As January draws to a close, our favorite stories this week included a stirring critical essay, a paean to the world’s greatest boxed meal, a rethinking of psychedelics’ impact on the planet, a profile of a craftsperson at his peak, and an eye-opener about how humpback whales use air in some unexpected ways.

1. Corky Lee and the Work of Seeing

Ken Chen | n+1 | 11,542 words | January 25, 2023

After Corky Lee passed last year, the photographer and community organizer was memorialized in his hometown’s most conventionally prestigious outlets: The Times offered a sizable obituary, as did Hua Hsu in The New Yorker. This week, on the first anniversary of Lee’s death, Ken Chen rendered an altogether different kind of portrait in n+1. Much of the same biographical information is included, as are a number of Lee’s iconic photographs of Asian Americans in New York throughout the last six decades. Yet, when Chen writes about his encounters with Lee, and about the 14 photographs he selects to represent Lee’s work, the grief that suffuses his words isn’t solely about Lee, but about the many atrocities visited upon the Asian American community, up to and after Lee’s death. Chen’s critical acumen here is reason enough to read: “His images lack a charismatic subject,” he writes of Lee. “Those whom capital dismissed as surplus, he saw as beautiful. He commemorated the multitude, the striking waiters and seamstresses whose unruly abundance crowded away any beatific composition.” But he brings a similar understated poetry to the social conditions Lee’s work served to illuminate — and with violence against Asian American elders and others seemingly unending (including a horrifying recent attack in my own hometown), that juxtaposition makes Chen’s piece nearly as indelible as the images it contains. —PR

2. An Ode to Kraft Dinner, Food of Troubled Times

Ivana Rihter | Catapult | January 19, 2023 | 2,261 words

I only discovered Kraft dinners later in life after moving to North America revealed the cult of Kraft to me. A stable lurking in every cupboard; I admired the respect that something so impossibly orange had managed to garner. When Ivana Rihter finds KDs, though, they are much more; cooked for her by her baba, they are inextricably linked to her immigration story. She describes the process of boiling the pasta and adding the sauce with reverence, the memory mixed in with her love for her baba and appreciation for the economic hardships her family struggled through to start their new life. Her baba teaches her to put feta on top, and with this “secret little piece of the home country mixed in with all-American shelf-stable cheese” it remains a food for life, and — consistently sitting at about a dollar a box — one that carries on seeing her through hard times. I found this an unexpectedly beautiful essay, more about memory and belonging than cheesy pasta. Food can transport you back in time, especially if, as Rihter describes it, it “is soaked with memories of [an] origin story.” —CW

3. Tripping for the Planet: Psychedelics and Climate Activism

Amber X. Chen | Atmos | January 16, 2023 | 3,196 words

In this piece, Chen explores what the current psychedelic renaissance means for environmental activism, and how synthetic drugs like LSD and MDMA and psychoactive plants like ayahuasca and peyote can stir change within individuals — and ultimately galvanize social movements. This all sounds incredibly positive on the surface, but not everyone who dabbles in such mind-altering journeys is transformed for the better; psychedelics also fuel right-wing movements, too. (See: “QAnon Shaman.“) The decriminalization of psychedelics is a step toward making their therapeutic benefits accessible to more people, yes, but as Chen notes, it increases the threat of deforestation, and — with today’s psychedelic movement being largely white — it also takes power away from Indigenous people, who have harnessed the healing power of these sacred plants for thousands of years. (See also a Top 5 essay I picked last year: “The Gentrification of Consciousness.”) I appreciate Chen’s exploration here, and the questions posed that I haven’t stopped thinking about, like: “How broken is Western society that we think we need drugs in order to facilitate mass climate action?” —CLR

4. The Violin Doctor

Elly Fishman | Chicago Magazine | January 17, 2023 | 4,177 words

Recently, in his late 60s, my dad decided to learn how to play the violin. I respect the choice to try the impossible, especially something as delicate and timeless as bowing a stringed instrument. (My parents’ cats, who endure the scratching out of notes from beneath the couch or bed, seem to have a different opinion.) After reading this lovely profile, I think perhaps my dad, a skilled carpenter, should also try apprenticing as a luthier. I, someone with zero skills at playing an instrument besides an egg shaker, who curses putting IKEA furniture together, was mesmerized by the descriptions of how John Becker, perhaps the best violin restorer on earth, practices his craft. Elly Fishman’s profile has a musical quality: It sweeps readers through chapters of Becker’s personal story and dwells in long, lyrical moments when, with the surest of hands, Becker repairs some of the most revered instruments on the planet — namely, Stradivari. There are just 650 of the violins left. What makes them so extraordinary? Musicians and scientists may puzzle over that question forever. In the meantime, Becker works — quietly, meticulously, instinctively. “We are caretakers of these instruments,” one of his clients tells him. “We move on, but these instruments continue to the next generation.” —SD

5. For Humpbacks, Bubbles Can Be Tools

Doug Perrine | Hakai Magazine | December 20, 2022 | 1,500 words

It’s well known that many animals use tools to aid feeding and other tasks of life. Think: otters floating on their backs, cracking shells with rocks. You’d think it would be hard for whales to use tools, but as Doug Perrine reports at Hakai Magazine, humpbacks use what’s available to them — air and water — to form bubbles for a variety of activities. “I’m tempted to describe the air in a humpback’s lungs as a Swiss army knife because I’ve seen whales do so many different things with it,” he wrote. “It is not actually a tool collection though, but a storehouse of raw construction material with which the whale can fashion a variety of tools. Lacking free fingers and opposable thumbs, whales are unable to create and use tools in the same way as humans, but reveal their intelligence through the manner in which they utilize other body parts for tool production and use.” —KS

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