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.

Winning Arguments Doesn’t Make You Right.

My favorite webcomics creator Tailsteak Tweeted this today:

As an veteran winner of arguments, lemme tell you why the man is right. Because I had a shameful habit of debating with lovers about what was “fair” in our relationships.

I won every argument. Rationally. Coldly. Cleanly.

They all left me because I was a dick.

Turns out walling people’s emotions off with logic ultimately loses.

But it goes deeper than that. Because what often happens when you “win” an argument is that you’ve simply chosen a battleground that favors your approach:

  • If you’re quick on your feet, you can “win” any verbal argument against someone who’s slower to form their rebuttals. Take it to a slower pacing, like exchanging emails, and you might find the day it took them to come up with a response completely dismantles your point.
  • If you’ve got access to more “facts,” you can “win” any argument against someone who isn’t as encyclopedic as you are. You see this all the time with creationists, who can pull out reams of plausible-sounding pseudoscientific BS they fling in the air to confuse people who don’t know any better. Or, if you want a real-life example, read the impassioned essays of economists before the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, each trotting out scholarly study after scholarly study to “prove” that this wasn’t just a fluke, tech stocks would rise and never fall. None of their “facts” saved them any money when everything tanked, but they sure did have a lot of information to throw around.
  • If you’re more tolerant of the stress of conflict, you can simply outlast anyone debating you by standing tall against all comers until they get frustrated or upset and walk away. But endurance isn’t correctness.
  • If you’re more charismatic, you can pepper your argument with jokes and write compelling essays spoken in a mellifluous voice that can put a nice fragrance on stinking dogshit. And especially if you’re playing to people’s biases, you can propose fractured ideas that’ll still have people yelling “YEAH!” no matter how many logical gaps that argument has.
  • If you’re logical, you can memorize a list of logical fallacies and poke holes in legitimate concerns all day long until you prove that black is white. It doesn’t hold up to common-sense scrutiny, because life’s messy and feelings aren’t binary, but hey! You’ve never met anyone like the person they’re describing, so that person must be imaginary! STRAW MAN!

…and so on.

The point is that a lot of arguments are “won,” but not really. The people convinced are convinced more, the people who are dubious remain dubious. (And yes, if you think I’m somehow not richly guilty of this, please recognize that I most certainly am guilty as heck. Though I’m trying to get better.)

What I’d argue – and of course I’m arguing now – is that true winnings are holistic. They involve all the variables – engaging both emotion and logic, altering opinions instead of barraging people until they walk away, ensuring the “facts” that hold up your side of the debate match reality as closely as possible in a complex universe.

I don’t know what percentage of arguments that have been counted as “won” have been truly won, even if we break it down on a person-by-person basis. Even leaving aside the people who can’t be budged from their starting opinion, I suspect any number of arguments that someone’s claimed “victory” for were just winning a battle, not the war.

But it’s something to ponder as you’re arguing with your friends and lovers: are you valuing cleverness over thoughtfulness? Are you hauling out facts that aren’t really facts, but are actually a justification for your biases? Do you hold the upper hand only because you’re more belligerent?

I’m not trying to convince you, man. Because I probably can’t. I can only ask the questions.

In the end, on this one, you gotta convince yourself.

“Can’t You Take A Joke?”: On “Humor” In Relationships

I rarely advise people to make fun of their boyfriends’ dicks… but this was kind of a special case.

It was a joke, you see.  All in good fun.


When we first got married, I used to joke about my wife’s age.  She was eleven years older than I was – which I found funny, because I rarely felt that gap.  We had the exact same sense of humor, she was still whiplash-sexy, and if anything she had more of a thirst for adventure than I did.

The age thing cropped up so infrequently that it felt ridiculous that it existed at all.  So I mocked it, by mentioning her lumbago or asking what it was like to ride velociraptors.  Nothing much, just little jokes scattered throughout the week.

After about two years, Gini asked me to stop.  “It makes me feel old when you do that,” she said.  “It’s not funny any more.  I don’t know that it ever was.”

So I hugged her.  And I stopped.

Because I didn’t mean the joke.  Not that way.

And if my wife wasn’t laughing, what was the point?


“He’s a good boyfriend, I guess,” my friend said.  “It’s just that, you know, he keeps making jokes.”

“Jokes,” I said solemnly.  Because my friend didn’t seem like she was laughing.

“Yeah, tiny barbs here and there,” she told me, folding her hands in her lap.  “Little observations about how scatterbrained I am, or snide comments about how I’m slow to catch up with him.  It makes me feel shitty.”

“Have you told him that you don’t think it’s funny?”

“I have! And he gets sullen and says, ‘Well, I don’t wanna have to walk on egg shells around you.  It’s just a joke, can’t you take a joke?’  And you know me, I take lots of jokes, but these – well, they don’t feel – “

“They don’t feel like jokes,” I finished.  “They feel like he’s making secret complaints about you.”

She hung her head.  “…yeah.”

“Well, my advice is to make fun of his dick.”

Her head snapped up.  “Pardon me?”

“I know you’ve complained how your sex life has dropped off recently.  So joke about how his dick doesn’t work as well that it used to.  How you could get way better and more satisfying dicks out there.  It’s funny because it’s true!”

She frowned.  “I don’t think he’d like that a whole lot.  He’s… sensitive about that.”

“I bet he wouldn’t.  But do you have to walk on egg shells around him?  Can’t he take a joke?”


She didn’t actually make fun of his dick.  Because she’s not a jerk.

I would have, but I’m kind of a notable asshole.


But I think about jokes in relationships.  And sometimes jokes are highlighting something that’s ludicrous to you – like for me, that weird dysjunct when Gini and I would discuss the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion only to discover how I was in high school while Gini was long-married and pregnant with her first child, and how could that be when we feel like we should have been teenagers together?

Absurd.  I should make a joke about that one.  To take the edge off.

And then there’s other, darker absurdities, like how ludicrous it is that your partner can’t remember to pick up the damn prescriptions from the store after work, or how they’re too slow to follow this simple plot line in a movie.  And then you make a joke about that, because seriously, this is stupid, the only way to deal with this stupidity is to highlight it.

But who is your joke mean to amuse?  You, or your partner?

And if your partner’s not laughing, what’s that joke really for?


Truth is, a lot of so-called jokes are meant to remind someone that they’re inferior.  And not all those jokes are bad; my wife occasionally makes jokes about how I cannot follow directions, even ones on iPhones, and I laugh because yeah, man, I cannot do that.

Those jokes are shared.  She thinks I’m incompetent at finding my way around, and man, I know I am.

But there are jokes that are actually complaints buried in a razorblade chuckle.  Those jokes are intended to remind other people what a pain in the ass they actually are, and that maybe if you stopped being such a massive disappointment I’d stop jabbing you with this so-called humor.

Because that humor’s not actually that funny, or clever, when you analyze it.  It’s usually an excuse to take a pot shot at someone’s foibles, wrapped in the convenient excuse of “It’s just a joke” if they take offense.  Which, honestly, they should, because you’ve just called them dim or unreasonable or both.

And the great thing about that masked humor is that you never have to own up to it.  “I’m not saying you’re stupid!  It’s just a joke!  A joke I will continue to make long after it has ceased to amuse you in any way, a minor disrespect I will trot out time and time again until you stop doing the thing I deem to be a pain in my ass!”

Basically, those jokes are the coward’s way of telling someone how you feel without ever having to own up to it.  You don’t have to have a big fight because honestly, who wants to keep dating someone who openly thinks you’re intellectually inferior to them?  You can just keep sliding that inference right in.

It’s a good way of making someone feel continually shamed.  And it’s all in good fun.

—————————— the record, I’m generally not down with dick-shaming, because dicks come in various sizes and you can’t really control whether they work the way you want.  As I’ve mentioned before, shaming people for their penises is kind of a shitty thing to do.

(But that’s the other problem with these sorts of jokes – they’re not nuanced.  The dick joke is a quick substitute for a far more complex conversation which would sound something like “I know you’re not always in the mood, but I still want to feel desired – so even if you’re not up for orgasmic sex on any given night, what compromises should we make so I can feel more of a sense of satisfaction?”

(But me, I’d probably make the dick joke.  Because when I’m in a snippy mood because someone’s taking potshots at me, I tend to return fire via the method I was shot at.  It’s a weakness.  I’m not proud of that, but man I wish I was as perfect as some of my essays make me sound.)


My wife and I are not without these bits of humor ourselves, you realize.  Occasionally we take cheap shots at each other.

“Am I really that much of a pain in the ass?” I’ll ask after the more edged kind of joke.  And she’ll stare at me with that steely gaze of hers, and nod.

“Yep,” she says.

“Righty-O,” I say, and either decide to change my behavior or live with her disapproval.

We’ve got a system.


But I think of my friend’s boyfriend’s jokes, and mine.  I wonder who it was making laugh.  Because when I discovered my jokes were no longer making my wife laugh but instead distressed her, making her feel old when that was not my intent, I stopped in a New York minute.

And I wonder whether my friend’s shame when her boyfriend “jokes” with her is the intended effect.  Because I suspect it is.  I suspect his jokes are his way of letting off steam by venting right in her face, and if she stopped being scatterbrained in the ways that annoyed him, those “jokes” would have fulfilled their purpose.

Which doesn’t make them seem like jokes, but more like whips to goad her into better behavior.

And when you contemplate the way he denies that he thinks any less of her, they’re just jokes, can’t you take a joke, it seems not only like whips but a kind of secretive, manipulative whip.

This behavior, by the way, is not reserved for folks who identify as male – I’ve dated women who had caustic humor to highlight my shortcomings.  And there are whole families who communicate largely through sarcasm and buried resentment, their banked anger jetting out in quips and mean-spirited stories told before as large an audience as they can collect.  “This person is inconvenient or inept,” is the moral of the tale.  “And I hold no hope they will ever improve.”

As it is, I have a friend who has an awkward talk to have – about what jokes are for, and whether they’re worth telling if nobody, not even the joke-teller, is truly laughing.  To discuss whether this is a communication pattern she’s willing to live with, to discover exactly what he thinks of her, to figure out whether this person is truly willing to change their behaviors or whether they just want to justify them.

And I’ll be honest: it’s probably better that she doesn’t make fun of his dick.  It probably wouldn’t get the point across, it’s unwarranted body-shaming, and as noted, it’s not really addressing the fundamental point of her complaint.

But I bet he wouldn’t think it was funny.


To Date, You Must First Pass The Three Rings Of Poly Hell

So you’re polyamorous, and on the prowl for a new partner! You may think love awaits you, especially online – but before you pass through into true poly bliss, you must first pass:


The email drops into your dating profile in-box. The profile picture is attractive, the person can put together a coherent thought, and they say more than “hi” or “sup?”

Hell, that’s better than 90% of your potential connections right off the bat!

So you chat a bit. You wanna find out how this person does poly! Are they relationship anarchists? Are they looking for a triad? Are they furry asexuals hunting for hot cuddles in a chicken suit? It’s unknown, and all terribly exciting!

Then they utter the words that annihilate your hopes:

“We’re poly, but my partner doesn’t know yet.”

That, my friend, is not poly, but your bog-standard cheating. At best, you’ll be the thin end of the wedge as they trot you out after a few awkward dates to go, “Sweetie, I was too chickenshit to have this discussion with you before I had someone on the line to fuck, but… here’s someone who’s agreed to bump uglies with me.” Worst case, you’ll have a bunch of bad sex at your house while they panic every time their cell phone buzzes.

Not good! So you move onto Ring #2….

You’ve progressed – their partner actually knows they’re hunting for new affection, so it could in theory actually be called polyamory! And you decide to get together for a date, and arrive at their house, only to find the walls festooned with icicles.

This place is emotionally cold, man. Positively stygian.

Sometimes that coldness manifests as a couple who talk at each other like they’re firing off clips in each other’s direction – these terse bullets of anger where it’s clear that everything their partner does irritates them like sandpaper. There’s gratuitous eye-rolls, loud excuses made for their partner’s behavior, occasional quick trips to the bathroom so you can’t watch ’em tear up.

Or sometimes it manifests as a frat party – hey, they’re so thrilled that someone else is here to take this asshole away they’re practically pushing you out the door! New lovers are incoming, people who’ll bring joy that this old partner never could, and could you get the fuck out now so I can have the bed? A bed which does not contain old-has-been over here?

Experienced poly people flinch, because they realize what’s happening here: you have a couple who’s imploding, and decided, “Fuck it, we might as well try poly before we break up.”

And sure, maybe you like this person – but they’re like a rocket fired off an earthquaking Krypton, trying to escape the nuclear blast that will consume them all. Which means that dating them means a) leaping face-first into the conflagration of a messy breakup or b) discovering that the reason this breakup wasn’t messy is that they really don’t do emotional entanglements.

Maybe it’s all worth it if this person is the love of your life, but, I mean, it’s date #2, how would you know? So you fire your own escape pod and land in…

Hey, it’s another couple! Funny how couples privilege so often plays a part in this, but let’s not think about this now.

The good news is, they seem nice! The partner you want to date is happy, and they seem to be stable as a unit. This is workable.

And then the lists come.

“Thursday nights are the only night we allow outward dates,” they say firmly. “And there’s no sleepovers.”

“…okay,” you mutter.

“And no kissing in public. Or kissing, period. We do the kissing around here.”

“How’s that work?”

“And you have to clear all the movies and TV shows we might see together, because I’ve promised them everything…”

The list rolls on and on, a bureaucratic parody of love as interpreted through Congressional regulations, and you realize: this couple is happy.

It’s just that they are determined to retain that happiness at all costs.

And they are doing so by treating you as an option that can be quickly jettisoned. You will be walled off by regulations so as to not pose any threat to this central relationship, your joy segmented into tiny, manageable boxes, and should your mutual affection with your new lover cross some nebulously-defined boundary then you will discover just how quickly your newfound metamour will ice you out.

And so you leave, and… congratulations! You have escaped the three rings of poly hell-dates! Except…

Wait. There’s more rings? Rings experienced polyamorous daters may know of, and report in on?

Well, no worries. I’m sure they’re all surmountable. After all, we all know that polyamorous dating is like an onion. Or a parfait. I’m sure there’s dessert in here somewhere.

“Is hard work and making the right decisions now considered a privilege?”

Yesterday, I said this:

“Working with a personal trainer for six months requires a whole lot of privilege: the spare cash to hire one. The surplus time to spend a couple of hours a week in the gym. Enough health to be able to get to the gym and work out effectively.”

And some dude responded with this:

“WTF does privilege have to do with it?

“The money to hire a trainer isn’t privilege. It’s the result of working hard(or smart) minding your budget, and earning it.

“The time to go work out isn’t privilege, it’s time management, and having the discipline to get off the couch and going out and doing it.

“Is society that far gone that hard work and making the right decisions is now considered a privilege?”

Well, let’s examine my career of hard work, shall we?

I’m a programmer.  Part of the reason I am a programmer – one of the few jobs that pays consistently well in this economy – is because my parents were rich enough to afford a PC for me back when a Vic-20 cost about $900 in adjusted numbers.  Growing up in a middle-class household wasn’t something I did – I was just born with.

Yet wait!  I didn’t start out as a programmer.  Honestly, I flunked out of college after six years of sporadic attendance because I was a slacker.  I actually was a dropout who worked in a bookstore, helping maintain their computer tech section.  And because I worked hard and smart there (because I’m much better at hands-on experience than I am sitting in a class), eventually I got hired into their Home Office as a software buyer, then moved laterally into my programming profession which helps pay for a personal trainer.

If I hadn’t had parents well-off enough to get me an Atari 400 (and its awful keyboard) for Christmas, I might have worked in the mystery section instead – and my opportunities in the home office would have been considerably different.  I wouldn’t have been promoted up the chain as quickly, and even if I had been promoted into the home office I wouldn’t have had a lateral move to programming.

In fact, without that foundation of luck at the bottom of some very hard work, I might still be working at Barnes and Noble as an experienced bookseller.

And as luck would have it, I would have been fired yesterday as part of B&N’s “fire all the experienced book clerks” layoffs.

As for my time management, well, I’ve lucked into a stable job that’s mostly day shift.  I could have drifted into game programming, where time crunches mean working 90-hour weeks for months at a time or you get fired.  Or, you know, I’ve got friends who earn less than I do in different fields who work two or three jobs to get by on top of kids, and their spare time is fragmented and incomplete.  My time management is fucking trivial – again, because I stumbled into the right career.

And none of that is accounting for the other privilege that I lucked out with my career.  Programming turned out to be the wave of the future.  Many smart and hard-working people chose careers that the best futurists thought would be stable – I was minoring in journalism in 1989, which seemed stable, but how was I to know that my chosen career of programming would help destroy the career of a reporter, which seemed like a stable choice way back when?

Truth is, there’s a lot of tiny privileges I did very little to get that make for me being able to be a personal trainer – and I haven’t even gotten into “health,” as I have at least two highly motivated friends who would love to work 70 hours a week on their career as I do, but have conditions where they pass out in the middle of the day.

So in light of that, let’s reexamine what you said here:

“The money to hire a trainer isn’t privilege. It’s the result of working hard(or smart) minding your budget, and earning it.”

When you say that, what I hear, my friend, is fear.  Because what you’re peddling is this fantasy where everyone who works hard and smart gets rewarded.

But truth: when I worked in retail, I knew a lot of people who were smarter than me, who worked harder than me.  When you say “The money… is the result of working hard (or smart),” what you’re actually saying – without knowing a damn thing about my history – is that the decent salary I have right now is the result of me being flat-out better than those earning less than I do.

Yet I didn’t choose a career so much as ping-pong around luckily until I found something I was suited for.  I didn’t wake up and say, “I SHALL BE A PROGRAMMER!”

I just, you know, had parents who could afford a computer for me to play SimCity, so when Waldenbooks asked, “Who wants to handle the DOS section?” I went, “Oh, I know how that works.”

A small decision.  Seemed trivial at the time.  But that tiny edge has snowballed over the years, combined with other edges, until here I am, the college dropout in a good job that can get me side benefits of personal training.

That’s privilege.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t work hard.  I’ve worked my ass off at every job, got ahead because I’m bright.  My novels, as noted, are both the result of privilege and maniacally writing seven novels before finally cracking the door with my debut novel Flex.

But I also had luck bubbling beneath it.  And what I’m hearing in your befuddlement is this panicked denial that luck has anything to do with success – the myth of the self-made man where it’s all hard work and skill.

Full truth, my man: some people worked harder than you, and got shit for it.  Some people worked less than you did, and got rewarded in full.

Life isn’t fucking fair.

Which isn’t to say that effort doesn’t matter, because even though the game’s unfair, the best strategy is still hard work and cleverness.  Hard work is like knowing the odds at poker – it gives you a strict advantage over those who don’t do it, but sometimes the cards go against you and all your skills at bluffing and reading tells mean you get cleaned out.

As such, I’m smart enough to realize that without that game of SimCity, I might have given a different answer to that Waldenbooks question.  And I would have been just as smart, just as hard-working, and rewarded entirely differently.

So I think you can work hard without devising this sad fantasy where anyone who’s less successful than you brought their failure upon themselves.  Hard work and making the “right” decisions is not a privilege, but the payoff for that can often be the end result of privilege.

Maybe you call it luck.  I don’t really care.  What I do care about is that you knew nothing about my job and assumed that I earned the cash for a personal trainer from hard work and smart moves, leading to the unfortunate implication that anyone who can’t afford a trainer was either lazy or dumb or both.

I have too many smart friends on the lower tiers of the economic echelon to look them in the eye and say, “You deserve your poverty.”  I know too many trust fund babies from my childhood in Fairfield County, assholes who got $500,000 loans from their daddies to start disastrous businesses and were basically man-children until they were 35 and yet kept getting bailed out until they had some semblance of a stable career.

I can embrace the complexity of “I worked hard and I worked smart” and still realize that one unlucky break could have given me an entirely different outcome.  I can look at what other people don’t have, and work hard (and smart) to try to fix the flaws in society that shut out people who weren’t as lucky as I am in terms of family wealth, in terms of race, in terms of gender, in terms of health.

Like I said about my newfound physical fitness:

“There’s plenty of people who have the levels of financial and physical privilege that I do that didn’t put in the work. So I take a lot of pride in what my wife and I have accomplished in the last six months, even as acknowledging the privilege that lets it happen.

“One does not diminish the other.”

Still true, my friend.  Still true.


Posture And Privilege: On Six Months Of Personal Training

Working with a personal trainer for six months requires a whole lot of privilege: the spare cash to hire one. The surplus time to spend a couple of hours a week in the gym. Enough health to be able to get to the gym and work out effectively.

Yet that said, there’s plenty of people who have the levels of financial and physical privilege that I do who didn’t put in the work. So I take a lot of pride in what my wife and I have accomplished in the last six months, even as acknowledging the privilege that lets it happen.

One does not diminish the other.

And damn if it ain’t providing results.

Taller, Straighter Me


People keep asking me: “Do you feel healthier?” And the answer is, “I didn’t feel unhealthy to begin with.” I had enough energy to walk the dog about two miles a day and climb flights of stairs when I needed to – as far as I was concerned, I was healthy enough.

As far as my cardiologist was concerned, however, I needed more work.

Actually, I feel less healthy now that I’m working out. Before, I sat in a chair all day long and stared at screens in perfect bliss. Now, I ache about five days a week, the strain from having augmented my lower back or my biceps having become more-or-less a constant in my life. Gini and I have taken to hot baths in the evening because our muscles are both swole and swollen.

If you were to drop me, unexplained, into my pre-training body and my post-training body, I’d think the pre-training body was healthier because it didn’t twinge all the time.

That’s mostly a result of my sedentary lifestyle, but I find it amusing.


Taller, Straighter Me: Side View

My posture is a huge difference, though. I stand about two inches taller, which is ridiculously obvious in these before-and-after photos.

I always thought that “getting better posture” was just “remember to stand straighter, you klutz” – but as it turns out, the body is all connected. The reason I was slouching is because the muscles under my shoulderblades and my ass were weak, and not pulling me properly into position. My quadriceps had become freakishly oversized to compensate, but I stood like an ape.

You’d think that personal training would be a burly guy screaming at you to lift until you vomit, but that’s not this place. It’s a lot of fine correctives. They’ve been guiding my muscles into position until my shoulderblades pull me up into the proper stance, which is weird; now, when I slump, I feel that rubberband counterpresence tugging me back.

Posture isn’t what I thought it was. My body isn’t, either.

I wonder what’ll happen if I keep with this.


The weight loss has been accelerated thanks to Gini’s discovering she’s allergic to wheat.

She really doesn’t want to be allergic to wheat, mind you. She keeps sneaking bread and then feeling her face get all blotchy. Which she thought was just “her skin” until she stopped eating wheat.

So we’ve been on a modified paleo diet for the last month – no sugar, minimal carbs, cauliflower rice and zucchini noodles for everyone. (Gini has done all the cooking in an attempt to learn paleo, which is another privilege – I’ve been desperately trying to do more of the housework to make up for her added load, and desperately failing even as she appreciates the effort.)

I don’t know how long we have to do this before (or if) it becomes an actual life change. I still crave sugar, desperately. I want bread. If we go out, I sneak little portions.

But still. I drove cross-country to see my sweetie in New Jersey, and since I was sleepy I went, “YES! I CAN EAT ALL THE SUGAR AND CARBS I WANT TO STAY AWAKE!” And I grabbed a bagful of Hostess, and…

I wanted one Hostess cake. And even that was pretty meh.

Weeks later, there’s still a bag of Hostess in my drawer. (They’ll keep forever.)

So maybe my tastes will change. Or maybe they’ll move away from bad processed sugar – I had a homemade cake and ice cream at a diner that was delicious, and I gobbled it down.

Or maybe I’ll slip back to processed sugar the minute I’m off this diet, like has happened every time before. Addiction’s a bitch, yo, and sugar is an addiction – one that’s hard to break, because unlike smoking or heroin you can’t just quit food. Food’s always around, you always have to have some, and it’s a constant temptation in ways that even alcoholics (who get a LOT of asshole “Why aren’t you drinking?”s) don’t face.


I hope to have abs before I die. I’ve already got baby lats. I took these photos with my shirt off because I’ve still got flab, but there are muscles peeking up around the edges.

I thought I’d go to my grave without ever having had a six-pack. Now, I might.

It’s an exciting time.


Still, I do feel weird about posting these pictures because I’ve seen this happen time and time again – people lose weight and everyone goes “WOW YOU LOOK TERRIFIC” because society has taught us that “thin == fit and good and lovely,” even if they’re losing weight because they’re too sick to keep anything down.

(I’ve seen comments of “You look soooooo sexy” when someone’s become emaciated enough to need a feeding tube. Our society’s the one that’s sick, man.)

So in a way, posting these photos contributes to a bit of fat hatred. My sweetie Fox has noted that they adored my body before and adore it now, even as it’s in a different shape. I’d like to think I was sexy before, even if I never feel it.

But now I feel sexier because society says I’m sexier. I’m trying not to buy too much into that. But I am excited by things in my body I’ve never had before, like lats and traps and all sorts of other things that sound like they belong in some AD&D map. My body is doing things it patently couldn’t before, because I see the exercises I did six months ago and they’re now trivial compared to the ones I do now.

It’s a form of change, and I love change, and it is healthier so I stick to it. I worry that some day we’ll stop the trainer due to budget or time or some other form of lost privilege, and then we’ll slide back into the unhealthy habits because man, it is so much easier to sit on the couch and not need hot baths in the evening because whoah did you see those squats?

But for now, like all things, this is transitory. And transitional. And if my body happens to converge with being traditionally, Hollywood-style sexy, then that too will be interesting. I haven’t been skinny since I was 22, when skinny was comparatively easy because my metabolism was a furnace that devoured all calories. Ever since then it’s been a slog and an accumulation.

What’ll happen if I’m genuinely muscular at 50? What’ll that be like? It’s an exciting goal to see what I can do, and maybe it won’t last but I wanna at least max this out like a videogame to see what happens.

Please, Lord, let me have abs just once so I can walk around a public space gratuitously shirtless and not have people give me the side-eye.

I feel that’s a worthy goal.

The First Amazon Order I Ever Placed Was The Death Knell Of My Job

There’s a meme going around Twitter, which I quite like: “Let’s play a game. Go to Amazon, to “Your Orders,” and with the year drop-down, find the earliest year listed… and then RT and tell us what the FIRST thing you ever bought on Amazon was. Bonus points for it being nearly 20 years ago. 🙂

I didn’t need to look it up.  I vividly remembered my first order from Amazon, because it told me I was going to be out of a job soon.

See, at the time, I worked for Borders Books and Music – the #2 biggest book store in the nation, a rising competitor to Barnes and Noble, and damn proud of how we weren’t just more profitable than Barnes and Noble, we were better.  We were the first to put coffee shops in our stores, we had quizzes we gave our clerks to ensure they’d be educated, we had nicer wood shelves and hefty paper bags.  We were the luxury experience.

And we’d been hearing a lot about this thing.  Dot-coms were a big deal.  And Borders was thinking about getting into the online game – because that was optional then – so they tasked me, the local Internet addict, with placing an order from Amazon, just to report back to the bigwigs what the experience was like.

This was in early 1998.  If you’re paying close attention to timelines, that was already too late – Amazon had been open for four years already.  But we were arrogant, convinced there was nothing some upstart Borders couldn’t do that we couldn’t do better, so we slept on it.  And I should have known better personally, being an Internet nerd, but I was high on Borders’ supply.

I remember sneering as I logged in.  My password for Amazon was, and still is, a preening insult about how superior Borders is – a fact I consider three times a month when I log in to order from Amazon Prime.  And I ordered a CD I’d been thinking about getting – Repeater, from Splitsville.  It was nice to know that I’d be reimbursed for my $13.47.

They told me it’d take 5-7 days for delivery.  “Ha!” I spat.  “Who’d wait that long?”

I got it three days later.

And I remember that package waiting on my doorstep – because packages were kind of a new thing back then.  Most people did almost all of their shopping in real life, because mail-order catalogues were inconvenient and slow.  To have a package on your doorstep had kind of a mystical component to it, because whoah, here were goods delivered to you from afar.

I was thrilled to have something waiting for me.  It had been quick.  And convenient.  (And back then, they’d  always padded their delivery estimates by a day or two so you’d be thrilled when it arrived “early.”)

I remember picking it up, looking at the snazzy, sharp-printed logo on the package – and dammit, I was excited.  I’d been expecting a drab manila envelope, but this was a luxury delivery.  And when I zipped the package open, expecting to find just a CD, it was also stuffed with bright fliers – another surprise.

I don’t remember what those fliers were, but I remember reading them in excitement.

And I remember the shame when I recalled that this was the enemy, I shouldn’t be happy about this delivery – followed by that sinking sensation that if I was this happy, how would ordinary customers feel?

I remember bringing in the entire package in the next day to my bosses, saying, “We have to get into the online business now.  These guys are serious.”  And I remember the way my bosses sifted through the package like it was evidence from some crime scene, nodding sagely, not understanding what this meant.

I left the company in 2000.  They went out of business in 2011.  And I’ve written about the many reasons why Borders never managed to compete online – I gave some insider knowledge of the infighting that doomed, and talk here about why generic physical bookstores have a hard time competing with online ones.  (Specialty stores have an advantage.)

But really, it all comes down to that first thrill of the package.  That sense that I’d ordered a CD and gotten an experience to rival Borders.

That first Amazon package told me that Borders was in big, big trouble.  And now, in 2018, Borders has been dead for seven years and Amazon is chugging on.

I’ve kept my Amazon password – the one that shits on Amazon and touts Borders.  I never save that password in my browser.  I make myself log in with that damned password.

It keeps me humble.