The Time I Designed An Ambigram (And Finally Finished A Project)

This month, for the first time in a couple of years, I finished a project.

If you’re reading this, you probably know who Alyssa Gonzalez is. Last autumn, shortly after launching her own blog, The Perfumed Void, she hired me to create a banner for it. As a result, I spent most of the first half of 2018 writing the same words over and over again—the act of a scolded child, or perhaps of an undisciplined designer.

Now that the banner is in place, I’m as glad of the correction as I am proud of the result.

It won’t come as a surprise to this blog’s readers—either of you—that for a long time, I’ve struggled to work. Only now, with its fifth birthday approaching fast, am I emerging from a hiatus that began shortly after this site was set up—a period of R&R that eventually risked becoming a form of self-harm.

When Alyssa first hired me, I was in the grip of what now seems like dangerously poor mental health: a period of months when seeking contact with other humans—or responding to messages—required more executive function than I had.

The first design ideas I showed her weren’t ambitious, and in hindsight are evidence that I wasn’t in a good place creatively. All the same, there is something I like about them—and as soon as I noticed that the word ‘perfumed’ almost reads the same upside down, Alyssa wanted to see more.

Like any serial victim of the words how hard can it be, I vastly underestimated the amount of time designing am ambigram for the first time would involve. Slowly, the project grew and grew, until finishing it—something that took until this month—slid further and further away.

Deceptively, once I knew I wanted the name of Alyssa’s blog to be upside-down-able, the first ninety percent of the design process happened in the first tenth of the timeframe. Everything after that—from December 2017 to July 2018—was incremental change, drawing and redrawing some forty-odd different versions. (Ambigrams, it turns out, are hard.)

Getting to know Alyssa better was one of the best parts of this. On top of extending far more patience than I deserved, she has the distinction of being by far the most exacting client I’ve designed for—someone who knows exactly and immediately what she likes and doesn’t like. (This is, in people who hire designers, much rarer than you’d expect.)

As a result, and because ambigrams tend to dictate their own design, several of this one’s unfinished incarnations hint at roads not taken—the nineties-graffiti style of one sketch above, the lighter pen-strokes of another below it, another’s horizontal bars—and these abandoned features have an appeal of their own.

The coloured background—necessary on a site with this much white—didn’t have as nice-looking an evolution, with some early versions downright putrid. But it still got there in the end.

I learnt a lot from this project: how to create something from scratch instead of combining existing shapes; how to make words read the same upside down; how to make myself work, and work with the software I had instead of pining for new gadgetry. I learnt how to keep a design client in the loop, and how to cage my own anxiety in the middle of a project.

I also learnt that I don’t want to take on many more projects like this.

For several years, my to-do list has been out of control, and I’m only just getting back on top of it. (I have one more design task due this month, and another, long overdue, to get out of the way in the autumn.) I’m good at designing visual identities—good enough, anyway, to have been hired by a decent list of bloggers alongside Alyssa. But out of all the things I’m paid to do, graphic design is the toughest, the biggest spoon-suck and the job that most tenderises my mental health. I’m good at it—but there are things I’m better at and faster at, and that I enjoy doing more, and I want to focus on them.

In the mean time, this project—and the friend behind it—finally pulled me out of a long, dangerous slump. The upshot is twofold:

One—Alyssa’s blog has a banner.

Two—I’m back.

The Time I Designed An Ambigram (And Finally Finished A Project)

Podcast: On Hair Loss, Queer Aesthetics and Ritual

If you haven’t subscribed to Miri‘s new podcast, 2 AM Talks, it might be time you did. Recently, I was lucky enough to be its first guest.

After both losing our hair in the last few years—blame chemotherapy and genetics, respectively—Miri and I sat down to talk about what the experience taught us, in a  conversation that spanned religion, gender, science fiction and relationship abuse.

Listen here, or read the first half of our conversation below.

M. Hi Alex!

A. Hi! Good to be here.

M. I’m so excited to finally have you on here.

You chose baldness as one of your topics. Tell me a bit about why.

A. I guess this goes back to you. You had a health thing recently that involved losing your hair, right? You’ve posted and written a certain amount about that.

M. Yes. I went through chemo. I’m better now, I guess—that’s a work in progress!

A. Glad to hear it.

M. I did lose all of my hair, and it’s now growing back, but I’m still reflecting on what that experience meant.

A. I remember you saying a little while back, in one of our Facebook chats, that for you there came a point when baldness made you feel regal and queenlike. Something along those lines?

My baldness, my hair loss, is just quote-unquote male pattern baldness. (I’m a lot less binary than that, but that’s what it’s called.) In reality, the way I experience that now and what it’s become for me, cosmetically and philosophically and otherwise, is way queerer and more complex. I’m interested in seeing where those two experiences we have join up.

M. Yeah! I’ll tell you a bit about what that progression was like for me.

Obviously, when I was diagnosed with cancer, this was at the end of October 2017. As soon as I knew I’d be going through chemo, I knew what that meant.

I wouldn’t say that I struggled with that as much as I did with many of the other aspects of having breast cancer when you’re 26, 27. But I cherished my hair so much, and part of that was because I had this haircut. It was a very queer haircut, where on side is shaved and the other is these bouncing curls, and it was just how I expressed myself.

I remember after my diagnosis, but before I lost the hair, I kept running my hands through it all the time and kind of saying goodbye to it. It was heartbreaking, in a way. Then, right before I started chemo, I decided to make the transition easier for myself. I went to the hair salon and I had it buzzed short, and I had it dyed bright purple. It felt like kind of my war paint.

That hair stayed there for a few weeks, and then chemo started to take its toll. My hair started to recede, in actually a very interesting male-pattern-baldness sort of way. First it started to recede, then it started to itch and prick me horribly, because I guess that’s what happens when hair falls out. (They did not warn me about that—I thought it would just kind of fall.) And when I would run my hands through it, pieces would come out, gradually more and more.

So one night, I was like, ‘Fuck this. I can’t stand this any more. This is uncomfortable physically and mentally.’ So I went to the bathroom and I put on an interesting podcast, and I pulled out as much of it as I could. It wasn’t anything like pulling hair out normally, because it just came right out. And then what didn’t come out, I shaved off in the shower. And I came out of the shower and I dried off with a towel, and I looked in the mirror, and there I was. You know, without hair.

It was weird. But it wasn’t—you know, I don’t know why I expected this, but I expected it to be, like, grotesque, or one of those horrible soap opera character moments, when it’s like, ‘Oh, what am I? What have I become? I have no hair!’ It was not like that. It was kind of like, ‘Alright. This is the new reality.’

And at first I felt oddly protective of it. Not in the sense that I was insecure about my appearance or anything like that. I almost felt like it was this private, modest thing that I should keep covered. And I’ve never been religious, at least not in that way. It wasn’t coming from a history of that.

At home, I usually wore comfortable hats, and when I went out, I would wear—I had almost twenty different wigs by the end of this, that I loved, and I would wear these different wigs and make outfits with them. When I would go to bed (my partner stays over most nights), I would go the bathroom when I went to brush my teeth, and that’s when I would switch from my wig to my hat. Or I would wait until my partner was in the bathroom. I did not want anyone, not even my most intimate people, to see my head, and I would sleep in these sleep caps.

Then over time, I got lazy. The caps would fall off at night. First my partner saw me without hair, then my little sister was curious what it looked like, and I let her see it, and she was just like, ‘Cool!’ I would chill at home without anything on my head, and the pizza delivery guy would come see it. So I just started to loosen up about that.

The turning point came one night when I had gone out to the symphony. I had a beautiful wig and beautiful makeup, and I came home and I was feeling good, and I took the wig off in front of the mirror as I usually do, and suddenly it was like the face of a totally new person was looking back at me.

I looked like some sort of—I think one of my friends later said ‘like a space empress’. It was this fantastical, science fictional look. I had dark burgundy lipstick and a full face of makeup, and just no hair. And I looked like someone who reigns over an empire in space and has no time whatsoever for hair, and thinks that she looks amazing as is, and everyone bows down to her, hair or no.

And it was completely transformative. And of course, being a millennial, I captured it in the form of a selfie and I put it on Facebook.

People were very surprised, because they knew how I felt about that privacy thing. They were very surprised, but they were very positive! It was one of the most affirming things I experienced during my treatment, and after that, although I continued usually wearing a wig of some sort of whatever, I never saw myself the same way again after that, and I still don’t.

A. That’s fabulous.Wigs are a thing for me as well. I’m currently staring at a long, acid green one!

There’s a lot of social norms and implicit expectations around ‘male’ baldness, and one of them is this idea that I particularly don’t like, that as soon as your hair starts falling out, you just shave it. That’s what you have to do as a ‘man’. You have to shave your head, and don’t have any feelings about it at all. There’s kind of a comic figure of the man who wears a wig—in England it’s Bruce Forsyth who’s the famous person, but Donald Trump as well. It’s not actually a wig, but the comic figure of the man in a wig, you can kind of read him that way.

Now that my whole head’s shaved, including my face and eyebrows—the lashes are the only bit of hair there—I love the way my head can be this amazing genderless blank canvas I can just put stuff on, including wigs. I wear wigs, and I wear bright green, neon pink, ridiculous ones. I’m quite into the idea of wearing them deliberately so they’re noticeable, and people look at me and go, ‘Argh, what’s going on there?’

M. I really love this imagery of the face as a blank canvas onto which you paint or design something, and it can be something different every day, and it doesn’t have to be, you know, just because you identify this way or use these pronouns, then that’s the hair or makeup or whatever that you’re gonna have.

A. You mentioned wearing hats as well.

I don’t feel this as much because we know each other, and I wouldn’t expect you to be gatekeepy, but it’s strange, me talking about just a natural process of hair loss as (supposedly) a dude, and to somebody who had breast cancer. It’s like, am I allowed to have feelings in this conversation? You know what I mean? And I know the answer is yes, but again, that’s the. You aren’t supposed to have feelings about this if you were assigned male at birth.

My hair started to go when I was 15. I’m 27 now. I’m looking at the Facebook photos of people I was at school with who made fun of me, and their hair’s just starting to recede now, and I’m here going, ‘I’ve dealt with all this. I’m fine now. I’m a glamorous bald egg queen. Look at you being all insecure! Look forward to that for the next few years.’

But one of the things I’ve found out that nobody tells you about baldness is hats. You can wear hats. Like, you can really wear hats.

I always wanted to do the hat thing when I had hair, but it never worked. I can’t really explain why, but I had similar hair to yours—it never grew downward, it just went outwards—and hats on me were just never a thing that quite sat right. Now what I’ve found, because I have the blank canvas thing and I don’t have hair, is that when you get rid of all that stuff, you can commit more to other accessories. I’ve found that I can wear brighter and louder shirts, and it doesn’t look as cartoonish because you’ve removed one element, so you can add more elsewhere.

Again, it’s the mythos of the bald man. Everybody thinks bald guys wear hats to cover up their bald heads. No. I love my bald head! It’s just hats look fucking awesome on me.

M. I didn’t wear hats as often as I wore wigs, although that had a lot to do with the fact that it was winter, and if I wore a winter hat outside, that would be too hot for inside, whereas wigs actually provided a very good level of both protection from the elements and comfort indoors.

But yeah, I definitely hat that experience with hats, and I had some interesting ones. I had some ones with beautiful designs on them that I wouldn’t have really—I never would have thought to wear that. And I had a similar issue to you where it didn’t really work with my hair, especially when I had, you know, the side-shave and then the swoosh. If I wore a hat, the swoosh part would come out, but it would be plastered to my forehead, and it just wasn’t really cute.

Also, the experience of wearing wigs resolved a lot of my concerns about having very brightly coloured hair. Because I was always curious: what would its e like to just have neon pink or bright purple hair? And then I thought, ‘Ugh, what if I wanted to wear a yellow dress that day?’ You know? But with wigs and hats, you obviously switch it out, and it’s a canvas.

Some days I would feel like I was playing The Sims, just kind of playing with their hair and makeup and clothing. And during those long, long months of treatment and generally not feeling super great about my body, that was really health for me. It was very constructive.

A. I can see that.

You mentioned having a strangely ritual feeling about it, which I relate to as well. To me it has not exactly a religious, but a cultural or some kind of historical dimension to it, because hats are a big thing in Judaism, right? Traditionally, there’s that idea of covering heads and praying, and putting a hat on has just become a nice, regular part of my day when I’m going outside. I don’t know—it’s a very abstract, de-theologised thing, but it’s nice to have that as a thing for me.

M. I really love the idea of reclaiming ritual from religion. Especially personal ritual. This is something I actually ended up doing in a much more concrete way as part of my own cancer experience. (I can talk about that later.)

You don’t have to be religious, or have any particular kind of faith, to have that kind of connection to your head or your hair; or covering parts of your body, or uncovering parts of your body. It doesn’t have either, you know, ‘There’s a commandment that I have to do this or I’m going to face divine consequences’, or ‘Fuck it, whatever, it doesn’t matter, all I care about is how it looks.’ (That’s also a totally fine approach: I was just interested in something a bit more, I don’t know, personally meaningful.)

A. I remember your posts. You had a hair removal ritual, or something like that?

M. Yeah. There was obviously the day to day ritual of putting on the wig and taking off the wig and so forth, but then I also decided to prepare for my double mastectomy, which is something I really, really struggled with on many levels in the months leading up to that. I decided to try and recognise and affirm those feelings, together with my close friends and loved ones, as a ritual that I designed with the help of my friend Rabbi Alex Braver, who is the rabbi at the synagogue I attend. (Yes, I attend synagogue even though I’m nonreligious. But that’s a topic for another episode!)

We designed a ritual that put together some elements of traditional Jewish prayer, and also some things that I’d designed or come up with on my own, or incorporated from somewhere else. The very beginning of the ritual, actually, was a prayer that—I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something like, ‘Blessed is our Lord Adonai, who made me in a divine image.’ And then I took off my headscarf and remained uncovered for the duration of the ritual. And that was so fucking cool to me. It was so cool. And it really set the tone for the rest of the thing.

A. I’m into that!

I live in a very queer household, and my housemate, who also has the baldness thing going on, says ‘I always feel at my most femme when I’ve just wet-shaved my head.’ I have that thing as well. Two moments for me that were milestones were the first time I wet-shaved rather than just electrically clipping it (because first of all, it’s then completely gone—it’s more of a symbolic moment, and also, choosing to wet shave rather than clip it, you then move closer to shaving body hair in a way that’s coded as feminine), and then later, when  I, just on a whim this January, shaved off my eyebrows for the first time, and looked in the mirror and just went, ‘Ahh! Genderqueer lizard. Glamour Voldemort. Hi. I’m here for it.’

M. How did you come to that decision to shave your eyebrows?

A. Here’s the thing about shaving eyebrows: they grow back! For a variety of reasons, including disability based stuff, I’m not somebody who’s normatively employable, and therefore I don’t really have to look like it. But I just thought, ‘I’ll shave them off, and we’ll see. And if it doesn’t work, in a month’s time I’ll have them again.’ But it turned out, yeah, I was really into it.

Also, I was learning and am continuing to learn makeup—advanced theatrical, drag, prosthetic makeup, that kind of stuff—and I wanted to be able to draw eyebrows on and do stuff like that, and just have more of a versatile face. I look hilarious when I shave now! I use shaving foam like most people, but it’s on my jaw and on my head and then also on my eyebrows, so most of me from the neck up is this white, foamy moon creature.

M. That’s a funny image, definitely!

What you said about the wet shaving and what that was like? That actually makes me, for the first time, kind of regret how I went about things. You know that moment I told you about, when I finally like, ‘Fuck it, I can’t handle this, I’m gonna get rid of all this hair’? I think I needed to do that, because I remember, as I was making that decision, I was home from work and I was talking to my mom on the phone and I was crying. And I’m like, ‘I know it was going to fall out. It’s not that!’ Whatever, chemo makes you emotional. But I needed to take control of that, in the same I initially buzzed and dyed my hair. That’s why I did that, but I wish I could have been more intentional about it. First of all, I did it with the same razor that I just shaved my legs or armpits with, and I don’t recommend this course of action!

A. Why’s that?

M. It was uncomfortable!

A. Oh! That’s not a thing for me. Was it just that it was blunt?

M. Maybe I should have gotten a fresh razor for it, actually. Because it was totally fine for what I had been using it for, but for this—especially considering that my head was already kind of tender, and that I couldn’t see what I was doing, and heads obviously have ridges and bumps and things? It’s not that it, like, hurt or anything, and I didn’t nick myself. It just was, I would say, a pretty uncomfortable experience all around.

More to the point, I was just trying to get it over with. I wasn’t trying to have any kind of experience. I wasn’t trying to have any kind of ritual, in the way that I ritualised the days leading up to losing my breasts. And now I really kind of wish that I had thought ahead of time. Like, ‘How do I want to do this, and what does it mean to me, and how do I kind of honour that?’ But you know, of course I wasn’t in the best frame of mind for thinking of things in that way.

And it’s okay. It is what it is. But that would have been really special.

A. I get that. It took me a while to get there as well.

I originally tried to do the ‘just buzz it off and then feel fine about it’ thing. I will say I was never traumatic about it, or anything like that. There’s a layer, actually, of sadness about it. I’m conscious that I turned 27 recently, which is the start of the end of your twenties. You’re not a young young person any more at 27. And I’m conscious that I went through most of that time not ever looking or feeling conventionally attractive, particularly in notionally gay male culture. I never had that young-and-beautiful phase, so to the extent that my appearance is something I out time into and feel good about, it’s always slightly alternative now.

It was a couple of years ago, in late 2015, when I first got rid of my hair entirely. I just tried to buzz it off and then live like that, and not really have any investment in it or be intentional about it. Which for a while, actually, is quite difficult, because apart from anything else, if you’re just doing it electronically and shaving your head isn’t a normal part of [your shaving routine], you’ve got to do it every couple of weeks, and it’s grown back significantly by the time you buzz it off again. So that was a bit of a chore.

For a while I just decided, ‘Let it grow back and just live with it.’ One thing I actually had for a while was, there’s stuff which is hair powder that’s a bit mascara-y, so if you’ve got thin hair, it will just give it a bit more volume make it look more ‘there’. Which I wore for a while, and I had normal looking hair, and that was quite cool. One of the things I really resent the Cult of Enforced Unemotional Male Baldness about is the fact that, actually, if you’re a dude and your hair starts to go, there’s a load of different things you can do with it. You can buzz it off immediately if thats your thing, or you can just keep it short and let it do its thing, or you can wear it however and let it go.

Also, it’s worth saying: you were talking about the fact that your hair receded when you did chemo, and it did the supposedly male thing. I actually have what I consider to be the worst kind of pattern baldness. People don’t necessarily know there are different types. Some people, they’ve got it and it recedes. Like, it starts at the brow and it goes back, and eventually you get a receding hairline. Now what I had! And I didn’t have the bald-spot-at-the-back thing either. What I’ve always had is ‘diffuse thinning’, which is where across the top of your head, your hair is thin and it gets thinner everywhere at once. Which I think is the worst thing you can have, because there’s no stylish way of wearing that.

If you’ve got a receding hairline, you can have a widow’s peak, and that can look cool. There’s famous people I can think of who’ve had that look, and it’s fine. If it’s going at the back, you just keep it short everywhere you grow, like, a pompadour. There’s awesome ways to style that. There’s really nothing you can do if it’s just falling out everywhere, and so yeah, I was just left with the option of having it look a bit rubbish or nothing at all. But yeah, I’m totally pro the idea that people in general, but particularly AMAB folks and men and variations of that, should just do whatever they feel like with hair and not be shamed about it.

M. I can get behind that 100 percent.

You’ve mentioned a few times this cultural idea that men, or people assigned male at birth, have to just not care about their hair loss. What was that journey like for you? I’m guessing at the very beginning of it, you probably definitely did care.

A. When I had hair, I was always self-conscious about it. A lot of my old selfies, I would darken in that particular area near the front, so there was a bit more shadow and the thinness wasn’t as visible. It was never particularly a massive trauma in my life. I think a lot of the feelings I have about it are ones that I’m only processing now that I’m actually making time to think and feel about my (now lack of) hair. But yeah. It started to go when I was 15, in the middle of my teens, and people did not hesitate to point that out, which was not particularly nice.

There’s a lot of ways that hair is more politically and culturally loaded than we think it is. Religion is something we’ve talked about, but I had Jewish hair as well, the whole curly thing going on. Also, I had autistic hair in that I never liked having it cut as a child, and therefore I never really worked out what to do with it. One of the things that’s really nice about not having hair any more is that I never knew how to style my hair, how to make it look the way I wanted. It was always a very fractious relationship. And now that’s not even there any more!

It’s also really nice in summer, because I keep coming inside on hot days and just going, ‘Imagine how horrible this would be with hair. Remember that?’

There’s a lot of ways in which I’ve always had reason to feel that I didn’t own my body, or wasn’t in charge of it, or it was something that was narrated by someone else. And being a bald genderqueer alien egg now is my favourite thing.

M. And you know, like you said, I have no gatekeepery feelings about this, or else I wouldn’t even have done this episode. And I really wanted to do this episode! But what you pointed out about getting made fun of for something obviously completely out of your control, and that sadly happens to many people, about lots of aspects of their bodies or situations? The thing is, when you’re going through cancer treatment, nobody can say anything negative to you.

I mean, I’m sure that happens to people who are less fortunate than I am in terms of having supportive people in my life. But everyone was so affirming, no matter what I did. You know, when I buzzed it and dyed it, or when I got rid of it entirely, and all the wigs that I wore, and when I went bald, and when I did scarves, and when I did hats. Ad obviously, what I was going through was awful, and losing my hair was by no means the most difficult part of that, but it was a thing that I had to cope with. But I had all this outpouring of support.

Compare that with someone like you, an AMAB person who starts losing their hair very early on, or any person who starts thinning with age or going bald. Being [told] ‘It’s just ageing, you’re a dude, why do you care?’ That kind of invalidation probably makes things a lot harder to cope with.

A. And the fact that the normalised way of responding to that is not even to say, ‘No, I have feelings about that. Please don’t talk about it that way.’ It’s just to disengage emotionally from the entire process.

Actually, it strikes me that you probably know way more about this than I do, but to me, in my head, one of the things that abusive partners are known for doing is impressing on people, and especially women, the idea that they shouldn’t or are not allowed to care about how they look.

M. Yes.

A. The whole ‘Don’t wear so much makeup’ thing. And culturally, that’s what we’re told. If you’re a dude, or something along those lines, and hair loss is a thing for you, not only are you supposed to not care about it, but you’re supposed to be fine with people joking about, and not care about other people caring. So I guess there’s a lot of feelings there that I’m only becoming aware of retroactively now.

The flip side of that is that getting rid of my hair—first wet shaving and then losing the eyebrows and everything else—gave me loads of gender feels and queer affirmation. If you’re somebody in that situation and you google stuff because you’re interested, there’s a load of media stuff about, ‘So you’re a bald guy. Look at these famous bald men. Look how cool they look!’ But actually, all my bald role models are femmes and women and people like that. In cinema, there’s a particular trope of the bald woman who’s evil, and that’s definitely a reference point for me.

M. I want to go back to that, because I definitely have thoughts on that. But another thing I have thoughts on that you were just saying is that I hate that our culture does this: that appearance is so important, and that it impacts so much of how you move through the world, and yet we’re supposed to not care about it. Like, you need to pick one, okay? Either appearance can be super important and impact everything about how we live, and we acknowledge that and celebrate each other’s efforts to improve and care about our appearance, or appearance does not impact how we move through the world, and we don’t have to care about it. Right? Because it’s so hypocritical.

And you see that in everything. For instance, when they do those pols. First of all, I hate the idea of polling cisgender hetero men about women’s appearance, because who the fucked asked? But they do this, and they’ll ask them, ‘What kind of look do you prefer on women? No makeup, natural look, or like, full face of makeup?’ And they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I don’t like any makeup. I like it natural!’ And then you have them pick photos of women’s faces that they like, and you have foundation, blush, mascara, eye shadow, eye liner, lip liner. That’s what they think natural looks like! And I bet you, those same men, when their girlfriend is like, ‘Wait a minute, I need a few minutes to finish my makeup’, they’re like, ‘What are you talking about babe? You look good without makeup.’ She wears that shit every day, and that’s what you fucking prefer! Urghhh!

…anyway. Sorry about that.

I’m also angry about this idea that the only reason one could possibly have for caring about our appearance is that they’re shallow, or whatever. Which, first of all—if you just like to look good, and you like people to like how you look, that’s fine! We’re social creatures. We like affirmation. That’s okay. But more to the point, when you do your looks or I do my looks, that’s not primarily about, ‘Oh, I want people to think I’m pretty.’ It is expression. Especially for a queer person or a nonbinary person, to express their gender and all the feelings that go along with that, through their hair, makeup, fashion choices, whatever? It is like a canvas. It’s creating a work of art. Of course, when I say that, I’m like, ‘Ehh, my makeup skills aren’t really that worthy.’ But still, that’s the point.

Read Part two of this post at Brute Reason.

Podcast: On Hair Loss, Queer Aesthetics and Ritual

We Need To Talk About How We Talk About Religion


There’s been a dialogue between atheist writers over the past week, started by Martin Hughes of the blog barrierbreaker. In a post published last Tuesday, Hughes talks about his evolving feelings on religion, declaring himself not an antitheist any more. ‘Recently I’ve been a lot less harsh on religion and much more focused on social justice issues,’ he reports, going on to describe his mother’s ill health and religious faith.

Several responses and critiques were published in the next few days. One, from Stephanie Zvan, notes that social justice includes helping people leave religion; another, from Kaveh Mousavi of On the Margin of Error, replies directly. In a follow-up post, Hughes talks about dealing with stress by praying to a nonexistent god. Stephanie and Kaveh both replied again, writing that comfort found in faith still doesn’t get religion off the hook.

Since publication last Thursday, my contribution has been doing well. It isn’t a direct response to either of Hughes’ posts, or any author’s in particular, but talks about patterns I see when this subject comes up.

When I read posts in the non-antitheism genre, it often strikes me that most of the wordcount is about other issues. I see other writers assert that the death of religion won’t solve all the world’s problems, and that in a world without it, people who currently hurt others in the name of God would just find other excuses. I hear them say deconverting believers isn’t their priority, and that they no longer feel an urge to pick fights with them. I listen to people say they care more about social justice than bashing religion, and that there are some awful atheists, and that they have more in common with plenty of progressive believers, and that they’d rather work with them. I see them point out that being an atheist doesn’t make them more intelligent than believers are, and that religious people don’t deserve to be hated. None of these statements are to do with whether religion is a good thing.

Near the end, in a passage that’s getting a lot of appreciation, I talk about defences of religion I do hear: that private beliefs people draw comfort from are harmless, that the problem is fundamentalism and not religion at large, that not all believers are the ones we see on the news, that harm caused by religion would still happen without it. Each gets dissected individually, but I close by discussing all these ideas collectively.

When I hear people saying why they’re not antitheists — when I read tweets and Facebook statuses and blog posts and op-eds — these are the statements I’m used to hearing. None of them are useful statements. All of them are either irrelevant or wrong. I don’t think anyone who says these things is being insincere, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they became things atheists said because they’re things believers like to hear, or feel like they might be. They’re delicate, diplomatic, sayable and politically correct. They’re not things I’m interested in saying.

I want to talk more about why I wrote that post, where I’d like the discussion to go next, and some of what I have to add to it.


Writing at his blog Across Rivers Wide, Galen Broaddus calls himself agnostic about antitheism. ‘Do I think the world would be better or worse if everyone were an atheist? … Alex says that his answer is quick, and that’s fine. The honest answer for me, though, is simply I don’t know.’

I do understand that other people … think that we have enough information to at least tentatively conclude that the world would be better off without religion. I know at least a good number of the arguments [and] I get that the kinds of counterarguments Alex mentions (like the fact that getting rid of religion wouldn’t be a panacea because, well, duh) don’t give him pause. I just disagree on those evaluations. YMMV.

Here’s the thing—I’m basically fine with that. Being an antitheist isn’t something I care much about. I don’t feel a need to change believers’ minds, and I don’t need friends or colleagues to feel the way I do: given a shot at a world without God, I’d take it, but I get why not everyone would. That’s not an argument I need to have, and it wasn’t the point of Thursday’s post. What I do want to pursue is a metadiscussion.

I don’t object to either of Hughes’ posts, and I share the complex feelings he talks about—they’re just not reasons to adopt his stance. I’m reluctant to single him or anyone else out because I find this typical. When people make a show of not being antitheists, the reasons they provide aren’t usually ones like Galen’s: they’re the bad arguments or beside-the-point platitudes I fisked, and I think our community should have a conversation about where they’re coming from.

When I say I want this whole debate to cut to the chase—that the only question that matters is if a world without religion would be better—it’s not because I’m desperate to tell people it would, but because I want to point out what’s going on. When people are so keen to separate themselves from antitheists that they give transparently bad grounds for doing so, it’s hard for me not to feel that it’s performative. When their posts acknowledge handwavily that they’d prefer a less religious world—as if this is somehow a tangent and not the whole point—I get the sense that there’s something more complex going on. These dynamics point to assumptions about how religion gets discussed, and since those affect all nonbelievers, there are good reasons to examine them whichever side you come down on.


Toward the start of Thursday’s post, I talk about being approached by believers—often Christians, but not only—who tell me why they think God is on queer people’s side and want me to say I’m impressed.

I find that conversation hard, mainly because it never feels like it’s meant to be a conversation. I get the sense I’m expected to nod and sympathise, that my role in the discussion is to validate their feelings, not say what I actually think. It’s as if only part of me gets invited to speak: I’m allowed to oppose religious homophobia as a queer person, but not to critique religion in other forms as a queer atheist. I’m not being asked to participate in a dialogue — just to tell [religious people] what they want to hear.

Some of the places I’ve had this problem have been LGBT events about religious faith. These happen often in the queer community, especially at conferences and during outreach weeks, and have become somewhat notorious: I know I’m not the only with this experience both because I’m told so and because when I speak at them, it goes down well. The rest of the time, this is what happens: a handful of speakers, each from a different religion, spend ten minutes telling their life stories and saying why being a queer ‘person of faith’ is perfectly easy; a Q&A session follows where difficult questions are parried or ignored and nonbelievers feel unable to say what they think. There’s a lot of nodding and agreeing, but no one leaves with any sense tensions have been dispelled, because they haven’t been addressed. (If you’re planning one of these—seriously, invite me.)

Too often these events are emotional workhouses: places the audience, and nonbelievers in particular, are asked to make believers feel comfortable, even at the expect of what they want to say. (While some are atheists looking for fights, many have needs that end up being ignored, and queer people whose experiences of religion have been traumatic often feel invisible.) The same thing happens in interfaith work. In the forum I was part of for years, a constant struggle was the way conversations became about mutual affirmation, making it harder to bring up uncomfortable topics. Meetings where believers get told what they want to hear are fine—major religions hold them once a week—but if the point of dialogue is to air tensions and difficult truths, you need to hold it somewhere else.

‘When people say in [blog] posts that they aren’t antitheists,’ I wrote last week, ‘I get the sense what they mean is that they aren’t jerks.’ Here’s my hypothesis: I think that as atheists grow to want good relations with believers, our instincts about what that means can be the same ones that show up in queer and interfaith circles. When I read posts about why people aren’t antitheists, I’m often reminded of those events, and of experiences with religious relatives, when not being a jerk meant always making believers feel comfortable — even with platitudes that weren’t quite true; even when your nuance wasn’t really all that nuanced; even if you had to be indirect. Like I said at the end of the last post — there are better ways to build bridges than dishonest arguments. Atheists need to start talking about how we find them.

We Need To Talk About How We Talk About Religion

My Atheism Will Not Be Politically Correct


Here’s a problem I have. In various contexts—online, with family, during public events—I keep hearing from believers who take great pains to convince me they don’t hate gay people. Jesus never said anything about it, they tell me, and scripture has been misinterpreted, and the real sinners are homophobes, so for heaven’s sake let that be the end of it. I find that conversation hard, mainly because it never feels like it’s meant to be a conversation. I get the sense I’m expected to nod and sympathise, that my role in the discussion is to validate their feelings, not say what I actually think. It’s as if only part of me gets invited to speak: I’m allowed to oppose religious homophobia as a queer person, but not to critique religion in other forms as a queer atheist. I’m not being asked to participate in a dialogue—just to tell Christians what they want to hear.

There are a lot of atheists who don’t like me. To them I represent ‘politically correct atheism’, a movement that includes minorities and cares about more than just feeling smug. But political correctness was never meant to be a byword for progressive goals. Being politically correct is about saying the permissible thing—the delicate, diplomatic, convenient, feasible, strategic, sayable thing—when provocation isn’t an option. Before it was an alt-right dogwhistle, it meant being insincere to avoid starting fights: meant politicians saying ‘There are differences between us’ instead of ‘We are enemies’ and ‘economical with the truth’ instead of ‘lying’; meant telling people what they wanted but not what they needed to hear. When Christians explain their pro-gay theology to me, I sense that what they want isn’t an answer but a string of platitudes. (Not all Christians are the Westboro Baptist Church. There are good and bad people of all religions and none. Yes, I hate Richard Dawkins too.) If anything feels PC, that does.


Every now and again, someone in my vicinity—often at Patheos, but not just there—publishes a long piece about why they’re not an antitheist. Most recently that’s been Martin Hughes in a post at barrierbreaker; in the past it’s been Neil Carter of Godless in Dixie, and further back it’s been a range of other folk. Those posts spur complicated thoughts in me, and I’ve often felt the urge to response but not had world enough or time, so I want to share some of my misgivings here. (Stephanie Zvan has already done the same at Almost Diamonds.) Carter and Hughes are both bloggers I like, and this post isn’t about them specifically—please don’t read it as a straight reply to either of theirs. What I want to discuss are the patterns I see in these conversations, how they make me feel, and why this branch of the secular community is one I can’t join. I wish my atheism were PC: it’s not.

I don’t market myself as an antitheist, but I feel strongly that I’m not not one. Explaining why is difficult without a certain amount of meta. When I read posts in the non-antitheism genre, it often strikes me that most of the wordcount is about other issues. I see other writers assert that the death of religion won’t solve all the world’s problems, and that in a world without it, people who currently hurt others in the name of God would just find other excuses. I hear them say deconverting believers isn’t their priority, and that they no longer feel an urge to pick fights with them. I listen to people say they care more about social justice than bashing religion, and that there are some awful atheists, and that they have more in common with plenty of progressive believers, and that they’d rather work with them. I see them point out that being an atheist doesn’t make them more intelligent than believers are, and that religious people don’t deserve to be hated.

None of these statements are to do with whether religion is a good thing. I do see people talking about that—in particular, by saying their problem is with fundamentalism, not with religion itself, and by asking what the harm is if people who aren’t out to take over the world believe whatever comforts them—but those discussions are peripheral. In the process of declaring they aren’t antitheists, some authors make concessions that sound nothing but. (Mass belief in a moralising god ‘does more harm than good’, argues Hughes. ‘Would I like to see the human race leave all religion behind…? Absolutely, yes’ adds Carter.) When people say in these posts that they aren’t antitheists, I get the sense what they mean is that they aren’t jerks.

I have a lot of sympathy with that. Like most people whose discarded beliefs shaped their whole lives, I spent years in atheist puberty, a ball of anger, resentment, self-satisfaction and self-righteousness. It took a long time to direct that anger properly—first by acknowledging my childhood in the church was abusive, then by locating it in a broader history of abuse—and I understand not wanting to be that kind of atheist. I don’t view religion in general with the contempt I used to, and I have plenty of reasons to remain on good terms with believers. I come from a religious family, some of whom I’m closer to than ever, and still connect with the aesthetics of my former faith; I speak on panels where it’s my job to get on with religious people, and I spent several years as part of an interfaith group; there’s also a small, dedicated group of churchgoers who like my work. A part of me still wants to be, be like or be liked by religious believers, and I could do well as a faitheist, rehearsing the platitudes from paragraph four—just as I could tell Christians what they want to hear on queer issues.

I’m more interested in saying what I think.

Yes, there are awful atheists; yes, plenty of believers are lovely: I’m intimately acquainted with both those facts, and I don’t spend my life fighting with them over beliefs. Being religious isn’t wicked on its own, and secular people aren’t necessarily better. Ditching faith wouldn’t solve all our problems—I doubt that ditching any one thing would, and there would be better candidates if I had to choose. But I don’t think any of this conflicts with the idea that overall, religious movements do more harm than good. If antitheism is the word we’re using for that, the only question that matters is this: if everyone on earth woke up an atheist, would the world be a better or worse place? For me the answer is better, and it doesn’t take me long to reach it. I don’t know how to say that in a palatable way—I don’t say it to be cruel or unkind—but there it is. It’s what seems true to me.

And I want to talk about things we say because they feel palatable.

I’m not okay with people believing whatever comforts them—not whose beliefs have consequences for other people, at any rate. (I don’t mean anyone on their deathbed.) I grew up with a single mum who’d careened through abusive marriages, who was homeless and penniless as soon as she got away from my dad. My mum became someone who sensed demons in her front room because when she had a breakdown, her only source of comfort was the church—and because every church has one or two people someone like that shouldn’t befriend. Even after her charismatic phase, she was emotionally unstable, and I spent most of my life hostage to her moods. The same was true of her theology: in twenty-three years, I never saw any system to what Mum believed—only that she believed things that felt good, whatever impact they had on my life. Give me a hardened literalist over a Christian like that any day. A fundamentalist’s ideas are always logical on some level, and anything with an inner logic can be controlled; believers whose faith changes shape depending how they feel are the most dangerous, and often the ones looking for comfort.

I’m also not just opposed to fundamentalism. For one thing, that word meant something before it was made synonymous with extremism. (There are Muslims whose beliefs mirror one version of protestantism. That’s not what IS are.) For another, any religion with enough followers is going to have extremists: those people are a feature, not a bug. And extremist styles of religion aren’t the only ones that hurt people. I was suicidal ten years ago, when my faith was an inoffensive, mainstream, traditional one—not because I thought queers went to hell, but because I thought letting people spit on me what was Jesus would do, and because I thought prayer was a good treatment for mental illness. Most damage done by religious beliefs doesn’t involve clinic shootings or suicide bombings: it happens in small, unremarked-on ways, in people’s health and finances and schools and sex lives and relationships, but if you could collect all the tears cried over it, you could put out every burning building on earth. Only critiquing fundamentalists might make for smoother relations with believers. It’s still a cop out, and an insult to people who went through what I did.

Having grown up inside the church, in a town with a dozen denominations and a family of many, I am in fact aware Christians differ, and that not all of them are Westboro. (Like most LGBT people who leave, I knew perfectly well that there were ‘affirming’ churches.) Here’s what believers don’t want to hear: the Westboro Baptist Church is one of the least pleasant Christian sects, but not one of the more dangerous ones. I’m willing to bet fewer queer youth killed themselves because of Fred Phelps than still do in strait-laced and respectable churches—churches like Leelah Alcorn’s, like Lizzie Lowe’s and like mine. We don’t die when cartoonish people hate on us: we die when churches say they welcome and love us, get us to entrust our wellbeing to them, then tell us to choose Jesus over sin, or that God loves trans people too much to let them be trans. Wie die in churches where queer topics are taboo—not out of vitriol, but out of uptight middle class anxiety. I’d love to critique evangelicals who kill us without being an antitheist, but if I believed in their god, I’d think the same as them.

And I’d love to agree that without religion, people who do harm in its name would act the same with other rationales. It’s just that it’s bullshit. Not everything believers do could be done in any other context—in a world without God, what does a child exorcism look like? We can’t travel to that world to run tests, so nobody who makes this claim has a receipt for it, but even then, this isn’t just counterfactual: it runs against the information we do have. We know that even when other factors are controlled for, religious change across generations prompts social change; we know new religious movements cause historical changes on their own; we know that in electorates worldwide, religion is a strong predictor of how people vote; we know religious conversions change people’s lives, and that when people leave religion, their lifestyles change dramatically. For people who claim it does the world good, religion’s whole value is predicated on its power to change behaviour. Why wouldn’t it be to blame for harmful changes?

When I hear people saying why they’re not antitheists—when I read tweets and Facebook statuses and blog posts and op-eds—these are the statements I’m used to hearing. None of them are useful statements. All of them are either irrelevant or wrong. I don’t think anyone who says these things is being insincere, but it wouldn’t surprise if they became things atheists said because they’re things believers like to hear, or feel like they might be. They’re delicate, diplomatic, sayable and politically correct. They’re not things I’m interested in saying. I understand—and, nowadays, share—desire for dialogue, but when believers decide they like me it’s because I don’t bullshit them. There are better ways to build bridges than dishonest arguments.

My Atheism Will Not Be Politically Correct

Where I’ve Been, And Everything I Wrote Last Month

If you only follow my writing here, you may have noticed I’ve been quiet recently. In fact, I’ve busy at work for the last month. Over on Medium, I spent November writing a—vaguely—daily journal as an exercise to get back into the habit of publishing things. In a month when most people I know feared for their sanity, it helped my mental health enormously, and I’m planning to keep writing there in a similar format. That will involve some changes to how I manage being a writer, including the way I post on this blog, and you’ll know what those are as soon as I’ve figured them out. In the mean time, I’m sharing the entire journal here. Read as a single text, I think it comes out pretty well, and I’m glad I did it.

I. Performance Anxiety

If you know me, you probably also know I’ve struggled to write this year. Tempting as it is to blame 2016 and move on, there have been a lot of factors. I’ve found it hard to publish anything partly because since last summer I’ve had no address of my own; partly because my mental health, like most of my friends’, has been running low; partly because I’ve spent much of this year working through a history of parental abuse, and partly just because other things have sucked up my time. Lately it’s become a cycle: not having put it to use for a while, I seem to have lost my voice.

To an extent, the joke’s on me. I’m a self-saboteur. As anyone who’s hired me knows, I’m a relentless editor, and in my own writing it turns out that’s a stumbling block. In 2015 and early this year — follow the links above — I did some of my best writing, but since then I’ve feared publishing anything less good. Every idea has been a tough second album, and I’ve found myself unable to write beyond first paragraphs, scrolling back up to scourge imperfections. In What It Is, her graphic memoir about making art, U.S. cartoonist Lynda Barry writes:

Is this good? Does this suck? I’m not sure when those two questions became the only two questions I had about my work, or when making pictures and stories turned into something I called work — I just know I’d stopped enjoying it and instead began to dread it.

There, sans the grace of God, go I.

I’m trying to silence those two questions, at least for long enough to get things done. I’ve hit on a couple of strategies, the first of which involves going low-tech. I have a bad habit of trusting gadgetry to make me work, when retina displays and edit screens only make a blank page more terrifying. The allure of backspacing out bad lines has grown so strong that I’ve fought to write more than a hundred words per sitting, so, in an extreme step, I’ve gone back to writing pen-and-paper.

I have a journal now, hardback with finely ruled pages and a ribbon. It’s where I wrote the first version of this, now layered with scribbles and crossings-out. The permanence of a biro guarantees messiness, and feels more forgiving as a result. Certain artists, I’m told, work with charcoal because they’re forced to live with their mistakes. Ink is the same: on an immaculate white screen, I’d never have made it this far.

Then there’s the other thing: my writing muscles need a stretch. As with many vicious cycles, the only way forward is to accept a short-term cost. I’ve failed to put my best ideas to paper recently because I’ve been unable to write much to begin with, and I’m making peace with being in no fit state to produce miracles. For now I’m going to write what I can, regularly and for the sake of it. Most of the things I want to do can wait — at the moment, I want to learn to enjoy the writing process again.

For the next month, I’m going to try and post daily. I’m not focusing on doing my best-ever writing, and I’m not going to fuss about every post being the best it can be. I’ve worried in the past about things being long, neat and relevant enough, but this month I’m not going to try and Have Something To Say or cater to the news cycle; I’m certainly not going to pay attention to how many people read. I’m going to write whatever’s on my mind, and refuse to stress over it. I won’t be striving for journalism — I’ll just be journalling.

Having neglected it, I’m taking an intentional break from my main blog to do this. Posting daily and in this way isn’t something I expect to maintain post-November, so I want it to stand apart as something self-contained — on top of which, like a writer moving from desk to dining chair, I need a fresh workspace. I might not be publicising posts as much as normal, so if you want to keep up with things here, click to follow my posts on Medium next to my author blurb.

That’s all for now — with any luck, I’ll be back soon.

II. Feeling Good

I biroed fifteen hundred words today. The Mail turns out to have printed a piece about bisexual folk that’s done the rounds — my thoughts here — and employs tropes I want to talk about. I would have liked to get that done tonight, but even by journal-a-day standards I think it needs tidying up. That’ll be published tomorrow, so for now I’m just posting a progress report. (My current sleeping hours are late-running: if I’d been awake earlier I might have finished it, but the upside is that I’ll probably be back at work on it into the small hours.)

I’m having mixed emotions about getting so much done. Coming off months of inertia, just hitting publish on yesterday’s post was cathartic. That release put me in better spirits today than I’ve been in for far too long, which probably contributed to filling eight pages in the notebook. I’d like that to become a virtuous cycle, but I fear burnout. I’m also conscious of the fact that making myself not-obsess is hard. Tomorrow’s post is not the kind I expected I’d be writing this month — it’s longer for one thing, more tied to external events for another, and I’m putting it off till tomorrow because it needs more varnish than I thought posts in this journal would. If I were to try and post something like it every day, I think I’d fail quickly, but part of why I’m doing this is to make myself compromise. I expected there’d come a point when I had to choose production or perfection, and perhaps it just came sooner than planned.

Just typing this has been therapeutic — I’m learning to let go of detailed plans and fixed-length paragraphs. (Eight lines is my go-to: it’s about the same as a hundred words on Medium, which helps when writing to a word limit — but of course, I fixate.) I didn’t leave myself enough time to write this in the notebook, so I’ve typed it from scratch, something I haven’t been able to do with anything this length for far too long.

All told, I’m going with glass-half-full. The satisfaction of churning things out feels dangerous, something that could invite complacency, but for now I’m finding the joy of writing outweighs the fear of failure. There are worse ropes to walk, and worse anxieties.

III. Settling In

I’m still at work on the biphobia piece. On the one hand, I could feel bad about not having finished it. What’s nice is that I don’t. Yesterday I worried about it not being the kind of post I planned to write this month, but I’m realising spending longer than a day on it is helping me write these updates, which was the goal. At the same time, it’s just the sort of piece I couldn’t get past paragraph one on before. Thanks to doing this, I have fifteen hundred words of first draft and five hundred tidied-up. (It’s grown a bit since yesterday, becoming less of a response to the Mail and more of its own thing. There should be subsections — seductive things — in the final version and it’s got a first paragraph that doesn’t yet entirely earn its place, but which I like. There’s a darling I may or may not kill.)

The moral, I’ve decided, is to keep at what I’m doing. There’s a sense now of having found the right rhythm to settle in for the long haul, and I’m much less anxious than yesterday about continuing. (As of this post, we’re already a tenth of the way through the month.) There’s something extraordinarily freeing in writing about nothing: this post and yesterday’s feel like letters to myself, with any other reader’s presence quite beside the point. ‘I’m not having the public in to shows again,’ Stewart Lee says at the end of one set. I worry this will cease to be a joke.

While writing the long post, I’ve been thinking about bisexual history — where the explosion of bisexuality in young people stems from, how the b-word has been defined at different moments in the recent past, and how many early activists for gay rights might now identify as bi. That train of thought led me to dig up Carl Wittman’s ‘Gay Manifesto’, written the year of the Stonewall riots and published in 1970. Not all of it has stood up well to five decades of queer dialectic — ‘we are only at the beginning’, a disclaimer admits early on — but on the whole, it’s as vital as anything being printed now. (‘It’s not a question of getting our share of the pie. The pie is rotten,’ remarks Wittman, writing in a socialist rag. Part way through a 2013 TED talk, Mads Ananda Lodahl echoes the line.) Toward the start of Wittman’s text, one finds the following.

Homosexuality is the capacity to love someone of the same sex. Bisexuality is good; it is the capacity to love people of either sex. The reason so few of us are bisexual is because society made such a big stink about homosexuality that we got forced into seeing ourselves as either straight or non-straight. Also, many gays got turned off to the ways men are supposed to act with women and vice-versa, which is pretty fucked-up. Gays will begin to turn on to women when 1) it’s something that we do because we want to, and not because we should, and 2) when women’s liberation changes the nature of heterosexual relationships.

We continue to call ourselves homosexual, not bisexual, even if we do make it with the opposite sex also … We’ll be gay until everyone has forgotten that it’s an issue. Then we’ll begin to be complete.

IV. Self Sabotage

It’s twenty-five past ten and I’m getting to work. My rule with this notebook is to post something by midnight. Yesterday I started at ten, Wednesday at nine thirty.

There’s a pattern I tend to fall into. (Other people do it as well, but I’m a chronic case.) If you’d flipped through my school exercise books, most of all maths, you’d have seen a steady decline in neatness from the first week of each term, until the last entry was a crumpled pencilstubbed mess. I’m like that with everything that involves effort, and particularly with timekeeping. A lot of academics say they’re procrastinators, but my habit at university to put things off later every week. The first essay for any given tutor was sent a day, perhaps two, before we met, the second the evening before and the third late at night. By Hilary of fourth year I was sitting down to type with an hour to go.

It turns out this is known as executive dysfunction. I stumbled through Oxford with severe undiagnosed mental illness: the upper second I left with could easily have been a first if I’d known what was wrong. I don’t particularly remember my three years there; what anecdotes I have are lampposts in low-hanging fog. Oxford is notoriously brutal on mental health — in second year, I got used to being woken at 4am by my own hands shaking — and several friends were formally punished for succumbing to stress and self-harming. In my first year, after a bout of depression culminated with me dropping a grade, a disciplinary meeting placed me on probation. (‘Other options’ were hinted at in ominous passing.) To my embarrassment, I still nurse a quiet grudge against that tutor. Then again, I suppose I hid things well. During the year I lived in a block of college-owned flats, the site manager said I’d impressed him: ‘I’ve never had you on suicide watch.’ There was, as I recall, an Excel sheet.

In the years since, I’ve learnt how to deal with being depressed. The new thing is anxiety. Since starting out with this journal, I’m noticing how often I’m anxious — particularly about work, or what passes for it. On Tuesday I was anxious about whether I’d write a first post; on Wednesday, about burning out. Yesterday’s post, about getting into the groove of things, wasn’t anxious, but now I’m worrying about letting the schedule slip. Noticing progressive lateness never helped remedy it in the past. I’d like to believe I’m invested enough by now to stick the month out — I certainly mean to — but I’ve given up second-guessing my own brain. At least I’m noticing the fear now. There’s a cliché about realising you have a problem, and on that front, I already feel somewhat better.

Ten to midnight. Phew.

V. After Class

I’m watching Class, the Doctor Who spin off by Patrick Ness. Like the creatures that roam his books, it’s a strange beast. Originally asked to write for Who, Ness has a gift for making the familiar sinister, and the series’ best asset is its mood. ‘Do you know the feeling of dread?’ one main character asks, referring both the night terrors stalking his sixth form and to adolescence itself. (‘Teen angst’, another asserts, ‘is a pejorative phrase.’)

There’s a lot wrong with Class: from the get go, it’s apparent that Ness, a novelist, hasn’t written television before. The pilot episode attempts to spin ten plates at once, something more feasible in print, while the best yet, a tale of grief and folk music set entirely at night, thrives on being pared down. Not all the main characters work: stretching the drama thin, there are six when there should be four or five. (We simply don’t spend enough time with Charlie, the awkward alien prince, for Greg Austin to portray shades of grey, so the character’s mood swings from caring to barbed feel forced.) For every zinger — these come thick and fast from Katherine Kelly’s anarchist — there’s a joke that doesn’t quite land. And yet.

I like Class mostly because I want to; critics seem to feel the same. Half way through series one, it has yet to make good on its premise, but the glimpses of what it wants to be deserve a second run. Ness is helped out by the wave of good will toward his show: between fans of his books and Whovians starved of a spin-off for five years — indeed, this year, of their main attraction — viewers want to see Class succeed. For now, I do as well.

If anything tempers my willingness to wait and see, it’s the choice to give an entire spin off to a writer with no TV credits. Unlike the cast of Class, almost all Doctor Who’s writers look much like Patrick Ness, who was approached after success in an industry that favours people like him: it’s hard to see the same trust being placed in an equally green woman or writer of colour. None of that diminishes his talent, or the quality of his show, but I wonder about the unmade spin-offs as good as Class or better.

I like it, though.

VI. Getting Out

When you come out, there are meant to be tears and piano chords. You’re meant to do it as a teenager: sit down with mum and dad and break the news, promise it wasn’t a choice, cry a bit. Then they’re meant to tell you they accept you — that it’s just who you are, and they’ve known for a while, and God didn’t make you this way to punish you. If they don’t disown you, they’re being wonderful, and you give them however long they need to deal with it. It’s best not to deviate from the script: you’re expected to be vulnerable. You’re not allowed to be complex.

Before ending contact, I never managed to come out — partly because it was never a secret I was queer, mostly because my mum was an emotionally abusive narcissist. When she did grill me over it, at ten and eleven and seventeen and eighteen and nineteen and twenty-one and twenty-two, I wasn’t cooperative; using the word queer was only part of that. I have a sexuality no one has ever been able to guess because most don’t know it exists; I do experience it as a choice and not a natural state; I find the line between heteronormative parenting and psychological abuse blurry, and I think coming out normalises erasure and commonly prioritises straight parents’ comfort over their queer kids’ safety. Also, I’m an atheist. Whoops.

I didn’t come out — I got out. The end of that relationship proved to be a respite from a parent who weaponised every vulnerability. When my mum told me gay people went to heaven, it felt like one more invalidation of my choice to exit her faith. When she told me she was okay with who I was — I hadn’t asked, though it was a step up from ‘what you are’ — it felt like an attempt to get close enough to hurt me. For a long time I felt guilty for keeping the queer side of me at arm’s length from my mum, ashamed of having felt vulnerable, even of having been ashamed. Recently, the most freeing realisation has been that being a demanding and impossible-to-talk-to queer — being queer at all under that roof — allowed me to carve out a space too alien for my abuser to enter.

I didn’t keep that from my mum because it made me vulnerable. It kept her out because it made me powerful.

VII. Copy Writing

I have a prurient habit: when in the mood to write, I retype things I admire. Scroll through my folder of unpublished drafts and you’ll find whole facsimiles of other people’s work, most recently a stretch from Zadie Smith’s new book about dancers and writing style. Further down are Jess Row’s New Republic essay about white novelists; the gay liberation pamphlet I quoted last Thursday; a five-part work of slash fiction by a fan of The Flash, and both the first and final drafts of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘One Art’. (Writers are told to read widely. I like to think I do.)

I don’t know when I first did it or why — only that re-ingesting things this way helps me relax. It’s also made me pay more attention. The Internet’s endless distractions encourage skimming, but retyping an existing text requires you to read it closely; like wax on a headstone, it shows every contour. When I do it, I notice which lines jar in my own voice; punctuation marks I’d leave out; how no two writers sound the same and why each sounds the way they do. I think that’s made my own writing stronger. Then, of course, there’s geometry.

I pause here to note I’ve succumbed once again to eight-line paragraphs. (I’d broken free of them this month, but they’re seductive beasts.) Part of the pleasure of duplicating posts from other platforms is playing with the shape of them: seeing how Medium enjambs things differently, how paragraphs get remoulded. I’m frankly obsessed with all that, to a degree I doubt could be called neurotypical, and part of the allure of posting here is knowing where each line will end on being published. WordPress’s awkward edit screen can’t hold a candle to that thrill.

VIII. The Hellmouth

I’ve been nervous since late last night. Folding my laptop shut for bed, its calendar icon jumped out at me — reading, in tiny script, Nov 8.

I’m not from the US, but I have enough contacts there to have picked up the mood. Friends on Facebook have been posting all day, few of them really saying anything. Chatter like this must fill bunkers before bombs fall: having by now done all they can, people have nothing left to do but wait, and anything hurts less than the quiet. For the first time I can recall, the Internet sounds like a bunch of people on their phones. If everyone tweeting furiously were put in one hangar, you could hear a pin drop.

In the sequel to the first Ghostbusters, there’s a river of phlegm beneath under New York; venture too close and it’ll make you a danger to yourself and others. Throughout the film, the slime seeps up through pipes and pavement cracks, steering prams into roads and starting fights; eventually it coats entire buildings, a great reservoir of hate rising from under Manhattan. In the video for the movie’s theme, a certain billionaire strides out of his own tower. ‘Trump’, remarked Obama last month, ‘didn’t build the building himself. He just slapped his name on it and took credit for it. And that’s what’s happened in [his] party. All that bile — all the exaggeration, all the stuff that was not grounded in fact — just bubbled up.’

The Trump campaign is not best understood as politics. As successive debates made clear, politics isn’t what Trump is about. For his most hardened core of supporters — those who retweet their leader’s rants and were positively enthused by boasts about pussy-grabbing — Make America Great Again is about something deeper than goings-on at Washington, namely the urge to exhume every necrotic idea presumed to have been laid to rest last century. Trump is only the electoral face of a movement with many more, most of them equally bleach blonde; a byword for the promise that soon, very soon, no one will mind your confederate flag. You’ll be free to cheer the shootings of unarmed black kids and firebomb mosques, to drive women from public space in person or online, to call a cunt a cunt and a bitch a bitch and to resist the encroachment of faces unlike yours on TV and video games. In great-again America, no one will be prevented from speaking their mind — only from frowning when you do.

That movement won’t retreat after tonight. Even if Hillary Clinton routs Trump, you can’t kill an idea — or, if you can, someone can bring it back. When Trump’s supporters mounted a campaign against the Ghostbustersremake, it happened in the comment section of YouTube — till recently, a place where the net’s basest urges went to die. This year the pit under America sent something back, poison bubbling to the surface once more. In a few hours, we’ll know whether the slime has risen to the top.

IX. Twenty Sixteen

‘We shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.’

‘It’s all over and I’m standing pretty
In this dust that was a city.’

It keeps happening the same way. I turn the news on at kickoff hopeful that people did the decent thing. It’s close, but polls are favourable, and the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. First signs are mixed to good, although we’re told not to read into them. Then there’s a shock result — in Nuneaton, Sunderland, Ohio — and things begin to slide. By half past four I’ve chosen sleep over sitting through a drawn out defeat. Checking my phone on waking up quells any uncertainty I’ve clung to. That’s how it was last summer and this summer and last night, and now the US president elect is someone recommended by the klan.

I’m not American. I don’t have skin in this the way friends do. But today people on the train in east London were shaking and glancing about themselves, and I’ve been getting messages from queer friends who don’t want to be alone. It isn’t just about the city on a hill, the long shadow of US elections. It’s that what happened here has happened here. Across the continent, racism and nativism are taking hold: we’re getting used to the polls being wrong, a technocratic centre left collapsing to a conspiracist far right in its industrial strongholds. Anti-establishment, anti-globalist, post-factual — the votes that handed victory to Trump resemble those that delivered Brexit, and which are squeezing social democrats across Europe. If Washington can fall, what hope is there?

The Doomsday Clock has been at three minutes to midnight for the last two years, its most precarious angle since 1988. In January, when the clock is reset, Donald Trump will receive the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, with every branch of US government controlled by a party that yearns to build more bombs. Fiftysomethings I know tell me they haven’t feared nuclear strikes this much since the Cold War was at its peak. Of course, there are more conventional ways to die.

Just as after the Brexit vote, attacks on minorities are going to spike. There will be more queerbashings, more trans women killed, more black kids shot by police and licenced gun owners; more Pulses, more Charlestons, more Santa Barbaras. Muslims and Jews already have reason to be afraid, and — wall or not — things will get worse for immigrants. As results came in overnight, suicide hotlines for queer youth were reportedly swamped. Trump’s incoming VP Mike Pence advocates public funds for the same so called therapy that led to Leelah Alcorn’s death, and I know far too many people who’ve discussed ideation today. I worry for them and myself.

I admit: I’ve thought about giving in. In the six months after David Cameron’s reelection, I went through my worst spell of mental health as an adult. In the US, I sense Cameron was eyed as the kind of conservative the GOP needed more of: progressive and pro-gay, someone at home in a room with Obama and Clinton. As I’ve explained to American friends, the UK hadno Obama: here, under the Cameron governments, the crash of 2008 was answered with a programme of austerity the Tea Party would have approved. Its impact on poor, queer and disabled people (as well as the country at large) has been catastrophic. Thousands have died.

I’m a homeless mentally ill millennial, raised on a council estate by a single mum on benefits. I voted for Jeremy Corbyn twice, and would have voted for Sanders during the primary. The Tory Party is the sum of everything I hate and that has ever hated me: I struggle to name anything I wouldn’t do to injure it. Last summer I found myself wondering how long I’d take to join its ranks. Over the preceding decade, Cameron had won every major democratic contest in the UK: the majority he achieved that May, as unexpected as Trump’s path to the White House, seemed to spell neverending defeat for the left. That’s how they get you, I recall being struck — not by waiting for you to grow up and drift to the right, but by making you desperate just for once to be on the winning team.

I don’t know how many of my friends will still be alive four years from now. I don’t know whether I’m going to be. Hurting myself isn’t something I want to do — hasn’t been for a decade plus — but I don’t know how many more defeats I can survive.

X. Mood Music

Today I don’t know what to write. It’s the first time I’ve felt that way since starting this journal; actually, since much earlier. (When I had writer’s block, I knew what I wanted to say — sentences just weren’t forming. Now I have the opposite problem.) I’d forgive anyone who took time off right now, but that’s not how a regimen of daily writing works.

For the past week, I’ve noticed my posts have been getting less introspective, becoming about things when I began writing about nothing. I’m giving myself permission not to fret over that, and instead to let the output go where it wants. In a similar vein, I’m taking tonight’s lack of impetus as a sign I don’t have that much to say. There are a million half-thoughts about the election swimming round my brain, of course, but either they’re still nebulous or I don’t want to dwell on them. (In a lot of cases, it’s both.) I’m letting myself be okay with that as well.

I’m concerned about bipolar feelings right now. Specifically, I’m worrying about not being more worried. Yesterday morning I was just shellshocked and despondent; today I’ve been more centred, with a sense of work to do. (The Trump presidency, I’m realising, is the crisis I’ve waited for all my adult life.) I’m scared of the restlessness being hypomanic, or, conversely, of the calm festering into long-term lethargy. I was in one of those a month ago, but managed to break out of it by doing this. I have hope that continuing to write — even just mood music — will do me good.

XI. American Songbook

‘There’s a fire in the priory
And it’s ruining this cocktail party’

I’ve had the same song in my head all day. Last night’s sense of unstable calm has given way to skittishness, and I’ve not been able to write the post I wanted to. Right now, thoughts all over the place, I’m too scattered to concentrate, and I’m accepting that — so here’s the song.

I was thirteen when I first heard Rufus Wainwright. YouTube and Spotify didn’t exist back then: if you hadn’t figured out mp3, you had to watch TV. I watched Jools Holland’s programme because my dad did. His taste in music was gayer than he was — gayer, I sense in hindsight, than he felt allowed to let me be — and when one episode featured Wainwright, he outed himself as a fan. ‘Waiting for a Dream’ is a song about the Bush era, written after Iraq and released in November 2004, whose lyrics mention an ogre in the Oval Office and hint at homophobia. ‘It’s about the screwed up world we live in,’ Wainwright remarked, ‘and how everything’s going to be awful in the future.’

A lot happened in 2004. That was the year I first came out at school, and more importantly, when I started buying records. (On seeing Wainwright on Later again, covering Marlene Dietrich with Burt Bacharach, I begged my sister for Want Two. It remains one of my favourite albums, and in my eyes his best.) I was aware enough of world events back then to get the references, but it only registers now how much of the music I listened to playing Jedi Knight was about the USA’s moral fall. Also in my CD pile was Morrissey’s You Are the Quarry — ‘America,’ its first track snarls, ‘you know where you can shove your hamburger’ — and 2004 was the year American Idiot came out, all colour draining from the US flag in the title song’s video.

I took all that for granted at the time, but having turned eighteen in 2009, I’ve spent my adult life with Obama in the White House. Frankly, I forgot how things were when the world hated the US. Its next head of state will be infinitely worse than Bush, and although it’ll be a good four years for satirists (if no one else), I’m only just wondering where popular music will go. Please, USA, give me something to sing about.

XII. Down Time

Yesterday was the first post to miss the midnight deadline (by more than a few minutes, anyway). I’m not going to obsess over that — at the moment, my focus is making sure every day in November gets a post, not fixating on the exact timing, and part of why I’m doing it at all is to stop stressing over the process. It’s already made me notice how my own output fluctuates in line with what my brain’s doing, and I’m struck that nothing is coming easily this week. For the first time since starting the journal, I’m building up a back log of unfinished posts. The ones I’m publishing probably won’t be ones I revisit or view as the best, but again, part of the point is letting myself post things that aren’t my greatest work ever. This week I’m thankful for still being able to write at all.

In Missouri, Skepticon is going on right now. From the hashtag, I gather Greta Christina gave a talk about self-care after the Trump victory, and I’m reminded of one line from an old post of hers: ‘frivolous pleasures make the big things possible’. I feel like I’m in a week of duvet days, keeping it together with trivial pursuits while trying not to do too much. Right now, small things are all that make anything possible. Friends have been hosting threads about how they’re staying afloat. For me it’s cake, slash fiction and blankets, tea (Earl Grey, hot) and Mallory Ortberg. Fleur Adcock; Nigel Slater; Orwell’s defence of English cooking; Connor Manning. Playing BioShock; playing Arkham City. Superheroes on the CW. Just a Minute. GBBO. Project Runway. Strictly.

There exists a large section of the left — earnest, engaged and invariably male — that dislikes fun: only the struggle, it insists, should be enjoyed. Most of its disciples aren’t struggling, and this week I want them to shut up like never before. In a week when the klan are doing victory laps, I’d like to believe I can have nice things, if only so as not to die; would like to think people can be politically aware without concentrating every waking moment on how all their worst nightmares just came true. It wasn’t just meetings and street marches that made gay liberation possible: it was disco and drag balls and ridiculous outfits. Queer communities learnt long ago that lifting each other’s spirits is part of an effective politics, and downtime is a lifesaver for those us too mad for capitalism. Without comics and games and silly TV shows, I wouldn’t be a firebrand right now. I would be a blithering, sobbing wreck.

XIII. Apocalypse Always

‘On November 8 we lost a world that was made up partly of illusion, partly of work and partly of hope.’

It’s summer 2002. I’ve just turned eleven, and because it’ll be another year before my mum has her own car, we’re being driven somewhere by her best friend, whose niece is in the back with me and whose tape deck is stocked with contemporary Christian music. The niece is younger than I am, and at some point she asks if I know what my job is yet. I haven’t given it much thought. ‘My job,’ she says, ‘is to bring children into the holy spirit.’

Eight out of ten white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, a third more than for Mitt Romney in 2012. In megachurch America, a cryptofascist of dubious faith is still better than a Mormon; you don’t have to be saved, Jerry Falwell Jr. remarked on election night, to be God’s chosen candidate. I grew up with Christians who thought along those lines, praying to a god who used you, hard and without safewords, to further his designs. Everyone had an assigned destiny: family members were called to do mission work, and I knew church wives who saw childrearing as something they were born to do, children who were taught how to pray in tongues for their role in the coming culture wars. It may not make encouraging reading, but there was some comfort in knowing you had a purpose.

friend of mine died a few weeks ago. If you follow my other blog, you probably heard about it. Niki was thirty-five, and chaperoned patients into and out of abortion clinics. She was an activist for humanism and reproductive justice, an author of nonfiction and erotica, an atheist from a religious family, a black woman who asked her friends never to call the police on her behalf. She was queer—bi and ace, like me—as well as mentally ill and physically disabled, and as a result of all the above, was food-stamps poor. ‘I firmly believe’, she said once, ‘that just being a minority in America is a traumatising experience.’ Niki didn’t survive the Obama presidency, and part of me is glad she didn’t live to see Trump win.

I don’t know how many of my friends will still be alive four years from now, I wrote this week. I don’t know whether I’m going to be. The election result hasn’t helped anybody’s long-term odds. ‘You and your friends will die of old age,’ a staffer reportedly yelled at DNC leaders, ‘and I’m going to die from climate change.’ It doesn’t feel hyperbolic to ask if the Trump win has doomed us all — to environmental degradation, dictatorship, nuclear war. For the first time, I feel armageddon looming the way my parents did decades ago; the acute sense of my life expectancy being shaved.

At twenty-five, I’m already older than I ever planned for. As long as I can remember, things have been on the brink. I was homeless before my first birthday; grew up with a parent who once tried to kill me; attempted suicide during GCSEs; spent university reeling from the impact. I’ve been homeless for the last year, cut off from family, with cycles of depression and anxiety. I’m realising the toll of all of this on my physical health.

As one Tumblr user puts it in a now-viral post (emphasis mine):

Being mentally ill and suicidal at a young age (before eighteen) is strange, because you grow up with this idea that one day you’ll finally snap, turn off, be brave enough to kill yourself, so you don’t really plan for the future. Adulthood — further life — isn’t for you[.] It isn’t part of your life plan. And then before you know it you’re eighteen and you’re an adult but you never thought you’d get this far and sure it’s great that you’re still alive you guess but also you feel so alone and lost in a world you never expected or planned to be a part of. All my life, the world has been ending.

I turned eighteen the year Obama took office. I’ve been on autopilot since, drifting through the world doing nothing except survive, with no sense of a purpose driven life. The world has always been ending for me — perhaps it was always ending for Niki too — and I’ve never known how to do much more than stay alive. Now, as 2016 draws to a close, I’m scared, and I’m desperate, and I’m fine.

If the world is a stage, people my age came in during the interval. Our childhoods were spent between the fall of a wall in Berlin and that of two skyscrapers in New York, when history still seemed to be over, and we grew up informed we had no need of politics. Until this week, those of us forced to acquire them were still being told there was no point: that liberalism had won out, that the nuclear question was settled; that white supremacy was over and the glass ceiling a fantasy; that gay people could even get married. Then the US elected Donald Trump.

From January, the world will answer to a man whose fans spell his name with a swastika, whose fondness for sexual assault is public knowledge all over the world, but who won the White House with no experience of government — beating a woman with decades of it, whose emails damaged her campaign more than confessing to a crime hurt his. As neoliberalism’s wheels come off, migrants in Europe and America are under fire — increasingly literal — from people who voted to build a wall, and in the fallout of Trump’s election, those who say nuclear bombs keep us safe should tell us: how safe do they feel?

If you had any politics before this week — leftist, feminist, anti-racist, queer — you had to argue for their relevance, expected to make your case to a world not quite convinced anyone still needed ideas like those. Now, from the other side of a mostly-red map, that argument is in the ground.

The Trump presidency is my generation’s crisis — our First World War, our depression, our Jim Crow, our nazism, our red scare; our Stonewall, our Vietnam, our AIDS, our 9/11. It’s the crisis I’ve been waiting for all my adult life, failing to concentrate on anything but survival, clinging on for dear life to politics the world seemed to find quaint. My generation wasn’t meant to be political, but now that everyone’s world is ending, it has no choice. Those of us who’ve been fighting all along never had one to begin with.

Today I know what my job is. My life from this week on is about what it’s always been about: keeping my head above water, handing out as many life jackets as I can. Now, that’s what it’s allowed to be about: pushing back against everything that managed to win on Tuesday, the reservoir of fear and fascism that rose up through the cracks this year but ran beneath us all along. I don’t know whether I’ll get out of it alive — either the next decade or whatever version of armageddon follows it — but until then, I can deal with that. My world’s always been ending, after all.

XIV. Trouble Sleeping

Since my mid teens, I’ve had a non-twenty-four body clock. In summary, my sleeping hours don’t line up with the movement of the earth: on a planet that took an extra hour to rotate, I’d go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, but because my circadian rhythm is longer than it’s meant to be, my natural pattern is to fall asleep an hour later every night and wake later in the morning. That’s a cycle, which means my sleeping hours rotate, normally taking about a fortnight to realign. For a few of those days, I’m keeping the same hours as everybody else; for a different few, I’m a vampire. It comes and goes to an extent: I was like this continuously from GCSEs to the time I left university, and while I’ve slept normally through spring and summer over the last three years, it kicks in especially hard once the days get shorter. (The core of the problem, apparently, is that my brain doesn’t interpret daylight properly, so it doesn’t help when there’s less of it to begin with.)

At its most aggressive, non-24 is debilitating; in some places, you can claim disability if affected badly enough. If you’ve had jet lag, think about what having it all the time would be like. Missing out on hours of sleep you need and going to work exhausted; struggling not to collapse throughout the day; injuring yourself due to not being alert; feeling dizzy; living with a permanently upset stomach from eating at — for you — the wrong times. When your body clock works the way mine does, that’s what straitjacketing yourself into ordinary sleeping hours is like. (Because it’s unsustainable, it also doesn’t help. When I need to be awake in the day, I’ve learned to rotate my sleeping hours faster, so I’m at the right point in my cycle. Of course, that doesn’t work for long.) There’s a considerable subculture of people with non-24, which is known to be underdiagnosed; when people are told about it, they often realise they they know someone who exhibits signs. Lots of writers are sufferers — or rather, I suspect, lots of sufferers are writers — and references pop up now again in different texts. In one popular work of Harry Potter fan fiction, the hero travels back in time an hour every day to negate the effects. I can’t say I’m not envious.

At the moment, I’m sleeping from early morning to early afternoon. I’ve been missing midnight these last few posts because my brain is wrong about what time it is. (It’s currently approaching 1am, and this week that’s late afternoon.) It’s not the end of the world missing a deadline I imposed on myself, but I’d like to get back on track. Either tonight or sometime soon, I’ll be publishing two of these within the small hours — one for the day before, one for the day ahead. After that, I’ll be more on top of things.

XV. House Keeping

You may have noticed I didn’t put up a post last night. Technically this is yesterday’s, and I’ll be doing two tonight to get caught up. I had a brush with anxiety that kept me from writing, but that’s what the other entry is going to be about. For now, some housekeeping.

I’ve created a publication for all this month’s posts, so there’s a self contained journal to house all the entries. When December arrives, I’ll probably publish the whole thing on my other blog as one long post — I’m curious how it’ll read formatted as an omnibus, and stats tell me most of the people who follow me there aren’t seeing this journal. One of the most therapeutic aspects of writing it has been allowing myself to disregard the traffic and post what’s on my mind — part of why I’ve stuck with two-word titles is that they keep the hitcount down — but some of the updates are pieces I’m proud of having written, and I’d like to share them around.

I’m especially pleased with Sunday’s post, about the strange mix of fear and validation I’ve felt since Tuesday. It’s not perfect — there are ideas that didn’t make it in, others that could be more fully explored, some that don’t connect in the way they could, and as with several of these log entries, it might serve as the skeleton of something more expansive in future — but for a few hours’ work, I think it’s some of my best. Writing on Medium has helped a lot: I’ve mentioned liking how things look here, but the fact publishing is so much faster than on WordPress greatly oils the wheels.

I’m strongly considering keeping up daily posts after this month — not in the same wheelhouse as these, but in one form or another. I haven’t worked out the mechanics of that yet — where I’d do it and how I’d balance different commitments. (In particular, I’m concerned about fitting longer and more commercial writing into my schedule.) But I’m aware that, election or no, I’m in far ruder mental health this month than I’ve been for most of the year, and almost all of that is due to doing this. I think that bodes well for productivity in future, and I don’t want to let it die.

XVI. Loose Ends

I have an old jumper I can’t let go. It’s long since been unwearable, and for most of this year has languished at the bottom of a large rucksack. I fish it out now and again to try and persuade myself to bin it, only to end up stuffing it back down. It hasn’t been donatable for years: woven from a loose knit, it’s lost its shape the way wool does, too baggy and too short at the same time; the left elbow is now more hole than sleeve, and enough threads hang loose that if any of them were pulled, the whole garment might unravel. But I can’t throw it out. Even after wearing the thing to death I cling to hopes of saving it, hiring someone perhaps to darn the holes or rework it into a scarf. It’s quite ridiculous, but I can’t say goodbye.

It was early 2014 when I got that jumper — a gift from the January sales just before I left England for Berlin. My mum was never all that good at picking out presents — in retrospect, a sign of how much of myself I kept from her — but some time between Christmas and New Year she saw ordered it after seeing me windowshop. It snowed in Berlin till late March that year: I wore the jumper nearly every day, sharing it with whoever I was sleeping with, a piece of home I couldn’t do without. Even in its sorry state now it means too much to get rid of, the last physical remnant of a lost relationship. In thrift store speak it would be called well loved. I can’t tell if love or denial keeps me attached to it — but of course, that was always my problem.

XVII. Carrying On

I’ve been slacking. I last posted here ten days ago, and I was behind schedule then: to achieve thirty posts in November, I now need to publish fourteen over two days. At the moment that feels achievable — if I don’t manage thirty, I’m confident-ish I can do twenty-five — but a couple of weeks ago I felt certain I wouldn’t miss a day, so feelings might not be much to go on. For now I’m just splurging, because the sooner I finish this post, the more quickly the rest will come. (I’d like to put the last one up by midnight on Wednesday, but I’m not being fussy at this point.)

I’m not sure why I fell off the wagon. There are a few factors I could point to, but none of them feel important. Frankly, I’ve been finding it tough to stick at anything this month. One of the upsides of a brain on permanent apocalypse-standby is that I’m a coper — while a lot of people I know have struggled to keep going since election night, I’m adaptable to an unhealthy extent — but for the last three weeks, focusing has felt like more work. My attention span is shorter than it was a month back: I’m finding I don’t have the energy for reading Facebook posts more than a paragraph in length, or working on the same thing for five minutes without jumping between apps. That’s been making it hard to get things done.

Writing thirty short posts like this over a month shouldn’t be challenging. The fact I’m finding it so difficult shows how much my writing muscles have atrophied this year. You’re reading the pained wheeze of a couch potato during the first pushup. (Write about what you know, they say.) What I’m taking from that is that I’m doing the right thing. Part of me has felt bad about not covering the big stuff recently, but the truth is that journalling is what I’m currently capable of. The only way out is through — or, to put it another way, I’m only going to get back to full writing strength by doing more of this. I’m all but decided that I’m going to keep at it in December, if only to reach a point where I don’t skip days.

In the mean time, back to it.

XVIII. Crunch Time

On the shelf next to me, there’s a cup of iced coffee with the strength of several espressos. A few months back, when I was keeping more ordinary sleeping hours, I weaned myself off this stuff, but for the next eight hours I expect I’ll be drinking quite a lot of it.

It’s quarter past four in the afternoon, and I’ve been awake since eleven o’clock last night — that’s where my circadian rhythm is right now. I’m determined to get as many posts put up tonight as possible, with ten a target and fifteen an ideal. After that, I’ll sleep for a week.

In actual fact, what tends to happen when I stretch myself like this is that my brain’s rotation back to normal sleeping hours gets thrown off-course. I expect — hope — to go to bed after midnight and wake up midmorningish tomorrow, but whether I do the same thing on Thursday night is anyone’s guess. That isn’t what’s happened in the past.

I have a few half-written posts I can probably finish off tonight, and a few short ones I should be able to write without difficulty; I’ve been at work on one of the bigger ones for a few hours now. Mostly, this one’s my way of kicking myself into gear and actually clicking Publish on something.

XIX. Five Recs

Someone less televisually inclined than me recently asked what shows and films I’d recommend. I had a lot of responses, because of course I did, but eventually got it down to five. Since they were suggestions for one person, who doesn’t spend as much time as I do at the entertainment-critic end of the Internet, I expect many of the people who read me already familiar with most of them — but I liked what I said about them enough to want to share it. Here are the five things I endorsed.

It was about a year ago Jessica Jones came out. Like Marvel’s other Netflix shows, it takes place in the same world as The Avengers but not in the same part of it. At the cinema, Marvel is colourful and funny and family friendly; Netflix is where adapts the darker, more adult stories from its comic lines.

Jessica Jones is written and directed mostly by women, and it shows: it’s about PTSD and alcoholism and misogyny and the aftermath of relationship abuse, and it received a lot of praise for how it deals with those. While Game of Thrones and Outlander have been criticised for gratuitous, pornographic portrayals of rape, Jessica Jones doesn’t depict sexual violence: it depicts the survivors and the ways their lives have been affected in the long run. It’s not a series everyone can watch, though most who do love it — and you won’t look at David Tennant the same way again.

This autumn, one of the characters from Jessica Jones got his own show. Luke Cage is about a black man who’s experimented on in prison and becomes bulletproof as a result. Marvel describes its Netflix as small-scale stories about heroes who ‘save the neighbourhood’ rather than the world, and Luke Cage is set in Harlem with an almost entirely nonwhite cast. Ever since marathoning the series, I’ve wanted to write about it.

So many comic book narratives are about Nietzschean supermen rising above their society — think Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne and other ‘extraordinary individuals’ — but Luke Cage is a story about a community. Its heroes and villains are people everyone in the area knows by name, and the tension derives from who the barbershop owners and musicians and immigrants are going to side with. It’s about what being a legitimate superhero means when you’re someone police are more likely to shoot at than see as the good guy. (At one point, black men in Luke’s neighbourhood take to wearing bullet-holed hoodies as a show of solidarity.) I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Harlem’s literary culture last century, and although part of the point of Luke Cage is that it wasn’t made for me, there’s much present that I adore, including an amazing score. In addition, Alfre Woodard has one extremely memorable scene.

If you’re after an adult take on comic books but not a grown up one, Deadpool might be for you. Equally, it might not: it’s the sort of film you either have a taste for or don’t.

In the world of Marvel comics, Deadpool is an unstoppably snarky mercenary who knows he’s in a comic book and makes fun of his own stories. The character is a favourite with a lot of fans, but for a long time was seen as too risky for a big adaptation, and the producers worked for years to make the film happen: Fox only greenlit it when test footage was ‘leaked’ and reactions were enthusiastic. (It went on to become a hit.) The trailer above is probably the best preview: in a nutshell, expect over the top violence, bad taste and eighties pop washed down with quips and extreme silliness. I loved it, with the odd criticism, but not everybody has to.

Stranger Things is by far my favourite new series this year. A lot of people feel the same, to the extent I’d be surprised if anyone still hasn’t heard of it — but if you’re that person, this is for you. Despite all my best efforts to find fault, I found this show to be flawless.

Stranger Things is a sci-fi-horror-fantasy serial, just eight episodes and all the better for it, about a missing child in a small midwestern town during the nineteen eighties. (Winona Ryder plays the mother.) Everything about the series is beautiful, and it plays like a love letter to Steven Spielberg and Stephen King and John Carpenter. Without becoming any less of its own thing, almost every frame is a reference to something: a better advertisement than any of the trailers is the amazing title sequence. While it’s more than worth it, there are bits — particularly toward the start — that I wish I hadn’t watched late at night. To quote one scene:

‘Ninety-nine times out of a hundred a kid goes missing, the kid is with a parent or relative.’

‘What about the other time?’

I talk no end about why In The Flesh is amazing. (I refuse to say ‘was’.) If you liked it, you might like Penny Dreadful too, which ran for three shortish series before coming to an end earlier this year.

Dreadful is written by John Logan, whose work I often appreciate (he’s probably best known for writing the last two Bond films), and features a cast of Victorian ghouls: Frankenstein, Dracula, Doctor Jekyll, Dorian Gray and the Wolfman all exist and meet each other in this story, but there’s much more going on, and much more depth and intellect than normally survives that sort of monster-mash. Like Flesh, it’s a distinctly queer take on the horror genre, and although Penny Dreadful has a different aesthetic (high gothic rather than kitchen sink drama), the two shows share many of the same themes: mortality, sexuality, gender, religion, insanity, identifying with the monster. It also has an astonishing cast — Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, Billie Piper, Rory Kinnear, Helen McCrory, Simon Russell Beale, Patti LuPone — who all bring their individual A-games.

There are other series I have more complex emotions about: Westworld, rounding off its first season, in which Anthony Hopkins proves he’s still top of his game; Humans, a more domestic exploration of similar themes, based on but better than a Swedish hit; Outlander, which I love except when I don’t (see above); Black Mirror, especially the new run, which by its nature varies week-to-week; and the Doctor Who spinoff Class, which I’ve had a love/hate reaction to, but whose last episode convinced me it can make good on its promises. But the five recs about are the things I like unreservedly — almost, at any rate.

XX. Super Queer

Before superheroes were everywhere — before box office juggernauts and shared universes and crossovers — there was Smallville on the WB. I was ten when it premiered, and watched the first two seasons like clockwork. I don’t remember how it fell off my radar — I have a feeling Channel 4 stopped airing it in the UK, and this was before all TV shows were online — but a few years ago I marathoned the entire run.

Smallville isn’t the greatest show: for most of its ten years on air, nothing really happens, and it suffers from being made when producers were still afraid of going full comic book. (Clark Kent can’t fly. Nobody wears a proper supersuit. Kryptonite starts out being called ‘meteor rock’.) It has its moments though, one of which has been on my mind.

In one of the earlier episodes, Clark, who moves fast enough to stop bullets, meets a boy about his own age who outruns him. Bart is Smallville’s take on the Flash, and the story is about Clark’s response to meeting someone else like him for the first time. Preparing to leave town in the last scene, Bart notes how fast and strong Clark is and invites him to come along; Clark invites him to stay. When Bart says that he has no reason to, Clark tells him ‘You have me’ — and then runs after him. Just as he’s about to catch Bart, the other boy turns back to grin, then speeds away, ten times faster than Clark will ever be. Clark grinds to a halt in the dust, staring in amazement. Then he just smiles.

The scene plays like an over-the-top teen romance because it is — commenters on YouTube observe how obvious it is that Clark’s smitten — but even the writers don’t seem to have noticed. You wouldn’t think anyone could miss it, but Smallville is insistently heterosexual: in its full run of 218 episodes, only two minor characters are explicitly anything but straight, and one of them is killed. This isn’t queerbaiting: it’s a series from 2001 that never caught on to the existence of diverse sexuality enough to exploit it, let alone to depict it realistically. The showrunners aren’t milking this scene to tease their audience: they really are that oblivious.

Fast forward to 2016 and things seem rather different. But are they?

When Smallville ended, the WB had become the CW. Adaptations of DC comic books now air on the network four nights a week, with an ambitious ‘crossover event’ currently in progress. The participating series — Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow — share a team of writers led by Greg Berlanti, and feature an array of queer characters. This month, after Berlanti’s announcement a prominent character would come out, Alex Danvers — adoptive sister of Kara Zor-El on Supergirl — has pursued a relationship with Maggie Sawyer, an out lesbian in the comics. When the character gave a speech about her troubled sexual history, praise for Chyler Leigh’s performance trended on Twitter. It’s not hard to see why.

Supergirl’s problem is with its main character. In its first season, the series launched a series of contrived love interests in Kara’s direction, none of which stuck: a love triangle involving James Olsen and Winn Schott was wisely ditched this year, while a suitor played by Melissa Benoist’s real-life husband failed to make an impact. A new addition to the cast is superpowered Mon-El, a native of Krypton’s sister planet with whom Kara has more convincing chemistry — but he’s not the one fans want her to date.

In Monday’s episode, Supergirl saves the life — not for the first time — of Lena Luthor, intercepting a concrete block tossed at her by a rampaging cyborg. After the credits rolled, this moment trended on Twitter as well, with fans shipping the two under the hashtag #QueerEl.

In other episodes, Kara vaporises flying objects with heat vision; here she lands in its path, arms crossed at the wrist like Wonder Woman and shoulders wide, forcing the cement to shatter. We’a seen Superman do this countless times, and everything about the shot emphasises Kara is just as strong and indestructible as her more famous male cousin. And more often than not, when he saves a woman like this, it’s Lois Lane.

Played by Katie McGrath, this version of Lena Luthor is no more a damsel than Lois is, and pairing her with Supergirl would be symbolic. In the scenes where civilian-Kara interviews her, it becomes clear both women are struggling to emerge from the shadow of the men in their families. Supergirl is a show about female relationships: Kara and Alex, Kara and Cat Grant, the Danvers sisters and their mother and the women of the House of El. Why shouldn’t its hero be in a female relationship? And when so many fans see a spark between Kara and Lena, why don’t the showrunners?

When news broke that a character in the Arrowverse would come out, my money was on Alex Danvers — but I nursed a secret hope it would be someone else. Like Supergirl, The Flash has its share of queer background characters, including the local police captain and his fiancé and Andy Mientus as comics villain Pied Piper. But the background isn’t where I’m looking. I’m looking at Flash himself.

When Grant Gustin was first cast as Barry Allen — a different adaptation of the speedster from Smallville — men on the Internet complained. Gustin, a musical theatre performer, was best known at the time for playing a gay chorister on Glee, and — unlike John Wesley Shipp in 1990 — looked nothing like the traditional musclebound Flash of the source material. Neither did he look like Tom Welling or Stephen Amell, the CW’s two preceding superhero leads, with their square jaws and heavy frames — and when the series aired, it became evident that he wasn’t like them. Smallville’s Clark Kent and Arrow’s version of Oliver Queen had been brooding quarterback-type orphans, but Barry was a nerd who’d been picked on at school; whose defining trauma was the loss of his mom and not his dad; who had feelings about it and talked about them; who giggled and sang karaoke; who cried. The Flash’s version of Barry Allen is someone who, if he existed, would be used to being called a fag. Then there’s the love interests.

Like Kara and seemingly all CW heroes, Barry Allen has had a string of perfunctory straight romances thrust on him. When he first appeared on Arrow, a mutual attraction with Felicity Smoak was hinted at, then dropped; on his own show, recent episodes have acknowledged the writers’ uncertainty about what to do with Iris West, who despite being Barry’s foster sister exists solely as the object of his love. Why Barry and Iris are meant to be is never apparent: newspapers from the future — yes, really — just inform us they get married, and critics commonly observe that the characters scenes together never resonate the way they should. The only romantic interest Barry has chemistry with is Patty Spivot, a detective in the second season — but when Gustin is made to portray him as a player, faking blindness to coax Patty into taking his hand and kissing him, it feels off. In my head, Barry likes women just fine, but not the way straight men are supposed to. As easy as it is to see him and Kara going to bed, it’s just as easy to see them waking up and discussing boys, or to see him dating Pied Piper or Roy Harper or Winn Schott. In my head, Barry Allen is queer.

That’s what I hoped to see, but not what I thought would happen. While queers can now exist on the CW, we still don’t get to be the leads — even when the insistent straightness it forces on them rarely succeeds dramatically, and even when audiences see same-sex storylines emerging naturally from characters. With one possible exception, the Arrowverse’s queer characters — Alex and Maggie Sawyer on Supergirl, Pied Piper and Captain Singh on The Flash, Obsidian on Legends of Tomorrow — play secondary roles at best, having been conceived for the purpose of LGB representation: the only characters allowed same-sex interests are the ones put there to exhibit them, while everyone else’s straightness is cast iron. The finest example is Arrow’s Curtis Holt, whose gayness is almost wholly an informed attribute. The man he’s married to only appears for long enough to remind us that he exists, and we never find out what Curtis’s relationships are like; how he felt as a gay Olympian; how being gay and black might have made vigilantism imperative for him. Curtis is gay only to ensure viewers see gay characters — if we weren’t told, we wouldn’t know.

Better and worse examples both exist elsewhere. In Star Trek Beyond, Sulu is shown with a husband for no reason except to depict a same-sex relationship. Fifty years in, it’s better than nothing, but if producers really wanted to make Star Trek gay, they only had to make good on decades of fan commentary about Kirk and Spock. Conversely, Penguin’s sexuality in Gotham reflects everything he is — a maladjusted, emotionally fracturedperson clasping at adoration wherever it is — and he and Riddler are two of the show’s most prominent characters: the only flaw in their relationship is that it’s not allowed to come to fruition.

With the possible exception of Alex and Maggie, the Arrowverse’s best queers are lovers Sara Lance and Nyssa al-Ghul. Nyssa, a minor character in the comics, is shown here as heir to the League of Assassins, a woman of colour whose feelings for Sara invite her father’s displeasure, while Sara starts as a supporting character in Arrow’s second run, but now leads Legends of Tomorrow’s cast: her stories often take the time to ask what visiting the past must feel like for a bisexual woman. I want more storylines like theirs, and I want the CW to let the characters its shows are named after be queer. I want to see Supergirl and Lena Luthor dating and Barry Allen kissing boys and Barry Allen kissing girls and Oliver Queen avoiding relationships altogether. I want writers to show me queer relationships and not just tell me about them, and I want them to see the stories I can see. I want characters’ sexuality to be about their characterisation, and I want queerness to mean something, not just be a token in the background.

It’s about time — that Smallville episode was twelve years ago, after all.

XXI. Thetis (28.11.16)

On losing my voice I assume
that when you dipped me in the Styx
your hands must have been round my throat.

XXII. Size Matters

I know: that last post was only twenty-two words. On the other hand, the one before it was over seventeen hundred.

There’s something I’snoticed this month that’s been simmering in my subconscious a while: I feel guilty about writing anything under a certain length. Even the post from earlier tonight whose sole purpose was to get me into the right headspace for publishing was above two hundred words. Anything less than that feels shameful on some level, and I’m only able to feel better about it by writing something else longer than usual.

Part of this is the impostor syndrome a lot of writers get: while I rarely doubt my ability, I can’t shake the idea that longer posts are more respectable — more like proper writing. Most of it, though, is to do with how I get paid. For the last eighteen months, people who want to make it possible for me to write have been supporting me on Patreon. I’m enormously greatful for their generosity, and for the existence of Patreon itself. (One of the posts I’m always getting round to writing, one I might even write tonight, is about how Patreon has made my output better.) At the same time, one of the side effects has been that publishing anything very short feels like shortchanging my patrons.

I can think of a few reasons this isn’t logical. For one thing, it averages out: I’ve written several posts this month with four-digit word counts, which surely compensates. For another, writing short posts regularly has made it possible for me to write the longer ones. For another, the short posts I’ve written this month add up to a wordcount far exceeding my output from any previous month this year. For another, Patreon lets patrons limit how many posts they sponsor each month: by the time I’m on post twenty or twenty-five, I likely won’t be getting paid any more anyway.

But still.

XXIII. Six Beginnings

Like most writers, I have a long back catalogue of unfinished pieces. Many start well but don’t go anywhere, or else are going places before I lose momentum, but lots contain bits of writing I think deserve to see the light of day. As an exercise in editing and restructuring, I dug up six opening passages that led nowhere and tried arranging them as a sequence. Judge for yourself how well it went.

Berlin is warming up. It’s May 2015, two weeks after the British election, and I’ve spent the afternoon with another exile. Joe is older than me by a couple of years, shorter by half a foot and gawkier than his profile suggests; at some point, I must have decided not to mind. When the weather turns and we hide in a café, there’s a sense something might happen — but the two of us met online because even here, even now, it never just happens. ‘I’ve never properly told them about me being gay,’ Joe says when his parents come up, and on the last word his voice drops fractionally. You’d barely notice the hesitation — except, of course, I would.

I was about ten the first time you asked. After the watershed, there’d been a programme on about gay men in cinema — not The Celluloid Closet, but something in the same vein — and I’d amused myself while you watched Joe E. Brown falling for Jack Lemmon. After the credits rolled you perched in the doorway and looked at me like someone had died. ‘Are you gay?’

I’m meant to say you had me clocked, that as I burst out laughing and you stared helplessly back, it was a coverup for a deep and inevitable truth. I’m meant to offer this as proof you knew before I did, the way mums do — but that’s not what happened. When I remember being ten, I remember how paranoid you were about perverts; how dangerous it always was to give me ideas, and how exquisite your face looked with fear etched all over it.

Kids like me need Jesus. In Europe and America, surveys suggest those of us born after 1990 are both the least religious and least heterosexual generation since records began. This year I attended a talk by a Christian psychiatrist, who argued the sexual revolution had failed. It was no good, he said, to warn teenagers about homosexuality: among millennials, fluidity was now the norm. ‘That’s how it is with my daughter’s friends,’ a woman behind me groaned on the way out. ‘They’re all bisexual.’

Like most of my peers, I fall for people in all directions — not necessarily at the same time, in the same way or to the same degree, but without losing much sleep over it. Millennial sexuality is a fast and loose phenomenon: in a poll conducted last year, half of 18–24 year olds described themselves as less than totally heterosexual. The generation born after the end of history has bigger problems to contend with than the wrath of God, and between every crisis and the next, all we can do is care for each other.

I grew up in the church. When I was ten months old, a priest prayed that I’d know a life of constant fear, and for a decade and a half my mum and I lived below the poverty line, supported by churches we attended. The abuse I lived with — physical, spiritual, emotional — went a lot further than queer hate, and I’ve spent years getting to grips with it, principally in writing. After I got out at sixteen and found comfort in words like atheist, a clipping appeared on my mum’s pinboard, offering a consolatory list of biblical figures with lost children. Others have travelled the path before you, it said. Manoah lived through the suicide of his son.

I’ve spent most of this year processing a difficult truth. My mum was a narcissistic parent, the kind of caregiver whose children act as an extension of their personality and exist to make them feel good. In our relationship, that played out in a lot of ways, and there are stories I’ll tell in a different post — but one of the main ones was that she was a person you went out of your way never to upset. Every family fights, but our arguments weren’t about expressing needs: they were contests of emotional cruelty I usually lost. If you upset my mum, you paid for it, and if she upset you, you didn’t mention it in case it upset her.

One consequence of this is that when someone is upset with me, I have a hard time dealing with it well. In the past, after putting my foot in one social cowpat or another, I’ve had anxiety attacks and not been able to get out of bed. I’ve had flashbacks that made me relive every moment of poor judgement I can remember. I’ve felt sick and not been able to eat, and I’ve wanted to hurt myself. I’m working on not doing these things any more.

I’m trying to be kinder to myself. I’m trying to bear in mind that literally no one gets through their life without upsetting anyone; that the fact someone is upset with you doesn’t always mean you did something wrong, and that when I’ve done something wrong, fixating on self-punishment is selfish rather than compassionate: it doesn’t repair whatever damage was done, and it centres the situation around me. I’m trying to listen to people instead of dissociating. I’m trying not to apologise more than once. I’m trying to remember that someone I’ve hurt still doesn’t get to treat me however they like, and that I still get to expect fairness. I’m trying to learn how to acknowledge the harm, make whatever amends, then let myself think about something else. I’m trying to get better at living in my own head.

Ahead of me, a blonde woman splutters in industrial speed German. I can’t tell if it’s tobacco or air, but between bursts clouds rise from her nostrils, making her look like a pissed off steam train. The two of us have been here since the actual train failed to appear, and there must now be a hundred others on the platform, suitcases and strained expressions inches apart. Frau Blond has cornered the stationmaster, who soon retreats, and others are letting off steam as well. Along the concourse it wafts out of opened thermoses and lungs, sticking in the night air like thin, low hanging fog. Ten days into September Berlin’s cold snap has arrived, and the mist is hitting the fan.

Schöneweide is an industrial carcass, grubby and still ungentrified — an area, one ill advised marketing campaign, mit viel Potenzial — but it cleans up well when the rust and concrete freeze over. I learnt what Pendelverkehrwas when this was my station, though in four years I’ve never seen so much of it. It was ten o’clock when I left Neukölln, but reaching the airport will end up taking me till one. I’d be fuming, as my fellow would-be passengers are, but my flight doesn’t leave till the morning. I’m en route now partly to sleep inside the terminal, partly to make what Berliners call a Polish retreat, quitting town with a minimum of fuss.

XXIV. Archaic Torso

Since the head is nowhere to be seen,
you can’t meet the unanswerable gaze
of its ripe eyes, but a low burning stare
held back in the torso still flickers.

Without it that fine pectoral arch
wouldn’t blind you, nor the hips’ slow smile
curve its way toward the creative place
in the centre where everything begins.

Then the thing really would be defaced,
slumping its shoulders in plain sight
not glistening like a wild thing’s pelt

or supernovaing out of itself.
That’s its look, and not an inch of it
isn’t watching you. Now see to your life.

XXV. Two More

I’m just beginning to burn out, and by now drinking any more iced coffee would be the death blow my digestive tract craves. At quarter past eleven it seems safe to assume I’ll miss thirty posts, but with this and two more, I think I can reach twenty-five. That seems a satisfactory place to stop, and finally to get some sleep.

I’ve wanted to translate that Rilke poem for years. I first read it aged sixteen, perhaps seventeen, in a Reclam edition I bought at Harrods with only twenty pence pieces. (I’ve been a troll for years.) That are a lot of translations I like, Don Paterson’s especially, but few ever seem to capture the second stanza’s eroticism. For me it’s also about the reflexive gaze, the act of noticing oneself looking and feeling watched. ‘I shudder as a wave of shame sweeps over me’, Sartre writes of someone staring through a keyhole. ‘Somebody has seen me.’ Rilke’s sonnet is about a decapitated but still-present god, who retains the ability to see and shame us as long as we stare at his headless body. That’s modernity for you.

It’s nearing half eleven now, and I need to press on to make those twenty-five posts. Still the need for arbitrary length hamstrings me—this paragraph, not unlike characters I discussed earlier, is here only because I feel it needs to be.

XXVI. No Comment

One of the perks of Medium is how little time posting takes: after clicking Publish, all I need do is add each post to the publication for all the month’s and choose to ‘hide responses’ in case people leave any.

got rid of my main blog’s comment section this summer, and now find it hard to understand why anybody still has one. I know bloggers who have very active comment sections, with friendly regulars they’ve known for years, but whenever I see anyone post about their commenters, it’s because of the low standard of discussion. It would make sense if things were naturally biased that way—people don’t tend to post as much about blog comments they enjoyed—but mine were never worth the work. When I look back through the comment section on my old posts, I’m astonished I put the amount of time I did into moderating and participating.

Here’s what I think is at the root of my outlook on this. I like discussing my posts with others—I love hearing from people and getting their thoughts and teasing out new bits of the subject matter—but I don’t consider it part of the work. Check out a book from your local library and you probably won’t find pages in the back for readers to leave their own opinions about the author’s subject, or write whatever passing thoughts are on their mind. That’s how I feel about my writing: the posts themselves need to be self-contained, or something about them is compromised. The place for discussion is social media.

XXVII. And Finally

This is the twenty-fifth and final post for November. Thirty would have been nice, but I’m not going to sweat it — there are ten minutes left to write and publish this, and I’m exhausted, but I’m feeling good.

I don’t know how many words I’ve published this month — there isn’t time to check right now — but it’s either a high four digit number or a low five digit one. That’s many times what I’ve put to paper at any prior point this year, and it’s also done wonders for my mental health. Even though it’s been on the blink this month — to put it mildly, whose hasn’t? — I’m feeling miles more productive and less lethargic than I did in October.

I want to keep this up, ideally with the aim of achieving the full month’s worth of posts in December. Eventually, I’d like to reach a point where I’m journalling every day and writing more serious things at the same time, but I need to get back into the habit of writing before I can do that: this month’s journal has been a kind of writing gymnasium, and again, I feel good. As the name might suggest, the Novembering publication here isn’t going to house any more posts — not till next November, at least — but I’ll probably create a new one for longer-term writing in this vein.

Thank you if you’ve read all the posts, or even some of them. I consciously set out to not to try and write for an audience, and this month’s hitcount has been tiny compared with the other blog’s — I’m still thinking I’m going to post this entire journal there as one piece — but if anything, playing an intimate gig has been refreshing, and some of the posts have still done quite well in relative terms.

I’m going to sign off now. Since I’m planning to keep this up, there’ll be time for a more detailed post mortem on this project in the next few days, once I’ve slept — but twenty-five out of thirty’s not bad, and on the whole, I’m calling the experiment a success.

Where I’ve Been, And Everything I Wrote Last Month

Her Own Words: Niki Massey, 1980-2016

Finally—I’m going to let Niki speak in her own words.

Audio sources are an interview on Trav Mamone’s Bi Any Means podcast and her talk at Skepticon 8.

Transcript below the fold.

Continue reading “Her Own Words: Niki Massey, 1980-2016”

Her Own Words: Niki Massey, 1980-2016

Remembering Niki Massey

Josiah Mannion/Biblename Photo

‘The art of losing’s not too hard to master
Though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.’
—Elizabeth Bishop, ‘One Art’

‘It’s not just unqualified will, as Schopenhauer
would have it, that makes us what we are; nor
is it the will to power, […] but something deeper,
of which the will to power is merely a manifestation.
We want power because we want to matter.’

—Rebecca Goldstein, ‘The Mattering Map’

Most of a year ago, half a dozen of us decided to set up this site. When the time came to discuss who we wanted here, Niki Massey’s name came up immediately. I didn’t know Niki that well, but we’d tweeted, and I was one of the people who spoke to her about blogging with us. If I had any doubts about the need for a network like ours, that conversation changed my mind. Like many of the godless people you don’t hear about, Niki, who had multiple disabilities and was cut off from family, lived without much social support. As she put it: ‘I’m poor, I’m black, I’m an atheist. I exist.’

In her spare time, Niki escorted patients outside abortion clinics, where the religious right did their best to obstruct access. Last November, a man in Colorado killed three people at a Planned Parenthood branch: a day later, Niki went back to work. In a talk at Skepticon the same month, she’d spoken about volunteering and how others could get into it. ‘People say thank you,’ she said at the end. ‘They say “You’re super brave for doing this.” But to me it doesn’t feel that way. It just feels like something a decent person does.’

Niki died yesterday. None of us know quite how or why—several conditions she had could have been life-threatening, and her circumstances left her at risk in other ways. What I know is that the friend I last spoke to on Thursday is silent now, and that someone here yesterday is gone today.

Elizabeth Bishop wrote that the art of losing wasn’t hard. Before last night, I never quite got her last line, ‘Write it’ intruding suddenly on the sentence. Today I’m trying to write, and the violent grammar of death is all too real. In her life and her work, Niki fought cruelty in all its guises: without her every fight feels harder, and the art of losing is much too hard.

Next time someone calls atheists small minded Philistines, tell them who Niki Massey was. Niki didn’t expect an afterlife, nor do I think we’ll meet again—to my relief, I realise I don’t wish I did—but I suppose she’d like the thought of resting in power. After the deaths of Jamar Clark and Tamir Rice, she posted about black lives mattering. It’s safe to say part of what cut hers short was that Niki was many things deemed insignificant—not only black, but fat, disabled, queer and proudly, unabashedly unchurched.

If the will to matter is at the centre of what humans do, Niki devoted her own life to making other people’s mean something. She’ll be remembered for that fight, and for the work—write it—she leaves the rest of us.

Bye, Niki. You mattered.

Remembering Niki Massey


You were in a café today,
taller and trying for a beard, eight years
since I looked on from Mum’s passenger seat
as her twelve cylinder roar sent you flying
from the mirror across your parents’ drive.

That more than one of us got out alive
to touch back down again the other side
of puberty comes as no small relief—
a strange thing then that this morning,
all I could manage was to order tea.

Had I said anything,
you might have told me I wasn’t to blame,
but please consider this my way
of asking you to forgive me.


James Croft Asked Me To Give His Patheos Blog A New Look, And I Said Yes


If you’ve spent time on the Patheos atheist channel, or hang with the same people I do, you might have read Temple of the Future, James Croft’s blog about humanism and ethics. I’ve known James for about as long as I’ve been in the blogosphere myself—we’ve spoken together and write about many of the same things, often disagreeing fiercely—and last autumn he hired me to give his blog a new look. I’ve been worn out over the last ten months, stretched thin between a day job and half a dozen other projects and creatively tired—all credit goes to James for showing me far more patience than I deserved—but this week I at last signed off on it.
Continue reading “James Croft Asked Me To Give His Patheos Blog A New Look, And I Said Yes”

James Croft Asked Me To Give His Patheos Blog A New Look, And I Said Yes

Why I’m Ditching My Blog’s Comment Section

You may have seen a recent post at Brute Reason where Miri announced she was dropping her comment section. Here’s something you don’t know: when we were building the Orbit early this year, I talked about wanting to do the same. Since launch I’ve been going back and forth on it—a couple of months away from the blog made it hard to know what I’d be missing—but now the gears are turning again, I’m doing it. My reasons are completely different from Miri’s.

If you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know my comments were never especially busy. Only the occasional post received more than a few, and those posts were the controversial ones. This isn’t to do with pageviews: even pieces that got many thousands of hits never got comments in corresponding numbers. Small posts got individual messages that rarely demanded replies. Big posts sparked arguments that weren’t to do with me. Both meant keeping up with new notifications.

I know a lot of people with active comment sections. Most started blogging before social media arrived, and have maintained the regulars who found them when comment sections were where you reacted to things. I started this blog in 2013. Since then, other platforms—Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Reddit—have been where people react to my posts. I’m ditching comments for the same reason as more and more big media sites: I don’t believe comment sections are the future.

My author section below gives my email and social media links for a reason. Like most commentators, I like interacting with interested people. I don’t consider it the function of my blog. For many writers I’m lucky to know, blogging works as a dialogue, with readers’ comments part of the process. Especially as someone who experienced abuse, part of what makes writing therapeutic for me is that my blog isn’t a dialogue—it’s a space devoted to my own voice. Round here, I’m talking.

If you’ve been a commenter here, chances are I wasn’t paying much attention. Having designed posts to stand on their own, the comments never felt as relevant as tweets and emails do. You probably deserve better than that. Over the last week, I’ve received a lot of messages in those places, and they’re where I’m likeliest to respond. I’ll also say what Miri said: if you’re one of my patrons, or you’d like to be, let’s get to know each other more. Unlike my blog, Patreon has comments, and I’ll read them.

That’s all there is to this. I’m not closing comments because of any I’ve received, or because I’m stressed out (not that those aren’t perfectly good reasons). The comment section just isn’t why I’m here. I don’t write because I want to defend my opinions. I don’t write because I want to mediate other people’s arguments. I don’t write because I want to manage comments. I write because I want to write. I’m going to focus on that.

Why I’m Ditching My Blog’s Comment Section