Leaving The Pandemic Behind Is Like Giving Up Soylent

It started as a wacky experiment that my wife and I did – “Let’s drink nothing but nutritional sludge for a week! They say you can survive on nothing but Soylent, the food replacement drink – but what’s that experience like?”

The answer: Pretty crappy. Soylent – at least back then, I’m told they’ve improved the formula somewhat – was like drinking heaping glasses of pancake batter with a sandy, bitter taste at the bottom. And near the end of the week, we came to dread the taste; Soylent turned the pleasure of eating into a regular discomfort we had to tolerate to survive, sighing as we lifted up the cup full of gray muck to choke down another couple of thick ounces.

It wasn’t fun.

But it was oddly safe.

My wife and I were – are – both heart patients, and our weight and cholesterol readings are constant undertows of anxiety. And as such, though we did not realize it because the experience was so normalized, every meal was a mild fearpoint.

Were we putting too much salt on this food? Were we endangering ourselves by having this turkey breast instead of a salad? Oh, God, we’re drinking the whole milk, not the skim we should, will this kill us? Here I am eating Chex Mix, I probably had too much…

What we discovered is that every time we ate, we had a low-grade anxiety because we knew we were never making the optimal food choices. We were always having a little too much, a little something wrong, sacrificing perfect health for the qualities of taste. And that constant push-and-pull of “Should I eat what I want, or what’s good?” was a continual tension –

A tension we didn’t even realize we had until it was removed. Soylent wasn’t great, but it was impossible to eat poorly when you were on Soylent. It wasn’t fatty, it wasn’t sugary, you couldn’t possibly want too much of it.

Soylent was just… there.

It was safe.

You could not hurt your diet with Soylent. It was the padded room of foodstuffs, where maybe you didn’t want to be there but it was all bland choices that couldn’t destroy you.

Obviously, we left the Soylent behind after a week. Food tastes good. It’s hard to give up.

Like socializing.

If you’re an extrovert, you’ve probably spent this entire time itching to socialize. And if you’re an introvert who’s been penned in not able to see anyone at all, you’re probably desperate for a hug. But for a lot of us, locked in with our partners and roommates….

The pandemic is Soylent. We don’t like the blandness it’s enforced, but it’s been safe for us – we couldn’t overcommit ourselves, we couldn’t drain our socialization batteries, we didn’t have to worry about whether we should go to that party or whether we should find more friends.

We had no choice. Every day. We choked down the same options given to us to be safe, which was none.

And now the pandemic is lifting, slowly, as we get our vaccines – keep wearing masks, people, normalize that stuff – and a number of us are looking at the future ahead with a weird mixture of anticipation and trepidation.

Like actual food, we miss the taste.

Like actual food, we realize there are bad choices to be made ahead.

And it’s like, yes, we absolutely want to get out and see people, but at the same time the silence let us tune in on this weird tension in our lives where we realized that we liked people, but choosing when and how and which people to socialize with held a certain strain that we never paid attention to before because we never had the option to tune out.

That volume is rising in the background. Things are starting to return to – well, I don’t know about normal, but whatever the new normal will be. And there will be gatherings, and there will be trips to see sweeties, and there will be new socializations again. And all of them will be good on some level…

But how do we reacclimate ourselves?

What do we do with this realization that we hated most of the pandemic, hated most of the lockdown refusals, but there was some tiny part of us that vibrated in resonance with the relaxation of not being expected to see anyone again?

Again. It’s not such a resonance that we’re tuning out altogether – this is sludge. The people are a delicious salad, or a steak, or whatever food rumbles your tummy. We’re not not going to choose seeing the folks we love.

Yet there is a part of ourselves that feels worth protecting. Is there a way to encapsulate this tiny hermit inside us and still keep our friends?

Terrible as this has been, is there a way to extract the still, nourishing parts of the pandemic?

Remember When The Government Could Do Things? That’s Back, Baby!

This last Saturday, I went down to the Wolstein center to get my vaccination, and it made me remember what I loved about government.

Because the Wolstein center is now processing 6,000+ vaccinations a day, and it is starkly functional. They’ve taken over a basketball arena and converted it into an emergency center, where all the details are taken care of for you – you get texts telling you when you’re ready, there’s spaced lines with rows of soldiers and cops cheerfully guiding you to your spot, there’s translation centers for people who don’t speak English and transport available for folks who can’t work the distance.

There’s no out-of-pocket expense; the parking is free, they didn’t ask me what insurance I had. I waited in my seat, six feet apart, and they brought me water if I was thirsty.

I wasn’t thirsty for water.

I was thirsty for functional goddamned government, and I was slurping from this beautiful fountain of competency.

I have been so tired of Republican commentary that the government is invariably inept, hilariously bad, so corrupt and outmoded that it is incapable. And yes, the government is often inept, hilariously bad, corrupt, and outmoded, but:

a) That’s often not worse than capitalism, which when it tries to help large masses of people decides “Eh, there’s no profit there” and lets them rot (also see: getting high-speed internet service out to the sticks), and:

b) It often (though not always) happens because bad-faith actors (like many Republicans) are sabotaging the damn thing (also see: the post office).

Look, the government has to solve complex problems – if they were simple, they’d be fixed. I’ve likened those issues to legacy code – everyone thinks large problems are easy to solve until you look at all the edge cases the old and terrible solutions are actually handling.

And while capitalism solves some problems very well, it falls flat on its face when you expect it to fix issues that a) don’t make a lot of money but are necessary services, or b) the fixes harmful side effects that can be “solved” by dumping waste out into the public space.

And I’ve been told for years that our government not only DOESN’T do anything, but it SHOULDN’T do anything. Kids are being shot up in schools? Well, that happens. Cops are murdering minorities for no good reason? Can’t expect cops to fix the problems. A deadly pandemic spreading across the country? We can’t ask businesses to shut down or pay people to stay home, that’s not what we do.

Slowly, I’ve watched the concept of government get reduced to “We bomb people and prop up bankers,” and I am livid.

If your government can’t protect its own children, it does not deserve to be a government.

So when I went down to the Wolstein center and saw our army being used to protect us and our cops keeping traffic flowing and our federal government’s guidelines being used to figure out how to distribute the vaccine properly – because Trump’s plan of “back a dump truck full of vaccines up to your door and drop them on your front lawn” was not actually a “plan” so much as “a hope” – I was moved.

Here was a man from the government, and he was here to help. And fuck Reagan in his cold, dead corpse; it wasn’t scary, it was good.

Government can be helpful if we hold it to task. There’s always boondoggles and waste, but that happens in corporations too – nobody ever talks about the time Uber wasted 2/3rds of their ad budget on fake ads, because we don’t discuss or disclose corporate waste. You make anything big enough, it’s gonna hemorrhage a little cash somewhere.

But I think it starts with saying, “The government can do some things that capitalism can’t.” Which is a terrifying idea, to the capitalists, because they hoover up a lot of money by convincing everyone that they alone can fix the problems.

I wasn’t a fan of Biden. But I think – I hope – that he can make the case to America that there’s some things that government is necessary for. Not all things; I like a little capitalism bringing me PS5s (or not, oops).

But some things go better with government help. My vaccination was one of ’em. And I’m sure it’ll turn out that there were operational problems in the vaccine rollout, and that’s good, because we hold our government to task in a way that we don’t hold most corporations responsible. It’s our money we’re paying.

And if we’re gonna pay it, I’d rather it go to feeding the poor and promoting public health instead of drone-bombings. Call me crazy.

(ALERT: As is usually the case, I have a policy of not allowing people to promote right-wing talking points in my threads. Dissent is allowed, but if you’re gonna be spouting bullshit like “Don’t forget Trump got you that vaccine!” when Moderna started working on a vaccine months before Trump rolled out Operation Warp Speed, and then Trump passed on buying additional vaccine dosages – then y’all are gonna get booted.)

Did I Mention My New Podcast? Well, Maybe I Didn’t.

I’m very sleep-deprived this week, so let me remind you that the third episode of my podcast “…And We Will Plunder Their Prose” is out – this one studying the writing techniques of the most excellent FINNA, by Nino Cipri.

(It was just nominated for a Nebula award this week, so I’m glad to see that many others thought this delightful story was worthy of acclaim, too!)

Anyway, FINNA is about an interdimensional IKEA – and I talk about how Nino Cipri takes an idea and makes it personal, finding and expressing their voice. I really liked this one way more than I thought I would – and based on a reading from them at a convention, I thought I’d like it a lot – so check it out.

(Also, in case you missed it, my first serious YouTube video is up – 3 Reasons The Trench Run is the Best Action Sequence in Star Wars – so check that out, too, if ya like. LOOK MA I’M ARTING.)

I Made My First YouTube Video! Go Take A Look!

If you’ll recall, I promised myself that I’d make imperfect art in 2021 – not waiting until my skills were immaculate, but shaping everything as good as I could make it and then flinging it out the door. And since I’ve always wanted to make YouTube videos, take a look at my first:

It’s called 3 Reasons The Trench Run is the Best Action Sequence in Star Wars, and hey, it features a chubby guy in an X-Wing flight suit, so comedy.

Take a look if it’s up your alley, like a subscribe, comment a Patreon, do whatever the heck it is you do with YouTube videos. I’m not actually sure.

(Though yes, technically it’s not my *first* YouTube video – I made one wayyyyy back in 2007, which aired on The Magic Show, and I’ve posted several videos from my phone, but this is the first modern professional video I’ve made where I intend to do more.)

{exhales deep breath} And also my new podcast dropped today, discussing Finna, by Nino Cipri – a phenomenal novella about adventures through an interdimensional IKEA. Finna just got nominated for the Nebula award this Monday, so I’m glad to see people acknowledging its quality. Check out my podcast on it, which discusses how Nino (and, by proxy, you) found their inner voice.

{exhales until lungs crackle like dry paper bags} AND ALSO my newsletter went out today, detailing my Seven Steps To Creating Literary Magic Systems, so if you feel like subscribing to that, then hey, the link’s there.

…and that’s all the content that I created for this week! {looks around} Holy gosh, that’s more than I thought. Go me!

I’m My Own Hero (But I Could Never Convince My Self That I’d Get There)

I don’t know how it works for other people, but I have archetypical versions of myself – there’s a part of me who will forever be sixteen and howlingly lonely, eating isolated in crowded high school cafeterias because that’s who I was at sixteen.

Likewise, at nineteen there’s an archetypical Ferrett who hosted Norwalk’s finest (and Norwalk’s only) Rocky Horror Picture Show, a slutty showman in endless dysfunctional relationships who compensated for insecurity with great bold flourishes.

But most importantly: Borders Ferrett.

At twenty-seven, I got my first corporate job, working for Borders Books, and that was the first time I felt like An Adult: I’d moved out of my parent’s house, lived in my own house (well, a rented half a house, but still), I’d made friends in Ann Arbor, I had a social life.

I was a grown-up.

And Jesus, I was a wreck.

I think of everything I didn’t do then – I didn’t exercise, which led to my heart problems. I didn’t go to the dentist, which led to my teeth problems. I didn’t write regularly, because what if my novel got rejected, what then? I didn’t call home enough, I didn’t take my psych medications…

And all those were things I wanted to do. I just… didn’t.

And I wish I knew why. I have some clues, of course – lesser willpower, fear of success, yadda yadda – but to a large extent twenty-seven-year-old Borders Ferrett’s motivations are opaque to me.

Yet over the past year, another Ferrett has arisen: Old Ferrett. I’m 51, that’s getting on in years, and yet here I am working out enough to have abs and going without sugar for two months, with six published books out and potentially more in the pipeline, doing woodworking while I smoke a good cigar and drink bourbon (on the non-power tools days) and also being in several long-term, stable relationships with still-smokin’ hot sex…

I would have been Borders Ferrett’s fucking hero.

And he would never have seen himself as being capable of me.

I think of my young Borders Ferrett and how he had everything he needed for success – I ponder every conclusion I came to that changed my life, and sure enough, someone had told me where I was going wrong. My mother knew what I was doing that made me unhappy, my Uncle Tommy did, my friends did…

Yet I was so attached to my insecurities that I fought to be weaker than I was.

And if I could go back in time to tell Borders Ferrett, “Hey, buddy, you can have everything you ever dreamed of,” he would have been a wildcat of rationales, telling me all the reasons I could never be me, even though I would have very concrete evidence in the form of me that I could one day be me.

(Pause to ponder how interesting time travel grammar is.)

And I wonder what I’ll be in twenty years, with luck. I hope my older self will be even more stronger and even more badass in terms of protecting his friends and fearlessly flinging his art into the world.

And, like me, I think Future Ferrett might have come so far that he’ll have forgotten the path.

I don’t think less of Borders Ferrett. He was doing the best he could. He didn’t understand, and it’d take decades of experience to slowly grind down those bad opinions of his, that negative self, those wretched habits.

Because honestly, half the reason I do as well as I do these days is that I’ve learned how to outsmart my own negative instincts. I have to work out in the morning, because I am a goddamned excuse engine, and if I get to 6:00 at night I know my bastard brain will manufacture an excuse to skip leg day. I have to write in isolation because if I think “Will people like this story I’m working on?” then I’ll panic, so I have to write my stories for me and me alone and just hope they kinda resonate. I have to know which days I can write controversial essays and which days I go, “Not my circus, not my monkeys” because I’m low-energy and will hurt myself if I engage poorly.

I wish I could convince myself. But I know I couldn’t, not in that short a span of time. It took months, years, decades of face-planting failure after face-planting failure before I finally learned, and who I am today is very distant.

But I would have been my hero. That’s nice to know.

Even if I never would have believed that was me.

I Hate It When People Recommend Music To Me

So I’ve gotten into one of my I LOVE NEW MUSIC rampages, which I do about every six to eight months – these temporary quests where I comb Spotify for all the hot tracks that I will be playing on repeat for the next few years.

But I hate it when people recommend music to me. You know why?

Because most people don’t actually recommend music.

See, I think “recommending” has an element of “I know you well enough to think you’ll like this” embedded in it – I’m not recommending a Clive Barker horror story to an eight-year-old, nor a sweet romance story to someone who only likes Clive Barker horror stories.

Yet whenever I’ve said, “Hey, I like this music, it’s kinda nu-metal with an edge of rap to it” people just blare out whatever they like regardless of whether it’s even close – “HAVE YOU HEARD THIS ACOUSTIC COVER OF A 1940s JAZZ SONG?!?!?”

It’s alienating. It’s like I’m not even there – that I’m just a mirror to shout enthusiasm into.

Now, of course that’s different from someone celebrating their own musical tastes – “I’m bopping to this new K-Pop tune” is both awesome and encouraged. But me opening up the door for “I like this stuff, what else is like this?” usually gets met with a bellow of “IT’S NOT LIKE THAT BUT I LIKE THIS SO FUCK YOUR PREFERENCES HERE’S MINE”

To which I’m like, “…do you sell people on bands with that approach?” It’s the ol’ “Construction workers whistling at hot ladies” trick in that I’ve never seen it work myself, but I assume it must succeed sometime… that, or it’s kind of terrifying how many people are doing it with so many shitty results.

But you! You I trust. Maybe.

Because so many people have asked, “What are you listening to, Ferrett?”, I compiled a Spotify list of my current favorite tunes.

What’s there is mostly pop and hard rock, but there’s some weird edges thrown in there because I am super-eclectic with tastes ranging from They Might Be Giants to deep Zappa to Home Free, and by Lord am I not expecting anyone to follow me down my path.

BUT. If you listen to a song there and go, “This artist has a lot in common with the vibes there,” then hit me up. I don’t really hate genuine recommendations. I’m just… burnt by the number of folks who blast their own radio in through my car window.

Anyway! A bunch of possibly new music for you! Go and look! (And friend me on Spotify if you like, for whatever that means. I don’t know what the benefits are, but some folks like it.)