December 27, 2017

On Letters to the Void

Erica,

I got the T-Rex dream again. You know, the one where I play cloak and dagger with a giant dinosaur bent on eating me, who has somehow inexplicably evolved the problem-solving intelligence of your average MIT alumni. Set for some reason in a neighborhood I haven’t lived in for decades, where I know every building and alley. I move furtively from hiding place to hiding place, fleeing before the encroaching carnivores while they sniff my trail. The T-Rex coordinated with other, smaller dinosaurs to root me out of my hiding places. They found me again and again. I knew they were going to eat me in the end, and when I woke up from the snapping teeth, I knew I wasn’t going back to sleep again.

You’re the only other person I know who had those dreams, and it feels strangely sad to have one without you. I liked talking about them with you because they scared you more than me, and there was comfort in removing ourselves from our impossible fears by laughing at them in the light of day. You understood ridiculous fears, even when we both knew of things so much more worthy of nightmares.

We just had Christmas. I had to resist the urge to get matched sets of things for you and Jenn, like I have every year in recorded memory. So I got things for Jenn, and sometimes kept one for me, so we could share in the joy of using them, because things are better shared, aren’t they? I made us resin potion necklaces, blue mana for Jenn, red health for me. I’d have done you a green speed/stamina potion…had to stop myself from making it.

There was no caramel corn this year. In the spread of traditional holiday goodies, it was a conspicuous gap. I don’t know how to make caramel corn. You used to tell me it was easy, but it was your thing, so I never tried. I always took on the fudge, and cookies, and Jenn did the breads and cakes. …there was no shortbread either. Shortbread and cheesecake make me wish for a girl’s day, where we chat around the table over mugs of hot tea and coffee about stupid nothings and grumble and laugh and laugh and laugh.

I used the plate you made me for cookies, the one with the paw prints. I listened to a playlist of Peter Hollins and Pentatonix Christmas music, loudly singing along. There was no one to sing with me…you were one of the only ones who joined in when I got loud. Now my voice echoes in the quiet.

Your dice are arriving today. The special ones I got on Kickstarter for all of us to use in your campaign. Yours are green, and they glow in the dark. Jenn’s are ice blue and bright pink. They’re shaped like potion bottles and wizard hats, scrolls and fireballs. You thought they were clever when I showed you the Kickstarter. They were supposed to arrive last summer, and I can’t help but be bitter about it. They delivered on that campaign late…much too late.

I’m toying with the idea of running my own campaign. I got Shon, Tasha and Seth dice and manuals for Christmas, and I now have all the proper DM gear. You always wanted me to try it, because you thought I’d make a fun story. The story is the most important part of it, the setting and the world, right? Make a world and let them run in it…see where they go. Don’t railroad them, but don’t let them stagnate. I’ll try to do it like you did, though I can’t promise not to have accidental Deus ex black arrows.

You’ll be happy to know I’m submitting to two more anthologies. You’d like these stories, I think. One’s funny, silly in the best bureaucratic way. One’s deeper than I meant it to be, richer, and infinitely more painful. Every year I live I feel like I get better at conveying feelings, and yet still never good enough. I’ll share them after the New Year, if they don’t make the cut.

It’s cold outside, bleak and cloudy, wet and rawboned. I feel it in my scars, in every joint, like a new injury freshly torn by ice. I was always older than you, but now the gap grows daily, and I feel it; stretching a scarred tendon, wearing away my bones. It’s cold, I’m tired, and I ache. Surrounded by people that love me, but very, very alone.

I seek out hope, searching for things to do for other people. Giving gifts to strangers online, donating time and money. It helps briefly, but only while I’m doing it, like a hit of drugs. After, it’s so still and quiet, and I sit frozen while trying not to feel.

You know I’m not any good at staying still. I’m paddling as hard as I can, but I think I’m just spinning in place right now because paddles are meant to work in pairs…maybe bailing is a better analogy. I’m bailing as hard as I can, but the ship is still fucking sinking, and meanwhile we’re drifting toward a waterfall that I can’t do anything about, because I have a bucket when I need a paddle. And I can’t even think about trying to get a paddle to save us from the waterfall in five minutes because I’m too busy trying to keep from drowning in the next few seconds. There are no good solutions. I can’t get help because I don’t know what *would* help.

I’ve written probably twenty of these letters to you now. I file each one away, and hope that they prick the balloon and let the hurt dribble out for a bit. I don’t worry around the holes leaving me empty; there’s always more to refill it.

But seriously, can we just stop with the getting eaten by dinosaur dreams? If you could somehow arrange for dreams of cuddling with puppies instead, that would be a drop in the well of better things. In return, I promise to learn more about making caramel corn, and draw up a campaign outline soon.


October 18, 2017

On a Beautiful Life

When I was in high school, many eons ago, the internet was shiny and new. For the first time, you could join communities of shared interests and make friends all over the world with the push of a button. I had whole forums and mailing lists of friends that would constantly pass messages back and forth all day long, eager to share their love of all things geeky. I’m still really close friends with twenty-some-odd number of those people, but today I’d like to tell you about one in particular. She and I were introduced by mutual friends who all exclaimed: “Hey! She’s tall like you and she’s also a big fan of TMNT. Oh, and by the way, she lives right near you.”

We got chummy online pretty gradually, until one day she invited me to the County Fair, where she was helping at a Girl Scout booth. It was August of 1997, and Weird Al was going to be doing a concert there. I said sure, and another friend and I drove up for the day.

As first impressions go, mine was kind of awesome. Erica topped me by a few inches, 6’2” of bubbly blond girl with a deep belly laugh and an enormous smile. She was just 15 years old. I dragged her on a bunch of rides, and by the end of the day, I had dubbed her “RicaChica”, a nickname that stuck for many years.

The first of many meetings. Erica’s on the left…that skinny thing on the right is me.

Since I didn’t have a car at the time, it was probably several months between that and our next real world meeting, but online we chatted several times a week. I got my first real job at Barnes and Noble, and found out her dad worked in a building right across the way. She would come through my line at the register to say hi whenever she was there to visit him.

One late spring/early summer day, she came through my line. I ecstatically asked her how she was, because I was always excited to see her.

“I have cancer.” She deadpanned. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She was 16.

She was treated at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. I rode the bus to go sit with her while she got her chemo. We played the original Mario Kart on a Game Cube. I brought her a t-shirt I’d marched around to get signed by every artist I could find at San Diego Comic-Con (my first year attending). The chemo was rough, and she lost her hair for the first time. It grew back, a little wavier, a little less blond.

We got on with the important business of high school/college. We started staying weekends over at each other’s houses, or Jenn’s, my and her other best friend and mutual nerd. I’d go to see them in musical theater. We’d spend weekends watching anime and movies, eating junk food and making art. We went through horrible break-ups together, salved with more weekends together, the Tall Trio. We were so much in each other’s pockets that apparently there was some quiet talk amongst the families that we had all three switched teams and were triple-dating.

I think this may have been one of our first sleepovers.

She went away to college, up in the wild woods of Northern Washington. Jenn and I drove up to see her a few times, and on one visit, she introduced us to her newest crush, Bryan. I wasn’t entirely sure about him that first meeting, since he was an unknown quantity. The Tall Trio continued messaging every day, less with interest groups and more with our own core group.

Then one day came the email: The cancer was back. Same cancer, same location. She was 21, just past her 5-year remission mark.

She tried to get Bryan to leave her, afraid this meant that her time left was too limited. He wasn’t having it, and we knew then that he was the right one for her. She had a party where we shaved her head, and everyone brought her a hat. That round of chemo, she started having to get shots to boost her white blood cell count. After the chemo, they decided to do radiation treatments as well, to make sure it didn’t come back a third time. Her hair grew back more blond and straight.

I joined the military and started traveling the world. Erica graduated college and got married to Bryan. Jenn was the Maid of Honor, I gave the toast to the bride. She made so much art. She had a son, Warren, her spitting image. Bought a house. Had a daughter named after me, Bryan’s spitting image. Jenn got married to another Brian, and moved to Nebraska (we joked that as sisters, naturally they needed a matched set of Bri/yans). We got together every time we came home to visit family, and we continued to message each other every day.

While she was breastfeeding Little Leah, she discovered a lump in her breast. She was 27, and a year past 5-year-remission. Because they thought the cancer had spawned from the radiation treatments during the previous cancer, she had the whole breast lopped off. That chemo was one of the hardest, since the kids were so small and needed so much care. She wore beautiful colorful scarves. Her hair grew back wavy and strawberry blond. This was her favorite hair morph.

The kids grew into people with personalities, and she spent all day with them. She made as much art around their antics as she had time for. We all video chatted almost every day, and started an online tabletop roleplay campaign that lasted several years of long weekend nights. Some of these nights went for me until 2 or 3am, depending on where I was stationed. I got out of the military and moved back home, thrilled to be able to visit more often.

She got bronchitis one winter that didn’t want to go away, a nagging cough that just wouldn’t leave. They scanned it, to discover lung cancer, located right below where the breast cancer had been. She was 30. They took out an entire lobe of her lung. She stopped being able to run or exercise. When her hair grew back, it was curly and brown.

Jenn’s Brian got out of the military, and they moved back home. Erica got pamphlets every month on how to stop smoking and get her health back (she had never touched a cigarette in her life). We started a monthly gathering day where we ate and played games and just spent time together, just celebrating each other. We continued to video call almost every day, sometimes for whole days at a time, living virtually in each other’s pockets when we couldn’t in person.

The nagging cough came back. Scans revealed more lung tumors, too precariously located to remove this time. She was 31. They hit her with the heaviest chemo treatments they could, hoping to stunt the tumor’s growth, at least. Her hair hadn’t even really grown back in from the last treatment, so it decided to come back brown and curly again. The cough stayed and became just another thing she worked around.

The kids started school. Erica started drawing up lists and plans of what she wanted to finish. She wanted to see them graduate. We played a waiting game, anxious every six months when another PET scan came due to see if the monster squatting in her chest had stayed dormant this time. Sometimes it slept. Sometimes it got a bit bigger, and we did another round of chemo. Treatments were starting to run together, a continuous cycle of fighting to stop the inevitable. She tried immunotherapy. It didn’t work. Her hair grew back wispy then thinned.

We continued our gatherings in person whenever we could, sneaking trips to the coast and the gorge whenever we could. Jenn stayed on calls all day to watch over her when she had bad days. She kept making art, because art was like breathing, and both were getting harder to do.

I love us best when we’re laughing.

She started getting headaches and having vision problems. They did a scan of her head, and found a tiny tumor. She was 34. She did a targeted high radiation treatment called cyber-knife to nuke it in place. The radiation treatment triggered a grand mal seizure, which put her out of commission for months. The fight for experimental treatments began. She was going to do a treatment series in Seattle. It didn’t happen because she had a chest infection that didn’t want to go away.

It wasn’t an infection. When she showed us the scans of her liver, kidneys, and brain, all riddled with tumors, I couldn’t believe it. Three months prior her scans had been clear of new growth, and now there were so many. She was 35. They began to pick their battles, strategically going after the brain tumors first. Trying to buy time. Hitting the lungs with the same cyber-knife treatment. Her spine turned brittle from those treatments, and the residual wobbliness from the seizure caused her legs to give out. She fell often. She broke two vertebrae. They injected a medical cement into her spine to stabilize them enough to keep her going.

The doctor said she had six months. She began to have to take heavy doses of pain medications (several kinds at once) every day just to function. Walking became harder, sitting became harder. Her whole family went on a cruise to Alaska, a last big vacation together. We kept doing game and food days, planned a trip to the coast, and a girls only weekend to just be together like we used to do. As soon as she had a good day, we would go.

I was always wanting another selfie, even in the ER.

She was only supposed to stay in the hospice facility for a few days, to stabilize her enough to go back home again and do the things on her list. Make a scrapbook for her kids. Finish her stories with Jenn. Make art for so many people she loved.

She was going to. She wanted to do so much, had so much to stay for. She was determined to go down fighting to be with us all just that much longer.

And then she went to sleep, and couldn’t wake up. A few days later, she was gone. She was 35.

You guys know her as the artist for my book. Her art is stunningly beautiful, full of emotion and light, and it wasn’t even the best thing about her. She embraced living with laughter amid tears. She was silly and imaginative and practical. She always found a way to do the things she wanted to most, and she bridged gaps across continents to keep us close. She loved cheesecake, chocolate, and coffee. Erica loved her life. She fought like hell for almost the entire time I knew her to stay here. The world is a poorer place without her in it. I am so very lucky to have found her, to have been loved by her. In twenty years, we never once fought. She and Jenn are my best, closest friends.

A toast to a good friend gone beyond our reach, may she finally have peace. A toast to we poor bastards left behind, may we someday find peace without her.

How do we continue when we’ve lost something so massive? I don’t have that answer yet, this is still too new. But she would want me to fight like hell, to keep making art, to find the laughter. I will. I promise.


October 9, 2017

On the Significance of Three Steps

Three steps is both more and less than you’d think. It’s only about three feet forward and two feet downward, by most standards step sizes. Less distance than you’d pay much attention to while you walk. You probably took at least three times that many steps today and didn’t give it a second thought. However, it’s more distance than you’d ever, ever want to fall.

Even then, it’s not really that far to fall, right? That’s just a small tumble, not enough to cause lasting damage, right? ….right?

I wish both my legs agreed with this.

I was just congratulating myself last week on having gone five years without a major accident. Which is a terrible idea and should be mentally squashed as soon as you think it because it’s just inviting trouble. It’s like playing the Game (congrats, you have all lost with me today), because you’re can’t stop thinking about the thingy when you’re not supposed to think about the thingy.

Anyway, I fell down three steps and messed up both my legs.

This is actually a new thing, since I’ve never hurt both legs at the same time before. Restraint in injury is a good policy, I find. You need the other leg to be solid so you can support the injured leg. I sprained the left ankle pretty bad, so I needed my right leg to hobble…but I sprained the right foot and knee, so I needed my left leg to hobble.

The braces are all black for fashionable coordination

The urgent care people offered me a wheelchair, and I was all, “Naw, how bad can it be? I’ll just use crutches.” Insight: Crutches only allow you to take the weight off one foot at a time. If you try to use them for both and are not a Cirque du Soleil trained stilt-walker, you will fall. You will fall down a lot. This will be mildly amusing the first time it happens, less funny the fourth time it happens, and then rage-inducing madness the 20th time it happens.

My lovely sister-in-law attempted to help by bringing me a walker with one of those fold-down seats built in. I used this for a couple of days, by which time I knew exactly what I was going to be like as a hunched 70-year-old woman. Hint: Angry back. Fire and demons and noises-like-you’re-lifting-a-car-when-you-stand-up back. So I’ve defaulted to giant thonking boot on the left leg, tiny shoofing boot on the right foot, and squeaky-hinged brace on the left knee, with no outside support.  The compromise solution, and we’ll just attempt to limit distance as much as possible.

Behold the author in the wild, trying not to fall over sideways

Fun fact, I walk like a cross between Quasimodo and Frankenstein’s Monster right now–there’s a lot of lurching. Arms are enthusiastically swung as counterweights. My back has tightened up like a rod of tungsten from all the little balancer muscles going, “What is happening? Are we at sea in a hurricane? Quickly, we must defend the squishy organs!”

One week later, I’m sitting with both legs propped up at my desk at work, popping ibuprofen, and contemplating creative solutions for getting up to get things. Both the bathroom and the kitchen are out of comfortable hobbling distance, so I’m trying to pack in my lunches and limit liquid intake. People are really nice and trying to help, and I have to explain that they cannot empty my bladder for me (although I have enough holes in me that I should have a convenient side door in my abdomen to pop it out and pass it along for someone else to empty. Time to invent this!). I use my long umbrella to pole my chair over to the copy machine like a tiny office gondola. I fly paper airplanes across the cubicles to pass memos for signing.

Finding the positives here: I’m saving money by not eating out! I’m saving calories by not eating a bunch of junk, which is great because I’m not getting as much exercise via walking. And I’m being super-efficient at work because I can’t walk away from my desk.

Sliiiight negatives: my coworker brought cookies. Like, a BIN of cookies. And helpfully placed it in front of my desk so I wouldn’t have to walk far to get at them. They’re gingerbread shortbread, and they’ve been staring at me all morning. I’ve had five six. Dammit, Janni.

Non-work-related positives: since I can’t really travel or go places, I’m getting a bunch of writing and reading done! Which is great, because I did an audit of my ebook collection on my Kindle and discovered I have a backlog of about 50 books to read. This is a drawback of digital media I had not previously considered. I never let the to-read pile get higher than five or six books when they were staring me in the face, but I apparently will just buy ebooks and then promptly forget that I have them. Having way too much stuff to read is a great problem to have, really, unless you’re like me an go all draconian “NO MORE BOOKS UNTIL YOU FINISH THE ONES YOU HAVE, YOUNG LADY.”

Oathbringer comes out next month. Must read all things. Must HURRY.


October 2, 2017

On Breaking My Mind in 858 Words or Less

…on a short story submission for the open call on the Zombies Need Brains anthology “The Razor’s Edge”. Murder most spacey. Flora most foul. These things go together, I promise.

It was a good writing night. It felt good. Perhaps too good. I had to make myself stop writing so I could get a full night’s sleep before the start of what will probably be a very hectic week at work. Because I pushed it too late, I saved the file, yet did not back it up to my external drive, like a smart professional person would. I’d send it to the cloud in the morning. That was soon enough, right?

…so of course my desktop refused to start up this morning.

It’s from 2010, with zero upgrades since it’s initial build; a dinosaur in computer years. I know it’s old and I need a new system. On many levels, I understand this. Been putting off it’s replacement for years, because vet emergencies, and car repairs, and school textbooks and supplies just take priority and then I scramble to rebuild my emergency fund when unexpected bills aren’t eating me alive.

So now I’m doing the sitting with the system unplugged for a bit thing, hoping against hope that once again when I plug it in, it will boot up this time. It’s worked before, twice. Yes. I let my desktop system come back from the dead twice and still have not replaced it. I have a zombie system that is double plus undead. I see that look. I understand it. I still don’t have the money to replace it. It avails me not at all for you to glare and roll your eyes.

I can pull the file off the hard drive if the system is dead. I can fix this. It’ll just take time to rip it open and pull the drive and connect it to another system to hunt down the files and transfer them.

And…I was on such a roll, you guys. I’ve set up a log for myself this month to track how much I’m writing every day in October, for the purposes of data analysis and building good habits.  This…hampers my plans somewhat. Not to say that I’m going to let this stop me. I am annoyed, and therefore I will fight all the harder, with the possible addition of cookies as angry fuel.

If the system doesn’t boot when I get home tonight, I will pull out the old school laptop and use that to write…but I’ll have to shelve the short story I was working on and excited about until I can resurrect it from the data bits. Switching gears means I’ll lose the tone and the thread of the story, which I had finally gotten jumping.

Also, GUH, shopping for desktop PCs is such a black hole of internet comparisons and incompatible parts and OMG the thingy must do the thingy or your other thingy won’t work! (Yes, I am a computer engineering student. Bask in the joy that I find shopping for computers just as baffling and annoying as the rest of you. Honest to Bono, there is no reason why my video card is creating a tiny Chernobyl in my case unless I get this one brand of power supply. Who designs that and then doesn’t note it in the paperwork? There isn’t even a suggested compatible unit! ….done with technology rant now).

And now I’ma just stare for a while at the Ava Direct Avatar VR setups and just wish I could win a lottery or something. SO PRETTY. SO FAST. So capable of eating my life with delightful, delicious games and so suuuuuch a bad, bad idea. Haha.

*sigh*

 


September 25, 2017

On Good Medicine and Halloween

I’m finally, finally back to normal. I think. Trying not to jinx it by saying so. No more scans. No more needles. No more minor fixes and new medicines. No more puncturing my insides. For now.

I traded into more normal living just in time for my mom to go get large metal posts screwed into her jaw. Any dental surgery that requires a bone drill and more than 20 stitches should probably be classified as for-realsies surgery. So I’ve been managing THAT in a complete roll reversal where I’m now making her smoothies and mashed potatoes, as well as trying to introduce real food back into my own diet so that I can regain more higher brain function. I’m back up to about 60 oz of really strong tea per day just to keep functioning. Usually that amount of caffeine gives me the sweaty jitters. Now I can’t get it in me fast enough to avoid Afternoon Airhead Syndrome.

My days have been been as follows:

  • 0600 – Get up, make tea. Make morning smoothie. Curl around tea and internet until tea makes me a functional human.
  • 0730 – Last minute panic for work. What am I wearing? Where’s my bag and badge and lunch?
  • 0900 – Arrive at work.Check through email. Put out fires.
  • 1000 – Make second cup of tea using the tea bucket.

Behold the Tea Bucket, 20 oz deep

  • 1200 – Lunch at desk. Rejoice in real meat and veggies. This joy never gets old.
  • 1230 – Post-lunch coma threatens. Fight it off with walking swiftly around the building a few times.
  • 1400 – The walks are no longer working. Realize I’m seriously considering how comfortably I could nap in the cubby beneath my desk. Contemplate drastic measures. If it’s really bad, knock back an energy drink. If I’m still semi-functional, a third Tea Bucket.
  • 1700 – Fall asleep on the train home in spite of my best efforts. With luck, get startled awake by random loud train people before I miss my stop. If not, get poked by train security when they reach the end of the line. Realize that train security must have days where they poke the prone person in the back of the train and they don’t wake up. Feel sad for train security.
  • 1900 – Try to prod brain into creative functions in order to complete writing goals for the day. Is there a new paragraph? Huzzah, progress!
  • 2100 – Brain no longer functioning. Time for internet puppies, then bed.

The best solution in the fight against the sleepies has been more solid food. Especially meat and vegetables, and lots and lots of water. Salads and stir fries have been my panacea. I still have to keep the fats low, or my liver aches like a broken tooth all night, but overall my diet is pretty normal.

So, writing is creeeeeeeping along at a maddeningly slow but steady pace. I can’t dwell on how slow it’s going because my brain just can’t do any better right now, and if I do dwell I’ll start throwing things in a fit of pique. So when my brain is too tired to even, I distract myself with the fact that FALL IS HERE and that means all of my favorite things: Sweaters, Hot Cups of Tea, Wood Fires in the Fireplace, Apples, Family Gatherings (where we feast on homemade breads and stews and squashy things), and HALLOWEEN.

Which is on a Tuesday this year. As an adult with questionable energy capacity, enjoying a late night celebration on a weekday is somewhat problematic. More celebratory activity must therefore be packed into the workday. However, I’m not allowed to wear a costume to work. I’m debating whether this applies to the Wonder Woman dress I’ve worn several times to the office already with no one batting an eye…and whether or not I can get away with adding some big boots and a tiara without pushing the envelope too much. It might be asking too much to have them overlook the Six-Foot-Five Amazon in heeled boots with a sword.  I mean, I could maybe leave the shield at home and store the sword in the back of the dress? That’s totally Amazon-kosher, right? And maybe forgo the gauntlets…although those are like the most important bullet-blocking part.

Always Prepared! Like the Girl Scouts, but with better accessories.

I don’t know how likely the need to block bullets will happen in an office of engineers, but one must always be prepared for these things as a Amazon. With short purple hair.

…yeah, okay, maybe it doesn’t have to be entirely screen-accurate.