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.)

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.

August

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.

The Dog Days of Late Winter

The glittery, distant urban sprawl, taken at an overlook spot in my area.

There’s something dreadful about the way the latter part of winter drags on. The weeks are filled with seemingly interminable strings of grey days, even when it doesn’t actually rain or snow. The trees are still bare, allowing the skyline to shimmer temptingly in ways it can’t when covered up with foliage. The light in the backyard behind mine is able to make its way through the woods separating the properties and into my room like a dim distant spotlight into my mind, exposing me to myself in a way I don’t like.

Invariably, this time of year fills me with restlessness and I find myself browsing apartment rental websites. I’m not even seeking someplace sunnier or warmer, just contemplating making a new life closer to the shore or to my distantly flung friends (despite feeling guilt about the idea of leaving my local loved ones). But such a change feels impossible to make when I can’t even afford to rent alone in the area where I currently live on my slightly better than average salary, and when I know the housing situations elsewhere are just as dire.

I’ve read so many times about how in decades past people would just decide to move someplace new with nothing but a little money and a few possessions, but I don’t know that such a thing is possible most of the time anymore. Life has too many prerequisites. People need jobs to get experience, but can’t get hired because they don’t have experience. Landlords want proof that you’re employed, but local candidates who can start immediately are often more desirable than the person who has to delay their start date to relocate.

A friend once told me that if I want a new job I just need to make a list of places where I want to work and call and ask if they’re hiring. That isn’t advice that particularly works for my field, but I wish I had that kind of courage, that kind of audacity, the chutzpah that this same friend has told me I have. I wish I knew how to just go for the things I want without talking myself out of them by telling myself the reasons they won’t work. I want my life to change, but feel so overwhelmed by not knowing how to place my first step that I just stand still. Meanwhile the world keeps rushing by, leaving me feeling left behind, and stagnant, and choking on the recycled air in the little bubble I’ve created for myself. Caution served me relatively well in my 20s, but now that I’m in my 30s it feels like just another bad habit to break, if only I were any good at doing that kind of thing.

I don’t know where to go from here, only that I want to. I don’t know how to change from here, only that I need to.

To Do in 2022

I think that even if I wasn’t born in the same month that people usually set their yearly goals I would still choose to do so in whatever my birth month was. Beginning my own personal next trip around the sun just feels like a good time to set intentions for myself, which is why I always wait until the end of January, closer to my actual birthday, and have a god long think about what I want (and need) to achieve instead of rushing to decide the first week of the month.

When I look back at what I wanted to get out of 2021 the results are pretty mixed. I carried over some goals from 2020 and those in particular went especially poorly, but I’d like to focus on successes instead because there are good reasons for (most of) my failures. For instance, while I still have games in my backlog, I did in fact play games there were not Red Dead Online. I did clear the backlog of physical books I owned and even (shocker) started getting books from my local library again after several years of not doing so. I managed a whole year of bullet journaling (which you can read about here). The various weekly online game nights that started during the pandemic are still going pretty strong and are some of the highlights of each of my weeks.

This year is my “golden birthday” (turning 31 on the 31st) and while part of me wants to declare grand intentions re: my job, my living situation, or my love life, the ongoing pandemic has me hesitant to reach out in those areas. I know I shouldn’t let it hold me back because covid is probably going to be part of the rest of our lives, but somehow the situation still feels too precarious. I somehow don’t feel too bothered by the idea of getting sick myself, but I am terrified of the idea of being the one to infect my loved ones. I will likely slowly, casually try making some progress in these areas (especially on the job front because WHOO BOY it’s been rough there lately), but I’m not formally declaring them major goals.

So what am I hoping to accomplish in 2022? Well, there are two really significant bad habits I’ve been grappling with, especially over the last several months, and there’s no time like the present for squaring my shoulders and starting to deal with them.

The first thing I need to do is divorce myself from my fucking cell phone. I don’t even want to think about how many nights I’ve lost to tapping back and forth between Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube and I feel really awful about myself when I realize I have yet again wasted an entire evening to that nonsense. I could be using that time to pursue my hobbies instead, and yet I’m not! My idea for accomplishing this is simple: when I go up to my room after dinner, my phone goes into my pajama drawer until I take it out at bedtime to charge. This way, I should be able to hear it if it rings or if my messages start blowing up, but if it doesn’t then it is basically out of sight, out of mind and that is what I need.

The second thing I need to do is to stop revenge procrastinating everything. You may have heard of the concept of revenge bedtime procrastination, which is basically staying up way too late to do more of the things you don’t get to do during the day. My issue is that I do not just revenge procrastinate at bedtime. Sleep is probably the most significant thing I procrastinate, but I am messing up my own life all day long by just not doing things when I am supposed to do them. Turning up a few minutes late for work is a less consequential one because we don’t clock in/out and my bosses don’t seem to notice or care, but I’ll put off cooking myself dinner until I’m so hungry I forget to put butter in the pan before I crack an egg in it (a real thing I did this week and it was a minor disaster, fml). Dealing with my phone issue will help immensely with this, because my phone is my number one accomplice in this procrastination.

If I can just get these two bad habits under control, I should be able to more successfully do some of the other things I want to this year, because I will simply have more time on my hands. Keeping up with both my daily journal and the one where I write little notes about the books, shows, and games I’m consuming is relatively simple. I did it last year and I’m confident I can do it again. But I want to write more, and try getting better at art, and maybe get back to playing music. I want to play more with photography as well. I did a couple of photoshoots of myself 2021 where I played around with different lighting setups (the photos in this post are from one of them) and it was pretty fun!

I also want to actually post 12 blog posts again. I only got 10 done in 2021, although one of them was a video so it took more time to put together than writing and editing a normal post. It was the first video I’ve made since quietly quitting YouTube a few years ago and I’m quite proud of it. I’d like to make more videos in the future if I have ideas, but I’m not putting pressure on myself. And speaking of proud, I’m actually especially proud of some of the writing I did in 2021. The first one that comes to mind when I think back to my favorite posts of last year is the post I did in June about my biological father, but if I were to call out two other favorites they would be the one I wrote in February about being touch-starved and the one from the beginning of May about how lonely and isolated I’d been feeling that winter/spring. I reread my 2021 posts while writing this one and I can honestly say I still like all of them, which is its own accomplishment.

So that’s what I’ve got cooking for 2022. Is there anything you’re trying to accomplish this year? I hope you can get it done! And I hope I can succeed with mine as well.

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!