Reflections from Last Night’s Talking Taboo Event

“It’s been a long time since we wrote these essays,” Bristol chuckled. “And it’s a scary thing, preserving somewhat permanently that part of yourself for other people to read. It’s my past, I can’t change my past experiences, but still. It’s out there … When you google my name, this comes up!”

As Atinuke Diver had said of other people reading our essays: “It can flatten you.”  Suddenly, we may only exist in someone’s mind as the five pages we filled in a book.

1460098_2151719597859_1585428693_nMeeting more of the contributors to Talking Taboo was, as i expected, a delight and a dialogue. At last night’s event, i was grateful for the solidarity of each of us speaking for ourselves gave way to an authentic, vulnerable conversation. It was refreshing and reaffirming, the reminder that all 40 of us had snapped wide our secrets made it easier to continue to speak against silence.

And i’ve not stopped chewing on what Tinu and Bristol said. There were so many insights, and since the whole point i want to make is reducing someone to one essay or one quip is dangerous, i’m already having trepidations. These are two brilliant womyn who each contain multitudes, as we all do. So i don’t want to wrangle down or warp what they said.

But it’s this idea of flattening, this confining the words your read by someone to being all of who they are that has sat the most with me in the remnants of our conversation.

I think about my favorite authors who are currently living: J.K. Rowling, John Green, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker. John Green especially has led a rather public career with his (excellent!) video blogs, but even he has on occasion had to remind the nerdfighter community that he’s a whole person, someone who has struggled with Depression and social anxiety as much as he is a New York Times Best-Selling author. Someone who has two kids to raise and most days is trying to be a dad and a husband with a kind of banality we forget about when all we see is a clipped-together four minute hoot on trademarks.

The first month i lived Edinburgh, everywhere i went i carried a small, paperback copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I frequented the Elephant House reading it so much i felt myself oozing cliché. (The Elephant House Café, for those who don’t know, is where J.K. Rowling penned much of the first three Harry Potter books). I tucked it in the middle pocket of my backpack for one main purpose: were i to run into Jo Rowling, to have something for her to sign.

It was silly, and more than a little freakish, but also an emblem of my total devotion to the books that defined my childhood. I knew, if i ran into the famous author herself, that i wanted to earnestly thank her for the gifts she had given me in the world she had made with Hogwarts. For teaching twelve-year-old lizzie that “Happiness can always be found, if only one remembers to turn on the light.” 

But the more i thought about it, the less i carried the book around. I imagined running into her while she was out with her own children – imagined how clumsy and imposing i would be, asking for an autograph from a mum having normal old mum-time with her kids. I recalled times when i was out with my own mother, having normal mother-time, and members of her congregation interrupted our lunch to talk about their church-y needs. How as her daughter, i tried to be understanding of her position as counselor and confident to these people, but couldn’t help the irked sense that these congregants didn’t fully respect that my mom was a whole person whose whole life did not revolve around her church.

I think we do this all the time in our lives, in so many ways – we box people in. By race, gender, sexuality, class – but also by how we have conceived of them in our minds. Teachers don’t live in their classrooms, pastors have vices too, authors are more than their words.

I am so grateful for every message, email, and dining hall happenstance when someone says they’ve read my essay and it meant something to them. I’ve not learned how to stop turning a delicate shade of tomato, nor how to properly communicate how flattered and humbled and thank-you-for-holding-my-heart-so-gently i feel with every one of these encounters. More than once these encounters have made me weep. Bristol is right, a lot of life has happened between when pen was first to put to paper and publication. My essay rings to me now of too many run-on sentences, of how early in my now engagement i was writing about intimacy and the toughness of love. But what has not changed is the nakedness i felt writing it – the nakedness i feel when people say they’ve read the book.

So please, don’t get me wrong: thank you for reading, thank you for your kindness, for your affirmation, for your talk back and pushing and pulling and questions and comments. 

I guess what i want to say is thank you, thank you, thank you, but know there’s more. Not “just more to the body-image, sexuality, relationship journey, and not “just” more that i will never want to write or talk about publicly because even intercom-level-lizzie can be private. But more in the sense that some days i am a very boring, very not-creative, very not-roaring-feminist lion lizzie. I like eating cookie dough and really prefer days spent watching zombie movies in my pajamas with my brothers to any other activity and i know, acutely, that i talk about myself too much and i definitely over-analyze how much or how little this blog/my essay means to other people (i mean, really, i may wish i was Alice Walker, but let’s be real). Even now, i’m biting my nails and thinking will the twelve people reading this think i’m some ungrateful whiney snob with poor taste in adverbs?

So maybe this post is an over-analyzing, over-thinking mess and i should just pop in World War Z and pull out the tube of Pillsbury’s. John Green, after all, says over and over we as humyns must learn to imagine complexly, realize that the truth resists simplicity and that there is always more nuance than we want and more questions to ask than answers to find. I’m trying to find that balance of imagining others complexly as i ask others to do the same.

When asked how we found the courage to “talk taboo” in our essays, Tinu and Bristol had yet more fantastic replies: “I didn’t really find the courage,” they both said. “I wrote while i was still scared.”

buy our book!

current jam: “i’ll fly away.”

relevant resources: Atinuke Diver’s blog, the official Talking Taboo website

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Thoughts in my Head: Constitutional Liberty & Seeing Rachel Maddow.

Last week has been one rife with meeting famous people. Or, if not meeting, sharing atmosphere with them. Or TV time. Whatever.

On Wednesday, i went to a panel discussion on whistleblowing in America to hear, most predominantly, Daniel Ellsberg speak. Yeah, the Daniel Ellsberg, of the Pentagon Papers fame, accredited largely in part with tipping the cards in favor of ending the Vietnam War. While his compatriots on the panel, Thomas Drake and Jesselyn Radack, were considerably grave and constantly on the offensive, he was congenial, relaxed, and yet undeniably shrewd. It was a tense atmosphere; all three people on the panel spoke of their willingness to die in order to uncover illegal and immoral activities enacted within the most secretive – and most powerful – corners of the US Government. Their homes had been raided, they had been threatened with prison, and they were blacklisted traitors by those in power. And yet all three of them avowed that they would make the same decision to whistleblow again were the situation presented once more.

While my thoughts after the panel were somewhat muddled, i came away pondering one particular quote i managed to get down, said by Daniel Ellsberg himself:

“Don’t wait until the bombs are falling if you know the Constitution is being violated or if reckless decisions are being made … don’t go to Congress first, they’ll sit on it. Go to the press, and take the risk – take the personal risk, which is very significant – and tell the truth…You may a heavy personal price, but there are wars’ lives that can be saved.” 

And though the image that will forever first come to mind when reflecting on the panel will be Thomas Drake quoting Spock (“The needs of the many outweigh the few for the one” from a movie version, in case you needed to know), foregrounded in such recollections will be their commitment to the liberty promised by the American Constitution.

It’s a thought i hardly ever give any credence to; not exactly the biggest fan of “The Founding Fathers” myself as they are in, in the American psyche, more fiction than fact in my opinion. But the document rendered after the Articles of Confederation – the Constitution – is incredibly radical. And these people had committed the entirety of their lives to defending the rights it stood for. Whatever my personal qualms or questions entangled with that may be, i have to respect it.

Which brings me to my almost-asking-a-question of a woman for whom i have the most immense respect; none other than the namesake of this very blog post, RACHEL FREAKING MADDOW.

On Saturday night, she stood before a crammed auditorium overflowing with members from the general public and more politically engaged MoHos than you could, to use my mother’s phrase, shake a plaid-covered NBC-logo-bearing stick at. (Maybe not precisely how she says it).

After more introductions than necessary for anyone, ever, Rachel Maddow stepped casually out onto the stage, her book in hand and her neon orange kicks glimmering in the stage lights. Wearing her glasses reserved for what i imagine is strictly off-screen time, she grinned charismatically out at the roaring auditorium and exclaimed in the most genuine, geek-unbelieving-at-the-nerd-love-outpouring-from-her-surroundings, “Hi!” She actually blushed when she caught wind of what the crowd was actually doing; singing the most horrendously out-of-tune but incredibly heartfelt “Happy Birthday” Chapin Auditorium has probably ever seen. She’d had me at the sneakers. I pledged my unwavering adoration when she replied “As if i weren’t already blushing enough!”

Rachel. Freaking. Maddow. Fly as hell, as laid back as any Mount Holyoke student, and as cool as the cats come. With what certainly felt like an extemporaneous speech, she prefaced her book with the speech that “politics are my thing” more so than the military, but she wanted to explore the politics of the military and so she’d written a book. No big deal, or anything. Without any real ado, she dove right into reading a passage from her literary debut, Drift: The Unmooring American Military Power, a passage that she clarified was her favorite because it involved the Houbara Busterd, a bird that can excrete green slime as a defense mechanism. She clarified, giggling at herself whilst somehow, in the ultimate unfairness of the universe, maintaining such an unattainable level of awesome and intelligence i kind of melted into my edge-of-the-balcony seat.

While i don’t have any direct quotes to give you from the book, i can give it my whole-hearted endorsement to read. I intend to get my hands on a copy just as soon as i crawl out of this campus long enough to breathe air untainted with whiffs of “i-should-be-studying-itis.” But, really. Her wit comes through in her writing, but more importantly, so does her unyielding and excellent journalistic research. The book is clearly as thoroughly researched as her show and blends that perfect Maddow cocktail of classic reporting with modern sensibilities. And her arguments for the declension of America’s understanding of war are, from what i could gather through this reading and subsequent Q&A session, nothing less than provocative and nothing short of brilliant.

Something that has continued to resonate with me in the aftermath of these two lectures comes back to something Rachel said in response to a question from the audience:

“America didn’t go to war. America sent a military to go to war … and the power in the hands of one person – the President – to declare this war is contrary to what the Founding Fathers wanted ….  If you don’t have to defend your argument, your argument can suck. And George Bush didn’t have to really defend his reasons for going to war to Congress.”

Though both of these events, the panel on whistelblowing and Rachel Freaking Maddow, were not nominally about the same thing, i’ve come back to this question: how important is it to us, as Americans*, to defend and question the Constitution? We seeks always to “better” what has come before – a practice i endorse – but when i consider contemporary political discourse with the impending election, i see very little conversation about they best way to interpret our founding document.

Instead, all i see is fear. Fear of queer people, fear of sexually liberated women, fear of people of color. Fear that if we relinquish anything old, or anything that reminds us of what once way, we will lose our way entirely. Fear that allowing us, as a country still in our decidedly YOUNG adulthood, to make mistakes as women or gay people or undocumented immigrants will end in nothing but global doom. When the reality is, frankly, quite different. We are a country who have had nothing but peaceable elections for over two centuries. We’re not a nation without blood on our hands – far from it. But in the very knowledge that i don’t have to worry about my political part declaration posing a threat to my life violence screams to me that we are not doing our part as informed citizens. Instead of taking this opportunity, as people in a nation where peace was intended as our default standard, to engage critically with principles of freedom and explore what our role is as an empowerer and not a degrader, we bicker over women’s ability to control their bodies. OR the right of two people who love each other to get married. We defend a man who shot a young boy because his candy and warm clothing made him “look suspicious.”

We are getting it wrong.

If the whistleblowers were willing to lay down their lives to defend liberty – and the people whom Maddow talks about in the military were willing to do the same – don’t we owe them more than petty, useless bickering?

current jam: “some nights” fun.

best thing in my life right now: wizard rock and maddow.

*(If, you know, you are American. It is really, really okay if you are not. Welcome, actually!)

Rue the Day: Racial Commentary & The Hunger Games.

Suzanne Collins did not write a book about a dystopian society wherein only white people were foregrounded in a plot to overthrow a totalitarian state. In fact, she pretty explicitly states that the characters of Rue and Thresh, tributes from District 11, have “dark skin.” In this future, there is no buying into the social constructions of race (one thing they did right) but that doesn’t mean she was not making a pointed social comment when she made the little girl, so like the sister for whom Katniss volunteered to potentially die for, black.

When i read The Hunger Games for the first time, i saw Rue as a symbol for interracial empowerment and unity in two key ways: the first were the aforementioned parallels between her and Prim and, consequentially, Katniss’ vision of Rue being one of love unblinded by skin color. The second was her tragic, undue, and horrific death; coming from District 11, which we can guess by the general descriptions of weather and distance is meant to be somewhere in the South (Central Florida? Alabama?) this, to me, read as a pointed comment against segregation and racism across America, but most viscerally apparent in the southern US. Rue was a character who functioned to illustrate the horror of the Games, but also was so beautifully crafted in her intelligence and ability to survive that she still very much existed within the realm of Collins’ fleshed-out, human, believable cast.

Furthermore, i actually always pictured Katniss as being a woman of mixed race/color herself. While i love Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss (and, let us remember, not all racial backgrounds are immediately apparent because race is socially constructed) i had always inferred by Collins’ description of Katniss being a woman of “olive skin” and dark hair that she was a woman of some American Indian ancestry. When she was initially cast, i was a little bit disappointed. However, her performance, as i mentioned earlier today, was so stellar she was such a natural choice for the role.

In fact, if you look closely at the demographic breakdown of the residents of District 12, you’ll notice all the people of more privilege are described as being “fair.” Peeta, who comes from one of the town dwellers, has blonde hair and a pale complexion, much like Katniss’ mother who was a woman of more status prior to marrying Katniss’ dark-haired father. For these loose (but pointed) allusions to a potentially racially-driven class divide that Collins was using to deepen the commentary. While i was sad to, in some way, lose this with Lawrence’s casting, i recognize that Collins was instrumental in choosing her and that the references to Katniss as at least partially American Indian are, after all, very scant. And, may i reiterate: Lawrence herself could very well have American Indian ancestry, because race inherently by its nature of being socially constructed, confines our perception of what “American Indian” or “white” look like in ways that are often not applicable to the masses labeled with such terms.

But still. The point remains: the people who are tweeting that they were “disappointed” that a black girl was cast as Rue is, frankly, disgusting. To express such bigoted and racist views is so contrary to these subtle, poignant commentaries Collins interlaced with her broader statement against consumerism, capitalism, and the military-industrial complex. And clearly, these people didn’t read the books with much care. These tweets and opinions represent everything the Capitol stands for: a place of discrimination, exploitation, and unmitigated privilege at the expense of mass groups of oppressed people. I normally try to stray away from going preach-y on other fans, but the popularity of these horrible, prejudiced views is hurtful, frustrating, and SO NOT THE POINT OF THE STORY COLLINS CRAFTED.

The Hunger Games, at its core, is a book about overcoming adversity in the face of odds that are most certainly not in your favor. A struggle not unlike that faced by all oppressed groups in this country. I think we all do remember this, as fans of the story and as human beings.

current jam: ‘abraham’s daughter’ arcade fire

best thing: the hunger games soundtrack.

*I know this is double-posting in one day, which breaks all conventional blogging rules. But, per request (thanks, Gabs!) and per my own interest in the matter, i wanted to write about this while it was still fresh on my mind. Thanks for sticking with me, friends!

The Fault in Our Stars: Revisited.

From the open love letters i have composed so frequently to the writings rendered by John Green, it is no secret i am a fervent member of his cult of nerdfighters follower of his philosophies. My admiration from him stems from both his body of work as one half of the vlogbrothers with his hilarious and vivacious brother, Hank Green, and more deeply from his written artistry manifested in his novels. My favorite was, until recently, Looking for Alaska.*

In January, i had the beautiful opportunity to see John and Hank speak as part of the tour for the release of John’s latest book, The Fault in Our Stars. John said then – and has reiterated in many of his videos – that this was the book he had been writing for us for over ten years. His use of the phrase “writing for you” alone already was enough to fill me with unbridled anticipation to read it; knowing he had, in fact, written it for us made me beside myself. Having read almost everything he’d published prior to this, i knew that such longevity spent with his words must have made a masterpiece of them.

It did.

When i reflected on meeting John here, on Wandering Writes, i devoted my energy to thinking about the meaning of meeting your heroes. John Green is, in every sense of the word, what i believe to be a contemporary philosopher. He is utterly human in his admitted flaws and yet afflicted with the imperial sense of cosmic chaos and meaning indelible to those of Great Minds. I said then, and i think it bears repeating, that i don’t mean to idealize him (i think he would be genuinely worried to hear someone call him perfect) but i do believe he is an incredible voice in a generation in need of incredible leaders. Meeting him was humbling and human.

All this, before i had even so much as cracked open the spine of the book for which the tour had been commenced. In a multitude of facets, i am profoundly grateful for this; i was a blubbering, molasses-on-my-tongue fool enough having only read his previous works. Reading the culmination of his genius thus far was riveting enough to have reduced me to an absolute puddle in such circumstances.

Without betraying anything key to the plot or characters, i will say this: The Fault in Our Stars broke me down and patched me up in the way childhood once felt. The complexity of human existence amidst the disillusionment that comes with growing older seemed to, bizarrely, crumble while my hands were wrapped about the cover and my attention engulfed in the story. Reading the story, i simply was. Infinity was tangible. Then, of course, i finished the book and all the uprooting-to-my-core emotions suspended for the sake of being able to see the words on the page came pouring out. My stomach, i realized, had been clenched in a knot so tight i hardly breathed the whole book through. It was as if, for those twenty-four hours i spent in various curled-up positions engrossed in the book, i was no one. A human swept up in a story.

And then, with the closing of the last page, reality hit, and so did the beauty and destruction of the story. I know this sounds like the stuff of creative writing professorial nightmares – phrases plagued with sweeping statements that would make even Nathanial Hawthorne cower in vocabular fear – but i am being as genuine as i can be. This book went from being a work of art – a lie telling the truth – to lived reality. The truth unveiled consumed me.

I didn’t write up my reflections here, for i wanted to hold on to them for a while. Let the swirl of whisked-up sadness and truth and cosmic chaos brood. I’m still not done processing (i don’t think anyone really ever can be) and even these very words are only hands run along the top of the water. They aren’t plunged in, enveloped.

Such an experience belongs to the reader. And while my own torrents of comprehension are still in need of hashing out, i don’t think i want to do that all here. Not for lack of love for you, but rather because i want to give you the gift of reading the book yourself, making your own claims and dissensions and celebrations. For this reason, on the official first birthday of Wandering Writes (this approaching Saturday, the 25th) the last prize to be given away will be nothing other than a signed copy of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars:

This is not, of course, the copy that he himself personalized for me; it is unread by myself and waiting for someone to drink in its wisdom and folly. May it find a loving home with you, whomever you may be.

For today and tomorrow, though, the giveaway will continue to be nine “nerdy and i know it” postcards (with the bonus tenth one from my globetrotting collection!). Rules and such are here!

Comment Question: What book fills you with inexplicable zeal or passion or longing?

Yesterday’s Winner: Kenzie for tweeting the link to the blog! Congrats, Kenzie! (sorry for the delay! The internet on campus went down last night!)

current jam: “permafrost” laurena segura

best thing in my life right now: the mountain goats.

*If these names are ringing in empty ears (that is to say, you have no freaking clue what i’m talking about) might i direct you to this video. Welcome. DFTBA.

Sherlocked.

So you may have noticed from the abundant and not-so-subtle references peppering my posts of late that i’ve gone a little mental for one particular British show. It’s kind of a little bit – maybe more than the teensiest – okay. You all are, clearly, still with me despite my unfortunate tendencies to like things “unreal” so much they are ingrained into my own reality. I shouldn’t be so blushy to admit i’ve fallen deeper into the abyss – and yet, here i sit, pink at the ears because i’ve fallen in love with yet another BBC television programme.

For those of you who don’t spend your days mooning over the BBC and longing to live in the United Kingdom: i am speaking of the brilliant, classy, enthralling, and terrifying TV show Sherlock. A modern-day adaptation of the beloved Sir Arthur Conan Doyle classics, the series has placed a man always ahead of his time into our own world. Watson keeps a blog of his flatmate’s technology-ridden whirlwind crime-solving adventures (keeping with the motif that it was Watson who narrated the original stories) and every script is littered with clever references for Holmesian purists to delight in.

In short, the programme is sheer genius. The combined on-screen chemistry of one Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch (a suave, enigmatic, exquisite and utterly flawless Holmes) with Martin Freeman (who won a BAFTA for his frank, hilarious, and marvelous portrayal of Doctor John Watson) married to the hit-the-ground-running script prowess of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss easily makes for what i would say to be the best hour and a half of telly you’ll watch all year. Each episode, summing at 90 minutes, is comparable to a feature film of Oscar quality – and you get six of them across both seasons! It’s like Christmas, but six times over.

I first heard mention of the show on Tumblr, but the real pull for me lay in the fact that it was, well, a Sherlock Holmes story. Since my part as Mrs. Bassick* in a Sherlock Holmes play at Culbreth Middle School, i’ve grown to adore the quirky and ingenious ways of the pipe-smoking Victorian detective. While, at the age of thirteen, much of the more sophisticated and historically contextual ideas of the stories went a little over my head, i still found myself entranced by the science of deduction. To know, as they put it in the show, one’s life story by a glance, is remarkable and inhuman and so damn cool. Over the years my affections for the stories by no means abated, but i’d certainly stopped reading them with the voraciousness i had before. Yet when i heard the buzz about this being the best Holmes and Watson portrayal in decades, i knew i could not let it sit idly in my Netflix queue.

No moment of the show left me disappointed. I don’t think i left the room save once (for lunch) the whole day i watched season one, it was so engaging. My roommate, eyeing the fingernail marks i’d left in the pillow as i gaped at the screen, commented that i needed to remember to breathe while watching the show. It reignited my adoration for the science of deduction and, more to the point, made me want to dive back into reading the original Holmes stories.

When my dad and i were in London last October, i absolutely insisted we make a trip to the original 221B Baker Street. It was positively smashing to be in a reconstructed apartment made to appear like that in Sir Doyle’s time. Since then, i spent some of my time at home over break (and on the most recent 48 hour jaunt there and back again) re-reading my favorite detective stories (in case you were wondering, it’s always been A Scandal in Bohemia”). It was a wonderful way to be re-introduced to the tales i once so loved, even if at the cost of the shred of social adaptability i once clung to.

221B Baker Street!

Inside the famous flat! Pipe and all.

At any rate, i am most certainly not alone in this passion for BBC mysteries and penchant for over-liking things. Mount Holyoke, as a campus, seems to have gone positively Sherlocked all over:

(The SAW Center, as it so happens, is where i work. I really, really love my job)

In fact, the devotion of the fans of the series has grown far beyond any realm of even my own bizarre admiration of the consulting detective.

Now, what i am about to say next is a MAJOR SPOILER for those who have NOT seen the conclusion to series/season 2 of Sherlock. If you fall into that category of non-viewers, turn back now. Really. It’s so good you don’t want it spoiled.

Only loyal fans to Holmes still reading? Okay, good.

As you all (being people who have seen the series 2 finale) well know, the conclusion to “The Reichenbrach Fall” was shocking and gut-wrenching and positively tear-streaked. And since, thank goodness, there is the definite need for a third season to explain that last shot in the cemetery, some members of the fandom have taken it upon themselves to transpose the Sherlock universe into our own.

In an imaginative turn, many fans have decided that, should Sherlock Holmes have in fact been real, there would have been loyal fans to him in real life (via his website and John’s blog). By transitive property, surely some of these fans would have doubted the rumors of Moriarty being a fake – and, in turn, create a guerilla art campaign to fight against the papers.

As before, i first came across this idea on tumblr – only to awake the next day to a Mount Holyoke campus literally covered in such “I Stand with Sherlock Holmes” graffiti. I’ve been texting crappy cell phone pictures of these signs to a friend, and it was he who suggested i put them into a blog post to share. Thus, i give you all the depths of fandom:

And i know, i know. Defacing school property at the expense of a fictional character – i get it. But, at the same time, i cannot help but fall more madly in love with my university for being Hogwarts a haven for all types – including freaks like me. To be passionate, to live intensely and take things this seriously i see as a gift, and one to be treasured.

Elementary, my dear Watson.

current jam: “you’re the voice” john farnham (no one is suprised).

best thing in my life right now: vagina monologues opens in TWO DAYS!

*Who was, as far as i’m aware, a character loosely based on a number of villains in the employ of Moriarty (for fellow Holmesians). In our play, she was a suffragette by day and criminal mastermind in league with Moriarty by night. A delicious role, no doubt, if not one birthed from a mind independent of Sir Doyle’s.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray: a Review.

It’s no secret i am a voracious consumer of Young Adult fiction. I have yet to start what surely will be the brilliant The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, but this is only because i have been utterly enthralled and consumed by another YA novel for the past three days. When not running around Manhattan, i have been glued to my recently acquired copy of Libba Bray’s most recent masterful work: Beauty Queens.

I’ve been a fan of Bray’s writing ever since i checked out A Great and Terrible Beauty from the local library some five years ago; she is fresh, manipulates a story with ease, and has one of the most wry and clever senses of humor i’ve yet encountered. Having read a smidget of the review for this book on Spark, i knew it promised to be a book of equal calibar to her other works, if not completely different in its setting and style (A Great and Terrible Beauty takes place in Victorian England, as i recall).

Beauty Queens is unlike anything i’ve ever read; in its concept, it is nothing unique, and yet it somehow manages to achieve exception both through the quirky narration style and Bray’s masterfully interwoven social commentary. The book begins with an enormous, devastating plane crash: the contestants for the Miss Teen Dream Beauty Pageant have fallen on an unknown island somewhere south of Florida. Hell breaks loose, as the collection of the surviving teen girls try to survive the unruly and unimaginable jungle they have found themselves in. Peppered with hilarious footnotes written by ‘The Corporation,’ the apparent official sponsor of the book (by which Bray is making a pretty snarky commentary on product placement and the cult of the celebrity) and rich character development, the book stands incomparable to most other YA i’ve read.

Unmistakably, the premise reeks of Lord of the Flies; and while the fact that the characters are stranded on an island with no adults to supervise certainly lends credibility to the parallel, the commentary Bray is making on humanity is far different from that of William Golding’s (in my humble opinion). To begin with, the characters are women – and women who embody a spectrum of sexual orientations, gender identities, races, and religions. These women may at first appear to be nothing but vapid products of a consumerist beauty aesthetic impossible to achieve, but as the tale weaves on we learn that not all is as it seems with the pageant wannabees.

In this, Bray has created a beautiful (pun intended) portrait of the expectations forced on men and women in today’s media.  Through hysterical allusions to contemporary pop culture icons like Larry King and Sarah Palin, Bray has created a not-so-alternate universe from our own. She handles such ideas with charm and humor, but simultaneously manages to give space to the gravity of what she is speaking about. Hair removal creams can become explosives, gender lines and expectations are blurred, and no sex ed program will ever be thought of as a scapegoat for “loose women” in her saga. Oh, and pirates. As if feminist theory told in a stranded-island form was not enticing enough!

I adored this work; i recommend it to anyone and everyone to read, be you a teenage girl seeking for some supremely well executed feminist theory or an intellectualist wishing for a more creative vessel by which to consider the implications of the reality TV-like quality governmental elections seem to have taken on.

current jam: ‘heard them stirring’ fleet foxes.

best thing in my life right now: books books books.

The Fault in our Stars

nerdfighters and our books!

(i wrote this last night after returning from the TFIOS tour…alas, the internet failed to put it up then so i’m posting it a little late. i beg of your forgiveness)

Tonight, i saw John and Hank Green. Tonight, i heard John Green read aloud from his most recent work – what some are saying to be the best book he’s yet written – and scarcely breathed the whole twenty minutes he was reading it aloud. Tonight, Hank Green sang about how he wished his high school had been Hogwarts instead. Tonight, the show ended with the brothers singing (my most favorite song in the world) ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’ by The Proclaimers.’

in the signing line. the mountain goats lyric from ‘how to embrace a swamp creature’ came to mind: i try to tell you just why i’ve come/ it’s like i’ve got molasses on my toungue.

To say the least, i’m floating on a bit of a nerdy internet cloud of wonderment and thrill.

Together, as i mentioned in my Internet Blog Series Thingymabob, the Green brothers have created and fostered this worldwide community of nerdfighters. People who are reclaiming the term “nerd” as an insult and (to paraphrase John Green (again)): accepting such a term as a congratulation for being intelligent, informed, and inquisitive human beings. A community that celebrates intellectualism and silliness, stirring up conversations in radically new ways with the help of online communication – one i am so content to be a part of. Together, the brothers do this in their weekly videos, but more expansively they have spawned some incredible projects to fight worldsuck (which is exactly what it sounds like – things that suck in the world, like poverty) and increase awesome. Simple terms (the silly factor) that communicate truly intellectual and brilliant ideas: make the world a better place by being informed and living into your full capacity as a human being.

While i may reference the Green brothers all the time here, on this blog, and on my video blog found on Youtube, i’ve never really expressed overtly how much these two brothers mean to me. Both them in tandem, as the unit that is The Vlogbrothers, but also as individuals. Perhaps most of all, though, for what they stand for and what they, somewhat unintentionally, created in the globe-spanning community that is nerdfighteria.

John Green, as it so happens, articulates why i haven’t been so decided in sharing such feelings (until now) in his new book. (Note: this is from chapter 2, so it’s not a major spoiler). The main character, Hazel, is telling the reader why she feels hesitant about sharing what her actual favorite book is with people;

“My favorite book, by a wide margin, was An Imperial Affliction, but I didn’t like to tell people about it. Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.”

As in so many things, precisely what John Green articulates here is often how i feel about books – and, in beauteous irony, several of these books are his own. I don’t tell people how much his book Looking for Alaska moved me – and still moves me – because of exactly what he (via Hazel) explains: it’s mine. Well, not so much now that i’m writing this for the MILLIONS of you out there reading this to read, but still.

I don’t share this love lightly, because it’s kind of like baring your Soul out a bit and risking the inevitable scoff from the inevitable snob who thinks the book is crap. And while, in a very real way, Looking for Alaska is not mine (as i had no part in its rendering) John himself said tonight: books belong to their readers.

This idea of an artist slaving over a piece, giving of herself or himself in a way that their very Life is pouring into it, translates for me to works on a broader scale than just books. Van Gogh is my favorite painter not because i understand the intricacy in the way he manipulated his brushstrokes or revolutionized visual art through conceptions of color and form (though, in fairness, i do like those attributes to his work). Van Gogh is my favorite painter because i can look at Starry Night and cry for the pain and wonderment at such suffering it expresses so intensely. In standing before Van Gogh’s work i see my own Self reflected back; certainly part of that is his own – the work would not be so moving were it to as inauthentic to not reflect the artist’s own hand. But i only know Van Gogh’s struggle through the lens of my own – through empathy, through learning, through my own dreaming of stars. John’s recognition of this moment for the reader or audience member or art appreciator augments my appreciation for his own work. If i may be so bold as to put words in his mouth, he sees that the art will forever be of the artist, but it belongs to the audience once it is released. Loving something means letting it go, to employ the cliché.

I guess what i’m trying to get at is that John Green’s books are more than just silly Young Adult fiction. Sure, there’s plenty of teenage angst and bad wine and high schooly romance, but the core of his writing is this emphatic and indescribable beauty made from his own attempts to question the cosmos. He is, to me, a philosopher. I don’t mean to idolize him (the man has faults (many of which i’m sure i will never know, as these things should be)) or place him precariously next to Socrates. What i mean to say is simply that, to me, John Green is more than an author. His books are more than words on a page. To use his own words once more, “I believe now that we are greater than the sum of our parts.”

So meeting him tonight was incredible, in the act of meeting him alone. The fact that he and his equally awesome and nerd-tastic brother, Hank, put on a show together simply compounded the exhilaration. For the act of sharing the space with two people embracing nerd culture and all the weirdness that comes along with it, for shaking John’s hand and telling him that his books move me to my core, for singing along and dancing in the aisles and being a total goof with hundreds of other people – this is what i celebrate.

And for these moments and for this time, i am so deeply grateful.

current jam: ‘high school (this isn’t hogwarts)’ hank green.

best thing in my life right now: the above.

fifteen things challenges completed: one (item #2: shake john green’s hand and tell him how looking for alaska saved me)

It’s Not as Weird as it Sounds: My Online Friends

Let’s just clear the air: i have friends i’ve made online.

Immediately whenever i disclose this particular piece of information to people who have not done the same, i (99% of the time) get one of two reactions. The first is a mild, “oh-that’s-nice” which reeks of subtextual fear and disapproval. The kind of response that means that people might ask politely intended but poorly phrased questions indicative of their worry that i only have friends online because i’m incapable of making them “in the real world.” I’m not a fan of this response, but i understand it. Making friends via YouTube is still relatively new in the broader discourse, despite YT’s years of existence.

The second response is one of overt judgement or worry – people who make comments like “that’s really weird, lizzie,” or “how do you know they’re who they say they are?” To the first comment, my initial response is simply to say: well isn’t any way you meet someone weird? Who defines normality?

But such esoteric smartass replies are not precisely conducive to communicating my point.

Because, at the end of the day, i get it.

The stereotype of creepy, predatory men lit in a dark room only by their computer monitor is a real one. At least, Criminal Minds tells me it’s real. The idea that there are dangerous people out to manipulate, scare, control, or abuse people (particularly young women) is not merely an idea: it’s a grim fact. I don’t discount that – but i also am aware that there are bullies and threatening people in every corner of our world. There are as many dangers as meeting someone online as there are in meeting someone at a bar or coffeehouse. You have to use your intellect, street smarts, guts, and meet in public places the first time around.

But here’s the other thing about said stereotype: it infers that i am talking exclusively to creepy men in their fifties preying upon my youth via chatrooms or facebook. The reality is quite different (not that you can’t make friends that way). My closest “internet friends” (a term i only use to distinguish them as people i met fist via wireless, and secondly in person, not that they are any less important to me than my “real life” friends) i met because of YouTube.

Which, understandably, might even compound the confusion. I would wager (again, in my non-expertise, totally subjective opinion) that 90% of people who use YouTube watch videos only pertaining to cats (totally acceptable), music videos, Rick Perry parodies (also completely okay), and the occasional school project for the super cutting-edge teacher. What is not included in this is how i got into YouTube – video blogging.

I’ve posted some videos here before of my own making, and more often than that make references to my favorite vloggers, John and Hank Green of the vlogbrothers. While the Green brothers by no means started the idea of a video blog (vlog), their channel and the community subsequently created around it has initiated an entire online movement. In 2005, the two brothers committed to a year long project where they would engage in text-less communication, predominantly through videos they would make for each other alternating every day of the week. The project, though not daily videos, has grown and persisted into the impending year of the apocalypse 2012. Because of their wit, insight, nerdiness, and utter abandon of self-consciousness on the web, these two gleaned, somewhat surprisingly to them, several hundred thousand followers (over the span of several years). As part of their mission to “decrease world suck” (which is literally to fight, through the power of love, anything that sucks in this world) they believe that all people are “made of awesome.” To this end, anyone who is “made of awesome” (who can be anyone) and wants to combat “world suck” is a “nerdfighter.” Meaning, if you like Doctor Who or Harry Potter and want to support small business owners in developing nations, you are a nerdfighter. Or if you’re into other things, that’s okay too.*

As i’m writing this, i can’t help but giggle a little at how strange this all sounds to put into a textual body. “Made of awesome” may not reek of Shakespearean eloquence, but it is pretty communicative and expressive of what the community is about. Yeah, the vlogbrothers are quirky and strange, but they have – through their own self liberation – given space for the inner nerd flag of anyone with an internet connection to be flown with pride. In their wake, thousands upon thousands of people have started their own vlogs, created nonprofits, made friends, hosted “gatherings” of nerdfighters, and generally united over a front to fight what they see is bad in the world by making connections with people who believe the same.

It’s no different to me then meeting someone at a Harry Potter appreciation society. Or a meeting for a campus organization seeking to promote awareness of injustices within the US Court System. A group of people, with common interests, meeting and talking. The difference is a computer screen.

In January of 2011 – exactly one year ago – i started a vlog. To be honest, i was wretched. My videos were too long, i had no clue how to edit, i talked too much, and never had much of a direction. But, six months new to the nerdfighter community, i desperately wanted to be a more involved part of it. That, and i was doing a little participant-observer research of my own for a potential senior thesis (more on that another time).

And, within a month of making videos, a fellow nerdfighter sent me a message on YouTube asking me if i would possibly be interested in a collaborative channel with herself and three other nerdfighters. I was both flattered and a little apprehensive – making videos on a channel with four people i’d never met before? Talking about what exactly? All of the responses i now get when i saw i have a video blog ran through my head. And yet, a part of me knew that this would be a really cool thing to try, should i only give it a chance. If it failed abysmally, it was just a little internet experiment. If it rocked, then i would have really been a part of this online community. Thus, allmadeofawesome was born a year ago this February made of myself, Jenn, Candace, Sarah, and Sara Michelle.

Fortunately for the five of us, i would say our little project rocked. It’s not famous, we’re not renowned among internet folk or anything like that – but that is not the point. The point is that, in spite of the weirdness of it all, i started talked to four other incredibly motivated, intelligent, and totally nerdy women about nerd culture and being at university. Basically, what i do with my friends “in my real life.” And through our videos, i’ve become genuine friends with these ladies. Not pornography, no predators, no venting of pent-up emotions i am incapable of expressing to people i see and hear and touch in the “real” world. Just friends.

Such good friends, though, that i’ve now hung out with two of them in person. Sara Michelle, who has the Friday slot on our channel, lives pretty close to where i go to school. We’ve attended two Harry and the Potters concerts together and have plans to do more nerdy stuff of the like – and when we’re hanging out, it’s just us talking and driving around or eating guacamole sandwiches (well, the last part is just me with my neurotic eating tendencies). Not weird. Not creepy.

okay, the normalcy argument may be lost here. but look, no serial killers!

With Sarah, i got to see her when i was in London in October. Sarah is, in fact, one of the major reasons i started watching Doctor Who, because she being British means that it’s somewhat compulsory to be awesome and nerdy and moon over Matt Smith (i know, sweeping generalizations (it’s a joke!)). Thus, when i’d fallen so deep in the time vortex that i wanted to go to the Doctor Who Experience in London, i invited her along – and we had such a marvelous time. For, despite his many waonderful attributes, my father is not precisely a Whovian. He was such a dear in spending the four hours with us in the museum, but it was Sarah with whom i geeked out over the tenth doctor’s actual TARDIS and the Ood prosthetics. She got the geekdom, the excitement, and the exhiliration at such silly things the way i did. Friends. Real friends.

sarah and i…in the tardis!

All of this to say, yeah. I have online friends. They’re real, they matter to me, and i realize that culturally this may not be the most acceptable. But as much as the internet has changed, so has our culture. The internet is a vehicle, i think, for what you make of it. For friends, for news, for connections, for cat videos during exam week. I think if we exercise appropriate caution in the same way we do in tangible reality, we can use the internet as a tool for good.

What are your thoughts? Have you made friends via the interwebs? Think i’m still a freak? You are all most welcome.

current jam: ‘safe & sound’ taylor swift, t-bone burnett, & the civil wars

best thing in my life right now: kitties, coffee, and my new mug.

*if this is not clear, i recommend this video as a better, from the horse’s mouth introduction!

NaNoWriMo

Well friends, it is that time of year again.

The stores are clogged with singing Santas and we’re not even bursting at the buttons with Turkey, the Occupy Wall Street protests are expected to end because of weather soon (more on that later this week), parents are taking their favorite candies from their children’s Halloween stash as “parental tax,” and i’m starting to count down the hours until i get to fly home to see my kitties be with my family.

But that’s not what i meant.

What i meant was that it is now, officially, November first. And this means i now need to start writing an average of 1,666 words a day from here until the thirty-first to reach a goal of 50,000 words written in the month of November.

Because on top of my one to two papers due a week, in addition to the four books i need to read before the end of the month, in spite of my panel presentation at the Five College Africa Day, and at the cost of my radio show and social life, i have decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo(which i am choosing to call NaNoRhiNo, as writing about Rhinos seems to be far less imposing than creating a work of fiction entirely spawned from my own brain spilled out in at least 50,000 words)). I am going to try to write a novel in the month of November.

Am i crazy? Overextending myself? Pushing my limit?

Yes. Yes, i am.

I don’t have time, i hardly have the skeletal framework i need to write a novel, i need to focus on school, i won’t be able to blog as much, i have no brain space. But i also don’t have time for excuses, and i have wanted to participate for three years now.

So i’m not letting myself make excuses, i’m just going to turn into a puddle of wordy mishmash. Three of the other ladies on my collaborative YouTube channel are also participating, as is my brother. At least i shall be in good company.

Should you wish to be my writing buddy, you can find me on the NaNoWriMo site under the name (shocker!) Lizzie McMizzie. I would be honored to enter into a state of exploding writing psychosis with you. Also, i shall be tweeting about my word count progress, should you care to follow me on twitter.

As of right now i do not intend to release any part of my NaNoWriMo “project” (a word that sounds less frightening than “novel”) online. It’s in part because i am a little wary of internet burglars, but mostly i’m kind of freakishly self-depraving about my fiction when i talk about it with other people. But as my dream man would say, Never Say Never*, so should i render a work worthy of a Pulitzer (doubtful) maybe i talk a littleteensyweensybit about it. However, don’t hedge your bets (i hear, though, the number 4 is a lucky one this year for the lotto…).

Are you doing NaNoWriMo?

current jam: ‘any which way’ scissor sisters

best thing in my life right now: baby name search engines.

*by the way, in case the sarcasm was lost on you, there is no way in heaven or hell justin bieber is my dream boy man.