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September 08, 2005

Migrating Blog Posts; Raisin Bran

My book editor is watching the Whatever to make sure I'm not slacking off -- and he's right to do so! -- so let me just dash off a couple quick notes before he brings down the whip:

* The "Being Poor" piece has started to show up in local newspapers around the US, sometimes due to editors asking me directly if they can run the piece and sometimes due to editors picking it up through the newswire (it's being distributed by Cox, which owns the Dayton Daily News, for whom I write a DVD column and which is running the piece on Sunday). Naturally, I am delighted to see this migration from the blogosphere to the print world. I've sold reprints of Whatevers to alternative weeklies and as one-offs to the DDN before, but this is the first time one of the Whatevers looks to be getting a wider print distribution.

In case anyone wants to point out the irony of me making hot, sweet reprint money by writing about poverty, I'll note in this particular case I've been waiving my reprint fee. Please know that you will not see me do this on a regular basis; I am a true believer in the principle that money flows to the writer; also, I have a mortgage. But I didn't write this piece for money, and I can afford not to charge for it. If letting papers have it for free gets those particular words in front of more people, Then I say, go, take it and print it. This information wants to be free.

(By implication, this means that I'm also okay with all all the folks who have been cutting and pasting the entire list on their own blogs and journals, so long as theire's attribution and a link. What I've been very pleased to see is that in nearly every case I've seen there has been attribution and a link back to the Whatever, which wouldn't have been the case even a couple of years ago. Yay! Link etiquette has reached critical mass!)

On second thought I should have asked for the papers to take what they would have paid me and donated it to the Red Cross. I'm sure that would have thrown their accounting people into a fit, however. Well, maybe next time.

* One of the things I find interesting about when people quibble with the stuff in the "Being Poor" list, they'll hold out a particular detail as an example of artifice over experience. The one I've seen a lot is the example I gave using Raisin Bran: people have noted in several different places that Raisin Bran is relatively expensive as cereals go, and someone who is poor would choose the bagged cereal on the bottom shelf, or some other, less expensive brand of cereal. By citing Raisin Bran I'm making an observational error proving I've never actually been poor and/or was trying to write trenchantly with disregard to the facts, etc.

I don't actually know what to do with the criticisms of this type. I certainly won't deny trying to write for effect; I am a writer, and I did want to evoke a reaction. This is what I do. But without getting into the details of a story that would undoubtedly depress you for the rest of your day, allow me to assure all and sundry, from personal experience, that a poor parent might indeed choose Raisin Bran, possibly because she was at a convenience store where the selection was limited, and possibly because events led her to be in a state where comparison shopping took a back seat to getting through the purchasing process before she lost her composure in front of some random convenience store clerk. In other words, in this particular case, writerly artifice would have been in replacing the box of convenience store-bought Raisin Bran with a bag of Generic-Os cereal.

The "being poor" list I generated is by no means complete nor universal; as I've said a number of times in the comment thread, one of the interesting things about being poor in the US is that there are so many ways to do it. One's mileage may vary on any or all of the items in the list, and in the items in the string of comments that followed. If some portions of the list seem shaky to you, that's of course perfectly fine. I would simply ask that you entertain the notion that there are some values of "poor in the US" for which those details might apply.

Posted by john at September 8, 2005 10:21 AM

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Comments

LJS | September 8, 2005 11:25 AM

Your "being poor" list is the most ridiculous thing I have read in some time. It was meant as a joke, right?

John Scalzi | September 8, 2005 11:34 AM

Yes, LJS. It's all just one big chucklefest. My sides are positively sore from the long, sustained and booming laughter I have experienced from the moment I sat down to write. Frankly, I was laughing so hard it's a miracle I could type at all. And there was one point where I almost vomited from glee. Because poverty is inherently funny! Thanks for noticing.

Mari | September 8, 2005 11:47 AM

I think it's cool that the piece is getting picked up on the wire like that. It's a good piece.

Anonymous | September 8, 2005 12:02 PM

Heh.
I had no problem with the "Raisin Bran" line.

My impression was that it was a special purchase for the kids, which made it all the more sad that it had to last, and would in all probability not be seen again for quite some time.

Made me think of the little boy in the film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird", who wanted syrup on his roast beef, because he was so starved for something sweet ...

And congrats on the piece being picked up by the mainstream.

Night Dog | September 8, 2005 12:04 PM

Dammit, I never post anonymously ... that was me above.

System didn't retain my name/email when I previewed, paged back, and added the last line.

John Scalzi | September 8, 2005 12:07 PM

No worries, Night Dog.

Carol | September 8, 2005 12:12 PM

LJS is an fucking asshole.

I grew up poor too (enlisted Navy men get paid for shit - if we actually had to pay rent and utilities my family would have been on the street) and I could identify with much of what you wrote. I daresay anyone else who grew up poor - or possesses the tiniest shred of compassion - could identify as well.

John Scalzi | September 8, 2005 12:16 PM

Carol writes:

"LJS is an fucking asshole."

Possibly, but since calling him so is likely only to make him happy he's enraged someone, best just to let him be.

Dossy Shiobara | September 8, 2005 01:02 PM

[...] I'll note in this particular case I've been waiving my reprint fee. [...] On second thought I should have asked for the papers to take what they would have paid me and donated it to the Red Cross. I'm sure that would have thrown their accounting people into a fit, however. Well, maybe next time.

You could have just collected the reprint fee, then donated it to the Red Cross, yourself?

Carol | September 8, 2005 01:03 PM

Very true. It's just been kind of a shitty week and day, with everything Katrina-related just exacerbating my feelings of anger and helplessness (which I don't often feel), so when I happened to read Whats-His-Face's comment at exactly the wrong time... Well, you know.

Maybe he's just a big 'ol cuddly puppy dog with a momentary lapse in judgement. Doubtful, but anything's possible...

*breathe in, breathe out*

John Scalzi | September 8, 2005 01:08 PM

Dossy writes:

"You could have just collected the reprint fee, then donated it to the Red Cross, yourself?"

Yup. Kicking myself for not thinking about it earlier. However, we've donated quite a bit to the Red Cross as it is. They're not hurting in terms of love from the Scalzi household.

Erin | September 8, 2005 01:44 PM

Your post was absolutely brilliant, and I'm happy that it's being run in papers across the country. Congrats!

patrick | September 8, 2005 01:59 PM

If I may add an element of humor to the "Being Poor is..." list-
Being Poor is standing in pantry, in the dark (so your five brothers and sisters can't see), and chugging some apple juice out of the bottle... only to belatedly discover... it's cooking oil! And vomiting all over yourself.

I have, unfortunately, some much sadder examples, which I will keep to myself because I have not actually turned that corner yet where I don't still blame myself and sadly, the people who did their best to raise me, for the years and years I did without.

However, I would like to add this one:

Being poor is not judging other poor people for their misfortune.

Especially when the city, state, and nation abandon them.

mythago | September 8, 2005 02:30 PM

The Good Cop version on the Raisin Bran thing is that it's very natural and common to use brand names for all things of a type. i.e., we refer to disposable nose-blowing tissues as "Kleenex" regardless of whether they are in fact the brand Kleenex, Puffs or a generic store brand; we say "I took three Tylenol," not "I took three acetaminophen pills of a drugstore label brand." Similarly, a poor person buying Generic Raisins n' Flakes would probably say "Raisin Bran" without any suggestion that she purchased a cereal actually manufactured by Kellog or Post and sold under that name.

Bad Cop feels compelled to point out that the "Raisin Bran" whiners bloody well know all that, and are seizing on pretending not to understand this as a tedious, petty excuse for blaming and condemning the poor. Idiot shopper, if only she'd spent ten cents less and bought generic cereal, she wouldn't BE poor! Her poverty is her own fault and entirely the result of her selfish, stupid consumer choices! You know the drill.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden | September 8, 2005 03:34 PM

<raising whip>

Jon Hansen | September 8, 2005 04:10 PM

Curse the editor with the whip. Clearly time for Athena to start posting for you. Alas for compulsory education!

Trance | September 8, 2005 05:04 PM

Good to hear the "Being Poor" piece is circulating. I think it's very eye-opening.

Beth | September 8, 2005 05:54 PM

Wait, "raisin bran" isn't a brand name. I buy raisin bran every week, and it says that on the box, but it is a store-brand and it costs about two bucks less than Kellogg's. I have read this quibble about your list several times now and I think that the people making the quibble must not have ever been poor or they'd know that the generic stuff is called "raisin bran," too.

(That was sarcasm. I'm sure everyone is entirely destitute and I am not trying to deprive anyone of their street cred. Also, I am not claiming to buy the store brand in an attempt to establish my own street cred; my husband says the raisins are less sugary, that's all.)

betsarms | September 8, 2005 06:39 PM

Congrats John. It moved me to tears this weekend. After my parents divorce, I thought we were poor. Not even by a long shot. Your piece was incredibly humbling.

spot | September 8, 2005 09:50 PM

Dear john, I'm one of the many (i hope) millions who are circulating your piece via blogs (i extracted and linked). I'm from malaysia and just wanted to let you know that the word HAS spread this far. Poverty knows no borders.

The anguish of desperation is no less real and devastating, whether it occurs in the developing or developed world. Thank you for writing "Being Poor".

John Scalzi | September 8, 2005 10:39 PM

Thanks, spot. And you're welcome.

Bruce Arthurs | September 9, 2005 01:09 AM

Also glad to see it getting circulation outside the blogosphere.

If I may make a suggestion: "Being Poor" also has potential to be reformatted and marketed as a wall poster. (I see it with the title in large bold type at the top of the poster, the body of the piece set in two-column format over the rest. And of course, down in the lower right-hand corner, your name, set in little teeny-tiny type in a subtle shade of light gray.)

doubt | September 9, 2005 02:08 AM

John Scalzi wrote, speaking of LJS:

"Possibly, but since calling him so is likely only to make him happy he's enraged someone, best just to let him be."

And my guess is, it's the only time he's happy.

Mark Ensley | September 9, 2005 03:06 AM

Thank you, John.

I'm a regular reader and occasional contributor who managed to escape from New Orleans due to our owning an $800 car (seriously, that's what we paid for it) which managed to get us from Nawlins to an uncle in Pensacola, and from there to family in Tennessee. We escaped with little beyond the car and a couple of changes of clothing.

I have, however, learned that supportive family is worth more than anything else I could ever have imagined needing.

John, I grew up poor as well. Government housing, no child support from dad. The line about free lunch hit home hard. Waiting back to let everyone else go until you got your lunch so they wouldn't see you getting free lunch is still vivid and painful. I understand why you haven't talked about it much.

I choose to feel happy about the people who attack accounts of real poverty. I'm glad that our civilization has produced the opportunity for such innocence and hope that eventually everyone everywhere will be so clueless about it.

edosan | September 9, 2005 10:17 AM

While we're on the subject, please have a look at this:

http://www.counterpunch.com/wise09032005.html

(It's via Susan, at visual-voice.net)

It's a rant worthy of you, John.

eB (Salt Lake City)

James | September 9, 2005 02:29 PM

Thank you for this piece. I attached it to my website also. http://www.upsaid.com/deadsherpa I think this is important stuff, that the public is forgetting. If I hear, "Why didn't they just leave?" one more time I swear...It is about time a voice is given to so many without one in our country...

C. E. Laine | September 9, 2005 07:08 PM

Well, I just bought 2 big bags of generic "Raisin Bran" cereal at the store. They...both bargan bags...do say "RAISIN BRAN". Imagine that.

I've been poor...and your list resonated with me.

Heather Braum | September 9, 2005 08:26 PM

Congratulations John on making it to print! As I always say I am so proud of you. That being said, I went to Win-Co in Redding Ca today & bought 2 boxes of "POST" Raisin Bran for $1.98 each. Kids love them & so do I.

DA | September 9, 2005 10:46 PM

John, you're a gifted wordsmith. Gotta be an accident of birth, right? If your skills come from a college experience, please ... tell me which one! ;-)

"LJS" reminds me of this excerpt from "Desiderata":

" ... Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story
..."

"LJS" reminds us that ignorance & hate are even uglier than poverty.

rayyy | September 10, 2005 10:20 AM

Perhaps it was a grotty box of *expired* Raisin Bran - being sold off cheap?

Anyway, the whole "Being Poor" thread made me realize something about writing that I'd never considered before: Simply put, it's that we, the audience, will read into it whatever we like, and learn just as much about *ourselves* as those being written about.

John Scalzi | September 10, 2005 10:52 AM

Indeed, Rayyy.

LJS | September 10, 2005 04:24 PM

Poverty is a form of mental illness....one that LIBERALS propagate and will never allow America to cure.

John Scalzi | September 10, 2005 05:18 PM

Uh-huh. Okay, thanks for sharing, there, LJS. You run along now.

Martin Wisse | September 11, 2005 09:55 AM

I'm not surprised that people would quibble with that particular point on the list. For us lucky enough to not have been poor at any point in our lives, it is soo easy to think "rational" about it and knowing that if push comes to shove, we'd of course buy the off-brand cereal rather than the real thing and to scorn those who did not do so.

The reality is, being poor means always having to buy the generic coke and I can well imagine people wanting to splash out on proper brands sometimes, even if that means going without something else for the rest of the week/month.

And this is even ignoring the realities of being poor: if you don't have a car you cannot go to that cheap hypermarket in the suburbs and the only store in your neighbourhood only stocks the expensive kind of cereal...

Brandon | September 12, 2005 12:56 AM

I have never been poor either, yet I very much like the list.

Suzanna Bond | September 12, 2005 01:30 PM

I am new to the blog conversation and trying to get a word in edgewise. The main point is listening. We have to be careful to comment on the ungraceful upstarts by simply letting their noise fall to the ground. I am picking up the celebration of this written piece and thankful for it's truth and those who are in unity to it. It's a list I will be listening to as it echoes in my life.

Michelle | September 14, 2005 10:23 AM

Every now and then I find something that I want to spend some time mulling - your "Being Poor" piece was one of those. I am by no means rich, though every day I realize I am considered wealthy by many who live nearby - I live in a home that is not made of cardboard, nor is it falling down with each gust of wind. I own a car, I eat 3 meals per day (and a couple of snacks now and then). I have running water and a toilet. I am blessed.

So I've printed this off to sit and mull over during my Sabbath silent time. And to dig deep inside to see if I can make a difference for even one of "the least of these" today.

Angelika | September 25, 2005 03:00 PM

John, pls. allow my asking : why not cash your fees for prints etc. and instead donate them ? like e.g. to "Noah's Wish" etc. or whatever is close/r to your
heart ?

Btw. found you via an article on the main yahoo weather page (after Hurr. Rita) and have been reading ever since. Thank you so much for your thoughts and sharing !

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