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.

99 – Lost and Found

This project has been therapeutic for me in a couple of ways – certainly if you’ve been following along at all you’ll notice me dumping my brainweasels all over everywhere, so it’s cathartic if nothing else. The more I do, and the more I force myself to see that I do, the more I acquire a sense of… myself.

That feels very banal when I say it out loud. It’s something most people take for granted, I would imagine. A couple of years ago, I was joking with a friend and mentioned offhandedly that I had never recognized my own face in a mirror. “I mean, yeah, I know that person in the mirror, it’s the same person who’s always there when I look in the mirror, but it’s not me; it looks nothing like me.” My friend found this startling and concerning enough to comment on it. This was when I learned, at 29 years old, that other people generally do recognize their own faces.

I didn’t get much of an opportunity to develop an identity. I was born to be the proxy of someone else’s ego. This isn’t hyperbole or speculation on my part; my mother told me this explicitly: “I had you so that I would have a friend who could never leave me.” Since the second I was born, I existed to reflect and flatter a more powerful personality. There was only one scale of value: more or less like her. More = good, less = bad. More = love, less = pain.

That’s part of the reason I haven’t spoken to her in a while. Because my sense of self is very new and fragile. I have to build it now, as an adult, with my therapist’s and my wife’s help, because the person who should have helped me build it thirty years ago spent that time stomping it down to build herself up. I don’t want to cut her off, but I need a little time and space to build something that doesn’t have her fingerprints on it anywhere. My in-progress tattoo feels good for that reason – another way of reclaiming what belongs to me. It’s so easy for me to slip back into old patterns when I talk to her.

I know she often thinks that I hate her, but the fact is, it would be far easier if I did. I love my mother, even the worst parts of her, even the parts that hate me. When I talk to her all I want in the world is to be in her arms, to ask her for approval, forgiveness, comfort. There’s so much of me that would happily step right back into that prison, laugh along with all the abuse, just to be part of the family, just to belong to her. I think most of us feel that way. Hatred would be cleaner than this.

I don’t hate her. I hate myself for loving her and for not being good enough to ever get her love in return. That’s the monster she made of me.

Very young, I write my name on the sole
of my doll’s foot, so people know she’s mine.
I know it causes her pain all the time;
I know what it feels like to be controlled.

I feel your fingerprints still on my skin
I perch outside my cage all day
waiting for you to come put me away
waiting for another chance to let you win

I want to wrap myself in other words
I want to shed my skin and luminesce
for every tatter in this mortal dress
every destination half-remembered.
Each day your signature shows a bit less
Each day I feel a little less encumbered.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

4 – Blonde Boye

Today you’re getting a poem about my big dumb childhood dog. Frances was named after this Frances, a little badger girl in a series of picture books I had as a kid. These books led first to me being nicknamed Frances – “Bedtime for Frances!” was both the title of one of those books and the way I was ushered to bed for a few years – and later, the name was slapped on the dog, who didn’t know it was spelled the feminine way, because he was the dumbest dog ever born.

A big, beautiful, prancing blonde boye, he got compliments everywhere he went – he was built like a greyhound, all sleek lines and short golden coat, but like… quadruple that size. A hundred pounds of hyper great dane/greyhound/something or other, with the brain of a fucking squirrel at the helm. I spent most of my adolescence being dragged around the neighborhood at the end of his leash, wrestling him in the backyard, and laughing at him when he tried to eat rocks.

The thing about the light bulb is 100% true, although I did bend the circumstances a bit for a rhyme – point of fact, he got the light bulb out of the trash. We came back to the house to find the trash can spilled, and Frances sitting in the back yard with half a broken light bulb between his paws, and the other half presumably responsible for the blood all over his face and chest. We ran out into the yard to take it from him and he jumped up, panting blood, grinning like a maniac, hoping we’d throw the bulb for him to chase.

Somehow he survived that. He was about seven years old before lymphoma got him, so he defeated the light bulb and lived to chew the lit barbecue once more, to vault onto the counter and drag my mom’s homemade pizza out into the yard, to walk into the pillar that held up the patio roof no less than a thousand times, even though it hadn’t moved once in his entire life. So this sonnet is for my big stupid dog-brother. Good boy, Frances.

A golden dog, but not a retriever –
maybe some great dane, maybe some greyhound –
opined the vet when we brought Frances round.
“Hell, with those teeth, he could be part beaver.”

He was a chronic underachiever,
too dumb to get all four feet on the ground
bashed his head on walls when he’d turn around…
Smell something good? Why not lick a cleaver?

Frances, the prettiest, stupidest dog,
Biting the fire in the barbecue
put away everything he chose to chew
Even a light bulb he found on a jog.
Said to his bloody grin, “What did you DO?”
Must conclude fools are protected by god.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

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.”

Why I Don’t Answer the Phone

I got into a conversation today about why abuse survivors feel like a burden on others.  This feeling has led me to a pretty suicidal realm at times, because it dovetails all too neatly with my other neuroses, but most people with trauma feel this way to some extent.

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This is the meme that started the discussion.

Some of it is projection – we tend to assume that people think like we do, unless we actively work to look beyond that.  So if we’re unhappy with ourselves, we assume that dissatisfaction is universal.  The bad qualities we perceive in ourselves must be tattooed on our foreheads, and the fact that these people tolerate us just shows how amazing they are by comparison.

I think there’s a larger factor here, though, and it’s that people raised by narcissists learn an adversarial game of love.  I believe that until you unlearn this game, you can’t gain energy from loving company, can’t be empowered and soothed by the company of the people you love – it will always be taxing to some degree.

an adversarial game of love

Part of being a kid is getting saddled with your parents’ values.  This just comes with the package – your parents can’t avoid expressing what they believe subconsciously, even if they’re careful about what they say and do in your presence.  So until you’re at a point where you can begin to question these things – and remember that trauma stunts emotional development, pushing that point further and further away with every blow – these things are just part of how you see the world.  These are your “received values.”

When you’re raised by a narcissist, you receive the values through a megaphone, because a narcissist makes the outside world responsible for their self-worth.  What does a narcissist value?  Only one thing: supply, or emotional sustenance.  It’s not quite the same thing as when you spend time with a friend and you feel better – that, hopefully, is a symbiotic thing, you and your friend supporting one another and giving one another energy in different ways that aren’t deleterious to either of you.

Narcissistic supply, on the other hand, doesn’t have to be positive.  Supply is provided any time the narcissist can feel that they are central to others’ lives.  Their centrality, the extent to which they feel important and focused on, is the extent to which they feel worthy.  If they’re feeling neglected, they will act out to increase the flow of supply, of attention and emotional energy, directed their way, whether this means asserting dominance, provoking others, or demanding their love and devotion.

you are valuable to the extent that you forget who you are

So the narcissist wants supply.  Their emotional state, their relationships, their worldview and view of themselves as a person are all dependent on the level of that supply gauge.  Which means that if you’re a narcissist’s child, what your parent taught you is that you are valuable to the extent you provide supply.  To the extent you make your parent feel central to your life and identity, you are loved.  In a very literal way, you are valuable to the extent that you forget who you are.

The problem with this – well, another one – is that narcissistic supply isn’t the same thing as emotional support.  It’s like living on nothing but popcorn.  It fills you up, but it’s mostly air – you’ll need more in ten minutes.  So you might learn to supply your abuser with what they need, but as soon as it becomes routine – or the wind shifts – the demands will change.  This makes every interaction an adversarial game: can you divine the way the wind’s blowing, and assume the appropriate position in time, or will you make a mistake?  In a way, it doesn’t matter – either outcome provides narcissistic supply.  Either they get you to scramble and attend to their needs, or they get to excoriate you for not doing so.  Either one reinforces their starring role in your life.

manipulate me for my comfort, but don’t you care let me catch you at it

So if you grow up being told that this is love, how is interacting going to feel to you?  Interaction isn’t a source of solace, or support – it’s like being in the room with a hungry animal, something unpredictable that you must nonetheless predict in order to be safe.  And when you try out the dubious skills you’ve learned on people outside the family, they call you passive-aggressive and manipulative.  That’s how it works.  That’s the narcissist’s edict: Manipulate me for my comfort, but don’t you dare let me catch you at it.

You learn a lot from this, growing up.  A lot of things that later you’ll have to unlearn, things like:

  • All interactions involve layer upon layer of emotional sparring that you will be punished for winning or losing.
  • All interactions are one person trying to get supply from the other, trying to drain their emotional energy.  At best, every conversation is a negotiation.
  • Your value to others is the amount of selfless energy you can provide them.
  • No one is ever being dishonest or emotionally manipulative except you. We have no idea where you learned that.
  • No one is interested in anything but themselves.
  • As a result, every second you spend expressing yourself in another person’s presence, rather than reflecting on and attending to them, is a drag and a drain.
  • Your inability to manage this situation with eagerness and enthusiasm is a disease that we need to cure for you to be normal and therefore loved.

And here we are.  If this is what a conversation feels like to you, even with people you care about, why would you want to interact at all?  Why wouldn’t you count the cost of it every second when you do?  Why wouldn’t you be certain those around you are doing the same, and why wouldn’t you, each and every time, come up short in that calculation?  You always have before.

do what the narcissist can’t

To get out of this life-sucking trap, where every notification makes you twitch and every phone call gives you a sick feeling of fear and shame as you stare at the phone, still not answering...  To get out of this state, you have to do what the narcissist can’t: you have to find self-worth that doesn’t rely on another person to survive.  I think self-worth, strangely enough, is a thing you build from the edges in, like a puzzle.  It’s going to be a very long time before you can envision the face of the person you’d like to be, the person who doesn’t live in this trap, the person who can love and be loved without counting the cost.

But you don’t have to envision their face.  Start with the edges.  Learn who that person is by watching their effect on the world.  You can’t help acting out your values, any more than your parents could, and I think you’ll find that yours are not simply the ones you were given, no matter how much effort was spent to indoctrinate you.  I think you’ll find that when you felt supported, when you felt safe, when you were able to act instead of react… your choices reflected the person you want to be.  What does that person seem to value?  How do they treat people?  Do they make others responsible for their pain, or do they strive to give more than they take, even if they don’t always succeed?

I’m going to bet that person is worthy of love.  I bet if you saw another person making the choices you’ve made, you wouldn’t even question whether that person was worthy.  Start from that value – you are worthy of love.  No one can diminish your value, and no one can increase it.  You are not required to bleed for those you love.  That’s not what we preach here.

love isn’t something you give or take… it’s something you do

Love can be painful, it can be stressful, but it is not adversarial.  They say all relationships are work, and they kick that one around the internet arguing whether it should or shouldn’t be so.  I’m gonna clarify it by generalizing like hell: everything in the world is work, unless you’re a sponge.  When the person next to you has the same goal in mind and is helping, work goes fast and doesn’t feel like work.  When the person next to you isn’t helping, or is working in a different direction, it will feel like every slogging, unproductive step is on you.

It’s not, though.  Love isn’t something you give or take – it’s something you do.  Do it for yourself first, and then if someone ain’t doing it for you, don’t do it back.

AFS #1: Should I tell my fiancée I’m trans?

So we’re currently at the ignoble stage where, in order to have anything to talk about, I’m appropriating questions from real columnists, like a mail thief who then shows up at your door to critique your marriage.  I think Prudie nailed it in responding to this question, and I think the practical advice is right-on.  Talk to your partner, for your own mental health, and get you someone else to talk to about it also.  I’m not here to disagree – I just wanted to talk about some of the underlying thoughts you may be experiencing right now.

Here’s the question, and Prudie’s response.

This is a familiar story to me.  When I was about 15, my parents sent me to a therapist.  It wasn’t explained to me precisely why, so when the therapist asked about my hobbies, I talked about Zelda and Starfox and D&D.  I also mentioned my best friend, and how important she was to me.  Almost at once, I was forced to insist that our relationship wasn’t sexual, that I was not a lesbian.  I had this conversation with my very progressive family pretty often too.  It wasn’t that they had any issue with me being gay – quite the opposite, in fact; my mother routinely ended arguments with my stepfather by turning to me and snarling, “Marry a woman!”

agony and uncertainty was where they started

It was that to them it was both fascinating – something they wanted to know about, and constantly – and yet also trivial enough to mock.  And to me it was frightening, and invasive, and diminishing to what I saw as the “purity” of my relationship with my friend.  It was dysphoric, is what it was, only I didn’t know that at the time.  I’d grown up surrounded by gay people, but because it wasn’t remarked upon in my family, none of the pain and confusion we can feel in the closet was mentioned to me.  I only saw the happy, open adults these people had become.  I had no idea that my agony and uncertainty was where they started.  I didn’t trust my family enough – for other reasons – to tell them what I felt, and when the therapist immediately started in with the same prurient curiosity, insisting that a close friendship just couldn’t be that close without something gay going on, not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that… I didn’t trust her either.

This is where my life divided.  I tell myself stories about it sometimes, like the stories you’re telling in your dreams right now.  In one story, someone explains to me that trans is a thing you can be, and that I do not have to look like my family’s idea of a lady to be worthy.  I register the fact that the person I always imagine myself growing up to be is a man.  In that story, I imagine, maybe I transition, and maybe I’m someone’s husband and that makes me happy.  Or however that ends up going.  Transition is no guarantee of eternal happiness – it would just have been a different life.

In the other story, the one that’s more detailed but less narratively satisfying because it actually happened, I don’t know until much, much later that the pain I feel is not normal, that it’s not just me being fundamentally deficient the way my parents tell me I am.  In this story, I do not tell anyone that I don’t recognize my own face in the mirror, and so no one explains to me that I should.  In this story, I spend the next fifteen years trying to become the woman I am supposed to be, the woman I don’t recognize.  The “lady” my grandmother wants to see.  The daughter my family could love.  I am told that if I obey, I will be safe, and so I do.  I obey the pain away.  I obey myself away.

I was a good girl.  Just like I imagine you’ve been a good guy, a good boyfriend, a good son.  So much unspoken weight is in that, not just the words but the promise and the threat: stick to the script and you can stay.  Do what we expect, and you’ll be taken care of.  Follow in our footsteps and you’ll always be safe.  It’s understandable, to a certain extent, that our loved ones feel that way – their path is the only one they know, and they turned out okay, right?  There’s only one life they can be certain is livable, and it’s the one they’re living.

But you can’t live in anyone else’s flesh prison, and the life they’ve found livable may be toxic to you in a way no one else can understand.  I got to 30 before the disconnection from myself nearly killed me.  My body felt like a space suit, loose, bulky and clumsy, with me screaming and lost somewhere inside, far away from the faceplate.  I couldn’t see forward – every life I could imagine ahead of me felt the same, that same grinding, choked, claustrophobic feeling, that same hopeless, worthless girl starring in every frame.  That girl I didn’t recognize.  I didn’t want any of those lives, and I couldn’t imagine any others.  I didn’t want to live at all if it had to feel like that.

nothing will ever feel real… as long as the person starring in your life is not you

If you can’t get out of bed, I think it’s a decent chance you feel some of these things too.  So I want to tell you that it doesn’t have to feel like that, and also to listen to those feelings.  I don’t say this because I’m unhappy with the disheveled machine ghost I’ve become, far from it – in a fucked-up way that I spend 90% of this blog trying to articulate, I value the life I’ve had.  I just know that nothing, not love, not success, not wealth, not the desires you don’t tell anyone – nothing will ever feel real and no success will make you feel enough as long as the person starring in your life is not you.

Before I came out, I was suicidal, because I couldn’t envision any future where I was happy.  No matter how flawless the vision, no matter how happy the ending, I wasn’t in it.  That girl wasn’t me.  Her victories meant nothing, and her sorrows seemed imposed, the result of trying to cut off every part of herself that made someone else uncomfortable.  So much of what that girl feared, needed, found challenging or impossible… I can’t even see now.  The message I was given, and you’ve been given, was, “You must fold and crush the person you are until you become someone who can be happy where we’ve put you.”  But that’s not true.  The demand can be sidestepped when you see that it’s based on a lie that many families, corporations, and governments would like you to believe: “Happiness is only possible through me and my way.”  That’s not true either.

I’ve got a different message for you, while you’re being scolded from on high.  “If you’re not happy where you are, as you are… move.  You don’t need another reason.”

a spicy bean

And that’s the final point I wanted to make.  I don’t mean “move” as in “don’t get married, sell your house and run off and transition and then join Cirque du Soleil or something” (although I would watch that movie).  No.  When I say “move,” I mean just that – make a move.  Take literally any step toward something you want.  A little one or a big one.  Any one.  Gamble even just a few minutes of your time on the possibility that what you think matters, that what you feel is right, that even if you’re wrong about the things you might enjoy or want, no one else is a better authority on you than you are, and your life is about trying things to see if you like them and want more.  That’s literally what life is.  “What’s this thing?  Put it in my mouth to see what it is.  Ow, it stung my lip.  That’s a spicy bean, I don’t think I like it.”  That’s all of life.  Here’s a thing – like it?  Want more?  There’s more over there, go get it.  And you are the first and last judge of what things you want more of in your life.  You might take in data from people around you to inform that decision, to tell you more about what might occur and which of those consequences you want, etc., but you are the only one who gets to decide, because you’re the only one who has to live with it forever.

So make one small change.  Talk to someone.  Start wearing a different coat.  Get yourself some earbuds so you can listen to music for a minute when you get stressed out at work, and actually do that.  Take a class on something your family thought was stupid, or go browse the memes on r/egg_irl and see if anything feels familiar.  Remind yourself that exploring this idea will not instantly result in the life you have crumbling to pieces.  Try to resist the feeling that this is an either-or, an irrevocable all-or-nothing decision between the life you have and being true to yourself.  It feels like that, because you don’t know what might happen, so you’re imagining the worst possible outcome.  But it’s not.  This is a long, complicated, hard process if you transition, and gender questioning is a long, complicated, hard process whether or not you ever do that, and it looks different for everyone.  All you need now is someone to talk to about how you might like it to look for you.

looking for reasons is looking for permission

And do it today.  Right now.  (Let me finish here first, it’s rude to run off when I’m pontificating.)  You will always, always find a way to convince yourself it’s not time yet, or it’s not worth it, or it’s too risky.  Looking for reasons is looking for permission.  You want something unequivocal that will take the choice out of your hands, convince you of the right move, and you’re never going to get it.  You will, however, assemble a thousand data points that convince you to stay in bed, so afraid to lose what crumbs of comfort and joy you have that you’re willing to pass up even the chance at not living on starvation rations.

You don’t need anyone’s permission to explore and express who you are – not your fiancée’s, not your family’s, not Prudie’s, and not mine.  You’ve been trying so goddamn hard, for so fucking long, to be what they wanted you to be, and the person who’s done that isn’t bad or wrong.  You don’t have to sacrifice everything he is to be the woman you truly are, because I’m willing to bet that woman is a LOT like the man your fiancée agreed to marry.  I bet that woman is every bit as considerate, as conscientious, as kind and as loving as you are in a man’s body.

The only real difference between that man and that woman, apart from a few years of medical nonsense and stress… is that the woman thinks YOU being YOU is worth literally any risk at all.  The voices that brought you here, the ones that are telling you to shut up and swallow this… they think that “not rocking the boat” is worth sacrificing every single bit of you.  When you’re questioning whether something you would be doing for yourself is “worth it,” remember that you’re really asking, “Am I worth it?”  To you, expressing yourself honestly should be worth literally any risk, any cost.  Start believing it now.  Then make your move.

My, How You’ve Grown

I’ve been reading this fantastic book, “The Family That Couldn’t Sleep”, about the history of prion research and fatal familial insomnia.  It’s incredible; I’ve been taking every excuse to babble about it all week.  The author’s approach is so compassionate and yet comprehensive – there are a lot of not-so-great people who nevertheless do important work in the field of prion research, and D.T. Max presents their crimes evenly alongside their discoveries, neither excusing them nor allowing their crimes to obviate their contributions.  It’s terrifying and inspiring and dense with super strange facts that will make you a Cool Guy among the “morbid history nerd” demographic.

But this isn’t a book review, because apparently my elders would prefer I chose more uplifting reading material – my grandmother came in to say, “Sigh. Life in general is so much more! As you “season” with age, you’ll see.”

Reader, I did an acrobatic pirouette off the handle.

I haven’t been subjected to that “when you’re older you’ll understand” bullshit in a good long while, because at 32, most people seem willing to sell me booze and engage with my ideas as if I were some kind of adult.  It’s true that we’re always children to our families, there’s no possibility of ever entirely discarding the trappings of that relationship, but I think it’s possible to honor a shared past without inhabiting it, to love the child we remember without erasing the adult we see.  It just requires a conscious effort to look for more than what we expect, to look at a person for their identity rather than their role.

it’s just a phase

Because that’s it, isn’t it?  We slot people into roles in our lives as appropriate – mother, father, partner, boss – and then we try to optimize our relationship according to society’s instructions for interacting with that role.  We look at our family and compare it to other families we see, and consider ours more or less successful based on how well it matches up to the cookie-cutter.  We catch our child misbehaving and crowdsource the answer, looking for how kids that age are supposed to behave.  Is this normal?  Is it a phase?

That word, phase – do people still say that shit to their kids?  “Oh, it’s just a phase, you’ll get over it. You won’t care about that in six months.  No, don’t spend too much money on that, she’s only going through a phase.” Really think about what that says for a second.  You’re saying to your child, “You have no expertise on your own feelings or desires. This thing that feels very important to you is not important, and the degree to which you lack understanding of that is the degree of your immaturity in my eyes.  It would be best to crush your enjoyment of that thing immediately and waste no more of anyone’s time liking something you might dislike in the future.”

the apex of human understanding

Note that “growing up” is always seen as synonymous with “agreeing with me.”  There is no world in which a child grows up, acquires experience and perspective, and still disagrees with you.  Your worldview is the apex of human understanding, and all life is a grim slog toward the enlightenment you’ve already achieved.  All of this is implicit when someone says, “When you get older, you’ll see.”

Trouble with that is, if you look at the world this way, you will only ever see yourself.  That’s all you’re interested in. It’s all you’re looking for, so it’s all you’ll find. You’ve told the people you love that what matters to them is only real if it also matters to you.  That what they are is only worthy if it matches what you were looking for.  Someone you love came to you and said, “Hey, this thing is super cool, and it fills me with the sublime joy of discovery and makes me want to learn more.”  And you said, “That’s not the kind of thing I figured you’d be into. Stop sharing your discoveries with me until you mature into someone who likes what I like.”

Is that the relationship you want to have with your family?

your irresponsible brother Dave

Aren’t you at all worried that you’re missing out?  Don’t you ever wonder who that person is? Not the role they’re in – not “your granddaughter” or “your partner” or “your irresponsible brother Dave,” but the actual person hidden behind the role you talk to when they pick up the phone.  Maybe actually talk to Dave, for the first time in years.  Dave’s forty-three – have you been calling him irresponsible since he was eight years old?  Does that not seem like bizarre behavior, to not update your opinion of a person for thirty years?  If you met forty-three-year-old Dave in a bar or a park, would the two of you get along? Would you even talk?

I think the sad truth is that a lot of people wouldn’t choose their family for friends if they’d been given a choice.  And it’s not because we don’t have things in common – shared space and shared time creates commonalities, and so does any attempt to shape your loved ones to resemble yourself.  One way or another, we usually have a lot in common with our families.

What we don’t have is any reason to seek out their company, a lot of the time.  The jokes about family time being as taxing as it is rewarding are pretty universal – why is that?  Why do most people not quite like being around their families?  A lot of those jokes rely upon this idea of having to perform, to live up to what the family expects of you.  Here we are again… “family” is conditional upon your ability to conceal what you are, to go through the motions, to avoid the missing stair.

someone who loves you might hurt you on purpose

Any long-term relationship is susceptible to this.  The older a relationship is, the more opportunity there is to create habits that wear into wounds.  You started joking about Dave being irresponsible when he was eight, and he laughed then, and so you kept it up.  Dave kept laughing because Dave didn’t have any power – if it bothered him, he didn’t have any safe opportunity or framework to say, “That joke actually does hurt me.  Could we stop joking about that and joke about literally anything else, please?” He’s hopefully never before been confronted with the idea that someone who loves you might hurt you on purpose.  That’s a brutal revelation, one that a child has trouble absorbing, and so he tries to ignore it. Dave keeps laughing.  If he conceals that it hurts, they won’t be hurting him on purpose.  If I don’t call it rape, I can pretend I wasn’t raped.  Faking it is less painful. It keeps hurting, but over time Dave gets inured to it. He doesn’t even hear the jokes anymore.  He doesn’t see his family much either. Not for any particular reason, they don’t do anything really bad. They’re just… not as good to him as his friends are.  And somehow that’s called “family.”

The word family whitewashes a lot of behavior that no one in their right mind would put up with from a friend or a partner.  We’re looking for the family we expect to see, the one media shows us, and when we don’t see it, we pretend to see it.  We play the role and the role becomes who we are.

our teeth are loving

That’s how a family gets to a point of taking pride in their dysfunction.  “We’re not like those lame, boring families that are nice to each other.  Other people can’t understand this thing we have, but you know our teeth are loving, this is just the only way we know to express our emotions.  You’re special for getting it.  Outsiders don’t get it.” This is how we immortalize abuse as family tradition. We convey the impression that in order to be “in the club,” in order to belong, those lower in status must submit to whatever treatment trickles down from on high.  More than submit to it – celebrate it. Being part of the family means laughing when we make a joke at your expense; can’t you take a joke, don’t you have a sense of humor?

These patterns don’t start as malice, that’s the problem.  We don’t start out trying to bulldoze the people around us.  We just don’t take it seriously when it happens, and so it keeps happening.  When we trivialize what someone’s experiencing – “it’s a phase, you’ll understand better when you’re older” – we teach them that their pain is not important.  So they stop telling us about it.

If we don’t create opportunities in our relationships for open communication that sets aside power and status disparities, we can’t ever have genuine, functional relationships with anyone.  Power, status – it’s not comfortable to use words like that with our loved ones, and we’d like to believe our families don’t work like that. But power disparity exists, and ignoring it is just a way of absolving ourselves of responsibility, believing that the word “family” is sufficient to keep the family together.  It’s not necessary to work on and improve those relationships the way one would with a friend, because “we’ll always be family.” Okay, but if family doesn’t mean “a group of people who love each other and look after each other’s welfare”… what exactly will we always be? We’ll always be connected by blood, but if that’s all that’s required, why does it matter if we spend time together?  You want family to mean something when it absolves you, but not when it requires you to do emotional work.

any part of this person you ground down

What if you made it a habit, with all the people you love – friends, partners, family, anyone you plan to keep around for a while – to check in?  Not in a “hey, how’s tricks” kind of way – you’re going to have to give them a framework to answer you, because we’re not used to being this honest with each other, and you’ve probably given them at least one reason to believe you won’t react well to anything less than a glowing review.  But there are a lot of ways to get at what you want to know, and what you want to know is if there’s any part of this person you ground down to make them fit into your family.

Try any and all of the following, as appropriate to your situation and relationship:

  • “Hey, I want you to feel like you can tell me the truth about what you’re experiencing and feeling – is there anything I can do or not do to make you feel safer in doing that?”
  • “What have you been really interested in lately that we haven’t talked about?  You’re getting into culinary taxidermy? Well that sounds terrifying to me, but we don’t have to like the same things for me to love you, so please, tell me what you like about it!”
  • “We go to church/play board games on Family Night/eat at Hooters every week, and we’ve been doing that for a long time, I just wanted to see if that’s still sparking joy for everybody.  Oh, you say you never liked eating at Hooters?  Well I definitely won’t say ‘why didn’t you mention that earlier’, because we don’t always know how we feel about things right away and conveying that uncertainty across a power disparity is very difficult, and I don’t want to punish you for answering my question honestly.  Instead, let’s try another place, and those of us who like Hooters can go tomorrow night.”
  • “Hey, I noticed when I made that joke that your laugh was a little halfhearted.  If I say something that makes you uncomfortable, please don’t feel like you have to laugh it off – please tell me instead, so I can not do that in the future, because I’d rather we both be having fun when we hang out.”
  • “Remember that thing I asked you to work on?  Keeping up with the dishes/not picking your nose in front of the dog/not yelling at me when I ask a question?  I wanted to say it’s been a lot better lately – you’ve been working on it and it shows, so thank you.”
  • “What are some things you’d like to do in life?  Let’s approach those NOT from the perspective of me showing you how to scale down your dream until it fits neatly into your standard-issue soul-dead consumer life, but rather, let’s you and I figure out how to break down the existing paradigm to make whatever you’d like to do practical.  I promise not to mention money or college in any way during this conversation, because a lot of things can change in twenty years, and my understanding of what the workforce will require from you is probably already wildly out of date, and also your value and the value of what you care about is not determined by the amount of capitalist wealth you accrue, so you should pursue what you’re passionate about and we will make it work.”

Demonstrate, or have the common decency to occasionally feign, interest in your loved ones outside the sphere of your own interests.  Acknowledge progress, not just error.  Don’t measure others’ success in terms of similarity to you or your dreams.  Provide opportunities for safe communication.  Be aware of power disparities rather than trying to pretend they don’t exist, and be ready to swallow your pride if it gets in your way.  If you can’t hear good sense when it comes from the mouth of a child – or anyone you perceive as “lesser” – you aren’t worthy of any form of authority.  Don’t judge your children by how similar they are to you, or to other children, or to children from your day. That’s not useful info – why would you want your children to be similar to you?  They live in a completely different world and that will become more true every day.

Don’t look for your own reflection in the faces of those around you.  Listen to the person in front of you, right now. They’re giving you a lot of information – we all want to be seen, to be understood, and most of the time we’re broadcasting like neon lights, just wishing someone would ask us what we think or how we feel.  Each person is new, and they’re new every goddamn day. If you’re not paying attention, you’re going to miss it. If you spend all your time describing the person in front of you, rather than listening to them, they’re going to disappear.

(the empty set)

You wanna talk about how you feel?

No.

Okay.  What do you wanna talk about?

 

She’s got an empty set tattooed on her hand

between thumb and forefinger on the left side, because she’s righthanded

So when she poured the ink from a Bic into a bottlecap

and dipped in a sewing needle

tip flame-bruised

It was her left hand flat on the plastic table

A zero with a slash through it –

In middle school this was how I wrote my zeroes

A handwriting quirk I tried out for two weeks

Until my math teacher gave me a D on a test

Marking every instance of 0 as if it were the empty set

I never did it again.

 

You wanna talk about how you feel today?

No.

Okay.  What do you wanna talk about?

 

Around her wrist – also on the left

in the same blurry ballpoint blue

It says

Vincit omnia veritas

Truth conquers all

Her hands never leave me

They were the first things I ever saw

 

You wanna talk about how you’re feeling?

Okay.

 

Sometimes I think that the hands belong to someone else

I’ve been watching them all my life and

They’re always the same

(the empty set)

But they’re not always attached to the same woman

It’s her eyes that change

They came into my life after her hands

And still I don’t quite trust them.

Staring is rude

Confrontational

So I learned to stare at the floor

or that spot in the air two feet in front of your nose

the place daydreamers go

the vanishing point.

 

Her voice would wash over me and I’d look at her hands

My mother’s hands

The pillars of the world, crowding every frame

The tale of my creation under them like the forging of a weapon

A tool, a toy

“I wanted a friend, so I made one.”

I imagine those hands selecting my traits one by one

Every strength, every virtue, every talent plucked

like hairs from her head

All my beauty borrowed

All my power loaned

All my successes predestined and expected

“That’s good, honey.  Do better.”

Like the moon, a white face in her shade

to reflect her light.

 

Should a tool aspire to be a toy?

Does a weapon wish it had been a teapot instead?

So few of us know what we are for

So few of us find a sense of meaning

One should be grateful to have one’s purpose

clearly dictated so early in life

And I am.

I have never doubted what I am made for

I have never for a moment wondered if I am an accident

Though I have long suspected I am a mistake.

Bidden, “Reflect!”

So bidden, I tried.

By the only god I ever knew

By her limitless light

I swear I tried.

 

The light never dims, not with distance

And not with time

This is how I know

that her hands are still with me

Bookending my life

Brackets that make it a subset of her existence

What’s inside them?

(the empty set)

Not nothing, no

A specific nothing

Better than nothing

like a ham sandwich.

The empty set is the set of answers that are not answers

the tension between SHOULD and AM

the number of wishes you get.

 

But any emptiness makes music

and in the dark I’ve found

That the inside of me looks nothing like her.

There are more things in this hollow skull, Horatio

Than are dreamt of in her philosophy

When I shout, the brackets give back my voice

and every time it’s different

and we might have nothing but we have infinite nothing

An infinite resonating space

with infinite room for activities.

I’ve been thinking I might keep it empty

Just to hear the echoes

and over time, through echolocation

find out what this tool is really for.