celebrity crushes, homeschooled geek style

I’m reading Eric Metaxas’ recent biography of Martin Luther, and it’s the first time in many years I’ve studied Luther in any depth. The first time was when I was in middle school. I don’t remember exactly what I read and/or listened to (there may have been some Adventures in Odyssey episodes involved), but I do know that through this process, I developed a crush on the German monk and reformer. Huh? I know. (Google a picture of him now if you don’t know.) It’s a bit baffling, but I don’t think it was his physical appearance I was drawn to. (Years later, though, Joseph Fiennes played him in a movie, and he looked pretty hot.) It must have been his earnestness in pursuing God’s true will for the Church, his clever and sometimes shockingly bold writing style, and the undeniably romantic way in which he met his wife, a former nun (he hid her when she escaped from her convent). And it probably had a lot to do with the fact that back then I didn’t know a lot of guys–young or old, living or dead.

Surely this factored greatly into my even less explicable crush, around the same time, on Union general Ulysses S. Grant, a short man invariably pictured as scowling and chewing on a cigar. And it’s not like he had a pretty face; actually, you can barely see his face in pictures because it’s covered in one of those full-face beards popular at the time. I don’t think I can explain this one, except that he did win the Civil War. Also, I remember reading that he used to get terrible migraines, and his wife would put a “mustard plaster” (I never understood exactly what this was) on his feet to ease his suffering. I guess I appreciated this humanizing weakness, as well as the humility and gentleness expressed by both parties in the anecdote. I don’t know. The ways of love are mysterious.

The next person I would like to tell you about has the advantage of being young and admittedly cute, but the disadvantage of being completely fictional, not to mention animated. Let me preface this by saying that one of my favorite Disney movies has always been Pocahontas. It was the last animated Disney film that came out before I got arbitrarily too old for Disney movies (roughly age 11), and I still think its music and color palette are gorgeous, even if the love story is as sappy as Grandmother Willow. (That was a tree pun.) You probably think I’m about to say that I had a crush on John Smith, but I didn’t. He was too old for me, too blandly handsome and boringly heroic. Nor did I go for Pocahontas’s arranged fiancee, Kocoum, nor her dad, though as an adult I can now appreciate his stately good looks. No, I was into Thomas, the wimpy redheaded sailor voiced by Christian Bale (though I didn’t know that at the time) who accidentally shot Kocoum because he was too nervous to hold his gun straight. Even now, I have to admit he has a sweet face. (Click the link above to see a picture of him, along with my brief review of Pocahontas.) And I’ve always liked his floppy hat.

I like to think that my celebrity crushes have matured over the years, but on the other hand, what’s more impressive–starring in a few movies or starting the Protestant Reformation? I’ll let you decide. I’d also like to hear about your early celebrity crushes.

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grain-free stereotypes

I meant for the title of this post to be a joke, not clickbait, but if you did click on this hoping for a discussion of grain-free diets, I sincerely apologize. (I can, however, recommend Garden of Eatin’ grain-free cassava tortilla chips, which I tried for the first time today.) My title refers to the commonplace that there’s “a grain of truth in every stereotype.” I’ve recently had several conversations about whether this is true. One such discussion was about the stereotype that people who identify with nerd cultures tend to have poor personal hygiene habits. Apparently, though I would never want to make it a generalization, this stereotype is at least anecdotally true, on average, in certain nerd cultures, as expressed to me by a person involved in these cultures (or “by a person close to the situation” as they say in news articles). But what I want to talk about right now is those baseless, irrational stereotypes that we nevertheless sometimes allow to shape how we live our lives. You might want to grab some tortilla chips–this could be intense.

I’ll start with a story. Today after getting my hair cut, I sent a selfie to my boyfriend with the accompanying text, “Just so you wouldn’t worry that I changed my hair too much.” Somewhere during the course of my life, I had heard and practically, if not intellectually, accepted the truth of two related stereotypes: 1. guys freak out if their partners change their physical appearance and 2. guys don’t like short hair. (I have rather short hair, and I know my boyfriend likes it or at least doesn’t have a problem with it, but the looming presence of this belief causes me to be more cautious about #1 and more meticulous about looking feminine than I perhaps would be otherwise.) I am a little bit disgusted with myself now that I’ve stated all this in such matter-of-fact terms. I like to think I’m liberated from what others, especially men, think of the way I look, but I’m not, and I could list countless more stories as evidence.

Here are some other stereotypes I’ve encountered or thought about recently:

  • Yesterday, I heard people talking about the “conventional wisdom” (more like conventional foolishness) that two firstborns shouldn’t marry each other. I mentioned this to my hairstylist today, and her response was a snappy rhetorical question: “Is that in the Bible?”
  • On Friends (by the way, I’m on Season Three now), frequent use is made of the trope that men are afraid of commitment in relationships. In my own experience, I’ve found that tend to be the one who balks at commitment (but only if it’s not a good relationship). I know this truism is based on faulty generalization, yet it makes me anxious.
  • After I started thinking about this post, I remembered another completely nonsensical stereotype that actually did briefly affect some decisions I made during a formative period of my life: Smart people shouldn’t become teachers. (I know! This would be a good time to throw those tortilla chips across the room.) It was a high school classmate who said this to me, and she framed it as a compliment (“Oh, you’re too smart to be a teacher”). Even though I’m pretty sure I identified it as hogwash even at the time, it was powerful enough to prevent me from declaring myself an education major, at least at first, even though I had enjoyed envisioning myself as a teacher since early childhood. I’m thankful that I’ve been able to overcome this false belief, but clearly, I haven’t forgotten it.

I know my examples are laughably mild compared to stories that some people could share of, for example, racial stereotypes that are far less rational and more damaging.

My overall point is this: Be careful what you say, because you never know who will hear it and take it to heart. And generalizing groups of people, whether there’s a grain of truth or not, is lazy. Instead, get to know people as individuals, and when you speak about them, speak of them as individuals. Does this sound like something you’ve already learned in a teen afterschool special or even on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood? The thing is that I’m afraid a lot of people have heard all this hundreds of times but haven’t actually learned it. I’m saying this to myself as well. Everyone is different, and everyone is worth getting to know. Don’t mess up somebody’s life with your careless words.

a pep talk for me

I’ve been feeling a little down the past week or so, and while I think there are several reasons for this, probably the biggest one is that my much-anticipated first summer of freedom (since college, that is, and with “freedom” defined as not having to report to work) has come to a close. I spent basically the whole summer going from one trip to the next, with people I enjoy being around and with something to constantly look forward to. I didn’t have to go grocery shopping or mow my lawn or take out the trash–all tasks that I don’t mind (sometimes even enjoy) when I’m home but that it feels exciting and slightly transgressive to be able to ditch for weeks at a time. Now that I’m back home but not yet back into the rhythm of the school year, I feel let down, broke from all the money I spent on my travels (I’m not, but it feels that way), and a little lonely. This last part has surprised me–normally, I’m all about my independence and totally capable of entertaining myself, but the past couple of weeks, I’ve felt like I’m suddenly not an introvert anymore.

I’m sharing all this not to whine but because I think this particular brand of mild seasonal depression may be more common among adults than we realize. It might not be an end-of-summer thing for everyone; I think it happens after Christmas for many people. But it’s something we should talk about so we know that we’re not alone. If you’ve ever felt this way, I’d be happy to listen to your story in the comments. (Or, if we know each other, let’s chat off the blog!)

Because it’s started off so poorly, I’ve been dreading the remainder of August, so I’m going to spend the remainder of this post listing reasons I have to be optimistic–if not manically excited like I was at the beginning of the summer–about what’s to come. I realize this is a totally self-indulgent use of my blog, but maybe it’ll inspire you to make a list of your own.

  1. School starts in 21 days, and classroom teaching (NOT meetings or assessment or filling out forms, though I understand why those are important) is the part of my job that I really love. I’m looking forward to meeting the freshmen in my composition classes and seeing some former students again in my literature class. I’m also teaching my first-ever independent study, on dystopian literature, with a really great, motivated student. And I’m excited to restart the creative writing group that meets at my house. I can’t wait to make food for this little community and share stories with them.
  2. I have a new boyfriend! He’s the sweetest, and that’s all I’m going to say about him here because, frankly, it’s none of your business, blogosphere. 🙂 (Yes, I tend to overshare, but I do have boundaries.) I’m excited about the adventures we have planned, such as Hippie Fest in Angola, Indiana, next month (I already know what I’m going to wear)–as well as the less adventurous but no less precious times we will be able to take walks, share meals, and keep getting to know each other. (I like what I know so far.)
  3. Fall in West Michigan is beautiful, but I didn’t maximize my enjoyment of it last year because I was still getting used to my new job and home (actually, I was still renting and home shopping last fall) and generally getting on my feet. This fall, I intend to hike, pick apples, go to festivals, and be outdoors as much as possible. As my siblings and I ironically-but-secretly-unironically like to say, it’s almost time for hayrides, hoedowns, and all things pumpkin spice.

Next year, I’ll probably spend my summer a little more quietly (then again, who knows?). But although I’m feeling the crash right now, I don’t regret my summer of carpe diem. (I know that’s grammatically incorrect in Latin.) And, especially now that I’ve written this post, I’m looking forward to what comes next.

update on Sam’s Town and Sam’s Home

I haven’t been blogging much this month because I’ve dedicated most of my writing time to editing my zombie apocalypse novel, Sam’s Town, and drafting its sequel, Sam’s Home. Today, I want to give you an update on how all that is going.

My editing of Sam’s Town is nearly complete. I am working through the wonderful comments given to me by a fellow author whose zombie knowledge, eye for sentence structure, and life experience as a young man (something I have never personally experienced!) have been invaluable. I have just a few chapters to go, so I may even finish up within the next few days. From there, my next steps will be to look at self-publishing options, procure a cover illustration (I’m hoping to commission an original work of art), and convert the manuscript from its current format into one that will work for publication. I am planning to release the novel as both an e-book, which I know some of my potential readers will prefer as more cost- and space-effective than a hard copy, and a paperback, because I don’t want to alienate those who don’t own e-readers.

Meanwhile, I have begun working on Sam’s Home, the sequel. Some have asked why I am not planning to combine the relatively short Sam’s Town (just over 50,000 words) and its sequel (which will probably be about the same length) into one novel. The main reason is that I have always thought of the pacing of my novels in terms of a movie. I think that if Sam’s Town were adapted into a film, not much editing would need to be done in order to make it a typical-length feature. I’m not saying this will happen, but it’s easy for me to wrap my mind around a film-like structure. Another, perhaps more important reason is that the ending of Sam’s Town brings Sam’s story to a place of equilibrium. His problems aren’t all solved, but he’s learned a major lesson, and there’s a moment of rest–a deep breath, if you will–before the events of the sequel.

Although Sam’s Home will continue with the themes (which I’ll discuss in a moment) and the style of Sam’s Town, there are a few differences. In the sequel, as in many sequels, the world gets bigger. In the first book, there were basically only six characters. In the sequel, while these six are still the focus, we meet a number of others who aren’t just background characters. Some of them are ill-intentioned, and this is another difference. Whereas in Sam’s Town, the antagonists were zombies and depression, Sam’s Home has some actual bad guys, which I think makes sense because we’re no longer in the opening days of the apocalypse. Bad guys have had time to organize. Another difference is that there are two concurrent plots. While Sam is still the main point-of-view character of one plot, for the other, we are inside the mind of Ramona, who has gone to Ohio to find her sister. It’s been fun for me to write from Ramona’s perspective because I didn’t do that at all in book one. Ramona has a number of superficial resemblances to me, but I’m finding out that we really aren’t that much alike (or maybe we are, and I’m in denial!).

Finally, for those of you who haven’t read or heard any of my novels or talked with me about them at length, I want to give you a little pitch for them, especially for you non-zombie fans. My novels really aren’t about zombies, though I hope that my obvious moments of homage to George Romero’s films and The Walking Dead will satisfy fans of the genre. My novels are about friendship, family, and mental health. I wanted to write about people who are woefully ill-prepared for the zombie apocalypse and show how, despite their clear deficiencies, they survive by taking care of one another. I see my novels as aspirational—not about the ugliness of human evil (though those books are important too), but rather about how we could treat each other if we valued each other. Value, or worth, is a major theme—Sam has to learn that he isn’t just a waste of space, but his life has meaning and is worth saving, even when he feels like there’s nothing he can contribute to the world. If that sounds like an important theme to you, I hope you’ll stay tuned. Sam’s Town is coming soon!

rebranding the blog–Let’s try this again.

In spring 2018, I talked a lot about rebranding my blog as a Hufflepuff leadership blog–i.e., a leadership blog for people who are emotionally intelligent and perceptive but don’t feel like natural leaders and maybe don’t feel comfortable in the spotlight at all. I went so far as to come up with a new logo, a badger in a business suit (how cute is that?). I wrote a number of posts related to the proposed focus, which you can read if you look back at February through May 2018, or just search “Hufflepuff leadership.” But right before I was going to make the transition, I left my job, in which I had a leadership role, and took a new position that does not involve leadership except insofar as teachers are leaders in their classrooms. So I didn’t see the point of going through with the rebranding.

Now, I’m once again considering the possibility of giving my blog a facelift and a narrower focus. This time, I am thinking of using the blog as part of my strategy for marketing my zombie apocalypse novel, Sam’s Town, which I would like to release later this year. The rebranding would probably mean a new name and address and a new look, but it would probably not mean that I would only ever post about my novel and/or about zombies–just that these topics would appear more often. I don’t want to alienate readers who aren’t interested in zombies, and I certainly don’t want this blog to become nothing more than a self-promotion instrument (that would be boring for me, too), but I do think it’s smart to “leverage my platform” (did I just write that?) so that my blog can help promote my book, and vice versa.

I’d love to hear your feedback. As always, thank you for reading!

Georgie plants a garden

Good morning to those of you in the US–I’m in Knutsford, Chesire, UK, and it’s afternoon here, but since most of my readers are five hours behind, I’ll accommodate your greeting preferences.

I am here to tell you a short story today. I heard this story while on a Beatles-themed electric bike tour in Liverpool on Sunday. I have not checked the veracity of this story, and I’m not sure if I will–I have no reason to distrust the tour guide who told it, and besides, I like the story, even if there should turn out to be an element of urban myth to it. The story goes as follows: In Sefton Park, one of Liverpool’s many green spaces, there is a lovely Victorian conservatory called the Palm House. It took a beating during the bombings of World War II, and when the future Beatles were growing up, though it was forlorn, dilapidated structure, plants still grew in it, and young George Harrison used to sneak in through the broken glass and look at the plants. (There’s a lot of trespassing in Beatles childhood lore.) It was here that he developed his alleged lifelong love of gardening, which, as a contemplative practice, makes perfect sense to me as a George Harrison pastime.

Many years later, in the late 1990s, a fund drive was undertaken to restore the Palm House. When the fundraisers approached Harrison to ask for a sizeable donation, he wrote a check to cover the entire amount. And today, the Palm House is restored to its former splendor and the site of city events like the choral concert we heard a bit of on Sunday.

I love this story, I love plants, and I love George Harrison. That’s all for today.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, take two

In a post this past November, I argued that the John Hughes classic Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is about radical hospitality. I would now like to add that it is also about learning to be calm during travel mishaps. I mean, duh–but I’ve really come to need that lesson over the past few days. I’ll explain momentarily, but first, can I take a John Candy detour?

Okay. I watched The Great Outdoors for the first time recently. It’s no Planes, Trains; in fact, it’s basically just a loosely plotted series of sight gags related to the outdoors–waterskiing, racoons getting into the trash, comedic bear attacks, you get the picture. But what makes it a delight is the actors. Dan Ackroyd plays a horrible person, but he’s very good at it, and he comes around in the end. John Candy plays that character he’s so good at playing–an affable, long-suffering, optimistic on others’ behalf, Really Good Guy. I have no idea what he was like as an actual human being, but I have a hard time believing he wasn’t at least a little bit like this character type he made famous. I think we need more guys like him, in movies and in life.

Now back to the topic at hand. I was supposed to fly to Manchester, UK, last Friday for a week with my dad, who is working over there. When I got to the airport and tried to check in, I learned, to my horror (not an overstatement), that my passport was expired. It was devastating on a number of levels, perhaps the deepest being that it was a shameful mistake on my part. I take pride in being on top of the details of my life or at least appearing to be, but over the past few years, I’ve found myself increasingly absent-minded, whether because I’m getting older or because I have too much to keep track of (probably both). Often, I can get away with making a joke of my forgetfulness, but there was no humor to be found in this passport screw-up. I have no doubt that many of the well-traveled people I’ve told this story to over the past few days (including some of you reading this post) have been puzzled and silently judgmental over my failure to check on something so obvious. Thank you for keeping it to yourselves.

There followed a series of emotional phone calls to my dad, the US State Department expedited passport automatic scheduling service, American Airlines, Walgreens (to find out if they take passport photos all day), my mom (basically just to cry), the guy I’d met on eHarmony and had talked to for the first time that very afternoon (who was kind enough to call again and make sure I was okay after I texted him the story), and a friend I’d been meaning to visit. I came up with a plan: apply in person for an expedited passport in Detroit Monday morning (the closest and earliest I could get an appointment), reschedule my flight for June 26 (today), and try to distract myself over the weekend. I ended up traveling two hours south to the Michigan-Indiana border to spend Saturday and Sunday with my friend. She was a gracious last-minute hostess and even took me on a kayaking trip down the St. Joseph River that was as relaxing as anything I’ve experienced in a long time. (I mean the part where we were being carried downstream. Upriver was harder.) And, as it turned out, my friend lives less than half an hour away from my eHarmony guy, so I got to meet him Sunday afternoon, more than a week earlier than we had thought we’d be able to meet, and that was lovely too.

I got the passport on Monday, a story in itself that I won’t take the time to share here. Today, I was understandably anxious about checking in, so I showed up at the airport excessively early. (I won’t tell you how early because I’m embarrassed.) There were no mishaps.

Somewhere in the midst of my rushing around and hardcore crying on Friday evening, I came up with a Planes, Trains, and Automobiles mantra for the weekend: Be more like Del and less like Neal. Neal Page (Steve Martin) has many good qualities, but I simply meant that I should enjoy the adventure, mishaps and all. As I’ve written before on this blog, mishaps make good stories.