The Whatever Digest 9/11/18

Good morning! I slept in a bit and I feel pretty good about it. Let’s get to it.

***

I debuted my new author photo on Twitter yesterday and it got the expected responses, including “tell the hairy guy in front to move so we can see the cat.” I remember taking the picture and sending it in to Patrick Nielsen Hayden, by editor at Tor; he replied, “That’s on-brand for you” and sent it along to production. And of course he is correct, it is on brand. And also, I’m grateful that both Tor and Subterranean Press, my other frequent print publisher, have no problem with me offering up somewhat goofy author photos. The one before this was me only half in the frame; the one before that was me jumping around with a guitar. This may make it seem like I plan these things. I don’t. But I take a lot of picture, and a lot of pictures of myself. Some goofy ones happen as a matter of course. And then they end up on my books. I think it’s close to me than a straight up would be, in any event.

***

In a refreshing change from the usual, I understand yesterday’s biggest political scandal, aside from all the ongoing ones, was that New York gubernatorial candidate ordered a bagel with lox, except the bagel was cinnamon raisin. People freaked out about the flavor profile. How quaint! That’s right up there with Obama wearing a tan suit in terms of “politicians doing things we really shouldn’t actually care about.” But since it was a big news story, let me just say that while lox is not what I would put on a cinnamon bagel, a) I’m not the one eating it, she is, b) I’m hardly someone to criticize people on their food choices. Also, it’s a minor food crime at best. It’s not, like, eating New York style pizza with a fork.

***

Follow up to yesterday: My fantasy football team did indeed win its game. The Churro Unicorns are undefeated! And, uh, 1-0. And now I’ll have pick up a QB from waivers just in case Aaron Rodgers doesn’t play next week against the Vikings. This is more thinking about my fantasy football team than I thought I would be required to do.

***

And honestly, this is all I have for today. I barely paid attention to the world yesterday! I regret nothing!

1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Ten: Spouse

This one is easy: I’ve had the same spouse the last 20 years, and if I’m lucky I’ll have the same one twenty years from now, and if I’m really lucky I’ll the same one 20 years after that, too. If I have the same one 20 years after that, there’s probably been some amazing breakthrough in the aging process, since then I would be 109. But if I am, and there is, I hope that I would have the same one, too.

That said, 1998 was a very significant year in our spousedom, because this was the year that Krissy was pregnant with Athena, and the year we stopped being only spouses and became parents as well. No matter what your relationship is as a married couple, adding a kid to the mix changes things, and it was a reasonable question about how a child would change how we related to each other.

It turns out we did pretty well with it (I mean, so far; Athena turns 20 this December). Part of that was because we did what we already always did with each other, which was to talk about it — what our fears and concerns and expectations and hopes were for this whole “we’ll be parents” thing. After all, we had several months to prepare and be ready to support each other.

As a result, I think parenthood made us better spouses. We better understood each other because of our expectations about child rearing, we trusted each other to take the lead when one of us needed a break, and we relied on each other to otherwise share the load of helping another person make their way into the world. Whether we were great parents is something you’ll need to ask Athena about, but in the matter of being husband and wife, it worked out pretty great, and gave us a deeper appreciation for the other. I’m not saying it works that way for every set of spouses (or that every set of spouses should have kids). But in 1998, a new child was a thing was going to change our relationship to each other. In 2018 I can say it absolutely did, and for the better.

Parenthood is of course not the only event that made its mark on us as spouses over the last twenty years. Moving to Ohio in 2001 was another — when we moved, Krissy didn’t have a job lined up and I was not entirely sure that I would be able to sustain my freelance relationships when I didn’t live in DC or have relatively easy access to NYC, which were the two hubs of my freelance work. Krissy had her family in the area but I didn’t have any of my own set of friends. It could have been a stressful switch in our life. But again we did what we always do: talk and plan and rely on each other and find ways to have each other’s backs. We got some breaks in there, to be sure (like my freelance clients not caring where I lived, and Krissy getting a job that promoted her seven hours into her first day because they immediately realized her worth to them). But knowing we are there for each other matters, then and now.

I can give you more specific examples, but at this point I think you probably get it. The John and Kristine show runs on communication and trust and love, always has and hopefully always will. I realize that there are very few couples who wouldn’t say that they trust their spouse and tell them everything and hold nothing back, quite obviously; it’s what you’re supposed to do. And hopefully people do! Because it has worked for us. And also, yes: in fact, I trust Krissy and tell her everything and hold nothing back from her.

Because why would I? It turns out (and anyone who has met Krissy will confirm this for you) that Krissy is smarter, wiser and better grounded than I ever was and have ever been, and having someone like that in your life is huge if you’re someone like me. Aside from being someone I can rely on for advice and grounding, she’s also been someone I have learned from, and to model some of my own behavior on. Many of the things people have said they admire about me, I got from watching her do them first, and then taking the time to incorporate them into my own personality and outlook. I give Krissy a lot of credit for helping me to become a functional grown-up, basically.

Krissy, is, bluntly, the person I admire the most in the world. She is the person who I think of when I wonder what action to take, not only in the sense of “what would Krissy do” but in the sense of “is this something I would be proud to tell her that I did.” I may or may not ever do something based on the first of these (she is not me and I am not her), but I can always rely on the second as a guide. Moreover, she the basis and foundation of any success I have had since I met her. There is not a day I do not acknowledge and appreciate all the ways, small and large, that her presence in my life and her partnership with me has made my life materially and existentially better.

And what does she get out of me? Well, she’s the best person to answer that question, of course. But with that said, and with full acknowledgement that usually this is the place where someone like me writing something like this says “I don’t know what she sees in me,” I think there are a few things I do bring to the table. Krissy is good with what’s directly in front of her; I am good at thinking several steps out. I think fast and I am good in a crisis. I am deeply loyal. Weirdly for someone both creative and lacking in a real job, I have always made good money and have never been stupid about having it or keeping it. Finally, I have a moral center. This is not to suggest that she doesn’t (oh, she does), but to suggest that she doesn’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about whether I do.

Also, I see her: she has never had cause to doubt that I value her, and that I know her value, not just for me, or for our relationship, but in and for herself. Krissy is easy to look at — she is, without exaggeration, one of the most physically beautiful people I’ve seen in my life — but there is a difference between being looked at and being seen. I’ve seen her since our first date in 1993, when we had our first real talk and I realized there was a whole lot more to this person sitting across from me than the fact that she was visually stunning. I still see her, and continue to find more to see in her, every day.

Plus! I make her laugh and am also her lifetime designated driver, which are not small things, either.

Ultimately I think a major aspect of our success as spouses is simply that we are complementary on many process things and in agreement on many moral and philosophical things. There are things I can’t do she can do (or that I can do, it’s just she does them better), and vice versa, and on a day to day basis, that makes things work. Deep down she and I have similar a similar outlook on what defines A Good Life, and on existential basis, that also makes things work. I think this a useful combination for spouses to have in a general sense. I think most people are better off with someone who sees the world similarly and have skills that make them a good team.

I don’t think it’s a secret to anyone, either who reads me online or who knows me in real life, that I’m besotted with my wife; if upon meeting you for the first time in real life I haven’t shown you a picture of her within five minutes, I’m off my game. I get moony and giddy when I’m out with her in public, too, as again anyone who’s seen me with her in public will tell you. What you don’t know is that I kind of do that when we’re by ourselves too. I tell her on a better than daily basis that I love her and that my life is better with her in it.

Part of the reason I do that is, because, well, it’s true: I do love her and my life is better with her in it. I’m not exactly a taciturn man; I’m not one of those people who thinks that just saying that sort of thing once, or every once in a while, is sufficient. I think people like to be reminded of something like that on a regular basis. I’m happy to say it. And of course, not just say it: I try to do both the little and big things that make it clear that the words are not just words.

And then there’s the other part. One day it’s very likely that one of us is going to have to leave the other, and that actuarially speaking, that person is likely to be me. What I believe about the nature of life and the universe leads me to conclude that the time I have with Krissy now is all the time I will ever have with her. If I’m wrong, I plan to tell her and show her how much I love her for the rest of eternity. But if I’m right, this time together is what we have. There is no point, then, in not loving her flat out, full volume, as much as I possibly can, right now. There is never a time while we live together that I want her to feel or believe that I love her any less than entirely, fully and completely. I don’t want her ever to doubt it, or to lack it, or to miss it while we’re both alive. I want to love her so much that if I do have to leave her, the echoes of that love will sustain through the rest of her life. That she knows she was loved, and seen, and that she made my life, and the life we had together, worth the living.

That’s what I do, and have done these last twenty years, and before then too, and intend to keep on doing, for the next twenty years, and the twenty after that, and for as long as it lasts. Our lives have changed, and will change again. But this one thing, I’m happy to keep the same.

 

The Whatever Digest, 9/10/18

So many things to do today, so little time to do it! Let’s zoom through a few things.

***

Hey, look, professional football has started its season. I realize this is an opener that most of you aren’t expecting from me, as I rarely evince any sort of interest in football or the NFL, but in point of fact for the last decade I’ve had a fantasy football team (the Churro Unicorns, previously the Mediocre Walloons) in a league my friend Norm put together. He asked me into it because they needed an extra person, so I said sure, let the computer make all my picks for me, and then engage with it only to swap out player on bye weeks. My team often does poorly, but sometimes it does well; I even finished at the top of the league one year. As a result, I keep up with what’s going on in the league, especially as it involves my key players.

Which this year includes Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay QB, who did quite nicely for me last night, despite being pulled from the game for a bit. I feel the computer made a solid choice giving him to me this year. Also I was delighted by the Cleveland Browns, none of whom are on my fantasy team but who are my current avatar of sports-related futility now that the Cubs had to go and wreck a magnificent 108-year losing streak by winning a mere World Series. The Browns broke their seasons-long losing streak, but not their not-winning streak, by tying their game with the Pittsburgh Steelers. It is, as many have noted, to most Browns way possible not to lose. Let’s see if they go 0-0-16, which, honestly, would be delightful.

I won’t know until tomorrow morning whether the Churro Unicorns have won their first game of the season, because my opponent (the Ponte Vedra Wolverines) has players in the game tonight. But the current score is 64 – 37, so they have a lot of ground to cover. I’m feeling good about my chances. But then, that’s what I say every year.

***

Les Moonves out: And good riddance. More than a year after the whole #MeToo movement got its push, we’re still seeing fallout, which isn’t surprising and which almost certainly will continue. CBS is trying to ward off some of the fallout by donating something like $20 million to women’s rights groups. That’s nice but it’s what happens internally at CBS that really matters. And I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, another famous and important man down, because he saw women as a perk, not as people.

***

Directly related to this topic, the Washington Post published what I think is a very good piece from the rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on the matter of famous abusers and the subject of forgiveness, and when (and if) they should ever be forgiven their transgressions. Ruttenberg comes at it from a rabbinical point of view, which makes sense given her vocation, but the reasoning is approachable for anyone.

And it comes down to this, as I understand it: before forgiveness — and before any return to public eye — comes work: Understanding what it is that one had done wrong and working on one’s self and righting the wrongs one has done. Only then may one ask for forgiveness, and seek that return. Without having done the work, the return to the public eye is precipitate, and unearned.

I think Ruttenberg is on the right track with this, and it also explains why, as an example, Louis CK’s appearance in a comedy club failed as badly as it did. Louis CK admitted he had done bad things, and went away, but there hasn’t been any evidence that he’s been doing to the work he should be doing, or making amends as he should. So when he shows up nine months later effectively acting like nothing has happened, or at least hoping everyone else will act like nothing has happened, well. It doesn’t compute.

I think you can change some of the order of the things rabbi Ruttenberg lists for forgiveness — I think you can apologize upfront and do the work after — but doing the work to better yourself is absolutely essential. And you have to do the work of bettering yourself for itself, without the expectation that at the end of it is a return to status of any sort. And that of course is the really hard part. Especially if you have been famous or have had power.

It seems easier just not to be a harasser, honestly.

***

And directly related to that topic, Sarah Silverman talks about Louis CK (scroll down in the interview), and how hard it is, as someone who’s known him and has loved him as a friend for years, to be objective about what’s going on with him. It’s not that she doubts any truth of what he’s done, or defends him, but as she says, “I can’t be objective. I can’t give you a good answer on this that you’ll be happy with or that I’ll be happy with because the whole thing makes me sad.”

You know what? I think that’s a perfectly good answer for Silverman to make, given who she is and her relationship with Louis CK. It doesn’t deny what he’s done and it doesn’t excuse what he’s done, and it also notes that she is not going to be able to give a satisfying statement for most people, because what is the issue of a celebrity fuck up to everyone else is something intensely personal to her, involving her friend. It’s wrapped up in an entirely different perspective.

The internet is a place where it’s easy to demand everyone publicly answer for everything, but I think it’s perfectly acceptable for people to say, in situations like this, “Hey, I’m too close to this and I’m going to deal with this privately.” Because they are, and it’s okay to acknowledge that fact. I recognize that, especially if both parties are well-known (as Silverman and Louis CK are) and otherwise outspoken, this sort of statement can seem unsatisfying or even a little hypocritical. But, you know what, well-known people are actually also people, not just the semi-fictional constructs we make them out to be. People are allowed to deal with personal shit away from the stage. If you demand that they can’t or shouldn’t, that’s your right, but maybe look at why you’re demanding such a thing.

Louis CK done fucked up; there’s no doubt about it. Sarah Silverman should be allowed to process the fact that her friend fucked up however she wants. So should any friend, in that situation.

***

Obama’s speech: Hey, remember when we had a president who could speak complete sentences about things that were not directly about him? Good times, good times.

Also: Hey, vote in November, okay?

***

And that’s the digest for today. Please enjoy this picture of Smudge as a parting gift. See you tomorrow.

1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Nine: Weight

Well, this one isn’t as cheerful as some of the others have been. In 1998, I weighed a shade over 160 pounds. Today as I popped myself onto the scale, I was a smidge over 191 pounds. This is not great.

This weight gain is on me, both literally and figuratively. As much as there is a natural middle-age tendency toward weight, the fact is I could be doing more, and eating a bit less. I have been fortunate that this weight gain hasn’t had too much negative impact on my health. I went in a few months ago because of a minor health scare involving what I thought was my heart (better safe than sorry), and it turns out I’m slightly better than fine, health-wise; the pain was indigestion and the workup showed everything else was good. Half a bottle of Pepto Bismol (and half of our annual HSA contribution) later, I was fine.

But that’s not going to last. I’m 49 and change; without constant upkeep, the slide from “mostly healthy” to not will be sudden and steep. There’s more to that than weight, but for me weight is both a signal and a contributing factor. I’m not going to get any healthier, or bring my weight down, just sitting on my ass.

My current weight is not the most I’ve ever been but it’s within five pounds of it. Up until a couple of years ago I was hovering in the 175 range and then up it went, a combination of laziness, work stress and perhaps eating my exasperation at the current political situation in the United States. To be clear, it’s not Trump’s fault I weigh more than I did before he was president. Again, that’s on me. On the other hand, his presence in the White House and all the nonsense that’s come with it makes it psychologically easier for me to say, fuck it, we’re all screwed, I’m gonna have another slice of pizza. I have to work on that.

I find it easier to watch my weight when in fact I’m actually watching it — when I log calories and track steps and so on and so forth. I’m a person for whom gamifying weight and health really works, and when I get away from that I do a slow upward trend in both weight and laziness. I kind of hate this fact about me, but I’m also at an age where I worry less about the not-spectacular existing aspects of my personality and more about accepting them and making them work for me. If gamifying my health and weight it what it takes, let’s do it, baby.

This is where I announce I have a goal for myself, which is to get myself down to 180 by the end of the year, and to 170 by my 50th birthday, which is next May. I don’t think I need to get myself back down to 160; I think at this point that weight marker would really accentuate my jowls. But 170? I could probably do that in nine months if I make the effort and I think I’ll generally be happier with myself if I get there. And I know myself well enough to say that I’m more likely to make the effort if I say it out loud and in public. So: Hey! 20 pounds in nine months. Let’s see how I do.

Also, this gives me an excuse to buy a new smartwatch. Yes, I will use any excuse to get new toys. Don’t judge me. Or judge me all you want! It’s fine.

1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Eight: Cars

For the weekend Whatever 20/20s, I’ve picked some topics I can be brief on, because, hey, it’s the weekend. Thus, for today, let me talk about my extremely boring history of cars.

In 1998, I was still driving the very first car I ever owned: a white 1989 Ford Escort, which was a “Pony Edition” of that model. This meant it was even more cheaply built and constructed than the average Escort of the time. And you know what? I loved it. Why? Because I bought it for just $4,000 in 1991, it was super-cheap to maintain and drive, and because I was someone who fundamentally didn’t care about cars, in terms of their look or the status they might confer. I saw a car as a thing to get me from point a to point b as reliably and cheaply as possible. The Escort certainly did that. I drove it for twelve years, until it died literally in the parking lot of the dealership were I got its replacement, in 2003.

The fact I drove it for a dozen years confused some friends of mine. As I remember one of them telling me, in 1999 or so, “Dude. You can afford a better car.” And well. Certainly by that time I could have had a different car. But “better” is a subjective thing. The Escort ran and was cheap and I didn’t care about anything else, so in that respect it was the best car for me. I didn’t want to spend more money on a car, even if I could afford it. One of the ways I got to point of being able to afford things was not spending foolishly. I drove that car exactly to the point of it not being drivable. And then I got a new one.

Which was a minivan! A 2003 Honda Odyssey, to be exact. And which, I want to be clear about, I was not planning to get. I wanted to get one of those Honda Elements, one of those nifty, boxy little cars with the hose-downable interior, because we had an Akita at the time, and the Element seems like a perfect vehicle to schlep around a dog that shed its own volume in fur on a regular basis. But Krissy wasn’t thrilled with the Element, and the Honda salesdude, perhaps sensing a chance to upsell, showed her the Odyssey instead. The moment he showed her the collapsable third row which could magically disappear into the floor, her eyes got really wide, and I realized we were about to buy a minivan.

This was ironic, because just a couple years earlier, Krissy asked me to shoot her if she ever said she wanted a minivan, and I (reluctantly) said I would consider it. However, between that moment and the moment we bought the minivan, things changed: namely, we had a kid, and had gotten a very large dog, and moved to a rural area where having a car with a lot of space to haul things around in suddenly became very attractive. Krissy, whatever else she is, and she is many wonderful things, is inherently practical. A minivan made sense now, so previous protestations went off to the side.

I accepted that we were going to bring a minivan home, but I felt it incumbent upon myself to note that getting a minivan meant owning up to certain things. Which is why I got a personalized license plate for the minivan which says “NOTCOOL.” Because minivans just aren’t cool and will never be, and you have to accept it. And also that’s fine! Because Krissy was right, we needed that minivan. It was super-useful, and comfortable, and whenever social events were planned, people were glad to see us, because we could fit a whole bunch of people in the car. Minivans: Not cool. Practical as fuck.

We still have the minivan, 15 years on. More accurately, Athena has the minivan; she took it to college with her. It’s safe, still runs well (minus balky sliding doors), and Athena’s very popular with her college friends because she can haul things for them. She’s named the minivan “Yoshi” and she loves it. I expect it will get her through college and then we can give it an honorable retirement.

My current vehicle is a Mini Countryman, which we got in 2011, the first year they were available; Krissy’s car, a 1997 Suzuki Sidekick, was feeling its age and it was time to upgrade. Because we live in the boonies, we wanted something with all wheel drive, but at the time that meant either getting an SUV or a Subaru Forester, and neither option made us happy. But then Mini announced the Countryman, and we were all, like, hmmmmmm maaaaaybe.

Although it was replacing Krissy’s car, the Mini became my car. Krissy decided it made more sense for her to drive the minivan, and also, despite signing off on the Mini, she’s not especially in love with it (the seats could use a smidge more lumbar support for her tastes). I, on the other hand, really like it a lot. It’s the first car I’ve ever had that I actually appreciate for more than its simple “get me to where I am going” value. I enjoy driving it, and I like how it looks, and it feels a bit like a Tardis because it’s tiny outside and surprisingly roomy inside. I also like the look of the 2011 model more than later editions; the only thing I don’t like about it are the terrible cup holders. But otherwise, it’s nifty. I expect I’ll drive it until I can’t.

Since Athena has the minivan at school, we’re technically a single car household at the moment. We get around that because Krissy has a company car that she’s able to use (she has to pay for non-work-related gas and upkeep, which seems totally fair), but at some point we may have to get something else for her. In 2015, when I got that big deal with Tor, I gave some thought to surprising her with a convertible Ford Mustang, but when I very innocently asked her what she thought of them, she kind of shrugged and said she wasn’t in love with them. So I didn’t. That said, Krissy currently has a coupon, as it were, redeemable for the convertible of her choice any time she likes. It seems only right.

As noted above and elsewhere, I’m not in a rush to turn in my Mini, but when I do I expect it will be for a hybrid of some sort, and then an electric after that. What I really want, though, is a car that will drive itself. I’m still not that much of a car person, and I’m at the bend in the curve where my reflexes and reactions are going to get worse, not better. I’m hoping that by the time I’m sixty-five, I won’t have to do any of the driving at all. We’ll all be safer, and I’ll still be able to get places. I think it’s an achievable dream for everyone.

(Huh, I didn’t end up being all that brief on this topic after all.)

1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Seven: Friends

In 1998, I believed that I had probably made most of the friends I would ever make in my life. 

At the time I didn’t think this was an entirely unreasonable assumption, nor was I depressed about it. I was 29 then, and there is some generally accepted wisdom which states that you’ll have most of the friends you’ll ever have by that time, and then in your 30s you all begin to disperse as time and family and work obligations make it harder for you to keep those bonds intact. Back then (as now), I wasn’t entirely convinced about the “losing friends” thing, but I was married and settled and with a child on the way, so realistically I was, yup, I’m probably pretty much topped out, friendwise.

Which would have been fine! At 29, I had friends I had made in elementary school, and at middle school, and in high school, and in college, and at my first job at the Fresno Bee, and at my second job at America Online. I stayed in touch with them all and saw them from time to time, and with the AOL friends, because I was still in the area even after I was laid off, I saw them all on a regular basis, with communal dinners and parties and hangouts. If indeed at age 29 I was going to have all the friends I would ever have, I was doing pretty well for myself.

But as it turns out life had other plans for me. Here in 2018 and at age 49, I have so many more friends than I did 20 years ago.

How did that happen?

Well, I became a science fiction author, for one thing. Science fiction and fantasy, more than any other genre of literature, has organized itself so that people in it can meet other people on a more than occasional basis. We have big conventions. We have small conventions. We have literary events at bars. We are generally fairly tech savvy and from the very first iterations of the public Internet stuck ourselves there and waited for others of our ilk to find us.

And we welcome in new people assiduously. My first science fiction convention, I mentioned in hotel lobby to my editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who was the only person I knew, that I knew no one but him. He literally reached out into a passing stream of people, grabbed someone walking by, and said to them “This is John Scalzi, he’s your new con buddy,” and then walked off. And that person, who was Cory Doctorow, looked over at me and said, “All right, then, come on.” And that was that. By the end of the night, I had more new friends. Besides Cory: Charlie Stross. Justine Larbalestier. Scott Westerfeld. Nick Sagan. I met Walter Jon Williams and Bob Silverberg and Alan Beatts, owner of Borderlands Books, all of whom would become friends as well. It was good day, that first day at my first-ever science fiction convention.

For the next few years after that, there wasn’t a convention that I went to where I didn’t come away with at least one new friend, someone who I continue to be friends with now. And, to be clear, not just among the writers. I was befriended by folks in fandom as well, who came to the conventions to see their own friends, and who were kind to me long before my name became known for anything other than being on my convention badge. Even now, through science fiction conventions and fandom, I get to meet new people who I would like to be friends with, writers and others as well. It is in fact a pretty great way to meet folks.

Another thing that’s helped me meet and make new friends, and which I acknowledge is unusual, is that people often want to meet me. They’ve read my books, or follow me online in some fashion or otherwise have heard of me, and because of that, one part of the whole “get to know people” thing, the part where they are all who is this person and what do I think of them?, is taken care of. It doesn’t mean you can’t make a bad (or even just blandly neutral) impression, but the interest in you as a person is already there. If you are also interested in meeting them, because you admire their work or presence or whatever, so much the better. It may not be the basis for a lasting friendship, but it’s not bad either. I mean, I once got to have lunch with Tom Hanks because he wanted to meet me. We’re not best friends forever now, but, you know what? It was a pretty great lunch.

(I will note I think this is largely beneficial because I’m not at the point where people knowing of me impinges on my day-to-day life, i.e., I’m not actually famous. I have friends who are actually famous and who have to route around a wave of people who really want to meet them and would loooooove to be their friends, and who aren’t aware that this sort of adoration, even when coming from a good place, can be alienating and tiring to deal with. Most of my famous friends are very good at handling this sort of thing, and, to be clear, most people who interact with the famous people I know are considerate and lovely people who know how and when to disengage. The ones who miss that cue entirely are relatively few. But when you’re famous, and so many more people know you than you know, even those relatively few add up. Fame can be isolating, so if you think you want it, make sure you really want it. And that you already have friends.)

It’s a shibboleth that the friends you make as an adult have less connection to you than, say, the friends you make in high school and college, which are times and places where everything is new and you’re thrown together with your friends in a way that real life doesn’t allow. This hasn’t been my experience, however. Many of the people I think as being friends of my heart are people I’ve met as an adult. Maybe that’s something about me, and maybe, particularly in regard with friends I’ve met through science fiction and fantasy, that’s something to do with the fact that when we get together, it’s for three days in a row where we’re not doing anything but hanging out, relaxing, talking for hours and ordering drinks from a bar, i.e., not actually a real world experience where you have to schedule three weeks in advance for a 45-minute lunch. Yes, occasionally we have to do panels. But that’s also not a real world experience.

But more than that I think it’s also just the willingness to be a friend, and to open yourself up to the possibility of friendship, of the sort you would like to have, if time and distance and life weren’t impediments. If you make that choice, you can find ways to work with the practical restraints the adult world sets on you. Make friendship a hobby, is one way of looking at it, I suppose, something you do for yourself, and occasionally get to do with others.

I’ve been blessed with friends I’ve made as an adult, but I’m also blessed with the friends that I’ve had for decades. I went to the wedding of a high school friend this summer, and last year I went to my 30th year high school reunion. In both cases, in the company of people who knew me back then, it didn’t feel like we were making up for any lost time. It was just good to be in each other’s company once more. I feel that way with so many of my friends, regardless of how much time we’ve spent apart.

You may ask: so, Scalzi, what’s the secret for having, getting and keeping friends? Well, I can tell you three things. One: Hey, social media? It can be a good thing! Facebook is where I keep in casual contact with friends from elementary school onward, and even just the quick pictures of kittens and kids and spouses and such makes a difference in keeping a connection. I specifically keep a private Facebook account for the people I know in life (I have a more widely available fan page for career stuff), and keeping that focus strictly on friends is useful. Two: If you’re my friend, unless I’ve heard otherwise from you, I assume we’re still friends, even if we don’t keep in constant contact. This is because, well: Life. Kids and careers and family and everything else take time, and I get that I can’t always be (or should be) a high priority. But I would also like people to know that when they can come back around to me, I’ll still be happy to see them, and to reconnect. This might be a perspective you can see value in for yourself and your friendships.

Three, and I think this is important, but maybe a little tricky: When you meet people, want nothing from them. Just be open to them, and to the experience of the moment. Don’t worry about if you’re going to be friends or anything else; just enjoy the time you get to have with them right at the moment. I think people get so used to people wanting or needing something from them that when they get to meet someone who doesn’t, and is just happy to be there, they have the potential to relax, and be themselves, and enjoy themselves in the moment, too. This is good practice for anyone you meet, but also and especially for the people you’ve wanted to meet, for whatever reason. I’d note this is not the same as “playing it cool,” which I think means putting on artifice instead of being yourself. Don’t be cool; be in the moment. Be someone that this other person can be themself to. That’s the best person to potentially be a friend to.

I no longer think I have met all the friends I will ever have in this life — I like to think I still have some to meet, and that there are still some people I will be able to take into my heart. But I can say this, at 49, just like I could say at 29: If in fact I’ve met all the people I will ever have as a friend, I’ve done pretty well for myself. There are so many of them and they have made my life full. I am lucky and blessed to know them, and I hope they feel the same way too.

The Whatever Digest, 9/7/18

Like this neighbor cat cautiously peering onto our deck, let’s pop our head up to see what’s going on, shall we?

***

Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing: Well, this has been a mess so far, if an entertaining one, if you’re the sort of person to be entertained by a car wreck. And of course it didn’t have to be a mess, but then the GOP and Trump administration decided not to release a lot of documents, which prompted an open rebellion by the Democrats, who released documents and dared the Republicans to do something about it, and then there Kavanaugh himself, who seems annoyed he has to pretend to answer questions at all.

And now of course there’s the question of whether the documents released show Kavanaugh perjured himself in front of Congress back in the day, the responses of which range from “probably not, if you allow for context” to “yes, and let’s impeach him from the DC Appeals bench right now.” What do I think? Well, I think I have no idea how to judge this particular thing, so I’m going to let other people fight about it.

But I do think the polite fiction of “Roe v Wade is settled law” that Kavanaugh tried to pass off to Susan Collins a bit ago is a bunch of bullshit, and given he also referred to contraception as “abortion-inducing drugs,” it’s probable he’s not a huge fan of that either, and otherwise as someone else just said on Twitter, he’s your basic Federalist Society bubble boy. So I’d be happy not to have him on the court, and to have him skitter back sour-faced to the DC court of appeals.

The thing is, if Kavanaugh is punted — which is actually possible, albeit deeply unlikely — the choices for any other Supreme Court candidate don’t get any better while Trump is in office. Clearly the Democrats are hoping they’ll get the senate in November, which will put a new wrinkle on things, but that might be optimistic. In the meantime, it’s not like Trump won’t pick someone who isn’t hostile to women’s right to control their bodies, or voting rights, or gay rights, or doesn’t think climate change is at best an interesting theoretical puzzle. So if Kavanaugh gets chopped, we’ll be back here again, one way or another.

Which is one reason I mentioned to a friend yesterday that in 2020, should Democrats get the presidency and both houses, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll see the Supreme Court expand to 11 members. Look, if the GOP is going to stack the court by denying a Democratic president their court pick and then rushing through two other picks, including one who have may have perjured himself in front of Congress, I’m not sure the Democrats are going to be inclined to let that sort of packing stand. Adding two more justices may be easier than trying to impeach Kavanaugh.

***

Alex Jones removed From Twitter: Jones, a performatively unhinged purveyor of questionable health supplements, was finally booted from Twitter, along with his business site, after similar puntings from Facebook, YouTube and other online services. There was an ostensible direct reason for this (Jones was a harassing boor to a reporter and used a Twitter service to record the moment), but as I noted, on Twitter of all places, “Alex Jones being punted off Twitter for this one specific thing is sort of the flip side of Al Pacino getting the Oscar for Scent of a Woman: Sure, okay, but everyone knows it was for career achievement and it should have happened sooner.”

And yes, Jones definitely should have been punted from Twitter before now — a man who makes his money by harassing the parents of school shooting victims is not someone I’ll be shedding a lot of tears for. Jones’ own site is still up and running so he’s got his printing press, as it were; people who want to find his particular brand of bullshit can still do so. But now he’s harder to find! Well, I mean, okay, but if so, it’s not Twitter or Facebook or YouTube’s fault Jones’ followers are not smart enough to enter a URL into their browsers, now, is it?

I’ve essayed the issue of free speech online before, and in detail, so I don’t need to do it again now, but I will say that I do find Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s recent assertion that he sees Twitter as a “public square” a bit of meretricious nonsense. It’s emphatically not a public square — Twitter is a for-profit corporation that makes money selling advertising to its customers, and has made Dorsey a billionaire (currently) six times over. Dorsey’s allegiance isn’t to the public weal, it’s to his company making a profit. The “public square” bit is just marketing, and Dorsey’s excuse for letting certain bad actors stay on the service as long as he felt he could extract value from their presence.

Alex Jones and his hijinks are past their sell date now, and Twitter was getting bad press for being the last service that tolerated his supplement-selling assholery, so out he goes. And sure, there are a bunch of dimwits who are grousing about “shadow banning” or whatever, but I have to tell you, enough of those “I’m shadowbanned!” dumbasses show up in my Twitter comments that I know that’s bullshit. And as for them being punted/blocked/banned/whatever, well, I understand it’s difficult for people who are assholes to understand they are being removed from polite society because they are assholes, and not for any other reason. But it doesn’t mean their being an asshole needs to be tolerated by others, or that it has a constitutional right to exist on a privately-run service.

***

On the subject of Twitter, people have noted that friends of mine have quit the service, some in part to protest the continued presence of Alex Jones and his nasty bit of business and/or because they’re tired of dealing with the other assholes there and/or because it’s just not fun anymore. These folks were wondering if I also plan to be leaving the service anytime soon.

My answer: Probably not. One, I have 150k followers there, mostly fans, so it’s a really good way of letting lots of people who are affirmatively interested in me know what I’m up to. Two, while some friends have dropped, many many others are still there, and it’s how we chat and stay in touch and in each other’s lives on a daily basis. I live in rural Ohio, folks. My writer/creator community is far-flung from me and from each other, and hangs out online. I’d miss them.

Three, I’m very clear on why I’m there and how I use the service, and I’m clear about it to everyone else, too. Four, after 30 years in the public eye one way or another, I’ve gotten a pretty thick skin and no qualms about removing assholes from my sight. 99+% of what I see on Twitter at this point is friendly people, and the unfriendly people I usually only ever see once.

And finally — and this part should not be read as a criticism of anyone dealing with online services — I don’t really expect Twitter or any other online service to be other than wildly flawed. Twitter was built by people who wanted to make shitloads of money monetizing other people’s trivia, and on that score it’s succeeded very well, as has Facebook, Google and a few others. Tech billionaires are basically callow dudes in hoodies who never learned how to deal with humans except for one specific slice of their needs/wants that they could extract value from, so honestly I don’t expect their creations to reflect anything other than that. Change comes only at the last possible minute and only when it threatens that extraction of value. If you know that going in, it makes dealing with the things they create much easier.

This is not to excuse tech billionaires from being truculent, vaguely libertarian shitlords, or to suggest that people should just accept the awfulness of the services they’re being offered. Tech billionaires should make an effort to be self-actualized humans with some goal other than sitting on a massive pile of ducats and thinking it’s deserved; we should all work to make the services they provide humane as well as narrowly useful. And if neither are happening on a schedule that suits you, you should bail on the service. No one owes a tech billionaire their value. I am saying that for me, my tolerance both of tech billionaires and their flawed services is reasonably high, as long as I’m getting something useful out of it too, on my terms.

Which I am in regards to Twitter, so I’m likely to stay on it for a while.

***

And thus we come to the end of the first week of the Whatever Digests for September. I hope you’re enjoying them. If you have thoughts so far on the format, drop them into the comments. I’m curious what you think. In the meantime, and to close, enjoy this picture of a Smudge on my monitor. The Digest will see you again on Monday. Have a good weekend.

Hey, Wanna See the First Chapter of The Consuming Fire?

If you do, it’s here.

1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Six: Presidents

So, let’s review the presidents we’ve had since 1998: A sexually harassing policy wonk, a genial imbecile, a malevolent imbecile, and Barack Obama.

I don’t think we do presidents well.

This assessment is bolstered by looking at the other five presidents who have been in office in my lifetime (in order, a crook, a placeholder, an ineffectual overthinker, an Alzheimer’s sufferer and George HW Bush, who was not my brand of politics but otherwise was perfectly middlin’, as far as presidents go). We could blame a lot of things for our generally less-than-excellent presidents, including the electoral college, low voter turnout relative to other countries, billionaires funding our political system, and the fact that we in general default to “when in doubt, vote for the guy you’d have a beer with” as a legitimate voting tactic. But after a while you have to suspect that the reason we don’t have great leaders is that we, or at least a large percentage of us, just plain don’t want them.

Mind you, if you had asked me in 1998, I would have been just fine with Bill Clinton, and even now I’m perfectly willing to grant he was a generally effective president whose political inclinations were (and are) largely in step with mine. He was very smart, very knowledgeable about politics, and was savvy enough that when the Republicans came for him with impeachment charges, he came out of the process with higher approval rating than when the process started. It’s not for nothing he was called “Teflon Bill.”

But hey, you know what? He almost certainly was a sexual harasser! And he did have sex with Monica Lewinsky, thank you very much, and was entirely wrong as president to have gotten that blow job from a friggin’ intern. Here in the #MeToo era we can call him for what he was, and not make excuses for him. I don’t have any issue with whatever arrangement he and Hillary Clinton may have had (if they had one) for his extracurricular activities, and I don’t care what he did with other consenting adults he consorted with. But the man crossed enough lines prior to his presidency, and as president, shouldn’t have been doing anything with the interns other than remembering their names correctly and taking a picture with them when it was time for them to leave. This is not rocket science.

I’d like to believe Bill Clinton is a different person now than he was 20 years ago on this matter; I know I am. But I also know that, failed attempt to remove him from office that did him no lasting political damage to the side, he didn’t suffer any particular consequences for his actions. Maybe he’s just happy to have been president when he was.

As for GWB and Trump, well. Most Americans who voted in 2000 and 2016 picked someone else, as well they should have, because TweedleDubya and TweedleTrump are two of the worst presidents since the Civil War. Trump is easily the worst president since Buchanan, and GWB I’d slot in probably at number three (rounding out the top five: Harding, Nixon and A. Johnson). We got GWB and Trump because of white people, specifically white dudes, which strongly suggests that if we are going to go around making it difficult for anyone to vote (which, to be clear, we shouldn’t), we should probably focus on them, since when in doubt, white dudes in particular go for the stupidest, least qualified person possible for president. This isn’t opinion; this is their actual fucking track record.

Dubya shouldn’t have been president; Trump shouldn’t have gotten out of New Hampshire. And yet here we are, dealing with the residue of one and the staggeringly awful reality of the other. If you want to do the United States a solid, the next time there’s a presidential election, find out who the general mass of white dudes say they are voting for, and then vote for the other one. Even if you’re a white dude. Especially if you’re a white dude. History tells you that you probably can’t go wrong, voting against the favorite candidate of the average white dude.

(“Oh, like Gore or Hillary Clinton would have been better presidents!” Why, yes, they absolutely would have been, and the fact that you might think otherwise appalls me. Gore would not have been the greatest president our nation has ever had, but he would have been fine. Hillary Clinton could have been the second worst president in the post-Civil War history of our nation and she still would be better than the cloddish gallstone in human form currently infesting the White House. If Gore had been president we possibly wouldn’t have had the global collapse of the economy in 2008 (posssssibly); if Hillary Clinton were president now the worst thing that would be happening would be the 300th day of investigations into her fucking emails, which would have gone like every other investigation into her, i.e., nowhere.)

Let’s talk about Obama. Obama is, objectively, the best president of my lifetime — he managed to keep the economy from crashing after GWB’s lax policies nearly instigated Depression 2: The Depressioning, he managed to pass the ACA and aside from these and other policies I generally approve of, he was decent, kind, smart and scandal-free in a way that no other modern president has managed. Was he perfect? No — there are legitimate criticisms of him from both the left and the right, and for my money he stepped too lightly at times where he should have been stomping hard. Now, I understand why he did that — because the racist chucklefucks who comprise the GOP primary pool, already in high testeria about the idea that a black man had somehow become President, would possibly have shot up the entire nation — but I think he was overcautious. Be that as it may, when he came into office, we were on the precipice of global collapse. When he left, we were… emphatically not. Obama wasn’t perfect. But he was pretty darn good.

I’d like to think that Trump is an aberration, but let’s be honest with ourselves. The time where we could rely on the GOP to nominate and run competent people for president, for the time being at least, is in the rear view mirror. Barring removal from office — which would be fine with me but let’s be realistic — Trump will run again in 2020 (even if he is removed from office I could see him running again, which should scare the shit out of the GOP, as he currently has 90% approval with Republicans), and then after that who do they have? Ryan? Rubio? That shambling carpet of squamous cells known as Ted Cruz? Fucking Mike Pence, the human personification of an actual stick up one’s ass? John Kasich is out there but he’s as exciting to the GOP primary voters as a stick of unsalted butter. The host of GOP primary voters don’t want sensible; they don’t even want insensible if it comes in a pretending-to-be-sensible package. They want racism, women forced to give birth against their will, and to shove gay people back into the closet as deep as they can go, and they want it at full screaming volume. Trump isn’t an aberration; again, 90% approval rating. He is what the GOP is now.

(It is not what every Republican or conservative person is. Let’s be clear about that. But, news for non-horrible GOPers and conservatives: You’re so very outnumbered now, guys. And maybe that’s on you a bit. Please work on fixing that. The rest of us will thank you for it.)

I can’t say I wished we picked better presidents, since as a nation of individual voters, we did. I can say that I wish our system didn’t allow such terrible presidents to have gotten in. In the last twenty years, we’ve had a sexually harassing policy wonk, a genial imbecile, a malevolent imbecile, and Barack Obama. We could have potentially had a sexually harassing policy wonk, a colorless technocrat, a humorless policy wonk, and Barack Obama. How much better we all would have been if we had.

The Big Idea: Jaine Fenn

Autho Jaine Fenn starts this Big Idea piece with an admission — and then explains how she got around it for her new novel, Hidden Sun.

JAINE FENN:

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m a fraud. Most writers have bouts of imposter syndrome, but when it comes to writing scientifically rigorous fiction, I live in special fear of being found out. The gaps in my science education mean I have been known to, shall we say, err on the side of vagueness in my science fiction. Or invoke Clarke’s Third Law. Or ask a grown-up for help.

However, Hidden Sun isn’t science fiction. It’s science fantasy. In my teens, while my teachers were telling me that nice girls don’t do science – early 80s rural England, what can I say? – my reading was moving from fantasy to science fiction, via writers like Anne McCaffrey, Gene Wolfe and Ursula Le Guin. I still liked the feel of classic fantasy – being able to retreat to Middle Earth got me through some difficult times ­– but found myself looking for something more in a story, some shadow of logic and learning, an underpinning of esoteric knowledge of a slightly different flavour to that usually labelled ‘magic’.

Then I went to college (or ‘uni’ as we Brits call it). I did an arts course – like a nice girl – but when I found the ‘astronomy for arts students’ additional module, I was right in there. The course delivered: heaps of cosmology, minimal maths. And it turned out my lecturer was a geek; he’d actually devised the astrophysics Brian Aldiss used in the Helliconia trilogy. My mind was duly blown.

This positive early experience left me with a yen to one day write a book whose protagonist driven to discover how the universe works without the tools or support of a scientific establishment. That half buried desire resurfaced a few years ago and the result is the Shadowlands duology, of which Hidden Sun is the first book.

Rhia is a natural enquirer, part of a diffuse and informal network of proto-scientists living at a renaissance level of technology in isolated pockets of shade – the shadowlands – dotted across a bright, hot, alien world, known as the skyland. The skyland beyond her land’s borders interests Rhia, but the sky overhead fascinates her. She just wants to spend her time observing the stars and coming up with cosmological theories. Unfortunately she has to contend with the politics of a squabbling nobility, the assumption that women don’t have enquiring minds and, most recently, the shocking disappearance of her feckless younger brother.

I loved it when elements of Hidden Sun – the court intrigue, the murder mystery, the skyland with its alien/human symbiotes – came together in a logical yet organic way, accreting like a solar system round a star. And at the heart of the Shadowlands duology is that unconscious desire, building for years, to spend time with a character far smarter than me but without the mentor I had, who is fired up with the desire to unlock the secrets of the universe. And for her to succeed.

I’ve no idea if my old astronomy lecturer will read this post. But I remain indebted to him for the grounding he gave me in the most cosmic of the sciences, which is why it seemed only fitting to dedicate Hidden Sun to him.

—-

Hidden Sun: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Whatever Digest, 9/6/18

An overcast morning here, and apparently it’s going to rain for (checks weather forecast) the next four days. Whee! Here’s what I’m thinking about today.

***

That New York Times anonymous op-ed: Oh, you know the one, in which an unnamed senior official at the White House says they are part of the resistance inside the government, keeping Trump from doing something really crazy? As opposed to all the batshit things he’s actually already managed?

Yeah, not a fan of it. I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone that Trump is unhinged, incompetent and unfit for the role of president, but inasmuch as that’s the case, the solution is boot his ass out of the Oval Office, not attempt to route around him. That said, no one in this administration or the GOP in Congress, which it controls, has the moral courage to either invoke the 25th Amendment, or begin hearings followed by impeachment followed by booting Trump out on his ass, so I guess senior staffers furtively running about hiding papers from the President is all we have between us and armageddon, at least until next January at the earliest.

Not that that will work anymore, either. Now Trump is aware he’s being handled and thinks there’s a traitor in the White House, besides him I mean, and his anger and oppositional behavior will now come out to play even more. This anonymous op-ed isn’t going to make it any easier to handle the President and his irrational impulses. So, thanks, anonymous senior staffer! You’ve done a bang-up job here.

Folks are already making the point that whoever this anonymous staffer is — and we’ll know who they are soon enough, one way or another — is among other things positioning themselves as a Voice of Reason for the post-Trump era, i.e., on our side, rather than in fact entirely complicit. Aaaaand, meh? No. If you want to come clean, fine, do that, and bring all the files with you. Short of that, nah. You’re still complicit.

Honestly this presidency is just so exhausting. Please vote in November, okay?

***

And, no, I’m not particularly interested in who the anonymous op-ed writer is. I joked yesterday on Twitter it was Ivanka, but that’s pretty much the only one in the White House I’m sure it wouldn’t be, to be honest. Well, her and Stephen Miller, albeit for entirely different reasons, since the reason Miller wouldn’t have written it is that he’s a pustulant little shit who will never work again outside of this White House, so there’s no percentage in him stabbing Trump in the kidneys.

As for the rest of them — well, who cares who wrote it? All of them are moral cowards at this point, and thus conversely (and perversely) I can imagine any of them writing the op-ed, trying to make themselves the hero of the story rather than the fellow traveler. In that sense, it doesn’t matter which of them wrote it. It could be any of them, and it would still be crap.

***

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, some good news: India has decriminalized gay sex. Congratulations to all the Indians who can now legally love who they love.

***

Audi has apparently given up trying to sell manual transmissions in the US, because they’re unpopular and no one likes them, save for a few weirdos. As one of those weirdos myself (I specifically ordered my Mini Countryman as a manual), I’m not terribly surprised, and while I enjoy manually shifting, I’ve already resigned myself to the fact that my next car will not be manual. And actually “resigned” is not exactly the right word, since I fully intend my next car to be a hybrid of some sort or another, probably one where the electric motor drives the engines and there’s a gas generator as a backup (example: the Chevy Volt), and there’s no need for a manual transmission because electric engines don’t actually have gears.

(And no, I don’t want to go full electric yet. I live out in the boonies, folks. The electric infrastructure isn’t anywhere close to built-out enough for me. Hell, I barely get Internet. Catch me in 2030 and we’ll see where we are on that.)

There’s the joke that my Mini is theft-proof because it’s a manual, and while I’m okay with this theory never being tested, as the years go by it gets truer. My next car, on the other hand, whatever it is, will not have the same “protection.” Of course, I’m not in any rush to get that next car. I’m cheap, and my Mini is paid off. I’ll be manually shifting for a while yet.

***

In other personal news, I’m giving thought to getting a smartwatch, mostly for the purposes of tracking health stuff, although I wouldn’t mind looking down at my wrist to check messages and such. A couple years ago I got a Fitbit-branded wearable and it worked fine, but I lost it, and then when I found it again I lost the little dongle that charges the thing, and then I lost them both, so here we are.

My problem is not that there aren’t smartwatches to get — there are many, several good, that connect into the Google/Android ecosystem that I’m embedded into — but that all the tech sites I’m looking at for research are sort of waving people off from getting smartwatches right now. Apparently in the next few weeks new watches are coming out, with new faster processors and abilities and possibly shootable lasers or whatever. Which, one, okay, but two, having decided that I want to get a smartwatch, I want to get one now. I’m just not very patient when I decide I want technology.

But I guess I’ll wait. For now. Hrumph. In the meantime, maybe I’ll walk a little more anyway. And take my phone. It has Google Fit on it and will track my steps. I just can’t wear my phone on my wrist. Or shouldn’t, anyway.

***

To finish up today, here’s Sarah Harmer’s song “Lodestar,” since the word “lodestar” is on people’s minds today thanks to that anonymous op-ed. This is a much better use of the word, if you ask me. It’s one of my favorite songs of hers.

1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Five: Social Media

Was there actually even social media in 1998? Oh, my, yes. There was. And it acted in pretty much the same way as it does now, in all the good and bad ways.

The players were different, of course. In 1998, in place of Twitter and Facebook you had USENET and America Online (as two examples). Blogs were just starting off, and the word “blog” itself hadn’t really gained currency, so they were mostly known as “online diaries” or “online journals,” but .plan files and other such similar analogues were around, doing the same sort of thing. There was IRC rather than Slack. And so on. Everything that’s prominent today had its analogue and inspiration in something else.

And even in 1998, these weren’t new ideas — AOL was the upstart muscling in on CompuServe’s and GEnie’s territory, don’t you know, and the “Web” was still in the process of being bolted onto (and over) the existing Internet, with its gopher holes and veronica searches and what have you. And don’t forget BBS’s, which you had to dial into directly! With your 300 baud modem! Uphill and in the snow! 1998 was already iterative, my friends.

What’s certainly different now is scale. AOL at its height had something like 34 million subscribers; Facebook has more than a billion users, and people are worried about Twitter because it only has 300 million users. And with scale comes scale-related problems. There were always trolls, as an example, but there is a difference between having to deal with a single persistent troll on alt.society.generation-x, and dealing with literally hundreds of trolls on Twitter bound and determined to wreck you. Social media, or more accurately the people who run and administer it, have done a very poor job accounting for the scaling up of its influence and reach, which is one reason we have the beef-witted president we do and why the current iteration of social media feel like they’ve reached a bend in the curve, where the toxicity and bullshit have eroded their position.

For a lot of people it’s not a lot of fun being on social media right now, and that’s a problem for the social media companies, who rely on ads. Here in 2018, it really does feel like we’re ready and waiting on the next iteration of social media, the one that makes it enjoyable again for most of us to hang out with our friends online.

Was it fun in 1998? I think it was, but in regard to blogs in particular, it was more that it was exciting. There was a sense of being on a frontier of sorts — a place not yet colonized and so a place of invention, or reinvention, if you wanted that instead. We were doing things that were never done before! (In fact they had been done before, many times, in many other media, but they were never done on the Web, in html, so.) There was status conferred just for being out there in the wild, with your online journal the only signpost around for figurative miles. The blogosphere was still (barely) small enough in 1998 that you could read everyone and keep up with their doings. The full blossoming and influence of the blogosphere was still most of a decade away at least, but it seemed like something could happen there.

And it kind of did. I don’t need to recount the glory days of blogs right now, but I will say that it took until about 2008 or 2009 for me to be better known as a science fiction writer than as a blogger, and of course my first two Hugo awards were for writing originally posted here, so even as my primary notability began to drift over, the blog writing and online presence was (and still is) a significant component of it. Even now there are people who read my blog or follow me on Twitter who are vaguely surprised when I mention I have books out. Oh you do that, too? That’s a nice side gig. Yes. Yes it is.

In terms of casual foot traffic, Whatever peaked in 2012; front page traffic here has dropped by about half since then. I can drive 2012 levels of interest in a post by pointing to it on Twitter, and the blog has roughly 50,000 followers via WordPress, email and RSS (yes, still) who have what I write here show up for them somewhere else. But no matter how it’s sliced, the “blogosphere” has become something of a ghost town. Many blog writers have simply moved over to Facebook or Twitter as their main online presence because that’s where their friends and/or fans are, which is entirely fair. Some people like to blame Google for the decline, because it killed its popular RSS reader, which was one way people kept up with their favorite blogs. I think that’s a factor, but honestly not much that much of a factor. I think it’s more simply because maintaining blogs is a lot of work and other types of social media are easier, both in maintaining a presence and in getting/growing an audience.

Which of course is a bit ironic, here in 2018, where the famous and non-famous alike are noping out of social media because it’s such a drag now, and random chucklefucks can show up en masse to be a pain in your ass. If only you kept your blog up! People would know where to find you! Well, no, not exactly — there’s no guarantee that anyone will find your blog again if they’re stuck in the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram social media gravity well. We’re all waiting for the next things, not necessarily the old things to come back.

I should note that here in 2018 it’s not all doom and gloom on social media front, at least not for me. I am having fun. The reason for that, not entirely surprisingly, is because I filter the shit out of things. Here on Whatever, of course, you’re all familiar with how that works. On my private Facebook account, I limit “friends” to people I know in real life, make sure my posts only go out to them (and not to “friends of friends,” as “friends of friends” are inevitably the drunken racist uncles of the online Thanksgiving known as Facebook), and I don’t talk politics at all — it’s cats and kids and career, and I don’t comment on political posts that other people post, either. As a result my Facebook presence is almost placid. It’s nice to have some place like that online.

On Twitter, I filter out accounts with default icons, and accounts that don’t have verified emails and otherwise employ the Scamperbeasts rule to people who come bother me. The Scamperbeasts currently have 14k followers, so that cuts substantially the number of annoying people I feel obliged to engage with. And truth to tell I don’t feel obliged to engage with people I think who are trolls regardless of their follower count; I employ a “one strike” rule pretty much for everyone these days. Twitter also lets it users mute specific conversations now, which I find to be super-helpful when a particular tweet of mine gets picked up by piles of jerks. There’s also a thing which I consider to be something of a “nuclear” option that I haven’t used yet, but might if things become especially contentious and/or I get incredibly busy, which is the option to see tweets only from the people I actually follow. If I had massively more followers, or was a woman of some note in the world, I would have probably already engaged this option.

Fortunately me, it’s not come to that, and the strategies I use are more than enough to handle the occasional jerk eruptions that come my way. And again, these strategies aren’t that different than the ones that have always been a part of being online. On the USENET in 1998 and earlier, we had “killfiles” — lists of people whose posts would simply not show up in our newsreaders. When we consigned someone to a killfile, they went *plonk*.

Well, the plonk never, ever went away, nor should it have. Online, it’s only ever been the way to deal with others — the option not to hear them. Yes, I know there is a whole cadre of people who like to maintain that muting, blocking and otherwise filtering is somehow censoring them. Those kind of people are the same kind of people they were in 1998: Generally, self-absorbed, toxic assholes.

Social media can be a lovely place, but it’s work for it to be that. If you don’t have the tools (or alternately, the tools are not obvious or easy to use), it can be pretty awful, and that awfulness scales upward the more people there are online, and the more people who know who you are online. I knew people in 1998 who threw up their hands and walked away for the social media of the time because it was all too much, so here in 2018 I certainly can’t blame anyone who does the same. I was willing to deal with it back then, and here and now I don’t think I’m going away either. But it would be nice if the next iteration of social media finally had baked into its interface the idea that not everyone is nice to everyone else, and not everyone means well to everyone else. Just like in real life.

The Big Idea: Michael J. Martinez

In today’s Big Idea, Michael J. Martinez reminisces back on his college days, and how an offhand comment back then informs MJ-12: Endgame, the finale of his supernatural spy series.

MICHAEL J. MARTINEZ:

I went to a university with a heavy fraternity/sorority presence; the Greek houses were a major hub of campus social life. During my freshman year, a couple of upperclassmen asked me to consider joining their houses. Heady stuff for a newbie from the sticks, right?

Of course, once I delved into the whole process, the hazing thing reared its ugly head. Now, the frat brothers I knew swore up and down it wasn’t hazing per se, but rather simply testing a pledge’s resolve and fitness to join the fraternity.

Even at 18, I wasn’t that stupid. “Look, you’re telling me you want me to join the club,” I remember saying to one of them. “If you want me, why should I then have to go through hell to get in?”

His answer: “Because we’re better than you, until you prove otherwise. I want to give you that chance.”

We’re better than you.

What a terrible sentence, those four little words. Arguably, that single sentiment has caused humanity more pain than any other. It is, I would argue, a fundamental part of human nature and the most dangerous flaw humans have.

How many wars started with that sentiment at the very core? We deserve your territory more than you. Our gods are better than yours. Our color people are superior to your color people. Our economic or political systems are better than yours. We are more, you are less. Submit or we’ll destroy you.

How many interpersonal relationships burn out because of this? At work, at school, at home, you can hear it echo in every little office conflict, every academic rivalry, every little resentment in a relationship. It’s insidious.

And by what measure do you make the claim? Some of it is objectively measurable, sure – wealth, experience, success in careers or relationships. But the problem with that, of course, is that after you measure that, what do you measure it against? What’s wealth to someone who simply doesn’t want it? Is the Wall Street executive better than the artist because of the relative size of their bank accounts? Every religion of the world says it’s the one true way, but nobody’s come down from on high to provide arbitration.

(And wouldn’t it be a cosmic joke if that did happen, and the answer was, like, “It was Marduk all along. You guys have been off for three millennia.” Oops.)

“Better” is a highly subjective measure, and that’s why people fight over it, because everyone is convinced it’s actually objective.

But what if it were, if not exactly measurable, but at least obvious?

What if you had someone who really could say I’m better than you and had something that nobody else had – an ability beyond human measure, one that was demonstrably superior to everyone else?

Ultimately, that entire debate is at the crux of MJ-12: Endgame and, really, the entire MAJESTIC-12 series. On the surface, it’s a cool spies-with-superpowers thriller set during the early days of the Cold War, with teams of Enhanced agents from the Soviet Union and America’s MAJESTIC-12 program facing off against each other around the world.

And yet, the Cold War was also, at its core, all about we’re better than you. And what happens when your superpowered covert agents take a look around at the masses of humanity and start thinking the same thing?

The comic books I grew up with never did a great job with showing that sentiment in their heroes. Superman is actually a pretty great guy. He could rule the world with an iron fist inside of a week, but he doesn’t. He’s nice! He’s arguably the most noble character in pop culture simply because he quashes that innate drive for superiority and control, knowing full well he could act with impunity.

How would you react if you were granted a superpower, though? Would you be altruistic? Would you kick back and let that ability make bank for you so you could be super comfortable? Or would you try to “make things right” because, at the end of the day, you’re better?

That question is at the heart of MJ-12: Endgame, which closes out my MAJESTIC-12 super-powered Cold War series. Even if what you can do is superhuman, does it make you a better person? Are the other people fighting for their beliefs lesser people simple because they don’t share your beliefs? If you have the ability to impose your will on others, should you?

Today, we see so much of this in our daily civil discourse. Some of it is truly horrifying. We’re better than you is the worst impulse of human nature, and the most common, and it’s being fed every single day with more and more fuel.

We’re better than you leads to conflict, war, catastrophe. In MJ-12: Endgame, it brings the world to the very brink. The book is, of course, primarily a fun spy thriller with all sorts of twists and turns and cool powers and stuff. But I hope it also gets people thinking about that sentiment, those four little words full of poison. I hope it gets them to think twice, because no matter who we are and what we do, we are not better than anyone else. Different, sure. But not better.

And for the record, I never joined a frat.

—-

MJ-12: Endgame: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Whatever Digest, 9/5/18

Good morning! Let’s see what we’ve got today.

That Nike Ad: In which Colin Kaepernick’s face gazes out whilst the phrase “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” floats right around his nose. It’s been eliciting polarized responses, as it was almost certainly absolutely intended to do, and in the meantime is doing very well for both Nike and Kaepernick in terms of mindshare.

I was asked if I have any thoughts on the whole thing. My thoughts:

1. I’ve been generally for NFL players using the mandatory patriotic period before the game to protest, so it’s not like I was ever angry with Kaepernick et al for doing so, so the fuming, spitting rage a whole bunch of (white) folks feel at the man’s visage has completely missed me. Likewise it’s fairly obvious that his exile from the NFL has been about (from the owners point of view) warning uppity players to keep their heads down — great job there, guys — so the sentiment of the ad is likewise not all that controversial to me.

2. That Kaepernick is controversial at all — well. There’s a very high correlation between Kaepernick hatred and racism, whether that racism is overt or latent. So if you or someone you know is in a fuming outrage about the ad or Nike at the moment, some internal examination is probably in order.

3. As others have noted, it’s nearly impossible that an organization as media-savvy as Nike was not aware that angry, racist-in-some-manner-or-degree (white) folks would lose their shit over the ad; they factored it in, did the media research, and came to the conclusion that a) angry racist white people were not their general sales demographic, and/or b) that they could afford to lose the angry racist white person market for long-term gains to be made in a generally younger, multicultural, non(or at least less overall)-racist market down the road, and/or c) Nike’s market these days is global in any event. And you know what? They’re probably right about that.

4. Likewise, Nike was probably not so foolish as to not figure there would be a call for a “boycott,” and in fact I would go so far as to say that Nike probably counted on it — there is little better advertisement for Nike in its desired mostly young, mostly urban, mostly multicultural audience than a bunch of angry racist (white) people destroying Nike merchandise they already paid for and own. Also, Nike owns more of the sports apparel world than just Nike. I saw a comment from someone smugly saying they would never wear Nike again and have switched to Converse, and then someone pointing out who Converse is owned by.

5. Oh, and, the right-wing gloating about Nike’s market share taking a dip because of the ad? Well, here’s Nike’s 12-month stock chart:

That eentsey downturn at the right? From the ad. Meanwhile, 12 months ago Nike’s stock was 26 dollars less a share. If I were an investor in Nike, I wouldn’t be all that worried.

6. With all of that said, can Nike be reasonably accused of over-egging the pudding with the “sacrificing everything” bit? Kaepernick is still well-off, still a notable figure, still a free man with an endorsement contract with Nike and so on. He didn’t sacrifice everything like, say, Muhammad Ali sacrificed everything by protesting the draft, in which Ali was stripped of his titles, denied a license to box, had his passport withheld and was convicted of dodging the draft, a conviction that would take the Supreme Court to overturn.

“Or the troops! They gave everything! Don’t forget the troops! The troops!

Sure, okay, fine, the troops, although honestly the deployment of the troops as a silencing mechanism by conservatives is a rhetorical trope we need to examine thoroughly at some point, although that time is not now. But the question still stands: Did Kaepernick, in fact, “sacrifice everything” by standing for something?

Well, I don’t know. If you had a job, and you decided to risk it by standing for something your bosses found inconvenient, and indeed you were sacked and (very probably) blackballed from working in that particular field ever again, would you say you had sacrificed everything? Would others say it? Would it matter if you tailored your protest (as Kaepernick did) to be respectful, only to have it decided after the fact that it wasn’t respectful at all? Would it matter if you were vilified and hated by an entire segment of the population, up to and including the President of the United States?

I think it’s obvious that Nike went for a dramatic formulation in its ad copy because, surprise, it’s ad copy. And you can grouse about whether the ad copy should be taken literally if you want. But Kaepernick sticking to his guns to the point of being made an object lesson by NFL owners to other players is significant enough that I’m not going to sweat a smidge of ad copy hyperbole.

7. That said, I think the formulation of the ad at the top of the post is even more accurate. Remember Bing-Bong, y’all.

***

Krissy sent me an email this morning with the header “kingdom of the spiders” and warned me to be careful stepping onto the back deck today, so naturally I had to go out and see. And indeed, there are lots of spider webs out back today, including one especially ambitious one that spans the steps from the deck to the concrete path to the garage. The culprits are a bunch of orb weavers that have sprung up in the last couple of weeks. We’ve had a rainy summer, so we have lots of bugs, and that’s good news for the local spider population, which has boomed to match.

I’m not in the least squicked out by spiders, and I appreciate the job they go killing the crap out of the insects that do bother me, so by and large I’m perfectly content to let the orb weavers do their thing around the house, as long as they do it outside. With that said, I think the ambitious one, the one at face level to anyone trying to walk up to our deck using the steps, will probably have to go. Sorry, Ms. Orb Weaver. Location is everything.

And no, no pictures for this particular spider web. The dew has evaporated and it’s hard to photograph. Also I know some of you are spider-sensitive. But if spiders and spiderwebs are your thing, I have a lovely photo album of some from last year, here.

***

Oh hey, look, a new Steve Perry song!

As a very very long-time Journey and Steve Perry fan, the fact that Perry is coming back into the spotlight after almost a quarter-century away pleases me immensely, and what I’ve heard of the upcoming album Traces has been pretty good. Perry’s voice is a bit more crackly than it was in his heyday, but it would be, wouldn’t it; anyone who expecting a nearly 70-year-old man to have the same litheness of voice as he had in his youth is, shall we say, burdened with expectation. But what is there is Perry’s particular sense of musical phrasing and pacing, which is right where it’s always been. Lots of people have tried to sound like Steve Perry, but very few actually get it right, and Perry’s own sense of musicality is why. It’s singular.

This particular song, I will note, is co-written by my pal Dan Wilson, the former frontman for Semisonic and the fellow who co-wrote the Adele’s absolute monster hit “Someone Like You,” which helped her (and him!) pick up All The Grammys a few years back. When the song list for Traces came out and I saw his credit, I immediately DM’d him “YOU WORKED WITH STEVE PERRY AND YOU DIDN’T TELL ME,” which he found pretty funny. Yeah. Funny. But I’m delighted that they got to work together, and that the song they worked together on is a keeper. I’m looking forward to the rest of this album, and having Steve Perry back in the world of music.

The Big Idea: Greg Van Eekhout

Yeah, okay, Greg Van Eekhout’s Big Idea piece for Voyage of the Dogs got me genuinely choked up. Read it and you’ll figure out why.

GREG VAN EEKHOUT:

Spoiler: I don’t kill off any of the dogs in this book.  Why not? Because I’m not a monster, that’s why not.

Voyage of the Dogs is a middle-grade novel, meaning it’s marketed to readers aged seven to twelve. It’s about four dogs on a starship. When they wake up from cryosleep, they discover that the ship is badly damaged and the human crew has taken the escape pod and left them behind. The barkonauts struggle with dwindling supplies, cascading disasters, pack dynamics, and the feelings any uplifted, abandoned dog would grapple with. There’s adventure, there’s humor, there’s emotion. There’s also butt sniffing, because dogs.

So, that’s basically the pitch I’ll be using with most audiences, and if you stop reading here you’ll have a good idea what this book is about. But this is Scalzi’s blog, and I know you are a special and sophisticated audience, and I want to go a little deeper and tell you why I wrote this particular book at this particular time. I want to tell you why, after six previous novels, this was the only book I could write.

Life can be really hard sometimes. A few years ago, I went through one of those really hard times. My elderly parents’ health had been wobbly for a while, but it became clear that the wheels were really coming off the cart. If you’ve been through this rite of passage, you know what can be involved: ER visits. Fighting with doctors and insurance companies. Finding caregivers. Finding money to pay for said caregivers. Maintaining your own life while maintaining the lives of other adults. It’s a sad, stressful, laborious bunch of stuff. But I was lucky that I wasn’t alone in this. I had my wife. I had friends. And I had my dog.

Dozer is some kind of small terrier mix. He looks much like Lopside, the dog on the cover of the book. (That’s not an accident.) He eats poop and a few months ago he swallowed an entire dead ground squirrel. He’s obnoxious, scrappy, yearning, earnest, gross, and perfect. He is a very good boy. Petting him lowers my blood pressure. It calms my heart. It loosens my knots and releases the vice squeezing my brain. In fact, Dozer was so helpful during this time that we decided to get another dog, Amelia. Amelia is a mix of corgi, rat terrier, and whatever the heck. She’s yappy. She pees when she gets excited. She growls at me when I dance. She is kind of awful. And she is perfect. A couple of weeks before my mom died I took the dogs to her care facility and put Amelia in bed with her for a cuddle. At this point my mom was usually too weak to talk, but she managed the last words I ever heard her utter. “Sweet. Soft.”

On the day my mom finally passed away, the hospice coordinator asked if I needed anything. I told her I needed a dog, so she brought over the care facility’s house dog, a hairy little thing named Winston. Winston eats entire cups of sour cream, plastic and all. He likes to go into residents’ rooms and knock over their trash bins. I have a picture of me carrying Winston around less than an hour after I lost my mom, and there’s a genuinely happy smile on my face. Winston was my wingman that day.

So, skip ahead a few months. Both my parents are gone. During this whole period of care giving, I’d been working, writing, traveling to book events, fulfilling contractual obligations, but now I was out of contract, no books in the publishing pipeline, no books in any state of completion, and also without an agent because I’d parted ways with mine during all this stuff. I had to work.

I looked at my list of ideas, and I considered the headspace I’d have to occupy for months or more to turn one of those ideas into a completed book. They were all cool, chewy, fun ideas, but all of them dark. And I could not bear occupying a dark space. So, what then, could I bear to write? Something fun but not frivolous. Something hopeful but not packed with sweet lies. Something that could break a reader’s heart but also promised to mend it.

The answer was obvious. I could only write a book fueled by the strength and comfort given to me by Dozer and Amelia and Winston and all the dogs in my neighborhood and all the dogs on the Internet.

We often ask if people deserve dogs? The barkonauts in Voyage of the Dogs ask themselves the same question. I don’t have the answer. But I know I need dogs, and I needed to write this book. I could not have written a different one. I’m grateful for the chance to share it with you.

—-

Voyage of the Dogs: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Four: Books

Well, this one is simple. In 1998, I had no published books. In 2018 I have —

(counts fingers)

(counts toes)

(counts fingtoes)

thirty, depending on whether you count individually published novellas (I do), and that number will rise by the end of the year. This number doesn’t count books I didn’t write entirely but to which I have contributed, including short story anthologies, Uncle John’s Bathroom Readers and various textbooks which have published essays or stories of mine. If you include them, the number goes up past fifty. It also doesn’t count foreign editions of the novels. If those were counted as individual publications, I’d be well past a hundred by now, since Old Man’s War itself is in 25 or 26 languages, and most of the novels are in at least five to ten languages by this point. It’s a lot.

But in 1998, nothing. I had written my first novel, Agent to the Stars, the year before, but at the time all it was doing was sitting in a binder on my desk; I wouldn’t even put in on my Web site until 1999. I had an agent for non-fiction and he was pitching a few books out there in the world for me — a pop philosophy book, a book on astronomy, and a book of columns — but we weren’t getting serious nibbles, and it wouldn’t be until the next year when my agent would volunteer me to write a book on online finance (on the grounds that, as I was writing AOL finance newsletters at the time, I already knew this stuff, which, sure, why not). I wanted to write books; I wanted to have books published. But twenty years ago, what I had on the book front was bupkis.

I don’t recall being too anxious about this at the time, although I could be misremembering (it was twenty years ago). But if memory serves, I was less worried about writing books than I was by the fact that I was no longer writing opinion/humor columns, which was a thing that I’d been doing for a decade, and which I still thought would be the main thrust of my writing life. It’s why I started the Whatever, in point of fact; I wanted to keep sharp in the format.

I did want to write books, and be a published author, to be clear. But my philosophy of books at the time was that they would be a writing side dish rather than the whole meal. I would publish books — and at the time I was really focused on non-fiction books, as that’s where my experience and, I thought, my talents, were — and they would bolster my reputation as a freelance writer and a columnist. Writing books was part of an overall writing strategy, in other words. Not the focus.

Also, with regard to the author anxiety front, I was arrogant. It never occured to me that I wouldn’t eventually sell a book. I knew I could write; I knew my agent at the time had sold books before. It was just a matter of time. Looking back, it’s easy to pat the head of my former self and go “Oooooh, twenty-something Scalzi, you were adorable” with regard to this blithe and heedless confidence. But on the other hand, I wasn’t wrong. In 1999, my agent called me up and said, more or less, “Hey, I told Rough Guides that you could totally write a book on online finance. You can, right?” And I said “Sure.” And there it was.

Here’s how I wrote about getting that first book deal, in 1999:

As you might imagine, I’m very excited. Why? Well, most obviously: Hey, I get to write a book. A real book, which will be sold in real bookstores. For a writer, there is no validation like being able to walk into a bookstore and see your name on the cover of a book. Yes, newspapers, magazines and Websites are great too — I’ve been published in all of them, and believe me, I’ve never doubted that I was a writer. Be that as it may. When you write, books are where it’s at. Also, sometime next year, I’ll be able to sign on to Amazon and obsess about where my book is on the Amazon rankings. Will I be in the top 1000? Or languishing somewhere like number 29,453? So many new vistas for neuroticism. I can’t wait.

(Incidentally, the current Amazon ranking for that now-outdated and long out-of-print book? 5,682,830. As it should be. Seriously, don’t buy it, it’s ridiculously useless today.)

That first book, I will note, was a massive commercial failure. It came out in November of 2000, after the first Internet bubble collapsed and no one wanted anything to do with finances online, and my book tour, which was meant to include TV appearances, was swamped out by election news. I was scheduled for four stops on the tour; after two they told me to go home.

But! It was still a book! That I had written! And was published! I was still an author now, and no one could take that away from me. On the day it came out I went into the local bookstore and took pictures of it on the shelf. Also, the Rough Guides people seemed to grasp that the collapse of the Internet Bubble and the 2000 election were not my fault, and that I wrote to specification and to deadline, and signed me up for two more books, one on astronomy and one on science fiction film. Beyond that my work with the Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader books convinced them to let me write two books for them as the sole author. So before I had a novel published, I was already the author of multiple books that were either out or in the pipeline.

Which made me happy, and also worked out pretty much as I had figured they would. They didn’t make me rich and they weren’t my primary focus as a writer, but they were largely fun for me to write, put a bit of money into my pocket and were a benefit on my resume — turns out financial services companies liked using a freelancer who had written a book on finance, for example. It assured them that I could handle the verbiage on their brochures for their mid-cap value funds. Everything was going to plan.

Then came the novels, which upended the plan a bit.

Here’s the thing about the novels: I honestly, truly never expected to make any real sort of money with them. Agent to the Stars was a “practice novel” which I never meant to sell, so I put it up here on the site in 1999 and told people to send me a dollar if they liked it. And while I did write Old Man’s War with the intent for it to be a novel I could sell, when it was done, the thought of trying to sell it exhausted me, since my agent was for non-fiction and I would have to either submit it into a slush pile or get a fiction agent, and uuuuuuuugh whyyyyy, so I did neither and just put it up here on the site as well. In both cases there was no plan to do anything else with the novels; I just assumed they would live here. And if I wrote any other novels after that, they would probably go on the site too. I mean, I was already an author, and I was already publishing books. My ego was satisfied in that respect. And I was lazy.

But then I got an offer anyway, from Tor, for Old Man’s War, when Patrick Nielsen Hayden wrote me and said (more or less) “I read your book online! Can I buy it?” and I said “Sure,” and then he asked if I had another book besides Agent to sell to him, and I didn’t, but I said yes anyway and then suddenly I had a two book deal. Then I got an agent by writing to Ethan Ellenberg and saying “Hey, I have a two book deal with Tor Books, wanna be my agent?” And he “sure.” And then Bill Schafer from Subterranean Press came around and said “Hey, can I buy Agent to the Stars?” and I said “Sure.” And suddenly I had sold every novel I ever wrote and had a third one in the pipe besides.

I distinctly remember, when I sold Old Man’s War, saying to Krissy, “Well, novels will be a nice little thing on the side.” Which was a reasonable thing to say, considering my previous experience in non-fiction, and because my advance on Old Man’s War was $6,500 and by that time I was already making more than $100,000 a year doing freelance and non-fiction writing. I was well versed in what the average advances for science fiction novels were (about $12k, then and now), and that most novels didn’t earn out their advances. I liked writing novels! And if someone was going to pay me to do that, that was even better. But it would have been foolish to expect to make any real money from them, or to prioritize them over other, more remunerative income sources.

It took me until 2010, when my advances had been substantially boosted, my royalties were a non-trivial stream of income and I was selling into international markets, that I finally recognized that it made sense to focus most of my writing efforts into novels. And it took until 2015, when I got That Deal, that I truly accepted that what I was actually doing, and what I would probably mostly be doing for the rest of my working life, was writing novels, with everything else as an add-on.

It’s a little weird to think about, even now, nearly two decades after my first book was published and more than a dozen after my first novel hit the shelves. I know, without doubt, that I got lucky. I’m good at what I do, and my personality and social skills are nicely tuned to be an author in the public eye. But the same could be said of a lot of other people. As much as I have an ego, I’m not so exceptional at what I do that others couldn’t and wouldn’t be where I am, save for my own good fortune and timing. I keep that in mind. I’m where I am largely by happy chance, and where I am was unexpected, and not in keeping with my own plan, where books were meant to be on the side.

And what if everything had gone to plan these last twenty years, and the books were still on the side? I like to think I would still be happy. Because: Books! Would I have as many of them or would they have done as well? Possibly not, but I don’t know that it would matter. When my first book was published and later my first novel was in the stores, here’s what I thought both times: no matter what, I have done this. I had written a book and a novel. I had become an author. In itself, it was enough. I want to believe it would still be enough in itself, no matter what else I was doing. I think it would be.

The Whatever Digest, 9/4/18

Good morning! Let’s get to this thing.

***

Steve Bannon and the New Yorker Well, this was predictable enough, to anyone who wasn’t David Remnick: The New Yorker announced that Bannon would be the headliner of its upcoming “festival,” in conversation with Remnick, who is the magazine’s editor-in-chief. That didn’t sit particularly well with much of the New Yorker’s staff, or, more importantly in this case, many other participants of the festival, who all started dropping out rather than share the program with Bannon. Between those drop outs, staff disapproval and a wholly predictable backlash on Twitter, Remnick bowed to the inevitable and dropped Bannon from the program with a somewhat defensive statement. Bannon, of course, was gleeful about this, calling Remnick “gutless,” which is what Remnick deserves for inviting that fascist piece of shit to his festival of ideas in the first place.

As a former journalist, I can understand Remnick’s thinking on this one: He’d been angling to interview Bannon for a while, and the idea of getting that festering lump of white “supremacy” on a public stage where he couldn’t equivocate or finesse his way out of his shitty racist ideas seemed like a good one. The problem was that Remnick was thinking with his journalist brain and not his event coordinator brain. The event coordinator brain should have realized that inviting Bannon to a New Yorker-branded “festival of ideas,” complete with travel expenses and honorarium, was in effect paying Bannon to take on the New Yorker imprimatur for his ideas. It’s not reportage; it’s the New Yorker saying “these ideas are important enough that we paid to get them on our stage.” And note well that Bannon was meant to be the headliner.

Which is of course the New Yorker’s, and Remnick’s, privilege — it’s perfectly within its rights to book a fascist piece of shit to its festival and hope people pay to see Remnick chat that fascist piece of shit up on a stage. But Remnick’s event coordinator brain should have probably realized there was going to be a backlash to that. It’s not just the New Yorker’s brand associating with shitty fascism up there on that stage; it’s the personal brand of everyone else on the program as well. Strangely enough, a fair number of other people didn’t want their brands smeared with shitty fascism, and they were perfectly within their rights not to participate for that reason. Remnick’s problem then, as an event coordinator, was realizing that soon his “festival of ideas” would be nothing but shitty fascism unless he dropped Bannon. Oh, and that his staff hated it. Oh, and that social media hated it too.

Remnick never saw the backlash coming, I suspect (and I fully admit that this is me being charitable to Remnick), because he never got out of his journalist brain. He saw someone he wanted to interview, saw the dynamic of the live stage as one where he was likely to get more truth out of Bannon than otherwise, and didn’t think of anything else about the situation until it was too late. And again as a former journalist, I can sympathize. Bannon’s a reasonable “get” for a story. But this wasn’t just an interview, or just journalism. It was a whole circus. Or a festival, which is close enough in this case.

***

Bringing things around to me, my commentary above brings up the question of whether I, had I been invited to the New Yorker Festival, would drop when Bannon was added to the program. I suspect yes, because I think he’s a fucking horrible person peddling fucking horrible ideas and I’d prefer not to be in the same state with him, much less in the same building, and also because I have the luxury of not needing a particular “festival of ideas” for publicity. I don’t need to tolerate the presence of an actual fascist white supremacist to sell books. I can nope right out of that. Bannon’s on my “don’t share the same air” list, along with Stephen Miller, Seb Gorka and indeed a fair share of the current administration, including of course Trump himself.

There are gradations to this philosophy. If, say, Ann Coulter was at the same book festival as I was, I wouldn’t share a stage or panel with her but I probably wouldn’t nope out of the festival entirely. I could probably be on a panel with Jonah Goldberg, although what panel that might be I have no idea. I’ve shared panels with people who were “sad puppy”-aligned in the past and probably would again, although I’d probably avoid any panels specifically about politics with them. There are people whose politics are emphatically not mine who I will gladly share a stage with on nearly any topic because they’re fun and interesting and give good panel. And so on.

(Other possible factors as examples of what else might go into the equation: Size of the festival — if someone I find objectionable is one of literally hundreds of guests, I can probably choose to avoid that one person without fuss — and also whether that person is a rank-and-file guest or a headliner/spotlight guest.)

On the flip side, I suspect my presence somewhere might earn a hard “nope” for some other people, which is of course fine as well. No one should be required to tolerate me, either. Science fiction conventions very often have a line in their programming surveys asking potential panelists who they don’t want to be on a panel with, and I think this is a very wise thing. Aside from politics, there are some people I don’t want to be on panels with because I dislike them, or I find them to be panel hogs, or because they can’t stop trying to make everything about their own work, or any other number of reasons. And again, vice versa; I’m sure there are people who don’t want to be on a panel with me for whatever reason. Good for them.

Does having a “don’t share the same air” list give me or anyone else a veto on an event’s other guests? I don’t think so. I’m not telling an event who they may invite, I’m simply saying who I choose not to associate with. I’m perfectly willing to remove myself rather than demand the event remove someone else. That seems the way to do things. And yes, certainly, if the presence of someone at an event causes too many other guest/performers to drop, then the event coordinators will have to do the calculus of whether that one person is worth keeping. But that’s a separate question from one’s own choice of whether to associate one’s person (or “brand”) with someone objectionable.

***

Speaking of choosing to associate or not, it appears that a proposed boycott of In-N-Out Burger (my favorite burger chain) has been called off, for reasons. People had proposed boycotting the chain because it recently donated $25,000 to the Californian Republican Party, and some folks had pinged me asking if I would support such a boycott due to the donation.

I was personally disinclined to support the boycott. One, I’ve known for a very long time that In-N-Out was owned by an evangelical family; I mean, come on, there are bible passages printed on their cups. That such a family or company might donate to the GOP is not exactly a surprise. Two, In-N-Out has also donated to the Democratic party in the past as well, so there’s that. Three, In-N-Out has always been good to its workers, paying substantially above the federal minimum wage and offering decent benefits. This is not a horrible company. Four, the California GOP is fairly hapless. I just couldn’t get worked up about it.

So, yes, I’ll be having a Double-Double the next time I’m in California. They are delicious.

***

And now, close out this first digest column of the month: Smudge.

Kitten in a Trashcan + Announcing Daily Digest

First, the kitten in the trashcan, because you always lead with the “A” material:

Why is the kitten in the trashcan? IT KNOWS WHY.

(And also, because kittens are kitten-y, and Smudge is more kitten-y than most, and jumping heedlessly into trashcans is just a thing kittens do.)

Second, for the non-holiday weekdays of September, I’m going to trying something that’s actually old here at Whatever. When I started the site, I would write a single daily “digest”-style column, covering (more or less) three to five topics and dedicating (more or less) two or three paragraphs to each, separated by asterisk breaks. It was a convenient way to organize things because I could cover a number of topics, but devote only the amount of space to them I thought was interesting and relevant.

I’m going to give this format another try through this month, for a couple of reasons. One, because at the 20th anniversary of Whatever, I think it’ll be fun to go a little retro for September, and two, because I think a digest-like column might actually fit my mind space these days more than discrete, longer pieces. Because of paid work and other factors, there are some subjects (like politics, but not only politics) that I’ve been avoiding here recently, and this format could give me an easier entree into them than needing to compose a longer piece on the topics.

These pieces will go alongside the Whatever 20/20 pieces and the several Big Idea pieces that will be up this month, so if all goes to plan there should be a fair amount of writing here in the month. And after September — well, let’s see how things go. If the digest format works for me, I’ll continue with it, alongside other things.

The point is, for me, I like writing here, and want to find ways to keep it interesting for me, and for you, while still keeping up all the other writing commitments that I have these days. Let’s see how this idea does for us all, shall we?

1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Three: Home

In the last twenty years I’ve called two places “home”: The first house I ever owned, and (I suspect) the last house I’ll ever own.

The first house I ever owned — and by “I” it should be understood that I am a part of a “we” as Krissy and I were both on the mortgage — was in Sterling, Virginia. It was a two-story with a full basement in the middle of a suburban cul-de-sac, with a mere patch of a yard that in the back opened up onto common land that was otherwise inaccessible to anyone else, so it was like getting three times the back yard for free. Sterling at the time was undergoing an upswing in terms of new businesses and restaurants coming into the area, and was close by a number of other well-heeled Northern Virginia towns, and a large number of friends (most gathered because they had worked at America Online, as I had, which was then headquartered a couple of miles from my house) were around and available for hanging out, and group dinners, and all other manner of fun and shenanigans. For me, it was perfect, and a place I could see living at for many years, and making a real home there.

So naturally we moved in 2001.

We moved because Athena was born in 1998 and Krissy wanted her to know her family, who by this time had all moved to Ohio, the ancestral home of Krissy’s father, and in fact where Krissy had been born and lived her first few years before moving to California, which is where I had met her. I was not keen on living in Ohio and tried to be clever by saying I wanted a substantial chunk of land, which I figured we could not afford; Krissy found a big house on a lot of land in a price range we could easily manage, in a rural town called Bradford, which had just 1,800 people in it. We moved in February of 2001, when snow was still on the ground, and kept the house in Virginia just in case we decided we hated living in rural Ohio and need to escape back to suburban DC. A few years later we sold the Virginia house. We knew we weren’t going back.

I noted several times before on this site that living where we do isn’t an intuitive fit for me, like living in Northern Virginia was. Prior to 2001, I grew up and lived in urban or suburban areas, all of which were reasonably multicultural, diverse, and passably liberal, all of which suited me. Bradford and Darke County, of which it is a part, is rural, overwhelmingly white (like, 98.5%) and is part of a congressional district that’s been conservative Republican since the 1930s. I’m fond of saying a traffic jam in Bradford is three cars behind an Amish buggy, which is definitely not my experience having dealt with traffic in LA, Chicago or in the DC area, three other places I’ve lived. And we have to travel an hour for Thai or Indian food, which frankly is appalling.

It’s not intuitive but it’s turned out well, despite my personal “fish out of water” status, for a number of reasons. One, people here generally good neighbors, as we try to be; that counts of a lot on both sides of the equation. Two, the Internet meant that I was never isolated either from friends or from work — nor was it a substitute for human contact since by that time most of my friends I kept in contact with online, and nearly all of my work was done through email and conference calls. It was the way I already did things. Three, I travel a lot, which means both that I get to see friends and other interesting folks when I do, and that when I come home, I don’t actually want to see a whole lot of people, which rural Ohio is frankly perfect for.

It’s also the case that I’ve simply come to love my home. It’s the place where my daughter grew up; nearly all of our memories as a family are here. All of my novels from Old Man’s War forward have been written here, in my office. I can see the Milky Way when I look up at night. Krissy is the architect of the feel of our house and has over the course of seventeen years made it into the place that is uniquely us. We enjoy our place and our community. I’ve become very fond of the landscape; rural Ohio is not breathtaking in the way, say, the Rockies are, or the Pacific ocean can be, but driving down the road, the gently undulating hills of are like green waves, and as you rise and fall with them it feels like the earth is breathing. It’s mesmerizing and comforting and it makes me happy. Oh, and we have pretty good sunsets.

Athena is now off to college and one of the things Krissy and I had a talk about is whether we’ll want to move. Much of Krissy’s family — the reason we moved out here in the first place — has dispersed again, to California and other states, so effectively and ironically we’re the ones holding down the fort in Ohio. And we’re fortunate that if we wanted to we could afford to move to wherever we would like in the US. And as I travel the country I see a lot of places I think I could be happy being, if it came to that.

But I think we’re planning to stay. Part of this decision is just practical: It’s a big, nice house and it’s already paid off, and moving is a real pain in the ass in any event. But more to the point, this is our home. We’ve put work and time and love into it, and we like living here. We like to travel so we’ll do that, and visit places and people and do cultural things. But then we’ll come home, because it’s nice to be home, too. I could be wrong about this, but as it stands now, this is the last house we’ll own, and the last home we’ll have. That’s not a bad thing.

In short, home now is where home has been for most of these last twenty years is where I think home will be moving forward. All I really need from my current location is better Internet. But I suppose there has to be some penalty for making one’s home in rural America. As penalties go, it could be a lot worse.

1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Two: Money

Over the last twenty years I’ve had an interesting relationship with money. It’s been mostly positive, to be sure (spoiler: these last twenty years I’ve been generally financially secure), but I’ve had a lot of time to think about money and what it means to me and my life. So let’s go ahead and dig right into that.

First, a little relevant history, which is that I grew up mostly poor with high volatility within a certain range of income. There were stretches of middle-class comfort, largely related to when my mom was in a functional relationship, and longer stretches of actual grinding poverty when she was not. Every now and then we would be (briefly) homeless. I caught a number of breaks in there, most notably getting a scholarship to the Webb Schools, a private boarding high school, and then admission to the University of Chicago (with additional scholarships, grants and loans). These two places gave me stability in an unstable time and did what education was supposed to do, which was punt me into a middle-class, white collar existence. I’ve not been poor by any estimation since I left college.

Which is not to say that I didn’t have my moments of doubt. And in fact in September 1998, financial things, if not exactly precarious, were also not exactly stable, either. In March of 1998, I had been laid off from America Online, where I had been the in-house writer/editor, and rather than look for another tech job in the Washington DC area where I lived (or a journalism gig, which might have been a possibility at the time), I decided to do freelance work. AOL shed people like a dog sheds fur, and they would go to other tech companies, and then need copywriting work done. Very often, I would be the first writer on their list to contact because I was in fact the only writer they actually knew. I didn’t mind.

Freelance work can be profitable, particularly if you’re doing marketing and PR work for tech and financial services firms, which I was doing. But it’s not stable; you don’t know when the jobs (and therefore, the money) would come in, or where from. It’s difficult to budget and difficult to estimate how much money you might make in a month, or a year. I did well financially from freelance writing when I had work — but who knew when and if that work would go away?

Fortunately for me, and us, we had two solid advantages going for us in 1998: One, when I was laid off at AOL, the firm where my wife worked part-time was so worried about losing her that they put her on full time and gave her full benefits, giving us a middle-class income and safety net to work with. Two, in 1998, Northern Virginia real estate prices had not yet become absolutely ridiculous, and I had an uncle who would co-sign a mortgage. We bought a house that it was possible to finance month-to-month under Krissy’s sole income, along with most of the essential bills (i.e., electricity and water and groceries). We used my income for things like Internet and cable and other optional expenditures, and socked away the rest of it into savings and retirement accounts, as a hedge against when (not if, when) my freelance work dried up.

The whole “live within Krissy’s income” concept was one that has lasted us, at least in theory, through to the present day. Krissy has always had a full-time middle-class job with benefits, which has served as the bedrock of our financial planning. If we had to, we could still live within Krissy’s annual income, since her income could pay for the things we can’t live without (food, electricity, heating oil, gas for the cars, property taxes on the house, which is — hooray! — paid off). We would have to cut back on expenditures like travel and other optional spends, rather significantly, but it could be done. I should be very clear that we have always been fortunate that Krissy has been able to find and keep those middle-class jobs, which meant that my income, whatever it was in any given month or year, could be the engine of our long-term savings and our short-term, less-than-absolutely-necessary expenditures.

Krissy and I have also benefited over these last twenty years from the idea of “sufficiency” — the idea that a certain standard of living was enough. Both Krissy and I grew up without a whole lot of money, so the lifestyle that we have now, which tracks with “upper middle class,” is more than enough for us. We buy nice things, and then we keep them until they have to be replaced, which is why our current cars are a seven-year-old Mini and a fifteen-year-old Honda Odyssey (absolute honesty requires me to admit I buy more digital gadgets than I need to, but in my defense even then I’m drawn to value over flash, which would explain the relative lack of Apple products in the house). We shop at places like Kohl’s and Krogers. We live well for us, and we also live well within our means. Which again means that we can take much of the money I bring in and sock it away, for retirement and as a hedge against bad times.

But surely there are no bad times coming! You’re a millionaire now, Scalzi! You’ve made it! Sure, and we can all go down a list of people who have millions to their name and have lost it all. Some of those people are people who have stories not too dissimilar to mine: They’ve come out of poverty, and then gotten themselves some money. They then didn’t know how to manage that money or the temptations that come with it, and soon enough found themselves out of money. This is an endemic story for lottery winners, professional athletes, and other celebrities. Money is really easy to spend; that’s what it’s meant to do. It doesn’t matter how much of it you have; if you’re not careful you’ll lose it all. We’re careful with it, and we have to remind ourselves to be careful with it.

Because that’s the other thing which people don’t appreciate, but which I, because I was a freelancer, and because I lived through streaks of both middle-class living and poverty, am very aware of: Nothing really is stable when it comes to money. The money can be there one year and not another. The contracts can be there one year and not another. The book sales can be there one year and not another. I’m three books into a thirteen-book contract that (provided I publish on schedule) will regularly keep money flowing to me for a decade — but who knows what happens then? I’ll be in my mid-50s when that contract is over. There is still all the rest of my life after that. Think of the “big name” authors (or actors, or musicians, or whomever) from a decade ago who you have casually wondered what has become of them. And the answer is, oh, they’re still around. Hopefully they saved their pennies.

I should also be clear that I never expected the kind of money I have now, in part because I know intimately the realities of making a living as a writer and a freelancer in the United States, and I’m aware of just how much of my success as a writer, from the beginning, has been due to luck. In 1998 I expected that I would be working as a freelance writer for tech and financial firms, and occasionally magazines, newspapers and online sites. If I wrote books — if I ever wrote books — it would be as a sideline. I didn’t expect that writing novels would ever be my full time gig and that I would do as well financially as I have done with them. Old Man’s War, the first novel I ever sold, went for $6,500 in 2002, and I thought that was pretty nifty. It was well below what I was getting for non-fiction books (I got paid three times that for my online finance book in 2000), and knowing what I did about fiction writing, I didn’t expect to get much more than that, ever. I was wrong about that, but I wasn’t wrong for assuming that I would never get rich from writing novels. Most novelists don’t, even some of the bestselling ones. You couldn’t trust it.

And I suppose that’s the thing about money for me, over the last twenty years: I’ve been lucky in the getting of it, but ultimately I’ve never trusted it. I think of all the ways it could easily go away — and likely will — and it makes me more careful with the money I have been fortunate enough to get during that time. Some of that distrust comes from having been poor. Some of it comes from being a writer. And some of it, I think, just plain comes from knowing what money is and how we’ve tuned our world to make the acquisition of it — a thing that is ultimately a fictional construct of value — a paramount goal, to the more-than-occasional exclusion of sense and sanity. I know that money, to the extent it can be said to want anything, wants to leave me. Part of my job is getting it to leave on my terms, not on its own nor anyone else’s. This is a part of my job I didn’t know I was going to have.