What is Making Me Happy: Olympic 3×3 Basketball

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Olympic 3×3 Basketball

I like watching the Olympics. I don’t have the TV on constantly during the competition, but I just appreciate watching feats of athletic excellence. This year, though, I had a hard time getting excited. Not only have I found that my willingness to engage in over-the-top displays of patriotism has waned from years past, but we are also still in the middle of a raging pandemic. The tape-delays don’t help, either.

Nevertheless, I have found myself flipping through the Olympic coverage the last few mornings. Today I watched all five heats of the women’s 1500M freestyle qualifier. I would have tuned out sooner, but Katie Ledecky was in the in the fifth heat and I wanted to see her swim in the event she holds the world record in. She didn’t set a record, but it was worth it.

The other event I tuned in for was the women’s 3×3 basketball. I’ve seen two matches so far and I’m in love with this event.

I’ve mentioned my love of basketball here before, so my infatuation with this new event should come as no surprise, but there are some changes to the sport that might offend purists.

Each 3×3 game lasts ten minutes or first-to-twenty-one, scoring by ones and twos. The entire game is played on a court slightly larger than a usual half court, but with a 12-second shot-clock that begins as soon as the defending team gets the rebound or takes the ball out of the hoop after a made basket. In either situation, the ball has to get cleared past the three-point line. Shooting fouls or every defensive foul after in the bonus results in one foul shot.

I came into the Olympics not sure what to expect from 3×3 basketball. I like the rules overall — these are certainly recognizable to anyone who has played pick-up — but was it going to feel like a gimmick?

Having seen one entire game and parts of two others played only by the USA team, it does feel a little bit like a gimmick, if I’m being honest. It is not a full 5×5 basketball game that evolves over nearly an hour of game time with active coaching and sophisticated defensive schemes. Instead, this is a fast-paced, physical, free-flowing game with almost no stoppage even as the fourth player on the team rotates onto the court. Officials do call fouls and other infractions, but the ethos is to let them play.

And here’s the thing: I don’t care. I love it.

This is still basketball, with basketball skills, many of the same basketball rules, and basketball plays that you would see in any game, but opened up to favor well-rounded players and with a shot clock that ensures that the game flows back and forth. You can’t play with an offensive liability who can’t handle the ball in this event and the spacing encourages movement.

At the same time, the thing that makes this so compellingly watchable is the length of the games. The two teams are racing both a clock and their opponent to a finish-line. To my mind, the combination makes this event the perfect length for a tournament — each game lasts a little less time than a 1500M freestyle race, for instance — and all-but guarantees that there will be dramatic moments in each game.

As much as I enjoy the US team, my only complaint is that theirs are the only games I have been able to watch.

What is Making Me Happy: Hemingway

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Hemingway

It should be of no surprise to anyone who has seen my list of favorite novels that I am fan of Ernest Hemingway’s writing. I started reading his work after coming to graduate school, starting with The Sun Also Rises when I was maybe 23 or 24-years old — old enough to appreciate Hemingway’s writing, but young enough to be deeply moved by what a friend of mine describes as a “young man’s novel.” Over the next eight years or so I read most of his other novels and even developing my own idiosyncratic pecking order of his oeuvre. I suspect that nobody, including Hemingway himself, was quite as taken by To Have and Have Not as I was. Something about that flawed book, which I now know doesn’t have have a functional plot because it was a Frankenovel made of two short stories and some connective tissue, just clicked with me on the level of sentence and scene and was an early case of coming to appreciate how writers can improve from their early work.

Naturally, I was looking forward to the three-part Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary about Hemingway that I recently watched.

Hemingway is an ideal subject for a Ken Burns project: a character whose life, writings, and tall tales merged to form a thoroughly American myth. To that end, the Hemingway documentary series is a straightforward cradle to the grave documentary that interrogates the relationship between his psychology and literary output, but always handled with a Burnsian breeziness that both mentions the negative aspects but doesn’t dwell on them. This approach often works. For instance, in childhood Hemingway’s mother often groomed and dressed her son to look identical to his sister, a quirk that replicated when Hemingway encouraged his first wife Hadley to do the same with him and that made its way into his posthumous novel The Garden of Eden. The documentary also spends time asking literary scholars about ways that racism of his time works its way through his work, balanced by ways in which Hemingway’s external machismo often cause his gender politics to go overlooked. At the same time, though the breeziness causes instances of domestic violence (at least once physical, quite possibly more frequently psychological) to go underdeveloped.

At its heart, Hemingway is about contrasting the man with the myth. The myth is a macho man who lived a life of poverty in Paris in the 1920s and who, at one point, insists that he is going to take down a German U-Boat with his fishing boat and crack crew of Jai Alai players.

The man is a more complex figure in ways that make him both more and less sympathetic. A philanderer who often lived off the wealth of his wives, but also a man who did not deal well with being alone and often relied on their expertise to produce his art. A hunter and bull-fighting enthusiast who also was sensitive to life. Hemingway also lived many of his later years in Cuba and had sympathies with Fidel Castro’s revolution. Some of the saddest moments came in the third episode when an aging Hemingway living in Idaho was suffering from a neurological disorder that the Mayo Clinic treated him with electro-convulsive therapy that left him effectively unable to keep short-term memories, let alone write, which must have been agony for someone who wrote for hours every day.

I had a few small complaints with Hemingway and some of the beats moved across familiar ground, but I appreciated the series both for a lot of the backstory, including interviews with his son, and as an opportunity to revisit Hemingway’s work.

What is Making Me Happy: Top Chef (again)

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Top Chef…again.

I know, I already talked about Top Chef as something making me happy, but I didn’t anticipate how much I was going to become obsessed with this show. I usually watch the show while exercising and my current workout routine means that it takes me two sittings to digest a single episode, but this week’s episode just grabbed me such that I watched it from start to finish.

This week’s challenge was “Restaurant Wars.” However many contestants are left are divided into teams and challenged to create a cohesive dining experience for their guests in a short period of time. Because of the pandemic restrictions, the challenge this season was to create a chef’s table dining experience where the diners get interact with the chefs making their food and watch the process. In addition to putting pressure on the contestants to work together and work under the eyes of the judges, this format also required the contestants to work the front of the house.

Although everyone on the show is an incredible chef, the randomly chosen teams were unevenly stacked just in terms of technical ability. The one team had Gabe, Dawn, and Sara — three of the people who had consistently been landing at or near the top — and a fourth person, Chris, whose performance had been more uneven, but who had also won challenges. The other team featured probably the odds on favorite to win the contest, Shota, but also one person who was nearly eliminated last week in Maria, one who was consistently near the middle in Byron, and Jamie, who had already been eliminated and won her return at Last Chance Kitchen.

Naturally, the second team crushed the event.

I was prepared for a dramatic, miraculous turn, but I also worried about the first team from the start. Their menu theme was “fish” and while individual dishes were hits, the overall restaurant was a mess. Some of this is because running a smooth restaurant like this is hard and not something you do in two days, but some of it came down to their choices. They collectively agreed that they would do everything collectively. Each person would make their own dish even when it was not quite clear what the preceding or following dish would be because the individual processes didn’t leave time to taste the dishes. They also agreed to collectively serve their guests and clear dishes, which, not unexpectedly, resulted in them often leaving their guests alone.

It was immediately apparent that the second team had people with experience doing counter service. Shota took lead in designing the menu, suggesting that they loosely follow Kaiseki, the traditional Japanese multi-course dinner, but that each dish be a fusion of Asian and Latin cuisine. With that guiding principle in mind, they crafted a menu for a restaurant called Kokoson, itself a neologism from the two traditions, where almost every dish used elements from several chefs and culminated in a hot pot that everyone helped fashion.

Each team member knew their role. Shota managed the back-of-house, calmly and quietly directing traffic and managing the pace. Maria choreographed the front of house, with help from Byron who took charge of clearing the table. Jamie helped out across the board.

The food, from design to execution, had to be excellent, but what so captivated me about them was how they worked as a team. At one point it seemed that Maria was going to get overwhelmed handling the dining room while Shota, Jamie and Byron were ignoring her requests when, suddenly, they appeared and threw in their labor. Shota took overall lead, but he wasn’t a dictator so much as a facilitator. He made final decisions in ways that smoothed the service, but those decisions sometimes amounted to affirming what someone else had in mind like where they were going to plate dishes or setting the deliberate-but-precise pace at which the dishes came out. Meanwhile, each person was empowered to take ownership of their jobs within the team and fact that so many of the dishes were collaborative meant that everyone was tasting each other’s dishes and staying in-sync with the overall vision of the menu.

Things obviously would have been different in another environment where the technical proficiency of your team is lower and the real-world stakes are higher, but, having had a little bit of experience managing a restaurant, I found this performance genuinely inspiring. Shota’s leadership here was exactly on point, but leadership is also made that much easier when a team works together as beautifully as this one did.

I might have only seen eight episodes of Top Chef, but, if I had to pick just one to recommend to someone, it would be this one: Season 18, Episode 8: Restaurant Wars.

What is Making Me Happy: Top Chef

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Top Chef

As much as I like food, I have never been a fan of cooking shows. Baking, yes, and shows that connect food and travel, but not cooking.

Years and years back I would occasionally watch Iron Chef and a few episodes of Beat Bobby Flay, but always I came back to the deep gulf between the food they prepared and what I ate. More than a matter of techniques, all of these shows built their dishes around an animal protein (fish or meat). While I enjoy the taste of meat, I have never enjoyed cooking it to the point that I phased it out of my home diet nearly a decade ago. The result is that the work to bridge the gulf had never seen worth the effort.

I knew of Top Chef as a cultural phenomenon. I have heard Padma Lakshmi give interviews and listened to people talk about the show, but I had never seen an episode before deciding on a whim to watch this season.

Coming in, I knew loosely what to expect. Each contestant competes in two events each week, a quick fire challenge in which the winner gains immunity for the week and/or a bonus like an advantage in the main event or money. At the end of each episode, one chef is eliminated from the show, shunting them into the Last Chance Kitchen mini-show (more on this in a minute). I also knew that Top Chef would find ways incorporate the setting (Portland, OR), albeit modified for the pandemic, and that the show has diversified its culinary standards over the course of its run.

What I didn’t know was whether I would still be left cold for the simple fact that most of dishes are far from anything I would want to make.

I could do without the corporate tie-ins and a few heavy-handed reality TV edits, but I have found Top Chef utterly delightful to watch nevertheless.

In part, I think the fact that my own cooking has matured in the past few years has put me in a better position to appreciate the skill of the contestants. They are far out of my league in terms of skill and technique — as proprietors and executive chefs, I would hope so — but I can recognize echoes of foods that I make at home now in a way that was not always true. But I was also turned off by the competition side of reality cooking shows. What I like about Great British Baking Show isn’t merely that I make some of the recipes, but the camaraderie among the contestants. They want to win, obviously, but they are also willing to help each other plate a dish rather than hide ingredients from each other. At least in this season of Top Chef I am recognizing that same atmosphere among the contestants. Yes, personalities can clash on team challenges and some chefs are cut to come across as anti-heroes, but only in the mildest of senses.

I can’t speak to the history of Top Chef, but I suspect that this was not always the case. From what I gather, the show started out with lots of contestants who were classically-trained sous chefs and challenges that required them to perfectly execute classical techniques. The result was competition with a harder edge. What I see in this season, by contrast, is a slate of executive chefs and urging from the judges to cook their food. They are still aiming for perfect execution, but what that looks like varies because of the range of food that comes to the table. Multiple chefs bring Mexican food (Maria, Gabe), one is interested in scientific approaches to food (Avishar), one whose professional training was in Japan (Shota), and another who primarily brought Sicilian flavors (Sasha). One seems to use yogurt in most of her dishes (Sara)—to name just a few. I suspect that this emphasis simultaneously makes the food more personal and intimate and reduces some of the direct competition because they are cooking from different backgrounds.

I like to say that most of my favorite podcasts are the ones where I feel like I’m hanging out with my friends chatting about whatever is going on, even if I’m not actually saying anything. I want the same sense if I’m going to be watching reality TV.

Top Chef does a lot of this work, but my favorite part has been Last Chance Kitchen.

As contestants are eliminated, they are shunted into the side competition where they can compete for a chance to return to the show. Each ten minute episode consists of a head-to-head competition that pits the previous LCK victor against the person most recently eliminated in a short challenge judged by Tom Colicchio. Winner stays on, the loser goes home. Two things make these episodes particularly engaging. First, the challenges riff on what caused chefs to get bounced from the competition. When one person served raw chicken, the next challenge requires them to serve a raw protein. When someone serves rubber chicken, they have to gamble on how many parts of a chicken they can serve. Second, though, the eliminated chefs don’t actually “go home,” but stick around in the Last Chance Kitchen, where they cheer on the two people competing. Basically, I get the sense that everyone there is rooting for everyone to make great food. They’re disappointed not to win, they’re also happy to continue to hang out.

Some of what I’m enjoying about Top Chef could be a fluke of this season given the pandemic logistics that it was produced under. The judging table this season has a lot of former contestants on it, which I gather gives the show a different feel that may or may not continue under normal circumstances. Even so, I am hooked.

What is Making Me Happy: Lake Street Dive

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature, usually, though not always, on Friday or Saturday.

This week: Lake Street Dive

I have been listening to Lake Street Dive since 2017, but at this point I don’t have any memory of how I came across them. It might have been when Spotify started populating its suggestions for me with their 2014 album Bad Self Portraits that then led me to their 2016 album Side Pony. But I might have also come across them from their delightfully quirky cover video of Bohemian Rhapsody that they put out at about the same time. Since then, they put out Free Yourself Up (2018), which I think got a bit more play since I would hear its lead single “Good Kisser” at the gym.

The original four members—Rachel Price doing lead vocals, Mike (McDuck) Olson on guitar and trumpet, Bridget Kearney on stand-up bass, and Mike Calabrese on drums—met at Boston’s New England Conservatory in 2004. (LSD is now a quintet, having fully incorporated keyboardist Akie Berman in 2017.) What developed in the early, experimental years was a collaborative ethos where the group shares songwriting and arrangement, which, in turn, informs their eclectic sound.

As much as I love the funky sound and lyrics, though, my favorite thing about Lake Street Dive is that everyone in the band can flat-out play. This means that where an album and music video might be good, the live performance is spectacular. Take this performance, with Rachel Price just belting out the lyrics of The Kinks’ “Lola”:

Or Hall and Oats’ “Rich Girl”:

Or you could look to their Tiny Desk Concert performance in 2016, performing songs from their album Side Pony:

Lake Street Dive dropped their most recent album Obviously. I haven’t a had chance to consume the entire album yet, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, I enjoy the version of its lead single, “Hypotheticals,” they performed on Colbert better than the music video:

I think I might just like watching these musicians play.

What is Making Me Happy: “Golden Child”

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular Friday/Saturday feature.

This week: Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters, “Golden Child”

Sometimes I just get a song or album stuck in my head. Recently, that song has been “Golden Child.”

To back up a little bit, I discovered The Honeycutters, an Asheville-based Americana band, on Spotify a few years ago when their songs started to appear on my algorithmically-derived playlists. Their 2015 album Me Oh My remains one of my favorites of recent years, particularly with the titular track, and the two songs “Jukebox” and “Lucky.” I just adore the voice of Amanda Anne Platt, who also writes their songs—since 2017, the band has officially (and deservedly) been Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters—and her lyrics swing between a restrained happiness and utter devastation in a way that I find very affecting.

This week I found myself listening to another of their albums, 2016’s On the Ropes, and was once again particularly moved by the song “Golden Child.” This is a sad, wistful tune about heartache that I find utterly devastating even as it is not particularly sad. It is a song of isolation, but one that makes peace with life.

Not hard to talk to, is she?
Yeah, she makes it easy
she looks like what you wanna hear
I used to need that from you
to make me feel like something special
standing back stage with a guitar and a beer

I also love how On the Ropes follows “Golden Child” with the upbeat ditty “The Handbook” about courtship.

In short, while I am a fan of basically everything that Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters have put out, “Golden Child” has particularly been making me happy this week.

I've been a golden child
I've been a lonely country mile
and an am gospel choir crackling through the wires
don't you touch that dial

What is Making Me Happy: Yoga

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular Friday/Saturday feature.

This week: yoga

I have never been particularly flexible. In the year since the pandemic started, I’ve noticed that my lack of flexibility has gotten worse in my hips and back, probably because the changes have meant more time sitting with poor posture in an office chair overdue for replacement. About a month ago, I decided to do something about this lack of flexibility.

…and now I have a daily yoga habit.

I started with short videos from the Yoga with Adriene channel and gradually expanded the practice to longer, more complex routines. One month into my practice, I have already begun to notice a difference. As great as this benefit is, though, that is only the most obvious reason that yoga is making me happy.

Each of the past several years I have resolved to start a mindfulness practice using the Headspace app. These are okay, and the gamification of the regular habit works for me—there is a reason that I have a 600+ day streak on DuoLingo—but I found the soothing voices mildly annoying and while I do pretty well with just silent meditation, I also have been unable to find the discipline to regularly make time to look for that calm.

Yoga, by contrast, works for me. I often find movement more calming than stillness because it gives me a focus and incorporating yoga into my daily exercise routine means that I actually do it. In addition, the routines that Adriene Mishler puts out emphasize conscious breath and finding time for stillness as part of of the regular practice, so I still get to work my way to periods of meditation at the end of most sessions. . The result is a sweet spot between physical exercise, stretching, and mindful meditation, whether I’m settling my mind before starting work or using it to find calm later in the day when I have a dozen things going on.

What is Making Me Happy: Sea Shanty TikTok

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular Friday/Saturday feature.

This week: sea shanty TikTok

I might need to get TikTok. I am not kidding. Although I test-drive a lot of social media apps, I’ve long thought of TikTok as a platforms for teenagers dancing, which always struck me as a) creepy and b) not really my thing. Then this morning I saw videos of people singing “Soon May the Wellerman Come.”

It started with the artist Nathan Evanss throwing the song up:

Soon, there were entire chains of people accompanying him:

But as great as the male chorus is, my favorite version (so far) was when the musician Mia Asano added her violin to mixed group of singers:

I am not exaggerating when I say I have listened to this version more than a dozen times already today. In the purest expression of what is making me happy, sea shanty TikTok is the best thing I have seen to this point in 2021.

Update: there are more!

What is Making Me Happy: Basketball

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: Basketball

It is probably time for me to admit that basketball is my favorite sport.

For years now I’ve split hairs, maintaining that while I prefer playing basketball (and ultimate) and watching football, baseball was nevertheless my favorite sport. No longer. I still like baseball and manage to short-circuit my ethical problems with football to enjoy watching it as a sport, but basketball is my favorite.

One of the handful of the most reliable things in my life over the past decade was a basketball game at 11 AM on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Players came and went as people came and left Mizzou, but there were almost always enough people for a game. The games were of varying quality, which tends to happen when you’re playing pick-up, but there were enough people who had played on teams at one point or another in their life that the games we could get reasonably competitive games. We played 1s and 2s (rather than 2s and 3s) to fifteen—this is common, though, as Kirk Goldsberry once pointed out at Grantland, that scoring system pushes smart players to shoot from behind the three-point line to an extreme—with the winning team getting to keep the court agains the next set of challengers, playing until a critical mass of people had to leave for class, meetings, work, or were simply too tired to continue. Usually this happened around 1, but it could be much later, particularly on Friday.

This game meant both reliable stress relief in the middle of the day and really good exercise, at least until COVID arrived. I’ve since cancelled my gym membership since basketball was the primary attraction and I don’t know when or if I will get back to that.

The sudden end to basketball—my pick-up game, college basketball, and the NBA—caused me to reflect on how much I love the sport. The Last Dance might have mostly been Jordan hagiography, but when there was no other basketball I absolutely ate up its nostalgic trip back to the 1990s and then when the NBA returned in its bubble over the summer I found myself watching really loving the chance to watch a small group of teams (with the best players and best coaches) over and over again and getting to appreciate the little nuances of the games.

At some level, I can appreciate NBA basketball in the same way that I can appreciate ballet. The men who reach that point are spectacularly good athletes who make unbelievable leaps look ordinary even if I have a little bit of coach brain—my coaching experience only entitles me to a little bit of coach brain—that is appalled by the lack of fundamentals and lapses of focus that they display. The league uses a deeper three-point line, but the court is otherwise the same size as the college court, but I am also fond of saying that the NBA game is fundamentally different than even the college game because the players are so big and so fast. Personally, I would widen and lengthen the court, rather like international hockey plays on a larger rink.

While a single player can sometimes dominate a game more than in some other team sports, it is also fundamentally a team game at any level and one that is unusually revealing. You can learn a lot about a person by how they play on the court and how they interact with their teammates off it. It was for this reason that one of my favorite pieces of journalism from the 2016 democratic primary campaign was a report in The Guardian that tracked down people who played pick-up basketball with Bernie Sanders in the 1970s. The piece came about after video surfaced of Sanders in a gymnasium in New Hampshire just idly putting up shots before or after a campaign event, and the author tried to use that game to offer insight into his background.

And yet, as Gary Gullman movingly talked about in his comedy special The Great Depresh that I tracked down early in 2020 after listening to him on the Lowe Post Podcast, basketball is also a game that you can play on your own. You don’t need anyone to play catch with. All you need is a ball and a hoop.

I find that the act of practicing a jump shot or even putting up free throws can be a form of meditation in that it forces me to get into a flow that bring the different parts of my body and my focus into sync. Basketball is a game of repeated movements within a confined space and more than once I have identified something that is going wrong with my writing while tuning into something going on with my jump shot. The loss of basketball was thus particularly frustrating for me this year and I never got around to purchasing a ball to use on the court in my local park. That changed several days ago when my partner gave me a ball for Christmas, so, if you will excuse me, I want to go get some shots up while the sun is still out.

What is Making Me Happy: Bagman

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: Bagman

My podcast listening tends toward conversation, sports, and current events and while I am periodically on the hunt for a new show I am rather hit and miss with “true crime” investigative podcasts. I didn’t give in to the Serial fad, for instance, but was quite taken by Crimetown. The latter hit a sweet spot for me in that it looked not just at a single crime, but at institutional corruption, which is also the subject of Rachel Maddow and Mike Yarvitz’ limited run podcast turned book Bagman. However, rather than painting a portrait of a city at a given time, Maddow and Yarvitz take aim at Spiro Agnew.

I have taught US history, but I would never describe myself as a specialist. When I cover the end of Nixon’s administration, I focus on the Watergate break-in, the cover-up, and give the students something to analyze for themselves in the form of Herb Block’s cartoons. I mention Agnew in passing, mostly in order to set up how Gerald Ford became president—probably trotting out the standard line that Agnew was forced to resign because he was under indictment for tax evasion. What I’ve told students in the past is not wrong, but only by the most technical definition.

The false memory about Agnew’s time in office is the starting point of Bagman. In point of fact, Agnew had had a meteoric rise from winning an election as Baltimore County executive in 1962 to becoming governor of Maryland in 1966 to vice president in 1968 and, along the way, built a corruption ring based on his control of government contracts that he doled out in return for cash.

Maddow and Yartvitz take the audience back to 1972 just when the Watergate scandal was beginning to heat up: George Beall, the US district attorney in Maryland, had opened an investigation into the sitting Baltimore County executive on suspicion of a bribery ring. What he found was not only that the ring had been developed by Agnew, but that Agnew’s activities had continued throughout his term as governor and into his time as Vice President. When Agnew heard of the investigation—in February 1973—he immediately set about trying to discredit the attorneys and quash the investigation, but eventually, was forced to resign. Thus, as Maddow and Yarvitz told Terry Gross on Fresh Air, their purpose was two-fold: first, document the Agnew story; second, explore how the prosecutors’ primary aim of removing Agnew from office and the series of events worked together to allow people to remember Agnew’s crimes as tax evasion rather than political corruption and obstruction of justice.

I am currently halfway through this limited-run series and am consistently fascinated by their account of Agnew’s fall from grace. I’m not sure how well they’ll be able to pull off the second half of their objective, but I am looking forward to finding out.