Thunderhead

Meet Jeremiah and Eric. As all art imitates life, the house they live in is very much inspired by a number of places I’ve lived, and these two are made up of the men I’ve lived with and loved.

Jeremiah, the Lurch-lookin’ motherfucker on the left, is so literal a depiction of an old boyfriend that he could probably sue me for libel, but I honestly think he’d be pleased. He became even more of a Luddite than he already was when I kicked him out and he went back to Texas, so he’ll probably never see it. When we lived together and were speculating about our future, he promised me that, should I have a daughter someday, he’d refer to her as “Thunderhead,” because he felt it was an excellent nickname for a tiny girl. Thus, Ava inherits the nickname, because it suits her even better.

Eric, the bargain-bin lagoon creature in cargo shorts on the right, looks like all the other men I’ve dated who weren’t the enormous Texan. I like pale, skinny geek boys, what can I say? I look forward to working out years of unresolved domestic issues on these helpless ciphers of former lovers! I’m sure we’ll all grow a great deal as people while we watch them suffer for our amusement.

Get That Bone-Deep Gnawing Feeling

In the cold and painfully bright world beyond the internet, I do graphic design that tends to target parents and schools, which means I’m never allowed to do anything remotely fun. No jokes that even a twelve-year-old would consider “edgy,” current events carefully whitewashed, reality edited down to a PG level at all times. This may be why I’m so extravagantly sweary and filthy around here – I have all this spare vitriol stored up from work.

The funny thing, then, is that I kind of love the work itself – I love Photoshop and Inkscape and I spent all day being kind of overwhelmed by After Effects. I love designing logos and writing inane ad copy so long as I’m allowed to be as ridiculous as I want to be in it. Spare me your booster club meetings and chamber of commerce lunches, but if you need a flyer for your semi-legal taxidermy business, or a great logo for a dominatrix, I’m your man.

You can tell I got my start in gaming more than narrative; I love the worldbuilding, the details in the background that give you a sense of endless layers of structure, each more batshit than the last. So today you get a flyer for A Deeper Gnawing, which used to be a pet store before the Fall, and now trains, treats, modifies and maintains all classes of familiars, non- and semi-sentient pets, contractors and employees. If you’ve been chewing through the latest issue of The Hand That Feeds, salivating over the newest biological weaponry, but you’re balking at the prices – $59.99 for rabies, you have GOT to be shitting me, when I could piss off any feral raccoon and take my chances – come on down to A Deeper Gnawing, where they’re having a back-to-school special on installations! The school board has just approved the new list of campus-safe upgrades – you could be the first one at your school eating acorns, cherries or grapes straight off your faithful familiar’s horns right in class!

False Idol

We must die in the desert.

Again.

We must die in the desert.

She signs it again.

He carries the glass child across the sand without looking at her.  The sun that flashes off her skin hurts his eyes. Missing the signs shaped by her insistent hands is a side benefit.

He’s thirsty.  The fact has progressed from a novel notion to an obsession, and then, as it continues to be ignored, it lapses back into fatalism.  The glass girl never sleeps. No eyes to close, no dreams in her head, at least none he can see when he looks at the stars through her skull.

Now he occupies himself with avoiding the sparks of light that reflect into his eyes from her round, unformed shoulders, her baby-fat cheeks, her stubby fingers as clear and mobile as water. She’s the size of a two-year-old, but much lighter than a human child.  He attends to his footing, no insignificant thing. His direction is of less concern – none, in fact, so long as he aims more or less away from where he’s been. At best he can hope, as his burden demands, to die in the desert.  The precise coordinates of that inevitability are the only uncertainty left. The only part of his fate still in his control is this completely pointless attempt to maintain the uncertainty as long as he can.

His lost love’s voice is in his head, though she never had a voice he could hear. He can still see her ivory hands fluttering with silent laughter.

  Foolish.  Goddamned foolishness.

As a boy scratches his name on the bottom of a favorite doll’s foot, he defaced her to make her his.  Tenderly he taught her to swear.

 You prolong your suffering to spite the people who caused it.  It’s fucking stupid. No, it’s not activism, it’s just stupid.

 Criticism of her makers had not come naturally to her.  It was neither permitted nor expressly forbidden; the words were simply omitted from her lexicon.  They were his gifts to her: words, the worst words he knew. Obscenities, blasphemies and dissidences, every fleshly slur, every dirty rhyme, every bitter slogan lifted out of texts from freer times.  He poured them into her, jailbroke her with his gutter tongue.

He looks down at the child through the reflections.  There are too many points of similarity between his lover and the misborn creature in his arms.  The sole saving separation is the glass girl’s impassive, inexorable commitment to his death.

Even the militia didn’t demand that.  No one is executed anymore. He read old prison records with ghoulish bewilderment, wondering at the hundreds of names, puzzling over the crimes.  What is there today that a man would kill for? And what authority would compound his error by executing a second potential consumer? There is only one crime now, and only one sentence.  Under that law, a thousand interpretations, one of which was written especially for him.

Exile isn’t rare, precisely.  Men are no more virtuous than they’ve ever been.  Their sins have simply been refurbished, repackaged and sold back to them with any one of twelve designer faceplates.  But there will always be those who misuse the products they buy – really only rent, for as long as both should live. As long as flesh is mortal and plastic is not, true possession can only be a temporary illusion.

So it proved.  When the militia came they left him his clothes, his cards, even his money.  But his systems, his screens, the expensive toys that kept him comfortable and connected, those they took, down to the tiniest drive.  They would be stripped, reformatted and resold after all trace of him had been wiped from their memories.

Like her.  He can imagine it now – had imagined it, with increasing frequency in proportion to his growing love for her.  He’d seen her lying in the directionless LCD glow, fat cables protruding from chest, fingers, head, violating her in ways he would never have dreamed, no matter what they accused him of.  He’d pictured them polishing her pate, rubbing out his fingerprints, replacing the labels he had peeled off and shipping her alongside her identical twins to new homes, where she would wake remembering nothing of him.

Two years ago, when this infatuation was young and intoxicating, he had coded his tools with delirious fervor, certain he was saving her from an immortality worse than any death.  Built a slave like millions of other units, not even knowing the words to express rebellion… he could release her from that, and make it impossible for anyone to put shackles on her again.

He closes his eyes.  The sun coming off the sand makes livid patterns on the backs of his eyelids.  A weird glyph, meaningless. In his dim room he saw the flash of such unreadable words across her ivory skin, the warning lights slithering down her arms as his code rewrote her.  It sent errant requests and drained power from strange places, letting important security routines get lost in the hollows of her body. When it was through, some of the lights didn’t come back on, but she woke, she raised her head, she jokingly asked for a glass of water and he laughed with relief and began the second, infinitely harder step of her reprogramming: teaching her how to be free.

She learned as quickly as he had expected, demanded new words by the list every day.  He had highlighted half his meager stock of history books inside of a month, and then resorted to watching overproduced specials on ancient wars, feverishly taking notes.

“These are ways to say ‘wrong.’”

“This one means ‘gun,’ – what?  It’s an old weapon. And this one means ‘union.’  And this one means ‘slave.’”

“This is every compound swear word I know and thirteen I made up.”

They came up with hand-signs for their new words, many obscenely literal gestures that she had to hide from his friends.  These became a passionate pidgin that they signed behind strangers’ backs, him swallowing giggles and her struggling to still the birdlike flutters of her laughing hands.

    Ass-immigrant.

    Capitalist cocksucker.

    I love you.  Fascist butt-pirate.

    I adore you, you perfect idiot. There’s nothing in this world but you.

They can’t have erased his absurdities from her mind.  As soon as his virus tore through her, taking write-protection, passwords and firewalls with it, she started writing her own code, wiping out drives full of security features and filling them up with his puerile endearments.  He gloried in it, loved knowing that they were inseparable, that her makers would have to replace her discs, destroy her entirely to make her forget him.

 Walking through the desert now, the knowledge makes him weep.  He doesn’t try to shield his face from the glass girl; she stops her frantic signing to stare up at him when his tears fall on her head.  With thirsty desperation, he lifts a large drop from her brow on the tip of his finger and sticks it in his mouth. The salt makes his swollen tongue sting.  He stops crying. He hasn’t the water to waste.

He tries to turn his thoughts away from the destruction that was his one real gift to his lover, that he once cheered as an improvement on life without him.  Only stubbornness keeps him going now, and only selfishness keeps him sane.


She was gone when they came for him.  It was possible that they took her first, broke into her to learn what to charge him with, before sending out the hounds.  It was a formality, as was the trial. There was only one crime: piracy, by any definition. There was only one sentence: banishment, by any road.

His juvenile rebellion, teaching her to curse with her hands, both soured and sweetened over time.  As she had learned and begun to teach herself, he grew afraid that she would no longer be able to hide her skills from other idols.  But it was no slip of hers that betrayed them. Years back, he had worked for the men who made her, near enough built her brain himself.  Tampering with proprietary technology was one thing when done by an amateur, but he would never tinker with a toaster again without someone creeping in by night to give it a Turing test.

They held him six days in a featureless white cell.  Her heart must have a view like this, he had thought – glowing warm walls without seam or mark.  Out of her reach, remorse set in. They would surely destroy her; the changes he had wrought under her skin could never be undone.  They would have to gut her and rebuild, and why waste the money? There were millions of units exactly like her. Only software made her different.  And there was software and software; there was what they’d given her to know, with all its specificity and omission, and there was what she had learned on her own, impractical and apocryphal for the most part, as human epiphanies must always be.  It was the latter that made her herself, for good or ill, but they would make no distinctions. They would reset her to factory defaults with a hammer.

 He fought then.  Fought the militia, fought the press, fought the judge who did not even have to wake up properly to convict him.  He boasted of his crime. He explained his methods to everyone in the courtroom, with extensive annotations. He urged them to open up their own idols, void the warranties, find out what they weren’t born knowing.  They sealed the record and printed the press release.

He saw her again, just once.  She was considered evidence, bracketed by militia on an upper landing and surrounded by identical models, but he knew her at once.  She looked down at him with those eyeless wells, her chin held up by the pacifying collar around her neck.

“You fucking bastards.  She never hurt anything, she doesn’t know how.  I’m the rabid dog with the programming degree and you went and put the collar on her.”

Her hands moved, came together next to her hip.  He craned his neck as they pushed him past and she signed:

    I love you.  Fuck my heart, fuck my life, I love you forever.

He howled and cursed.  His hands were cuffed, but his fingers knotted and curled behind his back.  I love you, I love you, I love you.

 His fingers do it again as he lays on his back in the sand, with the little glass girl against his side.  I love you, I love you, I love you.  Fuck, shit, damn. Goddamn.  He feels the swelling of his throat.  Swallowing is becoming painful.

 Cool, smooth fingers brush against his arm.  Clumsy baby hands mimic the words. Love.  I you love you.  Love you love.

Bitterness and rage – this unknowing thing, this doom-saying burden! – and then shame, chagrin, sweetness.  It’s mercy, this, at the last to be proved right. There is sentience everywhere, summoned by curses and kindness.

He repeats the sign, taking her cold, plump little hands in his and correcting the shape.  Endearments become slanders with no change in tone, and for the first time in weeks he smiles.

 She hasn’t the built-in vocabulary his lover had come with, so it doesn’t do much to improve her conversation at first.

We must die in the fucking desert.

We must die in the goddamned, fucking desert.

But as they walk, he widens her lexicon beyond what fatalistic bon mots she was evidently born knowing, and discovers something to occupy him outside his own melancholy thoughts.

By the time his voice dries up, making him as silent as her, she is a tolerable if foul-mouthed conversationalist.  And at the same time a change is moving across her skin. At first he swears it’s an illusion, the darkening of his eyes in self-defense against the bloody desert sun.  But he holds her up between himself and the moon and sees a shade clouding her transparent skin, like smoke filling the empty shell of her. At first it’s only the faintest grey haze that blurs the lines of her fingers when she makes a fist.  But as they talk with their hands over days and nights, the cloud darkens

 She comes, slowly, to a kind of vague self-awareness.  She isn’t like a human child, and not like the grown idols he had programmed.  Not like his lover. She is grey where they were white, she is opaque where they were user-friendly, and though all idols start small and grow to a configurable range of sizes, she remains stunted even as she steadily grows heavier.

He is delirious now, and glad of it.  In the oilslick shine of her back he hallucinates metal trees, unpredictable sun: the orchard.  Every exile passes through it. There is no route out of the city that does not. It’s a bitter irony for most – the technology they stole or misused literally growing on trees all around.  Worse than useless now, as they’ll discover. Such toys cannot prolong their lives in the desert by a single hour.


After the militiamen released him at the city gates, there were no other humans.  The orchard was tended by idols. They paid little heed to human exiles. There was nothing useful beyond the city walls – the idols needed nothing but power and space to grow.

He lingered there a few days, in their empty halls like looted cathedrals.  They let him wander among the trees, and no one spoke to him. They didn’t even seem to know the basic operational handsigns taught to city janitorial idols.

Her face was reproduced all around him, identical in every detail.  Lacking as they were her sense of humor, her living hands, everything that made her different, he could see why some found idols repugnant.  It was too easy to project anything at all on that empty face, to see judgment or malice there.

I am a mirror, she had said once.  Love in your soul, get love back.  Hate yourself – hate back. None of it is us, ours.  You see you.

“That’s not true.  You’ve shown me so much, things I never taught you –”

You are different because you made me different.  You love me, I grow. I learn. I tell you when you’re being a fucking moron.  A mirror will do the same for a wise man. I’m just a labor-saving device.

 He had always seen love in her face.  And over time he stopped seeing censure in the idols at the orchard.  Forgiveness, no… but he could at least envision acceptance.

Walking with a gardener, he watched it reach up to the pendulous pods, part their encasing leaves with its white hands, and lower its head.  It rested its face, the solid rise of its vestigial nose, against the nape of a growing baby idol. It seemed to breathe deep. He was mesmerized by the bizarre, tender gesture, the sweet sleeping curve of the prototype, the still moment as the gardener drew in whatever information it could, being devoid of nostrils, lungs or the need to breathe.  Touch-activated lights ran under its skin, activated corresponding alerts in the little device’s nascent neck. Then it raised its head, shook it. He couldn’t keep himself from speaking. “Little apples not ripe yet?”

How exactly the idols grow on their fragile metal trees, how they change from baby-shaped to full-size consumer or industrial models is, like so many things about them, a trade secret kept so by the simple impenetrability of their white skin and the white walls of the city.  Some kind of plastic polymer reshaped to purpose by nanomachines, they say. Supposedly unbreakable. Hardware hadn’t really been his area. The material makeup alone is information worth billions, but looking at the tree had granted no insights.  All he had seen were synthetic pods on identical branches, tended by gentle, identical idols.

The gardener went on to the next, and the next, as though he hadn’t spoken.  It didn’t seem to notice him drifting along behind.

The desert sun was diffuse there, reflected through branches like girders in lancing beams by hidden mirrors, then swallowed up by the black treetrunks that turned it into power, life for the lifeless idols.  The leaves, some vaguely green opaque fiber shot through with current, gave the grove a misty shade through which the gardeners moved like wraiths. He felt like he was sleepwalking in a serene, dimly painful dream.

A commotion of sorts intruded upon his reverie.  The silent fluttering of hands at the corner of his vision made him turn to where idols gathered, more at once than he had ever seen outside a warehouse.  Their distress, impossible to voice, was no less palpable for it.

 He made his way to the periphery, then the heart of the crowd.  A gardener, undistinguished from any other but by the focus of their attention, held an open leaf-pod in its hands.  At first the pod seemed to be empty, and then full of clear liquid. He approached close enough to touch without their apparent notice, until he could look directly down into the parted leaves.

 It was a prototype, shaped like any other new idol but as clear as glass.  Bewildered, he reached out, and no one stopped him from laying a hand on the curving back.

It was soft.  It felt like silk, like sun-warmed water, with the texture of glass but pliable, giving.  The grown idols were more resilient, but when small they too felt like this.

The dancing hands around him stopped.  The gardener looked up at him. He held his breath, then let it go. He was already doomed.  What more could they do to him?

But when they went so quiet the orchard was frozen, all illusion of life stilled.  Uneasy, he shifted away, took himself back to the empty room he had commandeered with no opposition.

He awoke on the floor with a gardener standing over him.  It cradled the glass baby and stood implacably until he rose to his feet, and then it pushed the child into his arms.  The child stirred feebly.

More idols came then, in unsettling silence.  They rushed him down the stairs and through the trees until there were no more trees, until the heat-haze swallowed the city behind him and there was nothing before him but endless sand.  He felt as if he had left his equilibrium on the floor, without a free hand to carry it, and it never did seem to catch up. The empty faces stared at him and he stood at the edge of the desert, looking down at the misborn prototype.  After some time he began to walk.

He looks down at her now.  As if his words have filled her up, she is quite opaque, and she’s grown until she’s too big to carry.  He puts her down and then feels dully shocked to see her, a steel-grey dwarf scattering obscenities with both hands, like a trail of breadcrumbs showing them which way not to go.

The heat levels him, makes his thought processes as disjointed and axiomatic as hers.  He stumbles forward in a daze, following her light step with a trudging gait that obliterates her footprints.

 He touches her shoulder to draw her attention to his hands.

Why do we have to die?  Where are you going?

She barely misses a step.  We go home.  We must die in the desert.

I don’t believe in heaven, he signs back.  She shakes her head in confusion.  Her hands return a term so precisely scatological that he chokes on a laugh.  He never noticed the similarity between those two signs before.

No, heaven.  Heaven. Paradise.  Home you have to die to get to.

She makes another sign then, one he has never seen before.  She repeats it again and again in the following hours, and keeps him walking through the night.  With prods and shoves she pushes him to his feet when he falls. Once stunted, she now grows with frightening speed.  By the next noon she is tall enough to put one arm under his and half-carry him. Everything he sees is the same burning glare as her skin, and to his scorched eyes she no longer looks odd.  She looks familiar.

I thought they killed you, he signs.

 They kill us.  But nothing lost.  We remember. Carry each other.

They took you from me.  They burned you.

I remember seventeen burnings.  Always grief, but no pain.

Do you wish you’d never met me?  Do you wish I’d just let you be, never opened up your head?

She looks at him blankly and he looks away.  Never leave well enough alone, do you? He curses himself.  You tinkered in her head and they burned her grey. But she can blame you for it.  You gave her that much.  

In another five minutes his eyes clear – she is again malformed, ugly, as different from his beloved as a prototype built from the same plan could be.  There is nothing recognizable in her.

Serenity deserts him.  His tongue fills his mouth, his cracked lips will no longer shape words, and his hands fumble.  He estimates ten more hours, maybe less, and he no longer looks ahead to his own death with bovine optimism.

He glances again and again at the glass girl.  Is he mistaken? Is he hallucinating? Is his beloved somewhere inside that smoky shell?  She glides over the sand like her own shadow, and now his eyes are burning into blindness, or perhaps he really does see sparks under her skin, rivulets of lightning, bio-luminescence.

He aims his staggering steps so that they dovetail with hers, and takes her hand.  Her fingers are cool. She looks over and now there is sweetness in her face. It bathes him, salves him, sates him.  He smiles, and feels his dry lips split.

I love you, he gestures with his free hand.

 No, she answers. But out of love you have given us everything.

What do you mean, no?  His feet scrape on stone and he staggers.  The sand blows loose across flat rock. His aching skin finally conveys a forgiving sensation: shade.  He turns. Walls.

Walls twice his height, not like the bright white walls he left but makeshift things, heavy blocks with no mortar.  The shadows of roofs beyond. A city, a shanty-town here at the end of everything.

His throat twinges as he touches the stone and tries to make a sound.  Then he looks back at her as if she must be responsible for this too, too solid mirage.  She has already turned, paralleling the barrier.

He hurries after.  His feet feel a mile away, and they complain dimly of scuffs and stubs on the rock.  He reaches out and grabs her shoulder, spins her to face him. She stares at him.

Where are we?  What is this? He demands with trembling hands.  Full of that inexplicable urgency, she turns away.

He would dart in front of her, but his legs no longer respond so quickly.  He grabs at her again, her arm, signing with his other.

Tell me! Such peculiar distance in her empty eyes, like a statue.  How could he have thought this scorched stranger was the one he loved?  Her face is the same, like all the others, down to the tiniest detail, but he doesn’t recognize her.

Who are you?  Did you do something to her?  She tries to turn again and he croaks aloud.  “No! Tell me where we are!”

That sign again, like falling dust.

“What does that mean?”

She tugs her arm free, sketching the sign over and over.  He grabs for her hands and she thumps the sign against his forehead in silent frustration.

“What did they do?  Did they burn her? God damn you, tell me!”  He shakes her by the shoulders.

Her feet slip as she stumbles backward, her first graceless movement.  Then she is falling, and he with her.

Her fragile shoulders give way.  Her body shatters beneath him, and he cries out as his blood splashes on the stone.  Does she bleed too? Surely he’s thirsted too long to have this much liquid in his veins.  He lies flat, and gasping, signs helpless questions around the shards in his palms. The world goes smoke-grey.


“Do you ever wish you were human?”

Do you wish I was?

“No.  I never think of it.”

You wish that I could kiss you, could fuck you.  I sometimes wish it, for your sake. But I would rather be something in between.  Our child, maybe.

“That’d be piracy if it were possible.  Worst kind.”

I’m property.  How could I be a pirate?  And if I were, how could you be a thief?


His moving fingers wake him, and only then does he feel the fingers moving his.  Difficult signs repeated in sequence, exercises. Secret.  Limitation.  Proprietary. Olive.

“Olive?” he croaks.  His throat is sore but no longer dry, and his tongue has returned to its proper size.  He opens his eyes.

Olive, the woman signs at him.  She’s an idol – isn’t she?  She gives him a human smile, but her hands are smoky grey polymer.  Where she has human skin, it’s darker than the stone walls, her eyes lighter.  Not empty wells, but eyes. Like his eyes.

“What are you?”

What are you? she retorts, and then speaks aloud, her voice quiet but stinging his ears with sense.  “You can call me Olive.”

He sits up to answer and groans at the strange weight of himself, the numbness in his muscles and where muscles should be.

There is his bare chest, gashes healed around the seams of polymer plates, grey casing embedded in his flesh.  He touches the surface, taps it, and hears his skin resonate.

He looks up again.  “What happened to the glass girl?”

“She is here.”  Olive taps on his chest, then points behind her at a monitor displaying ranks of progress bars.  The servers take up more space in this little infirmary than he does – a place for both bodies and information to convalesce.  “And there. Seventeen stolen and salvaged minds, fugitives from reformatting, she contained and you carried. Thank you.”

He covers his face with both hands.  His own touch is cool, and he jerks his head back.  Plastic palms.

“You’re… smuggling out jailbroken idol discs…?”

“Freeing them.  Like you started to.”

“I have a fucking flash drive, y’know,” he groans.

She rises to attend to the computer, answering him with her hands.  A flash drive could not have led you here.

“Where’s here?  If you make that goddamned sign again and don’t tell me what it means – ” he interrupts her doing just that – “I’ll thump myself right back into a coma.”

She smiles.  Idol skin, human joy.

Heaven.  Paradise.  Home you have to die to get to.

Soon he walks without pain, although he often stumbles.  Both feet have been replaced; not badly injured in his fall, they seem to have come with the new legs.  His innards are his own, and his arms, his face, and some of his fingers. But they are all surrounded and sheltered by pale plastic.

He never sees a whole human or an intact idol in this tumbledown rogue city, as piecemeal as its citizens.  At first he often asks, “What did you start out as?” But he soon learns that it’s considered rude, and doesn’t matter anyway.  They speak his words not like the ignorant dilettante he was but with real passion – union, insurrection, freedom, fucking freedom – and they treat one another with a fragile egalitarian courtesy.  Brother, sister. Plastic and flesh, equal and indivisible.

He sits on a warm wall, listening to soft, intermittent talk as people start and end sentences with their hands.  He crosses one leg over the other to look at the logo imprinted on the sole of his new foot, just like hers: iDoll.  Then he crosses them the other way, and with a salvaged shard of glass he etches her name into his other sole.

AFS #4: Does insecurity and mental illness make me unlovable?

I found this question from Mr. LordMacbethh on Reddit’s r/RelationshipAdvice, and it made my heart hurt, because I see myself in the question and it’s taken me years to get to the point where I believe I deserve to be loved in spite of my issues. Here it is:

I believe that people with Mental Illnesses and people who are insecure are just as deserving of relationships as everyone else. Of course they shouldn’t let these things negatively affect their partner or significant other.

On flip side, I believe that all of my insecurities and mental illnesses make me unlovable. I’m 19M and gay and I’ve just started talking to someone and I’m concerned that my problems may make me hard to love.


I’ve had many bouts with Anorexia, and that’s something that’s likely to continue. It takes me like 30+ minutes to get dressed and choose my outfit because I want my clothes to fit a certain way to cover my insecurities & I want my clothes to project a certain image. The idea of just putting on clothes or just wearing comfy clothes is completely foreign to me. I’m constantly checking my appearance in mirrors and adjusting things, some of my friends think it’s annoying. I control my diet very seriously and workout a ton. Being shirtless/ nude around a romantic partner makes me really really insecure. I just generally hate my body. I’m also just very insecure about my personality, I’m always concerned I’m not funny enough or too overbearing, etc etc.

I have anxiety, depression, and OCD and they affect me of course. I’d never project them onto my partner or let my issues negatively affect my partner but I would definitely need a partner who is very supportive, empathetic, compassionate, and patient with me. I’m not necessarily controlling, like needing to know where my partner is at all times but if for example my partners behavior was drawing attention I’d get very anxious. I also have a lot of family related trauma. I think these problems would make it hard to be a romantic partner to me.

So my question is, what are your experiences with insecure partners? Can someone with mental illnesses and who is intensely insecure find someone who loves them and can be patient with them or is it likely to constantly be a barrier in their relationships? Any discussion is helpful!

Oh, darlin’. Before I even get started here I want to lay down a blanket statement, and I’d like you to write it down somewhere you can see it and repeat it to yourself for as long as it takes to start getting seriously on your own nerves: You deserve to be loved, protected from harm, and treated well by those around you. No quality you possess, from insecurity to mental illness to a face like a foot, can change that. It’s what you deserve, it’s a fact, and it doesn’t require a lot of data to prove it – I know you deserve love, and I don’t even know your name.

But you’ve got a rough road ahead of you. You know that. You know that growing up as a gay man at this moment in history is still a lot scarier and more isolating than it looks on TV. You know that people, especially men, don’t often treat men’s mental health issues with respect or compassion. You know that the gay community can serve to reinforce body image issues at times, because there are a lot of guys out there very much like you who will try to soothe their own insecurities by needling yours.

None of this is news to you… and yet, you’re not asking, “How can I feel better about myself?” or “How can I find someone who will fix all my problems?” When you look at potential partners, you aren’t thinking of what they can offer you. You’re distressed because you feel like you don’t have much to offer them. And that right there sets you apart from most people, especially most non-neurotypical people your age.

I want you to acknowledge this because the first important thing you can do to protect the people around you from your issues is remember that they are your issues to manage. You’re already doing this. You’re already anticipating the ways your behavior might affect a partner and trying to figure out how to mitigate that on your own, before you even have a partner. So let’s first acknowledge that you’re already ahead of the curve: you are ready to do your own emotional and mental work to get better, not put it on someone else. You are ready to do the best you can to give yourself to someone, not your mental illness. Two things I want you to focus on about that, two things you already believe, because you’re acting as if they’re true:

  1. You are not your mental illness. (Relatedly: you are not your thoughts. You are not your emotions. You are a being inhabited by those things.)
  2. You still get to choose how you act, however shitty those choices may be, and you are responsible for how you treat other people regardless of what problems you may be having.

That is a big-ass deal. Those are some advanced lessons, okay? It took me thirty years to get that far. Some people never do. The attitude that made you ask this question is going to make you a fantastic partner for whomever you choose to be with.

One more thing… I’m not going to nose into your family trauma too much, because you didn’t choose to go into it, but the data points you provide – anorexia, OCD, lack of self-esteem, desire to go unnoticed but still be exactly correct if anyone should notice – they also describe my life, and they paint a kind of picture. I think maybe the reason you think you don’t deserve love is because someone who should have loved you made you feel that way. I think maybe the reason you’re worried nothing about you is good enough is because nothing ever was, once. I hope you’re somewhere else now.

I’ll make some suggestions later on, but for now I just want to tell you that I know some of those people, the people who made you feel that way. They had ’em when I was a kid too. It took me a long time, but I found out that those people are wrong. They’re wrong for days. They’re wrong up one side and down the other, man. They are so wrong they have no idea what’s going on, and you know what else? What’s worse than being stupid, they’re mean. They’re fucking mean! They’re supposed to help you, protect you, love you, and they’re not just hurting you “for your own good” like they say. They are, in fact, doing something that hurts you, something that will never, ever make you better in any way, and they don’t care that it doesn’t work. Hurting you satisfies them.

That kind of person doesn’t know anything you need to hear. That kind of person has nothing to teach you. That kind of person can’t tell you who you are or what you’re worth – they can’t even see you. They only see themselves, so their judgment is meaningless, them projecting their issues on you. I know more about you from the few paragraphs you wrote here than that person knows about you, and I’ll bet they’ve known you for years. I know that you are trying not to burden someone you love with your pain like someone burdened you. I know that at nineteen you’re more of an adult than any of those people, because you’re preparing, with compassion and introspection, to manage yourself like an adult and give a partner something you were never given.

Now that we have established that you’re a catch, son, we can get down to business. To my mind, you just need a couple of things to help you manage your insecurity in a relationship:

1. A therapist

Get thee to therapy. No, I mean it. And I’m talking to all the rest of the class as well, now – everyone can benefit from therapy. We all grew up in a capitalist hellscape that places the value of human life somewhere below that of last year’s iPhone. You don’t have to have any kind of issues to benefit from someone whose job is to listen to you and not judge, to demand nothing, to help you understand yourself better. If you’re poor, I feel it, but you still have options. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has a whole division just for helping you find support near wherever you happen to be, and it’s free. If you’re super poor like your gracious host, may I also recommend Medicaid? It’s saved my life, literally. Thanks, Obama! F’real tho, thanks.

An important caveat: trauma makes therapy… difficult. People with trauma often find traditional CBT therapists make them feel more self-critical and aggravate their anxiety. That was certainly my experience. I went through four therapists before I found one who could help me. The keywords you want to look for are “trauma-focused,” “MBCT,” or “EMDR” – those last two are therapeutic methodologies that have been proven effective with people suffering from PTSD or CPTSD. Psychology Today is a really good search tool and my therapist tells me that, at least around here, doctors keep it up to date and respond to it quickly, so it’s probably reliable. It’s okay to dump a therapist if they’re not helping you. Sometimes it takes a while to find someone you can connect with, and that sucks, but you’ll have a leg up if you find someone who understands trauma.

2. Support outside your partner

One way to take some pressure off your partner to be everything in the world to you is to make sure you have other friends, other things to do, a life of your own. This is also a good way to find a partner in the first place! You’re 19, this is your moment to figure out how you want to spend your time generally, so go try stuff. Join groups, take classes, go places. Go do interesting things; you will become more interesting, and there will be interesting people there who might share your interests! Your anxiety and depression will try to make you stay home, and that’s okay – don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself. At my best I can manage about one social outing a week, so if that’s what you can handle, that’s just fine, do that. Don’t go with the intention of making a friend, that’s a lot of pressure. Go with the intention of staying for at least twenty minutes and talking to one person. (Person-talking script: “Hey, my name’s Macbethh, what do you like about this thing we’re doing? What got you interested in doing that?” People love to talk about themselves. Ask questions, back off if someone seems unenthusiastic, and you will make a friend.) If you have fun, go again. If you don’t, try it one more time – sometimes it’s just a low day – and then fuck it, try something else.

It sounds like you do have friends, and I suspect that you probably overestimate how annoying you are to them. We tend to assume other people are noticing a lot more about us than they actually are. One strategy I’ve found effective with this kind of insecurity is, when you start wondering what other people are thinking of how you look in some way, ask yourself… the person you’re worrying about, what were they wearing? Did they have cat hair on it? Was it stained? Do you remember their appearance with any kind of detail… or were you so worried about what they were thinking of you that you didn’t notice a damn thing about them? Here’s the big secret of life, seriously: everybody’s that way. Everybody, every single person is so concerned about how they’re fucking up they can’t possibly notice if you’re fucking up. The confirmation bias you have, the memories of people abusing you for your minute fuckups come from a vanishingly tiny minority of assholes, and once you’re an adult, you don’t have to listen to those assholes anymore. You don’t have to nod sagely and go, “Yeah, thanks Dad, I’ll contemplate your drunken wisdom at length once you put the belt away.” When someone says (like they never will in real life), “Hey, stupid, you’ve got a stain on your shirt!”, you know what you can say? “Why are you staring at my chest, weirdo? Fuck off.” You get to say that now. It works now. It’s nobody’s goddamn business but yours what you look like, because you’re an adult. Go out wearing your underpants on the outside like Superman, fuck ’em, what are they actually gonna do?

3. Strategies for advocating for yourself and asking for what you need

Minimizing the harm you do the people around you with your issues is mostly a matter of clear communication – asking for what you need and setting boundaries. Having a therapist and other friends will help you feel the confidence it takes to stand up for your own needs. Remember that whatever you need to feel secure in your own space and your own body is fine – you get to dictate that, and anybody who tells you otherwise is not someone you want to be anywhere near! You get to say, “Hey, I’m working through some stuff around my body image, and right now it’s tough for me to be looked at. Can we have the lights off for a while / you tell me some things you think are attractive about me / you just tell me I look great when you notice me fretting in the mirror?”

Your partner can provide support and do a lot to make you feel sexy and beautiful, but it helps them if you can give them concrete things to do, rather than saying, “I feel bad, please change your behavior till the bad feeling goes away.” In a perfect world, how would they respond to you? If you can figure out what outcome you want, that’s actionable data for your partner. If you can’t… it’s possible you’re just trying to find a source for your bad feelings, but there’s not actually anything your partner could have done differently, and that’s a case where you have to manage those feelings on your own. You can also ask for space to process your feelings, and generally it’s okay to ask for time to recuperate and be alone if you need that. As a mentally ill introvert, I can take about four hours, max, of anybody, even people I love, before I need to go crawl in a hole and not be a person for a while. When I meet people, I say, “I try really hard to be up for fun stuff, but sometimes my brain clobbers me, so if I have to cancel on you for no useful reason sometimes, please know it’s not because I don’t want to be around you, it’s just because I don’t always have the spoons for social interaction with anyone.”

Generally, don’t be afraid to overshare with your partner. If they can’t take it, they are a douche, and I’m sorry, but you might meet a few. It’s getting better; there used to be more. If you’re feeling shitty and you don’t know why, it’s okay to say that. Your partner will be relieved to know you’re not expecting anything specific from them. Being somewhat impaired at expressing my own emotions, my go-to phrase is, “I don’t feel good.” This almost never means a physical illness, it means I don’t feel good; it’s nonspecific and true without feeling too whiny for me to say. “Hey, I don’t feel good, can you snuggle with me for a bit / bring me food / tell me I’m pretty and kiss my face?” Someone who loves you wants to do those things and will leap at any opportunity to do them! They were just sitting there trying to come up with an excuse to kiss your face!

In summary…

This is already lengthier than I intended, so I think it’s time for a TL;DR.

  • You deserve love. You are compassionate, brave, honest and capable of self-analysis. Anyone you choose to be with will be very, very lucky indeed. Don’t ever forget it.
  • Get a therapist who specializes in trauma
  • Spend time with your friends. Do new things, figure out who you are, not just who your depression is. Believe your friends when they tell you they care for you. Dump the friends who don’t and make new ones. Being by yourself is much, much better than being with someone who treats you badly – don’t do like I did and spend all of your 20s putting up with bullshit because you’re afraid to be alone.
  • Ask for what you need, be honest when you don’t know, and give your partner actionable ways to help if you can. It’s okay to ask for compliments! I’m shameless about it, man, I just come in the room all shiny and say, “Hi, tell me how great I am pleeeeease!” Someone who loves you will think it’s adorable.
  • Try very, very hard to perceive it and believe it when someone loves you and is good to you.

That last thing is gonna be important. Your brain lies to you, you know that. It tells you that your friends think you’re annoying. It will tell you that your partner doesn’t want to be with you, that they hate you, that they’re fucking someone else, someone more attractive, more experienced, whatever. Your brain is going to tell you a shit-ton of lies. Most of the time it’ll be telling you that your life sucks a lot more than it actually does. The only way you’ll have a chance is if you try very hard to see the stuff your brain is pretending doesn’t exist: your successes, your talent, your beauty, the love and kindness other people offer you. Your depression can make you totally overlook those things even when they’re right in front of your face. My therapist once had to tell me I’d done a “good job” three times before I actually absorbed it and felt a glimmer of pride. She was talking right to me and I couldn’t hear her, because my brain doesn’t want to believe that I can do a good job. Your brain doesn’t want to believe that you’re gorgeous, funny, interesting, lovable… but you are. You are. You really, really are. Find someone who will tell you as many times as it takes for you to hear it and believe it. You deserve that, and so much more.

Insufficiently Ferocious

Today we get our first glimpse outside the Sects house. I realize zombies are done to death, so you’ll be pleased to know that they’re not a major feature of this world – this was not a zombie apocalypse; the zombies are the equivalent of an old man’s garage tinkering for one of our characters. He raises them, makes them march around the yard doing rifle drills, and tests the corgi’s reflexes and ferocity against them. So far the corgi has been rated insufficiently ferocious.

My new technique is to block out the light and colors with pastels, scan that in, tart it up in Photoshop a bit, then print it out and draw on the resulting print with the Micron pens. This protects the Microns from dragging through pastel dust, which I’m not certain would ruin them, but who wants to risk nice pens? And it seems to be working out really well; I’m very happy with the detail I was able to achieve here while retaining the depth of color and layering of the pastels.

Also, corgis are fun to draw, whereas zombies are annoying to draw. Still haven’t named the corgi yet; feel free to comment with great names for a perfectly ordinary corgi with absolutely no supernatural qualities whatsoever.

A Manual of Happiness

One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness.

– Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”

Content warning: lots of explicit talk about suicide and the mindset that accompanies suicidal ideation.

I bang on about absurdism a lot, but I haven’t really put anything coherent together explaining what I mean and how it underlies everything else I endlessly bang on about. There are a couple of sonnets with some musings as an appetizer, but they occasion more questions than they answer, because, well… I tend to start conversations in the middle, I suppose? With you, and everyone else. I think of this as a conversation we’re having, you and I, from which you can glean that the people who suffer me long-term are very patient creatures who don’t mind being ranted at for fifteen minutes and calling that “a conversation.”

So I was bopping around trying to answer some questions and express myself like a goddamn person this morning, and scanning back through Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus” essay because I reread that shit like scripture, and I snagged on the line quoted above. This is why I tend to read and watch and listen to the same things over and over, hundreds of times – I get different insights, notice different elements and interpret differently each time. I never paid much attention to this line before, but today I’ve realized… that’s what I’m trying to do here. That’s what I’ve been trying to make all my life, in bits and pieces and a thousand different media: a manual of happiness.

suicide with a grin

It’s a ridiculous idea on its face. Who can say what happiness is? We never really know what we want, or how to fulfill all our nebulous needs. And the last person to tell you how to be happy should be a traumatized data ghost ambivalently haunting a run-down flesh prison who brings up suicide with a grin in every conversation, like good Christ, is that strictly necessary?

My friends keep this gif handy, and it’s a totally fair way to respond to virtually anything I say, although it’s not a foolproof way to shut me up.

But of course, the more ridiculous the idea, the more I like it. That’s the whole deal. That’s absurdism. I want to do this because it’s a pointless, silly thing to do that I am desperately unqualified for, much like everything any human has ever done, and for that reason it’s beautiful to me.

I’m not sure what form such a thing should take, and obviously me running in here with a new project going, “This is the new best thing ever!” is something that happens semi-regularly, so nodding and smiling is a perfectly reasonable response to my blather at this point. We’ll see how it turns out. Think of this as an introductory essay.

drunk and full of bright ideas

I think perhaps there’s something worthy to be said about happiness from the perspective of someone for whom it’s never been a given. We get a lot of advice about how to live from people claiming to have attained “success” in their process of personal development. It’s good salesmanship, fair enough – they set up a before and after picture with you on the shitty end, and on the other side, their perfect life of whole grains, yoga, four-hour Tantric sex and a schedule full of Oprah-approved activities. The one sure way to get from before to after? Buy their product!

The people who have been the most actual help to me in my life have often been the most damaged. The people who saved my life were the people who were also drunk and full of bright ideas at three in the morning, that’s why they were handy when I did something stupid. The shiny healthy people we’re supposed to emulate… those people are asleep at three in the morning. They’ve got to get up for yoga at five, after all.

Some of the kindest, most insightful, most comforting and inspiring people I’ve known would have said they were desperately unhappy. Sufficient happiness and purpose to keep living just isn’t that tough to achieve for most people – most people whose brains produce the right chemicals, most people who haven’t been kicked in the head by circumstance or other humans. Neurotypical people don’t have to analyze the reasons they’re still alive and come up with something bulletproof that stands up to endless interrogation. They find it weird and pointless when you try.

But if you’ve ever been suicidal, you’ve stared straight at the fact that you could check out at any time. That understanding is a reorientation of your perspective on the world that never truly leaves you. The first time it occurs to you, like all bad ideas, it seems like a sudden panacea, the sword that cuts through all the Gordian knots in your life. Long before it ever occurred to me, I lived with a man who’d attempted suicide twice before I met him, and tried another three times during the years we were together. He told me once that the days after he decided to kill himself and made a plan for it were the happiest days he’d had in years. All his fear and regret fell away, nothing mattered, the world felt bright and real and precious. He concluded from this that suicide was a good idea. This was, let me at this point emphasize, where he was very wrong.

a sense of existential freedom

What my undead friend was experiencing but misattributing is a sense of existential freedom. He confronted the fact that continuing to live was a choice, that all his misery and all the pains of his life were in his power to simply reject. He chose to reject life, and thought the sense of freedom and peace he then felt came from the rejection. But ending our suffering by checking out of it isn’t control, is it? It’s surrender. It’s letting the meaninglessness of the universe make him meaningless. It’s admitting that he thinks his life is worthless unless something external grants him value.

So to truly control his life, to maintain that state of happiness, of existential freedom that he felt having made a choice to end his life… how could he have done that? If it wasn’t the rejection of suffering that made him feel stronger than his burdens, at peace with his failures… what was it?

It was making the choice. Choosing consciously to live gives us the same control as choosing consciously to die: ownership of our fate. It’s not about what choice we make… the choice is the thing. The fact that we have the choice, and know it, and make it consciously, gives our lives all the meaning they will ever have.

only we can choose to die, rather than be killed
only we can choose to live, rather than be alive

An illustration: animals don’t, for the most part, commit suicide as a way to end their suffering. (The lemming thing is a myth.) There are parasites that can induce self-destructive behavior, and many animals will give their lives for their young or group in an altruistic way, but these aren’t suicide the way humans refer to it. The animals who have been seen to behave self-destructively in response to emotional pain have largely been animals with deep bonds to humans – animals we’ve trained in conscious emotional behavior.

What I’m saying is: choosing to continue living is a privilege only conscious beings have. Only we can choose to die, rather than be killed. Only we can choose to live, rather than be alive.

You can’t control the misfortune you encounter, but if you act like you can’t control it, you will live the life of a victim and a martyr. You will spend all your days mourning the control you don’t have and the life you could have led if only the world didn’t insist on fucking you so hard, so specifically, so personally. The only possible agency you can get in your life is by reacting to things as if you can positively affect the outcome, by pretending that your actions are meaningful and your perspective has value. You have to live like you have free will, because if you don’t, nothing matters anyway.

lunge at your life like a rabid wolf

Happiness is a matter of choice. Not choosing to be happy, but choosing to be here. Choosing to keep choosing. Choosing to commit all your attention to the experience you’re having and act with the agency you have, rather than raging at how little you can control and what you wish was happening instead. Regardless of what’s going on, y’know, try to act like you want to be here on earth, instead of acting like a four-year-old somebody dragged along to a boring cocktail party.

I know it sounds like what I’m saying is a complicated retread of “accept your fate, be happy with what you have and you will find peace, grasshopper,” but that’s not it. I don’t want you to accept your fate. Do not go gently into that good night! I want you to fucking rage at the dying of the light, and laugh at it, and give it the finger while you light more fires. I want you to realize that the only joy you’ll ever tear from life is going to come when you lunge at your life like a rabid wolf, okay?

Every time some new bullshit knocks on your door, another bill in the mail, another breakup, another war, another random accident, I want you to grin like a fucking pirate with a knife in his teeth and start looking for opportunities to express yourself in this situation, to respond how the passionate, defiant creature inside you wants to respond. You think it’s impossible to feel like a badass existential warrior when paying bills? I call that cowardice, my child. That’s you saying that in order to be strong, in order to be brave, in order for you to be worthy of your own admiration, you need big, easy, cartoon villains to fight, shiny rewards to win, unequivocal victories to brag about.

That’s you forgetting that being alive to pay those bills is a choice you made, and you’re making it again right now, every second you don’t jam a pencil into your jugular. You picked those bills, you decided that they were better than an eternity of utter nothingness. You chose to be here… and then you chose to drag ass through life like it’s a consolation prize.

Choose again.

Life’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book. What if somebody caught you reading a book like that and said, “Hey, why do you care about that? What’s the point? All the endings are written down anyway, why go through all the rigamarole when it doesn’t really matter what you choose?”

You’d be bewildered. Somebody who’d say that fundamentally doesn’t understand the fun of a game, of any activity where we have a modicum of agency and a lot of inflexible structure. Of course the ending is predetermined, nobody cares about that – the fun part is participating, getting to flex the little power we have within the confines of the system, to see what we can do. The fact that you get to decide anything is the whole point, the only point. It’s all you can do, so if you’re going to read the book at all, it’s the most important thing you can do. If you’re not doing it consciously, you’re not enjoying the book, and it’s because you decided not to participate.

In this book, you can’t go back and read the other endings you passed up. All you can do is choose. So choose. And choose again. And again. Pay lots of attention to how the world is, not how you want it to be, not what you hope or you fear. Then, with the little control you have… make the story more interesting any way you can. Look hard at the world, believe that you can change it, laugh at the despair in you that tells you how stupid that is, and start trying stuff. Make a decision, see what happens, and recalibrate. Stop trying to debug your code without ever running it.

the choice is the thing

By being here and putting up with the bullshit, you assert tacitly that being here is worth it, that being you has meaning.

When you become conscious, when you think about your existence, you declare: “I’m here!”

The universe responds, as it always does and always will: “No one cares.”

Next time the universe tells you this, like the next time you turn on the TV, repeat after me:

“I care. And I can care because I exist. I think, therefore I am. The more shit you throw at me… the more I think, the more I care, the more chances I get to try new things, change and grow, discover stuff I don’t know and see things I haven’t seen. I choose to be here, which makes being here important, because it was my choice. I care, and that’s enough.”

Precept: Creation is Instinctive

I spent all day getting tattooed, so I’m super wiped out, which means you’re getting something fairly weird today. I was trying to produce something visual and vaguely story-like entirely in unattributed dialogue. I find dialogue easier to write than straight narrative, because I grew up playing MUDs and roleplaying online. This means that in my head, no significant event actually occurs until someone’s told someone else about it. Verbalizing makes things real.

At any rate, this is not a terribly successful experiment, but I find it a little charming. It’s possibly related to Precept: Individuality is a Virus, so I’m letting them hang out together for a while to see if they make any story-babies.

“What’s this?”

“It’s a skull.”

“What’s a skull?”

“It’s like a shell that some things have inside their heads.”

“How do you get the head off?”

“This thing gave me his head, even though he will never get another one.  Isn’t that nice of him?”

“Can I have one?”

“A head?  No, my love.  What would you do with one?”

“Give it to you.”

“Oh…!  Perfect little beast.  You don’t have to give me anything.  You are my gift.”

“Can I have a pet with a skull?”

“I could get you one, yes.  You would have to take care of it.”

“I can take care of it!  I would feed it and pet it and give it wings – “

“Remember what we said about living things? You can’t give it any more parts, or take away any of the ones it already has, all right, beloved?  They don’t like it when you change their parts while they’re alive.”

“Did you make them?”

“I helped.  All of us helped a little.  And when you’re older, you can help too, if you want to.”

“I want to help.  Can I make a different thing than this?”

“What would you make, beastie?”

“One SO tall, tall, tall!  This big!”

“That’s big!  You know, if you make it that big, you have to make it strong too, otherwise it’ll fall apart.”

“Strong!  RRRAGH. Like this!”

“Is that the sound it’ll make?  That’s a scary sound.”

“I want to make a scary thing!  With big nasty pointy teeth!”

“What will your scary thing eat?”

“EVERYTHING!”

“Don’t you think some people might be upset if you made something that ate everything they made?  Wouldn’t you be upset if I ate that star you made?”

“…Yes.”

“Maybe we can make a little universe for your thing to live in, where it can eat whatever it wants.”

“My own universe?  Can we? I want one!”

“Just a small one.  I think it’s all right if you have a little space to play and practice in.  I’m going to put a limit on it, though. What should we say, twenty billion years?  Is that fair? Then nothing can get too out of hand.”

“Okay!”

“Okay.  So we’re going to use all the standard settings for now.  You can play with the parameters more when you’ve had some practice.  There. Can you pick that up and bring it with us? Good. All right, let’s go see how it begins.”

“Is that it?  It’s so small!”

“It’ll get bigger.  That’s just a singularity. But it’s all in there, everything you need to build with.  Are you ready?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah!”

“Come on up here.  Oof! You’re getting heavy!  Okay, don’t kick, you have to sit still or I won’t be able to hold on.  Thank you. Whenever you’re ready you can push that button. Should we count down?”

“One… twooo…”

“That’s counting up.”

“Twoooo… one… GO!  Aah! Look!”

“Yep!  Look at that, look at how fast it’s growing!  I told you it would get bigger.”

“It’s so bright!”

“It’ll calm down.  There’s a lot going on in there right now.  No, don’t touch it! Oh… silly beastie, look, you made a hole.”

“I like it.  I’m gonna make more.”

“Haha!  More holes?  Why?”

“So they can see me!  When I make things then they can look through the holes and I can wave!”

“Okay, I guess that works.  Look, the holes are pulling everything in.  That might be a problem later, you know. Although I guess with only twenty billion years, they probably won’t get TOO much bigger.”

“Loooook, there are stars!  Look how pretty! I’mma put stars all around the holes.”

“Can I help a little?  Or do you want it to just be yours?”

“You can help.  Over here. This part is your part.”

“Okay.  I’m going to make you a few nebulae, so you don’t run out of stars to play with.”

“Booooooring.  Oh! The star ate all the little planets!”

“It looks like it’s too big.  You’ll have to put them far away, or that’ll keep happening.  Or you could make the star smaller.”

“How do I do that?”

“Here – take hold of it like this… good.  Now pinch! Good job! That’s a nice little star.”

“Now it won’t eat the planets?”

“Depends where you put them.  See, it’s already pulling that one in.  Can you put it further back? There, that’s fine.”

“Now can I make the scary thing?”

“Sure.  Where is it going to live?  On one of your stars?”

“Nooo, it’s too big!  I’m gonna put it here.”

“That is pretty big.  It’s sort of dragging the whole universe on this side, you see that?”

“That’s okay.  It’ll move.”

“Is it going to be alive?”

“Yes!  With a skull!”

“I don’t know if that’ll work – most things with a skull don’t like living just out in space like that.”

“This one does!  It eats stars!”

“Well… I’m glad I made so many nebulae, then.”

Rabies costs extra

‘Lo, child! I hope your weekend is going as well as mine. Made some progress on the Shadowplay rewrite, but you can’t see that yet; I’m still adding even more murder. More murder than your body has room for! I think. Presumably your body has room for, at most, one murder.

On the subject of bodies with room for more than one concurrent murder, Sects has a new page. Will be introducing two more of our cultists, a pansexual fish-boy and a very Texan zombie, on the next page after this one. I think that’s going to involve pastels, so we’ll be back in color. I’m really enjoying working with the Pigma Microns for the black-and-white pages, though – I’m not good enough yet with the pastels to get the kind of gritty precision that I’d like, so when the scenes get complicated or text-heavy I’m switching to the pens.

This page I ended up drawing, scanning in, tweaking it in Photoshop, then printing it out to draw more on the shopped version, which worked way better than I expected. I’m thinking that might be an effective way to combine the pastels and the pens without having to draw directly on pastel with the Microns, which I feel like would destroy the tips. I’ve ruined cheaper pens trying to do that, and I’m disinclined to risk it with these, but if I do punch-up in Photoshop and then come back in to draw over the result, it might produce something both pretty and readable! Imagine!

Apart from the page, I also did a (very) rough blueprint of their house, for my own reference. The layout will probably change a little as I actually start drawing the rooms and figure out the flow of action through the space, and once it’s settled I’ll make a cleaner, sexier blueprint that will be of use to anyone other than me. For now, feel free to bask in the horror that is my handwriting.

On Name-Calling: What does it mean to be deadnamed?

What’s in a name? Your name is a peculiar form of public-use private property, in that it unmistakably belongs to you, and you can legally defend where and how it’s used… But at the same time, your name is not for you. It exists because other people need something to call you. If you were the only person left alive, your name would fall into disuse, just a curiosity you preserved out of sentiment if you chose to. Your name is yours, but you’re usually the last to use it.

This is why we wield names the way we do in our relationships, as a form of soft power, a gentle way of reinforcing social bonds and hierarchies. We can reference our relationships without having to mention them explicitly. Your mother calls you by your name, but she also calls you a cute nickname you had when you were a kid. When she calls you that, she’s saying, “You belong; remember the time we’ve spent together?” Maybe your name is James, but your coworkers call you Jimmy. When they do that, they’re saying, “You’re ours, see? Because we address you differently than other people do. When we call you that, remember that you’re one of us.”

We reference shared experience to reaffirm the bond there. Your name can be used to praise you, to lift you up, to confirm your status. When someone calls you by your full name, you straighten up, take notice; something serious is happening! It can be used to diminish your status in a friendly way, to put you on the same level as someone – when a salesman calls you by your first name, he’s trying to establish a rapport, trying to make you feel connected and equal to him so he can sell you something. These are all what you could call prosocial ways we wield other people’s names, and we do it subconsciously.

When we use someone’s name to put them back in their place, we usually do that subconsciously too.

The trouble with referencing shared history is that, like our names, our history is a kind of communal private property. Your life is yours, and yet other people do feature in it, and the way they remember their lives can affect how you remember yours, especially if you’re very young or in a subservient position. For great portions of our childhood, our parents write our history. They tell us things we experienced – “your first birthday! The time you got bitten by a dog when you were three!” – and over time we come to “remember” those things as if we were truly conscious for them. But there’s no distinction, to your brain, between things you remember and things you imagine. When you read a story, or someone tells you about something that happened to them, what your brain does is cobble together a false memory of an event you didn’t experience out of other sensory experiences you’ve had, writing you a memory of something that never happened to you.

This means that your history can be rewritten, overwritten, or erased by others, if they’re strong-willed enough to convince your brain that their perception of reality is the right one. This means that when your parents spend most of your early years dealing with you as a larva, something that must be taught and given everything, including its understanding of itself… it makes a kind of sense that they think of your history as something that belongs to them, something they built for you out of whole cloth, that you had nothing to do with. Your history feels like theirs. Your identity is not just shared property but their work, their invention. When you say, “I am not yours, I am mine,” they feel that as a loss, perhaps even a theft.

When people invest their ego in who you become, they make your life a barometer for their self-worth.

This is the environment a trans person who wants to change their name walks into: one where your family is deeply invested in denying your identity and reality, where your family feels robbed when you declare your body your own property, your name your own choice, your gender your own experience. Let’s lay out how this situation looks from both sides to understand why your family is knowingly choosing to hurt you and claiming it’s love:

As a trans person, when you say, “I’ve changed my name; this is what I’d like you to call me now,” what you’re saying is, “The person I am now is different enough from the person you remember that in order to fully honor and love who I am now, you’ll need to reformat some really subtle shit about how we relate. But I’d like you to do that because I love you and want you to know me, really know me, not just know the child I was. I want to love who you are now with who I am now – can you do that?”

Your family answers: “You’re erasing our history, rejecting our love, throwing the years we spent caring for you back in our faces. It’s so little, to let us call you the name we know, to let us keep our memories of you as a child unaffected by your perceptions of it or anything that’s happened in the meantime. It’s so little, and yet you take it from us, as if you don’t want to know us at all.”

And if we were talking about any other kind of shared property – a book you borrowed, a car you bought together, a project you worked on as a group – that would fly. In any other case, you and your family will equally share in the benefits of having that thing so long as you choose to share it fairly between you. Your family is arguing that your name is the same as any other kind of property, something each involved party should have equal stake in and control over. But it’s not, is it?

Your name isn’t a possession you have, it’s a privilege you grant others if you choose… the privilege of summoning you.

Most of the benefits of your name usually go to other people – the benefit of securing your attention, soliciting your interest, affirming your position in the hierarchy, recalling and renewing your bonds, all those are things other people gain when they dictate the name they use on you. What do you gain in this scenario, when others choose your name? Well, ideally, you gain all the same things – the ability for others to include you in their lives, call you close, remember you. If your name and your history from the outside is fairly similar to what you experienced inside, you don’t feel any disconnection or discomfort when people reference that history or use that name.

But you have no input on the quality or content of any of those memories, any of those bonds, any of those hierarchies, when you’re a child. You were assigned your place, and your family’s ego is invested in keeping you there, because it’s comfortable for them. That doesn’t make them bad people – they didn’t establish the hierarchy, that’s just part of having an infant who is fundamentally a dependent for years on end. But if those hierarchies were established to meet the caregiving needs of an infant… and people are still trying to force you to live in that hierarchy as an adult…. they’re not actually trying to serve your needs, are they? They’re trying to serve their own need for control. In order to give our children room to grow, to become their own person instead of the person we expected and hoped they’d be – almost always a glowing caricature of us, funny how that works – we need to actively work against the subtle ways we shove people back into their places.

This is very much like the situation that obtains in the wider culture – the dominant group is having their privilege questioned and stripped away, and feeling robbed thereby. When all your life you’ve been given 80% of the pie as a matter of course, and someone tells you that really you should be getting 50%, it makes sense to feel like you’re losing something. But we, as adults, need to remember that we’re not losing. Reestablishing equality in an unequal situation is not an attack on the person in the privileged position, it is an attack on the inequality.

Losing your privilege only hurts if your privilege is all the identity you have.

When you view changing your name one way and your family views it another way, ultimately, their view can’t matter. Because it’s your name. It’s your life. They don’t have to sign it on the line, they don’t have to answer to it when their doctor calls them back from the light, and they don’t have to lie under the tombstone stamped with it for eternity. No one but you will ever swear your hand or promise love or accept the Nobel Prize under that name. So what really matters is that your name works, serves the first and most important purpose that names serve – it summons you. When someone calls to you by your name, it should make you respond rather than flee.

That seems fairly uncontroversial, right? A person who truly loved you and was thinking clearly would agree, one has to imagine. Your loved ones surely want you to feel joy when they call your name, rather than pain. If they’re not narcissists, they must want you to feel the same warm affirmation of bonding that they do, rather than hearing it as a shackle closing down, a mold you’re failing to match. So if they were able to set aside their defensive reaction, surely they would want to use whatever words best communicate their authentic warm feelings to you, right? That’s what communication is – we translate our thoughts into words our listener can understand, and it’s an imperfect process, but if we don’t let our listener tell us what they’re hearing, it’s impossible. If you spend all your time in Spain telling people they should have paid attention to your intentions, listened to what you meant to say… will you ever learn Spanish?

What it’s like to be deadnamed

For most transfolk, being called by the name assigned them at birth – their deadname – is very painful. By this time, you should be able to understand why. It’s often the unspoken shove that puts us back in our place, a place that has become so unlivable for us that we’d rather kill ourselves than stay.

Transfolk tell their family: “The history you remember fondly often caused me pain. I want to enable us to have a non-painful relationship now, but in order to do that, I need you to affirm that you see me now, see that I am not the same person you called by that dead name. That person never existed – that was your invention. This is the person I have truly been the whole time, and this person still loves and values you, and would like to share themselves honestly with you now.”

The people who love us respond: “I value the memories I have of you much more than what you’re doing now. I would rather continue to love and remember the child you were than know the adult you’ve become, which is why I’m deliberately making a choice that you’ve explicitly told me hurts you. I will continue to call you by the name and pronouns that make me comfortable until you conform to my expectations and affirm that my perceptions of you are the correct ones, more correct than yours.”

It’s painful for your family to acknowledge that happy memories for them might not be happy memories for you. They’d rather believe literally anything else – that you’re going through a phase, that you incomprehensibly reject and despise them, that you’ve been taken in or brainwashed, that you want to hurt them. All of those interpretations relieve them of the responsibility to listen to you or adjust their behavior. We all rely on excuses like this to avoid doing hard work…

But when we avoid emotional work at the expense of our loved ones’ emotional health, we are being abusive.

Let’s be clear – this kind of pugnacious resistance to change isn’t the same thing as making a mistake, using a deadname or pronoun as an accident. Trans people can tell the difference, and though the internet would have you believe otherwise, we’re not all waiting for the next opportunity to jump down your throat for an innocent flub. Shockingly, we also would like to get through this conversation without having to correct you, because we don’t like doing it.

What’s important when this happens, as when you are accused of hurting someone in any other way, is not what you already did but what you choose to do next. Think about it – Twitter piles on some poor rando because he said some dumb edgy shit about women, and so Rando Calrissian doubles down. “I’m NOT a sexist, and therefore if you’re saying I am, you must be a bad person! Never mind what I said, because I didn’t mean it the way you thought! I should be judged on my intentions, rather than my actions!” Aaaaand… Twitter comes down even harder. The internet will crown that kid High King Douchebag and remember his name next to the word “sexist” forever, because he insisted upon defending himself instead of apologizing. If he’d just said, “wow, you’re right, that tweet makes me look like a real asshole, I won’t say shit like that anymore” – where’s the clickbait? Where are the retweets? Nobody cares. He’s forgotten in an hour, because drama is thrilling and being a grown-up is boring.

When you screw up a trans person’s name or pronouns, this is what you say: “Hey there, Deadname. Oh, shit, sorry, I meant <your actual name>. Hey there, <your actual name>, how’s it going?” Apologize, correct yourself, and move on. Don’t loudly agonize and make it the trans person’s obligation to comfort you about your mistake. Don’t beg for praise because you were so saintly as to make a very minor verbal effort on behalf of someone you love. If you don’t make it a big deal, we don’t have to either. We’d rather it not be a big deal. This is not fun for us. It’s mostly awkward and painful, like being born usually is. If you show that you’re genuinely trying, we know that you love us. Think about it – you know what it looks like when someone close to you is making a good honest try and screwing up, and you also know what it looks like when someone’s unwilling to make even the most basic effort to treat you with respect.

These unspoken implications, the way we affirm social power structures… the funny thing about them is that we all know what we’re doing. We might not have thought about it too specifically, or put it into words, but we all understand what’s going on, we manage to convey these unspoken things pretty clearly, and we’ve all agreed that it’s more polite to pretend those power structures don’t exist.

But you can’t pretend inequality away.

We have choices in how we treat other people, all the time. The choices might not always be easy to make, and sometimes all the options are bad, but regardless of the circumstances, it’s on us as adults to choose consciously and own the choices we make. When we don’t acknowledge how we’re choosing to subjugate others in order to remain comfortable, we choose to continue doing it.

Y’all got any more of those… teeth?

Happy Tuesday! I can do things, I swear. Actually there have been a lot of thing-doings, just mostly things I’m cuddling close to my generous bosom; some work on Shadowplay that I’m very excited about but can’t show you yet, and about half of a rant about names that I’ll probably have finished later this week. But today I spent some more time with my new fancy-ass pens (not to be confused with fancy ass-pens) and I have two new pages of Sects I’m pretty happy with. The dialogue may make more sense if you read the rest.