Linear time is my constant nemesis

So I have not blogged much lately, partly due to being swamped with work, and what blogging I have done hasn’t shown up here, because a friend cajoled me into becoming a contributor on her blog, Something Short And Snappy.  So the Ender’s Game posts are going to be a thing now, and have indeed begun to become things, with the introductory one appearing here and the rest of the first chapter covered in this other post that’s just gone up today.  Many of the other things written on that blog are also good, although my attempts to improve her spelling have been of limited effectiveness at best.  (Her attempts to make me the kind of person who will unflinchingly make terrible jokes with near-strangers have been substantially more effective, so you can take my word for it that at least one of us is benefitting from this partnership.)

I’m hoping to do another NaNovel in April, but with the overwork I’ve not exactly been rolling in time to plot, and I’m realising that while NaNo is great for helping me get past writer’s block and make words go on pages, it hasn’t been too successful in getting me all the way to completing a proper book, so I may be forced to start looking for a new approach.

And now back to working on a Sunday afternoon.  Phththbbbt.

Interlude: Silver

I’m feeling out the potential for an ongoing pages-by-pages analysis of Ender’s Game, and in general the energies I might otherwise use for blogging are not being spent on blogging right now, so things have been slow, but I had this sitting in the queue.  And I’m kind of delighted juxtaposing this with Ender’s Game, so here, have a this while I go back to structuring my ravings.

(Content: ranting, squares that you must click.)

So there was this argument, the exact subject of which doesn’t particularly matter (which is good, because it was something deeply meaningless about a video game), but it stuck in my head because it’s the latest place I heard a particular sentiment – a ghoul of a sentiment, a shambling persistent wrongness that should have long been dead but isn’t.  Someone was complaining about the idea of a runner-up prize when there’s a contest and the winner only makes it by a very narrow margin.

Their claim was thusly: in real life, second place is still a loser.  Second best means nothing.

Which is stupid.  If you realise that right off the bat, then you can spend the rest of this post, I don’t know, clicking the squares.  (Or come back to that after you finish reading.  But at some point you should definitely click the squares.)

If you are not fully convinced that this is stupid right off the bat, let me begin by assuring you that I’m not getting all participation-ribbon about this or saying that what matters most is that you tried.  (Trying does matter, but even if you think it doesn’t, the  italicised bit above remains incredibly stupid.)  This isn’t about comforting the losers.  This is simple fact.  The only ways one can think that second best is irrelevant is by being a narcissistic sociopath or completely unaware of how human society functions.

The second-best programmer writes elegant code that lets people transmit, process, and protect information better than we ever could before, saving time, bringing knowledge, maybe saving lives.

The second-best prosecutor makes sure that powerful criminals are still held accountable for their crimes.

The second-best surgeon saves lives like we change socks.

The second-best cook?  You would weep to taste their masterpieces.

The second-best astrophysicist?  Would blow your mind with the things they’ve discovered about the fundamental nature of the universe.

The second-best sprinter?  Already lapped you once.  Second time for me.

The second-best farmer?  Fucking feeds people.

This obsession with winning is largely born out of sports, because, near as I can tell, the only point in being at the top there is to be at the top, so if you can’t get everyone to agree that is super-important, it starts to feel kind of pointless.  I like the Olympics, I like the athletes, but the medals are the least-interesting possible part of the system to me.  Every last one of those Olympians would kick all of our collective coccyges every time.  Hell, the people who didn’t even quite qualify to compete would devastate us.  The only ones who were good enough to beat them were freaking Olympians.  Have you seen what those people can do?

The next time you hear someone opine that second place is first loser, I’d appreciate it if you could ask them for examples and then relay those on to me, because I am pretty stumped.  Second best is amazing.

There’s an old voice in my head that’s holding me back

…well, tell her that I miss our little talks.  My, but I have left this blog rather bereft in the latter half of the year.  Let’s set about fixing that, shall we?  I know I left those italics around here somewhere–

(Content: discussion of homophobia, biphobia, stereotypes, daguerreotypes, dwarvish holidays, birdplanes, five gold rings, four sociopolitical musings, three French words, two Chinese proverbs, and that’s it because every time we try to put a partridge decoration on the tree one of the cats tries to eat it, I kid you not.)

故曰:知彼知己,百戰不殆;不知彼而知己,一勝一負;不知彼,不知己,每戰必殆。 “So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.”

Sun Wu

Not that they need to be your enemies, nor do you need to be battling.  The broader point is that only understanding yourself, or only understanding other people and not yourself, are both inadequate.  I used to be bad at both.  I’m still bad at understanding other people, but I’ve been trying to find better ways to get along with humanity, and trying to learn from what I can figure out about myself.  We’ve just passed the ten-year mark from when my long slow climb out of complete foolishness began (which is a story full of oddity and cliché that started when I met a girl, and it has no further particular relevance to these writings).

So the cool thing about realising that I am bisexual was that it naturally led to realising a bunch of other stuff, too.  Take a question like: can men and women ever really be friends?  People will ask this very earnestly, even now in the third millennium of the Common Era.  Well, the stereotype of the lady and her gay best friend would certainly suggest it’s possible—wait, wait, not the gays, straight men (gay people in this context of course being in the same category as the not-Real Americans of US politics).  My mistake.  And we’re not talking about the ‘Ha ha it is so great that we are just friends maybe you would like to make out some time’ kind of friendship, either.  Hmmmmmm.  Can anyone ever have a legitimate friendship when the other person is part of the half of the world population that is agglomerated under the gender to which they are attracted?  Is this miracle possible?

Well, yes, or else I wouldn’t have any friends at all.  (Encroyable!)  Already bisexuality is enriching the consistency of my worldview!  (I suppose I could try to only hang out with agender people?  That seems like a lot of work.)  Now, in order for this to be a convincing argument, we’d first have to get people to understand that ‘bisexual’ doesn’t mean ‘wants to get naked with absolutely everyone everywhere all the time’, so I figure people will continue to ask this Deep Question for a while yet, but the point is that I don’t have to waste any more time with it either.  And if ever again I’m trying to figure out if I can somehow maintain a legitimate friendship with a woman I find attractive, I can just remind myself that I know I’ve managed to do so with attractive guys without even trying, and I don’t have to buy into the social message that the lure of A Person Of Compatible Gender is some kind of reason-bewildering force majeure.

I’ve noticed something about ogling, too.  In our culture, where women are the Attractive Gender and men (even with the most dashing chapeau) may only be judged Not Hideous begrudgingly with special approval from the legislative branch signed under the last light of Durin’s Day, there’s much ado about ogling.  It’s an approved Manly Pastime, ogling women, and women are quite justifiably not always happy about this and so good parents will do their best to teach male children that ogling women is disrespectful.  I had pretty good parents, all things considered (and much though I may tease them for their scientist ways), and my mother has lived a good example of why feminism matters, and I was pretty solidly taught about respect for women, such that I felt very awkward about liking girls, and the idea that women are whole people who occasionally like to do a bit of ogling themselves (and so forth) took some getting used to.  I still feel a bit guilty if I, shall we say, excessively appreciate a woman in real life.

No one ever taught me not to ogle dudes.  I also wasn’t taught any kind of homophobia, save by the kids in school, and I got over that on my own as time passed.  I also wasn’t taught that I needed to respect the personhood and identity of men in the way it was emphasised for women.  I end up feeling like I’m in a bizarro world—homophobes the world over try to make men feel shame and guilt over being attracted to men, and here I get myself tied into knots worrying that I’m being insufficiently respectful of gorgeous women in the confines of my head but my conscience is free as a birdplane when it comes to hot dudes.

The last major thing that leapt out at me as I settled into the world-upheaving revelation that I think some dudes are hot was: seriously, this is what everyone’s so worked up over?  I mean, the fact that I referred to myself for a few years as ’empirically straight’* is a hint that I wasn’t exactly in deep denial over anything, but still, realising that when it came to the straight/queer divide I was on the latter side emphasised for me just how absurdly overblown the division is.  It also taught me conclusively just how powerful the concept of Othering is.  Like I said, I was not taught to hate people for not being straight, and while I had some issues of personal identity (more on that in another post) I don’t think I ever judged anyone else for it.  I have been in favour of equal rights and social status for as long as I have known that there were unequal rights and prejudice.  But there was some subconscious way in which I still thought I knew that They were different from Us, some way I didn’t think I could ever truly understand a queer person (how this would be different from the way in which I’m still pretty sure I could never 100% truly understand anyone at all, I don’t know).  But then I realised that They was Us already, that I am part of the whole rainbow controversy that millions of people are so very very worked up about.  To which I can only say: seriously?

You guys.

I think you can find something better to do with your time.

It’s honestly not that different from all y’all straights.

I’m fortunate enough to live in Canada, where equality under the law is not terrible, and certainly I’d be fine if I ended up wanting to marry either of a man or woman.  And what baffles me is that I may imagine a marriage between myself and a woman, or myself and a man, and it’s not an especially different beast, but one is still seen as Upholding The True Way and the other will Implode Civilisation Forever.  It’s rather like being told that my choice between necktie and bowtie will supercharge or destroy the global economy.  I have always enjoyed the joke about the Queer Agenda (go to work, get groceries, watch the news, sleep) but my proper appreciation of it has only just begun.  It is vrai.

These are the thoughts and issues I’ve already mulled over and come to some kind of conclusion on.  There’s more I’m still puzzling: for example, most people (such as my entire family) still think I’m straight and I can’t quite decide if that means I should consider myself closeted or what.  (Did I spontaneously become closeted the moment I realised I was bi and no one else knew, or did the waveform not collapse until I elected to not immediately tell everyone else?)  I’m not trying to hide being bi, but I’m not going around declaring it to strangers either, largely because straight people aren’t expected to inform everyone that they’re straight and I don’t feel I should be obligated either.

On the other hand, identifying as queer remains a radical act as long as everything is heteronormative, and the more visible we are the better we have a chance to help people notice homophobia and the better we can support folks who are still closeted for their own protection and so forth.  So it’s one of those things where I have to decide between doing things the way I think they ought to be done in an enlightened society (some people will find out I’m bi because I talk about it like this, some will find out because they see me with a dude if or when that happens, and some will never know because it’s not bloody relevant to the scenario) or doing things in the way that they shouldn’t have to be (explicitly identifying as bi when not mandatory because 吹皱一池春水).

And also, but unrelated, since it’s the fifth day of Christmas now, I’m curious: do y’all figure the five gold rings were supposed to be worn one-per-finger, or all on a single finger like a suit of digit armor?**

*By which, I would explain, I meant that all evidence indicated that I was only attracted to women, but I didn’t have any strong personal sense that I couldn’t be attracted to a dude, I just hadn’t ever been so in the same way.  Once I realised I was bi, I did a bit of a walk back through memory and noticed that the evidence was not in fact nearly as one-sided as it had seemed to me.  “Oh—so that friend in drama class I always felt a bit weird around—ohhhh.”  (In my defence, there were a lot of hot girls in grade 12 drama class.  It didn’t take much latent internalised homophobia to point my attention elsewhere.)

**Or maybe they’re not all finger rings?  Some could go in the ears?  Nose is right out, for my preferences.  So is the eyebrow, usually–although see above there was that one guy back in grade 12 drama…

Interlude: Actually sometimes choice does not matter

(Content: homophobia.  Fun content: non sequiturs and vests.)

Let’s do a quick comparison.

Person A: I hate gay people!

Person B: You shouldn’t.  It’s raining in Shanghai.

Person A: I hate gay people!

Person B: You shouldn’t.  Vests don’t have sleeves.

Person A: I hate gay people!

Person B: You shouldn’t.  They’re born that way.

What makes the third one different from the first two?  Well, it’s something people actually say.  And… that’s about it.

The simpler intro here would just be to say: I do not care for the ‘they’re born that way’ defence of queerness.  Because the only implication I can read into this is that if queer folk weren’t born that way, hating them for it would be totally fine.  If that’s not the case, then why are we bothering to make the distinction?

Man W: Because of biological predispositions, I will now spend the next four decades in a loving and supportive romantic partnership with another man.

Person X: And I celebrate your love!

Man Y: Because I have made a conscious choice to do so, I will now spend the next four decades in a loving and supportive romantic partnership with another man.


Is this dissonant for other people?  Am I missing something important here?  Why should we care whether a particular thing is inborn or chosen more than we care about its impact on the world?  Is it about ‘natural’ versus ‘unnatural’?  Because I was raised by scientists who had spent way too much time hearing from random people that ‘chemicals’ are bad because they’re ‘unnatural’.  C’mon, folks.  Scurvy is natural.

Same-sex coupling isn’t made okay by being natural.  It’s okay because it is a good thing that makes the people involved happy and harms no one.  Any argument that doesn’t focus on that fact is a derail.*

*I can see why ‘born that way’ would still be a relevant fight for trans people, because there are plenty of bigots continuing to insist that ‘trans’ is all some kind of nefarious scheme and not an actual identity.  This is also stupid for all sorts of reasons that could be worked out in about ten seconds of clear thinking, but I will leave an exploration thereof for some other day.

Who we are in the light

I would not be a good monk.

(Wording Times: monk, if you follow its etymology far enough back, just means ‘solitary’, which raises some questions about the degree to which it’s even possible to have an entire monastery full of monks, but I mean it here in a general sense of ‘person who separates themselves from others in order to focus on religious or philosophical matters centred on themselves’.  Earthly diversity being what it is, I’m sure that there are many monks for whom this is implicitly or explicitly not the point of monkhoodStatements not intended to reflect or comment upon all monks.)

I would not be a good monk because I really just don’t care that much about personal purity.  Seeking enlightenment for the sake of enlightenment seems like an interesting pastime but does not entice me as a career choice.  Seeking to purge oneself of all vices is perhaps admirable but, independent of other actions, not likely to make the world a better or more fascinating place for anyone else.  Real monks, of course, aren’t solely focused on themselves and how pure they are, but valuing inner purity does seem like a common mandatory qualification.  I just can’t get enthusiastic about it.  And really, most people aren’t that enthusiastic about it (that’s why monks are considered exceptional) but most people do at least think that it’s a virtuous pursuit (that’s why monks are revered) and I’m just not really sold on the latter bit.

Purity is, in point of fact, fetishised in our culture.  Far too many people are far too invested in the virginal status of others.  Far too many people will take ‘I’m a vegetarian’ or ‘I don’t drink’ as a personal insult – what, are you saying that I’m a bad person; you think you’re better than me?  And it seems to me like far too many people think that ‘being pure’ is its own purpose, its own end, and its own reward.  Mostly it seems to me like it leads to derails and angst.

If you have never read it before, I recommend going now to read the excellent “Intent!  It’s Fucking Magic!” by Kinsey Hope, but if for some reason you can’t do that (perhaps you are an eagle and find it difficult to perform multiple-key operations), I will summarise: not setting out with intent to hurt someone does not guarantee not hurting them, whether it’s by tripping and dropping a Yuan vase on their foot, or by saying something that is totally hilarious which they inexplicably find offensive instead of insightful because they obviously have no sense of humour.  This is an important concept, and it relies on the same point I’m aiming for here, which is: no one knows what’s going on inside someone else’s head, and there are a limited number of reasons that they should care.  We will never get to know most people we meet on anything but the most superficial level.  Thus what’s going on inside our heads has vastly less impact on the world and the people in it than the stuff we do.

Purity of character is all on the inside, which is why I mostly don’t care about it – I can’t afford to.  How busy would I be if I were constantly trying to make sure everyone had Correct Thoughts?  By Zod, I can’t even make myself have Correct Thoughts all the time.  I have misanthropic thoughts, gender-essentialist thoughts, kneejerk racial prejudices, class elitism – which is a wordy way of saying that I have spent the majority of my life so far living in the actual world with our super-bigoted cultural kyriarchy, and none of us goes through this stuff clean.  The best I can hope to be is a person who could reasonably be confused for a person without prejudice.

Let’s consider the case of a hypothetical person called Leslie.  Leslie is everyone’s best friend.  Leslie always has a spare van and a free day when you need to move house.  Leslie volunteers at the children’s hospital and the animal shelter.  Leslie is intensely involved in local politics and championed the new school lunch program last year.  Leslie is always super-attentive when you want to talk about your life crises and doesn’t interrupt to complain about an irritating co-worker.  Leslie runs a charity so vast and effective that malaria spontaneously developed the ability to speak just so it could curse Leslie’s name.

Also, Leslie hates everyone.  I mean raw, powerful hatred: a marrow-deep revulsion at the sight of every face, from the kindliest grandparent to the most curious child.  Animals, too.  Leslie especially hates corgis.  Leslie thinks you personally are a narcissistic, vile, stupid waste of carbon and would feel only the sheerest delight if you were condemned to eternal, inescapable torment.  But for whatever reason, Leslie has chosen to act like none of these things are true.  Leslie’s façade is flawless and disciplined.  No one in Leslie’s entire life knows any of these inner thoughts.  When Leslie goes for a walk, cardinals flutter from the trees to settle upon their benefactor’s shoulders, and are treated only with the deepest kindness, unaware of the roiling disgust within.

Is Leslie good or evil?

(Try not to get distracted by the utter improbability of such a person ever existing.  It’s also very unlikely that anyone will ever throw a harp seal and the entire city of Grenoble off a cliff* to compare their falling speeds, but that doesn’t change the existence of the gravitational constant.)

It’s a subjective question that depends on what you think defines a person and what is valuable about them.  M’self, I’m going to go with ‘good’.  In this hypothetical situation, the only person who has the slightest awareness of Leslie’s suffusion of animosity is Leslie.  If I don’t think I can judge someone by the way they act, but only by who they are on the inside, then I can never really claim to know anyone.  Anyone might just be hiding the worst bits of themselves, for which they deserve recrimination.  We’d end up in an environment where people are constantly proclaiming their credentials of purity, and, well, the easiest way to do that is to point out how awful all those Other People are.  This comes up so much in Fred Clark’s discussions of his own American Christian culture that I don’t even know which post to point you to; most of those under the Satanic baby-killers tag are probably relevant.  Or there’s Sady Doyle’s amazing “With Dim Lights”, on how obsession with being the most purest and rightest of ideologues distracts from whether you’re actually doing anything to help anyone or just trying to make yourself feel better.

There’s a common phrase, ‘who you are in the dark’, which is about learning what someone’s true character is by finding out how they act when they think no one is watching.  That can be important, sometimes.  But the other question, vastly more relevant in a lot of cases, is about what kind of character someone shows when they are seen, and when their shame and disgrace are on the line.  If they have a choice between trying to learn to act better (and implicitly admitting their past fault) or insisting that their actions shouldn’t reflect on them because they personally are pure (or at least well-intentioned), which way do they go?  Are they trying to be a good person for the sake of being a good person, or to appear to be a good person?  Do they act by moral compulsion or for the sake of vanity?

The conclusion here isn’t to just ignore your flaws and biases, because they will creep in anyway.  I’m not arguing for that, or saying that a criminal whose crime goes unnoticed isn’t a criminal.  But guilting yourself for not being perfect on the inside isn’t going to help anything.  Trying to win arguments by insisting that you have the greatest moral standing is useless, and getting into fights about who’s purest is actively stupid.  And trying to pretend that bad actions are harmless because the person doing them is somehow abstractly better than that is a great way to make sure you only hurt the people with the least power to defend themselves.

*The harp seal in question is a known thrillseeker and was fully equipped with safety gear.

The way gets in the way

For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. — Alfred D’Souza

I like this quote.  That’s not the whole quote; the rest of it is a preachy thing of the kind of sap that we may well expect from the guy who coined “sing like no one is listening” and the rest of those phrases.  Yes, yes, freeing ourselves from fear of judgment is a good thing, but I have never thought ‘You know, I really like this song on the radio, but it would be way better if someone in my immediate vicinity with vastly less training and little ability to hold a tone were drowning it out like it’s 3am on karaoke night’.  So there are limits and I think it’s okay if we’re aware of them.  And this quote is good as it is already.  It should be two reminders: one, that we can’t wait for the perfect moment free of distractions, but also that sometimes we do the distractions a disservice by thinking they’re just getting in the way.  They are our lives too.

The next couple of months are going to be hectic.  There is work and international travel and I am writing a book again.  That last one is what I’m focusing on here.  November is of course National Novel Writing Month, with its usual challenge to write a 50,000-word work of fiction in 30 days (averaging to 1666.6~ words every day; my record is about 3800 on a really good Saturday; I have met others who can do that in an hour or two).  I have won this challenge twice so far – last November, and this past June.  Given that the simple rules are obviously not beyond me, I’ve trying to make sure I actually develop new skills each time, too.  The first time, NaNo 2011, I was just trying to seriously write again for the first time in about four years.  (Apparently I could, but I was using an idea that I had been working over in my head for about five years.)  In June, I was starting with a much vaguer plot, to see if I could improvise something based on little more than some core characters, and while I really enjoyed that, it meandered and lacked a core direction.  Some of those scenes were deeply dull.  (Others, especially those involving the superpowered heroine and her nonpowered girlfriend, were a font of delight, so I’m sure I’ll come back to them someday.)

This time, I flipflopped between a bunch of ideas before settling again on one that I first tried, in a very rough form, about a decade ago.  To sum up, it starts out looking like a time-travel murder mystery set in a wizard convention before rapidly transforming into something more like Groundhog Day set in the Cthulhu Mythos.

The goal this time is to finish the story.  I have substantial evidence indicating that I am terrible at knowing how far through a story I am – I have known this since I wrote on, where the chapter I would set out to write as the finale would usually end up being the penultimate, and the actual final chapter would also be two or three times as long as the others.  In my previous June novel, around the point when I hit 15 000 words, I determined that I wanted to get to a specific plot event around 25 000, and so should start nudging the action that way.  Said event actually began around 40 000 by the time I got there.  In my November 2011 novel, I worried a bit that the story wouldn’t fill up the whole 50K, only to discover that in fact when I reached 50K I had just hit what could reasonably be called the end of the second act and it was time for the last third of the story to start.  At least, I think it’s a third.  I haven’t actually finished that one yet, despite it being 11 full months since I hit the winning word*, which is why the goal this time, as I said, is to actually finish the story.

As with last November, I worry that what I’ve got won’t be enough to fill 50K, but no doubt by the end of the month I will find that is the opposite of the problem.  What concerns me more is that I know about specific plot events that I want to happen and I am less sure about how to proceed between them, and I’ve never written a time-passing days-blurring-together montage before, so managing to express both the sheer length and repetition and not bore readers to death with grinding plot will be a trick.  I am worried that I won’t make it, for one reason or another, and if I were going to pick a month to try to write a novel without NaNo, this wouldn’t be it, but like the quote at the top says: this is life.  I want writing to also be part of my life.  It’s best we all learn to get along now.

*With minor effort I managed to make the 50 000th word (according to Word) be ‘hooking’, which, in the context of my story and the local culture within, is a curse that pretty exactly lines up with our own venerable ‘fucking’.  I don’t think anyone ever uses ‘hook’ in a sexual sense, though; it’s a relatively recent curse that dates back to the anti-magic inquisition a couple of centuries earlier, during which hooks were the approved weapon of execution.  For the upcoming novel, ‘shuck’ will be used to similar effect—I got the sound as a portmanteau of two words (one starts ‘sh**’ and the other ends ‘*uck’) and I was delighted by the idea that, to them, someone saying ‘aw, shucks’ would be exceptionally obscene.  For in-universe justification, ‘shuck’ is used as a synonym for ‘flay’ (like shucking corn!), making it clear why ‘oh, shuck me’ would be a negative.  Worldbuilding is fun.

What love has got to do with it

Love is elemental.  It can claim most of the music we make, subplots in every movie (if it isn’t busy being the defining characteristic of the genre), and the most popular religion in the world insists it is identical with their god.  It’s mysterious, inexplicable, powerful; it overcomes anything and it’s one of the two circumstances with proverbial approval to do whatever you like.  The other one is the violent conquest of nations, which I feel ought to raise more flags than it does.  The proverb, not the nations.  I’m not advocating the violent conquest of nations that don’t raise as many flags as they — look, I’ll come in again.

Love is elemental and has the best press of any abstract concept in the world, which makes it a very, very good MacGuffin.  I mean, if you’re going to go questing for the Holy Grail, or even worse, for the Star Chalice of Ausa Vale, readers might demand to know why this thing is so important and exactly what it can do and whether going for a nature walk through the Steel Deserts and the Swamp of Inconvenience is really the best solution to the problem at hand.  Someone who’s out for love needs no explanation.  They are looking for an instantly-accepted good and valuable thing.  Everyone is on board with this.*

People tend not to hike through the Steel Desert in search of love, mind you.  More often they’ve already found a focus for their loving feelings of loving love, and the story is about reciprocation.  This doesn’t change the assumption that we should be on their side – more love in the world is an axiomatic good thing, and Person A (who loves Person B) getting Person B to return their love is an increase; the only other accepted resolution would be for Person A to stop loving Person B, which would be a decrease in total world love reserves, which would be a bad thing.

We end up in a place where a character failing to return another character’s spontaneously professed love is automatically unfortunate and bad, possibly even presented as a failing of the non-lovey person.  At this point, I think it should be obvious that we are on thin ice, because if Aidan springs a confession of love on Kelly, and Kelly says ‘Sorry, but nope’, and the audience’s reaction is to dislike Kelly for this, nothing bodes well for the valuation of consent in this culture.  But this post is not directly about consent.  This is about exactly what kind of MacGuffin we’re chasing.

So: there are limits to the extent to which I think it is or should be possible to surprise someone with a profession of love.

Love is generally considered an emotion, a feeling, and I don’t disagree that it is, but I don’t think that’s all it is, either.  I think that if the emotion is real, it has implications for behaviour as well.  Start from the extreme: if a person says they love someone else, and then demonstrates that they can cheerfully harm or torment the supposed object of their love, I’d hope everyone would be deeply suspicious of the truth and purity of their love.  For that matter, if someone claims to love another person and then shows indifference to their suffering, I’m not buying it either.  If you want me to believe that your love is the greatest and truest love evers, then I’m going to expect that it’s shown in the way you seek to improve your love’s life: to support them when they are low, cheer for them when they are strong, go with them when they need companions and part when they must be alone.  And I’m going to need to see all of this regardless of whether they feel the same for you or not.  If I love someone, then seeing them happy and triumphant is the payoff for my efforts.  It’s a feeling, not a contract.

So I was reading Ana Mardoll’s post about Friends last week and the premise came up that one character had been ‘secretly’ in love with another for a full decade.  (I don’t know Friends at all; this is not a commentary on Friends specifically unless I have some kind of prophetic power that makes my rant here perfectly applicable to that series.)  This doesn’t feel like an unfamiliar premise to me, but it does feel deeply implausible.  Not that someone would claim to have secretly been ‘in love’ with someone else for ten years, but that this person’s actions would actually be something that is recognisable to outsiders as real and meaningful love.

If Kelly truly loves Aidan, this should be noticeable.  Unless Aidan is shockingly unobservant, they may notice that Kelly goes out of their way to make life better for Aidan, rejoices in their presence, and et cetera et cetera we’ve been over this.  And while it’s true that all of these things might be justified by a good friendship, this is where we get back to what I said before: assuming orientations are known in advance, there’s only so much surprise to be had if your best friend, who plainly loves you platonically, reveals that they’re also interested in you nonplatonically.  But this the less-common plot, in my experience (it may be relegated to a subplot, running gag, or ‘character trait’ in severe cases).

What gets me is the idea that someone could secretly be in love with someone who barely knows they exist.  Possibly they occasionally hang out as part of a larger group, or maybe they just both work/study/shop/sculpt/scan for extraterrestrial signals at the same place.  The point is, these people’s interactions are primarily electromagnetic, in that they see** each other (although it is often not necessary to the plot that the Object of the Secret Love have seen/noticed the Secret Love Bearer).  There is no connection, no interaction, no history – love does not exist.  Yet.  It could, obviously; I’m not challenging that.  But if I can summarise the whole issue in a single sentence, it might be: I really wish we would stop acting like ‘love’ and ‘the stuff that comes before love’ are all the same stuff.

Lots of things can come before love: friendship, respect, curiosity, kindness, or simply a marrow-deep desire to engage in Naked Fun Times.  And all of these things can be meaningful – even the last, the simple base physical attraction, has a kind of significance.  But none of them are love, and treating them as the same thing – dismissing any differences between ‘Aidan and Kelly are best friends and Kelly also wants to make out’ and ‘Aidan and Kelly have never exchanged two words but Kelly thinks Aidan is sooo hot’ is dismissing all of the things that gave love its significance in the first place.

The stuff that comes before love—the feelings—are easy to hide, relatively speaking.  We resist the urge to touch pretty things, we play it cool when The Most Bestest Person Ever walks into the room, we avoid looking too deeply distraught when we find out they’re not going to be around, or that they are unavailable.  Love itself in action: not so much.  Exactly how does one hide the way they crossed the city in the middle of the night to provide support for someone they love during a crisis?  The love is bleedin’ obvious.  The only thing that can be hidden at that point is the pantsfeelings that might accompany it.***

So: if a character is going to claim to be secretly in love, I want to see their metaphorical resumé.  I want to know what this love has inspired them to do.  And if the answer is restricted to the range of longing looks and ogling, I’m not sure exactly why I should particularly care if they get their desires reciprocated or not.  And I’m not going to buy it if anyone suggests that the person rebuffing them is at fault.  Give me a case of one’s True Love that the other simply can’t accept, and maybe I’ll see the tragedy in it.  But in most of these cases of ‘secret love’ it seems like the tragedy is that the character is not being facilitated in their desire to experience Feelings at a closer proximity to their object than they have been up to now, which is a seriously underwhelming atrocity, as atrocities go.

*Presumably not everyone is actually on-board with this, because they think that societal focus on romantic love is detrimental, or because they don’t believe love is real, or et cetera.  I don’t plan to address any of these counterpoints, because this is a blog post and not a dissertation, but I thought I could at least acknowledge that there is always a dissenting view to everything.  English could use some more terminology to concisely state ‘in a very substantial number of cases, with few exceptions that are neither challenged nor intentionally dismissed by this statement’.  Instead we’ve just got things like ‘always’ and ‘everyone’, and so much trouble results.

**Is there a visually-impaired culture in the same way that there’s a Deaf culture?  Do they still have some kind of analogue to ‘Love At First Sight’?  These are the questions that keep me from successfully engaging in casual conversation with strangers.  You can’t just open with that kind of thing. Regardless of the stranger’s sightedness.

***Or there’s the reverse case of pretending to be in love in the service of satisfying the pantsfeelings, but then we get back to the sixth paragraph, re: it’s not love if you’re only doing it to get something in return.