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.

Lynchstock: good music, better people-watching

This past Saturday marked the fifth anniversary of the Lynchstock music festival, named for our burgeoning city of Lynchburg, Virginia, as well as the event’s Woodstock-level aspirations (reflected in the bizzare costumes of some of the festival-goers).  This year, the festival moved from the small backyard of a restaurant in the neighboring town of Forest to a large-ish park in downtown Lynchburg proper, which accommodated more attendees, vendors, and food trucks, as well as two additional stages (the number increased from three to five) housed in two of the new venues that have recently sprung up along the formerly eerily empty, now trendy Jefferson Street.

I attended the festival along with my parents, who are in their late fifties and early sixties, and my two twenty-something siblings, all of whom came from out of town.  We were attracted to the event by the headline band, Dawes, who play rock that skews toward Americana and has sometimes funny, sometimes incredibly sad, and always memorable lyrics.  I warned my parents that the festival would probably be populated by hipster college students wearing their wannabe-Coachella best, but as it turned out, there was a diverse range of ages and styles at the event.  Yes, there was the shirtless guy in dreadlocks and the girls painting henna tattoos on each other’s backs, but there was also the average Joe-looking dad of one of the local band’s lead singers, as well as the little boy in a guitar t-shirt jumping through puddles in his Crocs.

And about those puddles.  We had all been casting a dire eye at the weather forecast all week, watching the rain likelihood percentages change slightly but never go away.  When  we arrived at the park Saturday morning, the ground was already wet and the sky overcast, but the rain held off long enough for us to enjoy several bands in the muggy air.  My sister enjoyed Strong Water, a Harrisonburg band with bluegrass instrumentation; my brother liked an angsty three-piece outfit called Quick on My Feet, and my mom favored the performance of a band called Fin, whom I don’t feel qualified to describe because I missed most of their set standing in line for an apple butter-slathered grilled cheese at Cheesy Rider (totally worth it).  My favorite performance of the morning/early afternoon was by the Will Overman Band–they didn’t really sound like Bruce Springsteen as claimed in their blurb in the app, but they had a fun sound.

Around 2:00, the floodgates of heaven were opened, and the fountains of the deep burst forth.  Well anyway, there was a thunderstorm, which led to the decision to shut down the festival until further notice.  When a few hours went by and nothing seemed to be changing, we had sadly resigned ourselves to missing the big performance of the day–until my mom saw on Facebook that Dawes would be playing a stripped-down, shortened set at 9:00 in the Glass House, one of the indoor venues along Jefferson Street.  Even though it was chilly outside by this time and nearly dark, my mom, my sister, and I decided we’d regret not going back to hear Dawes, so we headed downtown and joined the teeming mass of humanity packed into the Glass House.  I don’t like crowds, booze, or annoying people, so the situation was not ideal, but I’m glad I went.  There were a lot of tall people in front of me, but I could occasionally see various band members, and, more importantly, I could hear.  Dawes played a number of songs from their latest album, We’re All Gonna Die, including the party anthem “When the Tequila Runs Out” and the title track–which, as you might be able to guess, is not a party anthem.  One of the highlights of the night was hearing the entire audience sing along to the early hit “When My Time Comes.”  As I predicted, Dawes closed with their beautiful and nostalgic (yet just a little tongue-in-cheek) song “All Your Favorite Bands.”  Lead singer Taylor Goldsmith said he hoped we wouldn’t count this as their real performance and that we’d let them come back sometime to show us what they could really do.  I hope that promise comes to fruition.

all of your Oscar questions answered

Ok, so my title is shameless click bait.  I don’t know what all of your Oscar questions are.  But I know the questions that are generating the most buzz in my own circles, so I’m going to extrapolate from said buzz and assume that you’re asking some of the same questions.  And then I’m going to answer them from the perspective of an amateur film critic who’s seen more of the nominated movies than the average American has, which is still not very many.  Here we go.

Q: What does Lion have to do with a lion?

A: Absolutely nothing.  I saw this film over the weekend, and I enjoyed it very much and was moved by it, although I think this was partly due to the extremely emotional soundtrack (nominated for Best Original Score) by Dustin O’Halloran (a favorite on the hip instrumental music playlists I frequent on Spotify) and Hauschka.  But the title is a real stretch.  Here’s what it’s really about: A little boy from rural India gets lost at a train station and ends up over 1,000 kilometers away from his family.  After living on the streets and in an orphanage for a couple of months, he gets adopted by a family in Australia.  Almost 25 years later, while he’s in Melbourne taking a hotel management course (a little Easter egg for Dev Patel fans), he decides to try to find his birth family, but he has almost nothing to go on–not even his mother’s first name.  (As a little boy, he thought her name was “Mum.”  This is why parents should teach their kids their real names.)  Spoiler: He succeeds in finding them.  But he doesn’t run into any lions.  And it’s not called Lion because of the way he lets his hair and beard grow out like a crazy mane while he’s holed up in his apartment searching Google Earth.  No, we find out literally in the last seconds of the movie that his name means Lion.  It doesn’t even really work symbolically–there’s nothing predatory or dominant about this protagonist.  Good movie, iffy title.

Q: Will the ending of La La Land make me sad?

A: It depends on who you are.  I know one person who was absolutely devastated by the ending, in which the main characters do not end up together.  However, the general consensus among my family and friends is that the ending is bittersweet–heavier on the sweet–and appropriate to the story, which is more about pursuing one’s dreams than about finding true love.  When you see the two protagonists smile at each other in the very last scene, I’m confident that you’ll be confident that they are both happy with the way their lives have turned out.

Q: How many Oscars is La La Land nominated for?

A: Fact: 14

Q: How many is it going to win?

A: Research-based opinion: 12.  I think it’s going to win all but Best Actor (my research says that one goes to Denzel Washington for Fences) and Sound Mixing–that will be Hacksaw Ridge‘s only win.

Q: Is Hacksaw Ridge as gory as they say it is?

A: It depends on who “they” are, but it is pretty graphic, and this is coming from a person who eats snacks while watching The Walking Dead.  Also, there are rats.  If you can get past all that, though, it’s a very good movie.

Q: What should I wear to my Oscars party this year?

A: If you’re in it for “the long haul” (a key phrase in La La Land), you should probably wear your pajamas, because you know the telecast never ends when it’s supposed to.  But if you want to wear something thematic, the bright primary colors and swingy skirts (if you’re a lady) and classic-cut suits (if you’re a gentleman) of La La Land would be a fun choice.  You can also look to the Costume Design nominees for some inspiration–the 1920s look of Fantastic Beasts would be fun and not too difficult to pull off.

Q: When do the Academy Awards air?

A: This Sunday night, February 26, at 5:30 if you’re in La La Land, 8:30 if you’re on the East Coast.  See you then!

my favorite fictional couples that never happened

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and some of you may be feeling like your true Valentine is out there somewhere (maybe in a very specific location whose exact address or coordinates you know) and just hasn’t found his or her way to you yet.  This is kind of the way I feel about Tom Hiddleston, and I now know, since I read that article about him in GQ that came out last week, which part of London he lives in.  (Like Charles Dickens, he comes straight outta Camden.)  In honor of all of you who are feeling frustrated in love, here are a few fictional couples who never get together despite my best shipping efforts.

  1. the unnamed narrator and Frank Crawley in Rebecca.  *spoilers ahead* My book club just read this 1938 Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier.  I described it as “creepy Downton Abbey,” so if you like stories about rich people with no jobs, and their household staff who know way too much about the family, you will probably enjoy this book.  (I also thought the writing style was beautiful, the setting haunting, and the human psychology spot-on.)  I had several theories about what was going to happen in this book, some of which were based on superficial resemblances to Jane Eyre, and all of which turned out to be wrong.  The theory that I clung to the hardest was that the narrator’s husband, Maxim, was going to either go to jail or get the death penalty for having killed his first wife, the narrator was going to realize that he never really loved her but was just using her to try to have a normal life, and she was going to end up with the longsuffering and loyal estate agent Frank Crawley, whom I pictured as the subdued and diplomatic Tom Branson of the later seasons of Downton Abbey.  It just seemed so clear to me that the narrator was much more comfortable around Frank than around her preoccupied and moody husband.  I went so far as to go back and make sure the first chapter, which occurs chronologically at the end of the story, didn’t have any proper nouns in it–“We thought she was talking about Maxim, but she could have been talking about Frank!”  I was wrong; she stuck with the wife-killer.  Poor Frank.
  2. Liesel and Max in The Book Thief.  I’ve read Markus Zusak’s remarkable Holocaust-era novel in two different book clubs, and both times some people, including myself, have stated that we wished Liesel, the book thief, and Max, the young Jewish man who hid in Liesel’s family’s basement, had gotten together at the end.  I get all the reasons why that relationship wouldn’t work: he’s older (not that much older, though); she sees him as a brother; it’s not really a book about romantic relationships, but at the same time Liesel will always carry a torch for Rudy.  I do get all that, but I can’t stand to think of Max being all alone for the rest of his life.  Liesel, we learn, marries some random guy and ends up having a bunch of grandchildren, so I’m not worried about her.  But Max is such a lonely figure throughout the book–he arrives alone; he leaves alone; he has to stay in the basement when everyone else is going to the air-raid shelter.  It breaks my heart to think he’ll have to stay that way forever.  He made you a book, Liesel.  Did your random guy do that?
  3. Harry Potter and Luna Lovegood. Speaking of the trope of marrying a random-guy-ex-machina, I’m sure I’m not the only Harry Potter fan who used to think it was a total copout when J.K. Rowling declared that Luna Lovegood, one of my favorite fictional characters of all time, ended up marrying some guy named Rolf Scamander.  Now that I know and love Newt Scamander, I guess I’m okay with Luna marrying his grandson.  But still, like everyone else, I wanted her to get together with Neville.  And yet, there’s a part of me that also thinks Harry and Luna would have been a great couple.  I think she would have helped him not to take himself so seriously, and he would have helped her get some street cred at Hogwarts (not that Luna cares what people think of her).  They have some sweet exchanges in the books (like when Luna tells Harry about her faith that she’ll see her mother again) and the movies (like when Luna says that hanging out with Harry is “kind of like being with a friend,” and Harry says, “I am your friend, Luna”), and I think this mutual kindness and confidence could have gone somewhere romantic.

I’d love to hear about your adventures in shipping.  Meanwhile, don’t forget that chocolate goes on clearance February 15!

This is going to make a good story.

Last Tuesday night–Wednesday morning, technically–between 2:00 and 4:00 am, I found myself driving around Bedford and Amherst counties, including brief stints on the Blue Ridge Parkway and the ominously named (and very dark and narrow) Father Judge Road north of Madison Heights.  I saw a lot of deer and a raccoon, and I almost hit a small waddling creature that I didn’t have time to identify.  This isn’t the place to go into why I was doing all this nocturnal driving, but I assure you that it was all legal and mostly safe, and I wasn’t up to anything unsavory.  My point in sharing about this adventure is that although I was in a constant state of frustration, with occasional moments of mild terror, a small part of me–the creative part–was having a good time, because it kept thinking, “This is going to make a good story later.”

Because I spend a large percentage of my waking time reading, watching, and interpreting stories (and some of my sleeping time dreaming stories–I had a really stressful one after going back to bed at 4:08 Wednesday morning), I tend to see my own life as a narrative, with some experiences standing out as particularly excellent story material.  I’m a pretty decent storyteller, I think (actually, someone told me that last week, and I was flattered), and I have to admit that I enjoy keeping an audience entertained and feel like I’ve failed when my stories don’t have the impact I’d imagined they would.  And of course, there’s always a temptation to make my stories a little bit funnier or more shocking by altering events a bit.  Telling stories always involves editing–deletion, highlighting, etc.–but I try to avoid crossing the line into fabrication, not least because I find it satisfying to think that my real life (just like your life, reader) is stranger than anything I could make up.  I don’t think it’s an accident that some of my favorite–and most popular–blog posts have simply been stories about stuff that happened to me, like when I almost choked on the fumes of some spicy soup I was cooking or when I got angry and went all Hulk in my office.

Another occupational hazard of being a storyteller, even an amateur one, is the compulsion to come up with a lesson at the end of every story.  So bear with me while I draw a spiritual parallel here: We can see our lives as a lot more bearable, exciting, and significant if we keep saying to ourselves, “This is going to make a good story later.”  One of the hallmarks of a Christian worldview is the idea that God has written and yet somehow still is writing a story in which our planet is a major setting and every human being is an important character.  The theological implications of this are too gigantic to even be broached in a short blog post like this, but I’m just asking you right now to think of yourself as a character in a story.  That means a number of things: the decisions you make are significant, you are significant, and there’s more story to come.  Isn’t that exciting?  Even more exciting than a 3:00 am drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I’d say.

a story about my hands

I don’t normally write product reviews on my blog–this isn’t that kind of blog (though, in fairness, it is hard to say exactly what kind of blog this is).  But I recently came across a product that has so astonished me and enriched my life that I feel it would be wrong of me to keep it to myself.  However, in keeping with the literary nature of this blog, I will tell you about it in the form of a story.

Once there was a woman whose daily labor was almost entirely intellectual.  She got occasional opportunities for salutary manual labor, as when she had to replace a heating element in her oven or shovel the snow out of her driveway.  But most of her work consisted of teaching, typing, and thinking deep thoughts (well, some days she got to do that third thing).  Therefore, one might have expected her hands to be soft and smooth, the kind of hands that an upper-class woman in a Victorian novel would be proud of.

However, for at least six months out of the year, her hands were as red, rough, and raw as those of one of those slipshod, loud-voiced women (fishwives or washerwomen, they usually are) who live in the seedy and morally questionable tenements of a Dickens novel.   She never knew exactly what caused this–poor circulation, possibly–but no matter what she tried, her hands cracked, stung, and bled. She tried all the hand creams, from the aesthetically pleasing but largely useless Bath and Body Works kinds to the evil-smelling medicated kinds that surely were too nasty not to work.  She went to bed with her hands coated in Vaseline, wearing handbell gloves to keep it from getting on the sheets, and although she found some temporary relief here, in a few hours after waking up she was back to looking like a bloody-knuckled butcher.  She wore gloves every time she ventured outside from November through March, which probably did prevent her from losing any fingers due to frostbite, but it’s quite possible that the wool or synthetic material of the gloves actually exacerbated the persistent problem.  Unfortunately, she also had a habit of wearing “statement” rings, bracelets, and other jewelry that drew attention to her back-alley prizefighter paws.

Then, she learned of a product called O’Keefe’s Working Hands.  (To be precise, if this didn’t ruin the timeless quality of the story, I would tell you that her mother came across the product while searching for severely dry hand remedies on her smartphone.)  This odorless, non-residue-leaving, waxy paste comes in a shallow green tub and is said to be able to heal serious cracks and callouses in the hands of people who actually do manual labor for a living.  So of course, my hands (for this story is, indeed, about me) were no match for it.  I have been using O’Keefe’s since late December, and my hands are smooth, soft, and possibly even attractive.  I still occasionally use a more standard hand cream, just for good measure, and I wear my handsome gray driving gloves when I go outside.  But it’s the O’Keefe’s that makes the real difference.  The truly amazing thing is that I don’t even put it on every day–only when I happen to glance down at that lovely green container on my nightstand and think, “Oh, maybe I should put some of that on.”

The moral we can draw from this story: If you have dry, cracked hands and have never found a satisfactory remedy, try O’Keefe’s Working Hands.  I’ve seen it at Walmart and Food Lion, so I’m guessing any standard grocery or drug store will carry it.  It can also be ordered online.

The End

This is my brain on the first day of classes.

Although I warmed up by teaching an intensive class last week, nothing ever really prepares me for the first day of a semester.  Today, after teaching a maxed-out children’s lit class (there’s a waiting list–not because of my popularity, but because it’s a required course for education majors), conducting a meeting while hungry (I hate that), and answering the emails that kept pouring in–plus the ones I neglected over the weekend–I barely have enough brain function left to make a cup of tea, let alone craft a memorable blog post.  But I think it’ll be easy enough to list some of the things that made me happy over the weekend and today.  So here we go.

  1. Saturday-Sunday, I went camping, backpacking (though I barely carried the pack a quarter of a mile, since our campsite was so close to the car), and scrambling up a popular local rock face known ominously as Devil’s Marbleyard.  Although I love hiking and being outdoors, I’ve rarely camped and never backpacked. Fortunately, I was with a friend who is a certified wilderness EMT and adventure guide and I don’t know what else, so she showed me how to set up a tent, boil water for hot chocolate (very important) in a Kelly Kettle, and wash dishes with hippie soap (it seriously had hemp in it) in a freezing cold creek by the light of a headlamp.  The part I was most worried about was staying warm at night, but with a zero-degree sleeping bag and a lot of those Hot Hands packs that are popular with hunters at this time of year, I was downright cozy.  As for scrambling up the rock face, I just pretended like I was Frodo or Sam traversing the Emyn Muil–just without the elven rope.
  2. Last night I went to see Hacksaw Ridge (side note: I went out last night wearing leggings as pants, and I was regretting that style choice all the way to the theater and thinking, “Wow, I’ve really let myself go.”  Immediately after getting there, I saw at least three women wearing leggings as pants.).  If all you’ve heard about Hacksaw Ridge is that Andrew Garfield has a bad accent in it (he really doesn’t, though, and he is adorable), you should give it a chance.  It’s about Desmond Doss, a WW2 medic who refuses to carry a gun due to his religious convictions and past traumas, but ends up saving dozens of lives in one night, under relentless attack, through his (figuratively) insane work ethic and (literally–almost) insane fearlessness.  It was especially poignant to watch the film in Lynchburg, VA, where Doss grew up.  (We actually drove on the PFC Desmond T. Doss Memorial Expressway while coming back from the mountains yesterday.)  If you think you’ve seen enough WW2 movies, see this one anyway; you’ve probably never seen one about a conscientious objector.  They tend not to make movies about conscientious objectors.
  3. After the movie, I rushed home to watch the second half of the Steelers-Chiefs game.  I rarely write about football on this blog, and I won’t take the time to start now, but since I’m listing things that have made me happy, I’ll just say that I’m happy that the Steelers won–and, like all good Western Pennsylvanians, sick with apprehension about next week.
  4. Finally, my students, as they so often do, have made me happy today.  My children’s lit students seem to think I’m a comedienne (I try), and most of them appear to be totally on board with the Walt Disney World-style character breakfast I’m planning for the last day of class.  Meanwhile, a student from last week’s class sent me a Harry Potter article and a recording of Neil Gaiman reading A Christmas Caroland he told me that I’m currently his go-to person to discuss Harry Potter with.  Just what I’ve always wanted to hear.

Time to go outside and try to clear my head with fresh air.