and sometimes a paragraph slaps you upside the head

This.

So much this.

I wasn’t expecting to be bowled over here, but this is terribly relevant to, well, everyone. On a mundane, unimportant level, this is why you have people like me, who live and die for story, perfectly content to wander around a fairly story structure-free space like Skyrim. On a much more more important level — you cannot feel all the time. You’ve got to turn off. Even night lights fry eventually, people. In times that admittedly are a great deal more straining to exist in than others, well…don’t feel all the time. The mess the future made. Don’t feel it all the time.

You won’t last.

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i’m your lionheart

I know there’s no real need to defend romance or its presence in stories. As a standalone genre, it makes plenty of money (~1/5 of the market share as of 2013), and people like the folks over at Felicia Day’s amazingly-and-somewhat-nsfw-titled-book-club discuss and I suppose inadvertently defend the stuff with more more humor and good nature than I can.

But a run-of-the-mill, practical reason not to scoff and roll your eyes at the presence of romance in fiction, or music, or art, is that it reminds us to be romantic creatures. It doesn’t come easily to all of us, you know. Blessed with parents who never screamed or threw things at each other, this meant also that my parents weren’t given to random acts of affection, either — at least not where we kids could see anyway — and whether it was that observational learning or an innate uneasiness with making bare that which could then be mocked, picked apart, or turned into discourse (often an unfortunate blend of the previous two options), I’m not the most romantic individual. I have to be reminded.

Hence, King and Lionheart, by Of Monsters and Men.

Music is the easiest reminder, for me, to be romantic. It moves us the swiftest. Books come next, though it’s a long slow wave and sometimes too complicated to explain why, after closing the final page, we quietly walk over to our loved one and fling their arms around them.  A muffled “just a book” into someone’s neck is sometimes easier than explaining why the whole arc of the thing demanded human contact upon its completion.

But movies and shows don’t do it for me, as a general rule. I don’t know why. They’re always…people who exist in this world, these people on the screens. Actors. People with lives beyond those they are portraying, about which we know too much. I know that’s unfair. I know, especially as someone who writes, that there is a person and a process behind the prose on the page. But I am spared the disconnect of having to stare at them, or the people they picked to be stand-ins for their visions. Of having to be corrected, every second, from the specific way in which I imagine a character to be moving through the world, with what a director, makeup crew, focus groups and a whole organization of people serve up instead. Again, I know this is unfair. I’ve never been as avid a watcher of movies or shows as I am a reader, it’s true. This is, perhaps, part of the reason why. Our predilections are rarely fair.

Music, though, grants us even more freedom to embroider a song’s story with our specifics — what we need it to be about. Music is convenient like that. It’s probably why I always shy away from interviews with musicians, or even live shows — I don’t want to know what gave rise to this song; what inspired you. I don’t care. A song is what I need in the moment I need to hear it — because I seek out music prescriptively, I suppose — and frequently, what I need to hear, to be reminded of, is that yes, one can be romantic. In a way that doesn’t need to be softened with staged sighs followed by overhead shots of heart-shaped beds during the chorus; you can be romantic in a way that gets carried over and through again and again on the sturdy back of a drum set. You can drop off so quiet that you think the song is going to fade out, that frustrating modern convention, only to come running back banging not only drums but your feet, your hands; even a goddamn accordion. Bright and fierce and triumphant.

And yes, I really, really like Of Monsters and Men.

an evening in tamriel

Over the weekend I set about seeing what mods I so coveted in regular-edition Skyrim had finally been ported into Skyrim SE. I’m always most interested in environmental, sound and lighting mods that improve the feel of the game. Typically new content mods don’t have the quality writing or voice acting one might hope for — not to mention the absurdly oblique straight lines of mountain ranges that make no sense, either geologically or visually — and I don’t want any more from the game, anyway. If I wanted story, I’d be playing something else.

By now, though, in contrast to the last time I looked, many mods have been reworked for Skyrim SE that upgrade the ambiance. More stars in the sky, more layers in sheets to the rain, more reverberation for the thunder. More and better clouds onto which to cast sunsets. And more localized glow on light sources  in the dark, so the towns look more like the huddling outposts of life against the dark that they are. Walk with me, then, in Tamriel:

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Not wanting to go through yet another Helgen run, I booted up from a post-Helgen and post-first-dragon save I keep on standby. I had forgotten, though, to return the golden claw in Riverwood — and it was on that return trip that I got to admire the new lighting effects along the bridge. Warmer, more localized golden glow. Nice.

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To my immense delight, a galaxy upgrade was included in the Vivid Weathers mod — something I had had to seek out individually in vanilla Skyrim. The particle snow, much lauded in the read me file, is okay, but the stars and especially the rain are wondrous. They include, too, a sound mod in this package, which again was convenient, and another thing I had had to seek out separately in the past. No longer!

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Also included in Vivid Weathers: the aurora borealis.

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Improved sunsets.

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More light-in-the-darkness effects. So good. Shor’s Stone has never looked so cozy.

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Space,  don’t get me wrong, is not a place  I enjoy going, in fiction or in theory. It’s cold, dark, inhospitable; and if there are aliens out there they’ll probably murder us all before we can so much as offer them tea and cookies. But Fake Space is wondrous, a grandiose backdrop to already dramatic in-game landscapes, without all of the heavy emptiness that comes with Real Space. Hooray, Fake Space!

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These are basic SE trees, yes, because I’ve rejected all tree mods after the last one messed with the Riften trees. Don’t ever, ever mess with the Riften trees. They should always be resplendent in gold, that perfect autumn afternoon held still in perpetuity. The last tree mod I installed made these trees purple. Purple. If I wanted a wall of crape myrtle, I’d go back to the South. I do not, so please keep my pseudo-aspens yellow, as they ought to be.

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Just sunset stuff.

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That bar of light! Was it there before? I believe so. But it looks better now. Softer edges, a more natural glow to its center — Realistic Lighting Overhaul is the place to go for all this. Do it naow.

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The loneliest bandit camp, its loneliness heightened by the tinyness of the light it throws up against the great dark sea.

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Stealing a horse and booking it for the nearest city before sunrise — all in a day’s work.

you were there, but you weren’t

hello

Throughout my childhood, when seeing a place in a movie or hearing mention of it in a newspaper or news clip, there was a constant litany: you were there. It wouldn’t matter if I had been ten years old or three or a newborn; the reminder would come. Always from my father, and always with the implied expectation, sometimes joking but mostly not, that some place memory, some shred of the experience, would remain. Somehow.

I’m sure most parents attempt to do this once or twice at least. I can’t imagine how it feels to hear that so much of your shared life together — moments you congratulated yourself on being able to achieve, for your child, whether that was a first sight of the ocean or a first trip to an amusement park — is, in fact, forgotten.

Actually, well, I can imagine it, too well, but that’s not where I wish to go today.

But I bring it up because, above and beyond parental reminders, there is another far more benign source of chronological insistence we encounter every so often: the age at which whatever alcohol you are drinking was bottled, casked or distilled. For much of my alcohol-drinking life (I know, I know, I am a late bloomer in all things: I never snuck a drop of anything, and reviled what I was given to try at holidays, until well past most people had had their first headsplitting hangover) the years meant little to me. Namely because, if a date even appeared on the bottle or the menu, it was at most maybe two or three years ago, a time which blurred into the stress or college or post-college Trying To Make Ends Meet which, in large part, lacked definition.

This whisky, though, pictured above in my incredibly classy Daiso mug? This whisky was bottled in 1998. 1998. That is a year I remember. A year when I was an actual child, versus the child people say they were when they were teenagers or in college — old enough, in so many ways, to know better, even if not about the things on which their adult selves will judge them. No, in 1998 I was:

  • Two years into well and truly disliking school, having loved it up until the fifth grade when we moved to a prestigious and self-righteously competitive school district that sucked most of the joy out of being a kid among other kids,
  • Two years into having a dog, and realizing that yes, they can tell when you care about too many other things besides them, and thus that our dog was in fact my father’s dog more than anyone else’s, and that was okay because I loved her anyway,
  • Tasked, for the first time, with not crying in the face of a parent’s undoing, as my father broke down trying to read, at his mother’s funeral, from the Northwest Passage, which she’d read to him as he lay abed with scarlet fever as a child,
  • Three years out, still, from being shadowed in some form, and from organizing everything (lampooned though the practice is and probably will be, now, until something worse happens) into a pre- and post- attack landscape, geopolitically but also internally,
  • Terrible at choosing friends, since my latest attempt had resulted in a girl writing my name on an orange and throwing it into her fireplace, to see if I would die a slow and horrid death as per the curse in a book she’d found prescribed,
  • Entranced at the swift advance from the MUDs I’d played for the previous few years to their visual successor, EverQuest,
  • Reading every Steinbeck book but Tortilla Flats, because, like how I next to never finish a TV series, I prefer there always being some scrap remaining, waiting.
  • Just beginning to learn Japanese, having no idea how out of place a foreign woman would be. Imagining I could disappear there. Oh you foolish, hopeful child.
  • Just beginning, it seems, to want to disappear. Not realizing yet that there was a rim of sunlight beyond the dank discomfort of looming adolescence.

You were there, you were there. The litany always made me feel guilty if I couldn’t actually remember being there, wherever there was. I like to tell myself I wouldn’t then do that to a child, but of course I would — like everyone else, with only the best intentions in mind. You want to know that you built a solid foundation of good and lasting memories, I assume, for your progeny. So you try to make sure they hang onto those. But the result of trying to conjure those memories up, time after time, and of being so easy to read, and so clearly disheartened, when your child can’t recall “being there,” is that you encourage them to horde memories like Reese’s peanut butter cups, long past the point where tiny pinholes made by tiny worms pockmark their surfaces. Long past the point at which anyone can savor them anymore — their value has been reduced to a simple pile of shiny foil-wrapped worm nests. But, as the child, you hang onto them anyway, in case someone wants to see your horde. You want to make sure you know how much you have, so you can brag reassuringly about their worth to interested parties.

1998. I was there. But I also wasn’t. Not the me of now, who can look back and cluck her tongue at the naiveté of the twelve year old Japanophile, or wince at that child’s determination not to cry at her grandmother’s funeral — as if anyone thought her better or stronger for it; as if it staved anything off. Not that grandparent’s death, or the next or the next, or the long slow march into dementia-laced oblivion of her own mother. Why not cry, little one? You’re twelve.  You’ve got a long life of crying ahead of you. Get in some practice before you’re the one delivering the eulogy.

(I have, in fact, attempted to write my mother’s eulogy several times in recent years, when her body was with us but her mind wasn’t. But I dissolved into tears each time, and never produced anything worthy of her.)

These are themes I know Proust touches on, in the book I was warned to wait to read until my forties but which I (gee, 12-year-old self, you don’t change much!) stubbornly insisted that my advanced, unsought degrees in loss and longing deemed me capable of appreciating early. But I put Proust down. Not for the meandering sentences or the long ruminations upon the fall of light in a room or the shadows on a street, but because stories that revolve around memory as their focus are…still too sharp, for me. Like fumbling in a junk draw only to come up with bleeding fingers, I’ll stumble into stories with memory at their center and back away, reeling.

Just a few episodes ago in Critical Role — I am behind, as always — the illustrious Darin De Paul (of Reinhardt fame, if you pay Overwatch, or any of the 9,000 other characters he has voiced, if you do not) portrayed a memory-challenged gnome whose lightning-quick seesaws between tearful sincerity and forgetful cantankerousness gouged out my heart and left it in pieces on the carpet. I had to press pause and flee to the grim sanctity of a bathroom stall — again, like 12 year old me, I have no great desire to be seen crying in public, let alone at my desk on a workday. But Sprigg, his character.

Oh, Sprigg.

It is the sort of thing that happens to you, I am given to understand. My peers are too young and too lucky, by and large, to have dealt with this yet, but I do read — and this happens, as you grow older. You set out wanting to hear all the stories, sing all the songs, do all the things. And then one by one as people are taken from you, gently or not, willingly or not, the number of stories you can hear, or songs you can sing, without being hurt…shrinks. I gather that at some point you become okay with this (or not). But I am not there yet. And sudden veerings off into the territory of memory — whether those doing the veering are real or imagined; aging spouses of once-lauded public figures or gnarled gnomes in an internet Dungeons and Dragons show — these things eviscerate me. In MUDs, it would look like:

eviscerated

And it would be correct. I have no saving throw. No luck or inspiration. It’s just a one-shot to the heart, and I am down.

So that’s why I haven’t returned to Remembrance of Things Past, among other things. If you were wondering.

version control

It’s exhausting, having to turn the “around people I know and love” me off and the “alone me” on. I’m familiar with it, because I keep finding myself on jobs that pull me far away from everyone, and they come visit me because for me to return home it would be too hard to tear myself away and go back to whatever task brought me afar. But this kind of version control is neither easy nor without pain.

It’s like cutting whole chapters out of a book. It’ll read okay if you pick the right ones, but if you don’t, the plotlines will get jumbled and nothing will make sense. I have to snip out my need for human contact or conversation and replace it with the next chapter over — exercise, or writing. It works but you always mess it up for the first few weeks, and by then you may have to put your full, unabridged self back together again anyway, when you get to see someone you love again.

It’s hard.

And lonely.

I think that it’s better to do it than not — easier to be someone with holes than no one at all — but I think I am inching past the age when I want to keep doing this.

But then I think of people like my dad, who have no choice. Who will never get to return to the person who knew them best because they’re dead — and before that, years before that, she was already gone, even when alive. And my temporary loneliness seems terrible and selfish. “You have your mother’s eyes,” my mom’s best friend from college said, before starting to cry. My dad followed suit. And what do I do with their sorrow? What I can I do? I’m not her, I can’t bring her back, and the same shaped hole that is in them is in me, too. But I have someone to return to, and they don’t. So all the chapters I cut out of me ought to be less deserving of attention. Of regret.

Because I, at least, get to put them back.

random music fridays : morning nightcap

I didn’t know that this was the sort of thing you should defensively hide from people until Stephen Colbert made a flippant aside a few years ago — “How am I even supposed to tell if it’s good?” — and then a quick google and I had everyone from historical instrument builders to pagan tumblr making it abundantly clear that it was wrong in so many ways to like, well, this. This Definitively Not Authentic (why are we still worshiping authenticity as an a.) concrete or b.) attainable characteristic?) New Age-y Celtic Crap. And I could go on and on carefully extricating myself from any trumped-up claims of blood kinship to the music, or “fake Irish”-ness, couching my enjoyment of these sounds within the safe, narrow confines of childhood familiarity or a happenstance Riverdance ticket gifted by a school friend in the 90s.

But I don’t have to do any of that, and I’m not going to. That warm tone A Morning Nightcap opens with is fantastic. It’s like the perfect part of your run where you have endorphins but also air in your lungs, when the road is clear of people and you could go on forever. It sounds the way smiling feels on your face. I don’t care if people 200 years ago weren’t playing this — because the instruments were different or the arrangement was or whatever. I don’t care if my ancestors ever listened to this. It’s great. Haters gonna hate, but it’s great.

Enjoy it.