My 2022: Resolutions

Customarily I end my year-in-review series with resolutions for the coming year. This year, as part of my broader overhaul of this series, this post now begins with a recap of the previous year’s resolutions.

Resolutions recap

The easiest way to assess success or failure of last year’s resolutions is to recap them by category.

Writing: I was mostly successful on my limited goals (chapter for an edited collection, submit book, one book review, clear back work). I didn’t finish draft the chapter because it is due in 2023, but I submitted my book manuscript, identified two books to review (one academic, one for Choice reviews) that should appear in early 2023, cleared nearly all outstanding work from my desk, missed by just one short piece that I’m midway through. 0.75

Reading: I crushed all of my reading goals for this year, at least if you exclude my belated article resolution. I read 20 ancient history books (target: 12) and 65 other books (target: 52), with the latter tally including 27 by women (41%; target 33%), 6 by African or African American authors (target: 6), and from 13 countries and 8 original languages (target: 10 and 7). But I did make the article resolution, which I abandoned for want of time. 0.75

Exercise: I did lose some weight this year, but the better marker of success is in my activity levels. I started running again in May and ran 213 miles across 75 runs, for almost three miles per run even though I didn’t complete my first three-mile run until July. My longest run was only about six and a half miles, short of my ten-mile target, but I also made a deliberate choice to prioritize regularity over length. Likewise, while I went away from doing YouTube yoga routines, I did a self-paced yoga session 336 days this year. Full marks, in spirit, if not letter. 1.0

Other: I failed to follow through on my artistic goals for 2022 and only sometimes followed through on my intention of taking Saturdays off. This was also a year during which the sheer number of things that I had going on meant that I succumbed to frustration and impatience, to say nothing of existential dread. The saving grace here is that I am better about making myself take a few deep breaths than I once was. 0.25

2.75/4 I’ll take it.

The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable

  • Learn how to say no.
  • Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
  • Be more patient and charitable.
  • Smile more often.
  • 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.
  • Continue running, pushing the length past a half-marathon.
  • Continue two writing practices I developed at the end of 2022: weekly varia posts and a nightly writing exercise in my physical journal.
  • Draft one (1) chapter for an edited collection due in 2023.
  • Revise one (1) paper as an article.
  • 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.
  • Across all types of the lists I keep, my goal for 2023 is 100 books
    • At least 25 academic ancient history or classics books
    • At least 65 non-academic books
      • 40% by women
      • 10 by African or African-American authors
      • from at least 10 countries
    • 10 more from either category
  • I started practicing photo editing, but I never set up a Flickr account because I became paralyzed by options. This year requires a choice.

ΔΔΔ

Finally, to conclude this series, a message for readers: thank you for following along. Going into the new year I am looking forward to writing more about books, pedagogy, academia, history, and whatever else I happen to stumble upon.

Whatever I write, I hope you’ll join me. In the meantime, may your coming year be filled with warmth and happiness.

My 2022 in Words

So, here’s a thing that happened in 2022: I got married.

I was sitting on the couch with my partner of more than a decade during the last weekend in July. “We should get married,” she declared.

We had talked about marriage a number of times, sometimes seriously, sometimes as part of a long-running joke. We moved in together years ago, entered into a domestic partnership at the start of the pandemic, and bought a house together, so it always seemed like a matter of when, not if, but that when had not yet happened. But this time felt different. The Supreme Court had just overturned Roe v. Wade and a lot of political commentary in those weeks centered on what rights might be next. Contraception was (and is) an obvious target, but, before congress codified the statute this year, some were speculated that protections for gay marriage were also in conservative sights. If gay marriage reverted to a matter of state law, we thought, Missouri’s domestic partnership laws could be stripped down as collateral damage, to say nothing of what might happen if we were to leave this state.

A big wedding seemed impractical given both our personalities and the state of the world and we had decided to embargo the information from our families so that there would be no pressure to do a ceremony and no chance that we would end up with soem people coming and others feeling left out, which meant, to paraphrase Rabbi Tuckman from Robin Hood: Men in Tights, getting married in a hurry. We started calling court houses on Monday. None of the judges in Adair County where we live would perform marriages, while Boone County where we previously lived has a regular schedule that was booked until the start of the semester, which would have meant waiting until at least October.

Then we called Macon, the county between Adair and Boone. The judge loves performing weddings, the person told us. How about Wednesday?

Just like that we had a wedding date.

We drove down on a rainy morning, ever so slightly dressed up and with a pair of silicon rings since they were what we could acquire in time. One of Elizabeth’s shoes fell apart outside the courthouse and then ran into a delay because the judge was on a call, but the ceremony went off without a hitch. On the drive down to Columbia for a celebratory day out we called our families with the news.

This week that spanned from July to August was a microcosm of the rest of my year. A lot of things went well. Professionally, I settled into my job and became further engaged in professional activities, both in official ways and by starting a writing group and hosting afternoon tea sessions for students. I also had an article accepted, finished revisions on my first book, and managed to finish most of my outstanding commitments. Personally, I read a lot of good books and started a regular running habit.

But doing more also comes at a cost.

I went into last summer with a resolution to do less, just as soon as I got through a week reading AP exams and book revisions. July was to be a month for sloth. Then I picked up a summer class last minute after a colleague suffered a health crisis and, in a blink, the start of the fall semester had arrived. Not only had I not had a restful July, but I was also barely ready for the fall classes to start. Then I had a production deadline for my book that left me scrambling to keep up with my teaching responsibilities. By the end of the semester I was feeling the cumulative effect of the past few years where a period of unemployment in summer 2020 was my longest “break.”

At the same time, I’ve come to realize that I don’t want an extended period of time off. I habitually fill almost any sliver of time with books and baking and other hobbies, including exercise. My ideal for travel is either to get lost in nature where I can spend my time hiking or to graze my way through cities while visiting museums and archaeological sites, where I invariably take pictures of things I can use in class. When literature starts feeling frivolous, I start reading non-fiction. If I go more than a few days without writing, I start writing here or on various other projects. I also like being involved.

I have spent a lot of time in 2022 thinking about sustainability. How can history and classics departments build sustainable programs? (It starts with stable jobs for faculty who can support students.) How can I create sustainable practices in the classroom that allow students to grow without burning myself out? How can I cultivate sustainable, healthy habits around writing and reading and exercise? How can I contribute to a sustainable environment when the world seems to be on fire?

I don’t have great answers to most of these questions and some of the solutions I came up with this year backfired, sometimes spectacularly. But I think these are the right questions.

ΔΔΔ

As part of my overhaul for my end-of year sequence, I have changed the title format, replacing what used to be “using my words.” This post is the penultimate entry, following Writing and Books. Resolutions will close out this series.

Previous years: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015

My 2022 in Books

As part of a broader overhaul of my end of year series, I’m ditching my usual “lists of note” about books and shows and movies and everything else in favor of a single post with both my favorite books and the long list of everything I read (including both academic and non-academic reading lists).

I had planned to release this post on the final day of the year, but I have a good sense of how much I will read tomorrow and the post I had in mind for today is not yet ready.

I see a few trends from this list. My reading volume took only a small step back from 2021, despite the busyness of my year. I increased the amount of ancient history I read, and I generally kept my reading diet stable at thirty percent nonfiction, more than forty percent written by women (among other metrics that I track). As the list below indicates, I was particularly blown away by a lot of the general nonfiction I read below. However, as compared with the past few years, each of which included two or three of my all-time favorite books, almost all of my favorite fiction of this year were fantasy or science fiction. This reflects not only the type of books I had the capacity to engage with most of the year, but also the quality of recent speculative fiction, and I actively disliked the few literary novels I read that have been appearing on “best of 2022” lists.

What follows is three “best” lists for things I read this year: Ancient History, general nonfiction, and fiction of all sorts. Then comes a roughly-sorted list of the remaining nonfiction, followed by the remaining fiction, lightly sorted so that books by the same authors appear together. Links go to any book that I wrote about this year, though time constraints meant that I wrote about fewer books than usual this year.

Top ancient history

  • Greek Slave Systems in their Eastern Mediterranean Context, David M. Lewis
  • The Breadmakers, Jared T. Benton
  • The Rise of Rome, Kathryn Lomas
  • King of the World, Matt Waters

Top other nonfiction

Top fiction

  • Empire of Gold, Shannon Chakraborty
  • Speaking Bones, Ken Liu
  • Babel, R.F. Kuang
  • Jade War, Fonda Lee
  • Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr

Nonfiction (everything else)

  • The Landscape of History, John Lewis Gaddis
  • Rome and Provincial Resistance, Gil Gambash
  • Three Stones Make a Wall, Eric Cline
  • The Athenian Empire, Lisa Kallet and John Kroll
  • Other Natures, Clara Bosak-Schroeder
  • For the Freedom of Zion, Guy Maclean Rogers
  • Masada, Jodi Magness
  • The Greco-Persian Wars, Erik Jensen
  • The Roman Retail Revolution, Stephen Ellis
  • Remembering the Roman Republic, Andrew Gallia
  • Invisible Romans, Robert Knapp
  • Sasanian Persia, Touraj Daryaee
  • The Ancient Near East, Amanda H. Podany
  • Empire and Political Cultures in the Roman World, Emma Dench
  • The Bronze Lie, Myke Cole
  • The Bright Ages, Matt Gabriele and David Perry
  • The Medieval Crossbow, Stuart Ellis-Gorman
  • Sourdough Culture, Eric Pallant
  • Koshersoul, Michael Twitty
  • A History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage
  • The Paradox of Plenty, Harvey Levenstein
  • Bad Jews, Emily Tamkin
  • Branding the Nation, Melissa Aronczyk
  • The End of Burnout, Jonathan Malesic
  • Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman
  • All About Me, Mel Brooks
  • Story Mode, Trevor Strunk
  • Specifications Grading, Linda B. Nilson
  • Born to Run, Christopher McDougall
  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami
  • Origins of the Wheel of Time, Michael Livingston
  • Billion Dollar Loser, Reeves Wiedeman

Fiction (everything else)

  • Abaddon’s Gate, James S.A. Corey
  • Cibola Burn, James S.A. Corey
  • Nemesis Games, James S.A. Corey
  • Babylon’s Ashes, James S.A. Corey
  • Tiamat’s Wrath, James S.A. Corey
  • Leviathan Falls, James S.A. Corey
  • Persepolis Rising, James S.A. Corey
  • A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar
  • The Jasmine Throne, Tasha Suri
  • The Silence of the Sea, Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
  • A Hero Born, Jin Yong
  • The Chosen and the Beautiful, Nghi Vo
  • Kalpa Imperial, Angélica Gorodischer
  • Slow Horses, Mick Herron
  • Dead Lions, Mick Herron
  • Real Tigers, Mick Herron
  • The Books of Jacob, Olga Tokarczuk
  • Transparent City, Ondjaki
  • The Life of the Mind, Christine Smallwood
  • The Dinner, Herman Koch
  • Saga v. 1-3, Brian K. Vaughn
  • The Immortal King Rao, Vauhini Vara
  • The Final Strife, Saara el-Arifi
  • The Candy House, Jennifer Egan
  • Go Tell It On the Mountain, James Baldwin
  • The Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa
  • Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse
  • Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir
  • The Pharmacist, Rachelle Atalla
  • A Psalm for the Wild Built, Becky Chambers
  • How High We Go In the Dark, Sequoia Nagamatsu
  • The Cartographers, Peng Shepherd
  • The Lost Metal, Brandon Sanderson

My 2022 in Writing

I have decided to rethink my year-in-review series this year. Where I have traditionally provided separate posts for anything published and anything published here, I am combining those two posts into one as a way to better address my writing as a coherent whole. This post thus includes a status update on projects, a list of things published, the best* posts of the year, and some raw stats from the blog.

Status update

2022 was a year of booms and busts for my writing. I started tracking how much time I spent on academic writing back in 2017 and this year marked the second lowest total of the past five years (2019 was a deep nadir for reasons of employment). But my writing this year also swung between periods of exceptional stamina, like a three week period in February where I averaged almost twenty hours each week, punctuated by periods when I didn’t write anything. Even the success of the writing group I started with Vicky Austen couldn’t keep me on track as my semester spun wildly out of control.

The state of my writing projects also contributed to the stop-and-start nature of my writing since the bursts often coincided with imminent deadlines. For instance, every few months this year I had a new deadline while moving my first book through the phases of production. That book is due out in March 2023. The same thing happened on a smaller scale with respect to an article accepted for Classical Quarterly that I am optimistic will appear next year and a book review, and I have also been wrapping up some smaller projects. By contrast, I had to do very little work on the only piece I had come out this year because it had been caught up in the production pipeline.

Finishing, or nearly finishing, these projects, many of which I once thought would be my final academic publications, has also left me thinking through my research pipeline. I have ideas in the works and at least one commitment for 2023, but one of my tasks over the next few months will be to put this in order and figure out where I want to spend my energy.

Perhaps not coincidentally, then, I also did less public writing and fewer presentations in 2022. I still worked on the SCS Blog’s contingent faculty series, but I was not the lead editor for either of the features that we produced this year. (I particularly recommend Kristina Chew’s two part essay.) I also delivered just one conference paper, connecting the mass of people not from Athens on the Sicilian Expedition to the revolt the following year. My favorite piece of writing of the year was a talk about bread baking for a student group on campus that offered “a family and social history of bread.”

It was a similar story on this blog. I wrote somewhat less frequently, but I produced more words than I ever have before because the average post length ballooned enormously.

Publications

“Remembering injustice as the perpetrator?: Orators, Cultural Memory, and the Athenian Conquest of Samos,” in The Orators and their Treatment of the Recent Past, ed. A. Kapellos (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022), 447–63.

Previous years: 2021; 2020; 2018

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, email me for a pdf or off-print.

Best* Posts

Previous years: 2021; 2020; 2019; 2018; 2017; 2016

Blog stats to date, with a few days left to go

  • Posts: 65
  • Words: 69,482
  • Av. length: 1,069
  • Visitors: 7,941
  • Views: 10,916

What Is Making Me Happy: Pizza TV

Hi there. I have a bunch of more substantive posts in the works, but I took a beating this semester and it is the Friday before Christmas, so I have decided to take it easy for a couple of days. Enjoy this TV recommendation that I’ve been meeting to put up for a few weeks. I have a Weekly Varia post that will go live tomorrow morning and I expect to be back next week with more substantive thoughts on books, pedagogy, and my usual smattering of other topics.

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 an intermittent feature.

This week: Pizza TV

I wrote about the Great British Baking Show back in 2015 and my interest in both food and food TV has only grown in the seven years since. In the past two years alone, I have written favorably about the scripted show The Bear, as well as Top Chef (three times, actually), and Best Baker in America. My tastes in these shows usually align with the food I like to make and eat, so it should perhaps be of no surprise that I greatly enjoyed two very different shows, both about pizza.

Best in Dough is a deeply silly show on Hulu. The first season, which debuted back in September, consists of ten episodes hosted by Wells Adams and judged by Daniele D’Uditi and a second chair filled by Millie Peartree, Eunji Kim, and Bryan Ford.

Each episode brings on three contestants (or sometimes teams) to compete in two challenges.

The first challenge flips the contest on its head, usually forcing them to cook something pizza adjacent, but not actually pizza and often something that prevents them from using their dough. The winner gets either an advantage on the final challenge or a prize. Since a ten minute advantage isn’t that substantial when you already have your dough, just choose the prize.

The second challenge has the contestants bake their pizza using dough they brought and any one of the variety of pizza ovens on set. This round of competition is judged by the three judges and a panel of “pizza lovers” whose decision in an adjacent room counts both as one vote and the tiebreaker since, as Wells Adams cornily repeats every episode, “pizza is for the people.” The winner walks away with $10,000

What makes Best in Dough so silly, though, is that each episode has a gimmick that feeds into the challenges. The first, which was by far my favorite, was the “Nonna” episode featuring three Italian-American grandmothers. Few shows have made me laugh as hard as I did at an old Italian woman declaring after she steals someone’s tomato “I do what I want to, all the time.” The other themes were often cheesier, like social media influencers or fine dining pizzas, but I enjoyed the lighthearted competition.

The other show, Chef’s Table: Pizza, is about as far to the other end of the spectrum as you can get. I liked the original Chef’s Table that debuted on Netflix back in 2015 well enough, but it didn’t click with me in the same way that some other cooking shows have. However, I recently returned to the project with its new pizza series that also debuted in September. Without doing anything more than looking at release dates, this seems to be a continuation of what the producers did back in 2020 when they applied the Chef’s Table apparatus and aesthetic to BBQ, which serves to both elevate a type of cuisine not usually considered fine dining.

This season offers a spotlight to six notable pizza chefs from around the world: Chris Bianco in Arizona, Gabriele Bonci in Rome, Ann Kim in Minneapolis, Franco Pepe outside of Naples, Yoshihiro Imai in Kyoto, and Sarah Minnick in Portland, Oregon.

At some level, the Chef’s Table formula makes each story interchangeable. Pizza was usually not their calling, even when they were restaurant industry veterans, until it was. Each suffered some sort of professional or personal setback that caused them to suffer for their pizza craft. Each is deeply moved by where the ingredients come from. Each has food critics eager to declare that theirs is the best pizza in the world. By the end of the series, in fact, I would start an episode asking myself when and where the obstacles would come from—would this one be a disapproving parents or a destructive industry work wreaking havoc with a marriage?

Chef’s Table, like many other types of food TV, thrives on the idea of food as a story. The viewer cannot eat the food, so you rely on video of dripping fat (which is parodied to great effect on the finale of Parks and Rec) and sizzling grills, or on Tony Bourdain slurping a bowl of noodles while groaning “that’s good.” Where they thrive, then, is the story of how things get made, both in the historical sense and in seeing the transformation from raw ingredient to final product.

In this sense, I found pizza to be a curious match for the form. The personal history was there, of course, and the show features loving shots of tomatoes and greens, and of Chris Bianco making mozzarella, but it also often struck me that the dough itself was treated as an afterthought in most episodes. There were of course shots of dough being balled up or stretched, but only in Sarah Minnick’s episode where part of her story involved opening a pizza restaurant without really having made pizza before, did I find the dough itself central and, even then, the show focused its praise on her unusual toppings. I completely understand that this show is more about creating an aesthetic than about the process itself and also that watching dough rise does not make for the most compelling television (I’ve even written a tongue-in-cheek story about this), but, as a bread obsessive, I’d love to see a show like this turn the camera in that direction.

And yet, despite these critiques, I thoroughly enjoyed this series. Perhaps the highest praise I can give it is that upon watching Gabriele Bonci’s episode about pizza al’taglio (Roman street pizza), I found myself thumbing through my baking books to see if I could replicate it at home. The answer is that yes, I can, and it is delicious.

Pizza al’taglio with tomatoes, tomato sauce, and a balsamic reductionz

What is Making me Happy: a tea infuser

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 an intermittent feature.

This week: a tea infuser

I switched from coffee to tea a few years ago after it turned out that coffee was contributing to some health issues I was having. There are days when I really miss coffee (most of them end in y), but the pain was mitigated somewhat in that I also like tea, particularly varieties of largely unflavored black teas that I drink with just a little bit of milk—i.e., the same way that I like my coffee.

When I moved into my current office I had visions of a regular tea service that I could share with students. I brought an electric kettle, a ceramic mug, and a variety of tea bags. I drank some of these teas and did manage to give away some cookies last year, but the pandemic habits last year and so far this year mean that I haven’t yet shared a tea with anyone. Gradually I resigned myself to bringing a travel mug from home and sipping on that throughout the day. Satisfactory, if not satisfying.

A few weeks ago, I decided to invest in a tea set up for my office that I could enjoy more. After a little internet research, I settled on Adagio Tea’s ingenuiTEA, a 16 oz loose-leaf tea infuser that offers me a little tea ritual to perform every day in my office. One week in, and I am quite taken with this system.

A pot of tea steeping, earlier today.

The infuser is a clever little contraption. You place the tea leaves and water directly into the main compartment, which has a mesh strainer over the release mechanism. When the infuser is resting on a flat surface gravity holds the release valve in place, but it when it is placed over the top of a cup, that valve is pushed open and the tea drains out the bottom.

After the first infusion I just leave the leaves in place and use them for a second mug sometime later in the day. My biggest problem to this point is that I need to pace myself. A fun new toy and ready availability of a fresh brew means that I have been altogether too caffeinated this week.

The next step to this little adventure is going to be further exploring the world of loose leaf teas. I am currently drinking Harney and Sons’ English Breakfast, mostly because it was the loose leaf that I had available. But now that I have a fun new toy with which to make tea, I am starting to set my sights on other varieties of unflavored black tea. Suggestions for where to look are welcome—I just don’t like bergamot and often avoid additives altogether.

My Writing Dashboard

I have three spreadsheets that I use to track different types of activities throughout the year, with creating the new sheet being part of my ritual for the new year. One tracks the books I read (in addition to tracking the books on Storygraph). One tracks my exercise habits. The third tracks my writing.

These sheets, including the manual upkeep, serve similar purposes. First and foremost, they provide accountability not only to track what I’m doing, but how. For instance, tracking different types of information about what I read has caused me to seek out and read books by a wider variety of authors than I did when I first started tracking this information. Similarly, the exercise data has evolved so that I can see my activities and I am able to hold myself accountable for a daily yoga practice. I also like entering the data manually because it means that I look at the information almost daily, and a few simple formulas can give me a snapshot of how I’m doing.

The system I developed for tracking my writing shows signs of having developed organically.

I started this spreadsheet in October 2017, several months removed from having completed my PhD and wanting something to hold myself accountable as I was starting to revise my dissertation and turn chapters or conference papers into journal articles. The core of my system developed at this point with two sets of columns. The first tracks my daily academic writing, which I defined as time with the academic work open on my computer (or printout), social media closed, and with no other distractions. This is of course not all of that goes into research, but it serves as a rough proxy for time spent in dedicated work.

The section for daily academic writing consisted of four columns, to which I added two columns a few years later. Thus, each row in this section has the date, day of week, the time that I worked, the number of minutes in that period, the project I worked on, and, if relevant, the number of words written. The last two sections also double as places where I can add notes about what I worked on that day (editing, drafted introduction, etc).

From the start I also had a second section that collected the total minutes written on a weekly basis, tracked by date, using the spreadsheet function to collect the sum from the daily section and a simple formula that converts that total into hours written. At the top of this column I keep a running tally of the total hours written and the average length of time I spent writing each week that year.

Writing spreadsheet, weekly section.

Starting in 2018, I added a third section where I track everything I produced in that year, in both the total and on a month-by-month basis. What gets tracked here has evolved over time, but generally includes everything from blog posts to reference letters to job applications to presentations. I don’t count all of these as “academic writing,” but this section serves as a snapshot of what I have done in a given year in terms of my academic and academic-adjacent work. This section thus proves useful for filling out annual reviews, for instance.

Screenshot of the monthly section of my writing dashboard.

I added the fourth and final section of this sheet in 2020. Functionally, this section is a key for the projects that I am working on, listing not only the name of the project, but also an abbreviation that I use in the daily-writing section, a due date, and a color-coding scheme that can tell me at a glance the status of each project. The color-coding is the latest addition to this sheet.

Screenshot of the “projects” section of my writing dashboard

Last week on Twitter I ended up in a conversation about systems of tracking writing and accountability. I offered this system to someone asking how academics track their writing and one of the other participants in the conversation pushed me a little bit about whether this collected data is purely for accountability and, if so, what I’m holding myself accountable for, or whether it also has a diagnostic purpose.

To this point, I have mostly used this system for accountability, but only in the loosest of senses. My projects have largely been in various stages of revision since I started tracking this data, so word-counts are not the best way to assess progress. This is also just fine with me since raw word counts have never much worked with my process. Instead, my primary metric for tracking my writing is the time I spend doing it, and I have aspired to write for about an hour a day in the beliefs that writing a little bit every day will be better in the long run than writing in binges and that writing just a little bit most days will cause me to write for longer than the proscribed time on at least some of them. This aspiration has both been wildly successful and an utter failure. I have not averaged five hours of writing per week since the first three months that I tracked this data, at a time when I was teaching just one course, but most years I manage to average about four hours a week, albeit in more booms and busts than I’d like recently.

I don’t explicitly use this spreadsheet as a diagnostic tool. It serves this function in a passive way, in much the same way that I can get a sense of how my writing is going based on whether or not I am writing in this space. I do make notes to myself in the daily section, particularly when I have hit a wall, and I will do the same with the weekly section for weeks during which I’m sick or, for instance, if I got no writing done because I was in the middle of moving or going to a conference. The sheet for 2020 has a row that reads “NULL SET CRISIS.” In the past I have done somewhat minimal data analysis to see trends in my writing activity, but I didn’t find it that useful so I stopped.

In writing this post it has occurred to me that accountability and diagnostics would probably work better with an adjustment to the weekly section. The update I have in mind is to add two columns, one with a target for that week and the other being the time I spent writing in the week minus that target, thus giving me a snapshot of how I did relative to my expectations. These columns will also let me adjust my goals week-to-week based on what is happening with the rest of my schedule, hopefully making them more achievable (always my downfall in goal-setting) than holding to a single goal for every week.

However, as much as I started keeping this sheet because I wanted accountability and really like tinkering around with data in various aspects of my life, this system has also just served as a nice ritual around writing that reminds me that I have in fact done something even when it feels like that is not the case. I don’t know that I will ever go much beyond what I have now in terms of analysis, but it certainly helps me maintain what I hope is a healthy and productive writing practice.

What is Making Me Happy: Marcus, from The Bear

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 an intermittent feature.

This week: Marcus, from The Bear.

Marcus: My first job was McDonalds. You don’t get to be creative, you just work with robots and everything is automatic and fast and easy. I won’t make a mistake again.
Carmy: Yeah, you will. But not ’cause you’re you, but ’cause shit happens.

The Bear 1.5, “Sheridan”

Watching The Bear causes me quite a lot of stress. The show stars Jeremy Allen White as Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, a rising star of the culinary world who recently returned to Chicago to take over The Beef, an Italian beef sandwich shop after the owner, his brother, committed suicide. Carmy is working overtime just to keep the place afloat while trying to elevate the cuisine, navigating the resistance to change among the existing staff (especially Richie, played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach), tempering the ambition of his new sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), and, of course, dealing with the loss of his brother.

Something is always going wrong in the restaurant, whether in terms of interpersonal tensions at the worst possible moment or technical failures or a failed health inspection. All of this crests in the seventh episode “Review” where for twenty excruciating minutes you are taken into the absolute chaos of the restaurant. My stress watching this is a testament to the attention to detail brought to the show that brought on flashbacks to my experience managing a restaurant, which I did for a year after college. There are parts of the work that I enjoyed—I really like routines, for instance—but it can be absolute chaos.

The Bear packs an enormous amount into its eight episodes, most of which are less than half an hour long. There is no wasted space. Every moment seems to serve both as a character beat and either a callback to an earlier scene or setting up something that will happen in a later episode, while also packing in a surprising amount of comedy (particularly shout out Edwin Lee Gibson as Ebraheim).

This economy also allows for at least five different characters to carry out their own little arc. Carmy trying to unlearn the toxic lessons drilled into him by abusive chefs and embracing his family trauma is obvious, as are Richie’s gradual setting aside his bluster to acknowledge the depression of divorce and losing his best friend and Sydney’s obvious skill and ambition that push her to repeatedly overreach. But the writers also gave complete arcs to more peripheral characters like Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) who comes to appreciate what Carmy is trying to do and realize that Sydney is not out to get her.

Of course, my favorite of these stories belongs to Marcus, played by Lionel Boyce.

When we meet Marcus, he is responsible for making the rolls for The Beef, and is the first of the existing staff to take to Carmy’s vision for the restaurant. With a little bit of inspiration from Carmy’s cooking materials and some encouragement, Marcus teaches himself to bake cakes that they add to the menu. Then he wants to make doughnuts. Things go wrong, at times because that is the nature of the show (and life), but he just keeps going.

What I love about this arc is the reverence that it receives from both Lionel Boyce and the show’s creators. Marcus is given an infectious enthusiasm for baking, almost to the point of obsession. Once he asks for sous vide bags for a fermentation experiment even though he has no idea what he is doing. At the same time, while the The Beef as a whole is absolute chaos, the shots of Marcus baking are done in almost absolute silence, leaving him in this island of calm as he goes through the steps and making it that much more jarring when that calm is disrupted.

This entire season of The Bear is great and the show lands whether or not it continues for a second season, but Lionel Boyce’s performance as Marcus is particularly making me happy this week.

What the $@*! am I doing with social media?

I recently took an impromptu hiatus from Twitter. My account still posted links to the posts that went up here and I periodically dropped in, looked at a few things, retweeted something I liked, and then disappeared again.

This hiatus went on for about a month and a half until I started dipping my toes back into the Twitter stream about a week ago. During that time, the only social media I checked with any regularity was Instagram.

It is hard to pinpoint a single reason why I took this hiatus. This was around the time that Elon Musk made waves by claiming that he wanted to buy Twitter, but, in retrospect, I think something like this had been coming for a while. As I wore down last semester, I found myself spending progressively more time just idly staring as the world seemed to float by on Twitter. Around the same time, the Musk news broke and there were several rounds of outrage and anger that resulted in a lot of people I follow directly yelling or indirectly sniping at each other, all of which was just too much for me to engage with. So I stopped.

Stepping away from Twitter like this was both a relief and disorienting. For a few years now I have gotten a lot of my news from Twitter, which collates articles from far more sources than I otherwise would seek out. At its best, the site functions like an RSS feed curated and commented upon by people I know or would like to know. Not checking Twitter, therefore felt like reducing my awareness of what is happening in the world from a torrent to a trickle.

Of course, that was also why it was a relief. For a few weeks I just let my primary attention be on whatever was going on in the world around me.

However this hiatus also left me reflecting on how I use social media.

These sites allow people to present a curated version of themselves to the world. Some people, I find, do that very well. There are all sorts of people who use Twitter to great effect to share information and articulate points based on their particular areas of expertise–be it academia, politics, journalism, sports, or comedy. While I have certainly done this from time to time, I am generally reticent to assert my expertise in a space where I always feel that there are people who are more qualified on most of what I would want to say, so I usually don’t put myself in this lane. In an earlier phase of my Twitter evolution I used it as an aggregator for interesting articles I would read, but I gave that up both because a lot of the quick share links didn’t work well and because I felt that I wasn’t adding anything by doing this. In recent years I have also noticed that I largely stay away from commenting about things I am watching or (heaven forfend) sports because those things are not sufficiently “intellectual” and “academic.” After all, Twitter is a space that blurs the lines between the personal and the professional and I’m ostensibly on the job market. Should I not curate my persona accordingly?

This leaves me is with an account where I do a lot of retweeting, a decent amount of holding what might be termed water-cooler talk with people in the replies, but comparatively less tweeting of my own.

This is not the case with other sites. On Instagram, the only other site that I use regularly, by contrast, I post pictures of cats, baking experiments, books I’m reading, flowers, and travel (which happens much less frequently than I would like), while I use Instagram stories for memes, jokes, and ephemeral commentary about everything from how starting to run again feels like a psyop against my own body (tricking it into realizing that it can run that distance or speed) to whatever the latest political travesty is unfolding to minor gripes and insecurities about writing. Here, I find the ephemerality of stories, combined with the much smaller audience (I have maybe 6x the number of people who follow my Twitter account, many fewer of whom I know in person) liberating to be more polemical and sarcastic.

Every so often I think about bringing my social media presences into more alignment, which mostly means being more random and less deliberate with what I tweet. What holds me back is the sense that I ought to be curating a persona. Tweeting about all of those other things might be more authentically me, but is it good for my brand? To which the obvious answer is that I’m a person, not a brand—and, ironically, that doing more to cultivate my persona as a baker might actually be good for me down the road.

But for all of this hand-wringing about personal brands, I don’t actually know what mine is. I hope that it includes at least ancient history, books, writing, pedagogy, and bread, but is that a coherent brand? Does it need to be? Do people follow me for a particular type of my posts?

There is a reason I don’t have aspirations to pivot my career to social media management. I even have some choice words for this idea in an upcoming review of The Immortal King Rao.

I want to continue spending less time on social media in aggregate because it is not great for my anxiety and has a way of filling time that I could spend reading, but I am also toying with ways that I might be able to be a little more present on these sites, whether by employing an app that automatically deletes my old Tweets or by managing to convince myself that it is acceptable for academics to acknowledge their “uncouth” interests without losing face. If anyone has suggestions on these issues, I’m open to ideas.

In all likelihood, I will continue to trundle along much as I have, with perhaps a quicker trigger on the mute button to preserve my state of mind. But, then again, there are so many things about the world, both good and ill, that I want to talk about that the answer might be just to do it.

Anyway, have a cat picture.

Learning to Run Again

This morning I woke up before my alarm. I grabbed my phone to turn that alarm off and checked a few things before getting out of bed. Then I puttered around the house, reading a novel and stretching by turns for a little more than an hour, just long enough to steep and drink a big mug of tea.

Then I laced up my running shoes and set out.

My current bout of running came on about a month and a half ago. I have never been as serious or successful a runner as my father and brothers who for a number of years now have run marathons together, but this is not my first time running. In high school, I would go for runs with my father and ran a few local 5k races. Early in graduate school I tried running again. It was during this period that I reached my longest distances, running about five miles at least once a week and topping out at about eight miles before running into a leg injury. I tried a “run the year” challenge a few years ago and contributed 173 miles to my team’s total, including a few miles when I couldn’t sleep early in the morning while on a job interview. Then injuries. I tried again after the pandemic closed the gym where I exercised. My last attempt, shortly after moving last summer (and, in retrospect, after holding my foot on the accelerator of a moving truck for many hours), ended abruptly with sharp pain in my lower calf less than a quarter mile into a run.

I am a slow runner, particularly these days. I am also not running very far—just a little under two miles today. But this is okay. My focus right now is on form. On my gait, and trying to keep it in line with how I imagine I run barefoot since I have suffered far more injuries while running in shoes than I ever did playing ultimate barefoot, which I did into my 30s. Correlation need not be causation, but so far, so good. I am running slow and careful, and celebrating ending each run for ending uninjured rather than for reaching a particular distance or speed. Those will come, but only if I can stay healthy.

I like the idea of running more than I actually like running. Rather, I would like to like to be someone who likes running, who achieves that runner’s high, who runs an annual marathon. But I spend my runs thinking about how everything hurts and, recently, fretting about whether this footfall will be the the one when something gives out and I have to start over. I can also only compete against myself while running, and pushing myself this way is exactly what I’m trying not to do.

By contrast, I used to play basketball for hours every week. My slowness didn’t matter as much in a confined playing surface where I could change speeds and understand the space. And since I didn’t like to lose, even in a silly pick-up game, I could just lose myself in the game and not think about what hurt.

And yet, running is what I have right now, so running is what I’m doing alongside a daily yoga routine.

My return to running also prompted me to finally pull Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run off my to-read shelf. McDougall describes himself as a frequently-injured runner, so I thought it might unlock the secret to running pain-free. In a way, it might have.

The centerpiece of Born to Run is a 2006 race in Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madre Mountains between a motley crew of American ultramarathon runners, including Scott Jurek, one of the best in the world at the time, and some of the best Rarámuri (Tarahumara) arranged by a mysterious figure called Caballo Blanco (Micah True).

(The race went on to become an annual event, though its founder died in 2012.)

It is an incredible story. Rarámuri runners had made their appearance in ultra-marathon circles at the Leadville 100, a high-altitude ultramarathon in Colorado, in 1993 and 1994. A guide and race director named Rick Fisher rolled up to the race with a team of Rarámuri for whom he was the self-appointed team manager. The Rarámuri runners won both years, setting a new course record in the second race, before deciding that putting up with Fisher’s actions wasn’t worth their participation.

(An article from 1996 in Ultrarunning about a race in Copper Canyon in which True also participated acknowledges Fisher’s “antics,” but points suggests that they didn’t end his relationship with the tribe.)

However, this story is the hook. Born to Run is an extended argument for a minimalist running style that exploded in popularity following its publication. McDougall’s thesis is that modern running shoes, and the industry that is predicated on selling those shoes, causes us to run in ways that cause injuries. This argument is somewhat anecdotal, relying on personal experience and stories of incredible endurance from athletes before the advent of running shoes.

The Rarámuri, whose name means “The Running People,” are exhibit A. The Rarámuri are a tribe that lives in isolated villages deep in the Sierra Madre Occidentals, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The terrain makes long-distance travel a challenge, so they Rarámuri run. But they also run for ceremony and sport in a ceremonial ball-game called rarajipara where teams work to kick a ball an agreed upon distance, chasing it down after each kick. All the while, runners wear just a traditional sandal called huaraches.

My own experience with running makes me sympathetic to McDougall’s argument, and I am seriously considering getting a pair of zero-drop shoes and transitioning in this direction for my footwear. However, the more I read about running injuries, the more it seems that the answers might be more idiosyncratic. That is, there is a lot of conflicting evidence. While some studies suggest physiological advantages to barefoot running, others point out that not all barefoot runners run with the same gait. A number of studies suggest that barefoot running has shifted the types of injuries (aided perhaps by people transitioning too quickly) rather than reducing them. I think that barefoot running could be good for me, but all of this makes me think that I shouldn’t ditch the running shoes for every run just yet.

While I was reading Born to Run, a friend suggested that I read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which connects my current focus on running with my ongoing obsession with writing.

In addition to being a novelist, Murakami is a marathoner and triathlete who describes how his goal is to run one marathon a year. This memoir is a collection of essays on the theme of running and training, and, unlike Born to Run, is not meant to be an argument for a particular type of training.

I think that one more condition for being a gentleman would be keeping quiet about what you do to stay healthy.

Nevertheless, I found What I Talk about When I Talk About Running to be particularly inspiring. Murakami is a more successful runner than I ever expect to be, even though I’m only three years older now than he was when he started running. And yet, I found something admirable about his approach. Running, like writing, is just something Murakami does, and he doesn’t think about a whole lot when he is on the road. His goal in running is to run to the end of the course. That’s it. He gets frustrated when he can’t run as fast as he used to, but he is not running to beat the other people, and uses the experience to turn inward.

And you start to recognize (or be resigned to the fact) that since your faults and deficiencies are well nigh infinite, you’d best figure out your good points and learn to get by with what you have.

But it should perhaps not come as a surprise that I highlighted more passages about writing than I did about running, though Murakami makes a case that the is broad overlap in a both a running temperament and a writing one. Both activities require long periods of isolation and where success is not synonymous with “winning.” Doing them is more important than being the best at them.

I don’t think we should judge the value of our lives by how efficient they are.

A useful reminder.

ΔΔΔ

I have had a hard time writing about books recently. Before these two books, I got bogged down in Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob, which I am still trying to process, and then read Ondjaki’s The Transparent City, which is a very sad story about an impoverished community in Luanda, Angola. I would like to write about these, but I’m not sure that I have anything coherent to say and June has turned much busier than I had hoped—last week I was at AP Rating in Kansas City, then I wrote a conference paper that I delivered yesterday, and now I’m staring down a book deadline and other writing obligations. By the time I have time, I might be too far removed to come back to those books. I am now reading Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind, which is a novel about adjunct labor and miscarriage in a way that highlights the lack of control in both situations.