Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Pottermania, a Few Years Late

This post is pretty much only for fans of the series. You've been warned.

Pottermania hit the U.S. back around 1999; when we returned from Germany that summer, everyone in Melissa's book group was talking about J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, and soon we owned the first three volumes. I only paged through them enough to catch the gist of the story; Melissa, by contrast, read them all the way through. She enjoyed them enough that I got caught up in her excitement; when the fourth and fifth books came out I bought a copy as soon as they were available, and even managed to read them before she did. (She let me; I'm a faster reader.) And then there were the movies; we both thought the first was a crummy, by-the-numbers bit of storytelling, but when we finally saw the second on cable we were pleasantly surprised. And then came the third this summer...but I need to back up a bit here.

Last May, I was casting about for something to read to Megan, our (now!) eight-year-old in the evenings. We've done a lot of classics over the years: The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Pippi Longstocking, etc., and I wanted to continue in that vein. Megan has many cousins, however, that are huge Harry Potter fans--dressing up like characters from the books at Halloween, and so forth. She knew a little bit about the books and movies, having overheard Melissa and I talking and having seen clips at friends' homes over the years. But when she heard what some of her cousins were planning for the opening day of Prisoner of Azkaban (going to the movie in full costume, after having transformed Grandma's house into Hogwarts for the weekend, complete with classrooms and books of spells), her desire to learn what the phenomenon was all about reached new heights, and Melissa agreed that she was probably ready for Harry Potter. So we started with Sorcerer's Stone...and very quickly, things got completely out of control.

Megan has a wonderful imagination, so much so that she has a hard time keeping herself separate from the story. When poor Sara Crewe in A Little Princess was locked up in the attic, Megan just bawled; she said it "hurt her" to think about such things. Well, increase that by a factor of fifty. Sorcerer's Stone, and then Chamber of Secrets, and finally Prisoner of Azkaban, made her laugh, scream, cry, hide under the bed and in the closet, bury her face in her pillow and dance around the room, all while desperately urging me to keep reading, however scared or embarrassed or worried she may have been. She found herself captivated by and craving these characters like no other fiction she'd ever before encountered. I was amazed. She stayed up all hours reading (after finishing each book we let her buy herself a paperback copy of the completed volume, to keep her from tearing apart our own), she recited lines from memory, she taught the books to her little sister Caitlyn (who was only too happy to share yet another make-believe realm with her sister), she obsessively pestered us with searching questions. I suppose it isn't anything particularly unusual, but still: as a father, I was so heartened and surprised to see my child discover in herself, over a period of months, such an emotional range, such a mature sense of storytelling, and such imaginative resources. She guessed plot points, traced character arcs, engaged in the creative recreation of favorite scenes, cross-checked stray comments from the books, ranked the books (Chamber of Secrets is her least favorite, though all her copies are already thoroughly trashed), bought fan magazines and put up posters all over her room, and in the meantime came up with her own side adventures. Overall, this summer she grew into a much older girl, and Harry Potter's adventures and loves and failures and fears were a part of that growing. She became a passionate fan, and an experience with passion at that age is wonderful thing to have and behold.

Though Megan begs me to continue on with Goblet of Fire, Melissa and I have agreed to forbid that one, at least for the time being; as everyone familiar with the series know, once you read that one you have to read Order of the Phoenix, and the increasing darkness and death in those books is something we think Megan will better be able to handle when she's 10 or 11 or so. (Most of those cousins which inspire her are also older than her, in the 11-14 range.) We agreed to take her to see Prisoner of Azkaban (a much better film than either of two earlier ones, by the way), and she did manage to watch it, though she was hiding under a blanket she brought about half the time. A nice benefit of this wonderful, Potter-crazy summer of 2004 is that I finally managed to read the first three books all the way through...which led me to re-read the fourth and fifth, which inspired Melissa to do the same, and then there was a matter of re-watching the first two movies in preparation for the third (also: Megan received a dvd of Sorcerer's Stone for her birthday last week), to make a long story short, Melissa and I have frequently found ourselves arguing over the minutiae of Harry Potter's world this summer. Which finally leads to the fan-boy portion of this post (warning--spoilers ahead!): what on earth is Rowling going to do with Slytherin House?

Ever since I read Order of the Phoenix, which ends with Voldemort publicly revealed and numerous Death Eaters imprisoned or at least identified, I've been convinced that the next book simply must be some kind of "Battle for Hogwarts"-type story. Lucius Malfoy is a known follower of Voldemort, and Draco has made it clear he favors Voldemort's agenda, which he now has no reason to hide: how can Hogwarts function when one of its houses is the home base for a bunch aspiring (if not already actual) servants of the Dark Lord? Exactly how could Rowling make us believe that another year could go by, with Draco and Co. occasionally attempting to kill Harry, or at least being suspected of such, without everything coming to some sort of crisis? I can't see how she could do it; for Rowling to put off some sort of internal Gryffindor/Potter/Slytherin/Malfoy showdown (with Snape playing a fascinating, unclear role) until the seventh volume would be untrue to her overall story, to say the least. Since I'm hoping the quality of this series continues, I was nervous about what Rowling was planning.

Thankfully, I think my hopes for Rowling are going to be fulfilled. She's given several intriguing clues about the future direction of the series; she's given us the title of the sixth book (The Half Blood Prince), assured us that the title character is neither Harry nor Voldemort, and told us that the story in that book springs from events described back in Chamber of Secrets. Now this getting us somewhere. In Chamber of Secrets we learned about Salazar Slytherin, his obsession with pureblood wizardry, and his "heir." So obviously Half Blood Prince is going to, in some manner or another, address some aspect of (perhaps the destiny of!) Slytherin's line, the house he founded, and perhaps Voldemort's relationship to such. The memory/magical imprint of Tom Riddle is relevant here; Rowling has implied that the youthful Voldemort had/has something or some quality of great significance. Moreover, given that Snape is Head of Slytherin House, Half Blood Prince will give Rowling the perfect opportunity to make his standing clear once and for all. (He's obviously engaged in some serious behind-the-scenes magic; on the one hand, he is presumably the rebellious Death Eater which Voldemort at the end of book four said must be destroyed; on the other hand, he apparently still, as of book five, is held in high esteem by current Death Eater Lucius Malfoy. Curious...) And of course, it will allow Rowling the opportunity to explore how and why Dumbledore continues to tolerate dangerous Slytherins like Draco and his ilk. A further clue in his regard can be found in some comments Rowling made here (a transcript of comments she made at the Edinburgh Book Festival; read the whole thing, as there are many more hints there besides the one below):

"If you want to speculate on anything, you should speculate on these two things, which will point you in the right direction. The first question that I have never been asked--it has probably been asked in a chatroom but no one has ever asked me--is, 'Why didn't Voldemort die?' Not, 'Why did Harry live?' but, 'Why didn't Voldemort die?' The killing curse rebounded, so he should have died. Why didn't he? At the end of Goblet of Fire he says that one or more of the steps that he took enabled him to survive. You should be wondering what he did to make sure that he did not die--I will put it that way. I don't think that it is guessable. It may be--someone could guess it--but you should be asking yourself that question, particularly now that you know about the prophesy. I'd better stop there or I will really incriminate myself. The other question that I am surprised no one has asked me since Phoenix came out--I thought that people would--is why Dumbledore did not kill or try to kill Voldemort in the scene in the ministry."

My guess? I think Voldemort has magically tied his life to the survival on a particular person, family, or line; as long as they or it survives, he cannot die, though his body be completely destroyed. Similarly, if Voldemort should die, the other person/family/line would also, instantly. That's why Dumbledore doesn't want to kill his former student: because if he did so, someone or several someones would also die, and he doesn't want that to happen (yet?). Of course, this fits in with my belief that there must be something big regarding Slytherin House coming down the pike; to go completely out on a limb, I think the "half blood prince" will be turn out to be the person which Voldemort (himself Muggle-born!) has linked his life to. Could it be Snape? We know nothing of his background? Draco Malfoy? As Melissa reminded me yesterday, we only actually know that his mother's family are purebloods; we don't know about Lucius. And what about Salazer Slytherin himself? Could Voldemort have locked himself into the survival of a historical figure, the death of whom would result in the deaths of thousands of others over the generations? The mind boggles.

Anyway, Pottermania indeed. And why not? I mean, the only thing a true Tolkien geek like myself has left is to wait for the the release of The Return of the King Extended Edition dvd. Something has to fill the vacuum, right?

[Update 7/15/05: see a follow-up to this post here.]

Friday, August 13, 2004

Time Is On Our Side

Melissa and I have been married for eleven years today. We were married on a Friday the 13th, back in 1993, and so to us that date has always been a fortunate and lucky one, rather than otherwise. The fact that this year August 13 is a Friday makes this anniversary all the more fun. I have no idea what we're going to do--Jonesboro isn't exactly jumping with entertainment options, and Alison is too small and needy to allow us a serious anniversary journey. So our babysitter will come over this evening after Alison is in bed and the other girls are getting ready, and in all likelihood all we'll do hit a local coffeeshop, maybe do some shopping (shopping without children--why, it's been years!), and talk.

Eleven years isn't that long, of course, but it's getting there. Melissa's mom says that it was when she realized that she'd been married longer than she'd been single that the passage of time really hit her. We'll need another eleven years before that's the case for Melissa; a little longer for me. But I can see it coming. Our oldest girl, Megan, turned eight this week, an important age for Mormon children (that's the usual age for receiving baptism in our church). Caitlyn is four. It's been three years since I earned my Ph.D. And so forth, and so on.

Megan received a touching birthday card from my mother's mother this week; in her shaky handwriting (which included the sad line, "I'm sorry; my eyes are getting so weak"), she told Megan how proud she was of her great-granddaughter (one of many). We saw Grandma Jolley out in Utah last year, and it might be the last time we see her or Grandpa Jolley alive; both are declining fast. They've had a long life and are surrounded by family: three of their sons and their families are there in Vernal, a little town in northeastern Utah, near the Uintah Mountains, and extended family are nearby as well. And they have children buried there too. Neither are very ill, but time is taking its toll, and will probably overwhelm them soon. Then I won't have any grandparents left, my father's parents having passed away after many years together as well. Grandma Fox outlived her husband by a few years, but she was never the same after he died; her mind focused more and more on her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, until she couldn't care for herself any longer. Uncle Chuck, my father's little brother, moved his family into Grandma's old house, and tended her full-time almost until the end. She would write us letters and birthday cards, as Grandma Jolley does today, and they became sweetly incoherent: sentence fragments, repeated questions, lines from hymns she'd learned in Sunday School eighty years earlier. I'm sure, somewhere in her mind, she missed Grandpa Fox until the end, and hoped that time would overcome her soon as well.

It'll do the same to Melissa and I too, sooner or later. But that doesn't worry me. Partly it's my specific religious beliefs about marriage which prevent me from feeling much concern about Melissa's and my fate, but mostly it's a broader conviction that tomorrow isn't really my concern. We're in the midst of ordinary things here: baptisms and birthdays and anniversaries among them. That's sufficient to make the time worthwhile, and worth being grateful for.

In Praise of My Position (and the People I've Met Here)

Alison is sleeping a lot better than she used to, but she still has rough nights here and there, which means that there are still the occasional mornings when she's awake and fussy, but Melissa needs at little more sleep. This was one of those mornings, and so at 6am, rather than try to keep Alison quiet, I put her in her stroller and took her for an early morning walk around the campus of my place of employment, Arkansas State University. I've taken a stroll around ASU quite a few mornings this summer, usually very early (I taught a 7:30am summer class this July, and so was often taking my walk around sunrise). It's a walk I've come to enjoy, and didn't mind Alison's company one bit.

One of the reasons I've liked it is that, as my third year teaching here approached, I found myself able to see the size and growth and potential and role of this university through more and more appropriate eyes. Part of this is simply that there is more to see: a lot of long-delayed construction projects around campus have, over the last few months, rapidly come into shape, and the results are very nice. Perhaps it's a small thing, but I like seeing the new lawns, new sidewalks, new buildings; it gives a feeling of substantiality to the place, and reminds me that despite all the financial wrangling and bureaucratic infighting and budget robbing, ASU is a pretty solid place. It's not going to dry up and blow away. But that connects to the larger part of why I've liked these quiet morning walks around the campus--the fact that I think I know this place better, and feel better about it, than I ever have before.

I've struggled in the past with figuring out--personally, politically, and philosophically (like the blog title says)--what I'm doing here, and why I'm doing it. Arkansas State is relatively small, second-tier state school (at best); it serves a mostly lower and lower-middle class rural population, the sons and daughters of farmers and factory and service workers mostly, in this little corner of the midsouth (northeastern Arkansas, western Tennessee, and the bootheel of Missouri). It doesn't attract the best students, or even a lot of very good ones; there are plenty of other options, for ambitious young people and the children of better-off professionals, in Memphis or Little Rock or St. Louis. A lot of the assumptions which lay behind the education of academics, assumptions about employment and teaching and research and the life of the mind which I embraced whole-heartedly as a graduate student, simply aren't relevant to what needs to be done, or what can be done, at an aspiring but limited, fairly provincial place like ASU.

So what is relevant? I'll tell you what's relevant: Julie Sorrell, that's who. Julie is...well, you can check out her blog here. Julie has taken three classes from me over the last year, will soon take another, and I've never had a student impress me more. Not because she's brilliant (though she sometimes is), or because she's going to go out and change the world (she's much too much a realist about the obstacles in her way to indulge in those sorts of fantasies), but because she's a woman who one morning woke up and knew, in her heart, that she had to go back to school, had to learn more about the world around her, had to reach out and reach in, figure out what she believed and find out how to share what she believed with others. Her passion for politics, like the passion of many, was first ignited by 9/11, but she's extended far beyond that now; she's reading up on Islamic philosophy and international events, she's thinking about how people should be governed and whether wars are justified and a hundred other things. I have no illusions about my indispensability to her; she has so much determination that I'm sure she would have found a way to overcome the huge obstacles of family, time, money and distance, and get herself a more advanced education regardless of whether I was here or not. But I was here, and Arkansas State University was here, and that's what she needed. Not the best education in the world, and certainly not the most connected or best funded! But a start, a place to find her feet and grab onto one small tail end of the world of scholarship and ideas, to find out what kind of intellectual tigers are out there and maybe even get a little bit of practice in riding them. For your average upper or upper-middle class white American university student today, figuring out all this--finding a major, discovering a passion, developing some skills, aiming for a job--is something that comes easy; they've been prepped for it (as Melissa and I, in a thousand conscious and unconscious ways, are preparing our own children for it) since they were little. For someone with economic or social or cultural or demographic strikes against them, however, it's by no means easy or obvious. For someone like that, for someone like Julie, Arkansas State University (with all its limitations) is a necessary first step; for some of them, coming off the farms or out of poverty and onto this (in their experience) big campus, with its (relatively) big buildings and (comparatively) big's a monumental step. And what teacher worth her or his salt wouldn't feel pleased and humbled to be made part of someone else's monument, however simple its beginnings?

So I walk around ASU with Alison, where I'm still (for the third time!) on a one-year contract, wondering if the department will finally be able to swing a real job search for this slot this year, sending out applications in the meantime, hoping for the best. I've plenty I could complain about (like how my teaching load has just been raised because of budget cuts, and the travel money is threatening to disappear too), and no doubt I'll do so every once in a while. But for the moment, I find myself feeling my roots in this small, second-tier, state university--in its buildings, its faculty, and especially in the often rough and usually unprepared and overwhelmed students it serves. Yes, too often the disconnect between the world they know and will probably return to, and the world I'm paid to introduce them to (the world of political arguments and ideologies and history and thought), is so great as to be ludicrous. But not always; there are diamonds out there in that rough. Diamonds not of my making, to be sure. But it's great to know I was there when they started to shine.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004


If you've come here from my old blog, welcome. You can read about the reasoning behind this new (or renewed) venture of mine into blogging in my last post at the old place. I'll probably be blogging before the end of the week; in the meantime, thanks for looking me up.