Always and Never

Here’s a question I’ve been sitting on for a while before I answered, mostly because of travel and other commitments but also because I was waiting for a good time to answer it. It comes from Avdi Grimm, who writes:

A question for if you’re ever bored and out of anything else to blog about (hah):

I just wrote an update on our family’s ever-so-slow movement towards some semblance of economic security. It got me wondering: was there ever a point in your career where you felt like “OK, I think my family is safe now”? And if so – where/when was it?

I’ve written before about when I felt I had “made it,” which provides an answer close to this question, but not precisely on topic. That question was about my own personal feeling of security; this question is about the state of my entire family. And in thinking about it, I find the answer to it is more complicated than I would have originally assumed.

The first part of the answer is that to a great extent I always felt my family was economically “safe.” My own major personal economic crisis — when I was laid off from AOL and had to decide whether to try to find another regular job or go freelance — was in February/March of 1998, and Athena was born in December of that year (do the math there). By the time December rolled around I was doing very well as a freelancer and Krissy, who had been working part-time before I was laid off, was taken on full-time and was given full benefits, giving us a stable base on top of which my freelance income could ride. So our daughter emerged with us economically happy and comfortable.

By and large that situation has continued for us. With the exception of a couple of months right after we moved to Ohio, Krissy has never not worked and never not provided a stable base of income and benefits for the family, and I have never not done reasonably well in terms of income as a freelancer and author. We always made more than we needed to live on, which also allowed us to save and create a “cushion” in case something happened.

We’ve also been fortunate in other ways that indirectly but materially helped with our economic security. I’ve always been able to work from home. which means when Athena was very young I could be a caregiver to her while Krissy worked out of the home. Later, when I began to travel more, Krissy was able to get top-notch daycare from the local community college she took classes at for the eye-poppingly low rate of $2 an hour (the daycare was part of a child education program at the college). And of course where we live — rural Ohio — allows for a pretty good standard of living for an amount relatively low to other places in the US. It all adds up.

We were smart about things, and I also fully acknowledge we were lucky. I was and have continued to be lucky that I have been able to make a good living writing, both before I was a novelist and after that become my primary job description; not every writer I know has been fortunate as I have been. I have caught breaks in my life — which I then proceeded to exploit reasonably intelligently, to be clear, but that doesn’t change the fact that some things just plain fell in my lap. There were lots of opportunities for things to go poorly through no fault or effort of my own; they didn’t.

Likewise, we were fortunate not to have the world fall in on us at any point. Neither Krissy nor I ever got sick or required substantial care in a way that made it a focus of our lives; Athena’s been happy and healthy since she was born. Our house never burned down. We never got hit by a bus. We were never devoured by bears. We were, and are, lucky, and we used that luck to build the economic structures that will help to keep us “safe.”

So that’s the first part of the answer.

The second part of the answer is that I’m not entirely sure that I will ever feel my family is economically “safe” — that is, entirely insulated from economic pressures — because I don’t think that’s a realistic scenario. We’re by any standard pretty well off, but it’s also pretty easy for things to go to hell in a moment. I could get sick. Krissy could get sick. Athena could get sick. A member of our extended family could get sick. People could stop buying my books. The economy could crater so spectacularly that no one is spared, including me or my family. Things could otherwise go sideways in lots of different ways that I can think of off the top of my head which scare the crap out of me. And in nearly every case, the things that can strip me and my family of economic security are things over which we have little or no control over.

In that scenario, one is never “safe.” Really, almost no one is. What one has is “margin”: The amount of space, and time, and money, one has to maneuver one’s way out of a trainwreck of woe bearing down on you and the people you care about. Depending on the circumstance and scenario, the same amount of margin can be more than enough, or not nearly enough at all. If you’re not aware of that, you may not be paying attention.

Now, I realize that those last couple of paragraphs have gotten really dark, and it might seem that I’ve gone from regular friendly ol’ Scalzi to a guy who has barrels of beans and rainwater in his basement, along with a lovely assortment of ranged weapons for when the Takers come for all I hold dear, which will be soon. I assure you on a day-to-day basis I feel fine about my life, and I suspect things will generally turn out just fine for me and mine. We’ve worked hard for years to make it so. What I’m saying is that my optimism about the economic safety of my family is tempered by a worldview that recognizes that shit happens, whether you think you’ve prepared for it or not. I’m not waiting for the other shoe to fall, but if it does, I don’t want to be surprised by it. I want to be able to look at it, say “huh, that’s a hell of a big shoe somebody dropped,” and hopefully find a way to work around it.

So the answer to Avdi’s question of when I felt my family was economically safe, basically, is “always, and never.” In the moment, so far, it’s always been the case. Existentially, well, nothing’s safe, is it. I don’t think these are contradictory positions to hold. It’s not a case of looking at a glass and asking if you’d describe it as half-full or half-empty; it’s recognizing it’s both, simultaneously. It’s also saying “Cool, we have enough water today. Let’s see what happens tomorrow.”