how Harry Potter defeated Voldemort

Over the weekend, I responded to a Facebook post asking how the main character of the story I’m writing would respond if he were in the place of the main character of the last movie I watched. The last movie I watched happened to be Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (the odds were pretty good), and the main character in my zombie apocalypse story is Sam Larson, whom you can read about here and here. I said that Sam wouldn’t be in Harry’s position at all; he’d be in Hufflepuff minding his own business. But, I wrote, if he did happen to find himself in such a critical situation, he’d probably do what Harry did: sacrifice himself for his friends and accomplish a quiet, understated defeat over evil.

That last part surprised me as I wrote it. My character, Sam, is certainly quiet and understated. But what’s quiet and understated about the most epic battle between good and evil of our time? With wands and spells and people flying through the air and Hogwarts castle burning to the ground? The answer is that Voldemort isn’t defeated in a battle. He’s defeated after a battle. In the final movie, which follows roughly the last one-third of the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the first half is loud and fast, with lots of cuts and lots of people on the screen at any given time. Then, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione slip away from the aftermath of the battle and witness the intensely private death of Severus Snape, things slow down. Harry watches Snape’s memories and learns his fate alone (and this is quite a long scene in the movie), and he walks into the woods to face Voldemort alone, except for the unseen presence of the spirits of his loved ones. When Voldemort finally faces Harry, there’s no music and no sound from the other characters, just Voldemort’s curse ripping through the silence.

A quiet, thoughtful conversation between Dumbledore and Harry ensues in Harry’s personal version of limbo, a whited-out King’s Cross Station (even the muted color creates a sense of hush in this scene). And when Harry returns to life, he stays silent, pretending to still be dead, until the right moment. Keeping quiet about his defeat of death is surely difficult for the ultimate Gryffindor, but Harry has learned wisdom to balance out his eagerness.

Once Harry reveals that he isn’t dead, chaos breaks out, and the battle resumes, but it isn’t the focus of the story. In the book, everyone eventually stops fighting and watches and listens while Harry and Voldemort face off and Harry gives a long, detailed explanation of the Horcruxes and why the Elder Wand doesn’t work for Voldemort–why, in fact, Tom Riddle is already defeated. In the movie, the conversation is much shorter, and the face-off has no audience; Harry and Voldemort fight alone on the ramparts of their mutually beloved school. Both portrayals, in different ways, value privacy over display and wisdom over physical force. Voldemort goes out, to quote T.S. Eliot, “not with a bang but a whimper.” And, in an anticlimactic but perfect move, Harry destroys the wand that brings about Voldemort’s defeat, knowing that it would come to defeat others.

Much has been written on how the valued qualities of all four Hogwarts houses are necessary in the defeat of Voldemort, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone explain how Harry comes to embody all four in the end. (I’m sure someone has written about this; I just haven’t seen it.) Obviously, Harry is most of all brave like the Gryffindor he is. He faces death, “the last enemy” as the Apostle Paul puts it. But he is also incredibly logical and thoughtful, like a Ravenclaw, figuring out the wand conundrum that still confuses me a little bit every time I read the book. He is wise in a different way, too–“wise as a serpent” (to use Jesus’ words), shrewd like a Slytherin, knowing when to hold back information and when to reveal it. And like a Hufflepuff, he gives credit to the others who participated in Voldemort’s defeat. Harry knows that although he is the Chosen One, his bravery, wisdom, and cunning would fall short if not for the friends he remains loyal to, even when (as he often is) he is tempted to strike out on his own. And not just friends, but surprising allies like Snape.

Well, shoot, I just made myself cry while blogging–AGAIN. Harry Potter fans, I’m interested to know what you think about all this. Let me know in the comments.

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the dig list

It’s time for one of my periodic lists of stuff I dig right now.

  1. Music with close vocal harmonies. Throughout the past week, I have been listening to two bands whose music showcases the capabilities of the male voice in harmony with others. One is Queen. Have you ever noticed–well, I’m sure you have; I’m stating the obvious here–that if you stripped away the wailing guitars, many of their songs would make wonderful barbershop quartet numbers? The other band is Lord Huron, whose moody music conjures the lowering darkness of an overcast autumn day–specifically, of clouds gathering over a lake, probably Lake Huron. (Some of their songs reference lakes too.) Their harmonies are tiiiiiight (in two senses of the word).
  2. The Pickwick Papers. I decided that while I’m reading Michael Slater’s biography of Charles Dickens, I’m going to watch, in order of novel publication, my collection of BBC Dickens adaptations. Saturday and Sunday, I watched the 1985 Pickwick Papers miniseries. I can’t put my finger on what’s so delightful about watching rotund middle-aged men act like adult children and get into the same tight spots (figuratively and sometimes literally) over and over again, but maybe it’s that in this novel and only this novel within Dickens’ repertoire, everyone is so genuinely good-hearted. Even the blood-sucking lawyers Dodson and Fogg are ultimately harmless. Pickwick and his friends triumph because they choose to believe the best about everyone. Maybe that’s not the way the world really works, but it’s something to strive for. Watching this mini-series is kind of like watching Parks and Recreation, which manages to be hilarious even while being refreshingly un-cynical. All the duels, lawsuits, and other confrontations in Pickwick are funny in the same way that it’s funny when the other characters make fun of Jerry on Parks and Rec. They’re like little kids trying to be mean but succeeding only in being cute.
  3. Fazoli’s. Okay, look. It may not be “authentic Italian food,” though I’m not sure that phrase really means much in America, where we’ve adopted Italian cuisine as one of our own and enacted tons of bizarrely creative, often successful variations on it. (I mean, just look at pizza.) But I ordered a Caesar side salad, baked ziti, breadsticks, and a blood orange Italian ice online, picked it up, and was back home within half an hour. It was faster than flying to Sicily. And it was good.
  4. Peer review day. One of my favorite things to do as a teacher is to walk around the classroom and briefly engage with pairs of students as they read and constructively critique each other’s papers. My short attention span appreciates the short interactions, and instead of standing in front of a classroom babbling until my throat hurts, I get to swoop in, answer questions and sound very knowledgeable, and move on to the next group. All kidding aside (not kidding about that stuff, though), peer review can be a great instructional strategy, teaching students the important life skills of reflection and of giving feedback without being vague or unkind. Fortunately, I’m teaching two writing classes and have lots of peer review days to look forward to this semester.

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

the journey north, part 2

I decided to go ahead and narrate the second half of my M22 road trip while it’s fresh in my mind. When we left off, I was standing atop Old Baldy Dune in the Arcadia Bluffs Natural Area, having a bit of a spiritual experience. That was my only outdoor adventure of the day, the rest of which was spent mostly eating. In fact, I spent a good portion of this trip eating. But I think I balanced this activity out pretty well with walking. Every day of the trip, I took a long walk if not a full-blown hike.

On the way to my next planned stop, I went into Frankfort, my new favorite town, and stopped at the Crescent Bakery, which I had seen the day before. It’s a popular spot; there was a line out the door when I stopped (granted, it’s a small building). I had a dirty chai (chai tea latte with a shot of espresso–I always feel like I need to explain that) and a cinnamon sugar cake doughnut that was good but not quite up to the standard of Mama’s Crockett’s, which is one of the things I miss most about the Lynchburg area.

Next, I made my first of two stops that day in Glen Arbor. M22 goes right through the center of town, and some of the most popular shopping destinations on the route are here, creating a perfect storm of foot and car traffic. Fortunately, my destination, the M22 Store, has its own parking lot. You can rent kayaks and other outdoorsy equipment here, but I was there to shop the merchandise branded after the famous route. I bought an M22 sticker for my car, which has previously played host to stickers for the Blue Ridge Parkway and Route 12, the road that spans the length of the Outer Banks. I also bought a raglan shirt that I think is supposed to be for men, but I chose it because the M22 logo is small and subtle, meaning that I can probably wear the shirt to work.

The other thing I wanted to do in Glen Arbor was get a piece of cherry pie at Cherry Republic, but I decided to come back for that after lunch, which I planned to eat at the Village Cheese Shanty in Leland. When I arrive in Leland around noon, it was crowded as well; I had to park several blocks away from Fishtown, the Lake Michigan-side historic district that is primarily made up of small, weathered board shanties, such as the aforementioned cheese one. The VCS is small, hot, and crowded, but it’s really good at sandwiches. I ordered the Leelanau (name of the county where Leland is located, as well as Leland’s other lake), which is a roast beef sandwich with veggies and local fromage blanc–a soft, spreadable white cheese with herbs. I enjoyed my sandwich on a bench away from the crowds, from which I could see the lake.

Then I headed back to Glen Arbor, which by this time was so teeming with pedestrians and cars that it was starting to stress me out. I parked along a residential street and then walked to Cherry Republic, which consists of a restaurant, a store, and a “tasting room.” I didn’t want to wait for a slice of pie in the restaurant, which looked busy, so I bought an entire freshly made (still warm) pie in the store. Why not? I carried my cherry pie to the Cottonseed, an upscale (read: expensive) women’s clothing boutique whose front-porch end-of-season clearance section intrigued me. I found a light ivory-and-tan striped dress (with pockets!), basically the perfect summer dress, which I wore to work yesterday in defiance of the rule about wearing white after Labor Day. Next, I went to Leelanau Coffee Roasters and got a chai freeze and carried it down to a little strip of beach where I took yet a few more views of the lake (some lake–I lost track of what I was looking at) for my Instagram followers.

By then, it was mid-afternoon, so I decided to head toward my lodgings for the night. I followed M22 North to the point where it turns around and becomes M22 South. I didn’t stop in Northpoint, the appropriately-named town on the point, but continued to Sutton’s Bay, where my hotel was. Sutton’s Bay marked the farthest point of my trip; I didn’t follow M22 to its terminus in Traverse City (I decided to save that for another trip). In Sutton’s Bay, I stayed at the cute M22 Inn (another old-style motor lodge) and ordered a pizza from Roman Wheel, which makes the good, greasy pie you expect from a small-town pizzeria. I ate that and a slice of my cherry pie while watching Fear the Walking Dead in my hotel room.

On the last day of my trip, instead of taking Siri’s recommended fastest route back to Grand Rapids, I decided to retrace my route along M22, stopping in places that I had enjoyed to get in one last visit (like Frankfort; this time I walked out on the pier to Frankfort Light, which is a rather forbidding, prison-esque lighthouse) and in places that I didn’t love the first time, to give them another chance (like Glen Arbor, which was much more peaceful when I stopped for a coffee early in the morning on Labor Day). I also stopped in Northpoint this time just to say I’d been at the tip of the peninsula; their waterfront area is beautiful, and Barb’s Bakery has good cream cheese danishes but doesn’t take credit cards on orders under $10 (but checks are accepted).

I enjoyed this trip immensely, and I can’t wait to go back “up north,” as the phrase goes around here, in the fall to enjoy the beautiful foliage for which the area is famed.

 

I’m in love with a sand dune.

This past holiday weekend, I went on a road trip inspired by an article about Michigan’s scenic highway M22 in this month’s issue of Midwest Living. I want to give you a quick travelogue in case you’d like to follow this same route yourself.

On Friday after work, I made the approximately two-hour drive (with traffic) from Grand Rapids to Manistee, where M22 begins. I immediately went to Manistee’s working Coast Guard lighthouse, where I got some pictures and stuck my feet in the sand for the first of many times over the weekend. Then I crossed the Manistee River (like many of the towns I visited, this one has two bodies of water–in this case, the river and Lake Michigan) to the small but vibrant downtown area. By 7:30, a lot of places had closed already, but I picked up some delicious shrimp tacos at The Fillmore and took them back to my hotel. I stayed in Manistee’s recently remodeled Super 8, which was much nicer than I had expected. (By the way, expect lodging prices along M22 to be jacked up over holiday weekends, as is generally the case in vacation areas.)

I got up early the next morning and went for a short run along the well-lit Riverwalk. After grabbing some free breakfast at the Super 8, checking out, and visiting the lighthouse one more time, I hit the scenic road. My first stop (other than at the very nice EZ Mart in Onekama) was in Frankfort, which turned out to be my favorite town along M22. First, I visited the picturesque Point Betsie lighthouse north of town. I didn’t stay there long because I got drenched by a sudden rain shower that was probably worse on the point, with its wild waves and fog, than it would have been in town. Soaked, I headed into Frankfort to do a little shopping. I bought a sandpiper hoodie at Michigan Rag Co., which specializes in casual wear screen-printed with cute animals, and a pair of fleece-lined leggings at a women’s clothing shop a few doors down. (I wish I could remember the name.) Because I was still wet, I ended up changing into my new clothes at one of Frankfort’s public restrooms. I was highly impressed by the fact that most of the towns along the highway provide free public restrooms near their waterfront areas.

I got back on the road and next stopped in Empire, where I got a sandwich from the Shipwreck Cafe. (All the sandwiches are named after ships that went down in Lake Michigan–I had the Three Brothers, an Italian sub.) Then I hit the Empire Bluffs Trail. Although the views along this hike were breathtaking, I was frustrated and a bit frightened when the trail, which the Midwest Living article had led me to believe was a 1.5-mile loop, did not seem to be looping back around. When my footing got harder to maintain (I was hiking along the side of a dune) and I was no longer seeing other people on the trail, I decided to turn around. I think I still got the full experience, though I’d be interested to go back and see if there’s another trailhead. I next went into Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park (it costs $20 per car for a pass that lasts for a week–kind of high if you’re only planning to be there for a short time, like me) and drove the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, which includes a covered bridge, some beautiful woods, and the Sleeping Bear Dune itself. I didn’t enjoy the dune as much as I might have on another weekend; it was crawling with people, many of whom were ignoring the sign cautioning them against going down the steep slope lest it take them two hours to climb back up. It’s still an amazing sight, though. By the way, if when I say “dune” you’re picturing gentle, rolling hills like at Kitty Hawk, NC, think instead of a massive sand bluff overlooking the lake.

My hotel that night was in Bear Lake, so I had to retrace my steps to get there. Fortunately, nothing along M22 is that far apart. I probably could have stayed in Manistee that night as well, but it was fun to experience the Alpine, a Budget Host Inn that retains the charm of an old-school motor lodge. After checking in and hanging out in my room for a while (the rooms need some updates but are clean and comfortable), I went back into Manistee to do some more clothing shopping at a store I’d seen the night before. Then I went to Onekama for the second time that day (though at first I didn’t realize it was the same town) and had a chicken finger basket and a peanut butter milkshake at Papa J’s, where you can also play putt-putt if you’re not traveling alone. (I enjoyed traveling alone for the most part, but there were a few times, like this, when I would have liked to have a buddy!)

The next morning, I went back to the EZ Mart in Onekama for a breakfast sandwich, and then I went to hike another trail. I am so thankful to the manager of the Alpine for recommending the Arcadia Bluffs trail area; this was not originally on my list of things to do, but it ended up being possibly my favorite experience of the trip. The highlight of this trail system is another dune, Old Baldy. You can either take a short, half-mile walk directly to the dune, or you can take a mile-long scenic hike through the woods, which I did on the way out. (I took the short way back.) Although Old Baldy looked a lot like Sleeping Bear to my untrained eye, I enjoyed the experience so much more because I was the only person standing on the dune–partly because it’s less popular and partly, I’m sure, because it was still relatively early in the morning. I got tears in my eyes from the magnificent curve of the dune, the stunningly clear blue water, and the stillness of everything but the breeze and the gentle lake waves.

Okay, I said this was going to be a “quick travelogue.” I should have known. I’ll pick up with the second half of my journey next week.

back to school

Today was the first day of classes at my new institution. Last time I wrote about the first day of classes, I wrote about being so scatterbrained that I could barely organize my thoughts for a blog post. While I wasn’t exactly a chilled-out guru sitting on a mountaintop in mountain pose with a cup of green tea today, I was considerably more focused and less stressed because now teaching is my entire job, not something I try to fit in around meetings and administrative tasks.

It’s an unusually hot day in western Michigan, and this morning it was raining, so my office has been a little damp all day. But at least it has air conditioning, unlike the room where I taught this afternoon. (There were fans blowing, but only the students who sat in the back of the room got to benefit from those, I realized when I went over to talk to one of them after class.) I like to wear a cardigan while teaching because of the pockets, so there was sweat actually dripping down my back and my legs after about an hour of class. On the positive side, my classroom has windows, and it also has an upright piano, which I doubt we’ll ever use, but it looks cool to have in the background. Actually, maybe I’ll see if any of my students can bang out a rendition of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” on October 31, when we have the Reformation/All Saints Day party that I really did schedule on the syllabus. (It may end up being a Halloween party as well, but I wanted to get a sense of who my students are before I start foisting pagan celebrations upon them.)

All classes here are 90 minutes long, and I was worried about filling that much time on intro day, but I neatly rounded out the first hour by taking attendance and rambling about myself, the syllabus, and the textbooks (I am a champion rambler), and then I had my students write a literacy narrative during the remaining half-hour. I’d read about literacy narratives in composition journals–apparently they are rather passe now–but I had never assigned one myself. My off-the-cuff version of the assignment probably didn’t exactly conform to the standards of the genre, but not only did it use up a good chunk of class time; reading the results also taught me quite a bit about my students as writers and readers (e.g. several of them are Harry Potter fans; some lack confidence about writing, and all of them have decent handwriting)–and my students got a 10-point completion grade. Win, win, win.

Eleven of my twelve students are women, so I promised the token male student I would not single him out in class. All but two are brand new freshmen, though a couple of them have parents who work at the university and/or took pre-term classes, which means they probably know more about this school than I do. Still, they all looked sincere and eager to learn, many of them were taking notes during my course introduction (and I didn’t penalize them for doing so, like Snape did to Harry Potter), and one of them asked approximately ten questions during the syllabus review. She apologized for having so many questions, but I thanked her and told her that others probably had the same questions. The best student feedback I received today, though, probably wasn’t meant for my ears. Before class, I heard one of the students saying to the person next to her, “I’m so excited about this class.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a student say that about a freshman writing class. I wonder if she still felt the same way after class.

I wrote a brief note on each student’s literacy narrative, and in many of them, I asked the student to talk with me about something–not incorrect grammar or ineffective transitions, but Harry Potter, creative writing, or some other such enjoyable topic. I hope they will come see me, even the ones who are shy about their writing or terrified about starting college. Especially those ones.

I don’t have any classes tomorrow, so I’ll have time to prepare for my Wednesday classes, which I think are in a room with air conditioning. Every time I walk into a class for the first time, I’m nervous that I’ll be met with faces that are judgmental, sarcastic, or completely checked out, and occasionally that happens, but most of my students really want to be in college. I just hope that after sitting through my class on day 1, they want to stay.

celebrate good times

My sister got married on Sunday, so I would like to write a blog post about the profound meaning of celebration. Unfortunately, I am exhausted from the wedding (the early-morning hair appointment, the frequent unbidden weeping throughout the day, the dancing), but also from the drive from western Pennsylvania to my new home in western Michigan the morning after the wedding and the effort since then to carve into the mountain of furniture and boxes that resulted from the condensing of a three-bedroom house into the two-room (plus bathroom) apartment where I am living until my home in Virginia sells and I can buy a new one. And now I’m sure you feel exhausted from reading that grammatically correct but epically long sentence.

So I’m just going to make a couple of observations about celebration and hope they make sense. While I’ll be focusing mainly on the wedding in these remarks, I also want to note that I participated in a celebration of another kind on Friday when one of my online students successfully defended her master’s thesis in a conference call with her committee, of which I was the chair. Witnessing this victory got the weekend off to a celebratory start!

  1. Celebrations can be hard work. Although I was my sister’s maid of honor, I live relatively far away and so did not participate in much of the logistical preparation for the wedding. I know my sister and mom put many hours of work into acquiring decor, putting everything into labeled boxes for the wedding coordinator to set out, and taking care of innumerable other tasks. The result was gorgeous–my sister has great taste, and it showed in both the ceremony and the reception. As I mentioned earlier, the day of the wedding, though joyful, was also hard work–I know the bridesmaids will testify along with me to the difficulty of standing on chunky gravel in thin shoes throughout the ceremony, and I know the groomsmen were sweating in their long sleeves and vests. (I realize that sentence sounds silly, but it’s true! Outdoor weddings are beautiful but no picnic!)
  2. And then there’s the emotional labor. The bride and groom are marking a major life change, so they’re undergoing massive emotional stress (the good kind–eustress) that probably doesn’t really hit them until the honeymoon. But there’s also emotional labor for the others involved. My immediate family members and myself were surprised by how hard we were hit by the realization that Sarah was joining a new family and things would never be quite the same again. That night in the hotel room, which I had shared with Sarah the two previous nights, I kept bursting into tears when I saw something that reminded me of her. It was kind of ridiculous–I had to remind myself that she hadn’t died. There are other sources of emotional stress too: the worry that things aren’t going to go exactly as planned, the sadness of remembering family members who did not live to see the occasion, and the melancholy that many single people experience at weddings, wondering whether they will ever have their own. (I’ll be honest; I felt that a little bit.)

Well, shoot. I didn’t mean for this to be such a depressing post! I guess I was just trying to process why I feel so incredibly drained right now, because I know it’s not just from driving the Ohio Turnpike for hours (although that is rather soul-sucking) and moving boxes around. I am very happy for my sister and her new husband, and for my thesis student, and I’m happy about the new beginnings I’m celebrating in my own life. Celebrations are wonderful; I’m just thankful we don’t have to have them every day!

Where do zombies come from?; or, I suck at worldbuilding.

In a Facebook creative writing group that I belong to, some of us are participating in a worldbuilding challenge. While the other participants are posting these wonderful comments about their historically and culturally rich worlds, I’m struggling to come up with something more profound than, “My characters like to eat Italian food.”

As you may know, I am writing a zombie apocalypse story that I envision as a source text for a movie. (You can read part of it here.) Though I would not go so far as to say that the zombie aspect of the story is little more than a set piece–it is thematically important for several reasons–I imagine that people who complain about The Walking Dead not having enough zombies and being a glorified soap opera would really have a lot to complain about in my storyMy story is about mental health, friendship, American small towns, Italian food…and zombies, roughly in that order of importance. So when people ask me questions like “How did the zombie apocalypse start?” and “Where are your characters getting water?,” my response is usually, “Hmm, I haven’t really thought about it.” (My characters have had coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and lots of Coke, but water completely slipped my mind. You can see where my priorities lie.)

In my defense, part of the reason I haven’t thought much about the origin of the zombie apocalypse is that my characters don’t know how it started, they won’t find out during the course of this story, and they don’t really care. This is partly because they’re too focused on their own problems (survival, relationships, where they’re going to get Coke) to ponder such existential questions, but it’s also partly because they (at least my two main characters) are big fans of zombie movies and TV. Let me back up for a minute: In most zombie stories, the assumption is that zombie lore doesn’t exist, so the characters are kind of scratching their heads, like “Huh, I wonder what’s happening?” So I decided to do something different. My characters may be useless when it comes to wielding weapons, but they’ve seen all of George Romero’s movies and every episode of The Walking Dead (I haven’t referred to the comics, but I assume they’ve read those too), so they at least have a vocabulary for what’s happening, and they know important things like the fact that you have to shoot or stab a zombie in the head in order to kill it. (I mean, kill it again.)

So, to return to my main point: The characters in those iconic stories usually don’t know why the zombie apocalypse is happening (or how to stop it), so my characters have become resigned to the same uncertainty. In Romero’s films, people speculate about why the dead are walking the earth, but they never figure it out. (The tagline of Dawn of the Dead provides the closest approach to an explanation: “There’s no more room in hell.”) In The Walking Dead, some of the characters visit the Centers for Disease Control and learn a theory from the one remaining employee (who could be crazy for all we know), but the only really useful knowledge they take from that encounter is that “we’re all infected”–i.e. everyone who dies turns, so try not to die.

This is my justification for why I haven’t given much thought to the logic of zombies in my story, but part of me suspects that the real reason is that I’m just not very good at worldbuilding. The commonplace is that writers are usually good at either creating elaborate worlds or creating relatable characters. Yet most of the people in my Facebook group seem to be experts at both. This gives me hope: Maybe I can learn, through challenges like this, to create elaborate worlds for my relatable characters to inhabit.