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Other than knitting, I don’t craft. I fear sewing machines. Apparently, the Christmas cookies I’ve baked for Monster are so horrifying that he reads a book about a kid trying to snitch cookies and asks “Why?” However, my Tiny Avenger got on a Hawkeye kick. Sure, Target sells a $25 Hawkeye toy. I’m totally ok with buying premade toys. However, 1) I forgot about this and 2) active 3 year old + foam arrows that shoot + 2 dogs = bad bad plan.  After making one bow that got broken, I decided he needed something longer term. Given that he’s rough in his play, I took up Home Depot on their long-lasting products. 

After wandering the aisles, I figured out how to make what I wanted.

First, I picked up some plastic plumbing pipe, a package of 36″ bungee cord, and some Gorilla Glue. I thought of shortening the pipe a little bit, but when I held up the length of cord to the pipe, it worked out. Given my lack of general crafty, the less I have to use real tools, the better. The sign on the piping said that they were easily cut with a saw. Since I fear all things sharp, mainly because of personal clumsiness and potential finger loss, I decided to go with “as simple as possible.” So, this Avenger assembled the following:

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Yup, that’s duct tape. Really, anything can be made with duct tape. It’s kind of fascinating really the many uses of it. People joke, but it’s my go-to. So that would be scissors, plastic plumbing pipe, 36″ of bungee cord that has hooks (or not, that was just what I found), Gorilla Glue (which proved fairly optional), and duct tape. The glory of all crafty toy making.

So, here’s what I did. I hooked the bungee into the tube of the piping, complete with a big dollop of glue.

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Yeah, somehow I got glue all over my hand as well as the sink. See that part about not being particularly crafty? Yeah, um, if you missed it, go back and review. I’m pretty sure the squealing “HAWKEYE! HAWKEYE!” in the background wasn’t so much helping my concentration. But, there you have it.

Assuming that Monster wouldn’t wait for the glue to dry, I decided to hedge my bets. So, what I did next was:

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Wrap everything in duct tape. Ok, it ain’t pretty. He’s 3. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t care about the aesthetic if he can pretend to shoot arrows at imaginary super-villains. If you wanted to make it prettier, black electrical tape might/would do the trick. Which, thinking about it now, I’m pretty sure I have. See? Told you I’m not that crafty. It’s really just about securing the hooks to the tubing to make sure that everything stays in place for some heroics. Repeat on the other side of the tubing.

When you’re done, the final project should look something like this:

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Nope, not that pretty. Yup, I probably could have done a slightly better job designing it. However, when you’re at Home Depot at 9am, with a 3 year old, who doesn’t want to stay still, even if you’re explaining to him that you’re buying things to make him a Hawkeye bow? Yeah…pretty isn’t in the mix at that point. However, I won’t lie – the final result would be joy.

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And…a Tiny Little Hawkeye.

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Over the last year, the Internet has spewed righteous indignation over pink toys, shirts decrying being too pretty for homework, boys in clothing catalogs wearing nail polish, boys dressing up as Daphne from Scooby Doo for Halloween, and, if I may insert a bit of personal commentary, the ugliest little Lego figures I’ve ever seen. Yeah, Friends. I’m talking about you there. I’m sorry – you’re not minifigs and have the weirdest cartoonish proportions I’ve seen in a long time. I hate to sound all Mean Girl about the way another girl looks, but you, Friends, are some mighty ugly little toys. There. I said it. And, y’know, it felt good.

The gender discussion has become one in which both sides feel they are being treated unequally. Girls don’t like certain toys because the toys don’t focus on their interests. Boys feel uncomfortable with all the pink they see in stores and their inability to identify with a favorite female character. Little girls are still made fun of for loving Star Wars. Little boys are outcast for modeling their behavior on their mothers’ behavior. These societal designations are further dividing a new generation of child while parents are forced to figure out how to negotiate the intricate morass of self-identification, trying to allow their children to be themselves while recognizing that their children often understand that not everyone is as accepting as their parents. In seeking gender equality and equal access to self-identification, the overarching media argument ignores an issue greater than social acceptance – literacy.

Literacy in this country has become ensconced in gender. Education has become ensconced in gender. Whether these are conscious reactions to women’s ongoing fight for equal education and workforce representation or an unconscious assumption based on gender interests, American children as a whole are losing in this fight. The education gap in this country is not just one based on economic status but on sex. The data surrounding education contains frightening statistics. Many of these stem from institutional issues, such as the requirement that children sit quietly in order to absorb information necessary to excel on tests under NCLB. Boys tend to be more kinesthetic than girls and so these sit quietly requirements cause them to fail socially in the classroom leading to academic failure. However, one of the most frightening statistics is that “For every 100 tenth grade girls who read for pleasure one or more hours per day 81 boys read for pleasure one or more hours per day.” Reading for pleasure is the key to engaging all children – boys and girls – in the lifelong process of learning, whether in a school or on their own. Joy of reading is not linked to an X or Y chromosome, at least science hasn’t proven that yet. So, then, why are boys 19% less likely to read than girls?

This question, and many observations in my local library, led to some startling research. Starting with the counter argument, a study published in 2011 argued that there was a gender gap in books published between 1900 and 2000, with a majority of the main characters being female. Although this study indicated that the gender disparity nearly disappeared by 1990, “with a ration of 0.9 to 1 for child characters and 1.2 to 1 for adult characters, it remained for animal characters, with a “significant disparity” of nearly two to one” (see linked article). Of course, the main logical issue here is the longitudinal nature of the study. Female literacy levels were lower than male levels until the mid-20th century. If you talk to librarians or those in the publishing industry today, books that appeal to boys are harder to find than books that appeal to girls. Jon Scieszka, children’s book author and teacher, addresses these issues on his website Guys Read. Scieszka advocates several points to engage boys in reading, including:

2. Expand our definition of reading.

Include boy-friendly nonfiction, humor, comics, graphic novels, action-adventure, magazines, websites, audiobooks, and newspapers in school reading. Let boys know that all these materials count as reading.

3. Give boys choice.

Motivate guys to want to read by letting them choose texts they will enjoy. Find out what they want. Let them choose from a new, wider range of reading.

Children tend to like characters with whom they can identify or stories they can recreate in their heads placing themselves in the story. With this in mind, I engaged in some research and discussions with the main branch of my local library.  Controlling for the Juvenile literature category and Book format, I ran a search of the local library system based on characters that tend to be popular with boys and girls in the preschool – mid-elementary school age ranges. Granted, the characters searched are based on personal anecdata – conversations with kids, my own kid, listening to other parents talk about books their children read and love. The local library catalog has 15 Superman books, 14 Batman books (although some appeared to be repeats from the Superman search), and 1 Ironman book. They do have a huge collection of Star Wars (26 by search). Conversely, they have 29 Fancy Nancy books, 29 American Girl books (these were just the ones that are the spin offs, not the original girls and not all originals were located in the search), and 16 Eloise books. Further research indicated that there are 25 Dora books and 6 Diego books in the catalog. This is approximately a 1:4 ratio of the available boy:girl oriented books, although admittedly a lot of boys like Dora. On Amazon, 705 Dora books are available and 253 Diego books are available. This means that there is a 1:3 ratio of available boy oriented books. These disparities are one of the keys to the literacy problem. No, books should not be gendered. Action heroes should not be considered soley for boys nor should Fancy Nancy be considered solely for girls. Little girls should be encouraged to conquer the world with their super powers or their ability to manufacture robotic bodies. Little boys should be encouraged to dress themselves up to feel special or have tea parties. It’s not about keeping kids from reading books within their interests; it’s about making sure that all interests are equally represented.

Boys and girls think and act differently, for the most part. Go to a playground and watch children generally unencumbered by social norms play. Boys are more likely to throw sand and mulch. Girls are more likely to want to swing in the swings. Boys tend to pick up sticks and battle with them more, even at younger ages before social stigmas and beliefs can drain them of their natural impulses. Yes, there are calm boys sitting in the sandbox. There are girls throwing sticks like nunchucks. It’s not universal, and it would be reductive of me to argue that it is. As the tree climbing, superhero loving, daredevil girl, I would never do that. However, I will also say that my behavior was often not considered appropriate for my sex and that there were few girls in my elementary school who chose She-Ra or Transformers over Barbie and babies. We can argue that there are no differences between the sexes. However, for those arguments, I suggest watching a playground of one year olds play. The boys are more likely, though not exclusively, climbing up the slides and running screaming around the playground. The girls are more likely, though not exclusively, sliding down the slides and playing more sedately (though, as one year old are wont not always neatly) in the sandbox or on the swings. Denying these differences denies equal treatment of those who do not fall into the generalities.

What about the little girl who dreams of being a superhero? If books about superheros are considered less worthy, is that little girl being forced to sit on the sideline? Is she losing engagement in reading? Yes. However, if a little boy is interested in braiding a turtle’s ears or write with a pen with a plume, there’s a character for him. Those boys have the resources. Those girls don’t have the resources. Assuming that one set of characters or one set of plot lines is more appropriate for readers than another assumes that there is a “right” way to read.

By limiting what’s available to boys, we are limiting what is available to all children. The interests of equality are not served if those who identify with a certain gender feel left out. If we dismiss graphic novels or comic books or action oriented plot lines, we are not just disfranchising boys from reading but girls who may be interested. The goal of any library should be gaining readers. Perhaps boys buy fewer books because the books available are not interesting. As a female, I would not want to have access to 29 Fancy Nancy books and only 1 Ironman book. Ironman built his own superhero armor for goodness sake. If that’s not the ultimate in accessorizing, I don’t know what is. These books appeal to all children, regardless of sex. However, by genderizing literacy, boys find themselves less engaged and girls who identify with masculine imagery feel even further left out of the culture. This genderizing of literacy goes beyond harming boys alone. It harms all kids who identify with imagery or literary styles that do not match the societal literary norm of “feminine.”

Availability can be nullified, in part, by accessibility. In my local library, there is a Guys Read section. I love this. I love that there are books that are available with masculine themes and characters displayed. If the availability of these books is low, then the accessibility needs to be addressed. However, simultaneously, there is a wall of American Girls books as well as a Girls’ Books section to match the Guys Read section. Again, in theory, there should be none of these at all. At the end of the day, however, when the feminine themed books are more available, the accessibility can make up for that. Maybe a library cannot locate enough masculine themed books to match the feminine themed books. However, when availability means that there are more feminine books on the shelves, then making masculine themed books accessible needs to become a priority. If a child walks to the stacks, browses the books, and for every four books finds one of interest, that child becomes discouraged, especially with not-so-focused preschoolers. If numerically, there is less of one theme in a collection, then the way to balance that out is to make that theme easier to locate. Basic logic applies to this. No, it shouldn’t be that “boys” have more things handed to them. It should be that all children interested in these themes, generally considered masculine but not always male, should have equal access to these themes. Assuming that children who can’t read on their own will undertake detailed searches and seek out books that interest them when those books are fewer in number and more difficult to locate is illogical and insulting.

Our gender oriented society is hurting the literacy of our children. Empowerment for all should be the goal. Empowering girls who love dressing up in tutus and feathers is considered socially acceptable. Encouraging boys with the same interests makes them outcasts. Encouraging boys interested in superheros or MMA is considered borderline acceptable. Empowering girls with the same interests is generally considered radical. The goal of literacy should be encouraging early reading, regardless of thematic quality. When young children read, they become hooked on its power and magic. They become their own intellectual superheroes. Society, publishers, teachers, librarians, and parents should be raising a generation of intellectual superheroes, when in reality they are forcing children into sex and gendered boxes keeping them mentally and emotionally caged. All children should be encouraged to dress up – whether it’s all kinds of fancy or with capes and masks. Intellectual curiosity is dying with our current generations. Enabling early reading through medium unencumbered by adult prejudices is the only solution. Readers Assemble!

Geek culture has exploded in the last few years. A lot of people have pointed to the rise in technology allowing the geek to inherit the earth. A lot of conversation discusses how all the formerly-socially-unacceptable-activities such as gaming and comics and sci-fi have been more accepted as those who love them gain socio-economic power through the rise of tech culture. Let’s face it, without the geeks, there would be no iPhone, Android, or (insert favorite tech toy here).

Over the last few years, I’ve reclaimed my geekiness. It’s not like I ever lost it. It’s not like I never embraced it. However, I sort of forgot the things I loved as I got caught up in life. I’m the kid who begged to stay up late to watch Max Headroom. I was the six year old girl who’d jump from couch to chair in my parents’ basement pretending to be Batgirl or Catwoman to save Batman and Robin (old school, 60’s, live-action Adam West style) because they could never take care of themselves…idiots. I watched so many episodes of Lost in Space as a kid that I still pop out unconsciously with “Danger Will Robinson!” even when no one else knows what I’m talking about. I was the kid who’d become so engaged in a period of history that I’d read all.the.things. I was the kid who begged her parents to play the violin when I turned eight and music lessons were available in school because it seemed awesome to make music on something. I didn’t choose the guitar or some other cooler instrument. I chose the violin, which while it’s an awesome instrument and difficult to play well has…well…a stigma. In high school, I helped organize a chamber music concert at a Board of Education meeting to protest potential budget cuts for the arts because concerts are totally civil disobedience at its best.

In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, these types of obsessions were the secret guilty pleasures that no one talked about in public. Well, ok, by 1990, Max Headroom was off the air, but the general idea is that loving these kinds of intellectual or non-mainstream activities were considered a social taboo, especially for a middle school or high school kid. With the rise of social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and, dare I say it, Tumblr, and the more interactive MMOG games that paved the way for gaming technology like Xbox 360, these previously considered nerdy activities are now not only socially acceptable but also socially prevalent.

So, then, what is the great difference between the Nerd and the Geek and why does it matter? Well, it kind of does. As people willingly reclaim the title of Geek, they also staunchly seem to negate any connection to Nerd. It’s ok. In a lot of ways, it’s understandable. For instance, several definitions of Nerd and Geek exist in recent popular literature.

Benjamin Nugent, in his book, American Nerd, defines a nerd in part as someone who is “passionate about some technically sophisticated activity that doesn’t revolve around emotional confrontation, physical confrontation, sex, food, or beauty”(6). He also notes that “nerds” are often “seeking to avoid physical and emotional confrontation…favoring logic and rational communication [and are] working with, playing with, and enjoying machines more than most people do” (6). Today, much of this definition of “nerd” falls flat. A “technically sophisticated activity” isn’t considered socially outcast since the rise of different comic conventions nationwide that include gaming as an heroic event. Favoring logic and reason or playing with machines are becoming the pathways to wealth and socio-economic success, as discussed earlier. So, what still seems to define a Nerd as being different from a Geek?

The idea that Nerds tend to have issues with the emotional complexities of social interactions keeps popping up in the literature. Nugent mentions it as avoidance. Leslie Simon seems to hint at it in a particularly diplomatic way in her book, Geek Girls Unite. The book may have a Twilight-meets-Gladwell feel to it, but it makes an interesting distinction. She defines a Geek as “a person who is wildly passionate about an activity, interest, or scientific field…[who] does not necessarily sacrifice social status to participation…[but]…will often seek out like-minded peers….to connect, bond, and celebrate mutual love for this area” (3). Meanwhile, she defines a Nerd as “a person who excels academically….[who] may not possess the most advanced skills, but they are armed with a huge heart and an even bigger brain” (3). Simon reiterates this social awkwardness that comes with being a Nerd instead of a Geek. Geeks proudly use the technology or their interests to make connections with other people, to create a social network within their own subculture, in much the same way that sports fanatics or music fanatics do. Nerds tend to want a connection and make them, but they also, by implication of the text’s note that they “may not possess the most advanced skills,” have difficulty negotiating the complex emotional social world.

This emotional and creative difference defines the difference between Nerd and Geek. Even Chris Hardwick, a reknowned Nerdist, in his book, The Nerdist Way, notes the difference when he explains that “a Nerdist is, more specifically, an artful Nerd. He or she doesn’t just consume, he or she creates and innovates….Yes, we obsess over things, but we are also driven to produce stuff” (13, Adobe Ebook location). A Nerdist, compared to the traditional Geek or Nerd, is, in a nutshell, Simon’s Geek who obsesses combined with Nugent’s Nerd who tends to, outside of the definition and further discussed throughout the book, create things – be they rational imaginary worlds or new technologies or new music. The idea of the Nerdist is, in many ways, the overly self-aware Geek who sometimes finds it difficult to connect with him/herself on the emotional level because s/he is so busy rationally analyzing him/herself. So, in a nutshell, a Nerdist is like the creative person who has a hard time negotiating his/her own emotional world because of a focus on logic. That’s buyable. Although, it’s not entirely different from Simon’s definition of a Geek. A Geek seeks to use an obsession to connect while a Nerdist uses it to create, with no discussion of the ability of connection. So, a Nerdist could technically go either way.

Why do these words matter? Well, like all labels, they don’t for the most part. What does matter is the fact that the rise in Geek Culture leaves the socially uncomfortable Nerd out in the cold. Nerds are the kids who have a heart but don’t always understand how to use it. They’re not cold, unfeeling people. They’re not just big glasses with no heart. They’re the kids who have a desire to fit in but may question whether that social interaction at lunch was the appropriate response. For example, the Nerd is the kid who sits at the table with the other smart kids. Say, for example, these are the smart kids who play soccer or football but also do really well in school. Most likely, they’re more or less Geeks of some sort. They may be obsessed with football or baseball or Gears of War. They may obsessively check their fantasy teams, follow ERAs, or wait on line at 6am to buy a game. At the same time, they also use these outlets to connect with others. The poor Nerd in the corner is the one who might offer to give these guys his lunch but has a hard time saying “do you want to meet up after school to compare teams?”

In every Geek, I’d posit there’s always a little Nerd. Perhaps, that’s why we’re so quick to find a new word to describe ourselves. We connect, and we use our interests to connect. I’m a knitting geek, a Buffy geek, a Dr. Who geek, and probably some kind of weird writing sort of geek. I can buy that. When I’m with people with the same interests, I’m totally a social bug. I could talk about Harry Potter as a literary Christ Figure for hours (hey! look! sci-fi AND writing – two Geekdoms in one!). I could talk knitting for hours. Shove me into a social situation with people I don’t know well and who I don’t know are into anything similar that I am? Well, I become what I like to call “The Awk.” It’s my alter-ego. I say things, then I go home and let the potential social unacceptability of what I’ve said fester. Sure, it wasn’t insulting, per se. However, in my head, I always feel like it was. Perhaps the person didn’t really understand what I said and misinterpreted it? Perhaps the person didn’t understand that I meant the comment about how they needed a TARDIS to go back in time as a joke and instead took it as an insult? I’m fine in the situation. Then I go home and think, “Umm, so, I think Captain Awk came out…and now I want to hide.” In that situation, my Geek is far more Nerd.

Celebrating the Geek is great. In a lot of ways, it allows all of the obsessively interested types to find a home. However, as with any label, celebrating one over the other diminishes the other’s contributions. Yeah, I’m a Geek. But deep in my heart, I’ll always be a Nerd. And, both of those last sentences started with contractions. Maybe that was a social mistake?

Flying with Dragons

Dragons, time travel, female protagonist. Really, Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey for February’s Geek Girl Book Club appeared to have all the hallmarks of awesome. In fact, having read about people’s love of McCaffrey and the excitement in the club over reading the book, I wanted desperately to love this book. I did. I really, really, really did. And yet….the “yet” is what I keep coming back to.

Dragonflight caused, for me, what I like to think of as the “Clockwork Orange” problem. The older I get, the lazier a reader I become. In college, I attempted A Clockwork Orange. After all, it’s a classic. My former attempted hipster self saw it as a rite of passage. I waited until summer break, cracked open the cover, and… like wow. Nope. The language, while I can appreciate it being a literary classic for its formulation of its own language, did me in. In many ways, I feel the same way about Dragonflight. The Kindle edition, in the book’s defense, does not clearly link to the glossary at the end of the book so I didn’t realize it was there until I had finished plowing through the book. While much of the words, such as “turn” being a Pernese year, were able to be figured out by context, the glossary might have been useful earlier on. For me, the use of language – both created and syntactic – caused the majority of my issues with the book.

In the literary sense, this use of language and creation of a vernacular known to the characters because they reside in a different world from our reality is something I can appreciate. However, the use of this language never felt comfortable on my eyes or in my brain. Often, the language interrupted the flow of the story. Some of the words, instead of flowing with the story, felt forced to make the world distinct from our own. For example, specifically, “turn” and “weyr” appeared to be created specifically to remove the reader from a sense of the comfortable but had little need for names of their own. A “turn” is a Pernese year; however, how this would be different from an Earth year is not clearly explained so the word appears superfluous. In the same way, a “Weyr” is a place where dragons and their riders live while a “weyr” is a cave where dragons live. Weyr of the proper noun makes sense. It is a place, separate countries even, specific to the book and add to the understanding of the mythology. A weyr in the common noun sense, appears superfluous since “cave” would work equally well. It is this use of language that removes the reader from the world McCaffrey creates in a way that disrupts the flow of reading and becoming immersed in this world.

Similarly, McCaffrey often leaves an ambiguity to the mental visuals that creates a sense of removal from, instead of immersion in, her world. Threads, nearest I could image, fall from the sky looking like…well…string. Apparently, they’re dangerous and destructive. The book spends a solid portion of time discussing the Pernese fear of Threads. However, even when they finally appear in the story, they are described by their ultimate destruction – harming riders or destroying plant life – instead of having a clear mental picture of being “in” the attack. Picturing the battle scenes, my sole sense was of chaos but not of how that chaos was endured. Characters discussed the pain or the destruction. They told us that the Threads fell and that people were burned. However, even in the thick of the battle or in the aftermath, the sense of what the battle looked like, smelled like, or sounded like seemed so ambiguous as to keep the reader from being transported into the world itself.

The greatest works of fiction take the reader into a new world – even if it is a world with which the reader has a tangible experience. Harry Potter, for example, creates worlds within a reality. Unlike McCaffrey, Rowling spends time detailing the world such that the Hogwarts castle is clear in the reader’s mind even with its moving staircases or enchanted ceiling. Godric’s Hollow, as depicted in Book 7, is visited in the middle of winter creating the sense of bleakness of the town. The plaque in front of the Potter’s house is described as having graffiti and giving enough specific details to allow the reader to imagine how it looks while simultaneously having enough ambiguity to give the reader ownership over his/her mental image. This is the hallmark of creating a believable world in which the reader can immerse him/herself. McCaffrey’s writing lacks this kind of detail that would give the reader the ability to connect with an unknown world while simultaneously feeling that the mind has imagined it. By not giving the reader enough sense of the world itself, McCaffrey’s writing tends to pull the reader from the scene she has created and the world becomes letters on a page instead of transporting the reader into her imagination and vision.

Syntactically, McCaffrey’s writing continually felt as though it was trying to give a sense of historical place but it often comes out as stilted and forced. For example, in describing Benden through F’lar’s eyes, McCaffrey writes,

“As they reached the huge natural cavern that had been his since Mnementh achieved maturity, F’lar looked about him with eyes fresh from his first prolonged absence from the Weyr. The huge chamber was unquestionably larger than most of the halls he had visited in Fax’s procession. Those halls were intended as gathering places for men, not the habitations of dragons.” (Kindle Location 923-928)

Here is the issue with the syntax. Although McCaffrey might have been attempting to engage the reader in a faux 18th century syntax, the reading becomes unnatural. “Mnementh achieved maturity” reads as though it is intended to be an old time, perhaps even vaguely pre-Victorian sounding way of saying “came of age.” However, maturity is not really “achieved” since achieved implies working hard to accomplish something. Dragons or people grow and age naturally. Either a being matures or dies; it is the natural course of life. The word choice creates a hyperbolic syntax that attempts a sense of the formality of the characters’ speech pattern. The main problem is that the word choice and implications cause an internal disconnect while reading that removes the reader from the world instead of immersing the reader linguistically in a created time and space. Perhaps, although it reads awkwardly, the phrase “as gathering places for men” achieves this goal of formality to create a sense of faux historical location using language. Writing of the 17th and 18th centuries feels overly formal to modern day readers. Therefore, this protracted way of saying “meeting hall” attempts to create that sense. While the phrasing still feels awkward and forced, at least the concept seems to work better.

The problem, perhaps, comes when this formality is interspersed with a more informal syntax. If the syntactic structure continued throughout the story consistently, this perhaps would be more involving. However, in the same “scene” McCaffrey writes, “He tossed several garments at her feet and a bag of sweetsand, gesturing to the hanging that obscured the way to the bath” (Kindle Location 929-934). Here, the first half of the sentence changes in syntax from the second half. “Tossed”, while easily understood as a casual throw, removes the reader from the formality that the rest of the sentence implies with its awkwardly, attempted formal phrasing of “the way to the bath.” Although one could easily imagine Jane Austen writing the phrase, “the way to the bath,” the use of tossed in this sense takes the reader out of the attempted time frame. A better phrase might have been “several garments sailed lightly toward her from his hands”. This overly wordy phrasing reads awkwardly but remains within the same genre of hyperbolic writing as “the way to the bath.” McCaffrey uses these long phrases and outdated wordings to create a sense of time and place – a time removed from the modern day with little modern technology. While this works in some cases, the sporadic modernizing of the language continually yanks the reader, subconsciously, from the world she attempts to create. This style loses the reader not because it is difficult or awkward to read but because its inconsistencies draw the reader in and out of the modern day making the writing appear more forced than natural and more pretentious than creative.

For a fantasy novel to succeed, it must engage the reader, immerse the reader, and transport the reader. While plot and characters remain important in any novel, in a fantasy novel much of the goal is to create a new world in which the reader wants to live. Plot and action matter, as they do in all novels, but in a work of fantasy they become slightly more tangential than the creation of the new world is. Where Dragonflight failed, for me, was where it became not a world in which to live but words existing solely on the page. To create a truly great work, the author must find a literary portal through which the reader enters a new world. This world must be one that surrounds the reader in imagination, color, and vibrancy. Books are world unto themselves in which readers engage in experiences they cannot have in their own lives. In this case, I wanted to fly with dragons not read simply about dragons flying.

Parenting is one of those forays into societal norms that never ceases to fascinate me. Many adults, though not often the ones with whom I associate, feel that children, if allowed to watch television or listen to music, should be limited to those media deemed by others as being “age appropriate.” If a kids’ channel says it’s educational then by gosh and golly, it must be so. Only someone who gears all his/her music towards children can make music appropriate for young ears thusly propagating a whole marketing strategy geared towards telling parents what their kids should watch or listen to and how all other songs or shows are not “age appropriate.”

Generally, I let him play around with a lot of different media – music, video, movies, television shows, books – to let him see where his interests lie. Some of the media are not what many would call “age appropriate” for a three year old. Most mornings, he and I will sit for a half hour or so and play around on YouTube. Sometimes, he wants music videos so he can watch musicians perform. Sometimes, he watches weird little learning cartoons. Some mornings, he decides that Potter Puppet Pals, Nyan Cat, and Annoying Orange are the only way to start the day.

During a recent snowy morning, we popped “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” into the Xbox for some background noise while shut in the house. Our general philosophy was that if he’s going to watch The Mysterious Ticking Noise by Potter Puppet Pals, then he needs to recognize that those weird looking little puppets are NOT the real Harry Potter. I’m an anti-poseur on that count. If he’s going to identify the characters, the purist in me feels he needs to recognize them for what they really are instead of the parody to which he became accustomed. For two hours, my extremely active three year old sat mesmerized by the characters and the plot. We made him a little wand (and by “we”, I mean, “me”) out of a toilet paper roll covered in duct tape. We taught him “spells.” He spent the rest of the afternoon running around the house yelling, “Wingardium Leviosa!”

Several people have commented recently that “wasn’t that a little old?” or “Wow, you let him watch that?” In many instances, I just said, “Yup.” In some instances, I started to make my case for why Harry Potter is appropriate (or at least Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets) for the under 5 set. As a parent, I think long and hard about the things to which I subject Monster, and therefore, myself. A lot of little girls Monster’s age watch Disney Princess movies like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. Upon analysis, truly, Harry Potter is no scarier than these movies and certainly contains better female role models for my kid.

Let’s start with Disney. I’m not truly averse to Disney, certainly not the classics. As regards the feminine role models, I can place them in their socio-historic context and find a way to explain things like the girls who need boys to take care of them. I find it annoying more as a cultural movement perpetuated by the Disney Corporation to make money off dresses and dolls. As an example of the old school artistic process of cartooning, I kind of love them. Sleeping Beauty, in particular, is a visual favorite. The artwork, reminiscent of medieval tapestries, always gives me shivers and a sense of connection to history. However, let’s do a quick analysis of some imagery.

Everyone remembers the three little fairy godmothers who fight over the color of Aurora’s dress. However, most people probably don’t really focus on the battle between the prince and the dragon Maleficent. Beautifully drawn, but frighteningly brutal.

Looking at these pictures, the dragon is meant to be frightening and threatening. The colors in the first picture, the dark outline with the bright eyes and the gaping fanged mouth, are intended to incite fear for the life of Prince Phillip. The darkened outline gives the sense of impending doom. In the second, the gothic nature of the picture alone with the dark blues and blacks illuminated by the bright green fire, are intended to create a contrast to show the power and fury of the dragon. The dragon’s stance, towering menacingly over Prince Phillip, shows the contrast in size and power of the two characters. These dark images fit within the context of the art but also can inspire fear in a small child. The movie is rated G.

Ostensibly, the deaths and themes of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets are more disturbing for small children, at least theoretically. The MPAA gave Chamber of Secrets a PG rating. However, taking a quick look at some of the scariest images from Chamber of Secrets shows that the Basilisk is truly no different than Maleficent the dragon.

Yes, because this is live action and not strictly cartoon, the images appear more lifelike. However, the basilisk has several similarities to the Maleficent dragon. The head is shaped similarly. In the first image, the basilisk leans menacingly over the hero attempting to kill him. In the second image, the gaping fanged mouth and bright yellow eyes seethe with danger and doom.

The images, though nearly fifty years apart, employ the same general fear inducing characteristics of dark blues/blacks for the background and bright yellow/green for the eyes to highlight the danger coming from the beast. They show a murderous beast towering over a diminutive hero. They both utilize the same visual cues to try to arouse a sense of fear in the viewer to highlight the hero’s bravery in light of overwhelming deficits.

There’s an argument to be made that for small children the difference between cartoon and live action makes the difference. This difference makes it more difficult for young children to separate the fiction from the reality, as they have yet to distinguish the concept of people doing things for pretend. However, watching any movie with a small child means that an adult should be watching, at least for the first viewing or two, to make sure the child is not scared and to explain why what happens on the screen is not real. With great parenting comes great responsibility.

Thematically, both of these movies deal with a coma like sleep/paralysis caused by the antagonist. Both incorporate frightening themes of jealousy and sacrifice. Both have heroes killing beasts and violence between the characters. The themes that cause horror in both movies are the same. Perhaps Chamber of Secrets includes more blood or more visual wounds. However, thematically, the two are the similar.

The difference, in understanding why Chamber of Secrets can be appropriate for a three year old, involves the additional lessons that Harry Potter as a more contemporary movie exhibit. Harry Potter’s friends are not bumbling fairies. They use magic, true. However, they also problem solve thoughtfully. They show compassion for each and for people they do not know. They discuss the causes and effects of the actions. They accept consequences (Ron’s mother sending him the Howler for “borrowing” the family car). If watched responsibly, Harry Potter can be used to help a preschooler understand relationships and decision making.

Moreover, unlike some of the events in Sleeping Beauty which involve passivity on the part of the main antagonist Aurora, Harry Potter teaches activism. At every turn, Harry, Ron, and Hermione take action to make Hogwarts a better, safer place. They try to exonerate Hagrid and find out the truth about the last time the Chamber was opened. They showcase curiosity and bravery. These lessons are ones that can be used as teaching tools. When children love a story, they want to act it out. They want to pretend the things they see. Choosing to let my child watch a movie focusing on using intelligence and valor to solve problems allows him to re-enact these kinds of traits and potentially learn to bring them into his real life.

For these reasons, Monster watches Harry Potter. He has become an avid fan of the most recent incarnations of Dr Who. He fills his world with aliens and magic. He wants Amy Pond and Hermione Granger to hold his hand and take a nature walk to MyGym. Yes, this is screen time. However, it’s screen time that allows a child to experience a world full of wonder and imagination. I will keep trying to read him the books until he’s ready for them. Giving a child a way to enter the world of fantasy and creativity is appropriate at any age, even if it’s a three-year-old watching Harry Potter.

Literature has always allowed us to stretch the boundaries of reality in order to explore potentials. Although we live in a world that appears dominated by technology, Ready Player One, the first book I read for the Geek Girls Book Club, takes the present day dependency upon and growth of the Internet and moves it to the extremes. These extremes highlight not only our current environment by exaggerating it but also show us where we could end up as a society.

Ready Player One, set in the future, explores how fossil fuel dependency has made living in the physical world so repulsive and uninhabitable that living a false life on the Internet is not only possible but preferable. With fuel too expensive to allow travel or heating, people are reduced to stacking trailers one on top of another and rigging power lines along these, creating tenements based on RV ownership. In an attempt to “live” in a world decimated and barren, people turn to the virtual reality of OASIS, an MMOG of epic proportions. For a synopsis of the book, the author’s website provides a better one than I can give.

More than anything else, what struck my interest was how taking our current online activities – gaming, online education, online money, pay-to-play versus play-in-game (or the traditional MMOG model versus social gaming model) – and creating a story around their most ridiculous ends gives a sense of a potential future for us.

For the less geeky, the overarching theme is the ultimate battle of Big Corporation versus Independent Little Guy. The main plot revolves around Parzival and other “Gunters”seeking to find the treasure on their own before the large corporation, IOI, and its hired guns, the “Sixers,” can get to it. At every step, IOI perfectly plays the role of “Evil Corporate America.” There are kidnappings and deaths. There are elaborate attempts at cheating the game. All of these might easily be seen as nothing more than plot points. However, the reality is that the exaggeration highlights the underlying reality. Much like large chemical companies in the 1970’s allowing chemicals into groundwater and recklessly impacting the environment, IOI acts insidiously in a virtual world. The in-game machinations are virtual representations of the underhanded dealings that people hate. In the virtual world, however, these machinations should be “virtually” harmless. The stakes here, however, show how becoming invested in a nonphysical reality creates an overwhelming sense of safety that, when it filters into the physical world, becomes more frightening due to the power that information wields in the physical world.

For the geeky but on the edge, you can delve a bit deeper into the story. One of the aspects that I found interesting was the underlying theme of “who owns the Internet.” IOI, in all its evil corporate, requires people to pay for their online experiences. This, the typical MMOG model as set out in the original games like World of Warcraft, has been the traditional revenue generating format for online gaming since its inception. Parzival tells the reader, “IOI believed that Halliday [the creator of OASIS] never properly monetized his creation, and they wanted to remedy that. They would start charging a monthly fee for access to the simulation…The moment IOI took it over, the OASIS would cease to be the open-source virtual utopia I’d grown up in” (Kindle Location 658). This corporate control requires monthly fees, or rent, in order to live in the online world. Moving outside of this traditional model gave control over to the players on a level that the traditional MMOG doesn’t. In today’s gaming world, Facebook appears to be the closest gaming has to OASIS on a large scale level. The evolution of social networking has led to companies like Zynga, which can bring in $1 billion of revenue in a year. People don’t have to pay to play most Zynga games. However, they can choose to pay in game. This change in revenue dynamic is at the heart of Ready Player One. As Parzival notes, “Charging people for virtual fuel to power their virtual spaceships was one of the ways Gregarious Simulation Systems generated revenue, since accessing the OASIS was free. But GSS’s primary source of income came from teleportation fares” (Kindle Location 977). In other words, anyone can play the OASIS or live in the OASIS, but only those who take the risks on quests to earn money and spend the money can go different places within the game. There is a grassroots argument here for a sense of democracy and capitalism. In other words, anyone can enter the world; however, only those willing to work and spend money can afford the luxuries. Given that IOI is the “Big Bad,” this appears to be a direct statement that pay-in-play is a more noble corporate model than pay-to-play as it grants universal access with a chance of moving beyond that. Farmville or Mafia Wars fit this model – anyone with a free Facebook account can play the games, but only those capable or willing to spend the money are truly going to excel.

For the educators, the world of online education takes a front seat as well. The OASIS has taken over the public school system, eliminating many of the horrors Parzival experiences in a face-to-face classroom. As he relates, “Then one glorious day, our principal announced that any student with a passing grade-point average could apply for a transfer to the new OASIS public school system. The real public school system, the one run by the government, had been an underfunded, overcrowded train wreck for decades. And now the conditions at many schools had gotten so terrible that every kid with half a brain was being encouraged to stay at home and attend school online” (Kindle Location 614-622). In other words, schools in 2044 aren’t any better than schools today, and the inner city blight affecting lower income kids has spread beyond city confines due to generalized poverty and overpopulation. The OASIS presents a chance for all kids to attend violence free schools, giving them a chance to focus on their education. The school planets are coded to disallow player-versus-player, meaning all violence in schools is impossible. Parzival continues, “On my first day at OPS #1873, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Now, instead of running a gauntlet of bullies and drug addicts on my walk to school each morning, I went straight to my hideout and stayed there all day” (Kindle Location 629). Parzival can finally focus on his studies. The unlimited libraries and opportunities to travel to famous locations such as The Louvre at no cost give him advantages that he would otherwise never have. This new model of education provides the pure flow of information to students, giving them a chance to learn in a safe place (assuming their homes are safe places) and removing many of the real-world distractions from education. With the rise of online universities and the recent announcement by Apple that they plan to expand further into the educational publishing with iBooks2, this particular background plotline indicates that the issues for-profit universities have faced recently can be overcome through the democratization of online education. The fantasy aspect, wherein the virtual reality equates to being in person with an instructor using the OASIS interface (basic sets provided free to students), allows us to see the potential that this form of education can provide. Students feel as though they are in a real classroom. Their interactions are through more than text, more than webcams, and become a functional equivalent of reality. This kind of educational wonderland of opportunity is a fantastical idea that could revolutionize education. These exaggerations of reality again give a sense of the “what could be” versus the current reality. However, as with many of the other aspects of the story, stretching the boundaries of current reality creates a sense of realistic potential.

Finally, what I found most fascinating, was the allusion to bitcoins. This is the truly geeky aspect of the book. Parzival manages to accrue money in the game that can be parlayed into paying for living expenses in the physical world. Quoting Bitcoin.org on their “About” page, “Bitcoin is designed around the idea of using cryptography to control the creation and transfer of money, rather than relying on central authorities.” The idea behind Parzival’s ability to gain money in game that can then be used in the physical world takes this idea of crypto-currency to the next level. Without spoiling the plot, I can say that Parzival manages to find a way to be granted credits/money in game. He tells us, “These companies were offering to pay me in OASIS credits, which would be transferred directly to my avatar’s account” (Kindle Location 2579). These credits can be used to buy food or pay rent in the real world. Although my understanding of bitcoins is, admittedly, low, the nearest explanation I can give is that they are online currency created within their own virtual universe that can then be used, at least theoretically, outside that world. In a nutshell, individual users agree to exchange goods and services on a democratized currency that only has value because the users feel it has value. They should be able to buy things on websites that agree to accepting bitcoins since the goal is to use anything that should, in theory, be able to be exchanged for goods and services (be it a service or a self-representation) and then create a way for this virtual currency to reform the basic concepts of economy. Cline’s willingness to take this jump – that online gaming credits can be parlayed into real, physical goods and services, is a clear allusion to the debate over the efficacy of bitcoin in taking over and changing the basis of the present meaning of currency. For the true geeks, this should be one of the more interesting extrapolations within the story. In the story, because OASIS is so pervasive in society, these online credits have meaning in the physical world. This exaggeration of the idea of a currency based on user agreement that currency has definition only when its users buy into it rings strongly of the bitcoin argument that has flashed the news every few months. Bitcoin has value because users believe in it. OASIS credits have value because users believe in it. This exaggeration of a technological subculture into the main culture is, possibly, for me, the most compelling underlying theme. When the people who use the Internet believe in it as a reality, it becomes the reality.

To be fair, the book also explores the pitfalls of social dissociation that come with the anonymity of the Internet. None of the characters are what they seem. They create the images of themselves that they want others to see. Interestingly, although their physical selves and virtual selves may not always match up, they find a way to be their true personalities only through the anonymity. To tell more would be to spoil the plot. However, most enjoyable in this particular aspect of the story is that the true selves are not what they seem but remain consistent with the personalities displayed in the virtual world. It is this idea that people should have a chance to show who they are without being bound by societal stigmas that again gives a sense of the potential that exists in the present.

Much of Ready Player One explores the idea of the democratization of information through the use of the Internet as originally conceived by its creators. The plot of the book is quick. The characters are likeable. At its heart, though, Ready Player One explores the potential of the Internet to be a brave new world wherein people can reinvent themselves.

What’s in a Dad?

Mr. A has been, and always will be, one of my heroes. He doesn’t read this, unless I tell him he should. So, minus the fact that I plan to send this to him, this is my ode to what makes an amazing dad based on the qualities I see in the father of my own child.

Dad is a word I use specifically. Father, to me, implies a formality. Daddy has a bit of a childish quality. A dad is that combination of eternal youth coupled with adult maturity that makes him both the role model and understanding playmate that makes the perfect male parent. A dad is someone who fulfills an emotional role and a social role. He shows a child how to grow up in a different way than a mother. A good dad not only shows a son how to be a man, but he shows a daughter how to love a man. Sometimes, he shows a son how to love a man and a daughter how to be a man. That is the magic of a dad.

A dad is the man, whether related or not, who understands that being emotionally and physically available to a child gives a greater gift than even a mom can. A mom can provide sustenance. A mom’s bond with a child is amazing. However, a dad is a different beast. Dads are the unrequited love affair of parenting in today’s world. Dads are the men who would rather pretend to drink from a sippy cup or pretend that they ate the piece of toddler slimed pop tart than tell their child, intent on sharing, that no, really, your spit on all of those things is totally gross. They are the men who recognize that their children are people, not accessories to a better career. They are the men who surprise their families by taking unexpected vacation time just to spend a beautiful day at the park.

A lot of people will say that a good dad is the one who gets up in the middle of the night, who helps his wife, who changes the poopy diapers. These are good husbands. These are husbands who respect their wives and understand the difficulty of being a parent. These are the men who, yes, are wonderful in very many ways and, goodness knows, the world needs more of them. However, being a dad means more than realizing that mom needs a break.

Inside of a dad is the same wonder that is inside of his child. A dad who believes in the magic of bubbles or the speed of a swing? He’s the dad that you want around your kid. He is the man who, even when it is outside his comfort zone, is willing to have that tea party or play zombie pirates. He is the man who understands that the only way to perpetuate childhood wonder is to be a child in the moment. He is the man who does not live his own past through his child but lives his child’s present with his child. He is the man who shares his own childhood memories and experiences with his child. However, he sees in those memories a new wonder through the eyes of his child. He is a dad.

Inside of a dad is a willingness to step out of his comfort zone. He is the man who is physically inept but plays tee-ball with his daughter. He is the man who is  horrifically tone deaf but sings in public with his son. He is the man who is willing to climb to the top of a slide and yell, at the top of his lungs, “Wheeee!!!!!” while sliding. His child’s comfort becomes greater than his own. His child’s interests become his. He is willing to sit and watch endless hours of television shows just to have a few quiet moments that, someday, he will see when he closes his eyes, sits back, swallows a gulp of beer/wine, and remembers moments long gone. He is the man who wears a googlehead hat just to see the joy on his child’s face, knowing that while his son may not remember the moment, he will. Even if wearing a googlehead hat would be the epitome of embarrassment if anyone actually knew.

Inside of a dad is a steel thread of maturity he never knew he had. A dad is the man who, for the first time, is willing to look at himself and see in others his own strengths and weaknesses. A dad is the man who learns to accept where his child is like him or not like him. A dad is the man who is willing to recognize that the things he loves in his child are those precise qualities he loves in himself. He is also the man who realizes that the things that frustrate him about his child are those personality qualities that are his…less strong points. He is the man who introspectively looks at himself to try to better his child by bettering himself. He is the man who realizes that his child’s stubbornness may come from him or that his child’s fearlessness may be partly his. He learns to love and temper these same qualities in himself in the same way he loves and tempers them in his child.

Inside of a dad is strength. This strength is both emotional and physical. He’s the man who lifts up his daughter to help her reach the top shelf. He’s the man who lifts up his son to show him that it’s ok to cry. He’s the man who comes home in the middle of the day when the baby is screaming or the toddler is sick because he wants to hold his child in his arms and in his heart. He is the man who realizes that being a man isn’t about how many pounds you can hold in your hands but how many people you can hold in your heart.

Inside of a dad is gentleness and sensitivity. A dad is the man who gives “boo boo kisses” when there is no obvious injury and puts “boo boo stickers” on actual wounds. He is the man who, without showing his child, wilts when his daughter doesn’t want to give him a good-bye hug and who gets that soft tone to his voice when he hears his child misses him while he is at work. He is the man who always and often says, “I love you” to his child. He is the man who embraces gentleness and sensitivity – both physically and emotionally. He is the man who understands that being a dad means being more than a man; it means being a better man.

Dads, whether they live with their children or not, are the fabric of childhood. Moms love their children. Motherhood is exalted by society. Dadhood is a different story. Dads are the men who reinforce lessons moms teach and teach lessons that moms reinforce. Dads are men who earn a title, not through sperm donation but through daily action. They are men on the frontlines of the battle that is parenthood, but they are often underestimated and unappreciated.

Mr. A is a dad. He is not a father. He is not a daddy. He is a dad. He is my hero, my lifeline, my soulmate. For him and every other dad this Father’s Day, I ask, “What’s in a dad?”

In a dad is the most amazing person you will ever meet. In a dad is a man. In a dad is the strongest will you will know. In a dad is love. The purest, most amazing love you can ever hope to see.