Monthly Archives: August 2012

Relinking to My Comment Deletions Policy

Getting a few requests this week from folks asking if I wouldn’t mind deleting their (generally non-objectionable) comments on the site. Yes, in fact, I would mind, and here’s the explanation why.

Quick advice: Don’t make a comment on this site you don’t want to have exist for as long as the Internet exists and possibly longer.

I’ve added this advice and a link to the longer explanation to my Site Disclaimer and Comment Policy.

Feral Kitten Update, 8/18/12

The feral kitten who has been hanging around the house has been caught. We’ve been leaving cat food in the garage for the thing so a) it wouldn’t starve to death, b) it would be lulled into a false sense of complacency and I could capture it by closing the outside door to the garage and then chasing it about until I laid hands on it. Well, b) happened this afternoon, although the thing led me on a merry chase for several minutes, including trying to jam itself into the wheel wells of my car. But eventually I caught the thing, shoved it into our cat carrier, and then walked it down to the Rabbit Room in the basement, which I had prepped for the kitten. The rabbit room (from which the rabbit has recently vacated) will be a fine place for the kitten to stay until such time as we are able to take it to the vet and have its shots given, gonads removed and so on and so forth. It will also allow us (i.e., me) a little time to see if the thing can be domesticated. It’s small enough and young enough that I suspect the answer could be yes.

It should be noted that the kitten was not pleased to be captured; it scratched me up pretty fiercely (see picture to the right) and it was a challenge not to just drop the twisty little thing. I kept hold of it primarily because I knew if I dropped it I would just have to try to capture it again later, and it wasn’t going to make that capture any easier than it was going to make it this time. So I took the scratches. My daughter was very impressed. Immediately afterward I washed, cleaned and disinfected the scratches and am keeping an eye on them to make sure nothing untoward happens to them. they’re not the worst scratches I got from a cat (those I got from Zeus, a couple years back). I think I’ll be fine.

So now I have four cats in the house: three who have the run of the place and seem mostly to be find of me, and one down in a room, who thinks I am the worst creature who ever lived. Well, fine. At the end of it, the cat will be fed, warm and safe, so I’m okay in the short run with it thinking I am a terrible human being. If it lives long enough, maybe it will change its mind.

 

Dungeon Stomping

I popped over to the gaming convention GenCon yesterday, in civilian (i.e., not performing monkey) mode, because Wil Wheaton was there and I wanted to hang with him a bit. When I e-mailed him earlier in the week about dropping by, he sent an e-mail back saying “ZOMG DO YOU WANT TO DO TRUE DUNGEON WITH ME IT’LL BE AWESOME.” I of course had no idea what he was talking about, so I responded with an e-mail that said, more or less, “Bwuh?” To which Wil informed me that True Dungeon was a walk-through role playing game, in which everyone assumed adventurer roles in a dungeon-crawling campaign; like D&D except you get exercise and you have life-sized props and the occasional actual human playing an NPC. I have to admit I wasn’t wildly excited about the idea — I prefer hanging out in a bar to LARPing in any form — but Wil was clearly excited about it and he’s adorable when he gets that way, so what the hell, why not.

As it turns out, True Dungeon was a lot of fun. Part of it was the team of adventurers, which aside from me and Wil included Patrick Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson, Will Hindmarch, Robert Gifford of Geek Chic, another friend of Wil’s whose name I am embarrassingly blanking on despite the fact I have met him several times and like him as a person (my excuse: he has a unusual name and I’m running on a sleep deficit, since I got home at 3:30am) Boyan Radakovich, Creative Director of Gamesmith (I remembered his name just after posting this), and then Heather, Mike and John, three folks brought in to round out our group and who were very knowledgeable about the game and how to run through it. As you can imagine this crew was not boring to run about with. Everyone picked characters more or less comporting with their own personalities; I was a monk, which in the True Dungeon world meant I mostly ran around hitting things. Or as I said during the game “I am a monk! I do two things! I punch and I pray!” Brandon was a cleric (he healed me, twice, because when you punch things they punch back), Wil was a wizard, and Pat I’m pretty sure just played as Pat.

The other part was the game itself, which was challenging and fun. True Dungeon has two tracks you can play through — combat and puzzles — and we chose the puzzle track, which with this crew was almost certainly the right choice. We had to do things like [DELETED], and also [DELETED] and then one time we had to [DELETED], and it was great because, you know, when you have that many fantasy and science fiction writers in a single group, it’s not as if problem-solving is not something we don’t know how to do. We ran through the dungeon at a pretty good clip, defeating puzzles as a team, and in the final climactic battle we vanquished the [DELETED] by [DELETED]. The True Dungeon people were pretty impressed with us, they said, in what I am sure is something they never tell any other campaign.

So, lots of fun, and as part of my booty, I have a war hammer signed by all my boon companions, including Wil, Brandon and Pat, which I’m sure makes it the most valuable foam rubber war hammer on the planet at the moment. Don’t try to steal it. I have an actual battle axe somewhere in the house, y’all.

Your Second Thought For the Day

Mind you, for many of the people for whom the Greek Alphabet gradation of social hierarchy appears important, the working definition of “Alpha Male” seems to work out to “sociopathic assbag.” So maybe you don’t want to be one of those, either.

The Summer Home

Folks have been asking after the rabbit, so here’s a quick update. First, the rabbit turns out to be a she, a fact we ascertained by the ruff on her neck and by the fact that at no time has the rabbit tried to mate with its toys, our shoes or the cats. This gender switch has precipitated a name change. It is no longer Cthulhu, Lord Snuggleston; it is now Lady Snuggles, which has the virtue of being shorter. I wanted to hold out for Cthulha, Lady Snuggleston, but was summarily overruled by the daughter. It doesn’t really matter in a practical sense because we just generally refer to it as “the bunny” and in any event it doesn’t know its name, so what’s the point.

Two, here she is in her summer home. Prior to this she’s been in a room in the basement, which is fine but which has certain problems, not the least of which is the continual risk of the house smelling of rabbit. We bought the hutch some time ago and intended to get her in earlier, but you may recall that earlier in the summer the average daily temperature was something like 370 degrees, and it seemed like it would be cruel to put her out into it. These days, however, the weather is lovely, and she seems to appreciate the view. Once it starts getting cold she’ll be returned to her winter quarters (or alternately we’ll move the hutch to the garage). Yes, this is a spoiled rabbit.

You Never Know Just How You Look Through Other People’s Eyes

In my piece on how not to be a creeper, I made a point that today I’d like to expand on just a little; I’ll explain why in a bit. Here’s the point:

2. Acknowledge that you don’t get to define other people’s comfort level with you. Which is to say that you may be trying your hardest to be interesting and engaging and fun to be around — and still come off as a creeper to someone else. Yes, that sucks for you. But you know what? It sucks for them even harder, because you’re creeping them out and making them profoundly unhappy and uncomfortable. It may not seem fair that “creep” is their assessment of you, but: Surprise! It doesn’t matter, and if you try to argue with them (or anyone else) that you’re in fact not being a creep and the problem is with them not you, then you go from “creep” to “complete assbag.” Sometimes people aren’t going to like you or want to be near you. It’s just the way it is.

This apparently has struck some to be dreadfully unfair, with the implication being that other people responding to folks (usually men) as creepers when in fact they’re trying to make an effort to be charming and witty and fun (or whatever) is some sort of special case in the interaction of human beings, and that such mismatches between intent and reception hardly ever happen in other situations.

To which my response is: you have got to be kidding me. Outside of the realm of possible potential creepiness, you don’t get to choose how other people respond to you, either. In any context. Indeed, regardless of your efforts to present yourself in a certain way, it is almost certain you will come across to some other people as not that way at all, and possibly the opposite of that way entirely.

Let me, as I so often do for matters such as this, use myself as a good anecdotal example. You know, generally I try to be amusing; some people don’t find me amusing in the least. I try to write engaging books; there are people who can’t stand my writing. I often speak up on issues that are of concern to me; there are people who wish I would shut up about them, including some folks who are nominally on my side of an issue. I try to be pleasant with people; to some people I come across as insufferable, glib or insincere. I try to be open and upfront about most of my opinions; some people see that as me being an arrogant asshole. And so on.

I’m not gonna lie, here: I don’t really see myself as a glib, unamusing asshole who writes awful books and doesn’t know when to shut up. But despite my best efforts not to be any of those things, there will be people who think at least one (and possibly all) of those things about me. Because in their heads, that’s how they see me. It doesn’t mean they’re having a psychotic break with reality. There’s enough room for variation in basic human interaction for this sort of thing, even before you add in everyone’s own personal life experience to the mix — their own personal reasons for thinking a person acting like I do might be glib rather than pleasant, as an example.

What can I do when I try to be [x], and I come off as not[x] to some other person? In the very short run, not much of anything. People are going to respond to me the way they’re going to respond to me, for all the reasons they have that response. I’m not going to know all those reasons unless I try to engage them in a Quest for Context, which may not be convenient or appropriate at the time. I’m best off accepting that to them, that’s how I’ve come across.

The next thing I can do is ask myself, well, do they have a point? Am I being glib/unamusing/an asshole? Because sometimes they’re right and I am wrong. In which case, fair enough. I’ve learned something and will work to fix my behavior. Note that this requires a certain amount of personal honesty and willingness for critical self-examination that everyone says they have but lots of people actually don’t. On the other hand, If I decide they don’t have a point, then I generally chalk it up to people having differences of opinion and let it go.

What I don’t generally do is demand that the other party see it my way and believe that if they don’t then there’s something wrong with them. One, who has the time, and two, I’m not sure it’s really important that everyone respond to me in precisely the same way.

(If one does have time and the other party has an interest, one could talk to them about the variance and see where the disconnect is. But sometimes one party or the other doesn’t have that interest or time; that’s fine too. If one does that, however, one probably shouldn’t do it with the underlying thesis of “let’s discover why you’re so very wrong in your opinion about me and how we can fix that.” Most other people won’t sign up for that.)

Bottom line here: Your self-image is not the same as the image of you others receive. People will often see you entirely differently than you want them to. No one’s required to see you the way you see yourself, and you probably can’t make them do that even (or often especially) if you try. If you try to insist that they must, the likelihood of you coming across as petulant and unpleasant rises significantly.

So, no, in this respect, some people (often women) seeing other people (often men) as creepers when those other people are trying to be interesting and engaging and fun is not actually an unusual reaction dynamic at all. What is different about the creeper scenario is that there is very often a physical and psychological dynamic that has threatening possibilities to it. Which to my mind makes it more important for people to realize in that situation that they don’t have the ability to dictate how others respond to them, and to accept that as part of the ground rules going in.

One final point: If your takeaway from all the above is to think “If I can’t control how other people respond to me, then I’m relieved of my duty to be concerned about how I come across,” then you’re doing it wrong. People may respond to you differently than you intend; you should still make an effort not to be a grasping, self-centered assbag.  In my experience, being a grasping, self-centered assbag is one of the very few times where how you present yourself is exactly how other people see you, every time, without exception.

RIP, Harry Harrison

For those of you who have not yet heard, science fiction Grand Master Harry Harrison passed away yesterday, from causes that are not yet determined as far as I know. Here’s the announcement from his own Web site; here’s an i09 article on the subject. Those folks outside of science fiction circles probably know him best as the author of Make Room! Make Room!, which was the basis of the classic science fiction film Soylent Green. Those inside science fiction arguably know him best for his sardonic and comic Stainless Steel Rat series of books. However you know of him, it’s a loss for the genre: Harrison had his own voice and his own style. SFWA doesn’t give out Grand Master status just for kicks and giggles; you better believe Harrison’s work earned that title.

Many other people who knew him far better than I did will say much more significant things about him than I will, but I still have a story about him, which is that he was the first science fiction writer I ever had a peer-t0-peer conversation with. It took place at Torcon 3, the 2003 Worldcon, which was the very first science fiction convention I ever attended. One of the first things I did when I arrived was to make a beeline to the SFWA Suite, which is a place for SFWA members to hang out and socialize and maybe have a snack. Well, I was a brand-spanking new SFWA member (as soon as I got my Old Man’s War contract from Tor, I faxed a copy to SFWA so I could prove I was eligible to be a member), so I wanted to meet my fellow science fiction writers.

When I got to the lounge, there was an older fellow sitting at one of the tables by himself, so I sat down and said something along the lines of, Hi, I’m John Scalzi, I’m a new member of SFWA. And he said, hello, I’m Harry Harrison. And I thought, Holy CRAP, because, you know, Harry Harrison. Within a minute of sitting down in the SFWA Suite, I was talking with one of the living legends of the genre. He was gracious enough to give me some of his time and to suffer my interminable rambling, because even though I referred to this as my first peer-t0-peer conversation, come on. My first novel wouldn’t be released for two years yet; meanwhile Harry Harrison had dozens to his name. The fact he treated me like a peer, however, was something I appreciated and noted well for future reference.

Yes, I was a fan of Harry Harrison’s. When SFWA named him a Grand Master, I was very well pleased. I think it’s worth noting that in his storied career, Harrison never won a Hugo (he was nominated twice, in the Novel category) and had a share in only a single Nebula (for Soylent Green, adapted from his book). The measure of someone’s influence and stature as a writer is not always immediate; the Grand Master award was a fine way of noting that Harrison’s work and reputation built over an entire career. And that’s an encouraging thing.

If you’re a fan or have a memory of the man, Harrison’s official news blog has opened up a comment thread for remembrances and messages of condolences to his family. It’s here. Go on by and pay your respects.

Oh, Look, Another One

Last week, Athena and I saw a little black kitten sprinting across our yard as we drove in the car; we got out to look for it, but it had well and truly disappeared into the treeline. We saw it again a couple days later, when we heard our cats growling at something in the garage; the kitten had come in and the other cats were preparing to beat the crap out of it. We removed the other cats and got a look at the kitten. It was just about fur and bones, which suggested it was no one’s cat at all, so we gave it some cat food and water. It wouldn’t eat while we were about so we left it in the garage with the food. Five minutes later the food was all gone and the kitten had sprinted away. Since then we’ve left a small bowl of food out for the kitten; we don’t see it much but the food goes down. Finally this evening I went downstairs and found the kitten sunning itself on the back deck; evidence that it’s getting comfortable around here. But not too comfortable, since when I came out to snap some photos of it, it promptly ran away.

So the order of business sometime relatively soon: get the cat back in the garage (seems possible, as that’s where we leave food for it), trap it there, stuff it into a cat carrier and take it along to the vet to see if it’s healthy and to, you know, get the thing snipped. We’ll figure out what to do with it from there. My mother-in-law’s been hinting she wants a cat, so this could work, provided it’s not irretrievably feral. Regardless, it’s not going to starve anytime soon, which given its previous condition is a step up.

Yes, we’re saps. But, you know. I’d rather be a sap than to have a dead kitten on my conscience.

Comment Ratings

Over the last few days I’ve been asked if there’s a way to enable “liking” or otherwise rating comments here on Whatever. The answer is: Yes, there is, but I prefer not to. The reason is that I think they’re a distraction from the comments themselves, and I also think they can be used as a tool to make people uncomfortable or afraid to comment because they’re worried about getting a flood of downvotes. Conversely, if people start tuning their comments simply to get upvotes from others, something will get lost.

Ultimately I think the best way to upvote or to downvote a comment is to make your own comment, explaining in a civil fashion why you disagree with a particular comment, or adding perspective to a comment you agree with.

(I can also thread comments here, but I like keeping them unthreaded because I like the idea of folks reading all the comments and not just the ones where they’re having their own little discussion. Adds to the cross-pollination, if you will.)

The Paul Ryan Pick

Two things:

1. It’s really the best Romney could do. If it sounds like faint praise, well, it is, but the fault is neither Romney’s nor Ryan’s.  It’s the GOP’s, because its current bench of viable national players is pretty thin at this point. I mean, I looked at the list of VP prospectives and, with the exception of the possible positive optics of Marco Rubio, didn’t see a whole lot of there there. Pawlenty? Portman? I’m just going to go over here and take a nap. Governors Christie, McDonnell and Jindal are probably happy to sit out 2012 and prep for 2016 instead (or 2020, if it actually rolls that way), and other than that, who really is there for the GOP?

Some folks hinted toward Condi Rice, who, to be honest, I think would probably be an excellent VP. But she’s got the stink of the Bush Administration still on her, and anyway, the fact that she’s not safely married off to a man would probably freak out a lot of the GOP base. Given the field of whackjobs and dimwits that contested against Romney in the primaries, he couldn’t reasonably expect to tap one of them and not scare away every independent voter in the land (the one exception to this, Jon Huntsman, is a fellow LDS Church member, and I’m pretty sure an all-LDS ticket would sorely test those across the political spectrum for whom all they know of the LDS Church is what they saw on Big Love and that Broadway musical). So no love there.

With Ryan, Romney does himself no damage with GOP voters, and indeed quite the opposite: Ryan is well-liked in the party in general and also in Washington (where as I understand it even people who don’t share his politics find him to be a pleasant fellow to work with and be around). He has no major personal skeletons in the closet, and has solid conservative credentials. As the House Budget Committee chairman, and the author of a number of proposed budget plans, he is what passes for a serious thinker in the Republican Party these days. Ryan can help deliver Wisconsin to Romney, which is 10 electoral votes he’s going to need, and I suspect the thinking is that he might be able to put other parts of the Midwest into play as well, including Ohio, which right now is leaning Obama. And it signals to GOP voters that Romney — former Governor of the gayest commonwealth in the Union, who socialized medicine while he was in office there — is solidly behind the current conservative blueprints for the future of America. After all, Ryan is the architect of those blueprints, and those blueprints really do offer a solid contrast against what Obama has to offer (Romney maintains he is going to put together his own budget plan rather than run on Ryan’s, and I wish him the best of luck convincing anyone of that).

So, yes, Ryan really is the best Romney could have done. Now a substantial number of GOP voters will be voting for him (or at least for the ticket), rather than simply against Obama.

2. Ryan is the fellow that Obama’s used as a rope-a-dope punching bag at least a couple of times now because of his economic plans, and if you’re under the impression Obama’s not going to do it again, bigger and better than ever before, just you wait. There’s also the question of whether Ryan does anything to bring in independent and undecided voters in any way. I don’t think he does directly because generally speaking VP candidates don’t really do that except possibly in their own state, and he’ll only do it indirectly if voters twig to his economic plans, which will now be pressed to the forefront. That’s going to be a matter of selling, and of selling a vision that someone else (read: Obama and all the SuperPACs on his site of the divide) will be spending the next three months punching at, hard.

It’s going to be a challenge, in part because I suspect there’s a growing belief that the rich aren’t in fact holy job creators, nor would it invoke the end times if they were taxed a bit more, and partly because at the end of the day Obama is like Clinton and Reagan before him: A charismatic leader blessed with a leaden opponent. Nor is Ryan much help in that department. He may be likable but he’s not exactly charismatic; he comes across as the overly earnest sort who really believes what he believes and is sad and hurt when you don’t believe it with him. I suspect Biden is going to eat him alive in their debate. And in any event, even if Ryan had the charisma of Brad Pitt, he’s still not the fellow in the big chair; that’s Romney. Romney’s biggest problem is still Romney.

On a personal level, while I believe that Ryan is the best Romney could do under the circumstances, I think this suggests something not very good about the circumstances. I don’t think Ryan rises to Newt Gingrich levels of “a dumb person’s idea of a smart person,” but I have to admit being flummoxed by the amount of regard the GOP and conservatives have for his economic blueprints. Ryan has publicly distanced himself from Ayn Rand, whom he reportedly admired, which I think speaks well of him (if you consider Ayn Rand a serious political thinker rather than a philosophical and economic dilettante with a flair for potboilery prose, you get put into the “hasn’t quite grown up” category in my brain). His economic thinking, however, still bears the smudgy marks of the pseudo-objectivist doctrine that modern conservatives have, with its belief in the inherent malignancy of government and the inerrancy of private enterprise. His economic plans strike me as naïve at best and disingenuously meretricious at worst. That they are now the guiding star for the GOP’s plans for the US makes me want to get the lot of them into a doctor’s office to see if they are, as a class, suffering from hypoxia. Ryan would be the first into the examination room. I don’t doubt his sincerity, but I do doubt his good sense.

That said, I don’t see Ryan’s brand of economic thinking going anywhere anytime soon. More to the point, there’s nothing about Paul Ryan being elevated to Vice Presidential candidate that is anything but good for Ryan. If Romney wins, then quite obviously Ryan is going to have a nearly clear path to put his economic vision into effect. If Romney loses, no one in the GOP is going to blame Ryan or his economic plans for it; everyone will blame Romney for being a weak candidate and his team for not selling Ryan’s economic plan to the nation the way it should be been sold. Ryan goes back to the House (he doesn’t have to give up his seat unless Romney wins) a tragic conservative hero and positions himself, and his economic plan, for 2016. There’s not a whole lot of downside to this for Ryan.

At least on paper. It’ll be interesting to see how it works out for him, and for us, in the real world.

A Tangential Personal Note on Creepers and Me

I made the offhand comment in yesterday’s post about how not to be a creeper that I almost never get creeped on, which precipitated a direct message on Twitter from a friend that said “‘Almost never’ is different than ‘never.'”

And, well, it’s true, it is different. I have been creeped upon, at varying levels. Most seriously, there was one time I was legitimately stalked and harassed, which led to the filing of a police report. That was several years ago, and the circumstances of that incident were unique enough that I have reason not to worry about it recurring a second time (at least, not at the hands of that particular person). It was also not sexually based. But it was still, shall we say, not a comfortable happening at the time.

Aside from that, there have been a couple of times at a convention where someone was definitely on the wrong side of the creeper line, from my point of view. When they happened I dealt with them. The incidents I can recall off the top of my head happened at conventions I don’t typically frequent, so once more in those particular cases they’re not something I spend a whole lot of time worrying about happening again.

So yes, it’s happened to me a couple of times. I would take pains to note the nature and dynamic of the creeperism when it was applied to me is a bit different, for a few reasons. One, I am a guy, which matters. Two, I don’t have a problem being assertive, and no one gives me shit when I am being assertive, because I am a guy. Three, in the context of a science fiction convention, I am notable and also often an invited guest, which means I have easy avenues to deal with stuff if I need to, and, when I am a guest, there are people whose job it is to manage interactions for me when I want them to. In a practical sense, I am difficult to creep on for these reasons, and when it does happen the effect on me tends to be minimal — a short-term, isolated annoyance rather than something that I have to deal with over a long-term, and which would affect me deeply thereby.

(Let me note — with full acknowledgement that what follows is egotastical — that I also make a distinction between people who are creeping on me and people who lose their shit a little when they’re near me because I’m a favorite writer of theirs. The latter don’t represent a problem in itself, and honestly, who hasn’t lost their shit a little when they’ve met someone whose work they’ve loved? I certainly have. I hope to have the opportunity to do so again in the future. But — and this is important — after I lose my shit at someone whose work I admire, I gather it back up again and take it elsewhere, as does almost every single person who’s lost their shit at meeting me. This is one key differentiator between people who are excited to meet me, and people who are creepers.)

On the flip side of this, I noted that the rules I noted yesterday are ones that I use myself when I try not to come across as a creeper to people I’m meeting. I didn’t use a specific example of a time where I was concerned about being considered a weird, creepy dude because although I did have a story that applied, I hadn’t cleared it with the other person involved. But now she’s cleared it, and now I’ll use it.

Back in 2006, at Readercon(!) I was wandering around the dealer’s room when I saw John Joseph Adams talking to a woman I didn’t know. I knew JJA very casually, so I went up to say hello. The woman he was speaking to was the art director of Shimmer Magazine and her name was Mary Robinette Kowal. JJA introduced the two of us, and Mary and I started chatting and within about five minutes I was aware that I was really intensely attracted to her, in a way that actually kind of spooked me and which I was sure was immediately and clearly obvious, and possibly immediately and obviously creepy.

So here’s what I did. After a couple more minutes, I excused myself and went away, because I was working on the theory that if I was worried that I was coming across as creepy, I was in fact being creepy, and I didn’t want to do that both as a matter of personal inclination and also because this woman I had just met did noting to deserve me creeping all over her. Later, I saw her talking with a bunch of people I didn’t know, I didn’t go up and chat with her because I knew that the only reason I wanted to talk to that group of people is so that I could be near her, and that was a little creepy.

When some time after that she was with a group of people I did know and enjoyed talking to, I joined that group, made sure I didn’t focus all my attention on her and got to know her a little better by listening to her talk to others in the group and to the group in general, and talked to her like I talked to everyone else in the group. I didn’t hover near her. I definitely didn’t go out of my way to touch her. I made no great attempt to monopolize her time. When I did chat with her later one on one, I was mindful of how much of her time I was spending, and was paying attention to how she reacted to me to make sure I wasn’t overstaying my welcome. And so on. After a day, my brain settled down, everything was cool and my Potential Creeper Moment faded away, much to my relief.

Anyone who knows Mary and me knows how this turned out: I consider Mary one of my best friends, and I’m pretty sure she likes me too. I’m also pretty sure that had I not made a conscious effort when we first met to curb the urge to creep on her, there’s a very good chance we would not be friends now, because, you know, I would have been a little creepy. Mary’s not the sort to put up with that, nor should she be. My reward for putting a check on my potentially bad behavior up front is a friendship that I genuinely treasure. That’s a pretty good return on investment.

I mention this for two purposes. One, to make the point that I think the guidelines I set out work (or at least work for me). Two, to make the point that saying that only certain types of men — ugly ones, aspie ones, socially sheltered ones, ones who aren’t going to pay attention to someone offering advice — have the potential to be creepers is kind of stupid. Hi there, I’m generally considered to be socialized, neurotypical and a decent guy. And oh my I had quite the potential to be a creeping assbag on Mary, among others. But I haven’t been, because I’m responsible for my own actions and I realize no one deserves to be creeped on by me even when the reptile portions of my brain are howling TAKE HER TAKE HER TAKE HER NOW. At the end of the day, as regards being a creepy assbag, it’s not about who you are, it’s about what you do.

An Incomplete Guide to Not Creeping

The last couple of months have been a really interesting time for geekdom, as its had its face rubbed in the fact that there are a lot of creepy assbags among its number, and that geekdom is not always the most welcoming of places for women. Along that line, this e-mail from a con-going guy popped into my queue a few days ago:

Any tips on how not to be a creeper? I try not to be, but I don’t know that I’m the best judge of that.

Let’s define our terms here. Let’s say that for this particular conversation, a “creeper” is someone whose behavior towards someone else makes that other person uncomfortable at least and may possibly make them feel unsafe. A creeper may be of any gender and may creep on any gender, but let’s acknowledge that a whole lot of the time it’s guys creeping on women. Creeping can happen any place and in any community or grouping of people, but in geekdom we see a lot of it at conventions and other large gatherings.

Let me also note that the reason I stress this is an incomplete guide is because a) there’s no way to cover every contingency and b) I’m writing this from the point of view of someone who doesn’t get creeped on very much (it almost never happens to me) and when it does happen I am usually in a position, by way of my gender, age, personal temperament and contextual notability, to do something about it. Other people who are creeped on — particularly women — aren’t necessarily in the same position. So the advice I give you here is informed by my point of view, not theirs, and as such is almost certainly incomplete (but hopefully not wrong). This is just a start, in other words, and others will have different and probably better perspectives on the subject.

That said, these are the rules that I use when I meet people, particularly women, for the first time and/or to whom I find myself attracted in one way or another. Because, yeah, I do meet a lot of people and/or I do find many of the people I know in a casual way to be attractive in one way or another. The very last thing I want is for them to feel that I am a creepy assbag. These are the things I do to avoid coming across as one.

Bear in mind that following these recommendations will not make you a good guy. They will just hopefully make you be not so much of a creeper. These are preventative measures, in other words, and should be viewed as such.

Fair enough? Okay, then. Let’s start with some biggies.

1. Acknowledge that you are responsible for your own actions. You are (probably) a fully-functioning adult. You probably are able to do all sorts of things on your own — things which require the use of personal judgement. Among those things: How you relate to, and interact with, other human beings, including those who you have some interest in or desire for. Now, it’s possible you may also be socially awkward, or have trouble reading other people’s emotions or intentions, or whatever. This is your own problem to solve, not anyone else’s. It is not an excuse or justification to creep on other people. If you or other people use it that way, you’ve failed basic human decency.

2. Acknowledge that you don’t get to define other people’s comfort level with you. Which is to say that you may be trying your hardest to be interesting and engaging and fun to be around — and still come off as a creeper to someone else. Yes, that sucks for you. But you know what? It sucks for them even harder, because you’re creeping them out and making them profoundly unhappy and uncomfortable. It may not seem fair that “creep” is their assessment of you, but: Surprise! It doesn’t matter, and if you try to argue with them (or anyone else) that you’re in fact not being a creep and the problem is with them not you, then you go from “creep” to “complete assbag.” Sometimes people aren’t going to like you or want to be near you. It’s just the way it is.

3. Acknowledge that no one’s required to inform you that you’re creeping (or help you to not be a creeper). It’s nice when people let you know when you’re going wrong and how. But you know what? That’s not their job. It’s especially not their job at a convention or some other social gathering, where the reason they are there is to hang out with friends and have fun, and not to give some dude an intensive course in how not to make other people intensely uncomfortable with his presence. If you are creeping on other people, they have a perfect right to ignore you, avoid you and shut you out — and not tell you why. Again: you are (probably) a fully-functioning adult. This is something you need to be able to handle on your own.

Shorter version of above: It’s on you not to be a creeper and to be aware of how other people respond to you.

Also extremely important:

4. Acknowledge that other people do not exist just for your amusement/interest/desire/use. Yes, I know. You know that. But oddly enough, there’s a difference between knowing it, and actually believing it — or understanding what it means in a larger social context. People go to conventions and social gatherings to meet other people, but not necessarily (or even remotely likely) for the purpose of meeting you. The woman who is wearing a steampunky corset to a convention is almost certainly wearing it in part to enjoy being seen in it and to have people enjoy seeing her in it — but she’s also almost certainly not wearing it for you. You are not the person she has been waiting for, the reason she’s there, or the purpose for her attendance. When you act like you are, or that she has (or should have) nothing else to do than be the object of your amusement/interest/desire/use, the likelihood that you will come across a complete creeper rises exponentially. It’s not an insult for someone else not to want to play that role for you. It’s not what they’re there for.

So those are some overarching things to incorporate into your thinking. Here are some practical things.

5. Don’t touch. Seriously, man. You’re not eight, with the need to run your fingers over everything, nor do you lack voluntary control of your muscles. Keep your hands, arms, legs and everything else to yourself. This is not actually difficult. Here’s an idea: That person you want to touch? Put them in charge of the whole touch experience. That is, let them initiate any physical contact and let them set the pace of that contact when or if they do — and accept that that there’s a very excellent chance no touch is forthcoming. Do that when you meet them for the first time. Do that after you’ve met them 25 times. Do it just as a general rule. Also, friendly tip: If you do touch someone and they say “don’t touch me,” or otherwise make it clear that touching was not something you should have done, the correct response is: “I apologize. I am sorry I made you uncomfortable.” Then back the hell off, possibly to the next state over.

6. Give them space. Hey: Hold your arm straight out in front of your body. Where your fingertips are? That’s a nice minimum distance for someone you’re meeting or don’t know particularly well (it’s also not a bad distance for people you do know). Getting inside that space generally makes people uncomfortable, and why make people uncomfortable? That’s creepy. Also creepy: Sneaking up behind people and getting in close to them, or otherwise getting into their personal space without them being aware of it. If you’re in a crowded room and you need to scrunch in, back up when the option becomes available; don’t take it as an opportunity to linger inside that personal zone. Speaking of which:

7. Don’t box people in. Trapping people in a corner or making it difficult for them to leave without you having the option to block them makes you an assbag. Here’s a hint: If you are actually interesting to other people, you don’t need to box them into a corner.

8. That amusing sexual innuendo? So not amusing. If you can’t make a conversation without trying to shoehorn suggestive or sexually-related topics into the mix, then you know what? You can’t make conversation. Consider also the possibility the playing the sexual innuendo card early and often signals to others in big flashing neon letters that you’re likely a tiresome person who brings nothing else to table. This is another time where an excellent strategy is to let the other person be in charge of bringing sexual innuendo to the conversational table, and managing the frequency of its appearance therein.

9. Someone wants to leave? Don’t go with them. Which is to say, if they bow out of a conversation with you, say goodbye and let them go. If they leave the room, don’t take that as your cue to follow them from a distance and show up wherever it is they are as if it just happens you are showing up in the same place. Related to this, if you spend any amount of time positioning yourself to be where that person you are interested in will be, or will walk by, for the purpose of “just happening” to be there when they are, you’re probably being creepy as hell. Likewise, if you attach yourself to a group just to be near that person. Dude, it’s obvious, and it’s squicky.

10. Someone doesn’t want you around? Go away. Here are some subtle hints: When you come by they don’t make eye contact with you. When they are in a group the group contracts or turns away from you. If you interject in the conversation people avoid following up on what you’ve said. One of the friends of the person you are interested in interposes themselves between you and that person. And so on. When stuff like that happens, guess what? You’re not wanted. When that happens, here’s what you do: Go away. Grumble to yourself (and only to yourself) all you like about their discourteousness or whatever. Do it away from them. Remember that you don’t get to define other people’s comfort level with you. Remember that they’re not obliged to inform you about why they don’t want you around. Although, for God’s sake, if they do tell you they don’t want you around, listen to them.

Again: Not a complete instruction set on how not to be a creeper. But a reasonable start, I think.

Update, 8/10: A tangential personal note.

The Big Idea: Kari Sperring

A list of books on a wall led author Kari Sperring on a literary adventure that took her from 17th century French satire to the world of her latest novel, The Grass King’s Concubine. How did she get from one to the other? Read on.

KARI SPERRING:

About ten years ago, my partner and I spent a weekend in the Belgian city of Antwerp. And one of the places we visited while we were there was the Plantin Moretus Museum, which is devoted to the history of printing and includes the original premises of Plantin Press, which remains in its original 17th century state.

Posted on the wall in the shop part of the business is a list of books that have been banned officially, in this instance by the Christian church. These were books that it was illegal to print, to sell, to distribute, to own. The banned works included science, philosophy, satire, theology, memoirs.

I knew about these lists but I’d never seen an original one before. It was neat and unshowy, in black and white on the bookshop wall. There was nothing dramatic or violent or imposing to it. It was miles away from the book-burning images of Fahrenheit 451 or BBC dramas about Galileo. It was just there, a fact of seventeenth century daily life.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I was commissioned to write a book about the background and history to Alexandre Dumas’ famous The Three Musketeers. One of Dumas’ sources for that book was Mémoirs de M. d’Artagnan, a pseudo-autobiography by one Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras. I knew the book: I’d picked up a copy as an undergraduate, and I knew that Courtilz de Sandras was a professional satirist of the late 17th century, but I’d never done any research into him or the wider context of French pseudo-memoirs, court satires and secular banned books. I read Robert Darnton’s The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, and I remembered that list on the wall of the Plantin Press. In the back of my head, in the mulch where my writing lives, something went click (or, possibly, squelch). I knew a lot about why governments and religious bodies, kings and school boards, took it upon themselves to ban books. I knew where I stood on that issue, too – the idea of banning a book on ideological, moral, religious or just plain crazy grounds struck me then and still strikes me as deeply wrong. But I knew far less about the writers behind these books.

Courtilz de Sandras was no Galileo or Rousseau. He had no breakthroughs to share, no strong political, social or religious views to promote. He was a professional: he wrote what would sell, and satires on court life, dressed up as eye-witness accounts, sold well. They were risky: he spent long periods in the Bastille, having offended the king and the court, but they paid, and he went on writing. (He had a lot in common with Dumas, in fact, though Dumas never managed to get himself arrested, and the Bastille was long gone.) I found I kept thinking about him, and the whole issue of banned and proscribed books long after my research was done. There was something here I wanted to explore.

That mulch at the back of my brain produced a character named Marcellan. He’s a traveller, an explorer, a jobbing printer and, above all, a writer. His driving force is his need to learn knew things and make them available to as many others as possible. His actions and their consequences set up the plot of  The Grass King’s Concubine: his hunger for knowledge reshapes one world and is creating conflict in another. One half of the book follows him in WorldBelow, a realm of non-human creatures ruled by the titular Grass King, whose very shape and way of life were partially created by one of his works. Captured by the Grass King’s bodyguard, the Cadre, he teaches one of them first about printing and then about ways of measuring time. The outcome is… messy. And when two of the Grass King’s subjects, the ferret-sisters Yelena and Julana, try and practice a kind of magic to help Marcellan, the trouble spreads both in WorldBelow and the human world (WorldAbove).

In WorldAbove, Marcellan’s books cause a young woman, Aude, to start questioning her society, its inequities and her place in things. She sets out in search of the origins of her family’s wealth and status. When she too finds herself in WorldBelow, she has to discover what Marcellan has done and find a solution for at least some of the consequences.

My thinking about banned books and their authors took me to some very strange places. It was important to me, throughout, that I stayed positive about that core idea about shared knowledge, and the positive effects of books. And yet my reading showed me that books could have some very strange effects on societies, as new knowledge emerged. We could all name books that have been revolutionary, from the Principia Mathematica to Das Kapital. But not every revolutionary book has a positive effect in every circumstance. Marcellan’s political works influence Aude into thinking critically about the assumptions she makes about class and power and money. But his knowledge of water clocks has negative effects on WorldBelow. Sometimes things are used inappropriately.

These are big themes for a midlist author. I often felt, writing Grass King, that the book was too big for me and that I should go away and write about something easier, like toast. But I wanted to write it, I wanted to talk about what books can do. Have I succeeded? I don’t know. I hope I’ve done the best I can with the skills I have. And I got to write about ferrets and water clocks, underworld portals and carnivorous mud. I read a lot of very very good books along the way. I learned a lot. (I can now bore for Britain on those water clocks.) In the end, the book took me about nine years to get into shape.

It started with a four-hundred-year-old list on a wall in Antwerp.

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The Grass King’s Concubine: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

Why I Don’t Just Admit I Am A Democrat

Got an e-mail from someone who’s apparently been reading my archives to figure out my political views. It was a hostile e-mail, but at the heart of the e-mail is a legitimate question, which I will paraphrase as such:

You say you’re politically independent but you vote like a Democrat. Why don’t you just admit you’re a Democrat?

The answer is: Well, because I’m not.

Three points here:

1. Being a Democrat, in the most obvious sense, would mean being a member of the Democratic Party here in the United States. I am not a member of the Democratic Party currently, nor have I ever been, unless you count the five minutes in 2008 when I checked the “Democrat” checkbox so I could vote in the the 2008 Ohio presidential primary. By that standard I may have been a member of the Republican Party as well at one point, since I believe I voted in a GOP primary once in Virginia (I can’t remember if that required a statement about my party; suffice to say I think closed primaries are silly). From the first time I could vote, I have registered as an independent.

Reasons for this: One, on a practical level, it cuts way the hell down on the amount of political junk mail I get. I find most political mailings obnoxious and insulting to my intelligence, not to mention a waste of trees, so the less that I have to see, the better. Two, on a philosophical level, I think political parties are a bit of a menace. I don’t know if I would actually be happier with our political system if political parties didn’t exist and all political candidates had to fend for themselves without a national organization riding herd on them, but I do know that I would be willing to live in the universe where that was the case, to see how it worked out.

2. I don’t have a party, but I do have political views. If I lived in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England or most of what used to be called Western Europe, those political views would probably get me tagged as a member of the major local conservative party. Here in the US, they currently align most frequently with the Democratic party, our ostensibly “liberal” major political party. But 40 years ago, they probably would have gotten me tagged as a moderate Republican. This to my mind suggests there is wisdom in not aligning with actual political parties, and instead establishing one’s own political ideals and then finding which candidates most closely align with the one ideals, and political goals.

3. I have (and do) vote for political candidates other than Democrats, and don’t automatically vote for Democratic candidates. I’ve noted before that when I lived in Virginia’s 10th District, I regularly voted for Frank Wolf, a conservative Republican; he had many positions I didn’t like (including his abortion stance) but he also was the head of the House’s Transportation committee (i.e., nice smooth roads in Northern Virginia), had a principled stance on human rights, and even his positions that I opposed were based on his moral and philosophical beliefs rather than mere political expediency. In the end the positives for me outweighed the negatives, and I could vote for him over his opponents in each cycle.

Here in OH-8, I’ve not voted for John Boehner, but there have been times when I didn’t vote for his Democratic opponent, either, because I didn’t like their positions, or thought that the advantages of giving him my vote would outweigh the advantages of keep Boehner, who is, after all, Speaker of the House, and was House Minority Leader prior to that (this election cycle there’s no Democrat running against Boehner, so I don’t have the option of voting for a Democrat in any event). Beyond that, in state and local elections, I’ve voted for Republicans candidates in most election cycles, when I believed that they were the most qualified candidates for that position and/or that they were running for a post where the more nutty aspects of the current Republican Party orthodoxy would not be a problem.

So, to recap: Philosophically aligned against political parties in a general sense, never registered for any political party, which party my personal politics align with depends on geography and temporality in any event, and I’ve never voted a straight ticket in my life, so far as I know. So there you are.

This is not to say, mind you, that I am neutral as regards my opinions on the US political parties are they are currently ideologically and practically constituted; I don’t think it’ll be a huge surprise to anyone that I am not at all a fan of the Republican Party in its most recent iteration. I would be delighted for the party to swing back toward people who have foundations based in a coherent political philosophy, rather than “whatever Obama is for, I am against, and rich people can do no wrong ever,” which is what it seems to boil down to these days for the GOP. The Democratic Party is no prize, but it’s at the very least not nearly as far down the slope of truculent irrationality. “Not as truculently irrational,” however, is not a sterling inducement for me to join the Democratic Party. Or any party, to be honest about it.