My 2017 – Using words

In the spirit of routines and trying to buck some of the frustration that comes with this season, I am again putting out a series of reflection and planning posts, including this reflective essay, by the numbers listicle, and best of 2017.

Last year, and 2015.

I am in a bind to start this post. How can I write about 2017 without sounding like a knock-off version of Dickens? It was the best of years, it was the…yeah.

The past year was busy, both because I took on (and accomplished) a lot and because it felt like the world careened from one potential catastrophe to another. Things are still holding together, but the ride was draining. I have written and called my elected officials and turned out to protest more than at any time in my life (I also had the unpleasant feeling of insignificance that comes with the impression that your representatives are not listening), and much the way that fire consumes all available oxygen, I discovered for the first time in my adult life that I did not have the energy to really keep up with the “news,” let alone to follow much international news. This is not the only reason that I am coming into the New Year exhausted, but it is a contributing factor.

But 2017 was not all bad. I finished my degree, and I have an unopened cylindrical mailer that (I think) contains a diploma to prove it. I’ve had pieces of academic writing, including an article and a book review, accepted for publication, with more under review and I have made progress on a book proposal to try to sell my dissertation as as book. And this is before counting the half dozen talks that I gave, proposed, or prepared in the past calendar year to go along with the dozens of job applications.

I am proud of the work I did this year, but there were also less visible changes taking place. In the second half of 2017 I renewed my focus on PROCESS. For instance, I joined two writing groups, one in person and one online, and used these as an excuse to build good habits. I started waking up early so that I can dedicate an hour of writing first thing in the morning and keeping a log of the time I spent writing distraction-free, and had the pleasure of watching a steady increase. Setting weekly goals has helped me learn how to keep things realistic, and learning to share works in progress has helped strengthen the things I write. Similarly, between reading about writing and working on book proposal, I have been thinking a lot about writing for audiences rather than writing simply to make my argument. One of those is a lot easier to read. I won’t claim expertise in any of these things and I don’t know that these practices have necessarily increased the speed at which I work, but they have improved my writing and should serve me well going forward.

This past fall I also taught my first college course as a PhD. I had a lot of fun teaching the course and think that I would only change about a third of it for the next iteration. In brief, with a lot of people who were history majors but without much knowledge about ancient Greece, I sought a balance between content, historical practice through engagement with primary sources, and interactive, student-driven learning. The results were uneven, with the distinct feeling that trying to do all three meant that none of them was done quite to my satisfaction. I also felt that I learned as a teacher last semester, particularly in terms of ceding power as the instructor in order to give the students the tools and the agency to learn in ways beyond rote memorization. I know this material, but learning is more than playing a game of telephone through the students to an exam. I witnessed exceptional growth in a number of my students, which has me excited all over again for the two courses I am teaching next semester.

My non-academic reading pace took a step back last year, finishing just fifty books, though several took a lot of investment and I gave more time to reading things for professional use, so it comes out about in a wash. The big change was a breakthrough in terms of diversity, with 38% of the books I read last year being by women. I would still like to read a little more non-fiction and some more African and/or African American literature, but I read more books by women in 2017 than in the previous four years combined(!) and discovered some of my favorite authors along the way.

I continue to live with a wonderful and supportive person, I learned some new recipes for baking, continued to learn languages with Duo Lingo and stayed physically active, including lifting weights and playing basketball. I still had periods of extreme anxiety and wore down at the end of semesters, both of which too often result in snapping at people close to me, but I also felt like I was willing to smile and laugh just a little bit more easily while taking the time to appreciate a view…though the latter might be a side effect of looking for the next picture to post on Instagram. Despite a high level of uncertainty about the world at large and about my future in particular, I am in a good place right now. Going into 2018 I am taking a moment to reflect on this fact, to appreciate steps that got me there, and then to get back to work.

But first, some goals for 2018.

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 them)
  • Smile more often.
  • Continue to exercise, maintain or improve health, flexibility and fitness.
  • Take more time for mindfulness exercises

The concrete and quantifiable

  • Write more often, here, there, and beyond. Some specific (but not a complete list of) quantifiable goals:
    • Sell my first academic book, based on my dissertation
    • Finish a draft of my novel….which would mean working on it
    • Complete and send off (3) articles to academic journals
    • Apply to review (1) academic books
    • Find one non-blog, non-academic site to publish a piece of writing, either fiction or non-fiction

    • Keep up my non-academic reading, but continue to expand my horizons, meaning:
      • Read at least (52) nonacademic books. I fell just short of this last year.
      • I crushed my goal of (10) and the revised goal of (25%) with almost 40% being by women in 2017. In 2018, my target is at least (33%).
      • I read (7) non-fiction books (not for academic purposes) again in 2017; in 2018 I want to hit (10).
      • I added a category of “professional development” non-fiction books in 2017, reading (3) titles. In 2018 I would like to read (6). Right now this is a separate list, but I may merge them this year.

My 2017 – By the Numbers

In the spirit of routines and trying to buck some of the frustration that comes with this season, I am again putting out a series of reflection and planning posts, including this by the numbers, a reflective essay, listicle, and best of 2017.

There are any number of numbers that have been used to quantify the experience of 2017, including how much average temperatures rose, stock market tickers, voters suppressed, emails leaked, dollars spent on political advertising, number of people displaced from Syria, total human population on Earth, instances and casualties of mass- and police-shootings—plus happier statistics that aren’t necessarily kept such as weddings, child-births, mitzvah, or trivialities like cups of coffee, diapers, or speeding tickets. Here are some numbers about my year.

1 – classes taught
—2 classes scheduled for 2018
4 – article submissions
—0 rejections
—2 requested revise and resubmit
—1 accepted for publication
—1 book review accepted for publication
3 – academic presentations
—2 papers based on my dissertation research
—1 paper on other research
3 – abstracts submitted for upcoming conferences
—1 accepted
—1 rejected
—1 under review
499 – pages in an approved dissertation
1 – novels started still underway
34 – job applications submitted
—1 job interviews received
—2 applications due in January (that I know of)
6 – states visited
—1 province visited
3 – ultimate frisbee leagues participated in
—1 ultimate frisbee team captained
50 – books read for non-academic purpose [-9 from 2016]
—11 original languages
—7 non-fiction books
—19 books by female authors [+11 from 2016]
—16126 pages (since March)
37 – comic books read
104 – blog posts published
— 44 book reviews
— 13 posts about politics
— 16 posts about the ancient world
282 – Instagram posts

As usual, these numbers mean nothing, anything, and everything. There are other metrics, but they are proprietary of NUDEAN-inc, a private analytics organization. A NUDEAN spokesperson is cagey when asked to share the areas of life quantified while keeping the actual numbers secret, leading one to speculate that the data is only being haphazardly recorded. Whether this situation is a product of gross incompetence or because many aspects of human life cannot or should not be quantified is a judgement left to the reader.

My 2017 – Listicle

In the spirit of routines and trying to buck some of the frustration that comes with this season, I am again putting out a series of reflection and planning posts, including this listicle, a reflective essay, by the numbers, and a best of 2017.

Getting back into the swing of things, 2015 and 2016.

For 2017:

Three international news stories I’m following going into this year

  • Ongoing crises in Turkey, including terrorist attacks, the war in Syria, and centralization of power
  • Refugee crises around the world, particularly the continuing plight of people living in camps on the Greek islands.
  • Really, this list could go on, but almost everything I’m following is too depressing to mention

Six favorite books that I read in 2017

  • Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
  • The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin
  • We, Yevgeni Zamyatin
  • The City and the City, China Mieville
  • The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck
  • But What If We’re Wrong, Chuck Klostermann

Five Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading in 2018 [To my shame, there are two repeats from 2016]

  • 1493, Charles A. Mann
  • Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig
  • Assassin’s Quest, Robin Hobb
  • Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Sugar Street, Naguib Mahfouz

Four movies I saw in theaters in 2017 that were totally worth the price of admission

  • Wonder Woman
  • Get Out
  • Kedi
  • Blade Runner 2049

Four TV Shows I have been watching (or watched) in 2017

  • The Good Place
  • Brooklyn 99
  • Shameless
  • The Vietnam War

Three music groups I’ve newly been listening to in 2017

  • Tristan Prettyman
  • The Bangles
  • Lake Street Dive

Two books I once started, but didn’t finish…that I’d like to give another shot in 2017 [No change from 2016]

  • Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  • Bleak House, Charles Dickens

One achievement unlocked in 2017

  • Doctor of the Philosophy of History

Best* Posts of 2017

It is that time of year. Once again I want to highlight some of the favorite things I wrote this year (last year’s list). I will probably publish a few more posts before the end of the year, including starting my end of year reflection posts. These are not necessarily the best or the best-trafficked, but rather things I wrote that I look back on fondly and think are worth revisiting.

First, I wrote more about the ancient world than I have in past years. A few highlights:

Person and People: Herodotus

Mass Persuasion (Again)

Class Warfare in fifth century Ionia

Isocrates, on the importance of history and oratory

Herodotus on rejecting the expertise of physicians

More Political Wisdom from Ancient Greece

Isocrates, on Corrupt Politicians

Alternate Colors

The Fate of Oratory

Did Alexander the Great suffer from CTE?

Second, three posts about contemporary events:

Re-evaluating Antisemitism

Write to your Senator

Privilege and Deportation

Finally, two posts about books:

EQ in fantasy literature

A Review of Infinite Jest

Between this blog and my academic projects, 2017 was good year for my writing. I would still like to engage more with current events, but the problem with this goal is that it would require writing on demand which, at least in the past, has not been my strong suit.

Civilization and its Resources

A few months back I wrote about the rhetorical position taken by the Civilization series. This post cascaded into a desire to teach a course that blends historiography and historically-themed games and while I am not here to announce that I am teaching such a course, I recently found myself again thinking about these issues.

Strategy games operate on economies based largely on resources. The Total War games have a monetary economy paired with population, where the population is necessary to recruit troops, but the real limitation is money that acts as a proxy for all necessary resources. The Age of Empires series used the quartet of gold, stone, food, and wood and included trade and a supply-and-demand marketplace mechanism to manipulate your resource stockpile. Food was the most common resource so long as you had access to wood because you could continually build farms, but maps were finite and so were resources.

Civilization is different. (I am using Civ 5 as representative here.) At first there is stone, wheat, grapes, wild animals. Wood mostly exists for the energy used in construction, which then speeds up building the civilization. The other resources are not immediately usable, but they are visible. As the civilizations progress through the ages, resources become available. Horses, iron, coal, oil, aluminum, and finally uranium. In each case, the civilization constructs the human apparatus (pens, mines, plantations, wells) to exploit the resource, with each location providing a variable amount. Once the resource is exploited, it is available until used and reclaimed once free.

From a game-construction perspective, this makes sense. The long version of the game spans thousands of years and has multiple win-conditions, including technology and culture. Conquest, which is the core of the other games mentioned above, is just one possible outcome. Resources are necessary to achieve any of these conditions and streamlining resource management improves game play. Civilization does offer a facsimile of colonization to find new resources as settlers move into uninhabited lands, but sanitizes the concomitant exploitation. At the same time, though, it is possible to win with only minimal expansion because all resources are permanent.

Just as there is no slavery in Civilization, neither is there rape of the environment outside the gradual reclamation of swamps and forests for their exploitation by humans.

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.