So, yeah, this is a thing. If you go to SF/F conventions, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, you will find out that while a fair number of us are middle class or above, an overwhelming majority of PNW Fandom, are poor, or at least broke. There is a difference, but this is not what I want to talk about.
What I want to talk about is the number of older fen in the PNW with some truly awful health issues, in large part because of poverty. And in some cases, because they started out life fairly sickly to begin with, and having chronic health issues is not at all conducive to dragging your ass out of poverty. And being poor, and having a library card, access to used bookstores, or being confined to house or even your bed, means that you spend a lot of time reading escapist fiction. And for many of us, that meant SF/F.
I was 8 when my chronic asthma reared its ugly head and landed me in an oxygen tent for the better part of a week. You know what you really can’t do in an oxygen tent, or at least the ones around in the late 1970s? Watch TV, because those things were LOUD. But my Girl Scout troop brought me a grocery bag of books.
Now, I already read a lot, and quickly.
It took me two, maybe two and a half days to read a paper grocery bag of middle-reader/YA novels. I still have a whole lot of those books: Bambi by Felix Salten, the original novel, Old Yeller by Fred Gipson, The Mad Scientist’s Club by Bertrand Brinley and The Young Investigators by M. V. Carey presented by Alfred Hitchcock. Then my Dad just started bringing me books he had hanging around, like an anthology that included Lovecraft’s “Color out of Space” and Asimov’s “Nightfall.”
Because my father loves screaming 8 year olds with night terrors.
The nurses were less amused.
I’ve mentioned before my parents’ weird appropriateness scale. Horror, gore, violence, ghosts, monsters, were perfectly fine. Ritual sacrifice, A-OK. Sex? Perish the thought, and clutch you some pearls.
Which is probably why I didn’t read V.C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic series until I was 12 or 13.
But what I’m getting at, when you have a chronic health condition, even if you do spend a whole lot of your life trying to ignore and act like a normal kid, you spend a lot of time alone.
Also, being the kind of child whose parents give you things like Lovecraft to read when you are in 4th grade, also does not bode well for any sort of normalcy in behavior.
So, yeah, I was the cocky, weird kid who suddenly couldn’t do the one socially acceptable hobby she had (sports) without collapsing for lack of oxygen.
Add to that constantly blowing the curve on tests, going above and beyond on writing assignments and other projects, and in general being Hermione Granger, yeah…
Going to my first SF/F convention felt like coming home.
I could find people to talk about the nuances of Spider-Man, or who had actually read all of Excalibur (to date), or who had as encyclopedic a knowledge of vampire novels, Pern, and Asimov.
Instead of being intimidated or turned off by my big brain, that actually added to my sex appeal.
So, yeah, you add together a group of people, many of whom started life with chronic health issues. Often times a child’s chronic health issues are a contributing factor to the continued poverty of the family in general, and of that child in specific. Who likely grew up poor or broke, who spent a lot of time reading escapist fiction because their real life sucked, whether that was because of illness, bullying or general poverty. And chronic health conditions rarely go away once you hit adulthood.
If you come from a poor/broke family, the only way to go to college is either a scholarship, or student loans. We all know how well that’s worked. If you’re sick a lot it’s hard to do well in school, either high school or college. Also, holding down a good job can get challenging. Trust me, I’ve had four or five migraines in the last month, and it’s really starting to impact my bosses’ attitudes toward me. Which is freaking me out a little, which is probably not helping with the migraines.
And while many of us did study less than marketable things like history or literature, even going into the STEM field is no guarantee. One of the DJs at the club the Geek Husband What Rules and I worked at had a Master’s in Chemistry, and couldn’t get a job because by the time he graduated, the techniques he learned and the equipment he learned them on had been deemed obsolete, and no one wanted to bother of retraining him.
So, yeah… There’s a lot of poverty and a lot of health issues in fandom, at least out west.
Before you get all judgey at someone needing a mobility scooter, or a cane at a convention, stop and think a second, that there but for several accidents of birth go you. Being able-bodied isn’t a thing you earn. It’s a quirk of genetics, resources, access to adequate food and shelter, and the ability to rest and get completely healthy before you have to go back to work or school.
And plenty of people will pull that austerity bullshit: “Well, if you’re broke, you shouldn’t go to conventions/do costuming/experience joy in any form ever UNTIL YOU’VE EARNED IT.
Everyone needs joy in their lives, and honestly those with fewer resources and access to resources probably need it more than the rest of us.
I haven’t been dirt fucking poor for a long time, but I still remember what poor tastes like and feels like. If you have never subsisted on condiment “sandwiches.” If you have never had to wear hand-me-downs or thrift shop clothes, and I don’t mean chosen to, I mean HAD TO. If you’ve never heard your parents’ fighting because one of them insists you have Christmas gifts and the other one is trying to figure out which bill doesn’t get paid that month so you can have Christmas gifts, even if they’ve been on layaway at K-Mart since last May, I’mma need you to shut the hell up, because you have no idea what the hell you’re talking about.
And there are people who had it way worse than I did as a kid.
John Cheese has several great articles over at Cracked.com about what growing up poor is like and what it does to your head.
So, you know what? Cut some geeks some slack when they don’t have nice things, or they have bad teeth, or serious health issues. Because an awful lot of nerds are poor as shit, and when you live in a society where the wage of people who actually DO the work has stagnated, while the wages of those who get celebrated for firing them soar, it’s a lot harder to be not poor than it is to get poor.
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