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Blanket Effects

I have been busy recently, trying to finish my dissertation, teaching, and generally trying to get my future in order so that I can keep writing about things that I enjoy and that matter to me. Despite my generally hectic schedule recently, I have been mulling a post that was to begin:

I am not a patient person, which makes it all the more ironic that I don’t just plan meals out days in advance, but actually plan meals that require me to start making them days in advance.

Or something like that. The first clause, at any rate, was going to begin this way. This was meant to be a clever and thoughtful interweaving of the fact that I don’t stand in line for many things, thoughts about my faults as a student and theories as an educator, and that I spent last week carefully tending to Thing One, my sourdough starter, which is now bubbling merrily away in my fridge. (I am exceedingly proud of Thing One, not least because it makes me feel like a mad scientist.) I will probably still write this post, perhaps even tomorrow, but I spent much of today reading about the fallout from President Trump’s executive order that put a moratorium on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Citizens of these countries, people who have already been “extremely vetted” over the course of years and cleared to enter the United States, people who frequently risked their lives to help US military personnel or who are at risk because their family members did so, people who are fleeing persecution because of their religious beliefs in their homelands are now being detained in US airports and are at risk of being deported to countries where their lives will be threatened. In light of this, my glib remark about not being patient just seemed wrong.

This post’s original title was “Reflections on Leviathan” since reading these stories both filled me with a sense of dread appropriate for a world-destroying dragon or great sea monster, and a sense of impotence since I am not in a particular position of power or wealth and have therefore been reflecting on how the Hobbesian tradition can be inverted such that the state can oppress those most in need of protection. In fact, this sort of action is exactly what I was alluding to when I was writing up my thoughts about Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature. These are not happy thoughts that have been steeping in my mind today and I am only somewhat mollified by the actions of people and institutions more able to respond because they are nevertheless peppered with further reports about deafening silences from others.

Instead, this post remains thoroughly meta. It is full of “was going to,” “was, and “meant to,” because I am going to wrap it up briefly in order to begin composing yet another letter to my congresspeople. I don’t yet know what I am going to say, but this time I am going to also post it online because these issues are too important to remain quiet about.

(And, no, I am not ignoring the other civil rights abuses, the pillaging of the environment and consumer and labor protections for a handful of temporary jobs. These are equally important, but I am choosing to raise my voice here I am a historian whose research focuses on one of the main corridors for Middle Eastern refugees fleeing to Europe.)

There is one more closing thought for today, which is the inspiration for the title and is related to the issue of nuance that I have written about before.

I played a lot of Magic the Gathering as a teenager. Magic, for the uninitiated, is a collectible card game where each player has a deck composed of cards from one or more of the five colors. The colors are fairly cliché: white is purity and good, black is evil or necromancy, red is chaos and fire, green is nature, blue is magic and water. In the broadest context, each player was a mage and the deck represented his or her forces. The objective of the game was to use your deck to beat the other player into submission using spells and creatures, so it was frequently necessary to eliminate the other player’s creatures. Some creatures, however, were immune to spells of a particular color or, even better immune to being targeted at all, because of their unique abilities. There were ways to deal with these pesky creatures that, in terms of game mechanics, did not require “targeting” the card. One, my favorite, was to mandate that a player had to sacrifice a creature, which meant that I was no longer the one doing the targeting. A second, more common, mechanic was cards that were “blanket effects” that targeted every creature in play, thereby circumventing the individual creature’s protection. This mechanic had its downsides, though, namely that friendly creatures were also affected by the spell. The tradeoff for being able to hit that one threatening creature was to adverse affect the whole board.

One might counter that the ominously-named spell “Wrath of God” is best deployed when the flood of enemy creatures is too great and it is necessary to wipe the slate clean. This is true from the perspective of the game, but Magic the Gathering is a closed system–a duel where creatures are a finite supply of cards drawn from a deck. Outside of such a closed system, blanket effects are almost always disastrously naive.

I firmly believe that while it is important to screen immigrants, the United States should be taking in more, not fewer refugees. I believe that living in a more just, tolerant, and open world would be a boon for all human beings. And I also believe that the immigration ban is extremely myopic, not just because it will contribute to anti-American sentiment and increasing isolationism, not just because it will bar me from visiting the places I have wanted to go since I was a small boy, and not just because it is a violation of civil liberties of residents of this country, though is for all of those reasons. I believe this ban is myopic because it is emblematic of a much deeper problem, revealing an utterly uncurious way of looking at the world. A perspective that treats everyone from the Middle East as muslim and every muslim as of one type, with no appreciation for history. This problem is not exclusive to the United States, but, at the moment, it feels uniquely American.

Wicked River: the Mississippi when it last ran wild, Lee Sandlin

I was in Minneapolis for a funeral last weekend and, as a result, was visiting with extended family. One of my cousins lives a matter of blocks from one of my favorite bookstores, Magers and Quinn, so we usually end up talking books. Not for the first time, she passed a number of books off to me. The first of these I picked up is Wicked River, a history of the Mississippi river before the Civil War.

Sandlin takes the reader along with the navigators up and down the river, into the swirling currents, and among the personalities that fought, swindled, and cavorted in the region. His inspiration, in a way, seems to be the stories of Mark Twain even though he notes early on that those stories were already conjuring up a bygone world. In this sense, it is more appropriate to start with what changed. In Sandlin’s account (and I do not think there is reason to doubt it), the infrastructure of the Mississippi River changed in the years after the Civil War when the first railroad bridge crossed the river allowing trains to almost completely replace steamboats. At the same time, US military engineers undertook a massive project to smooth out the rough edges of the river and demographic changes tamed the rough population.

Wicked River is an easy, indulgent read that eagerly regales its audience with the tall tales and local legends from the Mississippi River valley. Most of the stories, Sandlin concludes, are fictions that emerged out of a kernel of truth. Wicked River is well pretty well researched and draws from both contemporary accounts and geographic surveys, but Sandlin employs the same casual, comfy tone whether describing the winter snowmelt or legends about piratical gangs, which becomes only slightly more regimented at the end when those characters lived on only in memory.

I can’t vouch for the value of Wicked River as a historical study, not because I think Sandlin is wrong in his narrative but because I don’t know the historiography on the topic and there is only a loose thesis. But this judgement should not detract from a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging read about a bygone time.

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Next up, I am reading Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House.

New Beginnings

Time-stamps on blog posts can be misleading because the one associated with a post can be manipulated. (There are more exact markers, I am sure, but those are beyond me.) Nevertheless, the time stamp with this post can be trust: I am writing this in the afternoon of January 15, a Sunday.

There are hundreds of posts that come before this one and yet this is the first post written here. This morning I had a spurt of what might be termed inspiration (or mania or ambition or whatever) and finally got around to trying to build a new site. One of the main things holding me back from doing so long before this is that while I wanted to be more integrated with the WordPress (or some other) network and to have the site more closely associated with my own name, I also wanted to keep the things I had written before, warts and all. So I did some research, and then some more, and some more. Nothing was quite what I was looking for.

This morning I took the leap. I am sure there was a better way to make this transition and that my way was needlessly complex and now that I have slowed down fiddling with what I was doing I am second guessing the route I took, but the main thing is that I did it. I did not shut down my old blog, but wrote a post redirecting readers here and that is how it will stay for the foreseeable future. (This decision is practical as well, seeing as I may yet decide to transfer my hosting back at some point.)

This site will change in the coming days, weeks, months, and years in ways both small and large. The main thing right now is that it marks a new beginning even as I continue on from what was there before.

The End of All Things – John Scalzi

The End of All Things is the most recent installment of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. Like it’s predecessor, The Human Division, The End of All Things was released in serial form, with each episode advancing the overall plot, while introducing new viewpoint characters. Like Scalzi’s other work, the book features snappy, sarcastic, and often exasperated dialogue, with a smart and sympathetic overall tone. The End of All Things is not my favorite book in the series, which, at some level seems to be running its course since the novelty of the original premise has grown old, but it nonetheless remains a worthy read.

At the conclusion of The Human Division Earth has been separated from the Colonial Union and is now hung between the CU and The Conclave, an alliance of alien species, many of whom hate all humans. The governments of Earth are convinced, and not without reason, that the CU is responsible for attacking them, but, in fact, the real perpetrators are a shadowy organization known as Equilibrium whose goal is to destroy The Conclave and, if possible, the Colonial Union. It is a race against time for scrappy misfits to stop an all-out war, prevent the genocide of the human race, and, in the process, save the Colonial Union from itself.

One of the things I enjoyed about The End of All Things (despite the opinion that the title, which is also a repeated line in the book, is a little too cute) is that its action-and-ingenuity form is set against a thoughtful discussion of politics wherein there are three camps: keep things the way they are, blow everything up, and aggressively pursue a more structurally sound system. The heroes are in the last camp. Moreover, Scalzi does a notably good job of building a diverse cast of characters who take on important roles, regardless of their gender, without coming across like he is preaching about these virtues. I add this last point because I find it somewhat ironic given his online reputation and also because some other science fiction and fantasy books have sometimes come across as moralistic, though, admittedly, generally within the strictures of their plots.

I have given a brief synopsis and a brief explanation of what I liked about The End of All Things, but want to conclude with some further thoughts about serialization and series. The End of All Things is the sixth book in this series, but unlike a lot of long genre series it doesn’t seem to be building to a single “last battle” or comparable event. If I recall correctly, I have put down every book thinking that a) there was a satisfactory conclusion and b) events outside that particular arc continued, whether or not they were even put down in a publication. This is not an easy task to accomplish.

Each new book picks up the grand plot of the series and features some of the same characters, but doesn’t simply perpetuate itself by finding some new skill for the protagonist to have or by needing to pick up from an incomplete story. Instead, each new book has a new angle or has a new perspective—-and the same holds true for each installment of the serialized books, with the final resolution coming at the end of the final installment. What I find interesting about this approach is that it avoids some of the pitfalls of long-running series that sometimes feel like they are coming apart at the seams because the author keeps introducing new viewpoint characters. Scalzi introduces new viewpoints, but usually because the other viewpoints are not likely to return.

As noted above, I liked The End of All Things, but it concludes at a very nice pause point for that particular universe and I am excited to see what Scalzi puts out next.

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Next up, I am reading Wicked River by Lee Sandlin and will probably open Orhan Pamuk’s The Silent House later today.

The Tattered Cloak – Nina Berberova

I don’t usually read short stories unless I already appreciate the larger piece of art that I already like. There are a variety of reasons for this breakdown of what I read, and my prejudices against the medium, including that I have a hard time connecting with the characters in such a short space, are clearly colored by the types of short stories I do read. (I have also read David Foster Wallace short story collections that are…something.) yet, I do want to read more broadly, and I had picked up Nina Berberova’s collection on a whim at Jackson Street Books in Omaha Nebraska, so I gave it a go as one of the first reads of 2017. The short version of this review: these stories are amazing.

Berberova was born in St. Petersburg in 1901 and emigrated to Paris in the 1920s; her work reflects her personal experience, telling stories about Russians fleeing circumstances in their native country and trying to make a life somewhere else. This particular collection consists of six stories, translated under the titles “The Resurrection of Mozart,” “The Waiter and the Slut,” “Astashev in Paris,” “The Tattered Cloak,” “The Black Pestilence,” and “In Memory of Schliemann.” Berberova conjures a misfit cast of Russians, all of whom are trying to make their way in life, often by somewhat unsavory means. Ultimately the collections reminiscent of Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris crossed with the best of the Russian short story tradition of Gogol.

I really liked every story in this collection, but the lead story, “The Resurrection of Mozart” was the one that stood out to me both as being a little bit different and particularly memorable. This story is set a little bit after the others, taking place in June 1940 just after the outbreak of war between France and Germany. A group of Russian emigres are gathered in a village outside of Paris and debating which famous figure is most necessary in times like these. Someone says Napoleon, another says Julius Caesar, but the host insists that in troubled times artists are most necessary and none more so than Mozart. The next day a stranger with a strange accent wanders into town while everyone is furiously making preparations for war. Without revealing what happens next, Berberova offers a devastating commentary about life during troubled times. She doesn’t suggest that calling back a famous warrior would have changed the course of World War 2, but she does seem to suggest how powerless a single individual can be.

The Tattered Cloak and other Stories did a lot to moderate my opinion of short stories. Berberova crafts short vignettes on a given theme and creates engaging and memorable characters. She does not cringe away from difficult topics, which some people might find off-putting, but as with the comparable authors I listed above, I find that these moments add a power to the stories. I intend to read more of her work in the future and absolutely recommend this collection to just about anyone.

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Next up, I finished reading John Scalzi’s The End of All Things. I started reading Lee Sandlin’s Wicked River, a history of the Mississippi River this morning and plan to read Orhan Pamuk’s The Silent House next.

Some thoughts on rereading

Once upon a time there was a young man who loved reading. he read all the time, including in trees and on buses and in chairs and one time was reprimanded in sixth grade math class for reading a book. Despite being a precocious reader, this young man once checked the same book on Sitting Bull out of his elementary school library thirteen consecutive times.* But each time he checked that book out, he read it at least once. He read all the time, but he had a lot of books that he was particularly fond of.** Then something happened: he all-but stopped rereading books, even particular favorites.

[*That young man would do worse during graduate school, but at least then he was working on a dissertation.]

[**That young man also had a curious habit of reading more than one or two books at a given time, at least until he burned himself out during college while trying to juggle close to twenty books at once.]

To no-one’s surprise, that young man is the author of this blog. I actually do quite a bit of rereading still, albeit usually for research purposes, but I hardly ever reread anything simply for pleasure even though I am still, at heart, a rereader.

So what is it that I like rereading books that I have read one, twice, or a half-dozen times before? First, I find a comfort in rereading books where I like the characters that is similar to meeting up again with old friends. Moreover, there is a comfort in this sort of safe-space where you already know what is going to happen. I also believe studies that suggest that “spoilers” generally don’t diminish enjoyment but give a pleasure of heightened anticipation. [On that issue, if the quality of a book or movie is premised on such an important twist, it is deeply flawed.] Finally, whether a book is part of a long-running and intricate series or is just a great piece of literature, there are layers to the story that will add to meaning in light of other information, whether from other books or from life experience.

Despite these pleasures of rereading, I don’t do it for the same reason that I don’t pester famous authors to finish their long-running series in a timely manner: there are too many amazing books out there are not enough time to read them all. I would like the pendulum to swing back the other direction a little bit because there are some all-time great books that I want to reread. In the meantime, though, I am comfortable allocating my limited time to new books and reading reread projects online that evoke many of the same comfortable feelings while coloring them with just a tinge of envy.

On pizza toppings

I bake a lot and although the item I am most proud of, the one that would be my technical challenge for GBBO contestants, is the bagel, the foodstuff that started the compulsive baking is pizza. For a little context, I have tried five different dough recipes and although I have settled on one that I like a lot, it is not yet perfect. But crusts, even though they are absolutely essential to the perfect pizza, are not the subject of this post, the toppings are. Or rather, some toppings are.

A little more background: I was in Minneapolis recently for family reasons and on my way out of town I stopped at Punch Pizza, a chain that fires their pizzas at exceptionally high temperatures, which gives a delicious char onto their chewy crust. Punch does not have my favorite pizzas around, but theirs are more than serviceable, especially for when I am pressed for time. Being on my own, I went with one of my favorite pizza toppings: onions. Usually when I go there I am sharing my pizza with someone who doesn’t like onions, so I this was the first time I had them at Punch. As it turns out, I was not a fan of the onions on this particular pizza and since I had an eight hour drive that followed immediately upon eating, I had ample time to think about what went wrong here.

According to Punch’s website, they fire their pizzas “in a wood-burning oven to a blistering 900 degrees,” which, as noted above, is one of the reasons I like their crust so much. The extreme temperature also cuts down on the cooking time since the toppings warm and the cheese melts quickly. And yet I found a strange thing happened: the onions I ordered were warmed up, but they did not completely cook through and caramelize the way that they frequently do on pizzas I cook at home. I still ate the pizza, of course, but I think that I will have to take into account the cooking time and temperature when choosing toppings in the future.

My 2016 – Using Words

2016 was in some ways a good year for me. In terms of my academic work it felt as though I leveled up, inching closer to emerging from the cocoon of graduate school. This was, in part, just a matter of time passing, but it also seemed more substantive. I started thinking about my work differently, seeing it differently, and had some successes. I can grow and improve my craft more, without a doubt, but I (finally) felt a substantive difference. On the other hand, I was frequently stymied in every attempt to take the next step, which makes me think that this sense of growth was little more than feeling comfortable within the limits that I had already reached, but I will write more about this in another post.

I also got back to teaching in the fall of 2016, working for Western Civilization (up to 1715). This meant both leading discussion sections and giving a series of guest lectures. There were ways that I could have improved the lectures, of course, but on the whole the teaching went as well as it ever has, and the evaluations bore that out. The improvement came from a variety of sources, including simple practice, but also that I felt more comfortable in my subject expertise than I had in other semesters and that I am getting a good sense for how to craft a through-line for students when teaching new material. This last was important because I taught classes on everything from the Roman Republic to the Hellenistic World, to the Renaissance.

For the most part I also managed to continue playing basketball, lifting weights, and running on a regular basis. I did not manage to push my running distances to any great lengths, but I was pleased that I was able to do it at all. Similarly, I kept up most of my self-improvement goals, including that I started using Duolingo to brush up on my German and to learn Spanish and Dutch; I currently have a 115 day streak.

However, I had one significant problem with 2016: anxiety. I have long had issues with anxiety and depression, and my anxiety issues, manifesting in elevated heart rate, shaky hands, and an inability to focus. Most of these have to do with my work or, more precisely, my ability to continue working past this school year, but certainly events outside of my immediate circumstances are feeding into these issues. Beyond working on applications and doubling down on my work, one of my goals for 2017 is to spend more time doing things like meditating in the hopes of remaining even-keeled.

In reality there was a lot more to 2016, such as moving in August and using almost every available opportunity to travel, but I am all over the place right now, so now for some 2017 resolutions.

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 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:
    • Defend my dissertation and graduate!
    • Finish a draft of my (now begun!) novel
    • Complete and send off (4) articles to academic journals
    • Apply to review (2) 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 have succeeded in this two consecutive years, but between a tendency to read long books and having a lot of other tasks, setting a higher goal would be irresponsible.
    • I read (8) books by women in 2016; in 2017 it should be more than (10).
    • I read (7) non-fiction books (not for academic purposes) in 2016; in 2017 I want to hit (10).
  • Conquering the kitchen: develop (2) of my own bread recipes using flavors or ingredients that I do not usually use.

To Each His Own – Leonardo Sciascia

“But,” he said to himself, “Sicily and maybe all Italy is full of likable people who should have their heads chopped off.”

To Each His Own is the second novel I’ve read by the Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia, the first being The Day of the Owl. Despite being radically different stories, the two novels have certain similarities. Both are mysteries set in small town Sicily and both cases center on the exploitation of power by shadowy family organizations that may or may not be the mafia, depending on who is talking. However, unlike The Day of the Owl, To Each His Own is told through the lens of a native Sicilian.

The story opens when the town pharmacist receives a death threat in the mail. He is disturbed, but writes it off as a prank and continues with his plan to go hunting with his friend Dr. Roscio. Neither man returns home, but their bodies and the animals they killed are later found. The police investigation quickly stalls, but the case attracts the attention of Professor Paolo Laurana, a teacher and literary critic who is particularly captured by the death threat, which is made up of newspaper clippings that include the word “Unicuique” (suum): to each his own.

Laurana’s investigation continues around his school duties, starting with the provenance of the death threat. Slowly, though, his suspicions are transferred onto the death of Dr. Roscio, who had recently took an emergency trip to Rome and is married to Luisa the beautiful niece of Dean Rosello. Although Dean Rosello is a local pastor, he is both the spiritual and terrestrial head of household for a family that owns vast tracts of land in and around the city and protected his brothers’ widows, raising their children, including Luisa and another Rosello, as though they were his own, ensuring that his family members married well and received influential posts in local government. Despite the police honing in on the clues that point to the pharmacist being responsible for the death of the two men, Laurana believes that there is something shady about this family and proceeds to become entangled in the the web he is trying to unravel.

I liked To Each His Own better than The Day of the Owl. The latter story is an earlier work and is still a powerful critique of mafia culture, but was too much on the nose. To Each His Own is still an inconclusive story and touches on the same themes, but does so obliquely, which, in my opinion, allows the main narrative to thrive in its own right in a way that The Day of the Owl sometimes did not.

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I have finished The Tattered Cloak, a series of short stories by the Paris-based Russian emigré Nina Berberova, and am now reading John Scalzi’s serial novel The End of All Things.