Dirge on Violins

My roommate keeps two toads in a small terrarium on our kitchen counter. Once a week, he goes to the pet store down the road and buys two dozen crickets to feed to them. Last year he was hospitalized for almost two months, and the task of keeping his toads alive fell to me.

The workers at the pet store gave me the crickets in a clear plastic bag filled with air. It can be difficult to relate to insects, their eyes and their form are so different from our own. There is a lack of mammalian familiarity. Even so, I confess I feel for them. But I feel for the animals that become my own meals as well, yet that has not stopped me from eating meat—too much, if I am being honest.

So I apologized to these two dozen doomed crickets as I used a pair of scissors to cut the knot off the bag. It deflated immediately and I poured the crickets and the small cardboard egg-carton piece they assembled on into the terrarium.

If you have never seen toads feed before, it is a savage spectacle. They hop out from their hiding spots and lash out with their tongues faster than your eye can see. A cricket trying to gain its bearings in its new “home” simply vanishes from sight. One after another, after another, they vanish, their lives snuffed out by amphibious executioners. They won’t all die in that moment, either. The toads satiate themselves and leave the rest to wander the terrarium. It will be another two or three days before they are all gone for good.

I think about this, sometimes.

This week, however, my roommate is here, returned from the hospital for nearly a month. The usual crickets were not available at the pet store. Instead of buying more, smaller ones, he chose to pick up a few large crickets. I came home from work in the evening, and the toads had already eaten their fill for the day.

One thing to know about larger crickets is that unlike the smaller ones, you can hear them chirping. And I hear them. It is called stridulating, and I use that word and try not to think of the crickets as small fiddlers playing their final tunes. There is a certain level of detachment needed to cope with another animal’s feeding habits—or even one’s own. There are plenty of reasons—good reasons, moral reasons, health conscious reasons—to consider giving up eating other animals, but even plants live. We animals, all of us from human to toad, must constantly snuff out life to maintain our own.

Yet, for reasons I don’t immediately grasp, I walk over to the terrarium and see three crickets gathered within a patch of plastic flora, twitching and drawing their legs to make noise. Stridulate. I watch them for a moment, in this glass box where their lives will end, and maybe our eyes meet, neither side quite understanding the other. Then I turn, and decide to write about them.

A little over a month ago I found one in our sink, still alive. My first thought was to put it back in the terrarium, but I couldn’t. This lone cricket had somehow escaped its fate; I wasn’t about to be the cruel hand to strike it down once more. I captured it in a cup and released it outside our apartment, where it likely met an ill end all the same at the hands of the local wildlife. But I had done my part, or so I thought, although it was I who originally sentenced it to its predicament.

The apartment is quiet, now. I think of the bedraggled trio, drawing leg across leg to make their last song. Are they still because they sleep, or because the toads roused from their lethargy and decided to gorge themselves once again? God help me, I’m afraid to look.

It’s all such a mess.

Trans Women Are Amazing

If more men, cis and trans, came out to talk openly about dating trans women, less trans women would be subject to violence and murder.

Morgan M. Page, July 26th, 2016

I like trans women.

No, we’re adults, let’s not be coy: I am sexually attracted to trans women.

Saying that, or writing that, sounds strange and fetishistic. That’s one of the reasons I’m writing this. We’re here in Transgender Awareness Month, and while I’m generally cynical about “awareness” as a method of social change, in light of what women like Morgan M. Page and others have said, I think this situation could use some airing.

Thanks to social media, over the last few years I’ve made the acquaintance or sometimes even the friendship of wonderful, talented trans women; it seems only natural that I’d fall for some of them.

There’s a lot to talk about in such a simple statement as “I find trans women attractive.” I worry about it, and not necessarily for the reasons you might guess.

First of all, to trans women, I worry about sounding like a chaser, basically someone who likes trans women solely because they are trans. I think the exact definition and opinion of chasers varies from woman to woman, but in general I get the impression they can be a bit creepy and obsessed with genitalia. Being interested in someone sexually tends to involve a bit of thinking about private parts anyway, but having had or not had top and/or bottom surgery isn’t something I hinge my attraction or acknowledgement of a trans woman’s womanhood upon.

I’d be lying, though, if I said “being trans” doesn’t play some part in my attraction to trans women. It’s certainly something I mull over: is that bad to think? It is transphobic? Trans women are women, and cis women are women, but trans women are not cis women and vice versa. I don’t know exactly how to talk about that, not just in the context of this blog but even to myself. Honestly in daily interactions it never comes up; I flirt with trans women in pretty much the same way I flirt with cis women. “Being trans” isn’t the entirety of why I might find a woman attractive, but it can be a part of why, and that’s as far as my current understanding goes. All I can really do is work on improving my perspective as time goes on.

When it comes to other cis folks, I’d like to think—at least among people I know and trust—that the reaction to what I’ve said is: No big deal. Were that the whole world was so easy. I don’t have to imagine disgust, or calls of “Well, don’t you like cis women?” (Or, to be more honest about how they’d put it, the awful “Well, don’t you like real women?”) I’ve seen those things. I’ve listened to men say them. Men who probably watch transgender porn, because a lot—and I mean a LOT—of cisgender men do.

I can’t say those things don’t affect me, or that I absolutely don’t have concerns about them. I do. I live in this society, I come up against my privileges just like anyone else. Yet a year or two ago I read something by a trans woman, which I can only paraphrase because despite my efforts to track down the quote I couldn’t find it. Basically, if all the men who watched trans porn stood up for the rights of trans women, they would have nothing to fear.

There are of course other men who’ve written about being attracted to trans women. Several have been published by major outlets. Laverne Cox even had some things to say about men who like trans women. One thread I always see running through these articles, and it’s one that irks me, is the constant reassuring to straight cis men that liking trans women doesn’t make them gay. Are we truly so fragile that we need this constant coddling?

The answer is a resounding yes. We are immensely fragile about our manhood and our identities as heterosexuals that men kill trans women they are attracted to because they are attracted to them. That is quite frankly one of the most fucked up things in the world. As actress Jen Richards says:

There’s a huge bag of homophobia and transphobia right here. It literally kills people. That’s why it is important for men to talk about this, and talk about it openly, respectfully, and aware.

Just like cis women, not all trans women are interested in men, but for those who are, the risk of being involved with cisgender men can be extreme. The responsibility doesn’t fall on those women not to be attracted to men; it’s on us men to stop constantly reinforcing the awful culture we’ve created. We’re not going to do that by staying silent.

“If cis men do not get engaged in conversations about the trans women they date WITH the trans women they date we’ll continue to see violence”

Morgan M. Page, October 11th, 2016

I also worry that these words fall flat because I haven’t actually dated any trans women. I’m more likely to meet cis women in my day-to-day life anyway, and in a small, conservative-ish city like my own those odds are even greater. Yet I knew I liked cis women long before I ever dated them, and no one would question that. I’m not worried about “actually” being into trans women. A much more real concern, one I know trans women often have to grapple with, is if I’d suddenly give in to that societal shame and say, “I can’t do this.”

Of course, the Internet helps with making connections, but then there are the issues of distance and resources. There is, at this very moment, a woman I’m quite taken with but I lack the funds to take any real steps toward seeing that further. And I’m generally petrified of dating apps. But these are things for me to sort out on my own.

Trans women are awesome, they’re funny, they’re hot, they’re smart. They don’t deserve any of the shit they get on a constant basis. This single blog post isn’t going to change the world, or make life better for them, but like so many other things we need to start talking. In an increasingly hostile world such as the one we’re facing, with the US election looming in two days’ time, we have to start doing something because people are dying.

I’ll continue to give trans women the support I’ve tried to, and be more honest about my affections.

Not Built For It

Son, are you okay?

I am thirty-two years old, and my father has walked in to the house to find me furiously sobbing. His immediate instinct is to offer me comfort. I shake my head, wave my hand at the cellphone on the small serving table in front of me, and manage to choke out the words: “It’s a stupid radio show.”

It’s actually a podcast, but there’s no way I’m going to detail the differences to my father in my current state. Potential danger to his offspring averted, he nods, offers up an “Okay, then”, and goes to change out of his work clothes and probably wonder just where he went wrong as a parent.

The podcast in question was the season finale of COUNTER/Weight, the second season of Friends at the Table, “an actual play podcast about critical world-building, smart characterization, and fun interaction between good friends.” I had spent most Thursdays of the last year of my life tuning in to several strangers playing a role-playing game, and having a wide variety of intense feelings about the lives of their fictional characters.

I’m such a big fan, I help edit the wiki.

The COUNTER/Weight wiki was started in January of 2016 by my now-friend @ice_cream_jones. I leapt for the opportunity to help out. I had already been kicking around the idea of making a guide to the ever-increasing number of characters and relationships in the series. I hadn’t had an audience in mind for the guide, it was more of an exercise for myself, but here was this wiki for this great series I listened to and why shouldn’t I help put some detail into it?

Shaun Joins the Counterweight Wiki
My first day on the job.

What would become the “Counterweight Wiki Council” formed pretty quickly. There were six of us, each eager to contribute. A Slack channel was set up, and we established some tentative plans for what the wiki would entail. Episode synopses, character histories, plenty of links to figure out just who was related to whom. We discussed how to feature fan art, and I recall sending a nervous e-mail to Carey Pietsch, who is a professional comic artist and one of the more prolific fan art creators. 

One of the intentions behind the wiki was to create a resource not only for fans, but also for the creators of Friends at the Table. You get enough characters and situations in your game, it starts getting difficult to quickly connect the dots. Wouldn’t it be great if we had all the characters, their affiliations, their physical appearances, and notable connections all in one easy-to-access place?

Those were the days.

SPOILER ALERT: we talked about spoiler alerts. There was a bit of a debate on how to deal with them, or if we should deal with them. After all, people were starting to listen to the show more and they’d surely want information about who all these fictional characters were. At the same time, wasn’t the wiki supposed to be an easily accessible resource to connect the dots between characters?

Spoilers were the first sign of impending difficulties. The allegiances of factions or characters changed; did we make separate pages for each of those, include those all on a single page, or what? Did we display the most recent information about a character, thus spoiling things, or only show the initial data and put everything else behind spoiler tags?

Austin is very cruel to Orth and Orth doesn't deserve that at all. Shame on you, Austin.
We never shied away from the hard truths, though.

Those episode rundowns were a lot of work, too. An episode of Friends at the Table runs anywhere from 1–2 hours, and that’s not counting the rather epic holiday special (and eventually the massive finale). The point of the wiki was to be a comprehensive guide, and so it was important to capture all the details. That meant listening a lot. That meant taking notes. It meant hitting the rewind button again, and again, and again. I made a detailed outline of the first episode, at some point. It was nine pages long. I think I listened to nothing but Episode 01: I Would Like A Bribe for four days straight.

On the 25th of February, 2016, I made two tweets that were a portent of things to come:

On some level, though, it had felt like work, hadn’t it? You don’t put in four days of effort on cataloguing a single episode of a show and say, well, no effort on my part really. Hell, we’d been mentioned on the show! What a thrill!

The members of the wiki had grown closer and started to get to know one another. I ran a Fiasco game with @ice_cream_jones and @Hadrian, and it was a blast. I wanted to do more. I’d been in a roleplaying drought for years, and it felt good to be back in the swing of things. Helping out with the wiki had me hungry for more than just listening.

In April I started a game of The Sprawl, which had become available for public purchase. It was great listening to it on the podcast, how great would it be to actually play it? Fan artist Emily Blau caught wind of my tweets and asked if she could join, and so we invited her in to our little circle.

Playing The Sprawl was great. It still is great! It was everything I wanted. It felt good to be back in the saddle after so many years of not running a game. Here were people I connected with, who weren’t the bickering players I found myself encountering time and again during the past few years I’d tried to play offline.

More and more, we were doing less and less on the wiki. Every now and then we’d bring it up. It was something we were behind on, something we needed to buckle down and get back to. Then every other Friday would come along and we’d get wrapped up in the messy cyberpunk world of the Southern Florida Metropolitan Area. Or we’d share YouTube videos, or photos, or art, and we’d cry about the latest episodes together and we’d talk about our lives.

I’d feel a pang of guilt on occasion. The cast would go to look up something and I knew it wasn’t on the wiki. We hadn’t put it there yet. Most of it still isn’t there yet.

I am thirty-three years old, and I am worried about my roommate walking in to the apartment to find me furiously sobbing. I have no idea what she would think, here at two in the morning as I huddle over my laptop writing. There’s a new episode of Marielda coming out today, the lead-in to the third season of Friends at the Table, and on the FatT Discord server people are discussing how to best manage a Hieron wiki.

In an interview on First Person Scholar following the season finale of COUNTER/Weight, Austin Walker said:

But the phrase, “the continuing adventures of the Golden Branch sector,” makes me feel like a failure in that the thing I want to get across with Friends at the Table is the joy of collaborating with your friends and building a world that’s yours. That’s interested in the problems that you’re interested in. […] I don’t want to publish the encyclopedia, to come back to that. I don’t want to give you the catalogue because I don’t want you to be satisfied with the catalogue.

So here I am, part of the Counterweight Wiki Council, presiding over a site that is devoid of activity, but we ourselves are absolutely brimming with potential and life. As Austin said, “we have escaped the pull of the encyclopedia.”

I don’t think I will ever stop listening to Friends at the Table. I love it too dearly. But nothing will ever quite compare to the very long day I spent with the COUNTER/Weight wiki. And I’ll revisit those memories, and relisten to them time and time again to laugh and to cry and just for the hell of it. But I don’t think I’ll ever write down another word of what I hear there.

I’m just not built for it.