The Economics Of Fear, Or: They Told Me I Was Smart.

(This is an essay I wrote way back in 2009, back when I’d just started changing my fear distribution. Since then, I’ve published four books and I’m contracted to write two more – and though I’ve not been a bestselling success yet, I’m definitely much further on from where I am when I started back when I was more concerned about being smart.

(I’m reposting this ancient essay because a couple of my friends have stumbled across it and found it useful. I still think it’s one of the more significant essays I’ve ever written… But you can decide that for yourself.)

Scientific studies have shown that you can destroy a child by calling them “smart.” Even when they’re very young, little kids know that being “smart” is what makes them special – and so, the first time they encounter something they don’t understand immediately, it’s a threat. Their specialness is in danger of being stripped away. And if they lose that smartness, then what are they?

Kids who are called smart take fewer chances. Why risk all that glorious social acclaim for a stupid test? And if you don’t really try, then you can still be smart – you may have potential, but even a six-year-old knows that having the potential to be smart gives you more benefits than finding out that no, you’re not really smart at all.

Far better to tell a kid that they’re hard working. Hard work is something you can’t take away. Hard work is something that can always be improved. Smart can just… vanish.

I was told I was very smart.

Like many others who grew up in the Generation Of Unfettered Self-Esteem, I reacted by sandbagging my efforts. I wrote stories, but sporadically. And when I sent them out, it was to friends who’d tell me how great it was. And on the rare occasions I sent them out to actual paying markets, one or two rejections sent them right back into the drawer.

As long as they were in the drawer, they could be good. And I could be a good writer. If I worked at it. Which I wasn’t, but that potential gave me all the glory of feeling like I might be a great writer some day without all of that icky negative feedback. Sure, I had this constant underlying fear that maybe I wasn’t good enough – but I had a moderately popular journal, some folks who liked me, and wasn’t that enough?

Recently, however, I’ve started going for it. I’ve been sending out stories almost constantly, and yet I haven’t had a pro sale in a year. Eighty rejections sit on my desk, each one proof that the stories I’m writing aren’t good enough yet. And I’m writing every day, really stretching myself – and recognizing that in the end, I may write my ass off and still not be good enough. Effort doesn’t always equal success. I may push myself to my limit and discover that limit’s still well underneath where “pro writer” needs to be. Failure, as Adam from Mythbusters is so fond of saying, is always an option.

So why did I change? A friend of mine, who was also crippled by smartness, called me “brave” – but I’m not brave.

It’s just simple economics, is all.

What I realized was that I was living in constant fear. No matter what I did, no matter what success I had, I knew that I was failing. And when I did some calculations, I realized that every day I woke up and felt like I wasn’t doing well enough. And what would happen one day, when I was seventy, it would be too late to actually succeed and I’ve have to realize that I had squandered my life on fear and paralysis.

In that sense, “not really going for it” was like paying the interest on my credit card. It got me by, it was easy, it let me buy other things – but eventually, that bill would still be due and I’d be no further along.

These days, I really am putting myself on the line. And not only do I have the potential payoff that I might achieve what I want, but that underlying fear has transformed. It hasn’t vanished – no, that constant gentle sucking has been replaced by brain-melting spasms of terror. Whenever I get a rejection letter for a story I had hopes for, that panic of OMG WHAT hits me like a freight train, and Gini has to calm me down.

The rest of the time, though, it’s just not there. I’ve exchanged one constant, low-grade fear that never went away for spikes of anguish. The overall fear amount is about the same, but the spikes have one critical difference: I might, actually, turn out to be something.

What it comes down to is economics. I can have a constant, low level of fear with no payoff at the end, or I can have panic attacks and no fear elsewhere, with the additional potential of seeing whether I have the talent I think I might.

You’re going to live in fear, smarty. The question is, which fear?

So I’m going to find out. Either I’ll fail magnificently at fiction, or I’ll get to seventy and fail by default. I’m forty now, which makes my own choice easier; I only have so many years before that clock runs out. Every morning when I wake up, the danger is not that I’ll find out, but that I’ll run out of time to find out. Twenty years have already been devoured by my own insecurities. Do I want the rest of my life to be swallowed up by that?

What I’m doing is, perhaps for the first time in my life, making an informed choice about the matter. I’m still scared shitless every goddamned day. I’m still breaking down whenever I get stonewalled on a story I loved that hits the reject-o-skids.

But I think every writer – hell, every artist – will, eventually, come to a long and dry desert where there is no positive feedback, no hope of success, no way of finding that magic button that turns on the talent within you. It may last for years. And most artists don’t talk about that empty space, because there’s no way of conveying it because all anyone ever sees is the glorious, envious end product. During that time you’re Jesus, wandering in the desert, trying to find yourself and not finding a damn person in the world who’ll tell you you’re good.

You’re not smart. You’re hard working. That’s all you have.

Lessons Learned From Personal Training: The Zangief Principle.

So we were at our personal training session the other day when Zangief walked in.

If you’ve ever played Street Fighter, you know Zangief: he’s the big, burly Russian dude. This local had a bit more of a hipster vibe about him, and was certainly friendlier, but he had that bodybuilder look about him: the arms so filled with steely muscles that his veins bulged out, the shoulders-in hunch of the guy who lifts a lot.

I immediately felt outclassed. We’ve got some beefy guys attending our tiny gym, but they’re mostly ordinary guys who look really good in a T-shirt. It’s like, “Okay, I’d have to go full-time workout to get that physique,” and I worried he’d judge me, the flabby middle-aged dude who’s a lot better but is still not, what you’d say, “in shape.”

(He didn’t judge me, of course. Everyone at our gym is super-nice and considerate, and though I’ve never seen anyone being mean, I think the trainers would yell at ’em if they weren’t. That’s pretty much my own neuroses coming to the fore here.)

Yet all those fears evaporated when my trainer had me lie down on the ground and start doing reaching exercises designed to bulk up the muscles between my shoulderblades. It’s what I call a “dangerous nothing” exercise – she demonstrates it, I go, “That looks like nothing!” and then I do it.

Reader, the nothing exercises are never nothing.

But they don’t look impressive – and in front of this burly weightlifter, I kind of wanted to be yanking heavy iron, not lying down on my belly and stretching in circles.

He chuckled good-naturedly. “God, I hate those,” he said.

I laughed. Told him how I feared Rachel’s three-pound weights more than her fifty-pound dumbbells because she homes in on your weakest muscles.

“Don’t I know it,” he said.

And as I watched, Rachel handed him three-pound dumbbells. She had him do the exercises that she literally gave me on my first week – and he was struggling. Struggling with that immense willpower that every bodybuilder has, but I realized:

The muscles between his shoulderblades, because he hadn’t worked out there, weren’t much better than mine. Which Rachel confirmed later – it was a chronic problem among bodybuilders because their muscles tend to pull their traps out of place, and they’re so strong in other areas that their body compensates and the shoulderblade muscles atrophy.

(Much like my overbearing quads had completely nullified any activity my glutes had to do. I know the names of these muscles now. I did not before Rachel.)

And I realized two things at the gym that day:

1) It’s hard. It’s always hard. Watching this muscled guy grunting as he lifted those small weights was proof that there’s nobody who’s gifted with fitness. Everyone starts from zero. And moving the needle from zero is always hard.

Hell, moving the needle is hard period.

2) We’re all in this together. Maybe that’s not true at other gyms, but it is at ours. They run a good shop, and I feel good about being there.

Zangief and me, man. We’re two points on the same curve. I don’t think I’ll ever get to his physique.

But we both sweat to get where we are, wherever that is. And so we both cheer for each other.

That’s good stuff.

Beta Readers Needed For My Poly Narnia Book!

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that last Tuesday, I finished the first draft of my latest novel: a bisexual, polyamorous portal fantasy that’s basically, Narnia with the serial numbers scuffed up.  (I celebrated by buying Horizon: Zero Dawn, which turns out to be a great reward.)

Now I’m looking for about ten to twelve people to beta-read for me and give me feedback in the next six weeks.

(Why ten to twelve?  Because I’d like about eight people, and generally I find that you hit about 60% on getting beta readers to get back to you in time.  And six weeks is a tight deadline, man.)

I am specifically looking for three types of people to beta read this time around:

  • LGBTQ people, as this story deals heavily with LGBTQ issues and I’m a cis-mostly-straight-white-dude who’s concerned about tone here.
  • Completely vanilla, non-polyamorous readers, because I’m curious to know how someone who’s not polyamorous reacts to three characters who are fully polyamorous but also human with emotions.  (For poly people: trying not to collapse a V relationship into a romantic triangle is hard, yo.)
  • Romance fans, because I’m preeeeeeeetty sure I’ve written a romance here and yet know nothing about the genre, so I’d like to know how this appeals to romance folks.

What am I not looking for?  Well, telling me “I’m really good at proofreading” pretty much excludes you from a lot of writers’ beta circles, including mine.  I’m going to take out 15% of the words and read everything aloud to check the flow of the prose before I’m done – and assuming I sell it to a publisher, we’ll have professional copyeditors and proofreaders sniffing this sucker like a bloodhound.  So I need no copyeditors at this stage.

No, what I want are the sorts of people who can tell me four separate things cogently:

•         The things that confuse you (“Why would $character do that?” or “Why did this magic not work this way?”)
•         The things that throw you out of the story (“$character wouldn’t do THAT!” or “Factually, that’s so wrong!”)
•         The things that give you ass-creep (“I got bored here”)
•         All the things that make you pump the fist (“This moment was truly awesome, and unless I tell you how awesome it is, you might cut this part out in edits”)

So if you think you can do all that in six weeks (or, preferably, way less), do me a favor and email me at with the header “FERRETT, I WOULD LIKE TO BETA-READ YOUR NARNIA.”  (People who cannot follow these simple instructions will probably not be entrusted with the novel.)

What does beta-reading get you?  Well, it comes with the great reward of being name-checked in the acknowledgements, if this eventually sells, and the arguable reward of knowingly going “Oh, God, I read it, that was crap” if it doesn’t sell.  I will most likely get filled up on people, but if I do, I’ll put you on the list for the next revision, if there is one, which there will probably be.

Buy My Book “The Uploaded” For Two Bucks Today!

If you may recall, my novel The Uploaded is about what happens four hundred years after the singularity, where we perfect brain uploading – and living has become distinctly uncool.  And it’s now on sale for a measly two bucks.

Now, maybe you’re not looking for a book featuring a genetically engineered superpony, or tales of a digital heaven that’s run like the best World of Warcraft game you ever played, or discussions of the philosophy of consciousness, or just wild adventures through a world where living physically has become a drawback, but come on!  It’s two bucks.  Less than the cost of your Starbucks coffee, and it’ll last you longer.  And if you do like cyberpunk action books, well, it’s even a better bargain.

Plus, you get to look at the Uploaded’s awesome cover on your electronic reading device of choice, and ponder how you have chosen a digital item over a physical one, and have you already taken your first step into the world of The Uploaded?

(Hint: You’re reading this online.  Oh yes you have.)

Anyway, The Uploaded is on sale at Bookbub, which has links to all the places it’s on sale – which is currently Amazon, B&N, Apple, Google, and Kobo.

So go get you some!  Or don’t.  But if you don’t, I literally don’t know how long this sale lasts because I am scatterbrained.  So go soon, or live with eternal regret!

Mind The Age Gap In Dating: One Older Guy’s Perspective On Doing The Math

When I was eighteen, I was sure I’d know when I was forty. Some switch would click on in my head and I’d feel old, some perception of my status as a forty-year-old-man saturating my everyday experience. I’d wake up with a little internal time clock going You’re forty now, you know that, get up.

In reality, my perception of my age is a surprisingly erratic experience.

Because when I was twenty, my memories of myself ten years ago were foggy, and strange; everyone spoke to me in an entirely different way, and I understood so little of the world that my memories of me as a ten-year-old kid were clearly timestamped. And if that wasn’t enough, every year I was placed into a new environment with new teachers and new classes that was also timestamped – third grade, fifth grade, seventh grade.

Every year my world was reset, so I could clearly say: There I was ten. There I was thirteen.

Why wouldn’t my future memories be that clearly regimented?

And so I thought when I was forty, every memory I had would be striated: I would remember my twenty-seventy birthday with the dull, smeared comprehension of an event that took place thirteen years ago, my every recollection placing me firmly in a timeline that centered me at forty now, as it did when I was twenty.

Here’s the secret, though:

Past a certain point, all your memories become equally vivid.

Both my wife and I have become unstuck in time, because we’ve been married for eighteen years and we’ll recall something that happened last year, except it wasn’t last year, we’ll do math and realize that it was fifteen years ago and oh shit mentally that feels like yesterday. I’ll be talking about my old job at Borders Books and Music, which closed down in 2008 and I haven’t worked there since 1998 and how the fuck was that twenty years ago when I recall it like the trip to Italy I took in 2015?

I don’t feel younger in those memories. I still feel like me – partially because I never feel like I’ve quite mastered being a grownup. I thought at some point I’d graduate from “fumbling teen” to “mature, educated adult,” wherein the knowledge of things like “how to file an insurance claim” would be downloaded directly into my brain and I would know all things.

But here I am, older, and I know nothing about insurance claims. If my house burned down, you know what I’d do?

I’d fake it.

That’s all being a grownup is.

So yes, there are days where I have a twinge in my knee and feel old, but most days my internal clock is set to around my mid-twenties, when I got out of college and entered the free-form world of jobs. I talk to my wife and my other forties friends and we all could swear we’re sorta-twenties most days until we do the math and realize that whoah, it’s been decades since then and how did that happen?

Which brings me, very roundabout, to my point.

Galia Godel has an excellent, nuanced post called It’s Time to Talk About Age Gaps – and they make some excellent points in how the dynamics of older men with younger women often don’t benefit the younger women in the long run.

But I think there’s a subtle pressure they missed, because it’s a concept that only an older person can get viscerally.

Because I was literally sitting around with friends the other day, and we were discussing dating, and they were looking at OKCupid for new partners and mentally checked the “30s and up” range for acceptable dating rounds.

Except we did math. Because we thought people in their early thirties were our age.

We’re in our late forties, creeping into fifty. There’s almost a twenty-year difference between us and people in their early thirties.

But we had to stop and do the math to make that happen, because we fucking forgot. Internally, that seems unreal to us because it took fucking forever for us to get to thirty, and here we are in our fifties, and it doesn’t seem that long ago.

(Or, in the case of my wife – because I married a woman eleven years older than I am – someone who’s turning sixty this year.)

And we are baffled because what the fuck, when did that age gap creep in?

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are people who have had their lives clearly demarcated by life, particularly people who got out of school and then promptly had children so their entire lives have been marked by one grade or another. And there are definitely dudes who feel the specter of gray coming on, and decide to find a younger woman to convince them that they’re not old.

And oh my God are there are dudes who seek out younger partners who are inexperienced in order to take advantage of them. That’s endemic (and not confined to age, because there’s fortysomething novices coming into the scene who have also been manipulated).

There are definitely people who feel that distance, and seek it out for various reasons, most of which can be negative.

But for me, and for a lot of my older friends, sometimes we’ll be at a convention and we’ll be flirting and we’ll just connect with someone. And we won’t realize there is a significant age gap because this person and I are getting each other’s jokes and there’s a pretty person touching our arm and internally, we’re not looking at a grizzled dude with a salt-and-pepper mustache, we’re looking at someone we find attractive.

(Just as my wife and I – again, eleven years separated – don’t feel that distance until we do the math.)

And it all feels very natural to us because internally, we don’t feel that this is An Almost Fifty-Year-Old Guy flirting with Someone Who Is Under Half His Age, but two people connecting in a natural and organic way.



It’s your job to do the math, man.

Because just because you’re not aware of the dynamics doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and Galia (whose piece you really should read) outlines the reasons why an older man in particular can often be appealing to someone who’s younger. You’re often benefiting from things that only life experience can give you, but that also means you can transparently, and accidentally, give people the wrong impression about what you can deliver.

If you’re a caring and considerate person, it’s your job to do the math. To be aware of those invisible dynamics, and to think about what sorts of harm those dynamics might do to someone.

This isn’t to say that you don’t flirt, of course, or that you never have a relationship with someone younger. As both I and Galia have stressed, it’s not automatically bad to have an age gap. Some of those dynamics work out fine.

(In part because age does not equal experience; there’s some fifty-five year old “mistresses” who have been making the same mistake for forty years, and some twenty-three year old submissives whose instincts make them inherently smarter than I am. As mentioned, the primary skill of “being a grownup” involves “faking it when you don’t know better,” and some so-called “grownups” never mastered the relevant skills. So anyone who says that a fifty-year-old man automatically knows more than a twenty-five-year-old man has consistently met all the wrong men.)

But I like to think that these dynamics work because the people went into it thoughtfully, and pondered on some level how to counteract the negative influences that can result, and not to just LEEEEROY JENKINS charge their way into every cute thing that crosses their path.

Because if they are attracted to you in part because you’re the more experienced one, then be the more experienced one. Be responsible. Be considerate. Be knowledgeable about what taking this flirtation to the next level might mean in the long run.

You may not feel that age gap internally, not consistently. But you don’t consistently notice gravity, either, until you trip and fall.

Try not to let anyone fall through that gap, is all I’m saying here.

You Helped Me Raise $750 For Children’s Cancer. Now Will You Help Rebecca’s Brother?

I don’t talk much about my godson Josh, because, well, he’s a kid. He deserves to tell his own story, and doesn’t need his crazy Uncle Ferrett spewing tales of his adventures out to the Internet. (As I’ve discovered to my dismay, my one-off essays can follow people around for a long time if I name them.)

But Josh is pretty typical for his age. He loves Pokemon, and lightsaber battles, and he paints his nails bright colors in part because his Uncle Ferrett has pretty pretty princess nails so that’s normal to him.

Where he’s not usual is his sister. She died of brain cancer. All he has is memories of his older sister Rebecca.

He instituted little rituals to keep her alive – saying goodnight to her, keeping some of her things in his bedroom. But he doesn’t have Rebecca any more, and I often wonder what he’ll remember of her when he’s a teenager.

He was young when it all happened, so young, and the trauma of living through a family that has to focus its efforts on a sick sister is difficult at best. The toll cancer takes is not just on the child and the parents, but often on the other children – who have their life revolve around their sibling as the family takes on the rhythm of medical care, who struggle to understand the seriousness of death, who can’t fathom why their older sister can’t play with them any more.

Now. As you may remember, I set out to raise $750 to fight children’s cancer, and thanks to all of you – thanks so much – I got there, and a little beyond.

Josh was hoping to raise $500 in his sister’s memory. As of now, it looks like he’s not going to get there.

And so, once again, I ask if you have the spare cash, please donate to Josh. He’ll be shaving his head in Rebecca’s memory, as he’s done for the past three years, as I hope he does for a long time. He’s a good kid. I won’t write about him much, because, well, with luck, he’s going to write about himself some day.

I wish Rebecca had gotten that chance.

So please. If you can. Donate.

My Daughter Has Many Wounds: Fireplay Classes In Norway

So I had flown all the way to Norway to teach the art of fireplay, and I had nothing to set on fire.

Oh, I had bodies waiting for the flame; fortunately, my wife (my favorite fire bottom) had come with me. And I had wands, and fire blankets, and fire cups.

What I did not have was fuel. The TSA wouldn’t let me bring that much fluid on the plane with me. And considering a major portion of my presentation revolves around “Don’t use any other fuel but isopropyl alcohol because the others are unsafe,” that posed a major challenge in teaching.

Fortunately, I’d just pop down to the local Norwegian pharmacy and get myself some rubbing alcohol.

…I thought.

So I found myself a chemist and asked for rubbing alcohol.

“…rubbing… alcohol?” they asked. Their English was quite good, but the concept was obviously beyond them. Fortunately, my sweetie – famed International Person Of Mystery Fox – had taught me never to rely on brand names for medications when travelling. It might not be called Advil in another country, but you could always ask for ibuprofen.

“Isopropyl alcohol,” I said.

“What do you want it for?”

Okay, yeah, nobody had ever asked me that before. And I didn’t think they’d much care for the answer of “I’m going to set people on fire with it, but it’s safe, mostly.”

“My wife, she, uh, has a wound,” I said instead. “That needs, uh, disinfecting.” Gini helpfully pointed to her elbow, underneath her coat, miming discomfort.

“Ah!” His face brightened. “You want antibacterial cleanser! We don’t have rubbing alcohol here, but we have this.”

He got out a tragically small bottle of disinfectant that said, tragically, NONFLAMMABLE. Plus, it was $6.80 a bottle, as opposed to the .89 cents for a huge bottle of rubbing alcohol.

I bought it anyway, hoping, and made my excuses. Then I sent a panicked email to my Norwegian handler – THERE’S NO RUBBING ALCOHOL IN NORWAY I GOOGLED IT NOBODY CAN FIND IT I CAN’T TEACH THE CLASS.

She replied, “Oh, we have that! You just have to ask behind the counter for it.”

I went to another pharmacy so the first guy wouldn’t recognize me, feeling like a meth addict trying to buy enough NyQuil. This time, I got a woman with considerably worse English.

“Hello,” I said, flashing her the email. “I need isopropyl alcohol. My friend says you keep it behind the counter.”

“What do you need it for?” she asked.

Now. You might think we would have devised a smarter cover story by now – but in my defense, I’m very stupid. And I wasn’t quite clear why every pharmacist in Norway seemed hell-bent on knowing what I needed this for.

“My, uh, daughter,” I stammered. “She has many wounds. That need… cleaning.”

“Ah!” Her face brightened. “You want antibacterial cleanser!” She started to head towards the $6.80 tiny, inflammable bottle.

“No!” I said, nearly reaching out to stop her. “My daughter, uh, she… she doesn’t like that.”

“Why not? Is she allergic?”

“She’s, um, American. She likes her rubbing alcohol. And she, uh…” I stammered, mind fogged by jetlag. “She has many wounds.”

“Many wounds,” she said suspiciously.


“You need a doctor’s note to get the alcohol,” she snapped.

Now. Later on, several very kind Norwegian convention handlers brought me the right kind of fireplay alcohol – so much I gave some away at the end of class. And they all looked perplexed: “We bought this at the chemist’s easily,” they said. “We just told them we needed disinfectant to clean our counters. Why did you have problems?”

I dunno. Maybe it had something to do with the creepy-ass, haggard American who was sleepily babbling on about his mangled daughter who thirsted to bathe in gallons of rubbing alcohol, and decided this sleazy fucker needed a prescription.

Note for next international fireplay class: prepare my excuses in advance.

Thank You For Inconveniencing Me.

I try to help my wife around the house.  But it’s hard, because her default mode is NEVER MIND, I GOT THIS.

I tell her I’ll do the dishes after I clock off-shift at work, only to hear the clink and rattle of dishes because “They were sitting there, I had free time.”  I tell her I’ll put out the trash when I’m done writing and then hear the “floomp” of bags being toted out the door.  I offer to help her in the kitchen while she’s cooking and she sometimes lets me in, gives me a couple of terse orders to do the most menial of tasks, but then a few minutes later she’s like, “Actually, I’ve got this,” which is her nice way of saying “Get out my damn way, son.”

Then she collapses in the evening, wondering why she’s so tired.

I love her, but it shouldn’t be this much of an effort to do the dishes. Especially when I don’t care that much about the dishes – I’ve still got that bachelor mentality that the best way to deal with dirty dishes is to let them marinate in the sink for a week or two.

It’d be really easy for me to settle back and let her do the work that I, largely, don’t care about.  I mean, I like having dinner, so I’d miss that, but the kitchen being messy or the trash waiting outside for another week or two wouldn’t bother me all that much.

Except slowly, surely, over time, she’d drain her batteries doing all the housework, and that’d make her unhappy.

So I spend a lot of my effort chasing after my wife.  Reminding her “Hey, I’m busy right now, but I will get to that.”  Hearing the clink of dishes being put away and racing into the kitchen to thunder “CUT THAT OUT” as she scurries away guiltily.  Remembering that yes, I am tired, but if I don’t take the trash out right now then she’ll do it, so I haul myself out of the couch right after work to get that shit done so she’s got one less task on her plate.

And she still does more housework than I’m comfortable with, honestly.  Part of that’s societal conditioning – she’s raised as female, she’s expected to do the cleaning – part of that was her family dynamic where she had to be the responsible one or nothing got done, and part of that is that she is an endearing butthead and would rather get things done her way (the right way, of course) than cede ground.

Yet over the years, there’s been a tentative trust built up.  Because she does get tired.  And she has, on some level, come to realize that she needs help sometimes, which is hard for her to admit because she copes with problems by remembering that she’s a Strong Woman – she handles stuff, she fixes things, she needs no help at all.

So if I forget and leave a mess somewhere, she’ll ask, sometimes, in a vulnerable voice, “Hey, would you mind doing these dishes now?”

And again: I do not want to do the dishes, because in my mind we should let them pile up until we have no choice but to do the dishes.

Again: this is a bad time, because I was in the middle of playing videogames and I was just about to get into an awesome boss fight.

Again: I could make a grunting noise and say, “Sure, I’ll get to it later,” and know that she’d get frustrated and do them for me, and one problem would be solved.

But instead, I groan and get off the couch and take her hands in mine.  “Thank you for asking me,” I tell her, smiling so she knows I mean it.  And she gets to go do a bit more sewing, or listening to her YouTube videos, or just feeling better because the house is cleaner and she feels like we’re a team together.

In a very real sense, what I am saying is “Thank you for inconveniencing me.” Because her default mode, as with so many other partners I’ve witnessed, would be to never inconvenience me at all and let the inconveniences pile up on her side until eventually the relationship collapsed.

I do the dishes.  It’s an irritation.  But it’s also an honor: she trusted me enough to say “Hey, I’m tired, could you help out?”  Which is a trust I take quite seriously, especially when I have someone who already does so damn much.

It shouldn’t be this much of an effort to do a task I don’t want to do.

But I’m damn glad I’m doing it.

Portrait Of A Hoarder

I took my wife down to the shelves and shelves of books in our basement.

“I want to try an experiment,” I told her.  “To show you why purging my book collection is so painful for me.  So… point at a book.”

She blinked, uncertain.  “Any book?”

“Any book.”

She hesitated, because to her they were mostly clutter – books I hadn’t read in years, and probably wouldn’t read again.  She’d have been much happier if I just chucked them all out and requested the ones I wanted to go back to from the library, like she’d done with her collection.

But she cared about me, and so she ran her finger along the bookcase until she found a well-worn paperback with a blue spine.  “Spellslinger,” she said.  “By Alan Dean Foster.”

…and I’m back in my Uncle Tommy’s basement, eleven years old and on the hunt for books, my feet on that Godawful orange shag carpet that smells vaguely of mold because we hadn’t installed the sump pump yet.  The books are all on this dark wood screw-together bookcase with carved pillars holding up the shelves and no sides, so unless you place the books just right you’ll miss the pillars and they’ll all slide off onto the floor.  

Still, that place is a mystery comfort for me.  Tommy lets me read anything from there, which even at my young age I recognize as a rare privilege – I can get all the Stephen King books he’s purchased, though mostly his tastes run to mysteries.  And so I prowl looking for something that catches my eye, and find Spellslinger. 

I don’t know anything about it.  Tommy buys lots of books, often because the cover looks cool.  And this one has a hippie with a turtle.  I figure I’ll give it a shot, and it turns out to be one of those series that both Tommy and I click with and we keep going to Waldenbooks to buy the rest of the series….

My wife nods as I relate the memory to her, and she chooses another book.  “Which Reminds Me, by Tony Randall?”

…and it’s lonely, working at Borders headquarters, because I have social anxiety and don’t know how to ask anyone how to hang out with me at work.  I have been struggling for two long years to try to make a friend and failed continually – partially because I have a girlfriend at home who also has some level of social anxiety, but we’re tearing each other apart because two years of having only each other for company is not what we’re suited for.  

But on a trip out to Connecticut, to one of the best stores with one of the best clerks, I meet a guy named Jim and we click on any number of levels: he’s into RPGs, too, and he takes his job seriously, and we start recommending books to each other.  I don’t know it, yet, but soon he’s going to get a job at Borders HQ working with me and he and his girlfriend are going to become the lifeline I need at the loneliest time in my life.  

We’re at his house, hanging after my visit, which is amazing to me – he asked me, I didn’t have to ask him.  I’m looking at his shelves.  “Tony Randall?” I ask.  “The guy from the Odd Couple?” 

Jim lights up.  “Oh, he’s a master storyteller.  Funny as heck.  You have to read it, here, take the book, I think I got it from the discount section.”  

I take it home.  It feels like the end of loneliness.    

“Okay,” my wife says, slowly.

“One more.”

She looks at the shelf.  “Bonk, by Mary Roach.”

“Shit,” I say.  “I have no memories associated with that one.  It’s just a damn good book.”  I toss it on the growing purge pile behind me.  “A book I can get from the library if I feel like rereading it.  Try again?”

“Clive Barker, Books Of Blood, Volume IV?”

…and I’m in my aborted attempt at college in New York City, discovering that my parents have paid a shit-ton of money for me to become a psychologist and I hate classes.  They’ve given me an absurd amount of spending cash to live on my own, so much so that it covers food and expenditures, so I can also buy comics with what I have.  

I’m pretty much bombing out in classes, and I’m such a neurotic dramatic mess that I’m also destroying the friendships I have, but I do still have enough spending power to wander through New York City and fall in love with it as only a native can do.  

And near me is one of the best bookstores in the world, Forbidden Planet.  I’m on a hunt for the rarest of books – Stephen King has said in a FANGORIA interview that Clive Barker is the best new horror short story writer, and I trust Unca Stevie blindly, so I’ve been hunting for Clive Barker books everywhere.  I’ve read two of the Books of Blood and they were indeed as amazing as advertised, but they’re only published in England, so I haven’t been able to find any more – but every book store I go to I hunt for them, and there encased in a plastic slipcase, at an overseas-inflated price, is the latest Clive Barker book and oh God I’m going to have a wonderful afternoon curled up in my bunk bed reading….

That’s the problem with my book collection, really.  It’s more of an externalized memory.

I have dim recollections of my past unless some external trigger stirs them, or I do my raconteur trick and ball them into a story – a story which, as time goes by, becomes increasingly about the effect of the story and less to do with the actual history of what happened.

These books root me.  Sometimes when I have nothing better to do, I go downstairs and wander through this locus of my history, feeling the snippets of my history these books evoke.  Getting rid of that copy of James Lileks’ “Notes From A Nervous Man” isn’t just jettisoning some random book – it’s potentially losing that feeling I had when I was a clerk at Borders Books and they put me in charge of the humor section and James was the pride of the first obscure book I found that I fell in love with, and recommended, and gave myself a stamp of erudition.

I’m terrified of losing that.

So I do purge my bookshelves.  I got rid of about three shelves’ worth of books yesterday, and I gave some of them to good homes with the friends who came to our Oscar party, which made me happy.  Books should be loved.

But it is a source of conflict with my wife, I know.  She’d prefer an empty home, free of knickknacks.  She often jokes that she wants so few possessions she can pack them all into a van and just leave with an afternoon’s notice.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a valid approach.

Yet for me?  With my foggy ideas of my own past?  I fear leaving that behind would set me adrift in some fundamental way.  I know it has happened time and time again to people – my heart quails whenever I see refugees forced to leave their homeland behind – but for me, my possessions help anchor me to who I am because my brain is not up to the challenge.

Pick a book.  There’s a part of me in there.  I know it’s foolish, needing so many.

But it’s who I am.  It is, quite literally, who I am.

Will You Help Me Raise $750 To Fight Children’s Cancer?

My goddaughter would have turned ten this year, and that “would have” is your sign that this story does not end well.

I, along with many other loving relatives, held Rebecca when she took her last breath  on her sixth birthday – but that journey to her deathbed was long and agonizing.  I don’t think you can understand just how devastating cancer can be until you see an entire family riding that rollercoaster of hope; this test result looked good, this scan came back indicating everything is stable, and then the doctors sniffle back tears as they tell you that they’ve done everything they can do but this little girl won’t see her sixth birthday.

Rebecca was extraordinary.  She was determined to get her birthday cake.  So she held on, wanly eating cake the night before, passing on the next day.

I wish you could have met her.

But since you can’t, the next best thing I can do is my damndest to make it so that other kids won’t die of cancer.

And so on March 25th, I will shave my head to raise funds for cancer.  Admittedly, shaving the little poof of hair I have isn’t as significant as when I was luxuriously-maned metalhead, but it’s literally all the hair I have to offer.  (And it’ll be the first time I’ve been bald since I was a baby.)

I’m hoping to raise $750 to fight children’s cancer in the next three weeks.  If I hit that donation, I’ll post pictures of my incipient dome.  I’ll even take requests for anything else you might like to see me do.  So if you have the spare funds, I’m asking you to donate as much as you feel comfortable.

Because Rebecca has more of a legacy than many other kids who passed.  She’s tattooed on my arm.  She’s had a charity founded in her name.  Hell, because her Dad was an influential web designer, her favorite color is permanently embedded in your web browser.  That comforts me some days, even if it’s not as comforting as having her around gratuitously insulting me.  (She was the most sarcastic five-year-old you would have ever met.)

But I think of the other kids who died, and are dying right now, the parents hoping with all their hearts for some medical treatment that will stop that impending funeral.  Because remember, cancer’s not some monolithic disease, it’s actually a thousand difference variants, where some strains are more deadly than others.  A lot of cancers that were once death sentences are now commonly survivable.

And I think, “Maybe a couple bucks might make the difference for some child.”

If you think that too, well, I’d appreciate your donation.  Love to you all.