So life’s been a series of body blows lately, and I’m not doing particularly well.
Which is to say my wife’s been having medical issues for two months, a cascade of problems that started with serious pneumonia and now has her bouncing from doctor’s appointment to doctor’s appointment as they collect more data to find out what’s wrong. And my Dad has been having some issues, and my sweeties have been suffering from profound depression and worsening chronic illnesses, and a friend of mine has been in and out of the hospital.
I’m starting to cringe when I pick up the phone.
And my resilience is slipping. I pride myself on being there for people when they need me, but even mildly bad news is putting me into a state of shock. I’m drinking more than I should be – which is not a lot, but I know myself well enough to know when I’m itching for the bottle – and the thought of being with people I like is sending me into spirals of self-loathing because I should want to be with friends and yet I can’t bear the company.
I’m trying to retreat. The problem is, there’s nowhere to retreat to. The only way to retreat right now is to abandon, and I can’t do that – well, I can’t do that and respect myself come the morning.
It’s foolish, because I shouldn’t freeze like a deer in the headlights. But even mild conflicts are making me panic, forcing me to fight past my own sluggish instincts, and getting anything done involves me staring at the computer screen for an hour before I finally, desperately, put my fingers on the keyboard.
I have a lot to say politically, too.
I feel like I’m letting people down by being silenced.
And what I don’t want to hear is how I should be easier on myself, because as much as I’d like it, that’s not happening and frankly I wouldn’t want it to happen. My ambition has always exceeded my grasp. I have big dreams and work long hours to make them happen. That’s a part of me that’s brought me to good places, and I don’t want that to be neutered. I *should* have broad goals.
Yet as I was driving to pick up food for dinner last night, I felt this burning urge to call my mother. I didn’t. Because I realized what I was going to beg my mother to promise me was that it was all going to be all right.
She can’t promise that.
You don’t have to help. But if you do, well, just realize I’m being flaky right now to my real-life friends because everything since September has been a chaotic shitstorm and I am not coping well. Bearing with me as I get overwhelmed and shut down would help. I miss you but every time I think about reaching out another diagnosis drops through the door.
And if you’re not a real-life friend, gentle kindnesses are good. Sending pictures of smiling faces are good. Flirts are good, assuming you understand that sometimes I’m flirting and then Gini comes back from the doctor and I just forget everything.
Good news is good. If you’re happy about something, telling me that is good. I’m tired of cynicism, I’m tired of despair, I’m drained to redline by so many things going wrong that honestly, every time someone tells me of progress in their life it reminds me that progress can be made.
Progress has not been made around here in a few months. Or so it feels. There are good moments, and I cling to them, but they feel swallowed up in a sea of turbulent news that’s all terror and no firm way to fight.
Hearing your untrammeled happiness helps me fight. So I hope you’re doing well.
So I am absolutely enamored with Westworld, the new HBO show. I’ve been watching it since the second episode, and with each week the mysteries have been revealed – the show obscures events but doesn’t hide the clues, and it’s been playing fair. Some of the fan theories that people gave in Episode Two have panned out to be true, and last night’s episode confirmed not one but several popular theories.
That said, I don’t know if you’d like it.
It’s sort of like reading the Harry Potter books when they came out – there was something delicious about waiting years for the next book, for watching kids grow up with Harry Potter, their emotional age deepening as the books handled increasingly complex concepts.
You could read them all in a summer now, but I’m not sure it’ll ever be as satisfying for any as for, say, my daughter, who started reading Harry Potter at age 6 and finished the last book when she was 14. She grew up with Harry, as Harry grew up with her.
Likewise, I’d say only about 40% of my enjoyment of Westworld comes from the show. The rest comes from that week between the shows when my wife and I are listening to podcast, finding crazy fan theories on Reddit, talking with my friends about ZOMG DID YOU HEAR.
And the reason this show is so intensely satisfying is that we’re paying close attention to every detail on the screen – and sure enough, all of them mattered. There was a moment that could have been clumsy blocking, with a character appearing out of nowhere, but nope – that was a clue. There was a weird composition to a photograph, but nope – that too was a clue.
At this point, the show is turning into a reward for all the hard work the fans have put into it. They gave the clues to the mystery, and by and large we’ve solved it. (Though predictably, some of the fans are complaining that the show is predictable now that they’ve spent all this time analyzing it. THAT’S ON YOU BUDDY.)
And I was talking to my Dad, and I told him I loved the show but I don’t know if I could get him to love the show. Because when he watched it, I’d give him a DVD for his birthday and he’d spend a week or two watching it all, and if he went to look at fan theories he’d see everything summarized and encapsulated.
Whereas we’ve been scrutinizing every scrap of information they gave us. We’ve been dealing with incompletes. And we’re pretty sure how it’s going to end at this point, but that’s because we’re active participants, not just inhaling the narrative but digesting, dissecting, unraveling.
The first season ends this Sunday. And though over time, millions of other people will watch that finale, they’ll never watch it in the same way that Gini and I will – as a climax not just to the story, but of our analysis of the story.
I can’t wait.
It’s Black Friday, which is pretty much Cyber Friday at this point, and lots of y’all will be logging on to Amazon/Barnes and Nobles/iTunes/et cetera to purchase gifts for all your loved ones.
This will be my final reminder that my book FLEX is currently on a big ol’ sale, and can be purchased for a third of the price you’d normally get it at. Maybe you’ve read FLEX, and you’re going, “My Gosh, I know Uncle Festus would love a tale featuring sexy plump videogamemancers and noble bureaucrat-magicians who work to make the world better!” Maybe you’re splurging for yourself, and you’ve said, “My, that Ferrett fellow is fascinating, I’ve been meaning to put his fiction on my e-book and leave it there for literally months until I get around to it!”
Well, FLEX is $1.99 in America and 99 pence in the UK, and by gosh it’s not only less than a Starbucks coffee but it also has a lot more discussion of magical drugs.
So anyway! Here’s the list of places it is, at least for now, on sale:
And if you purchase it, well, you’ll have also gotten me a Christmas gift as well, so you’ve struck two ferrets with one stone. What could be better than hitting me with a rock?
When I first met Gini about twenty-three years ago, she was married and had two kids.
And she was married married. Like, my friends had been married, but their marriages were all a couple years old and they were still doing the “Are we together enough to have kids?” thing and living in shabby apartments with mismatched furniture. Their marriages didn’t feel like marriages, but like someone had dropped an uncomfortable wedding in the middle of a long-term relationship.
Gini’s marriage was that strong suburban marriage, where they had a home they’d lived in forever, and two kids, and near the end one of those kids was old enough to date. Their marriage was old enough to drive. Their marriage had that patina of antiquity about it – and when Gini announced they were fling for divorce, people were shocked. Because they’d been together for almost two decades. They’d gotten so far that their friends had quietly come to assume that marriage would last forever.
About a year later, Gini and I got married.
We got married too soon after the (lengthy) divorce proceedings, I admit. And honestly, it was always sort of a cockamamie plan – I remember calling up my mother and going, “HEY I MET THIS WOMAN IN A STAR WARS CHAT ROOM SO I’M QUITTING MY JOB TO MOVE UP TO ALASKA AND TAKE CARE OF HER KIDS.”
My mother kept her voice astoundingly even as she congratulated me.
And those first years of marriage felt like duct tape and baling wire. I lived in a stranger’s house, flailing as a stepfather, running face-first into issues we couldn’t have anticipated from our hours of phone calls. It was lovely exchanging emails, but suddenly we were both broke and there was nowhere for us to hide – before, we could shut off the Internet and retreat to our corners, and now we were both here, too physical at times, banging elbows all the time.
Those first few years felt like divorce was forever around the corner. It didn’t feel like a marriage.
And let’s be honest: Gini’s ex-husband wasn’t kind when we heard we were getting married. He thought it was too soon, and predicted we wouldn’t make it. And didn’t he know her better than I did?
Wasn’t this destined to fail?
But slowly, Gini and I learned the tools to communicate with each other – and through it all, we ran out of love a couple of times, but our “like” never stopped flowing. Even when we fought harshly, we still could make each other laugh. Even when we’d spent the night crying, we could wake up the next morning and talk about Star Wars.
We were unaccountably fond of each other. Even when we threw hard punches, we wanted to get back in the ring.
And over the years, we got stronger and stronger.
And it’s weird, because people are often like “You guys are polyamorous! You have other partners!” And while we deal with the discomforts and the tangled schedules and the ego-bruising that comes with dating other people, the truth is that our polyamory has become strangely easy. We can’t imagine life without each other. Even when we’re in someone else’s arms, we know where home is.
And these last few years have been traumatic and stressful because death has come knocking. Our goddaughter Rebecca died of cancer on her sixth birthday, Gini’s mom died, and I had a coronary triple-bypass that gave me a really good sense of what an ugly death looks like. And Gini’s had some pretty heavy-duty medical issues this year, in part caused by a bout of pneumonia that may have done some permanent damage, that’s left us reeling with mortality.
We don’t get forever.
Which is why we’d better hold on to what we have right now.
And yesterday, the meter quietly ticked over. As of November 22nd, 2016, I had been married to Gini longer than her ex-husband had.
I keep thinking: We’re married married. And we have been for a while. But now, I’m officially Gini’s longest-running husband, and the limitations of life mean that I doubt anyone will beat this record, and I keep thinking Christ, how have we been married for over seventeen years? That seems like such a long time.
I keep remembering how her ex-husband doubted us. And he was right to. By the odds, we shouldn’t have made it. I give advice to people on relationships, and if I’d come to me describing my marriage eighteen months in, I’d have said it was probably time to leave.
But miracles happen. Miracles did happen.
We made it.
And we don’t get forever. But every day after this somehow feels new – we were always breaking new ground, but now each moment is heading into even more uncharted territory, this glorious entwining, becoming more together, working hard to ensure that whatever happens we keep that strong and unwavering fire of our fondness stoked.
I beat the record. It’s foolish, but… it matters.
I love you, Gini.
Let’s see how far we can take this.
So you sit down at the restaurant and the service is terrible. You’re parched, and they don’t even bring you a damn glass of water.
You watch as they bring you bread, set the table, but they’ve forgotten to bring you the cool glass of H20 that’s supposed to be sitting here by default. Eventually, finally, they ask if you’d like anything to drink and by then you’re pretty snippy – “A water, thank you” – and you’ve already made a note to decrease your tip to the minimum.
You’re an American. Go to Europe, and they don’t even understand this concept of “free water.” If you order water, they bring you sparkling water, which is wretched concoction prohibited by the Geneva conventions, but no matter.
Water’s just not part of the meal unless you ask.
And you’re not a Californian, either, because the drought there means that you also have to ask for water. That’s part of the culture.
But because you have these quiet expectations of What The Staff Are Supposed To Do For You When You Sit Down In A Restaurant, you don’t recognize that your lack of hydration is because you’re actually failing to communicate a need.
It’s not that the waiters don’t want to make you happy – well, except maybe in France – it’s that for some waiters, “What they do by default for customers” does not include “serving water.” They’re actually good waiters, and you’re potentially a good customer – this is just a cultural difference you haven’t absorbed yet.
You can still get your water; you just have to specify.
Likewise, a lot of relationship problems spring from this concept of what you should do by default for someone who’s upset. Because like all these watery restaurants, you grew up in a culture where when someone’s upset, of course you bring them food/leave them alone until they ask for help/smother them with questions/take them out drinking.
So you sit down in the chamber of I Am Upset In The Presence Of People Who Love Me, expecting that damn glass of water that everyone’s given you since you started going to restaurants, and they’re not doing the thing they’re supposed to do.
You get furious at them, and eventually explode…
…and if you’re unlucky, you never learn that the person you’re dating went to very different restaurants.
This is why we have to use our words, annoying as that is. Because quietly, we’ve picked up on all these unspoken assumptions about The Way Things Are, and we often don’t realize that this isn’t The Way Things Are, it’s The Way Things Are Where You Grew Up.
And it sucks, because it often feels less comforting, somehow, if you have to ask for what you need. You’re used to that quiet placement of that glass by your left elbow, that simple satisfaction of knowing they get you. It feels alienating, asking the waiter, “Could I have a glass of water?” and – if you’re in Europe – seeing that slight narrowing of the eyes that says, Why would they want that?
It can get embarrassing. I was having a bad weekend at a convention I had to go to alone, and for me, part of loving someone is being on-call when they’re under stress. But my wife often puts her phone aside for hours at a time to charge it, leaving me isolated.
I had to say to her, “Look, I know you don’t normally do this, but this weekend I need you to keep your phone within range at all times. I might need you to talk me out of a panic attack.” Which made me feel absurdly needy, and a burden to her, and I would have far preferred if Gini’s natural temperament was “Go on standby.”
But it wasn’t. So I used my words. And she was there for me when I needed her.
And I’ve seen people not ask for what they need because it gave them plausible deniability. What if they asked the waiter for water, and this was a super-snooty restaurant where they’d laugh at you silly Americans and your ridiculous obsession with hydration, and you’d end up thirsty and embarrassed?
Better not to ask, they think. In one scenario you’re getting crappy service, sure, and that crappy service will never change – but you also never have to find out that the restaurant secretly despises you. It’s a lot easier to sit there, furious and silent and justified in your outrage, than to get a definitive no that bruises your dignity.
But really, you gotta ask. Because if this restaurant – or person – really will think less of you for asking for the stuff you need, then you shouldn’t be dining there. And maybe that’s a painful realization, but better to move on to a restaurant more suited to your requirements than it is to sit angrily by a water-free table.
In the end, it’s nicer to go to a restaurant that provides the water without asking. But that doesn’t mean your favorite restaurant can’t be a place where you have to ask.
And if you ask often enough, and the staff gets to know you, they often make special accommodations. You can get your water, you can get your love, you can get your comfort.
You just gotta be willing to educate the locals.
When I hear about the Democrats, I think of Hillary and her ten thousand staffers. She controls a massive, finely-tuned network, taking expensive polls and spinning the news media – and why would anyone listen to me? They have Obama talking to them, Bernie Sanders, all these heavyweight decisions made from the top.
I’m a random schmuck from Rocky River, Ohio. What difference could my voice make?
Then I talked to Melissa Yasinow, a city councilwoman in Cleveland Heights.
“I’m not sure that Rocky River has any representatives on the Cuyahoga Country Democratic Committee,” she told me. “I’ll have to look that up.”
“Wait,” I said. “You’re saying that literally nobody in all of Rocky River has volunteered to be on the council?”
“I’m saying it’s possible. That sort of thing happens all the time. Everyone assumes that someone else is doing the work.”
“No,” she said earnestly. “There were four council seats up for grabs in my district, and we had only six people running for them. Across all parties. And that’s not the people who got winnowed out in the primaries – that’s six people total who wanted to run. And we’re a competitive district; I know at least one place in Cleveland that had four seats for city council, and only three people ran. Heck, you could run and probably win.”
“I dunno about that,” I said, thinking of all my essays on kinky sex. “I’ve got a lot of skeletons in my closet…”
“Look, if Trump just won, you’ve got a shot. All the old rules are out the window. And besides, as I said… nobody else is stepping up. Do you know how I got to be a councilwoman?”
“I went to a Democratic women’s caucus, and they said, ‘We have a seat open. You should run.’ It’s kind of embarrassing, how simple that start was, but that’s really all it takes a lot of the time. And even if you don’t want to be a politician, there’s plenty of empty seats waiting around for someone to have their say.”
I frowned. “It’s just hard to believe that all of this influence is available for the taking…”
“Look,” she said. “You’re worried about making sure the Democratic party is staying in touch with working class concerns. Well, Rocky River’s not exactly a Democratic stronghold, and if you look at the West Side it’s filled with Hispanic residents who are factory workers. You can start making a difference for what you believe in right away. And if you wanted to fight for LGTBQ rights, or better health care, or to change the economy, well, there’s seats to do all of that in local ways. Just… show up.”
“It can’t be that simple.”
“It is. All over America. Everyone assumes someone else is doing the work, and the truth is every political department is understaffed. I won’t tell you it’s not insanely boring sometimes. And it eats up a couple of hours of your week. But if you want to make a change, it’s as easy as calling your local city council and saying, ‘I want to help.’
“Trust me,” she said. “They’ll find a spot for you.”
She’s talking to some people now to see what empty seats are waiting for my wife and I to fill them.
But Melissa’s fundamentally changed my view of politics. What I see on CNN is people waging multimillion-dollar campaigns for the national seats. Yet each state has 500 towns, and each town has at least ten positions someone needs to fill, and what nobody’s discussing is how a lot of those positions are empty because they’re assuming everything is as hotly-contested as the 2016 election.
You may be disappointed by the DNC’s actions in 2016. I was. You might be disappointed at the opportunities the DNC missed in 2016; I was.
But what Melissa is telling me is that the DNC is composed of a bunch of tiny chairs, each with its own opportunity to influence the party in some way, and we’re not taking that influence for ourselves because we assume it’s already taken.
Take that seat.
(And yes, civic-minded Republicans, this goes for you too. I believe that government functions best when all sides step up. But holy God, Democrats, we need you more than ever today.)
I had a girlfriend, once, who was special to me. She held me with the strength of mountains, and she studied all the most fascinating things so whenever we talked she brought me glorious bouquets of new concepts, and whenever I looked into her beautiful wide eyes I longed to kiss her. Every. Damn. Time.
Yet I dated other women. That made her nervous. How could she be special to me when I loved other women, too? What assurances could she have that I wouldn’t leave?
So she asked for a special reservation of the term: “Girlfriend.” She alone was my girlfriend. All the others? Were sweeties. That term signified our special bond, the esteem we held each other in, and that was how she was special to me.
I still dated other women. And when she saw me speaking well of them in public, or heard that I was courting someone new, she got nervous. How could she be special to me?
So we reserved the nose-moop. When I touched her nose, I went “Mowp.” With every other girl, I went “Meep.” The fact that I reserved this one word for her alone signified how special she was to me.
I still dated other women. And when I talked about them on Twitter, she felt lonely. How could she be special to me?
So I got her a stuffed bear that was hers alone, the sole gift from her to me.
So we got jewelry we bought, and wore, specifically for each other.
So I got books that were only shared with her.
So I made special date nights that were reserved for her, and her only.
And each of these special moments were absorbed into the body of our relationship, and still she needed more proof. It was a steady drug I gave to her, and she built up a tolerance for it, to the point where I’d point at the “Girlfriend” and the “mowp” and the necklaces and the bear and the books and the date nights and all the other things I haven’t even mentioned here, and still she didn’t feel like she was irreplaceable in my life.
Because she didn’t feel it inside. All the external validations were merely quick-fixes that lasted maybe a month before vanishing into the lack of self-worth. I’d spend hours enumerating all the reasons why she held a special position in my life, all the wonderful things I loved about her, but they disappeared like dropping stones into the ocean.
Deep down, she didn’t feel like she could offer anything unique.
So she wanted more. And I was already getting snarled on the hundreds of special memories we’d set up like tripwire, these elaborate ceremonies we had made to make her feel better, except by now they didn’t make her feel better, they only made her feel more insecure if I slipped up and forgot one of the endless numbers of special things I was now obligated to do for her.
These weren’t rituals. Rituals were things we could have done together to grow closer to one another. But we were close. These were exclusions, designed to keep other people out rather than to grow us as a couple, labels designed to exalt this person above the other smoochy-folks I had.
Eventually, we broke up. I realized I could not reassure her and remain polyamorous (well, technically, given my wife, I’d become polyfidelitous). And I was tired, so very tired, of always having to reassure this wonderful woman of how goddamned wonderful she really was, because though she was smart and clever and sexy, I never found a way to communicate with her that she could ever feel that.
Maybe there was a way to make her feel loved in a way that didn’t strangle me in the process, but if so, I couldn’t find it.
And so I left. Because I wasn’t making her happy, and she wasn’t making me happy, and I worried that if I did go polyfidelitous that would just be another label that would wear off in a month.
To this day, I’m skeptical of labels. I think they have an addictive quality. Sure, sometimes you see a couple making a single rule and that’s it – “You can’t sleep with them in our bed” – but more often what follows are a cascade of additional restrictions, each designed to wall off the other partners in some way as a proof of love, each time the couple being convinced that this, this new thing will reassure them once and for all.
When the truth is, if you need a special label to survive, often they either don’t speak your love language properly, or the life they need to live is going to take such a great toll on your self-esteem that they can’t stay in good faith.
All the labels in the world can’t fix that problem, and it’s only going to make it worse to try.
They’ve gotta know why you love them, and all the restrictive rituals in the world can’t patch that hole.
And to this day, sometimes I’m sad. She’s not in my life, and can’t be. But some days I sit around, and feel the hole that she’s left behind that has never actually healed, missing all the little things that came from her and no one else.
Yes, I dated other women. Because they had their own unique charms, just like she did, except thankfully the women I date these days mostly understand just how incredible and unique they are to me, and I love them and crave them and need them.
But they weren’t her. They couldn’t be.
She was irreplaceable. Even more so now that she’s gone.
What label could encompass that?