Thursday, April 28, 2016

On Belief

      A while back, I wrote a post about the challenges of being an atheist Jew raising a kid.  That post was mostly about the importance of preserving cultural heritage while at the same time acknowledging that I do not believe in god and it is not necessary for me to encourage that belief in my child.  But lately, I have come to realize that the discussion regarding belief is even more broad than that.  We expect children to believe little lies, to believe in magic, to believe in the powers of the imagination.   The real question is, why?
I will never get this 
      Most adult Christians I know do not believe in Santa Claus. I'm not going to argue the existence or divinity of Jesus, that is neither here nor there.  Even the most religious Christians I know do not believe in Santa Claus.  In fact, many are upset that the notion of Santa has taken over the *real* meaning for Christmas, that of the birth of their Lord.  So why do we perpetuate this myth?  Why do grown adults dress up as Santa, take their children to visit Santas in the mall?  Let's take religion out of the equation entirely.  Many children when presented with an adult in a Batman costume, will believe this person to be the actual Batman.  Many children when taken to Disneyland to get their pictures taken with actors in princess costumes, are told that these are the actual princesses and they believe.  They ask the princesses where their horses are, they ask Batman how Robin is doing.  The adults in these situations, both the adults in costumes and the parents of the children, perpetuate the myth that these are the actual heroes, the actual characters from their stories.

     A few months ago, for my daughter's 5th birthday, my parents and I took her to Disneyland.  My daughter has long lost interest in Disney princesses, in the idea of princesses entirely.  Whereas even just a year ago she claimed that the Elsa at her friend's birthday party was the real Elsa and the Elsa that she saw at Disneyland was pretend, she now held no illusions:  those princesses were ladies in costumes.  HOWEVER, when my daughter participated in the Jedi training institute, she really and truly believed that she was using the powers of the Force, that the Force was real, that Darth Vader was real, that Chewbacca and Han Solo and Finn and Rey were all 100% absolutely real, they just lived in space.  The reason?  Well, they were played by real people.  The Disney princesses were pretend, according to her, because they were cartoons.  That as much she understood.  But films with real actors?  That was real.  I tried to explain to her that it was all pretend, but it never really sank in. I would tell her it was pretend, but she didn't really understood what that meant.

     A few weeks ago The Force Awakens came out on DVD.  She had already seen the film 3 times in the theaters and had occasional nightmares about it, despite the fact that she loved it.  Kylo Ren was scary.  I tried to reassure her that it was all made up, but despite that she would have bad dreams. We watched the film together on DVD and she seemed fine during the film, but when it came time to go to bed, she told me she couldn't sleep for fear of having another nightmare about Kylo Ren.  Instead of telling her once again that it was all made up, I showed her.  I pulled up the "Please Mr. Kennedy" song from Inside Llewyn Davis where Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, and Justin Timberlake sing together.

     "See," I said, "This is Oscar Isaac.  He is an actor.  In Star Wars he plays Poe, but in this movie he plays a singer.  This is Adam Driver.  He plays Kylo Ren.  In this movie he plays a singer too.  In real life Oscar and Adam are friends."
This random picture of
Adam Driver helped
my daughter stop having
     Then I showed her more pictures of Adam Driver taken by paparazzi when he was walking down the street, pictures of Adam Driver wearing normal clothes, pictures of Adam Driver doing press for the movie.

     "See Adam goes to work every day and he puts on a costume, just like you have your costumes, and he plays pretend and people take pictures with a camera.  Then at the end of the day Adam goes home to his house or his trailer, which is like a big RV like your grandpa has, and he heats up his food in the microwave, and he goes poop.  Adam Driver is just a regular person who gets paid money to dress up and pretend."

     "But how does he use the Force?" she asked me, "What about the real Jedi?"

     "Do you really want to know?" I asked her.  I wasn't sure.  Should I really ruin everything, ruin her imagination, destroy her belief entirely?

     "There is no such thing as the Force.  It is pretend.  One day a long time ago, a man named George Lucas thought of a movie called Star Wars.  And he wrote the story.  And then people dressed up in costumes and pretended his story."

     "But when I was at Disneyland we all worked together to use the Force to raise the temple thing," she replied.

     "It was an elevator.  A man in the back pushed a switch and it made the elevator go up and down."
      The next day after she woke up (after having no nightmares, I might add) I showed her the special features on the Star Wars DVD.  She watched with rapt attention as people built the sets, as they used wires to throw people across the room, as they used computers to make spaceships fly through the sky.  She watched as actors talked about how they got ready for their roles, how they felt when they started working on Star Wars because they were such big fans already.  She watched as engineers constructed puppets, masks, costumes, droids.  She was positively fascinated.  I thought I was taking something away from her, destroying her innocence somehow.  Instead I only sparked her creativity even more.  The Force was something magical that only Jedi could do.  This was science.  This was art.  This was technology.  This was acting.  These were real people.  This was something she could do.  For the past 2 weeks the only thing she has watched on TV have been the bonus features from Star Wars.  She watches and rewatches the craftspeople hard at work.  She calls them by name.
"There's Adam," my daughter says.
   "There's Adam," she says when Kylo Ren walks across the screen.  "There's Mark, there's Daisy."

     She isn't afraid anymore.  She doesn't have nightmares anymore.  She sees the people as people, truly as people, not as the characters they portray.  I was a little sad in a way, sad that she doesn't have that naivete.  Something had changed in her, she grew up a little bit, she put childish things behind her.

     Or so I thought.  Until she lost her tooth 2 days ago.  And told me most adamantly that we needed to put her tooth under her pillow so that the tooth fairy would come.  At 10 o'clock at night, I wrote my daughter a note in pink flowing script and signed it from the tooth fairy.  I put it in an envelope along with a Sacajawea dollar and put it under her pillow.  In the morning, she burst into my room to show me the letter she had gotten and asked me to read it.  She asked me quite plainly if I had left it there.  Maybe I should have told her the truth.  In fact, I'm not sure why I didn't.  Instead I said,

    "What do you think?"

    To which she replied, "I think the tooth fairy did it.  How do you think she knew my name, though?  I bet she was flying outside and then heard you talking to me."

   "Yep, I guess that must be it"

    I don't know why I maintained the fiction.  I don't know why I maintained the lie.  Maybe it is just sort of fun to believe: to believe your letter is coming from Hogwarts, to believe that fairies deliver money in exchange for teeth, that men in red suits deliver presents.  Perhaps in a world that is so seemingly mundane and dull, that to touch a little something magical makes us feel something more. I don't quite know the answer.   All I know is that I now I have a 5 year old daughter who calls Kylo Ren "Adam," who wants to be a scientist when she grows up, and who believes in the tooth fairy.  I don't think that's such a terrible thing.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Thursday stories - The Family part 2

Here is the second part of my weird and rambling doesn't really go anywhere story called "The Family."  Part 1 can be found here. Enjoy.


Photographs are strange things, and much has been written about them: their impermanence, their falseness.  A photograph shows the smile, not the “come on just one more. Can you move a little to the left?  You hair is in your eye can you move your hair. Say cheese!  Say cheese!  No look right up here, sweetie, right up here.  Look up, honey!  Don’t look down.” Or the “thank god that’s done with, where’s the wine?”  A photograph can’t capture a smell or even a feeling, only a look of a thing not a thing as it is.  Whether it was printed on flimsy, disintegrating, paper or simply stored on flimsy plastic memory cards, or event kept in a cloud, pictures can’t last forever either. The nice thing about photographs is that you can go back and look at them, though, and they last long enough for most people to use them for their purpose.  They are worthy substitutes for memories that are, by virtue of our species, piss poor, some more so than others.  

She had a good memory for some things.  Others, well… She relied on photographs like everyone else.  Was She supposed to remember every detail, every thing, every word?  Kenning could be useful in this way.  When a member of the Family knew enough Magic and was of age, their first test, their first task, was to Ken themselves.  It is an odd thing to know oneself truly, deeply.  There are things best forgotten, things the mind has closed due to trauma of both physical and mental varieties.  To Ken oneself is to relive every broken bone, every sexual encounter, every word spoken, every food tasted.  Everything.  In about two hours, give or take.  It is exhausting.  Vomiting is a side effect nearly 97% of the time due to the sheer volume of food consumed, albeit mentally, and the smell.  To Ken someone else is a little different, though still a miserable thing to be sure.  Delving into one’s own soul memory is just a more intimate and vivid experience.

She would not Ken herself again unless She had to.  Unless She NEEDED to relive, to remember, something that She had lost.  So She took photos, though She tried her best to not make them just of smiling faces, so She could remember more of the truth then a smile revealed.  There were other ways to remember too, non Kenning ways, ways still of Magic, but She didn’t rely on those too much either.  She could imprint her memories onto an object if she did it in the moments after they happened.  She had done this a few times with very special memories, things she wanted to capture forever and had the opportunity to do so.  When She had turned the knob on the door to her new apartment, the first one She had ever owned on her own without Him, she had imprinted the memory on the key.  When the apartment manager had asked for both keys back when she moved out 4 months later, She had claimed she’d lost one and paid a fine, in addition to the fees associated with breaking her lease.  She kept the key on a chain around her neck and in times of stress would touch it to remember that first feeling of freedom.

She hadn’t used Magic at all when She was with Him, except for the Kenning at the end.  She couldn’t quite remember the first time She looked into her daughter’s eyes, heard her daughter laugh.  Unless she Kenned herself again, those memories were lost to her, and she would not Ken herself again unless She had to.   So she relied on photographs, on videos on her phone, on the imperfect memory of the brain.  It was the only time, well… one of the only times, She had really missed the Magic being a part of her life back then.  She hadn’t needed it, hadn’t thought she had needed it at any rate, but still She wished it had been there for times like this.  Why couldn’t she have imprinted the memory of her child’s first steps onto her shoes, instead of simply recording a shaky video on her phone like a normal person would, a person who didn’t know imprinting was an option, a person not of Magic, of the Family?!  It was frustrating, to say the least.   There were so many photos.  So many.  Ugh, why were there so many?  She knew. Thankfully they were mostly on her computer.  She didn’t actually have to sift through boxes upon boxes of photographs.  Can you imagine? Thousands. 

She was sorting for a good reason today:  She wanted to make an album.  A real, proper album like a normal person would do.  She had an album of her time with her family, but none of her early childhood with her Màthair.  Not a single photograph of her naked backside or her hands curled around her Màthair’s finger or her first steps.  Her Màthair didn’t need photographs.  Màthair imprinted nearly every moment of consequence in her life and Kenned herself once a year as a matter of course.  She knew herself deeply, and could relive her daughter’s first steps whenever she wanted to.  Màthair had offered to share memories with her but She had no desire whatsoever to Ken her Màthair.  Some people are too complicated to Ken.  When she had Kenned herself, She had gotten glimpses of her infancy, but people store memories differently when they are very young.  She had not, it needs to be mentioned, relived her own birth.

She looked at the crumpled picture her daughter had drawn sitting next to her on the bed and held it up, the light from her laptop giving the edges a little glow.  Maybe she would scan it and make it the cover art for the album.  That seemed like a good idea.  That was the kind of idea internet mothers had.  She never really had any desire to be an “internet mother” but she had to admit that some of them had some good ideas.  Those Mormons especially.  Why did all these Mormon stay at home internet mothers have such good ideas?!  Maybe that was a generalization.   Album.  Photographs.  She knew that He had to be in it, and that was the problem.  She would have to look at pictures of Him, of Him and her together, Them, and put them in the album.  It was exhausting.  It was exhausting just looking at so many pictures, not to mention looking at pictures of Him and trying to figure out which ones to save.  That was the problem with digital cameras you just took so many.  Thousands. How do you look at thousands and pick maybe 100 to put into an album.  It was why she hadn’t done this in the first place, why she had waited so long.  If she had only made an album for each year of her daughter’s life as it ended, then perhaps she wouldn’t have to do this monumental task all at once.  5 years?

She held up the crumpled picture her daughter had drawn a third time.  She would not forget to make albums again, she would not forget to remember.  She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, then another, and then firmly pressed her hand to the drawing and focused her will.  A moment passed, a minute.  The lights in the room flickered gently, the bed vibrated slightly.  A moment later and the image was imprinted.  She found her mouth was dry, which was typical.  She reached for the glass of water on her night stand and drank deeply, deeply until the glass was empty.  She got up from the bed, walked to the kitchen and filled another glass from the fridge.  That she drained just as quickly as the first.  While she was in the kitchen anyway, she found herself an apple.  A banana would have been better with the vitamins but an apple would do.  She bit down hard and sucked the juice slowly, breathing through her nose.  At last she felt herself again.  It had been a while since she had used Magic.  It came to her easily, more easily than she had expected, but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t hard.  She was sweating.  It was done.

Paper was, generally speaking, a poor thing to imprint, but it felt appropriate for the memory.  She went back to the room and grabbed the picture and the laptop and brought them both into the den, which is where she kept her scanner.  It was under a pile of paperwork underneath the old wooden table that passed for a desk when she needed it to, and after a while it warmed up and the image was scanned.  It was done.  The picture was now captured, like a photograph, permanently impermanent.  As for the actual drawing, she folded it carefully into quarters and placed inside a copy of Keats that she kept in her nightstand.  She would remember it there.

Now the photograph of the drawing that had the memory, but not the memory itself, was safe and sound on her computer where She could access it and use it for whatever purposes suited her fancy.  She posted it on her social media accounts with a heart emoji and a smiley face along with the words, “Too cute!” She uploaded it to the cloud where she could access it later.  She put it in the folder with the other images she would eventually upload to an album.  The little grotesques had been cataloged, organized, and filed away.  Such is the fate of photographs.  The original, the tangible, was kept safe at hand.  It was Magic now, or rather there was Magic in it.  It would be harder to destroy now, which was another side effect of imprinting, though paper was not ideal.  Paper, though imprinted, was impermanent. Like a photograph.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016


I never quite know when it is okay to be angry.  Which seems kind of silly.  Silly, but true. Sometimes I am angry because it is easier than being sad.  Sometimes I'm not sad at all, just angry.  It can be confusing.  Donald Trump makes me angry.  His supporters make me angry.  I used to kind of laugh at them, laugh at him.  It could never happen, it could never be, so he was a joke. I am not laughing any more.  I still do not believe that Trump could carry the national election.  I am still convinced that he will lose by a landslide come the fall.  But that doesn't matter.  I am angry because people vote for him.  I am angry at the people who still genuinely believe he is the best man for the job.  I am angry that such people exist in my country, that these people hold positions of power, that these people drive the direction our nation is going in.  I am angry.   I am angry because I see how easily people can become disconnected from other people's reality.  I see it in my own life with friends who make more money than I do, who simply cannot understand my life, my world.  I see it in the draconian policies of my library, which levies exorbitant fines against children with overdue items, children who don't have money, who have parents who don't have money, who now do not use the library because of fear, because of money.  I see it in the attitudes of some of my colleagues who view our homeless patrons as a nuisance rather than an opportunity.  I see it all around me.  And I am angry.

A few days ago my daughter asked me, "Why was Hamen bad?  Why did he want to hurt the Jews?" Later she asked a similar question, "Why did Kylo Ren kill Han Solo?  Why did he turn to the Dark Side?"  The question was a weighted one, because behind the question she really wanted to know "Why are people bad?  Why do people do bad things?"  I have no answer for her.  Sure I could talk about how they were raised but then she will ask me, "But why were their parents that way?"  Why?  How far back does it go?  Who was the one who started it all?  Where did it begin?  How did it happen?  Why?  Children ask a lot of questions.  Because she asks questions I have started to ask questions, questions that a child would ask.  Why?   My answer before, my answer to myself before she started asking, was simple: "Some people are just shitty.  The world is just kind of bullshit."  I can't really give this answer to a child, can I?  Or maybe I can, maybe I should.  Maybe she should know that some people are just shitty.  But will she be as angry as I am? Maybe she will.  Maybe the anger is good.  I would hate for her to live her life angry, but what else can you feel but anger when people are so shitty to each other.  What else can you feel?  Sadness, resignation, acceptance.  I can't accept.  Accept the things you cannot change?  Bullshit.  I won't accept it.  But the truth is they won't change, they won't.  Some people are just shitty.  I know that my attitude should be to just let other people be shitty and do what I can do, but when their shittiness impedes on my ability to do good then I am pissed.  I am angry.  I am fucking angry.

Life isn't fair.  My mom used to tell this to me all the time.  And I know it, I've internalized it, I understand it.  Life isn't fair.  It isn't.  But it still makes me angry that it isn't.  No matter how many times I hear it, now matter how many times I tell myself the simple truth "life isn't fair" I still get angry.  Angry at the unfairness.  There are people who surrender themselves to God or whatever it is, who have a sense of peace and understanding because they really do accept, they really do give in, who believe that there genuinely is a plan and a path and a hope.  I'm not talking about the people who say the believe but do shitty things, I mean the people who really believe, who have a faith in God that is beautiful, that gives them peace.  And it isn't just Christians or Jews or Muslims either.  Buddhists, Hindus.  Giving up of self, acceptance.  The truly faithful have this piece of themselves they have just surrendered to their faith and they find peace.  That is beautiful.  I feel that it is beautiful.  I am envious of their serenity.  I also think it is complete and utter bullshit.  These are very conflicted feelings.

When I was a teen, I never really had a rebellious faze.  I don't know why.  Actually I do know why. First of all, my parents never made me feel shitty, so I never really felt I needed to break away.  My parents introduced me to music, my parents took me to concerts, my parents let my friends come over and didn't complain about us being loud.  My parents' house was where my friends wanted to come.  My parents were kind of cool.  I mean not cool cool, but cool for parents.  My dad listened to punk in the car when he drove my friends and I to the movies. Which is not to say that we didn't argue, we certainly did, especially my mom and I because we are so similar.  But because we are so similar I never felt I needed to rebel.  I felt loved and supported.  I didn't need to do stupid shit to fight back against them.  I wasn't all that angry. Secondly, I internalized everything.  When people were shitty to me, they made me feel bad about myself instead of making me feel angry at them.  I was sad a lot, I was depressed.  I thought there was something wrong with me and that was why people were mean to me.  I have mentioned before that this feeling extended even into my marriage, where I thought there must be some reason my ex said hurtful things to me, that I was at fault.  I don't feel bad about myself anymore.  I don't hurt the way I did when kids in school called me names or excluded me, or when my ex withheld affection.  I am pissed.  I am angry.  I am angry because now I know there isn't anything wrong with me, there is something wrong with them:  they are assholes.

There is no point dwelling on the past, on the people that were shitty to me before, that at least I understand.  But it is hard for me to let go of my anger at the people who are shitty now.  It is hard for me to even watch the news because every time I see Donald Trump there is a part of me that wants very earnestly, very seriously, to beat his motherfucking face in.  That can't be healthy.  But it's true.  People say that Ted Cruz has a punchable face and I guess that's kind of true.  He reminds me of those smarmy assholes I knew in college who would correct my grammar or those dicks online who mansplain everything or call women SJWs.  Ted Cruz is a prick.  But I don't really feel like I want to hurt Ted Cruz in any way.  Donald Trump I want to hurt. I want to go Inglorious Basterds on Donald Trump.  I mean I wouldn't.  I wouldn't actually.  ::Looks around warily for government spies lurking on my blog::  I mean I guess I wouldn't because I don't actually know how to hurt people physically, because I am not particularly strong, because I don't have, as they say, a certain set of skills.  But I want to.  I mean, not that I would go out and learn martial arts from some master in the mountains so that I could exact righteous vengeance on people.  I'm not Batman.  That would be silly.  But I want to.  Wanting isn't the same as doing.

Yoda says that anger leads to hate and hate leads to the Dark Side.  So maybe that's it.  Maybe that is the answer.  People are shitty because they are angry, because everyone is angry: angry because the world isn't fair, angry because they have been slighted in some way, angry because someone did something to them and now they blame everyone who looks like them for that hurt.  I am angry at the people who hate.  I hate the haters.  I am full of so much hate I can hardly stand it.  I hate their hypocrisy, I hate their words, I hate the laws they pass that are unjust.  I hate them.  I just can't accept, I just can't relax, I just can't let go. I wish I could.  So I don't quite know what to do, what to do with all this anger.  What difference can I make when the system is so rigged, when there is so much money in politics, when change cannot happen as long as assholes and shitty people have all the power?  What can I do?  I know that what I'm feeling must be what they are feeling too.  They must feel this same kind of anger at a world they can't control, at these things happening, these changes happening that go against everything they believe in.  I know that.  Intellectually I know that our feelings, if not our ideas, are probably the same.  I don't want to be like them.  But I feel that pull of anger and I don't know what to do.  What is there but anger or sadness?  I am either sad that the world is the way that it is or I am angry.  I don't know any other way to feel yet.  I'm still learning, I guess.

Here is what I do know: I am not so angry, so self-righteous, that I am not going to vote for Hillary Clinton in November.  What I know is that anger needs to be used.  Not voting because I don't agree with some of her politics, not voting because I like Bernie Sanders more, not voting because I see the system is rigged will not help anyone but the people I hate more: the haters, the people who wish that all of the progress we have made in the past 8 years went away.  I am also voting for her for selfish reasons: I don't want to end up in prison.  If Donald Trump becomes president I don't know what I would do, I don't know what I would be capable of, and it scares me.   It probably scares you reading this.  I'm sorry.  If you truly, genuinely, believe that Donald Trump would be a better president than Hillary Clinton then please go ahead and unfriend yourself from my Facebook page, stop reading my blog, stop contacting me all together.  I have no patience or tolerance for you or people like you.  This is not a matter of political preference or economics, this is a question of the very soul, the very fabric of our nation.  If you feel so strongly about Hillary Clinton that you would rather not vote at all?  Well, I don't know what to say.  I am disappointed. I understand your anger, but removing yourself from the process does nothing. If you feel so strongly about Hillary Clinton that you would vote for a 3rd party candidate?  Good for you.  You are participating in our democracy.  Don't let anyone tell you that your vote doesn't matter or that you are effectively voting for Trump or that you are wrong for doing so.  You are doing important work.  I don't agree with you, but I am not dismissing you either.  Someday, hopefully someday soon, we will have many parties that are viable and our elections will be different.  You are important.

Donald Trump is a terrible person.  He is objectively terrible.  It is a scientific fact.  This isn't like Bush where I disagreed with his politics and protested the wars he started.  Trump isn't Bush.  Trump is so much worse than Bush.  Bush at least represented something.  Something I disagree with to be sure, but I do believe for all his faults that Bush has a soul.  Trump doesn't.  Trump is the culmination of everything wrong with our society.  His rise to prominence represents all the most reprehensible qualities of our nation.  It makes me sad, it makes me angry, to see the truth: that there are millions of people in this country who think like he does, who have such hate, such anger, such disregard for the feelings of others.   I am angry.  Perhaps the anger is just a part of me now the way the sadness was before.  Maybe someday I can move past both feelings and truly feel calm and at peace, but right now I can't.  Right now I'm angry.  And at the moment, at this very moment, there is not a lot I can do with my anger.  But I can do one thing, one important thing, one essential thing: I can vote.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Thursday Stories - The Family part 1

          So I decided to dedicate Thursdays to posting some original writing.  First up is the story I started for National Novel Writing Month.  I didn't finish a novel.  What I have are about 27 pages of what is not quite a short story and not quite anything in particular.  I could probably write more or I could probably just stop where I am now since I really have no idea where it was going in the first place. For the next few weeks I will post one of the short chapters up here on the blog.  This was a weird story.  It starts sort of semi autobiographically and then gets kind of weird.  I need to preface this with the fact that while there are elements of this story taken from my own life, it is not an accurate reflection of past events or my emotional state.  However I do think it is a bit too Mary-Sueish to really be published anywhere so I don't quite know what to do with it other than post it here.  Enjoy.  

The Family

My Family

She held the lightly crumpled paper in her hands, looking at it with a mixture of melancholy and bemusement and pride and, oddly, satisfaction.  On the top was written, in immature script, “MY FAMILY,” all caps, the “F” slightly eschew, the “y” two lines barely intersecting.  My Family.  Beneath this proclamation two people, though you could hardly call them human.  Figures, really.  Two nearly human figures.  The first an ovular torso upon which two black, lidless eyes rested, and beneath them a thin wide mouth.  Too wide.  Wider than the torso even. Like an anthropophagus from an old illuminated manuscript. Extending from this face, this face-body, two spindly legs from the bottom, horizontal lines at the ends suggesting feet, and two overlong arms from the sides with fingers, too many fingers; 7, 8 maybe, protruding out from small circular hands.  Next to this grotesquerie was another figure, this one more recognizably humanoid.  This one had a head at the very least, a small smiling, long haired circle sitting atop a larger one, from which the appendages extended in much the same fashion; fingers over-long and winding -- too many, far too many, for a normal hand.  The fingers reached, reached toward the worm-like digits of the other figure.  My Family.
Perhaps for Him she drew different figures.  Or perhaps they were the same.  Did she draw HER too when she drew “Family?”  She didn’t want to think about it.  Her Family was She and her.  What her daughter thought of Him and of Her, Other, she didn’t care.  Or maybe she did.  Maybe she cared quite a bit.  But the teacher had said draw your family and she had drawn two, just two, just She and her. At that She had smiled, smiled wide...wide, too wide.  Wide like the strange thin smile her daughter had drawn for herself, extending almost beyond the reaches of her own face.   She thought about other pictures.  Pictures from before. Pictures of three.  She still sometimes found pictures of three that the girl had drawn.  He was always largest, largest.  He was taller, true, but it bothered her still Him so large on the page, towering like he did.  Big.  It was strange to have feelings about circles and lines.  They were pigments on paper, that was all, that was all.  Was it?  My Family.  

It was just two, just two.  There were others, of course: her mother, her father, her sisters, her aunts and uncles.  But really it was just two.  The others were far away and it wasn’t the same.  They were family, not Family.  My Family.  She had Family, big F, around places too, but then they were Family big f only not both little and big, not family And Family.  Sometimes it was just one, when she was with Him… Him and HER.  Just She.  And She had hims and some hers too for good measure some for longer than others.  Was this enough?  For a long time she wasn’t sure.  She remembered a time when she needed so much more, when the loneliness ached at her, fresh and raw, a single circle on a page, hollow.  But lately the circle had started to mean something different, something new.  It was complete and whole and went on forever.  It was unyielding, impenetrable, solid.  A smiling face inside a circle, with fingers, many fingers, to hold and grab, and another circle beside it.  Maybe that WAS enough.  My Family.  

It wasn’t that She still loved Him.  In fact, quite the opposite. She remembered loving Him, though.  No, that isn’t precisely true either.  She remembered that once she loved Him.  There’s a difference in that.  Because as time went on, She found it harder and harder to remember WHY precisely She had loved Him, what the love had felt like.  When She tried to recreate the love in her imagination, tried to remember the three and even before that the two, THEM, She couldn’t.  She wasn’t sure if she had done it on purpose, if some part of her circle had grown hard as iron, or whether like magicians’ rings pulled apart, She simply saw that the two entwined circles that They had once appeared to be were revealed as false in the end.  That they had only appeared whole together when the magician held them in his hand, but when the magic was gone all that was left was one whole circle and one circle that was broken.  She was the whole circle.  She knew that now.  Perhaps she had known that his circle was broken the whole time, but played along with the illusion like a knowing adult watching a magic show at a child’s birthday party, clapping politely and smiling, albeit somewhat superciliously, so as not to ruin it.  For the children. The child.  My Family.

Was there any harm in it, She had rationalized.  Her circle was whole and it was fun to believe in magic.  That magic was a lie, She knew.  No not Magic, but magic, the little magic, the false magic, the illusion.  That magic was a lie.  The real Magic She knew was true but Magic didn’t have a place in her life anymore than He did.   If She could have used her Magic, the Magic that was now lost to her, the Magic she had turned her back upon, to make both circles whole, would She have?  That was the real question. The question that had plagued her for months after the circles were broken, or after the broken circle had separated from the whole one at any rate.  Maybe Magic could have kept the illusion going for a little bit longer, but a broken circle can’t be fixed by something as fickle as Magic.  Her Mother had tried to tell her that.  Her True Mother, Màthair.  My Family.  

Màthair had said once that it was pointless to love anyone who wasn’t Family.  That was right before she had left her with her new family, the family She called family but never Family, the family who had raised her and loved her with the kind of love a family but not Family can give.   Family could only ever be blood.  She knew it.  Màthair had known it even as she left her with her new family for reasons that always changed after every telling, and were never quite clear.  Hers was a Family of blood, a Family of Magic.  Her daughter would have it too, She knew.  Of course He didn’t know about Magic.  How could He?   It wasn’t His to know. My Family, mine.

Things were different years ago, eons ago, worlds long gone.  They didn’t have things like joint custody and state law to infringe on the supreme authority of the Family.  One day, She had always known, her daughter would meet her Family, would be with her Family, but that day was a long way away.  Still the question of it had niggled at the back of her brain since the day she looked at a urine stained piece of plastic and her life was changed.  Was that the reason why the circles came apart in the end? Perhaps it was the other women? No, she knew that no such a simple answer could be found in a complicated question like this one.  They say that it takes two to make a marriage and to break one, so perhaps her circle was broken just as His was and it was only pride that made her think it was otherwise.  But no, no it was more than just pride.  She was whole and he was not.  He had never been whole the entirety of their relationship and She knew it now.  Not just knew it, but KNEW it, Kenned it.

“Do you Ken him?” Màthair asked her once years ago and she had said that she had.  No not that she had.

She had said, “I know Him mom!  I wouldn’t be marrying Him if I didn’t know Him,”  indignantly, petulantly, a child’s answer to a mother’s question.

She had not answered the question.  Màthair had asked “Do you Ken him?” and she had answered that she knew, not that she Kenned, do you see?  Màthair had asked a question about Magic and gotten an answer of the mundane.  Sometimes you lie to the ones you love.  My Family.  

The truth was she hadn’t used Magic to Ken him because this was a time when she had left Magic behind and the only magic she believed in was love.  False magic, illusion.  Magic scared her.  That was a truth.  It was as true today as it was when she shouted at her Màthair.  Magic required a price.  Sometimes the price to Ken a person was more Kenning.  This doesn’t seem such a heavy price to pay unless you have felt the weight of knowing another man’s soul, which is what Kenning is.  To Ken a man is to know them inside and out, to know every detail of their past, present, and, sometimes, future, things even they themselves have forgotten: the smell of their grandmother’s casket on the day she was buried. It is a terrible burden to Ken a person, it is a Magic that is not performed lightly.  Too much Kenning, among many other things, had driven her away from Magic in the first place.  Too much Kenning is one of the things that had made her leave them.  My Family.  

He had been with others when they were married, He had hit her once or twice, He had shouted at her more times than She could count.  But in the end, in the very end, She knew that it wasn’t any of these things that had caused their final separation.  Silly her, foolish her, would have stayed with Him for the sake of the girl, their daughter, determined not to be like her Màthair, not to just leave, would have stayed if not for one night, angry at the way He yelled at her, spiteful, She had Kenned Him.  In Kenning Him, She had seen the broken circle She thought was a man: permanently, irreparably broken.  She had seen things of His childhood that He had mentioned in passing with no real emotional weight.  She had assumed that the emotion had been drained from Him after years of neglect and abuse at the hands of His father, but the truth was more horrible than that.  She had imagined that her love was enough magic to make Him whole, but She hadn’t had a clue how broken the circle was.  No amount of magic or Magic or therapy even can repair some holes.  It wasn’t that He had strayed even though He loved her because He couldn’t control his sexual desires, it wasn’t that He hit her even though He loved her because He had been hit and violence begets violence, it wasn’t that He shouted at her even though He loved her because He was never taught how to communicate, it was that He had never loved her at all. My…   

Not only had He had never loved her, He was incapable of love.  The love He had shown her was love that He had learned how to emulate, to perform.  The person He had become was a performance.  He wasn’t real at all.  The real Him, the Him she had Kenned, was nothing, nothing at all.  An empty shell, a hollow bowl, a broken circle.  A psychologist would have a name for it: sociopath.  She knew the word, but felt uncomfortable using it. The other term: antisocial personality disorder, She couldn’t abide by either.   It felt very clinical and Hollywood.   But there it was.  She had been on the internet a lot in the days following the Kenning.  Learning words, learning names for the things she had experienced, the things She had seen.  He was very good.  Good in that He had never been diagnosed, even as He had developed an awareness to what He was.  Good in that He had conned His way out of situations that would have otherwise looked bad to those who would conduct a conventional background check.  He was clean.  When the court counselor said they would recommend joint custody to the judge, something that was standard procedure, She was not surprised, nor did She try to fight it.  There was nothing, NOTHING in any record that could convince any family, not Family, court to rule in her favor.  She couldn’t exactly submit Kenning into evidence.  So her time with her daughter would be split, for now.  Half and half, balanced just as he liked it, cold and impersonal, numbers on a page: 50/50.  For now her daughter would have two homes.  My Family.

It took him 6 months after they separated to find Her, Other, though He had fucked so many in between.  They married two months after the divorce was final a year later.  She sometimes wondered how long He would keep Her, how long she would stick around.  Their daughter loved Her, that was evident.  For her daughter’s sake She hoped that she would stick around.  He was better when He had someone there to take care of Him. It was also true that in the back of her mind She knew that though it seemed a long way off, it was only 11 more years.  In 11 years her daughter would be told of her Family.  In 11 years She and her daughter would go back to them.  In 11 years she would give up the life She had now and return to the life She had before.  She knew it.  She had known it since the day She found out She was pregnant.  It had come as a surprise to her, the child.  She knew what having a child meant and She wasn’t ready, not yet.  She had assumed it was her own fault, that She must have missed a pill.  Kenning had shown her He had switched them..  She had thought him so helpful bringing her the pills in the morning, so considerate.  He had known all along what He was doing.  Building trust.  He wanted a child to carry on His name, a son.  A girl was alright too.  Just one.  One was fiscally responsible, He thought.  Just one.  A daughter.  My Family.  

Four hands, long fingers stretching, stretching.  Two circles, whole and complete side by side: one large and one small.  My Family.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Witness Me - On Loneliness and Recognition

Over the years I have worked hard to internalize the notion that value and worth come from within, but the truth is despite the fact that I see this in theory, I recognize this in theory, natural self confidence does not come to me easily.  Even as a child I sought out validation from others: grades from teachers, applause.  I was attracted naturally to performance and was in several plays in elementary school, even local junior theater productions for large audiences, and attended theater camps; I reveled in being on stage and being seen.  However, my nerdiness and disconnect from popular culture made me a ripe target for bullying by junior high.  Instead of rising above, I retreated. I attended camps in the summer but was afraid to get attention in school, I tried to simply survive.  By high school, some of the confidence I had in elementary school had returned but not all of it:  I performed in choir, a few plays, but I never sought out or wanted solos or lead roles.  I was happy being a part of a chorus, of being an extra in the background. It meant the stakes were low and I wouldn't get into much trouble if I failed.  In college I auditioned for an a capella group and when I didn't get it, I didn't try out for anything else.  Trying was hard, trying meant failure.  I did well in classes, well enough to get the validation that I strove for but I never really pushed myself to do more.  Maybe I wouldn't do well, maybe I would fail.  I found an outlet in creative writing, but never shared my writing with anyone since high school.  Pages upon pages of stories and starts of stories and ideas that I find swirling in my brain but refuse to share with others.  I have written before about how worry has been such a large part of my life for so long.  It is so challenging to simultaneously carry worry of failure and to desire acknowledgement and recognition so desperately, to have a world inside my head I wish to share but a lack of confidence to share it.

I live a very isolated life.  Partially by virtue of the fact that I am a single mother living by myself, partly because certain types of social interactions make me uncomfortable, partly because it is challenging for me to find people I can relate to and who share my interests.  The truth is, I have long struggled to make friends easily.   I found my amazing boyfriend on an online dating site.  If I didn't meet him there I probably would have never met him at all.  Because of my long work hours and my custody schedule, even something like a weekly class to meet people would be a challenge for me. I know I need to make more of an effort, but when I already struggle it is hard to force myself to get out there.  Because I lack a lot of interaction with friends in person, most of my interactions are online in one form or another.  It started with just casual posts on Facebook to family and friends and that seemed to be enough to make me feel that I was connected to a broader world that I remained by and large disconnected from.  Lately I have found myself needing more, desiring more, from online interaction, for praise from people I didn't know, people I would never meet.

Much has been written about our curious age of "likes" and "upvotes," of reblogs and retweets, of points.  I am not a psychologist, nor do I claim to be any kind of expert on the subject of human interaction, however I have found myself examining our culture through a personal lens: I am perhaps as guilty, if not more so, of seemingly narcissistic attention seeking behavior online as anyone.  I say seemingly because it feels as though true narcissism comes from a place of self-aggrandizement, whereas attention seeking comes from a place of loneliness and isolation.  To tweet at an author or artist I appreciate and for them to reply or like in a strange way makes me feel like I matter, that I have said something that matters to someone else in a small way.  To meet an author or an artist, to get their signature on a book or a comic, is to somehow capture that feeling, ever fleeting, of a moment in time when I shared air with someone who actually does something. For every page view or like or retweet there is that little thrill, that acknowledgement that I exist, that I have value.   I tell myself that I'm grasping at straws, I remind myself of the futility of trying to gain self confidence from acknowledgement of others, and yet, and yet... To know one's self, to examine one's faults, is not the same as being able to change so easily.

Part of my reticence to blogging more frequently is the feeling that what I have to say isn't worthwhile, that my desire to write only comes from the place in me that desires attention and recognition, when I should be working on validating myself.  But I do feel that I have gained something over the past few years, something I wish that I could have had 5, 10 years ago: an understanding, if not a mastery, of self.  I am by no means obligated to share these insights nor am I under any kind of impression that what I have to say may really have an impact or importance for others (there is my self-deprecation again).  But I have come to understand that the words are a part of me, have always been a part, since the poetry I wrote in high school, since the stories I wrote in my bedroom late at night.  So...

So I have decided to write more, to blog more, to share my thoughts and words with others, to put myself into the world whether I do it because I desire attention or because I simply feel my words have value. I have value.  If I am envious of creators then I must create, create for my own peace of mind not for anyone else, create for me.  I must put my words online, out there into the ether, precisely because it is hard, because it invites criticism.  To hide from criticism, to be fearful of it, is to run from a problem rather than confront it.  If I am going to live my life without fear, without apologies, then I need to take risks.  It is easy to say that I am trying to live without apologizing for who I am when I don't actually do anything notable to speak of, when I remain worried about what will happen if I fail.  And so... And so I resolve to post something on this blog at least once a week.  Maybe it will be good, maybe it will be bad, but it will be something.  I'm not sure what the something will be, but it will be. If a part of me desires recognition, and perhaps there is a part of me that always will, then let that recognition come from something I have actually done.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

No Sorrys - On self reliance and letting go of guilt

I haven't blogged in a while, which isn't to say I haven't been writing.  I keep a regular journal and try to write at least twice a week.  Sometimes I end up journaling more than that and sometimes less.  When I go on vacation I might write before I leave and not until I come back.  That's the way it goes.  I have been working on writing other things more.  Didn't end up finishing a novel for NaNoWriMo, not even close, but I wrote 14K words I wouldn't have written otherwise.  I'm not going to stress about it.  I'm not going to apologize.

The fact that I can write these words says a lot about how I have changed in the past few years. Stress and worry were once a big part of my life.  My relationship with my ex, which was profoundly unhealthy for me in a number of different ways, played a significant role in this, though it is not entirely to blame.  Anxiety was something, is something, that has been a part of me for as long as I can remember.  This anxiety manifested itself in a number of different ways.  A story my mother likes to tell is how when I was in preschool I tore up my picture because it wasn't good enough.  This lack of satisfaction was one manifestation of worry.  I worried I wasn't good enough.  I worried about other people having more fun than me.  I worried about people being more successful than me.  I worried that I was lacking.  This kind of anxiety really overcame me during my marriage, because my ex's constant harping on my faults caused me to feel even lesser.  The house wasn't clean enough for his liking, I wasn't active enough, I didn't have sex with him enough, I wasn't good enough.  When I was pregnant and asked for his help lifting groceries, he would tell me that he knew that my upper arm strength was an issue before I got pregnant and that I really should have been working on that so I would be strong enough to carry our baby.  Why I didn't kick his ass to the curb at that time is something I no longer linger on.  In some respects he was correct, which is probably why I excused his piss poor behavior and actions.  Even when he would attempt to "compliment" it often took the form of negging.   "You're a big girl, you can do this."  He would say.  As if I were a toddler trying to walk.  What an ass.

This is not a blog about me bitching about my ex, however.  Rather, this post is about what I have learned and gained in my time since I have been away from him.  In my relationship with him, I felt simultaneously pressured to do more and not rely on him for help and also needing/ feeling desirous of more help.  Something would be too high and I would ask him to get it for more instead of getting a step stool and getting it for myself.  Somewhere in my mind I think I felt that infantilizing myself was what I should do to make him feel stronger.  Even when he would yell at me to get things for myself, somewhere in my mind I felt that I needed to rely on him in order to prove his usefulness and mine. My entire relationship with my ex was one of apologies.  I constantly felt like I had to apologize that I wasn't a better cook, that I wasn't better at cleaning, that I wasn't better at pleasing him.  I have a natural inclination to please people, to want to make people like me.  The fact that I couldn't make him happy was infuriating to me and severely damaged my already bruised ego.  Nothing I could do would make any difference.  I felt helpless.  The more helpless I felt the more dependent I became.  It was an endless cycle.  On the one hand I was in love with him and convinced myself that that was enough and on the other hand, I had made myself so dependent on him that the idea of leaving him was abhorrent to me. I really couldn't see how I could possibly manage on my own.  Until I did.  And then I knew

There was a moment, a moment shortly after we legally separated, but before I moved out, when I realized what I had been doing to myself and what our relationship had done to me.  I remember it very clearly.  Our house has an attic where our suitcases were stored, and the leaf to the dining room table etc.  Climbing the ladder had always scared me.  Going up in the attic made me nervous.  I would ask him to go into the attic if we needed something and he would harp on me about my ability to go into the attic myself and how I needed to stop relying on him to do things for me.  For some reason the more he would complain about me not doing things the more I felt I needed to.  He made me feel lesser and as a result I didn't feel that I COULD do things.  Until the day I needed to go into the attic to pack my bags before I left that house for good.  And on that day I pulled the string to the drop down ladder and climbed into the attic and got the suitcase.  And I realized how easy it was.  And I realized that without him around to do things for me I HAD to do things for myself and surprisingly, amazingly, I could.

A little less than a year ago I met my boyfriend.  I am not going to chalk all of my current happiness onto him.  That would be unfair to myself.  I became happy and I attracted somebody who was good to me.  I gradually learned to be more self confident, I discovered what I could accomplish on my own, and I met somebody who complemented me.  But there is something that my boyfriend has done for me that has been deeply and profoundly important to me.  "No Sorrys."  "No sorrys," he says when I try to apologize for the most innocuous things, for the fact that I have a headache and don't want to stay out longer, for the fact that dinner didn't turn out great, for the fact that I haven't folded my laundry in 3 days.  No sorrys, no apologies.  I come over to his house and his kids' toys are on the floor: no sorrys.  He comes over to my house and my dishes haven't been done: no sorrys.  Now in the case of somebody actually getting hurt or actually deserving of an apology we give it.  But in the case of bullshit?  Of life?  No apologies.  No sorrys. No worries.  We accept each other and know we are both doing the best we can.

It has been incredibly, overwhelmingly freeing not to feel that I have to apologize for being the way I am.  For wanting to hang out and watch Person of Interest on Netflix instead of going out drinking, for enjoying short walks or hikes instead of backpacking, for harboring a desire to explore the world but stay at nice hotels instead because I enjoy being comfortable, for not doing laundry until I run out of clothes to wear to work.  The deepest, most significant thing that I have learned is that me, me as I am not as who I wish I was, me with no makeup and visible roots in my hair, me is enough.  I am good enough.  I am worthy of love and can receive it unconditionally.  That such a thing is possible.

This is not to say that I don't try.  I do try.  This is not to say that I don't make some semblance of an effort.  But I have endeavored to stop apologizing, to stop worrying what people think, to stop giving a shit about things that aren't important.  I actively have to remind myself this every day.  Internally I still harbor some anxieties but by recognizing them, by understanding myself, I can say relax, don't worry, and actually listen.  In this way I can be more honest with my boyfriend than I have ever been with anyone before.  Because I can be honest, because I can feel that I don't need to apologize for my feelings, I can speak more openly now with others without feeling I constantly need to please.

So often I used to hear that women should stop apologizing and I didn't understand what it meant.  My ex would never apologize to me when he had genuinely hurt my feelings and so I took these words to mean that everyone should just be assholes to each other.  I didn't get it.  Not apologizing doesn't give you carte blanche to be a jerk, but it gives you the right to have your opinions, your feelings, your personhood, without feeling like you should apologize for just being there, for being human.  This does NOT mean that you are always right, that you are never wrong, that you have nothing to learn from others, that other opinions aren't valid or worthy, that you shouldn't apologize when you have actually made somebody feel bad.  What it does mean is that you have the right to say "I really don't like this thing that you like and we can like different things that is ok" and if the other person says "well no you are just wrong" you have the right to say "yeah you can go fuck yourself."  And if this person is a friend you have the right to unfriend them on Facebook.  It ALSO means on the other hand that if you feel that confrontation would lead to an awkwardness you don't want to have to deal with, that if you DON'T want to call out a relative's casually transphobic comment, you don't HAVE to and the liberal police won't come and take your card away.  It is OK.  You don't have to apologize for wanting to maintain peace, you don't have to apologize for "starting something" when something bothers you, you don't even have to apologize for for saying sorry even when you know that you need to stop saying sorry so much.

No sorrys.  Live life without feeling guilty about who you are.  Live life to the fullest.  Or not.  Or stay home and snuggle under a blanket while other people are climbing mountains.  Or read.  Or don't read.  Or watch a show.  Or stop watching in the middle because it isn't that good even though people tell you it is supposed to be good.  Just be who you are.  That's what I have learned.  That's how I have been trying to live my life.  I can't judge the person I was 3 years ago.  I can't apologize for being young, for being naive, for being who I was.  And I shouldn't have to.  I like who I am now.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Joe Abercrombie's First Law Books: "Small" Stories in the Guise of "Epic" Fantasy

After diving in several months ago into Joe Abercrombie's "First Law" series, I have finally finished The Red Country the most recent of the books set in this world.  I decided to write this blog entry as spoiler free as I can so that I can convince as many people as I can to give his books a try, and to explain why I enjoyed them so thoroughly for people who have not read them before. I read many fantasies.  I read stories set in worlds modern and ages past, in societies much like our own and those completely foreign.  When I say that Abercrombie's books out "Game of Thrones" Game of Thrones I do not say so lightly.

Aww yeaaah dragons! 
In George RR Martin's books, the political manipulations and lives of ordinary men/ women are contrasted with/ influenced by the otherworldly ever present threats of the supernatural.  How effectively these two combine is debatable.  It is a common complaint among readers and watchers of the show that certain elements of the series seem superfluous given the greater context.  It is the Song of Ice and Fire, after all, not the song of the Boltons, the song of the Greyjoys, the song of the Lannisters.  Put another way: everyone who reads or watches Game of Thrones knows that eventually there will be some kind of battle between dragons and White Walkers, that this is the culmination of the prophecies in world characters have foreseen.  While the fates of many characters remain up in the air, and there are several other stories within the books/ show that remain to be told, in the end there remains that certainty that the fire and ice will combine somehow. It is the certainty of that knowledge that has caused many fans of the series to become impatient.  Who cares about what Daenerys does in Meereen, they complain, why can't she just ride her dragons into Westeros already? It is this frustration that made A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons so deeply unsatisfying for many readers.   While Neil Gaiman is correct that "George RR Martin is not your bitch" and no writer is obligated to finish writing on a timetable of their readers' devising, Martin has set himself up for some of this frustration by the very nature of the structure of his books.  He has placed himself in the position of setting up a final confrontation, a conclusion, an epic battle, a world-shattering event.  "Winter is Coming" is the common refrain.  You can only say it so many times before you ask yourself, "Well when is Winter going to bloody well get there already."  The problem with these books, and I say this as a fan of them,
Alright, alright get here already
is that often times it seems that character development is in the service of the greater plot.  We want to see Jon Snow become that man he is meant to be, we want to see Dany become the queen she should be, we want to see the Lannisters fall because they "deserve" it, we want to see the Bolton's punished, but ultimately we want to see some people riding dragons and burning some motherfucking ice zombies because that is what we have been promised.

The "First Law" books are fundamentally different in their attitudes towards fate, towards characters, towards the supernatural.  They feature a character, Bayaz, First of the Magi, whose political and magical manipulations quite literally drive the fate of nations.  Bayaz' conflict with Khalul is positioned much in the way the the "Ice" and "Fire" are in Martin's books, an overarching battle between forces beyond normal men's comprehension.  And yet in Abercrombie's books these otherworldly forces, this great and epic conflict, is not the focus. Bayaz' scheming and the Gurkish power are forces which influence the lives of characters in ways that are both direct and unspoken, and yet rather than having the characters service an overarching plot, Abercrombie creates conflicts and plots whose ultimate purpose is to service the characters.  Abercrombie does in his original trilogy, The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings, what Martin has tried to do in 5+ books.  He establishes a world, puts characters on a quest, makes a few cities come under siege, crowns a few kings, uncovers a few plots, kills a few villains, and ultimately culminates in a kind of conclusion.  But this plot isn't the end all be all. You come to care about Luthar, Logan, about Sand de Gloka, about Ferro, about Collum and Ardee West.  They are characters whose inner workings you really want to understand beyond how they service the story.  THEY are the story.   Abercrombie's books are stories that are not about kings, but about men and women, some men who happen to be kings, maybe, or maybe just kings for a little while, perhaps, but regular people first and foremost.  We don't just read chapters from various POVs in order to find out what is happening in different places, we read them to really understand life from a variety of points of view, which is something I can't really say about Martin's book to the same degree.

Instead of focusing on epic struggles, Abercrombie's books focus on more broader questions of morality and fate, whether men and women can every truly be good, whether goodness is a relative term.  It is for this reason that I actually found his later "First Law" books: Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and The Red Country to be better than the original trilogy. Best Served Cold combines the elements of the best heist stories and the best revenge stories, a mixture of John Wick and Kill Bill, featuring a women (Monza Murcatto) whose drive for vengeance is both satisfying and sad, and a man (Caul Shivers) whose attempts to create a better life, to become a better man, ultimately culminate in him becoming a worse one, while also asking the question whether revenge can ever truly be satisfying.  The Heroes plays out like the best war movies: a single three day battle told from a variety of perspectives, while simultaneously examining what heroism really means.  Finally, The Red Country, a beautifully crafted Western with elements of Shane or Yojimbo, featuring a man with no name (though his name is quite obvious) and a plot reminiscent of The Searchers, but with interesting twists, that forces the reader to examine whether leaving the past behind us is every really possible.  At the conclusion of Red Country, many loose ends from the previous books are concluded, but the war between the Union and Gurkhul remains, nothing is really "over."  According to Abercrombie, there is another trilogy set in the First Law world in the works.  He could very well go on to write more books set in this world or he could never write another one and it wouldn't matter. He doesn't have to. You read his books for his stories, for his characters, NOT because you particularly care who "wins" in this big and epic struggle.  He can go on and tell smaller stories that ultimately resonate more with me as a reader because his characters are more important than the "epic" part of the story he is telling.

Ugh don't even get me started
Last week I watched Age of Ultron, and it struck me that many of my complaints about that movie are similar to my complaints about A Song of Ice and Fire.  Thanos' looming threat, and the knowledge of upcoming films, made the danger of Ultron seem so insignificant.  Put another way: who cares about your robot army, "The Infinity War is Coming."  Contrast this with my love of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  There was a movie that was about characters and relationships first, about moral ambiguity, about the competing forces of what is "right" and what is "good" and what is "necessary."  In many, many ways, this goes right to the heart of what I enjoy about the "First Law" books.  Rather than raise the stakes after his original trilogy, Abercrombie does not give us a world shattering confrontation between Bayaz and Khalul, but instead a series of smaller stories with the ongoing conflict between the two playing out in the background/ via proxy.  You don't always have to make the plot become more and more grand, more and more "epic" for a story to be successful.  Abercrombie's books don't just feature the intersection of magic and modernity, of science and the supernatural, of good and evil and all things in between, that is what they are about. There is just more depth to them than I think Martin is capable of.  

Abercrombie's books are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.  There are racial characterizations that, for a lack of a better word, are "problematic" as is common in many Western fantasy stories.  However Abercrombie does do a far better job than Martin at least in integrating characters from different backgrounds with different ethnicities.  Monza Murcatto and Shy South and Ferro are fascinating characters, but Abercrombie still could have done a better job with his women. All because you like something doesn't mean that you completely ignore their faults.  However, if you are somebody who enjoys Game of Thrones the show or The Song of Ice and Fire the series, I would say pretty unequivocally that you will enjoy the First Law books as well, and you may see, as I did, the areas in which they succeed more than Martin's works.
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