Humans want absolute certainty, and they will fold, spindle, and mutilate other human beings to get that illusion of perfect consistency.
The easiest example of that is politeness.
Politeness is, on the surface, an awesome idea. People get stressed because they have a terror of offending people – what if you say the wrong thing and make them mad at you? Suddenly, every meeting with a new person is this wild gamble – what conversational topics will offend them? What level of bodily contact will they find acceptable, whether that’s a hug or a handshake or a stiff nod? When is it okay to introduce yourself?
Every time you meet someone new, it’s a roll of the dice. You might insult someone. You might actually make the wrong decision and have someone loathe you – which is scary! (And if you have social anxiety, you probably feel those odds keener than other people do.)
Enter politeness – a social construct where we all agree on weird things like, “When you meet people, you should shake hands and say ‘hello,’ and then talk about neutral topics like the weather.”
Basically, politeness is a way of reducing the uncertainty in social interactions. If everyone around you knows the standards of politeness, then “Doing what’s expected” will lead to positive reactions more often than not.
And if you run into someone who’s germaphobic and thus doesn’t shake hands, they should – in theory – understand that you meant no harm by offering the handshake, it’s just customary. At which point, in an ideal and sane world, you can override the generic standards of politeness with that person’s personal stated preferences.
Which is a sane, wonderful thing to do! Basically, every around you quietly agrees on a set number of actions you undertake until you know someone better, at which point you quietly switch from the I-don’t-know-you-that-well mode default behavior and into the oh-yes-we’ve-met behaviors.
(It gets a little awkward if someone doesn’t know the local rules of politeness, but there’s no universal fix for these sorts of issues.)
Politeness changes the odds. Maybe once there was like a 40% chance of total awkwardness if you talked to a stranger, but shared conventions reduced that chance to 5%.
Which is awesome. I am totally in favor of reducing awkwardness wherever possible.
Yet here’s the folding, spindling, and mutilating bit: people will get so attached to the reduction of uncertainty that politeness brings them that they’ll start to prioritize the rules over people.
The easiest example of that is “Merry Christmas.”
Time was that saying “Merry Christmas” was a social construct that provided an illusion of consistency. When the snow was falling and the Christmas trees were up, you could say “Merry Christmas!” to anyone while you were out shopping and people were socially obligated to smile back at you.
Now, keep in mind that not everyone wanted to smile back at you. People who were Jewish may have felt understandably pissy that saying “Merry Christmas!” meant that non-believers were required to translate your holiday greeting into a generic sentiment of “Good wishes!” – but if you said “Happy Hanukkah!” to someone instead, suddenly some significant percentage of Christians would get furious because they were not obligated to translate Jewish sentiments into generic good wishes. (And God forbid a black man said something to an unsuspecting white person about Kwanzaa.)
Likewise, there’s people who don’t think of Christmas as a positive event, and so to them wishing people Merry Christmas is akin to affirming other people’s
sick habits of spending themselves into bankruptcy for no good reason. Yet the social constructs of politeness required them to say it back, or they were the dick.
And yet, over the years, that definition of politeness has quietly changed. A significant number of people have come to realize that whoah, actually, this whole “Merry Christmas” thing can be a little unfair and obscuring of non-Christmas-having faiths. So “Happy Holidays!” became the default.
And the interesting thing is that most of these folks probably aren’t really upset about “Merry Christmas” as such. What they’re actually upset about is that at one point the odds of offending someone with a jaunty “Merry Christmas!” were so low that they never even had to think about it, and suddenly those odds have changed.
Now there’s some 10% chance that saying “Merry Christmas!” might be met with an implication that they’re the dick. They’re fretting all the time because their formerly sure-fire greeting has a chance of misfire… and they fucking hate that.
And rather than saying, “Oh, wow, every social interaction (no matter how minor) has some percentage of going awry, and circumstances have changed so that people are free to express a distress they’ve always actually held and yet were constrained by social constructs until now, so maybe I should alter my behavior to lower my risk of offense in the future”….
These people weaponize politeness by saying, “ANYONE WHO DOESN’T FOLLOW THE RULES I GREW UP LEARNING IS AN OVERLY-SENSITIVE ASSHOLE.”
In other words, they’re willing to fold, spindle, and mutilate other human beings’ emotions so long as they get to hold on to this precious idea that “following this rule means nobody can be mean to me ever.”
But the truth is this: there’s no interaction you can have that doesn’t risk offending someone somewhere. Every time you speak is a gamble – you can minimize that risk with politeness, and clarity of speaking, and knowing who you’re speaking to, but every time you open your mouth you might hurt someone’s feelings.
And the proper answer to that is not “Well, fuck all those people” or “Please shut the hell up for my convenience” but to accept that communication is not a certainty, and to accept that risk of accidental injury, and to look at every situation individually to decide whether that person is justified in being hurt or whether you think they’re being unreasonable. (Because sometimes, yes, they’re being unreasonable.)
And you see that certainty everywhere – here’s the young guys getting furious because they followed the rules their older friends taught them to pick up women at a bar, and the women who that patter doesn’t work on are “bitches.” Here’s the people who are furious because the terms for trans people and black people keep transforming (in part because people keep turning the mere names for these states of being into an insult, but that’s another essay for another time), and they’re furious because dammit they should be able to learn one term always and never have to change it ever again. Here’s the Baby Boomers who are furious because they got taught to say “You’re welcome” and the Millennials say “No problem” instead and that makes them feel awkward even if the Millennials don’t mean it as awkward so you Millennials stop saying that right now it’s rude.
But here’s the trick: Prioritize people over rules whenever possible. You can’t do it all the time, because “people” are not a uniform mass and someone risks getting offended whatever you do. (I keep seeing various minorities standing up and speaking for all their fellow minorities as if they were a hive mind, only to be snarled up by debates from very visible and very dissenting other members of that minority culture.)
But you know, realize that any idea you have of “If I do this, I’ll never offend anyone” is a lie that you’re telling yourself in order to make you feel comfortable. Recognize that this lie suppresses people in order to perpetuate an illusion that does not, in fact, exist.
Recognize that you’re always risking discomfort when you talk to people. And that’s okay. You shouldn’t need certainty to thrive, because it doesn’t really exist anyway.
Be comfortable with percentages instead of certainty.
Well, be as comfortable as you can.
“You guys have so many friends,” my father once told me. “You don’t ever have to spend a night at home alone, if you don’t want. You’re lucky that way.”
We weren’t lucky, though. Some days, we were frickin’ exhausted.
The thing nobody tells you about “having a vibrant social network” is that building one and maintaining it takes a lot of effort. For every night we can call up people and magically conjure a social gathering, there’s two where we’re slumped on the couch going, “I guess we have to go out.” We’re reaching out, we’re coordinating dates on Google Calendar, we’re squeezing in time between my writing and Gini’s quilting and the kids visiting…
And that assumes we have a friends’ group to begin with! Hoo boy, if we don’t have a variety of close friends then that process gets agonizing. Suddenly, you’re going out on buddy-dates, hanging out for an evening full of awkward to see if you click as a group, and then doing it again with the same people even if it was a little awkward because honestly, most initial friend get-togethers are clunky and sometimes you need three or four gatherings before the edges rub off and you feel comfortable with each other.
I’m tired just thinking about it.
And yet when I see movies about friendships, I always see these effortless groups where friendship is a purely positive force. When the lead character has her big let down, their friends are there to catch her – yet there’s never the scene from the perspective of the friend who was planning to curl up and watch Netflix in glorious solitude and yet they had to throw all that away to be a shoulder for their buddy to sob on. (Or if they have that scene, it’s proof that friend is a bad friend for inconveniencing you, which is equally toxic.)
Friendship bolsters you. But it also costs.
And I think about that today thanks to an excellent article in the Boston Globe from a guy who doesn’t think he’s lonely. He’s got kids, plenty of people at work, a lot of friends on social media….
But after his boss assigned him the story on loneliness, he realized that he was lonely. Because he had a lot of activity in his life, but no close friends outside of his wife and his kids, and as every parent knows, your kids can be a delight but they can’t quite be your friends (at least when they’re young).
There’s a difference between staying superficially in touch with lots of people and having a few stalwart buddies.
And I think of this paragraph:
“‘Since my wife and I have written about loneliness and social isolation, we see a fair number of people for whom this is a big problem,’ Schwartz continues. But there’s a catch. ‘Often they don’t come saying they’re lonely. Most people have the experience you had in your editor’s office: Admitting you’re lonely feels very much like admitting you’re a loser. Psychiatry has worked hard to de-stigmatize things like depression, and to a large part it has been successful. People are comfortable saying they’re depressed. But they’re not comfortable saying they’re lonely, because you’re the kid sitting alone in the cafeteria.’”
I think he’s right.
I think a lot of people who are depressed are, at least in part, lonely – and they’re not sure what to do about that. (And a therapist is often just paying someone an hourly rate to listen to you, which can often be a rent-a-friend business.)
And I think part of that process of combating loneliness involves acknowledging that close friendships aren’t necessarily easy. It’s like exercise; some people are naturally drawn to working out all the time, but most of us like “having exercised” but still groan as we schlep down to the gym.
The most successful healthy people are often not the people who love exercise, but who have accepted that the minor unpleasantness of putting in an hour down at the gym will make their lives infinitely better.
Friendship, at least for me and my wife, is a weird balance, because as introverts we have a natural reluctance to going out with people. Left to our own devices, we’d rather nest in at home every evening – we’ve spent time working, we want to relax, going out with people and putting out more energy seems exhausting.
Yet we do it. Because we realize that if we followed our natural instincts all the time, we’d be unhappy in the long run. We need friends. But we can’t just call up our friends when we need them – that’s treating them like tools. So we gotta get our duffs off the couch and say those precious, precious words:
“Wanna hang out?”
We need to reach out and cultivate those relationships in advance, to schedule nights out, to go to events we’re not really thrilled about when we start out – because, like exercise, a lot of the time it actually turns out to be pretty awesome once we’ve started. You feel pumped, you feel jazzed, you feel glad that you went and did it.
A lot of maintaining good friendships is getting past that inertia of “Don’t wanna.” (The other half is knowing which nights you’re absolutely right to spend at home alone.)
Friendships are wonderful, and empowering, but they’re not a free natural resource for most of us. And I think a lot of people wind up lonelier than they should because they’ve got this weird, sitcom-fed idea that friendships just happen – Joey and Monica and Chandler just wind up on the couch at the coffee shop by magic every night.
Whereas the truth about friendships is that those “you wind up in the same place every night” usually only happen when you’re living in the same place, which only really happens in college. Once you’re a grownup, your friends scatter, and you have to chase them down – Joey’s at the cafe every Tuesday for open mic night, and Monica lives on the other side of town but really wants to see that show at the Capitol Theater, and Chandler’s working lots of overtime but hey do you wanna catch a drink when he gets off work at 8?
You have to schedule. You have to go to places with people you’re not 100% comfortable with yet. You have to decide to leave your apartment.
That all takes a certain amount of labor. And you get rewarded big in the end – there’s nothing better about walking into a room and seeing that smile when your buddy shows up and getting that hug and knowing that yeah, this evening was totally worth going out for because you stuck with these people until you had a history together.
Yet that takes effort. That effort isn’t not good, it’s not bad, it’s not wrong. It’s just… what it is. And if you don’t put in that time, you wind up lonely.
Sometimes that loneliness decays into depression. Or sometimes the depression saps your efforts to get out, which decays into more depression. (Gini and I have both been battling sickness lately, and that shows in the sad way we’ve let some of our regular social engagements slip. We want to fight that. We need to, honestly.)
But to fight that loneliness, you gotta organize outings. The get-togethers no longer come for free when you get past a certain age. And I think the sooner you can acknowledge that, and get past the reluctance to fight that, the better your life will end up being.
It’s okay that it’s not effortless.
It’s not for most people.
Now get out there and friend it up.
So on Saturday, I started the finish to the shadowbox I’ve been working on for my sweetie.
On Saturday, everything that could go wrong with the wood did.
A “shadowbox” is a recessed case – basically, a frame you can put a three-dimensional object into. The object in this case is “a sock.” Because my sweetie refuses to tell me where she wants to go when we go out on dates, and I have to remind her in true Harry Potter style that Dobby has been given his sock, and so I’m officially going to give her her sock so she’ll remember that I’m never going to get mad at her for expressing an opinion.
So I’d prepped the wood on a previous weekend, and Saturday was cutting grooves into it and cutting it into pieces that would fit together into a box. And it was a frustrating day, because I’d lost several tools and had to go hunting around for them, and then I didn’t know how either one of my routers worked to switch bits efficiently, and I couldn’t figure out how to get the table saw set up for bevelled cuts, and when I finally did I cut the pieces the wrong way so the box shrunk from seven inches to six inches to five inches as I kept adjusting, and when I finally assembled it the grooves were half on the outside of the box, half on the inside.
I’d spent two sessions, only to end up with a useless partial case.
A little disheartening.
But on Sunday, my wife was feeling sleepy so at 8:00 I decided to get out and put in another couple of hours in the shop.
I killed it.
Now that I knew where all my tools were and how to use them, I cut myself a perfect shadowbox in 52 minutes. All my measurements were right, my safety game was on, and I was in the zone.
And that may be the first time I’ve felt competent as a woodworker ever.
Woodworking is weird. I do it because I like it, but there’s also that odd pressure because woodworking is a traditionally masculine skill, and I’ve never been good with my hands. (Unless they’re typing words at a keyboard.) Whenever I fuck up a cut, I think of all those videos where the bearded confident guy quietly assembles a mahogany end table in a half-an-hour show and never says “oops” and never has to stand there calling Norm over to go, “Okay, now, how do we fix this damn thing?”
And I know, I know, that’s not reality. I’m told by professional woodworkers that half the time at their shop is futzing around for that tool they laid here somewhere. But there’s this image, somehow, of the woodworker I should be which is partially of the man I should be and I never quite get there.
Last night, dear reader, I got there.
And I know I’ll screw it up again. The guys are coming over to assemble Eric’s shelf on Wednesday, and we’re gonna screw things up like nobody’s business. There’s no shame in screwing up.
The real reason I’m proud of Sunday night’s shadowbox is because everything I did so quickly was purely because I’d screwed up. How did I change that routing bit so easily? Well, I remembered where the wrenches were and knew how to get at the collar. How did I know how to bevel the boards properly? Because I’d spent half an hour learning how to use the table saw and learned a valuable lesson on how to cut angles.
Basically, last night’s speed run was where I turned mistakes into lessons.
That sort of conversion is what it’s all about. There’s no shame in screwing up. In our shop, we call them Valuable Lessons – as in, “Well, I think we’ve all learned a Valuable Lesson tonight” – and that’s how we get better.
Last night, I got better.
I’m marking that moment here so I don’t forget.
So! I have sold my time-travelling soup novel Savor Station to Tor, one of the biggest publishers in science fiction! And you may have some questions:
What Is Savor Station about?
According to the press release, it is “Kitchen Confidential Meets The Fifth Element by way of Wes Anderson, about a destitute philosopher who wins a free meal at the best restaurant in the known universe and ends up gaining life lessons with a sense of good taste along the way.”
…don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t sell your weird novels, kids!
But what is Savor Station really about?
The secret to Savor Station is that it’s a sideways sequel to my Nebula-nominated novelette Sauerkraut Station, taking place on the same station many years later. Things have changed greatly on this nowhere station after the events of the war, obviously, but some characters put in reappearances. If you loved that story – and holy crap, after Flex, it’s the story I get the most fan mail about – then you’ll be happy to see what Lizzie is up to.
(Which means that when Ann Leckie bought that impossible-to-sell novelette, she helped me acquire not only a Nebula nomination but a book deal. Thank you, Ann. In the unlikely event you haven’t read her won-literally-every-science-fiction-award book Ancillary Justice, do so now. It’s amazing.)
That sounds awesome! Where can I buy it? When? How?
…you can’t buy it yet, because we literally just announced the book deal. It’ll likely be out in spring of 2019, traditional publishing being glacially slow, and it’ll likely be my first hardcover. Believe me, I’ll let you know when you can buy it.
If you’re desperate to read an upcoming book from me, allow me to remind you that my post-singularity thriller The Uploaded is due out from Angry Robot this September, it is currently available for preorder from both Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and that preorders really, really help an author out more than just about anything else.
It says this is a two-book deal. So there’ll be a sequel to this sorta-sequel?
Probably not. Sequels are tricky beasts; even though I think the ‘mancer series ended really well (and I learned to be a much better writer along the way), the third book’s sales were predictably less than the first book’s sales. As a writer, it’s a little sad to put so much effort into a book to have it be some shadow of the first book. So chances are it’ll be an entirely different book – quite possibly the one I’m working on now, maybe another one if my editor doesn’t care for that one.
Will you be doing a book tour for Savor Station?
Jeez, if you thought I went nuts with donuts on the ‘mancer book tours, imagine what I’ll do when it’s a book literally devoted to the beauties of fine cooking in the future. I may have to buy that liquid nitrogen canister I’ve been dreaming about….
Are you happy, Ferrett? I mean, really happy?
I will never be satisfied.
But given that it took me twenty years to get good enough to publish my first book and I am now contractually mandated to publish six of them, I’m doing pretty damn well.
Our goddaughter died after a long, drawn-out battle with cancer. Then, a few months later, my wife’s mother died after a long, drawn-out illness.
Gini kinda checked out for a while after that.
She was overwhelmed by crowds, which felt too big and fast and inquisitive, so she didn’t want to go out much. She retreated to the bathtub, spent hours soaking in water reading comfort books – she read over ninety Star Wars books, losing herself in the happiness of spending more time with Luke and Han and Leia.
I couldn’t ask much of her.
Her grief went on for months. She wasn’t completely absent – she still held me if I asked her to, she still laughed if I told her jokes. But her normal desires had been shattered. She fought hard to find her way back to some semblance of normality, but two mortal body blows had robbed my wife of her usual resiliency.
And I, also grieving for our goddaughter, responded in a different way – I needed to get out, to feel the vibrant love at parties and conventions, to go a little mad in the opposite direction with crushes and new friends and oh my God please talk to me.
But you know what I did?
I held a space for her.
Yes, I went out to conventions and spent weekends lost in furious makeout sessions. Yes, I went out with friends and cuddled buddies and found other things to do.
But I was very careful to keep some necessary emptiness in my relationships. There was a Gini-sized hole in my life, and I made damn sure nobody else crept into that sacred space – which meant some nights, I cradled myself in loneliness while Gini was in the tub, reading a book I didn’t want to read because I wanted to be out somewhere. I watched reruns with her in the living room, which felt like a straightjacket because we could be out in the glorious darkness of a theater, that movie filling our eyes and leaving us nowhere else to go but into the depth of someone else’s story….
But Gini couldn’t go out.
I held that space for her.
And on the days when I was emotional and I knew Gini couldn’t handle the strain of playing therapist, I talked to other friends. And there was that temptation to turn this revelation into OH MY GOD YOU AND I ARE SOULMATES, LOOK AT YOU, YOU UNDERSTAND ME, to react to all this sadness by kindling new and intense relationships, to find someone to fall in love with in a way fierce enough to drive back all this ennui.
But if I did that, the relationship would grow into an odd shape – it would be a real love, yes, but it would be a love nourished by the absence of an old love. I would love this new person partially because they were there for me in a time that someone else wasn’t. And experience has taught me that those relationships don’t necessarily flourish once they’re hauled out of that strange ecosystem of loss and asked to thrive on their own merits.
So I held that space for her.
And over the course of a year, Gini finally came back to me. Not all at once; an “I think I can do this party” here, a genuine interest in seeing that movie there. She started to tell her own jokes, that warm smile creeping back to replace the stunned expression on her face.
And when she returned, she found the space I’d held in my heart ready and warmed for her. It hadn’t been easy keeping it free of entanglements. I’d had to stand alone in the center of that space sometimes, wishing for company, longing for the wife I wanted her to be – the wife that she herself wanted to be again, but could not.
And I thought of what a younger, dumber me would have done. I would have short-circuited at the idea of purposely enduring some discomfort while my partner handled some necessary issues, and I would have run out and found something to fill that emptiness, and I would have been absolutely, furiously puzzled when my partner eventually returned to find that the space that had once been devoted entirely to our relationship was now entangled with other commitments that I clung to with a new and frenetic love, and now that she was back it was not with relief but with a regret that I had to set down these freshly-found joys to have to make space for this old one.
And when she returned, still tentative and uncertain from her journey, would she have really wanted to argue with me about hey, I’m doing this now, you have to make room for this new thing I did while you were away. Would she be happy to come back from a long and difficult struggle, only to find a newer struggle of trying to figure out where she fit into a life that closed over like a scab when she left for a while?
Which isn’t to justify neglectful abuse, of course. Some partners are so dismissive of your needs that honestly, refusing to let them take up space they don’t even value is simple common sense.
But sometimes, your lovers will go through difficult times that are no fault of their own; they want to be in that space, but depression or grief or poverty mean they can’t be with you in the way they so deeply long to. They’ll get back, eventually, but for now they can’t be there for you in the way they want to.
And this is a problem in monogamy, too – but especially in polyamory, all too often the answer to “I feel distant and lonely” is to go chase a new shiny. To find someone, anyone, to fill up the temporarily-vacated spaces in your heart.
Which sounds good – but when your lovers have fought to come back to you, they find not a set of welcoming arms but the ugly paperwork for an eviction process.
Gini came back to me. You never recover from the death of someone you love; you just find ways to reroute around the damage. And Gini did her damndest to reroute and rework and renew until she could step into the space we’d carved for each other in our lives in the way we wanted to.
There was nothing there but me.
Thank God there was nothing there but me.
Hey, my first novel Flex was published two years ago today! (But it’s not my last novel, thankfully – don’t forget my immortality cyberpunk thriller The Uploaded, due out this September.) And as a celebration and thanks, I figured I’d give you the songs that helped inspire the ‘Mancer series.
Because every book I write usually has a couple of core songs I listen to on repeat. They’re what convey the mood to me – sometimes it’s the lyrics, sometimes it’s the instrumentals. When I’m stuck on the eternal novel question of “What happens next?” I’ll listen to those songs over and over again until they lead me back to the central themes of the novel.
Or, as it happens from my poor wife’s perspective, “Are you still playing that goddamned song?”
Now, the central song of Flex was so obvious, I wanted to use the lyrics as part of the book. But here’s an interesting bit of trivia for you: getting permission to use song lyrics in a book these days takes months of paperwork and can cost you $5,000 to use a popular lyric. (I was severely misled by Stephen King’s novel Christine, which was written in the 1980s and uses lyrics at the beginning of every chapter. I doubt even he could afford that now.)
So instead, I used the lyrics of this song as section titles in Flex, which I’m told is perfectly fine. References are cool, wholesale quotes are not. The music industry is weird. But I mean, if we’re discussing the life of Paul Tsabo, the bureaucracy-based magician who longed for magic, isn’t this perfect?
Watch out, you might get what you’re after
Cool babies, strange but not a stranger
I’m an ordinary guy
Burning down the house
(The live version from Stop Making Sense, of course. I’m not a savage.)
However, Paul’s most essential nature comes from, weirdly enough, an Epic Rap Battle. Because readers of the book will know that one of Paul’s weirder powers is that when the universe starts to fragment thanks to overusage of magic, his stubbornly bureaucratic insistence that the world must make sense helps stitch it back together. And whenever he did that, weirdly, I took inspiration from Weird Al rapping as Sir Isaac Newton.
Because if you listen to this, when he bellows “First Law!” and that bass note drops in, to me, that is Paul, outraged, reminding the universe that there are laws and physics damned well better follow them.
Now, as to Valentine, everyone’s favorite videogame-slinging, sex-crazed girl gamer, she’s got her own theme song. I was looking for a song with swagger, and I stumbled upon this in my iTunes library – if you listen to Sirah rapping through her segment, to my mind that voice is Valentine’s.
(Though thanks to electronic filtering, I didn’t register that the voice said “Big white girl, don’t let her bite your dick off.” Valentine wouldn’t do that; she’s far more likely to jam one of her collection of dicks up your ass. She loves that.)
Interestingly, Skrillex (of all bands!) is rooted deeply in the ‘Mancer series, because when I was looking for a song that summed up the franticness of a drug deal gone wrong because Aliyah was fucking up everything. And the song that rooted The Flux down was Bangarang, a song whose lyrics make zero sense but whose intensity really mirrored how the family was flying apart at the beginning of the book:
Now, if you want proof that I don’t always listen to lyrics, for the third book in the series Fix, I wanted a song that summed up the appeal of the zombified Unimancers – the military brainwashing that was harsh and yet somehow appealing. And… well, I don’t listen to lyrics.
So the feel of the song that drives Aliyah deeper into Unimancy is dark, mysterious, and alien. To me, it’s an ominous terror. But alas, the lyrics of Timbaland’s “Bounce” involve the classic line, “Bounce like yo’ ass had the hiccups,” which in retrospect is a little embarrassing.
Still. I listened to this song on endless repeat when writing Fix, so here it is.
And lastly, a bit of a sneak preview: the song that roots my upcoming novel The Uploaded needed to be about rage and betrayal – because in a post-singularity world where digitally uploaded humans are immortal and the living are considered quaint slave labor, useless until they’ve transitioned into their electronic death, I needed a song that carried the seeds of a sweaty, breathing rebellion.
So for The Uploaded, there was no other song except for Rise Against’s Re-Education (Through Labor).
So as someone with a few published novels under his belt, I get asked all the time: “How do I become a professional writer?” As in, “How do I make writing my full-time job?”
The most surprising component to that is this:
Make sure Obamacare doesn’t get repealed.
Seriously. Being a full-time writer, at least on the lower levels, is being eternally on the hustle: working your Patreon, mixing up self-publishing and traditional publishing to see which earns you more income, waiting those dry months between paychecks because publishers pay you when they damn well feel like it and acceptances can take forever.
It’s a tenuous existence at best for most writers. For every Neil Gaiman millionaire, there’s a hundred “pro” writers scraping by on a $400-a-month Patreon and sporadic book advances. The life of a creator is hard.
And if they go to the hospital even once without insurance, well, that’s usually enough to tip them out of this writing career business. They literally can’t afford to write, because even trivial health issues cost them thousands of bucks they don’t have.
So they get day jobs for the steadier income. Or they get day jobs because the insurance they can afford on their individual writer’s income is way too expensive.
Obamacare, for all its manifest flaws, let artists flourish. America’s supposed to value the small businessman, and allowing an artist to go out and start their own jewelry company, or their publishing company, or their recording business is the height of the values Republicans usually claim to espouse.
Every artist who goes full time is an entrepreneur taking a risk.
And without affordable health care, without the BS of being barred for preexisting conditions, or being asked to pay out of some nebulous savings account that won’t cover your first major surgery?
Your chances of being a full-time author are only as good as your health. And your health is always a crapshoot. You can work out all day and still get hit by a car.
Maybe you can make it if you’ve got a partner who’s willing to cover for you. Yet even that risks putting you into an abusive relationship where some jerk of a lover can mistreat you because they know you need the health care. (That’s not theoretical, by the way. I’ve seen that happen. Multiple times.)
So if you want to be a full-time writer, the usual caveats apply: write a lot, because you need to learn your craft and you can’t do that by writing once a month when you’re inspired. Get good feedback from honest people who like the kind of stuff you’re trying to write. Submit everywhere, and dance that tricky flamenco of “changing your work in response to good criticism” without “selling out the things you love about yourself.”
But honestly? If your dream is to be a full-time writer, call your Congressmen and tell them you want a health care program that protects all preexisting conditions, that isn’t a savings account, that doesn’t have lifetime payout limits. I’ve written up how to do that here, and it takes about ten minutes out of your day.
And if you don’t want to be a full-time writer, but you enjoy all that great writing and indie music and Etsy art, contemplate also making the call. A lot more artists than you’d think depend on Obamacare to keep producing that work you love, and if that gets repealed they’re going to have to quit this to get a day job.
Obamacare protects a lot more small business people than anyone wants to admit. We just don’t talk about that because we don’t think of artists as business people – but they are. They’re hustlers. They’re working to survive.
Help ’em out by making a call or two.
So there’s a fairly repellent article on the plastic surgeon who’s created what he calls “the perfect vagina.” It is, according to the article, “pink, plump and hairless.”
And I’m like, “What the fuck WHO GETS TO DECIDE WHAT THE PERFECT VAGINA LOOKS LIKE AND WHY IS IT A GUY.”
Honestly, whenever I’ve written about my unfounded insecurities about my dick (link goes to a FetLife essay), women write in to say that most of them don’t care much about the size of the dick as long as it works. This despite the fact that porn of all stripes would tell you that every guy’s packing 7.5″ regular and everyone really wants to have a 12″ cock. And speaking as a guy who’s heard his share of locker room talk, I don’t recall a man having a firm (heh) preference on vagina visuals; generally, we’re just happy to be there.
It’s weird, because to me this is the downside of porn; once you start seeing lots of vaginas, you start ranking them in ways you wouldn’t if they were presented to you by people you loved, or at least hopefully liked. I don’t think anyone really starts out looking at porn and goes, “That pussy’s a 3 out of 10. TRY AGAIN, PORN STARLET.”
No, what happens is a slight preference over hundreds of vaginas; “That’s a little nicer, I guess. I might do with less hair, if you asked.” And those tiny shrugs add up into porn stars slowly converging towards some rude mean, and then over time – compare presentations of pussy in the 1970s to those in the 2000s – people come to expect that this is what a pussy should look like, and then suddenly outliers look weird.
What gets slowly nudged to the front is this denuded white-girl ideal, a mild predilection amplified by an abundance of poon and a market desperately eager to gather dollars. And that pussy, largely, doesn’t exist except for when it’s created, usually by painful Brazilian waxing techniques.
But like dicks or female bodies or male bodies, people have their own preferences – ones they don’t talk about, because a) objectivization is always weird, and b) they’ve been trained to think that their own preferences are somehow bizarre when really, if you did a survey, you’d find that people liked all sorts of female bodies, not just the skinny-model types.
They just don’t discuss it because, well, the skinny-model types are the ones you’re societally-authorized to drool over. Going, “Melissa McCarthy is so hot” gets people going, “Hey, man, she’s a comedienne, is it really cool to uncork such volcanic lust on her?”
So there’s this weird reverberation wherein people are authorized to like a specific form of body, and because they speak out that’s the body type people become conditioned to like (even if that conditioning doesn’t necessarily take), and all of society seems to desire this thing and this thing only when really it’s a mild majority preference by a lot of people who’d also be equally (if not more) happy with something else.
And so we’ve converged on this so-called “perfect” pussy – so much so that women feel the urge to spend tens of thousands of dollars to get professionals to cut them into a different configuration.
Which I can’t shame them for. I have severe depression, and sometimes you need to take shortcuts – you can all but kill yourself fighting this thing you know to be untrue, or sometimes you just say “Yeah” and take the path of least resistance. If the surgery makes them happier in the end, then I can’t blame them as long as they don’t start pussy-shaming other people.
(Nor can I blame the folks who get surgery for practical reasons – hey, yeah, if your lips stick out enough that it’s painful to ride a bike, sure. So really, I can’t blame anyone.)
But I think the whole syndrome is a shame that society is quietly shaping what a pussy “should” look like. Like I said, I don’t think most guys really have hard-core preferences on the matter, and those who do generally are the people who’ve had their mindset sculpted by porn to an uncomfortable degree.
What people like in porn and in movies is generally different from what people like when they’re dealing with, well, people. And thank God. Because those preferences are some idealized convergence created by abundance, reinforced by familiarity, and I hope none of us are as narrow as what the media would want us to desire.
Sure. I have nights where my girlfriend’s out on a date with a new guy, and he’s fantastic in bed (as all new guys must be, in my mind), and she’s going to leave me because the only thing I have to offer is the ability to provide orgasms and he’s clearly better at that (as all new guys must be)….
And those are sucky nights. I text my friends, plan movie marathons, brace myself for a breakup.
But you know what?
I got insecure in monogamous relationships, too.
She’d smile at a guy who she was “just good friends” with and I’d go, are they really only good friends? Can I trust this dude? They seem close. What’s going on here?
She’d hit it off with a girl at a party and I’d go, Are those romantic sparks? That girl just touched her arm, should I be jumping in to head this off? Or will I look like a possessive jerk?
She’d go out for a night with her friends and I’d wonder, She’s probably just seeing a movie, but… what happens if she meets someone new? Or what if she’s cheating on me?
And here’s the thing: that wasn’t just me. I had insecure girlfriends as well who hated the way I flirted (even though I was, and am, never sure what things I do that make me flirty), and they’d interrogate all my female friends, and they’d get anxious after I went out for a night on the town.
And in a lot of those cases, the fix was simple:
Tired of fighting? Well, don’t hang out with people you find attractive, and I’ll feel better.
Maybe we should do everything together. You know, drop the boy’s/girl’s nights out. Just make sure I can always tag along, not quite a bodyguard, but… see? Isn’t this fun?
Oh, you liked that person at the office get-together? I dunno. I got a bad vibe off of them. Yeah, I’m not saying you shouldn’t hang out with them, I’m just going to reiterate my concerns every time you discuss them until you get the hint.
A lot of those monogamous relationships died on the vine because, well, we quietly pruned off any insecurity-making activities until all we had left was each other. And strangely, a lot of what we liked about each other was the stuff that came out when we were out with other people.
Monogamous people talk about monogamy as though it’s the cure-all to insecurity (just as polyamorous people talk about polyamory as though it’s the cure-all to cheating, with equally incorrect results). They tell you they couldn’t take the insecurity of dealing with multiple partners, when the truth is I’ve seen too many monogamous people (including me!) who couldn’t take the insecurity of dealing with a single partner.
I’ve seen monogamous people get insecure because their partner is paying too much attention to their child, and frankly, the fact that you can love your children enough to have more than one is one of those diehard, unspoken assumptions in the communities that shit on polyamory.
Monogamy does not get rid of your insecurity. It just makes it easier to quietly cut away all the things that bother you.
I’m not saying that monogamy is inferior to polyamory, mind you. Polyamory has its own myriad and well-defined dysfunctions. Yet this quiet repetition that “I couldn’t handle the insecurity!” often fails to note that the insecurity is not something caused by polyamory, it’s something you bring with you into a relationship.
Any relationship can trigger insecurity. It’s how you deal with that insecurity that defines your relationship, polyamorous or monogamous.
And in the end, you have a stark choice: you can work to get your partner to stop doing all those things that make you insecure in the hopes that you’ll survive the culling of all the things they love that you don’t. Or you can work to discover whether your partner is genuinely trustworthy (because some aren’t), and figure out which portions of your insecurity are dark reflections of your own self-worth, and which portions are the canary fluttering weakly in the coal mine.
Polyamory, by its structure, makes it more difficult to get your partner to stop doing things that make you insecure. But people still manage to do that. And what I’ve discovered is that even though facing down my insecurity is fucking terrifying at times, what I’ve gotten by surmounting it is stronger, healthier relationships where my partner can walk away, have fun, and come back without being punished for having that fun.
My wife and I learned that back when we were monogamous.
It’s especially true now that we’re polyamorous.
Last night, I wrote, “Tonight’s the sort of night I wind up writing messy emails to my crushes if I’m not careful. (The nights you’re most tempted are, in my experience, the nights you should definitely call no-gos.)”
Yet people asked, “Why shouldn’t you email your crushes, Ferrett?”
There’s a couple of reasons for that, most of which are specific to me:
First off, it’s a bad move for me to chase after a crush as a specifically selfish move. Generally, the only reason I think you should reveal a crush is if there’s something potentially in it for them – as in, “Hey, I like you, I think there’s a good chance you like me, let’s see if there’s any potential for something interesting happening.”
(Even if that “something interesting” is as minimal as “occasional chats and sexting, with no hope of ever meeting in real life.”)
But where I am right now is not a fertile bed for anything happening. I’m polysaturated with partners, so a crush wouldn’t lead to anything date-like. And my health issues have left me as a moody, irregular hot mess – I’m not even necessarily texting the friends I have, let alone reaching out for new ones, so even if I went with my usual offer of “occasional chats and sexting,” well, I’m not even up to that consistent enough to call it “occasional.”
So for me to contact a crush would be to say, “Hi, I like you, this would be more of an inconvenience for you if it was reciprocated.” Which is not a nice thing to do to someone I like.
(How many crushes do I have? Oh God. Hundreds. I am a crush-making machine. If I were to follow up on every one of them, I would die.)
And second, not only am I in a bad place to accept a crush, but I’m also in a bad headspace to be reaching out. I have a bad habit of forging new connections when I feel unloved or unattractive – hey, are you feeling like a fat invalid, Ferrett? Let’s ignite a couple of new relationships!
Honestly, what I should have done in a better headspace would be to reach out to old crushes (or current partners) and reconnect. But in the depression I was mired in last night, everyone’s absence was proof that nobody wanted me, and I had an irrational fear that I’d text them with “Hey, sweetie, how’s it going?” and hear nothing back because shit, I didn’t want to talk to me, why would they?
(I could reach out to them and say, “I’m feeling lonely tonight,” but alas, that would involve me not being sick of the sound of my own depressive struggles, which depending on the night I totally can be.)
So new crushes for me, when I’m in that funk, are a bad idea. (Also see: I try not to turn my crushes into something that’s exclusively good for me.)
And lastly, there’s the eternal issue of that informing someone about your crush is an obligation. A mild obligation, yes, but if I’ve misread the signals and they’re not into me, I’ve just given them a burden, not a joy.
If I like you enough to crush on you, my goal is to give joy.
So last night I stayed silent. I’m not opposed to crushes, aside from the fact that I am haloed in them, but I have my own wisdom on how to act. I have wonderful partners, and wonderful friends, and wonderful crushes who occasionally send me texts out of nowhere to tell me how they’re doing.
And if I was in a position to respond to the people who know me already, I’d probably have said, “Sure, maybe emailing someone I think is vivaciously gorgeous to tell them how much I admire them.” But I wasn’t, so I didn’t, and I have zero regrets about that. Especially now that the morning has arrived, and things seem brighter.
Still. Last night would have been vastly improved if one of my secret crushes had texted me to unveil their neverending attraction to me. But how often does that happen? And how often do you know the perfect moment to reveal that crush?
You don’t. So I usually don’t.
For me, it’s the smart move.