Christmas anticipation–online professor style

When I taught on a university campus, the Christmas celebrations began as soon as the students arrived back from Thanksgiving break. (I should add that I taught at Christian universities, so the specific holiday of Christmas–not just a general air of festiveness–was celebrated loudly and proudly.) Everything had to happen early to get all the various departmental parties and campus traditions in before winter break. The maintenance crew had to start putting the lights up early (one of my universities meticulously outlined every tree on the main street of campus) so we could enjoy them for more than a day or two. Christmas music started floating out of various doorways, and colleagues started dropping cards and cookies on each other’s desks.

Even if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have been able to experience all of that this year, my first year teaching completely online. While I’m probably going to get more accomplished this December than ever before because I’m not getting interrupted for things like the faculty Christmas card photo and the office decorating competition, I miss the excitement of December on campus. So I’m making a list of ways that I can make these next few weeks special as I work from home, and I’m sharing that list with you in hopes that it will inspire you to add a little anticipation and jollity into your December, even if you’re not an online professor.

  1. Listen to Christmas music. This is obvious, but what if you’re tired of the cycle of the same 50-ish songs that gets played on every radio station? Also, what if, like me, you prefer to listen to instrumental music while you work? Good news: There’s a ton of wordless Christmas music out there, in a range of genres from classical to bluegrass. Just search “instrumental Christmas” on Spotify or Pandora. One of my favorite artists in this niche is Craig Duncan, who has released a whole series of Celtic and other folk-inspired Christmas albums over the years. Also, a fun activity for you classical fans is to repurpose pieces that aren’t normally considered Christmas music. For example, this morning I was listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves.” I listen to it year-round, but on December 1, it becomes “What Child Is This?,” like magic.
  2. Start your workday with an Advent reflection. You can take this in many different directions. I’ve never tried this, but I bet you could come up with readings for the whole month of December from Charles Dickens’s Christmas stories. For the past few years, I’ve been enjoying Biola University’s Advent Project: http://ccca.biola.edu/advent/2020/#. You can sign up for free by entering your email address, and every day from now until Epiphany (January 6), you’ll receive a multimedia devotional that includes two pieces of music to listen to, a work of art to look at, and a scripture passage, a poem, a reflection, and a prayer to read. Biola also does a Lent Project in the spring, and if you sign up once, you’ll get both series of devotionals every year. And they are very good about not sending junk emails; you’ll only receive the devotionals. I love this because it’s a moment of reflection and worship that comes right in the middle of my morning email check–a time when I very much need it!
  3. Upgrade everyday items. On December 1 or slightly earlier, I bring out my Christmas items. These are not just tree ornaments, though my husband and I do have three trees to decorate this evening! (That’s what happens when you get married after living alone for years and accumulating a lot of stuff.) I have Christmas mugs, Christmas coasters to put them on, Christmas socks, Christmas sweaters, Christmas earrings, Christmas candles, Christmas hand towels, Christmas notepads, Christmas soap and matching-scented room spray, a Christmas tablecloth, Christmas cookie cutters and tins, even a Christmas salt and pepper shaker set. I realize that to some people, bringing all this out every year and putting it away a month later probably sounds horribly stressful. But for me, a person who loves ritual and tradition, this is one of my most dearly anticipated activities every year. And you don’t have to go all out; even one or two special items can do the trick. Try it–a grading session is more fun (or at least more bearable) when you’re drinking tea out of a mug that says, “Have a cup of cheer.”
  4. Have your own office Christmas party. I haven’t tried this yet, but because my husband and I are both working from home right now, I’m hoping we can take some breaks during our workdays over the next few weeks to do something seasonal like watching a short Christmas movie, working on our cards, or taking a brisk walk in the frosty air (or the snow, if we ever get this lake effect snow shower they keep talking about). Our activities this year will not be centered on food because we’re doing the Whole 30 right now (great timing, right?), but if you’re working from home with someone else, you could have a cookie-baking party or re-create the classic office potluck (i.e., each of you searches the pantry and fridge and puts something yummy on a fancy plate). This is also a great time to listen to your favorite non-instrumental Christmas music.

I hope you got at least one idea from this post, and I hope you’ll share your ideas for making December special with me in the comments!

my weekly rhythms

The word rhythm, in reference to the daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, and annual practices that provide a semblance of structure to our lives, is trending. I have to admit that I’m a sucker for the concept; I am drawn to links or magazines that tell me how to improve my bedtime routine or make adjustments to my home to make it feel more like winter than fall. (By the way, it currently feels like summer outside where I am, proving that while the natural world does have rhythms of its own, these don’t always correspond to our schedules.) I think the word rhythm is a little cheesy when applied this way; it always makes me picture a Jamaican reggae guy playing one of those portable drums. (Is that weird? Don’t answer that.) But in spite of the over-trendiness, the cheesiness, and sometimes the total lack of correspondence to reality, I think this idea of rhythms (or habits, if you want to sound more practical or less Rasta) can be useful.

It is particularly useful for those of us who work jobs that do not have a set schedule—a group of people that has become larger this year, since a work-from-home schedule is by nature more flexible than an on-site schedule. (Read more about this in my post from two weeks ago.) I am thankful that, as an online faculty member, I can set my own hours. I want to be clear about that—I realize my flexible schedule is a rare privilege. I also realize that many online faculty members don’t have as much freedom as I do, whether that’s because of a second job or a heavier courseload or small children at home. But despite all that, I thought it would be helpful if I shared a bit about why and how I have developed some flexible weekly work rhythms.

First, why. I actually started learning the importance, for me, of having a semi-structured work schedule two years ago, when I went from working a mid-level administrative position—in which I was expected to be on campus more or less all day, spent a lot of that time in meetings, etc.—to a teaching-only faculty position, in which I was expected to be on campus only during classes, office hours, and meetings (which were rare in this context; my university did a good job protecting people from pointless meetings, at least in my experience). This flexible schedule, combined with the fact that I lived only a two-minute drive or ten-minute walk from campus, opened up an immense freedom to do what I liked with my waking hours, unlike anything I had experienced since my own college years. Unfortunately, I spent a lot of that precious time pacing around my house trying to figure out the best way to use it. Here’s an example: In my previous job, the daylight hours were mostly spent in a windowless office, so when I got home from work, I wanted to spend the remaining daytime out and about. So I had gotten into the habit of grading at night, and I had a hard time getting myself to sit down and grade when the sun was out. When I changed jobs, I was so determined to use my free time during the day for doing non-work things (even if some of those things were time-wasters) that I still ended up shoving all of my grading until the end of the day, dreading it all day, and staying up too late to get it done. Again, I want to stress the fact that everyone has different styles of working, and some people work best at night. I am not one of those people. But because I didn’t have a schedule, or at least an outline of a schedule, for using my daytime hours, I wasn’t getting things done during the time I tend to be most productive and get the most enjoyment out of my work.

I was still trying to figure all this out when I met my now-husband Jordan and made the goal of aligning my schedule with his (he works all day on weekdays except Friday, which is a half day) so that when we got married, we could spend our non-work hours together. And I was still in the process of making that shift when COVID-19 forced my spring classes online, thrusting me into the life of a fully-online professor several months before I expected it. Fortunately, I had received an excellent planner as a Christmas gift and was filling it out religiously every week. The planner and my motivation to align my schedule with Jordan’s helped me create a work week that resembles a typical 8 to 5 schedule, but departs from it in some key ways.

I won’t bore you with all the details of this schedule, but I do want to outline some of its main features in hopes that you might pick up an idea or two for establishing your own weekly rhythms.

  • When it comes to grading, I dedicate one day per week to each class. I reply to emails throughout the week, regardless of the class the student is in, but for grading, when I’m done with the class, I’m done for the day. (There’s an exception once every eight weeks, when I grade the big end-of-course projects. That week, I pace myself more carefully.)
  • I take Fridays off. (This works out perfectly right now, since I have four classes.) Again, I realize this is a privilege, and I’m thankful for it. But I don’t feel like it’s necessary to create busy work for myself just because this is a workday for most Americans. (However, during that big grading week, I sometimes have to work on Friday.)
  • I start and end work around the same time every day. I start a little later than Jordan, who begins his workday at 7 am; I use the first couple of hours of the day to do laundry or other tasks around the house. I take a lunch break with him from noon to 1 pm. And I finish when he’s finished, at 5 pm, if not earlier. If there’s something on my work to-do list that didn’t get done that day, I cross it off and move it to the next day.

I have other weekly work rhythms too, like posting my weekly announcements on Sunday afternoons, but I’m afraid this post is already pretty boring, so I’ll stop. Perhaps next week I’ll write about the non-work rhythms I try to incorporate into my life—the “restorative habits” I write into my planner each week. Meanwhile, do you have any regular scheduling habits or other work habits you’d like to share? Like I said, I eat this stuff up, so I’d love a new strategy to try! As always, thank you for reading my blog.

What’s next for Penelope?

I’ve been blogging at this site since December 2011. I started the blog so that I could review a couple of books that I wanted to receive for free. Since then, I’ve written about topics as serious as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and as frivolous as my hypothetical Roller Derby name. I’ve told numerous embarrassing stories about cooking mishaps and breaking things. I’ve reviewed movies and albums, shared a couple of fan fiction stories, and hijacked the blog for a couple of months as a promotional platform for my self-published novel. I once seriously considered and made some steps toward re-branding this into a “Hufflepuff leadership” blog. (I still think someone should do that.) I’ve written about my job, my faith, and lately, my marriage. And I have nine partial drafts in my queue, including a “zany” travel mishap story that turned out to be boring when I wrote it down and a post tentatively called “what Ross Geller has in common with almost every Jimmy Stewart character (and me?).” (This one was doomed from the start.)

I realize that if I kept pressing forward for another year and a half, I could celebrate the tenth anniversary of this blog. But I think it’s time for me to end this long chapter in my writing life. I’ll keep the WordPress account in case I want to write a special post now and then, but these will likely be rare. Writing will always be one of my primary means of processing my thoughts and feelings, but not all of that writing needs to be shared with a readership.

Speaking of you, my readers–I know I’ve always had a small following, but you’ve been incredibly faithful. Some of you left long, frequent comments on my posts; others read the blog quietly for months, maybe years, before dropping into a face-to-face conversation the fact that you were reading it–always a delightful surprise. Thank you for paying attention.

I’ve thought for a while that it would be fun to have a podcast or a YouTube channel (actually, I have a great channel idea that I’m trying to convince my husband to help me with), but I don’t think I’ll jump into anything like that anytime soon. I’m thankful for the years I’ve been able to share my thoughts with you, and I hope we can stay in touch by other methods. Now I’m going to go cry a little.

sounds like birds

Instead of trying to bang out a well-supported thesis-driven argument in half an hour like I normally do (it’s hard, by the way), today I’m going to write a not quite stream-of-consciousness, loosely poetic series of observations. Let’s see how it goes.

One good thing about having the windows open in the house is that I can hear the high, one-note call of the red-winged blackbird currently enjoying our bird feeder. I don’t remember seeing these birds until I moved to the Midwest, and I am still startled when I’m looking at a drab roadside field or that patch of wilderness behind our neighbor’s house and I see that yellow-outlined dab of red on a shiny black wing.

Another good thing about having the windows open is that when I’m listening to my record of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending” in the middle of the afternoon, I can share it with my neighbors if they choose to listen. I’m not sure if the little girls giggling on the trampoline in the other neighbors’ backyard really care, but as I’m sitting cross-legged on our bedroom floor doing yoga and enjoying the record, I can imagine one of the girls whispering, “That sounds pretty.”

One good thing about taking a walk toward sunset is that we might hear a mourning dove coo and then look up at our neighbor’s roof and see it outlined against the glowing clouds. The mourning dove’s song is the earliest bird call I can remember recognizing and, I’ll be honest, still one of the only ones I can actually recognize. The sound takes me back to a summer night in my childhood home, where through my open window I might hear a mourning dove or I might hear my dad listening to a baseball game out on the deck.

One good thing about birds is that they remind me to pray. Today I learned about prayer triggers, sounds that remind us to stop for a moment and talk with God. Some people, apparently, pray whenever they hear a siren. I get it, but I don’t want to associate prayer with panic. So I wrote in my journal that whenever I see a bird at our feeder, I will try to remember to pray. There are two reasons for this. One is that ever since we put up this new feeder last week, birds have been flocking to it consistently. So, they will help me to pray without ceasing. The other reason is that Jesus once said, “Look at the birds.” He was teaching his disciples not to worry. He asked them to think about how the Father makes sure the birds get fed–even the ones that don’t live near a well-stocked platform feeder–and how much more precious each of them, the disciples, was in the Father’s eyes. So when my eye is on a sparrow–or when I hear a blackbird sing–I will think about how God watches me.

Another time, Jesus said to his disciples, “Fear not, little flock.” I always picture a flock of sheep there because of that automatic association most of us make between the Bible and sheep, but I don’t know, maybe Jesus was thinking of a flock of purple finches too. One good thing about birds is that they’re always handy for a metaphor.

Wall-E: Pixar’s apocalyptic romance

Last week, I watched Wall-E for the first time in years, and wow, does it ever hold up. Its cultural criticism is sometimes hard to watch, but it’s ultimately a story of hope–though not a cheap one. It’s also not a children’s movie, I would argue, even though it has an adorable protagonist: it’s too slow, too subtle (there’s almost no dialogue until halfway through the movie), and too bleak. It’s also a romance, which makes it unusual if not entirely unique among the Pixar filmography.

Let me take a little detour to make this point. I’m probably forgetting about a few movies, so please feel free to critique my analysis. Pixar is good at making films about the crucial relationships in life: with oneself (Inside Out), one’s friends (Toy Story, Cars, Monsters Inc.), and one’s family (Onward, Coco, Brave, Finding Nemo, Finding Dory, The Incredibles…I think it’s safe to say that this is Pixar’s wheelhouse). But, perhaps for obvious reasons involving its target audiencePixar doesn’t really do romances. Up, despite its famous tearjerker opening sequence, is not primarily the story of a marriage but the story of an unlikely friendship between a crotchety old man and a quirky little boy. Ratatouille is basically a romantic comedy, but like many rom-coms, it’s more about the protagonist’s development as an individual than about the romantic relationship.

So Wall-E is unusual, because cultural criticism aside, it’s a love story. Wall-E and EVE progress from infatuation to companionship (where many romantic movies stop) to self-sacrifice. Each becomes the other’s mission in life, or “directive,” to use EVE’s term. But their relationship looks outward, too; instead of losing themselves in love, they draw strength from it that allows them to help save the world (and the human race, to which they don’t even belong) in a very literal way. Watching this film with my fiance roughly one week before our wedding, I was profoundly moved by its depiction of a love that actually changes the world.

There’s also another love story in Wall-E, between the humans John and Mary. Though this story gets about five minutes of screen time, it’s important to one of the film’s main themes, the survival of the human race. Wall-E and EVE are almost an apocalyptic Adam and Eve, but they can’t quite fulfill that role because they’re robots (a fact that makes the brilliant depiction of their love an even more stunning achievement). John and Mary, though, can actually carry on the human race, a truth that is not very subtly hinted at when they rescue a whole nursery full of babies. Their relationship, too, is built on selflessness: their meet-cute occurs when they literally bump into each other and are forced out of the insular, self-absorbed life their culture has lulled them into.

There’s so much more I could say about Wall-E, from the apocalyptic landscapes as startling as anything in The Road or The Walking Dead to the beautiful score by MY BOYYYYYY Thomas Newman. (The track “Define Dancing” ranks among his greatest hits in my opinion–plus, that’s a beautiful scene overall.) But I’ll stop here and implore you to go watch Wall-E. Maybe not with your kids. And let me know what you think.

emerging from a tunnel

I’m in one of those seasons (and I mean that in the currently trendy in “inspirational” women’s writing sense, though I’m going to talk about the revolution of the earth around the sun sense later in this post)…Let me start over. I’m in one of those seasons in which I’m having a hard time coming up with wise or even coherent things to say on my blog. (You may have noticed that I didn’t post last week.) I promise I’m having smart ideas right now; I’m just wasting them all on my students. (Just kidding about the “wasting” part, students!) I’m having a ball teaching three literature classes this semester: children’s, dystopian, and my usual intro to lit with a little bit of composition thrown in. The fun part about teaching multiple back-to-back classes in a day is that a topic from an earlier class might lead to an apt illustration coming to my mind in a later class. Yesterday, the sinking of the Titanic came up in both of my classes, both times as an oddball illustration that nevertheless seemed to resonate with my students. And I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about World War One in all three of my classes. And I haven’t even seen 1917 yet!

Oh, that reminds me–I was going to say something about the Oscars. I’m mad at 1917, actually, because I picked it to win Best Picture, and it let me down. I’m not ignorant of the historical significance of Parasite‘s win, and I’m mostly pleased that it did, except that it busted my bracket, to borrow a March Madness metaphor. I believe I would have won my family’s prediction competition had I gotten this category correct; as it was, I came in third out of seven (not bad, I guess. *eye-roll*).

Unlike last year, when I very deliberately watched all of the Best Picture nominees before the Oscars, I had only seen one of them this year, Little Women (which I greatly enjoyed, except that I was a bit troubled by the implication that the whole Jo/Bhaer romance was a fabrication added to please the publisher. Did anyone else notice that?). So I’m going to confine myself to making two comments.

  1. I have to say something about my fave category, Best Original Score. Although I would have liked to see my guy Thomas Newman win, I was happy to see the award go to another young composer (and a woman at that), Hildur Gudnadottir, who composed the haunting (yes, I looked it up on Spotify and listened to it in full, along with all the other nominees) score to Joker. I say “another” because last year’s Oscar went to Ludwig Goransson, another member of what I see as the upcoming generation of composers, for his epic and experimental Black Panther score. By the way, if you haven’t seen The Mandalorian yet, Goransson’s very cool score is one reason to check it out.
  2. I have a crush on Adam Driver. I mention this because he was sitting in the front row and they kept showing him. But you know what? I have an even bigger crush on my fiance, Jordan Martinus. And do you know what Adam and Jordan have in common? They have both lived in Mishawaka, Indiana. True story!

Okay, now that I’ve exhausted most of your patience on preliminary stuff, here is what I actually sat down to write. I went for a walk in the park this morning, and although there was snow everywhere and I didn’t see or hear a single bird, I started to have that feeling I get this time of year when spring is juuuuuuust visible on the horizon. It’s like emerging from a tunnel. Some of my usual reliable signs of winter’s approaching end have occurred: the Super Bowl and the Oscars are over (though the Oscars were early this year–did anyone else notice that?); The Walking Dead is coming back soon; it’s still light outside when I sit down at my computer to work for an hour at 5:00 pm. In a month, my students and I will already be back from spring break, and I’ll probably start making more sense in class because I find my brain is generally clearer in the spring. Oh, and there are just over 100 days left until I marry a guy from Mishawaka. (Jordan, in case you were wondering.) Next time I write to you, we’ll be a little closer to the tunnel’s edge.

 

Ebenezer and the Jordan

I promise I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth; I’ve just taken a break from my blog that lasted a little longer than I had planned. I am still figuring out how writing fits into my priorities during this busy, exciting year, but at present, I have no plans to put the blog on a longer-term hiatus.

Today, I want to share an observation that some of you might, rightly, find a little cheesy. All I can say in my defense is that I value symbolism because it helps me begin to grasp the abstract, something that does not come naturally to me.

Let me back up. A few years ago, I wrote a post about the Old Testament account of Ebenezer, the stone that the prophet Samuel set up to commemorate God’s leading of the Israelites. (I recently wrote a short story about this, which I hope to see in print soon–stay tuned.) The word “Ebenezer” is an important symbol for me; I have it engraved on a necklace, and I love its odd, archaic appearance in verse two of my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” If one can have a favorite biblical memorial stone, Ebenezer is mine.

But there are other memorial stones in scripture, and the speaker in a webinar I was listening to this past weekend reminded me of the memorial pile of stones (which doesn’t share a name with a Dickens character) that the children of Israel set up in the middle of the Jordan River after God miraculously allowed them to cross it on dry land. And then I thought about how God has led me to a Jordan of my own–my fiance, whose first name is Jordan. (I told you this would be cheesy.) When I moved out here to Michigan in August 2018, I was excited about my new job and ready for a reboot of my life, but the question remained in my mind–why Michigan, in particular? (No offense, by the way. Honestly, you can read here and here about how much I like Michigan.) And now I know why: so that I would be in the same eHarmony orbit as this wonderful man I’m going to marry in May.

Hither by God’s help I am come.

Georgie plants a garden

Good morning to those of you in the US–I’m in Knutsford, Chesire, UK, and it’s afternoon here, but since most of my readers are five hours behind, I’ll accommodate your greeting preferences.

I am here to tell you a short story today. I heard this story while on a Beatles-themed electric bike tour in Liverpool on Sunday. I have not checked the veracity of this story, and I’m not sure if I will–I have no reason to distrust the tour guide who told it, and besides, I like the story, even if there should turn out to be an element of urban myth to it. The story goes as follows: In Sefton Park, one of Liverpool’s many green spaces, there is a lovely Victorian conservatory called the Palm House. It took a beating during the bombings of World War II, and when the future Beatles were growing up, though it was forlorn, dilapidated structure, plants still grew in it, and young George Harrison used to sneak in through the broken glass and look at the plants. (There’s a lot of trespassing in Beatles childhood lore.) It was here that he developed his alleged lifelong love of gardening, which, as a contemplative practice, makes perfect sense to me as a George Harrison pastime.

Many years later, in the late 1990s, a fund drive was undertaken to restore the Palm House. When the fundraisers approached Harrison to ask for a sizeable donation, he wrote a check to cover the entire amount. And today, the Palm House is restored to its former splendor and the site of city events like the choral concert we heard a bit of on Sunday.

I love this story, I love plants, and I love George Harrison. That’s all for today.

stuff I’m enjoying right now

It’s time for one of those posts I do every once in a while about things I’m into, from no particular category, in no particular order.

1. The Winternight trilogy by Katherine Arden. The book club I was part of in Virginia (I keep in touch with these friends and try to read the books when I can) chose book one, The Bear and the Nightingale, as this month’s pick. I voraciously consumed it in a little less than a week, and now I’m on book two, The Girl in the Tower. (I decided to buy the whole trilogy yesterday in book form yesterday even though I already have two on my Kindle. They’ll look nice on my shelf.) I’m loving this historical fantasy about pre-tsar era Russia, with its beautiful descriptions, nuanced and mostly likeable characters, and a fairy-tale quality that comes through in unexpected ways.

2. Audm. This subscription app allows me to listen to long-form journalism pieces from some of America’s most respected publications. It entertained me (and provoked thought) throughout most of my drive from Michigan to Pennsylvania on Friday. I’ve listened to articles (just to name a few) about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, why most Americans don’t cheat on their taxes, and a man who got out of a white supremacist group in Britain and started working against them at risk of his life. I also listened to a profile of folk singer Rhiannon Giddens, which alerted me to her new album there is no Other, which I then looked up and listened to for the rest of my drive. (item 2.5) It’s a haunting, minimalist album that I’m not going to try to describe because I’m already using pretentious music review cliches. Two thumbs up.

3. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)My mom is working her way through all of Adam Sandler’s movies because she and I are going to see him live next week–another story for another time–and I joined her for this 2017 Netflix original featuring Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, and Emma Thompson, among others. It’s about an ageing artist who has a chip on his shoulder about his declining reputation and, more importantly, who’s made a mess of his relationships with his children. Then he collapses and ends up in a coma, and the kids and his flighty current wife have to figure out what to do. That sounds unpleasant, but the dialogue is fascinating. It’s how real people talk. I aspire to write dialogue like that. There were many moments when I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. And the ending was pretty hopeful, believe it or not. Two more thumbs up.

4. Dirty Turtle at The Meadows Frozen Custard. Last night I made my mom go with me on a sort of summer-kickoff mini-adventure. I wanted to watch the sun set from a spot where I’d never seen it before, visit a war memorial (in honor of Memorial Day), drive with the windows down, and eat ice cream. It was a cloudy evening, so we didn’t see much of a dramatic sunset–plus we were nervous that the community park was serious about closing at sunset and that we would get stuck in there overnight, so we just did a driveby of the war memorial and then drove to a nearby housing development where we parked by a vacant lot on top of a hill and watched what was left of the sunset. But we did get a delicious frozen dairy treat, even though I was envisioning hand-dipped ice cream rather than the soft-serve custard that The Meadows dishes out. That’s okay, though–I ended up really enjoying the Dirty Turtle my mom recommended: chocolate custard with walnuts and salted caramel. I’m not sure why places like this think it’s cute to put “dirty” in the title of their food and drink items; I think in this case it just meant that the ice cream was chocolate? I don’t know. But I could definitely eat one of those again. FYI, The Meadows is a chain of custard parlors (? is that a thing?) in Pennsylvania and Maryland only (I think); perhaps those of you in other locations can suggest this flavor combination to your favorite local ice cream joint.

Let me know what you’re enjoying in the comments!

 

 

 

I figured out why women (still) love Elvis.

I’ve never given much thought to Elvis Presley. I guess I’ve just pictured him hanging out somewhere near the top of a list of “most overrated musical artists of all time.” But I recently acquired a three-disc record album called Elvis: 50 Years, 50 Hits (I got it for free) and have listened to it twice now, and I’ve come to a better-informed opinion. I still think that for someone called “the king of rock and roll,” he has a pretty poor output of actual rock and roll songs. I’ll give him “Hound Dog.” That’s a rock and roll song, and a good one. And he’s got a few others along the same lines, though not quite as good. But his repertoire largely consists of excruciatingly maudlin ballads and swoony doo-wop numbers. It’s the latter category I want to focus on in this post because in listening to them, I think I’ve discovered why Elvis makes women…well, swoon.

It’s the lyrics, first of all. The aforementioned “Hound Dog” has this wonderfully bitter refrain (“well, they said you was high-class/but that was just a lie”) that puts in it the same category as Bob Dylan’s triumphs of nasty schadenfreude (OMG, I just spelled that word without looking it up–high five to me), “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Idiot Wind.” But that song is an exception in more ways than one. Most of Elvis’s songs have a tone not of ill will but of a plea for good will. He creates this persona of a heart-bruised lover who’s been hurt in the past and who is now turning to the unnamed female addressee of the song (with whom many female listeners identify, not by accident) and asking her to be gentle. You don’t have to go any further than the titles of some of the songs to see this persona: “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” “One Broken Heart for Sale,” “I Beg of You.” It’s as if he says to each fan, “I’ve been hurt in the past, honey, but I know you won’t do that to me.” (I’m pretty sure that’s not an actual Elvis lyric, but it could be.)

And there’s something incredibly endearing about that. I won’t make an overgeneralization and say all women, but many women are attracted to a man who is hurt, whether physically or emotionally, and needs our help. The cynical interpretation of this phenomenon would be that we like the power this gives us over a man; the more generous interpretation would be that we (everybody, but especially women) have an innate desire to nurture and care for people. The truth is that it’s probably a combination of the two. I have no idea whether Elvis Presley gave conscious thought to the psychology of all this, but I think he instinctively knew these things.

There’s an implied subtext in most of this songs–occasionally made explicit, as in “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear”–that goes something like this: “If you treat me gentle, baby, I’ll treat you gentle too.” (Shoot, I think I missed my calling as a songwriter.) And this message, I would add, is not only sweet but also essential in a culture like ours in which masculinity is often portrayed as mutually exclusive with kindness and tenderness. If that message is sentimental, maybe we need a little sentimentality.