Category Archives: What’s Making Me Happy

What’s Making Me Happy

Revisiting Battlestar Galactica     When I noticed that BSG was available to stream on Amazon, I mentioned the fact in passing to Stephanie, who said she’d never watched it. I was surprised, but also delighted, as it gave me an excuse to rewatch the series and introduce it to her.

It is such a good series, and it has far more in common with other such contemporary SF on television as Firefly or The Expanse than it does with its original, hokey 70s series that was derivative enough of Star Wars (its original title was to be Saga of a Star World) that George Lucas attempted to sue. The 2004 reboot maintained the original’s premise of a weathered battleship leading a ragtag fleet of humans who had survived a genocidal attack by the robotic race of Cylons in a search for the mythic planet Earth. It also kept the aesthetics of the battlestar and the Viper fighters, and the names of the main characters—Commander William Adama, his son and chief Viper pilot, Lee “Apollo” Adama, his second-in-command Colonel Tigh, hotshot pilot Starbuck, the treacherous Gaius Baltar, and so on.

But aside from maintaining such continuities, the new version is darker, grittier, and abjures the campy quality of the original (something that, to be fair, tended to mark a lot of 70s-era SF, Star Wars included). The new version is also more diverse with respect to race and gender, with the always-brilliant Edward James Olmos in the role of Commander Adama, a crew that seems more or less to have gender parity, and the crucial role of firebrand Starbuck played by Katee Sackhoff.

This last change did not sit well with the original Starbuck, played by Dirk Benedict, whom you may also remember as “Faceman” Peck from The A-Team (though you could be forgiven if you don’t remember him from anything else). Benedict seems to have gone the route of other 80s actors of limited fame who re-emerge as conservative culture warriors. Benedict penned a blog post titled “Lt. Starbuck … Lost in Castration” some time around 2008, in which he excoriates the new version for feminizing the cigar-smoking, roguish lothario he played, and for otherwise being the embodiment of a world in which “40 years of feminism have taken their toll,” and the “war against masculinity has been won.”

Starbuck then and now.

If you think you can stomach it, you should really read the post in its entirety, as it reads like a parody of butthurt masculinity; I remember reading it about twelve years ago and wondering at its ludicrousness, but in re-reading it today, it appears as prescient anticipation of the squalid online worlds of “men’s rights advocates,” incel culture, and Jordan Peterson acolytes. To give just one of the more egregious examples from the piece:

Women are from Venus. Men are from Mars. Hamlet does not scan as Hamletta. Nor does Hans Solo as Hans Sally. Faceman is not the same as Facewoman. Nor does a Stardoe a Starbuck make. Men hand out cigars. Women hand out babies. And thus the world for thousands of years has gone round.

(For the record, I cut and pasted this from his post, and only just now realized that Harrison Ford’s iconic character was German).

Benedict’s little temper tantrum is exemplary of both the kind of white male fan-rage that enveloped The Last Jedi and inspired the “Sad Puppies’” campaign against the Hugo Awards, but also the pathetic whine of a mediocre actor seeing one of the television properties that gave him his brief bout of fame being done better—and seeing a version of Lt. Starbuck played by an actor with greater depth and talent than him, though it’s fairly obvious that the fact that she’s a woman is what prompted his rage.

Watership Down     Yesterday in my Utopias & Dystopias class we started Richard Adams’ Watership Down, which I’ve been looking forward to all semester. I first read the novel when I was in high school, and I loved it enough that it almost erased the traumatic memory of seeing the animated 1978 film adaptation in the theatre. For those who haven’t read Watership Down, it’s a story about a bunch of wild rabbits trying to find a new home. Lest that make you think it is thus a cutesy story about bunnies, remember that rabbits are basically prey animals for just about every conceivable predator, and so the odyssey to find a new and safe home is beset with terror at every turn. The 1978 film cranked this up to eleven, positively glorying in the blood and violence and death, and doing so in that creepy 70s-style animation that always leaves me feeling weirded out. A friend’s father took us to see it, probably on the same misapprehension that many adults had, that this would be a cute story about bunnies.

Not so much.


The novel doesn’t lack for the terror and fear, but at least it doesn’t have the graphic dimension of the film … and it is also quite impressive in its world-building, giving the rabbits their own mythology and folklore. In fact, their origin story is precisely about how their creator made them prey animals in punishment for out-breeding all the other animals, but also gave them cunning and powerful hind legs that let them outrun their predators.  Adams walks an interesting line between straightforward anthropomorphising á là Disney animals, and emphasizing the limitations rabbits would have (even these versions of rabbits with language and lore) in making mental connections or simple counting; there is, however, a necessary amount of anthropomorphizing, and the rabbits all have subtle and nuanced characters.

When I asked my students what they thought of the novel, the consensus was that they did not expect the story they encountered, but that they liked it and found it compelling. (Which was a relief—I’m always leery of teaching a text I love for the first time, as it is often very disheartening when a balance of students express dislike or, worse, indifference).

But why is a novel about rabbits on a Utopias & Dystopias course? Well, because it embodies both kinds of story—it is about the rabbits leaving a home that the oracular character Fiver says is in danger (it is ultimately, we learn later, destroyed in the process of humans building new houses), and seeking out a place where they can live in peace and utopian safety. But the journey is markedly dystopian, as they must venture out into a hostile world populated by the thousand animals that want to eat them, but also by antagonistic rabbits who end up being the bigger threat (in this way, as I have blogged before, and as I suggested to my class, Watership Down is sort of like a zombie apocalypse narrative).

Also, I just love the novel, and sometimes that’s sufficient excuse to put it on a course.

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What’s Making Me Happy

Scrolling back through my posts since 2021 began, I’m struck by the general bleakness of a lot of what I’ve been writing about … which not unsurprising, given that much of it has had to do with American politics, and I’ve been writing as we approach the one-year anniversary of the COVID pandemic, with the prospect of it persisting as late as the autumn.

I’m not one for such practices as daily affirmations, but sometimes it’s helpful to remind oneself about what is making you happy. One of my favourite podcasts is NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour; once a week they have a segment titled “what’s making us happy this week,” in which the hosts share, well, what’s making them happy that week—what books or film or TV or other things that give them delight.

Well, I’m stealing the idea. I’ve already done so on occasion when I teach—I will ask my students every so often what’s making them happy—though I’m usually treated to silence punctuated now and then with an enthusiastic endorsement of something. But I’m now bringing it to my blog. Don’t expect it to be weekly, though.

So what’s making me happy right now?

Stephanie on the Guitar and Sir Terry Pratchett     Since posting my QAnon piece this morning, I’ve been working away on an article that I’ve had stewing on my brain’s back burner for a long time: I’m titling it “The Pragmatic Pratchett,” and it argues that the political and moral philosophy that Sir Terry developed over his forty-one Discworld novels (and his other fiction and non-fiction) is a form of “magical humanism” that squares up quite nicely with the American school of Pragmatism á là John Dewey, Richard Rorty, and Judith Shklar. We’re currently on midterm break here, so I’m trying to pound out one thousand words and day and have something approaching a rough draft by the time classes resume in a week. I hit 1400 words today, and will continue work on it after dinner.

Meanwhile, as I write in my office, Stephanie is in the next room doing something musical. One of her hobbies is to record songs and post videos of herself playing to YouTube. Lately, she’s been getting into the project of making backing tracks for people to play guitar over. But today she’s broken out the guitar again, and so as I write about Sir Terry, I can hear her playing. It’s quite lovely—it’s almost like being serenaded.

I love watching her get absorbed in whatever project she’s working on. It is a form of self-care, a mental respite from her job as a full-time nurse. She is a perfectionist when it comes to her musical projects, and will spend hours plugged into her laptop and various musical doodads (I am, it should go without saying, musically illiterate). I like to joke that she’s obsessive and I’m compulsive, and that together we make up a complete neurosis.

The Mandalorian     I finally caved and subscribed to Disney Plus. Stephanie and I binged the two extant seasons of The Mandalorian over the course of a week, watching the season two finale last Wednesday. Since then I have been rewatching some of my favourite scenes on my laptop, as well as watching the various fan reaction videos.

Jon Favreau just gets it—he gets the texture of the Star Wars universe, he gets the aspects of it that make for good stories (and eschews those that don’t), and somehow he made a legion of viewers fall in love with a goddamn muppet.

I loved the Ewoks when I first watched Return of the Jedi—but then again, when I first watched Jedi, I was eleven years old. The cloying cute little teddy bears of Endor have not aged well, so when I first heard the name “Baby Yoda” and saw the images, I was skeptical—another merchandising opportunity, I thought, at the expense of good storytelling. Well, I don’t mind admitting how wrong I was—Baby Yoda, aka Grogu, was impossibly cute, but somehow not cloyingly so. And the relationship between “the kid” and Din Djarin was quite beautifully done—a testament to Pedro Pascal’s acting chops, considering that we see his face all of three times over sixteen episodes.

(Fun fact: if you binge The Mandalorian not long after binging Schitt’s Creek, as Stephanie and I did, it is nearly impossible not to shout—in one’s best Moira Rose voice—“the Bébé!” every time Baby Yoda shows his face).

And the casting. Jeebus, the casting. I got the sense as I watched that Jon Favreau would just call up friends and say “Hey, I’m doing this Star Wars thing, you want in?” Such a great ensemble of actors. There is something exquisite about hearing Werner Herzog say, “I hear you are ze best in ze parzec.” There is something equally exquisite in seeing Giancarlo Esposito bring all of his equable Gus Fring menace to the role of Moff Gideon. Ming-Na Wen as a deadly assassin? Yes please. Timothy Olyphant playing a variation on Seth Bullock and Raylen Givens as the marshal of a mining town on Tatooine? Gods, yes. Bill Burr as an irascible mercenary thief? Natalia Tena, aka Nymphadora Tonks, as a hissing, blade throwing alien? Richard Ayoade as the voice of a priggish but deadly droid? Taika Waititi, who also directed a few episodes, as a droid programmed to care for Baby Yoda? Jason Sudeikas and Adam Palley bantering as a pair of inept stormtroopers? Also: considering that we interrupted our viewing of Battlestar Galactica (Stephanie had never seen it, so I felt it my moral obligation to introduce her to it) to watch The Mandalorian, Katee Sackhoff’s appearance as fellow Mandalorian Bo Katan felt particularly apropos.

But one of my favourite cameos also relates to the way Jon Favreau is building out the post-Return of the Jedi universe, in which the New Republic must now actually govern. It’s a new normal in which the X-wing pilots are no longer the heroic flyboys and -girls of the movies, but are essentially cops on a beat, who give Mando grief for his ship’s broken transponder in the same way an exasperated traffic cop might give you a pass on a broken taillight. In a later episode of season two, a dumpy, balding X-wing pilot suggests to Cara Dune that she should take on the role of Marshal in her town, now that the former Empire was more or less expunged. “Wait,” I said as we watched, “isn’t that the father from Kim’s Convenience?” And indeed it was—Korean-Canadian actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (who according to his iMDB page, “Is a member of the Star Wars costuming group The 501st Legion”).

It was the clipboard in the pilot’s hand that made it art.

Pie-Making     … or, as I like to pronounce it, “PAH!” Given that I’m not a desserts person, the vast majority of my pies are savoury. I’ve made it something of a custom, when I make a roast chicken, to make stock from the carcass the next day and use the meat coming off to the bone to make stew, which then goes to making chicken pot pie. I have also done the same with leftover roast beef.

I recently decided I wanted to learn to make traditional British pork pies—specifically, the classic Melton Mowbray pie, which is basically just a whole lot of finely (or coarsely) chopped cuts of pork, cooked in a narrow but tall pie crust. I ordered a dedicated pie tin online, along with a book of savoury pie recipes. My first attempt was tasty, but I did not make it with the traditional aspic that is part of the recipe—a glaring omission, as a handful of people on Facebook observed. To be fair, I’d looked at a bunch of recipes, some of which called for the use of powdered gelatin, while the more involved recipes would have had me boiling pork bones. Given that my access to pork bones in St. John’s is limited, I’d bought the gelatin … and then decided to do a trial run without, just to see about getting the taste right.

I want to try again and do it properly—there’s a small butcher shop just around the corner, and I was planning on popping in there to ask about the whole pork bones thing. But then we had a outbreak of new COVID cases in Newfoundland that put us back into level five lockdown … so there’s no popping into the local butcher’s for a while, anyway.

Meanwhile, I ordered more pie tins—4” across like the original one, but half the height. Which makes for an ideal single-serving pie. Last night I made prime rib for dinner. As I write, four beef and mushroom pies are in the oven. When the lockdown lifts, I’ll return to my project of perfecting the Melton Mowbray pie; until then, I’ll work with the classics.

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