Monday, April 28, 2014


I've probably written about this before, but it's petting my peeve again, so forgive me while I go on about animals in fiction.

As fun and terrific as talking animals, telepathic animals, anthropomorphized animals, and were-critters are, I have to say that I'm ready for some more actual animals to turn up in fiction. It's all over the place in non-fiction. James Herriot (James Wight: Herriot was his pen name) is one of my favorite authors, and I reread his stuff over and over again. Animals and people make an intoxicating combination for a lot of readers, not just me, and a good writer will not only recognize that but understand how it works.

I think anthropomorphizing or giving human voice and/or human dialogue to an animal can be charming, but it takes something away, maybe even more than it gives to the story. The challenge of communicating with an animal, working with an animal, even just taking care of an animal on a basic level is an almost magical interaction in and of itself, and requires no embellishment.

For example, I feed hummingbirds. At the moment I have three, or four, maybe more. It's hard to tell. They go through a lot of sugar water, enough that I don't have to worry about it spoiling before I have to make another cup of it. (One cup of water microwaved for one minute, 1/4 cup of sugar (plus I add a smidge. It's not like they have teeth to rot) and left to cool, covered, on the counter until it's room temp. Spoils in about three days, less in very warm weather and/or if the feeder isn't kept scrupulously clean.) Although they keep their distance and are very wild, we communicate through the feeding. They watch me take the feeder, and bring out a full one. (It's hard to say if they know it's the same feeder.) They're growing used to me, though they still don't trust me. And they have very full, at times stressful, social lives. I've watched them defend territory, build nests, court, feed, and I've watched them watch me. Turning them into an aggressive, vain companion with lots to say about my choice of husband takes away that odd and enchanting relationship that I and many others have had with their wild birds. I've held a hummingbird in my hand. I've had wild birds land on me and fly away without an 'oh shit' moment because they understood somehow that I wasn't a threat, despite the fact that many people are.

It's the same thing with cats and dogs. We tend to take them for granted and put words in their minds for them, and that's all good. I don't mind seeing that on the page at all. But how much deeper and more awesome it feels when an author captures that sense of 'other' in the dogs and cats they describe. I especially like it when they capture the feeling one gets when approaching a large, strange dog they don't know and the careful maneuvers both dog and human make to determine if they're going to be friends or enemies or whether they're just going to go their separate ways because the trust just isn't there.

Life of Pi captures this well. I was relieved to see that the animals remained animals, even though they were also symbols, and in many ways mystical. Animals are just as mystical and fascinating as humans just as they are. And this can extend to fantasy animals as well. I enjoyed Smaug's dialogue in The Hobbit, but honestly, non-speaking dragons that display cunning and intelligence in many ways are more frightening. The creature in Cloverfield never speaks a word, but it is utterly terrifying ... and fascinating. Creatures that don't speak and yet display intelligence equal or greater than ours in non-verbal ways are even scarier, and more awesome.

I think, too, that the more we pretend to know, the more we steal from the mystique of animals and monsters. One of the reasons the Godzilla remake didn't work for me was all the explanation and science they put on the screen. Not knowing has so much more power. And, though we can predict with fair accuracy that the purring cat on our lap will sit contentedly and knead our thighs with sharp claws until we shove it off, as a visiting friend found out, they may also unexpectedly, after a few minutes of mutual enjoyment, give a little love nip, or as another friend experienced, a not-so-loving swat from a claws-extended paw and a rapid, raking departure. For reasons unknown. For reasons unknowable, if we want to be honest about it.

And not-knowing can be good. We don't have to be know-it-alls. We can just appreciate and experience without claiming them. They, along with all other living and non-living things in our universe, are our companions in existence, and that existence at its core is mysterious, mystifying, and fun (and harrowing and painful and full of grief) in part because we don't own it. We're a part of it, within in, together. And because we don't truly own our animals or communicate as effectively as we communicate with each other, though we take responsibility for them and take care of them (or kill them or torture them) there's always that edge in any relationship with an animal.

Saturday, April 19, 2014


Why are so many characters in fiction attractive? You only have to look at the word attractive and you'll know.

Writers write about attractive characters because they attract. They attract readers, and they attract the authors themselves. Authors don't generally have an immunity to beautiful people (although some will sneer and believe that beautiful people have easy success or that a beautiful person is always vain, etc.) While conceiving a character concept, especially when generating a love interest, they'll reach for that low-hanging fruit. Although not everyone finds the same things sexy, there are characteristics that most people reliably find attractive. Muscular characters suggest strength and stamina. Long hair has been a symbol of virility and an object of envy since ancient times. Strong chins, clear eyes, perfect skin, physical symmetry, upright posture, smoothness that suggests a healthy layer of fat without hiding too much of that coveted symbol of power, muscle ... these are symbols of perfect health and suggest genetic fitness.

But a character doesn't have to be beautiful to be attractive.

Chicks dig scars because scars imply strength and good survival traits. They also lend a sense of danger or imply that the person engages in risky behavior, which suggests a wild and uninhibited nature. Such a person might not necessarily be ideal for a stabile home life, but they could be passionate lovers, intimidating protector figures, and they might be wiser and more fit than someone who has never tested their limits to the point of failure.

Certain expressions of intelligence are very attractive. Knowledge of other languages or cultures suggests worldliness and self-reliance. Engineering skills can represent good planning, measuring, estimation, and thoughtfulness, all good things in a mate. Many skilled crafts are extremely attractive, and quite a few of the cliche lover-trades (blacksmith, for example) combine strength with a sensitive eye and long practice. Extended practice at anything difficult requires loyalty and devotion, which might be bestowed upon a lover. Even if it isn't, the suggestion is that there will be a level of care and attention to detail that might extend into sex and maintenance of a relationship.

Above-average height and weight can be powerful symbols of strength, intimidation power and success while simultaneously suggesting an appealing softness and heat. Weight has lost some of its glamour as the poorest members of society have gone from skeletally unhealthy to sugar drink (my mom calls pop hummingbird food for a reason) and factory processed food health problems. But a careful writer can still appropriate the traces of remaining admiration for certain kinds of fatness if they tap the source and head-off the negative stereotypes associated with fatness such as lack of hygiene, low intelligence, slowness, laziness, and lack of discipline. How? As writers always have, by showing the character engaging life with intelligence, nimbleness, discipline, etc. and describing them in appeal terms in regard to their physical traits including scent and strength.

I can go on, but by now hopefully it has become clear that in order to make a character attractive, you don't have to make them into some sort of supermodel cardboard cutout. In fact, some of the most attractive traits in a human being are their ability to provide and care for others. Students of writing know this and utilize this by revealing charitable, courageous, self-sacrificing or other kinds of behavior to show how good a character is. We care about people who care about others and who contribute to society rather than leech off of it.

Besides, fashions come and go, markers of health change from lean to fat to skeletal to huge, or muscle-bound to super-flexible, but the core traits that make humans appealing, like the capability to think, protect, act with decisiveness, care about others, and to weather adversity mentally, emotionally and physically, haven't changed and probably never will.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fitness and Fiction

I think there are a couple of destructive attitudes that exist out there about fitness that get in the way not only of realism but also are missed opportunities for character depth and development.

Attitude One: It's good genes, is all.
Um, no.
A very good friend of mine a very, very long time ago gave my DH a dirty look when he mentioned something about physical fitness and said, to paraphrase, "Well it's easy for you. You've got good genes."
It's never easy, even with good genes. As the years have gone by, my DH and I have to work harder (and eat less) to stay in reasonable shape. And we are not in particularly good shape. I try to look at my workouts as tricks I'm training my body to do, rather than view it as a routine, because routines are boring and never, ever end. For example, the latest trick I'm trying to teach my body is to be able to push up with my hands under my shoulders, flat-backed, from a position where I'm flat against the floor. There's not much leverage from that position. I can do it once if I arch my back a little initially, but that's cheating. After my morning attempt (failure) I usually do some plank exercises in hopes that the next morning, I'll be able to do a real one. And after I've done a real one, I'd like to do, say, five, and then I'll make up some other weird goal for my upper body. For abs, I'm working on a full body belly roll. And for my dex/aerobics, I'm learning how to jump rope again. I used to be pretty good ... when I was eight years old. Now, not so much.
Anyway, even those of us with decent genes can't slack off, so neither can our fictional characters. And many of them don't have gyms to go to, or even a culture that embraces exercise. So either they're going to be engaging in some sort of physical labor, or walking or horseback riding everywhere, or doing some other sort of practical training where there's an obvious pay off.* It's not going to be auto-magic. And by practical, I mean life-saving training where the goal may not necessarily be to look buff, but to stay alive. As the beautiful quote in Zombieland goes, "The first rule of Zombieland is cardio."

Attitude Two: Well, fictional characters have all their off screen time to get into shape and stay in shape, or they can do it with a montage.
Yes, but if it's a daily thing, and there's a lot of variety or a ritualistic quality to it, there's opportunity to show what your characters are made of. Some of them may be the equivalent of gym bunnies and work on their bodies all day, while others could do a short stint of intense exercise and then they're done for the day. Either way, it doesn't have to be some automatic thing to blow off. They should work hard, and be punished or rewarded accordingly. (Don't forget your overuse injuries!) By the way, new research shows that ten minutes of intense exercise a day has the same benefits as hanging out on the treadmill for hours reading a magazine. Sweet! But it has to be intense. So give them an excuse to do something intense every day, or make it part of their training routine, and create some consequences and characteristics that carry over to your story, and see what happens. Three letters. MIB. His fitness and spirit carries through the whole first movie. It's a beautiful thing.

Failing that, consider giving a character an average or even overweight body. Why not? They can still be attractive. In The Ladies' Number One Detective Agency, the main character is 'of tradition build' and is very desirable. We can celebrate health in all different sizes, a full range of capabilities and disabilities in our characters, and have it make sense. Which reminds me, remember, a lot of folks in wheelchairs are athletes too. It's not all about the chair. It's about the person in the chair.

There's a huge variety of awesome humanity out there. If the Phantom of the Opera can be seductive, than anyone can be.

I guess what I'm suggesting, ultimately, is that realism doesn't have to be a drag, any more than real exercise has to be a drag. I love my exercise time (when I get around to it. Ahem.) That's me time. And for those that don't ... you don't have to be Arnold or Demi to be sexy, healthy, happy and effective. Neither do your fictional characters. Give the reality a chance on the page and see what happens, just for fun. There are zillions of sexy long-haired whatevers out there in fiction who get their sleek, fit bodies for free. Dare to be different. Dare to be closer to life, and see what truths you reveal in your story that might not have turned up if you hadn't thought about physicality beyond a description of height and eye color.

And that super-fit guy with the lightning reflexes? There are few things that will gut him faster than not being strong enough to succeed when he's the strongest thing around. Then we'll get to see his real strength, and that's powerful stuff to see on the page, and in real life.

*One of the most painfully laughable scenes I've ever seen on exercise was in Cave Dwellers where the characters had rigged up a weight machine with rough rope, pulleys and rocks. WTF? He's a sword-slinger! You don't think his arms would be strong enough just from that? And he can't afford to be muscle bound. Oh for pity's sake ... but at least they were trying to explain why he looked like a body builder, I guess. Still. Oh. My. Gawd. That was so silly. Conan the Barbarian? Way better. Just saying. Although, it would have made more sense if that wheel wasn't in the middle of nowhere. It would have made more sense if it was in the middle of town or at least near a town and they were grinding wheat or something. Still, better than rock weights. A lot, lot better.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Learning From the Worst

I took my first creative writing college course in 1986. I had a really bad teacher. He could be described by many of the clichés as far as bad instructors* go, and yet I learned a lot from him. Some of the lessons he taught were unintentional, but much of his good advice had a solid foundation and he had some idea of what he was talking about.

So, even if you happen to end up in a really cruddy class or you pick up a book on writing and it's, let's say, almost completely wrong, you can still get a lot out of it, and not just the right parts.

For example, that really cruddy teacher? He told me that my writing was outstanding (yay!) and he suggested that I not waste my time in 'genre fiction.'

Though I was a rather impressionable young thing at the time, I silently disagreed. I also didn't argue with him. I did, however, learn that I had talent from someone who disdained my subject matter. Normally writers can't hear praise and focus on the negative, but in this situation I didn't hear the message that my story was crap because it was fantasy. Instead I heard the message that he loved my writing even though he didn't like the story. That was a very valuable lesson, though I didn't realize its importance at the time. I also learned that no matter what anyone said, I would write fantasy. I might have suspected that about myself, but I didn't know until this instructor applied pressure.

I try not to say bad things about books, so I won't name names, but I'm reading a book about writing technique that had a lot of muddy and poorly-illustrated examples to support flimsy points that weren't helping me learn more about writing. I persisted and now I'm in chapters of that same book that are fantastic and will hopefully improve my writing game.

This book inspired this post because the author admitted that he gave very bad advice in previous books and during creative writing courses he taught for various universities. (No, he wasn't my instructor, although that would have been fun if he had been!) I'm learning a lot from him, despite the fact that he's flawed, is occasionally unclear, and has admitted that he (potentially) led impressionable young writers astray. And that's important to realize and accept when we learn anything from anyone. Not everything someone teaches will work for us. And some of the instruction will be absolutely wrong for everyone, including the person doing the teaching. That person, like my first college creative writing instructor, might be working on an insipid, self-absorbed piece of so-called literature aimed at a small section of society he feels nothing but contempt for (this really happened, and as far as I know that thing was never published, thank goodness) but he may be the right person at the right time to talk about the use and abuse of adjectives and adverbs in writing, or active voice, or economy of language, or any of the gizillion things that need to be in a writer's brain working in the background while we take a roller coaster ride on the chemicals zipping between synapses in our brains.

You can learn just about anything from any instructor. Even the worst ones. It may not be the lesson they're intending to teach, but you'll learn just the same. And, there's always the chance that what you think is wrong and awful is actually right and good. You might not know enough yet to tell the difference. So it's important not to rely on one source for learning. More importantly, it's a good idea to look beyond the instructor and focus on the material itself. After all, it's not the teacher who is the focus of your work. Your work is the focus of your work, and the teacher is there to help you decide how to accomplish it, either by way of good example, or sometimes, by bad example.

*The bad college creative writing instructor cliché is as follows: has never published except perhaps a thesis or academic paper, worships 'literature' and disdains all other forms of prose, is ostentatiously well-read and reads all the correct literary magazines (preferably ones you haven't heard of with very small distributions,) helps edit or is senior editor of the university's own literary magazine that no one reads except the contributors, has a small stack of form rejection slips from the New Yorker that collect dust because the writing goes very slowly, and is very sure of self despite limited or zero credentials. Optional: has a substance abuse problem, is involved in an adulterous relationship or a relationship with a student, believes s/he is disliked because s/he is too intelligent to be understood by the common person, and consciously or subconsciously dislikes the characters about which s/he writes (which leads to a rather unpleasant form of writing where the author tortures or destroys that unlikeable character for no apparent purpose).

Tuesday, April 08, 2014


Another amazingly gorgeous sunny day in the Pacific NW.
I will, of course, be at my day job. I have to laugh. Well, I'll have a walk during my lunch, and sometimes I have to do stuff outside, so it won't be a total wash.

About leadership as depicted in fiction and film:

Rewatching The Hobbit always does this to me. Why are revered leaders sitting on their asses on thrones? Good, evil, doesn't matter. What exactly made their flat butts worthy of sitting in such an exalted place?

Let's ask this another way. What do good leaders do?

I have a good leader at work. If it weren't for his snappy dialogue, the look in his eyes, and the big red vest, you wouldn't necessarily peg him for the leader if you came into the store in the middle of the day. He stocks shelves and helps customers same as the rest of us. A customer interrupted him as he was answering yet another call (probably from someone needing leadership advice–he fields such calls all day–or from his boss) and he stopped and helped them. Didn't just tell them what aisle something was on. Led them to the product, asked them if he could summon additional help for them as he was on his way to answering a call. Excellent customer service, just like he drills into our heads every day. Leading by example. Working by our sides. Relentless in his mission to make us the best store in the system, and demands more of himself than his employees. This, from someone who will retire in less than two years.

Contrast that to the great orc chieftain, sitting on his ass, barking out orders. Even his ride sits on its ass when the killing of a subordinate is required. I wasn't filled with a sense of dread. I thought, this dude makes his lackeys do all the dirty work, and criticizes them when they get it wrong without any investigation whatsoever. He's got nothing. He's not a badass, he's the kind of bad manager/war cow-er-leader who gets his people killed. Why are they even following him?

The goblin king was even worse. He was comical, pathetic, lazy, self-aggrandizing ... he must have oversnacked and overslept his way to the throne somehow, because he sure didn't get there through leadership or even prowess. He fell over without a fight when he faced his enemies. I couldn't wait to get through that scene because watching that bad guy made me groan in sympathetic embarrassment for whoever designed and executed that scene. If his people had been insubordinate, if there was danger to him and he was barely holding on through bravado, I would have bought it. But no, his minions cheered on their weak, useless leader without sneers or sarcasm, and without backstabbing attempts to take advantage of enemies in their midst to finally get rid of the idiot.

Watch Band of Brothers if you want to see creative non-fiction depict a real leader. Major Dick Winters was so famously good at being a leader that despite his long years of quiet retirement and his death early in 2011, he still inspires the people he led.

One thing  The Desolation of Smaug got very right is the sense of decay, frustration, and misery that comes with bad leadership. (Can't wait to watch that part again!) The kingdom of the wood elves still has splendor–there are those that still care, and passionately–but many are self-medicating, there's the ever-present threat of insubordination, and the leader, terrified of what he sees coming, is barely holding it together. He clings to his throne because it's the only thing he has left. Without that symbol, he's got nothing to keep his people together with anymore. That's drama. That's awesome. I'll watch that all day. That's real leadership, not at its best, but compelling and real and I even sympathized with the king who is slowly, painfully losing everything he holds dear and doesn't know how to save it. And, perhaps not surprisingly if you think about it, I feared the King of the Wood Elves because I could tell how desperate he is.

How much more powerful and dangerous would the orc leader seem if he led by example, praised his troops when they did well, rewarded success, gave them working strategies and tactics to succeed when they failed to succeed on their own, and swore to avenge them when they died? He could still kill his own people, but not for failing him, no, for failing their own brethren and getting them killed through bad strategy, cowardice, etc. What makes evil leaders evil is not their thoughtless savagery. Thoughtless savages don't become leaders. Thoughtless savages need leaders to accomplish anything of any real scope beyond serial killings. Evil leaders can ramp up a sense of rabid devotion like no one else, because they can reward with things that good people would rather die than allow to exist. And evil leaders don't have to feel bad when they employ scapegoats, tap into addictive tendencies, publicly give rewards to undeserving scum to give the star players a little more motivation to prove their worthiness, betray a good soldier to establish a better one for the good of the organization, throw weak and underperforming minions under the bus, etc.

Perhaps the most painful moment in The Hobbit though, from a leadership point of view, was the telling of Thorin's history with orcs. Seriously. Stand on the edge of a cliff and brood while someone sings your praises and tells of your sorrows? Gawd, every real leader I know would be shaking their head and either insisting that it's ancient history and we've got real problems to deal with now, or they'd walk away in embarrassment. They'd protest, don't build me up to the newbie, please. Or, that's not how it happened (because from their pov they were scared spitless and not heroic at all at the battle that cost just about everyone they know their lives. Can we say survivor's guilt? Can we say, thinking over and over about what he could have done instead so that just about everyone didn't have to die that day?)

So, please, writers, get your fictional leaders off their butts and into the action. Even the bad guys. Maybe especially them, so that they don't just fall over at the climax of your big confrontation scene. Thanks!

Monday, April 07, 2014

Sexy Tears

After four rainy days off, I go back to my day job ... on a spectacular sunny day. I think my work schedule is more accurate than the weather man as far as predicting sun and rain.

On to today's topic.

I rewatched Star Trek: Into Darkness, and I have some observations that I hope will be useful. Forgive my wee preamble, please: I actually like this movie a lot, and I'm sure I'll watch it many times. I don't want anyone getting the idea that I thought it was painfully bad and in dire need of shredding.

Uniformity of reaction:
One of the tougher things to do as a writer is to characterize. I mean seriously characterize, as in define and express character. To use a great example of characterization, every one of the Avengers has their own way about that. Part of that is great acting, but acting is restricted by dialogue, the situation, and correction–which means that some of the fault falls onto the shoulders of the writers and director. Into Darkness had characterization problems.
Writers are people (I know, I know, that's just crazy talk but let me finish) and have their own personal reactions to situations. They have verbal tics, like saying "this rocks!" when they like something (or "awesome" or whatever) and they may cry readily ... or stifle sobs rather than go into full cry mode whenever possible. Their own responses are what they know at gut level. The difficulty is to then write characters who react in imagined ways to imagined situations who are not only different from oneself, but different from each other, but still fall into what the writers and director classify as worthy of admiration. In Star Trek: Into Darkness, there's a monotone. Just about every major cast member sheds a sexy tear, including Khan. Khan? Really? Khan the Ice Rage Machine? This very specific, fairly rare, delicate emotion becomes so repetitive that it could be turned into a drinking game.
Characters need to react to emotional situations differently from each other, especially in film where it's all visual and the internal stuff is harder to define and differentiate between characters. In writing, the difference between characters should be crystal clear. Which means, if a writer wants to have any range to her or his cast of sympathetic, admirable characters, that writer has to imagine, before a word is written, how a hothead can express grief and passion in an admirable way, how a genius creative can express grief and passion in a different way, how a cunning, savage mastermind can express grief and passion ... you get the idea. And that's true for every emotion characters express.

The homage:
I was on board with the re-envisioning of the original Spock/Kirk death scene from Wrath of Khan, right up until Spock cried out Khan's name. The original Kirk, yes. New Spock, no. Spock could have gone animal (and I loved how the actor went into enraged gorilla mode on Khan's ass in the following fight scene) right there, total predator. He could have lost it in any number of ways. But the Kirk echo didn't work for me. Wrong character. Not the way Spock would have expressed rage ... with a word. Howl? Maybe. Or total silence, or a growl .... lots of choices. None of them taken. I'm not sure why. Because they went a different route with the New Kirk. I'm scared? Gorgeous. Beautiful. Human. Very unlike the composed and calm Old Spock in the same situation. So why not give New Spock the same option–to be Vulcan-ish, but in the way we don't see Vulcans very often because it's so rare for that primitive side of them to escape? And what is a primitive Vulcan? I propose it's the mindless gorilla with the looping fist strikes that will smash an enemy to unrecognizable pulp before it gets its mind back, and that sort of critter doesn't have words. Yes, yes, Spock is half-human, but that's not what makes him different from Kirk and the other characters. It's his Vulcan nature, a nature so volatile that as-a-race they have tied themselves up and caged themselves because they fear it so much. So, writers and directors of Star Trek–show us why they're scared of it. Maybe there's something even scarier, something truly alien in there that Spock would have revealed. Lost opportunity.

The take-away:
Working out who characters are is something writers like me, who don't outline, discover as we go along (and then sometimes we have to go back and make changes, which is annoying! but necessary.) During the formative period, characters may sound and act the same. Usually they sound and act like whatever idealized heroes we have in our heads. If the writer has been at the game a long time, they may have their go-to archetypes and have some variety in the beginning. Some writers rely on what they've seen and read, so they'll have a cast that strongly resembles, say, the Avengers, or the Fellowship, or Griffindors .... I think that's better than having characters that are all Dirty Harry, but still. Characters are the heart of great stories, and some attention ought to be paid to the important details. Those details aren't in hair and eye color, or shallow details like whether they're a clothes horse or like curry (unless they take it to radical extremes–then it becomes really important!) The details are in the devils, and angels, inside of them. Every scene that evokes powerful emotions in characters is an opportunity to express the uniqueness and beauty of living creatures when they're at their best, or their worst. I hope more writers take advantage of those opportunities, because I want to see what happens when they do.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Weight and Self-Image, Part 2

There's a lot of fantastic stuff in the comments in the last post. I'd like to continue thinking out loud in an actual post rather than writing vast blocks of text in the comments. I tried to be succinct, but I got carried away, so, here we go.

During a writing course, one of the things the instructors hammered home is the idea that most writers can't hear positive things about their work. Even when they do hear it, they often dismiss praise. I was taught in the class to write any praise I receive down and study that part of my writing *more* than the negative. The aim is to reproduce success rather than try to eliminate failure.

I try to extend this to the rest of my life, too. I try to hear praise like Rory gives, and see myself how he sees me. That way I keep fighting to 'stay in shape' or to work on physical goals that have some other payoff than a number, like to be able to run a certain distance, achieve balance in a yoga position or be able to stand on my hands. I think that's healthier than 'get in shape,' which doesn't work from a premise that I'm okay where I'm at too. I also try to avoid aiming for a certain number of pounds (up or down, thank you Regolith for reminding me that some people think they're too thin), or to 'look good in a bikini' – I have to repeat over and over that Rory likes the way I look in a bikini right now, rather than listen to the self-revulsion of the thought of myself in a bikini (or LBD, or whatever.) And if he didn't like the way I looked in a bikini, why in the world would I strive to try to look good in one? As if that would make him love me more ....

I'm sure he'd be pleased if I had the flexibility of a gymnast and less excess in certain areas, but he's not unhappy with where I'm at right this second, either. I don't have to do a damned thing if I don't want to, and that places the things I do in the arena of my choice for my own purposes, rather than trying to satisfy some idea of what I think he might want me to look like instead of the way I look right now. My DH has the power to make me feel overweight, underweight, ugly, old ... and he has more power in my mind than society. He's not just my friend and lover and husband, but an ally in my mind when I battle self-image monsters.

If I remember to listen to his loving words, hear them, and believe them.

If he wasn't an ally, well, why would I listen to him? But that's a whole 'nother post about relationships.

It's still there, of course, the self-talk that emphasizes the negative. And it's tricky. Working from this paradigm seems to say, be happy with yourself the way you are, The End, and that's not a concept anyone will buy, for sensible reasons. We don't want to lose our drive to constantly learn, improve, to grow. If we're satisfied with the way everything is, from the state of the housekeeping to the mechanical soundness of our vehicles, what's going to motivate us to get off the couch?

But that's not what being happy with yourself actually does. Time moves on. We can be happy with the mechanical soundness of a vehicle, but it's going to need an oil change in X number of miles, and tires need to be rotated or replaced entirely, and inevitably there will be a crack in the windshield bad enough that a new windshield will be required, etc. I can love my car as it is, but I still need to take care of it.

I love my car, therefore I take care of it. If I'm okay (see, I can't even say if I love myself–ugh) with myself, that doesn't mean I stop doing all the things I always do. Nor does it mean I'll lose all motivation to try new things, or to get better. I will paint that old pick up truck, not because I don't love it the way it is (and I really do! Scratches and all!) but because I do love it. I want to play with it. I want to express my love for my truck by turning it into an art project, and of course I want to maintain it too so that it runs as long as possible. Would I fuss with the truck if I didn't love it? Of course not. I would let it languish or ignore it.

So if I didn't love myself, would I be motivated to take good care of myself? Would I only take care of myself because I'm supposed to, or because there's a tiny hope that if I take care of myself maybe in some distant future I'll be lovable? That's working from a place of pain and despair. That's less motivation, not more. And some people, because they don't love themselves, let themselves die or even speed their deaths.

Self-love also seems to mean vanity, arrogance, hubris, and other nasty things that we can safely agree are bad. I love Steve Barnes' approach, though I have to say this is my read on it and may not be his actual words or thoughts. We've known each other a few years, so what he's written and taught are tangled up with my own thoughts. Anyway, one of the lessons I've learned from Steve on this subject strips away all the bullshit, negative, backward-thinking societally-reinforced garbage we allow to rot in our minds.

Most people want to nurture children, love their friends, etc. If you saw yourself as a child, would you want to protect that child? If your friend was in pain, would you want to comfort your friend? If your favorite cousin needed help to survive, would you give it? So, assuming you say yes to these things, and assuming you consider this a positive aspect of yourself, can you see your self as your own child, your own friend, your own favorite cousin who you love? Sometimes I picture myself as a little girl and give her a big hug and tell her I haven't forgotten her, and that I love her. That's easier for me and reaches deeper than looking in the mirror. In the mirror, the whole world seems to see my flaws along with me through my own eyes. But when I picture my child self, the little blond, fragile, creative, loving, sensitive, horse-adoring, kitten-nurturing non-stop reader who loved playing by the water and building miniature architectural wonders with child-made ponds and rivers, I adore her with all my being and if the world wanted to hurt her I would destroy the world to save her.

Is it a trick of the mind? I don't think so. Looking back, there are things that hurt so bad and I wish I could go back and tell her that she's loved. So I do. I go back and hold her and tell her it's all right, I'm there for her. I'm her friend and ally, her mother and sister, her dragon if need be to fight her monsters and turn them into bits of charcoal. I don't want her to be so sheltered that she never grows up and never becomes strong, but by the blessed world she deserves to know she's loved and that she's not alone!

It's harder, maybe too hard, to extend these feelings to my grown self. I don't know if there's value in trying, when there's so much power in embracing the child within and honoring her. It's hard to see myself as Rory sees me, but I don't know if there's value in that either, when there's so much strength and joy in not just hearing the words, but accepting his love.

So that's where I'm at. By hearing and accepting praise, we let ourselves be loved, and can love ourselves. If we love ourselves, we're more likely to take care of ourselves, nurture ourselves, and grow. We can't always be stronger, or wiser, or more beautiful. Disease, age, genetics and all kinds of other stuff stand in the way. But the only thing that stands in the way of accepting love, loving ourselves and taking the best care of ourselves that we can is ourselves. I see nothing to be gained with self-loathing, and everything to be gained by being a friend to myself and help myself achieve my goals.

Maybe someday it'll be easier to do that. Even now, after all I've written and knowing it's true, it's hard to accept that liking myself isn't narcissistic horror. And maybe that's a check-and-balance within ourselves, to keep from become self-centered monsters that don't give a crud about anyone or anything else. But negativity and self-doubt should be just that, a thing to help keep balance, not the only thing in our minds. Ever.