It’s spring of 2001. We’ve moved into our new house. We’ve left behind a bunch of stress and we’re settling into a new routine. I’ve got a nice home office now. For the first time since I got married, I have a quiet space where I can be creative and relaxed. This does wonders for my productivity.
So to make things clear: I’m only revealing as much as I need to make this story make sense. I’m sure you’ll be tempted to ask, “But Shamus, why didn’t you X?” It’s in our nature to want to work out solutions to problems, and I know some people will read this an be driven to diagnose things. This will lead to requests for more information.
If I answer, it will lead to revealing more and more details, which aren’t really needed for this story to work. Remember that most of this has played out. Just let it slide.
Heather is pregnant again. This is kind of amazing. This is the third time we've said, “Okay, it's a good time to think about having a kid. We'll just let nature do its thing and we'll probably end up pregnant in the next six months or so.” And for the third time in a row, she was pregnant less than two months later. I'm led to understand that this process is supposed to take some time? I don't know. Given the convoluted mechanics involved, the entire reproductive system seems horribly unreliable and capricious to me. I'm surprised it works at all.
Each pregnancy has been harder than the one before. With Rachel, Heather was just violently ill and weak for four months. With Esther, she was sick for five, and the vomiting was more serious. With this third pregnancy, she is in actual danger. She can't keep food down. She's a little malnourished and becoming dehydrated. Some medical care pulls her system back into line, and from this point on she needs intravenous fluids. All of this is caused by the mad soup of hormones that get pumped out when the human body is trying to create another human body inside it. See what I mean about the system being sort of capricious?
I'm able to care for her at home. Once a week a nurse comes in to maintain the picc line, but I can handle the day-to-day stuff. Once a day I set up her fluid drip, check her line, and sit with her for a bit while she has “lunch”, which is what I call these big bags of saline she drinks through her neck. She has trouble keeping warm these days, so we try to keep her under the blankets and in the sunlight as much as possible. The trick here is that the better hydrated she is, the better she is able to keep down solid food. If not for the IV fluids, she would throw up two thirds of everything she ate or drank, which would lead to dehydration, which would push the ratio of vomited-to-absorbed even higher, which would result in a death spiral in which the death part was not a figurative thing. If we were in the middle ages, she would have puked until she died and I'd be a widower by now. Well, aside from the fact that I would already be dead myself. Twice.
The poor woman is miserable and weak, but this is the happiest we've been in years. I'm glad to be able to do this for her. Her drip is a nice mid-day chat. Years from now my memories of this time will consist of pictures of her in bed with the sunlight flowing in, with me sitting by her bed and chatting. I have words and time for her, and we can rely on family to help out when things get tough. None of this was possible in Boston.
|Left-to-right: Rachel, baby Issac, Heather, and Esther.|
Issac is born in October. We wanted to have four kids, but Heather and I agree we can't risk another pregnancy. Given how the symptoms have been escalating with each pregnancy, it would be irresponsible to try again. We have the surgery done and our careers as baby-makers come to an end.
Twenty Sided Tale
In 2002, I begin writing a book. The fit comes suddenly. The only discernable catalyst is that I listened to Neuromancer on audiobook and hearing the voice made me want to write cyberpunk. I spend a couple of years working on the book intermittently, and vacillating between optimistic pride and frustrated shame at the quality of my work.
It takes me a couple of years before I can look at the work objectively, but at the end of it I come to the conclusion that I’ve written something good. After a couple of rounds of much-needed proofing, it gets even better.
I can do this. I can write. I really wish Dad had lived to see it.
|Here I am, holding the completed book years later.|
In 2004, my little brother comes to me about a D&D game his friends want to start. They're all seniors in high school. I love the idea of doing more writing, and so I volunteer to run the game. I write up a campaign and we spend a few months going through it. It goes over well.
The game is passed around, but in 2005 the job of Dungeon Master comes back to me. I start another campaign, and this time I blog about it. I call the blog Twenty Sided Tale. (And if you clicked on that link you really need to slap yourself. We're working on the honor system here, so do the right thing. Use your dominant hand, open palm, aim for the cheek.) The only thing I put on the blog is this D&D campaign.
Maybe I'll do other campaigns in the future, but most likely I'll just abandon it like the other blogs I've written.
As before, nobody reads the dang thing. I stick with it, because I enjoy the process of writing. I just tell myself my gaming buddies are reading the blog so I can avoid feeling like I'm wasting my time. It still hasn't occurred to me that I could just write for my own enjoyment and edification without worrying about who might read it or why. (I’ll figure this out eventually, which will lead me to write the thing you're reading now.)
Everything Happens at Once
It is now 2006, and I am about to have the busiest, craziest, most unpredictable year of my life. In April, Heather injures her knee and is barely able to walk for a few months. In May, I break my ribs. In March, the doctor diagnoses Heather’s leg problem as patellar subluxation. In August, I end up doing some serious crunch time at work. In September, I begin the webcomic. In October, my daughter Rachel has a seizure.
|Rachel, the day after getting out of the hospital.|
By 2007 the blog has taken off. I was fooling around with some comic-making software and accidentally found an audience. The blog gradually becomes more and more a collection of thoughts and essays and less and less a D&D game. I drop the word “Tale” from the title and just re-name the site “Twenty Sided.” The only remnant of the original name is stuck in the URL, and I can't change that without messing with explosives. (In this case: PHP, MySQL, and Google page rank.)
At work, things are going less well. I can see the writing on the wall. The company over-expanded in the dot-com bubble and we've been gradually shedding people to correct for this. My odd specialization in graphics tricks and procedural content generation aren't as useful as they were in the early days.
My cross-discipline skill set and knack for invention gave us a lot of interesting features. But now we're no longer building, we're maintaining. New features are fewer and farther between, and more of our work involves doing custom work for corporate clients, who generally have very specific needs that have nothing to do with graphics. I can still do the work, but I'm no longer uniquely qualified for it. The stuff I'm doing now could be done by anyone. Other people are qualified for tasks that I'm not (I've never been one for backend stuff) but there's nothing that we're doing that can only be done by me. If it was my job to reduce headcount in this company, Shamus Young would be at the top of my list. Everyone likes me and we've had a nice long run together, which I suspect has been prolonging the lifespan of my position.
On the other hand, this writing gig is really taking off. The blog keeps growing and people are interested in my non-webcomic work. I'm getting job offers and invitations to join projects now and again.
Heather has student loans. She owed $15k when she left college, a month before we got married. We were pretty broke as newlyweds, so when they asked us, “Would you like to defer your loan?” we said, “Sure!” I mean, they’ll wait patiently until we get the money, right? That’s really sporting of them! The bank was indeed a “good sport” about stacking on interest while we dithered about. By the time my career was going and I got around to checking on it, we owed 25k.
Here in 2008, I’ve finally sat down and run the numbers. Instead of treating this loan like another bill to pay, I’ve gone back to figure out how this loan works, how much we owe, and how much it’s costing us. We’ve been paying on it for a few years now, and as far as I can tell we’ve sent them 10k so far, and we still owe 20k. On what was originally a 15k debt.
And they say the next generation of kids has it even worse? Terrifying.
“I’ve never had a head for money.”
That's what people say when they're bad at money and they don't understand why. The truth is that it's not really a complexity issue, but one of interest and attention. I'm sure the process of running family finances isn’t more difficult than writing erosion simulators or particle engines, which are both things I’ve done recently. But I enjoy coding and I find money to be a vexing distraction. I think about finances only long enough to pay the bills and the rest of my attention is focused on much more interesting but less practical problems. So I’ve never had a head for money in the sense that I’ve never had a head that cared to think about it.
I can't figure out what we're doing wrong. Student loans aside, we seem to leak money. Five years ago we had a little nest egg of cash, but that is basically gone now and we've been stacking up little debts here and there. Heather and I bicker a bit. It's nothing serious, but we can't figure out why we have so much trouble with money and it's bothering us. I see a bit of her spending as needless and she thinks the same of some of my spending, but I don't know what to make of it. I don't really want her to stop spending money on things. I just want us to stop leaking cash.
For a while I didn’t notice because we had cash in the bank. Then I figured the problem was just the various spikes in medical bills we’ve been dealing with.
Part of the problem is that this house is more expensive to maintain than I'd anticipated. I've never owned a house before. At the condo, we were in a top-floor unit, which meant that even in the dead of winter we barely had to heat the place. We could spend $100 on heating, but only if we wanted to be roasted alive. In this new place, it costs nearly $400 just to keep the place warm-ish. Just the gas bill alone could pay all utilities for a couple of months at the condo.
The house is creaky and drafty. It was built in the 50's, and still has the original windows and furnace. You can feel the cold rolling across the floor in the winter, and in vigorous weather you can sit by the window and feel the wind change. We could replace the furnace and / or the windows, but either one would cost thousands of dollars we don't have. We try turning down the heat and hanging blankets in front of the windows. It helps a bit, but not enough.
You can ask ten people how to handle this and get ten different answers, and the only accurate answer is “it depends”. How inefficient is the furnace? How much are we losing out the windows? Do we need to replace all the windows, or just a few key ones? This is actually a really complex problem, and even an expert can't make any guarantees.
Still, we can’t go on like this. I’m going to have to think of something soon.
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