Category Archives: Miscellaneous

My Article in the New York Times

About a month ago I was contacted by an editor from the New York Times who asked whether I would be interested in writing an article to accompany a photo essay about Mennonites in Belize. I said yes, and the article was published today. You can read it here.

Aside from several pieces in the Goshen College Record when I was in college, this is the first time I have written for a newspaper, and it was an interesting experience. I had to think about a very different kind of question when writing for a general audience than when writing for a scholarly one. It is also fascinating to me that the online headline, “A Simple Life,” is different from the one in the print edition, “Mennonites in Belize.” I am grateful to have had this opportunity to grow as a writer.

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Books Acquired Recently

Fitzpatrick, Cat, and Casey Plett, ed. Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers. New York: Topside Press, 2017.

Plett recently sent me a review copy of this anthology, which comes out in September. It is massive, nearly 500 pages in length. I love the work that Topside publishes and am very much looking forward to reading it.

Fox, Rose, and Daniel José Older, ed. Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. Framingham, MA: Crossed Genres Publications, 2014.

Salih, Tayeb. Season of Migration to the North. 1969. Trans. Denys Johnson-Davies. New York: New York Review Books, 2009.

I bought these two books from amazon.com’s network of independent booksellers after reading about them in this interview with Sofia Samatar. I love Long Hidden‘s concept of gathering stories in an intersectional manner from various minority groups rather than just focusing on a specific group. This anthological practice is a rare one which I wish was more common.

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Clinching Safety

I took the above photograph at the end of Sunderland’s 0-0 draw at Arsenal yesterday afternoon, which ensured that the Black Cats are safe from relegation this season. The caption, “Clinch safety,” is a simple statement within the context of the match, but it also struck me as a profound statement about life. Isn’t that what we all want, to be assured that we are safe, not just physically, but emotionally as well? It’s such a basic, plain graphic, but it was on the screen for at least five minutes, and I think the moment I happened to photograph it, which shows Sunderland manager Dick Advocaat crying with happiness, epitomizes its deeper significance. We watch sports to help us try to escape from the stresses of life (even though they often cause us more stress) because we always know that true safety is never really assured.

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Lucy

I decided to see the movie Lucy today because the commercials I’d seen for it made it look like it would raise some interesting philosophical questions about what it means to be human rather than simply being a stereotypical action film, and I was not disappointed. I enjoyed it thoroughly; it was one of those rare art pieces that helps me touch the sublime. My mind is still buzzing from it.

I won’t go into too much detail about the film here because I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say that the major reason I liked it was because it dealt rather explicitly with two of my favorite theories: Walt Whitman’s idea that everything is connected and thus life is in a sense eternal (though not in a religious way) and Donna Haraway’s idea of humans as cyborgs, beings that extend beyond the boundaries of their physical bodies to encompass other elements of the world. At one point Lucy says “we never really die,” and this idea is never explained clearly within the context of the movie itself (I fear that most viewers will miss its significance), but in light of Whitman’s constant assertions throughout “Song of Myself” that we continue to exist after our bodies die in the natural world, the statement makes perfect sense. At the end of the film a character asks of Lucy “where is she?,” and she, for lack of a better term, texts “I am everywhere,” just as the 1855 version of “Song of Myself” ends “I stop some where waiting for you.” Likewise, the film explores Whitman’s idea of universal divinity as Lucy becomes a kind of secular Christ figure, connecting humanity back to the Big Bang and reconnecting with the first human, “Lucy” (for whom the title character is, of course, named), reminding us that we are all interconnected.

Similarly, with regard to Haraway’s idea of what it means to be “post-human,” Lucy literally becomes a cyborg in the RoboCop sense of the word, melding with a super computer before her ultimate meld with the universe. This post-humanness is the saddest part of the film, and is acknowledged by Lucy as such, because even though she breaks the restrictive bonds of what it is to be human, in doing so she loses her humanity, her selfhood, and is not given a choice in the matter. She is impregnated with her powers in a way reminiscent of the virgin Mary (i.e., it is not literal rape, but it is very close, and yes, Lucy is both a Jesus figure and a Marian one, but the film manages this double symbolism quite nicely), forced to do her best with her lot. Scarlett Johansson does an excellent job portraying Lucy’s other-than-humanness in heart-breaking, compelling fashion. By the end of the film, her character makes the viewer uncomfortable because as a post-human she has become objectified, and this objectification verges on exploitation, but at the same time Lucy recognizes her objectification and uses it for the good of humanity, so maybe it is okay. I’m still trying to process it. But that is a good thing because the best art refuses to offer easy answers, and this is why Lucy succeeds.

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Book Acquired Recently: Stand Our Ground: Poems for Trayvon Martin & Marissa Alexander

Osayande, Ewuare X., ed. Stand Our Ground: Poems for Trayvon Martin & Marissa Alexander. Philadelphia: FreedomSeed, 2013.

I received this anthology from my father, who works with Osayande at Mennonite Central Committee. I am incredibly excited to read it, as it looks to be an important addition to the long tradition of politically-activist poetry anthologies (Sam Hamill’s Poets Against the War is another relatively recent example) as well as to the rich tradition of African American anthologies in that it responds to America’s ongoing racism, although not all of the contributors are black.

Stand Our Ground includes poets from all over the world, though most are from the U.S. Impressively, the book’s list of contributors is quite democratic, including work by well-known authors such as Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, and Askia Touré alongside work by a few writers with hardly any publishing history, and all levels in between. Kudos to Baraka, et al. for contributing to this project, because I am sure FreedomSeed Press did not have money to pay any kind of substantial rights fees. Osayande and FreedomSeed also deserve praise for putting the book together so quickly. All of the proceeds from sales of the book go to either Martin’s family or Alexander’s continued fight for justice.

I was flipping through the book last night, and read Baraka’s poem “I liked us better,” which reads like a piece from his Black Arts Movement heyday (my favorite period of his work), asserting that “I liked us better when we were / shouting and marching and intent // On changing everything. I liked us better when we / didn’t dig white people so much” (35). I love that though he is almost 80, Baraka is still speaking uncomfortable truth to power unabashedly. I love that he refuses to back down, and that he takes pride in the fact that he was so controversial as the poet laureate of New Jersey that the state abolished the position rather than keep him around. His inclusion in Stand Our Ground, along with that of the other luminaries mentioned above, shows that poets can still be relevant as prophets, that literature still has a role to play in the fight for positive social change. Stand Our Ground is an important book that everyone should read.

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Does Facebook Make Us Unhappy?

This fascinating New Yorker article by Maria Konnikova surveys a number of recent studies about how Facebook affects users’ mood. Most of the studies argue that surfing Facebook tends to worsen our mood because it is a passive activity that often leads to jealousy regarding others’ lives. We are happy during the brief moments when we are writing and posting a status update, but the rest of our time on the site dissipates this pleasure. In other words, our time on Facebook often embodies the old bumper sticker that reads “Every time one of my friends succeeds, a little part of me dies.” How people use Facebook is so subjective that it is impossible to make conclusive statements about how it affects users, but the act of interrogating how it affects us is nevertheless an essential one. Konnikova’s article certainly makes me question how much time I spend on the site (generally between half an hour and an hour per day), and is worthwhile reading for anyone else who finds her- or himself making Facebook a central part of the day.

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Random Friday Thoughts

I taught my final class of the school year on Wednesday, and for the past two days have just been relaxing and letting my mind wander. It hasn’t hit me on a visceral level yet that I don’t have to teach another class until late August, but my brain is already going on all sorts of tangents. Here are a few that are rattling around this afternoon:

Sometimes I have dreams that people have statistics for their lives just like athletes have sports statistics. Usually these dreams center around me having a low “life average” (akin to a baseball batting average), somewhere below .250. I’m always very worried about this in the dream until I realize that there’s no such thing as life averages. But it would be kind of interesting if there were. It would be fascinating to compare oneself to other people numerically like it is possible to compare one athlete to another. For instance, basketball-reference.com has something called “Similarity Scores” on each player’s page (scroll down to the bottom to see Patrick Ewing’s) that compares the player to other players (past and present) with similar statistics. If it were possible to do this in real life, it would be helpful because then one could see if one’s life was headed in a good direction or not based on those with similar life arcs.

I bought a regular-sized candy bar at the college bookstore this afternoon that cost $1.25. I realize that the bookstore is not the cheapest place to buy such an item, but even so, it points to how candy bar prices have exploded over the past decade or so. For all of my teens and into my twenties it was common to be able to find candy bars on sale for $0.50, and sometimes even less. Nowadays it is hard to find one for less than $0.75 even at stores that claim to have “low prices” (at least in Salt Lake City, and this was the case when I lived in Illinois, too).

Conversely, I also bought a pack of two Bic red pens for $0.99. What a deal! A pleasing quality product for under a dollar. Good office supplies are always exciting. The way things are going, though, they are an endangered species.

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The Office Series Finale

The Office series finale last night did a good job of ending the show. I’ve always felt that Steve Carell’s final episode should have also been the show’s final episode, but since it was not, last night’s episode did about as good of a job of ending the show as was possible. Yes, it was schmaltzy, and yes, all of the main characters’ stories (especially Pam and Jim’s) got tied up much too neatly to be plausible, but The Office was good enough and important enough for long enough (i.e., barring the past two seasons) that it could get away with an ending that was much more uplifting than the show’s overall subject matter. Unlike many previous last episode disasters (e.g., Seinfeld‘s, which was laughably horrible, and Will and Grace‘s, which was traumatic and had me screaming at the television), The Office‘s finale didn’t insist on being over-the-top, which allowed it to end things smoothly and successfully.

There were also some fantastic one-liners and inside references for long-time viewers, such as the stripper at Dwight’s bachelor party who had also worked Bob Vance’s bachelor party and had accepted the rabies research check from Michael dressed as a “nurse” in one of the series’ best episodes. I thought Carell’s cameo was handled quite well: he got in one last “that’s what she said,” and his final line about having his kids (i.e., his former workers) grow up and marry each other being “what every parent wants” was classic Michael. I was a huge fan of The Office until two seasons ago, and I feel like last night’s episode allowed me to end my relationship to the show with a sense of peace.

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Thoughts on Bill Hader Leaving Saturday Night Live and Endings in General

Bill Hader announced this week that he is leaving Saturday Night Live at the end of this season. While I got into SNL at the tail end of the Will Ferrell/Chris Parnell/Tracy Morgan-into-the-Tina Fey/Amy Poehler/Maya Rudolph days, Hader’s generation (Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig, Kenan Thompson, with Jason Sudeikis and Fred Armisen having been there a bit longer) was the one that I connected with the most as a fan, and now that most of it is gone, I feel a keen sense of loss that isn’t just tied to the show, but is also tied to the forthcoming transition in my own life into a tenure-track (and thus explicitly long-term) position. It is like the fun times are over and it’s time to go into a settled, middle-aged life of bourgeois despair. I haven’t watched the show regularly this season after the first few weeks because the new cast members just didn’t have enough verve to fill the gap left by Wiig’s and Samberg’s departures at the end of last season, and now that Hader is leaving my guess is that I’ll watch it even less. There’s still a lot of talent on the show, and the new cast members have certainly been getting better, but somehow it no longer feels like it’s mine. Endings are always also beginnings (and it feels like there have been a lot of these that I care about lately, most notably the retirements of Sir Alex Ferguson and Paul Scholes), and I feel like I should be excited for mine as one would think Hader is excited for his (he’ll have more time to work on his thus far promising film career), but it just makes me feel old.

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Show and Tell

There’s a new post on Paul Lukas’s Show and Tell blog that is rather fascinating. Some of the objects are rare and weird and others are commonplace, but the stories surrounding the objects are just as interesting as the objects themselves. I love the idea of show and tell for adults in part because I enjoy the history of material culture, but also because I associate show and tell with a kind of awe and joy that I think many of us lose as we get older. I am a cynical person, but I like activities that are able to get me out of that headspace sometimes.

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