Avocados (Or, Finding Unexpected Parallels)

(CW: minor knife injury, blood)

My favorite way to eat an avocado is simple. Select an avocado that you think will be edible inside based on its outer color and degree of firmness. Take a sharp knife and cut around the outside to create two roughly equally sized halves. Twist and pull to separate them. Set the half holding the pit on the counter and carefully, carefully use the tip of your knife to remove the pit. Sprinkle salt over the avocado’s flesh, preferably over the sink to minimize mess. Consume immediately, using the avocado as its own bowl.

Picking an avocado at the store is tricky, though. Every time I buy one, I review the array of choices before me, trying to do my best to make a suitable choice, even though I know I can never be fully sure I’ve gotten it right because often even the ones I thought would be good can turn out awful once I open them up, like my local supermarket’s knack for selling avocados that seem perfectly fine, but then ripen unevenly, going overly mushy on one side while still being rock hard and inedible on the other. Sometimes I think the avocado I’ve chosen has reached its ideal ripeness, only to open it up and find out I’m only half correct — part of the flesh is just fine, but the rest is far gone to rot. I have consumed so many partially rotten avocados (carefully eating around the awful bits) just because I didn’t want to waste the good parts.

Lately I’ve been thinking that trying to eat an avocado is very much like my dating experiences. The parallels are almost comical — picking someone I think I’ll be compatible with, nurturing them until the time seems right and hoping they’ll be sweet and tender at the core, the disappointment when I realize that something is rotten between us, trying to salvage what I can for far longer than I should. If you don’t handle avocados carefully, you will get hurt. If you don’t handle your heart carefully, you will get hurt.

For instance, in 2017 I went through a breakup with a guy who to me was like finding that lucky avocado. He treated me better than anyone I’d dated before and while he wasn’t perfect and I did have a couple of misgivings, I thought we were a good match. I wasn’t naive enough to think he might be The One, but after five months I was in love and thought that perhaps he was someone I would be with for a long haul. Until I was faced with the idea that I maybe didn’t understand him as well as I thought I did. He abruptly broke up with me immediately after I spent a weekend in Boston gushing to my friends about how great things were, which honestly made me feel really embarrassed on top of my breakup misery. How could I have misjudged the feel of him so badly?

I’d already been struggling with my mental health because my job was in a particularly insufferable phase at that time and my search for a new one wasn’t panning out. So losing him so suddenly on top of my existing shitty feelings sent me into the tempest and on some strange journeys, like leaving work “sick” to drive down the shore in the rain and stare at the foggy, thrashing sea. Like hopping back into online dating way before I was ready and winding up going another round with a certain Ghost. Like standing in my kitchen on a day I’d called out of work, clutching an avocado in a hand shaking from hunger because I’d chosen the unfeeling void of sleep over nourishing the body that held my struggling mind.

In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have been trusted with a knife, but there was no one home to stop me. My mom didn’t often buy avocados, but there were some on the counter so I went to work opening one because I didn’t have the energy for high effort foods. If I’d been eating under more clearheaded circumstances I would have taken better care with my grip on the avocado and the knife, but instead I held the avocado in my hand as I went in with the knife tip to try to excise the pit. The knife slipped against the surface of the pit and the very tip of it lodged itself in my left palm. “Oh,” I thought dimly, feeling a hollow sort of surprise, but no pain. I inspected the cut, which was small and barely bleeding. I awkwardly managed to keep the wound covered until it healed, which seemed to take a very long time, probably due to its hypermobile location. Over time it stopped being a story of depression gone dangerous and became merely a humorous cautionary tale, although even in the immediate aftermath I was putting a self-deprecating, minimizing spin on it, which I know because I tweeted about it.

The puncture was so small and so clean, as just the tip of the knife had entered. Somehow I stopped the momentum of my arm short of where the serrated part of the blade began. I can’t even tell you now exactly where it was, because it aligned nearly perfectly with one of the lines in the center of my palm. Any scar that may have existed has been long absorbed by the neighboring crease. I’m sure a palm reader would tell me there was some sort of symbolism in cutting whatever line I did, in overwriting it with something new. And besides, the lines in our hands can shift and change over time, so in a way these aren’t even the same hands that were injured five years ago. I am not the same girl who was hurt five years ago.

I’ve learned since then that I got incredibly lucky, that some people seriously damage tendons in their hand due to careless avocado handling. It hurt to have my heart broken, but I know now that I was lucky. Not because of anything about that relationship that has come to light since then, but because there is a certain kindness in cutting someone off when you know it isn’t going to work, as opposed to the torment of drawing out an unwanted situation.

That doesn’t mean I don’t turn it all over in my mind from time to time, hoping that I’ve properly learned how to tell when more subtle signs of rot are setting into a relationship so I’m not so blindsided next time. But admittedly I’ve never properly gotten the hang of choosing an avocado or knowing just the right moment to open it up and get at that green goodness.

I am a woman who looks for meaning in everything. But sometimes an avocado is just an avocado. Sometimes a man is just a man. And sometimes neither one will work out the way I want it to.

Catalyst: Crowley

I just wanted to provide a brief bit of background before you read what is by far the longest bit of writing I’ve ever posted on the internet. When I make a new D&D character I often write an extended bit of background for them, what I call their “catalyst” story, the event in their life that set them on their adventuring path. This is the catalyst story for my warlock Crowley, detailing how he met his patron. The campaign I play Crowley in takes place in The Myriad, a region made of scattered islands in a sea and four surrounding continents. I considered splitting this story into two posts, but wasn’t sure of a good place to split it, so here it is in all of its glory! I hope you enjoy it!

A bit of location inspiration for you. I took this in 2018 at Two Lights State Park near Portland, Maine.

Crowley woke up to find that Kestrel’s bed hadn’t been slept in. This wasn’t inherently ominous on its own, it wasn’t like the twins had never slept a night apart, especially now that they were getting older and occasionally wanted to slip off with someone for a bit of private fun. But it was a bit unusual for her to not at least drop a hint that she wouldn’t be coming back to their little room crammed beneath the eaves of the mansion called home by the Red Rivers.

The mansion had been built by some wealthy merchant when living close to the water had been fashionable and abandoned when the owner got sick of the smell of sea brine and rotted fish and decided to relocate to a more inland part of the city. The room Crowley and Kestrel had claimed was just big enough for two single beds and a table that was just long enough for them to work at side by side without bumping elbows. They were glad for their little roost, glad to have a place to fly under the radar of the gang they’d joined out of necessity when they were 12, after about a year of trying to get by on the streets on their own and barely surviving.

Yes, they had sworn loyalty to the gang, but it was secondary to their loyalty to each other. After all, at the end of the day they were each the only person that the other felt they could fully trust. They did enough work to keep their spots in the gang, but tried to keep a low profile otherwise. Even so, they gained a reputation and a pair of nicknames. Kestrel was The Mind, sharp as a nail, a schemer of schemes. Crowley was The Mouth, the one who took those schemes and made them happen, often by convincing people to do things they ordinarily wouldn’t have done. They hadn’t spent every last moment of their lives together, but it was a near enough thing.

Which is why other members of the Red Rivers were surprised when Crowley started asking around about her when she still hadn’t turned up by dark. “I thought you two was sewn together at the hip, birds of a feather and all that,” said fellow gang member Jack. Crowley’s inquiries didn’t turn up Kestrel’s whereabouts, but he did learn that actually nobody had seen her since the prior morning. A couple of people suggested that maybe she had been sent out on some kind of job, but Gideon, one of the heads of the Red Rivers, told him no such thing had happened.

Crowley tried to smother his growing unease by going to bed early, only to be prevented from sleep by the sight of Kestrel’s empty bed. Even after he’d deactivated the small, bewitched oil-less lamp that was the first piece of loot they’d been allowed to keep for themselves he found himself staring into the darkness at her bed, willing her to magically appear in it. Eventually, just as the sky lightened with the oncoming dawn, he drifted off into a fitful sleep, plagued by dreams of being lost on his own in a large, dark cave.

Crowley woke around noon. Kestrel was still gone. He had some tea and a little bread and cheese even though he didn’t feel much like eating and then set off for the city’s Archives. Kestrel’s schemes were greatly aided by research and she was well known to the staff there for spending hours poring over various books and documents. Crowley had barely spent any time at the Archives, but the clerk working the front desk recognized him on sight, probably due to their resemblance. “She was here the day before yesterday, in the morning, but she left just before midday with a big tough looking guy with dark hair. She said she was just getting something to eat so she left her things on her table, but she never came back. We collected her things when we closed for the night, if you’d like to take them?” Crowley accepted the linen bag the clerk offered and peered inside to see a couple of the many notebooks Kestrel was often scribbling in, as well as the small wooden case that he knew held her portable writing kit. The clerk couldn’t answer any of Crowley’s other questions, so he thanked him and left.

When Crowley returned to the mansion without Kestrel in tow, he found that some of the other members of the Red Rivers were beginning to worry as well. The Mind was highly dependable, it was highly unlike her to just run off with no explanation. Inquiries had been quietly made around the city and Gideon had even reached out to the leaders of a couple of the other gangs in town, but no one had any information. It was like she had disappeared into the mists of the Myriad itself. The one lead Crowley had gotten at the Archives wasn’t much help — most the gangs in town had at least one member that fit the description the clerk had given him.

Crowley wasn’t often one for anxiety, but Kestrel’s continued disappearance had him on edge. He tried to dull it with alcohol, drinking himself into oblivion in an attempt to forget she was missing, or at least trying to become drunk enough that he could plausibly convince himself she was simply traveling and not missing without a trace. He even wound up in the bed of his on again/off again fling Lucille, although he was too drunk to do anything other than sleep curled around her while he got there. He dreamed of the cave again and somehow even in the dream he was too drunk to do much besides sit on the ground and call for Kestrel.

On the third morning since Kestrel had gone missing, the Red Rivers were awakened by a shout. Crowley was vaguely roused by the sound, but shrugged it off and slipped back into sleep. They were a gang, shouting happened. But then he was being shaken awake by Lucille. He blinked at her blearily as he sat up, still somewhat drunk from the night before. She thrust a cup of water into his hands and as he drank she told, “Kestrel’s turned up.” The grim tone of her voice made the water turn to ashes in his mouth. Suddenly much more sober, he followed Lucille down to the dining room.

A body was laid out on one of the tables with a blanket over it and member of the Red Rivers filled the room. Crowley dimly noted that the boots sticking out of the bottom of the blanket were Kestrel’s. Hands shaking, he slowly peeled the blanket back from the body’s head and found himself face to face with Kestrel. She had been roughed up a great deal, her face and neck littered with cuts and bruises. Whoever had laid her on the table had folded her arms across her chest and they bore more cuts and what looked perhaps like burns. They’d even cut off the tips of her pointed ears and Crowley absently reached up to scratch at his own. The small hunk of quartz Kestrel wore around her neck was still there, as were the tiny golden hoops she wore in her lower earlobes. Clearly this was no mere robbery, but instead was likely targeted violence.

Crowley stared at her numbly for a long moment, all sound gone from his world beyond the beating of his own heart, a lonely echo in a vast, dark cave. And something snapped in him and he was hunched over, bracing his hands on the table for support, his breath coming in ragged, heaving gasps. At this Gideon came over and flipped the blanket back over Kestrel’s face, saying “Someone take him out of here, give him something so he can sleep.” Crowley gripped the edge of the table tightly, saying between gasps, “No. NO. I can’t, I can’t leave her.” And then Lucille’s gentle touch was prying his hand away from the table and her soft arms wrapped around his shoulders. “Come away for now, love. She’s not going anywhere,” she said. Lucille brought Crowley up to his and Kestrel’s little room under the eaves and although he didn’t typically like to take drugs, when she offered him one of the sleeping potions from the gang’s stash he swiftly drank it only to be swallowed up by the dreadful dream cave again. This time it was even larger and more cavernous, his cries for help not even able to echo back at him.

Crowley was jostled awake at sunset when Gideon sat down on the end of his bed, his mouth dry from the sleeping potion. He sat up against his headboard and accepted the flask of water that Gideon offered. “Marta’s the one who found her,” Gideon explained as Crowley drank. “She was going out this morning to buy bread and tripped right over her on the front steps. She saw a couple of big guys running off down the street in grey cloaks.”

“Oh, so the Gulls then? We’re going after them?” Crowley asked, perking up slightly at the thought of vengeance.

Gideon shook his head. “The Gulls are dumb, but not dumb enough to wear their own colors to drop off a body,” he said. “And besides, when I was asking around about Kestrel the other day Len told me their base had been broken into the other week and some stuff was stolen. Probably where the cloaks came from.”

Crowley perked up at the idea of having a plan of action. “Then we start there. We find who robbed them, then we find Kestrel’s killers and –”

Gideon shook his head again and raised a hand to cut him off. “Slow down. We’re not looking to get into a gang war right now, Crowley. We’ve got a couple of potentially big jobs coming down the line and we don’t need any extra attention. Maybe we’ll find who did it eventually, but there’s no need to rush into anything.”

Crowley flushed with anger, his voice beginning to rise in volume. “We’re just going to do nothing? Kestrel swore an oath to this gang and –”

“It’s a hard life out here by the Myriad and people die all the time. Why are you surprised? The two of you would’ve died years ago without our help.” Gideon snatched back the water flask and stood. “Look at this like the gift it is. You’re your own man now, no longer shackled to anyone else. I always thought you were holding yourself back because of her, now you get to live your own life. We’re sending her off in a couple of hours. You can stay here and pout or you can come say your goodbyes.” And Gideon left, slamming the door behind him.

When night had well and truly fallen, the Red Rivers bore Kestrel down to the docks, clad in their dark red cloaks, bringing a couple of small lanterns along to light their way. Someone had cleaned her up and tightly bundled her up in a blanket while Crowley was sleeping. One of the gang members had already stolen a small rowboat and they laid Kestrel in it before shoving it out into the Myriad. Once it was a fair distance out Jocelyn, their best archer, used one of the lanterns to light an arrow and let it fly towards the boat holding Kestrel. Her aim was true and the boat was quickly fully alight, the distant light searing Crowley’s eyes. The weight of his grief slammed into him again like a strong wave and he collapsed to his knees. Lucille laid a sympathetic hand on his shoulder while the rest of the gang stood respectfully mute for few minutes before gradually dispersing.

Lucille tried to tug Crowley away from the docks and usher him back home, but he shrugged her off. “Then I’ll stay with you,” she said. “No, go home,” Crowley said sharply, his eyes fixed on the flame on the water. He saw Lucille flinch out at his tone out of the corner of his eye and when he looked at her her face was so full of worry that he softened just a little. “I promise not to throw myself into the Myriad. I just need a moment alone.” Lucille nodded, gave his shoulder a little squeeze, and left. Crowley remained at the docks for a long while, fixated on Kestrel’s glowing boat until finally the flame went out and that evening’s chilly mist rolled in off the water. Reluctantly, Crowley wrapped his cloak tightly around himself and returned to the mansion.

When he arrived, a large party was in full swing to celebrate Kestrel’s short life. Not in the mood for a party, Crowley slipped up the back steps unnoticed. He found that someone had been in their room while he was gone. (“My room,” he corrected himself with a wince.) The little magic lamp was on and there was food, water, and another vial of sleeping potion on the table so he assumed it was Lucille trying to take care of him again. He picked up the potion bottle and uncorked it, considering the contents for a long moment. And then another wave of his grief swelled over him and he decided sleep was the last thing he wanted right now. It was too similar to death and, besides, he was scared to dream of that lonely cave again. He tried to re-cork the potion bottle, but his hands were shaking and he dropped it.

The sound of the glass breaking on the floor shattered something in Crowley as well and his grief became overwhelming rage. It made him feel good to break something, so he decided to break more things. The first item he laid his hands on was the little lamp and he held it between his palms and hurled it at the floor with all the force he could muster. From there he made short work of as much of what he and Kestrel owned, smashing small trinkets, ripping open pillows, overturning furniture, tearing pages out of books. At one point in the middle of this maelstrom, an oblivious Lucille came to check on him, his destruction in the attic unheard over the party on the ground floor. He roared at her to get out and she scurried away.

The one coherent thought in Crowley’s head amidst this chaos was that this is not how it was supposed to be, and it played on repeat, tormenting him. He and Kestrel had plans to travel the Myriad, visiting islands and maybe even the other three continents. He knew better than to think they would’ve lived together all of their lives, but he’d expected her to at least be around somewhere to be a shoulder to lean on when he needed, and he was supposed to do the same for her. Except for the two minutes between when he was born and Kestrel followed, they had always been companions in life and the idea of having to continue without her had Crowley at a total loss. Who could he rely on now? The gang that didn’t consider solving the murder of one of their sworn members a priority? No. He knew he was fully on his own now, but it wasn’t a gift like Gideon had suggested.

And then, at last, Crowley ran out of energy for destruction, collapsed to the floor in the middle of his carnage, and finally, bitterly wept. The strangled sobbing sounds escaping his throat shocked him, but he could not get himself to stop making them as long overdue as they were. By the time he finally quieted the sky outside the window was the blue grey of predawn. The house was silent, the party downstairs over. No one else had come to check on Crowley after he’d scared Lucille off and he wondered if she’d even mentioned it to anyone. He decided he didn’t care. He had a reputation for affability. Let them know he could rage too.

As he laid on the floor, wiping away snot and tears with his sleeve his eye caught on something — Kestrel’s linen bag that the clerk at the Archives had given him, it’s contents tipped out. The wooden case of the portable writing kit was cracked and leaking ink and the notebook looked a bit crumpled, but was otherwise intact. It had fallen open to a page full of Kestrel’s tidily looping handwriting. He heaved himself to a sitting position and pulled the notebook into reading range.

At the head of the page were the words “Ritual for Wish Granting” and the title of the obscure book Kestrel had copied it from. This was followed by a set of instructions with annotations and questions written in the margins. Below this Kestrel had scribbled some thoughts. “Could be promising, but potentially unlikely to work due to the long absence of the Old Gods and the relatively low occurrence of magic in the modern world. Discuss with Crowley?” This was the last page of writing in the notebook and Crowley assumed it was what she had been looking into the day she vanished.

He read the instructions over again. The whole process seemed like it would be relatively simple if he could procure the ingredients. Coming across these notes so soon after Kestrel’s death felt like she was giving him a sign. Maybe she’d known what was about to happen to her, maybe she didn’t, but either way she had left Crowley something that could perhaps reunite them if it worked. And if it didn’t, well at least it likely wouldn’t waste too much of his time and would give him something to do to get him through his first bit of mourning. He tore the page with the ritual’s details out of the notebook and pocketed it along with his money pouch before heading out to the city’s marketplace, leaving the mess of his room behind.

Between the market stalls and the apothecary’s shop Crowley was able to procure most of the components he needed and he only had to go a little ways into the sandy woods bordering the town to get the rest. Finally, around mid-afternoon, he made his way to the docks and pilfered a rowboat that he was reasonably sure he could paddle alone. The Myriad was clam that day, but the rolling waves still gave him a bit of trouble as he rowed himself out as far from town as he thought would be necessary — the instructions were exceedingly vague in that regard.

Once settled, he set about his work, adding the ingredients to the small bowl he pilfered from the mansion’s kitchen and grinding them down a bit with a stone before setting the tiny heap ablaze, spending two matches to do so due to the sea wind. Carefully guarding the fire in the bowl, he watched the various herbs and twigs burn down to ash. Once it had burned itself out, but before the ashes were fully cold Crowley pinched the dust between his fingers and sprinkled it into the water around the boat, taking care not to capsize himself in the process.

And then he waited.

And waited.

It was cold and windy, as the seas in that quadrant of The Myriad tended to be that time of year, and Crowley huddled in his cloak, becoming increasingly aware of just how cold his toes were. He wondered if maybe the instructions were incomplete, maybe Kestrel hadn’t actually figured out the whole ting yet and there were some words he ought to have said. Or maybe the whole thing was a dud and never would have worked anyway. And here he was looking like a fucking idiot alone in a little boat tossing ashes into the sea as if it could really give him what he wanted, could give him Kestrel back and —

As his thoughts reached a fervent kind of despair and desperation, the water around the boat churned and a figure came to the surface. It hauled itself into Crowley’s boat, somehow without tipping it at all, and sat onto the bench across from Crowley. Crowley recoiled a bit in shock as he watched it settle itself, arranging the assortment of tentacles that made up its lower body just so. Crowley’s eyes ranged upwards, taking in the humanoid torso with tentacle arms, the octopus-like head with shrewd eyes and a slit of a mouth, all of it a deep sea blue. With a start, Crowley realized it was wearing Kestrel’s hunk of quartz around its neck.

“Where did you get that?” asked Crowley, voice weaker than he would’ve liked due to shock.

“What? No hello? No how are you? No thank you, oh powerful one, for answering my puny little call?” Its voice was scratchy like sand shifting against itself on the ocean floor.

Where did you get that?” Crowley asked again, more forcefully.

The being shrugged. “It drifted down into my home a day ago. Maybe two days? Hard to say, time doesn’t work down there like it does up here. Are you trying to tell me you did all of this –,” it gestured to the ritual debris littering the bottom of the boat, “– for just a little necklace?”

Crowley frowned. “No. Well, maybe? I don’t know. I didn’t even know what was going to happen when I did the ritual. I just thought it would grant a wish.”

Crowley’s companion laughed, its lower tentacles squirming in a quite unsettling way. “You must be crazy or desperate to do a ritual without knowing what it’ll do.” It eyed Crowley, sizing him up as he shivered from the cold Myriad wind and a bit of fear. “Maybe both in your case. So what’s your wish, if it’s not for this necklace?”

“My sister Kestrel was murdered earlier this week.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” said the creature, grinning.

“You can bring her back?”

Another laugh, this one louder than before. Waves jostled the rowboat and Crowley felt like they were in time with the chuckles. “No, I can’t undo death, kid, but I can get you the next best thing.”

Crowley frowned, his heart pounding in his chest. “And what’s that?”

“Revenge. But it’ll cost ya.”

“But I don’t know who did it.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m a guy who can get things done. I’ll figure it out.”

Crowley hesitated for just a moment, knowing that this whole thing was crazy and dangerous and potentially even all in his head. But he decided he had nothing to lose so he nodded and said, “Okay, how do we get started?”

The creature used its upper tentacle arms to remove Kestrel’s hunk of quartz from around its neck. “Like this,” it said and used a sharp edge of the stone to carve a line across the skin of one its tentacles. Blood welled up, thicker than any blood Crowley had seen on land and so dark blue it was nearly black. “Now you.” It offered Crowley the quartz and he sliced open his own palm. The being wrapped its cut tentacle around Crowley’s bleeding hand, creating a sticky mess that stung with the ocean salt that still clung to the creature’s clammy skin. Crowley grimaced at the sensation as he felt a tingling start to spread up his arm. Just as Crowley was adjusting to that unpleasantness his companion said, “I’m Jeff, by the way,” and plunged a tentacle into Crowley’s chest, a wicked grin on its face.

For the next while, Jeff had control of Crowley’s body. It was an exceedingly odd sensation to watch the world go by, feel his hands do things, hear his voice speak while having no control over it. A part of Crowley considered that maybe the situation should frighten him, but honestly after the week he’d been having it was something of a relief to have all decision making taken away from him. When he looked back later, Crowley couldn’t guess how long Jeff spent controlling him and he remembered only brief flashes of events, feeling as if he was in some kind of dim dream. The weight of Kestrel’s quartz pendant was around his neck. The rowboat somehow propelled itself back to shore as the ritual materials were stuffed into Crowley’s bag. There was a trip to the Gulls’ base and Crowley was vaguely aware that his voice was being used to demand information a bit more forcefully than he would’ve done if he was in control.

Then suddenly they were back on the street and Jeff was turning over a scrap of fabric in Crowley’s hands. He felt Jeff rummaging through his mind, like flipping pages in a notebook. It was a thoroughly unpleasant sensation that made Crowley itch. “Hey, quit that, it’s uncomfortable,” he thought at Jeff, hoping the message would get across.

He felt Jeff use his face to smile. “Oh, good, you’re awake. That will make this easier,” Jeff silently said to Crowley, the sandy sound of his real voice gently brushing against Crowley’s consciousness. “That Len man gave me this, said it was caught on a trap when something stolen was put back? What does it mean?”

Focusing hard to really properly see through his eyes, Crowley noted the deep green color of the fabric. “Green is the Bolts,” he told Jeff. “Unless someone stole their cloaks too?”

“And where do these Bolts reside?”

“They tend to move bases more often than most gangs. Last I heard they were somewhere by the Archives.” Crowley’s stomach dropped at the realization.

Jeff must have felt it too because he asked, “What? Why do you feel this way?”

“The Archives were the last place Kestrel was seen alive.”

As they set off for the Archives district, Jeff grinned so broadly it felt unnatural on Crowley’s face. It was fully dark by this point and they settled in at one of the major squares in the district, huddling in Crowley’s cloak in the shadows cast by a large fountain statue. Crowley Before long someone came by in a Bolt green cloak. Jeff tailed them, cornering them in a nearby alley. They were young, likely a relatively new recruit, and when they saw Crowley’s face they squeaked out a little scream and blurted out, “I swear I had nothing to do with it. I knew taking her was a bad idea, but you know how it is with gangs.”

Crowley pushed his way to the forefront of his mind and spoke. “Why did they take her?”

“They wanted her for the Bolts, but she said no because they wouldn’t take you too. And they couldn’t have her saying anything so, well, you know what they did.”

Crowley felt a surge of rage and he felt Jeff’s approval at that emotion. United in purpose they used Crowley’s mouth to say, “Give me your cloak and show me how to get inside.”

The Bolts’ hideaway was currently in an old grain warehouse complex and when Crowley and Jeff, newly dressed in green, let themselves in they were in sync. The Bolts’ door guard fled at the sight of Crowley yelling, “Oh shit, how did you find us?” Crowley had never had a knack for magic, but with Jeff’s aid it flowed out through his hands as smoothly as water, sprouting spectral tentacles from the ground that pummeled their enemies, blasting people with ice as cold as the Myriad depths, firing off wicked blasts of crackling energy that flung the members of the Bolts to the floor. Crowley’s blind rage had returned at the prospect of further destruction and Jeff reveled in the feeling, suggesting further ways for Crowley to use the magic. Crowley didn’t send spells after anyone who fled, but otherwise he attacked indiscriminately, considering all of the Bolts to be culpable for Kestrel’s death.

Before long Crowley was surrounded by splintered furniture and the bodies of people who were either dead or convincingly pretending to be. Breathing heavily in the silence and the sky outside the windows the pale grey color of early dawn, he decided their job was done and finally left, but not before knocking a kerosene lantern onto the floor, and setting the building ablaze as a final message. When Crowley reached his room in the Red Rivers’ mansion, he found that someone, probably Lucille, had made an attempt at tidying the mess he had made and the beds were set properly upright on their frames. The beds were made and Crowley had a new pillow on his to replace the one whose feathers littered the floor.

Exhausted by everything that had happened, Crowley was barely able to get his boots off before he fell into bed asleep. He did not dream of the empty cave, as he feared he might. When he woke up, he thought that perhaps the prior day’s events had all been a deeply unsettling dream and that Jeff was nothing more than a figment of his imagination. Maybe when he got up he’d find that the last few days hadn’t happened and Kestrel would be asleep in the bed across from his, as she was supposed to. But as he stirred the palm of his left hand felt tight and itchy and when he looked at it there was a thick pink scar where he had sealed the deal with Jeff. He sat up and saw that Kestrel’s bed wasn’t empty after all. Jeff had evidently vacated Crowley’s body and was asleep on top of it, curled up like some kind of messed up cat. It was a rare sunny day for that time of year and Jeff’s translucent blue skin glowed in the light. Crowley was considering what to do next when he heard a commotion downstairs and Gideon yell, “Where is he?” and his gut and the feet on the stairs told him they were looking for him. He nudged Jeff awake and mouthed “hide” at him. Jeff dropped to the floor and slithered into the shadows under Kestrel’s bed.

Crowley casually sat back down on his bed just in time for Gideon to burst into the room and haul him to his feet by the front of his shirt. “What did you do?” he said firmly, not yet fully raising his voice. Crowley tried plastering an innocent, confused expression onto his face, but Gideon apparently didn’t buy it because he shook Crowley forcefully and said, “Half the Bolts are dead and their base is burned to the ground. The survivors say you were there doing magic? I told you it was a bad time to do anything that would bring attention to us.”

“Don’t worry,” said Crowley, “I wasn’t wearing my cloak at the time. I was just a grieving brother, on my own, giving those assholes what they deserved for killing my sister.”

“I gave you an order!” Gideon yelled, shoving Crowley down onto the bed so hard he nearly hit his head on the wall. Crowley sensed Jeff stirring as if maybe he was considering coming to Crowley’s defense, but he stayed put.

“Well somebody had to do something!” Crowley shouted. “Even if she wasn’t my sister, she was a member of the Red Rivers and her murder was disrespect. Can’t have people thinking we’re weak, can we?”

By this point a number of the gang members crowding the doorway trying to see what was going on, including Lucille, who looked to be on the edge of worried tears. Crowley was thankful that in the midst of his argument with Gideon nobody noticed the creature under Kestrel’s bed.

Gideon considered Crowley for a moment, looking like he was weighing up different options. Then he said, “You deliberately disobeyed me. I told you to leave it alone and you didn’t. Pack your things.” He glanced around the wreckage of Crowley’s room. “Or what’s left anyway. And then get out.” He took Crowley’s red cloak from where it was hanging on a hook on the wall and left the room, slamming the door behind him.

Crowley listened to the footsteps of the crowd in the hallway dispersing and when he felt reasonably certain that everyone had left he muttered to Jeff, “You told me there would be a price? Is this it?”

Jeff slithered out from under Kestrel’s bed, his response in Crowley’s mind. “We can still talk like this even though we’re separate again. But no, that is not the price I had in mind.”

“Then what is?” Crowley thought back at Jeff. “I assume it’s not my life since you haven’t killed me yet.”

“I need you alive for what I want, but in a way I do want your life.” Jeff used his arm tentacles to haul himself onto the end of Crowley’s bed. “You see, I’ve been down in the deeps for…well, I’m not quite sure how long. Except I do know it was a very long time. Time doesn’t quite flow the same up here as it does at home. And it’s so dreadfully boring to stay in one place for so long. I’d like to see the world, but, as I’m sure you can guess by looking at me, it would be difficult for me to do that on my own.”

“But surely it will be just as hard for me to take you with me considering you’re…?” Crowley gestured vaguely at Jeff’s octopus-like form.

Jeff flapped a few of his tentacles dismissively. “I can just go incorporeal again like last night,” he said. “No big deal.”

Crowley recalled the sensation of being out of control of his body. It was one thing to mind speak with someone, but another entirely to have that being’s spirit inside of his skin alongside his own spirit, fighting for control of the same space. “I’m not sharing my body again, no more mind melding,” Crowley told Jeff firmly.

Jeff sighed and rolled his eyes. “Mortals. Always so touchy about their forms. Fine, I can travel in an object just as well.” He looked around the room before settling on Kestrel’s hunk of quartz hanging around Crowley’s neck. “That rock will do just fine, and that way I’ll always be with you. I’ll need to come out every so often and stretch my legs, but we’ll work that out when we get there. After all, I can’t see the world if you get thrown in the brig because some backwater island thinks you’re cavorting with demons or whatever.”

“Okay, I can live with that,” said Crowley. Jeff held a tentacle out to shake on it and Crowley shook his head.

Jeff rolled his eyes as he slowly faded out of sight. “I wasn’t going to snatch your body, idiot,” he said teasingly. “Not this time anyway.” Crowley could practically see Jeff smirking as he felt the quartz around his neck grow ever so slightly heavier with Crowley’s spiritual weight. It also felt somewhat cooler, like someone had thrown it in the sea for a brief moment.

Crowley gathered what items he wanted to salvage from the wreckage of his room and then left the Red Rivers’ mansion for the last time, his former gang mates eyeing him with suspicion or outright shrinking away from him in fear in the hallways. As Crowley set off down the road towards the port, his heart ached for the loss of his home and from the uncertainty about his future. Evidently he and Jeff were still somewhat emotionally linked because he heard Jeff hum thoughtfully in his head.

“What?” he thought back.

“I’d forgotten how deliciously dramatic mortal emotions can be,” was Jeff’s delighted reply.

Before turning the corner at the end of the lane, Crowley stopped to look back at the house one last time and saw Lucille dashing up the street after him, a parcel bundled up in her arms. “I’m so glad I caught you before you disappeared,” she said breathlessly when she reached him. “I don’t know where you’ll go, but it can be dreadfully cold this time of year so you had better take this.”

Crowley opened the parcel she handed to him to find his arms full of red fabric. “My cloak,” he said with a sad smile as he wrapped it around himself.

Lucille shrugged. “Gideon’ll be furious with me, but he won’t do anything to me that I can’t handle. And if he kicks me out too, I think the Bolts might be recruiting.” Crowley flinched at that and Lucille laid a soothing hand on his arm. “What you did was terrifying and extreme, but you had a good reason for it.” She cracked weak grin, trying for a little levity. “It’s a shame you’ve been kicked out, I don’t think anyone would’ve messed with us if you were around.”

Crowley half-smiled back and then leaned in and kissed Lucille on the cheek. “Thank you for looking out for me. I just wish I had something to give you.”

Lucille reached up and cupped his cheek in her hand. “Don’t worry about it. Just go live your life, Crowley. Take care of yourself. And wear the damn cloak so you don’t freeze to death.”

“And the same to you, Lucille.”

They shared a farewell hug and then Crowley headed down to the docks to see about getting hired onto a ship’s crew.

“Hard labor?” whined Jeff.

“We don’t have that much money, I can’t waste it on booking passage,” replied Crowley as they walked past the docked ships. “If you don’t like it you can always leave.”

Jeff laughed inside of Crowley’s head. “No way. This is only the beginning for us. You and me are gonna be hanging out for a long time.”

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!

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.