hu cares | consider the toothpaste

For unobservant people (me), product labels are background noise. I don’t pay much attention to the text on a package of toilet paper or what’s written on the various boxes and cans I bring home from the grocery store, though I do think about this can of peas all the time. My partner, on the other hand, reads everything closely. If there’s anything on the dining table while we’re having a meal — a flier, the wrapper around takeout chopsticks — he’ll reflexively read it. So it did not surprise me at all when he showed me the text on our toothpaste tube.

“What does this even mean?” he asked with incredulity, pointing at a phrase highlighted in its own little white box: “Protects against areas dentists check most.”

Upon first read, it seemed innocuous: protects! dentists! Alongside it were other reassuring, toothpaste-related words: anticavity, clean mint, pro-health, freshens breath. My brain was reassured that yes, here is toothpaste that does all the normal toothpaste stuff. But then I realized the actual content of the phrase makes no sense. What are the areas dentists check most, anyway? Like… the teeth? The gums? The whole mouth? Whenever I go to the dentist they do check all those things. The gum checking is the worst, because the dentist will rattle off a bunch of numbers to the assistant, which I feel vaguely judged by even though I don’t understand if they’re good or bad.

But I digress. What’s more mysterious than these “areas” is what the toothpaste claims to do for them. How does one protect against areas? I can imagine protecting areas dentists check most; mouth protection seems good. But to protect against areas? This implies there are areas that dentists check which you need protection from. Perhaps the tongue, an area my dentist sometimes checks, is in fact a dangerous area and the toothpaste does something to protect me against it.

We first encountered this toothpaste in April and I have been thinking about it ever since. “Time to protect against areas,” N will sometimes say before brushing his teeth, and though it’s been months, it makes me laugh every time. For a week, I toyed with the idea of doing some investigative toothpaste journalism. Who is the poor copywriter who shat out this terrible copy? Who signs off on toothpaste tube copy, if anyone, and were they just asleep at the wheel that day at work? Does anyone at Crest realize that this sentence makes no sense? For what it’s worth, we bought more of the same toothpaste recently and it had the same text, which suggests it’s probably standard copy, not a one-time error.

In a way, this feels peak 2020s United States: gesture at a nice idea (protects! dentists!), and hope that people don’t look too closely to notice that it has no substance. Meanwhile, no one’s at the helm to make a simple and small correction to an obvious mistake, or, even worse, they don’t think it matters enough to get things right, because who cares?

Letters of Recommendation

  • If you are lucky enough to have a bathtub: sit in the tub for 30 minutes. If you want to be cozier, I got a $40 bath pillow and it was a total game changer.

  • For an incisive perspective on the Asian American experience: read Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. (If you choose to buy a copy, please try to do so through an independent bookseller.)

  • For an in-your-feelings, watch-by-yourself experience: the BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People is on Hulu. The book destroyed me so I shouldn’t be surprised the show did, too. I spent the hour after finishing the series watching interviews with Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones just to keep the feel of their universe alive for a little while longer.

  • If you live near water: night tide pooling! Our friends M and D had been tracking low tides in our area, and invited us to come along for an 8pm adventure. It was a real treat to see geoduck, anemones, snails, and crab. The highlight for me was holding an enormous, slimy moon snail.

  • Rohit, a guy on TikTok who started posting every day about his abstinence from fizzy drinks. He’s up to 110 days now and it’s been lovely over the last few months seeing his posts from time to time, knowing it’s keeping up with his own goals.

  • If you’re an Animal Crossing fan: there are K.K. Slider covers of pretty much anything you can imagine. No Scrubs, September, Africa, you name it.

What else I’ve been writing about

  • Wildfires have become the new normal for west coast summers, and each fire creates new cohorts of survivors experiencing emotional trauma — and the possibility of triggering previous survivors. (Outside)

  • If you’ve been following COVID on Twitter, you’ve probably come across posts from Eric Feigl-Ding, who has gained hundreds of thousands of followers for his startling pandemic tweets. But many COVID experts are concerned those tweets sacrifice accuracy for speed and drama. (Undark)

  • The state of Wyoming stopped contact tracing after cases skyrocketed, but tribes and some counties have continued their own contact tracing programs. (High Country News)

  • Many details of the COVID vaccine rollout have been left up to states, so the timing of who is eligible for vaccines and what process will be used to verify eligibility will be highly variable. I wrote this not quite a month ago and we’re already starting to see each state’s plan: Washington will be determining vaccine eligibility based on the honor system, while Florida is using Eventbrite, of all things, to release vaccination slots. (Slate)

Happy 2021, friends, and thanks for reading! And if you work at Crest and/or can shed any light on protecting against areas, please get in touch.

hu cares | please scream inside your heart

In case you missed the best thing that’s happened on the internet so far this year, amusement parks in Tokyo are re-opening and the Wall Street Journal reported that patrons are being asked not to scream on rollercoasters, because those droplets can spread COVID. One video released by a park showed two executives — one in a suit — sitting stone-faced on a rollercoaster, ending with a message: “Please scream inside your heart.” First I scream-laughed, then I unexpectedly burst into tears; I have yet to see a more apt description of what we are all constantly being asked to do in 2020.

The government has massively bungled its coronavirus response, leading to a massive spike in new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths? Please scream inside your heart.

After all, you’ve still got to report to work, if you’re still lucky enough to have one; ignore the fact that you might get COVID, because the people need to eat inside your restaurant and the president has decided the schools need to open, even if there are no precautions in place. Please just scream inside your heart.

And sure, there are other issues running rampant alongside COVID — systemic racism, transphobia, or sexual harassment, to name a few — but please, continue to scream only inside your heart, because any vocal criticism of the powerful people who uphold these toxic systems is, of course, an attack on their freedom. (And you want to keep your job right now, don’t you?)

While you’re following the rules and keeping those screams inside your heart so you don’t spread COVID, there are so many others still screaming out loud! Why is it that they are not screaming in their hearts? Well, they say, it is their right to scream out loud, COVID spread be damned, if COVID is even real. (Open your eyes, sheeple.) So, they are screaming, without a mask on, and you wonder: what’s the point of keeping all that screaming locked up inside my heart when so many are not? Should I, too, give in to just audibly screaming? What difference does it make if I only scream inside my heart while everyone around me is screaming outside their hearts?

I don’t know, but it feels like this rollercoaster will never end.

Three good things (the only good things?) from The Bird Site: Animal Edition

And because this last one bears a little explanation: Janelle Shane makes hilarious AIs, like these fake candy hearts. She made a parody of the popular Dog Rates account and the AI-generated images and captions are a wonderful fever dream:

What else I’m writing about

  • We have no concrete plans or criteria for another shutdown, and as we’ve seen over the two weeks since I wrote this, states are hastily and messily shutting things down (Slate)

  • New norms in the time of COVID (Washington Post)

  • As the GRE moves online, it’s causing headaches for test takers and more graduate programs are removing the test from admissions requirements (Science)

  • Police are needlessly furthering the spread of COVID by arresting protesters — and anyone convicted of non-violent crimes, tbh (Slate)

Hu Cares | Before & After

When I was a teenager, I invented a ritual. Before a really exciting party or a big test or summer camp, I would take a moment while sitting on the toilet and think: you will be back here again later today, or tomorrow, or in three weeks, and it will look exactly the same, but you will have changed. Something will have happened to you. And, sure enough, when I’d return, I’d sit in the same place and take stock of the familiar things — the white wicker hamper in front of the toilet, the bath tub to my right, the sink to the my left — and marvel at how they had not moved even an inch while I was off doing new things, meeting new people.

I’m entering day 17 of isolation, and the coronavirus version of this ritual is a little different. I’m not seeing or doing anything new, so instead, I’m remembering what came before, and I imagine the same will come after. Yesterday, sitting on the couch, I thought of all my friends who had sat beside me in the last few weeks, beer in hand, talking about whatever we used to talk about before all this. In my backyard, I see my friend’s plants. “Is she going to come by and do any socially distant gardening?” my husband asked. No, I don’t think so, I said, but we video chatted yesterday and it was nice. I think about what it will be like to hug my friends, get on an airplane and see my family on the other side of the country, climb outside, go to a farmer’s market. I think about when this will be a distant memory and for an instant, it feels like it’s all already happened.

But I know that things cannot be the same on the other side. I think about all the people who have died and will die, and I selfishly hope my loved ones will stay safe. I think about my friends who have been laid off, who can’t pay rent, whose hours have been cut, who work in hospitals and grocery stores, who are losing access to health insurance, who are now saddled with homeschooling their children on top of everything else, who are tirelessly studying the virus or tirelessly reporting on it. To assume things will resume as they were is a form of denial; perhaps the most privileged of us will return to a daily life that looks like the before, but there is no going back. I don’t know yet what will change and how, but I am trying to note the cracks in our system and decipher what we can do to repair them while also holding space for the good things. Right now, outside my window, I see a couple stopping to smell the cherry blossoms.

Good things

  • Ellen Kuwana has raised nearly $17,000 and is delivering food to Seattle healthcare workers who are processing COVID-19 tests and caring for patients. Ellen’s one of those magical people who knows everyone and does everything and it’s warmed my heart to see her working tirelessly to support our healthcare heroes. You can donate here. (I am also happy to Venmo Ellen directly on your behalf if you’d rather not process any financial transactions through Facebook; just let me know.)

  • Kat Eschner is hosting her second online spelling bee this Friday evening. It’s free, but donations are suggested and go towards some good causes. (Kat also has a great newsletter about animal-human relationships called The Quick Fox.)

  • Therapist Kathleen Smith’s newsletter is always on point, but this week’s entry on maturity in crisis times especially resonated with me. I have found it calming to set boundaries and return to a regimented schedule (or at least not going to bed at 2am after reading 9837593187 news articles). This is a privilege I know not everyone has, but if you have some control right now over your day-to-day, Kathleen’s words might help.

Stuff I’ve made lately

And that’s it.

Love you all. Take care of yourself as best as you can.

— J

Hu Cares | Going to the forest

1996, Camp Shantituck: the shaky beams of six flashlights are bouncing around the waxed canvas tent ceiling. I’m cold and the ground is hard and it smells musty in here, but I’m mostly fine until the shrieking starts. One girl points out a bug with a million legs; there’s some joy in our mass terror as we discover several more. Our adult chaperone, someone’s mom I no longer remember, tells us it’s a Daddy Long Legs and to just go to bed, but I don’t sleep the rest of the night for fear it could crawl on my face and…what? I’m not really sure, but the crawling seems self-evidently bad.

That was the beginning and end of my childhood camping experiences. After that exciting weekend at Shantituck, my Girl Scout troop opted for decidedly indoorsy activities: overnights at science museums, watching Boy Meets World together on Friday nights, the usual cookie-selling. This was great for me; I spent most of my time reading, playing Commander Keen, or watching Unsolved Mysteries with my mom. I loved going on adventures, but only if they didn’t require me to leave the house.

There’s really no rhyme or reason to why I got into backpacking. I’m still confused about how it all happened, but I remember getting fitted for a pack by a creep at REI who kept touching my lower back and talking about “women’s breasts” as the reason there were women-specific packs. Next thing I know, I’m wading across thigh-deep water in the swollen San Lorenzo river, bushwacking through some bramble, then wading through the river again because we didn’t read the map right. But no Daddy Long Legs in the tent for that overnight, and wow, was the next day magic: had fries always tasted this good? Was my bed this soft all along? And as miserable as it was to slog through dense journal articles, the weight of it all felt lighter than before. At least I wasn’t carrying a pack and getting sunburned to hell.

(Maeby, lounging on the sandy beach near our river crossing.)

The discomfort cracks me open every time. I see my impatience, my need for control, the mental weakness, the worry. Indoors or out, there is always something to worry about: the email I “need” to reply to, the credit card bill, whether I locked the front door, if the bear hang will be there in the morning, what happens if someone I love dies, will this bus get me there on time, we have a 3000 foot pass to hike tomorrow, should I quit my job, my foot hurts but just slightly, what’s for dinner, ad nauseum. The difference is that the outdoors forces me to think about what’s in front of me in a way nothing else can. You’re not gonna pay that bill or answer that email if you don’t make it out of these woods, so just concentrate on what you need to stay alive and you’ll figure out the rest later. I see the worry for what it is: just a running tab of the things my brain thinks I should consider, but nothing worth getting hung up on for too long.

Every time I return from a trip, I am filled with gratitude. For running water, for the Great Indoors, so devoid of wind, and so effortlessly bright even once the sun has gone down. For chairs (what an invention!), for music, for sponges and dish soap and sinks, for all the clean socks I have at home that aren’t this salt-encrusted pair I’ve been walking in for days. And so on the days (or weeks) living indoors doesn’t feel easy, I long for a trip that will leave me with the perspective that reminds me I live a sweet little Nerf-y life.

(Comic by Anna Syvertsson. This was the theme I adopted for my first-ever solo backpacking trip, in which I went to the forest to kick my own ass and think about whether I actually wanted to quit my job and write full-time. The answer was yeah, duh, I most definitely did.)

This is what I have trouble describing to people — ok, I’ll be honest; specifically, my parents — about why I choose to do something my mother describes as “self-torture.” It’s a privileged position to be in, to manufacture these adventures when 2 billion people still don’t have the option of using a toilet, and migrants literally hike for their lives. My parents spent years living in Chinese labor camps during the cultural revolution; when they came to this country, they probably didn’t imagine their daughter choosing to rough it, for purported fun.

Taking outdoors time is a fundamentally selfish act. I’ve got a permit to hike the Washington section of the Pacific Crest Trail this summer, and I’m already seeing how much my family is worrying and will worry about me. While I’m gone for a month, N is going to take care of our dog, and I know I’m going to be a less attentive partner the nights and weekends I’ll be researching gear and planning logistics. This thing that I imagined as a journey for myself, meant to be traveled by myself, turns out to be bigger than me, even when I don’t want it to be. I am still making sense of it all, hoping this new kind of discomfort teaches me something worthwhile.

Unsolicited recommendations

  • Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet, a book that gives the study of internet culture the weight it deserves. We’re watching language and social norms change in real time online, y’all!

  • Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory, a book of short stories about…love, I guess? (If you’ve read his Rufus essay, N has started referring to himself as “Man Monster.”)

  • Hankies. I used to use like 600000 tissues a day and I just started carrying around a hanky to blow my nose into. I also cried a lot into it while watching Little Women (2019). Truly life-changing.

  • The board game Wingspan — thanks to my friend Mara for introducing me to it! The illustrations are gorgeous, you get to learn Bird Facts™, and the game pieces include little eggs that look like Cadbury mini Easter egg candies. What’s not to love?

Stuff I’ve written lately

Over three hundred members of Washington’s Nooksack Tribe have been grappling with disenrollment, or removal from their tribe. I wrote about Carmen Tageant, a former tribal council member who was cyberbullied and recalled from the council for standing up for those disenrollees, and what her case tells us about disenrollment and tribal power. (High Country News)

The latest coronavirus has dredged up some centuries-old anti-Chinese racism. (Slate)

What’s a sensitivity reader and why would you ever consider working with one? (The Open Notebook)

I went through two decades worth of photos and wrote about the subtle changes in the way we take photos in the smartphone era. (Slate)

Google Maps Street View can take you back to a specific time and place — and some people are even finding their now-dead loved ones memorialized on their old streets or in front of their houses. (Slate)

I have a chapter in The Craft of Science Writing, The Open Notebook’s new anthology! (There’s also a chapter with an annotation of a pitch I wrote.)

You can get a copy via Indiebound, Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company, Portland’s Powell’s, Barnes and Noble, or, if you absolutely must, Amazon. And if you’ll be in Seattle this Thursday, February 13th, we’re doing a book launch party at Elliott Bay. You can RSVP here! There will be snacks and science writers (i.e., all the best things).

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Hu Cares | Doing the least harm

Last week, my parents asked what I want for Christmas. Usually, I say I don’t really need anything, but this year, I mentioned that I was thinking about getting a new computer monitor, and my dad was on it. He loves shopping for the fanciest new gizmos, so the day after our phone chat, he texted me saying he’d ordered me a very nice monitor, which would be delivered by Amazon within the next 24 hours.

The monitor was indeed really nice — it’s almost as big as our TV. It was so nice, in fact, that my aging MacBook (purchased in 2014) couldn’t connect to it, so I went in search of the right dongle. A breakdown of the process:

  1. Ok, Google says that Walmart has this dongle for $9.39. But I don’t want to support Walmart.

  2. Amazon has it for $15. But I don’t want to support Amazon either. (Meanwhile — and I swear I am not making this up — NPR was on in the background with a story about the Atlantic and Reveal’s latest investigation that found that Amazon fulfillment centers’ rate of injury was more than twice that of the industry’s average.)

  3. I guess I could go to a physical store for it. I don’t know of any locally-owned electronics stores, but there’s OfficeMax, which is the most on-the-way store between the two places I have to go today. But is the additional stop worth the gas? Would it be more impactful to go to the store, or order online? How does OfficeMax’s treatment of employees compare to Amazon’s?

  4. <standing in front of a wall of dongles at OfficeMax; salesperson tells me that what I’m looking for is only available online> So I have to buy it online, ugh. OfficeMax’s price is $40. Apple has a version, too, but it’s $90. Best Buy has one that’s $70. Are any of these companies less problematic than Amazon?

  5. Amazon’s got to be losing money if they’re selling this adapter for $10 when everyone else is selling it for at least four times that. It’s Amazon’s whole business model to lose money on items in hopes of cornering the market, killing the competition, and then being able to drive up prices again. So in some small way, I’m kind of sticking it to Amazon by making them lose money? But I don’t think it really works that way, since they don’t know the motivation behind my purchase.

And then I realized it was Cyber Monday. I don’t believe in astrology in any deep way, but I’m a Taurus, which means I’m supposed to be stubborn, bull-headed. The easiest way to get me to do something is to tell me to do the opposite. So when The Man invents a commercial holiday to get us to shop online, there is no way in hell I’m going to buy something online on that day, even if I actually kind of need it.

Do I even need it? Technically, no. I have a shitty old monitor I got on Buy Nothing (if you don’t know about Buy Nothing, check it out!) and it’s doing just fine, though sometimes the connection is kind of wonky and the display dances with dizzying little squiggles.

If any of you watch The Good Place, you know that the character Chidi Anagonye is a moral philosopher who’s famously bad at making decisions, weighing all his options and overthinking them until he gets a stomachache. I often feel this way before making any purchase, no matter how minor. Everything I do has spiraling consequences, and some of those consequences are inherently unknowable, which makes it hard to make a decision about anything. I don’t want to support big companies that have a history of exploiting workers or normalize one-hour shipping or change the looks, politics, and operations of cities and towns where they’re headquartered. I want to tread lightly in our world; I don’t want to use more than I need, or to create demand for the things companies tell us we need.

Right after the Occupy movement started, I tried to close my Bank of America account. The teller told me they’d charge a fee to transfer my money to another bank, so I huffily withdrew all my savings in cash and took it on an hour-long BART ride home. Not my wisest impulsive decision.

But I’m also a person on this planet, which means I forgo my own values frequently to live my life. I dislike giving money to telecomm companies and don’t want to support the rare metals mining industry, but I still use a cell phone. I have concerns about Facebook, but I still use Instagram and WhatsApp daily. I’m wary of supporting the exploitative gig economy, but I sometimes still use Lyft or Caviar. I could decide to forgo my phone, opt out of social media, and never use app-based services, but each of those decisions would come at some kind of a personal cost — convenience, time saved, the strength of my relationships. I’m privileged to even have a choice in some of these things; other people may not be able to afford opting out of, say, shopping for affordable deals on Black Friday or using InstaCart.

Sometimes the consequence is just joy. I want to get a Christmas tree this year, because for once, I live in a space big enough to support one. (Another source of guilt, but I digress.) Would it be better to get a plastic one that I can use for years, or to buy a fresh tree? Or should I just forgo it entirely? How much should my own happiness factor into decisions like these? I’m not even sure my personal decisions even matter; companies have outsize influence and impact in a way my own puny decisions never could. Or is that just a convenient excuse for myself?

It’s very easy to make excuses for ourselves. A couple months ago, I heard an environmental activist say that his frequent travel and documentary-making in far-flung places was justified because it could convince people to change their minds about climate change. I think about this every week or so, and try on similar justifications I might make for my own actions: that my writing (which, of course, necessitates a gigantic monitor and the appropriate dongle) will change people’s minds about some important issue. I can never work out whether my deep suspicion of that activist’s justification is cynicism or realism. It’s easier to be a cynic than it is to really believe in change, but it’s also easier to have an inflated sense of importance than it is to own up to the fact that you’re making excuses for yourself. Who knows.

I frequently fantasize about having all my decisions made for me: what to eat for dinner, what to wear, what the least harmful decision is in every scenario. Life is easier when you defer that responsibility to someone else. (I went on a vacation this summer to a friend’s lakehouse, where she planned out all our meals and outings and it was the most relaxed I’ve felt in years.) But I don’t think there are any easy answers about how to do the least harm, especially when it comes to the holidays, which have become all about excess. The only thing I can do is to take responsibility — to keep paying attention, to keep thinking myself into these circles. To think about where my money is going, and not immediately forking it over to the entity that’s asking for the least amount and for the least effort. To support the people who are working to enact systemic change, so our options are less terrible. And to return that damn monitor after all, because the dongle it needed actually needs yet another dongle to be functional, and ain’t nobody got time for that.

Unsolicited recommendations

  • I love discovering that a very specific concept has a formal name, so I was delighted by the Wikipedia entry for contronyms like cleave or dust.

  • Few writers capture the first-gen Chinese American experience like Weike Wang does. I haven’t been back to see my Chinese family since 2012, but Wang’s latest short story in the New Yorker dug up a lot of those old feelings.

  • Nandi Bushell is a nine year old who KILLS IT on the drums.

  • RIP to My Lasaga Bot, which just tweeted this picture every few hours

I wrote about…

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