My 5 Favorite Reads of 2021

If you read my blog post about the bullet journal I kept in 2021 then you’ll know that one of the things I used that journal for was to keep track of the books I read. It’s possible that I missed noting down a book or two, especially books that I read on my Kindle during my lunches at work, but I’d say that I’ve kept a good enough record to be able to share a list of my favorite things I read last year. These books didn’t necessarily come out in 2021, I just happened to read and enjoy them over the course of the year. I tend to gravitate towards mystery/thriller books, historical fiction/non-fiction, and books with fantasy/magical elements and while those aren’t the only kinds of books I read in 2021 when I reviewed my journal and made this list there was definitely a pattern.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo: I feel like with a list like this the expectation is to build up to my favorite read of the year, but I don’t want to wait, Ninth House is it for me. This is a mystery/thriller/modern fantasy novel centering on Alex Stern, a 20 year old freshman at Yale University who was recruited to study and be a member of the secret society tasked with overlooking the activities of the other secret societies on campus after she experiences a supernaturally-tinged traumatic event. As you can imagine, weird stuff happens and a mystery needs unraveling. I don’t want to say much more and risk giving something away. I read this book in June in less than a week, which is surprising because I usually only read physical books for 20 minutes or so at a time in the mornings before work. There’s a note in my journal from June 21 that says, “Tried to stretch out/savor Ninth House, but the only thing I wanted to do was read it, so I devoured the last 25% tonight.”

The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater: This series is the reason this post is called “5 Favorite Reads” and not “5 Favorite Books.” I know I’m very late to this series, so you’ve probably heard people gush over it before. I myself actually read the first book a couple years ago and enjoyed it, but never managed to get to the other three. This year, though, I finally went back and read them all, spreading them out over April, May, and June, reading other books in between to make them last. These books are another supernatural/fantasy mystery, this one about a group of high school kids in Virginia trying to find the tomb of a long dead Welsh king. Apart from just wanting to know how the mystery turned out, I really enjoyed the dynamics between the characters and seeing how their relationships shifted over the course of the books. Everyone, even the side characters, feel very distinct and left an impression on me. The value of found families is a theme in these books, which is something I always love to see in a book. Stiefvater knows how to spin an immersive world and I look forward to exploring more of her books in the future.

(I’ve had my Kindle for about 5 years now and it’s been great to not lug books to work. The Pokemon stickers were done by miski, but they’re not available anymore.)

Constance by Matthew Fitzsimmons: I read this book on my Kindle in September, starting it when I was on vacation in Cape May. When the book begins Constance D’Arcy’s clone wakes up and needs to piece together what happened to her and what the original Constance had been up to before her death, as Constance hadn’t been in to do a mental upload in 18 months. As she tries to sort things out she discovers that there are more suspicious events happening than just the fact that she was brought online with such an out of date backup. The near-future sci-fi world building is really neat, and this book really made me think about the ethics and ramifications of human cloning in ways I hadn’t really considered before. For the record, no, I would not like to be cloned, thanks!

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore: I was vaguely aware that this book existed for a few years, and when it came up on Prime Reading (which is where most of my Kindle reading comes from) I was quick to snap it up and I read it in the fall. This is a non-fiction book about the women who were exposed to radium in dial painting factories in the early to mid 1900s, particularly during WWI and WWII, and the struggles they had getting justice from the companies they worked for once the radium made them ill and even killed some of them quite young. This book is actually local history for me — the portion focused on New Jersey actually happened in my county and when I looked up where the factory was I realized I’ve driven past it multiple times and it is now (after a lot of remediation) a soccer field. I have rarely been so angry reading a book. The things these women went through and the reactions from their employers were outrageous, but at least it all led to changes in workers’ rights laws. However, shit like this still happens today all over the place and it was kind of disheartening to read this book and realize that ultimately not much has changed overall.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Morena-Garcia: This is the last book I read in 2021, literally finishing it in the early afternoon on New Year’s Eve. This novel, set in the 1950s, centers on Noemí Taboada, a privileged young woman from Mexico City who is sent into the countryside to visit her married cousin Catalina who has written a concerning letter home. Noemí stays with the unsettling family her cousin has married into and tries to figure out what’s going on without losing herself in the process. This is another novel that I couldn’t put down and can’t say much about without ruining the mysteries in it. I thought I had figured out the main twist part way through, only to be proven very, very wrong. It’s a tense, fun, quick little read that I can’t recommend enough.

I don’t actually know how many books I read in 2021 because I can’t be bothered to go through my journal and actually count them, but I know that when the pandemic started I got back into reading again in a way that I hadn’t done for years, so I did get through a fair few books. I’m excited to keep reading and find out what great books I’ll be able to share with you at the end of 2022!

A Year of Bullet Journaling

(The journal pictures in this post are of my fresh, start of the month pages because I didn’t want to share all my little notes.)

Way back in January I wrote that one of my goals for 2021 was to keep a bullet journal. I usually wait to reflect on my goals for the previous year in a post at the end of January, but have enough to say about this one that I felt like it needed its own space.

Part of the benefit of doing a bullet journal is that you can set it up how you like and don’t have space taken up by habit trackers or goal boxes that are irrelevant to you. I knew from the outset I wanted to do just a few simple layouts. Every month naturally starts with a title page. Obviously, a monthly calendar grid was absolutely necessary, as was a spread for each week. It took me a couple of months of experimentation to find a weekly set up that I liked, and once I settled on one I saw no reason to change it. I didn’t keep a traditional habit tracker per se, but I did round out each month of pages with a color coded list of whatever books I’d finished, shows/movies I’d watched, or games I’d beaten that month, along with little notes of what I thought of them. All of the pages were decorated as much or as little as I had the energy for at the time.

(My vast array of bullet journal supplies, lol.)

Energy is a lot of what bullet journaling comes down to for me, to be honest. Some months I was totally gung ho and happy to spend the time drawing out my layouts each month. There were many months where it felt peaceful and meditative in a way. However, other months, especially towards the end of the year, I had trouble getting myself to take the time for it, feeling like it was a tedious chore that I didn’t really want to do, but had to so I could write my little notes in it.

I’ll be honest, there isn’t really enough going on in my life that I feel like I need a planner to keep track of it, especially since ye olde plague sees me spending even more time at home than I did before. I did of course mark in appointments and events as they came up, but I got a lot more use out of my bullet journal as an actual journal to write a little bit about what happened every day. I don’t know why this had never occurred to me with the planners I’ve owned in the past, but I ultimately found that having a size limited box made it easier for me to keep up with regular journaling more than the intimidatingly expansive pages of the blank lined notebooks I’ve tried to journal in before. I’ve kind of fallen off of journaling for the past couple of months, but I’m glad that at least for a large part of the year I have a record of the things I’ve done and things I’ve felt.

So, to sum up, did I successfully complete a year of bullet journaling? Yes. But will I be doing it again? No. By the end of the year I found it kind of annoying. I’d rather just buy a new planner for 2022 and use it as a journal. However, I do intend to fill up the remaining empty pages of my bullet journal with more notes about what I’ve watched, read, etc. I’m not making a goal to read a certain number of books or anything like that, but I like that I have a record of not only the media I consumed, but also my general impressions of it.

Even though in the end I’ve decided not to continue bullet journaling, I’m glad I tried it. I’ve satisfied my curiosity about whether I was capable, but I’ve found out that it isn’t for me and that’s fine! That’s just how life is sometimes.

5 Things I’ve Learned as a Beginner DM

You may have noticed that after doing pretty well about keeping to my monthly blog posts for most of the year I’ve fallen off track over the last few months. There are a few different reasons for this (traveling, my chronic focus/procrastination problems, etc.), but also some of the time I would have spent writing blogs has been spent prepping for sessions of Dungeons & Dragons instead. I first started playing D&D at the start of the pandemic, as it was a solid escape from *gestures vaguely at the state of the world* and a way to keep remotely connected to friends on a regular basis. At the beginning of September I took the reins and started DMing for the first time for one of the two D&D groups I’m in.

(These are the 1st nice set of dice I ever bought, for my 1st D&D character, my paladin Ellie Crane. You can find them here on Kraken Dice’s site.)

Up until this point, this group hasn’t been playing with much of a formal system, but I requested that we try D&D 5e because that’s what the other group I’m in uses and I’m someone who really does the best with firm structure, lol. Instead of using one of the many campaign source books that exist, we’re using a setting and story of my own creation, because I was afraid the group wouldn’t enjoy the more structured nature of the 5e ruleset. If at the end of our journey through my little story they want to continue with their characters, I can easily pull a premade campaign book for us to use because I’m not planning on taking us to a very high level, but if they don’t want to continue with 5e then we can move on to another new system.

The original plan in March 2020 was actually for me to be the first DM of this group, but I was nervous and felt overwhelmed by the idea so I gently bowed out and two of my friends took turns to lead us through stories before I finally felt comfortable taking a turn. I was nervous the first night we played in my setting of the marshlands of Fendria because I was afraid they wouldn’t like my more high fantasy/historical-ish setting (there have been both werewolves and the mention of a salt cellar so far). However, they do seem to be enjoying the story so far – yes, I did directly ask because I’m that worried about everyone having fun, lol. I do still feel a little nervous before each session, but am getting more comfortable every time.

Leading the game via DMing has been a whole new learning experience for me and over the past two months of doing it, here are my main takeaways:

ENUMERATE EVERYTHING: When setting the menu at the first inn/tavern the party went to, I casually included chicken nuggets as a fun little throwaway because when I had the players complete character surveys before we began someone mentioned their character enjoying them. Somehow I did not anticipate that player asking, “What is the maximum number of chicken nuggets I can buy?” leading to me having to unexpectedly decide how many orders of chicken nuggets the barkeep had. This incident has since been followed by “How many bowls of porridge will the innkeeper let me have?” and “How many dog biscuits did I loot from the dead werewolf?” Fortunately from the porridge incident onward I realized that having the party member roll a d6 to determine how many of the item they get is a good way to deal with that kind of situation. Going forward though, I do intend to remember to determine proper quantities for more of these grouped items.

(My desk in D&D prep mode.)

PLANNING TAKES A LONG TIME: Probably there are many DMs who can sit down for just an hour or two to prep for a session, but I am not that that person. If I were working from a sourcebook I probably wouldn’t have to spend as much time as I do prepping, but since I’m making this campaign up from scratch it takes me a long time to get ready for each session. A good portion of this is because I basically wind up doing my notes twice, once by hand and the second type when I type them into my computer. I’ve written a bit before about how if you stick me in front of a computer and expect me to easily write, it’s not going to work very well. The words just don’t flow as easily and I also don’t have the self-discipline to prevent myself from wandering the internet instead. The dual process is helpful because I get my ideas down easily by hand and then can revise and reorder them in my computer as necessary when I type them up. However, this combined with my horribly distractable nature means that I can often take up an entire Sunday afternoon prepping for our Monday night sessions, which kind of sucks and I feel like it shouldn’t be that way, but I guess this is my curse to bear.

But my players do seem to be enjoying the story/setting I’m creating and so while I’m frustrated with myself for not being a more efficient prepper, their enjoyment makes it worth it. Making my own campaign gives me the space to include all of the silly little in jokes that I find funny. For instance, I created a recurring character very vaguely based on Criss Angel who I’ve named Christoph Engel and the laugh I got when I first introduced him and mimicked his “heavy breathing while doing magic” thing made me so glad I had written him into the story.

I’M BETTER AT IMPROV THAN I THOUGHT: As someone who thrives in planning and organization, the thing I was most worried about as a first time DM was the element of chaos the group would bring. I can only plan for so much, after all, and also the group is very capable of making decisions that could throw my plans off and force me to scramble. We’d been playing narrative games together for a year and a half before I took the lead so I was very familiar with the potential for my friends to do unexpected things, like when we decided not to not go kill the medieval versions of our characters’ bosses in the first story we played through or in our second game when someone rolled a crit to instantly stab and defeat a scary boss fight with a robot. Nothing so catastrophically game changing has happened to me yet, but I have turned out to be better than I thought I would be at dealing with the various surprises the group throws at me. For instance, at one point I created an opportunity in the story for the cleric to provide some spiritual solace to a distraught person and instead she chose to slap them in the face to snap them out of it and I think I rolled with it pretty well. It probably helps that I’m very much the type of DM to say, “well, sure, if it feels reasonably plausible to me, you can do it,” instead of overly analyzing the rules or having a very strict idea of what flies in the setting I’ve created. I’m sure at some point they will find a way to break my story, and hopefully I will be able to handle it gracefully.

(The rest of my shiny math rocks hoard! My favorite dice are from Everything Dice and Cozy Gamer, but I also have a few micellaneous sets that I’ve acquired one way or another.)

THE PLAYERS ARE A FANTASTIC RESOURCE: I mean, I guess this isn’t something I’ve necessarily newly learned because I’ve been playing narrative games with this group for well over a year, but boy are they good providing suggestions for situations that pop up during sessions that I struggle to find a solution to. For instance, a big “problem” has been the fact that one of the party members is a warforged. Warforged are constructs that do not eat or sleep and I have an unfortunately high number of situations in the campaign where eating or sleeping happens, such as waiting until morning to depart from a place. During our first long rest the warforged requested to go in the forest and hunt wolves and I was torn between “don’t squash the player’s fun” and “I don’t want them to take damage because they’re going to a boss encounter the next day.” One of the other party members helpfully suggested, “well, what if he just doesn’t find any wolves?” and so that’s what we went with. I consider this game to be a collaborative effort above all. I’ve written the story, I’m leading the way, and I’m the one making final rulings on things, but I’m also flexible and open to the players’ ideas.

DON’T USE IMPOSSIBLE ACCENTS FOR CHARACTERS: When I was helping one of the players put his character together, he mentioned to me that accents would really help with his immersion in my campaign. That made me internally go, “Well, fuck,” because I’m not terribly good at accents and can’t do very many of them, but now I knew I had to at least try to use them even though I hadn’t been planning on it. For the most part it’s been okay, but there have been a few setbacks. One of the main accents I can do is a rough, deep, gravely British-ish kind of accent that makes me cough when I use it for more than a sentence or two, so the two characters I’ve wound up using that for have been a bit tricky. But even worse was my decision to give the aforementioned Christoph Engel a Russian/Eastern European-ish accent. I’d thought I was okay at that one, but it turns out I am awful at sustaining it for any extended period of time. The party has suggested that it turns out he’s faking the accent, but I want to stick to my original idea instead of going that route, so instead we’ve decided that he’s traveled around so much that his native accent isn’t quite firm anymore. Engel’s accent is something I slightly regret choosing, but not so much that I’m willing to give up yet.

I’m sure I will have more lessons/advice to share the longer I DM. I do feel kind of silly for avoiding it and being nervous about it for so long because while I don’t claim to be the best DM ever, I’m far better at it than I expected. I have what I call my “big sister instinct” where I just want to take care of my friends and make sure they’re having a good time and I suppose that DMing kind of feeds off of that, lol. I’m excited to see what the players do with the rest of my story. I’m sure we’ll have a lot of fun!

Ingrained in Me (Cape May Trip 2021)

In September I went on a solo vacation to Cape May and I felt that I couldn’t entirely capture it the way I wanted using mere photographs and text, so instead I set out to make my first video in nearly five years. I’ve been going to Cape May since I was a child, and the script I wrote is chock full of ruminations on how it has affected me. I considered just dropping the script into the blog post here, but I’ve decided not to because I really want you to click on the video above and give it a watch. I probably will do a more traditional blog post about some aspect or other of this trip before the year is over, but for now please enjoy this video! I worked hard on it and I’m proud of it!

Probably most people who read this blog aren’t terribly familiar with my YouTube output of yore, but when it comes to travel vlogs I tried a few things here I had somehow never done before, like fading audio and video in and out and including little bits of the nature sounds in my source footage. I wish I could have included more ocean sounds, but I don’t have a nice mic for my camera kit so any clips of the sea had more awful wind noises than crashing waves.

It isn’t quite a perfect video — I wound up having to use footage and photos from past trips to show some of the things that I wanted to show, but luckily I am a bit of a digital hoarder so I had some choices! Also, there’s something weird about my voice over recording and I apologize for any unpleasantness about that. I think my microphone was picking up the sound of my ancient laptop’s fan, and by the time I realized that’s what it was I wasn’t able to do another voice over recording.

That being said, I really did enjoy the process of working on this overall! I’d forgotten how soothing and meditative the process of piecing together a video can be, so this probably won’t be my last project of this type. I can’t tell you when I’ll do another one. I know I for sure don’t really want to go back to the “talking head” style vlogs that make up most of my YouTube archive, since I now have this blog for posting those types of thoughts. But if I have the opportunity again to do something vaguely artsy like this and I feel inspired, you may see another video pop up here in the future and I hope you look forward to it.

An Afternoon of the American Dream

Tell me, what is the most cursed building you can think of? Is it an abandoned church with an overgrown graveyard beside it? The husk of a restaurant that closed due to fire a decade ago and now just sits lonely on its corner lot? The massive Victorian house in your town that can’t seem to keep an owner for more than a couple of years at a time? No, the most cursed building I know is a bright white shiny new mega mall that looms ominously over the highway it was built closely alongside. I present to you the American Dream.

No, it’s not an ironic joke, that is actually the name of the mall. It’s not the first name that it had (I’m partial to the former name Xanadu), as the place has a tortured history of beginning construction mere years before the 2008 financial crisis, being passed along a chain of developers, and periodically having all work on it stop for one reason or another. (If you’d like more detail its Wikipedia page is extensive and well-sourced.) Construction started when I was 13 years old and the mall only partially opened in the fall of 2019, months before I turned 29. I think we can all think of something that began in early 2020 which made it quite an unfortunate time to be opening a new retail facility. Oh, and it was only painted white about a month before the first part of it opened. For most of its development it was “an offense to the eyes as you drive up the turnpike” as my former governor Chris Christie once put it. I hate to agree with him about anything, but in this case I did. Do you understand now why I call it cursed?

It’s certainly not a place that I had much desire to visit. The American Dream isn’t that long a drive from where I live, but can only be accessed via a section of the New Jersey Turnpike that is more like a tangled bowl of spaghetti than a highway. This section of the Turnpike is also one of the major roads into New York City, so the congestion alone makes the area an unpleasant drive if you choose your travel time poorly. Another issue is that the mall is part of the Metlife Stadium complex (aka, where the Giants and Jets play football and where a lot of concerts are held) and that is its own godawful nightmare to navigate even with GPS on a non-event day. One of New Jersey’s stereotypes is that it is a land of many shopping malls, and at least in my part of the state that is not a lie. I can think of four malls that I can reach more conveniently than the American Dream, so I really had no reason to make the trek out there.

But then the universe handed me a reason, in the form of my friend Shannon, who visited me from Boston early in June. She had seen me talking about (read: dunking on) the mall on Twitter a few weeks before after Jezebel published this article about it that I really loved and she wrote to me, “when I visit this is a must see.” I replied, “yeah, sure, we could give it a try, lol.” And so on the final full day of her visit, after only a slight navigational snafu caused by the aforementioned spaghetti highways, we walked into the American Dream, dodging people riding around on little rolling mechanical animals at speeds that made me worry I would be hurt if one of them barreled into me.

The first proper space we encountered was a big round atrium of a room ringed by upper levels of what I assumed were supposed to be occupied stores, but which were largely just spaces covered by white panels. Dominating the center of this space was the first of the many displays that honestly just seemed to exist solely as social media photo ops meant to make the mall look hip and cool. However, I thought this first one was very ugly despite its positive message of LOVE. As we proceeded down the hall we soon came upon a courtyard with a garden that was very pretty and also probably mostly fake. It was also super fucking hot in there because of the sun streaming through the magnifying glass-like dome overhead.

While the vast majority of the American Dream is too much vacant retail space covered with hideous, slightly unsettling Instagrammable murals while they wait for tenants to fill them, there was another strange phenomenon happening the day that we visited. Many of the stores that had occupants were closed. I was confused for a moment, but then it dawned on me: it was Sunday and I had just discovered that this monument to excess was built in Bergen County, only adding to its cursed aura. Bergen County, New Jersey is a very special place where there are laws preventing the sale of certain goods on Sundays, including some items commonly sold in shopping malls, such as clothing. Luckily we weren’t trying to shop, just wanted to ogle the monstrosity, so the stores being closed wasn’t a disappointment to us. Shannon even pointed out that it was probably to our benefit — more people in the mall were masked up than I expected considering the governor had just lifted the mask mandate the week before, but surely the stores being closed lowered the total amount of people visiting the mall the day we were there.

So you may be asking, if most of the stores are closed then why not entirely close this mall on Sundays? Because, friends, there are ~*~attractions~*~ there. There is minigolf, which, ok. Lego has sponsored a children’s play area. Fine. The mall has an aquarium. Why does the mall have an aquarium? There is an ice skating rink confusingly located beneath another one of those glass dome sun roofs that just traps the sun and turns it into heat.

There is the indoor ski slope which gives the building its unique shape. Nickelodeon has an amusement park which we couldn’t see much of because you have to take an elevator down into the pit where it lives and they (probably wisely) don’t let you get close to the railing that overlooks it. You can ride a water slide in the Dreamworks water park while a massive balloon of shirtless Shrek in swim trunks watches over you with vaguely ominous excitement as people peer through the gaps in the window decals to see all of the “fun” they are missing out on.

For the record, I can’t even begin to comprehend how two major media corporations got drawn into this mall in East Rutherford, New Jersey. My only guess is that in addition to local visitors, they’re hoping tourists visiting New York City will take the train over. At one point I thought, “I can’t wait to see the Defunctland episodes that are gonna be made about this place someday,” but in hindsight it feels kind of petty and rude of me to want these places to fail when they’ve barely had a chance to begin thanks to the plague.

The only thing in the mall that I truly loved in an unironic way was the very big candy store where they sell just about any type of penny candy you could think of, typical packaged treats, and also lollipops as long and thick as a child’s arm.

Despite all of the shiny new everything on display, there was something a bit haunting about the American Dream. As I mentioned, there are acres of empty storefronts with weird mural coverings on the lower levels or blank facades in “don’t notice the mall is mostly empty and unfinished” white on upper floors of the mall. But there are also large areas of the mall (mostly parts of the 3rd floor and the entire 4th) that are just blocked off with polite little ropes or massive chest height wooden barricades which are also painted white, likely in the very vain hope that people will not notice or think too much of them. We even spotted an escalator going up to a temporary ceiling, like a modern version of the Winchester Mystery House.

We spent just under two hours at the mall despite its large size, leaving just in time for our parking to still be free. We got lost trying to leave the Meadowlands complex because one of the exit roads was blocked off for seemingly no reason and wound up getting onto the Turnpike via a service road that I wasn’t 100% we were allowed to be on. Somehow it felt like an appropriate end to the whole venture.

All in all, while I do feel like my visit satisfied a certain curiosity I had about the place, I doubt I will return anytime soon. In thinking about our visit in the days afterwards and describing it to my friends and coworkers, I had a galaxy brain moment. I’d been reluctant to call the mall American Dream for so long because I thought it was a stupid name. But after seeing the inside of that blight on the landscape of my home state, I know better. What could be a more perfect name for a massive, partially completed, mostly vacant husk of an expensive land development project than American Dream?

ELP, My Father, and Me

Andy’s van

During the Covid lockdowns my mom got really into listening to the bands she listened to when she was young. I like classic rock, so I enjoyed seeing what each CD that she purchased was. It makes me happy when she plays the albums, because it’s adorable to see her rocking out and excited. One night a few months ago during dinner she put one of her more recent purchases, Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery, into the little radio in our dining room. As it played my mom mentioned, “Andy liked this band.”

Andy. Her brother. My biological father.

My interest was immediately piqued.

I wrote once before on this blog about my unconventional upbringing and family structure (and I suggest you check out that post for more detail), but the short version is my biological parents were on drugs and so my brothers and I were raised by other members of our family instead. One of our aunts ultimately adopted us and she is the only mom I have really known. Our family rarely talks about my biological parents, but I know I could ask questions if I had them. Unfortunately, my most pressing questions (How did you pick my name? How could you value drugs over getting clean for your children?) are not ones that my older family members would have answers for anyway so I stay silent.

But silence does not mean lack of curiosity. I remember when I was younger I hid away a couple of photos of my biological parents that I found in the family photo collection, mysterious figures that I barely even remembered. I looked closely at their faces, wondering which parts of them I resembled. They aren’t people that I obsess over or miss, likely because I was simply too young to remember much when we left, but it would be a lie to say I haven’t spent a good chunk of time wondering about them over the years. I was lucky to grow up in an environment filled with enough love that I don’t ache over my estrangement from my biological mother, that I don’t feel like I missed out on anything by never having someone I could call “dad.” But I suppose that’s a privilege in its way — how I can miss something I don’t remember having?

But still, my mom casually handing me this information about Andy immediately sparked my interest. The music seemed like a way to connect with him, a chance to learn something small about the person he was before drugs ruined him and got his children taken away, never to be seen again. So I slipped the CD out of my mom’s collection and into my laptop, putting on my good headphones and closing my eyes to immerse myself as fully as I could. I wanted to go into my first listen with a clean slate and looked up nothing about the ELP or the album beforehand.

It turns out that ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery is a fucking weird album, at least so far as my taste in music is concerned. I’m no expert in the differences between genres, but I almost immediately pegged it as prog rock because of the weird harmonics and experimental arrangements. But even the song choices themselves seem odd to me. The album opens with an arrangement of the hymn Jerusalem, which the internet tells me is basically an alternative British national anthem. Then it segues into a spooky, siren-filled arrangement of the Toccata from Alberto Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concerto before delving into an acoustic love song followed by a song about a bar fight that feels almost ragtimeish. The album concludes with the 30 minute epic Karn Evil 9, which tells a story about a war between humans and computers, with a lot of innovative for the time bloopy electronic music along the way.

This album feels like the definition of mood whiplash and if I had to describe it in one word I would choose “ballsy.” I definitely feel like ELP wouldn’t get away with it today, but my impression of the 1970s is that people were more open to weird things than they are now and I wish we were still living in that kind of creative environment. So much of modern media in general feels so bland, like it’s been focus group tested to death in order to generate maximum profit. A lot of what’s considered “popular” music today, the stuff that gets the most radio play, is getting more and more samey to me. Luckily we at least have the internet now, so there is access to more unconventional projects if you dig for them. Brain Salad Surgery a messy album tonally, which somehow feels appropriate considering it’s also my link to my biological father. It’s weird music, but at least it’s memorable.

The album came out in 1973, when my biological father would have been 10 years old, give or take a year or two. So I assume he first encountered ELP when he was a little older and that this was part of the music he listened to when he was a teen or in his early 20s. I’m curious to know what other music he liked, to know how representative this album is of his overall taste. Was he a big prog rock fan or was ELP just an outlier? For once I have questions that my mom could perhaps answer for me since she and Andy were close in age, but 25 years removed from living with him feels weirdly late to start asking about this person our family never discusses.

My only memory of my biological father is him driving the family van with his knee as he opened a little packet of something that was likely illicit and which I was too young at the time to comprehend. That man was perhaps already no longer the one who had enjoyed ELP in all their weirdness, but I will never know. In 2010 my uncle, our family genealogy research fanatic, somehow found out that Andy had died some years prior from, you guessed it, an overdose.

But there’s a story my aunt told me once which has been on my mind again lately. After my brothers and I were taken away by CPS the adults of my family went to court. After the hearing, which turned out to be the last time my aunt ever saw my biological father, he passionately told her, “I’m gonna get my kids back.” And she replied, “I hope you do.”

While I didn’t know Andy well enough to still love him today, that story makes me assume that my brothers and I were beloved by him for at least a short portion of his life. It’s not like he disappeared from my life because he didn’t care at all, it’s just that sometimes people come across forces they, for whatever reason, can’t or don’t want to overcome. That being said, I understand addiction is a complicated beast, but I don’t think I will ever be able to comprehend how a person’s children wouldn’t be worth enough to fight it off, or at least inspire them to make more of an effort to do so than my biological parents seemed to make.

Do I feel closer to my biological father for having listened to ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery? No, not really. But it’s nice to know anything at all about him that isn’t his drug use or his neglect of his children or the effects that had on his extended family, nice to experience something that he enjoyed in his youth.

I don’t have a firm opinion on what happens when we die, but I’ve always liked to think that the people who care about us keep an eye on us when they pass. I hope Andy would be proud of what my brothers and I have managed to achieve despite his lingering specter, glad that we aren’t reenacting his mistakes.

The Crash

“It kind of feels like rushing out to get a new dog right after your dog dies,” I joked to Pete the car salesman as I sat inside the newer version of my car. I had last seen Pete the year before when he helped me close up my 2016 Nissan Rogue’s lease and swap me over to owning the car outright. A solid, quintessentially New Jersey Italian American man, he was kind, helpful, and not super pushy towards me about actually getting a new car instead of keeping my leased one. I assumed that I would never see him again, but the summer of 2020 had other plans for me in the form of my first car crash.

It was a Tuesday morning in late July and I was stopped at a red light near my house on my way to work, waiting to make a left turn. As the light turned green, I saw a car was about to come straight through the intersection so I decided to wait for them to pass before starting my turn. Suddenly, a driver on the cross street full on ignored his red light and barreled right into the other car. I yelled in surprise when I saw their impact, and then, of course, screamed when the hit car rammed into mine. My left knee bashed against the underside of the dashboard as I scrambled with my right foot to relocate the brake pedal it had been jolted off of by the impact. Once I found my footing and came to a stop, I put my car in park, applied the parking brake because we were on a hill, and turned off the engine, not knowing that it was the last time it would run.

To my uneducated eye the damage to my car didn’t look that bad, and in fact my airbags hadn’t even triggered. But I had a bad feeling because the engine wouldn’t turn over when one of the cops who responded to the accident asked if I could move my car from its resting place in the middle of the street. I walked the couple of blocks home unscathed after the accident, apart from having to wrap my bruised, sore left knee for a couple of weeks. My car had properly done its job of keeping me safe, but when I found out the cost I was devastated. A few days after the accident I received a phone call from my insurance company informing me that they were declaring my Rogue a total loss due to damage to the electrical system. To say I cried is a massive understatement.

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you will be aware that I have a tendency to become unusually attached to certain objects that I use often. I had gotten my first Rogue because I had to give up the hand-me-down station wagon that had been in my family for 20 years and had intended to keep it just as long if possible. I’d had nearly four years with the car and it had been a refuge where the world couldn’t reach me. The first year that I owned it was full of very high highs and extremely low lows and it had been my constant companion (and place to cry my eyes out without drawing attention) through it all, and had been just as helpful to me in the years that followed. I was nowhere near ready to give it up and it didn’t seem fair that I was forced to by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As soon as I knew I wasn’t getting my car back I decided I would just go back to the dealership who had sold it to me, and within a week of being told my car was unsalvageable I was driving a new one off the lot. I feel very fortunate that I was in a financial position to do such a thing, but I was also resentful and wanted nothing more than to have my own car back. My new Rogue felt familiar, because it was after all another Nissan and they hadn’t changed the layout of the dashboard buttons much in four years, but it also felt slightly off. The fact that many of the radio buttons had become touch screen controls was a big mental adjustment to make. I also immediately noticed it seemed slightly bigger outside and roomier inside (I won’t be bashing my knee under the dash of this one), and thought it was my mind playing tricks on me until my brother confirmed it. It made me jumpy in narrow lanes, paranoid that I was somehow too wide even though tractor trailers fit in the same lanes no problem. (I’m still more nervous on the highway than I used to be, which confuses me because I was at full stop in a suburban area when the crash happened.) On top of this, I was upset about having to put my savings towards the car instead instead of the new computer I had actually been saving the money for.

Additionally, alongside all of those feelings, I was locked in a battle of sorts with my gap insurance company. My main car insurance company valued my totaled car at a few thousand dollars less than I still owed on it. “No big deal,” I thought, “I have gap insurance which will cover the rest for me.” But I had also signed a couple of service contracts when I financed the car, and the gap people wanted proof of their cancellation before they would pay out. The contract people said the dealership had to cancel them and the dealership said the contract people had to cancel them. I made many phone calls and got no helpful answers Confused, frustrated, in despair, and just wanting it to be over, I quietly paid the few thousand dollar balance over the next few months, feeling ashamed the whole time that I couldn’t figure out how to get these various companies to do what I needed and again grateful that I was in a position for this to not be financially debilitating in a major way. So, long story short, when financing a car take gap insurance, but do not accept any special service contracts because sure you may not have to pay out of pocket to replace your tire on the off chance you get a flat, but if you total your car the contracts may become a total fucking pain in the ass.

TL;DR: I was too stressed and upset in various internal and external ways to enjoy my new car.

It’s only now, about 10 months since everything happened, that I feel like I’m bonding with my new Rogue and finally leaving the resentment behind. I first realized it was happening back in March. I’d been feeling low for weeks, so I called out of work and jetted off down the shore. It wasn’t the first time I had driven this car to the sea, but this time I did something different. After visiting my usual haunt, I decided I wanted to go to a town near there that I’d never been to using only signs on the road and my general notion of what direction I should drive in. It was a sunny, unseasonably warm day and I meandered through the area with the windows down, probably technically somebody’s definition of lost, but not bothered by it in the slightest. I felt at peace cruising around in my new rolling refuge. It suddenly dawned on me that all of my awful feelings about what had brought us together were firmly behind me, and ahead was only a bright open road. The safety sensors beeped at me worriedly as I slightly went over a line on the road to avoid a pothole and I patted the steering wheel reassuringly and said, “It’s okay. We’re okay,” as we continued on our way.

Alone in the Storm

“Does anyone else have something they bought recently that they really like?” asked my friend B while we were on a group video call that was theoretically supposed to be a session of D&D, but which had devolved, as it so often did, into extended chit chat — in this case a game of show and tell. I had recently received a small print that I’d bought from one of my favorite artists. It took several months to reach me, traveling from Finland by the slowest untrackable mail. Even knowing from the outset that it would take a long time to reach my hands, I had to have it. I was drawn in by the oceanic imagery, because nautical stuff is one of my things, but also I looked at the girl alone in a tempest, on a narrow perch in a storm tossed sea, and saw myself. Melodramatic, but true. But when I showed it to my friends and explained that, B joked, “You’re not alone, you have us! You have to send it back.”

But somehow I do often feel quite alone. I’m a bit of the odd duck of my family, the only daughter, bookish and introverted. I also sometimes feel like a tangential person in my friend groups. Yes, I do think I am well liked and appreciated. I consider my close friendships to be solid, and I am grateful for that. But sometimes I do feel like everyone else’s connections with each other are stronger than they are with me. I get the sensation of being on the outside looking in.

I know that I do it to myself, though. When I can’t see friends in person I tend not to reach out as much. This is partly because if I’m not hearing from a friend I always just assume they’re busy living their lives and I don’t want to be a bother, but it is partly out of sheer shitty forgetfulness. I have literally lost close friendships due to these bad habits (although for the record, those people I drifted away from in silence didn’t try speaking to me either — it takes two people to make a friendship work, and I would have responded had I heard from them). However, equally harmful is my habit of withdrawing when my mental health is tanking. I would rather call out sick from work and run away from home for a day than tell my friends I feel shitty and need a pick me up, which is because I am worried about being a burden (despite repeated reassurances that I am not).

I live as the girl on the stony spire, silent as the rock erodes beneath my feet and I am swept into the stormy sea that I have wrought for myself. Sometimes at this point I’ll send out a text message expressing some of my misery, a rope flung out in a panicked prayer that someone will catch it and pull me to shore. I am lucky because someone always does. However, more often than not I allow myself to slip under the waves and be dashed on the sharp fragments of the stone that had been holding me up, preferring to tread water until I drown instead of risking worrying the people around me, because I know I am ultimately the one responsible for maintaining my own well being (although my loved ones are not stupid and can often see me slipping under anyway).

So far I have always managed to outlast my riptide, redevelop my sea legs, paddle back to shore, and start over again. The storm always passes and I find a new outcropping to stand on. As the clouds roll away I convince myself that continuing in this fashion is just fine because, after all, I survived, didn’t I?

(And here, please allow me to read your mind: yes, I know I probably need a therapist, but who can afford it? Blogging is cheaper.)

I fill my nights with my friends so I don’t have to live with the silence that often brings the storm. Two different D&D campaign groups. Watching friends’ streams. Thursday game night and the conversations with the late night crew that often follow. My closest friends just a text message away and more than willing to schedule time to hang out over voice chat. But everyone currently being only faces and voices inside of screens sometimes feels worse than I think it would be to be totally isolated and not have any of that at all.

Their voices fill the space until one by one they log off and disappear, leaving me with only the sound of my own breathing and the wind roaring in the trees behind my house, sounding something like the raging loneliness of a stormy sea. Somehow it feels too silent, too empty, too alone.

Farewell, Old Friend

When we met, it felt like fate. I was looking for a fluffy hooded jacket and there you appeared on one of the five racks my local Target seemingly grudgingly allots to plus size clothes, and in one of my favorite clothing colors to boot. I tried you on, olive green and cozy, and immediately fell in love. But all things come to an end, and now you have as well.

This parting has been a long time coming, as over the years you have been slowly decaying. First, months after we met, one of the buttons on your hood popped off. I always meant to give you a new one, but never got around to it and just lived with having to hold your hood up in strong winds.

Then it was your snaps, were one by one giving way and disappearing under the duress of the repeated fastening and unfastening of daily wear.

Your first drastic injury was the split up your back which I kept putting off sewing shut until finally on New Year’s Eve Eve I felt an odd sensation getting into the car after work and realized you had torn up to the middle of my back. I spent the night frantically sewing you as best I could because I knew I would have trouble replacing you, partly because I’m picky and partly because retail’s season ahead nature and my plus sized body meant my options would likely be limited. I didn’t want to replace you anyway, because I’m the kind of person who gets too attached to inanimate things.

We had spent four winters together. Your body sheltered me from the cold. Your sleeves accepted my tears without question. Your massive fluffy hood brought me a lot of joy in its oversized ridiculousness. Your long length allowed for deep pockets that let me go on winter adventures without a purse, as everything I needed fit neatly inside. (I apparently wrote about one such adventure in the first year of this blog.)

The next day I ventured into a mall for the first time since the pandemic started only to come up empty handed. I was okay with it, though. I hoped that sewing up the back would help you last the rest of the winter and then I could lay you to rest and buy a new coat next fall. But that was not to be.

It started with a tiny hole next to the right side pocket that I really didn’t pay very much mind to. Such a little hole didn’t seem poised to become a huge problem. But then as I settled myself in the seat of my car one night after work in late February I heard a ripping sound and felt something tear by my right hip. When I got home, I inspected the damage. I considered sewing this tear as well, just to get me through the last month of winter, but had a feeling that it would just pop open again and again considering how the hole wanted to gape open when you were worn. I resigned myself to your immediate retirement.

I luckily have a peacoat that I wore instead of you, for the last few weeks of cold weather, but it isn’t as warm and it made me mourn you even more. When I seek a new coat next winter I will likely have to settle for something lesser and it somehow doesn’t feel fair. I have loved you immensely, as silly as it feels to admit it, and I am very sorry to see you go.

I suppose it is lucky that one of my most significant pandemic losses (besides, you know, a year of my life) was “just” a coat. But you were never just a coat to me.

The Cuddling Dream (or, Missing Touch)

The first week of February I had a dream where I was romantically cuddled up with a friend of mine that I have never considered dating. We were in a small bed and I kept accidentally getting pushed onto the floor, which I later joked on Twitter was my brain trying to forcibly eject me from a dream that, while lovely, was ultimately incorrect because while he’s a nice person, I just don’t feel that way about him.

Last year I wrote a blog post about finally feeling like I wanted to date again, a couple of years after my last relationship ended. This was mere weeks before the pandemic locked everything down and now I can’t imagine when I’ll be able to have a go at it because I just don’t trust anyone to be fully honest about how covid-safe they’re being. I mean, I have coworkers who claim they’re being careful and then post photos on Facebook of them doing things like indoor dining. Besides, where can we go on dates anyway considering outdoor spaces are crowded with people who are also trying to get a break from the confines of their homes?

I went from getting hugs from my friends on a regular basis pre-pandemic to more or less nada apart from rare hugs from my mom or my brother. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of scientific studies done about how hugs and other forms of touch do positive things for the human body and mind, and not being able to give my friends hugs while we’ve all been struggling has been hard on me. I’m so touch starved it’s no wonder I dreamed about snuggling up with somebody that I consider friendly and trustworthy. Each time I was pushed off the bed in the dream I would pull myself back on, as if my deepest unconscious was begging for someone, anyone, to hold me despite my logical mind trying to shove me back into reality.

Honestly, I really do feel like cuddling is largely underrated in relationships that have a sexual component. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy the things that happen when clothes come off, but that isn’t what I miss the most about being in a relationship. It’s the soft warmth of laying my head on someone’s chest and hearing a steady heartbeat, the soothing sound of relaxed breathing as we lay with our legs entwined, the simple grace of arms draped around waists to hold each other close, fingers occasionally comfortingly caressing a back or a shoulder. Those cozy velvety moments are colored reddish gold in my mind, like late afternoon sunshine or the light thrown by a fireplace. Time is warped, simultaneously deliciously abundant in the moment and dreadfully lacking when it is over.

As I slowly gained consciousness after the dream I could still feel the ghost of a stubble covered face nuzzling my shoulder. I opened my eyes to the other side of my bed, empty except for the pillows I hug when I sleep. The dream had felt extremely real, and although it was about the wrong person waking up alone still felt very lonely. Disconcerted, I rolled over onto my other side in an attempt to shake it off, in an attempt to prevent myself from falling right back into the same impossible dream as I drifted off again.