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Character Study: Sirius Black

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This is how I imagined Sirius looking around the events of Goblet of Fire.

When I first read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I fell in love with Sirius Black. Literally. Let’s just say that books 5-7 were an emotionally turbulent time for me.

Since my husband and I are working our way through CinemaWins’ Harry Potter videos, I decided to go back and take a look at some parts of the series, beginning with my favorite character.

The first thing, I think, to say about Sirius, is that, like many figures in the Potterverse, he’s very gray. He was never a Death Eater, and he never bought into the ideology of pureblood-supremacy. He doesn’t even show that many signs of human-supremacy. (I know, I know… Kreacher…. but I don’t think that was necessarily speciesism. I think he just disliked that particular elf.)

The biggest blot on his character, and yes, it’s a doozy, is his prank on Snape. It was a horrible thing to do.

But I don’t think he was trying to kill Snape. If he’d really wanted to, he would have come up with a way that wouldn’t have involved making Lupin culpable. I think, like Lupin said, Sirius was just trying to scare Snape. As Padfoot, Sirius was strong and tough enough to keep Lupin in check and protect Wormtail. Maybe those adventures made him think Lupin’s wolf-state wasn’t as dangerous as it really was. We won’t ever know for sure, but that’s my theory. And from what we later see of Sirius, thinking things through and impulse control aren’t necessarily his strongest suits (like attacking the Fat Lady, which is much less excusable than his confronting of Pettigrew in the middle of a crowded Muggle street).

Also, since I’m on the subject, and not to victim blame, but… Snape. Snape. Severus. If one of the boys who is usually mean to you tells you to do something dangerous… maybe don’t do that thing! It’s kind of like reading the incantation off the scroll in the creepy tomb, or something. Coincidentally… Sirius’ darkest moment might mark the beginning of James Potter cleaning up his act. Think about it. Snape’s Worst Memory takes place in their fifth year; James saves Snape from Lupin in their sixth year. James deflates his head enough to start dating Lily in their seventh year. Hell.

Anyway… let’s talk about Sirius’ pedigree. Given the sheer number of genocidal maniacs in the Black family tree, I think it’s safe to say that there was some kind of mental illness running, no, galloping, through the lineage, made worse by in-breeding, and sadly, there is no wizarding psychiatry. His parents wanted him to be Death Eater, after all, and were thrilled when his brother joined up. (And even though Regulus turned out to be a surprise white-sheep, what Regulus did to Kreacher is still incredibly unethical. Even though he had the noblest of intentions.)

Back to Sirius… given the family history, and the fact that he was locked up in Azkaban for thirteen years, it’s probably nothing short of a miracle that he’s only slightly unhinged in Book 3. Who could keep all of their sanity in that situation? Even though he does fly off the handle and stab the Fat Lady, break Ron’s leg, and stalk Harry, the amount of control he shows in later books is nothing short of heroic.

Even in the midst of developing an implied drinking problem, he doesn’t slug Fred Weasley when Fred lashes out while they’re waiting for news of Arthur Weasley after Nagini’s attack in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. He also doesn’t just not hit Fred, he doesn’t do anything violent. He doesn’t break a glass to calm himself down first, he just takes a few seconds to collect himself and declares that everyone in the room needs a drink. That shows real growth. Book 3 Sirius probably couldn’t have done that.

On a similar note, I hear that the fact that movie Sirius punches Lucius Malfoy instead of hexing him is criticized, but that’s totally in character. Also, just from a layperson’s perspective, if you’re mad enough, it might be more satisfying to use physical force instead of magic sometimes. And I don’t really like movie Sirius all that much. Gary Oldman is a fine actor, but I think Michael Wincott would have been a better choice. I always pictured Sirius as sounding like him. But they nailed that part of his character.

I don’t blame Gary Oldman for being upset that his character was getting killed off, especially after barely knowing freedom. But he died finally out of the dungeon that was Grimmauld Place, and in the thrill of battle. It’s oddly fitting, even though I really wish he’d been able to stick around, and not just because of my pubescent infatuation.

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Bread in Hell

Inge’s punishment

There’s a fairy tale I read when I was about eight or nine, and it has really stayed with me over the years. It’s not one that comes up very much… “The Girl Who Stepped on a Loaf.”

I had to Google its origins… originally, it was written by Hans Christian Andersen.

The gist of the story is that there was a little girl named Inge, who was the most beautiful person in the world. People would come from all over just to stare at her. Eventually she was “hired” by a rich family, but they didn’t have her do any work. They just dressed her up and continued to display her. Needless to say, this ruined her character, and she became known for cruelty as much as her beauty. But nothing changed in the way she was treated. Then the rich family sent her to visit her mother with a loaf of bread as a gift. It had rained before Inge started the journey, and she soon came to a puddle. She used the bread meant for her mother as a stepping stone, was frozen to it, and sank into Hell, where she remained, stuck in the act of stepping on the loaf. On Earth, the people who stared at and spoiled Inge laughed at her, and used her as a cautionary tale to frighten their own children into good behavior. For years, she suffered there, learning her lesson over and over, wishing something could be different. Only one little girl expressed pity for her, and prayed for her to receive mercy. As a result of those prayers, Inge was released from Hell, and changed into a bird.

I could come at this fairy tale from so many angles… the objectification, the self-satisfied blaming, the theology… but I’ll only come at it from two.

I’ll start with the blaming. That’s always been kind of a sticking point for me. Probably because of the school I went to. One of my history teachers insisted that the passengers aboard the Lusitania were at fault for being on the ship, and by implication, deserved to be torpedoed. When one of my English classes had a segment on Greek mythology, the teacher made us all agree that Persephone deserved to be kidnapped and forced to be Hades’ wife for daring to stop to pick flowers in a field.

What the hell is wrong with them? Seriously.

Anyway… Inge is clearly somewhat culpable in her fate. She used her mother’s food as a stepping stone, which is indefensible. But, she didn’t get to that point in her life without help. And even the people who liked her in life, her mother, and foster family, don’t look at their contributions to her fault at all. They only say “oh, if only she hadn’t been such a bad person” not “gee, maybe we should have treated her like a person instead of a painting and actually disciplined her.” In fact, the only person who brings that up in the entire story is Inge herself, while in Hell. She wishes she’d been punished for her misdeeds on Earth, so that she could have learned better and not stepped on the loaf.

You could frame it, as her not wanting to accept blame onto herself, but she does condemn herself. And she is right. She was not raised. And as soon as she became a liability, the people who’d professed to love her, didn’t hesitate to throw her under the anachronistic bus. It evokes celebrity culture, definitely, but it’s also a sad truth about people. They don’t want to admit when they’ve been wrong, and it’s easy to throw a mess into someone else’s lap, especially if they can’t defend themselves. It’s even a joke in my family. If something goes wrong, we’ll laugh and say, “It’s Aunt Cathy’s fault, because she’s not here.” Dark humor, I guess.

And now for the theology.

What comes to mind clearly is Jesus’ words to the disciples, post Ressurection. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (John 20:23).”

That’s weighty responsibility, and we see if played out in Andersen’s fairy tale. When Inge is condemned by everyone who had admired her in life, she is literally damned. But when the child asks for forgiveness, she is forgiven.

The retain and forgive is honestly pretty disturbing… how many people do we neglect to forgive in an average day? I work in a call center, and my forgiveness numbers aren’t that great, if I’m brutally honest. And think of other cultural examples of this forgiveness admonition. The Tom and Jerry cartoon “Heavenly Puss” asserts that Tom will go to hell unless Jerry forgives him, and it takes Jerry a long time to understand the stakes. Tom’s terror is palpable.

But back to the fairy tale. The fact that Inge’s salvation comes from a child is also theologically significant. This time from the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus admonishes the disciples to become like a child (18:3). To humble themselves, become the lowest thing… and that’s what the forgiving child is. She is expected to sit politely while self-satisfied adults tell her scary stories to keep her in line, but she still has pity for someone in a worse position than her. Unlike countless others before her, she doesn’t kick down. She is this story’s Christ figure.

This story, which is a cautionary tale against pride and vanity, still subverts the formula. The finger shakers aren’t the heroes, and the villain-protagonist learns something that no one else does. And the little girl, the child, holds the insight that everyone else lacks. When someone goes wrong, we shouldn’t just take delight in their wrongness and make fun of them. In fact, blaming them only, and not examining yourself in the process, is to engage in another wrong. We are called to forgive, even though it is incredibly difficult.  Could any of us stand up to the scrutiny of making our worst mistake a cautionary bedtime story? Without the option of forgiveness, where would any of us be?

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Postcards, Past and Present

My dad had two cousins who traveled a lot. And they always sent my brother and I plenty of postcards from all over the world. Then, when I was a sophomore in college, one of them died. Postcards started up after a while, but the gap prompted me to start sending postcards of the kids in my life.

I recently received the Mammoth Site postcard, and the Cinderella card has not been sent yet..

It’s been fun, if occasionally difficult, to send postcards. I say difficult, because a lot of places that I remember having entire racks of postcards when I was a kid (like the zoo), now have one style at the cash register. If that. Art museums seem to be the only venue that have not reduced their inventory of postcards. But as I don’t go very many places, I’ve fallen onto collections of Disney postcards. They’re actually quite useful. My little cousins love them, and I once sent the Speaker of the House a Dumbo card (tee hee).

And that, finally, brings me to the point. Postcards have a fun, nostalgic history, but seem to have largely become purely utilitarian in recent months. Probably the last postcard most people received was the reminder from their dentist that it’s time to schedule their six-month checkup, or something of that nature. My dad is apparently one of only a few private citizens who still actually buys postcard stamps at his local post office (I use forever stamps on mine).

It’s true that in the Internet age, less actual mail is being sent (and no, I the Internet blogger will not rail against Facebook, Twitter, or email), but why not send more postcards, at least? They can’t be much longer than a text, given how small the allotted space is, and they cost less than $0.40 to send! The recipient can even use them for decoration if the picture is particularly appealing.

Then there are the memories and the appeal of having something tactile when looking back on the good times of previous years. I love scrolling through photos, but having something other than a mouse or touch pad is nice, too.

Or you could just take my Dumbo example and run with it, and annoy your least favorite politician, if nostalgia and vacation pics aren’t your cup of tea.

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Blue Marvel

Marvel has been a large presence in my life for the past sixteen years. And of course, that includes the huge run of blockbusters, even though it started humbly enough, with my dad’s old comics up in Grandma’s attic.

By now, my husband and I are starting to get a little tired of the whole movie thing, though, and it makes me pause to reflect on my favorite titles from the cinematic universe. And the result was a little surprising. My top picks have a distinct element of sadness to them.

To me, that’s surprising, at least, because I will defend happy endings vehemently.  I can rail against other bloggers who claim that Harry Potter is inferior literature because it ends on a happy note. But apparently I like it best when super heroes lose a little.

My favorite is Captain America: The First Avenger. The movie has a lot of heart, but it ends on kind of a double-whammy: Peggy Carter, the Colonel, and Howard Stark mourning their friend and then Cap awakening to almost all of his friends being already dead or in the midst of dying of old age.

Thor ends with the titular hero mourning the loss of his brother and separation from Jane Foster.

Black Panther sees one of his best friends betray him, as well as many within the Wakandan government collaborate with Killmonger, plus the knowledge of his father’s mistake. And there’s the historical baggage prompting some of the plot.

Maybe my fondness for the bittersweet endings stems in part from the fact that I don’t like the silly humor element that is shoehorned into a lot of the Marvel canon. You can argue that it works for Iron Man (I don’t like him, so I’m not the person to ask about those movies). And it definitely works for Guardians of the Galaxy, but it doesn’t work for Thor. It doesn’t work for Dr. Strange.

And while both Black Panther, Thor, and First Avenger have many upbeat scenes with organic humor, they are tonally consistent throughout the movie. Dr. Strange constantly undercuts itself with a forced joke, and as such, has problems with tone. Thor: Ragnarok completely junks established character traits for Thor to make it more like Guardians of the Galaxy.

Finally… bittersweetness means that there are stakes. Marvel has attempted to add stakes to other movies, but being told about the death of a bunch of faceless extras in Eastern-Eurovania doesn’t hold much weight. It’s not like hearing about a real world tragedy on CNN in a real Eastern European country because it’s fiction, and it doesn’t hold much weight dramatically because we have no connection to the dead people. When War Machine falls out of the sky in Civil War, realistically, he should have died. But he lived, just suffering spinal injuries that had been fixed by the time of Infinity War.

And speaking of Infinity War… well, one quick look at the upcoming list of Marvel movies tells us who’s coming out of that alive. The cinema was dead silent when the movie ended, but we all know we’ll be meeting our favorite characters again soon. And it’s a little disappointing.

Going back to my earlier Harry Potter example… by the time “all was well” that happy ending had been amply earned. Characters died, and the heroes suffered to get there. And it could be a difference in mediums, admittedly, because books can do things movies can’t, and vice-versa, but if we want things to work out for our Marvel heroes, they need to earn the eventual ride into the sunset. And what is a sunset but the end of a long, arduous day, with shadows.

And I guess I like the bittersweet endings because all of those elements are found in those movies. They feel complete to me.

Hopefully Infinity War Part 2 will be, too.

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Thank You For Your Manners

Not infrequently, I’ll talk to a customer service rep, or a fast food worker, or someone similarly employed in the service industry, and they’ll thank me for being nice to them. It always makes me a little uncomfortable, because they should not have to thank the customers for treating them like human beings. But I understand it. I work in a call center, and I spend most of the day with people either yelling at me or weeping down my neck. I go into work with a stomach ache or shaky hands most days.

It’s such a relief when someone is nice.

And I understand the power setup. The oppressed kick downward, as Blackadder explained to Baldrick (“I kick the dog, who bites the cat, who scratches the mouse, who bites you, since you are the lowest thing on God’s earth”). Customers are upset about their bills, so they take it out on the reps, who are powerless to do anything about it. There’s no Gus to turn loose on bothersome customers, like in the Los Pollos Hermanos training videos.

And, despite how we all like to fantasize about doing with the credit card numbers and other information we have at our disposal, we’re too nice (or need the job too much) to actually act on it. But it gives us something to draw on for that smiling customer service.

So, customers… take a leaf from our book. When you’re angry about something instead of biting off your barista’s head because the cream is too rich, do what we do. Go home and scream into a pillow. Stab a tomato. Write a story about the person who slighted you having to live with their offense in Purgatory, or take up kickboxing.

Be nice to your rep/barista/clerk. Don’t make them want to weep from happiness when they get a thank you. We’ll all be better off for it.

 

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In the Full Moonlight

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Original photo by Michael Samerdyke

I recently put out my third ebook, a short horror novel titled In the Full Moonlight. This is probably the fastest I’ve ever put out a book– probably from inception to posting, it took 13 months. And if I hadn’t waffled so much over the editing phase, it wouldn’t even have taken that long.

Interestingly enough, I got the idea for this novel from a Reddit thread. People were talking about supernatural experiences, and someone wrote in about their grandparents being chased by the rougarou, the Cajun werewolf. I started to write a short story about a werewolf in the American south, and twenty pages later, it wasn’t anywhere close to finished. So I kept writing.

The story follows a young librarian named Caroline Schaffer, who encounters a monster one night while out on a midnight walk. As she recovers from the scare and begins a relationship with a man the incident put her into contact with, she begins to explore the history of the monster and her new community. As events build up, the desire to stay safe conflicts with her wish to do something about it.

Now that I’ve finished this project, I still have a laundry list of other books to complete. My fairy tales, I meant to complete at the end of 2016, but…. In addition to the fairy tales, I have two other horror projects in the works, one involving a vampire and one involving ghouls, as well as a big fantasy project. As I make progress, I’ll post.

In the Full Moonlight is available at the ibookstore (apple.co/2Li4fDL), Barnes and Noble (goo.gl/kepeZV), Kobo, and a few other vendors.

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Writing About Writing 1 of…

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve last published something on the blog… eighteen months more or less!

In that amount of time, I got married, moved to a new state in a new timezone, started a new job, and put out another ebook (foreshadowing). That’s two out of the three things newlyweds aren’t supposed to do in the first year of marriage, but we’re not doing Number Three (having a kid) yet.  In all that adjustment and chaos, regular writing got kind of pushed to the wayside, although mostly in recent months, I’ve made up for some of the lost time.

It makes me think a bit about my relationship with writing, actually.

I’ve been a writer since before I could write. When I was really little, I would draw pictures to tell the stories I wanted. And as soon as I actually learned to write, I did. I did that all through school, often as an escape. I kept it up through college, but it wasn’t until I got to graduate school that my personal writing started to slow down. In part I blamed that on my physical and mental health, and I definitely did over the year I was underemployed and essentially in limbo. Almost nothing I wanted got done then.

But then, employed full-time, and finally married, I still didn’t write as much. But the urge was still there.

I write because I have to, and because I love it. But I need something else.

I don’t think it’s necessarily time, although that’s definitely a necessity. I can’t bang out a 100 page novella in a day, and while I can write a 60 page research paper in 17 days, I definitely don’t want to do that again! That one time in grad school was more than enough.

It’s a cliche, and I think a dangerous one, to say writers have to be unhappy to produce good work. And I write good stuff, happy or unhappy. I prefer to not be unhappy, and I think my work is generally better when I’m not weighed down by the world. Besides, if unhappiness meant I’d be more prolific, I’d have composed a second War and Peace from June 2016-June 2017.

Maybe it’s just mental energy. Depression wears you out. Moving wears you out. Starting a new job is tiring. Keeping a job you don’t especially like is tiring. Major life changes in general are just tiring.

Maybe writing is a sign that there’s the potential for things to get better. I don’t want to get overly mystical, but it seems like a possibility. After all, authoritarians want to crack down on ideas, and writing is one way for them to spread. Maybe, as long as we can write, there’s the potential for something better.

And there are always red pencils to help with the actual written material.

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