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.

The best Sherlock Holmes adaptation is on network TV

After about the tenth time a host on the Writing Excuses podcast plugged the show Elementary to illustrate a point about plot or characterization I decided to give it a shot. I needed a new show to watch on the exercise bike or to have in on the background while baking, anyway. What I discovered is, by far, my favorite adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic character.

I mentioned this on Twitter recently and received a lot of pushback, so I’ll put my cards out on the table. No one defended the Will Farrell or the Robert Downey Jr. versions (I have seen the latter, but not the former), and I have not seen the Ian McKellen Holmes, where he plays an aging detective struggling with dementia. There are other adaptations, some of which I have seen (e.g. House), but many that I have not.

The main pushback came from fans of the Benedict Cumberbatch modern take on the character that leaned into Holmes’ sociopathy and Moriarty’s manic energy. This version is fine––the acting is top notch, the production great, but the series ultimately left me flat because it doesn’t really develop the characters beyond a particular interpretation of the Doyle text.

Character development is not a problem in Elementary. I was ready to declare this my favorite adaptation after one season, but, nearly three seasons into the show, I continue to be surprised by smart developments that continue to add depth to the archetypal character.

Jonny Lee Miller plays Sherlock Holmes, a consulting detective who once worked for Scotland Yard, but now lives in New York City consulting for the NYPD. Holmes is also a recovering drug addict, and we are introduced to Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson, a former surgeon, who Holmes’ wealthy father contracted to be a live-in companion to monitor his sobriety. Other recurring characters include a mix of competently drawn crime-a-week stock type characters like Captain Gregson of the NYPD (Aidan Quinn) and Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) and characters pulled from Doyles’ stories such as Mycroft Holmes (Rhys Ifans) and Jamie Moriarty (Natalie Dormer) that capture the essence of the text while offering creative spins on it.

The case-a-week drama is a perfect vehicle to showcase Sherlock Holmes. In this iteration, Holmes comes from a wealthy family and so can work for free, selectively choosing cases that pique his interest, and each week offers an opportunity to demonstrate his deductive process in solving the crimes. Once Watson transitions from sober companion to consulting detective in her own right over the course of season two, their ongoing partnership offers her as a counterpoint: complementary in terms of methods, but different in their needs and relationship to the work.

In addition to being an astute choice of medium, the writers have clearly taken care to lay the groundwork for the sort of esoterica that Holmes would know, from the cigarette ash of different brands to having a source for moose cheese as a barter chip. At the same time, they don’t fall into a common trap of shows trying to show their characters are smart by having them banter in factoids that sound erudite, but fail to pass muster. I am sure there are slips and fanciful exaggerations because it is a television show, but based on summary review of the bits I either knew or cared to look up, including the moose cheese, Holmes is sufficiently right to establish his bona fides.

But these two points are necessary prerequisites. The choices the show makes in character development are what sets this version apart.

When we meet Sherlock Holmes in Elementary he is effectively insufferable. A recovering addict who doesn’t want help and is absolutely convinced that he is smarter than everyone around him. Like the Cumberbatch version, this Holmes struggles to understand emotions, turning to sex for physical release rather than for intimacy, but here his incapacity results in an underlying desire and overcompensation.

From that single character decision comes a series of further choices.

Elementary establishes early on that Sherlock is smarter than everyone else around him, but with that intelligence he then overestimates them. He knows that other people can provide services and relies on his own consultants, but always on his own terms, never just in the run of daily life. The show uses this weakness in a number of ways. In one, Holmes believes that he has hidden his addiction from everyone, but is forced to realize that the police know his secret and work with him anyway. In another, Holmes learns that Watson is also intelligent, turning their companionship into a genuine partnership and believable friendship rather than a superior-inferior relationship. Then, in season three, Holmes comes up against the possibility that he killed someone during the period of his addiction.

But the smartest choices that the show makes might be in the direction of their relationships. It would have been all-too easy for a male Holmes and a female Watson to hook up, but their relationship is one of friendship. Much more interesting is to offer a twist on Irene Adler-Jamie Moriarty character. Other receptions of Sherlock Holmes have done something similar with Adler, pushing a romantic angle on the proper Victorian admiration of Doyles’ text. Without going into details for the sake of spoilers, Elementary doesn’t stop there, twisting Holmes’ emotions and using Adler/Moriarty as an opportunity to reflect on his relationship to society, a choice that gains power as the show layers additional depth on the character.

Sherlock Holmes in Elementary is in few respects a Victorian detective, but that is not the nature of reception. Instead, the show interprets and develops the characters in ways that are both eminently watchable and imbue it with more depth than it has any right to.

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.

Narratives Matter

An excerpt of a new book appearedin Salon this week, provocatively titled “Why Most Narrative History is Wrong. The book is similarly provocative, alleging in the subtitle to reveal “the neuroscience of our addiction to stories.” Naturally this caused a series of knee-jerk reactions that spawned long Twitter threads. I had a similarly impulsive response to the chapter, but also wanted to response to it in good faith before returning to a point the author and I actually agree on, that narratives—the stories we tell ourselves—are fundamental to human societies, because my distaste with this piece emerges from the consequences of this point.

below the jump

Going to Parts Unknown

More than once this afternoon I’ve had to wipe tears from my eyes over the death of a rich man I’ve never met. I’ve mourned the passing of celebrities before, but never to this degree, which rivals the emotional reaction I have had to family members passing.

I am, of course, reflecting on the the death of Tony Bourdain and trying to articulate why this one hit me so hard.

I have been travelling the world vicariously with him for a long time, revisiting places I’ve been fortunate enough to see myself and getting to travel to places I haven’t been able to go, whether for lack of time or money.

I was hooked by Kitchen Confidential and sucked into the craft of No Reservations. I’ve had some of my favorite episodes of Parts Unknown on in the background today, including the Punjab, Sichuan, where he force-feeds eminent chef Eric Ripert spicy peppers and alcohol, Massachusetts, with its powerful look at the narcotics epidemic, and now Charleston just so that I can chuckle at the Chef’s Table music played over B-roll of a Waffle House meal being prepared. Each episode is different, but they are all approached with sincerity, curiosity, and humor, as well as an attention to the craft of film-making and even literary stylings that I find particularly appealing. The shows are approachable, but not stupid, smart but not arrogant—that is, unless you are a vegetarian watching anything but his shows on India.

Tony Bourdain reminded me that success is not something that is the sole purview of the young. Tony was not perfect, but neither did he pretend that he was.

But with rare exceptions, it isn’t so much what Bourdain produced that I have found so moving, but the outpouring of anecdotes and stories online from friends, professional acquaintances, and random people who happened to meet him once. The people who have said that Tony’s enthusiasm convinced them as picky eaters to go try something else; the people who related anecdotes about a passing conversation with him in line to get food at some food stall; his hatred of Henry Kissinger; stories about his unwillingness to tolerate people who don’t treat waitstaff with respect or for food waste or for Harvey Weinstein. Above all: the sheer number of people who posted about how his show about a place or people who were theirs, including Arabs, West Virginians, Louisianians (to name a very small few), did right by them. How this aging white Yankee from New York working for multi-million dollar companies came to their place and embraced their food, their traditions, and them in a way that allowed their stories to be told.

As many people pointed out on Twitter, Tony Bourdain pushed a product that encouraged Americans not to be afraid of the world and all that it contains. Without trivializing the Tony’s loss to his loved ones, the supreme tragedy as I see it is that this message of curiosity, openness and enthusiasm stood opposite the dominant political narrative in the United States, which has been hijacked by people who peddle fear and who exploit position of power for selfish ends. It isn’t that he was the only person carrying this standard, but a picture is worth a thousand words and Parts Unknown every week delivered warmth and humanity from some small pocket of the world .

We are fortunate there is such a catalog of Tony’s voice already available, but that doesn’t diminish the sadness at his passing at a time when the relentless cacophony from the other side threatens to drown out the basic decency that he stood for. That voice will be missed.

Hate in a Digital World

Despite how exhausting the 2016 election cycle was in this regard, I continue to be fascinated by the effect of social media on interpersonal relations, something I wrote about a little bit in 2012 when I deleted my Facebook account, in 2014 about the intimidation of professional Twitter, with respect to activism in 2015.

I stand by most of what I wrote before, about the ways in which social media is performative (there is an entire genre of Instagram posts comparing posed and “natural” pictures), is intimidating even when interacting with well-meaning enthusiasts, and isolating. I would revise my assessment of its role on friendship, something I was reminded of this week in light of a thread on Twitter. The general point, since this is not my main focus here, is that when there is a reciprocal interest, social media and other forms of digital communication are an immense boon to friendship. The catch is that reciprocity is foundational, so while it has allowed me to maintain several friendships with people who I have only seen in person once or twice in a decade, many others have withered as one or both sides in the relationship have lapsed. This is not explicitly the fault of social media—people have busy lives and many other responsibilities—but I think Facebook and other social media sites that give the appearance of intimacy make it easier for people to not put in the work to maintain relationships.

Like a lot of people, I have been impressed with the high school students from Florida and elsewhere in the country organizing marches and keeping up the pressure on issues such as gun control. Their ability to sustain pressure online is the one thing that gives me hope that this time, in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting might result in change. Not immediately, and probably not enough, but something.

On the other side of the equation is this:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

As the Twitter user mentions in subsequent tweets, the origin of this photoshopped image could well be a Russian troll farm, but it still has its intended effect. This and the issue of privacy, brought again into public discourse by the revelations about Cambridge Analytica, are the legacies of the first two decades of social networking.

The features of the internet that were meant to bring about an enlightened, educated populace and connect people have done that. There is more information on many more topics on Wikipedia than there ever were in the old, lacunate collection of hardbound Encyclopedia Britannica’s I pored through as a child. Sure, it might not have the same specific figures for the size of the East German army as in EB, but in terms of breadth, depth, and (if you know how to look) granularity of the information online, even just counting the content that isn’t behind paywalls, is astounding. News travels at an incredible pace, though rumor still travels faster. The diversity of voices and ability to communicate online is remarkable.

And yet, these same features have their perversions. Falsehood, rumor, myth, and propaganda abound, reinforced and socialized in niche communities. The intersection of the intimate and the impersonal are particularly insidious in this respect. Beyond even the fact that it is easy to attack someone anonymously, the tools of the internet make it easier to attack someone for several reasons.

1. It is possible to see someone like David Hogg as a social media avatar rather than as an individual. He is a face to an issue, not a person expressing one. Besides, if everyone is performing to some extent online, then who is to say that school shooting victims aren’t actors?

2. There is the impersonal nature of the internet. Not only is it easier to attack someone who you will never meet, but it is also easier to caricature or otherwise other them.

3. It is easier to engage with a partial or corrupted versions of ideas rather than their entirety. This happens on all sides; I know I have been guilty of falling for fake Twitter accounts or buying a misleading headline of an article that I didn’t read.

4. This is always the case, but the acceptance of a truth is the responsibility of the beholder. Some facts are more verifiable than others, but accepted truth is just that: a social consensus that is usually based on a deference to authority. With an abundance of information and misinformation online, anything and everything might be regarded as “Fake News.”

Here is the thing: none of this is new. Each of these forms of slander and misinformation has been used against people for as long as there has been communication. For instance, portraying your opponent as an “other” (the more grotesque the better) is a common feature of anti-Jewish, Bolshevik, Irish, and German iconography. Partial truths and outlandish fabrications fill the pages of ancient texts. Some of these come from cultural misunderstandings and curiosities, some from deliberate propaganda, and some out of simple malice. These stories have been the justification for slavery and the cause of wars.

What has changed, in my opinion, is how easy the internet has made the transmission of information. In other words, hate in the digital age is not new. It a cancerous mutation of old problem.

Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like About The Last Jedi

I saw The Last Jedi. As a friend put it on Twitter, this is, to date, the best Star Wars film of the twenty-first century. (Look at my excitement!) Like with The Force Awakens and Rogue One, my review is going to be a list of things I liked and didn’t like about the movie, a format shamelessly adapted from ESPN’s Zach Lowe. My usual caveats apply: I have read few reviews, almost none of the background on making of the film and it is possible I am mistaken about some aspects. These are things that stood out to me and may not be the same issues other people had.

Spoilers follow.

  1. While still in graduate school I took a class on the Latin author Seneca, who lived in the first century CE. We dedicated one unit to his plays, during which we read the Phaedra, a play about Theseus’ wife Phaedra’s consuming lust for her step-son Hippolytus who has no interest in her. Phaedra accuses Hippolytus of raping her and Theseus uses a boon to summon a monstrous beast from the sea to kill his son. Seneca infuses the play with contemporary themes, but the play is functionally just Euripides’ Hippolytus, with some new bits. No where is this more notable than in his description of the the sea monster, which more terrifyingly monstrous in his version. In short, this is what is happening in the new Star Wars movies.

    One review that floated by me on Twitter argued that the success of The Last Jedi is in its willingness to discard The Star Wars you know. I disagree. This is an Empire supercut, with dedicated homages to episodes IV, VI, and VII. The new movies are doing some things differently in terms of what story elements are driving plot, which I found problematic for other reasons, but the pieces are basically the same. When I pointed this out for the first movie, I was told to be patient because JJ Abrams was on board to reestablish Star Wars as a franchise and thus his agenda was to do exactly that. Wait for the next installment, they said. The good news, having seen the next installment, is that they are (probably) out of source material to work with now; the bad news is that this movie did basically the same thing.

  2. Continue reading Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like About The Last Jedi

Five Things I Liked and Didn’t Like about Blade Runner 2049

I saw Blade Runner 2049 last night and though I would write some thoughts in the form of things I did and didn’t like about the film. This post will contain spoilers, particularly after the first point.

  1. Blade Runner 2049 is absolutely worth seeing on the big screen. Unlike some blockbusters that entice viewers to lay out cash with explosions, though, this film does with scale and attention to detail. This film clearly works from the same template as its predecessor and the overwhelming immensity of its world is a perfect match for for the theater. Most of the fight scenes are subdued, but it makes wonderful use of camera work, including an imaginative sense of scale, use of light and darkness, sound and silence, and an all-around immersive experience that conveyed depth. The same goes for small allusions where, for instance, Gaff (Edward James Olmos) makes an origami ram and Deckard (Harrison Ford) dreams of cheese. The run time is long, but all of that time is used.
  2. Continue reading Five Things I Liked and Didn’t Like about Blade Runner 2049

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.

Calcification of opinion

I am hardly alone when I say that recent politics has been a major drag on my mental and emotional energy. I don’t know what is going to happen in the near future, but the current direction scares me in more ways than I care to mention. Still, I find myself thinking a lot about politics and doing my best to stay informed because, as difficult as it might be, that remains a civic duty. I also remain problematically addicted to checking my Twitter feed, albeit recently in shorter and less-comprehensive bursts.

These moments of checking Twitter have led me to a realization about the current superficial maelstrom, as epitomized and led by the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That realization is this:

There is nothing that President Trump could post to his Twitter account that would change my opinion of him.

Sure, there are things that he could post that would change the trajectory of the country and do good in the world, but that would mean one of three things: 1) the account was hacked; 2) someone else was managing the account; or 3) that President Trump decided to make an about-face in order to be more popular. None of those three options would change my opinion of him, while what he does post simply digs deeper. I still see people retweeting (usually with sarcastic comment) what he says or dredging up past posts looking for inconsistency. Neither genre of tweet does much for me and in many cases both distract from the substance of issues—not to mention that feeding the ego of someone who fundamentally wants to be the center of attention, whose interests run toward habitual misinformation and complaining about media coverage.

I could never bring myself to follow Trump’s twitter account, but, for months, I would regularly check in, caught up in whatever the latest utterance was. No longer. The campaign is over and I don’t need to actually see the latest bout of internet logorrhea in order to know what he said, at least in reasonable facsimile. I can’t live isolated from the news, but that doesn’t mean that I have to partake in online farce.