Why I’ll Be Deactivating My FetLife Account Next Monday

So if you haven’t heard of the impending FetLife strike, now you have. A lot of FetLife users will go temporarily dark next week to protest the crappy way FetLife aids and abets creepy dudes and predators.

I imagine you all have a lot of questions, so I’ll make the rest of this a Q&A.

What’s Making People So Upset That They’re Temporarily Quitting?
If you’re a woman on FetLife, and you post pictures or anything sexual, you can expect to get creepy dudes hitting you up for sex sooner or later. Many women get stalkers, or extensive rape fantasies, or even out-and-out rape threats in their inbox.

Now, there is a “block” button on Fet, but that requires you to actively a) seek out that user, and b) block them.  Considering that some high-profile women get 90+ emails a day from dudes, many of them anonymous dick profiles, the old advice of “Just block them if they bother you” isn’t quite enough to stop many women from saying “fuck it” and walking away from a social media site that has become a chore.

There’s plenty of tools FetLife could create to help ameliorate that: allowing people to screen emails from new users / users with under X friends / users of a specific age and gender ranges / a better block functionality. But despite the fact that women have been complaining vociferously about this shit for the seven years I’ve been on FetLife, the Powers That Be at Fet have chosen to devote their programming resources to other tools.

Which is a shame, because a lot of women have already left FetLife because, well, creepy rapey assholes. Hence: Going temporarily dark to encourage John Baku – the owner and lead programmer – to prioritize these tools, stat.

(EDIT: John has said that he’s got two projects in the pipeline that he’s got to do for legal reasons, and then by May 18th he hopes to do a comprehensive review. That’s a good sign; I hope this newfound focus will continue.  But to be fair, changes have been promised before and not been forthcoming, so people are skeptical.)

Is That All?
Sadly, no. FetLife’s official policy of “You can’t name names of people who have abused you” in your posts leads to FetLife protecting people who are active abusers, making them more likely to ban someone for mentioning an abuser than they are the abusers themselves.

That’s a more complex issue for me personally, because while I do believe victims by default there are always shit-stirrers; I’ve seen bad actors, mostly anti-SJW factions, trying to weaponize innocent statements on non-kink social media into accusations, so I’m a little less trusting in the goodness of the unrestrained Internet.

Still, fact is that FetLife largely seems to view its users of all genders, no matter how unsavory, as useful for as long as they can generate hits and content for them – remember The Wolf? – which is a problem that needs better solutions.

I’m honestly not sure what that solution is, so I tend to focus on the first issue of “developing better tools to screen out creeps,” but the problem that Fet tends to grant large audiences to random predators is still an issue worth noting.

So That’s The Official Stance Of The Walkout, Then?
Nope. Just mine. This is a wildly disorganized movement, and I don’t claim to speak for everyone.

So You Think YOU Walking Away Will Cause FetLife To Tremble? What An Ego! What Balls!
Let’s be honest here: You take away the people, and FetLife’s got nothing. We are both the market and the product.

And many people I used to like seeing here have been driven away by creepy dudes on FetLife, making it less likely that I’ll return. For every person going, “Well, it hasn’t bothered me and I’m still here!” there’s probably at least one (and maybe two or three) user who is no longer here to have the debate.

So if I leave? Nah. Not such a much. Hell, I did go dark for about two months during a recent mental collapse, and – surprise! – Fet kept chuggin’ along.

But if lots of people leave, as they have already? Well, FetLife loses everything and becomes MySpace or Ello.

I’m kinda hoping they realize this and start prioritizing better tools. I mean, why is it controversial at all to to want to retain productive users who generate nice pictures and kink for us, and screen offputting choads who do nothing but spam random people with badly-written fantasies?

 

But Hasn’t FetLife Been Working On Solutions?
Look. My day job is being lead programmer on a site about as complex as FetLife, with hundreds of thousands of active users.

As such, I am immensely sympathetic to Fet’s situation here. Code is complex, and not easy to change at the scale they’re working at. It took us years of planning to implement a new checkout process because we had to clear out old code and handle a thousand crazy edge cases – and all the while, everyone was like, “Just make it happen, it’s simple.”

It. Is. Never. Simple.

In addition, FetLife has to deal with laws in international countries, and with their payment processors shutting them down, and all the issues coming with porn, and maximizing ease of use for users. All the while dealing with a rabid user base that fights like weasels trapped in a paint can over what they want – and probably for a lot less money than most e-commerce sites take in. (Given that my wife is on the board of a couple of conventions, I find that users assume that people are getting rich off anything that’s perceived as a large-scale operation, even when it’s actually a hand-to-mouth experience.)

Slim resources, legal battles, and vociferous users? Even if you have the best of intentions, working there has to be a nightmare, done mostly for the love. I do genuinely believe that Fet as a whole wants to do the right thing, even if I disagree with those right things are, because they’re in the web of a lot of tangled issues that are not easy to sort out.

And I keep seeing people in threads telling them about the simple solutions, enraged that they can’t just pull a rabbit out of their ass and have it done in two months. Folks… they can’t.

But that said…

If they’d listened to the multitudes of complaints I’ve seen erupting over the past six years, they’d have some of it done by now. These aren’t new complaints; they’ve just been mostly ignored over a loooooong period of time. And one of the new big features they rolled out – an “improved” user search – actually made it easier for stalkers and creeps to find people in all sorts of photos and videos, leading me to believe that nobody at the top of the chain is seriously considering the average female experience. (They had to roll it back after its debut, which is never a good look.)

So personally speaking, I don’t think they have been working on a solution, not seriously, until it exploded in their face. Which, to me, signifies that they’re not driven by anything but things exploding in their face. Which means the more exploding, the better.

They gotta prioritize features that improve the user experience, and I think that starts with better filtering tools and more comprehensive tools. Clearly, the block button alone isn’t doing it for a lot of people.

How DARE You Tell FetLife What To Do?
Well, people do that all the time to me at my job. All the time, in fact. They’re called “customers,” and they leave us feedback – some of which we agree with and change for, some of which we disagree with and don’t, some of which is nice, some of which is bitchy.

This temporary walkout, crude tool that it is, is a way of telling Fet that yeah, you need to prioritize this a lot more than you have.

And frankly, this shouldn’t be controversial. I notice a lot of the people reacting very negatively to the walkout are right-wingers who are big on the free market – well, this is a customer base telling its client that they want changes made. That’s literally what good capitalism runs on – customers weigh in, the companies make changes to satisfy them.

In a sane world, this complaint would be viewed as simply as that.

(And there are a lot of people using this walkout to shill for their kink-platform-of-choice, which is also capitalism, and I encourage that as well. But I like FetLife. Currently, most of my buddies are here and I know how it works. I’d prefer it change rather than me walk away like I did with LiveJournal and CompuServe.)

So You’re One Of The Good Guys, Huh?
Nope.

Lemme repeat that: Nope.

Up until about six months ago, I thought it was a compliment to find an attractive woman and hit the FetLife equivalent of “like” on all the photos I found appealing. Then it was pointed out to me – not directly, but in a flurry of FetLife essays from various people – that some women really fucking hate that shit. Enough women, in fact, that I realized that some of the people I’d done that to had probably been very much off-put by that.

I didn’t mean to creep them out – but if I did, they deserve better tools to keep tools like me away.

Look. I try to be honest about all my flaws, and I’ve fucked up with consent, and I’ve fucked up with communication, and I’ve left bad tastes in people’s mouths more than once. I don’t want to, and I’m disappointed in myself when I do, but I’d be lying if I said I was an angel of beauty here.

Not everyone finds me creepy. But those who do should have an effective, flexible, and FetLife-supported way of keeping me out of their lives. And though I acknowledge that Fet has to devote resources to deal with laws like SESTA and the way that America seems hell-bent on shutting down payments to anything to do with porn, they also need to make things easier for the women on here.

Because they deserve better. And I’m happy to go dark for a couple of days if it helps remind people that yeah, nobody should have to log on here to find their inbox filled with creeper.

Am I A Bad Person If I Support The Goals Of The Strike But Don’t Want To Participate For Whatever Reason?
Nope. But the event’s here if you wanna look at it.

Ponder, and wonder. And let’s all hope that Fet finds a good solution, and keeps going, because honestly? I want to see it thrive.

I just don’t think it can when its policies are driving away the people posting nice things, y’know?

So I Went Outside Today, With Strangers. Mostly.

Today was the Dominaria prerelease of Magic cards, so I called up a couple of friends and went down to the tournament.

This is something I’ve been working on.

Those of you who have been paying attention will notice that I had a breakdown last fall, culminating in emergency therapy and even-more-emergency medication. And one of the things my therapist has asked me to consider was, “If you could plan a month out – just a month – what would that month look like to you?”

And I concluded, “I’d spend more time with the friends I have.”

Because I was getting out to conventions a lot, flying to exciting places, but literally once a month I was driving off to some gathering, then seeing my LDRs on the other two weekends, and a weekend with Gini at home, and all my local friends had become kinda distant.

I mean, I’d see my friend Karla… Once every eight months. Or I’d catch her at a party and go, “We really have to catch up” and then we never did. And I was talking and texting a lot but sort of aching for real-world connections.

So I started emailing people. “We really have to catch up,” I’d say. “So let’s catch up. Let’s set a time.”

And I have. It’s been nice.

So when the new Magic prerelease was announced, I texted some friends and saw if they wanted to go down and play with strangers. I hadn’t been to a Magic tournament in roughly eight years, so that was a long time. And the idea of hanging around other people and talking with other people was…

Well, like most social events for me. About 60% nice, 40% pure terror.

But I did it. I met some nice people. I played some cards. I won four packs.

That doesn’t sound big, but it is.

And there’s a balance now, because I’m currently spending so much time with friends that my writing’s suffering. I gotta get serious about it again – because staying in the publishing business involves a commitment, and now that I’ve taken a vacation between books I gotta finish this short story I’m committed to and then get around to this next novel. There’s a part of me that *has* to be a hermit to get this career moving, and that’s a thing.

But next weekend? I might go down and play some more cards. I might see if my atrophied Draft skills mean anything. I might change my life a little more to suit me, because I’m big on FetLife but absent from my local kink scene, and that’s bothered me because I *want* to get out to see all the wonderful people in town, I *want* to have new fire dates, I *want* to be involved in the town I live in.

I’ve been living online a bit less lately. And that’s the balance I’m going to have to strike – my fun times online, my fun times in life, my work in fictional worlds.

But I am retuning. Just playing in a tournament made me feel like I lived in a town – as opposed to being a floating, unrooted persona who occasionally touches base with a thousand locales but nobody really knows him.

I need to be a regular somewhere. Even if that’s just a regular with friends. But it’d be nice to be a regular at the Magic get-togethers, a regular at the local kink clubs, a regular in general.

Maybe I’ll get there some day.

I’m certainly closer now.

The 3% Improvement

You know what feels crappy? 3% improvement. You busted your ass for a year, trying to get better at dating, at being less of an introvert, at self-soothing your anxiety – and you only managed to get 3% better at it.

If you worked a job where you put in that much time at the office and they gave you a measly 3% raise, you would spit in your boss’s face and walk the fuck out.

And, in fact, that’s what most people do: quit. “I tried fixing that,” they’ll mutter, angrily, into their morning coffee. “Didn’t work. I’m just terrible at small talk / anxious / an introvert, and there’s nothing to be done about it.”

And you know what doesn’t help here? All the people who were already good at this shit telling them how easy improvement is. You’ve got the Lebron James of extroversion doing infomercials in your comments feed, saying, “Hey, sometimes when I’m debating which of my nine hundred close friends to call up to go to the front-row seats at the Beyonce concert with, I too wonder if they think less of me because I didn’t get backstage passes this time. So that’s exactly like your social anxiety, but I work past it!”

Fuck these guys.

So the model for most self-improvement is usually this:

* You don’t have much of a problem
* You found The Breakthrough that erased all the issues you had
* When you’re done, you’ll be the opposite of what you were. Used to be bad at dating? Now you’ll have your own personal harem. Used to be useless at small talk? Now you’re a fluent raconteur.

Which, when you’ve agonized to scrape together a measly 3% improvement, feels like crap. If you’re burdened with such social anxiety that it takes literally everything you have to go out in public for twenty minutes, make one awkward small talk, and then retreat home to collapse in embarrassment, you think, “Well, this isn’t worth it.”

But most self-improvement isn’t immediate improvement, my friend.

It’s compound interest.

Which is the magic of the financial markets, assuming they don’t all collapse in the next unregulated fiasco. My grandfather told me that when I got some money, I had to put money in an IRA. I got an unexpected windfall when I was 29 and put $2,000 in an IRA just to shut him up. And to my surprise, I got a notice from the IRA last week: even though I haven’t put in another dime into that fund, it’s up by a couple thousand.

Because that $2,000 got 3% interest, and kept accruing, and every time that 3% got applied it was to a bigger amount – $3,000, then $4,000, and right now I wouldn’t say it’s a tidy nest egg but damn is it a lot more than I would have had if I’d spent that windfall on porn and videogames.

Truth is, most improvement is compound interest, and it’s not sexy or satisfying. You muscle yourself out the door to that meetup this week – that’s 3%. After a couple of efforts, where “being able to get out of the house” becomes something you can do with minimal strain, you make awkward small talk with someone there instead of sticking to the wall – that’s another 3%. And you endure the awkward small talk for a couple more weeks until you find someone who you really connect with – that’s another 3%.

It’s never the Lebron James payoff. But over the years, you can make massive improvements to your life in small chunks that rarely feel satisfying at the time.

You can budge the needle a lot.

But that needle-budging only happens over time.  There’s very few one-offs in this biz.

And the truth is, you don’t need to be Lebron James good a lot of the time. If you’re really out of shape, a couple of 3% improvements will let you walk around the block without getting winded – an activity that most people would shrug off, but it will make your life infinitely better if you can manage it. If you’re so anxious that you’re driving your friends away, learning to self-soothe one out of every four times doesn’t seem like much but it can make the difference between self-destructing your social circle and retaining your buddies.

I mean, I’m still a socially anxious introvert. But I get out to conventions, I have friends, I even occasionally go to meetups with strangers. I manage to have a life, even if that life is still marred by breakdowns.

There are people who can’t improve by willpower alone, of course. Some people’s traits are set, and they’re not shifting, and I don’t deny that. But most people, I find, are too quick to see themselves as unchanging. They’ll claim that “That’s just the way they are” when the truth is that they haven’t stuck with their changes long enough to see the power of compound interest at work.

3% improvement feels like nothing when you’re starting out. But 3% improvement, applied consistently over a lot of years, can double your initial investment. And even if you don’t get that payoff, incremental improvements – as I’ve noted – will still make your life better.

This isn’t me promising that your life will become wonderful overnight. Or even wonderful, period. I’m a depressive, and I’m always going to have days where I break down and can’t function. But the miracle of compound interest means that there’s some days I can function when I couldn’t before, and that extra day means I get to write a little more, means I get to love a little more, I get to relax a little more.

That’s worth it.

Maybe it’d be worth it for you.

How Learning To Make Small Talk Can Give You Better, More Enduring Sexual Relationships

I could give a shit about the weather.  Or sports.  And I’m not all that interested in hearing about someone’s favorite anime show, because I don’t much care for anime.  

I want big talk.  Let’s tussle over politics!  Let’s unpack our heart and dissect our deepest emotions!  Why are we discussing the rain in Spain when there’s genuinely interesting shit we could be talking about?  

But that’s what small talk is: discussing neutral, often plainly boring topics with people you don’t know all that well – and more importantly, may not care to know.  The big lie people tell you about small talk is that mastering the art of the bland discussion somehow turns you into a Level 20 Networker, swinging from connection to connection as you Seal the Deal and flip through your overstuffed Rolodex to call in favors from that woman you met who had the kid with the severe grass allergy.  

But no.  The truth is, a lot of small talks don’t lead anywhere.  They don’t remember you, you don’t remember them, because you were both making nicey-nice at the office cocktail hour and frankly, this talk was the tofu of conversation – acceptable in a pinch, but nobody really wanted it.

So that’s small talk: you endure five minutes of with the guy next to you in line at the airport, you don’t get their Facebook, and this conversation might as well never have happened.

Boy, this sure sounds like a skill you want to master, huh? 

But wait. 

There’s a far better reason to learn how to master small talk. 

Because in truth, a lot of small talk boils down to one main skill: taking interest in something you personally don’t care much about.  Because someone read the opening sentence of this essay right after checking to see whether that inbound pressure front was going to bring a storm by noon and went, “Hey!  I love talking about the weather!”  Somebody just finished placing a bet on the Cavs tonight and went, “Hey!  I love talking about sports!”

And God, anime.  Someone’s already got their itching fingers primed to type in suggestions, ready to explode because they’re sure I haven’t seen all ten seasons of NOVA BLEACH HARUKO.  

So much of “small talk” is “taking time to discuss things that don’t jazz your hands.”  The skill is not “engaging people in conversation,” because honestly, that’s a trivial skill – if someone’s really psyched to tell you about their trip to Italy, learning three variants on “So what happened next?” will get you half an hour of conversation.  

The true skill is not tuning out.  

The true skill is learning to sit back and actively participate in helping them partake in a pleasure that you don’t fully share in.  

Which means the true small talk master has to learn empathy.  Maybe you’re not interested in kids, but you can be interested in the way this stranger’s face brightens when they show you pictures of some random toddler.  Maybe you don’t know anything about basketball, but you can try to understand the artistry involved for this LeBron fellow to dribble a ball past professional-grade opposition and get it in a basket.  

What small talk teaches you is not to endure, but to find sources of pleasure in places that normally give you none. 

Now, that has one small benefit, but that’s not the big one I’m discussing – the truth is that sometimes, learning to find pleasure in odd places actually expands your pleasure center.  My daughter loooooves football, to the point where she tries to hide her tears of joy when the Patriots win, and years of listening to her squee “Did you see that play?” and having her dissect the skill involved has let me watch the Superbowl and occasionally appreciate a fine maneuver.  I’ll never actively tune into a football game, but now if a friend really wants to watch the game, it’s not like chewing tin foil.  Watching the Browns lose (for there is no other outcome) is a perfectly lovely way to spend an afternoon, even if it’s not my first choice.

But that’s not the real benefit.

The real benefit is that mastering small talk builds the skills that make you a better person to date.  Which means that lovers stick around for longer, marriages don’t dissolve as quickly, relationships stay fine-tuned and sleek as dolphins. 

Because that skill of “I’m not necessarily into this, but I’ll find ways to get pleasure out of it” is critical in long-term relationships.  If the only time you’ll willingly in an activity is when you’re getting unalloyed pleasure out of it, well, your relationships are likely to fall apart.  

Here’s real reasons I’ve seen marriages fall apart:

* Casey has picked up an exciting new hobby, a hobby that takes them to lots of conventions and get-togethers.  Glenn, however could give a shit about Casey’s hobby, and clearly tunes out whenever Casey’s is squeeing about the new thing they learned today.  Casey learns that they can’t talk to Glenn about a good 40% of their life, so they learn to wall off large portions of their internal emotions from Glenn, and eventually just stop telling Glenn things altogether. Then Casey meets a nice person at their hobby, one who’s caring and willing to listen to all the things Casey can no longer talk to Glenn about, and, well….

* Lou doesn’t really care much about the laundry being done. Pat, however, does.  And because Lou has that selfish streak of “I’ll only do this if there’s something for me in it,” Pat winds up doing all the laundry, always, with Lou never pitching in.  Eventually Pat feels underappreciated and overwhelmed, and starts to question whether they need to be with such a selfish jerk like Lou, and, well….

* Sam likes sex, but doesn’t see any reason to be physically affectionate unless sex is in the offing – no cuddles, no hand-holding, that stuff doesn’t interest them except as a prelude to intercourse.  Except Morgan does crave physical affection at all times, and feels isolated and alone, and eventually comes to cringe as they realize Sam’s affectionate ruffling of their hair means SEX NAO PLEASE – and Morgan doesn’t feel like being a sex dispenser upon demand when they’re not feeling desired elsewhere, and, well….

There’s lots of other marriage-ending situations like that, mostly boiling down to “This partner has never mastered the skill of generosity.”  If Lou had said, “I don’t care about the laundry, but I do like seeing your face light up when you realize you don’t have to do this thing alone, so lemme help,” Pat wouldn’t be overwhelmed.  If Sam learned to take pleasure in Morgan’s purring when they cuddled, Morgan wouldn’t reject their overtures as consistently.  If Glenn could take pride in Casey’s hobby even if they weren’t a die-hard hobbyist, then Casey wouldn’t have to wall their life off…

And the good news is, this is a skill you can learn!  Empathy is a muscle, which you can activate through steady practice.  And like a lot of exercise, the activity of empathy often feels weird and artificial and pointless at first. 

But trust me. I’ve seen too many folks who sniffed, “Why would I want to learn to talk about boring stuff with people I don’t care about?”  And they went on to have relationships where they never did boring stuff either, and those relationships shriveled like a microwaved spider after a few years because it turns out, “Doing boring stuff” is a mighty useful skill.  

Whereas the people who’ve said, “This is boring, but these people obviously care deeply about it, so can I make a game where I find a way to make their passions and mine intersect?”  Those people I’ve seen go on to often have more fruitful relationships, because assuming you don’t sublimate all your interests in the sense of uplifting someone else, you’ll find that “learning to take pleasure from your partner’s pleasure” is a quite necessary lubrication.  

And the easiest way to shoot womp rats in the Beggar’s Canyon of Compassion is to talk about the weather with lonely people in airports.  It probably won’t win you any lifelong friends, nor will it forge connections that will make you the CEO of a Detroit car company.  

But when you find someone who does light your fire, it’ll help you to keep their flame properly kindled.  

Trust me.  It’ll be worth it.  

So What If I Use Big Words In My Books?

I have friends who tell me that I should write simple prose.  I shouldn’t mention “flensing” to describe someone having their body removed, I shouldn’t say how someone’s skin “horripilated” when they’re facing an otherworldly horror, I should just say the magic item glows instead of describing its lambent dweomer. 

But those are beautiful words, man. 

Why should they sit by the wayside because you’re too lazy to infer meaning?  Or, in the worst case, crack open a dictionary? 

Look, anyone who’s read my books – and please do – knows that my writing style isn’t some Lovecraftian word-salad heap of purple prose.  I write tight and I write clean.  But I think there’s also value in placing pretty, arcane words into a context where they can enrich a text: Either you know the word and understand why it’s the perfect word for that situation, or you see a word like “gloaming” used to describe the light of a dusky sunset and come to form a new word association.  

How’s that not delightful either way?

Some people say it’s distracting, show-offy.  And to them, I say their lack of willingness to be entranced by a new word is cowering at the gates of a glorious world, staunchly refusing new forms of entertainment simply because you’d have to fill in a blank or two.  I mean, sure, you can write simpler and simpler, but eventually you’re pounding out novels like Up-Goer Five, describing rockets in only the most ten thousand commonly used words. 

No; declaring the proper use of a word like “imprudence” to be “show-offy” is basically saying, “I’m put off when people remind me that I have a smaller vocabulary than they do.”  And really, I think that speaks more as to the reader than the writer. 

It is, of course, necessary to follow such a bold statement with a host of caveats, assuming you know what “caveat” means: yes, of course it’s possible to string together so many arcane words that the text becomes unreadable.  Yes, having ordinary American characters describe the monster as “rugose” suggests you suck at dialogue.  Yes, there’s lots of terrible writers whose prose becomes – as I said – Lovecraftian.  And there’s always that good ol’ bugaboo, “personal taste” – there are writers with prose so dense I don’t personally enjoy chopping my way through it, and it’s fine if you don’t too.  

But honestly, man.  A lot of the fuss over big words boils down to “I didn’t know that one.”  I bet one or more of the three-dollar words in this essay are ones you knew, and you probably said, “Well, that’s no big deal, but if the author should haul out a word like ‘thigmophilic’ – well, that’s crazy!”  Whereas the truth is that every word over a certain grade average risks throwing the reader out. 

Or the reader can choose to jump in.  

There’s nothing wrong with writing with simple terms: many authors do it, and do it well.  But there’s *also* nothing wrong with putting in a beautiful word that summarizes the situation perfectly, if you know what it means, so long as the sentence isn’t unfathomable if you don’t know the word.  

Because for me?  Yes.  Those murky shadows are penumbral.  It’s a beautiful word.  It fits if you know what it means.  And it sounds pretty regardless. 

That’s a win/win for me.  

The Entenmann’s Voice: How A Chocolate Cake Saved Our Marriage

She told me that she loved me.  The rest of her body told me otherwise.  

I heard the strain in my wife’s voice whenever we had a discussion. Her words were never unkind – but our discussions were squeezed tight at the edges, her sentences chopped off at the end as neatly as a nailclipper clicking through a toenail. Every reassurance she gave me ended with an unspoken “for Christ’s sake” that hung in the air like bug spray, toxic and deadly.

The only time I knew she loved me – really adored me – was when she spoke of chocolate cake.

Now, let’s be honest.  She was right to be vexed with me.  This was during the worst part of our marriage, when neither of us had learned the self-discipline to be kind to each other.  I was a fool, insecure, and grasping – and worst of all, I knew what I was doing yet was unable (back then) to stop myself.  Half of our conversations went like this: 

“Do you love me?” 

“Yes.” 

“…are you sure you love me?” 

“Yes.”  

(A moment passes, during which her whole body braces for the next onslaught – and then) “Are you sure you love me?”  

“For God’s sake, I said yes!” 

“But you sound so angry!”  

Someone once told me that the reason dogs are so happy to see you when you come home is because they didn’t know that you were coming back. Dogs have no concept of extended time, so when you return it’s as if you’d just arisen from the grave, They jump, and lick, and frolic because they didn’t expect to ever see you again!

I was a dog. Every time Gini left the room, her love left with her. When she returned, her love was obviously gone; she had been a fool to marry a schlub like me, and she must have realized it in that twenty minutes, she must have.  I tried not to ask, I really did, but my thoughts rattled around inside me like a pellet in a spraypaint can until the words squirted out, unbidden. 

So I’d ask again. Do you love me? Do you still? How about now?

Her patience waned, and it didn’t help that Gini had grown up in a family where expressing honest emotion = death. She’d had to bury every trace of resentment to stay alive, and so her psyche was a mystery to her. She would deny being angry at me for days on end, then suddenly stop in mid-stride with a befuddled expression to snap, “You know, I am furious at you.”

Our marriage was dying, and neither of us knew how to stop this spiral.  

I didn’t even realize how bad it had gotten until we shopped for an Entenmann’s Marshmallow Cake.

Now, you might think that the biggest sacrifices I’d made in quitting my job and moving up to Alaska to be with my new bride would be leaving my support group of friends behind, or leaving behind my sexy job buying books – books! – for a job buying pencils in bulk for a corporation.  

But I’m a pudgepot.  So I missed Entenmann’s cake.  

Marshmallow Cake was a delicacy that I could not find in Alaska. Oh, they had Entenmann’s prepackaged food product in all sorts of styles – the donuts, the waxy chocolate icing, the pop-’ems – but never the creamy, vanilla-tinged Marshmallow topping. When I was depressed back home, I’d buy a cake and strip the icing off of my Entenmann’s methodically, eating it as if I were mowing a sugary lawn. 

It probably contributed to my eventual heart attack, but damn did it cheer me up.  

So when we moved back down to Cleveland, the one thing that gave me hope was finding Entenmann’s again.  My marriage may be disintegrating, this move seemed like a covert excuse to get me back into the States before dumping me, but hey!  Entenmann’s!

And on the second day in town, my hopes soared when I found a local Entenmann’s outlet – but I quickly discovered that even the factory outlet had no Marshmallow cakes. The local factory didn’t make them.

When I returned home, I was crestfallen, expecting Gini to snap at me for being so upset at something as trivial as a chocolate cake.  But for the first time in a long time, Gini sympathized with me. 

“There, there,” she said, stroking my head. Her voice was as warm as a hug. “We’ll find your cake. It’ll be okay.”

And I realized: Gini had grown up poor.  

To her, in a family that had had to squash their emotions to survive, whining about feelings was stupid.  

But being deprived of things?  That, she understood.  

“That’s it,” I said.

“What?”

“That’s how I need you to talk to me.”

From then on, the good voice became The Entenmann’s Voice.  And when I really needed reassurance, I asked her to use it. 

The Entenmann’s voice was a breakthrough for Gini, because she realized that simply reciting the words weren’t enough – she had to mean them. She thought that I couldn’t hear the unspoken “dumbass” at the end of her comforts – but I could hear her undertones more keenly than words. It took her awhile, but I think she realized that perhaps it was possible to comfort me, if she acted in the right way.

Sometimes, you have to adjust for your partner in subtle and strange ways.  And she worked, and worked hard, at stopping giving me these snippy reassurances and instead recalling the compassion she’d felt for me about a chocolate cake and redirecting that into calming my flurries of emotional distress.

As for me, I realized that if she could sound that way about Entenmann’s, perhaps it wasn’t all lost. There were still vast, untapped reserves of love within her – I was just drilling too deep, taking too many of her resources. 

I didn’t know how to stop my quavering fears, but that Entenmann’s voice told me that I had to before I lost that, too.

These were both tiny steps for us. The Entenmann’s voice didn’t magically fix everything, but they expanded our vocabulary and laid a groundwork that we could work with.

Eventually, I had to learn that relationships are based on objective results, not internal struggles.   Gini was being stressed because I was asking her Do you love me? Do you love me still? every three minutes, nobody fucking cared whether I had really tried hard not to ask at Minute 1 and Minute 2. My internal struggles didn’t matter – what mattered was that I didn’t ask at Minute 3, either. Eventually, I learned to go an hour without asking (though it was pure agony), and then four hours, and then eight hours.

Now, sometimes I can go a whole day. It’s been almost two decades since those tumultuous first days of our marriage, and I’d like to tell you my fears have disappeared, like a good storybook  – but truth is, old scars never completely heal. But they’re manageable now.

It’s an ugly truth, but it was there all along: If I wanted Gini to stop thinking less of  me for being weak, I had to stop being weak. All the words and redefinitions couldn’t change a character flaw.

But the other night, Gini was working on the computer and I walked into her room. She checked her email, and suddenly I was overwhelmed with fears of Anchorage. I had a worry about a really stupid issue – the kind that had been answered definitively years ago. Asking her for reassurance on this thoroughly-settled conflict would be the dumbest possible thing I could do because I knew she loved me, that I was an idiot for asking, that any sane person should just walk away and stuff this fear deep inside.

But the words came out, insulting in their pure distrust: Do you love me? Do you still? How about now?

Gini stopped in mid-typing, then stared at me with concern…. And her face broke open in the most wonderful smile I’ve ever seen, the most loving thing that I think I shall ever witness in my time upon this planet. She held her arms out to me and put my hands on her shoulders so that she could look into my eyes and tell me yes, yes I love you, and you’re not a fool for asking. You’re my hero, Ferrett.

That was the Entenmann’s voice.  

It was also the power of our love reignited after we learned to be good to each other.  Through cake.  

And so when people come to me because they can’t stop fighting, the first question I usually ask is, “So what’s your Entenmann’s cake voice?”  That voice is probably not cake-related (unless you are a pudgepot like me).  

But there is often a tone in your voice that your partner needs to hear when you’re upset.  Some people call it a “love language,” but that’s often nebulous, because it’s not really a language so much as it is finding the channel to compassion when you’re being inconvenienced.  

You may love them.  Speaking love in a way that they can hear it is a separate skill. 

But if you master that art, it is a sweet, sweet dessert indeed.  

Requiem For A Cow

If you’ll recall yesterday, while gaming, a cow saved my life. This brave cow followed me into a bandit camp and kicked the bandit leader to death.

This, thought I, was the kind of cow who sought out adventure.

So I made a vow: I would shepherd this cow along with me through the rest of the game. Me and my cow, in the snowy wastelands, fighting evil robots together. The dream team humanity has strived for since time immemorial, fusing the powers of mankind and a cow.

The cow was, it must be said, tricky to ride. He lurched in every direction, refusing to stop, and lowed sadly at every slope. Rocks I could jump up easily scared the cow, and if I went too fast then he’d gallop eagerly past whatever I was aiming at – so I had to trot everywhere, slowly, across the landscape.

Was this the sacrifice I must make for my mooing friend? So be it.

I named him Snowpoke.

Now, I was worried about protecting poor Snowpoke during battles. The upgraded enemies in the DLC pack were kicking my ass, and I was terrified of my cow becoming steak.

That was, as it turned out, the least of my worries.

Because during the second battle, against two epic fire-breathing monsters I ran into, it turns out that Snowpoke had a short memory. While I was dodging and firing arrows and drinking healing potions, Snowpoke… kinda forgot he was my friend. Apparently his friendship spell wears off if you don’t mount him for long enough, kind of like a bad marriage.

So I was fighting for my life when Snowpoke charged me, joining in the mayhem, with me screaming, “SNOWPOKE! NO! REMEMBER THE GOOD TIMES?!?” And that battle became twice as hard because I had to not only shoot at monsters but make sure not to kill an enraged Snowpoke.

Fortunately, Snowpoke had a mild form of bovine ADD, and while the two fire-monsters were hell-bent on my death, Snowpoke got bored mid-battle and wandered off to a slope to eat grass. So I re-befriended him again, and we rode together happily.

And while repairing another robot, I noticed that Snowpoke had his own character: one of his horns had been knocked off. It was an oddly jaunty look, which I loved, so I took a picture.

That poorly-snapped picture, my friends, turned out to be the only memory of Snowpoke I’ll ever have.

Because I wasn’t thinking. I should have Googled, I know. But it was muscle memory – I’d fast-travelled so many times before, skipping across the tedious landscape to just get to my next quest marker, and the horrid truth became apparent:

Cows don’t fast-travel.

I hunted through the camp, realizing with horror that I had left Snowpoke behind, then reloaded every last save I could find in an attempt to find Snowpoke – but Horizon Zero Dawn, alas, didn’t think Snowpoke was worthy enough to save.

Snowpoke was lost in the icy wildernesses, with one horn hanging off, probably to be murdered by asshole adventurers like me.

But no. Snowpoke was more than just materials to be scavenged. Snowpoke was a pet, with a personality – a fuzzy-memoried, ornery personality, to be sure, but he was my pet and I loved him.

Now he’s gone. And my memories are all I have left.

Oh, I’d like to think that he just wandered off, and found a herd, and settled back into his everyday life. But that’s just not Snowpoke. Snowpoke had kicked a bandit to death, man. Snowpoke was a *warrior*. And I know that Snowpoke is now stalking the mountainsides, sneaking up on bandits, who are all like “All right, we’re gonna ambush these villagers – what was that noise?”

Then an angry, angry “moo.”

Then bloodshed.

Then silence. The silence of a bovine ninja.

Rest in peace, Snowpoke. You earned it.

Rest In Peace, Snowpoke. This was a shitty picture, but... I thought we'd have more time together.

Rest In Peace, Snowpoke. This was a shitty picture, but… I thought we’d have more time together.