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20 Years In Ohio

My house, in October of 2020.
Our house, October, 2020

On February 10, 2001, I was allowed to sleep in, which meant that when I woke up, there was no one in the house. This was a problem, because I wasn’t in my house; I was in my in-laws’ house in Tipp City, Ohio, and the reason I was there was because I, Krissy, Athena, our pets and all our belongings, had just driven from Sterling, Virginia, to move into our new house in Bradford, Ohio. The fact that everyone else was gone, along with the U-Haul that we had packed our lives into, meant that everyone else was at my new house, unpacking things, while I was lying in bed like a lump. I swore, got out of bed, showered, got into my little white Ford Escort, and drove (carefully due to snow) to the very very tiny little town where our new house was.

When I got there, everything was already done. All my in-laws — aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters and brothers in law, you name them, had already unloaded and unpacked our stuff into our house. I literally had nothing to do except receive a buckeye nut on a string, which one of Krissy’s aunts put around my neck as a necklace. “You know what a buckeye is?” She asked me, and when I admitted that I didn’t, she said. “It’s a useless nut!”

And with that I was home, in Ohio, for the very first time, twenty years ago today.

Me in 2003, and me in 2021.

I’ve mentioned before the story of why and how we moved to Ohio, but to briefly recap, we moved to Ohio because after our daughter Athena was born, Krissy wanted to live closer to her family, who had moved to Ohio a few years earlier after being in California for close to twenty years. They moved there because Krissy’s father’s family was there and he had wanted to be closer to them. I, who had no ambition to move to Ohio, stalled for a couple of years. When Krissy made it clear she really did want to move, I said, fine, but I want five acres of land. I didn’t, really, but I grew up in Southern California and was currently living in the Washington DC area, where five acres of land was well beyond what I could afford. What I didn’t know was that in rural Ohio, you can get five acres of land for just about nothing. Krissy found a place on five acres of land, almost exactly: the land survey has it as 5.01 acres in total. She won; we moved.

I was apprehensive about the move. Not so much that we would be living in rural America, in which I had never lived before, although that was an adjustment, but because in 2001 most of my work was in doing consulting for companies that were based in the Washington DC area, where I lived, or in New York City, which was an easy train or air shuttle ride away. In 2001, the idea of telecommuting was still newish, and I didn’t know if my clients would be willing to have me phone in from the middle of nowhere in middle America. It was a enough of a concern that I warned Krissy that for the first year at least, I might not make any money at all; if my coastal clients ditched me then it would take me time to find either full-time or freelance work in Dayton or Cincinnati or Columbus. I would find work eventually, but what “eventually” meant was something I didn’t know. It was a real concern.

Or I thought it was, anyway. What actually happened was my clients gave me a couple of weeks to get settled in and sent me emails that were pretty much, “Hey, can you work yet? We have work for you.” It turns out no one was actually concerned if I was in Ohio. I had email and I had a fax machine and I had a phone. Between those three, no one cared if they actually saw my face. Which I appreciated! Not that my face is a problem. More that they were happy to let me do my thing wherever I was.

(In fact the only real problem was Internet connectivity; in early 2001, the only local ISP maxed out at — get this — 9600 baud. I thought I had died and gone to Internet hell. I ended up paying a ridiculous sum to be one of the first people in my little town to have satellite Internet, which was faster, as long as it wasn’t too cloudy, or rainy, or snowy. Rural Internet has always been a pain in the ass, folks.)

The early years of life in Ohio for me were isolated, but not, I should note, unpleasantly so. Krissy, who actually left the house from time to time, found a job and made friends there and locally. I, who really didn’t leave the house all that much, mostly watched Athena during the day and worked when she took naps, and otherwise was social, to the extent I was social, online. Which was fine — I was working with clients and had started writing books, mostly non-fiction to start, and Krissy’s family was nearby and we saw a lot of them. And also, you know. I like spending time with my spouse more than just about anyone else. I was content.

With that said, I was aware I was a bit of an odd duck around town. We as a family were odd ducks, in the sense that we were new — Bradford is the sort of place where the families have been in the area for decades and in some cases, for more than a century. Until Athena started going to school, we were mostly known as “those people in the Yost place,” “Yost” being the name of the previous occupants of our house. It really did take having a kid in the school system for people to get used to the idea that we were a permanent feature.

Athena in 2003, and in 2021.

Athena’s entrance into the school system coincided very nicely with another big event, namely, my life as a novelist, and my entree into the world of science fiction and fantasy publishing and fandom. When that happened, my profile around town rose slightly, because, hey, I actually had books in the library now, and I think people liked that an actual full-time writer lived in the area, even if he was a bit of a liberal nerd (Bradford, being rural, is both largely conservative and blue collar). Also, I started traveling significantly more, both to science fiction conventions, and on various business-related trips. When that began to happen, I appreciated my relative isolation at home even more. I’m a highly socialized introvert, but I am an introvert, and when I’m done with people I need time to recharge. Bradford, Ohio turns out to be a perfect place for me to be an introvert in.

It also turns out to be an okay place to get to other places from. Bradford is out of the way, but it’s out of the way in Ohio, which is the seventh most-populated state in the union, and in the general Great Lakes region, which is fairly densely populated as well. We’re 45 minutes from Dayton, 90 minutes from Cincy or Columbus, and just about two hours from Indianapolis. At three hours there’s Detroit, Lexington and Louisville; Cleveland is four and Chicago is five. For someone who grew up in Los Angeles, where it can take two hours to get from Silver Lake to Santa Monica, this is all doable. In 20 years we have not lacked for things to do or the ability to do them.

I’m not a native Ohioan, but it’s fair to say that my career as a novelist is; it was born and came of age here. Old Man’s War was written here in this house, in the same office where I’m writing this now, as was every other novel since Old Man’s War (not counting relatively small bits written while traveling). I’ve noted before how I like the idea that so much science fiction — so much thinking about the future — comes out of this small Ohio town where I can look out my office window and see corn grow and Amish buggies clop by. It’s incongruous but in a good way. I like writing here and I like thinking about the universe someplace where I can see the Milky Way at night.

It’s also fair to say that Ohio has been kind to me as a writer, too. The state acknowledges me as one of its own — most memorably by giving me the Governor’s Award for the Arts in Ohio in 2016 — but in other ways, too. When I won the Astounding Award and later when I won the Hugo, the Ohio House and Senate sent proclamations congratulating me; I’ve been a featured guest at the Ohioana Book Festival, and I’ve even had my birthday celebrated at the Governor’s mansion, complete with a cake. I like that Ohio likes me as much as I like it. I try to reciprocate. There’s a reason the state keeps showing up in my work, after all.

(Ohio’s been kind to me as a writer in another way as well: Folks, it’s cheap to live here, especially in comparison to places like New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco, the traditional US writer destinations. When I want to send writers from those areas into an apoplectic rage, I tell them how much my four bedroom house on five acres cost. Now, cost of living isn’t as simple as how much a house costs, and there are other factors you have to consider about where you live aside from cost of living. Not every writer is going to feel at home, for example, living in a small conservative rural community like Bradford, Ohio. But Ohio has cosmopolitan metropolitan places as well, and they are cheaper to live in, too! Come on down! Live cheaply! Relatively speaking!)

Krissy in 2005, and in 2021.

It’s been twenty years that we’ve been in Ohio, and people do occasionally ask us if we think about leaving and living somewhere else. And in fairness it’s a question we asked ourselves not too long ago. Athena is a grown person now, and much of Krissy’s family has moved away again, so the things that would have previously tied us to Ohio don’t have as much pull. So the question becomes: why stay?

For us, part of the answer is practical: Because we’ve already paid off the house, for one, and don’t necessarily want to take on the cost of another, different house elsewhere. We like our house, so the plan is to make it comfortable to live in and then travel to other places we want to see in the world. But part of it is also: We like Ohio, and we like our little part of it. I like seeing the stars, and taking pictures of sunsets and foliage, and being able to have a lot of space between my house and the next one over. After 20 years, Ohio suits us. Maybe some day that will change (and if it does it will be for practical reasons, like: stairs are tricky after a certain age), but for now, we’re content to stay.

Twenty years is a long time to be in any one place. What I am happy to say is, for me, at least, it’s been a very good twenty years. I don’t regret moving to Ohio twenty Februaries ago, and there’s not much about my life I would change since then. Almost nothing, in fact. Maybe that I should have woke up early in 2001 and helped unpack. Other than that, I’d keep it pretty much the same.

Ohio has been very good to me these twenty years. I hope in some small way I’ve been good for it as well.

Sunset clouds, 2020.

— JS

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