The Trap

Sometimes being a person on the internet feels like tap dancing.

I love to dance. I’ve trained in it, I take joy and pleasure in it, and I like doing it where other people can see me.

But the more of a following I amass making a living from my selfhood online, the more it feels like I’m still dancing, but someone is erecting…walls. Like theatrical flats around a stage. They don’t start out so bad—just the odd two dimensional shrub or trompe l’oeil archway to work around here and there—but over time they get taller and more crowded and suddenly they’ve got big honking metal spikes all over them and come to think of it they’re rather tenuously balanced and the spikes do look terribly sharp and here I am, in the middle of the it all, stomping on the floor.

So I take smaller steps. I’m not leaping and spinning and pounding and whirling anymore. I’m tiptoeing.

I’m afraid.

You might not know it to look at me. I’m resolutely sharing things I find meaningful or beautiful or proactive. I’m staying engaged. I’m trying to make art and support the people I love and encourage everyone around me because I struggle to see the value in sharing the ugly, hopeless stuff and I want, more than anything, to be of use.

But this behavior is, in and of itself, a kind of restriction. The act of sharing these days feels different. There’s no “FUCK IT, WE’LL DO IT LIVE” energy in my public online spaces, or if there is it emerges in manic fits and starts, tinged with an undercurrent of desperation and anxiety. The dancer I have pared myself back to doesn’t feel like me.

And of course she doesn’t. This year is a nightmare—for all the collective reasons and a host of personal ones as well. My partner and I split up six months ago and no matter how sound a decision it was I’m still torn up about it. I’ve signed a contract for three graphic novels that will take up the next six years of my life and I’m terrified I’m not up to the task. My dad is 81 and has dementia and I’m trying to figure out when The Correct Moment will come to move home and help look after him. It is utterly unreasonable to expect that anything could feel normal or okay right now.

And yes, maybe the tenor of this post has something to do with the fact that I’ve been housesitting alone in a three-story building with four cats and a deaf, flatulent dog who probably weighs more than I do for the past week. My internet blocker also failed to activate this evening so I got to engage in a rare bout of Nighttime Twitter Yelling—something I’ve effectively prevented myself from doing for months. All of this is to say: it’s 1:15 in the morning and my filter is MIA. As someone said to me over email recently “just…being very blunt right now because, and i cannot emphasize this enough, it’s 2020.”

Anyway, remember the spiky theatrical flats? The trick, in these moments, is to get proactive; go for catharsis. The longer I wait for a perfect solution, the more trapped I’m going to feel. I can’t explain this in any kind of rational or systematic way, and I certainly can’t win playing by the rules. Better to just heave it all out into the open—get on a stage somewhere and yell about the paradox of it to a room full of relative strangers. Kick the flats down from the inside and they’ll fall away like dominoes; harmless.

Dramatic, too.

People will probably even think it’s part of the show. 1

Maybe this is my brand. Not the part where I yell about boats and post goofy bespoke GIFs and write a zillion letters to voters and keep my chin up no matter the cost, but the part where I crack and articulate all the other garbage in an eloquent torrent.

Or maybe, more likely, it’s both.

1. Once, in the summer of 2006, I watched five different cast members desperately try to reason with an audience who refused to leave their seats during an active fire alarm because they were convinced it was part of the play. It took ages to get them out of the theater. In their defense the show was set on a space ship and featured many other blaring alarms, but STILL.

In the Beginning

“I miss possibility,” she says.

It’s March 29th and we’re walking home through falling blossoms, couples edging off the sidewalk to avoid coming within contagion distance as we pass. We point at the rippling edges of tulips, paint jobs on houses we’ve never seen before. I look for sequences of color in the world—a car (orange) parked in front of a stop sign (red), and behind them both: a glass recycling bin (yellow).

This is one of my favorite games.

“I could take a dance class, I could go to a coffee shop, I could go out with friends and buy flowers and try things on at Goodwill.” We sidestep a Russian family gathered around a call on speakerphone.

God I miss Goodwill.”

I keep my mouth shut, feeling traitorous because this absence of choice is precisely the thing that’s granted me a giddy sense of freedom over the past week. I am no longer paralyzed by lost opportunities, choosing incorrectly, disappointing those around me. Something is coming to the fore that hasn’t previously been heard over the din of expectation and activity.

Maybe the thing that’s emerging in this space is me.

Smut Peddler: Sordid Past

A few months ago I got an invite to pitch a comic for the latest installment of Smut Peddler, the wildly popular, sex-positive anthology series from Iron Circus Comics. The current volume, Sordid Past, captures sexy escapades from days gone by, making this the first time my track record of drawing comics about both maritime history and sex toys (and also the intersection thereof, sort of) has paid off in the form of a professional opportunity. Never again will I joke that my brand is in tatters; THERE IS ROOM FOR EVERYTHING!

The book is already fully funded on Kickstarter and features a truly stunning lineup of artists. I mean, let’s start with this cover from Yuko Ota:

An illustrated book cover with gold text that says "Smut Peddler Presents" across the top and "Sordid Past" at the bottom in large type. Three people in period clothing seductively embrace on a grassy hillside. There's a tiny silhouette of a tall ship in the background.

DELIGHTFUL. (And I’m not just saying that because it features a Good Boat.) It’s also chock-full of stories set everywhere from a temple in Pharonic Egypt to a 1980s American arcade, all of them sweet and sexy and consent-driven and magical. Truly, something for everyone.

I’ll admit: I was scared to say yes to this gig. I’d never drawn Actual Sexy Comics before and the folks in this anthology are…well, they’re very good. So many skillful artists who’ve been doing this stuff for years, including people whose work I’ve followed since I was in high school.

No pressure.

Because I’m me, I said yes on the condition that I could make a comic about queer lady shipwrights plying their trade under the radar in 1750s England. This is partly because of a long-running gag that I’m some kind of Boat Pervert, but also because it seemed like a story premise I could really get excited about.

A warm-colored three panel selection from a comics page. Two women look at plans for a ship on a large desk. One of them is saying "Ah! This keel line! And the curvature on these headrails! Unf! Nobody draws timber framing like you."

Even with an exciting premise, though, it’s hard to focus on whether or not something is sexy when you’re busy desperately trying to make sure the page layouts are engaging and the anatomy is correct and the dialogue works and the colors look right while also subjecting yourself to scathing perfectionism. But! Contributor Lyndsay McSeveney had made a Discord channel for Smut Peddler artists, and with some wrangling from Harriet Moulton everyone ended up in the same digital space sharing process shots and trading feedback. Seeing all these amazing creators working through their respective anxieties over the course of the project—and cheering each other on—was an invaluable reminder that we all have our demons and hang-ups in doing this work. (You’d think I’d’ve internalized this by now having literally written a book about it but SURPRISE! I have not.)

Anyway, after a lot of self-flagellation (not like that) I managed to turn in a 12-page story I’m very proud of, and I hope you’ll pick up a copy of the book. Sordid Past funded on Kickstarter almost instantly, so this thing is definitely happening—and every $5,000 raised over the initial goal translates into a $5-per-page raise for us artists! This is such a smart move on the part of Iron Circus: limits liability for the publisher, passes Kickstarter success onto the creative team, and generally forms a more symbiotic relationship between everyone involved. I love it.

I’ll be sharing a proper process write-up (including some of the hilarious reference photos I had to come up with) over on Patreon, so join me there if you’d like to learn more.

That’s all! Thanks for reading about this very, very niche thing. I hope you enjoy it.

Dove in sobbing—came out laughing

My friend Chloe threw up a Twitter thread this morning about trying to learn to dive as an 8-year-old (something I also spent many early years terrified of doing).

I’ve never forgotten the professor on my orals board who listened to all the questions and considerations I’d thrown into coming up with my thesis concept before asking

“Do you really have to go through this orgy of anxiety before you’re able to begin any creative project?”

GOD, IT MADE ME MAD.

Of course I worry about this all the time. WE ALL WORRY ABOUT THIS ALL THE TIME. But if I’m worrying at something, claws sunk into a paradox that feels irresolvable and keeps me up at night and makes me hold up the line time and time again, tears streaming down my face because I want to do it and I know I can and I want to and I can if I just stand there a little longer I’ll get there I know it—

That’s how I know I’m on the right track.

“Dove in, sobbing. Came out laughing.”

It’s hard right up until the moment it becomes simple. I don’t think anyone’s ever done a better job articulating how I get things done.

[Just realized I wrote what amounts to another version of the same blog post two years ago, except it’s got more Ghost Rider in it. Go figure.]

A Machine for Confidence

The nice thing about having friends in the UK is that sometimes I get to wake up to genuinely lovely dispatches from them on Twitter. In this case: Clarrie (who, I should point out, helps small biz and freelance folks with their bookkeeping, should you need that sort of thing) built a machine that rotates through all the entries from 100 Demon Dialogues on a set schedule. Observe:

I am flummoxed and delighted by this tiny technical marvel. (It is, I just learned, a Raspberry Pi hooked up to a 720×720-pixel LCD screen! TECHNOLOGY!)

Hearing that anyone still reads this book (or builds marvelous automated machines out of it) gets me right in the amygdala. It flies in the face of social media’s decree: that if something isn’t NEW and SHINY and UPDATING DAILY then it might as well not exist. That once we have finished the project and stopped posting to Instagram and run the Kickstarter and published the book and concluded the tour, all of it will fade from memory.

But that’s not how stories work.

To love something, suggests Robin Sloan, is to return to it. I think about this all the time. The longer I am alive and making things, the more I realize that it is (for me) a foundational definition of success.

This is probably why I’m tearing up at my desk on a Friday morning, looking at this tiny box of pixels from across the sea.

Hot Stuff

A jar of Hot Mama Salsa's Smoky Coffee Chilie Oil.

I’m not typically one to evangelize condiments on the internet, but I’m going to write a blog post about chili oil because we’re in the middle of a Pandemic and small businesses need all the help they can get and also I am literally eating this stuff out of the jar with a spoon as we speak so I figure I owe it to you to pass along the secret.

Hot Mama Salsa makes The Good Shit. I tried their Smoky Coffee Chilie Oil for the first time at the Portland Farmer’s Market last summer after Mara dragged me bodily into their booth and pressed a taster spoon into my hand. “This chili oil,” she said with absolute conviction, “will change your life.” 1

I’d never been much of a Spicy Condiment person…until that moment. The chili oil is indeed smoky (one of my favorite flavor profiles), but it’s also complex and salty and unexpected and tastes great on EVERYTHING??? and, whoops, now I can’t get enough of it. (I’ve also fallen for its gentler cousin, Guajillo oil.)

Its primary use these last few months has been in this recipe, which has supplanted all other breakfast meals in our house due to being outrageously fucking delicious. It makes no sense how good this meal is. We don’t bother with most of the fancy extras in the NYT version—just slap a pat of Greek yogurt on your plate, throw some charred greens on there, top with fried eggs, loads of chili oil, and a generous amount of salt and then bask in your newfound culinary paradise. 2

I lick my plate clean every time we make it and experience zero shame.

GO GET SOME.

1. I got sidetracked writing this post because the jar label uses a spelling of “chili” I wasn’t seeing elsewhere. For more on the chili/chile/chilli debate, please enjoy this Merriam-Webster article on the subject.

2. You can also use Lao Gan Ma if you want more of a Chinese heat, but I’m plugging Hot Mama Salsa because they’re a local woman-owned Portland company that I want to support. Also they’re offering $5 shipping on orders over $25 right now. Just saying.

Literary Archipelagos

Last week, in a moment of Peak Bellwood Weakness I signed up for an online class/study group called Literature at Sea: A Brief History of Existence. The facilitator shared something in today’s intro call that I can’t believe nobody sent me when it was released back in July. It’s called An Ocean of Books and it looks sort of like this:

A screenshot of the homepage for An Ocean of Books. It shows a pale greenish blue chart with a mass of tiny, tan islands spread across it. They're loosely grouped by subject: History, Science, Novels, Classics, etc.

This “poetic experiment” was made by Gaël Hugo during his time as an Artist-in-Residence at the Google Arts & Culture Lab. It pulls from the entire Google Books library and uses a bunch of (I’m waving my hands vaguely here) technology to generate a chart of Author Islands whose distance from each other is determined by their relationships on the web.

The site’s a little awkward in places, but I find the whole concept delightful. The weird aesthetic mix of pixelated game art and old nautical chart elements!1 The playful mechanism for revealing keyword searches within a bank of fog! There’s also little factoids beside various islands, like this gem about Maurice Sendak:

A screenshot from A Sea of Books showing a drawing of a boy riding a horse. The text beside it says The original title of Sendak's famous book was Where the Wild Horses Are but he couldn't draw horses. So, when his editor asked what he could draw, his reply was Things.

Anyway, I spent a lovely afternoon poking around in here, but what it really got me hungry for was a similarly attractive way to organize one’s own library for others to explore. The trouble is that I’m just not moved by reading lists—even ones curated by subject. I’m a visual thinker, and I need to make a big mess and tack a lot of red string to the wall before I can truly understand how all these ideas are contributing to the electric pinball machine.

I don’t want the map to be dictated by an algorithm; I want to play cartographer.

I rediscovered a piece of technology this week that might hold the key, but I’m saving it for now. You’ll just have to wait.


1. Fun pedantic terminology fact: if it’s to do with the ocean, it’s a chart, not a map. Yes, there will be a quiz on this later.

The Best at What We Do

When we meet network news producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) at the start of James L. Brooks’s Broadcast News, she’s sharing her hotel bed with a chunky phone and a Filofax. Her body is alive with all the energy of a teenager calling her girlfriends after school, but instead she’s rallying her reporting team room by room, chivvying them to meet her in the lobby in a half hour, joking around and providing details about the availability of breakfast (or lack thereof). Seeing her reminds me of days when I’ve been up at dawn to tackle a project I can’t wait to get into alongside people I feel lucky to work with. She radiates anticipation and competence and I fall for her immediately.

The credits are still rolling as she finishes her last call.

Smiling, she unplugs the line from the back of the phone, nestles it under the handset, and places the whole unit carefully on the bedside table. A dance ensues: she drops her hands to her lap, eyes cast down, checks her watch, shifts her gaze, sits with all the poise of a penitent. The moment stretches—no score, just the distant traffic outside. It’s long enough to make you wonder. Five seconds. Ten. Fifteen.

And then, out of nowhere, she’s sobbing.

It’s a bark of grief. A hiccuping thing that almost seems to take her by surprise.

It would be funny if I hadn’t experienced it myself.

Actually, it is still funny. And you can see the moment where even Jane finds it so. For a few seconds after pausing to catch her breath she’s almost laughing, shoulders shaking, but then her mouth twists again and she’s back in the realm of tragic disbelief. It’s absurd.

No, no, not absurd. I look up the definition and it turns out to be “wildly unreasonable, illogical, or inappropriate.” This doesn’t feel that way at all. It is deeply logical; the clear and necessary underpinning of anyone who runs on that kind of energy, who can muster that degree of charm.

In 2018 I spent 268 days away from home, traveling to promote my book, 100 Demon Dialogues. It’s a vulnerable collection about Imposter Syndrome and trying to treat yourself with compassion. I knew I wanted (needed?) to go meet the people reading it in person. To try and connect, on some tangible level, with the countless voices online who claimed to see themselves in my work.

I went out looking for something. Always a dangerous move.

I thought a great deal about authenticity and performance while I was on that tour; questioned the validity of my words as I spoke to people night after night, city after city. The cadence of “Thank you, that really means so much to me” drummed into my brain. I did mean it every time, but I also said it so often that it became more music than language. My body memorized a momentary curve of the shoulders that accompanied a hand to the chest, shorthand for “Your words touched me”. Sign language for “authentic emotional experience”. A fixed action pattern of connection.

I call myself a Fake Extrovert. I am energized by contact, driven to engage and delight in others, but it comes at a price. In almost every city I visited on tour, the ritual was the same: I’d arrive home at whatever place I was crashing that night, shut the door to my room and exhale. The moment would stretch. Five seconds. Ten. Fifteen. And then I’d crack open and sob.

It generally didn’t last a long time. Just enough to let out some of the irresolvable tension. The fact that I both got what I wanted and absolutely did not get what I wanted.

There were so many things that I loved about Broadcast News, but Jane’s outbursts of tears are what I keep coming back to—the thing that’s still under my skin the following morning, wondering if it would be insanity to just rewatch the whole film again.

Beyond Urgency

About a month ago I signed up to participate in #WriteThemAll, a campaign organized by Critical Resistance PDX with the goal of writing to every incarcerated person in the state of Oregon. (That’s 14,500 human beings, in case you were wondering.)

I joined for a few reasons:

First: I love writing letters. I send a lot of mail, and the realization that I could leverage that love for causes I care about has informed a lot of my activism this year. Letter writing is also a slow motion activity—a category of thing I’m trying to spend more time in these days. (There’s a separate post in there, I’m sure, but I’ll leave it for now.)

Second: I’ve read more about abolition this year than ever before, which is great, but I made it a personal goal to pair insight with action in 2020 so it felt like the right time to step up and do more than learn. Abolition feels like a vast and occasionally overwhelming conceptual goal, but I think engaging with it through a slower activity like writing letters is a good way to operate at the edge of my comfort zone and become more familiar with the concepts in practice.

Third: CR PDX has a mail night once a month where folks can gather on Zoom and write letters together. This is very good. I’ve found a lot of solace in Kat Vellos’s Connection Club during 2020, and am glad for any opportunity to sit in companionable silence with other people (even remotely) and work towards something we all believe in.

Fourth: I needed to plug into something that wasn’t about the election. I wrote many Vote Forward letters and Sunrise Movement postcards to young voters last month, but if 2020 has made one thing inescapably clear, it’s that voting is just the tip of the iceberg. The urgency of this moment makes it easy to feel like getting out the vote is THE most important thing, but our country is failing so many communities right now, and they will continue to face the same challenges on November 4th, and December 4th, and January 4th, and so on.

When people scream “WE’RE OUT OF TIME” I try to take a deep breath and remind myself that I don’t believe in zero-sum games.

Instead, I think about the things I can still work towards next week, next month, or next year. None of this is over. Not racism or injustice or climate change or my creative practice or the love I have for my loony parents or the to-be-read pile on my bedside table—and certainly not the list of letters I signed up to write.

They will very likely reach their destination after the election has come and gone, and there will still be work to do. These days I find that state of ongoingness a comfort rather than a burden.

We get to keep up this practice, day after day. What a gift.


If you’re curious about #WriteThemAll, here are some ways to learn more and get involved: