|Karmela Padavic Callaghan||Apr 27, 2019|
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I know these letters have slowed down recently, while also becoming longer, and I really appreciate you bearing with me and still being a reader. This space is really important to me, but my work keeps taking turns for the hectic and chaotic thus leaving me little to no time to write. I assure you I have many drafts that will hopefully see the light of day in a more predictable fashion in the coming weeks.
The breakdown is as follows: a personal essay on top of the letter and some more concrete life updates, current media favorites and a recipe at its bottom so feel free to skip to whatever interests you. (Please feel free to hit the Reply button at any time, for any purpose.)
As I have the privilege of working at a large, highly-ranked university, a few times a year I find myself attending special conferences or symposia. Most of these are events that I would probably never travel to, but they feel like necessary academic enrichment because they are right under my nose. My academic work is broad in the sense of my inability to work on only one project at a time, but it is also fairly niche, even for a theoretical physicist. Early on in my academic career (if I can call it that) I made a choice to not engage with some parts of my field that seemed competitive in toxic ways or simply over-saturated. This was not an act of (inexperienced) rebellion but rather just my acting based on a vision of a theorist I thought I wanted to be once my doctoral training was complete. There was still something childishly punk rock about deciding to not always do exactly what everyone else seemed to be doing but I have mostly not regretted it. However, if a symposium or a conference on one of these topics I have chosen to stay on the very edges of is hosted by my home institution and experts and foundational figures of research in it are presenting their work, a mixture of curiosity, guilt and enthusiasm leftover from an earlier time in my education will be enough to have me waking up at seven in the morning on a Saturday to see a talk about unconventional superconductors or out of order correlators or whatever other piece of jargon can lodge itself into my mind at such an hour.
Often, these events are celebrations of individuals who are either joyously entering another decade or have sadly passed away. Whether the more joyous or more sad option are in question, without a doubt the physicist at the center of it all gets praised for their enthusiasm and positive energy and many of their former students attend and share collegial anecdotes in-between their otherwise technical talks. It’s idol-creation at its best; it serves to cement a researcher as an icon and not just a creator of iconic works. By the virtue of physics having been extremely homogenous in its demographic make-up until fairly recently, the researchers I have seen celebrated throughout my time in graduate school have all been male. The vast majority of their former students, friends and collaborators invited to speak in their honor have been male as well. Whenever photographs of conferences from various ‘classic’ eras of research have been shown in talks, they have always been overrun by men.
A petty part of me struggles with this. Here we are, spending a Saturday celebrating this great man who was an incredibly positive presence and such a great mentor, yet it just so happens that all of the works cited throughout the conference have him collaborating with and mentoring exactly zero women. While I am likely to let these thoughts stew in my mind as experimental plots with too many colors or theorists’ slides with too many equations are flashed at me in rapid succession, I understand that saying anything out loud to anyone other than maybe a select female colleague would be obnoxious and counterproductive. There are many ways to rationalize the lack of collaboration with women in the 60s or 70s – mainly there just weren’t many. The situation gets tricky, however, when more recent works by these iconic researchers are discussed.
Beyond just scientific collaboration, as they grow older and more established, maybe even transitioning to emeritus status, such physicists often get involved in outreach and science popularization efforts. It is always striking to notice those outreach efforts being presented without any mention of concerns relating to diversity and inclusion. This is not to say that famous physicists don’t care about reaching diverse people nor that they do not reach them. However, if they are aware of how important identity of a non-physicist can be to whether they get reached by physics, that part of the story is rarely an explicit part of celebrating them. The outreach efforts are presented as universally good, fairly simple and fundamentally apolitical. The conversation is almost always about best ways to illustrate a cool concept in a talk or design a toy experiment that can be taken to a middle school but almost never about how someone’s background and culture will influence the way they define cool, their willingness to engage with an outreach effort or their being there at all. Whenever someone is celebrated as a great communicator of science, I wonder whether that meant they were as great in low-income public schools or with young women as they might be with the kind of crowd that comes to a science festival or a special lecture series within the university. I hesitate to use the phrase ‘identity politics’ to describe what is missing but so, apparently, do researchers and outreach organizers more established and more wise than me.
In considering the presentation of science outreach as apolitical and removed from potentially controversial issues that arise when one considers class, race, gender, ability and so on of those who may be reached out to, the question of what the purpose of these efforts is becomes salient. If the point of science outreach is to bring science close to more people, to demystify it and make it seem exciting and worthwhile, then it is inescapable that at some point one will have to acknowledge that ‘more people’ may mean ‘groups that have not engaged with science before’. This observation can hardly be kept apolitical. Throughout so much of its history science has been a playground for people with privilege. Consequently, large swaths of the population did not get to enjoy the thrill of grasping big paradigm shifts or ponder mysteries and open questions that drive contemporary scientific work (and there are still so many things that are not at all understood). They did not get to experience the intellectual stimulus nor the pure cool of science. Science outreach can begin to remedy this, but it has to meet them where they are first.
Moreover, outreach efforts such as public lectures, laboratory open houses, popular science festivals or science inspired art pieces don’t just bring science closer to the public – they bring scientists closer to everyone else as well. As most graduate students will attest, it is often difficult for someone who is not an academic scientist to fully visualize and conceptualize what it is that we actually do (even if they are your grandma and she’s really trying). Because contact with academics and scientist is not commonplace for many people, the idea of a scientist that they formulate in their minds ends up being based on either popular culture or stereotypes. Sadly, outdated stereotypes also inform the depiction of scientists in movies, books and comics that one may turn to for an imaginative representation of someone that has dedicated themselves to discoveries in a lab, on paper or a computer screen. A real-life scientist talking about their real-life work in close proximity can be an extremely powerful, myth-making and a myth-dispelling figure. For younger audiences they can serve as a foundation for what a scientist looks like, what they act like and what they do. That foundation can help them not soak up all the flawed representation of science they will later be surrounded with, posing as truth. When the figure of a scientists is brought closer, demystified and humanized it is also more likely to become aspirational. More plainly, if you meet a really cool scientists as a kid, you might start wanting to become one too. Consequently, by designing outreach efforts that don’t take into account nuances of the identities of their audience and possibly leaving some people out because of that, one can inadvertently send a message to those people that scientists are as weird and odd and mysterious as they see on TV and deprive them of the possibility of seeing some inkling of themselves, or their future selves, in scientists as well.
Participating in science outreach activities that do not engage with issues of diversity, inclusion and identity then does not necessarily do much to change the status quo. Connecting with the public that is in reality just connecting with some parts of the public only solidifies the idea that liking science and pursuing it is, more often than not, an indicator of privilege and high status. An attitude of ‘maybe someone will get inspired if they learn this incredible fact’ that disregards the details of who that someone might be is likely to produce the same someone’s that have been dominating science for centuries. Treating outreach as fully apolitical in the sense of not seeing race, gender, class, ability and all other axes along which people differ and relying on the pure power of cool ideas to bring everyone together ironically runs the risk of being akin to gatekeeping with a more benevolent face, a smiling mask, on.
As events and efforts that fall under the broad umbrella of outreach are often a first exposure to ‘real’ science for young people, or at least they are designed and pitched with that idea, the way they are conducted and handle the inter-personal aspects can also serve to establish a baseline for how one might be treated if the outreach works and they decide to engage with science further. In other words, if outreach efforts show awareness and attentiveness to different identities of those being reached, then those with traditionally marginalized identities may feel more comfortable engaging with them and pursuing them further. They might be emboldened by the experience of not having been marginalized that first time around. Conversely, thinking about how diversity and intersectionality come into play when visiting a middle school classroom to show off a gadget is a powerful first step for thinking through the same issue when recruiting undergraduate and graduate students but also teaching staff and faculty members. If the concern and care are present from the very beginning, continuity is much more likely than when these concerns have to be hard-coded into, say, committee efforts to judge a researcher’s work after they have already spent years in the field. It is generally quite difficult to attempt implementing structural changes once everyone, those marginalized and those on the opposite end of the spectrum, are already so used to them.
University administrators often find themselves responding to questions about diversity by talking up outreach and recruitment efforts. However, on a more practical and less idealistic level, those are a small part of the work needed to make science truly inclusive. The rather big part of the issue is making sure that people who join academic or scientific institutions and have diverse backgrounds and voices encounter a culture that will allow them not only stay in their field, and want to do so, but also feel stable and supported enough to be able to produce their best work and be successful. This issue of retention and maintenance ought to be a concern from the moment one considers trying to convince someone science and scientists are cool, even if they are eight or nine years old. And without a doubt, recognizing that not even all children start off on an equal footing in our society, have the same opportunities or the freedom to try out different fun things, is something that comes off as very political when spoken out loud.
In trying to organize various community-building events in my department over the last few years, I very quickly learned that students of all ages can be drawn into participating by some combination of informed scheduling and free food, but certain faculty members will virtually never be available. Some just don’t care enough to make time but there is another category of a perpetual faculty no-show. It includes professors from typically underrepresented groups who get asked to participate in absolutely everything and therefore have to start turning down more and more invitations. For instance, an African American woman faculty member is a rarity in most physics departments in the US which means that if she is successful not only will she be constantly asked to share her story but she will also be asked to give talks wherever the diversity of invited speakers is deemed too low. She will also likely be expected to engage with her own department in some sort of an advocacy role because her lived experience, singular (or singled-out) in that department, automatically makes her an expert. In this position, the professor’s identity affects her way of interacting with both other scientists and any broader community – it puts her under more pressure to devote time to efforts other than her research and while she does so she is perceived as distinctly different from her colleagues. Both her being asked to participate in outreach activities and her participating run the risk of being seen as political. Claiming that outreach efforts should be kept devoid of politics and focused on science alone is something only those whose identities are perceived as the default, and therefore neutral, can do with certainty.
It is not hard to understand why in the current media and political climate, anyone who is invested in staying calm and sane might want to run away from anything even remotely political. Politics has always been something of a dirty word among academics whose work does seemingly allow them to disengage from it, and in the recent years the stakes of disagreeing on political issues have only become higher. While academic institutions have not necessarily changed in terms of culture and behavior standards, they have had to adapt policies meant to foster diversity and curb bias. In this way they have taken a stance that is not fully apolitical but does leave a fair amount of wiggle room. Knowing they will be reprimanded for doing or saying something driven by bias or harmful stereotypes does not necessarily motivate one to be proactively inclusive. Mostly, it just redefines what is polite and appropriate in ways that prevent outright conflict but allow for nontrivial amounts of social inertia. Many faculty members and administrators manage to never cross the line into political incorrectness while simultaneously being disengaged from efforts to make their communities more inclusive. In the rare event of being called out on their lack of such efforts, the reminder of how ugly politics can be and how beautiful unadulterated science is becomes a very elegant excuse. Taking politics out of science is akin to taking people out of science yet asserting that as scientists we don’t have to dirty our hands with anything other than chemicals or code plays so well. It is worth repeating the observation that not having to ask questions is a sign of privilege and so is being able to dodge politics.
Overall, the assumption that ‘hard’ sciences like physics are not influenced by politics is simply incorrect. Part of this influence lies in access to resources. Cutting edge research is often done in facilities funded by the military or other government-run bodies that can not only encourage the scientists to take up particular interests and applications but also prevent some of them from even participating if they are seen as a, for instance, security threat. Similar argument can be made for why some universities are chosen as sites of large research centers or receive funding to build more supercomputers and so on. These decisions are not apolitical in any way and the American Physical Society recognizes this to such an extent that they employ at least one full-time lobbyist.
In addition to issues concerning having access to resources such as money or time on large machines shared among many researchers, there are also concerns about access to relevant information and freedom to disseminate it. While publishing is the backbone of academia and open access journals are becoming more and more popular, details of some projects never get published. Details of others do but are not necessarily shared with everyone around the world. A colleague recently recounted a story about an intern at a beloved national research agency who, due to their citizenship, had to be chaperoned inside most buildings at the research site in question even though their project necessitated them going into those buildings. Not being allowed to attend international conferences due to issues related to foreign policy is a similar concern when it comes to the US and some of the countries it is antagonistic too.
Finally, the influence of politics on science can in extreme times come down exactly to issues of identity being grappled with here. Somewhat famously, after Einstein proposed general relativity and observational astronomers started providing evidence in its favor, he was severely denigrated by other German scientists loyal to the Nazi regime. The likes of Johannes Stark (Nobel laureate in 1919) and Phillip Lenard (Nobel laureate in 1905) wrote books and pamphlets calling his theory not just incorrect but morally repugnant, directly tying ideas about what force means in general relativity to how a proud German might use the force of his body. In some place, political adversaries masquerading as critics even held rallies aimed at not only maligning Einstein as a man and, at that point, a public figure, but the physics content of his work as well. One of Einstein’s contemporaries, Vladimir Fock, embodies the other extreme. He was as a forceful supporter of Leninist philosophy which in turn influenced his work. I was amazed to learn, while recently attending a history of science lecture, that he used some of these politically tinged philosophical arguments to claim there was only one way to define a reasonable coordinate system in general relativity, something physicists without such a strong political lean would instantly pin-point as incorrect.
None of these anecdotes should ultimately be surprising – physics, like any other science, is done by people and people have opinions and, possibly more importantly, beliefs that not only seep into everything they do but inform the way they see the world coming together. That puzzle, the coming together of a worldview, by default has to include their work. For those of us living in the United States, extreme World War II examples may even be an overkill as we could easily discuss the influence of creationism or the anti-vaccination movement on the way some people engage with science, whether they are scientists themselves, consumers of popular science literature or just someone who wants to donate a part of their fortune to the advancement of human knowledge. On some level, no one is immune to politics and the only distinction between those who are more or less political is in how much they have to, or chose to, engage with this fact.
Accepting that science, no matter how ‘hard’ and ‘pure’, can never truly be independent of politics then only further underscores the importance of wrestling with political ideas and concerns when considering how science can be expanded or made more tangible and interesting to those that may not have considered engaging with it before. The power of scientific cool is limited and its needs social awareness and something adjacent to political savvy to give it an extra boost and extra momentum.
Unfortunately, this almost certainly means that more work, and more introspective work, is needed when it comes to planning and organizing outreach. As with so many things related to the intersection of identity and various types of inequality, the key seems to be asking more questions, questioning more assumptions and taking fewer things for granted. Just because something has been conducted in a certain way for a while does not mean that is the one right way to conduct it. In fact, we ought to be skeptical of practices that have not changed despite the world and the ways we talk and think about it clearly changing so often and so rapidly. New times should bring up new questions and, consequently, new and more informed practices.
If a public lecture is held in a university building, will the institutional nature of it be intimidating to some? If outreach is done in a middle school, how does where that school is and who attends it correlate with the quality of science education they are getting? Are these kids that can go home and have time and space to talk about what was shown to them or will it fall on deaf ears? Do they speak another language at home? If you want to be hip and cool and use pop culture references, what kind of people do they involve and who cares for them? The list is likely quite long but that should not discourage us from compiling it and using it as guidance. As scientists, we certainly know that optimizing, maximizing and refining are not easy tasks and people, and structures they inhabit, are that much more complicated than any discoveries we might want to tell them about.
A few weeks ago, as I was erasing blackboards and gathering all the loose leaves of paper filled with messy notes and scribbled scratch work after a long research meeting, a faculty member who had run the meeting told a story of an experience in which they felt they had experienced bias. The other student and me knowingly nodded; the experience in question wasn’t foreign to either of us. We made some comments about how terrible it is that we still talk about these same issues when presumably so much progress has been made already and moved on. The exchange was brief and not all that unusual, or even overly serious, but when we made it a few floors up to where all the graduate students have offices, my colleague conjectured that I must be pretty mad about it. They were correct.
The professor we had just been talking to has done tremendous amounts of outreach in the past few years and received a lot of support and publicity for it. They had started a number of very ambitious outreach projects and gotten quite a few students and faculty involved, even some whose time is known to be largely impossible to claim. Watching these projects grow and evolve, I have been disappointed by how toothless they have been, doing nothing to challenge stereotypes about science or scientists or at least highlight anything that would imply that these stereotypes are not the whole truth. To hear this person complain about there being no social change in our community without questioning whether they were a part of that and whether they were using their platform in ways that could foster that change rubbed me the wrong way to put it mildly. For the billionth time I considered whether it was worth saying something more provocative the next time all this outreach gets mentioned. I have always chosen to try and be an organizer instead of picking fights because I believe that acting on something is the best way to start a larger conversation.
Despite my frustrations, there is probably not much merit to playing the blame game; the norm among those involved in outreach, after all, is to stray away from politics and controversy and just produce something cool or beautiful. Forcing all the concerns and questions onto one person cannot possibly achieve much when ideally everyone would be in on that same evaluation and re-evaluation conversation. At the same time, the important thing about realizing that sometimes people just act in accordance with norms is that norms can be questioned and changed. I really hope we can work on them enough that when someone so eager to put some science out there as this professor is reaches a round-numbered birthday we can, at some banquet or celebratory presentation, say they are a great researcher, a great science communicator and a champion for diversity without that last part sounding like unnecessary politicizing.
*In physics, scattering or collisions between low-energy (slow) particles is often characterized by specifying a scattering length. To calculate the scattering length, one essentially assumes that whatever collision or interaction process is happening is similar to a particle bouncing off of a hard sphere enveloping another particle. The radius of this imagined hard sphere is the (s-wave) scattering length. More plainly, for low energy particles, the details of why they scatter or how they do so are ignored, and the scattering length roughly conveys how close together they can get before being repulsed. Though this approach to studying slow particle scattering problems is approximate, it agrees well with experiments at low temperatures. In ultracold atomic systems, the scattering length can often be directly manipulated in experiments thus giving researchers a high level of control of the interactions within the system.
P. S. Many thanks to S. Goswami for discussion that informed this letter and reading an early draft. I also learned about Stark, Lennard and Fock from an excellent talk by D. Kaiser.
ABOUT ME LATELY
This section is very long this time around, so here is a summary of all the media I mention below: Roma, The Other Side of the Wind, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Umbrella Academy, Electric Church, Maximum Overdrive, No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Leguin, Concrete Desert by Earth vs the Bug, Welcome the Worms by Bleached, Splendor & Misery by clipping., Historian by Lucy Dacus, Radiolab, Presidential and Hi Phi Nation.
LEARNING: Since my last letter, I have managed to slowly narrow my attention from three projects to something closer to one and a half. Consequently, I spent a lot of time thinking about spherical symmetry, ultracold atoms and vortices as these are main ingredients of a problem I have been occupied by for a while now. Aside from a few mildly unpleasant miscommunications with collaborators, I have lately had a chance to sit down and work at an almost reasonable pace and get closer to something one might file under ‘progress’. It has felt good to get back into that groove after March was all about traveling and then being home sick with a fever. A meeting with a visiting scholar turned me onto some literature I have not been aware of and catching up with a local faculty member in the hallway cleared up some mathematical jargon I have been struggling with as well. I was also asked to give an informal talk for a graduate student run journal club on a topic related to my research. This forced me to systematize some of the material I have learned this past year and practice talking about it to someone who doesn’t live in my head or reads my research notebooks. The talk was quite successful (and organizers provided vegan cookies!) and gave me a little more confidence with regards to this seemingly never-ending vortex-centric project. However, there is certainly a lot more left to be done and this will hopefully be what I do this summer, before fully confronting the fact that the fall will have to be job-search season if I really am on track to graduate at this time next year. A close colleague and collaborator of mine just put finishing touches on their thesis, under the guidance of our common advisor, and is getting ready to move abroad to work at a research institute in Europe. I would lie if I didn’t admit that that cast a light shadow of urgency over all of my unfinished work.
In addition to my research work, I have been quite busy in my role as a Mentor Teaching Assistant and with various organizing efforts. Despite having no formal teaching training, Mentor TAs in my department are asked to observe and evaluate everyone else teaching the course they are assigned to, and I just managed to make my way down that list in the last few days. I am interested in being a good teacher and don’t want to deny the usefulness of this variety of peer review, but I did wish for more structure throughout the process. My brief remarks on someone’s approach to teaching introductory thermodynamics to a bunch of disinterested engineers at 8 am on a Wednesday, cannot possibly be the best way to improve our teaching. Naturally, after all these evaluations I started catching myself making some of the same mistakes in discussion sections I teach. I guess we can all do better overall.
A few weeks ago, I also organized a workshop on Impostor Syndrome open to all graduate students in the college of engineering and I have my fingers in four different end-of-the-year events that are coming up in the last week of April and the first week of May. In other words, in between research work and teaching I have been doing lots of things like sending emails, designing and putting up flyers and calling empanada shops on the phone (as one does when trying to organize anything within an academic department). The Impostor Syndrome workshop was an interesting instance of this, however, because I have never organized an event with so many people in mind and also because this is a topic that really resonates with me. A few days ago, I learned that I was awarded a fellowship for an outstanding European graduate student in my department and my first thought, instead of being celebratory, was ‘oh, but I don’t deserve that’. This is classic impostorism and I am aware of it. However, since it seems to be quite a resilient instinct, learning about it from an expert, as I did in the workshop, and hearing peers from very different departments talk about their own experiences was helpful. An acquaintance that also attended seemed to be quite engaged as well, which made me feel less bad about the catering company not giving us any plates, and simultaneously reassured me that maybe we can all learn something new about ourselves from a Power Point presentation and honest conversation.
Finally, I ran and successfully completed my first half marathon just before sending this letter. I hope to write some more about long distance running, something I’ve had a relationship with for a better part of the past fifteen years, in the future, but I wanted to include a few sentences about it in this section because, as with yoga, I feel like any sort of physical training always teaches me so much. I knew that running is about perseverance and inner-motivation before I started working on conquering 13.1 miles but planning my Saturdays around long runs definitely underscored that lesson for me again. Another old lesson that bubbled up was realizing just how much my body can do and that even when I feel the lowest, the weakest, the least useful, I will always have my legs and the rest of the machine that carries me around with more strength than I give it credit for. Maybe most importantly, it just felt good to run the race and I was not surprised to see that I had beaten the time I had tentatively set as a goal for myself (I ended up finishing at 2:04:11) because I realized around mile five that I was actively having fun. I treated myself to a sweet potato cinnamon roll from a local vegan restaurant afterwards just to make sure I don’t forget to learn to be good to myself as well.
(Me, in yellow with bib number 4428, a few steps away from the finish line)
WATCHING: I finished my last letter right before Spring Break that was, unfortunately, coupled with a bad bout of strep throat and bed rest, so I managed to actually watch a fair amount of movies and television since then. In classic fashion, while my boyfriend was visiting we watched an assortment of Netflix fare that was about half trying to be capital-A-Art (Roma, The Other Side of the Wind) and part flashy 2019-style TV shows based on intellectual property someone decided was cool (Umbrella Academy, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina). The local art theater served as well too so the first day that I felt healthy enough to leave the apartment we saw this documentary about Jimi Hendrix performing at the Atlanta Pop festival in the 1970s. And then, a few weeks later, I learned that the same theater was hosting a late-night series focusing on killer cars and saw Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive which was really something else, even on this list.
While Roma was undoubtedly beautiful and betrayed immense amounts of dedication and caring on the side of the filmmaker, Alfonso Cuaron, it left me somewhat cold. In thinking about why this gorgeous film didn’t work for me, something I kept coming back to was its bloodlessness and an overall almost surgical, precise yet sterile feeling. Roma feels like a piece of art that was made to be a piece of art, more of a diorama one can walk around and peek into than a real attempt at telling a couple of, ironically, really messy stories about really messy people. Cuaron’s main character, and one he has mostly gotten praise for because of her demographic (working class, indigenous, woman), is mostly quiet, mostly observant. She does suffer but that suffering is only allowed to bubble up to the surface in a single scene. Her employer, a woman from a more elite stratum of society, is more explicitly chaotic and breaks down a little more realistically. This may be commentary on privileges one acquires through wealth but at many points still comes off as somewhat two-dimensional.
Maybe Cuaron’s point is that there is no point. Maybe in capturing a moment of life in 1970s Mexico City he is not trying to convey a punchline but rather just let us observe how different people’s stories intersect while realizing that the world does not always care – they get entangled, knotted, full of friction and the Earth just keeps spinning. There is something compelling about that reading of Roma, but I wanted more from it. I wanted the heroine to talk more, act more and have a real character arc. I definitely did not want her upper class counterpart to get away with claiming that their troubles as women (one a poor pregnant maid with no family to help and working as far into her pregnancy as she can, one with three children and a cheating husband who left her but a giant house, house staff and a mother that seems to be able to support her) are in some way equivalent.
I do, however, have to admit that Roma is a fascinating film just by the virtue of having been made in this particular era. Since the 2016 election, there has been so much discussion of the forgotten or overlooked working class and a mythical figure of an abandoned voter from that demographic quickly emerged. Cuaron’s showing of the life of a working-class person, so quiet and ever-present in her role as a live-in maid that she could get literally forgotten about from time to time, is radically different, and conjures up much less resentment and danger. This movie did not shake me or ignite me as much as I think it could have, but I appreciate that it was made in this moment.
After watching Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, the whole two and a half hours of it, my boyfriend and I had to admit to each other that most of the film probably went over our heads and agreed to watch the accompanying documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, the next night to try and make more sense of it. Despite all of this taking place more than a few weeks ago, I am still unsure how to judge the film or whether I am even remotely qualified to say anything other than ‘that was very rich’. I am rarely stumped by media and have been known to shamelessly debate films I haven’t seen and books I haven’t read based on bits and pieces of criticism I’ve soaked up instead, but the aggressively maximalist nature of this forty-years-in-the-making piece seems to have done the trick.
It is not so much that the story is unclear – even without recognizing many of the faces famous at the time when filming began it is somewhat obvious that Welles is satirizing the movie industry and the need of some filmmakers to be avant-garde auteurs with their noses turned up oh-so-high – as much as it feels like the packaging of that story is so densely packed with references and artistic ticks that grasping the plot is merely a prerequisite for appreciating what he has done here. The documentary speaks to this while tracing the long and tortured path that landed the film at the feet of Netflix in 2018, long after Welles was not around to fight whatever fights would have kept the production going. Welles wanted a mockumentary format though such films may have not existed yet, and he wanted it to be dense, jam-packed with actors he recruited from all over, some to play versions of themselves or other people they had met in Hollywood.
And then there’s the movie within the movie which if meant as satire of art films is truly remarkably successful in that. Briefly forgetting that Oja Kodar is made up to look Native American within it (something that would hopefully never fly today), all of her scenes in this movie that other characters keep trying to make sense of in-between something adjacent to disturbed partying might as well be from a late night cult movie, or maybe a particularly rowdy 80s MTV music video. She is quite magnetic even in her silence. The rest of the cast delivers as well and even through the dense and chaotic feel of the whole thing they come across as just genuine enough for Welles’ at the time novel format to really work. However, I still feel like I would need countless more hours of watching and reading and Wikipedia-deep-dives before being able to definitively claim that this film is good or, even more dangerously, that it is not. Maybe that’s a part of it though, it is an experience in a way art in general often is, with mixed feelings and mild confusion fundamental to eliciting a reaction in the viewer, and that seems like something Welles may have been interested in.
Umbrella Academy and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina have both been a mild disappointment. Both are shows with a great aesthetic, and clearly a very deliberately devised one, and two fairly animated and enthusiastic casts and both tell stories not unfamiliar to the TV show or comic book enthusiast. There are bits of good vs. evil and troubled families coming together and outsiders overcoming their outsider-ness. There’s good music employed at just the right time and there are nods to other pieces of media that the viewer might feel feelings for. But there isn’t much more.
The most compelling and interesting parts of Umbrella Academy end up being secondary characters and the oh-so-many mains are mostly underserved and don’t get to grow or change as the show nears its ending. The one exception is Ellen Page’s character who does go through quite a large shift but even that story arc is mostly predictable and ultimately quite unkind to her. A similar argument can be made about the character of Klaus, fortified by the fact that as the one openly queer person in Umbrella Academy he is shown not only to be tortured and have moral failings but also suffer the most for, or because of. love. Relationships between the accidental siblings that make up the inaugural and only class of the Academy often feel manufactured and shallow, despite some gorgeous visuals accompanying their flashbacks and at least one fantasy dance sequence meant to make us believe in a particular half-baked, tropish love story. In the end, the romance between a time-traveling assassin and a donut lady, and a purple-suited Mary J. Blige on various semi-successful killing sprees were both more fun and more interesting than anything any of the Hargreeves siblings did. I expected more but maybe very-pretty-sorta-fun is the most this genre can produce under Netflix’s mandate of hype and glossiness.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a warmer show than Umbrella Academy and one where I could possibly see main characters becoming something other than slightly stilted. However, this potential alone was not enough to keep me hooked for a whole season’s worth of episodes. While I might return to this show the next time my grading workload becomes heavy, and I can understand how one might take some comfort in its simple worldbuilding and genuinely good execution of TV magic rules (kind of a necessity in a show about witches), as I was watching it I could not shake the feeling that it was more of an exercise in satisfying the form than work more emotion and passion went into. Most early episodes read like a meditation on something out of a best-TV-tropes listicle. They are fun but not memorable. Kiernan Shipka does excel in the titular role and most other cast members are engaging, though they often walk the edge of over-acting. Sabrina’s friends are caricatures as are her enemies, but they get away with not having much depth through exuberance and actors’ commitment to their parts. I liked Chilling Adventure of Sabrina more than Umbrella Academy but eventually watching it made me feel a similar kind of fatigued disinterest, especially in moments where it seemed like emotional charge was being manufactured but not landing due to how little three-dimensionality there had been to characters beforehand. I hope the episodes I have not watched (yet) offer something more fresh.
The Jimi Hendrix documentary we saw, titled Electric Church, is poorly made as a documentary but paints a compelling picture of organizing behind the 1970 Atlanta Pop festival regardless. More importantly, the film also features a performance by Hendrix that is so magnetic and so exciting that it is really easy to just forget everything that happens before that. The interviews with folks who were either working on the festival or got caught up in it just by living in the region are really interesting and, paired with footage of the festival itself, present another snippet of the hippie era we can enjoy romanticizing at this point in time. The overall structure in which they are embedded is, however, lacking and amateur-ish. The documentary starts out of nowhere and similarly transitions from a narrative to Hendrix’s full performance very abruptly. Some of the musicians interviewed seem disconnected from the event and one can cynically speculate that their very short, very generic comments about the legendary guitarist were included simply because they themselves have name recognition. It seems odd that the filmmakers could afford a few sentences from a member of the likes of Metallica but could not fine tune the production enough to not have the whole thing feel like a bunch of friends cut it the night before a nostalgia-heavy family party. As I mentioned above though, none of this matters at all once Hendrix starts playing and one can’t help being anything other than transfixed and mesmerized. He plays with such ease, as if it were the most natural and intuitive thing, and within the first few minutes it becomes viscerally obvious why anyone would be willing to deal with crowds, failing infrastructure at every step and the Georgia heat just to experience this. This film had a pretty limited theatrical run and I was genuinely grateful that it included my small town.
I’m not sure what exactly it is that I expected going into Maximum Overdrive on a different night at this same theater, but what I saw was definitely a surprise. My past exposure to Stephen King has been quite limited (with something of an uptick since I have been a Supercontext patron) so maybe I was wrong to think that a film featured in a killer car series would be serious horror of any sort or leave me with a true sense of dread. Were it made today, the film would read as a perfectly loving parody of cheap 80s horror and adventure movies. It is full of imagery that distills the era and stock characters (corrupt small town gas station owner with a thick accent, not so bright manual laborers and sleazy diner patrons, a proto-manic-pixie-dream-girl hitchhiking her way across the country with a straight razor in her boot, a heroic ex-con just trying to live right and hold a demoralizing job…) that one would expect from a B-level production at that time. The dialogue is similarly a collage of phrases and conversations people only ever have in movies. The plot seems to be there only to loosely stitch together a bunch of scenes a teenager would find cool because they involve monster trucks, gore and a tiny bit of titillation here and there. And the whole thing is, amazingly, scored by none other than AC/DC. Being the square that I am I did not realize I had chosen to see this film on April 20th but the possibly appropriately under the influence and quick-to-laugh-uproariously crowd only made it harder to take the film as anything other than a cheesy joke that does bring about some sort of sticky, diesel-fueled joy. It reminded me of the 80s remake of the Blob, another 80s movie full of memorable scenes and quotable lines yet, still, a very bad piece of filmmaking. I have no idea whether King intended Maximum Overdrive to be such a tour de force in pure camp but quite certainly he reached some sort of a dark pinnacle of the genre with it.
READING: This past weekend I finished reading a book of Ursula K. Le Guin’s essays called No Time to Spare. I picked this book up at Powell’s Books on a trip to Portland back in February and have been trying to read bits of it over lunch every day for the past few months. Le Guin lived in Portland and the person who recommended I spend some time in Powell’s is someone I know to be a fan of hers, so it seemed almost necessary that I get to know her via this collection. The essays collected in No Time to Spare were not written as essays per se but rather blog posts on Le Guin’s website. This means that they are short, to the point, and not always dealing with explicitly grand topics. At the beginning, she admits to being somewhat skeptical of the medium but through choices of her own, or those of the editors of this book, by the last page it seems like she has very much mastered it.
The topics Le Guin covers are remarkably varied; about a third of the book is about her cat Pard and his (mis)behaviors, but she also discusses the notion of The Great American Novel, the clash of belief, science and religion, a perfect Viennese breakfast, the role of fantasy in writing and daily life, the potency and terror of anger, and the beauty and meaningfulness of nature. Regardless of which of these, or many more, topics she lands on, her writing is absolutely stunning. In short, clear sentences, using the plainest of language, she delivers her points with force and elegance. Often, she tells the reader exactly what she is trying to do with a particular paragraph in an essay and on few occasions, she admits to not knowing what the point of some anecdote is but includes it anyway. The fact that she utilizes these mechanisms successfully speaks both to her confidence as a writer and how well deserved it is. Her voice is unwavering, uncensored and reads as if it cannot possibly be anything other than authentic (even though Le Guin does have something to say about the first person “I” in literature). Most essays start very simply, and one gets drawn into meditations on some rather complex ideas without necessarily noticing it. Looking back, I could probably chart out which paragraphs are stand-ins for which step in a logically well-constructed argument but as I was reading, they flowed so simply and wonderfully that I barely noticed any structure at all being erected in my mind. I am awed by how much Le Guin manages to do in the course of three pages discussing children writing to their favorite writers or her word nerd-dom vis a vis some grammatically questionable idiom.
More than anything, however, I was struck by not only how quietly forceful yet not violent or outwardly aggressive Le Guin’s writing is, but also by how much certainty and peaceful confidence there is in her voice. She does not have all the answers, she gets scared and angry, she turns her gaze towards herself without much flattery, yet she sounds exactly like someone who figured out how to actually deal with themselves. Le Guin doesn’t pull punches but also does not punch down. She doesn’t embellish but she also doesn’t undersell or feign modesty. Even at times when her views somewhat irked me, I felt hungry for her advice and ready to call her an inspiration. Maybe even an aspiration.
Here’s a paragraph from the very first essay in the book in which she recounts filling out an alumnae survey for her alma matter, that captures this quality of her voice much better than I can
“Question 14: ‘Are you living your secret desires?’ Floored again. I finally didn’t check Yes, Somewhat, or No, but wrote in ‘I have none, my desires are flagrant’.”
LISTENING: In the past few weeks I got really excited (and a little obsessed) by three very different albums. The first is a collaboration between the mostly-instrumental drone metal band Earth and a British electronic music producer the Bug. This is as much an Earth album – slow, repetitive, almost mechanical in how it walks the line between intensity and dullness – as any other yet it includes a layer of sound that reminded me of a more muted Perturbator or some moments on Cult of Luna’s Vertikal. Both of these are bands I would have not connected with what always seemed like a more organic bleakness Earth peddles. Instead of bees, skulls, honey and demons, this record conveys more industrial and more hopelessly desolate images. This makes it feel new and compelling. Titled Concrete Desert, with track names that clearly tell a story, it brings about images of a world after a disaster, a particularly slow zooming in onto a detail of destruction and abandonment here and there and the lingering feeling of unease that comes from recognizing that crumbling structures outlive most things. It’s exactly the kind of grating-yet-soothing, or maybe vice versa, drone metal that I am weak for.
The second album that caught my attention is Welcome the Worms by the LA band Bleached. Every year as the weather gets nicer, I grapple with the fact that most of my music choices and almost all the themed playlist I have put together (while procrastinating on work these playlist were going to fuel) don’t seem to have much sunshine to them. Welcome the Worms is a genuinely fun album that solves this problem. Bleached are a little punk, a little 60s girl group and a little 70s rock. Their songs reference past mistakes, failed romances, Hollywood and drug use often enough that it is not hard to imagine what their one-girl-gang’s-crazy-weekend, coming of age movie would look like. Looking up some of the videos for singles from this album, they live up to it, the lead singer featuring a very few-years-ago shade of pink hair. Regardless, they are compelling, and this album doesn’t seem to be taking itself too seriously or vying for some sort of underground or punk cred. The open track will get you out of bed on a sunny morning for sure.
Finally, some mostly unidentified sequence of clicks on Spotify took me from looking for drony, desolate albums to clipping.’s Splendor & Misery. This is a concept album that starts with an escape from a spaceship transporting human ‘cargo’ and it is remarkably engaging as a piece of fiction that follows one of the escapees. Every time I have listened to it, I have been surprised by how quickly it ends because this story is really engrossing and the production of it is immaculate. Splendor & Misery is mostly a hip-hop album featuring a few different deliveries of rapped lyrics and some actually singing here and there, where the story requires it. This record has been recommended to me before by a student in a physics/art class I worked on, and it was featured in an episode of This American Life centered on afrofuturism (Splendor & Misery was nominated for a Hugo Award) but I somehow never got around checking it out. All of those recommendations were very much on point and I’m glad I gave it a chance now.
(Also, I have to admit that I got Lucy Dacus’ Historian on vinyl and am still spinning it disgustingly often.)
On the podcast side of things, this episode of WNYC’s Radiolab dealing with questions such as all of Earth being made out of blueberries and picking up real life Neanderthals in Brooklyn bars was so delightful to listen to that I made my mom listen to it as well. Sometimes I forget how great this show actually is and how skilled its producers are at taking both the most mundane and the most out-there ideas and turning them into meaningful narratives.
I also got unexpectedly hooked on Washington Post’s Presidential podcast. This show devotes one episode to each American president and his path towards and time in office. Since I moved to the United States halfway through my high school education, I have taken a year’s worth of US History classes but very quickly forgot everything about them except for my outrage at the textbook being a two-volume type of affair. Lillian Cunningham’s narration and interviews with scholars, archivists and other journalists have had much more of a grasp on me than whatever was in those books, and I have found myself binging on two or three presidents in a row. There is not much artistry to the production of this podcast, but Cunningham’s interesting choice of themes and highlights for each president makes up for it. Similarly, her skill as an interviewer overshadows the occasionally awkward or predictable narration. I’ve only just made it past the halfway point, but I can’t imagine anything will get less interesting as I move forward in time.
Finally, this episode of Hi Phi Nation, now a Slate podcast, examines the idea of democracy and voting in both very general and broad but also very specific and narrow ways and ultimately powerfully underscores that old adage about how democracy is just the best worst system out there. Philosopher Barry Lam talks to teenagers attending democratic schools where students get to vote on everything from which classes they take to who is allowed to graduate and he invites a number of other philosophers to present their ideas on a more fair or more effective system then exactly that. Some proposals involve making everyone vote under the threat of fines, some involve compiling extensive databases and relying on statistics more than people. They all sounds simultaneously great and terrible, even when presented by very smart and very passionate academics. The subject matter of this episode is one of those that are just hard to think about to begin with but Lam is, as he is throughout this podcast, good at breaking down some of the more abstract ideas and turning possible confusion into food for thought.
EATING: The more time passes between these letters, the harder it becomes to remember all of the great things I have eaten. In this case, part of the blame lies on spring break – breaks are always an excuse for me to pull out cookbooks and cook convoluted recipes every night instead of batch-cooking components once or twice a week and then falling into a reheat-and-remix routine. The other factor this time around is that the past month has been the peak of my half-marathon training. The amount of miles I have been covering each week ramped up significantly every week leading up to the race and so has my appetite which means that I have been eating very often, reaching for more and more toast and pasta instead of more sophisticated dishes.
On the break side of things, I made vegan soda bread for St.Patrick’s day, a mildly fancy vegetable braise served over creamy polenta (a suggestion from an Instagram follower and a good excuse to break out a very large and heavy cast iron pot that is one of my few 'adult cookware' investments) and a big batch of unbelievably good vegan gumbo from the Mississippi Vegan cookbook (one of my Christmas gifts). After that, the work routine took over and I have been eating lots of fairly basic grain bowls, baking my standard sourdough bread most weekends, and reaching for noodles drenched in some variety of peanut butter stir fry sauce whenever I run out of ideas.
The recipe I am sharing here is one suited for the reheat-and-remix lifestyle and works the best when used as a meal component. It is a very basic, blank slate, oil-free baked tofu that requires little active time and only two or three ingredients. You can eat this tofu straight out of the oven, but chances are it won’t taste like much as it is intended to be added into other meals for a boost of healthy plant protein and some chewy texture. I list some ways in which I eat it below, with ideas for three or four different meals that can be built around it. However, if you want something that will be amazing the second it is done baking and blow your possibly tofu-skeptical mind, a recipe employing a marinade, or some breading or similar coating may be more appropriate. These two recipes are a good place to start if you want to avoid the blank-slate-ness: the spicy tofu from these enchilada bowls from the Full of Plants blog and the almond butter tofu from these Thai noodle bowls from Minimalist Baker.
For about 4 servings you will need
1 block extra firm tofu
3-4 tablespoons cornstarch
Salt to taste or a few teaspoons of soy sauce
Press the tofu: remove the tofu from the package, drain well, then wrap in a kitchen towel and position underneath something heavy. Usually, I put it on a large plate with slightly raised edges then put a small cutting board on top of the tofu and pile some heavy books on top of the cutting board for extra weight. Let it sit in this condition for at least an hour. (More is fine but in that case move the whole setup into your fridge). Before moving on to the next step, you should be able to see some water collect at the bottom of the plate and the kitchen towel should be soaked through*
Cut the tofu in even pieces. In the pictures I am including here I cut it into fairly small cubes (sixty-four total) but any shape will work. Cutting the block into eight pieces and the cutting each piece into two triangles is a great option as well.
At this point you can drizzle some soy sauce over the cut-up tofu if you’d like it to have a bit of flavor by itself. Simply pour both into an appropriately sized bowl and give it some gentle shakes (stirring with a spoon may break or crumble some of the tofu).
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 400F. (If you do not have parchment paper, grease the pan lightly. Avoid using foil instead of parchment paper and under no circumstances put wax paper into the oven.)
Put about half of the cornstarch on a small plate of a shallow dish and begin coating the tofu. This is the only labor-intensive part of the process so do try and get each side fairly well covered. The fully coated pieces should have a slightly matte look to them and not all cornstarch should have completely dissolved in the moisture of the tofu. If some sides of each piece look a little chalky, that is probably sufficient.
Arrange on the baking sheet so that the pieces don’t touch, sprinkle with some salt, and let bake for about 12 minutes. After 12 minutes flip the pieces (or shake the pan until they seem mostly flipped) then bake for 10 to 12 minutes more. By the time the tofu is done the edges of the pieces should look slightly crispy and the pieces should be golden in color overall. If you press on a piece, it should feel a little springy with a thin, more rigid ‘skin’ or thin crust.
Toss with your favorite sauce or glaze, add to curries, stews or stir-fries or let cool completely and store in the fridge for future meals. (More ideas below)
*Some brands sell tofu that has already been pressed and comes in vacuum sealed packaging rather than water. This variety of tofu tends to be slightly more expensive and is not necessarily always available in general grocery stores, but if you get your hands on one feel free to skip step 1 all together.
Tips: the easiest way to serve this tofu is to simply add it into stews and sauces you have previously made or bought. You could buy some Indian-inspired simmering sauces and use a few tablespoons to coat the tofu, make a palak or a saag gravy from aromatics, greens and coconut milk, make this incredibly fast mole, or just toss it into your favorite tomato sauce alongside few extra pinches of (dried or fresh) oregano and basil. Similarly, any store-bought stir fry sauce, teriyaki sauce, ponzu sauce or plum sauce will work as well.
If you’d like to make your own stir fry sauce, my go-to mix for one serving is something along the lines of 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1/2 tablespoon rice or white vinegar or juice of 1/4 of a lime, 1 teaspoon maple syrup (or brown sugar or honey), 1 teaspoon sesame oil (can be omitted) and 1/2 teaspoon sambal oelek (or sriracha or other chili paste). To make this sauce richer, you can add a few teaspoons of peanut butter, almond butter or tahini. Mix well (or just put into a small jar and shake vigorously) then pour into a small pan alongside the tofu and cook until the tofu is glazed, and the sauce mostly gone. For a thicker sauce and stickier tofu, dissolve about a teaspoon of cornstarch in a tablespoon of warm water then add that slurry to the pan as well. I find that this works well on top of fried rice or noodles with all the classic vegetables: carrots, broccoli, onions and peppers. If you’re making an actual stir-fry just add the tofu towards the end, after the vegetables are mostly cooked and you’re ready to pour in the sauce.
(Stir fried millet, carrots and red cabbage + blank slate tofu glazed with store-bought plum sauce, topped with scallions and fresh lime juice)
Similarly, you could mix a tablespoon or two of full fat coconut milk or coconut cream with a few teaspoons of curry powder or curry paste. If you are opposed to buying curry powder mixes or just don’t have any lying around, some mix of turmeric, cumin, coriander, ground ginger, paprika, cayenne and salt will do (use more of the first two and less of the rest, adding a very small amount of cinnamon if you’d like). Pair this with rice and peas and some roasted cauliflower.
Another quick option is to warm the tofu up, in the same way, with some barbecue sauce. Eat this with a baked potato, steamed broccoli and some (cashew) sour cream.
(Blank slate tofu glazed with store-bought BBQ sauce with a side of oven baked fries and steamed kale + lemon tahini drizzle)
Instead of warming the tofu up with a sauce, you could just add some dressing on top of it at whichever temperature you’d like. The stir fry sauce from above with added peanut butter is a good choice for East Asian inspired dishes. Pile the tofu on top of cold soba noodles and baby spinach or finely shredded cabbage, add the sauce, mix well then top with crushed peanuts, scallions and extra lime wedges. (Tell everyone you’re eating a soba noodles salad.)
For a more Mediterranean feel, for a single serving, mix 1 tablespoon of tahini with juice of 1/4
Lemon, a pinch of salt (and garlic powder if you’d like) and 1 tablespoon cold water. Serve with rice or couscous, chopped cucumber and parsley and some halved cherry tomatoes.
For a more complex savory twist, add about a teaspoon or more of mustard and about 1/2 teaspoon of maple syrup to the lemon-tahini mixture. Eat the tofu with some roasted butternut squash or sweet or yellow potatoes and steamed kale, all dressed with this mustard maple tahini dressing.
Finally, cut the tofu into thin slabs instead of cubes or triangles and add it to wraps and sandwiches. The options here are really endless as you could sandwich it between two slices of sourdough slathered with pesto together with some avocado and tomato slices for something rich and Caprese-adjacent, make a spread by blending roasted red peppers with a bit of vinegar and a handful of almonds then use that in a sandwich together with the tofu and some arugula or massaged kale, or make wraps with hummus, tofu, cucumbers and chopped olives or an olive tapenade.
Let me know if you come up with some other idea!
If you’ve made it all the way down here, then there’s a chance that you care for me and my messed-up sleep schedule enough to consider buying me a cup of coffee. I take it as black as possible, thank you.