things I dig right at this moment

Every so often (okay, pretty often) my brain is too scattered to produce a unified blog post, but I can still manage to make a list of disunified things I’m thinking about.  Here is one such list: Things I Dig Right at This Moment.

  1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs I showed this to my children’s lit students this morning, and I was reminded once again of how much sense this makes.  (Maslow’s basic argument is that the bottom levels of the hierarchy are necessary in order to achieve the higher levels.)  It applies to so many situations: the difficulty abused and neglected kids have in school, the poor work output of people who aren’t getting enough sleep, the writer’s block I get when I’m worried about other things (hey, didn’t I just mention that?).  It even explains the phenomenon of being hangry.  Sure, there are amazing stories about people who aren’t getting their foundational needs fulfilled (such as concentration camp victims) who nevertheless achieve the highest level of the pyramid by creating beautiful works of art or performing heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but what makes those stories so amazing is their rarity.  They are the exception that proves the rule.
  2. The emoji with no mouth. You’ve seen it: It’s a smiley face, minus the smile.  And yet it’s so eloquent.  I use it to mean “There are no words”–a phrase which, like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, applies to so many situations.
  3. To Kill a MockingbirdI finished rereading this classic yesterday, and I was confirmed in my opinion that Scout Finch is one of the greatest narrators, and Atticus one of the greatest dads, of all time.  Very few books juxtapose humor and danger (recall that Scout is wearing a ham costume throughout the climactic scene), wisdom and innocence (Atticus’s words interpreted through the child Scout’s limited understanding and recalled from the adult Scout’s perspective) in such an effective way.  And the evocative descriptions—the humid warmth of a summer evening, the cracks in a sidewalk that has a tree root pushing through it—take me back to my own childhood, even though mine wasn’t spent in Alabama.
  4. The Grey Havens. My friend told me about this band Saturday morning, I impulse-bought their album Ghost of a King for $10 on iTunes without sampling it first, and I ended up listening to it over and over while driving that day.  Although their style is a little inconsistent (fluctuating from the folksy and dramatic sound of Mumford and Sons to a poppier but still substantial sound that reminds me of Imagine Dragons), I don’t mind that because I like both kinds of music, and their themes are consistent.  This is Christian music that doesn’t advertise itself as such.  On Ghost of a King, without using the names “God” or “Jesus,” they pretty much outline the whole history of the Bible, hitting the major points of creation, fall, and redemption.  My favorite song on that album is “Diamonds and Gold,” definitely on the pop/electronic end and very fun to dance to in the car (and probably out of the car, too).
  5. using flavored cream cheese as a dip for pretzels. Last night I used the Philadelphia brand roasted vegetable cream cheese as a comparatively “healthy” Super Bowl “dip.”  (Oh, my gosh.  Philadelphia.  I just made the connection.  I am the reason they won.)  Today, I polished off the rest of a tub of honey pecan cream cheese (also Philadelphia) as a lunch snack at work.  Seriously, this is good.  You should try it.

What are you digging right now?  Let me know in the comments.

the Babel podcast

Dear readers, this has been a stereotypical Monday, which means that I don’t have the energy to write a full post.  But here is, as I promised last week, a link to the episode of my colleague Clifford Stumme’s podcast The Pop Song Professor in which he and I discuss Mumford and Sons’ 2009 album, Babel.  Let me know what you think, especially if there’s something on the album we didn’t discuss that you have an opinion about.

Also, I watched one of my favorite movies, The Godfather Part 2, on Saturday, and was thoroughly depressed, as always.  Expect to read more about this next week.


I’ll walk slow.

In the fitness program that I’m in right now, we were asked to choose a “power word” or phrase (that’s the acceptable Christian substitution for “mantra”) and keep a record of how often we used it.  I chose something off the top of my head and ended up using it only a few times during the week in question.  But last Tuesday, two events converged to suggest a power phrase that I’m actually going to use–and that I consider worth blogging about.

Event #1: Tuesday evening, my team completed a tough AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) workout involving sandbags.  It wasn’t a race, but for the first few rounds, it would be very obvious how fast each person was working.  Cocky and obnoxious as I am, I assumed that because I’m already a regular exerciser, I would be one of the faster participants.  So imagine my pride-goeth-before-a-fall devastation when I realized I was the only person still at the starting line doing overhead lifts while every single other member of my team–all nine of them–had moved to the next spot to do squats.  I was in dead last place.

If you’re even a casual reader of my blog, you probably know that I like winning, and I tend to turn things that aren’t competitions into competitions.  So even though I got a really great workout Tuesday night, and my team ended up getting more reps in this workout than any of the other three teams (that part of it actually was a competition), I went home feeling embarrassed at how slow I had been.  The fact that I started out using one of the heaviest sandbags didn’t make me feel better, especially because I had to give it up fifteen minutes into the workout and use a lighter weight.

Event #2: When I got home, I decided to mow my lawn while I was sweaty anyway.  While mowing, I listened to Mumford and Sons’ Babel.  (I was listening to this album over and over last week in preparation for a podcast I recorded on Thursday with my colleague The Pop Song Professor–more on this next week, probably.)  One of my favorite songs on that album is “Lover’s Eyes,” which contains these lyrics, repeated multiple times: “I’ll walk slow/I’ll walk slow/Take my hand, help me on my way.”  I had already noticed that the whole album seems to have a theme of humility and willingness to be taught and led–think of lines like “Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn” (from “Below My Feet,” another of my favorites).  But on Tuesday night while I was mowing, the line “I’ll walk slow” struck me for obvious reasons.  And later, yet another of my favorite songs, “Not with Haste,” struck me as well–again, for obvious reasons, I hope.

Since Tuesday night, that line “I’ll walk slow” has come to my mind many times, such as when I worried about once again coming in last place in Thursday evening’s workout.  It may be a counterintuitive “power phrase,” but–like many people, I suspect–I usually don’t have to make myself try harder or go faster.  I have to make myself slow down and enjoy what I’m doing.  I have to learn how to accept not being the best, and specifically, the fastest.  I sometimes have to, as the lyric says, reach out my hand and allow myself to be led by people who are better at things than I am.  I have to be okay with slow progress in areas of my life where I want to see immediate change.  Because–and now I’m going to preach for a second–walking slow is better than standing still.

For your listening and reading pleasure

Today, I offer you some podcasts and blogs you should check out.

  1. This one is shameless self-promotion: I was recently a guest on my colleague Clifford Stumme’s pop music podcast.  In this episode, we discuss the story arc of Mumford & Sons’s first album, Sigh No More.  In other episodes, Cliff discusses the meanings of songs by a dizzying array of artists, not all of whose music you might have thought worth taking seriously.  He shows you that pop music (a term he defines broadly) is a lot more than just a great beat you can dance to.
  2. I mentioned the podcast Does Anyone Really Need to Hear This? on my blog years ago, and I think it’s time to give it another shout-out.  Mark Stockslager (who, if you couldn’t guess by the name, is my brother) gives his often strong opinions on movies, books, TV, music, sports, and more.  His most recent episode, is a good one to start with, because in it he introduces some regular segments on some of the above-mentioned topics.  In another recent episode, he and his guests analyze–a more appropriate word would be “dismember”–the season 6 finale of The
    Walking Dead
  3. Another colleague recently sent me two articles from the religion, arts, and culture blog Mockingbird, based out of Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, VA.  The two articles he sent me (this really long but worthwhile one and this shorter one) are both about Harry Potter (people are always sending me Harry Potter stuff, which is fine by me!), but I’m looking forward to reading what these thoughtful bloggers have to say on other topics as well.
  4. If you work at a desk on a computer all day and aren’t using Spotify Free to provide a soundtrack to your day, why aren’t you?  I mostly listen to post rock (Spotify has a good playlist for this genre) and movie scores because they don’t have lyrics to distract me, but they also aren’t boring.  As I write this, I’m listening to John Powell’s exciting scores to the How to Train Your Dragon movies.

Now you have your assignments; go read and listen!

Mumford and Sons revisited

Three years ago, I wrote one of my most popular posts of all time, a review/listening guide for Mumford and Sons’s first album, Sigh No More.  I always thought I might do something similar for their second album, Babel, but I never got around to it–though I must say that I think it’s a great album.  I disagree with those who considered it a sell-out album; the band was just getting better at writing tight, radio-playable folk-pop songs, a skill that should not be denigrated.  Now that Mumford and Sons is/are about to release their third, stylistically very different album, I’m returning to them on my blog–but not to write about their music.  This time, I want to mention a couple of things I appreciate about the way the band members present themselves physically, which, as I think we all know, can be nearly as important in our day as the music itself.

1. Have you seen Winston Marshall’s hair lately?  It’s beautiful.  I realized this as I watched him tossing it around during the band’s frenetically kinetic performance on SNL this past week.  Sometimes long hair, on a man or a woman, can look lank and stringy, but not so on Winston.  I love the fact that he’s just letting his rather thick hair go where it pleases instead of trying to tame it.  That’s usually been my own personal hair styling method as well.  I have a lot of respect for people (particularly for women) who just let their hair be awesome even if it doesn’t look put-together according to the current definition of what put-together hair looks like.  You should not be surprised to know that my hair role model is Helena Bonham Carter.

my hair role model

my hair role model

Nice job, Winston.

Nice job, Winston.

2. While watching the same performance, I was confirmed in my long-held belief that Marcus Mumford is very attractive.  He’s not like my number-one celebrity crush, but I like a lot of things about the way he looks (but please note, Marcus, that the small mustache is not one of them).  I like how, speaking of hair, he has a little piece that insists on sticking up–it’s so Harry Potter.  I also love that he’s not ashamed to contort his face in order to express emotion while singing.  His face looks like it’s going to break, but that’s how he gets that gut-wrenching sound that’s part of what makes this band distinctive.  Probably my favorite thing about Marcus, though, is that he doesn’t look like the heroin waif we typically picture when thinking of a rock ‘n’ roll front man.  Now understand me, he isn’t fat.  But he definitely has a soft belly.  And his face isn’t chiseled or angular or gaunt by any means.  And I would guess the only bicep toning he gets on a regular basis comes from playing the guitar like a maniac.  You can really see this in the SNL performance, in which he’s just wearing a t-shirt (and trousers, too–geez, people), since tweed jackets and vests are no longer part of the Mumford and Sons uniform.  I have a lot of respect for this very noticeable, if not flagrant, disregard for a long-established stereotype.

There’s entirely too much body hatred in our world today, and the music industry often hurts rather than helps.  So it makes me very happy that the members of Mumford and Sons–none of whom exactly look like gods of rock–seem to be totally cool to just, as they put it in the last song on Babel, “be who [they] are.”

Huge props to the pudgy rockstar

Huge props to the pudgy rockstar

Weasleys at work

This is the fifth and final post in our series on lessons for young professionals from recent movies.

Note: This blog is a bit schizophrenic–usually “I” means Tess Stockslager, but sometimes it means Penelope Clearwater, and this post falls into the latter category.

5. “Remember who you are” (Mufasa) and “hold on to what you believe” (Mumford and Sons).

I (Penelope) have often thought that my ex-boyfriend Percy Weasley would have saved himself and his family a lot of hurt if he had frequently repeated to himself the following truths: “I am a Weasley, and I am not a pure-blood supremacist.” To generalize these truths into a universal dictum, no job is more valuable than your family and your principles–even if the job makes you feel really important. Cornelius Fudge (fill in your boss’s name here) may flatter your dignity, but he doesn’t love you. And when your job requires you to help advance policies you know are morally reprehensible, it’s time to quit and go home to the people who do love you. This sounds simple, but it’s so easy to forget.

I’m not talking about physical proximity, by the way. Bill and Charlie Weasley managed to accomplish from Egypt and Romania, respectively, what Percy was unable to do from London–maintain a good relationship with their family. And this is closely related to the fact that their jobs didn’t require them to repudiate their family’s deeply-held beliefs.

And while we’re on the topic of Weasley careers, Fred and George’s joke shop is a good example of competent, customer-driven entrepreneurship. Not all of us will be able to start our own business inventing and selling items we enjoyed playing with as children, but if you have a particular skill and see a particular need in the consumer populace (e.g., “Fred reckons people needs a laugh these days”–Ron), go for it; don’t feel like you need to follow in your older siblings’ footsteps by entering more traditional industries, such as banking, politics, and . . . er, animal behavior.

Well, there you have it, young professionals. This concludes the series, but I (Tess) would love to hear your good and bad examples from movies and books–and even real life–of professionalism, workplace ethics, and other career-related issues.

Things I liked about Brave…

…the new Pixar movie released this weekend, which I saw today.
1. Scotland
2. Emma Thompson
3. Mumford and Sons
4. a heroine with spectacularly explosive hair
5. a heroine who doesn’t think getting married should be her #1 goal in life (but who is open to getting married at some point)
6. a great, and realistic, mother-daughter relationship
7. bagpipes
8. beautifully animated scenery
9. magic
10. kilt humor

Man is a giddy thing. (William Shakespeare said that.)

Tonight I chose Mumford and Sons’ Sigh No More as my falling-asleep music.  Bad idea.  These are songs for thinking, some for dancing, but not for falling asleep.  So I’m still awake with this review/listening guide in my head, and I want to write it down before I do fall asleep and forget everything I want to say.

In case you have been living under a rock (in which case you probably need to “Roll Away Your Stone”) and have not yet listened to Mumford and Sons, let me try to encapsulate their style for you: exuberant, theatrical bluegrass with an English Renaissance twist.  (In fact, that’s their genre on iTunes.  That entire phrase.  Just kidding.)  I say “bluegrass” because of the prominence of the banjo and mandolin and because Marcus Mumford’s accent sounds, to my American ears, like the British equivalent of hillbilly.  (Example: In several songs, such as “White Blank Page,” which include non-verbal syllables, he says “Arr,” not “Ahh.”)  The English Renaissance part comes in with the Shakespeare references, found in the album title, the title track (whose lyrics are largely lifted from Much Ado about Nothing), and “Roll Away Your Stone,” where the line “Stars, hide your fires” is wrenched rather startlingly from its original Macbeth context and put to effective use.  Other early modern touches include a song that seems to be about the Black Plague (“Winter Winds,” which contains a rare 21st-century use of the sadly neglected word “pestilence”) and some tunes I can only describe as troubadour-ish (hear, for example, the little melody at the beginning of “Roll Away Your Stone”; it sounds like something they might have danced to in the movie Elizabeth).

My favorite thing about the album is that it subtly tells a story.  There is a clear introduction, conflict, climax, and resolution.  I’ll try to outline the plot here without getting too long-winded.  (Yeah, good luck with that.)  After “Sigh No More,” which is the prologue, we have a solid line-up of hits: “The Cave,” “Winter Winds,” and “Roll Away Your Stone.”  These are songs that you should roll down your car windows and shout along with.  They are also triumphant, almost defiant, declarations of independence (especially “R.A.Y.S.”–I think it’s time to start abbreviating this title).  The series of songs ends with the line, “You have neither reason nor rhyme / With which to take this soul that is so rightfully mine.”  These numbers are life-affirming, but all of this brazen exuberance so early on the album makes us wonder whether it can last.

Alas, it cannot.  With “White Blank Page” and “I Gave You All,” something bad happens. (I mean in the plot, not to the music.)  This bad thing is all the more frightening because it remains undefined.  These are break-up songs, I suppose, but the singer/narrator seems not only to be breaking up with a girlfriend but with himself and even with God.  (Yes, I think the lyrics justify these weighty interpretations.  This is a weighty album.  It’s good when you find a weighty album that you can dance to.)  In the midst of it all, however, there’s still an ember of hope (a key word on this album).  The last words in “White Blank Page” (besides “Arr”) are “Lead me to the truth, and I / Will follow you with my whole life.”

There’s a little bit of a turning point in the next song, “Little Lion Man.”  For one thing, this is the first “upbeat” song since “R.A.Y.S.”  For another, the singer is able to make a confession: “It was not your fault, but mine.”  After the blame-casting of the two previous songs, this admission is refreshing, though perhaps it goes too far in the self-castigating direction.  The song is cathartic, anyway.  It’s another fun one to yell out the window, not least because you get to yell the f-word several times.

The next song, “Timshel,” is a puzzle, like its title.  It’s one of only two songs on the album (the other is “After the Storm”) that stays quiet the whole way through and doesn’t swell to a climax.  In this bittersweet song, someone seems to be dying.  Or giving birth?  Or being baptized?  I don’t know whether the death is literal or symbolic, but the water imagery seems to indicate it will be followed by some sort of rebirth.  The most profound line on the album, in my opinion, is in this song: “Death is at your doorstep / And it will steal your innocence / But it will not steal your substance.”  Someone should preach a sermon about that.  This song ranks, along with some David Crowder songs (“Come Awake” from A Collision and pretty much the entire Give Us Rest album), as one of my favorite songs about death.

Next comes the climax of the whole album: “Thistle and Weeds.”  Unlike some of the earlier numbers, this one doesn’t necessarily catch your attention from the beginning; you might be tempted to skip it, but don’t.  Soon enough you’ll get to a percussive thunderstorm of piano and drums, over which Marcus hollers a line from an earlier song: “I will hold on hope.”  In “The Cave,” it’s easy to mentally skip over this line; here, we get its full significance.  The protagonist of the story is holding on for dear life.  Someone or something is trying to steal his hope, hence the desperation of the vocal.  The song ends quietly, but without much resolution.  We have to wait until the next song to find out what happened.  (N.B. “Thistle and Weeds” contains easily the creepiest line on the album: “Let the dead bury their dead / And they will come out in droves.”)

The next song is “Awake My Soul,” and it might be my favorite, although it’s nearly impossible to choose.  This song doesn’t have the wild abandon of the set of hits at the beginning of the album, but its happiness is richer and deeper because it’s been tempered by sadness.  Yes (spoiler alert), the protagonist has held onto his hope.  As you can probably guess from the title, with this song comes the resurrection (if not bodily, then at least spiritual) that has been foreshadowed in earlier songs, such as “Winter Winds” (“You’ll be happy and wholesome again”) and “Timshel.”  Here, the expression “meet your maker” is not ominous, like it tends to be in common usage, but joyful.

Part bad-ass gunslinger ballad, part jeremiad against greed and oppression, “Dust Bowl Dance” is the only song that seems out of place on this album.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good song.  I just think they should have saved it for their next album.  For one thing, it breaks up the flow of the story; there shouldn’t be anything bleak after “Awake My Soul,” and “Dust Bowl Dance” is pretty bleak.  For another, with its distorted guitar and manic cymbals, it’s more rock than (remember?) exuberant, theatrical bluegrass with an English Renaissance twist.  And finally, speaking of the English Renaissance, the Dust Bowl was a 20th-century American event, so it’s weird to encounter it here.  Still, I love the inflection in Marcus’s voice on the last line: “You haven’t met me; I am the only son.”  It should be in a good tragic action movie.

The aptly-named “After the Storm” is the last song and the other quiet song.  It could be anti-climactic, but only if you’re not paying attention.  The guitar is lovely, and the lyrics are rain-drenched with meaning.  It’s not a happily-ever-after ending because it’s not really an ending.  The song uses a lot of future tense: “There will come a time, you’ll see / With no more tears, and love will not break your heart.”  You’re admonished to “Get over your hill and see / What you find there.”

What will we find there?  A second Mumford and Sons album?  Yes, happily, later this year!  But for now, go back and listen to Sigh No More (or “Come out of your cave” and listen to it for the first time).  I’ve told you what I’ve found in this album; now I’d love to know what you find there.