On Traumatizing a Toddler

The culprit’s cover

Most people have books from childhood they think every child should have, and many of us, in adulthood, proceed to inflict them on the children in our lives.  For me, I have three such books, the book of nursery rhymes, verse, and fairy tale collections published by Brimax in the 70’s and which have been out of print for ages.  I still have my copies from childhood, and when the opportunity came for me to exercise my rights as an insufferable adult and foist them on my oldest nibbling, I dug up copies off the used book market rather than part with my own.  After all, I want my nibblings to have access to the same gorgeous, corrupting influences that have stayed with me since childhood, but not if it inconveniences me.

I didn’t fork them over all at once since I’m engaged in a years long campaign to be the coolest aunt ever, which means delivering presents at times when they’ll be appreciated and remembered.  The final, crowning jewel of the trifecta was delivered last Christmas.  My sister is a great ally in my cool-aunt-campaign, so the last time I visited, she teamed up with me to suggest that maybe that night’s bed time story ought to be one from that really great book he got at Christmas and immediately forgot about.

Let’s pause a moment to get to know the nibbling in question.  His mind is wired lawful-good in a way I find utterly, gobsmackingly unfathomable. If you strike a bargain with this kid, he expects the terms of the bargain to be fulfilled with a conviction that only comes from somebody who has never had a deal broken.  He’s rigorous about please and thank you, not because he understands courtesy, but because he’s internalized them as a ritual that powers the functioning of the universe.  (To be fair, that’s not actually far off from what courtesy is.)  He does his assigned tasks thoroughly and completely because after, he gets screen time, and if he applies enough please and thank you, he might lubricate the machinery of the universe enough to get extra screen time.  He believes his aunt turns into a dragon and eats little boys if you wake her up in the morning because she told him that was true and he has no notion that an adult might lie to him.  (In my defense, it’s not a lie. It’s just a non-literal truth.)  He knows he doesn’t have all the rules and formulae for the universe worked out, but he’s confident they’re all known and rigorously effective.   

Meanwhile, at his age, when I asked, “What does cynical mean?” I was answered with, “Your attitude.”  One of my first report cards called me out for, perhaps, being too sarcastic.  My nibbling and I are not even a tiny bit the same kind of person.

I noticed the difference.  I stared in shock as it was clearly and blatantly demonstrated time and time again.  Then, when bedtime arrived, I applied absolutely nothing from these observations.

“Let’s read Snow White and Rose Red,” I said.  “It was my favorite when I was a kid.”

“Mine too!” my sister says.

There we go. What paladin-in-training toddler is going to refuse a pitch like that?  (Me. I would have refused on principle the moment I figured out I was being set up.)  So we settle down in bed and open up the book and I put on my best cool-Aunt-reading performance and…well.

If you’re not familiar, Snow White and Rose Red is the story of two sisters who live in the woods with their mom.  There’s no jealousy or backstabbing here.  They’re just hanging out in the woods, having happy independent lives, chilling with their two rose trees outside the door.  (One’s white, one’s red. It’s idyllic.)  One winter evening a bear knocks on the door, and though the girls freak out for a minute, mom is basically, “He knocked. He’s not going to knock if he’s a problem. Yo Bear, come on in and don’t mess up the carpet.”  So they hang out all winter and have a grand old time romping in front of the fire and that’s definitely not a euphemism for anything because mom was right there the whole time.  Winter ends, summer comes, and the bear takes his leave to go protect his treasure now that it’s not covered in ice anymore. (Moral of the story right here: You could have nice things, but summer.)

So far, so good.  Sort of.  The nibbling was freaked out by the idea that a bear would randomly burst into your door after somebody knocked, but settled down when it turned out to be okay.  The thematic consistency of, “The bear was courteous, therefore we knew he was good,” was lost on him, but he’s four. We can hold off on discussions of the mechanized underpinnings of fairy tale morality and ritualized underpinnings of contractual hospitality until he’s more mature.  Like, say, when he’s six.

The story continues.  While out and about in the woods, gathering berries and whatnot like idyllic sisters with favorite rose trees do, they encounter a dwarf with his beard stuck in a log.  After other attempts at extrication fail, they snip off the end of his beard and set him free.  At which point the dwarf completely freaks out and starts yelling at them for mangling his beard.   

Paladin-nibbling was not having it.  “Why is he mean?” he asks, clearly distressed and horrified at this reaction.   

You can’t say, “Because he’s a dwarf.” It’s a lazy explanation that attributes a voluntary choice to an intrinsic quality of the individual.  Also, it reinforces problematic understandings of fairy tale tropes. There was a brief second where my nibbling, and his mother, almost got a detailed explanation of the shared motif-space across collected fairy tales and how they often reflect the biases of the recorders more than the cultural sentiments distributed across the oral corpus.  However, I do have some marginal ability to read my audience.  Instead I opted for, “Because he’s a bad dwarf.”  (Come back next week for ‘Enlightened parenting 101’.)

This did not satisfy, but we continued the story. When it all happened again, this time with a fishing line and impending threat of death-by-fish for the dwarf, the nibbling is plainly alarmed.  Then, the third time, right as the dwarf really leans into his rant about stupid girls vandalizing his facial hair, a bear appears and kills him.   

Thank you, bear!

Now, come on.  How many times have you stood in front of a childish temper tantrum over how you saved somebody’s bacon and they don’t like how, just wishing a bear would appear and put an end to the nonsense?  Hundreds of times? I bet it’s hundreds.  This story is amazing.

The bear is, of course, THE bear, and he is, of course, actually a prince under a spell that has now been broken.  He’s all, “Hey, so, elder sister, wanna go back to my kingdom and continue the fun times we had all winter, except in the lap of luxury where there are no rude dwarves?  I’ve got a top notch brother, so you and your sister can still share everything.”

She’s all, “Sure, so long as we can bring mom and those rose trees,” and if they haven’t yet died then they’re living there still.   

It had been years since I’d read the story, and I’d never really thought about how delightfully on-the-nose it is that my sister and I both latched onto the story about really functional sisters who have a thing for bears and rose trees.  (Okay, maybe only one of us is actually into bears…) In that moment, though, I’m full of awareness of how very great this story is, and what fantastic, enlightening experience we’re enabling for the next generation by sharing it.

How did the youth member of the audience feel?  “I didn’t like that story.”

Even the next day, the kid was still distressed by the dwarf’s behavior.  The fact that the situation was resolved by killing somebody is super not helping.  Everything that is good and wonderful about this story exists entirely because it’s in contrast with or in response to elements of the universe this kid has no concept of.  He can’t take joy in the correction of injustice because he’s fresh to the idea of injustice in the first place.   

This is a fascinating window into a world view I have absolutely no personal experience with. This kid is in daycare, so I really, really don’t understand how his internal reality is robust in the face of daily life. Hey, good job raising a tiny idealist, baby sis.

The next night we tried a different story.  One his mom suggested, because she thinks he’d like it more. He’s really into animals, you see.

This is a trans-coming-out story, right?

Pro tip for folks angling to be the world’s coolest aunt: Don’t read your paladin-in-training nibblings The Ugly Duckling.


Bikes on a Train

Photo by Sawyer Bengtson on Unsplash

Moving back to Chicago is the best thing I ever did for myself, and I say that as somebody who has not been stingy with self-indulgence.  I love this city so thoroughly I can’t find words to explain it.  That doesn’t stop me from trying.  “Look at that,” I’ll say when something catches my eye.  “It’s beautiful.”  I’m stopped, struck by fog crawling off the lake to embrace the skyline, by the sunset silhouetting the street as you gaze west to the horizon, or a mural tucked under an overpass, memorializing a person, a moment, an idea. Something specifically precious to that neighborhood.  Something sprawling and universal and touching us all.  It’s been sixteen months since I moved back, and there’s still a film over everything, a longing, a visceral need to be closer to all of it, that makes it hard to believe this is real.  I’m here.  I wake up and fall asleep to the rumble of the train outside my window, squeaking its way down the track over the alley between my building and the next, and it’s a warm blanket whispering, “You’re home.”

You are not allowed to take your bike on a CTA train during rush hour. You can’t even have it on the platform.  Once, years ago, when I had to commute to the west side for a job, I’d figured out that I could save enough money for it to be meaningful if, instead of paying for a transfer from the bus to the train, then back to the bus, I biked the bus stretches.  The only hitch with the plan was that the last train I could catch and still make it on time was scheduled to arrive two minutes after the end of rush hour. That was just enough time to haul my bike up the stairs to the platform, but only if the train never came early.  The train is as likely to be two minutes early as ten minutes late.  I was gong to save five dollars a week in transfer fees with this scheme, sixty dollars over the course of the job. Sixty dollars was more than my monthly grocery budget at the time.  So I explained my situation to the guy watching the turnstiles.  He nodded solemnly and took my concerns very seriously and then told me yeah, whatever, there’s never many people on the train or that platform by that time of day anyway, go ahead and go up early.  So I did, without incident, for about two weeks.

Then one morning there was a woman on the platform already when I got up there.  She was middle aged, full-figured, well put together.  Her hat was neat, and she had a blazer jacket over a floral print dress, and shoes I’d have to remove toes to wear.  She was not thrilled about the frumpy white girl on the platform with her bike.  She marched right over to me and told me straight up, “You are not supposed to be here.”

“I know I’m up here early,” I said.  Then I explained about how the train wasn’t supposed to come until after it would be okay, and I’d talked to the CTA guy and…

“I am sick and tired of people like you thinking you can do whatever you want and taking advantage. Some of us have to use this train and we don’t need you disrespecting us or it.”   

I didn’t say anything to that.  I couldn’t find a way to get across that yes, I can afford to stand there with a bike and looking sloppy, but I’m the kind of broke where I did the math on transfer fees and $60 mattered.   

That night I did more math.  I’d been biking the first and last legs of the commute for two weeks and it was pretty easy.  It would take me about fifteen extra minutes each way to bike it all instead of taking the train. That would still get me back in time to make it to my other job.  Not paying for even the train fare saved much more than $60.   

I think about that lady all the time.  She was right; I didn’t need to bend the rules. I wasn’t even doing what was in the best interests of my budget.  Instead, I’d worked the problem half way, and stopped at the solution that called for minor cheating.  I hope telling me off made her day.  Her week.

I don’t believe in unconditional love.  I just don’t.  Never have.  I believe in indefinite love.  I believe in deluded love.  I believe people get attached enough to the idea of loving a thing that they’ll go to spectacularly absurd lengths to preserve that state.  But unconditional? Really?  No.  There’s always some bedrock that love is anchored in, and love only endures as long as the bedrock. That can look and feel unconditional, but it isn’t.   

Unconditional love is a performance, not a reality.  It’s a devotion to the idea of love, not an attachment to the alleged object of affection.  Love without condition just slides off its object without ever really seeing it.

Except, I’ve been wondering for the last year or so, what is the bedrock for my love of Chicago? What’s the thing that must not change? There’s an anxiety around this question.  I need to know, because one thing that I’ve realized quite starkly since moving back is that I was utterly, spectacularly miserable while I was gone.  I knew it when I first left. I remember how constantly and relentlessly I was aware of that misery.  Then it faded.  Or I thought it did.  I thought moving back was a nice fantasy to dream about, something to consider doing someday, later, the way other people retire to sail around the world or to a hobby farm in the country.  (That is, in their dreams, and therefore, never.)  I got a little dedicated to the idea of someday, but not now.  It got to the point where somebody flat out asked me, “Why not?” and I realized I didn’t have an answer beyond, “Because that’s a fantasy.”  But now I know: I was miserable, and I was afraid, and this question is why.  If I don’t know where the line the city must not cross is, then I won’t know how to steer it away, or brace myself when the bedrock begins to erode.  As long as I don’t know the answer to this question, there’s a chance that someday I’ll wake up to the sound of the train and just hear noise.

Last Friday I had a full day with a scattershot of places to be.  It was the first nice day after a week of rain and I was desperate to stretch my legs.  The first appointment would require a train, then a bus.  After that, either another bus or a lot of walking.  Then more walking.  Then a bus to a train, or a bus to a bus, or a bus to a train to a different train.  The night before I stared at the map, checked the weather report, then went, “Screw it. First appointment is at noon. That’s plenty of time.”  I took my bike on the train.   

There were, of course, no empty cars when the train pulled up, but I did manage to dash onto one with the section at the end where there aren’t any seats and you can take up a lot of space without blocking anybody who isn’t switching cars.   

“That’s a nice bike,” a lady sitting nearby says.  “I would know, too.  My man runs a bike shop over there on Greenwood.  He’s got that one in there.”

“Yeah, I like it a lot,” I said.  “It isn’t fast, but it’s steady and I can bike forever on it.”

“Well, that’s what matters most.  You don’t have to be hurrying everywhere,” the guy sitting next to her says.   

“Exactly!” I say.  I mean, it’s not a fast bike, but I still beat the bus half the time anyway.   

We get to talking.  He wants to get an e-bike.  I tell him that after Seattle, an e-bike in Chicago would feel like cheating.  They didn’t know Seattle was hilly.  They couldn’t believe Seattle was more expensive than Chicago.  (It is. Oh my god, is it ever.  And for no good reason.)  We talked about working from home and making offices out of closets.  His daughter has gotten into drinking sweet tea, and she’s running late every morning now because she’s busy stirring the pitcher to dissolve the sugar and get it cool.  I suggested sweetening with agave nectar, because it’ll dissolve at room temperature, so she could brew it ahead of time and still sweeten to order.  “It doesn’t get all solid like honey?” he asks.  Nope.

“And it’s better for you,” the lady pipes in.   

His daughter’s hefty.  He thinks she’s fine now, but he worries that if she keeps getting big, the other kids will pick on her.  “Kids these days is cruel, with the bullying.  I hate thinking about how bad it is.”  The conversation lingers on the subject.  I don’t say much.  This is a man worried about the happiness of his daughter, stuck between believing she’s beautiful and wanting her to believe it too, and fear that others won’t see the same and will punish her for it.  What I think isn’t relevant.   

“I don’t like talking about things like this. It always makes me sad,” the lady says.  But the conversation doesn’t budge.  The guy is stuck on it.  He’s trying to move on, but this is clearly something eating at him.

“How’d you meet your man with the bike shop?” I ask.

My affection for Chicago isn’t unique, with respect to my affections in general.  I get cranky if I’m not taking time to read something engrossing relatively regularly.  I got attached enough to my houseplants that after they all died in the move from Seattle, I wound up in a consult with a lady in a plant shop that looked an awful lot like a grief counseling session.  I wore a hoodie my sister gave me to the point it was in utter tatters.  I didn’t stop wearing it until she gave me a nearly identical one to replace it.  The original still hangs like an ornament in my bedroom.  I care about people, sure.  They’re great.  But ideas? Objects?  Rituals or things I can grasp and tie stories and meaning to?  The word that’s needed here is “sentimental.”  I’m prone to pathological sentimentality.   

Though, admittedly, Chicago is very large, and very abstract, and very impossible to put on a shelf or hang from a bedpost.  There are still parts of the city I’ve never been to.  More things I haven’t seen than I have.  I’ve been in love with this place over half my life, but I’m painfully aware that I’ve only scratched the surface of knowing it.  My affection here is founded as much on my idea of the place, my individual, idiosyncratic sliver of experience here, as it is on what it really, truly, genuinely is.  I am every parent who loves the idea of their child more than the young person growing up in front of them.  Every newlywed as enraptured with the fairy tale of happily ever after as the actual commitment they’ve made.   

I never lived near enough to the train to hear it, when I lived here before. It doesn’t make sense to have that sound wrapped up in nostalgia, for it to provide comfort to me now that I’m back.  Everything about my persistent, dedicated devotion is overblown and irrational.  I know this.  I’m aware of it in the same breath where I stop at a street corner, point at something, and go, “Isn’t that beautiful?”

They’ve been together fifteen years.  He was selling her Avon and she kept going back.  Then he opened the bike shop and she helped.  They have two kids together and she glows when she talks about him.  “I haven’t ever married him, though,” she says.

“Nothing wrong with that,” I say with a shrug.  “Marriage is overrated.”

“No!” the guy protests.  “There’s nothing more beautiful than a loving commitment.”

“Sure, that’s nice.”  I don’t think that’s nice, but I’m talking to a married man.  No reason to be rude.  “But when somebody comes home to me, I want it to be because they chose it right then in that moment, not because they have to.”

“That is a beautiful way of looking at it,” the lady says.  “I’m going to take that for myself.  They’re with me because they want to be.”

“Are you married?” the guy asks.

I do a double take.

“Does she sound like a married woman?  Aren’t you hearing her?  She doesn’t like marriage.”

I feel bad for the guy.  I hijacked his moment of worrying about his daughter into a conversation that’s disparaging his choices and values.  “It’s not that, exactly.  I’ve just seen a lot of friends who are with people who aren’t worthy of them. I think they would have left if they weren’t married, and that’d be better.”

It’s been sixteen months since I came back and I still have no idea what my condition is.  Where the bounds on my affection are.  I have no idea how to ward off the day when I’ll hear somebody talk about wanting to leave Chicago and nod along, instead of quietly liking them less.  I want to fortify against that erosion, to battle whatever apathy or exhaustion or jaded numbness might come between me and the giddy awe I feel every time I look around and go, “Yes, it’s true. I’m home.”  I haven’t found it yet, but I’m going to keep looking.  I’ll walk and bike and ride every block until I know the city like a family quilt.  I’ll clutch it tight, wrapping it around my shoulders as I listen to the train rumble by, knowing my love is real because it’s conditional, but defended.  Eternal.


ConFusion 2019 – I’m Coming

Long time, no post. But I want to make sure you know that I’m going to be at ConFusion, and you can find me there.  My schedule is below:

Footnotes in Fiction
Friday, 8pm, Southfield
While readers are accustomed to footnotes in translated and historical works, footnotes, endnotes, and other side-matter such as indexes pack powerful storytelling potential. Goldman used them to power the meta-story in The Princess Bride. Ursula K. Le Guin used the occasional footnote to define terms, and footnotes are popular in alt history and historical fiction for audiences of all ages. How can we use footnotes to best effect in our work, and how do we walk the line between entertaining flavortext and extraneous infodump?

Annalee Flower Horne (M), David John Baker, Scott H. Andrews, Anaea Lay, Amy Sundberg

Political History As Setting in Science Fiction and Fantasy
Saturday, 12pm, Southfield
The history of Gildor is essential context for S. Morganstern’s classic. Even in his abridged version, Goldman includes this background in footnotes so that readers will be able to fully appreciate the story. Whether we’re writing a sweeping secondary-world epic, an alternate history, or futuristic science fiction, giving our worlds history helps them feel lived-in and real. Let’s talk about our favorite worlds with deep histories, and how authors can weave historical information into the story in an engaging way that doesn’t bog down the narrative with infodumps.

Dave Klecha (M), Anaea Lay, Carl Engle-Laird, K.A. Doore, K. Lynne O’Connor, Lewis Shiner

New Trends in Post-Collapse Fiction
Saturday, 5pm, Greenfield
The prospect of a world where the march of social and technological progress has drastically reversed course seems a lot closer than it used to be. What has changed in the way we imagine post-collapse futures? How do post-collapse futures of the past and present exist in conversation with the social and political worlds in which they were written?

Marissa Lingen (M), Andrea Johnson, Michael J. DeLuca, Petra Kuppers, Anaea Lay


Saturday, 7pm, Rotunda
Petra Kuppers, Anaea Lay, John Chu

I swear I didn’t just tell the programming folks to let me ramble about exposition all weekend, but apparently I’ll be rambling about exposition all weekend. It should be informative!

Armed for You up at the Overcast


This actually happened a couple weeks ago, but I’ve been busy, so I’m telling you about it now.  “Armed for You” which originally appeared in the dark humor version of the Unidentified Funny Objects anthology now has an audio version.  It’s my third appearance on The Overcast and I think this is easily the best reading they’ve done, so you should definitely check it out.

Other reasons to check it out:

1) You like cannibals or cannibalism

2) You don’t like cannibals or cannibalism

3) You want to play, “Spot the former co-worker Anaea put in three different stories before she sold one featuring a version of him.”

If one or more of those reasons applies to you, or you simply have excellent taste in audio fiction, go check it out.

Find me at WisCon


WisCon. I will be there.  You can come here my talk.  Or read.  Or pontificate.  The last is like talking, but with more authority.

Here’s my schedule:

So, Your Character’s A God…

Friday, 1-2:15pm. Conference 4

Sometimes characters have strong beliefs in gods, and sometimes characters ARE gods. These can be anyone from omnipotent gods distanced from the people to gods casted out of their lands and forced to live as wretched beings. Sometimes there are whole pantheons of gods, and sometimes there’s just the one. What does it mean to have a god as a character? What are the potential pitfalls in using a real life religion as your fictional playground?

Alex Gurevich, Natania Barron, Anaea Lay, Gabiann Marin

Worldbuilding Justice And Injustice

Saturday, 9-10:15pm. Assembly

Questions of justice and injustice very often lie at the core of SF/F stories. As writers, how do we construct societies where these conflicts work well? What worldbuilding tools can we use to portray justice systems and their systemic – and often problematic – consequences in a society? How can we show those consequences in the actions and language of our characters?

K. Tempest Bradford, Charlie Jane Anders, Jennifer Marie Brissett, Anaea Lay, Juliette Wade

Snuggles, Rainbows, and World Destruction

Sunday, 2:30-3:45. Michelangelo’s

Stories of wonder and weirdness, rainbows and apocalypse. Come for the cuddly monsters, stay for the end of the world!

Cislyn Smith, Anaea Lay, Vylar Kaftan, Elizabeth Shack

I’ll also almost certainly make an appearance for the end of the Strange Horizons tea party.  Also, there’s going to be a spontaneous programming item about Project FAD, including the reveal of it’s not-temporary, actually-quite-permanent new name.  Make sure to look that up once it gets scheduled.

See you there!

Project FAD: Let’s Make Something Wonderful


This is going to be simple and short.  If you know anything about me, you know that it must matter a whole lot if I managed to make it short.  Ready?  Here it is:

I hereby formally and publicly announce the launch of an endeavor currently code named Project FAD.  This endeavor will, at a minimum, launch a contest for beginning writers of science fiction and fantasy with a prize meant to bolster and nurture their nascent careers.  That’s the very small, pragmatic elevator pitch.

I’m not feeling small or pragmatic.  I’m not planning to limit this endeavor to writers.  The field is so much bigger than that, and the value in supporting creators across the field so much more vast.  Artists, editors, (podcasters?), teenagers, marginalized folks, people who bleed across the margins with a hunger to hone their craft, you name it, I mean for this to be a thing they can latch onto and find support, resources, and a chance to grow.

I’ve already got enough people volunteering to help to count by dozens.  That’s only a start.  We’re going to need so much more.

Like you.  Interested?  Sign up.  Let’s make this happen.