May 18, 2004

Finding Our Way Out . . . Or Not

When we came to Hamburg in February, our plan for life was fairly certain. Before we left, Shelby had applied to seven MFA programs in Creative Writing: we would come over here, stay for six months (you can stay in Germany up to six months per year without paying German taxes), and then return to the States, where we would choose the best school out of Shelby's acceptances, and then move off to some quaint college town in time for the beginning of the academic year.

You can tell we're optimists and dreamers, because we didn't plan (or even much talk about) what would happen if Shelby didn't get into any of her schools. (Seven choices -- one has to say yes, right?) And of course, that's exactly what happened. You can beat yourself up forever over the whys-and-howcomes of why something like that happens, and we were both pretty disappointed and depressed for a couple of weeks, but I think that Shelby's greatest "sin" was simply applying to nothing but small and selective programs (I think her best hope had a couple hundred applicants for ten places!) during a down and depressing economy.

[I mean, if YOU were a newly-minted English BA with stellar faculty recommendations who'd won the departmental Richard J. Snodgrass Memorial Prize for four semesters running, would YOU want to graduate and enter the job market (for English majors -- ha!) right now, or would you want to run back into the fully-funded warm embrace of graduate school for a couple more years? Now take that guy a thousand times over, throw in all of the tech writers/copywriters/editors who have been laid off over the past few years, and you've got a pretty formidible pool of competition.]

We both know what we'll do next -- Shelby will damn the academy and proceed full speed ahead with her writing (you don't need formal credentials or academic approval to be a writer!), and I'll, um, pretty much just do what I'm already doing. The question, then, is where we'll do it. Thanks to the nature of my job, I can pretty much work anywhere. To my co-workers in Hamburg, once I'm back in America, I'm a remote voice on the phone; as long as I get my work done, it doesn't matter whether I'm speaking from an office at corporate HQ in San Jose or from a log cabin in New Mexico.

We discussed making a dramatic change and moving to someplace completely new and different for the both of us -- say Seattle or Boston -- but decided that we'd like to come back to California. We could settle in the north -- the SF Bay Area, home to my current work (and good prospects for future employment elsewhere) and the friends we've made during the years we've already spent there. Or, we can come back to the south -- Los Angeles and Orange County -- where both of our families and another big group of our friends live, and the prospects for employment still aren't too shabby.

On top of that, we'd like to buy a house. Which pretty much knocks the Bay Area out of serious consideration -- prices there are still insane, and getting insaner. Prices in the LA/Orange County area aren't all that great either, but there's just enough of a difference that buying something decent is still within our reach. Looking through the home listings on is fun and exciting -- our own house! -- but still, the thought of home ownership also puts The Fear in me. Until Shelby scores a massive advance for her debut novel, we'd be carrying the entire thing on my single income -- how will we make $2,500 monthly mortgage payments if I get laid off or run over by a bus? What if housing prices (and interest rates) keep going up while we're over here, high enough that we get back to find we can't buy a house after all? Our whole down payment pretty much depends on my seven years of collected stock options -- did I miss my last big chance to sell a couple of weeks ago, and is the company's stock headed for the toilet now?

To throw something else into the mix, my manager asked me last week if we'd considered staying in Hamburg. (He's kind of like a Border Collie or a mama hen; he feels better when he's got all of his charges herded together where he can keep an eye on us.) We hadn't, really. We certainly wouldn't be opposed to the idea, but it all comes down to taxes. Right now, we're pretty much living high off the hog, with my earning a Silicon Valley salary and paying only American taxes; getting a lower German salary and paying higher German taxes could mean a significant cut in our income. We wouldn't want to spend extra time in Europe if we didn't have enough money to enjoy it! Of greater concern, though, is whether or not extending our stay would make us retroactively liable for the six months of German taxes we're not paying now -- and, if I sold all of my stock options, whether Germany would tax the sale, even if it occurred during our current "no taxes" period. We put together a list of questions/concerns for the HR guy here; we'll see what answers he comes back with. Maybe we won't have to worry about finding a house in California right away after all.

(If you haven't already, you can read what Shelby's written on the matter over here.)

Posted by Kevin at May 18, 2004 08:25 AM