee shop. It is agonising. I once stood in a queue with only one party of four in front of me, and abandoned it after 10 minutes because they all wanted coffee-flavoured milk drinks with added flavourings.
  6. If you want hot amaretto-and-coffee-flavoured drinks why don’t you go across the street to the pub and order a Kahlua and amaretto and tell them to nuke it in the microwave for about 30 seconds? You’ll be good to go, and feel better for it. And you’d make my life more pleasant, as it would make way for people who actually like coffee.
  7. Because people don’t like coffee, but rather coffee-flavoured milk drinks, the quality of the beans in most chain shops is deplorable. Why should the chains care about decent-tasting coffee when most of their customers don’t like coffee?

[Oh and don’t I remember the late 90s when I first moved here and all you Brit sorts were making fun of my American accent by using the phrase “decaff skinny latte” with nasal tones at an attempt at some sort of ironic humour. The joke’s on you, buddy boy: Thanks to the hegemony of American culture (a la “Friends”) I only ever hear those words spoken with English accents without the slightest hint of post-modern irony. Hah!]

 

Coffee Pet Peeve Number 2: The office coffee ritual

As with above, there is more than one aspect to this. And if it makes me an unsociable bastard, then so be it.

  1. The offer to get coffee for everyone in the office. I hate this. I drink coffee when I want to, not when someone else decides they want one. As a consequence, I only ever buy coffee for myself, usually on my return to the office from some other location in the building. I do not make a point of coming back to the office to ask everyone else if they want one.
  2. And just because you ask me every time you go (and I never avail myself of your services), it does not give you the right to look hurt or shake your head in disdain at me if I got a coffee and didn’t ask you for one. I never asked you to ask me if I want a coffee: I have no expectation of you nor obligation to you; I should be given the same courtesy!
  3. And don’t say you do it because you’re naturally polite, you do it because it is “what is done” and you do not want to be seen colouring outside of the lines for fear of being considered an unsociable git like me. Get over it.
  4. Following on from the concept of people getting coffee for everyone in the office, is the people who go to the free coffee machine with one of those contraptions that holds multiple cups of liquid at once so that they can get coffee for up to ten people at a time.
  5. Whoever came up with the idea of the multiple free coffee cup should be shot, and whoever got the idea to include these contraptions in the catalogue for office supplies should be drawn and quartered.
  6. If I come and stand in the queue behind you and you have one of thes contraptions and I don’t, chances are I only want one coffee from the machine. If you are still pouring your first of ten, why don’t you stand aside and make way for someone who needs one shot from the caffeine delivery system. It ain’t that hard, and if you have time to pour ten coffees, you are not in a hurry.
  7. If you are curious as to why this coffee snob would deign to use the free coffee machine, see point number 7 from the first section…Occasionally I find it necessary to use the free coffee machine at work, because the coffee from the coffee shop is bad. And it is inconsistently bad, never tasting the same twice. At least I can rely on the consistency of poor quality from the machine. (I once worked directly for a the board level guy in charge of facilities for a large corporation. He loved it when the coffee in the free vend machine was atrocious; less people used it and he spent less money.)

Anyway, I don’t mind being considered unsociable as long as it brings a little sunshine to my life by being left alone.

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Philadelphia Freedom

“…From the day that I was born I waved the flag,

Philadelphia freedom took me knee-high to a man…”

Once again, the iPod throws up a thought-provoking tune: “Philadelphia Freedom” by Elton John.

When I was a kid, and when it was first out, I loved that song; it symbolised the patriotism I had been indoctrinated into. For an American child in the 70s, Philadelphia was the place where our great country was born and our liberties were asserted by the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

My British relatives used to get a kick out of having me stand on a chair with my hand on my heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I was so proud. I didn’t know till I was much older how much fun they were having.

Not that I’m resentful about it. Knowing what I know now, the concept of the pledge to a flag is intellectually absurd to me. When I went to renounce my citizenship at the US Consulate in London, the consular officer – who was polite and sympathetic throughout – made it a point that I renounce in front of the flag. What is the flag, really? At that moment in time, it was just a piece of cloth, as my decision had been made. I almost burst out laughing.

Which isn’t to say that I am incapable of blubbering like a baby at the American Cemetery in Normandy when the flag goes down and “Taps” is played and I am standing at attention.

I still love the concept of America the Beautiful. But my allegiance to that concept is not determined by my legal relationship to the US Government. Most Americans will assert I can’t have it both ways. To them I say: Eat my shorts. It is you sad f___s who sat aside and watch while Americans abroad get screwed by the USG in the form of tax law. At best, the average American shows indifference to the plight of Americans abroad, at worst, open hostility. For I am either un-American for living abroad or I am trying not to pay my “fair share”.

I repeat here: I have never owed money to the US government since living abroad – the cost of telling the IRS that I didn’t owe them money, as well as the cost of not having a full economic life outside the US – and still remaining compliant with US law – was too much for me. I have a family, I have a business, I have a mortgage. The risk to my future prosperity (i.e., the inability to contribute to a pension or buy an ISA, or sell my only home here in Blighty without paying capital gains to the US government) and that of my family is just too great to remain a US citizen.

From when I was a child, I was told that one of the driving concepts of the US Declaration of Independence was the fact that a sovereign and his (its) people have a pact, and if the sovereign does not hold up his end of the bargain, then the people have the right to be revolting revolt.

But here was my problem: I believed everything I learned about freedom and liberty as an American child. I still do. I am a hopeless romantic idealist. The grown-up in me knows that I will never find that ideal, but I also know that the US government has strayed so far away from that ideal (and maybe it never was anywhere close to it), and that straying affects me personally.

And like someone who has grown up in a fundamentalist church with a literal interpretation of the Bible, but realises that something is not quite right about the practice versus the dogma and leaves the church, it still hurts when I think that I had to renounce my citizenship. (Or else I wouldn’t be writing this right now.)

I still believe in liberty, but I can no longer view the USA as the guarantor of that liberty.

For all I know, “Philadelphia Freedom” was probably not about US patriotism (one never knows), and if it wasn’t, that’s what it meant to me. (Just like Springsteen’s semi-protest song “Born in the U.S.A.” has resonance for people who don’t really get the lyrics.)

But the lyrics quoted above still resonate with me, despite the fact that Philadelphia Freedom no longer shines it light on me.

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Heaven

It’s not often that I am moved to nostalgia by Euro-disco plinky-plinky music. It’s not as if it all doesn’t sound the same. Rather anodyne melodies following a tried and tested formula to get people to dance and invoke euphoria as the music forms a crescendo, usually based upon lyrics from songs that were popular before many in the target audience were born. Not my cup of tea most of the time.

Due to…ahem…a few resource-sharing experiences, I have a plethora of almost every variety of music in my MP3 collection. And occasionally, I just set iTunes on shuffle and see what it plays for me.

This morning a plinky-plinky Euro-disco tune came on which caused a reflexive lump in my throat and brought me back to a little more than 12 years ago when things were a bit challenging, to say the least, economically.

I made the mistake of thinking a move to Dublin with my future wife and seven-month-old daughter was a good idea, as I was frequently getting calls from recruiters there, and there appeared to be a lot of jobs there due to the last gasps of the dot com bubble, but no one wanted to do any interviews unless the candidate was in-country. And I wanted to get the family out of London as it didn’t seem the right place to raise a child, particularly as I couldn’t see myself being able to earn enough money to afford private school.

So my devoted significant other consented – after much ill-informed persuasion by me – to the idea of uprooting ourselves and seeking our fortune in the Emerald Isle. I had seen the girls around us in London, in their early teens, who were practically hard little adults, and didn’t want our daughter growing up to be like that. It also helped that I had some extended family in Northern Ireland and we would be closer to them, and I had observed a couple of my cousins there who still managed to be girls – and not hardened little adults – and thought there could be worse fates for our own daughter.

We went to Ireland. I occasionally see the photos of us from that period flashing up on the iMac’s screensaver. How young and positive and hopeful and confident; there is a fantastic photo of the missus on the ferry from Liverpool to Dublin, holding the baby on her cocked hip, with Liverpool harbour behind her and her smile is divine.

We lasted about two months in Ireland, and the money was getting short. So her parents assented to letting us stay with them until I found more work in London. This was some time around April 2001. After a lot of job-hunting and working on an MCSE qualification, the only role I could find was actually in Germany where I was hired by a British boss to move to Frankfurt to head up an IT support team at an investment bank branch. With the impending move to Germany, and the favourable German tax system, we got married a week before I shipped out to Germany to set up work and house. (Due to the haste of our wedding celebrations, our cake was made in the shape of Bart Simpson’s head; the only thing that could be secured on such short notice.)

In Germany, we tried hard to learn the local language, but given schedules and budgets, it was difficult. Living in Germany was difficult. We ran through our savings paying what I call “the Expat tax”, wherein everything is at least 20% more cost for expats living in a foreign country in their first few years because they haven’t figured out the cheaper ways of living that the locals know as a way of life.

Our rent was very expensive because my London-based boss told me I only had 6 weeks to find a place, so I had to find the first flat that was available in that limited time; it is not very easy in Frankfurt. (I was told by an outgoing HR director a year and a half later that it was a lie, that I had up to 3 months but that the boss had squandered our team’s budget on travel around Europe doing troubleshooting on behalf of the client – outside of the scope of our company’s activities – where he eventually secured a permanent role when the outsourcing contract dried up.)

It was a real adjustment, trying to conform our Anglo sensibilities to German sensibilities. There is a lot to admire about the German way of life – the Germans get many things right – but there is a lot that we had real problems with; we reached a point where we could not reconcile those issues. I am firmly of the belief that if an immigrant cannot adjust to, and embrace, his host country’s culture, he should go back home. And we did eventually, but not until after what ended up being major trials of our characters as individuals and as a couple. (Photos taken of us after our return to Blighty after 2 ½ years show us apparently having aged by about 10 years.)

Working for an outsourcer, my income was guaranteed only for the next three months, especially if there were no other suitable roles in Germany for me to move to when the contract was finished, which was highly likely, because working at an American investment bank and the sort of unpredictable schedule that entails, I didn’t have much time to learn German; and we were living more or less payday-to-payday – I was not on an “expat” contract. So the prospect of not knowing where our next meal would come from was very real for us.

My wife had shown how devoted she was to me by following me to Hell and back with our daughter. We became even more of a unit than we had been and I am sure there is some appropriate metaphor about forged alloys that I can use here to describe our stronger bond. Germany brought home the fact that it was us – our little unit – against the world, and that made us stronger. I think weaker relationships would have buckled under the strain, but we became more devoted to each other, and our daughter, with the experiences we had. (I am also very lucky in that my wife can often see my redeeming features when I am incapable of doing so.)

We now know how to start from zero, which is essentially what we had to do when we moved back to Blighty.

—–

The only thing we had to watch on telly, besides the various local German networks and a brace of Bollywood DVDs lent to me by a colleague of Pakistani-British origin, was CNN, MTV Deutschland and the German music channel, Viva.

And thus I am back to where I started. There was a lot of plinky-plinky Euro-disco music played on Viva, and sometimes it would just provide the background music. And the tune that brought me right back to those memories was “Heaven” by DJ Sami, the cover of the Bryan Adams tune from the ‘80s. Often we would stay up late with the various financial and existential worries on our minds, and often that song, among others, would be the soundtrack in the background.

Baby you’re all that I need,

When you’re lying here in my arms,

It isn’t too hard to believe

We’re in Heaven

She probably doesn’t rate the song at all, and frankly, I don’t find it particularly great. But it reminded me, that when things get really tough, we have each other and our little unit (with a recent new addition in our nine-month old daughter). And that’s all that we need.

Heaven.

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Soon be back…

Semi-regular posting will resume here soon. Baby and work have meant a curtailment of online activities for the past year, but I have to get through a few exams in the first week of October and I will find the time to return to blogging. Thanks for your reading.

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Why Am I Writing So Much about FATCA?

I have been writing a lot about FATCA. Which is funny, as after my final US tax return next year it should never be an issue for me again.

I guess I am behaving like a jilted lover in many respects. But it feels even deeper than that. I feel as if my country of origin has unwittingly declared war on me and people like me. And the first battle that I was fully engaged in was renouncing my US citizenship, still one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

I suppose the various tax laws and their applications are akin, in my war, to the events of the early 1770s leading up to the American Revolution. And the renouncement of my citizenship was equivalent to the introductory paragraph to the Declaration of Independence. Which is comprised of some very powerful words indeed.

I often tell my British friends that the American Revolution was an English revolution of Englishmen asserting their rights as Englishmen under the rights won for them in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. And my own battle comes back to that battle cry of “No Taxation without Representation.” Things come full circle, I suppose

It was only in the McCain/Obama contest that I realised that my absentee ballot was not likely to get counted unless the results for my home state were close and they needed tie-breaking votes.

I have a confession to make, fellow FATCA exiles: as a latter day Benedict Arnold, I worked briefly on the FATCA implementation programme for a big British bank. It was apparent from the activity around me that no one in the bank, even at C-level, thought there was necessarily anything wrong with FATCA; they were only concerned about how much of a pain and expense it would be to implement, with any lobbying being done to absolve them of data protection issues (the UK govt) and to postpone the reporting and withholding regimes (the IRS) not even looking at the risk it poses to the financial system when withholding does come about.

My recent activism (well, actually just writing of three letters and a few blog posts) has been my attempt to make amends and strike back for working on that loathsome programme. It is also part of my way to lash out at the power that tried to hold me under its dominion from 4000 miles away.

I’ll not dedicate my life to it, but it sure feels good trying to throw a spanner in the works. I hope my efforts, and the efforts of those doing similar around the world, will begin to have at least some sort of an effect.

This may be the last I write on it. But we’ll see.

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Letter to my MP about the FATCA IGA

Hi ___,

I hope you are well. I thought I would share with you something I’ve written to both Liberty and Privacy International regarding a recent IGA signed between HMG and the US on the US tax law FATCA, and to be written into law in the 2013 Finance Bill. This has huge implications for many British people and possibly everyone living here (as someone will have to bear the costs of implementing FATCA compliance in the banks.)

The US’s extraterritorial taxation on citizens has many other implications beyond just collecting tax from Americans. For instance, US tax law says that because I am Treasurer for [a community group I belong to], I would have to divulge ___’s account information to the IRS.

US tax law for expatriates has become so burdensome in terms of the cost and effort of compliance, with draconian penalties for non-compliance, that I took the very difficult decision to renounce my US citizenship, which I did back in May (rendering me 100% British!). So you can say I no longer have a pony in this race. However, FATCA is a time bomb ready to go off in the world’s financial system, and should even one or two British banks be deemed non-compliant by the IRS, we could see a liquidity meltdown thanks to the withholding regime that would be imposed on the US accounts of non-compliant banks.

US extraterritorial taxation also denies money to the Exchequer both directly and indirectly, as US persons (see my note below for what constitutes a US person) [in my letter to Liberty] seek to structure their affairs to minimise their taxation burdens in both countries.

Additionally, besides the lifting of data protection for British citizens that the IGA commits our government to, it implies some level of reciprocity from the US for similar information on UK persons. However, a recent explanatory letter – attached – from the US Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Tax Policy to Senator Rand Paul makes it clear that US banks will not be subject to similar obligations, saying:

While the reciprocal version of the Model Agreement includes a commitment to pursue equivalent levels of reciprocal automatic exchange in the future, no additional obligations will be imposed on U.S. financial institutions unless and until additional laws or regulations are adopted in the United States.

 

It appears the IGA is rather one-sided, and appears as a typical further extension of the “special relationship” with the US. I am not sure whether your colleagues at Treasury and the FCO are aware of the lack of obligation on the US’s part given the division between executive and legislature that does not exist here.

Anyway, the FCO memorandum – attached – on the IGA stated that there will be a consultation period, so please consider this my input.

Rather than bending over backwards to comply with US law, non-US governments and banks should be resisting this attack on sovereignty and the affairs of their residents.

With warmest regards,

A Gentleman’s Rapier

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