Why Asking The People Around You Is A Crappy Way Of Seeing If Your Culture’s Okay.

I watch a lot of Gordon Ramsay, the notoriously foul-mouthed chef. I especially like the episodes where he strides into dying restaurants that serve crappy food to a dwindling customer base, and attempts to convince the owners that their microwaved lasagna is not worth anyone’s $12.00.

These owners are, inevitably, going broke, or they wouldn’t have called in Gordon Ramsay to harangue them. But I’d say about half of them are absolutely convinced that their food is great.

“You don’t see them complaining!” the restaurant owners cry, waving their hands at the five dismal retirees huddled miserably around a table.

Which is true. They’re not complaining. The trick to understanding life is that most people, when doing something for fun, don’t actually complain.

They just go somewhere else.

If a meal at a restaurant is terrible, it takes either a massive fault in customer service or a massive asshole to call the manager over and say “HEY! YOUR FOOD IS TURDS ON TOAST!” A handful of people will leave negative reviews online.

Most people just shrug, say, “That was disappointing,” and go searching for a place that is actually providing good food. They don’t bother to tell you personally because they’re not invested in your restaurant’s success.

Their feedback is absence. They don’t come back.

It’s a nebulous message, but then again, they’re not concerned about giving you a message. They just wanted a nice place to eat, and this? Is not it.

So when that restaurant owner waves their hand around to say, “My food is good! You don’t see them complaining!”, this is true. The regulars at this place may actually like it. But if you’re trying to determine whether a restaurant is successful, taking a poll of the regulars may not actually tell you what you need to know, because the people who could give you the useful feedback have walked out the goddamned door.

And so it goes with most hobbies.

I say this because right now, Magic: the Gathering is dealing with a huge problem – about 45% of their players are women, but when it comes to the professional Magic tournament scene, probably less than 1% of the pro players are women. And why is that?

And the interesting thing is that a distressing amount of the male Magic: the Gathering fans are that restaurant owner. They wave their hands about the room and say, “Magic doesn’t have a sexism problem! You don’t hear them complaining!” And they point to a room of almost all dudes.

Who they’re not listening to is, you know, all the women who tried playing in high-level in Magic tournaments and found people assuming they were some real man’s girlfriend and being scorned for their appearance and having their skills questioned at every turn and oh yeah, also being hit on a lot and then scorned when they weren’t there to date…

They left.

Most of them didn’t go out in a blaze of “HERE IS WHY I AM GOING” – they weren’t sufficiently invested in pro Magic, which clearly didn’t care much for them, to turn their “fun hobby” into a “gruelling crusade to change the cultural face of Magic.”

They just kept playing at kitchen tables, where it was fun.

And the lesson is this: whenever you’re asking, “Why aren’t more people here?” the answer will often not be found anywhere among the people who are there. The answer will be found among the people who left – people who are harder to track down, people whose voices you may well have been prone to ignoring in the first place, people who just wanted fun and found overpriced microwaved lasagna.

And sometimes – as with Magic – the answer is “There are lots of people here, but note the people who aren’t.” Which, if you’re concerned about attracting a different audience to your game – and Wizards is very much concerned about having 40%+ of their audience not playing in their high-profile events – is a hard question to ask when you can’t just take a poll of everyone sitting at the table.

But you need to. Because the answer to your question is often, “I wanted fun and got turds on toast.” And then you have to figure out what’s more profitable – the five pensioners at the table, or the hordes of people outside who tried your food and found a better cafe.

Message ends.

Three Projects You Might Wanna Check Out

Project #1:
So if you subscribed to my newsletter, you’d have been the first to hear the special news: I’ll be hosting a book discussion in April on Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series over on at the Dream Foundry, a site devoted to helping new science fiction and fantasy writers get their start.

Seanan’s Wayward Children series – there’s [https://amzn.to/2UVkFGL][currently four novellas, each of which read like lightning] – is about a halfway house for kids who’ve come back, dazzled and broken, from Narnia or Oz or whatever other fantasy world they escaped to, and currently cannot handle the real world. I’ll be looking at this from the perspective of Found Families – which is something I can’t stop writing about in my own books, apparently – and I’m compiling my questions as we speak.

It’s a fledgling site, so head over to their forums and sign up! Which means you have a week read at least one book in the Wayward Children series – which you should, because it’s pretty awesome.

Project #2:
I went with my sweetie Fox as they recently auditioned for Polygone, which is an episodic television show in production about polyamory – and I have to say, I was impressed by the reality of the script, which was still a work-in-progress. The producers and writers are working to get the details of a complex mesh of polyamorous lovers right, including some of the negative bits – I mean, it’s not a dramatic television show without some drama – and they’re holding an Indiegogo funding campaign right now to raise cash for it. Go check it out if that sounds up your avenue.

Project #3:
My friend Kelly is holding a Kickstarter for Technical Dissonance, a Cyberpunk RPG zine that gives a whole bunch of system-neutral NPCs, settings, and plotbunnies for RPGs like Shadowrun, The Sprawl, GURPS, Cyberpunk 2020. If you need a little hacker-grit in your life, I’d check it out.

In Which I Suddenly See Things From My Dog’s Perspective

So. Whenever I get up to use the bathroom, the dog thinks it is PLAYTIME. And, of course, I’ll happily play a brief round of tug-of-war or fetch with my dog on the way to the potty.

But whenever I play tug-of-war with her, I make silly dog noises to mock her: rawr, rawr, rawr. Done it for years. If I make the noise out of context, her ears will perk up in confusion: Aren’t we playing tug-of-war now?

After years of doing this, I just realized:

My dog doesn’t make that noise.

She barks, she growls, but she doesn’t go rawr.

Which means that from my dog’s perspective, for absolutely no reason, I make a rawr-rawr noise when I am in a playful mood, and she has simply chalked it up as one of my many eccentricities.

Which, I suppose, it is.

How The Electoral College Made Me Fat

You ever remember the moment where you first truly felt like an adult?

I do. It was at a diner.

Because there I was, with my friends, at my favorite diner in Westport. And I was in total control of the meal: I’d chosen my company, I could eat anything I wanted off the menu (even the desserts!), and at the end of the meal I paid the check with my own money, which I had earned.

I remember sitting there, eating my open-faced turkey sandwich with two buddies as they drank coffee and traded stories, feeling the pride of realizing I’d made this meal happen.

I was all of nineteen, but I’d already integrated the idea that Grown-Ups Go Out To Dinner.

Which, in my household, was honestly the metric. My mother and Uncle Tommy both loved fine dining, so at least twice a month we’d go out to a restaurant to see how it was. We’d experiment with different foods – back in the early 1980s, the idea of “sushi” or “salsa” was still alluringly transgressive – and gush about the idea of mole sauce on steak, and compare meals to see who had won.

So eating out was always an event – family-style, with Gramma and Tommy and Mom and Bruce all sipping wine and asking about the daily specials.

Was it any wonder I became a foodie?

Which drove a lot of experiments in life – I became relentless in seeking out new experiences, in part because of my mother and Uncle’s dinners at the latest joint in town, which translated into other wild adventures like me playing Frank at the Rocky Horror Picture Show and me setting people on fire for fun (safely, of course) and me keeping bees and me moving to Alaska to marry a woman on the Internet –

Just crazy stuff after crazy stuff, but it mostly worked out.

But I didn’t realize all the knock-on effects until I was driving home from dropping Gini off at the airport yesterday. She’d made delicious Chicken A La King last night, which was still in the kitchen with fresh rice, ready to go for my lunch….

Yet all the way home, I kept thinking, Gini’s gone. I can treat myself. My eyes would linger on every restaurant, thinking, I could get myself something from there before realizing, “Wait. One of my favorite dishes is waiting for me, for free, in my fridge, and you want to go somewhere else to get a meal?”

Yet part of my brain went, But it’s special.

And a problem with my diet snapped into focus: Because my mother and Uncle Tommy had taken me out to dinner for special occasions, I’d come to think of dining out itself as a special occasion, even if it was something as trivial as stopping by Five Guys. Eating at home was all good and well, especially when Gini’s a good cook and I’m no slouch myself, but…

There I was, nineteen, at that diner.

For me, “eating out” was part of how I defined myself as a functional human being. I mean, not every night. But more nights than I should, because if all else was equal, I’d rather go out to Aladdin’s Diner than I would eating an equivalent meal at home –

And if I’m out, am I eating healthy food? I mean, no! I’m a grown-up. Part of the thrill is getting to choose the special food this place has! Why would I go out somewhere and not try this special milkshake, sample the cool appetizer, see how their take on chicken-fried steak is?

And all that was pretty much subliminal until one car ride snapped it into focus.

Now, I’m almost fifty. And my parents made some decisions when I was seven that, it turns out, still have some pretty weird ramifications decades down the line. They didn’t mean to – they just liked trying new restaurants – but here I am, realizing that part of the reason I eat unhealthy is because I have linked “dining” to “being a grownup” –

  • and let me tell you, considering that I know some folks will be moaning, “I’ve never felt like a grownup” in response to my opening question here, being rooted even temporarily in an identity as an adult is a powerful experience. Especially when all you have to do is give the waiter money when they come round with the check.

And all that’s had ramifications – how I look certainly inspires differing social interactions, my heart was always going to be bad (genetically, I have severe issues) but that contributed to the triple bypass, the sweets may have contributed to my gum disease, which may also have contributed to the heart issues….

That’s a pretty elaborate chain of events. And I don’t anyone back in 1982 would have anticipated where we’d get from here – that’s just how complicated life is.

Which brings me to the electoral college.

Now, some of my Democratic friends are considering abolishing the American electoral college, instead electing Presidents by “Whoever gets the majority of the popular vote.” And both those for or against are saying, quite confidently, that getting rid of the electoral college either will or won’t cause politicians to turn away from less populated rural areas, and it certainly won’t (or will) cause Presidential candidates to exclusively campaign in big cities, and they all know what will happen so they’re very for or against it.


Well, I’m thinking of a comparatively simple decision – “Let’s take little Ferrett with us to the new Italian place!” – and all the weirdo effects that’s having years later. And I’m thinking of how complicated life is, and of all these people who seem extremely certain that they can predict all the ramifications that will spring from a decision that literally affects the overarching strategy of every Presidential candidate from now on, and the ways that voters will react to those strategies, and the counterstrategies that will be formed….

And I think of how the first effective female contraceptive was created only fifty years ago and how it’s led to a wild growth in women’s rights, followed by a conservative backlash because people were freaked the fuck out about independent women, and that’s threaded through all our politics and been amplified by the Internet and led to a societal upheaval where all the old courtship rituals have been upended because women are on a more equal footing and now both men and women are often confused as how to find a partner, whereas others are just fine without partners, and some are finding new ways of creating partnerships that don’t rely much on traditional marriage or commitment as we know it at all….

And I don’t think any of that would have been predicted when Margaret Sanger first started funding The Pill.

And as I watch the arguments over the electoral college, I see everyone being very certain that the future is this easily predictable metric, that people are this homogenous mass that will respond sanely to these new incentives, and while I recognize that life is too chaotic and fast-moving to wait for perfect data before we make a choice, I’m shocked at just how casually these people say, “Oh, we know what will happen.”

Whereas I’m at home alone tonight. I have some leftover Chicken A La King still. And I feel this strong urge to get some takeout, an entirely useless takeout, in a home I own with a loving wife who I once moved wildly out to Alaska to marry because of the unexpected results of a set of very small decisions made decades ago.

And I’m thinking how very hard it is to understand how things will turn out in the long run. Some people do it. And I respect them.

But the ones who seem to get it right the most often are the ones who aren’t quite so certain about their predictions.

The Decisions We Don’t Realize We’re Making: On Chugga Chugga Choo-Choos and White Nationalism

One of my favorite Internet distractions is “Things we didn’t realize we had firm opinions on, but we actually do.”

Today, that distraction is “the number of chuggas.”

The thing is, nobody ever sat down with you and said, “Here’s how many chuggas come before the choo-choo.” (For the record, I say “four.” I am an outlier.) But internally, thanks to a variety of subtle cues, there’s a certain number of chuggas that feels right to you before that oh-so-satisfying “choo choo” comes whistling out.

But that’s not the only weird decision you’ve come to! For example, I’m describing a dragon, and I tell you it’s a green young dragon. Wait – that can’t be right. It sounds weird. I mean a young green dragon, certainly.

Yet as Mark Forsythe wrote:

“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.”

And again, nobody sat down with you to teach you that – I mean, maybe you saw the same viral Tweet I did and learned it, but there weren’t grammar lessons forcing you to list them in the proper order. You just fell into the rhythm of things.

The fascinating thing about all of this is that we are awash in firm opinions we didn’t actually realize we had, because nobody challenges them seriously. We’re continually ping-ponged back and forth by ideas that we didn’t generate, and weirdly, we didn’t even realize we’d internalized – they’re just there, so deeply ingrained that we don’t even bother to argue with those ideas, and recoil from anyone who presents an opposing opinion.

Yet there’s an equally weird idea many people have that they purposely chose all of their opinions. As though at some point in their childhood, a dark tall Opinion Man came round to their house with a leather large valise full of potential opinions and laid them all out before them – and then the children, using nothing but the power of logic, either accepted or rejected every conclusion they could have possibly come to.

And those people will get very flustered if you suggest they inhaled some of their opinions without thinking about them, picking them up like trace elements in water. I remember a jovial friend of mine who, when I suggested he had some intuitive elements to his personality, grimly told me, “No. I am a rational man. I know every element that has ever affected me.”

He is now on his second or third divorce, I don’t remember which. And his exes will tell you that he doesn’t so much know every element that affects him so much as he constructs a logical justification in retrospect, because he’s utterly terrified of believing that any part of him is not properly vetted by himself.

But my point is, none of us are immune to picking up opinions that you didn’t realize you had. It’s kind of frightening to think that something slipped past your conscious thought and became rooted in your expressed behavior – but here you are, wincing when I described a suitcase as a “leather large” valise.

So there you are, surrounded by a whirlwind of subliminal opinions that have wormed their way into your judgment. There are things that seem right, and things that seem wrong to you. And they’re generally not so earth-shattering that you will bother to correct someone; they just irritate you, so that you think a little less of someone.

And some of those opinions? Are racist.

And some of them are sexist.

And yes, like my very rational friend, some of the folks reading this will rise up in indignation because I’m not sexist or racist, I don’t know what you’re thinking, I’m a very rational thinker.

But there’s a lot of things that do get absorbed into your system, and you might not even be aware of ’em until someone points them out. It’s sort of like the way black kids are more likely to get arrested or shot by cops because at some point an opinion made their way into the cops’ bloodstream that young men with black skin are more threatening than young men with white skin.

And I think most of those cops, if they gave an honest answer, would deny the idea that they’re racist. But when they’re chasing after someone, that idea that “black kids mature faster” or “black people feel less pain” triggers, and they act in a way that comes to a racist conclusion even if none of their conscious mindsets went for that at all.

Likewise, a lot of people – men and women – would tell you that they’re not sexist. But studies have shown that a group is perceived to be overwhelmingly dominated by women if they’re occupying around 30% of the conversation. And that reaction is probably as subliminal as the leather large valise problem, but it does affect how the conversations happen.

And whenever I suggest “Hey, maybe you have some subliminal conclusions that help encourage discrimination,” I get a variant on the “Yes I am very logical” debate, because these people know who they are, it’s ridiculous to suggest they might not have mapped out the entirety of their being, they don’t have a racist bone in their body.

But I wonder how many chuggas they need. Again, they probably didn’t map out the number of chuggas – but whenever they’re playing with a kid, there they are, taking a number they did not actually come to a conscious conclusion on and passing it on to another child. If they hang around with that kid long enough, eventually that kid will grow up to be a three-chugga kid because, well, that’s the chuggas in the air and that’s the way chuggas should be.

Pretty harmless for a chugga-chugga-chugga-choo-choo.

Little more harmful if it’s racism.