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.

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what I’m reading

This is the second in the trilogy of posts on what I’m watching, reading, and listening to.  I may make this a regular, periodic feature.  

I teach a college-level children’s literature course, so I read a lot of children’s books, and I have no reason to be ashamed of that.  Most of the below list of books I’ve finished or started within the past week are children’s or YA (young adult, technically a subcategory of children’s lit).

  1. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys.  I mentioned this YA novel in my recent post about World War 2 stories.  It’s about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustlav (an overcrowded ship that was evacuating civilians, many of whom were not ethnic Germans, from nearly-defeated Germany in 1945), the largest maritime disaster of the 20th century.  I think being informed about this little-known event is important, but I was disappointed with the book.  Sepetys was too ambitious in trying to write in the voices of four very different adolescents, some of which voices succeed more than others.  In particular, I became increasingly annoyed over the course of the book with the voice of Emilia, a character with whom readers are clearly meant to sympathize.  I think part of the problem was the too-precious voice of the audiobook narrator, but beyond that, the character was overly dreamy and seemed strangely unmoved by the horrors that had occurred in her young life.  Several of her overwrought similes made me cringe.  In contrast, the most successful voice belonged to Alfred, the probably sociopathic young Nazi sailor.  I occasionally felt sorry for him in his delusions, but I mostly felt disgusted–as the author wanted me to feel–by his racism and cowardice.  But the most effective scenes in the book were the minimalist, objective descriptions of the human and inanimate flotsam that floated by the protagonists during the long, freezing night after the sinking.  These scenes were actually more powerful than similar scenes in Titanic (to the extent that you can compare a book with a movie), but the rest of the book was a disappointment–to me, anyway.  Apparently not to people on Goodreads.
  2. And now for a book with a wonderful narrative voice: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis.  I reread this book over the weekend because I’ll be teaching it this fall, and I chose it because the protagonist, who tells the story in first person, is an absolute delight.  He reminds me of Huckleberry Finn in that he’s an at-risk youth in pretty dire circumstances, yet he shows his resilience by finding the humor in everything.  I laughed out loud at several of his flights of imagination, like when he tries to drive a car (he can’t) to escape a man he suspects of being a vampire, or when he pretends his mop is the submarine in “20,000 Leaks under the Sea”–“10,000 leaks stopped, only 10,000 more to go!”  The hilarious, genuine voice of Bud–along with the fact that readers are learning unobtrusive lessons about the Great Depression, labor unions, and the Jim Crow era–is probably why this book won the Newbery Medal.
  3. A Ring of Endless Light by Madeline L’Engle.  I’ll probably finish this one tonight.  I read An Austin Family Christmas every Christmas as a child, so I’m enjoying reading about Vicky and her family (and Mr. Rochester the Great Dane) now that they are all a little older.  It took me a little while to get used to the dialogue–it seemed stilted at first, but I eventually realized that these are just really thoughtful and articulate people.  This isn’t a fantasy in the sense of A Wrinkle in Time, but Vicky’s dolphin communication project hovers at the line between science and magic (to quote a Thor movie).  The rest of the novel, though, is firmly realistic.  It’s about death, family, growing up, dating–it’s pretty weighty.  But Vicky’s subtle faith and strong support system make it a hopeful story.
  4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.  This is a book that breaks textual convention (it includes blank pages, photos, cross-hatching, etc.) in an attempt to articulate the inarticulable–death and, more specifically, the deaths of thousands of people (represented by one man) on September 11, 2001.  In keeping with this theme, I won’t say a lot about this book, but I will say that it’s a great example of the principle that having a child narrator (even a successfully authentic one like Oskar in this book) does not make a book a children’s book.

Let me know if you have opinions about any of these books.  Next week, I’ll be back with music I’m listening to.

weekend miscellany

I couldn’t think of a unified topic for my blog post this week, so I’m going to tell you a few things I learned or re-learned this past weekend.

  1. Grilling okra is a good idea. It takes away the infamous sliminess of the oddly-shaped vegetable and brings out the true flavor.  You may want to consider wrapping your okra in foil, though.  The slippery little guys kept falling through the grates on my grill.
  2. Bambi is a great movie. I’ve mentioned before that it’s in my top five Disney animated films, but sometimes I forget how excellent it is.  It’s visually gorgeous, from the watercolor backgrounds to the use of color to convey emotion—note the liberal use of red during the scene when Bambi fights with another young buck.  It uses orchestra and voices to create mood and replicate sounds in nature—“Little April Showers” is not the only musical composition in the world that approximates a thunderstorm, but it’s a good one.  And one of my favorite things about Bambi is the use of real children to voice Bambi, Thumper, Flower, and Faline.  Their line delivery is a little more studied than that of the absolutely hilarious children in A Charlie Brown Christmas, but their delight—sometimes conveyed through hysterical laughter—is pure and genuine.  Even the dialogue captures the way a child would really talk, like when Thumper says the water in the frozen pond is “stiff.”  Maybe this relatability in the main characters was why I enjoyed Bambi as a child, even though the film as a whole could be justly be described as scary, sad, and slow.  Even though it’s only 70 minutes, I’m not sure if most children today would sit through it.  And maybe that’s okay—perhaps the real audience for this audience is art- and nature-loving adults.
  3. A guitar string may not be the best weapon for killing zombies. This falls under the category of things I learned for the first time this weekend.  I’m writing a story, which I eventually hope to adapt into a screenplay (so I can win my Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar) for a buddy road-trip movie that is set during the zombie apocalypse and sensitively explores the topic of clinical depression.  (Here I need to say that anyone who has ever written or ever will write a zombie movie screenplay is profoundly indebted to George Romero, who passed away yesterday.)  I read one of the final scenes at a creative writing group on Friday evening, and while I got really positive feedback about the emotional impact of the scene (technically, it was negative feedback—as in, “No, you can’t kill that really nice guy!!!”—but I knew that meant my character development had worked), I also got some practical comments about the impracticality of slicing off any head—even a dead one—with guitar string.  I also got some alternative suggestions, like using the neck of the guitar, which apparently contains a metal rod—who knew?—as a stabbing weapon.  The people at this creative writing group (I highly recommend joining one, by the way) are serious sci-fi/fantasy nerds who can sustain serious, unironic conversations about stuff like this, and I benefited from their suggestions.  Perhaps I’ll share some of this story on my blog!  It’s still in the early stages (I skipped ahead to write the last scene), but I’ve “known” the two main characters for a long time.  I posted a non-zombie story about them a few years ago.
  4. Sixteen miles is a long way. I know this because I ran ten miles Saturday morning and walked six more Saturday evening.  I don’t regret it, but I would like to make this public service announcement: If you run first thing in the morning, make sure to drink water first, since we all wake up slightly dehydrated.  Also, do not wear yoga pants for a long run, especially in the dead of July.  The more you know…

State of the Blog

Today I thought I would take the time to tell you how I think this blog is doing and to ask for feedback from you, my readers, without whom this blog would be nothing but the digital equivalent of a secret diary hidden under my mattress.  A couple things prompted me to do this.  For one thing, it’s been about a year since I implemented my weekly (usually Monday, sometimes Tuesday) post–before that, I was writing whenever I felt like it, and sometimes months would go by before you heard anything from me.  Another reason I wanted to stop and assess the blog this week is that I heard from some people yesterday who either mentioned a specific post they had enjoyed or indicated they knew something about the style of my blog–people I had no idea were reading it.  So that made me curious as to how many “silent” readers I have out there and what they’re thinking.

Let’s start with the weekly post thing.  I began this practice as part of a larger discipline of writing something (anything–could be a PowerPoint presentation for a class or a sketch of one of my screenplay ideas) for 30 minutes each weekday afternoon, which was inspired by the class on spiritual disciplines in the workplace that I audited last summer at Regent College.  (See below for a link to the series of posts I wrote following the course.)  Besides the fact that I’m now posting every week, another thing this practice changed about my blog is that my posts are now limited to what I can write within half an hour, which–I think–is keeping them to a manageable length, in contrast to the marathon posts that I used to write.  But, with the emphasis on actually writing for 30 minutes, I’m including fewer pictures, videos, and external links in my posts.  What do you think about all this?  Am I posting too often/not often enough?  Have my posts been too short lately, or are they still too long?  Would you like me to shut up occasionally and direct you to other people’s work (through the aforementioned pictures, videos, and links)?

I would also like your feedback about the topics I write about.  My blog has always been, unapologetically, about a wide variety of topics.  I know that I’d probably get a bigger readership and more mentions on the web if I focused in on a niche, like travel or home decor (or even something that I actually know a lot about, like Harry Potter), but I’m not trying to get famous or make money through my blog.  Although, as I hope this post attests, I do care very much about my readers, my blog is just as much a vehicle for me to process what I’m thinking and learning.  So I’m not sorry for writing a string of posts recently about The Godfather, even though most of you–at least those who are talking to me–don’t care about the Corleones (and, I still maintain, don’t know what you’re missing).  But I do want to know which topics you’d like to see more of–and what topics I haven’t addressed that you’d be interested in reading about.  Anecdotally, it seems that some of my most popular posts have been the confessional, gut-spilling ones where I let you snoop into the embarrassing parts of my interior life, usually through the screen of humor.  But I know that many of you also share my love of music, movies, and TV, and so you prefer posts on those topics.  Let me know what you think.  I will take your suggestions seriously, and I’ll write about pretty much anything that I know something about (and maybe even some things I know nothing about!).

In closing, let me share what I think have been some of the highlights of this past year on penelopeclearwater:

  • Here is the first of the series I wrote following the class on spiritual disciplines.  The series continued through July and August 2016–check out the archives.
  • There was a lot of excitement on my blog leading up to and following the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
  • This post from a few weeks ago–which was both a confessional post and a music post–got a lot of good feedback.

Everybody’s got a hungry heart

I am writing this post from a fog of hunger.  I did just eat a little container of hummus (150 calories) and five naan dippers (another 150), but I don’t think the energy has kicked in yet.  So bear with me.

Last week I started participating in an eight-week weight loss program sponsored by my employer.  When I first signed up, in April, I referred to it as a “wellness” or “fitness” program because I couldn’t bring myself to say the dreaded WL phrase.  And even now, as I’m writing this, a whole host of qualifiers comes clamoring to my mind because I feel like I need to justify my participation to you (and to me): “I don’t want or need to lose a lot of weight, just ten pounds.” Or “I’m doing this because I’m planning to run a half-marathon at the end of the summer” (thereby letting you know that I’m already an active person).  I.e., I don’t really need to lose weight, at least not as badly as that other employee that I just saw walking down the hall, who should have been the one to sign up.  Etc.  In fact, when I showed up for the first session last Tuesday, I kind of hoped they would send me away–“Oh, you’re too skinny for this program!”  But they didn’t.  So I finally had to admit that maybe I actually needed to be there.

That was the first hurdle to be leaped (not that I’m quite up to jumping hurdles yet.  Next obstacle: Committing to a daily calorie goal.  I really, really hate counting calories.  In fact, I have serious philosophical problems with the whole idea of treating food as nothing but fuel.  I’m pretty sure chefs think of themselves as artists, not bioengineers.  And we all recognize that a gift of food–especially homemade–is a lot more meaningful than a free tank of gas, monetary value aside.  (See my post called “food speaks.”)  In addition to my theoretical objections, I hate the inconvenience of having to know or guess the caloric content of everything I eat.  What about the chicken jalapeno popper soup that was already in my refrigerator when the program started, which I made from a recipe that didn’t include nutrition facts?  It has a lot of fresh vegetables in it, and one of the main ingredients of the “creamy” broth is cauliflower, so it’s actually pretty healthy.  But I don’t know how many calories are in it, so I end up making a guess that’s probably wildly inaccurate.  And I know it’s cheating to lowball the estimate, so I guess high–and probably cheat myself out of 100 calories I could have eaten.  (Maybe that’s why I’m so hungry this afternoon, come to think of it.)  Ironically, this calorie-counting thing has me cooking less and eating more packaged foods: at least this way I know what to record in MyFitnessPal.

The exercise part is the easiest for me; as I mentioned (and I’ll say it again, in case you missed it the first time), I’m already a pretty active person.  This works to my advantage because, logically, I get to add calories onto my daily intake whenever I exercise.  So I’ve been doing this thing that I’m pretty sure is antithetical to the spirit of this program: If I’m getting toward the end of the day and I realize I’m not going to have enough calories left to eat a snack while watching Fear the Walking Dead, or whatever, I’ll get in a quick extra workout to buy myself some more calories.  I actually worked out three times on Sunday, and I had three snacks during Fear (hey, it was the two-hour season premiere).

I’m fully aware of how pathetic this is.  I also know that when I go back and read through this post, I’m going to hate how whiny I sound.  And I already want to apologize to Bruce Springsteen for appropriating his song title because it was the first clever saying with the word “hungry” in it that I could think of.  But I’m going to go ahead and post this before I change my mind because I think some of you can relate.  And we all like reading about stuff we can relate to.  Now to find out how many calories are in a fun-size 3 Musketeers, because I’m still hungry.

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.