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.

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on listening to presentations

I just came from the penultimate session of a class I teach (facilitate, really) during which students complete the research and writing of their senior honors thesis.  Today I listened to the seven students in my all-female class (the Magnificent Seven, as I’ve been calling them in my mind) give short presentations about their thesis research and post-graduation plans.  These are students from majors as diverse as journalism, exercise science, and English/Spanish with teacher licensure, but they crossed disciplinary divides to convey their passion for their topics.

Earlier this afternoon, I served as a judge for five presentations (from history, English, and theology) that were part of our university’s Research Week competition.  Yesterday, I was a moderator in a room of presenters from exercise science and sports management.  Although the topics diverged widely, all the students, in spite of limitations in some of the presentations, showed a clear enthusiasm for their research and its implications in the real world.

On Tuesday, I watched my first master’s thesis student (i.e., the first student for whom I’ve served as thesis chair) defend her project, on moral maturity in the Harry Potter series, with flying colors.  It was a delightful meeting not only because we shared cookies and baked apple bars, not only because all three committee members and (of course) the student herself were Harry Potter fans, but primarily because I got to see the culmination of over a year’s worth of work and my student’s relief as she realized that she knew her stuff really, really well.  It was as if I could see her becoming an expert before my eyes.

Finally, three of my children’s lit students gave in-class presentations on nonfiction books yesterday, and four more will do so tomorrow.  So I’ve spent most of this week listening to students talk.  And although there’s a significant difference between a 10-minute undergrad class presentation and an hour-long master’s thesis defense, I love hearing students at any level talk about what they love, especially when they’ve done the work to know what they’re talking about.  In fact, I love hearing people in general talk about what they love.  Maybe we should all do more asking and listening–we might hear something really cool.

It’s not a competition.

This past weekend, I participated in two competitions: a chocolate-themed 10-mile road race, and my family’s annual Oscar prediction contest.  Of course, the Academy Awards themselves are also a competition and are surrounded by a number of unofficial competitions of the “who wore it best?” variety.

I am a competitive person, and specifically, I like to win.  This explains why I prefer playing trivia and word games, which I’m good at, over playing card and strategy games, which I’m not.  It explains why I was disappointed not to receive the Dissertation of the Year award last year when I should have been happy just to be done forever with being a student.  It also explains why, although I’m proud of both of my friends who completed Saturday’s race with me and I’m glad we got to have that experience together, it irks me that one of them finished five minutes (and five places in our age and gender category rankings) ahead of me.  I’m not mad at her; I’m mad at me.  I should have trained better.  I shouldn’t have eaten all those fish and chips the night before.  I should have started slower to preserve my stamina.  I could have beat her–that’s what I’m still telling myself three days later.

I have this mantra/piece of unsolicited advice that I frequently use on myself and others: “It’s not a competition.”  Of course, some things, like races and the Oscars, actually are competitions.  But there are a lot of things that we turn into competitions that were never intended to be.  Who contributed the most to this project?  Who’s the busiest?  Who has the most friends?  When I was in grad school, the competition that never stopped happening in my head was about who made the smartest-sounding remark in a class discussion.  Now I host a similar head-competition: Which professor is the most popular with the students?  But that’s just one of my many mental Olympic events.  There’s also “Can I run longer than that guy two treadmills down from me?,” “Do I look more physically fit than that woman my age?”, “Whose food looks the nicest at the potluck?”, and “Who knows the most about [insert topic here]?”

Participating in all these competitions all the time is exhausting.  It’s also antithetical to the way Jesus lived and asked us to live.  When Jesus’ disciples were arguing about which of them would have the highest place in the kingdom of God, he told them that they had to become like little children in order to even enter said kingdom.  Here’s something about little children (older children start growing out of this): They’re not good at games, in part because they don’t understand the concept of competition.  Another competition I tried to get started this past weekend was a relay race in the 3-year-olds Sunday school class I teach.  A very small minority understood what they were supposed to be doing, but most of them just stood there and looked cute at me.  And I got annoyed with them for not being competitive enough.  True, little kids will fight over toys–they can be a bit greedy–but that’s not the same as competing.  They really seem unconcerned about who wins and who’s the best.

I would love to press a reset button and go back to that non-competitive mental mode of childhood.  Because I can’t do that, I have to work really hard to be happy for others who can do things better than I can, to be content with who I am and what I’m capable of (not that I shouldn’t strive to improve where I can), and to be like Jesus, who was perfectly happy giving all the credit to his Father.