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:

vs.

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.

Russian Food Adventures: Blini, Pirozhki, and Napoleon Cake.

It’s probably not the best time to admit this because of the Russia hate fest happening on capital hill, but, I can’t help it–I have a soft spot for Russia. The food, the music, the history, and even the politics are absolutely fascinating to me. Don’t misunderstand me, I loved and am proud of my American upbringing, but I also have a great appreciation for the world’s largest country.

Perhaps it’s because Russia was the elephant in the room of every one of my history classes growing up. In high school and university I remember my middle-aged, Cold War era teachers and professors blatantly ignoring the lands between Finland and the Bering Sea. Russia received only an honorable mention in the final weeks of each class when the World War II Allies were briefly discussed and then the events following 1945 ceased to exist.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t know my precise ethnic heritage and I could be “from” just about anywhere. My family isn’t particularly close-knit. Our family records extend back only as far as those family members which are currently alive, and even those records are questionable at best. As a military child, I’m from every part of the states, and maybe that makes it easier to believe that I’m from every part of the rest of the world too.

Perhaps it’s because there’s something fascinating about a black sheep, or a white cow (белая ворона), most especially when you’re talking about some supreme outcast on a global scale. When the western world and its media demonize the largest nation in the world, who isn’t a little curious? When a war can be fought and supposedly won without weapons or casualties, who doesn’t want to know a little bit more about what’s going on?

Regardless of why I’m generally interested in Russia, among other foreign nations, I’ve recently taken a particular interest in Russian and other Slavic foods.

The diversity of food is intriguing in and of itself. A vast collection of ingredients and procedures can result in infinite creations that can then feed innumerable people. Food identifies culture and yet it can cross cultural lines. Food speaks when people cannot find the words. Food bonds when other aspects of life would make bonding impossible. In celebration of food diversity and culture, here are a few of my favorite edible creations from eastern Europe.

Enjoy and have fun cooking!

——
Blini (блины)

The first thought that many people will have when they see pictures of blini is “those are crêpes,” but, my darling bakers, they are most certainly different from crêpes. While both blini and crêpes might be called thin pancakes, blini are more sponge-like with small air bubbles throughout while crêpes are more bread-like with a fine and solid texture. Personally, after this experience, I wholly prefer blini.

The greatest commonalities between blini and crêpes are that both are generally served with a filling or spread, and both can be made in sweet or savory varieties. I tackled a (supposedly) more traditional, sweet variety because my family truly loves sugar, but plenty of savory recipes are available online for blini and blini fillings.

Perhaps it’s just a personal pet peeve, but I don’t like picking one recipe and calling it done. Thus, I ended up reading and combining the recipes from Elina of Russian Bites, Viktoria of Fun Russian: Learn Russian the Fun Way, and Florian Pinel of Food Perestroika: Adventures in Eastern Bloc Cuisine, in order to produce these blini.

Ingredients

2 eggs
2 cups milk
1 tbsp + 1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 cups flour (twice sifted)
2 tbsp coconut oil + more to rub pan

Directions

1. Beat eggs lightly in mixing bowl.

2. Stir milk, sugar, and salt into beaten eggs.

3. Slowly whisk sifted flour into the mixture.

4. Whisk coconut oil into the mixture and let rest for a minimum of 15 minutes.

5. Lightly oil a non-stick skillet and bring to medium high heat.

6. Reduce skillet to medium heat.

7. Lift skillet from heating element and pour between 1/4 and 1/3 cup of batter into the skillet at 12 o’clock. Slowly tilt the skillet in a circular motion, spreading the batter thinly.

8. Replace skillet onto the heating element.

9. Watch for browning at the edges of the blin (approximately 2 minutes after replacing the skillet on the heating element). When browning is noted, gently pry up the edge with a spatula. If the other side is golden brown, flip the blin.

10. Checking with a spatula for browning, cook the blin until the other side is golden brown as well. Slide cooked blin onto plate.

11. Lightly re-oil the skillet and repeat steps 7 through 11.

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Pirozhki (Пирожки)

Pirozhki are essentially hand pies that are filled with potatoes, various meats, onions, mushrooms, cabbage, stewed fruits, jam, quark, oatmeal, cottage cheese, or other such substances. They’re the type of food that you could pick up at a local market or cafe and eat on the go, or cook one night and eat for days to come (trust me, this recipe makes more than enough for leftovers).

I will forewarn that these take some time to make and put together–just short of 2 hours–if you’re not a master of preparing three items at once. Since I prepared two different fillings to add a little bit of variety to the meal, the three components for this recipe were dough, beef filling, and potato filling.

These pirozhki were made by combining recipes from Ann of Sumptuous Spoonfuls, JoAnn Cianciulli of Leite’s Culinaria, and Natasha of Natasha’s Kitchen. I tried not to stray too far from their recipes because I wanted to keep this traditional food traditional, but I did add my own flare with chili powder and such, so I would encourage my readers to do the same. Have fun with it and don’t stress about the details!

Ingredients

Dough:

3 cups bread flour
1 cup whole wheat white flour
3 eggs (beaten)
1 cup milk
1 tsp salt
3 tsp Red Star Quick-Rise (or other brand) yeast
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp honey
2 tbsp coconut oil

Beef Filling:

2 eggs
1.2 lb ground beef (lean; 90/10 or 93/7)
1/2 onion (large; peeled and chopped)
1/2 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp salt
2 tsp pepper
1 tsp dill weed
1 tsp chili powder
Purified water

Potato Filling:

3 to 4 potatoes
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 onion (large; peeled and chopped)
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp dill
2 tsp salt
2 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp red pepper
3 tbsp water
2 tbsp butter
Purified water

Topping:

8 oz sour cream
(Brown gravy is also recommended; however, recipes vary so much that I’ll leave the directions for that up to my readers.)

Directions

1. Place dough ingredients into bread machine–wet ingredients first, dry ingredients second, and yeast third–and set machine to run on the dough setting.

2. Hard boil the eggs for the beef filling:

  • A. Place two eggs in a pot and cover completely with purified water.
  • B. Place pot on heating element and set heat to medium high to bring to a boil.
  • C. When water begins to boil, remove pot from heat, cover with lid, and set timer for 10 minutes.
  • D. After 10 minutes, drain water and set eggs aside to cool.

3. Boil potatoes for the potato filling:

  • A. Place 3 to 4 potatoes in a large pot and cover completely with purified water.
  • B. Cover with lid and place pot on heating element, then set heat to medium high to bring to a boil.
  • C. When water begins to boil, reduce heat to low or low medium, and set timer for 10 minutes.
  • D. Check potatoes with a fork at 10 minute increments, piercing with fork to test firmness.
  • E. When fork pierces potato easily, remove from heat, drain, and set aside to cool.

4. Beef filling:

  • A. Heat skillet or sauce pan over medium to medium high heat.
  • B. Cook ground beef and onions until meat is grey to brown and onions are translucent.
  • C. Add garlic, salt, pepper, dill weed, and chili powder to meat. Heat for 1 minute then remove from heat.
  • D. Drain any excess liquid or grease from meat mixture and set aside momentarily.
  • E. Remove shell from hardboiled eggs and chop egg small pieces.
  • F. Stir egg into meat mixture. Set aside to cool.

5. Potato filling:

  • A. Peel and mash boiled potatoes in a mixing bowl with a potato masher or hand mixer. Set aside to cool.
  • B. Heat olive oil in sauce pan over medium heat.
  • C. Cook onions slowly over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
  • D. When onions have become light brown, add a splash of water, stir, and continue cooking.
  • E. When onions have become medium brown, add garlic powder and dill, heat for 1 minute then remove from heat.
  • F. Stir caramelized onions, salt, pepper, red pepper, water, and butter into potatoes, combining thoroughly. Set aside to cool.

6. Filling the dough:

  • A. Remove dough from bread maker at the end of the dough cycle.
  • B. Separate dough into portions that are approximately the size of golf or cue balls.
  • C. Use a rolling-pin to flatten each ball into circles with approximately a 4 to 5 inch diameter.
  • D. Spoon 1 to 2 tablespoons of either beef or potato filling onto each circle of dough. The fillings can also be combined in a single pirozhok (1 tablespoon of each) for an even more filling hand pie.
  • E. Fill a shallow bowl with water. Dip fingertips in water, trace wet fingers along the edge of the dough, and pinch dough together, making a half-moon shape that encloses the filling.
  • F. Dampen the outside edges of the half-moon shape and place filled dough on cookie sheets covered with parchment paper.
  • G. When all of the dough circles have been filled, take a fork and press the edge of the dough to ensure filling does not leak.
  • H. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes.

7.  Bake at 350F for 15 to 30 minutes or until the pirozhki are puffy and golden brown. Cool and serve with sour cream or brown gravy.

——
Napoleon Cake (наполеон торт)

If you’ve taken a single course in European history then you know without a doubt that the most famous Napoleon was not Russian, and that fact has probably led you to wonder why this recipe is even included in this post. The truth is that this dessert is of French origin and is formally known as Mille-feuille and colloquially as Napoleon. The name Napoleon was actually derived from the French adjective for the Italian city Naples and only simple word associated led it to be connected with political figures by the name of Napoleon.

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Records and mentions of Napoleon Cake in Russia have been found dating back to the early 19th century; however, the dessert seems to have become truly popular in the celebrations that followed Russia’s victory over Napoleon Bonaparte and his army in the Patriotic War of 1812. The Russian variation of the dessert, which involves a greater number of layers of pastry and frosting made from sweetened condensed milk instead of custard, became standard in the USSR and remains favored in Russia and other post-Soviet nations.

I combined recipes from Natasha of Natasha’s KitchenLyuba of Will Cook for Smiles, and Katrina of Around the World in 80 Markets, and More, to produce this particular Napoleon Cake. Perhaps the most obvious change I made from these recipes was to use more frosting and include frosting on the topmost layer. This meant abandoning the traditional crumbled pastry topping, but it did not affect taste or appeal. This was purely a preferential change. As such, feel free to go old-school and do the crumble or follow my example and add the extra frosting.

Ingredients

1.1 lbs Pepperidge Farm (or other) ready-to-bake puff pastry sheets (2 sheets per package)
3/4 cup stick butter (nearly room temperature)
11 oz Eagle Brand (or other) sweetened condensed milk
3 tsp vanilla extract
1 splash heavy cream
1 tsp sugar

Directions

1. Defrost ready-to-bake puff pastry according to packaging.

2. Cut each puff pastry sheet into fourths, creating eight separate pieces.

3. Using rolling-pin, roll each piece until it is almost double in size and thin.

4. Cover large cookie sheets with parchment paper and place rolled pieces onto the paper.

5. Use a fork to poke at least five sets of holes into each piece.

6. Bake at 400F for 8 to 12 minutes, watching carefully for excessive browning. Baking times may vary based on specific oven used.

7. Remove from oven and set aside to cool completely.

8. While pastry cools, begin work on the frosting: cream butter in a mixing bowl with a hand mixer.

9. Mix condensed milk, vanilla, heavy cream, and sugar into the creamed butter.

10. When the pastry is cooled, spread frosting on 6 of the pastries. Reserve two portions of frosting in bowl (approximately 4 tbsp).

11. Assemble the pastry cake by stacking the frosted pastries on top of one another in a lidded container.

12. Place an unfrosted pastry on top of the last frosted pastry.

13. Place a paper towel on top of the stack. Slowly, evenly, and gently press down the stack.

14. Dispose of the paper towel and frost the top of the stack.

15. Crumble the final pastry over top of the frosted stack.

16. (Optional) Place the last of the frosting in a pastry bag and squeeze over top of the crumbled pastry.

17. Refrigerate overnight or for at least 4 hours.

——
BONUS: Banana Bread

By all accounts, banana bread is not a traditional Russian recipe or even a Slavic recipe. However, I recently discovered what my family considers the perfect banana bread by combining recipes from Vadim of Natasha’s Kitchen and Sylwia of Sweet Home Polska. Vadim and Sylwia happen to be Russian and Polish, respectively, so for love of the resulting banana bread I’ve chosen to include my recipe in this Russia-centric post.

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Ingredients

4 ripe bananas
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 + 1/2 cups King Arthur bread flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp orange extract
1 cup chopped walnuts
coconut oil (for oiling pan)

Directions

1. Mash bananas with potato masher on large plate or in mixing bowl. Set aside.

2. Cream butter and sugar with hand mixer in a large mixing bowl.

3. Add eggs to mixture and mix with hand mixer.

4. Slowly add mashed bananas to mixture and combine well, eliminating any large lumps.

5. Slowly add flour into mixture and combine well.

6. Mix in baking soda, salt, cinnamon, vanilla extract, and orange extract.

7. Use flexible frosting spatula to stir in chopped walnuts.

8. Pour batter into oiled loaf pan, scraping sides of bowl with spatula.

9. Bake at 350F for 60 to 70 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the top center of the loaf comes out clean.

10. Remove from pan immediately and turn over onto cooling rack.

——

I hope that you find these recipes useful and enjoy your foreign food experience. I would love to see what you create or hear how these recipes may have inspired you. If you decide to give these foods a chance, and you have a free moment, please send me a picture or message through twitter (@mylifeinverse), instagram (mylifeinverse), or email (mylifeinverse@live.com). Best of luck baking!

 

In Defense of the English Major (Sort Of).

Growing up, the one thing people said I was good at was English. Sports? I fell every two seconds. Music? I couldn’t get my fingers to cooperate. Dance? My feet were just like my fingers. But, English? That I could do.

It’s a rather broad statement though, “You’re good at English.” I wondered back then which way I should take it each time someone offered it up like a complement.

Was I good at writing, even though I never felt comfortable with the essays I turned in? Was I good at speaking, even though presentations made my heart beat in my throat and my words have extra syllables? Was I good at communicating, even though I didn’t know how to start a conversation with anyone my own age?

Was I good at English?

I didn’t think so, not then.

But, despite my discomfort and doubts, I was involved quite heavily in what my friends generically titled “English.”

I carried a book everywhere I went and ditched lunch for the library. I reviewed ARCs for Harper Collins, Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin. I wrote a blog and built strong friendships in the blogosphere. I did well on writing assignments. I was featured in the yearbook sophomore year for being a reader and reviewer. I was put on the yearbook staff solely because a teacher liked how I wrote copy…and a year later I was editor.

I’m babbling, but I promise there’s a point to this.

There was evidence–public and glaring–that I was a lit kid, that I was thoroughly immersed in the infinity of English. It’s just that, back then, I refused to acknowledge any of it. I did what I did and I blushed, anxious and uncomfortable, when others brought it up. I was someone who did and didn’t see, who was and didn’t know. But, my friends, teachers, and parents saw these parts of my life and labeled me someone who could do English.

When college applications came around, I didn’t know what I wanted to be or do, and my school’s guidance counselors were glorified schedule-changers. I wrote “English major” on every application because, well, I didn’t know what else to write.

After all, how are you supposed to know what your want the rest of your life to be like when you’re not even two decades old?

Thus, as an undergraduate, I fell into being an English major.

It wasn’t so different from how someone might fall into school sports because their parents forced them to do little league for years. English was the thing others recognized me for, the thing I could do passably well in relatively easily, and the thing I enjoyed even when the work was challenging. If you’re good at something, you should do it, right? Apparently it’s not that simple.

Just as quickly as I fell into my major, I fell out of it.

(FYI, this is completely inaccurate.)

I read the news reports that called English a “soft skill.” I heard professors talking about the English program being downsized in favor of “more necessary studies” in science and technology. I talked to my peers and listened as they stated the import of their potential degrees in comparison to the uselessness of mine.

The talk? It got to me, a lot. But, even worse than the talk was the other English majors who were also abandoning ship like the penultimate scene from Titanic (1997). Into the icy waters of indecision we will go!

I changed my major once and then I changed it again. Then, just when I’d finished planning my next ten years, I changed my major again. Call me indecisive why don’t you.

I ignored the regretful twist in my stomach when I registered for classes like “Intro to Computer Programming” and “Accounting 2301.” I said that I picked English by default to begin with, therefore picking something else would be easy. I decided that who I was–who I was only just realizing I was–wasn’t good enough and I desperately tried to shed my skin.

It wasn’t working.

I realized I was at the wrong university and in the wrong degree program. I realized I was making plans that I didn’t want to come to fruition. I realized I couldn’t unzip my skin like a jumpsuit and step out with new interests and skills. I realized that I picked my path long before and I needed to do English with an awareness I didn’t have previously.

I reversed course and went back to the start. In very quick order, I switched to a new university, became an English major, registered for six writing courses, and started blogging and reading again. But, there wasn’t some magic spell that suddenly made everything okay. I still wondered about the practicality of getting an English degree.

I worried that I was just playing at doing English because I hadn’t written ten novels, forty fanfics, and four academic articles by age 19. And, only after months of hitting myself over the head for not being farther ahead did it occurred to me that that’s normal.

When I walked across the stage and officially received my Bachelor of Arts in English, I still questioned whether I’d made a mistake. There were a lot more business majors than English majors after all. But, I also knew that my choice of degree could be defended. Being an English major–doing English–means more than having a stack of old essays and loving libraries. It means:

~Strong communication skills

~Superior critical thinking and analytical abilities

~Deep connections and empathy with other people

~Genuine willingness to work and rework an idea or project

~Focused desire to create something from nothing

~Natural diversification of interests and knowledge

~Inherent fluency in the arts of subtlety and irony

The truth of the matter is that being an English major means having the precise skills and talents that are so in-demand, so necessary to life, that people will take them for granted unless we remind them.

English majors have necessary skills. English majors possess significant knowledge and experience. English majors can fulfill a need in almost any business or work environment in the world because communication is necessary everywhere–we just have to market ourselves as such.

Once we see ourselves, we have to make people see our skills, knowledge, and necessity too. It’s not about proving ourselves to anyone else, it’s about proving the continuing usefulness of English major and putting ourselves into positions where we can do what we love.

We have to shatter the idea of English skills being “soft” and instead showcase that we are masters of what every day, every moment of life requires. We have to wield our words like tools and weapons. We have to work for work, but as long as we are willing to make that effort, we’ll be fine.

Don’t fret too much; we’ll do English, it’s inevitable.

Without a doubt, being an English major is a meaningful pursuit. Holding a bachelor’s degree in English–or master’s or doctorate–in our hands will represent an immense accomplishment. It will be the moment.

And, in that moment, it won’t matter that we aren’t child geniuses with a list of thick novels to each of our names. It won’t matter that we changed ours major three times before committing to the English major. It won’t matter that we cried with worry and fear in our hearts before the graduation ceremony began. No matter what, we will be okay.

There will be doubts along the way to that fancy piece of paper with a college seal. There will be naysayers. There will be instances where we must explain our decisions. And, none of that matters because, once we’ve bypassed those people and breathed through those moments, we will do English and it will be more rewarding than anything else we could have done.

It may take a journey for some of us to come into this major, and it may take hard work to make others see why we stuck to this “foolish” path, but, if it is what we love to do, then we will do English. We will love and we will do and we will be, and it will be a perfectly imperfect existence.

Give the English major a chance and maybe, just maybe, you will end up defending it too.

Go do English.