Don’t try to do everything–but do something.

Last year, I enjoyed writing an Advent-themed post for each Monday leading up to Christmas (and I hope you enjoyed reading them), so I’ll be doing it again this year.  Christmas Day is a Monday this year, and I plan to post as usual!

Today, I want to give you a life hack from The Girl Who Tries to Do Everything.  Ever since Facebook started suggesting events in my area (sometime this past summer, I think), I’ve become obsessed with marking myself “Interested” in as many events as possible.  They all look so fun!  The events I actually show up to comprise, predictably, only a small percentage of the ones I star.  Also predictably, the number of suggested events that look really fun has increased sharply with the onset of the Christmas season.  And also predictably, I didn’t go to a single one of the events I was supposedly interested in this past weekend.  But I did have a lovely time at home decorating my tree, writing Christmas cards, listening to the same Christmas albums I always listen to, and drinking way too much hot chocolate.  So here’s my advice: Don’t try to go to every event and participate in every activity that comes to your attention this Christmas season.  But, conversely, don’t let your inability to do everything paralyze you into inaction.  Do a few meaningful things that make you happy–which may not be the same as mine.

Here are some things I’ve decided to do this month:

  1. Go see ONE Christmas play/show/concert: A friend of mine is stage-managing a production of White Christmas, and since I know that I love this story and its music (here is a post that addresses an interesting sartorial question from the film), I know that attending the show will be worth my time.  Accordingly, I’ve already bought myself a ticket and put it on my calendar.
  2. Pick ONE recipe to take to parties: Fortunately, several of the Christmas parties I’m attending this month are catered or at a restaurant.  But for those parties where I’m excepted (or feel obligated) to contribute food, I’m not trying a different ambitious recipe for each one; I’m making festively-shaped sugar cookies.  That’s it.  I do love to cook and bake–you know that if you read my blog regularly–but I can get serious burnout at this time of year if I’m not careful.  By reserving my cooking/baking powers, I should have enough motivation to contribute quite a bit to my family’s holiday meals at the end of the month.
  3. Look at Christmas lights: Along with listening to music, it’s one of the only forms of holiday entertainment that is free and can be done on the way to something else.  My neighborhood is making a solid showing this year, so all I need to do in order to infuse a bit of Christmas cheer into my day is take a slightly different route to my house.
  4. Make every moment special: That sounds like it belongs on an especially cheesy greeting card, but it’s actually quite practical advice.  In December, if I’m sitting down to grade papers or read a book, I plug in my Christmas tree, light all my candles (and there are a lot–I like to pretend I have a fireplace), put on some Christmas music, and make some hot chocolate in one of my festive mugs.  So I’m celebrating Christmas even when I’m not celebrating Christmas.
  5. Spend time with people: I’ve made it sound like I’m doing all of this alone, and I certainly do enjoy hibernating in my house.  But this year, I had friends over to help decorate my Christmas tree, and even though I didn’t attend any of those events I starred this past weekend, I did spend some time with people each day.  Because in the end, what we do is less important than who we do it with.  And that’s sappy, but I can say it because it’s Christmas.
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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.

a creative writing experiment

I have posted fiction on my blog before, but it’s always been previously-composed pieces that I’ve had the chance to revise.  Today, I’m going to try something different: Right here, in the next half-hour, I’m going to write a section of my in-progress zombie apocalypse story.  It could be horrible.  Let’s see what happens.


Around midnight, they were driving through a string of townships north of Pittsburgh.  Butler and Cranberry passed by quietly, with only an occasional glimpse of a roaming figure in the dim space just outside the light of the high beams.  In Evans City, Adrian felt compelled to say out loud that this was where they had filmed Night of the Living Dead, even though he knew that Sam knew.  He laughed hysterically–like a person literally in hysterics–at the irony.

They had gotten out of Sam’s apartment without encountering anyone, living or dead.  Everyone had been at the riot at Sheetz.  “Want to go get an MTO?” Sam had joked.

“We have a cooler full of food; I’m not risking my life for a hot dog,” Adrian had scowled, too intent on his task to get the joke, as he brushed past Sam and started to run down the emergency exit stairs.  “I guess it’s a good thing you just went grocery shopping,” he hollered from two flights down.

They had taken Adrian’s car because it was less junky than Sam’s and because Adrian liked to feel like he was doing something productive.  They had decided to go north because the first exit they had come to was a road going north.

After a while, they came to a Family Dollar, one of those Family Dollars that seems like it has been dropped from the sky onto an otherwise godforsaken stretch of roadside.  It was glowing eerily in the darkness.  “There might be supplies in there,” said Adrian as he pulled off the road.

“There will definitely be zombies in there,” said Sam.  “We should take weapons.”

They looked at each other.  Neither Sam nor Adrian had ever fired a gun outside of a video game.  Then Sam thought of something.  “I have a little knife that I use to sharpen charcoals and pastels.”

 


All right, that’s it for now.  Not a whole lot happened, but I think there were a couple of good moments in there.  Stay tuned for more.

 

It’s tough to be a kid.

First, I’d like to apologize for not posting last week.  It’s a busy time of the year.  But I’m back!

Over the past week, a number of situations and stories have brought to my attention, with unusual force, the difficulties that face many children.  Some of these difficulties are brought about or compounded by social ills like poverty and abuse; others are just part of childhood.  Yet we adults tend to romanticize childhood retrospectively, talking about it as a carefree time when all we had to worry about was winning at baseball or video games.  Millennials talk about “adulting” as if life just recently became hard, forgetting or denying that being a kid can be just as tough.

That was all very abstract, so let me quickly run through the situations and stories that I mentioned.

  • I went to see It, which shows children being empowered by genuine friendship but also portrays harsh bullying and parental abuse that are just as frightening as the elemental force of evil that comes out of the sewer embodied as a creepy clown.
  • I am about to start training to become a volunteer CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate).  This means I’ll be assigned to observe and report on behalf of children involved in court cases due to their guardians’ abuse or neglect.  Just from filling out the paperwork and reading the manual, I know this work is going to break my heart sometimes.
  • But this is the example that stopped me in my tracks.  I recently reread Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in preparation to discuss it with my children’s lit class.  Like all of Dahl’s novels, this one is zany, exuberant, and the utter opposite of realism—except for one passage in chapter 10, “The Family Begins to Starve.”  This bears quoting: “And now, very calmly, with that curious wisdom that seems to come so often to small children in times of hardship, [Charlie Bucket] began to make little changes here and there in some of the things that he did, so as to save his strength.  In the mornings, he left the house ten minutes earlier so that he could walk slowly to school, without ever having to run.  He sat quietly in the classroom during recess, resting himself, while the others rushed outdoors and threw snowballs and wrestled in the snow.  Everything he did now, he did slowly and carefully, to prevent exhaustion.”  Here, in the middle of this wacky, colorful story about Oompa-Loompas and marvelous candy, is a textbook description of a child who can barely function because of hunger.  I told my students, mostly future teachers, to pay attention—they might see a boy just like this in their classes one day.

And even for children who aren’t abused, bullied, or starving, everything feels more intense in childhood: fear, jealousy, shame.  The good feelings are more intense too, sure.  But be careful when you make rosy generalizations about childhood.  Don’t let yourself forget that it isn’t easy.

middle brother syndrome in British fantasy literature

Every once in a while on this blog, I like to write about Edmund Pevensie (here is an example) because he is one of my favorite fictional characters, even though he spends most of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a selfish brat.  (Selfish brats are easy to identify with, at least for me.)  In one post, I paired him with Percy Weasley because they both suffer from the same condition: both are middle children who feel they’ll never live up to their older siblings’ perfection and who need to assert their superiority to their younger siblings, so they end up betraying their family (in Edmund’s case) or at least betraying their values (in Percy’s case).  And both are, prodigal son-like, restored to their families, but not before suffering humiliation and loss.

Just the other day, I realized there’s another character in British fantasy literature who fits in with these two.  I’m teaching Peter Pan in children’s lit this week, so I’ve been immersing myself in the story and its context for the past few days: watching the Disney cartoon and Finding Neverland, reading a biography of J. M. Barrie and the Llewellyn Davies boys called The Real Peter Pan, and even bringing my flying Peter Funko Pop to my office, where he’s currently about to take off from a stack of books (including a volume of Barrie’s representative plays) on my desk.  And now I have just one question for you: Can we give a little love to poor overlooked John Darling?

John is, unlike Edmund and Percy, an exact middle child, the second of three.  And though he seems, unlike them, to have a good relationship with his siblings, I always sense a subtle bitterness toward Wendy for her obsession with Peter Pan (John’s natural rival in age and leadership ability—notice how annoyed John gets when Wendy won’t let him sit in Peter’s chair) and a bit of jealousy of Michael for being everybody’s cute little favorite.  And there is that moment where John comes perilously close to signing up for a life of crime with Captain Hook; it’s only when he finds out he’d have to forswear loyalty to the King that he refuses.  Note that he doesn’t seem, in that moment, to care about abandoning his family—just about being a bad British citizen.  Doesn’t that sound like Percy?  John has that same self-importance—and, related to that, desperation to be seen as grown up—that we see in our other two examples.  The detail Barrie includes of John “seizing his Sunday hat” before flying out the nursery window is brilliant—it confirms our impression of him as a stolid, middle-aged, middle-class banker in a ten-year-old’s body.  (The Disney movie really plays this up, giving John a fussy little umbrella and a prodigious vocabulary.)  And that’s why my heart melts when I’m reminded that he is still a boy, a tired and homesick boy who is ultimately very glad to go home.

One reason I love all these characters is that everyone else seems to either forget about them or hate them.  I’ve never been a middle child or anyone’s brother, but I know what it’s like to wish to be taken seriously, so I feel for these boys, selfish and self-important as they may be.  Can you think of anyone else who might fit into this category?

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.

what I’m listening to

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

This category is harder to write about because listening to music is easier to do, and therefore I do so much of it throughout the week.  As you probably do, I listen to music while I’m doing other things, though I make a point of not listening to music with lyrics while I’m working or reading.  (I’ve had that personal rule for several years now, ever since I heard a neuroscientist talk about how lyrics distract us on some level even when we think we’re not listening to them.)  This means that at work, I listen to a lot of classical, post-rock, ambient music, movie scores and trailer music, and yoga/New Age/relaxation music.  I’ve also been listening to a bit of modern funk, a lot of which has no lyrics.  Spotify (I use the free desktop version) is brilliant at finding me new tracks in these genres, so my Discover Weekly playlist, which I listen to every Monday, is almost all instrumental.  (If you’ve never listened to your Discover Weekly playlist, try it–Spotify “curates” it from music similar to what you typically listen to.)

Lately, I’ve also been listening to ambient music, nature sounds, and something called “binaural beats” (supposedly scientifically proven to help you relax) while falling asleep.  I find these tracks on a meditation app called Insight Timer.  The Yoga Radio station on Pandora is also a good sleep soundtrack.

In the car, I mostly listen to audiobooks, and although those are not the topic of this post, I will mention that I’m thoroughly enjoying The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd, another recent children’s lit selection.  When I feel like rolling down the windows and singing, I like modern folk, like the Avett Brothers, and timeless-sounding rock, like Dawes.  I also enjoy Pandora’s 80’s Alternative station when driving or running.

But let’s talk about the music I love enough to buy.  Lately, I have been buying music only in the form of records.  My record collection is growing and extremely eclectic, and it includes some thrift store finds that are just plain weird, like Sacred Music from the Russian Cathedral and an electronic version of Holst’s The Planets.  Here are my most recent acquisitions: Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, Dawes’s We’re All Gonna Die, NEEDTOBREATHE’s The Outsiders, and an orchestral album that includes songs from Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I always say I’m going to take a tour of my albums, listening to all of them in some sort of order (alphabetical, chronological, or just the order they happen to be sitting in), but I end up listening to whatever I feel like at the moment.  Sometimes, there are strategic reasons for my choice (e.g., I had people over Saturday afternoon and didn’t want to put on something with distracting lyrics, so I chose the soundtrack to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them); other times I just feel like listening to The War on Drugs or The Head and the Heart.  Last Tuesday evening, I knew I was going to be cooking for a while so I chose to listen to my entire Decemberists collection.  (It consists of only two albums, The Crane Wife and The King Is Dead, but the former is a long album.)  Yesterday, before I watched the Steelers’ pre-season game, I put on Born in the USA because both Bruce and the Steelers make me think of steel, sweat, and working-class America.

I hope you didn’t start reading this post expecting me to review recently-released albums.  I don’t listen to much new music.  But maybe some of my scattershot name-dropping has inspired you to revisit a classic or look up an artist you haven’t tried.  Let me know what you’re listening to, too!