Friday, October 30, 2009

So, tomorrow is Halloween. A day (well, evening) where children frolic about in overpriced costumes that get worn for a couple of hours and then shoved into the attic "for the memories". A day (well, evening) where it's okay to take things from strangers, despite constant parental reminders the other 364 days of the year to never talk to strangers, never mind accept candy from them (a stereotypical lure used by kidnappers), never mind actually EAT it (we check for pins in the chocolate first, so it's okay). A day (well, evening) where highschoolers race from door to door in their "I'm going as a teenager" costumes for the males, and for the females, their skimpy, sex-ified outfits under the pretense of being some type of "cute" animal or celebrity (despite the freezing temperatures). They beg for candy, knowing fully well they're a bit too old to be playing this game anymore and that the homeowners of where they're trick-or-treating really only want to see little children in their get ups, but they ignore these things... not because they don't want to grow up, but because, well, free candy is a good thing.

Halloween may seem like one of those holidays that's created by candy companies, but it's actually one of the world's oldest holidays. It's kind of remarkable to go through the history of Halloween and see how much it has changed over time, and how it's celebrated across the world. We think of it now as such a commercialized thing. Don't get me wrong, it definitely is, but it's roots are a far cry from the roots of say Valentine's day or mother's day. Just about everyone knows Halloween has something to do with old beliefs that spirits can come back this one night of the year. The story is part of the fun and tradition of Halloween today... ghost stories, graveyards, scary costumes, haunted houses and hayrides, horror movies... they're all associated. Now it's all fun and games but it's strange to actually think that way back when it was all taken very seriously. Family's ancestors were honored and invited home, including leaving plates of food for them at the dinner table, while harmful spirits were warded off by means of burning crops and animals in sacred bonfires as offerings to keep themselves protected. During the bonfires they wore costumes, typically animal heads and skins, to disguise themselves so evil spirits would mistake them as one of their own. I mean, this was serious stuff here. Sacrificing animals? They would also leave food on their doorsteps to appease evil spirits that roamed the streets that night. This could have contributed to the idea of trick-or-treating but it more likely stemmed from a tradition from a religious holiday, All Souls' Day-- November 2nd, where the poor would beg for food and families would give them pastries called "soul cakes" so long as they promised to pray for the family's dead relatives.

And somehow the non-secular and the secular joined together to make what is probably the most non-religious of all holidays. I mean, this is America, we're used to non-secular activites creeping into religious holidays... or, more like overtaking them. But Halloween isn't thought of as religious at all. And somehow it went from a day of celebration where people felt especially close to deceased loved ones (although it was also a day of sacrificing animals and burning valued crops), to a day of ghosts, pranks and witchcraft, to a holiday about bringing together the community in games, food and festivities, to a day where everyone gets free candy so long as they abide by the ever important rule of saying "trick or treat" after knocking on a stranger's door. You can see the connections between now and then (costumes, dead spirits, begging for food) but the 2000 year old road of changes still seem extreme.

I didn't intend this to be a Halloween history lesson. Alas, it has somehow turned into that. My apologies. Don't think I'm a walking encyclopedia on the topic of Halloween... merely curious, bored and an expert googler. I'm sitting here trying to think about my past halloween costumes. With the exception of costumes worn at college Halloween parties (cowgirl, 50's housewife, burglar) I honestly can not recall a single one. When I was younger I'm sure I obsessed over finding the perfect costume each year, and now I don't remember one of them. I'm even trying to think through the standard costume categories to see if some memory is ignited but I've got nothing. It's all a bit disappointing. Anyway, I think the concept of getting dressed up and running around your neighborhood for free candy is incredibly bizarre. I mean, really... take a step back... ignore the history lesson I just gave, ignore the fact that it's something you grew up with, and just think about it. We put on costumes. We ask people to give us candy, but it's not rude. We actually pick through their offerings to decide which we deem most worthy to be given to us. Again, not rude. We carve faces in pumpkins.

I'm just saying. We carve faces in pumpkins.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

I'm giving in. Explanation of opening statement later... background info now.

For the past ten years I have been an avid Harry Potter fanatic. I've read the books at least 6 times each, have the three supplemental books J.K. Rowling wrote for charities (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Quidditch Through the Ages & Tales of Beedle the Bard), own multiple HP analysis/reference/opinion books, visited probably 912,000 times, contributed to discussions slash sent in either opinion or critical essays 612,000 of those times and of course, own all the available movies and have watched them to the point of memorization. At one point I even started an encyclopedia study-guide type list of all Harry Potter facts I came across while reading. (It was never finished but I somehow doubt that makes me appear any less of an extremist). I satisfied my HP craving before the final book release by gobbling up the countless, highly inaccurate 900 page "leaked" versions of Deathly Hallows that were inconceivably written (and formatted to look authentic) by highly ambitious fanatics with way too much time on their hands, read the 800 word prequel (actually written by J.K. Rowling) within 20 minutes of its unannounced online release, and still seek out new essays and analysis of the stories and characters. I'm up to date on the development of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park, set to open this Spring... anyways, I think you get it. When I said I'm a fanatic I wasn't using the word lightly.

I firmly believe that anyone who picks up Harry Potter and gives it an honest shot will become hooked, no matter how much they claim to hate reading. I get highly defensive... I'm very protective of this phenomenon of a series. I largely credit it as the reason I'm a reader today, as I rarely picked up a book prior to Harry Potter out of a sheer desire to read. Well, (this is going to seem like a big jump of topic) when Lord of the Rings came around it was too much for me and my fifteen year-old self to bear. Yes, I know LOTR was published over forty years prior to Harry Potter, but I feel like its fanatascism with my generation wasn't really ignited until the movies came out... which was right around the time I had gotten into the Harry Potter series. I'll admit, I didn't jump on the Harry Potter bandwagon right away. I started reading the series after the third book was released... when there was enough hype to make me curious. Like I said, I wasn't a reader beforehand. Of course, I was instantly hooked. Two years later, the first LOTR movie comes out and critics and fans are PRAISING this thing. I had always thought of LOTR as one of those books that was only read by those weird, fantasy obsessed, dreams about dragons, plays Magic: The Gathering, quotes Star Wars daily type of nerds. Far from mainstream, more like a small cult following... like Rocky Horror fans or something. And all of a sudden, EVERYONE was talking about this movie, reading the series. I absolutely refused. The only series that deserved this level of hype and fandom was Harry Potter. I would not be involved in something that in any way competed. It became Harry Potter fans vs. Lord of the Ring fans. In my mind at least. A new craze fighting the rekindled fanatacism of 45 years earlier. I was proud to announce I hadn't seen the movies. Comfortable with the fact that I didn't know who Frodo was or "get it" when people started muttering "my precious" in an odd voice. Give me Harry Potter, ignore "that other fantasy series".

Like I said, I didn't understand the LOTR craze or think it deserved a moment's glory. I was shocked, therefore, in tenth grade to hear my english teacher, Dr. Liberman (who any Amity high schooler thinks of as the most brilliant, cultured academic to hit the entirety of New England, and often thought she should be a professor at Yale instead. Seriously, I know someone who has her listed as their religion on facebook) what was I saying??? Oh right, someone asked Dr. Liberman what her favorite book was. We all expected her to pause and consider from among the plethora of worthy novels she's read in her life, or rattle off a handful of titles, claiming each is respectable in its own right. The thing is, we were actually interested... like I said, she was like a literary God- hearing her answer would be like interviewing Charles Dickens' and getting his response. Well, there was no hesitation on her end. She instantly replied that Lord of the Rings is the best thing ever written and went into a detailed analysis of its literary goodies after stating how she sets aside a week of her winter vacation every year to re-read the trilogy. I was horrified. How could she think this? She didn't seem like a medieval sword loving, dreams about dragons type. Are the books actually something more than just your standard fantasy story blown into astronomical, unwarranted proportions by an obsessive America? I respected Dr. Liberman's opinion more than nearly anyone I knew, so I had to believe her. But I still refused to read. I didn't want to be swept up in anything but my Harry Potter. I was still angry by all of the attention Lord of the Rings was getting.

Fast forward nine years and I still haven't read it, still haven't seen the movies. I don't get quite as angry as I used to if Lord of the Rings is mentioned, though I will admit I get more satisfaction than I used to when I see people's shocked reactions upon hearing I haven't seen any of the movies. But another new series has also entered into the category of extreme fandom. This one, I'll admit I was completely unaware of until the movie came out last year. Of course, I'm talking about Twilight. I don't know if the release of the movie sparked people to read the series more or if they were reading all along and I was clueless, but my recognition of the Twilight craze started last year. Here was further competition. Competition that was harder to beat now that all of the Harry Potter books were released. I'm more grown-up now than I was at fifteen... arguable, I'll admit.... so, I was less "bothered" by the Twilight series than LOTR... I would just not read the books and that was that. No need to get angry or argue with fans. To each their own. Just let me have my Harry Potter and the rest of America can read whatever inferior series they desire.

Now, to my opening statement. I'm giving in. After all this time, all of this protesting and defending, I'm going to read Lord of the Rings as well as Twilight. Why now? Well, first off, I have this impossible goal to read all of the greatest books ever written, and see all of the greatest movies ever made. There are lots of definitions of the word greatest. In this context, in my mind, greatest books means the classics 90% of America can name off the top of their head, plus "current" best-sellers... anything that's become a recognizable name among those who frequent Borders or Barnes and Noble. Greatest movies means "the permanents" on's ever changing list of top 250 movies. I have come to accept the fact that Lord of the Rings fits into both the book and the movie category, and sadly, Twilight fits into the book category as well. I'm being harsh, but really... if there's a good book out there, I want to read it. There's something to say about so many people loving these stories, so I'm giving them a try. Besides all that, I really have been curious since Dr. Liberman's announcement of her favorite book. I'll be honest, I'm expecting to enjoy Lord of the Rings... probably become an obsessive fan, years later than the rest of the world... at the very least, gain a respect for the trilogy. I can't really conceive of the fact that it is a bad series, despite secretly hoping that I in fact, end up hating it. Twilight though, I expect to hate. I have never enjoyed a single "love story" novel, no matter how many other genres they squeeze in there. That, coupled with the fact that it really is geared to teenage girls, and deals with vampires (no matter how re-invented they are), and the fact that many, many, many critics and writers have said the author can't write at all, leads me to believe I will not enjoy this series.... probably hate it... possibly, enjoy it as a guilty pleasure, though admitting to myself that it's really pretty bad... definitely not respect it.

So there we go... I'm letting go of my Harry Potter defensive ways just enough to give these other series a go, knowing that they could never replace Harry Potter and that Harry would still win in an imaginary battle between any of the Lord of the Ring characters or whatever evilness resides in the Twilight series. I'm sure I'll have updates. As for now, I need to muster up the determination to actually go GET the Lord of the Rings. I've made the decision to read it but picking up the book too soon might scare me off. Need to get comfortable with the idea first.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The other night I went bowling after a performance with friends who are also in the show. Besides thinking back to when I shamefully desired "bumpers" at age 14 but was too embarrassed to ask slash be seen playing with them, I found myself remembering how my dad glorified bowling alley french fries. Whenever we went bowling he would say "Have to get the french fries! Nothing compares to bowling alley fries" and as an adoring child I believed him whole-heartedly... that no other french fries in the world could compare to those found at your local AMF 30-laner. That was the other thing... it didn't matter what bowling alley it was: 10-pin or duckpin, 4 lanes or 50, national chain or hole-in-the-wall local, if they had a food bar (and they all do) and they had fries (and they all do) they would be phenomenal (and somehow they all are). I remembered his little tip: to always eat them with your left hand so your bowling hand didn't get greasy. I took these things as facts that I lived by... bowling alley fries are fantastic and when you get them, eat with your left hand. There was no arguing either of these. They were just true. To this day, I believe both... and while I'm not obsessive about only eating with my left hand, I still smile thinking back on this little tip that at the time I thought was a golden secret the rest of the world would only be so lucky to know. This got me thinking about other things from when I was younger.... things that I accepted as fact, and in some ways, lived by, in the appropriate situations (such as, when at a bowling alley)... things that intrigued me... that I found to be special in some way, even though when looking back they're at best simple and banal and at worst, illogical and idiotic. Allow me to divulge...

Let's start with one that's completely illogical but fairly saccharine. (Sorry for the formal word choice, it just came out.) One time when I was very young and sick with a stomach ache, my dad asked if I wanted him to rub my tummy (there's no grown up way of saying that). I told him no, that that never worked and it was a fake and stupid remedy that tried to convince your mind that it was like a medicine but really it did nothing (I was a clever, stubborn child who wasn't assuaged by the usual signs of parental love for a sick child). He told me that I must have been rubbing the wrong way. I was clever and stubborn, but also curious... what did he mean by the wrong way? He told me that if you go in circles in one direction you will feel better but if you go in circles in the other direction, you will actually feel worse. At the time he told me if it was clockwise or counterclockwise that did the healing. I don't remember which it was. This idea totally comforted me and I believed it 100% (how clever was I really?). My whole life I must have just been rubbing in the bad direction! What I now see as an obvious parental trick to get your child to feel better, at the time it was another secret tip-- one only my dad would know, and I felt lucky to receive this tiny speck of wisdom. In the future, whenever I got sick I would forget which direction was "the good one" and ultimately "remember" after my testing both directions and deciding that one felt infinitely better than the other. One time I remember I couldn't figure it out and I asked my mom which direction it was. She had no idea what I was talking about and told me it didn't matter how I did it. Obviously, my father hadn't clued her in on his cure for the stomach ache, or at least he didn't realize I would take it so seriously. While this should have been a sign that his medicinal rule was in fact made-up, instead it made me smile that my mother didn't know.... it was mine and my dad's secret... a tidbit of information so special that he didn't even tell it to her.

Here's another one that stems from an anecdote of my fourth-grade teacher. Fourth grade was the year you were forced to write in cursive for every assignment turned in. By fifth grade it was pretty much your choice, but in fourth grade, if you handed something in with printing, you had to redo it. An attempt to force us to be comfortable with script. Well, telling any fourth grader they HAVE to do something typically leads to complaining, or at least quiet resentment. To us 9 year olds, who had been writing in printing for our whole lives, an entire 3 and 1/2 years, cursive was the most unneccesary, complicated, useless thing to learn. Who cares if you can write words without lifting up your pencil (which is the reason every teacher gave as the benefit of learning cursive). It saves, what... point-oh-nine seconds? While I was an incredibly respectful child who NEVER questioned authority (and teachers were the highest authority of all), in my most secret thoughts I too decided that the minute I didn't have to, I would never write in cursive again. That is, until my 4th grade teacher shared this story... one day when my fellow classmates were, once again, complaining and questioning the reasoning behind having to write in script, she told us how she received a letter a few years back from an old student of hers and she was in complete shock when she saw that it was in printing and not cursive. She smiled in a knowing way and promised us that we will all eventually see that cursive is so much easier... it saves time and your hands never cramp, and that this letter she received surprised her so much because every adult she knows writes in cursive, except this ex-student of hers. While this was essentially a re-hashing of the "cursive is more efficient & easier to do" speech, this story fascinated me. I believed at that moment that every adult wrote in cursive and decided that this would be my own way of realizing when I'm an adult... when I prefer script to printing. I would be mature and grown-up the day I agreed with her and thought that cursive is easier and printing is a waste. Completely ridiculous, but it's what I thought. When fifth grade approached and I was allowed to actually choose between script or printing, I still went back to printing. Why? Because it was part of the process. At that moment in my fifth-grade life, I thought printing was better. I hadn't reached my stage of penmanship enlightenment yet. And that was okay with me. For the record, I never switched over to primarily writing in script. I don't feel guilty or immature. Part of me sometimes fantasizes about writing her a letter in printing, and picturing her being horrified.

Another school related one comes from gym class... my worst enemy. I was that child who hated gym. Who wore dresses on gym days in hopes of being told to sit out of the activity. I enjoyed two things and two things alone: rope climbing days (because it's fun to see a rope dangling from the ceiling) and the Connecticut physical fitness tests (because I liked to be better than everyone else). While not competitive in sports or organized games, I was highly competitive when it came to dance and schoolwork. Included in schoolwork is all forms of tests, and I wanted to be the best at the physical fitness tests. There were the passing marks and then the "challenge marks", for those of superior childhood health. Merely passing would not make me happy. Merely achieving the challenge goals would not make me happy. I had to surpass the challenge marks by at least 5 for things scored numerically (sit-ups, push-ups and chin-ups), come in 20 seconds under the challenge mile time, and be the very best of my entire grade at the sit-and-reach. If any of those were not achieved then I failed. We were practicing our mile runs in preparation for the test and I was only barely making the challenge time during these classes. While I was praised by the gym teacher, who normally saw me as the girl purposefully ignoring the games and putting in zero effort, I knew that my times would not do. Once, he said to the class how the most important thing in running is to establish a breathing pattern and that he always did "out-out-in-in" in short breaths while he ran. He credited this as the reason he was able to run fast and not get very tired. That was it. The key to my success. From there on out I wouldn't even walk in the hallways without breathing out-out-in-in. I once overheard a friend tell another classmate that her dad ran every morning and that he didn't breathe that way and that the gym teacher's method was wrong, it would hurt your time and is bad for your body. Again, I rolled my eyes at her inferior sense of judgement. Obviously, the gym teacher was right and if she chose not to take his tip then it's just another person I would outrun. I ended up reaching all of my physical fitness goals, and finished behind only one boy in my class in the mile that year. I KNEW it was because of my breathing.

Here's another one, somewhat related. Like I said, I was very competitive in dance, though very quietly so. I secretly wanted to move up in the company levels faster than everyone else. I wanted to have the highest kicks. I wanted to be front and center all the time. I wanted to be thought of as the best in the class. One thing that destroyed my self-esteem in dance for the longest time (aka until fifth-grade) was that I couldn't do a split. For me, who strove to be better than everyone else (at least I'll admit it), to be the highest off the ground in my class when we practiced our splits was absolutely mortifying. I'd go home and cry afterward, sure that all the other girls were laughing at me and how I was so bad at them. Once, my teacher saw me get teary eyed (which by fifth grade, yes you're still young, but not young enough anymore that it's commonplace to cry in a group of people when you're frustrated or embarrassed). It was on a parent observation day and I was so embarrassed by my splits and that my mother, and all the other parents, had to see them compared to everyone else's. The teacher came up to my mother after class and reassured her that I would eventually be able to do a split. She said it to my mother as if I weren't there but knowing that I was listening in... I think it was an attempt to save me from further embarrassment by not directly addressing me about it. She told her that all I had to do was straighten my back leg and eventually I'd be able to get all the way down. I had never heard this straighten the back leg rule before. I went home and immediately began practicing splits with a straight back leg. In class I'd still bend the back leg because it gave the appearance of being lower to the ground... when both legs were straight I was waaaaay too high off the ground for me to deem it acceptable for others to see. I felt like my teacher let this little rule slip just to me because she liked me the most of all the girls and wanted me to do well (I was a self-centered and insecure little child who, despite severe social anxiety and shyness, craved praise and admiration). A year or two later I had my splits all the way down and had progressed to doing beyond-splits (absolutely awful for your body, but impressive when you can go past 180 degrees). I became one of "the more flexible girls" and mentally thanked my teacher for giving me this secret piece of fail-proof advice. It was like I was given the gift of a piece of magic. This straight back leg rule makes complete sense physiologically but at the time it was something I obsessed over and thought no one else knew.

In summary I was an overly, overly conscientious and egocentric child.