I’ve been utterly swamped over the last stretch, but I thought I’d come up for air to let folks know that “Jake’s Acre,” a short story I’m terribly fond of, was just released by the fine folks over at Bourbon Penn. I’m delighted to have the story so happily homed–head over and check out the whole issue!
Author: Bill W.
What follows is a story I drafted in early 2022, in the thick of the Teacher Shortage (by which I mean the predictable consequence of decades of disparaging and belittling an entire profession, which reached unprecedented heights during the pandemic). I still quite like the story, but I suspect the context–legislation that allowed a host of classroom-adjacent staff, like office professionals, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers, to substitute teach in my home state–has been largely lost. I think there’s something to be said about what comes of viewing K-12 teachers, some of the loveliest, most dedicated, most generous critters on the planet, as functions rather than people, and this is my way of saying it. So here we go.
At some point after the morning bell, in the middle of her third ice-breaker of the week, Sonya looked out over the rows of masked, bright-eyed faces with names she would never remember and realized she couldn’t take it anymore.
When the last student in the last row had offered a fun fact about himself, all those faces turned to her expectantly. By then Sonya was looking past them, staring at a faraway point somewhere beyond the coat closet, the broken clock, the bone-white cinderblock wall.
“Are you feeling okay, Ms. Bottoms?” a red-haired girl in the front row asked, her hand tentatively raised.
She blinked, turned to the girl, and smiled. “I’m doing just fine—better than ever, really! Thank you for asking.” Sonya chewed her lip and scanned the room, sizing up those thirty waiting faces. “Today feels like a very special day,” she finally said. “How would you like to spend it? Talk it through and let me know.”
The class was stunned, but only for a moment. When they understood that she was serious, a lively debate erupted among them. Sonya excused herself and slipped into the hall to see if she could get away with what she had in mind.
As soon as she closed the door behind her a strange silence settled in. The whole upstairs wing was essentially empty, with the students from all four of Wheaton Elementary’s fifth- and sixth-grade classes consolidated into her home room for a run through the daily rotation.
Wheaton served both Folsom Falls and a ring of rural areas, so the shift to online classes had involved a series of staggering steps, setbacks, and on-the-fly adjustments. The Folsom Falls students with good internet connections were at home, taking classes from the teachers at Plainview Elementary. The rest of the older students were here with her, collected in the January dark and brought in to face whatever skeleton crew Wheaton could scrape together for the day.
In the Social Studies classroom across the hall she found Dante Winn, a lanky, well-dressed Black man who was thumbing through a book and fleshing out a lesson plan, waiting for his turn with the kids at the 9:20 bell. He greeted her from his desk but held up a warning hand, the lenses of his glasses clouding as his breath escaped his mask. “Chances are good that I’ve caught it; made the mistake of going to a funeral last Friday,” he said with a sigh. “No symptoms so far, but we’re a half-dozen teachers down. I had to come in.”
Sonya nodded and smiled sympathetically. “I was at Oak Grove on Monday, over with the first- and second-graders here on Tuesday. It’s the same thing everywhere. The cupboard of available subs is running pretty low.” She took a step backward and looked down the hall. “Speaking of which, I’ve got an idea for the day,” she added, “but I need to see who else is holding down the fort. I’ll be right back.”
Sonya walked down the hall and waved her arm back and forth inside the Arts and Music classroom, turning on the motion-sensor lights. The room was empty, save for the mess left from the day before. Markers, colored pencils, and construction paper were scattered all over the widely-spaced tables. It looked like the kids had started making paper lanterns, but the work had been abandoned halfway through.
The lights were already on in the last classroom in the wing, the all-purpose Math and Science lab. Sonya peered around the corner, started, and grinned at a familiar face. “Hey, Jerry!” she said with a wave.
The occupant of the lab, sorting a tall stack of worksheets into shorter piles, tugged at his collar and sat up straight behind his desk. “That’s Mr. Rawlings to you, young lady,” he said with a wink. “At least for today.”
Sonya laughed and curtsied. “I’m ever so sorry!” She stepped inside the classroom and stood at the corner of the chalkboard, a healthy ten paces away. “They roped you in for a tour of duty?”
Jerry nodded, slipping off his reading glasses and untangling the arms from the elastic straps of his mask. “It was either me or Judy from the cafeteria,” he replied, “and I’m not just going to stand by and see these kids cheated out of their pizza.”
Sonya walked to the window and saw Jerry’s bus dominating the far side of the faculty parking lot. There were about a dozen cars in the lot, all told. “They had Naomi from the principal’s office with me over in east wing on Tuesday, picking up a third-grade class, but today she’s got to field yesterday’s backlog of calls from parents.”
Jerry shook his head. “I knew they ‘d written up that bill that’d let any warm body stand in as a sub, but I never thought the schools would actually use it.” He slumped in his chair, looking incredibly tired. “It’s a damned shame we can’t do right by these kids.”
“I’ve got a little notion about that, if you’re willing to hear it,” Sonya said.
She led Jerry over to the Social Studies room and introduced him to Dante. It took all of three minutes to convince them to hand the kids over to her for the day—a farewell gift for her last day of substitute teaching.
Jerry nodded his assent. “If any of the kids want to rattle the test tubes they can come on over to the lab,” Jerry said, “but if we manage to send them home healthy and a little less feral, I’ll be a happy camper.”
“I could use the extra planning time,” Dante admitted from the far side of his desk, smiling and stretching. “And I seriously doubt anyone in the front office will have a chance to make the rounds today.”
Sonya grinned. “If they do, and if anyone complains, just send them to me.”
Sonya slipped back into her classroom, and her return went largely unnoticed. The debate about how to spend the day was apparently still raging, and the students in the frontmost rows had pivoted in their seats to challenge a cluster of kids in the back corner.
“And what have we decided?” Sonya asked cheerily.
The kids looked at one another, and at last a tallish boy in the center of the classroom piped up. “Most of us want a free reading period—just reading, no pop quizzes or comprehension tests or anything like that,” he said. He twisted to the right and pointed a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the corner-dwellers. “But they don’t want to read today.”
A brunette in the very corner of the room, her hair pulled back in a ponytail and her face half-covered by a homemade gingham mask, glared at the back of the boy’s head and then looked to Sonya. “You did say it was a very special day,” she said, catching Sonya’s tone exactly. “So we were wondering if we could work together and write a story of our own.” The kids just around her all nodded in unison.
Sonya stepped around her desk and sat on the edge, smoothing her skirt to her knees. “A little disagreement is healthy, so long as we’re civil when we settle our differences,” she said. “Today, however, I think we can agree to disagree. And I think we can get away with doing both.”
The eyes of both the readers and the writers widened, and they whispered excitedly to their neighbors. “And,” Sonya continued, holding up a finger before the readers all bolted for the bookcase, “you’ll have all day to work on whichever project you prefer. We’re not doing a rotation today.”
“No Common Core stuff today?” the tallish boy asked, incredulous. “None at all?”
“Nope—no quizzes, no discussion, no Common Core bubble sheets. Just free reading and writing. Is that okay with everyone?” Sonya spread her hands, and thirty fifth- and sixth-graders nodded in unison.
Sonya rounded back behind her desk. “Writers,” she said, addressing the back corner, “why don’t you step down the hall to the Arts and Music room—no, we’d better make it the Math and Science lab. That way you can talk while you work on your story. Let Mr. Rawlings know that I sent you, and let him know what you’re up to, okay? If you have any questions as you go, just come back to me if he can’t field them.”
The writers looked at one another, then gathered up their things and filed out the door. A boy with curly blond hair from the front row joined them.
Sonya let the readers make their selections from the bookcase, sending them over to the side of the room in pairs, starting from the back of the alphabet. When everyone was more or less settled in, she powered on the computer, pulled the keyboard out from its sliding drawer, and started typing.
In twenty minutes Sonya had drafted a letter to the email list most of the substitutes for the district used, and she took another ten minutes to revise it, making her points brief and compelling. She nodded to herself. When she was finished the letter set precisely the tone she wanted: it came up short of calling for a sick-out, a walkout, or something like a strike, but those possibilities were heavily implied as unavoidable steps if the district kept stretching its supply of teachers and subs so thin.
The boy with curly blond hair slipped into the classroom and sidled up to her desk just as she clicked Send. “Ms. Bottoms?” he said shyly, resting his hand on the side of her desk and looking at his fingers. “What’s the difference between no one and nobody? We don’t know which one to use.”
Sonya smiled. “Have you tried them both out in a sentence? Which one sounds better?”
The boy’s brow furrowed, and he pushed the stapler so it was parallel to the edge of the desk. “I can’t really tell the difference. ‘No one can hear you holler’ doesn’t sound much different than ‘Nobody can hear you holler’. Not to me, anyway.”
Sonya nodded and touched his hand reassuringly. “I think that’s exactly right—as far as I know there’s no real difference between them. No one is a little more formal, but nobody sounds just fine to me, especially with a verb like holler.”
The boy’s face brightened. “Thank you!” he chirped, and he hastened from the room. As soon as he was gone she squirted a glob of sanitizer into her palm and massaged it into her fingers.
Sonya looked out at the readers and sighed. They were all utterly engrossed, lost in Oz or Narnia, caught up the adventures of Pippi Longstocking or Klaus and Violet Beauregard. They were all eager to learn, hungry for words and the world, but on any other day, with any other sub, they would be taking practice tests to prepare for the real tests that would decide how much funding Wheaton would ultimately get from the state. It was a stupid, pernicious system.
It took Sonya half an hour just to address her next letter. She intended to mail it directly to the school district’s superintendent, but she wanted to copy in everyone she thought might weigh in on the side of the teachers and substitutes: sympathetic principals, the presidents of the school boards for Folsom Falls and Oak Grove, and even the leaders of a few parents’ groups. When she was satisfied with the list she spotted another student just outside the classroom door, a bespectacled Black boy in a blue cardigan.
Sonya waved him inside, and he began without preamble. “Ms. Bottoms, is it duct tape or duck tape?” he asked in a whisper. “And is scissors supposed to be a singular word?”
Sonya smiled. “The answer to your first question is actually a fun little story. The tape we all use was originally called duck tape because it was originally made from a material called duck cloth, but not many people knew that, so the spelling changed. You can use either one really, or you can use gaffer tape, too. Readers will know what you’re talking about.”
“Could you spell that for me?” he asked, and Sonya did.
“And to answer your second question, scissors is one of those weird nouns that only comes in a plural form, like glasses—and I mean like reading glasses, not drinking glasses—or pants. So if you’re wondering about verb agreement, it would be ‘the scissors are’. Does that cover it?”
The boy nodded, smiled, and darted for the door. “Thank you!” he cried over his shoulder, and the readers looked up from their books and glared at him.
The bell rang a short while later, and Sonya glanced at the classroom clock automatically before remembering it was broken. It was 10:15, and she was stuck.
The overture to the letter had been easy. It involved a bit of inflated praise, characterizing her readers as well-meaning people who had been dealt an incredibly bad hand, even though she felt most of them were bean-counters and penny-pinchers who viewed the kids as little more than costs in a column on a spreadsheet. Deciding how she could really reach them, however—how she could make the plight of demoralized teachers and their overworked stand-ins vivid—eluded her.
A petite girl with a patterned mask and matching hairband materialized beside her desk. She was a little flushed and fidgety, shifting from foot to foot as she waited for Sonya to acknowledge her.
“And what can I do for you?” Sonya asked, turning from the monitor.
The girl started, stopped, and began again, struggling to phrase her question. “Is it cut or cutted? If it happened in the past, I mean. And would you say a number of cuts or an amount of cuts? I think we should just go ahead and change the verb, but Laurie says that only cut will really do.”
“It sounds like it should be cutted, doesn’t it?” Sonya began, and the girl nodded. “Cut is one of our irregular verbs in English, though. We have cut, cuts, and cutting, but no cutted.”
“I still think we should use snip,” the girl said. “I just like the way it sounds.”
“Me too!” Sonya said, smiling through her mask. “And when I need to decide if I should use number or amount, I try to think in terms of how many or how much. If I think “how many cuts,” then I use number, if it’s “how much cuts,” then I use amount. Which one sounds better to you?”
The girl nodded again. “‘How many cuts’, definitely.”
“Then number it is,” Sonya said.
“Thank you, Ms. Bottoms!” the girl said, and she turned on her heel and bounced out the door.
Sonya watched her go, looked out over the readers, and returned to the screen. She pursed her lips and started typing.
She would pull no punches. She would tell the people who had been entrusted with ministering to the needs of these kids that they were failing, that they had failed. Kids need guidance, supervision, commitment, and consistency, and what passed for education in the district was erratic, haphazard, and contingent. If they expected the schools to serve their purpose—to turn out young adults who were ready for the world—they would need to invest in something better than the patchwork, piecemeal scheme they had settled on.
When she was done Sonya nodded. It wasn’t a perfect letter, but she couldn’t think of any way to make the plight of students, teachers, and substitutes more vivid.
“Ms. Bottoms?” a girl’s voice called, and the brunette with the ponytail and the gingham mask curled around the corner of the door, holding onto the jamb.
Sonya turned to the girl. She saw an irregular diagonal slash of dark red that crossed the gingham, descending from the brim of the girl’s mask to her chin. When she slid her hand down the jamb the girl left a red smear, redder than fruit punch, redder than fingerpaint. Sonya’s mouth went dry.
“If you have a name that ends in an S, do you make the possessive with an apostrophe S or just an apostrophe?” the girl asked. “Like, would it be ‘Mr. Rawlings’ head’, ending with the apostrophe, or ‘Mr. Rawlings’s head’ with a second S at the end?”
The girl tilted her own head and waited for an answer.
Sonya swallowed hard and clicked Send.
When I’m feeling philosophical, which is more often than I’d care to admit, I find that I’m often inclined to dwell on the paradox of perspective. As a hypnotist I know how powerful even slight shifts in viewpoint can be, but that’s an easy position to adopt from a comfortable distance. I’m lucky in a number of generic neurotypical ways: I don’t suffer from anxiety or depression overmuch, I have an executive function that can attend to most of the business of life without much existential stickiness, and I have a shelf full of coping mechanisms that do a solid job of tiding me over when I take a hit or two. Even so, I have my Bouts of Misery and Woe that I can’t quite think or talk my way out of. This past week featured one.
It’s not hard to get stuck in the Swamp of Sadness, Artax-style, no matter what encouragement and support we have on hand. (That link is worth avoiding if you are habitually prone to woe.) And, as it turns out, academia is filthy with cynics. It’s sort of a tell that, even when we’re in the midst of what’s a fairly beige year, our private message board consists almost exclusively of minor grievances. I do my best to power-skim the more morose modes of media these days, for I know too many Swampfolk who will habitually sink down into the depths if given half a chance and do their best to pull at any hand that reaches for them. And don’t get me wrong–I know I can only do most of that skimming because I lucked into a bunch of unearned privileges by birth and happenstance. I can resist the siren song of the daily doomscroll because privilege lets me pick and choose what I’m ready and willing to feel deeply on any given morning.
Every now and again, however, I’ll chance upon some useful contrapuntal bitterness, a vivid depiction of the tendencies I think most of us are hard pressed to resist. It’s helpful to see them from the outside, as they’re miserable to live through. In those gloaming episodes it’s easy to look back on all the losses, snubs, failures, and disappointments that generally make up a life, to wish we’d done differently. That bitterness has a special quality, as it’s generally easy to tell when the sufferer wants support and encouragement or would rather indulge in a good wallow. There’s no reasoning or philosophizing our way out of those blue moods, alas. We just have to strap in and see them through.
When we’re being honest with ourselves (which the mischief-maker in me admittedly believes is not all that often), it’s hard not to look back and wish for a do-over or two (or a bajillion, as the case may be). I imagine I have a typical range of regrets: folks I might have been kinder to, wrongs I might have righted, folks I’ve lost touch with or simply lost interest in, opportunities lost. But when we’re both honest and clear-headed (which the psychologist in me admittedly believes is not all that often) we can generally find the gains that offset those losses. It never feels like a rose-colored, thoughtless optimism but rather a generous reckoning, a resistance to cynicism that arrives as something akin a measured, ethical realism. It’s one kind of folly to take for granted that everything is going to turn out well, turn out just as it should no matter what we do; it’s another kind of folly to take for granted that everything is going to shake out badly despite our best efforts, that misfortunes are awaiting us, some of them earned, some deserved. The truth or it all is somewhere in between, and it doesn’t call for concessions or surrender on our part so much as a readiness to reframe the lot of it–the ecstasies, miseries, and all the business in between.
This week has been a slog, and it would be easy to look forward and expect more sloggery, to anticipate all the less than pleasant things that dot my calendar. Once I start down that road, it’s equally easy to look backward as well, to reflect on all the mistakes I’ve made as I’ve worked my way down the road. But today I find myself strangely grateful, which has little to do with any of the successes or failures I’ve met with, any decisions I’ve made or avoided. Jejune though it might seem, it’s mostly a matter of seeing things clearly and fully, which tends to involve a great deal of effort, energy spent clearing obstructions out of the way so that I can catch a more panoramic picture.
I’ve learned enough to know that might all change by bedtime, of course. But for a moment, at least I think I can let myself work toward some things, hope for some things, and maybe even imagine that, in the grand cosmic balance, it might all turn out better than I expect.
The Play’s the Thing
Friday night is Game Night, and Game Day found me bogged down in meetings until about 4:00pm. When I came home, after making sure my partner had energy enough for games after her own hectic day, I sat down to put us together a couple of characters from That System. She wanted to make a goblin thief, so I made her a goblin thief in the span about twenty minutes, making sure that it more or less satisfied her succinct vision of what a thief ought to be. Then we had dinner and I took a shower, with left me with about fifteen minutes to design an all-purpose priest. (Notably, one player who was not entirely prepared for the game due to Life and Such arrived and had a functional warrior generated for her by another player in about 10-15 minutes.) We’re all gaming vets, and we are prone to play plenty of one-shot diversions, so we’re well-versed in getting underway in a hurry.
At one level, that speed of character generation is a virtue, though I should note that part of the reason we were able to create folks on paper so efficiently is because we’ve used That System plenty of times before. At another level, however, a couple of us came away with prototypical, somewhat generic characters. We didn’t go out of our way to optimize, but the contours of establishment and development seemed to be pretty clear-cut for most of the known flavors. In the case of my priest, for example, taking default settings at every stage was a perfectly viable approach. I didn’t need much imagination to get going (a benefit and a drawback, for all the usual reasons). Of particular interest to me in the framing of my critter was the stage at which I had to pick basic spells. As much as I wanted to adopt some exotic and flavorful options, to design a feller who was esoterically zesty, I found myself leaning toward the more serviceable, versatile ones again and again. The same held true for most peeps at the table, who are practiced and skillful enough to make the sorts of choices that make a group gel and, conveniently, enhance its chances of surviving the session. Assuming folks are even vaguely social, it’s a course of empire most of us are prone to follow.
The setup and play–aided, abetted, and complicated by my own game design thoughts, which I’ll speak of in a moment–brought to mind my first experience with a game called Invisible Sun. I had more lead time going in to game prep, so I was able to mull my character ideas over for a bit, and I was also new to the mechanics, which can get fairly fiddly. What emerged as a result was a distinctive critter–distinct in my imagination, at least, as I’m never entirely sure how much characterization I actually bring to the table. It helped that I had only an uncertain sense of what was actually possible within the game framework, but it was a much more invested sense of establishment and a much less predictable arc of development. (For one player I think the experience of character creation and play was even more transformative, helping them to appreciate their own life in illuminating and indicative ways.) I think there’s a buttery zone somewhere in between both kinds of design: a mode that lets you get things underway in a hurry, and a mode that makes you feel deeply invested and productively uncertain–but that also makes you feel hopeful and curious to see what happens.
Peeling away the layers of a game experience is always a touch-and-go process, but I think at day’s end these reflections on play (improved by some questions about game mechanics I posed to my folk over the weekend) helped me to pin down a few of the essential motives that bring folk to the table. Foremost among them, all matters of mechanics aside is the desire to have creative, meaningful fun. Both the noun and the adjectives are a little loaded there, and part of me feels like that looks a little trite on the screen. All told, however, I think they capture the tensions there worth exploring in terms of game design. It’s hard to be creative without some measure of scaffolding (an infinite field of possibility can actually get in the way of creativity); it’s hard for players to create when they don’t know what’s viable. At the same time, it’s easy to get bogged down in mechanics and branchings, and it’s easy to feel as though many developmental options are functionally foreclosed. Meaning is an even more slippery critter, in that it’s a broad concept that has to cover countless points on the compass. For some folks gaming is utterly transformative, and every game is a vehicle that lets them try on personalities and possibilities, test visions and ambitions, attitudes and values. But for many folk any game that lets us escape from the drudgery of life for a few hours is all the meaning we need. And fun is the most elusive concept, one of those know-it-when-you-feel-it phenomena. It requires an almost spiritual commitment to the game, a readiness to find delight even when your character meets with reversal after reversal, even when the dice seem to be aligned against you. I don’t think it’s possible for a game simply to engineer those experiences, to deliver creativity, or meaning, or fun reliably, but I think a nicely-made game can yield conditions that allow them to happen, an openness that creates the space in which they become possible.
The game I hope to design started in an entirely unrelated intuition, a sense that it involved a structural something I hadn’t seen before, but before I get all the mental machinery up and running I feel like I need to refine my Why while I take out the How for a few test drives. As is the case with most journeys, there are countless ways of setting out, but the reasons for going at all, when we could just hide out in our hobbit-holes and read our books, is well worth pinning down.
Photo by Alperen Yazgı on Unsplash
This morning, as an index of just how much time I’ve squandered over this long weekend, I’ve begun doing math.
It started out as a bit of innocent mischief, as I wondered how a blood loss mechanic might work in a horror game, a TTRPG. I could think of some simple ways to simulate the effect (deductions from dice rolls, or the use of dice pools from which dice might be removed over time), but I was wondering about a means of making the experience more intense, more vivid, and more visceral. I settled on a potentially lopsided yet simple opposed roll mechanic (e.g. a wounded player rolling 1d6, for instance, vs. a machete-wielding narwhal rolling 1d12), hence my tumble down the rabbit hole of variance and probability.
Because way leads on to way, as the kids say, I’m now neck-deep in thoughts about victory conditions. I was thinking about what it means to “win” a horror game, which tends to be a problematic concept if there’s no ulterior goal to be realized. Over Halloween, for example, I ran a summer camp game in which the players learn that there are one or more murder-monsters hanging out in a (problematically) nearby asylum. Session A involved all sorts of backstory building, in which the players discovered a bit about the spoopy history of the milieu and the threats they might face if they dared to enter the abandoned facility. At the start of Session B, they discovered that a) the vague threats were almost certainly real, and b) that there were artifacts on the grounds of the asylum potentially worth bajillions (one of the players found a Gustav Klimt original long thought lost in an early scene). What did the PCs do when faced with such a bepicklement? They Noped the heck out of there tout de suite, which is an eminently reasonable choice. In that kind of context–and, to be frank, most any context–not getting murdered counts as a win.
In the gaming space we tend to be fairly pragmatic, after all. We calculate risks and rewards a little differently, but we also tend to avoid self-immolating behavior, even when we might be involved in the serious business of saving kingdoms or civilizations. At the same time, we dive into games for scads of reasons–for the vicarious experience, for imaginative self-actualization, for collaboration, and (one rather hopes) for fun. If you’ve ever seen some of the wholesome variations on the “Are Ya Winning, Son?” meme, you know that there are a few thousand ways to win.
Life tends to be like that, too, though I reckon we reflect on both wins and losses in equal measure. Yesterday I sent off a novella to a publisher about a week ahead of schedule, which feels like a significant win, but I also decided that there’s not much point trying to actively maintain a connection with an auld friend, which feels like an abstract kind of loss. There’s a tension we all have to navigate, a network of pushing and pulling that we can only tweak to a modest degree if we’re playing fair.
The catches, of course, are that a) not everyone agrees on what it means to win, and b) not everyone is interested in playing fairly. Not terribly long ago, for example, I attended a gaming session that was ultimately (and responsibly, and thoughtfully) scrubbed. The folk who were running the game realized that a guest player sitting in on the session wasn’t particularly interested in any of the collaborative or interactive ends of a game; that player really just wanted to break stuff–which is a play style, of course, but one that doesn’t lend itself especially well to a collective social diversion. And one sees discrepancies more routinely on social media, where any given day will see people playing at politics (or law, or economics, etc.) in cases that for them are thought experiments but for others might be matters of subsistence or survival. That’s the essence of most forms of trolling–trivializing the thinking and feeling of other participants (not players) in discourse concerning real experience and deeply-held beliefs. It becomes an easily winnable game, a little splash of the right neurotransmitters, but it comes from an experience in which there was never any real risk of losing.
Right now, for example, I’m looking at the residue of a social media scrum that started last night, in which a person suffering from the symptoms of a long-term illness was confronted by a person who sought to undermine and/or minimize their claims. It’s sort of a Greatest Hits version of unsportsmanlike conduct, featuring bad-faith reasoning, purposeful efforts to provoke and harm the opposition, and a few classic tactics (such as the troll deleting a post that effectively undermined their own argument), all for the sake of enjoying the pleasures that come from scoring points. That the troll was obliged to change the rules of engagement more than once to score those points is immaterial–they realized something like a victory, and they can point to any number of public instances of similar victories to validate the feeling.
And in all the ways that matter, at least to me, my overarching sense of what’s involved in play–social, interactive, collaborative play–makes the math, odds, and probabilities more or less incidental. What’s important are mechanics that allow good-faith players to explore and experiment, to have meaningful experiences and earn significant victories in the terms they choose, both as individuals and as a group.
Today marks the annual ritual of either a) posting about resolutions for the coming year, or b) posting about how one is far too cool to post about resolutions for the coming year. I just realized that I failed to post for the whole of December as well (sorry for the belated comment approval, Justin!), so this particular post will have to do triple duty.
December on the whole was decidedly tricksy, for some of the reasons you might expect and some of the reasons you mightn’t. I had to wrap up work on the fall semester, which is about as predictable as things get, and normally I give myself a week or two off in order to recover, to attend to all the stuff I deferred while grading final exams and essays, and to plot out what I’ll need to tackle when the dust has settled. This year, however, I decided to round the corner with virtually no downtime, as the haps at the Abbey are a little friskier than usual.
The first bit of business involved trying to be a more supportive feller for my partner, for she is launching her own enterprise after a couple of decades working for other folks. I am, alas, a pretty limited critter and not all that useful, but she’s primarily needed a sounding board and accessible ear over the past month. All systems, happily, appear to be go: today she’s moving in to her new office space, and this week she’ll take delivery of scads of furniture and office equipment. She’s omnicompetent and possessed of about 50,311 useful skills–the new business will focus primarily on signmaking for accessibility/wayfinding, but she’s a skilled graphic designer, maker, and creative type who has already made inroads in a variety of industries–but right now she’s dancing on the line between excitement and worry. My only real responsibility is helping her to stay on the right side of that line. So far, so good, at least as far as I can tell.
The second bit of business has involved writing a novella, which was not exactly planned (though an outline and scattered bits and bobs have been haunting my desktop for a long time). My compositional process is more than a little involved, but I’ve managed to formalize and finalize the lion’s share of a first draft. I’ll need to polish things off, drop the manuscript in the hopper, and revise it a week or two later with fresh eyes, but it should be ready to send out into the galaxy by mid-January. And then I can turn to the twenty-odd starter documents that are also littering my desktop: premises, outlines, and fragments of poems and short stories that have been on hold while I focused on putting the novella to bed.
I’m fairly fond of resolutions–any occasion make a fresh start on things, or to see old things in a new way, has value–but I’m not especially good at formulating them or articulating them. This year, however, I think I’ll aspire to work through more projects from start to finish, and to get items off my docket sooner rather than later. The Shawty, my partner, is going to need plenty of support as she works out the kinks of her business, and I think I’ll be better equipped to provide it if my own nogginspace is reasonably clear. So here’s to that, and here’s to you. Thanks for reading, and good luck to you on all the promises you plan to keep in 2023!
Plausibility and Beyond
(Image adapted from Bogomil Mihaylov at Unsplash.com)
I am an engaging, effective hypnotist. How do I know that? Because when I hypnotize myself, usually with the assistance of a light and sound machine, that’s what I tell myself. I’ve repeated that mantra in my mind often, and as a result, it’s as good as true.
If you’ve visited the Abbey before, you’ll know I’m fascinated by the machinery of the mind to an alarming degree. A goodly chunk of the literary theory I regularly study focuses on the ways in which our worlds are constructed by our noggins, no matter what Samuel Johnson might say. When I teach rhetorical analysis in my composition classes, I tend to focus on how writing effectively creates its own readers, pinning them down with a series of linguistic invitations and solicitations in even the blandest modes of expository prose. Reread the first sentence here, and you’ll see what I mean. And of course in hypnosis, where the work of conveying suggestions centers on phrasing and framing, it’s easy to indulge the impulse to build whole worlds out of half-truths.
There’s something vaguely counterintuitive about it, but it’s ridiculously easy to spot in just about every facet of our lives. Ever met a critter who imagines themself as an underdog but comes to the table with just about every kind of cultural, educational, and economic advantage? They had to dream themselves into being, dealing all the cards that were stacked against them, all the opposition they faced and overcame. If you’re asked to imagine a dog, do you imagine some freakish ur-canine, or do you conjure up a vision of your pooch of choice? Ever tried to break a habit but–alas!–you’ve convinced yourself that it’s simply too ingrained in your days and ways to shake? It’s that sort of thing.When we have a little time for critical self-examination, a set of self-inflicted patterns we’ve built and installed rises up to the surface like a secret Braille code. We impose meanings on ourselves–stories on ourselves, by and large–to explain why we are who we are and why we do what we do.
One of the simplest formulations of the act occurs in our creative writing classes, where all of our faculty communicates in terms of states of being rather than doing. “You’re an ingenious writer,” we’ll say, and then proceed as though it were true. Because it is, like it or not. There’s no sublime act of creation or naming going on–we’re just acknowledging a state of affairs that the writer might not already recognize, and we’re acknowledging it in a distinctive way. Saying “your writing is ingenious,” as the youth are wont to note, hits a little different; saying “you write ingeniously” might feel nice, but it has a different vibe. When I hypnotize a client I’ll throw several variations on the same kind of idea at them, and before long they find themselves surrounded by a legion of affirmative identities they can’t escape.
I find that most of my writing consists of plausibility strings, strings I follow as far as I can go before tying them in to something wiggedy. The trick for me usually involves making sure the wiggedy thing is plausible, too, at least at some level. Take, for instance, the image above, the curlicue of a particularly photogenic cucumber tendril. Those tendrils, as gardeners know, operate a bit like ivy, allowing the plant to latch on to something stable and pull themselves up to get more leaves into the sun. I can use a simple, natural occurrence like that as a foundation for the depiction of flora that acts similarly, perhaps for some more sinister end, pulling other things down rather than trying to raise itself up. Press the notion a little further–maybe add size or sentience into the mix–and you’ve got yourself a manageable monster.
The catch here is that I have literally no idea what kind of plant that really is. I started out with a little fib, and that fib was already predicated on snatches of truth. I’ve watched enough Gardener’s World to know how ferns work, uncurling from similar spirals, but that’s my only semisolid frame of reference. I’ve seen enough cucumber plants to know they have tendrils, so that might be true or truthy, and I’ve seen how ivy clings. That’s about as far as I can stretch. But if it felt true enough to go on, it’s functionally true. No point in quibbling about it. Eventually the reader will be able to see the seams of what I’ve stitched together, but they can be hard to spot when you’re working with two balls of yarn dyed the same curious color from the get-go.
I’m terribly fond of this kind of thinking, which I tend to think of as one of the most accessibly modes of creativity. And whenever I suspect I might have stretched my plausibility strings too far, I remember who I am as a reader myself, someone who’s willing to follow that slender tether into the minotaur’s maze, sure I can find my way back out.
And if it happens to break when I’m deep down in the dark? So much the better.
Once upon a time I was an 18th-century scholar, and I imagined that I’d spend an inordinate amount of classroom time trying to reconstruct the historical considerations that shaped the literature of the era, ideally while wearing a monocle and a periwig. The Long Eighteenth Century (1660-1837, by my nefarious, grabby reckoning) is a pretty perky frame of inquiry, what with the rise of the British novel and the Gothic and the various what-have-yous. For a variety of reasons I don’t get to delve down in those mines very much anymore, but today I’m thinking (as I do with uncommon frequency) about the olde-skool idea of countenancing, which I think is just as relevant as ever.
The subject pops up in my noggin for a number of reasons. ‘Tis the season, for example, for letters of recommendation. Some folks are applying for positions in M.A. and Ph.D. programs, some others for jobs and scholarships, and to nudge those doors open they generally need a reference or three from someone who’s already walked down comparable corridors. That’s countenancing in the most conventional sense, pairing my name and my reputation with my professional evaluation of a student in the hope that doing so will open the way for them. In some cases it’s incredibly straightforward, as when I write a letter for a historian who plans to pursue a doctorate and wishes to establish that he’s a strong writer and skillful researcher. I’m nicely positioned to add my face to his case. In others it’s a little more elusive, as when a former student who works as an academic administrator asks me to serve as a reference for bigger, better gigs. I have no doubt that she’ll excel in just about any context, but to countenance her I’ll need to write a very different kind of recommendation, one that downplays particular sensibilities that most ac-admin critters don’t find particularly valuable. I’ll leave off there, less I inadvertently reveal any of my spicier opinions on the subject.
Countenancing, however, seems increasingly relevant in the virtual realm as well, occurring for social media users in a variety of slippery yet significant ways. What happens in those areas of operation feels to me a little bit wilder, in part because it more openly acknowledges that every one of us is a constellation of personae, not a singular, all-purpose, head-mounted human face.
At the most localized levels it’s not hard to witness the power of the countenance. Have you ever mistakenly liked or hearted or starred a photo that a friend (or, more appallingly still, a past-tense paramour) posted a couple of years ago? That frisson of apprehension–how will that positive regard be read? will attempting to undo it only compound the problem of acknowledging my acknowledgement?–speaks to the power of the countenance. It involves owning up to something, an impulse, at least, and potentially affection or admiration as well, that admits all sorts of reading and misreading. Just yesterday, having not visited one of my social media sites in awhile, I liked a photo that was posted in early November. And here I am, about three weeks later, wondering if doing so might be improper somehow, amounting to something like a confession of stronger feeling than I intended. One begins to wonder how one’s face looks in context, how the admission that I looked and admired affects the complexion of being seen.
And at times it feels like an even more tricksy business. Generally speaking I’m kind of a trollop when it comes to liking stuff. Posted an accomplishment? I’m gonna like it. Posted a good joke? I’m gonna like it. Posted an adorable picture of your cat gone goblin? I’m gonna like it. But there are times when my clicking finger hovers above the mouse, trying to decide what my wanton liking might imply. It’s an awkwardness we recognize most easily when it comes to affixing a simple heart or a star to someone who confesses a worry, grief, or loss. In some regions of social media we can convey our sense of support with a special emoji, but in others we can only crudely acknowledge our commiseration. And what to do when an acquaintance posts a semi-scandalous entry in the Feeling Myself genre of photography? One would like to think liking the photo amounts to a statement of support, a gladness for that good feeling, but one does not want to own up inadvertently to anything more. Given my tendency to speak on strange and sordid subjects in my own feeds under various guises, I often come across a phenomenon I think of as a dynamic of discouragement. Post on literary topics or mention achieving some writing or gaming goal, and I’m apt to garner a like or three; post something more indelicate or unseemly, however–a weird recreational application of hypnosis, for example, or some other indication of my wickedness or naughtiness–and folks will quite reasonably veer off. Even in the realm of casual, incidental operations we don’t want to be seen acknowledging (and tacitly accepting and supporting) positions and perspectives that might seem to us discreditable. It’s a variation on the theme of benign neglect, a gentle pressure to reform. Avoiding any statement on those unsavory matters protects our own reputation and gently discourages the poster, informing them that we’d really rather not be put in that difficult position again.
That’s the core function of countenance culture: our readiness to attach our good reputation to some stuff, which makes our refusal to do so in other contexts more meaningful. You see it a lot in romances and novels of manners, where it’s incredibly important for the good and the virtuous not to countenance the bad behavior of various rakes, scoundrels, and similar folk who are too loose in their manners or free in their affections. To acknowledge them, whether that involves admitting them into polite company or writing them a letter of introduction (the sort of all-purpose reference that openly asserted one’s endorsement of the good character of a critter back in the day), is to risk one’s own status or standing, the good name we’ve earned over time. Like it or not, our faces are all too often on the line.
These days we’re experiencing a particularly acute bout of countenancing, given the instability of some of our legacy social media platforms. Facebook seems to be becoming obsolete, serving as the haunt of older social media users. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that most of the folks still on that site are only lingering there because they don’t want to lose touch with the far-flung friends who’ve yet to give it up and migrate to Instagram, TikTok, or some other mod, happening, and switched-on site the kids are into these days. And of course the spectacular implosion of Twitter is obliging plenty of users to examine their own positions critically, which involves a whole world of awkwardness.
To remain on Twitter, at one level, feels like countenancing some utterly repellent behavior, both from the new owner and from the throng of bad actors that’s been allowed back inside. Many folks want to express their scorn and their disgust, as remaining on the platform feels like a kind of complicity. It’s not exactly facing, but it’s facing-adjacent: we users have to acknowledge that our revolting host is not the sort of person we’d normally allow to make use of our good reputations. But for a number of reasons it’s difficult for people to simply disconnect, to migrate to another site, no matter how many contenders old and new might be out there. It’s a space where a number of forces–ideology, commerce, activism, access, and influence–merge and converge. A critter like me, with indirect connections to just a few hundred people, can climb up on my very tall and decidedly noble destrier, the highest horse I can find, and ride away. I mostly use Twitter to find calls for submissions and identify publishers (for which it is valuable but not indispensable) and to keep abreast of breaking news and cultural happenings (for which it is all too often critical but increasingly unreliable), so for me the losses would be nominal and could perhaps be recouped on Hive Social, Cohost, Mastodon, or some other site. But for writers and game-makers who’ve earned followings in the tens of thousands, or who rub elbows with folks who can spread word of their creative projects near and far for the sake of promotion or fundraising, it’s a resource that’s far too valuable to relinquish. Until some viable replacement emerges–and until a goodly crowd moves in a single, determined direction–it’s simply not a resource they can abandon without suffering significant losses. It’s what we in the countenancing industry call a proper pickle, as we don’t want to associate (or be associated) with some of the company we currently keep but lack the authority to turn them away.
Right now it feels quite like those awkward tables at the holidays, where spending time with our family, friends, and loved ones too often involves acquiescing to the presence of folks we’d rather not acknowledge, much less validate. That’s something of a sour note to end on, I confess, as it feels like a circumstance we cannot avoid. But I find a bit of comfort in the fact that, at least when it comes to countenancing, the openness with which we face toward some things and face away from others can become a powerful kind of action in its own right.
The Disconnected Self
There’s something rather magical about social media, at least in its more rarefied forms. After I logged on to Facebook for the first time I reconnected with friends from high school in a matter of weeks, and (as a sort of legacy platform in many way) I’ve been able to watch some of my former students grow over time, earning terminal degrees, writing and publishing themselves, becoming parents. After I joined Twitter I was more readily able to give shape and scope to my writing career (at least on the creative side of things). I found a writing community, found calls for submissions more routinely, and was able to support emerging initiatives for LGBTQIA+ writers, for BIPOC writers, for subjects that always struck me as criminally uncovered. I occasionally made contact with creators I admire, even if only incidentally. And of course there has been news and The Discourse, all the stories out there in circulation that one gains access to when people on the scene of major events can fire their observations off into the aether.
The darker side, of course, has reared up with irritating frequency, no matter how aggressively I curated my feeds. Like most folks in These Uncertain Times I rise each day with a little more weight in the downwardly-dipping side of the scales, so a couple of bad stories or grim predictions about the future can be enough to send me off on a sour note. And to feed various appetites I found myself breaking things down and diversifying in spite of myself, curating some feeds for my work, others for my private life, and others for my many, many niche hobbies. The current state of affairs, which seems to involve little more than vindictiveness dressed with all the trappings of free speech has me consolidating some personae and closing down others. The theories about why a billionaire would so aggressively and publicly undermine the foundations of his reputation are fascinating, but ultimately I’d rather be playing or making games, writing fiction and poetry, and hanging out with my partner and friends. I’ve been keeping tabs on Discord more regularly, and I opened up a Mastodon account so that I can hopefully keep a hand in, as the Brits say, but it’s one of those moments of existential whiplash: I need to make an array of changes, and while it’s pretty easy to see what I need to move away from, it’s harder to figure out what I need to move toward.
What I’m ultimately trying to do is make change in the right spirit, which can be elusive even with a witching board. One of the bedrock facts of hypnosis is that it’s incredibly difficult to change anything you don’t actually want to change, so at least part of the problem is mustering the determination to live a bit differently. The good news for me, at least, is that I have ready reference to a positive example in my partner. She’s in the process of launching her own business, which is a heady, anxious, exciting time. It’s not hard to understand why all those mingled feelings are hard for her to manage, but each day she navigates that maze of possibilities and settles on excitement. There are plenty of concerns she has to entertain, plenty of considerations she has to take into account, but at day’s end what she holds onto is that excitement–the thrilling possibility of being her own boss for the first time, of earning for herself rather than someone who inherited enough money to buy an existing business or purchase a sizable share of an already-successful partnership, of doing the sort of affirmative, self-determined work that she’s wanted to do so long. It has me thinking of bigger projects, of more involved work, of stretching my legs a bit to see how fast I can move and how far I can go.
It is, alas, lurching, awkward movement, like exercise my body is unaccustomed to doing. But I can see the shape of change taking place, since one departure from the usual order of things usually catalyzes changes in other areas. I’m a creature of habit, and it’s amusing to see old habits falling like dominoes, ceding ground to experiments with new ways of doing things. Whether or not those changes will also yield new ways of being is always a little uncertain, but I have enough faith in the process today to hold me over.
Patronage and Aid
I am, in the parlance of the virtual realms, an easy mark.
Over the course of the past year I have handed over more cash than I care to mention in support of Kickstarters, Patreons, political campaigns, charitable causes, mutual aid, and other calls for crowdfunding. It doesn’t take much to entice my interest or stir my sympathies, and I do my best to support those causes and projects I believe in.
That being said, that patronage begins to weigh more heavily on me as the year draws to a close. It’s not an entirely material thing, though domestic economics certainly bear on my decisions. Them What Lives Beneath the River know that I have plenty of standing subscriptions to services I seldom use and memberships I rarely inquire after. I’m bleeding money as we speak. My decisions, at least in part, are predicated on a desire to spread the wealth around, so each fall I take stock of how much I’ve spent and where it went. In the following year I’ll try to point my resources in a different direction.
And then we have my idiosyncrasies. So, so many idiosyncrasies.
I’m no expert, but here are a few tips I think I can responsibly offer when it comes to hitting up the interwebz for a bit of financial assistance.
- Build on desire, not fear. When it comes to money, I know that fear is a powerful motivator. Just about every political campaign I’ve ever donated to is pretty energetic when it comes to fearmongering, particularly in the mailings that follow hot on the heels of initial donations. But–and this is true of artistic projects and mutual aid as well–I have an easier time supporting or promoting a good thing than trying to prevent a bad thing from happening, and that’s doubly true when I know that preventing the bad thing hinges on contingencies in which I have no part. Tell me you’re a few bucks short of acquiring a new computer with which you can write or make art and I’m apt to donate; tell me you need a few dollars to acquire a new computer or you might never make art again, and I’m apt to pass you by. I think/hope it’s not some essential defect of character that drives such decisions, but (given the limits of my personal economy) I’d rather contribute to bringing good things into the world if I can.
- Make giving simple. Here’s a real (all too real) observation from three recent fundraising campaigns, two for 2023 projects and one to meet immediate needs. Easy mark though I might be, that easiness comes with a catch: it’s driven by impulse, not by logical processing. If I see a cause I’d like to support, I like to click and donate/patronize. That’s it. But in the three cases I mention indirectly above I literally couldn’t find the links to the fundraiser itself, at least not in the thread that drew my attention to the calls for patronage/aid. To be clear, it’s not malicious omission on my part. I don’t log off from my computer in a huff and wail “I would have donated to your cause if you’d only made it eeaaaasy,” and then pat myself on the back for my generosity of spirit. It’s always along the lines of “Mental note: look for that fundraiser tomorrow.” Trusting in my incidental memory, alas, is generally a losing bet, and in the flood of posts and tweets the odds that I’ll find my way back to a cause are pretty small. (And to be doubly clear, it’s worth noting that the usual search engines are of precious little help, even when you hunt for very particular things–algorithms and engine optimization mean I will get plenty of comparable causes instead of the one I seek.)
- Motivate donation. This too, alas, feels like a failing in me, but I kind of need the why behind a call for giving. I actually have a line item in my wee budget for such things, and (though I’ll refill those coffers if a windfall comes my way) that means I sometimes have to choose from several good causes. A simple, seasonable reason is almost always all it takes for me to click the link. I’ve read more than a few calls (usually in an attempt to meet an ongoing need) in which the writer is understandably exasperated and tired of asking for donations. They’ll write “Looks like we won’t meet our goal/deadline; you know what to do.” As above, though, asking a prospective donor to hunt down your why, when any given afternoon will confront them with a dozen comparable calls, is apt to mean they click a different link just because it requires less processing power to do so.
- Differentiate and discriminate. One of my social media friends posts several calls for mutual aid per day, all for good, if miscellaneous causes. For that reason, I’ve more than once missed out on their own calls, lost as they were in a wash of information that all looks about the same to my speed-skimming eyes. The same holds true for folks with projects in the offing, who naturally want to be supportive of their peers. They’ll post a link to their own Kickstarter/Patreon, and doing so will put them in mind of promoting their friends and colleagues. That is, I think, positive human policy, but it can cause me to scroll on by in the midst of my skimming. As above, this is more habit than malice on my part. I try not to feed my addiction to social media overmuch, and that leads to some terribly casual reading habits.
- Spread the wealth. This post is getting a little on the sprawling side, so I thought I’d try to close out by squeezing three bits of advice together. The first derives from the fact that it’s October, the best of all possible months, which means that I’ve got I’ve got a few calls for donations from places that circle the academic calendar and a few dozen more from horror projects. As above, I have a finite budget for such things, so only a few of those can get my support. Calendrical pragmatics stand in the way, so it’s not a bad idea to seek support in odd months if you can. By the holidays, despite the giving spirit, many folk will be tapped out. The second derives from the difference between calls of general use and localized value. A request for funds that will support a virtual student magazine will always get my attention; a request for funds that will support a reading series in Texarkana probably won’t. I have a pretty good attitude about Texas, but this feels like it falls into the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of critters category (and my calculations would certainly change if it’s made clear that the reading series would be broadcast to a wide audience). Finally, when it comes to tiers and rewards, I think it’s wise to distribute thoughtfully. If you need to raise a bajillion dollars, having a ten-dollar tier that gets you the critical thing (a digital issue or digital version of a game, for instance) strikes me as a problematic proposition. I think in those cases a blank give-what-you-will entry field will serve the cause better. And I think when it comes to stretch goals the folk who were already able and inclined to support a cause will snatch up the best, limited-edition perks straight away. Larding the lower and middle tiers with things cash-strapped would-be donors might like can make it more appealing to get on board. The rewards are seldom the point, but as an added enticement they can tilt the scales and maybe get a bit of extra buy-in as a personal splurge. It’s not a bad thing to send a donor away with that good feeling–and a nice reminder to think about giving again a little ways down the road.