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.

I believe in America.

Because it’s the Fourth of July, and because I indicated last week that I’d be writing about the Godfather trilogy again, I titled my post with the first line of the first film.  In the opening scene, a minor character whose daughter was assaulted by two young men, who were given what he sees as a lenient penalty, is asking Don Vito to help him avenge her.  Fascinatingly, he begins with this qualification, following it up with “I have raised my daughter in the American way.”  It’s like he feels compelled to defend his chosen country before he goes on to express his frustration with its (in his perception) slow, unfair, and heartless (that is, emotionless) justice system–especially for immigrants like himself.

I’ve written elsewhere about how the Godfather trilogy, in addition to being an amazing family saga, is a story about the Italian-American immigrant experience in the 20th century.  But right now I want to focus on those interesting opening words: “I believe in America.”  If you insert the name of another, older nation in that sentence, it doesn’t sound right.  You can love (for example) England, but you probably wouldn’t say that you believe in it.  That’s because America is an experiment, and on the timeline of world history, it’s still a relatively new one.  Another family/political drama I enjoy watching, the AMC show Turn: Washington’s Spies (as in George Washington), makes clear just how close this experiment came to never even getting off the ground.  So if I say that I believe in America, I’m implying that I’m rooting for the American experiment to turn out okay–and that I’m still waiting to see the outcome.

That’s why it’s possible to be a loyal American and still acknowledge times when the experiment has gone off track (and, at risk of getting slightly political here, I would say that immigration, in general, has been one of those areas where America’s efforts have often been clumsy).  In fact, I’d say that it’s imperative to acknowledge those times if you’re a person who truly loves and believes in America and wants what’s best for it.  This reminds me of a conversation I had a couple of days ago in which I was trying to explain Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” to a friend.  I started by saying that it’s not a patriotic song, and I would still say that it’s not, if by “patriotic” you mean uncritically proud of America.  But I concluded by saying that it’s also not an anti-American song.  For all of its references to the ugly, confusing war in Vietnam and the hardships of growing up in working-class East Coast towns where the factories are closing down, that song really isn’t saying “America is great” or “America is bad.”  It’s just saying, “Living in America is hard,” which is the same as saying, “Life is hard.”

Of course, I need to qualify what I just said by adding that there are a lot of countries where life is a lot harder than it is in America.  Nobody can deny that our standard of living here (and I’m not just talking about money, though that’s certainly part of it) is much higher than in most of the world, and we’re foolish if we’re not grateful for that.  But we should also acknowledge that America is a really big country, so my American experience is not going to be the same as yours.  And for some, life here isn’t easy.

So, America–I believe in you, and I’m cheering for you.  And I’m thankful that I’m allowed to speak up when I think you’ve made a mistake.  But I think you’re doing pretty well, all things considered.

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.

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!

why I hate Negan

It’s generally considered annoying when people say “needless to say” and then go on to say it anyway.  But sometimes, I find that something I think should be needless to say is actually needful to say.  So, with that out of the way…Needless to say, there will be spoilers in this post about last night’s season premier of The Walking Dead.

A lot of people were angry about the allegedly contrived cliffhanger at the end of last season; I was indifferent.  Similarly, I think the big reveal in last night’s episode was handled as well as could be expected.  It may have been dragged out a bit longer than it needed to be, and the black-and-white flashbacks that Rick had (twice) of every single character may have been overkill, but they made up only a small part of an otherwise phenomenal episode.

The episode was phenomenal largely because of Andrew Lincoln’s acting.  His abject terror and humiliation were so convincing that I felt upset while watching the episode, as if a leader I had trusted in real life were really being emotionally and physically reduced to a crawling, cowering dog by a very evil man (back to this in a few minutes).  [While we’re on the subject, I was also upset (not offended, just shaken) by the violence in this episode–I had to cover my eyes a few times, which I don’t normally do while watching The Walking Dead.]  It was satisfying to watch Lincoln in a rare appearance on Talking Dead and see that he was actually okay!  This was, by the way, perhaps the most on-topic and substantial episode of Talking Dead ever–it’s worth the watch even if you normally skip the aftershow.

But there was one comment made during Talking Dead that was absolutely wrong, and I wish I could have been on the show to contradict it.  (They invited the wrong English teacher!)  Chris Hardwick, obviously trying to come up with an interesting and edgy topic, said something to the effect that Negan doesn’t see himself as a villain, and that our group has done some pretty bad stuff too–it’s all just perspectival.  That is crap.  I will admit that there have been villains on The Walking Dead before who were villains only (or primarily) because of their positioning on the show–because they came into conflict with the protagonists.  But Negan is not one of those villains.  I will also admit that the protagonists have done some very bad stuff–but again, this does not put them in the same category with Negan.  Neither Rick Grimes nor anybody in his group (nor the Governor, nor the people in Terminus) has ever taken obvious delight in bashing a living person’s head into a bloody pulp in an attempt to dehumanize both the victim and everyone watching.  And that’s why we’ve never seen Rick behave the way he did during that horrible, twisted Abraham-and-Isaac scene in which he was nearly forced to chop off Carl’s arm–sobbing, drooling, whimpering.  Rick has been afraid before; he has acted irrationally before, but now he’s having his humanity taken away from him, and this is what is so frightening to watch.  Negan reminds me of the sadistic Japanese POW camp commander I read about recently in Unbroken.  His goal is to reduce his victim to a will-less, soul-less, subservient machine.

I should clarify my post title: I don’t hate Negan as a character; I am grotesquely fascinated by every scene that he’s in, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the other phenomenal actor from last night’s episode.  I hate Negan as a human being; I hate him for what he’s trying to do to Rick (still just trying–the final scene of the episode indicates that he hasn’t quite succeeded), and therefore I don’t buy any attempt to get me to see him as a misunderstood “bad guy” who’s just doing what he thinks is best for his group.  He’s evil.

Who am I?

I’m Jean Valjean.  Actually, this post is not about Les Miserables; I just thought I would create a fake segue from last week’s post to this one.  That line is one of the best moments in the musical, though.

This morning the topic of faculty convocation at my institution was “The Modern Identity Crisis.”  We do realize that this is now the postmodern era, but the title was a reference to a paradigm shift that occurred during the Enlightenment.  Broadly speaking, in ancient and medieval times, you were born into a certain family, class, and trade, and you didn’t worry about discovering who you were really meant to be.  (So that question in A Knight’s Tale, “Can a man change his stars?”–nobody was really asking it at that time period.  But they also weren’t listening to classic rock.  That movie is a fantasy, in case you weren’t sure.)  But in the modern period, the question of individual identity became paramount, and it’s only become more confusing as the world has become simultaneously more diverse and more homogenous.

In this post, I want to point out a few recent manifestations of the drive to self-define that may appear silly or harmless, but that are actually quite telling and potentially powerful.  One is the proliferation of assessment tools, ranging from research-based psychiatric tests to three-question quizzes on advertising webpages (“What’s your guest bathroom decorating style?”), designed to help us categorize ourselves and others.  Young adult literature fans very seriously discuss the implications of being in a particular Hogwarts (and now Ilvermorny) house or a certain faction in the dystopian world of Divergent, and each of these fandoms offers a variety of official and unofficial tests and quizzes for determining where one belongs.  Many people, including myself, never tire of talking about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators and the rampant memes that lead us to identify ourselves with characters from various worlds (The Lord of the RingsThe Office, the Bible) based on MBTI. We give these assessment instruments so much power that they are almost like a postmodern version of divination.  Instead of looking to stars or tea leaves to tell us how are lives are going to turn out, or how to make decisions, we look at our personality types.

Our self-defining statements can also create limitations on who and what we are willing to be and do.  Some of these statements give us excuses for our perceived weaknesses (“English people don’t do math,” or vice versa); others allow us to feel superior to others (“Academics don’t watch football”).  And some of these statements, especially when made and believed by children and teenagers, can actually create deep-rooted habits that can shape the quality of a person’s life (“Nerds don’t do physical exercise”).

I’m not trying to be dire or dour.  I think it’s fun to discuss these things (as long-time readers of my blog know, I’m a Hufflepuff, and I’m also an ISFJ), but I’m afraid too many of us are limiting ourselves because we’re letting our categories determine our destinies.

food speaks

In Fear the Walking Dead, my current Sunday night TV show, a major character named Nick recently wanted to comfort a little girl whose father had been fed as a sacrifice to the infected dead.  But the little girl speaks only Spanish, and Nick speaks only English, so he ended up communicating his care by giving her a Gansito–a little individually-wrapped snack cake he obtained at some peril to his life.

In The Tale of Despereaux, a book I’m getting ready to discuss with my children’s lit students, soup is a pivotal symbol.  The cook makes a surreptitious batch of soup (which has been outlawed) as an act of courage and defiance.  The hero–a mouse–draws strength for his climactic act from a few spoonfuls of the cook’s secret soup.  And at the end of the story, the major characters, some of whom were formerly enemies, celebrate by eating soup (now legal) around a lavish dinner table.

I spent this past weekend at Virginia Beach with three of my dearest friends, and as we discussed on the last night, some of our favorite memories from the trip had to do with meals: the conversations around the table, the atmosphere in the restaurants (or outside on the patio next to the boardwalk), and, of course, the food.  At lunch on Saturday, I traded my last fried shrimp taco for the rest of one friend’s macaroni and cheese, and we both got enough joy out of this simple swap that we were still talking about it hours later.  It was an act that involved giving, receiving, and trying new things: some of life’s greatest joys.

I’ve told these stories because it’s hard to say what I want to say any other way, without resorting to platitudes.  If you’ve ever been moved to tears by a gift of food (even a vending machine snack cake), felt disproportionately happy watching people eat something you cooked, or looked forward for days to a dinner party (or a pizza and movie night), you know what I mean.

This topic isn’t as simple as I wish I could pretend it is.  Not everybody gets a warm glowy feeling from eating with other people.  Some people have dietary restrictions due to allergies, illnesses, or convictions, and other people say insensitive things to them because they can’t understand (I have said these kinds of things more often than I care to think about).  Others have eating disorders that make this a painfully thorny issue.  And we can’t ignore the fact that millions of people don’t have enough food for basic subsistence.

So I’m not going to make sweeping generalizations like “Food is a universal language.”  It’s not.  But just like anything that functions as a vehicle of communication between people (only more so, because food literally becomes part of us), food allows us to make small steps toward understanding.  Small steps like refraining from judging someone because of what they eat or don’t eat, or how they eat.  Like accepting a meal without feeling obligated to give something in return.  Like taking the time to know what a person really likes, wants, and needs.  This is how we connect with people.  This is how food speaks.