When I was a kid one of my favorite things to do was play dress up. In fact one of my earliest memories is that I had a dinosaur costume as a kid for Halloween and then I spent several months wearing it around the house, the yard, the grocery store, terrorising people in my dinosaur alter-ego until I fully outgrew the suit. It was formative I suppose, but afterwards and forever since I have loved being in costume.

Halloween was at first the only socially acceptable time for this creative outlet but soon enough my mom and great aunt and grandmother would all let me and my cousins raid their closets and parade around the yards and house in cast offs or costumes. Like dandy southern ladies, we would carouse on sweet tea in our big hats, long gauzy skirts, umbrellas cast as parasols and high heels that slid around our too-small feet. Sometimes we would dress up just to admire the clothing and have a go at our own version of high fashion, and other times we would make up elaborate stories to go along with our outfits. We were traveling heiresses on our way to Atlanta, or maybe highly ranked foreign royals at some exquisite event.

It was a nice release of energy and creativity all in one go but at some point someone says well you’re too old for that.

To hell with them, I say.

In college I fell into the wide world of themed parties and cosplay which were worlds apart and yet practically neighbors. There was something taboo and forbidden about being on the supposed cusp of adulthood and yet getting dressed up like a character and going to a party when you didn’t have so much as a holiday to hide behind. Oh sure, Halloween was still a big deal but my friends were throwing Hollywood themed birthday parties, and masked ‘balls’ for New Years Eve and who was I to turn down the opportunity to revisit something I had so loved as a kid. I remember an elaborate peacock look I put together that involved painting the ‘mask’ onto my face with glitter.

And then one day, a friend told me about the wide and wonderful world of cosplay. It was like someone had turned on all the lights and taken costuming to an 11.

If I thought my casual summer looks pulled out of Aunt Mary’s closet were really something special, they had nothing on the girls at conventions who were sewing whole ball gowns out of silk and taffeta and stuffing them with crinolines and tulle. I knew I wasn’t going to be an expert over night and my ambition was pretty limited at the start but I still remember my grandma, Nina, getting so excited to teach me how to knit so I could cobble together my own Harry Potter scarves. Or how pleased she was when she got to show me how to use a sewing machine and a pattern so I could make my first pleated skirt for a Hogwarts uniform.

They weren’t impressive pieces, but they’re sentimental to me now, and exciting even after all this time. That I made them myself. That seems to be part of the appeal of cosplay after all these years that I’ve made it myself. Even if all the pieces aren’t made by me – the full look put together with hair, makeup, clothes… that’s all pulled together by me. Sourcing sometimes is just as difficult as making it myself, honestly and there’s a thrill in it all the same.

Since those humble beginnings, I’ve tackled much more daring projects, with armor, and corsets and having to outsource making bits to other craftsman… but at the heart of all this toil is still that same joy I had as a 4 year old dressed as a T Rex. We could do a deep dive sometime on the culture, implications, cost, social project etc of cosplay and all that but for me it’s in the feeling of playing dress up.  That as an adult I can put on a costume and for a minute be someone else. That I can transform through make up and wigs and fabric and a little bit of acting. I wish Aunt Mary and Nina could see it now – to see how all the creative encouragement from when I was a kid panned out. How that first awkward sewing project has turned into a mountain of totes filled with patterns and fabrics and to-dos.

These days I’ll travel to a couple of cons a year, and many of my cosplays serve double time at costume parties or even #scicomm events and Halloween, but it’s still a thrill to pull them out and transform and to draft a new costume for the next year, or the next season.

It’s an exciting thing to slip on a mask and move amongst the crowd as anyone but you. At any given convention I could play half a dozen roles and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Playing Dress Up

Sometime in 2017, I got my ass in gear and decided that instead of longingly watching other people ride horses and wonder if I’d ever get to do it again, I was going to finally suck it up, find a barn and do it. There were probably a lot of other larger image issues at play there – thinking things like, I’m still too tall, I could be skinnier, I’m out of practice… but what it all came down to was – how am I going to know if it’s possible if I don’t just show up and try?

So I searched barns in the area, and found one that I thought kind of fit my aesthetic. I wasn’t looking for a place that valued clean aisles over horsemanship, or who had more ribbons than sense. If the barn cat did more sun bathing than mousing than that was fine by me — what counted was the horses, and how the people made me feel.

Horseback riding can be an exclusive and expensive sport by nature – owning horses isn’t cheap, and kitting out to ride can be costly. When you factor in lessons, boarding, arena time, or competition it can be kind of daunting. A lot of the time we associate horseback riding with having money, with being rich, with affluence – and that in turn leads the sport to come off as kind of snobby and exclusionary. But when I competed in rodeo as a teen and rode horses back in my youth, that was never my experience. So as an adult it was something that I was actively searching for – that same calm, genuine feel – where we embrace one another and lift each other up. Where the brand of your breeches doesn’t matter, but how you treat your horse sure does.

And you know, I found it. I found this great barn where they don’t judge me for being really tall or not being waif-thin or not having Hermes boots. Sometimes riders come in jeans or sweatpants, they have helmets you can borrow if you can’t afford your own, riders will sometimes donate their old outgrown breeches to younger, new riders that need them, and as long as you have footwear that keeps you safe in saddle, you can ride. They care about how I treat my animals. How I talk to the other riders, how I coach new people, how I help out when they’re short-staffed. I don’t yank horses by the bit, I don’t get angry when we don’t do well in the ring, I don’t over-whip my horse, I take care when I’m picking feet to check everyone’s shoes and gently feel their soles and frogs for tenderness. I come early and stay late to help, and I never shy away from a difficult task.

They challenge me – I’ve traded out my cowgirl boots for tall boots, and my Wranglers for Breeches. Made the comical switch from a competitive rodeo rider to a beginner English rider. It’s tough having to start all over and relearn things and to this day I will ALWAYS fall back on neck-reining in a pinch because it’s what I did in barrels.

Heels down is the bane of my existence, and I think the only reason I’m so advanced after a year of weekly rides is because I spent 10 years in ballet so no one has the kind of balance I do and I’ve had years of madams prodding my lower back to arch higher, my shoulders to drop lower, and my spine to lengthen as I cant my hips forward.

But now I just have to do it on 1200 pounds of absolute Bag-Of-Cats and the only way to control it is by an incredibly soft touch on leather reins and gentle legging.

Oh and while you’re at it make sure you post up in the saddle, drop your heels, but in rhythm with the horse’s gait, DROP YOUR HEELS, and steer them into tight corners, figure 8’s, 10 meter circles, and occasionally bring them to a full stop.

To say horseback riding is madness is selling it a little short I think. But it’s the most fun I’ve ever had and I can’t get enough. If I could I’d ride 3 days a week and spend half my time mucking stalls to cover it. There’s nowhere I feel more comfortable, more at home, more in control and more at peace than when I’m in a saddle. Learning to communicate with a horse, read their motions, talk to them through touch, and have them trust you implicitly is such a pleasure. I adore my regular lesson horse, and I look forward to every weekend for the time I spend at my barn with him. Blazing heat of summer, bitter cold of winter – we’re still out there.

It’s been a year and maybe I’m not jumping oxers yet but I’ve taken a horse that when I started enjoyed snatching the reins out of my hand and who didn’t quite like doing the fancy dressage angles I asked for … to now, I can stand in a half seat and whisper “trot” and he voice commands around the ring for me and will follow me around the barn without a lead.

As it turns out he just likes a challenge, doesn’t want to be bored.

Same, Monty. Same.

Heels Down, Shoulders Back

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The Blog Begins

This blog actually should’ve started in 2013 when I got a job with the Science Festival Alliance as that seemed to be the confluence of many things changing in my life all at once, radically. I went from living in a guest room with very few possessions and almost no money to being the second in command of a national network of science festivals and finally getting to use all that hard-earned knowledge I’d gained from my job with MOSI and the UCSC team on an ISE (now AISL) grant that studied informal science learning in museums.

I’ll be honest, it kind of sucked to go from the program manager of a grant that you’d put your heart and soul into for the better part of four years to being a part time Disney lifeguard and Starbucks barista just to pay the bills. I never once viewed those jobs as ‘lesser’ and if anything I think I gained an immense amount of respect for the people making my coffee in the morning (and how difficult it is to pull a perfect shot) and of course I got the chance to go through Disney Traditions which is the top tier of the customer service training experience so.

“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.” – Pelé

All that said it’s been five years and I’m a different person. Writing in the retrospective sense is a little weird and I don’t really want to do that but on the other hand there’s definitely some trips I went on that I want to document and there’s things out there in the wide world of museums and science communication that I feel compelled to comment on that are perhaps just over their sell-by date.

I also learned from some adoptive travel parents in Killarney, Ireland that it’s important to spend every day of your trip writing and I used a little hand-written notebook on that trip, but I’d sort of like to follow in my Aunt and Uncle’s footsteps and record things in the cloud – in a place that I can revisit anywhere and that I can link people to if the spirit moves me that direction.

So I guess take this for what it is, an introduction.

My name is Julie Ann. I travel the world. I ride horses. I’m a science communicator. I love wine. I can’t resist a good shopping trip. And if it all goes up in smoke tomorrow, then tell my friends I had one hell of a good time.