BookTubeAThon 2017 – Reading Challenges and my TBR

BookTube is a community of people on Youtube who post videos about books and reading, and every summer this community has a seven day read-a-thon (this year from July 24th to July 30th). This year’s challenges are:

  1. Read a book with a person on the cover.
  2. Read a hyped book.
  3. Finish a book in one day.
  4. Read about a character that is very different from you.
  5. Finish a book completely outdoors.
  6. Read a book you bought because of the cover.
  7. Read seven books.

There are video and Instagram challenges that happen during the week, which I’ve done in the past with mixed success. I think this year I’ll keep an eye on them but only bother with the challenges that really excite me.

It wouldn’t be a Katrina Project if there weren’t a spreadsheet, so here you go:

Tracking Spreadsheet

This spreadsheet shows the breakdown of what I’m reading and my plan for how I’ll pace myself. If you want to do the same you can download a copy of the spreadsheet and make it your own.

Here’s what I’ll be reading:

1/ Read a book with a person on the cover.
A Brief History of Time
2/ Read a hyped book.
Gone Girl
3/ Finish a book in one day.
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (person)
4/ Read about a character that is very different from you.
Everything I Never Told You
5/ Finish a book completely outdoors.
Art & Fear
6/ Read a book you bought because of the cover.
The Stone Heart
7/ Read seven books.
Bark

This is my third year doing the challenge, and hopefully my third success! Seven books sounds like a lot, but remember a book is how you define it. Every year I have at LEAST one book that’s very short, such as a play, graphic novel, or children’s book. If you’re participating this year let me know in the comments, especially if you have an Instagram or Youtube channel I can follow.

Good luck and happy reading!

 

 

BookTubeAThon 2017 is Coming Up

I’ve been taking a purposeful break from the blog, but I wanted to pop back in to let you know that BookTubeAThon 2017 has been announced! The dates are July 24th through July 30th, and I will be participating for my third year in a row. If you want to join me, check out the BookTubeAThon channel on YouTube to get the updates. They haven’t announced the reading challenges yet, but those should be coming soon.

Good luck!

 

 

How to Make Weiss Schnee’s Myrtenaster Sword (without access to a woodshop)

Cosplay tutorials aren’t normally my thing, but I’m posting this one as sort of a public service. Last summer I cosplayed as Weiss from the web series RWBY. When I was researching Weiss’s weapon for my costume, there was only one tutorial that didn’t require some serious power tools, and it wasn’t quite what I wanted. Having no real woodworking knowledge and certainly no tools, I had to discover my own way. I also had to do it fast – the whole thing was made in one week. So for all the other cosplayers out there who don’t own a table saw, here’s what I did.

Materials

  • 1/2 inch wooden dowel (36 inches long)
  • Foamboard
  • Crayola Model Magic
  • Black spray paint
  • Silver acrylic paint (I used Iridescent Silver from Art Advantage)
  • Masking tape
  • Plenty of hot glue
  • Floral Foam “Mug Plug” (mine was from Desert Form)
  • Electrical tape or paint (in order: turquoise, purple, white, yellow, dark blue, red)
  • Hard coat Mod Podge
  • 1-2 fresh black sharpies
  • Paint brush
  • Exacto knife
  • Peeling knife (or any small knife)Sword Supplies

Blade

For me the most important part was finding a solid base for the sword that was lightweight and easy to work with. I wanted to make sure the prop would be solid, and wouldn’t break apart the first time I bumped into someone. I wandered around Home Depot for about an hour, picking up various pipes and metal rods and pretending to fence with them. I’m not going to lie, I looked super cool and very sane. Eventually I settled on a 1/2 inch wooden dowel, which I later realized I could have purchased at my local craft store when I went to get the other supplies. Regrets.

Chamber

You could probably use any type of foam for the center dust chamber so long as you can easily carve it. Floral foam is easy to damage, but it is also easy to shape and the mug plug was very close to the correct shape already. I happen to own a peeling knife, which has a curved blade and is perfect for making a rounded end (though any small knife would work). I rounded one end, making small slices until I got the shape I wanted. Floral foam is super brittle so it’s not hard to just push the dowel through the middle. Beware that this also makes it easy to accidentally chop off huge chunks or squeeze it too hard, so watch out. You will get tiny foam dust on absolutely everything during this process, so do it outside or next to a vacuum.

Sword handleFilling Out the Shape

I’ve used Crayola Model Magic for a lot of projects over the years and I love it. It’s very light weight and hardens by air drying. The thing to remember is that it’s very weak. I would never try to make an entire sword out of the stuff – it would snap in half under its own weight. That’s why I only ever use it as decoration over a strong base (the dowel in this case). I made a ring for both the top and bottom of the center chamber. For each ring I made four notches that I could later stick the wings into. I wasn’t sure how necessary this was at first, but it turned out to make a big difference in how stable the wings were and how nice it all looked. I wrapped a layer of Model Magic around the handle to thicken it up, and added the pommel (knob at the end). I gave my Model Magic at least 24 hours to dry.

Once dry, I wrapped a few rows of masking tape at an angle on the handle to mimic a leather wrapping. I tried to make the rows even at first, but gave up quickly because it wasn’t an even surface. It looks the same either way. I also added a bit of hot glue near the end of the handle to ensure the pommel would stay on.

Blunt tip closeupFinally, I added a dab of hot glue to the business end of the sword to make the tip round instead of flat. This made a big difference in making the dowel look less like a dowel. It probably made it safer, too.

WingsWing cutting

I had a screenshot of the sword wings on my computer, and I resized the image until the printed version was a size-match for my sword base. This way I was able to cut the wing shape straight from the screenshot and lay it on top of the foam board to trace.

Foam board is annoyingly difficult to cut, and the inner foam breaks apart easily. I’m not sure I particularly recommend it, but I can’t think of any other material that doesn’t require a wood shop and can still hold the weight of the sword. Cardboard or craft foam could work visually, but I don’t think you’d ever be able to let the finished sword rest on the wings, which would be a real pain at a convention.

Sword Wings on handleIt took a long time to cut the foam board with the Xacto knife. Small bits of foam popped out the sides and made the edge very uneven. I sealed the edges up with hot glue, using the hot tip of the gun to smooth the glue until it was mostly flat. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked well enough. I got better at both the cutting and the gluing as I went. If I were blessed with more time and/or more patience I probably would have re-done the first wing. But here we are.

Once the wings were all cut and the edges sealed with glue, I attached them to the sword with more hot glue. This is where it became clear that I had made the right choice by leaving notches in the Model Magic circles. The wings fit in perfectly, with the notches covering up most imperfections. I added a bit more glue to seal up the edges and make the surfaces as smooth as possible.

Black SwordPainting

I let the glue dry overnight, then I spray painted the entire thing black, doing one half at a time to avoid smudging/getting spray paint all over my hands. The black ensures an even look, and a solid base coat gives a lot of depth to metal props. I let it dry for a day, then I began the slow process of painting it silver. I used Iridescent Silver from Art Advantage, but any acrylic metallic silver should work. It works best to dry brush – applying a bunch of thin coats on top of each other until you’ve got the color you want. You can usually do several coats at a time because by the time you’ve finished the forth wing the first one is dry enough for a new coat. However there is a limit to this. After a couple coats the sword will be too damp and new paint will start wiping away old paint. Plan to have 3-4 painting sessions with several hours in between each session.

The hardest part of painting was the foam cylinder in the center, because it was inclined to fall apart when wet. Be careful with it. Were I doing this again, I would consider spraying the foam black as soon as it was shaped, then using Mod Podge or a clear coat spray to seal it before attaching any other pieces or doing any other work. Regrets. It worked fine either way, just don’t look at it too close.

After the whole thing looked sufficiently silver, I did about three coats of Hard Coat Mod Podge. Not only does it keep your paint from scraping off, but it makes your prop much more rigid. Mod Podge dries pretty fast so you can get all three coats on in one evening if needed. A true perfectionist might sand down the final coat to make it extra smooth and shiny, but I didn’t have any sand paper and I’m trying to be less of a perfectionist.

Finished sword closeupDecoration

For the dust cartridges I cut out pieces of colored electrical tape. I still had that perfectly sized paper printout of the sword, so I made a template from that to ensure each cartridge was the same. Spacing the tape was weird, because it’s six colors on a cylinder that’s been divided into four sections. If you’re using paint instead of tape, I recommend painting white pieces of paper and gluing them on rather than trying to paint directly onto the cylinder. This allows you to adjust the spacing easily, and ensures the colors stay bright.

I was nervous about the designs on the wings as I’ve never been good with freehand drawing. I used a regular black Sharpie and drew directly onto the sword. The lines around the cartridges weren’t so bad since they were symmetrical and outlined the colored tape. The pattern on the wings was pretty complex though. Once again I had my printed wing as a starting point, but I knew just trying to copy the whole thing was going to result in an uneven disaster. Instead, I picked only a few lines at a time, and drew them on both sides of all four wings before moving on. This way I could think about each line in terms of start and end points rather than trying to draw what I saw. I started with the lines nearest to the edges since they followed the contour of the wings, and moved in piece by piece. I also focused first on the bigger, primary shapes and only added the little pieces after I’d finished the big parts on all eight sides. There were times when I was drawing a single, short line on all eight sides before drawing the next thing.

Finished sword closeup full handleI did a final coat or two of Mod Podge over the electrical tape since it’s notoriously not sticky, but other than that, it was done!

Final Thoughts

The whole project took exactly one week, working on it almost every evening and most of the two weekend days. The GorillaPod isn’t a requirement, but it certainly made the painting and drying easier. Plus I wouldn’t recommend having the sword rest on the wings more than necessary, especially before the Mod Podge is on.

I’ve never considered myself much of a prop person, so I’m really proud of this one. It held up well, looks great in photos, and now lives on the mantle in my living room because I don’t know where else to store a sword.Weiss movie still

10 Minutes in the Forest

When people asked about the show I was in, I would say to them, “It’s part theater, part game, part haunted house.” The show was called 10 Minutes in the Forest, produced by my friend Casey Middaugh. It was an immersive theatrical experience, where audience members would enter alone or in pairs and be the protagonist in their own fairytale, based on the Slavic folk tales about Baba Yaga and the Firebird. This is how it would go:

In the lobby right before your scheduled time, a man in a black suit tells you in a deep voice:

Firebird lightenter the deep forest, stranger

where Firebird hides her eggs from danger

three attempts are all you’ve got

you are safe: the eggs are not

beware, take heed, keep watch, look out:

Baba Yaga is about

You go through the door and into the black box theater. Sitting in a pool of orange light is the Firebird, a dancer wearing red, yellow, and orange wings. She looks up and coos curiously at you. She looks you up and down – her new friend(s). Behind her and taking up the entire rest of theater space is a large, messy forest made of PVC pipe, plastic wrap, and tulle. It’s dark. A disconcerting sound is heard from within the forest and Firebird begins to panic. An orange light comes up on the far side of the room, and Firebird gestures towards it. She needs her eggs. They are in the forest. But she can’t get them herself. It’s too scary.

You have to get them.

Pulsing green lights come on as you enter the forest, and you slowly move side-to-side to avoid the big, flat, plastic trees and low-hanging tulle branches. A few simple drum beats or some high harps are heard overhead, but it’s not enough to cover up the sounds from inside the forest – a tapping click, a low growl, maybe some hideous laughter. You notice a figure darting through the trees. She stays low to the ground. It’s Baba Yaga, the old, witch-like woman you were warned about. You get to the corner and find the nest, raised up on a large platform. It’s made of knotted plastic and inside are three balloons – the eggs.

Baba Yaga on floorYou reach for a balloon and notice that Baba Yaga doesn’t seem to like this at all. She’s holding up a large knitting needle, ready to pounce and pop a balloon the moment you grab it. You take your chances, grab the balloon, and make a run for it. Baba Yaga chases you through the forest, scurrying around and catching you between trees. If you make it out with the balloon, Firebird is overjoyed and spins around in delight. If Baba Yaga gets you, the balloon is popped and Firebird lets out a wail of sorrow. Either way, you have to go back for the other two. The music is louder and the lights are flashing. And now you only have eight minutes.

_______________

The original game mechanic was simple: there were three, bright red eggs in a nest in the back of the forest, and the audience members had to recover all three and bring them to the Firebird. In an ideal scenario, Baba Yaga would pop one or two eggs but always let them get the last one. Unfortunately there’s really no way to rehearse a show where the audience is the main character. Our opening night was filled with unintentional play testers, and it was immediately clear that our game was too easy. The show was called 10 Minutes in the Forest, and people were getting out in 4-6 minutes. One group did it in three.

Because both roles are so physically demanding (especially Baba Yaga), we had two actors to play each part every night. After each run that first night Casey and the four actors (myself included) would quickly throw out ideas for how we could extend the experience. Each run gave us a new idea, which meant each audience member was seeing a slightly different game than the last. Our changes in order of implementation:

Firebird - back1) Add more story

Originally the audience came in to find an already panicked Firebird. Instead, we had her start happy and allow the participants to see the panic grow in her. This was a good element story-wise, though it added at most 20 seconds to the adventure.

2) Leave only one egg in the nest

The first egg was in the nest, the second we hid in the other back corner of the forest by sticking it into a sort of tulle hammock that draped just above eye level. The third we stashed behind the nest, with the intention that Baba Yaga would bring it out when the time was right. This helped a little, but once people found the hidden egg they were bolting out too fast for Baba Yaga to catch them. And one group found the third egg that we thought people wouldn’t see.

3) Seriously, hide the last egg

We moved the final egg to an area behind a black curtain where audience members were extremely unlikely to find it. Even if you started poking around in the curtain, it was easy to miss. Therefore the only way to get the final egg was to somehow get it from Baba Yaga.

4) Make the forest more difficult to navigate

After about five groups there was a big break in the time slots, and we used it to add more tulle to the forest. There was no time to secure it, so we just threw it everywhere. Anything to make it harder to move around. Before the second night of performances we came in early to hang even more. I made it my personal mission to block off the route out from the second egg.

Hammock5) Add black eggs

With only one egg in the nest, people knew right away to look for more. The second night we added two black balloons with the red one, so when you first approach it seems like these are the three eggs you’re supposed to get. However if you tried to give a black egg to the Firebird she would recoil and motion for you to go back for the red one.

6) Swaddle the second egg

We started wrapping the hidden hammock egg in tulle before placing it, so you’d only realize what it was if you were looking right at it.

The more we ran the piece, the more we realized how different each experience could be, and how our attempts to draw out the game ended up adding a much richer story. People now had to go through three trials, just like one would expect from a fairytale. The first was to figure out their task (red eggs, not black eggs). The second was to venture deeper into the forest (find the second egg). The third was a direct confrontation with Baba Yaga herself (she is holding the final egg).

What may not have been clear to the audience members is that they really were informing the whole story. If you came in with fast energy, Baba Yaga would be running around and jumping out at you. If you were really scared, Baba Yaga would be quiet, slow, and creepy. This wasn’t something we discussed with Casey ahead of time, but something all of us who played Baba Yaga naturally did. Baba Yaga is not always the villain in the original folklore, and we loved playing with that idea. If you treated her like an evil witch that’s how she would act. If you were respectful and unthreatening, she might decide to trust you.

_______________

A handful of the things that happened in the forest:

Baba Yaga eating balloonsA young couple came in, and before I had a chance to present myself as the Firebird the woman loudly announced, “Alright, we’ve got to get some eggs.” They were ready for the game. Once inside the forest I heard her tell her partner, “We gotta get them for my friend Feeny” (as in Phoenix). They found the hidden hammock egg first, Baba Yaga began to chase them, and from somewhere in the forest I heard the woman yell, “Move, move, there’s a witch, bro!”

One young woman, after getting the second egg down from the hammock, held the black one out in front of her to ward me off like a human shield. I decided to play along with her idea, decided I didn’t want the black ones harmed. When it came time for the final egg she approached me with the black one, lowered it near the floor, and lifted her foot. It was a threat. Give her the red egg or she’ll pop the black one. It was brilliant. We traded.

Nest in lightAn older couple came in and took the longest time figuring out they needed to get the eggs. The wife realized it first, and she noticed that I (as Baba Yaga) would respond to her movement, and even chase her around if she got my attention. I heard her whisper to her husband to “get the eggs!” before getting me to follow her away from the nest. In response, he stood there. He stood right next to the unguarded nest and did nothing. She and I did this twice more before he finally caught on. They got the second egg without much trouble, and I held the third one close thinking they might offer a trade. Instead she started approaching me and making noises to see how I’d react. For a minute I thought she was going to simply ask for the egg, but instead she tried to startle me and I recoiled. The husband was standing nearby, and after watching her interact with me for a while he held his hands up slowly as if to say “I’m unarmed.” He then gently lowered and extended them, asking without words for the egg. I ignored the woman and handed it to him. If you were nice to Baba Yaga, she would give up the final egg.

When all three eggs were either found or destroyed, a white light would come up over the second lobby door and Firebird would stand by it, bowing in gratitude and showing audience members the way out. One man didn’t get this at all and rather than going out the correct door or even back through the entrance, he walked out a third door over by the booth that was only for actors.

A young woman and her boyfriend came in, him in casual street clothes and her in full Lolita fashion attire. I don’t know if it was the wedge heels or just the way she always walked, but she moved very slowly and didn’t want to run. He was able to get the first egg out without trouble, and I staked out my usual threatening spot near the second egg. He came over and stood on the other side of a plastic tree, right between me and the egg. He grabbed the side of the tree and moved it back and forth, using the plastic to block my path. No one else had thought to “trap” Baba Yaga like this, and I started clawing at the shrink-wrap like a bear. I shifted to the side and he grabbed another tree, blocking me again. The whole time, Lolita was slowly pulling the second egg down from its nest and quietly making her way out of the forest.

Forest with tulleWhen the actors were taking a break from performance we would usually sit in the booth with Casey. You could see the whole forest from up there and watch the story play out. When watching from the booth, nothing was better than the Narrators – that was the nickname we gave to anyone who narrated their own experience out loud. When Narrators talked to Firebird it was like playing charades.
“So we need to go in there and bring back the eggs.” Firebird would nod. “Will you go with us?” Firebird would shake her head.
Once inside they would talk about Baba Yaga. “There’s some kind of witch or something in here,” they yelled loudly. We loved Narrators because we could go on the whole journey with them – mistaking the black eggs, looking for the hidden one, trying to decide what to do at the end.

Casey in TulleMy friends Kristina and Joe came through when I was Firebird. Kristina was startled every time Baba Yaga made a move toward them. Once they were deep in the forest I heard the following.
Joe: “We could use the buddy system.”
Kristina: “What do you mean the buddy system?”
Joe: “You know, you don’t have to be faster than the Baba Yaga, you just have to be faster than your buddy.”

In terms of absolutely precious things people did to convince Baba Yaga to give up the final egg, no one beats my friend Brandon. I was Firebird the night he went through, and I crouched down low to watch the final interaction from between the trees. Brandon first tried to bargain, but he didn’t have a black egg so there wasn’t much he could offer. He handed Baba Yaga a bit of broken balloon, but she didn’t seem to care. He grabbed a bit of the plastic wrap from the nest and offered it, but she just laughed and gestured to the forest around her, filled with plastic. He patted his pockets for a moment, looking for anything else he could offer her. Finally he started to lower himself to the ground. It was pretty common for people to lower their stance when attempting to make a deal with Baba Yaga. At first it seemed like Brandon was just trying to mimic her movements – maybe to trick her, maybe to make fun of her. But Brandon kept going. Slowly, steadily, he went all the way to the floor until he was completely prostrate. He was lying flat on his belly, chin on the floor. Baba Yaga rose up a bit, enjoying the respect he was showing to her and the forest. She gave him the balloon.

Whispered between a young couple:
“Should we split up?”
“No, no, we should never split up.”

A woman came out of the forest in the middle of a particularly energetic run and looked up straight up at the booth. “I lost my shoe in there!” We never spoke to audience members from the booth, but in this case we assured her that we’d go get it once they were done. She nodded and started back towards the forest to join her friend, who was still inside chasing Baba Yaga. She then stopped, took off her remaining shoe, and threw it on an open shelf near the exit.

FirebirdSome people would temporarily give up. They’d go see the eggs, see Baba Yaga guarding them, then come back out to Firebird and say, “We tried, but there’s this woman there.” As Firebird, some runs you had to work harder than others. Yes I need the eggs. No I don’t want black ones. Yes I mean the red ones. Yes there are more to find. No I can’t come help you.
As Firebird, communicating ‘yes’ and ‘no’ without words is easy, but telling someone ‘I have no opinion on that idea’ is rather difficult. So questions like “Should we put the black ones back in the nest?” or “What should we do next?” were difficult to respond to. Next time you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, try expressing the sentiment “I don’t care, you do what you want,” through a series of balletic shrugs.

Forest - Setting up with LadderThe last run of the show I watched from the booth. Two young men came in and the taller of the two immediately demonstrated that he was a Narrator. He started talking rapidly to the Firebird, asking her questions and explaining to her how they needed to find some eggs. While he was asking real questions, there was humor in his voice. He was being good natured and playing along, but he wasn’t really invested. Baba Yaga began to rustle in the forest. Firebird pointed toward her eggs and the tall man said, “We should probably enter this…scary forest.” Wink wink. They approached the edge and he nudged his friend forward. “You go first,” he said, “I got you though.” Wink.
The next few minutes were fast and chaotic and full of laughs as they went through all the normal steps of the show. Each time the tall man let us know exactly what he was thinking. They found the black eggs and were confused about why she didn’t want them; they found the hidden egg and tried to get it away from Baba Yaga (they lost that second egg; it got popped in the struggle and Firebird cried). But they made it through in the end and recovered the last one by trading the black eggs. As they were walking out and Firebird was giving her thank you bows, the tall man yelled into the forest, “Goodbye misunderstood old lady! I hope you enjoy your black eggs!”
Because it was the last run of the night, we all went out to talk with them afterwards. The tall man explained that in situations like this, he uses humor to deflect so he doesn’t have to worry about things getting too scary or too intense. But when the second egg popped and he saw how sad the Firebird was, he really started to go on an emotional journey. Then at the end, seeing that Baba Yaga wasn’t just some crazy killer took him to a whole different emotional place. He said that being in the forest made him drop his usual defenses.

ForestI loved every night of the show and many people managed to get all three eggs, but if I had to pick a true winner it would be my friend Jillian. She ran the show with her fiancee Jake, and their experience was mostly typical. They each grabbed a black egg only to find they were worthless. Like most, they left them on the floor near the Firebird and went to retrieve the first two real eggs. When we got to the end I held the third egg close, thinking Jake and Jillian were the kind of people that would think to trade. Sure enough Jillian disappeared and came back with a black balloon. She held it out in front of her with a stern look on her face, pulling back slightly when I reached for it. It was a gesture I’d seen a lot from audience members: ‘you hand me yours and I’ll hand you mine.’
Slowly I gave up the red egg and grabbed for the black. Jillian disappeared with her prize and I began my usual end routine of making scary laughing noises while Firebird escorted the audience members out. I went back to the nest but when I turned around, Jillian was there again. She had the other black balloon, and was holding it out for me. I’m not sure what face I made, but it was probably one of shocked gratitude. When you’re Baba Yaga you take the way people treat you to heart. Jillian already had what she came for. All three red eggs were safe. She didn’t have to come back into the forest, but she did. After the show I told her how surprised I was that she brought me the second black egg even though she had already won.
“We had a deal,” she told me.

_______________

What you get from the forest is what you bring into it. It was such a joy to see the excitement, confusion, creativity, and fear. Everyone is precious. Humans are great. Thank you to Casey, my fellow actors, the Pocket Theater, and everyone who helped make this show possible. Let’s keep making weird things happen.Wasabi Peas!

BookTubeAThon 2016 – Reading Challenges and My TBR

It’s that time of year again – BookTubeAThon!

BookTube is a community of people on Youtube who post videos about books and reading, and every summer this community has a seven day read-a-thon (this year from July 18th through July 24th). The primary goal is to read seven books in seven days, but there are mini-challenges about the types of books as well. This year’s challenges are:

1) Read a book with yellow on the cover

2) Read a book only after sunset

3) Read a book you discovered through Booktube

4) Read a book by one of your favorite authors

5) Read a book that is older than you

6) Read and watch a book-to-movie adaptation

And as always:

7) Read seven books

In addition to reading, there are also Instagram and video challenges people can participate in before and during BookTubeAThon, like making a video about your TBR (to be read) pile or posting a photo of something from the cover of the book you’re reading. I am going to attempt to participate in these this year, though I’m preemptively giving myself permission to skip any challenge if I’m running out of time.

Last year I made a spreadsheet to plan out my reading, because of course that’s something I would do. I’ve updated it for 2016 and you can see if here:

Tracking Spreadsheet

The very first challenge was to make a video of your TBR, which I did and you can watch below. For a quick summary, here’s what I’ll be reading:

1/ Read a book with yellow on the cover.

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

2/ Read a book only after sunset.

Market Ghost Stories by Mercedes Yeager

3/ Read a book you discovered through booktube.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

4/ Read a book by one of your favourite authors.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

5/ Read a book that is older than you.

The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein

6/ Read and watch a book-to-movie adaptation.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

7/ Read seven books.

Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

Seven books in seven days can be a little intimidating,  but BookTubeAThon is not about success, it’s about effort. Even Ariel Bissett who hosts the challenge every year has never actually gotten through all seven of her books. However plenty of us have managed it, and it can be super fun. If you’re participating this year let me know in the comments, especially if you have an Instagram or Youtube channel I can follow.

Good luck and happy reading!

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Forty-Six: Reflections on Pouring Your Heart Out for Forty-Six Days Straight

I made it. Forty-six days writing and posting reflections about my faith. Here are a few things I noticed.

Not every thought is worth posting. When I look back on the last 46 days, I know most of it would have never made it to the blog if it wasn’t for the promise of posting daily. This makes sense and is in line with what many other writers have said: You write every day so that a few of those days will be worth sharing.

Being vulnerable sucks. It did not feel good talking about my personal opinions so publicly every day. While my personal thoughts are present in everything I write, most of my Lenten posts were nothing BUT opinion, which means that I couldn’t help but take people’s reactions very personally. Speaking of…

Nobody reacted online. Normally I get a fair amount of likes and comments on Facebook when I put up a new blog post, and that didn’t happen as much with my Lent posts. There are a lot of possible explanations for this. One is that as previously mentioned, I wasn’t vetting for quality enough because of the time constraints. Another is that I got on the wrong side of the Facebook algorithms by posting daily from a third-party site. It could be a sampling bias, and I just perceive the response rates to be lower. Or it could be that my friends simply weren’t into the topics being posted, and didn’t feel the need to respond. As much as I tell myself the number of Likes I get on Facebook doesn’t determine my self-worth, it’s really difficult to say something publicly that you’ve previously kept private, and be met with crickets. On the other hand…

People brought it up a lot in person. With the exception of my posts on depression and Halloween costumes, I’ve never had so many people approach me in real life to talk about something I wrote online. Some people brought it up almost every time I saw them. Perhaps it’s worth noting that the people who talked about it in person were almost exclusively 45+ years old.

I would rather preach to the choir. I honestly don’t know how my friends took this experiment of mine, but knowing their existing feelings on religion made it very difficult to write at times. I don’t like talking religion to people who don’t want to hear it. I feel like I must be making things worse. It was easy to write a post when I thought of all my religious friends who might get the chance to read it. It was very difficult when I thought of my atheist friends that might be forced to see it on their newsfeed.

One could say that this was my best Lenten discipline, since it was difficult, effected my daily life, and forced me to think about my relationship with God a lot more. It was also my worst, in that it caused more negative emotions in me than any previous practice. However it’s clear to me that most of the negativity was wrapped up in how much I rely on others to justify my thoughts. My favorite post of the whole season was one I felt great writing and great publishing. But when it got almost no response online, I felt terrible. It’s a good reminder that we can only control what we put out into the world, not what happens once it’s out there.

With that, I leave you. Tomorrow is Easter, and I plan on taking a much-needed break from posting for a while. Thanks for taking this annoying, uncomfortable journey with me.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Forty-Five: A Pretty Great Story

I told you a few days ago how I see the Divine and the universe as one. That explains why I’m a theist, but not why I’m a Christian. I also told you how I believe in the power of story. Well, I’m a Christian because of the story.

I really love the Jesus story. It is a story about incredible highs and terrible lows. It is about treachery and forgiveness. It is about the corruption of religious institutions and the sympathetic heart behind tyrannical governments. It is about good people doing bad and bad people doing good. And at the center there’s this mystifying protagonist. He knows everything that’s about to happen – or does he? He may very well be the Son of God, but he won’t admit it. He walks peacefully into his own death, but feels forsaken when death is near. Who is this guy? What does he even want? How can he die without telling us?

He did tell us. He told us in the story of his life. And every time I listen to the story, I get a bit more of the answer. I hear a good sermon and I get just a little more. I read a verse I swear I’ve never heard before and I get a little more. Thirty years of hearing the same damn story and it’s still new every time.

This is why I’ve never been overly concerned with the historicity of the Bible. Whether or not it happened in history is of little consequence to me, because it is happening right now in the telling of it. The story is always happening. When people say it’s too similar to a million other old myths, all that does is tell me that the story really is as powerful as I feel it to be. It’s so powerful, it can’t be contained by this one example, this one instance in the first century. It is in the ancient Greeks and the foundation of Buddhism. It has always been and will always be. It’s like the cosmos keeps trying to hit us over the head with it and we still don’t get it.

I’m trying to get it. I’ve been trying my whole life, and I’ll keep trying. Today is Good Friday, the day Jesus died. We call it good because as terrible as it was, the story doesn’t end on the cross. It ends three days later, when everything is different and a new story can begin.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Forty-Four: The Misandry of the Christ

I’ve said before that I don’t think misogyny is inherent in Christianity, but that it is so common in humanity that it manages to infect nearly every religion. In relating stories set during heavily patriarchal times and places, the Bible seems to be endorsing the system. Sometimes this is as simple as letting the men have all the leading roles. However I’d like to pose an alternative reading of the Bible, and of the passion story specifically. It’s a reading in which men are front and center not as heroes, but as cautionary tales. Men are portrayed as terrible people, while women do everything right. So here is my case for misandry in the Bible.

For most of Jesus’s ministry, life is wonderful for the male disciples. They quit their jobs, they go to parties, they tell stories, they ask questions. They even get to see a couple miracles. The men who follow Jesus are great, provided everything is going well.

Judas is the first to fall, betraying Jesus to the priests. His motives aren’t always clear. Depending on the gospel it’s because he’s a thief, because he’s starting to disagree with Jesus, or simply because the devil has taken him over. Either way, he turns.

A Woman PleadsJesus knows this, and calls Judas out on it Thursday of Holy Week, the night of the Last Supper. He also predicts Peter won’t be strong enough when things start to get out of hand. After dinner, Jesus goes out to pray. Consider the character of Jesus in this moment: he’s going to die tomorrow and he knows it. Not only is he going to die, he’s going to die painfully and publicly to the happy cheers of the same people he wanted to teach. So he goes into the garden in great distress. He brings Peter, James, and John with him and asks them to stay with him, to pray with him, because he’s upset and needs their support.

Jesus walks a few feet away to pray, and the gospels explain what he says to God. It’s a strange moment, because in theory Jesus is alone and no one should have been able to recount what he said in prayer that night. Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane and its presence in the Bible is worth its own 20 minute sermon at least, but for the purpose of this post I’ll just say this: even Jesus falters. In that last hour before they come to take him away, Jesus turns to God in a final plea: “Don’t make me do this.” However he quickly recovers, admitting that if it is God’s will, it must be done.

For their part, the boys fall asleep. They couldn’t stay up and pray with their grieving teacher for even an hour. Judas and the guards come to get Jesus, and in a last-ditch attempt at doing something right, the disciples try to fight back. But Jesus says no – that’s not how this is going to go down. Once denied the option of violence, the men have no other ideas. According to the gospels, they “deserted him and fled.”

With Jesus in the hands of the police, it is no longer cool to be his friend. Peter is spotted by the locals, and identified as a friend of that man, that criminal they arrested. Peter denies the claim three times, saying he doesn’t know Jesus.

The soldiers and priests all treat Jesus terribly, while women in the crowd wail in grief. Herod gets mad when Jesus refuses to do a miracle party trick for him. Pontius Pilate roles over in the face of an angry mob, despite being the supposed ruler in town. Pilate’s wife even comes up to him and insists he let Jesus go, saying she’d had a dream about Jesus. The women are willing, but the men are weak.

In the whole story, there are very few male characters who appear admirable. In one account, one of the criminals killed next to Jesus seems like a good guy, but not in the other gospels. In the Gospel of John one male disciple is with the women at the cross. And then there’s Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, council member, and follower of Jesus who arranged for the burial of Jesus’s body (in John’s account Joseph is joined by Nicodemus). But every time we see a man doing right by Jesus, nearby there is a woman who has been there the whole time.

These were the women who followed him and provided for him. Not just Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, but “many other women” who had come to Jerusalem with Jesus. The references are small at times, almost thrown away by the men who wrote them down. But they are there, they are important to the story. Not only do the women cry for him at the crucifixion, they come back later to mourn and to anoint the body. In all four gospels, Mary Magdalene is first witness to the resurrection.

Mother WeepsAnd here is where we learn the truth of the story, or at least the truth as it pertains to our subject: that women will stand by you, weep with you, and mourn for you when you’re gone. But when the chips are down and all seems lost, men will betray you, deny you, and ultimately abandon you. This is the story of Good Friday and Holy Saturday: privilege comes with a price. When you have power (like you have as a man in a patriarchal society), you also have something to lose. And you will fight for that power even when it means going against your convictions.

But if you start with nothing, if you have nothing, if the world thinks nothing of you, then conviction is all you’ve got. The women around Jesus were alive with conviction, and they wore it that day to the cross. But the men knew there was a price for standing out and standing up for what they believed. They saw themselves dying on that cross, and they ran from it.

It’s too bad for them. It is the cross that leads us to where we need to be. It is that fear, that loss, that betrayal, that shows us who we truly are. For if you can’t die for the Divine, then perhaps you still don’t really believe. Perhaps you need something even more impressive to convince you, like a man rising from the grave. It was the resurrection that made men into apostles. But Mary called Jesus her Lord when she was still in mourning. To stay at the foot of the cross when the world is against you requires an absolute certainty that you have already found your God. If you have, there’s nothing in the world you need run from.

Case closed.

Do I think this is how we are supposed to read the passion story? Not exactly. I think it’s a reading we ought to keep in mind though, and an important one we often ignore. Instead we call Magdalene a whore, put Jesus’s mother on a pedestal, and toss aside Joanna, Salome, and at least three other women named Mary. Perhaps it’s easier to ignore them. Perhaps that’s because when we look at this story and start to examine the characters, we know exactly where we would have been: locked away at home, hiding from the crowds, and waiting for someone to magically appear and tell us it’s all going to be okay.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Forty-Three: Hell and Heaven

I don’t believe in Hell. There is a fundamental flaw I see in the theology of hell, because Jesus is supposed to be the only way to eternal life. Though horrific, eternal damnation is still a form of eternal life. Beyond that, it seems terribly human and not at all Divine to think that life is a pass/fail test, and a few wrong turns during the 70 years you’re on Earth can sentence you forever. There’s no grace in that, and radically unjustified grace is the foundation of so much of what Jesus taught.

Last time the subject came up in Sunday school, the kids posed the same question everyone asks: “What if someone says they’re sorry at the last minute?” They followed it up with the even better question: “What if they wait a minute too long?” In response I asked, “Do you think anything can ever be too late for God?” They didn’t think so, and agreed that you probably still had a chance to repent even after death. In fact, they thought that chance might remain there forever.

The closest approximation I’ve ever read to how I view God’s relationship to the afterlife is The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. In it, hell is a lot like the real world, except there are infinite resources to build. So when you don’t like your neighbors, you just move farther and farther away from them. There’s a bus that comes by often, and you are always allowed to ride. It takes you to a sort of middle ground between heaven and hell where things are wonderful and strange and dangerous. From there you have the option to move up into heaven. No tests, no punishments, you can just go. The thing is you can’t take any baggage with you, and people like their baggage. Baggage is everything they held so tight to on Earth. So they get back on the bus and go home. But the option is always there. God’s timeline is not our timeline.

Eternity is a strange idea, and a very inhuman one. It’s part of why I don’t really believe in Heaven either, at least not as commonly depicted. If the Twilight Zone taught us anything, it’s that a world where everything goes right isn’t paradise at all. Therefore if there is an afterlife, it must bear no resemblance to the life we live here on Earth. This is where my love of science runs into my faith. I have this theory that consciousness is a real thing that exists in the universe, just like any other form of matter. And like matter, it can change its state. Right now my consciousness is in the human state. It can do things like control a body and learn from its surroundings and write very long blog posts. But before it was in my body, it was in another state. Perhaps it will return to that state once it leaves my body. Perhaps it will just go into another human, or another animal, or get squished down into a virus (or maybe it has to split up to be a virus, I can’t be sure since I haven’t done any controlled trials). However I think it’s just as likely that it will take on a whole new form. Maybe it takes the form of background radiation in the universe. Maybe pieces of consciousness obey gravity and they pull together when they are freed from the human state. Maybe if enough of them come together they can spark life in a new place far from here. Maybe that’s how we got here in the first place.

The idea that after you die your essence will become a new form – a form that doesn’t remember itself or anything it ever did, a form that may not even realize it exists at all – might be a bit unnerving. But I don’t look at it that way. To me it sounds like a great and grand adventure, possibly one I’ve been on many times before. And as always my God, the God that is the very universe itself, will be there with me.