Friday, August 7, 2015

A Story for Jessica: "A guy with a Santa beard leaves suspicious package at Barnes & Noble. His perspective."

There are many things that can fit in boxes. Schrödinger taught us that. Whole quantum wavelengths can fit inside boxes. Entire universes. 

In this box, then, could be many things. Possibilities on possibilities, spinning off through threads and strings into the vastness of the ever-expanding everything of matter. 

In reality, it is only one thing. But it could be many. 

Larson doesn't care, particularly, about what's in the box, though he supposes the other bookstore patrons should. 

To the youngish, bestubbled man in the second-hand camouflage dungarees standing amidst the Nat Geos and survival guides, the box might contain blueprints, or the flyer to an upcoming gun show. Perhaps a collection of maps, atop a manifesto that waxes poetic on the dissolution of government and the failures of nations. 

To the 33-year-old barista behind the bookstore's cafe counter, the box potentially conceals a different kind of map, one that lays out the worn and weathered, mysterious pathway to an old-world treasure. Or any treasure, really. The barista would be more than pleased if the little wooden cube contained a copy of the diploma he would have received a decade ago if he hadn't dropped out to chase his boyfriend on a youthful dream of an impossible life, down to Cabo and gradual poverty and discord and aloneness and the slow rebuilding of a broken self. The barista would be more than pleased if the box held for him some kind of new way forward. 

 The college sophomore drifting absently among the YA stacks wants the box Larson holds to give her a way to linger in the things of younger years without shame while simultaneously paving a lit, smooth road ahead into the person she is becoming and will be, for the rest of her life. A teddy bear, or a coloring book, perhaps, to offer comfort from the years she's already lived, or a guidebook to adulthood, though she suspects already that her every concept of "adulthood" is a lie, and that the adults she knows and sees and is are all liars, just kids in masks of smiles and tax returns, playing the long game of pretend. For her, the box would probably not be enough. 

There is an old man wandering the aisles between modern fiction and classic literature, and Larson is reminded deeply but distantly, almost without thinking, of himself. The man's hand hovers just above the spines of the books he slowly passes, not touching, but almost, almost, like he can understand their contents by proximity, like he is absorbing their energies and powers, like he can eat their words and sustain himself forever. There is a small smile on his face, a smile wrapped in wrinkles and years and experiences. There are friends and family lived and gone within his eyes, and it makes Larson remember, and it makes Larson warm for a moment, like the sun on his skin. For the old man, and, perhaps, for Larson, the box might shelter a scrapbook, or a photo album. Something made of memory and sunny days and laughter. Something straddling then and now, like the men themselves. 

To the woman searching the self-help section, the box might be a gift. The box might give her hints and lessons and lists about how to structure her days and her feelings and her dreams. But, Larson thinks, perhaps that would be a curse, masquerading as a present. A Trojan horse, filled to bursting with Greeks and the advice of other people about something as intimate as how to build your aspirations into scaffolding that reality can stand on. A net made of lists and steps and procedures that cannot withstand interaction with the everyday. Larson prefers the box as it is, instead. 

The father explaining genres to his children, who are not quite teenagers, hopes the box holds something that can distort space and time, something to slow the passing of years and children and the journey from Narnia to King's Landing. 

Larson watches the couple for a long time. They are navigating the spaceships and faraway worlds of science fiction, and they stand too close, and they speak too softly. When their hands settle together on Bradbury's collection of red dust and diamond cities, the box may cradle something new, the seed of futures built on now. 

The box might contain maps, or plans, or scrapbooks. 

It might lock away secrets, or risks, or tricks. 

It might hold nothing. It might hold everything, all at once. 

As Larson places the box carefully among Christie and Holmes, he appreciates the mystery of it. He appreciates that the box, in reality, holds only what it holds; but he also appreciates that, to others, the box might hold anything at all. 

To the girl curled up on herself and a stack of colorful books in the children's literature corner, for instance, it might even be a cat. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Feminism and the A-Force: A Short Outburst

I get updates from a message thread for a freelancing gig I work. They chime to my phone, and when something interesting happens on the Internet, I get 40,000 messages every thirty seconds. So when Marvel announced the formation of A-Force, the first all-female Avengers team, my phone vibrated ceaselessly. But I couldn't read beyond the first four or so replies. 

Because the very first reply was a male, and all it said was, "Hot."

The second and third comments focused on how hilarious and exciting the resulting Rule 34 would be. 

And then I muted the conversation, and I haven't read back to catch up. I frequently forget that nerd culture is often (and historically, has notoriously been) unkind to women. I speak almost incessantly about feminism and feminist issues, because they matter to me - to us all, I like to think - but I rarely associate with people who bring home for me the reality of it. Most of the male nerds I know believe that and act like women are people, and most of the female nerds I know share my feminist sensibilities - but those 20 seconds of threaded responses to what is really quite an exciting announcement (despite its debut on The View, of all places) really knocked me down a few pegs. 

In a nerd community that was supposed to be populated by socially conscious nerds, writers, gamers, and artists, the immediate and omnidirectional response was to reduce the female characters of the A-Force - many of whom have their own long, exciting, and storied pasts - to sex objects. My point here is not about the comic art, or about the characters' costumes, which, yes, are frequently sexualized- it's about the content. 

Marvel has no shortage of remarkable, talented, complex female characters, though I am not well-versed enough in the canon to frame a very solid discussion about female representation in the comics. In my experience, from what small fragments of the Marvel Universe that I have read, and from a feminist perspective, women frequently have reason to be at worst, ambivalent, and at best, pleased with Marvel's portrayal of female characters (consider recent publications like Ms. Marvel)  and comics have been often at the forefront of social progress. 

The formation of the A-Force, while not terribly groundbreaking inside the Marvel Universe due to the long presence of characters like She-Hulk and Captain Marvel, is an important precedent in the wider, more movie-centric fan base. It's important because Marvel currently has no plans for a Black Widow movie. It's important because Agent Carter is suffering in the ratings, in spite of its immediate and sweeping online following. It's important because Meninists are a thing now, for some Godforsaken reason. It's important because little girls need more in a role model than a Disney princess can offer. It's important because grown women need that, too. 

And yet. And yet, the first response in a large group of educated, well-written nerds is "Hot," and "Can't wait for the Internet to make porn out of that." Are you shitting me? Seriously? Not, "That's so exciting!" or "How bold!" or "About time!" or even a speculative, "I wonder why?" Nothing. Am I too hard on people? Probably. Do I read too much into statements that lacked such a sexist, derogatory intent? It's possible, but I would argue that the language we use, even in jest, is important, because it reflects real life. Because, as I am reminded, a huge subset of people still believe that feminism is just angry victims railing against phantoms that haven't existed since women got the vote. Because a huge subset of humans don't, very fundamentally, believe that woman are anything more than sexual objects that exist exclusively for the entertainment of the male gaze. 

My last point in this shattered, depressed rant is for nerds who say such things. I'm not going to yell at you and shake my fist at the sky over your words. Instead, I want you to consider one thing. Just one. Every time you say something like that - every time you allude to women existing only for the sexual pleasure of men, or reduce triumphs for female equality like the A-Force into the brunt of crude Internet jokes - every time you do this, a woman in your life, a woman that you know, and trust, and respect, and love, silently decides she cannot trust you. 

So, kudos, Marvel, for the A-Force, and I'm looking forward to reading it.