I’ll walk slow.

In the fitness program that I’m in right now, we were asked to choose a “power word” or phrase (that’s the acceptable Christian substitution for “mantra”) and keep a record of how often we used it.  I chose something off the top of my head and ended up using it only a few times during the week in question.  But last Tuesday, two events converged to suggest a power phrase that I’m actually going to use–and that I consider worth blogging about.

Event #1: Tuesday evening, my team completed a tough AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) workout involving sandbags.  It wasn’t a race, but for the first few rounds, it would be very obvious how fast each person was working.  Cocky and obnoxious as I am, I assumed that because I’m already a regular exerciser, I would be one of the faster participants.  So imagine my pride-goeth-before-a-fall devastation when I realized I was the only person still at the starting line doing overhead lifts while every single other member of my team–all nine of them–had moved to the next spot to do squats.  I was in dead last place.

If you’re even a casual reader of my blog, you probably know that I like winning, and I tend to turn things that aren’t competitions into competitions.  So even though I got a really great workout Tuesday night, and my team ended up getting more reps in this workout than any of the other three teams (that part of it actually was a competition), I went home feeling embarrassed at how slow I had been.  The fact that I started out using one of the heaviest sandbags didn’t make me feel better, especially because I had to give it up fifteen minutes into the workout and use a lighter weight.

Event #2: When I got home, I decided to mow my lawn while I was sweaty anyway.  While mowing, I listened to Mumford and Sons’ Babel.  (I was listening to this album over and over last week in preparation for a podcast I recorded on Thursday with my colleague The Pop Song Professor–more on this next week, probably.)  One of my favorite songs on that album is “Lover’s Eyes,” which contains these lyrics, repeated multiple times: “I’ll walk slow/I’ll walk slow/Take my hand, help me on my way.”  I had already noticed that the whole album seems to have a theme of humility and willingness to be taught and led–think of lines like “Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn” (from “Below My Feet,” another of my favorites).  But on Tuesday night while I was mowing, the line “I’ll walk slow” struck me for obvious reasons.  And later, yet another of my favorite songs, “Not with Haste,” struck me as well–again, for obvious reasons, I hope.

Since Tuesday night, that line “I’ll walk slow” has come to my mind many times, such as when I worried about once again coming in last place in Thursday evening’s workout.  It may be a counterintuitive “power phrase,” but–like many people, I suspect–I usually don’t have to make myself try harder or go faster.  I have to make myself slow down and enjoy what I’m doing.  I have to learn how to accept not being the best, and specifically, the fastest.  I sometimes have to, as the lyric says, reach out my hand and allow myself to be led by people who are better at things than I am.  I have to be okay with slow progress in areas of my life where I want to see immediate change.  Because–and now I’m going to preach for a second–walking slow is better than standing still.

the good father in The Godfather

A few weeks ago I wrote about my excitement at the prospect of going to see The Godfather in a movie theater during Fathom Events’ special 45th-anniversary presentation.  Last Wednesday evening I finally got to see it, and I was once again floored by this brilliant piece of film-making that is, at its heart, a deeply moving story about the joy and pain (mostly pain) of being part of a family.

A simple way to summarize The Godfather is that it’s about Michael Corleone resisting becoming like his father until he finally can’t resist anymore.  But Michael may have been a better godfather and a better man if he had been more like his father.  The truth is that Vito Corleone cares very much about his family.  When he says early in the film, “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family is no man at all” [all quotes in this post are from memory; please forgive any inaccuracies], we might initially hear this as a piece of hypocrisy that will serve to play up the ironic inconsistency between what Vito says and who he really is.  But that isn’t true.  I don’t think there’s a single scene in this film in which Vito isn’t with a member of his family.  He dies while playing in the garden with his grandson (in contrast with Michael, who at the end of Part Three dies alone).  And he isn’t forcing his company on his family for appearance’s sake or in order to use them: His family genuinely loves him.  Look at his sons’ reactions to the shooting that nearly takes his life.  Sonny responds with violence and vengeance because that’s who Sonny is, but his violence barely conceals his deep love for his father.  The whole reason Michael gets involved in the family business, which he said he’d never do, is to protect his father from further assassination attempts.  One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is when Michael leans over his father’s hospital bed (which he has just hidden in an empty room) and says, “I’m here with you now.”  Another moving scene a little earlier in the film is when, right after Vito has been shot, Fredo breaks down weeping in the street, unable even to call for help.  Clearly, these young men love their father.

But Vito’s definition of “family” isn’t limited to flesh and blood.  He remains loyal to his two oldest friends in America, Clemenza and Tessio.  He takes in a little orphan named Tom Hagen and raises him like one of his own sons.  He stands godfather (in the religious sense) to Johnny Fontaine and remains invested in Johnny’s life as the years go by.  (There’s a telling moment in the wedding sequence at the beginning of the film.  Vito seems pretty bored by all the requests people are making as they file through his office, but when he looks out the window and sees his godson’s car pull up, suddenly he takes an interest.)  We could say that Vito’s family is his entire community.  After all, as we learn in Part Two, he got his start as the don by acting as a neighborhood hero, rescuing powerless people from bullies like Don Fanucci.  Another beautiful moment in the first film is his funeral, attended by a multitude of people carrying a veritable field of flowers.

Vito Corleone grew his family by including as many people as he safely could.  Michael, in contrast, after he becomes the godfather, keeps narrowing his definition of “family.”  Throughout the three films, he systematically alienates (and, in most cases, kills) nearly all of his father’s old friends.  He gets rid of peripheral family members like his brother-in-law Carlo (though, in fairness, that jerk had it coming) and his not-quite-brother Tom Hagen (removing Tom as consigliere is one of Michael’s first acts as godfather).  Eventually, late in Part Two, he gets to the illogical point of killing his own literal blood brother in the name of the abstract concept he calls “the family.”  When Vito talked about family, he meant the people he cared about and tried to protect.  When Michael talks about family, it’s unclear what he means.  There’s an ominous conversation in the first film in which Michael tells Fredo (the brother he eventually has killed) never to “align [himself] with anyone against the family again.”  That doesn’t make sense; Fredo is family just as much as Michael is–if being family means being a Corleone.  But that isn’t what the term means to Michael, apparently.  When we get to Part Three and realize that he has driven away even his wife and children, we get the impression that there’s only one member of Michael’s family–himself.  And he realizes, too late, that it’s incredibly lonely being a family of one.

Everybody’s got a hungry heart

I am writing this post from a fog of hunger.  I did just eat a little container of hummus (150 calories) and five naan dippers (another 150), but I don’t think the energy has kicked in yet.  So bear with me.

Last week I started participating in an eight-week weight loss program sponsored by my employer.  When I first signed up, in April, I referred to it as a “wellness” or “fitness” program because I couldn’t bring myself to say the dreaded WL phrase.  And even now, as I’m writing this, a whole host of qualifiers comes clamoring to my mind because I feel like I need to justify my participation to you (and to me): “I don’t want or need to lose a lot of weight, just ten pounds.” Or “I’m doing this because I’m planning to run a half-marathon at the end of the summer” (thereby letting you know that I’m already an active person).  I.e., I don’t really need to lose weight, at least not as badly as that other employee that I just saw walking down the hall, who should have been the one to sign up.  Etc.  In fact, when I showed up for the first session last Tuesday, I kind of hoped they would send me away–“Oh, you’re too skinny for this program!”  But they didn’t.  So I finally had to admit that maybe I actually needed to be there.

That was the first hurdle to be leaped (not that I’m quite up to jumping hurdles yet.  Next obstacle: Committing to a daily calorie goal.  I really, really hate counting calories.  In fact, I have serious philosophical problems with the whole idea of treating food as nothing but fuel.  I’m pretty sure chefs think of themselves as artists, not bioengineers.  And we all recognize that a gift of food–especially homemade–is a lot more meaningful than a free tank of gas, monetary value aside.  (See my post called “food speaks.”)  In addition to my theoretical objections, I hate the inconvenience of having to know or guess the caloric content of everything I eat.  What about the chicken jalapeno popper soup that was already in my refrigerator when the program started, which I made from a recipe that didn’t include nutrition facts?  It has a lot of fresh vegetables in it, and one of the main ingredients of the “creamy” broth is cauliflower, so it’s actually pretty healthy.  But I don’t know how many calories are in it, so I end up making a guess that’s probably wildly inaccurate.  And I know it’s cheating to lowball the estimate, so I guess high–and probably cheat myself out of 100 calories I could have eaten.  (Maybe that’s why I’m so hungry this afternoon, come to think of it.)  Ironically, this calorie-counting thing has me cooking less and eating more packaged foods: at least this way I know what to record in MyFitnessPal.

The exercise part is the easiest for me; as I mentioned (and I’ll say it again, in case you missed it the first time), I’m already a pretty active person.  This works to my advantage because, logically, I get to add calories onto my daily intake whenever I exercise.  So I’ve been doing this thing that I’m pretty sure is antithetical to the spirit of this program: If I’m getting toward the end of the day and I realize I’m not going to have enough calories left to eat a snack while watching Fear the Walking Dead, or whatever, I’ll get in a quick extra workout to buy myself some more calories.  I actually worked out three times on Sunday, and I had three snacks during Fear (hey, it was the two-hour season premiere).

I’m fully aware of how pathetic this is.  I also know that when I go back and read through this post, I’m going to hate how whiny I sound.  And I already want to apologize to Bruce Springsteen for appropriating his song title because it was the first clever saying with the word “hungry” in it that I could think of.  But I’m going to go ahead and post this before I change my mind because I think some of you can relate.  And we all like reading about stuff we can relate to.  Now to find out how many calories are in a fun-size 3 Musketeers, because I’m still hungry.

Here I raise my Ebenezer

What most people think of when they hear the proper noun in my title–if they think of anything at all–is the protagonist of A Christmas Carol.  And since I can’t let a reference to Charles Dickens pass without pausing on it, let me digress before I even begin.  My guess is that Dickens chose the name “Ebenezer Scrooge” for its sound.  Dickens tended to choose names for that reason, and this particular name is odd and old-fashioned like its owner, but also harsh like its owner, with all those long vowels and hard consonants.  “Ebenezer” is the type of obscure Old Testament name that might be given to the child of people who subscribed to the type of bleak, joyless religion that Dickens so hated.  (Dickens fan fiction writers–I know there are a few of you out there–here’s a topic for you.)  Whether Dickens intended it or not, the name may also have a deeper significance in a story about a person reaching a milestone in his life.  And it gets even more interesting: his pivotal moment takes place at a literal stone–a memorial stone.

That’s significant because the name “Ebenezer” was originally given to a stone set up by Samuel the prophet.  The word literally means “stone of help,” and when Samuel dedicated it, he said, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12).  This statement is quoted almost verbatim in my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which I in turn quoted in my title for today.  Here’s the full line, addressed to God: “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by Thy help I’m come / And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.”  A similar idea occurs in another beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace”: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come / ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about this concept of stopping and looking back on the road by which God has led me to this point and looking forward in hope–the theological kind of hope, which has a sure basis.  (By the way, it’s almost impossible to talk about this concept without using road metaphors; even the word “milestone” comes from road travel.)  One reason it’s been on my mind is that last week I had to write my salvation testimony and reflect on my spiritual growth over the years since then.  I closed my response by referring to Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  I don’t know where he will lead me next, I said, but I trust that he will lead me into green pastures and beside still waters (and sometimes through the valley of the shadow of death, but never to stay there).

I’m also thinking about the Ebenezer stone because it seems that change is in the air–for an unusual number of people around me, and maybe even for me.  I used to be afraid of change.  I was scared of not being able to control how things changed.  The so-called butterfly effect–the idea that if I go a different route to work this morning, I could change the whole trajectory of my day and even my life and maybe even THE WHOLE OF HUMAN HISTORY–didn’t make me feel powerful; it terrified me.  But I’m coming to understand and trust that God’s guiding hand–what old historians and theologians called Providence–is working to shape those events.  I’m not in control, and that is a very good thing.  I probably wouldn’t have chosen the job I’m in, the friends I have, or–dare I say–the family I belong to, and yet these are the greatest blessings of my life.  God has brought me to a good place, and he will continue to guide me.  Ebenezer!

This post is EPIC.

Yesterday I watched the movie Troy for the first time, and while it could have done with some more editing (I feel asleep several times during the first hour and apparently didn’t miss anything important), I thought it generally had solid storytelling and performances, and it was nice to look at.  Yes, I’m talking about Brad Pitt in his prime, but I’m also talking about the lush colors and fabrics of the costumes and the beautiful art direction (not sure how much of that was on-location filming vs. sets vs. CG, but the effect was great).  During the movie, my friend and I got into a conversation about what constitutes an “epic” film.  I’m sure there’s an official definition somewhere, but our attempt to reach a consensus is more interesting to me right now.  (Of course, Troy is an epic because it’s based on an ancient Greek epic.  That’s obvious, but not that helpful to the present discussion.)

My friend cited Cecil B. DeMille’s statement that an epic must have “a cast of thousands.”  But is that to be taken literally–thousands of Hebrews crossing the Red Sea, thousands of Uruk-Hai marching on Helm’s Deep?  Or can we take it to mean that the story just has to have a lot of characters?  At one point in the conversation, I suggested that The Godfather movies–individually or as a trilogy–could be modern American epics, and I used the large cast of important characters as evidence (along with another possible factor that I proposed–an epic should be really long).  I later backed down and said that The Godfather is probably a “family saga” instead, but what the precise difference is, I’m not sure.  Other suggestions that came up during the conversation: an epic has battle scenes (I think that’s often, but not always, true); an epic has a complicated plot with multiple threads (but that would mean Charles Dickens’ novels are epics, which doesn’t seem right).  We didn’t mention this yesterday, but a classical scholar would probably say that an epic has a hero you can root for, someone who is both strong and (usually) morally good.  Well, that disqualifies The Godfather.

Our conclusion was, essentially, that we know an epic when we see one.  My friend prefers older epics like Ben Hur and a bunch of other movies with Charlton Heston in them.  I, on the other hand, look to the 1990s as my decade for epics.  This was the decade that gave us BraveheartTitanicLegends of the FallDances with Wolves, and The Last of the Mohicans.  All of these movies are long, lavish, sincere (with very little irony), and straightforward in their storytelling.  Three of them (the first three I listed) have scores by James Horner–the king of the epic soundtrack (which is why it bugs me that so many people know John Williams’s name but not James Horner’s)–and most of them have some sort of “love theme” played during the credits and sung by a popular vocalist.  Although Troy came out in 2004, it participates in that tradition, though it’s notably a bit more cynical than those earlier examples.  It has a Horner score, and Josh Groban sings the song during the credits.  Troy, I think, was one of the last of a dying breed of movies (dying until the next time the genre experiences a resurgence).

So those are all the thoughts currently in my head about epic movie-making.  If you haven’t seen the movies mentioned in this post, check them out, and if there are other titles you think of when you think of “epic,” let me know.

Calling all fans

I submitted a proposal for a panel discussion on fandom as part of my university’s English Department Colloquium Series for next year, and last week the selection committee gave me the go-ahead to begin planning the event.  I started by emailing a number of colleagues (including my thesis student who just graduated, and whom I’m proud to call a colleague now) I thought might be interested in participating, and within a few hours of sending the email, I had more than enough people to make up a panel.  And these weren’t just “sure, I’ll help an academic sister out” responses; these were “OMG I’VE BEEN WAITING MY WHOLE LIFE FOR SOMEONE TO ASK ME ABOUT THIS” responses.  That’s only a slight exaggeration–I had co-workers coming to my door within minutes to share their thoughts; I got email replies filled with multiple exclamation points, and I even had one student (now alum, as of Saturday’s commencement) who is so keen on participating that he plans to fly back here from Texas to be on the panel, even though I told him we could easily Skype him in.

So if I wasn’t already excited about the panel discussion, I am now, and I’m even wondering if this could turn into a conference eventually.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  The reason I’m telling you about all this, dear readers, is that I need your help.  I posed a number of questions in my proposal, but they’re very broad, so I’m looking for more specific questions that I can actually ask the panel–as well as other questions on fandom that I may not even have considered.  If you have questions you’d like to hear the panel address, comment on my blog or tweet them in my direction (@Tessarama).  I’ll see if we can get the discussion live streamed or recorded, and if for some reason those options don’t work out, I’ll definitely write a summary post.

Here are the questions I posed in my proposal, along with some off-the-cuff and by no means exhaustive answers from me:

  • Why do people become fans (of texts, fictional worlds, celebrities, teams, etc.)?  Another version of this question: Why do some people/things seem to inspire fandom more than others?  One possible answer to the second question, in the context of stories: The stories that have major fan followings often, but not always, have a large cast of characters, meaning that even if you don’t connect with the supposed protagonist, there’s almost guaranteed to be a “minor” character that you can identify with, fall in love with, or otherwise latch onto.
  • How does people’s fandom contribute to their identity construction? A very intricate psychological question, of which I’ve merely scratched the surface in previous blog posts, but here’s a personal answer: I am proud to identify myself as a fan of Harry Potter, especially.  It’s one of the first things I tell people about me when I meet them.  And at some level, I consider it integral to the person I’ve become over the past eight years.  (Harry and I are going to celebrate our eight anniversary this summer.)
  • Can a person be both a fan and a critical scholar of the same text or cultural phenomenon? Yes, as I’ve striven to show in my own academic work and on my blog.  See also Henry Jenkins’s much better blog, Confessions of an Aca-Fan.
  • Are fans passive consumers or active contributors? Often, and contrary to early, negative assessments of fandom, the latter.  See Henry Jenkins’s book, Textual Poachers.
  • What is the relationship between fans and authors, especially as traditional notions of authorship become blurred? Oh, jeez.  This is a big one.  See my dissertation. 🙂
  • As Christian scholars, what can we learn from fandom about belonging, passion, and critical engagement, and how can we best minister to people (including each other) who strongly identify as fans? I posed this two-part question not only because Christian worldview engagement is expected in my English department, but also because I think it’s important to think about this.  Without viewing fans through some sort of distant, haughty, anthropological lens (“let’s study these weirdos who are totally Other than us”), I think it is important to think about fan communities as “people groups” (“unreached people groups,” in some cases) who need Jesus’ love just like everyone else, and who can be ministered to in unique ways.

Send me your thoughts!

Mafia zombies at Downton Abbey

Every once in a while I like to write a post about the Godfather saga, even though I know that many of my readers have never seen the films, because I hope that, eventually, you’ll recognize that your life is sadly lacking and you’ll actually watch them.  (And you have a great opportunity coming up to watch the first movie!  Fathom Events is showing it in select theaters on June 4 and 7!)  In the past, I’ve told you what The Godfather has to do with Thor and with An American Tail, and today I’m going to tell you what it has to do with The Walking Dead and Downton Abbey.

I started thinking about writing another Godfather post this past weekend, even before I found out about the June screenings.  It was on my mind because I found a $5 used, good condition record album of Nino Rota’s iconic score to the first film, but also because I was thinking about a screenplay I want to write for a buddy road-trip tragicomedy set during the early days of the zombie apocalypse.  One of the themes of this screenplay (which currently exists only in my head) is that human beings are inherently valuable, regardless of what they can contribute.  This concept is sorely lacking in zombie lore, in which characters are so often rated based on the apparent usefulness of their skills.  Because of this value system, we end up with characters like Eugene in The Walking Dead, who is so afraid of being rejected by the braver and more skillful people whose group he wants to join that he concocts an elaborate lie to establish his usefulness to the world.  If you can’t prove your worth, the logic says, you’re the first to be thrown off the proverbial ship.

I started thinking about The Godfather because the world portrayed in those films has a similar value system.  Despite all the lip service paid to family and loyalty, you’re not valuable simply because you’re human; you’re rated based on the kind of man you are.  (And I use the word man very deliberately.)  If you want to survive, you have to be in charge, and if you want to be in charge, there are a couple of characteristics you need to have.  You have to be cold, which is why the hot-headed Santino would not have made a good Godfather.  (We see this clearly and tragically in the first movie.)  You have to be hard, which is why nobody ever even considered asking the soft-headed and -hearted Fredo to be the Godfather.  (Even in that patriarchal culture, I suspect they would have given that title to Connie before they gave it to Fredo!)  If you don’t have these qualities, you’re expendable.

I was also thinking about Robert Duvall’s character, the one who was sort of unofficially adopted by Don Vito and who grew up to be the family’s lawyer.  (I always forget his name.)  There’s a lot of talk about him being just like one of Vito’s sons, but the truth remains that he’s on the family’s payroll and therefore in that awkward (and ultimately dangerous) employee zone.  His position is roughly analogous to that of Tom Branson in the later seasons of Downton Abbey, who’s both the embarrassing Irish Catholic son-in-law (whose wife isn’t even alive to give him a blood connection to the family) and the family’s estate agent, and therefore still uncomfortably close to being a servant, even if he eats upstairs now.  Although I want to think well of the Crawleys, I suspect that if Downtown Abbey were set in a vendetta culture like that of The Godfather and things started going south, Tom would be the first to get…well, tommy-gunned.  That was a bit of a rabbit trail, but my point is that valuing people based on who they’re related to is just as flawed as valuing people based on a narrow set of culturally valued skills.

My point in this entire post (besides to suggest the most epic multi-world fanfic ever) is that when we stop believing that people are valuable just because they’re people–not for what they can contribute–that’s when we start beating people to death with barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bats and having our hitmen shoot our brother in the back while he’s defenselessly fishing (and those are just the things that happened on Downton Abbey! j/k).  Every one of us will encounter situations in which we feel like there’s absolutely nothing we can contribute.  And in those moments, we need to be able to know we’re safe just because we’re people.