Editorial: Harry Potter and the Pretentious Book Reviewer

b76I made a social blunder recently when I disparaged Harry Potter during a family vacation.

I started reading the Harry Potter series this summer, along with my wife and our 11-year-old daughter. There are lots of Harry Potter fans in our extended family. I have several nieces and nephews that grew up with author J.K. Rowling’s books and movies. My niece recently visited to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida to celebrate her graduation … from college!

These were hardcore fans. I should have known better when they asked what I thought of the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

“It’s kind of childish,” I said. “Heavy handed. Does the bad kid at school need to be named Draco Malfoy, and his thug friends Crabbe and Goyle? Is Goyle’s first name Gar? I understand these characters are snakes in the grass, but do they need to live in Slytherin House, too?”

UnknownEveryone looked at me slack-jawed, like I’d blasted a wet shart right there in front of the group. Really, Uncle Rob? Are you that guy, the one who finds fault with things that everybody else likes?

Well, yeah, I’m that guy. I’m a book reviewer, a “literary critic.” (www.bobsbookblog.com). I’m supposed to kick the tires and pick at the seams of novels and short stories, check the quality of their build, see how they function, and let people know if they deliver the literary goods.

I tried to clarify my Harry Potter stance with my wife later on.

hpcovers7“There’s a simple beauty to J.K. Rowling’s work, the way some of the best songs are built around three chords. It’s catchy, gets your heart pumping, and sweeps you away. That’s the magic of Harry Potter. It’s like a great pop song you can’t stop humming,” I explained.

“But I didn’t appreciate Rowling’s running gag with the character names. It was silly and took me out of the story,” I said. “There’s no reason to name your characters Billy Badguy, Sally Sidekick, or Lucy Loveinterest.”

“What if you had a character named Bob Buzzkill?” my wife asked. “Or Peter Pretentious. Maybe Biggie Blackcloud. He’d be a mopey Native American who makes it rain on everybody’s parade.”

“Funny, but that’s not me,” I said. “I’m a journalist! I dissect the subject to get to the truth! I’d be Chris Critic! Geraldo Reviewer!”

“Jerky McJealous,” my wife countered. “Write your own bestselling young adult series if you don’t like Harry Potter.”

Clearly this is not an argument I’m meant to win. Nor do I want to.

harry_potter_and_640_07Because I like Harry Potter! I’m new to Rowling’s Wizarding World, but already I can see it’s filled with memorable adventures and unforgettable characters. I don’t know if it’s a modern literary classic, but it’s certainly well crafted and delightfully designed. Harry Potter is built with love and built to last.

So what if I have quibbles with Rowling’s character names? It’s certainly not the first thing I should mention when people ask how I like the Harry Potter series. But I have poor social skills, and I’m…I’m…

Igor Ignorant. Arnie Awkward. Jack Ass. Dullard Scott.

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Zen and the Art of the Adult Coloring Book

11201723_669770653154420_2144179061_nRemember “The Secret Garden?” No, not that stodgy old children’s tale. The adult coloring book!

I’m not talking about funnyman Colin Quinn’s latest literary effort, “The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America,” either. That’s a funny book, but not the kind of coloring book I’m talking about.

I’m talking about a grab-your-crayons-and-find-a-sunny-place-to-work kind of coloring book. Adult coloring books are topping bestseller lists around the globe. “The Secret Garden” recently topped the New York Times Bestseller list. French publisher Hachette has a collection called Art-Thérapie with 20 volumes including all kinds of drawings from butterflies and flowers to cupcakes, graffiti and psychedelic patterns. In the United Kingdom, illustrator Mel Simone Elliot’s “Colour Me Good” series lets you color-in pictures of celebrities like Ryan Gosling, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and Kate Moss. Spanish cartoonist Antonio Fraguas, or Forges, published Coloréitor, “a de-stress book.”

Grown-up coloring books are marketed as a way to escape the media bombardment of the digital world and rediscover the do-it-yourself joys of something simple and stress-free. According to psychologists, coloring activates both halves of the brain, stimulating creative skills as well as a sense of logic and reason. Coloring can bring a sense of relaxation that lowers activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotion and is affected by stress.

One of the most common symbols found in adult coloring books are mandalas, spiritual symbols from India that represent the universe. Mandalas have circular designs with concentric shapes and geometric symmetry, like the intricate patterns of a flower. One of the first psychologists to use coloring mandalas as a relaxation technique was Carl G. Jüng in the early 20th century.

abstract-coloring-page-by-thaneeyaThe first time I saw an adult using a coloring book was during an early episode of the reality show “The Osbournes” back in 2002. Here was Ozzy Osbourne, the Dark Prince of Rock-n-Roll, sitting at his kitchen table, surrounded by foul-mouthed chaos, calmly working a color-by-number landscape with a package of magic markers. He looked like an overgrown child, carefully selecting each color, and staying within the lines. Evidently the Ozzman was ahead of the curve when it comes to unwinding through art.

The Zen-like instructions for one of Amazon’s bestselling adult coloring books tells the story:

  1. Break out your crayons or colored pencils.
  2. Turn off your phone, tablet, computer, whatever.
  3. Stop thinking about your job, your credit score, your reputation with your co-workers, your goals, your waistline, your retirement savings, etc.
  4. Remind yourself that coloring is like dancing, or being alive. It doesn’t have a point; it is the point.
  5. Find your favorite page in the book. That is the beginning.
  6. Start coloring.
  7. If you notice at any point that you are having fun, forgetting your worries, daydreaming freely, feeling more creative, excitable, curious, delighted, relaxed or any combination thereof, breathe deeply and take a moment to enjoy it. Then, gently return your attention to coloring.
  8. When you are satisfied or don’t feel like it anymore, stop.

Adult coloring books are a way to recapture the innocence of youth. They also give artists a sense of control; everything’s got a specific shape and color, just follow the key and stay in the lines. Color-by-number and fill-in-the-blank style artwork offers a “shortcut” for artists of all skill levels. You can create your own artistic masterpiece without the talent and/or training of a fine artist!

ccd4f8667217a6ef737ed2bb0a25e777Pablo Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” This is why adult coloring books are so popular. They can cleanse the soul, or at least give your mind and spirit a rest, a chance to create something colorful, pretty, and uniquely your own.

Plus, it’s good to get your fingers working at something other than a keyboard, touch screen, or remote control.

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The Long-Awaited Undoing Of SeaWorld

6c12f7f2c2c4bad64a12c202e81c73bbI wanted to be a marine biologist as a kid.

My fascination with sea life began at age 7, when my parents took me to see “Jaws” (1975). The film left a deep mark/scar on me, and I became fascinated with creatures of the deep. I checked armloads of shark books out of the local library, and begged my parents to take me to see whatever “Jaws” rip-off was playing at the local movie theater.

One of those awful rip-offs was a stinker called “Orca” (1977), starring a regretful Richard Harris and a confused Bo Derek. Even at the tender age of 9, I recognized the movie was a far-fetched turd. Every book I’d read said orcas were smarter than sharks; they didn’t mistake humans for food. The name is a misnomer; a killer whale won’t attack a human.

Unless it’s held in captivity.

When I was 12, my parents took me to SeaWorld, during the height of Shamu fever. As much as I was fascinated by the dolphin and killer whale shows, there was something sad about seeing these majestic, intelligent creatures held in tanks and swimming pools. My trip to SeaWorld didn’t kill my dreams of studying marine biology, but it dampened them.

(What finally killed my marine biology dream was my inability to pass Biology 101 in college, though, in my defense, the class was only offered really, really early on Friday mornings.)

Childhood visits to SeaWorld also had a deep impact on Gabriela Cowperthwaite and the rest of the crew behind the 2013 documentary, “Blackfish.” The documentary looks at the detrimental impact of keeping killer whales in captivity, and follows the story of “Tillikum,” an orca responsible for three human deaths.

f7efc256bb244fbcd4b33348756f-is-seaworld-bad-for-orcas“Blackfish” was an arrow through the heart of SeaWorld. Attendance at the park dropped off after the release of the documentary. SeaWorld officials called “Blackfish,” “inaccurate and misleading,” but the public — and the park’s shareholders — felt otherwise. By August 2014, SeaWorld stock dropped 44%, and by December the company’s CEO resigned.

In November 2015, SeaWorld announced plans to phase out killer whale performances at its San Diego park, and in March of this year, SeaWorld announced it would end its orca breeding program and phase out orca performances at all of its parks.

Detractors believe SeaWorld still isn’t doing enough. Even if SeaWorld stops breeding orcas today, some whales currently in captivity may live another 30 to 50 years. SeaWorld says it has no plans to release its 29 orcas back into the wild or into semi-wild sea pens. Phasing out the orca program at SeaWorld may take a while.

The evolution of SeaWorld hopefully reflects an overall change in the way mankind treats animals. Many of us have nostalgic memories of visiting SeaWorld as kids (and cheering elephants at the circus). But antiquated and inhumane institutions like zoos, aquariums, and circuses have no place in 21st century society. Imprisoning and abusing animals for human amusement must end.

 

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College safe zones degrade higher learning

SafeZone_LogoColleges and universities were once hotbeds of creative ideas and free expression. Students used to question abuse, question authority. Today, students request “safe zones” so they can protest “offensive” Halloween costumes, and insensitive emails.

St. Louis University is one of several institutions of higher learning where designated safe spaces are a perceived necessity among minority and LGBT students. The SLU website reports:

“Homosexuality is an invisible diversity, both in its members and its supporters. The Safe Zone program helps to create a more accepting atmosphere on campus by providing visual statements of support and safe space. Many universities from Boston College, NYU, Georgetown, and Duke to Washington University, University of Illinois, and University of Missouri have already implemented similar programs.”

But safe zones threaten free speech. Missouri journalists were twice barred from covering college protests, according to USNews.com. Safe zones also create complex new job responsibilities for college employees. Professors worry about offending students in class with provocative texts or topics, while college administrators are being asked to step in and resolve conflicts among students instead of letting young adults fight their own battles.

I attended Rutgers University in the mid-80s, and there was nothing safe about it. (Except possibly the sex. It was the height of the AIDS scare, so people used protection.) There were many LGBT students on campus. Everybody knew where LGBT students hung out, and if you wanted to hang out with them, nobody judged you.

Safe Zone Image

For me, college was an unsafe zone. It was a place where I experimented, explored, and royally messed up. Hard partying landed me on academic probation after my first year, with a paltry 0.7 GPA.

That was when I learned to buckle down and take academics seriously. I learned the consequences of goofing off, and I took responsibility for my life choices. I still made time for tons of fun, but I learned to finish my schoolwork first.

And I did it well. By the time I graduated, I elevated my lowly 0.7 GPA to a respectable 3.0. It was hard work, but that’s the entire point. A good education should push you to your limits and beyond. If it’s easy, you’re probably doing it wrong. The most valuable lesson I learned in college was a simple one. Hard work pays off.

You can’t cut corners. If you do something, do it well. I learned how to be a major-league screw-up in college. But I also learned I could produce quality work if I set my heart and mind to it.

The college experience should be about taking risks, some smart and calculated, others blindingly stupid. Safe zones, language police, and other safety nets of the “bubble-wrap generation” take that risk away. We live in a “bully culture,” where everyone is a victim, even if they merely find themselves in “an uncomfortable situation.”

From Notre Dame University
From Notre Dame University

But uncomfortable situations are an essential part of life! How can young adults (or any living thing) develop and grow without occasionally stepping outside the comfort zone, if only to help define where exactly the comfort zone lies? Comfort zones change with time, age, and experience.

All colleges and universities are “safe zones” — places where young people can experiment, fail, succeed, and find out who they truly are without the emotional or financial responsibility of a home or family. There are still plenty of worthy causes for college students to protest in this country. This generation needs a better one than hurt feelings.

 

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Mythology offers insight into modern transgender issue

transgender-symbol-one-lgbt-symbols-icon-34278948The transgender issue is confusing, both politically and socially, but maybe we can find comfort and guidance in Greek mythology.

Tiresias was a blind prophet from Thebes. He had a lifespan of seven generations, so he appears in a lot of ancient Greek stories and plays, usually showing up at an inopportune moment to give the protagonist a dire prediction. But Tiresias wasn’t always blind or clairvoyant… and he wasn’t always a man.

According to legend, Tiresias once stumbled upon two snakes fornicating, and struck the creatures with a stick. This angered the goddess Hera, and she punished Tiresias by turning him into a woman. (Why was this considered a punishment? Were the Greek myths all written by men? And, more importantly, did Tiresias go by “Theresa” after his sex change?)

Tiresias lived as a woman for seven years, until she again came upon coupling snakes in the wilderness. This time she left the snakes alone (or trampled them to death, according to some versions of the story). Either way, the “curse” was lifted, and Tiresias changed back into a man.

Later on, Tiresias found himself called upon to settle a dispute between Hera and her husband Zeus. Hera argued that men got more pleasure out of sex, while Zeus believed women enjoyed it more. Tiresias, who lived as both sexes, was asked to cast the deciding vote.

“Of ten parts, a man enjoys one only,” Tiresias said, implying Zeus was correct. Hera was so angry, she struck Tiresias blind. Zeus felt bad for Tiresias, so he attempted to make up for his wife’s hostile overreaction by granting Tiresias the gift of clairvoyance and extending his lifespan sevenfold.

What can we learn from this Greek myth, and how does it apply to modern transgender issues? Well, it shows us that the debate over gender roles and gender identity is as old as storytelling itself. It also suggests the Greek myths were created by misogynistic men obsessed with the number seven.

But the main lesson is simply this: Be comfortable in your own skin… whatever skin you’re in.

Tiresias was a happy, successful man — a respected advisor to the leaders of Thebes — before Hera turned him into a woman. But Tiresias took the change in stride and made the most of it. As a woman, Tiresias became a priestess of Hera. She married and had children, including a daughter, Manto, who was allegedly an even more gifted fortune-teller than her father … er, mother.

Easy with the snakes, T!
Easy with the snakes, T!

Some versions of the myth claim Tiresias was a famous prostitute during his “lady years,” but, again, these stories were likely authored by geeky and vindictive men in togas who were spurned by women. Some things never change. History is not only written by the victors, but for many years it was written by men who resented and looked down on women.

Living life as both a man and a woman is a blessing, a curse, and a path to enlightenment for Tiresias. When the gods took his vision and gave him “second-sight,” Tiresias embraced his role as blind prophet. He appears frequently in Greek plays and literature, though his job is sometimes difficult. He once had to tell King Oedipus that Oedipus had inadvertently killed his own father and married his mother. Yuck, right? But don’t shoot the messenger! Soothsaying is a tough gig.

Whatever lemons life (or the gods) tossed at Tiresias, he turned into tasty lemonade — and then into a profitable chain of lemonade stands. Tiresias lived to his fullest personal potential, even when the person he was kept changing. He was a respected man, a fine woman, and a blind prophet rock star. Whoever he was, he was the best he could be.

That’s something we should all strive for, whether you’re a man, a woman, or something in between.

 

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