J-R- Ward

Finding Nemo


I've read about inmates who are paroled after a long incarceration who purposefully commit a crime so that they can return to jail. Freedom is overwhelming. I thought of these poor souls as I was finishing the latest JR Ward offering in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series, The Chosen. You know how much I love me some JR Ward, and I wasn't disappointed—either by the story or the food for thought it provided. This book centers on the forbidden love between Layla, and Xcor. It's a complicated backstory, but suffice to it say that these two give Romeo and Juliet a run for their money and Layla gets her robes in a veritable twist trying to work it all out. And as Layla is transformed by the events of the story, she is called to find herself—to determine who she is underneath her roles and responsibilities. This is a theme I wrote about very recently, and it's one close to my heart. This week, in The Chosen, Layla is stripped of her stint as a modern-day Vestal Virgin, serving the vampire deity and living a life of strict structure and function. Layla's role as a mother is also threatened, and her dreams of becoming a mate are thwarted. She's in a position of total nakedness in front of herself, of complete freedom from all that bounded her and all that defined her.  Layla quickly realizes that with such freedom comes the "obligation of self-discovery." Heavy shit for sure.

Layla realizes that none of us can claim the freedom to choose our paths if we have no idea what our options are. If we live in accordance with the expectations of society, our parents, spouses or employers, then we may or may not be living a life we've chosen for ourselves. We have no way of knowing whether we're simply lemmings following a known or anonymous leader, or independent agents exercising our God-given free will because we've never had to—or wanted to—color outside of the lines.

Personally, I suck at staying in the box and have always preferred to draw more like Picasso than Rembrandt: I'm heavily invested in my identity as rebel with a cause. Anything that smacks of conformity is kryptonite to me.  But, after reading about Layla's plight, I wonder whether I'm a badass like Xcor, or delusional, like Donald Trump?

I think Layla is right—it's not a choice if we have only tried it one way and we are unwilling or unable to do things differently. I've eschewed both the domestic goddess and dedicated career woman tracks, rejecting labels and expectations. I've told myself I took the road less traveled, but maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe it's the road less traveled because all the normal people gave it a wide berth. Maybe labels and expectations can help us find ourselves, but we don’t know that because we've never even tried them on for size.

I've long prided myself on my overactive imagination and my self-perceived ability to do what others can't. I've called myself a pure-bred race horse—high maintenance and high performance. But what if that's just another way of saying I'm a spoiled brat who's prone to histrionics and that people put up with me because it's easier than fighting with the problem child?

Recently, I've wanted to ditch the diva and hunker down in my creative cave with a plan and the discipline to implement it. Turns out no can do. Even when the taskmaster is myself—maybe because the taskmaster has no external accountability—my ability to color inside the lines has failed me completely (assuming I ever had any). I find myself longing for some lines—so that I can define myself in relation to them, just like the prison bars for those jailbirds who can't handle freedom.

In The Chosen, Layla is challenged to identify ways to fill her hours with pursuits that are meaningful to her and for her. It's quite the tall order. So many of us fill our time with either obligations or distractions that when we are finally given the freedom to choose, we have no ability beyond that which we know and with which we are comfortable. Layla wonders if her "adventure of exploration and enlightenment" is a blessing or a burden. I think it's a bit of both. 

A little freedom has been called a dangerous thing. That's likely true. It's more dangerous than total freedom, actually, because a little freedom seduces us into thinking we want more and thus fighting or longing for the same. A lot of freedom is safer for those who wish to control, because most of us will run screaming from the room when confronted with an abundance of choices. It's too overwhelming and leads to paralysis.

Finding ourselves is much more complicated than finding Nemo. Finding Nemo provides a structure and an objective as well as metrics and a built-in system of rewards and punishments. Finding ourselves means tearing up the roadmaps, turning off our GPS, and playing our own personal game of hot and cold. I began to move away from my new career in Natural Health. I felt warmer. I tried to go back to consulting work. That felt colder. I began a novel. Hotter. I stopped working on it. Colder. I got a part-time job offer. Warmer. Maybe. I'll have to get closer to that one before I’m certain.

But that's what it means to be free to find ourselves. I realize we might consider this a young person's pursuit, but I think it's one a thoughtful person returns to again and again over the course of a life well lived. We find ourselves when we are faced with adversity. We do it again when circumstances change. Or we should. In fact, we should be looking for ourselves on the regular if we're doing it right. And finding ourselves, at least on occasion. 

I love JR Ward. It is my fondest wish that someday I will get a chance to speak with her in person to talk about the many deep themes in her work, and the many hours of pleasure her books have provided. Mostly, I want to tell her and the other amazing authors I read and write about how much they've helped me find myself.




Love and Other Imperfections


"Isn't it wonderful not to have to be perfect to be loved?" These words are uttered by one of the characters in the latest addition to the Black Dagger Brotherhood series by JR Ward (technically, the series).  It's no surprise to me that JR Ward always has profound things to say, and, if you read my blog but not her books, you might want to consider the wisdom of Jessica Bird (JR's real name) when expanding your TBR pile. I read that line and was stopped in my tracks. In the story, Mary drops this pearl after her mate, Rhage, has lost control of himself and behaved rather poorly. Instead of berating Rhage, or looking at him askance, Mary lets him know that it's OK to be imperfect, and that she expects no more from him and loves him anyway.  With one small question, Mary makes it OK for Rhage to be human (even though he's a vampire who turns into a dragon, but that's not my point). Wouldn't it be transformative if we all felt that way about those we loved and if those we loved felt that way about us? Of course it would be. And if we're very, very lucky, we get some of that. That unconditional love. That love that doesn't give up, and doesn't crap out, and doesn't abandon us when we fall short of the mark of perfection. But even if we are lucky enough to experience that kind of love, most of us don't believe we're worthy of it. And here's a news flash:  if we don't think we deserve it, we are highly unlikely to be able to give it. Love, like charity, starts at home.

I'm talking about the love we give and the love we get. I don't want to speak for anyone else, so I'll confine my observations to myself. As you know, my childhood was less than ideal. I became convinced pretty early in life that my parents' love was predicated on my being a good girl. My father was unequipped to deal with a demanding child and my mother was unwilling. So love quickly became equated with compliant behavior. Right up until the moment when I figured out that no matter what I did, it wouldn't satisfy my narcissistic mother, and, therefore, there was no room at that particular inn for me. At which point I was behaved nicely around my father, and completely contrary towards my mother. I would say I regretted my truly awful behavior with mommy dearest, except I don't.

But what I do regret is what I learned about love at my damaged mother's knee. I learned that I wasn't worthy of love, that I was so imperfect, so clearly broken, that no one would ever love me. It took a tragically long time to learn new truths. Occasionally, when my defenses are weak and my guard is down, I go right back to being that broken little girl whose mother didn't believe in loving me in all my perfect imperfections. Which is just sad.

What is also sad is that I had a model for imperfectly perfect love, but I wasn't self aware enough to recognize it at the time. Even though I didn't consciously understand it while I was growing up, the effects of unconditional love were working their magic on me. While my mother was busy doing her best to ruin me for life, I was busy being saved. My salvation were my friends—those very same amazing, remarkable, phenomenal women who I've known since I was a small child—who remain the bedrock of my existence. They loved me. Through it all, and I do mean all, through this day and, I know absolutely, till we're dead and probably beyond. Because of them I survived my childhood and adolescence and grew up enough to be able to thrive as an adult.

It really wasn't until I met my husband that I understood that love is always imperfect, and I was able to fully appreciate—in retrospect and from then on— the rare gift of my early friendships. What my husband taught me, consciously and explicitly, is that we love imperfectly, and we are loved imperfectly. Both the subject and the object of love are, by definition, imperfect. And that is perfectly all right and totally perfect.

It is ridiculous to believe that we are only lovable if we are perfect. But so many of us do:  we do our best to make ourselves attractive to potential mates, taking our cues from the media about how we should look and how we should act. We put our best face forward and hide our less attractive aspects, both physical and emotional. We pretend to like things we don't—to this day, my husband feels cheated because he claims I purported to enjoy cooking while we were dating and abandoned the kitchen after we were married (this is not totally accurate, but he has a point). And we tolerate things in others in the beginning of relationships that earn our censure once the honeymoon is over (like ignoring perpetually open cupboards and raised toilet seats until after the wedding when such behaviors inspire epic rages—or maybe that's just me).

And this applies to friends as well as romantic partners. We meet a new person with whom we have some chemistry and common interests and viewpoints. We start to hang out and we become friends. And, as time goes on, we realize that they might not be all they seemed, and maybe they're a little strange, or maybe they have some habits we find off-putting. At which point the question becomes, can we accept others even as we ask them to accept us? I hope the answer is yes, but I'm not sure that's always the case.

Unconditional love is hard. And it's also a bit confusing. Unconditional love dictates that we will love someone no matter what. It doesn't mean accepting unacceptable behavior, or condoning immoral or illegal actions, however. If my husband cheated on me  (I don't believe he ever would, thankfully—but for the sake of argument...), I would still love him. But I am not sure I could still be his wife. If one of my children committed a serious crime, I would definitely still love him, but I would also turn him over to the authorities, in all likelihood. Same for one of my friends. Real love isn't a switch that gets turned on and off. And it's much more than a feeling (Boston was right). Loving imperfect beings requires a decision and a commitment.  Even when we're not feeling it. 

So once again, JR Ward writes truth in fantasy. And sometimes it takes turning into a ten-foot tall Godzilla-like creature and being forgiven any transgressions while we weren't ourselves to feel like we are loved no matter what. Luckily, most of us are only human, and not shape-shifting vampires, and those who love us only have to put up with our human imperfections. 



Superman and Wonder Woman

Like many of you, I've been watching the Olympics. It’s been a blast to watch the United States win gold medal after gold medal. We're on fire this time around.  And that got me to thinking about elite athletes, and then about the elite of the elite, like Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles. I mean, it's gotta suck to be any of their teammates, because despite being incredible athletes in their own rights, they can't get noticed behind the shadow of their more decorated fellows. There is no comparison. This got me to thinking about how the elite compare with the rest of us. How can we make sense of a universe where there are such disparities within one species? This led me to contemplate the Black Dagger Brotherhood—don't you immediately contemplate vampires in the face of extraordinary human achievement? No? Well, I couldn't help wondering if Michael and Katie and Simone might actually be vampires, or some kind of comic book superhero, different in kind and not just degree. In the BDB world, there are different strata of society. The royal family includes the King, the Queen and their baby son, who are at the top.  Below them are the Brothers, all of whom used to be genetically bred as Brothers, but whose ranks have recently been joined by civilians who have proven themselves worthy. There is even one woman, with the promise of more on the way. Next is the aristocracy, who seem to be a group with a very large stick up their collective asses.  The aristocracy is a birth-based class system and is not overly permeable, similar to the English aristocracy. Lastly are the civilians, the working Joes who make the world function. There is also a class of servants about whom I've written before.

What does any of this have to do with our reality?  Well, I'm still contemplating elites and elitism. Unlike in the world of the Black Dagger Brotherhood, or colonial Britain, it used to be here in the good old U.S of A, that everyone believed they could rise to the level of their betters (in a socioeconomic sense of that word, not in a white supremacist sense). That was the beauty of the great American Dream. My whole life, in fact, is the product of that dream: my father was a Russian immigrant who fled the pogroms and his father’s murder to come to this land of opportunity. My father spoke no English, and only managed to get through ninth grade before his mother died and he was left with the care of his two younger brothers. Through hard work, intelligence, perseverance and some good luck, my father lived out the American Dream, making money and moving on up to the East Side, to a deluxe apartment in the sky, just like the Jeffersons. He raised his children on Park Avenue in New York City, and sent them to elite universities. The point here is that it was possible for an orphan from Russia to make it big and join the American upper class.

And that is amazing and wonderful and inspiring. And while there was a reasonable expectation that a similar trajectory was available to any whose wits, and grit and talent make them able to climb the societal ladders to a station well above where they started, all things were possible. When that was true, the U.S. could accommodate an elite class whose ranks were sufficiently accessible so that at least the illusion of social mobility existed for all.

It seems to me that it is no longer possible to maintain that particular fiction. As in the Black Dagger Brotherhood (at least before the last couple of books where the situation appears to be evolving, albeit slowly), being part of the elite is now a matter more of birth than of talent or indefatigable determination. In our current society, the children of the elite go to the good schools and are given the choicest opportunities. And as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the availability of the American Dream for all but the most talented and the most fortunate, is decreasing. We're getting to the point where only the Michael Phelpses and Simone Biles of this world can rise to the level of the elite (and we’re still not sure they’re actually human). Because the discrepancy between them and everyone else is getting bigger and bigger, and it’s getting harder and harder to ascend.

It seems to me that young people all over the U.S. are figuring out tragically early that the good stuff isn't for them, that they will never reach the brass ring, and that they will never get the chance to rise to the top—unless their talent or intellect is of Phelpsian or Jobsian proportions. And most of us know by the time we're 15 whether we have any chance of being the next Michael Phelps or Steve Jobs. Most of us have a greater chance of being struck by lightning. Twice.

So where does that leave us?  Pretty much in the mess we're in, with lots of simmering anger that flares up periodically. And what I really can't understand is that we've all seen this movie before and it doesn't end well for those elites who close their doors to ensure their exclusivity.  Invasion (Rome), revolution (France) or collapsing under its own weight (the Soviet Union) is the denouement of all of these societies.

Why can't we be more like the Black Dagger Brotherhood?  If centuries-old vampires are capable of change and evolution when the writing is so clearly on the wall, why can’t we embrace populism by ensuring the potential for anyone to be elevated to the elite? And I know I am not addressing the very serious and very real issue of a level playing field for all (regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or identity, etc.) which is a ginormous problem.  But, given that (huge) caveat, our society can only work when there is a real possibility that anyone willing to work hard, be persistent and show initiative can move on up. Which is how elitism can survive. Otherwise, it's just not going to work. Superman and Wonder Woman only exist in fantasy, not truth.




It's a Life

So it's back to The Beast. I've missed you while I was away. But I've been troubled by a niggling thought that's been clamoring for expression. It feels heretical to share my forbidden musings, but I'm going to Hell anyway for suggesting that Mac and Barrons have a dysfunctional relationship, so here goes nothing: there's something rotten J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood world. Now I get that no one is perfect. And I also understand that Ms. Ward purposefully built her world in such a way that evolution was not only desirable, but inevitable as part of the story progression of the books.  Characters evolve, so why not worlds?  Thus, the misogyny of the Chosen (an elite class of women) being basically brood mares and feeding troughs for the Black Dagger Brotherhood has given way to newly unfettered women who are now free to explore and express their individuality. This is definitely progress and has made for an excellent story arc, so it's a win-win all around.  But there is another class of people in the Black Dagger Brotherhood world that has not been given any sort of emancipation proclamation. These are the "Doggen," the servant class of the BDB world, the butlers and cooks and maids whose existence allows the Brothers and their women to gallivant all over the place without worrying about little annoyances like cooking, cleaning and laundry. In this world, there is no such thing as a resentful housekeeper starching one's panties or boxers because they are unhappy with their lot in life. Not for the Brothers. Nope, these guys (and gals) have Doggen, a special sub-race of individuals who live to serve, and who experience deep fulfillment from vacuuming. Really?!  Hasn't Ms. Ward read The Remains of the Day?  Won't Fritz (the main Doggen dude in the BDB books) figure out that he's wasted his life playing chauffeur, butler, chief cook and bottle washer to a group of foul-mouthed warriors who should be picking up their own underwear (except most of them go commando)? Apparently not. And that, of course, got me to wondering whether such people actually exist outside of the pages of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Perhaps they do exist, and maybe they are even happy, despite my elitist bias. After all, it's a life. And a life is more than some of us have. 

I have a close friend who has a stepdaughter who is a couple beers short of a six-pack. By all accounts, she is a sweet, immature, and indifferently lazy girl who should be a woman but no one taught her how. It's not all her fault, but, like the rest of us, there comes a time to stop blaming mommy for all of our problems and take responsibility for our own actions.  Her time has come. And then some. My friend, her stepmother, and my friend's husband, the girl's father, worry about her, naturally (the mother is dead, poor thing). As parents, they want their child to have a life. Preferably, a life that exceeds their own (there are parents who resist the natural desire that our children should do better than we do, but that is the subject of another blog). But these particular parents realize, realistically, that the daughter/stepdaughter can aspire only to a small life—and they are hoping she gets even that far.  So they are hoping for an equally limited, but nice and decent man, maybe a kid or two, Friday night trips to the local bar, and Monday night football. Because, after all, it's a life. Not for me, mind you, but a life nonetheless.

Like the Doggen of the BDB world, there are those who enjoy knowing where the lines are so that they can color inside of them. The idea gives me hives, but I've had many years to come to terms with the fact that not everyone is like me, which is good news for the rest of you.  And not everyone would want my idea of what makes life worth living (which includes lots of time to read my beloved books and write about them).  My mother, for example, wasn't much for reading and writing, and she was never happier than when she could cook for someone, wait on them hand and foot, and clean up afterwards. I'd rather shoot heroin with dirty needles, but hey, for her, it was a life.

I know someone else who has painstakingly carved out a life for herself by spacing out her errands over the course of a day or a week, and taking a great deal of time to plan out every move, research every decision, and analyze every option eight ways from Sunday (where does that saying come from?  I've always wondered… but I digress). The progress of her days would make me yearn for the excitement of my annual gynecological visit, but she is rather content. It's a life. Lived on her terms and no one else's. 

Part of the reason for the lives we choose to lead is what we know. If we don't know any better, we won't know what we're missing. Part of it is fear—fear of risk, fear of the unknown, fear of being completely powerless and out of control. Life for the Doggen is very safe and very predictable. This appeals to many of us. And for many of us, that safety and predictability is worth the opportunity cost of spontaneity and serendipity. Not for me, but different strokes for different folks.

So maybe my apostasy was premature. Maybe I don't need to be burned at the stake as a heretical witch. Perhaps I was wrong about Ms. Ward being wrong.  Maybe, once again, there is plenty of truth in fantasy and Doggen in reality are as plentiful as dogs—those who enjoy knowing their place in the word and how they relate to others. And as long as there is an escape hatch if we absolutely, positively have to get the hell out of Dodge, it's probably just fine for all. In the interim, it's a life.

Notes from Underground


So I have to share. And crow. And toot my own horn. Just a bit. I just learned that an interview I gave for a podcast is now available. The podcast is called "Journal Talk," and it's hosted by a cool guy named Nathan Ohren. My interview can be found here, and I also encourage you to take a listen to some of his other interviews.  It's a great show, and Nathan's mission to help people explore the benefits and joys of journaling is engaging and worthwhile. In the interview, I talk about this blog as a form of public journaling, which it is. In this space, I ruminate on various topics that tickle my fancy, and I also work through my fears and anxieties, not to mention sharing my triumphs and joy. You guys get it all. And while I might pull my punches a very little bit out of respect to my family, really I just try to tone down my language (remember how much I love my potty mouth?) and perhaps leave out excessive references to my misspent youth. But beyond that, I'm digging for gold in the recesses of my mind, and dredging up these notes from the underground of my unconscious (see how useful that liberal arts education was… those literary allusions don’t come from nothin’).

And, in addition to journaling to excavate my unconscious, I also use this space to expand my horizons and perform thought experiments that challenge my everyday thinking. I believe this is an excellent use of journal writing—to explore the “what ifs” and “what might have beens” or that which could still be in a benevolent version of my future. I can take things apart and put them back together in different and perhaps more interesting ways. I can reframe a past experience and transform a painful memory into a critical lesson for later success. I can dig myself out of a deep chasm of denial through my writing, and realize what others may already know about something from my past or present about which was fooling myself. Like perming the front section of my hair to look like Joan Jett or Pat Benetar, but actually… well… not so much… in truth, I looked more like a poodle with a high top.

The other thing I get to explore in this blog is its topic—the truth I find revealed in fantasy novels of the paranormal and urban varieties. Through this public journal I can inquire into the realities of being human through characters who are not. I've examined aging and mortality through the lens of fictional folks who neither get older nor die. I've been able to contemplate long-term romantic and platonic relationships in the context of those that have lasted or will last hundreds if not thousands of years. There is nothing like hyperbole to spotlight its right-sized cousin, reality.

For me, fantasy fiction is a textbook for life, a handbook of suggestions and guidelines for how to live my best life—which I long to share with all of you. I prefer these stories as the raw material for the ultimate self-help guide that I'm writing so that I can learn who's who and what's what. Where else is it so much fun to work through my commitment issues, and my mommy issues and my daddy dilemmas?  I use this space to contemplate my navel based on the interesting themes I find in my fantasy fiction. I doubt JR Ward knows that I rely on her for insight into addiction, or that Kevin Hearne knows that he is my favorite therapist. Robyn Peterman makes me feel a lot less isolated when I think of my mother as being literally from Hell, ‘cause all of her heroines' mommies are of the dearest variety, which helps me know I'm not alone.

And then there is the endless joy I get from living in worlds where men do what we want them to do! When I read and write about these fantasy books written by women (mostly—apologies to Mr. Hearne and Mr. Hartness), for women and about women, I'm inspired and reassured that my personal fantasies are happily shared by many others. Women want alpha males who make love like thousand-year-old, drop dead gorgeous vampires who know a thing or two about pleasing women, but who aren't too overbearing outside of the bedroom. We can dream, can't we?

Through the discipline of writing and posting this blog twice a week, week in and week out, I've been able to grow and expand -- examine and probe and question. I've also been able to engage with you, beloved reader, and know with certainty, through your voices, that I'm in good company with my neuroses.

So, let me encourage you to journal and reap the many benefits that I've received through my private pages and my very public postings. As Nathan Ohren says, we should all write for life, and journal for passion, clarity and purpose. It really works for me – I hope that you’ll give it a go and see if it works for you… or at least sample Ohren’s podcast here.



Back to the Future

Back to the Future.png

So I'm back to reading The Beast by J.R. Ward, after my brief sojourn through Katie MacAlister's short stories.  I can find blog topics in J.R. Ward's books faster than my kids can collect Pokemon with their phones.  I worry they will get run over while playing Pokemon Go and not paying attention to reality. And while it may seem like I'm digressing (as I often do), I'm not. Today's topic is all about anticipation (mostly of bad things happening—which is the definition of “worry”), and the feelings of anxiety we experience when we contemplate catastrophe. In The Beast, Mary contemplates the wound that almost took her mate, and wonders what would have happened if she hadn't been inspired to intervene as she had. She speculates that, "Sometimes the near miss is almost as traumatic as the impact." True statement. But, despite the positive outcome, her fear lingers.  I think that this is true for most of us. We keep seeing the traumatic event in our mind's eye over and over, thinking about what might have been in the dystopian alternative. Instead of the events in question being played repeatedly in our heads, though, this particular movie gets projected over our entire future lives, tarring it all with the same brush of stomach-churning dread. When one calamity has been avoided, we often look for other bullets to dodge.

When we've suffered a near miss, we view the world as a dangerous place. Despite having deflected disaster, we become convinced there is one around every corner.  This is the companion ticket to waiting for the other shoe to drop. When things are going well, we wait for the hammer to fall. The same thing happens when we experience a near miss. Maybe somewhere in our brains we think that if the lightning misses us once, it will probably strike the next time.

It's interesting to observe the almost universal conviction that random bad things are so much more likely to happen than arbitrary good things. We never "worry" that we'll win the lottery a second time. But many of us, myself included, obsess about having a second car accident, or getting the flu on our vacation, or our periods when we have an important sports competition (well, I'm guessing men don't worry so much about that one).

A near miss colors all future events with a dark cloud of pessimism. It's like we've used up all our luck, now we're cruising on fumes. We figure the good stuff will never reign down on us again, and next time the impact will be twice as bad as it would have been if we had experienced the trauma for real. After all, someone is out there keeping score, and making sure we don't get too much of what makes us happy, right?  Wrong. But we think like this anyway. Or maybe I'm just a freak.  Hard to know sometimes.

But the most significant crime committed by our brains after a near miss is that we cease living in the present moment. Just as the endless loop I discussed before kept us mired in the muddy rut of our pasts, the near miss propels us like Christopher Lloyd's DeLorean back to the future. We aren't moving forward into prospective possibilities, but back to the near death event that now overshadows the entire wreckage of our future.  The one place we aren't hanging out is in the moment, where the bad thing never happened (remember, almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades). The future isn't here yet and isn't any more likely to be bad than it was before the near miss. But our brains just can’t compute that.

Having said all of that, trauma is trauma, and apparently the mind can't always distinguish between truth (we're all okay, the sky didn't fall) and fantasy (where Henny Penny is running around like the chicken she is—although with her head still firmly attached).  And we need to honor our reality. So if fear and being like Eeyore is what we're about, then that is where we are.  The thing to do at this point is acknowledge reality … so that we can change it. So many of us, like Mary, discount our feelings because our life sentence was commuted to parole. We think to ourselves that we have no legitimate reason to be upset, so we convince ourselves we're not. And this works for you how? Yea, not for me either.

So let's come back to the present instead of back to the future or hanging out in the past.  Time travel never takes us where we want to be, and there is so much opportunity to screw everything up. We have no guarantees of tomorrow, so squandering today on a potentially empty promise is more traumatic than the near miss or the impact ever could have been.



With My Body

With My Body.png

I took a break from reading The Beast by J.R. Ward to enjoy a short offering from Katie MacAlister, The Perils of Effrijim. This short story features Jim, a sixth class demon who is the servant/sidekick of Aisling Grey, the heroine of many a dragon shifter book by Ms. MacAlister. Jim is a hoot, and I enjoyed my foray into his world immensely. Jim is forced to surrender his preferred form as a large, drooling Newfoundland dog and take on the shape of a human male, which he hates (something to do with a reduction in the size of his "package," about which he is obsessed—like so many males). And this forced human embodiment got me to thinking about being in our bodies, and what that means to us. Or maybe just to me. But it's a topic that occupies my thoughts rather a lot these days. To my mind, we are embodied spirits with an infinite yearning for the part of ourselves that is divine to reunite with the rest of the infinite. But, while we are here, in this place on the space-time continuum, we inhabit bodies. This inhabiting comes with the limits of our physical beings, and also the incredible perks of being in a body. Remember all of those science fiction characters who exist as balls of energy or as human brains in glass jars? Even though they are "evolved," and presumably beyond the dictates of the flesh, they want to find bodies to inhabit. Why? Because being in a body comes with serious advantages. Like eating chocolate covered strawberries. And touching our beloved's bodies with love (and lust, who are we kidding?). And being able to smell the delicious scent of a baby's head. You can't do those things without the right equipment, like mouths, fingers and noses. Sensual perception is intensely pleasurable.

So while it's annoying to have to deal with the perpetual care and feeding needed to keep these miraculous machines running effectively (and some of us do a better job than others), it's still amazing that we can do all we can do and experience all that we can experience.

Except when it's not. Like when we take it for granted. Or when we focus on the difficulties of our physical limitations. Or when we are not appropriately appreciative. Then, being embodied is not such a great deal. Given the amount of body bashing we do, an objective observer might conclude that we actually hate our bodies. Just this afternoon, for example, I was berating my body for continuing to grow—I'm not enjoying the extra layer of padding that seems determined to gather around my middle like metal shavings to a magnet. I would really like to demagnetize myself and attract less fat to my midsection. But concentrating on my love handles and my spare tire misses the point that my magnificent body produced two human lives, allows me to practice yoga, which I love, hike up hills to see beautiful mountain lakes and does most of what I ask of it. Pretty remarkable considering the abuse to which I subjected it for so long, not to mention my ever-advancing age. Decrepitude cannot be far in the future, but for today, all systems are go. No need to break out the emergency dilithium crystals to get that extra boost of power quite yet. Stand down, Scotty.  At least for now (I'm on a Star Trek kick in anticipation of the movie coming out shortly—and I have eyes to watch and ears to listen. Yay!).

Our bodies are wise. They house every experience we've had in each and every cell. If we remember how to do it, we can draw out our somatic knowing, our bodies' knowledge, to help guide us to exactly where we need to be. You know those "gut feelings"?  We should listen to those. They are almost always right. When we feel our feelings and listen to our bodies, we tend to do the right thing and make good choices.

But what about when we are cut off from our bodies? What happens when that whole mind-body connection has some serious static on the line and we're missing every third word of the conversation? Bad things happen when we are bifurcated between our necks and the rest of us. My experience has been with living entirely too much in my head. But the opposite problem exists as well—those who are slaves to their bodies without a lot of cognitive direction. The goal, of course, is integration. Easier said than done, at least for me.

Being disconnected, though, is not as bad as being in a state of armed conflict with our bodies. Instead of our bodies being wonderlands, they become battlefields, where wars on cancer, cardiovascular disease and obesity are routinely waged. This is tragic, actually, because a house divided truly cannot stand. We are our bodies and our bodies are us.

And then there is the ultimate consequence of being embodied: death. The whole shuffling off this mortal coil business. The final frontier. That part kind of sucks, admittedly. As does the whole aging process, for the most part.

But that is the price we pay for being able to inhabits these marvels of complexity that are our human bodies. As a demon, Jim doesn't have these issues, and his preference for his dog form is baffling to me, but, hey, to each his own. Given the opportunity for a human body that didn't age, decay or break down, I'm pretty sure I'd take it. Although my dogs lead pretty sweet lives, come to think of it…

I’m grateful for my body in all its imperfections. So I'll practice groundedness—the effort to be and remain in my body, rather than letting my mind drift away to the far reaches of the galaxy—or at least where Ms. McAlister and Ms. Ward take me.




All I Need Is a Miracle

I'm just getting into JR Ward's newest Black Dagger Brotherhood novel, The Beast. It's as awesome as I knew it would be. I'm reading slowly so I can savor, savor, savor it. And because I know I'll find inspiration for multiple blogs from this one gold mine of a book, you, dear reader, will be with me every step of the way. For this first Beast-ly blog, I'm thinking about miracles—what they are, where they come from and what they look like. I'm trying to decide if I agree with Albert Einstein. Supposedly, our favorite genius (next to Dr. Seuss, of course), said that there are only two ways to live our lives: One is as though nothing is a miracle; the other is as if everything is. Mostly, I try to align myself with good old Albert. Because he was so smart, ya know. And I think I agree with him. And I also think that miracles abound, so I guess I fall into the second category of people. Which is a lovely way to live.

In The Beast, our favorite vampire-turned-dragon, Rhage, takes a mortal wound during an opening scene battle. As he lays dying, his mate, Mary, is inspired to direct the dragon to heal his host, who will surely die without intervention of the miraculous variety. Mary has no clue where the idea came from, and no one is sure it will work, but it does. Certifiable miracle, coming right up.

Clearly, saving someone from certain death qualifies as a miracle. I've actually seen one of those happen, up close and personal. Many years ago, my husband's mother was diagnosed with a lung tumor.  In addition to following conventional medical advice, which included rib-cracking surgery to remove the mass, my mother-in-law also engaged spiritual healers and energy medicine practitioners to work on her behalf. When the doctors spread her ribs (which is painful to even think about!), the tumor was nowhere to be found. The medical professionals were baffled, but my mother-in-law was not; she'd been granted a miracle based on the efforts of those who engaged a higher power to heal her. And while she would have been happy to be spared the difficult surgery, she was profoundly grateful for the miraculous outcome, as were we all.

Spontaneous healing definitely counts toward the saints’ yardstick for miracles. And there are other types of dramatic events that feel miraculous in the moment, and seem to conform to that metric with the perspective of hindsight. The end of temptation and addiction makes the cut. As an example, I smoked my first cigarette when I was fifteen years old. I was with one of my best friends and we smoked menthol cigarettes and thought we were too cool for school. I almost threw up that first time, and thought it was disgusting. That didn't stop me from trying again and rapidly getting hooked—line and sinker. My friend was more intelligent than I, and she decided that smoking wasn't for her (good thing too, because she is asthmatic; I never said we were smart teenagers). Anyway, fast-forward twelve years and I'm up to a pack/pack and a half a day habit, which was both expensive and unhealthy. And then one day, while sitting in a random hotel room in Vermont shortly after Christmas, it hit me: my smoking was a terrible habit and I needed to quit. Right then. And I took an entire carton of cigarettes—which didn't cost the arm and leg that cigs do now, but still represented a significant dent in my weekly budget— and I flushed every one of those cancer sticks down the hotel toilet. I have never taken a single drag since. Not one. That was definitely a miracle. I didn't do that on my own. Three months later, I met my now-husband, who has noted on several occasions that he would never have dated me if I'd been a smoker when we met.

Coincidence? I think not. Miracle?  I think so. Which simply validates another quotation attributed to Albert. E., that coincidences are God's way of staying anonymous. What better way to hide the everyday miracles that occur than to shroud them in the guise of coincidence?  But what if we all believed, as I do, that there are no coincidences? That everything happens for a reason and the way it's supposed to? Well, I mostly believe that, at least on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Kind of like the rules of Fizzbin.

And what about the miracle of my muse?  Surely the creative inspiration I receive from my favorite, if finicky, goddess, is nothing short of a miracle every time I sit down to put my thumbs to my phone's keyboard to write this blog (yep, I'm still doing that, strangely enough). As I've written about before, half the time I have no idea what's going to come out on the page or the screen. It just flows out of me, like ketchup that's been thumped on the bottom of the bottle. If that isn't a miracle, I don't know what is.

Other miracles include the fluidity with which obstacle disappear when we've found and followed the right path. That is such a great experience, to literally go with the flow of our lives, swimming downstream with ease and joy. I would call that an everyday miracle, but I can't claim that happens to me with sufficient regularity to label it a quotidian occurrence. But maybe someday I'll learn to live like that. That would be a miracle.

And I won’t give up. One of my favorite adages is, "Don't leave before the miracle happens."  It could be right around the corner. Or around the block. Or perhaps a greater distance away. But I know it's coming.  The miracle always does. And, if we look closely, pay attention, and inhabit the present moment , miracles proliferate. And far from being found only in fantasy novels like The Beast, we can live in truth and still find much that is miraculous. As the late, great Wayne Dyer said, "I am realistic—I expect miracles."  I'm down with that. Maybe Albert and Wayne are discussing it up in heaven and sprinkling all of us with some miracle dust. Every day.





Newton's Third Law

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I'm not much for science. Haven't studied it since high school and did not excel at it even when my brain was younger. But it turns out that sometimes what we learned in high school math and science can be useful, contrary to what we thought to ourselves (or even dared say out loud) during Algebra II, "This is so DUMB! When will I EVER need this in real life?"  Come on, all of us said it. We were wrong. Today I'm contemplating Newton's Third Law of Motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This holds true in real life, and it more or less applies to my beloved paranormal and urban fantasy novels. Even in my make-believe worlds, what goes up, must come down. 

This truth in fantasy is what separates the high octane from the decaf among authors, in my opinion. I love it when writers offer a pseudo-scientific explanation for the paranormal quirks and characteristics of their characters.  In John Hartness' Quincy Harker series, Q is the son of Jonathan Harker and Mina Murry Harker, both of whom served as snacks for Dracula. Apparently the regular donations affected the DNA of Quincy's parents, resulting in a human child with a little something extra in the magical ability, strength and longevity departments. Another example, Lynsay Sands' Argeneau vampires, are the product of scientists on Atlantis mixing nanobots with mitochondria, giving them long lives, superhuman strength and vitality in exchange for replenishing their blood through ingesting that of humans. Cool stuff.

But I digress. I know you're flabbergasted. Back to Newton's third law and how in the real world it posits that you cannot create something out of nothing. Nor can you do something without some sort of karmic retribution, whether of the positive or negative variety. Karma's a bitch, baby, don't you forget it. 

This truth also holds in the paranormal and urban fantasy arenas. In most of the books I read, balance must be maintained. The most explicit expression of this is in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series by JR Ward. In her world of vigilante vampires protecting their kind from soul-less humans intent on their destruction, everything comes with a hefty price tag. Save your beloved from death by disease? Okay--provided you forgo the possibility of children. Bring a ghost back from the dead? No problem, if your mother is willing to sacrifice her most prized possession. Obtain the power to inhale the life force from your enemies? Piece of cake, as long as you understand that it will taint your own life essence in the process.

It turns out that Goethe got it right--if you want an extra serving of whatever earthly delights tempt you most, you gotta make a deal with the devil. As I've written about before, there ain't no free lunch. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. We need to obey gravity, you know, because it's not just a good idea, it's the law.

So where does that leave those of us who ride the see-saw of life going endlessly up and down?  Well, to begin with, we shouldn't be surprised when the other shoe falls-- we tossed it to the sky in the first place, after all. What goes up must come down. Secondly, we need to savor, savor, savor the high times, knowing they will inexorably be followed by the inevitable lows. Whatever is happening will stop at some point, and whatever wheels we set in motion will continue to turn -- until they don’t (which may actually violate Newton's First Law of Motion, but I'm not sure--I think I mentioned I wasn't a science geek).

Sometimes, however, it appears as though the world doesn't really work this way. Some people seem to have a disproportionate amount of grief and trouble, while others seems to perch on top of the world and remain there. For me, I always think that these instances of putative inequity might not be what they seem. Alternatively, we may all be living out our karma from past lives or alternate universes. I don't really know, except to say that on most days, I prefer to think there is a big weighing scale with two side-by-side plates, racking and stacking our actions and responding with equal and opposite reactions. Anything to believe that it's not all just random chaos out there. That would be depressing. 

So for today, I'm going to choose to give credence to karma as if it were dogma--I believe in the power of balance; I worship at the bottom of the apple tree where Newton was inspired to articulate his Third Law of Motion; and I will continue to read fantasy books that reinforce my concepts of truth.

The Parent Trap

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I've just started Blood Kiss, the first of the Black Dagger Legacy series by JR Ward. I love this book – makes me feel like I’m catching up with well-loved friends with each turn of the page, and meeting some new ones along the way. And I can always count on the inimitable Ms. Ward to provide food for thought and fodder for this blog. Within the first twenty pages of the novel, Abalone, First Adviser to the King, sits contemplating the need to let his beloved daughter, Paradise, live her life on her terms. He fears her failure and consequent disappointment and desperately wishes he could spare her that pain, but he knows that he cannot protect her from herself, her choices or the vagaries of fate. Abalone anguishes in the face of this harsh reality. I can relate.

Parenting is often called the toughest job we'll ever love. I've also heard that having children is to decide to forever have your heart go walking outside your body. And as trite as these aphorisms are, they are nonetheless true. Having children is by turns terrifying, fulfilling, soul sating, terrifying, joyful, terrifying and beyond frustrating. I've written before about my frustration. Today I'm focused on the terror. When I find the words to describe the joy and fulfillment of parenthood without sounding like a Hallmark card, I’ll get back to you with my thoughts and feelings on that subject.

It’s almost mind numbing to catalogue my list of parental fears. So we'll do that another time, shall we?  Or not. But one thing front and center lately is the necessity, as Abalone described, of having to stand back and let my children fail—and then suffer the agony of defeat. I'm not sure, but I think it's worse for me than it is for them. And, man oh man, do I want to spare them. Which would be bad. For them. I know, I know. But it is so... damn... hard. It's almost beyond bearing. Almost. 

I want my children to succeed. I want them to have everything that I had growing up, and then so much more. I want them to have every conceivable opportunity that my not-inconsequential resources can provide. I want them to enjoy academic, social and athletic success. I want them to sail through life on waters whose currents sweep them around any obstacles in their paths. I was hoping, because they are so much more together than I was at their age, that they could avoid some of the pitfalls that tripped me up during my own adolescence. And they have, for the most part. What I did not anticipate was that in sidestepping the stumbling blocks that made my teenaged years a misery, they would encounter walls of their very own making and undoing. I hate that.

When I was in middle school I was at the bottom of the social heap. I was considered an aloof bookworm not fit to lick the shoes of the popular kids. I would come home crying after school, asking my clueless mother what was so wrong with me that those ‘in kids’ wouldn't let me in their stinking clique. She had no answers – I’m not sure to this day what they might’ve been – to offer me. By the time I got to high school, I'd had enough of my own boo-hooing and decided to disengage from the high school social scene entirely. I dated a good-looking, older bad boy and never looked back. It was gratifying at the time, but upon reflection, I realize I missed out completely on anything remotely resembling a normal high school experience. 

As a result of all of this, I wanted my children to be social successes. I wanted them to be popular, student leaders, the kids all the other kids wanted to be with. And they are. Shockingly (to me, at least) so. But running with the in crowd brings its own set of perils. Who would’ve thunk it? One son is constantly worried about his social standing, spending far too much time ensuring his place at the top of the heap. The other son is somewhat less concerned, but spends a lot of his time maintaining his prominence at the apex of the athletic pyramid. When they each teeter on their perches, the ensuing paranoia and pain are heartbreaking to behold. Boy, I don't miss high school one little bit, have I mentioned that lately?

And I was so thrilled that my secure, confident kids were not suck ups. They didn't spend a lot of time worrying about people pleasingthey are sure of themselves and speak their truth. Which is awesome. But it hasn't made them very popular with their teachers or the school administration. In posturing for their peers, they are essentially giving the finger to the adults in their lives. Which, as you might imagine, has not gone well for them. I've had to bite my tongue and let them take their licks, even when I agree with my boys that, yes, they are being treated unfairly because they didn't bother to make sure they were liked and therefore didn’t enjoy the benefit of any doubts.

I have very little experience with the sorts of issues my kids face regularly; I got my wish and my kids are completely different from me at their age. Be careful what you wish for, I've been told. Yep, shoulda been more careful...  

So, when Abalone decries the duty of a parent to stand back and watch our children make a mess of things, he touched my heart. You know, the one running around outside my body, making a mess of things I can't allow myself to clean up. Even though, I really, really, really want to get serious with the Brillo pads. My heart aches for my boys. But I know that the only thing I can do for them is to offer a shoulder to cry on when it all becomes too much, as they learn to navigate waters that are much less calm than I would have them be. Only no one asked me, unfortunately. Maybe it’ll be easier for Abalone — I have to get back to Blood Kiss and find out – I certainly hope so.

An Embarrassment of Riches

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f a book is good and worth waiting for, the day it’s released is better than my birthday and Christmas -- combined. When Thea Harrison releases a new addition to her Elder Races series, or when Kresley Cole adds to her Immortals After Dark series, and, of course, JR Ward adds to the Black Dagger Brotherhood and the new BDB Legacy series … that is a great day. And this week, was a trifecta. I'm completely beside myself as a result. I've decided to wait to read any of them, so I can extend the period of delicious anticipation. I know, I'm weird. No news there.  As I considered which book to read next (Oh--and I have the new Elder Races novella that was released last week as well--still channeling my inner Carly Simon on that one, too… and it’s scrumptious… but) I had an unwelcome realization: it's possible to have too much of a good thing. 

This brought me up short. I'm a more is more kind of gal. I operate on the assumption that if some is good, more is better. This has definitely gotten me into trouble while cooking, not to mention make up, hair care products and buying yarn (I knit, in spurts). So the idea that having too many choices seems oxymoronic at first blush, but when I started to delve into the idea, it began to make a certain amount of sense.

Here's the thing: I have three novels and one novella I am 100% sure I'm going to love waiting to grace my Kindle screen and… I’m not reading any of them. That's right, I'm reading the latest Sue Grafton alphabet book (X-- I guess she got stumped on that one), because I was overwhelmed with the choices in my favorite genre. How can this be? Well it is – and not just in my reading habits.  This unfortunate phenomenon shows up in myriad ways in my life, and rarely to the good.

I don't think I'm adept at juggling infinite or even broadly-defined finite possibilities: I'm guilty of paralysis in the face of too many choices. I’m okay with options A or B.  I can be decisive even if we go so far as maybe the letter G (which stands for "gumshoe" in Sue Grafton's world, in case you were wondering), but I have significant difficulty with the whole alphabet.

For example, my professional work is fairly light right now, only taking up a couple of hours a day, in truth. I have two teenagers, so there is work to do on that front as well, so I'm not completely footloose and fancy-free. But considering how much I used to work and how few free minutes I had in a day or a week, my current circumstances seem positively expansive. Relatively speaking, I have copious free time. And I get to choose how to spend it. I can work out, read, write, do volunteer work, take a class, veg out in front of the TV, take my dogs for an extra-long walk, talk on the phone with my friends, and cook elaborate meals on weekdays (alright, that last one is a stretch).

Which is great. Except when it's not. I was talking to a friend who recently left her job at a large corporation to take a job with a start up that is very small and not overly ambitious. She went from being a high-powered VIP whose actions affected many employees and government policies to a place where she wondered, "If I didn't do anything today, would anyone notice?"  Ouch. A good, albeit hard, question.

Because there is no one telling me what to do and no accounting for that which I do do, I'm totally free... To do nothing at all. To become paralyzed with possibilities and consumed with utter frivololity or even counter productive behavior. Do I really need to eat a three-course lunch, just because I have the time? Do I need to "window shop" at the Mall, because I have nothing better to do? (I gave that particular time sink up some time ago, thankfully, but still browsing through catalogues is almost as bad, and I’m still doing that).

When I have too many choices, it can feel like I have none. When I have no organizing principle to my life, it's hard to prioritize options and choose well. How to decide whether to read Cole, Harrison or Ward first?  Does it matter? And what happens when I'm finished?  I'll be finished and then what?  Maybe it's best to delay making a start, so that my time with these favorites wouldn't have to end. You see where this is going, yes?  Nowhere. Absolutely nowhere. 

When I have a bounty of alternatives, I can feel lost instead of blessed. An embarrassment of riches. That just leaves me embarrassed to admit my foolish inactivity. So, action is called for--and then more action.  Pick a card, any card. You'll probably know which book I read first (when it shows up in this space on Monday). As to the rest of it, I'm going to try to get over myself while I still have some free time left to spend.

I'm Stuck on a Feeling

I'm still powering through the Audible edition of The Black Dagger Brotherhood series by one of my favorite writer crushes, JR Ward. Currently, Lover Mine is serenading me. This is John Matthew's story, and it's a good one. I'm sure I'll have a lot more to say about John as I continue to listen blissfully to the next 23 hours of heaven. Today's rumination is about love—of the unrequited variety. John Matthew has a bad case. And it's making him a basket case. 

I've often wondered about the affliction known as unreturned feelings.  How is it possible to feel strongly for someone who doesn't return the emotion?  In most of my experience, I've been able to overcome my affection –although perhaps not lust—for men who didn't reciprocate my feelings for them. This does not count, of course, my visceral, excruciatingly painful crush on David Cassidy of Partridge Family fame during my tween years (you know, in the last century—not even that late in the last century). For him, my heart beat faster and my soul yearned. And while he had no idea I was alive (until I met him in person, backstage at a concert, when I was 35—a gift from my beloved husband), I pined for years. 

But that is the point, you see. I had no control over my feelings (or anything else for that matter, as I discussed in my last post). And my feelings did not actually affect the universe: my tears didn’t cause rain to pour down from the heavens – although at times I did feel like I was under a metaphorical rain cloud. My feelings didn't register on David's radar at all. He had no idea that when he sang, “I Think I Love You,” that I thought, “I Can Feel Your Heartbeat.” Feelings don't actually alter reality. As I'm often told by well-meaning friends, feelings aren't facts. And they’re not our fault. 

We can't help the way we feel. We have some input (depending on our level of impulse control) on how we behave in response to our emotions (see my post on this topic here), but many of us can't even master that. Particularly when it comes to love. In one of my all-time favorite movies, Anne of the Thousand Days, Richard Burton's King Henry VIII complains bitterly, "Even a king cannot choose where he will love."  If kings can't do it, then it's probably off the table for the rest of us. 

We can decide—intellectually—that we will feel one way or another. For me, when I've lost that loving feeling, the fat lady is done singing and it's over. Recently, one of my sons impressed the hell out of me in how he broke up with his (first serious) girlfriend. They'd been seeing each other all summer and it had been a very sweet and intense relationship, as summer lovin’ can be with teenagers. With the beginning of the school year and the advent of football season, my son quickly realized that it was too difficult to maintain his relationship at its summertime intensity. Further, he realized that he no longer felt the same way he had a mere three months before. When he spoke to her about parting, he told her, "I'm just not feeling the connection anymore."  What a wonderful (although sad) way to express himself. She was understandably devastated, but she was (emotionally) free to move on, knowing that he doesn't care for her romantically anymore. 

 But my son’s now old flame may not move on. She might pine. She might whine (to her friends). She might not get over my son quickly. Or, she may have another beau next week. Who knows? Whatever she's going to feel, she's going to feel it regardless of what anyone says to her. And whatever he's going to feel, he's going to feel. We are all entitled to our feelings, and we can't get mad at others for how they feel. Never mind that some of these feelings bear no resemblance to reality—we must honor them because feelings are exempt from the blame game — even if we think said feelings are dumb. Not that I'm ever frustrated by this occurrence, mind you. We can't come back with a rapier-like retort because that would just be wrong, right?

So if feelings aren't facts and how we feel is not our fault, what can we do about them?  Well, naturally, we can drink heavily, which is always a good option. It's five o'clock somewhere in the world, isn't it?  We can indulge in our favorite compulsion (chocolate, anyone?). We can make like ostriches and bury our heads in denial and self-delusion. We can act out inappropriately and we can get sick. 

I don't actually recommend any of the above options. None of those choices leads to a happy ending. Instead, we can practice processing our emotions in a healthy and constructive way. We can begin by accurately identifying our feelings, a skill that many lack. When my son was young (the one with the excellent break-up line), he used to get a lot of stomachaches. I was worried about his digestion until someone helped me figure out that what he was experiencing as stomach pain was actually unacknowledged anxiety that was manifesting as physical discomfort. When we were able to address the causes of his anxiety, the tummy troubles resolved themselves. 

For those of us who aren't five years old, you'd think that we could do a better job when we play "Name That Feeling."  Most of us know, generally, when we are happy and sad, irritated and mad. But not all the time. Sometimes, it's hard to know how we are feeling, except that it's bad. We may not have a clue as to what is causing the ill will within us. Emotion identification is a learned skill. I'm sure there are classes on it somewhere. 

Once we've identified our feelings, there are a number of ways to process them. Among my favorites are journaling, yoga, walking, meditating, body work (massage, acupuncture) and energy work (Reiki, chakra balancing). All of these modalities can help us work through strong emotions and prevent them from becoming trapped, only to erupt sometime and somewhere else that is inappropriate. 

Or we can just fake it ‘til we feel it. We can act our way into right feeling good while waiting for the unpleasant feelings to pass. Which they usually do. Eventually. If we allow ourselves to feel them as opposed to bury them. 

Feelings are a messy business. It's why Vulcans, those clever aliens, eschew them. So much cleaner without those pesky emotions. At the beginning of Lover Mine, it's clear that John Matthew thinks so. He'd love to be a Vulcan instead of a vampire. But he's stuck with his feelings, just like the rest of us. 

A Bridge Too far

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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.

Gal Pals and Other Necessities

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I just spent a long weekend with one of my childhood friends to celebrate our 50th birthdays. Yes, I'm still celebrating and I don't want to hear any guff about it—and I'll tell you why. First, I respectfully disagree with another of my friends who believes that the mere fact of meeting this milestone as a privileged American female who's had every conceivable opportunity is not necessarily worth celebrating. It is. For me, it's more than important to mark and rejoice in every happy life event because, God knows, life delivers more than enough adversity to each of us. We should glom onto life’s joyful occasions like chocolate frosting clings to the tops of cupcakes. All that gooey goodness should be savored against the time when our mouths fill with the ashes of failure, loss and despair. Because the bad stuff will come, sure as the earth will continue to rotate on its axis and the sun will rise tomorrow.

 So, back to my weekend with an amazing woman who is literally changing the world. This was the last of my trips to spend quality time with my lifelong friends looking back on how far we've come, how much we've been through together and taking the time to appreciate the gift that these strong, lasting friendships are.  And because I'm me, I couldn't help but relate my band of ‘besties’ to the many tightly knit bands of brothers in the paranormal fantasy books that I love almost as much as my sisters of the heart. Except that my delightful daydream was disconcertingly interrupted by the realization that there are some disturbing differences between my reality and my fantasy books. 

One difference on my side of the fact/fiction divide is that I can't truthfully characterize my small group of friends as a pack. It's true that all of these women know each other, and most of us grew up together attending the same school for most of elementary and high school. And we've been through many of each other's life events together and they've all shared each of my major milestones where they are coerced into camaraderie for my sake,  including my wedding, baby shower and the funerals of my parents. None of these women actually like each other, however. Their only real common denominator is that they love me. So they tolerate each other for my benefit, but would never seek each other out as independent friends. This makes things hard for me, as there are no fun-filled collective gatherings. Which is sad for me, but I've long accepted the way it is.

But the other major difference between my experiences and those I read about in my beloved fantasy books is that almost without exception (the one stand-out being Kresley Cole's Immortals After Dark series), when my fantasy authors give us para-familial groups of vampires, werewolves and other supernatural creatures who live, love and fight together, providing support and strength to each other as my friends do for me, they are always male. Several examples spring to mind.

At the top of the heap we have JR Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood and Karen Marie Moning's mysterious Nine (not to mention the MacKeltars in the same Fever series). Then there are Lara Adrian's Midnight Breed warriors, Katie MacAlister's variously colored Dragons, Dragos' Sentinals in Thea Harrison's Elder Races series (there is a token female in the group, but she's a Harpy, which, by definition, makes her a bitch who holds herself aloof from the group of guys). I could go on, but I think you get the point.  

What I find somewhat surprising about these testosterone-fueled friendship fests is that in my experience it's women who pursue and nurture these kinds of relationships, not men. It's almost as if all of these authors, who are uniformly women, have transferred the intimacy and unwavering loyalty that I've seen among female friends to their groups of imaginary males. Now, it is true that men who fight together over time and live through intense circumstance form especially tight bonds, so it's not as if this phenomenon is unknown in the real world. So I don't have a problem, per se, that we are offered these groups of connected male characters who are tailor-made to form the basis for an ongoing series where each one in turn finds a life mate and whose journey to their HEA is the basis for the plot for the books in the series.

There is nothing wrong with highlighting male bonding. What's missing for me in this genre, at least as a gross generalization, is the dearth of comparable female relationships. In fact, much of the time in the series listed above, the poor female protagonists are forced to leave their previous lives behind to cleave to their supernatural soul mates and learn to make new friends among the mates of their boyfriend's brothers. Seems unfair. Not to mention an opportunity squandered to showcase the deep love and profound bonding that gal pals can achieve over a lifetime. Such lifelong friends could serve to anchor our female protagonists in their essential selves as they embark on the not inconsequential task of adjusting to having life as they know it irrevocably upended (usually by falling I love with an über alpha male who happens to belong to a paranormal species the woman had no idea existed prior to their meeting). Wouldn't it be nice if these ladies had their peeps behind them to catch them when they faint from shock? But no, the arms that usually catch our erstwhile heroines belong to their male loves—which makes these women all the more dependent on their men for support.

As much as I love and adore my husband of 20 years, who is not only my life partner, lover, co-parent and friend, I still need my girlfriends. These women nurture aspects of my being that would wither and die without their specific brand of love and support. Not to mention that I would hate to burden my husband with the care and feeding of all the different aspects of my personality and my soul that exist. That could overwhelm even my most devoted of mates.

So, all you writers who are my rock stars, perhaps you would consider illuminating this element of reality and injecting this truth into your fantasy. It might be worthwhile. It certainly makes my life richer and more fulfilling.

The Wizard of Id


 One of the things I love most about paranormal and urban fantasy is that there isn't a subject related to human behavior that isn't covered somewhere in the genre. I've written before that reading about supernatural species like vampires, shifters, the Fae and other creatures seems to bring humanity into sharp focus. What does it mean to be human? What separates our human nature from our animal natures? I've contemplated the existence of the soul and the reality of mortality as discriminators. One aspect I haven't touched on is instinct, which will be the subject of another post. Closely related to instinct, however, is compulsion--things we do that we cannot seem to control. When our compulsive behavior crosses a certain line--and I'm not quite sure where that is, just that, like pornography, I know it when I see it, compulsive behavior becomes addiction, the most lethal of all self destructive paths. Addiction pops up all over my beloved paranormal fantasy books, and it is a subject with which I have more familiarity than I would like.

The author who clearly knows the most about addiction, I'm guessing from personal experience, is JR Ward. In the world of the Black Dagger Brotherhood, it's my man (vampire) Phury who's the hard-core addict and when we get inside his head, it's a dangerous place to be.  In Lover Enshrined, we are introduced to the Wizard, who is the nasty, undermining, devastatingly effective voice in Phury's head, the one constantly telling Phury what a piece of shit he is. More unfortunately, the Wizard is also there to keep the focus squarely on Phury's deeds, misdeeds and missed deeds, enslaving Phury in the bondage of a self-created prison. It is a terrible place to be, relieved only by relying on "red smoke," a narcotic somewhere between marijuana and an opiate. Phury smokes his "blunts" --hand rolled-- which then, appropriately, blunt his experience of the world at large, anesthetizing him against the pain of existence.

I've never read such a realistic account of the horrible, insistent, and consistent muttering inside my skull that was my addiction goading me to do that which I swore I wouldn't do anymore. Thankfully, for me it wasn't narcotics or alcohol. But active addiction will kill you one way or another.  It will kill you quickly, like with drinking and drugging, or slowly, messily, and painfully, like cutting your wrists with an emery board, which is how food addiction will kill you. But, dead is dead, in the end, no matter how long it takes go get there. What nightmares are made of, truly. 

And JR Ward gets it, as always. So many well-meaning, but misguided souls assume that if the addict would just "pick themselves up by their bootstraps," then they could "just say no."  It doesn't work like that. As Phury demonstrates, if we could we would. Non-addicts often assume we who are on the other side of that line lack willpower. In fact, addicts are among the most strong-willed people on the planet. That's not the issue. The issue is the nature of addiction.

As always, I need state the caveat that I am not any sort of licensed professional and my opinions are just that. But in my experience, and after contemplating the essence of addiction, I'm going to have to take issue with both Ms. Ward and even with Alcoholics Anonymous, which, for the record, I believe to be an organization that works miracles on a daily basis. But in anthropomorphizing addiction, either as the “Wizard" or according to AA's "disease" model, we view addiction as something outside ourselves, rather than that which is inherent to our nature. The Wizard doesn't live on Oz, down a yellow brick road; he lives in us, in our id, inflating our egos and causing our self-will to run riot. I believe anyone can cross the line from occasional, compulsive behavior to full-blown addiction. In the United States we need only look around at all of those who share my particular brand of addiction.  

So, in my mind, we can all go there. It can be as innocuous as biting our nails or being unable to pass up a deal. It can be more obvious, like smoking or chewing tobacco (or vaping--a new way to enslave the next generation). It can be more insidious, like telling ourselves that we don't need to drink every night, we just like to put a cap on the day, or being "unwilling" but not unable to leave our electronic devices at home for a day, or even an hour. Addiction is all around us, and for me, there is a spectrum. We tend not to do anything about our little habits unless they begin to negatively affect our quality of life.

The Wizard lives in all of us. Sometimes his voice is loud--or maybe it's a whisper saying all those unpleasant things in our heads: "Don't try, you won't succeed. You're fat; you're ugly, that outfit looks awful on you. You are way too stupid to make that work. You are not competent, creative, strong, funny, sexy, clever, or confident enough".

 In the shorthand version of Wizard-speak we hear simply "you are not enough and never will be." Sometimes, the voice might mix it up and say instead, "there isn't enough, and you won't get your share, so give it up."  Such a vicious little voice. We don't like that voice, so we use our substances or compulsive behaviors to soothe and smooth out the edges of a reality we don't feel like facing and to stifle that insufferable voice. But that voice is part of us, not separate. For years I blamed my mother for the obnoxious troll living rent-free in my brain. Then someone pointed out that I was the only one capable of plugging my ears, and saying, "Thanks for sharing, I don't choose to listen to you today."  

Phury learns to stop listening to the Wizard eventually. It's not an easy path, even for characters in paranormal fantasy novels. The path for each of us to do the same is unique.  My path involved putting down my drug of choice and facing my reality squarely, with honesty, openness and willingness to change. Tough stuff. Worthwhile. But my Wizard didn't leave the building. He can't. He's me. But there's more to me than that.




Quiet Desperation

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I've been noticing a lot of unhappy people lately. People living lives of quiet desperation, in the words of Henry David Thoreau. And this makes me sad. For a long time, I didn't understand. I'm still not sure that I do, but, as always, my beloved paranormal fantasy novels are helping to explain reality to me in ways that my brain can grasp. I'm still thinking deeply about Phury in JR Ward's Lover Enshrined. For the majority of the Black Dagger Brotherhood series up to this point, Phury has been unhappy, surviving his extended existence in a state of quiet desperation that is growing increasingly loud as he begins to devolve. For Phury, like the rest of us, the world isn't much fun when your whole life is "have to." I am not naive, nor am I willfully delusional. I understand that life is more about fate and circumstance than it is about choice. I know that sometimes the only options we have are about the attitude we bring to a bad situation. Having said that, however, we do have some choices, and sometimes, we need to just say "no." I find myself saying "no" a lot. When I was young and unable to fit into the mold I thought I wanted to fit, I decided to say no to all the kids who were saying no to me. I figured if I couldn't be popular or part of the A-crowd, then they could kiss my large round petunia, as Mac Lane would say. Saying no to those who rejected me first gave me the freedom to break out of the mold of the privileged uptown girl I was born to be and look for greener pastures outside my geographic and demographic comfort zone. One of the best moves I ever made. 

Later, at my first professional job, I said no to the idea that I was too young and too female to take on more responsibility, and successfully sat for a state exam that my older, male colleagues had previously failed. I said no to the idea that I couldn't call off a wedding that was already planned and paid for. I said no to the idea that just because something hadn't been done before didn't mean I couldn't do it. I said no to my friends and family when they—with undoubtedly good intentions—told me it was making a mistake to go abroad for a year and try something totally different—granted, undercover private investigator was a bit of a stretch, but I said no to everyone who thought I was crazy and was rewarded with the experience of a lifetime. 

Saying no to doing what you don't want to do and yes to doing what you do want to do is the antidote to quiet desperation. This is the truth that Phury, of Black Dagger Brotherhood fame, eventually learns, to his everlasting happiness. Honoring our inner arbiter of yes and no, good and bad is the path to our personal HEAs. Rejecting the should's and have to's is the road to redemption. 

We have to stop listening when others tell us how it has to be. Yes, of course it's important to meet our obligations and commitments. But it's equally important to make sure we are not fulfilling our duty at the expense of our ability to thrive. We need to be resourceful and creative about doing what we need to do so that we have the time and wherewithal to do what we want to do.

So many of us feel like we have no choices, or that we are stuck forever with choices we made before but which no longer serve us. I know so many people who stay in marriages they no longer want, or who care for children in a way that transmutes joy into drudgery. We seem to feel like we have to be there for every football game, even if we hate football. Not me. My son knows I don't enjoy football and have absolutely no idea what is going on in the game (many have tried to teach me, but, honestly, I can't bring myself to care). He also knows that my lack of love for football in no way impacts my abundance of love for him.  We share many things. Just not football. So, I don't have to make myself miserable balancing my butt on a cold, uncomfortable bleacher seat while pretending I’d rather not be reading my book instead of watching his game. I've given him the respect of being honest with him, and he rewards me with the intimacy of authenticity in return. Win-win. 

I was with my aunt recently, my mother's youngest sister. She observed that my husband really "puts up with a lot" because I travel so much apart from my family—for work and to visit friends around the country. What can I say, I'm a peripatetic soul; it feeds something in me to travel and change my environment with some regularity. And I value my friendships and believe in taking the time to nurture them. My family understands this about me and respects my needs. They don't spend a lot of time worrying about how a wife and mother "should" behave, and neither do I. As a result, we are all quite happy as a family, each of us respecting each other's individual needs. It works.

Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe that this is my life. I've worked hard to create a life I love. It is not perfect, of course, but in the areas where there is room for improvement, I'm always looking for innovative ways to advance the ball. We only get one bite at the apple, and I want to stuff as much in my mouth as I possibly can. I truly do not care how other people think life should be done. I don't even pay much attention to what I think I can or cannot do. I believe in going for it, even when it seems the chances for success are few and far between. I don't mind failing, and each attempt teaches me something new that I can use to tinker at the margins of my life to make it even better. Sometimes I don't just stick to the margins--I make gigantic leaps and hope for a soft landing. This blog is a great example of that.

Like Phury in the end, I reject quiet desperation. I'm all about loud and boisterous joy and exultation. If it's not working for us, we can change it. If we don't like something, we can try something else. If we are spending too many days in a row in the dumps, we can do something radical to shake it up. We have nothing to lose but our misery. And we can always get that back if we really miss it. 

Words Matter

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I remember being seventeen and listening to Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a leader of the early feminist movement, talk about the vocabulary we use and the differences it makes. I don't remember the whole lecture, but what stuck with me was her observation that the word "history" was a meshing of two words, "his" and "story."  “What about ‘her’ story,” Pogrebin asked. Being the self-absorbed teenager I was I hadn't given that a lot (or any) thought, but she brought me up short, and began my contemplation of words and how we use them. Words are powerful. Words matter. What you say and how you say it are the stock in trade of all writers, of course, and a profound love of words, phrases, analogies and thoughts expressed as lines on a page is one of the reasons I write—and read. But words can be misinterpreted—either the meaning or the intent.

I was reminded of this truth when a friend recently sent me a HuffPost article on "The Most Ridiculous Sexual Phrases from Romance Novels."  The article had lists of "hilarious" euphemisms for the penis, vagina and sex. I think the author missed the point entirely. Words matter. Particularly when reading sex scenes in my favorite paranormal fantasy books.

Sticks and stone may break my bones... But words can always get me hot. And bothered. I've written before about what women want, and what they want is erotica that isn't crude, rude and in-your-face pornographic. While I have nothing against dirty talk—there is definitely a time and place where such language and suggestions are titillating rather than offensive and off-putting—I usually don't want to read about it in my romance novels. I love the euphemistic language that describes love in paranormal fantasy and romance books. I love the soft focus lens that such vocabulary imparts on the images described in these novels. If you really think about it, sex is an awkward, messy business that is wonderful when you're doing it, but can seem tawdry and a little sad when it's a spectator sport. To me, the rounded edges that the more suggestive language offers is more evocative than more explicit descriptions would be.

There must be something to this, because the romance genre is booming. Historical, contemporary and paranormal romances are all the rage. It's also been suggested that the advent of the electronic reader has given a boost to the chick lit market and made the classic "bodice-ripper" more acceptable fare than before we could hide the exact nature of our reading choices from curious eyes on the bus, train, plane or park bench. I've told the story before about my straight-laced boss sitting on a plane next to me, grabbing the latest Meredith Gentry novel out of my hands to read the back cover. Awkward!! These days, no one knows what I'm reading unless I tell them-- although, of course, I'm done with being embarrassed about my reading choices and have used this blog to announce my love of smut to the world.

Except it isn't smut, is it?  Sex in romance books, including the paranormal variety, is so far from smutty that it's like calling a unicorn a horse. It's not. It's an entirely different animal. These characters aren't rutting mindlessly. They are making mad, passionate love after a well-written build-up of will they/won't they. They are soul mates, bonded couples, lovers for life—and if it's a paranormal book, that life could be hundreds, if not thousands of years long. Talk about commitment! But the sex these fictional folks are having is idealized for women--written by women, for women and, usually, from the female perspective. Let’s just say here that nice guys finish last, and they are all nice guys in these books--our heroines wouldn’t have it any other way.

So how these wonderful authors communicate all of this powerful emotion and intense physical and spiritual connection counts. I can't imagine it's easy to write an effective sex scene in romance literature. So my hat is off to those authors who do it well. Not too long ago, I was privileged to be asked to be a beta reader for one of the indie authors I follow. The book was very good, but I did have a number of suggestions (many of which were incorporated into the final version, I'm delighted to say). One question the author asked was whether we, the beta readers, liked the sex scenes and specifically whether we agreed with the vocabulary she used. Perspicacious question.  In the event, I didn't like the specific terms she'd used. I felt they were too clinical. On the other hand, I also dislike Penthouse Forum-type language that tends to focus attention on only the physical aspects of the event and highlight the more salacious perspectives, which always makes me feel like a slightly pervy voyeur. 

Instead, I love the well-written sex scenes that allow me to feel like I'm in the scene itself. I want to imagine myself as the woman within the pages, experiencing the transcendence of the moment. Because, in fact, that transcendent element is exactly what separates the good sex scenes from the cringe-worthy ones, and the pornographic from the erotic and romantic. l love the scenes where the two partners are taken out of themselves and are so into each other that the rest of the world melts away.   And, yes, there are the Laurell Hamilton sex scenes that involve more than two partners, but Laurell is in a class by herself and she can make scenes that can only be described as hard-core pornography work from an erotic/romantic/loving perspective—but she is the only one I've read who can do that. And then, of course, there is the inimitable Kresley Cole who writes in three different genres, including adult erotica. Those books are smoking hot—and could also be characterized as more traditionally- focused pornography, but again, she makes it work from a woman's perspective. One of the things I love about Kresley Cole, and which I've written about before here, is that she celebrates women's healthy and enthusiastic sexuality. Which is awesome. Women like sex as much as men do. The difference is that women like good sex. Men just like sex. 

So, please, all of your writers who are my rock stars (Mick Jagger has nothing on Kresly Cole, Laurell K. Hamilton, JR Ward, Thea Harrison, Nalini Singh, Karen Marie Moning, Charlaine Harris, etc.), please keep watching your language and conveying your descriptions artfully and beautifully.  Women want sex to be beautiful, and that includes the words used to describe every, single, minute detail.

The Coin of the Realm

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I'm still listening to the Black Dagger Brotherhood and once again, I was struck by the wisdom of JR Ward.  I'm listening to Lover Enshrined, Phury's book. Phury, IMHO, is one of the greatest characters ever written. He is so complex and so well developed I am sure he exists somewhere out in the world. Except he's a vampire and a member of the Black Dagger Brotherhood, so maybe not. But despite being a badass who lives in a mansion existing at the pinnacle of the social pile, Phury has had a difficult life. And those difficulties have left scars that no amount of health, wealth, friends, family or status can smooth over. Phury is a hot mess, and, in Lover Enshrined, we become privy to his devolution and descent into the abyss of addiction and self-destruction.

The way JR Ward describes the reasons behind Phury's addiction and the inevitable progression of his disease makes me think she has some experience in this arena. So do I, but that will be a topic for another post. What captured my attention today is a line where Phury is thinking about his existence and believes that, "life was a coin that had disaster on one side and waiting for disaster on the other."  I could relate.

Suffice to say that when Phury talks about life being either disaster or waiting for disaster, he knows what he's talking about. All children who live with addiction and neglect take on a certain measure of waiting for the other shoe to drop. But living under the sword of Damocles is a very difficult and draining way to live. All that waiting and worrying and peering upward or over our shoulders screws with a person's head.

I should know. For much of my life, I spent my time in the same useless placeliving in disaster or waiting for it to hit. Such a way of life sucks the joy out of every moment. Because I couldn't be in the moment when I was distracted by my own misery or the certainty that misery was just around the corner. For a a lot of my childhood, I was justified in my wariness. Life with my mother was no party, I can assure you. But eventually I grew up and interacted with the source of my insanity only when I chose to do so. As an adult, my mother didn't control my thoughts, words or deeds. Except she did. She had taught me to expect bad things to happen, and to paraphrase Henry Ford, whether you think something bad will happen or you don't, you're probably right. 

We can waste our whole lives waiting for Godot, or disaster. I thought I had made progress with this particular problem, only to be reminded of how insidious the lessons we learn as children can be. As you know (cause I've talked about it ad nauseum), I turned 50 three weeks ago and planned a party. Yay me. In fact, and again, as you are all more than aware to the point of being thoroughly sick of it, I had prepared long and hard for this milestone, physically, emotionally and spiritually. I was feeling good—dare I say, even joyful. I was embracing my new status as a card-carrying member of AARP and reveling in the blessings of age while trying—more or less successfully—to stave off the worst of the inevitable melting thighs and jiggling arms. Life was good. I had stopped waiting for disaster. 

So, of course, that's when it came. A few days before my big party, one of our dogs bit my husband on the nose (this was my husband's fault for putting his face near the dog's mouth—he's a great dog, in fact). Well, to make a long story short enough to prevent your eyes from glazing over, the dog bite became horribly infected and was not responding to any antibiotics. This was not good. In fact, it was disastrous. I hadn't taken my umbrella. So it rained. 

I was angry. I was disappointed. I felt betrayed by the Universe. I had actually let go of waiting for the other shoe to fall and had some faith that I could be unreservedly happy—for just a little while at least—and my world came crashing down around my ears with portents of becoming a young widow and facing single parenthood (yes, I totally went there).

And as I pondered the coin that is my life and railed against the gods for dangling joy in front of my face, only to have it snatched away like some sadistic asshole teasing a dog with a bone he'll never have, someone told me a story that shifted my whole perspective. It's a Zen story about the tigers and the strawberry. Essentially, some poor shmuck ends up being chased by tigers over a cliff. He catches himself on a branch protruding from the side of the mountain, but realizes he won't be able to hold on for long. When he looks down, he sees a long drop and another tiger waiting at the bottom of the cliff. But he also notices a perfect, plump, ripe strawberry growing out of the side of the mountain. He reaches out and plucks the strawberry, savoring its sweet taste.

This is a powerful story about living in the moment and wresting everything we can from life by being present to the reality of our lives as it is RIGHT NOW. In the moment, my husband wasn't dead, or in the hospital, or disabled, or battling a protracted illness. In the moment, I didn't have to cancel my party or our upcoming vacation or life as I knew it. In the moment, my friends all came to celebrate with me and show their love, and I was able to receive all of it. In the moment, though, I wasn't completely there—because I was so distracted by the tigers, I couldn't fully appreciate the sweetness of the strawberry. I was Phury and his blasted coin of disaster.

I don't think I'll be spoiling anyone's experience by saying that Phury eventually overcomes his affinity for disaster and finds his own personal HEA, which for him involves hitting rock bottom and then overcoming his addiction, finding true love and fulfilling his destiny. Phury trades his coin of disaster in for a different currency—one of hope and faith and peace. I need to find a new ATM.