Monday, November 5, 2018

The Magic of Harry Potter

I'm a decade late, but I recently finished all seven Harry Potter books, and since reading the epic conclusion, I've been thinking about why people obsess over the series. And I mean obsess. Fans play Quidditch in real life. Universal Orlando built a Harry Potter theme park. Students dream of attending Hogwarts (even though it doesn't exist).

The books were perfectly fine. The writing was pretty good. I found the stories entertaining. I'm not a huge fan, but I did enjoy reading them. Enough to finish all seven books in a year. It wasn't until I dug deeper that I began to understand why people obsess over Harry Potter. Here's my best guess:

1) People want to be special.
From the very beginning, Harry Potter is a regular boy stuck in an awful family. Then, Harry discovers he's actually a very special wizard who was meant to save the world. I wonder how many kids (or adults) dream of being swept away by Hagrid into a world where they're the chosen one. Especially Millennials and Generation Z. Those generations have been told they're special since birth, but when life feels mundane, they're left wondering where Platform 9 3/4 is hiding.

2) People want to live an adventure.
Speaking of mundane, watching Netflix gets slightly boring after eight hours. Movies, television, books, and video games all create counterfeit adventures for the adventureless. This isn't exclusive to Harry Potter, of course, but all seven books are filled with challenges much more exciting than school, work, or chores.

3) People want to believe in magic.
I have never understood why some religious folks loathe Harry Potter. After reading the series, I'm even more confused. If anything, the books encourage people to desire and pursue an unseen, mysterious, magical world. Doesn't religion tell us there's a hidden world that's bigger and more important than the one we're living in? Prayers are sorta like magic, aren't they? And Dumbledore is an old man with a long white beard living above his children advising the chosen one, who is destined to destroy the evil Voldemort. I mean, come on. My guess is that Harry Potter has led more people into the church than he's led away from it.

4) People want real community.
The more technologically advanced we become, the more we long for human contact. It's no coincidence that our favorite stories—even the ones written in the current decade—rarely include social media. In our imaginary worlds, people aren't text messaging, tweeting, or looking for one-night stands on Tinder. They're talking, exploring the world, and sharing life. A lack of technology leads to lots of in-person communication in Harry Potter's world. He, Hermione, and Ron shared a special kind of friendship because they made each other priorities. How often do we experience that level of community in real life? Americans think we want solitude, space, and privacy, but our hearts tell us otherwise.

5) People want a home base.
Who wouldn't want a place like Hogwarts waiting for them every fall? Even though bad stuff happened inside the castle, it always felt safe. Like a warm blanket. People move so much that it's hard to get that same sense of home anywhere. I've moved twenty-one times since I was twelve years old! We all need that place where we belong. A place we fit in. A place that always welcomes us.

I'm sure I missed a few reasons. Maybe you just really wanted a taste of Butterbeer or you're obsessed with redheaded twins. Regardless of why you love Harry Potter, perhaps we should all adjust our lives to make reality a bit more magical.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Devour the Rainbow

Tucked into the corner of my childhood living room stood a puke green bookcase. It was nothing fancy. Old, cheap, ugly. But that bookcase was my gateway to the universe. It held less than a hundred books, but to this kid, it felt like the Library of Congress.

The Berenstain BearsFrog and Toad, Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, Richard Scarry. I spent hours huddled by that green bookcase devouring tales of hungry caterpillars, generous trees, and boy detectives.

Those fictional adventures stirred my soul so much that I began writing as soon as I could spell. In the third grade, I wrote a weekly mini-series about a crime-fighting pup in a red cape. It began as a class assignment, but Superdog became my muse. I would pay a hefty sum to track down the original copies of those short stories.

Years later, my niece and I started a family newspaper called The News Express. We covered the stories that mattered—that night’s dinner, updates on the lost remote control, who won yesterday’s whiffleball game—you know, the hard-hitting news. We were forward-thinking pioneers, of course, getting out of the newspaper business decades before the print media bubble burst.

I later discovered television, movies, theater—anything that kept my storytelling fire burning. I read more, wrote more, and found myself obsessed with great stories.

I got lost in my own head. Up there, I could create any world my imagination fathomed. As a child, those worlds revolved around game-winning home runs, saving the universe from evil space monsters, and holding hands with pretty girls. As I matured, both life and my imagination became darker, more complex, and less innocent. School, work, and daily chores left little time for dreaming. And when I did have time to create, my imagination had become so atrophied that the stories were flavorless versions of what could be. Like a snow cone without the cherry syrup.

Along the way, I met friends who wanted to tell important stories. Stories that sparked hope. Stories that empowered the oppressed. Stories that made people laugh or helped them escape the real world for a few hours. And the more time I spent with those friends, and the more we dreamed together, the strangest thing happened. I sprang to life.

Writing, painting, photography, poetry, singing—they all trick us into thinking creativity is born in isolation. “Lock yourself in a room and get to creating!” But that’s a lie. I do my best storytelling with a group of friends. They don’t sit with me as I type, but they read, edit, encourage, and offer invaluable feedback. And I do the same for them. We dance a creative waltz that leaves me energized and makes me a better writer.

If you want to create, you can accomplish good stuff locked in a room by yourself. But sharing the journey with a group of friends is more fun. Your snow cone transforms from a colorless ball of ice into a magnificent rainbow of dazzling colors.

Rainbow sherbet is way better than any one sherbet by itself. You think Grape Loops would be as good as Fruit Loops? Remember stopping by the concession stand after playing Little League Baseball, swimming at the community pool, or enjoying a post-soccer orange slice? Everyone knows the greatest drink ever invented is the "bomb." It goes by many names depending upon your age and geographical location, but whatever fountain drinks the concession stand served, you mixed them all together and guzzled the liquid perfection.

The evidence is clear. If your creative life feels stale, just add more flavors.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Do the Work

I am fascinated by old comedians rehashing their early days playing dive clubs for pennies, shacking up with seven roommates in a New York studio apartment, or getting their first big break on The Tonight Show.

For someone like me, Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a dream come true.

The premise is simple. Seinfeld picks up his guest in a rare automobile, drives him or her to a coffee shop, and they talk. My favorite episodes are when Seinfeld chats with a comedian he broke into comedy with back in the late 70s. Their stories are riveting. These millionaire superstars (Jay Leno, David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres, Larry David, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock) were all once unknown and dirt poor.

I love listening to them rehash old memories because of where they are now. They did it. They made it. Seinfeld, Leno, Letterman, DeGeneres, David, Stewart, Rock … all remarkable success stories. And the best part? They worked hard for it, putting in long hours, cramming into tiny studio apartments, eating Ramen Noodles every night for years. They failed over and over again, but kept improving. They got heckled and booed off stages, but kept fighting, persevering, and working. And now look at them.

The world is different today. Fame is readily available to anyone with an iPhone. Reality television takes people with zero talent and turns them into celebrities for acting like buffoons in front of the camera. And, honestly, that’s fine. I’m entertained by some of the nonsense I watch on television, so I don’t want to judge anyone for enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame. It simply amplifies my respect for people working hard to hone their craft.

Years ago, while walking through downtown Cincinnati, I stumbled upon a teenager hula hooping. At the time, I tweeted that she's better at hula hooping than LeBron James is at playing basketball, and it wasn't much of an exaggeration. Her skill and artistry mesmerized me. She obviously invested hundreds of hours honing her craft. Cynics might scoff at so much time spent hula hooping, but people who become experts at anything in life deserve our respect. She certainly earned mine.

People love shortcuts. I don’t want to read books, I just want the knowledge hidden inside. I don’t want to work, I just want someone to hand me a million dollars. If you don’t believe me, swing by a casino or visit a convenience store the next time your state’s lottery jackpot reaches nine figures. We want fame and fortune without earning them. But every successful person I know worked for his or her success. No matter how many YouTube stars or Instagram models society produces, shortcuts are rare. The long, narrow road ultimately takes you where you want to be.

In one of my favorite episodes of Mad Men, in the midst of a meltdown while searching for a shortcut to regain his place at the top of the corporate ladder, Don Draper receives some simple advice that rattled my soul. “Do the work, Don.”

Wherever it is you want to be, do the work to get there. Whatever your dream, put in the necessary hours. If you want to be a writer, start writing. Try, fail, try again, fail a dozen more times, but keep working. If you want to be a comedian, find a stage. If you want to make movies, buy a camera and hit the record button. Hone your craft. Be excellent at what you do. It may take decades to achieve your goals, but there’s only one way to make those dreams come true.

Do the work.