I woke up this morning, and like that, I was 43 years old. I like to keep track of my years, my experiences, my growth as a person on this planet.
Some years, I am successful at this. Other years, not so much.
I wrote this post when I turned 41 and followed it up with a lot of writing and essays.
Last year, the year I turned 42, my grandmother died a few weeks before my birthday. I wrote about her death in March, and then I didn’t blog again until August, when my baby sister got married. That blank space of almost half a year between posts says a lot about my state of space during that time. It was a year that was filled with a lot of highs and lows, as every year is, but for some reason I felt the rollercoaster of it more deeply than I have probably since I was a teenager.
The highs: Numenera, the game of my heart, won a lot of awards and lots of people had a great time playing it. I love my job. I have a partner who makes me my very best self. We adopted an amazing dog. I lived for the first time ever in a house I owned. My life is full of amazing loved ones. My non-fiction book, “As Kinky As You Wanna Be” came out and is doing well. I had the opportunity to travel and meet some incredible, kind, wonderful people. My little sister, who I love with all my heart, got married and I was her maid of honor. My little brother is following his dream of becoming a police officer. My dad retired, finally, from his job as an engineer and is getting to do some of the things he loves best — being outside, building and making things, spending time with family.
The lows: The world is in a bad place–global warming, ISIS, wars small and large, discrimination and hatred and killings. The world is always in a bad place, I know, but this year felt particularly big and hard and unsolvable. The Internet, a place I loved, a place I felt at home in for so many years — is no longer a safe place for myself and for so many others. Shaming and blaming, dogpiling, lack of human empathy and understanding, death threats, and more have turned the Internet from a safe haven for misfits like me into an emotionally dangerous land. There was a lot of illness and tragedy and sadness among my friends and family this year. I lost far too many amazing people in my life to cancer this year. Fuck cancer so hard. This year, I dealt with some intense depression (which for me brings a binge-eating disorder and a lot of apathy along with it) — all issues I thought I had overcome long ago, but which reared their horrible heads in the midst of everything.
And I didn’t write very much, even though I promised myself I would. And that, right there, sums up the truth of the year for me. I didn’t write very much. That’s how I know my state of space is fucked up. I didn’t write very much. And that means I can’t change the world for the better. I didn’t write very much. And that means I can’t change myself for the better. It means I am not doing what I believe I exist on this planet to do.
Last year, at 42, I was supposed to be the answer to the life, the universe and everything. I’d waited a long time to turn 42 on 4/2/2014. The numbers promised so much. In the end, it turned out I was the answer to nothing. It was my year to be the question instead. Being the question is hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just wasn’t what I was prepared for. I learned a lot, held my seat a lot, listened a lot. I fought hard, sometimes about the wrong things. And sometimes I gave up on the right things. Tough years teach us a lot, and one of things this past year taught me was that I am invincible, fierce, and powerful, even in the midst of difficulty. Perhaps especially so.
43 is a weird number, in the middle of things, half-prime, descending, the interrobang of numbers, sort of this, sort of that, a rhetorical exclamation. I am going in half-cocked this year, like a gun that’s stuck between the mantle and the hand that strokes it. I am going to live fast and dye my hair. I am going to bury the seeds of what could be with no expectation that they will grow. I am going to make promises I can’t keep, because I believe in the power of desires that extend beyond my reach. I will sing to the mermaids when they will not sing to me. I will measure out my life with kisses and coffee spoons and points of punctuation on the page.
Do I dare disturb the universe?
Yes. Yes, I fucking do.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
In my 25 years as a writer and activist, I’ve been called everything under the sun, even before the Internet existed. When I came out as bisexual in the late ’90s, I was a “confused fake lesbian.” When I worked as the managing editor of Nervy Girl! Magazine in 2000 and we published pieces from Muslim women who believed wearing a hijab was an act of feminist strength, I was a “woman-hating misogynistic asshole.” When I wrote sexy books about people of all walks of life, I was “a slut-devil who will surely burn in hell.” When I came out as a gamer and a geek, I was “jesusfuckingchrist another fake geek girl.” Last year, when my company created a succubus-like creature in one of our games, I was “sexist, homophobic, and transphobic.” Most recently, I am a “racist ass.” (Yes, I’ve kept records of all of these interactions over the years, and these are actual quotes from various letters to the editor, emails, comments, and tweets).
At almost 43 years old, I know who I am and what I believe in, and most of the time, other people talking about me in a negative way is a something that just lives under my skin like some vestigial, permanent part of me. To me, it’s just the cost of standing up for what I believe in, and the price continues to lessen with each attack.
But it took me a long time to get here, and not all of us are in that place. People are losing their jobs, their families, and their lives over being mislabeled and misrepresented on the Internet. They’re experiencing depression, anxiety, fear, and PTSD. Young people, trans people, minorities of all types are being slut-shamed and bullied to the point where they take or consider taking their own lives.
It doesn’t take much work to find hundreds of Internet forums, social media sites, and blogs that are full of conversations that start out about important issues — discrimination, sexism, homophobia, censorship, suicide, global warming — and quickly spiral inwards to become angry disputes attacking the characters of the people involved. “He’s an asshole.” “She’s homophobic.” “What a total racist dick that person is.” “I agree.” “Me too.” “No, you’re the dick.” “Look at what she said one time.” And on and on.
Not only do conversations like this take away from the issues at hand, they are also impossible to “win.” You are the only person who truly knows who you are, and the forty other strangers discussing your virtues and flaws are never going to get close to that core of your personality and essence.
The truth is that it’s so much easier to believe something negative about someone than it is to believe the positive. Think about this: Studies have shown that if someone tells you you’re an awful person (or that your work is awful), it takes TEN TIMES of someone telling you that you’re a good person (or that your work is good) to eradicate the first statement. Negative things are louder than positive, almost always. This, I think, is especially true if:
a. You don’t actually know the person in real life. The internet makes it easy to erase other people’s humanity and assume the worst.
b. You already like or trust the person being talked about. You think, “Oh, damn. I really liked them, and now someone is saying they’re an asshole. I must be a terrible judge of people.” And that makes us feel hurt and vulnerable.
c. The person being talked about doesn’t get involved in the discussions, whether because they don’t know about them, they’re busy doing other things, or they’re purposefully not getting involved.
Conversations like these can contribute to all of the emotional issues mentioned earlier, creating a place where most people don’t feel safe being themselves, because who they actually are doesn’t matter as much as what other people say about who they are.
One way to not be part of that shaming and bullying culture is to learn more about the person in question before you decide–and publicly talk about–who they are. And then choose your actions accordingly.
Here are some suggestions for getting to “know” someone as best you can on the Internet. Yes, the steps take a little time, but imagine if someone accused you of being [insert untrue or unflattering personality trait]. Would you want everyone to just jump on the bandwagon and repeat that untrue or unflattering thing about you, or would you rather they take a few minutes to learn more about you before making a decision? It seems only fair to give other people the same courtesy (or at least reserve judgment if you don’t want to take the time to learn more). Even if, in the end, you decide that someone really is a [insert untrue or unflattering personality trait], you will have at least given them a fair shake.
In my experience, this type of exploration usually shows us what we already know in our hearts: most people are neither devil nor saints. Most people are just humans. Broken, beautiful, angry, kind, and utterly unique. And maybe that’s the best part of “getting to know” someone in this way. We all become humans to each other.
And perhaps that is the first step toward less bullying, less harassment, less harmful negativity. It’s a reminder that whether you like someone or hate someone, whether you agree with them or don’t, they are still a person, another human being. Whatever you think about the person, you can still make the choice not to say hurtful things to or about them. Or you could choose to say something awesome about someone else instead.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
P.S. As always, I’m sure there are lots of great suggestions that I haven’t thought of — please feel free to share them in the comments!
My baby’s a superhero.
And Sweet Jesus, but she’s got her powers turned on tight tonight.
You’d think she was the only one up on that stage and not part of a five-man band, from the way she holds court, all but mouth-fucking the microphone. Girl’s got the biggest, plumpest lips you’ve ever seen, and tonight they’re the purple of just-ripe plums, of bruises, of that half-moon mark where teeth tighten together over skin.
If you can bear to take your eyes off her mouth, go down. Slow. Open neckline, dark blue curls falling against her olive skin. Hint of cleavage. Long vanilla scar down the top right of her breast. Black spandex that works her curves like no-man’s land, makes you just want to taste that shine with your tongue all over.
The band behind her, they’ve got capes over their jeans and t-shirts. But no cape for her. It gets caught in her heels, she says, but you know it’s really that it covers too much of her. She likes to show off those hot-damn hips, that fine-as-rain-ass, those missing legs that end in something different every show
Tonight they’re steel filigree from her knees down; leaves and flowers and a hundred tiny metal creatures tucked into the empty spaces. She’s got a thing for whimsy wrapped in an enigma tucked into a weapon. Her legs, her feet really, end in six-inch knifed heels that could kill a man. Probably have killed a man. I don’t ask most times, because I don’t need to know. Sometimes she tells me anyway. And that’s when I have to buy a bottle of fine-ass whiskey and walk away from her, go down to the strip where the boys play ball in corner pockets and they’re all-too-happy to wield a fist to a face, a paddle to a place where the ass meets the mind.
Up there, on that stage, she looks like she’s singing, but she’s not singing. What she’s doing is so far beyond singing there are no words. A place beyond thought and sound coming together. If I believed in God, I’d say she was making the world, one note at a time. She just opens her mouth and suddenly things are in the world that weren’t there before. You. Me. Love. The sound of your breath leaving you, never to find its way back. I guess you’d call that death.
She makes the sound that makes death and life and love and when she stops, the crowd becomes a room of silence. Waiting. Teetering. Here, she could utter one more thing and blow them all over, explode them apart. End of days and all these delicate bodies would go down smiling.
One of these nights, I expect her to do it.
Not tonight. She smiles. Takes a deep breath. Bows. Her legs shine fierce as roughcut diamonds, sharp as a hand of razor blades before the fist. Some fan in the front row reaches up to the stage and touches the very edge of her toes. The metal protects him from her, but not from himself. Coppery blood arches into the air, and he draws his hand back, clutching himself. Ask him in five years, after he’s forgotten what it was like to have a finger there, and he’ll say he’d do it all over again, just for a taste of her, just for a single life-bleeding touch.
Bloodspill raises the crowd one more notch, fists in the air, fists in each other’s faces. They’re chanting, “Val-tora! Val-tora! Val-tora!” Once in a while someone screams, “Woooonder Caaaaaapes!”
Valtora, that’s her.
The Wonders, that’s her superhero backup band.
They think she’s saving them.
No one’s cheering for me. They don’t know about me.
Valtora wasn’t always a superhero. She wasn’t even always Valtora. Life gives you letters and you make letternames. That’s the kind of stuff Valtora doesn’t say. She just does it. Survivors, we just do the things that other people mouth about.
First Valtora was Valentino. Italian mafia. Man of a hundred wives and a million hits. No one cut off any of his body parts.
Then she was Valerie. Beautiful girl with a beautiful mouth. High-class escort in the pretty city. Everyone liked her body parts. Even when they found out most of those parts weren’t original model material.
When the war blew into town, she became Val. You want a gender? Hers was tough-talk-no-takebacks and sly-in-the-night. Someone was slyer, though. Someone with a big blade and the desire to make her talk. You lose two legs at the knee, turns out the sounds that come out of your mouth aren’t words, aren’t song, aren’t nothing so much as a whole lot of fuck yous.
By the time I entered the big picture, she was already on her way to becoming Valtora. Bombshell. Vibrato. Superhero. Weapons of choice? Curves that’ll knock you sideways if you don’t look away quick enough, a voice that’ll devastate you right off a high cliff and a pair of legs that’d as soon fuck you up as run.
And me? I stand next to the stage and I get knocked on my ass by those goddamn curves. I open my veins and let that voice work its way inside me like a virus. I design those legs that’ll fuck you up. But mostly, well mostly, I save the world.
You want to know what she is, right? You’re thinking: Really a superhero? Some kind of immortal? Maybe that’s just a lie upon a lie upon a lie. Maybe she’s just a human who lost a pair of legs and a pair of balls in a suicide car over a bridge one starfucked night.
Or maybe the lie is the one you tell yourself, in those dark nights when worry and fear beats the skindrum of your ribcage and God’s on your side and there’s no such thing as devils or demons or even superheroes that can fuck you up with the slip of a tongue.
Those lies have no place in me anymore. Not with Valtora in my life.
[Excerpted from “Saving the World”, Geek Love: An Anthology of Full-Frontal Nerdity]. Read the rest of the story by picking up a copy of this beautiful book. It’s full of amazing stories of sexy, subversive geek boys and girls getting it on, all accompanied by art and comics. (As a point of trivia, the graphic design for Geek Love is by Bear Weiter, who is now the art director at Monte Cook Games. This was the first project he and I worked on together, way back when).
In the past month, I got the following things in the mail:
What do all of these have in common? Well, obviously, they were delivered in the mail. But that’s not the thing I want to talk about (although that in itself is pretty interesting–I haven’t seen so many subscription-style mail-delivery options since the CD and book clubs of my teenage years).
But what I really find interesting is that all of these products are, first and foremost, about trust. I am trusting someone I’ve never met to choose items for me (or make items for me) and then deliver them to my house via the mail. I could go to the pet store and buy treats for my dog. I could go clothes shopping. I could wait for a Kickstarter product to be produced and then, if it’s successful, go pick it up at the local bookstore or gaming store, or buy it online. Instead, I take a risk on something unseen, unknown.
Of course, the examples I listed aren’t the only ones out there — there are still music and book clubs, there are clothing options for men and kids, there are cat boxes and jewelry boxes and, of course, Kickstarters and other types of crowdfunding projects galore.
When I co-wrote Kicking It: Successful Crowdfunding with Monte Cook, we talked a lot about how crowdfunding is primarily a trust business. Do you trust the creator to make a great product and deliver it on time? Have they done other successful projects? On the other side, as a crowdfunding creator, have you made it possible for potential backers to trust you by providing amazing products in the past? By delivering as much as or more than you promised?
I find it interesting that in most shopping experiences, the buyer won’t trust the creator of the product, but they will trust a random, unknown person who loves or hates said product. I do it too. I go to Amazon and look at a book by an author I love. If I’ve enjoyed the author’s previous work, I should just trust that the new book will also be something that I’ll enjoy, right? Instead, I read the reviews of random strangers, strangers that may or may not share my reading interests, strangers who may or may not have anything in common with me. Strangers who may NOT HAVE EVEN READ THE BOOK they are reviewing. And I am swayed by their responses. SWAYED. Sometimes away from an author that I already know and trust.
This is also true of companies. If I want to buy a pair of boots online–even from a company that I know and trust–I read the reviews. I look at what people say about the fit, the feel, the look. And then I decide whether to buy or not.
In that case, why do I trust a random stranger over someone who I already know is skilled in their craft? I think this has a lot to do with the advent of buying things over the Internet. When I go to the bookstore, I can read a sample and make up my own mind. When I go to the shoe store, I can feel the shoe and try it on. Walk around in it. When I buy things online, I have a photo. Maybe a little write-up. That’s it. So I look for someone else to help me decide whether the product is something that I want or not.
Yet, with things like Kickstarter and Barkbox, I am trusting the creators implicitly. I am essentially giving them my money and saying, “I believe you will send me something awesome. Surprise me.” It’s an entirely different way of purchasing things. It isn’t as though one is cheaper or less important. A Barkbox and a Kindle book cost about the same. I have backed Kickstarters for more than I have spent on boots.
So why am I willing to trust the creators with one but not the other?
Perhaps it has to do with taking a safe risk. There’s something exciting about opening the Barkbox each month and seeing what new toys and treats someone else chose for the puppy. I get a tingle of fear and nervousness when I am about to dive into a Stitchfix and see what clothing might soon join my wardrobe. I love the excitement of backing a Kickstarter and watching it grow and then much later (sometimes long after I’ve forgotten about it) getting a goody box of a brand new thing in the mail. Being surprised–sometimes for good, sometimes for bad–is part of the shopping experience. It’s a calculated risk that sometimes really pays off.
Perhaps it also is a return to something that has almost entirely disappeared in our shopping experiences: A direct connection to the creator of a product. Or at least the perception of a direct connection. When I back a Kickstarter, I am backing the person behind it as much as the product. I believe that the people who run Barkbox truly love dogs, and that they will choose good things for my own dog. I like the creative minds and talented artists behind The Mysterious Package Company, and I want to support their unique concept (while also giving someone I care about a cool gift).
On the other side, I truly believe (or at least really, really hope) that people who back the Kickstarters that we put together feel connected to us as people. That they trust us, and feel safe in our hands. That they enjoy the products we make, but that they also like and support our business and life philosophies. We are selling products, yes, but hopefully the quality of those products and of the experience are also helping build real relationships between us and our buyers.
The hard part about this is that trust is tenuous, and can go sour very quickly. If you go to the store and purchase a dog toy and your dog hates it or it falls apart, you’re sad and maybe mad at the company (or yourself for your choice), but there are other dog toys and other companies and it’s no big deal.
BUT: if you trust someone else to pick a dog toy and your dog hates it or it falls apart, you feel like they have broken that trust. Even if it’s the exact same toy and the exact same issue that you had with the toy you picked yourself, it suddenly has a big emotional impact. Because in your mind, someone you trusted failed you.
Even though it’s full of pitfalls, that emotional dynamic, that consumer relationship based on trust, might actually be a good thing for both the consumers and the quality of products. If I am creating a product and a business built on trust, then I damn well better do my best to keep that trust. I better make awesome things, create strong connections, and deliver every single time. That knowledge, that understanding that people are trusting me, drives me to do better, to crush expectations, because I hold that trust sacred. Not just as a business person, but as a human being. Trust is hard. It’s scary and dangerous. Even when it’s just a business transaction. There’s a reason that we no longer do business on someone’s word and instead have contracts and legal documents. It’s because every time that trust gets broken, it makes us wary. Because it hurts to have someone break your trust, even if they didn’t mean to.
I like to believe in the good of people. In their kindness and competence and honesty. Maybe in the end, that’s why I seek to create trust relationships with creators, businesses, and my own customers. I want to be surprised and delighted by the world. I never want to outgrow the promise of the unknown. Maybe it’s a way to say, “Yes, I still believe in the goodness of other humans despite the bad. Yes, I will take the risk and trust you because I don’t want the cynicism to win.”
I also want to be the kind of business owner who gives people a reason to trust and believe. I want anyone who gets one of my products to feel the delight of opening their package and being blown away by what’s inside. I want them to rejoice in the trust they put in me, to feel smart and awesome about believing in the promise of honesty and quality.
Trust. Excitement. Creating connections. Saving the world. Making my ass look amazing in new jeans. Okay, maybe that’s too much to ask of a little brown box with a mailing label on top. But I don’t think so. Do you?
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.