Delightful things to read, watch, and listen to lately

Scene from Netflix’s The Dig

I have read, watched, and listened to so many wonderful things in recent days that I decided to combine them all into one long list of recommendations. Some of them are new releases and some are simply new to me.

“The Dig” (Netflix)

This is a wonderful depiction of the Sutton Hoo discovery of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground, where elite warriors were interred within massive ships.

The story is not just about the archaeological discovery itself, but about the tension between gifted amateurs and credentialed professionals/academics in scientific fields. It’s also ultimately a sort of meditation on parenthood.

Three of the main characters developed their passion for archeology because of their parents. History was a major component of their home environment. They became obsessive amateurs that structured their lives around opportunities to be where the action was. Still, they struggle to be taken seriously, even as the field they love recognizes their gifts. This is different from the other characters who obsess over credentials and notoriety, but don’t want to do the menial work that comes with a significant discovery.

There is a lot to that observation. Many significant breakthroughs in science, history, linguistics, etc. came from passionate amateurs. The Mayan language and Linear B were deciphered by amateurs. Many discoveries in astronomy continue to come from people who get their telescope out on every cloudless night. And don’t even get me started on technology.

There is a definite ethic to being a good parent, and this crosses over into the notion that an education should not be about jumping through hoops, but a lifelong pursuit or essential part of being human. Being a good parent involves getting your kid involved and not belittling their intelligence and curiosity. I see a lot of parents who treat their children’s questions as an inconvenience, and it’s such a shame. There are so many movies out there where children are torn down by the adult characters; it’s exhausting how children are treated in popular culture. This is one of those movies where you see how the adults are treating the child and think, “that’s exactly right, this is how you take care of the future.”


So this movie came out years ago, but I only recently saw it. The movie is quite a thriller, but the best thing about it is how seamlessly the director weaves actual historical footage into the acting. As we have a new administration with a record of being patsies on Iran, I think this would be a timely movie for people to watch or revisit.

A brief summary:

On November 4, 1979, Iranian Islamists storm the United States embassy in Tehran in retaliation for President Jimmy Carter giving the Shah asylum in the U.S. during the Iranian Revolution. Sixty-six of the embassy staff are taken as hostages, but six avoid capture and are sheltered in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. With the escapees’ situation kept secret, the U.S. State Department begins to explore options for exfiltrating them from Iran. Tony Mendez, a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency exfiltration specialist, is brought in for a consultation. He criticizes the proposals but is at a loss when asked for an alternative. While on the phone with his son, he is inspired by watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes and begins plans for creating a cover story for the escapees: that they are Canadian filmmakers who are in Iran scouting exotic locations for a science-fiction film.

Mendez contacts John Chambers, a Hollywood make-up artist who had previously worked for the CIA. Chambers puts Mendez in touch with film producer Lester Siegel. Together, they set up a phony film production company, publicize their plans, and successfully establish the pretense of developing Argo, a “science fantasy adventure” in the style of Star Wars, to lend credibility to the cover story. Meanwhile, the escapees grow restless. The revolutionaries reassemble embassy photographs shredded before the takeover and finally realize that some personnel are unaccounted for.

Posing as a producer for Argo, Mendez enters Iran under the alias Kevin Harkins and meets with the six escapees. He provides them with Canadian passports and fake identities. Although afraid to trust Mendez’s scheme, they reluctantly go along, knowing that he is risking his own life too. A scouting visit to the bazaar to maintain their cover story takes a bad turn when they are harassed by a hostile shopkeeper, but their Iranian culture contact hustles them away from the hostile crowd.

Beforeigners (HBO)

Allow me to say upfront that you have to read subtitles through this show (it takes place in Norway), but it’s worth it.

This show combines the sci-fi concept of time travel with the political complexities surrounding immigration. This is not a polemic enterprise – it’s not starting from some sort of position on immigration as a phenomenon. It’s more about the phenomenology (experience) of cultural difference. It embraces the logistical messiness of having a suddenly, involuntarily diverse community.

The “immigrants” in this show are not from another country, but from another point in time within the same country. They have started to appear mysteriously en masse, and like modern refugees, they do not have much of a choice in the matter of how and where they end up. Similarly, the modern Norwegian society they land in has to figure out ways to integrate Vikings and Victorians into their community, as they can’t send them backwards in time. Of particular issue are the Vikings, who are mentally still at total war with Christians. As you can imagine, it becomes very difficult to treat them with modern tolerance.

That sounds ludicrous, right? But the show is no spoof. The sci-fi aspect is taken seriously, and like all good sci-fi, it follows the formula of “everything has changed, so we have to ask… what do we do now?”

A Way with Words

So this is my new favorite podcast.

A Way with Words is a radio show where the bulk of the program consists of folks calling in to ask the origin or precise meaning of a word or phrase they have encountered through family, work, school, etc.

A woman who spent many years traveling with the circus called in to talk about circus lingo. A missionary called in to talk about naming conventions in sub-Saharan Africa. (Apparently, in Africa, it is common to give a child a name that suggests events that were happening when the child was born or details some aspect of their birth story. So someone’s name is like a miniature biography of sorts.) The mother of a ballet dancer provoked a long discussion of superstitions surrounding spitting from classical literature after bringing up her son’s pre-performance rituals. Another woman called in to ask the origin of the Native American phrase “counting coup.”

It is endlessly fascinating, and listeners learn a lot about different cultures, migration patterns, and world history via language. I studied Latin, French, Spanish, and German through graduate school, and I am still learning a lot of esoteric terms from the show. The show also has a segment with language-related puzzles, riddles, anagrams, and so on.

It struck me this podcast would make a wonderful supplement to homeschooling language programs. The hosts have a gift for talking about technical aspects of linguistics in a casual manner of speaking that is accessible to everyone, so it would definitely work for children. (In fact, they have had some children call in with questions, which I am sure is a thrilling experience for a child.) The material is delivered in small, highly entertaining doses, but cumulatively, across years of tuning in, it could have a tremendous impact on a child’s education.

Occasionally, the hosts pick up on something we have recently covered in our curriculum. It’s a fantastic way to reinforce what has already been learned, to give children ideas for things they would like to investigate further, and really just a way to show kids that what they are covering in the classroom is important to society. The oral history element is essential as well.

And now some long reads…

Alan Jacobs, From Tech Critique to Ways of Living (The New Atlantis) and Tending the Digital Commons: A Small Ethics Toward the Future

Gaby Wood, Tom Stoppard’s Double Life (The Atlantic)

“Speak to the Moment” – a thoughtful consideration of why most of the art being produced now sucks. Honestly, though, I think you could simply consult James Joyce’s rant on what even counts as art in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. What people call art these days is more appropriately labeled pornography or didacticism. The writer goes more down the rabbit hole of why a society becomes generally uninspired.

Ken Burns’ next project is Hemingway (!) – I love Hemingway, have visited his house and other haunts in Key West, and have a painting of his Key West house on the wall. I’m not sure if I can handle him getting Burns-ed.

The Perils of Fame: Sylvia Plath and Seamus Heaney

3 thoughts on “Delightful things to read, watch, and listen to lately

  1. I took home a painting of Hemingway’s home when I visited there, too! Love the (rather feral) innumerable cats with polydactyly who are descendants of those he had.

    I teach my students about Sutton Hoo when I teach “Beowulf” so it’s great to learn about this show. There’s a really good site about the dig from National Geographic which includes the imagined “reconstruction” of the famed helmet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The cats were Elise’s favorite thing too. She thought his house was magical. I would love to replicate those gardens here.

      The movie has some mature themes, which I wish they would have left out. That makes it a little iffy for kids. But it’s a great movie for adults.


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