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.

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!

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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.

 

Fandom, Fanfiction, and Fangirling.

 

When the last Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, came out in July of 2011, a community of readers and movie-goers simultaneously mourned the end of the series and celebrated the very existence of the series. For days before the London premiere, fans of the series gathered in Trafalgar Square and the surrounding areas, enduring rain and poor attitudes for even a single glimpse of Harry Potter Queen J.K. Rowling and the cast of the film.

There was little to gain from attending the premiere aside from memories, experience, and, for the lucky few, an autograph or two. Fans dressed in homemade and store-bought Hogwarts robes, wielded wands, ate Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, read and reread the books, watched and re-watched the films, and enjoyed the company of others who were just as dedicated to the books, movies, and wizarding world. For a few days, people who spoke a common language (spells) and held common interests (he-who-must-not-be-named needed to die, duh) were together. Common ground is a powerful thing.

Even those who were not in London were able to get in on the action. Worldwide, fans tuned in to live online broadcasts, posted their excitement and worries on messaging boards and chatrooms, did everything else the London-goers did, but with testy Internet connections and crowded feeds instead of a downpour and crowded streets. Children, students, employees, parents, and people from every other age group and walk of life were represented by IP addresses, screen names, and handles. World wide web (i.e. wizarding world web), indeed.

Somehow, the memories, the experience, the chance to mourn and celebrate collectively, was enough to make attending the premiere (virtually or physically) totally worth it. By the end of the day, every fan could understand what Neville Longbottom meant when he said “Yeah, we lost Harry tonight. But he’s still with us.”

That day? Those feelings? The experience? That is what fandom is for the fans within it, and it extends far beyond the world of Harry Potter.

Scientifically, or perhaps linguistically, fandom has been defined by Princeton and Merriam-Webster (for who knows what reason) as a noun referring to a subculture of people who share a common interest or attitude of being a fan. Socially, fandom is much more than a definition, it is, as Hannah Carter of Fandom Wanderers puts it, “an amazing thing, with amazing power” that incorporates and affects innumerable people in a broad span of places.

“I’m just really active in the fandom.”
“What the fuck is ‘the fandom’?” (Rainbow Rowell)

In a way, the fandom and their activities often break or breach the “fourth wall” of art, literature, and film. The fourth wall, which is typically referenced only in relation to film, theater, and television, is the figurative division between performers and their audience. As Aja Romano of The Daily Dot states in the article “The Crumbling of the Fourth Wall: Why Fandom Shouldn’t Hide Anymore,” this wall is supposed to insulate performers from the harsh judgment and sometimes real-life repercussions of a performance.

In all honesty though, the fourth wall doesn’t insulate anyone.

In all honesty, the fourth wall doesn’t exist. At least, not while fandom thrives.

Fans and the fandom overall are a dominating force. The reaction of fans, not critics or reporters, can make or break a film in the short and long-term.

For example, The Mortal Instruments: City of Ashes (2013) was a box office flop and, as a result, production for the second film has (reportedly) been put on hold indefinitely. Critics felt that TMI had the same ingredients as seemingly every other fantasy franchise, but, perhaps more importantly, book fans weren’t ready to become franchise fans. The Mortal Instruments film was, in all honesty, the product of a toxic mix of improper casting, faulty plot lines, and boring scene arrangements. The numbers didn’t turn out at the box office; the fandom didn’t approve. But, it’s possible that future fans will.

Psycho (1960), The Shining (1980), and Fight Club (1999) were famously poorly reviewed by critics when they first came out in theaters. But, in the long run, all three became cult classics with active fandoms that are still more than happy to cosplay Crazy Jack and Marla Singer. While one-shot films have decidedly smaller fandoms than those of franchises, their fans can still hold their own. Critics serve a purpose, sure, but in the end it is not their word that guarantees or destroys the potential for a film’s success, it is the fan reaction.

The fans, the fandom is important. It or they are the make it or break it factor.

Fans participate in their given fandom(s) in a myriad of ways. Creation of fan art, literature, and music, along with blogging, cosplay, and conventions are quite common. However, writing and reading fanfiction seems to be one of the most popular methods of participation.

Fanfiction.net was launched in October 1998 is currently the largest and most popular fanfiction website in the world with over 2.2 million registered users reading and posting stories in more than 30 languages. The majority of fanfics (i.e. fanfiction stories) posted on fanfiction.net deal with the characters and worlds of books, including Harry Potter, Twilight, and Percy Jackson and the Olympians. 

“The whole point of fanfiction is that you get to play inside somebody else’s universe. Rewrite the rules. Or bend them. The story doesn’t have to end. You can stay in this world, this world you love, as long as you want, as long as you keep thinking of new stories” (Rainbow Rowell, Fangirl).  

In fanfiction, the sky is the limit. Writers can correct wrongs, give minor characters a moment, and even create backstories for the canonically one-dimensional. There are non-canon and alternate universe (AU) fics where major features of a work are altered, and there are canon fics where details are the same and the story explores the grey space before, between, and after books. There are crossover fics (i.e. two books/series meshed together), slash fics (i.e. fics wherein characters of the same sex are romantically linked), and limes/lemons (i.e. explicit fics), as well as the self-explanatory angst fics, sad fics, bad fics, and dark fics.

In the realm of fanfiction, there are people to answer to. There are fans of fans and fandoms of fandoms, if you will. There are beta readers, commenters, voters, bloggers, readers, writers, co-writers, writing buddies, forum friends, and chat pals…it’s a whole community, a whole world that coexists with that of the original creator and their creation. It is a whole community that actively demolishes, or disproves, the fourth wall.

“There are other people on the Internet. It’s awesome. You get all the benefits of ‘other people’ without the body odor and the eye contact” (Rainbow Rowell).  

Fanfiction is but one feature in the subculture that is fandom, but it is an important one. It is a medium wherein Luke Skywalker can be unrelated to Princess Leia, Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape can have the redemption they deserve, Rose can be the Doctor’s forever companion (*intergalactic swoon*), Bella can end up with non-sparkly Jacob, and Kirk and Spock can get to together in every way (*wink wink*). It is a medium wherein anything is possible for anyone. It is a medium wherein people can discover over people through the things they love and cherish.

That’s what makes fandom and all it involves somehow significant and worthwhile: the people within it.

Often when people talk about fandom, they forget that the word references genuine, real people and a state of being. It’s easy to cast the fangirls aside, especially when there are minorities that take fandom to the extreme (e.g. Bieber fans cutting themselves and shaving their heads in his name, threatening Kim Kardashian “for him,” taking over Twitter and ridiculing those within other fandoms, etc). But, we can’t forget and we can’t let anyone else forget because people, no matter who they or what they love, are important.

“You’re not a book person. And now you’re not an internet person? What does that leave you?” (Rainbow Rowell)

The fandom world isn’t just online, and it isn’t something that pales in comparison to “real life.” It’s the seasoning, the spice on top of a piping hot serving of life–fandom is something extra, something wonderful, something worth exploring. It is an unbreakable bond with people all over the globe, it is passion that can turn to positive action, and it is an identity that is as real and significant to fans as their last name or hometown.

Fandom is a bit like family.

It is crazy and trying. It requires devotion and inspires bravery. It is a part of us and we a part of it even when we are not actively participating. It acts as a support system and maintains accountability. It is a voice and a channel for ideas and concerns. It works to unite the divergent and incites the discovery of common ground.

Don’t make fun of fangirls; they’re incredibly brave to throw themselves into something with no promise of tangible returns. Don’t dismiss fanfiction; it is proof of passion, of dedication, of skill. Don’t demean fandom; this subculture has a purpose that is in no way sub par.

Fandom is a force.

On “Pretty Woman” Moments & Retail Judgment.

If you’re a Julia Roberts fan, you can vividly recall the scene of the Pretty Woman “shopping snubbing.”

Roberts’ character, Vivian, enters a shop on Rodeo Drive with $3,000 in cash and a few credit cards borrowed from Edward (Richard Gere). Three female associates give her the stink-eye the moment she enters, but she keeps to herself, nervously chewing on her fingernail, and begins browsing.

A young associate dressed in the store’s offerings approaches Vivian and inquires as to whether Vivian needs any help, which Vivian politely brushes off. When the associate remains by her side, Vivian amends her statement, admitting that she needs “something conservative.” The associate sarcastically responds “Yes,” eyeing Vivian’s streetwalker clothing, and follows her further into the store.

After Vivian’s compliments of the store’s clothing fail to draw out more courteous or helpful responses from the associate, Vivian inquires as to how much an outfit on a mannequin costs. Instead of stating a price, the associate says, “I don’t think this would fit you.”

When Vivian refuses to take that answer, another sales associate joins in and the two associates proceed to gang up on Vivian, saying arrogantly, “It’s very expensive” and “We don’t have anything for you. You’re obviously in the wrong place. Please leave.”

Embarrassed and seeing no further recourse, Vivian leaves the store upset and more than a little angry. There are no snappy comebacks or repercussions for the sales associates to offer viewers any comfort…at least, not yet.

Stylistically speaking, J. F. Lawton was a visionary to include such an emotionally charged yet simplistic scene in the Pretty Woman screenplay. It represents a major launching point for Vivian’s transformation from a mere dreamer to a dream seeker. But, culturally speaking, this scene represents so much more, something that happens every day in the consumer industry (not to mention every other sector of life): judgment.

Who among us has not felt ignored, insulted, or otherwise mistreated by the people who are paid specifically to treat us? Not one person can honestly proclaim that every shopping experience they’ve had in life has involved 100% positive relations with sales associates.

The reality of retail is that sales associates come to oversimplified conclusions about each and every potential customer the second they walk into the store. Determining each person’s economic status is the name of the game and, somehow, age, race, dress, physical form, body language, and a myriad of other purely visual details come into play.

Ladies and gentleman, sales associate are simultaneously the judge, jury, and executioner of each shopper that dares to enter the shopping world. Buyer, beware, indeed!

The fact that all of this is known about the shopping world, however, does little to quell the horrible feelings that sales associates can induce when they mistreat you.

It doesn’t matter where or how often it happens, it hurts and that pain resonates.

 What you need to understand about me is that I look much younger than I am.

A guy friend of mine frequently jokes that I was only six years old in high school. I still get carded for R-rated movies and a year ago I had to show ID to prove that I was old enough to be in the mall without a parent. When I turn 21 this year, I can only imagine the looks that waiters will send my way if I deign to order something a bit stronger than sweet tea.

In addition to being short and petite, I know that my face is youthful. As a result, I’m careful to dress my age, act maturely, behave professionally, walk with my head up, and strive to be a few steps ahead on the “growing up” scale—hello, college degree, thank you for being in my possession! All in all, I think I do a pretty good job of compensating for genetics.

Like Vivian, I appear quite young, even child-like at times, but we can both put on a few years if we try.

Yet, despite my best efforts, when I walked into the beauty and cosmetics section of Nordstrom in Tacoma, Washington, a few days ago, I was promptly treated like a child and ignored. You see, I knew precisely what I’d come to buy—Laura Mercier crème foundation in one shade darker than white crayon and (maybe) a few bits and bobs from the same line—and I only needed an associate to get it from behind the beauty counter.

Can we be quite quick? (That was Love Actually reference for the unfamiliar.) Apparently not, and apparently there cannot even be a “we.”

I approached not one, not two, but three sales associates and was met with only unpleasant looks and dismissals. Of course, that doesn’t even include the five unoccupied associates who simply ignored me as I meandered past them in search of the correct counter. I was watched, but not helped.

When asked directly for service, one associate even stated that she “couldn’t handle makeup from another person’s counter.” This quickly proved false as I witnessed three associate/customer pairs, including the associate I’d spoken with and the customer she’d approached after abruptly leaving me, moving between counters.

I waited patiently for the associate that worked the Laura Mercier counter to return from helping another customer—at another counter, might I add—but she never did. Upon inspection, I discovered her giggling with her fellow associates across the floor, sans-customer. I caught and held her eye, smiled, and turned pointedly back toward the counter.

Guess who still didn’t get any service? Guess who felt like a fool standing there waiting? Guess who walked out the store, upset and more than a little angry, without a single purchase made?

Oh, I kept my cool. I walked out with my head up, I smiled at the young associate who didn’t even smile at me, and I climbed into my parent’s car filled with righteous indignation.

This is why I hate the cosmetic counter, I kept thinking, this is why I avoid shopping. This is why I just shouldn’t try.

But, I had money to spend. I was courteous. I waited my turn. I was dressed well. I requested help. I was—joining a million people incensed over the same things happening in different places for only slightly different reasons, and none of us did anything wrong.

You see there is this thing called ageism and I experienced it along with, quite possibly, a bit of classism. Every day, other people experience the same thing I did, along with racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and heterosexism. Each of us has been or will be a victim of the “isms” at some point or another. While instances can vary in degree and frequency, all instances of an “ism” are as valid as our feelings about them. You feel, you are, you have been. It’s not a competition because we’re all caught up in the same emotional storm.

The truth about the “isms” in the retail industry is that associates, who are often paid on commission, take advantage of perceived patterns in customers in attempts to increase their sales and, as a result, income. They call it consumer profiling, but it can be a bit more convoluted, and even nefarious, than it at first seems.

For example, a recent Harvard study published in the Journal of Consumer Research revealed that sales associates in luxury stores were more likely to assume that those individuals “willing to deviate” from social norms—such as dressing down in gym clothes while shopping—had the money to buy something.

So, if we want to be treated like human beings and helped in our endeavors, we must sacrifice our own style? It makes no sense.

Similar patterns or assumptions that are relied upon in retail include the notion that young people and people of color are more likely to be thieves with no “real” (read: large sums of) money to spend, leading them to be either ignored or followed. In the same way, the disabled and elderly are often infantilized based upon the idea that they are incapable or without means, making them either easy to oversell or not worth the time and effort. Plus-sized individuals are frequently considered difficult and unlikely to find anything that will fit, and effectively dismissed with the (only sometimes) silent message of “leave, change, and come back.”

When you lump in other assumptions about gender, sexuality, religion, and political affiliation, the list goes on so long that everyone becomes a perpetual victim. That’s the crux of the matter though: when one person is victimized, made to feel even the slightest bit of discomfort or embarrassment, we all lose out eventually.

It’s easy to try to “win” in the moment or shortly thereafter, it can even be incredibly satisfying, but it doesn’t solve everything.

In Pretty Woman, Vivian returned to the shop where she was snubbed, dressed in luxurious clothing with a collection of bags in hand. Ignoring the associate who approaches her as she comes in the door, she rounds on the associate who was disrespectful the day before. Vivian first asks, “Do you remember me?” to which the associate replies in the negative; however, after reminding the associate that she wouldn’t wait on Vivian, the associate comes to realize the woman she snubbed and the woman before her are one in the same.

As the associate stares at Vivian, shocked, Vivian hefts her designer bags in the air, declaring “Big mistake. Big. Huge. I have to go shopping now.” As Vivian flounces off, we see the associate look on in humiliation.

Of course, Vivian is pleased with herself—and what audience member wasn’t proud of her—but she doesn’t truly win against those who put her down in that store until much later on when she helps another streetwalker, her friend and former roommate, Kit, see that she can have a better life as well. People win together, not apart.

A few days ago, I wanted to demand service. I wanted to yell at a manager. I wanted to shove my true age, economic status, and resume in the associates’ faces. I wanted to pull a Gordon Ramsey and teach them how to do their job properly. I wanted to know what happened to a customer being a customer no matter how much they buy or spend.

I wanted vengeance.

But, what better to do than follow the Pretty Woman example and deny the judgmental, unhelpful employees an addition to their income AND tell others about the horrible experience? No snarky quip can hurt as much as a potential loss in customers and earnings.

Maybe I wasn’t wearing thigh high boots. Maybe I wasn’t showing my midriff. Maybe I wasn’t smacking gum. But, even if I had been, I would have deserved better service than I received. The fact that I look young—just like being a lower or middle class, a person of color, plus-sized, disabled, or so on and so forth—should not mean disrespect and being ignored.

We all deserve better. We deserve the fairy tale of retail, or at least some fulfillment of the basic promises businesses and their employees make.

It is important to remember that, as Edward says to Vivian in the movie, “Stores are never nice to people. They’re nice to credit cards.” And, that’s not good or right, but, it means that in the end sales associates are dependent upon you and I, my fine friends. We are the ones that can change them because we are their livelihood.

Whenever someone is mistreated due to the realities of retail, the associates and the companies they work for have made a “Big mistake. Big. Huge.” They need us, but we don’t need them, and that’s why we win out in the end.

(Disclaimer: Obviously, all sales associates at all stores are not terrible. Some of you are quite lovely and helpful.)