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.



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.

September 10, 2017

On Dinosaurs and Classical Fantasy

It’s funny in a sad way that while a writer might be furiously working on writerly things often in the their life, the measure of what a writer accomplishes is gauged solely by what the public sees completed. In that vein, UPDATES ON CURRENT PROJECTS:

I have a few things I’m working on write now (inner editor: no, leave it, it’s punny). First off is the Zombies Need Brains Anthologies of the Year: Guilds & Glaives, Insurgency, and Ur-Bar. I submitted to two of their three anthologies from last year’s project: Robots, Water, and Death!  Specifically, I had a lovely tale of escape from dystopian Atlantis, and death-in-training gets stuck on the mortal plane stories. Sadly, neither of my stories was selected from the open call, but the way I figure it, if I keep writing these for submission, I’ll have enough for my own anthology pretty soon. So, everybody wins? Thus far I’m working on a guild of spies tale and something something overthrow the gubment tale, but they’re very much in story infancy.

Novel: Novel is currently trapped in an editing hell of my own creation, and my illustrator is very, very ill. I don’t know if we’ll ever get the finished chapter drawings for this one. What she has finished is stunning stuff, and I don’t want to abandon those drawings at all, so I’m in wait and see mode. They say when you’re stuck on one novel, set it aside to come back to it later, so I’ve started another very different book. We’ll see if I can bounce between them successfully, or if we’ve got two more shoebox gems.

Children’s Book: The adventures of my tiny engineer/geologist and her Tyastrosaurus is in process. My illustrator and colorist are both super busy people, but we are slowly hammering out the details to get this one done. I’m thinking this one will be Kickstarted to get the printing done. I’m in charge of that part of it, and it’ll be my first project, which is both elating and terrifying. We’re going to do it right, though. Finish the book before we go for funding, and have all the possible stretch goals/budgets/fulfillment processes hammered out in advance. This takes more time than anyone would like, but better that than delay and not deliver on time.

On the crafty front: I have a table at KumoriCon in October where I’ll be selling my kanzashi. I’m also signing up for the Gallifrey One art show again next year, though I don’t know what I’m making for that yet.

In health news: Still don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I haven’t had another attack! Also, slowly introducing real food back into the diet. Two thumbs way, way up for real food. Now if I could just get my brain to solidly reboot so I could run on less than three cups of tea so strong you could dissolve corpses in it, that would be super. Surprise naps are fun for nobody, body. Not me…not my coworkers who think I’ve died at my desk…not my Mom who found me wedged into the sofa cushions at an impossible angle. More healing, let ambulances. I’m more than a little bummed that the health stuff has made me miss my local Rose City Comic Con, and all the joyous graphic novels therein. I missed Peter Capaldi AND Weird Al, you guys. A moment of silence for my inner nerd, please.