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September 06, 2005

Going Meta for a Moment

I'm going to plunge myself back into the cone of silence I should have been in for the last several days, because I am behind on something I have no time to be behind on. Before I do, I want to give some answers to people who have asked, via e-mail and other ways, why it was I wrote the "Being Poor" piece.

The short answer to this was because I had to. I had made the sorry mistake in the last week or so of actually looking up from the deadline I am up against and watching news and current events and basically getting myself so wound up that by Friday I was genuinely about to vomit in anger. This had a detrimental affect on my actual work, not surprisingly; I was writing was crap because I was preoccupied (looking back, I would have benefited from this advice, had it been posted earlier).

Aside from being work-stoppingly angry, I was also somewhat personally alarmed. I know no one personally in New Orleans, as far as I know, so I didn't have an obvious personal connection to the disaster there. To be blunt about it, I'm not the sort of person to get wound up about things; yes, I'm rather boisterous when it comes to my writing here, but this is also a generally effective heat sink for my irritability (or perhaps it brings it out) and most people who know me would attest I'm not the overly angsty on a day-to-day basis because, really, who has the time. New Orleans had me worked up beyond reason and I had to figure out why, because I wanted to get my head back.

What I eventually figured out is what prompted me to write "Being Poor," which was that I had gotten myself into a state watching the people who stayed behind in New Orleans struggle and die, and listening to people wonder -- some genuinely, some derisively -- why they just didn't get out when they were ordered to get out. There were enough people going "you idiots, they couldn't leave, they're poor," including me, but if you don't have experience being poor, ultimately that's not helpful. I wanted to provide some context for what it's like to be poor. "Being Poor" was my attempt.

I've been gratified that by and large people have taken it in the spirit in which it was written, but there has been interesting bits of pushback. I've already noted people pointing out that being poor in America is different than being poor in other places on the globe, which is of course an absolutely accurate and valid point, even if it doesn't make being poor in the US any easier.

Other folks in the comment thread and elsewhere questioned the appropriateness of my writing about poverty, as I am manifestly not in poverty now, nor do I usually give any indication of having been poor. And this is also true enough: Point of fact is, there's a whole bunch of stuff I don't write about here, and growing up poor is (or was, anyway) one of them. And the "Being Poor" piece doesn't necessarily suggest in its construction that any of those things happened to me. This is intentional, mind you: I didn't want the piece to be about me in particular. Nevertheless, most of the things in that list happened to me or immediate family or the people we have known. It was genuinely difficult to write the piece, because I'm not keen on being confessional to people who are not of my inner circle of friends. But as much as I don't like being confessional, I don't like having my brain all pretzel-twisted, either.

So, yes: I grew up poor. Now you know. I'm neither proud nor ashamed of the fact of having been poor; it is what it is. But I will note that having been poor in some sense never leaves you. I was and am appalled that so many people were basically abandoned to the hurricane and the floods largely because they were poor; in another place and time and under not dissimilar circumstances, that could have been me as a child or people that I knew. The state and local governments failed them by not helping to get them out of harm's way or adequately preparing and organizing the shelters they did set aside; the national government failed them in its criminally disorganized disaster relief. You don't have to have been poor to be outraged at what happened with Katrina and its aftermath, but if you have been it provides an extra dimension of horror.

The third bit of pushback came from the folks who saw this as just another bit of liberal white guilt twaddle defending the dumb and lazy poor, and had a bit of sporky fun making fun of it and me. Well, you know, you have fun there, kids.

Overall, writing the "Being Poor" piece and seeing the response has been one of the moving writing experiences that I've had in a very long time, and much of that I owe to the commentors who stepped forward to add notes from their own lives and experiences. There have been over 350 comments to the entry, which is a record, and the overwhelming majority of them have been from people who had added something to the pot, as it were. Having a comment thread of any length not descend into flaming anarchy is rare; to have one go 350+ comments without doing so is a minor miracle. Thank you everyone. I have long believed I benefit from some amazing readers and commentors, and here is the proof.

Before I submerge again, one final thing: It's never too late to donate.

Between now and finishing the book I'm working on, I may make some one or two sentence "bloggy" link entries, but don't expect too much substantive here for several days. I've had my catharsis; now it's back to work. See you soon.

Posted by john at September 6, 2005 10:11 AM

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Justine Larbalestier | September 6, 2005 01:40 PM

Good on you, Scalzi. Both you and Cherie Priest said exactly what needed to be said. Thank you.

Don Demsak | September 6, 2005 02:35 PM

Author = Poor
Anyone that has ever tried to make a living by just writing for a living would know that. Same thing holds true for most musicians. Only a very smaller percentage ever make enough money to survive on just their writing/music.

Dave Munger | September 6, 2005 04:01 PM

Thanks for the post, John. Many of those observations rang very close to home. I, too, have found that my work has suffered as a result of the ineptitude we're witnessing in New Orleans. Good luck finishing your project.

Cherie Priest | September 6, 2005 04:05 PM

Thanks - both to you and Justine for the support and the links, as of late. I too have gotten some push-back, but it is what it is (as you said).

And of course, it's not over yet ...

mayakda | September 6, 2005 04:45 PM

It was a good post. I grew up poor as well, in a third world country. Poverty is evil.
Good luck on making that deadline.

John Scalzi | September 6, 2005 04:48 PM

You're welcome, Cherie -- you've had some great posts on the subject (including today's), and you said what needed to be said just right. And I'm really looking forward to Four & Twenty Blackbirds.

Laura | September 6, 2005 09:09 PM

I commented earlier but now it's gone. If you deleted it, I apologize if it was out of line.

John Scalzi | September 6, 2005 09:13 PM


No, I haven't deleted any posts by you, so far as I know. Feel free to repost whatever it was you tried to post.

Barbara Brugger | September 7, 2005 12:07 AM

I said in my LJ that if this storm had hit Biloxi when I was a single mother of three, it could have been me. It could have been my kids.

More to the point, it could be any of us. Nature doesn't play favorites.

Soni | September 7, 2005 02:33 AM

On a completely different subject altogether, is there such a thing as a reader request for blog topics here, for when you return?

I am just now venturing into the idea of blogging as a key and possibly core part of what I hope to be a long-ish career in writing and a few other iincome streams. That being said, I am looking into my options (hosted blogging, open-source stuff like Word Press, fee options like MovableType, etc).

Whatever I pick will need to be flexible, workable by someone with the ability to learn surface-level geekery, like tweaking an existing template, but no real aptitude for anything seriously geekish like coding a complete tempate with plug-ins, an amenable TOS (if hosted) to commercial blogging and blog advertising of some sort, and be cheap (since blogging will not likely pay for itself anytime soon and will be a vital, but real, red ink mark on the income sheet).

So I was wondering what your take on the options are. You've been around the 'sphere a few times and have made your choices clear. Others have chosen, well, otherwise. I'm wondering what your lofty viewpoint could offer the earnest, but clue-challenged, noobish regarding the pros and cons of various platforms and the relative merits of hosted vs installed.

Or not. Figured it couldn't hurt to ask, anyway.

Jim Winter | September 7, 2005 08:47 AM

John, your comment about driving an $800 car really struck home because, until about 7 years ago, that was me. Worse, had I been in New Orleans when I was, say, 21, and a cat 4 storm or worse hit, I'd most likely be dead now for the very reasons you mentioned.

The thing is last week I witnessed how it is possible to get the poor out of danger. Cincinnati suffered a serious chemical leak last week, which cleared out East End. East Enders are generally the working poor. When the police issued the evacuation order, Mayor Luken had Metro take the fleet of busses they used for shuttling school children across town and evacuate everyone to a nearby shelter. And these were busses otherwise still in service.

Now I'm not going to level blame at anyone for not thinking of it down there. Now is not the time. But it is possible. When you call for everyone out of the pool, you can kiss mass transit and school transportation goodbye. A flood takes more precendent. Something to keep in mind next time New Orleans "dodges a bullet."

(Wasn't that a bit like saying Gore won Florida?)

tina | September 7, 2005 12:31 PM

I would really like to just email John Scalzi..it's taking too long just to find his active name link..!((^%$$) "Whatever" is right!
Anyhow..come on everybody!!!!..this was a gigantic unprecedented HURRICANE that finally hit that special city below sea level with levees seriously unready and underfunded. This was a state that had serious poverty and corruption, historically.
I cannot realistically join in on this vitriol towards FEMA and George Bush for not responding quickly enough... This blew the entire system out of the water!!! Four states disaster areas..later floods..Communications and electricity knocked out...not to mention serious access problems with submerged freeways and domino wrecked bridges!! an entire CITY was evacuated and moved elsewhere
How the &^%$# was any government ready and perfectly prepared for this!?????? This was NOT the case in new York in 2001. the only comparable thing is the Tsunami..but even then the water receeded and people were able to use cell phones
I am extremely pissed so much fundemental energy is being wasted on blaming and hatred. I would be glad to be alive and deliriously happy upon seeing the coast guard and or first responders..whenever they showed up!

Justin Anderson | September 7, 2005 03:20 PM

Tina sez:

I would be glad to be alive and deliriously happy upon seeing the coast guard and or first responders..whenever they showed up!

Unless, of course, you were, you know, dead.

If this administration had any record of seriously investigating its own failures and making changes to policy based on them after the fact, I'd agree with you. But the fact is that they don't -- so the time to demand accountability is right now before Angelina Jolie's love life resumes its rightful place as the chief topic of debate in this country.

I agree that blaming those who have failed the victims should not be our first priority, but hey -- I've donated what I can, and I'm a thousand miles away. What should I do now? Just shut up and soldier?

abi | September 7, 2005 04:05 PM


Quite right. I think we should go back to blaming the people who didn't leave, making up stories about gunfire, and playing guitars.

Jenn | September 7, 2005 08:06 PM

Thank you for this post. My additions:

Being poor is going off of your diabetes and depression and anxiety and pain and thyroid and cholesterol and kidney protection meds because you have moved away from your in-city only public health care service because rural areas are cheaper to live in and have no way to even get a prescription written, nevermind pay the roughly $700 a month these all come to.

Being poor is knowing that you'll die young because you can't afford to be chronically ill.

Being poor is two little boys who did not have birthday cakes this summer, and got $1 watches from Dollar Tree.

Bruce Garrison | September 8, 2005 09:09 AM

Read "Being Poor" this morning in local paper. You neglected another very important one-liner...
" Being born poor doesn't necessarily mean that you must stay in that condition". Most of us are given a brain which some do not see fit to use....

Becky | September 8, 2005 10:13 AM

I was referred to your being poor piece from a link someone provided in the Frugal Forum in About.com. I really enjoyed your piece. My husband and I, and our firstborn, were so poor starting out! Your post reminded me of our struggles, as well as one of the best times in my life. We do a lot better now, and we have two more kids, but I will always remember the blessings of being poor.

I guess I can call it a blessing, no natural disaster ever threatened me.

John Scalzi | September 8, 2005 11:30 AM

Bruce Garrison writes:

"You neglected another very important one-liner...
'Being born poor doesn't necessarily mean that you must stay in that condition.'"

Having been poor and now not, I can attest to that being absolutely true. I would also say I could have written "Being born rich doesn't necessarily mean that you must stay in that condition," and it would have been equally true, and I have seen that happen, too. Nor would all those born to wealth who then became poor have become so due to lack of using their brains.

However, one of the the reasons the piece contains neither one-liner is that the piece is not really about why or how people become poor, or how they escape such a fate. It's about what it's like to be poor, for whatever reason, at one particular moment in time.

Kelly Chadwick | September 8, 2005 03:21 PM

"Other folks in the comment thread and elsewhere questioned the appropriateness of me writing about poverty,"

Just nagging, but it should read, "the appropriateness of MY writing about poverty."

John Scalzi | September 8, 2005 03:23 PM

Nag! Fixed.

Terry Karney | September 8, 2005 07:53 PM

Having been poor (and being semi-poor now) it was painful to read, I can imagine how hard it was to write.



teacher | September 9, 2005 06:51 PM


I am a teacher. I'd like to make a few points.

1. 15-year-old text books and no air conditioning are the norm in schools, poor or not.

2. Don't assume that I assume things about you. Don't assume that I didn't grow up poor. Don't assume that I am the enemy, or that I think I know how many books you have in your home. If you don't like people making assuming things about you, don't do it to me. If you're a parent, one of my goals is for us to work as a team to help someone we both care about - your child.

Anonymous | September 9, 2005 06:53 PM

Sorry, I hit post too quickly. That's supposed to say, "If you don't like people making assumptions about you, don't do it to me."

John Scalzi | September 9, 2005 09:54 PM

Teacher writes:

"15-year-old text books and no air conditioning are the norm in schools, poor or not."

Hmmmm. Not in the suburban Southern California schools I was educated in for elementary school and middle school (I exempt my high school from this, because it was a private boarding school). I distinctly remember new textbooks and air conditioning. I allow it's entirely possible that old text books are the norm now, but it would be incredibly sad to have kids today using the same textbooks that were in service in the same era I graduated from school.

"Don't assume that I am the enemy, or that I think I know how many books you have in your home."

Speaking as someone who has a child in a small and poor rural school district, I can say with a reasonable amount of comfort that the teachers often do make the assumption that children of the poor don't have books in their home -- not out of malice but from prior experience talking to lower-income parents and working with them to prepare the children for school.

I don't think the teachers here think negatively of any of the parents because of their economic class, but I do think that if they know something about the parents' background, they also make assumptions based on what's come before in their career.

Does this means good teachers don't immediately discard their assumptions when their assumptions are different from reality? No. As you intimate, teachers are always delighted when parents prove to be allies in their children's educations, and even parents who have not had books in their homes can turn out to be so, for the sake of their kids.

patricia | September 24, 2005 02:52 PM

i said whati have to say in my comments to your Being poor... i can only express one thing, my mom was very poor, but she gave me everything i need it and that is by strenght, faith, hope and with a touch of GO GET IT... i am the same way, in a different not i lost everything by marriage by trusting, but i gain so much back because i looked at being poor not as a sickness but a passage in my life that had a purpose, a content of personal growth, and by the way you write it seems like you have a lot of issues, and New Orleans just opened a tiny crack on you heavy duty door! god bless and it was nice to know that an 800.00 car in some other country is a luxury to have we are blessed it this country, just the way it is... we need to spread a bit of the wealth around that is the problem...

Daniel W. | September 24, 2005 10:45 PM

I spent a summer working a grocery store in Pennsylvania in the "boonies" so I could help pay for college. And it was heartbreaking... Something from experience seeing what people buy (or try to)...is that when you are destitute...that poorest of poor...

Being Poor is taking your kid to the grocery store to get a free cookie there for their birthday, and then telling him or her that that is all they will get, and the cakes aren't something you can get this year.

Mimi | September 26, 2005 09:29 AM

After reading your being poor column I thought "I guess I am poor" there was only one item on your list that I had and that was a computer with internet access, I pay the access, but the computer is an old one that my company gave to me when they bought new ones. I don't see myself as being poor, and I guess I wouldn't even be poor if I made the decision to not enroll my children in a private school. The schools here are not good, and I know the only way to escape poverty is to have an education, along with the will to work hard.
I do not blame any of the victims for being victims, what I do blame them for is accepting thier fate.
I used to live in New Orleans and I can attest to the fact that not one of the people that couldn't evacuate had a color TV and stereo along with many CD's. I do have a TV but it is a hand me down 19 inch that we seldom watch because reception is so bad. We cannot afford cable but we spend hours at the library, we read, picnic in the park, work in our community garden and WE HAVE A VERY GOOD LIFE. I really think poverty is a state of mind and a lot of very poor decisions. It is not something that has to be. I also think that "being poor" can make you into a better person. You learn how to fix things yourself, how to improvise when you need to and you learn how to stretch a dollar to make it work like five. I may not have much money, but I certainly am not poor!!!!!

Blanca | April 10, 2006 02:05 PM

I don't have a TypeKey nor have gotten any comments or advices from anyone yet. Am I looking in the wrong place or would it come via email?

a person | April 17, 2006 02:18 PM

The best part about being poor is being able to see what is important in life; what is needed, over what is wanted, and to see all that is real. I am rich because in the sense that I am satisfied; I know that people with a lot of money are never satisfied with an amount.
If I was to give you millions of dollars today, you may appreciate it, but your children and children's children would be corrupt. People can't seem to appreciate anything, unless it has been taken from them. So, think about a rich CEO of a large company working his life away, playing a board game with people's lives, and then his family dies. What was his purpose? Was it to just solely ruin the lives of others?
Then there is the flip side to this. There is a Greek story about a man who burned down an entire city, everything that was built by man, so people could see and learn to understand what is real...
Will man ever be satisfied with the true meaning of life?

a person | April 17, 2006 02:26 PM

Being poor is having everything served to you, without satisfaction.
Being poor is putting on an act, just so people will like you.
Being poor is never being happy or satsified.
Being poor is trying so hard to figure out who you are, that you can't see anything around you.
Being poor is not being able to understand other people and their choices.
Being poor is in your eyes.

Mountain Infantry | April 22, 2006 07:32 PM

Wow John, you've somehow made it hip to be poor. Now thousands of Americans in poverty emerge to tell it like it is, with hard hitting comments and replies. I can't wait for the next big wave to post, and tug my heartstrings about the woes of getting embarassed at grocery stores, and un-imaginable destruction being done to teeth and gums everywhere.

Hey poor people, the Army is always hiring.

John Scalzi | April 23, 2006 08:30 PM

Mountain Infantry:

"Wow John, you've somehow made it hip to be poor."

And you've made it hip to be a jackass. Many congratulations.

lizap | May 16, 2006 03:09 PM

Being poor is having clothes made out of old blankets from the salvation army. Cloth is cheaper than clothes.

Being poor is stealing from the salvation army when they won't give clothes to 'unwedded mothers'

being poor is being terrified of money, even after you have plenty.

being poor means being told that hoping for better will just get you hurt.

being poor means when you grow up and do better for yourself, your parents will not understand that there are still things that make you sad.

being poor means getting very comfortable in the cold.

being poor means hiding in commuter train toilets to snag a free ride.

being poor means you will always feel poor. Forever.

being poor means your parents will tell you not to go to college, because they are so afraid you will have debt. They will suggest Air Conditioning Repair as the best career option.

being poor means having cats, not dogs, because cats they will find their own food when you can't feed them.

being poor means marrying someone unpoor and always fighting about money.

being poor means being afraid to dream.

asin teen sex | March 23, 2007 01:21 PM

Thank you.

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