I'm still enjoying Jon Merz's fascinating character, Lawson, the Vampire Fixer. Think Ray Donovan with fangs. In fact, I would be delighted to see Liev Schreiber play Lawson in the film adaptation of the series. Jon, you with me? Last time, I wrote about Lawson's absolute discipline and my extreme envy of this—admittedly fictional—quality. Today I want to turn my attention to Lawson’s abiding sense of honor. He is an honorable man, or, more accurately, vampire. He says what he means and he does what he says. He follows through on commitments no matter how difficult or inconvenient. Or even dangerous. He can be counted on. He has honor. Honor is a characteristic I admire.
People tell me I'm a disciplined person. “Are you on drugs?” is my usual response. I feel like the least disciplined person in the world. I’ve broken every resolution and promise I’ve made to myself again and again. I succumb to every temptation. I'm constantly trying to trick myself into following a routine, sticking to a plan, practicing discipline. Today, I'm thinking about discipline through the lens of a new author, Jon F. Merz, and an exciting new series featuring Lawson, the Vampire Fixer. I finished the first book, called, appropriately, The Fixer, and am enjoying the second, The Invoker, with no discipline at all—ravenously devouring page after page. Lawson is an exceptional character.
I was privileged to be an advance reader for Elle Boca's Smells Like Weeia Spirit. I'm delighted to report that the book is now live on Amazon and I urge everyone to read it! This is the third story in the Weeia Marshals series, and Danielle Metreaux has been the lead Marshal in Paris for a while now, keeping the superhuman race safe from each other and secret from the regular humans out there who have no idea that the Weeia exist. Danielle has risen above a difficult upbringing and a tarnished family name. She represents a twist on the traditional rags to riches tale, where she is now keeping company with people who once looked down on her socially and economically. Danni struggles to feel like she fits in, and there are plenty of those who want to keep the struggle alive, but also those who seek to include her as one of their own. As Danni navigates the stratified structure of Weeia society in Paris, she encounters different classes of people and people with different levels of class. It's an interesting subject, class, and one we don't discuss too often here in the New World. Class, money, and privilege tend to be more interconnected in the United States than they are in European countries, for example. Here, one's class is dependent less on one's birth than on one's ability to earn money. There are few impoverished nobles in America, and lots of successful nouveau riche social climbers. And, to add a layer of complexity to this blend of high society and hoi polloi, we can also talk about what it means to have class, not just belong to one. Because being a part of high society or the ranks of the wealthy doesn't necessarily mean one has any actual class, just as poverty and low birth doesn't prevent one from having loads of it.
To me, the epitome of class is one of my childhood friends. Since we were little girls, she has gone out of her way to make everyone comfortable around her. She's used to a lifestyle and amenities most of us have never experienced. Some in her situation never see those who make her existence what it is—the housekeepers and the waiters and the support staff at every turn. Not my friend; as long as I can remember, she has been inclusive, treating those who can do nothing for her with the same respect and consideration as the CEOs of the companies with whom she deals. I have never seen her look down her patrician nose at anyone. So, while her privilege secures her spot as an upperclassman, it's her innate class that makes her the lady she is.
On the other hand, there are lots of folks out there with money and status who consider themselves to be "upper class," but who have no idea what it means to be “classy.” They delight in stepping on the perceived wet backs of others as they ignore those not of their “class.” Fuck that shit. In the end, people can only make us feel as uncomfortable as we let them. When someone looks down their nose at me, it says a lot more about them than about me—about their insecurities and lack of self-worth, and nothing at all about mine. I know first-hand that money buys neither happiness nor class. It can't buy intelligence or health, although it can make these pursuits easier and more likely to succeed. It's hard to be healthy in a food desert or without access to medical care. It's hard to learn when the instruction is suboptimal and the students apathetic or hostile.
I'm not suggesting that money isn't advantageous or that a pedigree doesn't open doors. Although being the true American that I am, I don't really understand class and pedigree, nor do I have much respect for them. Who gives a shit that one's ancestors came over on the Mayflower? That has nothing to do with who their descendants turn out to be. And I know there are certain clubs and groups that pull each other's puds and circle the wagons lest the bloodlines be diluted by the great unwashed, but I've never understood why anyone would want to belong to those elitist institutions in the first place.
Class and social status are just a continuation of the tyranny of the so-called popular kids in school. The Queen Bees and the Wannabes. I figured out early that the best way to win that game was to refuse to play. Exit the game board and find another playground. In high school while the popular girls were being passed around within a tiny bubble of self-aggrandizing beautiful people, I was having the experience of a lifetime with an older boyfriend who introduced me to the world. Now, granted, it was a pretty twisted relationship, but dysfunction is not limited to May-December romances; I'm watching my teenaged sons and their friends doing the dance and there's not much that’s functional there at all.
Anyhoo, back to self-defining, exclusionary groups that make themselves feel grander by trying to make others feel small. Who would want to join that club? Not me. And definitely not anyone who is comfortable with who they are and what they believe in. Of course, this is not to say that rich, privileged, pedigreed people can't be warm, wonderful and wise, like my friend. There is nothing precluding them from being comfortable in their own skin. And when they are, they are as gracious and welcoming as anyone else who has found their place in the world. More so, in fact, if they are self-aware enough to understand their good fortune in being born into wealth and privilege, which creates opportunities that not everyone enjoys. Those folks find joy in sharing their good fortune and creating opportunities for others. They define class, in every sense of the word.
It's good to watch Danni grow and evolve. It reminds me that I can evolve as well, particularly in the realm of being as classy as I can, irrespective of my station or financial status. In this way, we can all go to the head of the class if we so choose.
All of you know that I cannot image life without my friends. Knowing my peeps are out there in the world helps me to face each day with courage and confidence; I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am not alone and need never face adversity or joy without someone with whom to share it. The reality of that certainty is literally life changing and I count my blessings each and every morning and evening and never take my good fortune for granted. I've joked that my best friends (and I include my beloved husband on this list) would fly halfway around the world to give me a tissue if I sneezed. Why am I regaling you with stories of my fabulous friends? Because I just finished reading Rose Montague's last installment of the J'Amigos Trilogy, Jill. At the center of this series is the friendship between the three J'Amigos—Jade, Jane and Jill. One is a vampire, one is a faerie queen and the last is a little bit of everything. They come together against difficulty and danger and become fast friends along the way. What is remarkable about this trio is the level of commitment and support they offer each other. Taken over the course of the three books, their friendship evolves as an inspiration and a blueprint for foundational relationships that all of us should be lucky enough to follow.
The question of how to be a friend stymies many folks. We can take a page from the three J'Amigos and highlight that being a true friend means showing up when we're needed. Even when it's inconvenient. Or even potentially dangerous. Friends don't let friends go through Hell by themselves. Or even to the Underneath, where Jill has been banished, and from which there is no escape. With friends, all things are possible -- even Houdini-esque exits from places where Camus would be comfortable.
Many of us feel this way about our families—we shut up and show up because they are blood and we're obligated. But it feels different when it's a friend in need. Friends are the family we choose. We choose to be tethered to our friends and to show up for them even when it’s inconvenient. We get bigger kudos for showing up for our friends than we do for our family in some ways, when in reality it should be the opposite, if merit were measured in terms of the perceived weight of the burden. Helping my friends feels like a privilege. Helping my family can sometimes feel heavier.
I was with my mother extensively during her last six months. She made multiple trips to the hospital for falls, heart trouble, pneumonia, etc. She was a mess that I was stuck cleaning up. I didn't even like my mother, but I felt it was my responsibility as her daughter to be there for her. After all, if honoring our mothers and fathers were easy, they wouldn't have made it a commandment. So, I carried out all of my filial duties. And it was no fun at all—not that death and dying are ever much fun, of course.
Contrast this with showing up for my friend when she was going through cancer treatments. Also no fun. Except it was. We made it fun. And a truly horrible situation was a bit less horrible because we were together. She knew she could count on me. And I was grateful for the opportunity to be there for her. Or another time when a different friend was going through a messy divorce and my ability to fly across the continent to see her and let her know she wasn't alone was life-affirming at a very dark time. Again, my primary feeling was overwhelming gratitude that I could be there. There is nobility in showing up for an amigo that is rarely there in fulfilling familial obligations.
And when my friends have shown up for me? Priceless. My friends made the difference between total despair coupled with overwhelming grief and a feeling that life was still worth living. Albert Schweitzer said that sometimes our own flames go out and are rekindled by another so that we may burn brightly again. He advises us to be grateful to those who light our fires. It's good advice.
For me, and apparently for Jade, Jane and Jill as well, having good friends means being a good friend. These are, or should be, very mutual relationships, filled with give and take, push and pull and mutual support. This does not mean keeping score or bailing when things get a bit one-sided. Over the course of a lifetime friendship, the see-saw is going to tilt one way or the other, sometimes for a period of time. Life happens. And sometimes things get strained. But like the J’Amigos we go one holding each other up regardless because that’s what friends do. Or should. So thank you to Rose Montague for illustrating the art of friendship and showing us all how to be a friend and have a friend.
I've finished reading the first two (of three so far) Mick Oberon "Jobs" by Ari Marmell. Good stuff. Mick is a very cool guy, for being one of the Fae and all. The second book, Hallow Point, is a complex romp through 1930s Chicago, and the strange imitation of our world that the Fae have created in their own world (and if Ari Marmell wasn't inspired by my favorite Star Trek episode, "A Piece of the Action," then I'll dress up as Oberon the wolfhound for Halloween!). Anyhoo, one of the interesting aspects of this series is that Marmell carries through several plot points through more than one book. So in the first book, Hot Lead, Cold Iron, we learn that Mick often accepts barters from clients as payment for his private investigative work. Sometimes, Mick isn't sure why he asks for certain things, but he follows his Fae instincts and collects various items in an office drawer. One such item from Mick's "drawer of oddities" turns out to be quite useful in book two, and Mick is justified in his hoarding. Or prescience. Depending on your perspective. Which raises interesting questions about keepers and tossers. I'm a tosser. My husband is a keeper. It makes for tense times when we clean out our closet. Or even our refrigerator. There is a conflicting worldview between the keepers and the tossers, one that cannot be easily resolved. It goes to a fairly deep place of trust in the Universe, feelings of abundance versus scarcity, and moral imperatives to redistribute wealth and prosperity a bit more equitably. It is about the dichotomy between those who pass things along and those who keep stuff for themselves. Our individual proclivities to keep, toss (or give away) also say a lot about who we are as people, with the keepers and the passers seeming morally superior to those who contribute to landfills simply because they cannot be bothered to find a good home for those items they no longer want or need (not that I have an opinion on this topic or anything).
One person's garbage is another's treasure. Whenever I'm tempted to think something is rubbish, in the literal sense of that word, I'm reminded of someone I know who is the queen of free cycling. This woman free cycles everything, from last week's newspapers to egg cartons to plastic ziplock bags. She finds homes for stuff I wouldn't normally think twice about recycling or taking to the dump. But her actions have caused me to stop and think even more than twice and to consider re-purposing before trashing (she gives her old newspapers to a fellow free cycler who has pet rabbits to line the cages). Apparently, there is almost always someone who wants our garbage. Or what we think of as garbage.
If we're not fans of free cycling, there is Goodwill or the myriad church thrift stores or consignment shops that accept our used clothes, books, furniture, kitchenware, etc. I love these places, and have donated mountains of stuff over the years. Personally, I have two rules that have served me well in terms of keeping my home fairly clutter free and satisfying my desire to share the wealth I've been blessed with. I do not practice perfectly, but I do try my best. The first is the One-Year rule: if I haven't used it or worn it in a year, it gets given away to someone who will use it more often than I do. The second rule is One-In, One-Out. I'm less good about this one, which states that if I buy a new pair of jeans, I give away an old pair. But it's a good rule. We used to do this with our kids at Christmas and birthdays. It helped (I hope) to encourage them to realize that not everyone has what they do, and no one needs fifteen different colored light sabers (or even five).
Having said all of this and ensconced myself firmly in the camp of the toss-till-it's-de-cluttered camp, I feel it's only fair to make the case for Mick Oberon and his fellow hoarders—I mean collectors. There is something to be said for finding the exact right item one needs in our "junk" drawer, as Mick does, or in the garage where it's lived for 20 years. This is my husband's philosophy with respect to…everything. "You never know when you might need it!" Not true; I can state with certainty that I will never, ever need a 30-year-old oxygen tank that has not been used or inspected in 25 years when I go scuba diving. I enjoy breathing, even underwater, and plan to continue until my dying day, which I prefer to be in the far distant future, far away from water. I'm also pretty confident that I will never use my wedding dress again, and I have no daughters, so that could probably go as well.
But my examples are somewhat extreme and cut-and-dried (although we still have that oxygen tank plus his ancient BC vest that we have never taken with us on a diving vacation and my wedding dress is in the same box it was stored in 21 years ago—but we were moving on…). What about more ambiguous examples? Like my children's "art" from elementary school? Or framed wall pictures of me as a little girl that used to hang in my mother's house before she died? I feel bad throwing that shit away, but who would want it? It would be creepy for me to hang baby pix of myself in my house, and neither of my kids will be mistaken for Picasso, so I don't think their childhood drawings will have any value.
And what happens when we down size and de-cluttering is an imperative rather than a satisfying way to avoid writing (oh, did I say that out loud?)? I've never understood the idea of the offsite storage unit. Unless you're a criminal, in which case it makes a more sense. But why would we want our stuff somewhere on the other side of the railroad tracks in some creepy warehouse that I'd never want to visit lest said criminals decided to lure me into their portable pseudo-operating room to perform surgery without anesthesia? Maybe I've been watching too many episodes of Criminal Minds, but still, you know what I'm saying.
The way I figure it, I can go through my crap now and make sure I've sorted and stored the things that I truly value and need…or my kids can have that happy task when I kick the bucket sometime down the road. It seems unfair to burden my sons with such a thankless job, so my plan is to do it myself. Preferably while my husband is otherwise occupied. So I can finally trash that stupid tank. And his monogrammed bowling ball. Mustn't forget that. I doubt even Mick Oberon, which his penchant for odd items, would accept that ball as barter for finding my lost dog. If I had lost my dog, that is. On the other hand, one never knows when a monogrammed bowling ball might come in handy. You know, for bowling. Maybe. Someday.
I'm still thinking about Hot Lead, Cold Iron, the first of the Mick Oberon "jobs" (books) in the series. Mick is a member of the Fae, but he's in exile on Earth from Elphame (Faerie) for sins not yet disclosed. He’s busy making a living as a PI in 1930s Chicago and working his particular brand of magic. One of the original elements of this series and its world building is the specific nature of Mick's magic—the way he manipulates luck to his advantage and the disadvantage of his foes. I've never read anything quite like it, and, of course, it got me to thinking, as I am wont to do. I've often heard the expression, "It's better to be lucky than good." I've also heard that, "The harder I worked, the luckier I got." And, finally, we have the admonition that luck is a backstabbing bitch, deserting us when we need her most. So, let's explore the concept of luck and the role that it plays in our lives.
The way Mick works his magic is to gather small strands of luck around himself, adding to the probability that a plan will go his way, or he will be the victor in a fight. If the odds are against him, his magic will ensure that odds are “ever in his favor.” Think about how important it would be to ensure that at the moment we walk up to the stage, we don’t trip on our dress (like Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars), or fall on our asses (like Madonna in concert). Manipulating luck would mean that our flies would never be open at a particularly inopportune time, nor would we have toilet paper stuck to our heels or lettuce in between our front teeth for the world to see. Being lucky means being in the right place at the right time to meet the man or woman of our dreams, to be spotted by the person who will make our career, or to be able to take advantage of an opportunity. Luck means clear skies for our Ireland vacation, even though it rains there most of the year, or seeing the top of the Arenal volcano in Costa Rica, even though we were only there for a couple of hours and some wait weeks to catch a glimpse of the summit. It’s good to be lucky.
But luck is not always with us. We anthropomorphize luck as a fickle woman, favoring us one moment and abandoning us the next, and there is some truth to the randomness of her affections. As an aside, I notice that we don’t imbue men with those characteristics (it’s always women who are fickle), but I digress. Regardless of the sexist nature of the personification of luck, it is true that luck doesn’t seem to be something we can count on, although it sure does seem to visit some more than others.
Some of us are born lucky. My husband is like that; my former fiancé was not. And that was something I considered in ending the engagement to one and going through with the marriage to the other. Not the only thing, mind you, but one conscious consideration. My husband seems to walk under a golden cloud. Almost everything he touches works out, and he has the best parking karma of anyone I’ve ever known. Of course, as I write this, I am stressing that in highlighting his luck, the woman in question will leave him flat, but I’m going to have some faith that she’ll continue to grace him with her presence. My former fiancé, on the other hand, couldn’t help but take the hard way home every single time. Life just seemed to come with difficulty for him. He was aware of his paucity of luck, and he worked hard to make sure that he was good enough to rise above any bad luck that came his way.
The other aspect of Mick’s magic is equally brilliant. By stealing the luck of his opponents, Mick doubly magnifies his chances for success. It’s a win-win, although this aspect of his luck smacks a bit of schadenfreude, and I’m not sure I am comfortable hoping for the same sort of ability for myself. Because while increasing my own luck seems like a neat trick, taking away the good fortune of others seems somewhat nasty to me, and if we believe in the karmic version of luck (which I haven’t seen so far in Mick’s case), then stealing others’ fortune will come back to bite us in the ass with a vengeance down the road. But if luck isn’t a zero sum game, then it might be just fine to amp up our own share and safeguard ourselves again trouble and strife. Or just make sure we get good parking whenever possible.
I've started a new series, although I'm not quite sure where I found it. Hot Lead, Cold Iron by Ari Marmell is the first Mick Oberon "job" (story/book) and it's different enough to be intriguing. The book is an homage to the hard boiled dick novels of the early and mid-twentieth century coupled with faithful adherence to the traditional tropes of urban fantasy in the style of Jim Butcher and Kevin Hearne, with language from my favorite Star Trek episode, A Piece of the Action thrown in for good measure. What could be bad? Turns out, nothing. The book is a delightful discovery and my only disappointment is that there are only three books so far in the series. I am also indebted to the author for highlighting an oversight in my understanding of magic, which I've discussed before. I've always said that the formula for magic was focus, energy and intention. What I forgot, and Mick Oberon reminded me, is that the language of magic is symbolism. One of the reasons I forgot about symbolism is that it is a dying language, kind of like Latin (cognates of which are a favorite among wizards, druids and magical beings everywhere—expelliarmus!). But signs and symbols have always been a part of spell casting and magic generally. Think about salt circles, pentagram, ruins and the symbolism of the Tarot deck—any deck, really, although Rider-Waite is the classic and it is heavily symbolic. Symbols often mark a hidden path; think The DaVinci Code, cairns along twisted forest trail, or any treasure map worth its name.
Symbolism is esoteric and implicit. It can be subtle and often requires thought and decoding to understand. We live in a world of instant gratification and spoon-fed opinions and entertainment. We have no patience for anything that isn't in-your-face obvious. It's supposed to be like that, otherwise, why use signs and symbols? The problem for the modern mind is that symbolism has depth and most of us think depth is overrated.
Except, of course, it's not. Depth is there regardless of whether we choose to acknowledge it. Symbols and signs often constitute the pathway that leads us to our own depths, as well as deep places outside ourselves. And most esoteric spiritual and religious books and teachings use the language of symbols so that if a seeker really wants the knowledge, she has to work for it. Very little of what comes easily is valued. Those who illuminate an obscure path with symbolic clues know this.
Symbolism is the language of dreams and, as such, a gateway to our unconscious minds. When we dream about showing up naked to a test, it's not because we actually fear that we'll forget to dress. Those dreams are about vulnerability and exposure. The symbolism of dreams is so well documented, in fact, that one can read books (or Google) the symbolism of dreams. My mother-in-law taught a class on the subject some years ago. There is a lot there to explore in our dreams. And it's all about the symbols.
Depth psychology is almost exclusively an illumination of symbols and what they point to in terms of our patterns and neuroses. By exposing that to which the symbols refer, we can begin to understand the motivations behind self-destructive or outwardly destructive behaviors. We peel the layers back one by one, digging deeper and deeper into the symbolism of the unconscious mind and this process is supposedly very healing to old wounds.
Symbols are the language of both spirituality and religion. A cross is a symbol, the Star of David is a symbol, and a candle in a window is a symbol. We all know what they mean, although they can mean different things to different people. That's what makes them interesting and subtle and subject to interpretation. There is a great deal of symbolism in each of the western religions (I'm sure in the east as well, but I'm not as familiar with those traditions). The wafer in the mass, Elijah's cup, a Muslim woman's headscarf. These are all symbols of something else that point to the Divine and humanity's place in relation to the infinite. Fascinating stuff.
Symbols can stir deep emotions. Think about someone burning an American flag. It's just a piece of cloth. Except it's not. Think about Serrano's Immersion, otherwise known as the "Piss Christ." It's just a piece of plastic submerged in a cup of urine. Gross? Yes. But unless we imbue that piece of plastic with some meaning beyond its constituent parts, it's not a big deal. If we see meaning beyond the explicit in that plastic crucifix, then yes, that changes the whole equation.
Finally, symbolism is the language of the imagination. Our creativity is fueled by signs and symbols. We draw and paint and write in symbols. My personal favorite, of course, is the writing part of creativity, and my very favorite thing to do is to write and read creative analogies, many of which involve symbolism and one thing pointing to another. In fact, I've always wanted to write a book with the best analogies and metaphors I've read in my many literary travels. Hot Lead, Cold Iron has oodles of them; I'm in analogy heaven, and my imagination is swirling.
I'm indebted to Ari Marmell for this imaginative, symbolic gambol through an alternate 1930s Chicago and some instruction on the necessary ingredients of magic and mayhem. I love symbolism and I'm always looking for signs. I can find meaning in the random order of my iTunes playlist, completely sure I'm receiving messages from the Universe, as well as the specific positions of magazines in a doctor's waiting room. Needless to say, with this book, I'm in my element and having a rip-roaring good time.
I just finished Elle Boca's Weeia on My Mind. Excellent read. I found myself turning pages quickly to see how it all got resolved. But what really struck me about the book was Ms. Boca's remarkable attention to detail and her close, totally on-point observations. Particularly with respect to a topic I thought I'd forgotten, but which came rushing back like the tide at full moon when I was reading this novel. Ms. Boca has perfectly captured the ins and outs of office life. I'm not sure if it's depressing or inspiring to know that even a race of superhumans struggles with the office two-step, dancing quickly to climb the corporate ladder, keep others from flinging us down and avoid getting stepped on. Weeia on My Mind is written from the perspective of young Danni Metreaux, a Weeia law enforcement officer recently transferred to Paris, her requested posting. Once she gets there, however, she is confronted with several familiar figures in offices across the globe and across time: the long-standing, do-nothing bureaucrat who resents the presence of personnel who actually want to work and the obstructionist assistant/secretary/office manger who makes life as difficult as possible for those same folk who are just trying to get shit done. Anyone who's ever worked in an office knows who I'm taking about. These characters and the situations they create were drawn so faithfully that the lines between truth and fantasy were very blurred, as they often are in my beloved genre.
In the book, Danni desperately wants to seem professional and knowledgeable. She wants to make her mark. Like all of us who've been newbies in a corporate environment, we know, like Danni, that appearances count, that our behavior is being scrutinized and commented on, and that everything we do is being analyzed by an electron microscope. All of which makes it brutally difficult to fit in while simultaneously standing out. Which is the name of the game in The Office, no matter where it is or what it does or makes.
Like the rest of us, Danni struggles to juggle the requirements, explicit and implicit, of the chain of command. We need to make our bosses look good. But we can't show them up. We need to ensure that we're asking for permission before we go off half cocked, thinking we know what to do, but we need to demonstrate independent thinking and initiative. We need to first, do no harm, but also do what needs to be done. It's exhausting.
Then there is the problem of our place in the hierarchy. Offices are the most structured, hierarchical environments in the universe. Submarines have nothing on a well-established office. With this hierarchy comes a need to understand how to behave with superiors, subordinates and colleagues alike. Forgetting our place is a mortal sin in The Office. We're expected to be graciously subservient to those above us; firm but fair with those below us; and we need to be overtly friendly while hiding the sub rosa machinations going on as we try to outshine our competitors, otherwise known as our peers. Totally draining.
And what about what happens when work relationships become personal–as in friendships and romances? If we're working 60-70 hours a week, we're spending more time with our fellow workers than with anyone else. Relationships happen, whether we want them to or not, and whether they are permitted or not. I was frankly shocked that Danni didn't develop a more-than-professional interest in her new protégé. Sebastian is smart, hot, and rich. They do become friends, which is nice, and predictable insofar as the real world is concerned. It could have gone the other way, which leads to all sorts of contortions while people try to hide their forbidden office romances. I've kept more of these kinds of secrets than any other. And I worked in a classified environment for twenty years.
And finally, Danni has to deal with the "We-Be's," a particularly nasty sub-species of office dwellers who will screw you up every time. These are the folks with the lovely attitude that says, "We be here when you come and we be here when you go. Ain't nothing you can do to us or for us, so fuck off." I'm pretty sure that is a direct quote. These troglodytes are in the trenches, and it's almost impossible to extricate them. And they can make our lives a living hell, if they so desire. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.
There are others from Satan's headquarters who can make life fairly toasty as well. I'm talking about bosses from hell, including the ragers, the gropers, the mouth-breathers and the tyrants. There is nothing worse than a bad boss. I've been blessed in my professional life; mostly, I've had bosses from Heaven. The only one from Down Under eventually came around and joined the side of the angels—and we became good friends. I would have lost that bet.
And all of these memories of my corporate life as a national security contractor came pouring in as I read Elle Boca's latest offering. These are bittersweet memories, as I don't really miss office life, but I do sometimes miss the intensity, the structure, the shared sense of purpose and responsibility and the camaraderie of working in an office environment. But I think I will stroll down memory lane with my beloved books, rather than in real life. Truth is sometimes more palatable in fantasy than in reality. Thanks, Elle Boca, for the great read and the fun ride.
Welcome to my faithful followers and to all my new friends! I am so excited to unveil my new site—(big shout out to Jamie Higdon at The Balanced Biz for all of her help!), now powered by Word Press, with an all-new look and a lot more functionality. I’m grateful that you’ve joined me so far, and I hope you will continue to walk with me on this amazing journey. It’s definitely been a road less traveled, and I’ve been delighted with the companions I’ve met along the way, including and especially YOU! Thank you and ENJOY!! I've just started digging into Elle Boca's latest Weeia novel, Gypsies, Tramps and Weeia. Fortunately for readers everywhere, this series is getting better with each installment. This most recent offering starts with a bang and hasn't let up. Anyway, the bang that opens this novel got me thinking--and you know what that means!
As the book begins, Danni, our kick-ass protagonist, is preparing to take her field exam to progress to the next level as a Weeia Marshall. As we learn later, Danni has her share of detractors who don’t believe that she belongs at the Academy. In fact, her unpopularity with certain factions has led someone to play a cruel prank, sending a note saying the exam had been pushed back by two hours. Luckily, Danni has some good friends among the student body (and the faculty, as it turns out), and she arrives to the exam late, but nonetheless able to pass with flying colors. Her victory is clouded, however, by the malevolence of her peers and the desire of some to succeed based on her failure. For this faction – you know the type, they exist in truth as well as fantasy – someone has to lose in order for someone else to win.
I take issue with this zero sum view of winning, as does Elle Boca, if the characters she writes are any reflection of her life philosophy (which I believe they are, as I've written before). And I've been thinking about these very concepts since I just saw a great quote on Twitter that said, "I don't believe in competition. I want us all to win."
Before I get a slew of irate comments and emails about the fallacy of giving all participants participation awards and the annihilation of merit-based promotion, not to mention the equality of everyone, let me say I hear you and I don't necessarily disagree. It's foolish and delusional to insist that there are no such things as winners and losers in this world, Little League trophies for showing up to the contrary. But that isn't what I'm talking about. Clearly, we can't all win at everything.
What we're talking about here is the ugly underbelly of competition, the one Ms. Boca illuminates with the fraudulent note intended to ensure Danni failed her test, leaving more slots and better assignments for others. That kind of competitiveness depends on the fallacy of insufficiency--that there is not enough--of anything--to go around. Of course, there are a limited number of Americans who will be our nation’s President, and as each election cycle teaches us, many who want the job. And, as we know from 50 years of Super Bowl games, not every team's members will get one of those coveted rings, which always makes me a little sad, as they seem to mean so much to those folks. And as I watched my family and friends watching the Super Bowl, they were focused on the winners and their platitudes ("I'm just grateful to have played; I couldn't have done it without my teammates," do these guys read off the same script?!), while my eyes were on the team that didn't win and feeling sorry for their loss.
One of my favorite museums in Washington, DC, is called the Newseum, a museum of news. They have a gallery where all of the Pulitzer Prize winning photographs ever taken are displayed. They are all arresting, but one that particularly caught my eye was a photo of the 1992 Nigerian women's track and field team, after the 4x100 meter race. While all the other photographers were training their lenses on the winning American team, one photographer captured the moment when the Nigerian women realized they had won the bronze--third place--medal. Their incandescent happiness was infectious and the photo is a joy to behold. No losers there.
When I was in graduate school, I studied for my PhD comprehensive exams with two fellow students. The experience of studying together created an incredible bond, despite the fierce competition between us. In the end, when the exams were graded, each of us had passed, which was a relief, but on top of that, each of us had "won" in a way: one of us had the highest scores on an individual question; one had the highest score from the first reader; while the last of us received the highest score from the second reader. We all had a claim to fame, and it made the shared success that much sweeter.
That's what I want, for everyone to win. In Elle Boca's book, Danni has a similar attitude, and she's dismayed when others don't share her generous view of the world. I feel her pain. Why can't we all be happy for each other's wins, big and small? Why does someone need to lose for someone else to win? Does it count if we win on the backs of our fellows? Not to me. I want the world to celebrate my successes, as I celebrate everyone else’s. And yes, I will take off my rose-colored glasses very soon. But the world is so lovely when it's blushing. Just ask Danni.
I’m reading a book about a vampire with a blood phobia, which is amusing, as I recently wrote about commitment phobias here. A Quick Bite, by Lynsay Sands, is a ton of fun and there are many additional books in the series—hallelujah! Other favorite authors, including Karen Marie Moning and Lilo J. Abernathy, have also written about fear. So, I've decided the Universe is asking me to look at fear in general and my fear in particular, which may or may not interest you, but which will give you a little insight into the way my brain works (I'm all about the burning bush). There was a time when I was afraid of everything. It was paralyzing. I was raised by a fearful mother, who passed her fear on to me. My mother taught me to be afraid of strangers, which I guess is understandable in New York City. She also taught me to be afraid of nature, what little there is in NYC (I love nature; provided I’m safety protected from the realities of actual nature—like bugs and dirt and stuff). She taught me to be afraid of men, my body and other people's motives. She taught me to fear rejection. I was taught to fear people in authority, dark corners, what others really thought of me and what they said behind my back. I was taught to fear travel to distant places and trying new foods, styles and experiences. In the beginning, I learned well. As a child, I was so shy and fearful that I wouldn't come out from underneath the dining table when we had guests to dinner. Today, the child I was would have been shipped off for psychological testing and therapy, lots of therapy. I was not normal (one could argue that this is still true, I know.)
hen, I hit puberty. ‘Things’ shifted. A lot. I shed the skin of the nervous Nellie I had been and emerged as a more confident teenager. In fact, the transition was sufficiently profound that my academic aptitude scores (who remembers the ERBs?!) changed so radically, the school was convinced there was a mistake and I was retested. Twice. I think the reason behind my percentile jump was that I finally figured out that the only thing I really needed to fear was my mother.
I was definitely still scared of my mom back in those days. I was almost 18 years old before I finally asked the $64,000 question: “What could she actually do to me?” When I realized the answer was, "Not much, without risking shame and embarrassment for her," my world tilted on its axis— positively. But I became more confident in my cognitive capabilities, which translated into more general confidence. As I grew more accomplished academically and intellectually, I became less fearful; for me, knowledge and analytical skills translated into power and control, which helped me feel less afraid.
But I was still an insecure wreck when it came to men and romance. Insecurity is just another word for fear. I was afraid men wouldn't like me once they really knew me. So I hid my authentic self. I was afraid men wouldn't find me attractive if they saw me without makeup. So I never went without. I was afraid that if I didn't flaunt my body, no one would want it. I remember one particularly awful episode when I spent an entire night calling around looking for my boyfriend at the time, only to discover he'd spent the night with another woman. When I finally got him on the phone, at 4:00 AM, after his other girlfriend picked up and handed him the phone —"Oh, sure. He's right next to me; let me give him the phone…"— I apologized for bothering him because I was so scared he'd leave me.
I'm happy to report that I'm not that bad anymore. Fear is still my companion - I used Find My Phone last night to locate my husband, who is traveling, because he hadn't texted after dinner and I was afraid he was dead. I know, I know, silly—he thought so too, but my sainted husband is quite used to my paranoia about his safety. But mostly— mostly—I can face my fears and put them to rest. I don't let fear run my life (how I wish I could go back in time and give that no-good, cheating rat bastard a piece of my mind—except I just found out that he died last month, so that won't work).
Today, I can act as if I’m not afraid. I fly. I endure boats. I tell people things they need to hear even if I'm terrified they will shun me as a result. I no longer fear discomfort. I don't love it, but I can tolerate it. Because it turns out that many of the things we fear are mostly just unpleasant, and we like to avoid discomfort. But life is full of unpleasant realities, and facing these unpleasantries (including dirt and bugs in the wilds of my own back yard) is what makes life worth living.
Facing our fears and doing it anyway, whatever ‘it’ is, is the secret sauce of life. It can be letting go of a bad relationship (like the rat bastard), or a bad job, or a friendship that no longer serves. Fear of letting go is a big one, I've found. Almost as big as fear of holding on.
So I appreciate the opportunity to see how the other half—the paranormal one—lives and deals with fear. I'll continue to enjoy Lissianna Argeneau in A Quick Bite, and wait to see how she overcomes her fear of blood (‘cause I suspect she does). And I'll continue to think about how I can face fear and prevent it from running— or ruining— my life as it did for my poor, misguided, fearful ‘Mommie Dearest’. The good news is, she's not afraid anymore, and neither am I. I get to enjoy life at the table rather than under it.
I’m in between books right now and it’s agonizing. I finished the new Thea Harrison novella, Dragos Goes to Washington (sublime), and the next installment of Rose Montague’s Norma Jean's School of Witchery (fun). And then … the purgatory of no books to read. I've written about this malady before once or twice, and it just doesn't get any easier. If fact, if anything, the whole experience gets more frightening and depressing each time. Frightening because I've read that many more books and I’m afraid I'm about to run out, and depressing because if I ever do exhaust the universe of good, fun, compelling paranormal fantasy, what will become of me? I'll be forced to fall back on my previously preferred genres: mysteries; police procedurals; and international intrigue. But because I spent so many years ploughing through those categories, I feel like those wells are dry too. I've got to stop going down this rabbit hole before I become utterly despondent. If you have any suggestions, for God's sake, please pass them along.
There is a faint light at the end of the tunnel, however. In desperation, I revisited a book I'd read, or started to read, in the past. I remember buying and beginning it. I also remember that it just couldn't hold my attention at the time. But I visited the usual suspects in my reliable book-finder sites like Maryse’s Book Blog and I Love Vampire Novels, and didn't come up with much I hadn't read and re-read. But then an author and her series I had explored and rejected before floated to the top of my consciousness. I did my due diligence, reading reviews and summaries. And I decided to give the series a second shot. I'm glad I did. Because what I "discovered" was something I already knew: timing is everything.
The Argeneau Vampire series by Lynsay Sands is on almost all the top ten best vampire series lists. It's always mentioned as being fun and funny, lighthearted and exceptionally entertaining. So I bought the first book in the series, A Quick Bite, and dug in expectantly. Except that at that time, I was disappointed. I remember that I read the same early pages over and over and just couldn't get into it. I tried, I really did. But then I gave up and went on to greener pastures. And now I'm back, getting on the horse that threw me. And, what do you know, there's a reason that's a cliché. It's important to get back in the saddle—lest we miss out on a great experience because of negative, past associations.
Timing is everything. Have you ever had the experience of reading a book that changed your life because you read it at a critical juncture, only to revisit it later and say, "WTF? Was I on something at the time?" (Always a possibility for me during my misspent youth). I felt that way about Atlas Shrugged. I remember going into my Literature Humanities class in college waxing poetic about the brilliance of Ayn Rand and how I had totally drunk the Kool Aid about her philosophy and economic theories. And my professor let me rant a while and then calmly asked, "But why do you think she’s so brilliant?" So I upped the decibel level of my voice and again engaged in rant mode. To which he replied, "Yes, Anne, I understand what you are saying. Saying it louder doesn't make it persuasive." I felt about as high as an ant with dwarfism. But I'll never forget the lesson—and now when I make an argument or posit a theory, I back it up till it won't back up any more. I also learned that 19-year-olds can be very passionate and dramatic for no good reason. When I reread the book many years later, I couldn't understand why it affected me so. Yes, it was good and interesting and raised thought-provoking ideas. But it wasn't nearly as profound as I recalled. Timing.
I read Bright Lights, Big City when it came out in 1984, and wondered how Jay McInerney had crawled into my life and into my head and extracted my thoughts and experiences and put it in a book. "All messed up and no place to go." That was me, all right. I loved it. I read it three times successively. I recommended it to my friends. But when I went back to re-read it many years later, it left me cold. I wasn't in that place any more and I wasn't that person anymore. So the book didn't speak to me in the same way, thankfully.
When my twin boys were born almost 16 years ago, I read to them compulsively. I was determined that they would love books and learning as much as I did. I read to those children every single day for almost 11 years. And now they don't like to read. Almost killed me. But they are amazing kids and I love them within an inch of their lives. Even though we don't share my obsession with books. But I digress. My point (I swear there is one) is that having children means we get to rediscover delightful children’s books and enjoy them from an adult perspective. My burning passion for Dr. Seuss was born from reading him as an adult—to my kids. I’ve pretty much memorized Oh, the Places You’ll Go, and Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? is an all-time favorite (and don’t get me started on If I Ran the Circus!). Appreciating these books as a grown-up has opened a new world of thoughts and ideas and a beautiful philosophy of life that I wish to live up to—and that I hope my children will absorb through the osmosis of my reading to them— and which may become manifest when the angst of the teenage years are behind them. I’m still hopeful despite my boys current non-reading ways – maybe their ‘book-loving’ time hasn’t arrived yet?
Timing is everything. With books and with life. As the Tarot teaches us, "As above, so below", I think is also true for the truth and fantasy found in reality and in my beloved fiction: as in books, so in life. I knew this. But I had forgotten. Many thanks, Ms. Sands for the reminder – and the series. So happy to remember that timing is everything.
Some months ago I had the privilege of being asked to beta reader the second offering in the Bluebell Kildare series by Lilo J. Abernathy. It was a new experience for me, and one I enjoyed and hope to repeat. At the time, Lilo was primarily seeking comments on the plot progression and character development. One of the questions she asked her beta readers concerned how far she could take the actions of one of her characters before that character became too "unlikable" in the minds of her readers. It was a fascinating question--and an astute one. In contemplating the answer for Lilo, I was reminded about other books where this phenomenon occurred and how the authors handled it.
Another author who grapples explicitly with this question is Bella Forrest. Her series is not my usual fare, and is quite different in many respects from Lilo Abernathy’s series, but some of the central questions are the same. In the Shade of Vampire series, Derek, a 500-year-old vampire, struggles to contain his predatory nature and control his impulses to kill and destroy human lives for the sake of his beloved, Sophia—who is mortal. Another issue for the couple is the need to come to terms not only with his choices in the present day, but also with his past actions—the ones he cannot change, but which make Sophia cringe. Derek has done some horrible things over the course of his life--and he'd actually slept for the vast majority of his existence, so who knows how many more poor choices and dirty deeds he would have executed if he'd been awake for the whole time?
Sophia, our teenaged heroine, has a particularly well-developed moral compass for a such a young woman. She's in love with Derek, who has been nothing but wonderful to her, but she is fully aware of his darker vampire nature, and she is conflicted about all that he's done and still might do. She wonders if she's fallen for a monster. So do I.
This is a common theme in much of paranormal fantasy. It's hard to posit a centuries-long lifespan and not include a history of misdeeds and callous choices. Life has not always been as easy as it is in twenty-first century developed countries and the arbiter of moral choices was likely different in the Middle Ages, before running water, electricity, and IPhones. So, choices that were made when slavery was an accepted aspect of life (like, say, in Jesus' time), take on a different ethical timbre in light of the social mores and accepted practices of the era.
But what about more clearly defined moral choices? As I'm reading A Shade of Vampire on my Kindle, I'm listening (still!) to J. R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series on Audible. I'm up to Lover Avenged—Rehvenge's story. Rehvenge is a drug dealing bookie pimp--not to put too fine a point on it. He routinely engages in acts of depravity. How is Ms. Ward going to reconcile that with him getting his HEA? I won't spoil it for you, but you know he does, so it's an interesting question. One thing J. R. Ward does better than anyone, though, is to get into the heads of all her characters so we can identify with the humanity there, and relate to even the most morally challenging characters. Which is how she makes it work. Lilo Abernathy does an excellent job in this arena as well, making potentially unlikable characters—or at least characters who do unlikeable things—relatable.
Another example of this phenomenon is found in Kresley Cole's Immortals After Dark series. I had trouble with this one, because the actions of one of the villains Ms. Cole transforms into a romantic hero go over the line, even for me—and I'm inclined to forgive my fantasy characters quite a lot. As the series progresses, it turns out that one of the bad guys is the long-lost love of one of the heroines. As a result of their love, he comes to see the error of his ways, but those ways were horrific. I just couldn't go there, no matter how sorry he was or how much he loved his mate. I couldn't overcome my revulsion at what he'd done.
But that was the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, if the female protagonist can forgive the tarnished hero, so can I. Mostly because I want to believe that love heals and changes people for the better. I also want to believe that when two people are committed to making it work, it usually does.
In others, the impropriety is a bridge too far, and there is no going back. These are the waters that authors must navigate between their own convictions and attachments to the characters they create and the need to garner empathy for their creations on the part of their readers. It can be tricky. For example, a lot of readers clearly prefer female characters with little or no previous sexual experience as mates for their über alpha males (most of whom have had plenty of willing women). This is a trope that burns my butt, but I'm guessing that these tendencies reflect the majority opinion out there about the relative acceptability of multiple partners for men and women. I've written about how I feel about that here, and once again, Kresley Cole is the exception to that rule.
In the end, the question of how bad is too bad and how far is too far is in the eye of the beholder. Most of the time, most authors get it right for most readers. But there is no such thing as making everyone happy all of the time. So accomplished authors, like Lilo Abernathy, will continue to grapple with these questions while they ply their craft and shape their drafts and work to find a way to walk the line between realistic fantasy and characters who behave in a morally acceptable manner. Tough stuff, for sure.
I'm still thinking about Lilo Abernathy's The Light Who Binds. I really love this series and my only complaint is that there aren't more books to read! Bluebell Kildare is an unlikely savior, at least in her own mind, but she has many characteristics that make her a perfect candidate to wield great power responsibly and effectively. She doesn't see herself in this light, but her ability to accomplish what destiny has decreed for her is independent of her own self-image. Which is part of her charm and also one of the reasons why she is the right choice to fulfill the prophesy of delivering the vampires of her world from an agonizing afterlife. Who wants a savior so full of herself she can't she beyond her own fascination with the image in the mirror? No one, that’s for sure. There's nothing more off-putting than a narcissistic hero. Happily, Blue is in no danger of becoming a narcissist. By definition, she could never succumb because her magical Gift, the attribute that sets her apart from human "Norms" who hate her for her abilities, is that she is an Empath. And I've been thinking about what that means, especially as I listen simultaneously to Lover Enshrined, which offers new information about a variety of vampire in the world of the Black Dagger Brotherhood called Sympaths. Sympaths feed off the misery of others. Empaths are just miserable at others’ misery. Big difference. I'd rather be saved by an Empath than a Sympath. An interesting contrast between the two and more food for the green beast who lives in my breast who is torn between intense admiration for these imaginative authors and despair that I will never feel so inspired. But that is fodder for another post.
Back to Blue and her Empath abilities. In the series, Blue is a law enforcement officer who is routinely subject to horrific crime scenes where murder and mayhem have occurred. As an Empath, Blue is able to feel the terror and agony of crime victims as they experience their last moments on earth. I can't even imagine. Nor would I want to. It is horrific and heartbreaking to think that poor Blue must go through what these unfortunates endured to help ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice. But that's kind of the point of the exercise. Blue feels what they feel and that helps her catch the criminals—murderers, arsonists, rapists, etc.
I've often wondered how mental health professionals do what they do--listen to their patients recount terrible experiences in the hopes of exorcizing the demons from their minds. Some level of transference must occur between doctor and patient so that the patient's loss is the doctor's gain—and in this case, finders don't want to be keepers. No one wants that mess. But head doctors do it all the time so they can help and heal. Blue is the same way, and her Empath abilities are part of what make her an excellent investigator and also what ensure her unending compassion. That compassion, in turn, will keep her away—permanently—from any danger of grandiosity or narcissism.
But how does it keep her from insanity or despair? For years I worked in the counterterrorism business (I know, that sounds weird—but it is a field of study and work, just like being a lawyer or a plumber). My colleagues and I thought about ways that terrorists do to could hurt or damage our population and our infrastructure and then about ways to thwart their ill intent. It was important, challenging and engaging work. I was proud of my efforts and our accomplishments. I was good at my job and grateful I could make a difference. But, over time, the contemplation of Armageddon took its toll on my soul and dimmed the light of my own spirit so that others’ spirits could continue to shine. Fighting the transference of evil from those we would oppose to my own aura was an exhausting fight and took a huge amount of effort to resist the urge to give up at the never-ending nature of the battle and the increasingly overwhelming sense of the futility of it all. If we are hell bent on destroying each other and our world, I thought with increasing frequency, we deserve what we get.
Clearly, it was time to get out. Which I did. More or less. At least I got away from waking halls filled with workaholics who competed with each other to see who could work longer hours and become privy to the most exclusive clubs. If I never see another pocket protector again it will be too soon. The hardest part of working among those who think about the unthinkable, besides the unrelenting fluorescent lights that is, is the ubiquitous expectation that it's only a matter of when, not if. Soul sucking is what it is.
So I'm not sure how Blue and all of those like her do it day after day, subjecting themselves to the worst that human nature has to offer our fellow humans. I don't know how doctors do it either, or the Angels who work in hospice care, the heroic men and women who tend the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick. I thank God that there are those who can perform such vital functions without losing their minds, although certainly not all escape intact or unscathed.
To be empathetic is the highest expression of our humanity, putting ourselves in another's shoes and feel what they feel, the good, the bad and the ugly. Empathy gives us the ability to step back from the brink of our own selfish desires and assess how they might affect others. Empty is the "stop" button on the universal remote that controls our behavior. We might think about doing or saying something, but the knowledge that empathy gives us that we would hurt another through our actions gives us the necessary pause to avoid causing pain. Empathy is why we help when we don't have to, and why we care even when something does not impact us directly.
I love that Blue's gift is Empathy, of the paranormal variety. I love that it makes her a feeling hero, and that her Empathy keeps her forever humble. Because that is the other consequence of empathy—when we can feel what others feel, we cannot get so full of ourselves that we have no room for thoughts of anyone else. This is a good thing, by the way. So while the talented Ms. Abernathy has not finished Blue's story yet, I'm putting my money on the prediction that the vampires will be delivered by a savior who is perfect for the part.
I'm so excited to tell you about Lilo Abernathy's new offering in the Bluebell Kildare series, The Light Who Binds. You all know how much I loved The Light Who Shines, and how much food for thought that book inspired. Book 2 is no different, with a great mystery and lots of answers to questions raised in the first book (I have a pet peeve when an author makes us wait for multiple books to advance the story arc--and I love it when we get answers that make sense and lead us to want even more, as Lilo's books do--but back to the subject at hand). Today, I'm evolving my thoughts about hope and fear, which I've written about before, complements of the fabulous Fever series by Karen Marie Moning and Lilo Abernathy. According to Ms. Moning, and I agree with her, hope strengthens, fear kills. Hope is a major theme that Lilo Abernathy explores in her novels and The Light Who Binds has further illuminated the subject for me. What happens when what we fear is hope? In my last post on this subject, I cited the poet James Richardson who wrote that a pessimist fears hope while an optimist fears fear. What does it mean to fear hope and what the hell should we do about it?
In The Light Who Binds, there are a lot of opportunities for hope. Blue hopes that Jack will become deconflicted and admit that he has romantic feelings toward her. Jack hopes that Blue will be able to forgive him when she finds out what he's been keeping from her all this time. Daylight Vampires (the good guys) hope that Blue will turn out to be the savior of their race so that they can avoid being damned to the Plane of Fire. Gifted humans (those with magical abilities) hope that Norms (non-magical humans) will stop persecuting them and learn to live in peace. Blue hopes that she will be able to meet everyone else's hopes. There is a lot of hope being bandied about. But no one is particularly happy about it.
So it seems I'm going to contradict myself, for those of you keeping score in a less than generous mood. If you are more charitably inclined, I'm going to refine my arguments (of course, few of us are allowed to refine or change our minds these days--if we said something or did something--anything--that was recorded for posterity no matter how long ago, we are now forever being held to that position or belief in perpetuity. God forbid our thinking should be allowed to develop without our being accused of being a total hypocrite—(but I think I've strayed fairly far afield again, sorry). Hope strengthens, fear kills, except when fear of hope is justified and letting go of hope--without falling into despair--is sometimes the thing to do.
Are you baffled yet, 'cause I'm making my own head spin. Let's take this one step at a time. I think what I'm saying is that like love, we can sometimes unclench the fist we've wrapped around our hope and let it fly away. If it comes back, it's ours forever. If it doesn't, it never was. For example, Blue loves Jack. But she's gotten her hopes up so many times, only to have them dashed against the cliffs of Jack's ambivalence and unwillingness to commit his feelings one way or the other, that she is afraid to hope that things might change. Such hope is painful and sets up a roller coaster of feelings that could leave anyone feeling weak and nauseated. But rather than falling into despair, Blue charts a different, more effective course (if efficacy is measured in terms of whether she gets what she wants with the least amount of drama and extremes of emotion). Blue decides, or is somehow able, to accept that circumstances are not what she'd prefer in the moment, and she's not going to invest a lot of energy in future expectations that may not be met, but she will be content to let the potential unfold the way it will. This approach is much like I imagine Zen to be (I'm not much of a Zen girl, although I do aspire to a more balanced and even-keeled existence--except when I prefer to pay the price of ridiculous highs with the counterweight of abysmal lows--I'll keep you posted on how that all works out for me; I know you're waiting with baited breath).
So Blue is neither hopeful nor fearful. And she’s not in despair. She's taking it as it comes. I think I know what that feels like, maybe. I have a brother. He's my only sibling. We were extremely close growing up. We have been estranged for the past twenty years, and had a complete break two years ago when my mother died. For twenty years, I hoped that we could repair our relationship. But every time I reached out to him, it ended badly, with my heart a little more broken by him than it was before. But I refused to let go of my hope that things would improve. I was terrified by that hope; however, because like Pavlov's dog, I had become conditioned to believe that any hope associated with my brother would inevitably lead to excruciating pain shortly thereafter. I'd gotten burned so often I was a hot mess (to paraphrase one of Lilo’s particularly awesome sentences).
How does this story end? I think I've finally gotten to where Blue hangs out; I accept that the situation is what it is. I have no expectations that the relationship with my brother will improve. On the other hand, if I were convinced that something had fundamentally changed, I could be persuaded to open the door to hope once again and invite it to come in and take a load off.
The lesson here, I think, is that if we can divorce hope from expectation, then we can hold onto hope--which strengthens--and let go of fear--which kills. When we get to the place where we fear that which strengthens us, we need to look at the nature of our hope and question whether it has morphed into expectation, which is just a short hop from making demands. In my experience, demands are rarely met with joyful compliance on the other end. I try to avoid making demands, as success is usually specious, engendering resentment and resistance that inevitably come back to make us regret the whole endeavor.
Have I come full circle? Can I still say hope strengthens and fear kills? And can I also say that maybe hope isn't such a schizophrenic bitch, but that expectation masquerading as hope is? Does this formula work for you? Do I need to contemplate this subject some more? Perhaps I'll have to wait for the next books in the Fever and Bluebell Kildare series to say for sure. In the meantime, I'll hope to avoid false hope and to embrace its more authentic expression. I'll eschew fear in all its forms to the best of my ability and have faith that I'll be able to recognize all these variations when I encounter them. I’ll choose the audacity of hope and remember that courage is fear that has said its prayers.
I'm enjoying a new author, Jennifer Ashley, and the first book of her Shifters Unbound series, Pride Mates. It's light and airy, mostly, and the perfect antidote to the marvelous but depressingly heavy Robin Hobb trilogy I just finished. But even when an author colors inside the lines of the paranormal fantasy genre, as Ms. Ashley does (and this is not at all a criticism, I read these books with a certain expectation of knowing what to expect), there is a depth to the best of the genre that transcends the stereotypes of strong, independent women, hot alpha males, hotter sex, and inevitable HEAs. In this case, Ms. Ashley writes about beautiful people, who happen also to change into feline and lupine alter egos (or alter bodies, really), and the decidedly not beautiful consequences of prejudice that attend their ability to transform. Ms. Ashley is not the first to explore the ugly underbelly of human hatred and the small mindedness of judgment before the fact attendant to the “other” in our society. Charlaine Harris explores the consequences of racial discrimination against the newly revealed vampires living among humans and what happens when vampires "come out of the coffin." The inimitable Laurell Hamilton writes movingly about the prejudice experienced by those unfortunates who have been stricken with lycanthropy (the disease that causes a human to shift into a beast), and who now have no option but to let their animal natures out to play, and maybe to kill. Patricia Briggs expounds on the systematic internment of the Fae into mandatory reservations and the consequences of that decision by the federal government against an element of the population. Lilo Abernathy investigates, as a central theme of her Bluebell Kildare series, the civil unrest that occurs as a result of the antipathy between "norms," or non-magical humans, and their Gifted counterparts.
In each of these cases, the author explores the universal human need to identify a group, "them," for the sole purpose of more clearly defining "us." What a shame and a waste. But we humans do it again and again. That which is not "us" is, by definition, "them." Those who are "them" are, by extension and necessity, evil or, at a minimum, worse than "us." They are who we use to make us look and feel better about ourselves.
Are we hard-wired to hate? It seems so. Hatred of the other, which I've written about before, gives us unity, camaraderie, and a sense of shared purpose. It makes us feel like we belong—but it is a perversion of fellowship and community, not an authentic expression of fellowship. This phenomenon of human existence also serves to help some of us feel superior to others. We do this in a bizarre and seemingly nonsensical way (as if prejudice could ever have any basis in logic or reality, which makes makes sense in a twisted way, if you know what I mean).
In all of these distasteful scenarios, and quite explicitly in the world of Shifters Unbound, the non-human, supernatural beings are considered less than human. These are not beings with full rights because they are not considered full persons. They, like American slaves, along with Jews, gypsies and homosexuals in Nazi Germany before them, are fractional people, so that more than one is needed to make a whole. What a concept. Personally, I have trouble wrapping my mind around it, which is a good thing and I won't expend too much effort trying. It's not clear to me how someone or more than one someone, can look at a living, breathing entity in front of them who has two eyes, ears, arms and legs just like they do, whose faces form smiles and frowns and whose voices speak truth and beauty just like theirs do, and see them as less than human.
As you know, I love the world of paranormal fiction because it allows authors to explore ideas and philosophies in an exaggerated way to make their points. In Jennifer Ashley's world, shifters are herded into ghettos called Shiftertowns in different cities. These are analogous to internment and refugee camps or Native American reservations. After all, we need to keep them contained and accountable. If they are all forced to live in one place, we'll know where to find them, won't we? And then we’ll be able to control them, and isn't that what this little exercise in fear and prejudice is all about? This way of thinking is very warped, but seems to be prevalent, nonetheless. In Pride Mates, not only are shifters forced to live in Shiftertowns, they are also forced to wear magical collars that supposedly keep their beasts in check. Talk about taking control to the next level.
And, while the shifters (or any disenfranchised population) is corralled into ghettos and forced to wear symbols of their status, their captors (those would be the humans) like to practice deprivation. In Pride Mates, shifters aren't allowed access to cable TV or high-speed internet (controlling access to information, presumably), and they are not allowed to hold any job where they might come into physical contact with human (gee—not even as manicurists?). This deprivation is partly preventive, because it ensures that the dominated population can never become too rich or too powerful, but it’s also punative—a punishment for being less than—as if those who are denigrated in this way have any choice in the matter. And while deprivation might serve to keep the population down, physically and psychologically, it is also, as we’ve seen time and again, a recipe for fomenting discontent and rebellion. Stupid is as stupid does. Again, I’m talking about the humans in this scenario.
Because, of course, all of this says a great deal more about “us” than it does about “them.” Anyone who would subjugate a population just because it’s different or because they can doesn’t actually deserve to be called human, at least in my book. People who enslave, or imprison or degrade others to prop themselves up are the beasts, the savages, the ones unworthy of the status of personhood. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to live or to do as they want—as long as what they want doesn’t involve putting and keeping others down. So, along with my light and airy read, my paranormal fantasy also provokes deep and meaningful thoughts. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Like the three faces of Eve (for all you old movie buffs), hope is a schizophrenic bitch. On the one hand, as Karen Marie Moning will attest, hope strengthens (and fear kills, as I've written about here). On the other, hope can be the tie that binds, and cuts, and hurts more than any other pain possibly could, as Lilo Abernathy tells us in her Bluebell Kildare series. And, as I am endlessly curious about such things, how can the same feeling elicit such divergent responses from us? Under which conditions does hope strengthen? When does it hurt?
I thought the answer in this instance, like so many others, might lie in truth. True hope gives us strength. Strength to go on, to endure, to persevere. False hope, by contrast, is a harbinger of death; it creates unrealistic expectations that, when disappointed, crush us under the weight of being dropped from a high place. Upon further reflection, though, I don't think I'm right, and it took JR Ward to show me the error of my ways.
I'm reading Book 13 in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series. And boy, oh boy, are these books good. And rich, and complex and real as words on a page (or screen) can possibly be. I could probably write blogs for months based on inspiration from this series alone. And I likely will. In fact, while I'm reading The Shadows, I'm listening to Book 1, Dark Lover, on Audible in the car and while I'm in my kitchen (hey, I need something fun to distract me from the drudgery that is cooking and preparing food!). So it's a double dose of BDB goodness for me. Yippee. But back to why Ms. Ward is relevant to this post. In the most recent book, one of the male characters, Trez, is in love with Selena. Selena is sick, dying from a rare and terrible disease. She and Trez have only a little time together, and they want to make it count. He is determined to give her whatever he can. And he concludes that the most important and valuable gift he can give her is hope. Right up until the last minute, he can act like they have forever. Even if they don’t.
So even if it may be false, it appears that hope is productive, not destructive. This basically shreds the truth and fiction theory of hope. And in fact, one cannot know if hope is well-founded or misplaced until one is looking in the rearview mirror on the situation in question. I remember clearly when my husband and I were going through fertility treatments, desperately trying to get pregnant. The hope of success was the only thing that kept me going during the roller coaster ride of emotions the process generated. It was so hard. And I clung to the hope that I had, but, as time and procedures and drug therapy continued, my hope became a threadbare thing, with weak spots in imminent danger of ripping entirely. Until one day, when an urgent situation on Thanksgiving Day caused me to see a new doctor who happened to be on call. He spent two hours with me. And he told me I would be successful. Straight up, “you will get pregnant,” he said. And renewed hope bloomed in my heart. It was the most amazing experience. It felt like I had been thrown a lifeline. I held on. I had renewed motivation. Just when I needed it the most, hope strengthened. And he was right. I was ready to give up. The gift of hope made all the difference. And it was well-founded, but I didn’t know that till I had two bouncing baby boys in my stroller.
In other situations, hope can be a cancer that eats away at our good sense. Like for Blue, with Jack Tanner in Lilo Abernathy's series. Blue fights the hope she feels that Jack will eventually soften toward her and acknowledge their mutual feelings. She has experienced the yo-yo of his emotions for so long, she eschews hope as a portent of crushing disappointment and unfulfilled expectations. Nothing hurts more than when you hope beyond hope it will happen, or you will get it and it doesn't and you don't. It's better to abandon hope, all ye who enter such situations.
So, clearly the distinction isn't truth. Or maybe it is, because hope is true until it isn't. And sometimes hope is something we force ourselves to sacrifice because having it hurts more than letting go. So, if we give up before the miracle happens and consciously uncouple from the hope in our hearts, was the hope false in its failure, or did we merely create a self-fulfilling prophesy of failure when we let go prematurely? Makes my head spin. Maybe hope strengthens until it doesn’t, when the scales finally tip, and the camel’s back finally breaks, at which point success would be pyrrhic anyway.
I don't know. It is said that where there is life there is hope. And sometimes that is both a blessing and a curse. Maybe it is a function of perspective. A pessimist fears her hope, while an optimist fears her fear, according to the poet James Richardson. Maybe hope isn’t a schizophrenic bitch, but I am. I hope not.
I just finished Rose Montague's first foray into the world of YA paranormal fantasy, Norma Jean’s School of Witchery, Book I, Jewel. which I thoroughly enjoyed. There were many elements of the book that I liked and that may very well provide blog fodder in the future, but for today I want to focus on a small piece of the story where Jewel, the heroine who lends her name to the title, reads a book that helps her to understand her magic. In the story, Jewel comments that the book she is reading was written by an author who dedicated his life to the topic at hand. In fact, the book represents his "Life's Work," which is pretty much what it sounds like. Jewel comments that not many people pursue a life's work these days. And that got me to thinking. Uh, oh.
I think Jewel is right (or at least Rose Montague is). I think there are fewer and fewer people who take up a life's work. And I think the reason is manifold. First of all, life is work, and I think many of us are too busy trying to live it and that is the sum total of their Life's Work. And that is OK, at least from my perspective, because for a lot of us, life really is hard.
On the other hand, for others, we make life harder than it has to be, and then we don't have room for anything else. I know a lot of people, myself included sometimes, who make first-world problems, like choosing which camps to send their kids to or which color tile to choose for the guest bathroom, into major freaking productions. When everything is a big deal requiring major effort, there is very little time or space for a Life's Work among all the other work of life.
And then there is the modern attention problem, again, something I can relate to more than I care to admit. I watch my children as they negotiate two or three screens at a time. Even my husband works with somewhere between three and six screens going at any given time. We all have the attention spans of tsetse flies. How can the ADD generation focus on one subject long enough to make it a Life's Work? We don't even hold jobs for more than two or three years at a time. Mid-life career shifts are common (again, guilty as charged) and choosing a major has become an exercise in serious angst because making one choice, by definition, eliminates alternative options as the realities of opportunity costs set in. And even in this age of uber-specialization, you don't hear a whole lot about life's work these days. Because who really wants to make their Life's Work all about such narrow subjects as animal husbandry in colonial Virginia among farmers with only pigs and chickens. Or cyber hacking into magnet school databases in New York City. Or the ever-popular micro-breweries in Idaho and Wyoming. We've gone so deep we can't climb out of the holes we've dug for ourselves.
So, to review, we're either hopelessly shallow or impossibly deep, thereby making it ever more difficult to focus on meaningful topics for a Life's Work. I'm more than halfway through my life (and that's if I live to a ripe old age) and I find I love the idea of a Life's Work. I want to make a significant contribution to a field of study or learning. I want to have original thoughts that inspire and inform and impact the world. I want to make a difference with my life and I want to leave a legacy of positive change.
But where to focus amongst all the distractions this world has to offer? Clearly, whatever my Life's Work entails it will involve words on a page or screen. And it will likely involve soapboxes--meaning my standing on one pontificating about how to live well or at least better. More authentically. More true to our true selves. Because you know I believe that is what life is all about. Is my Life's Work this blog? I don't think so. Is it the book I'm sort of working on (I am working on it, and even writing here and there, but it's still more of a gleam in my eye than a proper book or even a solid beginning)? Maybe I should switch to fiction, except I seem to have absolutely zero imagination when it comes to that, to my eternal sadness.
And, in the immortal words of Danielle LaPorte, if it hasn't happened by now, perhaps it's not meant to be. That is the thought that scares me most of all.
But, in the other immortal words of one of my all-time heroes, Winston Churchill, "Never, never, never give up." So I won't. My life isn't over, so there is still time for my Life's Work to unfold.
In the meantime, I will continue to read great paranormal and urban fantasy and write this blog, which brings me so much pleasure. Thanks to Rose Montague and her fellow authors for their Life's Work in entertaining us all.
I'm just about finished with the third book in Elle Boca's Unelmoija fantasy series, The Spiritshifter. The series chronicles the adventures of Amy McKnight, her family and friends, who belong to a secret race of superhuman beings known as the Weeia. I don't want to give away too much of the plot (this is one reason I don't write book reviews--too hard without spoilers to write a good analysis, in my view, and then I'd ruin the experience for others). I recommend the series with its original premise and world and likable characters who generate my empathy and support-- I've found myself rooting for them the whole way. And without giving away any surprises, I want to talk about an interesting ability that one of the characters develops--an amplification ability wherein this character is able to stimulate the development of others' latent powers, magnifying nascent abilities and helping people to be, essentially, all that they can be. Who needs the army, anyway?
This plot twist got me thinking about how cool it would be if there were some truth in this fantasy. What if there was such a thing as an amplifier in real life? What would that look like? What character traits might I be interested in amplifying? Would this be a selective amplification? Could I amplify the parts of myself I like and turn down the volume on the parts that are not quite ready for prime time? And even if the volume control didn't work in the direction of decreasing the decibel level, could the increase button only apply to those aspects I enjoy about myself?
Could be tricky, but might be worth a stroll down this particular rabbit hole. What would I choose to amplify? That is fairly easy, I think. I recently completed most of the exercises in my new favorite personal development book, The Desire Map (and yes, I'm constantly in search of ever-more personal development, but no, The Desire Map is not some pornographic cartography book on how to find the elusive "G spot"). Anyhoo, back to the topic at hand, The Desire Map, by the brilliant Danielle LaPorte, is about how to identify and achieve goals with soul. The concept behind the book, with which I whole-heartedly agree, is that desire is the most powerful, creative force in the universe, and that tapping into that power is not only available to each and every one of us, but it is also the most empowering thing we can do for ourselves. The books instructs us to identify our core desired feelings, which is actually a lot harder than it sounds. It's one of the things I worked on during my retreat a few weeks ago.
So it is a no-brainer that I'd want to amplify my core desired feelings. Danielle suggests we pick five. Mine were as follows: mindful; soulful; resourceful (in every sense of that word); spirited (as in filled with spirit); and in Divine communion. So, if I'm ordering off the amplification menu, I'd like a heaping plateful of being full--full of mind, soul, spirit, resources and God. I'd like as much of that as I can get, thank you very much. Crank up the volume till you can hear it four lanes away from where my car radio is playing. I want maximum power on my sub-woofer so it’s all about that bass. You know what I'm talking about, right?
And while I'm at it, playing my tunes of fullness at maximum volume, let's add grateful, heart-full, truthful, peaceful and full of kindness, generosity and good will toward all. Because, honestly, that's really what I want. If I can amplify my positive characteristics and abilities like Ms. Boca's characters, I want to be as full of the good stuff as possible. If the down volume button is in good working order, let's dial down pettiness, schadenfreude, envy, jealousy, self-righteousness, controlling and manipulative tendencies, not to mention fear, resentment, and general discontent. Wouldn't that be something? I can hardly imagine it, though I suspect it would be miraculous to experience.
Which leads me to ask, logically, whether any of this magical amplification and commensurate sound dampening is possible in the real world, and if so, how can we achieve it? As you may have cottoned to by this point, I do, in fact, believe that the kind of amplification described in the Unelmoija books is possible in the real world. How to do it, you may wonder. The same way you can get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Life gives us so many opportunities to practice being full of the good stuff and loving toward all. And because practice makes perfect, the fact that we sometimes fall short of the mark is no excuse not to pick ourselves up and practice some more, perfection being an ideal not actually achievable in the real world. We must avoid the massive pothole on the road of life called perfectionism, lest it derails us on our journeys as we become mired in the tar pits of perfectionism. Just don’t go there. Turn down the amplification volume on perfectionism and turn it up on persistence in getting back on the horse after we’ve been thrown off that damn beast.
So thank you to Elle Boca whose books are a fun romp through an interesting world filled with [mostly] nice people. I love the idea of amplifying my good traits and I love the idea that there might be others out there who can help me amplify the good stuff in my life. And the idea I love best of all is the one where I act as the amplifier for others around me, and help them turn up the volume on the fullness of their lives.