Dress Rehearsal: Making Christmas

Kage Baker loved doing the Dickens Christmas Fair. It was her perfect Christmas, and it went on for 5 weekends, one of them a 3-day: 11 glorious, over-the-top days of Victorian Christmas, in all its tinselled, ornamented, be-hollied and stained glass glory. She coined the phrase “Extreme Christmas” to describe the madness, and it now seems to have permeated every level of the Dickens Fair community.

I’ve even seen it used in official announcements from the Front Office. But then, even the highest level staff of Dickens Fair gets out there with hammers and screw guns and corsets and top hats, to put it all together. It takes several weeks of manic building and decorating on the part of its various crews, vendors and performers to reach the peak of perfection that is Extreme Christmas. The guy who handles plumbing may be selling hot chestnuts later in the run; the gentleman who installed the 10-foot-long sign, 8 feet in the air over my front door, may be seen swilling champagne in flawless evening dress when we’re open.

Everybody does at least 2 jobs. Some vendors who sell hamburgers and Coke to the participants during Rehearsals will later be dispensing elegant chocolates, delicate tea and cakes, exotic foods and drink from every corner of the British Empire. (And there won’t be a burger or a soft drink to be found.) Some performers cart their stages to the Cow Palace from backyards and storage lockers, and build them over 3 insane weekends.

My group, the staff and tenants of the Green Man Inn, are among those who build their own set. My extraordinary cast has been working on it for two weeks – this was the first time I’ve made it up to “help”. Mostly what I did this weekend was sit and point, making decisions on what went where on the walls. I could do that because my folks had assembled the shell of the Inn already – they constructed its walls and put them together like an immense jigsaw puzzle. They painted it all a-fresh, and fetched in all the massive furniture, plumbing, and boxes full of glasses, tableware, silver, linens, carpets, lace drapes, green garland and red ribbons and palms in brass pots and freaking  peacock feathers needed to transform what is basically a large green cracker box into a Victorian Parlour with a discreet bar on one end.

There are three layers of decoration just on the tops of the walls! Green garlands studded with big red-and-gold bows run along the tops – then the crown molding goes up, ditto – and then the patterned wall paper strip runs below them. Above … well, it’s thin air to the rafters of the Cow Palace to the uninitiated, but actually there are 6 more floors of assorted rooms for rent, where dwell the Pickwick Club, various musical groups, and God alone knows who else. God and Neassa, that is, Neassa being the one who sat down and figured out who-all was up there … through these layers of imagination descends the glowing chandelier that illuminates the Main Table in front of the Bar.

My nephew Mike and semi-nephew Patrick laid down and fastened in place the Turkey rugs that make the asphalt floor livable; everyone carried and set the tables, settees, chairs, fainting couches and wooden stools and wooden chests that make this reformed cattle shed into a warm and welcoming Public House. That’s why and how I get to sit comfortably in a straight-backed chair and point -put  this couch here, move that chaise lounge there, hide the extra folding chairs for Mr. Dickens’ audiences behind the draperies that frame one elegant nook.

The Head Parlour Maid is a decorating fiend – our walls are packed with portraits, mirrors and bric-a-brack; all festooned with peacock feathers where they will accent the frames and lamps to best advantage. We are perfectly overdone, and I suspect my Parlour Maid spends the rest of the year mugging birds … a perpetual fire is laid, crackling and glowing, in the Parlour, with a hearth rug before it and a basket of toys for wandering children waiting under a Christmas Tree made of white goose feathers.

It’s amazing, Dear Readers. It’s Christmas as it existed in Kage Baker’s mind, resurrected and built anew by folks who actually knew her. No wonder they’re a little peculiar.  No wonder she got headaches.

Anyway, Dear Readers, there have I been for the past 3 days. I came home well after sunset each night and managed to have a  civil dinner with my generous hosts, the semi-divine Skolds, before falling into bed. Yesterday Mike and I set off before the frost was quite off the Cruiser (it gets cold in Santa Rosa) and drove down I-5 back to a grey, mild Los Angeles. Kimberly made sure we had all our luggage and most of our wits, fed us and more or less poured us back into bed. I’m exhausted and exalted, too, by the beautiful miracle performed in the Cow Palace this past weekend – I have two more days to get ready for the next one, and Opening Day!

Extreme Christmas is coming.


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Kage Baker admired the idea of Royal Progresses.

In her years of researching history and working at Elizabethan re-creation events, a lot of history got tagged as connected to a sovereign’s travels through their realm. History resulted from activities on a Progress,ranging from royal deaths and tantrums to bankrupting unhappy noble hosts. It could cause Progresses when a Monarch needed show off his army to the commons – or, more likely, the gentry who were getting ideas above their station; or when, already being worried about some nobleman who was collecting infantrymen at a suspicious rate, the ruler chose two distract them by giving them something better to spend their money on.

That was Elizabeth I’s usual plan of  suppression when her nobles got antsy. She’d progress around England with most of her court attached, stopping at various people’s country houses with whole show. It was an enormous honour to host the Queen of England on her summer Progress. It also cost an enormous amount of money in preparation, execution and cleanup after the royal mob – and Elizabeth expected rather more than bed and breakfast.

Strawberry parties in the garden were all very well, but you’d better make sure the bowls of berries were served by mythical creatures or all 9 Muses chanting hymns of praise to the Queen.Hunts (with guaranteed animals) were arranged; souvenirs often included trifles like 12 matched horses or a fireworks spectacular; special guest artists and special effects were de rigeur. After one of her visits, most noble houses took years to become dangerously wealthy again.

It was an ingenious method of controlling the elite and their power grabs. Kage admired it.

Not all Progresses were like Elizabeth I’s, of course. There were – and still are – the tours demanded of stage shows, musical artists and successful authors; those are working trips, with the members of the Progress out to shake their moneymakers and be noticed. Most of the people on the modern Progress are working very hard to make money for someone else – someone who, if all goes well, will then trickle down profits to pay the staff for their work.

I have just begun such a Progress. The annual migration to and from Dickens Fair started for me today; I’m a fortnight behind my entire group and the rest of the cast, due to battling with my liver and lights and weird bacteria. But I have my feet on the road at last! Today I took my first journey up the I5, Road of Weirdness, my parrot and my nephew at my side, to the Northern Climes where Extreme Christmas is now being built.

It was a good trip. We only got lost once, and that can be blamed on the early fall of night this season, and the habit of the Northern Lands to designate highways by at least 3 names – state highway number, county road number, personal name. We found our way out of that pretty well. I5 was mild and not too peculiar. Nothing fell off the car or onto us.

So this years Progress is progressing. There are even a few Queens that will ultimately be involved, so I have to get my Parlour finished and properly decorated to receive them. The Queen of Hearts wanders in from time to time, so the Bar has to be up and running. There’s probably at least one Snow Queen running around. And Queen Victoria herself stops by most afternoons, and every visit has to be properly welcomed with utter surprise and delight – as we spontaneously move the furniture around and lay out the good teapot to welcome her.

And now, Dear Readers, I’m exhausted and I have to get up early tomorrow to get to the Cow Palace. Along the way, the ever-amazing Neassa will employ her nephew and mine (strong young men both) to move some of the tables and chairs that have yet to delivered. We’ll have to send someone out for palm trees. And clear gaffers tape to hold down the rugs. And I can hardly wait to find out why the lads built a window into the usually-solid wall between the Bar and Kitchen – I mean, I have my suspicions, but I’d like to know if they’re trading beer to the Kitchen for cookies or something …

Needing what remains of my wits for the morrow, I am therefore toddling off to bed. Harry and Mike went long ago; Neassa and I are just sitting here gassing while I work on this blog and she attaches ears to a knitted mouse.

Strange things happen on Progress.  We shall see what tomorrow will bring.


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Doing It By the Numbers

Kage Baker was always looking for subtext. Or meta text; the structure attached to, but outside the boundaries of, the story now in progress. She said it was frequently the most interesting part of the plot. It was also the hardest part to weave into the main plot while you were writing – but it was vital to do so, as smoothly and invisibly as possible.

When Kage plotted out a story, the first thing she noted were the plots, plural. As a formula, she tried for 3 strands of plot, at a minimum – whatever the main thrust of the story was, and then two more for balance. Those were the subplots, the side plots, the metaplots; often, they were things that she discovered while researching Plot Line No. 1 and just had to include for sheer fun’s sake. The sparkly bits, she called them; weird facts or even outright lies associated with her main plot device.

Sometimes, they had nothing to do with the main story at all, but she found them too fascinating to ignore. That always changed the thrust of a story, of course, and most often it enriched and expanded it. Usually, Kage did it quite deliberately. Notes for every story began with a list: Plot 1, the Tunguska Explosion. Plot 2, which Operative was in the field when it happened, and  was badly/romantically/comedically inconvenienced on the ground? Plot 3, the notorious mosquitoes of the Siberian Summer are breeding a new kind of hive insect …  or the Tunguska Object was a failed space vessel launched by the Almas … or the Old Ones are actually interred beneath the Siberian permafrost.

Sometimes a sparkly bit would take over, and she’d end up writing an entirely different story altogether. “Standing In His Light” went that way, Vermeer becoming the main plot when she discovered he probably used a camera obscura. And after she looked up the story of the tulip bubble, and the second tulip bubble, and then the hyacinth bubble – well, then she added the plot line of the infant Latif accidentally destroying the black market theobromos economy. And all she’d had for an initial inspiration was a a friend of ours (a tall, lean, frighteningly brilliant young man) dressed in Landesknecht clothes …

Searches always yielded gold. Not always the gold Kage wanted, but who’s going to complain that you were looking for a golden dinner plate, and got a golden flat iron instead? It’s all gold, and you just adjust the shelves to handle what you found. It was one of the reasons Kage went on Internet searches as pure recreation – she never knew what would leap up and strike a pose, crying:  “Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss!”*

Sometimes nothing suggested itself while researching Plots 1 and 2. Then she’d hit the home archives, the boxes and albums and repurposed Amazon boxes full of scraps of Weird News. People sent the weird clippings to her; most of you, Dear Readers, are still sending them to me. And I keep them all for reference, even as Kage taught me. When you need a little something peculiar to spice up a story line, these tidbits can be invaluable. And if it takes some effort to gently bend and banzai the plot – if at first the connection between the prim, icy Facilitator Victor the Virus and Popeye the Sailor Man is not clear – well, that’s why they call it creative writing, isn’t it?

There were even times when, eager to write but devoid of ideas, Kage would mix up a bowl of these Archives of Nuttiness and throw them like prophetic knuckle bones. The first 3 she gathered up were the facets of the plot, and she had to use all three. Those were the rules … in the last years of her life, ALL the short fiction she wrote was to order. Most was for themed anthologies, and she never had any trouble at all delivering on the theme. She had trained herself to connect any and all and at least 3 plot lines into one, years agone.

This is a system, I must add, that works pretty well for anyone. Several nieces and nephews have discovered it, upon appealing to Auntie Kage the Writer for advice on essays; or, lately to me. And I myself have found this method to be absolutely useful every single time. I would not have managed the 1 novel and several stories I’ve written so far without it; I’ll use it on everything I ever try to write. Sometimes Plots 1,2 and 3 change places, when the buttercups suddenly turn out to be chemically pertinent. Sometimes Plot 2 or 3 get dropped, or replaced; the story forges on and ends up just fine without the original cast.

Writing’s not like a dance, Kage said once, analyzing just such a maelstrom of a plot. You don’t have to leave with the one who brought you.

If you really want to, if you really need to, you should leave with the one who catches your eye and winks. He’s the one with the fast car, the electric-shock gaze, the shadow of stag’s horns on his brow …

One, two, three. Change partners, and write.



* Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlow

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Kage Baker loved the old-fashioned Intermission ads you get in some movie theatres. Nowadays, they can include all manner of bells and whistles – enormous panning shots of Brobdingnagian candy counters, CGI roller coasters shooting you right into a bucket of popcorn, happy movie-goers being wafted off to bliss on tidal waves of soda.

She  liked one modern one that showed said moviegoers seated on giant mushrooms- Kage always complained amiably that she never found any magic mushrooms* in her Junior Mints … What she especially liked, though, were the old limited-animation ads with lots of anthropomorphic goodies cavorting around the lobby. Ice cream bars and boxes of Sweet Tarts, Hershey bars and buckets of popcorn – all marching gaily on their little leggies, caroling Let’s all go to the lobby …( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXK2yyjerro)

It was the promise of incredible feasts that drew Kage. It was all the frantic little limbs that cracked her up …

Her very favourite, though, was the utterly passive aggressive advert that showed only a featureless void in which roiling colours ran through the whole spectrum, like mutating clouds, to a background of organ music. It always played to something that sounded like the Jeopardy theme on drugs, and it convulsed Kage with laughter. I finally came to believe she was seeing something I could not – and really, Dear Readers, any of you who knew Kage up close and personal would agree that she often seemed to be seeing what the rest of us could not.

You know, there are some women (and only women) who have 4 colour-sensitive cones in their eyes, rather than the human-standard three – they see colours for which the rest of us have no names. She may have been like that. It’s estimated that tetrachromates make up as much as 12% of the female population, mostly from European genome lines; it might be a mutation arising from colour-blindness. It could explain Kage’s willingness to stare forever into kaleidoscopes, whirly-gigs and swirling maelstroms … and God only knows what she saw.

But she sure enjoyed those Intermission commercials.

Even without being entertained by the commercials (or the eldritch colours), everyone needs and enjoys an intermission from time to time. Intermission is not time off; it’s a whole different vibe, as we used to say. It’s time actually in productive use, as a spacer – like the metallic beads that separate pearls in a necklace. Intermission is time assigned to do something – buy a soda, eat your Dibs before they melt, go to the bathroom before the movie starts.

Or read something one has been anxiously anticipating, like the new Stephen King novel. Which is what I am doing, Dear Readers, except for this blog. It’s Pizza With Everything On It But Anchovies Day – yes, officially – so I have a nice garbage pizza to look forward to as I read this evening. Although King novels are famously humongously long, I am already half way through Revival and am anticipating finishing it tonight. Fun times.

Here’s a fun idea to try.  Next time you see one of those little adverts on the silver screen, Dear Readers, imagine Kage sitting next to you and chuckling sotto voce about something only she can see … or maybe some of my distaff readers are also tetrachromatics! ‘Fess up if you are, Ladies – no one here is gonna mind if you’re a mutant.

You can tell the rest of us what colour that dancing popcorn really is.


* Full disclosure, here: Kage Baker didn’t do recreational drugs. Intoxicants, yes: hallucinogens, no. She always wanted to, but never worked up the bravado. So she didn’t have a drug problem – she wanted a drug problem, but was too scared and too sensible to try it.



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Movie Time

Kage Baker loved animation. She revered animators and illustrators the way other kids loved favourite story tellers or television shows. She loved it so much that she boycotted Disney when the animation went down hill in the 1970′s and 80′s. And when they began their renaissance in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, Kage wept in the theatre for sheer joy.

Of course, there were some ogres left running round the Disney lot. Eisner actually shut down the Animation Department, stating that the company could make more money off the parks and the merchandise. Kage promptly joined the Opposition, under the aegis of Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew, and helped push for Eisner’s dismissal. She never forgave him for deliberately not publicizing Treasure Planet and Lilo and Stitch.

Kage never got to see The Frog Princess; she was too sick to go. I have not yet summoned up the courage to see it, just because she wanted to and never got to. I’ve watched Disney films since, with great happiness and enjoyment. But that one … no. The emptiness of the seat beside me is too great.

When Pixar hove upon the scene, she fell in love all over again. The last film of theirs she saw was Up! She watched it at home one weekend in her last Winter – she’d sent me to Dickens in the name of Duty. When I got home, she told me to watch the film as soon as I could. Because, she told me seriously, it’s a good movie about dealing with loss.  with perverse stubbornness, I therefore refused to watch it until after she was gone, and I cried my eyes out when I did. Because she was right, and because she wasn’t there, and because she knew she wouldn’t be.

She would have been worried when Disney acquired Pixar, but pleased with the results. She would have been extremely worried when Disney acquired Marvel – but the results of that would have had her dancing with joy. Superhero movies are close kin to animation, and the Marvel hero movies have been terrific. She loved what she saw of them, and the trend would only have made her happier as it’s gone on. Loki alone, as played by the exquisite Tom Hiddleston, would have had her clapping and whistling like a girl.

Today, I went out and saw Big Hero 6 with my family. I liked it enormously and recommend it highly. No spoilers, but I will advise you to stay through the credits, for God’s sake. It’s a Disney and Marvel movie! You don’t leave those early! There’s always something wonderful for dessert!

I cried, though, in the safe darkness of the theatre. Kage would have loved the movie. It tears my heart out, to see these gorgeously animated films without her. She longed all her life for the level of craft that has only emerged in animated films in the last few years – she missed so much of it! And it’s getting better all the time … and every time I sit there without her, I cry. Even while I’m laughing, usually.

But, what the hell, old ladies are given to sentimental tears. It was Kage who taught me to love cartoons past childhood, and I’m sure not going to stop going to the movies now. Kimberly and her son and husband still love them, too, and so every animated film remains a family affair. It hurts, sometimes,  but not as much as not seeing them would hurt. Kage would still be gone, and I’d have no bright pledge to make her, nothing to do in her memory.

One of the previews, though, chilled my blood: there’s a Spongebob Squarepants movie coming out. Kage loved that show – it wasn’t that she though it was especially good, or well drawn, or rich with morals. It just made her laugh. And she loved the pineapple that Spongebob lived in. And I know, I just know, that she’d have wanted to see it.  It’s advertised as coming out in 3-D, which she would never, ever watch – but I’d have ended up driving all over the Central Coast to find theatres where they were showing it in 2D. And I cannot suppress the tiniest gasp of relief that I won’t be seeing this one …

Hopefully, that would make Kage laugh. Making her laugh was always a good thing. And it’s a large part of why I keep going to the movies I know she would have loved.  I’m laughing for her.

And now, I am worn out entirely by laughing and crying and hiding my horrified eyes from Spongebob. I’ll never understand why Kage thought that show was so funny. Of course, she never understood why I liked to read things like Stephen King … and today, while we were out at the movies, the newest novel of his arrived. Kim’s got the hardcover, and I’ve got the Kindle version.

So I’m off to read. Go see Big Hero 6, Dear Readers, and if you get the preview of Spongebob, consider that there are scarier things than even Stephen King out there.

Which, I am sure, is some kind of moral.





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Falling And Getting Up

Kage Baker was convinced that ordinary life caused the worst obstructions to a creative life. It wasn’t the strange people, the bizarre accidents or the foreign diseases that most undermined an artist’s life – it was the plumbing. The grocery bills. The leaking roof, the mushy brakes, the crowd-caught grippe.

Mind you, her own specific artistic life was just as fraught with weirdities as with everyday problems. Maybe more so. She just found it easier to cope with the peculiar problems than with the standard ones. She could always write something really strange into the current narrative. Many of the Operative’s problems arose from troubling times in our house; Kage would hunch over her computer (or a legal pad, if the power had gone or we were stranded in the debris field around Mount Hood) and refute reality by transforming it into a better-plotted story.

It’s a gift. I don’t have it. What I do have is the dubious ability to combine strange and ordinary problems into nets of inconvenience that derail my life. What I’ve been doing lately is finding cliffs and falling off them.

I’ve spent the last fortnight fighting off a weird infection in my kidneys. UTI’s are often subtle, not causing much pain or trouble – but when they do get obvious, it then hurts a lot. Kidneys, in particular, are positively stuffed with nerve endings; I know this all too well, because mine have been trying to kill me since I was 14. This year, normal kidney pain – at least, the low-level discomfort I have grown to ignore as normal for me – bloomed slowly and cunningly into major pain.

At the same time, my blood sugar soared and refused to come back down. What do you do when your blood sugar is behaving like a grouchy cat stuck in a tree? You go see the doctor and complain; whereupon he informs you that you have a galloping UTI which is also panicking your body into clinging to all the blood sugar it can grab. I turned out to have an odd bacillus called P. klebsiella, which sounds like the name of an Ugly Step-sister. It behaves like one, too.

I’ve spent the last week on Cipro. Cipro is a kick-ass antibiotic, so kick-ass that it’s the standard drug prescribed for exposure to anthrax. It works by not quite killing the patient, and thus doing for the attacking bacillus. It has unusual side effect, for an antibiotic – drowsiness. Joint pain. Snapping tendons. Yes, Cipro apparently inflames tendons to the point where they snap like bra straps. It also makes you so dizzy and ill that you can really do nothing but sleep and run for the bathroom. Often at the same time …

It was the run-up to this hilarious mess that prevented me from writing, because I just felt generally ill. Then the UTI kicked in. Then the Cipro kicked in – and kicked both me and the klebsiella into the Twilight Zone.

At the apex (or maybe the nadir; I was pretty dizzy) I wasn’t sure if the disease or the cure was the worse deal. Luckily, all I had to do was hang on and not walk around on my endangered tendons. The Cipro won, the bacillus was defeated; and now that the demonic cure is out of my system I feel better than I have in a month. Even my blood sugar is behaving.

So I’ve dug my writing cap out of the piled up clean laundry, evicted all the mismatched socks living in it, and am resuming what passes for my normal life. Trying, anyway – I have the annual Write A Novel In A Month insanity for November, plus the rehearsals and build for this year’s Dickens Fair, one short story stalled in the works and another generating proofs for editing.  I’ve been doing Dickens long-distance, and have yet to appear there – but my astonishing crew have been building, painting and decorating without me, and everything is on schedule. About 2,000 words a day get done on the novel. I got the proofs done and returned (thanks to Kimberly) and even a few words on the new story.

And now I’m returning here, Dear Readers, to assure you I am not dead or abducted. I fought off the Ugly Stepsister as well as the assassin who killed her, and I suspect I’m at least momentarily on a veritable peak of health. Extreme Christmas is in train, writing has resumed, and all the ordinary domestic problems – raccoons on the roof, cats stuck on the window screens, insane midnight cravings for Brussels sprout or bran muffins – have once again receded to a low background annoyance.

I don’t like the weird problems any more than the ordinary ones, but I am coping. I’ve fallen and gotten back up. I sometimes even dream that Kage is here, plotting out a route across a map done in glowing colours …

Back on course.

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Other Plans

Kage Baker took, as part of her basic philosophy, the statement:  Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

She thought that was pretty much self-evident, in fact; so obviously accurate that it was largely overlooked, on a day-to-day basis. Who comments on the persistence, for example, of gravity? Nobody, because the way it works is a certainty. A common place. If it was known to fail and produce occasional, cataclysmic Earth-disolvement, it would be followed on the local news, she felt. You’d get a gravity reading, along with temperature and humidity and the likelihood of rains of frogs.

What attracted Kage to the precise description above was its concise brevity. (And the fact that it was written by John Lennon.) At any rate, she relied upon it as a core value, and really, really resented Life for being that way.  She worked with single-minded stubbornness to avoid the complications, delays and outright disasters that are the way this process does its dirty work. She succeeded in this to a fault.

It didn’t always work, but as the years passed it worked more and more, better and better. Kage had just about hit on the perfect balance to prevent Life (in general) from interfering with her life (in specific), when Life sent the big guns to the front. Kage’s intent ignoring of Life’s interference with her plans probably helped It along when it made Its big play – cancer got a deeper foothold in her body while she wrote. And wrote. And wrote. She couldn’t stop Life in its attack, but she sure as hell succeeded in ignoring it.

That year-long battle between two forces of nature – cancer and Kage – has left me somewhat paranoid. I’d been consistently strong and durable all my own life, until Kage died; the costs of that year all arrived in one big box, marked Urgent and Unavoidable. I’ve been grimly adjusting to each corporeal catastrophe as it’s happened, but every time I think that box is empty, something else emerges from the packing peanuts.

This last week has been afflicted with some sort of GI malaise, and a sinus infection; bellyaches, headaches, and absurd sneezing fits. They’re all minor problems, but they interfere absurdly with such necessities as sleeping and writing.  Really, who sneezes 20 times in a row? Nobody relying on a CPAP mask for night-time breathing, I can tell you that. It’s like being water-boarded, only with the air hose at a gas station …  can you sprain your epiglottis? Because that sure sounds like something I would do.

But, hey! Kage was right, as usual (and so was John Lennon, for that matter). Suddenly I’m fragile. It’s part of my New Normal. I just have to deal with it.

I don’t have to like it, though. I’m not ignoring these slings and darts – I saw what can happen when you do that. But I really do have other plans, you know? Life’s gonna have to bend, at least a little, or I won’t play.

So there.






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