the sun and her flowers


So I don’t post much on poetry because I’m not as well-trained in its appreciation as I am in other things, but I know people who are, and I don’t like to disappoint.

But I looked at this because I remembered Ashley Johnson recommending it on Signal Boost, and between this and what she said about Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels, I remember thinking how brave it seemed, to have feelings about something as a woman and to share them as such, when you still had ties to a community (see: gamers) that would cheerfully eviscerate you online and otherwise if they decided they didn’t like what you said. Because what she said about both books was that she admired what was written as a woman, reading women. And it’s stupid that it has to be brave to express that, now, but it is.

That’s why I picked the book up. But I bought it because, while you can go one poem at a time, linearly, and receive a tale of relationship heartbreak, you don’t have to. And if you break it up, flipping here and then there, it becomes more universally applicable across a wide spectrum of loss — furthering my earlier convictions about relationship songs and how the meaning doesn’t have to end there (and certainly wasn’t thought to by any number of movie soundtrack selectors).

I decided to post about it, though, because of this line:

love is understanding

we have the power to hurt one another

but we are going to do everything in our power

to make sure we don’t

I dunno. I love that. My heart isn’t broken in the way these poems are meant to address. But there’s more than one way to crack an egg.

Also:

the next time i go to school

and the boys hoot at my backside

i push them down

foot over their necks

and defiantly say

boobs

and the look in their eyes is priceless

That’s fucking awesome.

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we are the welders

Full stop, I love the long-winded, highfalutin lore of the Elder Scrolls series.

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I’ve heard people bash it up, down and sideways. (Seriously, why do I only know people who hate the things I love in games?)* “It’s basically fanfiction!” “It’s just Fakespeare!” “It’s only borrowing from existing philosophies/religions!” To which I respond:

1.) What exactly is your beef with fanfiction? Did this many kids read or write when you were young? Didn’t think so.

2.) Would you prefer they compose entire dialogue blocks in 1337?

3.) Everything borrows from something, so if that’s the line you draw, enjoy partaking in no media ever again.

The Clockwork City DLC came out earlier this week, and I sadly haven’t gotten to play much of it. Work and a need for sleep will do that to you. But what I have gotten to see of the place delights me. Because it is an inadvertent reminder of just how much lore there is to the Elder Scrolls series — and how much of it I have taken in over the years, when I stop and explain this or that book (THERE ARE SO MANY BOOKS IN THIS DLC IT’S GREAT) to my husband, who played neither Morrowind nor Oblivion nor, really, much Skyrim at all.

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There are, by and large, at least three versions to any story in the game. There’s the story told by those to whom it happened (typically a member of one of the provinces outside Cyrodiil), the story told by the officials (typically Cyrodiilic scholars, of court or the cloth), and befogged versions of scraps of the story left to us by long-dead predecessors (typically Ayleids but also including dwemer). I hear the eyeballs rolling in heads. “Durr, what a gimmick, everyone could show that there are multiple angles of any given event!” Yep, well, when you see “everyone” doing just that, you call me up. Because sure, it maybe obvious in every story, from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to In a Grove, but just because it’s obvious and capable of providing insight doesn’t mean people are doing it.

And if they are, they aren’t doing enough of it.

So then. We have the Elder Scrolls series. Where characters you come to know as gods might not be. Where the willingness to question that godhood varies hugely across cultures and individuals. Where, sure, analytical tools employed by real-world practitioners of a variety of schools of thought are brought to bear upon fanciful notions of life, origin, and purpose. But here’s the difference: this time, it’s entertaining.

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This isn’t just fluff, you see. These terms the texts invoke aren’t without meaning, if you’ve played the previous games  long or attentively enough. And while I suppose this could devolve quickly into a lore dick-measuring contest, it doesn’t have to. The breadth of the Elder Scrolls lore, both alluded to and expanded upon in ESO, can simply be enjoyable.

There was a reason, after all, that I plowed through The Silmarillion while struggling desperately to stay afloat in my most miserable calculus class in high school. It’s not that the pedantic air text-within-text-based lore takes on heightens the degree to which your disbelief suspends. It’s that…well, I’m sure it differs for different people, but for me, it’s the oasis-like conjuring of an academia unsullied by reality. It’s why The Name of the Rose remains my favorite book. The notion of someone knowing so damn much about the world that it dawns on them to question it, and themselves, in prose, despite their widely-respected erudition; and often whilst endangering themselves and their position through their willingness to doubt openly. In the Elder Scrolls series, of course, you’ve got to piece quite a few texts together to get to that crumb of humility, but still — wade through enough of the fire-and-brimstone manifestos of adherents to Stendarr or Boethiah; gather enough scraps of journal entries from observers of the Greybeards or the Moth Priests, and you are able to paint a picture of a populace as unsure of its place in the world as we — and as staunchly devoted to concealing this fact as most of us remain. If you are only able to see the uncertainty through contrasting it with the writ-in-stone conviction carved deep into (sometimes literally stone-bound) texts, well — isn’t that as it ought to be?

Because, obviously, these stories are written by people in this world. You know, the one full of knee-jerk critics that bleed sarcasm when cut, and assclowns who compliment your lecture in the hope of fondling you in the elevator afterward.** And it can be difficult at times, amidst all that bullshit attendant upon real life, to ponder questions like whether madness must be manufactured to allow for the disruption and, arguably, the rewriting of order necessary for life to continue.*** Too often the people you try to have these conversations with are too busy, or too tired, or too bent on using any results of said conversation to further their own careers (see: the fantasy of an academy unsullied by the greed for fame, which will ever remain a fantasy given a system which rewards perceived prestige and not acumen) to make space for actual discussion.

Hence, texts.

“As all calculable results continued to prove inconclusive, the project was deemed unsuccessful after a six-week trial.” This, after instigating a poetry session. Perhaps only firmly rooted within the realm of the fantastical, unbound by real-world assertions like “that tax money should have gone to something better than kids’ poetry jams” or “and even if any of it had been good, could any of them have afforded to make careers out of those poems?” can we read a cut-and-dried post-project assessment like that and recognize it for the buffoonery it is.

And that, my friends, is the value of texts-within-texts. They make you see yourself for what you are, without you knowing that’s what you’re going in for. You’d resist it in another circumstance; through another method of delivery, but from within the stuffy, seemingly-benign confines of fictional academics, you can begin to glimpse the at-times idiocy that is your own steadfast refusal to question that which you hold most dear, or important, or incontrovertible.

Also, William of Baskerville is the shit, and any contact lens-thin sliver of him reproduced, in some variant form, in any text, is worth pursuing.

*Except the Queen of Good Hair and Guacamole

**I remain grateful to the professor who informed me bluntly that it was a shitty road I was heading down, considering my doctorate, and that she wished she’d stuck to art rather than lecturing about it, because so far all it had gotten her was a divorce and a long line of skeevy guys (see above) trying to fuck their subject matter.

***Sheogorath is my weak point in ES lore. I never played past the intro to the Shivering Isles expansion, because given the option of playing through either Mania or Dementia, I chose Reload Saved Game and decided to hell with that horrid place. Every time I try to go back and play it, I still find myself bailing. I don’t do grimdark, folks. Even with a current of humor swirling in there somewhere, it’s still not enough. Once you start throwing in the townspeople politely asking if I would be so kind as to peel their skin off for them, I am so done. So, so done.

NOPE

the other dumb reason i watch outlander

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Firstly: you’d be a fool not to take in the scenery, be it encompassing the bony spines of Glencoe or the great things done, most recently, for tiny round spectacles perched upon noses. Oh, those spectacles. That nose.

Secondly, though…

Look, I sometimes wonder how long I am allowed to talk about my mother. It only took two months for people at work to forget — to resume complaining about old people “who probably have Alzheimer’s or something, the way they go on” and making baldly awkward comments like “you should call me Mom, then,” when I insist on anything other than the use of my full name, please, because only my mother ever used it, and then only when angry. Not a one of these people have lost anyone, and they’re all 10+ years older than me. Hell, they even have all their grandparents still alive. I understand that they don’t understand. I do. But that then leaves me in the awkward position of being an unwilling ambassador, of sorts, of sorrow. And I have no idea how long my term lasts, or if there has been a vote of no confidence held without my knowledge even, and if everyone then winces when I allude to an unlooked-for position they’d prefer to forget ever existed.

Because, um, my mother is the other reason I continue to watch, and to read, the Outlander series. She used to describe it to me as her guilty pleasure, when I sheepishly slipped the latest Animorphs book into our pile at the the bookstore, long after I thought I should have been beyond such things. “It’s okay, it’s like me with these,” she said, thumping the cover of Drums of Autumn. “As long as you keep up with other things, these are fine.” “But what’s wrong with that? It’s huge,” I said later, outside the store. Whereupon she tried to explain something of the plot, and of time travel and 20th century values adrift in the 18th century, and something of the romantic angle — which I quickly shut down. As in so many other foolish moments I remember now being too young to act upon; skeins of truths offered which I was too busy or disinterested to pursue unravelling at the time, and which I will now never get to recover — my mother’s attachment to the series is something I can no longer ask her about. That information is lost to me.

But I can try and reconstruct it as the show’s success breathes new life into an ever-wider audience, and that’s what I do. Claire’s practicality, her medical reflections at what are sometimes the oddest moments, are very much my mother. She liked Claire, I remember, defending the character staunchly when I, in a ten-year-old’s puritanical streak, lambasted her for taking up with Jamie when she still had her first husband floating around some 200 years later. I can’t remember what my mother said verbatim, but it was something having to do with women not having any power back then, and here was one man willing to respect her as though they did [“-ish,” I might add, as an adult watching a certain episode, but I digress], and what did I expect her to do, just scoff and refuse and end up in a worse situation and anyway as far as she knew she could never go back, etc. etc. Mom was, indeed, a fan of Claire.

And in Season 3, episode 5, I was utterly unprepared for Claire’s farewell to Brianna, her daughter. (Yes, I’ve read Dragonfly in Amber, but I careened through it to get to the reunion, and everything prior to that is something of a blur.) How glad I am that no one watches this show with me. It is so much easier to just let yourself be a snot-covered mess than to try and keep up appearances. Because let me tell, you, there was snot.

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I don’t just mean looks. Bree is frosty; I’ve never liked her. But when her mother lists all the experiences they won’t be able to share when she leaves, all the memories they won’t be able to create…oh, goddammit, I lost it. Bree is, I believe, 20 when Claire leaves. That’s two years younger than me when my mother received her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. You want to feel old? Lose your mother in your fucking 20s, when everyone around you is still stupid enough to roll their eyes and hit Ignore when their mother’s face appears on their ringing phone. Also, be sure to have a conversation with her before she disappears, like the one Bree has here with Claire. Like the one I had with my mother, in a near-empty Panera by a highway, from which my eventual husband drove me home crying, though thankfully I managed to hold it together until after we said goodbye. A goodbye prefaced by her announcement, gentle and only a little sad, that she was happy with the time that she had had, and that she was lucky not to have had regrets, and to be able to see me happy too, before she left. Before she faded away.

You see why that scene with Claire and Brianna was such a clusterfuck for me.

But even after that, in a callback to the lines Claire uses to attempt to describe the horrific feel of the time travel itself, she touches on a bubble of childhood anxiety that I’d forgotten she had. Its source crops up there, a puddle, and she acknowledges — she, self-possessed surgeon and capable woman of the 20th century, acknowledges — that this never really left her, the childhood fear of there not really being anything underneath that gleaming flat surface. That feeling that she might yet fall forever, if she stepped in the puddle. But, the narration and the scene itself continues, she hurries on anyway, leaving her brain behind to deal with that hiccup of fear while her body does what it has to. I don’t recall that from the books, but then I don’t recall my mother as an anxious person at all either — when in fact she was, to the point where they tried to medicate her for it, before the more pressing mental deconstruction demanded their attention. When she told me that, again when I was 22, I was stunned. My mother didn’t dry-wash her hands or call repeatedly or fret vocally or pace or self-medicate or anything that suggested anything might be bothering her. She was always the island of sensible, grounded wit in a sea of garish too-chummy moms, or pinch-mouthed helicopter moms, or whatever they called them back then. That she was anxious — that she was constantly worrying about something, any number of things, at any given time — was a concept utterly foreign to me. I would never have known. And it certainly never rubbed off on me; I think I am the last millennial on the planet without anxiety. I’ve got regrets in spades, man, but I know the oven is off when I leave, and when I close my eyes for the night my sleep is instant and heavy as bricks. I’m good on the anxiety front.

Claire doesn’t share the puddle thing with Bree. She has already left Bree by the time it comes up, and we have no indication that they ever talked about it. But given the way Bree rallies to back Claire up in her really quite moving stab of self-doubt, when she wonders if Jamie will even be interested in her anymore, I like to think that had Claire mentioned the puddle thing Bree would have rallied in the same way. Maybe she wouldn’t have understood, as I didn’t understand when my mother confessed (I guess confessed? she was almost protective, almost embarrassed of this fact?) to a lifetime of stomach-churning worry, but Bree would have wielded the bravado of the very young and the very loving, and tried to make it okay.

I tried. It didn’t work. It doesn’t, generally. But it is important, maybe — I hope — for your effort to have been noted. As far as Claire knows, she’ll never see her daughter again. It should help — I hope it helps — knowing that the last time you did see her, she believed in you, and believed that whatever came your way, you could handle it.

I hope I gave that impression, in that shitty Panera. I hope I looked like I believed in her. Like I thought she could take it. Because the minute she turned away, I was an absolute mess. Maybe she could take it, but I couldn’t.

Can’t. Sometimes. Clearly.

civilization 6 : where the music goes

I’ll be honest, I’m bigger into the music for Civilization 6 than the game itself.

And I love that game! I do. But the music entrances me more. This is what the spare parts of my desk scratch paper look like:

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And we just got more music! With the new DLC comes new music, and I’m listening to Indonesia now. As that paper indicates, I’m most smitten, by and large, with the Industrial tracks. On the one hand this may be because I listen to these tracks less in-game; I’m not very good and my gluttony for punishment doesn’t always survive the medieval age. Maybe I’ve been over-exposed to the earlier tracks, and thus they unconsciously fall in my favor.

But there is also the cello factor. With regional exceptions, the same instruments often get called upon across civilizations, within the same timeframe. The Industrial Era brings a lot of cellos to the fore, and cellos, by and large, slay me.

There are exceptions, though. Because I am not big into sinister, and there are a great many civilizations whose Industrial and Atomic age themes are sinister.* Grandiose, yes, but also dark. Not ALL of them, though, and the decisions made about whose march toward modernity is triumphant and whose inspires fear, well, fascinates me.

Indonesia’s Industrial Age, incidentally, is purely joyous:

So is the Kongo’s:

At first, going through the tracks alphabetically as they are listed on the big compilation videos, you might think it was the civilizations who marched to modernity on the back of colonialism whose themes justifiably turn sinister in their modern eras. See, for example, France:

Note that I don’t mean the beginning of this piece — for, as with France, sometimes the compiler puts the “conflict” melody for a civilization first, before its neutral or positive effect music. I mean the entire leitmotif, that gets repeated across times. France’s gets rough. That slow, ponderous percussion, the brooding brass that soon becomes grand, if no less grave. The same goes for Germany:

And Norway:

 

So far, everyone mentioned defintely has a dark past when it comes to their actual real world, versus their imagined in-game, evolution. But what of Russia?

If that sound familiar, you are correct — that is indeed the folk song Korobeiniki, more widely known as the Tetris song. But why so sinister? As the Medieval Age version of the song attests, it doesn’t have to go so dark:

It can be folksy and fun! But Russia, despite lacking in overseas colonialist endeavors, steamrolled its landlocked neighbors and actively suppressed or extinguished a great many indigenous cultures in the Urals, the Carpathians and on down into the Caucasus. Most of that damage, though, was more recent in its timestamp. If, though, we are including 19th- and 20th-century exploitation on our list of crimes for which the music will brand the civilizations accordingly, why does Japan get a pass? Why, for that matter, does America?

Our brass is noble; our strings solemn at times but in no way despondent or foreboding. Our theme sounds like a mix of Appalachian Spring and the score for October Sky. Which answers my own question, really:

“Our brass.” “Our strings.”

Ethoncentrism, man. There’s no other reason for the America to get a pass except that it was made in America. By Americans. I mean, listen to our atomic theme!

Whereas many if not most of the others are downright grim, promising terrible things with this sinister march toward the stars, ours is heroic af. Hell, parts of it read like the Sims housebuilding music, which was written to make you feel like adulthood was an adventure and stuff would make you happy. (This is the point at which we all congratulate ourselves on being edgey enough to recognize that as very American. Moving on.) And you know who else gets a triumphant, shadow-free Atomic Age?

That buildup gives me chills. CHILLS. It goes everywhere you want it to and doesn’t make you regret it. It’s beautiful! But…China receive the same pass America does, here. No dark, brooding minor keys. No musical promise of doom. No one looking at Tibet or the Uyghurs would clap China on the back and say job well done. Same goes for looking at, well, anywhere other than at white people in America, frankly. So where is the musical foreshadowing? Why are we not threatened with the darkness of Russia and Germany and France?

Listening to more and more of the soundtrack — all the way through, instead of jumping to my favorites — and thinking this through over months, I kept remembering Goland, from 80 Days. That game was too nuanced to so baldly lift these people up and tamp those people down — everything came in shades of gray, as it ought to have done — but still, Goland was one of the most memorable characters for me. A Mongolian princess, she appeared to eschew the trappings of her station in favor of studying mathematics to, eventually, build rockets. She was straight-up born into someone else’s fantasy, and (it appeared) was setting it aside in favor of her own. And the fantasy of her choice was very specific, scientific, and linked to an advance of her people in the world’s eyes that is something of what Civilization enables us to engender.

Bethesda’s recent amazing (and, yes, sad that it has to be amazing) stance around Wolfenstein notwithstanding, I think most companies are still too timid to make bald statements like that. They, like with Civ, will give us the tools to relive histories to erase past atrocities (if only to commit new ones), but they won’t set a lot of hard rules about who can do what. That’s…fair, I guess, in this context. Each team can win, even if they choose fascism as their path to victory. But the music, I thought, might take a harder stance. Might be allowed to do so. It might be subtle enough — dismissable enough as “the whims of creatives”** — to make statements that the game itself could not. Or rather, that its creators would not.

But I’m not sure that, in itself, isn’t just a fantasy on my part. Whatever moral judgment I thought might be ascribed to the music pretty much stops in 1945. It looks no further forward, and forgives the entire history of America, and Japan’s brutal wars of conquest in the early 20th century. I understand, if don’t necessarily condone,*** the idea of providing a musical golden age civilizations never got to reach, at least not in recent years. Allow them their major keys. But if you are going to let the music remember cruelties enacted by those who actually did set out for the stars, remember all of them.

And forgive none of us.

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* If the Darth Vader theme is any indication, this may be due to a centralizing of minor rather than major keys. But that is a guess, as I am not musically trained.

** I really dislike this tendency we have to now classify creatives as some separate kind of person…it’s unnecessarily inviting of crass generalizations.

*** Because grandeur is dangerous, not because no one should attain it.

critical role and the tender gift of story

You want to know people care about the stories they tell you.

Even I do. I who take such pleasure in divorcing a text from its context; who resented so much, in school, having to wade through the tales of an author’s real life as backstory to what we read. I don’t want this, I would argue. I don’t care who they were. Like with musicians and live recordings, miring a work of art within its own time and culture trapped it, I thought, from flapping free and extending its reach beyond the narrow confines of the world in which it was produced. “I wasn’t in that world, I’m in this one, and this text is speaking to me NOW!”

Critical Role turns that decades-long prejudice of mine on its head, though. And it’s not as though I haven’t engaged with fiction whose creators are still alive! I’ve stood in line with shining eyes waiting for David Mitchell to sign a book, swallowing the lump in my throat as he bought, with doodles, time for my husband to speak to him through his stutter. I’ve blushed five shades of crimson when Guy Gavriel Kay stumbled onto my post about A Song for Arbonne, and read it. I’m aware that there are living breathing people in the world producing work I admire, and that they want me, us, people everywhere to do so.

But that this started out as a work of love rather than as a career, or a path to one…I don’t know, I guess that’s unfair. I’m not knocking people who pursue artistic projects in the hope of bettering themselves in other fields. But the fact that this artistic came about, like DM Matt Mercer says, as a gift to his players…like “all roleplaying games are”…and then for all of them to be willing to expand the number of people allowed into that world, by such great numbers…it’s generous. It feels generous, and in a way that in one’s adult life one doesn’t often have the luck of encountering.

So many of our interactions, after all, are a bridging of gaps, a drawing closer of hearts and of minds, and then a polite cough and a closed door. There are spaces we reserve only for a handful of people — thoughts or emotions, reactions or experiences we share only with those we love. Or only with a handful of select friends. And whereas childhood is about, or can be about, finding as many people as possible to explore those avenues with, adulthood is realizing how many of those avenues are closed to you. And about learning to take that with good grace.

But here, we are allowed in. Not just as paying spectators, even, but as participants of a kind whose welfare…matters, I guess? I dare you to come to any other conclusion after watching DnD Beyond’s interview with Mercer about the end of the campaign. He attaches a hope to this project, above and beyond any success it may create for himself and the cast. All of the cast’s interviews speak to this — and they are all fantastic — but I point to his because he addresses it the longest. (And to be honest, because his crying is infectious.) It isn’t just a hope that the story pleases people. It’s a hope that…people become better as a result? That people are better to each other and themselves as a result? But such sentiments come from somewhere utterly un-self-righteous. Wishing to better people is an easy slogan to slap on your shitty website or church pamphlet. It’s harder to mean it, on- and off-camera. And yeah, I know, most of the 35k+ people watching (live) aren’t in a position to speak to the truth of that, but it kinda feels like he means it? Like they all do. He says he’s protective of this world, very much so, and for once, someone is saying it not out of a desire for IP infringement protection; the material concerns of lawyers and HR teams. He and they appear to mean it out of love. And out of the wish that good might come of it, bolstered by the knowledge that some good already has.

And that’s so goddamn touching. To be cared for, however tangentially, and to be believed in as a possible agent of good in the world. The number of people willing to believe in you like that drops off drastically as you grow older. It’s absurdly moving to be told otherwise, long past the age when you were supposed to stop wanting it.

the things that we are made of : the album you didn’t know you needed

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And I can’t stop trying to hold in my hands
that moment I could feel my heart expand
with more love than I thought could exist in the world
the hollows were gone, the emptiness filled
a life transformed down to the bone
this map of my heart is all that I own

I don’t like many female singers.

This isn’t fair, I know. But I want more from them. I want them to speak for me, in a way I never expect male singers to do (when they do, it’s a pleasant surprise). The dissonances between female singers and me hit me harder, and turn me off. When they bring sass I cannot; when they excuse things they should not (see: Amanda Palmer), when they don’t let their lyrics sink any deeper than the sheets, I turn them off.

Not so Mary Chapin Carpenter, or her 2016 album The Things That We Are Made Of, which I hadn’t heard till now.

She uses words I use. Careen, cadence, stars. She is more honest than is necessarily safe. She allows for the contemplation of sorrow without either seemingly clinically distant or letting it overwhelm her. Without it defining her. While still allowing for the possibility of warmth.

She sounds exactly like she did in 1992, when my dad was at sea and my mom played her new album on audio cassette, in the kitchen in our rental under a stained-glass lamp that looked like the ones in restaurants. (I am, you see, biased.) At first we were baking figures we molded out of Fimo, but they all burnt, and eventually we laid the clay aside in favor of dinner. Mom stirred the soup as “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” came on, and she sang along. I interrupted her, asking if her liking the song meant she’d leave our dad. Mom was, after all, home with children, and cooking for them, as was the character in the song.

She pressed pause to explain no. She played the song again and said listen, listen to how young she did this, how little else she has in her life before she started a family. I had a life first, she said.

I don’t know what music reviewers say about Mary Chapin Carpenter, and I don’t want to know. Like so many reviewers, they seem given to jadedness, to being snarky for snark’s sake. And this album is anything but that. It’s always a relief to stumble onto someone too worn out by fashionable disdain to employ it, whether by experience or emotional soreness, and she comes to her earnestness through both. Even the rare twangier chordings — from which I flinch more out of reflex; an expectation of cultural remorse that I suppose is a product of the messages country music typically sends than because twangy chords are inherently awful to the ears — cannot detract from her tenderness and what, I suppose, feels like honesty, though I am of course in no position to know one way or the other.

“The Middle Ages,” in particular, is striking:

We used to dread lives rendered ordinary
we always said we’d own a grander story
but the only kind worth telling somehow
is the one about a jolt that makes you listen
that jagged lightning bolt of recognition
that love and kindness are all that matter now

Meanwhile, “Note On a Windshield” manages to be a startlingly gripping narrative song. I can count on one hand the number of narrative songs whose narrative power lives up to their melodic power, let alone songs that are gripping. When I find myself thinking “please no, please please please…” waiting on the next line of a song lyric, of all things, I mean, man. It’s beautiful.

I wish I could write about her the way men have written about Leo Kottke or Bill Fox. I would feel less disloyal, less deserving of critique for my musical preferences. But a little grain of resentment rubs me when I read such paeans: there is a whole constellation of people waiting to speak for you, when you’re a man listening to folk music. Everyone is just sitting around waiting to identify with you on how difficult it is thinking about The One Who Got Away, or how hard it is Working For The Man, or Finding A Girl Who Gets You. Or how what you believed in childhood isn’t what you believe anymore. Or how the gradual decline of your parents makes you empty inside.

I move through the world like an arrow that flies
Slicing the air as I’m mapping the skies
And way deep down the echoes remain
Memories sounding like rattling chains

But lately I think I am coming around
I’m liking the feel of my feet on the ground
And last night I stopped dead in these tracks
Recalling your hand on the small of my back

When I was younger how I took my time
Folly and wisdom form points on a line
From one to another with space in between
For the lessons you learn & the dreams that you dream

But tell me what happens when dreams don’t come true
How you overcome some things until they overtake you
Why you never got chosen, why you never felt claimed
By some passion or person that is never explained

I come on quiet but I’m fierce as a lion
Life will take us apart but we never stop trying
To proceed as if whole and intact
Like I felt with your hand on my back

But we are asked either to be sassy or to be in love. That’s about it. And that’s a really shallow list of ways to approach the world. So to hear someone like Carpenter — whose voice I freely admit to being more willing to believe in, familiar as it is — articulate a broader spectrum of existence is like a hug you thought you’d never get. Maybe it’s just because my mom is gone. Maybe it’s foolish. Maybe it’s dangerous projection — but I’d never go up to her after a concert or write her a letter* or bother her with the tawdry tale of how her music makes me feel. As with Critical Role, or any number of books or video games, I look at how fans interact with with creators — and how creators react to that interaction — and wince at joining their ranks. It seems better to be self-contained, reserved and silent in your fandom, than to be open and risk disgusting someone with the fervency of your gratitude.

And here, I guess, the applicable word is more gratitude than fandom, really. But it is still something that goes best unexpressed. For what I am grateful for is for her blurring of lines she has no reason to know have been drawn. Between laughter and silence, between a desk lit by fluorescent lights and a stained-glass lamp over a stove. Between having a mom and not having one. If my love for this album stems from the shock and pleasure of hearing thoughts I’ve felt expressed by someone else, it is…offensive, maybe, to assume that such thoughts were believed to have been sent into a void. You write, after all, intending to connect to people. What for a listener (or reader, or player) is a shock and a pleasure was surely never meant to be. They intended someone to connect with them. The fact that it was you is immaterial.

And I remember feeling I’m alive and in no need of saviors
If the past’s another country I’m at the border with my papers
Where is your heart if not inside you

where is home or are you lost
where is love if not beside you

I had no answers but they let me cross

*Not technically true; writing letters is the easiest — but the world is small, and the threat of meeting a stranger after you’ve bared your heart to them is somewhat unnerving.

critical role : friendship IS magic

What amazes me about Critical Role…the amazement I have yet to find anywhere else…is the choices made in real time in front of you, made without consultation or focus groups, and which choices frequently align with the most emotionally impactful way a scene could play out. I know, I know, this is what, in ideal situations, stories do for us. What live storytelling, which to a certain extent is what tabletop roleplaying is, does for us.

But the ideal and the reality so rarely conincide, and for a whole host of reasons that are tangential to my point. I have hesitated to write about the show — even when I knew it would be a blandly informative info byte, like the fact that the day after the first episode I watched I returned my cable box to my cable provider because I knew I didn’t need TV anymore, if I was now organizing my week around a livestream of a D&D campaign — because it seems, however incorrectly so, not my place. Like it would be rude, intrusive even. Because these people are more…real? I suppose it’s because we watch the team for so long, live (or at least filmed live), and that results in a level of candor, aural and visual, that one rarely receives, even from personalities one follows on social media. Maybe it’s that as I grow older and see the gap close between the person I wanted to be and the person I become, I’m ham-handedly protective of people who seem to be in that same boat with me. I see the chat fly by during streams and think “please no one read it, please don’t let it get anyone down.” It’s the internet and I assume there is nastiness and my fear is that, as it has for so many others, its fever pitch will become too shrill, and fame will become a spotlight to flee. “Please don’t go,” is my refrain, and I suppose I thought that I was helping, by not writing or talking about this group of people whom I very much wish remain doing this for as long as I can.

Hell, maybe it’s that I was accidentally punched in the nose by Darin De Paul and, as I laughingly texted my husband immediately afterward, I shall never wash my nose again.

But decisions that would, in other contexts, be filtered through layer after layer of PR, HR, focus groups, supervisors and supervisors of supervisors, and which likely would get called out and watered down as too mawkish, too sentimental, too this that or the other…they just fucking happen, here, and there is no veto, the emotional dial gets turned up to nine and no big executive (or internet mob-driven) hand is gonna turn it back down on you.

CRITICAL ROLE EPISODE 114 SPOILERS

When Vax unfurls his wings to embrace Keyleth, that is one of those moments. That’s what I was thinking about when I started this post. And also at the 5:03:10 mark, when he…uses a bonus action to look over his shoulder…and he describes what he sees. That’s where I diverge from everyone else I watch things with (barring my husband). That’s where, among peers, as I’m about to cry, someone will quip some inane piece of trivia or roll their eyes about “people pressing buttons” or give me some line about emotional manipulation. That, that level of emotion and my willful embrace of it, not to put too fine a point on it, is why making friends is hard. I want to feel things. And a lot of people my age are deciding they don’t.

So, okay, there’s that.

But in searching for those time stamps I stumbled onto image captures of a moment I missed. Not because I wasn’t watching but because I wasn’t seeing. I knit in front of Critical Role, and I was doing so last night. Not thoughtlessly — I remember where I knit things and what I was doing, and it brings me comfort later, to wrap myself in a shawl and think that when I put those stitches next to each other I was sitting next to someone who, for example, is now dead, and whom I loved. I did this deliberately, you understand — I thought, in the future, I could remember the warmth of these moments spent watching this show, while wrapped in the shawl against the cold.

But because I was knitting, I missed a moment that went mostly unnoticed by the microphones, and thus by me.

When Scanlan burns his ninth level spell to counterspell Vecna — the god-in-the-making, for those of you who don’t watch the show, who has killed multiple family members of the party, in pretty terrible ways — it is an instant and un-nullifyable success. But by choosing to go to that max level, he has lost his chance to use Wish at that tremendous level — and this is why he was hanging onto that spell slot. Because he hoped to use Wish to save Vax, who is doomed to die as soon as Vecna goes down. He died before, but his patron goddess granted him a reprieve, in order to rid the world of Vecna. After that, though, his eyes have to close for good.

And because I wasn’t watching the screen, I didn’t see this:

I just…just…fuck.

notcrying

He just wanted to save his friend and now he can’t and he — he who is not typically, on the show at least, the one crying? — is crying and tries to hide it behind his hands, his giant mug, and…as someone who writes freely about tearing up but tries ferociously hard to avoid being caught doing it…for all the reasons mentioned above…I just. Oh god, oh god, oh god. I didn’t see that. There’s a whole whispered conversation you can read on their lips on-screen, the crux of which is:

“I was saving my wish for you.”

* * *

Neither my husband nor I have any friends who watch Critical Role. I got him into it after I read the Polygon article about the show — after I ditched our cable. But I knew he was loving the same things in it I did when he said, apropos of nothing whilst driving to the grocery store, that that kind of squad, having one, was just fucking awesome. He doesn’t know #squadgoals, but that’s exactly what he was talking about. And this is perhaps more moving, even, than the romantic plotlines doomed to crash to an end as a result of this loss. It’s the loss, too, of a friendship.

We’ve theorized on why we can’t get groups like this together. He points out his growing fatigue with the kneejerk, lambasting criticisms currently aflower amongst our generation. I point out my shitty track record at befriending women, leery as I always am of them intuiting that I am bi, lest they high-tail it as they have (three times) in the past. We both acknowledge that we, at least until recently, live in a part of the country where values tend to be a good deal more conservative than our own; and the degree to which your hearts then align, despite your best efforts, is affected.* And that neither of us grew up in cultures where carefree physical affection — hugs, head pats, etc. — was a thing. Mostly, we figure, we are too old. People’s emotional drawbridges are up by their thirties, and they’re not accepting new adventurers to the castles.

door

It may be something else too, though. We may just be too guarded in our affection. There are plenty of people I’d save a Wish for, but it’s easier for them not to know it. Like being seen crying, it can be — it IS — easier to be on someone’s side without them seeing. You can’t get kicked off the team if no one knows you’re there. In my old office I took the seat by the door, and the always-hot teakettle, in case we had an active shooter situation. My boss knew this but let me keep the seat. They were my people, yes, even the assholes. I almost tackled my boss to the ground once when both of us misinterpreted a nail gun as a firearm. Years ago, when our school district sent around pink slips like candy, I penned righteous letters of praise for all of my teachers and mailed them, unsigned, to the principal to try and protect them. Like with crying, it is easier to love people from a safe distance, unseen.

That is what we love most about Critical Role. That the affection isn’t hidden or wrapped up carefully in snark or sarcasm — both more acceptable trappings, today. It’s out there. It’s visible on people’s faces — it’s running down them. It’s like every bullshit JRPG holding up friendship as the ultimate goal of a story, come to life.

And, because it’s real, it’s not bullshit.

*Also, we may be bad at making this matter less.