Sister-mine: a story of cyber sisters

I’ve been working on this blog post since August 27th, 2018 and also since 1996. 22 years ago. My family lived between Mukilteo, Washington and Victor, Montana. We had our first home computer stationed just outside the white walled kitchen of our apartment in Mukilteo. It was a Compaq Presario and we had A.O.L. I was around 12 at the time I first used the internet. Somewhere during my time surfing: I discovered a Play-by-E-mail Sailor Moon roleplaying group. It’s exactly what it sounds like: someone began a story in a mass email, wrote a section, sent it forward. We would read it, add a little more, and send it back. The result was a long, branching story based on Sailor Moon characters that we’d all made up. I was Sailor Dark Moon and I think her power was ice.

Somewhere during that time: I met a girl, my own age, who was also playing. We became friends. We emailed back and forth and shared our love of Sailor Moon. My memories of my childhood fade around the edges. We started to send boxes of gifts and trinkets: friendship bracelets, cards, photos, letters; we did this at least once in our childhood. I remember she sent me her copy of Wild Arms 2 (for original Playstation) which I still have. We sent poems, short stories, artwork and photographs over the years.

 This is a picture of 16(?) year old Stephanie in West Virginia and a picture of me resting on her bulletin board in the background. Also Pocahontas because she's a giant #Disnerd and always has been.

This is a picture of 16(?) year old Stephanie in West Virginia and a picture of me resting on her bulletin board in the background. Also Pocahontas because she's a giant #Disnerd and always has been.

After our Sailor Moon RPG we decided we wanted to write something darker, more "edgy." We were 14 and both lived in rural towns. I'll let you guess exactly how much "edge" we had in our real lives. We made up two sisters: Jade and Kami Astar with jet black hair and blue and purple eyes (we were both brunettes/blonde with nowhere near as intense eyes), gave them amazing skills with weapons and magic, curse words, caffeine, nicotine, boyfriends and even husbands, we explored marriage, violence, infertility, terrorism--the topics we wrote about over the years were often something we could never talk to anyone else about. We lived lives through Jade and Kami that took us from friends to cyber-sisters. 

We wrote in a time before spellcheck and before it ever occurred to us that spelling and grammar were something to be proud of. We just loved the story, the characters, winding an inexplicable (and often odd and hilarious) path through these fictional lives. We were living and breathing in worlds that we simply weren't allowed to consider in our early, teenage lives. And it was terrible! But we loved it. I'll share two embarrassing excerpts from somewhere around 1998-1999 (I'm writing as Jade and Stephanie is writing as Kami):

We created artwork together--sharing everything from Microsoft Paint to illegal copies of early Photoshop. This relationship between writing and art would continue throughout our lives and we'd continue to collaborate and share dreams and ideas (and software). 

Our writing graduated to include fan art! We made artwork of our characters: mostly using Sailor Moon images for reference. I can probably tell you the issues of Tomb Raider, The Darkness, Witchblade or PSN Magazine that I borrowed the poses/reference material for. Clearly, I wanted to be an artist when I was younger... These images range from when I was between 14 and 17 (disclaimer: that's between 17 and 20 years ago now!).

 My nickname for Stephanie, ‘sister-mine’ even has literary roots: I first saw it used in a book series by Tanya Huff.

My nickname for Stephanie, ‘sister-mine’ even has literary roots: I first saw it used in a book series by Tanya Huff.

 Jack (Stephanie's cat) and Boo (my baby). Boo has shorter hair than Jack but somehow I ended up with a Tuxedo cat just like Steph.

Jack (Stephanie's cat) and Boo (my baby). Boo has shorter hair than Jack but somehow I ended up with a Tuxedo cat just like Steph.

 Stephanie recovered this screenshot from an email from circa 2008. No copy of the game exists to my knowledge. I'm quite saddened by that fact, really.

Stephanie recovered this screenshot from an email from circa 2008. No copy of the game exists to my knowledge. I'm quite saddened by that fact, really.

Stephanie and I have had various fictional versions within my stories: from Jade and Kami Astar, to their daughters Leia and Sabor, to online aliases in "6 Hours Remaining," to Dawn in my Transcendence story (destined to be Malisyn's best friend later in life), we've collaborated on everything from play-by-Forum stories, novellas to short stories to: really, food inspired this story? Food. Yes. Really.:

 Some random concept graphic I made for a steampunk story we were considering in 2014? I dare say nothing has come of it yet but I've not given up on it! And neither has she: the flying kingdoms in the sky made it in to my motivational poster!

Some random concept graphic I made for a steampunk story we were considering in 2014? I dare say nothing has come of it yet but I've not given up on it! And neither has she: the flying kingdoms in the sky made it in to my motivational poster!

Stephanie continued to draw (she graduated from Columbus Academy of Art and Design!), and we both kept on writing. Stephanie went on to draw sketches and characters from my stories, which I'm shamelessly sharing here: Top lefto two are Malisyn, then Nox, bottom left is Meghan (Earthborne), then Malisyn and a group concept piece from Transcendence.

You can see Stephanie’s portfolio on her website: http://stephskiles.com

We've shared all sorts of adventures--our teenage years, our 20s and now our mid-30s where we deal with things like weight gain, adult acne, dentures and step-children. We share our battles and our loses over the internet, often connecting on Facebook Messenger on a daily basis to check in, bitch, listen, ask about life--

 Circa July 2017: Steph shows off that she caved and finally bought a FitBit, and I'm showing off an empty water bottle (because I hate water). Together we've struggled with the inexplicable weight-gain of our 30s and an inability to stay motivated.

Circa July 2017: Steph shows off that she caved and finally bought a FitBit, and I'm showing off an empty water bottle (because I hate water). Together we've struggled with the inexplicable weight-gain of our 30s and an inability to stay motivated.

 2015: Stephanie's art is a recognizable spirit within our house, and this image especially is closest to my heart because it involves both of them.

2015: Stephanie's art is a recognizable spirit within our house, and this image especially is closest to my heart because it involves both of them.

The very first messages that Mason and Stephanie ever exchanged were regarding writing, art and me: Mason commissioned Steph to make the world's greatest motivational poster. You can read more about that here: Art is Love.

Another way we've always stayed in touch is through gaming. The internet may have brought us email, instant messages, MySpace, forums and Facebook--but it also brought us Xbox Live, Playstation Network and Steam. I think the game we've played the longest has been Minecraft, but we've also played games for GameChat, a weekly game group that Stephanie helped create, where we play a game and then chat about it like a book club for gamers. (Sound cool? It is: you should join! You can jump into the Disord channel and chat with me or Stephanie right now!)

Some of the games we've played are pictured below alongside our characters or characters I related to: including the time we played World of Warcraft a few years ago and made identical elf characters on accident. There is enough variation in World of Warcraft that you'd think we'd be able to make characters with faces, hair and ear styles that weren't identical, right? Except we've been playing together for so long, and have similar preferences... so similar, in fact, that this exact situation happened when we finally met-up in game. "Oh. I see. We look like sisters."

We played A Night in the Woods where I'm convinced we were Mae and Bea (the cat and alligator, as seen below); we've tried Starbound, and I died so many times in Don't Starve that Stephanie will never play it with me ever again...

A game that has been a constant has been The Sims. Somehow Steph is never very far away in any of my Sims games. Here was my version of her from 2015 (alongside my boyfriend at the time, Joe!), and another video from Minecraft in 2016 that includes a Creeper and Stephanie.

I recorded this YouTube video in 2015. That moment when you meet your best friend in The Sims 4.

Minecraft: August 21st, 2016 with Mason and Stephanie.

Stephanie's name is a household name. My parents can recognize her voice on the XBox or PS4 (we don't call each other on purpose!) My mom has borrowed pictures from Facebook, printed them off and has them hanging in my bedroom/office at our Montana home (alongside other family photos):

When Mason and I went to Emerald City ComiCon in 2016 in Seattle: we stopped by the LEGO store. Room for 3 custom characters? It made perfect sense to include Steph in that equation:

Me with my camera and wine bottle, Mason with his hat, dress clothes and laptop, and Stephanie with her Minecraft Pickaxe, khaki-colored pants and trophy (we'll assume it was for #1 sister).

So, I realize that this seems like a lot for someone I've never "met." No one asks me why I include Stephanie in my nearly-daily life, if they know me, they just know it is something that is a reality. Just because we'd never met in real life was not grounds to assume she was some sort of serial killer or pretending to be someone she wasn't. No, I'm happy to say that the girl I met—grew up with me over the internet and we learned to trust each other from 2,000 miles and 2 time zones away and that our relationship as sisters is stronger than any relationship I've built with members of my own "blood" related family.

And then, for a series of unrelated events, Stephanie was going to make a trip to Seattle. At first it was something along the lines of “Oh, I may be going to Emerald City ComiCon or to PAX West, and we could see each other over the weekend.” Great, that sounds great! And then that plan fell through, and then she told me she was flying out to meet some future business partners for a retreat, and could she just land in Spokane and then we’d drive her to Seattle..?

Uh, yeah. That’d be great. (Why couldn’t this have happened 5 years ago when I was 25 lbs lighter and had all my teeth?)

For the days leading up to her arrival: I didn’t get truly nervous until the Friday she was supposed to land. I was legitimately shaking, I’d been less nervous about getting my teeth pulled or flying 9 hours over the Pacific Ocean than I was to see her for the first time. And then it happened. And I realized: I’ve seen her, I’ve heard her, I’ve been around her my whole life, there was nothing to be nervous about. I think most people who knew we were going to meet kept saying: “It will never be the same!” and “You must be so excited!” Well, yes, of course I’m excited and no, it will never be the same. But then I remind myself: we could have done this earlier, any time, but it wasn’t necessary. We talk every day online, we share so much, it’s like we’re in the same city quite often, just 3 hours apart. It was a natural progression of our sibling life: we did the thing, now we go back to the way things were.

I was conflicted and mostly broke while she was here. I kept fighting myself: do I do something special or do I live my life as normal (the exception being the apartment was cleaner than ANYONE had ever seen it)? I wanted to push all my pressing SpoCon duties aside but then I realized: no, I’ll be myself, I’ll let her see I can live my life as usual because her visiting was just another, natural part of it. So I answered my SpoCon emails and tried my best to include Stephanie our lives for a brief few days.

Her plane landed around 11:45 p.m. on Friday. Mason scored a video of the first time we met:

We drove home and I said “I’m sorry,” probably a hundred times for a hundred silly reasons. We chattered on until around 1 a.m. (it was 4 a.m. her local time, the poor thing). As was part of our tradition: we each had a literal bag of gifts for each other that we had picked up over the last year. We happily exchanged gifts and stories! (Mason was happy to be included in the gift-giving event.)

We woke up early-ish and altered our plans to drive to Montana and visit my childhood home. Instead, we met in the middle, and drove to the 50,000 Silver Dollar Bar and then to the St. Regis Gift Shop. We met my parents—who were excited and happy for us to meet!—had a lovely lunch, then returned home. We made sure to stop by North Idaho College campus so she could see where I’d spent the last 2.5 years.

On the way back we discussed that Steph hadn’t been around Native American culture very often; mostly just burial sites on the East Coast. So we found out that Julyamsh was happening that weekend! We detoured to Coeur d’Alene and attended the Powwow. We browsed the various arts and crafts, stood inside a teepee and watched the costumed dancers. We ordered food—a process that included actual tears and a waiting period of about 45 minutes—and sat in the bleachers to watch.

Here is a compilation of the videos I took (poorly, from my phone) of the Julyamsh Powwow dancers, and also whatever happened to Saturday night..! I couldn't start this next section off without first playing this song.

Saturday Night we went to a midnight showing at the Garland Theater of Rocky Horror Picture Show!

Sunday was our weekly SpoCon meeting and Steph was happy to tag-a-long. Before the meeting we visited Riverfront park and Mason acted, much to my chagrin, as tour guide. He was clearly the best fit person for the job—but I was so defensive of my time with Steph that I was getting mad when they had conversations. I never said I was reasonable about how my brain decided to allocate my fierce sense of loyalty…

We had dinner at my friend Edgar and Norma’s house and Stephanie played Munchkin for the first time. Her and Mason went on to a joint-victory.

Monday included a trip to Riverfront Park as a Spokane icon. Part of seamlessly integrating Stephanie into our daily lives included our Monday Night Starfinder game. I had done the Gamers 2 thing had rolled up a character sheet for her (for just the one session!) and she played my in-game older sister Trinket. Hilarity ensued.

After we wrapped up our Starfinder session for the night: turns out we weren't quite done gaming. We went home and opened up our brand new board game (we bought it especially to play with the artist in the family!): Bob Ross, the Chill game! We drank hot chocolate and played a board game until late in the evening. I won! And Boo Boo tried to play a few times by jumping on the table. Stephanie was less than impressed by his manners.

Tuesday included a trip to Spokane's Northwest Museum of Art and Culture, a drive up South Hill to overlook Spokane, Manito Park and the historic Davenport Hotel!

Wednesday began with a very early morning and a long, hot car ride to Seattle. We dropped Stephanie off at her friend’s place of work. Mason distracted her friend for a minute so I could say goodbye. I had a brief flashback to Mason leaving me, Allie, Rebekah and Crystal at the Seattle hotel before our trip to London. Until the moment he stepped out the door—I didn’t miss him. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks and I started crying. The same thing happened. The moment I hugged Stephanie, and she said “I love you,” I realized I’d been worried the entire time that somehow she didn’t. And I waited until she wandered off with her friend and then I fell apart. I waited a few minutes under the pretense of mapping directions to our AirBNB. I considered sending a ❤ emoji to Stephanie’s Facebook Messenger and decided against it. 

july25heart.jpg

She sent one shortly after, I stopped crying after that, and Mason and I headed off on our first vacation in Seattle that wasn’t centered around a convention.

 


That's the story about how two girls met, grew up and eventually met in real life. Now is the story about how we continue to grow up and navigate this giant sea turtle hurtling through space. Our current lives look something like this: I'm headed back to Eastern Washington University in September (tomorrow!) to begin work towards my Bachelor's Degree in Creative Writing. To fulfill a dream of writing I've had since I first wrote about the adventures of Jade Astar alongside her sister. Stephanie is taking a running leap into freelancing to make a life before she begins at a company in Washington State (yes, my Washington state! The far west side, and not for another two+ years at least).

For now, she's opened a Patreon and is taking orders for storyboarding and character illustrations. Support Stephanie as she takes the next step in her freelance art career: join her Patreon campaign. Her happiness is our happiness, and her artwork is amazing and she deserves to be supported. 

 Stephanie has gone back to West Virginia, and we're still here in Spokane. We've taken a break from Minecraft for the moment--but we've been spending our Thursday nights exploring Los Santos in Grand Theft Auto V. Here are our avatars exploring Stephanie's new apartment.

 Update: December 2018 and we’re playing Red Dead Redemption 2 Online together! #OutlawsForLife

Update: December 2018 and we’re playing Red Dead Redemption 2 Online together! #OutlawsForLife

Believe me when I say it was more than mere procrastination that prevented me from writing this blog for two months; I wanted to get the details right, I wanted to be able to look back at the moment and reflect, and to make sure life continued as usual. And it did, and this very morning I woke up and the first two people I talked to were Stephanie and Mason, and we’ll be gaming on Thursday, and I know I’ll see Steph again in the future—and I’m glad to have known her so far.

We’ve walked vastly different paths in life, and have succeeded—and failed—in stride. We keep going, we dust each other off, sit three feet away from each other on the couch (2,000 miles away digitally), and secretly hope nothing but the best for each other. At least, that’s the story I’m sticking to.

Stephanie has been my sister-mine since the very first page, and this is where our story is at now. Keep believing that I’ll get my novels written after school, and that Steph will continue to succeed with her art (and sheer stubbornness). Thanks for reading.

Graduation from North Idaho College

 

It started in 2015. I had a couple choices: keep working at a gas station in Idaho, or maybe move back home to Montana. Neither of those options would have moved me forward. A friend who was studying at North Idaho College to become an elementary teacher suggested: why don't you go back to school? I've prattled all my life about how I didn't believe people needed a formal education to be a creative writer--and that was my dream: to write novels. Why should I go back to school? There had always been a sort of disconnect for me.

In high school: the communication between the school counselor and myself was poor. I didn't know how to apply for college. I didn't know what I was doing and I wasn't certain how to ask.  When I was accepted to Westwood College of Technology in Denver when I was 17: I had plans. I'd go to school for Graphic Design! I had money at the time (social security support from the loss of my father) and I knew everything at 17. I could move over to Denver and go to school and--

 Mason took me to orientation at North Idaho College, then we ran away to WorldCon 2015!

Mason took me to orientation at North Idaho College, then we ran away to WorldCon 2015!

 May 6th, 2002.  I was a soon-to-be-graduated High School Senior dreaming of attending Westwood College of Technology for Graphic Design. It appears they  closed their doors in 2016 .

May 6th, 2002.  I was a soon-to-be-graduated High School Senior dreaming of attending Westwood College of Technology for Graphic Design. It appears they closed their doors in 2016.

then I lost my social security money when I turned 18 (3 months after being accepted), and probably had a boyfriend at the time that I didn't want to leave. There would be no Graphic Design degree for me or moving out of the state of Montana. So I started working. I worked as a dishwasher (a job I was eventually fired/let go from because I kept sleeping in and showing up late); a sales person (a job I was laid off from when the company started to lose money); I got a belly button piercing and years later found out the needle had already been used and I had contracted Hepatitis C; a year or so on unemployment, some terrible, dark months at a Veterinary Clinic--and a few years I wish I could forget while working at DirecTV call center.

[Insert a series of other awful jobs, mostly poor relationship choices, a few good ones; one failed marriage, somewhere in the mix I applied to the University of Montana and Spokane Falls Community College and it never went anywhere. See above note about me feeling disconnected and not understanding the process. I eventually moved to Washington, then back to Idaho, depending on which relationship I was in.]

Fast forward to age 31, turning 32. Somehow I managed to rush through orientation at North Idaho College, pick out my classes, and then head back to Spokane to volunteer at WorldCon for the weekend. I started school. I was a college student! I WAS A COLLEGE STUDENT! First generation, low-income, loan-wielding but I had finally done it.

I couldn't have done it without Catherine and Mama-Michelle encouraging me, Mason and my family supporting my decision to apply--and then all the people I met along the path: Jonathan, Crystal, Allie, Rebekah, Aaron and the English Club, Laura, Cynthia, Dana, Kim, Ellie, the entire class of British Murder Mysteries, Molly~ I hope to see you all soon. 

 August 25th, 2015. Five days in to age 31. My first official day as a student.

August 25th, 2015. Five days in to age 31. My first official day as a student.

 

And I loved it. It's hard realizing that there are few things in life I've ever been good at--but until that point in my life, I'd never had said I was good at being a student. Probably age and knowing that I was paying loans for my education had a lot to do with it. Maybe I knew I was taking a step in the right direction. Maybe it was just the chance of getting the right teachers at the right time that saved me.

And over the next two-and-a-half years I never received a grade lower than a B in any of my classes. I took Math 015 twice (because I got a C the first time. Pro tip: don't take a math class at 5 p.m. if you are not so great at math and get hungry, it's a bad combination). I dissected a pig for Biology. I managed to survive Speech class (again, due to the support of an amazing teacher). I joined English Club and became the Princess (Vice President: we changed our bylaws to update our titles!), I went to Portland for the first time, I got to listen to Anne Lamott talk about life and writing. I met some people and made friendships that, I hope, will last a lifetime. I was able to travel to Europe for my British Murder Mystery class and visit Scotland, Wales and London. And now that journey is over and I'm starting another one: I'm headed to Eastern Washington University in September 2018 to begin another adventure.


My blogs about being a student
at North Idaho College

 

    Fall 2015 Semester

    Spring 2016 Semester

    Summer 2016 Semester

    Fall 2016 Semester

    Spring 2017 Semester

    Fall 2017 Semester

    Spring 2018 Semester


    I noticed a serious trend in the number of my blog posts compared to the progress towards my Associates Degree. I started waiting for months before writing blogs, and then would just cram them all together into one post.  Some things that are missing from this list: Annual Awards Ceremony in May 2018 I won an award for Overall Outstanding English Student. Said goodbye to some teachers that I love dearly. I will always love learning and I'll never stop.



    A few weeks later and my degree finally arrived in the mail! We have a small mailbox, so that must mean that you make the mail fit, even if it says do not bend.

     

    Luckily, it's just a piece of fancy paper that sums up two-and-a-half years of my life.

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    Good books and hope

    Some people have lofty dreams: careers, higher education, to have a large, expansive family—I have dreams of writing a book. Many books. Any book.

    When I read a book, a few things always happen (depending on if it is a good book or a bad book). 

    2018-06-26 21.35.59b.jpg

    With a good book—my imagination develops tracers: flashes of light that remain after something bright has burned in the darkness. Fireworks. Burning hot dog roasting sticks (sorry, my Montana is showing through). Tail lights in the distance, crunching gravel beneath tires. The story leaves a memory, an experience, a ghost that forever inhabits a part of myself.

    A good story leaves the characters behind to stay with me forever; I can recall them at will. Not the entire story, my memory is far too poor for that, but I can picture the story and the characters clearly enough. They are forever suspended in my mind—sometimes in certain scenes or just impressions.

    Talia and Kris alone in the waystation all winter (Arrow's Flight, Mercedes Lackey).
    Sabriel in a bathtub blushing over the sounds of a giggling couple in the next room, while thinking it is Touchstone (it isn't; Sabriel by Garth Nix).
    Tiger and Del arguing, fighting, laughing and much more (Sword-dancer series, Jennifer Roberson).

    A good book, for me, leaves a scar. As a writer: it creates characters and worlds I can only stare at longingly. I can only kick myself for that 'Why didn't I think of that!' (Because I was 7 when that book was published, nerd). 

    Memories aside—a good book reminds me that there are plenty good books left to be written and they make me remember that my contribution—once it happens—has value. More importantly, perhaps, they make me feel like contributing. I'm not saying that I detest writing or that I find it a chore, but I do find it very sacred. It's very precious to me and I often find reasons why the circumstances aren't write (hah) because I want to be in the perfect place when I do sit down to write. That isn't realistic, but—have we met?

    Many of these characters, places and experiences that I have encountered while reading hold firm places in my mind. At any moment—I need only remember a book and suddenly the Sandtiger is grinning back at me or a bell rings out in the fog, and I know Sabriel is there, waiting. I can feel the cold water rushing around my ankles—I am transported.

    A good book becomes a good memory and, I'd like to think, tries very hard to replace a bad one. A good book reminds us to dream, because it is often in dreams where novels and characters are born.

    A good book gives me characters, places, styles, plot and guidance. As both a reader and a writer—I learn from reading as much as I experience it. I can acknowledge a book for the skill on a line level, for deftly penning a plot—and for giving me scenes that forever burn like embers in my mind. I can both learn from, and enjoy, the hard work of dedicated authors. A book is a gift from the imagination and hard work of one person, to the imagination of next.

    A bad book is even worse for a reader-writer. Before I continue, let me explain: I am not insisting that anything I write is considered "good" nor can I claim to be involved with the making of a "good book" as I have not yet been published (or even survived the second draft). The following opinions spring only from my life experiences and what I, personally, consider to be a bad book at this point in my life. A bad book was quite different for me 10 or even 15 years ago and the same can be said for what I considered good in my youth.

    I had an entire section on what bad books do to people—but I think I'll just let it go. We all know a bad book when we read/hear/experience it. And bad books can be found everywhere: self-published authors, New York Times Best Selling authors, even ourselves. They can be books written by terrible people (I once saw a beloved author be disrespectful about politics on Facebook and I can no longer read their books) or bad books written by people who refuse to accept any kind of feedback or criticism. We all have a certain way we want our books to be read and experienced: but full of typos, cliché names, weak-willed characters and mindless sex is never the answer (for me, at least). 

    Bad books leave scars that only amplify the good books in our lives. Even bad books have lessons to teach us (as writers and readers) and characters to adopt—even if only to tape their mouths shut and throw them down a dark stairwell for their own protection. Sometimes I read so I can remind myself what kind of writer I don't want to be.

    Right now I am about 20% through Clariel by Garth Nix. I am reminded that there are still stories left to be told, monsters left to banish (both in real life and in literary ones) and memories yet to make.

    Read the good with the bad: learn from both. Spend the money on the editor. Don't write what you know: often we know only a life of cruelty and unfairness. Write to make the world better than it is, not to remind us of how dark and awful humankind really is. We already know that. What we need, more than anything as mortal creatures reading books, is hope.

    Final disclaimer: this opinion of "don't write stuff with typos" and "only write good books" is an opinion I only recently embraced. See my earlier work for contradictions and furthur proof that I am far from perfect.