And Harry Potter and all his wizard friends went straight to hell

An informal book review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:
I finished the biggest book ever (in more ways than one) this weekend, and I had a few thoughts. Eventually I might refine this into a real review, but for now this is all I can manage.

The money and power has gone to their head. The publishers of Harry Potter have such a phenomenon on their hands that they’ve gotten sloppy. They’ve given J. K. Rowling too much freedom, and she’s beginning to waver. Now hear me out, I’m not trying to rip the book apart. I liked it. But I think like so many sequels and prequels, it’s fallen short.

I think the editors gave Rowling the freedom to write what she wants, and since she’s made them millions, they didn’t bother to subject The Order of the Phoenix to the same editorial rigor that most books are subjected to. The result is not bad grammar or weak spots, but instead a plot that flows where it wants, unfettered by the restraints of sanity and good judgment. She wrote an 800 page novel for goodness sake. You don’t do that for a reason. It takes 200 pages before Harry even returns to school, and nothing worth one quarter of the book happens in that first quarter.

This freedom has let the story wander, and unless I’m mistaken and Rowling plans to chase down those stray fragments in parts six and seven, I think this is a classic genius blunder. She knows what she’s doing, let’s not edit her like we did for the first books. Bad idea. Every writer needs to be edited.

The story wasn’t a let down, but it could have been more. I’ve heard some people say that the unedited fun is great–who wouldn’t want more time in the Harry Potter world? Tromping around in the fantasy is great, but only if it serves the story. In this case I think it just makes for a fatter book.

On the bright side, Rowling is letting her characters go through adolescence, which is as painful to read as it is to live through. Harry is such a dork sometimes. At times I think Rowling is letting her characters grow in stereotypically teenager ways, but I think for the most part she’s doing a good job.

What’s amazing about this series is that there’s a generation of kids growing up with Harry Potter. And it’s not like Star Wars where the characters may learn and grow, but we don’t see them age along with us (though I suppose with the pre-quels we’re seeing some regression). Some kids starting reading Harry Potter when they were the same age as Harry. As Harry goes through puberty, so are they.

In your face Flanders

The other day I mentioned that I need a weed-whacker. A friend of mine (and fellow homeowner) mentioned that he’s managed to scrape by without one. He says for a while the weeds look terrible, but if you can just ignore it, the weeds will grow so long they’ll bend over and look fine. That’s certainly an approach I hadn’t thought of.

Part of me wants to just share a weed-whacker with my neighbors. At least four households come in contact with my yard, and you’d think between those five lawns one or two weed-whackers would be sufficient. Do we really need five? I know it’s the American way, but maybe it’s not the best way.

I’d also love to know if there’s a non-motorized equivalent to the weed-whacker. I like my yard being combustion-free, and I’d like that trend to continue. Of course I don’t want to edge my yard with a pair of scissors. I don’t think I’m quite that stubborn.

Snowball II

Last night we had a visitor to our back porch. We looked up from watching a movie to see a gray and white cat sitting at the screen door. We paused the DVD and went to the door. The cat freaked out and backed off, walking with this strange convulsive dipping motion. Wary, the cat backed off onto our deck, but slowly came back as I opened the screen door. Abby went to get a dish of water, and while I crouched next to the partially open door, the cat actually tried to waltz right in. When I would move or approach it, the cat would take off warily. But when I just sat there the cat wanted to come in, and I actually had to push it back.

Unfortunately the cat took off when we tried to come out onto the deck with it. But I’m hoping the cat will be back. I’d love to have a stray outdoor pet. One way or another I’ll get a cat.

Of course that will last until we get a dog.

Son of a diddlely!

Ah, the joys of home ownership continue. As if you didn’t believe me, the sporadicness of my ponderings should be the ultimate proof that I’m now a homeowner. After almost two solid weeks of having a computer disconnected from the Internet, I finally get the computer set up in the house and connected to the Internet, and I’ve spend less than twenty minutes on this thing. Something has to be wrong with me. I’ve never spent less time on a computer since, well since before I had one. Only one thing could be so distracting. It’s not college. It’s not marriage. It’s not a real job. It’s a home (I’m guessing having children will be equally distracting, if not more so, but let’s not go there just yet).

Speaking of children, the frightening thing about having a house is having one with extra bedrooms. Our house has three bedrooms, though that’s not technically true because they all share one closet, so they’re not quite up to code. The third bedroom is also more like an oversized closet. It’s something like 6 x 8 with a little alcove. The previous owners, God bless them, used this third bedroom as their master bedroom. Either they really loved their kids, or they were just nuts. Their bed took up most of the room.

Anyway (back to the children), we call this room the spare room. Or possibly the room of despair, which has a nice ring to it. Or the realm room, because that’s the name of the color we painted one wall in it. However other people don’t seem to be following our lead. One of our friends dubbed it the crib room. Now it’s true, in a theoretical sense, a crib would fit nicely in this room. But we don’t own a crib. We have no plans to own a crib. We have nothing to occupy the crib. We have no plans to get something to occupy a crib we don’t yet own. Yet the rumors persist. While talking to my father-in-law on the phone the other day he nonchalantly called it the baby room.

It’s the spare room. Period.

Yesterday I mowed the lawn. What better way to mark your country’s independence than by proclaiming your servitude to a plant species? It’s often been said that if aliens observed life on earth they would assume dogs rule the planet — after all, who picks up who’s droppings? I think aliens would find our relationship to grass rather strange. We water, fertilize, and weed the grass, nurturing it like one of our own. Then we cruelly hack it down, only to repeat the process. It’s really sadistic, self-defeating cycle.

If you haven’t notice, I don’t really care much for yard work. It took me half an hour to mow our tiny lot with our mechanized push power. Notice I said mechanized, not motorized. It’s the sweat of my brow that makes the lawn mower run, which I somewhat enjoy. There’s no need for a noisy, polluting lawn mower for a yard our size. And the push mower came free with the house. I did manage to earn myself a blister in the process. Owning a home has done wonders to tear up my hands and give me calluses and blisters you don’t experience sitting at a desk all day. After mowing my lawn for the first time I did realize that I’m going to have to buy a weed-whacker. Definitely not looking forward to that. Way too much money on a noisy machine that does way too little work. Though I can’t see a way around it, so I’m just going to have to suck it up. Such is home ownership.

Houston we have a problem. A sexy problem.

Okay, I admit it. I watched America’s Top Model tonight. It’s UPN’s attempt to rival FOX for lame reality shows. Tyra Banks hosts this cat fight between a bunch of amateurs duking it out for a chance to be professional mannequins.

Tonight’s show was down to four contestants: two tough edgy girls who really have no interest in modeling and only want the cash, one ditzy California blond, and the token Christian who reads her Bible way too publicly. Tonight’s round of grueling modeling trials included partying French style with four hoity-toity French guys and modeling naked. The shots ended up being tastefully done with the appropriate parts covered, but the positions did demand nudity. The blond and the Christian refused to go buff, and they were offered the chance to try “simulated nudity,” which basically means wearing very little and the Photoshop what was there away (this is how Tyra Banks does “nude” shots). They still refused.

So a test of morals. Of course it was a joke, the modeling they were asking for wasn’t pornography, it wasn’t incredibly racy. It was simply the beauty of the human body. And they were being pretty accommodating about privacy. This is a show about modeling, what do you expect?

The real kicker is how the Christian dealt with it (her name was Robin, so I can stop referring to her as the Christian). Robin was just a bitch. While hanging out with the hoity-toity French guys she was just rude. She wouldn’t even try the fancy French food. When the four wanna-be models had a day of free time, Robin refused to compromise what she wanted to do so the group could stay together. Apparently visiting the Paris Gap is pretty important.

Then comes the whole nude modeling flap. Of course Tyra Banks (the host and one of the judges) saw Robin basically flash one of the designers and not seem too concerned about modesty, so there was a big question about consistency.

The two edgy contestants often escaped and vented about Robin. During the complaining session one of them noted that if God does exist he’d kick Robin’s ass when she gets to heaven for being such a prick. She also noted that “the good book” says when your neighbor asks for your coat you give it to him, noting that Christians are supposed to be selfless, and Robin is wholly selfish.

Perhaps Robin’s just a bad example. Perhaps the show was edited to make her look inconsistent. The producers always play up whatever angle they need to, and Robin could just be a victim of the need for drama. This is UPN after all. But quite frankly, I don’t think so. Why do Christians always have to come off looking so bad. If we were doing it right in the first place, I don’t think we’d have such image issues.

Somehow we think that putting on a show of spirituality is all it takes to follow Jesus. Of course Jesus told us to pray in our closets, not on the street corner. He did tell us to give our coat to someone who asks, and he also told us to love our enemies. You can read your Bible in the limo and pray before bedtime, you can say “Lord, Lord” and go to church every Sunday, but if you don’t have love you are nothing.

Thoughts on Home Ownership

On June 12, 2003 my wife and I closed on our first home. As we walked away from the title office the realization sunk in that we owned a house — and the bank owned us.

1119 Seminary Avenue became our new residence, though we didn’t move in until the end of the June. There was much work to be done, a baptism of sweat and toil. It began as all revivals do with repainting. We painted every room in the house, with the exception of the kitchen and closet. Then we ripped up the carpet and had the hardwood floors finished. A lot of work to do in two weeks, but necessary and well-timed work.

In the midst of this, time was also spent cleaning out the basement, the garage, the kitchen, and anything else you could think of redoing. It was during this time that I had a number of thoughts about home ownership, which I have decided to collect here for the simple pleasure of sharing them.

The Lawn
I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend my excess time trying to make grass green. Who in their right mind would put hours of their day into fertilizing, weed killing, and pruning their lawn? It needs to be cut so you don’t lose small children when they go out to play, but otherwise it’s just grass. Nobody cares if there’s a weed or two. Nobody cares if it dies in July because it’s 102 degrees for three weeks straight. That’s supposed to happen.

The suburban lawn is the most non-diverse ecosystem on the planet. A lack of diversity requires greater input of energy to ensure sustainability. That energy comes from you, weekend warrior, so choose wisely before deciding you want to have the greenest lawn on the block. That glowing green is not only unnatural, it will cost you your once-lazy afternoons for the rest of your life. While you’re sweating under the sun, I’ll find something better to do, thank you very much.

The History
Home ownership suddenly connects you to a great sense of history — assuming you’ve bought a pre-owned house. Someone, in many cases several someones, has called this dwelling home before you have. In the case of our new home, those someones go all the way back to 1910. At some point in time one of those someones had the audacity to paint the bedroom seafoam green. Of course they couldn’t just leave it at the walls, they had to paint the radiator, too. One of those someones also painted the stairs, carpeted over the hardwood floors, and decided that floor-to-ceiling shelving in the basement should be built from the ceiling down. One of these people decided every door needed at least three locks, that one closet was enough for the entire house, and that boards don’t need to be nailed together.

But aside from the oddity of dealing with someone else’s version of upkeep, there’s the simple history. I’m suddenly intrigued about my neighborhood. My home was built in 1910, which would have been relatively early in St. Paul’s history. I can imagine the blocks and blocks of city housing being sparse and not fully populated as they are now. I can imagine the trees along Lexington Avenue as saplings — or maybe the city is on a second generation of trees already, and they don’t appear that much different.

I wonder when the school across the street was built, how long my neighbors have been my neighbors, and what existed here before my house. Was it simple prairie, grasses stretching between rivers and lakes and forests? I slow down while passing the regional section of the bookstore, and I find myself gazing at old maps, wondering what Seminary Avenue used to look like almost one hundred years ago.

The Community
Home ownership also comes with a sense of community that I never felt in an apartment. Renting is such a temporary arrangement that you really don’t put down deep roots in your community. I certainly put down some roots, but I frequented the gas station more than the hip coffee shop on the corner.

Owning a home has made me much more aware of the local economy and it’s effect on my house. If the businesses close to my home fold, that reflects poorly on my neighborhood, and ultimately, the value of my home. It’s in my best interest to support local businesses, lest they close down and seedy shops replace them, or worse, they remain abandoned and become the dens of thieves, druggies, and transients.

Never in my life did I imagine I’d see economics this way. I realized this while browsing through Hamline Hardware and realizing they had everything Home Depot had, and I could make the quick trip here, rather than the longer trip by freeway to the merchandising mecca of home repair folk. The shop is family owned and has been serving the community longer than I’ve been alive. Why buy my nails at Home Depot when I can support my neighbors?