testing, testing

Months ago I read this article and asked myself, as I’m sure everyone who read it did, would I want to know? Not for my children, I mean–there, I think the answer is yes, especially with something as awful as Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker disease. Let it end, and stop snaking its way through the population to strike suddenly and with sorrow. But before you get to that part you deal with whether you want to know yourself–whether you carry the genes that damn you. And at the time, discussing it with my husband, I made some determinedly flippant remark like “I’m already going to get Alzheimer’s, what do I care what else I’ll get? I won’t even be there anymore.”

But of course I was only being flippant. Even though “every woman we can remember” in my family has started forgetting everything in her later years, it used to be that every time I said that someone would barge in and point out loudly that there was no genetic proof; that people didn’t know; that it wasn’t inheritable.

And if you want to define “inheritable” as a definitive yes/no chance, sure, you can say it’s not inheritable. But now we know there is a gene, specifically the APOE4 gene, that “gives a person a 67 percent chance of developing Alzheimer’s.” This, I had not known until I read the article in The Atlantic, and verified with the Mayo Clinic that this was legitimate fact. At which point I had to ask myself, do I want to know?

I thought of the NPR story on prostate cancer earlier this year, with its discussion of how something else is more likely to kill you before your prostate cancer (which apparently most men get?) does, but in the meantime, if you’ve gone and gotten tested, you’re living the rest of your life with this axe hanging over your head. And that the psychological damage that does outweighs the minimal medical advantages of pushing for testing, testing, testing in populations at low risk of developing early-age prostate cancer.

My situation isn’t quite the same, because Alzheimer’s isn’t a death sentence, and it most definitely affects you and the people around you long before, in most cases, your body starts to fall apart. But the psychological weight–the axe–is the same. Sure, my family tells itself that this is how its women go. But we can only remember back two or three generations, and in the vagueness one can find hope, if one so chooses. Would I want to definitively know that, all other possible contributing factors like diet and lifestyle aside, I by default had a 67% change of getting this disease I am far too familiar with by this point?

No. I don’t.

Every generation in my family told itself it didn’t have to worry, because “they’ll develop a cure by the time I need it.” And they didn’t develop a cure. But I still don’t want to know. Because I’ve already seen people’s lives upended–and ended–by car crashes, guns, bombings. Terrorist attacks. I’m already aware of just how short a time my allotment can be–even if not physically speaking; even if we’re talking stroke, or coma, or a vegetable state held in place and alive by mandatory state laws. I already live as though I could die, mentally or totally, tomorrow, or next week, or next year. I don’t need to know for sure that it’s going to happen. Because I already know it’s going to eventually, and the time that remains would be a little difficult to enjoy with the assured ticking of a clock always running under the surface of everything you think, say, do.

I hope this does not sound morbid. It would be odder still if I did not think about these things, given my family’s background, and science’s grim success in being more able than ever to forecast our fates, but not to fix them. In one of her last brilliantly lucid moments before the anesthesia required by her cancer surgeries hastened what was already early-onset dementia, my mother sat in a Panera, in a booth across from my husband-to-be and me, and said she was content. That her whole life she’d thought she’d fear the disease she had kinda-sorta figured was coming, as I do, but when it was finally there in front of her she was pleased with what she had accomplished; who she had become, and that she found it pleasantly surprising. The only regret she had was that she wouldn’t be able to relish the pleasant surprise very long.

“She’s so morbid,” I sobbed to my almost-husband in the parking lot, after my mother had headed back to her hotel, where my sister had driven her for the bridal shower festivities. “No she’s not,” he insisted. “She’s happy. She said so. She’s happy.”

And she was.

But she didn’t get there by knowing, for certain-sure, her whole life, how it would end. She was able to do everything she wanted, be everything she wanted, because of the vagueness, the hope that the family’s too-familiar curse would pass her by. And if I cannot maintain my memories until my death, I can at least maintain my happiness, or my pursuit of it, until I am no longer myself.

That is the best I can do.

for ovaries and glory

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I started playing Crusader Kings II because it sounded, when I was told about it, like The Sims. I’m as easily wooed by empire-building games as the next person, but it was the personal quirks of the individual characters–our ability to see them and, albeit in a limited way, influence them–that drew me in. And because we’re in the Steam Summer Sale right now, I took advantage of at lot of the DLC at half-price, meaning I have everywhere from Iceland to Siberia, Sweden to Egypt available to play.

And the results are sad.

I feel now the same way I feel after hours of playing The Sims. There’s a shift in focus that occurs as soon as you have children, in both games, that I (childless) see in the people around me, when they have children. In Crusader Kings, it makes a certain amount of sense–however grim–because your children are your playing pieces on the board. They are the loins that ensure the continuation of your all-important dynasty, and the ovaries you sell to other men in return for the hope of their future loyalty. You want to shape them in ways either that appeal to others, for future mating (patience, kindness), or that will serve your kingdom well (stewardship, military prowess, a knack for intrigue). But in the Sims–and this, I know, is more tied to my subjective experience of the game than to “winning” tactics, there being little to win in Sims–all it means is that the person whose ambitions you’ve tried to realize, whose desires you’ve striven to fulfill, for the previous however many hours that amount to the entirety of their life, now takes backseat to the welfare of the new generation. That original character continues to have hopes, dreams and desires, but they tend to abandon them in their efforts to ensure a good life for their offspring.

And for what?

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Twice now in Crusader Kings I’ve had characters 14 and 20 years after their marriages, respectively, fall into mutual love with their wives. That’s two decades, in the latter case, of sharing a bed, a castle, a family, a life with someone you only conjure affection for in the few remaining years before death. In the meantime you’ve produced rather a good deal of children, some of whom survived and some of whom didn’t, and by now many of them are off and married into strategic alliances, and producing little pawns of their own. And now, with your legacy assured–both conceptually and, in the game’s mechanics, in numeric terms expressed by the sum of your prestige and piety (more on that later) divided by half–you have time for pursuits other than mindless fucking. You have time for affection.

I tried to play for the heart instead of the legacy. I tried, as the young Duchess of Ulster (eight years old when the game drops you off in her shoes at the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War), to keep my county and my personal dignity intact. By this point in history I was indeed allowed to hold the power I did, because the structure of inheritance for Ulster (agnatic-cognatic gavelkind, with a default to primogeniture) under King Edward III allowed for women in power if there were no other options. (It’s true that I did actually scour the map to try and find a female to play–I expected few if any, and the Duchess of Ulster was the first one I found.) My title would pass to a cousin upon my demise, not my offspring; but for the time being I was in charge and was still advised to start producing children because, after all, you never know. Plague, war or misadventure could carry off the other claimants before my demise, and with no valid heirs, where would Ulster then be?

So, in between placating my liege and assuring him that of course I backed his claim to the throne across the water, thankyouverymuchpleasedon’tkillme, I shopped for a husband. Not an easy find when you insist on matrilineal descent, so any children born would be of my own dynasty versus his. At last I found someone willing, a distant relative to the Kaiser of the Holy Roman Empire–Wilhelm. I sent word of my interest, the Kaiser wrote back that he approved, and in a year or so when Wilhelm was of age, he appeared at court. Now to sow the seeds of some good old-fashioned romance, right?

Well, no. Not for the Duchess. Because Wilhelm was gay. He had little interest in the Duchess and even less in producing children with her. He was somewhat grateful to her initially–his approval of her went up, and I attributed this to gratitude for her having removed him from a court doomed to relegate him to the back of the line of importance for eternity–but he came with a substantial negative modifier on his fertility, because, well. Not really interested.

So the Duchess sought love elsewhere. When an opportunity box popped up after a feast, indicating that her steward wished to express his…fondness…of course I approved it. This woman had a miserable life! So she fell into love with the steward, and he with her. He was in his forties and she had just turned 20. She did manage to wrangle her husband into bed on occasion, and gave birth to two of his children, which served as enough of a screen to conceal the two of the steward’s children she also bore. She seemed so happy! The county was prosperous and, except for granting passage to any armies that came her way through her lands, she was mostly left out of the mess over in England.

Except that her deception of her husband began to plague her with doubt and guilt. Abruptly she cut off all relations with the steward, who immediately took ill and died. Miserable, the Duchess took to chastity for a great many years, ignoring her husband and lands both. Money stockpiled; she waged no wars and helped few others with theirs, so far away was she from the lands where any of the crusades were being fought. At last, when she turned thirty, a box popped up indicating interest from, of all quarters, her heir–the legal heir, not her explicit relative, William the Tanist. I had paid attention to William the Elder, but not the Younger, so hadn’t known of his existence, or that he was her heir. I approved their interaction and boom, 100 percent fondness from both sides. Upon discovering his legal position I thought, wonderful! If I could just marry the Duchess off to this guy then she could have happiness and the continuation/legitimization of her line! Eagerly the Duchess sought and achieved the assassination of her husband Wilhelm. With such a good match in the making, I thought, why not take over neighboring County Tyrone as well? Seal the deal, give the children something to lord over.

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The war went disastrously, bankrupting the county. Ulster lost heavily, even after bringing in mercenaries to fight for it. In desperation the Duchess took 300 gold from the churches to try and pay her debts–only to be excommunicated, first from the church by the pope and next from the heart of her lover. He condemned her for her blasphemous ways and would hear no more of her. She died shortly thereafter, of slow fever, as did two of her children. William the Tanist became Duke William, and 20 years later he fell in love with his wife Blanche de Burgh–whom the Duchess had plotted to kill, in order to be with her dear William, right up until the war that ended her broke out.

How sweet.

Because I am concomitantly reading Vanity Fair, I kept thinking about how this game would work if it centered on the Napoleonic Wars instead of the Crusades. It would certainly be much more within the realm of the familiar to me, but the forces that push and pull the world would be different. There would still be dynastic concerns, of course, but religion? Points for piety? These anointed third parties able to rip the rug out from under you at a moment’s notice, by excommunicating you and turning you suddenly, perplexingly into a figure of anathema?

And as I switched from Bretons to Khazars to Byzantines to Celts, I began too to wonder about those “dynastic concerns.” The lives of these people are full. If they did not have their religion around their necks like yokes, or their neighbors (or their own children) trying to kill them at every turn, they might find the time to wonder why they keep going to bed with people they don’t even care for. Well, the men might–the women, as the Duchess was too quick to teach me, don’t get much of a chance at pleasure, since they minute they try to act upon it they are thrust into a turmoil of trying to make sure everyone believes the baby came from the right bed. (I had hoped there might be the opportunity to pursue lesbian relationships, since I’d seen Wilhelm and learned that the game at least acknowledges gay people existing, but it seems that except for that negative fertility modifier, that part of their lives is closed to you.) In short, if they weren’t constantly struggling for survival they might wonder at the utility of their life’s work. So your child will inherit, and his child after him. What then?

It seems that unless you have a strict set of views you intend to impose upon your offspring, and through them upon the world of the future, there is little point to toiling away for your family line like this. I tried playing it as though affection was worth it–heaping my children with money so that their opinions of me would go up–but it didn’t matter. When their wives plotted to have me killed and I threw them in jail (hey, at least I didn’t behead them! I was being generous!), the sons forgot everything I’d ever done for them, and stalked off to form a rebel faction to further my downfall. Such actions would suggest a fondness on their parts for their wives, but in the one instance where I followed this revolt through to its conclusion, there was in fact little love lost between them. The son in question was in fact sleeping with another courtier; the imprisonment of his wife had just lent moral justification to actions he’d conceivably wanted to take for years.

I know, I know, childhood is a relatively recent invention. The idea that there is something to your life between infancy and the harsh realities of adulthood is a tender, fragile thing, even younger than the United States. But I guess what the heartless finagling of Crusader Kings highlights is the complete abyss that remains outside of obligation–the abyss that has dominated human history, since for most of human history, we’ve had no time for it. We’re too busy trying to cement our family lines in seats of power, or chasing brigands off our lands or dying in city-consuming fires, or continent-consuming plagues, or rebellions lit by the obligation-charged infernos of religious fervor.

When I was little my mother told me that the reason my sister and I showed up so late was that she had already resigned herself to not having kids. She had wanted them, and liked them, and played with them all throughout her life, but she never met the right man to have kids with and she was okay with that. And then my dad had appeared and instead of finishing her law school degree while working in a hospital full-time, she created a family instead. It was the thing that made her happiest, she said. She’d travelled the world and worked exactly the jobs she wanted, and was studying for exactly the job she wanted when she got bored of those, and this completely different route made her happiest.

I find it so difficult to mesh that kind of affection with either the micromanagement of marriages and filial responsibilities you see in depictions of the past, or in the self-absorbed parenting I see going on around me today. From the woman who really only ever wanted a son and smears Instagram photos of the boy all over Facebook while ignoring her girl, to the group of moms I encountered gathered together, gossiping raucously about their friend’s “little 16-year-old ho” who “was just throwing it out there” and “deserved to get pregnant”…it seems that you’re either buried under so many obligations your personal desires are quashed, or you have the time and money to spend on them and treat your offspring (and others in general) terribly, selfishly unequally. Every time I think I see middle ground it gets swallowed up. Even the people who dote on their children and dispense wisdom and affection equally–their spouse turns around and divorces them, or at least sleeps around and then brags about it, out of revenge for having taken backseat to the kids in the hearts of others.

In sum, perhaps the Duchess was no worse off than people living on my street. At least she had two people love her in her life–even if she never got to marry either of them. And hey, her granddaughter lived on to become the queen of Aquitaine. Makes all that hardship totally worth it, right?

swing

 

My favorite scene in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice–which will likely always be my favorite, its much-vaunted predecessors notwithstanding–is when Elizabeth is spinning on a swing in the entryway to a farmyard. Every time I rewatch the movie and she heads out to the swing, I get excited. Because–though you won’t be able to get as much of a sense of it in this clip–it’s another one of those sudden departures from point-A-to-point-B storytelling Wright slips into this movie, without warning, when you had become quite accustomed to watching a straightforward narrative unfurl before you. And suddenly, this–is time passing? surely it must be; all that hay from threshing wouldn’t disappear by an afternoon rainstorm; but if time is passing, how much? weeks? months? years? He does not tell us with brazen seasonal markers like snow and jingle bells, or fans and blazing days. Clouds, sun, animals, hay, rain…each could fall most anywhere in the calendar, and we’re left unknowing where. Even when the scene ends, and Charlotte shows up with news of her engagement to Mr. Collins, she comes in wet from the rainstorm that’s still carrying on outside the safety of the stone entryway where the swing hangs, so we still don’t know how much time has passed.

The ambiguity, then, the generous leave we are granted to acknowledge it or ignore it, I am attracted to. But also the cuts back to Elizabeth’s face that make this not some lark on a swing amongst the barnyard critters, but indication of pensive–possibly even brooding?–thought. However much time is passing, she’s watching it fall on the home where she has grown up, on the daily rhythms she has known as far back ask she can remember carrying on as they always have in this place which will be taken from her. From all of them. Quite possibly because she has just rejected Mr. Collins–even with the approval of her father–and in doing so ensured that this house and yard and countryside which supports and shelters the laughter and closeness that characterizes her family will not pass safely into the hands of someone still in the family–someone who could conceivably prevail upon Mr. Collins to provide for her family’s staying on in some way. She has tossed aside that chance and, hell, was it worth it? she thinks, spinning. (Yes, yes, I know, not in such coarse terms, but still.)

There are things that are odd about the scene. Why would a swing be in the stone archway to a courtyard? What is it hanging from? Why does she take off her shoes? When she raises her legs out, she has removed her feet are bare–in a barnyard? a muddy one at that? do you want polio?–which seems less than wise. But it invites the assumption that she has done this all her life, gravitated to this swing, spun on it until the world tilts around her, even as a little girl carelessly kicking off her shoes and shrieking as the swing spins round.

When I was little, as we slowly dispensed with the furniture we’d carted around the country and upgraded to nicer, sturdier stuff, I was distraught at the loss of each ugly 1970s couch and each mottled plaid armchair. Because my childhood was full of moments like these, where you’re painfully aware of the passage of time even if you’re just learning about it. Lifting your palm from where you’d been leaning on it in the chair and seeing how much less space each plaid check imprint takes up–remembering when one check engulfed the space from knuckle to finger-joint, for example. Curling into a corner of the ugly couch and trying to catch the precise moment when the last smidgeon of light leaves the sky at night. Listening to the creak of the couch’s hide-a-bed as you pull it out for visiting cousins and remembering crying in the middle of the same bed on Halloween, because Snoopy Come Home was on TV and Snoopy wasn’t coming home.

The house, the fields, the yard, the swing–they don’t make Elizabeth’s family what it is. But they’re willing tools to help her remember her family the way it was. To have those tools taken away–to know that you won’t see or hear these things and have your memory jogged, an unexpected gem from years ago returned to you, shining–is not without its pain. When my parents chucked the brown couch to the curb, I snuck out at dawn and removed all the cushions and kept them shoved away in my closet for years. I couldn’t lift the couch, and even if I could have I didn’t have room to store it, but the cushions I could shelter, and did. And when finally space constraints demanded that I get rid of them, seeing them poking up out of the trash bin was a bitter accusation. Not only had I abandoned my attempts to hang onto them, but I’d robbed them of their context too, so now they weren’t even connected to a couch a family had grown up on–they were just bits of trash in a smelly old can by the curb. I had tried, at first, to convince my mother to donate them, but she said no one would want thirteen ugly old cushions to a long-absent couch. I felt sick with guilt.

This is likely not what Elizabeth is thinking, out there on the swing. But it’s at least possible that she’s thinking along the lines of time, memory, and the trickling away of each, as has been aided by her rejection of long hoped-for opportunity. And I love recognizing shared sentiment in that scene. Time is going, going, going, and you let it. There’s a camaraderie in seeing a character realize that, no matter that the people you’re sharing the moment with are attractive actors playing some of the most beloved characters in English literature. And there is no grand buildup to this scene, either–it just pounces on us with its sorrow and poignancy and piano, out of nowhere. I love that.

the long road to solitude, i mean, riften

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There are many reasons to be trepidatious about Elder Scrolls Online.

The fact that it’s an MMO isn’t one of them.

Don’t get me wrong, I too gnashed my teeth when it was first announced that my beloved series would be making a foray onto the MMO scene. As a long-time player of both MMOs (pre-dating EverQuest 1 back to MUDs and MUSHes, even, if you want to stretch the definition that far) and the Elder Scrolls games, I was devoted to both, but quite determined that never the twain shall meet.

This was a problem.

Not one you would have gotten me to recognize during my lonely year abroad, whose evenings I spent hunkered down in front of Oblivion instead of being spat on, groped, or in one instance, held against the train wall and dry-humped while no one met my eyes let alone tried to help me. Nor was it a problem I would have recognized during my grad school year and a half, where a truncated graduation schedule left me with 11 straight hours of class on Tuesdays, and I fled into the sweetly empty, uncluttered plains around Whiterun for mindless deer-stalking and dragon-slaying.

But it’s a problem I recognize now, stealthed and squeezed as far into the cluster of rocks I just rounded as I can fit, just west of Bleaker Outpost as over sixty Daggerfall Covenant players stream on white horses past my hiding place. I can see the eye symbol that indicates my visibility pop open again and as they pass by; if just one of them swings far enough to the right to see me frozen in place among the rocks, I am so dead.

And they don’t.

And I survive.

And this is what I was missing on all my blissfully oblivious days heigh-hoing it up and down the mountains in Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim. The kind of oh-shit situations that only humans (so far) can put in place.

Because AI would have been smarter than to dump 60+ players, maybe 30 of whom knew what they were doing with the other half blundering blindly along after their followers (I am not so foolish as to believe they are any more or less capable over there in the Covenant than we are in the Ebonheart Pact), at only that one spawning point. AI would have wisely sent half the forces straight from Aleswell and half north or south, to avoid stringing themselves out in this endless parade that keeps me pinned trembling against the rocks for a good 3-4 minutes. AI would’ve been smart. AI would have been tediously lacking in human foibles.

They never got Bleakers that day.

Because even as I lay there hoping no one would turn and look as they galloped past, I let everyone on my team know about the scores of enemies pouring in on our meagre outpost. And while, again, half the players don’t and won’t likely ever know what they are doing, the other half are veterans by now, in veteran-only groups, and this smarter half swung south and west of Bleaker’s to pound into the DC line as they came in, setting aflame to their hastily-planted forward camp and utterly destroying their attempt to head further east into our territory. It was a human triumph over other humans, and was deeply, deliriously rewarding.

(Especially the setting fire to the forward camp. That is always particularly rewarding. I remained undiscovered there in my pile of rocks and slithered up behind them to torch their camp, eliminating the possibility of them retaining a nearby respawn point upon their deaths. Joy!)

There are, of course, assholes. And while fear of said assholes trouncing on my simulated world–shattering the illusion–was one of the chief reasons I dreaded ESO in the beginning, there is something to be said for keeping them on hand. Because, as I used to explain to my mom when she (herself an avid gamer) evinced doubt about the online part of massively multiplayer online games, they add to the environment. So goes the world, so goes ESO–so yes, there are assholes, and cocky kids, and know-it-alls and creeps and all manner of people you probably wouldn’t want to hang with in real life. But you have to deal with them, as you have to deal with them in the real world. And in bowing your head and resigning yourself to the fact that people from all walks of life will inhabit this gameworld with you, you encounter people you might never otherwise talk to. People who you are guaranteed to have at least one thing in common with–a fondness for, and a comfort with, this fictional ethos you’ve both welcomed onto your respective machines. I spent several hours last weekend traipsing through the countryside around Cheydinhal, laughing with my comrade about the hopelessness of our fight at the moment to judge by the vitriol pouring over zone chat, and defending each other when would-be gankers came to disrupt our bucolic interlude with wanton butchery. Not on our watch, jackass. One of us would walk innocently up to the quest-giver to turn in the quest we’d just completed, and the other would follow at an undetectable distance, stealthed. And when those vermin who so love a chance to take advantage of lone players pop into existence to land the killing blow, out of the shadows would come the other of our pair, to send our ganker to hell halfway across the entire map.

We hoped he enjoyed the walk back. Maybe he bothered to take in some of the scenery.

marathon 2

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Twenty minutes faster. In these. Did Galloway for miles 18, 20, 22 and 23. Much better than saying “I will walk until I reach that tree,” then walking extra slowly until I reach that tree. Also thundered through home stretch faster than husband’s app told him I would, and never entered the gulping half-sob breathing state that I remembered from last time and that I heard in people around me. Felt great the whole week afterward. Didn’t even need the foam roller. No popping, creaking, tearing, limping, bleeding…almost regret scholarship since preponderance of suddenly-affordable classes means I won’t have the time to train for a fall marathon. Still. This one went exceedingly well.