Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Vlog Post: The Inner Frienemy

My second video blog post in which the big pink kitteh and I discuss doubt in both its toxic and healthy forms. For anyone who can't (or doesn't want to) watch the video, I've included the transcript below.

Good morning, Miss Muse. It is Tuesday, April 30, 2013. Sorry for my lateness in posting this, but yesterday my brain tried to excruciatingly crawl out my ears. So, to make up for it, today I want to continue my discussion from last time and start talking about doubt.

Now, there are really two kinds of doubt. The “Is this really a good idea?” kind or the “Am I good enough?” kind. The second kind also has two subcategories. The healthy kind, which is “Do I have the skills to make certain that this is done well?” Or the toxic kind, which is, “Will I ever, ever have the skills to do this? Will I ever succeed?” Now, that might be a horrible over dramatization, but it happens.

Doubt in of itself, is really a defense mechanism. The entire point of having doubt is to protect you from harm. Physical or psychological. Generally, the “Is this a good idea?” kind falls into the realm of protecting you from real, true harm like “Is it a good idea to run face first into this wall?” Well, probably not. That’s gonna hurt a little bit. Meanwhile, the second kind is more like, “Am I good enough to go out and get that job that I really, really want?” Well, that depends. Do you have the skills, the right personality, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah? Then, go for it! But if you allow the doubt to tell you that you’ll never have the skills to get the kind of job, or the kind of girlfriend, or the kind of life you want it’s going to hold you back. And that, really, is doing you harm instead of preventing harm, so it’s totally defeated the purpose of it even existing.

Now, the really insidious part is that these two kinds of doubt can be mistaken for each other. And they often are. People will ask “Is it a good idea for me to suddenly quit my job and go out and start a new business?” Again, that depends. But the question you’re really asking is “Do I have the skills, the system, and the knowledge to quit my job and start my own business and actually be successful at it?” So, technically, you’re actually asking the second kind, but the healthy type.

Now, for instance, if you go and ask “Is it a good idea to start writing this book that I’ve had in my head for eons, that I think is gonna be a really good book? But I don’t think I’m a good enough writer. Or I’m really bad at grammar. Or, holy crap, I don’t know how to describe things.” Well, you can learn grammar. Writing you can practice. Describing things is, really, an art of practice.

But this gets into that toxic second form of doubt when you keep yourself from doing something because you’re afraid you’ll never have the skills to do it. And it’s actually blocking you from doing the things that you want. And using that toxic kind of doubt usually stems from having a fear that you haven’t faced or some sort of blockage. And what I mean when I say blockage…I’m talking about some form of idea that is wrong about either yourself or the thing that you want to do, and that idea is keeping you from going forward, and no matter what anyone tells you, the information they give you, anything, you cannot be convinced otherwise. That’s a blockage. A fear, on the other hand, is something that you’re all “I’m worried that this will happen,” or “I’m worried that this might do this.”

Now, the fears generally associated with doubt are the fear of failure and the fear of criticism. Somehow as a society we’ve gotten it into our heads that being wrong or losing at something means that you’re a failure. That’s not really true. Everybody is going to be wrong sometime. If the first time that you were ever wrong meant that you were automatically a failure and you could never make it better, that means we’re all failures, blah, end of story, why even try? If losing means that you’re a failure, then the first time you lost at chess, cards, or your favorite video game means you’re automatically a loser for the rest of your life and a failure and blah and why do we even try?

But that’s the thing. If you stop there, and you don’t keep trying, then you have failed. The only thing that you’ve actually given out is a failure. That’s why, as cliché and horrible as we like to make it out to be, quitting is really the only way that you can fail.

Now the fear of criticism is actually a little nastier than it sounds. Because the fear of criticism isn’t actually the fear of criticism, it’s the fear of shaming. Because, again, somehow in our society we’ve come to the idea that if you don’t like something or you think that there’s something wrong but can’t name it, it’s perfectly okay to call someone names because you didn’t like a thing. That’s not criticizing. That’s a shaming tactic. You’re trying to make someone feel bad because they didn’t do what you think they should have done. Or you’re jealous that they’re doing something and you’re not. Or you feel guilty because they’re doing something and you’re not, and to make yourself feel better you go out and you call them nasty names. That’s shaming. And that’s the real “criticism” that we’re all afraid of. Because true, honest criticism actually says “Well, I think you could do better here,” or “I think this project you’re working on would be better if you did this.” That’s criticism. And while that might sting, it doesn’t turn you into a giant ball of Ugh! Which is really what shaming is all about.

So, I suppose, the real message that I’m trying to get at here is that doubt is like a frienemy. You have to kind of take it with a grain of salt and learn to identify when it’s bullshitting you. And once you can do that, you can actually use it to protect yourself in the way that it was meant to be done.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Short Story: It All Boils Down

Blood crawled the walls.

Someone cried out in the distance, begging to be spared. A wet thwack met my ears, and liquid warmth splattered my arm and face. I touched it, came away with crimson fingertips. My breath caught in my chest, heart seizing.

I looked down.

A cleaver was buried in the skull of my flock-mate.

My fingers gripped the handle.

I gasped, dropped the weapon, and stumbled away from the fresh corpse. Something struck my heel, and I went down. The bodies of more comrades broke my fall.

A scream crowded my throat.

I jerked upright in my coffin, chest heaving around air I didn’t need. My heart writhed in my chest, though it didn’t need to beat. Fear responses left over from the days of my mortality.

The fingers of the hand gripping the coffin’s edge trembled.

I brought the other to my face.

Memories. Just the memories of a long dead vampire. Nothing to fear.

I rubbed my face and dropped back into the coffin, absently grateful the lid had been open. My back had just touched the satin when I felt a soft tap on my forehead and a tingle against the left side of my neck. When I placed my hand against the springing leopard emblazoned on my flesh, the mark was warm to the touch.

The Mistress was calling.

With my hand still in place, I said, “I hear you.”

The tingle subsided.

I climbed out of my resting place.

From the closet, I clothed myself in jeans and a t-shirt that read, “Now you’re just phishing.” Socks came out of the dresser by the door, and I slipped into sneakers and an ankle-length coat.

Anytime the Mistress woke me, I would be going out.

My fingers combed unruly brown hair as I marched down the stone corridor leading out of the nest. Zerai, my lovely mate, said I should try to look more presentable for the Mistress, but I doubted a powerful vampire cared what her enforcer looked like outside of a gathering.

A low growl rumbled in the dark, and I saw a pair of feline eyes resolve from nothing.

“It's just me, Jaime,” I told the wereleopard. I met her chartreuse eyes with my brown ones for a long moment.

Once she was satisfied, she chuffed at me and bumped her large head into my hand, demanding her toll of scratches. I paid my dues, receiving a flick of her sandpaper tongue, and ascended the ladder made of steel bars anchored into the wall.

At the top, I had to push open the trap door leading into the gathering room. Immediately to my left, was the Mistress’s dais and throne, both carved from the same stone. As expected, she sat waiting for me.

I kicked the trapdoor closed and came to stand before her.

Seraphina, the Mistress of Myrna, had been trapped in the body of a twelve-year-old girl by her transformation into a vampire. She wore a dress with full skirts decorated in silver skulls. Leather gloves covered her hands.

At her throat was a ruby, held fast to her flesh with a silver chain. Curls of mahogany fell around her bare shoulders. A cluster was pinned at her left temple with a skull bow. Her gray eyes were serious, but not unkind.

Placing a fist over my heart, I offered her a bow. “You wished to speak to me, Mistress.”

“We did,” she said.

“What do you need?” I asked, returning to my full height.

“We have need of an assassin,” the Mistress said. She held out her small hand, suddenly bare of its usual glove. “Come.”

The cold inside me moved behind my eyes, and I strode forward to do as she bid. I needed no further instructions, and she gave none.

I took her hand, warmer than mine. She’d fed recently. Opening my mouth as I bent, I then pressed my fangs to the flesh of her wrist. It resisted, more so than a human’s might, and then I was inside.

Thick, black blood washed over my tongue. It tasted of change after the hands of many had soiled it.

Images washed in, crowding each other at first, before smoothing into a cohesive whole. Once the sequence had resolved, I was looking out through the Mistress’s eyes. She was sitting atop her throne, and two vampires stood before her.

Viktor, the murderous child-vampire recently slain by the Reaper. And the Master who sired him. I knew the memories were old, now.

“Why have you come?” Seraphina asked. More formality than function.

The Master, Kristopher, placed a hand on Viktor’s head. “My youngling wishes to leave the nest. I thought, of all Masters, you would be amicable to his desire to see the outside world.”

“Our nest is not a home for untrained pups,” the Mistress said.

“I assure you, Viktor’s behavior is impeccable,” Kristopher said.

The memory curled in on itself and faded when the Mistress pulled her hand from mine. Seraphina waited until I could see the room around me once more before she spoke. “We made a deal with Mr. Nulis. The life of this Viktor’s sire in exchange for his cooperation in protecting the nest from Masters curious about Viktor’s death. You will hunt him for us.”

“Yes, Mistress.”

I strode from the room with her blessing at my back, through the double doors separating throne room and antechamber, ascending the elevator into the headquarters of the Seraphim Trading Company. The money that kept us safe and fed.

The elevator opened into a break room, deserted at this time of day. All human employees were gone, and the wereleopards were on security. When I stepped into the lobby, only Zerai remained, still in her severe work attire. Her golden hair was pulled into a tight bun at the back of her head. Wire frame glasses framed her pale green eyes.

She was finishing last minute paperwork by lamp light at the receptionist desk she called home during the day.

I paused to say, “I’m going hunting.”

Zerai looked up from her work, and nodded, though there was no joy in it. “ I thought the Mistress would send you.”

My clever Seer. She’d probably facilitated Seraphina’s bargain with the Reaper.

“I don’t know how long this will take,” I said.

“You never do,” she said. “Do you know where you’re going?”

I licked the blood lingering between my lip and gums. The information deposited itself in my brain. “Gorum on Didelis,” I said.

“Take the large shuttle,” Zerai said. She placed a set of keys on the desk before me.

I took them and touched my forehead to hers. “Peace with you, Sightling,” I said before turning away.

“Don’t forget to bundle up,” Zerai called after me. It was her own way of asking me to be careful because she knew I wouldn’t accept the words.

I waved a hand over my shoulder, and let the hunter slide into place behind my eyes. The cold part of me I never wanted her to see.

I stepped out into Myrna with a gust of frozen wind. My body couldn’t register its bitterness, but I buttoned the coat closed around me. Slush and street glow were my only constant companions as I trudged to the Mistress’s personal shuttle hanger.

The trip to Gorum took six days, and I was glad Zerai had suggested the larger shuttle. Stopping to feed would have doubled my travel time. This one was stocked with a commuting vampire in mind.

Docking in the city was an hour long affair.

Considering the plethora of tourist traps, I was more annoyed than surprised.

The cold thing desired a hunt.

When I stepped out of the shuttle, the city’s pulse throbbed against my tongue. The collective aura of its warm citizens moved together in a pattern unique to it. But there was one place where the city didn’t move. As with any place keeping vampires, a black hole of stillness nested in Gorum’s heart.

I followed the emptiness into Kristopher’s territory.

Once inside, I was greeted by a young enforcer, both in terms of his human and vampiric life. He rushed at me, swinging his fist.

I slapped aside the punch and added his momentum to the force of my knuckles colliding with his face. He hit the alley wall, slid into a heap, and tried again.

I kicked his feet out from under him.

Kristopher must not think highly of his enemies if this pup is guarding the door.

When he tried to get back up, I shoved him to the pavement and pinned him there with my foot in his back. “Rude little monster, aren’t you?” I said. “Is this how you greet all your Master’s visitors?”

“Visitors don’t have murder in their eyes,” he said.

I blinked and felt the hunter smiling out through my eyes. A look like that would have put me on the attack, too.

Not this one, but soon.

I felt its displeasure.

It didn’t matter. Gaining the nest required more delicacy than that.

I pushed my will into the young vampire, expecting a fight. The only obstacle I received was the brain’s natural resistance to having more than one consciousness inside it. He’d never been taught to defend himself.

Another Master who wants absolute control over his flock.

A memory threatened to surface. I pushed it away.

Now was not the time to get lost in my own pain.

“Do you know a vampire called Viktor?” I asked my captive.

“You mean the little sicko who cuts up girls?”

I made an affirmative noise.

“Yeah. Master was so happy to see him gone,” he said.

“So Kristopher knew about Viktor’s crimes?”

“We all knew,” he said. “Kinda hard to hide a fledgling who mauls children.”

But Kristopher had done it, and Viktor after him.

I hauled the young vampire to his feet. “Take me to the nest.”

His will tried to rise up beneath mine, then. It thrashed about, and I squeezed until the fight left him. I ignored the wriggly feeling in my guts. Later, I’d feel terrible for what I’d just done. Now, I was hunting.

A handful of blocks later, the young enforcer was gaining me access to Kristopher’s lair with the script I handed his brain. I watched skepticism cross the guard’s faces and prepared myself to face their challenge with force.

“We have a debt to the Mistress of Myrna for taking Viktor,” the young vampire said with my instruction.

The guards passed each other an uneasy glance before allowing us to pass.

Kristopher’s warehouse lair was a bolt hole compared to the Mistress’s sprawling catacombs. Its rooms were partitioned with fake walls that stretched only halfway to the ceiling. The vampires we passed looked shabby, minimally fed and dressed in cast off clothing. For all that he had aged, the Master here knew nothing of caring for a flock.

My young captive led me to the warehouse’s central room.

Inside, Kristopher stood against one wall with seven members of his flock positioned around the room. When we entered, he said, “Take your place” and I commanded the young enforcer to do as he was told.

Kristopher was much like the memories I’d gleaned from the Mistress’s blood. Thin to the point his skeleton pressed against the inside of his flesh. Dressed all in black as if there was some sort of vampiric dress code. His blonde hair fell in a dirty tousle to his shoulders, and his watery, green eyes were bloodshot and twitchy.

With a Master on the verge of breakdown, this nest was in greater peril than it appeared. I tried not to look as angry as I felt. Vampires such as Kristopher were too weak and selfish to maintain a flock, yet they were the ones most likely to scramble for any scrap of power they could find.

And he’d ruined a child because of it.

“What brings an agent of Seraphina to our humble nest?” Kristopher asked. He even tried to smile for me, but the affect was obviously forced.

“My Mistress wishes for your assistance in removing a rival from her territory,” I lied.

“Oh my. Why would such a powerful vampire need help from us?” Kristopher said.

“This vampire has proven to be well adapted to guerrilla warfare. Our leopards are not, though I recall you used such a tactic to claim your own territory,” I said. As the words left my lips, I focused a pinch of my will to inscribing runes on each of the flock members in the room. The blood tattoo on my back flared hot with each application.

Kristopher made a face. “I see. But we are only a small nest. Why should we sacrifice ourselves for a more successful flock?”

Faithless insect. “My Mistress took in your fledgling when she did not have to do so. You owe us a debt,” I said.

“But not nearly as grand as this.”

We continued to speak for some time. I insisted and he tried to wriggle out of his responsibility. Even a plea to offer aid to a vampire he’d sired was met with excuses and bargaining.

While he argued, I finished painting my runes onto the members of his flock in attendance. Then I moved on to a trick I’d only just learned. As a former mage, I was well acquainted with the use of will as a tool of manipulation. The vampiric element was the mind, and I’d learned to tinker in it without alerting the defenses of the bearer.

I slipped my mental lock pick into Kristopher’s brain.

It wriggled all the way into the place where a vampire keeps his special gifts. Even the most powerful vampires I’d encountered had this delineation, and Kristopher was nowhere near the power of the King of Vampires.

In that spot, I found the power that would make the end of this mission difficult. As shabby as the warehouse was, it had dirt floors. The perfect thing to provide ammunition to an earthmover.

And I tied a knot in the channels leading to it.

Over the knot, I laid another rune, similar to the ones on his minions.

Then I retracted my lock pick.

“Finally,” I blurted, interrupting another of Kristopher’s obnoxious excuses.

The Master in question blinked at me. “What?”

“I don’t have to listen to your drivel anymore,” I said and snapped my fingers. All eight of the flock members, including my captive, burst into flames. The tattoo on my back came alight with white heat.

Kristopher made a sweeping hand gesture as I launched my body in his direction.

Confusion and rage crossed his face, “What did you—?”

I punched him into the wall, activating the rune I’d placed inside him. The blood tattoo guttered like a candle trying to go out. It didn’t have the strength to send Kristopher up in flames like his minions. But a slow burn could still roast pork.

Kristopher came out of the shattered wall, hissing like a wet cat. I sidestepped his punch only to have him grab my elbow and hurl me into the side wall.

Clever boy.

The plywood fractured and exploded out with me. Vampires scattered as though they’d seen this sort of violence before.

I hit the ground, rolled to my feet, and met Kristopher’s face with my fist, pushing personal energy into the rune in addition to the tattoo’s blood magick.

Even in that brief instant, I felt the warmth of his flesh.

Gorum’s Master made a new hole in the wall, and it threatened to come down.

To the flock members cowering in the corners, I said, “Get out if you don’t want to be ashed.”

They scattered once more.

A wall of will crashed down on me.

My own was sufficient to push it away.

No control.

“You have no business giving orders to my flock,” Kristopher said. I saw heat streamers flowing up from this flesh. The whites of his eyes had filled with blood.

“In a few minutes, you won’t be here to do it,” I said.

His will crashed down once more.

I slashed at him with my own.

Kristopher cried out, stumbling back. Blood oozed from his nose and bubbled over his lip. It was hard to be near him for the heat pouring off his body.

“What have you done to me?” he screamed. Flesh began to bubble and blacken. Organs should be rupturing inside him.

“Nothing more than you deserve.”

Kristopher screamed. A painful shriek, describing each second of his torment. It continued on each breath until his lungs could no longer expand.

And I watched.

I waited until he’d become an immovable mass of charcoal. Then I crushed his brittle head, just to be certain.

The tattoo sputtered out. I’d have to feed from a mage to replenish it, but the deed was done. I’d satisfied my duty to the Mistress.

Time to return to the nest and battle the memory of all I’d done here.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Vlog Post: The Courage to Start

My first video blog post in which the skull bow and I discuss being a beginner.
For anyone who can't (or doesn't want to) watch the video, I've included the transcript below.

Good morning, Miss Muse, it is Monday, April 22, 2013.

And considering this is my first, ever, vlog post, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about being a beginner. We all start out life as beginners. We have to learn to walk, to crawl, to speak, how to hold a spoon, how to eat without getting it all over our face. And yet it seems like, as we progress through the ages, the time that we’re allowed to need to learn something gets smaller and smaller and smaller.

It’s starting to seem like, anytime you walk onto a new job, your boss automatically expects you to know things that you could never possibly have any inkling as to how it works. And when you make a mistake, it’s a ginormously, huge thing, and it could simply be because “Holy crap, I didn’t know how that worked. Go figure.”

And this can also, you know, hinder us from attempting to do the things that would really bring some sparkle to our lives.

I know, it’s a little cliché, sparkly lives.

But, for instance, art.

Art is one of those things that, as beautifully simple as it sounds…there’s a learning curve. There’s a learning curve for pretty much any kind of art you go into, any hobby you go into, really, there’s a learning curve. I mean, you can’t decide to go fishing if you’ve never baited a hook before, or if you don’t know how to cast, for instance. (I suck at that, by the way.)

Really, in a world that demands absolute perfection from us, it takes courage to be a beginner. To not know what you’re doing, and yet go out and try it anyway.

Are you going to make mistakes? Mmm…most definitely. But that’s part of the learning process.

Part of the courage to be a beginner is to allow yourself the ability to make mistakes, to allow yourself that time where you’re not going to be perfect. And really, because we expect ourselves to be these nice, shining bubbles of perfection it’s really hard to let go of the idea that “Oh my gosh, I can’t to EVERYTHING right. I…uhh, what am I going to do…I…gah!”

It’s like really, really frustrating and scary to take on a new venue.

And I suppose that’s really the whole point. It does take courage. You’re not pathetic if it takes you that extra kick in the pants from yourself or someone else to actually go out and do something new.

Cuz, heck, it took me…four whole years to decide “You know what? This is what I want to do. I want to swashbuckler on paper for a living.”

There was a large learning curve. But that’s okay, because in order to be great at anything, you have to be a beginner. Them’s the breaks.

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My Art, My Activism

“My art is my activism. There is no separation.” ~ Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler

I first saw this quote at Flyover Feminism on April 5, and it’s been stewing in my brain ever since.

What does it mean to combine my activism and artistic endeavors?

The short answer is to write (or paint or draw or dance or sing, etc…) about the issues that make you hot, that get your blood sizzling. Those issues you see affecting good people every day. Those issues that just need to go away for good.

But, as with most things, it goes deeper.

It isn’t enough to artistically criticize the sexism and objectification that frustrates you only to utilize a racist trope in an attempt to make the point. Or spend an entire manuscript growling about discrimination only to use words that marginalize individuals with mental illness.

Doing these things unintentionally doesn’t automatically make you a horrible person, but that’s where ownership and responsibility come into play. Every artistic brain child has a growth phase, and it’s the responsibility of the artist to raise that fledgling into the best it can be.

This calls for vigilance.

It calls for setting the boundaries necessary to make your art represent the things in which you believe.

And it calls for enforcing them.

I vow to practice vigilance. I vow to set and keep the boundaries for my own work.

Will you join me?