On being a girl geek, and a new look for the site

“Coding Like a Girl”

It’s one kind of progress for people to agree with the statement “Women can be anything they want.” It combats a kind of sexism called oppositional sexism. But there’s another kind of sexism, traditional sexism, that we’ve made less progress on. You could get more people to agree that women can be anything they want than to agree that femininity is as valuable as masculinity.

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My friend Rose recently blogged about “being a woman in tech.” It’s a great read about her personal experiences with sexism and how she handles it. Also, the article quoted above was found via Rose’s post.

I don’t work in tech, obviously, but like Rose (who I went to high school with) I was a self-taught coder, a female nerd. I still am, actually, and proud of it, even if it’s not at a professional level.

(Edited to add: I too experienced various shades of sexism in regards to my interest in programming, science, or even Star Trek. But I’ve also been admired or embraced by people for those same interests. It’s not all bad, and no one is trying to say it is. Anyway, I didn’t want to go into too much of my own history, because I’d rather you read the two pieces I linked to.)

My computer science journey ended during my sophomore year of college, when I dropped it as a double-major because I was tired of staying up all night on my computer. Between writing stories for my fiction classes and coding for my programming classes, it was non-stop screen-time, and that just wasn’t sustainable for me. Plus, I realized that I had always been more interested in the design side of things, and programming was (mostly) just a means to that end.

Nowadays, I indulge my web design hobby here. It’s perfect, because this space is meant to be a reflection of me anyway. Speaking of which: ta da! In case you hadn’t noticed, things look a bit different around here.

Before

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After

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As much as I loved those hand-drawn icons, it was time to go mobile-friendly. The new design is built on the framework of WordPress’s lovely Sela theme, and it should look pretty snappy no matter what kind or size of device you’re reading on.

(If you see anything wonky, it’s probably on accident, so just let me know and I’ll take a look.)

I decided to outsource the bulk of the coding by using a pre-made theme, but I still had to do a lot of tweaking. I got to learn about breakpoints — which mark where and how the design should change for different screen sizes — as well as about the specialized web font Genericons. It’s just too bad they don’t have a character for GoodReads. I had to use a book icon instead of the official logo.

Also, I finally did away with the BlogHer ads. I used to enjoy being part of that network, largely because they did a good job sending traffic around, so there were always new people coming here, and new blogs for me to discover. But that feature hasn’t been around for over a year now, and the ad income only partway covers my hosting costs, so I just didn’t see the benefit anymore.

As with all things shiny and new, the redesign will probably lure me here to blog more often in the coming weeks. Maybe. I hope. Because there’s still more to be said about my trip to Taiwan, not to mention all the thought-provoking media I’ve been watching and reading. Stories. Whether mine or other people’s, that’s what I always come back to.

Taiwan: An overview of our trip

Friday: Woke up early (ugh) for our 3 flights to Taiwan. Cincinnati > Minneapolis > Tokyo > Taipei. My mom met up with us in Minneapolis. We all watched a lot of movies and TV shows, some of which I already posted about here and at We Heart YA.

Saturday: Mostly still flying. We finally landed in Taipei around 11 p.m. My uncle and cousin picked us up from the airport and drove us to my other uncle’s house, where my mom was staying. Andy and I walked to our AirBnB, which was just a couple blocks away. Our room had a view of Taipei 101.

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Sunday: My cousin, his wife, and their toddler showed us around for the day. Stops included the Taipei 101 observatory, the beautiful columbarium in the mountains where my grandparents’ ashes are kept, the town of Shifen on the northern coast of Taiwan, and finally the Shilin night market. In between all these places, we napped in the car. The jet lag, it burns.

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Monday: Andy and I visited the National Palace Museum in the morning, had lunch at Din Tai Fung, then joined up with my family again in the afternoon. My aunt took us on a walking tour of Ximending, the Presidential Palace, and Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Plaza, which is one of my all-time favorite places on Earth. Dinner was a special family banquet that Andy and I hosted in honor of our recent(ish) marriage, as well as Chinese New Year.

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Tuesday: My uncle and another cousin drove us to Yangmingshan National Park, where we toured one of Chiang Kai-Shek’s former residences, as well as did some light hiking around the hot springs. The sulfur there gives off a sharp, distinct odor that is a strangely treasured memory from my childhood. In the afternoon, Andy and I went back to Taipei 101 to check out the shopping levels, then trekked over to the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Plaza and through the Dunhua neighborhood to meet my friend Linda and her boyfriend Wesley for dinner.

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Wednesday: Chinese New Year eve. Also, the first of our two day tours. We were escorted to an organic tea plantation to learn about the tea-making process; to Shinfeng Old Street for lunch; and to “Thousand Island Lake” (aka the Taipei City reservoir) for the lovely views. In the evening, we prayed to our ancestors and enjoyed a home-cooked feast at my uncle’s house in honor of Chinese New Year. My aunt even remembered one of my favorite dishes, stir-fried Japanese cucumber.

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Thursday: Chinese New Year day, and the second of our two tours, in the Pingxi district. We began with a light hike — although there was one terrifying section that went straight up a rock face. Most of us opted to skip that part. We re-fueled with a traditional miner’s lunch, explored an abandoned mine, and rode the old train line. Amidst a bustling holiday crowd, we painted a sky lantern with the names of our loved ones and good thoughts for the new year. The lanterns floated up to the heavens on fire and smoke. Our last stop was the Shifen waterfall (aka Little Niagara), then it was back to Taipei for dinner at my big uncle’s house. Despite our exhaustion, Andy and I ended the night with a quick stroll through the Rao He night market.

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Friday: In the morning, Andy and I visited Longshan Temple. For lunch we got dim sum from Tim Ho Wan, whose specialty pork buns were the best I’ve ever had. We spent the afternoon shopping, got foot massages, then met up with a couple college friends who we had randomly learned were also in Taipei for the holiday. Our final meal of the trip was an informal banquet in Taoyuan, courtesy of my mom’s cousin and his wife, both painters, who gifted us with some of their art as a special souvenir.

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Saturday: Flying back. All day. An extra-long day, since we were crossing the dateline. 36 hours of travel in (seemingly) less than 24. It was like magic, but without the fun. Cincinnati greeted us with nearly a foot of snow. You guys really pissed of winter while we were gone.

The Best Pictures that I’ve seen this year

Last week I was in Taiwan — more on that to come — and thanks to jet lag, I only made it through half of the Oscars on Sunday night. I recorded the rest, but when I woke up at 4 a.m. the next day, Facebook spoiled me for the big awards. Ah well.

I’m happy for all of the winners, but having now seen 4 out of the 8 Best Picture nominees, I do think Selma was snubbed in several categories, and I can’t for the life of me understand why.

Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense. Sigh.

Anyway, in the awards season spirit of honoring great storytelling, I just wanted to share my thoughts on the “Best Pictures” that I’ve seen this year.

The Imitation Game

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I actually mentioned this one earlier. Basically: it’s solid and well-made in every way, and I appreciated the historical context.

Benedict Cumberbatch does a good job differentiating Alan Turing’s social obliviousness and vulnerability from the social indifference and snobbery of Sherlock Holmes. I never quite forgot that Keira Knightley was Keira Knightley, but she portrayed Joan Clarke well nevertheless. Matthew Goode was both excellent and dashing. Why is he not in more things?

Grand Budapest Hotel

the-grand-budapest-hotel-posterCaught this one on cable. I find Wes Anderson to be interesting but a bit overrated, and Grand Budapest Hotel did nothing to change that impression for me. The movie is amazingly crafted, every detail impeccably styled. But for all its prettiness, the story seemed a bit pointless to me. It’s a bromance, I guess? And it makes some sort of commentary on an old-fashioned sense of honor and doing things the “right” way? I dunno. The plot and themes seemed to be afterthoughts, simply there to justify the aesthetic.

Selma

I was afraid Selma would be out of theaters by the time I got back from Taiwan, so between errands and packing, I squeezed in a weekday matinee.

Selma was, in a word, powerful. David Oyelowo deftly carried the weight of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, but he was also supported by a superb cast. In particular, Carmen Ejogo shone, along with Stephan James as the young civil rights activist and future congressman John Lewis, and Keith Jackson (from Short Term 12) in the heartbreaking role of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

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At this point I would say that Dr. King is known for his idealism and inspiring speeches, but I loved seeing the strategic side of his movement too — as well as having that balanced out by people who didn’t fully support him, and understanding why. In addition to being moved to tears many, many times, I felt liked I learned.

For better or worse, I had the entire theater to myself, so I was able to capture a couple of my favorite quotes on my phone:

No citizen of this country can call themselves blameless for we all bear a responsibility for our fellow man.

Boyhood

Andy and I watched this one together on the flight from Minneapolis to Tokyo. Thank you, Delta in-flight entertainment system.

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The production of this film is a fascinating story all on its own. Filmed during one month of every year for 12 years, with an overall arc in place ahead of time, but with specific scenes being written each year based on how the lead actor has grown and on what had come before. A unique and ambitious project, for sure.

I liked the idea of following a character through such a formative period in his life — and there was definitely something special about it being one young actor growing up before our eyes, as opposed to casting multiple actors to play the same character at various ages.

In some ways, nothing really happens. There isn’t some big plot to follow. It’s just life. But in spite of that — or maybe because of it — Boyhood is strangely compelling.

Also, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are both outstanding.

12 Years a Slave

urlLast year’s Best Picture winner. Better late than never.

I watched this one by myself, on the flight from Tokyo to Detroit. At first I didn’t enjoy how the beginning jumped around in time, but then I thought about the way it reflected Solomon Northrup’s longing for home, and his precious memories of his family and freedom, and I decided it was a good device.

All of the performances were pretty stellar, especially Lupita Nyong’o. Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch might actually have been the weak spots, which is both unusual and not that bad of a problem to have. Chiwetel Ejiofor was his usual awesome, understated self, and Michael Fassbender (who I will no longer call my Hollywood Boyfriend, because I’ve outgrown that phase) was his usual creepy, unhinged self. I’m not sure what it says about him that he always takes these roles, or that he always does them so well… Hopefully nothing!

I actually watched several other movies and TV shows traveling to and from Taiwan (36 hours each way!) so you may be reading more about them in the near future. Right now, though, I have a manuscript to get back to. And jet lag to combat. And a million loads of laundry to tackle.

MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES by Jasmine Warga

My Heart and Other Black HolesI don’t typically observe “book birthdays,” but this one is special. Today is the day that my dear friend Jasmine Warga celebrates the release of her debut novel.

It has been such a fun and valuable experience watching Jasmine’s journey to publication over the past year and a half. More importantly, it has been a pleasure getting to know her, talking with her about writing and the creative process, and bonding over our halfie experiences and immigrant parents. She is always so thoughtful and grounded, so purposeful and generous. Without question, Jasmine has been a positive influence on me, and for that I am immeasurably grateful.

I think her book will be a positive influence on its readers, too. MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES is the story of two teens who feel irrevocably broken, but who find a spark of hope when they meet one another. It’s an unflinching look at sadness of various kinds and degrees. It shows how depression can isolate you and warp your perspective. It’s about not fitting in, and the human need to feel connected.

What I love most about MHAOBH is its authenticity. You can tell that Jasmine poured her heart onto these pages. The book isn’t designed to romanticize the problems that these characters face. It doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties that lie ahead for Aysel and Roman. It’s hopeful, but truthful too.

You’re like a gray sky. You’re beautiful, even though you don’t want to be.

Beyond the poetry of this sentiment, I also just appreciated the shoutout to “gloomy” weather, which I happen to love.

It’s funny how once you like someone, even the unattractive things they do somehow become endearing.

So true. Andy has one bad habit in particular that I could do without, but mostly his quirks just make me laugh. If you took them all away, he’d be a different person. Or at least, a blander version of himself.

You know, it’s probably worth turning that gentle, appreciative gaze on ourselves too.

Maybe we all have darkness inside of us and some of us are better at dealing with it than others.

I don’t think there’s any “maybe” about it.

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Overall I would say that I’m a pretty upbeat person. (Or at least even-keeled.) But there was one time in my life that sadness threatened to squash me. And for a short while, I let it. I carried that boulder and let it push me down, bend my back, until I was almost sinking into the ground.

Then one day I realized it wouldn’t stop. Not on its own. I had to decide to be stronger than my sadness, because it for sure wanted to be stronger than me.

The decision was instantaneous, but the strength wasn’t. It took months to build myself back up, to push off the boulder, to be happy and healthy again. But I did it. It’s possible. And it’s so worth the effort.

I wonder if that’s how darkness wins, by convincing us to trap it inside ourselves, instead of emptying it out.

I don’t want it to win.

Of course, battling sadness isn’t a one-and-done kind of thing. But every victory counts. Every victory helps.

Week in review (Feb 3, 2015)

As an experiment, I’m doing away with the bullet points, even though they’re like a security blanket for me. “Oh, this is just a list, not a real blog post.” But what does that even mean, lol? What’s a fake blog post? And why do I have to take everything so seriously?

transparent-posterTransparent

Like Jane the VirginTransparent jumped to the forefront of my attention after its Golden Globes wins. I binge-watched all ten episodes on Sat, Jan 24, thanks to Amazon making them free to stream for that day. (Normally the series is only available to Amazon Prime members.) And just so you know that I’m not a total slug: I was cleaning while I watched.

Transparent felt like an HBO show to me — a bit like Girls, actually — in the sense that it’s well-written, well-acted, and well-produced, but not something that would probably appeal to the mainstream. Not because the topic is niche (though I suppose some would argue that it is…) but rather because the tone of the show just isn’t easy to swallow. It’s a dark comedy (meaning there’s humor, but not the kind that makes you laugh out loud) starring a fairly “unlikable” family. They’re all messed up and abrasive, and they make a lot of bad decisions.

That said, you do sympathize with them, because they love each other, and they’re doing the best they can. The acting is excellent, and there’s interesting storytelling at work too. Flashbacks that parallel the present storyline, or enhance it with revelations. Unreliable narration, or arguably magical realism, depending on your interpretation. Also, the sets are kind of old-timey and gorgeous.

For the most part I do enjoy the show, but I wish there were at least a couple well-adjusted characters. Partly because it would just be a nice contrast, but mostly because I worry about the (false) implication that a trans person can’t have a “normal” family. That by being trans — even (or especially) when she was closeted — Maura irrevocably damaged the people who she loves. I know that isn’t what Transparent is trying to say, but I fear that (so far) the show is sort of saying it anyway.

Krohn Conservatory

On the same day that I was streaming Transparent, an old friend came into town, so I took a break and we went to see the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired garden show at Krohn Conservatory. It was small, but smelled amazing. Wasn’t too bad to look at, either.

Small but beautiful exhibit at Krohn Conservatory, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright.

A photo posted by Kristan (@kristanhoffman) on

Note to self: Get a plant. Something green and alive to freshen up your home.

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Believe it or not, I’ve never seen Dead Poets Society, but I know the gist of it, and I’m pretty sure Mona Lisa Smile is the female version. Forward-thinking teacher inspires brilliant but hesitant young minds? Check!

Personally, I very much enjoyed the movie and its overtly feminist messaging. I also liked the entire cast, including the somewhat divisive Julia Roberts. (You either think she’s gorgeous or has a toothy horse face. I am in the former group.)

There aren’t any surprises in this movie, but that’s okay. It’s about character. My favorite moment, hands down, is when a heartbroken Betty (Kirsten Dunst) viciously lashes out at Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) for being a slut with daddy issues, and Giselle just gathers her screaming, crying friend into her arms, and they hold each other.

Broomball

Usually Andy and I just play flag football from Sep to Nov, but this year the team wanted to try a few other sports in addition. Right now it’s broomball, which is like hockey without skates. And “brooms” instead of sticks. And a ball instead of a puck.

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Yeah, it’s weird. But also surprisingly fun!

Writer Unboxed & the Super Bowl

Speaking of sports… Since my latest Writer Unboxed post fell on Super Bowl Sunday, I decided to spotlight 3 football players and share what I’ve learned from them about pursuing dreams.

“Talent, Perseverance, and Hard Work: Lessons on Writing from Football”

Fred Jackson may never end up in the Hall of Fame, but he’s got heart and soul, and he’s the reason I fell in love with football again. Although the odds of him making it to the NFL seemed grim, he had faith in himself, and passion for the sport. He is living his dream because he looks at every step of the process as an opportunity to improve and impress.

That’s the kind of writer I want to be.