Thinking of my old friend Schwartz, it would be nice if he were to visit the Farm today. Henry Schwartz was an accountant who served the small business with which I was affiliated for many years. I lost track of Schwartz about 20 years ago—he had finally retired and moved to Florida. I presume that by now he is in CPA Heaven if there is such a place.
In the decade when I worked with him Schwartz looked like an accountant from central casting—older, slightly stooped with a vision problem that gave him a hawkish gaze. To read he often positioned his mostly bald head about 15” above the page as he framed numbers and words with a magnifying glass. In his practice with small business people he learned to report the figures and their implications without regard to how they might be received. Without emotion he would deliver the news, “So based on the totals of the past quarter the fiscal year will generate a loss…” or “earnings are much stronger—we’ll have to make provisions to deposit more money with the IRS…” or “I can’t see based on these meager profit levels how your bonus can be funded…” As Schwartz moved beyond the figures into business consulting and general life issues his search for unvarnished facts and their meaning combined with his blunt presentation made him a valuable if not always very loveable colleague.
I am imagining how this man whose whole career was about facts, figures, and their “fair interpretation” might view things at the Farm. Nancy is just hanging up with an older customer whose two very mature clematis vines are totally brown. Nancy tells her to remove all the dead material from the plants’ vicinity and to keep watering them. The woman suddenly sounds stunned, “I’ve never watered these plants.” Before Nancy can respond she says with great umbrage, “I’m on a fixed income—I can’t have my water bill climbing.” Nancy says some soothing things and suggests that even now some regular watering might bring these clematis plants back from the brink. It is a good thing someone like Schwartz doesn’t speak to this lovely but inept gardener. With his “dry” humor he might have focused on the choice between a “climbing” vine and a “climbing” water bill. But Schwartz was cheap too. After he would have told the woman that she probably killed her plants, he might have suggested using rinse water from the dishes or from bathing and he would have commented that she got by pretty well all these years without ever watering and therefore maybe she saved enough effort if not money to be able to purchase new clematis vines if these don’t come back.
I visit with a man who owns a small metalworking factory. He acknowledges that things are going pretty well and that they have been going pretty well for a while now. I ask him how he views the future. The man tells me his big concern is taxes. He is fearing a big tax increase that will just shut him down like in early 2009 after the ripples from the financial crisis brought orders to a standstill. Not to diminish the significance of wise tax policy, but I am thinking of existential threats like the European debt crisis and opportunities in the improving sectors of the economy. The man would not have wanted to talk about taxes with Schwartz. During his lifelong practice of tax accounting Schwartz was always dealing with rates that are far higher than we know today.
Nancy and I are trying to figure out what we should charge for some completed jobs. As much as we like and need the jobs, we always seem to feel that what we did is worth more but for various reasons we are going to charge less. Schwartz would understand this conundrum. Bluntly he would say that we have to make a living. He would ask pointedly about productivity, competition and customer expectations. And then he would wonder how we got into such a crazy business where the weather is still one of the most important components of success and where people’s perceptions, whether justified or rational or remotely accurate, count for everything. In the end I think Schwartz would understand and bless our efforts for he always counseled in the words of Joseph Campbell that it’s best to “follow your bliss.” Even in drought.