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Hey, I wrote a thing!

A few months back I received a message on Twitter from a friend. An editor had come to him with an idea for a piece bridging the ancient and the modern, using ancient Greece to confront modern dilemmas, but he was drawing a blank on the specific idea. Do I have anything that might appeal to the editor and, if so, should he pass along my information?

To be honest, I was in a bit of an end-of-semester daze, but I can usually find an argument once I start writing, so I said sure. One phone call and a month and a half of allowing my thoughts to percolate later, I pitched a piece that tied together Hesiod’s Works and Days, methods of divination in ancient Greece, and a doomed invasion of Sicily in 415.

That piece came out this morning on The Conversation.

In short: we live in an iron generation Zeus decrees that people are going to suffer. Risk mitigation requires both human preparation and appeasing the gods, but the steepest consequences of failing to adequately prepare for risk happen when a person’s action or inaction puts the community at risk.

The City We Became

I first came to N.K. Jemisin’s books in 2017, right in the middle of her spectacular run of three consecutive Hugo Awards for best novel that she won for her Broken Earth trilogy. Those books warranted every plaudit they won and right away I knew that I would read almost anything she put out.

The City We Became, released in March of 2020, is Jemisin’s most recent novel, an urban fantasy about five New Yorkers who have to join forces to to confront an existential threat as the city awakens to itself. Naturally, each of the avatars represents an aspect of the city:

  • Manny, an ambiguously multi-racial and queer recent arrival in the city awakens to discover that he has no idea who he is, but he needs to find a homeless man who appears in his visions.
  • Bronca Siwanoy, an older, queer, Lenape woman and PhD who works at the Bronx art center is determined to hold her ground against the encroaching forces of gentrification.
  • Brooklyn “MC Free” Thomason, a city council member from the borough that shares her name and while she might be all business now, she was once a fire-throwing rapper.
  • Padmini Prakash, a Tamil immigrant and math prodigy who lives with her extended family in an apartment complex.
  • Aislyn Houlihan, a fully-grown white woman who lives with her parents, including her abusive, racist father (a cop), and who is deathly afraid of the other four boroughs.

On one level, The City We Became can be read as a breakneck urban fantasy. The heroes are in a race against time to find the keystone avatar of the entire city who they need to find and support against the strange forces that are attacking their city. Each of them has powers rooted in their identities as both people and as avatars of their particular borough (Aislyn’s power even rejects her New York-ness), and in this quest they are aided by other awakened city avatars, including São Paulo who draws his power from the polluted air he consumes (i.e. his cigarettes) and Hong Kong.

However, as story that crosses thriller and urban fantasy, I found The City We Became only okay. Jemisin is a talented writer, but I found the threat a little too existential and the characters a little too fumbling to really propel this book.

Where The City We Became shines is as a social commentary. This is her attempt to write New York as she knows it into existence.

Anyone who is looking to be aggrieved about racial politics is going to find a lot to dislike about The City We Became, but this is a testament to what Jemisin has created. New York and its avatars are a radically diverse collection of people who form the heartbeat of the city. It isn’t exactly the city as I know it as an outsider—I will forever associate it with bagels and pizza and find it more hispanic than depicted in the novel—but I can appreciate it as a variation on a city that I know a little bit. Jemisin’s New York is eccentric, eclectic, and frequently queer, and that is a truer depiction than one that whitewashes the city by looking only at one aspect.

Something similar happens with the existential threat that—not coincidentally—wants to whitewash all of these issues. The enemy appears in numerous guises: The Woman in White, Dr. White, and white fronds that stoke outrage, including by inspiring a group of racist provocateurs the Alt-Artistes. Dr. White works for a shadowy organization that has real estate holdings all over the world. In a word, their goal is gentrification: replacing local character with generic, boring, uniformity that weakens the local power of the awakening cities. It has killed before, and aims to do so again.

In time, The City We Became opens from this New York story to a larger universe of struggle where the awakening of one city means the destruction of another. The Enemy is revealed to be the lost city of R’lyeh. Appropriating a piece of mythos from Lovecraft, a notoriously racist author, as the primary antagonist thus layers references and commentary about the traditions of fantastical literature to the allegory about how local communities become strong through diversity.

Trying to capture the character of a place, particularly in a single book as packed with commentary as this one is, is hard. This sense of place is one of my favorite things about mystery novels, but those usually develop this sense of place across multiple novels as they feel their way through the corners and cracks. Here, in one novel, Jemisin tries to capture five distinct places that are also part of a complete whole. I would say she is on the whole successful. The City We Became is many things, including a rather unusual fantasy novel, but it is not boring. This novel is also supposed to be the first in a trilogy. I don’t know whether that means capturing the character of another city or developing stories based on the characters set down here, but I’m ready to let Jemisin surprise me whatever direction she chooses.

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<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80"><em>The City We Became</em> is the penultimate entry in the backlog of books I wanted to write about. I am still planning to write about Yoon Ha Lee's <em>Machineries of Empire</em> trilogy, and then more recently finished Kathleen Fitzpatrick's <em>Generous Thinking</em>. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste's <em>The Shadow King</em>.The City We Became is the penultimate entry in the backlog of books I wanted to write about. I am still planning to write about Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, and then more recently finished Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King.

Eat a Peach

David Chang’s Eat a Peach cover

David Chang is probably best known for his culinary empire Momofuku, which Wikipedia tells me includes at this point dozens of restaurants. I have only eaten at one, the dessert-themed Milk Bar in Washington DC. In Eat a Peach Chang readily admits that everything else that he does—this memoir, his cookbook, Ugly Delicious, and a dozen other endeavors—are designed to put butts in those seats. At least under normal circumstances since, like so many food establishments, Momofuku’s business has been entirely upended by COVID-19.

Eat a Peach, written with Gabe Ulla, is thus an advertisement for Momofuku that puts Chang and his theories of deliciousness front and center. Obviously, food is everywhere—Chang is a chef and his public persona on shows like Ugly Delicious filters the world through food-colored glasses as an heir to the late Tony Bourdain.

But what particularly stood out to me about this memoir is how it is a study in binaries.

Eat a Peach is divided into two parts. Its first half is a roughly linear narrative of his upbringing in a Korean-American household, his successes with golf that helped get him into Georgetown Prep and subsequent flameout of the sport, and his brief period working in finance, before finally getting to his entry into the restaurant industry. Chang readily admits that he was not good at being a chef, which makes his decision to found Momofuku in 2004 and his chance partnership with Quino Baca—the first and only employee at the Noodle Bar when it opened—even more of a radical gamble.

Chang writes about Momofuku like it is a revolutionary movement. There was a vision behind the original Noodle Bar, yes, but there was also a willingness to overhaul the entire menu when things weren’t working. The employees worked in cadres that participated in a company-wide email list with one objective: how to make their product more delicious. As the company grew and expanded, they formed new cells that oversaw Momofuku Ssām Bar and the Milk Bar.

Woven through this narrative is reflection on mental illness and depression (Chang is bipolar) that manifested in self-destructive tendencies such as drug use and overwork.

These themes come more thoroughly to the fore in the second half of Eat a Peach where Chang tells stories from a time after Momofuku and his public persona had become fixtures of the food world. Food and the restaurants still feature, but in more complicated ways.

For instance, in part one, Chang wraps the reader up in the energy and chaos of starting a restaurants—fights with critics and inspectors, problems of staffing, and the thrill of designing the most delicious menu—that captures difficulties, but also sees the enterprise with rose-colored glasses.

By contrast, Chang takes an introspective turn in part two. His ideals remain the same, but now he interrogates where his instinctive “fuck-you” attitude came from, who it is directed toward, and its relationship to his mental health. He talks about his experience with an executive coach who helped him see both how special the thing he created was and how his behavior caused those around him, including customers and staff, to live in fear of his anger. Far from leading a food revolution to bring high-end food to the masses, Chang realized that he was leading a cult. Followers were expected to give up their personal lives and commit their entire beings to the restaurant.

Ultimately, Eat a Peach is a reflection on growth—of the Momofuku empire, yes, but also personal growth in a way that I found particularly satisfying. There were times that Chang’s story resonated a bit too much (my anxiety manifests in a tendency toward overwork as well), but what elevates this memoir for me was how Chang works to de-center himself. He talks lovingly about his wife Grace, his son, and how they learned of her pregnancy the day after his close friend Tony Bourdain died. He lavishly distributes praise for Momofuku’s success. He talks endlessly about his long-standing relationship with his therapist. But more than all of that, I appreciated how Chang talks openly about his mistakes and blindspots, whether in cavalierly dismissing the chefs of California or contributing to a kitchen culture that was hostile to women, and that he acknowledges that talk only goes so far. Proof comes in the form of actions, and it is no coincidence that the cover art is meant to evoke Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus.

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I’m still making my way through a backlog of books I want to write about, including N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking, and Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King.

What is Making Me Happy: “Golden Child”

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular Friday/Saturday feature.

This week: Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters, “Golden Child”

Sometimes I just get a song or album stuck in my head. Recently, that song has been “Golden Child.”

To back up a little bit, I discovered The Honeycutters, an Asheville-based Americana band, on Spotify a few years ago when their songs started to appear on my algorithmically-derived playlists. Their 2015 album Me Oh My remains one of my favorites of recent years, particularly with the titular track, and the two songs “Jukebox” and “Lucky.” I just adore the voice of Amanda Anne Platt, who also writes their songs—since 2017, the band has officially (and deservedly) been Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters—and her lyrics swing between a restrained happiness and utter devastation in a way that I find very affecting.

This week I found myself listening to another of their albums, 2016’s On the Ropes, and was once again particularly moved by the song “Golden Child.” This is a sad, wistful tune about heartache that I find utterly devastating even as it is not particularly sad. It is a song of isolation, but one that makes peace with life.

Not hard to talk to, is she?
Yeah, she makes it easy
she looks like what you wanna hear
I used to need that from you
to make me feel like something special
standing back stage with a guitar and a beer

I also love how On the Ropes follows “Golden Child” with the upbeat ditty “The Handbook” about courtship.

In short, while I am a fan of basically everything that Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters have put out, “Golden Child” has particularly been making me happy this week.

I've been a golden child
I've been a lonely country mile
and an am gospel choir crackling through the wires
don't you touch that dial

Planet Taco

In the fall of 2016, a co-founder of Latinos for Trump went on MSNBC and warned:

My culture is a very dominant culture. It is imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”

The comment came in the midst of a contentious election and was meant to conjure images of a flood of immigrants from Latin America that would scare the sorts of people for whom Ron Swanson’s skepticism about ethnic food was no joke:

Ron Swanson: "I don't much go for ethnic food."
Ron Swanson, Parks and Rec 3.2, “Flu Season”

For most of the people I know, this sounded like a promise and we’re still waiting.

Jeffrey Pilcher’s book Planet Taco unfortunately predates this political context. Instead, it tackles a different, but no less contentious, issue: what even is Mexican food?

Pilcher’s argument, at its most basic, is that authentic Mexican food doesn’t exist. Or rather, that any claim to authenticity is fundamentally a political statement.

The book opens with an introduction, “A Tale of Two Tacos.” The one of those is a Mexican street taco made fresh on the spot off the beaten path in a small Sonoran city, served with beer and with some lawn chairs as a dining room. The second is a Taco Bell taco, served off a production line into pastel-colored dining facilities at about the same price point.

To ask which of these two is more authentic, Pilcher argues, is to miss the point. As much as authenticity is meant to appeal to a particular sort of identity, it also creates that identity and, ultimately, serves as a marketing buzzword. Pilcher’s core contention, therefore, is that “Mexican food” is actually a range of regional cuisines in and around the modern nation-state of Mexico. These regional dishes might have overlapping flavor profiles and some common ingredients, but they are the product of distinct historical, environmental and technological processes (including immigration) that gave rise to distinct traditions that are each as authentic as the next.

This is the sort of history that I eat up (pun intended). Pilcher punctuates each chapter with contemporary recipe cards for the recipes that he’s talking about, and covering topics as diverse as nixtamalization, the process designed to counteract the nutritional deficits of maize, to the invention of the hardshell taco and the spread of Mexican restaurants in the United States and around the world.

I will admit that I am geared to be sympathetic to Pilcher’s core arguments. While I cannot speak necessarily to the specific details of how these regional cuisines came into existence, the appreciation of the regionality of individual cuisines and lending to each of those an authenticity of their own was a welcome pushback against the impulse that identifies and canonizes a single original, using that to discredit all other comers. As Pilcher rightly points out, this impulse becomes particularly toxic when it becomes bound up with a particular national project that normalizes the group in power and is used to further marginalize everyone who dose not conform.

Naturally, things become even more complex in a country like the United States that both has “-mex” traditions and where there is a long history of people from one tradition cooking and owning restaurants that purport to serve cuisines that are not their own.

All of this to say, I really liked Planet Taco. It is an academic history book so its tone might be a little esoteric for some readers, but it also gave me a lot of food for thought, as well as a new appreciation for one of my favorite restaurants I’ve eaten at in the past couple of years.

Two summers ago my partner and I had just finished an exceedingly hot day at the Kansas City Zoo and just wanted some food before crashing into our air-conditioned hotel room and be ready for a flight the next morning. We settled on going to Ixtapa, a restaurant in a strip mall on the north side of the city (it now has a second location in Overland Park). We drove around the parking lot a couple of times to get a spot and then had to wait as they finished up an early dinner rush, but soon enough were seated and handed menus. We had barely started to look when a man—the owner, it turned out—came over to ask us if we knew what we wanted.

Guacamole, we said, as an appetizer while we looked at the menu.

I don’t know what he saw in us or what was going on in the kitchen, but he immediately responded, “No, no, no. You don’t want guacamole.”

We stole a glance at each other, but he continued “our guacamole is great, but you can get guacamole anywhere in this country. I’ll serve you.” He grabbed the menus, making some more jokes about generic Mexican food and asking what we wanted to drink.

At this point I stopped him with some dietary restrictions and preferences, which he received with perfect calm and began bringing us food. First he brought quesadillas de flor de calabaza (squash blossom quesadillas), followed by mains of enchiladas nopales (cactus) and a pork special with a raspberry chipotle sauce.

After a while we got to chatting with him and it turned out that this was his restaurant and he was immensely proud of the recipe that he put on the menu. We had managed to avoid some of his favorite dishes, I think, because I’m not wild about seafood, which was something of his speciality, or at least composes the largest single section of the menu. Sure, there the menu has basic Mexican fare, including cheese nachos, but such is the restaurant business. What made Ixtapa special were all of the dishes you can’t find at every taco joint and the clear pride he had in the cuisine of his specific region.

I love generic tacos, too, and have fond memories of finding a fabulous hole in the wall in south Houston for exactly that purpose, and one of my favorite spots in Columbia, Missouri is a Korean taco fusion joint, but each of these examples speaks exactly to the point that Pilcher makes in Planet Taco. Food is an expression of culture that is intimately and inextricably intertwined with the people who are making and consuming it. Rather than indulging in the authenticity wars that use it as a cudgel, let’s celebrate the wide range of possibilities and indulge in the deliciousness of them all.

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Book reviews had been a staple of my content here for a few years because it made for an easy writing prompt and gave me a chance to collect my thoughts on each book. One of the consequences of trying to teach during a pandemic is that I entirely got away from writing those reviews such that I wrote about fewer than a third of the books I read between September and the end of the year and none of the books I have plowed through so far in 2021. I doubt that I will get back to where I write about every book I read—I have too much other writing I need to do, not to mention teaching, and only have so much brain power these days—but in fits and starts and modified ways, I intend to get back to writing about books.

On my list to write about in the near future include: N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became; Yoon Ha Lee’s series The Machineries of Empire, and John Le Carré’s Absolute Friends, and David Chang’s memoir, Eat a Peach. I am currently reading Kathleen Fitzgerald’s Generous Thinking.

What is Making Me Happy: Yoga

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular Friday/Saturday feature.

This week: yoga

I have never been particularly flexible. In the year since the pandemic started, I’ve noticed that my lack of flexibility has gotten worse in my hips and back, probably because the changes have meant more time sitting with poor posture in an office chair overdue for replacement. About a month ago, I decided to do something about this lack of flexibility.

…and now I have a daily yoga habit.

I started with short videos from the Yoga with Adriene channel and gradually expanded the practice to longer, more complex routines. One month into my practice, I have already begun to notice a difference. As great as this benefit is, though, that is only the most obvious reason that yoga is making me happy.

Each of the past several years I have resolved to start a mindfulness practice using the Headspace app. These are okay, and the gamification of the regular habit works for me—there is a reason that I have a 600+ day streak on DuoLingo—but I found the soothing voices mildly annoying and while I do pretty well with just silent meditation, I also have been unable to find the discipline to regularly make time to look for that calm.

Yoga, by contrast, works for me. I often find movement more calming than stillness because it gives me a focus and incorporating yoga into my daily exercise routine means that I actually do it. In addition, the routines that Adriene Mishler puts out emphasize conscious breath and finding time for stillness as part of of the regular practice, so I still get to work my way to periods of meditation at the end of most sessions. . The result is a sweet spot between physical exercise, stretching, and mindful meditation, whether I’m settling my mind before starting work or using it to find calm later in the day when I have a dozen things going on.

What is Making Me Happy: Sea Shanty TikTok

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular Friday/Saturday feature.

This week: sea shanty TikTok

I might need to get TikTok. I am not kidding. Although I test-drive a lot of social media apps, I’ve long thought of TikTok as a platforms for teenagers dancing, which always struck me as a) creepy and b) not really my thing. Then this morning I saw videos of people singing “Soon May the Wellerman Come.”

It started with the artist Nathan Evanss throwing the song up:

Soon, there were entire chains of people accompanying him:

But as great as the male chorus is, my favorite version (so far) was when the musician Mia Asano added her violin to mixed group of singers:

I am not exaggerating when I say I have listened to this version more than a dozen times already today. In the purest expression of what is making me happy, sea shanty TikTok is the best thing I have seen to this point in 2021.

Update: there are more!

1984 Is Here

#1984ishere is trending on Twitter this morning, started by a group of people operating under the delusion that Twitter and its decision to permanently ban Donald Trump’s account constitute the arrival of the totalitarian state imagined in George Orwell’s classic novel. A cursory glance at the tag shows users who superimpose the Twitter logo with the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union or one image of the names of social media companies on the arms of the swastika on the Nazi flag. More frequently, people bemoan that this is yet another sign of “censorship” from those who can’t tolerate divergent opinions. However, even setting aside the various incitement and imminent danger tests for first amendment protections that the events of this week make a reasonable case for, these claims ignore that these are private companies who now deem the banned accounts in violation of their terms of service.

(See also: Simon and Schuster deciding that Josh Hawley’s role in the attempted coup merited cancelling his book contract. This is not cancel culture; actions have consequences.)

1984 does have some commentary about speech, both in the Sapir-Whorf-esque effects of Newspeak and the fear of retaliation and reeducation. After all, Big Brother is watching you. But there’s the rub. Private social media companies like Twitter and Facebook and prominent publishers like Simon and Schuster may seem like they control the marketplace of ideas, but this is not the same thing as absolute state control of the sort that Orwell described. If anything, the former group show the need for more government regulation given their data collection and lack of accountability, and conflating this with totalitarianism demonstrates a facile reading of the book.

(I know, I’m giving people too much credit: most likely know about these things as buzzwords magnified through the very media echo chambers that they’re using the terms to attack.)

Private companies making business decisions about their platforms is not Orwellian, particularly when the social media companies seem to be acting at least in part to lay the groundwork for arguing in front of congress against regulation. Nor is any government regulation you object to automatically Orwellian—at any time, let alone during a pandemic.

1984 is a harrowing book. Doublethink, Big Brother, and the Thought Police sound sinister and are easy topics to latch onto, but they are also easy to misappropriate. More relevant to the present moment are other aspects of the book. Its setting is Oceania, a nation locked in a forever war with one or the other of the global powers (Eurasia and Eastasia) and with the power to absolutely revise history as to who is the enemy. In fact, Winston Smith getting an indication that Big Brother has been deceiving people serves as the inciting incident of the novel. Big Brother himself is a present-yet-distant charismatic leader who serves as a focal point for adoration. It is at his direction that reality is disseminated to his people: only Big Brother can protect you.

Sound familiar? Try this, excerpted from a scene in 1984 about the ritual Two Minutes of Hate:

In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating from the screen. The little sandy-haired woman had turned bright pink, and her mouth was opening and shutting like that of a landed fish. Even O’Brien’s heavy face was flushed. He was sitting very straight in his chair, his powerful chest swelling and quivering as though he was standing up to the assault of a wave. The dark-haired girl behind Winston had begun crying out, “Swine! Swine! Swine!” and suddenly she picked up a heavy Newspeak dictionary and flung it at the screen. It struck Goldstein’s nose and bounced off; the voice continued inexorably. In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes of Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one subject to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

Then the face of Big Brother faded away again, and instead the three slogans of the Party stood out in bold capitals:

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

But the face of Big Brother seemed to persist for several seconds on the screen, as though the impact that it had made on everyone’s eyeballs were too vivid to wear off immediately. The little sandy-haired woman had flung herself forward over the back of the chair in front of her. With a tremulous murmur that sounded like “My Savior!” she extended her arms toward the screen. Then she buried her face in her hands. It was apparent that she was uttering a prayer.

Now try Five Years of Hate.

My 2020: Resolutions

As is now custom, my year-end navel gazing series ends with my resolutions for the new year.

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The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable

  • Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
  • Be more patient and charitable.
  • Smile more often.
  • Exercise to improve health, diet, flexibility and fitness, particularly since my schedule last semester got in the way of these healthy routines.
  • Take more time for mindfulness exercises, something that I have only really come back to at the end of 2020 in the form of daily yoga.

The specific, concrete, actionable

  • Take at least one day each weekend not working, as defined by no work email, no grading, no preparing for courses, and no academic writing. This was a really important habit for me in 2020 and I want to continue into 2021 or even expand it to, gasp, two days off on weekends.
  • I began a daily yoga routine (20+ minutes) at the end of 2020 and will continue that through 2021, as well as taking a daily 10-minute mindfulness/meditation break.
  • Lose ten pounds. I aim to accomplish this both by eating a little less and by gradually increasing my activity levels. I just need to get a new pair of running shoes first.
  • Complete the book manuscript that I’ve been working on based on my dissertation. I wrote this in as a goal in 2020, too, but I have a deadline now and may actually get it done!
  • I completed the two article-length pieces in 2020 even if I didn’t get them out. I want to get both piece out and draft one (1) more, either as a long public-facing piece or an academic article, depending on where it looks like my career is going.
  • Find (1) new academic book to review. This is a repeat from 2020, when I had two book reviews published.
  • Complete the next piece of my research project on bread in ancient Greece. (re-up from 2020)
  • I exceeded my target of reading (12) ancient history or classics books not connected to my research in 2020 even though I fell off dramatically in the second half of the year. I like the practice, so will re-up at at least (12), or one per month even though access might prove as much of an obstacle as time here.
  • I exceeded my goal of 52 other books for 2020 along with all of my diversity markers, but will re-up at the same level:
    • 33% of those books should be by women
    • At least (5) should be by African American authors
    • These books should represent at least (10) different countries and (7) different languages

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Finally, to conclude this series a message for readers: thank you for following along. I have some ideas of posts coming down the pipe in 2021, including an annual revision to my list of favorite novels, but, as usual, content here will reflect my year, what I have the energy to write about, and the fickle fortune of pursuing an academic career.

Whatever I write, I hope you’ll join me. In the meantime, may the coming year be one of warmth and joy for you as we all work to build a better future.

My 2020: Using My Words

Wait.

Hold up.

It’s December already?

It’s the end of December already?

As in, tomorrow is January 1, 2021?

I don’t believe you.

Time flies when you’re having fun, they say, but the real secret is that time flies when you stay busy. Was 2020 every busy. I got off to a roaring start teaching five different classes at two different institutions while also writing and applying for jobs, and then COVID happened. It took my classes online over a weekend and managed to stay one jump ahead for the rest of the semester, but when I emerged I discovered not only that the sudden contraction of university budgets had axed the jobs I had applied for but also that the places where I had been picking up classes didn’t need my services.

Since there was a pandemic going on and I wasn’t in imminent danger of being cast out on the street, I resolved to give myself a couple weeks to recover and work on writing projects. Pretty soon I had a bead on various other employment: an online class in Australia that ended up falling through, reviewing a manuscript that came with a bit of pay, some freelance editorial work. Then the classes started trickling in: one class for a school I’d previously worked (I ended up not teaching this one), then a community college class, then three courses at a local college. Suddenly I was teaching five classes on three different academic calendars at three institutions. Three of the classes I’d never taught before.

Oh, and I took a six week course on online pedagogy in the middle of the fall semester.

What I’m saying is that I’m still waiting for that part of lockdown where I get bored because I’ve exhausted all of my entertainment options.

My year-end essays each of the past few years have largely echoed each other as I grasped for new words to say the same thing. Increasingly, I wrote about my professional experience—giving in to the gremlin telling me to work harder, my failures on the academic job market, the anxiety and exhaustion that comes with being a very contingent professor—concluding last year that I’ve been experiencing stagnation.

In some ways, 2020 was much the same, only with lower peaks and lower valleys. I was more anxious and more tired than ever, but I am as proud of any of the writing I did this year as anything I have done in the past, inclusive of both the work that came out and the material still working its way toward daylight.

Only in the past few weeks have I started coming to grips with how 2020 was different.

The isolation brought on by the pandemic was more annoying than debilitating at first. I’ve lived too far from most friends and family for regular visits for more than a decade so when restrictions pushed everyone online, it actually brought many loved ones closer to me than they had been for some time. Similarly, I suddenly found myself more able to sleep with neither a commute nor an available gym. (I’m still trying to figure out replacement work outs that work with what I have available, though.) Work took more time, sure, but I find working toward clear goals relaxing, so I could often put my head down and dig in.

Reader, this was neither healthy, nor sustainable.

Our decision to be responsible and stay home for the holidays caused the isolation to crash home anew, balancing whatever physical rest we get by avoiding holiday travel with emotional strain of not seeing family.

Much of my exhaustion can be traced to the usual suspects (work, anxiety, depression), but this year has also brought into relief another source of exhaustion: rage. I spent so much time angry this year, often whipping from one target to another. Any list of triggers would be inadequate, and perhaps the most infuriating part is how few of conditions were actually new. COVID didn’t so much create problems as lay bare the fundamental structures of a society where public infrastructure (let alone any pretense of a social safety net) has been dismantled and sold for parts.

Forget a lockdown, many places in the United States didn’t put in place a mask ordinance. There is a restaurant in Jefferson City, MO, about twenty miles south of me, that only started requiring masks a month ago, and then only from 3–5 PM as special “COVID-safe” hours.

I am numb at the fact that hundreds of thousands of Americans have died and millions more could have long-term health complications—maybe now a dreaded pre-existing condition, who knows!—with millions more out of work or with limited income and yet so many people seem to have simply given up anything more than token efforts. Not to let a good crisis go to waste, the profits of billionaires have soared, the families of congresspeople engaged in what seems like blatant insider-trading, and the people in charge of overseeing a pandemic response either treated a deadly disease like a hoax or a PR-stunt. If the stock market doesn’t crash and the carnage is confined to your political opponents, then everything is fine, right? We could feed people and stimulate the economy, but have you considered the deficit? It has been a full year since COVID started and nine months since it started racing through the United States and just today I read reports about doses of the COVID vaccine spoiling because its rollout has been so haphazard that the clinic didn’t have “eligible” recipients.

I can feel the bile rising writing the preceding paragraphs, and they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s the thing: none of things is going to change with the calendar flipping to 2021. Sure, a Biden administration will help a little given enough time to straighten out the official response and to take the mean edge off of some policies. But setting the goal at normalcy is tantamount to wanting to sweep everything that happened this year under the rug so that you don’t have to think about it anymore.

This is the point I keep coming back to as new year approaches. I have long maintained that teaching is what I can do to help make the world a better place, but my surety of that has been shaken over the past year. Doubts that began pre-COVID given the nature of contingent faculty work have only accelerated once the pandemic hit because it is almost impossible to do the sort of teaching I want to do while everyone involved was also coping with the pandemic. This may entail a career change, but I thought as much last year, too, so who knows.

If all of this sounds bleak, that is because I’ve spent my days recently cycling through rage and resignation. Compared to many people this year, I’m fine. I’m exhausted and little heavier than I’d like to be, but that’s what happens when you lose access to a gym and spend a lot of the year expanding your repertoire of baked goods. I am healthy, as are those closest to me, and I have a roof over my head and food on my plate. But this year has also made clear that we should not take these basic necessities for granted.

I might be ready to leave 2020 behind, but I have no intention of forgetting it anytime soon.

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This is the penultimate entry in my end-of-year wrap up series. The rest of the 2020 series includes: Best* Posts, By the Numbers, Lists of Note, and will be followed by resolutions.

Past essays in this series: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.