Why “24 Steps?”

You may have noticed that my little corner of the internet has gone through a name-change recently.  “A View from the Geek Seats” is no more, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop writing about geek culture.  Of course not – I’ve been steeped in science fiction, fantasy, and comic books too long to give that up entirely.  However, I’ve realized that I want – I need – to tell another story: my story.

I have clinical anxiety.

There’s something vaguely liberating about seeing those words in black and white, a phantom notion given concrete substance as I write.  At the same time, it seems so much smaller than it really is.  A four-word sentence seems hardly adequate to describe an emotion that has been at the core of my being for as long as I can remember.

Some of you may not understand or know what clinical anxiety is or how it works. When I say “I have anxiety,” I don’t mean that I get nervous giving speeches, or panic when the nurse gives me a tetanus booster.  I don’t mean that I get scared watching scary movies or stressed when my workload is high. All of these situations are normal incidences in which human beings may feel anxiety.  I have these reactions, and I bet you have at least some of them.  Who wouldn’t feel nervous when a cop pulls them over for speeding?  Who wouldn’t feel fear waiting for the results of recent medical tests?  Fear and stress are normal human reactions – and they serve a purpose.  Fear keeps us from engaging in risky behavior that might endanger themselves. Stress motivates us to accomplish our goals.

No, friends.  When I say “I have anxiety,” what I mean is that I lived in the house of fear, with few windows into the outside world.  My earliest memories are of waking up and dreading the day ahead because even as a child, I knew – I just knew – that there was some great, unfathomable Bad Thing that could happen to me that day.  Have you ever met a fearful child? They go through life knowing in every fiber of their tiny beings that the world is a terrifying place and that they are very, very small.  When I say “I have anxiety,” what I mean is that there is a demon on my shoulder and that demon is fear. Imagine falling asleep after a long day.  As soon as you begin to drift off, you feel as if you aren’t breathing and you start awake.  That’s what it feels like to live with anxiety. All day, every day.

When I tell people that I struggle with anxiety, it usually surprises them.  I don’t “look like” someone who is mentally ill.  I don’t “talk like” someone who is mentally ill.  I was a straight-A student. I have an advanced degree. I have always been a stellar employee and an academic and social leader. I don’t seem like society’s picture of a “crazy person.”  But I was good at school. I was good at work.  These were controlled environments where if I put in effort, I would receive stability.  I got a remarkable amount of work done because I felt like if I stopped or slowed down, then everything would cave in and that omnipresent Bad Thing, the one I had been holding off since childhood, would happen.  Can you imagine being on guard your whole life? Feeling the fight-or-flight instinct from the moment you wake up until the moment you fall asleep?   It’s exhausting. And about 3/4th of the way through my graduate school career, it became too much.  I had what could only be described as a nervous breakdown.

So what did I do?  I got help.  I got counseling. I got medication.  I went home to stay with my parents and to start over.  This war can be fought, and it must be fought to live a full life – one not shaped by fear. I manage my life now, and I’m in the best mental health I have ever been in.  However, I can’t overstate the struggle it has been – and continues to be. I’m not “cured.”  I never will be.  My anxiety is a part of my life.  But it’s not the only part of my life.

I have not been eager to share this part of my life with the people around me.  I didn’t want to be judged. I didn’t want to be second-guessed in work situations by people who might tag me as “crazy” or “insecure.”  I have labored like Sisyphus to control my reactions to the world around me. My reticence hasn’t helped anyone, least of all me. People – good people, kind people, brave people – lose the battle against their demons every day.

They die, thinking they are alone.

It’s time to open up a conversation about mental health, one that doesn’t go away a few weeks after a publicized suicide fades from the media circus.

Why “24 Steps?” When I was at my worst – jumping at every car horn, compulsively checking the door locks – I would pace in my tiny apartment to calm myself. It took me 24 steps to make the circuit through my kitchen.  I will never forget that circuit, pacing like it was the only thing keeping me alive.  No one needs to feel as small as I did then.

Let’s change the story.

Seven Things Nobody Tells You When You Go Off to College

Dear Incoming College Freshhumans,

Welcome to college.  For the next four years (and change), you will be in a unique social class that gives you all kinds of opportunities.  You will get discounted movie tickets, drink specials, and enough free koozies to build a squishy mountain of theme-colored joy (so you never have to worry about finding a soft place to land ever again).  You will become a culinary artiste – Easy Mac is an underrated, but oh so cheesy, medium – and a late-night philosopher who plumbs the existential depths of syndicated reruns of Walker, Texas Ranger because that’s all that’s on at three in the morning and who needs sleep anyway?  

You will have a socially-accepted reason to sit around in a coffeeshop for days (you might consider moving in), grow creative facial hair, take four-hour-long naps and stay on your parent’s insurance.  It’s like being European, except better because you know what college towns have that European cities do not?  Bojangles.  Bojangles on every corner. Late-night Bojangles.  Your veins will flow with Bo-sauce and you will love it.

I loved college.  I loved it so much that I went on to do more college (i.e. grad school).  Much to my surprise, grad school is not college and there was significantly less of the Walker, Texas Ranger and more of the sobbing uncontrollably over papers and learning and stuff.  Don’t get me wrong, grad school is great and all – I got a whole lot smarter, Ma! – but there is something special about life as an undergraduate.  For many students, college is their first time away from home. It’s a pivotal time in a young person’s life: you’re learning about yourself, your dreams, your plans, and what you’ll put up with from other people.  Dorm living is especially useful in this aspect.  College can be a place of reinvention, but it can also be a place where you crash and burn like the Hindenburg (too soon?).  

I received quite a bit of good advice when I went off to college, but here are some things I didn’t hear – things that I think a few of you might need to hear as well.

1.  College will not make you a better person. You’ll hear a lot of talk about the possibility of reinventing yourself when you go to college.  Were you a nerd in high school?  BAM!  College.  Now you’re the freshman studmuffin.  Those co-eds can’t get enough of you.  Were you a goof-off?  BAM! College.  Now you’re the top of your class. Your advisers are calling you for mentorship.  College is the real-life equivalent of the Old Spice Guy. 

It’s not that easy.  Yes, college is a place where you can stretch your boundaries.  You can let aspects of your personality – sense of humor, courage, compassion – shine through because you’re in a new place.  You’re a blank slate to the people around you.  But you’re still you.  You can very easily exhaust yourself when you try to become someone else.  At your very core, you will be the same person when you arrive at Freshman Orientation and when you cross the stage to get your diploma.  And that’s okay.  Don’t stress out because the fears, the insecurities, or the things you hate about yourself don’t go away.  They don’t just disappear when you become “an adult.”  

2. College is a scary, scary place sometimes.  You may have some of the highest moments of your life in these four years.  Travelling abroad, doing internships, discovering your passions, sharing friendships, falling in love – these are all the awesome things people tell you will happen to you in college.  What they don’t mention is that you may struggle through depression. You may struggle through anxiety.  You certainly will struggle through stress, and broken relationships, and anger, and homesickness.  I don’t mean to dampen your enthusiasm.  College is awesome, except when it’s not.  

And when it’s not, remember that you have resources.  Know where your college counseling center is.  Know where the chaplain’s office is (if you are a person of faith, and even if you’re not). Know where the fitness center is (exercise is key to staying mentally healthy). Know where the student health center is. Use these resources.  There’s no shame in asking for help. 

3.  You will fall down. You’re going to screw up. Embrace this. You will tread too roughly on tentative new relationships. You will annoy your roommate. You will be annoyed by your roommate.  You will be too much or too little in a given situation.  You will find yourself in over your head.  The sooner this happens to you, the better, because the first time is the worst.  After that, you get used to stumbling.  

Just remember: everyone around you is also struggling, even – and especially – the kids who seem like they’ve got it all together.  That perky, 4.0 biochem major in your Intro to Soc class spends just as much time as you do – if not more – feeling absolutely inadequate to the task.  You will both be okay.

4.  Your mentors are just people, at the end of the day. The mentoring relationship between a professor and student is one of the coolest parts of college.  You may have a special mentor in your major, or you might make an impression on a professor who then takes an interest in your academic career.  They can help you, and help you to find opportunities, and encourage you, and even challenge you to be more than you think you can be.  You’ll find yourself putting a lot of stock in what they have to say.

They fall down too, though.

You will disagree with your mentors sometimes. You have to to grow.  It’s not the end of the world. Sometimes you’re wrong, and sometimes they’re wrong.  It can be a sticky situation, especially if they’re your adviser, but you are building yourself; you’re not creating a clone of your favorite Physics prof.  And you may lose a mentor through this process. That’s a part of growth as well.  As with other types of friends, mentors may come in and go out of your life, crossing paths with you when you need them and then passing by.  It’s perfectly normal.

5.  Don’t be afraid of “missing out.” Yes, try new things, even if you only try them once.  But if your instincts tell you that tantric yoga, or beer pong, or Young Republican meetings, or Young Democrat meetings, or chess club, or any other new pursuit isn’t for you, listen to them.  When someone says, “Oh, but you’ll be missing out,” do not listen to them. Listen to yourself.  I promise you: in five years, you will not miss being miserable at parties that you didn’t want to go to.  What you will miss is time you could have spent doing things that make you happy with people who make you happy.  If that’s tabletop gaming, then find a group to do that with.  If it’s salsa dancing, then find a club.   Always, always, always put time aside for yourself to not do anything.  You’ll drown if you don’t.

On that note, you can’t force “life events” to happen to you.  You may find your calling in these four years. You may not. You may fall in love. You may not.  You’re not “missing your window” to do any of these things.  Your life is not a checklist of major events.  It’s not a script to someone else’s movie.  No time you spend on this earth is wasted.  You can get stressed out about how “little” you’ve “accomplished.”  Always, always, always remember that your path is unique, and that no matter what you do, it is worthwhile, unless you are kicking puppies or a Nazi. 

6. Know the difference between your dreams and your plans. Dreams don’t change; they’re a part of our core identities. Plans are how we aim to reach our dreams; they are meant to change and evolve.

I’ve known I wanted to write, in some capacity, since I was five years old.  Well, that and be President and breed unicorns. I’ve always felt that writing is the way I connect with people the best.  I want to use my words to bring joy and comfort, to inspire, to rally my community to action.  This is a dream that I have.  

My plans, on the other hand, have changed so often that I have lost count.  I was going to be a journalist. Then a minister. Then a teacher. Then a professor.  Now, I am doing none of those things.  But I am still writing.  

Don’t invest too much of your self-worth in the plans.  More often than not, the plans don’t work out, and I’ve seen too many bright people shattered because their plans for medical school, or grad school, or internships, have fallen through.  Even if your ideal life-plan shrivels up like a potato-chip bag in the microwave, your dreams, the reason for your being, exist untouched. Don’t forget them.

7. Being “good” at something doesn’t mean it’s the right path for you.

We thrive on feedback.  Since college is such a new experience in so many ways, we need outside reassurance that we’re doing the right thing pretty much constantly.  We seek affirmation before we choose a course schedule, before we move off-campus, before we take that internship or go to that country for a Maymester.  If everyone around you says that you’re good at, say, business, but your real dream is to teach, it’s hard to separate your own needs from the need to please other people, especially the people you live and work with.  

Sometimes you have to say “no” to the praise.  You may even get that rare beast, the unwanted Mentor, who tells you that you’re “wasting your potential” to do something you don’t really want to do.  You’ve got so many paths ahead of you right now.  Don’t let someone choose one for you.

With that wisdom, it’s off to school! Hit up IKEA for some furniture you can’t pronounce or put together, and pray there’s either an aspiring engineer or a foreign-exchange student from Sweden on your floor during move-in day.  Call your parents every once in a while. They need it, and you need it to keep you grounded.  Make friends the first day, and don’t worry about seeming awkward. Everyone feels like they have a giant, visible booger hanging out of their nostril on the first day.  It’s okay. You’re okay.  You’re in for a hell of a ride.

-k

On Laughter

Tonight, the world grieves.  

It grieves the loss of one of one of the great Funny Men, a man who faced more demons than he ever showed.  The world is a little bit duller, and the stars a little less twinkly.

Someday, I may write about the sorrow and the unfairness, about the way we stigmatize mental health issues, about the shockwaves his death has sent into our lives as a cultural body.  But for now, because mental illness hits too close to home for me to speak of it coherently, and out of respect to those who grieve his loss the most, I will not.  Instead, let’s celebrate his great gift to the world: laughter.

I will never understand those who say that comedy is a lesser art than “high drama.”  Let us never underestimate the undertaking that is comedy.  Humor is hard.  Humor is complex.  Humor must be crafted carefully, tested meticulously, and refined constantly before it’s released into the wild. Oftentimes, we don’t know why something is or isn’t funny; tastes vary, of course, but there’s no recipe to suit. Good humor is like true love or a flawless bacon cheeseburger: you can’t build it on your own, but you know it when you see it.

Humor is one of the most powerful ways of connecting with other human beings that we have. Would you marry a person who couldn’t make you laugh?  No, of course you wouldn’t.  You’d say, “We just didn’t connect.”   If you’re me, that’s the deal-breaker that keeps you from a second date.  No laughter, no connection, no relationship.

At its very core, comedy is the relationship between a speaker and a listener.  When someone makes a joke, the underlying question is, “Do you see the world the way I do?”  When you laugh, your underlying response is, “Yes.”  In that instant, you two are bound to one another in a shared understanding.  That’s what it means when we say that Robin Williams touched millions of lives.  He looked at the universe and shared what he saw.  When we realized we saw the same, our laughter bound us to him and to each other.  

And that skein of laughter, that bond, it is a beautiful thing.  Laughter is a complicated response. It bubbles up when we’re uncomfortable, when we’re joyous, when we’re hurt, when we’re angry, when we lash out or put up a facade or let down our guard. We trot laughter out when life goes beyond words.  Laughter crosses language and cultural barriers; in that sense, humor is the sole uniting force in our fragmented world.  Maybe we laugh at different things in different lands, but we all know what it’s like to breathe in oxygen and breathe out joy.  We all know what it’s like to feel our bellies ripe-full with rippling chuckles, or to find ourselves doubled-over, heaving and crying with silent giggles.  We are never alone so long as we can laugh together.

 Thank you, Mr. Williams.  

Fiction Friction, or “Why Can’t I Ever Finish a Story?”

Every time I sit down to write out a story, the beginning is the interesting part.  Ideas come bouncing out of my head, hitting the keys and then bouncing right into the screen. I’ll type five single-spaced pages in an hour.  I don’t even take bathroom breaks, and since I have a bladder like a thimble, that’s not insignificant.  It always starts with characters: the cranky spinster princess, the eccentric inventor, the dashing pirate.  I see them taking form in my mind – what color hair, how tall, what their voices sound like, what their relationships to each other are. 

 

After that, their universe starts to take shape.  It’s a fairytale kingdom or a steampunk coal mining boomtown or an ancient empire or something like that. When it comes to settings, I tend to follow the “go big or go home” philosophy.  Universe-building is an easy task for me, but after that initial stage, I usually hit a wall: what are they all supposed to do?

 

Stories are about characters, but they’re also about plot – sequences of events.  Sometimes I can sketch out a rough outline: Character A is supposed to rescue Character B from the lair of goodlooking-but-heartless Villain C; Mechanical men invented by Protagonist II upset the economic system of PrimarySettingTown, where Protagonist II lives; Something-something-something-metaphor-for-19th-century-politics-something-magical-beans-something.

 

And then?

 

I run out of steam.  I have upwards of a dozen files saved on my computer with titles like “Unnamed Quest Adventure,” “Awesome Historical-Novel-Fairy-Tale,” “Characters of Awesome,” etc.  They’re junk drawers filled with descriptions, snippets of dialogue, character sketches, and anything else my mind spits out while I’m high on ideas and listening to one of my four iTunes writing playlists.  Essentially, it’s brain vomit.  My Documents folder is full of brain vomit.  After I hit that roadblock, I stop.  Sometimes I stop writing completely for several weeks for one reason or another.  I always go back to it, either out of a genuine desire or the creeping feeling that it’s what I ought to be doing, but I rarely revisit those epic sagas I frantically shaped at 1:30 in the morning when I couldn’t sleep because there were these ideas jumping around in my head.  And so these documents become mausoleums for characters and stories that burst forth full of life, but soon wilt.

 

These ramblings rarely merit editing and revision, because I have discovered that my writing is never as clever upon a second reading, and it sometimes makes me cringe to read it.  Writing fiction is like drunk-dialing: you think you’re articulate and deep at the time, but in the cold, clear light of morning, you get the sinking feeling you’ve made a terrible mistake, and you can’t even understand the messages you left for yourself.  

 

More troubling to me is the fact that I’m not emotionally invested in these stories.  Sometimes they’re aesthetically pleasing; despite my harsh criticism of my own writing, I’ll admit that I’ve written a few pretty passages here and there.  No, it’s not that: I just don’t really care what happens next.  I should: I created these characters.  I find it difficult to identify with my heroine when she’s in the depths of despair or – especially – the heights of romantic passion.  My heroes begin to bore me, and my villains never seem terrifying enough.  And so I fluff – I add more and more until I’ve produced a mountain of meaningless prose.  

 

I read through my graveyard every once in a while.  I have deleted a few stories that aren’t going anywhere, but I think I keep them around because throwing them away means admitting that I’ve wasted time, or that I’ve had another false start on this “being a writer” journey I am on – the fear of mortality, I suppose.  I keep asking myself, “What do people like to read?”, instead of, “What do I know?  What do I care about?”  This is probably at the heart of my writing troubles.  I’m writing about interesting, fantastical places and people, but there’s no core to the stories.  It’s all very interesting window dressing.  It’s time for me to write about what I know, about what I want to say to the world, about what I want to accomplish with my writing:

 

I want to write about bravery.  I want to write about imagination.  I want to write about the power of love, but not in that shallow, sappy, only-romantic way we get spoonfed so often in movies.  

I want to help young people through my writing. I want to make somebody like little!me feel less alone and powerless. That’s what I want. 

And starting today, that’s what I am going to do in my writing.  Less fluff, less self-congratulatory purple prose and oh-so-clever dialogue, and more reality.

 

There will still be pirates, though. What’s a good story without pirates?

 

-k.

No Country for Geek Girls

All right.  I’m putting on my feminist hat for this one.  Haters to the left.  Actually, in this case, would it be “haters to the right”? 

 

I digress. 

 

Those of you who know me should at least suspect that I am a strong proponent of changing the way women are presented in the media and – as a result – perceived by popular culture.  I used to skirt around the issue, not wanting to be labeled, laughed at, or written off, but I really don’t find that necessary anymore.  Maybe I’m older and wiser, but this is doubtful.  More likely, I see that keeping silent on issues that make my life less than it could be does nobody any good.  Therefore, as a woman and as a geek, I have to ask: what is up with the way geek culture treats women?

 

I’ve already briefly addressed this topic in a blog post I wrote for skirt! magazine last week, but I felt it deserved a more in-depth treatment. Also, I am still a wee bit annoyed.  Actually, I am perpetually annoyed at being treated differently by comic book store owners, at seeing strong female characters reduced to sex objects, and at the whole concept of the “fake geek girl.” 

 

The pinnacle of my annoyance is the hoopla over the “fake geek girl,” a character I have never met, but who is apparently a clear and present danger to all I hold dear.  A little background: in 2012, Forbes contributor Tara Tiger Brown wrote an article titled, “Dear Fake Geek Girls: Please Go Away.” In it, she decries what she sees as the dilution of geek culture as the internet makes once-obscure interests easy to access for just about anyone.  She points to a growing group of people who claim to be interested in geeky things – gaming, scifi, etc – to get attention.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with disliking inauthentic people.  I’m not a fan of shameless attention-seekers, although that is mainly because I like to be the only one in the room.  However, Brown’s argument isn’t about inauthentic people in general: she targets women and girls as the main culprits in the disintegration of geek culture as she knew it.  How dare these women assume geek status just to get attention from males?  She assumes that these women – whoever they are – did not go through the same bumpy childhood and adolescence that is typical of geek culture.  Therefore, they should be exposed as frauds, so we can “protect” the sanctity of geek culture.  Sheesh.  We’re scifi nerds, not the Order of the Phoenix.

 

Also in 2012, CNN contributor Joe Peacock wrote “Booth Babes Need Not Apply,”  an article where he trashes women who (apparently) only go to conventions to feel better about their appearance by “infiltrating a community to seek the attention of guys [they] wouldn’t give the time of day on the street.” He claims that he knows women who are both very attractive and “true geeks,” but the posers, he writes, are numerous.  I wonder how one could tell the difference between an attractive woman who is also “legit,” and one who is clearly just there to torment the poor geek males by…I don’t know…being attractive around them?  To be fair, at many cons, there are what we call “booth babes,” who are models – often scantily-clad – who are there to sell merchandise. Sex sells. We know that.  Some conventions have banned the use of booth babes to sell merchandise, because it can create an environment that is uncomfortable for both male and female con-goers.  There is a big difference, though, between objecting to a commercial policy and assuming a woman is ‘selling’ herself simply because of the way she looks.  Trust me: if an attractive woman wants to feel good about herself by garnering male attention, there are easier and cheaper ways to do it than paying $50 or more for a day-pass to a convention and waiting in line for hours.  Bars exist. 

 

It’s not just civilian geeks who are targeted by this assumption.  After a journalist accused geek heroine Felicia Day of being a “fake,” her fans across the internet rose up in arms.  Day is a writer, first and foremost, and the notion that she doesn’t belong because she also happens to be a pretty woman was not well-received.  However, part of Day’s appeal is her association with Joss Whedon, the granddaddy of geekdom (or at least its weird uncle).  Being associated with Whedon gives her a level of security; after all, he gave the world Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, and Firefly, series rife with attractive, kick-ass women.  So she’s safe, more or less, from the brunt of these attacks.  Less safe is Olivia Munn, who rose to stardom as the host of G4’s Attack of the Show!, a series focused on tech reviews, pop culture news, and other minutiae from a geek perspective.  She went on to work with The Daily Show.  Munn has come under criticism from Peacock and his ilk, who lump her together with booth babes as an attempt by commercial interests to pander to geek males, who are apparently incapable of resisting attractive women.  Peacock refers to “these Olivia Munn types” as a big problem in geek culture.  Why target Munn?  Because she’s sexy.  She’s conventionally attractive, and thus she cannot know what it’s like to feel out of place, and thus she cannot be a geek. That’s the logic there.

 

What a load of nonsense.  Geek culture began as a way of escaping the mundane, of finding a place for those who don’t fit into the mainstream world…and women aren’t welcome because they’re sexy?  A brief glance at comic book covers or game release promotional material would suggest that geek culture doesn’t actually mind sexualized women.  Gaming and comic heroines are more than likely to be portrayed in a highly-sexualized manner.  With a few notable exceptions, women in comic books and games have Barbie-like proportions and apparently can’t buy pants.  Don’t believe me?  Tumblr’s Escher Girls finds comic book depictions of women that defy the laws of the human body, usually due to the famous “boobs and butt pose.” The Hawkeye Initiative shows how ridiculous the sexualization of female heroines is by redrawing female superhero poses, using the male hero Hawkeye.  As a female comic book fan, it’s always bothered me that the women can’t seem to keep their clothing on.  Or that nobody thinks pants are important when saving the world.  Or that four-inch stilettos are absolutely necessary for flight. If I were a heroine, I’d want pants.  And supportive shoes.  And a little bit more breathing room in that jumpsuit. And don’t even get me started on how strong, single heroines usually get their series axed.  Oh, Manhunter, we barely knew ye. Women in comics are totally sexualized, so why object to sexy women in real life? 

 

The issue, I think, is that there’s a difference between being sexualized and being sexy.  Half-clad superwomen are safe; they can’t talk, they can’t think, and they can’t be real people.  To some extent, booth babes, by their very remoteness, are also safe for geek males to ogle.  When I say geek males, by the way, I am referring to those who buy into the “fake geek girl” myth.  In many ways, geek culture has long cherished the same kind of self-sacrificing “courtly love” that made Crusaders so very tiresome.  Women are some kind of divine, untouchable mystery in this mindset.  Objectified, they’re safe.  When a real, breathing, attractive woman – especially one who knows she’s attractive and enjoys being so – tries to break into the Good Old Boys Club of geekery, she is often met with suspicion.  The Olivia Munns of geekdom, strangely enough, have to overcome being beautiful.  Now, I know what you’re thinking: boo hoo, it must be so sad to be an attractive young woman.  In this context, though, it is. 

 

It’s similar to slut-shaming, in which women are shamed for their sexuality.  In both cases, a patriarchal system assigns motivations to women based on their physical appearance, gender, and sexual choices.  In slut-shaming, women who do not conform to a specific set of rules about sexuality are shamed.  In the “fake geek girl” culture, attractive women are seen only as sexual objects.  Only in this case, the patriarchal culture imposes a further level of prejudice: because these women are attractive, the culture sees them as “out of the geek guy’s league.”  Because they are deemed unobtainable sexually, they lose all value as human beings.  In fact, they’re demonized because they are accused of dangling sexuality in front of the poor geek guy’s nose like a carrot and then whisking it away.  In slang terms, all pretty women must be teases.  In this faulty line of reasoning, the Olivia Munns of the world are not available sexually to the average geek male, and that is their fault. In standard practice, female geeks too often latch onto the prejudice and add their own levels of hate to it.  Because women (even in this sub-culture) are often told that affirmation comes from male attention, they lash out at women they perceive to be their competitors, or who make them “look bad.” Ironically enough, these women and girls often target “fake geek girls,” accusing them of striving too hard for male attention.

 

On the other side of the coin, women are torn down for not achieving the standards of beauty that the Olivia Munns of the world are condemned for.  Sasha Trebane, Dr. Who fan, cosplayed (dressed up) as the TARDIS, the Doctor’s police box/mode of transportation through Time and Space.  Her blue ballgown was handpainted on the inside, so that the dress looked “bigger on the inside,” as the TARDIS is supposed to be.  Here, you can see the dress, as well as the unwanted Facebook commentary.  Here, you have a beautiful fan, who has made a fantastic contribution to the fandom, and who clearly has so much passion and imagination that she is modeling a work of art.  And what is the reaction from members of her community?  Harsh critiques of her body.  Because apparently it doesn’t matter what you look like as a woman: you’re either desperate for male attention or you clearly can’t get any.  As women, these standards mean we can’t win. Here’s a heads-up: we’re not here so that judgmental males can have a reaction to us.  We’re here to engage in what we love and to connect with other fans, both male and female, provided they accept us and allow us our subjectivity.  Women, no matter what they look like, are not objects.   

 

The myth of the “fake geek girl” is all about objectification.  It’s about looking at a woman and imposing false motivations upon her based on the way she looks or dresses.  This myth, the harsh criticism of women who don’t fit these standards, and the general sexualization of women in comic books all stem from objectification.  It’s the need of a patriarchal culture to control female sexuality and to reject women who do not fit into this worldview.  In this culture, women must be incredibly sexualized, but submissive – so submissive that they aren’t even real.  Women who own their own sexuality are feared, while those who do not conform to the physical ideal are mocked mercilessly.  And here’s the kicker: we’re better than this.  We’re geeks.  We made it to the Final Frontier.  We envisioned a thousand worlds where human beings rose above unthinkable odds to liberate themselves.  We can and we must liberate ourselves from a mode of thinking that would keep half of us from being agents of their own fates.  We have the capacity to change the rampant sexism in our culture into acceptance and empowerment.

 

No personal experience justifies the assumption that a woman – any woman – exists to gain some kind of male attention.  You can be sexy, confident, and geeky at any size and age, and that does not make you worthy of criticism.  I’m no model; however, I’m healthy and I like the way I look.  I’m confident, and I like to express myself through what I wear.  If I wore a Slave Leia cosplay, it would be because I like the way my abs look in it, and also because I think Leia is an awesome character.  If I cosplayed as Cherno Alpha, it would be because big robots are badass and I like the way I feel like a boss in it.  I wear a bikini, and I’m proud of it.  I wear makeup because I like it.  I never go to a con, or a comic book store, or a scifi movie marathon to get male attention.  That’s not to say that I don’t like male attention or feeling attractive. I do.  But it has nothing to do with my geekiness.  I might not be “into” every minute detail of gaming, techy stuff, or other fandoms, but that doesn’t delegitimize me as a member of this community.  More importantly, I shouldn’t have to legitimize myself at all.  Like this fantastic video claims, We Have Nothing to Prove

-k

#longestcoffeebreakever

Don’t worry, loyal readers!  I am back from the Blue Screen of Death.  “Real life” interrupted my blogging when I was on a roll, and I rediscovered a truth about writing:

If you are a writer and you stop writing, it gets progressively harder to re-start.  It’s a curious thing. You find yourself with a head cold, or a paying job, or a contract from ACME, or a bounty placed on your head by space criminal kingpins, and you get distracted.  Once you have the time, though, you don’t pick up the pen again.  You get lazy.  And then you get afraid.  You convince yourself that there is no reason to keep writing, and that you have nothing to say. The only way to get out of a rut is to bite the bullet and go back into it, painful as it may seem.

So, I’m back.  I hope to stay more on track this time.

-k

What is a Geek?

As a part of my blog makeover, I am trying to be more intentional in my writing. It seemed logical, then, to dedicate a post to geekdom.  What is a geek, exactly?  What manner of witchcraft is geekery?  Who is a geek?  Why should anyone want to read about geek life?  Why are you even here?

Because I am a fancy person, I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary, or the OED, as we sad Englishy types call it. The OED defined “geek”(n., informal) as

  • 1a: an unfashionable or socially inept person
  •  1b: [usually with modifier] a knowledgeable and obsessive enthusiast: a computer geek
  • 2: a carnival performer who performs wild or disgusting acts.

I included the second definition for grins and giggles – if you fit that definition, I accept and affirm you as a human being, but please do not feel the need to elaborate in the comments section.  Not all sharing is caring, kids, and what happens in the Big Top should stay in the Big Top. 

The first definition (both parts) is fairly standard – it makes me think of Dr. Sheldon Cooper and his cohorts on The Big Bang Theory. If you’ve been living under a rock for the past six years, first of all, I want to know how anyone lives under a rock.  Secondly, the show follows Cooper and his scientist friends as they muddle their way through social situations and make Star Trek references.  Hilarity ensues.   

Image

They can build a nuclear reactor; just don’t ask them to fix the elevator that’s been broken for six seasons. Or to go on a normal date.

When people think of geek culture, I imagine this image is one of the first that comes to mind.  Don’t get me wrong; I love me some Big Bang.  I find it a loving tribute to geek culture.  However, I find both it and the OED definition of the word to be lacking – at best, they form a partial image of geekdom that doesn’t quite encompass the true meaning of the word. I consider myself to be a geek, but I know next to nothing about science and math and I consider my social skills to be…passable, at the very least.  The use of the word “obsessive” also bothers me a little bit, if only because it seems kind of…stalkery.  I am passionately interested in BBC costume dramas, but I don’t have a shrine to them.  In fact, I’d say I’m fairly well-adjusted.

Don’t all agree with me right away.

So, where do we go from here?  If we take away the social ineptness and the obsessiveness (which are qualities that a geek may possess, but doesn’t have to), we are left with a word we don’t understand.  This word gets thrown around a lot – you have your car geeks, your lit geeks, your computer geeks.  Is everyone who has an interest a geek?  

Let’s talk etymology. Sexy, I know.  The OED states that the word comes from the “late 19th century: from the related English dialect geck ‘fool’, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch gek ‘mad, silly.'”

Charming.  Thanks very much for that, OED.  Super-helpful.

Is it possible, though, that being a geek is what’s considered “mad?” That it’s not the geeks themselves who are strange, but the act of unapologetically pursuing an interest, of learning more about a topic than is strictly necessary?  A car geek knows more about cars than he or she needs to in order to drive, and a movie geek knows more about films than is needed to sit in a cinema.  I can tell you more about the history of the Marvel Comic Universe than you probably want to hear.  It’s a question of moreness.  

This moreness is frowned upon, I think.  It’s funny: we live in a world where we are pushed to acquire more and care less.  Apathy and self-consciousness are no longer considered rude – in fact, it’s the social norm.  We thrive on irony, on being “cooler than cool.”  You can blame the beatniks or the corporate mentality or the hipsters, but the fact remains that being passionate about anything is terribly unfashionable. It makes people uncomfortable.   

That’s what a geek is – someone who is brave enough to care more than they need to.  Geeks ask the “What if?” questions, because they have the courage to wonder about the world, the universe, and human beings.  A common phrase in geek culture is “I regret nothing,” usually paired with a gif of a spinning disco chicken.  Which is fantastic.  Geeks make it a policy to avoid regret, to stop castigating themselves for thinking thoughts beyond the mundane.  They really want to know who would win in a fistfight between Abe Lincoln and Ned Stark.  And they want to write about it, or draw it, or put it on a t-shirt, because they want to share that moreness with everyone else.  At the core of fantasy and science fiction and good horror is the moreness – the willingness to ask what more could happen.  

The OED definition of “geek” is too negative, I think.  In its simplest terms, geekhood is a positive quality. It’s not defined by a lack of social skills or a lack of balance – it’s all about how much more we could be.

 

– katierose

Where’s my makeover montage?

That’s right, loyal readers.  The blog’s getting a facelift. New name, new look, new focus.  Don’t worry; all the geeky goodness you love will still be here in spades.  There will still be more Dalek jokes than you can swing a Sontaran at (though I don’t recommend the experience, as Sontarans object quite ferociously to being swung). If you think I’m going to abandon my fandoms, then you know less than Jon Snow.

Burn.  Freezer-burn.

However, I will be taking it in a new direction.  I’m in a very strange place in my life – 24, single my whole life, newly-graduated with a fancy degree, unemployed, and living in a new town…with my parents.  So, I’ll be taking you all on this adventure as I navigate these murky new waters.   This is real life…for a girl geek who woke up one morning and found out she was a 20-something.

How do I find my tribe?

What’s my purpose in life?

How long will it take me to be able to drive in Atlanta without needing a Valium?

Stay tuned.

KatieBug’s Geekapalooza, Week One: Babylon 5

Welcome to the first weekly installment of my new series, Things Katie Bug Geeks Over (AKA The Geekapalooza, AKA Nerdstock 2013).  It should come as no surprise that the first entry in this series is dedicated to the great love of my life, J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5.  First of all, I’d like to state that this post is not meant to spark a flame war: I love Star Trek, Star Wars (well, apart from the prequels that never happened), Dr. Who, and a whole wide world of geeky goodness. I will discuss these in turn.  They are like my children; I could never choose between them. I’d appreciate if my gentle readers would love them all likewise. See also: Haters gonna hate.

My second point: I will attempt to avoid major spoilers in any way possible, but I make no promises. Hopefully I’ll inspire some new fans, but this is really a love letter to the fandom, because they are lovely people.

A part of what makes geeks geeks is that a series, book, or movie is never just that: there’s always a story behind the association, a starting point.  When I was a child – Babylon 5’s pilot aired in 1993, the year I turned 5 – my dad used to watch the show, but I didn’t rediscover it until I found it on Netflix Instant my junior or senior year of college. I devoured five seasons in about two months.  I don’t remember eating, sleeping, or showering during that period, so I’d like to apologize to my classmates and friends for that period of time. Rather, I would apologize if I regretted any of it, but as you might have guessed, I regret nothing. I’ve rewatched it several times since then – and it’s the one I keep coming back to.

Yes, it’s the black sheep of the space operas.  It doesn’t have the Roddenberry touch; its dialogue isn’t Whedon-snappy; it lacks BSG’s flashy action sequences and gritty style.  There’s that regrettable Spaced scene (and that’s all we shall say about that particular moment). Its set design shows the budget (or lack thereof), and who knew everyone in the future had awesome ’90s hair?  The first season can be difficult to get through, but you have to watch it the whole way through (more on that later). I admit all of this.

So why does this Geek Girl love Babylon 5 so much that she is seriously naming her firstborn child Susan Ivanova?

I could say that it’s for the brilliance of the story arc.  Five seasons, one main plot (well, one-and-a-half, kind of.  Season Five’s debatable).  This series takes continuity to a whole new level of wonderful, with events from the pilot reoccurring as late as the final season.  We geeks love this. I believe it’s because we want to have to work a little bit for our plots.  Intellectual masochism? Maybe.

I could say it’s because of the universe JMS has created.  It’s not a utopia. Nor is it a dystopia.  Rather, it is the future – cosmetic elements aside – of the human race as we are.  Poverty, mental illness, prejudice, and violence still exist, but these do not comprise the core identity of the human race.  We’re a work in progress.  This universe is a little worn around the edges, a little bit raw, but full of potential.  A significant example of this characterization of the future comes from JMS’s inclusion of a variety of human faiths.  I could dedicate a blog post simply to faith in B5 – in fact, I probably will. Suffice it to say, human beings are not universally religious, but neither are they “beyond” faith.  In fact, new faiths have sprung up in response to contact with alien races.  People of faith are neither all bigots nor all saintly and pious.  It’s an evenhanded portrayal that characterizes the universe created in the series.  As a person of faith (and also an unapologetic open-minder), I find this resonant.

I could say it’s because of the number of badass women in the series.  In a world where strong women are almost always portrayed as either repressed hardasses or hypersexualized femme fatales, it’s refreshing to see women presidents, ambassadors, commercial telepaths, resistance leaders, and military personnel.  It’s even more refreshing to see that their strengths are not determined by their sexuality or lack thereof. Again, this is another blog altogether.  I live a B5 appreciation life.

All of these elements are, of course, lovely and wonderful and delicious.  However, that’s not why I keep revisiting this series.  It’s because of its scope, its powerful emotional scope. It’s about the people, whether they have fanlike hair or spots or bonecrests, whether they wear Jedi Ranger robes or hideous Cosby Show sweaters. At the core of Babylon 5 is the belief, stated by Delenn (paraphrasing Carl Sagan), that “we are starstuff. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out.”  This is, above all, a story about people trying to comprehend their relationship to the unknowable forces governing their lives: destiny, history, love, hate.

It’s because these are people who feel like real people.  They are a dizzying mixture of virtues and vulnerabilities, and we both love and hate them in turn. The goodnatured, easy-going security chief is also a recovering alcoholic.  The bombastic, corrupt Centauri ambassador is an unexpected romantic. The severe, mysterious Vorlon has a hidden sense of humor.  War heroes cope with battle scars, both physical and spiritual.  No character is completely “good” or “evil,” and no one is beyond the power of redemption or sacrifice. We watch as a favorite character sells his soul, and as another one finds his after a lifetime of hatred.  We are troubled by the paths traveled by these people as they struggle to discover their purpose in the universe, how best to serve, and who they can trust.

It’s because of the moments.  As Dr. Franklin states at one point in Season 3, “The moments are all we’ve got.”  It’s because this series is heartbreakingly beautiful in its exploration of betrayal, redemption, sacrifice, and love – love of every kind.  It’s because of those moments when prophecy is revealed and the moments when prophecy is fulfilled in ways no one could have expected.  Yes, the series starts off a little slow, but if you stick it out, you get the most beautiful of stories which, like all beautiful stories, takes a little time to grow.

In the end, it’s because these beautifully flawed people – straight, not-straight, alien, human, progressive, conservative, believers and questioners – all find a place in the wide, frightening universe. They make choices, for better or for worse. They refuse to accept the status quo.  And in the end, it’s not because they are special, but because they’re us.  I can’t say it better than JMS does in the final episode (don’t worry, it’s not too spoilerrific):

“Babylon 5 was the last of the Babylon stations. There would never be another. It changed the future and it changed us. It taught us that we have to create the future or others will do it for us. It showed us that we have to care for one another, because if we don’t, who will? And that true strength sometimes comes from the most unlikely places. Mostly, though, I think it gave us hope, that there can always be new beginnings. Even for people like us.” – Susan Ivanova

That’s why I keep coming back to B5.  Because of the hope.

-katiebug

Mamas, Let Your Daughters Grow Up to Be Geeks

My eternal apologies to Willie Nelson.

I have a confession to make. I’m a geek. Some of you might know this; some of you may have only suspected. Many of you who know me don’t know the depths of my geekiness.  I’ve been listening to the Babble On Project podcast (plug!), and as a result, I’m coming out of the shadows (if you get the reference, you’re clearly a Fiver, and we’ll get along).  It’s been such a joy, and it’s pushed me to come clean: I’m not a dabbler, nor a lurker; I’m an all-out geek.  I have a comic book collection, and a Tumblr. I know my Trek, and I’ve written fan fiction.  Babylon 5 changed my life, and I push that show on everyone I meet like it’s crystal meth (but crystal meth made with one cohesive, five-season serialized plotline, instead of with stockpiled Sudafed. Seriously. Watch it. All the cool kids are doing it).

I am a geek.  More than that, I am a girl geek.  A female fanboy. A she-nerd.

We girl geeks are everywhere. Sometimes, we’re wearing ComiCon tshirts and Converses. Sometimes, we’re dressed in all black, tatted out. Sometimes, we’ve got our iPods cranked up, blasting Florence + the Machine and thinking that the lyrics must be talking about Character A’s storyarc this season.  Sometimes, we are LARPers (for those not in the know, Google is your friend). And sometimes, we’re the girl in heels and pearls, grabbing a coffee after teaching class and surfing Tumblr in the coffeeshop.  Window seat.  And we’re probably also blasting Florence (seriously, you can’t tell me she’s not a Fiver).

It’s not easy to be both a girl and a geek.  It can be isolating and embarrassing. Teenagers can be cruel.  Being open in your geekiness might cost you homecoming court, or a pageant tiara, or a quarterback boyfriend.  And some days, it’s no easier to fit in at 24 than it was at 14.

Why raise your daughter to be a geek, then?

Raise your daughter to be a geek because geekdom is a beautiful place. In geekdom, it’s okay to be a strong woman, to be a smart woman, to be a funny woman.  It’s great.

Raise your daughter to be a geek because she will have amazing role models.  Instead of autotuned pop singers, sexcapader reality “stars,” and tv-drama-heroines with serious attachment issues, she will see starship captains, warrior mothers, female presidents, girl geniuses: all genuine heroines. She’ll see normal girls and women, not Barbie dolls, who really can do anything they set their minds to do.

Raise your daughter to be a geek because she will get to see beauty, and bravery, and sacrifice.  Feed her stories about people (of all races, genders, sexual identities, faiths) making difficult choices in the face of daunting odds.   Let her see Buffy give her life for her sister. Let her see the survivors of Flight 815 form a community to stand against evil.  Let her read about the Pevensies growing in faith and bravery. Give her the chance to see these things.

Raise your daughter to be a geek because she needs joy and enthusiasm.  Let’s be honest: often, life is less than we deserve, and it is too easy to become tired and jaded.  What makes geekdom so countercultural is not the spaceship saltshakers, the fake Hobbit ears, or the Klingon desk dictionary.  It’s the joy.  We live in a society that encourages constant, empty pursuit and perennial dissatisfaction.  Geeks are joyful. We never worry about keeping our cool because, to be frank, coolness has never been in our possession.  We love what we love and we want to share it with everyone else.  That’s so radical.

Raise your daughter to be a geek because she will surround herself with other geeks. Friendship is an oft-neglected relationship in our culture, where girls are pitted against each other in competition and the only legitimate relationship is one defined by the ability to attract boys.  As a result, women make it to their 20s unable to form fast friendships. Don’t do this to your daughter.  Give her the chance to find joyful, awkward, nerdy friends, to surround herself with people who will share in her joys and encourage her via Joss Whedon metaphors (“You know…this situation reminds me of ‘The Zeppo’…”).  Let her form her own Flight 815 (though hopefully with less fuselage damage). What’s more, geek unity is stronger than ever due to the internet. Let her find her own community of people who love what she loves and want to multiply that love.

Raise your daughter to be a geek because you will give her the gift of an unrestrained imagination.  Life without dreaming is gray and tense; teach her whimsy and color and starlight.  One of the most dangerous habits is to think that we know everything, that there’s nothing left to be marveled at.  If being a geek has taught me anything, it’s that the universe is full of wonder and joy and the Great Mystery. And that is worth protecting and passing on.

Not all of you will have daughters. Not all of you will have children.  But some of you will.  And some of you will meet young geeks, both boys and girls.  Encourage them. Give them books about warrior mice in Abbeys, and truly wretched Extended Universe works. Hand them a paintbrush.  Let them tell you all about this classic TV show they’ve just discovered about a girl who kills vampires, or about a space station and a war against Shadow aliens.  And do more than listen.  Share.  If you’re a geek yourself, tell them.  They need to know that it turns out okay for misfits like us.

-katiebugrose

 

In celebration of the beauty that is geekiness, I will be dedicating a series of blog posts to the books, tv series, and other works that inspire my geekish joy. My hope is to start a dialogue and maybe to introduce some of you newbie geeks to the great works that have shaped who I am as a writer, a teacher, a counselor, and a geek.  So be on the lookout for my Bug Chronicles weekly posts. There will be squeeing, and you don’t want to miss that.

-kbr