Platypus Update Week (almost) 14


Back in July, we found out I was pregnant.  We’d been trying since February, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise.  I’ll admit that when the second pink line showed up, there was a tiny voice in my head that cheered because I did it.  I am the mother goddess worshipped by the cavemen.

This is not me being smug.  I know pregnant woman can be smug.  This is me expressing that inescapable primal voice which stated categorically that this is the one thing, the only thing, that I should be able to do.  And if I can’t do it, then I am not a woman.

This is a surprisingly un-feminist statement, I know.  Logically, I know that the biological imperative to reproduce is not a requirement for my identity.  Choosing not to have kids is a valid life choice and one I wish more people would take considering the over-population problems we have on this planet.  And while I have been tempted to opt-out of baby-making, especially as I got older, I also feared that sense of regret that childless women are supposed to get.  Utter nonsense and propaganda, I know.  And also a kick in the teeth for all those people out there who can’t have kids.

Among my parents siblings, my dad’s sister and both my mom’s brothers didn’t have kids.  And growing up I always felt there was some kind of shame attached to that.  Hurray for cultural programming.

I am friends with several couples who don’t have kids and they don’t sit at home bemoaning their decision.  Nope, they go on vacations when they like, eat out at nice restaurants, and spend money on nice things that they don’t necessarily need.

I also have friends who can’t have kids.  They have serious health conditions that either make them infertile or make pregnancy a life-threatening condition.  It is a source of trauma in their lives and very much part of the reason I feared “trying” for so long.  That being said, these friends aren’t less for being unable to reproduce.  They are wonderful, beautiful, whole women who inspire me everyday because they survived an ordeal and live a reality that has killed lesser mortals.

The I did it I felt was more in the lines of relief than pride.  Has there been any indication that I might not be able to have kids?  With a mother who had 5 kids and two siblings that are already 2 kids in?  No.  But I’m 32 now.  And modern myth would have me believe that already my eggs are shriveling up and blowing away in the breeze.  Plus, my hubby just turned 39.  We are not what you would call “spring chickens.”  The only reason “trying” was stressful was because there was the implied possibility of “failing.”

So here I am, grateful that we only “failed” for 5 months and that we started this whole thing with the verbal agreement that there was no pressure to succeed.  If it happens, it happens.  If not, we can adopt.  That didn’t shut up the niggling voice in my head every time my period came, but it helped.

Anyway, I’m now at nearly 14 weeks and edging into my second trimester.  At 10 weeks, we got the first ultrasound and discovered we were having a platypus and our dream of having twins was dashed.

Since making the public announcement, I have been asked about morning sickness and cravings.  I found it funny that a lot of the first trimester woes were things I deal with on the daily.  Headaches, nausea, loss of appetite, etc.  Honestly, I’ve had a hard time distinguishing between pregnancy nonsense and my normal life.  First of all, “morning” is a misnomer.  For a few weeks, I had random nausea and severe food aversion.  This means that when I tried to eat some reheated chicken, my body noped so hard I almost didn’t make it to the bathroom.  Food aversion is something I’m normally able to out-think.  Yes, body, I know you don’t like leftovers but I don’t like wasting food so suck it up.  Now, thanks to Platypus, I can’t trust that my mind can conquer my body so I can’t risk eating anything that might not agree with me.  When I go off on the food in the fridge, I’m having cereal for dinner.  I’ve had a lot of cereal in the last 3 months.

The nausea is supposed to go away now that I’m out of the first trimester.  Let’s hope that means I can go back to eating real food for a bit.

As to cravings, I can’t say that I’ve legit had any.  Before I knew I was preggers, when we were on vacation, I wanted salads a lot more than usual.  Having asked around, I found that consensus on cravings was that they are intense and for foods I don’t normally want.  But that doesn’t explain why I want mac & cheese-stuffed meatloaf.  It would explain why out of the blue I decided I needed cereal (we haven’t done cereal in maybe a year) at the commissary and proceeded to have a bowl of it as soon as we got home.  Then again, I could just be giving into my normal food desires because I’m pregnant and feel entitled to eat what I want, damnit.

And now I’m starting to show.  I am wigging out a little.  This pregnancy is inexorably progressing and I am both constantly aware of it and in mild denial that it is real.  I thought the sonogram would make it real.  I was wrong.  We haven’t bought any baby things and we’ve barely touch the registry and I’m not suffering from any nesting instinct yet.  I am tired a lot and bloated and gassy.  I have sudden extreme bouts of rage which have included some pretty awesome dreams where for once I didn’t feel helpless.  I can’t stand in place for very long without feeling uncomfortable, I have to drink more water, I have to pee a lot (even when I don’t drink more water), and my boobs are HUGE.  Like, they keep getting in my way and I have to be careful rolling over in my sleep.

And that is where I am right now.

Week: 13, 5 days

Weight: 137lbs

Platypus: Small Peach

Baby Bump: 37″

Bra Size: Medium (that’s all you’re getting, pervs)

Pant Size: 10

 

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New Game for SOs


It is Sunday.  There is football on the TV.  I happen to glance up to see a player in his pregame suit walking across the field and to my utter surprise the announcer confirms that I actually knew his name.  This delights me, so I share with my husband and receive a well-deserved high five.  And then the challenge starts.

Since he has been cultivating my appreciation in sports for the 10 years we’ve known each other, he decides to test my knowledge.

“Name 5 Steelers players.”

“Um, Ben, Troy, Hines…”

“Troy retired, Hines retired.”

“Crap, uh, Beardy Guy…”

Laughing, “I would have accepted Da Beard, but Beardy Guy?!?”

“Fine!  Name one Harry Potter book you’ve read.”

“I haven’t read any.”

“Well there you go.”

“But I can still name them!”

“Fine, name 5 Hogwarts professors.”

“Snape, Minerva, Dumbledore, um…oh…what’s her name, that bitch!”

“I’ll accept that.”

“Yes, that’s four!  Um, too bad Hagrid isn’t a professor!”

“Actually, he is, 3rd book!”  He cheers.  “Her name’s Umbridge, by the way.”

This challenge has been proclaimed as more fun than Scrabble.  It’s also an exercise in finding interest in what interests your SO.  I clearly failed.  However, if he asks me for Penguins players, I think I’ll win.

 

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I did this for Reasons


Yesterday, I got a tattoo.

Tattoo 1Tattoo 2

 

I saved my babysitting money and spare change for well over a year because I knew it was going to be expensive and I didn’t want that kind of frivolity to come out of our savings.  By April, I had $800, $270 of which was from change.

For my birthday, we went for a consult in Richmond after sourcing around for a good month for the right artist: reading reviews, interrogating my learned tatted friends, looking at dozens of artist galleries, and finally talking face-to-face with the artist about my design.  The artist I chose was booked nearly a month out, but he managed to find an appointment for me on a Thursday afternoon, which was perfect.  Except that Buddy had to work.  This was going to be a solo endeavor.  I was incredibly nervous.

What if I didn’t like it?  What if it cost more than I had?  What if it hurt too much?  What if I did like it but in a year or two, stopped like it.  My inclinations change over the years, as do everyone’s.  Ten years ago, my go-to colors were blue/black/silver and I despised pink.  I was going to get out of the Army one day and be a costume designer.  I was super into Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.  I idolized Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.  I was surrounded by people who had tattoos.  But even then, I knew that my tastes were too fickly to permanently stab something into my flesh.

Since then, my favorite color has shifted to purple.  And my job of choice has shifted quite a bit as well, settling somewhere between writer and book editor.  I have delved deeper into literature through my English degree and expanded my skills as a baker.  I’ve even picked up new hobbies, like sewing and crochet.  I am still super into Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and Gaiman and Pratchett are still my writing gods.

None of these things are etched into my skin.  No beautiful quotes or Biblical text.  No runes or Elvish scripts.  No Deathly Hallows or crochet hooks or yarn or cookies or the faces of strangers whom I love for their work but wouldn’t know me from Adam.  I went with cherry blossoms.

And it hurt.  The shoulder part was fine, like scratching a light sunburn, an experience I’m well versed in.  It wasn’t much more painful that picking a scab.  The spine was much more needle-like, not in sharpness but in depth.  It felt like a longer, sharper needle sticking straight into my nerves.  It hurt, but was bearable.  The petals on my lower back were excruciating.

I feel awful about looking down on women with “tramp stamps.”  I know biker guys with sleeves and devils all over their arms and shoulders look tough, but anyone willing to do their entire tat on the lower back has got ovaries of adamantium.

Some of you might have heard the story I told a few weeks ago about a wasp that mysteriously ended up in my bedroom and woke me with a friendly sting right on my earlobe.  If you have ever been stung by a bee or wasp, you know that pain.  It is hot and deep and nothing you do alleviates it.  This is not a flu shot.  This is an anthrax shot.  Every petal was a set of bee stings.  And he had to keep going back to add details.  He was as merciful as possible, taking breathers when I started swearing, asking if I was okay.  Yes, I’m fine.  It hurts, but as soon as you stop, the pain stops.  I can do this.  I will bite my knuckles and kick my feet, but if you keep going so will I.

It took just over two hours and cost only $300, with tip.  I went to a neat shop down the street and bought an umbrella with a katana handle as a reward.  I also picked up a couple of pastries from a bakery because I had been too nervous to eat all day and my blood sugar was tanked.  It took me most of the drive home to come down from the adrenaline, which had me shaking and jittery.  I spent the rest of the night eating yogurt and drinking lemonade to get balanced.  When nerves get to my stomach, that can take a long time.

I chose the cherry blossoms for three reasons.

First, cherry blossoms have become synonymous with my relationship with my husband.  We both share an appreciation for Japanese culture, though he’s the only one of us lucky enough to get stationed there.  We spent most of our early relationship long distance and when he came to visit for R&R from Iraq, we went on deployment-money adventures.  This included a week stay at the Animal Kingdom Resort at Disney World and a week-long visit to see friends stationed in Japan.  I don’t have any pics from the Japan portion of that trip because the flash drive I put them on got left at Disney.  What I do know was that most of my first days in Japan I was sick from Jetlag.  But then there were the cherry blossoms.  When we went to see the big Buddha, they were still out.

Big Buddha

That was from the second time we visited.  Or rather, I got to visit Buddy while he was stationed in South Korea and we took a 10-day jaunt to Japan.  That site reminds me of visiting the Grand Canyon with my family.  You can take a million pictures (and believe me, I did), but never capture the majesty of something so huge.  You could say that my first Japanese vacation made me enamored of cherry blossoms and in the years since, they have accompanied the happiest adventures with my husband.  They were even on our wedding cake.

By themselves, cherry blossoms are enchanting and my favorite thing about spring.  Symbolically, they represent renewal and rebirth, which is why there are festivals that celebrate them every year.  Something about the blankets of delicate blossoms springing forth so unexpectedly after winter just renews the soul and brings hope.  At least for me.  This is the second reason for choosing them.  I could have gone with any flowering tree and called it a day, but cherry blossoms remind me of the hope of spring.  And sometimes I need that.

The third reason has to do with falling blossoms.  It’s funny how seeing the blizzards of petals is both inspiring and a bittersweet melancholy; it’s a reminder that all beauty passes away.  Trying to hold tight to the blossoms only bruises them.  And those that linger on the branch merely wither.  This last year we lost a lot of people in our families.  I was going to do a petal for each person I have lost in my life, maybe updating it every time someone else passed on.  But who to add?  Just family?  Close friends?  My cat?  By the end I would have a massive flower pile on my hip and would have to add a little guy with a rake to keep them neat.  (Also, considering the amount of pain those blossoms would individually cause, it turns out I’m not that much of a masochist.)  It is enough, I think, to recognize that the falling blossoms represent loss, but a loss that isn’t always an evil.  For some it is just their season and for others a mercy.  It is still sad, still causes grief and pain.  But it is and shall always be the Truth of life.  Beauty fades and all living things die.  That’s also why I decided to stick with the watercolor style for the upper blossoms after learning that the ink will fade faster.  I can touch it up if I want, or let them fade as nature intended.

So that’s why I chose the cherry blossoms.  Yet some of you, might still have the burning question of WHY ruining my Zen.

Look at the top two photos again.  Now look very closely at the second one of just my shoulder.  If you have sharp eyes, you might notice that there are scars all along my trapezius muscles.  Tiny little pale circles, dozens of them.  You see those?  Good.  Now imagine them all along my other shoulder and along my collar bone.  I have compulsion issues.

I sucked my three middle fingers until I was 5, despite everything my Mom did to stop me, including soaking my fingers in tabasco sauce.  I had a sharp corner on my pinky nail once and sucked on my fingers despite it gouging a hole in my cheek.  I remember the exact moment I stopped this habit.  Heather looked over at me in kindergarten and with the utmost derision of a 5-year-old, told me to stop.  So, ashamed, I did.  Thereafter, it was chewing pencils.

And I know some people gnaw on pen caps and the like.  I did that, too.  And I chewed the ends of pencils until the metal end with the eraser came off, totally deformed.  I would bite down pencils like they were corn-on-the-cob.  I don’t remember when I stopped doing that, but it might have been around when I started getting nicer pencils.  As for nail biting, well, that’s another story.

Nail biting was twofold.  If I was anxious, they were goners.  I took to taking extra straws into movies to make sure I had something to worry on besides my nails.  However, if I found a snag in a nail or a rough edge, I would have to fix it.  So I’d keep tearing off a piece, trying to clean it up somehow, unable to stop despite knowing that I was only making it worse.  Have you ever chewed your nails down to the beds?  You don’t realize how much it hurts until later when that exposed skin starts aching.  And you still have to fight that urge to mess with the rough edge.

I have mostly defeated that nasty habit.  What happened was, I was in Basic Training during a field exercise.  I had spent the last month or so stressed so far beyond normal that I hadn’t even thought about my nails.  You really don’t have the mental space for fiddly little nervous ticks.  I was finally getting to a mental place where I could relax and in that moment, I went to chew a nail.  However, upon looking at said nail and seeing all the nasty that was under there, I swore off nail biting for good.  The first time I ever, in my life, trimmed my nails was at AIT a month or so later.  I still do chew them sometimes, but not out of nerves.  It’s that compulsion to fix that edge that still gets me.  Which is why I have nail files hidden everywhere.

My last tick is picking.  There was a time when I thought it was just a bad habit, one I should be able to stop whenever I wanted.  And, typical as this seems, I thought I was alone in this nasty habit.  Picking is related to my nail biting in that it has to do with smoothing rough edges.  A scab is a rough edge.  Remove it and the skin is smooth, if only for an instant.  Logically, it’s dumb.  You lengthen healing time, risk infection, cause pain, AND increase the likeliness of scars.  But logic doesn’t come into it.

Mom saw spots of blood on the back of my shirt once, maybe 5 years ago.  I told her I pick scabs.  She said, “Well stop it.”  And I replied, rather rudely, “It’s a compulsion, I can’t.”

This is not entirely true.  I can redirect my compulsion (as I’ve apparently been doing my whole life from finger sucking to pencil chewing to nail biting).  If I keep my hands busy, they can’t find those little blemishes and worry at them.  It’s an indirect benefit of taking up crochet.  Unlike my other hobby, reading, my hands are in full use with crochet so they can’t wander.  I suppose I could get on medication.  I have a friend who is also a compulsive picker, which is how I found out that I’m not just a freak with a gross habit.  She got on medication which helped curbed her picking.  I just have a problem with doctors, especially Army doctors, who always seem to look for the fastest way to get rid of you.

But I digress.  People look in the mirror and see their flaws first.  When I am dressed, I like how I look.  It is when I undress that all the ugly comes out, all the stretch-marks and cellulite and scars.  I look in the mirror and worry that I’m getting fat (just LOOK at those THIGHS) or my face is the wrong shape or my teeth are crooked.  These are all little, daily things, the diatribe built in by an image-obsessed culture.  I also see blemishes and scars.  On bad days, that’s all I see.  It hurts.  It hurts that I can’t always stop myself.  It hurts that there are bloodstains on my nice clothes because I couldn’t help it.  It hurts that I shy away from parts of my closet depending on the state of my shoulders and back.  It just hurts.  Lying on the tattoo table, when the needle first started in my shoulder, it felt no worse than what I do to myself.  I knew then it was the right decision.

I got a tattoo because for once I wanted to look at a self-inflicted scar that was beautiful.  And if that is vain or selfish, fine.  I am vain and selfish.  I dye my hair because it looks good on me.  I wear clothes that flatter my figure.  I don’t wear makeup because it is a hassle.  And now when I look at my ugly naked body, I can turn my shoulder, not to see the damage I’ve done to myself, but to remember that scars can be beautiful.

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Declawing Cats


I should not be writing right now for a few reasons.  First, I have had two very full glasses of wine (I am a lightweight).  Second, it is very late, and while I have the day off tomorrow I don’t like indulging this particular bad habit.  Third, I have been holding in a lot of anger.  And by holding in, I mean ranting to my husband and friends, but not writing it down.

I write for a lot of reasons, I think.  Sometimes things just don’t make sense in my head until I make them solid on paper/screen.  Other times, I can’t sleep because my brain won’t stop talking about something.  Rarely, I am genuinely inspired by the Muse of Fiction.  I’ve written to fulfill New Years Resolutions and personal vows and school requirements.  I write because I am a writer.  I am also a baker and a hooker (crochet) and a napper.  To that end, I bake food I shouldn’t eat and stuff it in the faces of people I know to validate my own irreplaceability in their lives.  I crochet projects that interest/challenge me to stave off boredom and half-heartedly sell them (or rather don’t sell them) on the internet.  I nap.  This is my life when I’m not working.

I think I’m averaging three times a day that someone remarks on the fact that my name is Jo and I work at Joann’s.  It blows their minds when I tell them my middle name is Ann.  I say the same jokes over and over again.  “It’s probably why they hired me.”  “My mom must have KNOWN.”  “I’m Undercover-Bossing it.”  They all love my St. Pat’s apron, which I made as Irish as possible without resorting to using potatoes.  I am either the best person with the brightest personality and the most charming customer service or I’m the rude girl who merely pointed to the part of the store you needed without holding your hand to take you there.  I try to be the former because a narcissist needs everyone to love them and I NEED YOU TO LOVE ME.  I’m sorry if I was rude.  I hope there was a reason and not just that I was tired from standing for 5 hours because Americans don’t believe you can work and sit at the same time.  Or that I hadn’t eaten all afternoon because I decided we were too busy for me to take my 15 min corporate-obligated break.  Or I’m dehydrated because I left my water at the register and the past 5 times I went up to grab it, someone needed my help.  But thank goodness I have a cute apron and a bubbly personality and gave you the coupon you didn’t have or the discount you misread because losing money is less important than losing customers but more important than staffing the store well enough to properly serve customers.

To be clear, I do like my job.  I meet amazing people.  I get to help people be creative, which is kind of what I want to do with my life anyway, just with books.  I am inspired everyday to buy more yarn and fabric and stretch the boundaries of my skills.  I want to learn to do everything and I want to teach people to do those skills which will while away the hours of the Zompac.

Here is very important advice for casual conversation with retail workers.  It doesn’t happen frequently at work, but among new friends and associates and strangers at parties, the conversation gets around to, “And what do you do?”  Often this is after conversations about education or crazy college stories, but here’s a template of one conversation I had a bit too frequently over the last few weeks.

“Yes, I have a Bachelors in English with a minor in Medieval/Renaissance Studies.”

“And what are you doing with that?”

“I work retail.”

“Why?”

“I needed a job.”

Anything you say after that which isn’t along the lines of, “Oh, okay, the economy, blah, blah, blah, change the subject,” is going to lead down a dark road.

What can I say?  I am registered on several job search sites.  I get multiple daily emails about jobs available in my area (within an hour commute).  Most are crap.  Many are not even related to the field I’m interested in.  I realize that Barnes & Noble sells books, but the Starbucks barista job has absolutely no relation to publishing.  Nor does a managerial position at Food Lion count as a writing position.  Or I could take one of the many jobs selling magazine subscriptions to strangers.  A few, a very few are worth applying to.  Some fall under the “I need a job” category.  Like, okay, I’m not sure this is the type of job I want, but it does involve writing, a salary, and a full-time position.  Just bite the bullet, send in your resume, and wait for them to never, ever respond.  Not even to say you aren’t qualified or we went with someone else.

So when asked why I’m not working in the field I want, there is a little voice that starts screaming.  I don’t know.  I don’t know why they don’t want me.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me that I’m not good enough when EVERYONE who has ever taught me has said that I am above average.  What am I doing wrong?  Why don’t they want me?  And the only answer I always seems to come up with is that I’m not trying hard enough.  I can’t possibly be trying hard enough because in this country, if you work hard and stay positive and pull on your bootstraps or whatever, the opportunities just pour down.

It’s probably true.  I don’t walk my resume into publishing houses nor do I plan to move to LA or NYC in order to get an unpaid internship that could easily be done via email.  I don’t write constantly and send submissions in everywhere.  I don’t email 10 resumes a day to different employers.  Would that help?  Maybe.  Should I pay someone to look over my resume?  Because 6.5 years in the Army and a Bachelors degree aren’t evidence enough that I’m worth an interview?  Or even a rejection email?

This is why I don’t blog as much.  What shall I write about?  There was some woman who expected us to open up nearly an hour after we closed so she could buy something because we were the only place that had it and she needed it that night.  Or the woman who waved me down like I was a taxi.  Or the questions about whether or not I have anyone to help me with the line, which imply that I simply love keeping people waiting while my coworkers lounge in the break room or something.  No, I’m alone here.  I called for help and no one can come because everyone else is busy helping other people.  Or asking me to find a fabric you saw 2 months ago but don’t have a number or even a picture of, but you just loooooved it so much.  Is that all your buttons?  Why don’t you sell this obscure thing I’m looking for?  What are your hours that I could easily find with a quick internet search?  Do you have this yarn I bought six months ago with this lot number?  Do you have a senior discount (after I have asked if they have military or teacher discounts, because I would absolutely not mention senior after saying those)?  That person wasn’t chipper enough ringing me up, I want to complain.  I don’t understand why I can’t get cash back for a return, even when I don’t have the receipt.  Why didn’t I get full price back for stuff I returned six months after I bought it?  Where does it say 90 days (on the big sign right above your head and on the receipt)?  Why do you have to handle my fabric (because you were trying to smuggle out $30 in remnants folded in your fleece)?  What do you mean you don’t have it?  It’s on your website.  Oh, it says online only.

And that is only the nasty 1% of our customers.  Everyone else is either a joy and a pleasure to see or they’re new and just need some hand-holding.

For new people:

  1. Please be patient.  There are a lot of draws on our attention (other customers, because stocking the store and cleaning up the messes inconsiderate people leave always come after customer service).  We will help as much as we can, HOWEVER, we are not personal shoppers and should not neglect the rest of the store unnecessarily.  We will because we want your positive experience to bring you back, but other customers will suffer.
  2. Please be prepared.  Know your measurements.  There is no average size for anything, not chairs, not showers, not blankets, not clothes, not ANYTHING.  We will help you, but without correct measurements the best we can do is make guesses which can lead to you buying the wrong amount of supplies.  This will unnecessarily complicate your project and make you less likely to take on another.
  3. No questions are stupid or silly or unusual.  Within six months of working there, I had already heard all the weirdest projects (#1 was a reusable feminine pad) and cut the most fabric (2 1/2 hours cutting 50 1.5-yd pieces of fleece).  Do not be embarrassed to ask me anything.  Dumb questions are things that could be directed to Google before stepping in the store.  If Google can’t help you, ask away.  Even if Google could help you but you don’t want to ask a faceless search engine, ASK AWAY.  I will answer with a smile and if I can’t answer your question, I will ask my colleagues.  And yes, if desperate, Google it.

For Regulars:

  1. We love seeing you because you understand how long it can take to cut fabric.  Your patience and understanding are a Godsend, especially when we are slammed and understaffed.
  2. When we aren’t busy, we want to see pictures of your projects because in a little way they are our projects, too.  We also want to talk about your families and upcoming events, but not politics.  When we are busy, we still want to see pictures but we may have to be walking and stocking at the same time.
  3. Have your coupons loaded before you get to the register.  If you need help, as all phones can be tricky even to the most experienced, just ask.  If there is a long line at the register, I’ve noticed my regulars engaging other customers in conversation.  I love you for that.  It makes the line less threatening to me AND less annoying for others.
  4. Please, please, please, go to the website and fill out customer reviews.  A lot of people will take the time to fill out a review for a bad experience (and yes, I want those too, because how else will I learn?).  Most won’t bother if they had a good experience.  Every once in a while, I want to hear someone say we did a good job.  I know we do a good job and I know we aren’t perfect.  When all you hear are the negative reviews even though all I hear in person is how wonderful I am, it’s very confusing.

I didn’t mean for this to be about work or about my failing job hunt or how much retail can suck.  I was going to make some nasty remarks about declawing cats and maybe something political.  But since I’ve been listening to audiobooks in the car, I haven’t felt the boiling need to spew about stuff that doesn’t affect me on the daily because I am white, cis-gender, military spouse with health care through the military, and no children (yet) for which the future death of the planet holds any threat.  For the time being, I can selfishly ignore the toxic waste that festers a mere 3 hours away, plotting to drain the swamp through the effective means of increasing the white supremacist alligator population.  And honestly, what more is there to say that hasn’t been ignored or called fake news by the people I most need to hear me?  The people who will listen already agree with me.  The people who will call me a bitch and a snowflake and naïve are rooting for a creature who lies to their faces on a daily basis, or has his flying monkeys do it for him.

Bottom line, don’t declaw your cats, except in cases of medical necessity (for the cat).  Declawing can actually increase aggression in cats, causing them to lash out by biting rather than scratching.  A cat bite is far more likely to send you to the emergency room than a scratch.  It is better to treat the cat for aggression, either by finding healthy outlets (play and personal territory), behavioral medication, or rehoming if you are unable to give them the attention they need.  Declawing a cat because you don’t want it to scratch your furniture/carpets/curtains is animal cruelty.  It’s not like removing fingernails.  It’s cutting off the top knuckle of their hands.  It is the equivalent of binding women’s feet (Google that if you don’t know what I’m talking about).  I will never care more about my carpets than I do about the living creatures I agreed to care for.

 

And now you know why I don’t drink and blog.

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You Cannot Hate Yourself Thin


Dear Mom,

You cannot hate yourself thin.

And I mean YOU, not the general you.

Lots of people hate themselves thin.  They have eating disorders, mental illnesses that distort how they view themselves to such an extreme that they torture themselves to reach an ideal that will never be achieved.  They will die before their twisted standards can be attained.

More accurately, no one can hate themselves healthy.  The difference between healthy and thin is not always apparent, especially in an image-obsessed culture.  Thin is an insignificant number on a scale.  Thin is visible ribs, flat stomach, stick arms.  Thin is fragile and weak.  Thin can’t raise five kids.  Thin is the opposite of Fat.  Fat=bad, Thin=good.

Healthy doesn’t rely on numbers to be true.  Healthy is how you feel.  Sleeping better, moving better, breathing better.  Being healthy is about loving yourself so much that you want to take care of yourself.  You’ve heard obnoxious people say how their body is a temple so they don’t want to eat that trash, right?  We all know them, so superior with their spinach smoothies and coordinated yoga pants.  Or are they kale smoothies?  Arugula?  Whatever.  Healthy is the opposite of Morbidly Obese.  Healthy is meeting great-grandchildren.  Morbidly Obese is “Mom, I’m afraid for your life.”  This is a new feeling for me with you.  I’m used to it with Dad.

Yes, obnoxious.  But right in an essential way.  Your body, yes YOURS, is a temple.  It is sacred.  And you perform sacrilege every day.  I grew up listening to you fat shame yourself.  I know you can’t help that.  I know your father contributed and that unburdening yourself from the judgements of parents (however well meaning) is impossible.  I know you hate being fat.  It frustrates you because it doesn’t seem to matter what you do, it doesn’t go away.  It doesn’t get better.  You’re still fat, you still hurt, and it works for everyone else, why the hell doesn’t it work for you?

I don’t know, because I’m too far away and way too busy to monitor you 24 hours a day.  But I have a few theories, because how could I not?

Regularity.  Do you work out consistently?  Same times and days every week?  Do you have sufficient recovery stretches?  Do you have established refueling rituals?  All of these things help.  Consistency means you can keep track of progress and regularly increase difficulty.  Knowing how to recover means making sure a good workout doesn’t knock you on your back the rest of the week.  And having rituals reinforces the habit.  Finish a workout, get an awesome protein smoothie to help repair muscles and boost energy.  And then have an ounce of dark chocolate, because damn it you deserve it.

I hate working out.  Hate it.  And I have excuses up to the moon to not do it.  I’m tired.  I work part-time, but the last few months I’ve have 30-hour weeks (part-time my ass).  And I have a migraine-a-week habit.  Migraine if I have a glass of wine.  Migraine if I have too much heavy dairy.  Migraine if I don’t drink enough water.  Migraine if I sweat for five seconds moving stock in the back room.  Migraine if I wake up in the morning.  Migraine if I wake up.  But definitely a migraine if I work out.  For the next day or three.  (I did finally talk to a doctor about my migraines and she gave me new drugs that make me a space cadet and don’t work.  I’m planning on following up soon for other options.)  Me working out happens under three conditions.  I’m angry.  I’m having an Up week.  I’m terrified.

You told us that Dad was skinny as a rail until his early twenties.  Dad is no longer skinny as a rail.  Your daughters have been living in abject terror of genetics for our entire lives.  I am not exaggerating.  I’m afraid that I will look at myself one day and see you and hate that I let myself do that to myself.

That is the truth.

And its not for the reasons you think.

This last summer, I had to help you get home.  I had to give you support when muscle failure trapped you on a public toilet.  I had to steady you into the shower and help you dress and undress.  You said I shouldn’t have to see you this way.  And I laughed.  You didn’t know you were insulting me.  I’m your daughter.  I’m the only one who has the right to see you this way (ok, me and the rest of your children and your husband).  From that body you hate came my life.  It’s not a duty to care for my Mom.  It’s a privilege.

You look at yourself with loathing and shame.  Because you’re fat.  I see my Mom.  I did not feel disgust or shame when I saw you.  I saw my Mom.  And I love my Mom and wished she loved herself more.  That is what I’m afraid of.  I’m afraid I will look at myself and see a fat, ugly slob instead of the strong, intelligent woman YOU raised me to be.  I won’t see a loving mother or a successful business woman or a talented leader.  All I’ll see is FAT, UGLY, WORTHLESS.

This is why I think you fail.  You work out because you hate being fat and nothing changes.  So when it comes time to eat, you either don’t or you eat whatever because it doesn’t matter.  I know you try to make smart food choices, because I read your blog.  But under everything you write, I see the self-hate.  Dieting is punishment.  It means you can’t eat.  One piece of pizza.  Half a glass of soda.  No cake.  And then you accidentally have bacon, eggs, and grits for breakfast.  Oops.

That’s not an oops.  That’s a choice.  And I am tired of your choices.

Your body is a temple.  And the startling change you expect from working out will not ever happen, not if you keep sh*tting in your temple.  Eating healthy is an act of self-love.  It is not a punishment.  Food is sacred.  It is magical and wonderful in so many ways.  It brings people together, builds families, makes friends.  And it should never be a loathsome experience.  Not ever.  Not even when you are surrounded by people you hate who are all arguing over religion and politics and the latest family scandal.  Food is how Jesus explained to his disciples how they could remember him.  Within you is the body and blood of Christ.  And it has to share space with junk food.

You want extreme change, you have to start with extreme change.  Which means NO pizza, NO soda, still NO cake, and ABSOLUTELY NO accidental bacon, eggs, and grits.  No baked potatoes or clam chowders or bagels or sweet tea.  No seconds.  Hell, no complex sugars or salt or red meat or starches or processed foods.  Just bread and water, with the part of bread being played by steamed broccoli.

Which sucks, sure.  But it isn’t hell.  It isn’t even Limbo.  You stayed with me and ate my food.  Did you suffer?  Did you starve?  No.  I am a good cook and I like good food.  I would never feed someone bad food.  It would be sinful.  I am also a realist.  I have weaknesses.  Bread is a big one (all those empty carbs).  And pasta.  And potatoes.  Lots of things cannot be in my home because I can’t trust myself to always make the right decisions.  (The list is one that my husband and I made together, since marriage is a partnership, not a dictatorship.)  I still indulge in all those things, but it happens much more rarely since I don’t have easy access.

There are a lot of things I don’t miss.  Excess salt and sugar in my diet is one.  Making a lot of my own food means I control what goes in it and I like being in control.  Sometimes this involves using slow cookers to make a week of meals in advance.  A hassle, yes.  But better than eating at Panera for the third day in a row.  I don’t miss the stomach bombs from fast food or the sluggishness from greasy chips or being bloated from over-salted premade dinners.  I don’t miss chain restaurants or drive-thrus.

I love myself.  So I taught myself that the foods I used to love just make me feel like crap.  And they don’t even taste good.

I slip up, true.  Five Guys, a piece of pizza from the grocery store, SO MANY DONUTS.  But when I sit down to steamed veggies and a chicken breast, I don’t wish it was a Big Mac and fries (vomit sounds).

I’ve noticed something, though, with your menus.  I don’t think you know what “healthy” food is.  A sandwich is not automatically healthy, nor is soup.  I think you need to have a nutritionist give you a full run down on the type of diet that would best suit you.  Which includes portion size and a template for daily meal planning.  Regularity is key here, too.  Keeping to a schedule, tracking your water intake, planning ahead so you can’t deviate from your diet.  And having cheat days.

One day a week, or maybe just one meal, where you can ignore some of your rules.  You can go out for dinner.  You can have seconds.  You can have bacon.  That one day breaks up the monotony.  Nothing kills a good habit faster than boredom.

And on your birthday you eat whatever the hell you want.

Then you go to the gym.  Not because you are guilty about what you ate, even if you did slip up.  And NOT because you hate yourself.  But because you want to be strong and healthy.  Because you want to be independent, not imprisoned by a wheelchair or walker when your body starts giving up.  Because you want to feel better.  Ask your trainer why she works out.  I bet she won’t say it’s because she’s a fat, ugly pig who deserves pain.

I know it isn’t easy to give up, that hate.  After a while, it’s your best friend.  The only one who has stayed with you, who knows the real you.  The rebukes come naturally.  FAT.  CLUMSY.  STUPID.  WORTHLESS.  UGLY.  A regular chant I have memorized.  I say those things now and it shocks me back to reality.

The fat doesn’t make you ugly.  Hate makes you ugly.  Especially to yourself.

I LOVE YOU.  I don’t see Fat.  I see Mom.  And I want to help you.  I just don’t know how.

I can’t make you love yourself.  I hope you’ll try, though.

Your loving daughter,

Me

 

P.S.  Dad, this goes double for you.

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I am Depressed


I am depressed.

I always hesitate to use that word, like it is a really awful racial slur.  What if someone with depression hears me?  Will they be offended?  What if a normal person hears me?  Will they hide all the sharp things?

Depression is a serious mental illness and I don’t want anyone to think that I’m making light of it.  Understand that being depressed is one thing and having Depression is a whole other country.  Probably Russia.

My uncle died last week.  I wasn’t especially close to him.  The last time we spoke was four or five years ago.  He never accepted my friend request on Facebook.  Though he was invited, he did not attend my wedding.  I have never met his wife.  His widow.

We found out about two and a half weeks ago that he had Cancer of the Everything and that he had a month to live.  Bit of a shock.  My husband came to tell me at work because he didn’t think I should hear about it in a text.  I was going to finish my shift.  Then I thought about my Mom and I almost lost it.  He’s her little brother, says my treacherous mind.  So I went home and called my Mom.  This wasn’t about my loss, it was about hers.

I have told you all before that I’m a narcissist.  I’m not kidding or exaggerating or fishing for assurances that I must care about other people.  The only reason I started feeling grief was by finding a way to make it about me.  What if it was my brother?  My husband?  And once I got that focus, I felt grief and could sympathize with my Mom.

As a narcissist, I do have to remind myself that the pain of others is not done to punish me.  I don’t need this reminder all the time, but sometimes at the worst moments Narcissist Me gets really insistent.

I told my Mom that I would come home immediately if she wanted me to.  She said, no there’s nothing I can do.  She was going on a business trip to Orlando the next week and then heading up to see him and get his financials figured out.

And when she was entering the Marriot in Orlando for the conference, she mistook the exit of the revolving door and when the back door slammed into her, she was knocked to the ground with a broken hip.  So along with her artificial hip (the 3rd, actually, but who’s counting when you’re born short a joint) she now has a metal appliance that runs from her knee up to her hip.

This happened Monday (15 Aug).  The plan was for my Dad and sister to drive down to Orlando to pick her up Saturday.  It’s a two day drive from where they live and they had to get off work and everything.  Meanwhile, my Mom has an operation and the whole week to sit in a hospital alone and I am only 11 hours away, 13 with traffic and rest/gas stops.  So on a whim, I got off work the rest of the week and drove down to be with my Mom.  This is a blend of altruism and narcissism at its best.  I don’t like her being alone and I get to be the Hero.

On the way, the plastic cover under my car came lose and dragged itself to pieces.  When I got to Florida, I used a Gerber to remove the last three bolts holding it up and shoved it in the back of my car because FAMILY CRISIS I HAVE NO TIME FOR YOU.

I arrived Wednesday evening.  Mom was very happy to see me.  I was very happy to see her.

Thursday, I was sick most of the morning.  It’s called travel tummy and is what happens when you drive almost non-stop for 13 hours and eat gas station sandwiches and hotel Cup-O-Noodles.  But then I spent the afternoon leisurely crocheting while Mom and I talked and watched Animal Planet.  I was worried about how much help she needed getting in and out of bed, how slowly she walked to the bathroom (with a walker), how the HELL she was going to navigate her home with its split-level layout (3 staircases and the bedroom and only bathroom on the third floor).

Just as I got up to head out for dinner, she gets a call from my Dad.  We have been getting updates from him and my sister since they started their drive that morning.

The car stalled in Kentucky.  They have to get it towed and get a hotel for the night.  It might not be done until Monday or Tuesday.  But the repair shop is lining up a rental car.

Mom, in her despair (it has been a rather rough week for her), gives up.  They’re gonna just go home.  The hospital wants to discharge me tomorrow and they’ll just go home.  Which is stupid and I told her so.  According to my sister, Dad is super scary when he is driving desperately to reach his wife.

(I have a pet theory that my Mom underestimates how much we care about her because she doesn’t value herself as important enough to love.  This insight comes from my own sinister distrust for the regard my husband has for me.  What is wrong with him that he loves me?  When is he going to realize the MONSTER mistake he made?  Then the thought passes, but this is the kind of evil low self-esteem can insinuate if you let it.)

However, desperation can lead to fast thinking.  I’m in Florida, I don’t have to be back to work until Sunday.  I can drive Mom to them in Kentucky.  Or we can meet them midway between here and there.  And then my sister suggests that we meet at my house.

Remember Narcissist Me?  Its the one who, instead of leaping at the chance of having my family home for a few days, thinks only of the imposition of having guests with almost no warning?  They would be getting there before me.  Would my husband feel put upon to play host to MY family when I’m not even there?  (The answer is no.  When I told him, he just said, “Okay, I’ll get the house ready.”  I really don’t deserve him.)

So I hedged.  You guys head to my place, I’ll get Mom out of the hospital, and we’ll finalize plans when we find out what’s wrong with the car.  If it’s a quick fix, we meet, exchange hostages, and go on our merry ways.  If not, then I suppose my house is big enough for everybody and has no stairs.

And I know I was short and snappish with my sister on the phone.  Because the hospital was taking so long to get everything settled (considering they were the ones insisting on kicking her out) and a part of me was angry that my family had failed to do this in such a way that it didn’t inconvenience me.  Now I had to drive Mom alone and there was so very much to worry about and what if I couldn’t handle it?  Or what if I had to do things I didn’t want to do?  What if something else awful happened and I had to deal all by myself?!?Instead of confronting these ridiculous fears, I lashed out at a natural target (my sister).  Whether or not she noticed doesn’t really matter.  Narcissist Me is still an asshole.

The hospital took forever to check Mom out, as I said, so we didn’t leave the hospital until after 2.  Then we had to go buy her a wheelchair, which took more time.  Then there was traffic.  We got from Orlando to Savannah that day.  It was stressful.  Traffic, construction, and Mom in the backseat (because sliding doors made for easier entry).  Sleeping a lot (good).  Not eating or drinking water (bad).  We learned that the wheelchair was a must for rest stops unless we wanted to face muscle failure on the toilet.  We learned to back down ramps so we wouldn’t slam her bad leg into the ground.  We learned that grocery delis never have fried chicken when you need it most.  We learned that hotels can and will put handicapped rooms on the third floor and put the bed as far from the bathroom as possible (but thank gawd for bathtubs with built-in seats).  I remembered that I’m not squeamish about things like nudity.  (Remember Basic Training?  Showering with a bunch of naked women is only sexy in the movies.  In reality it’s all stretch marks and C-Section scars.)

I learned that it is okay to be stressed by the enormity of the situation, but it is not okay to bring that stress to the bedside of your broken, grieving mother.  Deep breathes.  It is going to be okay.  Or if not okay, it’s going to keep going.  She doesn’t need your negative energy.

Narcissist Me had to be reminded that she didn’t break her hip just to vex me.

Saturday, Mom rode in the front seat so we didn’t need the walker to get her into the chair.  It was nice because it was easier to chat and I didn’t have to worry that she wasn’t getting air from the A/C and could hear the audiobook (I let her pick the new one).  We got home safe, though later than I wanted because stupid Fayetteville.  How can there ALWAYS be traffic, Fayetteville?  And where are your Panera signs?  I know there were two right off of 95, but not a single freaking sign!?!  Rude.

I hugged my husband.  I hugged my Dad.  I lost it a bit with my sister because we kind of bear the burden of responsible older siblings.  It isn’t an evil burden and not one I regret.  One day, it will be up to us to take care of the most important people in our lives, which is only right since they are the reason we grew to be responsible adults.  It’s still not something one likes to be reminded of too early in the game, though.

Mom said, “You shouldn’t have to see me this way.”  By which she meant, so helpless.

I said, “I’m your daughter.”  If not me, then who?

The family left Sunday (21st).  They arrived home Tuesday.  Uncle Ted passed Wednesday night.

And we found out Thursday.  I was at work on my break, finally able to check my phone, though I had heard it go off earlier.

I have an Android, by the way.  My family mostly have iPhones.  When they send a group text, their texts stay in the group.  I get individual texts.  And even better, I actually just get the message “You have multimedia ready to download.”  Every freaking time.  So I get fifty individual texts from all my family that I have to go though and “download message” for all of them, most of which are responses to the original text, which may or may not have downloaded yet.  It is fracking frustrating.  Especially since I can’t seem to leave the group, so continue to get any and all messages sent between members of the group to each other.  Also, I don’t know if when I’m sending a message whether it is to the individual I intend or to the entirety of the group.  Dozens of messages all at once, none of which I can read.  It could be anything or nothing.  Hey, Mom broke her hip.  Just random banter between my brothers.

Anyway, when my phone went off, I looked at the screen.  This is not something I normally do because it’s against policy.  But I had been expecting news of some sort.  My screen said it was my Mom and the message was (MMS), which meant it was another G-D group text I’d have to download just to read.  This was actually a good thing, since that meant I could read it in the privacy of the break room and get all emotional.

I was very sad.  And then I was horrified.  Here’s how we found out that my mom’s brother had died:

A coworker of her other brother, Joe, had seen a post on Ted’s college Facebook page (he was a percussion instructor) announcing his death.  Joe called my Mom.  Mom texted us.  My youngest brother posted on our sibling Facebook group just to make sure that everyone heard.

This is not how anyone should learn of the death of their brother, however estranged.

His widow, who I imagine is not in a good place right now, has not returned my Mom’s calls, so we don’t know when the funeral is.

I shouldn’t be this bitter and angry.  As I said, we weren’t close.  Still, it hurts to realize just how “not close” we were.

I told my siblings to swear that this wouldn’t happen to us.  However far away we are from each other, that is not how I want us to lose each other.  Not through the Social Media Rumor Mill.

So I am depressed.  Sad was that awful half an hour of me crying in the break room.  Because he was family and I missed my chance to be closer to him.  Because I read touching tributes to all the lives he touched, all his grateful students and fellow professors, and I had barely given him a thought until this all happened.

And since then, I have had a weight of grief on my chest.  It is harder to smile and be chipper.  It is a challenge to care about other people and their problems.  I don’t want to hustle anywhere or do anything.  And when people ask me how I’m doing, I have to lie when I say I’m fine.  I’m not, obviously.  But no one wants an honest answer when they’re in line to buy fabric or whatever.  Some of them don’t even respond when I ask them how they are.  (Which hurts, by the way.  Please have the common courtesy to at least look at the person at the register.)  Even with coworkers and friends, I don’t just come out and say it.  I want to say I’m fine so I don’t ruin their day (I think?), but I hesitate because I’m a naturally forthright person.

How am I?  My uncle died.  How are you?

I’m feeling complex emotions.  Grief and remorse and regret and anger and shame.  And I’m taking notes on all of this because I’m a writer and this is good material.

How am I?  I’m depressed.  That is absolutely the perfect word for the stage I am in.  Sad is an adjective with strict boundaries of place and time (in my head, anyway).  And sad is also insufficient and two dimensional.  Depressed, well that can be a verb and so very complex.  It is a heavy cloak I wear that sometimes shrouds me from all light, and sometimes billows out in a breeze of humor, only to settle again moments later.  Hilarious tickle fight followed by an insidious whisper in my head.  Don’t forget your uncle died.  Oh.  Right.

It’s a cloak I want everyone to see without me pointing it out.  I don’t want to tell people that my uncle died and it’s complicated.  I want them to know, obviously, so they don’t worry if I’m not acting like myself.  But I don’t want to have to see their looks of horror or pity or whatever because I’m not sure how I feel about all of this, just that I’m depressed and it will pass.

This is not the kind of attention I crave as a narcissist.  I only want praise.  I don’t know how to handle pity but to shrug it off and lie that it’s fine, not that bad, that’s life, we weren’t that close, I’m not hurt by this loss at all.

I was so depressed when I found out about his cancer that I couldn’t bake.  I bake convulsively when I’m stressed.  Ask anyone who knows me and most of them will blame me for their weight gain.  But the idea of entering my kitchen to do anything was exhausting.  I could crochet, but only because it kept me off my phone.

When he died, after that awful week and the stressful drive (and seeing my Mom in such rough shape from it all), I didn’t think I could even write about this.  Too personal, too close.  I’d have to write things I don’t want people to know about my family, or write things I don’t want my family to know about me.  (For some reason, I can’t sensor autobiographical works.)  I would have to be honest in a way I’m not sure I want people to see.  But my husband, whom I’ve already mentioned as being far too amazing to be stuck with me, assured me that none of this would ever stop me from writing.  Apparently, he knows me pretty well.

He has been very sweet and supportive, reminding me that my family is his family, too.  When it came down to it, my family needed help and he had no reservations in giving it.  That’s how I want to be, and I am after I shut out Narcissist Me.  Bottom line, that’s the lesson of this story.  You don’t have to like your family.  You just need to be there if you can.

Friday, he took me on an “Eff This Week” day.  We went down to the beach and had an expensive lunch and then Cold Stone, because Ice Cream, that’s why.

We got more bad news, but from Buddy’s family.  His Uncle Danny passed last night.  It wasn’t as sudden, since he had been in bad health for a while, but it was still a blow.  He also had a sister who is falling apart right now and family in pain.  And my husband is hurting, though he’s not so obvious about it as I can be.  He will probably be depressed, just like me.  But we will find ways to laugh and move on and remember sweeter times, and eventually hang up the cloak until the next time.

Depressed is not an evil or shameful word.  It is not an admission of weakness.  It is not employed for shock value or because I’m being overly dramatic or seeking attention.  I don’t want attention for this feeling.  I want attention for being awesome.  I don’t use it to illicit pity.  I use it because it is the truest description for my emotional state.  And I’m only using it because I need to explain for some reason.  There’s nothing wrong.  Life happened.  I’m depressed.  It will pass.

And now I can just refer people here instead of revisiting all the awfulness of the last few weeks every time someone wants to know what’s the matter.  Go read my blog.  I’m moving forward.  I think.  I hope.

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The Term You’re Forgetting is Soldier-Musician


In early 2003, my senior year of high school, I got a call from an Army recruiter.  One thing led to another and by the middle of March, I had signed a 5 year contract with the Army.  If you had suggested such a career choice for me to anyone who knew me, there would have been much laughter.  I was categorically against war and anything that involved killing people.  Even if I wasn’t going to be pulling the trigger, I would not be easy working for a company that actively sought the death of human beings.   Mine was a household bereft of guns, even toy guns as facsimiles were just as damning to my mother’s sensibilities.  To this day, the thought of a gun in my house, however it is secured, feels like something sharp in my boot that I’m hoping is just a rock (but what if it isn’t?).

So how, pray tell, did an utter stranger convince me in a matter of moments to abandon all those hard-fought scruples?  College money.  And he mentioned the Army Band.  Which I didn’t think I was good enough for.  After a week and a half of practice and a 7-hr drive to Ft Leonardwood to meet the band liaison for an audition, I was in the Army Band (by the skin of my teeth).  The bandsmen who sat my audition made it clear that I needed to practice a lot, that it was really a lack of French Horn players in the field that made them take the risk for me, and that the School of Music would ultimately determine my fate.

It didn’t occur to me, when I first started this process (taking a practice ASVAB, prepping for the audition, etc), that I would be going to Basic Training.  And like every person who talked to me about my decision, from parents I babysat for to retired Airmen who went to church with my parents to my high school friends, I was certain that the Band wouldn’t deploy.  What would I do?  Blow my horn at the enemy?  Absurd.

I went to Basic at Ft Jackson (Relaxin’ Jackson) in South Carolina.  In August.  I climbed Victory Tower, which you can see in the movie Renaissance Man, though my dismount from the 30 ft tower was significantly more graceful than Danny DeVito’s (thank you, dance camp).  I learned to fire an M16 from a foxhole and in the prone unsupported position.  I learned to do push-ups and sit-ups and finish a 2-mile run in less than 19 minutes.  I threw a live grenade after the practice grenade course.  I learned the Army Song and the Army Values (which were conveniently listed on a plastic tag next to my ID tags).  I learned that a 5′ nothing Drill Sergeant could be more intimidating than the 6′ stocky DS who dropped an F-bomb every other word.  I learned that you could show attitude by how you walked.  I learned never, ever ask a DS not to call you a name because it hurts your feelings.  I learned that for a brief moment, everyone in Basic Training wants to be a Drill Sergeant.

I learned paranoia.  I learned sharp corners.  I learned Hooah.

When they found out I was in the band, people laughed.  My French horn mouthpiece was almost confiscated as contraband, along with nail files, candy, and scissors.  A friend argued for me to get it back because I was too upset to speak for myself.  I needed it to practice.  You can’t not play for 2 months and then do an audition.  My DS made me play Happy Birthday outside of his office on my mouthpiece.  I think he wanted to embarrass me, but I’m a narcissist so I loved it.

Some people insisted on calling me Flute Player or Flute Blower. Thanks to American Pie, I heard the phrase “One time at Band Camp” quite a lot.

I graduated Basic with a fair PT score and a Marksman Badge.

The School of Music is a multi-service school situated on the Little Creek Naval Amphibian Base.  It serves the Army, Navy, and Marines.  When I went, the regular course was 6 months, at the end of which I would be promoted to a Specialist (E-4).  I started in the Army as a Private First Class (E-3) because of my “civilian acquired skill,” the 8 years I had spent learning to play my instrument.

I took classes in music theory and ear training.  I spent 4 hours a day practicing, or trying to practice.  I had weekly lessons with a senior NCO.  I played in concert band.  I marched in Drill Band.  I got up for PT every morning at 4:30.  I took a PT test every month.  There was Army training scattered throughout the course, taught by NCO’s going through their leadership courses.  I found out that the Marine and Navy Bands don’t deploy, but that the Army Bands do.  I learned that Hawaii was deploying right after I was set to get there.

I also learned that the 12-mile ruck march I did in Basic Training gave me stress fractures in my hips that I had been walking and running on for over a month because I was too afraid of missing training.  It took two weeks to get a no-running profile so I could stop running and heal.

I went home for the first time since August and found out I was a different person.

I took three auditions at the SOM.  I passed them all, barely.  In April, I went home again.  Then I flew out to Hawaii and became part of the real Army.

I didn’t go on the first deployment.  The Commanding General for the Division wanted the band to only be doing its primary mission of music support for the troops, so he authorized 2 3-month TDYs for a portion of the band.  They flew all over Afghanistan providing morale and entertainment.  I wanted to go when they went back for Christmas.  The guys they sent all had families.  It didn’t seem fair.

I got my chance for the second deployment.  The new CG didn’t want to leave his band behind.

Between the first and second deployment, we were attached to the Special Troops Battalion, rather than being directly under the CG.  The first thing the STB did was accuse us of cheating on the PT test because there was no way the band had the highest average in the Division (274 out of 300).  They made us retake the PT test with another unit grading us on the 1/2-mile track (the worst running track on Post).  Our score dropped 4 points.

I stood through dozens of Change of Command ceremonies.  In every single one, someone would thank the band “for bringing something special.”

I met soldiers who didn’t know there was an Army Band.  One actually told me he thought the band was civilians dressed up in uniforms.

I had to repeatedly justify my rank to people outside the band because they didn’t think I’d earned it.

I was a freak novelty.  And I had coins from Generals lining my shelves, as thanks for playing a reception or a graduation on the Big Island.

I deployed to Iraq in September 2006.  The band had two missions: music and security.  This was despite the guidance that had come down years before that the band only had one mission.  I did Close Quarters Marksmanship training 3 times in Kuwait, in 140 degree weather.  I drove for the Live Fire Convoy Exercise.  I was stuck in a tent with 75 other females for two weeks with an air conditioner that only brought the temp down to 100 and frequently caused power outages.

When we got to Iraq, we manned the security desk at the Battle Defense Operation Center.  We supervised Local Nationals on clean-up missions on post.  We sent junior soldiers to paint helicopter pads and change street signs to reflect the change from the 101st Airborne to the 25th Infantry Division.  We provided a 4-soldier team for the Security Detachment every week.  I was the driver for my team.  The Security Detachment was a small platoon made up of all the failures of the STB.  Our job was to drive around the inner perimeter and check that no one was sleeping in the Observation points and that the generators had gas.  My Truck Commander played the euphonium.  My gunner was a tuba player.  And the back was occupied by one of my trumpet players, whichever one wasn’t playing Taps somewhere else in country.  We had a week with SD or the BDOC desk, then a week of music.  We mostly played in the chow halls, in front of the coffee house of the BDOC, and in the bazaar on COB.  We couldn’t travel to any other posts because we couldn’t get transportation.  Plus, what if we couldn’t get transport back?  We’d miss duty for the next week.

One of our NCOs, a trombone player, ended up taking over as SD Platoon Sergeant because the first two guys in the job were both fired for incompetence.  One of our teams helped to take in a guy who had made the mistake of firing an RPG at Speicher and not hiding well enough from the helicopters that went after him.  I sat watching the main road at night a few times, which was excessively boring because curfew meant no one was on the road.  I did a couple of convoys, though I didn’t drive for either.  We played Christmas carols for one trip, to the heckling from the STB 1SG and senior officers.

Another of our NCOs, a euphonium player who was a prior service Reserves officer, took over as commander of the night shift for the BDOC.

Midway through deployment, they shifted us from SD to the balloon tasking.  We provided a six-man team to babysit the balloon for the night shift.  I volunteered for this team.  I am a night person and anything was better than sitting the BDOC desk.  Besides, it meant I had a regular schedule.  Every other week, anyway.  I got to switch from day shift to night shift every Monday, but much can be excused for Midnight chow.

Gradually, it felt like people were getting sick of us.  Of me.  Every week, there was a Brass Quintet playing in the chow hall.  The Rock Band did a show every week.  We still had people clap or thank us.  We also had others who asked us to keep it down.  But what did they expect?  We should have been travelling all over the place to offer music support for the entire northern province.  But that just wasn’t happening.  Not until the end.  I got to do two trips, one to Mosul and one to Balad.  These are areas controlled by DAESH now, in case you were wondering.  This was after we had found out that the deployment had been extended by 3 months, which was right after I reenlisted for 4 years so I wouldn’t get sucked into the next deployment.

I was lucky.  I didn’t see any “action.”  No more or less than any other non-Combat Arms soldier.

It’s a strange thing, being in the band.  Generals give you coins while the 1SG smirks at you behind their backs.  The BN XO recommends you to take a difficult tasking because the band always does an outstanding job, yet the rest of the command team looks at you in disdain because you aren’t real soldiers.

I left Hawaii angry.  Ft Rucker, AL only made it worse.  I was put into the Supply shop and assigned a Government Purchase Card.  In case you didn’t know, the Band staffs all its admin, supply, operations, and training offices.  They don’t just sit around playing music all day.  And the higher up you go in rank, the less music you tend to do.  Rucker was non-deployable.  It’s the Home of Army Aviation, so we played 6 Change of Commands a year and 1-2 graduations a week.  Very low op-tempo, but with huge access to the entire Southeast.  We should have been playing all over the south.  Ft Benning, 2 hrs north, was way too busy with Basic grads (though not too busy to do a TDY down to Disney World, which I was lucky enough to get in on).  But Rucker was ideally placed for Panama City, New Orleans, Mobile, and everywhere in between.  We should have been playing for high schools to up recruiting and doing parades and patriotic concerts until our legs fell off.

We weren’t.  We played ceremonies: graduations, parades, change of commands, etc.  And we’d send a pianist to play the reception for the WOC grads.  Why?  Because some civilian in charge of approving our travel funds decided the Army shouldn’t be spending money so the band can party.  Because a 6 hour parade is definitely a party, especially if its Mardi Gras.  (Have you ever done a 6 hour parade?  Is there a better analogy for Hell?)

When my contract was up, I got out.  I quit.  Because there is only so much Sousa a girl can take.  I haven’t played my horn since 2011.  And when fellow musicians look at me shocked and ask why, I have a simple answer.  The Army killed the music in me.  They all know exactly what I mean.

If you’ve kept with me so far, congrats.  I’m finally to my point.

A few weeks ago, Rep McSally got a bill passed for the Defense Appropriations Fund in the House.  It included language that limited the band’s mission to ceremonies and funerals.  To somehow save money.  Which means no parades, no patriotic concerts, no holiday concerts, no receptions for diplomats and officers, and no school recruitment.

There have been quite a few articles about this.  $437 million is a number thrown around quite a bit as the budget for military bands last year, which is less than .01% of the total Defense Budget. Also noted are $11,000 flutes and $12,000 tubas.  I worked in Supply.  Wanna hear a few more numbers?  $40,000 grand piano.  $50,000+ in sound equipment.  $25,000/yr salary for E-5 horn player.

Forget that good instruments are expensive but will last for decades if properly cared for.  And that sometimes it takes years to replace instruments that are falling apart because of contractors.

Forget that our budget lives under threat every year, which discourages fiscal responsibility.  For example, we haven’t spent our budget for the year, but if we don’t spend it, then next year we’re given a smaller budget and what if we need it for something?  It’s not like extra money rolls over to the next FY like unused minutes on a fancy phone plan.  It just disappears into the ether.  Oh, looks like the band didn’t spend its budget this year.  We were going to give them $120,000 for the year, but they can probably squeak by on $80,000, don’t you think?

I’m not saying its right.  That’s just how it was.

McSally stated that she didn’t feel right about military musicians playing at a Christmas party she went to.  I agree with her.  They should have been at home with their families celebrating the holidays.  They don’t get extra pay for that, no over time.  They might get a coin.  They might get a thank you.  They might get nothing, not even dinner.  But that’s the job.  Bandsmen don’t get holidays off.

If you don’t want military bands playing for those types of events, tell military officers and government officials to stop requesting the free band and start spending their money on civilian bands, who will charge 3 times as much as it costs for a military band.  Or more.

She said there were certainly civilian bands eager to take the place of military bands on non-essential events.  I wonder who she thinks will be paying for those civilians?  Not to mention the insurance nightmare it is to get a celebrity personality into combat zones.  What happens when you send Taylor Swift to Iraq for a non-essential concert for deployed soldiers and her transport gets shot at?  I don’t suppose she went to Basic Training and had lots of pre-deployment training and has her own weapon strapped to her back so she can shoot back.  But perhaps the soldiers who are deployed in dangerous areas dying for their country don’t really need any kind of distraction from the day to day BS, right?  That would explain why soldiers were so bummed to see my little brass quintet when we finally got to travel.  Except they weren’t bummed.  They were pretty excited.

She said “put down the tuba and pick up a wrench or gun.”

I don’t know if you can tell, but there are a lot of weapons in the above pictures.  The tuba player has a M249 under his seat.  Even Christmas caroling required carrying a weapon.  Because you don’t walk around without one when you’re deployed.  And yes, that’s a table saw, not a wrench, but someone had to build my bookshelf.  The term she’s missing is Soldier-Musician.  That means we can do both.

McSally seems to think she can solve manning problems by reducing bandsmen since they would miraculously transform into aircraft mechanics or infantrymen.  If I hadn’t passed my audition, I would not have joined.  If the Army didn’t offer a regular paycheck for musicians, something rare in the music industry, a lot of people would simply go elsewhere.  You don’t gain personnel by cutting bands.  That’s not how it works.  And restricting bands to ceremonial capacities will make it even harder to staff the bands you do have.  Who wants to play marches all the time?  Crazy people, that’s who.

Which brings me to the most poisonous thing she said.  She mentioned that some veterans aren’t getting buglers at their funerals.  This seems a counterintuitive point after just stating that bandsmen need to do real jobs (gun/wrench jobs) until you read into it.  Reduce the band budget, cut back on bands, reduce the number of bandsmen, but you still need to send buglers to every funeral.  Her comments on that point, coming on the heels of her distaste for military musicians playing concerts and receptions, is an insinuation that the Band refuses to pay final respects to veterans in favor of playing rock band concerts.  Because failure to provide a bugler couldn’t be a budget issue.  We don’t have the money to send a bugler there and the band that was near enough to go is closed now.  We don’t have the personnel because new people aren’t joining the band because people like you are telling the world how worthless we are.  My husband is a bugler.  He’s played a lot of funerals.  It is an honor and a privilege.  How dare you.

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The fact is, I’m tired of this fight.  The band spends all its time defending itself.  Trust me, you need us.  You’ll miss us when we’re gone.  Teetering between senior officials saying that we are the finest the Army has to offer and everyone else thinking we’re some kind of joke.  I quit so I wouldn’t have to fight any more.

I don’t think McSally went far enough.  I think we should scrub the band completely.  You want ceremonial music?  Plug in an iPod to those speakers.  You want a bugler for this funeral?  Here’s a trumpet that plays it when you press a button.

And then all my friends could play the ceremonies and concerts and recruiting tours as civilians.  They could wear what they want and play what they want.  They could turn down crappy jobs and decide how long they wanted to stay overseas.  They could decide where they wanted to live and could stop working so hard to prove that YES, GOD DAMN IT, I AM A REAL SOLDIER.  And like all civilians contractors, they could be paid a mint to do it.  Because you can make a soldier do anything, from stirring sh*t to babysitting balloons.  But you can’t do that to a civilian because they can quit any time they want.

This slow death is painful.  Cutting positions, killing bands.  I agree that the fat needs to be trimmed.  We don’t need quite so many special bands in DC and places like Rucker are dead weight.  But pressure like this from idiots who don’t have any say on how the DoD spends its money is why my husband’s band is apparently getting shut down and moved.  Despite the fact that it is beloved by the community and the Army spent a ton of money building facilities specifically for the band (a concert stage for the hugely popular summer concert series and a new band hall which would be an awkward fit for any other unit).  Speaking of wasting money.

How are we supposed to prepare for anything if they keep pulling the rug?

I was a good soldier.  I took care of my soldiers.  I did my job to the best of my ability.  I did everything other soldiers did, only better because I had to prove myself.  I put up with snickers and slurs, incredulous looks, stupid questions, and daily reminders that nothing I did would ever be good enough.  I still have all the parts memorized to Stars and Stripes Forever.  I’ve been out of the band for 5 years.  When people ask if I miss it, I can honestly say I miss the paycheck and the power.

I don’t miss 4 PT tests a year or going to the range.  I don’t miss ruck marches and unit runs.  I don’t miss waking up for a surprise piss test or administering those tests. I don’t miss the BS.  I don’t miss being underappreciated.  I don’t miss working weekends and holidays.  I don’t miss standing in the blazing sun while some General talks for 10 minutes about how much he appreciates his daughter’s 2nd grade teacher.  The stuff I do miss is all the stuff that woman thinks is unnecessary.  Granted, she thinks a decades-old plane that should have been retired back in the 90s is vital to the mission.  But she also thinks cutting a few million dollars will make any effing difference.  She can go to her constituents and say that she’s tough on spending and has saved jobs by keeping money-pit bases open (the relocation of which might save billions, but whatever).

I would miss seeing the band play.  And I think you would, too.

Here’s some links to petitions and other articles:

https://www.change.org/p/u-s-senate-continue-military-bands-funding?recruiter=137688485&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=autopublish&utm_term=mob-xs-share_petition-reason_msg&fb_ref=Default

https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/continue-military-bands-funding

https://www.military1.com/military-finance/article/1611384014-military-bands-funding-could-be-on-the-fiscal-chopping-block/

Since 1776: Why You Should Care About Military Bands

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lt-gen-clarence-e-mcknight-jr-/military-bands_b_10889086.html

http://blogs.wsj.com/brussels/2016/07/07/u-s-military-band-tests-the-soft-edge-of-hard-power-in-belarus/

ACTION ALERT: Here’s What You Can Do To Help Defeat The Destruction Of Military Bands

http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/story/military/2016/06/27/military-bands-cuts-pushback/86435350/

NAfME Opposes McSally Amendment to Cut Military Band Funding

https://www.army.mil/article/170103

If you have any experiences with military bands, I hope you’ll share them.  And sign petitions.  And write your senators.

I realize there are bigger issues right now.  If I get started on them, I won’t be able to sleep.  Maybe tomorrow.  Until then, let’s stop this stupidity.  These are the same kind of ideas that justify spending millions on high school football while cutting all funding for the arts.  Haven’t we lost enough of our souls?

 

 

 

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Anger and Sadness


There is a fine line between anger and sadness.

Anger is what we use to kill sadness.

When our throats constrict with unwanted tears, when despair claws at our insides, when fear and helplessness tighten our chests, Anger steps in to burn it all away.

When scores of people die in senseless violence

Atrocities against hundreds

Death in the thousands

Blood running in schools

Ignorance and Hatred ruling the mob

Terrors stalking our friends, family, children

There is Anger.

It says WE COULD HAVE STOPPED THIS, IF ONLY…

If only what?

Fewer guns?  More guns?  More laws?  Less laws?  Acceptance?  Genocide?

Time Travel?

Go back in time and prevent guns from being invented.

Just to be safe, get rid of gun powder.

Also projectile weapons of any sort.

Or anything sharp.

Go back and break the thumbs of all the early homo sapiens.  That should do it.

 

There is no fixing this.  There is no solution.  This is reality.  This is what we have built for ourselves.  The world we live in should expect a mass shooting every day, because that is what happens.  Want that to change?  Move to an uninhabited planet.

Anger is useless.  It calls for action where none can be taken.  Cries for justice where none can exist.  Demands retribution from a dead man, and then from anyone else considered culpable.  Anger is loud, unthinking, cruel.  Anger anticipates all these things from its perceived enemies, and is angrier when they don’t act accordingly.  Calls everyone hypocrites because they can’t publically hate on dead people.  Those a-holes have no right to pray and mourn the people they were afraid to share a bathroom with.  Those people facilitated this, so they should be rejoicing on social media, right?

Anger snarls for change.  Fix this with laws and regulations.  (Let’s be honest, if nothing changes after an elementary school gets shot up, what chance does a gay bar have when the LGBT community is considered one of the threats to school children?)

I understand Anger.  We’ve been on close terms for all of my adult life.  When we got too friendly, I knew it was time I left the Army.  It came to my aid when it was time to decide whether I should leave the P/T job I had during college or put up with being treated like an over-paid monkey.

I tell it, firmly, to take a long walk during days like today (yesterday now).  I don’t need Anger.  I need Sadness.  I need it because it allows me to feel everything.  Sadness doesn’t shut you down (Sadness, not Depression).  It opens you up, like a bad cavity.

It makes demands, but not in the same way.

How can I feel better?  How can I stop this ache?  Who can I hold?  Who can I comfort?

We all know the phrase.  Fear leads to Anger.  Anger leads to Hate.  Hate leads to the Dark Side.  I saw some Dark Side today.  We all did.

Here is a better phrase.  Sadness leads to Compassion.  Compassion leads to Love.  Love leads to Everything that is Good about Humanity.

Surprisingly, I saw more love today than I expected.  Maybe I just have my social media filtered correctly, so that only those who agree with me can be seen.  Or maybe I don’t need to relocate to Mars.

Let’s all be sad together.  Then move on before the next tragedy starts the cycle again.

To the Shooter: I hope you’re enjoying Hell.  Even better, I hope we don’t remember your name next week.  I hope you spend eternity knowing that you died for nothing and that no one mourned you or celebrated you.  I hope you fail to be immortalized as a great villain or a true martyr.  You are a coward.  I pity you.

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Two Trees in a Field


There is an open field that I pass every day, to and from home.  It’s part of an historic plantation and is frequently the site of fairs and war reenactments.  Near the road, there are two trees.  One stands straight-backed and tall.  The other leans drunkenly away, nearly laying flat on the ground.  Their trunks are joined together in such a way that they seem to be one tree, if you ignore the difference in foliage.

I have had a few romantic notions about these trees for a couple of years, the most prominent of which is that they are dancing together.  Their lives pass so slowly, however, that they look frozen mid-dip to us scurrying humans.

This tableau always makes me a little sad in the winter.  The tall tree is an evergreen and the dipped tree is a deciduous.  At the height of winter, the dipped tree looks to be a dead tree clinging to a live one.

What does the evergreen think about those times?  Does she understand that her partner is sleeping?  Does the ebbing life of the deciduous slow to such a measure that she can no longer feel it?  Does she stand all winter wondering why he seems to be blinking for so long?

Does she stand all winter mourning over him?

And how immeasurably happy is she when spring comes and he blooms again?

Then this last winter, they cut him down.  I drove by and there were chunks of him piled around her base.  It knocked the breath out of me.  It dawned on me that to everyone else, the deciduous was sick.  He was a leech clinging precipitously to the life of the evergreen, weakening her or damaging her in ways I couldn’t see.

I pondered this for some time.  Why did this bother me so much?  It’s just a tree, right?  And clearly not a healthy one.  It was much better to put him out of his misery than allow him to continue being a burden.

But no, he was struggling to be alive and their relationship was something beautiful.

This is what it’s like living with and/or loving someone with a mental illness.  Sometimes they are blooming and you are so very, very happy.  This is the person you love, the one you grew up with or fell in love with or grew close to.  Maybe this time it will be spring forever and you can stop being afraid of winter.

And sometimes they aren’t.  And you don’t know what’s wrong or how to fix it.  Realistically, there is no fixing it.  There is nothing you can do but wait and pray for spring.  And pray that no one decides to cut them down.

It is a burden sometimes.  You want them to be normal and happy.  You don’t want to worry about them.  You don’t want to see or hear about their suffering.  And you’re tempted to ignore them, push them away so that you can’t be hurt by this person who can’t just be happy like everyone else.  And you feel guilty for that, of course.  There’s a tiny voice that just wants them to go away so it isn’t your problem.  Selfish you just wishes they would get better or disappear because feeling helpless and frightened is not fun.

And you deeply hate selfish you.  This is a person you love who is sick and hurting and needs you.  Shut up, selfish you.

The important thing, the most important thing, is that regardless of the season you have to be there.  You hold them up during the winter and when they wake up in spring, they wake up to you.  Your trunk may tire, your branches may break, but you cannot let them go.

And if people start telling you he’s sick, you can’t help him, he’s taking advantage, he’s faking it, he just wants attention, he’s using you, you’re better off without him, you tell them where to stick their axes.

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Regency Heroes – Solstice


This happens the Winter Solstice after Elinor is engaged to Sir Christopher.  I’m still working on cementing the plotlines and everything, but this scene was itching in my brain and had to be put down.  Let me know what you think!

 

Chp 2 – Solstice

The mask is stifling.  Each breath seems to make the next more difficult.  But he likes the power it gives him.  Anonymity, of course.  And an edge of something like magic.  It zings through his blood with every step he takes through the tame little country woods.  The wind slices through his great coat like bladed ice, giving him more reason to bless the mask that shields his tender skin from the brittle cold and curse the silly velvet costume he had donned for the Solstice Ball.  Stylish, yes.  Practical, no.  There is a chill seeping up through the souls of his tall hunting boots as they whisper over dead pine straw.  He ignores it, endeavoring to focus on the end of his task.  The knife is safe in its sheath, the blade steeping in deadly poison.  Soon enough, he could discard the suffocating mask and breathe in something besides his own fetid air.

Lily lounges at the base of her mother’s tree listening to stories.  In deference to her new white dress, there is a thick blanket acting as a barrier between nest of dirty roots and the delicate muslin.  In deference to the cold, Henry tends a fire a safe distance away.  Above them both shines a golden moon, which her father’s people call the Golden Cauldron and her mother’s call Odin’s Eye.  Or so the tree tells her.  She does not know if the voice she hears is truly her mother or if it is some wood sprite speaking for her.  No one else hears it.  The voice is sleepy now, this late in the year.  It murmurs softly, sometimes lost among sighing of branches and crackle of ice settling down the forest.  From it she learns all that her mother would have her know about her heritage.

Henry prefers to learn from books and his father’s library is extensive.  Normally, he would be there, peaceful among the dusty shelves.  But the Solstice celebrations are a disruption he can’t abide.  Other boys his age are running through the halls pretending to be knights and dragons and pirates.  Revelers of all ages invade the family home, drinking and singing and dancing at their leisure.  He simply can’t abide the noise saturating his private places.  The smell is even worse and permeates everything.  Smoke and sweat and wine and other odors for which he has no names.  It bothers his dogs as well, which is why the pack is settled around him and his little book.  Occasionally, he reads a passage to the bitch, Lady, as she appears to enjoy history as much as he does.

As far as they are from the festivities, music can still be heard drifting through the bare branches.  Mostly, though, it is quiet.  Just the crackling of the fire, the breathing of the dogs, and the creaking of a forest deeply asleep.  And then footsteps.  Clumsy, heavy boots breaking twigs and crushing dry leaves.  Then clouds pass over the moon, leaving the twins with distorting firelight for company.

The firelight is as reassuring as it is troubling.  It provides a beacon to guide him through the confounding woods, yet also indicates that his task might have an obstacle.  Still, his task must be completed tonight to give him any chance of success.  Even in the dead of winter, the Lady’s power is stronger than he expected.  That, he belatedly realizes, is the tingle of magic he feels fizzing through his nerves.  He is not welcome on these grounds.  She is trying to frighten him with the cold, so he stares at the hot flames and allows his body to instinctively fight toward the desired heat.

At the edge of the clearing, he pauses.  He can see the gate to path off to his right that must lead to the manor and the bright little fire near its dark arch.  The tree centered in the clearing is an oak, he thinks, never caring enough about plants to learn their names.  It towers over the faerie circle of dead grass, taller than the other trees in the woods by at least fifty feet.  He tries not to think of the branches as limbs reaching toward him and turns his gaze to the base of the trunk.

There is a corona of golden red among the roots.  It seems a trick of the firelight, until it moves.  A little girl sits up and stares directly at him with huge, dark eyes.  He can just make out her features in the shifting light, a pretty thing with smooth skin and large, auburn curls framing her round face.  Beneath the mask, he smiles.  She is a tad young for his tastes, but he can think of no better way to defile the sacred ground of the circle.

He focuses on her eyes, willing her to stay, to be unafraid.  There will be plenty of time to be afraid later, but he simply cannot have her running off like a scared bunny.  She fights him, standing up but unable or unwilling to run.  Her dress dances around her knees.  He almost laughs when she balls up her plump, dainty fists and hardens her face into a scowl.  She thinks she is safe here, silly thing.  That is a delusion of which he will happily relieve her.

But no, best not to get ahead of himself.  His task must be completed first.  Then he could play.  The knife is an unaccustomed weight in his hand, yet the mask revels in how it fits perfectly in his gloved hand.  Each stride puts him more into the mask; strong, dark, deadly, and filled with righteous purpose unmatched in the daylight world.  A half a dozen steps to the tree, staring down the witch-child and glorying in this new persona.  The blade rises just as the clouds recede and a dark shape leaps over the fire, latching razors into his forearm and bowling him over the twisted roots of the tree.

The monster growls and slathers over his arm, shaking its blunt black head as he tries to scramble away.  The pain initially paralyzes him, but then fury sears through his panic and his right fist slams into the hound’s head.  The bitch doesn’t release, so he imagines dark river weeds and still deep waters.  The dog begins choking almost instantly and his knife hand is free.  The girl is screaming, dogs are baying, and his arm is bleeding badly.  With a final spiteful look at his would-be victim, he plunges the knife into the base of the tree and bolts for the woods.  He is miles away before he abandons the mask, dropping it into a swift river by the road and riding away on a stolen horse.

Nanny is the first to make it to the clearing.  She had kept her distance from the celebrations, especially the bonfire (which in other times would traditionally been built around someone of her profession) and so had heard the dogs and Lily’s screams.  Her calls alert Sir John and the village men stumble upon the scene only moments after her, all brandishing the weapons of farmhands.  By that point, she has quieted Lily who is crying and clinging to the base of the tree.  Henry kneels nearby staring blankly at the trees the demon had disappeared into and holding Lady in his lap.  It takes a resounding slap from his father to wake him back up to the world.

“Henry, lad, do something about the dogs,” Sir John shouts over the howling.  Henry gives a brief whistle and the hounds are quiet, though they still prowl the edge of the clearing.  “What happened?”

At first, the boy can say nothing, but once he focuses on his father’s face, sees the fear in his eyes, he finds his voice.  “There was a demon.  Kelpie, I think.  Came out of the woods for Lily.  Lady,” his voice wavers and tears leak down his reddened cheeks.  “It had a knife and Lady attacked, to protect her.”  He had been stroking the fur of the dog and here he compulsively holds her closer to his chest.  “It shook her off and then, then it stabbed Mum and ran off to the woods.  They wanted to chase him, but I was scared he would come back so I made them stay.  Did I do alright, Father?”

Sir John realizes Henry was referencing the dogs and is at once pleased and angry with his son.  The dogs might have chased down the brute, but the thought of the demon circling back for his unprotected children froze his chest.  “You did exactly right, Henry.”  He cradles the boy as he weeps and then sees the dagger protruding from the trunk of the tree.  “Martin, take Henry to his rooms.  Susan, you take Elinor and Lily.  I need to speak with Nanny.  You are all to stay in your rooms.  Mr. Oakley, make sure none of our guests has disappeared, will you?”  He would not believe this sort of attack came from his village, but it would be foolish not to be sure.

It took time to clear the area.  Lily did not was to leave the tree and Henry would not relinquish Lady until Sir John had sworn to bury her properly.  The servants swiftly led the children away and the butler, Mr. Oakley, enlisted some of the village gentlemen to search the park before making an inventory of the party guests.  Then Sir John had to organize a watch of his men on the house and send word to the council members of the incident.  Sir Christopher had come up with the rest of the outdoor revelers and the other two Seats join them soon after bearing lamps and heavy cloaks.  It is getting late, but some things can not for daylight.

“No one touch the knife,” Nanny says when all have assembled.  “It’s poisoned.”

“Are you sure?” asks Lady Teine, her red sash the only color among the black and white party clothes.  She is the also the only person in the group unaffected by the chill.

Nanny decides that the woman is not being deliberately rude and answers, “I can smell it.  And the tree sickens already.  Would have been more effective ‘ad he stabbed her heart, but a nick would do with that black magic.”  She spits the words and Lord Gaoth snorts, but chooses not to contradict the witch.  Magic is merely peasant superstition, after all.

“Sir Christopher, Henry called it a Kelpie,” Sir John says before anything derisive can be said.  Normally, he would laugh at words like magic along with his comrade, yet the events of the evening make him less sure of its being nonsense.

Sir Christopher, examining Lady, starts at being addressed.  “Oh?  Yes, they’re quite a bother.  Or they were according to the old texts.  Haven’t seen one in my time.”  Seeing the blank stares of the others, he clarifies, “Horse-type demon.  Said to invite riders on its back and then dive immediately into the river and drown them.  Modern theory says they were probably beast-gifted, either someone controlling a horse or making a good illusion.  The drowning is likely a wives’ tale to scare children away from rivers.”

“So not likely an actual demon, then,” sneers Lady Teine.  With a snap of her wrist, she opens her lace fan and irritably whips it to cool her face.  “I saw several horse masks at the ball.”

“It was a masquerade, my lady,” Sir John says patiently.  “An interloper might have easily snuck in amongst the guests.  It needn’t have been a gifted man at all.”

“The dog drowned,” Sir Christopher says quietly.  He presses gently on the chest of the body and a pool of water dribbles out of the mouth.  A powerful odor wafts up from the pool, that of decay and fetid darkness.

Lady Teine fans herself harder and covers her nose.  “What is that stench?”

“Swamp water,” Sir Christopher says, standing and brushing off his knees.  “A water-gifted did this.”

“Aye,” grunts Nanny.  “He came to kill the Lady.  Only reason to bring a poison blade to this place.  No way of knowin’ the twins were here.  Shoulda been down at the ball.  And he weren’t a guest or you woulda known ‘im,” she gestures at the four gifted before her.  Four Seats to balance the power and protect the land.  Earth was the weak link, with the Lady’s death and Lily being too young for the power.  And the attacker knew it.  It was only her continued link to the land through the tree that kept the balance.  Now that was gone.  The tree would be a husk by the dawn.

“I certainly would have known a water-gifted among the guests,” Sir Christopher sighs.  “And if I meet this one, I will know him by the stench he leaves here.  You have my word, Sir John, I will seek out this monster.”

“We all will,” Sir John affirms.  A cursory search around the circle gives no further clues and the search parties return empty-handed.  With nothing else to do, the four Seats and the witch file out of the circle, Lady carried gently by Sir John.  He locks the gate to the clearing behind him.

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