The Hell Year

Time for some rough memories. The worst time I’ve had in my adult life: The Hell Year.

As I mentioned last time, we got evicted from the apartment in Salem, and I was able to keep my computer, my cat, and the clothes I was wearing. Everything else, my furniture, my clothes, all of the other things one acquires living a life, ended up in the hallway of the apartment complex. The day had been spent shuttling Martina’s things to the hotel room we were going to be staying in. I got to go in the last trip, with Martina’s other assistant hurrying me along, trying to pick what was most worthwhile of my belongings.

The next day I went back to the apartment complex, to find that all of my stuff was gone. When I inquired after it in the office, I was told it had been put in a storage facility where it would be safe for some time. After a time, paying for it would stop being the responsibility of the complex, and fall to Martina. Satisfied that it was at least safe for the moment, I returned to the hotel where we were staying.

This did leave me without clothes, which is in fact something of a problem. I walked over to the nearby mall and bought a few things from Target’s discount rack; a few dresses, some tights. Over that whole time period I was frustrated and hurt again and again as I was gendered male regardless of wearing obviously female-coded clothing. It was far from my only frustration.

Roughly ten days into our stay, I was awakened to be informed that we needed to move. Martina had only booked the room for so long, and they weren’t open to extending our stay. Instead, we moved to another hotel, after packing up kit, cats, and mobility equipment.

That was one of the major patterns of that year – Martina wasn’t taking care of, or even really paying attention to things, and so we frequently had to move hotels on very short notice, because our reservation was up and they needed the room for someone else’s reservation, and they didn’t have any other space. So we’d end up hurriedly packing our stuff and chasing down the cats and putting them in carriers for hours – it was kind of like being evicted all over again. And again. And again.

We moved roughly 40 times that year, often on less than a day’s notice (to me, at least), often with no idea of where we were going to go next – Martina wasn’t looking ahead, at all, so we spent several days in the lobbies of hotels with two boxes of crying cat, and an increasingly frustrated Rath. Martina only had one other assistant besides me, so it was often even more complicated as we tried to work out who was going to drive the van (rented) to get our stuff to wherever we were going next. She ended up calling in a number of favors to get someone to come move stuff.

Speaking of favors, she was also calling in favors to get rooms paid for. She couldn’t afford to rent hotel rooms for long, and nor could her parents / family. At several points she came to me for money – while the live-in job was supposed to include housing, if she couldn’t afford housing, we would be out on the street, both of us and the cats, as she frequently noted. I ended up putting my money up several times that year to keep a roof over our heads, eventually putting her tens of thousands of dollars in debt to me, but contemplating being homeless again, and losing our cats in the street, was too horrifying for me to resist.

The other way she took advantage of me during this time – as I’ve mentioned, as the live-in, I took over any shift that wasn’t covered. Her other assistant was working weekdays, from 9 am to 7 in the evening, with all of the rest of the time being my responsibility. I was on the clock for 120 hours every week; technically 60 hours was what I was paid for, but I was in fact responsible for all of the time. PCA hour provision is in fact kind of terrible.

I’m unusually capable of dealing with sleep deprivation; I can do an all-nighter and barely notice. I mention this to give you some idea of how badly off I was during that year – since I largely slept by days, moving suddenly cut into my sleep time, as did having to resolve other problems as I was frequently called to do, and of course I couldn’t sleep reliably when I was on shift. By the end of the Hell Year, I was sleeping through the phone ringing continuously for an hour, there were times when I answered the phone, listened, interacted, and then went back to sleep.

Somewhere in this time she brought in another friend of hers – Mark. While he had been in a bad situation (In a third floor apartment in a building with no elevator, with a problematic roommate) our situation was not really enough better to justify bringing him and his cat from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, to be a part of our regular move-panics and payment-panics. Nevertheless, there he was in a series of hotel rooms that seemed even smaller. He, too, got sucked into paying for space until he was broke.

I was pushed to my limits emotionally, fiscally, and physically. Eventually Mark and I confronted Martina, because it was too much, and we couldn’t continue anymore. We went to her and demanded to know what was going on in her head, because this wasn’t a situation that could be allowed to continue. I refused to be put off until I got a real answer, and we finally managed to get one from her – she was waiting for one of two outcomes: Either things would get so bad that someone would have to rescue her, or she would die.

I don’t know if it was an attempt to see if anyone actually cared, or if she just couldn’t stand to be responsible for her life anymore. I did know that I couldn’t be carried along with it anymore. After we spent a while trying to explain what was wrong with this pattern to her and failing, I finally set an ultimatum: The next time the day came when we had to move without warning or plan, or the next time she turned to me to pay for rooms, was going to be the end. I’d offer her my last timesheet to sign, and we’d part ways.

Less than two weeks later, we came to the end. The Incident at the Red Roof Inn. We had to move again, and while it was better telegraphed, when we got to the hotel, they were insisting that they didn’t have a reservation, nor did they have a card on file. She turned to me to ask me to put my card down, insisting that it would only be for a day, and her friend would put his card on file the next day.

This was a game we had played before, and I learned from experience. As the person we’d gotten to drive us knew the friend in question, we were able to call him and ask if he intended to cover the room. Shockingly, he had no idea about this – he had planned to come and help Martina with a GoFundMe the following day, and had no intention of paying for hotel rooms.

That was the end of things; I had drawn a line in the sand, and I had to keep to it. I filled out a timesheet, got her signature, faxed it in, took one room with Mark and all of our cats, and we left her there in the lobby. As I told her, I wasn’t going to leave her cat to be homeless and disappear into the streets and die to a car because she couldn’t get her shit together.

Eventually, we relented to the extent of letting her stay with us for one night, and to say goodbye to her cat, after which she would need to find her own way. None of that day was easy; having to break off our relationship, having to take her cat from her because it was the responsible thing for him, and then having to continue making the decision that things were over, because she kept trying to talk me around, was excruciating.

Nevertheless, we did manage to get her to leave the next day. She went to the lobby and spent the day hanging around and trying to get someone to put her up. Eventually the hotel called the police, who ended up bringing in the fire department, who ended up bringing in paramedics, who eventually came to get me. I explained the situation, and they took her off to a hospital somewhere.

I had been making long term sort-of plans to move to Colorado. Some friends of mine, the leader and an officer of my Wildstar guild had offered me space, and I had intended to build up a reserve and fly out there. Instead, I ended up spending most of what I had to have the hotel room for Mark and I for a week. I spent the time finding someone to take in the cats, and reaching out to my mother.

About ten years before, early in the lost decade, I had attended my grandfather’s funeral. While I was there, mom had a lot of trouble with my name and gender, and said something about the hormones making me oversensitive when I said something about it, which had led me to decide to end contact; I was already in a lot of pain and having my mother repeatedly jab me in a sensitive place was too much.

However, parents have a way of being there when you really need them. She covered my trip to Colorado and mailing the rest of my stuff, and a week later, I was on my way to Durango. Thus ended the Hell Year.

Book Review – Interdependent Capitalism

This week, I felt compelled to review Interdependent Capitalism, a book I received as part of a workshop on perverse incentives. Once I cracked the cover, I spent the next few hours reading until I hit the other cover. Most nonfiction doesn’t hit me quite that hard, so Interdependent Capitalism stands out as something of an outlier to me, and I’m glad I have this platform to broadcast it on.

Interdependent Capitalism opens with a discussion of the meaning of a korean term, “gohyang”, which translates to the english term, “hometown”, “a place where one was born or grew up”. For the Yun family (three of whom worked on this book) gohyang speaks to more than just a familiar place where one spent one’s childhood. It is compared to a sacred sanctuary, a centralization of family, and the classic metaphor of home – a place “where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” as Frost put it.

Much of the book revolves around the idea of the “kin village”, the sort of environment most of our ancestors lived their lives in, where everybody knew everybody, was more or less related to everybody, and someone from ten miles away was an exotic stranger, and what happens when this is no longer the case. The primary thesis of the book is that, in leaving these environments and going forth into the world, we’ve left a place where everybody had a reason to care for you, and their inclusive fitness would suffer to some degree by cheating you. We live instead in nuclear families, among other nuclear families, all competing to get ahead of our low-relatedness surrounding neighbors.

As relative strangers, we improve our fitness by putting our interests first, and those of our neighbors last, if we bother to list them at all. In other words, our biological evolution hasn’t kept pace with our cultural evolution, and we suffer for it again and again when we expect our neighbors to act like our kin, and they don’t. Mechanisms that had your aunts and uncles serving as your heroes betray you when celebrities become our heroes, and hawk a new diet book that does nothing but enrich them.

Part one contains a story of how, starting from our ancestral family villages, we got to the point of our current, largely atomized state. They coin the term, “kin skin in the game” to refer to investment in social systems due to genetic proximity. From eusociality to incest taboos, different pieces of behavior come under the microscope to show the benefits of working together – when one’s close relatives are the beneficiaries.

However, as genetic lines diverge, separated by distance and outbreeding, the incentive to cheat (at least with those outside the group unit, once the village and now the nuclear family) only increases. With a greater ability to abandon existing relationships for new ones, and a decrease in genetic alignment in one’s society, they claim three phenomena emerge:
First, an increase in “self-dealing” – a term they define to mean a particular kind of defection – not outright theft or robbery, but a kind of dereliction of duty – the public servant who accepts a bribe, or the CEO who invests company cash in a cousin’s business on non-market terms, is self-dealing, as is the employee who books more expensive flights on the company travel card, to accumulate more frequent flier miles.
Second, increased counterparty risk.
And third, decreased win-win transactions based on vested interests.

All of these benefit the atomized individual / nuclear family more than they do the tightly related group, but they also disadvantage those on the losing side of each phenomena, and on the whole, the gains are not commensurate with the losses – especially for the average person, as the least scrupulous and most grasping seek to enrich themselves in win-lose transactions that, while they reduce the total available winnings for everyone, pay off for them specifically at a higher rate.

In part two, the focus is on the race to the bottom line, how systems that aren’t based around inclusive genetic fitness favor those forces who can Goodhart the hardest – making the tastiest food with ingredients that happen to be radically unhealthy, or who can make their packaged subprime mortgages pay the highest returns – on paper, at least, without considering default rates. As they put it, “the system will eventually select for fake news about fake heroes endorsing fake foods.”

From information to olive oil, baseball teams to mortgage lending, our modern systems fail to properly connect the losses from the damages done by self-dealing, to those who do the dealing, often until the institutions they fed on parasitically collapse under the obviousness of their finally deranged behaviors, social trust is further eroded, and a few people who participated are elected as sacrificial lambs to appease the baying mob.

From these ashes, a new race arises – the race to the middle, the race to Goodhart “good enough”: not so bad as to be obviously damaging, but optimized to stay just ahead of that clear tipping point when the need to clean house becomes obvious. Instead they limp on, year after year, failing to either properly serve society, or be so clearly terrible that they need to be disposed of.

One consequence of the movement of institutions to self-dealing is, I think, particularly pernicious. Vampirelike, the self-dealing institution leaves the individual sucked dry, and then to turn to self-dealing themselves, since, after all, “You’ve got to look out for number one. Nobody else is.” This is illustrated through the lens of psychology. I think a telling point is made when they compare the size of floorspace in your average bookstore dedicated to self-help as compared with the floorspace of the help-others section.

What help-others section?


The individual is made champion, held up to be the hero, while those others are the bad guys, the responsible ones. The system abstracts the harm done to others out of our sight, and out of our minds. We build stories about bad guys and good guys even as we line the pockets of the bad guys to drive our cars and eat our meals, ignoring the cost paid in atmospheric pollution and the suffering of farm animals.

So what can we do about this spiral of mediocrity, backstabbing, and suffering?

This is the focus of part three, rewriting the social contract and using existing forces to feed the system to the system, using its own forces and incentives against it. The authors envision a world where compersion is as well known as schadenfreude (and here’s hoping the song about compersion is as catchy as its counterpart.) and more available to the average person. A world of “they statements” made “I statements” for turning depressing situations into personal responsibilities – while their example is of cleaning highways, personally I think of a change I went through, from “Someone needs to save the world” to “I need to do something about the world needing saving.”

As calls to action go, the authors push to “restart at year zero” seems well-supported and thought out, although short on easy to apply, instant win actions. But this is in some ways their primary point – the system is not going to package and advertise the end of the system to you. Instead we are issued mass produced Guy Fawkes masks and told the correct places to protest for maximum visibility and minimal actual change. While the Yuns gesture at some points of intervention, it’s clear that they don’t have all the answers – that all the answers won’t be found if we wait for someone else to find them for us.

It’s time, instead, that we go out and look – and as we go, compliment the person searching next to you for the offered helping hand. Social trust can’t be rebuilt without society, and if you look closely enough, society is built of you and me.

On Grief

I’ve never broken a bone.

I remember talking to my mom about doing so, when I was a kid. She told me it was a very painful experience. One that would certainly make me cry.

I can’t say for sure, although these days I’ve gotten pretty good at managing physical sensations.

Crying in pain, though? That still happens.

Not physical pain; emotional. Specifically, grief.

I was washing some dishes and thinking about Martina, who I’ve mentioned here before, in Meeting Martina, and again in The Lost Decade. I’ll talk about our last year together, before we parted ways, next week.

I wish I could link her to these. I’m sure she’d love to see me writing, and posting it publically. She’d really love to hear about what I’m up to. How I found purpose, and what I’m doing with it.

But I can’t.

Spoiler alert for a few autobio pasts ahead: She died. Last November.

I didn’t hear about it until December, long enough that by the time I did, her funeral was over, and whatever happened to her cat, Richard, was out of my control, and impossible to find out. She asked me to take care of that cat so many times, if something happened to her, and every time, I assured her that I would.

I don’t know what happened to him. If someone took him in, nobody knew about it on facebook. I keep thinking about that. She was intense about promises made to the dead, and I failed in that duty.

That’s not the part that hurts the most, though. I’ve largely learned to deal with guilt.

No, it’s just the awareness; my friend is gone. I spent more hours in her presence than any person I’m not related to, or was dating. I went with her to ADAPT marches, I kept her alive during a several day power outage by having planned ahead and having a thermal emergency blanket, she kept me from being homeless multiple times. We talked of things shallow, and intensely personal, and for the latter half of our association, she swore up and down that I was psychic, because enough time spent talking to her let me predict the shape of a thing that she’d never said, and wouldn’t have, except that I could see it.

There’s a hole, in my map of the world. When I look at it, I start crying. I remember telling her that I was planning to transition (“You don’t tell people things like that when they’re eating!”). I remember waiting in a pharmacy with her to get an emergency supply of her allergy meds, as her throat slowly closed, and seriously considering jumping the counter and assaulting the pharmacist because he was taking too long. I can remember several nights of various horrible health issues, going to hospitals, and the time the ambulance left without me.

People tell me grief fades, with time. I don’t know if I’m unusual, in that I still hurt this deeply. I want to be clear, though. While I’ve spent the last ~2 hours crying about her, it’s not just her. If I look at the hole where my grandfather was, there’s grief there, too. He’s been gone ten years, but if I don’t dissociate, the pain’s still there, just waiting to catch my eye. Hey there, remember Bob? He’s still gone! (He told me to call him Bob instead of Grandpa, in case any pretty girls heard. His nickname was Happy Bob; always with a smile and a joke, he was.)

I can look another direction, and there’s a hole where my father used to be. We weren’t even that close; my parents had separated when he died, and when they were together, we didn’t get along; I suspect he’d picked up some subtle tell of my being trans, and it bothered him, and so he tried to make a man of me. Still, I can contemplate losing him, and start crying as hard as I did as his funeral. (Suicide. Fun fact: I learned about this in a meeting with therapists, caseworkers, program staff, and my mom. They’d distributed an information packet to everyone, you see, and I had the lightning reading speed trait then. Reading was way more interesting than a meeting, right up until, “[Deadname]’s father committed suicide a few years ago. [Deadname] is not currently aware of this.” I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this to Mom, so if she reads this post, that’ll be an interesting bit. Certainly I don’t blame her for this; wasn’t her printout.)

So maybe I’m different from other people, when it comes to grief, but I don’t think I really am. Neuromachinery is pretty solidly conserved across the species, to the best of my knowledge. I think what happens to most is that they feel the pain, and it hurts (so goddamn bad) and little by little, they build up a reflex to dissociate from it, automatically. Day by day, it gets a little stronger, a little more automatic, until one day they look at the hole, and can’t really feel the pain at all. This hypothesis explains my observations, and why I differ in this area – I’ve spent the last year learning not to dissociate. At one point last year I could barely feel anything. Didn’t recognize when I felt anger, (I remember being angry on Martina’s behalf, at a Greyhound ticket agent who charged both of us four times for our tickets) didn’t really feel happy anymore, and love was fading away, which was when I realized I had a problem – my feelings for my partners were moving out of my reach.

With help from various friends, to whom I am deeply grateful, I recovered. I learned to feel my feelings, and the mental move that stops dissociation from happening. I treasure my feelings now, delightful and painful alike, and I don’t want dissociation to come back in and steal them away.

But fuck, grief hurts.

The Lost Decade

Okay, technically, it was more like eight years, but that’s most of a decade, and it’s way more poetic in my backstory than, “The Lost Octade”, don’t you think?

I’d lost my apartment, my partner, half of my cats, my hope for a future, and gone back to living with / working for Martina. The work was tolerable most of the time, but it was still crushing to me to think of it as the only work I was suited to. There is a phrase that has stuck with me, over the years. Most of the time I don’t think it’s something that applies to me, because I don’t believe in strict purposes of lives, as assigned by some higher being making us dance to a set tune. Still, there are times that I wonder…

“Have you considered that the purpose of your life may be to serve as a warning to others?”

It’s a painful thought! During the lost decade, I spent a lot of effort trying to convince myself, that it didn’t matter that I wasn’t going to matter. And I did matter, a little. I will leave aside false modesty and say that I was the best PCA Martina had, who I met. I was regularly called on to resolve issues that her other assistants couldn’t, or to teach, or to figure out some sort of hack to fix something, improve something, or make something possible. I was directly responsible for saving her life a few times, and she left me with a number of her secrets, over the course of our association.

For most of that time we lived in Belchertown, she and I, and Richard and Velcro, our cats. She had her room, and I mine across the hall, well within shouting range. I spent most of my time in there, playing games and reading the internet. That was life, for roughly seven years. Gaming, working, semi-regular trips to the grocery store, and irregular work trips (during which I largely stayed in our hotel room, reading the internet and playing games.)

Adding to my discontent during this time was that, at the end of my time with UMass, i had lost my insurance. My insurance had been fueling my transition, and without it, I stopped having hormones, stopped having a therapist, and ended up squarely in a place that I had been desperate to avoid when I started transitioning: stuck in an indeterminately gendered place, and worse, slowly tilting more towards masculine.

Life sucked, and I started waiting for death.

Not just waiting, in fact, but encouraging it. I had had dental problems before, as I have a phobia of dentistry. I had to get a tooth pulled after it grew a hole large enough to fit a BB into. I gave up brushing my teeth nearly entirely, and also started downing massive quantities of soda. I ate terribly, I smoked cigarettes, and I waited. And waited. And waited.

Clearly, I didn’t die.

Eventually other changes took place. Martina got hired for a job at an independent living center, helping people get out of nursing homes and into situations where they would have homes, and assistants. The job was in Salem, so we had to move, as a four hour commute is not one that can realistically be made. It’s difficult to get housing, if you’re dependent on a wheelchair, so for some time we instead stayed at an Extended Stay America hotel, packed into one room with the two of us, the cats, three wheelchairs, a Hoyer lift, and our belongings in boxes. The room was too small a space for all of this, but it was what we had. I tolerated it as I had most other things in my situation – it was temporary, because surely I had to die soon, right?

We spent all of winter in that hotel, through a blizzard (the second I’ve seen in my life) and well into the spring. During one of the truly cold periods, the hotel had a pipe burst. While this didn’t appear to directly affect my life, there was mold growing and releasing spores, a problem not for me, but Martina, who had a compromised immune system (suppressed to keep her allergy to plastics from killing her) and an inability to cough because of poor muscle tone and control.

At least I had a new MMO to play over the hotel wifi – I was hugely into Wildstar, an action combat based game with, I will admit, some issues. It was designed around the old-school hardcore model, perhaps slightly too much so (although I enjoyed it) and the difficulty level made many people give up and quit the game, which put strain on guilds trying to get into raiding, because as much player churn as there was made it extremely hard to get 40 people through the attunement to run the first raid.

This process broke three guilds that I was in, and three was too many for me. I have tended to go hard into my MMOs, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere. I usually end up an officer in guilds that I join, because I am comparatively sane, get to know the game well, and was on almost all the time. I was therefore involved in the discussions around how to deal with the roster boss, and loss of good players and officers, and finally, the closing out of three groups of people I’d invested massive amounts of time and effort into.

Die Trying was my last, and when it went, sick at heart, I quit as well. I couldn’t deal with building up another group of people, making friends and having shared experiences, to watch it all fade away again, so I quit. This marked something of an inflection point for me, when I started spending more time consuming text and less gaming. Tech sites, futurism, Reddit, I was fairly equal-opportunity. Anything to disconnect my mind from the flesh it was imprisoned in.

Somewhere around this time Martina finally found an apartment, and we moved into it. I had a room again, space of my own, and I settled in to wait in relative comfort. I spent a decent amount of money on a desk and chair, and continued to live at my computer.

Martina, meanwhile, was having problems of her own. As I mentioned, she’d picked up some garbage in her lungs from the conditions at the hotel, which impaired her oxygenation, which impaired her cognition. Combined with her fixed mindset regarding use of computers, through the summer and into the fall her work position became increasingly precarious. While I found a way to help her cough and get it out, the damage had been done, and in the end she was put on leave from her job. She took it quite hard, falling into a deep depression, and while we scraped along for another few months in that apartment, it wasn’t long before we were evicted for nonpayment of the rent she could no longer afford. She and I and the cats went to another hotel, with a tiny bit of our stuff. Most of my belongings, at least, ended up in the hall of the apartment, from which the management put it into storage, and I was left with my computer and the clothes on my back, largely.

This was the start of the Hell Year, next week’s post.

Book Review – The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem

If I had known this book was written by a former lover of Ayn Rand, would I have still read it?

Chances are pretty good. I’ve tried to hold to an ideal that I picked up from Stranger in a Strange Land for a long time. Specifically – “Successful city political bosses held open court all through the twentieth century, leaving wide their office doors and listening to any gandy dancer or bindlestiff who came in. “

While I’ve never aspired to political office, the principle of information acquisition being beneficial holds across professions, I think – even if one is, as I, an autodidactic wanderer of no fixed employment. Perhaps even especially then – I think it is a reasonable belief that any adult human (and many younger ones), especially those with backstories that significantly differ from yours, know at least one thing that is:
a) Something that you do not know.
b) Something that it would be useful for you to know.

This does not always mean that said information is necessarily accessible to you – for example, someone who would look at my backstory and refuse to communicate with me is not going to share their useful information with me, clearly. At least not without a great deal of work.

Still, this does mean that if someone tries to communicate with you, there’s a decent amount of expected value to be had from hearing people out. There are counterexamples to be made to this general statement, but I think it makes more sense to take, “listen to people, for they have data” over, “do not listen to people, because they have nothing to teach me” as an axiom, and rule out some people in specific cases, as merited.

In any case, I did read The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, authored by Nathaniel Branden. Not only did I read it, I quoted it repeatedly in a discord I am in, and at least one quote from it ended up in my random quote library, the ones that display on each page here. Pillars contains many useful ideas, enough that I would have no trouble filling my usual review length with nothing but quotes, and still have some left over.

It’s laid out in three parts, covering (in Nathaniel’s view of) the basic principles of self-esteem, internal sources of self-esteem, and external influences. The chapters within each relate well to their third, and contain, in my view, thorough coverage of the areas they claim. Each contains some number of “stems” – sentence starters intended to be completed by the reader as an exercise in self-knowledge. Writing full sentences from these stems about myself was enlightening, and not nearly always in a way that fed my pride. Bringing light to the dark corners of ones psyche is neither pleasant work, nor uplifting, in and of itself.

Instead, it is in some ways like the housecleaning I helped with in New Brighton – there is an immense amount of shit, in the unexamined mind, and it’s lousy to have to deal with, but once it’s all gone you can actually make something decent out of the place. Until you do, though, you’ll be living in all that filth, unaware, because the constant exposure has dulled your sense of smell.

I don’t think I’ve managed to clear out nearly everything yet, but I’m making progress, and Pillars helped me on my way. I suspect some of the stems relating to consciousness and addiction helped me break a couple of ugly habits I’ve held to for a long time, and reminded me that I want to live consciously, that there are things in this world that I care about, and that I can’t save anyone if I’m off in the corner giggling to myself and waiting for someone to rescue me.

The one direct quote I am going to leave you with from the book is rather representative of the whole – not exactly pleasant to contemplate, but if you care, or think you want to care, about the state of the world, you’d do well to think on it well and deeply:

Some years ago, in my group therapy room, we hung on the wall a number of sayings that I often found useful in the course of my work. A client made me a gift of several of these sayings done in needlepoint, each with its own frame. One of these was “It isn’t what they think; it’s what you know.” Another was “No one is coming.”
One day a group member with a sense of humor challenged me about “No one is coming.”
“Nathaniel, it’s not true,” he said. “You came.”
“Correct,” I admitted, “but I came to say that no one is coming.”

No one is coming, and we have to save ourselves. If you want to do so, you could do worse than to read The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.

On Music

Music is so absurdly good. I can, and have, gone without, when there was need, but I’d listen all the time if it didn’t interfere with understanding people. Music can deepen a depression or pull you out of one, depending on what you decide to listen to and your internal narrative.

I’ve decided I’m not going to shy away from talking about narrative. If it’s not strictly the twenty-four karat gold truth, that we are stories telling ourselves to ourselves is a very useful fake framework. I think of fake frameworks as something like…

Imagine a rickety scaffold. Not a nice steel structure, made in a factory, with precision tolerances and proof of crush tests, no. This is more like a bamboo structure, lashed together with braided vine rope. Think something Robinson Crusoe might build. And you can see people standing on it, and using it to access things that would otherwise be out of reach. They finish their work and it’s your turn. You climb up and it shifts a little under your weight, it creaks as you move around, and you know you don’t want to trust it, not the way you could trust steelwork. Impermanent and unreliable as it is, though… there are places you can’t reach without scaffolding and we don’t always have steel ones available.

Back to music and narrative – if your depressed thoughts tend towards rumination, looping around the same ideas when you’re depressed, sad music will tend to hold you down. It reinforces what you’re already thinking and feeling, and becomes one more thing keeping you in that state. If you don’t have the rumination trait, however, sad music is like a friend commiserating with you. You’re not alone, and it’s not so bad.

Upbeat, confident music can make you feel better, or if you’re already feeling good, on top of the world. Admittedly, this can be dangerous too – I would predict that some amount of unforced errors leading to car wrecks have this kind of music involved; you get really into it, the universe is with you, you can do anything. Like weave through traffic at 85 mile per hour. Maybe you even can do so, but try to remember that everyone thinks they’re an above average driver, and they can’t all be right.

I’ve heard music called an accident of evolution, and I don’t buy it. Music is complicated, and it’s universal across the species. Some of the oldest artifacts we have are bone flutes our ancestors made. Traits like that, they don’t happen in a vacuum. I think the mechanism has a purpose, and it’s for communication. I suspect it’s what we used before language, conveying emotional states, building rapport, holding the tribe together, and even keeping some degree of history, in stories that were patterns of states. Songs can tell stories without words, simply in how they make you feel, and this is particularly true when you’re part of a tribe, where you share almost all of your context with the musician.

You even process music in the same general areas as language. It’s a deeply woven part of us as a species, and it’s beautiful and glorious.

It’s also used against you, at times. Think about car commercials, or presidential campaigns, using music to touch your system one and get you on their side before your reasoning mind gets involved, so that it gets involved on their side, rationalizing why you should be for them. They’re out to hijack you, and if you aren’t aware of it, they’ll have an easy time of it.

Pay attention to what people are pushing at you (and into you!) with the music they frame themselves with. Personally, I always have headphones in when I’m in supermarkets with music. I don’t want to be hijacked. My narrative belongs to me, and is not up for commercial renegotiation. Be mindful of the language whispered in your ears, and treat it as friend or foe accordingly, but always, always, be mindful. You can be certain that whatever commercial provider is playing it was, when they picked it.

College 2 and Stress Stacks

Moving cross-country in a uhaul with two cats is not a quiet experience. Especially given that one of the cats, Subarashii, was part Siamese, as best we could tell. Certainly something led her to be the noisiest cat I’ve ever been responsible for. She cried the whole way, but it’s not like we could have let her out of the carrier. A truck cab full of panic-scrambling cat is a terrible place to be.

Velcro took it a bit better, but she also hadn’t learned Subarashii’s tendency to talk constantly, as she would later. Instead, she pressed her face up against the grill constantly, leaving her red and swollen at the other end. That was painful to watch; Velcro was a very sweet cat. To see her put herself into that kind of suffering because her situation was worse was agonizing. Any attempt to comfort her ended with claws in flesh, though – not that she wanted to hurt me, but she was panicky and flailing.

I’ll be honest – losing Velcro was a brutal capper on the Hell Year, a time of my life that’s yet to come in this tale. Velcro came to me in Ohio when Theddie had to move from the back house in New Brighton to a place where he couldn’t keep any cats. She basically glued herself to me when she moved in with us, spending the majority of her time in my lap, or cuddled up under my blanket – she loved to be under covers.

She was also sick – eyes constantly watering, ever congested, and periodically she would emit some of the grossest sneezes. Usually while looking you in the face and radiating love. By Tir, I miss that little love-snot engine.

No lie, that cat kept me alive in some of the worst times. I’d think about how much pain I was in, and how much I wanted to it to stop, and then I’d think about how badly she’d take even being shut out of my room for a while and the thought of the pain she’d have if I ended myself broke my heart.

In any case, we went to Massachusetts with cats and possessions, and took them to Martina’s. While we were in Ohio I’d decided I was going to act on my desire to transition, and it was in Martina’s spare room that I decided that now was the time, that I just could not pretend to be a boy for any longer. That was the last day I intentionally wore anything that I didn’t intend to look feminine in – I went to the grocery store in a strappy top that day. I was nervous, almost shaking, but I knew that I had to start somewhere.

For a while, my life was just working for Martina, but at least in clothes I didn’t hate myself to be wearing, which was progress. That changed one day while I was out walking with her; I got a call from UMass inviting me to come meet with someone and discuss my reentry into the school. I was thrilled, and jumped at the chance. I felt like maybe I was getting my life on track.

I met with an advisor, and became a student in the electrical engineering track. I got work in the Office of Information Technology on work-study; it’s one of the jobs that I’ve claimed I got hired for because I talked about my MMO gaming career and my willingness to take on challenges, as well as my tendency to rise into middle management wherever I went. For any gaming guild I’ve spent real time in, I end up in the officers sooner or later, from Chaoss to The Final Frontier. Raiding, especially as a class leader / officer, makes a great way to claim experience in teamwork.

I did better, the second time around. Screwed around… less. Not none, but less than I had before. I went to classes. I tried to take notes. I was aware that homework existed, and I tried to do at least some of it. As I had left Martina’s employ, due to needing the time to student, we had to find new accomodations, which we did with Tad, in East Longmeadow. He had a very nice condo there, and as he also worked at the university, he could give me rides in. Eventually that fell through. I no longer recall the reason, but we needed to move on, and he helped us rent the townhouse a friend of his was putting on the market. It was expensive, but I was making okay money and had financial aid, and we brought my brother in, expecting him to get work and be able to contribute. Eventually we also brought in another partner of mine, who I was less of a partner than I should have been to. He at one point confronted me, stating that I was more into the idea of him, than him. I don’t, from my current perspective, think he was wrong, and I’m sorry for the pain I caused him there and then.

This was later, though; after months of he and my brother trying to get adequate income to pay their way, after months of me getting increasingly stressed about my inability to really keep up in school – it started okay but got worse and worse. Calculus, and Algorithms and Data Structures, we doing me in. At the same time, I was the primary income for the house, and I wasn’t enough. On top of that, Kierstal had gotten pregnant and we decided to keep the child, and with her medical situation, inability to work, and (I now feel valid) frustration at the way I was being, my stress level built and built. Finally, it came to a head in an argument that I capped with possibly the stupidest thing I’ve ever said to a lover, and maybe to anyone: “Honestly, I think of you more as a friend anymore than a partner.” To my pregnant fiancee. Who I in fact still cared deeply about, but I needed the conversation to end, and I was mindkilled, and…

Gods, was I dumb.

That basically ended that relationship. Between where I was academically before that and the way I was wrecked after, I failed out of school again. Finally, since we couldn’t really afford the rent, we got evicted. So over the course of perhaps a month, I lost everything that gave me hope and stability, and I went back to working for Martina and living in her spare room. Kierstal went to Wisconsin to live with a friend, and I thought I’d never see her again. I had my work, my video games, and our cats. And even that didn’t last too long – Subarashii, with her endless crying, pissed off the neighbors, who complained to the landlord, who made us give her up as opposed to being evicted. So then I only had Velcro, and a load of guilt over what had happened to Subarashii.

This set the stage for my Lost Decade, which I’ll get into next week.

Book Review – Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ

As I mentioned in an earlier review, my wonderful partners have pointed out that I have some less than wonderful processes that can be invoked. As part of my reading blitz, I picked up Emotional Intelligence, and read it slowly overtime on my phone. I say slowly in part because these days I do most of my reading directly on my laptop, and in part because it’s a hefty tome, clocking in at over 800 pages.

Was it worth working my way through all of those? I think yes.

The book starts off with a pleasant anecdote about a smiling bus driver who pumped his vehicle full of warm cheer, then quickly contrasts it with items from the news ranging from destruction of properties to the destruction of multiple lives. As a means to draw your attention to the importance of emotional intelligence, it’s rather effective. Daniel Goleman knows how to pick gut-punching examples, and it doesn’t stop in the prefatory material.

Part one, The Emotional Brain, opens with the same sort of whiplash – a tale of parental self sacrifice for their child, and a tale of parental error that led to the death of their child. It then delves into the bodily effect and utility of emotions, discussing how system one (though he doesn’t call it that) serves our ends, or rather, did in the ancestral environment. A recurring theme through the book is how modern society has made our reactions too fast and powerful, to our frequent sorrow.

Part two, The Nature of Emotional Intelligence, delves into ways to be really dumb while being quite intelligent. Pure logic, memory, and reasoning ability, do not cover all the bases of intelligence, despite the common conception. Emotional intelligence, which is recognizing, understanding, and being able to handle, the emotions of yourself or others, has a stronger effect on life outcomes. Daniel covers several different studies that demonstrate these effects, longitudinal studies with large sample groups. He then delves into what emotional intelligence really means, how we can recognize it in ourselves and others, and how empathy functions, in people for whom it is functional, and in those who it does not, due to various conditions.

In part three, Emotional Intelligence Applied, we dig into what EQ looks like in relationships, and what the lack thereof is like. Personal, professional, and medical are the areas delved into, and the last particularly interested me. I had a few discussions with Martina on the future of medicine, opining that there would come a day when most of the heavy lifting would be done by automated systems. She contended that she didn’t want a machine to tell her she had something wrong with her, she wanted a person. I retorted that there would in fact be people who specialized in this, and being selected for communication ability and empathy, would serve the purpose far better than people selected for the ability to grind books for twelve years. In fact, the research tends to support that, given adequate diagnostic and treatment generation technology, this would actually be an improvement to the outcomes of our medical systems.

The rest of the book (two more sections) leans heavily on the value and desirability of teaching emotional intelligence to the young, and it makes a strong case for it. We’re not serving ourselves by pushing our children to be straw vulcans, Spocks with no understanding of how to name, understand, and cope with the emotions that we and others generate in response to reality. I feel good about recommending Emotional Intelligence, long as it is, to any reader who wants a better understanding of their system one, and how to get along with it for fun, profit, and a longer, healthier, more successful life.

On Off Days

I’m having a bit of an off day today, so instead of a standard rant, you get:

Cut-rate rationality-themed superheroes!

Outside View – with the power to perceive the exterior of anything!

Cost Disease – with the power to infect you with somethine expensive to treat!

Murphyjitsu – with the power to make anything that can go wrong for his foes do so!

Groupthink – with the power to control many minds at once, but only to have the same thoughts and do the same things!

Illusion of Transparency – with the power to make a person think anything is completely clear!

Motivated (Cognition|Skepticism) – a team, with the power to give people reason to think about or doubt anything!

Bayes Man – His priors give him reason to think he can win this battle!

Paperclip Maximizer – with the power to make paperclips grow!

Philosophical Zombie – Not immune to mind control, but does what he was going to do anyway!

Do you have others? Add them in the comments!

Why You Don’t Want to Live in Ohio

Because it’s just kind of terrible.

Well, that was a short post. Join me next time, when I talk about-

Oh, you were expecting more details? I suppose I can indulge you.

I spent a couple of years in Ohio, largely living in Azeroth, as I put it, spending almost all of my time playing World of Warcraft. WoW was pretty great at the time, vanilla was my first MMO and I loved it. Gave myself a bit of the ol’ carpal tunnel spending nearly every waking hour levelling, farming, and occasionally making people’s lives miserable (I played on a PvP server. I loved world PvP, and warlock PvP, and I had a rogue named CruelGank. See On Names for some thoughts on how that played out. (Short version: gray daggers, garrote, Redridge Mountains. If this sentence is just so much noise to you, congratulations on not wasting your time in this fashion.))

We were living with Kierstal’s grandparents, who’d asked us to come down there because they were getting on in years and were having difficulty taking care of themselves. They were nice enough people, but most of the other people I met in the state were… not so great. I’m not interested in saying a bunch of harsh things about individual people. I’d rather talk about the atmosphere in the area.

There was a strong current of being ignorant and proud of it that made my skin crawl. I imagine that there are states in which this trait is more common, but I’ve never had to live in any of them. Meeting many people there, I felt a strong sense of, “What I know is everything that is important, don’t waste my time with teaching me anything.” At the time, I wasn’t as driven in personal growth, but the sense that someone would not just not be actively pursuing learning, but would actively shut it down evokes a sense of revulsion.

There was also the way people tended to be very, very traditional, in ways I found uncomfortable. At the time, I knew I was trans but hadn’t done anything active about it. I had also had experience in being polyamorous, and I was kink-curious. All of these put a fairly strong separation between me and most people I’d encounter there.

In any case, on to more specific pieces of my time there. As I said, we were there for her grandparents, and so we didn’t feel we needed to do much beyond what they needed, some heavy lifting, some yard work. Reasonably easy stuff. They were less than pleased with this – they expected me to get a job. After all, I was “male”, and they were very traditional, that way. I had no interest in holding a job – while I hadn’t worked out the reason most work doesn’t suit me, I did know that I felt a fair amount of dissatisfaction working in most realms I knew, and I’d just had a falling out with Martina not too long before, so I didn’t have a connection to find anyone to work for, and a disinterest in PCA work as well.

I spent a lot of my time there thinking about gender as it related to me. My dysphoria had gotten worse over time, and felt like a significant contributor to my gaming time. After all, at least when I was playing a game I could be seen as the person I was. Then I’d break from the game, to get food, or go to the bathroom, or go to bed, and be back in the form I found so objectionable. It was like getting methadone for part of the day, and then going into withdrawls for the rest of it. It was rough on me.

Another factor making life less than ideal there was Kierstal’s mother. She had been at a low point in her life through most of her life, and had leaned on her parents quite a bit to get by. She had a boyfriend at the time who got her into meth, stole some hardware from a home depot, and ripped off the grandparents; he was supposed to do some work on the window frames, and left the job roughly half done.

I recall at one point getting into a shouting match with Kierstal’s mother in the dining room at this point. I no longer recall exactly what the conversation started as – I think she was trying to extract money the grandparents didn’t really have, since her money was all going to meth, and her boyfriend wasn’t really working. Regardless, partway through it, I blew my top and started shouting at the top of my lungs. Not something I’m proud of, but hey. Fuel for current me to grow from, right?

After more than a year there, things went downhill pretty fast. Kierstal’s grandmother fell and couldn’t get up, even with our help, and refused to be taken to the hospital for days. She didn’t have the obvious signs of a stroke, so I didn’t push as hard on that as I could have. I imagine the other players in that scene have their own guilt from it, but yeah. I also don’t think that until just now, reflecting on the situation, that I’d updated enough from these events. Truly it is said that past you is always an incurable idiot.

From there, she went downhill fairly quickly, and died before long. Kierstal’s grandfather decided to move in with his son and sell the house, and we were left with a need to get out in a hurry. I reached out to some people for help, and got the advice to apply to return to UMass from my mother, and also a job offer from Martina, so back to Mass we went, in a Uhaul funded on borrowed funds, and with two crying cats in crates up front with us. Interesting way to cross the country.

Tune in next time, when I talk about taking another shot at college, and what happens when college, and work, and being the person responsible for most of the rent on your place, come together!