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Parable of the Sower

Human beings are good at creating hells for themselves even out of richness.

The year is 2024. Climate change has parched and torched the American Southwest and what is left of the United States is, functionally, a failed state. The president Christopher Charles Morpeth Donner believes that all Americans really need to get back to work, which means cutting back on needless regulation. We enter into this dystopian landscape through the journal of Lauren Olamina: author, prophet of Earthseed, teen-aged girl.

When we first meet Lauren she lives in Robledo with her father (a priest and professor), step-mother, and siblings. Robledo is nothing special: a poor community just outside Los Angeles, gated, if barely. Inside the walls is a community. There are families. They grow food. Lauren’s stepmother teaches the kids how to read. That is not to say things are perfect, but it is an island of stability. Outside the walls lies danger: drug users, roving bands, packs of wild dogs. For Lauren, the stability offered by Robledo is of particular importance because of her particular condition. She is an empath who feels the pain and joy of other people, which is a particular danger in such a violent world.

Although Parable of the Sower unfolds over four years, the story is actually divided in two parts: in Robledo and on the road. About halfway through the book, the bubble of stability suddenly implodes and Lauren suddenly finds herself cast onto the road. With just two survivors from Robledo, Zahra Moss, the youngest wife in a polygamous family, and Harry Balter, a white teenager her own age, Lauren resolves to head north to find a better land where she can build a new community based on her new religion: Earthseed. Food is scarce, water expensive, and every person in the vast human tide moving north is a potential thief or worse. And yet, there is also safety in numbers, so they find themselves accumulating traveling companions, whether in the form of Allie and Jill Gilchrist, runaway sisters whose father became their pimp, or a small family of runaway slaves Travis and Natividad Douglas with their infant child. An exception to the apparent strays that Lauren accumulates is Bankole, an aging black man who is just a little bit too prepared and a little bit too competent and starts by conspicuously traveling alongside the group rather than with it. Each new addition to the group gets the same message:

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

Although Butler wrote Parable of the Sower in 1994, a world in which the American southwest is on fire, presidents call for deregulation, and people desperate for work take jobs in ever-worse conditions while the core problems are left unaddressed is an eerily plausible setting. And the imminent arrival of the year 2024 makes it seem all the more prescient. This is a world built on the bones of American social institutions going back to the time of slavery, but imagined in the context of the very real social and environmental problems of the twenty-first century.

As a near-future history of a failing United States Parable of the Sower falls into the same genre as Omar El Akkad’s American War, which envisions a future where the Civil War reignites over the issue of fossil fuels, splitting the country and allowing him to invert the paradigms of the American “War on Terror” as applied to the American south. I really liked American War and thought its project was a clever one, but, in a lot of ways, what Butler does in Parable of the Sower strikes closer to home. For one, Butler is significantly more insightful about the race-based schisms that linger in the United States and the gradual erosion of social order because of environmental change seems a bit more plausible than the neat resurrection of the Confederacy. Similarly, the 2019 documentary American Factory won an Academy Award for its look at the working conditions at a Chinese-owned factory in Moraine Ohio. The conditions in the Ohio factory were not as extreme as those imagined in Parable of the Sower, but it is easy to hear an echo of the same processes at work, particularly since American companies have created comparable conditions by sending their production overseas. From there it is a short leap to the reintroduction of outright slavery.

“You might be able to get a job as a driver,” she said. “They like white men to be drivers. If you can read and write, and if you’d do the work, you might get hired.”

“I don’t know how to drive, but I could learn,” Harry said. “You mean driving those big armored trucks, don’t you?”

Emery looked confused. “Trucks? No, I mean driving people. Making them work. Pushing them to work faster. Making them do…whatever the owners say.”

In short, I loved Parable of the Sower. This is my first exposure to Butler’s writing, but I was blown away by how vivid and specific it was, both in imagining the world and in painting the characters and relationships. For instance, I’m not one to usually cast books as I read them, but I could not stop imagining Bankole as Idris Elba as I read it. The book’s format as both the diary and gospel of a precocious teenaged girl is deceptively easy to read, even as the world itself is unrelenting. I can imagine a complaint that Lauren is too precocious, but this actually becomes a plot point and the format is a perfect vehicle for capturing Lauren’s empathy, which, in turn, puts both the pain and joy of the world on display. This book is incisive, painful, and optimistic by turns, and entirely worth reading.

ΔΔΔ

I reached a point of the semester where I struggled to read anything except science fiction and fantasy novels. Most recently I read N.K. Jemisin’s latest work, the excellent novel The City We Became and before that Alix Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January (about which I was more mixed). Next up, I’m reading Jeffery Pilcher’s Planet Taco, a global history of Mexican food.

To Make Men Free

2020 is a curious time to be thinking about the history of the Republican Party. For the past few years this has been the party of Donald Trump, with all of the baggage that comes with that label. This year, the party’s machinations have gone to ever greater lengths to overturn election results and line the pockets of the wealthy few.

This was not always the case.

In To Make Men Free, Heather Cox Richardson, argues that the soul of the Republican Party has swung on a pendulum between the two extremes.

One vertex was the ideal of economic opportunity that lay behind the formation of the Republican Party. This was the party of Lincoln, in her telling, which opposed the institution of slavery because it had created an oligarchy. The men who owned the most slaves also usually owned the most land, squeezing out people like Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, and they pulled on the levers of power to protect their position in society. Thus opposing slavery was synonymous with ensuring economic opportunity for all people. Moreover, they maintained, it was the place of government to step in and level the playing field.

The other vertex also existed almost from the start, with Republican supporters becoming very wealthy from government contracts during the Civil War. For those who espoused this position, economic opportunity was of secondary importance to the constitutional protections of property. They might not have endorsed slavery—and certainly they would be the first to point out that Democrats were the party of traitors—but neither would they support handouts to the “mudsills” of society since that way lay socialism.

Richardson takes readers into the smokey back rooms where the deals were made to trace the oscillation between these two extremes. Lincoln and the so-called “radical” Republicans gave way to business-oriented Republicans in the late 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Teddy Roosevelt briefly wrenched control of the party again with a platform that demanded government regulation of big business, only to see those gains given back by the Republican administrations of the 1920s where Coolidge maintained that “the chief business of the American people is business.” Many Republicans might have opposed the New Deal, but it also functionally established a new political norm that informed the policies of Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s that expanded educational opportunity, the interstate highway system, and a high marginal tax rate. However, it was also the 1950s that saw the birth of so-called “Movement Conservatism”: hard-line, activist conservatism of William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater that captured the Republican party in the 1970s and has not let go.

Before I became a historian, I thought I might want to work in politics. One of my favorite books a professor assigned in college was Stephen Skowronek’s The Politics Presidents Make, which looked at how presidents were able to realign political coalitions in ways that shaped the political trajectory of the United States. Broadly speaking, To Make Men Free offers a comparable look at just the Republican Party. I am sure that there are people who would quibble with some of the specific characterizations of figures in this book, but as an evaluation of the larger trends and currents, this book rang true and had receipts to show each of the changes.

Richardson neatly (sometimes almost too neatly) sketches how the outward policies of the Republican Party were the result of long-standing intra-party fights. This was a compelling read, filled with fascinating anecdotes like how early Republican legislators were issuing dire warning about socialism and moments like how “In 1938, in a speech the New York Times reprinted, Luccock warned that when fascism came to America it would be called ‘Americanism'” (207).

But there were two particular facets of this book that stood out to me reading it in the age of Trump. The first was how deeply many current Republican talking points have a deep history in the party’s consciousness. When Republican legislators railed that it was impossible for some Democrat to have won an election in the late 1800s on the grounds that their party was composed of illegitimate traitors who were also determined to bring socialist values to America, one could almost hear the same words coming out of any number of present-day Republican commentators. That position was more understandable coming from a Republican who had fought in the Civil War, but it was also a bitter echo given the current political climate.

The second facet was Richardson’s treatment of Movement conservatism, of which she declares: “Buckley might have called his ideas conservative, but they were actually the very radicalism true conservatives opposed” (249). Ultimately, this is the Republican party we have today, and unyielding and uncompromising political ideology that ironically, as Richardson points out, built its membership through small group meetings rather like the Communists they despised. Much like the rest of the book, Richardson doesn’t linger, but offers a sweeping overview of Movement Conservatism summarizing it as:

In the years after Reagan, Movement Conservatives lashed the Republican Party to an ideology that was based on image rather than reality … [They] claimed to be trying to cut government down to an acceptable size. But in truth they were destroying the New Deal government, which they saw as socialism, and replacing it with an even bigger government that served the ideals of Movement Conservatism: promoting big business, religion, and the military.

Naturally, this last section would be the hardest part of the book to write since it takes the reader roughly through the present. Richardson ends To Make Men Free with a conclusion that aptly identifies Barack Obama as the embodiment of the values of Lincoln’s Republican party and a figure so anathema to Movement Conservatives who latched onto the rhetoric of the antebellum Democratic political James Henry Hammond that they “could no longer engage with the reality of actual governance” (341). To Make Men Free came out in a time before the presidency of Donald Trump, but I suspect that the intervening years would not change this specific conclusion. What it might change are the two pages after that where Richardson speculates that the changing demographics and distance from the Cold War might allow for leaders in the Republican Party to “stay committed to the ideals of its founders.” And yet, after the past four years of further polarization it is hard to imagine who it is in the Republican Party who is actually willing—let alone able—to make that push.

Fall 2020: A Lost Semester

I came into this semester with the best of intentions. I knew this semester would be tough, so my courses were going to be characterized by flexibility, compassion, and doubling down on practices I adopted in the past such as allowing revisions.

My best-laid plans blew up in my face.

  • Flexible deadlines and giving students options of which papers to write led to students shooting through checkpoints and an end-of-semester rush to turn in work, including revisions that tended to address superficial rather than substantive issues.
  • Technology problems and a flexible attendance policy for coming in virtually led to lengthy awkward silences as I tried to bring people into the class discussion.
  • A COVID-safe classroom blew up my tried and true teaching strategies and masks blocked the visual feedback I rely on to guide classes.
  • A schedule without breaks caused burn out despite building in planned days off because a lack of coordination meant those weren’t actually days off.

I tried.

My students tried.

There were even individual bright spots that I’m clinging to, such as the most active participants in my online class who really threw themselves into their assignments.

But this was also the hardest semester I have ever experienced in a college setting. Many of my difficulties were predictable: needing to take a certification course in the middle of a semester during which I taught five classes (three of them new) at three different institutions, for instance, was always going to be a tough row to hoe. What I could only grasp in the abstract though was how teaching in a pandemic would exponentially increase the ancillary stressors of teaching, from the rituals of getting a classroom set up before beginning class to the moment-to-moment decisions during a class period to keep the class engaging. Teaching a fully asynchronous class, a week-by-week asynchronous class, a synchronous online class, and two theoretically-in-person-but-effectively-hybrid classes also didn’t help because I never had the luxury of settling into and attempting to perfect a single modality.

I hope my students learned something. For as much as I despair, some seemed to have, but what we just went through is not a sustainable model of education for anyone.

Now, I am someone who finds teaching to be quite draining even when things are going well, but I usually find that fatigue to be akin to the sort I feel after a good workout or writing session. This semester was different. Taken each on their own, I can’t complain about any of the individual components. Wiping down the teaching station before and after every class, for instance, became a ritual offering to the little voice in my head wailing in disbelief that we were teaching in person during a pandemic. The problem is that these little pieces accumulated by a magnitude. By about the midpoint of the semester I was a wreck. When the adrenaline faded from class, I would be left hollow and despairing of needing to teach again in roughly an hour. On days when I had to rush home to teach virtually I usually had just enough time to close my eyes for ten minutes before class started. Unless I was working with a student, I would spend office hours sitting on Zoom with a thousand-yard stare, knowing that the drive home and whatever time I spent making dinner were a brief respite before I had to go back to prepping for class for the next day.

Reading back over that last paragraph, I am exaggerating, but just a little bit. I didn’t teach on Fridays, went for long walks almost every morning, and was mostly successful at preserving my Saturdays off. I also stuck to a writing routine, unlike last fall, which meant that some of my busyness was self-imposed (writing is not in any of my contracts). And yet, I spent a good part of this semester not at my best. I could feel my patience rapidly fading and felt guilty for not being able to give as much to each class as I thought they deserved—for reasons of time, if nothing else. Even more telling, though, is that the semester passed as a blur that spit me out into an exhausted puddle on the other end. Three of my classes finished before Thanksgiving and only now, several weeks later as my final class for the term wraps up, am I feeling up to processing what I learned.

In my haste to build flexible courses for this semester, I inadvertently made my courses more complex. Perhaps the most extreme example of this came in the form of my papers where my giving the students choice in which assignments to complete gave the simultaneous appearance of too many assignments and a lack of structure—no matter how many times I reminded students.

My mantra for next semester is going to be KISS: keep it simple stupid. I intend to go back to basics, paring back the number of assignments such that the students will all write papers at the same time even as they will get the same amount of choice about what to write about. This will also let me better schedule the assignments to prevent quite the same end-of-semester rush. Similarly, I think small tweaks to online discussion formats, grading expectations for participation, and to what counts as “present” if attending a hybrid class could pay large dividends in terms of engagement, which, hopefully, will reduce some of the students’ confusion and my frustration. I can offer flexibility and generosity to students in how I treat them without making a hash out of my syllabus.

The best laid plans may only survive first contact, but that’s all the more reason to keep it simple. Thinking about how I can improve my courses for next semester while still recovering from the previous one and being not at all sure that it won’t be my last semester of teaching is a funny place to be in, but here we are. I have a few more weeks to rest, recover, and write that I fully intend to take advantage of, but I also started prepping for next semester last night because whatever I prepare now is something I don’t have to pull together at the last minute later. If I learned anything from this semester, those small tasks add up in a hurry when working under these conditions.

What is Making Me Happy: Bagman

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 regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: Bagman

My podcast listening tends toward conversation, sports, and current events and while I am periodically on the hunt for a new show I am rather hit and miss with “true crime” investigative podcasts. I didn’t give in to the Serial fad, for instance, but was quite taken by Crimetown. The latter hit a sweet spot for me in that it looked not just at a single crime, but at institutional corruption, which is also the subject of Rachel Maddow and Mike Yarvitz’ limited run podcast turned book Bagman. However, rather than painting a portrait of a city at a given time, Maddow and Yarvitz take aim at Spiro Agnew.

I have taught US history, but I would never describe myself as a specialist. When I cover the end of Nixon’s administration, I focus on the Watergate break-in, the cover-up, and give the students something to analyze for themselves in the form of Herb Block’s cartoons. I mention Agnew in passing, mostly in order to set up how Gerald Ford became president—probably trotting out the standard line that Agnew was forced to resign because he was under indictment for tax evasion. What I’ve told students in the past is not wrong, but only by the most technical definition.

The false memory about Agnew’s time in office is the starting point of Bagman. In point of fact, Agnew had had a meteoric rise from winning an election as Baltimore County executive in 1962 to becoming governor of Maryland in 1966 to vice president in 1968 and, along the way, built a corruption ring based on his control of government contracts that he doled out in return for cash.

Maddow and Yartvitz take the audience back to 1972 just when the Watergate scandal was beginning to heat up: George Beall, the US district attorney in Maryland, had opened an investigation into the sitting Baltimore County executive on suspicion of a bribery ring. What he found was not only that the ring had been developed by Agnew, but that Agnew’s activities had continued throughout his term as governor and into his time as Vice President. When Agnew heard of the investigation—in February 1973—he immediately set about trying to discredit the attorneys and quash the investigation, but eventually, was forced to resign. Thus, as Maddow and Yarvitz told Terry Gross on Fresh Air, their purpose was two-fold: first, document the Agnew story; second, explore how the prosecutors’ primary aim of removing Agnew from office and the series of events worked together to allow people to remember Agnew’s crimes as tax evasion rather than political corruption and obstruction of justice.

I am currently halfway through this limited-run series and am consistently fascinated by their account of Agnew’s fall from grace. I’m not sure how well they’ll be able to pull off the second half of their objective, but I am looking forward to finding out.

Answers in the Form of Questions

We have had routine in this house. Jeopardy! airs at 4 PM, so I record the episodes. Whenever we get around to having dinner, we turn on that recording and lose ourselves in half an hour of answers and questions. Sometimes we watch other shows, too, but if there is an available Jeopardy episode, we watch that first and loosely compete with each other. My partner is better at it than I am, in part because she reads the questions while I tend to just let Alex read them to me, but there are certain categories where her reaction is often to just turn and look at me. We judge the contestants—wager too little on a daily double and you’re a coward, but the greater sin is being slow to pick a question, which will lead them not to clear the board—and root for who we want to see tomorrow. Occasionally, I’ll throw a fit about the phrasing of a question.

All of this is to say that while I don’t aspire to being on Jeopardy!, I am among the show’s legion of fans and was greatly saddened at the news of Trebek’s death earlier this year. Claire McNear’s recent book Answers in the Form of Questions was therefore a welcome read.

The best synopsis of Answers in the Form of Questions appears in Ken Jennings’ forward:

Jeopardy! is a magic trick.

In this book, you’re about to see how the trick is done.”

McNear, a staff-writer at The Ringer where Jeopardy! was one of her beats, takes the reader on a journey through past and present of the show. This means, simultaneously, she explores Jeopardy!‘s iterations and development and the mechanics for host and contestants in its current edition.

Jeopardy!‘s first version with host Art Fleming debuted in the aftermath of the game show scandals of the 1950s where the studios rigged the outcome of the matches in order to drum up viewer interest. The most famous, as dramatized in the 1994 film Quiz Show, involved Charles Van Doren effectively receiving the answers in advance of the matches and ended with the FBI investigating the industry. Eventually, congress passed a law that made it illegal to fix a contest of intellectual knowledge. Jeopardy!‘s unique—or even eccentric—style was thus a deliberate rebuttal to these actions: if they simply gave the answers to all contestants and asked them to come up with the question, then they couldn’t be accused of giving the question to any one person.

However, Answers in the Form of Questions largely focuses on the second iteration of the show hosted by Alex Trebek, which, as Jennings put it, is a magic trick. And McNear does aptly show how the trick is done, from the mechanics of the podiums to put everyone on roughly the same elevation (as much for smooth camera operation as for visual symmetry) to noting how the quiz show is done live but much of the fanfare of the show as seen on TV are recorded separately (announcer Johnny Gilbert is 96, after all). Trebek comes off pretty well, even as a rather distant figure for most contestants, as McNear writes about how he used to take the contestant quiz at least once a year and works hard to master the clues—even when the writers delivered him a category called “When the Aztecs Spoke Welsh”…on April Fool’s Day.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this book, though, is how much of it does not take place on a soundstage. For as much time as McNear spend talking about what the studio does behind the scenes, she also explores what it is like behind the scenes for contestants, following some from their hotel to the studio and then from the studio to a Los Angeles-area pub trivia frequented by Jeopardy! alumni. This means both looking at how contestants prepare for their 23-minutes of fame and (usually) limited-payout and interviewing former contestants of both the regular Jeopardy! and celebrity specials.

This approach also allows McNear to pull back and survey the wider cultural impact of Jeopardy!. She obviously discusses the various cameos like SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy! and Black Jeopardy! skits, but also bring in the original screenplay for The Bucketlist. In that movie, directed by Rob Reiner, Morgan Freeman’s character was supposed to die in an appearance on Jeopardy!, and this connection allows McNear to transition to an adorable anecdote about how the late Carl Reiner would get together every weeknight to eat dinner and watch Jeopardy! together—even transitioning to watching together by phone after the Coronavirus disrupted their routine.

I greatly enjoyed Answers in the Form of Questions even though it is synoptic rather than comprehensive in its look at Jeopardy! and its impact. There is not, for instance, any attempt to grapple with David Foster Wallace’s Little Expressionless Animals (originally in the Paris Review in 1988, republished in The Girl With Curious Hair). This deeply weird short story is about a young woman named Julie Smith for whom the producers bend the then-extant 5-game limit for contestants because she’s popular, only to see her go on a multi-year run so dominant that it begins to tank the show’s popularity. Answers in the Form of Questions is such a paean to the magic of Jeopardy! that I was really curious how McNear would tackle the story, which warps that magic in ways that swing wildly from funny (“Alex Trebek goes around the Jeopardy! studio wearing a button that says PAT SAJAK LOOKS LIKE A BADGER.”) to bizarre (“‘My favorite word,’ says Alex Trebek, ‘is moist. It is my favorite word, especially when used in combination with my second-favorite word, which is loincloth.'”). I don’t meant this as a criticism of McNear—LEA is a strange story even by Wallace’s standards and it does not fit with the tone of Answers in the Form of Questions—but rather to point out that Jeopardy!‘s reach goes even further than what she writes about here.

Alex Trebek suffered from and eventually succumbed to pancreatic cancer, passing away earlier this year. He hosted Jeopardy! effectively to the end, which has given us a season filled with moving tributes, such as on the November 5 episode when champion Burt Thakur told Alex that he learned to speak English sitting on his grandfather’s lap watching Jeopardy!. The next permanent host of the show is as-yet unknown (my dream candidate is LeVar Burton, but could also see going with someone with sports play-by-play experience), but I can think of no better tribute to Alex Trebek than this look at a deeply niche game show that he helped grow into an iconic cultural phenomenon. I have been watching this season differently since reading Answers in the Form of Questions, particularly in thinking about the changes they made in order to create the show safely during a pandemic, and just hope that whoever follows in Alex’s enormous shadow can retain Jeopardy‘s charm.

ΔΔΔ

I have fallen off from writing about books recently and hope to change this a bit now that the semester is over. I am currently reading Octavia Butler’s The Pararable of the Sower, which is an enthralling near-future dystopian novel set in United States that is all-but collapsed because of climate change.

What is Making Me Happy: The Sopranos

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 regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: The Sopranos

I am perpetually late to television shows and can count on one hand the number of shows that I would consider myself a devotee of by the time that the Sopranos went off the air in 2007. Most of those are cartoons.

My viewing patterns changed somewhat in grad school, when Mad Men became appointment viewing by about season 3. While I’m still not particularly fluent in TV, I have in the years since ridden a few of the more recent trends (e.g. Succession) and backfilled my cultural consciousness of a decent number of shows (e.g. The Wire). On a recent whim I started watching The Sopranos.

For the five people who haven’t watched The Sopranos, James Gandolfini plays Tony, an Italian-American mobster living in New Jersey who has recently been suffering from panic attacks that lead him to seek help with a psychiatrist. The first season unfolds through these therapy appointments where Tony minces words to avoid revealing any crimes to his therapist Jennifer Melfi (played by Lorraine Bracco), while the action on the scene dramatizes what actually happened. This is an effective device and Tony has many real issues that self-consciously take on an aura of cool because of the mobster content—as the various characters frequently mention while bringing up other media portrayals of their work.

Tony has ordinary sorts of family stress, including raising children (played by Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler) with his wife (Edie Falco) who he is frequently unfaithful to and his relationship with a disapproving mother (Nancy Marchand). But Tony also has workplace stress that is exacerbated by that line of work being organized crime, and one of the main arcs of Season One is a brewing clash with his uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) over the direction of the family. However, what elevated this season of television for me was the way in which these therapy appointments forced Tony to grapple with topics like his own masculinity, first to let himself be vulnerable with a woman and then when people begin to find out that he was going to therapy, leave alone that he was going to therapy with a woman.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go well.

The Sopranos is populated by awful people with few, if any, redeeming characteristics, but it is compelling television. Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano is a brooding, storming, menacing anchor at the center of the screen. You get the impression that he’s not the biggest, strongest, smartest, or fastest person, but he nevertheless carries himself with such barely-restrained violence that he is not someone to mess with. And yet, Tony can only carry a show so far without its surrounding cast. I particularly appreciated the two central women in Tony’s life. Bracco’s Dr. Jennifer Melfi offers a vision of placid, delicate, almost naive competence who is simultaneously horrified and aroused by Tony Soprano. Falco’s Carmela is more complicated. She appears to have genuine affection for her husband and the father of her children, but she is also clear-eyed about his infidelity, once acknowledging that she almost appreciated that he took his dalliances elsewhere while she raised the children, even as it puts strains on their relationship.

I still prefer Mad Men and The Wire to The Sopranos, and not merely because I saw them first. In terms of prestige TV, there are aspects of the filming of The Sopranos that feel to me just a bit immature (in part owing to when it was created—home entertainment centers with DVD players are a big deal!) and some of peripheral characters seem like flat caricatures of mobsters, but as an ur-text of the anti-hero genre in live-action television I am finding The Sopranos compulsively watchable.

Ten Lessons of Phyllo

I decided I wanted spanakopita this week and in the absence of any frozen phyllo, I decided to just make it myself. My go-to cook book The Joy of Cooking refuses to give a recipe, telling you instead to go buy it frozen. This should have been a red flag.

The internet had a few recipe suggestions for this dough: water, oil, flour, salt, and a dash of vinegar, rolled thin. Simple, right? Well, here are the ten lessons I learned:

  1. Roll the dough thinner.
  2. Thinner.
  3. Thinner.
  4. Even thinner.
  5. Keep going.
  6. No, even thinner than that.
  7. Even thinner.
  8. The cornstarch and flour mixture is very important to keep the sheets from sticking together.
  9. In small amounts vinegar strengthens a dough, allowing it to retain shape or, in this case, hold together when stretched so thin.
  10. Homemade phyllo is finicky and tedious in ways that hurt my back and neck to repeatedly roll out the sheets, even to produce sheets as thick and clumsy as mine. But it is also delicious.

What is Making Me Happy: Brandon Sanderson’ Cosmere

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 regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: Brandon’s Sanderson’s Cosmere.

Brandon Sanderson’s latest novel drops next week. Rhythm of War is the fourth book in the Stormlight Archive, the cornerstone epic second-world fantasy to his larger authorial project. What makes this project, the Cosmere so impressive is that it consists of multiple different series, each set on a different second-world and with a different feel, but also contributing to a larger story that is just starting to be made clear.

Ordinarily, I vary my reading, rotating between authors and genres, but my ability to focus on books rapidly diminishes through the fall semester, often going into hibernation sometimes in mid-October. Despite my present exhaustion, I have mostly managed to avoid that fate this year by just letting myself get absorbed in the escapism of epic fantasy, starting with many of the Cosmere books that I had not yet read.

There are three things in particular that make me happy about Sanderson’s work.

First, I appreciate the ambitious scope of these novels. I have now read or am reading thirteen novels and novellas in this universe and, while I can pick up on many of the easter eggs between the stories, the larger story is just now starting to take shape. Seriously. Sanderson currently plans 35 novels for this universe. Some of these books don’t work as well for me as others do, whether because the characters don’t land or the world doesn’t quite work, but I love the sheer variety of these books.

Second, in a recent Writing Excuses podcast episode on Fantasy World-building, Patrick Rothfuss expounded on how some fantasy systems tend toward the numinous, perhaps with defined rules, but playing on a sense of wonder wherein ‘magic’ breaks the defined rules of the universe (effectively, a soft magic system). On the other end of the spectrum, he posited, are scientific (hard) systems where characters treat ‘magic’ as the world as it is and thus studying them are little different from any other scientific pursuit. Sanderson’s magic systems are decidedly scientific. Each series explores a different aspect of a common system that becomes increasingly complex as it iterates. Thus, discussion of the Cosmere often comes back to trying to figure out what the characters can do based on an analysis of the known laws of the universe rather than wondering what new abilities a character might manifest.

Third, and perhaps my favorite thing about reading so many of Sanderson’s books, is watching an author mature and develop. Sanderson’s early books are exceedingly competent, which I often chalk up to his formal education in and teaching of English. As much as I love some of the characters in his early novels, I also sometimes found the prose itself to be mechanical, workmanlike. His focus was on the worlds and the plots, which made for deeply satisfying stories that didn’t always have the most polished prose. I have noticed that starting to change in his more recent novels, where he’s started to wed prettier prose to his technical excellence. Sanderson is still stronger at world-building and the technical side of writing, which allows him to publish at a prodigious rate, but raising the level of his prose has made some of the scenes in his recent novels particularly powerful.

Watching this sort of development in the line-to-line excellence of their prose, which I have noted in authors as esteemed as Ernest Hemingway always makes me happy, if for no other reason than it gives me hope for my own writing.

I suspect I’ll keep reading mostly genre fiction for the rest of this year since I’ll likely remain tired and I have on my shelf Alex Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, Yoon Ha Lee’s Raven Stratagem, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, but this week what is making me happy is Sanderson’s Cosmere.

AcWriMo 2020

I had a rough go of things last fall, taking on so much work that I was forced to give up my regular writing practice. And yet, reading about my struggles to stay on top of my teaching and job applications all while thinking that it might be my last year in higher education strikes me now as blissfully unaware of what was lurking just around the corner in 2020.

These past nine months have been an emotional rollercoaster that has tested my mental and physical endurance like never before. #AcWriMo also bridges the end of a fifteen week sprint of a semester that has stretched both me and my students to the breaking point.

And yet, I’m still writing. Not as much as I’d like, but more than I have any right to complain about under these conditions.

The reasons I’m writing more are varied, but rather simple. I’ve had some movement on a few projects such that I now have concrete deadlines. I objectively have less teaching this semester (and a smaller paycheck to prove it). The teaching I have is concentrated in the afternoons four days a week, which often leaves me time to write in the morning even when prep bleeds into that time. I’ve been better about jealously guarding my time such that I consciously schedule more breaks and thus have more energy to write. I also find writing meditative such that turning off anything with updates (email, news, social media) for the time I’m writing gives a nice reprieve from the fever pitch of, well, everything.

In this vein, I am setting for myself some AcWriMo goals that both reaffirm and expand on my annual writing goals, if not following the formula of setting specific and measurable projects to produce.

  1. One hour per work-day dedicated to academic writing projects, with workday defined as Monday through Friday. I hope to use this time to write, particularly once the semester ends, but this time can also be used for reading or researching, as Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega suggested today on Twitter. My writing and research processes are already deeply intertwined, particularly at later stages where I’ll pause the writing to build up a note or clarify a paragraph.
  2. Four posts of substance (TM) for this site, one per week in November. In part this stems from a larger goal of writing here with more regularity, but also just to stretch my writing. I don’t exactly know yet what this goal will result in, but the first two topics I have in mind both develop a point or comment I made on Twitter and are related in some form or another to my various academic interests.

That’s it. Writing is a habit that begets more writing, so I’m keeping my goals modest in the hope that I can blow past the targets.

What’s Making Me Happy: Discovering Classic Country

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 regular Friday/Saturday feature at least for the at least next few weeks.

This week: Atlanta Burned Again Last Night

I’ve written here before about my love for country music, and particularly for country that that these days might be termed classic. My personal inflection point was 2003, at which point my listening to mainstream country radio largely fell away though I still tune in sometimes while I’m driving to see if I can catch older songs. One of the local country stations rewards this gamble more often than not, playing a variety of songs that skew older and with multiple shows per week dedicated to classic country. My favorite part of these shows is getting, occasionally, to stumble across a song I’ve not heard before.

Exactly that happened this week. From 1983, I give you “Atlanta Burned Again Last Night,” by Atlanta:

In some ways it is a pretty typical catchy country song waxing lyrical about a romantic engagement now gone. I wouldn’t go quite as far as Wikipedia in describing “a teenaged boy’s sexual initiation by a married woman” as a “common theme in country music,” though there are certainly broad similarities to a song like Garth Brooks’ “That Summer.” However, the lyrics here are both more explicit and more pointed about the impropriety of this particular adultery with both parties seeing other people and him not yet 18:

She was over thirty
He was barely seventeen
She was in her second marriage
He dated a high school queen.

These lyrics alone would be enough to make me happy, but what makes it art is the confluence of this subject with the song’s title making reference to and co-opting Sherman’s destruction of Atlanta in 1864.

Atlanta burned again last night
And all the water in the ocean
couldn’t put out the fire this time
They gave in to sin again, but lord it felt so right
When Atlanta burned again last night

The absurdity of the entire package is why I can’t stop laughing.