Commentary, geek life, musings

Rediscovering Tolkien: Confessions of a Middle Earth Hipster

image source:
image source:

So here’s a confession: I suspect I might be a Middle Earth hipster.

Now hear me out! Before you go rolling your eyes and ignoring the rest of this post, let me explain a bit.
I read Lord of the Rings before it was a movie.

This is true of a lot of people. A whole lot of people! People in fandoms and online RPGs and book clubs and Led Zeppelin and Stephen Colbert and the list goes on and on and on. I know this because the internet kind of happened around the same time I was first geeking out over Frodo and Lothlorien and trying to learn Elvish and all of those other things geeky kids do. There were fan sites! Other people passionate about Lord of the Rings! Who, like me, had an Annual Reading (Christmas break, every year beginning in sixth grade).

People who remember the last line of The Two Towers (“Frodo was alive, but taken by the Enemy.”) and who probably flung the book across the room like I did and scrambled for Return of the King.

image source:
image source:

I remember the thrill of first finding a small website,, with just a handful of images and a couple of maps… and the news that they were filming a movie. A MOVIE. Middle Earth was coming to the big screen! I was in high school then, and being the dorky kid I was, I printed out all of the teaser posters and handful of pirated images of sets and covered my notebooks in them. (I wish I could find that first image, of a single Nazgûl looking down over Bag End.)

To be clear, there were a lot of other fans out there.

But no-one I knew.

My mom had read the books years before, and it was her copy I first borrowed, but otherwise I knew no-one who’d read the books. And then, in 2001, that all changed.

The Fellowship of the Ring came out December 19th of that year, when I was a Freshman in college. I saw it no less than 8 times in theaters, and even though I had some terrible NerdRage over the changes made to the story, mostly I was enchanted.

And there were tie-in products! For the first time in my memory, I could buy Lord of the Rings merchandise! Keychains! Book marks! A replica of the One Ring! It was like a dream came true!

And then….

Suddenly it was everywhere.

Everyone had seen the movie (and saw the other two installments). A lot more people read the book. I was excited to have other people share in the magic, but at the same time… shared magic seemed to make the whole thing a little less magical for me.

Maybe it was because I went so long with nothing but my own imaginings of the characters. Maybe it was simple over-saturation (much like with Frozen these days). Maybe it was something else. But suddenly this wasn’t my thing anymore.

And I found I couldn’t read the books anymore, either.

The movies’ images got too ingrained in my mind, and I found that I was mixing up details from a book I’d read more than a dozen times. (to see the difference, this some of the only Middle Earth art I’d ever seen, and it largely colored my imagination.) It was frustrating and just not… fun. So I put the books away.

image source:
image source:

Over the last twelve years, I’ve tried a few times to re-read Tolkien, but without success. Several years ago I just plain gave up on it. I donated many of my duplicate book sets (though not the fancy anniversary editions, nor the 70s era paperbacks just like the first set I ever read, complete with yellow pages and Tolkien’s own illustrations.). It made me sad, but maybe that was part of becoming an adult. When The Hobbit‘s movies came out, I saw the first two. The third came out in December and is now on Blu-ray, and I still haven’t seen it. It bothers me a little that it doesn’t bother me.

And then something kind of amazing happened.

Last week, I was fishing through my To Read pile of books for a new something to begin, and I found that really all I wanted was to read The Hobbit. I picked it up, expecting to read a few lines and then to get restless and put it down again.

I didn’t.

I read half of it in one sitting.

Bilbo in the book is quite different than Bilbo in the movies. This isn’t bad* at all. Instead it was refreshing. This was the story I remembered! The magic was all still there. The trouble was just with me and my reading of it.

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image source:

Suddenly I care about these books again, and I’m slowly making my way through the whole series. I might even dust off my copy of Silmarillion, just for fun.

What a wonderful surprise.


*Incidentally, the Lord of the Rings movies were the ones that taught me to separate the books from the films. People will claim the “books are always better” and in many cases this might be true, but I prefer to look at them as entirely separate things. Changes happen because words on the page don’t always translate well onto screen. They have to be adapted. Sometimes this even works to improve the story; I like the Hunger Games movies a LOT better than the books.

geek life, Joanna problems, musings

I don’t like clowns. Or old dolls.

See? Creepy as all get out.
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While watching a season 2 episode of Supernatural last night called “Everybody Loves a Clown” I was confronted yet again with the unsettling disquiet I feel every time I see someone dressed as one. While I don’t exactly have coulrophobia (fear of clowns) I also really don’t like seeing them. I find clowns to be highly disturbing. But why is that?

I never saw the movie IT as a child. Not that in and of itself that’s surprising, but I know some people develop an early fear of clowns through some type of accidental exposure to a horror film. But why is a clown even the subject of a scary flick?

To me, clowns perfectly illustrate the created sense of horror. If we look at the broader question of why things on a written page or a TV screen can scare us, then it starts to make a bit of sense. Horror stories are basically divided into two types: slasher and psychological. Either it’s scary because of the blood, guts, and gore, or it’s scary because it tricks your mind into feeling unsafe. Movies like IT often combine these elements, but I think clowns themselves fall solidly into the mind-trick category. Why is that?

To artificially create a sense of horror, a story teller must first evoke something that seems safe and then turn it around to become unsafe. The familiar becomes strange and therein lies the terror. Our brains are wired for patterns and recognition (which is why we see shapes in clouds or think we recognize people we’ve never met), which helps us remember things and develop relationships and all sorts of other handy things that make our lives better. So what happens when something we’ve previously experienced as safe becomes unsafe?

Think about coming home at night when you’ve left during daylight and forgotten to leave on a light. Does it feel a little disquieting? What if something has moved since you left? Maybe you forgot that you dropped that towel there, but suddenly coming across it in the dark might be enough to really give you a fright. It’s easy to feel “creeped out” in your own home simply because it isn’t exactly how you thought it would be. It’s the feeling of having a curtain-less window at night where anyone can see into the room from outside, but you can’t see them from inside the lit room. Unsettling. It’s the same room and window as before but now you can’t be sure of what’s beyond the light.

Back to clowns. With our brains wired to detect patterns and to read faces, a clown with her mask or face paint goes directly in opposition to that. The expression painted on her face might not match what she’s really thinking or feeling. It might be unsettling to be unable to “read” her expressions correctly. It might also be that there’s something just off enough about the performance of a caricature of a person by a person is what makes the clown frightening. A clown is the representation of something that is supposed to be expected (a human) but is hiding her true identity and attitudes for the sake of misdirection. It’s no wonder people find them disturbing.

Weirdly enough, I think this is the same reason I don’t like old dolls.

Why is this what you get when you wiki-search “doll” anyway?
Photo from:

Dolls are also representations of humans, and generally speaking new dolls are just fine. I’m not afraid of Barbie by any means. But Barbie doesn’t look “real” to me, either. When you’ve got an old doll, though, and it’s started to come apart at the seams, or has lost an eye, or simply looks like a discarded small person, then the creepy factor definitely rises.

I know movies like Toy Story and books like A Little Princess with tales of toys coming to life when the children aren’t present are meant to be endearing (and mostly are– I love Toy Story!), but on some level the idea of a doll that can get up and walk around, though only when you’re not looking, is actually a terrifying one.

I suspect this is why the Weeping Angels on Doctor Who work so well as the stuff of nightmares. They only move when you’re not looking.

Well that’s enough about scary things for one Monday. Click here if you want to read more about coulrophobia. Lots of photos of clowns, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Commentary, musings

In Defense of Christmas decorations on November 1

I can already hear the oh-so-festive sounds of groans and moans, the snide comments and the weeping for our future.

The Christmas decorations are already in stores.

Truth be told, I saw Christmas trees in Macy’s back in September (which was just weird), but now that it’s November, I’m a lot less bothered. I know a lot of people gripe about this, and will make comments about “forgetting Thanksgiving” (come on, no one really forgets Thanksgiving), but I’m about to offer you a reasonable defense for (seemingly too) early Christmas displays.

First, the so-called “forgotten” Thanksgiving. No one forgets Thanksgiving. The “problem” with Thanksgiving is that it doesn’t have much in the way of marketing, and the origin story most of us learned in school is entirely too simplistic. That’s okay, though, Thanksgiving has turned into a national time to give thanks for what we have, for our blessings and abundance, and to spend time with family. And that’s great! But you know what’s missing?


For Thanksgiving, kids will mostly be relegated to the “Kids’ Table” while the adults swap family stories or watch football or the like. This is really and truly an adult holiday, and therein lies the marketing gap. There aren’t Thanksgiving “treats” to buy, costumes to wear, and decorations are limited to generic autumn things or cornucopias. Plus Thanksgiving is a strictly North American holiday (even though harvest festivals have ancient roots), and in November the only one in the US. There isn’t the appeal of a wide range of cultural backgrounds the way there is with Christmas or even Halloween (which is increasingly celebrated in other countries). It’s a great holiday and an American tradition, but it isn’t a BIG holiday. It’s more on-par with July 4th in the US: celebrated nationally with traditions of its own (including a specific type of meal, be it a cookout or turkey dinner) but really with little buildup and done by the next day.

So setting aside Thanksgiving, isn’t it entirely too much to have Christmas displays nearly two months before the actual holiday?

Not at all.

While I agree that most of it before about November 1 is pushing it (with the exception of craft stores, which I’ll get back to momentarily), by the time we get to November, we’re careening toward one of the largest holidays in the world. Think I’m exaggerating? As of 2011, an estimated 2 billion people are culturally (if not religiously) Christian. That’s 2 billion people celebrating Christmas. Factor into that the size and scope of the marketing in our own country, and you have a behemoth of a religious holiday.

On a smaller scale, besides an important religious holiday, Christmas has become (in our country, and many other western countries), focused on coming together with people and exchanging gifts. This costs a lot of money, be it in travel expenses, purchasing (or making), and possibly shipping. There are a lot of things we “need” for this holiday, and this huge chunk of expenses is easier to take if spread out over two months instead of one. Plane tickets are easier to find (and more affordable) with more lead-time, gift purchasing can be done in small spurts, etc. It makes sense to get people thinking about it early, and it makes sense to have things ready to go for people who need to shop early.

And speaking of shopping early, crafters are a huge category here. One of the growing trends (which makes me very happy, as it’s moving us away from the wholly commercial aspect of this whole business) is handmade gifts and decor. The thing about this is that, in order to make any kind of quantity, a person needs enough time to gather supplies and actually produce the items in question. Even making cards (which I did until a couple of years ago) took time and patience, and I often started looking for my supplies in August or September so I’d have time to find everything I needed and make them all.

Finally on a personal note, there is a tiny minority of us who have loved ones overseas for the holidays, and we all have to make sure their holiday packages arrive in plenty of time. The US Post Office has already said that for military, standard post service deadline is November 12.* That’s next week.

So when you’re out this week and you see Christmas displays and hear Jingle Bells, just take a minute before you make a snide remark, take a minute and get a little perspective. There might be someone shopping for another Christmas spent apart.


*Standard post is the equivalent of “parcel post” and means going by ship somewhere. If you do priority (or air) mail, you have almost another month. But check the chart anyway.

musings, thinking deeper

Thoughts on Boston, Editorial Choices, and why I’m choosing not to look.

This has been stewing in my mind for a couple of days, so you’ll have to bear with me.

The whole world is aware of the bombings that took place two days ago at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Thanks to this age of social media, in which everyone has a phone and every phone has a camera, we knew within minutes what happened. It was like a flood: the first few confusing mentions, then more and more until everyone from national TV to Twitter to the street corner were talking about it, and mostly nothing else, on Monday.

And with it came the photos. Raw, in-the-moment photos. Images normally reserved for movies and special effects were real and vivid and so bright and clear.

And I decided not to look.

As humans, we can’t help but watch sometimes. Horrific things unfold and we can’t tear our eyes away, we can’t seem to stop the “rubberneck” effect. In a time when we have unlimited access to images like those coming from Boston, it’s hard to not look. It’s also hard to know when you’re going to see something that will burn itself into your mind for the rest of your life.

One of the strange things about our instantaneous news is how we have shifted from wanting to know to actually feeling that we need to know what’s happening. We are almost like a hive-mind, reaching out, making sure that every single person knows something bad is happening somewhere. And then we sit and obsess over it, either by planting ourselves in front of the television, or the computer, or the Twitter feed on a phone, and we watch for every update, for every theory, for every new shocking tidbit.

Don’t get me wrong on this. It is important to know what happened. It is vital that we find out who or what is responsible for this terrible act, that we bring justice to them, and that we make every effort to stop this from happening again.

But we seem to have developed an idea that it is somehow our civic, or even our moral duty to watch these things as they unfold. Minute by minute, we stare at the continued lack of information, the increased flood of sickening images, as if somehow by letting our lives stop it will change things.

The people running toward the explosions to help, those carrying away the strangers to get aid, those running toward hospitals to give blood, they are all heroes, all showing the capacity of humanity for good in the face of evil.

But in the midst of all of that, for those of us hundreds or thousands of miles away, those of us who are removed, there wasn’t anything we could do. I think that feeling of helplessness is what draws us to stop and do nothing but watch, to put ourselves into the situation as if somehow by participating in the communal watching we can help.

And in the midst of it, hundreds of individuals (and then news agencies) have to make editorial decisions about what we as a community will watch.

The images coming out of Boston were horrific. They were sickening and shocking and most of all real. They were unedited snapshots (and videos) of real time disaster and, especially at first, none of them were posted or shared with any warning.

No matter how much we feel it is important to know in the moment, it is important to remember that we are not obligated to look. We just aren’t. There are things that can’t be unseen, and there are people who do not need to see the blood to understand the horror of it.

And while there were amazing, helpful things that came from social media that day (such as helplines getting passed quickly and Google’s person finder spreadsheet), there was also potential for people to see their loved one, lying on the street, and to find out that way what happened, or for a child to suddenly find themselves facing something that will induce nightmares for years to come.

Why does this matter?

I read an op-ed that pointed out that these bombs were meant to be seen. They were left at a place conspicuously crowded and exceedingly photographed. The finish line itself is covered with cameras to record winners, record runs, you name it. The person or group responsible wanted us to see and wanted us to be horrified.

And so I chose not to look.

I am angry, yes, and I am horrified that this happened and by the idea that such a thing could happen anywhere at any time. But I also know that seeing those images would do me more harm than good. It was hard to break the mental cycle, that need to read every article, to know moment by moment the reactions on the ground, but I had to pull myself away, to give myself that sense of separation, the wait-and-see to find out what really happened instead of the rumor and fear-mongering and hearsay.

I am still avoiding the pictures and videos. I will continue to do so. They don’t deserve the power we give them. Instead I will continue to pray for the victims, and remember Romans 12:21.

Do not be overcome by evilbut overcome evil with good.

musings, this and that

Winter in a red ball gown– my Traveling Red Dress story

So, I mentioned in passing (in my last blog entry, actually) that some of the photos from my trip to the North Carolina Outer Banks were taken while I was wearing a red ball gown. I said I’d come back to that. This is me coming back to that.


There is a movement called the Traveling Red Dress. It’s about supporting people, sending encouragement to people who need it, whether you know them or not. The Red Dress can be anything (although usually it is an actual red dress) that represents all the times we say no to ourselves because something isn’t sensible. And I’ve said no to non-sensible things a lot in the last few years. I call it my “Grown-up Brain” and it drives me a little nuts, because really I want to wear a hat with ears and eat rainbow cupcakes and watch My Little Pony. And I may do all of those things (when I’m at home, and don’t usually admit such things) but really I mostly talk myself out of things with: “You’re thirty. People who are thirty don’t do that.” Or “You don’t need that right now, it can wait.” Or “Maybe I shouldn’t be admitting to people that I really do like My Little Pony.” You know, all the usual things people my age have to logic their way through in daily life.

And then comes the dress.

Last year, when J was deployed, I had a lot on my plate. I was stressed beyond belief. And I wound up making a much needed trip to North Carolina to visit friends and family.

And when I got home again, I found that someone, a stranger I didn’t know from Oregon, had mailed me a Red Dress. I’d been sponsored for one.

The whole point of the Red Dress is to have it, be fabulous in it, have your picture taken, and then send it to the next person who needs it. You’re not supposed to keep it.

I’ve had mine for a year.

It came to Hawaii and between the end of deployment and the start of the move and everything in between, I never got my Red Dress photos in Hawaii. Not to worry, I told myself. I’ll take them in California before J has to deploy. I was sure there would be an opportunity!

And then it took us much longer to find a place to live than expected, and he left sooner than expected, and I never got my Red Dress photos in California. No problem, I thought. I’ll be in New York this fall and I’ll take my photos there!

Then Hurricane Sandy came. No New York trip. I was, however, back in North Carolina for another visit.

So as I approached my two months in North Carolina marker, I started to wonder if I shouldn’t just send the dress on its way again. It had done its job, after all; it had made me feel special when it arrived, and I had fun trying it on and getting it fitted, and it was a RED BALL GOWN, which is something completely not sensible that I’d never have bought for myself. So I was done with it, right?


A friend of mine got in touch, wanting to get out of town for a weekend to go chasing wild horses. She also happens to take photos. I asked if she’d like taking photos of the Red Dress. She said ABSOLUTELY.

And here they are.

It was bitterly cold, the Outer Banks were getting a winter storm with high winds that cut through the fabric, and I could barely take off my wool coat, but we stood on the beach and took photos anyway.

So that was my Red Dress story. It’s ready to go traveling again. If you know anyone somewhat close to my size (I had the dress taken in, but the fabric wasn’t cut so it can be let out again– or taken in more), let me know. I’m looking for the next person who needs it.

The Red Dress was claimed and has gone traveling again. ^_^


A Kind of Nostalgia

I know it’s a little early still, but today I found myself feeling nostalgic for a place I haven’t left quite yet and finding that small, insignificant things are making me a little sad. Breakfast, for some reason, brought back a flood of memories from the first two weeks that we lived here, having breakfast in the hotel and discovering things like guava jelly (which is amazing) and coconut syrup (which is too sweet for me) and fresh pineapple every morning. I remember being fascinated by the plumeria trees that were all in full bloom when we arrived and how frustrating it was that every time I tried to go to the pool, it rained.

I also remember how (this part of) Hawaii wasn’t anything like I imagined, with its awful traffic, dense population, and constant noise. Of course I’ve found lots of other parts of Hawaii since then that are much quieter, prettier, natural. Of the islands we’ve visited, the Big Island is still my favorite. I like that a huge part of it looks the same (except for the few roads) as it has for years, and there’s something amazing about walking on a volcano.

I’m sure I’ll have a lot more early-stage-nostalgia for you in the next month, but there’s also a lot to look forward to in California. It’s time to discover new things again.

musings, thinking deeper

Almost done fasting and this is what I’ve learned.

So, I’ve been on a mostly-vegan* fast the last three weeks that I get to break on Sunday morning (Easter) with a friend who has promised me cinnamon rolls. This is (briefly) what I have learned:

  • Americans eat entirely too much meat. I don’t eat out much but the two times I’ve tried in the last three weeks made me realize that there is meat in EVERYTHING, including so-called “vegetarian” things.
  • There is sugar in really strange foods. Basically, if you don’t make it yourself, there is probably sugar in it. I’m not even kidding.
  • Even though I don’t eat large portions, I go for comfort food more often than I realized.
  • I could probably be a vegetarian pretty easily. Giving up meat (except for the dining out part) was easy because I don’t buy meat (except for J) at home anyway. But giving up dairy? HARD. I miss cheese. A lot. And yogurt. But mostly cheese.
  • Mediterranean food is surprisingly simple to make.
  • Cayenne fixes a lot of boring things, especially when you need protein and beans are available.
  • Speaking of protein, there’s protein in a LOT of places. It took me a few days to figure out how to get enough, but once you find it, protein is simple!
  • Triscuits are my favorite.
  • Have I told you I really miss cheese?


*It’s called the Daniel Fast and is based on the fasting of the prophet Daniel from the Old Testament. It’s mostly vegan because we’re allowed honey. Some versions don’t, but I’m not going to complain because peanut butter honey sandwiches are perfect to pack in a lunch. 😀

holidays, musings, throwback

Revisiting Childhood: The Valentine Ritual

Just a little memory I had tonight…

When I was little, my grandparents came to visit us quite often. Thinking back on it, they were probably at our home every other month. It certainly felt like that, anyway. Because of this, they would always come visit for Christmas, and then be back sometime around February. And every year (at least in my childhood-memory), my grandfather would buy me one of those big, red Russell Stover hearts. The kind with all the different chocolates on the inside, when they used to be wrapped in little papers instead of in a plastic form like they are now.

And my grandfather and I had a ritual: every day we could have one (and just one) piece of chocolate.

Every afternoon, he would lift the lid off of the box and I would study them closely (in those days I didn’t like the coconut ones, though they are now some of my favorites) and choose just one piece. And then the lid would be replaced and he would put it away again.

Even after they had gone home, I still only ate one piece of chocolate a day until they were all gone.

There is something about that ritual that has stuck with me all these years, and the big, red heart-shaped boxes always make me think of him. I kind of miss that little ritual we had.

So tonight I bought myself a (small) heart-shaped box of chocolate.

And I had just one piece. ^_^


Commentary, movie reviews, musings

Revisiting Childhood: The Lion King

Tonight I went to see the Lion King in 3D and I have to admit that I got chills when the sun first popped into view and the music started. It’s a great piece of music for one, but also because it was fun to see something that I remember seeing in theaters. In fact, I remember liking the movie so much we went to see it a second time at the $1 theater six months after it first opened.

While a lot of the movie is exactly as I remember it (I have it on DVD, too, so it’s not like I haven’t seen it in years or anything, though it has been a while), there are several things I didn’t notice as a child. And the interesting thing about childhood memories is that they are sometimes so strong that they continue to be the main perception of something. For instance, even though I’ve seen this movie a dozen times at least (plus every week of summer camp at the zoo), and even though I’ve seen the Broadway production, for the first time I heard the dialog as an adult and not as a kid. I noticed the Reservoir Dogs joke (“They call me… Mr. PIG!”) and other such small things that meant nothing to me 17 years ago when the movie was made.

Another thing I noticed? For being out of food about about to starve, those lionesses are still kind of, well, rounded. If they looked like that in a zoo, they’d be put on a diet reduction. (Note to self: cartoonlionscartoonlionscartoonlionsCARTOONLIONS)

Also, how did Scar get his name? It’s got to be a nickname since everyone else has African-sounding names. Plus, if he was born with the scar then it’s not really a scar, now is it? It’s just a weird stripe on his face. As an adult I imagine that Mufasa and his brother fought as cubs and that Mufasa gave him the scar and therefore the new name. (I have found that my theory is correct. Hmm.)

Another difference from childhood? I’ve now studied Hamlet. Hello, plotline.

But really, it was fun to rediscover my favorite movie from childhood and to find that it’s still beautiful and that I can still enjoy it (even if I spent the entire opening sequence thinking “Hey, look, it’s a kudu!” and other such things). And I think I’d like the new remastered version on DVD to replace my old, well loved copy.