Little Demons

Medieval woodcut. Image courtesy

I don’t have big demons. I don’t have monsters, or addictions, or obsessions, or compulsions. I like to drink, but not to excess. I love pleasure, but not to my own detriment. I have patience, (hard won), and a certain amount fallible perspective, (also hard won). I am stable and strong, (extremely hard won)…

What I have instead are little demons. Little demons aren’t the demons that make you hit rock bottom. They’ve never pushed me to the edge. I’ve never woken up in places without knowing how I got there, (though I have woken up in places that I didn’t expect), and though I have quite a lot of regrets, I wouldn’t take even one of them back. Little demons don’t care about big things like that. They’re different. They’re quieter. Silkier. They are, by definition, small. But there are often quite a lot of them, and they all sound like the voice of reason in your head.

Let me unpack that a bit. Most people have a little voice of reason – the one that says, isn’t two donuts enough, you moron? and seriously, babe, DON’T sleep with your best friend. Sometimes we listen and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the voice is wrong, but more often than not, it’s dead right. Whether or not you listen to your gut, your conscience, you instinct, or whatever else you want to call it, is up to you, but you can trust that voice, almost implicitly, if you listen carefully enough.

Little demons mimic that voice. They tell you to be careful when you should take the risk. They tell you toss the dice when you should call it a night. Little demons tell you, with the conviction of god (if you believe in that sort of thing), that you should do the opposite of what is wise at any given time.

They convince you that you know it all when you know nothing, or that you know nothing when you’ve got it dialed in just right. They tell you that you’re brilliant and then undermine your worth. Little demons offer input and whisper “truths”, but the perspective they have is skewed. They shadow the lens of your perception and make it hard to see.

I’ve been thinking about my little demons a fair bit of late. My little demons like to keep me safe. In fact, that’s the only program they run, because that’s what little demons really are – inculturated values, programs that we literally absorb as we grow up. Did your mother have issues with body image? Odds are there’s a little demon pushing that button in you. Did your grandparents overcome hardship? Did your father succeed, but at a heavy cost?

The experiences of those we love inform who we become. They color the house we grew up in and the lessons we subconsciously learned. That’s what I mean by “programming” and “inculturated values”. That said, they, and the effect they have, aren’t inherently negative. They just are. It’s the amount of influence we allow them to have that matters.

The trick is to figure out which of those values are inherited and which are native to you, the finite individual. Once you know that, you can listen to your gut more closely. You can tell the difference between your own instincts, and the little demons that would keep you safe, or push you to the brink.

I’d like to say that I’ve developed an ear for my own little demons, and to a certain degree, I have, but it’s far from 100%. I still get tripped up. I suspect I always will, just as I know that my daughter will carry some of the results of my experiences with her, regardless of how hard I try to control their influence. I can’t immunize her any more than my parents could immunize me. The little demons, the programs, the inherited values, are as much a part of the human experience as breathing or death.

My goal then, ultimately, is to make choices on my own terms – to listen to my reason, rather than the programs I learned. My hope is that, in doing so, I’ll give my daughter the tools she’ll need to do the same for herself.

Border Patrol

Big Ben through barbed wire c. 1945

This began as a post about Russia and what’s happening in Crimea, but I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it rapidly became a bit of a self-centered musing about myself. What’s happening in the Crimean Peninsula right now is legitimately interesting, as is the West’s response, (or lack thereof). Apparently, however, it’s not as interesting to me as myself. For this, I apologize. And yet, I forge on….

Recently, I’ve been thinking about boundaries, specifically my own, and how they are both uncompromising and quite flexible – though not universally so.

I’ve always been aware that I have some pretty serious boundaries, which I tend to defend with equal seriousness . In fact, someone very close to me refers to this tendency as my “border patrol”, calling to mind barbed wire fences and armed guards patrolling with guns and large dogs. And as much as I’d like for this to not be the case, it really is true. I have a border patrol and they are always on guard. The black and white bottom line is that some people naturally skirt the barbed wire fence and find themselves inside, while others don’t and are relegated to some portion of the perimeter… some quite close, other’s very far away.

The mechanism by which a person gets past my border patrol used to be a bit of a mystery to me. Most of the time, it happens quite quickly, though not very often – which is why I have a lovely handful of extremely close friends, (most of whom slipped through immediately), and a nice, healthy number of good, friendly acquaintances with whom I enjoy varying degrees of emotional intimacy.

So, there are the people who slip right through the perimeter, and the people with access cards who come and go fairly freely. Call is chemistry or affinity or sympathy or connection, but something between that person and I subconsciously sorts out where they end up in relation to my boundaries. The only thing I know for certain is that the people who sense my perimeters and respect them, are the people who tend to slip through.

Now, the people who really fascinate me are the ones who occupy a strange middle ground. While they don’t kick me into full alert, they inspire a serious, immovable guardedness in me – a sort of instinctive distrust that often translates to dislike.

When full alert happens, I don’t tend to care why. I generally run on the instinct that the person is a psychopath or some sort of son-of-a-bitch and keep them at arms length. Sure, it’s reactionary, but better safe than sorry. The grey area people are different though. It’s not psychopathy or son-of-a-bitchness that I’m cuing to with them. It’s an inherent lack of respect – for my boundaries, in general, and, therefore, for me.

Awhile back, I wrote a post on dominance, or rather, on women and submission. I think that, buried beneath my rabid hierarchical awareness, is the issue of boundaries and respect. I respect other people’s boundaries, and I have an absolute antipathy for people who try to test mine.

This very well may mean that I can’t take a joke, or that I take myself too seriously, but it’s always been the case. At this point in my life, it’s a fundamental part of my personality. So, I suppose that my border patrol is, more than anything, a response – one that can be supple and flexible or cold and hard – and that response, while being an accurate reflection of me, is also a reflection of how I perceive others. While it’s not a perfect lens, it’s the only one I’ve got. The least I can do is understand how it works. I want to be sure that I’m the one paying the guards.

Vital Parts

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

We just finished watching Season 3 of Game of Thrones last week-end – because we don’t have HBO, we always end up binge-watching it on disk when it’s finally released. I have to be honest though. Binge-watching wasn’t the easiest way to experience this time around. The show keeps upping the ante (which is great), and so this season was fairly relentless as far as bad things happening to EVERYONE goes. Just to give you some perspective, this is coming from the woman whose brain went, “aw, bummer”, and kept eating popcorn when Ned Stark lost his head.

So, for those who have yet to see Season 3:  This post is spoiler-dependant, so if you don’t know what happens, and don’t want to know what happens, (all five of you), be warned. And for those of you who haven’t been sucked into the cultural phenomena that is GoT (possibly a saner life choice), I’m going to give a quick run down of the two plot points I’m going to talk about. They are:

1: Jaimie Lannister’s Be-Handing

2: Theon Greyjoy’s castration and torture


Jamie the Kingslayer

Fun times, right? Ok. So for those who don’t know this already, Jaimie Lannister is widely considered to be the deadliest man in the Seven Kingdoms with a sword. He’s a preternaturally good fighter, so much so, that that is, up to this point, who he is – the Kingslayer.  There’s a lot one can say about him, but for the purposes of this post, that’s enough.

Theon Greyjoy, on the other hand, is the weak, insecure, son of

FYI: That's Theon's sister

FYI: That’s Theon’s sister

the Lord of the Iron Islands, a hard-assed enclave of seafaring bad-asses. He clings to this identity because he is hostaged out to a rival family as a boy. By the time he reaches adulthood, he has identity issues, an over-inflated sense of his nobility, and an over-fondness for prostitutes (and pretty much any other woman willing to let him at her).

Now, going back to bad things happening, (because bad things happen to everyone on this show. It’s endemic). So far, since the show began, the apparent protagonist has been imprisoned and be-headed, (Ned Stark, Season 1); an exiled princess has been sold into marriage to a barbarian by her insane, creepy brother; the King of Westeros has been murdered by his wife so that he won’t find out that his children were actually fathered by her twin brother, (love those Lannisters); various women are raped, almost raped, and often killed; babies and children are murdered; and, of course, there’s the Red Wedding, wherein a good chunk of the protagonists are slaughtered at a feast. I could go on.  So what makes what happens to Jaimie and Theon different?

In most of the cases I listed above, the characters are either killed outright, or left intact enough to move on from whatever violin befell them. This is not the case with Jaimie and Theon, because Jaimie and Theon are stripped of their vital parts.

Jamie Lannister, Post Be-Handing

Jamie Lannister, Post Be-Handing

When Jaimie’s sword hand is cut off, he loses not only the hand, but his ability to be the man he had been. In short, he loses his identity. Suddenly, the deadliest man in seven kingdom cannot defend himself against a rag-tag group of course soldiers. He is vulnerable in a way that is unnatural to him, which makes his attempts to fight left-handed so difficult to watch. It’s not the hand that disturbs so much as the dismantling of his identity. Luckily, for Jaimie, this dismantling leads to an interesting evolution as a character and he becomes, arguably, a more complex and nuanced man as a result.

Theon Greyjoy is not so lucky. Through a series of Terrible Decisions ™, Theon finds himself in the custody of a sadist, being punished for betraying the man he swore loyalty to as king. Over the course of days, Theon endures psychological and physical torture that softens his already fairly weak mind, until the day comes when he is fully castrated, and his severed parts are sent to his father in a box. Shortly thereafter, he accepts a new name from his captor. He ceases to be Lord Theon Greyjoy, heir to the Iron Islands, and becomes Reek, a “pile of meat”.

The significance of Theon’s castration has been well-covered. This piece in the LA Review of Books is especially interesting, so I won’t stray too  far down that road. That said, there is a point I want to make.

Theon_SexWhile Jaimie’s identity is challenged, it remains, fundamentally, in tact. He is still Jaimie Lannister and his reputation, pre-maiming, is strong enough that it helps see him through afterwards. Theon, however, does not and cannot recover from the loss of his sex organs for two reasons. The first is fairly general. When he is castrated, Theon loses the thing that identifies him as a man – a great loss to any male, but one especially difficult for Theon, who relies on sex to assert his wobbly sense of power and prowess. The second is that, when he  loses his reproductive organs, he ceases to be his father’s true heir, because he can no longer sire children. In fact, his father abjures him on those grounds after receiving the box that contains those organs. So, the loss of a penis is, for Theon, not just the loss of important bit of anatomy, it’s literally the loss of his manhood, of his personal identity, and of his legacy and identity as a Greyjoy, as his father’s son.

Unlike another character, Varys, who becomes a powerful spymaster as a result of castration as a boy, Theon’s identity was established enough at the moment of the loss, that the severing unravels him. He really does cease to be Theon Greyjoy in that moment, and becomes something entirely else. Something far less.

In the end, for both Jaimie and Theon, it’s the loss of these vital parts that disturbs. Beheadings and slaughters, no matter how violent, end in death. There’s a finality there. It’s not personal. There is no specifically ironic justice to be endured. For Theon and Jaimie, their losses are intensely personal to the point of irony, (in a truly Dante’s Inferno sort of way), and they are made to live on after.

It’s interesting, and heart-breaking, and it makes me think about what are, for me, my own vital parts, and what I would do if they were suddenly and violently taken away. I don’t know. I can’t imagine. And I’m grateful to live in a world where it is very like that I won’t have to find out.. that said. if anything is to be gotten from GoT, it’s that no one is really quite safe. Bad things can happen to anyone.

Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood: On Writers & Intent

I have always feared misinterpretation. Whether the gap between my intended meaning and the received meaning is the result of poor communication on my part, or poor comprehension on the part of the reader is, for me, secondary to the fact of the gap exists at all. As a writer, I have a dedicated responsibility to clarity of thought and expression. If I cannot come as close as possible to accurately saying what I want to say, then I’m failing to do my job. This is fine to a point. But what about situations wherein the topic is so charged that no amount of care and clarity can prevent the message from disintegrating in the reception?

Recently, the media has been covering the rise of what is being called “rape culture” on high school and college campuses – that is, the prevalence of young women drinking to incapacitation and young men engaging in (often) nonconsensual sex acts with them. Steubenville, Marysville and other similar cases have opened up the discussion of how rape is treated by everyone from a Montana judge to frat bros.

In the middle of this, Emily Yoffe, a writer at Slate, published an article suggesting that young women take steps to protect themselves by not drinking to excess at parties. Her tone was measured and her message fairly clear. But while the story was met with support by some, the majority of responses were vitriolic in their mis/interpretation. In the face of varied and vocal criticism, Yoffe then wrote a follow-up article, attempting clarify her message and acknowledge the situation while not backing down. Again, her tone was measured, but it was too late – her message had already been mis/interpreted and appropriated. No amount of follow-on could retrieve her original intent.

The merits and / or flaws in Yoffe’s position aren’t what interest me here. What interests me is that Yoffe’s attempts to control her message didn’t work. Not at all. And so, what I’m curious about is this: at what point does a writer’s ability to control her message end?

The answer, I suspect, is one I don’t particularly like. I suspect that it ends the moment the article, opinion, editorial, post, story, text, tweet or email gets read. After that, a writer can attempt to do damage control, but if a message is derailed, it’s nearly impossibly to get it back on the tracks, (as evidenced by Yoffe).

The bottom line is that readers are free to respond to a writer’s work in any way they like, through the lens of any experience, bias or ideology. The reader has the power to misinterpret, appropriate or spin anything you say. It’s like a game of telephone. So then, what’s the point? If words are essentially a Rorschach test, why do we bother stringing them together to communicate at all?

The answer to that question. and the value of the effort, is in the attempt at communication. The thing to do, whether you’re writing an email or a tweet, is craft your thoughts as consciously as you can. Be clear. Be concise. Write with the reader in mind. Compel, argue, debate and cajole. And then let it go. It’s ok. If people read your words, and misunderstand, it may be a personal frustration for you, but culturally speaking, those words will still have had an impact and prompted discussion. They will have stirred emotions and triggered thoughts.

It’s the discussion that leads to progress, as incremental as progress is. Ultimately, you cannot control your message any more than you can control how people think, but you can communicate clearly and well, and hopefully then, your thoughts will be heard, and prompt discussions of their own.