I’ve been getting a lot of traffic on old Craft Crucible posts, so I thought I’d mention for anybody dropping in for craft discussion that you can get a lot of detailed talk on the subject from me at the Literary Level Up. It’s a newsletter that comes out twice weekly, and is currently doing a very in depth focus on Plot and Structure. We’re about a month in and having a good time.
Most of the content is free, so it’s easy to check out.
Early on in my real estate days, shortly after I went full time with it, I noticed that I was getting a lot of clients who were interested in buying investment property. This was still near enough to the bottom of the housing market, when it wasn’t clear that the stock market was set on an implausible upward trajectory, so people with cash and an intent to let it grow for a while were looking at property as an option. And they’d ask all kinds of questions I didn’t have more than very theoretical, abstract answers for, because owning property as something other than a place to live wasn’t something I had any experience with. But I wanted to be a good fit for basically any client, especially one who actually had money, so I decided to become somebody who could answer those questions with real experience. I could have taken a class on property management or investment principles or something like that, but I’m cheap and broadly skeptical of people who want you to pay them money in order to teach you how to make money, so I did something else; I got myself a temporary part time job in the office of a property management company.
My official job there was “leasing agent” but I was filling in for a leasing agent who’d quit once all the commission for the year was booked, so I was basically an administrative assistant for the summer. (I’m not kidding about the bailing post-commission. They had so few vacant units that they just paid me hourly rather than on commission because there was no opportunity to make a decent wage otherwise. I’m not sure why they didn’t foresee somebody quitting on them with that arrangement…) That was fine by me. It was twelve hours a week to get paid to see how to do leases, tenant approvals, applications, manage parking and maintenance needs, do vacancy projections, marketing, the whole shebang. I knew how to show and pitch property, so not getting to practice that part of it didn’t bother me at all.
The head of the company was the guy who owned nearly all the property being managed—he’d founded the company entirely so he could get management support he could control—and this guy was, to put it mildly, a really bad boss. You know the kind of guy who has one or two very loyal people on his staff and otherwise chews through everyone because he’s never found an opportunity to be belittling, controlling, and confrontational he didn’t like? He was that guy. His accountant was the one loyal one. His property manager, my direct boss, was not.
In his defense, she was a bit scatterbrained. In her defense, it’s hard to be confident and organized when you’re constantly afraid of your boss blowing up at you over something minor. She couldn’t prioritize a to do list to save her life, but it’s impossible to know what the prioritize when anything might trigger a shouting match. It was not fun to watch, and not just because after a week I was certain I could organize the entire office into one part time job through the power of spreadsheets, but everybody was terrified of computers. Because sometimes they break.
I worked about twelve hours a week on any given week, started at the beginning of July, and was expected to stay until some point in September. Two weeks in, I had some regrets: I’d seen just about everything I was going to see, summer as a full time real estate agent was busier than I’d expected it to be, and the work environment wasn’t exactly a fun one. Still, it was a temporary job with an end date, so I figured I could suck it up and stick it out so I didn’t leave them in a lurch where they had to find a third person to fill the job in a single season.
Then comes the day, a few weeks in, when my direct boss, the property manager, mentions that the owner has complained to her about how I dress. It’s not professional enough, he says. I make the company look bad. Could I dress better?
“Are you kidding?” I ask. No, she is not kidding. “Do you know what he’s paying me?” Yes, she knows. “Do you know that I’m leaving here to go to Mt. Horeb and show a farm to clients?” No, she did not know that. “Well, I’m not dressing better than this to show a farm, and I’m not changing clothes for a job that’s missing a digit for my usual hourly rate, so he can deal with how I dress, or he can fire me.”
How I was dressing, by the way, was usually a nice blouse over cargo slacks and flats, hair pulled up, no makeup. Casual, but the dressy-nice kind of casual. Practical for traipsing across rural Wisconsin. There were days I was there in a business blazer, too. Those were different clients. I’m pretty sure what burned up the owner was that he knew I could dress better than I frequently did, and he wanted me to do that for him.
A couple weeks later she mentions, again, that he is really quite upset with how I’m dressing, and also how the previous intervention on the subject produced no discernible change. To which my response was along the lines of, “I’m sorry, was I unclear? I dress for the job that actually pays me and about which I actually care. You have no leverage here.”
She looked very unhappy. But also, her quota for confrontation was already spent. She let it drop. Then, the next day, when the owner jumped down her throat about a disassembled dishwasher in a vacant unit that she hadn’t bullied the handyman into reassembling, she grabbed her purse and, sobbing, stormed out. Never to be heard from again.
I was, at that moment, sitting behind her desk in pants that weren’t even “cargo slacks” but just straight up tatty men’s cargo pants, because I wasn’t seeing any clients that day and, no really, did not care about how I looked at that job. I’d sat down behind the desk when I saw the owner coming so he would just see the blouse, because I figured ignoring his wishes was one thing, but flaunting that when he was already in a foul mood was just needlessly piling onto the poor property manager, and now I was rather disinclined to get up from the desk because I had a long a illustrious track record of never having rage-quit, and I wanted to preserve it.
The owner tracked the sobbing property manager as she made her way around the exterior of the building to her car. Then got in. Then pulled away. Then he turns to me. “Want more hours?”
“No,” I say before I’ve consciously parsed the question.
He looked startled. “But you’re only working, what, ten hours?”
“I’m working sixty hours, only ten of them are here, and honestly, I’d rather have them back. The only reason I’m still here is it didn’t seem fair to accept a temporary job and then quit part way.”
He looked…considerably more than startled. Then he recovered. “Well, thank you for that. At least you have some sense of professionalism.”
When I say “tatty” to describe the pants I was wearing, what I mean is, “wrinkled, frayed at the cuff, and the flap on one of the pockets was torn halfway off.” But I was, in fact, the most professional person in the room. It was very gratifying to have that noticed.
This has always stuck with me, in large part because of his surprise at the idea that I wouldn’t eagerly lap up the chance to spend more time in that office for the pittance he was paying.
But the thing that has stuck with me about that job, far beyond anything I picked up about 24-hour apartment turns or the nuances of Craigslist marketing, was how much that job didn’t actually suck, for me personally, compared to many similar work situations I’d had. The owner of that place was legitimately awful, but he barely ranks in the leagues of bad bosses I’ve had. (For the record, I’ve had some really great bosses, too. I’ve worked a lot of jobs. There are many data points on my spectrum.) The reason isn’t so much that he wasn’t as awful as the really bad ones, but that he was incredibly easy to ignore. I didn’t need the job. I had nothing to lose. When he tried to assert his authority, I could shrug him off, and the fact that I did confused him so much that he’d wander away rather than escalate things.
It leaves me wondering: what if I’d had the same attitude at the previous bad jobs, at times in my life where I did need the work and would have gladly taken any number of extra hours under any circumstances just to boost my paycheck a tiny bit more? Would I have gotten away with it? I’ll never know. And if I’m ever in that situation again? I probably wouldn’t show up in cargo slacks in the first place, if that were the case.
Want a failed rom-com that’s actually a breakup letter with Seattle? Want it in your ears instead of your eyeballs? You can have it! The Overcast has done an audio version of, “For the Last Time, It’s not a Raygun,” and now you can hear it.
I insist that this story is a documentary based on real events. The other people who appear in it insist that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Who’s right? You decide!
Let’s talk about
black Ariel. First, my credentials:
1989 The Little Mermaid was the first legitimate VHS tape I
ever owned. It was gifted to me as a Christmas present because I had
been so abjectly in love with the film when my grandparents took me
to the theater, and I proceeded to watch it at least once a day,
every day, for nigh unto all time. The tape developed a noticeable
squeak by the end of year one. My parents probably still twitch if
any portion of the sound track comes on within ear shot. I knew that
film forwards and backwards, and to this day can still quote the
whole thing at you, as I heard it and learned it when I was five.
(That is to say, there are places where the script turns into
nonsense syllables.) I did not have all the Little Mermaid
merchandise, but everything I owned was Little Mermaid.
It was my monochromatic color choice before I found black. My entire
social life centered around the fact that I was the chief authority
on the film and its source texts. That made me god-king of the
playground, and I was a fierce and benevolent leader.
first aesthetic, philosophical crisis as a child was when, at the age
of eight, I realized that Beauty and the Beast was an
objectively better film, and had to decide whether that made me a
traitor. I concluded that I could acknowledge the ways Beauty and
the Beast outstripped its predecessor while still faithfully
loving the other one, and thereby achieved, at the age of eight,
levels of maturity the internet would still lack a quarter of a
century later. Good job, humans.
frankly, humans behaving like a stupid sack of salted rocks is why
you’re getting this rant. Because, excuse me, Ariel can absolutely
be played by a black woman. White skin is not an intrinsic element
of the character. Red hair, and the color of her tail (invented
specifically for her by the Disney animators, a fact I learned while
despairing of ever finding its match in a crayon box while coloring
in pictures of her) are the only pigments that are in any fashion
intrinsic to Ariel. She’s just white because Hans Christian
Anderson was and Disney, in 1989, didn’t have the guts to handle
fragile white-folk pearl clutching in 1989. (To be fair, it’s not
that they have those guts now. They’ve just figured out a a
different marketing model from the one they were operating under
then. Like you do, over the course of thirty years.) In fact, the
creators were pushing boundaries by making her a red head instead of
a blonde. Everybody at the time thought mermaids had to be blond,
and the creators rebelled. Ariel’s been a pigment-boundary-pusher
from the start. (My source: The DVD extras on the special
anniversary DVD edition my sister gave me for my birthday to replace
the poor, squeaky tape. I promptly watched everything.)
of what I have already said, or am about to say, actually needs to be
said, because the people having a panic attack over this, while
entitled to whatever emotional hyperbole they care to indulge in,
ought to be keeping it to themselves and sparing the rest of us their
idiotic tantrum. But you don’t spend the formative years of your
childhood obsessively trying to figure out the land version of a
sea-witch who can get you access to another world where you fit in,
then let this nonsense go unchallenged. So, let’s instead flay the
stupid, point by point.
is white in the source material.
you really just make an argument that Disney should be faithful to
the source material? Are you out of your head? Have you missed the
last century of film production by that company? Do you know the
ending in the source material? (It’s better, right up until it’s
worse.) Take that stellar rhetorical point scoring of yours and eat
doesn’t make sense for there to be black mermaids in Denmark at
of all, stop learning your history from faux-medieval fantasy novels,
and your idea of population migratory patterns from antebellum
anti-abolitionist hacks. Second of all, what actually doesn’t make
sense is a white mermaid in the first place.
set aside the whole truckload of problems with the notion that you
can handle the existence of mer-civilization and talking fish, but
not black ones, and look at this from a reasoned, biological point of
view: It makes absolutely no sense for Ariel to be white. Assuming
her pigmentation on her human parts are driven by human evolutionary
processes, she’s black, and I don’t mean “Acceptable for
black.” Mutations that have created the variety of pigmentation
present in human phenotypes are driven by a variety of environmental
factors, most notably, interaction
with the sun. This
is not a pressure present in people who live at the bottom of the
ocean. I don’t know how mer-folk are getting their vitamin D, but
it’s not through direct manufacture via sunlight. Maybe, maybe
some random mutation got preserved for another reason and Halle
Bailey can swan in as a
perfect pigmentation match.
There’s no chance you’re winding up at a “Plausible to
hysterical white people for the north sea” complexion.
if their pigmentation doesn’t follow human evolutionary patterns,
but aquatic ones? You’re stretching to either the beluga whale, or
the great white shark, as your paths
to a white mermaid. Whales
actually do routinely interact with the surface, so you have some
legs on a north sea-based argument there, though siren stories tend
to trace mermaids south,
not north. As for great whites? They’re mostly kind of a dull
gray, with white bellies. That sure is one attractive mer-fish
you’re designing there.
is all just a campaign to make liberals happy.
And, so what if it is? That’s not an argument so much as a pile of
scrap tin with one leg. Liberals have money. They buy things, and
boycott things and like to see the world as they understand it
reflected to them. You see, they’re human. Unlike mermaids. It
is totally within the rights of an old, global megacorporation to
decide that seeking out the dollars of “liberals” is worthwhile,
even if if means making you, tiny numskull cretin that you are,
uncomfortable. Go back to sucking those rocks from earlier for
comfort if you need it.
is more proof that political correctness has gone too far and people
are being forced to comply with new groupthink standards and pass
Disney looking at the massive success of Moana
and deciding to make sure they don’t shut themselves out of that
global audience when they once again prostitute a beloved element of
my childhood for untold lucre is totally a return of Hollywood
Blacklists and McCarythism. Because we’re having congressional
hearings where we publicly lambaste
people just for being friends with white supremacists and then
rendering them unemployable for the rest of their lives, right? No?
What are you whining about?
idea that you can defy the supreme legal authority of your realm,
treacherously make a pact with a known national enemy, then seek to
form a binding alliance with a foreign, hostile power, and all your
dreams come true as a result, is an intrinsically white narrative and
should be portrayed as such.
Nobody made that point. But you could, and I’d still respect you
after. My response to it is, simply: Sometimes art has to be the
vanguard and drag reluctant reality behind it. Let’s open the doors
of privilege and consequenceless-recklessness aristocrats of all
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.
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.
Pro tip for folks angling to be the world’s coolest aunt: Don’t read your paladin-in-training nibblings The Ugly Duckling.
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.
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!