Why The Last Of Us 2 Failed, Or: How Theme Matters.

(Spoilers to come, but not yet.)

It’s fucking weird to say “The Last Of Us 2 was a failure” when it’s sold more copies of anything that you, or I, or anyone you know will ever make. Judged purely in terms of “copies out the door,” The Last Of Us 2 is a fantastic success.

But in terms of “How happy are the people who bought Last of Us 2?”

Hooo boy.

Now, keep in mind that even aside from commercial success, artistic success is never perfect. You’re not gonna satisfy everyone. It’s more like a percentage: If, say, 70% of the people who saw your stuff liked it, then you’re doing really well. And I dislike the dialogue around tricksy stuff like, say, the latest Star Wars films, because whoever’s talking them down always goes “Everyone hated them” and it’s like no, lots of people liked them, please don’t dismiss the positive feedback just because you’re hauling in a bucketload of criticism.



The Last Of Us 2 is a story that’s really dreadfully constructed. It’s like the last season of Game of Thrones, where you can see what they wanted to do, but largely didn’t provide people with the emotional beats to get them to that place where they wanted.

And where did they fail? Theme, mostly. Everything else is good: the plot is there, the characterization is consistent (or could be, because characters are always evolving and we definitely could have bought way more people into Ellie making these decisions with the right setup), the dialogue is sharp.

But the theme that sells the story they wanted to tell?

It’s like they forgot.

So I’m gonna analyze it here, and talk about TLOU2 in-depth, and if you wanna exit out before I discuss anything spoilery here’s your option.








Okay. So let’s talk about the big elephant in the room: The Last Of Us 2 wants us to sympathize with the person who killed the person we played as for like 90% of the previous game. It wants us to sympathize with her so much that it literally halts the game at the climax of Ellie’s story and spends twelve goddamned hours forcing us to play as Abby.

The problem is, Abby’s theme isn’t compelling.

Abby is theoretically getting revenge at Joel because he killed her dad, who was trying to find a cure for the not-a-zombie fungus. Which is a legitimate take! Again, like the degraded Khaleesi, you could do a lot with that.

But Abby’s story is not about why she wanted revenge at Joel, which is a major goddamned problem. I mean, it certainly talks about it, but we don’t see that motivation driving her in any way outside of Joel – Abby’s basically a cold-hearted killing machine working for a cold-hearted militia, and her story is essentially “Abby learns to love thanks to a stray kid.”

Which doesn’t really explain why Abby turned out to be a beefed-up enthusiastic killer. Is she an idealist? Is she trying to smash her Daddy issues flat? Has she been shaped, unthinkingly, into a murder machine by the WLF after the Fireflies disbanded?

The game doesn’t really have an *opinion* on this.

And if the whole point of this game is “We want you to see both sides of this,” then thematically, Abby has to be a opposite to Joel in some form, not “pretty much the same as Joel.” Because we know Joel. Seeing his story thematically represented in Abby will undoubtedly work for some, but for many others – many, many others according to the user reviews – dwelling on Abby as “Like Joel, but womanlier” just reminds people of how much they liked Joel.

It’s a dangerous act that didn’t pull off.

And they have opportunities to differentiate! When Abby stumbles up her dad talking about the cure, she overhears another doctor saying “What if it was your child you had to sacrifice?”

And the game waffles. The Dad’s all like, “Well, you know, that’s different,” and then Joel kills him saving Ellie, and that’s about it.

That is a shitty way of approaching it. It’s basically saying, “Well, Joel had a good point” – which doesn’t make Abby’s murdering him feel like payback (particularly after Joel saves her from not-a-zombies), but just sort of senseless nastiness.

What if Abby had a point, though?

What if instead of shying away from the question, Abby’s dad had rallied? What if instead of backing off, he’d doubled down?

If Abby’s dad had been established as the polar opposite of Joel by saying, “If it was my child – no, let’s be specific, if it was Abby? And she was the only hope the entire world had for a cure, which right now, Ellie is? Damn straight I would sacrifice her. It’s our duty. How many friends have you lost to these bites? How many anguished people are staggering around in a hellish living nightmare, knowing they’ve become monsters as the cordyceps overrides their body but not their consciousness, eating their daughters and mothers?

“I would mourn my daughter. But the world is more important than any one girl. We have to take this shot.”

Thematically, that’s Joel’s opposite – and maybe it’s horrifying to hear a guy stanning for murdering his daughter, but done right it should be horrifying in the same way that Joel was willing to let everyone die to save his second kid.

And I maintain that if Abby had been inspired by that speech, that her whole goal was to selflessly subsume herself into the collective, that would have been a motivation we could have understood. We could have seen her not know what to do when the Fireflies – the world’s last hope, from her perspective – dissolved. We could have seen her very specific response to her friends dying to the cordyceps, which is to look at every zombie as someone she personally failed by not being as special as Ellie. We could have seen her sucked into the WLF’s fascist rhetoric because she’d be sacrificing part of her soul to save others, she hates killing but it’s necessary (unlike Joel, who went to it as a gleeful go-to)…

And when she finally stumbled across Joel, sure, she’d have a moment when she felt bad about it – that last, struggling remnant of her humanity – but everything else lined up into everything she was told she wanted, because the WLF wants this guy dead and Abby wants revenge on the guy who killed her father and the universe tells her this is who you’re meant to be….

Which, if the theme of TLOU2 is “Revenge will destroy you,” is actually the story that could be told. Because unlike Joel, Abby could be a hardass who is secretly breaking down underneath. That sacrifice could be more than “Her friends keep a distance,” but instead “Abby acting out more in an attempt to justify, until the point she can’t any more.”

But what did we get?

Rehashed Joel. And that did not go over well.

Likewise, for Ellie, the theme is “Revenge is bad,” but Ellie doesn’t have any choices that we can make. The game goes into a sadistic amount of detail showing exactly what it’s like to slit a woman’s throat or to beat a dog to death, but you have to do that to continue. There’s no non-violent options available to you, so your lack of choices doesn’t feel organic to most people – it feels like railroading.

And I wonder what would have happened if the game had leaned into that theme of “You’re just as bad as Ellie,” in a sort of Undertale way, by presenting off-ramps.

Like, what would have happened if you were given a choice to stop at some point? Like, Joel dies, you go back to town, you have a heartwarming talk with Dina… and you can choose, if you want, to give up the revenge.

And that revenge has actual costs. The game’s save erases itself then. You get to see how things turn out, but you don’t get to see the rest of the game. You don’t get the trophies, the full story, the full value or what you bought. And if you choose to continue, the game locks in that value to all previous saves so you’re forced to that path.

You want to see what would have happened if you’d continued? You have to play all the way through again.

Which would have let you tell your own story. You wanna stop before you murder the pregnant lady? Fine. You wanna live with harmony with Dina and your PTSD flashbacks? Fine.

But if you face that victim with a pipe, knowing that you could walk away from this right now – that you don’t have to swing that pipe to beat the information out of her, that you could select “Nope” and decide the story ends here?

Then this story is on you.

That would have been bold, and equally controversial, but it would have played into the theme of “Revenge is bad, but you can walk away.” (And probably encouraged more playthroughs.)

There’s a lot the game could have done better – I’d argue it would have been less hair-teary to split time equally between Abby and Ellie’s story, and you could have got a lot of narrative juice out of making you the murderer. (Imagine if you’d started out early with Abby and her pregnant friend navigating a city full of zombies, thinking “SHE’S GONE GET BIT” and then being surprised when it turns out you are the one who murders her.

But fundamentally, a lot of the problem with TLOU2 is that it wants us to sympathize with Abby, and Abby is someone who is insufficiently contrasted. In a vacuum, Abby is an interesting character – she’s got a fucked up love life, she’s got real friends, she’s got hidden depths. On her own, she’d probably be a good lead for a game.

Yet when you’re unveiling “The person who murders your best friend from the last game, how do you like them now?” well, you need more than “Hey, cool character, bruh.” You need to justify their behavior, to place it in context, to get to the point where the further you go on, the more you go, “I don’t agree with what she did, but if I were in her shoes I might have done the same thing.”

Would that have gotten universal acclaim? Of course not. As I said, “artistic success” is a percentage ploy, and the original Last Of Us was a really solid plot. I don’t think you could follow it up in a way that was both as shocking/interesting as the first one and also as good.

The best you can do is sway a few more percentage points in your direction. And what they did with Abby was guaranteed to alienate a lot of people – especially when you’re forced to spend a big, unskippable chunk of time as her. They didn’t seem to ponder, “Well, what would make her someone we could, if not exactly root for, at least sympathize for?”

What you got was a story that seems really random. Last of Us 2 has great combat. It has interesting characters. But it doesn’t coalesce in the same way that The Last of Us did, and people feel that gap between intent and execution.

Which is a shame. They had ambitions. But in the end, I get the impression they felt constricted by the game engine they had, where violence was the big show of the day and so violence had to be the theme, and they just chose… more violence, as opposed to questioning it in a way any deeper than “Is bad.”

Thoughts On Moderating My New Discord Channel

So when I sent out my last newsletter, about 80% of it was blocked as spam. That failure rate was due to various arcane mail configuration issues, but it did mean that most people didn’t even see that I’d sent out an email last March.

On my birthday, I said, “I am going to fix those email issues and send out my new newsletter.” So I spent about two hours mucking with SMTP to get everything running smoothly, then casually dropped a Discord invite into my latest newsletter because hey, nobody will see this newsletter anyway, I’d been kinda telling myself I’d open up a Discord channel, might as well have a light opening.

Then I went off for my birthday massage. And returned to about fifty people in my Discord channel, merrily saying hello to each other and striking up conversations.

Cue me frantically Googling, “How to Discord admin HALP.”

(And if you’re all like, “Hey, I wanted to be in Ferrett’s Discord channel, well, my newsletter is where I do beta work like “Experimenting with Discord” and “Asking for beta readers for my new work,” so either a) Check your spam mail for a newsletter sent from donotreply@theferrett.com on July 3rd, or b) sign up for future newsletters.)

Anyway, watching a fledgling Discord rise up is interesting, simply because there’s a flurry of debate on all the things that make a good community. The first channel I added (because I only had “General” and “Introductions”) was “mod-thoughts,” simply because right now there were fifty cheerful people but what happened when buttheads came in? Did we have firm rules on when it was okay to DM someone? Would it be entirely up to me to moderate, or did I need friends to help out?

And then there was NSFW stuff. Was swearing NSFW? How about explicit discussions of polyamory? What about selfies, and what kind of selfies?

Then there were the silos, because conversations tended to wander. We started a tech channel, but that rapidly led to lots of discussions on videogames, so I made a gaming channel. And then the question of whether there was enough discussions worthy to split off “gaming” into “videogames” and “non-videogames”….

And then there were all the fancy things I wanted that I’d seen from other Discords, but had no idea how to install myself – things like pronoun bots that added what pronoun you wanted, and gateways that forced you to post in the #introductions channel, and NSFW verification.

Right now, it’s interesting, because obviously this is all new and there are spats of like 50+ reply conversations I see, and this will probably die down into something more convivial. But it’s an interesting mix, and one of the things that I love about social media is getting to watch people I like meet up in some common space and decide they like each other, and then becoming fast e-friends based on my mutual acquaintance. It’s not ego; I just feel like I’ve done a community service, bringing awesome people together.

But it turns out, even a tiny Discord is a lot of work, and there’s not a lot of good resources that I’ve found on how to add all the bells and whistles. I feel like I should be organizing. But heck, I just got off my birthday weekend, so I’m gonna do some writing, and then attend to the ol’ Discord.

Well, not so ol’. Three days at best. But it’s alive, so it counts.

It’s My Birthday, So Now Is The Time Of The Great Sugar Experiment

“So what are you giving up for Lent?”

Ah, shit.

I hadn’t really thought about Lent, but my wife and I had started going back to church, and so of course she’d expect me to do all the rituals. I’d never been so religious as to give anything up for Lent before – I’d just made the usual joke of “I’m giving up Lent for Lent,” and made done with it.

But the priest had said that giving up things for Lent should be self-care – “Don’t look at Lent as a time of sacrifice, look at Lent as a time to abandon the things you know are making you sick.”

“Sugar,” I said. “I’ll give up sugar.”

And so I gave it up, for six weeks – which wasn’t actually hard, because that was the beginning of the pandemic, where we all took a deadly disease seriously for some reason, and all my usual ice cream parlors and cake shops were shut down. All I had to do was not order in sweets from the grocery, and I was out.

It was so easy, in fact, that I gave it up for ten weeks. Which you’d think wouldn’t be easy to do considering this overlapped with my Seasonal Affective Disorder, that lovely springtime – yes, springtime – but I was able to get through my time of suicidal ideation without gorging myself on cake. This year was actually light, thankfully, because I did not need crushing self-loathing during pandemic panic.

Then we drove past my favorite bakery one day – which was open again! – and I said, “I want an eclair.” Boom. Sugar-fast: broken.

One day later, I had an argument with Gini. It was a stressful argument, spurred by the pandemic, but on the scale of Arguments We Have Had it was probably a 6, tops.

But it destroyed me. The next day I could barely function. I was weeping, feeling like shit –

Right after the sugar. And a dreadful thought occurred to me:

What if my SAD was light this year because I was off sugar?


Oh, I did not want that.

So I immediately went off sugar again, for the entire month of June, deciding that I will eat sugar on July 3rd, my birthday.

And today is the day. I have a cake. I have an eclair. I have chocolate milk, my favorite drink in the entire world, at the ready. And I will gorge myself…

And see what my mood is, come Monday.

It may be that sugar wasn’t a part of it. I’m kind of hoping it’s not; I really like ice cream. And even if it turns out that “Sugar makes me (more) depressed,” well, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to give up cake; I know the occasional bout of serious drinking makes me feel like crap, but about every six weeks I stay up until four in the morning and drink a lot of bourbon and play videogames until my head spins.

But what I have noticed is that I ate a big ol’ piece of cake today, the kind I used to like, and it tasted almost too sweet. Maybe it’s the cake; I’ve got the eclair and chocolate milk on backup. But I wonder if I’ll get to Monday and go, “Well, that was nice, but maybe I’ll just wait until August.”

Or not. I’ve posted plenty of essays in my journal over the last twenty (!) years where I had an epiphany like RUNNING MAKES ME FEEL GOOD and then I gave up running. I am astoundingly good at realizing what painful, tedious things I should do to maintain my welfare and then going right back to bourbon and videogames.

On the other hand, I have spent more time this year not eating sugar than I have in eating sugar. Which is a first in my history, anyway. And maybe I’m slowly creeping away from it.

Don’t know. I’ll see later next week. All I know is that there’s chocolate milk and a massage in my future today, and I’m gonna enjoy that.

(And for the record, if you want to help me celebrate my birthday, spreading the word about my upcoming book Automatic Reload – due out at the end of this month – would help. There’s a whole essay on what you could do to help my birthday book, if you feel so inclined. That, or you could always celebrate my birthday by donating to a local food pantry.

(…or both!)

My Birthday Is This Week, And I Need Your Help To Do Something I’m Incapable of Doing.

I’m turning 51 this Friday, and I’ve begun having a trauma response to social media. I can’t tune in to Twitter for more than twenty minutes before the never-ending tide of bad news poisons me; I have to turn it off before the panic attack takes root.

I also have a book coming out on July 28th.

The book, it must be said, has not gotten a lot of attention – in part because I haven’t been able to give it attention. Normally I’d be out there making clever advertisements and holding contests and sending out newsletters with contests and writing blog entries.

But then I look at those headlines – the ones where the world is sick and “black lives matter” is an actual subject of debate and then the personal news where my mother’s smoldering multiple myeloma may be ticking back up again –

And I think, Really? You wanna promote a book now? How fucking shallow.

Then I go back to my hiding hole and swallow another bucket of Ativan.

But it’s a good book. I’m going to feel bad when it slides down the headlines and dies, simply because public and personal stress have robbed me of my ability to remind people that I have a book coming out.

So I’m going to make a very odd birthday request of you, should you feel obliged to humor me:

Could you help spread the word about my book?

My book Automatic Reload is a lot of things, but here’s a few that are relevant to me.

Automatic Reload Is About The Trauma Of Technology.
Every day, we’re discovering that computers can beat humans at things we thought were the very traits that made humans special. You wouldn’t think that a computer would make an excellent wine steward, for example. But it turns out if you feed a computer the rainfall in a region and some facts about the dirt the grapes are growing in, it’s actually better at picking the best wines than people who’ve studied wine all their lives.

So I thought: What happens when computers outclass us in combat? What happens when an automated targeting system can capture the target, aim the gun, and fire the bullet in under the time any human could possibly respond?

Combat would be like being in a car crash – near-instantaneous, and without control. And the people who wielded those weapons would start to get PTSD, because everything would come down to refining your targeting procedures so your guns don’t actually cap innocent dogs – or kids – who poked their head out during the firefight.

Our hero wields four prosthetic weapon platforms, one for each limb he removed. He now has to take mercenary jobs because without the prosthetics – which need constant maintenance and fine-tuning – he would be broke and limbless.

But he is slowly going insane trying to protect people from his own guns.

Automatic Reload Is About Competence Porn.
Technology in science-fiction stories never have mundane glitches. You never see Captain Picard shouting “SORRY, WHAT WAS THAT?!?” at a blank viewscreen as they try to establish a streaming videoconference with the Klingons; you never see Han Solo giving manual directions to a star system because fuck it, the hologram displayer’s got some problem, lemme just jot this down for you.

Automatic Reload is about what it’s like to be a programmer in the future, which is to say it’s about what it’s like to be a programmer now, which is to say a lot of guesswork and a lot of Googling, but with a lot more guns.

But here’s the thing: for all the complexity, our hero is very good at his job. He is, in fact, the best at what he does – which is to say, he reprograms his systems on the fly when the strategies on the ground change. I liken him to a cybernetic James Bond: he gets the mission done, no matter what the toll it takes on his psyche.

He is, in other words, a Big Damn Hero.

Automatic Reload Is About Love Between Two Mentally Ill People.
Did you know that drone pilots can get PTSD? It’s true. Turns out even if you put a camera between you and your target, forcing someone to shoot a missile at a group of humans – and worse, forcing them to watch the mangled bodies for a couple of hours afterwards to make sure none of their fellow terrorists show up later – can cause mental breakdowns.

Mat is having a lot of mental breakdowns. He quit the force, cut off his own working limbs because he wanted to feel safe, replaced them with weapons.

He is not well.

Yet when he meets a genetically engineered killing machine – who’s also devoutly Catholic, things are complicated – it turns out that she has regular panic attacks, and when you have a body that reacts instantaneously to your panic, she’s extremely worried about punching in her mother’s head by mistake.

Automatic Reload is a romance between two people who are severely fucked up, who in fact often trigger each other – both literally and metaphorically – but who learn to come to support and love one another.

These are not people who get along well with the outside world. But they understand each other, because they both understand what it’s like to be helpless when your brain decides to freak out on you.

So That’s Automatic Reload. What Can You Do To Help?
Well, if you haven’t preordered the book, and this is of interest to you, that’d be a start. Preorders are important. (And if you preorder the book, you’ll get exclusive access to the only new story I’ve written in the Flex universe in the last five years – a story about Aliyah’s sixteenth birthday. Paul frets, Valentine swears a lot, it’s just like old times.)

Automatic Reload is available at:

If you have preordered, or don’t have the money, or you don’t think this book is for you but still might want to help me out, you can do me a number of other birthday favors:

You can share the excerpt of the first three chapters of the book, freely available at Tor.com.

You can share this post on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or wherever you kids are posting these days.

If you’re a book reviewer, you can ask me for a copy and I’ll get one to you. (Writing reviews is tech.)

If you have a podcast or a book blog, you can ask me on as a guest by emailing me at theferrett@theferrett.com with the subject “PR Request.” I will cheerfully be on any show to help promote this book.

You can ask someone to sign up for my newsletter, which will have a free raffle for copies of my books shortly.

You can link to my upcoming event with the Cuyahoga Public Library and stalwart Cleveland bookstore Mac’s Backs.

You can share any of the other very nice reviews Automatic Reload has gotten:

Publisher’s Weekly gave Automatic Reload both a starred review and a “recommended of the week,” saying “In tackling Silvia’s panic disorder and Mat’s PTSD, as well as their respective feelings of dysphoria, Steinmetz imbues this rip-roaring tale with a surprising amount of sensitivity and heart. This thoroughly satisfying story works as both thriller and romance.”

Booklist said “Mat, a movie buff, relates his tale with a Ready Player One-
level of pop culture references, naming his limbs after famous duos, such as Thelma and Louise. Like those two, Mat and Silvia make a welcome, unconventional pair of protagonists in this outlaw action adventure.”

Reading Reality gave it a five-star review where they said, “Although Silvia’s problems do not begin with her physical transformation. One of the strongest – and sweetest – elements of this story is the way that Mat and Silvia come to love each other for who they are, and that they both acknowledge that they both have a lot of mental issues that they compensate for in their own ways. Their mental illnesses are never swept under the rug, and love doesn’t cure them. But they make each other a bit stronger in their broken places in ways that are lovely to see, especially when they’re done well. As they certainly are in this case.”

If you’re a fan of my Flex series, you can mention that hey, there’s a new ‘Mancer story coming out, you just have to buy this other book to get it.

And that’s… pretty much it. Please only do this if the book seems interesting to you in some way; I’m not trying to guilt anyone into a purchase. (Plus, I question how many genuine sales that posts like “My friend Ferrett wrote a book” generate, as opposed to “It looks like Ferrett wrote a really cool book here.”)

But if you can help me, it’d be a nice candle on my cake. I’d also thank you. And that’s about all I’m capable of doing right now.


Polyamory During The Pandemic: It’s Getting Rougher

If I’m smart, whenever I’m visiting a sweetie, the last thing I say to them before the kiss goodbye is this:

“Can we schedule our next meeting?”

Because most of my poly partners live out of town. I don’t get to see them that often – every few months, if I’m lucky. And after we part, there’s that sharp ache of missing them fresh, their scent still on my clothing, their marks still on my skin –

I need to know when I’ll be seeing them again. That becomes a lighthouse in that personalized loneliness, that odd vacant headspace where I have my wife and my friends and my dog but not someone who is vital to me.

And when I feel that gap, I think: September. September is a long way off. But that’s when I will next be in their arms.

Except right now, July is a long way off. My next book is due to release on July 28th, and that date might as well be Futurama for all I can tell. September? God, that’s an unknown country, the summer is like hiking the Oregon Trail without a wagon, best not to make too many plans.

And the casualty of all that uncertainty?

Seeing my partners.

Right now, I have a wife who is both a heart patient and technically a senior citizen (when did 61 not seem particularly old?), so getting COVID has a high chance of killing her – we can’t risk it. We are those old fogeys still wearing masks everywhere and wiping handed to us by outsiders with Clorox wipes, even though everyone’s mostly stopped that the way we were all really into Pokemon Go for a couple of months and then let it go.

I can’t risk bringing COVID home.

So when will I see my partners?

The sane answer right now is “After they develop and release a COVID-19 vaccine,” which at best will be next February, and might actually be “never.”

Right now, my poly looks like “Possibly purely emotional connections, forever.”

And that. Is. Painful.

I’ve reacted to that poorly – initially the pandemic was a flood of pictures sent out, all sorts of “Hi I’m here where are you how are you doing let’s remember our faces.” But as the reality has ground its way into my skin like a lit cigarette, I’ve stopped doing that – seeing their faces on my phone just reminds me how I can’t see their faces for probably another year minimum, no kisses, no hugs, no sitting on the lawn socially distanced because they’d have to drive here from Chicago or Michigan or New York to do just that, and long-distance poly is really fucking hard right now.

I’ve been withdrawing. Missing them so keenly that just talking to them has become low-level painful – kind of the way that smelling food when you’re starving can be worse than no food, because that memory, no matter how faint, makes you ravenous for a thing you cannot have.

That’s not where I want to be, of course. So I’m talking to my therapist about ways to ameliorate the lack of physical closeness when a lot of cybersex just reminds me that there’s no actual sex in the near future, and it saddens me. Video chats help a bit, but they’re also exhausting for an introvert. Maybe new rituals can help.

But right now, each month of the pandemic has been learning a whole new way of life, and that’s exhausting. The monstrous thing is that my partners have become the biggest symbol of how not normal things are, the signal that we may never return to anything like we had before, and it’s not fair but then again they are the biggest portion of my life that I cannot touch right now.

I miss you. I love you. I need you.

But the world is keeping us apart right now.

And it’s unfair. It’s so, so fucking unfair.

I Now Remember Her As Rebecca. I Wish I Didn’t.

She was five years old, and dying of cancer, and knew she was unlikely to make it to her sixth birthday. And if you think about how most kids long to be older, routinely savoring all that envisioned power that comes from being six or seven or eight, imagine what it’s like for a little girl who really wanted to be six but had been told by the doctors that wasn’t going to happen.

But if she made it to six – if – she wanted a big-girl name. We’d always called her Becca. Little Becca, stealer of coffee, our adorable fussbudget, did not want to be called Becca if she made it to six.

If she made it to six, she wanted a grown-up name.

She wanted to be called Rebecca.

And she made it to six. She ate cake the night before she died, officially hit her birthday the next morning at 7:30 as she laid insensate in her deathbed, and passed away on her sixth birthday as her parents, and many loved ones – including me – clung on to her body as if touching her skin could somehow ease her passing from life.

She’d made it.

She was now, and would be forevermore, Rebecca.

And this past Sunday was a gruesome anniversary: It had been six years since Rebecca’s death. As of yesterday, Rebecca had been dead for longer than she’d been alive. And we visited the grave, and her family put a cup of coffee on the headstone, and we all discussed what it would have been like had she lived.

It wasn’t a comfortable conversation, because, well, the world. Rebecca was black. And Jewish. And a girl. And she was a stubborn, outspoken, downright sarcastic cuss – one that probably would be getting her into more trouble at school simply because of the color of her skin. We wondered how she’d be now, and the answer would be “almost certainly at the protests.”

But as we were driving home, I realized something:

I thought of Becca as Rebecca now. A name I’d almost never called her when she was living – only in, literally, the last eight hours of her life.

She had been Becca. My Becca. The only five-year-old I knew who spoke fluent sarcasm. The Becca who loved hearing me spin increasingly ludicrous lies to her until she finally broke and said, “Yeah, right.” The Becca who, when she’d been told that she’d have to go to Philadelphia for brain cancer treatments, had lit up and said, “Will Uncle Ferrett come with me?”

But she wasn’t Becca. She was Rebecca – which is good, she wanted it, she earned it. But in thinking of her natively as Rebecca, I realized on some level she had transmuted from a loving, living girl into an icon – a symbol of grief.

I want her to be more alive in my memory than she is. But she’s now a tattoo emblazoned on my left shoulder. She’s the default image on my cell phone. She’s not there to create new memories, and so over six years of her nonexistence my memories of her memories have begun to supplant the actual memories.

In an ideal world, she would have been around long enough that I could remember Rebecca as a regular presence at the Meyer household, someone who’d come sit out on the porch with me for a couple of minutes before getting bored to go off and hang out with her friends. That would be a person.

But I never got to know Rebecca. Rebecca is now an extrapolation. An icon. A source of sorrow.

I miss Becca.

But every year that passes, it becomes harder to reach that little girl who is now forever lost.

To Survive This Pandemic, We’ll Need To Adopt Some Polyamorous Skillsets

People involved in polyamorous relationships all share the same problem:

1) They would like to have sex with more than one person;
2) They would like to avoid catching sexually transmitted infections.

As such, poly folks are forever balancing the risk of “I want to do fun things with people” and “But the only way to guarantee 100% safety is to shut myself up alone in a house forever.”

…sound familiar?

Fact is, poly communities have been balancing “health” with “risk” for decades, and I suspect some of the classic polyamorous social habits will leak into the mainstream as the pandemic continues. Because yes, we absolutely should minimize risk so we can all keep living, but staying locked in a hugless apartment for a year isn’t exactly what you’d call “A life.”

At some point, we’re all going to have to figure out which friends it’s safe to have over for a night of watching Netflix, and who to invite to that gathering, knowing that every additional person you add to that list raises your chance of infection. Which isn’t too difficult from people in open relationships deciding who they’re going to invite to into their beds.

So how do poly folks navigate these tricky details of emotional intimacy vs. risk of infection?

First off, most poly folks cloister themselves off into little subcommunities – a lot of poly circles divide themselves into rough circles formed of their lovers, and their lovers’ lovers (a.k.a. “the metamours”). Essentially, you’re looking one circle out – the people you date, and the people they date.

Within that poly circle – or “polycule” – is where you decide what kind of sex you’re having. The simplest – and riskiest – is called “fluid bound,” where you’re not using any kind of protection at all. Then you move up to “full barrier protection”: dental dams, condoms even for penile oral, gloves for any penetration. Then there’s just plain condom usage for PIV/anal, but no barriers for oral or digital penetration.

That may be pretty intense discussion for some of you! But that’s definitely one skill you’re gonna have to master during the pandemic: Getting comfortable with frank discussions of what you do. It’s not always comfortable asking questions like, “Do you always wear your mask when you go to the grocery store?” or “How are you disinfecting delivered packages?” – but if poly people have learned one thing, it’s that assuming everyone’s playing equally safe leads to really bad outcomes.

With that information in mind, what often happens in the polycules is that there’s a fair amount of discussion before someone starts dating/hooking up with someone new. It’s not saying “no,” exactly, but it is looking at the new metamour’s risk profile – like asking, “Who are they sleeping with? How scrupulous are they in their protection? Do they already have an STI?”

(Top tip: the perceived danger of a lot of STIs, herpes in particular, are often drastically overblown – in part because of the stigma of where you caught it. Nobody wants to catch an STI, partially because there are risks, but also because getting an STI is often a reason for people to become absolute jerks to you.)

So after that discussion of what New Person is like, everyone reevaluates their risk profile. Which is also uncomfortable at times, thanks to to discussions like, “I’m not saying you can’t sleep with Alex, but if you do we gotta go back to using condoms.”

Negotiations – explicit ones – take place. And you decide, “Okay, my lover here is a potential vector for these kinds of dangers, but I am accepting that risk in exchange for hot makeout sessions with them,” and that’s that.

And sometimes, condoms break. At which point you put someone on a timeout, saying, “You gotta get tested, and we have to be on max lockdown until we get the results in.”

Which, I think, is what’ll happen to society – not the sex, but the socialization. It’s absurd to ask people to stay holed up alone for half a year, so I suspect over the summer we’ll all start categorizing risks into rough categories like:

  • Safe to walk outside with at a social distance;
  • Safe to hang out alone with inside;
  • Safe to gather with several carefully-chosen people at a gathering;
  • Safe to go to a specific restaurant with.

Which isn’t terribly different from, say, the divisions between “Full barrier protection” and “Condoms for PIV.”

And if those aspects change – someone goes on a trip, someone attends a big sloppy party, someone hangs out with someone who doesn’t believe in masks – then you’re gonna either put them in timeout or maybe stop hanging out with them altogether.

Which will lead to new social faux pas that have been standard problems for poly folks! You’ll have people lying about how consistently they wear their masks because they want the socialization, you’ll have drama with people who think they’re acting safely but aren’t really, you’ll have to deal with people shit-talking you because you’re physically letting the wrong people into your house. And let us not forget that old classic, “I really wanna hang out with this unsafe person, so I’ll risk infecting everyone else I hang out with.”

Which will get really intriguing if we start seeing rough divisions even inside the “safe hangouts” zone the way there’s a rough division between polyamorous folk – who generally are comparatively choosy in who they date because they’re in it for the emotional validation – and swingers, who are mostly in it for the physical satisfaction, and as such hold larger parties with larger risk profiles. Neither side’s wrong; they just evaluate differently, but those small evaluations can often lead to significant cultural rifts.

But the point is this: in this pandemic, you’re going to have to accept some level of risk in seeing your buddies up-close. And there are well-worn paths that other folks have trodden before, handling similar situations.

Might as well use what’s worked, right?