Hufflepuff Leadership: a blog idea

I’m thinking of rebranding my blog. Before I explain why, I’ll briefly explain the blog’s history for those of you who haven’t been with me from the beginning.

I started penelopeclearwater.wordpress.com in December 2011 so that I could get two free books. A friend had told me about an opportunity to receive the books for free in exchange for reviewing them on my blog. I didn’t have a blog, but there’s a lot that I’d be willing to do for free books, so I started one. (I posted the book review in January 2012.) As you will see if you read my inaugural post, I had fairly high aspirations for the blog (I wanted it to be “a place where thoughtful inquiry and the magic of words can thrive”), but I never had a specific theme in mind. For the past 6+ years, I’ve kept that tradition alive, posting about whatever I felt like posting about. In that inaugural post, I also explained the reasoning behind the blog’s name–and its subtitle, which is the motto of Ravenclaw House–and while my original ideas about the title still apply, I’ve come to identify with Hufflepuff more than Ravenclaw (a journey I’ve documented well here on the blog, in a number of existential-crisis posts). In the beginning, I sometimes used “Penelope Clearwater” as a narrative persona; I rarely do so now.

Recently, some observations and conversations have gotten me rethinking the goal of the blog and how I want to represent that goal. Let me first make clear that I have no intention of quitting my day job in order to become a professional blogger. This is a hobby. Nevertheless, hobbies can be approached with purpose just like jobs can. One way I’ve been approaching my blog with greater purpose over the past year and a half is to post weekly, with few exceptions, generally on Mondays. I’ve also linked the blog to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, garnering a larger readership, even if it consists mostly of people I know personally.

I’ve also noticed that most other people’s blogs–at least the popular ones–have a specific theme. I’ve observed that when I categorize my posts with certain keywords–especially “travel”–I get more likes and follows from the WordPress community than when I use other keywords (and certainly more than before I started using categories and tags). This phenomenon was confirmed by a successful blogger I know. Another friend helped me to nuance this idea by noting that while the blogs she follows do tend to have a specific theme (cooking, design, books, etc.), some of her favorite posts are the ones in which the bloggers depart from their ostensible topics and show a slice of their lives and/or make observations outside their chosen fields. This reassured me that committing to a narrower focus may not be as restrictive as I had feared.

Also, when my dad’s guest post from this past Friday sparked immediate attention and elicited articulate comments from some of my Facebook friends, I again got the message that people are looking for ideas to engage with and not just the kooky ramblings of my mind.

All of this led me to the conclusion that it might be time to refocus and rebrand my blog.  But I didn’t know what to focus it on until one recent morning when I was thinking about some recent conversations I’d had with a work colleague. The idea came to me that someone should write a book (or a blog–or both) about how to lead like a Hufflepuff–a person who is probably not a natural or comfortable leader. I thought it would be fun to write in the persona of a Hufflepuff prefect and offer advice, from my own and others’ experience, about leading with the qualities valued by our house. And I realized that a number of my existing posts would fit into this theme with very little tweaking.

Next week, I’ll expand on this idea, but for now, what do you think? Would you read a blog about Hufflepuff leadership, keeping in mind that not every post would be explicitly on that theme?

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Guest Post: Another Shooting

Some of you may have read my response to the Sandy Hook school shooting back in 2012.  Today, I am featuring a response to yesterday’s school shooting in South Florida, this one by a guest blogger, my dad, Todd Stockslager.  Dad is a thoughtful observer of recent societal trends, and whether you agree or disagree with his arguments (most likely, you’ll agree with some and disagree with others, which is how normal argumentation works), you’ll have plenty to think about after reading.  If you like his writing and want to know what he thinks about books and the topics they address, you can follow him on Goodreads.

Here’s the post:

Another shooting.  Another round of press conferences with first responders and politicians expressing shock, grief, and prayers for the survivors and the families of the victims.   Another round of tweets and condolences and visits from President Trump.  The places and faces change.   The words and responses don’t.   It’s time for change:  Gun control or mind control?  Pick one.

President Trump called the Las Vegas shooter a mentally ill “very sick” person, apparently to deflect the issue away from the call for banning the assault weapons and the kits that can convert other weapons to fully automatic weapons.    Now the same terminology is being applied to the Florida shooter, again for the same apparent reason, and already even though I have not paid full attention to the story I am seeing headlines that we need to do a better job keeping guns away from the “mentally ill.”  Is anyone else as frightened by this trend as I am?

With a portion of the American population, access to assault weapons or these converter kits is an absolute political right that can never be taken away or even limited, based on one interpretation of the Second Amendment.  President Trump seems by his actions and words in these mass shooting incidents to support this position.  So the only option is to increase psychiatric testing and monitoring of behavior, speech, association, and social medium usage to be able to better detect, predict, and restrict the freedom of speech, association, and belief of those who are deemed “mentally ill”.    Behavior that is not wanted—bullying, membership in certain groups like white nationalist groups, or the reverse, seeking isolation from social contact—is to be not criminalized, but medicalized:  identified as “mental illness.”

But who gets to identify what qualifies as “mental illness”?  Who enforces the actions—legal, medical, social, financial—that being labelled “mentally ill” brings to bear on a person?  What recourse does that person have to appeal the labeling and remove themselves from the action brought to limit their legal, medical, social or financial freedom?  Have we forgotten that within the last century thousands of people were identified (by families, doctors, and others) as “mentally ill” and forcibly placed in mental institutions against their will with no recourse, where things like forced sterilizations, abortions, electroshock and drug therapy and lobotomies were performed, against their will with no recourse?  Have we forgotten that Hitler labelled groups of people as undesirable and thus worthy of extermination based on characteristics such as ethnic and religious Judaism and mental illness?  In labelling them together as undesirables, he made Judaism and mental illness equivalent and sent them all to concentration camps for extermination—all legally within the government policies of Nazi Germany, all against their will with no recourse, all ignored by the rest of the population?   In case we have forgotten, it is history, it happened, it is called the Holocaust.

We started down this slippery slope with the criminalization of “hate speech” in the last few decades.  As much as we may hate speech we disagree with and find despicable, absolute freedom of speech is the one true inviolable right that every American has and should have defended but gave away.   Some speech, which should never be criminal, has now been identified as “hate speech” and criminalized.  The next slip down the slope is medicalization of some behaviors that we disagree with and find despicable, and as should be clear from the argument I have already made, medicalization of behavior is potentially more dangerous than criminalizing it, and is just one short slip away from the Holocaust.

As much as I hate this behavior, belonging to a white nationalist group is not a sign of “mental illness.”  As much as I hate this behavior, belonging to and training with a paramilitary group is not a sign of “mental illness” and should not be criminalized.   The headlines I saw identified the Florida shooter as having these behaviors, and he has already been identified as “mentally ill”.   He is not mentally ill.  He is a criminal, not because he belonged to those groups, but because he killed 17 people.  Full stop.  That is the crime for which he should be charged and punished.

Note that I didn’t say: “He is a criminal, not because he belonged to those groups, but because he killed 17 people with an assault weapon.”  Had he killed 17 people with a knife, or a handgun, he would be just as guilty.  However, had he tried to kill 17 people with a knife or a handgun, it is highly unlikely he would have succeeded.  The speed and effectiveness of what are essentially military-grade automatic weapons enable one person to fire off thousands of rounds indiscriminately and cause more death much more quickly.  Just close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the Las Vegas shooting and remember that one person firing one weapon at a time fired all those shots and killed all those people.

But we’re back to the apparently absolute political right to access assault weapons or these converter kits, based on one interpretation of the Second Amendment, so we have no choice but to medicalize the behavior.  At least that seems to be President Trump’s position and the position of those identified as the “gun lobby.”  Then who decides?  And which behaviors are medicalized?    Every person of faith, of every faith—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—should be frightened by this, because faith will be the next behavior to be medicalized.  Again on that slippery slope we’ve already started down:  business owners who refuse to serve homosexual customers because of their religious faith already face criminal prosecution.  The next step is medicalizing the belief so that people who believe this way can be medicated, or institutionalized, or sterilized, or lobotomized, or—subjected to the final solution?  That could never happen here, could it?  If you are counting on President Trump to make clear moral decisions based on a consistent philosophy rooted in 5000 years of Judeo-Christian moral principle, in 500 years of Enlightenment philosophy, and in the Constitution that encoded both of those cultural legacies in our founding political document, you are expecting more than an amoral and incompetent businessman and reality TV star has ever demonstrated himself capable of even attempting.   I do not trust anyone in American politics today on either side of the political aisle to make decisions about which of my behaviors and beliefs constitute mental health or illness.

For that, I might have to take up a gun to defend my freedom.   OK, so let’s talk about gun control   since we’re done talking about mind control and how horribly frightened we all should be by the prospect (I am reminded of Aragorn’s exclamation to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings when he said that he was frightened by the events he had just witnessed:  “Not nearly frightened enough!  I know what hunts you.”).   I’m not talking about hunting rifles, vintage collector’s items like muzzle-loaders and Civil War weapons.  I’m not even talking about handguns.  We already have restrictions on buying, licensing, and carrying them, which may not be 100% effective, but limit use of them to either individual acts of robbery or murder on the one hand, or self-defense on the other.  Handguns and hunting rifles are not being used to kill dozens of people in Las Vegas and Florida, and the incidence of misuse of handguns and hunting rifles, while sad, is an acceptable price to pay for the freedom to own and use them.

Can we then agree to ban the sale of assault rifles, automatic weapons converter kits, and other military-grade weapons to civilians?   I would say again, close your eyes and listen to the video of the Las Vegas shooting and ask yourself in what context any civilian has any valid use they can make of weapons that can cause such instantaneous destruction.  The instantly available horror of these events in the cell phone video era have made it unacceptable to allow such events to continue to occur without some political and legal response.  If the choice is to accept control and limits to some types of guns or to accept control and limits to some types of beliefs and behaviors, then the smallest loss of freedom is in the controls on guns.

Those who are unwilling to accept these controls because of their interpretation of Second Amendment rights in the Constitution are ignoring their much more fundamental and important First Amendment rights.  I am not arguing whether they may be right on the Second Amendment; legal scholars and the courts have been debating the intent and meaning of that amendment for 200 years, so I certainly have no insight on any of that debate that is better than that already expressed over those years. I just know that not all of us own guns that may be protected by the Second Amendment, but all of us own life, liberty and the freedom of speech to pursue happiness that are protected by the First Amendment.

And the alternative to that freedom is holocaust.

blessed are les miserables (and other lessons from song lyrics)

As you may know, if you’ve been reading my blog for long, I tend to listen to a lot of music that doesn’t have lyrics, particularly my workday quadrivium of classic, ambient, post-rock, and movie scores.  So when I do listen to music with lyrics, I make sure they’re good lyrics.  Here are some observations I’ve made recently on some great song lyrics.

  1. 2009 was the year I fell in love with both the Harry Potter series and Coldplay’s album (which I still maintain is their greatest) Viva La Vida.  I got really invested in Snape during my first reading of the series, so I often thought of him–and still do–when I hear these lyrics from the last song on Viva La Vida: “No, I don’t wanna battle from beginning to end; I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge; I don’t want to follow death and all of his friends.”  In those lyrics, I see Snape making the hard choice not to take revenge on James Potter’s child, and I see him turning his back on Voldemort and all of his Death-eaters.  Whatever you think about Snape, you have to admit those were brave things to do.
  2. Recently I’ve been listening to the song that goes “I’m no longer a slave to fear; I am a child of God.”  (Someone help me out here–is the artist I Am They or Bethel Music, or are those essentially the same thing?  I’m not hip enough to understand what’s going on with these “worship collectives” that are so popular these days.)  It’s the sort of song that I would generally say is a little too “on the nose.”  I admit it; I’m kind of a music snob, so I prefer subtlety in my lyrics.  But I’ve realized recently that sometimes a song that’s “on the nose” is exactly what I need.  Sometimes I just need someone to tell me that I’m a child of God.  I’m thankful for this song.
  3. And now, a thought for this Ash Wednesday from my favorite musical, Les Miserables.  I’ve been thinking about the title (which is also the title of Victor Hugo’s novel, the musical’s source text) and how we never translate it into English.  I think that’s because we don’t have a word in English that exactly captures the meaning.  “The Miserable (People”) isn’t quite right because we’re talking about a specific kind of misery.  There’s a phrase in one of the songs that captures the idea well: “the wretched of the earth.”  Les Miserables is mostly about the poor, prisoners, and prostitutes–the rejects of society.  But it gets really interesting if you think of every character in the story as les miserables, including the supposed antagonist, Javert, who is a tragic character because he can’t accept forgiveness or even his own life as a gift.  “Les miserables” are similar to the people Jesus was talking about when he said “blessed are the poor in spirit”–the people who don’t have it all together, to put it mildly.  These people are blessed if, like Jean Valjean, they acknowledge their poverty of spirit; they are doomed if, like Javert, they try to deny it.  And, if we’re honest, these people are all of us.  So take that thought into Lent with you.

things I dig right at this moment

Every so often (okay, pretty often) my brain is too scattered to produce a unified blog post, but I can still manage to make a list of disunified things I’m thinking about.  Here is one such list: Things I Dig Right at This Moment.

  1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs I showed this to my children’s lit students this morning, and I was reminded once again of how much sense this makes.  (Maslow’s basic argument is that the bottom levels of the hierarchy are necessary in order to achieve the higher levels.)  It applies to so many situations: the difficulty abused and neglected kids have in school, the poor work output of people who aren’t getting enough sleep, the writer’s block I get when I’m worried about other things (hey, didn’t I just mention that?).  It even explains the phenomenon of being hangry.  Sure, there are amazing stories about people who aren’t getting their foundational needs fulfilled (such as concentration camp victims) who nevertheless achieve the highest level of the pyramid by creating beautiful works of art or performing heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but what makes those stories so amazing is their rarity.  They are the exception that proves the rule.
  2. The emoji with no mouth. You’ve seen it: It’s a smiley face, minus the smile.  And yet it’s so eloquent.  I use it to mean “There are no words”–a phrase which, like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, applies to so many situations.
  3. To Kill a MockingbirdI finished rereading this classic yesterday, and I was confirmed in my opinion that Scout Finch is one of the greatest narrators, and Atticus one of the greatest dads, of all time.  Very few books juxtapose humor and danger (recall that Scout is wearing a ham costume throughout the climactic scene), wisdom and innocence (Atticus’s words interpreted through the child Scout’s limited understanding and recalled from the adult Scout’s perspective) in such an effective way.  And the evocative descriptions—the humid warmth of a summer evening, the cracks in a sidewalk that has a tree root pushing through it—take me back to my own childhood, even though mine wasn’t spent in Alabama.
  4. The Grey Havens. My friend told me about this band Saturday morning, I impulse-bought their album Ghost of a King for $10 on iTunes without sampling it first, and I ended up listening to it over and over while driving that day.  Although their style is a little inconsistent (fluctuating from the folksy and dramatic sound of Mumford and Sons to a poppier but still substantial sound that reminds me of Imagine Dragons), I don’t mind that because I like both kinds of music, and their themes are consistent.  This is Christian music that doesn’t advertise itself as such.  On Ghost of a King, without using the names “God” or “Jesus,” they pretty much outline the whole history of the Bible, hitting the major points of creation, fall, and redemption.  My favorite song on that album is “Diamonds and Gold,” definitely on the pop/electronic end and very fun to dance to in the car (and probably out of the car, too).
  5. using flavored cream cheese as a dip for pretzels. Last night I used the Philadelphia brand roasted vegetable cream cheese as a comparatively “healthy” Super Bowl “dip.”  (Oh, my gosh.  Philadelphia.  I just made the connection.  I am the reason they won.)  Today, I polished off the rest of a tub of honey pecan cream cheese (also Philadelphia) as a lunch snack at work.  Seriously, this is good.  You should try it.

What are you digging right now?  Let me know in the comments.

the humility of Jesus

Yesterday morning, I wasn’t planning to go to church; I was going to donate platelets instead.  (My prioritization of church, or lack thereof, is a topic for another post.)  But my hemoglobin was a little too low to donate, so I ended up walking into the 11:00 church service about 15 minutes in, toward the end of the singing.  Normally I carry a big, black leather-bound ESV study Bible to church, as well as a hardcover journal for taking notes.  (Never mind that I take notes mostly in order to stay awake in my church’s soft-seated, dimly-lit sanctuary and rarely go back and look at my notes.  Having the journal makes me look serious.)  But yesterday, because I didn’t think I was going to church, I didn’t have my Bible and journal.  So I walked in late, with no Bible (in a church where most people still carry bound Bibles) and with a new short, somewhat asymmetrical haircut that could, I suppose, be interpreted as countercultural.  And, because I don’t know the words very well yet, I didn’t sing most of the song that had just started when I walked in.  Taking together all of these factors, I was worried that the people next to me were going to assume I was a visitor, probably an “unchurched” one.

When my pastor began preaching on Matthew 12:15-21 (at least I had the YouVersion Bible app on my phone and could follow along), I quickly realized how silly my worries were–even if the people next to me were actually thinking about me, which is unlikely.  In that passage, Jesus heals a lot of people and then forbids them to tell anyone.  My pastor pointed to this action as a demonstration of Jesus’ humility: Jesus’ goal on earth was to do his Father’s will, not to “make his own name famous” (a phrase that is popular today in some church circles but is inconsistent with Jesus’ whole way of operating).  It’s not that Jesus didn’t want people hearing his message; he just didn’t want fame, which is shallow and temporary.  We as Christians, my pastor said, spend too much time doing image control, worrying about whether we’re giving a good impression of Christianity.  Even when we say that we don’t care what people think, we’re showing that we care what people think.  My pastor said that all we are called to do is to live in obedience (which sometimes means proclaiming a message verbally–that’s not what is being forbidden here); it is not our job to control how we’re perceived.

It made me think of Shusaku Endo’s Silence (okay, I haven’t read the book, but the movie absolutely wrecked me), which is about a man who has an intensely personal faith in God of which he cannot speak, but which, we understand in retrospect, has driven his actions all through his life.  This character doesn’t have the luxury of branding himself as a Christian, as so many of us do in America today, but all that matters to him is that he knows that God knows of his faithfulness.

I ended up putting away my phone and just listening to the sermon.  My church follows the current trend of putting the words of Scripture on the screens at the front, so I didn’t really need to follow along in my app anyway (unless I wanted to look at the context, which using the screens can’t really replace).  I tried to think of myself not as an individual sticking out like a sore thumb, but as another member of Christ’s body, just like the people next to me.  It helped.  I listened.  I worshiped.  And, wonderfully, I didn’t fall asleep!

 

motif or obsession

This past weekend, I attended the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, and during a session on monologue-writing, which ended up being more generally about principles of characterization, we were asked to write short descriptions of the people represented by faces that the presenter showed on the screen.  Then we had to pick our favorite, sketch a picture of them, and write a monologue using beginning, middle, and ending lines given to us by the presenter.

I drew this guy:

I said he has one Hispanic parent and one white parent, he is approaching 30, and he is passively annoyed that everyone considers him a harmless teddy bear.  His name is Manny, but as I was writing his monologue, in which he gets defensive about the fact that he illustrates comic books for a living and hardly ever leaves his apartment, I realized that he was basically a biracial version, with a somewhat different childhood trauma, of the character I’m always writing about–usually named Sam.

When I started writing about this character, I was in high school, and so was he.  He was called Sparky Melloy back then, but his real name was Samuel.  Then, as now, he was blond-haired, chubby, quiet, self-effacing, and sometimes funny.  Back then, he was obsessed with Dr. Pepper and often wore baseball caps backward.  Now, he prefers Coke (his tastes have matured) and only occasionally wears a baseball cap, forward.

There was a period a few years ago during which I departed a bit from this general profile.  The guy I wrote about during this time shared many of Sparky/Sam’s features, but he was a musician with dark curly hair–he was Jewish, sometimes–who was both older (because I was older too) and angrier than his previous manifestations.  Sometimes he had a fraternal twin brother.  This guy was different enough from Sparky Melloy that I gave him a different name, Adrian.  But the basic character was still there.

At some point, I got rid of the fraternal twin brother, who was a jerk anyway, but I gave Sam (for that is now his permanent name) a best friend, a curly-haired, easily annoyed musician named Adrian.  But this Adrian is a skinny redhead, and I totally jettisoned the Jewish part, mainly because I have no idea how to write from a Jewish perspective.

Here’s what I know about Sam: He writes and illustrates comic books for a living and is quite successful.  He’s single and thinks he probably always will be, mainly because he doesn’t think any woman will ever be attracted to a “fat mental patient” like him.  (He spent one night in a psych ward, 10 years ago, after he attempted suicide and Adrian saved his life.)  He grew up with a severely depressed mother, a father who couldn’t talk about emotions, and no siblings.  Sam himself is on medication for depression, but he’s not a depressing person to be around.  He’s creative, kind, sometimes surprisingly witty, and usually a calming influence on people around him.  Life is hard for him, but he doesn’t want to die anymore.  And, in the story I’m writing right now, he’s surviving the zombie apocalypse.

Generally, when we see a character, theme, or symbol recurring again and again in an author’s writing, we call it a motif.  I think Sam may be an obsession.  I don’t know if he represents me, the person I want to be, or the person I don’t want to be–maybe all of the above.  I kind of have a crush on him.  I know, it’s weird.  But those of you who are writers–or who at least make up stories in your head–do you know what I mean?  Please share.

the greatest showmen

In the week leading up to Christmas, I used my MoviePass (a small investment that pays off hugely even if you don’t go to the movies as often as I do) to see three films: The Man Who Invented ChristmasStar Wars: The Last Jedi, and The Greatest Showman.  I am a casual Star Wars fan at most, so I am both unqualified and a little frightened at the prospect of jumping into the debates surrounding the latest installment, so I won’t.  I’ll simply say that I found the story satisfying and the visual experience awesome (especially in IMAX) and that I am MAD SHIPPING Rey and Kylo Ren (as are the filmmakers, I think, in a subtle way that I really like).

The other two films I saw are about larger-than-life nineteenth century entertainers: Charles Dickens (in The Man Who Invented Christmas) and P.T. Barnum (in The Greatest Showman).  Yes, I called Dickens an entertainer, because that’s how he saw himself (he always wanted to be an actor, and he found his headiest enjoyment in the dramatic and comic public readings he gave toward the end of his life), and I don’t think calling him that diminishes the literary merit of his work at all.  Barnum, of course, can’t really be called anything but an entertainer.  In the remainder of my post, I’ll say a few words about each movie and then explain the similarities I see between these two wild, frustrating, delightful, troubled (and troubling) men.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is the story of Dickens’ composition of A Christmas Carol.  While indulging in some magical realism, it remains remarkably faithful to the biographical facts and psychological truths of Dickens’ life.  As a Dickens fan and scholar, I found virtually nothing to quibble about; it was emotionally and intellectually on point.  The performances were excellent, especially Dan Stevens’ portrayal of the young, dandyish, and rather pretty Dickens.  (Okay, he was kind of gorgeous–I mean both Stevens and the real Dickens.)  I wish this movie had received wider release.

The Greatest Showman has received wider release and much more hype.  I suppose one would call it a bio-musical.  The music is effective, inspiring, and catchy.  The message is simple: Love yourself; follow your dreams.  But this message is, of course, complicated by the historical facts: P.T. Barnum built his business on deception, and–regardless of how well he may have treated his employees–he was still charging money for them to be viewed as curiosities–that is, freaks.  The musical format makes it easy to forget that people weren’t going to Barnum’s circus to see talented singers and dancers.  They weren’t going to see a fantastic female singer who happened to have a beard.  They were going to see a bearded lady, period.

For me, the most interesting thing about The Greatest Showman was the similarities I saw between Barnum (at least the way he was portrayed in this movie–I haven’t done any research on him) and Dickens.  Both grew up as working, lower-class boys who then spent their entire adult lives trying to get respect from the wealthy who would never see them as anything but vulgar entertainers.  Both were amazingly creative and audacious, if not always prudent.  Even Barnum’s weird obsession with promoting the renowned singer Jenny Lind (who didn’t really need a promoter) reminded me of the series of bad decisions Dickens made during his mid-life crisis.  It’s also interesting to note that Dickens had a lifelong enjoyment of the circus.  I wonder if he ever got to see Barnum’s show on one of his visits to America.  I’d have to check and see if the dates line up.

I may pursue this theme later, but I’ll close for now by recommended all of the films I’ve just mentioned.  Even the troubling Greatest Showman is enjoyable, well-executed, and deserving of any honors it may receive during this award season.