what I’m doing this week: making risotto, being student-centered, and still planning a wedding

This post should not be read as me tooting my own horn (“you should be just like me”) but rather as me sharing some things that I’m doing that may or may not work for you–after all, you may have even better ideas. Also, it’s an aspirational post for me, too; I mean, this is only Monday, and even in a normal week, my best-laid plans can turn into a mess of arrows bumping tasks down to later in the week on my planner page (some of which tasks will fall off the page entirely). So, with all that in mind, here are three things that (you are free to do as you like) am planning to do this week.

  1. Making risotto. This morning, I bought ingredients to make one of my favorite dishes, risotto. I know that not everyone loves cooking, but for me, it’s relaxing and a way for me to use totally different skills than the ones I use in my work. Also, there’s sometimes a temptation, when we are housebound or just generally in stressful situations, to throw basic nutrition guidelines out the window, but I think it’s important for us to continue to be at least mindful of what we’re eating and feeding those we love. I’m not saying risotto is the pinnacle of healthy eating, but it certainly is filling and nourishing, and I’m adding peas and shrimp to mine (thanks for the idea, Betty Crocker) for some green and protein. So, again, I’m not telling you what to do, but perhaps you’d like to use some of your time at home to prepare something special in the kitchen–even if it’s just toast with your favorite nut butter.
  2. Being student-centered. My university, like most, has moved on-campus classes online for the next three weeks. There’s been a lot of talk in higher ed circles about the best way to ensure students are still getting both the rigor and the support of a traditional classroom setting. I’ve chosen to make things relatively easy for myself by using the same format–loosely based on a typical asynchronous* online course–for all three of my on-campus classes. But the really important thing, I think, is that I’m trying to be present for and supportive of my students–answering their emails promptly and encouragingly, commenting on their discussion boards here and there, etc. For me, one of the most crucial (and enjoyable) parts of teaching has always been letting my students know I’m a real person (hence the many times I “accidentally” display my desktop, which features a cute picture of me and my fiance, on the screen in the front of the classroom) and letting them know that I care about them as real people. This can be harder in an online environment, but it’s worth the effort, especially in times when students are facing even more anxiety than usual. So, if you’re looking for takeaways (again, it’s okay if you’re not), here are two: a. Keep doing your best work, even if it looks different than it did last week, and b. Make sure the people you care about know that you care.
  3. Still planning a wedding. So, speaking of my cute fiance…we are planning to get married on May 24. As of now, that’s far enough in the future that we may as well keep planning as if everything’s going forward as normal. When we get closer to the date, we may have to make some difficult decisions, just like couples with March wedding dates are having to make right now. (My heart goes out to them.) But today, I’m working on booking a salon so my bridesmaids and I can get our hair done, because right now, I’m still fully intending to have a wedding on May 24. The takeaway here is that we can’t know what the future is going to look like. We never can; this virus has simply highlighted that truth for us in a particularly poignant way. Not knowing the future is frightening, but acting like we know it usually only leads to despair. As Gandalf once said, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends…and that is an encouraging thought.”

*a fancy word that means “not conducted in real time”

thoughts while watching The Return of the King

I’m watching The Return of the King right now, and I thought I’d blog about it. (Excuse me while I do a 20-second plank because I just saw the Eye of Sauron; I’m doing a LOTR workout I found on Pinterest.) I just heard the line that I blogged about a few months ago–“I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you”–so I’m nearly at the end. Here are just a few observations.

First, zombies. A little while ago, I saw an orc who looked like a zombie. I think he’s only in the extended edition, in that scene where Sam and Frodo dress up like little orcs to blend in and then start a (rather unconvincing) fight to cause a distraction and get away. The orc in question had a missing nose (but not Voldemort-style; it looked like it had been burned off) and a generally ravaged face, his one working eye was a milky pale blue, and the first time he opened his mouth, he roared rather than spoke. He looked like he could have blended in just fine on The Walking Dead. But this was not the first time I had thought about zombies while watching the movie this afternoon. When Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli take the Paths of the Dead and meet those glowing, ectoplasmic ghosts, I was thinking of what an unfortunate special effects choice this was and how the army of the dead would be much cooler–and more threatening–if they looked like zombies. And it occurred to me that if this film had been made ten years later, this scene probably would have taken more inspiration from The Walking Dead and less from Pirates of the Caribbean; The Curse of the Black Pearl. (Not that the ghosts in Pirates were badly done at all. They fit better in that movie than in Return of the King.)

And now, a more serious observation. I’m far from being the first person to have noted this, but it really struck me this time. Okay, so in the tower on the edge of Mordor where Sam is reunited with Frodo (you know, the one with an orange light at the top but that isn’t the Tower of Barad-Dur–I wonder how many people thought it was and were totally disappointed when they found out that Frodo and Sam still had many more miles of stumbling dirty-faced through Mordor)–anyway, in the upper room of that tower, Frodo is in a panic because he thinks the orcs have taken the Ring. When Sam hands it back to him (with a slightly cocky little flourish that he totally earned by being absolutely kickass for the past fifteen minutes of the movie), you can see the instant relief in Frodo’s eyes and his whole demeanor. But when he puts the chain back around his neck, you can almost see a physical weight descending on his shoulders. The Ring is keeping him alive, and it’s killing him at the same time. That’s why, of all the symbolic meanings that have been suggested for the Ring (and I know, I know–die-hard Tolkien fans say it’s not a symbol at all), I think the most appropriate is that it represents the object of addiction, or perhaps addiction itself. Frodo needs the Ring at that moment, but in the long term, it’s the last thing he needs. Just like drugs, or lies, or whatever we keep going back to even though we hate it. Elijah Wood portrays this descent into psychological prison extremely well throughout the trilogy. And of course, Andy Serkis as Gollum masterfully shows what it looks like when you’re so deep in that prison you forget who you are.

Okay, now the hobbits are all cleaned up and looking adorable and giving bittersweet toasts in the Green Dragon. I’m going to go enjoy the last few (30?) minutes of this movie. Let me know your thoughts on The Return of the King.

“I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.”

If my Lord of the Rings books were not in a moving box somewhere, I would check on this, but I’m pretty sure the line I quoted in my title is not in the novels. I think it’s part of the body of dialogue (also including much of the “when the sun comes out, it’ll shine out the clearer” speech at the end of The Two Towers) that was written especially for Samwise Gamgee in the Peter Jackson film adaptations because nobody but Sean “Rudy” Astin was convincingly sincere enough to deliver such sweet yet potentially saccharine lines. Even if it isn’t in Tolkien’s text (which isn’t the Bible, nerds), the line Sam speaks before he literally carries the weakened Frodo up the final yards of Mount Doom has become part of the LOTR canon for me. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. Here’s why.

My life has been pretty stable, almost to the point of being boring. I’ve had some adventures and some challenges, but no major catastrophes. I don’t presume to bank on this state of equilibrium lasting forever, but for now, I thank God for having protected me from the extremes of grief and difficulty. Yet I’ve sometimes felt less thankful than guilty. Why have I been spared the physical pain, financial hardship, and emotional trauma (among other things) that I see knocking down people–including some of my students, colleagues, friends, and relatives–like breakers in a hurricane? I don’t really know the answer to this question, but I have a theory: Perhaps my role is to be a stable, solid, even boring rock of support and normalcy that people can cling onto and take a breather in the middle of their storm.

Notice that I didn’t compare myself to the rescue worker who’s pulling people out of danger. That’s ultimately God’s role, though I suppose some people–like counselors, clergy, and actual rescue workers–can also fit the analogy. No, I’m the friend–the sidekick, if you will–who is predictably available to give the sufferer a ride, a place to stay, a meal, or an opportunity to pretend that things are normal for a couple of hours. I admit that I don’t always have a gracious attitude toward providing these things, and sometimes I’m terribly obtuse about noticing that people need them. But I can look back over my adult life–actually, maybe even my childhood too–and identify a number of times when God used me as a strong and stable friend for people in need. And there are probably even more times that I don’t remember because I didn’t realize I was doing anything important–because I was clueless about the extent of the trouble or pain the person was in.

Sam carrying Frodo up the side of Mount Doom is pretty dramatic, I’ll give you that. But Sam trudging hundreds of miles at Frodo’s side, carrying all their stuff because Frodo was too weak for anything but the burden of the ring, making meals and pleading for Frodo to eat them, and making decisions when Frodo was in too much of a mental fog–those things are mundane, yet they’re what enabled Frodo to make it to the moment when dramatic heroism finally was necessary. Maybe I’ll get to have a Mount Doom moment someday, but for now, I’m content to be the sidekick.

Monday miscellany

Here are some quick takes for your reading pleasure. Consider it professional development (after all, this is a leadership blog, right?).

  1. You know you have a serious problem when you start sorting the Corleone family into Hogwarts houses. I started thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I was considering how to pitch a Hufflepuff leadership book idea to someone who seemed unfamiliar with Harry Potter but had used a Godfather analogy in his presentation. Then I went down a rabbit hole. I sorted Vito and his three sons (his blood sons; sorry, Tom Hagen–I think you’re a Muggle), and, conveniently, there’s one for each house. Michael, I knew immediately, is a Slytherin; he’s quiet and sneaky and always assumes his way is the right way. His dad, Vito, is also very intelligent but, generally speaking, using his genius for good; he’s a Ravenclaw. Sonny is a Gryffindor because he has a good heart but mistakenly believes he can solve everything with his fists. And I put Fredo in Hufflepuff because he just wants everybody to be happy. Obviously, I’m dealing in broad strokes here; I’m just making a fun comparison, not trying to say anything profound about either universe, so please don’t pick a fight with me about the oversimplified way I defined the houses.
  2. If you want a more perceptive analysis of what the houses mean, check out this post that our Slytherin correspondent shared with me over the weekend. Lots to think about here.
  3. I watched the first two Lord of the Rings movies over the weekend (extended version, of course), so I want to take a couple of minutes to wax eloquent about one of my favorite honorary Hufflepuffs, Samwise Gamgee. Yes, I guess Gryffindor could make an argument to claim him too (he’s brave and a little impulsive), but a Gryffindor’s not writing this post. 😉 And besides, Sam is the quintessence of loyalty. You really see it in The Two Towers when Sam and Frodo are following Gollum through the wilderness. About 95% percent of the time, Sam thinks Frodo is making bad choices (and Sam is right, I would add). And he says so. But he never leaves, and that’s not only or primarily because he agrees with the abstract cause of Frodo’s overall quest, but because he cares about Frodo. A truly loyal friend doesn’t stop being your friend because you’re making bad decisions; a truly loyal friend realizes that when you’re making bad decisions, you need a friend more than at any other time. Sam also functions as Frodo’s connection to reality. Even fairly early in the quest, Frodo needs Sam to tell him to do basic things like eating and sleeping. And as the journey goes on and the Ring’s increasing pull causes Frodo to fade out of the physical world and nearly become pure spirit, it’s almost as if Sam becomes Frodo’s body, fighting off Shelob and the orcs, and, in the end, carrying Frodo when he is powerless even to move. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’ll know my life has truly been fulfilled if I can say that I’ve had and that I’ve been a friend like Samwise Gamgee.

Well, there you have it. Consider your professional development for this week done.

what I would say if I were on Talking Dead

Sometimes I think about what I would say if for some reason I became famous enough to sit on the celebrity couch in Chris Hardwick’s fake studio apartment.  Lately, the guests (and Chris) have been doing fairly well at focusing on The Walking Dead instead of promoting their own work and making dirty jokes.  But there are some topics nobody has broached that I think need to be addressed.

  1. Negan is not a good role model or even a cool guy.  I made this quite clear in my post from a year ago entitled why I hate Negan, so I won’t belabor the point now.  At the time, I said he was an engaging character, but now I find his swagger contrived (which it is, of course–it’s a post-apocalyptic persona) and his relentless unkindness, even to his own terrified followers, almost unbearable to watch.  Yet convention attendees are still dressing their little kids up in Negan costumes.  It’s troubling, to say the least.  I wish Rick (or anyone, really) would kill him ASAP–next Sunday, preferably–but I’m sure he won’t die until the end of this season, if even then, because he seems to have surpassed Darryl as the darling of ratings.
  2. The most interesting characters are the people who seem to have nothing to offer–the ones considered dead weight or even liabilities according to the masculine contribution-value paradigm I wrote about in another post.  Sure, we need people like Rick who have gun skills and leadership abilities, and people like Carol whose past traumas have made them tough, but we also need people like Father Gabriel, who had to go through a serious worldview shift in order to even comprehend what was happening, and people like Eugene, who concocted the (end of the) world’s biggest lie because he was so afraid of being cast out or killed by people he knew were more capable and prepared.  People like these latter two, perhaps my favorite characters right now, provide a necessary non-majority perspective and are able to empathize with others who aren’t brave or bad-ass and yet have worth just by being human.  (Well, Father Gabriel is able to empathize.  Eugene’s not great at people skills, but he’s improving.)  I often think back to Dale in Seasons 1 and 2 and that bewildered look he would get, which I affectionately refer to as The Dale Face.  Dale clearly was having trouble reconciling his understanding of the world with the horror he was seeing around him.  I would have the same trouble, and I’m glad to think I would.  The people who aren’t troubled by the zombie apocalypse are the people who scare me.  And even some of our most confident and capable characters have had to go through periods of retreat and reflection–Morgan, most notably, but also Rick when he went through his gardening phase.  (By the way, I was annoyed with all the fans who mocked “Farmer Rick.”  Besides processing his own grief, he was also creating a sustainable food source for his community.  Since when is that a bad thing?)
  3. King Ezekiel, his tiger, and his kingdom have turned this show into a bizarre mashup of a gritty, hyper-realistic road story set in the near future and a faux-medieval high fantasy, Lord of the Rings style, and I love it.  He’s the best thing that’s happened to this show in a while.
  4. Please, someone, wash and cut Carl’s and Darryl’s hair.  I can hardly stand to look at them.

This post is EPIC.

Yesterday I watched the movie Troy for the first time, and while it could have done with some more editing (I feel asleep several times during the first hour and apparently didn’t miss anything important), I thought it generally had solid storytelling and performances, and it was nice to look at.  Yes, I’m talking about Brad Pitt in his prime, but I’m also talking about the lush colors and fabrics of the costumes and the beautiful art direction (not sure how much of that was on-location filming vs. sets vs. CG, but the effect was great).  During the movie, my friend and I got into a conversation about what constitutes an “epic” film.  I’m sure there’s an official definition somewhere, but our attempt to reach a consensus is more interesting to me right now.  (Of course, Troy is an epic because it’s based on an ancient Greek epic.  That’s obvious, but not that helpful to the present discussion.)

My friend cited Cecil B. DeMille’s statement that an epic must have “a cast of thousands.”  But is that to be taken literally–thousands of Hebrews crossing the Red Sea, thousands of Uruk-Hai marching on Helm’s Deep?  Or can we take it to mean that the story just has to have a lot of characters?  At one point in the conversation, I suggested that The Godfather movies–individually or as a trilogy–could be modern American epics, and I used the large cast of important characters as evidence (along with another possible factor that I proposed–an epic should be really long).  I later backed down and said that The Godfather is probably a “family saga” instead, but what the precise difference is, I’m not sure.  Other suggestions that came up during the conversation: an epic has battle scenes (I think that’s often, but not always, true); an epic has a complicated plot with multiple threads (but that would mean Charles Dickens’ novels are epics, which doesn’t seem right).  We didn’t mention this yesterday, but a classical scholar would probably say that an epic has a hero you can root for, someone who is both strong and (usually) morally good.  Well, that disqualifies The Godfather.

Our conclusion was, essentially, that we know an epic when we see one.  My friend prefers older epics like Ben Hur and a bunch of other movies with Charlton Heston in them.  I, on the other hand, look to the 1990s as my decade for epics.  This was the decade that gave us BraveheartTitanicLegends of the FallDances with Wolves, and The Last of the Mohicans.  All of these movies are long, lavish, sincere (with very little irony), and straightforward in their storytelling.  Three of them (the first three I listed) have scores by James Horner–the king of the epic soundtrack (which is why it bugs me that so many people know John Williams’s name but not James Horner’s)–and most of them have some sort of “love theme” played during the credits and sung by a popular vocalist.  Although Troy came out in 2004, it participates in that tradition, though it’s notably a bit more cynical than those earlier examples.  It has a Horner score, and Josh Groban sings the song during the credits.  Troy, I think, was one of the last of a dying breed of movies (dying until the next time the genre experiences a resurgence).

So those are all the thoughts currently in my head about epic movie-making.  If you haven’t seen the movies mentioned in this post, check them out, and if there are other titles you think of when you think of “epic,” let me know.

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.

I am not fast.

A brief explanation to the people I’ve been road-running with (that is, in the wake of) recently.

My running style can best be understood if you keep in mind that I am basically a hobbit.  I’m about 5’2″ and (this is a nice and fairly accurate way of putting it) solidly built.  I like to walk barefoot and can be quiet and light on my feet, but never graceful like an elf.  I enjoy and am quite good at hiking long distances, like to the Old Forest on the borders of the Shire.  I can carry my dearest (emaciated) friend up the side of Mount Doom, no problem.  But if you expect me to be fast, there we encounter a problem, unless you intend to give me a piggyback ride as Boromir did for Merry and Pippin.

Speed is not my skill.  Endurance is.  I’m well aware that endurance is not glamorous.  It is hard to depict in literature or film, and boring to read or watch.  For me, though, it’s something to be quietly proud of.  I take pride in the fact that during the Virginia Ten-Miler, I keep running steadily up Farm Basket Hill when most of the runners around me, some of them generally faster than I, are slowing down to walk.

Apparently I also have endurance in other areas of my life.  My chiropractor says I have a high pain tolerance, which is kind of an ugly cousin to endurance.  The first time I had a phone conversation with my dissertation chair, whom I’d never met in person, he said he thought I had grit, another close relative of endurance.  I’d like to believe it was the steely note of determination in my voice, but I think he was probably just bluffing.  Still, he must have been right, because I finished my dissertation (relatively quickly, I think, considering some of the logistical difficulties I encountered), and anyone who completes a doctoral dissertation must have grit.

I composed this post in my head during a recent run when I was feeling really bad about the fact that the second-slowest runner was so far ahead I couldn’t even see him.  I’ve framed it as an explanation to my fellow runners, but I think it’s actually just validation for me.  And I’m sharing it on my blog because there may be some other hobbits out there who need to look at their boring endurance trait from a new perspective.  Keep trudging, my friends.