Nexus, Crux, Apex: Some Damn Fine Books Y’All Should Read.

Most new technological achievements in fiction are presented in one of two ways:

  • This new thing will save mankind! And some evil people are trying to stop it!
  • This new thing will doom mankind! And some evil people are trying to make it popular!

Truth is, every technological achievement comes with benefits and negatives. The Internet made it easier for isolated people to find friends, but it also allows pedophiles to band together. The same algorithms that helpfully suggest your next Netflix show can be hijacked by the government to predict your behavior.  There’s never been a technological revolution that didn’t come with a few bodies in the basement, but fiction tends to not have time to deal with complexity.

Ramez Naam’s Nexus/Crux/Apex trilogy sure as fuck has time to look at both sides of the coin, though.

Nexus is a nano-drug that acts as an operating system in your brain, letting you network with others in real time and hack portions of your consciousness.  It’s been open-sourced, and it is also completely illegal, because the US government is – rightfully – concerned that an interconnected operating system that allows people to rearrange their memories at will and to load Bruce Lee fighting programs into their brain is a security issue that will cause massive breaches.

The book sets up a “massive government vs. spunky hackers” plot, but the issue is that the government’s concerns are very real.  The ramifications of Nexus are as huge to this world as the Internet was to us about forty years back, and whereas the hackers are right that the ability to connect with other people and share experiences is empowering, they are also overlooking the many negative ways that bad people can – and, in fact, will – use this experience to fuck other people over.

In this, the Nexus series is wonderfully complex, because everybody has a point.  The government is clinging to the status quo, yes, but that’s because it’s totally unclear whether the government’s citizens would survive the transition to a transhuman future.  The hackers are occasionally a little cocksure.  This is a Pandora, and Ramez Naam treats it  appropriately as a global issue, starting in the US but soon branching to India and China and, well, everywhere.

And more importantly, the technology feels real.  The black-ops tech the government has will absolutely smash the spunky hackers’ limited resources every time unless they can hook up with other, greater, forces. As such, alliances become a huge issue, and the alliances only work as long as everyone’s on the same page – which doesn’t happen for long as the ramifications of what people can use Nexus to do spreads.

Not to mention the fact that “transhuman” is a real concern – what a bunch of Nexus-enabled people can do outstrips normal people’s abilities, even as it leaves them open to hacking attempts and trojan viruses.  And when the governments clash, and the civil wars break out, and the terrorists start playing their hands…

Well, things get delightfully messy.

The book has a couple of minor flaws – to me, the “renegade hacker” syndrome where one man can rewrite major portions of an OS in days was a break from reality, but an acceptable one – but what I loved about the Nexus series was the sense of enlightenment.  The book has intraconnected Buddhist monks providing serenity, and what’s delightful about the series is that sense of transcendence’s ephemerality.

Because the characters each achieve these moments of perfect grace, a time when everything is made clear to them – and then they have to deal with the grimy details of the real world and forget portions of what they’ve learned, but they are on an upwards climb.

Yet what I love about the Nexus series is that the governments have these moments of perfect grace. There are times when everyone in the chain of command is illuminated, seeing everything as it is – and then some of them retain that knowledge and work to forward the future, while others fall back on old patterns and reject it.  There are several moments where we see clearly what should be done, and we also see the counterweighting forces to understand why it’s not done.

This is a marvelous achievement.  And when the trilogy ends, the characters’ storylines are wrapped up, but the politics do not end.  Nobody finishes on the same page.  They can’t.  That is the very point of the Nexus trilogy: that good people can disagree on how to push forward, and this conflict we see in the real world isn’t good vs. evil, just different priorities weighted.

All that happens with a good crunchy action sequence every fifty pages or so.  Pick it up. Discover the future.

On Bernie Sanders And The Black Vote

So Bernie Sanders – my personal fave for the Democratic Presidential candidate – has been taking some heat for not addressing black issues well.

My response: good.  Even if I disagree with his critics.

Every candidate has this moment where they charge onto the stage with their priorities, and discover the voters have different priorities.  And they either a) ignore those voters, and don’t get elected, or b) change up to address those voters’ issues, and potentially get elected.

Now me? For me, Bernie is like a walking Overton Window of progressive politics; we’ve spent the last forty years watching Reagan and his successors nudge the frame of our viewpoint further and further right until Obama – a moderate candidate at best – looks like a frothing socialist to many.  Having Bernie Sanders in the race, even if he doesn’t win, will serve the same function that the Occupy movement did: to raise questions as to what’s reasonable, and start a dialogue about issues that conservatives have long buried under that 1950s McCarthy imminent-apocalypse vibe of “You don’t want a socialist in office, do you?”

(I’d be happy with either Hillary or Bernie if elected, but since I think neither’s likely to get a lot of laws passed in the face of Republican Congressional resistance, I’d rather go with the guy who’s going to be more ambitious than Hillary’s warmed-over, half-hearted gestures towards worker fairness.  Hillary’s always been more Wall Street when it comes to equality politics.)

And what Bernie says to me makes a lot of sense to me as a white guy.  I think if he got his way, black people everywhere would be better off, because I think focusing on economic reform and cheap education would lift all boats for everyone poor – and since black people are disproportionately poor, they would benefit disproportionately.

However.

Note that this is White Dude expressing his opinion.

Black Dude, and Black Dame, need to be convinced.  And they may feel what I said is a tide of horseshit they’ve heard a thousand times before, and they want actual focus on restitution and specific reforms aimed at helping the black community.

Which is fine! One of the things I fucking loathe about the “be a good ally” mentality is that sense that “If you have a different approach to fixing this problem, you are evil and don’t want the problem fixed!”  No; the world is fucking complicated, and there’s room for reasonable disagreement on the “best” way to do things.  I have my own opinions on what might help, shaped by my experiences, and others have theirs, and the best we can do is to fully acknowledge that hey, either of us might turn out to be wrong over the course of time, and to encourage a healthy exchange of opinions.  I acknowledge I might be wrong, and I hope anyone disagreeing with me on “the best way to address the economic inequalities that black people suffer” also acknowledges that they do not have perfect knowledge on how to fix all those ills.

(In other words, I believe fully that as a white dude, I cannot fully understand the black experience no matter how I try, but I also believe that “experiencing the pain of a bad system” is a very different thing from “knowing how to fix that bad system” – and as such, there’s room for debate from all sides on what the best approaches are.)

And what Bernie Sanders is getting right now is a bunch of angry people going, “I think what you’re proposing is horseshit.”

When you get accused of fomenting equine excrement, what good people do is to stop, take in that feedback, analyze it, and see whether that new information changes things.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes it does.

And we’ve seen Bernie Sanders maneuvering to change his message to address “Black Lives Matter” more explicitly – clumsily, yes, but everyone’s clumsy when they first change their message.  And that’s good.  It shows he’s taking the issue seriously, and he’ll either put more effort into explaining how he thinks his economic equality policies will affect those issues, or he’ll start addressing black issues more directly.  Either of which is awesome.

Sort of! Because what we’re seeing now is the inevitable leftward bend of the primaries, where we get candidates who appeal to the leftiest of lefties – and like the conservative primaries, we may see an effect where we select candidates who are RAH RAH LIBERAL and then it turns out that our candidates can only thrive in the rarified air of the liberal oxygenator, and wilt and die when exposed to actual moderate Americans.

But that’s the best process we have now, alas.  And Bernie Sanders?  I think he’s got good ideas.  But I’m not the person he needs to convince to win the damn election.  And I think it’s a good thing that he’s getting battered a little by Black Twitter – because I think it’s good for people to get battered, to be forced to justify their beliefs before a group of skeptical people.

My belief is that decisions without debate are like trying to build an impregnable fortress in the absence of warfare.  You can go, “Oh, yeah, this thing we built? Nobody could get in.” But you don’t know where the weak points are until you have a bunch of very motivated people looking to break into your building – and when that happens, you’ll find all sorts of flaws you hadn’t considered.

Which is why I’m against anything that squashes polite debate.  I think we only come up with the best solutions when we take on as many comers as we humanly can, comers who are all asking “What’s wrong with this?”  Some of them are asking in bad faith, and after answering their questions to the best of our ability, we move on.  But the folks who point out flaws in good faith should be considered, and discussed, and eventually addressed when possible.

Bernie Sanders – my hope for the 2016 flagbearer – either will do that well, or he’ll become an also-ran.  He’s more likely to be an also-ran at this point thanks to Hillary’s momentum, so my hope is that he becomes so adroit at addressing these issues that it becomes such a strength of his that it winds up being a factor Hillary doesn’t have.

Or he won’t.  And if he doesn’t, well, I hope whoever gets the nod does find a way to make the black communities feel like their issues are being addressed, because God damn this past year has shown the need for someone in power to do something to stop all the killings and abuse and economic injustice.

Physicists! Help An Author to Wreck An Entire Continent Accurately!

One of the weirder aspects of writing novels is that eventually, you assemble a dream team of experts to consult. When I wrote Flex, which dealt with a severely burned girl, I consulted my friends MedKat and Cassie Alexander, both medical experts who helped me get the ICU details right.  When I wrote The Flux, which features a child with PTSD and a funeral, I consulted my friends Dr. Natasha Lewis Harrington (a child therapist) and Heather Ratcliff (a mortician) to get the details right.

Now, uh, I’ve kind of broken all of Europe and I need to talk to a physicist.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Flex, in it there are creatures called “Buzzsects” that devour our laws of physics – they eat the speed of light, change the rules of time, et cetera.  And now, I want to do some XKCD “What-if?” thought experiments to go, “What happens if the speed of light permanently drops to, say, 50 MPH in a ten-foot area?  What happens if we change the structure of an atom?”  And to explore that ensuing mayhem.

If you’re a) experienced with physics, and b) think this sort of “Remove one major law of physics, see how the rest of it collapses” thought experiment might be fun (with the caveat that story needs may trump precise accuracy), do me a favor and email me at theferrett@theferrett.com with the header “I AM WILLING TO WRECK EUROPE.”  For you, dear sir or madam, will be the one who helps me determine the fine details of how to savage an entire continent.

And really, how often do you get that opportunity?

Things Nobody Told Me About Selling A Novel (Part 4): Your Writing Habits Need To Change

Before I sold my novel Flex, I was beholden to no one.  So my process was simple:

1) Clear out a year to write a novel.

2) Write the novel in the evenings.

Which was easy. I had a day job and a social life, which meant like everyone else I was squeezing my writing time in – but nobody was telling me what to write, or when. Sure, maybe I got the occasional invite to an anthology – which is pretty top-end among short story writers, lemme tell you – but in general, my writing was this blank void where I took as much time as I wanted polishing my tales to a glossy shine, then walked around peddling these same tales to strangers.

Which was good. I needed focus to write a novel. Considering that my stupid brain won’t let me plot a novel in advance, I need several months to dig deep and figure out what this novel’s really about, then spend several months redrafting.

Truth is, I often turned those anthology invites down because my short stories take years to write.  Not “years of constant writing” – I’m not thatbad – but more like “First draft, get critique, let the story sit in a drawer for four months until I can look at it with fresh eyes. Second draft, realize the story is broken in some way I’m not yet smart enough to fix, put the story back in the drawer. Third draft  a year later when I learn something new about writing and go, ‘Oh, hey, that’s something I can use to fix that not-quite-right story!'”

So Flex was about fifteen months of unbroken devotion, give or take a minor heart attack in the middle of writing. (No, seriously. An actual heart attack.)  And when I said, “Hey, I’m working on this story about magical drug dealers,” there was a deep shrug because, frankly, I wasn’t popular enough to be fielding requests.

Fortunately, after I sold Flex and asked Seanan McGuire for a blurb, she called me up to talk about my book.  (She’s a phone person; I’m a text person. I feel continually bad about our mutual dislike of each other’s primary communication pattern, because any day I talk to Seanan is a good day.)  And during that conversation, Seanan gave me literally the best advice I’ve gotten as a professional author:

“You,” she said, “Are now the parent of a bouncing newborn. And like any parent, you’re going to fret about every aspect of this new novel-baby you have.  That’s normal.

“But what’s also normal is that like a newborn’s parent, you will no longer have unlimited time.

“If you are at all successful at this,” Seanan warned, “You will start to get other contracts. You will have edits that drop on your desk without warning. You will have opportunities you must seize now.  So from this moment forward, you must be like a newborn’s parent and learn to work in small chunks.”

And lo, on Monday I was finalizing the edits to Book Two, while also writing 750 words on the first draft of Book Three, and now I have about a week of uninterrupted time before the copyedits for Book Two drop back on my desk.  Come September, I’ll be starting another blog tour to promote Book Two’s release in October, which will involve me writing about thirty essays in my spare time while also working on Book Three.  And that all assumes that the other book I’m shopping around right now doesn’t sell – in which case I might spend the fall writing essays, re-editing the newly-sold book, and writing Book Three.

Did I mention that I’ve committed to write Book Three in nine months? I’ve never written a book in nine months before.

(Though I’ve done some advance work that makes writing Book Three easier, thanks to a lunch with Seanan four months back, where she told me “Start plotting the next book now, so if they want it you can hit the ground running.”  If you can get a Seanan McGuire as your Career Fairy Godmother, I heartily recommend acquiring a Seanan McGuire as your Career Fairy Godmother – though I will warn you, she hits very hard when you foolishly admit to reading reviews of your book on Goodreads.)

But the point is, this is just two books I’m writing – super-nice for a debut novelist, but by no means a blockbuster career – and I’m still oscillating back and forth between projects. And I’m not even trying to earn a living at this yet!  (As I tell people, “Writing is my career, but I have a day job.”)  If I was trying to survive entirely on words, I’d be hustling like my friend Monica Byrne, writing plays and novels and starting Patreons and constantly, constantly switching gears.

I know it’s impossible to believe that this lull before you sell your first novel is a luxury – I wouldn’t have, in the twenty-plus years I struggled to sell one – but if things go right, in some ways you’re going to miss that ability to set your own schedule. If you get the career you’re struggling for, you’re going to have to get used to writing a book a few chapters at a time, in between the other book edits and the pitches for future books and the opportunities you can’t turn down.

It’ll be awesome.  But you’d better be braced for it.   And I’m really glad Seanan told me, which is why I am telling you.

Addicted To Special.

“All those partners who discarded you? They just didn’t see how beautiful you are. Don’t ever change; some day, the Perfect Man will come across you lying on the floor like an old sock, but the Perfect Man will know who you are! He’ll pick you up out of the garbage and set you on the Special Sock Shelf, and he’ll get a rag filled with special What-An-Amazing-Person-You-Are Polish and shine you until you glow!

“That’s what you should do. Just sit there, on the floor, with a bunch of other discarded socks. Wait patiently for someone to come along and pick you up and make you beautiful.”

Over on FetLife, where relationship advice abounds, you’ll see an essay like that hitting the top of the K&P charts about once a week, racking up over 3,000 “loves” from women who swoon in the comments.  It’s a lovely fairy tale.

Unfortunately, what generally happens is that someone comes along looking for a sock, and realizes he can get a free sock to stick his foot in as long as he tells it it’s special.

The truth is that a lot of the women looking for The Perfect Man have really shitty boundaries. They shrug off a lot of insults, not even registering them as the insults they are, because they don’t speak the hidden language of respect.

They don’t know that “I didn’t tell you I was running late because I was out with the boys” actually translates to “I don’t give a shit about your time.” They don’t know that “I’ll introduce you to my friends some day” means “I don’t want to be seen with you.” They don’t know that this version of “We’ll see” means “No.”

And because they don’t speak the language that needs to be spoken, they think that other bullshit, easily-given gestures mean something.

They don’t know that it can be an actor’s trick to look meaningfully into someone’s eyes and go “You’re the only one for me.” They don’t know that “someone who cares about my pleasure in bed” is not in fact the sign of True Love but, in fact, the bare minimum you should require of anyone you’re sleeping with. They don’t know that the monetary expenditure of buying a dinner is nothing compared to the emotional expenditure of taking you to a picnic where their family is.

And what happens is that these women are so thirsting to be told that they’re special that they batten upon these tiny trinkets of affection as proof that they are The One, and ZOMG THIS IS WONDERFUL and they talk in flowery terms about how they’ve found the Perfect Man…

Whereas what’s really happening is that a guy’s figured out that he can use them for a while if he says some sweet things.

And he can use them because they need someone else to tell them they’re special. In many cases, they’ve been purposely crippled emotionally by dysfunctional families, families who quietly erased their ability to ask for things they needed so these folks could better serve their awful desires. They have been turned into mummies, bound by a need Not To Make A Fuss, waiting quietly until someone comes along and digs them out of their tomb.

As such, I think these Perfect Man fantasies are amplifying a toxic need that can’t be fulfilled.

You wanna be special? Learn how to act like you’re special. A truly special person would get furious when some asshole wasted her time. A truly special person would get suspicious when her boyfriend didn’t want to be seen with her in public. And a truly special person would go, “Wait, this is fucking important to me, you’re not blowing me off with a ‘We’ll see.'”

A truly special person would dump an asshole when he wasn’t providing the real meat and potatoes of respect, and giving her little Pixie Sticks of affection here and there.

(Mind you, I like Pixie Sticks. You don’t wanna live on a steady diet of ’em, though.)

And above all, a Truly Special person would rather be alone than to settle for someone else’s half-assed affection.

Truth is, you’re not special until you make yourself special. Most of the really amazing goddamned women I know have such a good sense of self-esteem that they have an anti-asshole shield in place – the assholes stay away because they’ll reject people who aren’t up to par.

(And they also do some self-analysis to figure out the parts of them that genuinely aren’t that special – like a reliance on psychodrama over discussion – and do their best to wear those edges down. The Perfect Man also has an asshole shield in place, and while a Perfect Man can handle a few bumps in a relationship, he’s not going to date someone who’s so unrestrained that she thinks it’s his job to be her emotional backstop.)

So if you wanna be special? Stop fucking waiting. Value yourself like the treasure you are. Learn to speak the language of true respect. Learn to see what things can be given easily, so you can know when someone’s given you something of value.

When you demand a man who’s better, you’ll find – well, not a Perfect Man, but you’ll find someone who shows you his adoration in ways that actually strengthen your life.

Seriously. Change a little. Because you’re better than being someone’s dirty laundry.

So What’s It Like To Feed An Otter? A Recap Of My Amazing Birthday Present!

I keep a pair of otters perched on the back of my toilet. They’re stuffed, but that’s only because Gini won’t let me keep real otters in the bathroom. She’s unreasonable that way.

But anyone who knows me knows I love otters. The first thing I do at any zoo is head for the otters. My, uh, best friend Angie once had a (now-defunct) tumblr page called Otters for Ferrett. My friend Das Hydra floods my mentions on Twitter with any mention of otters in the news, which makes me happy.  My sweetie Laura has a stockpile of otter pictures to send me when I feel down.

Otters are love.

So when said sweetie Laura texted me to go, “I got you a very special present for your birthday, but it’s an hour away and we have to schedule it,” I thought: I hope it’s otters.

As we drove to the Akron Zoo, I thought: I hope it’s otters.

And the zookeeper met us at the gate, I thought it’s otters it’s otters it’s otters.

And it was, indeed, otters.

It's otters!

Now, the thing that fascinated me was how much work went into zoos.  I knew on some vague level that keeping all these animals was a lot of work, but until they unlatched the back room and let us all in, I didn’t realize how much.  The zookeeper (who also handled the tigers) opened the fridge, and showed us all the various portions of the otter diet: some ground meat in the morning spiked with vitamins, cut-up vegetables for their evening meal (the otters eat maybe 20% of it, and each day’s feed is carefully tabulated to calculate their nutritional needs), and they get a handful of smelt for lunch.

I was to provide lunch.

But not too much lunch, as the zookeeper told us, “It’s very easy to overfeed the animals.”  Their diets are strictly monitored, which some days I wish someone would do to me. Except I’d bite.

They walked us up a staircase, past a room full of pipes that led to the otter pool – a pipe marked, amusingly enough, “Otter supply,” which caused Laura and I to envision opening up a faucet and having a never-ending stream of otters pour out.  We had to step in a small tub of disinfectant so our shoes wouldn’t carry anything in, or out.  I looked at the dry-erase board with all the daily otter stats written on it.

Then we walked into Silence of the Lambs.

I don’t know what I supposed they did with otters when they took them inside for the night, but in retrospect just letting them run around a big room and be happy wouldn’t work out.  These otters – Porthos and Molly – had only freshly met, and the zookeepers weren’t certain they could leave them alone for an entire night.

So what they had were six-foot by ten-foot cages, and a lot of pulleys with padlocks on them.

When they wanted to let an otter in, they unlatched a pulley and tugged up a little hatchway so one of the otters could squirm in.  (They’re curious creatures, fortunately, so pretty much any movement seemed to get their attention.)  Once they’d gotten Porthos in, with Molly trying to wriggle in with him but daunted by the experienced pulley-shutting techniques of our zookeeper, they unlocked another pulley and opened a hatchway up into an adjoining cage.

Then they put a bright white placard on the cage – it was standard operating procedure to have a card on every cage the otter was in, no matter for how brief a time, so there was no forgetting where the otters were.  His read Porthos 1.0, which meant currently there was 1 male in this cage and 0 females.  If Molly had gone in there, it would be Molly 0.1 – 1 female and 0 males – and if there was an animal of unknown gender, it would be UnknownGender 0.0.1.

They had placards for all combinations, I was told – which, you know, given there were only three potential iterations with two otters, seemed doable.

(I was also told, later, that the sales manager who’d escorted us in had gone to see Jurassic World with one of the other large animal handlers, and spent pretty much the entire movie joyfully pointing out sloppy procedures that would never pass muster in any real zoo.  And after watching the very careful and externally-certified lockdown procedures in place, including having no pictures taken backstage so that no one could inadvertently provide information to potential otter-stealers, I believed her.)

Porthos was the rambunctious one, and there were little pools with floating mattresses for him to dive into in each cage, and at night they put in some straw so the otters could dry themselves off.  They let me look at Porthos, but I was by no means to touch the otters.  Which was to be expected.  Otters are basically bigger ferrets, and ferrets bite, and worse they often fed the otters through the bars of the cage so the otters had been taught to see “something narrow poking through the wire” as “incoming fish.”

Even knowing that, ZOMG SO CUTE.  I was worried the otters would stink of fish – I’d once had a mild penguin love before getting a snootful of penguin cage – but they were just adorable, like a larger ferret.  They were so curious.

Having gotten a look at Porthos, they took us outside for otter training.  They opened up the doorway in the picture above, and the trainer got out a stick with a green end to it.  He touched the stick to the wire.  “Touch,” he said.  Porthos pressed his nose to the spot.  Porthos got a fish. “Touch.”  Porthos pressed his nose elsewhere, and got another fish.  Pretty soon it was multiple touches, and Porthos was duly rewarded.

“Eventually, we can just point them where we want them to go,” the zookeeper said.  “We can do that with tigers.”

Readers, I checked.  The Akron Zoo does not, sadly, have a tiger-feeding expedition.

After squeeing at being so close to an otter, they took me inside to feed Molly.  I had a small metal pet food dish with several (but not enough) smelt in it, and a set of very long tweezers for safety.  “Do you want gloves?” they asked, and I thought Who would come back here to feed otters and be so scared they needed gloves?

But I fed Molly the smelt one by one, with Gini getting one shot in.  (Laura declined, deferring to my birthday.  I still feel a little sad about that.)  Molly was so eager, pressing her little nose up against the wire, curious to see everything I was doing.  I could have cuddled her, I was sure of it.

And I would have gotten my fingers bitten the shit out of if I hadn’t worried about the zookeepers.

Seriously, me, I’ve dealt with ferrets, and I know how bad their bites are.  But I have come to associate ferret bites with love, and my ludicrously high pain threshold (remember the time I walked around with a burst appendix for four days, including a session in a Rise Against mosh pit?) would have shielded me.  And really, I might get to pet the otter!  And when people asked me, “Where did you get those stitches?” would I not have a story to tell!

But the zookeepers would feel bad, not understanding that I took full responsibility for this injury, and it would probably mean fewer people would get to feed otters.  So I was good.

Still, Molly was like the coolest UI.  I sat in front of the cage, and even after I’d run out of smelt, I could move my finger like it was a mouse pointer and Molly would follow it around, dazzled by the motion.  And when she ate, she gobbled up the fish in an adorable way and then gave me those liquid otter eyes to ask for more.

I stayed an uncomfortably long time.

We went to the rest of the zoo afterwards, seeing the bears and tigers, and eventually I went back to the otter tank.  I waved at Molly.  I like to think she recognized me, but probably not.  Otters are capricious creatures, and the best I could hope for was a spurious romance.

(And speaking of romance, let us all pray that the brief romance between Porthos and Molly in late May of this year has, in fact, led to baby otters.  They’re still hopin’.)

When I left, Laura bought me a little stuffed otter.  So now there are three otters on the back of the toilet, and Gini is complaining because the otters are nearly tumbling into the bowl, and I maintain that otters should go diving for water in a constant sense of near-disaster.

Gini remains unconvinced.  But she knows it’s easier to let me have my fake otters than to hear me argue, for the thousandth time, that we could keep otters in the bathtub.  The zookeepers told us we really couldn’t, but I’m pretty sure I saw one of them wink at me.

And we’ll always have this:

Good Morning, How You Doing, Hey BUY MY AUDIOBOOK

Various people have told me that Flex is now available for pre-order as an audiobook, due out August 6th.  And with that, you now know everything I know about this very exciting moment in my life.

But if, for some reason, you feel like listening to eleven hours and forty-three minutes of bureaucromancers, competent fat women channelling the power of Grand Theft Auto, and a love so intense that it makes a father turn to a life of crime to save his daughter, well, here’s your chance.

And if you feel like reading it on the old paper method, well, that’s still available, too.  And if you feel like ordering the sequel The Flux, about which my editor just told me “I shudder to think what Book 3 will be like if you keep this up,” well, you can do that too.

Or you can spend no money on anything at all!  That’s cool, too.

Hey, how you doing?

The Invisible Provincetown

Every summer, my grandparents took the family to Provincetown for a week’s vacation. And I wonder:

How the hell did that happen?

If you’re not familiar with Provincetown, Massachusetts, it is one of the brightest gay hot-spots in the nation. In the early 1980s, when gays were so downtrodden as to be nearly invisible, you could see happy gay couples holding hands as they walked down Provincetown’s streets.  There were all sorts of gay pride paraphernalia for sale tucked in among the T-shirt shops and ice-cream stores, if you knew where to look – to my cousins, they were pretty rainbow flags.

And, in fact, being the eldest of a large number of cousins, I could tell when each of them hit puberty.  Before puberty, they viewed Provincetown as a happy beach resort with fudge stores and glass statues of lighthouses – and then they noticed the women cuddling on benches, and the men hugging in groups, and you could watch the lightbulbs going off.

But my grandparents, man, I can’t understand how they found the place.  They were simple people, allergic to politics in all but the most general of terms – people should work hard and be rewarded, God was generically good although we didn’t discuss what kind of God He might be – and while they loved beaches and lighthouses with an almost fetishistic quality, I keep oscillating back and forth between whether my sainted Grammy and Grampop were progressive or oblivious.

Which led to an interesting discussion with my eldest daughter last night, who in her late twenties has grown up in a world where Will and Grace had put gay people on prime-time television before she hit puberty.  For her, gay people have always been a part of the national discussion, and maybe some folks hated gays, but certainly they were aware of them.  People were fighting for gays in the military!  There were gay rights movements in her high school!

Whereas the truth is, for long years gays were kind of a hidden Easter Egg, stashed in movies discreetly where those who had the knowledge could pump the fist and congratulate themselves at having picked up on the subtext.  But it was entirely possible to watch whole films as a kid and not understand that those were gay people, that that masculine woman who didn’t want a boyfriend didn’t want a boyfriend for entirely different reasons.

Gays weren’t talked about in mainstream culture for the longest time.  The whole point of a gay person was to blend in – maybe you did a couple of gay things, but you made damn sure to provide plausible deniability: No, no, those overly-tight pants and Queen-style mustache were just a fashion statement, not a hidden signal to those with the eyes to see.

These days, thankfully, “Coming out” has become a ritual to demonstrate to recalcitrant family members that Hey, I’m gay, and all those shitty things you’re saying about gay people apply to me.  But back in the day, “Coming out” may have been your family’s first real exposure to gays in any significant form. There was a good chance that they’d never had an actual conversation with anyone they’d identified as gay – which is very different from never talking to a gay person, but by God American culture did their best to make gays something you didn’t have to notice.

Gayness was an opt-in culture.  You had to educate yourself to spot the gay things.  And if not, you cruised past it blissfully, quietly painting the entire world as straight, with maybe a couple of creepy queers hanging out in bathrooms, but those people had no lives aside from perversions.  They existed, like spiders or cockroaches, merely to creep you out.  They certainly didn’t play frisbee or drink milkshakes or do anything that wasn’t related to carrying on their secret gay agenda.

And yes, I do realize there are conservative places in Western culture where there’s a similar vibe – but that was the whole world back then, except for a couple of embattled enclaves like Provincetown and Fire Island and San Francisco.  It was as though the entire world had decided to just pretend gays didn’t exist, and maybe you’d have an occasional gay person appear on television – watching Billy Crystal on Soap caused headlines – and they’d make magazine covers for a bit and then we’d all go back to forgetting that gay people existed again.

It was a chronic amnesia, a kind of Quiltbag Memento, where we kept looking at an individual gay person but could never connect that into a collective understanding that if that gay person existed, maybe some people we knew were also gay.  That knowledge never transmitted.  Somehow, every time a gay person appeared it was a total surprise to American culture, some unfathomable outbreak, like a pimple popping up and how did that happen?

Which was fucking terrifying, really.  I remember meeting my Uncle Tommy’s gay friends in New York (during what I realize now was the height of the AIDS crisis, and I wonder how many of those vibrant, happy people I have inadvertently outlived), and thinking how horrible it must be to have to encode your life so that other people could purposely overlook you.

So it’s a weird thing.  I’m sure my grandparents must have known later in life that Provincetown was a gay capital, and decided that was okay with them.  Which was progressive, and laudable, as it set the tone for much of my LGBT politics.

But looking back with the weight of history, I can easily see my Grammy and Grampop going  to Provincetown and seeing the beaches and the lighthouses and the seagulls and deciding, What a great family vacation spot.  We have to bring the kids. And I can see them walking obliviously past the hundreds of gays who lived and loved and died there, not even recognizing the culture because they didn’t have the education to attune themselves to these homosexual-friendly signals, and they were walking through a Provincetown that was a little more muted to ensure that straight people could put their blinders on.

I don’t know. Maybe they did see.  But the terrifying thing is that when I was growing up, it was equally plausible that an entire lifestyle had blended into their view of the world, like a chameleon altering its color so as to not be spotted except if you were hunting for it, and frankly the idea that this wasn’t so long ago makes me both happy at how far we’ve come, and sad at how many people died before we got here.

Let’s Talk About How We Talk About Abuse

A friend posted this amazing link on Twitter from this TED talk. In case you’re too lazy to click through to some animated GIFs, I’ll summarize:

“I did not know the first stage in any domestic violence relationship is to seduce and charm the woman.

“I also did not know the second step is to isolate the victim.

“The next step in the domestic violence pattern is to introduce the threat of violence and see how she reacts.

“We victims know something you non-victims usually don’t. It’s incredibly dangerous to leave an abuser, because the final step of the domestic violence pattern is ‘kill her.’ Over 70% of domestic violence murders happen after the victim has ended the relationship.”

All true, in my experience. And worth knowing. If you didn’t know this fact, then make sure to absorb that, because it’s not quite as simple as leaving someone who’s going to feel very betrayed when you leave.

Yet what struck me about this talk beyond the obvious horror – “Hey, I think of you as such an object that I’d rather kill you than see you live without me” – is how she’s talking about the domestic violence pattern.

She’s talking about it like it’s a stratagem one uses. Like the way Pick-Up Artists do, with classes they can take. They decide “Hey, I really need a woman I can beat the shit out of,” and they read some books online – “How to Find People With Bad Instincts” – and then they enact their four-step program very carefully.

Some do set out to be abusive explicitly, of course. I’ve heard too many stories to deny that. But with the abusers I’ve known personally, they don’t have a plan per se – they’re too emotionally incoherent to have a plan for anything. They’re asocial louts who get enraged that the world is not attending to their desires, and they don’t have many friends who aren’t total sycophants because they creep normal people out sooner or later, and when they find a victim they’re isolating them because they’re terrified of any competition. (And often such a sad-sack case that the victim stays once that vulnerability is revealed: “He needs me.”)

Now, keep in mind, that’s not all abusers: there are “successful” folks who have good-paying jobs and many friends and still abuse the shit out of their partners. (Nor are all abusers invariably men: the same issue applies to abusive women, of which there are probably a lot more than you hear about because of the toxic masculinity that scorns a guy who’d “let” his wife beat him.) Abusers come in all shapes and sizes.

Yet the problem I have with the “abuse == intent” model is that it implies to people who do get involved with this “reclusive loser” style of abuser that “If s/he doesn’t mean to do it, s/he’s not really an abuser.”

Wrong.

And the problem with that model is then victims often stay because they’re convinced their abuser doesn’t intend to be an abuser. They just lose control sometimes. They drink a bit much. They had a bad childhood.

They mean well. God, every abuser I’ve ever heard talked about meant so fucking well.

So I think it’s worth noting that lots of people stumble dimly into the patterns of abuse – maybe acting on instinct horrifically gifted to them by abusive parents, maybe because domestic violence breeds in isolation. But not everyone had a plan to be an abuser, going in, and every day people who mean very well (I’m told) are rediscovering a pattern as old as time: isolate, hurt, kill.

They may not know where they’re headed.

But you should.

Woodworking Wednesdays: What Are We Doing Now?

Every Wednesday for the past few months, my friend Eric and I have gone out to my garage and honed our woodworking skills.  First we built an inset bookcase for Eric’s house, then a firewood box, then a smaller bookcase, and last night we finally finished the drop-down workbenches we’ll need to refit my garage.  WITNESS ME!

Last night, two things happened that really made me feel like we’d levelled up:

First, we had a problem with the chopsaw – the motor seemed to be going, because it kept whirring for minutes after we stopped the saw, and couldn’t bite through the wood.  We got out the manual and started looking, and I properly diagnosed the problem before we got at the internals.

Seriously, me actually troubleshooting a power tool is major biz, folks.  (For the record, the arbor nut holding the saw tight had loosened, so it was spinning semi-freely upon the motor.)

But more importantly, we started working in parallel.  Eric and I are choosing projects to hone our skills – first a screw-together bookcase, then a firewood box with some angled cuts, then a (small) bookcase that involved routing and dado shelves, and finally this drop-down shelf, which involved using the Kreg jig and applying hinges.

Until last night, basically, if one of us was doing something, both of us were doing it.  If Eric was measuring a piece of lumber, I waited patiently, watching Eric to try to determine why he’s so damn good at measuring accurately.  (He has exceptional spatial skills;  I have very sub-par spatial skills.)  If I was using the router, Eric was watching me use the router, scrutinizing my technique to see how we could improve it.  (And in case you’re curious, Eric has written up his side of events over at The Pastry Box.)

But last night, we’d already built the left half of the table, and we knew all the skills involved. So after a while of watching Eric put up the pegboard – a job where there wasn’t room for two people to help, really – I said Why the hell am I waiting around, anyway? There are boards that need to be cut. So while he put up the pegboard, I chopped the shims and the 2x4s down to size.

Essentially, we’d gotten comfortable enough with the work that we could accomplish separate tasks, him handing off to me, me to him.  That will doubtlessly change on the next project, when we try something different – man, I wanna try dovetail joints – but it points at a larger effort, where eventually we’re both skilled enough to work as a team as opposed to one guy alternately learning from the other.

And it’s exciting, transforming the garage.  Eric and I decided that it would be a shame if we only did this during Cleveland’s highly-limited run of good weather, so we’re making the garage into a fully-kitted tool shop – a place where we have shelves to hold the tools and lumber, racks for Gini’s bikes, and enough room in the center that we can park the car.  It’s not just woodworking, but carpentry we’re also learning –

– And it doesn’t stop, as Eric’s family came over for my birthday brunch last Sunday and Eric and I went out to the garage and, completely without meaning to, spent an hour tracing wires to determine that yeah, we could probably extend from that overhead lamp socket to create another power outlet, and now I’ll probably be buying a book on wiring this afternoon.

There’s learning new skills, yes, but part of what I find exciting is discovering how malleable the world is now.  Before, when I’d condemned myself to being “not handy,” the garage was this immutable object – it came with crappy shelves and lights that didn’t work, and I couldn’t afford to hire a guy to do it all.

Now?  The garage is a toybox, ready to be changed for our convenience.  Oh, it’ll take some work, of course, and some planning, and God, another run to Lowes, really? – but in the end, with some elbow grease and a bit of consulting with each other, we can pretty much do anything with this space.

Or any space, really.  Eric’s wife is mentioning some work she needs done around the house. I keep looking at my house and going, “Wow, there’s no light in this ceiling – but you know, we could probably fix that.”  The bathroom is a major expenditure, but now I’m starting to do the foolish guy thing and go, “Huh, I wonder how much effort it WOULD be to replace the bathtub.”

All I need is a friend to work with. It’s good to have a friend to work with.

(EDIT: And because I forgot to post this this morning like I’d set up to, have some photos taken of the workbench in daylight:)

Woodworking Wednesdays: the double drop-down workbench.

Woodworking Wednesdays: the double drop-down workbench.