6.24.2017

I Made an Allegorical Cake Today

One of my favorite things to do is bake -- cookies, cakes, pies, fudge, anything at all that is sweet and puts a smile on someone's face! I try to have something delicious and homemade on hand as often as possible for after-dinner. As may be expected, my boyfriend, Ben, is extremely supportive of these endeavours. 

We spent two weeks in England visiting his family, during which time I discovered a multitude of wonderful new things to make at home. Bakewell tart, hot cross buns, Battenberg cake, proper scones, and a magical creation called a Victoria sponge. It's a yellow sponge cake with jam and cream between the layers and topped with plain sugar. In general, I try to learn as many recipes as I can for things he grew up with or is used to eating; I've seen him get a bit homesick once or twice and I expect if I were living in a foreign country I might have some of the same twinges. So here we are, a couple of weeks settled back in at home, jet lag gone, and today I decided would be a perfect day to try a Victoria sponge.

It started out okay. Recipe:

- 1 box Betty Crocker Butter Recipe yellow cake mix
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup water
- 1/3 cup softened unsalted butter
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 3 tbsp icing (confectioner's) sugar
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 jar Bonne Maman raspberry preserves

Simply follow the instructions on the back of the cake mix box, using two greased round pans for easy layers. Let both halves of the cake cool in their pans for a bit.

While that's happening, stick your mixer beater(s) and a metal bowl into the freezer for about 15 minutes to chill. Pull them back out once the time is up, add the heavy whipping cream, and beat on medium-high setting until you start seeing soft peaks while you mix. Add the sugar and vanilla, then beat on medium-high again until those peaks get nice and stiff and it starts looking like the whipped cream we all know and love. Finished product:


The difference in taste between homemade whipped cream and the store-bought concoction in the tub or can is mind-blowing. I usually find the store version too nauseating, but this had a flavor more like a vanilla custard with a much nicer, albeit still very light, consistency. 

The trouble began when it came time to pop the cakes out of their pans and onto a cooling rack. In a perfect world, I would have spread the jam on the bottom of the top layer and the cream on the top of the bottom layer and combined the two like the tastiest Voltron in existence, then sifted plain sugar over the top, and waited proudly for Ben to come home. This is not a perfect world.


Yes, I had been betrayed by my non-stick cake pans, despite multiple prior uses with no problems; thinking back, I had greased them before needing to suddenly run out to the pharmacy for some emergency medicine, then came back and poured in the batter -- the greasing agent may have dried a bit in that time. The "why" was no comfort at all. My cake was ruined. I couldn't even look at it. I sent a very upset text to Ben and posted the picture of the broken cake on Facebook with some darkly witty comment about the world being terrible, because look at my cake, just look at it. Who would want to eat a cake like that?

And then my friend Erin, a fellow chronic illness warrior queen, put things into perspective for me.


I stopped being angry and hating my cake. It didn't matter if the cake was broken because I made a mistake or my pans were defective; I still had a perfectly good cake. It didn't deserve to be thrown in the trash or shamed on social media. It was baked to be the way it was, and all I could do if I wanted cake is to do the best I could to smush the broken bits back together and move forward.

Most of you can probably see the point that I'm making here.

Inadvertently, I had made not a Victoria sponge, but something new, an Allegorical Cake. I had the most brilliant plans for myself, both in my career and what I would accomplish out of life, and instead I ended up broken. Being broken didn't mean I was any less of a person. Some people may look at me and see only my illness and my challenges and write me off, but they're missing out on someone who I like to think is worth knowing. Every day I can open my eyes and say "I exist" is a triumph, even if that's all I'm able to do that day.

The cake is my mother. She was positively vibrant when I was young, always ready to go somewhere and do something, to have adventures, to play with me for hours on end. She indulged in intricate crafts like china painting and scherenschnitte. Now she has myalgic encephalomyelitis as a result of permanent brain damage caused by a virus she contracted at her old job. She is in awful pain every day of her life, and sometimes all she can do is rest -- but that's okay.

The cake is my youngest stepchild, who is autistic. To outside observers, he's just being bratty or badly-behaved, when he is simply being himself the only way he knows how to be and the only way he is capable of being. He is no less wonderful of a child or a human. He processes the world in a unique way that has made me re-evaluate my own take on life as I thought I knew it.

We are all the cake. We all have our cracks, our burned bits, our unevenly spread frosting, but we are still good. There is at least one person in the world who will smile at us and think we are perfect the way we are. Our value does not diminish based on our flaws. Some of the most delicious-looking cakes are actually covered in fondant, which I am convinced is just wallpaper paste with sugar added and thus a fine way to ruin a cake that would have been great without needing to be fixed or improved or held to an arbitrary standard of what defines a "cake."


It really is a great little cake after all.




6.16.2017

How Gaming Made Me Realize I Was Sick

I've played World of Warcraft since shortly after it launched -- February 2005, to be exact. Although I initially rolled on a PvP server to be with my friends in the time before cross-realm zoning, I found myself more drawn to raiding PvE content. For the non-gamers out there staring blankly at the previous sentence, this means I didn't want to smash other players in the face. I wanted to smash monsters.

I practiced hard. I joined progression-based raiding guilds when I was good enough to pass their stringent application and audition process; first I'd have to submit an in-depth written application on their forum, stating why I wanted to join and explaining a bit about myself and my approach to playing, and then if I sounded like someone they wanted to raid with, I showed up for a test night where I'd run with them and show off my skills in person. If I did enough healing and kept the party alive long enough, I was in. Not to seem vain, but for sake of honesty, I was never anything but in after that first run.

Raiding guilds, however, rise and fall. Real-life obligations sometimes overtake primary raiders' free time, and worthy replacements are not always readily available. Sometimes in-fighting and drama would collapse a guild inwards onto itself. Once or twice I just felt that I didn't mesh as well with the guild as I'd hoped and sought out a new home where I didn't feel so much like an outsider. After a few guild and server changes -- you have to go where the loot is, after all -- I decided to try leading raids myself. It required a great deal of strategy and organization, often having to make tough calls about who was "ready" to join the melee when progression was the sole focus. My own gameplay had to be completely on point, otherwise who was I to advise other people? I had to know the mechanics of every class and every spec. When a new patch was released, I pored over every line of the notes to determine what would be relevant in planning our attack that night. It was a ton of work, but I loved it, even if it was very nearly a full-time job in addition to the one I already held.

Then one day a new patch dropped, and the notes didn't make sense.

I thought I was just tired, overworked. The words that once were so comprehensible to me now seemed like they were written in another language about a subject I knew nothing about. I devised a strategy for a boss that night according to the best of my ability, even given the strange fog, and it led to wipe after wipe. Frustrated and ashamed, I refused to accept input from another guild member who didn't seem to be experiencing the same confusion, and we fought quite viciously over voice chat. I left the guild -- and raid leadership -- behind shortly after.

My skills started to falter. Fights and mechanics that previously had given me no trouble at all were now insurmountable obstacles. I couldn't tell what direction objects were moving in. Sometimes I couldn't tell if they were moving, period. My reaction time dropped through the floor. I couldn't see certain particle effects or tell where they actually were on a three-dimensional plane. The patch notes continued to be incomprehensible to me; I knew what the words said, but I couldn't give them context or meaning with regards to the game. Eventually it got so bad that the only way I could complete dungeons was to run with a close friend, the sole person who knew I was having difficulties, who would mark himself with a raid icon so I could follow his movements easily and stay out of trouble. My normally impeccable typing in chat turned into a jumble of misspellings and incorrect word substitutions to the point that I just stopped talking to people altogether.

I went from being one of the best healers on my server to barely being able to keep the main tank healed. I was beyond aggravated with myself; I would mute myself on voice chat and have panic attacks from the first boss to the last. My joints started to hurt, making it difficult for me to sit through an entire raid and causing my already-slowed reaction time to plummet even further since clicking the mouse button or moving suddenly to avoid an enemy spell would send excruciating pain through my fingers and wrists. Maybe it's just carpal tunnel and staying up too late, I still believed. The doctor ruled out carpal tunnel. The pain got worse.

Around the same time I noticed that I could no longer play Dance Dance Revolution in the arcade, a game for which I'd previously participated in exhibitions and won competitions. Not only was the pain terrible, but there was a point at which my legs would just lock in place and stop receiving any signals from my brain. In music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, I could no longer keep rhythm. The song would speed up and slow down randomly for me, and I found myself scrambling to avoid failing the level. I'd watch people I played with to see if they were struggling too; none of them showed any indication of a flaw in the game or the television set we were using.

It was getting harder and harder to deny that something was terribly wrong. I saw multiple doctors over that ten-year span, none of whom could figure out a name for my affliction. Despite being able to provide a clear and specific list of symptoms, what with my gaming difficulties bringing them to the front and center of my attention, I was told nothing was amiss and that I was probably just looking for attention or for drugs. I resigned myself to giving up on DDR altogether and never raiding again. I wandered through World of Warcraft with no guild, no close friendships, because I was too embarrassed to let anyone else see me play.

A few months ago my boyfriend noticed that I was experiencing more frequent severe pain and that my dexterity issues were worsening. He convinced me to go to a doctor one more time -- as may be expected, I was skeptical that anything different would happen. This time, however, I was diagnosed with Sjogren's Syndrome and fibromyalgia, both of which explained everything I was going through. There is no cure for either disease and I likely will never be able to regain the level of gaming skill I once possessed, a heartbreaking realization for me given how much pride I used to take in my ability.

I've found ways to cope. I switched to damage-dealing classes in World of Warcraft, which are much easier and less stressful for me to play than healing classes. I've structured my action bars in order of key strikes for the rotations I find on sites like Icy Veins -- I let other people do my number-crunching and figuring now, since I can't do it myself anymore -- and I try to put similar types of attacks in the same general area across my characters so I can rely on muscle memory instead of my impaired memory and cognition. I still haven't returned to DDR, and I play Rock Band exclusively with my boyfriend and his kids, who don't care if I mess up the whole time. My hope is that if I keep trying, I can rehabilitate myself to the point that my neurological impairments don't affect me quite so much, though playing with people I don't know is still terrifying to me.

Which is why I'd like to end on a positive note with a story from a day or so ago: I got up the courage to start running dungeons in World of Warcraft through the "Looking for Dungeon" tool, and was placed in a group of complete strangers for a particular dungeon which is especially difficult for me due to particle effects I can't see and a need for precise positioning. I couldn't even make it past the entrance of the dungeon; I died six times in a row. Sure that I'd be berated or kicked out of the group anyway, I sent a message to the party chat saying "I'm sorry, I have a visual impairment with the bombs and can't get to you, so I'm going to just drop."

The tank in the party insisted I stay and that they'd come get me. The healer followed to patch up wounds in case of a misstep while the rest of the party called out where and how I should move to avoid the bombs. It was fifteen seconds of kindness that brought me to tears and, for the first time in years, made me feel like I was really playing again.

6.07.2017

Dreams are Nebulous Things

As a kid, I was always worried that I never really knew what I wanted to do with my life. I had a ton of interests and a whole pile of things that I thought I'd maybe like to do someday, but if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer would change based on the day of the week.

"Working in the game industry" was never an answer until a few years ago. I simply had never thought of it as an option -- probably a product of my growing up in the Dark Ages before programs like Unity and RPG Maker existed -- until a World of Warcraft guildmate who did work in the games industry expressed surprise that I was a 'civilian.' He told me that the way I discussed mechanics and content sounded exactly like the sorts of conversations he'd had with devs at his workplace. (Side note: said guildmate became my stepfather a few years later, because the world is kind of a weird place.)

I loved and, of course, still love video games. I had just gotten laid off from my barista job at a tea shop. I was living in a spare bedroom with my grandparents on the Gulf Coast of Florida, an environment in which I felt terribly out of place. There was nothing to lose by trying, and the more I thought about being involved in actually creating the games I played, the more excited I was at the idea. I sent in over two dozen applications to the industry -- mostly Blizzard, I won't pretend otherwise -- over the span of a year and a half and moved to Southern California to be a more attractive candidate until finally I landed a QA position for inXile's Wasteland 2. In my time there I met some great people and got my first real taste of the industry, but ultimately, Blizzard was still my goal; I'd been playing World of Warcraft since its release originally as a hardcore raider and now dreamt of creating the stories and content I spent so much of my time playing through.

And eventually I got in.

But three years later, I still wasn't doing the work I wanted to do. I was at the right company, but not in the right role or on the right project. I kept trying to move into the type of position I wanted and got devastatingly close a few times, but before I could try again, I started getting sick.

Well, sicker. I'd been unwell for close to a decade with mysterious symptoms that no doctor seemed able to link to a particular disease. Suddenly I was in too much pain to walk between buildings for meetings, getting confused over day-to-day tasks like crossing the street or getting ready in the morning, exhausted all the time no matter how much sleep I got, frequently incapacitated by stomach attacks... the list went on and on. When it started interfering with my ability to do my job, something had to be done. I ended up with a diagnosis of Sjogren's Syndrome and probable fibromyalgia on top of my existing IBS and complex PTSD. It's not fatal, but it increases my risk of cancer, heart attack, and stroke, as well as seriously affecting my quality of life. On top of everything else, I'd gone through a divorce and later started a relationship where I gained not only a loving partner but two fantastic kids. It was enough to make anyone re-evaluate their priorities.

So I did.

I wasn't happy. I hadn't been happy for a long time. And I didn't have the strength or the will to keep fighting my way down that particular path towards fulfillment. We live in a society that stresses production as a means to determine worth -- if you can't produce according to arbitrary standards of what you 'should' be doing, you're a failure. This thinking is so damaging and so wrong that it hurts my heart to even consider how far past the point of sanity I'd pushed myself and my fragile health, all out of the fear of not being good enough in other people's eyes. I was supportive of my friends who were starting their own businesses, focusing on their art, staying at home with their families, or taking care of themselves due to their own medical crises; why couldn't I extend myself that same understanding and courtesy?

Answer: I totally could. I just had to rewire my brain a little in the process, but I finally got the courage to walk towards a life of fulfilling my own passions and principles, not the ones forced on me by others.

I realize that in the eyes of many I'm walking away from a dream job. There's a recurring passage in The Devil Wears Prada I'm reminded of -- the protagonist, Andrea Sachs, has landed a job as an assistant to an elite fashion editor who ends up being a complete nightmare to work with. No matter how badly she's struggling or how unreasonable the request given to her by her boss, the people she talks to keep telling her "A million girls would kill for your job" because they're so blinded by the flash and panache they can't see her burden.

The question becomes -- now what? Well, the sky's the limit:

  • Go back to streaming, both for myself and for charities like Extra Life (I hope to participate this year!)
  • Finish the final editing pass of my novel and publish it
  • Write a bunch of cheesy, partially dirty romance novels I've always wanted to try writing... and publish them, much to my mother's chagrin
  • Take the time I need to make sure I'm caring for myself so that I can take care of the people important to me -- my family
  • Write for sites like The Mighty and others supporting causes I care about
  • Travel as much as possible
  • Focus on learning more about the subjects that interest me -- including going back to school, should the opportunity ever arise
  • Develop my own game
  • Pick back up with needlepoint and crochet as my joints allow and reopen my Etsy store
  • Keep exploring to find out what else I might want to do next
And that's just off the top of my head! I have the opportunity to do the things I love and experiment a little bit. I was always happiest working for myself. Of course, there are risks, but they've been weighed out and accounted for very carefully, so I'm doing it.

My official last day at Blizzard is June 30th. I've encountered so many amazing people and I'm glad I got the chance to be here, but I'm thrilled to be looking to the horizon for my next adventure.