Wednesday, December 26, 2018

"Heaven or Las Vegas" by Cocteau Twins (150 Albums by Women #138)

NPR compiled a list of the 150 greatest albums created by women. I've decided to listen to these albums, from #150 all the way up to #1. But to give myself a bit of forward momentum and have a sense of when I was "done" with each album, my method is to listen to the album one time all the way through, then with each subsequent listen, I'd remove my least favorite. This lets me listen to the best ones most frequently without having to sit through too many that didn't work for me at all.

I've never really listened to Cocteau Twins before, but this album has such a fascinating sound to it. The blurb on the NPR piece talked about their use of the vocals as an instrument rather than a standout piece, and that's absolutely correct. The lyrics are incomprehensible in nearly every song but that doesn't matter at all, since the emphasis is all on the auditory experience rather than any textual meaning. These songs are all interesting to listen to but they sort of blend together into one giant soundscape, so I'm not sure I can say anything about these songs individually. By the time I got to the top five I had JUST started being able to separate them out from each other, but these top five all have elements that I find sonically interesting. So, in a break from my typical style, I'm not giving comments and will just list my top five, since they're all good but blur together in my mind.

5. Fotzepolitic

4. Heaven or Las Vegas

3. Iceblink Luck

2. I Wear Your Ring

1. Frou-frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires

The albums I've listened to thus far in this project, in order:
  1. The Roches - The Roches
  2. Robyn - Body Talk
  3. Norah Jones - Come Away With Me
  4. The Breeders - Last Splash
  5. Patty Griffin - Flaming Red
  6. Iris Dement - My Life
  7. Cocteau Twins - Heaven or Las Vegas
  8. Alicia Keys - Songs in A Minor
  9. The Bangles - All Over the Place
  10. Oumou Sangaré - Moussolou
  11. Terri Lyne Carrington - The Mosaic Project

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Cast Album Discoveries: The Memory Show

I've been alternating the albums in my Top 150 Albums By Women project with cast albums, so I'll share my favorite five from these as I listen to them as well. 

I knew absolutely nothing about The Memory Show when it got added to my rotation. I have a giant list of musicals I don't know and choose from them at random when I need a new one to listen to. Turns out, this is a two-woman musical about a mother and daughter working through their troubled relationship after the mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. The music is often very discordant and jarring, and the mother's songs are written in a range that make her often very unpleasant to listen to, but that doesn't necessarily mean I didn't like it. The abrasive sound of many of these songs matches the tone of the lyrics and, I presume, the tone of the show's book as well. Here were my top five from this cast album.

5. When My Mother Dies

One of the more upbeat tunes on the album, which is kind of interesting given that it's a laundry list of all the things the daughter needs to take care of when her mother dies. I find the fairly lighthearted vibe of the song interesting in contrast to the lyrics, and then the transition to a more serious tone in the latter half of the song is very moving.

4. Lullaby

This one has gone in bursts for me. At first I was bored by it, then I was very moved by it, and now I can feel it moving back to boredom, but I still like it enough to put it in the top five. I like the simplicity of the lyrics. It closes out the show, with the daughter acknowledging she can't do much to soothe her mother in her final days, but she can give her a home and sing her to sleep with a lullaby. Very pretty.

3. I'm On To Her Now

The least pleasant to listen to of these top five, but the lyrics are devastating -- a window into the fear and paranoia felt by the mother, who is certain that her doctor and her daughter are conspiring to make her think she's crazy so they can lock her up somewhere and take her things. It's a dark and unsettling song.

2. Yom Kippur

A flashback song that goes back to the daughter's memories of growing up with her mom. The first part of the song is a dialogue between the two of them, and the second half is just the daughter singing about how she loves the idea that Yom Kippur lets you change, start over, do something new and be a better person, and how disappointed she is that her mother is "still the same crappy person." I find it very moving.

1. You Remember Him Wrong

The only real duet between the two characters, this song is probably my favorite use of the musical dissonance in this show. The harshness of the chords and the tunes between the two characters (as they sing about their contrasting memories of the mother's now-dead husband) really helps to exacerbate the fact that they don't connect on any level. It's just an interesting one to listen to, and it didn't fade at all the more I listened to it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

"All Over the Place" by The Bangles (150 Albums by Women #139)

NPR compiled a list of the 150 greatest albums created by women. I've decided to listen to these albums, from #150 all the way up to #1. But to give myself a bit of forward momentum and have a sense of when I was "done" with each album, my method is to listen to the album one time all the way through, then with each subsequent listen, I'd remove my least favorite. This lets me listen to the best ones most frequently without having to sit through too many that didn't work for me at all.

Every so often I listen to an album that, no matter how many times I listen to it, just refuses to stick in my head. Album #139, The Bangles' "All Over the Place," is one of those. Reviews of this album call it "infectious" and compare them to the Beatles, but for me all these songs run together in the same nondescript vein. Add to that the fact that I find one of the vocalists borderline unpleasant to listen to, and this one didn't do particularly well for me. Here are the top 5 songs, though really these are all in "meh" territory.

5. Restless. This is by that vocalist I don't like, but I kind of dig the lyrics, so this one made it up to the top five on the strength of those alone.

4. Where Were You When I Needed You. The one thing that draws me to this song is how much fun it is for an alto like me to sing. That "Wheeeeere" at the end of the chorus is in a really nice part of my range, which doesn't happen often with female pop/rock songs, so I enjoyed that.

3. Going Down to Liverpool. This one caught my ear the first time I heard it. It's a cheerful little tune that doesn't have a lot of substance but captures a carefree attitude that's fun to listen to.

2. James. Another early standout. I like that there's clearly a story behind this one, and listening to figure out what it might be is fun.

1. Hero Takes the Fall. This one probably grew on me the most out of all of them. It's got a cool dark sound to it, and I like the lyrics, and the vocals are pretty solid here. It's just a nice little groove. Nothing I'm super excited about but I wouldn't change the station if this came on either.

The albums I've listened to thus far in this project, in order:
  1. The Roches - The Roches
  2. Robyn - Body Talk
  3. Norah Jones - Come Away With Me
  4. The Breeders - Last Splash
  5. Patty Griffin - Flaming Red
  6. Iris Dement - My Life
  7. Alicia Keys - Songs in A Minor
  8. The Bangles - All Over the Place
  9. Oumou Sangaré - Moussolou
  10. Terri Lyne Carrington - The Mosaic Project

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Last 10 Books I Read (Alif-Arrangement)

1. Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. What a strange, fascinating book -- a mix of sci-fi and fantasy and myth and drama. Unlike anything I've read in awhile, and so well-written. 8/10.

2. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. This is a heartbreaking story. It's so beautifully written and captures the slow breakdown of the narrator's mental state through the horrors of war. It makes me really want to see the film adaptation, which I'd never been particularly interested in. 9/10.

3. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. This has become Jacob's favorite book series and he's been trying to get me to read it for forever, so I'm glad I got to it. And it's really interesting. It's got great worldbuilding and plot and is definitely interesting. I'm not sure I'm as sold on the characterization as he is, but, hey, I'm reading the next two books in the series, so we'll see if that changes! For now, 8/10.

4. Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan. This is a great concept for a sci fi story that then becomes one of the most tedious books I've ever read. So very disappointing. 3/10.

5. Anathem by Neal Stephenson. Wow, this was... a verbose read. There are parts of this that I really loved. I liked that it's like half philosophy. I liked the world of the avout, shut away from the world. But the second half of the book takes a turn that doesn't quite work with me, and it is a dense book to read. Like, it takes a lot of work. I'd say like... 5/10.

6. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie. The sequel to #3 on this list, and another good one. But it does feel like what it is -- the middle book in a trilogy -- so it's strange to rank on its own. 7/10.

7. The Annotated Marx Brothers by Matthew Coniam. I'm a moderate Marx Brothers fan, and it was cool to get more info on the movies I knew as well as getting a better view of the scope of their full movie careers. It definitely made me interested in watching a few I hadn't seen yet as well. 7/10.

8. Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. And I finished up the Imperial Radch trilogy. This is good stuff. Very creative and interesting, and it's an extremely satisfying finale. 8/10. Maybe 9/10 for the whole trilogy.

9. As You Wish by Cary Elwes. Just a moment-by-moment sharing of anecdotes of making The Princess Bride. This would not be nearly as interesting if I didn't enjoy the movie so much. I think the idea of including anecdotes from other people involved was also a very smart move and rounded out the story. 6/10.

10. The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn. What an interestingly-written book. These are compelling central characters, but there's so much of this story spent on characters I do not know or care enough about, and overall it kind of falls a little flat. 5/10.

Have you read any of these? What have you been reading lately?

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Cast Album Discoveries: Shrek the Musical

I've been alternating the albums in my Top 150 Albums By Women project with cast albums, so I'll share my favorite five from these as I listen to them as well. 

I really only ever knew one or two songs from the Broadway musical adaptation of Shrek, so I figured I should listen to the rest of it. Let me say first off, this is not a good musical but it's a listenable cast recording because Brian D'Arcy James does all the vocal and emotional heavy lifting here, much like Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen. He sings each song so beautifully it's easier to overlook the cheesy lyrics and mostly-blah melodies. (Seriously, the creative team behind this show are so much better than this. What happened?!)

My five favorites, all of which I do enjoy at least partially:

5. This Is Our Story

My favorite thing about the Shrek story (and I do love the movie) is that it sets up a nontraditional female lead. Sure, she starts out pretty traditional, but by the end it makes the (super rare) point that a not-obviously-pretty woman can still find love and happiness. This song does a pretty good job of capturing the best part of that ending, even though some of the lyrics are pretty cheesy along the way.

4. Don't Let Me Go

While a LOT of these lyrics are pretty bad, the performance energy and upbeat music goes a long way to making it a fun one to listen to anyway.

3. Big Bright Beautiful World (Reprise)

This is a nice reprise because the original version began the show and set the tone of cynicism and having barriers against people, and this is just a lovely, vulnerable little tune of a character coming out of that mindset and professing his love, even though he's not sure it would work. Like I said, Brian D'arcy James really sells these moments!

2. Travel Song

So this one probably wouldn't land this high except I really, really enjoy the musical theatre technique where two characters each have an individual verse to sing and then they sing them both at the same time. Like, that's one of my favorite things and I love it way too much. (They do it in "I Think I Got You Beat" in this show as well, but that song also has like 45 seconds of burping and farting sounds, so... nah.) This one is just jaunty and enjoyable and fluffy.

1. Build a Wall

I am in no way surprised that this won. It was the only one of these top five that I already knew, and I liked it a bit already, but it has the fewest awkward lyrics of the whole show and it allows Brian D'Arcy James to act the heck out of it and make me genuinely care about his character. It's the only one of these that I'm likely to actually add into my regular listening rotation.

Anybody out there really love this show? Or really hate it? Share your thoughts and your own favorites in the comments!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Teaching Through Depression

Disclaimer: This ended up being a much more personal blog to write than I expected, since this is something I'm struggling with a lot lately. As a result, I'm not sure it's helpful or coherent, it might just be personal rambling. But for what it's worth... here ya go.

In an effort to start blogging again, I asked folks to anonymously suggest a few things they'd like to see me blog about. Today we'll be tackling this suggestion: "Blog idea: teaching through depression. How to balance the mental health issues with a profession that requires a lot of energy." This is especially fun to tackle right now because I am in the midst of a VERY intense depressive/anxiety period as I'm also preparing to jump with both feet into a new semester of teaching... so some of this is me talking it out to myself and figuring out my answers because some days I just don't know.

Let me start by saying that I feel very fortunate in that my job is people heavy but is also something I really love doing. I truly feel I am called to teach. That love of what I do gives me extra reserves of energy when I am feeling low than I would have if I was doing something I loved a little less. Many of the teachers I know feel the same way, and it's something I just had to trust would be true when I went into this profession in the first place.

My teaching job is also a little bit different from a traditional classroom teacher. Some weeks my schedule is "lesson plan for 6 hours, then drive to a school and teach a 2-hour class," while other weeks it may be more like "teach at one school from 8-2, drive to another school to teach an after-school class for 45 minutes, then drive to the theater to teach a conservatory class for an hour and a half." This means I have both advantages and disadvantages that classroom teachers usually don't, so the advice I give here can only be specific to me and may not apply to any teachers reading this. Sorry if it is ultimately unhelpful, but I'll definitely share what I can.

A couple of things that I use to make teaching easier when depression is not.

I take advantage of breaks as much as possible. Really, this is a pretty typical piece of introvert advice, but it is also super helpful for depression stuff. Bathroom breaks, lunch breaks, the 2 minutes before students come flooding into your room, whatever you can take. When I'm on an all-day teaching schedule, I always try to eat lunch in my car. Shutting myself out for that 30 minutes gives me the strength I need to come back and be my best for the kids again later. Speaking of which...

Don't feel guilty about taking that time. One of the most useful tactics I've found for communicating to people that I need to disappear or take some time to myself is explaining that it's not just about what I feel like doing, it's that I am not at my best when I am stretched or overpeopled. You aren't being selfish if you take care of yourself. If I don't take the alone time I need, I become a worse teacher. I get irritable and impatient. My words aren't as clear as I want them to be. Your quest of self-care is not just about making sure you feel great, it can be just as much about making sure you can be great for others. Teachers are sometimes expected to just give and give and give, and so many of the best teachers feel guilty about not being able to give more. It is 100% okay to tell yourself, "This week, to be able to give, I have to say no to every other non-essential request that comes my way." Ignoring your self-care helps nobody.

I'm careful about criticism. This is one of those things that sometimes gets mocked in the realm of self-care, but I know when I'm in my worse depression times, my brain is ready to twist all the criticism it hears into a scathing indictment of my core identity. It's not rational, it's not reasonable, but a simple "I disagree" can turn into something horrific in my head. Since it's not reasonable to ask others to tiptoe around me when I'm in this state, I do my best to counteract it myself. I put myself out there a little less until I'm feeling better. I hide social media posts and comments I'm not ready to read. (If all my friends weren't online, I'd probably stay off social media altogether.) Just for a little while, just so I can get my thoughts together and react to it all in a way that is helpful and good for everyone involved.

Plan ahead. I'm a teacher. I have depression. Those two things are likely to be true together for sometime, so that means I can plan for when depression gets worse by setting up routines that will make my life easier when it hits hard. For example, I plan lessons out as far in advance as I can when I'm feeling good because when depression hits and I find myself staring blankly at a computer screen for hours, I have a little bit of leeway. While I'm usually comfortable with a little organized chaos in my classrooms, I try to establish set routines and enforce them consistently so that on days when I'm teeming with anxiety, I can relax a little bit and know things won't fall apart entirely. This may look a little different for everyone, as their depression and teaching won't be identical to mine, but the general idea is, I think, widely applicable.

Final thing to note, just one more time: I am not particularly good at this. I say some of this as if I actually have answers, but really these are just a few things I've latched onto that seem to be working right now. Writing this blog during a week when depression has been especially tough and I feel like it's completely robbing me of my ability to teach well has just heightened this for me. So this week I've been trying to hold onto the truth I know about myself: I am a pretty decent teacher. I won't feel this crappy forever. I've managed so far to find enough spoons to give to my students even when I don't have enough to give to myself, and most likely I'll be able to continue.

I feel like this blog has bounced wildly between optimism and pessimism. That's because I'm currently fighting that battle within myself, and I have no idea how much that is going to come across to anyone else.

I will close with this, I guess. Teaching is awesome and great and I'm so lucky to be able to do it and to know that every day I work I have the opportunity to do something really meaningful. And that's nice to remember when I feel stuck in "everything I do is awful" mode as I have been lately.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

My Favorite Fictional Relationships

In an effort to start blogging again, I asked folks to anonymously suggest a few things they'd like to see me blog about. Today we'll be tackling this suggestion: "Discuss your favorite fictional relationships (romantic or otherwise) and what makes them so." While I don't think I can say this is a definitive list, I can at least offer a couple of my favorites. I find that most of these are from TV because you really don't get as much of a chance to see the ins and outs of a relationship in a movie or a play.

1. Leslie and Ben from Parks and Recreation. Honorable mention to April and Andy, but Leslie and Ben's is a little bit more grounded in reality. I like how they problem solve and listen to each other and appreciate each other's strengths and differences. I like how they're different from each other but not along stereotypical male/female lines. And I LOVE watching them support each other's goals.

2. Darryl and White Josh from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. In a show where a lot of people who have zero idea how to relationship, these two are so refreshing. We get to see them deal with their insecurities and, ultimately, talk through them and come out stronger. When they eventually hit an issue that is a dealbreaker from them, we see them realize they're both dealing with it badly and break up in a surprisingly mature way, but not one that downplays the pain of it. They're just such a fantastic pair, and I love watching their trajectory.

3. Tracy and Link from Hairspray. This might just be because the overweight girl never ever ever ever gets the hot guy, and it's so delightful to see it happen. But I love them together. I love how she gets so passionate about righting wrongs and how it challenges him to step out of his own bubble.

1. Daria and Jane from Daria. The two of them against the world is always fun, but I also like that they aren't carbon copies of each other, and it's a little jarring for them when they realize that because they think of each other as so similar in so many ways. This means we get some really interesting disagreements and moments where one wants to move forward and the other doesn't, and they don't quite know how to deal with that. But mostly it just makes me thankful for the snarky friends I've had throughout the years

2. Troy and Abed from Community. What I love about this relationship is how fully they love and support each other's quirks. There are a lot of ways in which they are different (though Troy's faux-cool-guy routine from season one makes way for his much deeper seated true geekery as the show goes on) but they find a way to connect and learn to understand and appreciate each other's differences. This is basically me and all my friends, and I love it.