A Perspective on Feral Children

“Contempt prior to investigation is what enslaves a mind to Ignorance.”

–William Paley

“Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.

–Albert Einstein

“Everyone is a genius.  But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

– frequently attributed to Albert Einstein, but this may, in fact, be false.

 

Safran’s first impressions of the girl were of a form shrouded in shadow; she named her Nyx, after the goddess of night.  The name is more of a reflection on Safran, and the place she was in when she encountered Nyx, than it is on the character of Nyx herself.

The goddess Nyx, daughter of Khaos (Chaos, air), is an imposing, if little known figure in mythology.  A quick purview of most texts on Greek or Roman (Nox) mythos grants little more than a few paragraphs, and most of that information is little better than a family tree.  She is listed, however, as one of the first gods; Homer claims that Zeus himself feared her, and from Homer’s account of the matter, we gain the insight that her rage is roused at a threat to one of her many children.  In this instance, the child was Hypnos (sleep), but Nyx also is reported to be the mother of the Fates, Furies, Thanatos (death), Hemera (day, dawn), among many other well and lesser known gods.

Nyx the character bears little to no similarity to her namesake.  She does not spawn sleep, death, or any other form of destruction, but holds instead a steadfast fascination for life and its nurture.  Still, for all the reader knows, Nyx might as well have come from chaos itself; Nyx is a “feral” child.

“Feral” children isn’t a term I particularly care for, hence the quotation marks.  Certainly the phrasing implies that the child has grown without the care of society or cultural influence, and while this is true, it also infers the unpleasant image of a hirsute, scrambling, animalistic “raised by wolves” individual, who is only waiting for the right specialist to come along and reform the unfortunate “creature” into an “acceptable” human being.  We, as “civilized” beings, seem to decry the idea that these people cannot be simply molded at whim into gross approximations of ourselves.  After all, how can anyone know the true definition of happiness, if they have not experienced our version of happiness for themselves?  Aren’t we doing them a favor?

I doubt it.

The depiction of feral children in fiction and film has often been dramatically removed from reality.  It seems inevitable that the child, who is usually somehow lost or abandoned in the woods, only to be raised by some animal group or another (wolves, anyone?), will be stumbled across by some well-meaning companion who will strive for, and eventually secure, their assimilation into society.  Few authors bother with that pesky “critical period” of language development, where any child not exposed to speech before the age of seven becomes increasingly unlikely to be able to string sentences together, especially in a grammatically correct or complex way.  I prefer to believe that this is a result of the brain’s plasticity, or the ability of the human mind to shape itself to its best advantage for survival in any given environment.  After all, if a human loses a finger, then the brain will eventually incorporate the space used for the mobility and sensations of that finger to add increased support for the other four fingers on that hand.  So, when a child is not exposed to language within a reasonable time span, they use the brain space for other, more pressing, environmental concerns.  Whatever the case, profoundly abused and neglected children, such as Genii, to name a famous example, display dramatically different results on tests of brain activity from those of normal children.  How is a child, or even an adult in such a circumstance, to appear normal?

Should we even strive for that?

Hopefully, if one is a parent or mentor of a child that is different, either from mental illness, some cognitive “impairment”, or other disorder that may impact the ability to act in line with social norms, one attempts to do their best to ease the child’s struggles, to give them the best hope of a normal life, and to give them the tools to achieve happiness in spite of the fact that the child is unconventional.

At first, I didn’t understand Nyx at all.  I tried to force her to be what she was not; I did not bother to see who she was as a person, or who she was meant to be.  I’m ashamed to say that I bullied her, that I cajoled, and screamed, and begged, all in the name of turning her into something she was not, and will never be.  I loved her in my own self-serving way; I told myself I wanted her to be whole, and “normal”.  She could grow and change, all to fit my whims and needs.  I did not think to embrace her strengths, or to offer her the nourishment to become the best version of herself.  I tried to beat her into the shape that fit a common mold.

For a very long time, I missed a valuable lesson.  Maybe it is a truth.

When I discovered that Nyx fit the label of “feral child” I sought more information on the topic.  I was horrified to discover how they had been described, viewed, and designated throughout history; I was traumatized by their fates.  The picture painted was far from rosy, even if humanity sometimes viewed them in a tragic romanticized haze.  What galled me the most was the “scientific” view of the differences in brain activity.  It was one thing to use feral children (“the forbidden experiment”) as an argument for nature vs. nurture, but quite another to argue that they were mentally deficient, either as a result of their circumstances or because they were plunged into said circumstances because their parents resented their handicaps in the first place (I say it’s a shoddy excuse for abuse or neglect, and the parents’ excuses unverifiable, and probably hogwash, at that).  The implication placed in the tone and phrasing of these reports was that feral children were somehow less, simply because their talents and skills did not expand to the scope of linguistic skill.  Yet few of the children in the videos and texts displayed a lack of intelligence; they seemed, to me, to learn at a remarkable rate.  One child, purportedly, indicating a disdain for cooked food when it was placed in front of him, jumped in a nearby water supply, and caught his own supply, tool free, in less than five minutes.  He offered to share.  Some children displayed astounding climbing, running, and jumping abilities. In fact, most humans living in a first world country today would stand a scant chance of survival if placed in similar conditions to those that these children lived in before their discovery by neighboring townspeople.  If you’re wondering, none of these children were adopted by animals, although they might have learned some skills by observing them.  Does that strike you as lacking in intelligence?

What is intelligence anyway?  I’ve yet to see a test that accurately measures intelligence.  It seems, honestly, as if the tests measure how well we’ve adapted in an educational sense to a particular culture and society in relation to our age.  There are other ways of viewing the world, of adapting to it, of interacting with it.  Those of us who “fit in” may have difficulty understanding the perspectives and actions of those who are different from us, and comprehension becomes an even more demanding task when others cannot communicate with us in the way we are accustomed to.

All of us are a little bit different.  Sometimes, if we are lucky, our differences are seen as skills rather than deficits.  Can you imagine an environment or situation where schizophrenia, or Asperger’s, or any number of other supposed issues might be positive adaptations?  Do you think there might be skills or thinking patterns associated with depression or other conditions that may actually be helpful in certain fields of study or activities?  Or perhaps, aren’t there things that these people teach us, ways in which they make us better simply by existing and being themselves?

I no longer want to force Nyx into that mold.  The way she sees the world is unique and beautiful.  I refuse to propagate the idea that there is only one right way to be.  Barring certain unsociable acts (e.g. murder), individuals, even cultures, who are different from us broaden our scope of thought and perception.  They grant us new lenses from which to view the world, and enlighten us as to the variability, adaptability, and resilience of humanity, and in fact, life itself.

 

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An Excerpt

The following is the first part of Chapter One of my untitled novel.  The story is raw and young yet, despite having danced through my head for the past fourteen years of my life.  I will not be posting the entirety of the work, unless, of course, having finished it, and gone through multiple rewrites and edits, it fails to find any favor with the publishing and editing “gods”.  Before anyone reads further, I owe those who stumble across the blog a DISCLAIMER: this is not a pretty novel.  It is a dark fantasy, and as the word dark suggests, its nature often tends towards the shadowy ends of life that some brighter spirits may find unpalatable, depressing, or even morbid.  There will, at times, be descriptions of a bloody or violent nature, or representations of psychological turmoil, and if things of this sort tend to upset you, please skip this post.  Those of you, however, who enjoy fantasy or fairy tales may also be aware that fairy tales were not originally meant for children as they so often are today, but were actually often gory, visceral, very adult affairs.  The fey themselves, originally, were far removed from the tiny, sweet, pixie-dust spraying creatures represented in popular children’s cartoons today.  My novel was not originally intended as a salute to these old tales; I had diagramed the plot and was several chapters into the effort when I finally realized that I was rewriting a classic plot.  I had created such convolutions that at first the pattern was unrecognizable even to myself.  I knew I had borrowed from mythology in the overarching theme that an attempt to thwart destiny very often creates the destiny that was so feared in the first place, but I was not aware that I was recreating one of the first fairy tales I ever read.  It’s ironic, perhaps, that my efforts to avoid blatantly stealing a plot led me to a more couched, hidden one, but there you have it.  I spent a tremendous amount of time second guessing myself but ultimately decided to run with this unforeseen development.  If I am going to exploit one fairy tale, I might as well pay homage to some others in the meantime.

Deep breath.

—1—

            There was a monster, her grandmother would begin, and that monster lived all alone, walled in by stone, circled by sand, and magic, deep magic, for only the very best and brightest of magicians could hold such a savage beast at bay, away from the fragile world, and if their magic ever failed, and that monster got out, why, that would be the death of them all.

The monster had skin like rotting onions, and its fangs and claws perpetually dripped with the blood of hundreds of maidens, for that was what a monster like that liked to eat best of all.  The monster did not just eat its victims, no, it tortured them, and when it had tortured them, it drew out their entrails while they, too exhausted, too badly used to scream, simply watched, and when it had done that, it drained their blood and slaked itself on it.  The floors of that place where it lived, cried her grandmother, the very courtyard, lay thick with the dried out husks of its victims, so that with every shift of the monster’s feet one could hear the crunch of brittle flesh and bone.

“It pains me to talk about it,” her grandmother would insist, but she would tell the tale to anyone who would listen, and she would tell it often, as often as she cried for more tea to sooth her listeners’ souls and warm their fragile hearts, and her granddaughter would bring it, and pour it into the little porcelain cups that her grandmother’s daughter, her mother, had given her when times had been better.

Today the granddaughter gently set her cakes, delicately iced and resplendent in roses and vines on the lace tablecloth, and let tea cascade, a steaming, fragrant waterfall, to a rippling pool in the company’s cup.

“I’m such a gentle person, you know,” murmured her grandmother apologetically, while lifting a stray handkerchief to blot elegantly at her eyes, “and this story does pain me so.  But you ought to know, dear, you really ought to know.  Having daughters of your own and all.  I’ve heard there’s a man who pays extravagant prices for young girls, pretending to offer them honest work, so that he can slake the monster’s bloodlust.  And you must know the truth, the whole truth, so that you and your daughters never fall prey to such a dreadful fate.”

“Why, how horrible!” gasped the guest.  “Can such a thing really exist?  And to think of…of, well…to think of someone actually feeding it.  People, I mean.  It’s so crude.”

“Oh, yes, my dear, I quite agree.  But apparently it’s the only way to appease the thing, to keep it from testing the limits of it’s cage.  And there are so many greedy low people willing to accept the money and look the other way, you know.  People not quite so refined as yourself.”

“Or yourself, of course, Ebba.”

Ebba, the grandmother, smiled and nodded sagely in acknowledgement.  “It’s very kind of you to say so.”

“And yet I still don’t understand.  If such a thing exists, why not simply kill it and save us all?”  The mother of young girls, aroused at this news of a new threat to her children, insisted, it seemed, on being skeptical in hope of defending her small progeny by the simple act of denial.

But her host had other ideas.  “Exists? I assure you, Charlotte, this creature is as real as you or I.  Nine years ago, in the most hostile and barren of the king’s land, he had a fortress built, so hastily and out of whatever stone he could find that it looks, from a distance, like a mottled vase botched at the pottery wheel.  He surrounded it with three walls, and covered the outer one, too, with so many spines and needles and blades that it bristles like a porcupine.  There are no doors, but I’m told instead that the laborers who built it were commanded to seal it while still working within, and when they brought the monster to it’s prison, the laborers were still there.  Well, you can guess what happened to them.  My son was…”  Ebba stared, mournfully, at a pink rosette that beckoned cheerfully from a confection on her plate, and Charlotte, struck momentarily speechless, waited helplessly for her to continue. “…But I’m sure you are wondering why anyone would do such a thing.  Some say that they were sealed in to distract the monster long enough to bind it still further with spells.   As to why they don’t kill the thing, well, it simply cannot be killed.”

Ebba’s granddaughter, returning, unnoticed in her absence, and disregarded at her reappearance, offered up a tray of miniscule cucumber sandwiches and fluffy pastries to Charlotte’s elbow.

“It cannot…” whispered the guest, oblivious to the child at her side, “…die?”

Ebba sniffed, fidgeted uncharacteristically with a silk napkin, elaborate with azure embroidery.  Finally she conceded, “Perhaps it can die.  But no one has ever been able to destroy it.”

They were all silent for a moment: Charlotte, suddenly seeing shadows at the base of her tea cup, and Ebba’s clouded eyes fixed intently on her guest’s face.  The child’s arm trembled, her fingers quivering with exhaustion, but her eyes saw only night growing in the cracks between the floorboards, sliding out from underneath the tablecloth, growing in the folds of her grandmother’s skirts.

Belatedly Charlotte recognized the dimness gathering in the hollows of her saucer and realized what it meant.  “Why, me!” her voice did not sound like her own, it was so forcedly gay, “But I’ve completely forgotten the time!  It’s quite late, and your tale so engrossing I didn’t notice the dark creeping up on us.”

“Oh, but you’ll stay for supper, I hope?  An old lady like me, by herself in this house, gets lonely with nothing but spiders for company.  I’d be delighted if you would stay, my dear.”  The tiny plates on the shaking tray rattled ominously, and Charlotte glanced over at last, surprised, to be transfixed by the oddity of a small shivering being entirely swaddled in cloth, and clinging desperately to it’s tray.  It bends it’s head, she thought, as if readying itself for the blow of the executioner’s axe.

“I…”  Charlotte appraised the mysterious creature again, forgetting for the moment the question at hand.  “Who, may I ask, is this, then?”  And hearing the distressing chatter of plate and glass, she swept the platter and its contents from it’s bearers grasp to a safe resting place on the table.

“A servant,” Ebba replied briskly, and did not mention blood, as she had so often that evening, or the way it drew, in this case, bonds between her and the child she spoke of, “who is now dismissed.  No doubt she has other duties that need looking after.”

Ebba watched her daughter’s child only long enough to insure that she turned around and headed for the door, but Charlotte saw the child peek over her shoulder as she passed the door jam, and guessed that the child could see less of her than she could see of it, despite the billowing linen, like a shroud, that held it together.

“Her face…”  gasped Charlotte, a few moments later, when she thought the apparition was out of earshot.

“Yes.  So unfortunate.  Deformed from birth, I’m afraid.  And clumsy with it.  She falls often.  She keeps hidden most of the time.  Out of shame.”  Ebba was empathy personified.  “You won’t gossip about her, will you?  It must be so hard, to have such a countenance.”

Charlotte nodded dutifully, disoriented by the horrors she had glimpsed that last hour.  “Of course.  I wouldn’t wish to hurt anyone.”

“Thank you, my dear.  But won’t you stay for dinner?  I don’t believe you’ve given me an answer.  You hold me in exquisite suspense.”

Ebba smiled, but the darkness caught in the folds of her chin and the cracks of her teeth so that to the eyes of her guest she frowned and grimaced at the same time. I’ve gone morbid, Charlotte guessed, from that sordid tale.  First the child and now this.  She found she was gripping the leg of the table in an effort to keep herself from bolting out the door.

“I…I appreciate your offer, but…my family is waiting for me.”

“A pity.”

“Yes.”

“Perhaps another time?”

“Of course.”  The reply, a moment too late for courtesy, and Ebba’s cloudy eyes became thunderheads.

“Allow me to show you out then,” coaxed the gracious host.

Brene Brown and the Courage to Be Imperfect

I really liked this post and video. Hopefully, if you haven’t already seen it for yourselves, you’ll like it, too.

Lisa Rivero

This term I am teaching in the basement of a campus building where I rarely have classes . On Monday, I leisurely walked to my classroom, congratulating myself on being more than a few minutes early. It was a good thing, too, because someone had re-arranged the tables so that I didn’t have one at the front of the room for my laptop. A handful of students were already in their seats. I set down my bag and took off my coat and draped it on the back of the chair before I realized that I didn’t recognize the students. Not any of them.

They must be lingering from the previous class, I thought. I was early, after all. A few of them looked at me quizzically as they continued their conversations, probably wondering if they should stop talking and be on their way, to make room for my 2…

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I’d like to blame…

myself.  Gluten-intolerance.  Random bouts of illness.  The restaurant industry.  The chaotic nature of fate.

Does it matter?

I haven’t been keeping up with this blog like I said I would.  I haven’t been doing much writing, either.

When I started my novel for what felt like at least the hundredth time, I wrote the first four chapters in a month, one a week, a page or four a day.  I wrote the next two chapters the month after that, and chapter 7 was finally finished sometime that August.  I think.  I started the current rewrite in December 2009.  I “finished” chapter 12 last week.  Less than thrilled by my lackluster progress, I’m now back to trying to buy a ticket to forward my novel along by plane.  This covered wagon nonsense is getting stale.  So are the hard-tack biscuits.

If I could eat biscuits.  Sigh.  Well, that’s one explanation for why everything in my life seems to be on standby.  After the first 15 years of non-stop headaches and stomachaches, my body realized I still hadn’t gotten the message and decided that, hey, maybe organ failure would be a more pertinent clue.  I remained oblivious, so my body escalated its tactics.  By the time I finally got the idea that, hey, something was seriously wrong, I was doing my utmost to simply remain upright at work without passing out and tumbling into a fryer or landing on a flat top.  Mr. Wonderful was carrying me to bed, propping me up while I took showers, and putting up with the fact that I was too exhausted to brush my teeth despite my “delightful” descent into cigarette and coffee addiction, because hey, funny thing, smoking helps mitigate some of the symptoms of Celiac disease and gluten intolerance (even if your body is still destroying itself from the inside out).  Smoking was the only thing holding my wildly swinging mood in any sort of check, and coffee was the only way I could function at work.  I frequently couldn’t walk without limping because my joints kept swelling up.  It was a daily struggle to remember where I was and what I was doing, never even mind why I was there.  I couldn’t play video games, or look at a television, or even read a book, because I couldn’t concentrate and it was too exhausting to hold a book open or push the buttons on the controller.  Besides, bright light was excruciating, and staring at a neon screen even more so.  Mr. Wonderful kept having to grab my hands to keep me from itching all of my skin off.  I spent all of my days off staring at walls for hours until I heard my husband’s key turning in the lock and started wondering where the time had gone.  I couldn’t sleep despite the exhaustion, and when I woke up I felt worse than when I had gone to bed.  Eating was almost impossible.  I ate once every seventy-two hours, watching my body distort into an emaciated wreck and hating it, but food tasted terrible, and swallowing and chewing were only achieved by conscious effort.  Besides, I had to plan for an extra half hour after every meal just for the after effects.  I’d look in the mirror and see a pregnant skeleton, protruding belly and ribs.  I wondered if I was anorexic and didn’t know it.  How could my stomach be so out of proportion with the rest of me, especially when I hadn’t eaten anything?  Surely I had to be seeing things, but I always felt even worse after I ate.

My doctors were as clueless as I was.  Worse, they thought I was a hypochondriac, because they’d ran me through every battery of tests they could think of, and I’d come back with praise worthy blood pressure and blood tests that looked like they were taken from a medical text book for the ideal numbers.  They recommended that I get some more exercise.  I began to believe it was all in my head, too, or that I was simply weak, and my job was too demanding.  “My job is killing me,” became my favorite joke, and then I started repeating other little phrases: “I think I can,” to myself, “I’m fine,” to inquiring friends, coworkers, and neighbors, or to my husband when he found me passed out on the floor a few too many times.  There was “You’re just lazy” and “Just get up and do it”.  Honestly, though, I wanted to know why I couldn’t find a single speck of joy in anything I used to love or care about, and that was probably the worst thing of all.

If you think this sounds like an excuse, it’s because it is.  I’ve been gluten-free for about eleven months now, and every day seems like a miracle.  I’ve done more in these past eleven months than I did in the five years of my life previous to that point.  Everything except writing.  If you look at the dates above, you’ll see I wrote over half of what I’ve written of my novel so far while I was still ingesting gluten.  Part of that was because trying to work was so painfully aggravating to the condition that I was reaching for even highly improbably chances of escape.  Ah, motivation.  The other part was that writing was the only thing I had ever cared about that still gave me any sort of satisfaction, and I needed that “fix”.  Oh, yes, I did.  The point remains that, despite the fact that writing was a struggle, I still did it anyway.

The past few weeks I’ve had a cold.  So what?

The restaurant is still a grueling, exhausting environment, getting more precariously stressful, it seems, with each passing day.  Every Tuesday, I’m honored with the dubious task of making pizzas and breathing in the swirling flour clouds.  Every workday, one of my employees will inevitably ask me to taste some sauce or some other something whatsit that has been thickened with roux.  If I’m lucky I can usually find a way to bow out, but usually, foolishly, I accede, only to reap the consequences later.  My job, and my own stupidity, are quite literally killing me.

I got roped into this job because I listened to a story character, who insisted that I needed to learn to cook and exist in an industrial kitchen environment if I was going to write my novel with any degree of authenticity.  I can’t quit, because I thought it was a great idea to go to college at one point, and now I have a great deal of crippling student loan debt that I can’t pay if I accept a lower paying job (which is all that’s available at the moment), even if it’s for my own health.  I went to college because gluten intolerance was wreaking psychological havoc, and after I learned quite a few things about dealing with that havoc, I decided that I wanted to share the relief with other people if they were willing.  Besides, knowing basic human psychology has got to be great for writing convincing story characters, right?

It’s days like these when the threads twisting throughout my life, interconnected and overlapping as they may be, feel like a noose closing in around my neck.  Writing gives me a sense of euphoria, accomplishment, change.  It doesn’t matter if I am ever published or if my novel ever nets me so much as a dollar (although both would be nice, no denying); I simply like the work and the way I feel afterwards.  Ah, there’s my ticket.  Best prepare to board the plane.

The Well

There is a glass

Towering above,

Perfectly centered in

The middle of the table—

An oasis—

Dwelling among desiccated

Mahogany;

Its depths make

Lustrous the hues of

Worn magnificence

Cracked seams

Creaking joints

Bowing under sleight weight.

Ripples trembling

Across the water’s surface,

Unceasing miniscule wave;

Despite breaths caught

Fluids quake:

Spillover imminent.

I am parched

But the vessel

Tastes of ocean,

Sea spray,

The collective flow of agony…

Personal anguish,

Well of tears.

Shall we drink

To brighter times

The illusion buried in

Salty deeps

Or dive in

Wallowing among

The slosh and slap

Sinking beneath

Undulating aqueous mass

Questing for meaning,

Grasping at the rim: that

Continuous circle,

Repetitious pain.

Doing it for Myself, Pretending I Did it For Someone Else

In the last three days, I’ve finished Chapter 12, completed and posted a poem, and made a thirty item list of potential blog topics.  I may also have settled on the plot of the novella I want to write for a contest.  Social pressure, real or imagined, is apparently an amazing motivation for me.  I’ve never been good about following through on promises I make to myself; I’ll procrastinate until frustration mounts to volcanic levels, or at least until I collapse into a pathetic self-pitying heap and realize that I’ll never stop demeaning myself until I actually do something besides bringing home a paycheck and paying the bills.  Despite a blemish-free history of solitary homework procrastination, where the telltale feel of warm paper slipping into my professor’s hands was always a humiliating revelation that, yes, I had just printed that assignment, I’ve always behaved myself for groups.  I cannot stand to let someone else suffer because of my actions, or lack thereof.  In brief, I hate disappointing others.  When I was 10, my mother woke up at 4 one morning, and seeing the light on in the living room, was mystified (oh, all right–appalled) to discover her youngest child sprawled on the carpet with an ancient, clacking typewriter because I had promised to type the entire report so the rest of my group members didn’t have to.  Did I mention I’m completely craven when it comes to taking on responsibility, even if it’s more than I can handle?

“Of course, I’ll…”

“Oh, it’s no problem; I’ll do it!”

And so on.  Earlier this evening my manager came back from the bar and  was surprised to see that I was still at work while my coworkers had been gone for almost an hour.  “You know you can make them stay and help you, right?” he reminded me.  “Oh, yeah, of course, but it’s sort of my job…” I began in wishy-washy fashion, knowing full well that I could have shoved at least 30% of what I do every night off on the newbies, who I have seniority, and *gulp*, position over (technically; I try not to think about that part).

I finished work and went home, and that’s when I finally asked myself, “When was the last time I did something, just for me?”

Answer: I have absolutely no idea.  Maybe this blog is the answer to that question.  After all, a blog is a pretty convenient way of deluding myself into believing there’s social pressure when in all actuality I’m the one who makes the promises, sets the guidelines, and reaps the benefits.  I could, theoretically, drop off the blogging radar at any time, and the person my disappearance would most effect would be me.  Isn’t the real reason I’m blogging because I know I need an illusion to motivate myself into actually doing something I want to do?  I think it is.

So, in reality, I started a blog as self-manipulation, and it’s actually working.

I’ve never been so proud.