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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day One: Cats

Over the course of 20 years, I’ve had seven cats, roughly grouped into three generations.

The first generation of cats was a single cat: Rex, who I acquired in 1991 from my sister Heather. Heather and her children came to live with me for about a year when she was getting a divorce from her then-husband and needed a place to live; Rex, a kitten, came along as part of that package. Rex was not stupid and apparently realized that I was the one paying for his kibble, and also, my room in the apartment was entirely toddler-free, so he glommed onto me. When Heather and her children departed, he stayed.

By 1998, when for the purposes of this exercise our story begins, Rex had gotten quite comfortable living with me and Krissy, and had also gotten rather chunky — something like 30 pounds. When he got a urinary tract infection our vet ordered him on a low-fat, low-ash diet with no more than half a cup of kibble a day. That lasted until Rex tried to kill me in the night by climbing up on my bed and suffocating me with his furry bulk as a protest for the diet cat food. I took the hint, fed him what he liked, and expected him to expire in a year or two. Possibly out of spite, he stuck around through 2005.

By that time, two members of the second generation of cats, Lopsided Cat and Ghlaghghee, had joined the menagerie at the Scalzi Compound in Ohio. Lopsided Cat we acquired when he walked into the yard while Krissy and three-year-old Athena were tending the garden; he walked over to Athena and when she knelt down to pet him he hopped on her back, and that was pretty much that. He had been someone else’s cat (he had been neutered) but I suppose either he had been abandoned or he had decided to trade up. Ghlaghghee (whose name was pronounced “fluffy”) came to us when a neighbor knocked on the door, said “here’s that kitten your wife wanted,” presented me with a small handful of fluff, and then walked away. In fact Krissy had not said she’d wanted a kitten, but inasmuch as I had taken receipt of the thing, it was too late for takebacks.

The second generation of cats got its final member when Zeus showed up at our garage door on the coldest night of 2008, mewling piteously for food and warmth. We’re suckers and we took him in. Zeus, Lopsided Cat and Ghlaghghee formed a fairly stable trio for the better part of the decade, with well-defined roles: Lopsided Cat was the Cat’s Cat, sort of the platonic ideal of a cat, who kept the house largely vermin free (we’re surrounded on three sides by agricultural fields, and without cats the field critters eventually head indoors). Ghlaghghee was a pretty princess who ruled the house with an iron paw. Zeus was the adolescent comedy relief. Ghlaghghee became world-famous when I taped bacon to her; she was written up in the New York Times and the Washington Post among other places. The other two cats did not seem to mind her fame.

Of the second generation of cats, Ghlaghghee was the first to leave us and did not meet any of the third and current generation, and Lopsided Cat passed away within the same week of us acquiring the first two members of that new generation, Sugar and Spice, sister kittens who we famously dubbed The Scamperbeasts. Zeus, now the sole surviving member of the second generation, rather grumpily took on the role of the elder cat, first schooling the Scamperbeasts and now lately acting like an exasperated grandfather to Smudge, the (we think!) final member of the third generation of Scalzi cats, a kitten who very like Zeus came to us out of a nearby field looking to be rescued, accurately figuring we were too soft-hearted not to take him in.

It means we currently have four cats at the Scalzi Compound, which to my mind is one more than we absolutely need. Three seems to me to be the ideal number. But then I look at Zeus, now the elder cat, and I realize that all-too-sooner than later that “problem” will take care of itself. Maybe in the meantime I should enjoy these furry folks while we have them.

Which is of course the problem with cats, and pets in general: They don’t last. If you’re lucky you get a decade and a half with them, give or take a couple of years. Then they pass along and you have a cat-shaped hole in your heart for a little while. New kittens and cats can help that heal, but you still miss the ones who are gone.

As it happens, Rex and Ghlaghghee and Lopsided Cat are still here with us, in their way. Rex’s cremated remains are in a lovely urn that a Whatever reader made for him, and the other two are buried beneath the oak tree in the back yard, which is appropriate inasmuch as the spent nearly their whole lives in sight of that tree. They’re home. I find that I miss these cats of mine as much as (and in some cases more than) humans I’ve known in my life. They’re all people. And these people lived with me and were part of my family.

Here in 2018, it’s interesting watching the four cats we have configure themselves into their own sort of family unit. Zeus is the cranky elder, Sugar is the standoffish queen, Spice has taken up the mantle of the great hunter, and Smudge… well, he’s still figuring out what he wants to be when he grows up, and in the meantime he runs about with fearless and some would suggest heedless kitten energy, running head first into the other cats whether they want that or not. It’s fun to watch them tolerate him, until they don’t. He doesn’t seem to mind.

The configurations of the cats at the Scalzi Compound over the years, and the dynamic of the generations, have helped to give shape to their time with us, and ours with them. Over the course of these 20 years, we’ve never not had cats, but the cats are not interchangeable. They’re all their own people and have their own personalities. I would never confuse Rex with Zeus, or Ghlaghghee for Spice. I miss the ones that are gone, and am glad for the ones that are here now. Even when one of them is, as Smudge is literally doing right now, attempting to dismantle the chair I’m sitting in with his teeth. It’s not going to work. But it’s fun to watch him try.


Announcing 1998/2018: Whatever 20/20

As most of you probably know by now, September 2018 will mark the 20th anniversary of Whatever, the blog you are reading right at this very moment. Twenty years is a very long time to be writing anything; it’s a long time to be doing anything at all, to be honest. I wanted to commemorate the milestone more than just waiting for the day (the 13th, actually) and noting it then. Something a little more concrete, that marks the passage of two entire decades of time.

What I decided on is this: Whatever 20/20. Every day of September 2018, I will pick a topic and then discuss it through the prism of two decades of time, from 1998 through to today. Some of these topics will be intensely personal, and about me and my life, and some will be more general, looking at how the world has changed over the course of these two decades. Some topics will be frivolous and silly, others more serious. As with everything on this site, the topics will be, well, whatever I feel like writing about. This is how the site works! This is, in point of fact, how it’s always worked.

This retrospective in many ways is just for me: It’s about me looking back on these last twenty years and the changes that have happened, and my thoughts on the passage of that time. It’s me observing myself observing the rest of the world. It’s going to be, and maybe has to be, a bit self-centered. Nevertheless I hope that as we go through the days of September together, you’ll find things in the writing that resonate with you as well, and that from time to time you will be inspired (or irritated enough, depending) to add your thoughts in the comments. We all went through the same twenty years, after all, providing you are older than twenty years old. Let’s talk about them, if you like.

(This retrospective is aided by the fact that for the large majority of September, I will be at home and not traveling, so I will have time to actually write 30 entries with accompanying art. And yes, “travel” will definitely be one of the topics I write about this month. It’s a thing.)

(Also: On September 13th, the actual 20th anniversary of Whatever, I will have a special announcement. Be looking for that.)

So that’s the plan for September. I hope you’ll read along.

My Home Internet is Down and My Cell Phone Hotspot Connection is Totally Crawling so No Whatever Digest Today

I’ll be posting a Big Idea and a Whatever 20/20 piece in a bit, although I may have to go down to the public library and use their connection to do it. Like a prole.

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?

The Aftermess

Some not-terribly well-organized thoughts on the Shutdown and its immediate aftermath, in no particular order:

1. If there was one quote that for me crystallized the whole idiocy of the shutdown debacle, the sheer inchoate, juvenile foot-stompery of it, it was this one, from Indiana Representative Marlin Stutzman:

“We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

Stutzman later tried to qualify his all too-honest statement, for which he was deservingly pilloried, but the original works well enough. Once it became clear that the ACA wasn’t going to go away, the House GOP was looking for something, anything, that they thought Obama might agree to so they could declare victory to the people who would be willing to see something, anything that they got from Obama as a win. What it was didn’t matter, as long as they got something.

And, I don’t know. Maybe that was the plan all along — say they were aiming for Obamacare, which they knew they weren’t going to get, and actually settle for a whole raft of other legislative goodies they wanted but couldn’t get any other way, like pipelines and drilling and killing net neutrality. Basically, whatever they could get away with. I don’t think it was this because I don’t credit the legislators who pulled this stunt with a surfeit of genuine political savvy, and in any event rank and file schmoes like Stutzman certainly weren’t clued into any deeper political machinations. But maybe it was. Maybe.

Obama gave them jack. They got nothing, or something as close to nothing (income verification for ACA recipients, which Rachel Maddow noted was a thing already in the law) as to make no difference. And all it cost was an estimated $24 billion divot out of the economy, the shutdown of the government and hundreds of thousands out of work, a whole bunch of points in every poll taken during the shutdown, and one of the great legislative faceplants in modern political history.

A relevant question for Stutzman and every other House GOP legislator who thought shutting down the government and taking the country to the brink of default to try to blackmail the president and Senate into giving them things they couldn’t otherwise get was a useful idea: Dude, what makes you think you deserve respect in the first place? Grinding the government to a halt as a form of legislative extortion is, in the most polite word I can think of which applies here, shameful. To do it with no clear idea of the purpose of your actions makes you a tool. Stutzman, et al got what they deserved out of the shutdown: Nothing, including respect. 

Mind you, Stutzman is back in his district saying he doesn’t regret the shutdown. I wouldn’t expect him or any other of the folks who precipitated the shutdown to say anything but that , for one of two reasons. The first is that it hurts when your ass is handed to you and so you try to scrape up some pride. The second is that some people are simply too deluded to never not declare victory. I don’t know which Stutzman is; I will charitably ascribe him to the first.

2. I noted a week ago that there were three options as to why John Bohener was allowing the rabble-rousing wing of his party as much latitude as he did, the second (and most likely in my opinion) option of which was that they would turn on him if he didn’t give them enough rope to hang themselves with, after which he could pass a sane bill raising the debt limit and getting the government back to work. And in fact that’s pretty much what happened.

With hindsight being 20/20, Boehner seems to be getting some credit for managing an unmanageable group of members as best as was possible under the circumstances. I think that’s true, although I think it should be noted that when your best includes a government shutdown, that’s a pretty large asterisk. Politico, which labels him a “winner” of the shutdown because his stature has increased with the hard right in the House, wonders if he’ll be able to capitalize on this new stature to get those folks to pass reasonably sane legislation.

I’m gonna go ahead and answer that one now: Not a chance, in part because many of the folks who precipitated this late crisis think the problem was they they didn’t go far enough. The Dunning-Kruger caucus of the House GOP is still open for business, and they’ll still be causing Boehner headaches, and he’ll still have to deal with them like he’s dealing with angry children made of boom. He must really love being Speaker, is all I can say about that.

3. On a related note, apparently Mitch McConnell is assuring various and sundry that Obamacare won’t be the cause of another government shutdown. That’s nice, but McConnell is in the Senate, not the House, and as noted above, there’s at least a few folks in the House who seem to think the problem with their strategy this time wasn’t that it was foolish and stupid, but that they didn’t execute on it perfectly, and practice makes perfect. So call me unconvinced the lesson has been entirely learned. Hell, McConnell can’t even get the “no more shutdown” memo to Ted Cruz.

4. About Ted Cruz: Look, the dude’s an asshole, and it shouldn’t be entirely surprising that an asshole who declared at Harvard Law that he wouldn’t have anyone who attended a “minor Ivy” in his study group is the same asshole who accuses his fellow Republican senators of “carpetbombing” the House GOP. It’s also fairly obvious that Cruz sees his senatorial tenure as an inconvenient but necessary way station on the road to the White House, so it should additionally be not terribly surprising that he’s not interested in playing nice with the other senators, including the ones in his own party, or cares what damage his actions do to them. He doesn’t plan to be there that long.

(Dear GOP: please have Ted Cruz as your 2016 presidential candidate. Oh, please. Oh, please.)

5. Obama: Dude looks tired these days, and that pretty much sums it up.

I have a friend who maintains that the whole plan for the shutdown and debt limit debacle was to drive the country to default so that Obama would be obliged to try to raise the debt limit via executive authority, or authorize a trillion-dollar coin, at which point the House would vote to impeach him. I think this is basically an entertaining paranoid fantasy, and even if it weren’t it would be a debacle for the GOP, first because the Senate is held by the Democrats and second because Obama would be impeached for acting to protect the full faith and credit of the US because the House refused to do so because they wanted to impeach Obama for something. Again, I don’t credit the GOP for much in the strategy department these days, but I suspect even they can see how that would work out for them. So, yeah: Don’t think so.

On the other hand, the GOP are still who they are, and that’s not going to change until January  2015 at least. I expect to see Obama looking even more tired by then.