The Year of Risky Living
Bidding Farewell to 2016
The regular orbit of Earth around the Sun has little impact on my day-to-day life. It puts different food on my table, offers me a chance to put chains on my car’s wheels, and changes where I walk when the sky calls for me to bathe in its blueness. My climate-controlled home is ever-welcoming. It took until March for my 2016 to really kick off.
We left San Francisco Bay when, for the first time in my adult life, I trusted my whole survival to the breadwinning of another. Briana moved to Portland ahead of me, blazing a trail of financial stability that she doubted she could maintain. Almost a year later, here we are: Warm in an apartment paid for by her labor.
The War Rig
That’s when my year started: trailing behind a massive rig as it dragged three lives worth of stuff up to a new home. We called it the War Rig, but I had not realized how true that was. I did not yet know what the year would hold for me, my nation, and the people I called friends. Some of us would not make it out alive, and, doubtless, some of us won’t make it through the next year.
When I left, my mind was fresh with the memories of a boss openly spouting facist rhetoric about enslaving and murdering the poor so that “better people” — a master race, perhaps — might thrive in their absence. I thought he was a crackpot, part of some fringe Silicon Valley cult of — as he called it — “Libertarianism.” I had thought that leaving him and the many men like him that I’d encountered in the upper-echelons of Silicon Valley and Hollywood society would free me from listening to calls for mass deportation, mass incarceration, and a return to racial purity.
As the War Rig trundled northward, I wish I’d known what was to come.
You Only Live Once
After years of working office jobs every day, it took a long time to adjust to self-employment. Early in my time in Portland, I started two major projects: wrapping up The Unknowable Sylvia Brand and RogueLife.
The Unknowable Sylvia Brand is my horror-comedy novel that retells some of my experience of the decadent and heartless Silicon Valley life. When I feel frisky, I call the genre “mythos-punk”. There’s a lot that can be done with modern horror mixed with a dash of cyberpunk flare. Rather than the neon and chrome corporate metropolises, Sylvia finds herself faced with politics and corporations exploiting the power of hidden terrors with alien drives and objectives.
Roguelife bears a tagline that more people need to remember: “You only live once.” RogueLife began as a means for me to research games in the Rogue-Like genre, but that was merely a facade. I like streaming. I like to share the joy of games with as many people as I can. The beautiful moments of both solitary and group games are so alien to people who do not enjoy them. But those experiences are special in a way that too few understand.
Trust is a difficult thing, and we are often encouraged to experience it too rarely. We see people conned by businesses only to be called “fools”. We see women raped only to be called “sluts.” We see black men gunned down in the streets only to be called “thugs.” Ours is a nation increasingly built on distrust.
Games are different. Games create a story by relying on the mutual trust of all the players. Even games built on deception rely on the trust that no one is cheating. Whether playing poker or Dungeon World, the players come together in a circle of trust for their own enjoyment. We don’t see enough of that, and I want to show people that such trust is possible.
The Solitary Artist
I’ve written three full novels in the last two years: Nobody’s Business, The Unknowable Sylvia Brand, and Seven Days a Servant. Writing is renowned as the great solitary activity, but you don’t have to look far to see how farcical that statement is. Tolkien and his Inklings gathered often at “The Bird and Baby” pub in Oxford to share their works. Mary Shelley wrote of her Doctor Frankenstein while surrounded by her comrades and lovers. Writing is rarely solitary. Like most art, writing benefits from the support of an artistic community.
I began “Write Club”, as I call it, three years ago. It was a riff on a group I had joined many years ago in Texas: Friday Night Writes. Many of the writers I knew found themselves so bogged down in the day-to-day struggle for survival that they did not allow themselves time to write. Watching a writer fail to put words to page is like watching a child hold their breath until they are blue: they don’t get what they want, and they are killing themselves.
The Write Club process is simple. Each week, each member mails an editable Google doc to the group. We then meet up one night, and each member reads a different member’s chapter aloud while the other members make edits and take notes. This is followed by short discussion then the process is repeated until every contributed chapter is read.
This process, though lengthy, is phenomenally effective. We catch typos and inconsistencies quickly, and we can help each other find graceful ways around those problems. More than that, we support and encourage each other to write. We don’t need shame; we get by with praise and criticism. It’s beautiful. If you dream of writing, you should start a Write Club of your own.
Love is an Adventure
One of my happiest memories of this year is not one memory but rather days and days of adventure on Hawaii’s Big Island. I traveled with my partner, Lisa, and her family to a large villa near Captain Cook. We climbed mountain trails, snorkeled through reefs, and explored mountainside coffee plantations.
I’ll admit to some terror at spending so much time with four kids, their parents, and one set of grandparents. I was worried that my relationship with their aunt would result in my being “Uncle Trick”. Explaining why that wasn’t accurate did not sound like my idea of a fun time. The whole outsider-within-a-big-family thing filled me with anxiety as the vacation approached.
Then. It was all wonderful. I helped with chores around the villa. We traveled the island as a family. If you ever get the chance to travel to the island, I highly recommend it. Bring friends. Bring friends as close as family. Bring closer friends. Have a good time, and enjoy it.
Those We Lost
It’s odd to realize how much people who play just a small part in your life can be so missed. I’ve pored over old chat logs, swam through pictures, and listened to old Spotify playlists. I realize now that a close friend and I may have only ever exchanged fewer words than a short novella. I’d known Randall for years, but we’d never sought each other out beyond an interest in a single shared activity: the Dying Kingdoms LARP. We’d fought side-by-side against all manner of monsters. In the end, no monster or calamity came for him. He disappeared into a lonely hotel room, and he never emerged.
People. Once they are gone, they don’t come back.
Randall was a good man. Clever. Thoughtful. Wonderful taste in music. He helped a lot of people through a lot of hard times. It’s hard to say who would still be with us and who would not were it not for Randall’s kind ways.
Just a couple weeks from Christmas, I received news that two souls close to my heart departed this world. Don Rupley, the father of my nearest friend as I grew up, died in hospital. He was an old man. I knew him as a religious man, but he’d grown distant from the church as he aged. I spent the evening of his death calling old friends scattered by the financial winds that drive the younger generations. We all live one bad paycheck from homelessness, and that lends us towards traveling across these United States for any opportunity we might seize.
As I gathered the mourners, my mother informed me of another loss. My cat, Scarface, who had been living with my parents, ran away in the summer and never came back. She was a good cat. Mother of five. Romie and I nursed her to health one Halloween night many years ago. She had a lot of good years. I wish she’d had more.
I wish I’d known of her death sooner. She died in summer, and I learned of her passing in the dead of winter.
In the midst of all this death, I wrote about life and revolution. Well, I did more than write. And to give all the credit to me is to do a great disservice to my wife, Briana. Years ago, we took a long trip from Texas to California and back again. It should have been a nightmare. I was picking up the pieces from the worst chapter in my life, and Briana chose to come along to support me.
On those mist-bathed interstates, we created something special. The world of Iron Immortals is built on equal parts hope and terror. It’s a world where life and death have profound significance, but the living have no idea of the important labor they will perform after their deaths. It is a world dominated by great civilizations both human and inhuman, and all of them have a different relationship with the great cycle which fuels their universe. The people of Promise live in blissful ignorance of the forces at work in their lives.
Seven Days a Servant began as an erotic visual novel set in the Iron Immortals universe. It was a hybrid between Ladykiller in a Bind and Starfighter’s visual novel. I created detailed outlines for every possible day, each sexual rendezvous, and each unfortunate end. Then, I started writing.
At first, I just wanted to get the action and detail of the first night and the first day. I wanted to know what to put into the game. Soon, though, it became much more than that. Seven Days a Servant transformed into a full novel. The sexual tension rippled through every scene even without explicit sex acts. As the novel reached its climax, I realized it was the best thing I’d ever written. But the Iron Immortals saga didn’t end there.
As I wrapped up the novel, I invited a group of my old friends to contribute to the world. I invited Briana, one of the world’s original creators, Bob, an important voice in the world of Dying Kingdoms, and Hannah, a member of the original Friday Night Writes, to join me in a role-playing adventure set in the Iron Immortals world. Three months and fourteen episodes later, the Iron Immortals podcast is still going strong on the Crooked Thimble.
As I dive deeper into the follow-up to Seven Days a Servant, the adventures of Isolde, Reed, and Kaija are constantly on my mind. Their adventures and the aspects of the world that they have discovered push and pull at the fabric of the Iron Immortals fiction.
The Coming Battle
It is difficult to discuss 2016 without speaking about the elephant in the room. In November, the American people decided to hand control of the country to a man and party running on a platform of white supremacy, ethnic cleansing, and economic exploitation. Driven by a hatred of the “other side”, voters flocked to the banner of fear and hatred to bring about the pure nation they dreamed up long ago. Appealing to memories of white prosperity in the age of slavery, Donald Trump enticed his largely white followers to “Make America Great Again.”
Emboldened by his and his party’s words, bigots and opportunists of all sorts now parade their hatred openly. For my trans friends and friends of color, this has meant levels and amounts harassment many of them had not seen before. For me, it’s just meant men snarling at me “skirts are for girls” and “take off that nail polish, faggot” when I go out in public in my kilt with my painted nails. They’ll bump into me, snarl, and generally make clear that my presence in a concentration camp would be preferred.
My eccentricities are simple to keep secret. I could hide in my home. I could take the polish off my nails. I could hide my bisexuality and polyamory with ease. I don’t have to hide the color of my skin. I don’t have to cast off the icons of my religion. I have the privilege of silent deviations from the norm. When Trump starts sending people to the camps — as so many of the men he admires have done — I will be loaded onto one of the later trains.
Instead, I have not remained silent. Despite the laughter of the shop owner, I’ve gotten a full manicure and gel polish. I’ve posted about my support of the ACLU, and I will continue to do so. Hopefully, I’ll have an opportunity to volunteer with them once the New Year begins.
As Mr. Trump continues to build his private security force tasked with suppressing protests, we all have a duty to not only resist him but to do so loudly. His party and their cronies are already introducing bills to make various forms of protest illegal, and all their supreme court nominees support these measures. “Free speech”, it seems, is limited to the right to reject services to people or skin colors you disagree with.
Do not for a moment think that Mr. Trump exists in opposition to his party. The party, despite their occasional and toothless demonization of their supreme leader, support his every action. Already they’ve had dozens of legal opportunities to resist his incoming rule, and they have never taken them. Trump does not set the Republican agenda; the Republican agenda sets Trump’s agenda.
Resisting that agenda after the inauguration — when the full force of the United States Military and Constabulary is turned to its enforcement — will prove fatal for many of America’s best citizens. Resistance will take the form of both legal and illegal action, and both will be met with belligerence, batons, and bullets.
Each year is a new year. While my year was marked by one risk after another, next year will be riskier still. Just living here is a risk, one that promises to be the undoing of many seeking just to live their lives in peace. The compassionate are faced with two deaths: one of spirit borne of tearing out their own compassion and the mortal death brought about by their fellow man.
It’s the new year. Keep fighting the good fight.
Trick Dempsey is an author, podcaster, and game developer living in Portland. To support his work, you may contribute to The Crooked Thimble on Patreon.