How A Lamp Took Away My Reading And A Box Brought It Back

So here’s a dumb thing: I read only a handful of books in 2015.
But I played a loooooot of phone games.
Which felt like the moral equivalent of subsisting on Pop Tarts and McDonald’s breakfasts. But if I had an hour to kill in the evening, I’d play Ascension until I fell asleep. And people kept talking about all these great books they were reading, and I’d read maybe 15 books in the last year – which sounds like a lot to people who don’t read a lot, but I usually read about 60.
When I finish a book, I feel like I’ve expanded my life – I have learned new things about writing from watching some woman’s techniques, I’ve got a new conversation-starter with other people who’ve read it, I’ve inhaled a couple of interesting ideas.  When I finish a phone game, I feel sort of vaguely disappointed.
And I thought that it was that the phone was too distracting – which, yes, it was.  But it was also too small for me to read comfortably on, with my age-blurred eyes, so between that and the constant stream of texts, I just sort of gave up reading on it.
Yet I got a Kindle Paperwhite earlier this week, and last night was glorious.  Instead of killing time with my phone, I slipped into bed and read 15% of Traitor Baru Cormorant, which I’m sure will be on all the awards ballots that I’m not this year.  And when I got tired, I put it down and fell asleep…
…and in the morning, I realized why I’d stopped reading.
The lamp was too high.
When I’d read a lot as a kid, I had a nightstand at bed-height – I reached over and darkened the room. (I can’t fall asleep with the lights on.)  But in our bedroom, I had a big torch-style light that was five feet high. I had to get out of bed to turn it off.
And God forbid I wanted to read when Gini was trying to sleep – I’d flood her face with luminescence.  So I’d just learned to live in darkness.
Time had been, if I wanted to read, I went off to my reading room – but both of my daughters had moved back in with me over the past two years while they hunted for new jobs, and they both moved into the room I used to go and read in.  So I had nowhere I was comfortable reading.
It was all little things.  A lamp.  An unavailable bed.  A TV in the living room that made me think “Living room is for television.”  And if you’d tried to tell me any one of those things would have caused massive changes to my lifestyle, I’d have laughed. But all those little things nudged me into Not Reading.
A larger screen with a backlight turned that back on.
And I think that as humans, we often dismiss the idea that little environmental stimuli can alter our behavior. “We’re big people,” we say.  “I’d know if I was being affected!”
But the world is full of little tweaks like this. I never consciously thought, “God, that light is up too high” – or if I did, I never connected it with my reluctance to read.  I was, and am, an animal of low instincts, where I now realize I read best lying down and if I can’t lie down then some small switch in my brain tells me it’s not time to read.
And there’s all these other things that control my behavior that I doubtlessly don’t think about, but other people do. I know the dish size in a restaurant can control my portions.  I know colors can affect my mood.  I know that smells can make me hungrier or calmer.
And the frightening thing is, I don’t notice these nudges.  They just happen.  And then my reading is cut by 75% in a year.
And I think about racism and sexism, and how much of that is kind of like a too-tall lamp or a blocked bedroom.  Hardly anyone means to be racist, but maybe we look at a black face and that’s another environmental stimuli.  Hardly anyone means to be sexist, but maybe a woman speaks up and that’s another environmental stimuli.
And that sort of sedimentary discrimination is hard to battle, because not only do people not notice it happening, but when you do notice it there’s no bravery in overcoming it.  You don’t get to go, “Well, my parents taught me a woman’s place was in the kitchen, but I overcame that with logic and my own opinions!”  Instead, you have to go, “My subconscious makes me react more negatively to a woman interrupting me, and, uh, that’s something nobody ever taught me, I just sort of picked it up like lead in the water.”
That acknowledgement feels stupid. It reduces you to some lab mouse.  It makes you a dumb sea anemone, tossed about by currents you don’t fully control, and that’s the same terror of We’re bound by our biology that makes people deny evolution and put off seeing the doctor about that mole on their breast because this can’t be cancer.
I dunno.  I do know that last night, I read for ninety minutes straight, and it was lovely.  And now that I’m aware, I know that I need a) a larger box that’s b) backlit, and c) doesn’t bombard me with messages, so I can read in the dark while my wife sleeps.
I’ll be reading a lot more.  That’s good.
I’ll be wondering about what other subliminal things affect me a lot more. That’s unsettling.

The Case For Rey Palpatine

NOTE: It has now been five weeks since the new Star Wars came out, and I’m finally gonna discuss the movie.  There will be spoilers here; not big spoilers, but enough to make theories as to what would be interesting to happen in the next movie. If you’re still trying to avoid incidental spoilers, well, at this point you should see the movie.
So everyone has theories as to who Rey’s parents are.  They’re combing through the film, looking for evidence, deciding whether Rey is a Skywalker or a Kenobi or the reincarnation of Anakin Skywalker or whatever.
And let’s be honest: there’s just not enough facts on the ground here.  If she turns out to be Luke Skywalker’s kid, well, nothing in the film contradicts that narrative.  And if she’s Obi-Wan’s granddaughter, well, nothing in the film would contradict that, either.  “Looking for evidence” is a mug’s game, because if they gave you enough evidence to decisively determine “Who Rey’s parents” were, the crowdsourced wisdom of billions of fans would conclude.
And then Episode 8 would be predictable.
However, I am a writer. And when I write, I am notorious for Not Plotting.  I never know what happens next; what I do do is find the maximum point of havoc, trigger it, and then ask, “…so how do my characters get out of this mess?”  As such, I am extremely skilled at determining what the most catastrophic and interesting change would be.
(If you’d like to disagree with that statement, please buy my books first, read them in their entirety, review them on Goodreads, and then come back to argue.  Thank you!)
Anyway, I’m not asking, “What evidence leads me to believe that Rey is $CHARACTER’s kid?”  There’s not evidence, or at least not enough of it.
I am instead asking, “If I had to choose her father/grandfather*, what decision would create the most interesting set of character reactions?”
And the most interesting reactions comes from Rey being the granddaughter of that Big Baddie, Emperor Palpatine.
See, right now, if she’s anyone else, Luke’s default mode is “Sure, I’ll train you.”  You can fling some plot in the way to create tension, probably PTSD from watching his last set of students die – but Luke’s always believed in the best in people.
If Rey is Emperor Palpatine’s kid, and she just went toe-to-toe with Kylo Ren untrained and beat him, well… Luke’s gotta wonder whether training someone so unimaginably potent in the force is a good idea.  The only time he beat his father is when he turned to the Dark Side, and he had a lot more training.  (And remember, Luke didn’t see the battle, so he has no reason to take Rey’s word for it that she was calm.)  So does he really want to take a chance on Rey, especially after what went wrong when he trained a kid with good heritage like Ben?
“I am a Jedi. Like my father before me.” That lesson gets inverted when her father was not a good man at all, ever.
So that sets up a natural tension between Luke and Rey, and it gives a reason for Luke not to be so open with Rey.  The counterbalancing reasons why he should trust Rey comes down to plot, which you can manufacture easily; here, um, “Luke gave up his saber, knowing through Mysterious Force Powers that it would land in the hands of the person who needed it most, and he’s surprised to find that worthy person is Rey Palpatine.”
There. Creating plot to justify your interesting decisions is the least of an author’s powers.
The Rey Palpatine plot-take also explains why Rey’s been dumped on the ass-end of a planet in the middle of nowhere; if the First Order knew that the Emperor’s Granddaughter existed/had survived, then they would stop at nothing to find her.  And they wanted to dump her in a place with no hope, because it turns out the Force is strong in this family and they do not want her to get trained.  At all.
And Rey, who has always longed for her parents, waited endlessly for them, is suddenly torn to shreds.  Her father, like Luke’s, is a monster – but unlike Luke, they didn’t put her on dumb-ass Sand Planet for her benefit, they put her there specifically to neuter her.  All those hours toiling away for portions can be placed at the feet of whoever made that decision.  She’s got a right to be angry, they told her her family was coming back and instead she was going to rot there, turn into that old lady scrubbing parts….
We don’t know who made that decision – but oh wait, we’re plotting! We can just say who it is!  And we’d choose the most interesting person to make that decision, at least in terms of “Whose relationships that person making the decision would change the most,” and thaaaaaat’d be Luke.
But wait; what’s that do to her relationship with Vader-hipster Kylo Ren?
Oh, my friends, that’s the sweet sauce.
Suddenly, Kylo – who worships the ground his grandfather walked on – sees the Emperor’s granddaughter, and they are clearly Meant To Be.  The irony!  Goddamned Luke swayed his father back from the Dark Side just long enough for a rebellion; wouldn’t it be so luscious if he rescued Rey from Luke’s wussy Light Side tendencies to show her true heritage?
It’s unclear what Kylo Ren would want, after acquiring this information. Maybe he’s looking for an apprentice to break out from under General Gollum’s control, which would be a bit depressingly cookie-cutter; maybe he’s looking for someone stronger than him to lead.  But in either case, Rey Palpatine would push every one of that kid’s “I’ve gotta out-Vader Vader” buttons hard.
…and it also provides a deeper and darker resonance for Rey shouting “You’re afraid that you will never be as strong as Darth Vader!
(EDIT: And Holy crap, I just realized the most catastrophic plot development in this Rey-Ren-Snoke triangle:
(Envision Kylo Ren saying, “I found the Emperor’s Granddaughter, we have to protect her.”  Envision Supreme Leader Snoke thinking, This chick is way too bull-headed to convert, and she’s the only real threat to my Force domination, we need to bump her off.  There’s instant conflict there.
(Now imagine what happens when Kylo Ren starts a civil war in the First Order to protect the last heritage of the Great Empire.  Kylo’s not a guy who thinks ahead, so he’d only recognize what he’s done to the First Order only after Snoke’s lifeless body hits the floor  – and you think he hates Rey now?  Oh, God, getting her and converting her would become so personal.)
Now, you’re asking, “What evidence in that movie says that Rey is Palpatine’s daughter?” And again, you’re looking in the wrong place.  After the fact is made, we will retrofit every action in the movie to fit whoever Rey’s parents turn out to be – just like we now assign so much more meaning to Obi-Wan’s hesitations and sadnesses in Episode IV.  But if you must…
I mean, she’s got her grandpa’s technological skills; do you think the old man built something as complex as the Death Star without understanding machines himself?  And Han Solo, the way he looks at her; note that he’s adventuring with her, but is very reticent to do anything for her, until he sees the way she loves that lush green planet.  After that, he asks if she’ll come with him – and in the post-Palpatine decision, that’d be viewed as a clear move to keep an eye on this kid, he likes her, now it’s time to see what she’s made of.  The fact that Chewie likes her – and Chewie’s instincts are far better than his – is a sign.
In that sense, Han watching Kylo Ren walk away from Maz Kanata’s palace takes on a new light; he’s debating whether to potentially kill his son in order to save the Emperor’s granddaughter.
Leia, on the other hand, may or may not know; one would suspect she doesn’t. Or she could have been against this decision from the get-go, and instead wants her to find her destiny with Luke.  Either way, if Rey turns out to be Palpatine’s kid, we’ll manufacture plot to support the decision, and viewed in retrospect we’ll all buy it.
As for Luke, well, if we go with the simple version of “His saber found the worthiest student,” well, he pulled that pseudo-mystical stuff with Artoo and can do it again.  He’s a Jedi Master, and my hope is that Episode VIII will show us more than the haggard old tripartite Force powers of mind trick/telekinesis/force lightning.  I’d like Luke to have some really crazy powers – and I mean, Luke did crash blindly in the one spot where Yoda was waiting, so it’s not like Yoda didn’t have some planet-scale fuckery at his disposal.
(And while we’re at it, here’s my dream Luke-plot for Episode VIII: He’s at the first Jedi Temple, where he trains Rey in all the mystical ways of the Jedi order, and it doesn’t frickin’ work.  He’s teaching her just like Obi-Wan and Yoda taught him, utilizing the millennium of old Jedi teachings, and he’s baffled by why he did all that and wound up with Kylo Ren…
(Until Rey points out that hey, Luke, you’re mindlessly emulating teaching techniques that created Vader and Kylo Ren, and the only time you broke the cycle was when you ignored Obi-Wan and Yoda to go do the right thing – so maybe, just maaaaybe Luke, you should stop trying to teach me like these old blinkered fuddy-duddies and teach me like Luke Fucking Skywalker would.
(Cue Luke’s enlightenment.  Cue Luke becoming an actually good teacher.)
Anyway.  The point is that yeah, Rey could be a Skywalker and could be a Kenobi (my personal hope), but you have to work harder to make those alternatives interesting.  Rey as Palpatine is like the old films, but like the new films it also inverts it – the difference that Rey was not sent away for her protection, but to purposely isolate her, is a huge difference, as would the relationship with Kylo Ren.
There’s no firm evidence either way.  It’s just more interesting.  And alas, in the ever-incestuous Star Wars universe she’s gotta be some player’s kid, because as my friend Richard noted the most shocking plot twist of all would be to have Rey’s ancestry be nobody we’ve ever seen before.
* – Alas, it has to be her father/grandfather and not her mother, as Star Wars takes place in an alternate-universe scenario where the lead roles are actually sentient insects.  Don’t blame me for this theory, blame Max Gladstone.

If You See Me Holding Court At The Convention, Recognize The King Has No Clothes

The elevator doors slide open, and I walk out into the convention bar.  The room’s filled with the chatter of happy authors, people standing in small groups, smiling, ordering drinks.
My brain locks up.
I see an author whose work I enjoy, and my brain stabs me with the thought of: She doesn’t want to talk to some random schmuck.  Why would you bother her?
I see a person I stayed up with until 2:00 in the morning at the last convention, talking until we finally had to slog off to bed, and my brain shrieks: He doesn’t remember you. You’re going to introduce yourself, and get that long awkward silence, and then slink away.
I see someone who I’ve been friends with Twitter on forever, with strings of long @-exchanges that made me laugh, and I go, Well, that’s Twitter, we’re not real friends, and besides, they probably don’t remember our interactions as fondly as I do.
And on the rare occasions I see someone I do know really likes me, who’s told me they actively want to speak to me at this convention, they’re talking with other people I don’t know, and the thought of shouldering my way into that talk feels like poking grizzly bears.
I stand outside of the elevator, blushing furiously, feeling this dumb animal need to run back to my room and call it all off.  Except I’ve spent the last hour in my room psyching myself up for this, sweating, telling myself that this is what I came here for, it’ll be fine, it usually is fine once I break this frozen river of ice, trying to buy into my own hype that yes, people actually want to see me sometimes.
I pick a target.
I step out.
If I do my job right, they never realize that literally four hours of effort have gone into crafting that first casual “Hello.”

At this year’s ConFusion, at least three people said they wanted to talk to me, but they saw me “Holding court.”  I get that a lot.  I tend to accumulate groups of people when I’m chatting.
And I realize as I write this essay that part of the whole “holding court” thing comes from the fact that I try to be aware of my surroundings.  If I see someone creeping up on the edges, I try to welcome them in.  I know how scary that shit is, hanging around the periphery, listening, hoping not to intrude… and so I tend to talk in groups of five and six.
But man, I am not holding court. Or if I am, I am a naked and terrified king, never quite sure why anyone’s here in my presence, thrilled to see you but eternally bewildered.
The thing about breaking the ice is that for me, once I get going, the bravery snowballs.  If I talk to three people, I can usually strike up a conversation with the fourth at no effort.  If I’ve talked with six people, I can snag an invite to dinner.
Yet that effort evaporates ludicrously fast.  I remember spending all of Thursday and Friday chatting effortlessly once I’d finally broken into my first conversation – and then I went up to my room on Saturday for an hour’s nap.  When I returned, I was freeze-locked again, and my good friend Amy had to come down to help me through my anxiety.
I love people, but man, they terrify me.
Yet what I hear over and over again is how well I do at conventions. I always seem to be talking with somebody, or several somebodies, I always seem to be in the thick of social situations, I always seem to be making friends –
– and sometimes folks tell me this with a secret degree of envy, as though they wish they had the trick.  And there are tricks you can deploy; have a rock-solid friend you’ve hung out with outside of conventions to be your wingman, chat a lot on Twitter so you know people without “knowing” them, recognize that you can be scared and still act.  (Also, sometimes? Anti-anxiety drugs.)
But mostly, it’s just stepping out onto the killing floor and discovering that on the whole, people are more welcoming than you’d thought.
And so if you see me holding court, please realize that this isn’t a fiefdom.  It’s a shelter.  If you’re as socially anxious as I am, I want you there.  I’ll welcome you as best I can. I’ll introduce you around. I’ll say hello and be friendly, because man, I’m in the zone now but I am one nap away from being knocked back down to feeling like the out-of-town kid walking into a new classroom full of hostile students.
But if you have to view me as a king holding court, then please view me as a benevolent leader wishing to knight you.  I come from humble origins.  My skills are overrated.
Please. Step into the circle.  Speak “friend,” and enter.
Because you and I are knotted by the same stupid fears.  The only difference between us? Is that maybe I have a little more experience navigating these anxious waters.
I’ll talk to you.
I’ve been there.

You Can Always Find A Couple Of Assholes On Twitter

Here’s a “news” story I despise:
1)  A Newsworthy Event happens.
2)  Intrepid Journalist goes out onto Twitter to hunt for the dumbest, most upsetting reactions possible.
3)  A clickbait article then presents these Twitter reactions, going, “PEOPLE HOLD HATEFUL OPINIONS LOOK AT HOW STUPID THEY ARE.”
Look. There’s lots of places that do genuinely attract cesspools of hateful reactions – had to shut down comments on Tamir Rice news articles after being swamped with racist assholes, and certainly if you look through Anita Sarkeesian’s @-replies you’ll find tons of loathesome sexist comments.
But this is a big world, guys.
Even when 99.9% of the world agrees this is fucking awesome, there’s always going to be a handful of douches who react like a fucking moron to any news story.
And I think making a habit of seeking out the twenty dickwads in order to engineer rageclicks actually hurts us. I think it’s a variant on the “local news” segment, where reporters go around finding every break-in and mugging and car accident and report it until people feel like they’re under siege in their own homes, even in a safe suburban town.
There are incidents that indicate a genuine outswelling of distressing behavior, of course – but those are because there’s hundreds of thousands of people, say, believing Trump’s lies that “thousands” of mythical New Jersey Muslims were cheering on 9/11.
But there’s also news stories where 99% of the population goes, “Eh, no big whoop” – and these clickfuckers go out searching for the dumbest, most racist/sexist/homophobic reactions because they know you’ll get pissed.  And I think if you treat these clickbait articles as though they reflect real life, like Fox gins up the terror of Muslims, you become convinced the world is out to getcha, when in reality it’s probably the same massively overwhelmed and outvoted segment of the population expressing some opinions their Facebook friends would probably consider douchey.
(And it’s also impossible, out of context, to know how many of those people were trolling.  There was a lot of baby boomer outrage when Paul McCartney played with Kanye West and folks went, “Who’s that old dude?” – and at least some of those accounts were purposely trying to piss off people.  Not that there’s anything wrong with a seventeen-year-old kid not knowing who Paul McCartney is anyway.)
And I think that the “find the douchebags” game presents a burn-n-slash presentation of “winning” – because it implies if you can find one moron shouting out in the wilderness, we have yet to achieve victory.
Which is never going to happen.  That goal implies a thoroughly Orwellian world, and it’s the same world where fundamentalists think they can make every single person love Jesus.  Humanity is messy, and sloppy, and it is impossible to get everyone believing what you do, no matter how noble you believe your cause is.  It just doesn’t happen. It never has happened.  There will always be dissent.
The best that rationally happens is to have these people so overwhelmingly outnumbered that they’re not taken seriously.  Sure, there’s always gonna be some idiot who thinks the world is ruled by snake people – and you can find their Twitter, too! – but that guy’s never gonna muster voters into overthrowing the snake people, his core values are never gonna be taken seriously by the press, he’s never gonna live his dreams.
He’ll find a cluster of snake-people-haters online, and he’ll be thoroughly convinced he’s right, and nobody else will care.
That is victory.
And like I said, because people tend to get pissy about these things and then shut down their reading comprehension, I’m not discussing stuff where there are thousands of responses and people polling significant digits in the populations and elections at stake.
But there are also issues where really, pretty much everybody’s like “Yeah, whatever” except for this handful of idiots.  And if you shine a light on these idiots, then suddenly people feel like they have to have opinions, and you get a ginned-up wellspring of idiocy like The Starbucks Cup controversy, where nobody fucking cared until people realized you might be pissed off about it, and they found That One Moron, and then it became a Cultural Issue where morons started climbing aboard because hey, if liberals are against it then I must be for it…
And realistically, what happened was that websites converted your outrage into advertising dollars, and you felt like the world was full of maniacs, and the truth was that there were like six maniacs total, living out where nobody cared, until people hunted them down to scare you.
And sure.  Those maniacs exist.  But they didn’t have any real power.  And blowing them up into the Next Big Assault makes it seem like you’re continually under siege, and it blends into the real sieges, and the next thing you know you’re as paranoid as a Fox News viewer.
So yeah.  Not a fan.

Things I Don't Understand: Ranking Sexual Conquests.

“‘I’m going to analyze my own experience with women in order to shed some light on what women are really like,’ Jared had written. What followed was a list of his sexual conquests, evaluated with a numerical score that ranked each woman’s face, body, and personality, as well as a brief description.”
And all I can think is, “…why would you do that?”
Yet I know that a lot of men – particularly the Red Pill dudes referenced so lavishly in that article – in fact, *do* rank everyone they sleep with.
And all I can think is, “Man, that has to be the saddest sex ever.” Because when I’m with someone, I’m looking to be swept away by sensation – I want that kiss so fierce it shuts out the world so all I think about is this moment. I want it to feel so good when she touches me that my sole remaining thought is more. I want to lose myself in her body, to create this vibrating loop of organic and orgasmic feedback that leaves us both spent and shuddering.
I’ve watched Star Wars as a young boy. I’ve also watched Star Wars as a critic. And lemme tellya, walking into the bedroom with a critic’s eye carries a certain intellectual satisfaction, but it sure gets in the way of cheering for Luke.
Fucking them while also accumulating the data to later tally whether they were a 5-face or a 6-face seems like you’re not so much a sexual partner but a polling method using a dick instead of a phone call.
More importantly, gaining that critical knowledge seems like a way to never be satisfied. While you’re in the bedroom, you have to be thinking, “Could I be doing better? Why have I settled for a 7 personality tonight?” And I doubt the guys who do this think that far down, but their subconscious has to be burbling with thoughts of “Am I so desperate for affection that I’ll lower my own standards just not to be alone? Why can’t I consistently nail a 10/10/10? What will I do if I ever find the perfect woman?”
Man, I think those guys have to be roiling with bizarre insecurities. This isn’t connection; this is grinding Achievements on X-Box.
Which is not to say I don’t have flashes of scientific thought in the bedroom – those dim ignitions of Oh, she liked that move, maybe I should try that on someone else later on
– but when I’m with someone, it’s because I want to be wholly with them. I’m not comparing and contrasting them against everyone else I might have slept with, I am appreciating what is there before me. They’re revealing themselves, and I’m revealing myself, and together we’ll see what sorts of unique chemistry we can unlock.
I think ranking like that always means a part of you is elsewhere, hoping for a better experience, leaving you itching for novelty even when you’re kissing someone for the first time. Whereas I think it’s far superior to focus on extracting the joy and passion and sweetness that can be gotten from a partner who you’ve decided to be with not because you wanted to see if you could fuck them, not because you wanted to check off a new tally on their score, but for the simple reason that they turned you on.
It’s easier. And I think, ultimately, brings you to a better and less bitter place. And I wonder if so many Red Pill guys seem miserable from a distance because they’re not actually connecting with women, but instead are playing this constructed strategy game with their ego where accumulating bodies serves as a replacement for self-worth, and they get increasingly angry when they realize they’re getting everything they wanted but it’s like seawater – you can drink, and drink, and drink, and drown.
Maybe the only solution is to walk away. But I don’t know if any of them could do that.