My 2017 – Using words

In the spirit of routines and trying to buck some of the frustration that comes with this season, I am again putting out a series of reflection and planning posts, including this reflective essay, by the numbers listicle, and best of 2017.

Last year, and 2015.

I am in a bind to start this post. How can I write about 2017 without sounding like a knock-off version of Dickens? It was the best of years, it was the…yeah.

The past year was busy, both because I took on (and accomplished) a lot and because it felt like the world careened from one potential catastrophe to another. Things are still holding together, but the ride was draining. I have written and called my elected officials and turned out to protest more than at any time in my life (I also had the unpleasant feeling of insignificance that comes with the impression that your representatives are not listening), and much the way that fire consumes all available oxygen, I discovered for the first time in my adult life that I did not have the energy to really keep up with the “news,” let alone to follow much international news. This is not the only reason that I am coming into the New Year exhausted, but it is a contributing factor.

But 2017 was not all bad. I finished my degree, and I have an unopened cylindrical mailer that (I think) contains a diploma to prove it. I’ve had pieces of academic writing, including an article and a book review, accepted for publication, with more under review and I have made progress on a book proposal to try to sell my dissertation as as book. And this is before counting the half dozen talks that I gave, proposed, or prepared in the past calendar year to go along with the dozens of job applications.

I am proud of the work I did this year, but there were also less visible changes taking place. In the second half of 2017 I renewed my focus on PROCESS. For instance, I joined two writing groups, one in person and one online, and used these as an excuse to build good habits. I started waking up early so that I can dedicate an hour of writing first thing in the morning and keeping a log of the time I spent writing distraction-free, and had the pleasure of watching a steady increase. Setting weekly goals has helped me learn how to keep things realistic, and learning to share works in progress has helped strengthen the things I write. Similarly, between reading about writing and working on book proposal, I have been thinking a lot about writing for audiences rather than writing simply to make my argument. One of those is a lot easier to read. I won’t claim expertise in any of these things and I don’t know that these practices have necessarily increased the speed at which I work, but they have improved my writing and should serve me well going forward.

This past fall I also taught my first college course as a PhD. I had a lot of fun teaching the course and think that I would only change about a third of it for the next iteration. In brief, with a lot of people who were history majors but without much knowledge about ancient Greece, I sought a balance between content, historical practice through engagement with primary sources, and interactive, student-driven learning. The results were uneven, with the distinct feeling that trying to do all three meant that none of them was done quite to my satisfaction. I also felt that I learned as a teacher last semester, particularly in terms of ceding power as the instructor in order to give the students the tools and the agency to learn in ways beyond rote memorization. I know this material, but learning is more than playing a game of telephone through the students to an exam. I witnessed exceptional growth in a number of my students, which has me excited all over again for the two courses I am teaching next semester.

My non-academic reading pace took a step back last year, finishing just fifty books, though several took a lot of investment and I gave more time to reading things for professional use, so it comes out about in a wash. The big change was a breakthrough in terms of diversity, with 38% of the books I read last year being by women. I would still like to read a little more non-fiction and some more African and/or African American literature, but I read more books by women in 2017 than in the previous four years combined(!) and discovered some of my favorite authors along the way.

I continue to live with a wonderful and supportive person, I learned some new recipes for baking, continued to learn languages with Duo Lingo and stayed physically active, including lifting weights and playing basketball. I still had periods of extreme anxiety and wore down at the end of semesters, both of which too often result in snapping at people close to me, but I also felt like I was willing to smile and laugh just a little bit more easily while taking the time to appreciate a view…though the latter might be a side effect of looking for the next picture to post on Instagram. Despite a high level of uncertainty about the world at large and about my future in particular, I am in a good place right now. Going into 2018 I am taking a moment to reflect on this fact, to appreciate steps that got me there, and then to get back to work.

But first, some goals for 2018.

The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable

  • Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
  • Be more patient and charitable with people I know and tolerant of distraction (while working to limit them)
  • Smile more often.
  • Continue to exercise, maintain or improve health, flexibility and fitness.
  • Take more time for mindfulness exercises

The concrete and quantifiable

  • Write more often, here, there, and beyond. Some specific (but not a complete list of) quantifiable goals:
    • Sell my first academic book, based on my dissertation
    • Finish a draft of my novel….which would mean working on it
    • Complete and send off (3) articles to academic journals
    • Apply to review (1) academic books
    • Find one non-blog, non-academic site to publish a piece of writing, either fiction or non-fiction

    • Keep up my non-academic reading, but continue to expand my horizons, meaning:
      • Read at least (52) nonacademic books. I fell just short of this last year.
      • I crushed my goal of (10) and the revised goal of (25%) with almost 40% being by women in 2017. In 2018, my target is at least (33%).
      • I read (7) non-fiction books (not for academic purposes) again in 2017; in 2018 I want to hit (10).
      • I added a category of “professional development” non-fiction books in 2017, reading (3) titles. In 2018 I would like to read (6). Right now this is a separate list, but I may merge them this year.

My 2017 – By the Numbers

In the spirit of routines and trying to buck some of the frustration that comes with this season, I am again putting out a series of reflection and planning posts, including this by the numbers, a reflective essay, listicle, and best of 2017.

There are any number of numbers that have been used to quantify the experience of 2017, including how much average temperatures rose, stock market tickers, voters suppressed, emails leaked, dollars spent on political advertising, number of people displaced from Syria, total human population on Earth, instances and casualties of mass- and police-shootings—plus happier statistics that aren’t necessarily kept such as weddings, child-births, mitzvah, or trivialities like cups of coffee, diapers, or speeding tickets. Here are some numbers about my year.

1 – classes taught
—2 classes scheduled for 2018
4 – article submissions
—0 rejections
—2 requested revise and resubmit
—1 accepted for publication
—1 book review accepted for publication
3 – academic presentations
—2 papers based on my dissertation research
—1 paper on other research
3 – abstracts submitted for upcoming conferences
—1 accepted
—1 rejected
—1 under review
499 – pages in an approved dissertation
1 – novels started still underway
34 – job applications submitted
—1 job interviews received
—2 applications due in January (that I know of)
6 – states visited
—1 province visited
3 – ultimate frisbee leagues participated in
—1 ultimate frisbee team captained
50 – books read for non-academic purpose [-9 from 2016]
—11 original languages
—7 non-fiction books
—19 books by female authors [+11 from 2016]
—16126 pages (since March)
37 – comic books read
104 – blog posts published
— 44 book reviews
— 13 posts about politics
— 16 posts about the ancient world
282 – Instagram posts

As usual, these numbers mean nothing, anything, and everything. There are other metrics, but they are proprietary of NUDEAN-inc, a private analytics organization. A NUDEAN spokesperson is cagey when asked to share the areas of life quantified while keeping the actual numbers secret, leading one to speculate that the data is only being haphazardly recorded. Whether this situation is a product of gross incompetence or because many aspects of human life cannot or should not be quantified is a judgement left to the reader.

My 2017 – Listicle

In the spirit of routines and trying to buck some of the frustration that comes with this season, I am again putting out a series of reflection and planning posts, including this listicle, a reflective essay, by the numbers, and a best of 2017.

Getting back into the swing of things, 2015 and 2016.

For 2017:

Three international news stories I’m following going into this year

  • Ongoing crises in Turkey, including terrorist attacks, the war in Syria, and centralization of power
  • Refugee crises around the world, particularly the continuing plight of people living in camps on the Greek islands.
  • Really, this list could go on, but almost everything I’m following is too depressing to mention

Six favorite books that I read in 2017

  • Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
  • The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin
  • We, Yevgeni Zamyatin
  • The City and the City, China Mieville
  • The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck
  • But What If We’re Wrong, Chuck Klostermann

Five Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading in 2018 [To my shame, there are two repeats from 2016]

  • 1493, Charles A. Mann
  • Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig
  • Assassin’s Quest, Robin Hobb
  • Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Sugar Street, Naguib Mahfouz

Four movies I saw in theaters in 2017 that were totally worth the price of admission

  • Wonder Woman
  • Get Out
  • Kedi
  • Blade Runner 2049

Four TV Shows I have been watching (or watched) in 2017

  • The Good Place
  • Brooklyn 99
  • Shameless
  • The Vietnam War

Three music groups I’ve newly been listening to in 2017

  • Tristan Prettyman
  • The Bangles
  • Lake Street Dive

Two books I once started, but didn’t finish…that I’d like to give another shot in 2017 [No change from 2016]

  • Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  • Bleak House, Charles Dickens

One achievement unlocked in 2017

  • Doctor of the Philosophy of History

The Book of Words – Jenny Erpenbeck

I slide my hands across the white letters on the fence boards, there’s a spotlight shining on them, and my father reads aloud: Silence is health.

The girl has a mother and a father, a wet nurse and a friend. She knows other people, too, obviously. Her grandmother, the gardener, her piano teacher. She is not allowed to go outside alone and she can hear cars backfiring, or are those gunshots?

Ostensibly set South America, probably during Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War” between 1974 and 1983), The Book of Words follows the interior life of an unnamed girl. Her consciousness awakes gradually and her thoughts become more complex making it apparent that the book is built around the stories about the world that adults tell to children.

The Book of Words is a short book light on plot to put into a synopsis, particularly if one wants to avoid revealing the occupation of the girl’s father. Instead, there are the themes. First, the relationship between a child and the adults who answer her questions and teach her about the world. These relationships form the cornerstone of the book because it shapes how the girl interacts with people such her father’s friend the doctor who treats her when she has a fever and the woman she witnesses being dragged onto a bus by two men. She is shielded from the horrors of living under a repressive regime, until she is isn’t.

In short, The Book of Words is a powerful novella with a brilliant and subtle character development over the course of its 90 pages. Erpenbeck’s decision to anonymize the girl at the heart of the story universalizes it and places the emphasis on the visual imagery of the stories she is told, such as the saint who died crossing the desert and the snow-capped mountains that she has never seen. She lives in the world of the stories that she has been told, which she passes on to her friend who has stories of her own. The Book of Words floats through a dreamlike state before reaching a gutting a conclusion.

This is the third of Jenny Erpenbeck’s books I have read (all in translation, but hers are high on my list of books I’d like to try in German). I loved The End of Days, but was unmoved by the story collection The Old Child. In my opinion her stories felt underdeveloped, but, then, I often have this reaction to short stories. I had no such problem here. The Book of Words reaffirmed my love of Erpenbeck’s prose and I am looking forward to reading more.

ΔΔΔ

I am still running behind on writing about books I’ve read, having finished and developed opinions about Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer and Dan Simmons’ Ilium. I am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

Best* Posts of 2017

It is that time of year. Once again I want to highlight some of the favorite things I wrote this year (last year’s list). I will probably publish a few more posts before the end of the year, including starting my end of year reflection posts. These are not necessarily the best or the best-trafficked, but rather things I wrote that I look back on fondly and think are worth revisiting.

First, I wrote more about the ancient world than I have in past years. A few highlights:

Person and People: Herodotus

Mass Persuasion (Again)

Class Warfare in fifth century Ionia

Isocrates, on the importance of history and oratory

Herodotus on rejecting the expertise of physicians

More Political Wisdom from Ancient Greece

Isocrates, on Corrupt Politicians

Alternate Colors

The Fate of Oratory

Did Alexander the Great suffer from CTE?

Second, three posts about contemporary events:

Re-evaluating Antisemitism

Write to your Senator

Privilege and Deportation

Finally, two posts about books:

EQ in fantasy literature

A Review of Infinite Jest

Between this blog and my academic projects, 2017 was good year for my writing. I would still like to engage more with current events, but the problem with this goal is that it would require writing on demand which, at least in the past, has not been my strong suit.

The Master of Go – Yasunari Kawabata

Set in Japan 1938, The Master of Go is a dramatic recounting of a title match between an unnamed Master who has never lost a ranked game and an up-and-coming challenger, Otaké. The game is timed, but with an unusually long allotment and the final move of each session being sealed before the judges, the other player being left in the dark until the start of the next session when the stone is placed on the board and play resumes. This cycle lasts for months, with the master being in poor health and the challenger having family responsibilities. Behind the semi-rustic setting of the matches, the casual gambling on games of chess and other competitions, and the solemn rituals that govern play, however, is the underlying tension created by tradition colliding with the modern world.

This underlying tension being played out along two avenues, both in the game itself and in the match as a calm center in the midst of a larger world–both stated (newspapers such as the one the narrator works for sponsoring Go tournaments), and only alluded to (the Japanese invasion of Manchuria) were, to me, the strongest elements of The Master of Go. The personal tension between two stubborn Go players provided the immediate drama, but it could have been left with just two marginally likeable characters. Framing the match in the larger context gave depth to the description of the game as a battlefield and pathos to the suffering of the Master.

Ultimately, however, my appreciation of The Master of Go was limited by my inability to grasp the nuance of the game itself, which features prominently in the narrative. The book was originally written in Japanese and, based on the way in which Kawabata talks about Go in the novel, I suspect that he assumed his readers would have at least a basic understanding of the game. Given this limitation, I found myself more interested in the historical match and the players on which The Master of Go. For instance, although Kawabata presents the Master as a traditionalist who opposed change, Hon’inbo Shusai (Hoju Tamura) had a scandalous reputation. While at the game board, he abused the adjournment privileges by calling the game at a time that allowed him to consider his next move or, sometimes, abandoning games before completing them…particularly when there was a chance he might lose. Away from the board, he had many rivals, one of whom alleged that he sold his title of Hon’inbo for cash. A rather different picture than the one painted by Kawabata, who used this famous match as an opportunity to ask another set of questions.

I enjoyed moments of The Master of Go, and Kawabata’s prose worked for me (much like a lot of the other Japanese literature I have read, actually).In the end, though, I was unable to appreciate it as much as I would have like. I suspect that there is a Nobel-worthy story in there, provided only that the readership has the background necessary to appreciate it.

ΔΔΔ

I have been slow in my reading for the past few months just because life has been busy and I have been even slower about writing about what I have managed to read. I am still working through my thoughts of Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer and just finished reading Dan Simmons’ Ilium. I am still planning to do write ups of these books, but I also might change the format of these posts or abandon them altogether in favor of some other type of blogging. The problem with doing this, of course, is that requires time and energy that I don’t have to spare at the moment, so we will see. This afternoon I started reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s novella The Book of Words.

Mass Persuasion (again)

Sometimes when you see a theme, it starts to appear everywhere. That is what is happening with the ancient Greek truism that people in a crowd are more vulnerable to persuasion in a way that the individual is not. Two more instances:

The Athenian ambassadors spoke as follows: “Since the speeches are not going to happen before the majority, there is no way for us to deceive the listeners and seduce the masses once and for all with uninterrupted speech safe from cross-examination (for we know that this is the reason we have been led before the few)…

οἱ δὲ τῶν Ἀθηναίων πρέσβεις ἔλεγον τοιάδε. ἐπειδὴ οὐ πρὸς τὸ πλῆθος οἱ λόγοι γίγνονται, ὅπως δὴ μὴ ξυνεχεῖ ῥήσει οἱ πολλοὶ ἐπαγωγὰ καὶ ἀνέλεγκτα ἐσάπαξ ἀκούσαντες ἡμῶν ἀπατηθῶσιν (γιγνώσκομεν γὰρ ὅτι τοῦτο φρονεῖ ἡμῶν ἡ ἐς τοὺς ὀλίγους ἀγωγῆ)…

Thucydides 5.85, in the opening gambit of the Melian Dialogue.

And the common people marveled [at the arrival of Alcibiades and Chalcideus] and were concerned. The conspirators had arranged that the council happened to be in session, and Chalcideus and Acibiades gave speeches, saying that many more ships were on their way and concealed the naval blockade around Speiraium. So first Chios and afterward Erythrae revolted from Athens.

καὶ οἱ μὲν πολλοὶ ἐν θαύματι ἦσαν καὶ ἐκπλήξει: τοῖς δ᾽ ὀλίγοις παρεσκεύαστο ὥστε βουλήν [τε] τυχεῖν ξυλλεγομένην, καὶ γενομένων λόγων ἀπό τε τοῦ Χαλκιδέως καὶ Ἀλκιβιάδου ὡς ἄλλαι [τε] νῆες πολλαὶ προσπλέουσι καὶ τὰ περὶ τῆς πολιορκίας τῶν ἐν τῷ Σπειραίῳ νεῶν οὐ δηλωσάντων, ἀφίστανται Χῖοι καὶ αὖθις Ἐρυθραῖοι Ἀθηναίων.

Thucydides, 8.14.2, at the outset of the Ionian War.

Class warfare in fifth century Ionia

Two instances: both episodes took place c.412 or 411 BCE, when the Peloponnesian War spilled over into the Eastern Aegean and the cities there began to reject Athenian authority. The first took place on Samos, the second (which took place chronologically earlier) on Chios.

At this time on Samos, the demos* rose up against the ruling class with the support of Athenians who were there with three ships. The Samian demos executed two hundred from elite and condemned four hundred more to exile, distributing amongst themselves their land and homes. After this, the Athenians decreed them autonomous. Henceforth they governed the city, excluding the (previously) prominent men from governance and forbidding intermarriage between them and members of the demos.

Ἐγένετο δὲ κατὰ τὸν χρόνον τοῦτον καὶ ἡ ἐν Σάμῳ ἐπανάστασις ὑπὸ τοῦ δήμου τοῖς δυνατοῖς μετὰ Ἀθηναίων, οἳ ἔτυχον ἐν τρισὶ ναυσὶ παρόντες. καὶ ὁ δῆμος ὁ Σαμίων ἐς διακοσίους μέν τινας τοὺς πάντας τῶν δυνατωτάτων ἀπέκτεινε, τετρακοσίους δὲ φυγῇ ζημιώσαντες καὶ αὐτοὶ τὴν γῆν αὐτῶν καὶ οἰκίας νειμάμενοι, Ἀθηναίων τε σφίσιν αὐτονομίαν μετὰ ταῦτα ὡς βεβαίοις ἤδη ψηφισαμένων, τὰ λοιπὰ διῴκουν τὴν πόλιν, καὶ τοῖς γεωμόροις μετεδίδοσαν οὔτε ἄλλου οὐδ᾽ ἐς ἐκείνους οὐδενὶ ἔτι τοῦ δήμου ἐξῆν.

Thucydides, 8.21.1

*Note: demos is a somewhat loaded term since it can mean the citizen body. Here there is clear differentiation between the super wealthy and the majority. The redistribution of land indicates that Samos was experiencing a consolidation of wealth in the hands of a few, but the extent of this is unknown.

Straightway after the naval battle (Aegospotami) the rest of Hellas deserted the Athenians, save the Samians, who had gained mastery over the polis by carrying out a slaughter of the prominent men there.

εὐθὺς δὲ καὶ ἡ ἄλλη Ἑλλὰς ἀφειστήκει Ἀθηναίων μετὰ τὴν ναυμαχίαν πλὴν Σαμίων: οὗτοι δὲ σφαγὰς τῶν γνωρίων ποιήσαντες κατεῖχον τὴν πόλιν.

Xenophon, Hell. 2.2.6

The reason that they sent these ships was that the majority of the Chians were ignorant of the arrangements. The oligarchs and those in the know were not yet willing to bring war to the majority before they secured their position and because of the delay no longer expected the Peloponnesians to arrive.

αἴτιον δ᾽ ἐγένετο τῆς ἀποστολῆς τῶν νεῶν οἱ μὲν πολλοὶ τῶν Χίων οὐκ εῖδότες τὰ πρασσόμενα, οἱ δὲ ὀλίγοι καὶ ξυνειδότες τό τε πλῆθος οὐ βουλόμενοί πω πολέμιον ἔχειν, πρίν τι καὶ ἰσχυρὸν λάβωσι, καὶ τοὺς Πελοποννησίους οὐκέτι προσδεχόμενοι ἥξειν, ὄτι διέτριβον.

Thucydides 8.9.3

The episode on Chios is not class warfare in the same sense as the episode on Samos was, but very clearly indicates a conflict between the few and the many. Here, the conspirators hoped to lead Chios into revolt against Athens, but were waiting on promised aid from Sparta before making their appeal and therefore sacrificed a squadron of seven ships as a way to avert Athenian suspicion about their motives just a little longer. Thucydides’ phrasing here is interesting. The conspiracy will bring war to Chios against the will of the majority, but it is a close step from that to the conspirators bringing war against to the majority.

Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like About The Last Jedi

I saw The Last Jedi. As a friend put it on Twitter, this is, to date, the best Star Wars film of the twenty-first century. (Look at my excitement!) Like with The Force Awakens and Rogue One, my review is going to be a list of things I liked and didn’t like about the movie, a format shamelessly adapted from ESPN’s Zach Lowe. My usual caveats apply: I have read few reviews, almost none of the background on making of the film and it is possible I am mistaken about some aspects. These are things that stood out to me and may not be the same issues other people had.

Spoilers follow.

  1. While still in graduate school I took a class on the Latin author Seneca, who lived in the first century CE. We dedicated one unit to his plays, during which we read the Phaedra, a play about Theseus’ wife Phaedra’s consuming lust for her step-son Hippolytus who has no interest in her. Phaedra accuses Hippolytus of raping her and Theseus uses a boon to summon a monstrous beast from the sea to kill his son. Seneca infuses the play with contemporary themes, but the play is functionally just Euripides’ Hippolytus, with some new bits. No where is this more notable than in his description of the the sea monster, which more terrifyingly monstrous in his version. In short, this is what is happening in the new Star Wars movies.

    One review that floated by me on Twitter argued that the success of The Last Jedi is in its willingness to discard The Star Wars you know. I disagree. This is an Empire supercut, with dedicated homages to episodes IV, VI, and VII. The new movies are doing some things differently in terms of what story elements are driving plot, which I found problematic for other reasons, but the pieces are basically the same. When I pointed this out for the first movie, I was told to be patient because JJ Abrams was on board to reestablish Star Wars as a franchise and thus his agenda was to do exactly that. Wait for the next installment, they said. The good news, having seen the next installment, is that they are (probably) out of source material to work with now; the bad news is that this movie did basically the same thing.

  2. Continue reading Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like About The Last Jedi

Civilization and its Resources

A few months back I wrote about the rhetorical position taken by the Civilization series. This post cascaded into a desire to teach a course that blends historiography and historically-themed games and while I am not here to announce that I am teaching such a course, I recently found myself again thinking about these issues.

Strategy games operate on economies based largely on resources. The Total War games have a monetary economy paired with population, where the population is necessary to recruit troops, but the real limitation is money that acts as a proxy for all necessary resources. The Age of Empires series used the quartet of gold, stone, food, and wood and included trade and a supply-and-demand marketplace mechanism to manipulate your resource stockpile. Food was the most common resource so long as you had access to wood because you could continually build farms, but maps were finite and so were resources.

Civilization is different. (I am using Civ 5 as representative here.) At first there is stone, wheat, grapes, wild animals. Wood mostly exists for the energy used in construction, which then speeds up building the civilization. The other resources are not immediately usable, but they are visible. As the civilizations progress through the ages, resources become available. Horses, iron, coal, oil, aluminum, and finally uranium. In each case, the civilization constructs the human apparatus (pens, mines, plantations, wells) to exploit the resource, with each location providing a variable amount. Once the resource is exploited, it is available until used and reclaimed once free.

From a game-construction perspective, this makes sense. The long version of the game spans thousands of years and has multiple win-conditions, including technology and culture. Conquest, which is the core of the other games mentioned above, is just one possible outcome. Resources are necessary to achieve any of these conditions and streamlining resource management improves game play. Civilization does offer a facsimile of colonization to find new resources as settlers move into uninhabited lands, but sanitizes the concomitant exploitation. At the same time, though, it is possible to win with only minimal expansion because all resources, are permanent.

Just as there is no slavery in Civilization, neither is there rape of the environment outside the gradual reclamation of swamps and forests for their exploitation by humans.