Grief and the Dreaming

What was supposed to be an overnight vet visit to stabilize some low blood pressure readings became something of an emergency situation, which at midnight last Sunday became a very difficult decision we had to make.

Chloe, my wife’s beloved cat of 15 years went to sleep that night and didn’t wake up, and now our house feels very empty and in want of a small, inquisitive face peering out from the shadows or from some corner of the back garden.

It was a pretty good death, all things considered. She was at a point where she was only going to get worse as the night went on, but she was awake and tired and aware of her people around her, giving her gentle pats as she got to close her eyes and nod off. It’s the kind of passing I wouldn’t mind for myself one day. It was a case of making all the right decisions, as the vets confirmed for us, but life throwing a wrench in the works at the last second. The initial prediction of 4-5 months wasn’t wrong because it wasn’t the initial illnesses that got to her, it was a random bug that hit her weakened immune system and caused a chain reaction. There’s nothing we could have done, even if we had tried different treatments earlier this probably still would have happened.

Strangely, all the logic and rational thinking in the world doesn’t make it any less painful.

I feel worse for my wife than I do for me, obviously. I was only in this cat’s life for a little over a year, she’s had her for nearly half her life and their bond is as strong as any mother and daughter you could name. She’s holding it together much better than I would have anticipated, and we’re both acknowledging that there’s no one at fault but nature, and after a week the pangs are still sharp but not enough to leave someone bedridden with grief.

It’s really weird how different people process it, though. Personality-wise we’re definitely in the opposites attracting category, and beyond the shared interest in keeping ourselves distracted with movies, and television, and books, it’s tackled in such different ways. She’s grieving in what I would definitely call a normal way, how I’d expect someone to grieve for a lost pet.

I find myself thinking back on a page from the very end of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics where Shakespeare is lambasting Morpheus. Earlier they had made a deal that the latter would help the former become a world-changing playwright, and at the end of his life William is coming to understand the repercussions of that deal:

Sandman_75_p40.jpg

I saw Gaiman speak a little while back and he talked about how he’s always had a hard time with processing grief, because it’s filtered through a lens of wanting to capture exactly how it feels, how to put that down on paper, how to make other people feel it by reading those words as a shared grieving, a way of forcing empathy and emotional connection and drawing the reader in. He mentioned that he felt that way when Terry Pratchett passed away; the immediate shock, followed by turning inside and carefully documenting that shock and the following emotions as they happened, adding them to a toolbox to be pulled out later if necessary.

I totally get that. I’ve never heard someone so accurately describe how I experience mourning. I’m sure part of it is the toxic guy “bury-your-feelings” process I grew up surrounded by, but my immediate response to feeling so awful is to try and figure out how I would translate that to a piece of fiction, locking it away not because I view the emotions as shameful or bad, but because someday I might want to write a scene where I want to evoke the same kind of feeling.

It seems to be a running theme with writers both professional and hobbyist, but it feels strange to examine it and to be aware of that routine even as it’s running.

On the plus side, it kind of frees me up to help with others whose grief is rawer and more immediate, which I view as a blessing. If I can take that step back and observe even my own sorrow as a bit of a third party, it means I can take care of things that can’t be stopped just because we’re mourning.

We’ve started idly looking at other cats now. We’re not in any rush to adopt, but neither of us has been in a no-pet household for more than a couple of months. It would be unfair to “replace” a member of the family because you then project a lot of expectations on the new adoptee, and we’re both hyperaware of that, but we also find ourselves in a position where we could do something like adopt bonded pairs that might have more trouble finding homes, or black cats that have a notoriously difficult time due to lingering superstition, or eventually even a puppy that we wouldn’t have been able to get with an elderly and then fragile cat. So from these particular ashes we’re certain a Phoenix will rise and we’ll move on, just with new scars for us.

 

Advertisements

Cats, Beaches, Television

SO, as I alluded to in my prior post, things have been pretty busy in my small corner of the world.

There have been two big events in our household over the last month, one good and one bad.

The good thing is that I got brought on as a full time employee at what had been my temp assignment that kept getting extended, which is a huge weight off my shoulders, and very exciting. I have successfully tricked enough people into thinking I know more than I actually do, which is really, really funny because the basis for it is tragically nerdy. I am doing data as someone who has historically sucked at math and numbers (which is one of the many reasons I took refuge in English and History and a sprinkling of Psychology in college) and 90% of my successes at the office draw from having minmaxed video game stuff. Looking at analytics? I basically treat it like I’m going through damage meters in an MMORPG and trying to find the reason for gaps in different sequences. On the money side of things it’s from resource management in strategy games and looking at sustainable incoming-outgoing levels.

So, you know, if there are any wayward teenagers in your life who seem to be playing too many video games or D&D or what-have-you, it might actually be applicable later in life even if they don’t want to be throwing it on their official resume.

Outside of that, my wife’s cat has fallen quite ill. Well, our cat now, really, but my wife has had her for over a decade and a half while I’ve only been in her life for a couple of years, so she takes precedence there. A few weeks ago she went badly off her food and was acting quite sullen and sick, so we took her to the vet for a check up. The check up spiraled into a multi-day stay as they tried to figure out if it was kidney disease (a death sentence) or lymphoma (a slightly slower death sentence).

It has turned out to be both. The kidney disease is somewhat manageable–you can slow its severity–with dietary changes which we’ve begun to implement, but the lymphoma is kind of a… hard cap on how long she has. There was the option of treating her with chemotherapy, but in a best case scenario that would be seven months of her being absolutely miserable, us not being able to pet or hold her, her feeling achy and sick the entire time. She’s already an eighteen year old cat on top of that, so for all we know we might be making her miserable for seven months only to get one good month afterwards. What we’re doing instead is essentially palliative care, or kitty hospice. She’s on a daily dose of prednisone to keep any potential pain in check and to stimulate her appetite and her desire to drink, since the lymphoma might make her too nauseated to eat enough, and the kidney food is different than what she’s eaten before even as we slowly wean her onto it. She’s fairly stable now, and the vet thinks we could get up to half a year of “normal” lifestyle out of her before one of the diseases becomes too advanced to manage, and then… well, we make that decision when we come to it, but both of us have lost pets before and we know the drill, even if it’s going to feel awful.

But for now she’s quite perky, eating regularly, cuddling in the mornings and evenings, and spending a lot of time sunning herself in the garden.

sunnycat.png

Our coping mechanisms of choice, outside of doting on her until she gets fed up with the attention, have been trying to spend more time out at the beach together before the weather gets too cold, and catching up on a backlog of television shows we’ve been meaning to watch since forever.

We finally finished Twin Peaks a couple of weeks back, this being my… ninth or tenth time through, I think, and my wife’s first. She liked it enough that she helped me design the Dale Cooper tattoo I’m actually about to go get two and a half hours from now.

We also watched Legion religiously up until its finale the other week. Probably my favorite show since Hannibal was cruelly taken from me. I seriously can’t think of any way to talk about it without spoiling it, since the entire show is dense with tidbits that become huge things, but it’s the kind of show I could recommend to anyone. It’s a superhero show that doesn’t require you to like superheroes, it has enough X-Men easter eggs to keep a fan happy while being separate enough that you won’t feel lost if you’ve never picked up an X-Men comic before. The acting is top notch, the music is amazing, and the visuals are like someone has hooked up several different feeds into your brain and is overloading it.

We’re almost done with The Expanse, or as I like to call it, the Amos Hour of Power this season. I’ve read the books a few times through over the years but they’ve managed to throw in enough twists and turns to keep me on my toes, to the point where I wish the Game of Thrones showrunners had taken more of this kind of approach to their material.

We just finished Stranger Things last night, even though I knew I’d love it since the first trailer came out we just never found time to watch it together while we were living in opposite time zones, and then it fell off the radar after I moved. It’s glorious, though, and manages to make me feel genuine nostalgia for a time a couple of years before I was even born.

Currently I am marathoning my way through Orphan Black, which, again, I knew I’d love but never had the time to sit down and watch. I started Thursday night and I’m just on the last episode of season 1 now, so I’m pretty sure I can get through the whole thing by the end of Easter weekend.

So yeah, that is the state of things right now. I have a giant pile of books to review over the next couple of weeks, and a ton of historical tomes I picked up at the library that I also need to delve into on top of that.

Fresh Ink

So it’s officially into Autumn now and I have survived what several people have described to me as the most god-awful hot summer in Sydney’s recorded history, with a record breaking number of days in the high 30s and low 40s, humidity levels that make it feel like you’re swimming and your clothes stick to you from the second you get out of the shower, and breezes that feel a bit like standing in front of a hair dryer.

So I did the intelligent thing and picked up some new tattoos, my first two in Australia.

In my defense, when these were booked I did not count on it being so hot that I almost sweated my healing ointment off within minutes of stepping outside. That was not pleasant. Have you ever had A&D drip down the inside of your arm, stained with the various inks that your skin is slowly pushing out during the healing process? It’s the grossest feeling thing.

20170204_191020I started off with a design I’ve been wanting for some time now, Morpheus from the Sandman comics. The problem was that I wanted him on my right arm, which is mostly poppy and colorful, and Morpheus is a character of black and white with a few dots of color to him. Thankfully my artist (Melanie Milne, if you ever find yourself in Sydney and in need of a great tattoo) was far more visually skilled than I am and came up with a concept that worked: incorporating something a little bit like genie smoke, with slumber-sand slipping through his fingers and transforming into a rainbow hue of vapors as they moved down my arm. It came out really, really good and is almost fully healed up now with next to no color loss during the process.

I love Sandman, it’s in a three-way fight with Transmetropolitan and Lucifer for my favorite graphic novel series, and it feels kind of right to have the lord of dreams and stories taking up a hefty chunk of my dominant arm, the arm I do most of my writing with.

20170226_194132.jpgThe second one I actually got just this past Sunday. It’s based on one of those films where I watched it as a kid, and I rewatch it as an adult, and I go “wow, so this had a bigger influence on my aesthetic than I ever realized.” I am speaking, of course, of the filthy muppet monsters of The Dark Crystal. In a wrap around my wrist, ending just before the joint, I’ve got one of the Mystics, his corresponding Skeksis, and the broken crystal that splintered them from one glowing being into two muck-bound magical creatures. Sorry if the picture is a bit wonky and distorted, but getting a decent shot of a wrap is really difficult. It’s still a bit of a work in progress, it only covers 2/3 of the area and I’m going in at the end of March to fill in the back side a little bit. The astrological signs of the Great Conjunction and the silhouette of the Skeksis castle where the shattered crystal is located, most likely. I’m looking forward to it. That’s most of one arm fulled sleeved up, with just a couple of small gaps to fill in.


Speaking of new ink, I’ve also surged ahead in writing. I spend much of my lunch break each day scribbling away, and then in the evenings as I can. I’ve broken 45,000 words recently, on the side project, and it feels good. Writing multiple stories at once is nice because if you feel the burn out coming on, you can change gears, still be productive, and change back afterwards. You’re still getting 3,000 words down in a session, just split across two stories instead of 2,000 words in one.

It is funny, though, that I find myself getting inspired for one story what I’m writing in the other. I had one passage that I wrote for the secondary piece, and then later came back to it, went “ugh it’s too good, it needs to be in the primary one” and poached it, replacing it with something that fit the tone a little better. It’s helped to define a lot of the elements of each story by making me think about them, and making me concentrate on not accidentally sinking into the same prose for radically different tales. Having to keep the narrative voices distinct naturally drives the text along.

Writing at the office has also broken me of my habit of getting lost in research holes. If I only have 30-45 minutes to work on something with the deadline of “my boss will get antsy if I keep going,” it’s excellent at keeping me from popping on google to check something and then half an hour has gone by and I’m intimately familiar with the history of the textile industry when I just wanted to make sure I was using the right word for part of an old carpet.

Not to say that the research stops, it’s just far more compartmentalized. I’m still accruing books like mad and I even sprung for a cheap laptop to make note taking easier, so I can just pop it open in bed and jot down random points of interest.

Zoos, Shows and Airports

It has been an incredibly busy couple of weeks, which is not a legitimate excuse to neglect this thing as much as I have been. I have saved up a few things I’d like to post about to various lengths. Pretty much unrelated things, too. So, I’ll break this up into three parts, in order of importance. If you don’t like politics, I guess skip down to parts two and three.

First and foremost, been a hell of a first week back in the states. I try not to get heavily political on my blog, although I’m sure that my angry leftism shines through regardless of the prisms I hold up to it. I have been incredibly worried for many friends back in the states, at protests, at marches, even just walking around in some areas. I’m incredibly, incredibly proud when I open up my FB wall or Twitter and see that pretty much everyone I care about is taking part of these protests. They take it seriously and make me feel like I’m fairly useless over here on the other side of the world, watching, waking up every morning to check the news like a starship captain demanding a damage report after the latest volley.

I am throwing what I can at organizations that are trying to help out over there, ACLU being the biggest of these. They’ve had a great weekend and have flexed their muscles in exactly the right way, buoyed up with something like 20 million in donations since Saturday, which is record-setting and absolutely insane and shows that people actually care about someone trying to chisel most of The New Colossus off the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Even as one of nature’s pessimists it’s really heartening to see that the majority is not giving up, they’re fighting back earlier and harder than I ever would have imagined.

Having worked in nonprofits quite a bit, I just wanted to throw something out there for people who either are donating or are planning to: if you can, do a recurring payment instead of a single lump sum. A charity can do more with 5 months of 20 bucks each than 1 month of $100, because it allows them to come up with a budget far into the future and lay better plans for long term goals. Big waves of single donations are great and a hell of a lot better than nothing, but they make it intensely difficult to act proactively; you end up putting that money into entirely reactive services because you don’t know when the next payment may be coming and you don’t want to overextend. This goes for ACLU, PP, various other worthy charities.

I may approach it through black humor and cynicism but I truly do hope that things pull out of their nosedive, and that the enormous response over the last few weeks is a sign of things to come.

That’s where I’m at, basically. Watching, hoping, providing really evil jokes for friends, and trying really hard to explain the situation to my friends and coworkers over here so they don’t write the country off as completely insane.

There’s my political segment.

For my second thing: I am finding how revitalizing it is to be able to access musicals and other shows out here. I know I’ve posted about plays and stuff before, but I’ve been to three concerts in the last week, all different genres, radically different artists, and every single one I’ve walked out wanting to rush home and write until my fingers fell off. Watching performance artists in love with their work is a magical feeling, and letting your imagination drift while you watch them go crazy on stage is something you just can’t get anywhere else.

Last weekend I caught Amanda Palmer up at the Opera House. I’ve been a fan of hers… I think before I got into her now-husband Gaiman, actually, or within the same year. I can’t remember if I discovered the Dresden Dolls before or after Neverwhere but it was pretty close. She may be the queen of putting her feet in her mouth or making problematic faux pas online, but she really does put on an amazing show and absolutely radiates energy up on stage. The songs weren’t just played but explained in depth and with a level of emotional intimacy you don’t expect from a crowded theater, she had Brendan Maclean accompanying her, there was a lot of wine and ukulele and songs ranging from funny to heartbreaking from both.

16143449_10103632633016169_573479925742658936_o.jpgAlso a ten minute rant on women’s reproductive health culminating in blue-haired alien women chasing people around with a giant golden clitoris, as you do at these kind of functions. That was one of the less weird things to take up the evening, honestly, alongside her trying to channel Nick Cave as he performed on the other side of the harbour.

16178369_10103651928472919_7119124419388211914_oMidweek, on the eve of Australia Day, there was a Puscifer show. I’m an enormous Maynard James Keenan fan, Tool is basically the soundtrack to my teenage years, and I was so stoked to finally see him live in any form. The form I got was him clad in a gimp mask with a mohawk narrating the life and times of two warring factions of luchadors, acted out in a giant wrestling ring that dominated most of the stage. There were animated shorts between acts, giant holographic projections of Maynard, it was pretty amazing and their songs were so much different live.

I didn’t get any pictures of the third show I went to, on Friday, for Panic! At the Disco. A show where I suddenly very much felt my age. You know how, in your 30s, you start to feel like you’re basically still 20ish? Surround yourself with a bunch of actual teenagers and mid 20 year olds and you will instantly feel 80 or so. It was a great audience, though, probably the largest collection of LGBTQ+ folk I have encountered outside of literal gay bars in NYC or SF. Tons and tons of killer tattoos, some hair colors that definitely do not exist in the natural world, and an overwhelmingly positive attitude fostered by Brendon Urie up on stage. I seriously have no idea how the guy doesn’t keel over halfway through every show. He never stops moving. Dude was channeling everyone from Elvis to Freddie Mercury even in the span of one song. Best use of stage lights and smoke I’ve seen in a very long time, too. Machine gun strobe lights in time to blast beat chorus segments, smoke exploding out in random patterns around him while he traipsed around. Probably my favorite show of the three, and really got me thinking about writing in the sense of “wow, I need to write kind of an evilly charismatic fairy prince and I think I know exactly who I’m basing him on now.”

Now for a few weeks of relative rest, with the next big event coming up in March, some kind of a Star Wars burlesque thing that everyone I know has been raving about.

The third thing, and more for my own amusement than anyone else’s, is that we got to go out to Taronga Zoo for the first time since I visited Australia way back in 2015 and was scoping the place out before deciding on a definite international move.

It was way better this time. More exhibits were open to the public, the weather was great, we managed to catch both the trained seal and bird shows nearly back to back and sit down for them towards the end of the day. The platypus exhibit was inhabited this time and there were a handful of the weird little buggers swimming around the pools.

Also, while getting a new profile picture from my wife, I found a new friend:

adhgadhad.pngCame right up to say hello while munching on some sweet potatoes and other veggies, and very graciously did not sprint off while I carefully, in the least threatening manner I could manage, backed up until we were both in the frame. Managed not to scare him off, either, which would have made me feel terrible because who likes being interrupted in the middle of their lunch by a lumbering giant with no sense of personal space?

Most of the critters were pretty friendly, honestly. The corvids got right up close to you, the meerkat babies were running right up near the glass, the tazzie devils were snoozing in their burrow areas right where you could kneel down and see them. It’s a great zoo and one where you can tell the animals are pretty happy and very well cared for, with zookeepers constantly making the rounds and checking up on things. Plenty of zoo-related charity stuff too, in terms of breed and release programs and endangered species care. I wish I was a millionaire and could fund the cassowary repopulation effort with the wave of a hand.


So that’s about it for life stuff. I’ve got a tattoo this coming Saturday, a consultation for another tattoo on Wednesday, a haircut the week after, but other than that it’s pretty quiet.

I’ve decided I’m going to change things a little bit on the blog here and try to portion my posts out in more specific categories. I went looking for a review I’d written awhile back at a friend’s request and realized that they’re really difficult to dig for without scrolling through other posts, so I’m going to post reviews separately from life and writing related pieces and label them a little more clearly. I may go back and grab all of the prior reviews to stick in their own column on the blog under a dropdown menu, I think it’s pretty easy to backdate them so they don’t show up as new posts on feeds but apologies if I screw that up somehow and anyone gets spammed. I do have a ton of books I’ve read recently that I’m going to review in the coming days, some really good ones that I only heard about through word of mouth and would like to pass on.

On Death and Living

I thought I’d share this today, after what feels like a chain of celebrity deaths that are hitting people really hard. This entire year (hell, the last couple of years) has been awful for people who admire the old school actors and creators who happily produced some of the weirdest and wildest stuff available. Icons for oppressed communities have been keeling over, as have the kinds of people who stood out as beacons of strength for creators who would come after them. Watching Umberto Eco, Harper Lee, Jim Harrison, Elie Wiesel and others all fade out in less than a calendar year is pretty earth shattering if you’re someone who followed and was positively influenced by the things they wrote.

Stepping back a little bit to 2015 here. I had just woken up to find Terry Pratchett trending on Facebook. There wasn’t a new book coming out that I knew of, so I got a sinking sensation in my gut even before I saw that Neil Gaiman had written a short, beautiful post of morning. I opened my inbox to find about a dozen “I’m sorry, dude, I know he was one of your favorites” messages from close friends. I spent that weekend re-reading the entire Watch series from start to finish, and then the Witches, and then Rincewind, and the one-offs, and finally the Death and Susan series over a week or so.

I got to talking to a friend who was as big a Pratchett fan as me, if not more so. He’d been into the Discworld a few years longer than I and regularly attended Discworld conventions when I had no way to do so, and he sent me a message I’ve had saved since then.

When Terry Pratchett realized he wouldn’t be able to attend the 2014 Discworld Con due to his health problems, he compiled a small book as a gift for the attendees. It contains some fragmented stories, poetry, a dedication, stuff that is private and only for the eyes of the devotees who came to see him. You won’t find these books on sale anywhere, I hope. He had them distributed freely to the convention-goers under the condition no one try to sell them. They’re individually numbered and the convention heads keep a master list of who each one belongs to, so if anyone does decide to go for a quick buck with their book it’ll be readily apparently. He also included this essay. My friend typed it up for me and gave me permission to share it with the context and background story. It’s an incredibly important essay and something I think about during dark times when people you care about seem to be dying with rapidity. I read it what felt like weekly when Bowie, Rickman and others died early this year. I read it the day Leonard Nimoy passed. I read it when Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died on nearly the same day. It’s about how things aren’t all terrible.

It goes like this.

A Little Advice For Life

I have been blessed with good fortune in my life. I’ve turned a passion into a profession, and those who know me know that I know that they know that I still enjoy it immensely. Through what some might call my ‘craft’ I’ve brought interesting characters and worlds to life and through the power of words I have, I hope, shone a little light into some of the darker corners of the human condition. I’ve always maintained that it is better to light a flamethrower than curse the darkness. But my prime purpose has always been to tell good stories. The fact that people seem to like them is simply a bonus.

While I may have ten doctorates (who’s counting?), I confess that I never had the educational opportunities people have today. I never attended or completed university; my learning came from doing and from reading and from experiencing life as a husband, father and journalist. I have occasionally been accused of literature. Some say I have a pack-rat mind, and I’ve learned over time to put this to good use – sharing my knowledge in the way that I know best, through my stories. In university parlance, this is known as knowledge transfer and I, right here and now, would like to transfer some of my knowledge over to you.

I know first hand that Fate can be cruel and unusual at times, but she is hardly ever deliberately malicious: she just suffers from bad timing in the main, so use your gifts and your talents to greatest possible effect while you can. Spread joy whenever possible. Laugh at jokes. Tell jokes. Make puns and bugger the embuggerances. Read books. Read my books. You might like them. You might find something else you like even more than them. Look for these things in life.

Question authority. Champion good causes. Speak out against injustice. Do not tolerate bullies or bigots or racists or anti-intellectuals or the narrow minded. Use your education to challenge them. Broaden their perspectives. Make the world you interface with a happier place.

These are your choices. Choices you have been fortunate enough to have been given, so don’t waste them while you have them. Don’t look back in years to come and wish you had grasped a fleeting opportunity.

Grasp it now with both hands.

Live.

Strive.

Love.

I don’t smoke, but Sam Vimes enjoys a cigar or two and there’s possibly more of me in Sir Samuel than in any other player on my pages. He would probably tsk at so blatant a plug for good. He’s been known to harness darkness, but he puts it to good use. Love changed his life and life is now something that he loves. I believe that the sum of our experiences, good and bad, is what makes us who we are. That has the making of real magic. Please. Go out into this world and experience its wonders.

We live in interesting times and so it is best to enjoy the journey while you can.

I find the occasional brandy helps.

Good luck!

-Terry

There’s not much more I can add to that, I think.

I’ll leave you with a picture by the amazing Paul Kidby, and a quote from one of the more underrated Pratchett novels that, again, I find comforting on levels I can’t imagine. Pratchett once said that people who tell him that they hope Death is like he writes it cause him to pause and stare at the wall for a little bit, and I’m among those who would contribute to his staring.

Paul Kidby - Disque Monde - Death.jpg

ALL THINGS THAT ARE, ARE OURS. BUT WE MUST CARE. FOR IF WE DO NOT CARE, WE DO NOT EXIST. IF WE DO NOT EXIST, THEN THERE IS NOTHING BUT BLIND OBLIVION. AND EVEN OBLIVION MUST END SOMEDAY. LORD, WILL YOU GRANT ME JUST A LITTLE TIME? FOR THE PROPER BALANCE OF THINGS. TO RETURN WHAT WAS GIVEN. FOR THE SAKE OF PRISONERS AND THE FLIGHT OF BIRDS.

Death took a step backwards.

It was impossible to read expression in Azrael’s features.

Death glanced sideways at the servants.

LORD, WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR, IF NOT FOR THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?

“I’m very sane about how crazy I am”

2294380-3x4-700x933.jpg

Well, what do I say here that hasn’t been said better by what must by now be hundreds of thousands of fans, friends, family and even distant commentators on the death of Carrie Fisher? She passed away far, far too young, as great celebrities seem to do more often than not.

I woke up this morning to the news having broken just earlier, and what I threw up on my facebook wall was something very unsteady and raw that tried to sum up how I felt.

It isn’t easy. There are some celeb deaths that hit me harder than others. I felt some real sadness when Robin Williams passed away, knowing a little bit about his struggles. A brief pang when Leonard Cohen died, knowing that if he didn’t, he’d be making very good music for however many years he might have had left. On the other side of the coin you have deaths like Leonard Nimoy, one of my childhood idols. Terry Pratchett, after whose death I was inconsolable for weeks and pretty much sealed myself away to re-read the entire Discworld series as if grasping at his ghost. David Bowie at the start of this year, when I received more condolences than I did when all my grandparents passed away combined.

Carrie Fisher is on that side of the coin, the side that hurts when it comes up.

It’s actually extremely weird, now that I think about it. When Bowie died I was already booked for a tattoo mashing up Star Wars and Rebel Rebel, and when news of his death broke just days before I was due to come in I talked with my artist briefly and she said I could back out and get something else if it felt too morbid. I told her to double down and throw a Ziggy Stardust bolt in somewhere, because if I was going to end up with a memorial piece I’d play it to the hilt.

So my first tattoo of 2016 ended up bookending the year in the strangest way. David Bowie and the Rebel Alliance logo. The year started and ended with deaths intimately related to that mashup.

If I was a superstitious man I’d probably hold off on getting any more tattoos.

But I digress.

I talked quickly with a good friend of mine earlier today where he pointed out the sheer number of people beginning their Leia stories talking about how sexy she was or mentioning a dogeared poster of the slave costume adorning some bedroom wall through teenhood.

I never got that out of Princess Leia.

She was a practical heroine. Her garb was functional most of the time. She didn’t try to win through sexual wiles. That costume didn’t look sexy to me, it looked demeaning, like she deserved better as both a character and a person. When people only equate her to that particular costume, I do get a little flash of comparing them to Jabba the Hutt in my head. She was way more than the galactic sexpot, and it saddens me immensely that this was really only coming to light in recent years.

Outside of Star Wars, Fisher was a tireless advocate for removing the stigma of mental illness and its treatments, talking candidly and frankly about her struggles with bipolar disorder and how much of her drug addiction was unconsciously rooted in attempts to self-medicate when her problems were not taken seriously by people who could – should – have helped her.

She was the punchline of jokes about Hollywood drug addiction, and not only did she roll with those punches but she often turned them back on whoever threw them. She was subject to the worst kind of sexism and ageism, sneered at while the male actors she worked with were continually applauded and swooned over. I think she took it a hell of a lot better than I would have in her place. She found the help she needed, got some solid footing and tried to fix her life up.

She wrote a lot. Her memoirs came out recently, and while most of the buzz is about her torrid affair with Harrison Ford, there’s way more in there worth reading. She was a skilled hand with narrative prose, which should come as no surprise: the woman was one of Hollywood’s greatest script doctors, the short notice editors that they bring in to save ailing movies over a weekend or maybe a week if they’re lucky, with just a handful of money and no credit in exchange. By all accounts, and keep in mind that these are typically bound by NDAs, she is responsible for hundreds of amazing films making it to the screen over the decades.

In Star Wars, and this is one thing that makes me forgive all of The Force Awakens’s flaws, she got to step back in and make Leia into an amazing character, even more amazing than she was. In the original trilogy Leia was good because Carrie Fisher made her so in spite of the writing, took the role and made it her own, created a badass hero in an environment where the director told her to stop wearing bras because there would be no bras in space and he needed to titillate the audience more than he was.

When she came back as an older woman, she was the only member of the original cast who had not punked out. Surrounded by trauma and tragedy, Leia Organa is the strongest character. Mother killed by father. Adoptive father killed by fascists. Biological father killed by last second martyrdom. Brother and husband in self-imposed exile after feeling like they had failed, leaving her to step up and lead the last pocket of resistance against a resurgence of the people they had tried to put down for good a generation prior.

I love Han Solo. I love Luke Skywalker. General Leia is better than both of them in the sense that she did not eschew her responsibilities or give up even in the face of overwhelming odds or tragedy, and I think that fits Fisher to a T.

She was coming back incredibly strong and that makes her passing at 60 (which, let’s face it, is just too young in this era) all the more tragic. I ache for all the great stories that are going to go untold both in and out of Star Wars because she isn’t there to push the boundaries.

Leia was one of my first loves, not in a crush or a sexual way, but a character I truly admired and trusted without hesitation, and who as an adult I have seen as a perfect action woman. She forms a bit of a holy trinity with Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley in my head, as kickass ladies who do not have to present themselves as sex objects to kick said ass, and who also are comfortable being women; they don’t try to take on traditionally “manly” traits or infect themselves with toxic masculinity in order to be considered cool. They’re cool enough on their own, and she was the best of them. When I’m writing a female protagonist, I often step back and think “would Carrie Fisher call me an asshole if I asked her to play this role in a movie?”

4d6a1454e6e41cdca39c87a832860ef4So. You know. Goodbye, Carrie. I’m glad your last book has been so well received and I hope everyone reads it, and that they they go back and read all the other brilliant stuff you’ve written. I’m really glad that you got a movie where you got to be a general instead of a princess without changing how the character acts at all. I’m still clinging to my fervent hope that Terry Pratchett ascended to the throne of creation, kicked whoever was there out after the mess s/he had been making, and has since been selectively snatching the best of us to populate his new and improved universe. I’m glad you sat down with Daisy Ridley and told her to never let the people in charge of Star Wars pull a Slave Leia again, because science fiction in general deserves better.

Stress, Stoicism and the Adaptable Beast

As the great Joe Walsh once wrote, life’s been good to me so far.

I am just past ten months in Australia and I feel like I’m still adapting to it, but the last few weeks in particular have made me really hyperaware of just how out of water a fish I am. Prior to picking up actual work outside of writing, I’ve existed in a bubble of expat friends and Australians who are generally very familiar with America/Americans, so I haven’t had to go out of my way to explain things to them and they get my references.

Working outside of that bubble? I think I’ve spent a good quarter of my work time explaining stuff about the states. Not even the election and fallout, which is very obviously a major topic of discussion here along the lines of “what the hell is wrong with your country” and flipping out at those who consider Australia completely removed from the situation (not like it’s a continent notable for being the canary in the coal mine regarding climate change and sitting in China’s backyard should saber rattling between the other world powers occur). There’s been a lot of that, and as a political junkie I’ve been more than happy to explain things as best I can, but there’s an interest in cultural stuff I took completely for granted stateside.

My current long term contract has me running data administration and analytics for a children’s cancer care project with a pretty sizable coverage area. It’s a cool group of people from all walks of life, and almost all of them have been curious about everything from my prior jobs and working conditions back in the states to the shock of moving from a frozen wasteland to the subtropics.

Kittery_Point,_York_County_(Maine).jpgMy go-to at this point when asked “What’s Maine like?” is something along the lines of “you watch Game of Thrones, yeah? Beyond the Wall, but with less ice zombies and more moose. My hometown had under two thousand people at its peak, I lived a good half hour’s drive from anything resembling civilization, and I worked with a lot of people who took pride in never venturing outside of the state because home had everything they needed.”

It’s weird, because I’ve been put on the defensive about some of the things that bother me the most about the USA. There’s a definite element of “I can call it shitty as much as I want, I grew up in it and I understand why it’s shitty, but if you’ve never been there you’d better pump your breaks.” A lot of my time has been spent explaining why some terrible old social remnants exist into the modern day, even when I despise them myself. I have to explain the problems I see with the education system and how it doesn’t absolve people of blame for doing bad things, but it shows why they think that way beyond pure malice like many people see.

One of the big ones is when I was asking a couple of coworkers about leave, reimbursement, things of a financial nature. They were quizzing me on how it was at my old job and were utterly horrified when I told them about the pay rates, overtime policies, health coverage… one of them said it sounded like the third world and that she wanted to give me a hug at one point, and asked how I didn’t go completely mental over living that way for years and years.

And… It got me thinking. It got me thinking, as most things do, about writing and characters and adaptability. One of the oldest and most tired, worn-out tropes I love is that the human racial trait is the ability to be flexible and live anywhere, make anything the norm, and just deal with it. It’s an exceptionally lazy trope used to differentiate mankind from fantasy or alien races and is completely unrealistic because if we encountered elves or dwarves, if they had flourished at all as a people they would have had to adapt to different environments and social situations to meet localized customs. If nothing else you’d have, I don’t know, ice dwarves mining things in the polar regions and tropical dwarves living along the baked equator, and the difference in environment would necessitate different social norms and rules and whatnot.

But nonetheless, humans are usually the ones who get completely rounded stats and the most freedom for how you build them in roleplaying games, and are presented as something like the cockroaches of many sci-fi strategy games. Give us enough time to dig in and get used to something and we’ll treat it like it’s totally fine, what are you complaining about, of course I took my twelve doses of radiation medpac before going out onto the Belts of Zondarr to harvest glo-gems.

We are a remarkably adaptable people and I only see how stressful my life was in hindsight. When I was living it, well, I made ends meet. I recognized that things could be better and I worked towards that, but in the meantime I did what I had to in order to survive and meet my goals as best I could. I mean, I’m someone with chronic medical issues that I control through very strict, disciplined regimes I’ve had to develop since I was 17 years old and had to have multiple major surgeries ripping my large intestine out and reconstructing the ruins in my abdomen. I was, at any given time, even on a decent-if-overpriced health plan, a couple of bad cases of pouchitis away from bankruptcy. I worked 10 hour days and weekends for over a year just to be able to move here, to make a fraction of what I’m making now for similar work.

I’m sure there are a lot of things that go into it. I try to be a woke, feminist dude but I’ve been bombarded by toxic masculine ideals my entire life and I’m sure that I’ve absorbed enough of them to keep a death-grip on my emotions a lot of the time; I simply don’t let myself panic and I bury my stress in a shallow grave. I come from the New England region where a lot of the societal norm is based around stoicism and not complaining about your lot in life. During the brief time I worked outside of New England, anyone who had worked with other people from the region tended to treat me like some kind of viking-golem who they could point at work and I would ponderously hack away at it until it was gone or I was, and that’s what I did.

It’s not a bad thing, but it’s one of those ones where you don’t realize just how ridiculous the situation was until you were out of it. I look at my health coverage here, the kind of money I could make from entry-level stuff or short term temp work if I walked out of my job tomorrow, and I have no idea how I didn’t go insane from the stress of not having the options I do now.

I think that a lot of that shows up in my writing. I try not to do author avatar characters unless they’re well-hidden in the background or bit parts or I’m poking fun at myself, but there’s an element of that stubbornness that seeps into most of my main characters. And, weirdly enough, I feel like I’ve learned from them as well. There’s an incredibly bizarre kind of osmosis and reversal that happens to some writers, a bloc of which I feel increasingly part, where I really attach a good chunk of what makes me me to a protagonist (or antagonist, because I can also be an asshole) and throw them out into the vast ocean of fiction, and when I reel them back in at the end of the story I collect a lot of what they’ve learned.

It’s a bit like the old conundrum of how you write a character who is smarter than you, or better at you than something. You research it meticulously and you end up a bit smarter or better yourself. It’s one of the things that drew me to writing in the first place, more than any other creative form in the world.

My characters tend to be very adaptable, because when I read fiction that’s what I myself enjoy seeing. No one likes seeing a character who just gives up in the face of overwhelming odds. No one should ever feel like they need to be that character, either. Take advantage of the hoary stereotype of the incredibly adaptable people and let it be a wellspring of strength for you, and create these situations where you stand between the mirrors of real life and fiction and let both enrich you. I try to maintain the adaptability of the characters in my own life, in my case through sheer bullheadedness.

I don’t advocate bottling things up quite as much as I do, of course. It’s not for everyone. It’s probably not that healthy for me and it’s something I’ve tried to work on for much of my adult life, but I recognize that it’s there and I can harness it when I need to. Your flaws can become strengths when you look at them just right. It’s like a much less violent version of Sam Vimes’s The Beast from the Discworld novels, particularly Night Watch:

Vimes felt his hand begin to move of its own accord–

And stopped. Red rage froze.

There was The Beast, all around him.

And that’s all it was. A beast. Useful, but still a beast. You could hold it on a chain, and make it dance, and juggle balls. It didn’t think. It was dumb. What you were, what you were, was not The Beast.

Self-indulgent wankery and shoehorned Pratchett worship aside, I need to get back to book recommendations beyond just re-reading the old Stephen King novels out of a misplaced longing for my homeland!

Rather than fiction I want to recommend one of the very few writing advice books I enjoy and have found helpful.

Now, I don’t have any personal hatred for writing advice books. I recognize that everyone needs to make money, it’s easier to sell shovels in a gold rush than the pan for gold yourself, and that many of the books contain really good advice, but I tend to look at them more as tools I can keep in a very large cabinet and fish out when I run into something that I can’t handle with my own homemade items.

Generally I like advice books that take almost a narrative form, like King’s On Writing or Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing, or some of Chuck Wendig’s collected essays. Authors talking about how much they love their craft does more for my brain than lists of how to do certain things or how not to do them.

41-+2jvwWJL.jpgOne of the very few exceptions to that is The Art of War for Writers by James Bell, written just a few years ago. There have been a billion business variations of The Art of War over the decades, all boiling down to strained “don’t be an idiot on the battlefield / don’t be an idiot in the boardroom” similes, but this is the first time I’ve seen it applied to storytelling. It presents the structures of a story as troop formations, the “enemy” as the reader, and winning the battle as battering down their defenses and capturing their attention fully enough that they not only buy your book but actively look to buy more. It’s split into helpful sections devoted to everything from narrative hooks to character development and how to foreshadow a compelling plot twist, and it does it with wry wit that is genuinely enjoyable to read on its own. You can’t use it as a blueprint for a story, nor should you because then it wouldn’t be your story or your voice, but it gives you a very useful tool that you can pull out when you find yourself in a bind or butting up against writers block. The snippets are, if nothing else, inspiration and story seeds for when you’re having a bad day and your head is feeling cloudy. It’s not going to hold your hand through writing a bestseller, but it can allow you to frame your own story from another angle and sometimes that makes a difference.