Do Not Let Tumblr Frame Their Adult Content Ban as “Positive”

Tumblr is banning all “adult” content. Besides being a terrible business move, this is also one of the most disingenuous decisions I’ve ever seen from an internet company. And I’ve seen a lot.

Yes, the change is happening because the Tumblr app was temporarily removed from the iOS App Store due to child pornography. (The collaborative database Tumblr shares with other companies that’s supposed to filter out probable child porn apparently let some posts through that shouldn’t have been.) Rather than justifying the new policy, though, that just adds insult to injury. In my (very heavily-regulated) field, we have a term for this: CYA.

The disingenuity of Tumblr’s statement starts very early on, when they describe their position on posting child porn: “Let’s first be unequivocal about something that should not be confused with today’s policy change: posting anything that is harmful to minors, including child pornography, is abhorrent and has no place in our community.”

That’s nice, but if you don’t want this policy change to be “confused” with banning child pornography, you might try not instituting it in response to getting criticized for allowing child pornography.

They continue:

We spent considerable time weighing the pros and cons of expression in the community that includes adult content. In doing so, it became clear that without this content we have the opportunity to create a place where more people feel comfortable expressing themselves.

Which people? Who feels “uncomfortable” posting on a site that also allows adult content, and who will be made to feel uncomfortable—or even unsafe—now that this change is happening?

There are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content. We will leave it to them and focus our efforts on creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community.

Are there? I mean, yes, there’s YouPorn and Fetlife and whatnot. These are very different types of websites than Tumblr. While I’m sure sex-friendly alternatives to Tumblr exist, I honestly can’t name any off the top of my head. Given how entrenched I am in internet culture, that suggests that there may well be a “shortage.”

Another thing, filtering this type of content versus say, a political protest with nudity or the statue of David, is not simple at scale. We’re relying on automated tools to identify adult content and humans to help train and keep our systems in check. We know there will be mistakes, but we’ve done our best to create and enforce a policy that acknowledges the breadth of expression we see in the community.

This is perhaps the most honest part of this entire statement, as it at least admits that there’s going to be collateral damage. Except realistically, it won’t be statues of David or even “political protests with nudity.” It will be queer, trans, and non-white individuals sharing their experiences and identities—the exact sorts of people who use Tumblr to “speak freely about topics like art, sex positivity, your relationships, your sexuality, and your personal journey,” as the statement admits.

What this means in practice is that, like Facebook and Instagram, Tumblr’s “automated tools” (along with the biased humans supposed to keep them “in check”) are going to ban photos of breastfeeding mothers, topless photos of trans men, references to menstrual blood, and the like. Many Tumblr users are already testing this, with hilarious but also depressing results.

And on the topic of topless photos. In their definition of “adult content,” the Tumblr team writes: “Adult content primarily includes photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content—including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations—that depicts sex acts.”

What the fuck are “female-presenting nipples” and why are they less appropriate than “male-presenting nipples”? (What happens with nipples that are evidently nonbinary?)

The definition continues:

Examples of exceptions that are still permitted are exposed female-presenting nipples in connection with breastfeeding, birth or after-birth moments, and health-related situations, such as post-mastectomy or gender confirmation surgery.

Why are “female-presenting nipples” acceptable when it comes to birth or breastfeeding, but not when it comes to just existing on their own, without cancer or surgery?

Once my mastectomy scars heal, they’ll be barely visible, and once I buy fake adhesive nipples, my breasts are going to look extremely realistic (not to mention totally bangin’, but that’s a separate conversation). Say I want to post a photo to reassure other survivors that they are able to get these fantastic results too. Why wouldn’t my photo get flagged and removed?

The difference is pretty obvious. It’s not really about the gender of the nipples’ owners or whether or not they’re laying in a hospital bed. It’s simply this: tits are okay as long as they’re not there to titillate.

To that end, nipples that aren’t “female-presenting” are fine, because the assumption is that they’re not pornographic to anyone—nobody gets off on them. (That’s obviously false.)

What is all this for? What is Tumblr trying to change about the way their platform is used?

One word that keeps coming up in their communications about the change is “positive.” “A better, more positive Tumblr.” “We won’t always get this right, especially in the beginning, but we are determined to make your experience a positive one.”

The word “positive” is doing some interesting work in this statement and I want to unpack that a bit. In what way is a community without (consensual, legal) adult content a more “positive” (or more “welcoming”) community? What is “negative” about the presence of consensual, legal adult content? What is negative about “female-presenting” nipples as opposed to other kinds? Why is a breast uncovered for feeding a baby more “positive” than a breast that’s just hanging out?

The staff writes in their update to the community guidelines that “we do not judge anyone for their desire to post, engage with, or view this stuff,” yet they also say that a space without “this stuff” is “more positive.” What is that if not judgment?

There’s only one neutral word to accurately describe the new Tumblr, and that’s “more child-friendly.” The only reason for removing adult content is to make it (more) possible for children to exist safely in a space. But Tumblr already had a Safe Mode for that reason—a feature that is now being discontinued because it is no longer needed.

“More child-friendly” is not “more positive.” It’s just more child-friendly. And unfortunately, even that can be a loaded term. Many websites, most notably YouTube, have been criticized for removing LGBTQ content in the name of the children, even when the same content would be deemed appropriate if it featured straight, cisgender people.

(As an example, just think about how many people screech “BUT THE CHILDREN” if a same-sex couple cuddles or shares a quick kiss in front of kids. Yet these kids see similar forms of affection between their straight parents all the time. [I mean, judging by how shitty some of these people are at relationships, maybe not.])

Competing access needs are a thing. Yes, a space where people can freely post pornographic content will not be as open to minors, even if there is a Safe Mode. However, children as a group do not seem to be suffering right now for lack of websites to use. But queer and trans people, and sex workers (many of whom rely on Tumblr to make a living), absolutely are. And these are the types of people who have made Tumblr what it is. For example, many people I know used to enthusiastically follow Cliff Pervocracy’s Tumblr, an invaluable resource on consent and sex-positivity. As Cliff pointed out on Twitter, his Tumblr account was already banned even before this change was made.

I get freaking out because you’ve messed up something as serious as banning child pornography from your website. I really do. And I’d be more understanding of this change if the Tumblr team were at least upfront about that.

Instead, they literally come right out and state that a Tumblr without consensual adult content is a “more positive” Tumblr. They conflate consensual adult content with child pornography, which is as offensive as conflating consensual BDSM with violence and consensual sex work with trafficking.

And speaking of conflating sex work with trafficking: this is bigger than Tumblr and it’s bigger than getting kicked out of the iOS App Store. It’s a direct consequence of SESTA/FOSTA, and will probably get worse.

Our society’s irrational and extreme fear of sex is killing people and ruining lives.

But back to Tumblr: unless they reverse this change (unlikely), I’ll be ending my presence there. Whether or not you have a Tumblr account and do the same, here’s my charge to you—do not let anyone get away with framing these types of changes as “positive” or “friendlier” or even “safer.” At best, these changes make spaces more accessible to minors. At worst, they further stigmatize marginalized people and cut them off from community and financial support.

If that’s what we’re doing, let’s at least be honest about it.

Do Not Let Tumblr Frame Their Adult Content Ban as “Positive”
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How Big is Your Hard Drive?

Close-up of a hard drive.
This is relevant, I swear.

This is a cross-post from my professional blog.

Some friends and I were talking recently about the concept of “emotionally unavailable” people. Most of us have had a friend—perhaps ourselves—who has tried to date someone who seemed into them, but just wasn’t quite present. Sometimes this type of partner is upfront about their ability to commit and/or be there. Sometimes, they aren’t, and their behavior seems confusing and contradictory. These pseudo-relationships can drag on for years until we are finally able to move on, understanding that however much the person enjoys our presence, they are not interested in making things more committed or structured than they currently are.

If I knew what to do in these situations I’d probably be retiring a millionaire, but I do have an analogy that might be helpful. I thought of it on the spot to give my friend some advice. (If you’ve ever been my client, you know how much I love a good geeky analogy.)

Computers come with different hard drive capacities. If yours doesn’t have enough space for you, you can maybe buy and install a new one—but for the moment, you’re stuck with the one your computer came with. Maybe you can’t afford a new one right now.

Different hard drives also have different things stored on them, and these things take up different amounts of space. I know people whose hard drives pretty much just contain the system files, maybe a few extra apps. These people use their computers mainly to get online. Maybe computers aren’t very important to them and they don’t use them much at all.

Some people have a lot to store—photos, music, videos, complex projects they’re working on. These folks are buying hard drives in capacities I didn’t even know existed. (This year, the world’s largest solid state drive hit 100 terabytes. What are they storing on that hard drive???)

Don’t think of the hard drive as your brain. Those analogies are really reductive, and usually insulting to us humans. The hard drive is a symbol, and it represents something I call your capacity as a person. That encompasses a lot of things—time, energy, physical and mental ability, willpower (which isn’t really a thing, but that’s another article; it’s useful here as a concept), tolerance for uncertainty or negative emotion, and much more. For instance, not everyone has the capacity to be a therapist. Being a therapist requires having a lot of space to hold other people’s pain. Not everyone has enough space for that. Unfortunately, some therapists end up without enough space to hold their loved ones’ pain, or even their own.

Say I have a 1 TB hard drive that’s full of music and photos. Maybe there’s 300 GB left over. Then a friend asks, “Could I put some of my videos on your hard drive? I need somewhere to store them for a while.” I say sure, but then they come over with their external drive and I see that they have an entire terabyte of videos. That’s not going to fit on my hard drive. I could probably store some of their videos, and that might still be helpful for them. But maybe they really needed to store the entire drive’s worth. I don’t have the capacity.

This kind of thing happens in friendships and relationships all the time. You might have a good amount of your own shit to deal with, but that doesn’t mean you can’t listen to your friends vent about their own problems from time to time, or give them advice about a work situation, or treat them to a nice dinner while they’re going through a breakup.

You might not be able to be a friend’s primary source of support as they navigate a serious illness, however. First of all, the time factor would be prohibitive—you may not be able to drive them to all of their medical appointments, be at their house enough to care for them when they can’t care for themselves, and so on. The stress of being a full-time caregiver would be way too much. Holding their anguish as they face the possibility of death or disability is also, well, a lot. Your friend needs more people on their team.

Some people are carrying a lot of trauma, hardship, or personal responsibilities with them already. No matter how large their hard drives happen to be, there may not be space there for you.

Not only that, but some people have pretty small hard drives to begin with. I’ve known many people who just don’t seem to have a lot of space for others in their lives. They don’t tolerate much emotional turbulence when it comes to other people. They may be interested in sex, casual friendship, or even romance, but they don’t have the capacity to build interdependent, long-lasting relationships with others—at least not until they do some work on themselves, and get some bigger hard drives. Some people want to do that work; others are perfectly content as they are.

Here’s where this analogy really breaks down—buying a new hard drive is a million times easier than increasing your capacity for holding other people. And while you can buy a larger hard drive for your friend whose computer you’re always wanting to store your videos on for some reason (this is weird), you cannot increase others’ capacity for them. They have to choose to do it for themselves, and they may not want to. Or it may take them a long time, or they may not be able to do it at all.

If you are hoping for a deeper relationship with someone whose hard drive seems to be too small—or who has way too much data on it already—you have to ask yourself whether or not it’s likely that this person is going to have more space for you anytime soon, and whether or not they want that space to be yours.


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How Big is Your Hard Drive?

Who Decides When Pain is “Intolerable”?

Imagine that, like me, you have a serious, incurable medical condition. If left untreated, this condition could kill you or at least have a devastating, permanent effect on your ability to work, enjoy yourself, and function independently. There is a treatment available, but it’s not totally guaranteed to work. It will probably at least help, but it doesn’t actually cure the condition. It also causes serious side effects and carries high risks of long-term problems. You even might end up needing further treatment to manage the effects of the first treatment.

What do you do?

Here’s another complication—the risky, expensive treatment makes a lot of money for the pharmaceutical companies who produce it. That leads some people to claim that the treatment is a sham and you shouldn’t accept it—instead, you should “learn to live with” the consequences. But your doctors say that despite the risks, this is your best chance of living a full, long life.

Now what do you do?

Well, if the medical condition is cancer and the treatment is chemotherapy, then most people, including me, take their chances with the treatment. Some go into remission. Some don’t, or their disease returns. Many people with stage 4 (or metastatic) cancer that has spread throughout their body are given chemo indefinitely as a way to try to manage and control the cancer for as long as possible.

But what if the condition is severe and incurable chronic pain, and the treatment is opiates?

It’s not a perfect analogy. It’s not supposed to be. But the reason most people recoil instantly at that comparison is because most people don’t see severe chronic pain as an illness in the same way that cancer is. Sure, everyone needs an ibuprofen at some point in their lives, and sometimes if you have a serious surgery you may need Percocet or codeine, but to most people, pain is not in and of itself a medical condition that merits treatment.

People are rightly suspicious of opiates because ever since the days of morphine, pharmaceutical companies have mislabeled opiate medications and mislead the public (and even doctors) about their addictive properties. (That’s one point at which the analogy with cancer and chemo breaks down—as far as I know, we’ve always known that chemo literally destroys the cells in your body.) Doctors used to prescribe opiates without warning patients about the potential for addiction and the importance of taking appropriate doses, tapering down when needed, and complementing the opiates with other, non-addictive methods of pain relief.

However, none of this negates these facts: 1) many people suffer from severe and incurable chronic pain, and 2) opiates are the only drugs that allow some of these patients to achieve anything resembling a livable situation.

Now that politicians are once again yelling at each other about “fixing” the “opioid epidemic,” I’m seeing a lot of pundits and public figures carefully dancing around the inconvenient and messy reality of pain. “How do we get these people to stop abusing opiates?” they moan. “Maybe if we ban doctors from prescribing them.”

They’ll go on to qualify. “We’re not saying nobody should ever get them. But it should be harder to get them, and it should only be for people who really need it.”

You know what that reminds me of? “We’re not saying nobody should be able to get an abortion. But there should be a waiting period, and you should have to hear the baby’s heartbeat, and any doctor performing them should also have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital in case something goes wrong, and definitely not after 20 weeks, and—“

In both cases, the “guidelines” and “restrictions” and “regulations” may seem like they’re there to prevent “abuses of the system” or people getting medical care they don’t really want/will regret later. But really, the goal is pretty clear—sharply reduce the frequency with which this type of medical care is being provided. [1]

And the reason that’s the goal isn’t just because they believe that this type of medical care is harmful to patients. It’s also because they believe that it’s ultimately immoral and harmful to society.

If that wasn’t already painfully (heh) obvious from talking to doctors and politicians about pain management, it’s also obvious when you look at the type of research being done. In a Vox article about the issue, German Lopez cites a study about what happens when doctors are informed when their patients overdose on opiates they prescribed:

The results: Clinicians who got the letters prescribed nearly 10 percent fewer opioids than those who did not receive a letter. The letter-receiving clinicians were also less likely to start patients on opioids and less likely to give patients higher doses of opioids. [2]

This is being presented as a successful outcome. Why? How do we know how exactly these doctors decided whom they were going to deny opiates to? What if some, or most, of the patients who made up that 10% statistic were patients who really needed these medications? How many of those patients might go on to overdose on street drugs that they sought out because of unmanaged pain?

And that’s how we get to opinions like these, from a Vox article by Sarah Kliff, who cites the article above:

But there is one quote in German’s piece that stands out to me the most, from drug policy expert Keith Humphreys: “Something needs to be worked through the culture as well about how pain is part of life. If you’re in excruciating pain, it sucks. And I’ve had pain conditions myself. But not all pain is intolerable or needs to be pushed down to zero with an opioid.”

This, I think, is the hardest part of backing away from opioids: admitting that medicine doesn’t have a perfect cure for pain — that for some patients, zero pain isn’t possible. [3]

Here’s the problem, though. “Not all pain is intolerable” means acknowledging the fact that some pain is intolerable, and any way you slice it, you have people other than the patient determining if their pain is tolerable or not. And not only that, but this decision-maker is essentially serving as a gatekeeper to effective pain-relieving medication, placing them in opposition to the patient, who wants access to that medication.

There is absolutely no way for this not to become gaslighting, and no way for it not to become yet another stage on which our cultural biases play their well-worn roles. It’s a known fact that African Americans are considered less sensitive to pain, while women and Jewish people are considered weak and prone to complaining. (Somehow, despite the opposite stereotypes, all of these groups are similarly denied pain care.) These stereotypes appear in current medical textbooks. [4]

This page is from a 2014 nursing textbook titled Nursing: A Concept-Based Approach to Learning. After this photo went viral on social media in 2017, the publisher, Pearson, apologized and released an updated edition of the textbook with this section removed.

The other problem with “not all pain is intolerable” is that, while pain usually has physiological causes, its perception is subjective. Feelings of pain are processed in the brain, so all pain, by definition, is “all in your head.” That fact is often used to gaslight people, but if anything it should be the other way around. That pain is subjective means there’s no way to know if someone else’s pain is “that bad.” Every method that’s been created to try to objectively rate someone else’s pain is a dismal failure, because you simply can’t.

Opiates have high risks, especially when mismanaged. But lots of important medical treatments have high risks. Besides its serious short-term side effects, chemo has a high likelihood of causing at least a few of the following permanent effects: neuropathy of the hands and feet, cognitive impairment, bone and joint pain, elevated risk for various cancers, heart disease/failure, lung damage, infertility, hearing loss, and osteoporosis.

“But wait!” you may say. “Cancer kills, but chronic pain doesn’t!” You got me there. Except not really, because first of all, not everyone agrees that a lifetime of excruciating pain is better than death. For instance, I don’t. Second, severe and untreated chronic pain absolutely does kill. It can increase the risk of suicide and actual opiate abuse and overdose, as well as alcoholism and complications thereof. People who become sedentary due to pain have a higher risk of dying of heart disease, diabetes, and literally any other disease for which being sedentary puts you at risk. People with untreated pain may be unable to work, and their ambiguous medical status can make them ineligible for Social Security. Poverty is itself a risk factor for just about everything.

Which brings me back to my opening analogy. Who decided that the risks of living with severe pain are preferable to the risks of taking opiates? Why do they get to make that decision for patients? What the fuck happened to informed consent?

Opiate addiction is obviously a very serious health issue, but it’s not untreatable. Most people with addiction recover. Many of these other potential risks I described, both of chemo and of untreated chronic pain, are permanent.

I have always supported access to effective pain medication, including before my surgery, but before then I would’ve said that I’d personally rather deal with pain than take opiates for longer than a day or two and risk addiction. But the combination of gaslighting and physical suffering I experienced changed my mind. I have been in every way diminished by that experience, and it didn’t even last that long compared to other people. [5]

No, I didn’t need that pain “pushed down to zero,” and that quote is an unfair strawman. I needed that pain managed. I needed to not want to kill myself so I could focus on recovery. Ibuprofen didn’t do that. Tylenol didn’t do that. Muscle relaxers didn’t do that. Percocet didn’t even do it, because the hospital staff had allowed my pain to spiral out of control while they hemmed and hawed and condescended and argued with me about it.

At that point I was on my own. That I had resources of strength that enabled me to survive that without resorting to illegal drug use or having a complete mental breakdown diminishes neither the severity nor the ultimate Sisyphean pointlessness of what I went through.

Incidentally, I’m not even the type of patient that this conversation was supposed to be about. I’m not a chronic pain patient. I had a serious and complicated surgery, but one that has a predictable and relatively short-term recovery process. When experts talk about the risks of opioid prescriptions, this isn’t the situation they’re usually talking about. Yet, as my social worker later suggested, I had gotten caught in the web of Ohio’s new “opioid guidelines.” The pendulum has swung in the other direction, and it knocked me on my ass on its way there.

So, I fully admit that I can’t be impartial about this issue. But because I can’t be impartial about it, I’m well-positioned to report on its devastating outcomes. I dissociate when I have to return to that hospital. I break down bawling in doctors’ offices when they ask me about my experience. I’ve lost almost all trust in the medical system that put my cancer into remission and saved my life, because in so doing it gaslit and traumatized me in a way that, unlike the cancer itself, was one hundred percent avoidable.

And I am so, so lucky compared to others. My pain was temporary.

I see a lot of pundits talking about how to reduce opioid prescriptions and “get people off” opioids. These are the wrong questions to be asking. Here are some better ones:

  • Is pain a valid medical issue, or is it not?
  • Who is the best authority on a patient’s pain severity—their doctor, a state government, or that patient?
  • What are the long-term risks and costs of unmanaged chronic pain?
    Which of the “alternative approaches” to pain management being suggested to patients are based on scientific evidence?
  • On average, medical school students receive 11 total hours of training on pain out of thousands of total hours of education. Are we going to do anything about that?
  • In a culture with sayings like “No pain, no gain” and “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” are we prepared to acknowledge that pain carries no intrinsic moral benefit and that people who want to reduce their suffering should be able to do so?
  • “Informed consent” means that patients are informed of potential risks, benefits, and alternatives for each treatment, and then allowed to decide for themselves which treatment to choose. Does this apply to chronic pain?
  • The majority of substance abuse treatment in this country still utilizes outdated, unscientific methods that rely on religion and moralizing rather than sound evidence. Are we going to do anything about that or nah?
  • Every single client I’ve ever worked with who was or had been addicted to opiates had one or both of the following untreated issues in their history: 1) repeated psychological trauma, usually sexual assault/abuse, or 2) years of disabling physical pain. What are we doing about that? Specifically, how fucking dare any member of Congress vote for any opioid-related legislation while confirming a man accused of rape by multiple credible witnesses to the Supreme Court?

Honestly, until I see some real answers to these questions, I don’t really care about reducing opioid prescriptions or forcing anybody off of them.


[1] https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/380559-anti-abortion-lawmakers-lay-groundwork-for-roe-challenge

[2] https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/9/25/17327976/opioid-epidemic-painkiller-prescriptions

[3] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/9/28/17915696/voxcare-opioid-epidemic-package

[4] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/10/23/nursing-textbook-pulled-over-stereotypes

[5] The full story of my surgery and its aftermath is something I’ve addressed elsewhere on social media, and will be discussed in the book I’m working on. But the nutshell version is: I had a double mastectomy with reconstruction and was afterwards denied almost all but the weakest prescription pain medication, and gaslit and condescended to when I asked to be given proper pain management.


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Who Decides When Pain is “Intolerable”?

Intuitive Eating Made Me Miss My Flight

(But, in the words of the great Rebecca Bunch, the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.)

Rebecca Bunch from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Last night I was supposed to be on a flight to DC. I arrived at the airport straight from work with some time to spare, checked my luggage, went through security, bought a snack, and arrived at the gate to find that the flight had been delayed by two hours. It was 7 PM. My usual dinner time. I ate some of my almonds but found my hunger worsening. With the delay I would not arrive in DC until about 11 PM, plus a half-hour ride from the airport, so it would be nearly midnight by the time I could finally have a hot, nutritionally complete meal—my first since lunch at noon. What to do?

Lately I’ve been working with a dietician[1] on intuitive eating, a radical (but not new) approach to food in which you learn to pay attention to your body’s hunger cues and eat things that feel good to you. No numbers are involved in this process at any point. It’s not a weight-loss program, or even a “health” program, really. It’s more of a “rebuild a healthy relationship with food and be more mindful” program.

Most people, even those who have a relatively healthy body image and few issues around food, have taught themselves to ignore bodily cues like hunger, satiety, and energy. That’s because bodies are inconvenient and our society demands that we run on its schedule, not on our bodies’ schedules. If lunch is at noon then you eat at noon. If you have a lot of work to do and don’t have time for eating, you keep working until you can stop. If we’re eating now then you eat now even if you’re not hungry. If dinner is meatloaf and broccoli then you clean your plate before you can leave the table because of [insert racist and classist cliche here]. If salads leave you feeling weak and tired but salads are clean and healthy and you need to eat clean and healthy, then you eat salads and feel weak and tired and tell yourself it’s because of something else. If the flight is at 7 PM and there’s no time for dinner beforehand, then you grab a snack and head to the gate, and if the flight is delayed and there’s no one with you to text you updates, then you stay at the gate in case the flight leaves suddenly and you worry about your worsening hunger later.

Recently finished chemo? Recently had a double mastectomy? Recently started hormone suppression meds that put you into early menopause, causing hot flashes, fatigue, weakness, and confusion, especially if you don’t eat properly? Don’t worry about it! Wait at the gate.

Needless to say, I didn’t do that. I went to a pizza place not far from the gate, ordered myself a small pizza with olive oil, bacon, onions, and mushrooms, listened for any flight announcements, did not hear any flight announcements, refreshed the flight info on Google, and missed the flight anyway.

“Should’ve stayed at the gate,” the gate agent said when I appeared half an hour before the flight’s rescheduled departure and inquired what the fuck.

But I was exactly where I needed to be—taking care of my body so that it takes care of ME on my trip.

Now it’s the morning after, and I’m on my rebooked flight to DC, somewhat frazzled but nevertheless feeling energized enough to enjoy my weekend. Because last night when I started to feel really hungry, I had a complete meal with carbs, fat, protein, and fiber, along with hot tea and later water.

Bodies are inconvenient. I’ve tried the thing where you replace your meals with “healthy snacks” because you can’t make time to eat meals. It doesn’t work. I’ve tried the thing where you grab greasy fast food and bring it on the plane with you because you don’t have time for anything else. It doesn’t work. I’ve tried ignoring the problem. It doesn’t work.

What works is paying attention to my body’s physical sensations and responding to them with a combination of carbs, fat, protein, fiber, water, rest, physical activity, and sleep.

In fact, that’s probably the only thing that ever would’ve worked. But until I got so sick that I HAD to stop and pay attention to it, I ignored it like almost everyone else does.

(No, ignoring my hunger did not cause my cancer, but having cancer caused me to stop ignoring my hunger.)

When you start noticing your body’s cues and responding to them appropriately, you may also start missing flights. Or turning down opportunities, or no longer eating some foods you thought you liked but turned out to actually make you feel bad, or being late to things because you realized you needed to eat first but you weren’t hungry early enough to eat early enough to not be late. You may decide that you can’t be vegan after all, or that you don’t need to eat meat after all. You may notice that you don’t get hungry at 7 AM, 12 PM, and 6 PM. You may get hungry at totally different times. You may need to adjust your work schedule to accommodate this.

You may find a way to avoid many of these potential problems by being strategic about bringing snacks with you or taking breaks from things. But sometimes you’ll forget, or it won’t be enough.

You may also find yourself feeling better, physically and mentally. You may stop sending yourself on guilt-trips over food. You may realize that stopping at Dairy Queen for an ice cream cone after work is actually a great way to boost your mood and make sure you don’t get hungry until you’ve had time to make dinner.

You may even find yourself noticing other types of bodily cues more, too—for instance, that the party is loud and you need a break from the noise, and if you take a break now, you won’t be overwhelmed and will be able to return and stay for the rest of the party and enjoy yourself. Or that these shoes are so uncomfortable that it actually impacts your mood and productivity, so wearing them just isn’t worth it anymore. Or that you always feel vaguely uncomfortable and on edge around this particular person and maybe it’s time to try to figure out why.

Yeah, it’s inconvenient. It makes me feel over-sensitive, fragile, high-maintenance, and a lot of other things we often label women with. It’s difficult that at a moment when I most need to get past my preoccupation with my body’s weakness and vulnerability, the self-care I need the most seems to just highlight those things more and more.

But every time I make the decision to honor my body’s cues rather than ignore them, I can feel that I’ve taken another small step towards well-being. Towards working as a team with my body rather than fighting it every step of the way. Towards feeling at home in myself again.

A missed flight starts to seem like a small price to pay.


[1] If you live in Ohio, you may be able to work with my dietician! Find her here: https://www.kristenmurrayrd.com/

More info about intuitive eating here: http://www.intuitiveeating.org/


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Intuitive Eating Made Me Miss My Flight

2 AM Talks Podcast: Baldness and Queer Aesthetics

As you may recall from my little life update a month ago, I’ve recently started a new podcast called 2 AM Talks. My first guest was Alex Gabriel, my colleague here at the Orbit who blogs at Godlessness in Theory. We talked about our experiences with hair loss, queer identities, and so much more.

You can listen to the episode here, or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

The first half of the transcription is over on Alex’s blog, along with some awesome selfies from us. Read that first, then return to this post to read the second half.


Alex: I’m interested in, as far as makeup—you have hair again now, right?

Miri: Yeah! It’s short, but it’s growing back.

A: Yeah. So I don’t know what this looked like when you did not have hair, but for me, one of the things that I love is when I’m—I don’t normally wear everyday cosmetic makeup from the makeup counter at the pharmacy. The makeup that I wear is generally full on professional theatrical stuff. But when I’m doing all of that, I really like whatever base layer you’re doing, my foundation keeps carrying on up my forehead and then all over my head. And then when the contour arrives, I contour my skull! Which I feel is particularly hardcore on some level or other.

I’m not sure—if I said the name Sasha Velour, is that a person you recognise?

M: No.

A: Okay, so: drag queen from New York. Won Drag Race a couple of years ago, and is probably the only person associated with that show who I’m just reallyinto, to the point that I don’t care about anybody else. But yeah—New York drag queen, travels around the world a lot, and is rather intellectual and the child of two college professors. Known for being bald, and doing that in the full made-up femmeness as well.

I’m interested in your bald role models, but that’s definitely one of mine, and a big part of that process of finding a queer version of baldness. One of the things she’s talked about in interviews, actually, is that around the time that Sasha started doing drag, her mum died of cancer. And part of the reason she’s a bald queen is because they had conversations about, what was that process going to be? And [she] encouraged her mum to just embrace the glamorous aspects of baldness, and therefore now is permanently a bald queen in homage to that, and as a celebration of that.

Interesting that there’s a person who embodies both of those experiences of baldness that we have (both cancer and male-pattern). But yeah, that’s one of the people, as well as various film characters and things, that I’ve got as a personal canon of feminine baldness that I like to dig into a lot.

M: Yeah. So bringing it back to that topic, of course the first thing that comes to mind right now is Black Panther.

I’m hoping that everyone who’s listening has watched Black Panther—and if not, pause this podcast and go do that immediately, because it needs to be done! But in the movie, the Dora Milaje—the women who protect the Black Panther and project Wakanda—they’re bald, and they are absolute consummate badasses.

And there is a butchiness about that, in that they’re warriors and probably all queer as fuck (and if not, then I disagree with that!)—but there is a femininity to them. They show vulnerability, and they dress up at points in the movie; at least Okoye does. And that is actually when I love her look the most: when she’s undercover. I don’t remember right now the gown that she wore, but it was a fancy evening dress—and she wore a wig, to fit in I guess, but at one point she takes it off and she’s so happy to be rid of it. And OH that was so good! That gives me all of, like, the queer feels. Yes!

A: So—can I jump in here?

M: Yes!

A: Here’s the thing—I had a lot of drag-and-other feels about that scene. The moment when she says, ‘Look at me, do I have to keep wearing this ridiculous thing?’ is when she first turns up wearing the wig. She takes it off as a combat move and throws it at somebody.

M: Right! That makes it even better.

A: Yeah! But also, as far the gown, the actual costumes the Dora Milaje wear are based on—I think it’s an amalgam of various pan-African influences, but particularly… I can’t bring the name of the ethnic group to mind, but one particular African element. And I really appreciated that when they go to the casino, her dress that she wears is the same colour, it’s bright red, and it’s kind of a translation of what she would normally wear into that context. And I’m really interested in the idea [that] she’s theoretically going from quite butch to quite femme, but as a costume choice and an aesthetic choice, that almost seems to pose the question, exactly where is the switch there? And invites one the think a bit more questioningly about how those roles and aesthetics are constructed. So I was really into that. And also, just her on top of a car, bearing down on somebody, with a spear in hand! …was fabulous.

M: What I appreciated most of all, I think, about the aesthetic aspects of that scene is that while the wig was both practically and symbolically just unneeded there, she seemed as comfortable and at ease in a dress, really, as she does in her normal uniform. And I like that on a number of levels, because first of all, again, it jumps the butch-femme barrier. Just because you normally dress butch doesn’t mean that you can’t fucking rock a femme outfit. But also, it reflected the fact that warriors can come in many forms. You don’t have to look traditionally masculine to do it.

I don’t know enough about the Wakanda mythology to know why they’re bald. Maybe you know that? It might be to do with aesthetics, it might be to do with practicality. But regardless, you can still kind of do both. And in fact, I wouldn’t even call it ‘doing both’. I would call it ‘being her’. Sometimes she wears a fucking warrior uniform and carries a spear, and sometimes she wears an evening gown and carries a spear. (And rides on top of a car. And throws it.)

A: Yeah!

It was on the tip of my tongue, but it’s come back: it is the Maasai, I believe, who are the Africans that that particular—the whole Wakandan aesthetic is drawing from everywhere, but the Dora Milaje in particular are Maasai-looking.

And I guess to take that whole discussion maybe a stage further: potentially, one thing to think about in that context is binaries of masculine and feminine as a European thing. And if you’re not only African, but from—in this context—the African country that was never colonised, of course she does not observe that binary.

M: Yeah. I’m obviously not knowledgeable enough in African history to be able to say for sure, but that, based on what I know, sounds pretty true to me: that white westerners very much imported some of that into Africa, and into many parts of the world.

I mean, just think of the fact that there are many parts of the world where men or masculine wear items of clothing that westerners would call skirts or dresses. And to my knowledge, the only white western exception to that is the kilt. But in many other places, it’s not necessarily the case that just because you’re a man (or masculine), you have garments that wrap around each of your legs. You know?

A: Sure!

I’m only able to discuss all of that about Black Panther in detail because I was really—I very specifically geeked out about the costume design and stuff, so I read a load of interviews with the people behind it. As far as wider African cultural history, I don’t have that knowledge, so major disclaimer there!

But also, for me—maybe this is a generational thing, but the Borg queen from Star Trek is a person that I go to as far as ‘bald femme’, particularly with an evil dimension to it.

M: Yes. The other figure I was thinking of, was—staying within the realm of Marvel (and science fiction more broadly, I guess)—Doctor Strange.

The Ancient One is bald—and that, of course, I have my issues with, because many people say the casting there was whitewashed, and that should have been an East Asian woman. (On the other hand, I had also heard that the reason they specifically did not want to do that was to avoid playing into the stereotype of the old, wise Asian lady. So I don’t know.) I don’t know what my thoughts on that really are, but I will say that the choice to have her be bald was very cool. It very much felt, not like she was an alien or anything like that, but that she was some sort of mystical being, who kind of transcended our normal ideas of what bodies can do—and mortality, and all of that.

A: Yeah! No, I was into it. And of course, apart from any of the stuff about the casting there, I mean, Tilda Swinton is somebody who’s talked explicitly about being an actor who works within a queer aesthetic, and has that fandom going on. (Or did prior to that career move, anyway.) So yeah, no, very into that.

I don’t know if you ever saw the 1984 David Lynch film adaptation of Dune?

M: No! I did not.

A: It’s kind of historically known as a bad film that has a bit of a cult following, and there are certain aspects of it that are really queerphobic. Like, there’s a villain who essentially has AIDS. But it also has—within that world, there’s a slightly sinister group of what are essentially nuns, called the Bene Gesserit. And in that adaptation, they are all bald and wear long habits, kind of thing, and have thimbles that have spikes on them on their fingers. It’s very—I’ve got a weird, not even steampunk, but some kind of draggy, queer [appreciation of it]. That’s part of my list of influences as well.

M: I am into that! I’m gonna go take a look at that.

Does anything else come up for you in terms of interesting representations of baldness in film or in art?

A: Well, I will say: not actually within Marvel Studios, but I don’t know if you saw—not Logan, which is the more recent one, but one of the solo Wolverine films a couple of years ago? The one that’s set in Japan, from 2013?

It has a villainess—and I specifically say ‘villainess’, because I think that’s what’s going on there—who is a sort of evil chemist mutant, who produces a lot of toxins and has a mutation that makes her viper-y and all of that, and eventually sheds her skin. She eventually ends up being bald, because throughout the film, she gradually becomes more and more lesbian as her evilness is made clear. Which, on the one hand, I understand is very problematic and not cool—but also, it’s so over the top that I was really into it! In the way that I sometimes am aesthetically into very over-the-top problematic stuff. Maybe that’s just my having a thing about evil women, but.

M: Haha!

A: I’m wondering, actually—is there, like, an evil Disney queen who’s bald, or anything in that…

M: That’s what I was beginning to think about, and now actually I wonder. It’s a well established thing that villains are often queer-coded, but I wonder if the female (or femme) baldness thing is just a part of that, or if there’s a separate dimension along which we are suspicious, or maybe afraid, or feminine people (or people that we think ought to be feminine) who are bald, especially by choice. What do you think?

A: I mean, it’s worth saying also that on TV Tropes, there’s a specific page called ‘Bald of Evil’, that is, like, Walter White from Breaking Bad and Lex Luthor and people. That, mainly, is to do with men, but I guess there are female examples. So it’s worth adding to that whole context that there’s a baldness-coded-as-evil thing that is not specific to women. But having said that, I don’t think that invalidates [discussion of] the way bald women are portrayed in that way quite often.

I guess part of it that there’s also a thing of quote-unquote evil women being masculine in some way, or masculine-coded—large shoulder pads and all of that kind of thing, and trouser suits. That whole imagery of evil women in parts of pop culture.

M: Or, in some cases, over-the-top feminine. For instance, Cruella de Vil.

A: Mhmm!

M: But yeah, it really is either of those extremes. You don’t see a villainess who looks like the girl next door, unless it’s a much newer work that’s trying to subvert that whole concept.

A: Mm, right? And it occurs to me that often—I’m thinking of Ursula from The Little Mermaid, who was based on Divine. They’ve talked about that, and the actress who was playing her lowered her voice so that she could do it. But often it strikes me that not only is it over-the-top femininity that you get with those characters, but they actually are drag queens on some level. (Interesting to note: Divine specifically was a queen who had receding hair, and drew his eyebrows massively because there was so much bald head to work with.)

But yeah, I guess whether it’s massive femme hair or it’s baldness or whatever, there’s something about that trope of—I want to say drag, but I mean just in the context of… there’s something about characters whose gender presentation is deliberate, and intentional and cognisant, that is there. I think queer people grow up always feeling we have to be intentional about how we look and behave—although being autistic is part of that for me as well. I think there’s a certain thinking-about-clothes-as-costume that comes into that.

But yeah, I think that’s definitely part of that with those evil characters. On the other hand, they are designed to be fabulous at the same time as they’re evil, I think.

M: Yesss!

A: Cruella is a villain, but it’s her film. Do you even remember who the good guys were in that film?

M: So I remember that there were a lot of dogs. I don’t even know what anyone else looked like!

A: Also, as far as famous inspirations, I don’t know if you ever saw the movie adaptation of The Witches by Roald Dahl? But the Grand High Witch in that is a massive point of influence for me. She’s played by Anjelica Huston, who—was she in The Addams Family?—but she walks in and poses like RuPaul. She does the arm [movements] of a drag queen in that moment there, and eventually the hair comes off because she’s a witch and they’re all bald.

M: Sometimes it occurs to me that if drag and associated culture had never existed, where the fuck would anyone get their ideas for films or music videos? Or any of that. They really kind of owe us queers, and especially queers of colour, for that.

A: Totally. I’m thinking about drag and I’m thinking about, in the United States, southern pageantry drag, and I’m thinking about drag balls in Harlem, historically. And I guess that goes back to that whole ‘gender binary as colonialism’ thing. I’m always very conscious that people of colour, and specifically African Americans—that is the part of society that a lot of my influences have been filtered through at some point. But it’s so long ago and so deep-running that it’s easy to not think about; and also so much that it’s not obviously sort of culturally appropriative. The drag I’m aware of has obviously travelled through places like Harlem, but has also travelled a lot since then, so it’s hard to pin down what my relationship with that should be, except to be aware of it.

M: Yeah. As a white person, I of course can’t speak to what is appropriative or not. But I will say that what’s important to me is, first of all, obviously listening; and second, knowing to the best of my ability where things come from. So, some of these badass representations of baldness that we’re talking about—they’re coming from, like you said, maybe Harlem drag culture, maybe Maasai warriors. Any number of things. And I always want to know, who the fuck came up with this awesome thing? So I can thank them for it.

A: Yeah. Right! Also, at the same time, particularly characters like Divine and Ursula, there’s also a slightly more conservative (in some ways) tradition of theatrical drag—in England one would talk about pantomime dames, I know that’s not necessarily international—but there’s layers to that too, and a lot of those categories have got blurred. I guess one thing that’s helpful to think about, for me anyway, is that playing with and being critical of gender is not culturally specific. Or if it is, you’re critiquing a thing that comes from my own end of the world! So there’s that to it.

M: Well, and I think it’s important to point out that all cultures have their own oppressions and hegemony within them, and they have their own individuals and subcultures who are challenging those dominant ideas (whether that’s binary gender or something else). I think that’s something we often overlook, too, when we’re thinking about cultures that are marginalised and that we are not a part of.

A: Right. Sure. Wow, that conversation travelled!

M: It sure did! Wow. Which I think just goes to show how much deeper this topic goes than just a matter of aesthetics. Although—do love me some aesthetics!

As we wrap up, is there anything that you want to leave folks with? Any thoughts, any media recommendations, any questions for the listener to ponder?

A: Oh gosh. We’ll probably hang up in a couple of minutes, and I’ll think of, like, twenty!

M: Haha! And we’ll add them to the description, so it’s fine!

A: I don’t know—it’s probably worth saying there have probably been a load of good pieces and stuff written about this by people who are not me. So ‘Google stuff’, I suppose, is my message!

But one thing I will sort of add, on top of all of this, because I was thinking about this earlier: your hair has started to grow back now, and that is not the trajectory that mine is going to take. It’s just going to keep going in the direction it’s been going, which is ‘away’. But [here’s] one experience I’ve had about that.

You can actually—if you are beginning to experience quote-unquote male hair loss, there are ways of dealing with that medically. There are tablets you can take and there’s cream for your scalp, and they do actually work quite a lot of the time. There are ways to halt hair loss, and eventually there’s transplants and stuff like that that you can have. Which I have thought about, right? Because one does, even if you eventually do what I did and decide that you love being a bald queen. And here’s where I’ve ended up with that. (I’m interested in how it sits alongside your experience.)

My hair is eventually going to do the thing where it’s all gone on top, and I have that ring that goes by the ears and then round the back that bald people sometimes have. ‘Once that happens, it’s basically stopped falling out’ is the science of that as I understand it. It may still go a little bit, but that’s when it’s stabilised. That’s when I am interested in having a hair transplant, and here is what my thinking is about that.

I think a lot of those surgeries—‘Reverse your hair loss!’ and all of that—as very straight. Like, straight men in their forties who want to look younger, and it’s a little bit… I say a bit mid-life crisis, and I don’t want to fall back into that thing of shaming men for having feelings about hair loss. But the marketing of all of that kind of stuff is very, like, ‘Look young and virile and the women will fall for you!’ And I’m just not here for that!

So here’s my plan: when I’m old enough, and I’m forty or fifty and that’s all happened, I want to go to a surgeon who does that kind of stuff when I can afford it, and say, ‘Can you just take the hair from the back and sides of my head, and put it in the middle, please?’ Just so that I have a natural growing mohawk.

M: Oh wow!

A: I think that would be fabulous.

M: Yes!

A: So I’m like the one seventy year old in the nursing home, one day, who just has that! And I don’t even have to shave my head any more at the sides, my hair just naturally grows that way.

I think that, also, is part of my thing of trying to resist the normative culture of baldness, and instead of trying to reverse the falling-out process and go back to who I was when I was younger, I like the idea that I’ll one day do that, and it can be a continuation of hair loss, and I’ll be morphing into some new version of me instead. So that’s my queer understand of that.

M: That is fantastic, and I can’t wait to see it someday.

I think where I’ll leave off is that, even though I’m growing my hair back now and kind of thinking about what I’m going to do with it, I think that the transformative nature of my baldness, and of that experience, is something that’s going to stay with me.

When I first started out, I was heartbroken to lose my hair, because it was such a marker of queer identity for me. (And other things—it’s pretty! You know whatever.) I did not think there would be anything queer or beautiful or particularly notable about having no hair. And that first moment that night, in the mirror, that I myself as this queer space queen? Like, that will always be with me.

And what that says to me is that you can queer really just about anything. In various ways. You can take it back, you can appropriate it (in a positive sense), you can make something out of it.

I may never be bald again—or I might. Or I might have something totally different going on. I mean, I lost my breasts. That was a whole thing for another episode! And this is corny as fuck, but I feel really inspired to make everything queer.

A: I’m really into that. And on that note, here’s my actual signing-off message.

People who are not losing their hair over time the way I have, or don’t have medical stuff going on or whatever: if you’re somebody who is listening to this, and you’ve maybe thought about that idea (or even if you haven’t)—try it! Shave your head. I think everybody should do it at some point.

You can do it in the school holidays, or whenever, if you’ve got a break in between stuff in your life. If your hair is going to grow back, you may as well! (Lucky you.) I have taken so much from this, and my baldness is now such a part of me that I love and have nurtured, and that’s taught me so much, and I think it’s one of those things everybody who can reasonably try should.

M: I love that, and I’ve loved this whole conversation.

A: Me too!

M: Thanks so much for coming on and discussing your experiences. I’ve learnt a lot, and I’m excited to go and watch some of these movies and things that you’ve recommended!

A: Cool. Awesome! I look forward to hearing about it.

M: Thanks so much Alex. Have a good day! Bye.

A: And you! Bye now.


Find 2 AM Talks on your favorite podcast platform and on Twitter.

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2 AM Talks Podcast: Baldness and Queer Aesthetics

Life Update!

You may have noticed that I haven’t been writing on here very much. There are a few reasons for that and they are mostly good ones!

  1. As I explored in my last post, my cancer treatment is over–I’m cancer-free as far as the doctors can tell, mostly recovered from my surgery, and (the really fun part) officially post-menopausal. I’ve been spending a lot of time on self-care and trying to slowly dip my toes back into life.
  2. That said, it’s been less “dipping my toes in” and more straight up diving into the deep end. For starters, I’m about to switch jobs after being where I’m at for three years, which is…a very long time in Miri-Years. Yikes. Yikes.
  3. Also, I started a podcast! It’s called 2 AM Talks. The idea is that each episode, I interview a friend about a topic–any topic–that they really care about. I think it’s going to be lots of fun. You can subscribe to it on Anchor, Pocket Casts, iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and some other services I’ve honestly never heard of. Follow it on Twitter here. (I’ll probably write a longer post about this later because I have some Thoughts about creative endeavors and why they’re important.)
  4. On a slightly different note, I’m also writing a book. It’s a book of essays about my experience with cancer treatment, although I feel like describing it that way kind of undersells what it’s going to be. I am (for now) unusually optimistic about this compared to how I usually feel about my big writing projects, and I’m actually putting in the time and not giving up on it. I joined a writers’ group and everything! Anyway, I don’t have a title for it yet or any plans for what to do when it’s done, but y’all will be the first to know.
  5. As I also discussed in the last post, I’m gardening a lot and it’s quite labor-intensive at times but it’s AMAZING. Seriously, if you’ve ever thought that you might enjoy starting an edible garden, I suggest you go ahead and try it. It’s a very unique and indelible experience.

That’s all for now! I have some vacation coming up in about a month, which usually means more writing. I hope to have something for you soon.

Life Update!

And Suddenly, Life

My tomato seedlings.

And just like that, it’s over. The surgeon said there’s no evidence of cancer remaining in my body, my hair is growing back, my new boobs are growing steadily until I decide they’re big enough, and I’m trying to grasp that thread of my life that I left dangling over half a year ago and tie it to the one I’m holding now.

As anyone who’s had cancer knows, you’re never really “done” with it. Even after successful treatment, there’s always the possibility of recurrence, the long-term consequences of chemo or radiation, and, in my case, a slew of reconstruction-related procedures and an oophorectomy in 8 years.

That said, now—when I’ve returned to work after my surgery—seems an appropriate moment for a post-mortem on the whole thing. (Sorry, poor choice of wording.)

For a brief window of time after my diagnosis I thought it would be my unraveling. I quickly realized that, instead, it would be my becoming. If a year ago I was in my intermediate Pokémon evolution, I’m now in what feels like my final one. (Don’t forget, though, that even fully evolved Pokémon continue getting stronger and learning new moves, and that eventually someone might “discover” mega-evolutions and I might change form again. I’ll leave it to you to decide which Pokémon I might be, before this analogy completely runs away from me.)

Before this I was essentially comfortable with who I was, with how I lived my life and conducted my relationships, with the career I had chosen, with the way I spent my time, and with that most fragile of things, my body. The illness transformed the way I saw all of these things, not in the sense that it made my views totally different, but in the sense that it strengthened, catalyzed, leavened, solidified them.

Any lingering doubts I had in myself or in the people who form my inner circle disappeared. Before, there was a part of me that really believed that when the time came to sit for the exam, the people around me would fail me, and more importantly, that I would fail myself, and that I would be alone in my darkest hour. But nobody failed.

Well, perhaps a few people failed. But their grades had been slipping for a long time, and some of them had really been failing already.

I no longer doubt that my friends and family will carry me forward when I can’t carry myself. But I also no longer worry that I’ll ever become completely unable to carry myself. I don’t struggle with imposter syndrome anymore, and I don’t worry that I’m not enough of an “adult.” What does that even mean for someone who has made the decision to carve up their body to save their own life? What does that mean for anyone, really?

What I keep coming back to every time I write about this strange episode of my life is simply how banal most of it was. It was so banal that I’m not sure I could even claim that I cried more, or was sadder or more scared, on average during this time than during any other period of my life. In fact, I will still say that the clinical depression I experienced from ages 19 to 22 was much worse and left me with so much fewer resources to help myself and seek support from others.

I would not repeat so much as a month of that experience for any price. The cancer, eh, fine, especially if we can do the surgery with proper pain management this time.

The point of that isn’t to pit depression and cancer against each other generally or adjudicate whether mental illness really is worse than medical illness or vice versa; it’s just to say, I already had unimaginably more strength than I thought I did. It just hadn’t been tested and proven yet.


After my surgery, which to me represented the culmination of most of my worst fears, people wanted to know if it was really “as bad” as I thought it would be. Of course, they wanted to hear that it wasn’t. Unfortunately, it was even worse than I thought it would be. It was worse than I had expected even at my most panicky moments. So this isn’t the story of how I overcame those phobias. It’s the story of how I learned that I can survive weeks of unrelenting pain, panic attacks, and suicidality and come out the other side essentially myself.

I’m comfortable saying that I’ve been traumatized by that experience. In dreams I wake up after surgery only to be told that something went wrong and it has to be done again, over and over. Most evenings, when I’m home from the life I’ve finally returned to, alone and in silence, an inexplicable sadness comes over me—so inexplicable that I know exactly what causes it.

It’s not that I “miss my old body,” though sometimes I do. What I feel goes much deeper than that. There are memories, images, that fill me with something I can only call grief—looking back at my parents as I was wheeled away to the OR; watching them cut up my food for me when I couldn’t; walking around on the deck of their house, back hunched, trying to explain to my mom a meditation exercise I was trying in which you breathe the pain in and then breathe it out; when my friends visited me at home two days after and I sat, again hunched, mostly unable to speak or even look at them; the first time I sat on the deck in good weather, no hat, and felt the sun on my skin again; and more, and more, and more.

All of this lives in me now, not compartmentalized or repressed but very much there, just beneath the surface. It ebbs and flows and sometimes retreats deeper and other times comes closer to my skin, where I can all but feel it with my fingers when I press them onto all the parts of me that no longer feel.

It hurts all the time, but it’s also, in its own way, completely normal and healthy. I now contain a lot more things than I did six months ago, and not all of them hurt.

Rather than feeling diminished by the experience, I feel expanded. Which is fortunate because it gives me enough room to contain all of the contradictions inherent to this process. My friends were probably hopelessly confused. One day I’d be crying about what an ugly scarred half-person I am; the next day I’d be marveling at how it feels to dance, to sit in the sunshine, to run my fingers over my healing incisions. One day I would say that my life has been standing still; the next I’d be talking about all I’ve learned, everyone I’ve met, everything I’ve planned.

And then there were the times, most of which I never found the words to explain to anyone, when I felt like I was experiencing something transcendent. I had feelings that felt completely outside of my normal existence and that I couldn’t have had any other way. I’m not a religious person, so I don’t think of it that way. Instead I think of them as moments when I felt the pulse of life. I felt how precious it was, how sacred. I felt overwhelming gratitude, both towards people who helped me in even the smallest ways and towards the universe itself. I felt like I could survive anything.

And then I’d go back to feeling like a broken old piece of crap nobody wants anymore.

Well, it may be confusing, but it’s also part of the experience of being ill—and, to a slightly lesser extent, of being human. I invite you to enter the contradiction with me and make yourself comfortable.


Besides work and spending time with friends, nowadays I’m often working on my garden. Last fall I decided I wanted to try growing fruits and vegetables in the spring, and I had all these ideas about buying all kinds of plants and building a structure to house the containers and starting seeds early indoors, and for obvious reasons that didn’t happen. So I started last week. It was probably slightly late to plant seeds, but it is what it is and it’ll be what it’ll be.

I’ve always loved plants, and always felt disproportionate grief when they sickened or died. Now it’s no different, except that I’m even more aware of the precariousness of life, of the journey seeds must undertake to become plants, and how perilous all of that is. Soil, water, warmth, light. And out springs something that nourishes.

I used to feel beautiful. Now I don’t, and it’s hard to fully imagine what that even felt like. But I think I’m finding my way back to it, slowly. In the meantime, I look around at my pots full of fresh soil and think, maybe I can still make something beautiful.

I understand how plants “work,” mostly, but the more fundamental part of my brain is still stunned every time a seed germinates. I’ve now planted everything I’m going to plant, and some of the seeds have sprouted–pulling themselves up through the soil, hunched over like I was right after surgery, slowly stretching themselves out to stand tall just like I did, and finally unfurling their first two leaves, just like the first time I felt well enough to bring my arms up and stretch them out from my sides as hard as I could, feeling them become a part of my body again.

I can never fully expect them to do it. Every time I’ve ever planted a seed I’ve thought, no way, there’s no way you can just stick these tiny hard things into the ground and a week later they turn into actual plants.

And yet, inevitably, they do.


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And Suddenly, Life

I Read Ready Player One and Liked It

Last month I saw this trailer in a movie theater and was captivated:

Yup, I didn’t realize it was for Ready Player One until close to the end. But I couldn’t look away from this trailer, and have watched it a bunch of times since then.

Anytime there’s a cultural phenomenon like this–something that’s so beloved by people I know and so hated by other people I know–I get curious. To wit, the most recent person to recommend Ready Player One (the book) to me was a super progressive lesbian who’s only slightly older than me and not exactly a gamer. So that got my attention.

(Last time this happened, with Fifty Shades of Grey, I couldn’t even get through the first page because of how bad the writing was. So whatever it was that drew so many people to it remained a mystery to me.)

So recently I saw the book in a bookstore, picked it up to read the first few pages, and rapidly found myself totally engaged in it! This was stunning. Sure, there were some boring parts I skimmed, but that’s most novels for you. I was surprised that despite the general shallowness of the book’s overarching themes and philosophy, the writing itself was good, and I wanted to read more.

Having now finished it, I still agree with most of the political critiques of it that people have been making for years. (The ones I don’t agree with are either over minor details that I think the reviewers missed, or else matters of taste–I found the writing interesting, others didn’t.) Even if you read this book in its historical, pre-GamerGate context, it has some troubling things to say about people and about the world. Post-GamerGate, the book becomes extremely tonedeaf, which is a fact not lost on many of its critics. [1]

Ready Player One came out in 2011, the same year that Anita Sarkeesian started her Tropes vs. Women series, which she followed up with Tropes vs. Women in Video Games in 2013, intensifying the online abuse against her to a fever pitch. Then, in 2014, Zoe Quinn became a target after her abusive ex-boyfriend posted a screed against her to incite further online threats and harassment, and the festering cesspool we know as GamerGate truly kicked off. In that context, even a “shallow” and “harmless” book about nerdy boys obsessing over pop culture trivia doesn’t feel so harmless anymore. On the one hand, it can be important to evaluate literature in the context it was originally written. On the other hand, had Ernest Cline been a more socially aware person–or, perhaps, someone other than a white man–he would’ve seen that particular writing on the wall a long time ago. He may not have found the idea of a glorified nerdy trivia contest as appealing.

That said, the book is at least somewhat original in a few interesting ways. For instance:

1. The dystopia is created by an energy crisis.

Yes, that’s not exactly unique, but I can’t count the number of speculative fiction books I’ve read in which dystopian societies have been created by nuclear war, alien invasion, a sudden massive environmental cataclysm, Big Bad Government suddenly becoming super oppressive, man, and so on. Ready Player One goes with what honestly feels like the more likely scenario: our reliance on fossil fuels and disregard for the environment will gradually produce even more extreme income inequality and lower quality of life significantly for everyone except the super-rich. Authorities like government and the police won’t necessarily become any more oppressive than they already are; they’ll just lose their influence. (In the book, the police seem completely absent until the very end [a minor plot point that nevertheless kind of ruins the vibe], and the federal government is mostly a useless figurehead. Wade mentions that he doesn’t bother voting for them because they’re all “reality stars” and the like, which is uh…prescient.)

Corporations, on the other hand, will run the show. Ready Player One is a (possibly unintentional) satire of the “corporations are people” concept in that Innovative Online Industries, the villain of the story, has countless avatars in the OASIS, trying to win the easter egg hunt.

Wade Watts looks out over his trailer park city in the Ready Player One film.

2. Technology has actually improved education.

But one cool thing about the society Wade lives in is that the OASIS has made free, decent public education available to all, because the creator of the OASIS set up a foundation that provides free VR equipment to all students. This is how Wade is able to have a good high school education despite living in the slums, and it’s how he’s able to access the OASIS and compete in the easter egg hunt to begin with. He gives a lot of details about how virtual school works, and while I won’t bore you with the details here, it’s seriously cool.

3. It’s actually one of the least gatekeeper-y sci-fi books I’ve ever read.

Despite what everyone says about the book being inaccessible/irrelevant to anyone without an interest in/obsession with 80s pop culture, I found the opposite to be the case. And to be clear: I have no interest in 80s pop culture, and no personal connection to it, since I arrived as an immigrant in the United States long after the 80s were over and that stuff holds no nostalgic appeal for me, or any other appeal. I kind of hate most of it, actually.

And yet for all the references Wade and his friends drop, he explains all the important ones. Reading the book feels less like being gatekeep-ed (gatekept?) out of a nerd club and more like having someone excitedly rant to me about the stuff they love, and why it’s cool. I actually enjoyed some of the things I ended up learning from the book, such as how to achieve a perfect score in Pacman and how some of the earliest video games were made. I didn’t come out of the book with any more of an interest in playing those games and watching those movies, but I felt like I’d stepped into someone else’s experience for a bit and that was really cool to me.

Furthermore, unlike many SF/F novels that just drop you into an unfamiliar world and force you to figure it out as you go along, Wade actually explains a lot about how his world works, including the energy crisis, how the OASIS works, and what living conditions are like for most people. While this may be boring to some people, I found all of it fascinating! It was like reading a first-person anthropology study. He does the same with a lot of the video games he plays, which was cool for similar reasons even though I don’t personally like those games.

4. Success requires both luck and hard work.

Some critics have focused on the fact that the book implies that having a perfect knowledge of 80s pop culture is the most important thing in the world and that Wade just happens to succeed because of this.

The actual plot is a bit more subtle than that, in some interesting ways that I’ll get to later. A brief recap: in a dystopian future, the OASIS, a free massive virtual world that almost everyone uses, has become many people’s only refuge from the difficulty and hopelessness of their everyday lives. When James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS, dies, he leaves behind an easter egg hunt–a set of challenges for players to complete. The winner will have control of the OASIS for life. Unfortunately, Innovative Online Industries (IOI), a massive and powerful corporation, seems poised to win this challenge and use that to monetize the OASIS and thus prevent most non-wealthy people from being able to use it. Wade Watts and his friends/rivals Aech and Art3mis are determined to beat IOI, whose powerful avatars–the “Sixers”–are constantly on their tails and will stop at nothing to win.

Because Halliday came of age in the 1980s and loved the nerdy pop culture of that time period, that’s what his easter egg hunt centers on. In fact, Wade mentions during the hunt that it’s Halliday’s way of sharing his interests with the world.

But at the time the easter egg hunt started, nobody really cared about that stuff anymore. In fact, Wade mentions that the first time he saw Halliday’s video explaining the challenge, most of the references in it were lost on him. As a result of the easter egg hunt, though, people around the world–including Wade and his friends–started consuming 80s media to try to solve the puzzle, and falling in love with it in the process.

From this perspective, it’s a little deeper than “Nerd Boy Wins the Internet Because He Knows All the References.” Wade and his friends (because–spoiler alert–they win together) win partially because of luck and a little bit of help from others, and partially because they did the fucking work. Wade is too poor to do much besides attend school in the OASIS and take advantage of its free media libraries and has no family who actually care about him or what he’s doing, so he spends years reading, watching, and playing everything he can that may have some connection to the easter egg hunt. And it pays off.

5. The OASIS isn’t ultimately portrayed as unhealthy escapism.

Most science fiction that deals with all-encompassing virtual reality worlds that the majority of the populace uses take a decidedly negative view of them. These systems are usually portrayed as addictive like drugs, causing people to abandon their work/school/family responsibilities in order to spend 24/7 in a fantasy. When these stories have a “happy” ending, it usually involves the VR system being destroyed or otherwise abandoned.

Ready Player One does not take this view. First of all, many people attend school, work, and socialize in the OASIS, so their “real lives” do very much happen there in part. Second, Cline does, I think, explore some of the potential dangers of virtual reality in a more nuanced way than some other writers do. Wade has a period of time when he’s so obsessed with the easter egg hunt that he doesn’t leave his apartment for months on end, and two of the characters, Shoto and Daito (actually Akihide and Toshiro, two Japanese teens), actually met at a program for hikikomori, people who become social recluses and refuse to leave their homes [2].

However, the book doesn’t treat these examples as representative of all OASIS users, all of the time. There’s an interesting moment when Wade encounters an avatar of the late James Halliday after completing the easter egg hunt, and Halliday cautions him about spending too much time in the OASIS: “As terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness.” It might sound odd, coming from someone who once wrote, “Being human totally sucks most of the time. Videogames are the only thing that makes life bearable.” Yet Wade ends up taking a similar emotional journey–the book closes with Wade and Art3mis (Samantha) finally spending time in person, as Wade observes that “for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had absolutely no desire to log back into the OASIS.”

While talking to Halliday’s avatar at the end, Wade also learns that he alone now has the power to destroy the entire OASIS if need be. “Don’t press it unless you’re absolutely positive it’s the right thing to do, OK?” he tells Wade. “I trust your judgment.”

It’s a more interesting depiction of virtual reality than I usually encounter. After the events of the book are over, I imagine Wade leading a more balanced life–enjoying time in nature and with his friends in the “real” world, but also logging in periodically to the OASIS and having fun shooting monsters or hanging out with people from all over the world.

Parzival and Art3mis dance in the OASIS.

Like I said, though, I consider most criticisms of the book to be quite valid. So, where do we start?

I think of Ernest Cline somewhat like I think of George Lucas–someone who had some super great ideas but lacked a nuanced enough understanding of human psychology and society to completely pull it off. Ready Player One could’ve made some fantastic commentary about gender, inequality, and a variety of other issues, but largely chose not to. That’s a shame.

There were quite a few aspects of this book that stuck out as shallow, unpolished, or straight-up bad:

1. Gender.

Oh, god, let’s talk about gender in Ready Player One. Yikes.gif. There are, unless I’m mistaken, only four female characters in this book, only one of whom exists as a woman throughout the story. The first is Wade’s aunt Alice, a “malnourished harpy in a housecoat” who neglects him, tries to steal his computer to sell, and summarily dies in an explosion early in the novel. The second is Mrs. Gilmore, a “sweet old lady” who lives near Wade in the trailer park and also dies in that explosion. Her function in the book seems mostly to serve as a foil to Aunt Alice and to give Wade one person to briefly feel sorry for after his home is destroyed in an attempt on his life.

Next we have Aech, Wade’s best friend of years who is actually a Black lesbian. But this isn’t revealed until close to the end of the book, so for all Wade and the reader know until then, he’s a straight white man.

Aaaand then there’s Art3mis, a well-known blogger that Wade nurses an online crush on even though he realizes he knows next to nothing about her and she may look nothing like her avatar. But of course, they soon meet and Complications Arise.

It will surprise no one to know that I hate the way Art3mis is used in this book. Although she could potentially be a really cool character/person, Cline chooses to reveal little about her besides her appearance, competence at video games, and her reactions to Wade, which of course serve to further his character arc. In the middle of the novel, she breaks things off with him for Reasons–to focus on the easter egg hunt, ostensibly–which triggers a months-long depression in Wade. When the evil Sixers achieve the next milestone in the hunt, Wade finally realizes that he’s allowed his girl troubles to distract himself from his goal, so this serves as a wake-up call for him.

At the end of the novel Wade meets Art3mis in person and learns that the reason she didn’t want him to know what she looked like is because…she has a birthmark on her face. This plot point means that Cline gets to conveniently introduce ~~~DRAMA~~~ in the form of a girlfriend who’s insecure about her looks while also ensuring that his protagonist ends up with a conventionally beautiful woman as his prize.

And that he does, by the way. Even though they haven’t spoken for presumably months by this point, the novel ends with Art3mis waiting for Wade in the center of a maze. After winning the easter egg hunt, he finds her there and they kiss and suddenly it turns out that she loves him and he’s her favorite person in the world and so on and so forth.

Aside from all the other problematic aspects of her Art3mis is portrayed and utilized in the book, perhaps my least favorite is this trope where the “love interest” in a story ends up with the main character for no apparent reason other than that she’s the only potential “love interest” in the story and the main character needs to receive a woman as a prize at the end. (See also: Peter and Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy, almost every other movie with a romantic plot ever made.) It’s never clear what Art3mis sees in Wade, why she wants to be with him, why/how her feelings on that change throughout the book, nothing. She simply allows the relationship to happen, then abruptly ends it, and finally allows it again.

And that’s too bad, because even as written, Art3mis could be really cool, and her story arc could’ve also been really cool. Alas.

She even tells Wade numerous times in the book that he doesn’t really know her and only sees what she chooses to present within the OASIS. It would’ve been interesting if they met in person earlier in the novel, and Wade actually had to struggle to reconcile everything he projected onto her with who she actually is, and tried to make the relationship work in all of its beautiful messiness. Instead, everything seems to just work out for him romantically because he wills it so.

A lot of Wade’s cringey interactions with Art3mis can be chalked up (and many people do chalk them up) to adolescence, but a good writer would gently challenge that even in the writing of it. Besides, Wade’s not the only one in this book who gets obsessively fixated on a woman he’s not even with. Towards the end, we learn that the James Halliday and his best friend Ogden Morrow, with whom he worked for many years on the OASIS and other projects, had a huge falling-out before Halliday’s death because of–what else?–Halliday’s unrequited love for Morrow’s wife. He stopped speaking to Morrow out of “overwhelming jealousy.” These are adult men.

Lastly, I want to specifically address the really transphobic moment that happens when Art3mis and Wade are joking around about how he doesn’t know who she really is or what she looks like in real life. He asks her, “Are you a woman? And by that I mean are you a human female who has never had a sex change operation?”

This transphobic statement doesn’t serve to advance the story in any way, so I can only assume it’s there because of Cline’s own beliefs, or his beliefs about how other people are. Given how gender-fluid young people today are, I don’t see why, in 2045, Wade would say this.

Cline could’ve had Art3mis challenge the statement in her usual wry and cocky way–“And what if I were a human female who has had a sex change operation?”–but instead she just says, “I am, and have always been, a human female.” And the conversation moves on.

There’s no excuse for Cline to write this.

 

2. Race.

More yiiiiiikes. There are, as far as we know, three people of color in this book, and one is only revealed as such at the end. The other two, Shoto and Daito, are relatively minor characters of Japanese origin who are literally just a list of Japanese stereotypes. Yes, it’s as bad as you think. They constantly refer to people as having “no honor” and bow to others in greeting, and their avatars of course commit suicide (referred to in one case as seppuku, oh god, why).

There’s no way that Cline actually thinks that actual Japanese people act this way, given his in-depth knowledge of modern Japanese culture. It’s possible that the characters act that way because they’ve chosen to make their avatars look like samurai, I don’t know. In any case, it’s a bowl of yikes.

The third person of color is of course Aech, who finally reveals herself to Wade at the end, fearing his reaction. Although momentarily feels betrayed that she had her identity from him, he quickly accepts it, later reflecting that he loves her no matter what: “None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation.”

But those things aren’t “inconsequential”! Come on, it’s not nearly far enough in the future for that. I wish that Wade had instead said that he loves his friend and respects her even more knowing how much more she had to overcome, or at least something that acknowledges who she is.

3. The uses and abuses of nostalgia

Nostalgia is, obviously, a key theme of the book. In many ways it’s its organizing principle. The book is about a dead man’s nostalgia-fueled challenge, and its most passionate fans are people who share that nostalgia.

But the full implications of that are mostly left unexplored. There’s a point at which Wade wonders why Halliday, who claims to have had such an awful childhood, would recreate his hometown so painstakingly and lovingly within the OASIS and make it a crucial part of the easter egg hunt. I wonder that too, even though I know that that’s exactly how nostalgia often works.

Then again, I also think that critics of Ready Player One often judge the characters as if they were living in our own world, right now, rather than decades in the future. Wade and his friends are not whiny manchildren who think that the 80s had the best movies ever, dude. They’re people who grew up in poverty, with only a fraction of the freedom and resources that Halliday had growing up as a teenager in his beloved 1980s. They can’t really be said to be nostalgic given that they never actually experienced any of that.

That said, the book never really addresses the potential consequences of all of that looking backwards. Near the beginning on the novel, Wade tells Art3mis that if he wins the game, he wants to use the money to build a spaceship for himself and his friends, and possibly leave Earth altogether in search of something better. Art3mis is surprised that he’d so quickly abandon the Earth to its problems, and says that she’d use the money to try to fix things. (Then, in one of my favorite moments, Wade asks her if she really thinks she could “fix all the world’s problems,” and she says, “I don’t know. Maybe not. But I’m gonna give it a shot.”

Towards the end he seems to be more civically minded, but there isn’t really any direction to it. The world still is what it is. Innovative Online Industries still exists, and will presumably continue to keep murdering people and indenturing them and such (the sudden appearance of the police to arrest Sorrento, their head of operations, notwithstanding).

Which brings me to my next point:

4. The ending doesn’t follow.

It honestly seems really unrealistic that Wade and his friends won, and that IOI is just a non-issue now, and Art3mis wants to be with Wade despite avoiding him for most of the book, and–right. This book is a male wish-fulfillment fantasy. It’s very analogous to Jupiter Ascending in that way, which is why the divergent responses these two works have received in the media is very telling. [3]

In the world that Cline sets up, it seems impossible for anyone to actually beat the Sixers, considering that they cheat at the game and have seemingly infinite funds and avatars. On the one hand, that sounds like a typical underdog story, but on the other hand, in such stories the underdog typically succeeds by exploiting their enemy’s weakness. (See: the Rebels and the Death Star, Katniss and the rich kids she fights in the Hunger Games, the Avengers and…whatever they’re presumably going to do in the next movie.) The Sixers supposedly have a weakness (everyone keeps talking about how they don’t really love nerd culture the way they do), but that’s not why they lose. They lose because Ogden Morrow, Halliday’s old pal, finds Wade and his friends and offers them sanctuary, and because Wade has an “extra life” from a side quest he completed because he thought it was the main quest. All of that seems rather…incidental.

And, sure, it doesn’t have to be realistic. Jupiter Ascending wasn’t either, and people still loved it. I still liked Ready Player One, too.

Ultimately, what makes the book so fascinating and compelling for me is the central question that it poses: if your world changed irrevocably for the worse, what would you want to remember? And if you had a virtual reality in which you could build a memorial to that world, what would you build?

In Ready Player One, James Halliday’s answer–and Ernest Cline’s–is 1980s American pop culture, and a certain sort of Ohioan suburbia. While that’s easy to dismiss if those things don’t resonate for you whatsoever, we each get to answer those questions however we want, along with some nerdier ones: how would you use virtual reality to share your particular niche love with others? What sort of game or challenge would you design to get them to love it too?

And this is where I again wish this story had been written by someone else. Ernest Cline is, I’m sure, an interesting person, but he was born in 1972 in Ashland, Ohio, so this is exactly the story you’d expect. I couldn’t help but think about a Ready Player One written by Nnedi Okorafor [4], in which a bookish girl from the slums of Lagos finds herself on a quest inside the OASIS that has her battling monsters from West African myths and folklore, relying on her encyclopedic memory of the stories she’s been reading since childhood. Or one written by Ken Liu [5], in which a teenage history buff from rural Gansu province enters the OASIS and discovers a portal to a perfect recreation of pre-Revolution China, where he must travel backwards through the dynasties and use everything he’s managed to learn about their cultures in defiance of the law, while being pursued by the avatars of guobao agents.

But Ready Player One is what it is. Yet I’m still captivated by it, because it made me imagine the possibilities I just described, and many more.


[1] https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/3/26/17148350/ready-player-one-book-backlash-controversy-gamergate-explained

[2] https://www.nippon.com/en/currents/d00332/

[3] https://www.themarysue.com/ready-player-one-jupiter-ascending/

[4] http://nnedi.com

[5] https://kenliu.name


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I Read Ready Player One and Liked It

Polyamory and the Friendship Litmus Test

Lately I’ve been trying to work out my feelings about nonmonogamy and metamours–specifically, how to articulate to partners what I’d like my relationships with their other partners to be like.

People who practice nonmonogamy can fall anywhere on a wide spectrum when it comes to relationships with metamours [1]. On one extreme, there are the “don’t ask don’t tell” folks–they don’t want to know anything, or hear anything, about a partner’s other partners, let alone meet those people. On the other extreme, there are people whose relationship “rules” include a stipulation that all their partners be friends with each other–or even be sexually/romantically involved with each other. This is, in my opinion, obviously unhealthy and coercive even if people technically “agree.” The other extreme is a little less obviously screwy, but still leads to a lot of misunderstandings and hurt in my experience.

Most people don’t take things quite that far in either direction, but many nonmonogamous people end up clustered on two ends of that spectrum, whether by “rule” or by happenstance. In some nonmonogamous relationships, metamours never really meet or interact, and partners tell each other the bare minimum about those other partners/relationships based on what they’ve agreed to. In others, metamours tend to be acquaintances or friends, leading to large “polycules” in which folks often hang out together, have game nights, and may even end up involved too.

I’ve often struggled with articulating my own preferences to my partners. On the one hand, I struggle with insecurity and negative automatic thoughts, which my partners tend to be well aware of. That makes them shy away from talking to me about their other partners more than they have to, even though I’ve expressed that polyamory is my choice for a reason and that I like the opportunity to work through that panic by approaching it directly.

On the other hand, I’ve also had a really hard time expressing things like, “I’d like to meet your new partner” or “It’d be cool if all three of us hung out sometime” because I worry that it makes me sound controlling. Of course, it isn’t–the reason I want to meet them isn’t because I need to “make sure that they aren’t a threat” or similar sentiments that I often hear from monogamous people wanting to meet their partners’ friends. I want to meet them because there’s a good chance that anyone my partner likes a lot is someone I’d probably enjoy hanging out with, and because knowing my metamours and having friendly interactions with them helps me reassure myself that I’m not getting abandoned.

The idea that you’ll probably like someone that someone you like also likes gets a bad rap in my communities sometimes; “friendship is transitive” is one of the Five Geek Social Fallacies that we all love to reference. [2] But while taking it to that extreme is indeed a fallacy, it’s also demonstratively true that I tend to like my friends’ friends, and my partners’ friends, and–when I get to meet them–my partners’ partners.

But then the little voice in my head says, “But why should your partner let you meet their other partners? You’re not entitled to that.” True. I’m not entitled to that, We Don’t Owe Each Other Anything, etc. However, I’m learning that expressing a preference or a desire to a partner isn’t the same thing as believing that I’m entitled to it. Otherwise, we’d all be horribly entitled every time we ask someone if we can have sex with them.

So crunching all of this over and over in my mind (I’ve been on medical leave for almost six weeks, so I’ve had plenty of time), I realized that there’s a much simpler way to make sense of this, and it helps me conceptualize other common issues in nonmonogamy, too. I call it the friendship litmus test.

The friendship litmus test is simply this: if this person were my partner’s friend instead of their partner, how would my partner communicate with me about this person?

Most of the time in committed relationships, we’d think it’s a little weird if a partner has a really cool new friend that they’re really excited about, but they just…never mention that friend. Like at all. Many people, no matter how secure they are in their relationship, might wonder if something boundary-crossing is going on.

Likewise, most people would find it odd if a partner has a new friend that they’re spending a lot of time with, but all they say about them is their name and that they’re meeting up with them on a given night. When I have a new friend I really like, I usually want to gush about that person to everyone I know.

It would be unusual if my partner had a close friend who’s important to them and I literally never met that person–not because the opportunity hadn’t come up, but because my partner intentionally socializes with them only when I’m not there, and never invites them along when we hang out together or with their other friends.

Sometimes these things happen incidentally, because my partner just hadn’t had much to say about their newer partner yet, or because that person’s schedule prevented them from hanging out, or whatever. But over time, it starts to feel weird. It starts to feel artificial. Like my partner is intentionally choosing to keep these parts of their life completely separate.

That approach may work for many people. But it doesn’t work for me, and the friendship litmus test is a helpful way for me to articulate that.

For me, having a partner insist on keeping their partners “separate” so that they never meet or hang out is a red flag. I instinctively distrust that kind of compartmentalization because it suggests that the partner distrusts me, distrusts their other partner(s), and/or isn’t actually very comfortable with nonmonogamy (and isn’t working on that). In a healthy relationship, it’d be normal for a partner to say, “I’m going to hang out with my sportsball buds and I’m guessing you won’t be interested in that.” It’s also normal for someone to say, “I’d like some time alone with [other partner/my friends/etc], so I’ll see you later tonight.” It’s utterly weird, though, for them to say, “I don’t want you to ever meet [partner/friend] or socialize with them.”

The friendship litmus test also helps me make sense of a lot of other poly situations. For instance, a lot of folks in the poly community debate whether or not it’s fair to ask/want/expect your partner to share intimate details about their other partners with you. Some people even have “rules” that they must disclose everything that goes on in their other sexual encounters.

Others–for instance, me–think that’s pretty fucked up, because that other partner didn’t consent to have details about their sex life–because it is also their sex life–shared with someone they have no intimate connection with, and may not even know. People who practice hierarchical polyamory [3] often discount the boundaries and feelings of “secondary” partners, and this is one common way that that happens.

Would it be appropriate for someone to tell their partner private sexual details that a friend disclosed to them without that friend’s permission? Most would say it’s not. So why is it okay when that friend is (also) a partner?

Admittedly, the friendship litmus test is probably only useful to a small subset of nonmonogamous people because it’s pretty much based on the idea that platonic relationships are not categorically different from romantic or sexual relationships. It’s an approach best suited to relationship anarchy [4]. But if it works for me, it probably works for others.


[1] A metamour is one of your partner’s other partners. I hate to get jargony, but there’s no non-awkward way to say that.

[2] http://www.plausiblydeniable.com/opinion/gsf.html

[3] https://www.bustle.com/articles/161962-7-poly-terms-everyone-should-know-whether-youre-new-to-polyamory-or-monogamous

[4] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/andie-nordgren-the-short-instructional-manifesto-for-relationship-anarchy


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Polyamory and the Friendship Litmus Test

What ADHD Actually Is, Part 2

Since I wrote part 1 of this series, I’ve had a lot of wonderful positive feedback from people with ADHD and suggestions for topics to cover in the future. I’ll address more of those here!

(If you haven’t read it yet, part 1 covers the definition of executive function and how it explains ADHD symptoms, along with information about hyperactivity, depression and anxiety in people with ADHD, helpful resources, and how to go about getting a diagnosis and treatment. I recommend reading it first.)

What’s the difference between ADHD and ADD? 

Before 1994, when the DSM-IV came out, the acronym ADD was used to refer to what we now call the “inattentive type” of ADHD–that is, the type where you don’t have hyperactivity symptoms. [1] Now, however, the term “ADHD” is an umbrella term that covers all of the types. Just because the “H” is in there doesn’t mean you have to have hyperactivity symptoms to qualify for that label. “ADD” is outdated and only typically used by people who got diagnosed before 1994. But if it makes sense to you, you can obviously stick to it.

Personally, calling it ADHD regardless of type makes much more sense to me because very few people with the disorder don’t have any hyperactivity symptoms at all–they just might not look like the typical bouncing-off-the-walls stereotype, especially in girls and adults of all genders. Hyperactivity can also mean needing to fidget a lot, or preferring physical/manual activity to intellectual labor. It’s also possible for some people to suppress all of their hyperactive impulses, which means that their observable behavior wouldn’t qualify for the hyperactive type. That doesn’t mean the impulses aren’t there, though, or that it isn’t taking them lots of energy to suppress them.

Why is the prevalence of ADHD increasing?

It’s difficult to obtain accurate data on historical prevalence of mental diagnoses for many reasons–underreporting (especially when it comes to childhood disorders, which parents might want to keep under wraps due to stigma), different research methods, different diagnostic criteria, and so on. According to the CDC, ADHD prevalence really is increasing, but they caveat that claim in the same way I just did. [2]

There’s a difference between more people getting diagnosed with a disorder and more people actually having that disorder. Greater awareness and improved access to mental healthcare could both lead to increased rates of diagnosis, even if the actual prevalence of the disorder has remained the same. I do think that things like that are impacting rates of ADHD diagnosis.

But I also think that a greater proportion of people would qualify for that diagnosis than 50 or 100 years ago, and I think it has to do with the greater role that executive function plays in modern society.

If you think about the types of things most people did for a living prior to the mid- to late-20th century, they didn’t require that much self-regulation. Farming, factory work, housekeeping, mending–these jobs are physically (and often mentally) demanding, but not in the same way as forcing yourself to spend hours at a computer correcting errors in a spreadsheet or researching funding sources. In fact, today, many people with ADHD strive in professions that rely on physical labor, creativity, lots of small bursts of social interaction, or other things that don’t require sustained focus on one thing.

It’s no accident that so many childhood ADHD diagnoses happen because a child can’t sit still in a classroom. Although our current education system dates to the 19th century (and has had shamefully few updates since then), children in the 19th century didn’t necessarily sit in a classroom from 8 AM to 4 PM. They missed school to help on the farm, taught younger classmates (think one-room schoolhouse), and left school altogether at much younger ages than today’s kids are required to stay until.

That doesn’t mean that our education system is the sole cause of increased ADHD prevalence, and that if we went back to some imaginary historic ideal, the prevalence would drop. (Although our education system is pretty shitty for a variety of reasons.) It just means that school and its demands on executive function often reveal ADHD symptoms that might’ve otherwise stayed hidden until later in life–for instance, when the demands of adulthood push people with undiagnosed ADHD to a breaking point.

Didn’t you say that overdiagnosis might still be a thing?

Yeah, I did. I mentioned in the first part of this series that a disorder can be both over- and under-diagnosed if we look for it in places it isn’t and don’t look for it in places it is. One place where we may look for ADHD too single-mindedly is in children who are “disruptive” or “unfocused” in school.

Plenty of researchers and clinicians have observed that children from violent and chaotic neighborhoods often get diagnosed with ADHD because they present with many of its symptoms. [3] However, in children as well as adults, those symptoms might also be coming from trauma, especially the complex trauma that develops when severe life stressors are constant from early childhood on. [4]

When the role of trauma is ignored, these children (who are typically from low-income families of color) often get slapped with the ADHD label, along with its cousin, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). [5] Unfortunately, for children who are already bearing the burdens of racism and classism, these labels often serve to add on more stigma rather than help provide effective treatment. If you look at the criteria for ODD, they describe behavior that is completely rational and adaptive if many of the adults in the child’s life are violent, neglectful, and inconsistent. And if you look at the criteria for ADHD, they also describe what happens when undiagnosed PTSD limits your ability to self-regulate.

PTSD symptoms put a huge cognitive load on the brain. People with PTSD are usually hyper-vigilant, constantly looking for potential threats (often without realizing they’re doing it). Small disturbances or unpleasant surprises can cause strong reactions that seem excessive to others. When trauma comes from psychological abuse rather than physical violence or disaster, it can be even harder to notice when PTSD symptoms manifest.

A child who has complex trauma as a result of growing up amid violence and abuse is going to have serious issues paying attention in class and remembering their homework, along with maintaining healthy relationships with teachers and classmates and regulating their own emotions. On the surface, that can look like ADHD. But ADHD medication won’t help, and inappropriate use of ADHD medication on children can lead to those “zombie” symptoms everyone talks about. These kids need trauma-informed interventions, along with real structural changes that address racism, gun violence, poverty, and all of those myriad interweaving variables. No psychiatric label could possibly encompass that.

What’s the connection between ADHD and autism?

A lot of my friends have pointed out that they have been diagnosed with both ADHD and autism, and wonder what (if any) the connection between them is. I’ve also had lots of clients with both, although I obviously also know people with one or the other.

These disorders do co-occur more commonly than they would by chance alone. [6] Unlike mental illnesses, they both manifest in childhood and last for life (this is true even for people who don’t notice their ADHD symptoms until adulthood). They both involve executive dysfunction, and research suggests that some similar neural pathways may be involved in both. [7] They both tend to impact all areas of a person’s life, including school, work, relationships (platonic, romantic, familial, and others), self-care, personal pursuits, and so on.

This can make people stressed about figuring out which disorder they have, or if they have both. If this concerns you, remember that we made up these disorders and assigned sets of symptoms to them. They aren’t natural categories. Although diagnoses can be important for accessing treatment and support, the most important thing is identifying what it is that you struggle with and getting help with that.

If you have executive function issues, medication and/or coaching might help. If you have problems with talking over people and talking too much about your niche interests, it might help to get legitimate social skills advice (for instance, the excellent blog Real Social Skills [8]) or to seek out people who interact in similar ways to you. If you feel depressed or anxious as a result of the ways in which your disability impairs you or creates consequences for you in our (ableist) society, counseling can help.

Although there’s a lot of cool research going on involving brain scans and other relatively new techniques, that doesn’t actually explain why some people develop ADHD and/or autism and others don’t. It’s possible that the same set of root causes, both biological and environmental, can contribute to the development of both disorders.

Why can people with ADHD sometimes focus really well/get things done?

Remember, ADHD isn’t about being “unable to focus” or get things done. It’s about executive function. When a lot of executive function is needed to complete a task, people with ADHD will struggle with it. But when it isn’t, they may do very well.

Some situations in which people with ADHD may be very efficient or productive include:

  • when they’re really interested in the task
  • when it’s about to be due and panic kicks in
  • when it involves working with others
  • when they’re given a lot of structure

So, let’s examine each of these. Everyone has an easier time focusing on things they’re really interested in as opposed to things they find boring, and everyone generally finds it effortful to exercise their executive function. People with ADHD just find it harder than others. When you’re really interested in the task, you may not need to use executive function to do it. (You may need it to plan for or structure the task, though, which is why people with ADHD sometimes have difficulty accomplishing their over-arching goals even with stuff they’re really interested in.) Unfortunately, having issues with executive function can also make it more difficult to tear your focus away from something, which is why people with ADHD are prone to what’s called hyperfocus–spending too much time immersed in something to the detriment of other things that need to be done, including basic needs.

Remember, getting really into things you like doesn’t mean you don’t have ADHD. In fact, it could be good evidence that you do have it.

These principles also explain why so many people with ADHD procrastinate. It’s not just that they can’t get themselves to do the task in advance–it’s that procrastination works, but at a cost. When it’s the night before the 15-page paper you haven’t started is due and you’re completely panicking, executive function may no longer be necessary to get yourself to do the task. Other brain regions and processes take over–perhaps, for instance, the amygdala, which is involved in the processing of fear.

Social tasks can also be easier for people with ADHD to complete. The other people in the group may help them with staying on task, structuring the project, and perhaps doing the really boring parts that they don’t want to do. When working independently on a task, people with ADHD are liable to get stuck when they can’t motivate themselves to do a particularly boring or difficult task, or when they simply don’t know what the next step should be and get distracted by something more interesting before they figure it out. A team member may help them cross this hurdle.

Finally, people with ADHD may do very well with tasks when they’re given a lot of structure rather than having to create that structure for themselves. A person with ADHD may love their work (or studies, or whatever) and have few issues focusing on it, but effectively completing complex tasks requires being able to structure them–break them down into smaller tasks, put those tasks in the right order, and keep the big picture in mind rather than getting bogged down in one specific tiny part of the project. (Sometimes called microfocus, this can really get in the way of one’s goals.)

That kind of mental task requires executive function, too. Many people with ADHD do better in high school than in college because there’s more structure built in. For others, college provides enough structure, but work doesn’t provide enough. Still others luck out and find jobs in which structuring your own tasks isn’t required. That’s why many people with ADHD do well in or even enjoy working in retail or food service–as long as they can regulate their emotions well enough to avoid lashing out at irritating customers.

In sum, there are all kinds of situations in which the role of executive function is more minimal than it is in others, and many people with ADHD can thrive in these situations. That doesn’t negate the fact that they have a disability, or that it might still take them lots of effort and trial-and-error to get to that point.

People with ADHD can also learn to utilize the exact types of things that are hard for them–remembering to write things down, using planners, and so on–to make up for what they’re lacking in executive function. That, along with some other stuff I promised to get to (i.e. gender and ADHD), will be discussed in a future installment of this series.


[1] https://www.additudemag.com/slideshows/add-vs-adhd/

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/timeline.html

[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/07/how-childhood-trauma-could-be-mistaken-for-adhd/373328/

[4] https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/complex-trauma

[5] https://www.additudemag.com/oppositional-defiant-disorder-odd-and-adhd/

[6] https://www.additudemag.com/is-it-adhd-or-asd/

[7] https://nyulangone.org/news/tracing-neural-links-between-autism-adhd

[8] https://www.realsocialskills.org


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What ADHD Actually Is, Part 2