30 July 2011

Shameless Self Promotion

Several of you have asked me lately about what I've been keeping myself busy with all summer. I've spent a decent amount of time this summer mourning the loss of the arts in my life and alluding to the fact that I'm busy working on other important things, but have not actually expanded on what that means. For those of you who are interested: Here's the break down.

I am still teaching. I will be teaching live classes next year at a new school which I am very excited about. (New school to me, not to the world.) I will be teaching Shakespeare and Literature and Film for fun, but will also be taking the seminar program as well. The seminar is a class I started teaching with a friend of mine (Greg Duffin) last year. It is a combined English/History class with emphasis on developing culture and personal responsibility for education. It's a wonderful class that is an absolute honor to teach. Our emphasis this year is on Modern US History and the theme "Who Are You?". All of our literature this year will focus on developing your individuality and then making a difference to the community. (Books like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Anthem and Warriors Don't Cry, plays like The Glass Menagerie and Pygmalion.)

Online Classes:
Greg and I also own a company called Vigilance Media. We produce the online equivalent of our live class for homeschool families. Our model is something of a mix between an exercise video, Sesame Street and Facebook: Our classes are meant to be accessible to the entire family (there are separate classes for elementary, junior high and high school - but all cover the same basic material just at different levels so that families can learn together). The upper classes (that we actually teach), are based on short lessons and communication between students - we don't want anything push button or lazy - we want students engaged with the world around them. Last year we produced a class focusing on the Ancient World (Egypt-Greece) and applying ancient values to a modern world. This year we're doing Early American History (through the Civil War) and the Hero's Journey. It involves lots of short instructional videos, discussion boards, and interaction between student and teacher. You can find out more about those classes here.

One of the last projects I've been working on this summer is a website to house information about all the things I've been working on. Vigilance Media, then, is also a website with suggestions (primarily for teenagers, but for everyone as well), on articles, movies, books and other things that people should see if they want to build a culture of refinement around themselves. This website is still a work in progress but will be updated approximately once a week with new suggestions.

So there you go. That's what's been cooking up in the bat-cave all summer. It's been a lot of work. I'm excited to see real live people again when school starts. But I am also very much excited about these projects. Hope to see you around the website - we'd love suggestions on things to showcase that have influenced you.

22 July 2011

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 7.2

This is a review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 7.2. (Duh.) It contains spoilers for the film. If you haven't seen it, go.

I have long been a fan of the Harry Potter films and the books. This, for some people, seems contradictory. I've heard people fight adamantly on both sides. Most commonly, you hear people who say that they liked the movie well enough but they'll never stack up to the way they felt about the books. I suppose all of these are fair responses, but as an avid student of adaptation theory, I've liked some of the films, and loved others of them in similar and different ways to the books, and I'm ok with that.

For example, one thing I really loved about the sixth film (Half-Blood Prince) was the way the film was able to parallell the journey of Draco and the journey of Harry. The books, by necessity couldn't tell Draco's story as he fought to find a way to complete the task given to him by Voldemort. The books are narrated from Harry's perspective, and, barring a few chapters at the beginning of the last few books, if Harry isn't there, the audience can't see it. But films are different, and the sixth film allows us to see the parallel journeys of Harry and Draco. That particular telling of the story gave me a different perspective on a story I already knew.

This means that when I go into a film adapted from a book I've read, part of my brain is turned on to comparison (what is different from the book, and why did they make the change), but most of my brain is dedicated to following the story that the movie is telling. That long-winded introduction in mind, this is what I thought of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, parts one and two. I already wrote my review of the first film (albiet, hastily.) This review will be more conclusive about the impact that they have as a pair.

I realized a long time ago that the Harry Potter films were going to select which stories to tell based almost entirely on the impact that storyline had first on Harry, and then on the friendship of Harry, Ron and Hermione. You can see this in the way that (almost all) of the movies end with the three of them looking off into the distance. This meant that other storylines that were important in the books were scrapped in the films. Dumbledore's background. Many of the Voldemort memories in the sixth film. Hermione's political activism with SPEW and Rita Skeeter. Ron's Quidditch experiences.

This made, I think, for more angry fans in the earlier movies who saw some of their favorite book plots scrapped. It did, however, make it slightly easier for them to adapt Deathly Hallows. I remember thinking that Jo wrote a pretty daring final novel. While so many people would have been tempted to make the last novel an adventure tale a pure detective novel with one explosion after another, Deathly Hallows is, for the most part, a remarkably quiet book. In fact, the destruction of the horcruxes - which everyone thought would be the focus - was almost entirely an afterthought. Harry doesn't witness the destruction of one of them. One horcrux gets destroyed by accident. He is only personally responsible for the destruction of one of them. Deathly Hallows is a book first and foremost about the power of friendship and fighting for those that you love.

I was a little afraid, I think, that the films would forget this. Hollywood, being Hollywood, would be tempted to make a bigger deal out of the action than they might have needed to. We saw this in Goblet of Fire, for example, with the fight Harry has with the dragon. I was a little nervous that the intellectual focus required for the first half of the film would be sacrificed with long intense fights. I was worried that the second film would be one big long explosion.

Instead, I was relieved to find that the writers and director David Yates were daring enough to make the movie that ought to have been made. A sincere and dedicated duo of films on the power and challenges of friendship and relationships of all kinds, healthy or not.

One thing that the movie brought out that I hadn't ever quite connected after reading the books was something a friend of mine noticed that we had a really great conversation about afterward. We talked about the symbolism of each horcrux and the individual most related to each object and the lessons learned from each object. Each horcrux and it's purpose/destruction/relation to an important person in Harry's life became a pretty great symbol that I suppose I could have picked up on through the reading of the book, but the visual element of the film brought it out even more.

The diary and its connection to Ginny brings up the element of where you put your trust and who you put it in. The ring and Dumbledore remind both Dumbledore and Harry not to dwell in the past. The locket and Ron remind us again about trust, but more specifically the trust of those things you hold most dear and being more open about what you feel. The trophy is Hermione's, and Harry's, possible temptation into the world of recognition and accolades and fighting against the threat of pride. The diadem is, I think, one of the more interesting connections because it is not really finalized - it's connected with Draco and the shared position Harry and Draco have as only sons and privileged children with many opportunities. Its accidental destruction showcases the relationship between Harry and Draco that won't ever be settled or more than cordial. Neville's destroying of the snake Nagini is a nice symbol of the way he stepped up to fill Harry's place in his absence - he destroys Voldemort's right hand, so to speak. Most important, of course, is Harry's destruction of himself - his symbolic conquering of his own weaknesses and foibles to protect the ones he loves. Wonderful. It was a fantastic conversation, and I have the films to thank for it. (This friend hasn't finished reading the books. Yet.)

There were a few things changed from the books that I missed, but the substitutions in the film were good. I appreciated the moment where Harry said good bye to Ron and Hermione. I thought the presentation of Snape's memory was a masterpiece (HUGE shout out to Alan Rickman, who was brilliant.) I even thought the final battle between Harry and Voldemort was good - it was a good visual representation of the mental battle they have in the book.

Ultimately, though, the real test for me on this film was that it left me feeling almost exactly as I had when I finished the book - utterly bewildered about what to do with myself. I felt as though I had just been through war. I felt as though I, too, had accomplished something great. And now the world expected me to do something as simple as closing a book or leaving a theater and . . . what. . . sleep? Eat? It didn't seem big enough. I didn't want to say good bye. I wanted to honor a story that had meant something to me - both through written word and through a final film pair that was everything it could have been and more. I can't wait to see it again.

The "Opening" Night

As has been made abundantly clear in just about every post I've written this summer: I'm not doing theater. I wish I was. I almost did. Nothing's worked out. It was part conscious decision not to put myself in that world, and part result of a myriad of shows in the area that I don't want to audition for anyway. Rotten, terrible, no good combination.

But I've come to terms with it. (Mostly.) Funnily enough it was Harry Potter 7.2 and a biography of J.K. Rowling that did it. I was reminded that what I have been doing all summer instead is something I am passionate about, that I believe in, and that takes full attention and energy. There will be shows again, but the time I've had to dedicate to this project may never come back in such a way again, and I've needed to devote myself entirely to it.

And that's ok. It's more than ok, actually. But even the best of things come with a price, and the price for me this summer involves putting off travel and stage until another time.

It's still left me a little morose, though, and yesterday could have been the most difficult of those days. It was opening night for a good portion of my friends in a show that I didn't audition for by choice but ached for anyway - if only because I missed the rush of theater for the sake of itself. I kept watching the clock.

5:00. (I should be going to the theater now to get my hair done and mic on and props set.) 5:30. (I should be finishing my hair and stretching right now. Eat a banana and a granola bar.)
6:00. (I should be running through scenes and dance steps. I should be standing on the stage, staring out at the empty seats, taking a breath, and being grateful for what's coming.)
6:30. (I should be getting makeup done.)
7:00. (Last minute check of everything. Brush teeth. Director notes.)
7:15. (Dressing room prayer, followed by listening to music and pacing the dressing room alone, personal prayer.)
7:30. (Curtain. Heart starts rushing a bit. Pacing continues and I think again about how lucky I am to be where I am again. How glad I am for the talents I've been given. The joy they bring.)
7:45. (iPod away. Grab book. Go backstage right. Wait for end of song. Take a breath - showtime.)

I had to do something. Something to honor the opening night I wasn't having. I got together with a friend, and watched scenes from a show we were in. I was a little nervous about this - I don't like watching myself on stage under the best of circumstances, but this particular show had been very important to me, and it was the only thing I could think of to do.

And you know what? I was good. I don't say this to brag - I say this out of genuine surprise. I watched this show and remembered the hard work and hundreds of hours I had spent preparing for this role, and was proud of the result. It was a relief. I actually enjoyed it. And it was healing. It reminded me that when all of this is over, my talents and gifts in the arts will still be there and can still be used for good in the world.

So today it was back to the bat-cave to continue work on this project for the last few weeks before school starts. Only today I came feeling again that rush of knowing that I am a capable, talented person. And my life, for all its frustrations right now, is still wonderful.

14 July 2011

Dear Mr. Potter,

The following is an admittedly sentimental tribute, but one that I felt needed to be written anyway.

I always hated how long it took for books to come when I ordered them from a book order. Now when I order books as a teacher, they come in less than a month. The benefit of online orders, I suppose. But when I was in school, a teacher had to wait for all orders to be turned in, mail the order, and wait for the books.

I don't think any wait was quite so long as the wait for you.

Maybe that's just because now that I know what I was really waiting for, the wait seemed extended. Maybe it was actually longer. (I did, after all, turn my book orders in as soon as I could. I'm a bit anal that way.) Either way, real or projected memory, the wait seemed interminable.

I have to be honest, though. I ordered you because of your cover. There wasn't much in the book order that time that looked interesting, but as an early teen without a job and only a small allowance, buying my own books was something of a luxury. I have another confession: I didn't read the first story first. All three were, I think, available in the book order - but it was less expensive to buy the second and third books in a set than it was to order them individually, and I couldn't afford them both. So I missed out on that story until a bit later. Luckily, it didn't make any difference.

By the time I discovered your story, I was too old to believe that Hogwarts was real. I didn't, like I had as a child that knocked on the back of wardrobes, start writing furious letters to Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall demanding to know why I hadn't been admitted to your school - but for all the time I spent in your world, I may as well have been.

Because that's the thing - whether it was real or happening in my head, that world made a difference to me.

For one thing, it made me see that answering lots of questions and getting homework in on time and loving to study were not bad things. I loved school dearly and always had, but knew that I was often the butt of jokes about being a teacher's pet or being too smart for my own good, or being a nerd. But I wasn't trying to be a teacher's pet - I genuinely loved and admired those who opened my eyes. I didn't think I was too smart for my own good - I thought I had so much to learn that there wasn't time to waste not asking questions. As for being a nerd, well, that was probably true. And while you weren't really like that - Hermione was. From her I learned that a girl can be both smart and kind, passionate and vulnerable, independent and reliant. I'm still learning from her.

For another thing, I learned how to look at life for the meaning it held. When things were hard, I was able to step back and see myself as the hero of my own story to try and figure out what to do next. I remembered the wise words of advice from Professor Dumbledore when he said that our choices matter more than our abilities, and that who we are born doesn't matter as much as who we grow to be. As a person often insecure in her own strengths and even more afraid of her own weaknesses, I gained perspective that allowed me to not be so hard on myself. To allow myself room to improve.

But, to be fair, I learned these lessons from other stories as well. I did learn them, perhaps, more potently from you, but I did find them in other places. There is, though, one lesson that I think can be directly linked to the years I spent waiting for your stories to come, and it was probably the most important lesson of all. Your books linked me to my family and to my friends. They gave me memories. See, I can be a pretty solitary person. I like people, but I don't often get attached to them. When life changes and people move on, I let them. I don't hold on to something that doesn't exist any more, or that I've grown out of. This is, perhaps, a virtue and a vice. But your books are connected to some of my most precious and treasured memories. For example:

-The first time I went to a midnight showing of your movie with a group of friends who, after a rocky few years of being very lonely, liked me for who I was.

-Waiting for your stories to come and spending hours discussing what we thought might happen to you or what things might be important with another group of friends. We eventually branched out into doing this not just about you, but about everything. It taught me how to think.

-Waiting up all night for the release of the fifth story, reading in the living room of my friend, and getting up early the next morning for a matinee performance of a play I was in. She got to read backstage and I didn't - I was horribly jealous.

-Perhaps most treasured of all - going to get the last book with my younger brother. It was one of the first times we really, honestly spent time together as adults, and I wouldn't have wanted to share that night with anyone else but him. Later that day our entire house was silent - everyone was reading. We had four different copies of the book at once, so that everyone could read. In a technology happy house like mine - that silence was one of a kind, and really special.

Your books didn't make a reader out of me - I'd loved to read since before I really knew how. But your books did make a scholar, a friend, an adventurer, and a more determined person out of me. I may not have attended your school or been there in reality - but I felt like I was - which means your story changed me.

Tonight I'll gather with friends and dress up and eat pumpkin pasties and drink butterbeer and, for the last time, trek to the theater to watch a midnight showing of a movie about you. It's hard to believe it's nearly over. I'm going to miss it terribly. Our journey started more than ten years ago. And I think it's left us both better off. Now all that's left, I suppose, is for both of us to take the lessons learned and do something about them. Make the world better.

So thank you, Mr. Potter - and you, Jo - for the honor and pleasure of your company. It's been an incredible ride. Thank you for including me on a journey that included millions, but felt so very personal.


12 July 2011

Or there's always damnation. . .

I would not necessarily consider myself a feminist. Not in the traditional/stereotypical sense, at least. I don't think that women need to take on all male jobs to be worthwhile, I don't think all men are chauvinists, I'd love to have a family some day and a little girly part of my soul likes it when couples get together in books and movies. I also, erm, would rather wear all my clothing (seen or unseen) than not.

But every so often, there's a part of my soul that rears its feminist head that cannot be stopped.

A good friend of mine posted something on Facebook as a status that looked something like this:

"I want to become something or do something great. I don't know what it is yet, but I'm looking!"

There followed a handful of responses that all looked something like this (including spelling errors):

"Ur the mother of a great baby! You can't do better than that!"


"But your a mother and a wife and a really great friend. Your already great."

(That low rumbling that sounds like thunder? That would be my feminist monster head waking up from a nap before its had enough sleep.)

Now, you might look at me and say, "Hold the phone. Those are nice responses. It is after all, good to be a wife and a mother. What's wrong with being great already?"

My response?

This friend of mine is already certifiably great. I won't argue that even a little. She's been gifted in many different areas of her life and I've always admired her for her grace, generosity, and charity. She's legitimately great already. These responders aren't wrong.

Those responses may have been meant to comfort my friend into acceptance of her life as it is, but it didn't look to me like she was looking for comfort. It looked to me like she was looking for progress. Like she was looking for something beyond what she already had. Wanting to find a way to influence more of the world for good. Being a mother and a wife are wonderful, but the process of buying a ring and producing children and earning the titles "wife" and "mother" do not give women a "get out of progression free" pass. These responses may have been intended for comfort, but the culture around such attitudes reeks strongly of: "Don't worry about getting better, God loves you just as you are right now and you don't need to work or try to be like Him." (Which, last I checked my Bible Dictionary, shimmies rather close to the definition of "damnation." Lack of progression? Check.)

What is it about our culture that wants to treat the act of getting married and becoming a mother as the peak of achievement a woman can make? That once those things are done, we cannot possibly do anything else with our lives that would influence the world for good? Why do we, as women and as a culture, feel the need to patronize ourselves into boxes so that we can justify who we are?

Next you might say, "Well, this is all fine and great. But 'no success can compensate for failure in the home.' Right?"

I'm not arguing. What I would like to suggest, though, is that our definitions of "failure" and "home" might be a little different. It is, I suppose, a certain kind of success for a family to be well fed and decently fond of each other at the end of the day. But the real triumph of a family is when they are then able to, as individuals and groups, go into the world and make a difference. If they were fond of each other at home forever and never went into the world, that wouldn't be a very successful situation. That seems obvious. But shouldn't that apply to every member of the family, not just the children and the father? For the mother/wife to be fully successful in the home, doesn't she need to be the greatest person she can be outside of it as well?

(The petty part of me would also like to suggest that the above quote was not directed only to women, but to men as well, and I don't remember anyone telling men recently not to enhance their talents and abilities. In fact, I remember a specific instance where they were commanded to expect more and do more. But I digress.)

I think that monster is starting to feel slightly better about the world. Maybe it's just a touchy subject for me and I'm overreacting a bit. I am, after all, a successful, happy single adult woman in a culture that sometimes sees those traits as incongruent. But I took no shame whatsoever in posting my own response to my friend in which I said something to the effect of: "______ - I think it's wonderful that you want to learn new things and be great. Go for it!"

04 July 2011


(Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons)

It was a Sunday afternoon in mid June, 2007. I had been traveling through England for the last two months, living a dream. Two months of hiking and sheep and cadbury and trips to the West End had stopped a few days before and I was missing my friends terribly, wishing to be back in London instead of in France, which was crowded and not nearly as pretty as I wanted it to be. All the same, I wasn't ready to go home. A few more days and I would be back in America, biding my time until school started again in the fall, working at a temp job at my dad's company doing data base entry. After a summer spent hiking approximately 25 miles a week, sitting at a desk and staring at a computer screen doing mindless work sounded like torture. I was not looking forward to going home.

The weather mirrored my mood. It was sticky and raining like mad, limiting my ability to explore the beach. I stayed instead next to the seemingly unlimited rows of grave markers honoring those who had died on June 6th, 1944, ready to cover my head with my jacket and run for cover if (and when) the rain started up again.

Sure enough, I had only enough time to take some pictures before the downpour started again. The closest escape from the rain was a monument honoring American soldiers. I dashed toward it and stood underneath part of the monument where a map was displayed, depicting the battle. There were about twenty people there total - all American and (mercifully) speaking English. It was a strange kind of relief to have the luxury of eavesdropping again.

I looked at the map and back out at the rows of gravestones and wished that I felt something. I understood logically the reverence of a place like Normandy, but my England loving heart had never really understood the diehard patriotism of being an American. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy my country and I was certainly grateful for the freedoms I enjoyed, but I longed for the history and museums and culture of Europe, something very much lacking from my midwestern upbringing.

The clock chimed. When it had finished, the speakers around the monument started playing "The Star Spangled Banner". Almost in unison, every person standing around the monument, escaping the now drizzle of rain, turned and placed their hand over their heart to listen. All conversation stopped. I looked around at the group and then up at the monument, out at the graves, and back to the group, suddenly very honored and proud to belong to the country that I did. It was the first time that I ever remember feeling truly, honestly patriotic.

I don't think that my country is any more perfect than others around the world; and we do suffer from a severe lack of decent chocolate (though with Magnum Bars on sale now, maybe times are changing) - but I do honor and respect the freedoms that we have been given here. There is something truly wonderful about belonging to a country that was built with that purpose in mind. Though a large chunk of my heart will always belong in England, I can still say that I am proud to belong to this country.

Happy Fourth.

O, thus be it ever when freemen shall stand, Between their loved home and the war's desolation! Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation! Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto: "In God is our trust" And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave, O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

01 July 2011

Mule Child

I'm good friends with a three year old who has been waiting for approximately his entire life to see Cars 2. He owns everything related to Lightning McQueen and knows the name of every car and occasionally says "I eat losers for breakfast!" It's pretty great.

But, to be honest, that's about as far as my Cars enthusiasm ever went. I love me some Pixar, but the story of learning to find peace in slowing down and reminiscing didn't ever really hit home for me the way it did other people. My favorite bits of nostalgia hit about ten years prior to the "Radiator Springs" era and generally reside on the other side of the world. (Re: 40s. London.)

When I heard that Pixar was doing a sequel to Cars I was a little disappointed, but prepared to jump on the bandwagon because ultimately what made the first Cars watchable (if not re-watchable) for me was the strength of the story. I didn't relate to it personally, but I could at least respect the way the story was told. It had heart, a good center, and interesting characters and tractor tipping. I could buy it. So I bought my ticket to see Cars 2 expecting not to fall in love, but at least to be entertained. It is, after all, a Pixar film.

To be perfectly blunt, it's a mercy the funny short "Hawaiian Vacation" came before the film because people should see that, but I sort of wish that it had come at the end of the film instead so that I could have left on a note of relief instead of a note of: "Pixar - you are worth so much more than this!"

Instead the film was a bit of a mess. It couldn't decide what it wanted to be - an action spy farce, a story about friendship, a mystery, a quirky comedy, a story about travel. . . there were so many possibilities rolling around. Individually, they all could have worked. Instead the story lacked focus and direction. It meandered all over the place and got nowhere.

I think the biggest problem with Cars 2 ultimately was the need for a reminder about the lesson I try to teach my writing students each year: character development. When you're writing a personal essay or a short story, it is extremely hard to pull off a story where your main character is static. I'd say very close to impossible, but I've read a handful of stories where it has worked. But those stories are extremely rare and hardly ever for children. The center of Cars 2 wasn't Lightning McQueen, it was Mater. The problem with this isn't that Mater isn't a nice sort of character (though I do find him utterly obnoxious in large doses), it's that Mater is alright with who he is. He is the definition of blissful ignorance. It's what makes him the perfect sidekick.

But this film attempted to force a storyline on Mater that would make him not alright with who he is. Through a series of mistakes that he makes, (and the helpful reminder of a montage of those same scenes, just in case you missed it) Mater gets a brief and small awareness that he's not "normal". But there's no real attempt on his part to try and grow out of that. He doesn't try, for example, to mimic the accents of the British cars. Or adopt their vocabulary. He notices his difference and is a little sad by it, but doesn't really do anything about it. In the end he realizes that who he is is just fine, but it's a small won prize and a bit of a letdown in the end. He's too static a hero to be a hero.

The real story - Lightning McQueen learning to be alright with who Mater is - would have been awesome. Accepting friends as they are and not as you would like them to be is a fantastic lesson. Unfortunately, it was cut short. Shame.

(And is it maybe a bit sad that during the London section of the race, all I could think was: "that's not how you get there!"?)

In brighter news, the film for next year, Brave, looks awesome. I still love you, Pixar. Let's just put the mule child film back where it belongs and forget this ever happened and go back to what you do best: tell a real story with characters people care about.