Working the Beads

I bought my mala beads almost ten years ago, in a huge bead store in Mountain View, CA. To be perfectly honest, I liked the way they looked in people’s hands. I wanted to try to cultivate that practice, in hopes that they would bring me some of the peace and acceptance I saw reflected in the aspect of those who wore them. I had just been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and I was locked in the first of many struggles for respect and funding with my university department. I desperately needed peace and acceptance.

The beads, at least, were only $1.99.

I’ve worn them on and off over the years, but I never really picked up the habit of using them as a spiritual focus. Maybe it’s because I’m not much of a mantra girl (note to self: awesome new superhero name). I can’t settle on just one idea and focus on it for very long — I’m the Queen of Lateral Thinking (2nd note to self: awesome new Nobilis character).

But my stomach had been tying itself in knots for days over the impending Troy Davis execution, and by the time I left work yesterday afternoon, I was well and truly sickened in heart and belly, on top of the upper respiratory thing that already had me at a disadvantage for air and sleep. So, desperately needing peace and acceptance, I fished my mala beads from the depths of my jewelry box with 75 minutes left before the scheduled time of death.

And, while I believe as an article of my faith that the focused will can change the unfolding of the universe, neither my will nor that of the hundreds of thousands watching and waiting last night stopped the killing of Troy Davis. This can’t be a hopeful, new-world story like the Repeal Day one, and in 12 minutes, I’m going to have to wake Connor and tell him that all the hope and doubt and logic and justice didn’t save a man’s life. I’m afraid of what little piece of him will disappear forever with those words.

But I learned something about the practice of the beads as they clicked through my fingers steadily for over five hours last night. I didn’t stick to just one thought that whole time; in fact, it was the evolution of my focus that tells the story of the night better than any news report can.

When I first lit a candle and picked them up, I started whispering, “May you find peace,” and again, in the spirit of total honesty, I probably didn’t just mean Troy Davis. I meant the crowding protesters in Jackson GA and Washington DC and London. I even meant, judgmentally, the parole board that had voted 3-2 the day before to deny clemency, and the GA Supreme Court that had refused a stay of execution. But mostly, I meant my own roiling stomach and twisted heart.

At 15 minutes to 7.00pm Eastern, tears started falling, and I asked Griffin to come sit with me and snuggle. He knows when I need comfort, and he’s more at ease sitting with my grief without trying to fix it than I often am, so he just nestled into my side and started to play with the beads too. He asked what I was saying, and at that point, I realized the words had changed. Now it was simply, “I wish you peace,” and I was trying to speak directly to Troy. Griffin liked those words, and he liked the slide of the beads, so I held the string’s tension and we went back and forth, each saying the tiny prayer for a little while, as we waited for the news to tell us that a man was dead.

But the news didn’t come, and the TV networks faltered — those that were covering it, shamefully few — and so the click of my mouse on Twitter joined the click of the beads in my other hand as I waited for news. And the words changed again as the first messages of the delay came through: “Please stop this.” As it became apparent the US Supreme Court was considering a stay, they changed again: “You can stop this.”

They didn’t. Not couldn’t — didn’t. And the process reversed itself. I wished Troy Davis peace as the tears rolled down, until they announced his death. And I whispered, “May you find peace” as the media witnesses spoke and the analysis began and the verb tenses changed.

But my object had changed. I was wishing peace to the families, to the guards, to the lawyers, to the activists, to the witnesses.

I was wishing peace to those who had waited, those who had held their breath, those who had hoped for the hope and justice that our system almost never delivers.

I was wishing peace to those whose hearts hunger for something so deep and unnameable that they think the death of another human would quench it.

I was wishing peace for those who would sleep and get up and fight on, and those who would not find sleep that night, in the shadow of too much doubt.

On the Morning of The Repeal

When my sons leave the house in the morning, I don’t tell them to keep their schoolyard crushes for little girls. Their bus driver doesn’t ask them who they’ll marry when they grow up.

When the kids get to school, they don’t ask their teachers who waits for them at the end of a long day filling their heads with knowledge and wisdom. The lunchroom monitors don’t tell the children that heterosexuality is as healthy as the salad bar.

The parents who line up with strollers and siblings, with minivans and dinner plans, want to be told what their children learned that day, not that they are only attracted to the opposite sex. They want their children to learn to hang up their coats, not that there’s such a thing as an incorrect place to hang your heart. They dig deep to find reserves of patience and energy for their beloved families. They don’t have any left to waste on telling someone else that their family is any less beloved.

The sky didn’t ask before it let down the rain in the pre-dawn grey, nor did it tell us that the sun would shine warmly by mid-morning. The geese didn’t ask one another before beginning their long journey south; they do not tell us where their stops and starts will be.

I did not ask to be born in this country, or in this body, or to my parents, but I have told my basic identity freely, without fear, my whole life. The times I’ve had to hide, to keep some piece of myself secret, to “pass,” I’ve been able to without killing myself from the inside. And when I fell in love, though the barriers were high and deep and every other physical measurement for which there exists a metric, my country and my insurance and my job added no obstacles, passed no judgment on my choice. When I say who I am and what I want to do with my life, my patriotism, capability, or the disposition of my soul have never been questioned.

And today, on the morning of the repeal, when all but one thing hasn’t changed at all, may these things be true for more of the bravest and most honorable of my fellow Americans.

Sep 18, 2011 - AV Club    1 Comment

It’s a Geek World, After All

I debated for days what to write my last Speak Out with your Geek Out post about, and it seemed like there were still too many important topics to reconcile. But it hit me yesterday: really, they’re all one topic. I’m a World Geek.

Not a geek about other worlds, just this one, the big blue marble. After a week with so much glorification of the realms of fantasy and fiction, creativity and imagination, I know this sounds like cheating, but bear with me — this really does cover so much about me and all the things that make have made my gears tick faster, my whole life through.

I was never destined to be much of a homebody. I come from a traveling family: every three-day weekend, spring break, teachers’ convention, and summer vacation, we were on the road, in station wagon and pop-up camper with my grandparents, or RV with my stepdad. I was one of those kids you used to see in the backseat sometimes, lying down with legs up the backseat, reading a thick book (iron stomachs, all of us, I tell you). By the time I’d graduated from high school,  I’d been to all 48 contiguous states, all the provinces of Canada, and even dipped into Mexico; we did the “it’s Thursday, it must be Belgium” 22-day trip to Europe the following summer. Living in France for a year as part of my degree program only seemed logical, and I was on the train every time we had a break, dashing off to the corners of the continent least likely to be explored by any of the other American students I knew.

And I was generally enraptured with ancient and foreign cultures from an early age. I collected dolls, and my favorites were the ones in ethnic and period costumes. I pored over Peter Spier’s fabulous book People, and my collection of 1880’s Harper’s Bazaar fashionplates. I had a Hollie Hobbie dress for the Bicentennial that I wore long past both the event and the day I outgrew it. In the mobcap and hornbook I got at a Colonial War encampment, I spent hours as Dollie Madison, eventually deciding that the Wisconsin state capital was named for her (what did James ever do, really?). The more I learned, the more it wound the clock back and broadened the map, until the limitations of the American timeline and continent became too restrictive, and I drifted back into the ancient and medieval histories of Europe and even Asia.

My love affair with languages started early, too. My mom says that I would babble polysyllabic nonsense around age 2 or 3, and when told to speak clearly, I would sigh condescendingly and inform the adult, “I’m speaking French.” She says she wishes she’d known someone whom she could ask if I really was, because I took to the language like a duck to water when I started it in junior high. Once I’d unlocked the mechanisms of learning language, I got greedy in my acquisitions and spoiled by the access to primary sources it granted me. I went after them like Pokemon: Old Irish, Welsh, Latin, German, Anglo-Saxon … gotta catch ’em all! I’m still enchanted by the look and sound of other languages, and I’m in the market for a new one to study, but as always, it’s so hard to choose. I can’t be the only one with both a list of languages I should learn for my studies, and ones I’d like to learn just for fun.

(And don’t get me started on the wonderful nexus of my two loves, history and language: the etymological dictionary. Very shortly after Cam arrived in the U.S. to marry me, we were sitting around after a family dinner, and everyone was talking about how we liked to keep reading other entries in the dictionary after we’d found the one we’d gone in for. Yes, that’s the kind of family I’m from. I mentioned that my very favorite dictionary to read for fun was the etymological kind. Cam said that was his favorite kind of dictionary too! We got all swoony, and made googly eyes at each other for a while. Mom decided that we were, in fact, made for each other, and that this crazy Internet marriage thing would probably work just fine.)

Mustn’t forget the food, either. While the American versions of ethnic food don’t usually have much to recommend them, I was as adventurous as possible, right from the start. I loved enchiladas, lasagna, chow mein, venison stroganoff, pirogis, and rinderrouladen. And Milwaukee was a great place to grow up steeped in real ethnic food, although back in the ’70s and ’80s, that was mostly just every variety of white people the Old World had to offer. Still, not many towns that size give you your choice of Serbian restaurants, and I consider myself to have been spoiled. As I grew, both my tastes and my willingness to experiment in the kitchen expanded, especially as I encountered my true loves, Mediterranean and Indian foods. Tabouli and gyros and dal, oh my!

Now, with kids of my own, practical considerations take hold, and we haven’t done as much traveling for the sake of travel as I would’ve liked to. My kids will probably get excited when they see Mount Rushmore because they’ll know it from North by Northwest, instead of the other way around, like it was for me. But my kids know the cooking smells of a dozen different cuisines, and the feel of falling asleep with lullabies of a dozen languages in their ears.

But can a subject as literally global as this really count as geekiness? Well, let’s see. Relentless pursuit of (some may say, nearly useless) knowledge, in an increasingly broad array of minute specializations? Check. Uncontrollable urge to share this knowledge, both practical and trivial, with those who show the slightest bit of interest? I think a career in teaching (not to mention the recent urge to blog) is a fair indication of that. Not to mention the practice of parenting, which is one long exercise in imposing my interests on those too young to fight me off effectively yet. Flights of wild delight at new discoveries of related tangents and others’ creative contributions? On a daily basis; those who know me at all (and probably, by now, those who’ve ready any of my blog posts) are familiar with my regular paroxysms of joy over new words, cultural workarounds, historical facts, research revelations, and gustatory novelties.

This place isn’t perfect, and like most intelligent people, there are days when I’m about ready to give up on the whole muddy ball and every so-called higher species on it. But for the most part, the marvel of diversity is my ultimate geek. What gets me most? The same things that bring people to their favorite TV shows, movies, sci-fi/fantasy, and comics. It’s the richness of the stories, and the unexpected twists and turns as they weave together in a greater tapestry. It’s the infinte complexity of detail: the patterns, colors, flavors, spices, textures. It’s the constellation of decision points on a thousand moral continuums, each branching into so many possibilities for beauty and cruelty and creation and destruction.

The best art imitates life. But I guess, for me, the best life is as good as the best art, and I can’t help but be a world-class geek about it all.

Sep 16, 2011 - AV Club, Fine Arts    2 Comments

Crouching crafter, hidden geek

In the fall of 1997, we made our first RL visit to good friends from AmberMUSH, the online RPG where I’d played for years and met my husband and most of my very favorite people in the world. Naturally, Sunday was spent in an all-day gaming marathon with other Amber friends in the DC metro area. I had three friends with babies due in the space of about six weeks, so I crocheted while I played Helga the Wonder Nurse (don’t ask). Our hostess summed up her first impressions later by saying something that  flattered me to the tips of my geeky toes: that Cam was as zany and brilliant as advertised, and Jess “knitted rainbows out of thin air.”

Anybody who knows me knows that I’m not very good at stillness. When I talk, I move a lot — gestures, charades, extravagant expressions — and even when I’m supposed to be sitting still, I like my hands to be busy. Could be an Aspie thing, could be a Protestant work ethic thing; who knows. But I’m not a fidgeter, or a doodler, so I make things. All kinds of things, with all kinds of techniques. I crochet, I knit, I cross-stitch, I work with beads and wire, I sew a little, I play with paper, soap, and candles. I am a craft geek.

This was certainly not always the case. I’ve got a very strong creative streak, clearly: obviously, I enjoy writing, and I’ve already detailed my long history with music. But my motor skills have never been what anyone would call reliable. I could not draw anything well enough to save my life or my country. My efforts at origami rapidly look like a receipt that’s gone through the wash. And I feel like the other art supplies I would mess up could be put to so much better use by others that it would be inconsiderate to waste them

I blame most of my crafting impulses on France. When you’re not in school and you’ve read all the books you brought on study abroad and you have a limited income, France gets boring very fast (at least, provincial France does). When my mom, a lifelong multi-talented crafter, came to visit in February, she asked what to bring. Once we’d gotten the Pop Tarts and Spaghetti-Os and real salsa covered, I begged her, “Teach me to cross-stitch, Ma. Bring me yarn and a crochet hook and needles and thread and aida cloth and anything airport security won’t take as a potential weapon. I need something that can keep me busy for hours.” She came ready to teach, no doubt having waited my entire life for me to make this request. And I was HOPELESS. Like, E.T. with cerebral palsy hopeless. Never mind the niceties of yarn tension or stitch regularity. There was serious doubt that I had any neurological control over my own damn thumbs. As often happens when one of us is making a total mess of something, we laughed so hard we cried (and maybe peed a little); we actually cleared our entire car on the train from Paris to Brussels with our loud American hilarity.

But gods know I had the time to practice, and I got pretty good by the time I returned stateside. And I soon found that crafting filled a long-standing need: something to do with my hands as I sat watching TV. It worked even better during long roleplaying sessions. And while it made the guys at Gen Con decidedly uncomfortable when I’d pull out the alien apparatus of needles and fibers and dainty scissors along with my bag of dice and event ticket, I soon found that there were quite a few female gamers who enjoyed the same multi-geek-tasking. One of our long-standing gaming groups was a fairly even gender split: Jim and Shannon Butcher hosted, with Jim running Warhammer Fantasy RP one weekend, and Cam running his Elizabethan Cthulhu d20 hybrid on the opposite weekend, with Clark and Amanda Valentine forming the third stable couple; several of my grad school friends were also long-time players. At first glance, the dining table sent very mixed signals: was this a crafting bee with hex maps? a battle with minis, and the bright squiggles of discarded thread meant something? The girls’ rhythm of the game was easy to follow: we stitched until it was our turn, picked up the dice, rolled, announced, “4 hits, 1 crit, for 112 total. I kill it,” then resumed stitching. Jim called us his delicate flowers.

Jewelry making was more an accident than an act of desperation. Wrong store, right time, and I came out $64 lighter with a new hobby. It turned into a business when I got tired of people trying to buy my jewelry off my body in airports and ladies’ rooms, and I dragged two of my best girlfriends into it with me, for craft fairs and bonding. Thread and yarn on the battle mats switched for Soft Flex and beads, but the results were the same: we made pretty things, we killed monsters, the boys learned to comment supportively.

I don’t have a lot of pictures to show you of my handiwork, because I keep almost none of it for myself. Of the dozens of blankets I’ve crocheted, we own two; of the scarves and hats I’ve knitted, I’ve only kept one. My jewelry box is like the lesson of the shoemaker’s children going barefoot: I wear some of my oldest, most crappily made pieces, because the good stuff goes to art shows. But it brings me peace to make, and joy to see in the hands where it belongs. And the skills occasionally put me in the position to pull of the Great Work of Ninja, such as the last-minute bag for the groom’s glass at our friends’ wedding, a rather spiffy feat of engineering and style if I do say so myself, or the ring pillow with a cross-stitched centerpiece that could be detached and made into a decorative mat within a picture frame.

I know craft geeks are legion, and we find each other in the most wonderful and unexpected ways. My favorite craft geek encounter was in the prep for my own wedding. Our baker had asked us if we had a cake topper for her to use, and we bashfully admitted that we wanted to procure two wind-up Godzilla toys instead. She sighed dreamily, and said, “*Oh*, I just *love* Godzilla.” When we returned for the last consult before the wedding, she reached beneath the table, blushing, and said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I got a little carried away …” And another craft ninja gave us one of the best pieces of our wedding day: two wind-up Godzillas, one with a dainty veil, the other quite dapper in a top hat and kilt. [picture forthcoming]

Sep 14, 2011 - AV Club, Fine Arts    3 Comments

Music Calms the Savage Geek

Don’t call the people in the padded van, but I’m pretty sure I pick up radio signals with my fillings. Because I hear music. All. The. Time. The only other theory I can think of is that someone’s secretly making a movie of my life, in real time, but that would be deeply unfortunate, because some of the songs I hear really suck sometimes, and I would hope whomever’s in charge of this project has better taste than that.

Much as my kids were destined to be reading and gaming geeks, I was destined to be a music geek. My mom sang in choirs from when she was a little girl, and loved ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s pop music passionately; her mom could play piano by ear, and knew dozens of campfire and folk songs from her years as a Girl Scout leader. I was blessed with a good ear and a strong voice, and with the exception of one elementary music teacher who told me she’d like to hear everyone else too, I was never told to pipe down or use the maracas instead.

My earliest and best memories are all saturated with music. I remember my very first concert — I couldn’t have been more than 2 — where I sat on my father’s shoulders and looked out at the sea of shimmering lighter flames as Willie Nelson sang “Stardust.” I knew dozens of Beatles songs, and they were my favorite band as much as my mom’s. I cried and cried the day John Lennon was shot. And it took me years to realize that the 20th Century Fox intro wasn’t actually the beginning of the Star Wars score.

By high school, I was firmly entrenched as both a band and choir geek. Sorry, no show choir. This was pre-Glee, and these were the jazz hands, “Send in the Clowns” days. Every geek’s got their limits. My good fortune as a musician truly blossomed. I had the very best teachers, and my stepdad’s work as a music ed professor gave me opportunities to sing in national festival choirs that thrilled me to my toes. At college, it only got better. Though I had to choose choir over band for time constraints, I worked for several years with Simon Carrington, one of the founding members of the King’s Singers, as he began his foray into a second career as choir director. His repertoire and professional expertise was epic, and he simply didn’t know to expect any less from a college choir. So we delivered. Britten’s War Requiem, Biebl’s Ave Maria, Tallis’ 40-Part Motet … we even staged Mendelssohn’s Elijah as an opera. I was spoiled forever.

High school was also where my listening tastes began evolving, formed by influences from every direction. The Morrissey tape from my first kiss; Erik Satie and Francis Cabrel from my Belgian exchange student; and every concert I could scrounge up the allowance and babysitting money to attend: Bob Dylan, Heart, R.E.M., Modern English, Skinny Puppy, Love and Rockets, The Pixies, Fishbone, Jane’s Addiction, The Swans, The Cure, Primus, Tracy Chapman, Johnny Clegg, Nine Inch Nails, Peter Murphy, Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, The Bobs … the list goes on, and memory fails. We had the perfect arrangement: Thursdays at Bailey’s and Sundays at Club Marilyn in Milwaukee for dancing, and The Exclusive Company and B-Side on State Street in Madison for cassettes.

 

Music has power over me. Sometimes, that’s not such a great thing. When I was 15, I dated a kid who was a musical prodigy. He played trumpet and piano. He arranged Bach’s Air on a G string for brass quintet from the organ score one weekend when he was bored. He would sit at the piano in my living room and improvise the most beautiful, heartbreaking songs. I basked in the reflected glow of his genius. I pretended that made up for the abuse. I made excuses for him until after the second rape, and some of my other music geek friends circled the wagons to protect me. When I would’ve crawled into myself and died, they made me eat Spaghetti-Os out of the same big mixing bowl with them and sing Little Shop of Horrors songs with my mouth full. That music saved me as surely as the other music endangered me.

And I was 35 (!) when another piece of the music puzzle fell into place for me. Part of my music geekiness is based on the fact that I have hyper-sensitive hearing, and perfect relative pitch. Put another way, I can’t ever stop listening, which is why I have to have white noise without any pattern to it in order to fall asleep; if it’s silent, I’ll lie awake waiting for a sound. And the sensitivity to sound is so bad that my one and only migraine trigger is loud, sudden noises: everything from fireworks or a car backfiring, to a balloon popping nearby. If you can feel the percussion of it “slap” your eardrum, it’s enough to trigger a migraine for me. It’s been this way since I was a baby, they think. But I’m good with prolonged loud noises, like you’d find at the kind of concerts I most enjoy, and there’s almost nowhere in the world I’d rather be than standing in front of a powerful Bass II section or a good bass woofer. If my sternum’s rattling, if I can feel a mild heart arrhythmia caused by the secondary beat in my chest, I am one hundred percent happy.

And I think that both of these come from the fact that, in all likelihood, I have Asperger’s Syndrome to some extent too. The wrong kinds and frequencies of sound make me extremely uncomfortable, but music — especially lyrical bass (not that stupid bass-bumping crap) — fills me up. It forms a glowing, golden spiral from the center of my belly, up through my whole body, like a mighty architecture that leaves me so much stronger that the light and joy just spills out my voice and my smile and my fingertips.

This is one of those rare instances where I am not a nerd at something I’m a geek about. I’ve never had a single day of music theory, or any other formal course of music study, and I stopped piano lessons when they asked me to do two things with one hand at the same time. But there’s no question I’m a music geek. When people look at our CD collection, the first question is usually, “How many people did you say live here?” And the second question is usually, “Can I borrow this?”

Give until you geek

The next installment in my Speak Out with your Geek Out blog posts is going to seem a little weird, and perhaps the premise will seem strange, or even a little self-aggrandizing (there’s a nice geeky term for you; it means that it might seem like I’m congratulating myself for this quality, if you haven’t come across it recently). That’s not at all what I’m going for, and it’s certainly not why I do this. Here goes…

I am a philanthropy geek.

I get ridiculously excited over plans to do good things for other people. I’m wildly enthusiastic about charities, foundations, organizations, grants, volunteers, fundraisers, relief efforts, drives, collections and goodwill offerings. I’ve even been known to put money in the occasional shaken can, so long as it’s being held by someone who doesn’t look completely indifferent and can’t be troubled to stop talking on the phone long enough to thank me for my donation.

I want shoes on every kid, mosquito nets on every bed, full backpacks on every kindergartner, roofs over every family, dignified suits on every interviewee, music in every school, accessible play features in every park, books in every hand, freedom in every heart, bluebirds on every shoulder…

<deep breath>

And I get unbearably, wriggling-in-my-seat excited about new and brilliant ideas for delivering services and solutions in the simplest, most effective, creative, inclusive ways possible. Kiva still gives me chills, every time I log on — pure genius. So are lots of the Gates Foundation initiatives. Nothing But Nets, the brainchild of Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly, is the model of catchy simplicity (not to mention the fact that his initial pitch stands as a monument to gorgeous rhetorical writing, which makes it a geeky itch-scratch two-fer for me).

Now, unlike a lot of geeks I know, I’m not out there looking to make converts to my favorite things — proselytizing generally leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If you’re already curious, and looking for a little guidance, well now, that’s a horse of a different color entirely, and I’ll pour as much info into your brain box as I can. But I don’t want to impose my passions on anyone else, for the most part.

My philanthropy geek is the single and very large exception to this rule. I think philanthropy should be a part of school curriculum — public school, because generosity and compassion are human morals, and need to be reclaimed from religion for the good of society RIGHT NOW — from the first day of kindergarten until the day you move that tassel on your college mortarboard. Every single person needs to learn that the problems of the world are not insurmountable. They can be broken down into manageable parts on realistic timelines; evaluated for creative, efficient, and cost-effective solutions; and projects parceled out to participants of every age and skill level to maximize inclusion, successful accomplishment, and the pride and joy of seeing the positive change you’ve effected in the world.

The cruelest irony of my philanthropy geek is that my family is poor. I’m not looking for sympathy, and I’m not going into specifics, because it’s not a contest. Put it this way: my husband works full-time in the game industry, and between health, parenting, and the economy, I can only work part time. We benefit from the social safety net. We get by. But I am almost never in the position to give much of anything to any of the dozen awesome initiatives I hear about as I indulge my geek every week. If I could do a kickstarter for people to give me money to do awesome philanthropic projects with, I’d be all over that, but I’m guessing that’s against some rule somewhere. So my love goes financially unrequited, and I struggle to balance the urge to give my time and talents generously in compensation, and not knowing when to say “no.”

I stumbled into an outlet, though it’s perhaps the least likely, most absurd one you can imagine for a pink-haired, minority-in-all-but-race geek mom. At my very first PTO meeting ever, which I attended in an effort to learn more about Connor’s new school in our new city last year, they started talking about getting the languishing student council effort going. Student leadership, responsibility, growth, blah blah blah. I tentatively raised my hand, and asked, “What about philanthropy?” 20 pairs of eyes fixed on me with laser intensity. My geek fixation had turned on me. By the end of the meeting, I was the advisor to the new student council. But I had 18 smart, enthusiastic elementary-school kids to organize for my nefarious, do-gooder purposes.

And do good we did. So much so, I got myself volunteered to be PTO president. “Never in my wildest dreams” doesn’t begin to cover it. But the chances for more good are bigger I’ve never been able to envision before. So if I bug you for money for some cause, or to buy overpriced wrapping paper, feel free to say no — I totally understand, because I would have to say no, too. But if you say yes, you’re not just helping a charity. You’re helping me get my geek on.

Sep 12, 2011 - AV Club, Physical Ed    9 Comments

+2 Size, +2 Fashion, +2 Courage

If I’m going to be perfectly honest about how I got to be a geek, I’ve got to admit right up front that the fashion hooked me as much as the action. Mock the Cinnabon hair all you want, but Princess Leia’s white dress has got it Goin’ On, and her ceremonial garb at the end is even cooler. Jennifer Connolly’s ballgown in Labyrinth makes every Disney princess ever look like a bag lady, and when the demon in Legend turns Mia Sara all evil-looking, it makes you wonder who would want a Little Black Dress when you could have a Big Awesome Black Dress.

There’s only one little problem with all of this, and it’s not even the one you find about when you watch the DVD featurettes and learn that the actress had to stand for 14 hours because it was physically impossible to sit or fit through a doorway in that gorgeous wedding-cake confection. No, it’s the problem that doesn’t occur to you when you’re a 1st-grader in your Princess Leia costume, or you’re a 10-year-old swanning around the living room in a pirated nylon nighty pretending you’re Arwen or the Virgin Mary or whomever your role model is.

It’s that fantasy fashion is made for skinny women.

Sure, the best fantasy fashion is flowy and silky, or all princess seams and gravity-defying architecture. There’s no good reason why it shouldn’t be available in every size they make, or why it wouldn’t look great on almost every woman. But it is the gods’ honest truth that there are no Buttercup costumes in size 20. Not even in a 12. Trust me — I wanted to get married in one, so I looked *hard*.

In the rare instance, there might be a practical consideration why a plus-size actress isn’t right for the role. I mean, that iconic swing across the chasm on Luke’s little grappling hook wouldn’t make such a good poster if the shoelace snapped, allowing the two of them plummet into the Death Star’s HVAC system. But otherwise, as your dress size goes up, your choice of roles goes down, until all you’re left with is the bearded dwarven battlemaiden (emphasis on the maiden).

Geeks are pretty good at recognizing and giving respect for the hard work and creativity that goes into good costume-making, but nothing draws contempt and derision at a convention faster than a female fan who has the audacity to dress for a role that doesn’t “fit.” I’ve seen women posing for the battery of cameras that come out to capture the super-size Slave Leia or a larger-than-expected Invisible Woman. I’ve wondered and worried at how many of those picture-takers know (or care) how many hours of work went into making the costume, and how many more went into working up the gumption to wear it. And I’ve wished I had the nerve they had, even as I knew I couldn’t ignore the pointing.

Girls, of course, are no better. Even geek girls can be Mean Girls; in fact, sometimes it’s the first time they’ve ever been in the position to be Mean Girls, and it’s an exercise in power they’ve never had before. Just because they should know better doesn’t mean they can resist that temptation. Even once that phase has passed, geek girls have often been taunted for being different for so long that they’re reluctant to step between the critic and his or her object, even if it would save someone else a little of that pain.

So here’s my first challenge for Speak Out with your Geek Out week. Let’s rip out the seams on this stereotype and make room for more women to live out their sci-fi/fantasy dreams. I can’t make costume companies start selling Galadriel dresses in women’s sizes, but I can encourage all the geeks I know to start stepping up and giving honest props to good costumes when they see them. If they’re on a large woman, chances are she had to make it herself, or hire an artisan to help her, in which case it’s even more worthy of your encouragement. And who knows? Maybe if more statuesque women start owning the classic fantasy roles for themselves, writers and directors will let us kick ass in the pretty dresses for a change.

5 Ways to be a Great Geek Grown-Up

Short post today, by way of pointing you to a longer post I wrote for an awesome, positive, community-building event I’m helping to admin. It’s called Speak Out with your Geek Out, and it’s an effort to counteract the recent wave of geek bashing online. The goal is to get lots of people blogging and tweeting and talking positively about their geekiness, and transform the discussion into one that makes the environment more supportive and encouraging both for and among geeks of all stripes.

My contribution to the preparatory guest-blogging at the core site is a short piece about how every geeky grown-up can be more like the adult ally that every geeky kid wishes they had, no matter whether that’s in the form of a parent, older relative, or mentor. You can find it at http://www.speakoutwithyourgeekout.com/2011/09/jessica-banks-on-5-ways-to-be-great.html . Hopefully, you’ll find it full of good ideas, whether the kid in your life wants to be the next Bill Gates or the next Joe Buck or the next Tim Gunn.

I’ll be hosting a few guest-posts here on this blog over the next week, as part of the Speak Out event, perhaps from way-cooler-than-me friends like Atlas Games creative director Michelle Nephew and bestselling romance author Shannon K. Butcher. So, if you’re coming through to read what they’ve got to say, welcome! I hope you come back for more of the homecooked weirdness in the future!

Sep 9, 2011 - Literature, Sex Ed    2 Comments

In Praise of Smut

I read a lot. Probably several people’s worth of reading, both in terms of volume and taste. I’m one of those readers with several books going at any given moment, juggling them based on location, time of day, and mood. And one of those books is always a romance novel.

This is not going to be a full-throated defense of romance. That, dear readers, will come another day. What I want to say today is that, when I read a romance, I want to read some high-quality smut.

That’s right — bring on the sexytimes. It’s certainly not the only, or even the main, thing I’m in that book for, but I expect those characters to get it on, for several pages, several times, in interesting and athletic ways, well before the last quarter of the book. Character development is all well and good, and pacing and plot make the world go round, but if I don’t hear about some rampant man-staffs and perfect pink pleasure parts, I’m out of here.

I don’t need to venture into any seedy truck stop bookstore to find what I’m looking for. I know all the tricks for finding this stuff, and I’ve known them for years. If you fan a well-read paperback open slowly, it’ll open to the naughty bits because previous readers’ hot little hands have put more stress on the binding at those points. Trade paperback romances tend to have more graphic sex scenes than mass markets for some reason, except for those “inspirational” romances, but those always have the same cover art: some gormless twit, standing in a field of grass, in clothes that make a burqa look burlesque.

And it’s not all pen names and bodice-ripping covers. The list of NYT Bestselling authors that meet my criteria is as long as my arm, and I can buy their books in Target or Barnes & Noble without the slightest bit of embarrassment. All those books with women in flowing gowns or bare-chested men in kilts you see at the grocery checkout? Full of lusty virgins and urgent thrusting. You have NO idea what’s going on in there.

Now imagine what the girl on the bus is reading  on  her   KINDLE.

And if anyone is uncomfortable over women getting their wrinkly bits tingly right there in broad daylight, let me tell you what makes me uncomfortable: it’s every person who gets a hard-on when they crack the cover on a novel that lets you put yourself on the zipline down from a Black Hawk behind enemy lines, where you land and deliver silent righteous justice to the filthy terrorist. Total porn. Worse yet, moralizing porn that warps your worldview while getting you off.

So if I want to read about exciting, multi-hour, contortionist sex with a large, strong, attentive lover who sees the hidden value in the heretofore neglected woman? Sue me. What’s the worst that happens? Maybe I decide that I’m turned on enough to ignore the backache, and to pretend the sleeping kids in the other room is “the threat of discovery,” and that sleep is for the weak, and actually get it on with my unsuspecting husband. At least my porn doesn’t encourage me to invade another country.

Default Setting: Love

This is my first blog post, and it’s by way of explaining why I felt strongly enough about the Speak Out with your Geek Out movement — all next week, anywhere and everywhere you want to talk about whatever floats your geeky little boat — that I stepped up to be an admin. I’m doing it because I’m a big geek, of course, but more importantly, I’m doing it for my kids. They’re going to be a frequent subject on my blog, and yes, I’m going to use their names.

* * *

The first thing most people notice about Connor is how *big* everything is for him. His volume is permanently set to 11; every gesture and expression is oversized and repeated two or three times in case you missed it the first (you couldn’t possibly). Then the other extremes about him begin to emerge: the speed of his speech only hints at the speed of his thoughts, and words pop up in the rapid stream that you don’t expect in a fourth-grade vocabulary. All these things might give the impression of excitement by themselves, but there’s real enthusiasm for so many subjects, and genuine delight at the prospect of sharing the coolness with someone new.

This is my kid. He’s a geek. His default setting is love.

He was doomed to geekhood well before his conception, what with two parents of impressive geek credentials. And he showed his own talent for geekhood as well. He started calling his make-believe play “movies” between ages 2 and 3, around the same time he announced he wanted a Jon Stewart 3rd birthday party. His passion for superheroes exploded onto the scene, until we started telling people who asked about potential gifts for him, “Look, if it’s ‘super,’ it’s great.”

What we didn’t know until he turned six was that Connor has Asperger’s Syndrome. The school where he attended kindergarten failed him in every respect. Teachers missed the expanding intellect and hunger for social interaction, and labeled him a discipline problem, a threat to “normal” kids. His classmates saw a child who wanted friends a little too desperately, and probably left them behind when he tried to include them in his elaborate stories. And, at that critical age, when different is dangerous, those children made his life hell. They rejected his friendship. They rejected his enthusiasm. They hurt him on the playground, to the point of stitches one cold winter morning. They threatened his life on the bus after school. Kindergartners told my son they wanted to have a party at his house; he was overjoyed. They said they would have a party at his house, and he would be the pinata, and they would beat him until he broke open and died. He had nightmares. My six-year-old said he wanted to kill himself. He knew what he was saying.

Things got better. We switched schools for first grade, and within a month, they’d identified the Asperger’s. Instead of simply conceding to the previous reigning theory on his behavior issues (i.e., “we’re crap parents”), we built strategies for home and school to address the most serious problems and deal with them constructively and consistently. Connor’s teacher gave him challenging work that kept him from making trouble when he was bored. He made friends who valued his vast cache of knowledge about Star Wars and superheroes.

Connor’s experiences made him a better person too. His fixation on superheroes had taught him the philosophical concept of justice, but now he understood what prejudice and oppression felt like, and why it was important to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. His skill as a storyteller was growing apace, but now he was sensitive to allowing his friends agency in their own stories, and supplied them with information so they could “make cool movies” too.

It’s not for nothing that jaded adults are advised to view the world through the perspective of a child, if they can. Everything is new and amazing to children, and they’re predisposed to love it, to find it literally wonder-full. I heard a parent of an autistic child in a radio interview say that people with autism are “more human than human;” natural human tendencies are amplified to extremes. Geekhood is, I believe, a natural human tendency. We get enthusiastic about things we enjoy; we want to know more, and we want to share them with others. We start with it when we’re children, when we’re geeks about the whole wide world–our default setting is love. And for some lucky people, like Connor, that setting never changes.