Puffs!

A week ago, I went to see Puffs, an off-Broadway homage to Harry Potter (but totally unofficial) that was filmed and shown on two nights in selected movie theaters. I am not a theater critic, and I’m certainly not a critic of plays that are filmed and then shown in movie theaters (though this does seem to be an art form–some creative camera work was involved in this one), so I’ll make my remarks from the perspective of a fan.

First, it was amusing to see how the writers bent over backward to avoid using copyrighted names, such as Hogwarts, which they referred to as an unnamed “School of Female Magic and Male Magic,” and Dumbledore, whom they always referred to simply as the headmaster. Other characters, like Cedric Diggory, were called by first name or last name, never both together. In many cases, it was clear that the writers were having fun exploiting the limitations–and, perhaps, gently ridiculing the idea of placing such restrictions on such household names.

The four houses were called Brave, Smart, Snake, and Puff, and the story focused on the Puffs, the house that has the least interaction with Mr. Potter in the canonical story, which meant that this house was the perfect vehicle for exploring the experience of a non-famous, non-chosen student who’s just trying to get through school with decent grades. The protagonist was Wayne, an American kid who ends up at the school by a series of unlikely events, probably fulfilling a fantasy of the writers themselves. I should point out here that the actors were all adults, which says a lot about the intended audience. I think the goals of this play were to make long-time Harry Potter nerds squeal with recognition at the inside jokes, to aim a little irreverence at a sacred cow (without becoming cynical or nasty, although some of the jokes were definitely for a “mature audience”), and to provide a bit of vindication for the Hufflepuffs. The childlike wonder of magic was not really a focus.

The play was only about 90 minutes long, and the seven books provided its organizational structure, so in this sense, it reminded me of a parodic play called Potted Potter that I saw a few years ago. (A lot of the humor came from the forced brevity, kind of like in the popular Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged.) The plot stuck to events that happen in the books, except in one (ultimately rather anticlimactic) plotline involving the Death-Eater mother of Wayne’s friend Megan. The play is best enjoyed as sketch comedy rather than as a full narrative arc, although it does have a climax: the Battle of Hogwarts, as seen from the Puff perspective. I don’t want to give away spoilers here in case the filmed version ever comes out on DVD, but I will say that the until-now underrated contribution of the Hufflepuffs in this battle, recently pointed out by J. K. Rowling (wait–am I allowed to say her name?), was given its due here. I thought there were some tonal infelicities in this last segment of the play (i.e. some stuff that was played for laughs that I didn’t think should have been), but the writers redeemed themselves with a heartwarming scene between Wayne and the headmaster, which in itself was a vindication (since in the books, it’s only Harry who gets to process things one-on-one with Dumbledore).

As a Hufflepuff, I enjoyed Puffs; I think I would have enjoyed it even if I were a Brave, a Smart, or a Snake. I also realized that I switched between past and present tense in this post. I hope you didn’t notice.

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Monday miscellany

Here are some quick takes for your reading pleasure. Consider it professional development (after all, this is a leadership blog, right?).

  1. You know you have a serious problem when you start sorting the Corleone family into Hogwarts houses. I started thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I was considering how to pitch a Hufflepuff leadership book idea to someone who seemed unfamiliar with Harry Potter but had used a Godfather analogy in his presentation. Then I went down a rabbit hole. I sorted Vito and his three sons (his blood sons; sorry, Tom Hagen–I think you’re a Muggle), and, conveniently, there’s one for each house. Michael, I knew immediately, is a Slytherin; he’s quiet and sneaky and always assumes his way is the right way. His dad, Vito, is also very intelligent but, generally speaking, using his genius for good; he’s a Ravenclaw. Sonny is a Gryffindor because he has a good heart but mistakenly believes he can solve everything with his fists. And I put Fredo in Hufflepuff because he just wants everybody to be happy. Obviously, I’m dealing in broad strokes here; I’m just making a fun comparison, not trying to say anything profound about either universe, so please don’t pick a fight with me about the oversimplified way I defined the houses.
  2. If you want a more perceptive analysis of what the houses mean, check out this post that our Slytherin correspondent shared with me over the weekend. Lots to think about here.
  3. I watched the first two Lord of the Rings movies over the weekend (extended version, of course), so I want to take a couple of minutes to wax eloquent about one of my favorite honorary Hufflepuffs, Samwise Gamgee. Yes, I guess Gryffindor could make an argument to claim him too (he’s brave and a little impulsive), but a Gryffindor’s not writing this post. 😉 And besides, Sam is the quintessence of loyalty. You really see it in The Two Towers when Sam and Frodo are following Gollum through the wilderness. About 95% percent of the time, Sam thinks Frodo is making bad choices (and Sam is right, I would add). And he says so. But he never leaves, and that’s not only or primarily because he agrees with the abstract cause of Frodo’s overall quest, but because he cares about Frodo. A truly loyal friend doesn’t stop being your friend because you’re making bad decisions; a truly loyal friend realizes that when you’re making bad decisions, you need a friend more than at any other time. Sam also functions as Frodo’s connection to reality. Even fairly early in the quest, Frodo needs Sam to tell him to do basic things like eating and sleeping. And as the journey goes on and the Ring’s increasing pull causes Frodo to fade out of the physical world and nearly become pure spirit, it’s almost as if Sam becomes Frodo’s body, fighting off Shelob and the orcs, and, in the end, carrying Frodo when he is powerless even to move. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’ll know my life has truly been fulfilled if I can say that I’ve had and that I’ve been a friend like Samwise Gamgee.

Well, there you have it. Consider your professional development for this week done.

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.

your New Year’s inspiration

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas (although, as we learned in my last post, we are still in the Christmas season and will be until next Saturday, which is Epiphany) and didn’t miss me too much during my unannounced hiatus last week.  Today, I have a story to inspire you toward whatever goals you may be pursuing in the new year.

Last week, we were staying in a hotel while visiting family in Ohio.  One morning, I was in the fitness center doing a walking incline workout on the treadmill, when a little old lady–I use the term quite literally, with no disrespect intended–came into the room and hoisted herself up onto the elliptical.  My initial reaction was “Bless her heart,” but as the minutes went by, I could see in my peripheral vision that she was holding her own pretty well.

When I got off the treadmill, she was still going at it, and she wished me a good day, a merry Christmas, and a happy new year.  (At least I think she did–I had my music up loud.)  I thanked her and asked if she wanted the TV remote, which had been sitting unused on my machine, but she couldn’t hear me very well either (she didn’t have her hearing aids in, as she told me a few minutes later), so she got off her elliptical to find out what I was talking about.  I felt bad that she had to interrupt her workout, but it quickly became apparent that she wanted to talk.  We had one of those polite little strangers-in-public exchanges, but this wouldn’t be an interesting story at all (sorry about the long set-up) if not for what she asked me while I was on my way out the door.

“Have you ever run a marathon?” she asked.  I popped out one of my earbuds and answered, “No, I’ve run a half-marathon, but not a full marathon.”

“Oh, you have to run a marathon,” she said.  “I’m training for my 13th marathon.  I didn’t run my first one until I was 61.”

[From here on, I’m not going to continue with this dialogue thing–just imagine me saying variations of “Wow, amazing!”]

She began speaking as if me signing up for a marathon were a done deal.  “Just have fun,” she said.  “You can alternate between walking and running, at least on your first two marathons.”  (Now she was assuming I was going to run two.)  “Don’t worry about keeping up with the Kenyans.”  Here I laughed knowingly; my heart always sinks when the first Kenyan runner passes by on the return leg of the Virginia Ten-Miler when I’ve barely gotten started.

The conversation was short, and it ended with an exchange of first names (hers: Connie) and with Connie telling me she would pray for me and my family (this is not really a surprise in Central Ohio, Bible Belt North).  I walked away from the fitness center with a lot to think about, most of which can be summed up in various cliches such as “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and “It’s never too late to try something new.”  So I won’t belabor the point.  I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, and I hope Connie’s example won’t discourage you (“I’m not her, so I won’t try”) but inspire you.  Your thing may not be running marathons (though apparently mine is), but you do have a thing–go do it.

Thor: Ragnarok (another good review)

I’m sure I’ve said before on this blog that the Thor films are my favorite Avenger movies–not just because of their central character (who’s gorgeous, funny, sensitive, and smarter than people give him credit for) but because of the whole mythology-infused world of the stories and the painfully realistic (though sometimes hilarious) family drama that lies at their heart.  Anyone who knows me in real life is aware that I have a special love for Loki, but I’ve never been one of those fans who advocate for him to get a solo film.  Loki needs Thor, and both need Asgard.  And as we learned in Thor: Ragnarok, Asgard is a people, not a place (and certainly not just a throne).  Read on if you’re not worried about spoilers.

When trailers for Ragnarok started appeared several months ago, I was worried that the movie, with its neon colors, comedy, and rock-and-roll soundtrack was basically going to be Guardians of the Galaxy 3.  (Though I was pleased to see “Immigrant Song” finally associated with a Thor movie.  And not that there’s anything wrong with Guardians–I just wanted Thor to be Thor.)  And certainly, there are elements of Ragnarok that would fit comfortably in the Guardians universe, like the trippy trash planet Sakkar (which also reminds me of Mad Max and those weird landfill people from the last season of The Walking Dead) and the new character Korg, a humanoid pile of rocks with a Kiwi accent and a deadpan delivery, who shares certain qualities with Guardians characters Drax and Groot.

Yet, despite the fact that we’ve departed far from the Shakespearean line delivery of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (and of the old comics) and the high seriousness of much of Thor: The Dark WorldRagnarok still feels like a Thor movie.  Maybe it’s the callbacks to the previous films–lingering interior and exterior shots of Asgard on the verge of destruction and appearances (however brief) of Thor’s old comrades.  (I wanted to cheer when Heimdall finally showed up!)  But I think the main reason Ragnarok feels like a Thor movie is that even though I spent most of the film laughing, I still felt the gravity of what was at stake.  And I felt that Old Norse sense of the dignity of dying alongside one’s companions (even though, happily, most of our favorite characters didn’t die).

One key death in the film, of course, is Odin’s, and I loved this beautiful, understated scene.  It was fitting that Odin, now humble but never humiliated, should spend his last moments not detailing his exploits but calling attention to the wild cliffs of the Norwegian coast.  Most importantly, he tells both of his sons that he loves them, and I think this explains not only the surprising (yet really not surprising, when you think about it) new power Thor attains at the end of the movie (I loved this) but also the subtle difference in Loki throughout the rest of the film.  Not that he suddenly converts to a thorough-going good guy, but he seems to have softened just slightly.  I really believed he was going to cry when Thor was talking about how it would be good for Loki to stay on Sakkar.  (Darn you, Tom Hiddleston, and your beautiful eyes.)

And that scene takes place just before the first occurrence of the recurring “Get Help” bit, which has been making me giggle out loud every time I recall it.  There’s a lot about the Thor movies, as a series, that’s really good, but I maintain that the best thing about them is the chemistry between Thor and Loki.  Whether they’re physically fighting or verbally bantering (or Thor is throwing Loki at unassuming guards), they act like real brothers, and I’ll never get tired of watching.  Here’s hoping their Sakaarian spacecraft leads them to more adventures that we’ll get to see.

what I would say if I were on Talking Dead

Sometimes I think about what I would say if for some reason I became famous enough to sit on the celebrity couch in Chris Hardwick’s fake studio apartment.  Lately, the guests (and Chris) have been doing fairly well at focusing on The Walking Dead instead of promoting their own work and making dirty jokes.  But there are some topics nobody has broached that I think need to be addressed.

  1. Negan is not a good role model or even a cool guy.  I made this quite clear in my post from a year ago entitled why I hate Negan, so I won’t belabor the point now.  At the time, I said he was an engaging character, but now I find his swagger contrived (which it is, of course–it’s a post-apocalyptic persona) and his relentless unkindness, even to his own terrified followers, almost unbearable to watch.  Yet convention attendees are still dressing their little kids up in Negan costumes.  It’s troubling, to say the least.  I wish Rick (or anyone, really) would kill him ASAP–next Sunday, preferably–but I’m sure he won’t die until the end of this season, if even then, because he seems to have surpassed Darryl as the darling of ratings.
  2. The most interesting characters are the people who seem to have nothing to offer–the ones considered dead weight or even liabilities according to the masculine contribution-value paradigm I wrote about in another post.  Sure, we need people like Rick who have gun skills and leadership abilities, and people like Carol whose past traumas have made them tough, but we also need people like Father Gabriel, who had to go through a serious worldview shift in order to even comprehend what was happening, and people like Eugene, who concocted the (end of the) world’s biggest lie because he was so afraid of being cast out or killed by people he knew were more capable and prepared.  People like these latter two, perhaps my favorite characters right now, provide a necessary non-majority perspective and are able to empathize with others who aren’t brave or bad-ass and yet have worth just by being human.  (Well, Father Gabriel is able to empathize.  Eugene’s not great at people skills, but he’s improving.)  I often think back to Dale in Seasons 1 and 2 and that bewildered look he would get, which I affectionately refer to as The Dale Face.  Dale clearly was having trouble reconciling his understanding of the world with the horror he was seeing around him.  I would have the same trouble, and I’m glad to think I would.  The people who aren’t troubled by the zombie apocalypse are the people who scare me.  And even some of our most confident and capable characters have had to go through periods of retreat and reflection–Morgan, most notably, but also Rick when he went through his gardening phase.  (By the way, I was annoyed with all the fans who mocked “Farmer Rick.”  Besides processing his own grief, he was also creating a sustainable food source for his community.  Since when is that a bad thing?)
  3. King Ezekiel, his tiger, and his kingdom have turned this show into a bizarre mashup of a gritty, hyper-realistic road story set in the near future and a faux-medieval high fantasy, Lord of the Rings style, and I love it.  He’s the best thing that’s happened to this show in a while.
  4. Please, someone, wash and cut Carl’s and Darryl’s hair.  I can hardly stand to look at them.

Let’s talk about the zombie apocalypse.

Classes started at my university today, and even though I’m not even teaching on Mondays, right about now I’m really relating to that song in Fight Club, “Where Is My Mind?”  (See my post from the beginning of the spring semester, “This is my brain on the first day of classes.”)  So in honor of not having a functioning brain—but also because I’ve been working on this particular project lately—let’s talk a little bit about my zombie apocalypse story.  I’ve been going to a creative writing group and getting some awesome feedback, but I’d love to hear your thoughts as well on a key issue: the title.  My working title for the story, which I eventually want to turn into a screenplay, is “Sam and Adrian in the zombie apocalypse.”  That’s nice for helping me find my Word document, but that’s about the extent of its usefulness.  Here are some other titles I’ve considered:

  • “Jungleland,” as in the Bruce Springsteen song.  It evokes the proper sense of chaos, but that song is very much about a city, and my story takes place mostly on rural roads and in a small town, so the title may be misleading.
  • “The Pursuit of Happiness,” an ironic reference to the central plot device: a man is running out of his antidepressant medication and is searching for more in a world where there are no doctors and most pharmacies have been depleted by looters.  But this title could also be confusing; I can just see audience members grumbling, “I thought this was the movie where Will Smith solves the Rubix cube!”
  • “The Road to Hibbing” because roughly the last half of the story takes place in Hibbing, Minnesota, the hometown of Bob Dylan and also of one of my protagonists.  (The first half is about getting there.)  The title accurately describes what happens, but I think it sounds a bit too whimsical.  It also makes me feel like Irish ballads should be playing during the movie trailer.  That’s not really the musical tone I’m going for.
  • “Life Is Hard,” which is going to be a recurring line in the story.  (It also gives a very subtle nod to a line from a Bob Dylan song: “Life is sad, life is a bust.”)  Effective, but a bit heavy-handed, perhaps?
  • “Sam’s Town,” as in the Killers album.  The name of my character who grew up in Hibbing and returns to his hometown is Sam, so again, an accurate description.  However, this title might lead to more disgruntled viewers—this time, people who were expecting to see a Killers tribute (though I do like the idea of using one or two Killers songs on the soundtrack, along with Dylan and Springsteen).  A similar option would be “Sam’s Home”; I like this one because it can be interpreted two different ways.  I think of this story/screenplay as, among other things, a supernatural twist on the “30-ish guy moving back in with his parents” plot, and “Sam’s Home” riffs on that a bit.

Titles are important, so I’ll probably be thinking about this for a while.  I’d love your feedback on these suggestions, along with other title ideas you may have.