State of the Blog

Today I thought I would take the time to tell you how I think this blog is doing and to ask for feedback from you, my readers, without whom this blog would be nothing but the digital equivalent of a secret diary hidden under my mattress.  A couple things prompted me to do this.  For one thing, it’s been about a year since I implemented my weekly (usually Monday, sometimes Tuesday) post–before that, I was writing whenever I felt like it, and sometimes months would go by before you heard anything from me.  Another reason I wanted to stop and assess the blog this week is that I heard from some people yesterday who either mentioned a specific post they had enjoyed or indicated they knew something about the style of my blog–people I had no idea were reading it.  So that made me curious as to how many “silent” readers I have out there and what they’re thinking.

Let’s start with the weekly post thing.  I began this practice as part of a larger discipline of writing something (anything–could be a PowerPoint presentation for a class or a sketch of one of my screenplay ideas) for 30 minutes each weekday afternoon, which was inspired by the class on spiritual disciplines in the workplace that I audited last summer at Regent College.  (See below for a link to the series of posts I wrote following the course.)  Besides the fact that I’m now posting every week, another thing this practice changed about my blog is that my posts are now limited to what I can write within half an hour, which–I think–is keeping them to a manageable length, in contrast to the marathon posts that I used to write.  But, with the emphasis on actually writing for 30 minutes, I’m including fewer pictures, videos, and external links in my posts.  What do you think about all this?  Am I posting too often/not often enough?  Have my posts been too short lately, or are they still too long?  Would you like me to shut up occasionally and direct you to other people’s work (through the aforementioned pictures, videos, and links)?

I would also like your feedback about the topics I write about.  My blog has always been, unapologetically, about a wide variety of topics.  I know that I’d probably get a bigger readership and more mentions on the web if I focused in on a niche, like travel or home decor (or even something that I actually know a lot about, like Harry Potter), but I’m not trying to get famous or make money through my blog.  Although, as I hope this post attests, I do care very much about my readers, my blog is just as much a vehicle for me to process what I’m thinking and learning.  So I’m not sorry for writing a string of posts recently about The Godfather, even though most of you–at least those who are talking to me–don’t care about the Corleones (and, I still maintain, don’t know what you’re missing).  But I do want to know which topics you’d like to see more of–and what topics I haven’t addressed that you’d be interested in reading about.  Anecdotally, it seems that some of my most popular posts have been the confessional, gut-spilling ones where I let you snoop into the embarrassing parts of my interior life, usually through the screen of humor.  But I know that many of you also share my love of music, movies, and TV, and so you prefer posts on those topics.  Let me know what you think.  I will take your suggestions seriously, and I’ll write about pretty much anything that I know something about (and maybe even some things I know nothing about!).

In closing, let me share what I think have been some of the highlights of this past year on penelopeclearwater:

  • Here is the first of the series I wrote following the class on spiritual disciplines.  The series continued through July and August 2016–check out the archives.
  • There was a lot of excitement on my blog leading up to and following the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
  • This post from a few weeks ago–which was both a confessional post and a music post–got a lot of good feedback.

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.

Have you thought about your Hogwarts house recently?

Maybe it’s time you revisited that topic.  If you’re even moderately involved in online or in-person Harry Potter fan discussions, today’s post isn’t going to tell you anything you don’t already know, but I hope my personal examples will make reading it worth your while.

You’ve probably heard it said that your Hogwarts house (whichever house you identify with most–whether selected by you or by Pottermore) is more indicative of what you value than of the person you currently are.  That statement now seems incredibly obvious to me in light of not only the books (e.g., Harry’s choice not to be placed in Slytherin) but also my own house and those of my friends and family, but I had never heard the idea articulated until recently.

Let me illustrate it with my own story.  If you’ve been reading this blog long enough–or if you go back through the archives to around 2012-13–you may know that I used to consider myself a Ravenclaw (and still have a Ravenclaw blog title and tagline, which probably won’t change) and had a bit of an identity crisis when Pottermore placed me in Hufflepuff.  But over the years since then, I have become a very proud Hufflepuff.  There’s a bit of a chicken and egg question here–did I realize that I was really a Hufflepuff all along, or did I accept the Pottermore pronouncement as fate and write myself a personal narrative to fit?  Or–a third option–did my house identity lead me to aspire and strive to become a person who belongs in Hufflepuff?  I think this last theory best explains what happened.  Before being sorted, I already valued loyalty, hard work, and kindness (a quality not specifically mentioned by the Sorting Hat but popularly associated with Hufflepuff) to some degree–otherwise I wouldn’t have answered the sorting questions the way I did–but being sorted into Hufflepuff pushed me to articulate these values more clearly than I ever had before and to begin consciously striving to emulate them.

Now, here’s the key–I don’t always exemplify these traits, but I strongly admire them when I see them in others, more than I admire traits associated with other houses.  I think that’s a big reason why I loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them more than a lot of people did–because, as I argued in this post, it’s a movie about one actual Hufflepuff and (as I see them) his very Hufflepuff-like friends.  People don’t necessarily think of Hufflepuff when they think of me, but when someone does place me in the correct house (this happened a couple of weeks ago), I’m very happy, and I take this as a sign that I am becoming the kind of person I want to be.  We see this with Harry Potter.  He probably could have fit into any of the houses, but his choice placed him in Gryffindor.  And throughout the series (especially in Chamber of Secrets, but later too) we see him worrying about whether he’s really brave enough to be in Gryffindor or whether, instead, he’s simply foolhardy.  I think we see it with Neville too–he doesn’t immediately appear to be a brave person, but being brave is important to him (because of his parents, we later learn), and he eventually becomes brave.  We could think of it this way: If you’re constantly thinking, “I don’t deserve to be in this house,” you’re probably in the right house.

This theory explains why I know some very sweet people who strongly identify with Slytherin–maybe they’re tired of being pigeonholed as sweet people.  It probably explains a lot of other things that I haven’t thought about yet.  How about you?  Do you think you belong in the house where Pottermore placed you, and why or why not?  I know this topic gets discussed a lot, but I never get tired of it, because I think it can be a fascinating and useful tool for understanding who we are and who we aspire to become.

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!

my continuing Dickens obsession

I have an ongoing love for Charles Dickens, but my devotion sometimes hits these especially high peaks, and I’ve been on one of them for the past couple of weeks.  I finished reading A Tale of Two Cities last weekend (see my last post for an earlier observation), and I read A Christmas Carol yesterday and today.  (Of course, this wasn’t my first time through either book.)  I can’t wait to lead a discussion of Carol at the Liberty University Bookstore on December 2.  In the meantime, I’ve engaged in two particularly nerdy expressions of my love for Charles.  Please enjoy.

1. The story of Jerricho Cotchery.  I’ll try to make the frame narrative short: I’m eating out with two of my work colleagues, and there’s a Thursday night football game on TV.  One of us mentions McSweeney’s delightful piece called “NFL Players Whose Names Sound Vaguely Dickensian.”  Later I look up at the game and notice Jerricho Cotchery, who catches my eye because he’s a former Steeler (current Panther).  I realize that if Jerricho Cotchery were in a Dickens novel, he would definitely be a Methodist minister.  He would have a lean and starved appearance, and his ears would stick out from his head at exaggerated angles.  When he preached, his voice would take on a ranting cadence.  Then my co-worker/friend Kristen and I rapidly concoct a plot in which Dickens attempts, unusually for him, to sympathize with a Methodist minister.  I wish I’d written down some notes from this impromptu creative session, but I do remember that Jerricho Cotchery is in love with a happy, useful, and modest young parishioner named Evangeline, and that in the past he did some undefined injustice to Oliver Twist, for which he now feels horribly remorseful.  I hope to return to this story at some point, so if you have any good ideas for Jerricho, let me know in the comments.

2. The Sydney Carton playlist.  I’m really obsessed with A Tale of Two Cities right now.  I went so far as to make a Spotify playlist for Sydney Carton, and it’s a far, far better playlist than I have ever made.  (Actually, it’s my first Spotify playlist.)  You should be able to find it by searching “Sydney Carton.”  If you find a 10-song playlist by Tess Stockslager, you’ve got it.  Here’s your guide to the songs: The first four are anthems for a wasted/purposeless life, with a particular emphasis on songs about drinking, because–let’s face it, friends–Sydney is an alcoholic.  The next three songs are about unrequited love and/or heartbreak; I think it’s pretty clear why those are on there.  (As Lucie says at one point, “He has a heart he very, very seldom reveals, and . . . there are deep wounds in it. . . . I have seen it bleeding.”)  The next two are about people deciding they don’t want to waste their lives anymore; this corresponds to that point in ATOTC when Sydney starts hanging out with the Darnays in the evening instead of with his stupid boss/”friend”/enabler Stryver.  And the last song is about what Sydney wants to do, and finally succeeds in doing, for Lucie and her family.

So, put on the playlist, and get ready to dance, then cry, then dance again, then cry again.  Or, put on the playlist and read A Tale of Two Cities.  And while you’re at it, don’t forget about Jerricho Cotchery.

Scholars with wand collections

I’ve discovered recently that there’s a word for people like me–the people I describe in the title of this post, those of us who see no incongruity between loving a text and studying a text.  The word is aca-fan, and it’s been attributed to media scholar Henry Jenkins, whose blog is called Confessions of an Aca-Fan (henryjenkins.org).  Skim over Confessions and you’ll see basically what I want my blog to be.  Jenkins’s book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992), is perhaps the foremost and certainly one of the earliest texts that showed the world that fans aren’t glassy-eyed drooling idiots, and yet somehow I missed out on it while doing my preliminary dissertation research.  (I put in an inter-library loan request for it tonight, and I plan to read passages from it to my Walking Dead fan community next Sunday night.  Just kidding–or am I?)

I also learned tonight that there’s a term for what wizard rock is, except it’s a broader category and existed long before wizard rock (or indeed, Harry Potter) was a thing.  The term is filk, and apparently it comes from a misspelling of folk on a conference program.  (I learned that from Henry Jenkins.)  Essentialy, it refers to nerdy music about fictional characters.  Am I the only person who didn’t know about this?