Catalyst: Martine

About a year ago I posted a long, self-indulgent bit of backstory for one of my TTRPG characters. Now I’m posting another. Please enjoy the story of Martine, my arcane trickster rogue. For location inspiration, I think this tree in a hiking area near me could perhaps have existed in the woods where Martine spent her early years.

One day when Martine was about 8 years old, which is still very young for an elf, her grandparents, who raised her somewhat begrudgingly, sent her out of the house again, as was their habit. “Go play,” they told her, shutting the door in her face, probably expecting her to run off and find other kids from the village. They didn’t realize that even though Martine had only just recently begun attending school she was already an outcast because she turned up barely able to read and in clothes that were appropriate but completely unfashionable. Sure, her grandparents kept her fed and clothed and housed and weren’t cruel, but it always felt to Martine like there was something missing that she couldn’t name, but which made her feel hollowed out and cold like the depths of one of the nearby caves in the woods when she saw her peers laughing together or saw a child hug their parent. Her own parents were traveling merchants who came back to the village so rarely that Martine could hardly describe what they looked like. When her parents did come to town, Martine would open her arms to them asking for hugs, but they would just pat her on the head in a somewhat detached manner before shooing her away, the pit in her chest growing wider and colder. She had yet to learn the word lonely, but she knew the feeling better than anything else.

So having no one to play with, Martine set off to do as she always did when she was forced out of the house, wander off around the edges of their little down, meandering in and out of the woods proper until it felt like enough time had passed for them to let her back in. Sometimes she got it wrong and was sent away again. Sometimes she managed to sneak back into her room and and her grandparents would seem surprised to see her later as if they’d forgotten she’d existed. It was the first particularly brisk day of autumn and the wind howled bitterly through the fabric of Martine’s cloak.

Carried on that wind was a scent of fresh bread. Martine realized she had wandered close to the local bakery without even realizing it. She was still a small distance away from it and could see a cooling pan of small buns set on the windowsill just inside an open window on the back of the building. She eyed the buns jealously from afar, having no pocket money to enter the shop and buy one. The window was set a bit above Martine’s little head, but the longer she looked the more it seemed to her that she might be able to reach up and take one without anyone noticing. If she was spotted she could merely return the bun or perhaps even coax the baker to let her have it anyway.

She glanced around to check if anyone was watching and then approached the window from the side so as not to be seen by the people inside. She walked casually, knowing from previous times she had been caught misbehaving that it was better to act like she was doing what she was supposed to instead of sneaking around. She pressed her back against the bakery wall beneath the window and listened for a long moment. There was a lot of hustle and bustle but it didn’t sound as though anyone was coming near. She turned to face the wall, raised her hand up, and felt blindly on the ledge for where she had seen the tray of buns. Her fingertips just barely brushed against warm bread, startling her and making her flinch and pull her hand back down to her side. Frowning to herself for being so silly, she ventured another reach, her heart racing. But it was no good no matter how she strained, even when she rose up on her tiptoes, she could only just barely touch her fingertips to the closest bun, and couldn’t get a good enough grip to retrieve it without doing anything to call attention to herself.

Then somehow something happened that Martine couldn’t explain. The bun seemed to move itself closer to her, until she could fit the palm of her hand over it and take it out of the window. Her heart pounded as she tucked her hands and their soft warm prize under her cloak and walked away, again, trying to be as casual as possible. She was certain that at any moment someone would come to the window, realize something was missing, and yell at her to come back, but no one did.

When Martine was completely out of sight of the bakery, she broke into a run heading deep into the woods and seated herself among the massive roots of a tree, knowing she couldn’t possibly climb with the bun in hand. It was still very warm and Martine bit into it to find it was filled with goat cheese and nuts and honey. It tasted all the sweeter to Martine for having been taken instead of given. The warmth of it filled her completely, even that aching, cold hollow in her core. Filled with adrenaline and excitement, she had never been so warm in her life.

The world felt new and different to Martine. She was a girl who felt like nobody wanted her, but that day she learned she could fill the void in her life by filling her hands with exciting things that were not hers. She found herself itching to try taking more things just to see if she could. She started small, with more more assorted pastries from the cooling window at the bakery or the windowsills of townspeople’s houses. Her first indoor theft was a small bottle of fancy ink from the stationers, which she didn’t even want to write with. She just liked the color and how it swirled around in the little glass bottle. She tore prized flowers from people’s gardens. She took a carved wooden brooch pinned to a shawl hung to dry on a clothesline. Her favorite prize was a beautiful, perfectly white owl feather quill her biggest bully bragged about. As she got older she eventually went after more significant prey, like when she took a religious artifact from the local prayer hall. Martine squirreled things away in secret places around her home and in a scattering of knotholes in the woods. Eventually she was caught enough times that the town leaders compelled her parents to take their kleptomaniac daughter with them, much their chagrin.

Martine was nearly 40 and excited to finally be able to spend time with her parents. She swore to behave and be helpful, and she did. But their long years spent mostly apart were an insurmountable gap. Her parents treated her more like an employee than anything else and were still working more than they paid attention to their adolescent daughter. She knew now to name the hollowness inside of her loneliness, and it felt all the worse on the road because of the endless repetition of work – travel – work. When they would stop by their hometown to offload goods, Martine was confined to her grandparents’ home, the townspeople unwilling to forgive her for her crimes even though she had tried to change.

After a few years of trying to be an ideal daughter, Martine cracked. Without consciously deciding to do it or even considering the consequences, her quick hands started slipping items away from their rightful owners again. She pocketed a little something in most towns they stopped in, initially small things of value that she didn’t think would be missed, although one time she managed to get away with a whole pie someone had left to cool on a windowsill. She tucked the items away in the family wagon and when her parents came across them she would “remind” them that they had bought it a few cities back because they thought they could make a profit off of it somewhere else. They would go along with it because it was easier than acknowledging that their daughter was a problem. As she got older Martine got better about keeping her prizes hidden until she could make a profit off of them herself, and she loved having her own money even if her parents insisted on not letting her go until she had reached the age of adulthood despite the fact that they didn’t seem to take much of an interest in her at all.

Years on the road quickly gave way to decades and Martine’s confidence grew. She took greater and greater risks until one day her luck finally ran out. Sort of. In the city of…well, she never named it to anyone because of what came later….but in one particular city Martine managed to make off with a particularly nice amethyst pendant on a long chain from a market stall. She was making her way out of town to her family’s wagon using some backstreets she had scoped out earlier when someone suddenly yanked her back by the arm and hit her over the head. She woke up in a cold, damp stone room with no windows and a barred door. ‘Ah, so prison then,’ she thought dimly, her head throbbing, resignation coursing through her. She had supposed that sooner or later this might happen to her, but she assumed they wouldn’t keep her for long for only one theft (that they knew of).

Hearing her stir, a nondescript looking human man came to the cell door and looked at her through the bars with some amusement. Martine judged him to be below middle age, although it was hard to tell in the harsh shadows cast by the torch outside the cell. “Aren’t you supposed to tell me what I’m accused of before your throw me in jail?” she asked, trying to sound braver than she felt.

“You’re not in jail,” the man said. “You stole something from me – well me and my friends – and I wanted to get it back.” He pulled the pendant she had stolen out of his pocket, dangling it from its chain so the gem caught what little light there was.

“Fair play, then,” Martine replied. “Then then why am I locked up here?” He explained that he wanted to offer her a very special invitation. He had seen her pilfering little things into the pockets of her skirt and her voluminous sleeves all week while her parents had been selling their goods, all while mostly evading the attention of the town guards. He told her he was impressed with her handiwork, although she bristled when he called it a bit amateurish, and invited her to join the Thieves’ Guild he was part of, where he promised they would polish her up into a top notch thief.

“And why should I trust you?” Martine asked when he had finished giving his spiel.

“Because most of the time when people try to steal Guild goods, well, I put a dagger in them. Potential like yours is too good to waste like that,” he replied.

Martine broke out in goosebumps, and she knew it wasn’t just from the chill of the cell. “Understood,” she Martine, getting to her feet as he unlocked the cell door.

He introduced himself as Jack and brought her to meet the Thief King, who agreed that she could join the guild. That same night she and Jack returned to her parents and explained that she had been offered a job, obviously being vague about the specifics. They were hesitant, as she was barely 80 years old, but agreed in the end because they were secretly glad to be rid of their troublesome daughter.

Within a few years the Thief King that had inducted Martine died, falling off of a building in a heist gone awry, and Jack had enough respect to be elected as his successor. Martine was his lieutenant, seeing him as a mentor and close friend, ready to do just about anything for him besides kill. Martine would threaten and maim and maybe even torture a little, but drew the line at taking a life, and Thief King Jack respected that and never sent her on any jobs that were expected to get too bloody. As they continued to work together over the years, Martine came to realize that this human man who was decades younger than she, an elf in the latter portion of her 100 year long “youth,” was more of a father to her in many ways than her actual father had been.

She never forgot the aching loneliness of her early childhood, but once she joined the Thieves’ Guild she never felt it. She had plenty of opportunities to keep her hands occupied and when chances for stealing were low, she found the other guild members pleasant company. Martine was good at her job, almost unnaturally so it seemed to some. She had a knack for getting people to like her or getting her hands on items that seemed just out of reach. She could through things farther than anyone else and was very good at hiding. If she was lighting a fire the tinder always caught light on the first try. But no one complained or tried to call her out for anything, because she explained everything away as luck and used her skills to enrich the guild.

After a couple of decades passed, an upstart young human man calling himself The Fox joined the Guild. Martine quickly decided he was a brash loudmouth who was not to be trusted and started openly calling him The Weasel, even when she knew he was in earshot. Somehow he weasled his way into gathering a large base of support who wanted to overthrow Jack and install The Weasel as the new Thief King. Despite Martine’s well known and long lasting loyalty to Jack, he thought he could sway Martine by offering her riches and more power. But he miscalculated, because Martine got more of a rush from the act of taking items than she did from plain money, and she was already content with the amount of power she had.

When she of course objected he had her knocked over the head and locked in a cell. A cell which Martine’s long memory recognized as the same one Jack had put her in the day they met. Martine knew now that the locks were shitty and easily picked, but the opposing faction had of course stripped her of anything useful, including her hairpins and the dagger that Jack had given her with an amethyst pommel that she carried mostly as a miscellaneous tool and empty threat rather than a weapon.

Martine rattled the bars of the cell door desperately, growling in frustration, her mind and heart racing. She was so stupid. She should have lied to The Weasel, made him think she liked him and was on his side, and then betrayed him to the Thief King. She needed to get out of this cell NOW, needed to find the Thief King, to warn Jack —

Suddenly the lock sounded a creaky click and she nearly fell as the door she had been clinging to swung open. “Well that’s fucking weird,” she muttered in a half moment of wary consideration before sprinting through the Thieves’ Den looking for the Thief King. She passed several people, but she asked them nothing because wasn’t sure who was in on The Weasel’s scheme. Some of them stared at her or called after her, but nobody tried to stop her.

She found Jack in his chamber, lying on the floor in his own blood, her dagger sticking out his chest. She knelt numbly beside him, reaching out a shaking hand to stroke Jack’s cold cheek and then close his unseeing eyes. Then there was a chuckle from the doorway and she whirled to see the fucking Weasel leaning casually against the doorframe.

“Martine,” he said in mock shock, “how could you just kill the Thief King like this?”

Martine’s body moved without her mind, which was filled only with fire. In a few fluid movements she seized her dagger from Jack’s body as she rose from her kneeling position on the floor, and plunged the knife into The Weasel’s gut as she screamed. He was barely able to emit a yell of surprise before he died, slumping against the wall. Her first kill. She spat on him before sadly turning back to Jack. She took one last long look at him and then fled the room, as she heard footsteps running closer, drawn by the commotion.

She ran for the exit the Thieves’ Den, her grief mingling with anger at her fellow guild members who had allowed this to happen, who had allowed The Weasel to attempt to have his way. Out of spite, and also to give them something they had to worry about more than following her, as she went along Martine grabbed some of the lanterns and torches that lit the interior of their lodgings and forcefully threw them at the walls or floor behind her, determined to let them burn. A little voice in Martine’s head thought that the fire flared up more than it ought to, but she didn’t really pay it any mind and concentrated on fleeing.

The possessions she had in her room at the Thieves’ Den she gave up as totally lost to her. But she kept a safe house in the woods a few miles outside of town, a small abandoned cabin that she’d restored herself. As far as Martine knew, no one in the guild knew of the place, but she didn’t linger because she knew that if they sent out any proper search parties at all they’d surely find it. She packed up only what she would need to survive on the road and some small items she knew she’d be able to trade for coin or supplies later. When she left, she set her little home and all the items she couldn’t take on fire. She felt very strongly that no one else was entitled to the treasures she couldn’t carry.

By the time she got started on her journey it was just after dawn. She didn’t know yet where she was going, but as she set off she felt her old friend loneliness settle coldly into her chest.

An Evening At Home

Surprise! This month I’ve uploaded a video again! I rearranged my room at the end of last year and now that everything’s settled I wanted to invite you in for a look. Come hang out with me!

I also wanted to provide some links to where I got some of my art, because I thought people might be interested. This isn’t a complete list because I unfortunately didn’t retain the artist information for some of the prints (I’ve owned some of them for 10+ years), but it’s the best I can do.

The Fool from Yoshi Yoshitani’s Fantasy Tarot

Official Left 4 Dead Blood Harvest Poster (although I think the ones they sell now have a bigger white border, which I don’t like the look of?)

Sarah Wilkinson doesn’t sell my Padme print anymore, but here’s her website.

The Fall (Lee Pace) print by Crunchy Frog Studio — here’s a link to it on their Society6 shop.

Revolutionary Girl Utena print by Etherelle.

My other two Utena prints are by vetiverfox. They don’t sell these anymore, but I love their work, so here’s their website!

I bought my big Van Gogh Almond Blossoms print from the poster merchants that always turned up at my college the first week of fall semester. I know it’s hung the wrong way, but I like it that way.

My lady knight is by Samijen, and they don’t currently seem to have an online store open, but here is their website.

Tempest by Heikala (which you might remember dredged up some feelings and inspired a post from last year).

Small Journey drawing by EiffelArt. He usually just sells originals instead of prints, but here’s his website.

Small waterfront painting by Danelle Malan, another one of a kind, but here’s her site!

It’s not a print, but the small ceramic ghosts are by Aubrey Aiese, here’s her shop!

I also show my pinboards in the video, so here’s just a list of artists I’ve often bought those kinds of little trinkets from:

Rodi (aka @bubblebrow on Twitter).

Riasaur’s shop isn’t live right now, but here’s a link to their Twitter.

Milkbun’s shop.

In this new video I used a small clip from a YouTube video of mine from 2016, a song I wrote called “Hey, Hi, Hello.” I’ve always seen this as one of the better songs I wrote when I was in my songwriting phase, but I also recently remembered the fun fact that it was inspired by my initial interactions with a certain Ghost that I blogged about a few years ago. I linked this in the description of my room video, and figured I should toss it here as well.

I hope you’ve enjoyed hanging out with me via video and I’ll see you next month!

Dread and Malaise (February)

Many people experience some kind of post holiday season depression in January, once all the glitz and glow of the tinsel and lights disappears, but because my birthday is at the end of January, that feeling doesn’t hit me until the next month begins. This year I woke up to go to work on February 1st to find that it had snowed overnight. It wasn’t much, more sad sloppy slush than anything meaningful, but as I cleaned off my car I thought, “Gee, February is already trying to be the worst month of the year again, hmm?” You see, February and I simply do not get along.

(Cloudy, light polluted night sky seen from my window.)

I am a winter baby, but I have little love for the season, and the worst of it always seems to hit in February. If August is jade, and November is topaz, then February is just a rough chunk of plain gray stone. It’s the time of polar vortexes and not remembering the last time I saw the sun. It gets brighter every day so by the end of the month I’m no longer commuting home in the dark, but the additional light only reveals how gray everything is. The salt used to de-ice the roads bleaches the pavement and sits in sad little strips along the curbs. The naked tree branches look stark against the sky, forming a spiked iron fence that encircles my world. If nothing else I’ve said so far has failed to make the case for how wretched February truly is, please remember that I live in a country that starts this month asking a glorified rodent to tell us what the weather will be, even though it doesn’t actually affect anything. I feel uneasy this time of year, doing my best to make it through my life day by day until color floods the world again.

However, this February doesn’t look quite like that, and it’s causing me a new kind of malaise. Except for that smudge of slush on February 1st and a few scattered flurries, it’s been much too warm for snow. I think I’ve only had to defrost my car in the morning once. We’ve had multiple days that were in the mid to high 60s (15ish, for my metric friends), including Valentine’s Day. The flowering trees in my office’s parking lot started to bloom two months early before a cold weekend put the brakes back on and there are currently irises in my front yard. I have no love for shoveling snow, but I still know that I’m supposed to be doing it right about now. If you’re new here, I live in New Jersey. This is all very incorrect.

(One of the improperly blooming trees.)

I have to bury my dread and place stones on the grave to prevent it from resurfacing or it will fill my pockets with those rocks and drag me down. After all, despite the warmth and corresponding lack of ice, the days are still overwhelmingly overcast, the night skies blanketed with clouds set aglow by the light pollution. There have been bright spots here and there (the fun distraction of another Minecraft phase, a weekend in Massachusetts visiting friends, happy hour with colleagues) but they are merely sparks in the winter, gleams in the gray. One day I said to my mom, “After this weird month, we’re going to have one of those really messy, snowy Marches or full summer will be here in April.” I long for light and warmth and an end to these colorless days, but not at such a high cost.

February, we aren’t friends, but you’re not yourself this year and I’m concerned.

New Year, New Intentions

I don’t know why I keep making these damn New Year’s resolution posts when I so rarely wind up accomplishing much of what I set out to do. It feels very performative, more about who I wish I could be or who I want you to think that I am than it is about my true self. I even considered not making this kind of post this year at all, but, well, as you see, here we are. It’s as if by making these grand statements I’ll magically become a better person, or at least convince you all that I am one, the words a beautiful incantation that’ll make it look like I really have my shit together, but it’s all just a farce. If nothing else, we are here because I am a creature of habit and blogging some goals is what I do in January in time for my birthday at the end of the month.

Usually in these annual posts I try to look back on my intentions for the previous year and evaluate how I did, but fuck that. I don’t remember everything that I wrote, but I have a sense that I perhaps didn’t do very much of it and will only feel guilty and disappointed in myself if I go down that road, so we’re only looking ahead here this year.

I’m not focusing so much on goals in the realm of traditional “adulting,” like changing my job or moving out for a few different reasons, one of which being that I don’t want to set goals that require the input/decisions of others to succeed, because I could put in a lot of effort and still come up short and it feels unfair to put that pressure on myself.

But what do I want to do this year?

A. Write 12 blog posts: In 2022 I posted 10 blogs, which is very respectable, but of course it would always be nice to hit that one per month marker. I do feel like I’m improving as a writer and like I’m more often able to make my weirder concepts work in a way that I’m pleased with (even if I don’t think they’re totally perfect). I also don’t cringe nearly as much as I used to when I reread posts months later, which has to mean something, lol. In addition to my usual kinds of blogs, I posted a long bit of fiction this year about one of my D&D characters and I’d like to do something like that again. If I have to pick just one favorite post from 2022 to point you to it’s probably the avocados one but I’m quite pleased with my output overall. (And you can easily reach them all from my archive page!)

B. Watch less YouTube and watch more of the movies and shows I’ve saved to my streaming service watch lists: Self-explanatory, I suppose. I frequently say “oh I want to watch something, but everything’s too long for the time that I have” so I never watch anything. But, like, it’s okay to watch things in more than one sitting if I have to, so I should just do that!

C. Play more finishable video games: This is a similar situation to the previous point. I have a decently sized backlog of games that are contained experiences with a set endpoint, but instead of playing those I play open ended games like Groove Coaster or Fall Guys or Minecraft. One of the reasons I love games is because I love stories, and I love that experiencing a story via gaming is so different than experiencing stories in any other medium. I want to get back to stories.

D. More movement: I started following a bunch of plus sized influencers on Instagram in 2022 because I had a sudden rush of feeling that I wanted to see more people who looked like me on my social media feeds. Reading their posts has got me reframing some of my mindsets. This includes reframing the idea of exercise as a depressing chore used for intentional weight loss and “health” (which don’t even get me started on how loaded that term is when it comes to body size). Instead I’ve been thinking about it as the general idea of movement, of choosing activities that bring me joy without a focus on weight loss. For me this might mean getting out into my local woods more for walks, maybe trying to find online Zumba class because I miss dancing, or doing yoga routines off of YouTube because who doesn’t love a good stretch after being hunched over a computer all day? I don’t care about losing weight and frankly I don’t want to because I don’t want to spend money on a whole new wardrobe or worry about the loose skin I’d have if I had significant weight loss. But I know more movement will only benefit me, even just from an “endorphins make the brain happier” standpoint.

E. Journaling: I searched for a planner-type journal with calendars in it, but couldn’t find one that I like. Why are they all so focused on elaborate goal setting? All I want is big dated blocks to write in with calendar grids between each month so I can jot in things like doctor’s appointments and my friends’ birthdays. (No, I don’t want to do a bullet journal so I can make my own layouts. I tried it for a year and it’s not for me.) Instead, I’ve just been using a regular notebook. I give myself grace for missing a day or two, but I try to not let much more than that go by without writing at least something about how my days are going or how I’m feeling. I don’t have any mental goal in mind for journaling; it’s not a mindfulness thing. I just would like to have a record of my life, because I often get to the end of a year and wonder what the hell even happened.

F. More self-indulgent photoshoots: This is just a little thing I’ve done a few times over the past couple of years, and I want to do more of it. The pictures in this post are an example of this. I’d never done photos like this outside because I feel self-conscious, but I said screw it and brought a tiny tripod to the beach with me and got some images I really quite like! I have ideas for some more concepts that I’m trying to flesh out. I still don’t really know what to do with my face or poses, but it’s a fun creative outlet. I’m the friend who always remembers to take the pictures at events, and I feel awkward asking other people to use the camera so I can be in some of them, so it’s nice to have some recent pictures of me that aren’t just phone selfies.

So those are my intentions for the next 12 months. Let’s see if I can pull any of them off so that when we’re here again this time next year I can feel like less of a fraud. (Maybe.)

My Top 5 Reads of 2022!

(Holly Black books not pictured because I borrowed them from a friend.)

The only reading goal I set in any given year is just to keep reading in general. For me numerical reading goals put too much pressure something I do as a pleasurable way to pass the time. However, for the past two years I’ve kept what I call a Media Journal where I make notes about the books that I finish (as well as movies/shows I’ve watched and video games I’ve played). I only make an entry when I’ve finished something, or if I’ve spent a good amount of time playing a game that technically isn’t completeable, like my beloved Groove Coaster. I know that I’ve sometimes forgotten to write something in (for instance, I know I played Man of Medan this fall, but it’s not in the journal), but it’s at least a mostly complete record of what I’ve filled my brain with over the year.

If you’re interested in cold, hard numbers I kept a count of everything as I went along, just curious about where I would wind up. In 2022 I watched 30 movies/tv shows and noted down 7 games (this number feels way too low, but I mostly only noted games I finished and I’m notorious for starting games and forgetting to finish them). I finished 40 books and 25 manga/graphic novels. I split up my reading counts because manga/graphic novels are far quicker reads for me, to the point where the reading experience feels different enough to separate them out.

So with all that preamble out of the way, here in no particular order are my 5 favorite reads of the year (using “reads” and not “books” because there’s a few series on the list)! I read a whole range of things in 2022, but if there is one unifying theme for my favorites it’s “I finally got to this popular thing I always heard people talk about and really enjoyed it myself,” lol. I’m keeping this as spoiler-free as possible, so read on with little fear:

1. The Folk of the Air books (aka The Cruel Prince trilogy) by Holly Black: This was a recommendation from two different friends of mine, and one of them graciously loaned me these. They were right to tell me to read these. This series ticks so many of my boxes. Enemies to lovers. Set in a fae realm. Melodrama and intrigue. I unfortunately have the kind of brain that easily predicts stories, but the plot in this series constantly surprised me. I had a feeling that everything would eventually end happily, but I wasn’t sure how it would get there. I also was surprised at the amount of sex in these books considering that this series is for teens. It’s not terribly explicit or that frequent, but it’s right on the page (as opposed to “fading to black”). However, I do think sex can have a place in novels for teens so they can learn about the different forms sexual relationships can take, and I would say these books have some healthy examples in them.

2. Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater: I finally got around to the Ronan-focused follow up to The Raven Cycle, although I did only get to that series in 2021 so I guess I’m not that long overdue. Ronan makes a great point of view character, and I love how his brothers get fleshed out in this book. Matthew’s story is heartbreaking and I even somehow started to sympathize with Declan, which is something I never saw myself saying. There are great new characters and the unfolding mystery is engrossing. Jordan in particular is an addition to the cast that I really enjoyed. One of my favorite notes in my journal is, “Please let Declan kiss Jordan in one of the later books, as a treat,” lol. Getting my hands on Mister Impossible, and eventually Greywaren when it comes into paperback (because I need to own a series all in the same format), is definitely on my to do list for the future.

3. Gideon the Ninth/Harrow the Ninth (aka The Locked Tomb series) by Tamsyn Muir: Another series that I was late on, but oh how I loved these books. All I knew going into the series was that there was magic and lesbians and that it had a lot of buzz on my corner of the internet. So I was surprised that these books have a sci-fi setting and that the magic really just boiled down to necromancy, but not in any ways that I had thought about necromancy before, and it is presented in many different ways in these books! I do feel that sometimes there are problems with the pacing and a couple of times I managed to spot huge twists way before they came out in the text, but these things didn’t detract from my enjoyment and engrossment with them. I like that even though there are a lot of characters, especially in Gideon, they all feel unique from each other. The development of the connection between Gideon and Harrow is lovely. A third book came out towards the end of 2022 and I will be getting it for sure when it comes out in paperback (because, again, my books need to match, lol).

4. Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller: Hello, it’s me, being very, very, very late to the Song of Achilles party. The writing is somewhat simple, but often poetic at the same time. It’s sweet and sad (because if you have even a little bit of familiarity with Greek mythology you know how it ends). Also, this book is very queer, and the development of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is wonderfully written. It isn’t very long, and I got through it very quickly even though I knew when I got to the end it would probably hurt me. And it did. And that’s good, sometimes I like a story that will break my heart. Not everything has to end perfectly happily.

5. House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas: I don’t know what possessed me to impulse buy this extremely thick paperback, besides that I’ve mostly enjoyed the two Maas books I’ve read so far (the 1st two ACOTAR books). I found that I prefer the grit of Crescent City way more than the woodsy frills of ACOTAR. I was drawn very deeply into Bryce and Hunt’s investigation, and while I did correctly guess a few of the story beats I found myself frequently surprised. (It’s such a long goddamn book, I’d hope I can’t just predict the whole thing, lol.) I love a good mystery thriller and I also loved the way the enemies(ish?) to lovers romance develops between Bryce and Hunt. It was refreshing to read a book like this with a supportive big brother character instead of a love triangle (because so many books like this have a goddamn love triangle). I wasn’t sure I liked Ruhn at first, but he grew on me. There is a sequel hook at the end and a second book in this series has already been released, but honestly this book stands pretty well on its own as a complete adventure, which I appreciate because it’s exhausting how everything is at least a trilogy nowadays.

An honorable mention is something that’s not a book at all, but is a visual novel so it kind of counts, and that is Disco Elysium. This is SUCH a great game. It was equally fun to aimlessly explore the rich world of Martinaise as the detective Harry as it was to really dig into the plot, talk to all of the fascinating, impeccably voice acted characters, and try to solve the mystery at the heart of the plot. Also Kim Kitsuragi is my best friend and I never want to do anything to disappoint him.

And finally, here are some quickfire, zero explanation recommendations of things that I watched/rewatched in 2022: the Interview the the Vampire show, Anne of Green Gables (Meagan Follows version), Our Flag Means Death, Crimson Peak, What We Do in the Shadows, and The Great.

Here’s to all the things I’m going to read, watch, and play in 2023!

What I Wish I Could Tell Me (Or, 10 Years Later)

(I graduated in the winter, but went back to walk in the ceremony in the spring.)

Buried in the depths of my mostly defunct YouTube channel, with the dozens of others I’ve set to private over the years, is one particular video filmed on December 16, 2012. It starts with a clip of a dorm room dated early September, bright and daylit and decorated, before cutting to a shot of the same room stripped bare of nearly everything. And then I appear, age 21, on the verge of being stripped of nearly everything myself, or so it felt at the time. It was my last night of college. I rattle off the script I wrote at a brisk cheerful clip, beginning with an extended metaphor about how my college career went similarly to the where write stories (strong start, vague middle, rushed ending). I discuss how I have a hard time leaving places behind because even though a place may still exist, there is a sense of never truly being able to go back to how it was. I conclude with a declaration of feeling optimistic despite my anxiety about the unknown.

There is a cut to black, and it seems the video may be over, but then I return in tears, explaining how I’d fractured as soon as I finished reading the script, because it meant everything was really over. I mention that I could edit the crying out, but that I wanted to present a genuine picture. This one video contains the duality of Krystal then and now, the cheerful veneer over the tender heart. Fall semester of 2012 was when Hurricane Sandy rolled through and was also that weird time when everyone thought the end of the world was imminent, and for me, in a way, my world was ending. Being a student had been part of my identity for so long. I wasn’t sure how I was going to navigate the world without that, and I was doing it months earlier than I’d anticipated when I started college because I’d accidentally gotten myself into the position of graduating a semester early. It’s weird to think that it’s been 10 years since then.

There are so many things I wish I could tell Krystal of 2012, although in truth I don’t think it’s a good thing in general to know the future before it happens because it changes our reactions to it. 2013 was the hardest year of my life so far, and I’d want her to know that she’ll survive it, because I didn’t want to harm myself then, but I did spend a lot of time sleeping so I didn’t have to exist in my depression. Some years survival is all we can do and there is nothing, nothing wrong with that.

I want her to remember that she has the power to give up things that do not serve her (see: the first full time job that hired me, which I quit after two months). But also to remember that clinging to things that do not serve her doesn’t make her lesser (see: my boyfriend of winter 2016-17, completely forgetting what I learned about relationships my freshman year of college). She’d be shocked that I gave up making videos, but glad that I replaced them with rediscovering the joy of writing. I already knew when I was graduating that I ultimately probably wasn’t going to use the media production portion of my degree, but winding up in the law field probably would surprise 2012 Krystal, even though maybe it shouldn’t because in a way cases are just stories and I love stories, and also law firms are every-goddamn-where. One of my biggest anxieties when I graduated was my school loans, but I paid them off in seven years and have savings for the first time in my life. I maintained my important old friendships and forged strong new ones during a pandemic. I still live at home, but at least I still somehow mostly get along with my mom. I’ve learned enough about myself to firmly know I don’t want to have kids, and it feels good to be certain about at least one thing.

I honestly thought I hadn’t done much of note in the past decade, nothing that 2012 Krystal would be greatly proud of anyway, but sitting down to write this has made me realize that while others in my cohort may have done “more” and have accomplishments that seem more significant (marriage, home ownership, children) I have done a lot of things and it is enough.

That being said, I do worry about plateauing. Even in 2012 I remember having a sense of “okay, I get a job, I pay the loans, I move out, and then what?” I still don’t know. Minus moving out and maybe finding a long-term partner, I do sometimes feel that I’ve reached the zenith of what my day-to-day routine will be for the rest of my life. My future days will likely take place in different locations and with different people, but the overall routine looks the same when I think ahead. I suppose it is sort of comforting to think that even though I don’t know what else there is to life most other people don’t either.

Perhaps inside of all of us is a 21 year old version of ourselves, crying because of uncertainty about the future. Yes, it is nerve wracking to not know, but having an uncertain future means there’s also a chance for really good things to happen too. I know very little about tarot, but I think of life like the Wheel of Fortune card. Sometimes you’ll be on top of the wheel and sometimes you’ll be on the bottom, but it’s a cycle and neither state lasts forever. Nothing at all lasts in the same form that it starts in, and that’s just life, baby.

All we can really do is keep trying to survive. Surviving is more than enough.

(I own a tarot deck, but have never fully learned to read it.)

The Slumbering (November)

Now begins the slumbering. The woods behind my house are nearly silent, save for the rustle of leaves or the sea-sounding wind through the increasingly bare limbs. Gone is the fresh jade air of summer, replaced by a warm topaz scent of sunbaked dead leaves on a blustery day.

It is a softer, quieter time before the winter’s tempests rage. I bundle myself in old trusted scarves and jackets against the increasing chill, progressing from hoodie to trenchcoat to peacoat, wondering how long it will be until I give up and swaddle myself in my parka. It’s a gentle time, of putting on long, soft pajama pants after my day in slacks, of smoothing on lotion to combat the dry air, lingering in warm showers longer than I should, a season of slow self-care. I crave oatmeal and hot chocolate, comforted by the warm weight in my belly.

I feel like I live 90% of my life in the dark now. I wake up in the dark. I work in a windowless yellow box of a room. When I leave work, night has already spilled its bottle of navy ink across the sky. I drive home down a dark wooded road. I spend my evenings in soft lamplight, with no tolerance for the glaring overhead light in my room after a day of fluorescent bulbs. No wonder my doctor has me taking vitamin D.

But even in the dark there are snatches of light. When the sun finally crests the horizon each morning it paints the sky in cathedral glass colors in a way that feels unique to this time of year, the glorious pinks, reds, oranges, golds making me think that perhaps there’s a point to the whole getting out of bed thing after all. The slant of the daylight is at such an angle that it almost feels like perpetual golden hour. Although the sky is nearly fully dark by 5 p.m., there is usually still a bright band around the rim of the world to keep me company for the start of my commute. The headlights of oncoming traffic are the bane of my existence, but the tail lights of my fellow commuters are little fires guiding me through the evening. As I steer up and down the many hills and valleys of my daily drive, the line of cars in the distance has the glitter of a string of gemstones and the lights of the houses and streetlamps are a blanket of stars spread out before me crowned by the distant galaxy that is the combined length of the New York City/Jersey City/Hoboken skyline.

Life in my area is all rush and go and plan and compete, and the winding down of the year is no exception. There is the temptation to already begin reflecting on where I fell short this year and where I want to improve the next, but I do my best to tuck those thoughts into their own warm, soft little bed to rest until later and instead focus on the comforting now, the quiet grace of the growing dark.

The Ash Tree

Behind my house there is a strip of woods that separates the backyards of my street from the backyards of the next street over. It somehow belongs to the town, despite being entirely surrounded by private property, and no one I know spends any time in it, as overgrown and deer infested as it is. I feel very fondly for that bizarre little strip of land, a holdover from long ago that was somehow never portioned out for private ownership. There are certain places in my room where I can look out the window, see only trees, and pretend I live in some wooded bower instead of squashed, suburban New Jersey. The trees sing to me, insect song in the summer and a nearly oceanic rumble of bare windblown winds in winter. I don’t spend that much time directly looking at the weird little forest, but it is my companion nonetheless and I enjoy having it.

The ash tree in the morning.

About a year into the pandemic, one of the trees in these woods decided it was finished, that it wasn’t going to bud its green leaves like its brethren. It stood stark against the bright summer sky and the green of the surrounding trees, almost as if in protest. At first I thought that maybe it was a fluke, that it was going to bud late that year for some reason, but spring and summer came and went and the branches remained bare. I sat in my room, withering myself, separated from my friends by the risk of spreading sickness. In the midst of this, a dead tree somehow felt appropriate. The world had changed and so had the view from my window.

It was a pity, but still striking all the same to see the body of the tree continuing to stand strong despite ceasing its growing cycle. It made a memory spring to mind from many years ago at a sleepaway camp tucked away in the woods of northern New Jersey where I learned about the tragedy of hemlock trees. Ravaged by rampant bug infestation, they are a dying breed. But their fallen twigs are the best kindling for campfires. And if you stand beneath a hemlock tree’s corkscrew-like arrangement of branches, even if they’re dead and stripped bare, cool air filters down like a natural fan. Death is a sad, inevitable, and necessary part of life, but there can be a certain beauty in it too.

While the tree behind my house stood dead, life continued around it. Time passed, seasons changed, the trees around it became green once more, and I could see my friends again, although we were all changed by what had happened, what was (is) still happening. The skeletal tree stood tall and silent and watchful, but not really watched by us very much as we moved on. But it has recently grown tired of being ignored and decided to demand our attention. Worn down by wind and weather, it’s been dropping limbs on our and our neighbor’s garage. My mom looked at the deed to our house, determined that the tree was in fact in the town-owned strip of woods, and contacted city hall. They sent the town forester, a man who took one look at the tree and said it definitely needed to come down. He told my mom that it was an ash tree and had likely been killed by a parasite that is felling others of its kind all over the place. Someday soon workers will come cut down the tree, likely just dropping the limbs right there in the woods to save themselves the trouble of hauling the lumber out to the road. The view from my window will change again, but I wish it didn’t have to.

The ash tree in the afternoon.

Change is an inevitable and necessary part of life, but there can be a sort of beauty in it too, like the bold shapes of a tree after it decides it doesn’t need its greenery anymore, yet stretches its limbs ever upward all the same. But I am not a tree, I am a woman, and as much as I want things in my life to change, I feel unable to cast off my own greenery and reach up for new opportunities, even for ones that I am nearly guaranteed to successfully seize. I am stunted by my fear that without the comfortable blanket of my current leaves I will wither and die and watch my own limbs fall off or be cut off by the world around me while I’m reaching out naked and vulnerable.

A friend of mine has pointed out to me in the past that I often talk myself out of things with “what if”s, that I dream of disaster before anything has even started to happen. Maybe I don’t have to worry about being cut to pieces on the forest floor if I change. Maybe I am already that dead ash tree, the world continuing around me while I stand brittle and alone, the parasite eating away at me, held back by giving way to it again. Crumbling, losing pieces of myself because I don’t know how to even consider change without falling apart.

This isn’t how I thought I would be in my 30s, too afraid to branch out, too afraid to stay still and be the only one not blooming, but life is impossible to predict, especially after the last three years. I feel like Schrodinger’s ash tree lately. Do I have it in me to keep growing upward? Or will I collapse?

The ash tree by moonlight.

The Pros and Cons of Concerts

A couple of years ago I had a coworker who really liked to go to concerts. I told her I wasn’t typically into live music, but there were two bands I’d kill to see. However, I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance. The first was Rammstein, a metal band from Germany whose concerts I missed when they were last in America because I was away at college. They’re old for an internationally touring rock band, all in or about their 50s, and I knew they could decide that they didn’t want to do massive world tours anymore or decide to suddenly retire. It had been nearly a decade since they’d been to America and I wasn’t certain they’d ever be back. The other band was My Chemical Romance, a band whose heyday was when I was in high school and college. They broke up right after I graduated college and I was sure that they were gone for good.

And then a few months later in January 2020 both bands announced new tours with stops in my area. I vividly remember getting the tickets for both concerts. Rammstein went on sale at 5 p.m. so I stayed glued to my desk at work, afraid that if I waited the 20 minutes to drive home that all the tickets would be gone. I had no idea who would go with me, because no one I know loves the band like I do, but I bought two tickets anyway, a little nervous to go alone and knowing I’d find someone willing to go. The MCR tickets dropped at noon on my birthday. My friend and I both frantically tried to secure a set of tickets while we were on speaker phone, as I sat in my car next to the sea, a day trip which was my birthday gift to myself. She got unfortunately stuck in the virtual queue, but I managed to snag our tickets. Both concerts were scheduled for September so once the tickets were secured the only thing left to do was wait

And then March came along and the world changed. I would later darkly joke that I had caused the plague in a butterfly effect sort of way by doing something so out of character for me as buying concert tickets. I had never been to a concert outside of two acts at Anime Boston and two Distant Worlds concerts, all of which hardly seems to count in the sense most people mean when they say concert. I know I like to watch a symphony, the concert band high schooler I used to be never getting over the way the bass drum felt in my chest or the blare of the horns or the dainty flutter of my specialty, the flute. On the other hand, going out of my way to attend a rock or pop concert was never quite appealing to me. It just seemed like a whole bunch of expensive fuss. However, there are exceptions to everything I suppose and two of mine happened to turn up in the same year. How could I pass up the opportunity?

Now that I’ve been to both concerts, I can definitively say that they were fun, but it’s not an experience I feel like I need to have again. I could go on at length about why I don’t want to go to more concerts (and in fact a prior version of this post did just that), but I will attempt to be brief and not gripe overly much.

1. Getting to the venue is a nightmare: The public transit sucks in most areas of America, so driving is required to get to a lot of places. Most concerts are in the evenings so you have to fight rush hour traffic to get there, massively multiplying both travel time and frustration, because a lot of people drive like idiots. To be precise, it took me an hour to drive from my brother’s place to MetLife Stadium for the Rammstein show and only 20 minutes to drive him home after. It similarly took probably twice as long to get to the MCR concert at the Prudential Center as it did to get home.

2. You are at the mercy of the conditions in the venue: This is a little hard to explain, but basically you will likely have to put up with some kind of uncomfortable inconvenience in the venue. For instance, some arena seating sections are so unpleasantly steep they activate my fear of heights and make me worry about falling down the stairs and tumbling over the railing to my doom. They air conditioning may be powerful enough to leave you feeling chilly even when you get up to dance. It rained heavily the evening of the Rammstein concert, finally stopping partway through the show, and MetLife Stadium does not have a roof. The music was a good distraction, but between songs it was difficult to not fixate on how uncomfortably damp I was. Thank god it was an unusually cool night for early September and not horribly muggy or I don’t think even the music could have distracted me from feeling gross.

Also, as a side note, while I’m on this topic I’d like to point out that a lot of venues just are just straight up not accessible (or have limited accessibility) for people with disabilities. And they also build these things like airplanes, trying to cram in as many seats as possible to the detriment of the visitor. I qualify as what is known as a mid fat and if my butt was much bigger it wouldn’t have fit in my seat at MetLife, which is a newer stadium, so you would think they knew fat people existed while they were building it.

3. Excessive cellphone use by fans: I understand snapping a few pics or a couple of brief video clips, or maybe taking a longer recording if they play your favorite song. But be fucking reasonable. I paid good money to be here. I don’t want to see your phone in the air for the whole night. You paid good money to be here. Why are you constantly distracting yourself from the experience by fucking around with your phone? Often the lighting in the venue and your probable distance from the stage are gonna result in your footage not being that great anyway. Rammstein specifically had a PA announcement before the show telling people not to film and multiple people around me were poorly filming basically the whole thing. And may I remind you that they were exposing their phones to the rain while they were doing this? Craziness.

All that being said, I would like to reiterate that I did really enjoy myself a lot at these concerts! Both bands are fantastic live, although I did come away feeling that Rammstein lost some of its nuance and became just a blaring wall of mushed together sounds grounded by the drum kit. The members of both bands had good on stage chemistry and seemed to really be having fun, and that energy fed back into the crowd. The MCR concert I went to was in Newark, right where the band was formed, and so that crowd in particular had a fantastic energy because the band are local boys. At one point the singer Gerard even made a comment about wanting to take a drive around his nearby hometown of Belleville.

I’ve been listening to both bands on my own for so long (since middle school for Rammstein and 9th grade for MCR) that it was really surreal to see them in the flesh even from far away. It didn’t quite feel like real life. There was so much feeling in those stadiums, the culmination of two years of waiting, that I found myself getting a bit emotional as the crowd yelled lyrics along with the singers while the drums and guitars pounded in my chest. It felt so powerful to chant the verses to “Du Hast” with the entirety of MetLife Stadium while pillars of fire sprouted overhead. Towards the beginning of the MCR concert when we were all singing “I’m Not Okay” together and I actually weirdly felt tears kind of welling in my eyes.

And while I’m not one to shy away from doing things on my own I’m very glad I got to see these bands that are so important to me with people that are important to me. It was so fun to speculate over what songs would be played and make comments to each other during breaks in the concerts. For instance, at one point late in the MCR concert when they still hadn’t played “Welcome to the Black Parade” I looked at my friends and said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if they never played it at all?” and then with perfect comedic timing the first note of the song rang out in the arena. My younger brother enjoys Rammstein’s music, but not with the same intensity that I do, so it was fun to give him context like, “This is the song about cannibalism,” or “This is the fucking around the world song,” and hear him laugh.

So I had a great time at both concerts, but I don’t want to go to another one? Yes. I enjoyed myself enough to not entirely begrudge the existence of the bad bits, but all in all I think I can enjoy my music just as well at home. Do I have a couple of more exceptions that I would be willing to see? Of course! I’m interested to see what Orville Peck’s live show is like. If The Crane Wives ever come east there’s no way I’m passing them up. (I discovered them just before the pandemic started and they quickly became my favorite band.) I also think I’d see Distant Worlds a third time, because I will always miss that symphony feeling. However, I definitely don’t see myself buying more concert tickets anytime soon. I understand why people enjoy it, but I just don’t think it’s for me!

And finally, if you like the pictures in this post and want to see more, I posted on Instagram after each concert!


At the beginning of August it occurs to me that perhaps the worst of the summer is over.

Yes, it is still hot and skin scorchingly sunny, but I can feel the time shaved off the end of each day, my neighborhood filled with gold earlier and earlier each evening. As the sun begins to angle itself away from the northern hemisphere, the daylight takes on an odd, but lovely, glow no matter the time of day, necessitating sunglasses for both directions of my commute to work. The heat will linger with us until well into September, summer lazily stretching itself over more and more of the calendar every year, a cat in a sunspot abbreviating fall and spring, even as far north as New Jersey, much to my woe.

And yet, I’m not someone who urges on the next season, one of the people who rushes out to buy autumnal merchandise as soon as it hits the stores at the end of July. I make plans that fall under the umbrella of “summer” well past the equinox so long as I have good weather and light, which has often come back to bite me when I realize I need just one more pair of shorts or swimsuit for a mid-September adventure only to find myself out of luck.

After losing more than two years of my life to dreadful global circumstances, I find I don’t want time to rush on by. I want to live in as many days as I can. And yet they slip swiftly through my fingers like I’m standing on a beach and the tide is rushing away from my feet, swift and unstoppable.

That being said, I am glad for the arrival of August all the same. Shortening days means cooler nights, means not waking up drenched in sweat despite the fan blowing directly into my face. It means the floor no longer warm under my feet when I get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom because of cold water I gulped down right before bedtime. It means more nights when I can turn off the fan to fully and properly take in the summer night serenade in the strip of woods behind my house that has finally reached the crescendo I’ve spent all season waiting for. I prefer to go to sleep in silence most of the year, but that gentle forest cacophony is my favorite lullaby and one of the main reasons I keep an air conditioner out of my window. I’m not fully sure what’s back there, but I know that the chirping and croaking seem to pulse in time with my breath, with my heartbeat.

When the conditions are just right in my little corner room I can hear the hum of the nearby highway or the horn of the train, and imagine myself heading off somewhere in the warm darkness, adventure spooling out beneath the wheels. Actually escaping isn’t quite in the cards at the moment, but I’m not bitter. I find ways to be content where I am. I’ve discovered a field near the local trails with a canopy of trees that provide perfect shelter for warm afternoons spent reading books on a blanket with a snack and a big bottle of crisp, cool water. I lay on my bed in front of the fan, eyes on the trees behind my house, watching peach colored evening clouds scuttle along as night steadily spills its ink across the canvas of the sky. I take the long way home after hanging out late with friends, breathing in deeply to taste that lush, green smelling nighttime air.

Yes, I think August is the very best of summer, fire forged and drenched in gold.