Tax day

The spouse and I are both US citizens. So no matter where we live, we have to fill out US tax returns every year. (So will our kids. Kids, thank us later!)

Usually I don’t mind doing my taxes. Secretly? I even kind of like it. Because here’s what doing my taxes looks like:

- I figure out which questions I need to answer this year (past examples have included: do I need to pay tax on my untaxed student stipend, and what do I do about my “non-resident alien” spouse whom I married three days before the end of the tax year?).
- I research the answers to my questions.
- I use software that, while not perfect, at least does most of the calculation work for me.
- Sometimes I get to make charts.
- For a few hours’ work, I get a large chunk of money deposited directly into my bank account.

While here’s what being a grad student looks like:

- I figure out which questions I need to answer this year.
- I research the answers to my questions.
- I use software that, while not perfect, at least does most of the calculation work for me.
- Sometimes I get to make charts.
- For many, many hours of work, I get very little money deposited directly into my bank account.

I feel like the US system of taxation recognizes my true worth.

(Now, don’t tell me that my practice of overwithholding is essentially giving free money to the government while depriving myself of interest income. Interest rates are, what, 0.1 or 0.2% these days? The government can keep its handful of change, while I get the psychological boost of receiving what feels like the closest I’ll ever come to an actual bonus for a job well done.)

The process was a little less enjoyable this year, though. It was kind of like my second year of grad school: I spent far too long researching the answers to questions that didn’t really matter. For example:

Can I claim mortgage interest paid in another country? Yes – but only if I itemize – which it would have been nice to have realized would NOT be advantageous before I constructed a spreadsheet to calculate what portion of every mortgage payment I’ll make for the next twenty-five years will be interest rather than principal. (Why not just ask the bank, you wonder? Well, when I contacted my bank here to find out how much mortgage interest I paid in 2013… I got locked out of my online account. I still have no idea why. But it did put me off asking again. On the bright side, well, now I have a nice spreadsheet.)

Can Turbo Tax account for taxes paid on two or more sources of passive foreign income? Apparently not, at least not easily – or at least not easily enough to be worth the effort that I found myself putting into trying to claim back $18. Don’t even get me started on that.

And so on. At least I ended up getting quite a bit of money back, and I don’t think I did anything that could land me in federal prison. It helped that we had a baby two weeks before the end of the year who netted us an extra grand in child tax credits (score!), and also that we only actually had US-based income for a couple of months. But I still found myself looking shiftily around the room before I clicked ‘submit’.

Till next year, IRS…

Note: I am not an accountant or tax professional. Nothing here should be construed as “advice”, or even “useful”. Seriously.

Another leaving San Francisco story

One year and two days ago, I left San Francisco.

I miss it, I really do, but I feel like we made the right decision. (Most of the time.) We decided that although we had a great quality of life in San Francisco, things could be better here, and we seized the opportunity.

But sometimes leaving is much more complicated.

My friends Lupe, Ben, and their daughter Milu have a somewhat different story. Lupe wrote the piece below – and it’s not a nice read. I wish them the best of luck in Sacramento, and I really hope her clients get the help they need.

Lupe wants as many people to read this story as possible. Not all of the news out of San Francisco is about corporate shuttle buses or real estate bidding wars. If this story makes you angry too, then pass it along…

On October 28, 2013, I began working as a Mental Health Specialist for Horizons Unlimited of San Francisco (http://www.horizons-sf.org/). Horizons is a youth development and empowerment organization that has been serving at-risk youth and their families in the Latino and under-served minorities communities since 1965. Up until 2012, the organization had not had the capacity or the funding to meet their clients’ mental health needs. Many of the clients at Horizons are undocumented, and research shows that this population has been traditionally unwilling to pursue mental health treatment.

Being a Latina myself, I empathize with the barriers to treatment that exist within our community, such as limited access to Spanish-speaking and culturally sensitive mental health professionals. That is one of the biggest reasons why I was so excited to begin this position and fully immersed myself in the work.

Due in large part to the cultural connection, my clients at Horizons have had a huge impact on me. My two sisters and I were born here in California, but our parents were undocumented people that migrated here illegally. As with so many who immigrate to the US, their reasoning for putting themselves at risk was the hope that they would be providing us with a better life.

On February 27, 2014, I was fired and given no reason for the termination and immediately escorted off the premises—a humiliating and traumatic experience to say the least. I was fired 8 days after going to City and County of San Francisco and asking questions about the grant that was funding my position. In particular, I wanted to understand how funds were supposed to have been allocated for the grant, as I had evidence that funds were being mismanaged. The Executive Director, Nora Reddick, accused me of going over her head by going to City and County program manager to get clarification on the funding allocation requirements of the grant.

But what tears me apart the most is that I was forced to abandon most of my clients, one of them being 6 years old. As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I have a moral and ethical obligation to ensure that my clients transition smoothly when therapy is coming to an end. Abandoning a client without any notice or consideration of their current mental and emotional state could potentially destroy any and all progress made by the client.

Unfortunately, I was only able to contact the clients whose numbers were in my cell phone at the time of my termination. This was only a very small percentage of my caseload. While I was being fired, I pleaded with Nora to please let me finish out my shift. That same evening, I had a client in crisis that I had planned on escorting to a Women’s center, but, after being terminated, not only was I not allowed to escort my client to the center, but I was not permitted to even speak to her and let her know what was happening or find her an alternative staff member to support her urgent need for housing.

I am continuing to see some of my Horizon clients on a weekly basis pro bono. But, as many of you know well, unfortunately San Francisco is an extremely expensive city. My husband, 15-month-old daughter and I are not in the right place financially for us to continue living in San Francisco if I’m not bringing in an income as well. So, the weekend of April 26, Ben, Milu and I will sadly be packing up our belongings and moving to Sacramento. Don’t get me wrong, we are excited to return to the city of trees and to get to spend time with dear friends and with my sister Mari and her girlfriend, Courtney. However, it is also extremely saddening and anxiety-provoking to have to suddenly uproot and leave our lives in San Francisco behind. I feel awful knowing that I will only be able to see these pro bono clients for another couple weeks and that I might not be able to help them transition to new therapists. Unfortunately, finding an organization that provides Spanish-speaking therapy is very difficult, even here in San Francisco.

What is also so very sad is that within two months of me getting fired, there were 3 other amazing and caring individuals also working at Horizons who also stepped forward to advocate for themselves or their clients and were terminated immediately as a result. All of us were fired and subsequently escorted out of the building, being forced to abandon our clients. Equally if not more troubling is that fact that we later learned that this practice has been in place at Horizons since Nora took over as the Horizons Executive Director approximately 16 years ago.

Last night, the San Francisco Mental Health Advisory Board allowed many of us to share our story and alert the Board to the many injustices and the ‘culture of fear’ that are so pervasive at Horizons. We were able to provide strong evidence and first-hand accounts of management abusing staff and clients and being negligent in a number of different critical areas. In addition, we believe that there is evidence to suggest that certain members of management have been systematically misusing and possibly embezzling funds for many years.

I would like to sincerely thank all of the current and former staff and clients from Horizons as well as friends of ours for supporting us in person and in spirit last night. We are trying our hardest to fight this injustice through as many channels as possible, and your support through the difficult time means the world to all of us on this case.

Lupe Rodriguez, LCSW 26961
Mental Health Specialist

The scenic route

I decided to take a slightly different route to the supermarket today.

image

It was a little less direct. But only a little. Which kind of blew my mind…

It was a good morning. I strapped the baby in the Ergo, and headed into my local nature reserve. Came out of it near Marks & Spencer so I could pick up some ready meals. Then I bought some stinky unpasteurized French cheese at the nearest cheese shop (there’s always a cheese shop). Then I caught the bus home. And it only rained a little.

Edinburgh in March

The sun rose today at 6:37 am, and it did not set until 6:09 pm. The temperature was in the mid-50s by lunchtime, and I went outside without a winter coat for the first time in about six years months.

flowers

Admittedly, this morning it was 27 degrees out and there was frost on the grass, but winter is clearly in retreat.

I’ve been doing a lot of walking now that this baby is on the outside. Walking is a great way to get to know the city. I am getting lost less and less. But honestly, it’s no thanks to streets like this one:

why???

Why does this street change names here? It’s clearly the middle of the block. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND.

When I saw this collection of sheds just down the road from me, my first thought was, hey, is that a homeless encampment?

allotment

Clearly I spent too long in San Francisco. I suspect it’s actually an allotment. (Or community garden, in American.) They seem to feature regularly in contemporary British fiction. Female protagonists often have dads who are only capable of holding personal conversations while in their allotments. So I guess they’re the British equivalent of cars.

The five minute downpour I got caught in recently was totally worth it for this:

rainbow

Finally, here’s my most frequent companion. She generally sleeps through our walks, which would be so rude in anyone but a baby.

baby outside

Citizen baby

The baby is officially a dual citizen! She even has two passports. (Yes, that’s right, my three month old has two passports.) They both have the same photo, which totally reminds me of the beginning of The Bourne Identity – you know, that bit where Matt Damon wakes up and has no idea who or where he is, and then he discovers that he has about a dozen passports. Except instead of Matt Damon, they all have pictures of Vin Diesel.

vin diesel

not vin diesel

(I was pleased to find this. It’s nice to know that someone else thinks their baby resembles a bald 46 year old man. And how incredible is it that even babies take terrible passport photos? I take about seventeen photos of this baby EVERY DAY that are all way cuter than this one.)

I wanted to register the baby as a US citizen as soon as possible. Because why delay? Registering someone as a US citizen born abroad is a fairly straightforward process up until the age of 18, but it didn’t exactly seem like we’d get any more motivated to do it as time went on. Besides, we’ll eventually be taking a transatlantic flight. With two small children. Which will be hell. But at least we’ll get to all stand on the short line at immigration.

Incidentally, the US requires that American citizens enter the country on American passports, so these steps really had to be done at the same time.

The application is pretty straightforward. The only catch is that after filling it in, you have to go and register the birth in person. We got all worked up about having to go to the American Embassy in London, and then found out that residents of Scotland go to the American Consulate instead. In Edinburgh. So that was easy.

I made an appointment online, then printed out three forms: an application for a report of birth abroad, a passport application, and an application for a social security number. The first two had to be completed but not signed, while the third had to be completed and signed, and all three had to be mailed to the Consulate at least seven days before our appointment.

The timing can be tricky, because appointments are only available on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and only through the end of the following month, so it’s not possible to plan too far ahead. Also if both parents can’t be at the appointment, there’s another form that needs to be filled out and notarized, and that added a level of complication that we just couldn’t handle, so the spouse had to arrange a few hours off work. But, better than having to arrange a trip to London.

My in-laws had been to a few grand events at the Consulate. They told us to keep an eye out for the lovely back garden. I was all geared up for a warm American welcome. Or at least coffee and donuts. Alas, we didn’t get past the hard chairs and service windows in the front room. It had more of a post office than a DMV feel (read: fine, and not utterly demoralizing), but still. (I really wanted a donut.)

That said, everyone was very nice to us. Filling out visa applications is nerve-wracking, because any tiny mistake can theoretically delay or even invalidate your application. I carried that mentality into this application, so it was a bit stressful too. And despite my best efforts, sleep deprivation guaranteed I’d make some mistakes. (Like when the application asked for the mother’s full name at the time of her birth, I really should have realized that “her” referred to me – the mother of the applicant – and not to the baby. Who, of course, didn’t necessarily have to be female. In other words, they wanted to know my maiden name, not the name I was using in mid-December.) But instead of sending your error-filled application back to you, the lovely consular officials white out all of your mistakes, photocopy the form, and tell you what to write when you come in for your appointment. It’s like they wanted us to get it right.

So now I’m the only member of the family with a single passport.

The baby’s passport and certification of birth abroad arrived with a handy fact sheet, which answers the important question of whether she can be President of the United States someday. The answer is, maybe. The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether someone who is a citizen at birth is a natural born citizen. I’m assuming that by the time she’s old enough for this to be an issue, it will have been resolved in her favor.

Stirling Castle

We went to Stirling Castle on Saturday. It’s a lovely castle. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos from our trip, because my phone is completely full. Mainly of pictures of the spouse making our screaming ten week old baby walk around corners. Also of classy shots like this one.

intersection

Wait, let me zoom that in for you.

intersection zoom

So yeah, no castle pictures. It’s a shame, because it was a day to remember. The baby’s at that great stage where if she’s in her stroller, she’s asleep. The kid’s at that great stage where he runs around yelling about how happy he is and photobombing everyone he sees holding up a camera. (I may be the only person in Scotland who doesn’t have any pictures of him from that day.) Also it didn’t rain much. We were there for more than two hours, and both kids slept in the car on the way home. So by all measures that I currently use, the trip was a rousing success.

Also, it was free. We joined Historic Scotland last summer. We’ve been to Edinburgh Castle three times, Stirling Castle once, and a few other local castles too. Our membership has already paid for itself almost twice over. And since we never really know in advance whether we’ll be staying for hours or needing to leave much sooner than anticipated, it’s especially nice that each individual visit is free. (Yeah, I know it’s technically prepaid, but it’s the same subjective experience.)