The no-maj question

Since I’m still dedicating my usual blogging time to finishing up my zombie apocalypse story, I’m reblogging another post from two years ago about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Speaking of the no-maj question, did anybody see Dan Fogler (a.k.a. Jacob Kowalski) in his new regular role on The Walking Dead last night? He may turn out to be a bad guy, but at least he looks adorable.


This is the second and last post I am writing in response to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them–at least until I watch it again. 🙂  Spoilers ahead.

A few weeks ago I wrote on my blog that one of the aspects of the film I was most excited about was the presence of a non-magical person as a major character.  I predicted that this would be significant for fandom because it would give us all hope that we, too, could become part of that world (since we’ve all pretty much given up on receiving that lost-in-the-mail Hogwarts letter).

What I didn’t realize was that there would be so many non-magical characters in the movie and that they would represent such a wide array of roles.  (And yes, let’s get this out of the way: “No-maj” is kind of an annoying term, but it makes sense.  Americans don’t…

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Fantastic EQ and How to Have It

Since I’m dedicating all my writing time this month to finishing up my zombie apocalypse novella, today I’m reblogging a post from two years ago about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, whose sequel comes out next week!


Well, I couldn’t wait until next week.

I know there are some people who read my blog who love J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world as much as I do, but there are also some readers who aren’t great fans of that world but are interested in the psychology/personal growth topics I often write about.  This post is for all of you.

Last night as I was leaving the theater after seeing Fantastic Beasts and Where I Find Them, I ran into several friends and acquaintances, and as we briefly exchanged expressions of love for the movie, I noticed that I kept putting my hand over my heart, as if I needed to keep it inside my chest.  That’s how the movie made me feel.  I felt like my heart was overflowing.

Another way of saying the same thing: Sharp-eyed viewers (and people who have been on Pottermore recently) will…

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getting psyched for NaNoWriMo

November is National Novel Writing Month, not an official holiday but the flagship event of the eponymous nonprofit organization. If you complete a 50,000-word novel during the month, you can claim to have “won” NaNoWriMo, though it’s not a competition. I did this once, almost 10 years ago. I wrote a novel, heavily inspired by The Dark Knight and Harry Potter, about a man who goes around taking the punishment for other people’s crimes. I had also been reading a lot of George Eliot at the time, so my prose in the novel is very dense, and my narrator often breaks out into philosophy. Unless you already know a lot about guns and police procedures, crime drama is not a good genre for NaNoWriMo because there’s little time for research. So my novel, which I self-published as A Man of No Reputation, has a lot of problems, but it inspired a number of themes that continue to appear in my writing, such as loneliness, self-sacrifice, and a protagonist with a perpetually sad-looking face (he can’t help it; it’s just what his face looks like!).

This year, I’ve decided to use NaNoWriMo as motivation to complete the zombie apocalypse narrative I have been working on, slowly, for over a year. I won’t be able to claim to have “won,” since I have no intention of writing 50,000 words; I am at roughly 26,000, and my story arc is nearing its end. (I’m not sure what the finished project will be properly called–a long short story? a novella? I’m mainly thinking of it as the source text for a movie.) Since November starts this Thursday, I want to take a few minutes to look back on the changes my story has gone through and forward to how it might end up. (I really do mean “might”; I have a general idea but no actual outline. I am what they call, in writers’ group lingo, a “pantser”–I plot by the seat of my pants.)

Originally, although I was and still am calling my story a (dark) comedy, my main character was going to die. It was going to be a beautiful, self-sacrificial death, kind of like in my 2009 NaNoWriMo project. I maintain that a comedy can end with the main character(s) dying, like in (spoiler alert) Thelma and Louise, a major inspiration for my story along with Zombieland and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (yes, I’m writing a road trip story). But after getting a lot of feedback about how much people in my writing groups loved my main character, Sam Larson, I started to reconsider killing him off. Yes, I was partly trying to please my audience (not a bad thing), but it also occurred to me that perhaps I could better reinforce one of the themes of my story by allowing Sam to survive.

That theme is LIFE, and it’s a theme uniquely suited to a zombie narrative, which is permeated with a grotesque parody of life. Readers learn early in the story that Sam suffers from clinical depression and that about ten years ago, he attempted suicide. Although Sam has learned to live with depression and no longer wants to die, he constantly struggles to believe that his life has value, especially in this new world in which people tend to be judged by their physical prowess and survival skills. (I’ve written extensively on my blog about this issue in zombie apocalypse narratives.) I think I could still convey this theme with Sam dying a heroic death at the end, but I believe the theme will come through even more clearly if I show him living.

I’m also using a motif that is especially suited to the zombie subgenre: eating. People are constantly eating in my story, whether it’s oatmeal heated up over a fire on the side of the road or a full Italian meal in the safe house. Of course, zombies are always eating too, but they derive no joy or satisfaction from this meaningless activity. In contrast, I wanted to show my characters enjoying food as a gift of life and sharing it with each other. So the eating scenes are not throwaways but integral to the message of my story.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Are there any other themes and motifs you can think of that are particularly appropriate to zombie stories? Let me know in the comments!

teachers, students, and empathy

Last week I was waiting for one of my students to make me a drink at the campus coffee shop when another university employee, who is my fellow student in the online faculty training course I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, came over and started chatting with me about the course. I mentioned that I’d lost a lot of points on one of the assignments because I didn’t cite sources. I said that even though the rubric (“which I know I should have looked at”) specified the research requirement, the instructions did not, and I made the comment that requirement should have been stated in both places. My classmate agreed and said that she had lost points on the same assignment because her APA format wasn’t correct. This had been news to her, since she’d done APA that way all through her online master’s degree program, and no professor had ever told her the formatting was wrong. She said that there should be more consistency among the faculty, and I agreed. Oh, and somewhere in that conversation, I made a comment like “I know this isn’t a real class.” I meant that it isn’t part of a degree program, but as someone who used to teach a zero-credit course that many people did not consider “real,” I should have thought about how dismissive such a comment can sound.

The embarrassing part about all this, I now realize, is that my student was hearing all this as she stood there making my dirty chai. We were making the exact same kinds of comments that students make in my class and that I tend to respond to with stock answers like “The rubric was there the whole time,” or “I can’t help what your previous professors did, but this is what the APA manual says,” or “What do you mean this isn’t a real class?” I’m not going to presume to guess what was going through my student’s head while she listened to our conversation, but contemplating the irony of the situation has taught me an important lesson–well, really reinforced something I already knew: “Do unto your students as you would have your professors do unto you.”

This lesson was driven home for me today with humbling clarity when I decided to ask the instructor of the training course for an extension of the homework deadline this week. I laid out all my reasons in a polite email, explaining that I’d had an unusually heavy grading load over the past week and that I’d had family visiting over the weekend. I said I could probably rush to get everything turned in tonight, but it wouldn’t be of good quality. I apologized for not turning in “timely” work. This was all quite surreal for me because I have never been the sort of student who asks for extensions. One time, my sophomore year of college, I was excessively late for a class because I was finishing up the paper due that day in that class, but I did arrive about halfway through class, my paper in hand. That was probably the latest I’ve ever turned anything in. So today, for the first time, I found myself on the other side of a negotiation I’ve engaged in many times from the teacher’s side.

My instructor granted me the extension, but there’s one more bit to the story: I almost forgot to thank her. I almost waltzed away with my wish granted and no word of thanks for the giver, like those nine healed lepers who didn’t thank Jesus…or like those “entitled” students we like to complain about in the breakroom.

“I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.”

If my Lord of the Rings books were not in a moving box somewhere, I would check on this, but I’m pretty sure the line I quoted in my title is not in the novels. I think it’s part of the body of dialogue (also including much of the “when the sun comes out, it’ll shine out the clearer” speech at the end of The Two Towers) that was written especially for Samwise Gamgee in the Peter Jackson film adaptations because nobody but Sean “Rudy” Astin was convincingly sincere enough to deliver such sweet yet potentially saccharine lines. Even if it isn’t in Tolkien’s text (which isn’t the Bible, nerds), the line Sam speaks before he literally carries the weakened Frodo up the final yards of Mount Doom has become part of the LOTR canon for me. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. Here’s why.

My life has been pretty stable, almost to the point of being boring. I’ve had some adventures and some challenges, but no major catastrophes. I don’t presume to bank on this state of equilibrium lasting forever, but for now, I thank God for having protected me from the extremes of grief and difficulty. Yet I’ve sometimes felt less thankful than guilty. Why have I been spared the physical pain, financial hardship, and emotional trauma (among other things) that I see knocking down people–including some of my students, colleagues, friends, and relatives–like breakers in a hurricane? I don’t really know the answer to this question, but I have a theory: Perhaps my role is to be a stable, solid, even boring rock of support and normalcy that people can cling onto and take a breather in the middle of their storm.

Notice that I didn’t compare myself to the rescue worker who’s pulling people out of danger. That’s ultimately God’s role, though I suppose some people–like counselors, clergy, and actual rescue workers–can also fit the analogy. No, I’m the friend–the sidekick, if you will–who is predictably available to give the sufferer a ride, a place to stay, a meal, or an opportunity to pretend that things are normal for a couple of hours. I admit that I don’t always have a gracious attitude toward providing these things, and sometimes I’m terribly obtuse about noticing that people need them. But I can look back over my adult life–actually, maybe even my childhood too–and identify a number of times when God used me as a strong and stable friend for people in need. And there are probably even more times that I don’t remember because I didn’t realize I was doing anything important–because I was clueless about the extent of the trouble or pain the person was in.

Sam carrying Frodo up the side of Mount Doom is pretty dramatic, I’ll give you that. But Sam trudging hundreds of miles at Frodo’s side, carrying all their stuff because Frodo was too weak for anything but the burden of the ring, making meals and pleading for Frodo to eat them, and making decisions when Frodo was in too much of a mental fog–those things are mundane, yet they’re what enabled Frodo to make it to the moment when dramatic heroism finally was necessary. Maybe I’ll get to have a Mount Doom moment someday, but for now, I’m content to be the sidekick.

the story roundup

One of my go-to strategies when I’m not sure what to write about on my blog is to briefly review some of the stories (books, movies, plays, TV shows) I have watched or read over the past week or so. Let’s do that now.

  1. Man of La Mancha: Although I read Don Quixote once and thought it was pretty boring (sorry if it’s your favorite book or anything), until this past Saturday I had never seen this musical theatrical adaptation of the story, which hits the main points but, unlike Oliver! (a musical that I have mixed feelings about), doesn’t try to mitigate the dark parts of the source text, nor of the life of its author. The musical employs a frame narrative, with the Quixote story being told by Miguel de Cervantes himself, who has been imprisoned by the inquisition. The musical ends with Cervantes, who is played by the actor who plays Don Quixote, walking offstage to meet his fate, along with his servant, played by the actor who plays Sancho Panza. Bucking the cheerful Rodgers and Hammerstein stereotype that the term “musical” evokes for most people, this one ends on a bittersweet and inconclusive (yet wholly satisfying) note. In the production I saw, by a local theater company in a very small space, the Cervantes/Quixote actor, an older man who gave a fantastic performance, had tears standing in his eyes throughout almost the entire musical and actually running down his face during the major number “The Impossible Dream.” I’m not sure if the tears were because it was nearly the last performance of the run, because of the heartbreaking idealism of Quixote, or for some other reason I don’t know about, but I’ve never seen an actor so sincerely moved. I cried too. While the entire cast did a great job, I also want to mention the young man who played Sancho Panza–a skinny guy, which at first made me doubt the casting, since this character is iconically round. But the actor quickly made me warm up to his endearing interpretation of the lovable pessimist.
  2. The Walking Dead, season 9, episode 1: I have long thought it would be interesting, and hopeful, to watch a community of zombie apocalypse survivors emerge from crisis mode and begin to build a sustainable society. (In fact, I am writing a story about this very scenario.) So the first episode of this season, which featured characters growing crops, making fuel out of corn ethanol, and conducting inter-community trade, made me happy. Politics–not entirely harmonious–also loomed large in the episode, but politics have (has? Isn’t this one of those singular words that looks plural?) been happening since the very first season of TWD, and I think we are now beginning to see the characters develop a more thoughtful, less reactive approach to leadership (the Hilltop had an election) and negotiation. Maggie’s sudden and single-handed execution of Gregory was troubling (even though it was REALLY time to get rid of that lying snake, in my opinion), but I’m holding out hope that people will get on board with Michonne’s idea of a charter that will help govern community relations in this new society. But maybe I’m just being naive and Quixotic. 😉
  3. Assorted Dickens: Rarely does a week go by when I don’t have some sort of mystical communion with Charles Dickens, and this week was no different. In my composition classes, we analyzed the first chapter of A Tale of Two Cities as an example of all kinds of strategies, from semicolon use to comparison/contrast to topic sentences. At home, I tried watching a black-and-white miniseries of Barnaby Rudge, possibly Dickens’s most underrated novel, but the DVD kept freezing up, so I gave up in disgust. Now I’m watching the 1994 BBC version of Martin Chuzzlewit. Through all this, I’ve been reminded of Dickens’s absolute genius for creating memorable characters and the passion for social justice that permeates just about everything he writes. He’s amazing. I love him. That is all.

my teaching philosophy

I’m taking an online class about how to teach online (it’s a totally understandable standard requirement for first-time online instructors at my new school, even those of us who have taught online elsewhere), and I have to write a paper about my teaching philosophy! With sources! What? I didn’t sign up for this! And now I feel exactly like my students feel in every single one of my classes. It seems the course designers were trying to teach us a lesson in empathy (ya think?). I think I have a teaching philosophy somewhere that I wrote for a previous purpose, but I thought it might be self-plagiarism if I turned it in for this class (again, this is the kind of stuff my students worry about). So I thought I’d try out some ideas in this post.

The first aspect of my teaching philosophy [Comment: This is kind of a clunky transition. Can you think of a way to introduce your topic without announcing?] is that teachers should model their expectations. If I want my students to get into the habit of consulting a manual for APA format, I should show them how to look up information in the manual, not pretend I know all the APA answers from memory because I’m the teacher. If I want my students to be able to perform a close reading of a story, it’s okay if I spend most of the class period retelling Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” (which I’m not sure if my students read in the first place even though I told them to) with an open textbook in front of me, pausing to ask questions (and admit that I don’t know all the answers and explain that some questions have many possible answers) and point out the kinds of literary elements I want my students to be looking for. If I don’t want my students to be on their phones during class, maybe I shouldn’t always be playing on mine while they’re taking quizzes (yikes, that’s a hard one!). [I don’t have a source for this. Can we use personal experience in this paper?]

Teachers should also make themselves available to their students, but with boundaries. [Comment: There, that’s a better transition!] During the workday, I try to respond to emails as quickly and as thoroughly as possible; I keep my office hours even though students rarely come by (and I keep my door open during office hours, which seems obvious to me but apparently isn’t universal practice), and I will always pause during class to answer a student’s question (but that’s mainly because I’m pretty sure I have adult-onset ADD and can’t ignore a raised hand). I see myself as an approachable helper, not an elusive oracle who speaks only in enigmatic proverbs. But I also set boundaries (e.g., I usually don’t check email in the evenings and on Sundays) not only for my own mental health, but also because I want my students to develop problem-solving skills and patience and learn not to panic when they don’t receive an immediate response from me. [Still no sources. Maybe I can throw in a gratuitous reference to Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend?]

Finally, I believe [Comment: No need to say “I believe”; I know you are the author.] that teachers should show the mercy and grace they have been shown. For example, the necessary flip side of my being unavailable on Sundays is that I’m usually a little lenient with Monday deadlines (shh…don’t tell my students)–i.e. if a student is waiting for a response to a question he/she emailed me over the weekend, I will usually allow that student to turn in the assignment a little late and/or resubmit it if it was submitted incorrectly. (Unless the question was stupid. Wait, there are no stupid questions! Don’t we all tell our students that? It’s mostly true.) I know some professors who approach students with skepticism (at least claim that they do so), muttering comments like “I bet his grandmother really didn’t die; he just doesn’t want to come to class.” I have to admit that I’ve had similar uncharitable thoughts before, especially about online students, whose faces I don’t see and voices I don’t hear, so it becomes far too easy to think of them as machines rather than people. That’s why I believe that it’s imperative, especially with online students, to assume positive intent and give students the benefit of the doubt. I’d rather be defrauded by one student (even though I HATE the thought of being lied to) than take a disbelieving stance toward every student. Like Albus Dumbledore, I want to believe the best about people, and it’s usually a good policy, except when hiring Defense against the Dark Arts teachers (Rowling, Books 1-7). [There! I got a citation in.]

Well, hopefully I can copy and paste some of this into my paper and just add some big words make it sound a little more academic. But would that be self-plagiarism?