Laurell K- Hamilton

Why We Gotta Hate?

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I'm finishing up Laurell K. Hamilton's latest Anita Blake novel, Crimson Death. I love this series, although I have to adjust my mental pacing when I read her books because Ms. Hamilton is the queen of detail – both interior and exterior. But just as the devil is the details, so too are the angels. And, the Anita Blake books contain a wealth of insight into the human psyche, illuminated through the lens of vampires and were animals, most of which don't like each other. Unfortunately, Anita's world is filled with tragic hatred. And while I'd always assumed that these fantasy novels exaggerated reality to make their point, I think the hatred highlighted in these books doesn't go far enough in reflecting our reality. In the world of Anita Blake, the humans hate the vampires and the lycanthropes (werewolves and other were creatures), the vampires hate the lycanthropes and the lycanthropes hate each other (there is a great deal of enmity among the various species). It is a divided world where humans try to pass laws that legislate inter species antagonism; it works as well in their world as it has in ours—hardly at all. In the same way that attempts to enact laws to govern morality are largely ineffective; because police have very little purview over thoughts and words permeated by hatred. We’re all entitled to our opinions, no matter how misguided, fear-based or destructive they are, and there is no such thing as the thought police, even though sometimes we might wish there were.

And while one person's hateful opinion may not have much impact, the collective opinion of a sizable minority of a population most certainly does. I’m not a political person. I’m fairly jaded insofar as I don't believe that elected officials make much difference in these days of constipated government and spin over substance. Having said that, this election has awakened in me a burning need to follow all the news, read every poll and accompanying analysis, get involved and manage my extreme anxiety over the outcome and its aftermath. I'm a mess. And all of this because of my deep distress over the fissures in our society that this election has exposed.

The deep-seated hatred that has been given a powerful voice during this election scares the shit out of me. I had no idea that so many Americans feel so disenfranchised and hopeless about the future that they are willing to believe in vampires and werewolves. Or the functional equivalent of vampires and werewolves and other fantastical beings, that Donald Trump isn't a dangerously deluded bigot and misogynist who could easily lead the world into nuclear war, or, on a less global scale, civil war or revolution. I'm horrified. And exhausted from lying awake at night contemplating the apocalypse.

Hillary Clinton is far from the perfect candidate and I’m not suggesting that reasonable people couldn't disagree about whether she is the best person to run the country. I have no issue with those who believe she is too tarnished to serve or too divisive to be effective (or those whose views are more fiscally or socially conservative). I don't agree, but I will defend your right to your beliefs and their expression. What is different about this election and the tone and tenor of the debate these days is that fantasy has eclipsed reality as the coin of the realm. It is now acceptable to blatantly disregard irrefutable truth in favor of lies we only wish were true. If this isn’t fantasy in truth, then Donald Trump is a billionaire. 

Trump's entire campaign is built on magical thinking about the cause of all our national woes, causes that are all based on hate—hate of the other; women, African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, people with disabilities, fat people, veterans who have been mentally traumatized and those ‘losers’ who got themselves captured. If it isn't magical thinking to believe that immigrants and uppity women are the root cause of all societal problems, then I'll believe that Donald Trump would make an amazing Commander-in-Chief.

Trump reminds me of Homer Simpson, a stupid, small-minded man with a comb-over and opinions he does not want challenged by facts. Instead of saying, "Doh!" Trump says, "Wrong!"  Instead of being confined to our television screens using stylized animation, Trump is fully animated and not nearly far enough away from the Oval Office and our nuclear codes for my taste. But just like Homer, Trump doesn't have a fucking clue and he doesn't give a shit. He'd be a bad joke—or a caricature on a television cartoon series—except that his message of hatred has resonated so deeply with so many of our fellow Americans.

His supporters don't care that the New York Times has published a list of Donald's tweets that demonstrate his tenuous grip on reality or lack of cognitive consistency. He can say the sky is blue one day and swear the next that he never agreed that the sky was blue. He contradicts himself and lies so often the media literally can't keep up (I wondered why no one followed up on the fact that Donald was 6'2" his whole life until his medical records were released over the summer and he'd grown an inch—until I realized that if he were one inch taller he would be classified as "overweight" instead of "obese."  Who's a piggy now, Donald?  Oink, oink).

Almost 40% of our population has so much hatred in their hearts that Donald Trump, with his history of bankruptcies, tax evasion, sexual assault and harassment, multiple marriages, ignorance of world events and domestic issues, seems like a viable candidate. He is a hate monger and too many Americans are buying his brand of bile. Which is not a call to hate the haters, but an occasion to ask ourselves what we can do to listen to the legitimate complaints and concerns of those who feel they have no response except hate and vitriol. Those doesn't work, of course, except to get our attention. Which it's done. Or, at least, I hope it has. But if we keep going the way we're headed, The Donald will be able to claim that foreign dragons and unicorns are taking over our zoos to the detriment of our homegrown lizards and horses, and a horrifyingly large portion of the population will believe him. And maybe, just maybe, all of this hatred will somehow get us back to unity, or at least talking to each other again. Hey, if the werewolves and the wereleopards can make peace, surely we can too. Right?



Bad Hombres and Nasty Women


Note:  This is a shamelessly partisan post. I am viscerally, deeply opposed to Donald Trump and an enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton. So if that offends you, stop reading now. I'm reading the new Anita Blake book by Laurell K. Hamilton, Crimson Death. I want to be Anita Blake. I also want to be Mac Lane, Jane Yellowrock, Mercy Thompson, and Meredith Gentry. These are nasty, nasty women in the very best ways possible. And they hook up with some pretty bad hombres, which works for me.

This election has provided endless fodder for Saturday Night Live, and I’ve laughed along with everyone else (except for Donald, of course, who has no sense of humor, but I digress). But there are real issues here and it is deeply disturbing that the American populace is becoming inured to each fresh revelation of the revolting actions and attitudes of a presidential candidate who commands almost 40% of the vote.  But beyond all of that anxiety-producing reality, there are some truly ugly truths about attitudes toward women that have emerged. And while these truths need to see the light of day so the shadows can be banished, it is a painful process for those of us who remember and know what men—not all, of course, but many—think of us and do to us with impunity.

For almost 30 years I worked in the male-dominated field of national security studies, analysis and policy. I worked at the Pentagon for almost 20 years. Within the macho world of Warcraft, aka the American military industrial complex, many men are pigs on the order of Donald Trump. Men don't have to be famous to think they can get away with ogling, touching, grabbing, propositioning and speaking offensively to women. They just have to have a modicum of power.

If I had a dollar for every time I was the subject of inappropriate, vulgar discussions and/or questions, I'd be rich. If I had ten dollars for every time a male colleague came to my hotel room, or put his hands on me (if you wouldn't put your hands on the small of a male colleague's back to "guide" him toward the door, why is it okay to touch a woman in that manner?  Or, if you wouldn't put your hands on a man's shoulders for an unsolicited shoulder massage, why do you think you can do it to me?), I'd be Trump rich. And my bad experiences are probably mild compared to many. Sad.

I have been subjected to sexual harassment and sexual assault. No one was ever punished or even reprimanded for these actions against me. And the worst part—the absolutely worst part—is that I never expected the perpetrators to be rebuked. This is the true tragedy. I figured what millions of girls and women just like me figured: 1) there was nothing I could do; it was the price of doing business in a male-dominated world; 2) to complain or make waves would only serve to punish me, because if I didn't lose my job, I would be the bitch who got good old Jimmy in trouble (but not too much trouble, of course—he would still have a job and the respect of his fellows; I would be forever labeled a troublemaker who couldn't be trusted to do the right thing; and 3) nothing would change, so why bother? 

And all of that is only part of the problem. The other part is that young women were and are raised to believe (or taught by the entertainment and advertising industries) that their greatest worth resides in how they look and how sexually appealing they are to men. As a result, we dress to show off our wares and cultivate our feminine "wiles" to trick, trap and torture poor, unsuspecting men. We believe our value resides in our looks and we have to conform to societal (patriarchal) standards of beauty. Even an older, massively accomplished woman like Hillary Clinton is not immune. I'd like to meet her plastic surgeon, her hairdresser, her stylist and her makeup artist. Because as an aging, accomplished woman in the US, I’m going to need them if I want to succeed.

And then there is the tyranny of standards for female presentation, and the extreme disadvantage it creates. Panty hose, makeup, coiffure, complicated outfits, these are all time sucks. Not to mention keeping our hair colored and our wrinkles relatively smooth. Ridiculously time consuming compared to the male need to "shit, shower and shave" (as an ex-boyfriend of mine described his morning routine) before throwing on a suit and comfortable shoes and facing the day. I would have loved to wear comfortable shoes for the average of five miles a day of walking I did to, from and inside the Pentagon on a daily basis. But that wasn’t an option. Even Anita Blake is not immune from this form of male oppression. She speaks eloquently about the calculation that she and all women must make with respect to calibrating our appearances to a level of precision not seen outside of measurements used to make sure bridges don’t fall. Is my outfit too flirty? Am I showing too much skin? Not enough skin? Are the heels the right height? Am I projecting an image of sufficient power to make sure no one fucks with me, but not so much that men will feel emasculated? If that isn’t a rigged system, I don’t know what is.

And what about the culture of rape on our college campuses?  I've heard no fewer than five men tell me—with an understanding that it is horrifying (so many things to be horrified about these days)—that for college boys, "No means yes and yes means anal."  Really?  In 2016? I thought things were better than when I was in college and was raped by a date. At which time I told myself that it was my own fault for putting myself into a bad situation. And I didn't tell anyone else because I felt ashamed for being so stupid. I'm not sure things have improved since the 1980s, except that we are more aware.

This is where my beautiful, inspirational, amazing fictional heroines come in.  These women would most certainly be considered "nasty" by The Donald and all the white, Christian, heterosexual men who fear the end of their reign of world domination (which is long overdue to be overthrown). They are nasty because they are smart, and accomplished, and fierce. They own their sexuality, their power, their bad-assness. They are each she-who-shall-not-be-fucked-with and they are the kinds of women so many of us want to be.  They've got skills and strength and if some asshole tries to touch them without invitation or permission they might lose a hand. I want to be them. I want all of us to be them.





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.

Reality and Romance

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As part of my research for the book I'm writing based on this blog, I'm reading Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell. It's an interesting book whose thesis, that the romance genre has much to teach us about life, love and relationships, mirrors my own (well, she was first, so I guess mine mirrors hers). I was particularly struck by a passage from romance writer Loretta Chase that listed the differences between reality and romance: "In real life, men compartmentalize; in a romance, most of the compartments are filled with Her. In real life, men are easily distracted by, say, golf or a football game, when their women are trying to tell them something; in a romance, the hero is totally distracted by Her." Interesting perspective, and probably true, but I would like to pull this string a bit and see where it takes us.

Reading about this dichotomy between reality and romance in Wendell's book (by the way, Wendell is the cofounder of a wonderful website, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books), made me think of a related scene in Dragos Goes to Washington (I love Thea Harrison's stories--so much grist for the mill!).  In this scene, a sleepy Pia wakes to find that Dragos has packed her things for an upcoming trip.  She is amazed and impressed that he got all of it right, and he responds by telling her he watches her get ready every day and knows what she uses and what she wears. Later, when she is sick in bed, he buys her books and magazines that she actually likes and a new iPad, because he noticed the screen on hers was cracked. Ah, romance.

I've been married for more than twenty years. My husband and I share a bathroom and a closet and he does 100% of the laundry in our household. My husband and I both mostly work from home, so we see quite a bit of each other. And yet… there is no freaking way he could pack for me--casual, formal, toiletries, makeup and jewelry. No. Way. In. Hell. But I pack for him all the time. Ah, reality.

This must be a measure of the reality versus romance novels to which Chase referred (I don't put my paranormal and urban fantasies in the same category as general romance, although I know some do--I used to read a ton of romance, and my preferred genre these days has significant departures from its more traditional cousin--but I digress—which I haven’t done for a while.) It could be that whole compartmentalization thing, perhaps, but I prefer to deny that reality and believe that men have not been sufficiently educated.

For example, I think it would come as a shock to my husband that I would consider it a mark of his love that he paid enough attention to be able to pack for me. I believe this is true despite the fact that he clearly sees it as a mark of my love that I know him, his tastes and his belongings well enough to pack for him. Is this a double standard?  Maybe. But in his mind, I think, he sees it as a division of labor thing, not a love thing. In our romance, love is expressed by an equitable distribution of responsibilities in which he willingly and graciously assumes his share of the burden for our shared existence. I think this is a fundamentally fair approach, and so I don't complain.

What does upset me, however, is that he doesn't seem able, as Dragos is, to observe me, my habits and my preferences closely enough to demonstrate an intimate knowledge of who I am, at least in those ways. I sometimes think he wouldn't do very well if we participated in that 1970s TV show, “The Newlywed Game.”  Sure, he’d likely nail the questions about what is the most exotic place we've ever made "whoopee." But I doubt he could answer questions about my preferred yoga style (Yin), whether I believe it's okay to mix black and brown (I do), and where I keep my extra TBR book pile (in a corner of my office).

I'm not even sure he could answer all of the questions in an immigration interview if one of us were trying to get a Green Card. It's not clear he knows the brand of shampoo I use (Color Proof) or my shoe size (eight). On the other hand, I'm also not sure that any of this is important, except that there is no doubt I would be flattered by the attention. I am a creature of definitive and repetitive tastes: I like diamonds over colored gems; I prefer an ear wire to a post; I love to knit with brightly colored yarn, and to wear beautifully patterned yoga tops, but only with black yoga leggings. I love word art (and he's given me a number of pieces I adore, in fact – so at least he notices what’s on our walls), and I collect Tarot decks and chakra-related candles. 

Like romance readers everywhere, I absolutely understand the difference between fantasy and reality. Despite my occasional wistful references to my beloved not being more like Jean Claude or Jerricho Barrons, I don't really mean it. I want my husband to be himself. But I would love it if, at least occasionally, he would prove Loretta Chase and Sarah Wendell wrong and fill more of his compartments with Moi!

With respect to distractions, I don't think paranormal and urban fantasy authors got the memo about romance. In most of my beloved books, the uber alpha males are high-powered leaders of their communities, species and worlds, and thus have a to-do list a mile long. Neither Dragos, nor Jean Claude nor Jerricho Barrons is ignoring his responsibilities and obligations to hunker down and make whoopie with our heroines (not that they don’t do plenty of that, thankfully). And that's okay, because, often (but not always, more's the pity), our heroines are busy being leaders and bad assess in their own right. Which is awesome. So I get that all of us are distracted, whether by ruling and protecting our worlds, or by golf and football.

What might be a smidge different in fantasy over reality is that when the alpha males of my books are with their females, they are with them, body, mind and soul. Sometimes, I get the feeling when I’m talking to my husband that he hears the auditory equivalent of the parental voices in the Peanuts programs. This is not always or even mostly true, of course, as I would never tolerate that (nor should anyone, for that matter), but I will say that having my husband's undivided attention whenever I speak would be nice. And knowing he was listening deeply when I opined, rather than just hearing me would be lovely as well.

Is that too much to ask?  Have I crossed the line from reality to fantasy and everyone was too embarrassed to tell me?  Maybe, maybe not.  This wife will continue to hope that I’m on the right side of the romance line.

Because I do believe that everything I know I learned from reading smut--and that there is more truth in fantasy than not. And I've got almost 100,000 words in this blog to prove it. Hear that, honey?

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. 

Taking Out the Trash

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I'm still enjoying Dead Ice, the latest offering in the Anita Blake series by the inimitable Laurell K. Hamilton. As always, Ms. Hamilton provides a ton of material for my blog. One of Anita's most endearing qualities is her willingness to examine her own stuff and to strive to improve. She has been one of my most insightful teachers because she is willing to look at the ugliness most of us like to avoid. Granted, she can get all up in her head to an annoying degree, but how else can we learn, if not through genuine introspection?  There is some utility to navel-gazing. As we've discussed recently, Anita has killed a lot of bad guys and seen a lot of bad shit. And it's all left its mark on her, both physically and emotionally. She struggles to overcome the trauma that she's survived, and she works hard to avoid taking her troubles out on her loved ones. Anita spends a lot of time sorting through her moods to make sure any anger or irritation is both warranted and aimed at the correct target. She is ruthless about dissecting her own motivations and making midcourse corrections when she realizes that her annoyance at something that seems fairly straightforward is actually masking deeper pain or fury that she doesn't feel safe expressing. Her willingness--and ability--to do this is a mature, sophisticated social and emotional skill set.  I don't know many people who can pull it off, including, most of the time, me. 

The more common truth is ‘misery loves company’.  At least my misery does. I learned this lesson early at the knee of my narcissistic mother who insisted that the rest of the family's moods reflect hers. She had absolutely no boundaries and couldn't discern where she ended and the rest of us began. My mother took the aphorism, "When mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy" to new heights…  or depths as the rest of us experienced it.

 I also remember when I caught chicken pox at ten, which is considered late by childhood disease standards. It was intensely uncomfortable, and my mother put the fear of God into me that if I scratched the scabs I'd be disfigured for life. So I coated myself in calamine lotion and cornstarch. I was simply miserable. At night, I crept into my parents' room and slept on a blanket on their floor. When my father asked my mother why I was there, she said, "No one wants to be alone when they are hurting.  Misery loves company." I definitely learned that "lesson."

It was and is true. It's why, when we are in a bad mood, we want to spew our unhappy venom on those around us, as if their good mood was an offense to our black one. Maybe it is. Perhaps our bad moods resent the happiness of others, and we simply want to bring others down to our level. Or is it that making others feel bad makes us feel better.? That is not a pretty truth, but experience lends credence to the theory. Could it be that we simply like to lash out when we are in pain or distress?

I'm not sure what the mechanism is, but anyone who's been around teenagers knows the drill all too well. The teen gets in a mood. Then he notices that no one else is sharing his mood of the moment, and instead they have the unmitigated gaul  of enjoying a good time and not paying homage to the sullen teen. Then said teen goes about working  to change everyone else's mood. Usually, the teen is successful. I'm not sure if the teen is happier, but everyone around him is usually less joyful than they had been.   Sharing the wealth, as it were.

When teenagers leak all over everyone else, it's usually a lack of impulse control. It's a sign of immaturity and signals a dearth of graciousness on someone's part. If the ‘negative emoter’ is older, in my mind, it's an indicator that the person, if they are a grown adult, is selfish. Which is why it is so unfortunate that I, myself, suck so badly in this area. A friend of mine recently told me about an event where she was decidedly unhappy--with the situation and everyone around her. As there was nothing to be done about it, however, she explained to me that she was careful not to spread her bad cheer. She told me, "No one needed to know how upset I was."  And I thought to myself, "Why ever not?"  But I didn't say that, as my friend obviously thought she had done the right thing by protecting those around her from herself. Clearly, this was a philosophy to contemplate.

It turns out there is a lot to be said for restraint of tongue and pen. Who knew? Not me. I not only wear my heart on my sleeve, but I apparently am generous to a fault in this regard as I believe that everyone is entitled to participate in whatever is going on in my head. Self-centered much?  Nah. Really, I think it is just a lack of impulse control. Kind of sad at fifty, but hey it gives me something to work on.   I want to be pleasant. I don't want to ruin events for others or make them  uncomfortable. I don't want to be the bad mood equivalent of sexual harassment--creating a hostile environment for all the unfortunate souls around me.

I don't want to be the one picking fights, being critical, negative, snarky, sarcastic or mean just because I'm irritated or annoyed. Which I am.  A lot. It's tough to be me. But maybe it's tougher to be near me? I want to be like Anita who carries her own bad mood baggage solo.  Or at least she tries to.

And then there is my struggle and striving toward authenticity in all aspects of my life. Hiding my bad moods behind a smile that doesn't reach my eyes and an insincere, "No really, I'm fine!" seems inauthentic and lame. On the other hand, punishing someone for another's crimes (as when I'm annoyed by something at work and take it out on my family at home) is equally unacceptable.

I have no idea how to reconcile this. I guess I'll have to get all up in my head (even more than I am) and poke and prod at my motives to ensure I'm lashing out appropriately versus inappropriately. Seems exhausting. But if Anita can do it, maybe I can too.


The Color of Truth

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I'm enjoying the latest Anita Blake book, Dead Ice. Once again, Laurell Hamilton provides me with a trove of topics to think and write about. I am less than 20% into the book, and my mind is already churning. These novels are as much psychological thrillers as paranormal fantasies, and Ms. Hamilton imbues her characters with enough insights to fill several textbooks, although the "education" is delivered in a truly entertaining way. Today's thought experiment is the contemplation of the claim that, "Almost no one is all bad... There are so few true villains, just other screwed-up people who pass the damage on."  Hmmmm... Truth or Fantasy?  That is the question of the day.

I find that Laurell Hamilton always writes truth. I know she's been criticized (by me, in fact) because her books have become increasingly interior, instead of keeping the action on the outside, where we can read about extreme sex and violence, thanks to the paranormal nature of the genre but there is drama in her exploration of her character’s interior/character. Now, no one should diminish the joy of reading about paranormal-level sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. But Laurell Hamilton also explores the psychological ramifications of all that extreme sex and violence. I guess when you've written 28 books about a set of characters, it's impossible to just say, "And then they lived happily ever after."  She asks the question, what does it do to her characters when they kill the bad guys and love the good guys? It all leaves its mark, just as it does with humans.  And it's those scars that she pokes and prods and exposes to satisfy her readers' curiosity – and provide me with a lot of fodder for blog posts. 

Anita Blake is a complicated character; her psyche is a labyrinth. In the interest of addressing the topic du jour, I will oversimplify and simply say that she is an uber-alpha-warrior of the highest order, with extraordinary and varied paranormal superpowers that she acquires as the series progresses.

Anita worries that the evil she combats is rubbing off on her and that she's becoming one of the monsters she hunts. Her loved ones assure her that it's not true and she spends a lot of time trying to reassure herself  she has done only what is necessary.  It comforts her to think that she only kills bad guys. But, as the series evolves, it gets harder and harder to identify the bad guys and pinpoint, what, exactly, caused them to cross that invisible line from good to evil. It's hard for Anita to hear that there are no true villains, but one of Anita's defining characteristics is her militant insistence on facing unpleasant truths, so she takes this unpalatable fact and tackles it head on.

Because it's true: no one is all good or all bad. The ubiquitous "they" talk about how Hitler loved babies and Himmler loved to dance. These facts humanize our villains, and we don't like that. It is human nature to dehumanize our enemies. In fact, the military does this on purpose, so that soldiers will be able to do their jobs and kill enemy combatants if and when it becomes necessary.

For humans without a personality disorder, killing in cold blood is something that needs to be taught. Killers must be made. Soldiers need to learn to overcome their natural altruistic instincts. One effective way to accomplish this is to erase the shades of grey and leave only the parts that are black or white. I have a friend who used to do that:  when someone betrayed or disappointed her, and it was time to move on, whether in romance, friendship or even more professional relationships, she would need to psyche herself up to make the move by demonizing the other person. It was actually hard to watch her take white out (I'm dating myself again here--look it up!) to all the good in a relationship or a person so that all that was left from her viewpoint was the bad stuff. But I understood why she did it, and I never pointed out the incongruity of her new perspective with the love and affection she felt in the past for those who'd fallen from her grace. She has since learned to temper this tendency of hers, but it's still her go-to defense mechanism.  

We don't want the people we hate to have understandable reasons/motives for their bad behavior. Blaming them for not having the tools to not ‘pass the damage along’ is so much easier than being compassionate about their inability to break the cycle. I don't want to feel sorry for my tormentor. I don't want to believe they are doing the best they can. This actually begs the question of evil, which is a topic for another post. If those we don't like can be classified as evil, we can be justified in ignoring or actively hurting them back. As Anita Blake would say, it's pretty to think so. But the truth is uglier and more complicated.

I never wanted to understand that my mother's serious deficiencies as a parent weren't her fault. Well-meaning friends and relatives repeatedly told me that she couldn't help herself. But my question was always, "Why not?"  Why couldn't she help being an undermining bitch?  I do. A narcissist raised me, but I've managed not to pass the damage along. I’ve broken that cycle with my own children. If I can do it, why can't everyone?  I know,  that is an obnoxious question. 
Well, that is the $64,000 question isn’t it? I don’t have the answer, although I've asked the question many times before. I don't think that Laurell Hamilton is trying to suggest that bad guys aren't bad or that they don't deserve to be punished; they are and they do, and Anita is certainly a vehicle of retribution. I think Ms. Hamilton is trying to say something more nuanced; that even the dark can be illuminated to some extent.  It's still dark, but the streaks of light make for a more interesting palette. Grey is the color of truth, even in fantasy.


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.

Batman's Utility Belt

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Note:  Today is the one-year anniversary of my first blog post.  Thank you to everyone who reads and supports my work.  I am so appreciative of your comments, FB likes, tweets and messages.  THANK YOU!!

When I was a kid, I loved to watch the Batman series on TV. It was deliciously kitschy and even as a child I recognized the cheese factor. It was highly entertaining and action packed, which I loved even then (these days I have no interest in a movie unless there are lots of explosions, car chases and shootouts. Rom coms, with the exception of Love, Actually, bore me to tears.  Deep in my soul, I'm a fifteen-year-old boy). Anyway, back to Batman. I loved the show, but I had a major bone to pick with the creators. Actually, two, the first being that the bad guy always wanted to spend time gloating about the impending death and defeat of Batman, which allowed the Caped Crusader to effect his escape. In this, Batman is a lot like James Bond. I've learned to live with this trope. But it's the associated ploy that annoys me to no end; how is it that no matter how improbable the situation, Batman always had exactly right tool to save the day stashed in his utility belt?  Have you noticed that?  It's a deus ex machina of the silliest sort and it's a plot device that I despise.

It can be worse in paranormal and urban fantasy. Sometimes an author can decide to wave her magic wand and make all the protagonists' troubles disappear in what amounts to a puff of smoke. I am not a fan. I was reminded of this particular pet peeve as I was reading the latest in the Arcana Chronicles, Dead of Winter, and its main female character, The Empress, Evie Green, who seems to grow in power minute to minute (not really, and I loved the book, but the new-powers-all-the-time thing was wearing).  I was reminded again as I whipped through Robyn Peterman's Fashionably Dead series starring Astrid Porter. Which in turn led me to think about Anita Blake, who is one of my all-time favorite kick-ass heroines. But all these ladies resort to the pull-a-rabbit-out of-your-hat trick when new, previously unheard of powers, that we've never seen before, and which have not been foreshadowed in any way, appear just when our fair damsels need them. Convenient, much? Drives me nuts. Or, it did. But then I got to thinking. The plot thickens. What I started thinking about was whether I was being self-righteously judgmental. Not that I would ever be like that. Well, maybe sometimes. Or maybe a bit more often than sometimes. I began to wonder whether it is really so unrealistic that new skills evolve over time to meet emerging needs and challenges. At one point, when Astrid, the Chosen One among the vampires, erupts with a new demonic power, surprising herself as much me, the reader, her mate points out that she is evolving, and that time will reveal new abilities as a matter of course. Which is true.  As we grow and learn and evolve, we are all certainly capable of gaining new abilities and powers.  After all, none of us is born knowing how to read or write or do math (I still can’t do math, but one never knows what new superpowers will emerge in the future!).I believe strongly in learning new things.  All the time.  I believe in changing it up, getting comfortable with new equipment, software, TVs and tablets, etc.  I believe very strongly in continually challenging myself to do something new as often as possible and to get out of my comfort zone. I believe in making an investment of time and pain to keep myself sharp and relevant.  I believe if we aren’t moving forward, we’re moving backward.  And I believe that if we’re not making progress toward self-improvement, we are stagnating.  And stagnation feels like death to me.  Now, it’s true that there is a fine line between stagnation and contentment.  And that there is an even finer line between necessary regeneration and sloth.  But, wow, those lines are so hard to find.  And I’ve got to say that I’d rather err on the side of moving forward with both barrels blazing than come to find out that I’ve become standing water that is inexorably evaporating.And I do understand that not everyone thinks the way I do (this is a good thing, I’m told by many who love me).  But, honestly, I don’t really get it.  Why wouldn’t we want to have new tools to use for the myriad situations life tends to throw at us?  Batman had the right idea—a tool for every fool.  Wait, no, that wasn’t it.  A toy for every boy?  No, that doesn’t work either.  How about a solution for every challenge? An answer for every question? Is that a fantasy, more appropriate for mythical superheroes than for garden variety humans like myself?  Probably. But I can still work toward that as my ideal.  Nothing wrong with striving toward perfection, as long as we realize we aren’t going to get there in this lifetime.

So, new day, new trick.  Just like Astrid and Evie and Anita. I could do a lot worse than be like them. Perhaps I will give my annoyance a rest, for today, and see the truth in this fantasy; where I believe that new powers are mine for the asking and the taking—provided that I am willing to work to get them. I’m going to strap on my handy, dandy utility belt—just like the Dark Knight—and I’m going to be extraordinary.  Wanna join me? 

Paying Attention

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This is a second post about Laurell K. Hamilton’s new Meredith Gentry novel, A Shiver of Light.  The book has given me a lot of food for thought, and clearly more than one blog post.  Laurell Hamilton is one of my very favorite authors and the Anita Blake and Meredith Gentry series are some of the best I’ve ever read.  Her books are not for the faint-hearted, however.  The level of violence and very graphic, very alternative sex is off the charts, and a reader needs to be prepared for that.  I love it, of course. I love the action and the intensity and the vibrancy of the books. But lately, her books have become significantly more introspective and descriptive.  And, in truth, this has not been a trend I’ve appreciated.  But this time, as I read the new novel, I was called to consider why I was unhappy with the slower pace and increased introspection.  I was called to pay attention to how, why and to what I am inclined to pay attention and what these inclinations have to teach me.

I have always preferred action to scenery, plot progression to character development and movement to stasis.  I have always set my sights on the destination, the goal, the ending, the last page.  And while I’ve never been one to cheat and read the end before I get there, I’ve always enjoyed seeking signposts along the way that might tell me how it’s all going to work out in the end.  This has led me to spending time looking for foreshadowing (as I’ve mentioned, Charlaine Harris clearly broadcasts Sookie’s final choices and future path beginning in book 1 for those who were paying attention—why anyone was surprised, I’ll never understand).  It’s also given me a penchant for tarot and rune readings, and even led me to do some research on these channeling techniques myself.

So, I do pay attention.  The question at hand, however, involves that which captures and holds my attention, and whether I need to widen my aperture a bit, which I’m beginning to suspect I need to do.

In A Shiver of Light, the faerie princess Meredith spends a lot of time noticing a lot of what I would normally consider minutiae, that which would fall below the level of my notice in real life.

And as I read about the things that Meredith considered attention-worthy, my mind began to drift, and I noticed myself beginning to skim through whole paragraphs, rather than reading them all the way through.  And I felt compelled to stop and think about what I was doing.  Maybe I was missing something here.  Maybe I should go back and read more slowly, savor more sweetly, as it were. And then, the messages started coming fast and furious that, yes, indeed, I was missing quite a lot, in fact.

They say the devil is in the details, and who wants to dance with the devil?  Not me, of course, so I tended to gloss over the details of my life and stick to the major plot developments.  I’ve come to realize that this has possibly been a big mistake and a course correction is probably in order.

Merry notices the smallest things, using all her senses, so that we are treated to detailed descriptions of what she sees, hears, feels, tastes, and smells.  She notices minute changes in the eyes and expressions of the people she loves.  She notices when someone’s subtle body language shifts, and when a tone of voice indicates surprise, unhappiness or joy.  She attends to her environment, noticing the blessings of her Goddess in bringing life back to the land in all its smallest increments.  And as I experienced all of these events through the magic of reading, I’ve been reflecting on the misguided thinking that led me to conclude that attending to the small stuff meant that my life and my world were correspondingly restricted.

I’ve spent a lot of my life believing that I needed to keep my eyes on the prize, my head in the game, and avoid being distracted by the shiny objects that litter the periphery.  But I was dead wrong about all of that, I’ve come to believe.  I think the ability to be present for the small moments of life, to notice the really little things, is a blessing that many of us fail to recognize or embrace. 

Recently a friend highlighted this particular reality in a very visceral way.  This friend shares a gratitude list with me every night.  It is a wonderful gift to read about all that she finds in the world to be grateful for each day.  And her lists are not the usual “thanks for my family, my health, the roof over my head and the food on my plate” kinds of things.  No, my friend’s gratitudes include the baby woodpeckers that hatched in a nest in her back yard, and the opportunity to sit for a while with the sun on her face in the park, enjoying a view of the lake, and the pleasant exchange she had with the cashier at the grocery story.  Her lists point to what she attends to, and by extension, what she values, and it is a beautiful thing to receive each day.  Like Merry’s notice to the smallness of life, such attention actually points to a life lived large, a life of meaningful presence.

So, I don’t think the devil is in the details after all.  I think perhaps that’s where we can find God, or Goddess, or whatever points us toward the Divine in life.

Post Modern Family

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In A Shiver of Light, Laurell K. Hamilton writes about family; what it should be, and, as she notes, so seldom is. I’ve been traveling with my family again, spending time in California in places that we used to call home and no longer are. Ms. Hamilton (I have the strongest urge to call all of my beloved authors by their first names, partially because I feel like I know them, and partially because women are usually referred to by their first names while men are usually called by their last names—but I’ve digressed—again), or Laurell, also writes about the way home should be, but, like family, seldom is.

A Shiver of Light is part of the Meredith Gentry series, and in Merry’s world home and family are very, very complicated concepts and entities, involving relatives who want to kill you and multiple biological fathers of the same children (this is a paranormal world, after all).  Luckily, my life isn’t quite so complex, but the underlying concepts are still the same.  What is family supposed to be?  What does home mean?  Somewhere along the way, I basically gave up on the idea of the TV sitcom families, and accepted that I wasn’t going to be living with the Huxtables or even the Dumphries.  Maybe more like the Aadams Family.

When I was 14, my family took a trip to Europe.  By the beginning of the second week of a two-week trip, I remember having a major meltdown over something terribly important to me at the time,  with all the angst a teenager can muster (quite a bit, I assure you) and screaming at my parents, that I wanted to be a real family, not some dysfunctional imitation of the Cosbys.

When I was 14, I doubt I had any idea of what I meant by a “real family,” and it’s not clear that time has sharpened that picture very much. But what I think I meant, and what Laurell Hamilton alludes to, is a feeling of connection, of belonging, of being part of a team whose members all have your back and who will defend and support you no matter what.

Like Meredith Gentry, I didn’t come from a family like that.  And while no one was out to kill me, the name of the game in my family of origin was never show any weakness that could be exploited—because it would be.  There was no emotional support and no achievement was ever good enough.  Such a damaging way to grow up, and in her earlier Meredith Gentry books, Hamilton absolutely nails the devastation that this causes, earning her my undying devotion.  No on was interested in knowing who I was, or what I liked or dreamed of.  The members of my family of origin had very specific ideas about who I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to do.  And if I didn’t live up to their ideas of me, then I had failed and I was punished.

I always figure if someone writes a book about experiences I’ve had, especially the painful ones, it’s because I’m not so different from other people out there and we have a virtual community of dysfunction.  And while that may not sound so positive, I have always felt that it is.  It’s good to know not everyone grew up with the Brady Bunch or the Cleavers (as in “Leave it to…”).

I always dreamed of family gatherings like those of the Kennedys (and see how well that family turned out).  Or like the wealthy family in The Wedding Crashers.  In my family, it was different; my mother or my aunts would cook for three days at the holidays, we’d scarf it all down in ten minutes, and then my cousins or my brother would start telling puerile, vulgar jokes.  Everyone would get hammered, and often someone would end up in tears.  Sounds fun, huh? It wasn't.

If it was just my parents and my brother, we’d all sit around staring at each other with nothing to say and then bolting from the table as soon as possible.

So, if all of this tells us what home and family should not be, how does Merry help us understand what family should be?  To begin with, of course, it’s necessary for at least most of us to see past the polyamorous lifestyle that all of Laurell Hamilton’s heroines seem to embrace.  I cannot imagine having to negotiate sex and parenting with more than one partner.  It’s hard enough to agree with one guy about when, where, how often, and how to be intimate; can you imagine that conversation among five or six?  And then imagine what a smart and resourceful child could do in terms of playing one parent against the other, and the next, and the next.  I would have had an absolute field day with that, as a teen, that's for sure.

But if we look beyond that, what Merry shows us are relationships filled with love, respect, deep acceptance of differences and deformities, and forgiveness of transgressions.  In fact, it’s an excellent model of what family should involve—patience, tolerance, gracious compromise, happiness for others, and a willingness to give everyone his or her time in the spotlight.  Definitely something for everyone to aspire to and to emulate.

And perhaps it takes the kind of dysfunctional background that I and Merry grew up with to appreciate the gift of a family that embodies the loving, positive aspects of home and family that Merry (and I) are trying to create, given the choice and the willingness.  Cue the rose petals dropping from the sky now.