What I did on my Intercon vacation: Russian icons, and bad movies

I didn’t go to Intercon this past weekend — the first one I missed in nearly fifteen years! — for Reasons, so I ended up having my pal EB over. It was supposed to be a relaxing (kid-free, for her) weekend, and it was. But if there were any themes, they were “the terrible movies of Barry Mahon” and “Atlas Obscura sites in Clinton, Massachusetts.”

Terrible Movies

First, the bad movies. I wanted to show EB the RiffTrax of The Wonderful Land of Oz, a Mahon movie based on one of the lesser of L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels. EB had actually read said novel, and wondered just how you could make it worse.

The answer? Barry Mahon, bad puppetry, and singing.

Credit: Rifftrax.com

This RiffTrax is probably one of my all-time favorites, making much of the fact that the director’s son, Channy Mahon, plays Tip/Ozma, and the fact that Barry’s Mahon’s oeuvre is largely composed of sexploitation films. (There’s a recurring riff of Mahon bellowing pervy directions like “Tell her in the Jello pit!” to General Jinjur’s mini-skirted majorettes). So, even though the movie itself stinks, it’s at least a pleasure to sit through.

Of course, after that, we had to explore the other works of Barry Mahon. The RiffTrax page for Oz mentions Fanny Hill Means Dr. Erotico (and yes those are words that I just typed) and The Diary of Knockers McCalla, but we decided to limit ourselves to what was available free on Amazon Prime. Even that was a treat!

First, there’s The Beast that Killed Women (1965), which is about a gorilla on the loose, killing the women (but only the women!) of the “most lovely” nudist camp in Miami. (No kidding, those words were on a screen at the beginning of the film). “Well, this sounds promising,” said we.

Just like the movie, this woman has no nipples. (Credit: imdb.com)

Well, not to disappoint, but it had less nudity than your average episode of Versailles. All of the men of this nudist colony wear short-shorts everywhere, and the female nudity is mostly limited to some side boob while the women get changed in the camp’s locker room. There appear to be exactly two women who allowed their boobs to be shown on camera, and they form the weirdest Greek chorus of “a couple of women trying to get to sleep while their companions are getting killed.” And by “trying to get to sleep,” I mean “repeatedly being awakened and sitting up, reminding us that boobs exist.” It should not be a surprise that they end up sleeping in the same bed.

Oh, and did I mention the whole thing is told through this framing device of “guy whose wife was attacked by gorilla, in the hospital for observation, explaining his story to detectives?” He exists to remind us that you could smoke in hospitals in the 1960s, I guess. He also has the funniest, most surreal exchange with his nurse near the end of the movie:

“Can I have my pants back now?”

The end of the movie, btw? Is pretty much just “THE END” stenciled on the back of a director’s chair.

(While viewing the imdB page, just now, I learned that it was apparently Barry Mahon himself in the gorilla suit. I guess I’ll just leave that fact there…)

The other Mahon movie we watched was Cuban Rebel Girls (1959), which is the oddest bit of cinema history. It was written, narrated, and acted in by Errol Flynn — his last movie, in fact, and he didn’t even live to see its release (on Christmas 1959). Mahon was apparently late-life Errol Flynn’s manager which… probably explains some things about some things. Like why this movie exists.

Credit: imdb.com

The basic premise is that a Cuban-American girl, Jacqueline, and her friend Beverly (played by Flynn’s SEVENTEEN YEAR OLD “girlfriend” Beverly Aadland) fly down to Cuba to be part of the Cuban revolution! It’ll be fun! After all, Beverly’s boyfriend is there! (Shockingly, said boyfriend isn’t played by Flynn; no, Flynn plays a serious-business war correspondent). Beverly learns how to use a radio and dabs some wounds; there is some peril, but not for any of the white characters, of course; Flynn drunkenly interposes himself into scenes; the lovers are reunited at Castro’s victory parade. The end!

… yes, Fidel Castro. Like with so many revolutions, there was a time when well-meaning people — Flynn among them — thought that Castro was a righteous freedom fighter against the tyranny of then-leader Batista. And, while we know how that turned out here in 2019, in 1959, nobody anticipated that.

In fact, this movie was filmed, WITH CASTRO’S PERMISSION (the “new army of Cuba” is thanked for its “invaluable” assistance at the start of the movie), while he was still fighting Batista. Arguably it has some of the best extant footage of the Cuban revolution!

It also might just have more nudity than The Beast That Killed Women, if you’re keeping track.

We watched other bad movies that had nothing to do with Mahon, too!

The end of our cinematographic weekend was somewhat anticlimactic — we watched some of the PBS Poirot series that I had on DVD. David Suchet is truly a balm for the bad-movie-wounded soul.

Clinton, Massachusetts

… is a small town not far from where I live in central Massachusetts. There are three Atlas Obscura sites there — the Museum of Russian Icons, the Clinton Tunnel, and Fuller Field — and on Saturday afternoon, on a whim, we visited them all.

I don’t have much to say about Fuller Field, as I don’t much appreciate Things Baseball. We parked, we saw, we checked it off on AO.

The Clinton Tunnel — once the largest railway tunnel in Massachusetts — was a bit more of an adventure. For one thing, it’s difficult to see from the road (a fairly busy highway, MA 70 and 62), and there’s no place nearby to park, which means you have to go down to the Wachusett Reservoir parking area, about a quarter mile down the road.

Now, bear in mind it’s currently winter in MA, and there was snow on the ground. Also keep in mind, this train tunnel once crossed the highway, and the Nashua River beside it, so it is raised fairly far above the level of the road, maybe 20′ feet up a steep hill, above a stone trestle. We had to climb up this hilly slope to get to the tunnel, and then we part-climbed, part-slid back down again when we were leaving. EB has a video somewhere of me sliding on my ass down the hill, and I look a mess in it, but I don’t care, because I am having fun.

(This gave me the opportunity to acquaint EB with the rhyme, “Ladies and gentlemen, take my advice: pull down your pants, and slide on the ice” — though I could not explain to her where it came from or what it even means, besides, “it’s just something my mother used to say”).

All of the rails have been removed from the tunnel, so today it is really is just a pass through the hills of central Massachusetts. The stone walls are spectacularly covered in graffiti, and in winter, ice freezes in wondrous patterns coming through ventilation shafts. We didn’t go all the way through the tunnel — the ice made the footing treacherous after a short distance, and neither of us had dressed for a hike — but you can see the exit from the entrance, though it goes on for quite the distance. It definitely didn’t seem as long as the Hoosac Tunnel, which I visited a couple of years ago, whose exit I couldn’t see.

And here’s a picture of EB pointing at the tunnel, the latest in a series I call “EB and Lise point at things.”

All in all, I think the Hoosac Tunnel is a bit of a better trip — less graffiti, if that appeals, and it has a tragic history that appeals to me. But it’s also waaaaay more remote than the Clinton Tunnel. (It’s also still an active railway tunnel, so you can’t legally walk through it).

But by far the longest part of our exodus to Clinton was spent at the Museum of Russian Icons. I must admit, I was a little hesitant to visit at first — “what interest do I have in Russian Orthodox iconography?” — but it won out for Saturday’s trip, as it promised to be inside and warm. Also I was pleased to learn that I could get in free with my NARM membership.

I am so, so glad I went. You know those moments when a whole new landscape suddenly opens up to you, and reveals itself to be so much broader than you ever imagined? It was kind of like that.

With this whole new world (and yes, now that song is stuck in my head), I learned a whole new vocabulary, too! I learned about the oklad, the metallic, sometimes bejeweled frames that cover and protect many icons, so that only the important parts of the icon show. The mandorla, the almond shape that surrounds holy figures, representing a sort of protective circle. The minyeia, a calendar of saint’s days, some of them incredibly detailed. (The Stroganoff minyeias are on display there, and I took great pleasure in finding the dog-headed St. Christopher in one of its panels).

I learned about the different Marian icons that exist, usually named after a particular icon they took inspiration from, (i.e. the Mary Smolenskaya, after an icon on display in Smolensk, is a Mary icon with her pointing to the baby Jesus as if to say, “this kid, yo” — also apparently this is what a Greek Orthodox person would refer to a Hodegetria).

I learned about the iconostasis, the wall of icons in Russian Orthodox churches.

I learned that apparently the St. Nicholas that is the patron saint of Russia, St. Nicholas of Myra, is the same saint that gave Santa Claus his name.

I learned that there are apparently a lot of saints venerated in the Russian Orthodox church that I –who was raised Catholic — have never even heard of, like Saint Paraskeva of the Balkans, or the two monks who founded a monastery on an island in the Arctic Circle.

I learned how the Russian Orthodox church preserved some aspects of the Byzantine Empire — in some ways, becoming a third Roman Empire — after the Turkish invasions in the 15th century; and I learned about the schism of the Old Believers, just two centuries later.

Possibly my favorite icon in the collection is one of the Last Judgment that is on the entrance floor; we viewed it near the end of the tour. The level of detail in it is incredible. I also was quite fond of the Saint Paraskeva that opens the tour, which the benefactor of the museum has tagged as his own favorite. The bright reds in it are especially eye-catching!

Not the same Last Judgment I admired, but a similar formulation, circa 1750. (Credit: museumofrussianicons.org).

Did I mention there’s also a tea room on the lower level of the museum, complete with Russian teas and snacks, completely surrounded by a display of samovars? Did I mention the exhibit of contemporary Russian art? Or the fact that this building used to be a courthouse, and that the jail cells in the basement have been incorporated into it?

Basically, this is an incredible museum, and it’s hard to believe it exists in a tiny town in rural Massachusetts. There was professionalism throughout everything; it was on the level of some of the biggest museums I’ve been to in Boston, London, and New York. I was skeptical at first, but I think I may be getting a membership to this museum as next year’s NARM membership — there’s so much more I want to see there, and there’s a schedule of fascinating museum events, too.

We closed out our Saturday with a delightful dinner at Arisu Korean Restaurant in Leominster — nothing to warm you up after sliding down an icy hill like some kimchi-jjigae!

2019 Prospective

In previous years I’ve called these posts “resolutions”, but as I mentioned in my 2018 retrospective, I am trying to take the focus off what I do, and put it on who I am, instead.

But one thing I started doing a few years ago that still fits with this? Having a theme for the year. And this year, my theme is “Back to Basics.”

Resonance with the term

I dunno about you, but the first thing I think of when I hear that phrase is a certain homesteading book from the 1980s by Reader’s Digest. My parents had a copy of this book — as sort of homesteaders themselves, living in a log cabin my father and uncle built. It gave the basics on things like making bread, dyeing wool, and raising goats. And I ADORED it. It made be want to be a farmer, and it figured prominently into the stories I was making up at the time. (My go-to Mary Sue was always the daughter of farmers, right before she fell into fairy land).

The “About This Book” provides this outlook:

Back to Basics is a book about the simple life. It is about old-fashioned ways of doing things, and old-fashioned craftsmanship, and old-fashioned food, and old-fashioned fun. It is also about independence — the kind of down-home self-reliance that our grandparents took for granted, but that we moderns often think has vanished forever…
Back to Basics, by Reader’s Digest, 1981

So does this mean you want to take up raising goats, Lise?

Hahaha, no. It turns out farming is actually really hard, and I’ve got a job already. I don’t need another.

But, in some sense, last year’s theme of “habitat” and “moving into my own life” was about physical homesteading, and it’s one I’d like to linger on. In fact, when I was writing up my retrospective, I almost wrote that first point as “homesteader” instead of “home owner,” but ultimately rejected it, because I wasn’t using its usual connotation.

This year’s theme, continuing in this vein, is emotional homesteading and mental self-sufficiency.

What the heck does that mean?

A really good question. This is more tenuous of a theme than I’ve tackled in previous years. It’s a feeling I want to embody, not a quantifiable goal I want to work toward. To quote what I wrote in my journal:

It’s about the basics of who I am, what I want, and discovering that. It’s about self-care, about homesteading a quiet place inside myself where I am safe and looked after. If 2018 focused on the externals of my home, this is internals. It’s about reflection, simplicity. Self-sufficiency of the soul.

Note that phrase, “safe and looked after.” That keeps bringing me back to a quote from an in-game book in the Elder Scrolls universe, the The 36 Lessons of Vivec. The full text is this:

‘The fire is mine: let it consume thee,
And make a secret door
At the altar of Padhome
In the House of Boet-hi-Ah
Where we become safe
And looked after.’
The 36 Lessons of Vivec, sermon 3

Now, bear in mind that the Lessons are wildly esoteric. Within the frame of the TES series, they’re a guidebook written by the living god Vivec to the player character of TESIII on how to achieve godhood. In real life, they were written by former Bethesda employee Michael Kirkbride, and are one part Gnosticism, one part Hindu epics, and (possibly) one part acid trip. This particular bit of text is framed as a prayer that the proto-Vivec teaches his mother to comfort her while she’s being tortured by the Dwemer.

A few TES lore bits will help to flesh out the resonance here: first, “Padhome” is Padomay, the primordial chaos that, together with the primordial order Anu, birthed the et’Ada, the gods and demons of the Elder Scrolls world. Padomay is typically associated with the daedra — who are creatures of pure chaos.

Secondly, “Boet-hi-Ah” is the daedric prince Boethiah, who has the domains of “deceit, conspiracy, secret plots of murder, assassination, treason, and unlawful overthrow of authority.” The sermons refer to them as the lord of “False Thinking.”

And yet, Boethiah is one of the Good Daedra of the Dunmer, and is said to have taught them “responsible architecture,” whatever that is. (That’s from Varieties of Faith, which is also by Kirkbride, so expect the same trippiness). One interpretation I’ve read, probably somewhere on /r/teslore, is that, when the Chimer were pilgrims from Summerset, outsiders in the inhospitable volcanic wasteland that is Vvardenfell, Boethiah taught them both how to build literal houses — i.e. shelter from the outside world — as well as figurative ones (i.e. empire building, overthrowing the authority of the ruling Dwemer, creating the Great Houses).

That’s pretty solid, for a being of chaos that can re-create itself at will.

(There’s more that resonates with me in sermon 10 and sermon 16 — and there’s also the whole concept of the Provisional House introduced in sermon 19— but I am in danger of become a desperate lorebeard).

Like most MK-as-Vivec writings, these are nonsense, but divine nonsense. A koan, of sorts.

While fascinating, that so did not answer my question, Lise.

So here’s my personal interpretation of that “prayer”: it’s about finding comfort in the midst of chaos. Peace when there is no safe place to rest. Stillness, when order is antithetical to your very being. Non-doing, when your generation is chronically burnt out from doing

(I’m the same age as that author, Anne Helen Petersen, and her article hit me hard).

I want to build a home, an empire of the soul, within myself, at the heart of the storm. I recognize that my to-do list will never be empty. I will not die with an empty inbox. My generational affliction won’t be cured any time soon. And I am, fundamentally, a Lord of False Thinking.

The only stillness is the stillness I can make within myself.

So how is this actionable??

Past-Lise, you are a cruel taskmaster. We learned our lesson about setting SMART goals, and perhaps we learned it too well.

But okay. Emotional homesteading does look like something in day-to-day life. Fundamentally this means I have several areas of focus for 2019.

1) Meditation and mindfulness practice

For a while my therapist and I had been dancing around the topic of non-doing. We talked a lot about my beliefs about doing, my self-esteem and its ties to accomplishment, and my tendency to burn out. We talked about how I love my hobbies, but they aren’t relaxing to me.

Gradually she started asking me questions like, “what does relaxation look like to you?” and “could you try just being still and not doing anything for a time?” And in early December, she asked me, “Are you up for a little extracurricular reading?”

The book she recommended was Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are, from 1994. Funnily enough, I already owned this book, and recalled liking the meditations in it. When I read it now, I see underlines of things I found moving at the time — notes from a Lise who no longer exists.

I’ve practiced meditation erratically throughout the years — I did the Headspace app introduction, and took a few lunchtime meditation sessions at my workplace. But fundamentally, I never felt enough of a benefit from meditation, short-term, to invest the time in it long-term.

The thing is, as Kabat-Zinn points out, meditation is a long con. It isn’t something you can pick up in times of crisis and expect to find solace in. It is about cultivating a space within yourself — a secret garden at the heart of chaos! — and like any garden, it needs time and labor to grow. He describes mindfulness as a cave behind a waterfall, a vantage point where you can observe your own thoughts and yet be separate from them. There’s a lot of unglamorous work in making that space, though.

I’ve also described that space, to my therapist, as being “the gap between action and reaction.” The difference between feeling an emotion and acting upon it.

Anyway, I’ve been working on cultivating a meditation practice since mid-December. Here’s how it usually happens. If I can wake up early, I do this first thing in the morning, while drinking coffee. Eyes open or closed, I try to notice all the sensations in my body, all the sounds and sights and smells in the house around me. If I can’t get up early, I do what I call a “driving meditation” on my way to work, just trying to be fully centered in the experience of moving through the landscape. This rarely goes for more than 10-15 minutes at a stretch.

This is the first and most important step, the foundation of my emotional homestead.

2) Boundaries

The walls of my emotional homestead.

In the past, there have been any number of things I did because someone else wanted me to do them. As a friend once told me, “you look like someone who can’t say no.” Only in the past year have I been able to look at an action I was considering and realize it sprang not from my own desires and motivation, but from something expected of me. I had internalized someone else’s mental topology, and sublimated my own.

The boots-on-ground action here is to ask myself, before any change that I am contemplating, “Who wants this?” If the answer isn’t “me” — especially “present me”, and not “Lise of five years ago” or “Lise of Christmas yet to come” — then I need to seriously reconsider if I need to do it.

3) Self-care

The plumbing and heating system of my homestead.

When I was much, much younger, my mom taught me the HALT acronym, which I believe she learned from ACOA. I learned it as “hungry, angry, lonely, or tired,” though I believe there are different formulations of this, with different affective states.

However, I feel like the knowledge stopped there. What were you supposed to do, or how were you supposed to act, when you felt one of those states? All I can remember is an invocation to be careful when you were in those states.

Hm. Careful.

‘Self-care’ is sometimes used to mean some kind of fun, consumerist treat: massages and facials and getting your nails done. (And wow, now I realize that so much of this so-called ‘self-care’ is coded feminine. Huh). But self-care isn’t necessarily sexy. It’s fundamentally the “adulting” that Petersen talks about in her article. It’s doing the dishes so that you have bowls to eat out of. It’s going to bed on time so that you can be focused and undistracted at work. It’s scheduling time to hang out with friends so that you don’t turn into a recluse. It’s keeping entropy at bay with nutritious food and exercise.* It’s all the stuff that keeps us from saying everything is awful and I’m not okay.

* (But not all the time. All things in moderation, even moderation, etc).

My evolving understanding of self-care, then, is that it’s about managing these HALT states: avoiding them where possible, being present with them while they’re happening, and being cautious about doing while you are experiencing one of them. And sometimes prioritizing this emotional labor above other, more fun things.

For me, this year, I want to take this concrete step for self-care: I want to return to exercise, but in a gentler way. I was running regularly in May of last year, training for a 5k, when I started having tendinitis symptoms. It was really a perfect example of how I over-optimize and get competitive over everything: I ran that race despite pain, and my predominant emotion after completing was self-loathing — that I didn’t do as well as some (seemingly) less fit people, or even as well as I did last year.

So let me step back, and ask myself why I want to exercise. It is, like I say, keeping entropy at bay. It’s a vital part of health. It, like meditation, is a practice, and best cultivated. I like the stamina I have at larps when I am exercising regularly. I like being able to walk miles every day when I’m on vacation, and be none the worse for wear. And I do enjoy tracking the natural world on my walks — even in an urban landscape! — and seeing the turn of the seasons.

Maybe that doesn’t have to translate to running races, though — or anything that brings out that ugly, self-loathing competitive side of myself. Maybe I can walk/run when I want, where I can, enjoying the natural world along the way.

I think that might be enough.

4) Simplicity and minimalism.

The furniture (or lack of furniture) of my internal life.

First of all, there’s a certain amount of external paring-down I want to do — indie perfume collection, prepare to be decimated. I also want to bring fewer new objects into my life, favoring experiences over more stuff.

But more apropos to emotional homesteading: there’s a mental minimalism I want to practice. I want to unitask more, and spend less time distracted. Cutting out Facebook was part of this. But I also don’t always need to listen to podcasts while doing dishes, or audiobooks while driving. I don’t need to watch streams while playing ESO. I don’t need to distract myself from writing with Twitter.

This is oddly specific, but as part of this I also really want to re-read Walden, and remind myself what Thoreau has to say about simplicity and self-reliance. I read it as part of a course about American Nature Writing in college, and enjoyed the experience; reading the Kabat-Zinn book, there are Walden quotes scattered throughout that remind me of how it spoke to me at the time. Even knowing some of the limitations of the work (yes, I know that he walked into Concord regularly to have his sister do his laundry), I still find the meditations interesting.

5) Creativity

The interior decoration of my homestead.

I direct you to this tweet:

You know why I look so happy in this picture? Because I’m creating stuff. I love creating.

It doesn’t have to be writing — though I do want to pick up my writing again, and see how it feels after so long away. Making cards, drawing, painting seashells, cross-stitch, streaming, heck, even decorating houses in ESO … all of these are ways I have been creative in the past year. I will do many of them again. I will remember how they make me feel.

I will also remember that things like submitting stories, queries, etc are not creative. Publishing is brutal, and publishing is not writing. Which is not to say I shouldn’t engage with the industry, but that these activities don’t nourish me.

6) Connection

As I mentioned in my 2018 retrospective, my identity as loving friend and family member felt a bit disingenuous last year. Still I am longing for a way to really connect with my friends; to have those amazing moments where you are so in sync with someone.

I want to reach out more. I want to reach out without apologies. I want to reach out more genuinely, more personally, in a more analog fashion — not just shotgun my well-wishes out into the world via social media.

Six, huh?

Back to my pal Vivec:

Six are the vests and garments worn by the suppositions of men.

Six are the formulas to heaven by violence, one that you have learned by studying these words.

Six are the walking ways, from enigma to enemy to teacher.

Six are the guardians of Veloth, three before and they are born again, and they will test you until you have the proper tendencies of a hero.
The 36 Lessons of Vivec, sermon 6

“Proper tendencies of a hero” sounds neat, let’s be that.

In conclusion

Is this a lot to tackle in one year? If I were still setting concrete goals, this number would certainly fail the “realistic” standard.

I lamented to my therapist that I was trying to “busy up” my first area of focus, which was cultivating a meditation practice. Was I going to be disappointed with myself a year from now if I hadn’t fulfilled this entire prospective?

“But you’ll also be gentler with yourself by then,” she said.

Let’s hope.

2018 Retrospective

This New Year’s post(s) is going to be very different than last year’s. A great deal has changed in my mental and emotional landscape over the last year. Primarily, I am de-emphasizing the role of accomplishment in my life, and emphasizing the inherent dignity of being Lise.

So, let’s turn my usual “what I did in 2018” into…

Who I Was in 2018

I was a home owner. My theme for 2018 was habitat and “moving into my own life”, and I lived that to the best of my ability. I made our bedroom a cozier place to spend time, adding curtains and a rug, and organizing the attic. I hired someone to replace our kitchen faucet and add in a new over-the-range microwave. I began painting the guest bedroom. I got rid of a lot of cruft that was no longer useful or beautiful. We added new end tables and a coffee table to the living room. I hired someone to regularly maintain the yard. I organized our cats’ paperwork. We put a new roof on the house, and new fixed skylights that don’t leak. I rehung the mirror in the upstairs bathroom by myself, and then we began the process of hiring someone to renovate the bathroom entirely.

Finally, we refinanced our mortgage, into a 15 year fixed-rate mortgage with a better rate. What better symbolism for moving into a new house without actually packing a box?

I was a writer, and sometimes not a writer. This year I de-emphasized the role of writing in my life and my identity, and for a time flirted with giving it up entirely. I came to realize over the course of the year that while “writer” still feels like a good label, I felt imprisoned by the identity, lost in a cycle of creation and rejection. I was basically trying to make writing my second job, and I… didn’t actually want that?

I did do a number of writing-adjacent things this year, nonetheless. I did some editing and rewriting on Lioness. I submitted the short stories I wrote in 2017 to bunches of markets. I wrote poems. I wrote 11 substantial blog posts. I beta-read for countless friends.

Ultimately I needed a break from my writing, to remind me of what I love about it. Am I ready to come back to it? That’s for the next post…

I was healthy physically. This is a hard identity to claim, because I did struggle with health issues this year. But I also tried to take care of my physical health as best I could. I maintained a healthy-for-me diet through most of the year, I ran until I suffered some tendinitis (for which I then had physical therapy — but not before doing a 5K!) I took my meds, I used my sunlamp, and hey, the ulnar nerve in my left hand seems to be back to normal, too.

I was emotionally healthy. I found a new therapist this year, and dear reader, I love her. Through my work with her, I’ve tackled a number of old traumas, rethought my various identities, learned to be gentler with myself, managed my seasonal depression better, and just generally been happier. The progress I’ve made, in one year, makes me look sadly back at my previous therapist and wonder “what the heck did we DO for 10+ years?” But I’m moving forward now, which is what matters.

I was a gamer. This term feels a bit cringeworthy to me — given how it’s violently defended by some internet trolls — but the identity is solid: I did spend a lot of time gaming this year. I played WoW up until a couple of months ago, finishing off the Legion raids on normal and heroic with my guild and my friends. I ultimately decided the new expansion wasn’t for me, though, and gave it up in November.

Additionally, I went back to playing ESO in late May, right about when the Summerset chapter was released, and that’s been delightful. It gives me joy to feel I’m back where I belong, in the midst of this lore that means so much to me. I did cool stuff, too, like playing through the Morrowind/Clockwork City/Summerset content, finishing all but the newest dungeons on veteran difficulty, participating in a garden decorating contest, and making a million gold. And while I (of course) have my frustrations with the game, or occasional clashes with guildies, on the whole I find myself able to keep a healthy perspective.

Other video games I played in 2018 included Graveyard Keeper (morbid Stardew Valley) and No Man’s Sky (a beautiful, chill space exploration game). Possibly others? I don’t recall.

Oh, and I also played in a brief D&D 5E campaign and played some new-to-me board games, too.

I was a Twitch streamer. I started streaming my ESO gameplay on Twitch in June or July of 2018, just for the sheer love of the Elder Scrolls series, and wanting to share that love with other people. (In particular I credit my VPeep Leigh for encouraging me to do it!) I’m trying not to let it turn into another thing like writing, where I go all-out and then burn out, but I did make affiliate in October, and I still stream 1-2 times a week when I’m available. And hey, I’ve made $14.97 so far 😉

I was a larper. This is another category I’ve been trying to find balance in. I love larping, but I find the whole “give up 4-5 full weekends a year per game” incredibly draining, and in 2018 I attempted to manage my energy better. I continued to PC Shadowvale, and NPC Madrigal 3. I went to Intercon R and Lucky Consequences. However, I did give up staffing Tales from the Cotting House, and I’ve started attending Mad3 events for Friday and Saturday only. I also won’t be attending Intercon S.

I was a traveler. I traveled a lot this year. My big trips were to the Stratford Festival with my mom, camping with my dad at Ausable Point campground, and two weeks in England with Matt.

I also did a fair amount of travel with my buddy-in-intellectual-curiosity, EB. She took me to two different Newport, RI mansions for free/cheap; we went with Alison to Salem, MA, and did all the touristy things there; and we went went to visit Steepletop (the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay in Austerlitz, NY) and the Mount (home of Edith Wharton in Lenox, MA).

I was a reader. I read something like 25 books this year, and a smattering of short stories. Probably the ones I enjoyed the most were my friend Melissa Caruso’s book The Defiant Heir, Leigh Bardugo’s duology of Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience ™”, and Rachael K. Jones’ “Makeisha in Time.” Oh, and I can’t forget Savage Beauty, the biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, or reading Watership Down while staying at the Watership Down Inn in Whitchurch in Hampshire, England…

I was an attentive friend and family member. This identity I feel the most uncertain about. It might be more aspirational than anything else, given my introvert nature and my hermit tendencies when my depression is at its worst. But I feel like I deepened or maintained friendships with a number of significant people in my life this year.

Family-wise, I have tried to make my mom a bigger priority in my life, and I feel like our relationship has been significantly mended from the state it was in before she got sick — even though distance is still a huge obstacle. And while I had a roaring fight with my dad last winter, I think we’ve mostly recovered from that.

My husband is still married to me, so I must be doing something right on the “loving wife” front 😉

I did a long Facebook break in the spring, and then decided to give up Facebook almost entirely in December, which is… mixed. FB does allow me to easily keep up with people I’m only distantly connected to, which is a blessing and a curse all by itself. But it had become a source of tremendous anxiety for me, and so I needed to stop using it regularly, for my mental health. I will still try to keep up with people as best I can.

Connection is hard, and yet I crave it a lot, despite my introversion — this is another thing I learned about myself this year.

I was a front-end web developer. I continue to do my job, and be good at it. It’s still the best job I’ve ever had. I did experience some burn out this year — as in many aspects of my life, apparently! — because maintaining that balance between “too hard and thus frustrating” and “too easy and thus boring” is really challenging, yo. But I continue to learn.

I was a teacher. This is a new aspect of my identity, one I am trying to develop. It came out of an observation that as a kid, long before I ever wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a teacher, and would teach school to my dolls.

In some ways Twitch streaming scratches this itch; I love nothing more than talking a new player through how to make their character a better healer, or explaining the deep lore of TES. I also enjoy teaching front-end stuff, whether that be making a presentation to my coworkers about a new technology, or helping a friend with his website. And then there’s always my drunk (sometimes just sleep-drunk) pontificating about the Stuarts, and how interesting they were, or how the Victorians were most definitely not the bland prudes we think of them being.

I was financially solvent. In some places I didn’t make great financial choices this year (England trip, I’m looking at you), and in other places I did (the refinance; general frugality). But hey, we’re still here, reducing the balance on our mortgage and student loans, socking away money for retirement, and paying our bills on time.

I was intellectually curious. An enduring, and endearing, aspect of my personality, if I do say so myself. To that I end, this year I learned how to identify all the countries on a map, continued to teach myself Spanish through Duolingo and podcasts, and learned how to open a pin-and-tumbler lock.

In short… I think the year was best summed up this way:

It has taken me a long time to get here, and I still don’t believe it every day. But I’m the only me I’ve got, so I’d better learn.

(And hey, this got long, so let’s leave the “2019 prospective” part for later).

Why I love the Elder Scrolls games (part two of two)

And we’re back for part two! First part of the essay is here, where I talk about my history with the games, the open-world gameplay, and the alienness of the setting.

Today we’re going to start with discussing TES as…

A game that started with derivative beginnings, and became something unique

It’s almost a meme to look back at the first TES game, Arena, and say it’s “not really an Elder Scrolls game.” The series didn’t know what it was about at the time. And so it’s no surprise that it looks more like D&D than anything else at that level. You have attributes, skill points, dice rolls, percentage chances, and your typical fantasy monsters. Heck, at that point it was mostly Julian LeFay’s idea for a D&D setting.

Basically what I’m saying is: if there is a stereotypical D&D concept, you can probably look back at Arena and Daggerfall and find it there.

Everything changed with Morrowind. From what I understand, they pretty much had the whole game planned out, and then they threw away the design document. (Did you know it was originally supposed to take place on Summerset, and be about the high elves?) Some of the weirdest and wackiest lore of the series was born in this time period. Say what you will about Michael Kirkbride and his deuterocanonical writings post-employment at Bethesda — I think we have him to thank/blame for many of the things that make this series unique.

A good example is found in the elves of the Elder Scrolls world. At first glance, they look like your typical D&D elves — high elves, wood elves, dark elves. The similarities mostly end with the names, though. Many creative somebodies, over the history of this game series’ development, asked some interesting worldbuilding questions and expanded these races beyond the stereotypes.

What if instead of pacifist treehugger wood elves, you have wood elves who eat only meat — even fermenting alcohol out of it! — and will cannibalize the bodies of their defeated foes?

What if instead of subterranean dark elves who are uniformly evil, your dark elves had complex relationships with terrible gods, which led them on pilgrimage to a blasted volcanic wasteland? And then along the way they broke some oaths and now they have equally terrible living gods who are vying for control with the original terrible gods? All of which has made them protective of what little they have, loyal only to themselves, and distrustful of outsiders?

What if your high elves are as passionate about social rank and bloodlines as they are about magic and knowledge? What if they’re so isolationist that they created Artaeum, an island that can Brigadoon out of the world when deemed necessary? What if their high-handed ways bred the necromancer who’s responsible for many of the most terrible things in the TES world (Mannimarco)?

Another example is the daedra — those aforementioned “terrible gods” the Dunmer used to worship. You can sort of summarize them as “demons,” but more specifically they are immortal beings made of bluish goo, able to change and be destroyed and be recreated infinitely. Some of them can and do create worlds, but they are defined by not having taken part in the creation of the Mundus, the mortal world. Their princes are as cosmically indifferent as Lovecraftian elder gods, and have domains like goetic demons. At least one group of them (the dremora) have complex social structures that mere mortals cannot understand. Judeo-Christian creatures of malice they are not.

A world where history has a POV

It’s always interesting to talk about canon in this game. To quote The Elder Memes:

This philosophy is deeply embedded in the series. One could argue there is no “canon”; every bit of history or lore is told from a point of view. “Canon” is only as reliable as the person relating it.

A good example of this (to go back to my favorite murder elves again) is the question of what happened at the Battle of Red Mountain in the First Era, between the Dwemer (dwarves/deep elves), and the Chimer (the precursors of the Dunmer/dark elves). A lot of weird shit happened in roughly the same window of time, including the entire Dwemer race disappearing in a puff of logic, but for our purposes, most interesting was the suspicious death of Indoril Nerevar, the warleader of the Chimer.

According to the Tribunal — Nerevar’s supposed pals who “just happened” to become living gods after his death — he died from his battle wounds. According to another faction, he was murdered by the Tribunal. If you dissect the 36 Lessons of Vivec, you find that Vivec confesses to killing Nerevar there — but you can tell Vivec is lying because his mouth is moving. And that’s not even not even get into the accounts from Dagoth Ur or any outlanders–

Elder Scrolls lore raises more questions than it provides answers. Just like actual history.

From the Battle of Red Mountain UESP Page: In a 2005 interview, Douglas Goodall stated that during the development of Morrowind there was no “official” account of what happened at the Battle of Red Mountain. “When I was at Bethesda, there was officially no answer. No one knew what really happened. They may have made up their minds now, but you’d have to ask a current employee.”

In addition to the complex and nuanced stories this breeds, this philosophy basically eliminates retconning. And I hate retconning. If you’ve played through WoW lately, you know the Warcraft lore has been created and destroyed and recreated a million times over now. Leveling to max level, you had best be patient with the fact that you are jumping between different continuities. Personally, it keeps me from investing in the lore.

This happens much, much less frequently in TES. When some bit of lore needs to change for gameplay reasons, it can usually be passed off as “this was just one guy’s point of view; anyway, here’s a different one.” Occasionally it was “we didn’t know as much at the time; now we know better” (re: whether or not the Tribunal Temple allowed settlement in Vvardenfell in the 2nd Era) or “hey this guy became a god so he did what he wanted” (re: Cyrodiil being jungle) or, at the extreme, “dragon break!” (a timey-wimey event that very rarely happens in TES, usually involving dragons and/or those titular Elder Scrolls).

But they have never razed an entire body of lore and started afresh, and I appreciate that.

Meta-narrative possibilities

TES games are, fundamentally, stories about stories. I’m the sort of gal for whom every book is secretly about the struggles of writing, so of course I adore this.

I’ll start with a simple example: the Spinners, in the lore of the Bosmer (aforementioned metal AF wood elves), are storytellers whose stories literally have the power to change the world. The quests involving them in ESO are some of the best writing in the vanilla game.

In more recent content, the Summerset expansion provides us with more stories about stories, in the form of the Illumination Academy questline.

The Elder Scrolls that give the series its name are a handy bit of metanarrative, too — they are scrolls of prophecy, only readable by special priests who lose their sight with every scroll they read. The most tragic thing about these priests is that they know, with the foresight that the scrolls give them, when they read their last scroll; they know their vision is about to close forever.

But there’s a deeper sense of “meta-narrative” I want to get at — a sort of fourth-wall breaking, where the work comments on the work. And TES has this, too.

To go back to Summerset, it introduced a book called Sotha Sil and the Scribe. I dare you to read that and come up with an interpretation that isn’t metanarrative in some way. One interpretation I’m fond of sees the Scribe as Bethesda/ZOS, and the map of Nirn as representing the players of the game — showing how the developers hope to do well by the players.

Most intriguing is fact that Second Era Sotha Sil KNOWS the awful fate that awaits him at the end of the Third Era (spoiler warning at that link). He is cursed with the foresight of a god. Here, with a god’s benevolence he seems to be forgiving the Scribe what will come.

But let’s go back to that phrase I used, “the foresight of a god.” To become a god in the Elder Scrolls world is to know that you are a character in a video game, and to transcend that state.

Let me write that again:

To become a god in the Elder Scrolls world is to know that you are a character in a video game, and to transcend that state.

I mean, how often do you get to say something like that about your favorite video game series?

This? This is the whole concept of CHIM, and it’s some of the gnarliest, chewiest metanarrative lore that Michael Kirkbride came up with. Not all of it is accepted as “canon” — Kirkbride’s sorta created his own canon, with hookers and blackjack — but the core concept of CHIM is, and the question of who has achieved it and who has not is in debate. But unquestionably the characters in the series that have achieved CHIM have done some incredible things, outside the (meta)physics of the universe.

The consequent of this is that, you, the player, are a god. Whatever form that takes in-game — the Nerevarine, the Champion of Cyrodiil, the Last Dragonborn — you can break the laws of the universe and fix things that mere mortals can’t fix. Given this, heck, even the console commands are diegetic.

Looked at in this light, the main quest of ESO is especially interesting — you are the Vestige, shriven of your soul by the daedric prince Molag Bal. Throughout the quest, you can do all kinds of things that the NPCs can’t do, because you don’t have a soul — using wayshrines, resurrecting, and achieving certain quest objectives.

Your character is literally a soulless puppet piloted by a god.

Excuse me if I choose that over WoW, any day.

LGBTQ representation

Credit: johnnypebs on /r/elderscrollsonline

Okay, this is kind of an odd segue, but it didn’t fit anywhere else, and I didn’t want to end on YOU ARE A GOD.

TES — especially ESO — is amply populated with LGBTQ characters, going about their lives and doing normal stuff. There’s no indication that sexual or gender identity is a source of stigma in the world. They’re not there to be tragic, or to teach moral lessons. They are just there, where they belong.

Overall, it’s a beautiful example of “writers finally figured out that their fantasy world could have anything, so decided WHY NOT HAVE QUEER FOLKS??” And I love it.

Lady N has a whole big list of LGBTQ characters throughout the games, but there are lots in ESO that she missed. Just off the top of my head: Majoll, a Nord sailor pining for playboy Jakarn. Overseer Shiralas and her wife in Vivec City. The aforementioned merchants in Belkarth. And the whole House of Reveries questline in Summerset (in ways that are spoilery, so I won’t say more).


Thanks for coming to my TES talk!

If you got something out of this post, I’d love to hear from you! This took me a long time to write, and I did it to connect with all y’all in my TES fam. Comments are what basically makes it worth it <3 <3 <3

Why I love the Elder Scrolls games (part one of two)

“Lise, haven’t you made this post before?”

I don’t think I have, though you may be forgiven for thinking so! My love of The Elder Scrolls games is well-documented, and I’ve certainly posted a bunch about them, here and elsewhere. And I’ve gushed at length in person about the aspects of this game series that make it unique.

But have I ever tried to lay out, in plain text, why I really, truly love these games? I don’t think I have. I’m going to try to do that here.

(I have been writing this post for a long time. I think I have always been writing this post).

Alex Trebek was once an adventurer like you. Then… well, you know the rest.

A history of me and the Elder Scrolls

Way back in the summer of 2002, between my junior and senior years of college, I was living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Andover, MA, with my then-boyfriend-now-husband Matt. It was a weird time for me, now that I think of it — my first real time living with an S.O. In between doing temp work, I spent a lot of time playing old Gameboy games in emulation, posting on various yaoi discussion boards, and making my first cosplays. Truly, I was living the fangirl dream.

I was also watching Matt play a then-new game, Morrowind (or, as it is more properly styled: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. I was unaware of Elder Scrolls I and II, at the time). I remember being immediately fascinated by the alchemy system — I had never seen a game with anything like that. You find ingredients in the world, and then you combine them? And magic happens? And you can combine things even if you don’t know what they do, just to see what happens?

It felt like a complete redefinition of what a game was about, and I was down for it.

Soon I had my own copy of Morrowind installed on my PC, which went back to school with me. And, when things got particularly tough throughout that year — I was writing my thesis in cognitive science at the same time! — I would often retreat to my room, saying, “I’m going to play Morrowind until my eyes bleed.”

My first, and still most well-remembered Nerevarine was an Argonian, the lizard-people race. Matt assured me that their skill in alchemy would make up for the fact that, as a beast race, I couldn’t wear foot armor. For some reason I decided this Argonian wanted to join House Telvanni. Despite them seeing me as farm equipment, and despite not being very good at much besides alchemy, I persisted, and eventually got my sad little stronghold in the Molag Amur.

What was that game about for me? Well, I died to cliff racers, a lot. I explored Dwemer ruins, spiraling down into their extreme darkness, listening for the click-click-click of dwarven spider feet. I stole gems from daedric shrines and had the shit scared out of me by vengeful dremora. I visited reclusive Telvanni wizards and was surprised by their pet daedroths. I found books about fishy sticks. I poked lava with a spear. I sold many glass boots and Dwemer coins to Creeper. I went into battle wielding a lockpick more times than I can count. I created a pair of magic pants with 100pts of lockpicking (the Pants of Opening!) and used them to open every single chest in Divayth Fyr’s labyrinth.

Did I mention cliff racers?

Games before this were fun, but Morrowind had the unique ability to make me feel Ways about Things.

When TESIV: Oblivion came out in… 2006(?) I was deep in WoW obsession, so I didn’t play it nearly as much as I did Morrowind. I still have never quite made up for that: Oblivion remains my least played, and least loved game. That said, I’ve still put hundreds of hours into it; I just haven’t finished anything — not the main quest, nor any of the guilds, nor any of the expansions. (I have it on my list of goals to remedy that!)

When TESV: Skyrim came out in 2011, I was HYPED. I had been playing Oblivion and Morrowind in anticipation, and I rebuilt my PC just to handle it on its Ultra graphics settings. This is the first and only ES game I had in Steam, so I can say definitively that I have put ~400 hours into this game. I did actually finish the main quest and most of the guild storylines, if only because they’re so dang short.

Except the Dark Brotherhood. Because fuck you, Cicero, that’s why.

I’ve also spent more time modding this game than any other; if you counted my time staring at TESVEdit/Nexus Mods/the skyrimmods subreddit, I’m sure I’d top 1000 hours. It was the first game where I felt the potential to mold it into a game that was even more suitable to my weird and unique tastes 🙂

And of course, when The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) launched in spring 2014, I was ready! I already had a name and history for my first (and still my main) character before I even started — Falanu Dren, Dunmer templar, Hlaalu house-mer, veteran of the last Akaviri invasion, Vivec fangirl, Mephala worshipper, Morag Tong hanger-on.

Oh, and alchemist. Because this game has always been the alchemy simulator of my heart.

And here she is, visiting Ald’ruhn

I made a guild on not-quite-day-one, which remains populated with my real-life friends. I joined the UESP guild and had all kinds of wild adventures with them. I wrote fanfic about my character. I did veteran Dragonstar Arena and proudly sported the “Boethiah’s Scythe” title.

I played from release until 2016, and then quit for two years, mostly just because Matt quit playing. I’m back now, though, and regretting my long absence 🙁 Just one day of getting into those deep, emotionally-wrenching quests from the Summerset chapter and I was like WHY DID I EVER LEAVE YOU??

So that’s me! As you can see, I’ve been involved with this game series for a long time. And amazingly there’s still SO MUCH MORE to do and see.

But why does it have such a hold on me? Let me count the ways…

Open-world/”sandbox” gameplay

These days nearly every RPG touts their open-world gameplay, but this was not always a Thing. Keep in mind that at the time TESIII came out, I was mostly playing sim and 4X games like Dungeon Keeper II, Alpha Centauri, CivII, and Black & White. In those days, I associated “video game” and “RPG” with the classic Japanese RPG, along the lines of Dragon Quest series. These usually provided a fairly linear “your princess is in another castle!” storyline, going from one place to another and fighting random wandering monsters. For RPGs at the time, I preferred my pen-and-paper RPGs, like Dungeons & Dragons, where the only limits were the imaginations of the players and the GMs.

So TESIII? Was a big step forward to me! It wasn’t as infinite as a tabletop game, but it was wider and more expansive than any other RPG I had played to date. I started out following the main quest, but was surprised that the first quest NPC basically tells you, “yeah, kid, you’re still wet behind the ears; go out and get some more experience before we send you on a real mission.”

He also refused to put on a shirt.

Which I took to heart! I left no bandit hideout, daedric shrine, Dwemer ruin, or ancestral tomb unexplored. Did I mention I got lost? Because seriously, I got lost, a lot. Vvardenfell was small in terms of landmass, but I never felt its walls, since into that space were packed so many quests and random activities. (It also probably helped that it’s an island).

(And if you got bored with all the content in the game? Well, starting with TESIII, the developer tools have been open to anyone with a copy of that game, in the form of the Creation Kit. There’s a huge, thriving mod community for this series, even for the older titles like Morrowind).

There are many criticisms you could level against the gameplay of the TES series, and in particular against the simplification of the game systems over the years. But I will say this: Bethesda, and now ZOS, have stayed incredibly on-brand with this aspect of the gameplay. Even in vanilla Skyrim, your freedom is immense — to chase butterflies, mill grain, cook apple-cabbage stew, and do just about anything BESIDES be the Last Dragonborn. And ESO arguably hit its stride with One Tamriel — when it transitioned from a traditional MMO “theme park” model to an open world that levels with you.

I’ve certainly heard the joke that “sandbox game = no real content”, but I’ve never found this to be the case with the ES games. On the contrary, it’s always felt like there was more than I could possibly do. Some people may find that stressful, but I’ve always found that sense — of a world stretching beyond the bounds of the story — to be tremendously freeing.

A world that extends beyond the screen

When I was at Viable Paradise — the writing workshop I attended in 2013 — Jim MacDonald gave an enigmatic talk, which involved all of us looking at a dollhouse. “The reader can’t see in the windows,” he said (and I’m sure I am vastly paraphrasing here). “But, you, the writer, need to know what’s on the table in that kitchen. You need to know how many people live there. You need to know what’s in the basement.”

This is what I’m talking about when I say that the Elder Scrolls world extends beyond the screen. At its core, this is a world filled with history — lore — which may or may not ultimately be relevant to what you do in the game. Tamriel will grind on, regardless of if you understand why you need to save the world from Alduin. If you heed the signs around you, though, they will lend depth to your experience.

Mostly this is in the form of diegetic texts. I’ve spoken to people for whom Skyrim was their first TES game, surprised by the number of lore books in the game. Indeed, a quick look at the Imperial Library or UESP’s Library section will reveal hundreds, if not thousands of such tomes — fiction and non-fiction, history, metaphysics, plays, morality tales, bawdy songs. (And we’re not even getting into letters or diaries…)

In streaming, I quickly gave up on reading every bit of text I came across, as I’d spend more time narrating than I would playing the game. And while none of the lore books are full-length books, true — they’re more like the Cliff Notes’ version of a book — they flesh out the background of the world.

And that world? Is…

A truly alien world

One of the things that drew me into Morrowind — and why it remains my favorite game in the series — is the alienness of the setting. Most fantasy games at the time were pretty western European and whitebread. Suddenly I was thrown into this world of giant mushrooms, looming volcanos, ash storms, flea-based transportation, and land jellyfish.

Of living deities sustained by the discarded heart of a dead god.

Of a culture that clearly took inspiration from many real world civilizations, but rested solidly on none of them.

I’d be lying if I said the the subsequent games haven’t been somewhat disappointing in that regard. Oblivion gave us Cyrodiil, home of the Imperials, who can often be glossed over as “fantasy Romans.” Skyrim gave us the home of the Nords, our “fantasy Vikings” of the setting. If the speculation is correct, and TESVI gives us High Rock, home of “fantasy French people,” I’m going to be somewhat disappointed.

(I mean, don’t get me wrong; I sure do like fantasy France. But considering our other cultural options are things like “lizard people who live in a poisonous swamp and have a symbiotic relationship with sentient, godlike trees” or “the most metal cannibalistic hippy elves you’ve ever seen”… “fantasy French people” seems a little boring).

But even in the more recent games, it’s been interesting to explore the nooks and crannies — the places where these cultures deviated from expectations. Under the bland “fantasy Romans” cover of Oblivion lies the story of how the races of men were originally subjugated by the Ayleids — elves who were cruel and beautiful and awful, who left behind gorgeous citadels — and how they won their freedom, with some divine help. How the Divines are worshipped publicly, but the Imperial City is “the city of a thousand cults”, and many people are (not-so) secret daedra worshippers.

Like Falanu Hlaalu, my namesake.

As for Skyrim, it may seem snowy-bland on the surface, but then it has the Dwemer ruins I so missed in Oblivion. And beneath that, there’s Blackreach, a nearly-lightless world of fallen architecture and phosphorescent mushrooms and terrifying creatures that stretches for miiiiles.

One thing I’ve really valued about ESO is how it’s expanded the palette for the ES games, as it covers most of the landmass of Tamriel. You don’t get to see much of Elsweyr or Black Marsh, true, but if you play through the Aldmeri Dominion quests, you see a LOT of Valenwood, and learn way more about the Bosmer — the aforementioned metal AF wood elves — than we ever have before. I also really valued getting to see parts of the Morrowind mainland that I hadn’t before — Stonefalls, for example — and seeing Hammerfell and the Alik’r desert.

And that? Is where I shall leave you for today! Next time we’ll tackle both TES’ derivative origins and the way it has grown beyond them; we’ll also discuss some METANARRATIVE WEIIIIIIIRDNESS (and why I love it).

In the meantime, if you want to let me know your own history with the TES games, I’d love to hear it in the comments!

Weekly Update, Thursday, September 6th, 2018

Health stuff

… is on my mind a lot today.

First, the good. I had my six month followup with the hand surgeon who did my cubital tunnel release surgery. I was happy to report to that my left hand is mostly back to 100%. The strength in my fingers seems normal again, though I do occasionally get a bit of tingling in the fingertips. She seemed really pleased (I wonder if she was surprised it actually worked!) She’s such a lovely doctor; I’m a bit sad I likely won’t see her again! On the other hand, “no followup appointment is needed” is the nicest phrase in the English language.

I also heard that phrase from the orthopedist this week, although I am still doing PT, and slowly — ever so slowly — getting back to running.

The bad: I have been having weird, nebulous intestinal symptoms lately. Mostly a lot of bloating and fullness right below my belly button, with occasional cramps. It comes and goes in severity, which is why I’m doubting my own assessment of this discomfort. Further adding to the confusion, a friend of mine recently had symptoms like this and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, soooo, I’m not sure if this is my usual hypochondriac shuffle.

But seriously, my diet hasn’t changed all that much; not sure what’s going on here. I should probably see a doctor. But… I already feel like my entire life is doctor’s appointments. Physical therapy appointments and therapy-therapy appointments. Until recently, hand surgeon and orthopedist appointments. Followups every three months for the statins I take. Annual physical. Eye appointment this Friday. An annual visit with a cardiologist (to manage my hereditary risk) and a pulmonologist (for my sleep apnea).

I’m so bloody sick of this, and so spending even more time and money going down an avenue that will likely lead nowhere conclusive? Is a choice I am avoiding making.

Okay, on to more fun stuff, mostly connected to…

Games and streaming

I have a webcam now! While you now can benefit from my ridiculous facial expressions, this has raised its own technical challenges. First was figuring out that I needed to turn off its mic so that you didn’t get Lise in Poor Stereo. Oops. Now I’m having issues with the FPS on the webcam; seems to be an issue somewhere between the camera and OBS, so I need to investigate that. (Thanks to Marc for troubleshooting help!)

That’s a plush netch on my head. I’ve named it Captain Netchy. It amuses me, if no one else.

I did an extra-long ESO stream on Monday/Labor Day, which was a lot of fun. I was playing Br’ihnassi, my Khajiit stamina nightblade, and doing various larcenous activities, i.e. heists and sacraments, finishing off the A Cutpurse Above achievement, etc. I do worry that some people shied away because of spoilers (I was trying to finish the Dark Brotherhood questline, among other things), but I had good chats with Marc and Beth T and Pickle nonetheless. Sometimes I get disappointed if only my IRL friends come to the stream, but I also have to remember they are precisely why I started streaming in the first place!

On Saturday, I ran a vet dungeon with my ESO “friends-and-family guild” guildies! We dragged Scott and and Matt M through vet Wayrest Sewers II, and even got them the hard mode completion. This is no longer challenging content for me, but I love helping others through it. I still have fond memories of the UESP folks showing me the ropes on vet City of Ash II, so I like to pay it forward. If this trend keeps up, I may need to start my own dungeon help night for the Order of the Golden Path.

Speaking of which, I am healing my way through the veteran DLC dungeons of ESO, and I’ve now completed everything but the two new Wolfhunter dungeons on vet. I’ve found vet Falkreath Hold to be the hardest — I can’t even tell you how many times we died to Domihaus. The Menagerie in vet Fang Lair also gave us a run for our money, and there was a reason we did the /kissthis emote over the body of Zaan, in vet Scalecaller. Vet Mazzatun and Cradle of Shadows were mostly just long and annoying. Still no hardmodes for anything but the Imperial City dungeons.

We’ve also been experimenting with doing dungeons in first-person mode, for an extra challenge. Sometimes it leads to surprisingly good screenshots!

Oh, and hey, my Thursday night unexpectedly cleared up, so it looks like I’ll be streaming ESO tonight at 9pm Eastern — more time with the majestic wizard lizard, who is totally not Garak from DS9. (He may be a tailor, but he’s definitely lawful good).

In WoW news, I have finally admitted that yes, I am going to — attempt to — balance heroic raiding in WoW with other games.

Thus I got Silbuns, my warlock, to 120 over the long weekend. After reviewing all three specs leveling from 110 to 120, I decided to go with Destruction spec, because I really do not like what they did with Affliction — it just doesn’t feel right to me any more. (I enjoyed Demonology a lot, but it felt very underpowered compared to the other two). And while I may die of boredom casting Immolate on everything, Destro is at least an easy rotation.

Our guild went on our first trip to Uldir, the new raid, last night. It was a huuuuuuge turnout, maybe a full mythic raid size. I was irrationally annoyed that on top of the core group, there are the folks who didn’t raid for most of the last expansion. I know they have every right to be there, but I can’t help but remember who was and was not there for the 100+ wipes on heroic KJ.

Anyway, grumpiness aside, it went okay. We definitely did not have enough healers — three for a group of 20-25 — making me further feel guilty for not leveling my shaman. But nonetheless we cleared Taloc, MOTHER, and Fetid Devourer.

My dps… was shite. Considering I was still wearing some quest greens, a few heroic blues, and a Darkmoon Squalls deck, this is unsurprising. It’s hard to commit to making it better while simultaneously considering quitting the game, too.

It doesn’t help that the first round of dps numbers from heroic Uldir show that… yep, Destro is still underperforming. *sigh* Maybe I will switch back to Afflic, Shadow Bolt and all.

If I do keep playing, I need to do something to standardize my keybinds across the two games. I would like to stop mounting/dismounting when I mean to hit push-to-talk…

Oh, and I’m still working my way through Graveyard Keeper, that indie sandbox game where you not only garden, cook, build stuff, and fish, but also dissect bodies and help the Inquisitor with fliers for his witch-burning. I’ve discovered that the alchemy system is not just two dimensional, but THREE dimensional. This may be the game that gets to me learn pivot tables in Excel.


Larp season is beginning! Thankfully it’s a pretty light one for me. I have Shadowvale this upcoming weekend, and Mad3 at the end of the month. Feel some anticipatory anxiety towards SV, but hoping that works itself out.

Lise lives! Or: weekly update, Tuesday, August 28th, 2018

I went on vacation the first two weeks in August, and somehow I’m just now getting back to my blog. *taptap* Is this thing still on?

I think moving forward I’m not going to do the “accomplishments” format in my weekly updates, because it’s putting too much focus on “doing shit as a measure of self-worth.” And I’m finally learning how dangerous that thinking is, and beginning to accept that I have value regardless of what I do in the world.

But I do like keeping you updated on fun stuff I’ve been up to! Without that, all the weeks sorta start to look the same.

So here is some fun stuff I’ve been doing!


I went honest-to-god camping the first few days of August, at Ausable Point Campground in Peru, NY, a.k.a. the town I grew up in. In fact, it’s the same campground where my family went camping every summer when I was between the ages of (approximately) 11-16.

Unsurprisingly, it has changed a lot in over twenty years! I’m pretty sure the campsite numbering pattern is different, they took out the annoying speed bumps, and there’s waaaaay more driftwood at the beach than I recall. But the clean, cool water of Lake Champlain and the wide, straight banks of the Ausable River are mostly unchanged.

I read, swam, took lots of walks, worked on my embroidery, went boating with my dad, and even kept up with my PT exercises.

A variety of loosestrife I saw at the campsite: probably Lysimachia ciliata, or fringed loosestrife.

Stratford Festival

The next week I spent in Stratford, Ontario at the theater festival there, helping out my mom. I saw six different amazing plays, but I think I most enjoyed their production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a “geopathological” family drama set in 1912, deeply biographical to O’Neill’s life.

We also took a day trip out to the Blyth Festival — a smaller theater festival, around an hour away — and saw Judith: Memories of a Lady Pig Farmer and ate at the epicly huge Cowbell Brewing Co. which is apparently the only closed-loop, carbon neutral brewery in North America.

Games and Streaming

The new WoW expansion, Battle for Azeroth, came out two weeks ago, and I am attempting to level a character to the new cap of 120. (One bubble away from 119, as of last night). There have been some good additions to the game (for one thing, I’m glad to never play the “hunt through your bags for AP tokens” ever again), but on the whole I’m really not feeling the new content. It feels especially juvenile compared to the nuanced ESO Summerset quests I’ve just played through. Also not thrilled that they took Drain Soul away from Affliction warlocks, even if we did get Shadow Bolt in return.

On the same day as BfA came out, the newest ESO DLC, Wolfhunter, also launched. I’ve played through the two new dungeons on normal, and they’re difficult, but a lot of fun. March of Sacrifices is probably my favorite; I really feel for Hanu and her father, even if they’re heretic Ashlanders 😉 Also the use of sneak mechanics in the indrik fights is pretty neat, too.

Before I left on vacation I was playing some No Man’s Sky. I helped a guy, was given command of a freighter, and then promptly stopped playing. Beautiful game, though, and for the most part pretty chill.

I also recently got interested in an indie game, Graveyard Keeper, after my college friend Marc started streaming it. If you ever thought Stardew Valley didn’t have enough autopsies in it, this may be the game for you!

I continue to stream and have a ton of fun doing it. I’m learning a lot about branding, communication, and relating to people, too, in a way that feels relatively low-stakes for an introvert like me. I finally ordered a webcam, too, so I hope that will allow me to better connect with folks. Fundamentally I just really love educating and entertaining people about the Elder Scrolls series!

The big dilemma I’m having is that I want to put more time into streaming — longer streams, different types of content — but that has to come from somewhere else in my life. And I’m eyeing that six hours a week that I am scheduled to be raiding in WoW, and feeling like maybe that’s where I want to cut.

But there’s an opportunity cost there. If I decide not to raid, it means spending less time with the cool people in my WoW guild (my RL friends as well as the rest of the raid team), as well as my own damn husband. So that’s a tough row to hoe.

Anyway, if you do see me go live, and you want to support this new hobby of mine, there’s one very helpful thing you can do: open up the link. Even if you can’t watch at that time; even if you have no interest in the content; even if you mute your browser tab. Just having more people there provides social proof to others, which is helpful to me in terms of growth.


Isn’t so much happening right now. I will probably get back to it at some point, but right now it brings up lot of negative feelings. Also when I am deep in my writing, I tend to start feeling like my life has no value if I don’t write, which is not a helpful place for me to be mentally, either.

I finally got a rejection from Galaxy’s Edge for Granny Hubbard — after 120+ days and being lost in two separate limbos, I got a form R. Wheee.

Lioness is still in pieces on the shop floor, so to speak. I wish I could finish this draft, but every time I sit down to work on edits, I’m filled with anxiety and guilt. And this isn’t my job, so fuck those gross feelings.


I’m currently reading the first book in Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series, Daggerspell, and I gotta say… a) it’s very 1980s, b) it’s a slog. It just isn’t compelling to me. Having to continually remember who each character is the reincarnation of is more of a mental load than I really want, as is the unnecessary use of fantasy words for perfectly normal concepts like “hill” and “castle”. I have the next few novels, so I’ll probably read those, but god, I hope this improves. I know some of my friends love them, so I’m willing to be a bit more patient.

On vacation I also finished reading an older self help book, Self-Esteem, which is where a lot of my newfound ideas about self-worth are coming from.


I went to the wedding of Holly and Tom this past weekend! It was of the sweetest, most nerdy weddings I’ve been to — their ceremony made me cry!

I went to see the RiffTrax Live of the classic 1980s movie Krull this past week. I had never seen it before, but, uh, wow, that sure was something. I felt like I can’t even really call it a “a bad cookie cutter fantasy of the 1980s,” because while it’s clearly trying to ride the cash train of Willow, The Princess Bride, etc, it’s still innovative in some interesting ways.

Ways that mostly don’t work, alas.



Physical therapy for my right foot continues. My dorsiflexion is still not-so-great, but today my PT told me I could try running again at a low intensity. She seems to think some of the problem is in my stride, and I put more weight on outer edge of my foot than on the big toe. Those of you who are familiar with the RiffTrax of Birdemic, I am in fact getting walking lessons 😉 Hopefully I’ll be better at it than Rod by the time I’m done…

“Where’s that shop that sells instructions on how to walk like a human?”

I do not like this meat car and would like to upgrade to the newer model, but it’s still not out yet…


In the MASSIVE AMOUNT OF RAIN we’ve had lately, we discovered that our skylights are leaking more than ever, and that it was time to get them replaced.

And then we learned the roof also needs replacing.

Sooo… that’s a big chunk of change. Not as big as I was fearing, but still something like $12k for a roof and four new skylights.

We can pay this out of savings, but it will wipe us out in terms of doing bathroom renos this year, so what we are doing instead is refinancing our house. As we apparently both have — no lie — perfect credit, we were able to get a very nice 15-year fixed mortgage, with $12k cash back to cover the roof/window repairs.

Also at some point I need to finish painting the guest bedroom. There’s just so much taping and cutting in to do in that tiny room with a slanted ceiling.

Weekly Update, 7/16/2018 to 7/22/2018

Brief Update

Mental health update: feeling pretty good lately. It turns out a good therapist is a literal lifesaver. Much love to mine!

I got out to the lake this weekend in this scorching heat, which was sooooo welcome. We also finally dug the remains of the old garden gate out of the front yard. (We left the cement bases in the ground, because there was no way we were getting those out without heavy equipment).

I’m still having a blast streaming ESO, bringing my passion for the Elder Scrolls games to a wider audience. I wish I could do this full-time! But I adore my guildies, the community, and the lore of these games, and I’ll likely continue to do this as a hobby for the foreseeable future. Need to see about making some tech enhancements to my stream in the near future, though…

(P.S. If you want to keep up with my ES and general video game shenanigans, you can find me at LisePlays on Twitch, or on Twitter).

Did a little writing-related stuff this week, finally getting back to submitting short stories and editing Lioness. It feels like ripping off a bandaid, that first time sitting down in front of Scrivener after a while, but I’m making slow progress. Once I accepted that this MS wasn’t going to be ready for Pitch Wars (and that that’s okay, I don’t really need it, etc), I felt a lot better about the whole project.

Finished reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which was a quiet but intense book. Definitely Peak Gaiman!


– Submitted a story to Diabolical Plots (can’t say which due to anonymity)
– Sent “Pinions” to a beta reader
– Did ~1h of editing on Lioness

– Finished The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Other Media
– Listened to Twitch Talks #10
– Listened to Stream Coach, “Top 3 Consistency Tips” and “Consistency on Twitch with Cahlaflour”
– Listened to Sword & Scale #117

– Had therapy appointment
– Did PT exercises x 6
– Went swimming at the lake

– Had a session of my D&D game
– Streamed two hours of ESO questing on Scars-like-Lightning
– Streamed 1.5h of Fishing Lore
– Finally bought a proper house in ESO (Amaya Lake Lodge) and started decorating it
– Did bunches of normal dungeons with Anyael in ESO
– Did vet Ruins of Mazzatun, Crypt of Hearts I, and Imperial City Prison with Falanu
– Did normal Hel Ra Citadel and 2 x Cloudrest with Falanu and Anyael

– Helped Matt remove old garden gate from the yard
– Met with landscaper/lawn guy
– Did two loads of laundry
– Tested out tent for camping trip

Picture of the Week

For some reason I don’t entirely understand, I still have this lovingly-copied copyright protection device from Monkey Island 2 hanging around my house. It’s not exactly necessary these days, since I can simply play the iOS port of it. Still haven’t ever figured out the spitting contest…

Weekly Update, 7/9/2018 to 7/15/2018

Brief Update

I went to Readercon this week, convinced that writing was too hard and I didn’t want to do it any more. I’m happy to report that my mind has been changed.

For my friends, who allowed me to talk about my difficulties, saw me as I was, and accepted that, thank you. Special thanks to:

  • Melissa Caruso, who painted me as someone who is determined enough to make a story work, no matter how hard it may be. Her description made me want to live up to that standard!
  • Victoria Sandbrook, who was so enthusiastic about my work, asking me to send her anything that might need beta reading.
  • My Readercon roomie Beth T, who said, “I will be very disappointed if you stop writing, you silly goose.”

For Rose Fox’s talk on “A Compassionate Approach to Writer’s Block,” which explored new ways of looking at writing — also, thank you. Some of these ideas had been percolating in the back of my head, but their talk gave me the permission I wanted to step through that door. They reminded me that writing should be fun, and if it isn’t fun, I don’t have to do it.

Other people helped, too! I spent a large portion of this con having great conversations at the bar with people who cared deeply about stuff, and I feel like that made me feel more like a part of the world than a machine for producing stuff.

  • Talking to Steen about his passion for Global Frequency made me remember my own passion for meta-narratives.
  • The (Hugo nominated!) Suzanne Palmer remains the kindest person ever, who gave up a book she had found on the free table because I expressed interest in it. I am in awe of her positive attitude about the shit she’s gone through to get to where she is now.
  • It was great to see VP17er Paul S. again and talk to him about his newfound interest in reading long-form political commentary, and what he gets out of that.
  • I also really enjoyed getting to meet his girlfriend Molly, who can talk about Edith Wharton, Twin Peaks, and her awesome Diablo tattoo with equal aplomb.
  • I feel like I barely saw Kevin R/Kellan S at all, but I enjoyed talking to him about the housing situation in San Francisco and how it compares to Boston.
  • Arkady Martine helped me learn slightly more than the zero I already knew about city planning.

Of course I saw many people who I’m not mentioning here, but let me just say: you are all awesome, and I see you, in your joys and your frustrations. You are all part of me.

Also on Friday morning I woke up to an email with the ominous subject line “GRANNY.” I had a moment of fear that it was about my surviving grandmother, but then I realized that it was from the slush reader at Galaxy’s Edge, and that she was sending my story, “Granny Hubbard vs. the Giant Slime,” up to Mike Resnick. So, that was a great thing to start the weekend with. Nothing may come of it, of course, but it helped to cement the “yes, you are a writer” feeling.


Other Media
– Listened to Loreseekers #18
– Listened to The Art of Charm #711
– Listened to Stream Coach, “Your Chat is Boring”, “Dominate Your Day”, “The Best Green Screen”, “How to Promote Your Stream”
– Listened to Stuff to Blow Your Mind, “Black Holes, Part 1: Phantom”

– Did normal Hel Ra Citadel, Halls of Fabrication, and Asylum Sanctorium on Falanu with the UESP guild
– Did normal Volenfell and White Gold Tower with Anyael
– Streamed ~30m of questing on Scars-like-Lightning

– Attended Readercon
– Met Jess M. for dessert/drinks/Thurs of Readercon

– Had my first PT appointment
– Had a hair appointment
– Did my PT exercises x 6
– Scheduled annual eye appointment

Weekly Update, 7/2/2018 to 7/8/2018

Brief Update

Not much to report this week. The July 4th holiday falling right in the middle of the week was weird. I attempted to do a new feature on my ESO stream, “Fishing Lore”, where I read lore books while I fish. But it got very little attention, and was hard on my voice, so I had to quit after an hour. I have even greater respect for audiobook narrators now!

Over the weekend I played in Thicker than Water, a new(ish) larp by Alison and Kristen P. I played Irene Curie, who was way more interested in snogging boys than she was in winning the Nobel Prize for her synthetic blood substitute, but I managed to acquit myself rather well while looking like Clara Bow, so that was pretty neat.

I am struggling with having a lot of guilt about not writing lately, while also trying to live the conviction that I should not have to be productive to have value as a human being. I’m still working on how to reconcile those things. The best solution I’ve come up with is to allow the soft animal of my body to love what it loves, while also gently remind myself that sticking with routines and habits will make me happier in the long run. Very good advice, if I can follow it.


Other Media
– Listened to Classic Elder Scrolls #78
– Listened to Twitch Talks episodes #1-2
– Listened to The Art of Charm, episodes 709-710
– Listened to By the Book, “Presence”

– Had one session of my D&D 5E game
– Did an hour of Fishing Lore, my fishing plus Elder Scrolls lore stream
– Did normal Cloudrest (twice) and normal Cloudrest +1 with the UESP guild
– Streamed UESP dungeon help night (random normal dungeon finder dungeons, which gave us Fungal Grotto II, Crypt of Hearts I, and Blessed Crucible)
– Streamed ~1h of Clockwork City gameplay with Falanu
– Did the AD-side Imperial City sewers run hosted by UESP

– Played in Thicker than Water at Summer Larpin’

– Had a therapy appointment
– Had an endocrinologist appointment
– Brought my lunch to work x 1

– Washed the bed sheets