What’s Making Me Happy: Country Music

This is an occasional series following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment. I use 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 grew up listening to a lot of country music, both the recent vintage from the 1990s and classic artists like Johnny Horton. To this day, I regularly put on country albums or songs when I want to scratch a nostalgic itch, so I was thrilled to learn that the latest Ken Burns project is the history of country music, now airing on PBS.

The first episode of the series explores the origin of country music and the associated instruments, including the fiddle, the banjo, and the acoustic guitar before turning to examine the first stars of the genre, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. The second episode continues the story westward to Texas during the Depression.

Burns makes a couple of specific choices in the first episode that make it one of my favorite installment in any KB documentary.

Burns chooses to identify all of the talking heads––an all-star mix of writers, singers, and musicians from Merle Haggard to Roseanne Cash to Ketch Secor to Rhiannon Giddens to John McEuen––by their state rather than by their job, profession, or title. Although he goes away from it for the second episode, this decision makes country music a national genre rather than uniquely Appalachia and underscore the power of place. At the same time, it underscores other themes of the episode such as how groups like the Carter Family came from rural Appalachia, others, like the Atlanta factory worker Fiddling’ John Carson, consciously adopted a rural aesthetic––a presentation that the record companies later encouraged their stars to do.

Another thematic point that I appreciated in the first episode is how Burns explores intersection through its connection to the Blues and early Jazz. Some of this was negative like Henry Ford anti-semitic diatribe against jazz that accompanied his decision to sponsor country dances of his youth, but much more was neutral or even positive. Burns examines how A.P. Carter (the problematic character behind Sarah and Maybelle Carter) acquired music for the group, including from black churches and how Louis Armstrong performed on Blue Yodel #9 with Jimmie Rodgers.

In addition to the substantive intersection between these genres, Burns also explores the power of the record labels and radio stations (complete with John R. Brinkley and the station he created to promote his xenotranplantation procedure that restored male performance by putting goat testicles in humans). In Burns’ telling, the earliest record labels that put out country music were the labels that put out music for ethnic minorities. The original Grand Old Opry radio show on NBC, by contrast, followed immediately after performances classical music and opera.

Suffice to say, I am not disappointed. This is a recognizably Ken Burns production, complete with Peter Coyote and slow panning shots of old pictures, and, for all of its detail, there are points where he has to leave out the complexities of early pioneers in order to tell the story of the people whose contributions most shaped the genre. The second episode largely picks up where the first one leaves off, but gave back a couple of the subtle points like the identification of people by place. Nevertheless, the first two episodes are a richly-textured story of a genre interwoven with the currents of American history.

Programming Update, September 2019

The summer heat hasn’t broken Missouri just yet, but the semester is fully underway––and rapidly closing in on the halfway point. I have managed to stay one step ahead of all of my responsibilities to this point, but the week that just ended drove home to me just how little downtime I have allotted myself, particularly after accounting for maintaining personal relationships.

What this means for this blog is that posts are going to be intermittent for at least the next few months. Whatever “spare” time I have for writing needs to be spun toward my academic work, at least to the extent that I have the brainpower for it.

This is not a total blackout. I have a few thoughts about the handful of books I have managed to read this month, perhaps for a quick-hit post, as well as a “what is making me happy” post I want to have up this weekend, and there is always a chance that inspiration will strike. Rather, I am relieving myself of the anxiety that comes with the feeling that I need to write, ironically in the hope that it will help the words flow.

The Twilight of the Blogs

A few months ago Bill Caraher declared that this is a “golden age” of blogging about the ancient world, a sentiment that I find hard to disagree with despite the popular idea of a blogpocaplyse. And yet when Neville Morley posted last week about a decline in blog traffic, that, too rang true.

Caraher subsequently posted a reflection on the changing rhythm of blogs, suggesting: “Instead of blogs maturing into a less-formal and more intimate complement to the scholarly discourse, blogs have become places where we negotiate the social conscience of our fields.

I am perhaps a little too aware of my blog traffic. Since switching to the WordPress platform I have had slow, but steady year over year growth. Although much of this growth is attributable to the WordPress reader, the single largest referrer, particularly when a post blows up, is Twitter.

(The exception to this statement is an intermittent flurry of activity from India any time there is an election because I once wrote about Intizar Husain’s Basti.)

Ultimately, though, I am small potatoes. “Growth” here is relative in that I started virtually from scratch and do very little promotion outside linking to each post in a tweet.

Nor do I really engage with scholarship or sources like most substantial classics-related blogs. I’ve written about this before, but, in short, my writing has passed through several iterations before settling into what it is now: a catchall where I can write about things for which I do not have another outlet. Writing helps me organize my thoughts, and, for instance, I don’t write about books for any other outlet (at the moment––I would love to start), so those posts go here.

At the same time, blog posts are as resource where I can direct people should I not have space to give a substantial answer. To give just one example, a Twitter-friend asked about The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, a book I wrote about last year and so in addition to a short answer on Twitter, I was able to point to the longer thoughts here. Similarly, I wrote reflections about the Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting in San Diego and in defense of graduate programs at non-elite schools, as well as posting a reading list for teaching at the college level. Like the examples Caraher gives, the most trafficked posts are those grappling with the social or structural issues in academia and rely on viral (at least by my standards) transmission.

Other platforms serve other purposes. Podcasts give the sense of being a silent participant in the conversation. Instagram allows me to post pictures of things I bake and places I go. Twitter tends toward the ephemeral, albeit with a long public record, as it flies by in quick drips that fit both hot-take culture and the large number of demands on our attention.

Does this mean that the current blog landscape is populated not by survivors living in a new Eden, but those who are already dead and just don’t know it?

Yes and no. A few years ago I noticed that a blurring between reportage and analysis or opinion on news sites. The suggested “articles” were increasingly from the latter category, on blogs hosted by the site. This says to me that the problem of declining traffic isn’t a matter of “blogs,” but of unaffiliated blogs. Based on the comments on Morley’s post, I am hardly alone in struggling to see value in writing substantial posts for a personal blog since the odds of it being picked up are significantly lower.

But, as Caraher notes, blogging has matured in a somewhat different direction, and each blog will reflect the individual author(s). Traffic is a sort of validation, but reasons to blog exist beyond that alone. So long as I see value in using this space to organize my thoughts I will continue to blog. At the moment I am confident enough that I plan to use student-run blogs in two of my classes for the upcoming semester.

Pamuk, ranked (update)

My ranking of Orhan Pamuk’s novels, now updated to include The Red Haired Woman, and with links to discussions of individual books.

  1. My Name is Red
  2. Snow
  3. The Black Book
  4. Museum of Innocence
  5. A Strangeness in My Mind
  6. The Red Haired Woman
  7. Silent House
  8. The New Life
  9. The White Castle

There is a tier after the first three, and another after the next three. Tell me why I am wrong.

Previously: Orwell, Hemingway.

Four Months Without Coffee

I had my last cup of coffee on November 6. If my quick finger math is correct, that means I had my last cup of coffee four months ago today.

This realization dawned on me this morning when several old friends posted pictures and captions about their love of coffee to Instagram. One of these, a college suitemate, I might term a coffee buddy. Seeing these posts sent my mind wandering, wondering whether I miss coffee.

Back in November I wrote a short reflection on the painful transition away from my drug of choice, noting the feeling of mental fog and general exhaustion that came with removing the stimulant from my system. Gradually that sensation faded. My body doesn’t react nearly as poorly to either too much or too little black tea (mostly English breakfast) as it did to coffee so while I still drink three or four cups a day, there are also days when I reach the late morning before realizing that I would like one.

And yet, there are times I still miss coffee. As a constant writing companion, tea does just fine, but I liked the taste of good coffee with just a splash of cream and I liked the ritual of brewing and drinking, particularly at coffee shops, that tea comes close to, but never quite replicates. But this is insufficient reason to return to a behavior that was becoming physically destructive to my body, so for the foreseeable future I remain someone who doesn’t drink coffee.

Form and Content: a note on writing

“Do I have to write in paragraphs?”

I used to receive variations of this question every semester, and I’m sure that I will hear it again from students, often first years, who are deeply concerned about the expectations of an academic essay.

“Yes,” I answer, not because I’m against creative presentation, but because giving the option of using a bullet-point list undermines the hard work of stitching a series of thoughts into a single argument.

Echoes of this frantic question have come back to me in recent weeks, first while reading John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write, and then again when I saw a lament on Twitter about the encroaching tyranny of the listicle as a medium of discourse.

Every format has strengths and weaknesses.

The essay, a medium for which I have a great deal of affection, lays out an argument or tells a story by leading the reader from one point to the next. In the hands of a master the essay is a lyrical medium, but it is not only hard, but also unsuited to all tasks.

A list, for instance, conveys information simply and concisely in the face of tumult and complexity. There is comfort in lists, but they belie fluidity. An example: I have kept one of my favorite novels for years, but between the fogginess of memory and whims of a given day the novel that belongs in the ninth spot of the list changes.

An outline gives the structure of an argument, even if the actual order, at least in my experience, is liable to change in the execution.

The listicle, by contrast, is a cross between the list and the essay. It takes the argument and points of an essay and meshes it with the order and structure of a list. Meatier than a list and more easily digested than an essay, it is perfect for consumption on a mobile device, matched for a fast-paced world.

Good writing is good writing, and the same holds here, but the very efficiency of the listicle also contributes to its forgettability. Where I can rattle off a dozen or more essays that I recommend to people, there is not a single listicle I can say the same about unless I thought to do so while reading it. But I’m also busy, and therefore generally happy to skim through a listicle on any number of topics where I might decide that reading and processing an essay is too much of a commitment.

In the classroom there are any number of ways to cut corners and grade more quickly, but my objective is not speed. Outlines are a nice tool, whether to help students organize their thoughts, prepare a long written piece, or (my preference) part of the revision process, but it is not the same thing as learning how to pull together a complete piece of writing.

Hewing to John Warner’s mantra that writing is thinking, the ability to lead your reader from one point to another is a learned skill that requires repetition, feedback, and revision. In this sense, the very trepidation that my students exhibit about writing is validation for having them write fully-formed essays.

My 2018 – Resolutions

Every year as part of this series I make a set of resolutions or goals. In the past these resolutions appeared at the end of another post, but this year I decided to separate this list into its own entry, divided, as always into two categories. This is the final installment in my end-of-2018 series.

My 2018: best* posts; by the numbers; listicle; using words.

The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable

  • Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
  • Be more patient and charitable with people I know and tolerant of distraction (while working to limit it).
  • Smile more often.
  • Continue to exercise, maintain or improve health, diet, flexibility and fitness.
  • Take more time for mindfulness exercises, something I did intermittently in 2018, but intend to do more regularly in 2019.

The specific, concrete, actionable

  • Take at least one day off each weekend, as defined by no work email, no grading, and no academic writing.
  • Take ten minutes every afternoon for quiet meditation and reflection.
  • Although I submitted my book proposal, I need to re-up the goal to sell my first book because as the year comes to a close that goal is yet incomplete.
  • Complete two article manuscripts for submission to journals. My goal of three last year was excessive, particularly while working on the book proposal.
  • Write two abstracts to submit to conferences.
  • Book reviews are not high on the list of priorities, but I would like to find one book to review in 2019. I did not do one in 2018.
  • I cleared my reading goal of 52 books for 2018, and will re-up at the same level
    • 33% of those books should be by women
    • I read 12 non-fiction books in 2018, but will re-up this year’s goal of 10 books
    • In lieu of languages this year, I am setting a goal of reading fiction from at least ten different countries. This should be doable, since I have books from more than five on my to-read shelf right now.
    • I want to read at least five books by African Americans (either fiction or non-fiction, suggestions welcome)

ΔΔΔ
Finally, to conclude this series a message for my readers: thank you for following along. I have some ideas of posts coming down the pipe in 2019, including a revised list of my favorite novels, but, as usual, content here will end up a reflection of my year and what I have the energy to write about. 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 2018 – using words

This is the penultimate post of my year-in-review series, an essay trying to make sense of my year that was. It follows a collection of my best* posts, a list of statistics, and a listicle. A post containing 2019 resolutions concludes the series tomorrow.

Past entries in this series: 2017, 2016, 2015.

ΔΔΔ

On the precipice of 2019 I am in a good place. By definition this should mean that I had a good 2018, and, compared to many, that is true. I had some measure of professional success; I published two articles, submitted a book proposal to an academic press (along with five revised chapters), taught five classes, and scored multiple interviews in the cutthroat arena of the academic job market. In a bonus victory, each of the academic successes brought me closer to articulating my larger research agenda. 2018 passed me as a blur of activity with steady, but not stable employment and whirlwind travel, but I was not burdened by toxic relationships or flattened by the trauma of loss.

Just writing these words twisted my stomach into knots.

Reading over the past versions of this essay, I realize that I have written something to this effect each of the past three years. In this sense, 2018 was more of the same, except that the highs were higher and the lows lower.

This year marked the first time in my adult life where I suffered health complications worse than the flu that were not sports injuries. All of them were related to anxiety. Last spring I experienced the first round, which included GERD and at one point breaking out in hives. The digestive issues meant that I had to give up first chocolate and then coffee. By the end of the fall semester a new wave of symptoms developed that, thankfully, have largely disappeared after I gave myself several days entirely off over the holiday.

I have coped with anxiety in various forms for quite a few years now, but an overlapping series of issues have caused the symptoms to grow progressively worse.

One is the brutal academic job market, where there are dozens or hundreds of qualified candidates for every open position and the number of positions overall in decline because of cuts to education funding. For me this meant working on short-term contracts to teach individual courses without the security of knowing whether I would teach again the following term and, simultaneously, feeling pressure to research and publish without compensation in the hope that someday it will be part of my job.

Teaching history at the college level is something I deeply believe in. There are other career paths out there and graduate study in history should do a better job of creating pathways for students to get those jobs, but when I look at myself in the mirror it is hard to give up on this dream that I have now spent almost a decade pursuing.

Another issue is the gremlin who has long sat on my shoulder telling me that I should be working harder. When I was young I could ignore him, perhaps too well, but in the crucible of academia he has grown strong indeed.

I gave in to that gremlin more often than not in 2018, sacrificing my weekends, my evenings, and much of the time that would have been spent just being outdoors, much to my detriment. By the end of the year, my partner started saying that even my hobbies started to look like work.

Self-care taken to its extreme becomes hedonism, but self-care itself is necessary. My much belated revelation at the end of 2018 is that things like self-care that I admire and encourage in others are also things that I need to allow myself.

But, like I stated at the outset, 2018 was a successful year by many metrics. I remain in a healthy relationship with an amazing woman and read a lot of breathtaking books. I was a little bit ambitious in my writing goals, which always ends up going slower than intended. Teaching new courses (four of the five I taught for the first time) consumes more time than I estimate, and most of my writing time was given over to “old” work, between editing chapters to submit with my book proposal and rounds of edits and proofs. Still, I am pleased with how my courses went for the most part and am pleased with the work that I put out into the world in 2018. I also saw progress in the long-term process of self-improvement, which provided hope even in bad moments.

As much as my year was defined by struggles with anxiety, I want to take time to reflect on those things that were good.

My universal resolutions every year revolve around mindfulness and happiness. Anecdotally and superficially, at least, I smiled more and laughed more easily in 2018 than I did in past years, but also with the impression that this was grim laughter going out into unrelenting darkness.

My 2018 – listicle

Every year around this time I try to make sense of my year that was. On Wednesday I posted the zero post in this series, my Best* posts of 2018 list and yesterday I posted the first entry, my annual By the Numbers. Today’s post is a listicle that serves as a vehicle for thinking about things I liked or did in the past year.

Getting back into the swing of things, here are the past lists: 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Three international news stories I’m following going into 2019

  • The ongoing war in Yemen
  • The changing responses to the refugee crisis in Europe
  • The fallout from US involvement and disengagement with the rest of the world

Seven favorite novels that I read

Five Nonfiction Books I particularly loved

Two Books about Teaching I particularly liked

Five Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading in 2019 [two repeats from 2018]

  • Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck
  • Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig
  • American Pastoral, Philip Roth
  • Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Sugar Street, Naguib Mahfouz

Four movies I saw in theaters that were totally worth the price of admission

  • The Death of Stalin
  • Black Panther
  • Won’t You Be My Neighbor
  • Annihilation

Four TV Shows I have been watching

  • The Good Place
  • The Wire
  • The Great British Baking Show
  • Forged in Fire

Two music groups I listened to for the first time

  • Josh Ritter
  • Mipso

Publications Notice 2018

This year saw some of my work go out into the world beyond the ecosystem of this blog, in the form of two peer-reviewed articles and one book review. In reverse order, they were:

“‘Who Cares About the Greeks Living in Asia?’: Ionia and Attic Orators in the Fourth Century,” CJ 114 (2018), 163–90.

In this article I used the extant speeches of the Attic Orators as a window into Athenian public discourse about Ionia. Where a superficial distance between Athens and Ionia appeared at the start of the fourth century, these speeches, I argue, contain evidence a complex and ongoing relationship between the two even as their composers directed the attention of their audiences elsewhere.

“Oracular Politics: Propaganda and Myth in the Refoundation of Didyma,” AHB 32 (2018), 44–60.

This article challenges the widely-held position that the presence of Alexander the Great caused the restoration of the oracle at Didyma, which had lain in ruin for almost a century and a half since the end of the Persian Wars. I reinterpreted the ancient evidence for this spurious association, arguing that crediting Alexander served the political needs of the Milesians and of Seleucid royal family.

“Nudell on: P. Briant, The First European: A History of Alexander in the Age of Empire,” trans. N. Elliot (Harvard University Press: 2017).”

In January my review of Pierre Briant’s book about the reception of Alexander in Early Modern Europe, published in English as The First European appeared in CJ-online. The short version is that the book is excellent (Briant is one of my favorite ancient historians working), but I took issue with the title chosen for the English-language edition.


Each of these is a piece of scholarship, meaning that while I tried my best to keep the writing clean and readable, a certain amount of background context is assumed on the part of the reader. That said, I am happy to share copies with any interested readers, scholars, or students. If the numbers of off-prints are limited, priority goes to students and academics. Send an email to inquire about receiving a copy.