On Failure

As the Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries says,

“Failure is not an option – it is mandatory. The option is whether or not to let failure be the last thing you do.”

If you’ve read the autobiographical posts, you know that I’ve had a fair share of exposure to the experience of failure. Honestly, any human of adult age who hasn’t been insulated by privilege and money has, but I’ve failed a lot. The Lost Decade was me deciding to let failure be the last thing I did, and The Hell Year was, at least in my eyes, me failing again – so much so that I ended it with the only solution I could see, removing myself from the situation and letting her hit rock bottom.

On the whole, it is better that I ended up going my own way; my life is significantly improved, as is my mental state, as are my prospects. From the perspective of my personal utility, it’s been quite good. Of course, this perspective requires taking a long-term view, and not taking count of what effect the experience had on her – while my understanding is that she did pull herself together, having my abandon her like that must have been crushing.

So yes, I consider that whole incident a failure of mine – I could have done far, far better. Instead, I focused on my pain, and assumed she could work out her problems herself. In light of this, I ask myself what I ask every time I observe a failure, mine or that of others: “What have we learned?”

I learned that I want to pay more and better attention to what’s going on in the heads of the people I care about. I learned that I want to be better at understanding people, and improving their situations. And I learned that sometimes, protecting people from the consequences of their decisions isn’t the best thing you can do for them.

I’ve noticed, in the last few weeks, that my depression seems to be building back up. My motivation has dropped quite a bit, I have less confidence, less faith in myself and my ability to have a positive effect on this world’s outcomes. My past failures have taught me that I don’t need to accept this as is. While I am going to and have been taking a hit on my output, I don’t have to give in to it. I don’t have to let it control me, and I won’t. I’m not going to let it turn into another spiraling failure that consumes me, because I’ve learned.

And you, dear reader? What failures have you lived through, and what have they taught you?

On Internal Alignment

I’ve spent a fair amount of the last year learning about and acting on issues of internal alignment – bringing satisfaction of values to all of my parts. In my life I’ve often been quite imbalanced, satisfying the parts that want ‘play’ and ‘escapism’ over all others. The part that wants to learn ended up being drowned out by the part that wants not to be confronted with not being so brilliant I understand everything instantly. The part that wants to save the world was overrun by the part that doesn’t want to be embarrassed, and the former didn’t have anything like enough expectancy to fight back with.

In short, I was a mess… but then, if you’ve been reading the autobiographical posts, you knew that.

I still haven’t sorted everything out, and gotten all of my parts on board, but we’re getting there, bit by bit.

One piece of making this happen has been paying better attention internally, and not trying to just force the outcomes “I” want. It turns out driving yourself that way works out badly over long timescales. I trace a lot of my personal akrasia to being at war inside myself, and I really enjoy the outcome of the massive boost in productivity I’ve gotten from not being at war.

This does, however, mean that sometimes I have to do stuff that’s less productive, on a short time horizon. At the end of last week I started getting requests to take a week or two off. I considered it, and consulted with my partner, and the end result is that I’m taking some me time this week and next. I’ll be taking care of that which is necessary, and that which I find I want to do, but I’m not going to drive myself the way I have been. It’s likely that my book review this week will be delayed, and next week will have fewer than three posts, but I think you’ll forgive me this.

What about you, dear reader? What does your internal alignment look like? What have you learned about working together with yourself?

Why I Want to Work at MIRI

Death sucks.

Death sucks a lot.

I talked about this somewhat in, “On Grief“, about how painful death is on those of us who are still here. Losing people you care about forever is agonizing. To never see them again, never make them smile again, all the unhad conversations and silent moments together, this is unacceptable, but we’re left with it anyway.

There’s also, of course, the loss to the guest of honor at the funeral. All your hopes and dreams, everything you wanted to do and say, the experiences you could have had, all gone. All value gone, turned into a game over screen with no continues and nobody to see it.

We should not leave out the loss to the world, either. A person is gone, taking with them their unique viewpoint and all of their experience. Everything they knew, every skill they had, every idea, gone, just like that, because of a biological hiccup.

It’s unacceptable. It is not to be borne.

The only real resolution that I see to this problem is a superhuman artificial intelligence, aligned to human values. Nothing else offers a complete solution the way more intelligence does. With what we humans have we’ve pushed death back, raised the length of the average lifespan bit by bit as our generations passed, but we still die in the end.

Even if SENS is fully successful, and aging becomes a process that is fully managed and no longer a threat, we still have risks – I’ve been told someone ran the actuarial calculations and found that in the absence of aging we’d average about eight hundred years and die to accidents. It’s certainly far better, but we’d still have to say goodbye.

Aside from that of course we’re still left with the problems of war, disease, and violence. While we’ve reduced these, they’re still factors in the ending of lives, and this doesn’t touch on x-risks – biotech, nanotech, unaligned artificial intelligence, climate change, all threats to us that SENS can’t touch, and solving any of these doesn’t resolve the others, except for AI. An optimizer that’s more intelligent than we are can actually touch these things.

So I’ve made the case now to work in alignment, but why MIRI?

MIRI’s working on a model called HRAD – Highly Reliable Agent Design. Machine learning systems that we have been building thus far are largely trained by rewarding the system for making the ‘right’ choice when given problems, which causes the system to update slightly in that direction. The problem with doing things this way is that we end up with a system that’s a black box – we don’t know what it is that makes it decide what it does in any sort of detail, and giving them novel inputs is a crapshoot – one example is of a system intended to scan photographs for tanks. The researchers fed it a bunch of pictures that had tanks, and a bunch of pictures with out, then tested it on the other photographs in the set, which it classified perfectly.

When they presented it to the military, the military tested it and found that it didn’t do better than chance. It turned out that in all of the training data, the pictures of tanks were taken on cloudy days, and the non-tanks were on sunny days. The system distinguished weather, not tanks.

We need AGI that values what we value, and I think MIRI is doing the best work in this direction, and I want to be a part of it.

Because I want to do the highest leverage thing that I can.

To stop the AI from eating us all.

To end death.

Why I wrote “Against Cryo-Defeatism”

Earlier this year I wrote an essay-length email to be sent to a cryonics mailing list I’m on. While I’ve hopes that I’ll survive until singularity, there are no guarantees in this world. While I’ve dreams that involve recovering our dead, the ability to do so is even less assured. Certainly there are differing viewpoints on this, and I don’t have adequate reason to support my belief that we can to outright dismiss all others.

So I’m on a mailing list, and I pay attention to advances in the state of the art, because it is an improvement in the chances of people to live in a world in which we’ve won – ended involuntary death, put down suffering suffered unwillingly, and ensured that everyone has a path to satisfaction of their values. Cryonics-interested people are future oriented and think that technology can solve problems.

Knowing this, I found the conversation that essay is a response to, to be a painful one. There was a thread discussing one of the old canards about living forever, of how terrible it would be because of things changing, and people dying, and how really, immortality wasn’t something to strive for. Reading that was really quite hurtful.

People who are interested enough in survival to be talking about technologies that most people consider to be science fiction acting like immortality would be a burden was both unexpected, and touches an exposed nerve for me. The sour grapes attitude most people bring to the fact that death has been a constant throughout history is something like nails on a chalkboard to me. That was only amplified when I had my filters regarding it down because I expected this list to be about the desirability of life and how to get more.

In response, I spent several hours crying and crafting that essay, trying to convey the true depth of my views and feelings, because if anyone should know better, the cryo community certainly should. I then spent another week having people I know with writing experience comment on improving it, compressing it from the original four pages down to the two it now occupies, and I think increasing the punch a good deal.

I don’t want anyone to have to die, and I had some hopes that maybe the attitude that losing is inevitable could be beaten back here.

It didn’t have all the impact I’d hoped, but I think I swayed some people, and I think it was a helpful step forward in my acquisition of agency – gotta build up that expectancy, right?

For now, though, back to working on alignment, because I think if we don’t solve that, we’re really screwed.

We’re looking at now, now

At the start of this year, we moved. The place where we’d been living had issues, chief amongst which was that there was some sort of compound that it leaked into the air. Several people had noted it, that there was an increase in depression and a reduction in executive function and motivation while they were there, and I’m fairly sure it hit me, too. Certainly I got depressed while I was there, and it shot my production level to hell. Admittedly, I had reason to be sad, having lost a longtime friend, but not like that.

So we moved. Found a place at another rationalist house, known as Tesla House, which is short for Doctor Tesla’s House of Electrical Fun. It acquired its name with an electrified towel rack to start. Not, to be clear, an electric towel rack, which heats to dry the towels. A towel rack that when hung had penetrated electrical cabling, and now provided a shock when touched. That was exciting.

There’s also the interesting way about half of the outlets were wired backwards; less exciting, but still annoying. The house has a few other ‘features’, but I don’t want to spend all of this post talking smack about a place that I’m actually fairly happy in.

As I had time away from Liminal, and with some antidepressants from my doctor, things started to clear up, and with some ADHD meds, I even started to be productive, but it wasn’t until I started a polyphasic sleep experiment that things really went FOOM. I tried an E2 schedule, with 5 hours and ten minutes of sleep daily, and those three hours per day really started to add up.

As well, I think my expectancy started really building during this time. Suddenly I was doing things, in a way I hadn’t before. Instead of being a drag to get things done, it was exciting! I had hope of doing meaningful things in the future, which is a truly novel experience to me – I’ve been used to thinking that I could be useful to others, but that my role was still largely support – to help others rise.

As I’ve mentioned, I record the work I do, and I went from managing 20 hours in a week, barely (and not that, in the worst of my depression) to 40, to 60, to 80. I’ve done 90 in a week, although that feels like an unsustainable amount right now. I average 60-80 now, regularly.

During the first polyphasic adaptation attempt, I was kind of a mess chemically. I was on antidepressants and ADHD meds and THC and nicotine and stimulants – I’ve described it as “running myself like a chemistry experiment,” because I was. This came back to bite me in the ass. 60 days into the attempt, I hit a nasty depressive patch. While snap depressions like that hit me sometimes, I’ve always been able to sleep them off, which wasn’t the case with this. My current belief is that due to all of the things I was on, my sleep quality was too screwed with to be able to manage proper compression, and the stimulants were papering over the sleep debt accumulation, so I looked adapted if you didn’t look too closely, but I clearly wasn’t.

It was during this experiment that I had my falling out with the Fleet crew. They had decided to double down on veganism, and my boots caused an argument that led to us parting ways and my talking to some of my partners about their philosophy. We discussed some of the errors they saw, and on the whole, I think despite having provided some of the elements of my powering up, I’m better off having gone my own way. I’m grateful for what I got from them, but I don’t think that their philosophy or action plans are going to lead to FAI; since that’s what I’m after, it doesn’t really make sense for me to be following along with them.

Instead, I’m working on my own projects. I’m studying math, music, programming, and of course all of the books I’ve been reviewing. I lead an AI safety reading group, I’m still doing experiments to gain more time in my days, I’ve been doing an insane amount of stuff compared with any other time in my life. I quit THC and nicotine, and while the residue stayed in my body long enough to mess up a second polyphasic adaptation attempt, I’m sleeping much better now.

The frustrating thing is that it feels like it’s still not enough. I’m not learning fast enough, not growing fast enough; I have so very far to go to ascend to the level I need to be at. All I can do is keep pushing and trying to grow stronger. At the least, I know I can keep pushing, and I know that that’s the secret to getting anywhere – keep going.

But I need to go faster. I need to get stronger.

One day at a time.

Boats, Heroes, and Sith

2017-12-31: I arrive in San Francisco. I am as far west as I have ever been, in a place that has been semi-mythical to me for most of my life, and, I realize, standing in the BART station, I am LOST. Not in the sense that I have wandered off my path somewhere, but in the sense that my sense of direction doesn’t get my location.

I’ve always had a fairly strong sense of direction, I’ve surprised people by being able to point in the direction of things in places I’ve never been, but most of my travel has been on land. When I’ve flown to other places, people have picked me up, and I start locating myself by being moved, or following the directions supplied me by others. I am for the first time navigating with only my phone in a strange place.

This is unsettling to me; I had a minor freakout, but eventually made it to my AirBnB, a converted garage, my home for the next few weeks. I spent the next few weeks shivering, even with a heater turned on me, and trying to find a place to live. Between being cold, the difficulty of finding accommodation, and the earthquake that happened a few days after I arrived, I wonder if I’ve made a terrible mistake by coming here.

All things considered housing didn’t take that long to find. I took over a room in Milvia House, a rationalist house on, in a shocking turn of events, Milvia street. Being one of the first, the tradition of names optimized for interestingness hadn’t hit it.

I got settled in, started attending LessWrong meetups, and trying to figure out what to do with my time. I no longer really wanted to game or read fiction all the time, but I wasn’t really sure what I could do. Meeting people was a good start, and made acceptable contributions to my time log, an agreement between my partner and I that I will do at least 20 hours of work that is worthwhile per week, but it was only a start.

When I was in Colorado looking for my next place, I’d looked into rationalist groups doing housing, and one had caught my eye – Rationalist Fleet. I’ve always had a desire to live on a boat, and while I’d found another place to live in Colorado at the time, I was in the Bay Area now. I decided to reach out and see if I could help their project along.

That was how I ended up having one of the more important conversations of my life thus far, and began one of the stranger associations. Someone at a meetup knew the Fleet founders and put me in touch with them towards the end of February. We spoke, and I described myself as I saw myself at the time: a natural sergeant. Someone who was in the middle layer, who made things happen without being on the pointy end of decisionmaking – I was an implementer, not a decider.

Ziz(the titular Sith(her word, not mine)) made it quite clear in that conversation that they had no interest in sergeants. They were only interested in heroes, people who could take the project over if necessary. We ended that conversation, and I thought for a week on the matter, about who I was, who I wanted to be, and what I wanted to do.

A week later, I had decided: I was a hero; I had limited myself, having a lower opinion than I should have due to my backstory, and the limiting effect of thinking of myself as a supporting cast member rather than a main character. I would step to the front, be on point, and come what may, I wasn’t going to back down.

This began an association that got me several shipside experiences on the Robert Gray, which sometimes took us out to Caleb, the Fleet’s tugboat. I got to do a lot of physical work putting things into a workable order there, cleaning up and epoxying a rowboat, prepping zincs, playing little Dutch Boy at one point with my finger in a hull-hole while I waited for the cement to be prepared. It was good experience for me, but the primary purpose of my being there was to collect the philosophy and mental tech that Ziz and Gwen had gathered / originated.

This was… less successful.

I did pick up some things from them, mostly in terms of self-actualization, and it took a long time – for basically all of 2018, I was in a state I described as ‘inert’. I had a lot of trouble moving myself to do things without outside pushes. It was increasingly frustrating to me, and from my current perspective, looks very much like a mindset problem.

I think my time working with Z&G before we parted ways earlier this year was good for me, but I can’t recommend it as a general thing for people to do – their philosophy has major issues, their mental tech seems flawed, and I basically picked out and incorporated the bits that were helpful to me, while not being wedded to the rest (I also had a very clever girl help me to see some of the issues).

Aside from time spent on ships, other interesting things happened that year – the REACH opened in March, and I reached out to Stardust about volunteering for it. I got to help set the place up, and I spent a lot of 2018 before late fall hosting coworking in the space. I’m a large fan of community spaces, and I think the REACH has added a lot to Berkeley. I’m pretty proud of the time I’ve spent here (currently typing this on a couch in the REACH).

The next major event was probably the end of Milvia House. There had been interpersonal events which I don’t feel it’s my place to set on the internet and several members decided that they wanted to move on rather than continue living with one of the housemates. As nobody still residing there was on the lease, and the landlord had been included in a post to the mailing list about how he was screwing us on rent, he was disinclined to rent to us again, and we went our separate ways.

I moved to Cactus House, subletting a half-room for a few months. It was at least still convenient to host at REACH; I didn’t spend much time at home, since I had places to be and things to do. It was around this time that I decided to try being vegan. I am capable of doing so, but it’s got a high overhead for me, and the place I’ve come to on it is that I’d rather keep my optimization power for upskilling to save the world. These days, I’m mostly vegetarian – I drink milk, eat eggs (choline!) and I have roughly one meat meal per month, because I seem to work better when I do so.

My sublet at Cactus was strongly time-limited, and by the end of it, my primary partner still hadn’t arrived (we’d planned to get housing together, but he needed to be here for that). I spent much of the next month couchsurfing, sleeping at a friend’s or at REACH, and coming to a realization: I had a problem.

Specifically, I was dissociating from my emotions, and I noticed it because it was starting to eat into my positive emotions. I’d started having trouble feeling anything at all.

The friends I was crashing with were, luckily for me (remember I mentioned being lucky?) they were actually quite good at this kind of issue – they’d worked through some of their own CPTSD and that of others.

A lot of what helped was remembering a time I’d been in an emotional state, and telling that story. While I was, it was pointed out that I was outputting anger – my movements, my body language, my tone had all changed. With events like that, and some therapy through intoxication, I was able to get a lot more connected to my emotions, which was great, because shortly after that my partner arrived.

I started sleeping at the REACH every night, because he’d taken a room temporarily, and we began looking for housing in earnest, eventually moving into Liminal house. While the room was reasonable for us, Liminal has an emissions problem. Some kind of VOC seeps into the atmosphere, and it screwed up my motivation and put me into a depression. Being depressed and unmotivated was not a great state to be in, when I heard about Martina dying. While our relationship had been strained, I still cared a lot about her, as I’ve described elsewhere. I closed out my year crying a lot, and wishing I were stronger, because the world was on fire and the fire had just consumed someone I cared about.

Colorado Dreamin’ (wait…)

When I left off last week, I had just quit the only job I’ve held longer than a year at a time, broken a decade long silence with my mother, and given my cat and Martina’s to someone who could take them in. I packed what I owned and UPSed it, and got on a plane.

This was all pretty scary, and going to Colorado was as well; with the noted bug with long-term employment, and my stellar educational history (for those of you who haven’t been keeping score at home, I have neither a high school nor college diploma) I was pretty worried about picking up work, but while I wasn’t sure of my future, I knew my past couldn’t continue, and one of my valuable qualities, I think, is being able to recognize that, and then to start walking.

So I walked onto a plane, and went further from “home” (The Pioneer Valley) than I’ve ever been, into the home shared by, as I mentioned, my guild leader: Dread Mistress Verana Bloodrose, Our Lady of Fluids and Flowers, Savior of Patio Furniture, First of Her Name, and Gray (no titles) who kindly offered me space without immediately demanding rent – I paid rent while I had money left, and when I ran out, they went so far as to buy me food and other desirables.

At the time I was an officer of The Final Frontier, and the main tank in our raiding. I spent ~ ten hours a week being out in front and getting pounded on for the common good, and a lot of the remaining hours ingame either talking, giving advice, or doing stuff to advance the guild.

So I spent the rest of October and November recovering from sleep deprivation and the stress I’d been under, and starting to apply to jobs. In December Blood got a job offer from a company known then as Vantiv, later to be bought out by WorldPay, and I think they just go bought out again by some other player in the space. I applied to them using her as a reference / referral, and was hired myself to a training started in February.

Aside from the commute it was in many ways the best job I’d held. I was making more hourly than I ever had, and I had paid leave. PCAs can’t even get paid for all of the hours we were actually doing things, so you can imagine how novel being paid not to be there was.

As to the commute, I rode with Blood while we were both in training, and after that I biked – 8 miles each way, and while Colorado is gorgeous, it is not flat. But I had the Animas River trail to follow most of the way – I often saw deer, and once I had the experience of being scared silly by seeing a bear cub (Where’s the mother where’s the mother where’s the mother PEDAL HARDER). I saw meteors in the predawn starscape, and I saw a mountain burning at one point. There was even a certain amount of pride to take in being able to ride 16 miles a day – I’ve now biked a distance equivalent of coast to coast in less than a year.

For six weeks, I trained in how to handle incoming calls – where to send the ones that weren’t for me in technical support, and the many ways credit card readers and reporting can go awry and what do to about it. I remained gung-ho about my employment through this time.

in the following months, there was a slow decline in my work satisfaction. People I enjoyed working with departed, and I found as the novelty wore off , it honestly wasn’t a very good job. with the local cost of living, the pay was actually fairly poor, and when confronted on this, management took the stance that to live in Durango was a privilege and it was unreasonable to expect to be well-paid, too. I learned that having a business, even a reasonably successful one, was no guarantee of intelligence or civility, and that I, as technical support, would often bear the brunt of people’s frustration at being confronted with technology they didn’t understand, and distrusted.

What I didn’t realize until later is that another factor, one that I think was the heaviest, is that the work I was doing didn’t really improve anything. It mattered little in any real sense if I were there or not – the wheels of commerce would grind on regardless; I wasn’t actually improving the world.

Around midsummer, I started looking for other outlets. Gaming wasn’t satisfying, and neither was my work, any longer. I had been lightly following the rationality community for some time – I often had some bit of the Sequences as the comment seen by hovering over my name on the instant messenger at work, when I wasn’t quoting CGP Grey. I’ve read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality more times than I’ve read Worm, and I think that says a lot – I really love Worm. I decided to get actually connected, and I joined the discord linked to from Slate Star Codex, which I think is a source of some truly excellent posts.

From there, I made friends, which led, in a fairly reasonable series of steps, to joining (a synthetic syncretic religion|a cult) – Origin. With the aim of destroying all evil in the universe, we were not thinking small, at least. Origin was an attempt to build a self-reinforcing, self-extending memeplex that would grow to be embraced by the world at large.

While it failed in that goal, it did evoke some changes in me. I started reducing my meat consumption, and I started to think I had a place in the efforts to save the world – not a leading role, but for quite some time I had considered myself a sergeant or lieutenant in the the world – someone whose role was to assist, to help another or others to achieve the goals they set.

I started spending less time gaming – clearing a night to make Origin meetings, and thinking about the state of the world more when previously I had chatted in guild and public channels. I started thinking of the world as something I had to do something about, and not just something that happened to me.

My lack of focus on the game had costs – anothe player, who did nothing but tank, was better than me and wanted my role, and I didn’t have enough focus to fight her, but I also didn’t want to be supplanted. Painfully, though, I had to admit that I couldn’t outtank her, if she chose to, and I stepped down.

Other changes – Gray decided he wanted to move on from Durango, and Blood wanted to move on from Vantiv. He went across the state, and she went across the country to be with her partner in California. I found a place with some other co-workers, smaller but closer to work and cheaper. I started looking at ways to advance inside the company, but it felt hollow to pursue more money, and I did little about it.

One morning in October I woke up in agony. My right piriformis muscle had cramped, and my right leg was a construct of broken glass and molten lead connected to nerves. This was not a condition I could ride into work in, and I ended up spending more than a week out, spent mostly lying on the floor in agony and waiting for the muscle relaxants to work. To this day part of my right leg is numb from the damage done.

This almost seemed to be an inflection point. All of the joy had gone out of working, and it was just a pure drag. I was grinding for money that was barely paying the bills and that I’ve never really had the same kind of draw to that most people seem to, and it just wasn’t enough. I wanted Out.

I had a conversation with Mark (previously mentioned in The Hell Year) about this, and he told me that he could give me a live-in position with him. At the time, it seemed like PCA was the only job I was going to be able to hold in any lasting way, so I jumped for it. I put in my two weeks notice, I informed my landlord that I’d be going, and then I started trying to plan the trip. I asked Mark for dates to plan around, and got back empty assurances – things world work out, he was just a little busy.

Finally, while I was visiting my parents, I gave him an ultimatum – that if I didn’t hear back in the next two days, I’d need to figure something else out.

Ne never responded, and I was left with no job, a very temporary living space, and no plan. However, it might have occurred to you, reading this narrative, that I am lucky. I had not long before started a new relationship with my current primary, and he had an answer for me:

Go to California.

Go to Berkeley, find the community there, and get connected up.

He would pay my way, and I would do worthwhile things.

This was the start of the most recent, most interesting, and all around best segment of my life thus far, and I’ll start detailing the first subsection next week.

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.

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.

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.