New site is up!

Eugh, it looks dreadful in here, doesn’t it? I’m sorry, darlings, I was setting up your new room and I let them get started cleaning up in here before I was through. I’ve got enough up that it feels like home over there, so now please go ahead and follow me over to the new site!

Further improvements will be forthcoming, and I’m deciding which of the old stuff I want to polish up and repost and which of it can be scrubbed, we’ll see. At any rate, that’s where updates will be from now on – I’m seeing how the Squarespace designer serves me for a while. So far I’m enjoying it, although it’s a bit on the buggy side.

Five Great Reasons to Fight Your Dad

A love letter to Hades, Supergiant Games’ new father-fighting simulator

It’s a cool breezy night here at the Temple of Styx and we’re back for another electrifying round of your favorite game show and mine, FIGHT… YOUR… DAD!

As the first entry in a spicy new genre I’m prepared to call the father-fighter, Hades lets us join Zagreus, the immortal son of the eponymous lord of hell, as he works out some daddy issues the only way the Greek gods know how: trading mortal blows and expensive gifts until someone consents to stay dead.  It seems that Hades’ erstwhile squeeze Persephone has wearied of the old man’s sparkling wit and sunny disposition, and lit out for the surface, leaving her godling son to absorb an endless torrent of divorced-old-man whining and backhands, and the underworld in a state of lockdown.  Living or dead, mortal or divine, nobody gets out.

Fortunately, Zag’s not the only one who thinks Dad’s being a little unreasonable about this.  The cousins and uncles on Olympus have sent letter after letter, and Hades won’t even look at them.  We get that he’s pissed about being assigned the underworld, but that’s millennia ago now.  At some point, you have to move on, fix up the house, find a hobby.  Zagreus did – learned to fight at the knee of Achilles himself, and was that ever a mistake on his father’s part.  Kick a boy around for thousands of years and then have the greatest warrior who ever lived train him to kick back?  Maybe this is why they say all fathers subconsciously raise their sons to destroy them.

No telling where he got the weapons, though – that must have been the Fates.  Some of them haven’t been seen since Hades and his brothers sealed away the Titans.  Some were already lost before that battle began.  Most immortals won’t lay a hand on the powers Zagreus is stirring up, and most wouldn’t defy the Lord Hades to his face, but having found some kind of direction for his endless life, the boy moves through the underworld like a wave, like lightning, like an arrow in flight, wearing the blessings of his Olympian relatives and bringing change to this unchanging realm wherever he goes.  Perhaps it’s because everyone else has a place here, of a kind – Mother Nyx has the old man’s trust; Thanatos a sacred duty that never ends; even Cerberus sits at the throne’s right hand.  Zagreus has never once, not for a day in a thousand years, been allowed to forget that he is unwelcome here.

There’s a term for games that are ridiculously demanding and yet satisfying to play – it’s becoming a little dated now, but we used to call that “Nintendo hard.”  These days, Nintendo focuses on expanding gaming’s fanbase beyond its existing demographics, and there’s nothing wrong with that; anybody shit-talking a game for being accessible or “casual” is a little boy trying to keep the other kids out of his clubhouse, and destroying his own hobby so he can feel superior.  There was a time, though, when Nintendo was known more for making games that wanted you fucking dead.  There’s an appeal to that, if the game is well-designed, as the wild success of games like Dark Souls can attest.  But the game must be well-designed – it can’t be hard because it’s obtuse, badly balanced, responds sluggishly or unpredictably, communicates poorly or lies to the player.  That’s the kind of hard that makes a gamer quit, not the kind that makes her grit her teeth and reload from the last checkpoint.

Hades is Nintendo hard, in the most beautiful way.  So much of this is gamefeel – the experience of maneuvering around the world, the responsiveness of the character, the speed and elegance of the animation.  Rewarding progress with power is one thing, but starting a player off limping feels punitive in a roguelike game where you’re always restarting – and Zagreus never feels weak.  He fights like a god from the first step he takes, and grows more powerful from there, and the challenge scales accordingly.  This scaling isn’t just bigger numbers, either.  Too often, “New Game Plus” just means another zero tacked on the end of all your stats, and the only difference between “Normal” and “Hard” is that enemies have twice as much health in hard mode.  And you can do that, in Hades, if you want – make the numbers bigger if it embiggens your… enjoyment.

But you can also cause the Hydra that spat fire at you from the sidelines to hop right out of the lava and chase you on its dangling neck-stump, if that sounds more fun.  Face Theseus and the Bull in Elysium’s arena enough times, and you’ll realize that raising the difficulty here actually makes Theseus easier to hit – he jumps into a chariot to charge you, but doesn’t carry a shield and block all damage from the front anymore.  This is active, thoughtful game design, and it requires active, thoughtful play in response.  You often find yourself wrecking shop through Tartarus and Asphodel, only to discover that your build is atrocious when facing a single, huge enemy, or you have no good strategy for dealing with armor.  You have to adapt to what you find and when you fail.  You fail more often than not.

And yet failing never feels like a waste of your time.  Only got as far as Asphodel before you stood in the fire while picking your nose and contemplating your build? (I’m in this picture and I don’t like it.)  It’s fine, you got a fistful of gems that you can use to change the draperies in the hallway for the fourth time this week.  I change ’em every time the option comes up; hearing Dad bitch about it is worth ten gems a day to me.  Even if you only made it to Meg before she spanked you (which you love, and you know it), so long as you ran into Sisyphus, you’re doing meaningful work out there in hell.

The most wonderful thing is, often that work is just bringing a little joy to someone who sure as hell doesn’t deserve it.  That’s the Supergiant special sauce – their complicated, flawed, heartfelt characters – and there’s not a single one in Hades I don’t want to cuddle all night long.  Except maybe Dad.  Fuck you, Dad.  But everybody else… I can’t tell who’s been in Zagreus’s bed and who hasn’t (my current ship list includes Meg and possibly all her sisters, Thanatos, Achilles, and Dusa, don’t judge me), but everyone I meet feels real, and like their life is bigger than just our interaction in this moment.  They make bad choices; they’re emotional and shortsighted; they don’t always do what I want them to do.  Sometimes I work very hard to help someone… and nothing changes, it doesn’t help.  That’s sad, and frustrating, and most game devs haven’t got the courage to do it, because the Skinner box of “Do Hard Thing > Get Reward” is so fundamental to gaming.

Not every game needs to be a slot machine, though.  Gaming can offer many kinds of experiences, nuanced with emotional and mechanical challenge, and Hades is one of them. It appeals to me as a profoundly absurdist experience: there is no win state, no possibility of escape.  The only control you have in this universe is the ability to choose, to try when you know all too well you can’t succeed.  It’s an irony wrapped in an irony – an unfinished game more beautiful and involved than many finished games; a journey that you can start a thousand times and never, ever finish; a fundamentally pointless and futile fight that, by its very existence and our choice to participate in it, rejects that futility.  We know where this story ends… but we’re gonna tell it again.  Smash that button and start over, because somewhere deep down inside, you and Zagreus believe the same thing: despite all the evidence of your eyes and the blood you’ve shed, despite every soul in the universe who insists it’s impossible… we’re going to win one day.  Never know when it’s going to be.  Just have to keep trying.

Exorcism

‘Lo childs! I hope you have successfully performed the solstice rituals pertinent to your local tentacled monstrosity, and that your sacrifices have been accepted with lavish blessings for all. My particular Old One is a lethargic beast who tends to be anywhere from two to four weeks late in showing up to be kowtowed to, so I will be going on vacation next week, over the new year. You’ll hear from me again on Sunday and then after that probably not a lot for a week, although I promise I’ll return with a great deal of sketching to show you. At least some of it might not feature naked ladies, but no promises.

This week I’ve been putting a lot of words into… well, a semi-autobiographical romance? The lengthy backstory to the unlikely epilogue I am currently living, perhaps. My Lady and I used to write together a lot, and I’ve missed it. It’s also somewhat an opportunity to reflect on our constant miscommunications and missteps over the eighteen years we’ve been totally failing to get it together. And an opportunity to channel some horrible shit from my adolescence and perhaps exorcise some ghosts! It’s all very cleansing and emotional, and as usual, I prefer to do that kind of raw, vulnerable self-examination IN NEON LIGHTS IN THE STREET, so here we are.

We gettin naked over here

One of the fun things about writing with someone else is that nobody’s process is the same, or even remotely similar. She tends to plan out stories in detail, and knock them down bit by bit. I avoid planning with a kind of superstition, and treat my writing like summoning a dark god: apply various oils, ungents, spirits and offerings of flesh, and excitement will doubtless result. I find her mild outrage at this… entertaining. It’s all going very well. But be advised that it’s very unfinished, and there are huge bits missing! We’re working on it.

Give Up On 100% – Two Useful Percentages for Perfectionists

The whole country is infected with it right now. You can see it seeping into discourse like a poison, choking off voice after voice with scornful cynicism. “Impeachment is meaningless – no president has ever been removed from office that way!” “The damage has been done, why disrupt the system further?” “The system itself is rigged; there’s no point in playing at all.”

“You poor fool,” they say. “Don’t you understand there’s no point in fixing anything if you can’t fix everything?”

Listen. I get it. We’re all in a frantic fog right now, the kind of mindset you fall into when you’re constantly being gaslighted by an abusive narcissist. Someone is trying to destroy your reality and substitute his own, and that person desperately needs you to believe that any step you take to protect yourself is pointless if you can’t fix the whole world in the process.

But ask yourself why he needs you to believe that. Why is it so important that you do nothing to improve your circumstances, defend your loved ones, advocate for yourself? Why is an abusive person always mortally terrified of you making the slightest move to help yourself? That seems like the attitude of someone who’s trying very hard to not let you find out how little control they have, doesn’t it? That seems like someone who knows the only reason he keeps winning is because you believe him when he says you shouldn’t try.

Termites in your soul

Unfortunately, even if you can get away from that person (god willin’ and the creek don’t rise…) we’re all growing more perfectionist over time, and this mindset will kill you. I’m not being dramatic. Perfectionism is on the rise worldwide, according to a meta-analysis of cohort studies between 1989 and 2016, the first time perfectionism has been studied across generations. It’s approaching a legitimate public health epidemic, because perfectionism is linked (by another enormous meta-analysis of 284 different studies on the subject) to a host of clinical and psychological issues including anxiety and depression, PTSD, self-harm, eating disorders, hoarding, chronic headaches, insomnia, even suicide and early mortality.

Perfectionism destroys your desire to work, undermines your self-worth and creativity, causes you to sabotage your relationships out of insecurity, eats away at your body and mind until it kills you. It shuts down every hope and inspiration with “that’s not enough.” Nothing is ever enough. Perfectionism is like termites in your soul, chewing away at your foundations in a way that you might not even notice until your footing crumbles away beneath you.

Okay, so it’s bad for me… but it also makes me perform better, right?

Well, no. Sorry.

It might feel like being a perfectionist is required – it’s certainly helped you at work, and you can’t offer a single thought on any subject on the internet without some asshole wants to bitch about how there’s a fringe case your suggestion doesn’t address. Social media lets us filter out blemishes and show a perfect image of ourselves to the world, and slowly we start to hate looking at our real, imperfect face. Our feudal capitalist structure more or less forces a competitive, zero-sum view of the world on its children, one where there is never enough for everyone, and so basic human rights and safety can only be offered to the very deserving. It’s a compliment in some circles, one of those things you say when the interviewer asks, “What’s your biggest weakness?” “Oh, I’m a perfectionist – I work too dang hard! Please, exploit my maladaptive coping mechanism for our mutual monetary gain!”

But it doesn’t actually work. In a study from 2016, our friends Mr. Hill and Curran of the 1989-2016 meta-analysis found that athletes, employees and students alike saw very little or no benefit to their work, skills or progress from perfectionist tendencies and attitudes, and vastly increased their likelihood of burnout. The same study found that perfectionists quit faster because they’re afraid to make mistakes, so they often leave a trail of abandoned enterprises behind them. Perfectionists take longer to complete the tasks they do manage to finish, because they’re wasting time agonizing along the way. You’re working harder, not smarter.

So what can you do?

Perfectionism would have you believe that there are only two percentages that matter: zero percent, where you currently are (and always will be, says that nasty voice in your head), or 100 percent, where you must get in order to accept credit, feel pride, be finished and move on. The baseline for accomplishing anything becomes 100%; that’s your expectation for yourself, and so you project that expectation on the people around you. Anything less than exactly what someone wants (even if they weren’t clear about what exactly that was) feels like a total failure. In order to be acceptable, you have to be flawless.

These aren’t useful percentages. They’re about as informative as a black-and-white view of the world, and about as connected with reality – that is to say, not at all. What do complete, effortless success and utter, crushing failure have in common? You don’t learn anything from either one.

So let’s replace these all-or-nothing percentages with something more useful. Let’s try… 1% and 70%.

Start with 1%

Sometimes, to combat our extreme mental blocks, we have to get a little extreme in response. The perfectionist brain wants to look at this 1% and round it down to zero, and you’re gonna have to fight that impulse with everything you have.

Let’s say you have something very stressful and emotional and difficult to do – say you want to buy a house. That’ll stress anybody out. What are actual, mechanical steps to buying a house?

  1. Find a house you want to buy
  2. Pay for the house
  3. Sign a TON of papers
  4. Move in

Most difficult tasks in life are like this: a series of physical and mental tasks, none of them individually especially challenging. Everything we do, no matter how emotional or stressful, from planning a funeral to breaking up with someone to discussing climate change with the UN, can be broken down into a series of simple mechanical tasks. Usually those tasks are some form of “write some stuff on papers” and “talk to some people about stuff.”

You know how to do those things, that’s not hard. What’s making it hard is you’re saying to yourself, “It’s time to buy a house! So let’s go… buy a house!” You’re asking yourself to go from 0% to 100% in one action. That’s impossible, and you know it. This can become a way that we avoid doing things – we deliberately avoid analyzing the problem or figuring out what kind of help we need, because if we did, we would have to, like… do it.

So start with 1%. If something is overwhelming, start breaking it down into smaller tasks. You’ll know you’ve hit a workable level when you find a task that makes you snort with derision – “That? Of course I can do THAT, that’s a cakewalk.” Great. That’s your 1%.

Your perfectionism is something you’re going to have to defeat over and over in order to accomplish anything. You’ll have to beat it when you begin, and again while you’re doing the thing, and again when it’s over and you want to scrap the whole mess because it’s not flawless. Beating it when you begin is about accepting that 1% is indeed progress. It’s more progress than you were making while you were arguing about how much progress it was, isn’t it? But you thought arguing was a good use of your time. So instead, spend that time doing 1% of what you need to do. The argument will still be there when you’re done; we can have it again if you want.

Beating perfectionism when you finish is about accepting that 1% is indeed an accomplishment. If you get something done and every time you say to yourself, “Well, yeah, you did that, but that was fuck-all, that was nothing compared to all you still have to do”… tell me, is that the kind of sentiment that gets you all fired up to do stuff? Because for me, it’s not. For me, if I want to get something done, I have to be able to reward myself based on reality, what I actually did, not what I should have done or could have done. Your “should” and “could” don’t exist. They’re inventions, made-up stories meant to encourage you to behave, like Santa Claus. Why are you living your life like you’re on the Naughty list from birth when Santa doesn’t even exist?

At 70%, pull the trigger

Now, I don’t want to get caught in the fallacy that most of the world is currently mired in, that being the idea that because someone is a billionaire, he has profound insight that you can and should use to become like him. Most billionaires got that way by failing upward with inherited wealth. If you put them in a basement apartment on minimum wage for a month, they’d show up at Wal-Mart thinking they need an ID to buy groceries. These people, for the most part, do not have any useful tips for success beyond Rule 0: Be born a white man.

But… one thing that all successful people do more than the people below them is make decisions, right? That’s the whole job of the CEO, making decisions. He might not have any expertise, might never have seen the product his company sells, couldn’t tell you how to make it or what’s in it, but if you ask him, he’ll decide what to do and things will move forward.

Jeff Bezos, our Glittering Capitalist Overlord, told his shareholders in 2016: “Most decisions should probably be made with around 70% of the information you wish you had.” Why 70%? “If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re being slow.” Think about it – when you’re doing research, trying to figure out how to solve a problem, at the beginning, there’s a lot of new data. But once you’re closing on 70% sure, you’re not learning any new essential data. You could spend six hours trying to increase your knowledge from 70% to 75%, but you probably won’t stumble upon any new, immensely critical data, and you can’t guarantee your decision will be any better for the extra time spent.

Most people agonize. They have analysis paralysis. They want to nail down every possible piece of information and go into something feeling like they’re 100% prepared. But what will happen if you instead stop when you’re about 70% sure… and just try it? Bezos points out that course-correcting is usually pretty low-cost – most decisions can be reversed or adjusted once you’ve begun. So assume you’re wrong; okay, you jumped the gun a bit and if you’d waited, you might have avoided making the mistake you just made… but you might not. It might have happened anyway.

And what if you’re right? You moved before anyone else. You’re not just right, you’re right and FIRST. That’s how people make the big bucks, by taking a gamble and guessing right when everyone else is too afraid of losing to roll the dice. In order to win, you’ll have to lose, a lot, and not let that scare you into giving up.

Now… debug

If you’re a programmer, and you want to know if your code will work… do you read the code? Is that the most efficient way to find your own mistakes? It’s not, really – if you didn’t see the mistake when you wrote it, you probably won’t when you read it over again. The best way to figure out if your code works is to try it, to run the damn thing and see what breaks.

When we sit in stillness, trying to figure out the perfect course of action, the best step to take for the maximum reward, the one solution that will work forever in all situations… we’re trying to debug the code without ever having run it. It’s a waste of time. We simply don’t have the information required to make a coherent judgment at that point. The experiential data you’ll get from just fucking doing a thing is the stuff Bezos can’t write down and no list of life hacks will tell you, and it’s essential to success. Any decision you make without experience doing the thing you’re deciding on is going to be less than sound, because it’s based on a faulty foundation. It’s full of termites, and they’ll tear down everything you build if you let them convince you to sit there and watch it happen.

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.”

100 Sonnets – Final Thoughts

All right, so… here we are. Oh right, no need to be in italics all the time anymore. Got to be a reflex.

I’ve been known to go on, so if you’re just here for the pretty pictures, here’s the TL;DR:

Be back here Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays for new stuff in the future. Gonna be a lot more words and pictures both.

I’m gonna be honest, guys… I didn’t think we’d get here. I really didn’t. When I made you a promise on August 2nd to write a hundred sonnets, I was pretty sure I was going to let you down.

I write the way I do – to you, as if I know you, as if you’re here with me – because I’ve always found it very hard to get things done just because I know that they’re “good for me” or I’m “supposed to.” But as a perfectionist people-pleaser, I can do anything if I promise someone else I’ll do it.

I could move the mountain to Mohammed with a melon baller if I told you I’d have it done by Tuesday.

I’m better about sharing with you, more honest and more consistent, if I treat you like you matter. And that’s good, because you do matter, for more reasons than just that one.

I watch my blog’s traffic stats with the same insecure thirst everyone else does, which means that as I’ve been working on this project I’ve gotten to see a couple of things that helped me stick with it. One of them was expected: posting every day attracts traffic, which I had heard but, as usual, had assumed I would somehow be the exceptional failure. That tends to be an operating principle of mine, you see – I embark on every endeavor assuming that, even when it defies statistical probability, I will manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Absurdism! *jazz hands*

So sure, the little bars went up, that made me feel good. The other thing I saw meant more to me, though: there were some people I started to recognize. Some people who came back every day. I don’t know a better way to convey what that meant to me except to say that I cried when I told my wife about it, and I’m crying again now. I’m an absurdist because continuing my life has required a belief system and a reason for living that doesn’t depend on success or good fortune. The fact is that I’ve been writing the things I couldn’t say to anyone else since I learned to write when I was four. It’s what this machine is for. I’ll be here doing it forever even if nobody ever sees it. So I hope you understand that I’m not trying to solicit pity when I say… the idea that a stranger even could give enough of a shit about the wide range of nonsense I think to come back and read it every day genuinely did not occur to me. Nor did the idea that I might actually write a sonnet every day for a hundred days. I didn’t imagine for a second that I might finish, or that it might be interesting to anyone.

My brain is wired backward, you see.
Hope is suicide.
Success is never possible.
Which means failure never matters.

I don’t tell you how things affect me because I want your pity or your money, and I hope that’s clear; I tell you because I want you to be certain that I’m always going to tell you the truth, and all of it. That’s the deal, that’s what I do here: I tell you honestly what I see. The nonsense I see is under Stories; the rest of it is real. If you want to see more, you stay. This relationship has become important to me in a way I didn’t anticipate. There’s a different echo to the ether when I know someone’s listening, how’s that? I never dreamt of you, but you’re precious to me now.

Since I turned around from puttering with my altar to discover that a few lost souls actually did wash up in the pews, (here please imagine me blinking owlishly and groping about my person for spectacles to see if you are real) it seems to behoove me to have something to offer you on some kind of schedule. That said, there are things that I would like to work on – rewrites, practicing with a new artistic medium, that sort of thing – that aren’t necessarily spectator sports, and I don’t want to feel pressured to always be creating “in the public eye,” as it were. So while I often may have things to show you every day, I’m going to make a promise to you for three days a week, Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. They’re days when I have a lot of time to write or draw and should reliably have something cool for you to look at. No promises what it’ll be, mind. I’m not part of your system, maaaaan, I do what I want.

What’s next then?

Well, I know this is going to come as a shock, but I am stoked as hell to do anything that isn’t a fucking sonnet. My preference – forgive me, your poor heart – is long-form writing. I also want to do more visual art than I have in the past, and move the site itself in a different direction maybe? Here are some thoughts:

  • I’ll be doing a full rewrite on Shadowplay, but I won’t take what’s up there down until I’ve got something substantial to replace it with, so I guess enjoy the shitty first draft while it’s there and know its days are numbered!
  • There’s going to be a lot more Bluebird coming; that story has been bubbling on the back burner and is starting to boil over.
  • There’s going to be a LOT more Sects; that one is starting to take over my life and my desk. And I got fancy new pens! So much more drawing incoming. I often post in-progress stuff (and thrift-store vests) on my Instagram if you like those things.
  • Advice for Sluts is still a thing; I will probably steal a question out of the mail of someone more important fairly soon, but if you want to motivate me, you could ask me a question yourself.
  • I’ll still rant about my broken brain and backward emotions, if that stuff is of interest to anyone. I’m thinking about ways to tell some stories from my childhood, some things that aren’t about trauma and some things that are, and there might be more in that vein going forward. We’ll see.
  • In terms of overarching site stuff, I’m probably going to switch to something other than WordPress around March of next year when this re-ups. Feel like the money could be better spent in terms of functionality. I’ll let you know when that’s happening, and there’ll probably be a sexy redesign, but ideally the URL shouldn’t change so you won’t notice. Maybe we’ll even slap an M on the end of that .co like a big boy website.
  • It’s come to my attention, from my porch from which I shake my fist at the sky, that nobody reads anymore. This is a problem for me as I am a very wordy person. However, I’ve always enjoyed reading aloud, and I got this great new vest you just have to see, so I’m considering reading some of my words into a recording device of some kind and posting the resulting shitshow on Youtube. I’ve been reliably informed that talking heads reading their own words into webcams are what The Kids(TM) are all about these days. We’ll see how quickly I get on that. I’m an Elder Millennial; I interact with the internet at the speed of a BBS, not Twitter.

So that’s about the size of things! If you made it all the way to the end of this, you’re my kind of person, and I’ll be capering for you from here on out. If you like it, don’t be shy – the best thing in the world to me is jamming with people about ideas, creating with other people. If you want to make a friend and make some art, or something I’ve written around here resonates with you, let me know. Pester me on Twitter if you must, or email me. Share with me your delicious brainmeats. Let us nobble them together.

Advice for Sluts #3: Breaking up while polyamorous?

Check it out – a real live human asked me personally a question! This time when I critique someone’s marriage, it will be because I was invited to do so, not because I stole Prudie’s mail! You can’t imagine how pleased I am right now.

Quick recap before we get started here, since we’re doing this all official-like now: I’m a huge ho here to help you figure out how to ho it up in an ethical, compassionate, healthy way, whether for fun or profit. You can find the remainder of my qualifications, such as they are, in that post there, but the pertinent one today is that I’ve spent most of my dating life in polyamorous relationships, trying to figure out how to interact emotionally and sexually with a lot of people while keeping them and myself healthy and happy. Poly-related problems are, with a few exceptions, monogamy problems with an exponential multiplier – the issue is the same, but the feelings and the confusion are amplified for every additional person in the mix. Very often, when you think you have a poly problem, what you have is a relationship problem that you’re trying to solve with polyamory, and that’s why it’s not working.

Our Letter Writer today gives a great example of a situation where that’s probably the case – the relationship was already limping, and polyamory has simply complicated the fallout – but also an occasion where honestly, the source of the problem doesn’t matter as much as what you do next.


You don’t know me (duh) but (if I read it correctly) something on your profile said to ask you anything so I’m taking you up on your offer.

I’m married. Have been for a year and a half or so. Spouse and I are sexually incompatible, so recently we had a talk and discovered we are both poly! Yay!

Both of us went on dating sites and happened to find the exact same couple through the opposite person in it. That’s cool! Now we are all a little cube of love and stuff.


Except we aren’t. Spouse got really upset at me tonight. We had some hard times with cars and finances and had to take rideshares to work and the like for a while.

Well, one day, I accidentally ordered all my rides from my personal account instead of the joint account. I got like 4 overdraft fees tacked onto my account, at 40 bucks each.

So I didn’t realize this till tonight and told them i was in the hole. They freaked out and started yelling about how I always fuck up finances. I’ll admit I’m not great with them, but this was an accident.

Their yelling progressed to how they’re upset that I have so many friends that support me and that I get sick and get off work for 2 days while, when they’re sick, they still had to go in. Also how apparently everyone always asks them about me. About how their gf doesn’t talk to them much while I talk to my bf a decent bit.

This isn’t the first time they’ve gone off on me for something, and honestly they’ve said much worse things, but it really hit me today for some reason.

Since the argument, I’ve been looking for apartments and trying to balance a budget based on what I under-guesstimate I make. I honestly feel I need to leave this relationship to help my own mental health.

Back to the poly thing though. That nice little cube we have. I don’t want to fuck up the lives of two absolutely wonderful and supportive people because of stuff my spouse said to me. I’m scared that if I do leave then things might be said and I know what will happen.

Honestly I’m just really fucked up and I don’t know what to do. I still love them, but I need to take care of myself. But I also don’t want to hurt the other two people we’ve only just started relationships with.

I know this is something kinda fucking heavy to send at 12AM but I need help and I’m entertaining all offers, so…. here I am.

My apologies,

Alice


Okay. First of all, let’s get one thing straight – you have nothing to apologize for. Thank you so much for extending yourself, for asking for help generally and specifically for inviting me to comment on your life. That is a brave and openhearted thing to do, and I am so happy that you did.

With that settled… I think you’re asking two questions here, a poly question and a validation question. The poly question is: “How do you break up only part of a poly relationship?” And the validation question is: “Will you give me permission to walk away?”

I want to answer the second question first: yes. It seems like you want to leave, and I think your reasons for that are good ones. Just from what you wrote, I know a few things about your spouse – I know that when you alert them to a financial crisis, they do an acrobatic pirouette off the handle and start yelling at you. I know that this yelling is aimed at your character and your person – “you ALWAYS do this thing, which shows that you are part of a GRAND CONSPIRACY TO BE MEAN TO ME, one in which you are in cahoots with my employer to deny me time off.” And this yelling, which to me sounds like a dealbreaker all on its own, has happened before. There have been other occasions when this person said “much worse things” to you, possibly at yelling volume. I’m using more specificity than I need here so that you can be really honest with yourself about how you’re being treated.

I don’t think it takes any kind of diagnosis to say that this environment isn’t good for your mental health. If you’re looking for apartments, you’ve already decided that you need to leave, so let’s take that as read while we move on.

First, the safety stuff:

People who get hurtfully shouty can get hurtfully handsy, especially when their favorite shouting target tries to leave. I’m not making any assumptions about your spouse, but if you think this is even a remote possibility, you’ll want to keep your preparations very much to yourself. You have probably already done this if you were worried about it, but here’s another permission from me: it’s okay to trust your gut, even if you’re not 100% sure, especially with regard to your health.

There are a lot of organizations that can help you, even just with planning and guidance. LoveIsRespect is a great one, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline can guide you in putting together a safety plan and finding local organizations and people who can support you.

This is also a really good time to connect/re-connect with your people outside this relationship. Do you have family nearby (whom you like)? Friends not connected to these three people? A therapist? It seems like a lot has happened in the year and a half since you married – potentially discovering a sexual incompatibility, discussing and trying polyamory, meeting the other couple, time spent as a unit – and a lot of times, that means that you’ve been very focused at home and let some outside connections lapse a bit. It’s time to recover some of that, to remember who you are separate from your spouse and your metamours. This is critical, because in order to have the conversations you need to have, it’ll really help to have an idea what it is you want to happen.

Some things to consider while framing that picture…

I would be very surprised if your metamours were totally unaware that your marriage involves this level of yelling and personal attacks. Depending on the level of intimacy between all of you, either of your metamours could be in a similar position or getting similar treatment from your spouse. In the same way that I would feel obligated to be honest if someone I knew entered a relationship with someone who abused me, I think in this situation it’s important that you’re candid about why you’re leaving. When you do that depends mostly on your relationships with your metamours, but I wouldn’t suggest doing it before you’re prepared to execute your plan to leave, unless they live with you. They’re not under immediate threat and you are, so you need to deal with that first, and these conversations can’t remain one-on-one for long. Order of operations is going to depend on your sense of your own safety – swap around #1 and #2 and leave first if you’re at all unsure about how Spouse will react to the news.

  1. Inform Spouse of your intention to leave.
  2. Leave
  3. Talk to metamours.
    (This conversation doesn’t have to be in-person. I would want to do it ASAP, and I imagine you feel the same way, so it’s constructed in such a way as to not require input from them. You can leave it as a message on their voicemail/Intertube of Choice if you want, and if Spouse is blowing up their phones at the same time, that might be a good idea.)

I’m going to offer you some words I would use, because often I find people don’t tell you that – they tell you, “Talk to them!” which I think for most people leaves you right where you started. But you don’t have to use my words in any way.

If you follow a basic format with the conversation, you’ll be okay:
  1. Explain the situation without going into specifics about any one event
  2. Tell them what you plan to do next
  3. Tell them what you need from them, or what you would like to happen between you, in an ideal world.
  4. Invite them to share their “ideal” outcomes and work with you to bring them together, if and when they want to do that.
  5. End the conversation, give all of you some space to process and discuss amongst yourselves. This is a great moment to do some self-care or vent to a totally unconnected friend.

It’s not necessary to trash your spouse here, and it is necessary to let your metamours make their own decisions about their relationships. I would say something like:

“Spouse and I have struggled with some incompatibilities for a while, as you maybe sensed, and due to Spouse’s recent hurtful behavior during those conflicts, I don’t feel safe staying with them. It’s not for me to tell you how to handle your relationships, but in case Spouse has directed this kind of behavior at anyone else, I wanted to have it on the record.”

You can’t tell them what to do, but it will help them decide if you can tell them what you plan to do. If you need their help executing some part of your safety plan, this is the time to ask. That request might feel awkward or painful, because they understandably have complicated emotions about what’s going on right now. But when your health is at risk, it’s okay to ask the people nearest you to hold onto their emotional butts for a second and give you a hand out of this pit full of snakes. It’s okay to expect adults to manage their own emotions and deal with the business at hand if it’s a threat to your health. You gotta be alive to have feelings, so protecting your body comes first.

Complicating this will be the question of whether you’re comfortable seeing Spouse again after you leave. Only you can answer that. Be kind to yourself when you do. If you’re at all unsure, err on the side of a full block, especially if there’s a chance Spouse will, ah… resist being broken up with. Fully separating will require a little reorganization of how you relate to your metamours, and it might be challenging for them if they choose to continue relationships with you both separately, but that’s for them to choose, and it’s a choice any friends have to make every time someone treats their friend badly. It’s not easy, and it sucks, but those things are not your fault. You did not cause this. You are not creating the problem by making them aware of it. There are many ways they can handle the situation, and if you’ve got an idea, you can offer it. Do you guys usually do things as a group, and can those things be rejiggered to work in pairs or on other days when Spouse is not available? What things do you do with your metamours that you most want to preserve? In an ideal world, what would happen here?

“I’m going to move in with Soandso Who Is Not You Guys for a little while, figure out my next move. I care about you both deeply and I would love to continue (having our dates on Fridays/doing game night with you both and not Spouse sometimes/sleeping over on a different night than Spouse does) if you’re comfortable with that, but I understand that our relationship will probably change somewhat. I just want you to know that I love you and I want to protect my own health here while causing you as little pain and stress as possible.”

Then it’s time to put your phone away and take care of yourself. Give yourself 24 hours to process and rest. Nothing is going to happen that can’t wait a single day, even though people will probably try to make you feel like it is. Their emergency is not your emergency. My Buddhist therapist tells me that we have three obligations when we speak: to be honest, to be kind, and to be necessary in what we say. If you have been honest with everyone, told them exactly as much as necessary for them to make informed decisions, and done it as kindly as you can, you have nothing to feel guilt or shame about, and nothing more to offer someone who wants to argue with you. It’s okay to turn the phone off.

Take the steps you need to protect yourself, tell the parties involved with clarity, brevity and compassion, and then treat yourself with that same compassion. This won’t guarantee that no one will react badly, fly off the handle, make a bad choice – of course it won’t. But you can’t control that. It’s not up to you to manage how they feel about your news, and when you try to take responsibility for managing their emotions (or they try to make you responsible for managing them), it denies their adulthood rather than treating them as an equal.

Tell them what you want so that they can tell you if it’s something they can give. Don’t ask for less than what you’re worth. Don’t let Spouse make you feel smaller than you are. You are asking for the bare minimum in being treated like an equal partner, and the fact that you have other partners has nothing to do with that.

I wish you safety, and clear eyes, and a bone-deep sense of your own worthiness, Alice.

If you have a burning question of your own, be advised that
I am no kind of doctor
but I’ll tell you if what you’ve got looks weird at
adviceforsluts@gmail.com

The Internet is a Public Place – Act Like It

Working on other projects around the sonnet thing was one of the challenges I wanted to confront by doing the sonnet thing in the first place. It may not be obvious to others why this is challenging for me – my internal dialogue runs something like: “how come you can write this thirteen-thousand word post, but somehow writing two separate two-thousand word posts is too much for one day? Why is one accomplishment per day the limit of your capability?”

There are a lot of things that are hard for me that it seems like other people find easy, but I assume that I’m not alone in this, in part because I’ve been informed that I’m not. When I confess how difficult some ordinary things are for me, people respond with relief and gratitude. I voice my weariness, and all around me people set down their burdens. Making this kind of vulnerable connection with another human being is important to me, and in my opinion it’s vital to understanding other humans and living with them happily. In this endeavor, the internet has both helped and harmed our ability to interact. But that’s not the internet’s fault. It’s our fault.

Internet dating in particular is tough, in particular for men. There’s a supply-and-demand problem, for one – dick as a product is way over-stocked, and the demand just isn’t there. It’s clear that the best solution would be to periodically take dick off the menu, like the McRib, to get folks hankering for it, but unfortunately men seem totally unable to go their own way without making it all about obsessing over women anyway.

But there’s another reason men are having trouble, and it’s an issue that all of us, regardless of gender, struggle with: the internet is a weird fuckin’ place to approach people. It feels different from the real world, and we’re not sure if the same rules apply, and everyone you meet will tell you that you’re doin’ it wrong.

Long ago, in the wild, wild west…

The early internet was the province of dorks, early adopter tech-fetishists already involved in the tech community – in other words, primarily men. I’m about to piss on these people’s shoes a bit, so let me preface it by saying that I’m mostly intending it with love. As a femme-shaped person who plays videogames, I’ve been privileged to love a great many young, brilliant, geeky white boys; it’s like a sweet tooth for me. Unfortunately, my love often caused me to excuse their bad behavior, and that’s kind of how we got to this point as a society in the first place — decades of saying, “I know he said that horrible thing, but I can’t prove he meant it, so that makes saying it okay.”

These men were fostered by decades of the video game industry focusing on the young white male demographic to the exclusion of any other, decades of school and society teaching that “technology is for men, except sewing machines and food processors. Go back to your girl technology. Go back to your kitchen.

These young white males built communities that often were (and in some cases remain) aggressively hostile to non-white, non-male users. Usenet fed into Something Awful fed into 4chan and offshoot image boards and then into what’s become “the Manosphere.” While the internet expanded and user demographics changed, there were always a few communities that nurtured and fed pugnacious, vitriolic attitudes toward women, people of color, and anyone else who might fuck with the comfortable worldview of a middle-class white teenager.

Still, the internet feels like a refuge to all of us in some ways, not just white boys. Many of us who found the “real world” cruel and isolating have found communities online that make us feel seen, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It makes sense that we’ve felt like the internet was somehow separate from the rest of the world, not subject to the real world’s rules and dangers, not requiring you to gird yourself when logging in the way you would when going out.

But the internet has grown up now, and so have we, and that means it’s long past time we started dealing with reality:

The internet is public.
You are “in public” right now.
You might want to act like it.

You’ll find that when you truly internalize this, a lot of the confusing questions you have about how to interact online fall away. If you wouldn’t behave that way in public, you shouldn’t behave that way online, because the internet is public.

Should I send a picture of my dick to that woman?

Would you whip out your dick and show it to a woman on the street? Would that be a great way to get a date?

Should I stalk this person’s social media and constantly pester and monitor them wherever they go online?

Would you follow a person everywhere they went in the real world? Would you expect that to make them like you? Do we have a word for this in the real world?

Should I flirt with that girl while she’s running her video game stream on Twitch?

Should you flirt with people who are at work, especially when their work requires them to a) stick around and b) be nice to you? Or should you recognize that a person trying to earn a living online is at work, quietly make your interest known with a private approach (a note, a DM) and let them make the next move?

Should I message that person some more if they haven’t responded to the last ten messages?

Would you continue prodding someone in the shoulder and saying, “Hey” at them every hour on the hour if you were saying it to their face? Would you be surprised to get punched for that kind of behavior? Would you still be so confused about whether this person wants your company or not if you could see them physically struggling to avoid you?

Should I jump into this involved debate that I don’t know anything about?

Would you charge into the center of two people having a conversation on the street? Would you expect those people to praise you for doing that? Would you be outraged if they didn’t immediately include you in their conversation, explain context to you, educate you?

Should I take this information as accurate without checking the facts from another source?

Would you believe whatever you read on a flyer stuck to a light pole? Would you take that flyer home, print up more, and share them around your family while defending the reputation of whoever the fuck stapled it to the pole?

Drooling demagogues on every corner

The internet is a place where people work and transact business with strangers, just like the real world. In that context, you need to treat people and information the way you would treat them on a public street.

Say someone runs up to you, slavering and babbling about conspiracy theories – in public, you’d step around the dude and try not to make eye contact, right? But when we’re on the internet, suddenly it’s, “Hmm, that drooly gentleman seems to have some trenchant observations about immigrants; I’m sure he’s done his research. Let me just subscribe to his newsletter.”

I’m sorry to be the one to burst this bubble, but just because you’re not wearing pants while you’re browsing, that doesn’t mean everyone who talks to you online deserves to see you without pants. Just because their voice comes into your living room, that doesn’t mean they’re the kind of person you should let into your house.

A convenient boundary

These days we all seem to muddle around the internet acting like it’s kind of public, like when we choose to expose ourselves, it’s public then, but when we don’t want that, well then the internet is our backyard, and how dare a stranger tell us how to act in our own space! It’s a convenient boundary that allows us to hand our keys to any corporation that wants them, wave our naked asses and genitals about wherever we go with unsecured browsing, and then get outraged when other people comment on the stuff we just dropped all over the public street. This is an Emperor’s New Clothes thing – we’re going out naked and then accusing the person who pointed it out of exposing us.

Now let me be clear – this is not me blaming the victims of doxxing for being doxxed. Being secure on the internet requires a lot more technical knowhow than being reasonably safe in the real world, and the people who know how to secure your internet often have a vested interest in stealing your stuff. Corporations who sell your data, and jerks who steal it, don’t want you to take care of yourself, so it is in their best interests to tell you that there’s nothing concrete you can do to protect yourself, that the rules are fluid and you can never know if someone’s trying to hurt you. They want you to believe that in this thrilling new era of human interaction, they get to set your boundaries wherever they want them to be, and you don’t get to complain.

We actually do know how to act

But this is not actually a thrilling new era, not as far as social interaction is concerned. Humans interact roughly the same whether we’re doing it with our mouths or our thumbs. We rage, we cry, we cheer, we fuck and love and hate and share, and we establish rules for doing those things so that we can all do them in the same space without too much violence and destruction. Even more basic than the higher-level social rules that we think of as “etiquette” – which fork, hold the lady’s arm, etc. Those things are social constructs of the time. But the fundamental assumptions we make in social interaction transcend culture and generation, because they’re the fundamental assumptions you need to make to have a conversation at all. These are things like:

  • “Overtly hostile or intimidating behavior is threatening regardless of intent.”
  • “Telling strangers everything about you instantly is not a great idea.”
  • “If you talk at the same time as another person, neither of you will hear the other properly.”
  • “Vulnerable people are more vulnerable in public.”
  • “Not everyone always tells the truth, and you should apply your own intellectual and moral standards to what you see and hear before investing yourself in it.”

By the time we’re adults, we know these rules – the “social contract” – well enough to not cause problems most of the time, even those of us with brainweasels that make social interaction taxing or frightening. By the time we’re adults, even the assholes among us do know when they’re acting like assholes, if only by the looks on all the faces around them – they just keep pretending they don’t because it feels like doing something wrong innocently is… slightly less wrong. The truth we’re trying so hard to avoid acknowledging is that we are not innocent. We actually do know how to act in public.

Every single day, we follow the rules we’re pretending we don’t know.

We know that we shouldn’t expose our genitals, or harass others. We know that we should try to protect children, and not display people’s private info in public places, and not interrupt working people with our non-work needs. The only time we get “confused” about those things is when we think we might be able to get away with doing the thing we know is wrong while pretending we thought it was okay “this time.” We split hairs and equivocate to relieve our guilt, to make it not SO bad that we went ahead and trampled someone’s boundaries. But… we still did it. We still did the thing we all agreed not to, the thing we expect no one else will do to us. No amount of excuses will change that fact. We knew better, and we did it anyway when it seemed like we could get away with it.

It’s the same as men who say, “I don’t even know how to act around women anymore!” They do know, though, don’t they? They actually know exactly how they’re supposed to act around women, because they’re grown men who manage to hold down jobs and not get arrested at parent-teacher conferences. Every single day, they follow the rules they’re pretending they don’t know. Apparently they know how to act when dealing with their kid’s teacher, or their female boss, or the librarian at the university… but when they’re dealing with a woman they have social power over, suddenly the lines get blurry. Because the confusion is them trying to get away with something they already know is wrong, while blaming the people asking them to stop for not making the rules clear enough.

Internet hygiene: how to Act Like It

When in doubt, ask yourself: “how would this look if I did it out on the sidewalk? How would a person react if I did this to their face?”

Ask yourself: “how would I feel about this information if it was coming from a person I could see? How much would I trust them based on the actual data I know about them, not what they claim? Would I change my life or make a major decision based on their input alone?”

Ask yourself, “If I treated someone like this in person, would I feel embarrassed? Is this the kind of conversation that I’d want to take a person aside to have, rather than say it in a loud voice in a crowded room, and if so, why is it okay to say it in a world-spanning voice in a room that includes, potentially, everyone on earth?”

Ask yourself: “if I wanted to feel safe going out in public, what would I need to do first? What information do I need to protect in public? How much could strangers see of me if I go out? Is my informational ass hanging out of my pants?”

And, just to get prepped for the coming Data Wars…

Ask yourself: “how much would I value the data corporations harvest from me if they had to pay me for it? Would I be okay with someone making money off me this way if, say, a guy at McDonald’s took a photo of me and then put up a billboard flogging hamburgers with my face? If they make billions selling my data, shouldn’t I at least know which parts of it they sell? And let’s be real – shouldn’t I get a cut?”

AFS #2: Help with dissociation?

I’ve been kicking this one around for a good long time, so today’s question comes from r/asktransgender as of about three weeks ago. I’ll dig through my bookmarks and get a proper link up shortly. (Here it is. Turns out I was even slower about this than I thought – it was two months ago!) The ensuing rambling includes some rough anecdotes from my own experience, and has the following content warnings:

  • Self harm
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Child abuse
  • Graphic firsthand descriptions of mental illness

If you’d like to ask me a question and hear me overshare in response, you can do that too.

Continue reading

The End of the World

The Bosnian Chick Magnet is warm and clicking against her back, like a sleeping animal.  Ava stands with her eyes closed, enjoying the quiet. It’s the only car left at the gas station, which is why she hears the mourning dove calling.

cooOOOO-hoooo-hoooo-hoooooo…. coooOOOO-hooo-hooo-hoooooo….

There are always mourning doves at the end of the world.

The thought ignites like a bomb in her brain, so swift and bright that it’s gone by the time the bird falls silent.  The sound throws her, spinning, down the years of her own life, as if the dove’s calling the name of another dove somewhere in the past they share, and she’s gone to find it.

Instead, Ava finds Ava, twelve years old, standing in her driveway in Tucson, Arizona, looking up at the sky.  The mourning dove is still calling, and now it’s not alone. Its plaintive coo cuts through the treble chatter around it, soft but impossible to miss.  For Ava it’s as much a piece of the desert, the city she’s growing up in, as the smell of creosote in the rain, the drone of cicadas, the murderous heat.

She loves it, that’s all, loves every goddamn part of it.  She’d never tell anyone – she hides the things she likes much more carefully than her fears and loathings.  But she feels a savage, atavistic love for this city, the valley it sprawls in, the miles of scruffy landscape on every side.  The sharp-edged mountains are etched in red and black at sunset, the sun is a screaming white ingot in a sky the burnished blue of molten metal, and even ten, twenty years later, she will still be able to close her eyes and draw both from memory.

Whether or not she happens to be grounded, taking the trash out in the evening is the one chore she always wants to do.  She makes sure to maintain the appropriate hangdog manner when asked, of course. Mom loves to sneer at what she calls “the teen look,” but any other expression just gets her interrogated, sometimes for hours.

“What’s that face for?  Don’t give me that look.”

“Did you just roll your eyes at me?”

“What’s that eyebrow about, huh?  Why you making that face?”

“Oh, you thought that was funny, huh?”

“Can you at least try to look like you’re having a nice time?”

No.  The truth is, she has tried.  She’s tried to construct a face that can survive their scrutiny and still be sweet and charming on command, and she can’t.  It will take her years to learn and then to vanish inside that trick.

So instead she finds safety in books, and she learns from history.  She reads about how the countries that resist occupation are put down, brain-drained, destroyed, and the ones that bend can survive, by pretending to obey and hiding their culture away inside their secret hearts.  This teaches her that there’s no shame in submitting the way she does, in trying to please the people who abuse her. She reads accounts from slaves, how they constructed a face to hide behind, a neutral expression their masters could project whatever they liked upon, and carefully does the same.  “The facade,” she calls it when talking to her best friend, the only person who sees her without it.

Settling her features into the facade is simple – a twitch of the nose and mouth that realigns her expression, the kind of thing you’d do to adjust your glasses.  It produces a fixed, dead-eyed look that she can sustain through hours of browbeating. There’s no joy in it, and no interest – the best her parents get from her most days is silent, sullen submission.  They try – they drag her out of her room regularly, sit her down in the living room, and stare at her with a greedy, demanding eye while she listens to something on the stereo. What frustrates her is that she does like most of their music.  She just never, ever likes it enough.  She doesn’t think it’s possible to like it enough.  It’s as if they expect her to transform after each song, to begin ringing in harmony with it maybe, or change color.

“Well?  Weren’t you listening?”

“I guess you think it’s all just bullshit, huh.”

“See if we ever try to include you in anything again, god.”

“Nah, you don’t give a shit, we’re just trying to share something with you, whatever, right?  Go be a teenager, go on, go pout in your fucking room. Aren’t you grounded?”

Ava learns what they want, over time.  They want the same thing the teachers at school want: “Restate the lesson in your own words.”  They want her to rapturously parrot whatever they say, but repeating word-for-word what she’s told gets her slapped – they say she’s mocking them.  So she becomes an expert at knowing what to say, capable of an extemporaneous rant that leaves strangers gaping and friends laughing, the girl who can talk any teacher or parent out of a rage – except her own, of course.

She can’t talk to them at all.  She feels it all the time, like a timer that begins ticking the moment she enters the visual range of her parents.  This timer goes down each second, but it also goes down an extra second for every word she speaks. Sometimes it goes down by chunks and jumps all on its own, for no reason she can see.  Sometimes it’s wrong. But it’s always, always there. And when the timer runs out, something bad happens.

They don’t like her face, and they don’t like her silence, but it protects her fragile things – the few things she lives for.  A few minutes a day, a place or a sound or a person, that frees her and gives her space. Like the sound of the mourning doves.  Like the smell of the creosote bushes after it rains. Like taking the trash out at night.

She carefully closes the screen door behind her – they don’t like slamming doors.  She keeps her head down, her shoulders tense, until she clears the back of her mother’s car, which blocks the view of the yard from the living room window.  There’s about ten feet of driveway that can’t be seen from the house, and she can see the sky from there. She sets the trash bag down and looks up.

cooOOOO-hoooo-hoooo-hoooooo…. coooOOOO-hooo-hooo-hoooooo….

The moon is white and flat like a paper plate, and the night is clear.  Ava tastes the air, cooler than the house, sweeter. It feels pure in her mouth, and she takes great gasping breaths for a moment as she lets her shoulders fall from around her ears.  Like she’s been drowning for hours. Sometimes tears cross her face. She stares at the moon, or the stars, and listens to the sound of traffic, and thinks about the other world that isn’t this place, a new world where she could be anyone at all, where she could disappear.  A world where for just a minute no one is watching and waiting for her to fuck up.

She doesn’t stay out there long.  Taking out the trash should take five minutes, and she can stretch it near to ten before anyone will trust their sense of time enough to question it.  Turning away from the road, the moonlight, the other world, she twitches her nose and mouth like a rabbit and the walls close around her again. The naked need falls out of her face so quickly it should shatter at her feet.  By the time she’s tossed the trash in the dumpster the tears are gone from her face. Her eyes never redden or swell – she’s spent so much time in the mirror with Clear-Eyes, practicing this emptiness, that now she can cry for whole minutes and you’d never know.

She walks back to the house slowly, and takes a deep breath before she goes back in.  Someday she won’t have to go back in. It’s a promise she’s been making to herself often, since she was very small.  She makes it again as the mourning dove calls her back into the sunshine, into her grown-up body, into the end of April, 2011, where she stands leaning against her car on the border of Kansas and Colorado.  Behind her are two states and the city they left yesterday, and her family, who made it clear that this willful flight was the final insult they’d take from their prodigal. You can’t quit, you’re fired!

In front of her is a stretch of hills that rises steadily and never stops until it reaches a sharp-edged, ferocious mountain range, the same one she remembers from a different angle.  Living in the plains makes her uncomfortable, agoraphobic, makes it hard to navigate. The light pours down the hills like paintings of very Elysium, and she feels a wild, leaping joy that makes her laugh and cry at the same time.  For the first time in twenty-six years, she feels free.

It’s the end of that world.  I never have to go back in.

She’s dashing the tears from her eyes when her boyfriend returns, holding out a sandwich.

“Are you okay?”

cooOOOO-hoooo-hoooo-hoooooo…. coooOOOO-hooo-hooo-hoooooo….

The dove calls out another spate of tears and she grins, squinting up at him through rainbow splinters of sun in her eyes.  “Yeah, I’m good. Thanks. Let’s go – I think we can make Denver before the sun sets, and I want to drive through that view.”