When Having Friends Is More Alluring Than Being Right

“There’s this flat-earther documentary called BEHIND THE CURVE,” my wife said. “We have to watch it!”

Of course we did. My wife will occasionally get into huge debates with flat-earthers on Facebook, dutifully reporting back on all the idiocy she dug up that day.

Now, I didn’t care much about flat-earthers, but I care very much about the amusement of watching my adorable wife get worked up about these dippy-doodles, so… we watched.

Except the flat-earthers weren’t dippy-doodles.

They were just lonely.

Which is not to say that each of them didn’t believe in the flat earth – oh, they did – but most of the people interviewed had a similar path to getting so deep into flat eartherism that they spent their own money to fly out to flat earth conventions:

1) They sorta believed that the earth was flat.

2) They told their friends, who either blew them off or mocked them or both.

3) They found a group of flat-earthers online, who were very welcoming and happy to find a fellow flat-earther.

4) Slowly, these people abandoned their old friends and converted to the new folks, who’d never tell them they were wrong about the flat-earth. Which had the side effect of making their flat-earth beliefs the most prominent part of their personality.

5) Eventually, the rejection becomes the proof that they’re on the road to truth, and no amount of evidence will convince them because this is no longer about logic – it’s about using their own logic to build a shield to protect them from rejection.

I wound up admiring the flat-earthers – some were funny, some were smart aside from the flat-earth stuff, some were compassionate. But the most telling part was at the end, when they interviewed one of the most devoted flat-earthers and asked him (I’m paraphrasing):

“What if you got irrefutable proof that the Earth was round? You’d lose all your friends. Could you walk away from this culture you helped create?”

And to his credit, he answered honestly:

“No. No, I don’t think I could.”

At which point I flung up my hands and cried, “What do you do?”

Because at this point, there’s a whole community which is united by one common principle: We didn’t like being told we were wrong, so we found somewhere that told us that we were right.

How do you fight that? Either you take these people with their whackadoodle ideas and go, “You know, you have a point, the earth is shaped like a kitten” – at which point you give acceptability to those answers – or you tell them they are factually wrong, at which point they’ll be so stung by the rejection that they’re vulnerable to being picked up by communities that embrace these wrongheaded opinions.

And if it was just flat-earthers, I’d say fine, it’s harmless. But you’ve got anti-vaxxers and Men’s Rights Advocates and anti-global warming folks and TERFs and incels out there, all fueled by one central pivot point of humanity – namely, that it’s lonely being wrong.

Except the internet has made wrong people folks to be courted. In fact, the more wrong people you can get on your side, the less you’ll be lonely. And the only cost to be a part of these groups is that you can never question the beliefs at the core of it, because that wrongness is what binds you, and any evidence that contradicts that wrongness must be either discarded, attacked, or humiliated.

It’s not a good look.

But to quote Billy Joel, it’s better than drinking alone.

And sometimes, that welcoming Internet has been a lifeline to people – I mean, hell, folks with all sorts of kinks can get together on FetLife, gays and trans folks can congregate to see that they’re not a freakish as their families would have them believe. And though there’s always more human messiness in the world of science than most science advocates would care to acknowledge, the truth is that most scientists are happy to be proven wrong by a replicable, verifiable study – they’re seeking the truth, not the hypothesis.

But I think of that flat-earther – charming, witty, funny – and how the Internet guided him into a place where he became a minor celebrity among the flat-earthers, taking a nameless dude from nowhere and elevating him to the point where Netflix is making a documentary about him and his buddies.

The Internet creates communities.

It does not care whether those communities’ beliefs have any relation to the truth.

And the scary part is that in practice, the Internet may be more fertile in creating communities that oppose the truth – because the folks who genuinely believe that, say, manure is good fertilizer for a garden or that some brands of 3D printers clog less than others have little need to defend themselves.

But the people who believe bullshit? They need other people who believe bullshit to help hold them together. And as such, they’re a little friendlier, a little more willing to outreach, a little more desperate for new buddies.

Because as long as they have someone to back them up, they’re not a crank – they’re a part of a grand rebellion, peeling back the layers The Man has laid down to uncover the pulsing, vital truth.

And what’s more life-affirming than that?

There’s been discussions about how physical community used to give people a sense of meaning – yes, those churches and Elks clubs may have been biased, but they helped you feel like you were actually a part of a larger whole. Which is something people have searched for throughout history.

I think, perhaps, by inventing the Internet, we’ve created a medium that leverages our sense of community with no outside forces to counteract that. Normally, in a town with 100,000 members, you could see that you were the only one who believed that balloons were the breath of the antiChrist and go, “Huh, I may be right, but… I’m gonna have to convince a lot of people face to face.”

These days? Your community is a click away, that sweet sweet justification a continual flow, and if you never step outside of your house you’ll never meet anyone face to face who’ll tell you you’re wrong. It’s just a bunch of faceless people, easily dehumanized. Whereas your friends, who are also words, speak to your heart.

How do you fight that? And here is where I wish I had an answer, but man, whatever the solution is, it won’t be simple. Ban them? They go elsewhere and feel like this is their personal diaspora. Throw facts at them? Their whole community makes them impervious to facts. Abandon them? They never needed you.

I don’t know how you fight it. But it’s there. And the real solution is to teach people that maybe not everything that makes you feel good IS good for you, but we’ve been trying to teach folk that forever that that trick never works, Rocky.

But there’s a community that believes the earth is flat. They’re friends because of that fact. Dissolve the fact, their friendships are lessened.

Would you give up your best friends in search of the truth? Speaking frankly, few people have. And I think that’s why it’s gonna get a lot worse before it gets better.

Speaking In The Present Tense Hides The Past

“I think that arguing well is an entirely separate skill from being correct, and some of the people who’ve learned to argue the best do so because it’s easier for them to manipulate people’s opinions than it is for them to manipulate facts.”

That’s true. I believe that.

What I dislike is the present-tense implication that I’ve always thought that way.

Whereas honestly, twenty-year-old Ferrett would have fought that statement tooth and nail, because he was a very good arguer, and he was all too often on the wrong side of the facts. Thirty-year-old Ferrett would have also fought it, but he probably would have retreated into his bedroom to think about it for a while (at least when he wasn’t sulking). Forty year old Ferrett would have been neutral on the topic.

Fifty year old Ferrett believes it.

Yet when I make that initial statement – “I think” – it doesn’t sound like a conversation I’ve been having with myself for years, the sum of a decades-long evolution on thoughts I’ve had. It doesn’t contain the concept that I might have been wrong on this in the past, or that I might have made this mistake myself constantly over the course of the years, or whether this is a new opinion or an old one.

The present tense gives it a veneer of immutability, whether it deserves one or not.

And I don’t like that because a lot of what I’m trying to say is that people are mutable. Everyone knows that who you are at fourteen isn’t the same person you are at twenty, but for some reason there’s this societal concept that at some point in life you get it together and your wisdom snaps in and that’s it.

Whereas the truth – I think – is that most people keep changing throughout their lives, for good or for ill. For every Fox News conservative, those once-loving grandparents who have soured into Trump over the years, there’s an older woman who wondered why gay people needed to get married back in 1990 but now are like “Love is love.”

Our opinions change.

And I find that present-tense, speaking-from-the-pulpit impression to be harmful because there’s that sense of this is who I am, this is who I’ve always been, I’ve always had this correct opinion and thus I have always behaved wonderfully. And hence, Good People have Good Opinions.

But it’s why I squirm away from anyone labelling me as a good guy. That opinion, in some cases, has been chipped out from hard-earned stupidity, cases where I bludgeoned people into numbness through Extremely Clever Dialectical Tricks, and when I say “This is how it is” it’s not some statement of purity, but rather a contemplation of how many times I had to fuck it up before I finally understood.

I’m a wiser person than I used to be. I’m a more compassionate one, too. But any statement I make that occludes my history as a flawed human being, someone who wasn’t spontaneously gestated with these ideas but instead came to them in part through the hard labor of those who worked to convince me, is to me an abomination.

We evolve together. I may be a better person today. But I was a worse person yesterday. And sometimes, that realization allows me to extend a necessary compassion to those genuinely in flux.

Not everyone’s worth debating with, of course. But that also doesn’t mean that anyone with an idiot’s opinion is to be discarded, either. Because many times I make a statement where people go, “Anyone who’d have problems with that is an idiot!” and I think Oh, my friend, how I wish you could understand that I was that idiot.

Message ends.

Your Partner Should Not Be A Full-Time Job (Probably)

“Getting a man is simple,” say the advice columnists. “All you have to do is look beautiful, cook well, be a raging demon in the sack, learn the art of Laotian massage, don’t nag him, keep your money issues in line, and – oh yeah – devote your life to pleasing him 24/7. And then you’ll keep your man! Forever!”

That does not sound like a partner.

That sounds like a full-time position that I hope to hell you’re getting health care for.

And yes, in the halcyon days of the 1950s when single women couldn’t get their own credit cards (seriously, they couldn’t, look it up), “caring for your husband like he was your full-time job” was a valid strategy because honestly, other employment options were hard to come by. So you latched onto a decent man (hopefully) and treated him like that job at McDonald’s – smile for the boss, slack off in the corners.

But it’s seventy years later, and your options are now wider! You can probably earn money on your own! In fact, since the Baby Boomers crashed the economy for your sucker millennials, you probably have to earn money on your own, even if you’d rather be a one-income household!

At which point, the question becomes:

Is treating your partner like a full-time job healthy for you?

Which is not, of course, to say that your partner should be an eternally ephemeral vacation. Real relationships take work sometimes – you have to condense slippery thoughts into concrete communication, you have to make compromises and shape expectations, and yes, even argue a bit. Generally, steering two boats in roughly the same direction will take labor.

But there’s a difference between “maintenance work” and “sculpting all your behaviors to please one person.” Sure, you can probably get someone to stick around for a while if you shave off all your rough edges, but that presumes you’ll never have a day when you need to be catered to.

Truth is, eventually you’re gonna have a shitty day when things aren’t going your way and you just can’t forge ahead with the “Please your partner 24/7” plan. And there’s two basic ways your partner can then respond:

  • “Wow, I’m sorry things are going so badly for you, what can I do to help you?”
  • “I’ll excuse this failure on your part for now because of exceptional circumstances, but I’ll have to put a mark on your record.”

Enough black marks, and you get fired. Because you’re not someone who is loved or cherished; you’re someone who is there to do a job.

(There’s an even more subtle trick here, particularly when someone is rich: they’ll often say something like “What can I do to help you?” when what they’re really asking is, “How much money do I have to pay for someone else to fix you?” If they’re shelling out for vacations and psychiatrists and shopping trips and yet aren’t taking a direct hand, that’s usually a sign that their ROI for you is going down.)

Yet my point is that perpetually playing the perfect partner is problematic. You want someone who actively shares interests with you, not someone who’ll magnanimously let you run off in your spare time to have adventures. You want someone who still loves you when your makeup’s off and you’re a little snippy because you’re running late to the DMV. You want someone who values you as a person, not just what you can offer them.

Or maybe not! Because there’s nothing wrong with a negotiated tit-for-tat situation. If you decide, “This person has things I desire, and I will devote my hours to catering to them so they will cater to me,” well, at least you’ve made an active decision. And you don’t expect love out of it, necessarily, just a healthy exchange of goods and services.

But too many people – men and women and genderqueer – unthinkingly buy into this idea of “I must shape myself into a perfect pleaser” and then acquire the sort of person who all too often wants a perfect pleaser – which is to say, someone selfish, shallow, and short-sighted – they wind up astonished when the relationship is as emotionally fulfilling as scrubbing the fryers at McDonald’s. (If, hopefully, a bit more lucrative.)

And that’s not to say that there aren’t times you may choose to make your partner a full-time job. If they become sick and you opt to become their caretaker, that’s something you chose to do out of love and compassion. But the point is: choose it actively. Don’t seek out people who you need to continually pour energy into or else they leave, unless that’s a bargain you have carefully contemplated.

Because what I think what most people want in a partner is someone who reaches back across the aisle – someone who is equally devoted to them in the same way.

And there’s nothing wrong with getting a paycheck. But please don’t put in an employment application and expect to get love in return.

On Being Past My Sell-By Date At Fifty

I’ve dreaded turning fifty for one reason and one reason only:

I no longer fit in the right part of the search form.

See, even though I’m not actively looking for partners at this point, I still cruise OKCupid on a regular basis. It’s my equivalent of peoplewatching down by the park; I see who’s in my neighborhood, what they like, maybe check out a few mutual hobbies.

And at 49, for all of 2019 right up until July third, I had been teetering on the edge:

“Searching for partners between 34 and 49.”

That was reasonable. I mean, it’s a good spread of age. But the people who were in their forties?

Most of them weren’t cool with dating men who were 50.

At least on the form.

You know, and maybe they are okay with dating a man who is, at this point, a decrepit 50 years and two days as of this writing, but… I’m not gonna ask ’em. I’ve long said that if someone expresses a preference, it’s kinda douchey to stick your head in and say, “HELLO MIGHT I BE YOUR EXCEPTION?” I think that people deserve to be taken at their words.

And in respecting that, I have crossed the rubicon.

(Which is, to be honest, the kind of phrase only old dudes use.)

Look, I think age striations are important on some level. When I was 38, I could have snuck into some of the under-30 BDSM get-togethers, mainly because some of the members invited me. But honestly? If there’s a place for younger members to congregate, then congregate they should. So I never went.

And algorithmically, I know I have ticked over into the “less attractive” field. Like I said, a lot of the dating services have predetermined age ranges, and I’ll be standing outside those defaults. In the space of a day, I’ve had one of those arbitrary bureaucracy markers, like the birthday I woke up and discovered I was no longer eligible for all the under-12 freebies you could get at fast food places.

There I was, older, and no wiser.

Yet the thing is, I don’t feel older. I continue to be positively and continually baffled by how old I am. I thought when I’d get to fifty I’d have this Snapchat filter-like thing covering all my memories, so when I looked back to my memories of the 1980s they would be sepia-tinted, maybe speckled with a few film-grain markers – something, anything to signal that this memory was thirty goddamned years ago.

But no. I do not feel like someone creeping up on the senior discount at Denny’s. I feel relentlessly young, my memories of the 1990s music vivid and joyous right up until I’m talking to someone attractive – a full-grown goddamned human who I sorta wanna cuddle with – who mentions yeah, she absolutely loved that song when she was in sixth grade and there I was drinking beer in my apartment listening to that song with my first fiancee.

Where the hell did this age come from?

And I wanna respect the age, I do, because while I don’t think there’s anything theoretically wrong with dating outside your age range, I do think there’s something sad about the number of dudes who date women thirty years younger because they get off on that thrill of having someone think they’re older and wiser and more stable, which is an act they can’t pull on someone else in their fifties.

Which, as someone with social anxiety, is a mild concern – at what point do I Steve Buscemi it up, carrying my skateboard into the school to say “How do you do, fellow kids“?

It’s a weird concern, because yes, there’s always going to be those people who say “Don’t be concerned with how others perceive you! Just live your life!” But “How I live my life” is in part defined by making people I like comfortable around me, and part of that comfort is not necessarily being constrained by my age but at least being aware of it, and not being that guy who’s all like “I live two blocks down and I don’t really use my dick a lot but the women have told me they prefer my mouth.”

And right now marks an algorithmic transition stage. I’m still vaguely perplexed every time I look down and see that my chest has become all white hair – aren’t I healthier than ever now? And yes, I am, and I’m wiser than I’ve ever been (which isn’t to say much, but it’s there), and I’m more confident than I’ve ever been, but I am distinctly not twenty-five any more, or even thirty.

I’m fifty. And when I look through OKCupid, imagining the conversations I might strike up with the people in my neighborhood, that search form thinks that being fifty means one thing.

I guess I’ll have to figure out what fifty actually means by myself.

It’s My Birthday! Wanna Help Me Celebrate? I’ve Got Four Ways To Bring In My Fiftieth Year!

Today is my 50th birthday – normally a big milestone! But I’ve been in California helping my mother through neck surgery and some subsequent complications, so all the big plans I had just sorta evaporated.

(She’s fine now. I just got home.)

What also evaporated in the rush of mother’s surgery and daughter’s wedding trellis were my plans for promoting my book THE SOL MAJESTIC. I had grand ideas for getting the word out, and they all kinda collapsed.

Which means that basically, my beautiful baby banquet book now needs a lot of hand-selling to make it enough for publishers to buy more of my stuff. (Which is fine, in a way – when I was writing it, I was thinking of the idea of “the sacred book” where it wasn’t for everyone, but those it was for would push it into their friends’ hands and go, “Here, this weird book about soup and love and found families speaks for me.”)
So the first way to help me celebrate?

1) If you haven’t tried SOL MAJESTIC, and you have the funds, maybe give it a try for me?
It’s full of gorgeous cuisine and philosophy and romance, so whether you buy it on Amazon or walk into your local B&N to purchase it, or hit up your local indie book shop, you’ll be helping my birthday any way.

2) If you’ve read THE SOL MAJESTIC and haven’t left a review, please do?
This is important: the reviews that have been left have been the highest of my career, but there haven’t been that many of them. So if you can take three minutes to post a review to GoodReads/Amazon or even just a note on your social media of choice to go “I read this and liked it” (or, just as helpfully, “I read this and didn’t like it”), that would do a hell of a lot to help me celebrate.

3) And if you’ve done both, or neither, donate some spare bucks to RAICES?
Look, man, it’s my birthday and I’m doing well – I’ve got a home, I’ve got a loving wife, I’ve got chocolate milk. But I guarantee you there’s some poor kid in an American concentration camp who also has a birthday today, and it is sucking because, well, America is doing shitty things to immigrants. So if you have the dosh, donate to RAICES, who is fighting the good fight to help minimize, mitigate, and hopefully close these shameful camps, which is honestly more the fuck important than any book I’ll ever write.

4) Also, send me pictures of you.
I like seeing who you are! So if you’ve got my number, shoot me a smiling face. If not, post a picture where I can see it! I just like knowing who’s who when I’m on social media.

And enjoy the fireworks. As a child born on Fourth of July weekend, those fireworks are mine, but I’ll happily share them with you.