On Writing Humor

Every morning I get up knowing that I’m going to be making between two and four humor posts, and that people need to laugh right now perhaps more than at any time previously in my life. I also know that it might be a reach day when I go beyond the baseline. I don’t always succeed, but I do always try.

One part of that is understanding that there are lines that you have to cross to make things funny and lines that shouldn’t be crossed if you don’t want to hurt people. My process for humor is largely built on top of poking at the English language and seeing what falls out.

That means following the loops and puns of language to places that can be pretty fucking dark. When I get there I always pause before posting and think about who this joke might harm. That means that something between ten and sixty percent of what I come up with on a given day gets thrown away. Humor is transgressive by nature, and that means that you have to explore where the speculation takes you, and you also have to pause and assess whether a given transgression is going to hurt people who are vulnerable and who have already been hurt too much.

I have come up with things that are hella funny that would probably make ninety percent of my audience laugh pretty hard at a moment when they really need a laugh, but which comes at a cost of hurting some portion of the ten percent who wouldn’t laugh in a way that is unacceptable for anyone who cares about paying attention to the vulnerable.

In humor, as in life, restraint is as important as pushing yourself to the limits.

Aches and Pains and Privilege

I have a great orthopedist who has done wonders for me over the years including three knee surgeries, diagnosing my labrum tear and brachial tendonitis, and various other odds and ends.

I have incurred quite a few injuries over the years because I’m very physically active, both in terms of doing things like major house projects and on the exercise side with running, weightlifting, biking, punching bag work, and a dozen or so other fitness regime elements. I’ve torn cartilage, pulled muscles, broken bones, etc. The current crop includes a couple of lightly fractured knuckles, fading brachial tendonitis from last summer, tennis elbow, and a spot of carpal tunnel, all of which requires a daily PT regime. It sounds worse than it is, and now that I’m done with the heavy house reconstruction stuff until next spring, most of it should clear up in a few weeks.

My injuries had me ruminating on privilege today while I was cleaning up from the demolition work I just finished in the storeroom. I was feeling a bit on the stiff and sore side as I was hauling bags of broken plaster up the stairs. You see, when I say that I have a great orthopedist, it elides a couple of things. One, obviously, is the privilege of good insurance.

Another, much subtler, issue is that I have an orthopedist who is great for me but who might not work as well for everyone. I think the fact that he’s an excellent surgeon and diagnostician will work pretty well for all of his patients. His manner, maybe not as much. He’s brusque and smart and he doesn’t pull punches about what he thinks you need to do, or risks and potential for recovery. That works well for me, but I’m a middle-aged, cis, white guy who has always been taken seriously by my medical professionals.

I know that I will be listened to and respected simply because of who I am and how I project myself. I know that the reason he is being brusque with me is because he’s brusque, not because he’s reacting negatively to some part of my identity. I know it’s not personal. Not all of his patients have that privilege. I also have the benefit of arriving at his office for an appointment without having to first plow through a bunch of institutional and societal barriers that might cause me to be worn down beyond the injuries that brought me there. I arrive without the baggage that might make it harder for me to handle someone telling me what I need to do in a not particularly gentle way. I have a great deal more patience for this particular bit of mild friction in the machinery of my life simply because I have so much less friction everywhere else.

It’s a thing I always remember when I recommend my orthopedist. I tell people he’s a really good doctor, and a good surgeon, and I recommend him very highly, but I always note that his bedside manner is definitely not for everyone. I also try to remember that part of why he works so well for me is because the cultural baggage that I bring with me everywhere I go is a lot lighter than that carried by so many of those around me.

The Bully in my Brain

I have a bully who lives inside my head. He sits in the back of my brain and criticizes me.

He calls me names. Lazy. Fat. Talentless. Has-been. Sponge. Wannabe. Timid. Hack.

The bully comes and goes like most bullies, striking when he sees I’m weak or tired or when I’ve just had a setback.

The bully is incredibly clever. He knows just which words will hurt or scare me and when to use them.

My bully’s name is anxiety, or sometimes dysmorphia, or OCD. My bully lives in my head, but he is not me.

My bully is nothing more than a bit of errant biochemistry that got boosted along the way by various events in my life.

I can’t not hear him, but I don’t have to listen. I don’t have to treat what the bully says as if I were saying it.

My bully is no more me than my tendinitis or my allergies. He is something I have, not something I am.

When I remember that, when I separate the bully in my head from the me in my head it makes him weak and me strong.

I have a bully in my head. I can’t get him out and I can’t punch him in the nose, but I can deny him the power to call himself “me” and every time I do it is a victory.

Monday Mes (1 time only, not a typo)

So, yesterday was my birthday, which means I didn’t do anything that looked like work, including Monday Meows (hangs head in shame). I did however dig out and photograph all my old IDs from 7th grade on and post those on Facebook. Because, why not? Here they are again in space I control better, now with added captions. Hopefully you will find them moderately entertaining and not complain too bitterly about missing out on my infinitely more adorable cats for a week.

OMFSM, I was sooo leeeetle.

It’s possible I’ve never been good at mornings…

Holy puberty, Batman. (I grew 9 inches in 3 month over the summer)

Look, ma, I’m a belated hippie.

Screw that peace and love stuff, the time for revolution is now!

Paging Mr Rasputin…

My hair, it’s making a break for it!

Maybe if I lean a little to my right I can get out of this picture…

I think I will call my new look “pirate punk” (I’m wearing a sash)

Why yes, I did just drive 14 hours overnight to get here, why do you ask?

Screw it, I’m tired of my hair trying to live on its own.

Hey, I think I’m just going to quit aging now.

Yeah, that’s it, I’m done, aging is boring.

Why do people keep asking me about a picture in the attic?

That portrait is _really_ is starting to look a little tattered.*

Last three photos are taken in 2003, 2011, and 2019


Positive Lessons from Anxiety and OCD

Positive Lessons from Anxiety and OCD
I have a relatively light form of OCD with associated anxiety. It’s not a lot of fun and mostly it takes without giving back, but it has given me a couple of things. High on that list is a series of tools based on intellectual separation. See also: the recognition that my brain is a dick and that it messes with me.
One form of this is that I can often short circuit the worst of a flip-out by reminding myself that the source of something that’s stressing me out isn’t coming from what I think of as my core me, it’s my anxiety making shit up and lying to me.
Another aspect is an intellectual separation from impulse and this is going to take a bit of explaining so stay with me, I’ll get there. A side effect of my atypical neurochemistry is that I have frequent (like multiple times a night) vivid dreams which usually include at least one or two nightmares.
So, let me start there. It’s fairly easy to wake up from a dream in which you’re being pursued by gigantic carnivorous hamsters and realize that such things do not exist. Your fear from the dream is real. You feel it in your limbic system. But you know that gigantic carnivorous hamsters are not a real thing. That helps you step away from the fear once your thinking brain kicks in.
A nightmare about bears in your living room might be a bit harder to step away from because, while there are no bears in the living room, it’s an actual possibility. One about a fire starting in the basement is even tougher to let go of and might require a trip through the house sniffing for smoke. However, if you do it often enough (say three or four times a night) you develop the intellectual tools that allow you to quickly let go of even the most plausible nightmares.
Now apply that to incredibly vivid nightly dreams about all sort of things from the phantasmagoric to the sublime to the erotic. It quickly becomes apparent that your dream about wild sex with elves is no more real than the gigantic hamsters. So is the one about the rock star you’re crushing on, and from there to the dream about an actual human you know is another obvious step. The sex drive or affection is real, the connection to another specific person is not.
But dreams aren’t the only place where we experience parts of our brain coming up with impulses or scenarios that aren’t real. Especially if you’re not neurotypical and, given that neurotypicality is a spectrum, we’re all somewhat closer or farther from the mean on some axis. What this means as a tool for life management is that when I’m flipping out about getting stuck in traffic on the way to the airport, I can remind myself of the fact that we left two hours early, and that probably has us covered.
It also means that when I have an inappropriate attraction response to another human being, I’m pretty good at saying “That’s nice, brain, now find another hobby.” Which is an excellent skill for remaining happily married.
Skill. Let me pull that word out. Impulse control is a talent we all have to varying degrees, but it’s also a skill that can be practiced and improved upon. My anxiety and OCD have forced me to learn to separate impulse from action in a very intellectualized way—the fear of the hamsters is real but the hamsters not so much—and that’s been useful to me. I’m writing this in hopes that for at least a few of you folks out there the realization that it’s possible to make that separation between oneself and one’s brain being a dick might be useful to you.
So, when you’re stressing out about something, consider the question: is this me, or is it just my brain being an asshole?

Michael Levy, an Appreciation and a Farewell

Michael Levy, one of best men it has ever been my pleasure to know, has left the world. He was a friend, a mentor, and something halfway between a brother and father to me and to Laura.

I first met Mike in 2000, the year my wife, Laura, took her current position as a professor in the physics department at UW-Stout. The then director of research services heard that Laura’s husband was a science fiction writer and immediately thought of Mike’s work as a reviewer and scholar of science fiction. Introductions were made, and we soon became friends with Mike and his wife, Sandy. Over the following seventeen years that relationship has deepened into a connection that is as much family as it is friendship.

Mike was brilliant, giving, gentle, kind, and possessed of a bottomless and quirky sense of humor that meshed with mine in a delightfully odd sort of way. I think that the laughter we so often shared is what I will miss the most about him. We shared many meals, we played games together, and critiqued each other’s writing. We shared good times and bad and we were always there for each other. But most of all, we laughed together every time we were in the same room, even in darker moments. It hurts my heart so very much to know that we will never share another joke or quip.

Other people will talk about Mike’s many important contributions to the field of speculative fiction and they will do a better a job of it than I could, but I do want to talk a little about how his work affected mine, because my writing is at the center of who I am and Mike deeply affected my writing. One of the first things that Mike did after we met was ask to see my most recent book, though I was at that point still barely published with only a couple of short story sales to my name. It was a contemporary fantasy with the working title Winter of Discontent and I had finished the book within the last few weeks. It was steeped in theater and set in a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Of everything I have ever written it was far and away the most literary. Handing it to a man who was not only a speculative fiction reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly, but also an English professor was more than a bit intimidating, especially when we had only just met, but I swallowed hard and handed it over.

When Mike finished the book we got together in his office for a chat about it. Scary stuff for an unpublished novelist. I’m not sure what I expected to hear. I was proud of the book, certainly, but not at all sure I had pulled off even half of what I intended. I cannot begin to express how validating it was to hear him say that not only was it good work, it was important work. He thought it had the potential to be a big book. Not necessarily in terms of sales, but in stature. That conversation is one of the things that kept me writing in the years between 2000 and selling my first novel in 2005. Sadly, Winter of Discontent has never been published, though it has come very close several times. It is out on submission again now, after sitting in a trunk for most of a decade followed by a recent rewrite. When it sells, I will owe a huge debt for any successes it has to Mike.

Though he never got the chance to formally review Winter of Discontent, Mike did review several of my other books and was a champion of my work, taking me more seriously as a writer and an artist than I often do myself. For the last decade when Mike taught his yearly science fiction course, one of the assigned books was always my WebMage. Every time he taught it he would invite me in to speak with his class about the work, which was always a pleasure. Now, I think of myself as a commercial writer first and foremost and that is how I generally talk about my work at places like Mike’s class. But it’s not something he was ever willing to let pass unchallenged. When he spoke about my work he would argue for me having a great passion for politics and ethics in my writing, a tendency to slip deeper topics into light books, and even my literary merit. He always took my work more seriously than I do, and believed in it in ways that I am not generally willing to. My gratitude for that is boundless.

Mike was an academic mentor to Laura as well, helping her negotiate the academic politics specific to Stout, the challenges of being a department chair, the world of academic publishing, and so much more. He made us better, stronger, happier people, and we are not alone in that. Over the last few weeks we have heard similar stories from many of his friends. Wherever he went, he helped people to achieve their dreams and be their best selves. His absence is going to take a bright light out of our world. He was endlessly generous with his time, his insights, and his love. He was a great mentor and a great teacher and he made a huge difference in the lives of his friends, his colleagues, his many proteges, his students and the whole world of speculative fiction. He was taken from us both too soon and too young and Laura and I will miss him as long as we live.

Eulogy for a Cat: Beloved Isabelle

Yesterday I said goodbye to Isabelle. She was my cat, or perhaps that should be My Cat. I’ve lived with and loved quite a few cats and a number of dogs, but none of them were as close to me as my Belle. For seventeen years she was my shadow, rarely out of sight and usually touching me if she could.

With the exception of a few of my first short stories, she has had a paw in almost everything I’ve ever published. Literally. The sound of my keyboard in production mode has always brought her hurrying to climb onto my chest so she could cuddle up while I worked. The fact that I am typing this now without her breaks my heart. I want nothing more than to set my laptop aside and curl up in a ball in a dark room.

But, if I am anything, it is a writer and a storyteller. Sometimes that means writing things I never wanted to write and telling stories with endings I never wanted to see. Today, as I sit here typing alone for the first time in ages, is one of those days. But not writing this would be a betrayal of the life I have set out to lead, because part of being a writer is to say the things others don’t have the words for, to give voice to things that are hard to say. So, here goes.

Someone I love dearly has died. That she was a cat and not a human being doesn’t make that any easier to say or to cope with. It feels like I have shards of broken glass in my heart, and my eyes ache from all the tears. I know from past grief that this deep pain will ease over time, that it will become a thing of sudden moments of loss and not a continuous ache. It will go from constant companion to daily visitor and eventually to a series of lightning stabs triggered by an image or sound or quiet memory.

But it will never fade completely away, and that is as it should be. Because grief is love, however much it hurts. We would not feel it if we had not loved, and the greater the love the deeper the pain. I would not give up the one to save myself the other, even here at the rawest edge of loss. I loved my Isabelle and she is gone forever and that cuts me to the marrow, but I would not trade a second of the time we had together to ease the pain of the moment.

Farewell my dear one, I will never forget you. Thank you for being my cat and for letting me share you with the world by way of catvest and Friday cat blogging and about a million pictures and stories. The best way I can think to honor your memory is to do what I always do and tell a few more of your stories here.

Isabelle was abandoned by the neighbors who lived across the alley from us. We had seen enough of her to know they had gotten her largely to be a plaything for their children, who did not treat her well. It was one of those things that makes you angry but there’s not much you can do to fix. Not until they moved out in the middle of the night and left her behind. I’m not sure how long it was from then until we adopted her—though it couldn’t have been too many days—but I do remember the second I decided that she was doomed if she stayed out there much longer.

It was the squirrel. Laura and I were sitting at the dining room table when we happened to see this half-starved adolescent cat stalking the squirrel sitting under our birdfeeder. She was maybe twenty feet away from it at that point and the thing that made us notice her was that the squirrel suddenly sat up and glared at her as if to say “Are you serious?” The cat froze and the squirrel went back to eating.

After a few seconds the cat started to move forward again. She got about five feet before the squirrel sat up again. This time the expression on its face was pure DeNiro: “Are you talkin’ to me?” Again, the cat froze and the squirrel went back to eating. Another five feet, another confrontational look, another freeze. Finally, when she was about two yards away the squirrel turned, ran straight at her and leaped a couple of feet into the air before landing on her head and smashing her face into the ground. Then, as if nothing had happened, the squirrel went back to its lunch. The cat staggered off in the other direction and I decided I’d better see about feeding her and trying to get her to trust me enough to bring her inside.

It took exactly two plates of food before she crawled into my lap and started purring like her life depended on it. Since I had to go pick Laura up from grad school, and I couldn’t bring her in the house with our other cats before we took her to the vet to make sure she didn’t have anything contagious, I brought her with me to the U. She hid under the seat the whole way, but came out as soon as Laura was there to hold her. She loved being held like no other cat I’ve ever known.

She especially loved being held on her back like a baby, at least until the last few years when her arthritis started to make that painful for her. Perhaps the best example of that was a few days after we got her when our friends Sara and James came over to meet the new cat. James picked her up like a baby and she stayed there purring for over an hour. He finally had to set her down because his arms had fallen asleep.

Isabelle was a bit of a shock for our two elderly male cats. Imagine a street kid moving in with a couple of bachelor farmers and you’ll have the effect pretty well nailed. She went into heat in that first couple of days, and that really freaked them out. It also had one particularly embarrassing and funny moment for me.

I am in the habit of getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and nabbing a cat to bring to bed with me on the way back. Isabelle is such a snuggler that she always loved this. Only, when she was in heat, she decided that I was a BOY and that she needed to let me know. So, as soon as I laid down she peed on my chest. I was able to keep it from getting on the sheets by pinning my arms to my side, but then I was completely unable to move. Eventually, Laura stopped laughing long enough to get me a towel. Eventually.

Yesterday, when I took her in to the vet to see if she was in as bad a shape as I feared, Isabelle peed in her carrier and I got it all over me when I pulled her out and held her while we waited for the vet to join us. I am a storyteller, and that circular story structure is a thing that I have often used to effect. To have it happen in real life seems exactly, hilariously right. Especially since it was her kidneys that killed her.

Once we knew that she was going to die, I arranged for the vet to come by in the evening and I brought her home. She always hated going to the vet more than any of the other cats, and I didn’t want her to die in that environment that frightened her so much. We spent the day snuggled up in bed—always her favorite thing—and I took one last nap with the cat who has always been able to get me to go to sleep no matter how badly stressed I am or how hard the insomnia is hitting.

She died in my arms surrounded by love and I am incredibly grateful for that. I never wanted that day to come, but as terrible things go it happened in the least terrible way possible. I don’t think things happen for a reason, though I wish I did, but her death couldn’t have been better timed or gentler if she’d arranged it to make it easier for us.

She hated when we traveled and it stressed her into some kind of ailment more than once. But we had been home long enough so there was no guilt about our last trip and the next was still on the horizon, so that worry is gone. It was very sudden. She’s old and arthritic and has had bad kidneys for nearly a decade, but she’d been doing better the last few months and acting positively spry. She didn’t suffer.

It came at the end of a break for me so that I was relaxed and had had plenty of time to spend with her in the past few weeks. It came before what’s going to be a very tough writing task that will absorb most of my energy, but not so soon before that I can’t push it off a bit and take time to grieve. It was on a weekday so there was no need to try to deal with the emergency vet instead of people she knew well. Her illness wasn’t so terrible that we had to let her go on the spot at the vet. It was a mercy in every way but one.

Someone I love has died, and my heart is broken. Over time it will heal into a new shape, but now, in the moment, I am full of pain and I miss my cat so very much.

Goodbye Isabelle, I love you.

A tribute in photos. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

Tales From the Other Side of My Life

Last night was one of those great meetings where it was genuinely fun to be an elected official. Agenda item: awards and recognition.

In addition to being an author, I’m what most people think about as a county commissioner, though that’s not the language we use here. My county is a largely rural, midwestern county with a university town in our micro-metro area, part of which I represent.

Last summer our local 4H cow judging team took the state championship, and then went on to nationals where they also won. This is unusual for two reasons, my county is relatively tiny and most state teams are an all star slate instead of a single county team.

Until they came before the board to present on that last fall, I didn’t even know we had a cow judging team, much less what it does. But they cheerfully educated us on the topic.

Having won nationals, our cow judging team was invited to the international competition in Scotland. The county helped pay their way. Last night they came back in to report on how they did and to thank us.

Fun for me both because we helped them along and because I have spent many happy weeks in Scotland where I was married in 1994. So, lots of slides of places I know.

But, even better, they did very well. For the world cow judging competition, they split our four person team into two sub teams. They took 3rd and 6th place. They also took 1st individual, and 1st individual for showmanship.

The young woman who was their lead person on the report was the one who took 1st individual. She was poised smart, and focused. She was also a dead ringer for Hermione Granger, which warmed my geeky heart.

So, why do I bring all of this up?

Because, these smart and talented young people from a tiny rural county were significantly helped by local government. Too often, we hear about government getting it wrong. I thought it was worth pointing out a place where government got it right.

It’s also worth pointing out that in a representative democracy, WE are the government. Me more directly than many, but it always comes down to us, either as the people making and implementing policy, or as voters choosing who will do those things for us.

This is exactly why I am now serving my 5th term despite low compensation, and the drain on time and energy that I could be sinking into my primary job of writing fiction. Because it’s important, and someone needs to do it.