Goodbye, Year of Exploration. Hello, Year of Ambition.

For the last three years, I’ve rejected the idea of explicit resolutions and instead made a habit of declaring a single word to embody each new year. There was the year of discovery (2012), the year of dedication (2013), and even the year of exploration (2014). Each year lived up to its name, albeit sometimes in surprising ways that pushed me to my limits and then a bit beyond.

In 2012, I discovered who I was away from my friends, outside of my hometown, and apart from everything that I’d always thought was certain, as well as who I was when I came back. In 2013, I dedicated myself to whatever felt important, including finishing my bachelors degree in English and refining my art. And, in 2014, I explored whatever struck my fancy, even as that led me to travel from coast to coast for months on end and begin a master’s degree in criminal justice. No two years were the same, yet no year was more or less enthralling than any other.

All of that being said, 2014 was pretty intriguing. I spent three months in California, Oregon, and Washington. Then I spent three months in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. That’s not to mention all the states and shores I visited on the way to and from those places. I turned 21 and wasted my newest privilege by drinking a pitifully small volume of alcohol (say “no” to big kablue-nas). I began graduate school and discovered that sometimes the student teaches the professor. I baked foods and treats I couldn’t even pronounce and used ingredients I’d never heard of before.

In short, I explored.

Now it’s time to put all of that behind me, to close the door on 2014’s wild exploration, and step into the year 2015, which already seems daunting and intoxicating.

Over the next 365 days, I’ll be traveling back to South Carolina, the state I know only through my family tree.  I’ll be completing my Masters of Criminal Justice degree, complete with nerve-wracking comprehensive exams. I’ll be leaving my friends and the only place I have ever truly regarded as “home.” I’ll be taking control of my health and defying my genetics. I’ll be taking important steps in my personal and professional lives, striving to achieve success through desire and determination.

All in all, 2015 can and will be nothing less than wild and engrossing, fast-paced and sublime. Thus, in the same vein of thought, I’ve decided to call 2015 the year of ambition. I chose the word ambition to embody or headline this year mostly because I have a strong desire to achieve multiple things this year. I have an end-game in mind and nothing will stop me from reaching it. In addition, I’ve come to realize that being ambitious is just in my nature and that is something to use to my advantage, to accept as a benefit. So, this year will be a journey in accepting ambition as a facet of my nature.

Keeping with tradition, as I jumpstart the New Year, I won’t write down any particular resolutions because, well, it just feels awful when a perfectly composed resolution isn’t fulfilled precisely as it was written. I prefer to stick with matters of certainty, like the inevitable graduation and move, and variety, like the generality of being ambitious in all my endeavors. Along the way, I simply hope that at least 15 marvelous things will happen.

Here’s to a year of purpose and cheers to everyone reading this. I hope that you find precisely what you are looking for in the exciting days ahead. Happy New Year!

Butterbeer & Other Decadent Desserts.

I’ll just cut to the chase because, if my stats hold any truth, you’re here for either the butterbeer recipe or another major sugar rush. Have fun in fandom-land and bon appetit!

Potterhead Butterbeer

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Whipped Topping:

  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 3 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 + 1/2 teaspoons imitation butter extract
  • 3 teaspoons granulated white sugar

Butterbeer:

  • 1-2 cups cream soda
  • 1 tablespoon butterscotch topping or syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon imitation butter extract

Directions:

  1. Place all whipped topping ingredients in a medium sized mixing bowl.
  2. Beat with electric mixer for approximately 3 minutes or until soft peaks form.
  3. Set aside.
  4. Pour, squirt, or spoon butterscotch into tall glass or mug.
  5. Pour cream soda into glass or mug, leaving 1 inch of space at top.
  6. Add imitation butter extract (according to ingredients list or to taste).
  7. Stir well.
  8. Spoon whipped topping onto the surface of the soda mixture.
  9. Sport a frothy/creamy mustache and pretend you’re Hermione Granger!

Classic Pound Cake

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  • 3 cups cake flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 2 sticks butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup coconut oil
  • 3 cups granulated white sugar
  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • vanilla extract
  • imitation butter extract
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

Directions:

  1. Place cake flour, baking powder, and salt in medium mixing bowl.
  2. Sift two to three times. Set aside.
  3. Place butter (sometimes cutting it up helps) and coconut oil in bowl of stand mixer. Beat until fluffy.
  4. Add sugar. Beat until thoroughly blended.
  5. Beat on low while adding eggs one at a time. Beat until thoroughly blended.
  6. Alternately stir in parts of flour mixture and milk until all mixtures are semi-combined.
    1. Be sure that the mixtures are semi-combined. Using a hand or stand mixer with exposed dry ingredients may result in flour mushroom clouds!
  7. Beat on low as you add vanilla extract, imitation butter extract, and lemon juice.
  8. Allow cake batter to rest for a couple of minutes.
  9. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
  10. Grease a bundt pan well.
    1. I’ve found the greatest success with coconut oil or olive oil.
  11. Pour batter into bundt pan and bake for 1 hour and 25 minutes. Adjust time based on oven.
  12. Remove from pan immediately after removal from oven.
  13. Let them eat cake!

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread

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Ingredients:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoons nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 + 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 1/2 cup granulated brown sugar (dark or light)
  • 1 + 1/2 cup granulated white sugar
  • 3/4 cup vanilla greek yogurt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 can pumpkin
  • 1/2 cup coconut oil
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • semi-sweet chocolate chips (to taste)

Directions:

  1. Place all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Stir well (carefully) and set aside.
  3. Place brown sugar, white sugar, and yogurt in a medium mixing bowl. Stir well.
  4. Add eggs to mixture. Beat eggs in mixture with fork.
  5. Add pumpkin, coconut oil, and vanilla extract to mixture. Stir well.
  6. Combine dry and wet mixtures in the large mixing bowl. Stir well.
  7. Add chocolate chips to taste. Stir well.
  8. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
  9. Grease two 9×5 loaf pans.
    1. Again, I prefer coconut oil or olive oil.
  10. Pour batter into pans and bake for 55 minutes. Adjust time based on oven.
  11. Remove from pans immediately after removal from oven.
  12. Give a toast to pumpkin spice season!

Chai Tea Sugar Cookies 

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Cookies:

  • 1 stick butter (I prefer butter made from the milk of grass-fed cows, like Kerrygold unsalted butter, for cookies; however, any butter will do in a pinch.)
  • 1/2 cup coconut oil
  • 1/2 granulated white sugar
  • 1/2 cup confectioners sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 + 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1-3 tablespoons whole milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon table salt
  • 1 dash cinnamon
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 chai tea sachet/bag

Glaze:

  • 3/4 cup confectioners sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ginger
  • 3 tablespoons whole milk

Directions:

  1. Place butter and coconut oil in large mixing bowl. Beat with a hand mixer until fluffy.
  2. Add white sugar and powdered sugar. Beat until fluffy.
    1. Beware powdered sugar mushroom clouds!
  3. Add eggs, vanilla extract, and milk. Beat only until blended.
  4. Stir in baking soda, table salt, cinnamon, and flour.
  5. Add chai tea. Knead dough with clean hands.
  6. Refrigerate dough for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
  7. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  8. Roll dough into 1 inch balls. Place on parchment paper-covered cookie sheet and flatten to 1/4 inch thickness.
  9. Bake for 10 minutes. Adjust time based on oven.
  10. Mix powdered sugar, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and milk in a small bowl.
  11. Spoon glaze mixture onto hot cookies.
  12. Be a cookie monster!

Soft & Puffy Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Ingredients:

  • 1 + 1/2 stick butter, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil
  • 1 cup granulated brown sugar (dark or light)
  • 1 cup granulated white sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • semi-sweet chocolate chips (to taste)

Directions:

  1. Place butter and coconut oil in large mixing bowl. Beat with a hand mixer until fluffy.
  2. Add brown sugar and white sugar to mixture. Beat until fluffy.
  3. Add eggs and vanilla extract. Beat only until blended.
  4. Stir in baking soda, baking powder, table salt, and flour.
  5. Knead dough with clean hands.
  6. Stir in desired amount of semi-sweet chocolate chips.
  7. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  8. Roll dough into 1 inch balls. Place on parchment paper-covered cookie sheet.
  9. Bake for 8-10 minutes. Adjust time based on oven.
  10. Quick, hide the cookie jar!

Vanilla Bean Custard

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Ingredients:

  • 1 Madagascar vanilla bean, split
  • 1 + 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 + 1/4 cup whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon coconut almond milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup granulated white sugar

Directions:

  1. Cut vanilla bean pod in half length-wise.
  2. Moving a knife perpendicular to the vanilla bean pod, scrape out the vanilla beans and place in medium sauce pan.
  3. Add cream, milk, and coconut almond milk to sauce pan.
  4. Set aside.
  5. Place sugar and egg yolks in medium mixing bowl.
  6. Whisk together until combined.
  7. Set aside.
  8. Bring milk mixture to a boil.
  9. Combine milk mixture and sugar/egg mixture in medium mixing bowl.
  10. Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
  11. Pour mixture into four 6 oz. ramekins or custard cups.
  12. Place filled ramekins or custard cups into a small roasting pan.
  13. Fill roasting pan with warm water to hot until water is halfway up the sides of the ramekins or custard cups.
    1. Alternatively, place ramekins or custard cups into roasting pan, place the roasting pan in the oven, then use a kettle to pour water into the pan while it is in the oven.
  14. Bake for 35 minutes. The tops of the custards should look crisp with small bubbles.
  15. Remove roasting pan from the oven, remove ramekins or custard cups from the roasting pan, and drain water.
  16. Allow custard to cool, then refrigerate or serve warm.
  17. Oh you fancy, huh?

1 Month to Slay 50K: NaNoWriMo 2014.

If you have a moment, I would like to tell you my favorite fairy tale.

It’s short and sweet, so I hope you’ll lend me your ear.

Once upon a time, in the mighty land of the Internet, knights gathered to face their greatest challenge yet: conquering their own novels.

Over the course of 30 days the lionhearted knights battled taxing word counts, carnivorous characters, daunting plot-holes, riotous plot bunnies, and frustrating time constraints. There were many days that the knights lost hope of ever completing their task. But, the battles were hard fought and the challenges hard won and, in the end, the knights were exalted for word counts beyond measure and puns extraordinaire. Even with the numerous challenges of editing and publishing still ahead of them, the knights dispersed with hearts lightened by the thrill of achievement and minds enthused by the discovery of story.

The end.

Did you like that? Did it make you want to be a knight too? Are you wishing the challenge was real?

If so, you’re in luck! In truth, the fairy tale is not a fairy tale at all. Starting tomorrow, November 1, 2014, more than 300,000 writer-knights will take up the challenge of writing 50,000 words during the 30 days of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It feels absolutely impossible at first, but it’s possible if you truly throw yourself into the challenge like a knight vying to uphold the chivalric code. In other words, get hella invested in your novel.

However, to add to the nerve-wracking, but totally worth it, nature of the challenge, writers are challenged to only write. Let me repeat: writers are only allowed to write. No editing is allowed! That means no touch-ups or gear-shifting, no re-reading or losing faith in the plot, and no scrapping “bad” scenes. The key is to just focus on the word count and to deal with what comes out during the novel cooling off period, otherwise known as winter and December.

This is my seventh year attempting NaNoWriMo and (hopefully) my first year to reach (then exceed) 50K. We’re in the final hours before NaNoWriMo starts in the United States and I cannot possibly explain how excited I am. I feel like it’s Christmas night and I can’t sleep for the delight of tomorrow, yet I also have those lovely-and-terrible first-day-of-school type nerves. This month will surely be an adventure in wonderland.

If my nonfiction fairy tale interested you at all, please consider heading over to the NaNoWriMo website to make the commitment and give the challenge a try. Your fellow knights will welcome you with open arms and we’ll all take one month to slay 50K together. It might seem daunting at first but, there are millions, billions, trillions of words instead each person, and NaNoWriMo is only asking you to spill 50K of them.

I am personally challenging all of my writer friends to take on the task of NaNoWriMo. I can assure each and every one of you that you won’t regret making the attempt. Even if you get lost in writing wonderland and don’t make it to 50K, you will have created something from nothing and you can be immensely proud.

Come on, dearies and darlings, knights from all around: I dare you to write.

P.S. My username on the NaNoWriMo site is mylifeinverse and I would love some new writing buddies. :)

 

Zac & Mia by A. J. Betts: A Book Review.

I’ve read a lot of books about sick people–fiction, nonfiction, the grey space in between–but, I’ve also witnessed sickness. I’ve heard lungs catch and breathes stop. I’ve felt the weakness of atrophying muscles. I’ve seen the red of a central line being removed. You see, sickness is a monster and, for all the knowledge you can have about it, it is facing it first-hand or alongside another that makes the ultimate impact.

When I was selected through Netgalley to read and review Zac & Mia by A. J. Betts, I was prepared for a watered-down version of sickness. Authors often seem too wary of the “delicate and impressionable” minds of young adults to do stories of sickness any justice, and the stories and their readers suffer because of it. In short, I was expecting a pretty inaccurate and mildly insulting portrayal; however, I’m happy to admit that that was not what I found during my reading.

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Within the pages of Zac & Mia, I found something painful and broken, yet altogether believable. It would seem that, despite its packaging as a young adult novel and my own fears of encountering the usual “sick-lit” cliches, this book presents something that someone who knows sickness can read without scoffing. It is undeniably the work of someone who has been touched by sickness, so perhaps it is fitting then that I read all 306 pages of this book while visiting my own mother at UF Health Shands Hospital.

To set the scene, imagine the methodical clicking of a morphine pump, the white-noise hum of a television with the volume turned down low, the low hissing of air blowing through an old grate. Imagine the sharp scent of alcohol and sanitizers, the deceptive flickering of shadows gliding by the bottom of the door, the feel of worn leather sticking to your legs. Imagine bruised skin, shallow breathes, weary eyes, weak limbs, rough speech, painful movements, nurses’ interruptions, doctors’ sighs, and my mothers’ chronic inability to remain conscious.

If nothing else, the stage was set.

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Zac is the quintessential good guy from a farm town who had the bad luck of getting stuck with myeloid leukemia. He knows his odds–55% chance of living five years without relapse–and he knows the odds of his fellow cancer ward residents. What Zac doesn’t know if how to truly communicate with the only other person in the ward who is his age–a moody teenage girl named Mia.

Mia is the ultimate city girl, used to parties, formals, and hundreds of facebook friends; however, she doesn’t know how to deal with osteosarcoma, and she is not so keen to try when ignoring her condition and treatment seems to be going so well. If she’d just listen, she would realize that she has the best odds of them all–90% even on her worst day. But, how can numbers matter when you feel otherwise?

The collision course that Zac and Mia set out upon after their initial meeting is essentially a “slice of life” portrayal of living with and after sickness. There is chemistry and romance, but this is not a love story. There is sickness and poor health, but this is not a scientific depiction. There is hope and, at its heart, this is a brilliant story of survival, desire, and courage. However, the beauty and uniqueness of this story is truly in the details.

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It’s in the uncomfortable and awkward questions that nurses must ask and family will overhear. It’s in the tests that must be done and redone in fear of and preparation for recurrence. It’s in the fragile hope of a mother who does word puzzles by her son’s bedside and brings new patients’ family members’ a cup of tea. It’s in the complicated request of a mother to a doctor to save her girl in spite of everything. It’s in the comfort of an answering knock on the other side of a beige wall. It’s in the fear of impending doom and the struggle to find the will to fight.

It’s in the honesty with which Betts describes sickness. As someone who has watched over their mother from childhood, someone who has acted as a nurse and a doctor and a friend and a daughter, this book resonated in a way that many “sick-lit” novels do not and perhaps cannot. Despite the fact that I am not sick and my mother’s sickness seemingly involves everything except cancer, I found my kindred in Zac, Mia, and their creator. There was a familiarity in the story that was simultaneously upsetting and comforting.

On a scale of one to five, I award this book four stars because it was realistic, honest, and it approached sickness with a level of understanding that I can only compare to the works of Lurlene McDaniel. I could not, in good faith, award this book five stars because (*spoiler alert*) the number of time jumps quickly became annoying and mildly detracted from the movement of the plot, rather than speeding or propelling it along (*spoiler over*). Overall, I felt that it was a well-executed story that delved into sensitive subjects with care and compassion.

I do not agree with the comparisons to John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars or Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park because I feel like that is comparing apples to oranges. Green’s and Rowell’s works are amazing and I enjoyed reading them, truly; however, neither had the sheer authenticity and realism of this book. Perhaps that is something only someone who has been repeatedly touched by sickness can understand and appreciate though, and I do not know that the untouched will recognize or feel its resonance quite so clearly.

I would recommend Zac & Mia to anyone over the age of 14 who is interested in a truthful (yet still fictional) story that does not sugarcoat or glaze over the realities of sickness, mortality, and navigating life’s many plot twists. There are some mentions of topics of a sexual nature and the blunt discussion of death is nothing to dismiss, so I would be wary of allowing younger readers to delve into this novel unless their maturity level is particularly high for their age.

Anyone interested in learning more about A. J. Betts, her experience as a long-term hospital English teacher, her other literary works, and her guiding principles in life, should check out her facebook page, twitterwebsite, TEDx talk (“Why I Collect Shopping Lists”), this radio interview, and this article about “sick-lit.” Although I don’t know her personally, Betts seems like a wonderful person and I cannot wait to see what else she may write in the future. Cheers, readers!

(Disclaimer: I received this book through NetGalley’s Feed Your Readers program for Professional Readers in exchange for an honest review. The review I submitted to Netgalley has been posted here, verbatim.) 

Althea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho: An ARC Book Review.

Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. A strong friendship develops. Boy and girl are friends for more than a decade. Girl has feelings. Boy has a medical condition. Feelings and illness do not combine well. Bad things happen. All is well…sort of.

That is the essence of Cristina Moracho’s first novel, “Althea and Oliver,” which explores the ebb and flow of friendship as individuals develop, together and apart. Touted by Penguin Group as a coming of age story akin to Rainbow Rowell’s and Stephen Chbosky’s many noted works, Moracho’s “Althea and Oliver” is the novel equivalent of film that relies on a cast of high-profile actors at the expense of plot and theme. As characters alone, Althea and Oliver are powerhouses—their personalities are multi-dimensional and their internal diversity makes them relatable—however, as the motivating forces within this particular novel’s plot, these characters are weak. The plot in which Althea and Oliver exist is simply not strong enough to hold a reader’s attention, nor is it powerful enough to propel the characters.

Where Althea is the “broken girl” who supposedly brings trouble wherever she goes, Oliver is the “boy wonder” who supposedly brings light and peace. There is a certain symmetry in Althea and Oliver’s friendship, a yin and yang nature that can be found in their personalities and basic actions. This simple dynamic is upset when Oliver is struck by a mysterious and incredibly debilitating illness, thereby making Althea the less obviously “broken” individual and leaving Oliver unable to maintain his previous position. It would seem that one development, one change, has the power to alter or even destroy Althea’s and Oliver’s lives.

As his illness advances, Althea and Oliver struggle to maintain their friendship as they do not know how to operate outside the realm of their previous, symmetrical relationship. In the face of uncontrollable change, the characters experience a palpable longing for sameness and normalcy. Althea and Oliver’s friendship is then further tested by a confusing mix of fledgling romances, raging hormones, and differing social statuses. At that point, the storyline diverges from the catchings of youth and proceeds to address–albeit, shallowly and over-simplistically–a collection of moral dilemmas revolving around sex, alcohol, and familial obligations.

While it was admirable of Moracho to attempt to tackle multiple topics of import to young adult (and even adult) readers, I felt that the effort was ultimately unsuccessful because none of the topics were wholly or thoroughly addressed. A part of me wishes that I could have had a hand in editing this novel because there are dozens of great ideas, but those ideas are, for the most part, poorly executed and underdeveloped. In effect, the story still needs to be expanded to create a viable tie between the plot and the characters that are active within it because, in its present state, the characters are languishing in a dead-end plot.

Perhaps the most obvious scene wherein a good idea simply doesn’t manifest well is when Althea physically attacks another student at school. There is anger, there is desire for retribution, and there is trauma, yet Althea’s actions are attributed to her inability to maintain order and a weak moment wherein her “head exploded.” Following this event and the damage it does to her academic future, Althea simply wallows in her feelings, but no attention is given to precisely what those feelings are…until those feelings relate back to Oliver. By doing so, Moracho suggests that anything that happens apart from Oliver is less significant, thereby making the physical attack merely a plot “device” rather than actual plot.

Similarly, when Oliver goes to a party with Althea and some of her new friends, Oliver acts resentful of the new friends’ presence and even seems inherently antisocial. Juxtaposed with Oliver’s behavior prior to his illness, wherein he is described as being the social counter to Althea’s antisocial behavior, an examination of this difference could have proved interesting. In fact, if Oliver’s feelings and actions had been explored beyond the matter of their existence then Oliver’s maturity through his illness might have become apparent. In the scene’s current condition, Oliver simply seems to be an uncooperative youth who is jealous of his friend’s acceptance into a new crowd that does not automatically include him. Oliver’s feelings are thus reduced to mere plot devices.

Overall, I found “Althea and Oliver” to be a lackluster novel that, with a bit more plot development, could have been a bestseller. More specifically, the reading experience was not exciting or otherwise emotionally charged—I felt particularly disappointed by the “so that’s that and life goes on” ending. I award this novel two out of five stars solely because, despite placing her characters within a feeble plot, Moracho managed to create truly compelling characters/character sketches. Regardless of my criticism, I’m excited to see what else Cristina Moracho writes in the future and how her writing style further develops.

(Disclaimer: I received this book through Penguin Group’s First to Read in exchange for an honest review. The review I submitted to Penguin Group has been posted here, verbatim.) 

CTC Geekfest 2014!

In August 2010, just before the start of my senior year of high school, I attended a small convention. I had a phoenix painted on my face, watched Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) in the planetarium dome, and failed to find a game tournament that I was anywhere near qualified to enter but watched a number of others play until their fingers hurt. The programs were basic and film showings were the main attraction, an author I’d never heard of was signing books I would never read, and gamers made spider webs of tangled laptop cords between commandeered classrooms.

That was the start of Geekfest.

It may not sound like much now but, in Central Texas, where being called a “geek” often has a negative connotation that falls somewhere between Harry Potter’s “Mudblood” and Divergent’s “pansycake,” it was an amazing experience and one that I was eager to have repeat. Geekfest, even in its infancy, provided a place for geeks to peacefully (okay, excitedly) coalesce, as well as a means by which geekdom/nerdom/fandom could become more apparent and socially present in Central Texas.

That was the start of a new community.

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This past weekend Central Texas College held the festival’s fifth incarnation, Geekfest 2014, which was aptly advertised as “A Celebration of All Things Geek.” While it may not be on the same scale as San Diego Comic-Con, Geekfest 2014 was filled to the brim with programs, tournaments, demos, films, vendors, and costumed-attendees—there was something and someplace for everyone.

Where Geekfest 2010 lulled and had an overall sedate atmosphere, Geekfest 2014 moved at a quick pace and positively exuded excitement, energy. Where Geekfest 2010 was simplistic and necessarily limited in scope, Geekfest 2014 was complex, diverse, and effectively multidimensional. Where Geekfest 2010 was an attempt and a promising beginning, Geekfest 2014 was an ultimate success and a dazzling sign of an even greater future.

In short, Geekfest 2010 was solid fun, but Geekfest 2014 was pure awesome.

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I bought the three-day pass ahead of the event at the special discount price ($10.00–super affordable, am I right?), but a last-minute cosplay idea and the resulting sewing binge meant that I was only able to attend Geekfest (in its entirety) on Saturday and Sunday. Two out of three obviously isn’t too bad though because I still had a ton of fun.

While Friday’s festivities included a live performance of Rocky Horror Picture Show by the Queerios, regular performers from the Alamo Drafthouse Village in Austin, Texas, and a Harry Potter-themed Yule Ball, Saturday and Sunday included a greater number of tournaments, programs, and vendors, and drew larger crowds.

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On Saturday, I arrived at Geekfest in my version of Slytherin wizarding robes in an attempt to cosplay Harry Potter. Almost immediately upon reaching the Mayborn Science Theater (one of two buildings in which the festival was being held), people ranging in age from toddler to elderly made pleasant comments about my robes and just generally said “hello.” It didn’t feel like some big, scary, anonymous event, it felt like a giant and multi-day party with friends.

If I could sum up Geekfest in one scene, it would portray the excitement of two cosplayers as they yell compliments to each other across hallways and courtyards, joking about stealing each others’ costumes and adopting character names. Even for someone who sometimes has a difficult time getting to know new people, this festival had the strange transformative power to take random people and turn them into instant friends (at least for a few moments).

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After picking up my pass, which was worn as a wristband, I simply walked about the various areas of the festival, taking in the possibilities and opportunities. While it was incredibly humid outside (damn you, melting makeup), Saturday was a truly gorgeous day as far as “hotter than hades” Texas summers go.

In the parking lot and open field between Mayborn, where tournaments and programs were, and Anderson Student Center, where vendors and food services were, attendees were able to take in the sunlight and watch the more physical programs as they walked along. Everywhere you looked, pairs and groups were doing the same. And, if nothing else, the heat was a motivator to get from one activity to another as quick as possible.

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In the public space, there were RenFair and other historical cosplay groups calling out to attendees to watch them “beat each other up for our entertainment,” teenagers and adults truly going at it with boffers, a children’s train running a snaking course, roller derby chicks skating circuits, robots chasing kids, and random people chatting about geeky things. In every direction, something fun was happening among fun people.

During one walk from Mayborn to Anderson, I even managed to get caught up in a discussion with a random guy about the Ninth Doctor and how underrated he is among the Doctor Who fandom. (For the record, he agreed that, had Christopher Eccleston had more than one season, he would have developed more of a fan force.) I never even found out that guy’s name, but it was amusing to have an off-handed comment about the sun turn into a fan-chat.

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In Anderson, two floors were devoted solely to food, live entertainment, and geeky goodies.

On the first floor, after scoring some food of their own, attendees were able to vote on cupcakes and tier cakes that had been entered into the cake decorating contest. My personal favorite was a three-story Doctor Who cake that featured the TARDIS, daliks, bowties, galaxies, and even more wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff. It almost made me wish that I’d continued those cake-decorating classes years ago! After voting, it was simple enough to find a table to rest and even take in a sword-fight, not to mention the roaming robots.

The second floor was packed with the tables of vendors and sponsors. Yet, on this one topic, I must be a bit negative: the space just simply wasn’t appropriate for so many tables and people and more than a few of those represented were not entirely suited to the convention. I heard more than one parent note that vacations should not have been advertised around excitable children or light sabers brandished in so cramped a hallway. In addition, while the vendors sold anything from hair bows to tattoos, I feel that the vibrant Central Texas community could produce more (and more varied) vendors, if perhaps more effort was put into recruitment. (Perhaps I should volunteer…)

In any case, for the most part, the vendors had fascinating wares and the represented sponsors were nothing but kind, talkative, and accommodating.

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Back in Mayborn, programs started every half-hour to hour, and ranged from Doctor Who screenings to Harry Potter trivia to Dungeons & Dragons how-to’s to cosplay tips to screenwriting classes to retro gaming to costume contests to who-knows-what-else. There were so many things happening at once that, were it not for the nifty program schedules handed out and posted on classroom doors, attendees would have been turning in circles with sensory overload.

I personally attended quite a few cosplay, live action roleplaying (LARP), and Harry Potter programs. Those are just the areas where my fandom interests primarily lie, but there was certainly more that I could have done. Perhaps my favorite program on Saturday was entitled “Cosplay’s Place and Influence in Society,” which was presented by members of Heroes and Villains of Cosplay (HAVOC), a cosplay group based in San Antonio, Texas. It was fascinating to hear about cosplay’s significance as well as the challenges it can pose. (Plus, one of the presenters said that he loved my wizarding robes!)

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Two other presentations worth mentioning were Jason Sanchez/J. Sanime’s “Taking the Cosplay Stage” and “How to Be Awesome at Cosplay.” Sanchez, a practiced cosplayer, costume designer, and cosplay contest-placer, was exceptionally helpful with his tips regarding maintaining confidence, having fun, and getting into character. Not to mention the fact that his Maes Hughes (Fullmetal Alchemist) costume was brilliant.

Thus, after a long day of walking, talking, and laughing, I left Geekfest sometime around 9:00 PM–just before a second performance of Rocky Horror Picture Show was set to start—in hopes of eating some much-needed (sort of) non-junk food and getting a few hours of sleep. (Not surprisingly, I was too amped up from the excitement of the day to sleep much that night.)

While I got down with my pillow and some delicious cereal, other Geekfest attendees finished up the “Geek Glow Wars: Glow In the Dark 5K.” At the end of that day, I didn’t even have it in me to think about a 5K, but cheers to everyone who participated.

Sunday afternoon, I arrived cosplaying as Tris Prior from Divergent. Compared to the sewing frenzy that wizarding robes induced, this cosplay was relatively simple to plan and execute on short notice.

By combining some black and grey reflective compression leggings, a loose-fitting black workout tank, a black sports bra, and plain black trainers, I was able to recreate something resembling Tris’ Dauntless training outfit. I topped off the outfit with a messy ponytail, makeup, and two eyeliner temporary tattoos. I owe YouTuber “thosefandoms” major thanks for her video entitled “Tris Prior Cosplay” wherein she explained how to make temporary tattoos from only eyeliner, body powder, and hairspray.

While it may not have been the most creative costuming or detailed cosplay, I was happy to find that multiple people called out “Dauntless!” and Tris!” as I walked by, so the outfit must have gotten the point across. I truly love Divergent, as a book and as a film, and Geekfest provided a setting in which I could show that attachment and have others appreciate it as well.

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In terms of temperature, Sunday was much more tolerable and thick cloud-cover gave the pale ones like myself a bit of relief from the threat of imminent sunburn. Presenters and performers, some clad in mail and armor, also seemed to appreciate the respite. As a result, an even greater number of people milled about in the public space and outdoor presentations/programs were much busier than the day before.

Of the programs offered that afternoon, I most clearly remember the Ennis’ “Modern Herbology: Herbs and Their Uses Both Medicinal and Magical” and Chris Glover’s “LARP Prop Making Tips.” While I expected the Herbology presentation to be a simple spiel about the natural and positive effects of herbs, the Ennis’ actually facilitated an interesting discussion about nature and evidence of modern-day witchcraft (i.e. Wicca). Similarly, Glover’s tips for using everyday materials, such as insulation foam, hot glue, silicone molds, paint, and LED lights, to create more eye-catching costumes, made for a simply fascinating presentation and I cannot wait to employ some of Glover’s techniques in creating future cosplays.

After taking in those two presentations, I ventured back to the vendor area and bought a $10.00 Doctor Who mug from Hastings. I don’t know how anyone else feels, but any shopping trip that results in a fandom find is a true success in my book.

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In a quick turn of events, Geekfest then ended with an opening of the floodgates, a torrential downpour, and attendees running to their cars with makeup streaming down their faces and costumes stuck to their skin. If nothing else, a full-on thunderstorm in an area that is often jokingly said to “live under an umbrella” was an amusing way to end an already eventful weekend.

Overall, Geekfest 2014 was a wonderful experience and I can’t wait for Geekfest 2015. I just know that it will be an amazing time and filled with the creation of new memories. This festival can only get even bigger and better in the future, it can only further develop this wonderful community. Perhaps I will even apply to be a presenter next year and get to teach as well as learn. Anyone up for a couple of presentations on “Blowing Up the Blogosphere” or “Fanworlds and Fanfiction”? Cheers to you, my fellow geeks of the world.

The Sweet Taste of Technological Advance: Everything Happens “IRL.”

Almost two years ago, I wrote an article entitled “The Sour Taste of Technological Advance” and, more than anything else, it was a written exploration of the little ways in which technology has negatively affected society and human interaction. It was about awareness and consideration of current circumstances; however, it was not an outright rejection of technology.

This article is the flip side of that coin—the sweet taste of technological advance—as life is now, two years later.

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To the generations that grew up mostly without Internet it must seem strange that young people’s lives now are split between “the real world” and some virtual realm. I can’t tell you how many times even my parents, who admittedly aren’t that old, have questioned why the net is so important to me. Of course, the question is usually phrased more like “why do you waste so much time online?,” but the sentiment is the same.

The real problem, the real disconnect exists in this notion that what my generation does online is somehow unreal or less important than what happens AFK (away from keyboard) or IRL (in real life). Our lives are not split between real and unreal, but rather we conduct our real lives in two venues, simultaneously and, usually, identically. Despite all of the radio chatter about internet predators and social distrust, it is possible to be who you really are when you’re online, to live one life.

When it comes to meeting new people and building friendships, the internet is a powerful communication tool.

The internet is how we meet, where we meet, when we meet, and why we meet—it’s everything. The Internet is intrinsic, not separate.

And that is precisely why I disagree with the idea that people nowadays possess “online friends” and friends “in real life,” with no crossover between the two. I’m particularly against the perception of “online friends” as being somehow lesser—people, in person or online, are real and they matter.

Correct me if I’m wrong but, being friends means being there for each other and genuinely caring about each other’s welfare, yes? Being a friend doesn’t mean that you have to be neighbors on the same suburban street; it means being neighbors in heart and existing on the same emotional plane with and for each other. Physical proximity is not the primary determining factor for friendship anymore than blood is the only (or even the most important) determining factor for family.

Technology doesn’t just stop with or at the Internet and the human relationships it can aid in developing though…

There are cell phones, video games, and televisions. There are assistive technologies, medical technologies, productivity technologies, instructive technologies, administrative technologies, and information technologies. Technology, technology, technology—nowadays, we have a technology for anything and everything. We’re in a techno age and I don’t just mean the genre of musical; although, that is also technically relevant. (Get it, techno/technically?)

A major upside to the number of different technologies is that life is, in many ways, easier for everyone from Jane Dow and Joe Blow to the Big Bad Businessman and that Crazy Cool Corporation. People can communicate quicker. Information is more readily accessible. Entertainment has been diversified. Healthy and ill individuals alike can live longer. Schools are able to teach in and out of classrooms. Dangerous jobs have been delegated to machines.

Life is good, don’t you agree?

Technological advance means that I, as a person, am more capable than those who existed in the world of a century ago, or even those who already existed as little as two decades ago when I was born.

I can build and maintain friendships with people in other hemispheres on a daily basis.

I can access and make use of information without leaving the comforts of my home.

I can apply for and even accept an offer of admission from a top-level university program.

I can attempt to prevent, combat, treat, and even live with a variety of newly discovered illnesses.

I can maintain records for years without taking up an inch more of physical space.

I can navigate a conversation with someone speaking or writing in a foreign language.

I can call for emergency assistance on a deserted country road long after midnight.

I can live vicariously through a close friend’s gorgeous vacation photos.

I can work for a company whose headquarters or singular office building I have never entered.

And, I can write about technology and start a conversation without opening my literal mouth.

It’s undeniable that technology and society have changed, and technology and society will continue to change in an endless cycle. For the most part, humans benefit from this continuous change. We help ourselves and each other, and we ensure the possibility for a greater future for upcoming generations.

If society and technology didn’t change, didn’t advance, we would stagnate as a race. Had the sword never made way for the gun, had the abacus never stepped aside for the calculator, had the typewriter never bowed down to the word processor, we would have faded out of existence amid a graveyard of old ideas.

Change, you see, if absolutely vital and ultimately unavoidable. Thus, why not embrace it?

But, at the end of the day, there is sameness even in the world’s vast number of changes.

Friendships and relationships still take time, effort, and personal investment.

Information still has to be wanted, willingly accessed, and thoroughly absorbed to be useful.

College students are still tired every day and adamant that they didn’t go to that party last night.

Personal health is still neglected…until the problem is so bad that we can’t get off the couch.

Records are still messy, disorganized, and prone to being lost, even when kept in virtual files.

Conjugating verbs is somehow still imperfect even with instantaneous translation apps.

Being stuck on a deserted country road long after midnight is still dangerous.

Photos, whether polaroids or megapixels, still fill viewers with intense wanderlust.

Work is still required to make a living and provide more than memories for yourself.

And, a conversation still requires more than one active participant.

I invite you (i.e. beg you) to share your opinions on societal change and technological advance in the comment section below. Any contribution to the conversation is a step in the right direction. Does technology put a sweet or a sour taste in your mouth? Is technology anything worth wondering/caring/conjecturing about?

Tell me what you really think, what your best predictions are, or just tell me if you think The Gentleman’s Armchair is an amazing webcomic (I concur).

Or, consider the as-of-yet unspoken battle between these two ideas:

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Whatever you decide to say, just say it (go, do it, right now), and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible. After all, in this day and age, I’m only a Macbook/Kindle/iPod/cell phone away and physical distance means nothing. Cheers to accepting that everything, on the net and off, is truly happening IRL.

AFK.