America’s Best Ideas: The Voyager Missions and National Parks

By Michael W. Harris

The Golden Record

A little over three years ago, I wrote a post on why I believed (and still do) that the Voyager Missions and accompanying Golden Record is one of the best things that America has ever done. Part of my fervent belief of this is that the Record presents an aspirational view of humanity and our future. The Record as a goal for us to work towards. And part of why I wrote that, in 2016, as the world was starting to spiral into Trumpian Oblivion, was that it provided a counter to that negative outlook.

You see, I am a cynical person by nature. I have a deep repository of cynicism that I thinly veil with a healthy schmeer of sarcasm. I have, outwardly, lost all belief that humanity can dig itself out of the mess that we have created for ourselves. If a Cylon asked me if I believed that humanity was “worthy of survival,” I would probably (in my cynical view) answer “no” without skipping a beat. I would probably follow up with “Burn the motherfucker down. Honestly I am surprised we haven’t done it already ourselves. Sorry to make you go to the trouble.” And before I could take it back, the missiles would be launched to the strains of “All Along the Watchtower” and “bye, Felicia.” Continue reading “America’s Best Ideas: The Voyager Missions and National Parks”

Pancakes are Love (and Other Lessons Learned from my Grandmothers)

By Michael W. Harris

I still use the copy of the recipe I wrote down while talking to my Grandma Jackie.

There is a line in the 2008 Wachowski’s movie Speed Racer that, even though it is largely a throwaway line uttered by what will soon turn out to be the film’s villain, has always stayed with me: “Pfannkuchen sind Liebchen. Pancakes are love.” Now, Google Translate informs me that that is not entirely accurate, that “Liebchen” actually means “sweet heart,” but I still like the sentiment because pancakes will always be love, specifically the love of my Grandma Jackie. And I can totally hear her saying “sweetheart” to me.

Growing up, Grandma Jackie, my dad’s mother, and her pancakes were something I looked forward to whenever we visited St. Louis or spent our summer vacation fishing at Montauk State Park in southern Missouri, the Harris family’s ancestral lands (at least in the immediate past). In the very best Midwestern tradition, breakfast at Grandma’s was a true feast: sausage, eggs, bacon, hash browns, biscuits and gravy, milk, coffee, orange juice, and, of course, pancakes. It is no secret that Midwesterners love their food. The church potluck is basically a cliché for the Methodists and Lutherans, to say nothing of basically inventing tailgating. But our love of food goes beyond needing big meals to get ready for a long day working the farm. In the Midwest, food is love. Continue reading “Pancakes are Love (and Other Lessons Learned from my Grandmothers)”

Random Thoughts about Life, Librarians, and one certain Tuesday

By Michael W. Harris

The interior-exterior of Pickler Library at Truman State University

I began, rather unknowingly, my career in libraries one afternoon in September of my junior year at Truman State University. At that time I still had my sights set on a professional trajectory in music, either as a performer or teacher, with bassoon as my stock-in-trade. I mainly began working in the Music and Media Library as a means to earn my work study dollars, and I had an in with the boss because my sister had worked there previously. I would continue to work there for the remainder of my undergrad.

The next three years. Continue reading “Random Thoughts about Life, Librarians, and one certain Tuesday”

Looking Forward, Looking Back: The Past and Future of The Temp Track

By Michael W. Harris

Pen, paper, and coffee…the beginnings of so many posts this past year.

It has been a year. While I did not go into 2018 planning on doing one post a week, that is how it ended up. It just sort of started, kept going, snowballed, and before you knew it I had a pattern established, and I am loathe to break patterns. And looking back, I am really glad I did it. It was part therapy during what was one of the most difficult periods in my life, part exercise in finding a good writing process as I try to integrate my love for the craft of the written word into my life, and part needing an outlet for some of the smaller scale projects that I want to pursue.

However, more than anything else, I just wanted to write more. I have always loved writing, and it is a big reason why I decided to do a PhD and not a DMA all those year ago. When I thought about which I would rather do, practice bassoon for eight hours a day or read and write for 8 hours a day…the decision was easy to make. And now, with (hopefully) my last degree a year behind me, another year of tumult and upheaval over, and job stability ahead, it is time to think about what the future of The Temp Track looks like.

After a year filled with gin reviews, musing on stationery, some rather personal essays that made some people worry about my mental and physical health (and I share those concerns…hence writing as therapy), and other random musing on life, the universe, and everything, what does 2019 look like?

Let’s first look back before we look forward, shall we? Continue reading “Looking Forward, Looking Back: The Past and Future of The Temp Track”

Finding Happiness in the Dark: The Aesthetics and Beauty of Stationery

By Michael W. Harris

Pen, paper, and coffee…what more do you need?

I was a late user of Instagram, and it was only when I had found myself largely abandoning Facebook that I decided to dive into the photo-only world of the platform. I needed something beautiful and happy in my life. I needed something to bring me joy amidst the dumpster fire of the rest of the world.

I needed a purely joyful aesthetic experience.

I know that I am not the first to discuss the purely visual aspect of Instagram as it compares to the text forward medium/misery-pit of Facebook and/or Twitter. However, I have never considered myself a person to be driven the visual or even the beautiful. Yes, I appreciate beautiful artwork, a well-designed building, and so on, but to be so fully drawn into a purely visual aesthetic experience like Instagram was something I never considered to be “for me.” Continue reading “Finding Happiness in the Dark: The Aesthetics and Beauty of Stationery”

Dreaming of a Future: RADWIMPS’ “Weekly Shonen Jump”

By Michael W. Harris

RADWIMPS is a Japanese band I first became familiar with via their music for Makoto Shinkai’s beautiful anime film Your Name, and whose music I will forever associate with my final months in Virginia—a time of my life that will forever stir up complex and uncertain emotions. And while the exact memories and images of places accumulated in my ten months at the College of William & Mary have already begun to fade as I settle into my new life in Memphis, the music of RADWIMPS will always yank me back to the sidewalks and streets of Williamsburg, VA.

The music of the group is a mélange of styles, ranging from hip-hop to rock, but the majority of their music would fall into what I would squarely call pop. And catchy, sensible pop at that. So it was that shortly after falling into the world of Shinkai and Your Name, I quickly downloaded all the albums and EPs that I could and put them on repeat. Which is to say that I had listened to most of their catalog prior to moving to Memphis, and which is why I find it curious that it was not until after I had moved that I had the experience of being stopped in my tracks by the song “Weekly Shonen Jump.” Continue reading “Dreaming of a Future: RADWIMPS’ “Weekly Shonen Jump””

It’s Got to be the Goin’: The Journey of (Self) Annihilation

By Michael W. Harris

N.B. – This is part three of a series on Alex Garland’s films, if you have not already, you should probably read Part I on Sunshine and Part II on Ex Machina before diving in.

Almost any film (or narrative story) is about “the journey.” It is what gives a character their arc and shows their growth. Sometimes there is a very literal metaphor of this arc with a character climbing a mountain or driving across the country with a friend or their father’s ashes…or Einstein’s brain. Regardless, something they all have in common, though, is that the journey is the means by which the character grows. This is the essence of “The Hero’s Journey” and the well-trodden Joseph Campbell Hero With a Thousand Faces and what not.

But what about a film that is not about the hero’s journey and how it changes them? What about a film in which the journey itself is the point? A journey that, while somehow revelatory of the character and either their motivations for the journey or society as a whole, rather than changing them or causing them to grow as a person, instead ends up either not affecting them or, if anything, leaving them worse off for making the trip.

These kinds of films are about how what is being journeyed through reflects or, in the case of Annihilation, refracts back on the person or society. Continue reading “It’s Got to be the Goin’: The Journey of (Self) Annihilation”

Visions of the Things to Be: Reflections on M*A*S*H

 

By Michael W. Harris

The gang’s all here

I try not to identify a lot with fictional characters—the Fantastic Four aside. It is hard, though. Fiction is designed to engage us on an emotional level, draw us in and create moments of reflection within us. Growing up, as strange as it may sound, one of the characters I identified with most was Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce of the 4077th M*A*S*H unit. Continue reading “Visions of the Things to Be: Reflections on M*A*S*H”

The Real Test: Humanity and [Artificial] Intelligence in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina

By Michael W. Harris

Yes, what will happen?

If there is one question left in my brain at the end of Ex Machina, it is “who was the true villain of the film?” For so much of its runtime we are left in a state of unease at the actions and personality of its erstwhile genius creator Nathan (Oscar Issac)—some sort Steve Jobs crossed with Mark Zuckerberg crossed with Dr. Frankenstein mad scientist—and we wonder when the other shoe will drop. Nathan is erratic, quick to anger and just as quick to soften; unpredictable, clearly an alcoholic, and also paranoid. His security measures prove to be his very undoing, and also cause the death of his unwitting test subject/examiner, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), one of Nathan’s employees who is there to perform a Turing Test on Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan’s android creation.

There is not a lot of set-up to the film—we are quickly dumped into the beginnings of the story which is slowly unwound for us via dialogue—which works because Caleb is just as clueless as the audience. Nathan, on the outside, would seem to be the picture of the cool, laid back, Silicon Valley billionaire. A brilliant, youthful genius whose ambition is outpaced only by his reckless and odd behavior. Continue reading “The Real Test: Humanity and [Artificial] Intelligence in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina”

Stardust to Stardust: An Adagio to Life and Death (Alex Garland’s Sunshine)

By Michael W. Harris

Our world is dying…

Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007), written by the future Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018) writer/director Alex Garland, was, for me, the film from which I learned the phrase “third act problems.” In this way, it was a seminal film in my development as a critical viewer and analyzer of the cinematic arts. And yet, despite these problems, it remains, in my regard, an outstanding example of the science fiction genre and a film that I whole heartedly recommend.

The following essay had its start in my long delayed hauntology project (I promise that will begin posting soon), but in the process of streamlining that series and removing a number of films because the essays I was writing kept getting longer, I decided that both Sunshine and Ex Machina did not really fit with the themes I was developing…though Sunshine was heartbreaking to remove because I do want more people to watch it, flaws and all. Continue reading “Stardust to Stardust: An Adagio to Life and Death (Alex Garland’s Sunshine)”