that moment when a book becomes everything

Lately I’ve been nostalgic for the books I read in my youth. I don’t know why, but I can’t get them out of my mind. Are you ever jealous of someone who is reading one of your beloved novels for the very first time? They’re just stepping into the world of authors like Lorrie Moore or Jamaica Kincaid or characters like Thomas Cromwell or Harry Potter. Oh, to enter the wizarding world anew! If you’ve never had that feeling, my guess is you aren’t a serious reader. You probably didn’t find that book when you were younger, the book that sweeps you away and leaves you losing hours in the comforting hush of libraries, digging through musty used bookstores, piling up books in every nook and cranny of your house, sniffing a brand-new book like it’s a drug.

I think that may be what it’s about. I’m reminiscing about what it was like to discover the world of literature. It really is a world. It’s a whole other world you have no idea is out there until you find yourself in the midst of it. And then your brain’s soft explosion leaves you changed forever. There is always another place you can go to even when you are stuck in bed with a fever or frustrated with the way of the world or really just hating life. You realize that as long as you have these places in your mind, you are safe.

Do you have safe places in your mind? Sometimes when everything is crappy, I open one of my Harry Potter books for an hour or so, and then I feel much better. But often my recollection does just as well. And this translates to real-life experiences. When I’m flying and turbulence hits, I go to the number-one happy place in my head, which took place ten years ago. My family was in southern California for a wedding, and we spent a day at the beach. No one wanted to go into the water but my three-year-old niece and me. So I pulled her onto my back and we threw ourselves against the waves, laughing and laughing with each one, until we wore ourselves out. I think it’s years of serious reading that allow me to conjure up that memory so clearly, perhaps embellish it a bit to fit my present need, and forget (mostly) that the plane might plummet to the sea, leaving me the lone survivor floating on a piece of wreckage in a storm surrounded by sharks. In the middle of the ocean. (My imagination stoking unlikely, if not impossible, fears is, of course, the other side of the reading coin.)

Anyway, I’ve been so nostalgic lately that I actually listened to a Judy Blume audio book on my phone the other day while painting the bedroom. It was Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which stood up fairly well, better than I expected. And it made me feel like youth was better than I remembered it to be, like maybe middle school wasn’t such a horror after all. It just felt like that at the time, and now that I’m more than twenty years away from it, there are things I can appreciate about it and, dare I say…miss? Don’t you miss that thrill of discovery, of a whole world you’ve yet to traverse?

I think there’s another element in here: the book series. Sometimes a writer creates a world I don’t want to leave, so a series can be the ultimate delight. I miss them, and they are mostly to be found in genre fiction, of which I read little. Young adult fiction is rife with series, and I remember being so immersed in them that I felt like a character. Going on to read the second or third or twelfth book was very much about seeing what I would do next as Nancy Drew or Claudia Kishi or Ramona Quimby.

I’ve mentioned before that I read a lot of Nancy Drew* as a kid, so the first story I wrote was my own version of Nancy Drew. Then I wrote other stories based on books I’d read or movies I’d seen. It was an obvious way to keep those worlds going, and that very desire may have been what got me started as a writer. At some point, I moved away from that to create my own narratives, but they were still very influenced by what I’d read and seen. For instance, I created a fashion book (at age 10, I believe) full of childish designs with descriptions of how and where they were to be worn. In the lengthy acknowledgements, I thanked my boyfriend, Adam Curry, MTV VJ and host of Headbangers Ball, which I was not allowed to watch.

There were other series I loved and that still stick with me. One was The Baby-sitter’s Club. I wanted it to be my life, and I so adored it that I actually watched the movie when it came out in 1995 even though I was eighteen. I have to confess that I’d watch it now. In fact, I’m tempted to find one of the books at the library and see if it stands the test of time. I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed, however, and the Stoneybrook that still lives in my imagination will be silly and dull.

When I think of all those beloved books I read as a kid, I can smell the old library where I met many of them for the first time. My sister and I spent every other weekend at our dad’s, and he would take us to his library branch, which was in a strip mall, but no less special for its sad location. Rather, it stands out to me as a magical place. Next to the TJ Maxx was a room full of books and every book could be mine for a couple of weeks. There was no way I could get through them all. There were always more good books waiting to be taken home and devoured.

I think of that place, gray and plain as it may have been, and the many books I cherished. I look at kids of that age today, and I think, wait until you read this one or that one; your whole world will change. I realize they will also discover fabulous books that didn’t exist when I was young. And I feel good about life and the future.

*Did you know there are Nancy Drew games?

reshaping online space, recognizing online women

Anita Sarkeesian, from Anita Sarkeesian

Anita Sarkeesian, from Anita Sarkeesian

Today’s Take Back the Tech! action is about reshaping public space online. We want to recognize that much of this space is created and managed by women and there are many women who work hard to make digital spaces more welcoming for women. To that end, we’re asking people to highlight an inspiring woman in the tech or online realm.

I’ve chosen Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic whose blog Feminist Frequency deconstructs tropes associated with women in pop culture. I love how accessible her work is. There’s so much high-concept feminist analysis out there that’s valuable, but I really appreciate feminists who address what people are consuming daily and do so in a way that anyone can understand. Sarkeesian writes about movies, television, music, comics, and video games, with topics ranging from damsels in distress to non-violent iPhone games.

Sarkeesian faced serious harassment when she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a Feminist Frequency video project. In addition to threats, insults and photoshopped images, someone created a video game that allowed players to beat her. But she was not deterred. She stood up for her right to exist and speak up in online spaces and is even more influential now. In fact, she ended up with nearly 7,000 Kickstarter backers and $158,917 to create her Tropes vs. Women web series.

Is there a woman in the tech/online world who inspires you? Spread the word. Mention her in the comments section and link to her work in your social media. Add or update her Wikipedia page (sorely needed since women are not equally represented on Wikipedia). Rewrite women into the digital story!


girls creating culture through STEM

Here’s a chronological list of things I wanted to be when I grew up: astronaut, surgeon, marine biologist, fashion designer, singer, actress, writer.

When I was twelve, my science teacher, an awesome woman who saw something in me and did her best to nurture it, recommended me for a camp at Miami University for kids who were “gifted and talented” in math and science. Anyone who knows me now likely finds this laughable, but it’s true that I once excelled in those subjects. I was even pulled out of fourth-grade math for one-on-one enrichment (i.e., logic problems) because I needed more of a challenge.

At that point in my life, math and science camp was one of the best things to ever happen to me. I got to live in a dorm with girls from around Ohio, girls who knew nothing about my life in Cincinnati, so I could be whatever I wanted. I thought our resident assistant, a college student herself, was the coolest person in the world. With my new friends, I shook my skinny butt in the dorm hallway to Sir-Mix-a-Lot, wandered around the leafy campus like I was in a movie, scribbled down equations, and engaged in some pretty cool science experiments.

And then I came back home, entered junior high, and forgot I ever cared about science and math. My friends were all smart, but suddenly the only things that mattered were gossip, clothes, and boys. Cheerleading, which I tried out for while plainly saying to the judges, “I can’t do this.” And musical theatre. It became very cool to be able to sing because then maybe you could become famous or something.

I ended up immersing myself in theatre and music. It may be that I was drawn to them over math and science, but what’s more likely is that I was more comfortable with a script, a body mic, and a pair of jazz shoes. I was told in so many ways by society that the arts were a fine things for both girls and boys to explore, whereas math and science was the realm of boys. Theatre did a lot for my self-esteem and self-expression, whereas math competitions and science fairs seemed like ways to make me feel unworthy and incapable. I felt safe with language, creativity, and performance.

By the time I saw the connections between these subjects when I made a rather pitiful attempt at music theory, I had developed the idea that my brain just didn’t work that way, that I wasn’t cut out for math and science. Pretty odd for someone once considered “gifted and talented” in those very subjects.

But this story plays out over and over again in schools around the world. Girls typically turn away from STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) around the same age I did. In Australia, the gender disparity today is greater than it was in the 1980s, which was the very decade in which I racked up my math and science achievements but kept my pull-ups in the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge to seven so as not to embarrass Kevin Zinke, who had managed 10. (Along with the notion that girls should not beat boys at their own games, I possessed freakish upper-body strength as a child.)

AAUW’s 2010 study “Why So Few?” reveals that girls underrate their skills in these subjects:

[G]irls assess their mathematical ability lower than do boys with equivalent past mathematical achievement. At the same time, girls hold themselves to a higher standard in subjects like math, where boys are considered to excel. Because of this, girls are less likely to believe that they will succeed in a STEM field, and, therefore, are less likely to express interest in a STEM career.

[G]ender differences in self-confidence in STEM subjects begin in middle school and increase in high school and college, with girls reporting less confidence than boys do in their math and science abilities. In part, boys develop greater confidence in STEM through experience developing relevant skills.

So how could someone have changed my mind about math and science even after the damage was done? By telling me that men still control all the fields that make up entertainment and that this is partly because they make up the vast majority of music producers, sound engineers, film producers, film directors and editors, technical directors, composers, designers, game developers, etc., etc. Cyndi Lauper just won the Tony Award for best score (Kinky Boots), and she was the first woman to do so. It only took 67 years of Tony Awards.

There are some innovative programs out there that are trying to increase girls’ participation in STEM by drawing on their interests in creativity, performance, and entertainment–turning girls into creators of culture instead of simply consumers, actors instead of objects. If it draws them further into math and science, maybe we’ll also gain more research on women’s health and more creative ideas for dealing with global warming, saving honeybees, or promoting sustainable infrastructure.

Gender Amplified supports women music producers by motivating girls through workshops like “Turntablism 101” and “Music Production on Smart Phones.” Rock It: Science, a partnership between Girls Rock! Seattle and the Pacific Science Center “teaches girls the underlying physics of sound and music as well as audio engineering the context of writing music and creative expression.”

Nevin Erönde, a sound engineer, and Andrea Hasselager, a copywriter and interactive designer, created Game Girl Workshop, teaching Palestinian girls how to develop video games. Black Girls CODE offers the National STEM Video Game Challenge, “Build a Webpage in a Day,” and iPod film school. And Girls Scouts in Los Angeles can now work toward a video game design patch!

Reel Girls supports girl-created media through instruction and mentoring. Check out their award-winning videos!  Columbia Public Schools, Stephens College, and Columbia Access Television have come together to offer Citizen Jane Summer Film Academy, which helps girls create short films that are aired on local television.

Ah, to be twelve all over again. I’d take all the workshops I could afford. And do fifteen pull-ups.