Real Talk 16/04/18: Recursive Real Talk

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Just keepin’ it real.

Sometimes I think this blog should be titled “Not Practicing What I Preach” and wonder if I shouldn’t talk about self-improvement until I’ve improved myself above a certain threshold. Other times I think maybe seeing somebody in the middle of the struggle instead of at the end of the journey might be valuable. Then I remember that this is a blog 90% dedicated to Skyrim shenanigans and I’m probably overthinking things.

Last week on real talk I highlighted the value of Ridiculous Slowness, which helps you focus on the journey instead of trying to rush to the end. I’m good at doing that sometimes, but it gets harder for me as I get closer to the end. When the finish line is in sight I get impatient with the distance I still have to cover.

Let’s reflect on how I could do better.

Closing the Book

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This is a book. It’s closed. What are you, the relevance police?

I’ve wanted to be a published author since I was five. Eighteen years later, I’m on the cusp of being a self-published author, which technically fulfills the goal. I’m approaching a final draft of a romance novel I’ve been working on for a while, and am getting people to read it and give feedback. The goal is to publish it next month.

Being this close has gotten me anxious and a little impatient. There’s still work to do, but it’s hard to spend a couple hours going over the dialogue of a single scene when what I really want to do is finalize the book as a whole. Of course, that’s counterproductive, because now more than ever I want to be taking the time to do my best work.

This feeling can be alleviated by taking the long view. Putting my first book out there is a significant moment in my life, but it is still only one moment in my life. Right now I’m hung up on wanting to see if the book well do well or if it will flop, and either result will affect my life in the short-term. In ten or twenty years, though, how this one book does won’t matter as much as the habits I’m building right now. Whether it sells a million copies or not a single one, I still want to keep writing, so I’ll still benefit from being a more disciplined and productive writer. Instead of thinking that I am approaching the end of the journey, I must realize that this is only one leg of a far longer journey. Sprinting the next mile won’t help me walk the thousand after that.

A Change of Place

Casa Hemingway

The other thing coming up in my life is less monumental, but may have a far greater impact on my daily experience. For the year and a half I’ve lived in Mexico City, I have been dwelling in a small room in a shared house. I’m finally secure enough financially that I’m looking for an apartment of my own.

Now that a new place is on the horizon, the little things that annoy me about my current situation have become much harder to deal with. The broken springs in my lopsided mattress seem to dig deeper into my back while I sleep, and the window that doesn’t close seems to let in more noise than ever. I’m impatient to find a new home, but I really should be searching with care and not jumping at the first apartment that comes up.

It’s also a good way for me to practice stoicism and mindfulness. Even once I have a better apartment, there will always be little inconveniences in life. Learning to live with them now will do me a lot of good later on.

Desdenada Is: As Real As It Gets

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Unflinching Realness is a 5 am preworkout so you can hit the gym when it opens at 6.

If the value of Ridiculous Slowness formed the bedrock for Ridiculously Slow Let’s Play posts, the genesis for Real Talk can be found in the value of Unflinching Realness. To put it another way–a way that gets me in trouble whenever I bring it up–this is the value of Anti-Escapism. I prefer to phrase my values in the positive form, rather than the negative, but escapism is rampant today and so worth talking about.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, one of my literary heroes, the hatred of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the glass. Many people turn to fantasy because, rather than a mirror that reflects their own perceived ugliness, they desire a window into some beautiful illusion. They revel in this illusion while their reality continues to degrade. Garok the orc grows stronger and more celebrated with each passing day, while Gary the gamer grows sickly on the other side of the screen.

Yet anyone familiar with Oscar Wilde has probably already caught the error in my logic, because Oscar Wilde also said (paraphrasing once more) that the hatred of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in the glass. I may reject escapism, but obviously I don’t reject fantasy. For me, fantasy has always been a window into what could be. I’m not satisfied by making my avatar strong and accomplished. My play serves as inspiration for me to make myself strong and accomplished.

That’s where the unflinching part comes in. Desdenada is Caliban looking in the glass and seeing two faces: his own, and the face of the person that he could be. While I advocate Unflinching Realness to anyone who wants more out of life, it is not for the faint of heart. Comparing yourself to your fantasy heroes, taking an honest look at where you are and how far you have to go, can be devastating. There have been periods of my life where I struggled with depression because I didn’t live up to my own standards, and envied some of my friends their comfortable, escapist lives.

But if I could go back ten years and tell my 13-year-old self one thing, it would be this:

It was worth it.

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Words of Power: Equilibrium, Lagom

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Nothing more lagom than slow-walking the entire way to High Hrothgar.

I’ve mentioned my weird love for principles expressed through foreign words, and that it’s maybe not as weird as I think: books on hygge have been all over the shelves for a while now, but yesterday I stumbled upon a tome on ikigai, another personal favorite. Maybe I’m not being irrational; maybe I just subconsciously realized that we can apply principles more easily when they’re summed up in a single word–and that we’re more likely to apply them if they seem somehow mystical to us, their meaning made arcane by the sheen of another tongue.

Since Skyrim is heavily based on real Nordic culture, I’ve brought up the Nordic word lagom a few times already. Somehow I did this without realizing what was strikingly obvious: my obsession with these sorts of words parallels one of Skyrim’s core mechanics. Just as the Dragonborn masters the Shouts by learning obscure words of power, we can wield the power of words like lagom and ikigai in our own lives.

Today, while Aemilian meets with the Graybeards and learns about the Way of the Voice, we will return to the concept of lagom and practice a Shout of our own.

The Highest of Hrothgars

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Don’t know how long I spent scaling cliffs just to get to the base of this mountain.

The cold was not Aemilian’s worst enemy. He had prepared for it, not only physically but mentally. When he fled the sunkissed sands of Hammerfell for the weatherbeaten stone of Skyrim, he had steeled himself against cold winds he knew awaited him.

He had not expected the air itself to betray him. Even the rolling plains of Skyrim’s central basin were at a somewhat greater altitude than he was used to, and now and then he found himself straining for breath after what should have been an easy fight. Now, as he scaled the however-many-thousands of steps up the Throat of the World toward High Hrothgar, he felt he was slurping air through a reed pipe.

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I kinda like this side of Skyrim.

Glancing back at Rayya, Aemilian saw the mirth in her eyes as he paused for a break under the pretense of admiring the view of Lake Ilinalta. She may have been Redguard, but she’d had many years to acclimate to this damned thin air. Aemilian’s pride demanded that he explain to her it were his lungs that were failing him, not his legs, but he kept quiet. What was a housecarl for, he thought with a small grin, if not to keep her thane humble?

Despite his resolve to bear the pain stoically, he couldn’t help but groan when a white shadow dropped down from the cliffs above him. Forst trolls were a worthy adversary under any circumstances, and Aemilian was winded before he even reached for his mace.

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I also like waterfalls.

Antler’s Bite was not his only weapon, he reminded himself, letting go the mace’s hilt and drinking in as deep a breath as he could muster. Maybe he had never asked to be Dragonborn, maybe it was with great reluctance he made this pilgrimage to prostate himself before some old mountain hermits, but he had to admit, sometimes the arbitrary power bestowed on him did come in handy.

The troll rushed forward. With controlled force, Aemilian uttered a word and set the snow on fire.

Wielding the Thu’um

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Staying the night in Ivarstead before making the climb.

Words may not have intrinsic power in real life, but when we use them as mnemonics, they offer a way to alter your own reality. Simply learning to pronounce lagom (logum) or even learning its definition (not too little, not too much) won’t change your life. Just as you must slay a dragon and absorb the power of its very soul to unlock each word of a shout, unlocking the power of lagom requires an initial investment of time and energy.

First you must study the meaning of lagom, which we’ve done a little already. Then you must actually practice the principle, associating the benefits of your action with the word itself. Whenever you have a single cookie instead of a whole box, or wake up early just to relax and see the sun rise, repeat the word to yourself.

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Here we go.

Once you’ve built this association, you can wield the great and terrible thu’um. I wouldn’t recommend actually shouting the word, at least not in public. I like to whisper it under my breath, but you can even just repeat it in your head if you prefer (this way you can even imagine shouting it at full force and volume).

Again, saying a word won’t actually change the situation you’re in, but it can and will change the way you perceive and act in that situation. Let’s look at the practical use of the word lagom.

Equilibrium and Lagom

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Storm’s coming–maybe this wasn’t the best day for a hike.

As in Skyrim, our shouts are comprised of three words which must be learned individually. I named the first shout Equilibrium because it sounds like the name of a Skyrim shout, but you can think of it as Balance or Moderation if that’s simpler–or you can call it Slow Time.

That’s right, the Skyrim parallel to Equilibrium is the Slow Time shout. Principles like lagom apply to all aspects of life, but you can pretty much trace them all back to a respect for time. In the most obvious sense, living with lagom means working less and taking things more slowly. Lagom also means not owning too much–so you spend less time cleaning up or searching for things–keeping your decorations simple–so you can spend more time appreciating each ornament–and being thrifty–so you devote less time to earning money and more time to enjoying your purchases.

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I’m not tired, it’s the altitude. Quit looking at me like that.

The Equilibrium shout is about time, and lagom is a key aspect of that. Next time you find yourself working late instead of getting a full night’s sleep or feel tempted to rush through a bowl of cereal instead of cooking a healthy breakfast, repeat the word “lagom” and see if you can inspire yourself to make the right decision.

Your Gods Are Stupid

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At long last, I’m going to fix this stupid tree.

Before we begin: what follows is a discussion of the gods as they appear in Skyrim and other fantasy settings. It is not to be taken as a discussion of any real-world religions or deities.

In fantasy settings like that of the Elder Scrolls, the gods are presented as nearly omnipotent and omniscient forces. Mortals worship these beings because they are not only far more powerful than any mortal, but they are supposedly smarter and wiser.

What if we have this backwards? What if the gods are actually pretty dumb by human standards? What if they deserve our worship not in spite of but because of their limited mental capacity? What if this totally ties into what I’ve been saying about lagom and Aemilian’s current adventure in Skyrim?

So many questions, and way too much time.

The Will of the Goddess

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Now that I acquired the magic knife from the hagraven, I need to go cut some sap from Kynareth’s sacred tree. Maurice Jondrelle, a pilgrim, asks to accompany me.

Every time Aemilian visited the Temple of Kynareth in Whiterun, his attention fell on the lavender blooms growing in neat rows between columns and pools of clear water. If someone noticed his gaze, he could make something up about how the delicate purple petals represented the balance of nature and the grace of the goddess, and that was what drew him to them.

Truth was, he saw only alchemical ingredients, and his fingers itched to snatch a flower or two while nobody was looking.

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Before we set out, I catch up on some reading. Finally I know what that lake by my house is named: Lake Ilinalta.

Would Kynareth be displeased by his thoughts? Was he supposed to revere nature as an end in itself, appreciating the beauty of the plant as it grew? Or, by putting the plant to use, taking the gifts of nature and creating something beautiful from them, had he achieved a higher worship than those who only observed the plant?

These would probably be good questions to put to Danica Pure-Spring, the local priestess, but she was occupied. An Imperial man stood before her, hands on his hips, professing himself to be a pilgrim and proclaiming his disappointment at finding the sacred tree dying.

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Got my own little fellowship going.

With a sidelong glance at Rayya, who only shrugged, Aemilian cleared his throat and approached the haggard priestess and her indignant supplicant.

“I was actually hoping to do something about that.”

Single-Issue Deity

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On the way I find the Ritual Stone, and a needlessly territorial necromancer.

Since we’re already talking religion, I might as well throw some politics on this ideological tinderbox. I’ve never known how to feel about single-issue voters–say, someone who will vote for the candidate that is for gay marriage, or the one who wants to lower taxes, regardless of how they fall on any other issue. On the one hand I can respect that: they know what’s really important to them and they take a stand for it. On the other hand, how much evil can you justify a politician doing as long as he gives you what you want?

In fantasy settings, including Skyrim, the gods are claimed to be super-intelligent and complex, yet what they represent can be summed up in a handful of words: nature, or protecting the weak, or logic and magic, or whatever the hell Talos actually represents depending on who you ask. The point is, the gods come off as having the logical capacity of a hungry five-year-old. “I want food!” “But we’re eating with friends in an hour.” “I want food.” “You should learn to be patient.” “I want food!”

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This is farther east than I’ve ever ventured, and the journey is only beginning. Who knows what lays ahead.

A discussion with Kynareth might go the same way. “What is your will, Goddess?” “SERVE NATURE.” “Okay, but we need to cut down some trees to make you a temple, is that okay?” “SERVE NATURE.” “Do I have to serve nature all the time, or can I take weekends off?” “SERVE NATURE.”

Though some people might disagree–my apologies–I think it’s generally accepted that nature itself does not have a grand plan or destiny. Nature simply does nature. As the embodiment of nature, it follows that Kynareth simply does nature too. Moral quandaries and rational arguments are beyond her. The point of nature is nature, and you should nature because nature. What we would call stupidity in one of our own is what makes Kynareth the most pure representative of nature. Because of our intelligence, we cannot escape questions about what nature really means or really should mean, or how we should weigh what’s best for nature against what’s best for humanity.

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Okay, I guess I could have guessed what lay ahead. More bandits.

Due to our genius, we are incapable of comprehending the simplest truths. That’s what makes the gods, figurative or literal, valuable to us. I will never understand nature the way Kynareth does, but by reflecting on Kynareth, I can borrow some of her understanding when it comes time to make decisions.

The Lagom Identity

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I don’t want to pay the toll, but I don’t want fight them either. Time to make a run for it.

Lagom applies to a lot of practical situations, like shopping and work-life balance, but it can also apply to how you see yourself. We’ve talked before about finding your real-world tribe or “faction” by identifying your most core values.

Let’s throw the principle of lagom into the mix. What does it look like to have not too few and not too many core values? Start be looking for the lowest common denominators among your values. Earlier, I talked about how I value both travel and diversity, and I could boil those down to a general value of difference.

I also found I could reduce my loves of gaming and fitness to a love of self-improvement. Can I reduce further? I suppose I could. Self-improvement implies change, which is becoming different than you already are, so I could say both self-improvement and difference stem from the fact I value change. Change doesn’t resonate with me the same way either self-improvement or difference do, however.

Breaking these values down into more distinct values makes them less useful, and so does reducing them further. These are lagom values. Once you identify these values, reflect on them without binding yourself to them. Like Kynareth, you might revere nature, but if there’s a wildfire–an expression of nature–you would still fight it if it threatened your community. Yet day-to-day, making nature a priority keeps you aligned with your purpose.

I like diversity of both people and experience, and keeping that in the forefront of my mind keeps me from getting stuck in a rut. Still, it’s okay for me to go through a period of sameness every now and then, as long as I’m conscious of the fact I’m doing it and why.

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That was close. Hey, where’d Maurice get to?

Speaking of core values….

There’s a reason I’ve been thinking so much about tribes and values. When I started Desdenada, it was because I recognized that I belong to a very, very small tribe, and if I want to find other people like me, I’ll have to be proactive about it. Since the beginning I’ve had a handful of “Desdenada Core Values” in mind, though they, like Desdenada itself, are a work in progress. The first one, at least, is pretty set in my mind. It’s the value that spawned the Ridiculously Slow Let’s Play to begin with.

So come back next time as we discuss why Desdenada is ridiculously slow.

Lagom in Skyrim

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A place to call home.

More than anything, I’m defined by my irrational loves. My adoration of waterfalls, for example. Man do I love me a good waterfall. Some of these loves are almost half-rational: I like life principles that come in the form of foreign words without literal English translations. A few of my favorite examples include ikigai (the passion defines you) and momento mori (a true awareness of your own inevitable death). Judging by the number of hygge books I’m seeing on the shelves lately, I’m not alone in my absurd obsession.

I say this love is half-rational because there is some merit to it. Learning the valued principals of other cultures can obviously improve your life. The irrational part is that I value these principals over other objectively valuable principals, and I can’t pinpoint a clear reason why.

Anyway. In accordance with the Ridiculously Slow Skyrim Let’s Play, I’ve been delving into the concept of lagom lately. Lagom is a Swedish word which expresses their twist on a more general Nordic concept, and can be roughly translated to mean “not too much and not too little”. Real-life Nords apply this concept to all areas of live, but what about the Nords of Skyrim?

Before we get into that, I’m trying something different with the actual let’s play aspect of this. You’ll see in a moment–just bear with me.

Stone by Quarried Stone

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Not as dramatic as killing draugr, but more fulfilling.

“How many more?” Aemilian rested the head of his pickaxe on the damp grass and leaned on it as he wiped the sweat from his brow. Rayya, his new housecarl, collected the stones he had struck from the face of the cliff and stacked them near the plot they had marked out earlier.

“Three or four more about that size,” Rayya said, nudging a stray rock toward the pile. “That should do it, my Thane.”

Aemilian closed his eyes, savoring the cool breeze rolling across his bow. He was anxious about what awaited him in the winter of this cold northern province, but in moments like this he didn’t miss the scorching heat of Hammerfell.

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Nothing like a long day spent working with your hands.

A shadow passed over him and he started, grasping for his bow which lay nearby. Then he relaxed, chuckling at his own anxiety. No dragon circled in the heavens; only an eagle high above, the king of its own quiet realm.

His senses momentarily heightened by adrenaline, Aemilian noticed the birds chirping in the trees, the faint smell of wildflowers on the breeze, and the distant lapping waves of the lake down the hill. The Graybeards of High Hrothgar, the priestess of Kynareth in Whiterun, and everyone else who needed something from him felt far more distant than that eagle up above, and far less important.

He had his land, and the company of a new friend. He had his work, and it was neither more nor less than he needed. With a quiet grin, Aemilian picked up his pickaxe and set to work.

Lagom with Your Hands

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Finally put on a roof. More importantly, for an aspiring alchemist: a garden.

Maybe the best way to understand the general principle of lagom is to work up from specific examples. Building your own house, as Aemilian has begun to do, is very lagom for several reasons. Most of us don’t have this luxury, but we can apply the principles to our lives.

The first principle is a case of me preaching what I don’t yet practice. Several times lately I’ve come across very smart and successful people praising the activity of building something with your own hands. For too long I’ve thought of the arts as fairly interchangeable: you can find full artistic expression from music or woodworking or, in my case, writing. I’m beginning to believe that everyone should practice at minimum two arts: one mental and one physical.

I know I’m about to go full old-man, but these days manual labor is underappreciated. We can build machines that do most kinds of manual labor better than a human, and we can build machines to build those machines. Doing the work with your own hands is inefficient and pointless–from a strictly utilitarian point of view, but then so is playing video games or watching TV. I’d be a hypocrite if I told you to incorporate some manual labor into your life when I currently have none, so I’m going to look into fixing that and report back.

Personal Lagom Space

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The secret to a lagom home: stick to the essentials.

The other thing that makes building your own house so lagom is it allows you to tailor your environment from the ground up. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to do that, you can still take a look at your current living space and make whatever improvements you can.

You can’t assert lagom on the outside world. You’ll always be surrounded by chaos and movement. That’s why our friends the Swedes are so careful about constructing their home environments. If you create a balanced, nurturing living space, you can carry those balanced, nurturing feelings with you out in the world.

Creating a perfectly lagom living space is way too broad to cover completely, but even incorporating some basics can have a surprisingly powerful effect. The key: less is more. Try putting a single flower in your vase instead of a whole bouquet. Instead of an overwhelming sensory experience, your mind has space to appreciate the beauty of a simple object.

A lot of Westerners will shrink at this kind of minimalism, but it’s not about denying your materialistic impulses, I promise. It’s about having two jackets that you absolutely love rather than twelve that are kind of okay.

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After a hard-earned break, it’s time to return to Whiterun and continue the adventure.

That’s just a taste of what lagom has in store, and how it’s expressed in Skyrim. Next time we’ll talk about lagom, identity, and religion in Skyrim.

More simply: we’ll talk about why the gods are pretty stupid.

The Essentials of Skyrim

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The essence of Skyrim is these neat mountains.

English major and linguistics nerd that I am, I mentioned the shifting meaning of the word “essential” last time. These days we use it to mean “necessary”. If you want to start a new hobby, you can usually buy some sort of “essential bundle” that will have everything you need to get started.

Originally, essential referred to the “essence” of something. On reflection, the meaning of the word hasn’t really changed; it’s used in a backwards fashion. Let’s you buy an “essential painter’s bundle” that comes with a brush, some paints, a palette, and some medium on which to paint. This is the minimum amount of items you need to start painting.

What if we reverse the logic? If you are moving paint from a palette to a surface using a brush, we would say you are essentially painting (there’s a point to all this, bare with me). Instead of “I want to paint, therefore I need these materials” we can say “I am using these materials, therefore I am painting”.

Discovering your own essence is as simple as taking an inventory of your own internal materials, and extrapolating what activity you are doing.

What’s that? I’m not making any sense? Well, good thing we have Skyrim to illustrate.

Warriors of a Different Nature

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Seriously? We’re not even going to mention the talking dog in the body of the post? Fine. I’ll have to take things into my own hands.

The defining characteristic of the Companions is that they are warriors. Or is it?

The Imperial Legion, the Vigil of Stendarr, and the sworn enemies of the Companions, the Silver Hand, are all warrior orders, but they’re all quite distinct from the Companions. You could point out the obvious: the Companions are also werewolves, and the Silver Hand is dedicated to destroying werewolves. That’s an important distinction, but I think it goes deeper. If you took away the werewolves, there would still be differences.

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It was on the lonely, misty road outside Falkreath that I met Barbas. The dog’s voice echoed within my very mind as he beseeched me to help him find his master. Across hill and dale he led, and so I followed.

It’s not that the Companions just happen to be werewolves also. To advance in their ranks, it is required that you accept the gift. The Silver Hand doesn’t hate werewolves for aesthetic reasons; they hate what werewolves represent. That’s the key. Even if the Companions had never become werewolves, they would still require their members to display certain attributes to enter their inner circle–probably roughly the same attributes possessed by someone who would choose to become a werewolf.

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Near the foot of the Throat of the World we came upon Haemar’s Shame–a snowy cave, reeking of death.

The Companions emphasize honor and integrity, but they’re still sellswords. They accept what is animalistic, even monstrous, within ourselves. The Imperial Legion fights to restore peace, but the Companions base their livelihood on the assumption that there will always be war and that it is good and right to make a living through violence. Werewolves are strong and deadly, so from a utilitarian point of view any warrior order should embrace the gift. Yet most warriors dream of one day going home to their families and living in peace–a dream at odds with lycanthropy.

That differentiates the Silver Hand from the Vigil, too. The Vigil hunts daedra, an external monstrous threat. By going after werewolves, the Silver Hand betray their deepest fear: they despise what is monstrous about humanity. In a world where there were no werewolves, the Companions would still embrace their wild, violent nature, and the Silver Hand would still be disgusted by them.

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Vampires set upon us from the shadows, but Barbas and I persevered.

Returning to the original analogy: Companions are men and women who took an inventory of themselves and discovered a wild nature, an honorable heart, and a competitive spirit. What the brush is to painting, a wild nature is to being a Companion.

Who Are You Really?

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At last I met the dog’s master: Clavicus Vile, the Daedric Prince of Trickery. He bid me to retrieve his ax from a cave far to the north. Yeah, it might be a while.

Last time I determined some of my defining characteristics to be that I’m a gamer, I like to be physically fit, I love to travel, and I support diversity. I’ve mentioned several times, though, that I often don’t fit in with other gamers or with bodybuilders. By finding my own essence, I hope to find out why.

Diversity is a fairly fundamental belief already, but it can be reduced even farther: I think that differences are good and healthy. This applies to differences in general, not just between races, genders, etc. Right away, I feel this is the essence behind my wanderlust, too: what is the point of travel if not to see some place that’s different from where you’ve been?

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Officially becoming Thane of Falkreath, I receive a new housecarl. Rayya is a Redguard, like me.

When you start thinking in terms of essence, it’s obvious that not all gamers would get along: somebody who spends hours each day exploring the nooks and crannies of Skyrim doesn’t necessarily have much in common with somebody who likes to have a few beers and play Call of Duty with their buddies on the weekends (I’m not disparaging either of these by the way, I have been both).

I do prioritize games with a good story or a beautiful world to explore, so at first that feels like the essence of being a gamer for me. But I can satisfy those needs by reading books and watching movies–and when I do, I still feel the urge to game. There has to be something more. I like playing games on high difficulties, so maybe it’s my competitive side? Except I get annoyed when gamers get too competitive, and in fact that’s something I don’t care about in fitness, either. I like beating my own personal records when I’m running or lifting, but never give a thought to how I stack up to anyone else.

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DRAGON!!

There it is: I like getting good at games, but I don’t care about being better than someone else. It’s not competition that drives me; it’s something that nobody who has seen my bookshelf dominated by Tim Ferriss and other gurus would be surprised by: self-improvement. The most competitive gamers I know are slow to try a new game; they would rather stay where they know they are the best than risk being bad at something new.

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Shor’s bones….TWO DRAGONS!!

On the other hand, I love starting a new game. When I get too good at one game, I can’t get any higher and bet bored. When I try something new and I’m terrible at it, the sky is the limit. This is also likely the essence of why fitness appeals to me.

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Don’t panic, one of them flew away.

If you thought I was going to pinpoint my essence to day, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Soul-searching can take a little longer than one thousand-word blog post. I have a good start, though: I like to improve myself for its own sake and I like experiencing different things and people.

Meanwhile, I should have given you enough to start your own analysis. So the question stands: who are you, really?

I’ve done three posts on this topic and each one went way longer than I intended. There’s clearly more work to be done here, and we’ll come back to it soon. Meanwhile, we’ll be taking a detour into some good old Nordic wisdom.

A Word from Aemilian

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Y’all act you never seen a dragon before.

I’ve been keeping my actual game experiences brief for now, since I’ve been talking about the Companions but not actually following their storyline for now. When you ban yourself from using fast travel, you tend to focus on what’s nearby, not what’s thematically relevant. Don’t worry, though, it links back up next time.

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Anyway, let’s go check out that land I bought.

Anyway, Aemilian got involved with another Daedric Prince and killed another dragon. Check back next time for something truly epic: carpentry.

You Should Join Our Club

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Skyrim might consist mostly of killing bandits, but you can count on a nice view while you do so.

Identifying yourself as part of a real-life faction, as we talked about yesterday, may have a bad connotation for some people. Growing up, we all watched and read a variety of stories designed to teach us that cliques and labels are bad. My favorite movie, Fight Club, is about how the titular club is ultimately destructive. In my opinion, groups can be bad, but can also be good. They’re a tool, and like weapons or necromancy, their morality depends on those who wield them.

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Classy.

Maybe weapons and necromancy are bad examples. Let’s pretend I said hammers and motor vehicles.

Anyway, why should you join a club or feel the need to label yourself? Why not just be yourself?

Death of the Monomer

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This might be my best shot of Whiterun, taken at night when you can barely see it.

Skyrim’s lore can sometimes feel a little flat, but something I love about it is that the lore is disputed in-world. In a lot of fantasy worlds, the assumption is that everything the character learns about the setting is true. In Skyrim, we have to rely on unreliable in-world sources, rather than the creator telling us what really happened.

A result is that we don’t know exactly how the world’s races evolved. That said, all the accounts seem to agree that all the races of Mer–or elves–came from one race. Originally, every member of this race belonged to a single society; they all could be expected to hold similar beliefs and participate in a similar culture, and they were unified in their conflict with the world’s other dominant races, Men and Beastmen.

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Nice waterfall, though.

Then the race of Mer began to fragment. Altmer, Bosmer, Dwemer, and Chimer (now Dunmer) became distinct peoples. At best, their cultures were foreign to each other. At worst, they became enemies and went to war. At this point, they could identify each other by distinct racial characteristics, but as these races continued to spread out, they formed different kingdoms and identities. Now even one Dwemer couldn’t count on another Dwemer being a friend or sharing in their beliefs.

If they keep making Elder Scrolls games, maybe they’ll eventually reach a modern-day setting and the Mer (and other races) will experience what we are experiencing now: the complete and total death of the monoculture. Today, you can’t use race or nationality to determine someone’s identity (some people unfortunately think differently). You can’t rely on where they live or where they come from. Even social labels are becoming less useful. I would call myself a Nerd but I’m not into Lord of the Rings; I would call myself a gamer but I never played Zelda.

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Main Story Quest–my old friend.

This is good, overall: it’s great that people have the freedom to be themselves, and healthy to interact with people with all kinds of beliefs and interests. Still, it can be nice to know people like you. I love talking about my nerdy interests, and I can’t do that with just anyone. I tried hanging out with the Nerds in high school, but found myself frustrated by their disinterest the world outside of books and video games. I tried hanging out with the Preps and Jocks, but had nobody to talk about A Song of Ice and Fire with (ironically, they’re all watching Game of Thrones now, but I digress).

We live in the Internet Age now, and the pool of potential friends you can make is slightly larger than my high school of three-hundred people (I basically come from Rorikstead). That gives you the freedom to define yourself into a much more specific niche. My niche of “nerds who work out and travel a lot” might only appeal to one person in a million, but that means my group still has a potential seven thousand people in it (more or less, not everyone in the world has the internet yet and there are language barriers to consider).

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You can’t be too careful.

By identifying yourself or your faction with a good label, you stand a much better chance of finding your tribe.

Essential Companions

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I still have PTSD from the first time we met.

Before you find your tribe, you need to identify what you’re looking for. A good start is to identify things you’re interested in: I like video games, exercise, travel, and literature. You can add to this important beliefs: I’m somewhat of a libertarian and nihilist, diversity is a high priority to me, and I prefer werewolves to vampires.

I could combine all these into a very specific niche: a faction of libertarian nihilists who game, work out, travel, support diversity, read a lot, and are open to accepting the gift of lycanthropy. This group would be unnecessarily narrow, though: those are all important parts of my identity, but not all of them matter to me in my friends. A quick, easy way to narrow down the list is to think of the most important people in your life and consider which values don’t apply to them.

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The sweet taste of victory, and some nightshade to boot.

My girlfriend and occasional contributor to this blog, Venezia, is a good test for me. She’s all-aboard Team Vampire, so clearly that belief isn’t too important to me. Her political views sometimes differ from mine, and she’s more open to ideas like destiny. She strongly supports diversity, though. I can be close with people with different political and religious beliefs, but I probably couldn’t be friends with a racist.

Venezia shares (possibly surpasses) my interest in literature and loves to travel. She wasn’t much of a gamer before I met her but has gotten into it. The sticking point is that she dislikes exercise. This makes me question the validity of my own test, because I consider physical fitness to be very important to me. But then I thought about it a little deeper: a few months ago we took a trip to Machu Picchu, completing some very demanding hikes, and she enjoyed it. She also tries to eat healthy. She just isn’t into bodybuilding or exercise for its own sake.

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How many holds can you be a thane in before it becomes a conflict of interest?

So fitness is important to me, but not in the way that I thought. This isn’t to say I couldn’t be friends with someone who isn’t in shape, but ideally I want to have friends who are capable of doing things I love, like hiking. I like the idea of having friends to go to the gym with, too, but it isn’t as important.

Fitness, gaming, reading, travel, and diversity make the cut, but we’re not done. To really define your faction, you can reduce your interests and beliefs into essential values. Essential in its original meaning: what is the essence of your beliefs and interests? The in-game Campanions faction was the basis for this discussion, so we’ll start by analyzing their essential values.

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No house, just land. Call me what’s-his-name from the Notebook, because Imma build it myself.

But this post is already way too long, so it looks like this topic will be a three-parter.

Moderately Difficult Witches

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Man, I really like Falkreath.

Speaking of essential values: early in my playthrough I defined my character, Aemilian, as a worshiper of nature and devotee of Kyne. I accepted a quest from a priestess of Kynareth to retrieve an enchanted dagger from a hagraven…and failed. The hagraven and her coven of witches, on Legendary difficulty, proved too much for me at the time.

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Especially at night.

After improving my combat skills a little by questing with the Companions, and picking up a follower, I decided to try my luck again. It was still very challenging, but at last, I triumphed.

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Hey look, a talking dog.

Playing the game slowly, and on the highest difficulty, made the victory much more meaningful in the end.

Gods of Nature: Niches upon Niches

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While Aemilian finds a place in the Companions, let’s find our place in real life.

You’ve probably heard about finding your niche. It’s one of those phrases, like “enabling synergy”, that’s thrown about by people who don’t really know what it means just because it sounds businessy. Don’t get me wrong; if you do know what it means, it is an extremely effective business strategy. But we’re not here to talk about finding your niche in business. We’re here to talk about finding your niche in life.

Kynareth and Hircine

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Man, I’m bumping into werewolves everywhere these days.

I’m new to the Elder Scrolls universe, so forgive me if I mangle some of the lore–but as I understand it, the Aedra/Divines and the Daedra/Demons, and their worshipers, are generally opposed to one another. Even if you favor one divine in particular, such as Akatosh or Dibella, you probably accept and revere the rest of the Divines as well (except Talos, but that’s a whole other issue). However, worshiping one or all of the Divines (especially Stendarr) seems to pit you against all of the Daedra. Meanwhile, the Daedra seem to have more individual cults–worshipers of Azura aren’t necessarily fond of Vaermina–but worshiping any one of them seems to preclude worship of the Divines.

All this is to say Aemilian is something of an outlier. He reveres nature above all, and pays equal homage to Kynareth, the Goddess of the Sky, and Hircine, the Lord of the Hunt.

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What are the chances a bunch of draugr DON’T jump out at me when I steal this ancient artifact?

The first step in finding your niche in life is looking beyond the niches that already exist. Growing up, I had a lot of trouble figuring out where I fit in. I considered myself unfortunate at the time, but now I’m actually grateful that I was forced to define myself on my own terms at such a young age. I’ve always been a nerd, but I’ve always loved the outdoors and being active, too. If your high school was anything like mine, you’ll understand why a kid who liked playing World of Warcraft and liked going to parties didn’t quite fit into any of the existing cliques.

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Oh, well that explains all the werewolves.

This isn’t going to be an indictment of groups and labels. In a moment, we’ll discuss how those can be useful. It’s fine to be a Gamer or Bohemian or a Millennial, but defining yourself too much by a group or label can be limiting. That’s where Desdenada came from in the first place. I’m definitely a Gamer/Nerd/Geek, but never seem to fit in with people who identify as Gamers/Nerds/Geeks.

Let’s say I lived in Skyrim, and opened a “Temple of Nature” but wasn’t clear on my reverence of both Kynareth and Hircine. I’d attract worshipers of each god and cause all kinds of conflict. I’d attract a much smaller crowd by opening a “Temple of Kynareth and Hircine”, but it would be the crowd I’m actually looking for.

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DRAGON!!

I’m still trying to figure out what to label the niche I want to attract with Desdenada. One thing’s for sure: if I billed Desdenada as a “gaming blog” or a “self-improvement blog”, I’d attract a lot of visitors who would be annoyed and confused by all the gaming or self-improvement content, respectively.

If my content doesn’t appeal to any existing groups, it looks like I’m going to have to define a new group.

Faction Quests

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It was a team effort.

Back when I started my Ridiculously Slow Skyrim Let’s Play, I was toying with making real-life quests for myself. That sort of got usurped by the Skyrim Life Skills thing, but I’ll definitely get back to it at some point. I got as far as the first kind of quest, the Main Quest. The next kind was going to be Faction Quest.

If you’ve been following Aemilian’s adventures for at least a few posts, you’re familiar with my gleeful scorn for all things Main Story Quest. Conversely, I (for the most part) love the game’s factions and their associated quests, which are home to some of the game’s best and most engaging stories and characters. In my play through, Aemilian just joined the Companions, which we’ll dive into in a moment.

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FIRE BREATH!!

The real-life equivalent of a Faction Quest is something you do in alignment with the interests of some group larger than yourself. It could be a real group, such as Doctors without Borders, whose mission you want to advance. It could also be more abstract. Maybe you want to align yourself with the faction of “people who wake up early to go running”.

It might sound silly, but we are social creatures. You can set a rational goal like “I want to run to be healthy”, but somehow it can be far more effective to set the goal of “being like those people who run in the morning”. Humanity evolved in an environment where belonging to and being accepted by a tribe was literally a matter of life and death, and our psychology is still wired that way. If you can convince yourself that your tribe is “people who break a sweat before the sun comes up”, you’ll trick your brain into thinking your morning run is a matter of life and death (ironically, telling yourself “I should go running because if I don’t I’ll eventually become unhealthy and die” doesn’t have the same effect).

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Yes I got your stupid broken sword piece, did he by any chance mention the DRAGON?

Aligning yourself with a faction, even an imaginary one, has benefits. The more specific the faction, the better. Let’s talk about the Companions. The Five-Hundred Companions of Ysgramor were the first Nords to settle in Skyrim. After the death of the legendary warrior Ysgramor, the Companions kept up their warrior traditions, training generation after generation in the ways of honor and combat. And, secretly, converting generation after generation into werewolves. The game could have had one faction of warriors and another faction of werewolves, but it blends them together and presents them as a package deal: if you want to continue with the Companions, you’d better be prepared to accept their Gift (as a Hircine worshiper, this wasn’t a problem for me). Someone who wants to be a warrior but not a werewolf, or a werewolf but not a warrior, might be frustrated by the Companions. Someone like me, who loves both, will be thrilled. That’s the tradeoff, and the whole point, of a niche: it’s a better experience for less people.

This discussion continues tomorrow. Let’s do a quick check-in with Aemilian.

A Company of Wolves

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I was holding out for a house in Falkreath, but she needs a roof over her head sooner rather than later.

As discussed above, Aemilian’s been busy trying to join the Companions. I was sent out with a senior member to prove myself by recovering a piece of an ancient sword. During an ambush, the Companion, Farkas, was forced to reveal himself to be a werewolf. Farkas then told me our attackers were part of the Silver Hand, a group dedicating to killing werewolves and other monsters.

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This one should do.

Shortly after retrieving the sword fragment, we were again ambushed–by a dragon. With the help of Farkas and some patrolling guards, I felled it, absorbed its soul, and unlocked the Fire Breath shout.

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Make yourself at home, I’m going to go kill some bandits in a cave.

Back in Whiterun, I met an orphan, Lucia, who asked me if I could adopt her. I wanted to, but had to buy a house first–which I did. Then I set out to kill some bandits in a cave, and then to kill some more bandits in a mine–the task set before me by the Jarl of Falkreath. Finally, I turned my horse toward Oprhan Rock. When I began this play through, I encountered an early failure when the witches and hagravens of Orphan Rock (on legendary difficulty) proved too challenging.

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Maybe I’ll kill some bandits in a mine while I’m at it.

It’s time to try again.