Certain aspects of Seattle are borderline acceptable

I have attended Go Play NW every summer that I’ve lived in Portland, and it’s always one of the best parts of my year. The final game I played there, back in July, was a hastily assembled impromptu session of Blades in the Dark—a fantasy-urban-pseudo-19th-century heist game. I had left the afternoon slot empty for myself, hoping for a chance to play a game with one of my favorite Matthews, and when he finally rolled up an hour later he had a whole crew of Californians and one new guy they had swept up with them, named Randall.

Blades was a new system to all the players, but most of them were acquainted with games in its general mode; Randall, meanwhile, had only played D&D in the past, and was affably along for the ride. I liked him very much, and we had a lot of fun. Afterwards, waiting for my friends to gather so we could head home, I talked to him about his experience over the weekend. It turned out he hadn’t exactly planned to attend the con; he was in town for a family wedding, and had just searched for interesting things to do while he was in the area.

“So you’re not from Seattle?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “I’m from Guam.”

I really hope that, in a year or so, I have to struggle to remember why I’d be thinking about him today.

The past is a foreign country: I miss my friends who live there

In April my friend Russ Gilman-Hunt died. He was one of the first four people who worked at my job with me. He was funny, kind and clever. He was not very much older than me, but he had a deadpan world-weary affect and a quiet warmth that made him seem like everyone’s dad. I wish I had known him better, but most of his life was outside work, with his wife and two children and his community in the SCA. I wish they still had him.

In May I lost the job where I had worked with Russ, as did a number of my colleagues. I have a lot of support from people who care for me, and I am lucky in my socioeconomic class; that has allowed me to inform myself that this is an opportunity, more than a setback. (I have done so often and stridently.) I will probably have a new job soon. I like working, if not always working terribly hard. I hope I can make that work amount to something good.

It sometimes feels like the only things I write here are podcast show notes and epitaphs. I haven’t allowed myself much time to work on podcasts in the last month; hunting for what I perceive as a replacement means of survival has meant little available concentration for creative work. So this goes in the epitaph category. Sure wish there were fewer of those.

I didn’t always love my old job but I always liked it, and I took comfort in the idea that I was cultivating a good place to bring in new people and help them excel. I wanted to contribute patches to the leaky pipeline. I think Russ did too. I don’t know how much of that we managed. Some of the people I patched in got laid off with me. I’d say we did what good we could while seeing to our own survival, but. Well.

A job that you treat like just a job is, eventually, just a job. I want the work of my life to be more than that. Maybe in seven more years—if, God forbid, this WordPress install is still operating—I’ll tell you how that’s going.

In February I got an email from my old laptop, and then another, both suggesting that it was in Germany. I had not seen that laptop since it left the back of my car through a shattered window in 2010. The home page of its default browser, at the time, happened to be one I controlled and that was not linked anywhere else, so I told that page to blare alarms and notify me when and whence it was requested. It took seven years for that to (probably?) happen. I wonder if someone actually has that laptop, in more or less the same crumbling shape it was when it vanished. I wonder how well they read English, and what they can find out about me if they dig around on it. Surely nothing worse than the things I’ve written here myself.

I guess what I am doing here is reflecting, which is to say, looking for myself in a flawed surface. I started writing online in part because I wanted attention and in part because I already knew that my built-in memory could not be trusted to retain my life. My pipe is too leaky. All pipes are too leaky. Among my driving fears is the idea that anything I lose is lost forever, and that history unminded is a black hole, a /dev/null, a point of no return.

But to really believe that is to assert that I know the future, which is presumptive: the future and I have never met. Sometimes a setback is an opportunity. Sometimes the past writes you an email. Sometimes a kid whose dad dies grows up a whole person anyway. Even black holes leak back.

Late last summer,

I watched Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a documentary about Studio Ghibli. It was filmed there in 2012 and 2013 while Hayao Miyazaki made his final feature film, and it had an extraordinary impact on me.

"Not just the government, even the private sector."
"Pushing us back to the far right."
I haven’t stopped thinking about the documentary, or about that specific exchange, ever since. Tonight I finally watched the feature film itself.

"The wind rises, and we must try to live."

It is difficult to find sources of comfort right now

And indeed I think it is best not to be comfortable, no matter how much I want to. But there are still sources of strength.

Sense Memory

In the spring of last year I was very ill. It got bad enough for long enough that I actually made and went to a doctor’s appointment, which found nothing wrong in any actionable way. Keep resting, drink fluids. As I lay wrung out on my couch, too sapped even to watch television, I stared at the tall ceiling above me and listened to the whining in my ears surge and fade, amplified by fever. For the first time, and at last, it occurred to me: I have had tinnitus my entire conscious life.

The next time I went to my doctor I asked about it, and she nodded. “Did you have a lot of ear infections as a kid?” she asked. I had. One of my earliest memories is of resting my head on the kitchen counter and feeling hot fluid drip out of my ear as my parents discussed what to do in low, worried tones. I ended up having surgery to implant temporary tubes in my eardrums. The infections stopped, but the damage lingered.

Tinnitus is usually called a “ringing” in one’s ears, but that makes me think of a bell or a telephone, which is why I never thought it described me. (Are you one of the people who can hear a persistent, faint eeeee when a CRT monitor or television turns on on? It’s like that, all the time.) The diagnosis explains a lot, actually—my preference for bass-heavy music, the way white noise helps me sleep, the staticky rush and roar I sometimes get in noisy crowds. My hearing is pretty good, considering, but the sound will be with me for the rest of my life, long after age takes that hearing from me. I’m listening to it right now, writing this. I will be as you read it. I will probably never experience silence. Yet I spent decades unaware, unable to distinguish this aspect of my life from that of everyone around me.

I am ashamed of much of what I’ve written here.

The consequence of publishing the things you think when you are twenty is that, later, people can read the things you thought when you were twenty. Most of these things were stupid. Some are toxic. Some are harmful. All were willfully deaf and blind to my own privilege. Several dear friends have turned up here in the last few years and started reading from the beginning, only to be embarrassed or repulsed by what they found. Despite the unbearable kindness of Sumana’s retrospective about this blog, I flinch to think of what it says about me.

All of this is a strong argument for the most obvious action, which is to delete nfd, or at least lock it: for the right to forget my previous self. I think I’m a better self than I used to be, and better at being human. But part of being better is honesty about everyone I’ve been. Ten years on, I still believe in transparency. To wipe this all away would be to brush out the trail marks I’ve left behind me, the stumbling footprint path from ignorance to… well, partial awareness of ignorance.

So I am letting the record stand. Maybe someone will read it and pick up a few of the things that cost me so much time and so much of others’ patience. Maybe you will read it, and grant me your own patience; or maybe you won’t. I wouldn’t blame you. I am flawed in every sense, but I will keep trying to learn to listen.

By now all this is past the point of relevance

But it needs to get written down anyway. On Saturday morning, September 7th, I woke up feeling grumpy about the way nerds had treated my friend Elizabeth and made the following series of ill-advised tweets.

If you see the numbers under those widgets you can see that they became the most far-reaching things I have ever written. I did not plan for that. They were tossed off, poorly thought out, and not particularly intended to stand in the record. This took a while to dawn on me, and when it did, I considered deleting them. I chose not to mostly because it wouldn’t undo anything, and because I should be held to account for my words.

I failed as an ally and a writer in several ways by writing what I did. The most significant and glaring is that I didn’t ask Elizabeth before posting them. That’s enormous. She and I had talked privately about the abuse she was getting, so it was on my mind, and I am so used to violent misogyny being directed at women who point out flaws in popular culture that I failed to consider her public stance about it. But even if she had discussed the hate more openly, I still should have asked. At the very least I should have reconsidered using her twitter handle, which made it even easier for a new wave of garbage to find her.

Also, as several people have pointed out, those three tweets are not exactly an iron syllogism. Elizabeth wrote a strongly worded post taking a strong stance against PAX; all I did was briefly express disappointment. I still think someone with a feminine name and icon would have received more abuse than I did for that tweet, but I certainly am not doing the kind of work Elizabeth does, and should not have tried to accord myself her stature.

There are other things about my phrasing with which one might well take issue, but those two are the most basic and important: I didn’t show my friend the respect she deserves. I can’t undo that, but the least I can do is point out for other people who want to be allies where I went wrong. I hope this helps someone else avoid a similar mistake in the future, especially if that someone is me.

As for the original matter of the controversy, I’ve been wrestling with it, but the simplest way to put it is that I take a version of Elizabeth’s view. I’m not going to PAX in 2014, I’m definitely not volunteering there, and I won’t be back unless and until they demonstrate change from the top down. It won’t be enough for PAX to come up to the standard of games conventions; from here on they’ll have to be twice as good as everyone else to make me consider attending.

I have dear friends in and around the Penny Arcade organization, many of whom work tirelessly to create safe space, and I’m not going to spurn you or your work for being involved with PAX. But I will say that attending any conference without a clear, detailed, rigorously enforced harassment policy is a bad idea. PAX rose to that standard in 2012, but when internal pressure from the volunteer corps relented this year, they failed again. That alone is a valid reason to stay away.

Some people can’t do that. PAX is a big part of how money works in games, and if the choice is between taking a stance and making your rent this year, I don’t have the moral authority to stand in judgment. I hope you’ve got other avenues for promotion too, though. I won’t see you there.

This isn’t even counting BAX, which would technically make this year’s begin in fucking February

There’s this thing called con season. It is mostly called that by people who make and sell things at conventions, which are warm-weather phenomena, beginning in March of each year and winding down in the autumn. I don’t currently sell things, but I find myself talking about it anyway, because con season has been the dictator of my travel plans for several years running.

There’s Gamestorm twenty minutes north of me, in Vancouver, Washington, and then there’s a local house-sized gathering called Nemocon in May. June sometimes has a Fabricated Realities in Olympia and always (I hope) has Go Play Northwest in Seattle. This year, for the first time, I am flying to Indianapolis to go to the nerd-gathering granddaddy, Gen Con. (It’s hard to explain exactly why I’m going in much the same way that it is hard to explain why Indianapolis holds a convention named for Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.) And then there’s PAX in September, and Geek Girl Con the month after that, unless I go to Indiecade too–and then at last we rest. Until it starts again.

It’s kind of grueling. I’m going to have to cut back in 2014: I want to travel more outside the US, and save money, and this shit devours that budget. But what do I cut? The answer would be easier if “what” didn’t so easily swap out for “whom.”

There are a lot of variations on the con circuit: some people do tech conferences, some people do sci-fi cons, some people do cultural gatherings or music festivals or films and documentaries. All these gatherings have a rationale for getting lots of people together at a specific time and place, but over time, I suspect, the rationale becomes just that. I used to go to gaming conventions to play as many games as I could fit into a weekend. Now I play games at gaming conventions because that’s what my friends are doing.

Weddings, funerals and cons. You don’t get together just to do the thing, you get together because the thing you do is the way to concentrate as many of these far-flung people as you can. Many of the people I love are locative: available in a specific place at at specific time and then too quickly dispersed. Jackson and Joe and Joe and Ben and Matthew and Chris and Elizabeth and John and Shannon and Paul and Tony and Daniel and Twyla and Andi and Ryan and Lily and Will and Lisa and everyone I’m forgetting and everyone I have yet to meet. We only get so many rounds of this, in the warm season of our lives, and it’s hard to think about missing any of them.

Friendships With Women

Last September (oh dear) I said this on twitter:

The most rewarding and important thing you can do in this life is to seek out, cultivate, and invest yourself in friendships with women.

I phrased that as a prescription, because I wanted to see how people would take to it, and also I’m kind of a dick. It was actually a description that felt intuitively true. I tried to explain myself a few times, and failed, and then let it go quiet, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it. I still stand by my statement; here is the best I can do to unpack it.

The structural integrity of the system in which I live depends on men reducing women to their perceived sexual value and women being set against each other to diffuse their strength against inequity. This is awful.

If you are a man, the friendships you build with women will break parts of this structure, and put something new and better in their place. If you are a woman, I believe the friendships you build with other women will help restore the power that is yours by right and birth. If you occupy a place elsewhere in gender, I suspect you will find both of the above are true.

I am speaking from my lived experience, about the things I’ve seen through the women I know. Those are far from the only things friendship offers, and this isn’t really meant to be a generalization to the set of all people, not least because I have never been a woman. What I know about the power of female friendship is the way I grew up: watching my mother build a community of support and affection with the women in her church and school, who together accomplished remarkable things. I’ve tried to replicate that at every stage in my life.

Here’s the selfish part: the women I know are amazing, and have made my life amazing through their wit, kindness, generosity and patience. When I’ve invested in those friendships, they have yielded incredible and unexpected rewards in the real world, beyond the mere fact of my improvement as a person.

I owe myself to Monica Willett, Karie Miller, Leigh-Anna Donithan Roman, Maria Barnes, Amanda Brasfield, Lisa Brown, Emily Anderson, Leonor Linares, Sumana Harihareswara, Holly Gramazio, Erika Moen, Zoe Trope, Alison Hanold, Elizabeth Sampat, Anne Bradley, and more I know I am forgetting. Look for the women who will be to you what they have been and are to me. You cannot anticipate what your life will become.

Peer to Peer

I worked for the Centre College IT department during my senior year. It was 2002. BitTorrent hadn’t reached critical mass yet, and the filescape was fragmented: finding music or software cracks meant risking your boot sector on Kazaa or Limewire or eMule, and I spent weeks cleaning malware off the computers of those who tried. Even so, I knew I had it easy. Just a couple years beforehand, IT had been dealing with Napster.

I had been part of the problem myself, then. Music is so ubiquitous now, from so many services, that it’s hard to remember when it only came in physical form. I only brought a couple dozen CDs with me to college; they, and what my friends would loan me, were all the music I could listen to. Then I downloaded this piece of software, and—while the network creaked and shuddered—my Dell became a boundless playground.

There was so much weird stuff out there, and so many obscene delights: old TV themes, rap skits, Prince B-sides, that wildly misattributed cover of “Gin and Juice.” Oh, also every song I’d ever wanted. Before the advent of decent portable MP3 players, we burned teetering stacks of sharpied CDs, or stuffed them into fat binders; we blew out car stereos and hijacked theater sound boards. Most people go through some kind of music epiphany in college, but I’ll never be able to separate my own from the opening floodgates of P2P distribution. It couldn’t last.

The courts didn’t really kill Napster: money did. I’m afraid for Twitter.

Twitter has to start making money. They’ve decided to make money via advertising. Faruk Ateş can explain why that’s a bad idea, both in selling one’s users and in stifling innovation. I wish I could just pay Twitter to let me keep posting from my third-party client and stop serving ads.

Yet I regret intensely paying to join Everything I love about Twitter comes from the fact that it’s free, anonymous, open and inclusive: my broke friends won’t be on, nor will the horse books or identity thieves or psychotropic stumble-spelling genius joke poets. But will they be on Twitter? Or will Twitter fuck this up and commit suicide by cash?

It’s mindlessly easy to get music now: free if you want it, fast if you pay. But there’s no playground. The weird is dead. I have no doubt that we will retain the ability to type out 140-character sentences in any number of places for some time to come, and I know that the (vast, vast) bulk of those sentences are throwaways. But some of them are the best sentences we have yet made in English, and they can only exist in the atmosphere of Twitter, the alacrity and transience and irony and fierce, fleeting joy.

Right now, I can carry 281 people I love in my pocket, and pull them up whenever I need to learn something new. Twitter is how I talk to the world. I know this isn’t entirely healthy, but intoxication rarely is. For the second time in my life, I’m high on sharing, and I don’t want it to end.


This is probably my last Constellation Games post. Spoilers up through chapter 32, and hints about the ending.

Back in the mid-20 chapters, Ariel misdiagnoses Curic with ambivalence, a feared mental condition among the Farang… of ninety million years ago, and not exactly a concern to the unimaginably advanced Farang of the present day. Curic does not suffer from ambivalence, even if her crossselves operated at cross purposes. The sneaky thing about this is that of course Ariel was mistaken, he was taking medical advice from the late Cretaceous. The sneakier thing is that Curic doesn’t suffer from it, but everybody else does.

Somn is ambivalent about her whole place on the contact mission; she wasn’t expecting to find lifeforms, much less anyone she’d have to learn to talk to. She certainly wasn’t expecting her husband to hare off to another planet while she’s trying to hatch their kids. Jenny can’t decide whether she wants to make art or money, nuke Ariel or sleep in his bed. That’s the same Ariel who told one woman he loved her while he left the planet to chase another, and who’s trying to live in outer space and his old house from Texas at the same time. Bai’s ambivalence is stark: he goes to enormous effort to make his imaginary girlfriend a real person, and absolutely cannot handle it when his imaginary girlfriend starts acting like a real person. And said girlfriend herself…

Man, Dana. Because Constellation Games is written by Ariel, most of the narrative is about him feeling hard done by, but he’s got nothing on her. Smoke spins her off by jamming an Alien behavior model onto a mashup of ancient Farang cultural knowledge, a pubescent video game and Bai’s phone app save file. That save file is something to be reckoned with, actually—remember how she was driving the plot before she was even sapient?—but that’s still a pretty messy starting point from which to approximate human behavior. Add the fact that she’s an indentured servant: she gets paid for her translation work (and starts her job while two days old), but she has to live in a piece of paper in Bai’s pocket. No wonder she tried to dissolve Crispy Duck the second she was asked for business advice. Being able to multitask on phone calls isn’t the same as the freedom to leave.

That is, she can’t leave until Ariel fires her and Bai dumps her. Dana is left without a purpose or a friend, as the only being of her kind in existence, and she can’t even masturbate (the other half of her raison d’être) to feel better. That’s the kind of situation that induces suicidal depression in humans.

So how does this tie into ambivalence? Dana is a child of Smoke, and therefore fractal. She’s made of minds all the way down. Ariel’s interview with Her is the closest he sees to what’s going on inside Dana all the time: a mass of individuals adding up to something greater, with a collective voice but a lot of conflict underneath. Which Dana was the one placing that first phone call to Ariel, and which was the one simultaneously having sex with Bai? Which one tried to get them both to enter into a polyamorous relationship, and which one clearly sabotaged the whole thing? When she finally gets Ariel to agree to have sex with her on Ring City, she claims she has to hang up for a second. Which Dana calls back? Which Dana, in a subjective eternity of despair and loneliness, found the will to move forward?

Dana may not even know the answer. Constellation Games is a book about trying to deal with the strange loops in your head, all the minds that are bound to you: your crossselves. Both halves of Curic were trained from birth to deal with the person who lives in their body while they sleep, the Other that neither will ever truly meet. The other characters don’t get that training, and the best they can do is emulate the little plastic board that came with the Brain Embryo. You write down a message in a marker you can’t erase, and you hope the rest of you will see.

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