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.


I had an opportunity to go to France and Italy on a high school trip nearly a decade ago and, as usually happens on tours of those two countries, we went to a number of monumental cathedrals. The most overwhelming of those, in my opinion, was St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome where I was appropriately overwhelmed by the majesty of the sculpture, the floors, the mosaics, the size. About six years later I was in the Agia Sophia in Istanbul, another religious building that had been constructed on a similar scale, but a millennium before St. Peter’s. Sure, St. Peter’s was in better repair and was more open, but I the relative date between the two structures meant that the Agia Sophia moved me somewhat more. Similarly, the Blue Mosque and the Pantheon were awesome and it is easy to understand why other massive structures including, but hardly limited to the Artemision at Ephesus, Herod’s temple, the ancient mesopotamian temples succeeded in inspiring religious fervor in their believers and a sense of awe in everyone who witnessed them.

But the fact remains that each of those structures is, ultimately, a human construction.

I am on my fifth year living in the midwest, having come from the mountains and hills of Vermont by way of Boston and there are times that I am still struck by how far you can see (and I am aware that there are places that can much, much further). One such moment was on my drive home tonight where there was first a fiery bar on the horizon where the last bit of the sunset sank down and then, after coming around a corner to see the sea of fluorescent lights that is Columbia spring up and surround me. I like the first of those sights (even though the open space makes me vaguely uneasy); the second image is striking because it is easy to forget how completely one is surrounded by lights when living in or around an urban area.

While these two visions tonight serve as the immediate inspiration for this post, another was a Twitter exchange yesterday where we discussed the power of forests to inspire both idyllic poetry and dark fairy tales. It may be the product of where I grew up, but I have an intense nostalgia for mountains and forests, and I completely understand where societies and cultures look toward mountains for religious inspiration. For this reason, the two most awesome spots I visited on that trip on which I visited the Agia Sophia were the peaks of Meteora and the sanctuary at Delphi. Both sites have buildings, but unlike many of the other religious sites noted above where the primary reason that I was awe-struck was the construction of the buildings, these sites drew the buildings for their locations. It is easy to see why these sites evoke a particular feeling.

One of the other spots where I have seen something similar was in the desert in Israel, where there was no sea of lights to obscure the stars. It was a bigger version of clear nights in Vermont where the stars form a blanket. I think this is one reason why I have a fondness for the dark of night and for the light of candles. It isn’t just the darkness for the absence of light or the candles for the presence, but some slight way to move away from the constructions of human society. The primal power of the natural world can be terrifying, but it can also be comforting.

There is an irony in writing these words at a computer, but that is a common medium of communication in the modern world. Both the natural world and human constructions can be awesome, but I prefer the natural. I have no particular desire to become a hermit, but that shouldn’t be necessary to appreciate the stars.

Looking out from Delphi
Looking out from Delphi
Looking into the rock spires at Meteora
Looking into the rock spires at Meteora

Assorted Links

  1. What’s the Matter with Missouri-An essay in the Atlantic about the demographic and political shifts that have radicalized Missouri into a bastion of the Republican party.
  2. Boys on the side-An article in the Atlantic about the hookup culture among young people, arguing that it is largely perpetuated by women who have more choice and control than they ever have had before, rather than the traditional narrative about women being forced to submit to the passing fancy of men. Truth to tell, I have never participated in this culture and both at the liberal “east coast” universities and at more conservative locations there are a large number of people who are capable of having progressive relationships without resorting to flings or getting married; without pointing out legislators who seek to limit the control women have over their bodies or conservative groups who demand abstinence only or no sex before marriage, this article is polemical in that it presents an vision of relationships without stability…at least not until women are financially secure and find a good partner. I am not saying this is a bad thing, per se, and the author does a good job of showing some of the ways that having control over their actions and behavior empowers women (while not ignoring the fact that women enjoy sex, too) and that women are as a general rule more educated (though the article posits that women are more successful than men, which is not really the case), but fails to acknowledge the many people who (for a wide range of reasons) do not like or pursue a hookup culture–or end it prematurely for that antiquated notion of love.
  3. Adjuncts’ Working Conditions Affect Student Learning-An article in the Chronicle that covers a report that says that ways in which universities employ adjunct faculty members inhibits student learning because the instructors are almost necessarily unprepared to teach adequately unless they spend the period before they are actually employed preparing for courses they may never teach. This is particularly true (and hardly surprising) for instructors hired mere days before the start of semester.
  4. Former Israeli soldiers disclose routine mistreatment of Palestinian Children-An organization of former Israeli soldiers called Breaking the Silence published a booklet of testimonials that recount physical, verbal and psychological abuse of Palestinian children as a routine occurance. The IDF statement is that the testimonials were not given to them before publication to be investigated for accuracy.
  5. A Pachyderm’s Ditty Prompts an Elephantine Debate-An elephant in a zoo in Washington DC is obsessed with noise making objects, including her harmonica. This is raising a debate about what music is and whether or not it is a human construct.
  6. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Why the fight to save the UM press will fail

Earlier this summer the University of Missouri decided to close the university Press, stating that it was not sustainable, even after a financial overhaul. The university gives the press a 400,000 dollar annual subsidy, fund that it indicated would be better spent elsewhere. Despite later offers from some donors, other schools, and a variety of plans to replace that amount of money, the university did not change course. Then it came out that the university was not intending eliminate the press altogether, but to move away from traditional publishing and putting a newly proposed digital press under the auspices of The Missouri Review, run by Speer Morgan. (In the current FAQ for the plan, they state: “The purpose is to provide appropriate scholarly communication, not to make money.”) Instead of the press being closed for financial reasons, the story became that the University of Missouri wanted to be a leader in the digital humanities, while the Luddites at the press were determined to cling to bound books with ink-stained fingers.

Anyone who falls behind is expendable.

The problem is that the University of Missouri Press had not fallen behind. The press was already producing digital books and moving toward publishing in even more formats.

The gist of the newly proposed press is as follows: the press will be joined with The Missouri Review, a quarterly journal run by a professor in the English Department. The press will hire four new employees (encouraging the ten laid off employees to reapply for the new positions once they become available), and will put much of the editorial duties on five graduate students, possibly by increasing the workload of the graduate students who work with the press already. This will both save the university money since it is a widely acknowledged fact that in the academic system, graduate students are exploited laborers, and enable the press to claim to be a “teaching press” (or some other catchy moniker) without actually providing much more than it is already doing. “For the foreseeable future” the press will continue to publish books in a variety of formats. A board of faculty members will review submitted manuscripts to choose which books will be published, as well as providing an internal advisory board. The press will have an emphasis on “English, creative writing, communications, journalism, and library and information science,” according to Brady Deaton.

There are some minor additions to what the prior press offered, but conspicuous in this new format are the absences. Most immediately are the jobs stripped away in order to streamline the finances, though the reports are that the new employees will be paid at a significantly higher rate than the old ones. But more critically are the disciplines. The history department at MU, for better or for worse, has been excluded from the process, despite the press being a leader in publishing books on Missouri history, western history, some excellent books about sports, and was (once upon a time, at least) a premier location to publish books on African American history. Perhaps history, too, is obsolete.

Despite opposition, the changes have proceeded. What is more, the fact that now the university is receiving press as though it is renewing a commitment to scholarship through the “resuscitated” press, when the existence of the press in this format is cosmetic only. At least there is a press, they can say, even if no self-respecting scholarly author would publish with it (if they could even get a manuscript approved, in the case of history).

Most recently, a large number of authors have requested the rights to the books back from the press in protest of the changes, while the university has spent much of the last week trying to persuade the authors to keep the books with the UM press. As such, the Kansas City Star published an article under the title:

“MU tries to persuade university press authors not to reclaim book rights: Digital transition is planned, but scholars want university press to release publishing rights on their works.”

And therein is the reason that the opposition to the university press changes is failing. There have been many impassioned and eloquent letters written, meetings and votes held, and articles published, even nationally, but the university has still managed to dictate the message about the press. The opponents of the press closing have, for the most part, come across as hysterical and unreasonable (though, again for the most part, have been nothing of the sort), while the university appears rational, calm, and responsible. According to the news media, the debate is about the future of digital humanities, so the authors asking for the rights back appear reactionary, while the university is merely asking for them to hold off on their requests while the transition takes place. And, according to the piece, “After talking with Dr. Noble-Triplett, few authors have demanded immediate release.”

At the bottom of the article the author includes some of the objections to the changes, but the top section (and the section with more than just quotes) is dedicated to the case that the changes are about digital humanities. The university has done a great deal of damage control and has been able to portray a consistent, rational explanation for its changes, while the opponents are often reduced to apoplectic rage (I witnessed one meeting where the rebuttal to one person who wanted information was “I don’t agree with you”), and, at best, present an uncoordinated, piecemeal defense that comes and goes, while often include ill-fitting and ill-informed arguments about the football coach’s salary. There are legitimate things being said and legitimate concerns about the new press, but the message that has won out is the one that suits the university, namely that this is an issue of progress and of digitization (after the first argument that it was about money failed), when it is actually about scholarly standards, processes, and emphasis of the press. The changes in the press constitute a power play by a few individuals from within the university, but, evidently, that isn’t news. The future of digital humanities is.