Learning to love getting hit in the face with a rake.
I got into a discussion lately about how to improve society on a one-to-one basis, in our daily lives, related to our perception of sexual assault accusations. The question in its original form was this:
How do we convince people that sometimes people we look up to, befriend or even love are capable of something unforgivable, monstrous?
Without driving them away because from their perspective you are attacking their loved ones?
Without minimizing the harm that victims experience?
How, in effect, can we get people to accept and believe survivors rather than interrogating as their first response, without accusing them of being intolerant in the first place?
Is it possible to get people to confront their own casual hypocrisy and cruelty without making them feel bad?
And the problem is… no, it’s not. Moral development is painful, because it involves looking back on your own actions and deciding whether they represent the person you want to be. When they don’t – and they don’t, not always – it hurts. If you truly accept that you behaved contrary to your own ideals, you will experience pain. If it doesn’t hurt, it’s because you have not yet truly bought and owned that you were wrong. And that’s natural! No one wants to believe that they did something wrong, but we do make mistakes, and how we absorb that experience determines our quality.
When a person hears that their friend, or a celebrity they like, or the Goddamn President raped someone, that’s them getting smacked in the face by a rake wearing a goofy wig and a sign that says “You were WROOOOOOOONG.” They were wrong about their perception of that person. Wrong to like them, wrong perhaps even to love them. Wrong to do all the things they did to help them. That hurts, badly, and it should.
Then we get to decide what to do about that hurt. A lot of people, again like our Goddamn President, react instinctively, defensively. They want the hurting to stop, so they blame the person they see as the immediate source of the pain – the victim. That’s how a missing stair is created; that’s how we get whole families, organizations, societies protecting rapists and predators because any attempt to speak up about what Brett does to girls at parties gets met with, “You’re just trying to start drama. You’re just trying to destroy the career of a good man. You’re hurting me, stop hurting me!”
But we don’t have to react that way. We’re not simply our instincts, whatever pseudoscience the manosphere is peddling these days. We actually do understand that pain is survivable, that intellectual confrontation is not the same as physical threat, that new ideas don’t need to be met like armed invaders. We know that, but it takes a lot of effort and practice to remember it in an emotional moment while our amygdala is firing. Think of the test Paul Atreides is put through in the first chapter of Dune. He’s subjected to horrific pain, and if he flinches or pulls away, he will die. The Reverend Mother tells him that the separation between men and beasts is that a man can choose to endure pain for a purpose. So when we’re confronted with painful information – “Your boss/dad/friend raped someone” – we can endure that pain rather than throwing it back at the victim. We can make a little decision matrix for ourselves – it’s like Pascal’s wager. Pascal’s got your back, kids.
Problem: Amy says Brett raped her, he says he didn’t, I like them both and right now that’s all we know.
If Amy is lyingand I treat her as if she’s lying, she’ll likely no longer be a friend, and the fallout of that situation may have other social consequences in our group. Mixed outcome.
If Amy is telling the truth and I treat her as if she’s telling the truth, I will have to support her in seeking justice against Brett. This will hopefully result in some form of justice. The immediate result is that Amy will have an ally in a very nasty situation where she may have no others, and long-term, she will likely be vastly better off for having had any support at all in her trauma. Positive outcome.
If Amy is telling the truth and I treat her as if she’s lying, I will both destroy our friendship and further abuse someone who has already been brutalized, while propagating a culture that creates this exact situation every day. I will continue supporting and defending Brett while he (statistically) goes on to rape five more women. Negative outcome.
The only rational choice is to treat Amy as if she’s telling the truth – it creates the highest probability for a positive outcome. So a rational person would choose to believe Amy. But when we’re hurting, we’re not rational – pain fires at the base of our brains, bypassing the prefrontal cortex entirely. It takes practice and perspective to survive that moment calmly, to endure the pain long enough to decide how to respond instead of simply reacting. Moral growth is a gom jabbar– it has to hurt if it’s to work, because the goal is to learn to think while hurting. This is how we learn to be human.
I don’t know what my body is supposed to look like, but it’s not this.
Right now, that’s all I know. I look at page after page of pictures under the “androgyny” tag, and I see what I wish my body looked like. Sure is surprisingly racist up in this aesthetic. They are all white, they are all thin, they are all delicate and fragile. Their tits are small, their hips are narrow, their faces have jaws and cheekbones that could cut glass. Their eyes are huge and deep, ageless. They look like elves or angels, and I want to look like them, and I never, ever will.
That’s not self-loathing, that’s not pessimism, that’s straight-up fucking biology. I am five-ten and burly – not six-two and willowy, not five-four and curvy. I am 190 pounds of soft muscle and hard fat. I have never broken a bone because my bones are as thick as tree limbs, my wrists too large to grip in one hand. My ass is big and firm but not shapely. My thighs are horselike with no gap in between, my arms are strong but too soft for any muscle definition. My tits are big but partly because my chest is thick, barrel-like – it gives me a deep voice and makes me pop buttons on shirts when I breathe, in a way that is not sexy and scandalous but just embarrassing and expensive.
Looking at these pictures makes me feel exactly how I’ve felt all my life – slow, clumsy, misshapen, as if I’m interacting with the world through a spacesuit. Most days it feels like I can’t truly touch anything, like every motion is a fumbling approximation of what I intended, like every sense is dull and muffled. When I look in the mirror I can see myself in the eyes – well, not in them, but behind them. The eyes aren’t shaped right, they’re not the right color, they’re not mine, but behind the face I don’t recognize I see my own fear looking out. That’s been the same all my life. I can’t ever remember seeing a face in the mirror that looked like mine.
Right now, it feels like it’s the having of a face at all that I resent. I spent today looking up local ordinances on the wearing of masks in public. I’d like to assemble a collection of beautiful masks, all different, that I could choose from when I go out and wear all day. I hate the feeling that participating in daily life requires taking a stand on who I am as a person. I would like to go out in a voluminous robe and a mask, so that what I say and do is just what I say and do, not what a WOMAN says and does, not what a MAN says and does… I do not want to be assigned a category and I don’t want to prop one up by existing. But it seems that I don’t have a choice. There is no way to opt out of people looking at you and assigning you a role based on the first fucking characteristic they see.
Thirty years of first-person gaming and silent protagonists have taught me that the essential ME is in my hands. They’re the only part of myself I like. They’re the only parts of me that look exactly like they should, the only parts I enjoy watching do what they do. They’re neither masculine nor feminine, and they’re not pretty – I bite my nails and chew my fingertips until they bleed. But none of that matters when they’re writing, or cooking, or drawing. All that matters is that they’re sure and strong and they’ve never failed to do as I asked.
I’ve always talked to people best when we walk side-by-side, not looking at each other. I’ve always done best online, in text, where my voice doesn’t interfere with what I have to say. I don’t want to have a face. I don’t want to have a voice. I just want to bring the quest item and turn it in, and be judged on the basis of how well I did the thing.
It’s hard to see a way out of dysphoria right now. I can’t think of any shape within my physical capacities that I would like better than the one I have. I love having long hair and I love having tits, but I could take or leave the bottom system if I’m honest. I want to have a baby and do mom things. I want to be a knight, too, but I’m not sure if it’s for the sense of purpose or the armor. I want to be maximally female and maximally male at the same time, and that doesn’t seem to be an option.
I visualize the depths of depression as a well. Maybe your personal hell looks different. For me the important characteristics are:
1) It’s dark
2) It’s physically uncomfortable in myriad small ways
3) I can’t see anything but the Well when I’m in it
That last part is critical. It’s what makes possible situations like me sitting in a park under a tree, in a summer scene so bucolic and tranquil it would make a hobbit shit, and numbly wishing I could believe the sunshine was real. Dissociation, they call that, or so psychiatrists have told me. That summer I was three months from telling a doctor, “I think about puncturing my own skull with a variety of objects on a stunningly regular basis.”
Of course, I didn’t say it like that. That’s the kind of stuff no one wants to hear, even doctors whose business is hearing the bad shit. It’s murderously funny when a therapist winces at you. You know that they’re human, that you can’t hold it against a person to have a reaction… but you wish you hadn’t seen it. You wish you hadn’t been waiting to see it.
I’ve let that wince silence me my whole life. I’ve pulled the lid over the Well every goddamn time, performed health as well as I could, because that’s what I was taught. I’ve now come to the point where I can no longer even talk to psychiatrists. I ghosted the last three who tried to help me after a few sessions, and the only reason I see the one I have now is to keep the SSRIs flowing. He doesn’t ask me about my past. He keeps his inquiries confined to my reactions to whatever I’m currently taking, and checks the appropriate boxes. It’s a good relationship. It’s a holding pattern.
There are a lot of reasons I’m in this holding pattern, but they don’t matter. It’s an artifact of magical thinking, my perpetual belief that the right doctor, or the right drug, or the right self-improvement regimen will come along, and I will be better. I will be able to unburden myself. I will be whatever it was I was supposed to be all along.
I’m here to tell you I’m not waiting anymore.
There’s no one I feel comfortable telling this shit to. So, because I’m ridden by the Imp of the Perverse, I’m going to tell all of you. We gotta give the Speaker for the Dead something real to work with, right? Maybe my personal Well looks something like yours. Maybe I mapped a part of it we have in common. Maybe you did. Maybe all this will do is frighten my loved ones and infuriate my family. I hope not. If you don’t like what you see here, please don’t burden yourself with it. I will not defend or justify my memories or my younger self. I won’t fight you over it. I’m just going to tell you what it looks like from where I am, for what worth that perspective has. It’s the only one I’ve got, and I don’t seem to be able to express it in any other way.
The stories in this series involve me being unusually frank and graphic about some fucked-up stuff, and therefore have the following blanket content warnings:
This is the story of how I started an isopod peacenik cult. Kinda-sorta on purpose.
Deeeep.io (four ‘e’s) is a browser game created by Federico Mouse. It’s one of those EVO-type deals where you start as a very basic creature and evolve into more complex lifeforms as you level up. In this case, it’s a vast, procedurally-generated ocean. Oh, and it’s multiplayer.
That alone would have ruined it for me eventually had I not stumbled upon the way of the isopod. I tend to play online games alone, because, well, you’ve seen the internet. I’m so introverted it’s probably some kind of disease. I’ve been playing World of Warcraft for about twelve years, and mostly I play that by myself too — run old raids for transmog gear, play the auction house for my sub fee, pet battle, farm achievements. I’m one of those that is happy just making my own game in the corner out of whatever I’m given. So when someone says, “Hey, would you like to plunge into an unregulated ocean full of internet randos and fight it out for a few blips of plankton?” I go “yeah no honestly that sounds like a terrible idea.”
All kinds of frothy chaos
It’s fun, though. The graphics are rudimentary in a charming way. I’m a blobfish, and I need high pressure to survive — stay in the Deeeeps, it tells me! Okay then. A few bellyfuls of yellow algae from the bottom of the sea and I have become a crab. That’s not how I remember evolution working when I learned it in school, but hey, what do I know, I’m an English major. Crab eats algae too, excellent. And nobody’s scooping up all this yellow algae on the seafloor — there’s all kinds of frothy chaos happening above me, but none of the big fish can eat algae, so they leave me alone.
I start to realize that Deeeep has a surprising amount of, well… depth. The dev has gone to the trouble to gently enforce non-griefing play. The top tier of predatory fish can’t even harm Tier 1 fish. Bigger fish eat meat, so they mostly battle one another, leaving the abundant algae for newer players to level up on. Of course, it’s the internet, so my confident expectation is that the first other person I encounter will make it his life’s work to fuck me sideways, and there’s a lot of that. I die a ton at first, but it’s all right. The more evolved I was when I died, the higher up on the food chain I can start, so I’m corpse-running my way to the top.
The fish-bitches bring it
I become a seal, and then a bird, and then suddenly get too fat to fly and plunge back into the sea as a shark. Eat fish, become the shark! It says that right at the top of the screen! I’m the boss now; bring it, fish-bitches.
The fish-bitches bring it. Teaming up is a very solid strategy, and alliances shift rapidly under the sea — I get mobbed by a school of piranhas, a ray, and a couple octopodes that I could swallow whole if I could just get them to hold still. I turn into a sinking shower of meat. My body will feed generations of scavengers.
This happens a few times. I get to experience most of the top-tier creatures. Crocodiles lurk at the bottom of the waterfall on the right side of the map, waiting for fish to get swept by the current into their jaws. Manta rays can take smaller fish under their wings and fight as a unified group. I see a hippo once, far away, and head the opposite fucking direction, because I know about hippos. The hell with hippos.
There’s a leaderboard in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. The top contender has over a million points, the 10th a couple hundred thousand. And here I am munching on algae for 50 points a bite. Clearly mass murder is the only efficient way to climb… but I, as I’ve said before, carry the Imp of the Perverse on my back. I am incapable of doing anything in a straightforward way if a ridiculously convoluted alternative is available. And I get bored with the thrashing battles quickly. We’re all blocky little sprites with simple textures, and though each animal has unique talents and abilities, the bulk of any fight is bashing your face into another face until one face breaks. Climbing the leaderboard makes you a target, and bored fish form squads to hunt you down for your delicious meats. The voice of WOPR rings in my head: “The only winning move is not to play.”
The only winning move is not to play
Maybe it’s the perfect combination of sativa and Adderall jangling through my system this morning. Maybe it’s the constant fluctuations of the leaderboard. Maybe it’s the way that the mechanics reinforce behaving like the fish you’ve chosen. I find that when I am an anglerfish, and I act like an anglerfish, I succeed. I love this. It makes me happy to roleplay as a fish, to avoid larger fish, to eat plankton and hide in deeeep-sea volcanos.
No, you know what it is? It’s the isopod’s adorable little face.
She’s so serious and determined! I love her curled feet. I love her tiny industrious frown. The isopod is a Tier 3 creature. She needs to be in deeeep water to survive, and she can eat anything — algae, red bubbles of volcano-gas, any meat that drops out of the melee. Oh, and she can curl up into a ball, making her invulnerable. She can’t DO anything while curled up, and she’s got so little health and damage that she’s not a viable combatant against anything, but she charms me. I start to spend a lot of time playing as the isopod.
Oh, I almost forgot to tell you — there is a chat function in this game. Another nail in its goddamn coffin as far as I’m concerned, but whatever, today I’m high enough to ignore the dick jokes that float by on the current. It’s everything you’d expect — friendships made and shattered, battlefield betrayals, factions that coalesce and then begin infighting for dominance. And the more you talk, the more you betray your position, so a mouthy fish with a high score quickly gets gangbanged into chum. Again my Imp whispers, “The only winning move is not to play.”
So I play the isopod. I eat the algae at the bottom of the sea. The isopod gets a little speed boost when she’s near a seabed, so whenever I’m menaced, I skim along and lose most pursuit by ducking deeper into the caves. I can hide in sea volcanoes, and when I’m balled up and hidden, I’m completely untouchable. Something about this slow grind soothes me. What can I say — they gave me a number to increment and points to collect. It’s in my gamer blood, I have to make the number go up.
For hours I play the isopod, and I think. It’s meditative. I have time to contemplate the words on my screen, the changing social structures that appear when people have these low-key ways to interact. All the usual characteristics of internet communication are there. People swear, people spam. Spammers are eaten. Funny, charming people attract friends and climb the leaderboard, but people have lives, so eventually everyone dies, or goes offline and disappears. Through it all, I stay an isopod. I lurk at the bottom of the sea. I eat the algae. I play my little role and am content.
Assholes are not known for their patience
Sometimes someone hassles me. A lamprey bobs up and bumps into my shell, then lingers, repeatedly bashing his head into me. It hurts, kind of. But if I ask him to leave me alone, it’ll just make him bother me more. If you speak, you make yourself a target. If you make a request, they will do the opposite. I know how to deal with trolls; I can wait him out. Assholes are not known for their patience. So I ball up and sit there while he chews on me ineffectually.
“cmon” he says. Oh, yeah, that’s a winning strategy. I wasn’t sold on being devoured by a toothy phallus before, but now that you’ve whined at me I’m a complete convert, take me now! Saying that won’t make him leave, though.
The only winning move is not to play, says the Imp in my head. But then the isopod speaks up. She says:
“Isopods for peace.”
Then she sits, a little stone at the bottom of the sea, and the nonplussed lamprey gives up and goes looking for easier prey.
Huh. That worked? All right then. I go on eating algae. And the next time someone comes for my succulent morsels, I say it again: “Isopods for peace.”
“Cool man” says the squid, and scoots off.
It keeps working. It’s a fairly unassailable message, I suppose — short enough to have no inroads for mockery, universal in appeal, and offered as a proclamation rather than a protest or a plea. And with so much more interesting, darting prey about, no one bothers me for long. I fall into a kind of trance. Eat the algae. Roam the cave. Bump against a larger fish. Murmur “Isopods for peace.” Turmoil and brawl goes on above, and gradually, over the course of many hours, I climb the leaderboard. Other fish climb by chunks, thousands of meat-points per chomp, but inevitably they die. They leave. I go on. I eat the algae. I roam the seabed. Isopods for peace.
The Isopod Nation
I start to hear echoes. Other players pick up the line, at first as a joke. An isopod faction forms. A few related names climb the boards: “Isopodking” is up there for a bit, and “ISOPODS 4 LYFE”. They assemble into a pile of curled blocks at the bottom of the sea and proclaim the isopod way. Naturally, they attract attention. A few die — an isopod can be killed, but it takes the right enemy fish, and a clever isopod knows how to avoid risky situations. Whenever I encounter a predator, I greet it with, “Isopods for peace,” and from far away I hear the Isopod Nation cheer.
They want me to join them, but I know I must not. I must go on. I must eat the algae. I must spread the word of peace. Then, too, I know what will happen to the isopod faction. It’s starting to happen even now. Enemies gather round their chitin pyramid, so they enlist larger fish to protect isopods on their way to the group. And then the violence begins again, a war by proxy with the isopods helpless to do anything but watch. They disagree inside their pyramid, and the nation splinters from within. They join the fray, and then they die. Far away, I murmur, “Isopods for peace.”
Sometimes I die. I slip up now and then. I learn which fish can hurt me fastest, which can poison me through my protective shell, which can swallow me and carry me somewhere I don’t want to go. I start over again, sometimes on the same server, sometimes on another. Blobfish, crab, isopod. Hide the evolution prompt. Isopod is the endgame. Each time I climb the leaderboard, it happens again —word spreads, predators come. I wait, I whisper: “Isopods for peace.” And gradually, I don’t have to anymore. A squid bumps into me, then backs up. “sry bro.” He twirls in the water and swims away. A gulper eel approaches and I tense up — gulper eels can swallow me even in curled form, and it hurts. The only way to really escape them is to hide in a volcano. But this one doesn’t attack — he spins in the water, which is how fish greet each other, since any speech echoes across the whole ocean.
“Hi,” says the gulper eel.
I think about it. He wants to make friends. I could have protection. I could spread the word of peace farther, faster. I could scavenge from anything he killed — and that’s where the isopod breaks in with her quiet voice. She answers the gulper eel:
“Isopods for peace.”
The isopod goes on. She eats the algae. The gulper eel follows for awhile, circles me in the water, amuses himself chasing the little fish that are too large for me to eat. Eventually he takes off. The isopod is alone again. But that’s all right. She’s seen what happens when factions form. That way lies violence. She knows that if she speaks, her message will be diluted. If she befriends another fish, she makes herself vulnerable. The path of peace is lonely.
But the message carries. I roam servers to make sure I encounter new people. It always works. I don’t argue, I don’t beg. I don’t ask anyone to leave me alone or call for backup. I don’t spam — I only call out my catchphrase when someone tries to eat me. I try to defend other isopods too, when I see them — I curl up next to them and whisper, “Isopods for peace.” We lean against one another and contemplate the ocean for a moment. Then we go on, and eat the algae. Predators learn that they can reliably find food by following my voice to the asshole who screwed with an isopod. It becomes known: the isopods are for peace.
Have I tamed the internet?
I’m trying to understand what’s happening even as I’m doing it. Have I tamed the internet? How is this possible? Nine-year-old Fortnite babies don’t give a fuck about peace. And yet they stand down when they see me. They twirl in the current and dance.
“whoa srry man, didnt see it was you”
“WTF is that ispod wth a million points”
I think there are a couple of things going on here, and there’s some kind of lesson in this for the real world, but I’m not sure what it is. So let’s pick it apart. Why is this strategy working? Why am I not a target? Why, instead, is the word of peace spreading, isopods everywhere left to graze on the seabed, separate from the food chain?
Part of it is the message — like I said, it’s brief and unassailable. It’s not a question or a request, and it never changes no matter what response I receive. Assaulting a balled-up isopod is ineffective, but it’s also unrewarding. Since having a lot of points doesn’t make me worth any more points to the one who kills me, almost any other activity is a better use of time than waiting for me to uncurl. Which is the other part of this — invulnerability. Is this what true pacifism requires? Complete imperviousness to harm, a seamless carapace? I could mount an argument in that direction, certainly, with historical sources a fathom long, but somehow I can’t bring myself to believe it. Perhaps it’s sentiment. Perhaps it’s idealism. But I can’t believe — not quite — that the only possibility of peace lies in complete isolation.
It is at this point that I should confess I got a little obsessed with this project. It went on for days, plays of three, four, seven hours at a time. (Yes, I have a lot of time on my hands.) One morning I logged on to a new server, recognizing none of the names, and was greeted by “ey man its Isopods for Peace, whats up”. That wasn’t my name, as you can see in these screenshots, but that’s the power the meme has acquired by this point. I am identified entirely with what I say, even though it’s my name, Gentle, that stays in the corner of a person’s screen for hours on end. I am nothing. There is only the isopod, and the isopod is for peace.
So the cult remains even when I am not online, which allows me to begin iterating on the form. I change up the message from time to time, now. “Peace is the way. Follow the path of peace. There is enough food for all to live in peace.” I don’t strive to stay at the top of the leaderboard; being #1 means nothing to me. I usually bounce between ranks three to six as fish rise and fall around me. The function of my presence on the leaderboard is only to amplify what I say. Not mechanically —crabs’ voices are as loud as sharks’ and whales’ voices — but psychologically. An isopod, in and of herself, means nothing. An isopod that says “Isopods for peace” when you hit her and is surprisingly clever at not getting killed? You might remember that, for a minute or two. But without spamming the message, that’s all the longevity it has — the next isopod you see erases the memory of this one, and they all look like food, and none of the rest of ’em moralize at you while you’re chewing.
A serene, idealistic statement
When I’m on the leaderboard, all fish can see is my name, unless they find me somewhere in the sea. They have no idea which creature I currently am. When they come for me, they come in force, expecting a shark or a giant squid. They approach ready to fight and find a tiny creature that offers nothing in its defense but a serene, idealistic statement — and yet, this tiny creature is passing up bloody-toothed predators one after another. My success proves that my message is valid in terms that everyone recognizes. That moment, when their bloodlust is stymied by my inexplicable behavior — in that moment, their minds are open. They’re confused, and they’re ready to hear an explanation. The isopod tells them, “Isopods for peace.”
“How u get to 1mil with isopod?”
“Peace is the path to greatness,” the isopod says.
A new Isopod Nation has risen. They are young and fiery; they call for and receive a kill squad of Humboldt squid to protect them. I pause on my path through their cavern and greet them. They beg me to stay. A whale named spicy memez approaches and turns his meaty flank invitingly toward me.
“kill me man. I wanna start over and be an isopod”
This happens a lot as time goes on — high ranked fish offer me their meat as tribute. This is powerful, a religious rebirth they’re requesting. They present themselves to the Isopod Holy Woman as a sacrifice, hoping to be swallowed by her and emerge as her child, washed clean to roam the seabed. Other isopods take the offer — the Isopod Nation grows by means of this peculiar parthenogenesis. But I refuse. I go on. I eat the algae. Isopods do not kill. And when the Isopod Nation fractures and falls, my voice is still heard in the wilderness:
“Isopods for peace.”
What I Learned About Activism from the Isopod Holy Woman
Some of the reason this project has gotten so massively out of control is the Adderall, and some of it is my own particular neuroses and obsessions. But some of it is that abraded feeling I have on my soul these days, that feeling you get after reading the news for too long and then remembering that you still have bills to pay, that while the world shits itself bloody, your own private hell is still here to comfort you with its demands. I feel powerless too often. That’s what they want us to feel, I know, so I fight it, but… I have to be honest with you, I still feel it. I feel trapped in one of those sound-swallowing rooms, my voice dead as soon as it exits my lips. Every word I say can be twisted, misinterpreted, taken out of context, argued with, and the more words I say, the more opportunities I provide to anyone spoiling for a fight. I feel I must speak to defend people who can’t, use my own privilege to amplify their voices, but I also feel so small, and so tired, and so helpless. I have no mouth, and I must scream.
The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.
– Jonathan Larson
When I said “isopods for peace” the first time, I didn’t say it with any hope that it would help. I said it because it seemed like the kind of thing an isopod would say, and I was finding solace in her quiet confidence, finding strength in her weakness. When the spark caught and spread, I fed it because it gave me that rare kind of comfort, that feeling of strangers cooperating spontaneously. This world seems like a sluggish entropic farce to me sometimes, and those acts of real, collaborative creation push back against it, perhaps in the smallest way. So the idea was peace, simply that, and I’m as clueless as an isopod about how to achieve it. Peace isn’t super sexy, TBH — I wasn’t expecting it to catch on.
Make your message simple, seamless, and search-engine optimized.
I hate that this is part of it. I really do. I hate that my day job wants me to learn SEO and social media manipulation, because I don’t want to do those things. I don’t use Twitter. I only talk to my grandmother on Facebook. I’m not being fucking dramatic when I say it causes me existential pain that in order to be useful a message also has to be easily palatable and bite-sized, and that in order to be heard I have to manipulate people into listening to me. But here we are. This is what we have to work with.
So make it short. Make it unassailable. Don’t use words that pin you down to a specific interpretation: “ALL isopods for peace” is the start of an argument, as it informs other isopods what they must be. But don’t supplicate either. “Don’t hurt isopods” is a request, and a certain kind of person will start hunting down isopods just to piss you off. Assume in your language that your point of view — in this case, “peace is good, let’s have some more of that plz” — is universal already, that your listener is already in agreement. People want to agree or disagree, to pick a side; it is in our social nature to align ourselves with a group if one is available that we can endorse. If you treat your audience as if they agree with you before you begin, disagreement requires a break from the polite social contract, a step against the current as it were. This is how salespeople make it hard for you to say no — they trap you in a situation where doing what they want is the path of least social resistance. We can use this fucking insufferable behavior to promote a worthwhile message.
Movements fracture as they grow. Human entanglements diminish the clarity and power of your voice.
I hate this too, in a way. Emotional involvement is kinda my thing. It’s what I do, it’s how I perceive and interpret the world. But obviously I’m fine with fighting a losing battle. I made a firm, conscious choice in my 20s that taking care of the people I loved was more important to me than taking steps to improve my own status and skills in other areas. I’m still paying for that choice in many ways, and I still don’t regret it.
That said… when you make connections, you make yourself vulnerable. When a movement grows large, disagreements boil out of control with more voices, more sides, more subtle gradations to consider. Schisms appear. Terminology becomes both vitally important and fatally insufficient. New words become necessary but are greeted with contempt and hostility. Founders find themselves obsolete in a movement they no longer recognize. This happens every damn time the number of adherents to anything goes from n to n+1, and I don’t think there’s a way to stop it. “A person is smart,” as Agent K once said. “People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”
The Isopod Holy Woman solves this problem by eliminating intimacy — this is V’s way in V for Vendetta, and Batman’s as well, to subsume their person entirely in their persona, be swallowed by their message. But if you’re not an isopod or Bruce Wayne, how to walk that line? Is it possible to live a human life while not undercutting your own beliefs? It’s easy to find articles about Gandhi’s sex life and Mother Teresa’s financials. We see the divide between the popular image of a person, the person-as-idea — “Mother Teresa is a saint bringing solace to the poor” — and the reality of that person in the world — “Mother Teresa focuses more on conversion and missionary work than the charitable activity she’s famous for”. But here’s where this issue breaks down, because there is worth in promoting and actively supporting a worthwhile idea even if you’re not always in flawless adherence with it yourself. People cannot avoid identifying you with what you say and vice versa, but you are not always the person you aspire to be. None of us are. And therefore…
You can’t be too fussy about being misinterpreted or pirated. If you can’t respond on-message, just don’t engage.
Creators are discovering this about the internet: the barriers between artist and audience are lower than ever, and the audience has no compunction about taking part. As an inveterate word-thief and Photoshop dork, I kind of love this secondary layer of art creation, the realm of fanfic, fanart, remixes, mashups, photomanips. Art as fuel for more art is the kind of perpetual motion machine I can get behind. That said… it always sucks when your art-baby runs off and makes an art-grandbaby for you with the guy who sleeps behind the bus station, so to speak. It sucks when you see your own words being used in a context that you don’t like, or misunderstood as supporting something you don’t support. (I read a great piece about this by Aevee Bee the other day which contributed to some of this pondering — check it out) That’s gonna happen, though, and your time is not well spent hunting down every propagator of heresy against your gospel and putting them to the sword. It makes you look like an insecure asshole, and nobody wants to listen to an insecure asshole. Also, they’re like ants — you can only nail one at a time and you’ll never get them all.
Twitter is basically that on a vast scale, cycling a million times a second, a machine manufacturing endless agitprop out of a slurry of ideas mulched down to bite size. It’s the chaos of whales and sharks above me, unfocused hostility and bonhomie bouncing off one another and becoming completely indistinguishable. The ephemeral nature of this makes it even more important that you don’t engage. When attacked, you stay on message, and your output remains internally consistent and clear. If they take your words to use against you, they will only spread your gospel on your behalf. Those who attack you will be many, but the more they are, the less organized they will be. Their output is muddy, hypocritical, without unified intent. It will be washed away by the sea, and you will eat their bones.
God damn it, you’ve gotta be kind.
– Kurt Vonnegut
“hi Gentle” says the giant squid hovering above the seabed. He’s scooping up the volcano bubbles that float out of the vent near me, but he doesn’t attack.
“im only cool w/isopods,” he says. “anything else is x.x Isopods are friends”
This is not the kind of sentiment the Isopod Holy Woman can get behind. “Isopods for peace,” she answers. The words are the same, but now I mean something different by them: not only a plea for protection of one deep-sea species, but a rejection of the role of violence in this little world. It’s so small, this place, compared to the world outside my screen where my tiny chitinous whispers don’t echo to every ear in the ocean. Still… I can’t help but believe that a breakout of peace in any population, no matter how small, is meaningful. It’s a middle finger to entropy; it’s a wild, defiant cheer for freedom without force, self-regulated civilization. The Isopod Holy Woman proves, every second that she’s alive and on the leaderboard, that peace can win a race with warriors.
Kindness means something, goddamn it. It’s the only real power we have, because it’s the only one that hasn’t been dispensed like an antibiotic until all the assholes are immune. I worry that kindness is only possible from a position of invulnerability, but the Isopod Holy Woman reminds me that she could curl up in a ball and hide in a volcano for seven hours, and I would never die or fall off the leaderboard.
But doing that wouldn’t spread the word of anything. I would be safe, but silent. The Isopod Holy Woman reminds me that for her message to triumph, she must be seen in the world, she must touch those around her, she must make herself vulnerable to their words and their whims. Sometimes this means that she’s swallowed, shut down for a while. That’s okay, so long as she always comes back. So long as the message lives, she can’t truly die.
I log on again in the morning. I don’t really have anything left to do here. I’ve proven my point. The message carries and grows without me. Whatever server I’m on, I see isopods at the bottom of the sea, scooping up algae and dancing their tiny pirouettes around one another. Some of them have the patience and discretion to climb the leaderboard. The sharks and squid pass them by without even stopping now. When an isopod drifts through a fight, the combatants close their jaws and greet her, become friends in an instant when she passes. Fish I don’t know greet me by name. “Isopods for peace” has become an odd little meme, a paper parasol against a hurricane of violence that somehow, for a moment, holds.
Maybe it’s meaningless. But I don’t think so. I think that the miracle of standing against a sea of troubles — not taking arms against it, Hamlet, just standing — is enough. I think a glimpse of living, thriving kindness in the world glows, and makes more possible. Maybe I’m just passing out parasols here, but I’ll keep it up, because people keep taking them. And maybe I’ll start scrawling it on walls next to the swastikas and the swear words:
Writing sucks. I don’t have to tell you that – you’re here because you know. You clicked on that title above because it matches the relentless voice in your own head that says, “This is never going to work. This is never going to pay. I’ll never be Stephen King. Or even E.L. James, for fuck’s sake.” I don’t have to tell you how much writing sucks, but I’m going to, because I want you to hang out for a minute and telling stories is the only way I know how to make people sit still. I’m not going to tell you how to make it suck less. If you know, email me, please. What I know is how to do it anyway, in spite of the suck.
Honestly, I planned to have this all sorted out by now. The Plan (TM) was to get married at 25, have a kid at 27, and then enjoy the work-life balance that writing for a living offers. Oh! Almost forgot – at 17, make sure you publish a bestseller. Otherwise all the other stuff might be a little more difficult. But how hard can it be? When I was in school, that supercilious brat Christopher Paolini had just hit the bestseller lists at the age of 17 and was awkwardly smarming all over Oprah’s couch, and Eragon was terrible! In fact, a lot of the writers I saw making it big were mediocre – my first indication that the whole structure was bullshit, of course, but more on that another time. I read The Da Vinci Code and said to my mother, “At least it’s a quick read – this man couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag.”
“I’m trying to imagine someone writing their way out of a paper bag. Or into one, for that matter.”
“No, wait, it’s somehow worse than that. Dan Brown couldn’t write his way out of a hostage situation. Dan Brown couldn’t write his way out of a ten-car pileup.”
So yeah, The Plan (TM) looked pretty feasible in the first few months of freshman year. And then, like everyone else, I hit Real Life (TM) like Wile E. Coyote hitting a brick wall, and turned into a perfectly-formed disc embossed with my pissy little face.
What had seemed so easy when I was in high school – homework? Nah, fuck that, I’ll work on my novel all night long – was suddenly the last thing I wanted to do with the whole exciting world of sex, drugs and job applications spread before me. I wrote during my 20s, a surprising lot in fact, but usually only when drunk. Late at night, alone with a tall glass of limeade and Bacardi 151 – I shit you not, that was my tipple for years – I screamed into the blackness of Blogspot, filling a blog only my best friend knew about with yearning, dreaming, asking. When I was 19 and my boyfriend moved in with me, I wrote about falling in love. When I was 20 and I had an abortion, I wrote about my terror and guilt. When I was 24 and a friend tried to kill himself three times in three months, I wrote down what I couldn’t say to him – my grief, my rage, my need to have the answers. For ten years I drank from the bottle and spat it all back out on the page.
I’ll say this for it: it’s a lot easier to write when it feels like the top of your head will fly the fuck off if you don’t. It was as if my brain was a kettle on a shrieking hot stove, howling and vomiting steam without pause until all the water is boiled away. I was productive during that time, but only in the sense that I was producing something. Words were coming out, the machine was doing its job. But with the blog serving as friend, family and therapist, I couldn’t learn or grow. I couldn’t make my work any better by screaming at myself. In his incredible book On Writing, Stephen King says, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way round.” My art was a great support system for my life, but that meant that until I sorted out my life, I couldn’t improve my art.
So I took the kettle off the burner, so to speak. I got a job that let us lose the food stamps. Not a writing job; I can’t write on command – remember all that homework I skipped to write my own stuff? Same thing. I read a lot of books on writing, which made me feel like I was growing as a writer even when I didn’t write a word for a year. Not sure how much I’d recommend that – in many ways, it’s a form of procrastination for me, but one that’s taught me a ton. I got insurance, and then a doctor, and then antidepressants that saved my life. Gradually, my skull-kettle stopped screaming. (Have I tortured this metaphor to death yet?)
Now, I try to write every day. I say try. I think about writing every day, does that count? (No.) I still talk to my blog more than I talk to my friends, although I’ve got friends now, so I got that goin for me, which is nice. When I ache to be loved, to be strong and confident, to be witty or wise, I write. I still live on the page better than I live my life. But letting that head full of steam die down (the metaphor puts the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again) allowed me to look at what I was producing and develop it in a more conscious way. There’s a more conscious way to write than blackout drunk? Y’don’t say! And yes, the work is harder now. I write less than I used to. I spend a lot more time on those lovely soliloquies you get into while staring at the empty screen: “This is the only thing you’re good at, and you’re not even good at this. Why do you think anybody cares what you have to say? It’s not really possible to create anything new anyway…” Yeah, my personal brainweasels talk like that asshole you met in Philosophy 101 freshman year, who droned for forty-five minutes about the inherent fundamental meaninglessness of the universe and then sent you a picture of his dick.
I’ve been rambling for a bit now. Let’s recap. What we’ve learned so far:
Writing is hard.
Writing while drunk is easy, but being a writer while drunk is hard.
Getting your life together and getting serious about your art are the same thing. They have to be.
It’s that last one I want to really focus on. It’s my thesis, as my 7th-grade English teacher would say. She’d probably give me a D for putting my thesis all the way down here, but she also told me that “when you know the rules perfectly, you can feel free to break them judiciously.” So far that’s been my story and I’m stickin’ to it.
The idea that you have to suffer for your art comes in part from that splinter of truth – that when you have to work, because you have nothing else in your life but your work, then you can. Oh, boy, can you. Inspiration is like a burning knot in your chest, all the things you never get to say, the truth of yourself that you can’t get anyone to even glance at, the staircase wit and the throttled dreams… Write them all down, obsess over them, polish them like a dorodango until they shine. But you know – like I knew, the whole time – that you’re polishing dirt. There’s an upper limit on how good it can be, and that limit is you.
I’m not just talking about writing, let me be clear. For “your art,” here read “your passion,” whatever that thing may be. Maybe you code, maybe you cook, maybe you know over 700 yo-yo tricks. Whatever the thing is that you started doing and then never wanted to stop, the thing that got ahold of you and made you think, “How can I trick someone into paying me for this?” I first got that feeling when my granddad read The Hobbit to me in about 1992. When we finished it, I informed him that I felt Gollum’s character had been under-served by the book, and I wanted to write a sequel to it exploring his history. Grand didn’t spoil my ambitions with petty realities like copyright law or The Lord of the Rings. Although we started reading Fellowship together the next summer, by that time I’d already abandoned that idea and was writing my own.
So it’s this thing. When you’ve got nothing else in life, the thing you do. When you’re being kind to yourself, you know you’re good at this. When you want to kill yourself, it’s because you’re good at this, and yet… and yet.
And if you are a writer, it’s that much more romantic, this struggle. It’s practically de rigeur, darling, you simply must become an alcoholic for a few years. You’ll come out of it just pickled in inspiration! And yeah, you hate yourself a little when you catch yourself swirling your limeade and rum like it’s a fine whiskey, but no one else is watching, and if you weren’t a sentimental lowlife at heart you wouldn’t be here. Yes, I got thrown out of a writer’s group for saying this once.
But although I think we all go through this “long dark teatime of the soul” to shamelessly pilfer the phrase from someone more talented, and although writers in particular are given to lingering over it, really wallowing in the misery while slurring about solipsism (just my brainweasels, then? Alright.), I don’t think that you “have to suffer to write.” I do think the belief that you have to suffer makes writing while suffering easier, if only because you can feel a little privately martyred while you’re doing it.
I prolonged the wallowing stage longer than most – wallowing is one of my specialities – but I don’t recommend that either. For the longest time I was waiting, in the words of Tracey Thorn, for “something that could make it easy.” We all tell ourselves these comforting stories when we’re putting off doing what we know we have to do.
“When I get a better job, I’ll be less stressed and I’ll be able to write my magnum opus.”
“When I stop drinking, I’ll be less of a pompous twat and I’ll stop using phrases like ‘magnum opus.’”
“If we move, I’ll have room for a real desk and then I’ll be able to sit down and write properly.”
“If I can find the right depression meds that don’t make me braindead, I’ll be able to work again.”
And year after year, I chased those moving goalposts. It took me a long time. By the time The Plan ran out at age 27, I was… still unemployed. Still living in a studio apartment and chaining payday loans. (Don’t do this thing, please. Google “payday loan horror stories” and don’t do this thing.) But by 30, I’d gotten the job thing handled, knocked out the drinking (mostly), had an enviable desk situation going on, and had depression meds that made all of that possible.
And I still wasn’t writing.
Yep. One by one, you fix all the problems, until you discover that the last problem is you. There is no magic drug. There is no perfect desk. That unfucking you had to do on your whole life? That took you your whole life to even begin? Now apparently you have to do that to the one thing you thought you were good at, and this is where Mega-Maid switches from SUCK to BLOW, because by the time anyone else even gets a chance to like your stuff, you’re going to hate it.
There’s a lengthy Ira Glass quote about this that I won’t restate here; you probably have an inspirational wallpaper of it in your phone just like I do. I think he’s right that the trajectory of most creative people has a goddamn pit in it, and all of this babble is me trying to say that I fuckin’ looked, my friends, and there is no quick way out of that hole. It sucks and it sucks and it sucks… until it doesn’t. And the day you quit is the day you prove you’ll die down there.
You have to be willing to do it for nothing for as long as it takes. I don’t just mean for free. No money, but also no interest, no praise, no fame, no closure, no confirmation, no validation, and no hope. You have to sit in that hole and know that you’ll never get out of it, and still find a reason to try.
I said this to my husband while doing the unfocused ranting that often precedes a writing session, and he said, “That’s a slightly bleak way to look at it.” I get this reaction a lot, and at a certain level I always find it mystifying. I genuinely don’t find the above bleak. Maybe I’ve spent so long in the hole that I find it homey, I don’t know, but to me it feels like a promise. Like the promises I made to the people I loved when the windows were broken and the water got shut off and we were unemployed.
I promise I’ll be here. I promise I’ll keep trying. I promise I’ll stick by you until we make it out of this, until it gets better. I promise, no matter what, I won’t quit. I won’t give up on you.
I’ve said that to a lot of people. The vanishing few are still in my life, so that’s what our promises were worth, but that’s not the point. The point is that I made that promise to them, and yet I’ve never made that promise to myself in reference to the one thing I know how to do. I was willing to go down with the fucking ship, “White Flag” blasting in my headphones and all, for any one of a chain of brilliant, self-destructive young men and women, but every time it got hard to write, I looked for a way out.
So that’s why I’m here. I want to commit to this, and to you. This is the only way I know how to make people sit still, like I said – assuming you still are, what a hero! If you’re still with me, I want to see you at the top of the hole, when we both get there some day. I know we’ll both be there, because we’re here now, together, ready to climb. Right now, I want you to take your art in your hands – metaphorically, okay, work with me dammit – and cradle it like the arrogant fuckboy you promised to love forever when you were 22. Cradle it like the woman you married, who actually did stick by you until it got better, and that’s why it got better. Cradle your guitar, or your word processor, or your favorite compiler, and be at least as fucking good to yourself as you’ve been to everyone you’ve lost. Promise yourself. Hell, promise me! Promise the audience that’s waiting for you to speak.
I promise I’ll keep trying. I promise I’ll never stop. I promise I won’t hoard what I have, even if I’m certain no one else would want it. I promise that I don’t need money, or fame, or even hope. I promise that this, just this – the way this work feels under my hands – this will always be enough.
When I was a kid, I had to write thank-you letters to everyone who sent me presents at birthdays and Christmases. I hated it, of course. My mother wouldn’t settle for a thank-you note, no – these were letters, a full lined page at minimum. There was even an accepted format. I could do it in my sleep. These days I could throw together a template in Word and fill in the appropriate name and gift on the line, but at the time I’m sure I would have gotten in trouble for such laziness in the performance of my gratitude.
Salutation, family member! Line break.
Happy (holiday, as appropriate)! Thank you so much for the (item)!
[Insert several sentences discussing how you plan to use the item in productive, educational activities to improve your character] [Do not copy these sentences from earlier thank-you letters even if the gifts are similar – Mom will compare them to one another to make sure you weren’t lazy]
[If the gift was a giftcard, check or cash, here indicate what you plan to spend the money on. Edifying activities, crafts, books, and clothes are recommended. Do not mention candy or video games]
How was your (holiday)? Mine was great. We did [insert appropriate holiday activities. Omit mention of parental drunkenness and rolling on carpet calling the dog a “faggot.”] I hope the weather in (family member’s hometown) has been nice.
I have been doing [good/okay/my best] in school and at home. [Do not overstate your good behavior. Describe all bad behavior in full. Mom will correct your letter with tales of your most hilarious mistakes if she feels you’re painting too flattering a picture of yourself]
Thank you again for the (item/giftcard/check). I hope you and (spouse/child/corgi hunting pack) are doing great.
Love, Your Obedient Descendant
One of these to everyone who sent a gift. Usually I had a list of names, and usually I’d get through about half of it in the week following the holiday, and forget about the rest. Next holiday comes… another list.
These days, nobody writes letters except one time-lost friend, another changeling bastard like me dropped into the wrong century. She still writes to me. We’ve gone back and forth on that, and I still feel pretty bad about how it’s shaken out. She writes these gorgeous letters, dark garnet ink on creamy paper, sealed with wax. All letters should look like this – I’d like my electric bill much better if it came on this lovely paper. She writes her thoughts, her feelings, the ones she finds hard to express out loud. I feel honored and so grateful that she shares these things with me, but when it comes time to answer her, I put it off and put it off till another letter comes and now I have two to catch up on. I did this with my journal in high school too – writing on any kind of deadline shuts me down instantly, as I feel the minutes ticking by and stacking up, undocumented. Give me a clock to watch, and I will watch it till the sun explodes, anxiously waiting for the moment that “late” turns into “too late.”
At this point, my longsuffering friend has accepted that I won’t write her back, even if I honestly and sincerely promised that I would, and I can spread out into the familiar comfort of lowered expectations. Once you’ve come to terms with being a perpetual disappointment to your loved ones, everything becomes much easier. Imagine my disgust with myself when I realized, in a creeping doom sort of way, that in spite of all of the above… I am really comfortable writing letters.
Sitting, staring at the blank page like y’do, my first instinct is to write “Dear…” It just feels easy. I have never been able to talk about myself – oh, I can talk, believe you me, but it won’t tell you a goddamn thing about what I’m really feeling. Even when asked about myself, I dodge the scrutiny. With strangers, I avoid the question. It’s easy; nobody really wants to know how you are, it’s just a conversational reflex. With people I know, I tell a story. Like I’m doing here, with you. “This happened when I was young. This when I was a little older. See the through-line? See the chain of causality? This is why I am the way I am.” But it’s a story, no closer to the truth than any other story I could tell about the same events.
To put something into words is to immediately begin to obscure it with words. How I choose to explain myself affects how you see me, even if the data points of what I say remain the same. And it seems like the way I’m most comfortable being truly honest is an epistolary format. It feels hypocritical because I’m so unwilling to write a goddamn letter to anyone who’s ever asked me for one… but I’ve never been able to do what I was asked. The imp of the perverse has always held the helm in my head.
So what’s all this babbling for, then? To explain that I want to explain myself. I want to be honest with you, to tell you real stories sometimes as well as stories about robots and drugs and giant bugs. And I think the best way for me to do that is to write you the occasional letter. I was wondering what you’d like me to call you. If you think of anything, let me know, will you? In the comments or whatever.
Anyway, I hope your May has been [warm/temperate/cool] and your [spouse/child/animal/intestinal parasite] is doing great. I’ll write you again later.