Always and Never
Posted on October 19, 2015 Posted by John Scalzi 26 Comments
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.”
Ah, but have *you* (or Krissy) ever devoured any bears?
An issue everyone faces, but particularly writers, given the quirky nature of our livelihood. I’ve always said “the moment a writer feels they have it made, their career is over.” But there’s a negative side to that too; failing to stop and enjoy “right here, right now”. More and more that’s becoming a ritual for me to remind myself, whatever I’m doing. All we have is right here, right now.
My career in traditional publishing was said not to exist– 20 years as a midlister. The eBook revolution came along just as I was looking at my wife saying “What are we going to do now?” And my wife’s answer was “We’ll make it work.” And that has been a cornerstone of our relationship. We make it work. We’ve been dealt some hard cards over the years, including the death of our youngest boy, and we never thought we’d get through that. And actually, there is no getting through that. But right here, right now, my wife is teaching me to live more in the moment and stop worrying so much about the future and regretting so much about the past. I’m not very good at it yet, but she is the best teacher I could have and I am grateful every day to have her in my life.
Not much to add here. The first part I would say is similar, to a degree. We’re not well off, but we aren’t in unusual debt (we have a mortgage and whatnot, the usual bills). We certainly aren’t lacking at the moment.
The second part I am in complete agreement. It’s how I’ve always looked at the world: pretty cool where I’m at right now, but all it takes is something dire enough and POOF. Everything changes after all.
I don’t look at the second part as dark though. It just is. That’s Life and it does whatever the hell it wants. What makes it dark is how it impacts my perspective. Outside of that viewpoint, it’s just life. There is the tree but there is also the forest. The latter is a pretty grand view as well. Especially during a brilliant sunset. You know, like those ones you’re so great at taking pictures of.
To be fair, if your entire family were to be devoured by bears, your future economic needs would be pretty small.
So, you’re not saying that you don’t have that stockpile of ranged weapons?
I’m not sure about anybody else, but once faced with a near possibility of being homeless (or without food or some other essential), I find in the dark hours of the night I can always see a path back to that, no matter how far removed I am from those circumstances.
Someone I know liked to say that you don’t really own anything you can’t carry at a dead run.
I don’t do my finincial planning on that basis, but I do think about it once in a while, for perspective.
Nicely said sir, nicely said.
I’ve devoured a bear. It was quite tasty. Though apparently needed marinating 48 hours in yogurt to get to that point.
Also, why is there a “u” devoured when you people ruthless removed it from colour, favour, etc etc? And lets not get started on aluminium.
How do you pronounce devour, and how do you think Americans should spell it if they wish to be consistent with the other spelling changes you cite?
Like soccer, Americans get more blame for aluminum than perhaps they should:
“Devour” is stressed on the second syllable. The “ou” in the words you complain about is an unstressed schwa. Might as well ask why The Americans didn’t viciously rip the “u” out of “sour” and “hour”.
On the other hand, why *didn’t* The Americans remove the “h” from “hour”, “honor”, and “herb”…
Right with you. I have a stable job with a very secure employer (a major private university; only the Catholic Church is historically more stable than old universities), so by American 9-to-5-desk-job standards, I’m about as “safe” as any middle-class person can be.
I consider myself extremely fortunate that I mostly only have to worry about “act of god” levels of chance: illness, accident, natural disaster, etc. I try to put money aside for just in case I lose my job or some other disaster lands on me, but I can put money aside for that, which, again, is more than a lot of folks can afford.
Very lucky, I am. I remind myself of that every day.
And very true, Mike. While I prefer the more common term ‘football’ to describe the world sport, it needs to be said the word ‘soccer’ originated in the country where modern football was created. That’s right, England.
“Have you ever felt economically safe?”
I think the question is biased. The crux of it relies on how you FEEL, not neccessarily a rationally based assessment of your money situation.
A financial planner could look at your money situation and say, dude, you’re solid. But the question doesnt care about that. It asks how you FEEL about it, which may as well be saying, hey, man, let your worst fears run rampant, let your emotions about money percolate to the surface, now, tell me about your mother.
If that doesnt evoke the scarctiy based, lizard brain id, I dont know what will.
I have met black belts who felt weak. Phd’s who felt stupid. People with dozens of friends who felt lonely. And religious people who felt disconnected from god. I met a guy who was making 7 figures and was afraid of going broke.
Unchecked feelings will get you in trouble.
John, good for you. I’m glad your odyssey worked out for you. All one can do is keep walking toward the light while enjoying the struggle when you can.
Good discussion guys. Nice to hear from sane people.
“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.”
There are lots of ways to organize a commonwealth such that its citizens do not generally have this worry.
I have been married 36 years and we have always struggled somewhat financially. My children learned to eat a lot of beans when they were younger. However we still live in a nice area and my kids never had lack of clothing or food. I am 60 though and we are in way too much debt with college loans and credit cards to pay for emergencies. At least my daughter told me she’d put us in a good nursing home when we become feeble.
In Massachusetts we do not remove the u, just the r from most words. It’s devouah, souah, etc…
A small correction: You haven’t been devoured by bears *yet*.
The fogbears are out there, John.
“Krissy, who had been working part-time before I was laid off, was taken on full-time and was given full benefits”
And therein is encapsulated much of the insanity of America. The need to have a’job with benefits’ (which just like ‘friends with benefits’ often involves someone getting screwed) in order to have access to healthcare…
How long before those benefits are what determines if your kids get to go to school? After all why should people be allowed to freeload just because they’re kids?
Best summary of my own viewpoint… this is why you are a writer and I am not.
In the long run, the only security IMHO is the willingness to face the next brick wall – and smile at the opportunity life has handed you.
– CJH / esper
Thought we were doing pretty well until two years ago when hubby started getting signs of dementia. Diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s last fall. Our retirement savings are already being drawn down due to medical costs… The U.S. needs a better over all health set up. The ACA helps but it is only a stop gap measure. They say the #1 cause of bankruptcy these days are medical costs for not just catastrophic accidents and illnesses but also care for chronic, at the moment not curable conditions like Alzheimers, diabetes, arthritis, Parkinson’s, etc. costs to keep someone in a nursing home run around $5,000 to $10,00o a month and may go higher depending on facility, amount of care required, etc. and hiring on a full time care giver started at $900 a week minimum back in 2004 when my dad had to hire someone to help with my mom… I’m sure it costs a lot more now. And there are folks getting hit with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other ‘old timers’ diseases in their late 30s and early 40s now. Very scary, and the politicians and others in charge don’t seem to be taking the potential problems very seriously yet. Something needs to be done to insure that chronic medical conditions aren’t the catastrophe they currently are for many families. ‘Sh!t happens’ as the saying goes.
“Have you ever felt economically safe?” Never. At least not completely. Insecurity is a fundamental constant of the human condition. It can be minimized, but it can never, ever be completely banished . . . Anxiety born of insecurity can be a powerful, positive driving force, but only if it’s alchemized properly. If it is not, individuals and entire societies can go haywire. FDR understood this explicitly. Today’s leaders, not so much. . .
I feel economically safe only in the sense that I have never had any real trouble finding work. That isn’t the same thing as economically *secure* by any means, which may be the real point of the question. *Secure,* IMO, means not dependent on a source of outside income in order to meet the basic needs of life over a lifetime. I don’t actually know anyone who fits that description.
I have a more … well, fatalistic is the best word for it but still not accurate … view of things than many. I don’t own a home so I don’t have to worry about losing it. I don’t have kids so I don’t have to worry about their futures. I don’t live lavishly so the thought of getting by on Social Security (which will definitely still be around when I need it, and with my lifetime income history it’s not a trivial benefit) doesn’t scare me. And I don’t fear death so the thought of relying on Medicare, and bypassing prescription drugs, in old age doesn’t scare me.
Also, since I am the primary saver if not the primary breadwinner in my household, I don’t have to fear – on purely financial grounds – losing my spouse. Both of us are pretty much down with “you get as much medical care as insurance and the HSA will cover and no more.”
The only thing that really troubles me at this point is our debt, which is transient. If nothing happens to interfere with our payoff timeline, we’ll be all right. I believe in planning for things I can foresee, not worrying about things I can’t … so “what if something happens” is pointless.
Never devoured by bears? So Athena’s sally forth in shining armor into the fog succeeded!
S is for Scalzi, devoured by bears.
Student loan…two children in elementary school…husband’s depression turns into full blown bi-polar…hospitalizations…one grandparent alive, a Christian Scientist…divorce…market crashes… savings slashed…years pass…former husband still debilitated. I’m working–we attain something like economic stability…kid 1 starts state college…kid 2 gets stage IV brain cancer…high deductible insurance…optimal outcome…both kids in college…osteo arthritis in my hip…
A wild ride…there was no way to plan…but what’s strangest…it’s still good.
devour; our; sour; dour; tour; your, etc. How come they’re not all the same? The beauty of the (American) English language.