All the stars

Gather round, kids of all ages and genders. I’m going to tell you a secret.

The world does not come with a five-star rating system.

Several times lately I have seen people impose the five stars into systems that did not helpfully provide one. As if this is universal. As if this is the natural and right way to interact with the universe. No. No.

Yesterday it rained while I was out running errands, sheets of rain rolling into the river valley off the prairies. It was warm rain for Minnesota in November, though not in absolute terms, when what we deserve was snow, but we’ll take it. We’ll take it. My jeans were plastered to my thighs in less than a minute, my hair soaked through. I almost had to pull over, driving home, because there was so much rain that I couldn’t see two cars in front of me. I crept along through the wet white world.

It was not a five-star rain. It was a glorious rain, a drenching rain, a pounding rain.

Last weekend we heard the Minnesota Orchestra play short Sibelius pieces. The humoresques danced and romped. The Oceanides drew us in with woodwinds. For awhile I did not think of my loved ones who had been hospitalized that day. I thought of the music, of the woods of Finland and the sea and the music. At the end we clapped, and we went home, and there was no button to click for stars.  How many stars?  Five?  Why not more?  Seven, nine?  Ten stars?  Seventeen?

I know, I know–the things that do have the five-star rating system attached are trying to get feedback. Many times they’re trying to get past automated gatekeepers, and that can be a worthy goal. But the things that don’t have that don’t need you to impose it.

Sometimes things are so amazing as to leave you wordless. I know. I spend a lot of time there despite all my chattering. But “five stars” does not convey that. Any time you create a shorthand to try to convey that, it stops working the minute it’s established. For most of the things that matter, you have to get out there and say: this moved me. Or, I have mixed feelings about this.  Or, I was not so sure and then the tarragon flavor really hit me and I was a convert. Or you have to be willing to let people see the stars in your eyes.

All about

A couple of times in the last few months, I’ve had reason to say something like, “Sometimes things not being all about us are the worst, honestly.” Because I have had multiple friends and relations who are helping others deal with really bad things, and they have needed to hear it. So I thought I’d put it here, where other people could see it too.

A few months back there was an essay going around about how support needs to flow towards the person or people most affected by something bad. And I think that’s true and good. It’s just…hard to remember sometimes, when you’re watching the person who is most affected, that you’re allowed to need things from “outer ring” people too. It’s easy to get caught up in reminding yourself that it’s not all about you–and really, it’s not. But it’s a little bit about you. If you’re watching a parent writhe in agony, if you’re listening to a friend’s tears about something you can’t fix–that legitimately is hard on you. Even though it’s hardER on them. And it’s really important to be able to turn to somebody and say, “Well, that could have gone better.”

Sometimes the ritual reminder that it’s not all about you is usefully centering. It refreshes your patience and your perspective. But sometimes it minimizes that you, too, are having some pretty bad experiences in this general area. Sometimes it shuts down the conversation you’re currently having from including sympathy and/or brainstorming for how to make things easier for you. Sometimes it’s really, really okay if the things that are not all about you are just a little tiny bit about you.

Also, hang in there.

Intro, extro, it doesn’t mean excuses

In one of my moments of rest–brief and rare this week, although today’s vertigo is bad enough to require it–I followed a social media link to this post about being friends with an introvert, because hey, I’m an introvert, it’s useful to be able to point people at good advice where I can find it.

Hahahahaha no.

The more I see “care and feeding of introverts” posts, the more chances they have to get it wrong, and get it wrong they do. I don’t just mean describing types of introversion other than my own–although overgeneralizing from one sub-type is a pretty common mistake in the “care and feeding” posts. I mean just flat-out wrong, anti-useful, wrong.

Let’s take the earliest part of this post: “Without you, we’d probably spend every weekend in our pajamas watching Netflix, only making contact with another human when we open the front door to the Jimmy John’s delivery guy.” Uh…no. That’s not your introvert friend, that’s your clinically depressed friend. Or your chronically socially lazy friend. Or both. While individual introverts may depend heavily on individual extroverts to do the work of making social stuff happen for them, it’s not inherent to the personality type. And frankly, it’s a crappy behavior. For both sides.

From the introvert side, it’s an excuse for not putting the work into social situations. Because no matter what, making social stuff happen is work. It may be somewhat easier for extroverts, but it’s still work for them, and if you’re an introvert skipping along saying, “Tra la la, I’ll let Chris and Pat handle it, they’re extroverts, it’s no trouble for them!”, you’re being an ingrate and kind of a jerk. And you’re self-infantilizing: social skills are skills. You can learn them.

From the extrovert side, if you think that making social stuff happen is magic because you’re an extrovert, you’re going to be frustrated a lot. There are lots of extroverts who are terrible at this. Again, it’s a skill. Also, introverts and extroverts often want somewhat different types of social situation (or at least overlapping bell curves of how often they get which experiences), so if you’re going with the idea that introverts will never make stuff happen and depend on you, you run a couple of risks–one of never figuring out social stuff that your introvert friends would actually, y’know, like to do, and the other of running yourself ragged planning exactly what your introvert friends would like to do at your own expense.

So let’s all not do that. Social instigation takes energy. No personality type is In Charge Of it. Moving on: “When you’re around, we don’t have to do the heavy lifting to make conversation happen.” ARGH NO. Again: conversation is a skill. It is a skill that can be learned. Not all extroverts are good at it or want to be–there are highly nonverbal extroverts who just want to go dancing and not have to talk all the time, or play golf or softball or whatever. And all the stuff in this piece about introverts being good listeners: turns out that’s a substantial portion of the heavy lifting in conversation. And it turns out that neither talking nor listening is inherent to either personality type.

For people who write fanfic, writing fanfic and having fun are not actually opposites. See also: other quiet hobbies. “You came along and got me to have fun!” is one of the most toxic narratives I experienced people wanting to thrust on me in college, especially as a young woman: there were all sorts of people who knew this narrative as the slight social veneer on, “Here, Miss Librarian, take off your glasses and let your hair down. Why, you’re beautiful!” I think most bookish kids knew an adult who felt that snapping, “Get your nose out of that book!” was some kind of personal service, that we would thank them for it and feel ourselves better people for being forcibly pulled from things we liked in order to do things we were indifferent to. Fun does not mean loud and crowded; that’s another language than English.

Sometimes introverts can like someone enough to hang out with them two days in a row. This is particularly useful for people who want to, like, be married or otherwise in a permanent partnership, romantic or otherwise. Or sometimes it’s not even a matter of who you like as much as who you find easy to be around. Or relaxing. Or whatever. I sometimes score this as “you don’t count as people,” but even the people who don’t count as people eventually count as people–and that doesn’t mean I can’t go on vacation with them and go to museums two days in a row. I mean, yes, it is easier for me to get enough of a person I like than it is for someone extroverted. But sometimes there will be a special event that has a couple of days in a row–like a convention, for example–and I don’t want people dodging me on the Saturday of a convention because we talked on Friday, so obviously I am done. Yes, I will be really whumped for at least a week after. But the one day and done rule: no, not even remotely universal.

Sometimes introverts really are tired, and I resent this person poisoning that well. I have a chronic illness that is not going well at the moment; if I’ve dragged myself out to your party, I want to be able to say, “tired now,” and not have you hear, “peopled out.” Because I DO GET TIRED, PHYSICALLY TIRED, KTHX.

Sometimes introverts don’t answer your texts within thirty seconds because they don’t have their phone on their person, or because they’re up to their elbows in bread dough, or because they’re playing the piano, or any of a number of things that are not about hating you or wanting to be left alone for awhile. We’re like extroverts that way. We do things that don’t involve texting sometimes. Any time you’ve set things up so that you think someone hates you if they don’t always text you back within thirty seconds, you’ve set yourself up for a lot of misery when their phone battery dies or something else that is not about you.

…I don’t know, I think it’s almost as dangerous to make sweeping generalizations about the world from the inside as from the outside. Especially if your sweeping generalizations are the social equivalent of leaving someone else with all the dishes. The “we need you to make social stuff go” rhetoric reminds me a lot of the rhetoric you’ll sometimes see from gender essentialists about how without men we wouldn’t have dishwashers and contact lenses, and without women we would all grunt and hit each other. It’s not true of genders. It’s not true of personality types, either. So cut it out.

On Welcoming

We have been talking a lot, around my house, about welcoming, about conventions and communities and welcoming people into them. I keep saying a thing that sounds tautological and yet strikes me as important, which is: if you don’t welcome people, they will not feel welcome. Welcoming is a thing that someone has to do. It does not spring up of its own accord, as violets in the spring. Making new people feel welcome to an event or group takes work. So I want to talk about the basics of how that goes, and if you have ideas (or agree or disagree), I’d like to talk about it in general. Clearly there’s no one behavior that will appeal to everyone, so let’s talk about what works for whom and what doesn’t. A lot of it should apply across large-ish event type, whether it’s a club meeting or a convention or a religious group or simply a large party drawing from multiple social circles/connections–and if I’ve screwed up where things don’t cross-apply, please do speak up.

Chronology first: do not neglect introductions, and keep them low-key. When I was talking about this post with friends, one of them told a story about when she first went to her church. The pastor had them stand up to be pointed out to everyone as new people for four weeks in a row. He called them out by name, so it wasn’t just “any new people, please stand,” it was, “[friend’s name] and [friend’s husband’s name], please stand up,” pointing at them and waving them to their feet. From the way she told the story, I think the fact that they are still at this church has more to do with them being from a small denomination with limited local options than finding this behavior welcoming–even though that was probably the intent. Having people come up to say, “Hi, I’m [name], I don’t think we’ve met before,” or, “I’m terrible with names–I’m [name], and I’ve probably met you before, please don’t hold it against me that it takes me forever to remember people,” or anything, really, that’s introductory, would have been fine. As long as they weren’t singling out people to stand and be commented on in front of a group that was not similarly engaged. Introductions should be equal–not, “everybody, this is Chris; Chris, this is everybody,” where Chris’s status as new is singled out without giving any information about others, but, “Chris, do you know everybody here? This is….”

I find that performing introductions is often neglected in situations where everybody has a name badge, and yet it’s a very warm thing to do. It makes the new person–or people–feel looked out for. Also, the fact that the guy standing next to me is wearing a name badge that says “Kevin” does not give you the same information as, “This is my brother Kev.” Introductions can provide context that will help new people navigate the situation.

I have seen advice that to be “charming,” you should introduce people you have just met as “my new friend.” This is a risky move. It’s both culturally and personally dependent. Some people will indeed find it charming; others will find it alarmingly pushy or fake. Proceed at your own risk, and also remember that personally charming is not the same thing as welcoming to a group event. The two may overlap significantly, but they’re not the same.

Introductions don’t have to be performed at the beginning of an event, and actually the very beginning is often a shaky time to spot who needs a welcome. One of the people I talked to about this said that they felt particularly welcomed at Fourth Street because people were saying, “Oh, this panel is going to be great, it’s blah and blah and blah, come on and sit with me”–and that’s something you can do before any panel. If you keep an eye for who seems to be standing around without ever talking to anybody, that person may be an introvert who knows the whole group, but they also may be new. Doesn’t hurt to check in with them. Think about what behaviors you exhibit if you’re uncomfortable and trying not to stick out as the newbie, and then look for people exhibiting those behaviors and reach out to them.

Tim’s dad had a sabbatical once to study what successful churches had in common, and the answer was doughnuts. Seriously. Doughnuts. Churches that provided doughnuts gave people a framework for standing around doing something afterwards, and that gave people a chance to get to know each other and choose to stick around. Obviously not every group or event has to have doughnuts (although I can hear some of you thinking, “But what a wonderful world it would be…”), but the more general case is to have easily recognizable refreshments and/or low-key modes to interact. At conventions, hotels often provide a table full of water pitchers and glasses in the back of a conference room, and this is a great space to watch for people who are nervous, alone, seem to be trying to fill their time without anyone to talk to. Consuites/hospitality suites also can do a good job of this by providing snacks that are clearly labeled in a space people can gather in–but that only works if at least some of the people who are used to coming to the event keep an eye out for new people, rather than darting in for a handful of cashews or a soda and rushing out again.

“Are you new here?” is an okay conversational gambit, but it turns out that you don’t have to go there if you don’t want to. There’s no harm if you go up to someone to try to make sure they feel welcome/know people and it turns out they know everybody and have been there longer than you have. Starting out with, “I thought that was really interesting about A [on the panel we both just finished listening to]; it reminded me of B. Have you read B?,” works at least as well. Or, “Can you believe the prices in the hotel restaurant?” or whatever else is on your mind about your common interest. (At a party: “Do you know where [host] keeps the [item]?” or even: “So how do you know [host]?”)

One of my friends noticed that the sorts of things I was talking about require people to pay attention to others and reach out with human warmth, and she immediately, in her own words, tried “to find a way to automate that.” She mulled over all the “icebreaker”/”getting to know you” activities she’d been forced into and tried to figure out why none of them worked. I think it can’t be automated. There are some things that can be structurally organized–having a place for new people to gather to find someone to go to meals with is a thing that’s worked at more than one convention I’ve been to–but I think that human warmth and attention is the most important factor in whether someone feels welcomed, and you can’t build that into trust falls or two-truths-and-a-lie games.

Also, mandated “getting to know you” games often go counter to the reason you’re gathered in the first place. If you’ve come to a science fiction convention to talk about science fiction and related topics, being assigned a focus group is not actually what you’re there for. Even if the focus group is “here are the four people you will be assigned to discuss your panels with,” so that it would theoretically be in keeping with the mission of the event, the free flow of conversation is a huge part of the point. Anything you do that is supposedly to welcome people but actually interferes with the thing that brought them there to begin with will fail. And it’ll annoy a lot of the established people along the way, and some of them will either opt out or participate in a half-hearted way that will make new people feel like more of a burden. Occasionally you’ll bond over how annoying this welcome-game is, but you can’t really plan that–and adding annoyance to your event is a good way to get people to bond against you, not with/for you.

Recognize that not everybody is going to be a good candidate for welcoming new people. There is a great recognition on the internet for RBF (“Resting Bitch Face,” for those of you not familiar), and while people with RBF can overcome it to be deliberately welcoming, there are some combinations of body language/affect that will just feel closed down and foreboding even when the person doesn’t mean to. When you get to know these people, you can sometimes find that they are good-hearted, interesting, warm, etc.–but you shouldn’t demand that they be the ones to welcome new people. Further, some people simply don’t want to. It’s not a goal of theirs. And that’s okay. And then beyond that–someone will be having a bad day for whatever reason, and just run out of cope for new people. Outreach requires having some kind of ground to reach out from; any kind of health or personal issue will have the potential to make it much harder for any one person to welcome new people. Not everybody has to do this stuff all the time. Just, y’know. Some people. Some of the time.

Start welcoming people sooner than you think you should in terms of your own experience at the event/convention/whatever. I have heard complaints from people who have been going to an event for years and have dozens of friends there about how they felt that they were “new people” and were not getting outreach. At that point, you should be doing the outreach. With very large groups, you’re likely to be able to find someone more experienced and socially connected than you are. That doesn’t make you the new kid. Go find a new kid and be nice to them.

If your event is not explicitly about people finding other people to date, consider waiting until a new person has been to this event more than five minutes before hitting on them. Also, err on the side of not getting into people’s personal space until you know them. If they’re someone you know quite well online but have not seen in person before…you can ask with words whether they feel like hugging you. “Hug or handshake?” only feels awkward if you feel awkward about it. It’s way less awkward than just going for the hug and finding out, oops, handshake after all, or possibly friendly wave.

You cannot actually welcome everyone all at once. Relevant to the above paragraph: you can’t actually welcome harassers and people who would prefer not to be harassed and have them both feel equally welcome. Sometimes you have to draw a line and say, “hey, buddy, we don’t do that here.” (This is true if “buddy” has been involved in the group longer than you have as well as if “buddy” is new.) You have to decide who you are, personally and as a group, and accept that this will not welcome everyone evenly. If someone makes a racist remark and you call them on it, they will probably feel less welcome. On the other hand, the people who don’t want to hang out in a group where racism is accepted will feel more welcome hearing you say, nope, that is not how this group goes. It stinks that you have to, like, pick your side and get confrontational and stuff, but that’s how reality works. Obviously you won’t get this handled perfectly–conversations will go past while you’re trying to figure out what to say, or you’ll blurt something out that isn’t perfect, or whatever. Life is like that. Sometimes when you’re giving introductions, you’ll try to introduce people to each other who were married when you were in grade school. (Ahem. Ask me how I know.) Nobody really cares. That’s the sort of thing people laugh over and then move on. It’s hard to be welcoming without having at least some potential for looking uncool. So: priorities, up to you.

More on welcoming: what has worked for you, what has really not worked, what am I missing?

Attention policing paradox

I was reading this article on attention policing on The Atlantic, talking about major light memes of the week and the reaction against them. And it struck me that the author wasn’t addressing one of the major problems with attention policing, which I saw in action this week, and that is: it backfires.

Authors know this. I have had writers at conventions try to convince me to give bad reviews to their books rather than declining to finish them and staying silent, because they know this: when you talk about something, you draw attention to it, and if you talk about it enthusiastically, you draw more attention to it, regardless of whether your enthusiasm is positive or negative. Sure, the people who read me are more likely to trust me if I say, “Uff da, that was a stinker,” but not 100% likely. Nor am I 100% likely to follow any of your recommendations! If you say, “That book was so boring, it was not worth the time, it was just hundreds of pages of Chinese medieval monetary theory,” why, that’s the book I just picked up to read! That’s music to my ears! So this idea that we don’t pay attention to each other’s recommendations 100%: this is a feature, not a bug.

It’s not that I’m unwilling to give a bad review. But I do think that it’s worth being careful, especially when my reaction is “this book [/movie/TV show/etc.] is okay but overhyped”–because that kind of reaction can contribute to making the work central. It contributes to the feeling that the work is the important one that everyone must discuss–even if they don’t like it.

So yes, on Thursday my social media feeds were full of llamas and whether a badly photographed dress was white and gold or black and blue. But they were also full of people talking about how they weren’t talking about these things. Talking about how they didn’t care. Even more of that came up for the Superbowl, the Emmys, the Oscars. “I am not watching the thing everybody is watching!” said everybody. “Look at me thinking it is not important, and making it more important by keeping it the only topic of discussion.” One of my FB friends posted a little cartoon the morning after one of the Academy Award shows that said, “I did not watch the thing,” and I wrote back, “Too bad, you missed a great hockey game.” Because there is more than one thing. There is always more than one thing.

Telling people, “You should not like the thing you like!” or “You should not care about the thing you care about!” hardly ever works. They already like it. They already care. If you want to shift discussion and attention, it’s time for the tried and true, “Look, the Winged Victory of Samothrace!” What can sometimes work is, “hey, look at this other interesting thing!” Because the other interesting thing engages. It provides its own conversational points–and yes, sometimes these relate back to the first thing that the other person was interested in, that you wish they weren’t. If you were tired of llamas, then hooray, a badly photographed dress came along! And then some people combined the two in ways that they hoped were amusing! Someone said, “But look over here,” and they did, and some of them were wholly diverted from the llamas, and some weren’t.

So yeah, you’d be disappointed if you were hoping that the next big wave of comments would be about Russian/Ukrainian politics or new treatments for bone cancer instead of badly photographed dresses. These two things are not very much equivalent, though, and “STOP TALKING ABOUT LLAMAS” never once got people to talk about bone cancer. Attention is capricious and fickle, but some parts of it are predictable, and that’s one. So if you’re frustrated with the llamas, go craft your comments about your new local cheesemaker, the anime you just fell in love with, or the charity you think is worthy. Make them pithy, make them shiny, make them interesting. Virtue does not always out in the attention economy. You have to help it.

Fields of brilliance

So I was reading this article about how students describe professors differently based on gender, and that part of things is interesting and deserves its own look; it’s at the very least something to keep in mind and interrogate in your own dealings with people and their work. But it’s not what jumped out at me here.

What jumped out at me is the differential in who gets described as a genius by field. So the graph in that article shows that something like two-thirds of male physics professors are described as geniuses by their students, but only about one-third of female physics professors. However, if you follow that one-third line down the graph, you’ll see that from anthropology on down the list, that’s the high point–that’s the percentage of male professors described that way, and the percentage of female professors who get given that descriptor is even less (around ten percent or lower). So what’s going on there?

There are some fields that just do not get the same cultural cachet for requiring outstanding brilliance. Professors of biology or history, modern languages or criminal justice, do not seem to me to inherently require less intelligence, less insight, less creativity, less brilliance, than professors in other fields–nor to reward it less when it does appear. But the genius musician–the eccentric genius physicist–oh yes, we know those types. Those are characters we recognize, culturally. Whereas the genius business professor?…not so much. It may be that there actually are fewer geniuses working in psychology than in chemistry, but it seems to me at least as likely that people are predisposed to see innate genius rather than hard work in some fields, and vice versa in others.

I doubt that this is immutable. I especially doubt that it’s immutable when related to gender issues–see the example of physicians in Russia, for example, how the perception of that occupation changed when it became more heavily female. Is it coincidence that biology has more women than the other sciences and is the lowest on the “percentage genius” scale? Maybe. It may also be causal one way or the other: more room for women in fields where people don’t have an idea of a genius man as central to how that field works, or less likely to rate the field in general as requiring genius if it’s full of girls. Still, the discrepancy among fields seems to me to be also interesting and worth thinking about.

I will note that when I was a physicist and people asked what I did, I often heard, “WOW, you must be REALLY SMART!” And very few people say that to me about being a science fiction writer. Possibly because they’re trying to figure out how to say, “WOW, you must be REALLY WEIRD!” politely.

(Just go ahead and say it. We don’t mind.)

(But physicists are pretty weird. Just FYI.)

Rikki-tikki-tavi endorses this message

So I was reading Slacktivist today, and I found out that the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins was telling people that some parts of Minneapolis are no-go zones for non-Muslims. I just wanted to reassure you: stand down, friends and family! We are fine here!

(I was going to say “there’s nowhere in this city you can’t go on the basis of religion,” but that’s not true. The inner parts of Mormon temples are just for Mormons, for example. But that’s, like, certain rooms in a handful of buildings. Not even the whole building. Much less a whole neighborhood.)

Rep. Keith Ellison invited Perkins to Minneapolis to see for himself, which seems like a terrible idea to me, because then we’d have Perkins in my metro. But still, he’s a politician, it’s his job to score points off idiots be welcoming for his city. But the thing that got me is: I have literally no idea where Perkins thinks he might be talking about. This is not the “figuratively” use of literally. This is just, really, like: huh? Where’s that, exactly? Or even roughly–we don’t have to be exact. I can think of neighborhoods with lots of Somalis in them–we have Somali neighbors ourselves, and they pet my dog–but that’s so very far from the same thing as to not be worth discussing. There are some places Christians (and Jews and atheists and pagans and…) can buy halal meat more easily than others, but I wouldn’t think that would stop anybody from going there. If you don’t want halal meat, don’t buy it; problem solved.

I asked Mark and Tim, and they had no idea either. Seriously none. And what I really don’t get is that this kind of lie is so easily disprovable. Lots of people have friends and family here in the Twin Cities–many of them in Minneapolis proper, even–and so if they hear this and call up Aunt Ethel to say, “OMG Aunt Ethel, I heard about your neighborhoods with sharia law there in Minneapolis,” Aunt Ethel will say, “Are you high?” And then Aunt Ethel will call your mother to talk about maybe having an intervention for the drugs you are apparently on. Minneapolis: it is not the moon. I do not live on a satellite of the moon, people. If someone says something about Minneapolis, we can find out whether or not it is true. It doesn’t even take a Large Hadron Collider. We can just, like…wander out and look.

It’s a good plan, wandering out and looking. I endorse it in general.

Narcissism, self-assessment, and external feedback

Last week the Strib had an article about teenagers–mostly girls ages 13 to 15–posting painfully sincere selfies and videos asking the internet to tell them the truth about whether they are ugly. And most of this article was about the effects on the kids in question, but there was some of the usual hand-wringing about how supposedly narcissistic this young generation is.

Narcissism, you see, is something that groups mostly suffer from if they’re younger than you. If you go to a nursing home and everyone there wants to talk about their individual aches and pains for hours, nobody wants to talk about the narcissism of the elderly. (And rightly so, because plenty of old people are not narcissistic. But plenty of young people aren’t either.) It can’t be that some percentage of people are pretty self-centered, and it’s more culturally acceptable to call younger people on it than older people. It also can’t be that developmentally people in their teens and early twenties are going through a time when they’re figuring out their abilities and plans and place in the world. Nope. The particular teens we have at any given moment are perpetually uniquely narcissistic. You can read it in the paper. ALWAYS. So it must be true.

Self-assessment is useful in many areas, and it can be hard to get help with it from the people around you. I’m not surprised that these teens want to find out whether they’re pretty or not. I’m somewhat surprised that they’re still naive enough, at thirteen, to think that the internet will tell them the truth. Of course the people around them–Mom, Dad, friends, whoever–will not. They will say, “You look so pretty,” when they mean a dozen different things like, “I love you,” and “I want you to feel good about yourself,” and “I understand and approve of what you’re wearing more today than yesterday,” and “you look so much like your grandmother today–I miss her so much–I wish she could have been here to see you grow up.” Thirteen-year-olds are old enough, smart enough to know this. They’re trying to figure themselves out and figure out how to relate to the world. That’s not necessarily narcissistic. Asking the internet is naive. But we all wanted to know where we fit, who we were, when we were thirteen. We still do, but we’ve got more data, more practice at it, past that age.

I was thinking about this in terms of all the advice about not telling kids that they’re smart, telling them that they did a good job on a specific piece of work. I see where that advice is coming from. But a few weeks ago I was at the zoo with my godson Rob, who is twelve, and I needed to tell him, “Rob, you’re walking very fast. It’s faster than the other people in the group can walk right now. They need you to slow down because they literally cannot keep up with how fast you are walking.” There are times when being a smart kid is like that. There are times when you’re young and not entirely socially aware, when it’s very useful to know that other people are not goofing off on purpose, they’re not failing to pay attention because they’d rather be doing something else, they are just not as smart as you, or not as smart in a particular subset of picking things up. They are trying. Telling a kid they’re smart is not always praise. Telling a kid they’re pretty, musical, fast, strong, whatever, is not always praise. It doesn’t have to be handled that way. Sometimes it’s useful feedback at an age where they’re not very good at self-assessment or at placing their self-assessment in the context of others and compassion for those others or compassion for themselves.

In science fiction, we have an established critique culture. It’s just a known thing that you can go to some group–friends, or a workshop in person, or an online workshop–and get an assessment of how you’re doing at something that affects your life. You can arrange, one way or another, to get other people who actually know something about it to critique your work, and you can get enough of them to do it to get at least a bit of triangulation. You won’t know perfectly, of course, but you’ll have the rough outlines, what’s working, what’s not, whether you’re publishable, whether you’re way out of that category. And I think we take it for granted as adults that external feedback above the level of “u suck” will be available. We need to recognize that while the internet has given teenagers access to all sorts of things we didn’t have, perspective is one of the ones that’s hardest to get that young, and cut them a break.

pre-order gets you the same pretty cover

Just a quick note that the pre-orders are available for the Futures 2 anthology, in which I have a story–and so do 99 other people. Hard to beat that with a stick. Especially since it’s an ebook.

I would like to say something more here, but the neighbors behind us have let their dog out to bark since 8:30 this morning without more than 15 minutes of pause, and it turns out that I am able to focus through that to do three of the four of the following: 1) wrangle my own dog into not barking constantly; 2) write some fiction; 3) handle necessary house chores; 4) write a long blog post. So: sorry, folks. Tomorrow, I hope.

If you can deal with the snow and the dog, get on my lawn.

Kids these days: they are pretty great and you should buy them an ice cream (sorbet if they don’t do dairy).

Nobody ever sells articles that say this, despite it being true–or at least as much true as a percentage as it ever was–and look, here’s another article, this one from Slate, about how horribly broken the youth of today are, especially compared to my day, which was filled with whimsy and wonder, which, as we all know, is way better than fun and excitement. Sorry, kids, that was a quote from when the Simpsons was a TV show instead of a shambling corpse. Sorry, kids, that was an attempt to slam the Simpsons from before zombies were cool. I’m all better now. Point is: back in my day, we had whimsy and wonder and fun and excitement, although of course not as much as in the Baby Boomers’ day, because they invented all those things. Unless you ask the Lost Generation, in which case, hoo! look out Emperor Nero! And so on until you get back to Hesiod, and let’s face it, nobody had a Back In My Day like that dude.

I’m wandering, aren’t I? It happens with age. Especially Hesiod’s age. Aaaanyway.

Point being: this Slate author Rebecca Schuman teaches college students sometimes, and they do not invite her to join in their reindeer games, which proves that no college students have any reindeer games, due to them sucking, but even that is not because of them because young people have no agency ever (LIKE DUH, keep up), it’s because of us because we ruined them (POSSIBLY PERMANENTLY) with our helicoptering. Also, a survey of what people think are the “weirdest schools” is a totally accurate way to find out what weirdness people are having in their own personal schools and free time and stuff. Because, like, college students in Arizona, if surveyed, will know about my college-age friend’s shenanigans in Massachusetts. They are that epic. Oh, the shenanigans she has. They shenan, and then they go back and….

Sorry, right, the point is: I am friends with actual college students. Not, like, tons of them. But some. Enough to know that sensawunda, as we call it with solemn respect in the science fiction and fantasy writing genres, is alive in their lives. Even if they do not display it on command to random people who teach their classes. You can picture it: “Do you, like, have parties where the admission is a can of moss?” she demands eagerly. “Uh, nooooo,” say her students, thinking, oh God, let me get away from this crazy professor, I have to finish my paper so that I can figure out how to get the layers in my hair dye the way I want them before we yarn-bomb the quad.

“Someone’s got to help these damn kids today goof off more creatively,” she says, and I say: sit the hell down, Rebecca Schuman. The last thing “these damn kids today” need is another intervention from you. They are fine. They are doing their own thing. It is not your thing. Has help with whimsy ever actually helped? Ever? Back. Off.

Oh, and also? I once snapped at a Boomer age friend, “Just because college cost $5 when you went doesn’t mean it does now,” and guess what? The incredibly expensive college costs from when I was in college? That swamped people my age in student loans? Are starting to look like $5 compared to what these damn kids today are paying. So if you’re feeling like these damn kids today are just not doing enough goofing off, maybe hovering over them with narrow notions of whimsy is completely unhelpful, and maybe you should kick in for a scholarship for one of them or buy one dinner so that they have five minutes in which to goof off. Or pay them to do some chores for you or something. Because a lot of the stress you’re seeing is because they are trying to WORK while doing ALL THE CLASSES so that they are not still in debt to the student loan folks when they have to start paying for nursing home care. But yelling at them that they are not doing a good enough job at fitting in their REQUIRED WONDERMENT with their work and classes is not what we in realityland call helpful.