promising never to stop

At the risk of essentially saying “cool, someone else summed me and mine up so I don’t have to,” may I direct your attention to this Ann Hornaday article on Avengers: Endgame, wherein we encounter the choice paragraph:

“In a post-9/11 era of constant shock and cataclysm, we shouldn’t wonder that such novelistic plunges as “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” so thoroughly captivated their transfixed followers. When contemporary experience seems to be composed of narratively nonsensical shocks to the system, the attraction of coherent, well-constructed alternate realities cannot be underestimated. What better cure for our collective moan to “make it stop” than settling into a comforting fiction that promises never to stop?”

I 100% own up to the fact that any time a sentence begins with “in a post-9/11 era” I pay attention, because not since I was 17 have I lived amongst people as affected by it as I was. But even so, and even though I am for the most part outside the age group of those Hornaday intends to evoke as those most likely to be affected by these movies (both too young to be nostalgic about the sci-fi romps of the 80s, and too old not to have said too many goodbyes already), this paragraph clanged like a bell for me. Because this is exactly why I prefer MMOs and vast, zillion-hour games to tightly-managed mini masterpieces; this is why I prefer massive multi-novel series over one-offs or short story collections and never, ever finish TV shows. I am…tired of closure. I’m tired of trying to make meaning from absence, from loss. I am blissfully content in settling into a comforting fiction that promises never to end.

(I suppose this may be why one particular stripe of religious people stick to their holy guns, despite their organizations having few scruples about fucking people up for generations: the comforting fiction of things not ending. My novels and MMOs, though, at least are not institutionalizing the silencing of abuse…though the abhorrent working conditions of game companies are admittedly worth holding accountable.)

I am also…tired of trying to be slick or clever about media. Of being moved by something and instantly trying to turn it into a hot take, or some reason why my reaction to it is more educated, more nuanced or more deserving of critical respect than the next person over. And I’m tired of that being the standard operating procedure — of everyone hurling their two cynical cents out there as though it means something. Just…hush. If you feel something, don’t bury it beneath snobbish commentary. And don’t try to sound like you got a PhD in cultural critique and thus your opinion should be respected and retweeted as a result. You’re allowed to have emotional, impactful reactions above and beyond what they contribute to The Discourse. Moreover, you should be having those reactions. If all you have to take away from a meaningful piece of media, be it a book or a game or a movie, is the judgments you have to rain on those who think differently than you, then you’re not really engaging with the piece in a meaningful way. You’re just recycling your churlish chatter into the internet void.

Anyway, I’m not a big superhero fan, but I’m curious to see something being lauded more for the feelings it evokes than for the fanfare of its effects.

editing is your friend (even years later)

2019-04-17_233973434

Every spring it’s the same. It gets warm out, I get excited, buy a bunch of seeds and start planning that year’s garden, and then…it snows. Every. Damn. Year.

Which inevitably puts me in the position of desperately wanting  springtime, dirt and crops in my life, while still having to wait 1-2 months to realize this dream. Thus, every year I go through another video game farming phase. In the past, it was Lord of the Rings Online that fulfilled this need. Then for awhile it was Stardew Valley. This year, it’s Black Desert Online.

2019-04-17_231768566

BDO was remastered late last year, though I didn’t know at the time. Out in Korea in 2015, it debuted its North American servers in 2016, and the translations were…rough. The game was certainly pretty enough, and vast — I am always happy with a game vaster, with more complex systems, than I think I will ever have time to master (unless it’s in space — boo, space. I’m looking at you, Eve Online) — but it just wasn’t translated in a way that made people like me, with a persistent desire for some kind of lore, feel like we had any hooks to sink into the world at all. A lot of this seemed to stem from extremely literal translations that did not attempt to bridge cultural gaps incurred by a lack of exposure, on this side of the ocean, with folktales and traditional story paths that ring familiar to anyone who grew up with them, and which shape in-game plots. Characters’ literal translated words seemed to make no sense, floating out of a void and then back into it, leaving a player more familiar with tiredold Joseph Campbell-esque tropes somewhat uninterested in a plot that seemed not to exist.

 

2019-04-17_238350433

While October 2018’s remaster seemed to tout mostly the visual upgrades to the game, less talked-about was the AMAZINGLY NECESSARY AND AWESOME updates to the game’s quest text (in addition to a ton of new voice-acting work, with voices familiar to anyone who watches Critical Role or plays Bioware games). Not only did they expand upon formerly aimless text with context, and fix errant voice assignments, (an ancient woman in Glish used to speak with the voice of a teenager, for example), but they now gave us the option to pick and choose between branching plot paths — the original main quest, a “plot what plot” monster questline focused on fighting, and a third, factional quest focusing on the Venice-esque merchant squabbles of rival houses in Calpheon. Having chosen the latter, I couldn’t be more pleased.

 

2019-04-18_311190552

This is because this questline, the Xian Merchant’s Guild questline, is built upon context, and makes sure that the player remembers — amazing melee skills or no — that their character is only a pawn in a much larger game. This serves as a welcome contrast to the Black Spirit’s persistent and ever-creepier insistence that we, the main character, are unique vessels for his particular brand of madness. Granted, BDO suffers as all MMOs do from the dissonance between quests necessarily telling you you are one-of-a-kind, and the entire rest of the server’s player-character population assuring you by their very existence that you are not…but the addition of this very long questline does help to balance that out somewhat. We now feel, playing through these quests, that there is at least some story to be had here; we are not just players floating in an abyss (albeit a very pretty abyss), farming and crafting and raising horses for obscure reasons helpful to none.

2019-04-18_330642913

But of course, that’s why I came back to BDO (which is free to play, I should point out — I didn’t pay for this lark, having already put money down once for the base game in 2016). The farming and the horses; the mindless mundane tasks that typically get shunted aside or else morphed into grind-y daily quests that are anything but fun, in other MMOs. All these rewritten quests, the increased quality and quantity and strategic assignation of voice acted lines — all of this was just icing on the very humdrum cake I came for.

It’s delightful. It’s surprising. I’m enjoying myself far more than I expected to.

I should add, I suppose, that now the base install of the game’s default setting is to have chat — all chats — off. World chat, zone chat, local chat — they’re all silent, invisible, the base UI not even devoting space to them on the screen. Turning chat on is an option, you are told, but you’re not dragged to that option screen by the ear, and I quite blissfully have neglected to look into it, preferring to leave myself in ignorance of all the typical MMO-type crap you see all the time: people asking questions and being insulted; random trolls trying to start political arguments, the inevitable undersexed masses trying to broadcast their prurient preferences out on the loudest platform they can afford. I see other people, of course, usually in line at the bank or the stables or galloping past me as I tend my crops, but we do not interact — and, as I’ve noted before, that is typically how I most prefer my MMOs experiences to be. Where the people serve as wallpaper, as caught up in their own affairs as people in this world are, ideally too busy to stop to tell you how much you suck or are doing it wrong or should die in a fire if you voted in a manner they deem sub-par in the last election.

2019-04-17_263329588

I’ve gotten all the way to level 50 in this zen-like state and I hope very much to be able to retain it, now that I have passed the cap up to which the game protects you from PVP. If you don’t flag yourself as actively interested in PVP you can still get ganked, but it costs the ganker karma points — and this is intended to deter them from slaughterfests. It’s little details like this (or like how it costs Energy, necessary for everything from farming to cajoling NPCs to mining, to blast text out in world chat) that come off as extra effort that is endearing, even when I know perfectly well that what doesn’t necessarily earn cash loyalty in my demographic likely does in the game’s original and much more lucrative base. But the little scenes that play out unacknowledged and without quest direction ensuring you see them — the conversation between kids playing in an alley, or workers struggling with crates on a dock, or the music being played by a travelling troupe at an otherwise  unremarkable crossroads in the backwoods of nowhere — are endearing. All the more so because of their seeming superfluity. It’s embarrassing to say in an era where the grueling conditions under which developers work are being made more public than ever before (and honestly I have no idea how thee working conditions are for Korean developer Kakao Games*), but these details that someone devoted their time to with no real assurance that they would ever be appreciated — these feel especially like gifts. Like you are lucky somehow to have stumbled into them.

2019-04-18_318392276

It’s unlikely that BDO will become my MMO of course, it’s true. Nothing so far has been able to supplant the exultant chaos that is keep sieging in ESO — and honestly I don’t particularly want it to, since the hugeness of that landscape prevents attacks from feeling personal (and thus deeply aggravating) in a way that smaller environments like battlegrounds, or BDO’s own post-level-50-enabled-PVP, do not. BDO, despite its stunning visual enhancements, is indeed an aging beast, and feels it, on occasion. I’m unlikely to overstay my welcome here.

2019-04-18_319295532

But in the meantime, it’s a huge, glorious world you can gallivant around in, toxic chat-free, and pretend that it’s a single-player game larger than you’ll ever have the time to complete. The quests and the text that make them up are now intelligible enough to enable that illusion. And it’s an enjoyable one.

2019-04-17_231177833

 

*Yes, they have Glassdoor reviews, but you’re a fool if you don’t think developers pay people to flood those sites with positive feedback. I’ve met the people who do it.

the highwaymen

The Highwaymen, starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, seems an odd choice to bankroll at this point in time. A story about Bonnie and Clyde, celebrated would-be Robin Hoods, told from the perspective of…the cops who shot them? Is that really what we want to hear about right now?

But fairly early on in this movie this makes sense, as via a discussion of wiretapping we are faced with the real goal of this movie: to serve as a vehicle for boomer angst about Kids These Days.

This wouldn’t be surprising — there are a lot of boomers with a lot of disdain for the kids, after all — or remarkable, were it not for the assiduous way the movie avoids contextualizing the objects of its whole chase premise. Our shots of Bonnie and Clyde themselves are brief, it’s true, and that’s fine. We are supposed to be hearing a different side of their story. But completely and utterly lacking from the story told us is any cultural commentary or explanation on just how angry the country had to be to celebrate and to idolize murderers like Bonnie and Clyde. And not even from a distance! When townspeople in a sleepy village in Oklahoma discover the pair in their midst, they mob the car. Not to restrain them or to demand justice but to squeal in delight and hope for a smile, a touch, if not an autograph. It looks, and it is meant to look, like the mobs of people outside an Elvis or a Beatles concert.

And how do our main characters react to this? They shake their heads in disgust at young people just being All About Spectacle These Days. In this scene, as in many others ranging from wiretapping (“We can do that?! What is technology even?!) to radio (“No I don’t use it, it’s just another way to invade a man’s peace and quiet!”), the focus is never on what might have motivated (or forced) people to move from the way things were to the way things are. The focus is only on how much change sucks and how much the young people who embrace it suck too.

Those most disenfranchised by the Great Depression then playing out are portrayed with breathtaking tone deafness. They gather round the cops’ car like wolves around a wounded elk, the menace painted obtusely on their glowering, dirt-streaked faces. They are clearly The Enemy, and even a few shots of the extreme poverty of their camps do not dial down their wildness in the camera’s eye, or lend them any sense of righteousness in their resentment of the banks; their celebration for those who flout the banks’ authority. The cops are The Law and The Law Is Good. Anyone who questions this is clearly Bad. And that is as far as the movie is willing to go on the camps and those in them.

This is a problem. Because there were reasons for that unrest! Reasons for feeling brutally betrayed by a system you’d been told (and never really received enough education to question) was there to ensure you a future worth eking out! In 1933, one year before Bonnie and Clyde died, over 15 million people were out of work. That was almost 30% of the work force at the time. People were starving. So yeah, you think they shed tears when banks got robbed? When stories reached them — true or not, stories would have been a whole lot ore valuable than the bitter facts of empty pockets and dandelions for dinner — of this young couple blasting up banks and distributing some of those riches to the destitute….you think people whose breast milk dried up due to malnourishment, and whose houses vanished over the horizon in a cloud of red dust, cried for those bankers? You think they could spare the moisture?

Instead of hearing why people are so upset; why these small town citizens throng the criminals’ car in glee, we are treated only to disdain for spectacle-driven youth (a thin veil indeed thrown over generalized modern-day disgust with the pace of media and those who make it churn) and to some Dark Past-driven platitudes about the value of human life and why oh why can these dumb youths mourn these dead authority figures. No one ever overtly or subtly suggests that perhaps this people idolizing Bonnie and Clyde as Robin Hood might have already felt that no one valued their lives, or those of anyone who depended on them to survive. No one ever hints at the idea that perhaps the masses see these two as heroes because the people who were supposed to stand up for them failed. And kept failing.

The movie does, as one might expect, avoid the romanticization of the pair that the actual 1967 Bonnie and Clyde reveled in. (Full disclosure: I don’t like that one either. How did we turn it into one long weird Viagra commercial?) The couple is portrayed here as cold-hearted and calculated in their gunning down of various lawmen who stop to try and help their faux-stranded car. This is welcome. But into the vacuum of romance the movie places nothing — no political or cultural critique, not even a history lesson. Just old people being old and complaining about it — when honestly there are way bigger problems, in 1934, than the fact that Kevin Costner’s character’s knees are now too bad to let him chase down a snotty pre-teen in suburban Dallas. Some of these moments are intended to be comedic, but it’s hard to indulge in the comedy when it’s playing out against the backdrop of abject and, seemingly to our characters, invisible poverty.

The Highwaymen could have told us a story we need to hear, of how years of bad turns roll into lives no longer willing to be laid down as the brickwork for someone else’s second home. Instead, The Highwaymen tells us a story we are far, far too familiar with. Kids these days are young and stupid and don’t respect their hard-working (see: working! employed! wouldn’t that be nice!) elders. And eventually such kids get what’s coming to them. The end.

Gee, what a hot take. Never heard that one before, boomers.

catastrophe, rob delaney, and the horrific risk of trust

cliff.jpg

We — my husband and I — have been waiting for season 4, the final season, of Catastrophe for a long time. So has everyone else. Because in the interim between season 3 and 4, Rob Delaney, American comedian expat (in the show and in real life), lost a child.

1.)

I have been terrified of having kids. Quietly so, it’s not like I advertised it, but terrified all the same. Because for years and years, every other book I picked up made it abundantly clear that if that child dies, your life is over. You stop caring, about your job and your partner and your other kids and yourself. You stop everything. And I wasn’t sitting here reading these narratives of loss thinking “jeez you crank, stop crying on the couch and get back to being a mom!” Maybe people who are already parents and who feel the push, the need of those other kids to still be loved can be so harsh, but I can’t. When the books I’ve read whose parental loss moments come to mind they aren’t Pulitzer prize winners, but the thing is they don’t have to be: loss doesn’t have to be written beautifully for you to know it scoops you out like a melon and pours in nothing, nothing to replace the guts it removes. The Knitting Circle: if you built the crib by hand, in a burst of old-school woodcraft you haven’t used since working with your own father, it now sits a ghost in your basement, a whole corner you don’t touch (like you don’t touch each other either). Interpreter of Maladies: everything is awful; your relationship is a fog you only move through because exiting it would require too much work, as does pretty much everything else. We Need To Talk About Kevin: the emotional loss of your child will presage the physical loss for years, and if only one of you sees the darkness there you will be mistrusted and vilified by your spouse until the end, when the darkness consumes them, too, in graphic detail. The Deep End of the Ocean: even if your child could still be alive somewhere, you will unhinge and never re-hinge, even if years later that child is found. That emotional melon-scooper never puts anything back. 

These are not all award-winning books, but that is part of my point. They don’t need to be. Anyone with a keyboard and a half-observant brain can communicate that the loss of a child is bad fucking news. For everyone. For, it seems, ever.

2.)

I’ve seen a lot of comedy. For six years my husband tended bar at a comedy club, which meant I got in free. Conveniently, for my tastes, it was stand-up, not improv (blech), so I used that free entry more or less every other week. Long enough that I saw the same bits come back around on the comic’s road grind, worked-on and (hopefully) improved. I enjoyed hearing even the bits I’d heard before, not because I’d forgotten them (I was in grad school at the time; sopping up words thrown at me from a microphone was pretty much my job) but because I could see their evolution. I had and have no interest in taking the mic myself, but watching someone learn to read a crowd, to deal with unexpected memory pitfalls or localized political or social malaise they didn’t quite judge correctly before getting up there, is a delight. It’s very much a craft and I enjoy watching people hone it, like I enjoy watching anyone at their craft, be it glassblowing or rehabilitating a dilapidated old house or conducting an orchestra. The fact that frequently, as the confessional model of stand-up was in high vogue at the time, you got at least the appearance of earnestness from these strangers was an added, delicious bonus. People who at the bar afterwards might be closed up as clams, their real selves safely burrowed away where you couldn’t reach, would unearth those tender bits as — and I’m sure the sacrificial nature of this goes to many of their heads, it’s true — the cost of being funny. And whether or not that cost was worth paying didn’t much matter to me, since what I wanted was people being earnest, and that is terribly difficult to find, in your twenties. Maybe, at this point in our culture, at any age.

That was over a decade ago, though. Since then, a lot of stand-up has fallen out of favor, and rightly so: its practitioners, largely male (like everything in comedy) turn out to be wretched people. People whose wretchedness, once made public and noticed for maybe six months or a year, go back to being the same slimeballs they were before, once a period of time some people deem socially adequate for contrition has passed. As though if you take a sabbatical, all the careers you’ve ended and the bodies you’ve pawed, disparaged or soiled just melt away, like last year’s leaves.

3.)

Trusting, then, in the honesty of comedians — again, like everyone else — has become a huge risk. Not publicly, I mean, but personally. And that trust is something I need to do, because for good or ill, people making money off their honesty are frequently the only people who are willing to be honest with you at the level you need. Writers, speakers: they aren’t doing it out of altruism, I know. I know, That Guy From College who gleefully wants to point out the flaws in capitalism. I know. But you show me someone who is willing to say “if you do this, this glorious thing that is, yes, magical and wonderful and maybe the best, hardest most rewarding thing you can do in life — if you do this, and then it goes awry, you may and in all likelihood will regret every choice you’ve ever made since deciding to put one foot in front of the other.” Show me someone who’s willing to be honest for free.

Because by and large, trying to get people to level with me like that does not go well. Trying to get other women to be honest like that is impossible, for starters — they, like me I’m sure, don’t want to be caught and pinned and have their flaws pointed out (again) by someone who thinks they understand them (again), so that kind of intimacy is just not on the table from my own sex. Fine. But the men* are no better. They’ll open up, but then immediately regret it and either

a.) stop talking to you forever,

b.) get massively offended that you found a kernel of something they’re not comfortable with or just don’t know about themselves, and lash out, or

c.) unravel into a sopping tangled skein of emotions that you have neither the professional training nor the affection (we’re not talking partners here!) to sort out

All of which is to say that yes: when someone writes about loss in a book or a string of tweets in a way that seems earnest, I read. When someone talks about it, be it in an interview or wrapped up in the gauze of comedy for safety, I listen. Because probably the only person who would have been so honest with me, repeatedly, without emotional backlash or exacting some huge toll in return for the unshelled truth, is my mom, and she’s dead. And continuing forward, with or without children, in a life peopled by other humans, many of whom are probably going to experience horrific loss, is just stupid without trying to understand it. You can’t close your eyes to it, you can’t avoid it, you can’t wish it away. It will affect you. So fucking try to understand.

Rob Delaney went quiet for a long time. As you’d expect. It’s not like I kept tabs on him, constantly checking in (that’s creepy and also I have a life?), but the absence of his typically brief, irreverent and generally in-no-way-something-you’d-want-your-dad-to-see-you-click-like-on tweets in my timeline was palpable. As was the absence of a new season of Catastrophe on Amazon. (We had stumbled onto Catastrophe with no foreknowledge of it; just trying to find something to watch while we ate dinner one stuffy summer Sunday, and we binged the entire series within the week, it was so good. It could’ve gone the Schlub Lands a Whipsmart Wife Who Deserves Better Than Him route, which would have been predictable and unwatchable, but it doesn’t: Delaney is warm but self-aware rather than stupid, and his on-show wife Sharon Horgan’s character is capable of being refreshingly mean, disastrously so, without all the stylized soft edges foisted upon “relatable women characters.” It’s a good show, is what I’m saying, one that avoids tiresome gender norms most of the time, and manages to poke delicious fun at them when it doesn’t.)

People obsessing over strangers’ private lives, even celebrities (especially celebrities! I never knew so many people cared about famous people to that degree until I lived in southern California, yeesh) is, again, creepy to me. So I didn’t follow news about the show, figuring that probably, given the portrayals of child loss I’d read about, Delaney wouldn’t come back. And that seemed understandable, because he was going through the worst thing you can go through, and the cost of being funny was likely now astronomical. And always would be.

But then he appeared again, tweeting. Often on political issues, especially for obvious reasons health care, sometimes responding to fans unearthing one of the older irreverent tweets. He was suddenly there. I remember saying as much to my husband, with surprise. He was back! Was he…okay?

No. Of course not. But he was willing to talk about that too. And he did, bit by bit, eventually linking to an interview where he did a great deal of it:

 

And, look, long story short is that I really, really hope he doesn’t have a secret non-consensual sex palace somewhere, or forces female comedians to watch him jerk off into a napkin, or diddles teenagers backstage or something, because I really, really want to trust that man. On that topic. Because there aren’t a lot of people talking about it, and because I’m pregnant, and I absolutely hate the idea of loving someone and then having them taken away from me. I lost my mom when other people didn’t and haven’t and continue to take their own for granted. I lost pretty much the only other person who’d have been so open about what shit actually feels like. Just like she was so open about how, all social niceties and cross-stitch platitudes about parenthood aside, she had never done something as challenging or rewarding in her life as have kids, and she never regretted it. Even though her death was long and wretched and everything she never wanted it to be, never wanted her kids to see. She would have wanted to undo that, but not us. She wasn’t oozing gooey affection on this; she was honest. And with her gone, and without the blind, thoughtless belief in some religious or authority figure telling me what to think and who to be, there is no one left to level with who might know a thing or two about loss, or how to survive it.

So please don’t fuck up, man. I don’t need to tweet at you, speak to you personally, read some best-selling memoir with a close-up of your face doing something funny against a green screen. I don’t even need to see your stand-up. Just survive and function and be a decent human being so the fact that you are surviving and functioning after losing a two-year-old isn’t rendered something only sleezeballs can do. Isn’t turned into something impossible to do without harming everyone around you in some sort of vindictive implosion, where society’s collective disgust and select individuals’ loss of pride and power is written off as part of the debt the world owes you for your suffering.

I don’t, obviously, want to lose my baby. I don’t want to lose anyone. But that never mattered before, and I don’t expect it to now. And I did lose the only person willing to be honest about things a lot of other people just won’t talk about. I’m not vain enough to assume I’d know what to do, or how to survive, on my own; or that maintaining some imperious silent facade would help me — whether things are going great or poorly. So I listen. I don’t want the worst to happen, and I take reasonable steps to avoid it, but again: that never mattered before. My mom, my relative murdered by a serial killer, the person I saw impaled by a sign through their windshield the day I got my driver’s license: these are things you cannot foresee. But if I can listen to someone I respect be way more honest than he in any way needs to be with total strangers who have absolutely no way of rewarding him for that honesty (other than, I guess, the indirect method of continuing to watch stuff he’s in), that’s something. Something other than just waiting and hoping, which again: doesn’t always seem to work out.

 

 

*The intersex people I know are 100% earnest all the time, for what that’s worth. But there are only two of them, and saddling them with the bulk of life’s questions seems at the very least TOO FUCKING MUCH.

you owe yourself better than an esmeralda

While the cascade of “you are valid” posts on social media has grown particularly tiresome of late — both due to its implicit emptiness (“I see you” my foot! you categorically do not “see” the unnumbered multitudes you are trying to comfort! you’re just spewing platitudes out into the digital wind!) and its relative uselessness (“cool, a random person on the internet purports to care about people like me…but that assists me in my day to day life how, exactly? will you stop the bullies? will you cut through the red tape? no? I didn’t think so) — the fact remains that you owe yourself better than an Esmeralda.

In Kate Caterina, the text has been leaning agonizingly on Caterina’s bubble-headedness, to the point where every time she has a lucid string of thoughts about the civil war in Italy or the greater war at large or humanity, we have to see said thoughts truncated by frivolity:

IMG-3243

He’s honestly forcing us to regard her as the dog from Up.

squirrel

It’s unclear if the author thinks this is a problematic character trait or if it’s cute, but given the degree to which we keep having to listen to her flit from cogent thought to frippery distraction, I’m leaning more toward cute. Which is almost more exacerbating than the image of him sitting there concocting this bubble-headed girl at which to point and laugh. That is, after all, your basic internet troll — hardly remarkable. But for the text to fixate on what is not just her mercurial nature but her at times almost clinical inability to focus on matters extremely pertinent to her lot in life, her daughter’s, her husband’s…to keep coming back to her “Perhaps at its core mankind is just…ooooh, SHINY!” mindset as some sort of endearingly scatterbrained inhibition is gross. Like guys who get turned on by little girls, fetishizing a grown woman’s flightiness and naivete is gross.

But even so, Caterina deserves — as does everyone — better than an Esmeralda.

In Esmeralda we see again a frustrating trope in fiction — the snarky bad-mouthed mean girl who only pretends to like you, and goes about the charade so obtusely that even if you’re starry-eyed with admiration for her looks or her wits you can’t help but notice she doesn’t care about you. And yet, as in everything from Ladybird to American Beauty to Mean Girls itself, for some reason our heroines keep throwing themselves at these bitches as though they aren’t smart enough to know better. Why, Caterina? Why, Cady? Why in hell would two self-respecting young women desire the attentions of self-absorbed catty shrews who have made it abundantly clear that the sphere of their heartfelt concern begins and ends in the mirror?

Even if you allow all those teenage heroines the forgiveness of their youth and inexperience (which is awfully generous considering how well put-together their sense of self is outside of the for-some-reason foggy realm of female friendship), where does that leave Caterina? She’s a grown woman with a nine-year-old, for godsake! And still she desires Esmeralda’s laugh, her pirouettes around the room, even knowing that the laughter and the dancing comes hand-in-hand, inseparably so, with nasty, biting quips about herself, her husband, her family, her life. Esmeralda skewers Caterina again and again, calling her stupid and childish and airheaded and all the things that the author seems to think are just so darn cute about Caterina. Things he won’t let us forget for a second.

Are we supposed to believe that these are the two options, for womanhood? Scathingly cruel witch wise wise the ways of the world and ripe with self-loathing…or eternal twelve year old? Are those our options? Are those all the women the author sees in the world? Because come on, man. I don’t know what rock you’ve been living under, but I suggest poking your head out now and again.

Speaking of Esmeralda’s self-loathing, we are supposed to feel for her. About it. As though her every act in this tale doesn’t further cement her as a waspish wretch smart enough to see how the world works but too jaded or self-destructive to try and keep it from eviscerating her. She’s married to a guy who courts the good favor of the SS for a living. She knew it going in, she knew the moral issues at stake, and she gave not two figs for any repercussions. She laughs about them — oh, but glitteringly, with perfect teeth, we are assured. We are given occasional glimpses into some dark despair that lurks beneath her glossy surface, but to what end? Everyone’s got shadows, girl. Some of us don’t stab others in the back with them, is all. Caterina’s loyalty to Esmeralda is as dopey and undeserved as that of any golden retriever. Including the squirrel dog from Up. If Esmeralda does end up against a wall in front of a firing squad, as the text keeps rubbing its hands gleefully suggesting she will, Caterina will be there bawling her eyes out.

But you, readers of Kate Caterina, should not be. Not over her, and not over any Esmeraldas in your lives. You deserve better. Don’t, tongue out, tail wagging, pad loyally after vile people, hoping for a scratch behind the ears.

It ain’t coming.

scenes from atlas

20190211072808_1

Atlas, out for early access on Steam last November, is from the makers of Ark: Survival Evolved. Much of the game feels familiar to Ark players, from the UI to the crafting system, but there have been significant improvements to skill trees and, I think, environment. Most noticeably though, instead of dinosaurs, you have pirate ships.

20190211112330_1

I didn’t jump on Atlas the minute it came out, and I don’t regret it. Unlike Ark, which you can host locally on your own private server (or join others’ publically available local servers if you are so inclined, though I only ever wanted to play with people I actually knew), Atlas is a full-on MMO. Meaning that everyone plays together at the same time…making for a great deal of the kind of online contact I in no way desire.

And had I jumped on the game when it came out, there would have been tons of that, it’s true. Now, though, the initial surge has died down, and there can be long stretches of time where I don’t hear from or see anyone. Occasionally I’ll ask global chat a question, and someone might answer, but just as often I’m one of maybe two people in the zone.

20190210200320_1

That doesn’t mean the game is empty. Far from it. One of the reasons you can’t host Atlas on your own server is that it’s huge. Each zone, on a map gridded with numbers and letters, is the size of one instance of Ark–and when you sail from zone to zone, you are technically transferring from server to server. It’s that big. So for you to host this yourself, you would have to be renting over 100+ servers. Which means that would either be hugely expensive, or you’d have to have an in somewhere with enough unattended high-performance computing to make it doable. Maybe in ten years that’ll be a thing, but now? Good luck.

20190210204412_1

There are lots of quite valid complaints about the land claiming system in Atlas. Most land, it’s true, is claimed. But some zones are Lawless Regions, where you can’t plant a flag and generally you can build anywhere. The catch is that structures built in these zones decay more swiftly than those built on claimed land — meaning that if you don’t log in for four days, your precious beach house is going to be eaten back up by the jungle.

20190210205631_1

I am okay with this. I am also okay, to my surprise, with the MMO aspect of the game that I so dreaded. Again, I attribute this to the post-release decline in the crowds. The people playing now (I speak only for PvE; I don’t play PvP and don’t intend to) are people who by and large are like me: in it for the long haul, exploring and building and sailing around. Walking through the cities they’ve built is fascinating. The building system is one of the areas that has improved since Ark, and seeing how different people utilize the landscapes in the various climates is cool.

upsidedown.jpg

20190211073840_1

Additionally, the rare human interaction can bear fruit. After an unfortunate run-in with a Ship of the Damned (one of a fleet of NPC ships manned by the undead that patrol the waters, I paddled ashore to an island in a frustratingly completely-claimed zone. Meaning I couldn’t build a ship or even a raft to leave the island, because you can’t build on land claimed by another group. So I begged around in global chat for awhile to no avail, and logged out dejected, mourning the stranded fate of myself and my NPC crewmate, Angry Charlotte Nine Toes (she came with that name). When I came back, not only did someone hear my plea and come to my rescue, he packed me full of food and sailed me to the nearest lawless region, for no pay or gift whatsoever, and dropped me off on an island where I could build myself a new base and a ship to sail in again. It’s the kind of selfless generosity I haven’t seen since a group of Frenchmen in Sea of Thieves jumped aboard my sinking sloop and helped me bail her out, patch her up and entertain the group of us during the whole process with a rousing jig on the accordion.

20190211063114_120190211063817_120190211070445_1

There are bugs in Atlas, it’s true, but it’s an Early Release game — of course there are bugs. Do I regret not being there when someone hacked in and and spawned a mass of whales and tanks? Nooooo. No I do not. But now that the worst of the griefers (again, at least in PvE) have grown bored and moved on, I’m quite happy to toodle about the map. The game is so large that it can honestly take you eight hours to traverse just from east to west, and as long as you keep an eye on the screen for ships of the damned it’s a great time to do other things — yoga, knitting, reading, etc. It’s the same kind of soothing as the old PotC (pre-movie) game, where you could choose, instead of bouncing out to map mode to speed along the endless sailing, to stay zoomed in seemingly forever, just you and the waves.

20190211070704_1

This isn’t why they built Atlas, of course. They want you join big companies (this is the term used for guilds, and yes it’s problematic) and wage war on each other. But, to my relief and delight, you don’t have to. If you have the patience, you can still go it alone, with the occasional encounter with a stranger for info or assistance as a welcome reminder that not all people on the internet are awful.

Not always, anyway.

20190212070438_120190213095750_120190213170800_1

20190214152549_1

20190213174844_1

20190214142410_120190214072245_120190215031300_1

kate caterina

katecaterina

I am very much enjoying this book, far more than I expected to given that I plucked it off the shelf because it was pretty and was displayed over a rocking chair when my aching feet desperately needed to rest. It was published in 2001, just long enough ago to be completely off the possibility list for any big chain bookstore — I got it used, but looking brand-new, in that rare beast of an independent bookshop in Chicago.

But I worry sometimes that the exuberance of our main character is being built up deliberately, in order for us to have to watch it fracture as the war begins. I was leery, seeing the author’s picture on the jacket — they’re always a little vain, those pictures, but he looked like a man who might enjoy showcasing the descending cloud of depression on a woman as some sort of “quaint” microcosm of the affect of war upon a population. And, too, there were the moments where Kate Caterina, Kate-and-Caterina, the MC, slips into convictions that might very well be the author’s own shining through–

“What was it she’d just understood, during that strangely possessed night? Oh yes, about how when Esmerelda and she were talking, sometimes, what they were really trying to do was struggle a little bit free of their circumstances and their old selves, in order to be able to look back, imagine them clearly. And that emergence from but at the same time into oneself, that being still a bit entangled in one’s old conditions but also beginning to get to grips with one’s new liberties, was exactly like Michelangelo’s Captives they’d gone together to see in Florence. Those massive prisoners sculpted in the act of struggling free of their bonds, wrenching free of the stone they were made of. How simple it all was, really.

So she was going to write that down, one night. Lots of her stories, she’d tell. Stories she wasn’t living, stories she was — some more apparent, some less. Discoveries of deep-sea fishing on summer nights, of elm trees in mid-winter sunshine beginning to bud pink, of stone captives trying to break free and become themselves. Discoveries of how paintings and books and music could be good, because briefly they freed you from your pokey self. Because story wasn’t just one damned thing after another. Story was immeasurable things happening all at once amid leap-frogging over each other and then falling behind and then reappearing ahead. You often didn’t know in what sense these things were real, but that didn’t matter. Shades of more abstract and less, she thought triumphantly. The potential it offered the mind! Story was —

Sonya was murmuring something. No, it was the whole congregation saying one of the responses. Caterina paid attention. Only a minute or two had passed, they were still right at the beginning of the service. How distracted she got!

For the rest of the mass, she made herself think of Sonya’s fears for Esmerelda, and how she herself could best be loyal to them both. It was humiliating, how she thought she’d come here with kindness in her heart, but had at once gone off into musings of her own.

After church, the two women walked home to breakfast, side by side, each in the cell of herself.”

–and then poof, he waves away her intensity with distraction, almost a bubble-headedness, that seems to me a cheap way of a.) being honest with one’s own writerly convictions, but more problematically b.) dismissing as frippery, airy, girlishly empty, the workings of a mind not bent under the weight of, for example, the darkness that clings to Luigi post-WWI. The necessity of emotional and intellectual darkness for weight to be granted to literary characters is vile and needs to stop. (Sidenote: It is how you convince young writers that something awful must have happened to you for anyone to care about what you write.) If he’s showing us the beginnings of all these musings, pre-war, fracturing in the face of Caterina’s scatterbrained optimism — if we are supposed to cheer the sharpening of her self-regard as her mind crumbles under the weight of impending and threatened loss and fear — it will be a shitty thing being said. Of women and of war.

I hope he doesn’t stoop so low.