The Cruelest Phase

I keep coming back to the same thought over the past few weeks: more than two years into a global pandemic that has likely killed more than a million people in the United States and three million worldwide, we are just now entering the cruelest phase of the this health crisis.

Now, a disclaimer. I am a historian, and an ancient historian at that. I don’t study public policy or statistics or medicine, and my observations here are supremely anecdotal. That said…

As hard as the first year of the pandemic was for many people—and it was hard—I remember at least a superficial sense of collective unity. People played politics with PPE, many places resisted installing mask mandates, and too many people lost their jobs, but amid the chaos of uncertainty there was an acknowledgement in the collective wisdom about what needed to be done and which people were already straining against the impossible.

The second year meant settling into something akin to a new normal and an optimistic sigh of relief at the flood of vaccines making their way into people’s arms. After all, the US responds to crises best when they can be solved by the blunt instrument of mass production.

But here at the start of year three, I am worried. The vaccination levels have long-since flattened and the rates of boosters lagged precipitously behind despite the appearance of two highly-contagious variants. At the same time, movements against masks and vaccines gained traction under the rhetoric of freedom. Organizations used the lulls between waves and availability of vaccines to drop remaining mitigation measures. Congress stripped Covid funding altogether from the latest funding bill. People have gradually let their guard down as they have watched their peers do so with seemingly no ill-effects.

Back in December 2020 I wrote:

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.

A year and a half later, things are worse. The changes put in place proved temporary accommodations rather than substantive reforms and the people who have been holding entire fields like, say, healthcare and education together are running on fumes. In the case of education, a field notorious for overwork and low pay, the CRT panic has made the job more challenging even beyond Covid and one recent survey found that 55% of respondents are now looking at leaving the field sooner than they had planned, up from 37% in the same survey at the start of the school year. The result is critical shortages in healthcare workers and teachers which puts more burden on those who remain and thus creating the potential for cascading failures.

A new variant (Omicron BA.2; I see we broke pattern and are delaying the arrival omega) is the dominant strain of Covid in the United States and your trend-line-of-choice is heading in the wrong direction, be it positive tests, waste water testing, or Yankee Candle reviews. Despite mendacious bloviating that the pandemic is over, it was a matter of when, not if, the next wave hit. This time, though, there isn’t even the pretense of mitigation measures, let alone federal funding for testing and treatment. And just wait until health insurers determine that Covid is a pre-existing condition.

The point here is not that everything is absolutely terrible, at least about this. I am vaccinated, boosted, and live in a region with relatively low case rates. However, I also worry that we are at a point where these same factors that will facilitate the spread of the next wave are going to leave the people who contract the virus even more alone when it comes to dealing with the consequences. I hope I’m wrong.

What is Making Me Happy: Byzantium and Friends

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 feature.

This week: Byzantium and Friends

I am a longtime listener to podcasts, so much so that I wrote one of these entries on the topic way back in 2016. I also once suggested that every history program ought to have a student-run semi-regular podcast where members of the department and alumni could talk about their their research. In addition to being outreach for the program, such a podcast would give students multiple types of experience, as producers, as interviewers, and, of course, talking about their own work. This idea came to me too late in my graduate career to put something in action, though, and I have largely resisted the urge to start a podcast of my own both because I don’t have a clear sense of what I would want the project to do and because I haven’t had time.

Several weeks ago I started listening to the Byzantium and Friends podcast hosted by Anthony Kaldellis thanks to a recommendation on Twitter from Matthew Simonton. Four episodes in, I am already prepared to say that his is what I would want it to look like were I to start a Greek history podcast.

The stated goal of the podcast is to make current research in the diversifying field of Late Antique studies accessible a wider audience such as students and teachers.

Each episode features a conversation between Kaldellis and a guest grounded in something that the guest has written, whether a book or an article, but then flows outward. Kaldellis is adept at guiding this discussion, informed by careful and generous readings of their work, as well as his own scholarship, and a curiosity about trends and different methodological approaches in historical study. Since the goal is explanatory and collaborative rather than critical, I find that the discussion transcends the limits of the specific publication and become about the process of doing history. Some of the resonance stems form the broad similarities between ancient history and Late Antiquity, but other parts are universal to the study of the past. This was particularly true in the fourth episode with Kristina Sessa about environmental approaches to ancient history, which I am going to suggest as an assignment for a World History course next fall, but it was also present in the other episodes—with George Demacopoulos about colonialism and post-colonial theory in the Fourth Crusade, Ellen Muehlberger about imagination, and Leonora Neville on gender.

As much as I love the conversations, though, it is the final question that particularly makes me happy. Kaldellis closes the show by asking the guest for two reading recommendations outside their specific field. This is a show about Late Antiquity and Byzantium, but this closing question reinforces how historians bring a wide range of influences to their work and benefit from looking beyond the narrow bounds of their research. Every time he asks this question I think about how I might answer the question. As I write this, I’m still trying to decide.

In short, this is my platonic ideal of an academic podcast and I would love to see this format proliferate. Even if I had time to take on such a project, though, I could only hope to emulate Kaldellis’ erudite and considered skill as a host so while I could could provide a lengthy list of scholars I would excitedly badger to come talk to me about their work, I will save everyone the embarrassment by just pressing play on episode five.

What is Making Me Happy: Wordle

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 feature.

This week: Wordle

I stopped posting my Wordle updates to Twitter after just one or two posts. In part this was because of people pointing out that a wall of emojis is hard on screen-readers, but the bigger part was that I don’t find these posts interesting—from me or from anyone else. The game can inspire interesting conversations, I think, but Twitter is not to the place to have them.

For the handful of people who have not been swept up in the obsession, Wordle is a simple, no-frills word game. You have six guesses to identify the day’s five-letter word. If you correctly identify a letter in its location the game gives you a green square. If the letter is correct, but in the wrong spot the square turns yellow. This mechanic allows you to go through a process of elimination until you correctly determine the day’s word.

Wordle is not the first word game to go viral on the internet recently. Spelling Bee (and analogs) was a diverting game for a time, but it couldn’t hold my attention like this one. The difference is the amount of time that each game takes. I found that Spelling Bee required quite an investment of time, making it good for long trips but not something I could do every day. Wordle, by contrast, I do in just a couple of minutes first thing in the morning.

While I am not interested in seeing how people did on each day’s Wordle in the abstract, there are two things that fascinate me about the game.

First, I have taken to using my own guesses as an internal barometer for where my head is at in the morning. I think what I am obsessed with is how I choose the words I come up with un-caffeinated and barely awake. About a week ago, for instance, I was at a loss for a word when my brain threw out “capon,” which I knew was a word but couldn’t define (it is a castrated rooster). More frequently this just amounts to a goofy reflection on the order of the words as I throw them out.

These generally aren’t bad and I like to avoid re-using words where possible, but what does it say that I go from “doubt” to “vomit” to “joint” before getting to the right answer?

Second, the competitive part of my personality is taken by the strategy in Wordle. The game does not award bonus points for fewer guesses, just whether you get it correct or not. Everything else is just a matter of pride. But pride also makes it fun.

A few weeks ago I saw some discussion of “optimal strategy” that generally involved some variation on the approach to Wheel of Fortune where you should spam the most common consonants in the early words because, statistically, those are the most likely to get you letters on the board. I suspect that this strategy increases the odds of getting the correct answer on the first or second guess, but I have developed a strategy that has worked for all 22 puzzles I have done, all in the 3rd, 4th, or 5th guess.

My strategy mostly disregards consonants when coming up my first guess. All things being equal, I’d like to use several common consonants (tnshr), but since I also enjoy coming up with odd words I don’t worry too much. What I am looking for in my first and second guess are vowels because there are fewer vowels than there are consonants and the vowels will serve as my constraints going forward. Starting with my third guess, I start to consider possible double letters (the green/yellow system won’t alert you to these and will sometimes mislead). In one instance this strategy took me from a single yellow square on my first two guesses to the correct answer on the third.

One of these days Wordle will stump me. Nevertheless, I am quite enjoying this short, simple, daily word game.

What is Making Me Happy: Best Baker in America

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 feature.

This week: Best Baker in America, Season 4

Okay, let me get something out of the way. I hate the name “Best Baker in America.” I think it is clunky and overly pretentious given that any given season will only have a few contestants, so the nominal crowning of “best baker in America” is meaningless.

What I don’t hate is this show, a reality baking competition on the Food Network that I first encountered on a recent plane flight.

If it wasn’t obvious from previous posts here, 1) I bake a lot; 2) I enjoy watching food television, particularly when it involves baking. Best Baker in America, Season 4 meets both criteria.

Anyone familiar with the Great British Baking Show should be broadly familiar with the template. Ten bakers from around the country come together to bake their way through a gauntlet of challenges set by the quirky hosts until only one remains to be crowned champion. However, there are also some significance differences, including that all of the bakers are professionals and the competition is based almost exclusively on pastry.

Each episode in this season involves two challenges. Every baker completes the first challenge, a signature dish on based on various flavors and ingredients. The judges choose a winner and some number of bakers who are safe. The two or more bakers who made the least successful dishes then compete in a bake-off, a second challenge to see who gets eliminated, at least until the finale.

Personally I found the quirkiness of the judges (Carla Hall, Jason Smith, and Gesine Prado) over the top, perhaps because they play a double role of host and judge where those jobs are separate in Great British Baking Show. Despite this, the judges exhibit my favorite thing about a lot of baking shows: they are unabashedly enthusiastic about the work that the contestants are doing. That is, they openly root for them to succeed, even while they offer critiques of the product.

In a similar vein, I like the simplicity of the format. Where the Great British Baking Show puts the contestants through three challenges over two days and then judges them holistically, this show has just two that are judged individually. If a contestant screws up that bake, they have a chance at redemption.

Other shows and, indeed, earlier seasons of this same show, use a format taken from reality competitions where the first challenge in a given episode earns immunity from elimination that happens after the second, but I found that I vastly preferred this format when I tried watching one of the others seasons. For one thing, a head-to-head competition raises the stakes and allows you to concentrate on what is happening on a smaller number of stations. For another, the other competitors remained in the kitchen, meaning both that they turned into a designated cheer-squad, much like what happened in the most recent season of Top Chef‘s Last Chance Kitchen, but also that they got to taste what the bakers made and called upon to assess the dish.

I suspect that some of the particulars of this season and its coziness were shaped by the demands of filming during a pandemic (Season 3 came out in 2019, but the show only returned for Season 4 in 2021), but I found the final product to be an excellent—if also over-the-top and frequently silly—addition to the genre.

My 2021: Resolutions

As is now custom, my year-end 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. I made gains on this in 2021, but age, anxiety, and injury gave almost all of it back.
  • Take more time for mindfulness exercises, including both yoga and meditation.

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 has been a really important habit for me in recent years.
  • Continue my daily yoga routine that I started back in 2020. Whenever I miss a day I can tell that my equilibrium is off.
  • Start running again and get to the point where I can do (the arbitrarily-set) ten miles in one session.
  • Lose five pounds. I aim to accomplish this both by eating a little less and by gradually increasing my activity levels.
  • Submit the completed manuscript for my first book—due in February.
  • Clear the back-work that I owe. Eep!
  • Draft one (1) chapter for an edited collection due in 2023.
  • Find (1) new academic book to review. I failed in this in 2021, but one book feels to me like the right goal: enough to be engaged and write something; not so much that I spend all of my time writing things that are not appreciated in the academic world.
  • I exceeded my target of reading (12) ancient history or classics books not connected to my research for the second straight year in 2021. I like the practice, so will re-up at at least (12), or one per month. I also have a goal to read more articles but hope to get that off the ground before talking about it.
  • I crushed my goal of 52 other books for 2021 along with most 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
  • I want to engage in more artistic pursuits this year. Writing is too obvious and measured in other ways and while I would like to do more drawing and/or painting, I don’t have a readily-available target. The obvious direction to take this is, then, is photography. In 2022, I am going to set up a Flickr account and use is to organize and post pictures I have taken over the years. This will also give me motivation to sort through my photograph collections and practice photo editing.

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Finally, to conclude this series a message for readers: thank you for following along. I have some ideas for posts in 2022, 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 2021: Using My Words

I don’t know what to write in these end-of-year posts anymore.

I’ve written in the past about the various struggles with depression and anxiety. Those are both still features of my life. The struggles of trying to forge an academic career are a recurring theme. Last year, I wrote at length about the pandemic and explained my skepticism at the idea that the Biden administration would be the magic bullet. That is not a prediction worth taking a victory-lap through the Omicron-haunted streets for, and I was hardly alone in making it.

Add in that pandemic generally contracted the number of activities I do and that I find my attempts at sincerity turn out saccharine, and I find myself flailing about for words.

For as much as 2021 passed in a blur, it was a big year for me.

I started a new job. I moved into a house in a new city. I took major steps toward publishing my first book. I accepted several positions within academic organizations. I started to travel a little bit again. While ultimately premature, these trips gave me a little hope for a trip abroad in the near future, which is both something I want to do and something that could help jump-start a few different writing projects I have in mind.

And with all of this going on I eclipsed 75 books read, the largest number since before I entered graduate school more than a decade ago, and generally managed to meet most of my fitness goals.

My personal journey over the past several years, starting even before COVID-19 plunged the world into a seemingly-perpetual state of emergency, has been one of coming to grips with my own limitations. Some of this has been the simple realization that I am now in my mid-30s and with the aches to prove it, but the larger part has been learning to accept the absurdity of trying to pursue a career as both a scholar and a teacher at the university level.

Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. I might have started graduate school in equal parts because I graduated college at the height of the Great Recession and because I wanted to become someone who got to write history books, but, by the time I finished, I had resolved that I would do everything in my power to become an excellent teacher. (I have my strengths, but this is still a work in progress.) I love wrestling with ideas to put them on the page, provided that I am not pressed too much for time and I get as much satisfaction working with students.

But none of this changes the fundamental absurdity of it all. Sometimes that absurdity is comic. Sometimes it is tragic. Sometimes it is satyric.

Wait. Scratch that. I’m getting my typology of academic absurdity crossed with the genres of Attic drama.

The point is that I spent several years making peace with the possibility that an academic career might be something I wouldn’t never achieve, no matter what I did. I would be able to keep writing, of course, but there were just too many factors beyond my control to pin my hopes on it as a source of income. After all, when 2021 opened, I was in my fourth year of cobbling together part-time employment, barely being part of any department, rarely knowing what I would teach more than a month before the semester started. Only once in eight semesters had I been considered a full-time employee and only one other time did the aggregate employment add up to something approximating a full-time salary.

Nothing is guaranteed, even now, but that journey also makes appreciate my current job all the more. There were growing pains that came with starting a new job, of course, and the fifth consecutive pandemic semester made everything harder. But I am also part of a department where my work goes toward a larger program and I am encouraged to think past the current semester. This sort of support goes a long way toward offsetting the grind of a long semester.

Everything I had going on this year also meant that I had less time to focus on the world at large, for better and for worse. After the Trump era I also had less bandwidth to engage with the outrage. I couldn’t stop myself from following along online and remain deeply frustrated by the state of the world for pandemic reasons and in general, but I had to opt out of engaging.

In short, I am entering 2022 in as good as a place as could reasonably be expected. I am healthy, gainfully employed, and in a place to make meaningful strides on both my teaching and writing. Yes, the cumulative effects of the past few years are still present and I am still prone to bouts of anxiety, but I have a sense of optimism about what the year might bring, at least on a personal level. That is quite a privilege indeed.

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This is the penultimate post in my year-end series, following a roundup of my writing, best posts, and lists.

My 2021: Lists of Note

Every year around this time I try to make sense of my year, though I haven’t had quite the motivation for the usual slate of half-serious, half-tongue-in-cheek series of posts this year. However, I did a recap of my Best* posts and figured I should at least put out my annual list of recommendations for various media that I enjoyed this past year (and assorted other lists).

6 favorite novels I read this year:

5 favorite non-fiction books I read this year:

5 books I’m looking forward to (maybe) reading in 2022 (three repeats from 2021)

  • American Pastoral, Philip Roth
  • An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine
  • The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki
  • Border, Kapka Kassabova
  • Speaking Bones, Ken Liu

5 Movies and TV shows I enjoyed watching this year

1 Podcast that I added to my regular rotation this year

  • 60 Songs That Explain the 90s

1 Video game I played this year

  • Ghosts of Tsushima

6 songs I listened to quite a lot this year, even as 2021 was mostly a year of listening to old favorites.

  • “Jump on my shoulders,” AWOLNATION
  • “The Pursuit of Happiness,” Honeybucket
  • “The It Girl,” Raye Zaragoza
  • “Put the Gun Down,” ZZ Ward
  • “Bible on the Dash,” Corb Lund and Hayes Carll
  • “Golden Child,” The Honeycutters

Find the past lists here: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020.

My 2021: Best* Posts

It is time again for my end-of-year series. Previously: Writing Wrap 2021. Next up: my Best* posts from 2021.

I have published 68 posts so far in 2021, totalling more than 62,000 words (average length 921 words), and including some of the most popular posts ever to go up here. The list below consists of posts I look back on fondly and think are worth revisiting.

This year’s selection is eclectic. It includes reflections on pain of the academic job market, expectations, and writing, two entries on teaching, one post about ancient bread, one post about recent media about Anthony Bourdain, and five that directly or indirectly touch on contemporary politics.

Previously: 2020; 2019; 2018; 2017; 2016

Writing Wrap 2021

Every year around this time I kick off a year-end series that starts with a wrap-up of everything that I published that year and sundry project updates. I never really know what to call this post, though, since I am not nearly prolific enough to focus just on publications that came out that year, as I have in past years (2020; 2018).

Once again this year I published very little, but I did take major steps toward a few different pieces:

  1. The manuscript for my first book, Accustomed to Obedience?: Classical Ionia and the Aegean World, 480–294 BCE, received positive feedback from reviewers at University of Michigan Press. I am now working to deliver the revised manuscript early next year. Gulp.
  2. I had an article on Ephesus in the fourth century BCE accepted for publication in Classical Quarterly, pending revisions that I submitted last week.
  3. A chapter I wrote for an edited collection on Athenian orators and the historical memory about the conquest of Samos in 366 BCE passed peer review and the volume The Orators and their Treatment of the Recent Past is moving toward publication with De Gruyter.

I like reviewing books, so I am disappointed that I did not do any this year—the few books I inquired about were already claimed—but I did publish or have a hand in publishing a few other things.

  1. Back in February, I published a piece in The Conversation on assessing and mitigating risk through the lens of ancient Greece. The thrust is that while the Greeks put great stock in divination, prophecy, and making appropriate sacrifices to the gods, none of those ritual actions should let people off the hook for taking adequate precaution. Rather, after taking both types of precaution you just have to accept that risk still exists.
  2. I also interviewed two people, Aven McMaster and Bonnie Rock-McCutcheon, for the Contingent Faculty series of blog posts on the SCS blog. Aven, in particular, highlighted how precarious a career in higher education can be, and I believe that the working conditions for contingent faculty are essential if fields like ancient history and classics are going to continue to exist except as elite antiquarian exercises. I was interviewed for the series in 2020 and wanted to carry the spirit of having difficult conversations forward into these posts. Both interviewees (as well as the two interviewed by my colleagues) spoke candidly about the myriad of challenges facing contingent faculty, and I am really proud of the work that we did to bring these conversations public this year.

Most of my academic work went toward my teaching this year, but I presented two papers at academic conferences. The first applied of post-colonial theory and specifically Third Space Theory to community identity in and around Ionia; the second offered a new interpretation of the so-called proskynesis affair during the reign of Alexander the Great, looking a synthesis between two recent approaches. I don’t have imminent publication plans for either, mostly because there are other things I need to finish first, but hope to come back to one or both next year.

Other projects are moving forward more slowly, but I hope to have big updates next year.

I have a complete list of my publications, with links to everything available online, here. If you are interested in reading any of my work and do not have access to it, contact me for a pdf or off-print.

What is Making Me Happy: Bluegrass Covers of Pop Songs

Grades are in for the semester and while I will have a reflection ready for tomorrow, today I am finding that I just need to decompress.

In the meantime, enjoy a few of the songs that sustained me while I graded: bluegrass covers of pop songs. I fell down a rabbit hole in this sub-genre a few months ago through the Pickin’ On series of albums that covered, for instance, hits from the 1990s. I found those albums to be rather hit and miss, often because they slowed the tempo of some of the faster songs in a way that I thought detracted from the effect. What changed my mind about the overall potential, though, was Sarah Jarosz’ cover of “When Doves Cry.”

I love this song anyway, and the mandolin/upright bass pairing just works. When you take the same sort of bluegrass adaptation and stick it in a non-traditional venue like, say, a kitchen in this Front Country cover of “Don’t Do Me Like That,” I’m all-in.

Or maybe Honeybucket’s cover of the Kid Cudi song “Pursuit of Happiness” (the explicit version is a bit better, but this is funny, too).

Or from across the pond with the Beefseed’s cover of Dark Horse.

I particularly like the cacophonous energy in these songs that helped get me to the end of the semester.

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 feature.