Friday, September 13, 2013

Blast from The Burrow: Part 2

Continuing to reprint my contributions to The Burrow, an interactive Harry Potter opinion column on the fan website MuggleNet... Again, these are essays written to a set topic, and chosen by the editor from various other submissions.
Are Hufflepuffs Duffers? (7/31/04)
Topic: Hogwarts: The Four Houses

According to the "Sorting Hat" on the official Harry Potter website, I am a Hufflepuff. I don't know what factors went into the Sorting Hat's decision, but I'm not agonizing about it. I know I'm pretty brave, and I'm pretty smart, and I have a good deal of ambition (and I'm no angel, either), so it's not as if I couldn't have made the grade in any of the other Hogwarts Houses. But if Hufflepuff is where I belong, so be it.

Still, knowing that I'm a Hufflepuff, I do feel a need. A need to explain to myself, and to all of you, that Hufflepuffs aren't really the "bunch of duffers" they are so often portrayed as being.

Some passages in the Harry Potter books may give you the idea that Hufflepuff is a house full of mediocrities. They don't often get any glory (remember, Cedric Diggory was one of the few who got them any). They don't stand out, collectively, as being powerful or brilliant or valiant or genteel. The best things said about them is that they are loyal, hardworking, and friendly. At other times you get the sense that Hufflepuff House gets whatever is left over after the other Houses have had their pick.

Taking the positives with the negatives, it's hard to say what exactly Hufflepuff House stands for. I suppose that's appropriate, because it would be way-overgeneralizing to ascribe the same character to everyone in the same house. Not everyone in Slytherin will be equally nasty, and not everyone in Gryffindor is equally noble or brave (as we have seen in the cases of Percy and Neville). They aren't all clones. They may share certain characteristics but not in the same proportions.

But what are the characteristics of Hufflepuff, really? Or is it simply a House of negative characteristics, of people who aren't particularly clever or brave or blood-pure, a catch-all for "the lot" or "the rest"? Do the sometimes-listed attributes of friendship and labor really describe what the Sorting Hat looks for in their heads, or do they simply come about of necessity because Hufflepuffs have to work harder and pull together, simply to keep up with the rest of the school?

Well, I'm at a bit of a loss. I guess everybody is, and even the Sorting Hat can't keep its own story straight. Sure, a lot of people say they would rather quit school than be a Hufflepuff, but consider the following specimens of Hufflepuff quality:

First, of course, Cedric Diggory. I think the fact that he was practically the ideal young man explains a lot of why his death was so cruel. The first thing anyone noticed about him was that he was tall, quiet, and handsome. Some resentfully added that he was an empty-headed pretty-boy. But actually he seems to have been pretty sharp, getting top grades, tying with Harry for the win of the Triwizard Cup, and becoming a prefect. He was also, evidently, a quidditch player and team captain of rare talent, who remains at this writing the only known Seeker to have bested Harry Potter. And besides that he was a decent, humble, affectionate soul whose sense of fairplay sometimes worked to his disadvantage--who seemed tenderly in love with Cho Chang--who seemed truly embarrassed by his father's arrogance, deeply loved by his parents, liked by so many people, and showing promise of being a good friend to Harry if he had lived. I don't think there was anything mediocre about Cedric. He was an awesome person, and the fact that his head wasn't turned by ambition or the desire to show off only makes his memory more precious.

Second, take Zacharias Smith--who, for quite the opposite reasons, explodes a lot of the misconceptions people bear towards Hufflepuff House. He is also, apparently, a pretty strong quidditch player, possibly the star of his house team. He, too, led Hufflepuff to a victory over Gryffindor. Besides that, though, he couldn't be more different from Cedric Diggory. Smith is aggressive, suspicious, the type of person who questions everything and gets on a lot of people's nerves. Though not essentially a bad person, he is somewhat unlikeable. But no one questions his intelligence or prowess as a wizard, and at the end of the day it wasn't Zacharias who turned sneak. If he had been sorted into Slytherin, Smith might have turned out to be a real nightmare of a person. But as a Hufflepuff, he stands a chance of proving his courage against the forces of evil, right alongside the bravest of the Gryffindors. If they don't stuff him in a vanishing cabinet first.

Next, you have Susan Bones. We don't know much about her, and I think most of the excitement about her before the Fifth Book was due to Chris Columbus' daughter playing her in the first two movies. What excites ME about Susan is that she takes after her Auntie, Madam Bones of the Department of Magical Law. From the thin evidence we have so far, Susan seems to have a very insightful, inquisitive, orderly mind. She is also the first person outside Harry's immediate circle of friends to realize what his life must be like.

OK, then there are Ernie, Justin, and Hannah, who admittedly aren't so exceptional. Ernie is fairly smart but somewhat pompous and at times indecisive. Justin is a little slow on the uptake. And Hannah pitches a hissy-fit at the drop of a hat. But hey, not everyone in Gryffindor is a great hero either, and not every Ravenclaw is a big genius. Likewise you can't expect greatness of every single Hufflepuff, either. They're just average people, but by golly, they're part of Dumbledore's Army. And they might be Harry's best friends outside of Gryffindor.

And finally, let us not forget Professor Sprout. She has a magical (!) touch with things that grow. Some of them are quite dangerous, and in many ways her job is very risky and challenging. Sprout seems to be one of the better teachers at Hogwarts, though. And she has a good rapport with students from houses other than her own. Maybe she looks a little dumpy and eccentric, but she carries a lot of authority and carries it lightly. She can brew a mandrake restorative draft, console the family of a dead student, deal with teething tentaculas, AND look daggers at Gilderoy Lockhart, which means she's no fool.

Hufflepuff does not need your pity. It is an honorable house, and I am honored to be an honorary partaker of such a distinguished tradition.

Veritaserum & Legal Rights (12/6/04)
Topic: The Truth Behind Veritaserum

Veritaserum is a pretty scary substance, isn't it? To imagine how scary it is, just put yourself in Harry Potter's shoes. In his fourth year at Hogwarts, Professor Snape threatens to slip some into Harry's pumpkin juice if he has reason to believe someone has been sneaking into his office again. Of the all the low-down things Snape has done, that is one of the lowest; for the threat of being forced to disclose the private thoughts of his heart chills Harry to the marrow. Imagine the embarrassment of babbling his crush on Cho to the whole school; the sense of confidence betrayed in exposing Hermione as the thief (Harry is thinking of their second year, not realizing that someone else has been stealing boomslang skin since then); the trouble he, Hermione, and Ron would get into if their Polyjuice secret got out. Harry had dirt on Hagrid and, most distressingly, on Sirius Black that would cause major problems if he blabbered. And what would people think of Harry for telling their secrets?

Again, to realize how nasty the threat of Veritaserum is, consider how horrible it is when Professor Umbridge tries to force it on Harry in his fifth year. Even Snape, who is not above threatening his least favorite student with Veritaserum, knows better than to let the real thing fall into Umbridge's hands before she questions Harry about Dumbledore and Sirius. In her simpering, falsely girlish way, Umbridge proves to be ten times worse than Snape, finally putting Snape on probation when he doesn't furnish her with the potion the last time she interrogates Harry, and taking up the Cruciatus curse instead. Umbridge is the poster child for violating the civil rights of innocent people. And Veritaserum is Potion #1 in the civil rights violator's bag of tricks.

So when Dumbledore, at the end of Goblet of Fire, makes the only actual use of Veritaserum in the series so far, it should send up red flags. There is something not quite right about this--something very disturbing, in fact.

The really creepy thing about Veritaserum is that it doesn't just exist in the magical world. The Muggle authorities have long known about substances like sodium pentathol that put a person into a state similar to that in which Crouch Jr. spilled his whole story to Dumbledore. I guess it takes your inhibitions away and makes you very compliant with questioning. There's no magic to it; it's just a drug. But the question of when or if that drug should be used is a bedeviling ethical problem. How bad do you have to need the information to use drugs to break into an unwilling person's memories? And can you really rely on information disclosed by a person in such a suggestible state of mind? If unreasonable search and seizure is a violation of a person's basic rights, how much more so is search and seizure of things hidden in that ultimate holdout of individual privacy, the mind? How much risk of hurting the person can be justly taken? Is even torture more cruel and invasive? And should a person's life depend on the testimony of someone who, under the influence of drugs, will tell you anything you want?

So you see, these are BIG ethical problems, involving not only the rights of a defendant (rules of evidence) but also the rights of any human being. And even though Crouch Jr. has just helped the most evil wizard who ever lived return to physical form...though he has colluded in the death of Cedric Diggory...though he has murdered his own father...though he has used unforgivable curses (among others) on students...though he has kept the real Mad-Eye Moody locked in his own trunk for nearly a year...and though he was just about to kill Harry...still, it is an ethical problem: Did Dumbledore have the right to give Crouch Jr. the Veritaserum? Maybe it was necessary for the plot--necessary to get that information somehow to explain what has been happening all through the book. But was it the right thing to do? Is the fact that he did so a moral miscalculation? Is it a self-compromising act of desperation? Or does it give Dumbledore's character an interestingly sinister dimension? (A dimension you also get a sense of when Dumbledore relates how he interrogated Kreacher at the end of OotP.)

There are some things, though, that I think keep Veritaserum from being a big problem for series continuity. I mean, if the stuff was easily available, life in the wizarding world would be an absolute nightmare. You would never know when someone was going to pour a drop or two into your butterbeer. But I don't think this is likely ever to happen. Here's why:

First, it must be a very difficult potion to make. The fact that Umbridge counts on Snape to make it doesn't necessarily mean much, because I take it she isn't a very skilled witch. However, Dumbledore calls on Snape to get him the Veritaserum as well. This could be because Snape, as the Potions master, is simply the one teacher who is expected to have nasty things like Veritaserum in stock. But it could also be, as in the case of the Wolfbane potion that Lupin drinks in PoA, that it's not a potion that many wizards can make. And from what Snape tells Umbridge at the end of OotP (unless he's simply stalling), this potion takes a great deal of time and hard work to brew up. So it won't be widely available for casual abuse.

Second, like the Polyjuice Potion (which is an ethical nightmare in its own right), it is probably a "restricted" substance. In fact, Snape actually mentioned, when threatening Harry with it in GoF, that Veritaserum is strictly controlled by the ministry.

Third, there must be moral taboos in the wizarding world against using means like this to invade the minds of others. Good wizards like Mr. Weasley must sometimes meddle with the memories of Muggles, but doing powerful memory charms and legilimency are generally the domain of people like Voldemort who are either so evil that they recognize no law at all, or people like Dumbledore who are so great that, in times of great need, you forgive them for becoming a law unto themselves. Horrific, permanent damage to the mind of the victim is often the result, as in the memory charms that Gilderoy Lockhart did on various witches and wizards to support his quest for fame, or the one that Crouch Sr. did on Bertha Jorkins to protect his family secret--two men who, though they were not aligned with the Dark Side, are undeniably nasty. I think the Veritaserum falls in the same category.

And finally, there's the flip side of the golden rule: Don't do unto others what you wouldn't have them do unto you. If nothing else restrains you from sneaking a bit of Veritaserum into your enemy's don't want to give him any ideas, do you?

Why Bother? My Cat is a Wizard (2/11/05)
Topic: Favorite Familiars

My name is Robbie F., and I have a problem. I have a cruel addiction that has already cost me about US$100,000 and that, if it doesn't actually destroy my human relationships, at least gives me an excuse to go on not having them. It systematically destroys everything that I own, it causes me to lose sleep at night, and it induces such bizarre behavior as duct-taping over light switches, using bookends to hold some doors shut and others open, and phoning my empty house when I am out of town so that I can leave messages on my own answering machine. Also, I seem to see animals that no one else can see. I cannot overcome this addiction by myself. Because frankly, I like it. So obviously, I need help.

It began when I moved to a strange town, thousands of miles from my nearest loved ones, and had to live by myself in a house that had more rooms than I knew what to do with. I worked with people all day long, but at night I had no one to come home to, no one to confide in. So I decided to visit the County Humane Society. I went with an open mind, undecided as to whether I wanted a dog or a cat. My family has always had a dog as far back as I can remember, but we only had cats now and then, and never since I passed into my teens. I considered myself a "dog person," mostly, but I decided that I wouldn't make up my mind until I saw what the Humane Society had on offer.

Well, there were some pretty cute dogs, but all of them were either too old (I wanted a puppy that I could train myself, and that would really be my pal and no one else's), or they looked like they were going to grow up into huge, bear-like creatures, like Snuffles. I made note of a few dogs that I could settle for if I found nothing better, then I went to look at the cats. There were all kinds of really cute kittens, any of which would have made an adorable pet, but then I saw one kitten who owned me the moment I saw him. There's no other way about it: he was obviously a great wizard. What do I need a familiar for? I'm a muggle. If anything, he chose me to be his familiar.

The kitten was about as long as my hand, and he had big, clear, intelligent green eyes. The skin on the inside of his ears, the tip of his nose, and the soles of his feet was pure black, but his coat was sleek, soft, satiny, charcoal gray, with just a hint of tabby markings in a barely distinguishable shade of dark gray. He had an elegant figure, even for a kitten, and he seemed very friendly and playful. So I asked if I could adopt him, and they said...No.

Or rather, Not yet.

He wouldn't be ready for adoption for another week or two, they said. So do you know what I decided? I decided to go home empty-handed rather than adopt any other animal than the gray kitten. And I made sure that on the day he was eligible for parole-er, I mean, adoption-I showed up right at opening time to claim him before anybody else could. I had even picked out a name for him, by the simple method of thinking through all male names I could think of, until one of them made me laugh out loud. The one that made me laugh was Tyrone. Perhaps, being a wizard, he put his name in my head somehow-or perhaps, like wands, the name chooses the wizard.

Tyrone is magical. When he snuggles up to me, asking for attention, my heart softens, and my grouchiness turns into laughter. When he purrs, which isn't too often, I experience a psychobiological reward, the kind of reward that gets some people hooked on drugs. And when he wants to make me regret any slight or shortcoming on my part, he accomplishes some seemingly impossible feat in order to punish me. The only way to fight back is to use duct tape.

For instance, Tyrone can open cupboards. Cat owner's First Use of Duct Tape: to stick cupboard doors shut. Now I'm not just talking about cupboards in the American sense of those little shelves under and above the kitchen counter. For Tyrone can also open cupboards in the British sense, what we Americans call "closets." The pantry closet and the laundry closet, to be exact. These have fold-out-in-the-middle, runner-on-track sort of doors, three between them. All the cat has to do is stick his paw into the space under the door, lift, pull, and the door opens. Next thing he does is knock everything off the shelves, chew holes in the plastic bags of lentils & ramen noodles, and if he really wants to get on my nerves, fall between the washing machine and the wall, so that I have to search all over the house to find him, and then practically dislocate my shoulder to pull him out again. To keep him out of the cupboard, I have to stick a steel book-end to the floor (guess how?), right in front of the hinged joint in the closet door. And it doesn't do to rip the tape up and put it down again, when I need to get into the closets myself, because it takes a firm seal to keep the cat from breaking in.

Second, Tyrone can play soccer, also known as football to you Euro folk. Give him a little plastic ball with a jingle bell in it, or even the lid of a milk bottle or similar trash, and he will swat it around on the floor with the expertise of Pele. Not only that, but he makes shots on goal. The goal being any doorway or piece of furniture with just enough clearance for the object in question to roll or slide under it. After repeatedly pulling out my broom, not to fly on, but to swipe cat toys out from under the couch, I realized that it was really the cat's goal to get all his toys under there. For a while I amused myself (and him) by playing goalie, and trying to block him from shooting his toys under the couch, but he was too good for me. Eventually I had to swap in a couch that rode higher (so the cat could get under it himself). Later, when I moved a dresser to vacuum under it, I found ALL the cat toys there and realized that he had switched to that goal. Guess what I used to cover up the openings at the bottom front of the dresser?

Third, Tyrone can operate electrical equipment. After finding lights and ceiling fans turned on that I had left off, or vice versa, I noticed that some of their wall switches were within reach of places on which my cat could perch. A few strips of duct tape solved that problem too. That still doesn't explain the cat dating website I found downloaded onto my computer one day...well, that didn't really happen. But he has unleashed previously unheard-of applications on my computer, just by stepping on the keyboard; he has also done things to videos that I couldn't figure out how to undo without shutting the machine off & starting over, merely by stepping on the remote control.

Fourth, Tyrone can levitate, and possibly even fly. This is a cat who likes to nap in high places, like the tops of the kitchen cabinets, which are higher than some people's ceilings. I have seen him jump from the floor to the top of the plexiglass shell around my shower, which is only about an inch wide, and from the bathroom counter to the top of the door. I have also seen him walk around my entire living room at a height above my head. First he hopped from the couch to the top of the grandfather clock, then he walked across the curtain rod in front of the sliding glass door, then jumped to a shelf built into the wall above the piano, and then-at least, I assume he did this-he leapt across a wide hallway onto another built in shelf above the dining room table, and from there (without tipping over a single piece of bric-abrac), attacked a ceiling fan in full swing. I gather that this is what happened, because when I heard the deafening crash and ran out to the living room to see what had happened, Tyrone was hiding under the couch, and the ceiling fan was wobbling like crazy, and the blade that had broken off was lying in the middle of the living room floor. How could a cat do all this without breaking his neck? Magic!

Fifth, Tyrone can become invisible. At least, it seems that way, when I can look into every nook and cranny and not be able to find him-usually, just when I'm about to take him to the vet's for his boosters. Even the hiding places I have discovered, like inside an old chair or up inside the box-spring of my bed, sometimes don't bear fruit when I'm searching for him. Thank goodness for cat treats (his favorite brand is Pounce)! When he hears the pouch crackling in my hands, he usually comes running. USUALLY. When he doesn't is when I start looking between the washing machine and the wall.

Sixth, Tyrone can speak in tongues. Not content just to say "meow," he also makes such sounds that I sometimes wonder whether I've adopted a monkey or perhaps a bird of some kind. I think he practices languages in order to have an edge over home invaders, such as the khaki-colored lizard whose dead body he presented to me one day. Plus, he knows how to communicate in non-verbal ways. For instance, when his "number-two" misses the inside of the litter box by mere inches, I know he is telling me that I haven't been treating him the way he expects to be treated. And when he head-butts me while I'm trying to sleep, he means to tell me that it's time to wake up and cuddle him. When it's particularly urgent that I wake up and make his breakfast, he finds a piece of facial tissue or paper or even waste cellophane, lets it soak in his water dish, then teleports it to my bed (without spilling a drop along the way) and drops it RIGHT ON MY FOOT, so that I wake up instantly and completely, thanks to the sensation of cold wetness being slapped on my skin.

Seventh, Tyrone can read minds. He runs and hides while I'm merely THINKING about taking him to the vet's. Whereas he materializes from any point in the house in time to "help" me make my bed, on the rare occasions when I do so. I think he can also put his thoughts into my mind, because somehow I can tell when his meow means "Don't you think it's about time you scooped my litter box?" and, "Hey, you're not going to throw away that tuna water, are you?"

Eighth, Tyrone can drive a car. Or at least, he tries to help. We took a 4-day driving trip together and he made sure he could see out all the windows (particularly the windshield), besides trying out the steering wheel and the pedals for himself. Bless him! I thought I was going to die, but it turned out all right in the end. And after the first few minutes (each day, mind you) he did settle down and enjoy the ride from a sunny spot in the backseat.

Ninth, Tyrone can sell property. Didn't you believe me when I said he had cost me $100,000? My landlord didn't care for cats, so he gave me a choice: lose the cat, or lose the house. I saw no real alternative; I found a house for sale and bought it. After the water heater exploded, and the garbage disposal backed up into the dishwasher, and the vicious bougainvillea plant in the front yard ripped my skin to shreds every time I tried to trim it (Venomous Tentacula has nothing on the bougainvillea), I had a good think about that very question, and I realized: Tyrone made me buy this place! I chose to be in debt for the next 30 years, sooner than part with an animal that could be expected to live no more than half that time. What could have come over me except magic of the darkest kind?

Tyrone can do so much, it's too bad he's squeamish about needles, he faints at the sight of them. And in spite of ample opportunity, he does not play the piano. Some cats just don't have the music in them.

So what would my animal familiar be? I suppose, if I was a wizard, it would be my cat Tyrone. But since he's already a wizard himself, why bother?

Moving Magic (3/6/05)
Topic: Working in the Wizarding World

There are many advantages to driving a broomstick as your primary vehicle. For instance, it can slip through narrow gaps in traffic. Heck, it can fly right over the top of traffic! Plus, it accelerates, corners, and responds to variations in the terrain like no off-road vehicle known to Mugglekind. But you have to admit, the broom has its drawbacks too.

The most obvious drawback of driving a broomstick is the lack of support for the back, neck, and legs. Face it, folks, those things have gotta be uncomfortable, especially on long trips. Cushioning charms are OK, but having to lean forward and clutch a wooden rod must do unspeakable things to the neck, shoulders, and wrists. Plus, there's no wind screen, no heater for cold or damp weather, no headlights for dark nights or foggy mornings, and by crickets, no cupholder!

Besides all that, as wizarding forms of transportation go, broomsticks are among the most problematic in terms of staying out of sight of the Muggle population. So clearly, broomsticks are not going to be used for the daily commute, much less for that long family trip every summer. For purposes other than athletic competition, wizards must rely on other methods, such as portkeys, floo powder, and apparition.

But what kind of vehicle does a wizard use when he has to move houses? I had plenty of time to ponder this recently, while I was moving from Arizona to Missouri--or rather, not moving, but waiting while the van line made up its mind how to react when not one, but two of its vans broke down under me. Do wizards have moving vans? How do they get all their cauldrons, twelve-handed grandfather clocks, boggart-infested wardrobes, and talking mirrors from the old house to the new one?

Brooms would be out of the question. They have no storage space.

Apparition would take ages. You would keep having to go back and forth. Mind you, I've made that kind of move--once, when I only had to move about a block and a half away, I managed most of it in a succession of trips with a two-wheeled cart--but it has to be exhausting, doesn't it? And for anything farther away, it wouldn't be worth the added effort.

Portkeys present the same problem as apparition, only with the added problem that you have one more thing to hold on to for each trip back and forth.

And as for floo powder...well, if you have to keep your elbows tucked in when you're not carrying anything, what are you supposed to do with the sofa?

I don't even want to contemplate the Knight Bus.

And please, please, don't ask your owl to carry it all!

I'm sure there are other possibilities, though. For example, you can bewitch a Muggle vehicle to have more space on the inside than would seem possible from the outside. Both Arthur Weasley and Mundungus Fletcher seem to have mastered this charm, though they haven't used it to the extent of moving a whole household. Perhaps a vehicle with a rear-opening door, large enough to stuff a piano through--like the "Scooby Doo" mystery machine--could be charmed to enclose an interior space equivalent to a 26-foot moving van. As this would make for more vehicle than most wizards or witches would need, it's a small step from this to running a van rental outfit that serves the wizarding community. With suburban sprawl encroaching on so many of the places where wizards and witches can practice their arts in privacy, now would be a great time to invest in such a business!

And it wouldn't need to be much of an investment. The used car lots of the world are overflowing with second- and third-hand vans, whose styling, smell, and rust-to-paint ratio put them in much greater supply than demand. A little creative magic can have them cleaned up and rolling (or flying, or submarining, etc.) in no time. Add some interior modifications, hire wizards who specialize in summoning and levitation, and chuck in a lot of protective pads to keep fussy customers from fretting about their china, and you're in business! Plus, you won't have to spend much on real estate to garage your fleet of vehicles. By extending the same space-modification spells, you can park a hundred vans in a two-car garage, and spare enough room for auxiliary equipment.

No longer would you need to lug around a ton of straps to hold things in place. You're a wizard! Conjure them out of thin air! And forget about appliance carts and furniture dolleys. Who needs them? You have magic! And what if mechanical problems should occur? What if, like Arthur's Ford Anglia, your mechanical-magical hybrid vehicle turned temperamental? Well, if that happens, you need expect no more long delays while you wait for roadside assistance to show up. Simply drop a pinch of floo powder into the cigarette lighter, shout your location, and an expert in smoothing out engineering wrinkles will apparate to you in moments.

I would be mystified if someone in the wizarding world hadn't figured this out already. The possibilities are enormous. With this technology, the Weird Sisters' tour bus can be telescoped into an S.U.V. All the equipment for the Ballycastle Bats can be crammed into the trunk of a three-door mini. And if ever the Hogwarts student body should decide to have a picnic at Stonehenge, they will all be able to fit on one bus (the better to sing "999 Bottles of Butterbeer" in harmony).

On the other hand, you would have to watch out for those shady characters who run the Hogwarts Express. Surely, to stay in business, they have to make more than six trips a year. Maybe they can manage it so that the tracks always lead right up to the door of where your trainload of belongings belong.

Shrinking spells on your belongings could spare you the expense of renting a bigger-on-the-inside van, but what if your silver service came undone? How would you ever find the little spoons and things?

Or, maybe the trick is to spread out a big, magically-reinforced circus tent, lay everything you own on it, tie it up in a bundle, and hire a phoenix for the day. Then tie the bundle to the phoenix's tail and whoops! Up it goes! But then of course, the whole visibility-to-muggles problem returns to play.

No, I think your best approach is to pack everything up, full size, in a regular-sized van that has an enormous cargo area. And I would guess that whoever owns a fleet of those vans will have all the galleons he wants.

Thank God it was Only a Dream! (5/18/05)
Topic: Fighting Fears

Apparently, I have much in common with Hermione. If I had faced the boggart in the trunk during my third year Defense Against the Dark Arts final, I would have probably burst out of it, like Hermione, in despair because my head of house (in my case, Madam Sprout) had just told me I was failing every subject.

In fact, I have actually had an experience like this, many times. Especially when I was in school, I often awoke in the middle of the night in a state of desperation, only to realize that it was only a dream -- and how thankful I was! For I repeatedly dreamed that I was in the eighth week of a ten week term when I realized that I had completely forgotten to attend a class I was registered for -- one that I needed to pass to graduate -- and what was worse, I couldn’t seem to find my way through a maze-like school to the classroom in question.

And usually, it was a math class. My subconscious never missed an opportunity to get a dig in. I always did all right in math, but it was one subject where I was sure that I would never be able to catch up from eight weeks behind.

Amazingly, I also had an experience like this in real life. Twice. The first time it was because my family moved from one school district to another, in March of my sophomore year in high school (tenth grade for anyone outside the U.S.). And my new English teacher made me take the same final exam, in May, as the rest of the class -- even though I had studied entirely different material up until March. That was a nightmare come true!

The other time it happened was in college, when I majored in music. I had to take the same, zero-credit “recital class” every term to complete the degree program. The class was easy: all I had to do was attend five classical recitals or concerts outside of school time, and submit a program to prove it. The rest of the class amounted to a sort of sadistic ordeal in which you had to listen to other student musicians, and sometimes professors, trying to play their instruments. You didn’t get credit for the class, but if you weren’t registered for it, you couldn’t graduate. Well, it’s hard to remember to register for a zero-credit class, and one term I forgot to do it. I turned in all my programs and everything, but I didn’t register for the class. When I found out about it, I had to go through a horrid bureaucratic ordeal which took about three weeks, cost me $5, and involved escaping from a suffocating tangle of red tape. Which makes Red Tape my second biggest fear.

How do you cope with your worst fear when it’s a fear of personal failure? By being prepared! By working like a house-elf, pushing yourself, getting everywhere early, reading every word with care, and taking good notes. By turning in the longest term papers, practicing your recital pieces until the wee hours, and spending extended periods of your free time in the library. What Hermione does, I did -- and for the same reason. The only way to be sure your nightmare doesn’t come true is to be organized, efficient, and absolutely immersed in your studies.

This strategy has costs, however. Obviously, there’s the “all work and no play makes a dull boy” principle. Now there are two ways to take the word “dull” in that sentence. The one you probably thought of implies that a workaholic, like Hermione or me, doesn’t form many relationships or learn to relax and have a good time. And this is true enough. But there is also the other meaning of “dull,” which means depressed or exhausted. That kind of pushing yourself can take a toll on your body and mind. For instance, I sometimes burned the midnight oil finishing a big paper, but by the time I finished it, I was so mentally tired that I couldn’t think clearly and so physically tired that I made more and worse mistakes every minute. You get so tired sometimes that you can’t sleep! And eventually, you make yourself a prey to physical illness.

I also saw a news article recently, claiming that graduate students are increasingly suffering from mental illness. The isolated environment, the pressure of competition, and other stressors, can trigger mood disorders, possibly even schizophrenia...and in more and more cases, these students are committing suicide! I remember the effect stress had on me at times. In school, when I was under more stress than I could endure, I would become nauseated. Later in life, my stress continued to go to my stomach in the form of heartburn. For other people, the stress goes to their skin (eczema, psoriasis), their lungs (asthma), and unfortunately, also their moods and thoughts. I hope Hermione learns to relax a bit more, because it would be such a waste of talent if her drive for success pushed her into a serious or even debilitating illness!

But again, being a bit “obsessive-compulsive” can be a good thing. It can actually help you decrease your stress -- if it doesn’t get out of control. That’s when it can make you miserable! But making sure your alarm clock has a good backup battery in it isn’t crazy; it’s smart! (Unless you replace the battery twice a day.) And having a system of note-taking that enables you to find exactly the piece of information you need, when you need it, is also a good idea (though most dorm rooms aren’t big enough for eight five-drawer filing cabinets).

Magic could help reduce this kind of stress even more. If you set a spell to wake you up, you don’t need to worry about the alarm clock. Maybe there are indexing spells for notes and textbooks, too. “Accio anything to do with Wendelin the Weird!” And finally, a Time-Turner would be a spiffing way to go back one quarter and re-register for that stupid recital class!

He Did it All for Harry (1/23/06)
Topic: Last Respects

We are all crushed by the loss of Albus Dumbledore, but who has better reason to be crushed than Harry Potter? Harry proudly accepted the title of Dumbledore's man through-and-through, but how little does he--do we--realize that Dumbledore was Harry's man through-and-through!

In Harry's first year at Hogwarts, who made sure that Harry came into possession of his father's old invisibility cloak? Why, Albus Dumbledore, of course. No one had better reason than the Headmaster to want to prevent children from sneaking around the school at night, but Albus practically encouraged Harry to do just that. He believed so much in Harry's ability to face Lord Voldemort--and his right to do so--that he essentially stepped out of the way and let the boy carry on. And later, he awarded Harry and his friends enough points in the house tournament (because of their heroic actions) to bring their house from last to first place!

The next year, Harry and his best mate Ron Weasley should have been expelled for the way they broke the rules. To be sure, Dumbledore was disappointed in Harry when he arrived via the Whomping Willow in a stolen, illegal, flying car. When the boys broke every third rule in the school rulebook to defeat Tom Riddle and stop the basilisk attacks, however, Dumbledore could have had them expelled. Instead, he had them honored with special awards for services to the school!

During Harry's third year, Dumbledore entrusted Harry and Hermione with a most dangerous mission: to go back in time to save a convicted (but innocent) man and hippogriff from certain extreme injustice. Once again, he winked at extreme peril and high-level rule breaking on the part of his favorite student, even helping to cover it up.

Harry's fourth year at Hogwarts was where Dumbledore's care for Harry begins to grow truly poignant. Don't you realize that the sole reason Dumbledore pushed the age-restriction rule on the Triwizard Tournament was simply that he wanted to protect Harry? No headmaster or headmistress of Hogwarts had ever seen a need for such a restriction, but Dumbledore sensed the danger that Harry was in and was desperate to protect him, even at the risk of making himself very unpopular. It's no wonder he was furious when Harry's name still, somehow, came out of that Goblet of Fire!

If there were ever any doubt that Dumbledore would do anything for Harry Potter, behold what happened in the boy's fifth year at school. Dumbledore made himself the scapegoat for the crimes of Harry and his secret DADA group, Dumbledore's Army. He had to flee the school and become a fugitive because he wanted to protect Harry and keep him in school. It's a shame Harry didn't appreciate this; by the end of the year he was yelling at the headmaster and smashing his favorite possessions. But Dumbledore took all this in stride, forgave the boy, and offered himself to blame for a death for which Harry was equally responsible.

And then there was Harry's sixth--and Dumbledore's last--year at Hogwarts. Even apart from the fact that Dumbledore spent the last of his strength protecting Harry, and that he knowingly risked and suffered so much to help Harry in his mission against the Dark Lord, consider this: It is my conviction that Dumbledore knew that his hour was at hand when he made Severus Snape Hogwarts' Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Dumbledore had resisted doing so for many years, in spite of Snape's persistent attempts to attain the post. A man of Dumbledore's insight must have realized that the year that began with Snape's appointment to the DADA post would end in his own death. So what prompted him to make the appointment? Was it merely the fact that absolutely no other DADA teacher could be found, after fifteen years of the position being cursed? No, I think not.

I think that Dumbledore acted out of the same determination that led Minerva McGonagall to proclaim, "I will help you to become an Auror if it is the last thing I do!" I think he was aware that Harry had the ambition to be an Auror, and, as Harry himself realized, his best chance to fight Lord Voldemort laid in that direction. Dumbledore also knew that with Snape's refusal to teach NEWT potions to any student who got less than an O on their potions OWL, Harry had no chance of becoming an Auror as long as Snape taught NEWT-level potions class. It was thus essential, for Harry's sake, that the potions master be replaced. Therefore, Dumbledore courted his own death by promoting Snape to the DADA position, simply to furnish Harry with a potions master who would allow him to take the NEWT-level course.

Dumbledore, who had admittedly welcomed the death of countless unnamed people and creatures simply for Harry's happiness, now welcomed his own death. He put Snape in the position that he knew would make a teacher prey to the Dark Arts, after so many years free of the Arts' control. He left the entire wizarding world more insecure and leaderless than ever, more or less to advance the career prospects of a single, favored student.

Harry had better not let Dumbledore down, because if I am right, Dumbledore did all this for Harry alone.

You Can Never Go Home (4/28/06)
Topic: Godric's Hollow

When I was about twelve years old, my stepfather drove the family out into the country and showed us the place where he had lived with his first wife and their two little sons. It was a run-down farmhouse, separated from a dirt road by a yard completely overgrown. Tall grass gone to seed, thorny vines bringing to mind the Sleeping Beauty's castle... somehow we got inside the house. It was very sad. Very few things had been left behind, besides a lot of dust. It was just as my stepfather had found it one day when he came home from work; he had never seen his boys again. All that remained were a few discarded toys, cruel reminders of what he had lost.

My stepfather lived another twenty years from that day, yet for some reason, that one visit to his old house is one of my most enduring memories of him. And it is also the experience that comes to mind when I think about what it would be like for Harry to return to Godric's Hollow. The house where his parents died would be an overgrown ruin by now. It might even be hard to find, though not because of the Fidelius charm. The people whose location was protected, or rather betrayed, by their Secret-Keeper, live no more.

If Harry were to find some of his parents' things in that rubble, would it mean anything to him? Would it stir any kind of memory? Or would it be, perhaps, like those unfamiliar toys that had once belonged to a pair of stepbrothers whom I never met? Not quite meaningless - but simply, objectively, impersonally sad.

My stepfather talked about his sons often. But when they last saw him, they were too young to have any clear recollection of him. A little while later, a shyster lawyer offered him a deal to help him out of some legal trouble - he was not exactly Citizen of the Year, any year - and as a result, he was no longer legally the boys' father. They ended up being adopted by their mother's new husband and raised as his own children, along with several more brothers and sisters who came along later. Meanwhile, I often thought about the two brothers I could have grown up with. In reality, those boys were never part of my life. But in my heart, there was always an empty place reserved for them, inviting them to be there.

It is unlikely that Harry really remembers anything about his parents, regardless of what the movie-Harry said to Professor Lupin. Perhaps the green flash of light that he used to dream about - perhaps that much was burned into his subconscious mind. But I would guess that any other "memory" Harry has of his parents - of their faces, their voices - were suggested to him by pictures, by what he has been told about them, and by his own imagination. Except for his first year of life, Harry has been denied the company of loving parents. For all intents and purposes, he has no memory of ever experiencing their love. Yet their love remains a part of him, and he understands what it means as if he could remember losing it. Really, he hasn't lost it. It's there inside of him.

When I was grown up, and I thought my stepfather would not live much longer, I hired a detective agency to locate his two sons. It cost a fortune, but the search was completed very quickly. I learned their new last name, and I learned that they had grown up to be excellent young men - better than their biological father, I must say. With some misgivings, I wrote to the older of the two men and told him about his real father, and asked him to get in touch with me. Because, if he wanted to know the flesh and blood he came from, he had no time to lose.

The young man phoned me. We had a long and, for me, thrilling conversation. I gave him an unvarnished account of his father's life. He told me that he had not known for sure that he and his brother were adopted - but he had suspected. He had picked up on clues - a picture of his mother with another man (evasively explained) - the fact that his Dad's side of the family never treated him the same as his younger brothers and sisters. This saddened me. To a lesser degree, this young hero knew what the Dursleys' treatment of Harry felt like.

My stepbrother-who-never-was quizzed me with insatiable curiosity. One can imagine that Harry would be just as curious to learn anything, any details, any down-to-earth, concrete facts about who his parents were and how they lived. Perhaps he will go to Godric's Hollow one day; perhaps he has to, in hope of finding someone who will talk to him about James and Lily. Or perhaps he will settle for quizzing Remus Lupin and others who knew his parents.

At the end of our conversation, the young man promised to give my stepfather a call. He even gave me permission to tell my stepfather to expect his call. The news was so staggering to my ailing stepfather that for a few moments, I thought I had killed him. But worse, the young man never did call - and though my stepfather lived a couple more years, he never forgave me for getting his hopes up. He suspected that I had poisoned his son against him, by telling him too frankly about the troubles the old man had, the troubles in our relationship especially.

It is now too late for that happy reunion to take place. The door is closed on one - no, two - young men, who can never go home. Death has closed that door, as it has done for Harry. There is nothing for him to find at Godric's Hollow except symbols of his own grief, grief for people he never really knew but whom he should have known. If Harry never does go there, please do not judge him harshly. Perhaps he will be tempted - perhaps he will even imagine there is something to be gained from visiting that place - or perhaps he will decide, as one not-quite-brother of mind did, that some discoveries are not worth the pain.

Sketch of a Sketch of a Series Finale (2/13/08)
Topic: Movie Magic

All the Harry Potter movies that have come out so far have all cut out a lot of material to fit each book's basic plot elements into one movie that people with average-sized bladders can sit through. And though it is hard to say how many threads Movie 6 is going to leave for Movie 7 to tie up - since the sixth film has not yet been seen - I think Warner Bros. will follow the past formula that has worked so well. I think the seventh book will be adapted into a single, one-part movie. For the first part of this essay, let me unpack a few of my reasons for saying this.

Not all of the Harry Potter books had an equally tight-strung plot. The first two books, for example, and the fourth book as well, were somewhat episodic - though they did have plot lines that ran through them. If any of the Harry Potter books could have been chopped up between multiple films, they were Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone, Chamber of Secrets, and Goblet of Fire. Though Goblet of Fire would have suffered most from this multi-movie treatment, it also suffered the most of all the Harry Potter movies so far - including Order of the Phoenix - from being pared down into one film. Even Prisoner of Azkaban, whose film adaptation left out several facts critical for understanding the plot, was more cohesive from a filmic point of view than Goblet of Fire.

On the other hand, the books that would suffer the most from being chopped in half are Books 6 and 7. In fact, if it were at all possible, Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows could stand to be squeezed together into a single film. Splitting the arc of these books into two movies is as much fragmentation as their story can endure.

In itself, Deathly Hallows has such a closely-knit plot that dividing it between two films would change it beyond recognition. A new, cliff-hanger climax would have to be crafted to bring "Volume One" to a end. The cumulative structure of the book, in which Harry gradually prepares for his final confrontation with Voldemort, and in which the tension gradually rises to an unbearable level of intensity, would be destroyed by this shift to a central peak. Then a certain amount of time in "Volume Two" would have to be given to a review of what happened in the first volume. Fans who care about the original story would only be frustrated by this major, structural change and the wasted time that goes with it.

Secondly, let's review the Harry Potter movies so far, and chart their progress so as to predict the basic form of the seventh movie.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's (Sorcerer's) Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets have fallen a lot in the estimate of film critics and fans, at least since the third and fourth movies came out. These days the conventional wisdom holds that the installments directed by Chris Columbus lacked originality or artistic merit. Let's not forget, though, what books the first two movies were based on, and what audience they were aimed at. Like J. K. Rowling's books, this series of Warner Bros. films has gradually moved out of the world of light, children's entertainment toward mature, significant fantasy. Within the limits of the first two movies' special-effects budget and their principal players' unformed acting skills, the PS/SS and CoS movies were of the highest possible quality. They convincingly created a visual world full of magic and mystery, and did as much as any film could to turn two kidfic novels bursting with incidents and characters into coherent, visually-driven journeys. There is much in them to be admired.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban changed the texture of the film series toward a kind of quirkiness appreciated by a more advanced age-group. It also furnished the series' clearest demonstration of how a long, complex, dialogue-driven tale can be transformed into a form of storytelling, where the image largely replaces the word as the medium of communication. Not only were non-essential incidents pared down to reveal the story's esence, but even the essential storyline had to be altered to make way for eye-impacting moments barely hinted at in the book (such as Harry's first ride on the Hippogriff). Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire simplified things still further, but also dragged the look and tone of the series to the verge of adulthood. By Order of the Phoenix, the main characters are basically "all grownup," looking and beginning to act like the adults they are becoming, and their story has begun to resonate with the concerns and experiences of adult viewers.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince will, I think, play as a macabre mystery, rather than a magical fantasy for children. The magic can almost be taken for granted now. What remains crucial is the race between Dumbledore's plan to set Harry onto destroying Voldemort, and Voldemort's plan to get rid of Dumbledore. When you look back from the post-Deathly Hallows vantage point, the structure of Book 6 becomes clearer, and in a way that the makers of the sixth movie would be foolish to ignore: it's all about whether Dumbledore can avoid assassination long enough to equip Harry for his Horcrux quest; and in this race - or rather, this lap of the race - the good guys barely win. It's so close that you have to wait until almost the end of Deathly Hallows to really know how it turned out.

So thirdly, and lastly, let's predict how the filmmakers will make a single, powerful movie out of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

This will be a movie about the long, hard, exhausting part of a war, the part in which the beleaguered nation seems to have reached or even passed the limit of its endurance. It is the part where the war is essentially already lost; where all the resistance that remains is scattered in a few (fewer and fewer) isolated groups across the countryside, while the conquering enemy casually and confidently closes on one cell after another. This is the movie about Frodo and Sam crawling across the plains of Mordor; about Rifleman Dodd surviving on his own, on his feet, on his wits, and on whatever else he can find behind French lines during the darkest days of the Peninsular War; about the Underground Railroad helping U.S. slaves to freedom, the Free French resistance plotting against the Vichy government, East Berliners tunneling under the Wall, the last Jews hiding from the Nazis in Warsaw, and the last uncaptured western agents hiding from the Japanese forces in Manila. It is a story of survival against incredible odds and endurance in the face of relentless discouragement - a story that so many people in the world can understand or remember.

The movie will show Harry and his circle becoming smaller and more isolated, from the battle en route to the Bill-Fleur wedding to the long, tense silence when it is down to just Harry and Hermione in the wilderness. The movie will show tragedy closing around Harry like an iris, from the loss of Moody, Hedwig, and George's ear to the final roll-call of the living and the dead after the Battle of Hogwarts. It will show betrayals and losses.

Another thing essential to the movie is the conflict between two agendas - the one Harry is supposed to serve(destroying Horcruxes) and the one he is tempted to serve (finding the Deathly Hallows).

I think the movie will have to begin with the Weasley-Delacour wedding and news of the Ministry's fall; it may even show Scrimgeour being killed, if his character has been introduced in Movie 6. Major incidents that should not be left out include Mr. Lovegood's explanation of the Deathly Hallows and his betrayal; the separation from Ron and reunion; the visit to Godric's Hollow with its unnerving outcome; infiltrating both the Malfoy mansion and the Ministry; the deaths of Wormtail and Dobby; and the dragonback escape from Gringotts. That's just about enough for a regular-length movie, probably. The challenge will be to convey a sense of lonely endurance without slackening the pace of the film, so there is still enough time for Harry to get to Hogwarts, all hell to break loose, and Voldemort to make two fateful attempts to kill an unresisting Harry Potter.

Can all this actually fit in one movie? Well, probably not. I will probably end up grousing about some essential part of the story being left out. But I think Warner Bros., Kloves, and whoever directs the last film will agree that this is a small problem compared to sorting out the incidents of Deathly Hallows into two film scripts and making them both worth your $9.00 +/-.

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