What’s Making Me Happy: The Good Place

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

This week: the T.V. show The Good Place, created by Michael Schur (just put out on Netflix).

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is dead and in the afterlife, greeted by Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of the community, and introduced to her soul mate Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), and her new neighbors Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto). This is “The Good Place,” heaven, she is told, where she will be rewarded for all the good deeds she did while alive. The problem, of course, is that Eleanor Shellstrop wasn’t a good person while alive. In fact, she was a prickly, callous narcissist. There are reasons for this, including a dysfunctional childhood, but by wanting no part of genuine relationships, Eleanor went through life as an amoral jerk. Now, surrounded by “good” people, Eleanor wants to change, and so her ethics-professor soulmate Chidi takes her back to school even though the situation causes a constant ethical dilemma.

Then there are Tahani and Jianyu, also soul mates. Tahani is the less-accomplished child of a wealthy and influential family, with famous “friends,” while Jianyu is a Buddhist monk who took a vow of silence….or possibly a not-yet-successful amateur DJ from Jacksonville. Really, this pair is no more perfectly matched than are Eleanor and Chidi.

I’ve been a fan of Michael Schur for some time, and while I’ve not seen Brooklyn 99 and am not that fond of The Office, I am hugely fond of Parks and Recreation. On a joke-for-joke level I still prefer Parks and Rec, but in terms of an overall show—characters, plot, pacing, feel—The Good Place is spectacularly good. Organized into chapters, the first season builds upon itself in a clear narrative arc guided by a singular question: will Eleanor be allowed to stay in the good place?, but with a conclusion that perfectly sets up a second season.

Beyond an avalanche of jokes, visual and verbal, highbrow and simplistic, is the warmth of The Good Place. The main characters bond over the course of the thirteen episodes, developing genuine emotional connections that become their own form of torture in turn. More than that, though, basic premise of “The Good Place” is a sort of gamification of life crossed with an eternal Match (dot) com, with points accrued or deducted for most every action, but the demerit system in particular is meant to be its own layer of jokes. There is no malice intended for any of the listed items, but the overall message about living a life that helps other people is most welcome. The viewer is invited to ask whether people can improve themselves, and while it may not be of much use within the immediate context of the show, the answer it gives is an unambiguous yes.

All in all, The Good Place is a warm, funny, clever show, and easily one of my favorite things I’ve seen this year. With season one binged in less than a week, I’m excited to see where season two goes.

A midyear addendum to my reading goals

I’ve developed a routine of setting goals in roughly three categories: quality of life, writing, and reading. At the same time, I returned to meticulously tracking the non-academic reading I do, including raw numbers of books and pages, genres, languages, and author demographics. In general terms, I do pretty well in terms of cultural diversity in my reading, but the practice of recording demographics have revealed exactly how AWFUL I am at reading books by women.

This is not on purpose; to be cliche: some of my favorite authors are women! I am sure that my tendency to track down foreign literature that is translated into English doesn’t help these numbers, but it is a fact that most of what I read is by men. So I’ve made it a particular goal to read more books by women.

Turns out, setting goals and rigorously tracking your progress works! Since first setting to fix this situation, I’ve increased from 2 (6%) to 4 (7.5%) to 8 (13.5%) to 9 (26.5%) so far this year. I am tracking to hit my target for this year and then some, seeing as I am just one book off, but the current pace also has me reflecting on how pathetically low I set this goal even if it represents an improvement over last year. With this in mind, here are my revised goals:

First, I want to start measuring these reading targets in terms of percentage of overall books read, you know, in case my pace slows for whatever reason. For this year, the new minimum bar is 25%, but I would like to raise the percentage to 30-33% or more.

This will mean increasing my already-raised pace, but I think it is doable because, second, every book I start in August will written by a woman. (I may extend this through September, too, if, as I expect, my reading time gets slashed because of coming of the academic school year.)

There are a number of reasons for me to do this, including that it helps cover a clear weakness in my reading habits, but it isn’t an onerous task by any stretch. I am very much looking forward to this to-be-read pile, which includes:

  1. Wishful Drinking – Carrie Fisher
  2. Royal Assassin – Robin Hobb
  3. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin
  4. Stalin’s Daughter – Rosemary Sullivan
  5. Always Coming Home – Ursula K. le Guin
  6. Birds of America – Lorrie Moore
  7. The Vegetarian – Han Kang

But first I have to finish Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise.

Civilization and its antecedants

Before I ever considered the possibility that I could become a historian, I played games. This is a normal progression for a young person, and being someone who already loved history, I naturally gravitated to historically themed games, including fighting games like Dynasty Warriors (Three Kingdoms era China) and the Age of Empires series. I still enjoy both of those sets of games, but in more recent ages, I have particularly come to like civilization building games like Europa Universalis and, of course the Civilization series. Earlier this week I was looking through online forums and other resources to satisfy my curiosity about how the series portrays Greece—the topic of a future post, in all likelihood—and stumbled across an online emulator of the original Civ game. Naturally, I gave it go.

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The title sequence starts in space, panning into the galaxy. Starting a new game picks up where the title leaves off, this time centering on the earth, which the player watches evolve. Over the top is narration:

In the beginning, the Earth was without form, and void.

But the Sun shone upon the sleeping Earth and deep inside the brittle crust massive forces waited to be unleashed.

The seas parted and great continents were formed. The continents shifted, mountains arose. Earthquakes spawned massive tidal waves. Volcanoes erupted and spewed forth fiery lava and charged the atmosphere with strange gases.

Into this swirling maelstrom of Fire and Air and Water the first stirrings of Life appeared: tiny organisms, cells, and amoeba, clinging to tiny sheltered habitats.

But the seeds of Life grew, and strengthened, and spread, and diversified, and prospered, and soon every continent and climate teemed with Life.

And with Life came instinct, and specialization, natural selection, Reptiles, Dinosaurs, and Mammals and finally there evolved a species known as Man and there appeared the first faint glimmers of Intelligence.

The fruits of intelligence were many: fire, tools, and weapons, the hunt, farming, and the sharing of food, the family, the village, and the tribe. Now it required but one more ingredient: a great Leader to unite the quarreling tribes to harness the power of the land to build a legacy that would stand the test of time:

a CIVILIZATION!

Most of the conversations I’ve had about Civilization style games have revolved around their vision of history. In short, technology trees promote history as linear, progressive, teleological, despite also serving as a way for the designers to balance game-play. While acknowledging that game balance is a) difficult to attain, and b) critical to a game’s success, this presentation of history is open to criticism. Again, this is a topic for another time. Here I am taken by this opening conceit of Sid Meier’s Civilization series.

The sequence actually begins before the earth is formed. The game asserts that there is potential—seemingly for its exploitation by humans, the “intelligent” race. There is a slight concession to the improbabilities of evolution, but accepts humans as fait accompli. After all, this is a game about CIVILIZATION.

It is in the home stretch of the opening sequence that the assertions become more interesting. Society, it tells us, is not a civilization. The former involves people living together for survival, but the latter is something constructed in historical memory out of bricks of literature, written history, and monuments. (Civilization generally forces players to spend time creating technologies for farming and hunting, but never mind that.) This is yet another way that the games prioritize settled societies over nomadic ones, to go along with, for example, barbarians that spawn in territory that doesn’t belong to civilizations.

But then the kicker: none of this, not unity, not the legacy of civilization, not progress, is possible without the guiding hand of a great person (man, usually). Once again, this may be dismissed as a quirk of design in that the leader functionally has no role in game-play. And yet, Civilization sets an individual as the paragon who makes slight modifications of the rules and sets the character of the civilization. Famously, the original settings had passivity and aggression on a loop, so when Gandhi, who had the lowest starting level, became more peaceful he would become hyper-aggressive and India would start slinging nuclear warheads at all available targets. It is compelling game design, to put famous individuals as national characters, despite its manipulation of history just as much as does the equation of nations and “civilizations.” To pick up the Gandhi example again, he is a figure from the creation modern India, while the vast majority of “Indians” would no doubt be horrified to learn that their national character is pacifistic on account of him.

Civilization is a game. I am sure that some people are introduced to history through it and its ilk, but this does not necessarily mean that it need be scrutinized and held to task for historical accuracy. But it is also true that the series takes a rhetorical position with respect to the nature of civilization and the historical processes that create it, in this case before the game has even begun.

Reading and order

Sometimes there is an obvious order books ought to be read in. I learned this the hard way many years ago when I read the Wheel of Time series in this order: one, three through seven….two. Things made quite a bit more sense once I read the second book. More than just pushing the plot forward, each book in a series adds characters and deepens or broadens the setting. But the question I’ve been thinking about recently is whether there is a more general principle in this regard.

In other words, is there a Platonic ideal for the order in which one reads books that maximizes a) enjoyment and b) the appreciation of the content of each? If so, what sort of pattern might it follow, taking into account fiction and non-fiction, the gender, orientation, cultural background of the authors, and genres?

Obviously not. This is an impossible hypothetical for any number of reasons. For one, there are simply too many permutations and too little time to label anything “essential.” For another, taste is subjective, so the list would have to be customized for each person. Nor does the awareness of a given book disappear upon closing the cover, so while the actual order in which the books are read will have some influence on the experience of the next book, the interpretation of books gone by (let alone books re-read) is open to revision upon further thought.

It might make some logical sense to equip this tabula rasa reader with the tools of literary and cultural criticism, honing sensitivity before unleashing him or her onto the the written word like a wolf onto sheep. If one were to prioritize deep appreciation of the book over the simple pleasure of reading. Yet not only does the reading work this way (the idea of equipping a kindergartner with Derrida’s deconstructionism before, say, The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar is laughable), but also it is impossible to gain a deep appreciation of literary and cultural criticism without first being steeped with culture (books, in this case).

This thought experiment works somewhat better for specialized subfields, particularly in terms of non-fiction, because a) this means that there are demonstrable bounds to the literature and b) there are things that might be termed foundational texts (and essays analyzing or debating those foundational texts, and on and on) from which the edifice of knowledge is constructed. These foundational texts are unavoidable; when thinking about the ancient economy, it is impossible to avoid dealing with Moses Finley. In this respect, it is possible to at least approach an ideal order in which to read the literature. Yes, the list would be politically charged based on the biases of the list creator(s) and, yes, the list would be limited by oversights, scope, and additions, not to mention issues of what methodological texts are “necessary” for a given topic, but at least it is possible to conceive of the task.

If this concept is an impossible absurdity, why have I spent nearly five hundred words on it? There are two answers to this question, both incomplete. The first is that it was a thought that came to me as I read Chuck Klosterman’s But what if we’re wrong? close on the heels of Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood and thus thinking about what it means for a novel to grapple with a given culture. The question I had was whether I would have had a fundamentally different reaction to Back to Blood if I had read them in a different order.

The second is a broader, more general experience I have had where the second of two books read in the same genre has seemed derivative of the first when they were, in fact, published in the reverse order. (The principle is equally applicable to any consumed media, really). This quirk inevitably shapes how the reader (listener/watcher/consumer) interprets both books and threatens to diminish the appreciation of the foundational book that now may be seen as unambitious, derivative, or inchoate, even though it forged the trail that made the second book possible—simply because it now exists coevally with the media that followed it and so may now be experienced afterward. And this is without considering intertexts that cross genres and the interplay between fiction and non-fiction.

Perhaps a single list is the wrong model. The all-encompassing Platonic structure, might look more like a three dimensional flowchart with near-infinite connections that can be entered from almost any point, depending on what one has already read, what one’s objective is in reading, and what book(s) one is working toward as an objective. Then again, this ceases to be a way to structure reading and becomes a visualization what already exists, provided that a reader cares enough to plan ahead.

Authorial Voice

Confession time: my biggest challenge as a writer is voice. As in, how does one develop an authorial voice? What distinguishes voice? A second challenge is beginnings, though I suspect that the two are related. In both cases I can recognize both when I read them, but, despite writing for school my entire life, writing here for a decade, and having several publications, I struggle with both.

The issue of voice has been on my mind recently as I turn what little energy is left after the constant bombardment of radiation from the summer sun back to academic writing. On the docket are conference abstracts, articles, a book review, and turning my dissertation into a book manuscript.

If there was one overriding comment during my dissertation defense, it was that the project often lacked for authorial voice. As it was put at one point, there was an impressive quantity and quality of the bricks used in building the structure, but it was lacking voice that forms the mortar.

(A separate issue that contributed to the lack of mortar was the absence of a linear argument in my dissertation, which was partly a quirk in the construction of my project that I am giving a lot of thought to in these revision stages.)

There are features of my writing that I think distinguish it, most notably by an overwriting that I can never quite escape. I try, not often successfully, to write the way that I talk, with the primary difference being to iron out some of the grammatical inconsistencies. I would like to push myself in this direction somewhat further, though, since I am sometimes frustrated with pithy, succinct turns of phrase when in a verbal flow that I can only reproduce on the page in overwrought parody. As an aside, this is why I think that my academic writing is frequently improved when I am able to talk through problems in articulating my argument.

I also have a tendency to imitate the books I read; after all, you are what you read. (To a lesser extent, this could be extended to the words one hears by way of podcasts, etc.) Once, in high school, a friend told me that I “write like a historian” (he did not mean it as a compliment, necessarily), but you can see this tendency particularly when I do a pale mimicry of David Foster Wallace’s style in my blog posts. Usually, those come close on the heels when of my having read a lot of his work, but I also found myself reflecting on this issue while reading Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade, which has an impressively flamboyant voice. Imitation is going to be inevitable at some level, and I sometimes use it to experiment with different styles of non-fiction, but it is still something that I need to be wary of, particularly when it comes to extreme fluctuation.

Thinking about writing in these terms, of course, probably isn’t helping things. When I do, I get particularly self-conscious so I become paralyzed about posting on social media because every word in a piece of writing has to be perfect.

Some blog entries are hammered out in less than an hour and posted straightaway, either because the medium can tend toward the informal and unpolished or because it is for capturing a single, relatively complete thought. Others, including this one, are developed over the course of several days or weeks, being built, edited, compressed, and polished. In actual working time, these posts do not necessarily take much longer than ones written in a single sitting, but the extra time gives the ideas room to breath, at least in theory. Here, my reflection is that perhaps what I ought to be working on is revision, on the level of clause, sentence, paragraph, and chapter because while authorial voice is going to come first from the process of writing, it is honed and polished in these later stages of a writing project. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that I am better at editing for content than for style.

At some level, though, I already know what is going to happen. I am going to fret about voice, but never come to a resolution. Instead, I will simply keep writing until the issue of voice fades into the background. Maybe I will find something clearer and more robust, either in initial drafts or in edits, maybe I won’t, but the more important thing is that I will keep putting words on the page.

A broken record

I have spent most of the last month feeling downright foggy as I ran the gamut of teaching, revision, and paperwork in the final weeks of my graduate career. But this only partly explains my general silence. I am still working on putting thoughts in order about life, the universe, and everything, and in so doing am developing a newfound appreciation for the genre of “fragment” posts where the author tossing out snippets, thoughts, excerpts, and musings that are explicitly incomplete.

The more ominous issue is one I have had before, namely that I don’t want to sound like a broken record. I think this is why I like writing down reflections (or reviews) of books. It is a genre that allows for a little creativity and reflection, while providing a clear prompt and definite strictures. Increasingly, though, I find myself writing things that I get halfway through only to find them repetitive. Some I find are my own hobbyhorses generally, but also the current political climate has me feeling very much like the topics I think about are ever more limited. Others, though, come from a more debilitating premonition that whatever joke, insight, or observation that I am about to write here or on Twitter has already been said better, but that the extreme fragmentation online means that I have missed it. My fear, then, is that I will be but a pale shadow chasing after someone else’s moment or that I am making a mountain out of a fairly banal, commonly known truism.

At some level I know that I will turn a corner as I work into a new writing routine in the coming weeks, finding new tidbits in my research and teaching. More practically, though, the solution may be that if something is worth saying, it is probably worth saying more than once. Real-time maps of internet traffic are mesmerizing and drive home just how much is said online, so it is a fools errand to be ashamed of repetition. Give credit where it is due, and don’t infringe on people’s economic livelihood, but life is too short to give in to this sort of shame.

What is Making Me Happy: Uncharted Atlas

I haven’t done one of these in a while, so….following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

I have always loved maps. I loved maps so much in middle school that girls teased me about how I would “read” atlases. (The fact that it was girls doing this is not important, but it amuses me in hindsight.) I am an absolute sucker for all sorts of maps, whether fictional or actual, old or new. A good map is essential to my love of fantasy series, even if many of those maps are provocatively incomplete and I have a deep and abiding love of geological histories of fantasy series. In another set of circumstances, I easily could see myself having been a cartographer or geographer.

All of that is by way of preface. This week I found a twitter account @UnchartedAtlas that sends out a tweet every hour with a new, randomly generated fantasy map. There is also a website that explains the method for generating the maps and lets you play with the tools. This is because these maps start with a random point generator that then connects them in a rough outline, adds terrain and rivers, erodes that terrain based on earth-like geology, and then populates it with cities based on a set of criteria. A paired code generates the names.

Certainly not every factor is accounted for, particularly in terms of city placement, but the maps represent a fascinating blend of criteria derived from historical geology and derived from the predilections of fantasy authors. I’ve been loving the map updates and the processes of creation, both, and thinking about what lies beyond the text of the maps. The inner map geek in me is like a kid in a candy store with this site.

Below are a few of my favorite maps from recent updates.

Programming update, March 2017

Life has a way of piling up, and my tableau has been particularly full these past few weeks. In addition to teaching responsibilities, work, basic maintenance, and the mountain of grading I’ve been ignoring, I spent several days in Omaha, Nebraska at the Missouri Valley History Conference, which was equal parts exhausting and inspiring, and, more importantly, spent every spare moment making final edits to my dissertation. I made it through this gauntlet, submitting my dissertation to my outside committee members yesterday afternoon. I defend it, the last big hurdle of my degree, in just over a month.

(Writing this statement gives me palpitations not only for the process itself, but also because of the yawning chasm that awaits me on the other side; I will have more thoughts on this in the near future.)

There is more to go: another conference paper and article revisions, plus funding applications, fellowships, and jobs. Oh, and that mountain of grading that I am slowly but surely mining away. Still, I am hoping that I get to sleep a little bit more than I have and will therefore be able to spend a little bit more time writing here. I have finished three books since my last post here and hope to pick up my reading pace, which slowed down commensurate with the other things that were put on hold. I also hope to finally get around to my 2017 goal of writing more broadly, since the move to almost exclusively writing about books was mostly an accident.

Between my recent schedule and the past couple hours spent grading I am not terribly coherent today, so that is all for now.