Sipping Reality

The value of disengaging in the creative process

When someone refuses to face a problem, we have all sorts of metaphors for their behavior. We tell them they are “turning a blind eye,” and the implication of looking at something with one’s eyes closed is clear. But why do we accuse them of sticking their “head in the sand?” That’s not just avoiding conflict. That’s life threatening. You could asphyxiate!

You may have seen a popular myth in the entertainments of your youth when you saw an ostrich hiding its head in the sand, thinking that would protect it from a predator. You probably saw it portrayed and didn’t question it. But ostriches don’t do that. The only reason an ostrich puts its head in the sand is to go into its nest and turn its eggs with its beak.

And that is a better metaphor for how I’ve begun to balance my news consumption and my creative pursuits. I occasionally have to put my head close to the earth and forget about politics and wars and natural disasters. I have to tend to my eggs too. I put them in a special secret space I think of as my writing and composing desk. And when they are fully matured, my stories and music head out into the world.

When I watch MSNBC incessantly, I forget about my eggs, sometimes for days at a time. When I read the New York Times, I worry that my contributions to the world are not worth nurturing against such rampant evil. Our brains are problem-solvers, so if we keep them working on current events, fighting that unwinnable war, they can’t spend as much time figuring out characters’ motivations, the most surprising plot twists, the perfect setting.

My eggs need my attention. If I don’t turn them periodically, I hobble my stories, my music. They become stunted. They don’t run. They don’t sing. They don’t survive.

I tell myself I’m busy and stressed. I have a new relationship, a new job, and my writing career is taking off. It’s okay if I take a few days off from creating, isn’t it? I have quite a few eggs ready to hatch. Do I really need to worry about laying more?

Yes, I do. I need to turn away from all the sensationalized coverage of crazy, selfish people and stick my head in the sand every day or two. I’ve got eggs that need turning, so they will hatch and become healthy, beautiful, young ostriches.

I don’t need to cloister myself from reality. I can take sips from it, every now and then, because I need to update my snapshot of reality. While I’m hiding away, working on something I hope will speak to the readers out there in the world, the zeitgeist might have moved on, and my labors in solitude become quaint. As much as we expect our journalists to be vigilant, we need to expect the same vigilance from our artists. There will be time to create in solitude or collaboration again once we know what we need to write about, or especially if we are hoping something we create now will still be relevant when an egg hatches (reaches its audience) that we laid perhaps years before.

I’ve got an “egg” that got its first crack in it recently. I suspect that little ostrich will be ready to hatch by summer. Maybe a couple others will hatch about the same time. The midterm elections are over, so I can lay another egg or two and then put my beak back into the sand and turn the other ones. I try to keep turning those eggs right up until the first crack in the shell appears. And I’ll pull my head out of the sand regularly to look for hyenas and cheetahs. I don’t have to keep my eyes on the horizon all the time.


The Evolution of Language

Or why I’m one of the last to leave a convention

I used to be a board game publisher and designer. I used to design games, playtest them, hire artists to make them look better, assemble them myself in my tiny warehouse or eventually send them to China to be manufactured and packaged, hire salespeople, finance print runs, send out review copies, and all the other stuff you’d expect.

And yes, I had to do interviews and make promotional videos. I still may get back into game design and publishing, but that’s a back-burner project for now.

Recently I was thinking of Toy Fair and other game conventions I used to attend to try to increase my company’s sales. I remember how exhausting it was to be standing on my feet and being “on” for many hours at a time. And after being “up” for so long, it was an odd feeling of relief and depression I often felt when it ended and it was time to start packing up. I would wander through the newly empty corridors and halls and talk to those who were dallying in the process like I was. It seemed to help with the let-down.

That’s why I used to stay too long at conventions.

This post is supposed to be about the evolution of language though. And I’m getting to that. Because that, too, is about how long one should hang around a convention.

Some changes in language happen suddenly. Frequently, a U.S. President will misspeak, and then we get a new word like normalcy or covfefe.

Other changes in language happen more slowly. When an inconvenience of gendered languages–resorting to “he or she” when the gender of a person is unknown–becomes a political statement, people shouldn’t expect fast results. The evolution of they as a singular pronoun for a person of unknown gender had been a lazy refuge for less educated speakers and writers for decades. Arguments about 14th century pronoun usage are irrelevant. “They are,” like “we are,” has been the accepted standard for several centuries since then.

But in the past ten years or so, as social media has made all of us more frequent writers, the small, personal requests of nonbinary and transgender people asking people to use a particular gendered pronoun in referring to them in the third person expanded. Even cisgendered (binary) people started ending their Twitter profiles with a declaration of their preferred pronoun. It morphed into a world where it was safer to use “they” when you didn’t know someone’s preferred pronoun.

There have been all sorts of other attempts at de-gendering English, but there is a fundamental problem with changing he and she to zie. It’s already difficult writing scenes with two characters of the same gender, because we are forced to use the exact same pronoun for each of them. At least in scenes with mixed genders of speakers, one could easily identify who was speaking or doing something without being forced to use their name as the subject of every sentence. This is what I fear we’ll be left with:

“I feel like you don’t really see me,” Sam said.

Zie didn’t understand what zie meant, so zie just shook hir head.

If you thought “he or she” was odious, the somersaults we’ll have to do when gendered pronouns disappear will be even worse.

I will probably some day concede the use of singular they in limited use (when the gender or pronoun preference of the subject is unknown only):

I heard someone scream. I didn’t know who they were.

I will probably be fine when nonbinary people want to use the gender-neutral they to refer to themselves:

River stopped for a moment and looked at their hand.

But please stop telling me I have no compassion for transgender and nonbinary people simply because I won’t easily give in to their demands to get rid of he and she. I was an English major, and I’ve been a professional editor for decades. My livelihood depends on me understanding when the tide has turned in language. Don’t expect me to demand premature usage rules of my employers or give up my non-binary-ally membership card. If you can afford to push linguistic changes, more power to you.

I won’t lead the charge. I will be in the back cheering you on. Especially if you leave me with more than one non-gendered singular pronoun to choose from, so I can assign each to a different character in a scene.

Why do straight parents keep having gay kids?

I’ve known I was gay for over thirty years, and I can trace hints of it back to when I was four years old. Of the two kids my age who lived down the street at the duplex, I preferred spending time with Max more than Gifi (a girl). They were both nice and into me, but Max’s attention meant more to me.

And as an adult gay man, I started running into “metrosexual” straight guys that read gay to me, people whose gender and sexual preference was fluid, hermaphrodites, and men and women who presented a spectrum from butch to femme. I studied biology a bit, but I eventually left that behind and focused on writing.

I noticed that when I started writing, my characters were, not surprisingly, I suppose, just like me in many ways except for one. They were mostly hetero. It took awhile for me to realize that the media I had consumed was not the only way it could be, and I started branching out to female characters, queer characters, and characters of different races and religions.

It has only been in the past year that I have started to include bisexual, transgender, and nonbinary characters in my writing. (My current novel-in-progress has a bisexual, blind, and physically disabled protagonist.) So although I’d been reading up on gender and sexual variations for years, it has only been recently that I can truly represent the widest possible variations in the nonfiction book I’d been simmering for so long.

It had started as an exercise many of us undertake at some point. Why am I the way I am? It finds an easier answer for straight people, I suspect; you can trace most of your uniqueness to one or both parents. It may be why adopted adults so often seek information on their birth parents.

But when you have something about yourself that isn’t true of either of your parents–or even their parents perhaps–you have to cast a wider net. I allowed myself to take the half-answer that science had offered: I was a statistical outlier, but a perennial possibility. But why me, and not my sisters? Why me and not my cousins or uncles or grandparents? I wondered about my maiden great-aunts, and I had a second cousin who seemed destined to join the rainbow brigade and didn’t. I was not just a statistical outlier. I was an outlier in my family.

I was a little too proud to consider that I had been the architect of my sexual variation. I had pretty clear proof by the time I was sixteen that it was the direction I was heading. Even decades later, the idea of sex with a woman seems at best a dubiously pleasurable act I was unlikely ever to dare.

So then we zoom out and look at what society or Mother Nature might have to gain by minting another gay man in a small college town in Wisconsin. Some have theorized that LGBTQ people have a role to play in society as entertainers and counselors and babysitters. That seems to ascribe cause to results. When your gender and/or sexuality doesn’t fit the standard mold, you are more like to fill societies gaps and fringes.

Mother Nature seemed to be the best candidate for my force majeure. I had read about kangaroos that can halt their pregnancy until they get more water. I had read about rodent parents that start eating their offspring when resources get low. They were all seemingly responding to environmental stress. Perhaps humans had some mechanism for decreasing their overpopulation too.

The breakthrough in my search came when I read a chapter in a book with the title “Recipe for a Lesbian Sheep.” It appears researchers in New Zealand figured out the time during a ewe’s pregnancy when they could inject testosterone and be assured of a young ewe that would grow up to mount other ewes and be treated as a ram by rams.

I knew that human mothers frequently experienced hormonal imbalances. There needs to be a balance between estrogens and testosterone, or the woman experiences adverse reactions. In the best circumstances, we convert cholesterol into the hormone that begets all other hormones downstream. That hormone can become either cortisol or DHEA. The latter can be converted into either sex hormone, depending on which is in shorter supply.

When we are stressed, we produce more cortisol, less DHEA. This cortisol stealing means that sex hormone imbalances can persist longer. If, as our lesbian sheep experiment shows, our sexual orientation can be affected by a flood of a particular sex hormone right at the time that part of the fetal brain is forming, stress could be the catalyst.

In that case, a pregnant woman, near the end of her second trimester and the beginning of her third, might experience a stressful event. In primordial times, the stress would likely be about scarce resources, and in that case, you would want fewer reproducing offspring. In modern times, it could be brought on by any number of stresses, which could (to greater and lesser degrees) relate to crowding, scarce resources, or more generally overpopulation. The imbalance of hormones could easily change the sexual orientation, mannerisms, or gender identity, depending on what part of the fetal brain was being built at the time.

So if homosexuality is an environmental response to overpopulation, it would continue to pop up with a certain random percentage of the population. There is no gay gene to breed out. That’s why straight parents keep having gay kids.

I hope to complete some research and start writing a book to examine this thesis in more detail. Let me know in your comments if you’d like to participate.

The journey begins . . . or did it?

I wrote my first story at age 9–a horror story about a hole in the wall shaped like an old-fashioned radio. There used to be a radio like that in the northern Wisconsin cabin where my family often spent a summer week when I was young. I don’t remember much else about the story except that it was really, really short. I guess the ancient features of the cabin–a potbelly stove, a hand pump instead of a faucet in the kitchen sink, an outhouse, and furniture handmade from birch and pine–made me think of ghosts and otherworldly influences.

I fell in love with poetry not long after that, and I started penning such winning juvenalia as:

Poets cling to one clear fact

As doors do to a door hinge:

There’s absolutely nothing you

Can ever rhyme with orange.

In college, I studied creative writing, and I tried both poetry and fiction, but nothing very momentous came of it. I had led a fairly privileged, safe life, and I had very little to draw on. After college I dabbled with playwriting and got hooked by writing musicals. I even had a staged reading of one at Fort Mason in San Francisco: a musical about three roommates living in St. Paul, Minnesota and learning to live with each other. Notably, one of the principal characters in “Movin’ In” was a straight actress with an exhibitionist fetish.

By the time I made it to Los Angeles, my creative energies went into boardgame design, which I turned into a publishing company shortly after arriving in New York, eight years later. A recession in 2008 left me broke and made it impossible to replenish my inventory, so I started doing more freelance editing and joined a chorus.

After joining a writers group, I started to write more speculative fiction, and one of the plot ideas served as the seed for a family opera I’m writing. And I eventually got three short stories published. And I finished my fifth novel. And now I have an agent.

So I’m taking music theory lessons, trying to slowly proceed with scoring the opera, writing more short stories, and starting a sixth novel while waiting for a publisher to sign one of the previous ones. Stay tuned.