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

94 – Understudy

I guess I’m just self-flagellating this weekend. Yesterday four hours in a tattoo chair, today re-reading sites about narcissistic parents. I don’t keep going back to this stuff because I’m learning something new about narcissism – I’ve got a grasp on the pathology and it’s not complicated – but because reading other people’s stories of how their family treated them helps me learn what abuse looks like. It helps me understand what kind of behavior is abnormal, what I’m allowed to be mad about.

I have no idea what a normal family looks like. I’m sure I’ve known a few, but I’ve always found normal people intimidating and tended to avoid them. I guess I felt like I’d infect them with whatever rot was eating at the heart of my house. My parents told me that it was me, that I was the problem, and for most of my life I believed that completely. I believed it so deeply that when I wrote a letter to my favorite advice columnist about a year ago, complaining that my parents wouldn’t stop asking me if they were good parents, what I wanted to know was how to make the question go away. I wasn’t able to mount an argument that they were bad parents, but I couldn’t in good conscience claim they were good. Captain Awkward answered my question directly, and her commenters said what she didn’t: that the behavior I described didn’t match up with the praise I heaped on my parents. They asked me if I was even capable of feeling anger toward my mother. I realized for the first time that I wasn’t.

That realization got me into therapy, and in the last year of that, I’ve become aware of how profoundly warped my view of the world has always been. I haven’t talked to the fam in a bit, for reasons I’m sure that I’ll go into here at some point, but if they asked me that question now, I could answer it. They weren’t good parents, no. That’s it, full stop. They tried, and they genuinely loved me – sometimes – but they were not good parents.

They were alcoholics. It got violent sometimes. It got loud and aggressive a lot. My mom took me out with her to buy more booze at ten or eleven all the time, and I trusted her when she told me that she was fine to drive after killing two bottles of wine since five o’clock. Her undiagnosed dissociative identity disorder made life at home a tap dance in a minefield. There was no way to predict what I might say or do to make her change, but she could turn from cheery sweetness to red-faced, screaming rage and back again in a split second. She would lay down rules and later shame and punish me for following them, claiming she never said such a thing. She never remembered what she did when she lost her temper, and she could lose her temper any minute. What she heard seemed to bear no relation at all to what came out of my mouth. She projected so much hatefulness, so much malice and deception and sadism onto me that I didn’t exist at all. I simply filled out the clothes of whatever scapegoat she needed next.

We used to go to Blockbuster a lot – yes, I know I’m on the verge of old – and there was this shitty horror movie on their shelves called “The Stepdaughter.” The cover featured a blonde in a bloody schoolgirl outfit, holding a bloody knife. My stepdad – and my mother filling in when he wasn’t available – always made sure to point at the movie and say, “Is that you? You gonna come in and kill me in my sleep someday, huh? Whaaat, it’s a joke, lighten up, Frances.”

I never knew what to say to that. After a year of therapy, I can say conclusively that no, it’s not so very funny if you think your twelve-year-old wants to kill you in your sleep. Why do you think that? If your child genuinely wanted to kill you, why might that be? Because, you see, the only way this joke is funny is if we all know that it’s a little bit true, right? It wouldn’t be a hilarious joke if we didn’t all understand that at a baseline level, we do not trust each other, we fear for our safety in our own beds, and that, around here, is called love. This is not a family. This is a war.

And just think, beloved and brilliant daughter, light of my life, just speculate, dear stepdaughter: what if we should come to truly believe you want us dead? What if it was more than just a little bit true? What might we do, if this is war? What might happen to you?

“Climb,” November 2019

They painted a killer over my face.
They showed me that they thought of this as war.
I learned to be what they’d taken me for,
learned to play all their villains’ parts with grace.

They never tell you the name of the play.
Watch carefully and you’ll know what to do;
you’ll work out who you are from context clues.
No matter if you’re right or wrong they’ll say:

“In this family, we laugh when people weep.
We quote the bullies’ best lines back to you
just because we’re sick of children today –
and how can you be drowning, it’s not that deep!
You just want us to feel sorry for you
so someday you can kill us in our sleep.”

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

77 – Proving

I’ve been playing Path of Exile for a good while now – since, ah… Talisman league, so about four years. I’ve spent a lot of time on it, Steam tells me I’m just shy of 2000 hours, plus some on the game’s own client before I discovered it was on Steam, but in all that time I haven’t really “gotten good,” or not so’s you’d notice. I make it to maps every league, I’ve killed the Shaper and the Elder once apiece, but I’m scared of human interaction so I don’t trade with other players, which means my gear’s always a mismatched tuxedo stitched together from scalps and stolen pants. And when you’re not making it to the hardest content anyway, it doesn’t matter if you’re a bit bad. I still have fun.

It’s an incredibly dense game, and you can go down that rabbit hole just about as far as you fuckin’ please, but the fact is I just want an endless grind. I don’t actually care about winning, I just like that the drops don’t stop and the world is weird and bloody and beautiful.

One of the characters in that game is a dude named Izaro. Actually, he’s dead, but it didn’t take – a lot of the people you’ll meet are dead, or have died multiple times; you will too, it’s just something you’re going to have to get used to in Wraeclast. Short version is, Izaro was an emperor who couldn’t sire an heir, and so he built a huge labyrinth of traps and promised his throne to the first person to survive it.

A kid named Chitus Perandus used his family’s vast wealth to buy plans of the place, and cleared it easily on his first try. As he’d promised, Izaro gave his throne to Perandus, who then promptly imprisoned Izaro in his own labyrinth. So then Izaro’s like, “Okay, first heir didn’t work out so good, this might take some time. No point in scrapping a good idea.” He prays to the Goddess of Justice for the power to judge and test the worthy for as long as it might take to find an heir. The Goddess of Justice kind of, uh… takes over his body? Or they fucked like bunnies and fused together? It’s probably thaumaturgy. Anyway, they’re one immortal being now, who sits in the Lord’s Labyrinth ready to test you for the throne of an empire that fell three hundred years ago. What he actually can do is give you treasure and Ascendancy points, another form of progression for your character.

What I like about Izaro is his attitude. He talks to you throughout the Labyrinth, as you stagger into traps, get mobbed by statues come to life, and fight Izaro and his goddess three separate times. In one room of the Labyrinth you can find Argus, a huge monstrous beast known as Izaro’s “dog,” and killing Argus gets you another key to the treasure vaults and a mournful comment from Izaro, but even then, no rage, no hostility. No matter what you do, no matter whether you win or lose or how stupidly you die, Izaro never criticizes you. He offers sage advice most of the time, sometimes pointedly targeted at your most recent stumble, in the form of lessons to a protege, or an heir:

“Decisions don’t kill people… consequences do.”
“A wise emperor knows when to circumvent a troubling situation.”
“Astute perception may yield a wealth of insight.”

Goddess of Justice on the right, yours truly as a bulb-headed purple bitch with a sword twice her size on the left. It’s always this glorious late afternoon in the Labyrinth. I just want to hang out there.

When you beat him and take his throne – he’s not up on current events, so don’t tell him what happened to the empire – he praises you. The voice actor is amazing, and he never sounds angry, never sounds like he doubts the aspirant’s abilities at all, just offers insight and advice. His cry of triumph when you defeat him is one of the most inspiring sounds I’ve ever heard; it makes me feel like I just punched God.

It’s perhaps more deeply moving to me as someone who’s still learning that it’s possible to improve without being cruel to myself. The brutal lessons I was taught were “for my own good” were just sloppy, clumsy instruction, and pain is not the best teacher. It blows my mind that this is still a somewhat controversial statement to make, but I have never in my life seen cruelty make someone do better, at anything. Everyone’s got a story of some athlete whose family abused them until they won the Olympic gold, and that’s great and all, but when you start reading up on the rates of suicide among Olympians, you start to wonder if that’s what winning looks like.

Everyone’s got a parent who said, “hey, my folks beat the shit out of me, and I turned out okay.” And I don’t think there’s a single kid who had to listen to that who wasn’t biting their lip to keep from saying, “Are you sure you turned out okay? Because from here it looks like you turned into someone who would heartily endorse injuring, degrading and mentally subjugating a child, and that’s not anywhere in my definition of okay.” No. No one was ever improved by cruelty. Some people have been able to improve despite cruelty. If you were treated badly and you turned that experience into success, that choice and that victory is yours. It does not belong to your abusers. Or, as Izaro puts it:

“When bound by faith and respect, the flock will overwhelm the wolves.”

The sun in the plaza hangs in the sky;
it’s five in the afternoon all day long.
Wind in the broken columns sings a song
of victory, and worthy ways to die.

No empire now for Izaro’s heirs,
but no Perandus could pay them to stop
flogging the old man each day till he drops.
Pursuit of power – a grotesque affair.

His children all, he leads us through the fog,
introducing each new device with glee,
cutting down dilettantes and demagogues.
A toymaker trapped in his own workshop
with his last breath praises his enemy,
even the ones who stopped to kill his dog.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

56 – Giant’s Drink

Like a lot of kids in the 90s, I read Ender’s Game and the rest of the series in junior high school. I remember that nearly everyone I knew had read it, and I remember that we didn’t need to talk about it very much. In retrospect, I can safely conclude that I had more in common with my classmates, even the ones I didn’t like, than I thought at the time. I was in gifted classes at the worst middle school in town, so the other kids around me were a pretty consistent brand of highly pressured and poorly supported. These kids were told every day of their lives that a scholarship was their only shot at security, that college would free them from their parents’ circumstances. To us, this meant that every single failed test, every single missed homework assignment was pissing our lives away, trashing our opportunities. Not only were we screwing up, but every screwup went on our permanent record, which it turns out is a real thing after all – it’s just measured in dollars, not grades.

It was like the Battle School. The peer group could be vicious and chaotic but there wasn’t a single kid you wouldn’t trust over any adult. They weren’t going to help you; tell an adult you had a problem and you’d get in trouble for causing it. No one could help you even if they cared to – they’d already given you everything they could, and now it was up to you to prove you deserved it.

Some of us did. Maybe most of us. It seems like most of the people I knew have landed on their feet, but then, people don’t post their private miseries on Facebook, so who knows. I related very much to Ender, and many images from that series have been stamped into my brain, another part of that internal landscape. The skeleton of the Giant, with the village built among the bones, is one of them. The choice that Ender made at the Giant’s Drink, to neither choose death NOR give up, but to force the game to create a third option… that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not going to win or lose. I don’t agree that we should be having a race in the first place.

“Flicker,” April 2007
Jeremy. Another one like me who didn’t land on their feet.

Somehow I sense that this dream is different.
It’s the same crater, the same blasted ground,
same faceless gravestones all scattered around,
same wrought-iron fence barring where you went.

It turns out I don’t have to go that way.
I never thought to turn around and look
what there might be besides the route you took
or what I could build here if I would stay.

Graveyard is a great place for a garden…
we’ll grow flowers in the giant’s ribcage,
a basket made of his fossilized rage.
A different vine will sprout from each organ.
His blood, a wine that just sweetens with age
leaves the drinker insatiably starving.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

54 – Prison Age

There are a lot of tattoos I want to get, when I can afford it. I’d like to be the old lady just covered in tattoos; frankly, I can’t wait to see what nursing homes look like 50 years from now. It’s gonna be tattoos, green hair, and heirloom XBoxes from hell to breakfast. Anyway, one of the many tattoos I would like is the Star Fissure from Myst on my back, because Myst is another one of those games that is really, really important to me.

When I was a kid, we had an NES for a short while, but after that it was just the few games my grandparents had on their computers at their house, which is how I ended up much more comfortable with PCs than with consoles at an early age and became the kind of insufferable dork for whom less-than-cutting-edge graphics can ruin a game. I’m not immune to the charm of 16-bit remakes, especially when they’ve had the cruel coin-op edges sanded down, but I’m sorry, I do not understand how the drama of Cloud and Aeris was ever in any way emotional. How can you get choked up about the suffering of a dude with a bowling pin dangling from each shoulder and a skull shaped like a milk carton?

I got really obsessed with Myst, read the books and became very nerdy about the lore. The power of words to create worlds, and the idea of quantum dimensions separated by branching probabilities, are two ideas that came from that obsession and have absolutely shaped my current work. Moreover, I think I found Myst, especially the main island, to be a kind of refuge. It was a completely different experience from the rest of my life at the time.

I only got to play when my grandparents were otherwise busy, so I was never bothered. We all played on the same save, and wrote down notes – little sketches of symbols, descriptions of levers, questions to answer – in a notebook kept by the computer. We all worked cooperatively this way, and I was able to contribute just as much, because in the world of PC games in 1993, we were all noobs and being older didn’t help. Being allowed to do something difficult, requiring lateral thinking and attention to detail, and not having control wrenched from me every few seconds to demonstrate how badly I was doing, but having my input respected and welcomed… it was intoxicating. Being somewhere quiet, where every sound and movement was in my control, where no one could ever possibly surprise me by appearing where they hadn’t been before… I felt safe. Safety and agency. Myst gave me what my family was supposed to, precisely because it made my family leave me alone. Video games became a place I could hide where they would never try to follow.

So I want to get the Star Fissure tattooed on my back, below a quote from Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.”

The ending has not yet been written.

A world of words, it starts with waves and me,
on one side, a sloping hill and a door,
on the other, a dock but no far shore –
just me, infinite silence, and the sea.

Over time, I color in the silence,
purple groan when
has changed
Sirrus in blue with his cold, smiling rage,
Achenar red with impotent violence.

I burn the pages and the linking books
make my home in the planetarium
soon begin forgetting the world I’m from
fish in the fountain with tiny fishhooks
a world of nothing but ocean and sun.
No one will find me cause no one will look.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

44 – The Wild One

I have a busy day today – freelancing, man, no weekends – so you’re getting something early instead of me scrambling to do it later. Imagine that, it’s like a Christmas miracle.

When I was a kid, I was really into wilderness survival stories; I think I’ve mentioned it. Island of the Blue Dolphins is a great one, super exciting and empowering for young girls. Anyway, I’ve never been able to find one of the books I had, which is a bummer, because it was deeply fucked-up. I’ve done a fair bit of googling but I haven’t been able to nail it down; could have sworn it was called “The Wild One,” but all the books I’ve found by that title aren’t the right one.

It was about a girl who runs away from an orphanage where she’s abused. She runs into the mountains, into the woods, and lives in a cave, does fairly well for herself all things considered. She’s something like eight or nine when she runs away, so growing up by herself in the woods, she doesn’t learn to interact with any people very well. She’s been there alone for years when a young man, hiking in the mountains, falls down a slope and breaks his ankle. She drags the kid into her cave to keep him from dying of exposure, and nurses him back to health, and of course somewhere in there, they have sex, because they are teenage humans alone in the woods with compatible genitals.

The end of the book takes a pretty harsh turn if I remember it right. I’m not sure I do. As the boy gets less delirious from his broken ankle and fever and so on, he wants to go home to his family, and tries to convince her – in the broken words they’ve been able to figure out between them – to come with him. She won’t, and frightens him by trying to get him to stay with her, and he leaves. Shortly thereafter, she discovers that she’s pregnant. She doesn’t really get it, as no one’s ever explained that shit to her. At the end, she dies in childbirth, alone in the woods, along with her child, and some hiker later finds their bones.

It’s… so hard for me to remember that book and see it as anything but a threat, y’know? Like a slasher movie, intended to make teens scared to fornicate in case Freddy comes for them. Only virgins get out alive. Except in this case it was: “If you ever run away, don’t you dare come back. See what happens to you. It might be bad here, but you can’t survive out there. You need us.”

That’s what I’ve always been told. I’ve always been sold my own family as a necessary evil, something that, if I were less weak and incompetent, I could escape. How did not one of these brilliant people listen to themselves? It’s such a classic abuser dance. “You don’t know how bad it is out there. No one can protect you but me. I only scare and threaten you for your own good.” (Our President talks like this constantly – isn’t it cool how he’s the narcissistic abusive stepfather of our nation?)

Yeah, this movie was kind of… revelatory, for me.
If your mother-daughter relationship looks anything like this,
may I recommend a nice cave in the woods?

So this poem is for the Wild One, whoever she was. Maybe I won’t ever find that book, but… I did find a cave to live in. It’s small, but it’s mine, and only people who are kind to me are welcome here. That makes it better than any other place I’ve ever lived. This poem is sad but I want you to know that I’m not, not quite – I know that I will never be fully free of these voices in my head, and I also know that I’m not gonna die out here because they told me to. It’s hard and it’s cold but out here, my voice matters more.

Water babbles over her wrists, saying,
“Are you really sure that’s what you’re wearing?”
She feels the forest around her tearing
“You must stop this silly game you’re playing.”

She ran to the wood, but found no silence.
She ran to mountain caves but found no peace.
The cage is in her head – there’s no release.
The woods didn’t even stop the violence.

The leak starts as the smallest thing, a crack
but you should see how fast it unravels,
a fissure in the ground so deep and black
it can swallow every sprout and fledgling.
It doesn’t matter how far she travels,
the voices of her scars will drag her back.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

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?


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?


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?



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


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.