True Tales of Human Firsts

The first time I touched a kiwi, it exploded.

I encountered said kiwi when my mother and I were shopping for produce at the local grocery store one day. I was six years old or so, and I’d never seen a kiwi at home because my family is American. While Mom was looking at the produce that real Americans buy, like apples, peaches, watermelon, and victory, I saw a shallow crate by the kiwi pile that had only one kiwi left inside.

To my naive eyes, this kiwi was like any other: brown, fuzzy, and roundish. I’d never really felt a kiwi before, so I touched it ever so slightly, no more firmly than one might poke a sleeping cat. The kiwi burst open, unleashing its green innards across the bottom of the entire box, leaving only an empty, brownish husk in the corner. Amazingly enough, the kiwi carnage was completely confined to the box; even my hand was unscathed.

Although I was surprised by this turn of events, I felt in no way responsible for the incident, so I wandered back over to my mother and continued shopping.

But I’ve been a little nervous around kiwis ever since.

When I was about seven, I watched my brother drink his first beer. I was clearly too young to be drinking beer, but he was ten, so it was okay.

Of course, I can’t guarantee it was actually his first beer for two reasons:

1. I can’t remember whether he told me it was his first beer or not.
2. He was probably lying anyway.

If he’d had a beer before, he couldn’t tell me or he might have gotten himself (and presumably other kids) in trouble. If he hadn’t, he couldn’t tell me or he’d seem immature and inexperienced. I imagine he just kept his mouth shut on the matter.

This particular beer-drinking opportunity presented itself one evening when we had been left without a babysitter for a relatively short amount of time. A solitary can of beer had been sitting in the back of the fridge since our parents’ last dinner party. Of course, they hadn’t thrown a party in my entire life, so the beer was probably older than I was.

The beer was a typical, authentic American-style lager. I honestly can’t remember the brand name. It was next to a bag of rock-hard coconut flakes and some ancient peanut butter chips that we didn’t throw away until we replaced the fridge several years down the line.

I am fairly sure the beer-drinking was Mark’s idea. The two of us gathered around the beer can, on the side of the kitchen table nearest the trash can, possibly due to some prescience on our part. Intelligent children would have poured the ancient can of suspicious beer into another vessel, preferably a transparent one, to examine the beer before consumption. We did not. Perhaps we were trying to minimize the evidence, or perhaps we were just morons.

Mark took a large sip and immediately ran to the sink. I followed close behind, trying to determine the results of the tasting. He spit the entire mouthful of beer into the sink, then grabbed the can and dumped it in as well. I don’t remember exactly what the liquid looked like when it came out, but it was at least partially white. Hopefully, that was just foam.

He didn’t say much else, but we made sure to bury the empty beer can deep within the garbage to escape detection. Our parents arrived home shortly thereafter, making for quite a close call. Mark later claimed that the beer wasn’t that bad, presumably to save face.

Based on his drinking habits since, it seems he has come to enjoy beer even more. He also drank soap once.

I made my first prank call one evening when I was eight, during the only dinner party my parents hosted throughout my entire childhood. My brother and I were confined, quite appropriately, to the basement. After three hours of playing Nintendo, we needed a break, so Mark suggested we make some prank phone calls. I have no doubt the escapade was his idea.

We sneaked up to the kitchen and grabbed the phone book, then sat down by our archaic basement telephone. The plan was simple: First, we had to think of kids we knew from school who had distinctive surnames, then we would look up that name in the phone book. If there was only one entry for that name, we would call it and ask to speak to the kid. When the kid answered the phone, we would unleash our witticisms and promptly hang up.

Although I think we tried the plan with several different names, I only remember reaching one kid successfully. When his big, dumb voice answered the phone, I had to think quickly. I accused him of not taking a bath in 243 days, which was an insult I had plagiarized from one of the Wayside School books. It wasn’t exactly the harshest rebuke, and it may have even been true, so the victim was not properly annoyed. His response was a sluggish, slurred “Huh?” I tried to save things by giggling, but ultimately hung up, dissatisfied. At that point, I began to discover that I lacked the imagination necessary for prank calling.

The payoff for a successful prank call is all in your head. After you hang up, you have to chuckle heartily and say, “I bet they reacted angrily to the uproarious things we just said.” Your companion will then say, “Yes, they must surely be steamed at us, due to this astounding prank.” (You must have a companion; making prank calls alone is reserved for sociopaths and drunken ex-boyfriends.)

In reality, the victim’s reaction is usually just a confused shrug. Once I realized that, I lost the desire to make prank phone calls. Mark and I did make a few more futile efforts that night. At one point, we tried calling the same number multiple times, which is a risky maneuver, especially for rookies. Eventually, one of the parents threatened to call the police or something, and we were properly discouraged from further prank calling that night.

I have not prank called since, so my first night of prank calling was also my last. Don’t get me wrong, I could still come up with some creative prank calls if I tried, but I just don’t have enough imagination to enjoy them.

I didn’t learn the difference between my left and right until I was in sixth grade. I’m not sure how I remained ignorant that long, but even at the time, I remember being stunned that my education was so inadequate. I’m still relatively certain it had never come up in conversation until then, but I spent a lot of time alone and no one really liked talking to me.

I needed to learn my right and left, but I didn’t know where to look or who to ask. Eventually, through subtle questioning (or some other subversive method), I learned a critical, life-saving trick from a friend: The “L” Method. You see, the word “left” begins with the letter “L.” Whenever you need to determine which way is left, you hold your hands in front of you, palms outward. (If you try the method with your palms facing in, you will have a difficult, confusing experience.) The index and thumb finger of your left hand will form an “L” shape, thus signifying that it is your left hand. The hand which is not left is right, and thus, you have determined the difference.

After I learned the trick, I was able to identify the appropriate direction about 80% of the time. Eventually, I only used the trick when I needed absolute confirmation of my initial assessment. I haven’t had to use the trick in years, but I’m always prepared to employ it if the need arises.

An Unusual Closet

I don’t mention it very often, but I am asexual and aromantic. The main reason it doesn’t come up in conversation is that I don’t think about it very much. Just like the other things I don’t do (hockey, quilting, billiards, bra shopping, squash, meditation, etc.), I rarely talk about sex or romance. When people ask me about asexuality, I explain what it means and answer a few questions. People are usually somewhat interested for a while, then we all talk about something else.

However, I haven’t been completely upfront about it. I’ve always told my family that I’m not going to get married and have kids, but I think they just assumed it was a phase. Instead of discussing it at length, I’ve mostly shrugged and moved on. Now that the phase has entered its 25th year, I’ve decided to provide some more details.

I recently answered some questions about my orientation for a freelance reporter, who incorporated three different perspectives (including mine) into one article (on Vice) to provide a general overview of aromanticism. Of course, my personal experience doesn’t perfectly match up with anyone else’s, so I decided to post my complete answers to the original interview questions in order to provide a better explanation.

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(Personal Background)
I never dated anyone when I was a teenager, but I always just assumed I didn’t pursue romantic relationships because I never really “clicked” with anyone. After a while, I decided that I wasn’t missing out on anything by staying single, and I was probably about 21 when I finally acknowledged that I had no interest in romance at all.

(Definition)
Aromanticism is the absence of romantic attraction to other people. As an aromantic person, I’m not interested in romantic relationships because I don’t derive any pleasure from intimacy. I understand why other people are romantically attracted to one another and I can appreciate what makes people attractive, but don’t experience that attraction myself. If you think of romance as a personal interest like golfing or bondage, you’ll understand that some people just aren’t interested.

(Societal Pressure)
I think there is a tremendous amount of pressure for people to get married, particularly women. The expectation that women should avoid becoming “old maids” has definitely lessened, but there’s still a vague implication that women who don’t get married have failed somehow. I think the best way to change those expectations is being more realistic about marriage and parenting. It’s important to remember that spouses and parents aren’t always happy, and not all single people want to marry and have kids. I don’t think anyone should feel bad about being single.

(Past Relationships)
I’ve never been in a romantic relationship, but I’ve gone on a couple of casual first dates with women. Nothing ever went beyond dinner and a movie, and I didn’t experience any romantic feelings. I can’t speak for the women, though. Maybe I’ve broken some hearts.

(Asexuality)
I’m asexual, which means I have no desire to have sex. I know there are people who are aromantic and have sex drives, but I’m not sure how they live. I imagine some maintain long-term relationships and some just have casual sex once in a while. I mostly just stay in my apartment and read.

(Other People’s Reactions)
No one has ever had a very strong reaction when I’ve told them, but there are a few customary responses. Disbelief is the most common reaction. Because people often don’t believe that someone could be aromantic, they assume there is something wrong with me, like I’ve been hurt or I’m afraid to pursue a relationship. Occasionally, people feel sorry for me. Romance is a wonderful part of their lives and they think my life would be better if I were like them. Very rarely, people are jealous. I guess they feel like romance is holding them back from doing something else they want to do. I think the best reaction is when people try and understand aromanticism from my point of view. There’s really no reason to be jealous or sympathetic.

(“Friendship Monogamy”)
I like having a circle of close friends for social interaction and support, but I don’t want an extremely close relationship with one person. Lots of asexuals and aromantics have relationships, though. One major concern with close relationships is reciprocity. Whenever just one partner is asexual or aromantic, there is going to be some conflict about sex and intimacy. One partner might just want a platonic relationship, or maybe they just want to have sex with no strings attached. There are conflicts in any relationship, but I think they can be more acute in those situations. Of course, I’m not speaking from personal experience.

(Nature vs. Nurture)
I think aromanticism is innate, but individuals choose whether or not they pursue intimate relationships. There are people who are aromantic and still get married, just like there are romantic people who never wind up in a relationship. I suspect everyone knows someone single who wants to get married and a married person who desperately wants to be single.

(Other Thoughts)
From the outside looking in, I’ve found that the positive aspects of romantic relationships are usually overhyped and the negative aspects are usually overlooked. Although there are plenty of drawbacks to being single, there are a lot of benefits, too. I think it’s much better to be single than to be in a relationship with the wrong person. Somewhat paradoxically, I’ve noticed that the people who are most comfortable being single tend to attract the most romantic interest, especially from other confident, attractive people.

I also don’t think people should define themselves as half of something. Aspire to be more than just a romantic partner, and have your own interests even if your partner doesn’t share them. You should be your own person, because you will always have yourself, no matter what. It can even be comfortable to be alone.

Relationships seem like they will last forever, but many of them don’t. Even if you’re lucky enough to find a partner for life, one of you will outlive the other, which means half of all married people will be single again someday. It might be bleak, but it’s true. It’s important for people not to be afraid of being single, as long as they have friends and family to rely on.

Difficult But Not Impossible

I should have told you this months ago, but I have a mild neck injury. You might want to get yourself checked.

One morning in December 2012, I woke up with a stabbing stiffness on the left side of my neck. Whenever I moved my head backward or to the left, it got worse, so I ended up holding my neck in a weird hunched position. As it happens, I am an obsessive hypochondriac, and circumstances convinced me that I was suffering from spinal meningitis.

I went to the emergency room, where the doctor told me I had a mild muscle strain in my shoulder. I left with an accurate diagnosis and a bill. After a few days, the muscle strain went away on its own. It showed up again in February 2013, so I saw my regular doctor, who told me I had wry neck and prescribed muscle relaxants. I took the pills three times a day and recovered quickly. In the meantime, it has showed up on and off, but I always took a few more muscle relaxants and it would go away.

About two months ago, my neck started hurting persistently, so I decided to see a chiropractor. He told me I had a virus and some small parasites and suggested that I avoid eating corn. After that, I decided to see a real doctor, specifically an orthopedic specialist in Lawrence. He took X-rays that showed my incredibly straight neck, told me that my shoulder muscles are just strained, and prescribed 12 sessions of physical therapy over the next six weeks.

I saw the physical therapist for the first time on Friday. His office consists of several small consultation rooms and a gymnasium full of elderly people and athletes learning to use the new arms their doctors built for them out of titanium and ass flesh. The physical therapist said that my shoulder strain is the lamest affliction he’s ever seen. He didn’t say it out loud but he was clearly thinking it. Once he located the problem area, he used an ultrasound transducer (yeah) on it and prescribed a few simple exercises I have to do twice a day beef up my lame shoulder muscles. I also had to buy a new pillow at Bed, Bath, and Beyond that was neck-friendlier.

Anyway, it seemed to be doing better on Saturday, and things will presumably continue to improve as I continue the physical therapy. My neck mostly just hurts when I think about it, which includes right now as I’m writing this.

Aside from the dull throb of my trapezius muscle or something near it, I’m doing okay. I am growing steadily more frustrated with the lack of progress in all my endeavors, especially since I currently have more undertakings than a Tarantino movie (yeah). I can’t finish a story, sell a book, or even get my air conditioner fixed. The say that patience is a virtue, but the difference between patience and complacency (or complacence, I can never remember) is not easy to figure out. Am I waiting or just wasting time? More importantly, is everyone tired of hearing me bitch about it?

I’m still looking at all my different pursuits, but none of them seem viable right now. Hunter S. Thompson said that if you have eight purposeless paths to choose from, you have to find a ninth path. In keeping with that risky advice, I have decided to pursue an idea so a ambitious, stupid, and failure-prone that I refuse to mention it until it’s too late to change my mind.

Why do I always choose to do such difficult things? Not only that, why do I complain when I fail at something difficult when I could just do something easy? One reason is that I’m an exceptional complainer; the other is that there truly is value in failure. Successful people always talk about the importance of failure without ever addressing its shittiness. Failure in retrospect is kind of quaint, but failure in progress is heartbreaking. Honestly, I’m not afraid of failure unless it keeps going indefinitely. Fail me once, shame on me, but fail me a few dozen times and the shame gets kind of unbearable.

One way to address failure is by moving the goal posts, or as I like to say, “adjusting” them (yeah). Denial is a great approach, too. To quote the boss said in the Dilbert TV series, “We’re calling it a success because that’s just what we do.” In the end, no matter where I put the goalposts, the odds are thoroughly surmountable. If I didn’t believe persistence were key, I would strongly consider moving on, but I have a lot more bad ideas and plenty of failure left in me.

A Deluge of Nothing

When I still lived at home, I naturally spent most of my time in the basement, far away from human eyes. In order to give the place a personal touch, I put a plethora of video game posters on the walls. For the benefit of my occasional guests, I also installed a crappy, $5 analog clock on the wally by the window. I never checked it because I always wore a digital watch.

The clock tended to be fast by at least 5 minutes (or maybe 15), even a few days after setting it. After a while, the battery started to die, so it got further and further off, until one day, it stopped keeping time altogether. The second hand had started twitching instead of making a complete rotation. It would move from the 43 second mark to the 44 second mark and immediately drop back down, over and over again. I thought it was far more interesting than a regular clock, so I just let it tick endlessly. I called it The Futility Clock.

Right now, I’m having a hard time telling whether or not I’m making progress or just twitching in place. I have a million different potential opportunities, but whenever I take a tentative step in a given direction, nothing changes. When I decided to write the novel, it was because I needed to focus my effort on one thing. Now I have to focus a little on everything to find out what works out and what fails. I’m trying sci-fi conventions, opinion letters, political essays, blog posts, short stories, children’s stories, poems, twitter and facebook updates, reddit discussions, and of course, dozens of emails.

I used to send emails to people all the time. Amazingly enough, they’d reply! My brother and I played correspondence chess via email. I even won a game once. Now, email has become the incarcerated uncle of the internet. It came from a different time and has a lot of flaws, but it’s still part of the family and everyone has to visit it once in a while. I’ve given out a lot of business cards, but I never get any phone calls. I was convinced that I had to be missing some important phone calls, so I exchanged my 4-year-old flip phone for a brand-new flip phone to be sure. It made no difference.

When you start out as a writer, your biggest concern is whether or not you’re good enough. It’s a meaningless concern, because those who lack confidence will always have some doubt, and those who are overconfident will never have any doubt. Ideally, writers should strike a balance: confident enough to sell themselves but modest enough to accept and utilize criticism. I’m always trying to find the balance, and whenever I receive a critical response, I try to make the best of it. I’m always prepared for responses, but at this point, my concerns are less about insecurity and more about ontology. Am I real enough to warrant a response? Do I even exist? Time will tell.

My goal as a writer is to communicate ideas, so nothing is more discouraging than shouting into a silent void. All I get back is a deluge of nothing. How long can my voice hold up? How many different things can I shout? I rarely quote Jesus, but here I go: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and answers the door, I will come in.”

One day, I looked up and saw that The Futility Clock was running normally again. The time was still way off, so I knew no one had changed the battery, but the second hand was going all the way around.

My Bonfire of Vanity Publishing

Now that my self-published book has been out for nearly a month, I might as well explain the process to my literally dozens of readers.

First of all, I didn’t spend a whole lot of money to publish the book. I’m not that vain. I did the editing and formatting myself with input from people who read the book in advance. I bought a custom ISBN for $10 and commissioned a digital painting for the cover for $500. Besides those upfront costs, the process was free. I bought a physical proof copy to verify the layout, and if I want to buy copies for myself, I can purchase them at a discount. The copies that other people buy are printed on demand at no cost to me.

Between my extremely meticulous (some might say nitpicky) formatting and the professional cover, I think the book looks legitimate. If you saw it in a store, you wouldn’t know it was self-published unless you knew what to look for. The e-book was free to publish as well, but the format is a little bit different. The two versions are connected on amazon.com, which makes it easier to consolidate reviews and offer combo deals, etc.

I’ve criticized self-published authors in the past and those criticisms aren’t without merit. If you want your book to be taken seriously, you have to be confident and professional, no matter what. For authors who intend to self-publish, I’d offer this advice: get an editor. Nothing makes you look less professional than poorly-edited, poorly-formatted text. It always looks bad. I’m a professional copy editor who once earned no less than $25 a day to do that job. As for my book, there is one minor typo on the first page and there are a least a couple of others throughout the book. I obviously left those in to keep myself humble.

The distribution process for my book is still ongoing, but I’m hoping to get it stocked in local bookstores. The KU Audio-Reader program is going to broadcast an audio recording of my book to visually-impaired listeners in the Midwest. I’m trying to establish a presence online and at some upcoming science-fiction conventions. I’m trying to meet and connect with people, and I hope that the more I get connected, the more copies of my book I’ll sell.

In the meantime, I’m going back to work writing future projects. I’m currently working on an illustrated children’s book, a few short stories for competitions, and another novel called The Remnants. I’ll keep posting updates and links as I work on things.