22: samantha culp, bombay's aunty bars, reptile obits, sad desk lunches, 1970s conversation pits

I wasn’t expecting to love Riyadh quite as much as I did. An artist asked me why I am interested in Saudi and I think it’s something I’m still trying to parse—to say nothing of the vulturous parachuting in of press trips. Since moving back, I’ve been watching the way that opportunities are disseminated here and wonder how different it would have been if I’d played that whole game. Still, returning to the region feels like a course correction of sorts and I feel like I am where I am supposed to be.

This week’s diary comes from writer, producer and creative strategist Samantha Culp, and the images are from Ueber den Pollen.


spiky bois

America’s Covid swap supply depends on two cousins who hate each other. Translating a pandemic. Vaccine nationalism is putting world health at risk. The broken frontline. COVID kitchen. The hidden costs of being a scholar from the global south. Beyond gay imperialism. On power. Sitala: the smallpox goddess of India. Lab leak: a scientific debate mired in politics—and unresolved. Why Lebanon can’t kick its addiction to indentured labor. The unforseen threat. A boy, his brain, and a decades-long medical controversy. Pandemic doom shopping is clogging up shipping ports. That means a lot of food destined for export is getting stuck. The pandemic’s wrongest man. Doctor Fentanyl. Meet the activists arming trans people with stun guns and pepper spray. How mRNA technology could change the world. Aside from atrocities, everyday Dalit life deserves to be told. Uncovering the secrets of the bovine trials. Revisiting the dead. Castes of mind. A day in the life of Abed Salama. The fatal shore.

snackchat and glouglou

Stop putting konjac in a corner. Revenge eating in Taipei. The caste stories behind Kerala’s traditional cookware. A return to Somalia, a taste of home. Sweet imprints. Vegan cheese is ready to compete with dairy. Is the world ready to eat it? The patisserie built on a friendship that bridges Istanbul’s divides. This Passover recipe tells the story of a family tree. The culinary camel. When did following recipes become a personal failure? Bison bars. How America warmed up to cold grocery store sushi. Why citizen scientists are working to cultivate new apple varieties. Panch phoran is greater than the sum of its parts. Have sad desk lunches gotten sadder? The white olives of Malta. Parul’s magic: an introduction to Gujarati home cooking. A truffle abundance at the end of the world.

living well

The failure of the Great Indian Roti Maker. The westward journeys of buttons. Adidas, a love story: how Russians fell for the iconic three stripes. Bay are ceramicists are bringing new meaning to how food is being served. How Cold War fears helped create Helsinki’s subterranean paradise. The complex, ‘constructed’ history around Chandigarh chairs. The golden age of free stuff is upon us. Preachers and their $5000 sneakers: Why one man started an Instagram showing church’s wealth. How kitchens became trophy kitchens with the help of MTV Cribs. Emperor Hadrian’s palatial breakfast chamber. Anne Lowe’s barrier-breaking midcentury couture. The ghosts of Brooks Brothers. Why Twitter is so obsessed with these 1970s conversation pits. Your most-played song of 2020 is… white noise? An incomplete history of the feminist t-shirt. The resilience of Beirut’s central hall homes. The Bag Dress and how I lost my mind.

watermark

The secret era of Bombay’s aunty bars. The long struggle over the Suez. Mental health and the modern fisherman. Tamil Nadu’s enduring links with Burma. How Chinese-Indians paid the price for 1962 war. The Arabic verb “to behave like Hitler.” More than a Hezbollah stronghold: the complicated past and present of Haret Hreik. Portraits from Iran under sanctions. It runs downhill. Can Islamic shrines’ connection to Armenians transform Azerbaijani politics of erasure? Inheriting a city: my grandfather’s archive. Black Tunisians breaking taboos. The coal plant next door. Pinisi boats sail into the future. Monolithic representations and orientalist credence in the UAE. The joys of Akitu, the Assyrian new year. The 1971 war, caste, citizenship, and a war memorial in Tharparkar. A tour of unloved fishes. A man of the people.

☞\( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)☞ yeehaw

Why animals don’t get lost. Bodega lizard. Don’t pick up! The rise and fall of a massive industry based on missed calls. 22 mummies are moved in a glittering display in Cairo. The sad world of reptile obits. Islands in the stream. The father, the son, and the racist spirit: being raised by white supremacists. Aleph Null. The great Amazon flip-a-thon. A brief history of the hun, the most relatable woman in Britain. Inside Israel’s lucrative—and secretive—cybersurveillance industry. The beauty of 78.5 million followers. Skateboarding in Shambala. If aliens exist, here’s how we’ll find them. The king of the geezer teasers. The TikTok trend that has immigration lawyers worried. Resurrection like green apple plastic. My month of doing 100 wheelies a day. Why modern medicine keeps overlooking menopause. The sexual translator. The squandered promise of White Boy Summer. The tamagotchi cemetery. The ditch. The lives of others.

culture diary: samantha culp

friday

After coffee, protein waffles, and a middling morning in front of the computer (honestly, is there any other kind?), I got in my car around 2 pm to head to Glassell Park across town. For all the horrors of automobile culture and the way it has shaped Los Angeles, the pandemic has made me incredibly grateful for this stupid sprawling city, and for the ability to drive and use a private car, especially when it’s become so sporadic it’s more like a novelty than a required infrastructure of everyday life. In the car, I listen to the new record Smiling with No Teeth by Ghanaian-Australian musician Genesis Owusu whose “Song About Fishing” blew my mind when I heard it the other day. We all know Spotify sucks (and I try to buy albums when I can on Bandcamp), but the Discover playlist does bring me amazing discoveries old and new.

I drive from West Hollywood to East Hollywood to Los Feliz to Atwater, going backwards somewhat in time to see the earlier, smaller 1920s-40s Los Angeles that once was (but is, like all of it, rapidly changing and gentrifying). I’m almost on auto-pilot, and then around the strange subducted street/roundabout at Fletcher that always confuses me, I am doubly confused to drive through an enormous swarm of bees (?). I drive slowly because it seems like the right thing to do, and see them crawling daintily all over my windshield, and finally lifting off. It takes a while to get out, and then I spot the bright-yellow-painted (former industrial?) complex containing a café where I’m meeting two old friends. I park and see them on the sparsely-occupied patio, and we wave/air-hug with our masks on, then take turns going to order at the little window. I get a coffee and a mini blood-orange olive oil cake, but wish I had followed the lead of my friend and also gotten Romanian food from the Mom-and-Pop restaurant next door that looks amazing. We sit and eat and raise and lower our masks to be extra-safe when not taking bites/sips. It is wild to sit in the sunshine and breeze at the same table with two old friends for over an hour, wild that I ever took it for granted and certainly someday will again. 
 

saturday

The morning routine on weekends is much the same as weekdays: my husband (bless him) takes our dog for her first walk, then one of us makes coffee, then we sit on the sofa for a bit before work and try not to get immediately sucked into social media on our phones. We usually fail. We announce to each other we want to start doing “offline Sundays,” starting tomorrow. We ponder what should the rules be? No Internet at all, or just no social media sites? We say we will figure it out—tomorrow. 

Today is the first meeting of an online screenwriting workshop that a friend highly recommended, and I adjust my desk and computer for the one webcam angle that has better lighting and still decent wifi to sign on for the three-hour block. My brain, neck, and posture has been dreading “Zoom workshop” just because of the “Zoom” part of that phrase, but it largely melts away as I meet the instructor and classmates. They’re all women, also all working on speculative fiction projects, which feels sort of serendipitous and fun—or maybe just indicative of how the film/TV industry is so geared to genre projects right now, as opposed to a given screenwriting workshop in the 90’s that might have all been like neo-noirs, crime dramas, wannabe Coen Brothers films? 

As an ice-breaker, the instructor asks us to share a film/TV show that is a “guilty pleasure”, and I struggle to find one, just because I consume many things I would consider guilty pleasures but they’re not necessarily televisual (the Tori Amos albums that I loved as a tween, for instance, yes, I’m as embarrassed as you are). I finally mention my love for old Huell Howser: California’s Gold which is a LA public TV deep cut (essentially Rick Steves before Rick Steves, but tracing the random backroads of California instead of Europe). Nobody seems to know him. (RIP Huell, they’re all missing out). 

In the evening, my husband and I make sweet potato curry and continue our neo-noir deep dive by watching Twilight, an extremely mediocre late 1990s film that not even Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, and James Garner and some ace John Lautner house filming locations can save. 

sunday

I talk by Whatsapp with one of my older half-brothers who now lives in France. I try to picture him on the horse farm, in the countryside. We catch up about life, vaccines, his various projects, and a family project he has been trying to shepherd (finishing the restoration of a documentary our Dad made in 1968), which I want to help more on if I can. 

I know that the necessary critique of hustle culture has reframed feeling guilt about time management/productivity as like, merely a capitalist delusion, but also sometimes it’s just true. I wish I could clearly allocate more time to certain non-urgent things that I really feel are important, and some of that is just genuinely on me to better organize. 

Then—onto some work, and trying to stay off any social media site / email / phone that is not direct messages or calls w family. Eventually I cave to look at dog pictures on Instagram, but only briefly.

This is a coffee with green tea chaser kind of day, though I know the upped caffeine may affect my sleep. Lunch is leftover curry and rice, dinner is ordering tacos & chicken mole from a Oaxacan place near by that is always quick and delicious, as the market will have to wait for tomorrow. 

Before bed, I finish the That We May Live, a red, square-shaped anthology of recently translated short stories by writers in Hong Kong and China. Many of the selections are speculative fiction, but in that way that verges more on magical realism/surrealism/allegory like Anna Kavan or Thomas Ligotti. Then again, surrealism is relative; a few of the strong entries by HK writers here are just barely-concealed political parables. 

monday

I have been trying to cluster calls on certain days of the week, as it’s easier to get in that open brain mode and stay there than try to go back and forth to the closed brain work of writing or research. That often fails, because everybody else is busy too and maybe we’re all secretly trying to do this! Today I have managed to line up the blocks, and the morning and afternoon go quickly, bouncing from Zoom to merciful Facetime Audio and back to Zoom. The calls with friends always seem to go too fast and the ones with prospective business collaborators/clients/etc too slow. 

For lunch, we make open-faced turkey pesto sandwiches. After the last Zoom closes out, we do a market run, and I get some tarragon which for some reason I have been thinking about a lot lately as a very 90s ingredient, at least in an American or Californian context (very shabby chic, powerlunch at Spago, Silver Palate cookbook, etc). For dinner we make a self-invented 90s salad dressing with tarragon on arugula, and some chicken sausage, which isn’t half bad.

In the evening, I dive into the beautiful new book on legendary Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka (Eiko Ishioka: Blood, Sweat, and Tears – a Life of Design), sent by my friend Ian Lynam in Tokyo whose imprint/type foundry Wordshape is distributing it globally. He thoughtfully included a great essay/zine he wrote called “The Letter” on design and authenticity, which I read in one gulp. From my brief forays into art publishing, I’m in awe of those who so consistently churn out high quality publications, zines, posters, and books. In the Ishioka book, I’m particularly struck by her 60s/70s commercial work for clients like beauty brand Shiseido and Parco department store which I haven’t seen before, and love her quote on the mutual Trojan-Horsing she perceived in her dynamic with advertising work: “When I think about it now, I feel that the encounter, or the relationship between Parco and I, was such that Parco employed my guerrilla-like remarks for business purposes, and Parco’s media power to convey my own personal message to the world.” 

tuesday

Surprise surprise, excessive caffeine and spicy dishes have triggered a bit of yit hei (literally “hot air” in Cantonese, which can mean anything from sore throat to breakouts, etc). From my time living in China, I basically believe many of the precepts of traditional Chinese medicine but I’m also a lazy Westerner who likes drinking iced beverages and all the things TCM doctors wince at. But when yit hei shows up, I try to follow the remedy my friend’s mother taught me long ago which is to drink some powdered lo han kuo (monkfruit) tea and avoid caffeine and spicy things for a few days. I have always loved the retro font on the packaging of this brand of lo han kuo tea, which is not unlike the iconic “Good Morning” towels from Hong Kong. Where are the modern tees/merch with these logos?

Most of the day is spent on some client work, with the background soundtrack of random 70s albums uploaded on one of my favorite YouTube channels, the mysterious Xerf Xpec. From German prog to 80s Japanese bedroom cassettes, it’s all here. Over the course of the pandemic I have become ever more reliant on some of these channels, surfacing mind-expanding finds from the ether, and also the community of overwhelmingly positive, cosmic music-lovers in the comments. On the Japanese jazz album Skifflin’—Toshiyuki Daitoku, for instance, someone has commented: “My pet lizard is rolling around on his back and kicking his legs in the air to this album He’s never done anything like it before to any other music.” This is the good part of the Internet; sit down and stay awhile.

Before bed, I read the brief graphic novel British Ice, which I had higher hopes for. I’m not crazy about the art style, and the plot is surprisingly conventional. Maybe I was expecting this to be the graphic novel version of The Terror season 1 ie, another parable about the sublimated horrors of colonialism via arctic surrealism, and sadly it’s not it.

wednesday

More client work, then belatedly trying to organize all my haphazardly “gathered string” for my occasional newsletter. I feel like if anything it’s a return of my old repressed patterns of blogging when I had a blog in my early 20s, and was both ahead of and behind the times… There’s too much good stuff I want to share, especially to promote friends’ projects, and then not enough time to make coherent comments/context around each beyond just, “this is cool, check it out”. Should I start an app that’s just called “This is cool, check it out”, and people can just post one link to something good per day, and no trolls or bozos can join? I guess what I’m talking about is Discord. But then we’re all on so many different Discords! So I guess what I’m talking about is a blog, which today is called, a newsletter. Back to square one. 

Lunch is sort of a grab-bag bowl: rice, beans, roasted cauliflower, cilantro, and quick-pickled red onions.

In the afternoon, I watch the incredible video essay Ghosts Like Us by Riar Rizaldi about the relationship between Indonesian horror cinema and political control. It feels like there’s a bumper crop of new-ish indie, experimental documentaries and hybrid works these days, or maybe it’s just the factor *everything* is online at the moment, if in an occasionally-paywalled, IP-locked, rotating geography duck-duck-goose game. If you don’t catch this one at festival X, you might catch it at festival Y—all within your browser. I saw someone on Twitter make a Google Sheet tracking where certain films are going to play next; the meta-curation hero we need. 

Later we take Pilot (our dog) for an extra-long walk, and the white-blossomed Callery Pear trees (aka sperm trees) of Los Angeles are in bloom—it’s truly spring. 

After dinner, we watch Manhunter which neither of us has seen in a while. It’s such a weirdly tender movie, and I will never get over the anesthetized tiger scene, or the synth perfection of “Graham’s Theme”, perhaps the most 80s instrumental track of all time (though it’s recently been overused in some high-budget docs and commercials). 

thursday

Forgot to say “rabbit rabbit” when I woke up, whoops. Today is outlining an article that will likely be shorter than I expected (which is sometimes harder?), then some client work.

Later, I try to finish reading my assigned section of a new book about the Cultural Revolution for a reading group with two China studies friends in Hong Kong and Michigan on the weekend. They are actual professors, I am just an interested rando, and I learn so much from their expertise, as well as just the vibe of being in school that I treasure (perhaps because I’m not *actually* in school). This particular book is challenging because it feels like it’s a counter-counter-counter-argument about some other scholars’ work I’m not familiar with, but looking forward to discuss anyhow. 

In the afternoon, I tune into the Triple Canopy / Speculative Theatre event of Tiffany Sia and Paige K.B.. I know and love Tiffany’s work but Paige’s is new to me, as is the 1996 short by late French theorist Nathalie Magnan they screened; all barnstormers. 

After logging off for the day, we make salmon roasted in jalapeno which is surprisingly flavorless? Healthy at least but a bummer to “spend” a salmon on something bland. 

Before I go to sleep, I start reading Sea State by Tabitha Lasley, which apparently started out as a journalistic investigation/ethnography about North Sea oil rig workers, and turned into a personal memoir/story of a doomed affair. Gripping from the first page; I see why there’s a lot of buzz. It makes me think of one of my all-time favorite art pieces/experimental films, “Bachelor Machines Part I by Rosalind Nashashibi, which chronicled the all-male world of transatlantic shipping. I first saw it at the 2007 Venice Biennale and I sat on the marble floor of some palazzo watching it all the way through twice. I wish I could see it again, but it’s nowhere online. 

featured creature: leaf sheep slug

I personally think they look more like absurdly cartoonish cows than sheep, but they use algae to photosynthesise!


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