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Monthly Archives: January 2018

(Fiction Friday) Veniamin Kovalenko: Werebear Detective

Writing 150For Fiction Friday this year, I’d like to play around with a new setting or character every month. Chances are this will settle in to a rotating band of settings that I’ll return to again and again, just to play around with various aspects of writing. One of the things that have been setting me back is a reluctance to just play around, to write for the sheer joy of it. So that’s what I’ll be doing here.

This month I’m going to dig into Veniamin Kovalenko, a character I played in my husband’s Dresden Files game. Veniamin is a Californian of Russian descent (obviously), but with deep ties to the Golden State as well as Alaska. His family’s birthright is the ability to change into a bear pretty much at will, something that serves most of them pretty well. His mother and father own a little hotel in the forests just a little way south of Silicon Valley; other family have installed themselves as park rangers and workers in various state parks.

Veniamin, however, has chosen the path of the private detective to the supernatural creatures in and around the San Francisco Bay. He’s seen too many good monsters do stupid things and meet their end because of it; he wants to protect folks with too much power and too little sense from making bad choices, and make sure ‘regular folks’ aren’t victimized by those they have no defense against if he can help it.

I rarely write in first person because I’m just not good at plugging in to a drastically different voice from my own, so that’s my challenge this month: try on a writing style that’s distinctive and alien.

 

#1: Bearbaiting

San Francisco didn’t even have the decency to be sweltering when that demon from Hell walked through my door. If this were Sacramento, he would have slipped in all covered with flop sweat, dark stains on his shirt where perspiration soaked through, panting and stinking of whatever garbage he could afford from the vending machine on his salary. But the City By The Bay barely cracked 80 in a heat wave, so all I had to announce his presence was the faint whiff of sulphur and subway piss.

He wasn’t an actual demon, but he might as well have been — maybe something worse, like one of those parasites that feasts on souls or a Kardashian. He stood in front of my desk with his hands clutching his hat, his shabby uniform neatly pressed and creased. The six-pointed star caught the little bit of morning light that made it into the room and glinted right into my eye, making me squint. Almost like he was mocking me, he squinted too — at the tumbler of whiskey I had in my hand.

“Isn’t it a little early for that?” He said, frowning at the smell.

“Ain’t it none of your business?” I splashed back the three fingers in the glass, slammed it down, swiped the bottle and refilled it so I could take another sip. “I don’t go to your box outside of Hayward Station and judge you for your life choices.”

The man sighed and looked around the room. I couldn’t lie, my office had seen better days — the couch on one side of the room had been mangled a few nights ago after a particularly epic bender when I blacked out and shifted, and there were claw marks all over the wall and floor there. The trash bins were full of empty alcohol bottles, my desk was buried under empty pizza boxes, and the air was full of stale food, drink, and bear. It hadn’t been a good time these past few weeks, but that was just part of the deal in my line of work. If this prim little asshole had been through what I had, he’d drown his sorrows in extra cheese and Johnnie Walker too.

“Can I help you?” I leaned forward and put my tumbler down. He didn’t look like he wanted to be here, and I sure as hell didn’t want him here. So the sooner we got done with…whatever this was, the better it would be for both of us.

“Oh…uh…” He stopped trying to work out what had happened to the couch and looked back at me. Then he looked down. Then he fiddled with his hat. “I…uh…I hope so.”

Something wasn’t right here. The BART police officer in front of me was a lot of things, but hesitant wasn’t one of them. I tried to clear the fatigue and booze out of my head so I could put my finger on it, but when I did that all I got was a headache. Still, I could tell even then that he looked pretty shaken. Maybe he had seen something. Maybe he was in over his head.

“All right then, Mr. Nunes, sit down and tell me what’s on your mind. Though if it has anything to do with BART I’m afraid I’m not your guy. Still banned for two more months, remember?” I straightened my tie and smiled to take the edge off that last bit. If he was coming to me, he had to be three shades of desperate and it’s not in my nature to be that tough on a desperate man.

“Well…yes.” Nunes sat down across from me and stared down at his stupid hat for a while, gathering his courage. If it weren’t nine in the morning — and he weren’t a police officer — I might have offered him a shot. But he came around eventually. “I might be able to do something about that.”

“Yeah? Why?” It had been ten months since I’d been busted trying to sneak into the BART tunnels, on the trail of some wild fae who had been doing who knows what in there. Nunes was the officer who caught me and, when I couldn’t talk my way out of trouble, got me banned. I had my own car anyway, so it wasn’t too big of a deal, but it was the principle of the thing. It really sticks in my craw when I get punished by the people I’m trying to protect just for doing the right thing. What’s the point of having the law when it doesn’t actually help?

“Because I think you know there’s something in the BART tunnels, and I need you to find out what it is.” It took a lot of effort for him to look me in the eye when he said that, I could tell.

I gave Nunes a good, long look. It really doesn’t do anyone any good to know what’s really out there; it’s more trouble than it’s worth for people like me. Even if you’re just trying to live your life, people get really afraid, and that fear makes them do all kinds of stupid, destructive things. But he clearly saw something that spooked him, enough to come to the last person he should expect help from.

Still, keeping up the cover is important. I leaned back in my chair and shook my head. “I really don’t know what you mean, Officer. I was chasing a lead for a client when I was sniffing around there. Turned out to be a dead end, though. Given all the trouble that came my way the last time, I’m not inclined to go back down there.”

“Please, I…I don’t know what you know, but I know it’s more than I do, OK? Something in those tunnels have been taking the homeless. I don’t know what it’s doing, but…but it’s…” Nunes stopped then, looking down into his lap, clutching his hat. Goddamnit. I was going to have to help this asshole.

I took a deep breath and tried not to let my shoulders slump too much while I grabbed a notepad and pen. “All right, Nunes. Just start at the beginning. Tell me what you saw.”

I fished a (sort of) clean tumbler out of a draw, poured some whiskey into it, and slid the glass towards him. To my surprise, he took it. Then he began to talk.

 

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(Personal) My 2018

Self Improvement 150So now that the dumpster fire that is 2017 has been officially extinguished, it’s time to look ahead towards the bright, shiny new year and plan how to make it better. I’m not going to lie; I’m one of those people who love to think about New Year’s Resolutions — but I’m sure you know that by now. It’s one thing to make public declarations on the Internet for what I’m going to do, but it’s quite a different thing to follow through and hold myself accountable for failures.

I’ll try to do something a little different this year, especially in regard to my writing. While I’ll definitely be aiming for pretty ambitious goals at the start of 2018, I also realize that it’s possible I won’t be able to meet them for some reason. Perhaps family issues will flare up again and I’ll be forced to slog through some difficulty. Maybe something will happen with my day job or my mental health and I’ll need to drop everything to take care of that. Or perhaps shit hits the fan in the United States and survival becomes the overriding focus of our short and brutal existence.

No matter what, the goals I have in mind for the year will serve as a North Star for what I’d like to do. Even if I know I won’t be able to meet them, I’ll still get as close as I can for as much as I’m able. Achieving the goal would be nice, but ultimately it’s not the point. The goals are a means to an end, that end being encouraging behaviors and developing habits that will make a more consistent, more productive writer.

For The Writing Desk, I’m aiming for one hundred posts in 2018. That actually shouldn’t be too hard to manage; if I keep up a regular output of three posts a week through the year, that would put me right around 150 by December. However, I know there’ll be times where I’ll need to take a week or two off to tackle other work — or I’m working on an essay or two that requires extra time and polish. This year, though, I’d like to focus on minimizing those interruptions and communicating in advance when they’re going to happen. Becoming more professional and accountable to myself for what I do is a big thing for me this year, and this little corner of the Internet will be an excellent first step for that.

Another good reason for making sure I’m consistent here is that it trains me to write to deadlines. If I actually want to make a living on this, I’m going to have to be able to produce a certain output on time. I know that at first any polish I’ve got here might suffer, but that’s fine. I can learn how to write about involved or difficult subjects and still be on time through this. There may be a few bumps in the road, but that’s in service to progress.

For the Jackalope Serial Company, I’m aiming to publish 50 ‘episodes’ of serial in 2018. This will be a lot more difficult, since it means I’ll need to make sure I have at least one piece of serialized fiction up on Patreon every week this year. There’s no way around it, I’ll need to make sure I’m working ahead of what I post in order to make this goal, and that’s a very good thing. It means that success will force me to plan ahead and work consistently; there are going to be weeks where I just can’t write, but if I’m diligent I’ll have a backlog to catch me for a bit. I’ll even give myself two weeks this year where I can be ‘off’, and I have a good idea about when I’ll take them. But in order to be a storyteller, I’m going to need to learn how to tell stories. The Jackalope Serial Company will be an excellent proving ground for that.

Finally, I’d like to write and submit ten short stories to various publications this year. One of the best things about 2017 is the sudden expansion of minority voices in the science-fiction/fantasy space. I’d love, more than anything, to become a part of that wave. I hardly expect that any of my work will actually be accepted or published, but it’s well past time that I put myself out there. Writing stories is only one part of the vocation; learning how the industry works and engaging with it as much as you can is a big part that I’ve neglected for far too long.

I fully expect that I’ll be submitting more stories towards the latter half of the year than the former. For the next few months, anyway, I’ll be focusing mostly on The Writing Desk and the Jackalope Serial Company to make sure I’m consistent there. Once I feel more comfortable with my writing routine, I’ll begin to branch out with standalone short stories written for the wider SFF or furry markets.

So, these are my three big goals for 2018: write 100 posts here, write 50 serial chapters, and submit 10 short stories to publications. That’s a LOT of writing, and again — there’s no expectation of making the goal. That’s not really the point here. The point is to push myself further than I have been, to develop a consistent writing practice, and to submit work on a reasonably predictable schedule. Every month, I’ll reflect on my progress on these goals, talk a bit about what’s working and what I still need to focus on, and discuss my game plan for the next month. We’ll see how that goes, but for now, I’m really excited about the chance to ‘earn’ my label.

What are your New Year’s Resolutions, and how do you plan on meeting them? Let me know!

 

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(Personal) My 2017

Self Improvement 150Happy New Year! Congratulations to all of us for making it through 2017 with our sanity mostly intact. It was a really rough year, wasn’t it? I don’t know about you, but just when I thought I was getting a handle on things, something else would come along and knock me off my feet. There was a marathon of awfulness from the current presidential administration, starting with lies about the size of its inauguration and ending with lies about winning the War on Christmas. In between there were unprecedented wars of words with former allies and aides, the media, protesters and members of Congress; over 90 days on a golf course; shockingly provocative statements made on Twitter; leaks and firings from the White House; a rise in racist and totalitarian rhetoric in the public square; and a sustained assault on equal rights for women, minorities, Americans with disabilities; access to health insurance for more Americans; environmental and corporate deregulation; tax cuts for the wealthy; disastrous foreign policy; and a massive grass-roots resistance fighting against all of it for the entire year.

My therapist said that she had never seen so many people come in for psychological services precisely because of our political situation, but this is where we are as a nation. So many of us feel threatened by our own fellow citizens that it’s affecting our mental health. We fear for our friends and family, our autonomy, and our lives. We live in a world that feels hostile, cruel and crazy. To say this year has been a shock is an understatement.

Personally, this has been compounded by derailments in my plans for secondary education, my family situation, my day job, my writing, and my mental health routine. I dropped out of college (again) due to the sudden loss of my sister, and I’ve been struggling with the consequences of that for my family ever since. My finances have been wiped out pretty much entirely, which means that I’ll need to make some changes in my lifestyle and stay the course with an unsatisfying job (at least for the time being) in order to recover. Familial obligations, emergencies, and continued depression has made it almost impossible to build a consistent writing practice. The stress and anxiety has overwhelmed my coping strategy, meaning several depressive episodes, anxiety attacks, and a general struggle with anger and despair over the year.

2017 sucked. A lot. My sister Teneka died of a drug overdose in late April, leaving behind four children and an elderly mother who can’t take care of herself. Knowing Teneka struggled with many of the same mental health issues I did — Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder, for example — highlighted just how lucky I am to have a job that allows me the chance to address those issues at a reasonably low cost. I also have a support network that understands and empathizes with that struggle, where she didn’t. Instead she tried to raise a son with special needs and an impossibly hostile mother all on her own, while two of her children were taken from her and placed in foster care. Trapped by her mental illnesses, struggling to do what was extremely difficult at the best of times, caring for a mother who emotionally abused her — it’s no wonder to me that she turned to drugs as an escape. Where else could she go?

I learned about all of this from February to April, and the week in Baltimore as she died was the hardest week I’ve ever spent. But I got to see my two oldest nephews for the first time, gained a brother-in-law who is passionate, dedicated, and wild, and reconnected with my family after over a decade of estrangement. I’ve gained a measure of closure with my mother, even though I continue to struggle with finding a way to care for her that doesn’t involve an emergency cropping up at least once a month. Her finances are beyond repair, but I only came to that decision after depleting my own.

My mother has been difficult ever since coming back from Baltimore. Our time together was surprisingly positive. She met Ryan as my husband, and it turns out she really liked him — she still asks about him. And I thought that I had been able to speak to her in a way she understood and short-circuited a lot of the tantrums she tends to throw when things don’t go her way. She can be astonishingly mean when she’s unhappy or surprised. However, as the months dragged on and she caused scramble after scramble when refusing to do something we had agreed on a few days before, it became clear that she hasn’t really changed and she’s still the same self-absorbed, stubborn person she was when I left home.

Dealing with my mother and the loss of my sister took up most of my energy throughout the year, and I spent a great deal of 2017 in a pretty bad headspace. Frustration, anger, grief and guilt have been swirling within me with no good outlet or expression for it. I’ve become resentful of the stress and lost time and money Mom has demanded without thanks or any note of appreciation. Only recently, when other members of my extended family became involved, have I felt a measure of relief and understanding about how difficult this situation has been.

That anxiety has bled over into every other area of my life. I haven’t been writing consistently at all; I’ve been short with a lot of “problem” colleagues at work; I’ve become less talkative online and flighty or confrontational. My anxiety and depression have blown right past my coping mechanisms this year, and it’s affecting my ability to work and be mindful with my relationships. I haven’t really liked the person I’ve become over this past year — even understanding how it happened.

The other major thing that happened this year was spending two weeks in Belgium for work training. It was the very first time I had been to Europe, and it was a fascinating, enriching experience. Two weeks was just enough to get a sense of how people live in the Flemish part of Belgium and I have to say I rather liked it. Things are so much more laidback there, but in a way that actually promotes productivity. Instead of trying to do a million things at one time, there seems to be more of an effort to allow people to focus on one thing and manage that as well as possible. Expertise, built through considerable time and effort, matters.

It’s something that I’ve been struck by and have been trying to incorporate into my life ever since. I’ve attempted to put more energy into focus and deliberate practice, knowing that while it might mean I work more slowly I can also learn and grow a bit more quickly. This has been (not-so-)surprisingly difficult with my ADHD, but I get that. It’s a process, and I’ll need to develop mine a bit differently in order to make it work.

However, learning more about the new ‘flagship’ product at my company seriously tanked my morale. Our company was purchased by a holding company and merged with a European one in a somewhat similar space, but we got the ‘short end’ of the deal. Europe had the control, and it became clear that they weren’t interested in working with their American colleagues on how to support the product; they had no understanding of American business culture and were openly dismissive of their stereotypes of it; and the product itself was a shambles, but the only thing we were allowed to sell in the United States. It convinced me that the place I work for doesn’t really have a future, and I should probably prepare to leave sooner rather than later.

My attitude has cooled somewhat, and I’m content to stick around for a little bit while I build up my technical skills to make a proper run at a new job in 2018. But knowing that I was ‘stuck’ in a work environment that triggered my anxiety pretty fiercely (because I felt like I was set up to fail at my job with little to no recourse) because my finances are in pretty bad shape was not a great feeling and became a major contribution to my overall levels of stress.

As difficult as this past year has been, I have to say that I’ve also grown so much closer to so many people over the year, even as I’ve shrunken my social circle a bit. My love for Ryan has deepened further still, and the life we’ve built together has been an anchor allowing me to maintain some sense of perspective. All of the people who have been kind and patient and compassionate towards me have helped so much more than they know. So many days this year have been spent feeling hopeless, nihilistic, doomed. Those small kindnesses, those moments of connection, have been essential for carrying me through those times. I can’t thank all of you enough.

I went into 2017 expecting it to be hard. I knew that the incoming President would be no friend of mine and I would need to prepare for a grinding political resistance against the worst abuses of power and trust. I knew that we would need to band together as a community in order to protect one another and help each other survive. But I had no idea how much of an emotional toll it would take, turning to a friend to find out a fundamental disagreement meant I would need to advocate for my rights and perspective. I had no idea dealing with my family would be so exhausting and fruitless. I had no idea that I would have to give up my dream of becoming a psychologist for the time being and find other, more immediate ways to help people.

Through it all, though, I’ve learned so much about myself. I’m stronger than I thought I was. I have learned the value of discomfort and how to push through it. I have rededicated myself to compassion and equanimity. And I know who’s in the trenches with me. My sense of self (and self-worth) have deepened, and I feel ready for the uncertain times I face in 2018.

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2018 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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Kwanzaa, Day 7: Imani (Faith)

Myth 150Habari gani, brothers and sisters? Happy New Year!

I’m pretty sure most of us (myself included) are spending the final day of Kwanzaa somewhat sleep-deprived and hungover, so I’ll speak quietly and wish you the tastiest of greasy breakfasts and a quick recovery so you can start 2018 getting your shit handled. No matter how you woke up today — groaning and regretful, or clear-eyed and ready — I have faith in you and your ability for greatness. You can do whatever you set your minds to!

Today’s principle is Imani, or Faith. Faith is a tricky concept to talk about because it’s so nebulous; it means something very specific to our religious fam, while it might mean something entirely different (or nothing at all) to the rest of us. If you’re Christian or Muslim, faith means belief in a higher power as well as the righteousness of the rules as they have been set down in holy texts. The rules are often a constant source of confusion and conflict for us, though — so many of us in the diaspora are excluded by them, and our personal experience might tie the worst memories to the way religion has been used to drive a wedge between us. If you’re like me, Christian faith is most likely one of the most destructive influences in your life.

It can be hard to reconcile our experience with the positive aspects of faith, especially when the actions of the faithful can be so hurtful. It can be hard to have faith when you’ve seen what it does to people. The idea of putting your faith in something larger than yourself can be tremendously scary, a fool’s errand that only leads to the worst outcomes.

But here’s the thing: faith is necessary to push our ideals forward. If you’re religious, putting your faith in God means putting your faith in Their creation. The people all around you are made in God’s own image, which means that divinity exists in each and every one of us. Recognizing and respecting that divinity is one of the most important ways we can act on our faith — every interaction we have with someone else is another opportunity to connect to the divine spark within our fellow human beings, and the work of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed pointed us to doing just that. It can be exceedingly difficult to find the divine righteousness in some people, but faith isn’t easy. Even with the understanding that God is present in all of us, having faith that we can connect to it in another is something that escapes us too often.

For me, personally, these past couple of years has largely destroyed my faith in humanity as essentially good. It’s hard to believe that we are basically kind and wise creatures when we seem so hell-bent on our own division and destruction. Over the past year, we’ve thrown away our standards for truth and compromise just so we can cater to our darkest impulses. We’ve begun to question ideas that were settled decades ago, and fostered an environment where knowledge and morality aren’t concrete, tangible things — they’re just details that can be swatted aside for something that feels better. Instead of admitting our ignorance and mistakes, we’ve become ruinously arrogant even in the face of direct contradiction. Our collective id has crowded out our sense of perspective; the only thing that matters is our personal gratification at this point.

It’s hard to see, especially when there are so many real problems that we refuse to face. We’re pushing our environment to the brink of collapse even though we’ve had more than fifty years to deal with climate change; we’re astonishingly willing to entertain fascist and totalitarian ideas in our political process, especially if it means a win for ‘our side’; we’ve stopped listening to one another for so long we can’t even understand each other any more; we don’t think of those less fortunate than us as anything but a drain on our society. At the precise time we should be shaking off the worst excesses of our civilization for the continued survival of our species, we seem to be choosing a bender of oblivion, drunk on fossil fuels and anti-social capitalism.

I’ve struggled to push through this year with any sense of purpose. What’s the point of anything if we’re so willing to destroy ourselves if it doesn’t mean making hard changes to our lifestyle and understanding? It’s been impossible to shake the feeling that we’re just doomed and that the world has effectively ended; we just don’t know when or how.

Faith helps so much to combat this narrative in my head. If I believe in anything, it’s the strength, resilience and ingenuity of my fellow human beings. We’ve had the chance to control the way things change in our future, but we’ve missed it for the most part. It’s up to us NOW to take quick and decisive action to make sure our future is the best we can make it; that’s going to require us to put our faith in each other and our own better natures.

As a Buddhist, this means putting my faith in the idea of enlightenment for all beings. We all have the capability of expressing our unique Buddha-nature for the benefit of all humanity. Your expression may be closely following the teachings and attitudes of Jesus Christ; or the wisdom of the prophet Muhammed; or the ancient, living Mosaic Law. It might be communing with the seasonal magic of the natural world, or following a humanist philosophy, or simply being who you are to the best of your ability. There is no one thing that means nirvana; our own paths take us to our innate epiphany.

My faith rests in the journey that all of us are taking to be better people. I have to believe that this journey will find us working together to take care of each other over time, and that we will come to celebrate and respect our differences while realizing we’re so much more similar than we thought. My faith means looking for the Buddha in every person I meet and finding ways to connect with them. It means hoping the best for everyone while not expecting everyone is at their best.

In order to make the most of the new year and to fully embrace the Nguzo Saba, I have to embrace the faith that we can turn this around. I must have faith in my ability to live up to my principles, no matter how hard it might be. I must trust in you. And I do.

Let’s make 2018 a great year. I have faith that it will be, because I’ll be trying every day to make it so.

 
 

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