Monthly Archives: February 2014

Fighting Monsters

It’s been a rough couple of months. There may be rambling.

There was one week there where, in the same week, there was a sudden death of a friend of the family, a work injury (not mine, but in my household) that required a visit to urgent care, and a gas explosion a couple miles from my house. A fireball 200 feet tall that Michael Bay would have been proud of. That was a tense couple of hours till the gas got turned off and the fire was put out. And that was just one week. Granted, it hasn’t all been that dramatic, but for the past couple of months it feels as though every time I get up, something new happens to punch me back down. It’s only in the last week and a half, two weeks, that I’ve been able to approach anything like my level of functionality, which brings with it the realization of how long I’ve been listing from task to task like a crippled galleon. Too damn long. And for the most part, it’s circumstantial. I had my annual physical the Monday or so after the fireball and when I listed off the past week to my doctor (because I clicked yes to the have-you-experienced-feelings-of-sadness-or-depression box on the appointment questionnaire and they didn’t have a ticky box for “look, shit’s just been happening lately”) he got a bit wide-eyed and agreed that that’d do it. Call him if the depression doesn’t ease up when life eases up a bit and we’d discuss treatment. Thankfully, life eased up and the depression did turn out to be situational instead of clinical. I’m nearly back to functionality, that being teetering on the edge of overextending myself and thinking that if I just shuffle my schedule I can take on this one more project…

It’s been a rough weekend on the internet. Primarily because of Dylan Farrow’s open letter and Philip Seymour Hoffman, my various friends have been expressing various emotions, among them shock and grief and hurt and rage and sorrow and perplexity and disappointment and. Lots of emotions. Lots of ands. No major fights that I can see, thankfully. I will always be grateful to my mother for raising me to understand, and to try to live by, that emotions are not bad or wrong. Emotions are emotions, they simply are. They’re what you feel. And what you choose to do with them, the actions that you take, that can be good or bad, right or wrong. It’s wrong to hit someone if you feel angry. It’s wrong to tear someone down and call them names if you feel sad and upset. It’s wrong to dance a victory jig around someone who’s hurting and make them hurt even more. But feeling that happiness or anger or what have you isn’t, it’s the human condition to have emotional responses to outside stimuli. On the internet, if you don’t type out what you’re thinking, no one can see you collapsed in your chair in spasms of schadenfreude-induced laughter. And, whatever the cause of that laughter, no one gets hurt by it.

A rough weekend on the internet. A lot of people have said a lot of things, and a lot of those things were hurtful. A whole lot of those things were disappointing. Let’s see, how many people have I been disappointed by this week? At least one. A big one, a writer I really admire, and I sit back in my chair and I feel sad and betrayed and upset, and I go “Oh Stephen King no,” and I kind of want to yell at him a bit. That won’t help. So I go grab a glass of water and take a five to stretch and come back and look at that again, and think, “Okay. I really like you, guy. You’ve taught me a lot about writing, a bit about life, you seem like a decent guy and you help a lot of people. And on balance, I still like you. But, dude, that was a cruel thing to say.” (He has since apologized.) Stephen King will never hear that I said these things (unless he inexplicably finds his way to my blog, in which case, um, hi?), but I’ve resolved the conflicted feelings in my head, or at least started on a resolution.

It’s a hell of a lot harder when the person you admire and adore, or at least look up to and like, turns out to be an unquestionably terrible person. When there is no possible reason or excuse that makes the bad deeds better, and you have to reconcile your experiences and the accustomed pathways of your emotions with the knowledge that this person is a horrible human being. By your standards, or by standards so widely adopted that they might as well be universal. How do you deal with that? I genuinely don’t know, I haven’t been in that position yet, and I’m glad and grateful. Going by responses I’ve seen over the last weekend, a lot of people have opted to deny it ever happened. That’s not the route I would choose. It’s an easier path, quicker, more seductive, yes I just went there, but I don’t think I would choose that. I won’t know until it happens, if it happens.

The impulse is there, though, isn’t it. Not just in the Dylan Farrow situation, but even in the tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. To shy away from it and say, it wasn’t like that. It didn’t happen. My idol isn’t that horrible creature. My inspiration wasn’t that struggling person. These are strong, shining beacons of skill and talent in one area or another, they’re not human beings, they don’t have flaws. That’s a seductive fucker of a lie, right there. Or alternatively we can lie and say, this person was weak. That person was stupid. As though we’ve never had a stupid moment in our life. Never made a mistake. We can say and think all kinds of things to comfort ourselves, to make ourselves safer in at least the feeling if not accurate knowledge that bad things won’t happen to us because we’re good, we’re right, we do the right things and that means we get happy endings.

Even if we know that’s not true. It’s total bullshit. When things are going well, we have to believe it because it keeps us going on, doing the things we do, hoping for a good result. When things are going poorly we have to believe it because it can get better. But when things get really bad, when the hits just keep on coming, when a gas line explodes and a relative gets cancer and a friend dies and you find yourself making unforseen trips to urgent care, you kind of can take comfort in the unfriendliness and unfairness of the universe. It’s not personal. It’s not anything you did. Shit happens. You don’t always get a happy ending, sometimes the monsters win.

When we’re kids, we read stories that do for the most part have happy endings. The heroine conquers the evil witch, the hero slays the mad sorcerer, and they get to go home happy at the end. Unicorns come back to the world. The sister rescues her baby brother. The world is made whole again. And all of that comes after the scary parts, the eight foot scarlet demon with the horns the width of your entire body, the demonic bull made of fire, the alien dripping acid. Your parents try to comfort you when you have nightmares about the scary parts, they tell you the monsters aren’t real. They don’t remind you that if the monsters aren’t real, neither are the happy endings, or any other part of the story. But, okay, the monsters aren’t real, nothing’s going to creep out of the closet or through the window in the middle of the night, or out of your book. There is no clown in the sewers coming to drag you down.

When I was a kid, okay, older than a kid, I was a young teenager then. And my baby brother had nightmares, and by this point I was pretty much helping my Mom raise my siblings, and so on this particular night I had to deal with the monsters under the bed. Well, hell. I know how to deal with this. Sure, sometimes there are monsters. But we know how to deal with their ugly mugs. I put gargoyles around the room, and had one of them face the bed and one of them face outwards, so they could watch from all sides. That’s what gargoyles are for, I told him, they were created long ago to protect people. I have a few to spare.

I was raised by intellectual hippies. Not even kidding. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, see also and up above about letting your feelings be what they are. I was raised on peace and love, In Harmony and Free to Be You And Me and A Woman Is (does anyone remember that book?) and the Beatles and spent my summers on a commune/farm collecting eggs and making mud palaces by the duck pond. And books. Lots of books. All kinds of books. I learned all kinds of things about monsters. I learned that you can make anything a mantra to keep back the evil spirits (Stephen King). I learned that mirrors are magic places and you can change yourself to be as powerful as your enemy, if you have courage. (Margaret Mahy). I learned that there is power in sisterhood (Jane Yolen) and family can be born and sometimes really shitty but also worth forgiving (CS Lewis) or family can be made and hard-won (Katherine Paterson). I learned that the really dangerous monsters keep their heart in another place, so you can’t confront them head on, you have to find the heart and take it the fuck out (Russian folk tales). I learned that sometimes you make the monsters (John Bellairs) and sometimes you are the monster (Robert Louis Stevenson) and sometimes the way to defeat the monster is just to make friends (George MacDonald) because it turns out the monster was just a person like you.

I never did manage to get the Goblin King to show up and take my baby brother away (sorry baby brother!) but I learned a hell of a lot from him. From the stories. From all the monsters I fought with all the heroes and heroines and even some of the villains. I even learned to accept the fact that there are no happy endings, because nothing ends, and everything in circles. End, begin, all the same. Big change. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. 80s children if you did not hear that in Aughra’s voice I am disappoint. (Dark Crystal.) I learned that people can fuck up and be forgiven, and that there is grace in both sides. And that, too, sometimes when you break something there is no taking it back, and no forgiving. And you just have to accept that.

So, monsters. Demons to slay. When you become an adult you’re supposed to put away childish things, the idea that you can solve riddles and do quests and rescue something or someone and slay a monster and call it a day. I clung somewhat harder to my books and movies than most, and it did get me in trouble a bit when I was an older teen/young adult. But it also got me out of it again. You see, my young apprentice, many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view, and why is it childish for a person to be a princess but adultlike to confront your inner demons? Why do we tell our children that monsters don’t exist, don’t worry about them, and then turn around and describe people who hurt children as monsters in the press? Unless, of course, they’re rich and famous and have many awards, and then it’s a clusterfuck. No, there aren’t vampires that wear capes and talk in thick regional accents and suck blood and burn in the daylight. But there are people who seduce and sap your energy. There aren’t boogeymen under the bed, but there are people who think it fine to sneak into your bedroom at night and do monstrous things. They’re not common. They’re rare, but they exist. There are monsters. And the scariest part is, they look like people. Fingers and toes and eyes and nose and they look like people you meet on the street. Sometimes you have to look really close into the mirror, and if you squint, you’ll see the monster. Monsters totally exist. But the good news? You can fight them.

Not alone. And not without practice, sometimes a lot of practice. The monsters that come from outside are easiest; you build walls, you set up guardians, you hone your weapons, and you attack or defend as you have resources. The monsters that come from within, those are harder. Those take a lot of practice. You might have to consult a wizard, a witch, or a sage, which we call a counselor or a therapist. You might want to talk to a priest, by whatever name you call that person. It’s good to have backup, because those little shits are insidious. They lie, remember? They say things about how that horrible thing isn’t true, that would never happen to you. They lie and sneak up on you and have the irritating habit of coming in swarms. And they’re not nearly so obvious as SUV sized scuttling crabs or razor-taloned harpies, so you have to know what you’re looking at and see them coming. Naming them is a good first step, it’s one of the first things we learn from folk and fairy tales, names have power. Just ask Rumplestiltskin. Name your monsters, learn their ways and weaknesses, gird yourself, and locate your backup.

And don’t forget to kick back and have a good rest after a day of monster fighting. You’ve earned it.