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.

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.

My 2016 – Using Words

2016 was in some ways a good year for me. In terms of my academic work it felt as though I leveled up, inching closer to emerging from the cocoon of graduate school. This was, in part, just a matter of time passing, but it also seemed more substantive. I started thinking about my work differently, seeing it differently, and had some successes. I can grow and improve my craft more, without a doubt, but I (finally) felt a substantive difference. On the other hand, I was frequently stymied in every attempt to take the next step, which makes me think that this sense of growth was little more than feeling comfortable within the limits that I had already reached, but I will write more about this in another post.

I also got back to teaching in the fall of 2016, working for Western Civilization (up to 1715). This meant both leading discussion sections and giving a series of guest lectures. There were ways that I could have improved the lectures, of course, but on the whole the teaching went as well as it ever has, and the evaluations bore that out. The improvement came from a variety of sources, including simple practice, but also that I felt more comfortable in my subject expertise than I had in other semesters and that I am getting a good sense for how to craft a through-line for students when teaching new material. This last was important because I taught classes on everything from the Roman Republic to the Hellenistic World, to the Renaissance.

For the most part I also managed to continue playing basketball, lifting weights, and running on a regular basis. I did not manage to push my running distances to any great lengths, but I was pleased that I was able to do it at all. Similarly, I kept up most of my self-improvement goals, including that I started using Duolingo to brush up on my German and to learn Spanish and Dutch; I currently have a 115 day streak.

However, I had one significant problem with 2016: anxiety. I have long had issues with anxiety and depression, and my anxiety issues, manifesting in elevated heart rate, shaky hands, and an inability to focus. Most of these have to do with my work or, more precisely, my ability to continue working past this school year, but certainly events outside of my immediate circumstances are feeding into these issues. Beyond working on applications and doubling down on my work, one of my goals for 2017 is to spend more time doing things like meditating in the hopes of remaining even-keeled.

In reality there was a lot more to 2016, such as moving in August and using almost every available opportunity to travel, but I am all over the place right now, so now for some 2017 resolutions.

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 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:
    • Defend my dissertation and graduate!
    • Finish a draft of my (now begun!) novel
    • Complete and send off (4) articles to academic journals
    • Apply to review (2) 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 have succeeded in this two consecutive years, but between a tendency to read long books and having a lot of other tasks, setting a higher goal would be irresponsible.
    • I read (8) books by women in 2016; in 2017 it should be more than (10).
    • I read (7) non-fiction books (not for academic purposes) in 2016; in 2017 I want to hit (10).
  • Conquering the kitchen: develop (2) of my own bread recipes using flavors or ingredients that I do not usually use.

Best* posts of 2016

I am running a half-step behind all of the other “2016 year in review” posts this year because we had family visiting in the days leading up to the New Year and then I was on the road for a few days. This year I am adding several posts to my Year-End Slate, including one to highlight the posts of 2016 that I think are my best of the year. I am not using any metric for this other than the posts that I think are the best written or most worth revisiting.

Will I feed on Wisdom Like a Dog?

Unjust Logos and the Crowd

The Hearth and the Television

Who Needs Nuance?

Donald Trump and Some Assumptions about Isis

There are a few others posts, but this year I mostly blogged about books I read. I hope to write more posts along these lines in 2017.

My 2016 – By the Numbers

There are any number of numbers that have been used to quantify the experience of 2016, including how much average temperatures rose, stock market tickers, votes cast, emails leaked, amount of money spent by SuperPACs, 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, mitzvahs, and the like. Here are some numbers about my year.

4 – article submissions
—3 article rejections
—1 requested revise and resubmit
—3 articles queued for edits and submission in early 2017
2 – academic papers presented based on my dissertation research
2 – abstracts accepted for conference papers
—1 abstract under review
136 – pages in my dissertation’s narrative section, which is effectively in its final form
1 – novels started
15 – jobs applied for in 2016
—0 – job interviews received
— 12 – job applications due in January
9 – states visited [drive-throughs not counted]
3 – ultimate frisbee leagues participated in
59 – books read above and beyond an immediate academic purpose [+6]
—12 – original languages
—7 – non-fiction books
—8 – books by female authors [+4 from 2015]
99 – blog posts published
— 60 – book reviews
— 6 – posts about politics
— 2 – posts about Aristophanes
42 – Instagram posts
—11 – baking/cooking pictures
—8 – cat pictures

As usual, these numbers mean nothing, anything, and everything. There are other metrics, but they are proprietary of NUDEAN-inc, a private analytics company. 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 2016 – Listicle

My slate of year-end posts has been delayed because of holiday family and travel, but will be rolling out over the next several days. 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 on 2016, by the numbers, best of 2016, and a new one that will be strictly dedicated to writing and academia.

Getting back into the swing of things Last Year’s list.

Lists for 2016/2017:

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

  • Trump’s impending Presidency and the global ripple effect
  • Ongoing crises in Turkey, including terrorist attacks, the war in Syria, and centralization of power
  • Refugee crisis, particularly with the rest of Europe sending refugees back to Greece.

5 Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading [To my shame, there are three repeats from 2016, as I only managed to hit two of the books last time]

  • Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
  • Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
  • 1493, Charles A. Mann
  • Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig
  • Silent House, Orhan Pamuk

Two books I once started, but didn’t finish…that I’d like to give another shot in 2016 [I knocked two books off this list, plus War and Peace in 2016]

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

Seven Favorite Books I read in 2016

  • Seven Madmen, Roberto Arlt
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama
  • Basti, Intizar Husain
  • The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Post Office Girl, Stefan Zweig
  • The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
  • Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

Three new-to-me music groups I found in 2016

  • Dessa
  • The Honeycutters
  • The Dustbowl Revival

My 2015 – Using Words

The last of three 2015 reflection pieces I am going to post, this one using the ancient style called “prose” to offer some reflections and thoughts about 2015 and offer some “resolutions” for 2016.

I had my share of struggles in 2015, but they pale in comparison to the massive psychic wounds that openly wept in the US and the world. In general, the year was good to me as an individual. I was able to set a schedule that allowed me to lift weights on a regular basis in the mornings, play in a weekly frisbee league, and play pickup basketball three days a week and, as a result, I lost quite a bit of weight. The opportunities for social interaction decreased somewhat in 2015 for a variety of reasons, including that the friends with whom I was closest are all moved away from Columbia, but I took the opportunity to read more often and, as a result, I finished more books that were not part of my course of study than I have since beginning graduate school. Related, I wrote and published here, averaging more than a post per week–one of the highest rates since I started writing this blog when I was in college in 2008. No one post stands out to me as truly remarkable, but, in general, I am pretty satisfied with the overall quality of the posts.

These situations likely contributed to 2015 being a good year for my mental state, too. There were periods of depression, sadness, and anxiety, which are all natural for me, but there was no extended period where those feelings dominated my existence. Learning to let go of things beyond my control is a continual process for me, but I did better job last year than I usually do. I turn thirty in a month, so maybe this is a sign of becoming an adult, at last.

2015 for me was generally a year of simplification. In addition to the simple pleasures listed above and again learning to embrace the solitude, I cancelled my Netflix subscription and even gave some of my books I no longer wanted away to the local public library. The TV is probably next to go. I also spent more time baking breads, usually throwing together two or three different bakes every week. My signature recipe must be bagels, but I’ve also gotten good at making kaiser rolls, an enriched vienna bread, and croissants, along with other recipes that I make less frequently. I even invented my own recipe for an onion-cheddar-habanero bread that I made into a braided loaf. Toward the end of the year I started branching out with other bakes and made two cheesecakes, though my dessert portfolio remains more limited than my breads. Among my other culinary pursuits were making vodka sauce from scratch and infusing simple syrups, which I used to practice fashioning cocktails.

The inspiration for cocktails came from a bachelor party that took the groom to the Bacardi distillery in San Juan, Puerto Rico in February, and participated in a bartending tutorial. Other than to attend the party, I attended the wedding because I was the one in charge of the ceremony (as the stand-in officiant) for two of my closest friends. The trip was a bit of a whirlwind since, unlike some of the guests, we were unable to extend our stay in Puerto Rico past the weekend, but I enjoyed the experience nonetheless.

On the academic side, I won a dissertation fellowship for the 2015/16 academic year, had my first positive referee report on an article (which was accepted pending revisions), and completed/published two academic book reviews. I also travelled to Boulder to present a paper (which was well received) at a conference, and had papers accepted for upcoming conferences in Omaha and Williamsburg. Of course, my pet elephant in the room is my dissertation, of which I completed an entire first draft and have made strides in turning that sprawling work into a single cohesive thesis. I did not get quite as far as I had hoped, but I still like the project and see it as more important and relevant to big-picture issues than I did at the outset. It still feels like a bit of a chameleon when one asks what exactly it is I am trying to show, but I quite like that part.

There were a myriad of ways large and small that 2015 could have been better, but, in general, 2015 was successful for me. Now for some 2016 resolutions.

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 and fitness.

The concrete and quantifiable

  • Write more often, here, there, and beyond. Some specific (but not a complete) list of quantifiable goals:
    • Finish the dissertation
    • Write (1) short story and send it off to a literary magazine
    • Complete and send off (2) articles to academic journals
  • Keep up my non-academic reading, but broaden the horizons, meaning:
    • Read at least (52) nonacademic books [note: this includes Infinite Jest].
    • I read (4) books by women in 2015; in 2016 it should be more than (8).
    • I read (7) non-fiction books (not for academic purposes) in 2015; in 2016 that should be more than (10). [Note: I am cutting some slack on the rate increase because I find non-fiction to be harder to read for fun because I have to do so much of it for work]
  • Conquering the kitchen: learn how to make an actual cake from scratch.