Going to California With…

I like to think I’m particularly adaptable on those occasions when I happen to recognize that I need to be, but I perpetually feel inadequate in recognizing when the rules of the universe have changed. That’s a pretty significant skill to be lacking when you’re trying to invent the future.

So it is with even more than the usual range of emotions that I have come to “sell” our home in Wisconsin and will finally be moving to California. I am told that this is an extraordinary accomplishment, but I’ve “adapted” so much, the celebration has a Pyrrhic cast.

The US housing market has all but ceased to exist as a functioning market with any sort of liquidity. In my neighborhood, there should statistically be about one home sale each week. Ours was the seventh in the previous eight months, and I think all of those were the previous calendar year. The issue seems to be that every sale is contingent on having the buyers sell their home, which isn’t happening, so the whole country is waiting for one big circle jerk. Many housing industry folks are claiming that prices have not fallen much, but that’s disingenuous – the average selling price nationally and in most areas hasn’t fallen much only because the average home size continues to rise. The average price per square foot of any particular existing fixed-size house is dropping like a stone in a still pond. (Areas that do not see average housing sizes grow have indeed been seeing a big drop in average selling price.) And with bankers knowing this and knowing that several hundred of their ilk are being carted off by the FBI – no I’m not making this up – they’re not making a lot of bridge loans that would allow folks to buy one house before they sell the next.

So here’s what we did:

Back in the day, when we bought our first home at a price that mortals could almost afford, houses sold for five or sometimes even 10% below asking. Later on, we’ve had the front door figuratively slammed in our faces for offering people below their asking price when we were too stupid to realize that the market had changed. Now it’s changed again, and we gave up yet another 10% of our price. This means giving up the last of our post-dot-com, post-9-11 life’s savings, but what the hell – it was only winnings anyway.

Part of that came off the price, but part was in an offer we made to pay the first six month’s mortgage for the buyer. It was a gimmick to generate traffic, but it worked. Although the “buyers” ended up just taking the money off the price, they were afraid that their dream-house might sell to someone else because of the gimmick, and so they actually got off their butt and made an offer.

But it was contingent on selling their house, which still hasn’t happened. They can’t buy without selling theirs. But they want to move in, and we want to move out. So we’ve moved the closing date a year out and given them a one year lease on the house.

Meanwhile, we couldn’t buy in California even if we hadn’t lost our savings, and we certainly won’t get a loan with two mortgages to cover, so we’re going to rent a home for a year in California. It feels very weird to not own my home at my age, but we’ll see what happens with the market there over the next year.

Why even go? This Croquet stuff, in the form of Qwaq Forums, actually works well enough that I can do just fine working from Wisconsin with my California colleagues. We have a couple of people who don’t live in Silicon Valley, and a bunch of folks don’t come into Palo Alto every day. But my family is just done with Wisconsin. I guess it’s a mid-life crisis. This winter really wrecked us. And we really got beaten up pretty badly by the corrupt politicians – essentially run out the state on a rail. I’m sure we’ll face the same kind of crooks anywhere, but we had come to Wisconsin thinking it was “safe” from that crap. Frankly, it’s just not the progressive can-do change-the-world environment that we thought it was. Everyone here is just dead. Some are pissed off with things that are wrong, but the culture is mostly one of sorrowfully accepting it. (Highest alcoholism rate in the country! whoopee.) Except for Bob LaFollette, everyone I can think of from Wisconsin that has accomplished something had left: John Muir, Les Paul, Steve Miller, Harry Houdini, Golda Meir. No wonder the op-ed pieces always list the biggest state problems as brain-drain, capital flight, and a morbid fear of being inferior to Minnesota. I don’t want my kids to grow up with that. We had considered North Carolina as a possible alternative, but we came to feel that it was a shadow of what we wanted in the same way that Wisconsin turned out to be. I’m way too cynical to expect California to be The Right Thing, but silicon valley does at least have a reputation of including a bunch of folks who at least want to try. My wife and I are most definitely not dead yet, and we don’t want to live among the walking dead. Well, whatever happens, this California Adventure is certainly a new chapter, so we’re leaving behind the road-kill deer and turtles, and we’re off like the Joads to build a new life.

Excited. Terrified. Proud. Depressed. Zitful. Hopeful. Resigned. (Forrest) Gumpish. Elated.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.


  1. You’re doing the right thing. I say that as someone with roots in WI and a wife who grew up there. I certainly identify with the feelings. We are selling everything we have in San Diego and moving to northern Italy, and I don’t even speak Italian yet.

    My experience is that when you have those kind of feelings about where you are, you have to move to save your soul.

  2. Howard,

    But what about the cheese?

    I like a lot of things about Silicon Valley, and Palo Alto is cool. I’ve spent an awful lot of time in that area on hundreds of biz trips, but the one year that our family lived in California (in Fremont, East Bay) was enough. Many things to like, but the schools were a shambles. We fled back to Massachusetts.

    I sometimes wish we lived in a college town, but we’ve been here on Martha’s Vineyard for 15 years and it looks like we’re here to stay.

    It is interesting to note that even in with virtual worlds becoming more and more advanced and rich every day, there’s still something vital about that ‘ol meat space.

    And as for corrupt politicians and corporate hegemony, that’s a sad and familiar tune, but I’m not going to think about it on this fine Sunday morning with the birds chirping and the sun shining.

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