Charlaine Harris

A Woman of Few Words

I retreated to my comfort zone for … well, comfort. I rewarded an author who made money recycling previously published stories by compiling them into a single book. I figure that because I pay for convenience in a thousand ways a day, that I might as well add a new book of old stories to my pre-washed, bagged lettuce, my pre-measured instant coffee packets, my detergent and softener pods, and the drive through pharmacy, bank, and brew-through. The few bucks I spent on The Complete Sookie Stackhouse Stories is a small price to pay to keep company with one of my all-time favorite characters.

I Wanna Rock and Roll All Night

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I'm finishing up the Real Vampires series by Gerry Bartlett and contemplating a common vampire trope:  the newly turned vampire raring to explore new powers and heightened senses. These newbies are usually a foil for older vampires to demonstrate their wisdom and their restraint or an opportunity for the protagonist to be a hero/heroine. These are always fun scenes. In the Real Vampire books, we have Israel Caine and Sienna Star, neither of whom were too happy to become vampires. In the Sookie Stackhouse novels, the lovely Jessica is turned and goes hog wild with her new abilities. There are others, but the plot points are similar. These new vampires (or werewolves or faeries or witches) are a group of young people (no matter their chronological age) who want to rock and roll all night, and party every day (well, except the vampires who are dead until dark, naturally) and a group of elders who want to curb their enthusiasm. The problem—for me, at this point in my reality—is that the elder statesmen rarely have much luck curtailing their "children."  Not what I wanted to hear right now.  I have one son working to embody Kiss’ classic song and one who is enjoying the role of elder statesman (despite being 90 seconds younger). I'm not at all sure what to do with my wayward son. I've explained that he's free to carry on (I'll try to stop now), but that there are consequences to all of our choices. Like Glory and Jerry in the Real Vampire series and Vampire Bill in the True Blood series, I'm walking a fine line (with his father, of course) between enabling our son and pushing him so far away he won't listen to a word we say. Not only is that line mighty thin, but my eyes are going anyway, and I can't really see it clearly or follow it accurately. Arrgh!

What to do, what to do?  Some would say, "Have faith and let it ride."  Others tell me to get all up in his business and take control of a kid who doesn't know how to control himself. A third party heard from might suggest bigger carrots with commensurate sticks. Military school has been mentioned. I've entertained thoughts of moving to Nepal until his adolescence is over. I'm not sure any one of these strategies is the right one. I'm not entirely sure there is a strategy that will work. I am sure that the situation is aging me in a way vampires never do.

I have friends who delight in reminding me of my own misspent youth.  They tell me to chill the hell out and that my boy is just doing what boys do (which, they say, is a lot better than what I did). I'm reminded that my son has a path that differs from mine, but that he will find his way. I'm not so sure. He seems so very, truly adrift. And his choices seem so meaningless and devoid of a moral center, or the recognition that to the victor go the spoils. It's not enough to want to be successful, one has to work to achieve anything. My wayward one seems to have missed these messages.

Others tell me that I'm making the problem worse by not coming down harder on him. They say I should take away his social life, electronic devices, and even his driver’s license when he earns it this summer, all in an effort to control his misbehavior. I know from my own experience, though, that such tactics just produce liars and children who take unnecessary risks. So I don't think I'm going to go in that direction either.

I've read oodles of parenting books. They talk about incentivizing kids, which, in my day, was called bribery. I'm actually all for that; I don't work for free and neither should kids. By the same token, they don't get money for nothing (see, I didn't extend that line, so I'm not in dire straights). My kids have to earn their allowances. The problem is that we've tried that. In spades. We've dangled huge carrots as well as Damocles' Sword. Nothing seems to motivate this kid. So scrap yet another strategy.

My husband and I are lost. We don't know where to go from here. In my beloved books, it's only the threat of final death or years of torture that seem to get the fledgling vampires under some semblance of control. I dread the thought that jail or bodily injury (or worse) could be the only road to redemption here. But the truth is I have no control at all. Over my son's behavior or anything else for that matter. It truly, deeply sucks – and not in a bloody, satisfying way. It sucks in that helpless, pouty, powerless way that all mortals and immortals despise.

So I will suck up that suckiness. Resistance is futile. We'll continue to navigate the turbulent waters of teenage angst and hope none of us drowns. Because we're not vampires and we need to breathe. Deeply.



I Want What I Want

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I want what I want when I want it. When this refrain buzzes in my mind, I quickly walk to the other side of the street to avoid it. This kind of contemplation is bad for the soul and dangerous for the psyche. Why dangerous? Because many of us only think we know what we want, and the rest of us have no bloody clue. But we won't admit that we don't know, not even to ourselves, and thus we pursue our "dreams" to extremes, convinced we must attain them or be miserable and unfulfilled. What a sad mess. Why am I thinking about these potential tragedies? Because, as I discussed in my last post, I've been contemplating the content of my favorite paranormal HEAs. And I think I've discovered a common theme among them: every one of my favorite female characters ends up with an HEA that is significantly different from what she thought she wanted. Mac Lane begins her story hoping for a white picket fence and a genteel southern life complete with a husband and children. Sookie Stackhouse thinks she wants a nice Civil War vampire to have and to hold. Pia Giovanni just wants to hide and live out her life as anonymously as possible. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But in each of these cases, the authors—Karen Marie Moning, Charlaine Harris, and Thea Harrison, respectively, take their heroines on a journey of discovery about what they truly desire. Turns out, the truth does not match the fantasy for any of these fictional heroines.

I'm convinced that life imitates art in this instance: I'm predictably similar as so many of us when I say that the pursuit of what I thought I wanted didn't get me where I truly longed to be. In the end, I spent too much time listening to what my parents told me I wanted, what the media told me I needed for fulfillment and what Madison Avenue insisted I needed to be happy. I think most of us let others dictate our desires, and then we are lost and confused when we're not as content as we were assured we’d be, if only we could get all those things we’re told to seek.

It's quite the letdown when all that we ever thought we wanted is finally in our grasp and we still feel flat and numb—like someone spiked our celebratory champagne with Novocaine. We got the big diamond, large house, and the impressive title while maintaining a small waist, maybe even after a pregnancy or two. We worked and we schemed and we prayed and we bargained. And we made it, by God, we made it.

So now what? Nirvana, bliss, the Golden Ticket, you name it, it's ours for the taking. Except it's not.

What happens when all of that fails to fulfill?  Then what? Some of us refuse to acknowledge our empty reality and pretend to be satisfied with the trappings of ostensible happiness. We become plastic people with rictus smiles, reflecting the dead feelings inside us.  Others among us decide that we need to fix ourselves, and quickly, because the only explanation for not being happy with what is certainly making everyone else envious is that we are majorly damaged and in need of some serious psychological counseling. Misguided thinking for sure, but it keeps the therapists in business.  And then there are those poor souls who somehow don't get what they thought they wanted, and so spend their precious time pining for things that are not to be. I know a woman who wanted children desperately, but married too late to have them and then could not get past it, despite valiant efforts to convince herself and others to the contrary. She reveres all mothers, and is convinced her life is just not what it could have been. This is true. But it’s also true that she could have given birth to a child with developmental challenges, like one of my friends, or lost a child like another. These two mothers might sometimes envy my bereft, childless acquaintance.

We use the failure to acquire that which we think we desire as an excuse for compulsions, mediocrity, underachievement, loveless marriages, immoral and unethical behavior, sloth and procrastination. When we don't get the clothes, or the guy, or the kids, or the looks, the wealth or the health, then we can absolve ourselves of responsibility for our misery and justify our wallowing in it. I hate when I see that in others. I despair when I realize I've done it myself. 

So who are the lucky ones in this dismal picture I've painted?  Well, we have our favorite fictional friends, of course. We have Mac, Sookie and Pia, all of whom are young but wise.  They are able to adjust their perceived desires to accommodate the reality that all but bites them in the face. They each realize—over the course of many delicious novels, thankfully—that what they thought they wanted didn't fit the bill at all. And they were able to shift their perceptions to recognize their dreams and embrace them, finding their HEAs in the process. We can learn a lot from these paranormal people.

As soon as we even suspect that we've been chasing the wrong dream, it's time to make a course correction. Similarly, when it becomes painfully clear that whatever we thought we wanted is definitely beyond our reach, we need to let go of that fantasy and adopt objectives that are more realistic. If we must let go of a dream, by all means, mourn. But then move on.  We also need to tune out the cacophony of voices telling us what we want and what we don't want. Plug your ears and just say "no."  We must take the time to discern what we, ourselves, actually want, no matter that it's not what others think we should desire or seek to attain. Our true desires are rarely reflected by the two-year-old screeching in our heads, "I want it now!"  We need to go below that insatiable inner child to the essential part of ourselves that speaks more softly. She knows what she wants and she knows how to get it – maybe not right now but usually when it’s right.

We're Working on It

I've been married for more than twenty years, and with my husband for almost a quarter century. That's a long time, although not, of course, by immortal standards, where a millennium of togetherness is the expectation upon mating and marriage. I literally can't imagine. And I've been thinking about all of the HEAs in my beloved fantasy books, and the countless centuries of intimacy that each and every one represents. As anyone in a long term relationship knows, the honeymoon eventually ends, and much of the intensity of the passion fades, as does our tolerance for the many differences between our partners and ourselves. I've written before about how opposites attract, and that has certainly been true for me and my spouse. But even if we partner with someone who seems very similar to us on the surface, we all have shadow selves that are uniquely our own. In a lasting lifetime partnership, how do we accept the dark side of our mates, and how can we ask them to do the same for us? I'm not sure, but I know we're working on it. Whenever I think I'm terminally unique or that my relationship is different from those of others, I have but to read one of my favorite fantasy books. Pia and Dragos, Mac and Barrons, Sookie and Sam, and, most recently, Mariketa and Bowen all deal with the beasts within and the necessary accommodations each must make to be part of a couple. Over the course of their stories, each of these pairs learns to come to terms with the creature beneath a beautiful body as they struggle to become a twosome. And maybe it's the GQ looks that each of our heroes possesses, or the alpha male charisma, or their profound devotion to their women that makes it seem easier for their wives.  But any way you slice it, these guys got game—of the animalistic variety. Talk about a dark side. And their women have their own weaknesses and shadows that give depth to their characters and interest to the readers.

But how does this relate to the rest of us? If we ask ourselves honestly, do we truly accept the shadows of our mates? Have we revealed our own inner demons? I'm pretty sure I have, as my demons aren't quite housebroken, and come out to play even when I've told them firmly to stay inside. But they don't listen, and the mess they make can be epic at times. So my husband is well aware of the shadows lurking in my heart. Most of them, at least. But what about his? Can I embrace the darkness in him even as I demand his light? I tell myself I can, but sometimes my actions belie my claims.

In our wedding ceremony, the officiant spoke of the three elements of our union: my husband, our marriage and me. She talked about how we were two complete individuals coming together to create something distinct—a new entity. We had discussed this concept with the minister before the wedding, and she was able to write beautiful prose around our desire to avoid the two halves of a whole trope. I'd been to weddings where that was the theme—where the bride or groom represented the "missing puzzle piece" for the other, like the lyrics of that simpering Katy Perry song about being a teenage dream. I'd also read about this approach to love relationships in the historical romance novels of my youth in the 1980s. In those early bodice rippers, the hero and heroine were always two peas in a pod, two sides of the same coin, an incomplete soul waiting for its other half. Gag me. 

My husband, good man that he is, would never introduce me as his better half. The way I figure it, if I'm only half a person waiting to become whole through the addition of another, the half I'm likely to be is the good part—after all, who would want me (or anyone) if they represent the half that lives in shadow? No one, that's who. So if I'm half a person representing the good stuff, then when I come together with He Who Shall Complete Me, we're gonna generate shadows, not light.

Instead, when I was at the point where I was open to a lifetime partnership, I was looking for someone who would intensify my light and my strengths but also be able to live with my darkness and weaknesses. After all, the advice I give to all couples thinking about marriage is this:  take your intended's worst qualities, magnify them 1000 times, and decide if you can live with what that looks like, it's a good match.  Because if you're going in with the hope of change, as they say in my hometown, fuggedaboutit. 

So for me, and for the fantasy fictional couples I love, we're working on it. All of it. Making sure all of me loves all of my mate and vice versa. It's the work of a lifetime, and a labor of love. We have to take the dark with the light, the beast with the beauty, the good with the bad. Whatever the case, I'll take it all. 



I'm Dreaming of A paranormal Christmas

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s we are all hopefully cozying up to a Christmas fire, hanging out with family and friends eating lots of delicious food, it seems a good time to think about divinity and the nature of the Divine in my beloved fantasy books. As a former serious student of theology (seven years in a seminary), I'm quite interested in the subject, specifically with respect to the relationship between God and humanity and how different religions and cultures express their beliefs.  I'm always interested in Genesis stories, as well as how a particular tradition experiences time--either as cyclical, including the concepts of karma and reincarnation, or linear, encompassing the notion of time moving forward toward a certain end--as in universal (or selective) salvation. What I find particularly noteworthy in most--but not all--of my paranormal and urban fantasy novels is that a concept of the Divine, with a capital D, is largely missing, which raises some complex questions about being created in God's image, self-referential entities, and what a lack of spirituality will do to creatures over the eons.

Now, I understand that George R. R. Martin is in a class by himself. I'm not sure anyone else has counted, but I have, and there are no fewer than seven religions described in the Game of Thrones series--so far (and yes, for all you purists out there, I am aware the series is formally called A Song of Ice and Fire, but that takes too long say).  Seven theologies, seven different descriptions of deities, rituals, beliefs, the man is amazing. And I don't expect that from anyone else. The only one who comes even a little close to good old George is one of my author crushes, JR Ward. In her highly developed world, the Scribe Virgin and her dark counterpart, the Omega, are god-like creatures, although reference is made to both of them being the offspring or creations of a single Deity who is never seen or heard from (except to impose strict balance in the world so that everything has a price so that symmetry is maintained.)

One of the things I appreciate about JR Ward's world of the Black Dagger Brotherhood is that the Brothers, and even the King, are not the ultimate arbiters of their own fates. Because of the existence of the Scribe Virgin, all the Brothers must serve someone or something greater than themselves. In contrast, some of my other all-time favorite characters are essentially self-referential--meaning there is no authority greater than themselves. In Thea Harrison's Elder Races world, there is reference to the original seven gods, although those references come later in the series. But Ms. Harrison suggests that  Dragos Cuelebre, the dragon of my dreams, is also one of the gods. This is never explored at any length, and Dragos is portrayed as not abusing his power, but you've got to wonder about his past, which is never drawn in any detail and what being regarded as, or actually being a god does to a creature.

And then there is my other favorite book boyfriend, Jericho Barrons. We never find out what Barrons is--I've read that Karen Marie Moning wanted to free Barrons and the Nine from the strictures of labels--but we know that he and his kind have been revered as gods. Not to mention the Fae princes in the same Fever series--they have certainly been worshiped as gods and no power can seem to impact them, and they are almost unanimously monstrous as a result. That's what you get when there's no higher authority to hold your feet to the fire of good behavior.

Without a concept of the Divine, or an absolute (or even relative) moral code, it's hard to imagine what keeps decorum decorous. Why aren't all of these immortal, powerful, dominant, demanding and controlling beings taking headers off the deep end on a regular basis?  Some of them are, of course. Nalini Singh suggests that it is love or the lack therefore that keeps quasi-omnipotent beings like Archangels on the straight and narrow. Lijuan, the archangel of China, is worshiped as a goddess and is out of her mind, totally mental, which is a problem when you control an army of the undead. Ms. Singh suggests that it is because Lijuan killed her mortal lover when she realized that her love for him would render her vulnerable, and therefore weak.  Raphael, on the other hand, has the love of Elena to keep him sane and steady. I've written about this elsewhere. But what I hadn't stopped to wonder until right this minute was where is God in this world of archangels? I thought they went hand in hand, but there is no allusion to the Divine at all in the Guild Hunter series.

And then there is the issue of humanity being created in God's image. In the same way that the potential existence of life beyond Earth poses some sticky wickets for Christian theologians, so too would the existence of shapeshifters, vampires, elves, faeries, and the occasional deities of mythology come to life. A few series examine these questions, such as Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire series. In Sooie Stackhouse's world, the humans who have recently learned that they share the planet with the undead wonder about the state of the vampires' souls. But what about the whole God made flesh issue? If beings could transform between humanoid and animal, as so many of my beloved characters can, what does that say about the state of their souls or the image of God?  The mind reels.

I'm guessing that at this point I've lost many of you entirely. My apologies. But I do think about this stuff, and Christmas Eve seemed as good a time as any to vent some of my musings. I did warn you that this blog was about deep thoughts I've had while reading vampire porn, right?  OK, OK, less deep thoughts and more deep throat, I've got it. Until next time, dear readers, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a Good Night. We'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming in time for the New Year.

Bargain Hunting

know a number of people who are militant about not paying full price. They clip coupons and wait for sales. I’m not one of them. If something I want is, to my mind, fairly priced, I’ll pay that price. I understand that the item might be available elsewhere for less money, but I factor in the time value of money, the inconvenience and stress of comparison shopping, and if the slightly higher price might support an independent vendor over a big box store or an online behemoth like Amazon (don't get me wrong, I love Amazon, and I have the credit card bills to prove it) I pay the marked price.  But for me, fair is fair and value is value. And value is intrinsic and should not be discounted below its worth. This is especially true when it comes to love and relationships. Bargain hunting with our hearts is a fool's errand. What do I mean by this phrase?  Well, I'm talking about all the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that our significant others discount us, and perhaps, how we do the same in return. "I'd never do that," you exclaim.  "And I certainly wouldn't put up with it," you continue. I applaud your good intentions, but you might want to take a moment to check the sign on the road you're walking (you might be headed to hell, so take a look). Despite our best intentions, we all do it. When we listen with half an ear to our spouse’s recounting of their day we are discounting our beloved.  When we roll our eyes or behave less than graciously when attending a work function with our spouse, when we give them lip service but no real attention to their interests and activities, we are discounting them. When we "jokingly" criticize their driving to our kids, or poke fun at their foibles, we are discounting their value and decreasing their worth.

e often see this theme in paranormal and urban fantasy relationships that fail. These provide excellent models of what not to seek when we're looking for love. Two examples that stand out (spoiler alert if you haven't finished the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris or aren't up to date with Laurell Hamilton's Anita Blake works) are the unsuccessful romances between Sookie and Eric and Anita and Richard.  I wasn't too upset about Richard, because Jean Claude is so much more... everything, actually. I was rooting against Richard the whole time. And once I got over my deep depression that Sookie and Bill broke up (because he took her for granted and discounted her value until it was too late), I wanted her to end up with Eric so badly… but it was not to be because he didn’t value her highly enough for who and what she was.

The problem with both of these failed relationships was that the men discounted their women. For Anita and Richard, he disapproved of Anita's job and her paranormal abilities. Odd, of course, given that Richard is a werewolf. Richard devalued who Anita was and what she did, which cost him her love -- and sent her right into Jean Claude's bed, luckily for us. Richard redeemed himself a bit later in the series, but never completely.

In the Southern Vampire series, Sookie loves Eric, and she is his heart’s desire. But in the end, Eric revealed his long term plan to turn Sookie into a vampire like himself, regardless of her opinion about this. So, while Eric loved Sookie, he didn't trust her to know her own mind. He was completely dismissive of her humanity, essentially depreciating her worth unless she became more like him. Not good. Discounts don't work in this scenario.

I've often told the story of why, when it came down to brass tacks, I married my husband. I had been engaged before to a Special Forces officer--complete with a green beret and an Army Ranger badge. He was a badass and I was smitten.  But in the end, I knew I couldn't marry him, because every time I had an issue he would say, "That's your problem."  By which he meant that my perceptions were invalid --what I considered important wasn't valued by him. Definitely not a keeper. By the same token, the reason I married my husband was because instead of discounting my opinion, he added value to it by validating it. When I say I have a problem, he says, "Well, I'm not sure I see that as a problem, but if it's a problem for you, then it's a problem for us, and let's fix it together."  When it comes to my opinions and happiness, my beloved never hunts for bargains. I love that about him.

Unfortunately, I didn’t start reading in my now-preferred genre until about eight years ago.  I could have saved myself a lot of trouble and heartache if only I’d progressed beyond mysteries, police procedurals and international intrigue earlier in my reading career.  While I learned a lot about espionage tradecraft and courtroom protocols, not to mention a ton of random knowledge from my historical mysteries, I didn’t learn about love and the dangers of devaluation from these kinds of books. The truth I have absorbed from reading my beloved fantasy novels is that no matter how gorgeous (‘cause they are all drop-dead beautiful), dangerous (in the compelling bad-boy way), devoted (in the overbearing, protective, Neanderthal way), or accomplished (as only unnaturally long-lived vampires and werewolves can be), if they don’t value us for who we are, we need to kick ‘em to the curb.

I Walk Alone

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It's been a bad week. As I wrote about here, I lost one of my beloved dogs recently, and I’ve been in mourning since. I haven't been sleeping well, so I’m dragging myself through my days and blinking my eyes forcefully to keep the stinging tears at bay. I know this too shall pass, and a part of me is satisfied that this state is a fitting tribute to my precious puppy…  and then I just miss my beloved Beau and the blinking gets worse.

I am thankful that so many people have shared their stories of departed pets and the intense emotions associated with those deaths. Thank you for the reminder that I am not alone in my grief and the need to adjust to new circumstances. It's comforting to know I am in the company of those who have walked in my current set of shoes. 

s is often my practice when I am sad or depressed, I revisited an old favorite, the Southern Vampire series by Charlaine Harris. This is the series that hooked me in this genre, and I will be forever grateful. There is a passage in the first book, Dead Until Dark, which caught my attention this time around. Sookie is thinking about the many issues related to her telepathy - and to the fact she is dating a vampire. She would like to discuss her problems with a friend, but feels that no one is equipped to handle her difficulties because they are so far beyond the pale of everyone she knows. She's right. And I can relate; it’s equally alienating when I feel alone with my problems and concerns.  

There is a fine line between erroneously believing oneself to be terminally unique and an authentic expression of despair that others have never walked in our particular pair of Jimmy Choos. It's one thing for a friend to commiserate over a bad breakup, or, in my case, the death of a beloved pet. It is quite another when we are alone in a position of authority or responsibility and there is no one with whom to share the burden of our own specific pain – when not everyone has walked in our current set of footwear.

For me, it was excruciating to grow up as the child of a narcissist in the age before the Internet. No one would believe the depth of my mother's insanity. Except my brother, who had to squeeze into the same pair of awful shoes I was forced to wear.  It's why we were so close as children. My friends got glimpses of her craziness, but not the full extent of her particular brand of cray-cray. At first even my husband thought I was exaggerating. It took many years and many arguments where I felt he had taken her side against me before he finally, fully believed that to try to stay neutral in the war with my mother was to hand victory to her on a silver platter.

Sometimes, no matter how much we sympathize, we just can't really know what’s it’s like to walk in another’s shoes.  It’s why we are taught not to judge.  But it’s also why we sometimes feel so isolated with our issues.  We feel like we’re the only ones who know what we are going through.  And in truth, we are, as we are absolutely incomparable and special and this moment cannot be identical for any two people. So there is some truth to our existential sequestration.  But we all share the human condition, and the aphorism that there is nothing new under the sun.  So while no one has walked in our shoes with our feet, it’s true, we all have feet and most of us have shoes. And while I'm a fan of professional therapy, a paid therapist cannot take the place of being understood by someone who loves us for free—it’s somewhat like the difference between a lover and a hooker—physically similar but emotionally…so very far apart.

This is the beauty and the blessing of my various friends. Depending on my specific problem du jour, I can reach out to one or more of them to listen and understand.  Mostly, my friends truly get it, and in so doing it relieve me of the loneliness of feeling like a freak—abandoned in my weirdness, solitary in my singularity. This is also the role of spirituality—the idea that where humanity may fail us, that which is greater than ourselves (however we each define that) will not. Apparently, the Universe has more shoes than Imelda Marcos, and can always identify with whatever it is we’re going through. In any case, we should all make like Winston Churchill and remember that if we are going through Hell, we shouldn’t stop to admire the scenery.

But despite this great self-talk, and the outlet that is this blog, I still feel terminally unique on occasion, and therefore completely alone. This is likely the result of a touch of my own hereditary narcissism, because, after all, the apple rarely falls far from the tree. But then I remember that I'm half my father's daughter as well, and the co-creator of my own destiny, so I can't be all that bad, and maybe I’m a lot like everyone else in feeling that I’m all by myself sometimes. Just like our fingerprints and our DNA, there are things about all of us that are just ours, so it's possible that occasionally we walk will without any human companionship of the emotional and spiritual variety. And then we’re lonely. At those times we can remember the legions of others in various Jimmy Choo designs and know that we belong to the sisterhood of sore feet and the brotherhood of bad shoes wherever we all tread.

It's Good To Be A Guest

I'm a city girl, through and through, Manhattan born and bred. But last weekend, I had an opportunity to experience life in what I have previously (and inappropriately) termed "fly-over" country. I spent the weekend in Northern Mississippi. Which of course inspired me to reread the Southern Vampire series by Charlaine Harris, and to contemplate the concept of hospitality and what it means to be a guest. Coincidentally (or not, as this is my life we're talking about), the first entry in the Argeneau Vampire series also deals with the issues related to the correct way to treat guests. Apparently, there's a lot more to it beyond telling those who visit to "make themselves at home." Of course I knew that, but these books and my recent visit have really brought the point home, so to speak.

n Dead Until Dark, Sookie Stackhouse and her grandmother, Adele, are poor but proper.  When they plan to entertain, the house gets cleaned from top to bottom and the best dishes, linen and flatware are taken out for use.  In the south, only the best will do for guests. Moreover, there is an unwritten code of generosity that underscores the hospitality—no matter how much or how little one has, it is shared with guests.

I experienced this kind of hospitality when I lived in Israel. I was privileged to visit many homes, some prosperous, but the majority humble. And no matter where I went, I was offered tea and something to eat, and in ways large and small I was made to feel not only welcome, but that my presence in the abode was a distinct honor, regardless of whether they'd met me before or knew me from Eve. Didn't matter—I was treated to the best chair, the best place at the table, and the best morsels of food.  If my visit was expected, it was clear that an effort had been made to create a beautiful table for my pleasure, and that the everyday accouterments were replaced with the special fare saved for guests. Which, of course, made me feel special.

It was the same in Northern Mississippi. Our hosts were the parents of one of my close friends, and they had clearly gone all out for us. When we arrived the table was laid out with gorgeous dishes, fine silver, and a resplendent buffet, to sate our hunger after our journey. Fresh flowers graced the fireplace in our room, and an assortment of toiletries were provided lest we had forgotten something essential. What a far cry from my own (Northern) ‘etiquette’ of pointing my visitors to the linen closet and instructing them to find whatever they needed.

In so many different ways, our hosts’ actions let us know that great effort had been expended to ensure our every conceivable need was met even before we were conscious of it. Normally, this level of attention and generosity makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable—beholden – like I'd put people out, been a burden, owed a debt I didn't necessarily initiate borrowing. It's different in the South. Despite the obvious effort that had gone into preparing for our stay, and the energy required to host us at such a level of hospitality, my friend’s parents never made it appear as a burden. To the contrary, they made us feel like it was their privilege and pleasure to entertain us in their home. Neat trick. Wish I knew how they did it.

In truth, it seems like a skill specific to Southerners, like our hosts, Sookie and her grandmother. Or maybe the skill  belongs to a more gracious era, like Marguerite Argeneau in Lynsay Sands’ entertaining vampire series. I also think that authentic gentility stems from a genuine pleasure in being a host—being proud of one's home and heritage and the desire to share them both with others. I think for me, all of this falls into my severe domestic goddess deficit, about which I’ve written before, and my complete inability to cook, clean, decorate or garden. Makes it harder to be a gracious host.

But it is good to be the guest of someone who knows how to do it up right. I felt like the most important person in the world, and that I'd made these people's day by showing up to their home, sleeping in their beds and eating their food. I felt valued and wanted. And how lovely is that?  I was the gal who warranted breaking out the good china, the one who inspired fresh flowers to be cut from the garden, and for the best linen to be ironed and used on the table. I was offered the best wine in the house, and someone made a run to get me coffee when they discovered that there wasn't any because I love my morning Joe.

I’m home now, eating takeout on our everyday china with a paper napkin. But it's nice to know that I don't have to travel back in time to party with the Argeneau Vampires or to Bon Temps, Louisiana to experience true hospitality and gracious living. It’s reassuring to discover that such gallantry exists  outside of Martha Stewart's magazine.  Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be able to up my etiquette game to the level I found in Northern Mississippi right here in little old Annapolis.

I Want My HEA

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I started reading romance novels as a freshman in high school. In retrospect, it probably wasn't my best move. Before I started dating and before anyone explained the facts of life to me (not the birds and the bees, but the realities of male/female interaction), I was influenced in by Fern Michaels, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and Johanna Lindsey in this arena. Unfortunately, I took the lessons of these wonderful authors to heart and had an extremely warped view of romantic relationships and how romantic love should be expressed. I thought the fantasy was truth. And while you know I believe in truth in fantasy, I missed the memo in my teens and drank the Kool-Aid without any discernment or analysis at all (although I'm trying hard to make up for it now). It must be said that the historical romances I devoured in the 1980s didn't have much in common with the paranormal romances I enjoy today or anything in common with my favorite urban fantasy books. The historical romances I enjoyed featured ultra masculine heroes and beautifully feminine heroines who, according to the formula, don't like each other much and who work hard to fight their mutual attraction and overcome the many obstacles to their love, only to succumb to the inevitable and realize that they are soul mates as they achieve their happily ever after.

The power dynamic was always in favor of the male who always ends up rescuing the woman in some form or other—although, in the same way Julia Roberts assures Richard Gere that the beautiful princess at the end of the story turns around and saves the prince who first saved her—the female protagonist in my romance novels always succeeded in making her man a better person, a la Helen Hunt and the inappropriately older Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets. Given the mutual salvation, one could avoid thinking that these novels might have been written by Bobby Riggs. By the same token, no one would inadvertently credit their authorship to Billie Jean King, either.  

My love of reading brainwashed me at an early age to expect, erroneously,  that real men—the kind to whom a young woman like me would be attracted—didn't always want to acknowledge or act on their hidden love for the young woman in question. I also expected that there would be impediments to our love and that it was okay to be involved in relationships with extreme power imbalances where I was always in the weaker position.  I read it in bestselling books, after all.

I made some abysmally poor choices based partially on these romance-novel-inspired beliefs. But at least these books were straightforward and explicit in the messages they promulgated: women need men to save them or complete them and to just cuddle with them. No man = no happily ever after.  And I didn’t want my life to be a losing equation. Clearly, these authors were unaware of the new paradigm where a woman needs a man as much as a fish needs a bicycle. Apparently, those fish are in serious need of some pedal pushers.  

Fast forward to about six years ago, when I fist discovered Sookie Stackhouse in Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire world. I fell in love with Sookie and her fierce independence. I loved that she didn't just melt at the feet of the first vampire who came a’ calling. She remained her own person and stayed true to her values and beliefs. Sookie was my hero.  Then I was introduced to Anita Blake, and while it may not have been love at first sight, our relationship grew into a strong and lasting one (at least on my side). Anita kicked butt and took names. She was glorious.

But there was one small problem—while Sookie and Anita were busy being themselves and resisting the temptation to become the willing love slaves of Vampire Bill and Eric Northman or Richard and Jean-Luc, I was berating my poor husband for not being more like my fantasy lovers—Bill, Eric, and Jean-Luc (I was never on Team Richard, sorry, he was way too conflicted—I have more than enough angst for all of us). Instead of internalizing the best way to maintain my own power in potentially imbalanced relationships, or how to be true to myself despite being head-over-heels in lust/love, or aspiring to strap knives to my wrists and thighs, I was pining for males who do not and cannot exist outside the pages of my next generation romances. Wow, I guess I missed the memo again. 

Not to mention that my husband got rightly and truly annoyed by my constant comparisons of him to males who aren't real.   He did not appreciate being forced to read Dark Lover by J.R. Ward and encouraged to take notes so that he could learn how I wanted to be treated (I still think that J.R. Ward, Kresley Cole, Thea Harrison and Nalini Singh should be required reading for all men with female partners, as I've written about here, but I digress). He reminded me, none too gently (although it's possible I may have deserved the brusque delivery), that it's easy to be perfect within the pages of a book, for the finite amount of time I will spend with my fantasy lover (which of course reminds me of the memorable novel, Fantasy Lover, by Sherilyn Kenyon, where the male protagonist literally comes to life from a book and exists only to pleasure the woman who called him forth—but we can talk about that later – during my husband’s next trip).

I know my husband is right though, and it seems impossible that these protagonists not only get their happily ever after, but that their HEAs last for hundreds or thousands of years, as all of these characters are immortal.  In my real marriage, with my real (and wonderfully amazing, saint-like) husband, it's been a challenge to keep the spark alive for only two decades. I cannot imagine the effort required within a monogamous relationship that last centuries. More power to 'em, but my expectations may have been just a tiny bit inflated by reading about these fabulous vampires, werewolves and faeries at such an impressionable age (like, say, 45).

So the take-away here is that perhaps I'm too susceptible to the truth in the fantasy books I read—or maybe it’s the fantasy I’m a sucker for. I certainly was when I was 15, and apparently I still am at 50. I'm a bit more self-aware these days, but I need to stay on my guard. Because I want my HEA, the hell with my MTV. 

When Dreams Die

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I've been dreaming lately. Daydreaming, eyes becoming unfocused and the world softening around the edges. It's a pleasant way to spend some time on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Often, I find myself thinking and dreaming about the characters in my favorite books. Today, though, I'm thinking about the nature of dreams themselves. We talk about daring to dream, and I think that is an accurate depiction of the risks involved in making an emotional investment in desiring a certain outcome. When we admit to wanting something, we also subject ourselves to the possibility of disappointment, which leads inevitably to pain. Because most of us avoid pain and even discomfort at all costs, assuming the necessary burden of vulnerability isn't the path of least resistance that most of us prefer to travel. The ability to dream is the engine of great achievement and advances. Dreams inspire and motivate us to work hard and make sacrifices on the altar of delayed gratification. Dreams are the manifestation of our hope. 

And all of that is well and good when our dreams come true and we get what we want, or perhaps even more than we imagined possible. It's even good right up until the time when we are forced to admit that it's just not gonna happen. That is the downside of dreaming, the part where we have to either acknowledge that a train we were desperate to board has left the station without us, or contort into Twister positions to convince ourselves (erroneously) that we might still make it. Because not all dreams come true, despite what we've been told by well-meaning parents, teachers and Walt Disney. There are no magic wands waving to any discernible effect in this plane of reality. And we can't always get what we want, more's the pity.

I'm talking about when we need to acknowledge the mortality of our deepest desires, which, coincidentally, coincides with the mortality of our bodies as they march toward death. For those of us leaving middle age in our dusty wake, there are dreams that we've been forced to abandon, whether we like it or not. Only the most cognitively challenged among us could persist in denying that the dream of everlasting love dies with divorce, or even early death. Some of us must give up dreams of parenthood or athletic achievement as the inevitability of biology robs us of opportunities open only to the young.

When I think about my beloved immortals and the "fact" that they need not attend to the physical indignities of growing older, it occurs to me that they are not immune to other effects of dying dreams. In Mate Claimed, by Jennifer Ashley, part of the Shifter Unbound series, Eric must acknowledge the death of his dreams of a single mating when he falls in love with Iona. Sookie Stackhouse of True Blood fame, while not immortal, mourns her status as a one-man woman when she takes a second lover.  And it is so sad when Mac Lane must acknowledge the demise of her dreams of getting married in her small southern town, raising her children alongside her beloved sister and growing old together because her sister was murdered.

Laurell K. Hamilton offers one of the best-written depictions of this phenomenon in the Anita Blake series. Over the course of almost 20 books, Anita grows and evolves and we see her hold onto and then begin to let go of a specific self image, which is the dream we all share, and which most of us must abandon sooner or later. For Anita, she must grieve the woman she thought she was and wanted to be, someone who would marry and live in a nice house and maybe raise a few kids. Yes, she might raise a few zombies while she was at it, but hey, she saw herself in as conventional a role as possible, given her status as a necromancer.

But Anita, like many of us, saw that dream die. It was hard for her as it is for all of us, and paranormal fantasy works best when it reflects our shared reality (and then adds a little something extra). I've had to let go of many dreams.  I've had to acknowledge the death of my dreams of a beautiful pregnancy and my visions of being a carefree young mother, happily attached to her baby, bonding and seeing the world through new eyes, etc., etc. That particular dream was incredibly well developed, as I'd had many years of infertility to hone its edges to a killing point. And when that dream dissipated like so much steam over a pot of boiling water, the sharpness of the blade just about killed me. That particular dream died very, very hard. And it left scars, much in the same way that the death of a loved one leaves marks on our soul to remind us of our love and our loss.

Perhaps my daydreams are a little weird. That's OK, I'm proud to fly my freak flag high, as I've told you before. Hopefully my rumination on the ruins of my dreams will help others bury their own dead and embrace the reality that lives. All my favorite paranormal characters do it, and so can we. 

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 Politics of Prejudice

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I'm enjoying a new author, Jennifer Ashley, and the first book of her Shifters Unbound series, Pride Mates. It's light and airy, mostly, and the perfect antidote to the marvelous but depressingly heavy Robin Hobb trilogy I just finished. But even when an author colors inside the lines of the paranormal fantasy genre, as Ms. Ashley does (and this is not at all a criticism, I read these books with a certain expectation of knowing what to expect), there is a depth to the best of the genre that transcends the stereotypes of strong, independent women, hot alpha males, hotter sex, and inevitable HEAs. In this case, Ms. Ashley writes about beautiful people, who happen also to change into feline and lupine alter egos (or alter bodies, really), and the decidedly not beautiful consequences of prejudice that attend their ability to transform. Ms. Ashley is not the first to explore the ugly underbelly of human hatred and the small mindedness of judgment before the fact attendant to the “other” in our society. Charlaine Harris explores the consequences of racial discrimination against the newly revealed vampires living among humans and what happens when vampires "come out of the coffin."  The inimitable Laurell Hamilton writes movingly about the prejudice experienced by those unfortunates who have been stricken with lycanthropy (the disease that causes a human to shift into a beast), and who now have no option but to let their animal natures out to play, and maybe to kill. Patricia Briggs expounds on the systematic internment of the Fae into mandatory reservations and the consequences of that decision by the federal government against an element of the population. Lilo Abernathy investigates, as a central theme of her Bluebell Kildare series, the civil unrest that occurs as a result of the antipathy between "norms," or non-magical humans, and their Gifted counterparts.

In each of these cases, the author explores the universal human need to identify a group, "them," for the sole purpose of more clearly defining "us." What a shame and a waste. But we humans do it again and again. That which is not "us" is, by definition, "them." Those who are "them" are, by extension and necessity, evil or, at a minimum, worse than "us." They are who we use to make us look and feel better about ourselves.

Are we hard-wired to hate? It seems so. Hatred of the other, which I've written about before, gives us unity, camaraderie, and a sense of shared purpose. It makes us feel like we belong—but it is a perversion of fellowship and community, not an authentic expression of fellowship. This phenomenon of human existence also serves to help some of us feel superior to others. We do this in a bizarre and seemingly nonsensical way (as if prejudice could ever have any basis in logic or reality, which makes makes sense in a twisted way, if you know what I mean).

In all of these distasteful scenarios, and quite explicitly in the world of Shifters Unbound, the non-human, supernatural beings are considered less than human. These are not beings with full rights because they are not considered full persons. They, like American slaves, along with Jews, gypsies and homosexuals in Nazi Germany before them, are fractional people, so that more than one is needed to make a whole. What a concept. Personally, I have trouble wrapping my mind around it, which is a good thing and I won't expend too much effort trying. It's not clear to me how someone or more than one someone, can look at a living, breathing entity in front of them who has two eyes, ears, arms and legs just like they do, whose faces form smiles and frowns and whose voices speak truth and beauty just like theirs do, and see them as less than human.

As you know, I love the world of paranormal fiction because it allows authors to explore ideas and philosophies in an exaggerated way to make their points. In Jennifer Ashley's world, shifters are herded into ghettos called Shiftertowns in different cities. These are analogous to internment and refugee camps or Native American reservations. After all, we need to keep them contained and accountable. If they are all forced to live in one place, we'll know where to find them, won't we? And then we’ll be able to control them, and isn't that what this little exercise in fear and prejudice is all about?  This way of thinking is very warped, but seems to be prevalent, nonetheless. In Pride Mates, not only are shifters forced to live in Shiftertowns, they are also forced to wear magical collars that supposedly keep their beasts in check. Talk about taking control to the next level. 

And, while the shifters (or any disenfranchised population) is corralled into ghettos and forced to wear symbols of their status, their captors (those would be the humans) like to practice deprivation. In Pride Mates, shifters aren't allowed access to cable TV or high-speed internet (controlling access to information, presumably), and they are not allowed to hold any job where they might come into physical contact with human (gee—not even as manicurists?).  This deprivation is partly preventive, because it ensures that the dominated population can never become too rich or too powerful, but it’s also punative—a punishment for being less thanas if those who are denigrated in this way have any choice in the matter. And while deprivation might serve to keep the population down, physically and psychologically, it is also, as we’ve seen time and again, a recipe for fomenting discontent and rebellion. Stupid is as stupid does.  Again, I’m talking about the humans in this scenario.

Because, of course, all of this says a great deal more about “us” than it does about “them.”  Anyone who would subjugate a population just because it’s different or because they can doesn’t actually deserve to be called human, at least in my book. People who enslave, or imprison or degrade others to prop themselves up are the beasts, the savages, the ones unworthy of the status of personhood.  That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to live or to do as they want—as long as what they want doesn’t involve putting and keeping others down. So, along with my light and airy read, my paranormal fantasy also provokes deep and meaningful thoughts.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

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I'm taking my own FaceBook advice and rereading an old favorite before moving on to a new series. Today's selection is Dead Until Dark, the first in the Southern Vampire series by Charlaine Harris, on which the HBO True Blood series is based. I love this book. It is the book that started my fascination and love of all things vampire and shapeshifter and fae and witch. Charlaine Harris began her writing career with mysteries, so the book has a murder mystery as the central plot line, which helped ease me into the genre. Not that I needed much easing, mind you. In any case, in rereading Dead Until Dark, I was struck by a central tenet of the plot, the fact that the main character, Sookie Stackhouse, a barmaid in northern Louisiana, also happens to be telepathic. As in she can read people's thoughts as they are thinking them. And I began to wonder, what are people's minds full of?  Are they in fact mindful?  Or are thoughts leaking out their ears, leaving them empty-headed?  What about my own mind?

In the book, and then later in the series, Sookie makes a point of pointing out that most individuals' everyday, random thoughts are fairly pedestrian. Shopping lists, worry about finances, jobs, children, etc. And then there is the preoccupation with sex, sex, and more sex. I'm guessing she was talking more about the males of our species, but given the popularity of my favorite genre, not to mention your garden-variety romance novels, which is a billion-dollar business in this country, there must be quite a few women who are also filling their minds with lascivious contemplation. These days we all have sex on the brain, with the likes of the 50 Shades of Grey movie breaking box office records, and female pop stars practically fornicating on stage for the benefit of their audiences.

So it seems that our everyday thoughts aren't really of the lofty variety. And I'm as guilty as the next person, preoccupied as I am with my interminable to do lists and keeping the various aspects of my roles as wife, mother, friend, employer, employee, etc. straight and in their various compartments. And this is of course not to mention my plans for the future and my reminiscences of the past.

It would appear that my mind, like most, is quite full, even though I doubt anyone reading it would find anything of overwhelming interest or import going on between my ears. But am I mindful, in the expansive and philosophical sense of that concept?  In a word, no, I'm not. Although I'd like to be, and I strive to achieve little moments or even minutes of mindfulness in my daily life. I meditate. I practice yoga. I journal. In short, I make a conscious effort to take my brain off autopilot and bring it back to the present moment to appreciate the here and now and contemplate something more profound than my strategies for packing all my necessary errands into my workday while also stretching time to accommodate a couple of seconds of relaxation and vegetation.

Phew, just thinking of all the energy it takes to negotiate my day seems almost overwhelming. Not to mention boring for anyone bothering to climb into my skull and take a walk through the twisted pathways of my thought processes. As I think about it, I wonder at the mediocrity of that with which I choose to occupy my headspace. I'm thankful for these blog posts, which take me out of the banality of my daily musings and focus my attention on something bigger than myself and my petty pondering for at least a little while.

Apparently, I would not be much of a candidate for Sookie to tune into if she were looking for captivating entertainment, using her little gift, or disability, as she considers it. On the other hand, all of you reading my blogs get a bit of a glimpse into my grey matter, albeit while I'm actually trying to be engaging and entertaining. So, it occurs to me that through reading my blog, you get to approximate Sookie's experience. What do you think? Have I interrupted your own mundane thoughts and interjected a bit of true mindfulness, in the form of filling your mind with something worthwhile? I can only hope so. And I would certainly love to know, if you'd care to share your thoughts with me.

With Great Power

Life is good.  I’m still reading the Fever series bundle in anticipation of the release of Burned on January 20 (tomorrow!!).  I’ve determined that Karen Marie Moning is a genius and I want to be her when I grow up.  Oops, I am grown up and I haven’t been able to come up with anything like what she’s created.  I’m burning with envy that the Muse hasn’t visited me the way it’s inhabited Karen Moning.  There is so much in these books to think about it’s a bit overwhelming. It’s a whole philosophical system/unique worldview rolled up into a compelling story with characters who literally invade my dreams.  I almost don’t know where to start. So, I’m just going to jump in with a thought train that left the station as I read Mac’s story. One of the coolest things about these books is that they raise a number of interesting questions to ponder—and then they don’t give you answers tied up into a neat bow.  I know I said that I liked that—and I do in my paranormal and urban fantasy sometimes—but in this case, because she has inspired so much furious thinking on my part, I’ll forgive Ms. Moning her trespasses, as I’ll hope she’ll forgive any I make in writing about her work. The dilemma du jour is about obligation and responsibility.  I’ve come across this question before, in Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse character. The question is, just because you can do something, are you required to do it?  Does capability engender obligation? In the world of the Fever series, Mac struggles with the issue of whether her special sidhe powers—powers that might mean saving the world—necessitate that she has to use them to do so, even at the expense of her own life and joy.  Sookie ponders whether it is selfish and wrong of her to hide her ability to identify accident survivors after a catastrophe, or not to use her telepathy to solve crimes—knowing that if she doesn’t, innocent people will be hurt and guilty ones will go free.  Tough stuff, for sure.  Makes me happy that I can’t read minds or sense Fae objects of power—I would have the same dilemma as Mac and Sookie.  But wait—I already do—and so do you, actually.  We all have something we can do that would make at least someone else’s life better than it is.  Does that mean we have to do it? What does it make us if we don’t?

This leads to other, maybe even thornier questions. Do we need to always give money to beggars on the street? Must we help out a friend—every friend? Every time? Lend our talents to the military, the intelligence community, the police, first responders? Help a colleague? Do we do what's in front of us to do or do we go looking for people to save and help? What is our moral obligation? To ourselves? To others?

How do we square the circle at the intersection of “not my job” and the concept that with great power comes great responsibility?  I have no idea.  Do we behave like Sookie and go back to our lives, rather than sacrifice ourselves to the greater good?  Or do we do like Mac and decide to go all in, despite the risks and potential sacrifices?  This is a very personal decision and it goes beyond the question of whether to save the world just because you can.  How much should we sacrifice for others?  Should Bill Gates give all his money away, or just much of it, as he does? Should doctors treat patients for free in all circumstances?  There is a line, somewhere between Ayn Rand and Karl Marx, but hell if I know exactly where it is.  There is an art to saying no, of course, but for me, there is an even bigger art to avoiding the guilt that comes afterward.  I know, rationally, that I probably can’t save the world, although I do have a postcard above my desk that reads, "I am fairly certain that given a cape and a nice tiara, I could save the world."

But I can’t always help.  At least not without giving something up that I don’t want to give, including my time, my energy, my money and my reputation. And I’ve learned to say no and to live with it somewhat comfortably, at least much of the time.  But damn, it’s hard.  I used to believe that when someone asked me for something, the request itself created an obligation for me to fulfill it.  Even worse, I had a bad case of “if I spot it, I got it,” and I don’t the idea of seeing our own character defects in others and being all high and mighty about it (OMG—did you see how catty she is? I ask my BFF—in a decidedly feline manner).  What I mean is that if I saw something that I knew I could make better—even if no one else recognized this reality—something in my brain made me want to take up the cause and volunteer (in the military they teach you not to do that, ever). And then subsequently, when I was slaving away at midnight or later, seething with resentment, I had no one to blame but myself.

So, I don’t pretend to have the answers here, but I know these are important questions to ask, and I’m grateful to Ms. Moning and Ms. Harris for sparking my thoughts in this direction. There may be no right answer for everyone, and the answer may change with the situation and the time in one’s life, or even whether we’re just feeling generous or stingy that day—but now I’ve gone and given myself away, with my niggling suspicion that if I don’t do absolutely everything there is to do to help humanity and improve the world, I’m a selfish bitch. I’m thinking that’s not true, but I guess I need to work on my internal dialogue a bit.  I’ll need to switch off between Sookie and Mac and try to find some balance in my life. Wish me luck.

Authentic Beauty

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I recently stopped by to see a friend of mine, the New York Times best selling author, Laura Kaye. It was an unexpected visit, and when her husband ushered me in, Laura was sitting on the floor of her living room, in shorts and a t-shirt, wrapping gifts for her daughter's birthday. Her hair was scraped back from her face in a clip and she didn't have a speck of makeup on. And she looked amazing—a natural beauty. And I thought to myself, wow, I wish I looked like that with no enhancements or embellishments. But I don't. I need help to look merely acceptable.  And I wondered—to myself—at what point during the process of using artifice to appear more aesthetically pleasing do we cross the line from making the most of what we've got to projecting a completely false face (and body) to the world, undermining our efforts to be authentic and to live authentically?

As I contemplated these questions, I thought of one of my all-time favorite characters, Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse. Over the course of the series, Sookie is repeatedly given the opportunity to ingest vampire blood, which acts, among other things, to enhance physical beauty, including adding luster and body to hair, brightening skin, teeth and eyes, and generally serving to make humans look better. In the end, Sookie rejects these enhancements, feeling that they made her into someone she wasn't.

I remember being struck by Sookie's choices and thinking—gee, if I could look like I'd been to the most exclusive hairdresser in town, and then to the best spa and the most exclusive cosmetic dentist and plastic surgeon in the world just by drinking a little vampire blood—straight from the vein of a gorgeous vampire who has the hots for me--I'd be all over that action like Bobby Flay on a grill. 

Without giving away all my secrets, I will admit to partaking of many of the services the beauty industry offers in this country. I certainly wear makeup more often than not if I'm going out of the house.  And I wouldn't want anyone to see me at the beauty salon with foil all over my head, doing an excellent imitation of someone trying to channel radio signals from outer space.

I haven't done it yet, but neither have I ruled out plastic surgery down the road if my neck becomes saggy and my jowls start to head south. I'm honestly not sure how far I would go to preserve my looksnot that I want to look 25 again, but I'm also not sure, when I get there, that I want to look like I'm a typical 50-year old, either. I don't think I want to walk gently into that good night of looking old when I certainly don’t feel old.

So what about Sookie's decision to accept the inevitable ravages of the years to live life as an authentic human? If we choose to fight the tide of time, are we choosing to live less than authentically?  As you know, living authentically is my purpose in life and exploring ways to do that and sharing my insights is my current life's work. If I want to inspire others to live authentically, how far can I go with respect to physical improvements that aren't "natural" and still make a claim to authenticity?

How much artificial enhancement is too much?  When do we become like fem-bots—plastic, perfect people without a hair out of place or a wrinkle on our foreheads? If you look at most celebrities these days, they all seem to look the same—identically symmetrical faces with absolutely no affect because all of their emotive expressions have been Botoxed out of existence. How much of a slippery slope is it from hair dye and facial moisturizers to lasers and scalpels and vacuum cleaners sucking the fat from our thighs and our abdomens?

Maybe we should all make like Sookie and just say no. Maybe we should allow ourselves to grow old gracefully, even if grace isn't always as pretty as holding back the onslaught of time across our faces and our bodies. That seems like such a leap of faith, though, to accept ourselves as we really are, and to eschew smoothing out the rough edges of our physical imperfections.

I wish I could take that leap. But I don't look as pretty as Laura Kaye without my makeup on and my hair done. So, I may have to allow this bit of inauthenticity to slip by the barricades that normally serve to weed out dishonesty and prevarication in my life—the boundaries that help me live a life of integrity.  At least for a while—just until I can accept myself as being beautiful with no adornments at all. I’m working on it. Really.  But I won't hold my breath just yet. I might turn blue.

Old Familiar Places

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As you all know, I get so sad when I come to the end of a series.  Truly, I dread the time when I know I have nothing left to read in a particular set of books because I’ve spent so much time with the characters and become so invested in their stories that I just don’t want the party to end.  But end it does, as my wishes rarely have a terribly significant impact on reality, which is a shame.  Anyway—the end of a series leaves me with two choices—spend some time researching a new author and a new cast of characters in a fantasy world I’d want to inhabit for a time, or go back to an old favorite and console myself with the comfort of familiarity and proven enjoyment as I recover from the end of a beautiful relationship.

I’ve been known to do both, in fact, and it occurs to me that my habits are not so far off from what happens in real life when a love relationship ends.  How many of us have scrolled through our contacts (back in my day it was an address book, but same concept) looking for someone we can call for some uncomplicated love?  I know I’ve been guilty of that more than once (before my marriage, of course).  When a relationship ends, it sometimes seems like too much trouble to get to know someone new.  It’s a daunting task to endure the inevitable awkwardness and uncertainty of “will it work or not” that occurs when we audition a new prospect for the role of dream lover or even potential life partner –or both- if we’re very, very lucky.  Sometimes the thought of starting all over again seems like losing those last ten pounds, climbing Mt. Everest and getting a 1600 on the SATs all at the same time.  No can do.  At least not when I’m still raw from the end of a particularly wonderful series.

And that’s when a retread is just the thing.  It’s familiar.  It’s predictable.  It’s comfortable and comforting.  At least in terms of revisiting books.  Because if we take my analogy a bit further, it doesn’t hold up so well in the real world. In the real world, moving backwards and rekindling old flames can sometimes mean opening a can of exceptionally unpleasant worms. For example, we might know that a toddle down memory lane with an old lover is an extremely bad idea, but how many of us actually listen to that insistent little voice in our heads saying “Danger, Will Robinson”? Not me, I’ll tell you.  Nah, I used to barrel forward heedless of the danger, knowing that the old familiar road seemed a lot less scary than forging a new path.  Sometimes, the road less traveled just looks isolated and foreboding and definitely best avoided.  After all, I’m from New York where I learned that if a neighborhood park or street is deserted, then what the hell are you thinking by being there? Asking for big trouble, that’s what.

And who wants big trouble, right? But that’s the fear talking, not the part of us that embraces new experiences, trusting that expanding our horizons is (almost) always for the good and an endeavor to be pursued.  So, the good news is that after a few repeat performances with someone we’ve danced with before, and the realization that it doesn’t work any better now than it did then, we feel ready to move onto new adventures.

Luckily for me –and for you, too, there is significantly less angst involved in transitioning between fantasy novels than there is in romantic relationships.  The really good news in that there’s always a lot less baggage and fewer bad memories associated with revisiting a particular fantasy series that we’ve loved and lost.  We we reread books, there’s no resentment or anger or heartache (unless you are one of the folks who’s still mad at Charlaine Harris for how she ended the Sookie Stackhouse series—come on, guys, she foreshadowed that particular plot twist beginning in the very first book and then kept dropping hints like bread crumbs for Hansel and Gretel to follow! Get over it, already!).  Oops, did I digress again?

Back to the issue at hand, revisiting well-loved books or even whole series.  Personally, I reread Sookie’s story at least once a year, and also the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning. I pick up Dragon Bound by Thea Harrison when nothing and no one else can elevate my mood from the pits of despair, just cause I love it so much. I frolic with G.A. Aiken’s Dragon Kin when I want to smile, and laugh out loud with MaryJanice Davidson’s Queen Betsy when I really need a belly-full.

And the best part is that there’s absolutely no downside to indulging in my desire to make everything old new again with my reading and plumb the depths of these beautiful books to get a new insight or remind myself of a profound truth. Rereading books is nothing, in fact, like revisiting an old lover who might have picked up something nasty since the last interlude.  So, stick with books for your retreads rather than last year’s boyfriend or girlfriend. Because we can’t find truth in fantasy everywhere, just between the pages of our beloved books. And after we've finished revisiting books we've read before, we can move on to something new and marvelous.

Back to the Future

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In one of the early Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris, Sookie talks about storing up memories to go over in her mind later. Before she starts hooking up with vampires, who have recently revealed their existence to an unsuspecting world, she lived a pretty uninteresting life as a bar maid in Northern Louisiana. Mind you, she’s a telepathic bar maid, but that’s why they call this genre “paranormal.”

So, Sookie hoards her little treats, the anomalies in her life to ponder and pick apart and re-live. And I have to say, I really couldn’t relate at all. I’m a future projector, not a past re-hasher. This is analogous to the vanilla dogs concept—the idea that some people (like me) prefer vanilla to chocolate and dogs to cats. In the same way, I think people break down into two groups—those who enjoy reliving the past, and those who prefer to fantasize about the future.

Personally, I’ve never really understood people who repeatedly go over the past in their heads again and again. It’s done. There’s no going back. Even if you think of the perfect come back to that idiot who put you down with impunity, the moment is gone and you are just wasting your time (like generals whose war plans reflect the last war and the TSA who consistently put ridiculous rules in place to thwart the last bomber). I don’t know about you, but it feels nasty to be disrobing next to a total stranger with a massive beer gut standing next to you in line for the full body scan (as if that weren’t creepy enough) and you have to worry about the horrors of catching a glimpse of butt crack when he takes off his belt.  Gah!

Is there a point to this exercise?  Does anyone really believe they are going to have an opportunity exactly like the last one where instead of saying “your mama” to the bozo who insulted you, you come back with the perfect bon mot and make him feel three inches tall with a tiny little pee pee?  Speaking of, have I ever told you about my foolproof technique for putting lecherous men in their place?  If a man can’t keep his eyes above neck level, I retaliate by glancing sideways at his crotch and making a very subtle “meh” expression with my face—as in, that don’t impress me much.  Works every time. But I digress—again.  Getting to be a problem for me.  Should probably have that looked at.  Nah.

The point is you can’t go back. The moment has passed.  The train has left the station.  That ship has sailed.  Pick your metaphor--the fat lady has done sung, my friend, and that’s all she wrote. 

So why the hell would we spend time looking back, re-living memories, oftentimes with modified narratives and definitely different endings?  Sure, I understand that many of us fantasize that way, but again, I have to ask, why? Why go backwards to a past that’s dead and gone (guess that reference!) when we can play it forward to a future that hasn’t yet occurred?  The truly glorious thing about the future is that we can play that reel in our minds and paint the canvas any way we choose (which reminds me of the awesome new book I just read, Jade, by Rose Montague—run, don’t walk to read it—very original premise and a heroine who understands completely about playing it forward!). Dream wedding in a month? Done.  Best job interview ever tomorrow?  Nailed it!  Catching that fly ball in the next game?  You got it.

And the beauty of future projection versus living in the past is that our future fantasies could actually come true! Unless they involve Vampire Bill, as they have for me, in which case I am SOL.  But I guess you never know.  Or maybe you do.

But, back to the future. The future is where we can be rich and famous and well preserved, if it takes a little longer than we’d hoped. In fact, both the scientific and non-scientific worlds have embraced the idea of future projections as a tool to build a desired reality. Athletes are well known for visualizing the move they want to master prior to execution. They see—in their mind’s eye—the club hitting the golf ball or the bat hitting the baseball or the perfect layup—and then their muscles follow the path their brains have already traveled. It works to enhance athletic performance and almost all elite athletes do it. It works in other areas as well, and most new-age types also follow this practice (and I mean absolutely no offense by that terminology—I proudly count myself among you—but I don’t know a better term—any suggestions?). Visualization is an important technique for those, like me, who want to co-create our destinies.  We visualize happiness, success, and, love, and then we execute.  It works. I know. It’s how I started writing this blog—my passion personified.

So, I have a pet peeve with those who talk about making memories.  Making memories presupposes a future where I’m sitting around thinking about my past. No, thanks. I’d rather make my destiny than make memories. But hey, live and let live, to each her own, different strokes for different folks. Vanilla dogs and all that.