Jessica Clare

Atlas Shrugged

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I just finished Jessica Sims' novel, Between a Vamp and a Hard Place.  It's rare that I read a stand-alone novel and it was a lark. (I usually read series to know that there are other books out there for me and so I can hang out with beloved characters a bit longer, but I digress). This is an adorable book, and I spent several enjoyable hours with Lindsey, her best friend, Gemma, and their hibernating vampire, Rand. A good time was had by all. Lindsey and Gemma are antique dealers of the penny-ante variety, hoping to do great things with an old, antique-filled apartment in Venice. The apartment is their ship that has come in, although there are some tidal waves to navigate along the way, or we wouldn’t have a novel. Among the challenges faced by our plucky heroines is a secret room, an old coffin, and a vampire who's been asleep for 600 years…. Just the run-of-the-mill problems facing young entrepreneurs everywhere. Lindsey is the alpha, is a control freak; she’s the one who takes charge. She's always assumed this is what Gemma wanted – that it reflected the arrangement that best suited both friends. Imagine her surprise when Lindsey discovers that Gemma has a fierce side and some pretty strong opinions about various subjects. When Gemma reveals these previously hidden personality traits, Lindsey is unsure how to react at first. Soon, she decides that there are some unanticipated benefits to the shift within the friends’ power dynamic. Lindsey is able to relax more, knowing that Gemma is taking the lead. Lindsay notes to herself that, "Gemma's assertiveness was making my own fears melt away."

Back in the day, when I traveled with my mother, who was deathly afraid of flying, I could be serene (without medication) because I knew how scared she was. All of us know that planes stay aloft using some pretty strong intentional magic—and without the extreme concentration of those select few of us tasked with keeping the plane in the air, it would drop from the sky like stones in a river. My mother's fear was such a strong force, I knew my airplane was in good hands when she was on board, and I could relax my hyper-vigilance, confident we would reach our destination without plunging to the earth at terminal velocity. Can you tell how much I love flying? Actually, I do now, because I've discovered better living through chemistry, and my mother's little helper helps me not give a shit whether we fly or fall.

Then there was that time in Yoga Nidra class with one of my best friends. We were on time and getting into the zone when some obnoxious women walked in late, creating as much disruption as possible. Now, my friend is an extreme type A personality, just like yours truly. And normally she would have given those ladies the stink eye for harshing our mellow. But my friend was able to relax and rejuvenate, sure in the knowledge that I would unleash my inner New Yorker on these miscreants who disturbed our serenity.  Which I did, of course. So my friend didn't have to. She thanked me afterwards.

Why is it we can let go when someone else is feeling our feelings for us? Seems counter-intuitive that worry and fear among family and friends wouldn’t feed off each other and intensify instead of dissipating. Which begs the question: if we can let go of worry and fear when someone else is carrying the load, why can't we let go at other times? All of us know that worry is a misuse of the imagination, and fear makes us stupidly reactive. Why do we need to inflict these miseries on another before we can allow ourselves to shrug our shoulders?  I'm not sure I have an answer but I think it has to do with trust. In the book, it took Lindsey some thought and faith before she felt like she could trust Gemma enough to let go. And when the alpha friend understood that she'd made a mistake in not trusting Gemma, life got a whole lot better for both of them—Lindsey because she could take some of the load off, and Gemma because she felt trusted and valued enough to pull her own weight.  Win-win, my favorite outcome.

And the issue of trust leads me to the issue of faith. If we have faith in our family and friends to allow us to lay down the load, perhaps we can also have faith in something bigger than ourselves. If we can believe, first, that our fears and worries do no good whatsoever, and second that someone's already got our backs, then we can make like the French and lift that shoulder with a carefree, "C'est la vie."  

Or not. We can always choose to take up and keep our burdens all to ourselves. We can choose not to trust anyone else, and we can choose not to have any faith. Life will be nasty, brutish and lonely at that point, but we all make our choices. I choose to take a page out of A Vamp and a Hard Place and rely on my friends, my family and my faith to allow me to shrug. I don't have to shoulder all that weight alone.



Mighty Multicultural

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I just finished the latest installment of Jessica Sims' Midnight Liaisons series, Alpha Ever After. Very enjoyable. The plot revolves around Savannah, a were-cougar, and Connor, a werewolf. She's pregnant with his twins (long story), but she is resistant to the idea of a marriage and happily-ever-after with him. Once he gets with the partnership over dictatorship program, however, the violins start to play for our cat and dog shifters. And therein lies the rub; maybe Ghostbusters got it right— dogs and cats living together may signal the apocalypse. Or, such cohabitation may provide a lesson in learning to adjust to individual and group differences so that all might benefit.  When I was growing up, my mother told me that marriage was hard and that differences in race, religion, culture, economic and intellectual status just make it harder. She told me I'd be well served to find someone whose roots and background were just like mine, so we could avoid questions about where and how and whether to worship, which foods to eat, which ways to pass the time, how to earn and spend money, etc., etc., etc. My mother wasn't wrong, exactly. It probably is easier to have all those questions answered right from the start of a marriage. But, wow, does that also sound supremely boring. Predictable, expected, lacking in any spontaneity or adventure – or the thrill of rebellion. No, thanks.

And while I didn't marry the truly exotic—my husband is a white American, after all—his roots are sufficiently different from mine that life has been anything but dull. Certainly, the differences in our religious upbringings, childhood environments and early life experiences have made for an interesting and sometimes difficult-to-navigate life partnership. I've introduced him to matzo balls and potato pancakes, and he's introduced me to smoked turkeys for Thanksgiving and scrapple. Hardly seems like a fair trade.  But beyond the culinary differences is our basic approach to child-rearing in some respects, our finances, how and where we vacation; he introduced me to camping for the first time when I was 28 years old, and to the view of a riverbank from the middle of the river, rather than from one side or the other. Revelatory. I introduced him to the rare species of animals that inhabit Park Avenue.

Our families, like those of Savannah and Connor, took a while to warm up to each other. That can happen. I will never forget my brother's wedding, which occurred 10 months before ours. My sister-in-law comes from a Mormon background.  At their reception, the two sets of families and friends had been placed at different tables on opposite sides of the room where the dinner was held. On my brother's side, we Jews were whooping it up, eating, drinking and making merry—loudly and with gusto. The Mormon side of the hall was dead silent, with very little movement and no exuberance at all. They looked at us like we were lab rats. But hey, we would’ve done the same, if we'd bothered to notice them at all once we decided they were kill-joy party poopers. We were all wrong to adopt such judgmental attitudes. Those two families never did warm up to each other, a sadly, predictable outcome of the wedding seating.

Seeking to avoid such an obvious dichotomy at our wedding, my husband and I mixed the tables up and spread them randomly around the room  so that it was hard to tell who was who and who was with whom. It worked, and the resulting party remains one of the best I've ever attended (not that I'm biased or anything). And, again predictably, our families have done very well together over the years, to the point that my brother invited my husband's sister and her family to his son's bar mitzvah several years ago. It was great.

When we talk about blended families we usually refer to spouses who’ve been previously married and bring children from other partners to the mix – aka (hopefully) Brady Bunch-style. But I'd like to suggest that all families are blended—simply by virtue of two individuals coming together who have different families of origin. Whether those disparate nuclear families represent differences in race, religion, culture, nationality, socio-economic status, or even if their backgrounds are similar – blending of some sort must occur.

When we marry, we blend. We add to the great melting pot that is America. Sometimes the mix is more successful than others. But nothing gets blended without effort—we've got to mix it up and hope the result doesn't splatter everywhere. Without effort, there can be no gelling. In those cases, like at my brother's wedding, the discrete ingredients exist side by side, like oil and vinegar – neither able to cross the divide to form a tasty vinaigrette. Don't do it. Make that effort to mix. Life is much sweeter if we blend. Besides, if cats and dogs can do it, so can we. And in the end, the result may be blended children who owe their heritage to all sides—just like Connor and Savannah’s little ones.

Worth Fighting For

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I just finished Jill Myles' Mirrorlight, a short story about time travel and uncontrollable lust. Gotta love it. And I love Ms. Myles, aka Jessica Sims, aka Jessica Clare. Talented lady and clearly a little schizophrenic. But I like that in an author. Never gets stale or boring when you get to read completely different kinds of stories with different characters. And sometimes I really like a good short story. Not too much commitment involved and anthologies are a wonderful way to meet and audition new authors. Or spend time with those I know I already enjoy. Like Ms. Clare/Sims/Myles. But, this is not the subject at hand. I know, you are shocked. Today I'm pondering a question raised by Ms. Myles' story, namely, what do we care enough to fight for?

As always, I will speak for myself and hope that you all will tell me how you feel about all this when you read this post. But as the heroine in Mirrorlight was being berated for her apathy and the lack of objection with which she faced the loss of her job and her fiancé when the going got just a smidge tough, I had to ask myself, what was I willing to go to any length to have or to keep?  And what does that even mean, anyway?

As a parent, I know I am willing to fight for my kids. Usually, though, that doesn't mean anything more strenuous than meeting with a teacher or another parent to defend one of my sons against an unjust accusation or unfair treatment. Recently, I got into it with my neighbor who claimed my kid had done something bad to his kid. But I'm not sure this counted as fighting for something.

Now, it is true that nothing I've ever let go of didn't have claw marks on it. I'm actually not so great at the whole letting go thing. I didn't even break up with my former fiancé until more than a year after we had "postponed" our wedding. And I've stayed in jobs way past the expiration date more times than I care to remember.

But it's not clear to me that any of that counts as fighting for something I felt passionately about. I think all of those instances were more about inertia and fear of moving on and doing something new. And why am I having such a hard time answering this question?

What do we fight for? Well, in the literal sense, as a society, we fight our enemies, terrorists, criminals, drugs, poverty and probably other things we are supposedly at war with. War requires fighting. And presumably, as a society, we believe that we need to fight these things. And for those in the armed forces, or law enforcement, or economic development or counterterrorism, there are front lines that are dangerous and that embody fighting in its most concrete form.

But what about the rest of us?  Do we fight for anything?  Does anything stir our passion?  Sadly, and maybe I'm just being very short sighted, but the only things I can think of that seem to stir up passion these days is hate. As a society, we seem to be passionate about hating the other, however the other, those who are not like us, is defined.

I don't think hate is what Ms. Myles had in mind with her question. I think she was asking us about our motivation to passion not based in hate or fear, but rather love and compassion and connection. What are we willing to fight for in that arena?

I was a bit saddened recently when one of my sons decided he wanted to ask a girl to homecoming.  Which was great. But he wasn't willing to ask her until he had received some assurances that she was going to say yes. He really wanted to go with her, but wasn't willing to fight for her, which in this particular instance could be defined as being willing to risk rejection. He wanted more of a sure thing. The equivalent of a fixed fight, where the outcome is assured ahead of time. I tried to dissuade him from his chosen path, but he was having none of it.

Aversion to risk does not equate to fighting for something we really want. To fight implies the possibility of loss, of failure. Which is why the choice to fight is so hard. None of us likes to risk failure. God only knows what might happen if we fail. So we don't fight. We throw in the towel before the referee has even blown the whistle. We walk away from the fray. If we don't fight, we can't lose. 

Except it doesn't work like that. Not really. If we don't fight, we lose for sure. With the only consolation being that we can tell ourselves that we might have won if we'd wanted to. We could have triumphed if we'd decided to engage. But we didn't. So we can tell ourselves the loss didn't count and protect our fragile egos from the reality of our cowardice. Unlike Ms. Myles' character in Mirrorlight, most of us don't have a fairy godmother hanging around offering to provide courage. Most of us rely on the liquid variety instead, which only serves to obscure reality and steal time away from us so that we don't pay attention to the losses.

So, I will continue to think about what I'm willing to fight for, and what that battle might look like in my current life. Because I'll be damned if I'm willing to give up on something important because I'm afraid my ego will take a little beating. I think I'm more afraid of surrender than of fighting.  But that is another post entirely, isn't it? So stay tuned. And until then, maybe we can let Ms. Myles play the role of fairy godmother for just a few minutes and encourage all of us to fight for what we want. Who knows, we might get it. And isn't that better than telling ourselves that we could have been a contender?  

Taming Our Inner Ugly

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I just finished Jessica Sims' (aka Jessica Clare) latest Midnight Liaisons novel, Wanted: Wild Things (I wonder: is there someone whose job it is to sit in a room and think up silly book titles?  Must be). I really enjoy the books in this series--light, funny, and quick to read, they feel like a frothy confection one might consume at the end of a heavy meal. But underneath Ms. Clare's meringue peaks are some fairly deep themes, if one cares to look for them. Kind of like the prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box. In this latest offering, about a faery Changling and her primordial lover (as in large hairy male who shape shifts into a saber tooth cat), Clare explores the concept of self-hatred and its effect on relationships and the psyche. As always in the world of fantasy, the circumstances can be manipulated to amplify whichever reality the author wants to explore. In this case, the female protagonist turns into a hideous monster with ugly scales and horns any time she feels attraction to a man and he touches her in any way. Tell me you can't relate to that in a metaphorical way?

I certainly can. The whole idea that I immediately began to feel unworthy and unattractive (hey, that could be the name of MaryJanice Davidson's next book!) when in the company of a guy I liked is very familiar territory. My first thoughts after meeting someone (back when I was dating many moons ago) were all about what was wrong with me. And if I actually thought about what was right with me, it mostly had to do with appealing to a man's more base needs--the ones that could be satisfied by any woman with a pulse.

Where do these attack thoughts come from?  Why do so many of us turn into ugly monsters, at least in our heads, and then behave accordingly by either running away as fast as we can or behaving in a manner that pushes the guy right out the door?  What's up with that?  And I know it's not just me. So many of us do that.

But not all of us, certainly. I was talking to a woman just the other day who seemed not to suffer at all from this self-inflicted wound. She was large and in charge, weighing in at a minimum of 350 and she clearly loved herself, loved her shape and told me in no uncertain terms that she was hotter than the steamy Maryland day we were both "enjoying."  She had some health concerns about her weight, but absolutely no issues about her self-image or inherent attractiveness. I remember thinking to myself that her mother did a much better job than mine in giving her daughter self-confidence. Then again, most mothers did a better job in pretty much all ways than mine, but that is a subject for another blog post.

Why do some women look in the mirror and feel content--no matter what is looking back at them--and others see only our flaws?  I know I've written about this before, but it takes up a lot of my head space, not to mention my time in attending to my self-perceived deficiencies. Why else do we wear makeup and color our hair and shave our legs and stuff our feet into hideously uncomfortable shoes to make our calf muscles look more shapely and our midriffs look more streamlined?  Why do we spend time looking for the perfect skirt or dress that does wonders for our derrières?  Because we feel like we need to look better than we do without those activities and accouterments.

So this whole undermining phenomenon is largely self-imposed. We can't seem to help our transformation into something twisted and unattractive when confronted by a man we might find interesting because we can't seem to get out of our own way. In the novel that sparked the trip down this particular rabbit hole, Ryder, the Changeling protagonist, works to control her inner ugly creature, largely to no avail. Again, a metaphor for real life.

So, what to do about this whole issue?  In Ryder's case, true love trumps her feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. And that is certainly a recipe for success for the rest of us. I know that meeting and marrying my amazing husband has done wonders for my self-esteem and self-confidence. But I still wonder sometimes how he saw through the mountains of crap that low self-esteem had piled onto my actual personality down to who I really was so that he could fall in love with me. Clearly, he had some sort of X-Ray vision, able to cut through my ineffective defenses to see beneath them to my soul and recognize the match with his. And I thank my lucky stars every day that he was able to do this, because in keeping with my usual MO, I did my level best to push him away when we first got together. But he persevered and stuck around.

But what happens if we don't meet a man of such far-sightedness and dedication?  I think the answer, as always, is that we need to learn to save ourselves and either just say "no, thank you, I'm not listening" to our negative voices, or ignore them and act as if they don't exist. Either way, we need to run away from the negativity, not from possible partners.

Like Ryder, we need to come to terms with our inner beasts and embrace the totality of who were are so we can get on with our lives as fully realized humans. Even if we're not supernatural, we are all superstars and we need remember that.

Me and Mick

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Have you ever had the experience of grief over one specific person or event and it triggers a veritable parade of sad things to think about? You know what I mean--you can be upset about a recent death (or a break-up, even) and that leads to playing "Paint It Black" on endless repeat and then you start thinking about every single sad thing that's ever happened to you, including the ending of The Fault in Our Stars (or if you are older Brian's Song or Love Story). And you end up crying with your face all puffy and red (unless you are a pretty crier, in which case I don't like you). And if you are able to really work yourself into an epic cry, you can get to the “sobbing so hard it's difficult to catch your breath” phase, and then you have truly arrived at cathartic misery. Until the storm passes and the seas calm and you are left feeling empty and wrung out, but also fulfilled in some way that feels necessary and right. Or maybe I'm the only one who does this on occasion. Let me know before I start to feel like a freak.

And while I didn't quite reach the epic stage this weekend, I definitely hit a rough patch and had a hard time. Because I'm not as young as I used to be (who is, of course?), the sad parade is getting longer and longer. And because I'm hitting the time of life where parents start dropping like rain in the Amazon, it's been a tough year in terms of having abundant reminders of my mortality (in the form of four funerals and a wedding so far), continually ensuring that I remember to carpe diem. Time's a passing, and there's none to lose.

And these milestones make me think of those for whom mortality has no pull--especially vampires, the fae, and other supernatural beings who don't need to worry about death and dying unless their heads happen to become separated from their bodies. I think there are two sides to this particular thought process--the pain of an almost endless death watch as supes love and lose their human counterparts (can you imagine what their Paint It Black evenings look like?) and the flip side of that pillow where no one ever dies and what that does to the whole circle of life concept.

I'm reading the last (until August when the actual last book will be published) of Jessica Sims' Midnight Liaisons series right now. And I'm giving serious thought to adding the termination of this series to my death watch list, I'm so sad that it's ending. This one focuses on Marie, who has a terminal disease and is seeking a vampire to turn her and make her immortal.  But as she implements her plan for everlasting life, she becomes motivated to think about what endless nights look like without love and family, meaning or purpose. She's beginning to wonder if life is always the best choice. And it makes me wonder whether I would want to Paint It Black indefinitely and trade in my mortal coil for eternal existence.

I don't think so, in fact. Of course I reserve the right to continue with this train of thought and explore the implications much more fully down the line at some point. And to change my mind, of course, as is the prerogative of every woman. But at this juncture, I'm not at all certain I'd want to give up my sadness and the texture it adds to my life and my perspective. Nor do I want it to last forever, though, as immortality would require.

Death is a part of life, inevitably. It's frightening and often devastating for those left behind and those whose deaths come with a date certain stamped on the box, as when a cancer patient is given weeks or months to live. But it's something we all need to confront, both for ourselves and for those we love.

We can hope that the natural order of things is observed, as it is when our parents die before us, which has been my experience of the past year. But when the natural order becomes unbalanced, as when my teenaged children attended the funeral of a friend recently, it becomes much harder to accept and process.

But there is no way around the death watch except through it. We don't have Marie's option to seduce a vampire into making us one of its own, and there is no other supernatural get-out-of-jail-free card available to us. We all stop passing Go at some point, and none of us will collect our $200 when that time arrives.

So I'll crank up the Stones and I'll have a good cry, and I'll get on with my life.  I’ll play “She’s a Rainbow” instead of “Paint It Black.” And maybe I’ll throw in a little “Emotional Rescue,” just in case.

The Arithmetic of Love

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As you may have guessed by now, I am a bulimic reader. I binge read individual authors and then I spew forth my thoughts about said writer onto the pages of these blogs. Probably a remnant of my disordered eating days, but a lot less messy, not to mention way healthier. But I digress before I've even gotten started. Oh, well. Back to the subject at hand, or rather to begin the subject at hand, I'm coming to the end of my Jessica Sims binge. And I'm lovin' it!  But that's not the subject, either. The subject, my friends, is the arithmetic of love. Does love expand as we add to it or is love a zero sum game?

This particular contemplation was inspired by Jessica Sims' novella, Vixen, about a were-fox whose animal nature inclines her toward polyamory. In other words (and, in fact, in another language all together) ménage a trois, oo la la! Now, I'm a huge fan of Laurell K. Hamilton, and, therefore, I know a thing or three about polyamory, the love of many, for those of you who enjoy Greek etymology.  I've been riveted to my Kindle reading sex scenes featuring more than four hands and feet and more than two mouths, etc.  I must say, however, that even in fantasy, that's not how I roll. Sounds fairly confusing and overwhelming to my limited imagination, I guess. Either that or I'm just not enough woman to handle more than one man.

Having said that, however, there are clearly many out there who enjoy this sort of thing and to them I say, more power to you--which you seem to have already, given that the power is being generated by multiple sources, if you get my meaning, so good on you--wait, you seem to have that covered as well. So, maybe, bon chance! Enjoy!

But what about the rest of us?  Does the arithmetic of love apply in any way to those of us who prefer to love in single file rather than using the buddy system?  I think it does, actually. Because the issue that polyamory brings up (albeit in a more broad-minded sort of way) is whether there is room for more than one in our hearts and our lives.

This is really more than a theoretical question. In my own life, for example, my mother was definitely a zero sum love kind of person. My brother and I used to joke (not that it was really funny) about who was the favored child at any given time, as my mother seemed incapable of loving both her children simultaneously. We took turns being the object of her love (a dubious distinction, at best), and suffered the consequences of a parent whose heart could not expand along with her family. Tragic, for sure.

But not uncommon. Don't we all know people whose marriages fall apart after the first baby arrives because the father grew to resent the necessary shift of attention of the mother to the child?  Or, less drastic but still hurtful, how many of us have experienced friendships that waste away, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly when a friend finds a new boyfriend/girlfriend and the non-prefixed friends fall by the wayside?  Or, more disturbing still, when we are replaced in the hearts of a loved one by a time consuming hobby (golf widow, anyone?) or a new, demanding job?

When one person's gain is another's loss, the arithmetic of love is seriously screwed up. Give that math test a big fat F, for fallacy. Love is never zero sum, except in the minds of the tragically misinformed. As the Grinch taught us (is anyone vaguely disturbed that I make frequent reference to Dr. Seuss in a blog about reading smut, by the way?  No?  Cool, me either), our hearts expand the more love we stuff inside.

Love is most assuredly not a zero sum game and I have a special place of sadness in my heart for those who feel otherwise. There is room for romantic love, love for our children (more than one at a time, even), our friends, our pets, our passions, and, underneath it all, love for ourselves and the infinite.

Love is generative, in reality, meaning it creates--in the most literal sense that making love creates life, but, also, more analogically, love creates space in our lives for joy and new experiences and new feelings and a fullness that never ends. Love is the magic Volkswagen that never runs out of clowns.

Sometimes it seems that love is about the finite nature of time, so that we incorrectly believe that we cannot love expansively because there are just not enough hours in the day. And while my time obeys the same laws of physics as everyone else's, love is not bound by time, in fact. We can love widely, but focus selectively over time. So, it is true that a new baby demands time that used to be available to a romantic partner. And a new lover usually does take time away from existing friendships. But what demands our time should not be confused with what commands our love. Love is infinite, while time is zero sum.

Does this mean that it isn't exceptionally difficult to juggle the multiple expressions of love in our lives? No, it does not. The cosmic balancing game we must all play is really, really hard, and the rules change all the time making it even harder to play effectively. But that is what we are called to do and that is the work of a lifetime to manage. Time ebbs and flows and how we spend it so that we can attend to the multiplicity of love is a dance. And sometimes, or even often, we have two left feet and our clumsiness may hurt those we care about. But it's not a lack of love that causes our missteps in this dance, at least in theory, and this is why it is important to continually evaluate whether we are spending our time in a manner consistent with our love. And the fallacy of love as a zero sum game is the result of confusing the finite with the infinite, something we humans do altogether too often, unfortunately.

But, in the end, let’s give Paul McCartney an A for accurate, and recognize that he was mostly right--the love we get is equal to the love we give. And then some.