Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 in review!

This is Leo, ladies and gents, sleeping upside down and sprawled on his bed as he hasn't done since he was a puppy, thanks to his cushy bed. That's his 2014 in a nutshell, really. :) And not a bad start for mine.

So, this was actually a really good year for me. I got a lot accomplished this year, even if it was hard won in a lot of ways.

January: Despite my early concerns, I didn't back out of grad school. I balanced school with Oscar season, which will be starting soon again as well. We went to the Flying Fig for our anniversary, which was amazing and on my list to go back to some day ( though likely not for our anniversary this year, given time and money issues).

February: I turned 43. We had an awesome Oscar party. I read a lot of stuff, but not as much as I should have, because taking comprehensive notes is only so useful. I started putting my head down and focusing on my work. I presented a paper on a Hitchcock movie at the SouthWest Popular Culture Association Conference, which was a nice trip to ABQ.

March: I went and visited my kiddos over my spring break. :) Seattle in the spring is lovely, and I miss my friends there, but it was good to see everyone. We also ran a Growling Door kickstarter that failed to fund called Mall Adventures -- but honestly, the project had some serious weaknesses that we're going to address and give it another shot down the road. Matt and I also took a crazy weekend road trip to Boston to see Patton Oswalt live, and that was pretty darn amazing. We ate in a real New York Jewish deli and we found nifty little restaurants and I walked through lots of historical Boston stuff and we had oysters. Pretty much a perfect trip, really.

April: The big thing that happened in April was that I started PT for my scoliosis, and it's made an incredible difference in my life. It wasn't a long program, but it added nearly an inch to my height and tons to my stamina. It's really been a great thing.

May: I finished coursework! Woo hooo! We found a garter snake in our basement, which was an unpleasant surprise for our basement housemate, John (it was warming itself on his Wii console). I got to see Only Lovers Left Alive, which was honestly my favorite film of the whole year. I finished the PacMan blanket, which you can see to the left, for Heather and Aaron's baby boy, Porter. It took nearly as long to make as he did, but I think it came out pretty awesome.

June: Went home to visit my family for a week or so, and during the course of it went out to see my brother's new lake house and do a little Oklahoma tourism. It was pretty darn cool, and he's done a great job with that place. Taught over the summer in the Emerging Scholars Program at Case, which is a fantastic opportunity for everyone involved. We also started getting Matt's ongoing problems with dizziness checked out, eliminating a whole bunch of stuff. We also announced Growling Door's acquisition of the Chill RPG license! :) Also, Origins was lovely, and it was great to reconnect with people.

July: I got my qualifying exam questions pretty much done, and my boys arrived for the summer. The McFarlands did a family vacation in a cabin in Gatlinburg, TN, which I'd never been to, and we went rafting on the Pigeon Forge river. It was a really nice month all things considered, and I finished my teaching assignment as well.

August: GenCon and Matt's 40th birthday! We did pretty well on sales and the con was a lot of fun, as always, and his Avengers' themed gaming party with all our industry folks was a huge blast. Such a wonderful time.

September: I got a knitting group and a great bar to hang out at called The Side Quest, which made me really happy. I spent most of the month prepping madly for exams, which means that I don't remember a lot of it clearly. All of this designed to get me ready for...

October: Qualifying Exams! Chill kickstarter! I managed to pass my written exams over Halloween and Chill gave us our most successful kickstarter ever. Other than that, I got nothin'.

November: Got the news that I'd passed, as well as taking and passing my oral exams. Thanksgiving was at our house and went very well. Bad things happened in the world and in Cleveland, with Tamir Rice's death at the top of the local list.

December: Getting caught up on media! Gaming! Working on my dissertation proposal! Christmas! My kids are here to round out the year! Hozier's album is my favorite of the year! All the good things.

And with that, time to get ready for the next go-around. May your new year be everything you'd hope it to be.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas trees are the weirdest tradition.

This is my Christmas tree this year. It says hello.

This is the first year, for me, that it really feels like a Christmas tree. We bought it from a reputable dealer who gave it a fresh cut and knew how tall it was. We measured to make sure how tall of a tree would responsibly fit in the space we have. We bought some foil garland and some new glass ornaments (and some robots) to put on the tree. We have a few older ornaments from Matt's previous tree, but they were all of a type, and now it's finally achieved "glorious mishmash" status, where the unique weird non-themed stuff outweighs the coordinated things. There are still ornaments I'd like to phase out with stuff that is meaningful to us and our kids, but that'll come with time.

Now, with all of that said... Christmas trees are a very odd tradition. I mean, for me a tree is kind of necessary. It isn't Christmas if there isn't a tree of some sort, and it's got to have some sort of gaudy lights and glass and tinsel strewn about it, and it's got to be lit at least occasionally. It's better if it's big, and not a grocery-store Norfolk Pine in a pot (as I have made due with back on my first Christmas away from home), but there needs to be something. I don't begrudge people their fake trees -- I prefer real, and even on holidays where there was no tree available, I still brought in evergreen branches for the smell as much as anything else -- but move to the beat of your own little drummer boy, you know? It's all about the good tree love, man.

But, that being said, real, fake, whatever -- the whole thing is odd. The idea of cutting down a tree, bringing it into the house, and putting stuff on it for a display... who had that idea in the first place? Branches I understand -- they smell good and are festive and evergreen, which is a lovely thing in the winter months, but a whole tree is something else entirely. While the origins of trees are unclear, it may have started in pre-Christian times with nature-worshipping peoples in Germany and eastern Europe, although bringing about branches and garlands is fairly widespread (although I still question why tree-worshippers would cut a tree down to bring it indoors to a private dwelling -- a public space makes more sense, I suppose). And then it transformed into a candy and treat display, and from there gained candles and entrance into private homes (starting from the rich and royal and moving on down in society), a symbol of the sacred in everyday life -- though what sacred thing it represents is largely lost now, other than Christmas.

It is a blatantly silly thing nowadays. We put up (in some cases assemble) a tree or tree-like creations upon which to string lights and bits of shiny stuff so as to announce, to ourselves as well  as others (because it's almost always by a window) that the Christmas season is here! And yet, without it... Christmas is diminished. It's as though we need one to share in, because without it, with only public trees to contemplate and meditate upon, it's as though the season passes us by. Without the ritual of the Christmas tree, Christmas itself is lost in some very real way. It is important if only as a step away from normal life, a small shrine to a festival of light and life in the midst of a season of dark and cold, near but not on the longest night of the year, and full of hope that its meaning, whatever that may be -- its inherent cheerfulness will somehow communicate itself not only to those around it, but also to the coming season as well.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Who's afraid of Cuba?

Not us anymore, apparently. We're over it.

President Obama's move to normalize relationships with Cuba is huge, really. The ongoing embargo, "na na I can't see you" method of dealing with Cuba was, to my mind, one of the last big holdovers from the Cold War. Small enough we could pretend not to notice in the greater scheme of things, large enough that as long as we had it, there wasn't a lot of moving forward that could happen. Untouchable so long as we held to a Cold War neo-conservative basis -- if the Cold War is your raison d'etre, then letting go of Cuba policy is the last thing you'll ever do. There were missiles there, man! Commies on the border! Insanity!

And yet, here we are.

In a lot of ways, this strikes me as a definitive blow to the neo-con baby boomers that have been in control of politics for so very long. If they were really in charge, it never would have happened -- and yet, here we are, and by and large, people are pretty happy about it. It's really the "people are pretty happy about it" part that is crucial, I might add. Gay marriage is a social issue, but people could come to terms with it and broaden their horizons without giving up a Cold War stance. Marijuana, same thing. But nobody, and I mean nobody, can budge on Cuba from a pro-Cold War position. It is purely ideological. The fact that this broke to mild applause and mutterings of approval from the majority -- it's a sea change, and one I'm overjoyed to see.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Deathy death death -- Happy holidays!

So I was reading a review of Hozier's concert in LA, and they mentioned that if there was a niche for a death-obsessed hipster guitarist, he fills it nicely. Given that Hozier's album is frankly my current obsession, I went, "hey! That's not true...." But then I thought about it and yeah, it kinda is. But I don't tend see it that way.

Maybe I'm kinda death-focused myself, if I think about it. I find Gothic things resonate for me; questions of immortality and contemplation of other states of being feel comfortable, like old friends, and I regularly question how we know what we are and what others are, and how hard it is to leave any sort of lasting mark behind is when we go. But what does this have to do with anything, you might ask. And how it is related to Christmas, of all things! And right you are to ask such questions, dear reader. Right you are.

This time of year, I find myself particularly thinking of such things. And it's not due to missed relatives and friends long gone, and it's not due to spiritual thoughts dwelling on Christ and his sacrifice for our eternal souls (Christianity makes a hell of a mystery cult, btw). It never has been, although as a kid I was a bit more religious-y focused, though even that was mostly on the carols, and that still holds. It is, if anything, a far more pagan reflection; winter, for me, is an analogue of death.

I know that sounds really harsh, but as a kid I could not help but notice that everything died off during the winter. No plants, no warmth, no bugs, no animals hanging around except the ones we took care of, and in some places even that wasn't enough. If we didn't have houses and heat and food stored, we'd die off too. I read books in which people didn't make it through the winter without help. I read about people dying from a lack of heat and clothing. The Little Match Girl did nothing for this impression either, I have to say, nor did a parade of childrens' fiction that talked in a subdued fashion about people dying in the cold as background to whatever else was going on in the story. It was my first exposure to a hostile environment, one in which our fragility -- the fragility of all living creatures -- was brought to light.

When I was a child, I used to dread winter, the seeming forever-state of cold and wind and blight, and I always wondered whether the sun would come back and bring life with it. Of course, it always did, and thus spring was my favorite season, but winter never went away entirely -- it would return too, and sweep everything before it once again. Not unlike death, I suppose. So there's that connection. I should note, I don't actually fear death, mine or anyone else's (with the exception of my kids and my husband, who aren't allowed to die ever, as far as I'm concerned). Part of that I think has to do with my aspieness, and the weird way it deals with interpersonal relationships. But part of it, too, is that it's what we do. We aren't meant to continue forever. We hope that some part of us will, but it can't ever be more than a simulacrum, a representation of a fleeting facet that gets recorded. And... that's what there is. Anything that exists in an afterlife can't be proven or recorded, and while I'd like there to be a pleasant one, all I can be certain of is that we are incapable of understanding it, whatever it is, in any way. We'll just have to wait until we get there to find out, if there's anywhere to get to at all. In the meantime, I try to live each day so that if I didn't wake up tomorrow, the people around me will know how I feel about them -- it's the least I can do.

Anyway, so Hozier. He deals a lot with what it means to think about dying, and think about love, and think about living. I don't think of those as being overly focused on death, but for him it's all mixed up together in this album, and that's a huge part of why I love it so much, because it's all mixed up for me too. Maybe it's the Celtic influence reaching across the ages in my family, but I think these things have to be all mixed up -- that's why they're beautiful, because beauty is fragile by nature. Nothing lasts forever, and anything that forgets to honor that runs the risk of being dismissive to the things we ought to set as sacred. I appreciate that in him.

In like fashion, I prefer the carols that celebrate the light within the darkness: Joy to the World, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, and so forth. Light is an important celebration for me this time of year, because light is the promise that the dark isn't forever -- that it will pass in its time. Christmas for me is about bringing light out of dark, that we can huddle together and celebrate even in the darkest time -- made the more joyful by recognizing that it is dark beyond the reach of our candles and fires, and that the darkness is not always friendly and clear. We mourn those not with us and drink to the joy of their memories; we bury the past year and look to the rebirth of the next. We call forth the bounty of the year so that we may freshly remember it through the dark months to come, until spring calls forth life once more.

With that in mind.... Merry Christmas, my friends. Be safe in the light, and carry it with you wherever you go, until we meet again.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Mornings.

So, since a shift in my meds, I have problems sleeping in any more. I fall asleep earlier than I was wont to do six months ago, and I wake up earlier than I'd like. By 7 AM on a typical day, sleep is no longer an option. And I know, all of you who have to get up earlier than that for work (including my husband) are all playing the world's tiniest violins for me, but here's the thing: would you willingly get up at that time if you didn't have to? I don't have anywhere to be that early, and I still can't sleep in. Thankfully, we have an arrangement where my husband makes coffee when he gets up so that I can get some, and then I can sit in bed with my computer and drink some coffee, and then the world seems like it's a far better place. But this also means that I should get some work done.

For this week, I need to study Latin for the final on Wednesday. So that gets done today and tomorrow. I need to work on moving my article into Chicago style so it'll be suitable for sending out for publication. I should also work on nailing down my prospectus topic, but if that ends up being a thing that gets done over the week instead of right now, I won't cry. I'm wanting to get it done by mid-January, but I'm also trying to be realistic about how much time I can and will devote to it over the holidays. If I can get some preliminary work done, then I can dig in during the first half of January and get it written after my kids have gone home and Matt's back at work again. I also have the unique potential of working on some fiction I have lying around unfinished. That's not a thing that's happened in a really long time... I'm kind of excited about it. We'll see. I'm also pondering starting in on wrapping my Christmas presents early this year, so it's not a marathon session at the end. Then again... okay, there's something to that marathon session with carols and egg nog and cheesy Christmas movies on the television. I don't know. We'll see. It's nice to have options, though. Very nice. :)

Monday, December 1, 2014

Downsizing deliberately

So, my car is currently a leased vehicle, and my lease is up at the beginning of February. We've started to look at what our end of lease options are -- and one of them, of course, is to let the car go back. Currently the buy price on the car is more than it's worth, so we're not keeping it. Matt's car is a CR-V with nearly 300k miles on it, so we'd like to get something newer for him too. We've gone around about this a few times over, and really what it's coming down to is the idea that, as his new job is not terribly far from my work, it might be the right time to consider dropping down to one car, and getting a newer CR-V for the two of us together. Even if we still have a car payment, we'll only have the insurance and gas for one car to consider and I won't be paying for a parking pass at my school, which is a considerable savings. Also, our schedules work for it to be feasible.

This is a big deal for me, as I have only been without a car for more than a week once in my life since I was 15 -- and that was due to an unpleasant car death when I was living with my parents and my marriage was falling apart and I was freelancing in the RPG industry for a living and supporting my husband as he went back to school. It was not terribly fun. This time, I'm the one who brought it up, so no worries there. It would put me on campus more, but I have an office and a library carrell, so I have places to work on my dissertation without dealing with doggies. It would probably be a good thing to get me on campus more for my work, even if it makes me a bit twitchy at not driving as much. Then again... driving isn't a thing that is the end all-be all of existence. And it'd be better for us financially and better for the environment (and easier on our poor old driveway). But I'm struggling with it a little, even though I like a lot of the perks of it.

If you've deliberately downsized your driving options, I'd welcome your input in how it's affected you. More data points are always a good thing.