Sunday, July 22, 2012

Harry Potter and the Anti-Potterists

One of my geek-friends recently said that he wanted nothing to do with “that Harry Potter shit.” I am often surprised by the vehement hatred of fellow sci fi/fantasy geeks to Harry Potter. I assume some of it is because Harry Potter is so mainstream—but the Lord of The Rings Movies made Tolkein mainstream and almost none of my Tolkein-loving friends derided them. They may complain that Tom Bombadil is missing, along with all of the poetry, but they’ll still sit down to watch the movies.

I assume some of what drives this hatred is that Harry Potter remains the exception—not the rule. Yes, dyslexic kids sat down and read 500 page books—but this didn’t lead those kids to pick up The Chronicles of Narnia or The Hobbit or The Dark is Rising or any other books at all (until Twilight came out). You don’t have to work very hard to appreciate Harry Potter. This was initially part of the joy of the world of Hogwarts and Quiddich—at least for me. It is possible to write books that are appropriate for children and still interesting to adults. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is one such book. The Hobbit is another.

Why does liking one preclude liking the other? I think this might partly be a case of “It’s not the band—it’s the fans I hate.” During the Harry Potter madness I found that people at work would come to talk to me about Harry Potter books the same way they would come to talk to me about home PCs—because I was the person in the office that did that sort of thing (reading, buying/repairing PCs).

While I’m flattered that my colleagues think that I’m the go-to person in the office for matters literary, I still find it a bit sad. I know that not everyone reads books for entertainment the way I do, and I know that plenty of smart people don’t read for fun. But still.

When I think about the Potter books, I don’t just think about the narrative. There are many happy parts to the story of JK Rowling’s novels in the real world—and some sad ones (at least from my point of view.)

Harry Potter was published by Scholastic Books in the US. If you’re my age you may remember your grade school teacher sending you home with an multi-colored sales pamphlet for Scholastic books. You and your parents would choose which (if any) books you wanted to order and you would come back to school with a check and an order form (usually filled out by a parent.) Several weeks later, you’d come back from lunch to find several stacks of books in the classroom and the teacher would call out the names of all the kids that had placed orders and give them their stacks of books.

I am happy that Scholastic got to publish the money-bomb that was/is Harry Potter. I am happy that that there were kids who chewed through the lengthy tomes that were the last four volumes of Harry Potter.

I am less happy about the emergence of books as commodities that you can get at Walmart or BJ’s (or Amazon) instead of actual bookstores. Harry Potter didn’t start this fire, but I think he added a lot of fuel to it. Not his fault—not JK Rowling’s either.

Harry Potter grew up along with his original audience. The character ages through out the series. I personally, am impressed by this and I wonder how parents or educators of the future will meet this challenge—do they dole out the books at the rate of one a year (one maybe every two years?) A child that is old enough to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is not necessarily old enough to read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

There’s another part of the narrative of the Place Of Harry Potter in Early 21st Century Literature—one I’m not sure how to feel about. Harry Potter’s adventures at Hogwarts and in Diagon Alley began as good fun and games, but as the series evolved the narrative became strongly—well I’ve been thinking about this all weekend and the best phrase I’ve come up with is “fight the power” (I considered “anti-fascist”). If you’ve got a better phrase please let me know and I’ll change it.

The later volumes came out during the beginning of the Bush and Blair administrations “War on Terror.” After Voldemort returns in the fourth book, Harry Potter begins his personal struggle against the Ministry of Magic because the Ministry refuses to believe that Voldemort is back. The ministry sends an inquisitor to his school in the next volume—look on Reddit for most hated literary characters ever and you will find Dolores Umbridge—and Harry fights her—even though she is a teacher and he a pupil. Harry questions the ministry’s policy of indefinite detention as well. A lot of this is a reaction to the policies of the Bush and Blair administrations. At the time the books were published I admit I took hope in what JK Rowling was writing. However, I admit that this makes them less fun to read.

I have long felt that artists—particularly writers have a duty not just to entertain but to hold up a mirror to the world so that it can see itself. I don’t think this means that they have to be miserabilists (like Balzac or Hugo.) One can entertain—and make a point (if you don’t believe me start reading Gail Collins and Beaumarchais.) In fact the point sticks better if one entertains. However, in spite of believing this I still wonder what the Harry Potter book series would have been if there hadn’t been the War on Terror to react to. JK Rowling says it was always about death (according to Wikipedia) and so perhaps it would always have been dark—even without George Bush. I also wonder about how this has changed it’s future value—particularly as children’s literature.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Dorky Dads are the Best Dads

Not even my nerdiest friends could tell me what Two's Complement notation was, but when I called home last night and asked Dad he actually remembered what the hell it is. (Thus proving that he is in fact the clearing house for all kinds of arcane knowledge.)

Then he made me laugh about floating point calculations and we talked about Byzantine history--specifically how Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantium is Constantinople--complete with "Sarantine fire," a version of the Arian heresy and an empress who started out as an actress.

Now if only I could teach him to text.

Friday, July 20, 2012

It's Just One Year

Immediately after buying a house and moving in, I went back to graduate school. I know it's only one course at a time, and I don't have to go to South Boston to take classes (UMB) but I'm finding school and work demanding and draining. I feel like I will remember 2012 as the year where I was always too tired.

My friends are supportive--they know it's just a year. I don't see as much of them as I did previously, but there are still breakfasts at Sugar Mags and dinners at the Old Spot. I have learned I can't go out to breakfast, write/compile a group project, go to the grocery store* and have dinner all in one day, so I eat breakfast in and skip the grocery store.

It's not just school, of course--it's Bust Your Ass Season** at work. Last Friday I was in a project management meeting for Big Thing. The Project Manager asked that we submit all our summer vacation to him.*** This would have been fine, but my sister and I hadn't scheduled a time for her to come up with her kids yet this summer. I called her on my cell phone from one of the conference rooms at work. "I have to schedule all my vacation time for the rest of the summer today." I said along with many other less than coherent things. The end result of the conversation was that my sister said that maybe they wouldn't come up this year. "It's only a year you're in school--right?" she said.

As I left the conference room I said "I hate myself." Apparently I said it out loud, because the receptionist said "Don't feel that way about yourself."

When I talkeed to my sister the next day she said "Look--you're super busy now and you're going to feel all 'EEEEH' I don't want to come up and be around you when you feel that way--it's like when people came to visit right after I had a baby--I was like 'Thank you for coming, but now is not a good time to visit'." Clearly she gets it. And forgives me--or if she doesn't, at least she understands the concept "overwhelmed".

Her son, who is 7 is less forgiving. He asked to speak to me "Are you very busy now?" he asked. "Yes" I responded. "Okay. Bye."

I asked my sister what that was about and she said she wasn't sure, but she had explained to the kids that they wouldn't be coming up to Massachusetts this summer because I had other stuff going on.

Ow. Cue "Cat's in the Cradle."That's right kiddos--you can't go to the beach this summer because I'm too busy. I am a waste of carbon and hydrogen.

My mom and my aunt will be in Gloucester staring Sunday. I'm hoping to get to show them my house and see them for dinner and go to the beach with them, but my ability to do any of these things is severely hindered because next week/weekend is the last week of the class I'm in now and I'll probably be spending a good portion of it doing a final project (as yet undisclosed--good fun though, I'm sure.) The timing sucks. A week later I'd be in week one of my next class--with marginally more free time.

There hasn't been much beach for me this summer. I am still not fully moved into my house and there is still construction dust in the kitchen. I have friends who have volunteered to help me clean, but I've spent every weekend doing homework. I can't take any more time off for the next month (to clean, do homework or just to chillax.) I hate that all my mental efforts--all of my processing time--is devoted to work or school. I hate that I have almost nothing left for my friends or my family. It's really this that bothers me the most.

And so I tell myself--it's just one year. And I count the weeks.

*For those of you raising your eyebrows at this--I live in suburbia and I don't drive. Going to the grocery store is a Project.

**I remember when summer was a slow time where I worked. For the last two years it has been Crazy Go Nuts season.

***Oversimplification, but you get the idea.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The One Thing I *Did* Learn in Business School

I'm currently taking a class in systems architecture. For some reason that is not at all apparent to me (or most of my classmates) the professor has decided to teach this class with group work and group presentations.

Group work can be torture-it doesn't have to be, but it often is more work to have three people collaborate on a problem set than it is to do it individually. I admit I learned a lot more from my group work buddies in business school than I learned from the professors, but that does not mean it was always fun. Discussions were had at 11:30 at night. Tempers were lost. But even the most feckless of my MBA study-buddies knew how to give a presentation.

Now I'm swimming in a different ocean than I was before. My MSIT program is a good deal more relaxed than UMB's MBA program was. Professors have been known to put people in groups, give them a question and expect them to have an answer-in PowerPoint form in 30 minutes. Tonight the whole class met with their groups for the first time in 2 weeks and we all had about 15 minutes to decide on which of the problems we'd worked on tompresent to the whole class. As a result, the presentations given were less than stellar. Guys stood with their backs to the class and read PowerPoint slides. In shorts. In bored tones.

We never did anything so unrehearsed in business school-it might have killed a few of us (myself included) to have to do so. Presentations were obsessed over-we developed extra slides in case one of our classmates felt like playing "gotcha"-we rehearsed, we dressed.

And afterwards we always said "nice job guys" (because our presentations were amazing-really.) I found myself wondering if I should e-mail my current group of study buddies and say "good job guys" and ultimately I decided not to. I really do believe in saying thank you, but this was effortless (relatively speaking) and I thought it would be over the top to give out praise. More to the point? I'm afraid that some of them might think it pretentious of me.

Which brings me to my point of concern. Part of the reason I switched grad school tracks was because I wanted to be among people who cared more about what can actually be accomplished than what looks nice. I wanted to work with people who believe what you know is more important than how you're dressed. And here I am complaining about presentation skills.

On the other hand, I have learned (very INTJ that I am) how to present material as if I care. I don't like standing up in front of people and speaking but I can do it. I try do do it well partly because it's less boring for the rest of the class, and partly because i feel it's as imporant as turning it gramatically correct writing. Sometimes I feel like I brought the wrong skill set to the party.