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.

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.

What is Making me Happy – Podcasts

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 a wildly erratic relationship with music—I like it on in the background and like obscure groups, but only recently started listening to complete albums and don’t ever keep up with recent releases. I also don’t listen to audiobooks, partly because they require too much commitment, partly because I like physical books, partly because I aspire to making enough money to keep the physical book publishing industry alive just with my own purchases. In the place of books–since this is the void it would fill–I listen to a wide range of podcasts, even after I recently unsubscribed from several that have too many piled up episodes. These range from sports teams or sports I like, to more general intellectual or artistic interviews and discussion roundtables. Some of my favorites on my long list are favorites specifically because they are tailor made for people of my given interests, deep-dives into relatively narrow topics that I just happen to love. Others are wider and more likely to bounce from topic to topic. There was a confluence of releases on Friday that dropped something ten individual episodes in a single day–including old standbys and several podcasts that are new or restored ventures by producers I like. While overwhelming, this deluge gave me a moment to reflect on these shows and, by extension, give a few recommendations.

The Jonah Keri Podcast : Jonah Keri has been one of my favorite baseball columnists for quite some time, and I was particularly sad to see his baseball podcast go away when his run at Grantland/ESPN ended. His podcast is back, on the Nerdist, of all places. The new venture is not specifically focused on baseball, though that certainly features prominently, but is a long-form interview podcast about sports and life. His first two, with guests Chris Hardwick and Keith Olbermann, respectively, are not strictly focused on sports, but are thoughtful conversations. Any show like this will be somewhat informed by the guests it brings on, but I like listening to both of the first two guests tell stories and it was really the return of this podcast that inspired this post. I am somewhat wary about podcast bloat—that podcasts seem to finally be embracing that they are not bound by radio time slots and therefore run long—but as long as the conversation is one I am interested in, that is fine.

The Lowe Post : A more sports-centric podcast, Zach Lowe is my favorite NBA writer and one of the main reasons why my interest in the NBA is waxing again. Lowe’s podcasts are another interview show, but specifically focused on individuals associated with the NBA, including players, coaches, former coaches, and writers, and will sometimes go into the nitty-gritty of tactics on the court, trade speculation, player personalities, the art of creating an interesting story, and major news stories. It is a catch-all discussion of the NBA, and the only podcast of its sort I will make a blanket-recommendation for.

The Watch and Pop Culture Happy Hour : The Watch is Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald’s podcast on the Bill Simmons Podcast Network, in large part rebooting Grantland’s Hollywood Prospectus. In this show they talk about the happenings in television, but have started talking more about movies and music now that Greenwald is not first and foremost a television critic. They frequently discuss shows and music I haven’t seen, but I listen regularly anyway. Pop culture Happy Hour likewise covers music, tv, movies, and (to a lesser extent) books, generally in the form of specific topic, general topic, and then a segment of recommendations. (In contrast, The Watch tends to be just talking about shows that are relatively current and that they want to talk about; there is planning involved, but it is not nearly as formulaic.) These two are in the same category because they are my two standbys for discussion of pop culture. I like both, even when they talk about culture I don’t consume because they remind me of conversations with friends that I rarely have these days, ones that are thoughtful and playful. More than even the topic, I think it helps that the people on the shows remind me of friends near and far and I just like the conversation.

There are many others I like, including the podcast version of Fresh Air and BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, but I am a little pickier about which ones I listen to simply because the topics covered don’t always hold my attention. In contrast, the ones above I listen to regardless of topic.

This barely scratches the surface of my podcast list, but I am also open to suggestions. If there are particularly good shows I ought to be listening to, please share.***

***I have not listened to Serial, I have been told I should listen to Serial, I don’t know that I ever will listen to Serial. However, it is on my radar.

What is making me happy: Cowboy Mouth

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.

My big failing in the trivia night I usually go to is that I have gaping blind spots when it comes to music. I’ve always said I like what I like and don’t usually go out looking for new stuff. However, I have recently started listening to Spotify’s “discover weekly” and then listening to full albums from the artists whose songs I liked. Yesterday I came across the group Cowboy Mouth, a New Orleans rock group whose driving sound and bombastic lyrics I am quite enjoying. I don’t agree with the lyrics in every song, but neither do I find them objectionable the way I do in some songs commonly on the radio.

There weren’t many high quality videos I could find, but this is one of the more popular songs, “Jenny Says”:

And then there is the ever-subtle “Do You Want To Do It Right Now”:

What is making me happy: Simon Pegg

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’ve enjoyed Simon Pegg on screen for a few years, but he is not someone who I had ever heard speak as himself. Earlier this month, though, he was on Studio 360 to talk about his movies in general and the latest Mission Impossible film specifically. As part of the conversation he spoke about a sound-byte of his that caused a stir earlier this year where he supposedly accused comic book movies of causing society to become more childish. In talking about all of these issues I found Pegg to be personable and thoughtful.

The interview:

https://www.wnyc.org/widgets/ondemand_player/studio360/#file=%2Faudio%2Fxspf%2F521443%2F

What is making me happy: my dissertation

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.

The thing that is making me happy as the semester draws to a close is the same thing that is stressing me out, namely that my first serious dive into Greek epigraphy (inscriptions) has me more optimistic about the relevance of my dissertation than I have been in a few months. I still loved my topic, but I was in despair about how new some of my conclusions were going to be. The inscriptions I’ve been working on the last few weeks have given me more and more valuable things to say, even as it has taught me that I am going to need to rewrite one of the chapters from the ground up because the chronology I followed is probably invalid. In the grand scheme of things this development is a good thing because it makes for a fresher and better dissertation, but, in the short term, I have to rewrite a draft of that chapter by the end of January so that there aren’t glaring inconsistencies in what I submit for a dissertation fellowship–on top of my schedule of producing new material.

I have some more specific thoughts on this development, some for the dissertation, some about the process, and some about how much ancient history frequently requires as much explanation about how we know what we know as what we know. And I will probably write about this in the near future, but, in the meantime, I have a chapter due on Monday. I also intend to do some sort of 2014/15 retrospective/preview, update my top novels list, possibly a semester recap, and a few other assorted things I want to write about (posted here for my own benefit as much as anything).

Since what I model this post on requires the recommendation of something, but what is making me happy isn’t readily available for consumption for at least a year or two yet and won’t be in book form for some years after that, if ever, I will point out a few quick things.

  1. I’m not usually one to obsess over particular records, let alone stay up to date on the world of music. However, this week my work soundtrack has been a mix of Great Big Sea, Gin Blossoms, Ha Ha Tonka, and Johnny Clegg and Savuka. In particular, I’ve been enjoying taking much deeper dives into Deluxe, Live, or other lesser known material of groups I like than I previously had, and getting to hear their sound in somewhat different ways.
  2. Netflix recently added more of the 30 for 30 documentaries and I’m currently enjoying the currently-topical Brothers in Exile film about Orlando and Livan Hernandez’ defection from Cuba in the 1990s.
  3. It is snowing. I love snow. If it is available in your area, go cross-country skiing or put on snowshoes, wander into the woods, and let your mind wander. I hope to be able to indulge in this soon.

What is Making Me Happy: Ha Ha Tonka

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 Missouri band Ha Ha Tonka.

I am weird about music. It helps me attune myself to what I am doing and have to have something on while I write. I also like a fairly wide selection of genres and can really get into artists, but am by no means a music snob. It is not an artistic medium that I care a great deal about and my tastes frequently diverge from those of, for instance, the writers at NPR music. Partly for that reason, I usually don’t spend much time browsing for new music in the way that I do for books and recipes. On the other hand, when I usually add things to my playlists when I hear something I like in other contexts. In this case, I saw Ha Ha Tonka on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations when he visited their home region of Southern Missouri (the Ozarks episode). Within twenty four hours of seeing the episode I listened to four Ha Ha Tonka albums and looked up their tour dates for when they will be in Columbia, Missouri next so that I can see them live.

The song that has hooked me the most is “Staring at the End of Our Lives,” from Lessons (2013), but I couldn’t find a readily available link to it. Second, though, is “The Usual Suspects,” Death of a Decade (2011), the video for which is linked below and was featured on No Reservations. I like the combination of catchiness and lyricism and highly recommend all four albums.

What’s Making Me Happy: The United States of Amnesia

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final topic, 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 United States of Amnesia, a documentary about Gore Vidal and Gore Vidal’s America.

I’ve been a Gore Vidal fan going on ten years at this point. Once, while working in the library in college, I successfully persuaded one of the library directors that she should read his novel Creation and she liked it well enough that she pitched the idea of a library-staff-led book club where we would take turns suggesting books and leading discussion. The idea fell through (for which I was relieved), but it felt good that she liked my suggestion.

G.V. is a polarizing, divisive, and compelling character. This documentary, which came out in 2013, the year after G.V. died, marries the large number of T.V. pieces V. did in his lengthy public career, with interviews that he did with the producers in the last years of his life. The result isn’t as restricted a scope as Errol Morris’ work on Donald Rumsfeld, but, at the same time, the outside interviews about G.V. (including with Christopher Hitchens) take a backseat to V.’s outsized, yet reclusive personality.

As any good biographical documentary would, it begins with G.V. as a young man and the relationship with his parents and their relationship to the American Elite–his father, Eugene Luther Vidal, was one of Roosevelt’s aviation advisors (and may have had an affair with Amelia Earhart) and his mother, Nina Gore, was married from 1935-41 to Hugh D. Auchincloss, whose third wife was Janet Lee Bouvier, the mother of Jacqueline Kennedy. This was very much high society. G.V. liked to say that he was desperately trying to escape it.

But other than noting with some regularity, because how could one not, the strata of society that G.V. occupied, the documentary didn’t dwell on these relationships. Nor does it dwell on issues of sexuality and censorship that plagued him. Instead it worked to reconcile G.V.’s intellectualism and aloofness with his charismatic and aristocratic mien and his acerbic wit in the frequent appearances as one of the country’s most prominent public intellectuals. The United States of Amenesia touches on all of the prominent controversies (including one where the BBC called G.V. and William Buckley “Controvertialists” rather than commentators) so that it can cover the broad scope of G.V.’s work and appearances, but (at 83 minutes) it doesn’t drag.

I don’t agree with G.V. entirely, but find him to be fascinating. Ultimately, The United States of Amnesia provides one final rostrum for an exceptionally insightful and utterly unabashed public intellectual to speak from. Love him or hate him, Gore Vidal remains worth thinking about.

What’s making me happy 8/15

In an homage to NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, I’ve wanted for some time to start at least a semi-regular feature here about what is making me happy. The reason for this is simple: my favorite thing about the podcast is that it is upbeat. They close every show with a roundtable discussion of what is making them happy, sometimes in the form of a recommendation, sometimes something more abstract. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety and like the reminder not so much to take pleasure in things as remember that I do take pleasure in things. So this is borne of both a reminder to myself and a desire to share things I enjoy with others. (Future posts will likely include a shorter introduction.)

What is making me happy: Neil Gaimon’s Ocean at the End of the Lane.

In his middle years the narrator returns to his childhood home for a funeral and finds himself drawn to the Hempstock farm, where, in a flash, he remembers something that happened there when he was seven.

That’s the entire summary that I’m giving. Things happen, he had forgotten, but now remembers. I had heard good things about this novel, but really only picked it up on a whim and then read it over the course of the next twenty-four hours. Like the rest of Gaimon’s oeuvre that I’ve read, The Ocean at the End of the Lane bends truth and reality, as well as manipulating folk tales and traditions. This particular story tugs at the nostalgia strings about how one remembers childhood and about things that children know that adults don’t, begs the question of not whether, but how people change as they age, and how worth is adjudged. There is whimsy, there is sadness, and there is pettiness.

Gaimon’s prose is beautiful and sent me on a nostalgia trip of my own, complete with sweet sadness. I also enjoyed the brief interview with the author published at the end of the copy I had, as well as a set of reading group guide questions that pointed to particular features of the story that were fairly evident, but perhaps not articulated by the reader, and also prodded one to think just a little bit more deeply about what was just read.

I’ve been fortunate to have read some really, really good books this year so far and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is up there with the best of them.