On Solidarity, or What ‘90s Rap, Role-Playing Games, and Labor Activism Can Teach Us in Times Like These

One of my earliest exposures to the concept of empathy came in the form of Everlast’s 1998 one-hit wonder “What It’s Like,” a slow rap on a backdrop of folksy guitar with all the requisite sound effects and turntable wiggles of the era. It’s no masterpiece, but it was overplayed on the radio beyond all measure of sensibility when I was in middle school, meaning it’ll stay lodged in my head for the rest of my days. Still, with its lyrics about the pain of addiction, poverty, and loss, it was among the first times I can remember hearing and thinking about the phrase “walk a mile in [someone else’s] shoes.”

This article is not about the bizarre pop hits of the late ‘90s, though hit me up if you ever do want to have that discussion. I bring up “What It’s Like” because, musical merits notwithstanding, it has an important lesson to share: empathy isn’t possible without understanding. And understanding isn’t possible without the story, detail, and background of what someone else is going through. The word “narrative” serves as a good catch-all for story, detail, and background. In society writ large, certain narratives get more airtime, representation, and discussion than others. The system of U.S. higher education is no exception to that, nor is Olin as a particular location within that system.

Because we live in a society, the narratives of certain groups do not tend to get attention at our institution.1 But we need information in order to empathize, and because the narratives of certain groups do not get attention, information that could lead to empathy for those groups goes unheard. Without that informed empathy, people become akin to non-player characters (NPCs)—characters in games that are not controlled by a human player, like the iconic “Hello, my friend! Stay a while and listen” guy from Diablo.2 They are creatures without agency that do not exist as ends in themselves but rather as a means to an end for others, perhaps moving one narrative along while not having a narrative themselves. It’s also tempting to assume you know what’s going on with NPCs when you don’t, because it’s easy to stereotype someone or assign their motives when you don’t consider them to be fully human.

Understanding and empathizing with each other takes effort, though, and if there’s one thing we don’t have a surplus of right now, it’s energy. Earlier this semester, I had a conversation with students about the cognitive dissonance between acknowledging that people are burned out and over capacity and needing to try harder than we normally would to be patient and understanding with each other. A friend at another institution who serves as a vocal labor advocate in her faculty union suggested to me that the extra expenditure of resources—if it’s truly in the name of supporting one another—is worth it, even (if not especially) when we’re this exhausted. It’s a rare case of pushing ourselves in a way that does not have to be exploitative, but instead can lead to what labor activists and sociologists call solidarity. Quoting the Wikipedia3 entry: “Solidarity is an awareness of shared interests, objectives, standards, and sympathies creating a psychological sense of unity of groups or classes4, which rejects the class conflict.” You could think of students, staff, and faculty as separate groups or classes, and you could think of what might unite them as solidarity. To know what might unite these groups, you need some amount of understanding about what each of them is experiencing. Without that, you’re prone to start seeing members of groups other than your own as NPCs.

As I’m writing this in late November, there are abundant reasons to be annoyed, scared, and furious at larger forces in the world, at the U.S., at late-stage capitalism, at the criminal justice system, at tech giants, at the construction of pipelines on stolen land, at the COVID cases ticking back up yet again, at the effing Omicron variant. Not one of us asked to be living through history, and here we are, muddling through a watershed event with no end in sight. It’s valid to feel overwhelmed and hopeless in the face of these things. That said, if we work to build understanding, empathy, and solidarity, we might find ourselves with a way forward. This is not a solution, nor is it a new construction, but instead is a common ground we might be able to stand on if we try to find it.

There are many barriers to solidarity at Olin, as there are anywhere (again, we live in a society), but the big one I want to leave us thinking about is the compartmentalization of students, faculty, and staff. These roles have a meaningful functional difference and this is no argument for dissolving them, but true solidarity can and should overcome categorical distinction. If we can find no solidarity between students, staff, and faculty, this effectively denies the potential, and perhaps the very existence, of higher education. We also need solidarity between faculty and staff because as we try to walk the walk of incorporating ethics, inclusion, and humanities into our mission and offerings, we cannot deny the importance of expertise and lived experience of all kinds in this work. Not to mention, a lack of solidarity between different types of labor in any workplace is a liability when any one of us wants to push for better working conditions.5 Many members of our three groups want to see a better world, and many of us have quite similar visions of a better world, and that looks like a path to solidarity. This is not healing, or resilience, which asks us to impossibly return to a “before” state that can no longer be accessed and often negates our experience. This is not turning a crisis into opportunity. Instead, solidarity asks us to find a shared reason to come as we are, broken and mistrustful, from different levels of the system and with our pain validated. It’s a shift away from deficit logic, not toxic positivity6 or a denial of what we’ve been through, and therein lies its power.

The last line of the bridge in “What It’s Like” is this: “You know, where it ends, it usually depends on where you start.” We might try to start from a place where we acknowledge there are many larger and smaller intersecting systems impacting us inside and outside our Olin bubble, where all the players are seen as human, where we’re patient with each other’s mistakes, where solidarity helps us keep going as a group even when individuals feel as if they’ve got nothing left. In the uncertain times of COVID, we are all “stuck in a route of confusion, changing and waiting and seeking the truth of it all.”7 So let’s try to walk it together, if for no other reason than that the forces in the world we want to stop and reverse would like nothing more than to see us breaking off alone.


  1. See “Olin: An ‘Alien’ Perspective” in Frankly Speaking vol. 14, issue 3.
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2alFLXjty9o
  3. Spoiler alert: Librarians actually love Wikipedia, and many of us help keep Wikipedia entries up to date.
  4. Note that this is an oversimplification; of course there are many subgroups of identities, class years, job types, and much more within these three, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll keep it zoomed out.
  5. https://www.upbeacon.com/article/2021/11/university-of-portland-faces-staffing-issues-beyond-the-labor-shortage
  6. https://rightasrain.uwmedicine.org/mind/well-being/toxic-positivity
  7. I’m quoting a Swedish death metal band here in hopes of balancing all the Everlast. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhohQNdSt7g

Quiz: Is This QEA, or a Scene from Inception?

  1. People keep repeating certain numbers and you don’t know why.
  2. A team is working together to solve a near-impossible task.
  3. You have no idea what’s going on.
  4. People keep falling asleep.
  5. Some things feel purposefully ambiguous.
  6. Time feels like it’s moving much slower than it actually is.
  7. You have to keep track of so many confusing things that you feel like you’re losing it.
  8. People are constantly asking themselves “how did I get here?”
  9. You’re still confused after someone tries to explain what’s happening.
  10. Things are happening very quickly and you feel that it would benefit from slowing it down so you could understand it better.
  11. You think you get it. Wait, just kidding, no you don’t.
  12. Even after the end of it, you still have so many questions.

Answer Key:

QEA: 1-12

Inception: 1-12

The New NATO Phonetic Alphabet

First of all, the NATO Phonetic alphabet is a spelling alphabet, and not a phonetic alphabet at all (if you want that, look into the International Phonetic Alphabet on Wikipedia). In case you don’t know, the NATO Phonetic Alphabet is the system of using the words Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, and so on to spell out words (typically over the radio).

However, while it is not a true phonetic alphabet, real phonetic alphabets exist to provide symbols for every type of sound that humans make while speaking. It’s an incredibly powerful tool. Want to learn an accent? Simply go to something like www.dialectsarchive.com, which attempts to collect every common accent of the English language. From there, you can listen to real people talk and go through each word replacing the sounds in that word with a symbol. Compare your own speech with those symbols and practice the differences. If you made your own symbol you’re well on your way to making your own real phonetic alphabet. However, try to use the NATO Phonetic alphabet to sound out words, and you will sound like you’re one of those crazy theater people.

By the way, the NATO Phonetic alphabet isn’t even its official name. It’s officially called “The International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet”. The IRSA went through many revisions before it landed in its current state. By the way, why they landed on spelling Alfa with an F and not a PH I will never know. Words were swapped out and it was worked to be optimized to include distinct words and sounds common to all languages. The last update to this system, devised to clear up pronunciation misunderstandings, was on 1 March 1956. Because of the lack of an update, I have taken it upon myself to propose an update that is clearly superior in every way. Please use only this henceforth.

Symbol                Code WordTraditional International Phonetic AlphabetPronunciation
AAirɛərair
BBuscemi,Stevebuːˈsɛmi, stivboo-SEM-ee, steev
CChesterˈtʃɛs tərches-ter
DDudeduddood
EEcstaticɛkˈstæt ɪkek-stat-ik
FFuddle-dum-rumpleyˈfʌd l dʌm ˈrʌm plifuhd-l duhm ruhm-plee
GGnomenoʊmnohm
HHeirɛərair
IIncomprehensible(ˌ)in-ˌkäm-pri-ˈhen(t)-sə-bəlin-kom-pri-hen-suh-buhl
JJabberwockyjab-er-wok-eeˈdʒæb ərˌwɒk i
KKkeɪkay
LLigmaˈlɪg məlig-muh
MMancy ˈmæn siman-see
NNosferatuˌnɒsfəˈrɑːtuːNOS-fuh-RAA-too
OOrwellˈɔr wɛlawr-wel
PPneumaticsnʊˈmæt ɪksnoo-mat-iks
QQuaykikey
RRamuliferous¦ramyə¦lif(ə)rəsram-u-​lif-​er-​ous
SSchadenfreudeˈʃɑd nˌfrɔɪ dəshahd-n-froi-duh
Ttsk-tskˈtisk
UUranusyoor-uh-nuhsˈyʊər ə nəs
VVroommmmmmmvrumvroom-mmmm
WWritheraɪðrahyth
XXenodocheionologyˌzenədəˌkīəˈnäləjēxen·​o·​do·​chei·​on·​ol·​o·​gy
YYeastyˈyi stiyee-stee
ZZaddyˈzæd i-zad ee

An Open Letter to Current and Future Olin Improvisers

As this semester comes to a close, I find that I do not have time to teach all that I know about improv. I write this to impart some last bits of knowledge to you, the reader, in the hopes that it helps you improve the quality of your improv performances at least a little. The following are things that I have picked up from either books, or other improvisers, or my own experience that I feel I must share.

1. Freedom, Power & Responsibility

First, there was nothing. Then, there was improv. When two people initiate a scene, the person who speaks first, whether through words or actions, has the freedom to do or say whatever they want. When the stage is empty, you could walk on and say, “Shit, that was a wrong turn,” or ,”Doc, my face feels like it’s on fire,” to quickly establish part of a platform (Who’s there? Where? And what’s happening?). Actions like digging or fishing can also help establish who your character is through the use of body language. As the improviser to initiate the scene, you walked on and had the freedom to make the empty space your own.

Now, the person who responds has the power to interpret your words or actions and establish a direction for the scene. For example, in response to the wrong turn line, your scene partner may respond, “Oh! The scenic route!” or, “Jackie, at this rate, we’re going to miss the wedding!” Even an audible huff establishes that your character often misses turns and that your partner character’s patience may be wearing thin. Responses need not always be words. Let’s say that you begin a scene by digging. Your partner walks up, crosses their arms, and watches. By not helping (and with their body language), they are saying that yes, you are digging, and I am supervising. If they were not helping, but were holding a shovel too and wiping sweat from their brow, then they have used their power to say that you two are coworkers, allowing the scene to have a very different set of interactions.

The initiative now shifts back to you. After your freedom to do anything and your scene partner’s power to interpret your anything, you now have the responsibility to continue the scene using that same interpretation. If your scene partner responds to you saying, “Doc, my face feels like it’s on fire,” with the statement, “I am a cardiologist. I barely know what a face is,” then you have the responsibility to continue the scene in that direction, wherever it goes. In this specific case, we’ve established a precedent of asking for help in all the wrong places, which is a very funny pattern to continue in the same scene or future scenes with that character.

To summarize, the first person has the freedom to do or say whatever. The second person has the power to take that and establish a direction for the scene to go. The first person then has the responsibility to continue the scene in that direction. This is the idea of freedom, power and responsibility.

2. Give gifts, generously

In improv, giving a gift means giving a scene partner something to work with. The general suggestion is that you should give gifts as much as possible, and that the best improvisers make their scene partners look amazing through gifts.

Gifts in the context of improv do not need to be physically handing someone an object. Usually, a gift takes the form of an idea that can be further explored. Take, for example, a scene where two improvisers are talking over lunch. They may touch upon the minutiae of their day to day or describe the food they’re eating or restaurant they are in, but that is world building if anything. The scene really gets going when one person says something like, “Let’s get down to business. You say you want my house?” This question has the obvious, interesting answer of, “Yes, I want your house,” and gives the other improviser both a strong motivation and the power to answer the question of why their character wants the other’s house. Giving gifts tends to take the form of statements or questions with obvious, interesting answers that elaborate upon motivations, shared history, or other relationships a character may have. Good gifts help further the development of the scene, the characters as individuals, and their relationship with each other.

Newer improvisers sometimes struggle with establishing strong characters or inserting themselves in larger group scenes. A gift in their case may be a strong and clear character trait to help them find their footing in a scene. Easy characters to gift are spouses/ significant others, bosses/the president (of anything) or business partners. These characters are easy to support and explore around, allowing for other gifts to be given during the lifetime of the character.

3. “Yes, And” means agreement between actors, not necessarily characters within a scene

The backbone of improv is the idea that actors must agree with each other to fully create and explore a scene. The quickest way to do this is by agreeing to ideas your scene partner brings.

For example, say there is you and another person initiating a scene. The other person approaches and says, “Mother, I wish to attend a party at David’s.” If we apply the idea of ‘Yes, And’ to the characters themselves, then the Mother must acquiesce the request. The child gets to go to David’s party.

But if we apply ‘Yes, And’ to the actors and not the characters, then the mother has the power to say, “No, Honey. I’ve never met David or his parents.” And can respond like a mother. This allows the improvisers to explore and resolve the conflict that has been presented, exploring the world of the child and mother along the way.

4. The performers are in charge, not the audience

A long, long time ago, we held a show that did not go well. We as performers gave the audience so much power that it hindered our ability to perform and our general consensus after the show was that it could not have gone much worse.  For complete transparency I will name this event as the rotten food show from 2 years ago. The best thing that came from that show was a decision to never do it again. But I think it’s worth saying why it didn’t work because that topic comes up in other places.

As improvisers, we learn how to bring ideas from our head onto the stage. We also have a filter for words and topics that the audience does not. To that end, and for the comfort of the actors and general audience, the final say of what happens on stage is in the hands of the performers and no one else’s.

For example, take the game of Pillars. Audience members are sat onstage and tapped on the shoulder for words and phrases to fill in the blank. Let’s paint ourselves a scene where a parent and child are cleaning out their car. The child finds an object that they do not recognize and are unsure where to put it. They ask their parent. The parent says, “Oh, that? Just put it –” and then taps one of the pillars, an audience member, for a suggestion. Let’s say the pillar replies with the phrase, “in my ass.” While the response is funny in a non-sequitur sort of way, and the improvisers may be able to continue after the audience calms down, there is nothing wrong with hitting the pillar for a second time and saying, “again,” or, “another one,” to get a different word or phrase. One of the joys of working with an audience is not knowing what you’re going to get, but I dare say the experience is so much better when it’s collaborative in nature and no one is trying to trip up the other.

Remember this and remember it well: the word of the audience is not law. Do not chase the audience’s laugh. You can control what is brought on stage.

5. An improviser is a storyteller

Again, improvising is hard. There are soft boundaries everywhere that you hit and have to bounce back from. Sometimes, especially when improvising with individuals new to the world of improv or experienced with a different troupe, these boundaries will appear within improv scenes.

Sometimes scenes will begin or move in a direction that you, as an improviser, will not like. Maybe your character is pushed in a direction or given qualities that hit you personally. Maybe the scene is delving into a topic that is making you increasingly uncomfortable and you know is heading in a bad direction.

Change it, I say. This is not real life. This is a story in your head. Your character is an ass? A bully? Not anymore after a quick personal epiphany. Now they’re nice and work to lift up others. Stuck in a bad situation? Feel like you have no control? Good thing you’re the undercover boss. The secret audit officer.

There is no reason you should be trapped in a story you are helping to build. Improv scenes are a collaborative storytelling medium. A good scene partner can recognize discomfort and help shift the scene away from that direction.

Final Thoughts

I swear this was supposed to be light-hearted. I started writing it that way and then realized there were other things to say.

Like many things in life, there’s so much knowledge you only gain through experience and I just wanted to share these tidbits as a parting gift. I wish you all the best of luck going forward and am glad I got to be a part of your journey.

Affectionately,

Luis Francisco Zuniga

I’m A Guy You Just Met, And I’m Already Mansplaining Python To You

Hey, it’s great to meet you. Did you know that Python uses whitespace instead of brackets? I’m sure you didn’t, because even though the internet exists and there are thousands of tutorials out there, I must be the only person in the world who has ever taken a Python course. 

Isn’t it so amazing that I know basic information about Python syntax that anyone would get from a W3Schools tutorial? Having opinions on the relative merits of camel case and snake case makes me feel like a fully formed human being.

What do you think about the latest Python release? You haven’t thought about it? You must not be a real engineer. I, of course, read the Python changelog on a daily basis, and I tell everyone I meet about it because I think it makes me a well-informed citizen. 

You know, I really feel like being able to use Git is a defining personality trait. Yeah, I’ve only ever used Git to write commit messages like “asdfjkasldflaksdfj i hope this works” and “changed something”, but being able to type two-word commands into a terminal shows that I am a very intelligent person.

Sometimes I feel threatened by the fact that software engineers that aren’t white males exist, but then I go to my room and read the James Damore memo and tell myself that I’m special because I once read the first few chapters of a book on object-oriented programming and then I feel all better.

What’s that? You’ve used Python before? You’ve used Git too? That can’t be right. If you’re not spending all of your time on r/programming, how can you even call yourself a coder?

Well, I just checked your Github account, and my contributions graph has more commits than yours does because I don’t understand the concept of rebase, so I must be a better developer.

Have I told you how cool Elon Musk is? Wait, where are you going? Come back so I can tell you my take on the Cybertruck!

This article was inspired by fun moments as a woman in STEM.

dASSember Whoreoscopes

Very chaste and conservative predictions for the Franklin Walter Olin College Family.

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)

Among the most oily fries lies a piece of gold. It’s your destiny calling, pick up! If you don’t, they’ll call again soon, but man are they going to be pissed. It’s not every day that destiny calls, and you can’t even get yourself off the toilet to answer. Is this because of the oily fries?

Aries (March 21 – April 19)

Have you ever built a snowman? Do you want to build a snowman? Come on, let’s go and play! If you make a mess, that’s okay. Self-forgiveness is important, but make sure to buy some Clorox wipes! And definitely use those wipes to clean your laptop screen. Also, join ASs club.

Taurus (April 20 – May 20)

When the SolidWorks file crashes, you will crash with it. Beware of zero thickness geometry and always have a license on hand. When the circuit shorts, supply power again and again. The circuit just needs some time. Give it some time!!! Try plugging the USB into your belly button.

Gemini (May 21 – June 21)

After today, never eat chickpeas unless peeled beforehand. It will thank you. Embrace your inner child and you will receive 20% off your next purchase. If you call 1-800-CHILD right now, you’ll get two for the price of one! Now that’s a steal! DO NOT try this for jlcpcb.com purchases unless you are willing to lose a finger.

Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

In seven years look towards the sun. Close your eyes, though! But keep your third eye open. But if you keep it open for too long, it might get cold! Get some warm green tea and then feed it to the birds. They get cold too. If your corporeal form gets cold, try sitting in the 3rd floor endcap of the MAC.

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)

Your elbow grease is leaking. Get a hold of yourself! It’s going to get all over your Cup Noodles™. You wouldn’t want that to happen– your Cup Noodles™ are so delicious all on their own, now with 50% less sodium! When life gives you lemons, make a battery. But don’t eat it.

Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21)

It seems they are watching you eat that cookie. Is it good? Do it for yourself – not others. What if you put a little bit of peanut butter on it? For yourself? Or maybe, you can eat it with ice cream. Or, if you are dairy-free, just stick to the peanut butter. Have you tried jelly on a cookie? Be open-minded. For yourself.

Scorpio (October 24 – November 21)

Call your mom. You need her. Like a servo motor, you spin when someone tells you to. Like an Arduino, you can be programmed. If you would like to opt out of being programmed all you have to do is let us know. Scream “妈妈” really loud in the dining hall. That’s the best way to reach us.

Libra (September 23 – October 23)

Scratch those armpits while you contemplate why you are alive. It’ll be a fruitful meditation, as long as you scratch those armpits. Whose armpits? We’ll never tell! If you say AC instead of MAC, we will tell. That’s unacceptable. One day Olin will consider naming a building after you.

Virgo (August 23 – September 22)

How do you wipe? You need to figure this out ASAP. Even if you think you know, you should definitely double-check. Once you find out, please let us know because now we are invested. Speaking of investing, the stock market is down <3 i hope this helps :) Now is the time to buy!

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

Turn away from your demons at your earliest convenience. That spinach in your fridge is going bad. Eat that pie too! You need to clean out and unplug your fridge or else you will have a stinky surprise (metaphorically). When you are done with the cleaning, take a look inside? Are you clean? What is clean? I have a mop if you want to borrow it.

Cancer (June 22 – July 22)

Hey partner, have you been suffering? Colony Care is a free resource for all Olin College students, and you should reach out if you want someone to talk to. Email Laura Kinney at laurakinney@colonycare.net to schedule an appointment with a Colony Care provider today! Also, tell the person to your left their shoe is untied.

Compliment Corner – Spring 2021

Editor’s Note: Thank you Jessie Potter for helping put this together!!!

Reid is such a wonderful and lovely person to talk to and work with

It’s been great having Arlene Keizer as the Sketch Model Creative in Reference this year.  I’ve loved the speakers and the workshops that she has shared with the community!

Shreya, thank you for showing me how to take time to slow down and learn. I admire how thoughtful you are in both in your role as an engineer and as a friend, and I appreciate you <3

Emma P, I am *so* glad I picked up helio and got to spend so much quality time with you out on the great lawn. I’m going to miss you next year!

Chris and Oscar Allum and de la Garza made this semester feel like real Olin again with the pool tourney. Thanks <3

Becca, you’re such a hard worker and I always appreciate seeing you around Zoomland

-points at clark pohl- this sparks joy

Reid Bowen, thank you for being such a strong, empathetic human in my life and the lives of others. You are so loved and appreciated.

Sherrie and Shashank are the best Advanced Algorithms co-instructors ever! I loved when we started a few of our meetings with important anime discussions

Jocelyn, thank you for coming to Olin. You had the perspective I gave you, and you still chose to come. Better yet, you made Olin an amazing place and were a fantastic MIX president. I love you so much and I am so so proud of you. You are such a kind person and help make space for others to exist and I wish the best for you. Please take care of yourself. You’re so 10/10 and I will miss you so much.

Chelsea, you are a ray of sunshine! Our SCOPE team wouldn’t be half as fun without you around to brighten up our meetings

Thank you Jordan for always helping me pack. 

Cara makes really good bread

Pickles E> was a really great suite and they really carried this year for me. I will miss you all greatly and wish you much love. 

Grant G just has really good vibes

CJ is unpredictable in the best way

Jordan is such a great person and has been extremely supportive of me during this past four years.

Zoie is always excited to do stuff and is hilarious to be around

Allison Li is a great friend and brings great energy to every interaction

Alli Busa and Aiden Carley-Clopton make really good orange chicken.

Shree is chill to be around and is really understanding and empathetic

Andrew C (when he doesn’t just repeat one-liners :P) is actually really funny but is still able to hold serious conversations when needed

Emma is an amazingly creative DM and is great at character voices

Sof’s laughter is contagious

Chase is a big pokemon nerd but he got our suite, our favorite pokemon plush as surprise easter gifts.

Han has a great sense of humor (when he isn’t repeating the same jokes on loop)

Arla brings amazingly positive energy wherever she goes

Nathan Estil knows how to make good mac and cheese and mashed potatoes from real potatoes that are a great consistency.  

Luke M is such a sweet bean

Maia Materman! Since you aren’t running Compliment Corner this time (thank you lovely Jessie!) you can’t delete this compliment about you :) Thank you for being such a loving, empathic human, I appreciate you greatly <3

Annie Tor! You’re such a wonderful person, and someone I’m very grateful to call a friend of mine. You’re always so hard working and selfless, I have no idea how you do it all!

Shree is just really easy to hang out with

Mark Goldwater is made out of seaweed but also kindness.

Sara Hendren has gone above and beyond to make UOCD viable this semester under incredibly challenging circumstances for that course.  We appreciate everything you’ve done!

Jason Woodard is the best presenter Olin has ever had.  His leadership on the Org&Culture team presentations has been a model for all of us to emulate.

Mark Somerville has helped us all survive this year.  Where would we be without him?

Sharon Breitbart did it again.  (And by “it,” I mean everything.)

I wish I could think about tricky things the way Deb Chachra does!

Caitrin Lynch has chaired every committee about everything this semester.  Is there anything she can’t do astoundingly well?  I doubt it.

I can’t even believe how lucky I have been to have the eight stellar members of my lab this semester.  Libby, Eamon, Alison, Micah, Ava, Bill, Liv, and Ally  – you all rock!  I am so, so grateful to get to play with you all and wish it would never end! – Jon Adler 

Sherrie makes really good food and always shares her creatures just when I need them

Prisha, I know you don’t like people saying nice things about you, but I just wanted to say, I really appreciate how caring and selfless of a person you are. I know lots of people look up to you and you’re just a great human who deserves the world

Stephanie Milton was a pleasure to have at Olin and I will miss her terribly.

Adva has been our emotional rock this semester.  That wasn’t a fair thing of us to ask of her, but we are eternally grateful for her persistence, strength, and grace. 

Rick O and the whole IT team have done astounding gymnastics this year to keep us all connected in the ether and we’re so, so thankful!

I have no idea how Jason Woodard does everything he does, and does it so well.

I wouldn’t have graduated without my tutors. Thank you Kyle Combes, Emily Kohler, Vivien Chen (x2 semesters), Anil Patel, Katya Donovan, Onur Tolu, Emma Westeroff, Mark Goldwater, Nathaniel Tan, Brandon Zhang, Quinn Kelley, and Abigail Fry (x6 semesters). 

Maia Matterman – I love your bubbly energy but also your compassion for valuing the health and wellbeing of those around you! <3

Micah – you’re so cool and down to earth! Go you!

Gail – thank you for all the love and generosity and fun times!

Melissa – you always bring a smile on my face :)

Sam Coleman – you make Olin special and you are so loyal and trustworthy!

Shreya – you are so compassionate and such a great leader for the Olin community and class of ’22

Sam D. – thank you for being such a rockstar and role model for our community <3

Katie Foster – I always love talking to you and you’re so fun and kind!

Mika is the goth bitch of my (platonic) dreams, love you!!

Emma Pan – You’re so thoughtful, and I always love hanging out with you!

Ricky has great vibes

Melissa Anthony is incredibly kind and understanding, and is one of the frankliest speakers I know (in a good way). Thank you for the jokes and bits, and for never giving up on what’s really important.

Olin students are amazing!

Sam Daitzman, you’re great! I would love to get to know you better, because you’re such a cool person!

Adva is a dear and I love her.

Shreya is one of the most caring, kind people I know! I’m so glad that I’m friends with her <3 

Maeve makes me feel seen and affirmed 1,000,000 times over

Thank you to the Olin OPEN leadership team for taking over and doing an amazing job. Glad you all are kind, compassionate, and dedicated leaders. This include you Melissa <3

If I ever become 5% as cool as Emma Pan I’ll be satisfied with my life

Will Fairman has huge biceps 

Meg Ku you are a rockstar and an inspiring leader! Keep up the awesome work :)

Nathan W, you are so incredibly smart!

I love whoever designed the senior class tshirt. It’s amazing and fantastic.

Anusha- Thanks for the incredible work you do for our class! 

Flynn-  I really miss seeing you around campus! You are such a light. 

Shout out to [brand name] for being extremely chaotic but giving me a project I enjoy to this day. 

Callan- Thank you for the passion and hard work you put into the Olin library! You make everything more fun and engaging. 

Joanne P- Thanks for all the amazing support throughout the years! Loved getting to ninja for you for some of them! 

Tim S- Thank you for bringing so much joy and spirit to each and every conversation and design critique. You are truly one of a kind and I am in awe of the fact that I even get to know you! 

Thank you to my Sibb Dylan for being fantastic and always having great hair. I love you tons and I enjoyed working with you this semester.

Dylan M- You are so giving, kind, and strong. I know this was an unbelievably hard semester, but you powered through it with grace and dedication.

Jax the cat- Sad I haven’t met you in person, but please know I literally cheer out loud every time I see you through the window.

Sarah Deng is the best SCOPE project owner. She taught me what I wanted in a team and helped our team keep it together when we fell apart several times this year.

Mark G- Thanks for always making me laugh!

Quinn Kelly is one of the reasons I wish I rejoined Baja. She’s extremely supportive and worth being friends with. She’s up for random things and cares about the people around her. 

Adva- Thanks for really caring!

Mika- You are SO undeniably cool.

Meg Ku- our dedicated receipt wizard. Absolutely phenomenal. 

Grant G- You are so sweet and such a thoughtful listener. Thanks for being a bright spot in my senior year!

Lydia Hodges is extremely funny and made SCOPE and BMDD worth it.

Madi- You are so inclusive and kind. I’ve appreciated your Mel and life updates, and the passion you bring to discussions.

Mika Notermann has the best memes

Loren- So so kind and always says hello. Genuinely spreads cheer to those around him wherever he goes!

Thank you to the BMDD class and Alisha for keeping it real.

David F- Miss seeing this sweet human so much! So incredibly selfless and giving.

Katie Thai-Tang has the coolest style and always shares her smile to those around her.

Sabrina- You are so much fun to be around and have such a good heart. Also- your sense of style is impeccable!

Alisha, I can’t thank you enough for teaching a class in the accessibility space without being ableist. Thank you for calling out the ableism from our clients and ourselves. Thank you for being inclusive in the way you taught our class and not assuming all of us were able-bodied. I’m so proud of your for taking on your new role, but please know you were one of the most supportive professors I had that helped me get the most out the classes you thought. 

Micah- You are so real and rare. I am so lucky to have gotten to know you better sophomore year- you find the fun in situations and also strive to make things better.

Bahner- You are so easy to talk to and so considerate! Also, I really wish I had your dance moves. 

Noah- You have the most amazing sense of humor, but also you pay close attention to the world around you and care really deeply about things. I always really enjoy getting to see you! 

Robin- you have the best shenanigans and such a thoughtful heart. Thank you for always stopping to chat, and for your enthusiasm! 

JZ- You radiate positive vibes. Grateful for your passion for bad day cookies, big rock, Mariokart, and more. Thank you for being so passionate about Olin and its community.

Aaron. I know you are gone, and I regret not thanking you sooner, but thank you for keeping me real and pushing me to be my best even though it took me a while to get here. I wouldn’t have graduated without you. I am so grateful that you were my DesNat professor. Thank you for helping me see the people around me and making me aware of the tunnel vision I entered Olin with. 

Alison- You are such a good listener and someone that so many people feel safe going to. Thank you for all the work you’ve done to support others at Olin! 

Jamie- You have so much energy and make everything way more fun! You make conversations effortless, are always willing to go out of your way to make sure everyone is having a good time, and also are just very authentic and friendly. 

Koala Tea Friends- Wouldn’t have made it here without you! Please please please keep in touch. 

Kyle B- An incredible super-Mechy who comes up with so many brilliant solutions. Also incredibly good at so many board games. And a phenomenal baker. Seriously- your talent and dedication is unreal! 

Chase- One of my favorite peeps. So sweet, so altruistic, and you give such amazing hugs. Thanks for being a good friend, and for always going with the flow!

Amy- Is there anything you cannot do? Grateful for your dedication, thoughtful insights, willingness to try new things, and creativity. 

Ever- Miss you more than I have the words to say. You bring such warmth and comfort to those around you. I wish I had your ability to make people feel comfortable and cared for. You give the best hugs, and I know that with your kind heart and brilliant mind you are gonna make waves in the world!

Cali- Your enthusiasm and love for fun have made such an impact on my time at Olin. Thank you for the many pinterest messages, baking adventures, good show recommendations, and more. You are attentive to what others are saying, and contribute excellent thoughts and questions to discussions. You just make me so happy and see the best in others.

Luis- We’ve come a long way from two first years trying to model Superman punching someone off the planet. You put a lot of thought into the things you do, and are somehow both the most calming presence in a room and the person with the best jokes to make someone snort with laughter. I appreciate your willingness to try anything, and to jump in and help others where you can.

Cassandra- You have no idea how relieved I am that you will be in New England for graduate school! You are brilliant and insightful. You give the most considerate, personalized gifts I’ve ever received, and you ALWAYS show up when I need a friend, despite your very busy and dedicated schedule. Thank you for making me laugh, sending me cute webtoon references, fangirling over the same characters with me, dancing to Taylor Swift music videos, finding photography and writing opportunities, and more. You are such an amazing person in every way, and I am so so lucky to have you in my life. 

Alison W- Thank you for being such an amazing and supportive adviser through my entire time at Olin! You bring so much joy and kindness wherever you go. 

Timmy’s Suite- Thank you for reaching out and helping me when I was at a low point. I will forever be grateful to you, and love how sweet and caring you are as a group! 

Emma P- You are so hardworking and really care about ethics in engineering in such an inspiring way. I wish I had half your creativity and skills! You are so fun to be around and come up with clever and unique activities to try!

Rob Martello, the great wizard of AHS- Thanks for being such a good sport about becoming everyone’s background, and for the energy you put into your classes! You respond so speedily and really support your students. I am grateful to have gotten to know you more over the past two years- you are a gem! 

Casey May- Gosh I miss you! In every situation, you somehow find the absolute kindest thing to say. You are an undeniable gem in the Olin Community. You make others feel valued and seen. You give the best movie reviews. Your future dog is going to be the most loved animal on the planet. You have mad computer skills. An amazing sense of humor. The list could go on forever! 

Anna G- your energy is contagious and you are so considerate! It always meant a lot when you invited me to things. You are so driven and dedicated, and I am amazed by the sheer amount of work you crank out, all while still keeping things fun and interesting! Thanks for being such a good sport about everything and spreading lots of cheer!

Ricky- you are not only HILARIOUS and incredibly cool, but you also have an undeniably kind heart. You are so accepting and really listen to what other people say. I really wish I spent more time with you over these past four years, but I’m beyond grateful for the conversations we did have!

Julian- You were someone I spent my whole time at Olin wishing to know better, and I’m so glad I got to see you quite a bit this year! Your references always make me smile, and you just do everything with so much joy. Whenever anything happens, I always feel like you have the best reactions, and you are a very sincere individual. I wish I had your energy, charisma, and excellent taste in music. 

Jason Woodard- the man, the myth, the legend! Thank you for all of your kindness and help. You were the best ModSim instructor, Mechanics buddy, P&M teaching team member, and SCOPE adviser I could ask for. You are generous, creative, hard working, and encourage those around you to be better. 

Serna- Very thoughtful and dedicated, and you’ve done an incredible job with Frankly Speaking! I love seeing your passions and creativity play out through your Olin projects, and now with your soap business! Can’t wait to see what the next few years will bring you! 

Class of 2021- I love you all. Please keep the group chat popping with the occasional life update or cursed image. 

Thank you all for generating over 9 Google docs pages of compliments! I am beyond grateful to have been a part of this community for the past four years. In the words of A.A. Milne, “how lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” 

You are motivated. You are strong. You seek the best in people. Thank you for generating some joy and kindness with this form. I know each of you will continue to fill the Olin community with love and shenanigans through the rest of your time here.

Reopening the Front Door

It’s cliche to say I didn’t realize the fall of 2019 would be my only “normal” Olin semester to date, but it’s true. I started my job at Olin in July of that year. The first day I rode my bike to work, I got a flat tire about six miles from campus, but a fellow commuter showed up out of the blue, gave me a spare tube, and helped me make it on my way. That week, Summer Sketch Model was happening, and the library was full of people both from campus and beyond. I marveled at how different this new job was from my last one in a busy system of public libraries less than ten miles away, and not just because there was free lunch. At the public libraries, I only knew the names of a handful of our regulars. It allowed for a sort of shallow memory that made it easy to empty out the contents of my brain at the end of a given day and make room for a new crop of strangers on the next one. At Olin, I didn’t know who anyone was, but I knew being successful at the job required quickly figuring it out. And there was not only a cast; there was also a script, a shared language with tons of jargon. I furiously took notes at an early orientation session where somebody patiently explained the most frequently used acronyms on campus. A few days later, I chuckled when I heard our pop-up campus coffee shop was called “ACRONYM.”

That semester, I tried to make sense of the priorities for myself and the library while also grasping a better lay of the land. I took advantage of the course visitation program; that let me pop my head into classes offered at the time. I think most people in those classes were probably like, “who’s this lady with the unicorn hair?”, which is fine. I was included in a new faculty orientation pod, which helped me feel like I wasn’t alone in thinking of “The Raven” every time anyone said “POE.” I also conducted a community-driven strategic planning process that helped me put most of my assumptions aside and confirmed a few of the smarter ones, and also gave me much greater insight into the unique role the library plays on Olin’s campus. From September to December, we saw thousands of footfalls every week – library workers love to measure those entrances and exits – and it ticked up throughout the semester. We hosted everything from geodesic dome building to community breakfasts to guest speakers to final presentations. But what I liked the best were our casual gatherings, whether impromptu or part of an event, when we’d talk about anything, everything, and nothing. We made sense of the world in the library, whether we were seeking greater understanding or just trying to make each other laugh.

I won’t say it was a hard decision to close the library from March 2020 to May 2021. It wasn’t. We had the institutional support to do it (thanks, y’all). Over this past winter break period with cases spiking around the country, it didn’t seem appropriate to change our course. In the early days, when no one knew a thing about COVID, a huge amount of attention was placed on potential surface transmission. That was particularly the case in libraries, where the paranoia was kicked up by a series of talks and studies that meant well but led us to think we were all doomed. With a small staff and a very tactile work environment, it seemed impossible to find a way to keep up with quarantining and cleaning expectations, so we opted to move ourselves as much as we could online. I also was very concerned about the safety concerns spreading throughout the library field, especially given that most state-level guidance chose to pretend libraries don’t exist (or that, as one Johns Hopkins paper suggested last summer, libraries are “low risk,” even though the entire deal with libraries is you touch things other people can touch and you spend a ton of time breathing the same air as people you’ve never seen in your life and probably never will again). So we closed when the college did, and we decided to stay closed for this entire academic year.

Now, as we get ready to dip a toe into something resembling “normalcy” on campus, I find myself thinking about the folks who’ve told me their ability to socialize has diminished throughout the pandemic. I don’t know if I’m in that boat (I’m always awkward, so what’s a year of isolation gonna do?), but I’m not sure I remember how the fall of 2019 felt, either. And I’m cautious. I’m fully vaccinated, but I’ve still only gone to a restaurant in the Boston area once since March 2020. (It was Semolina in Medford – that place rules.) We’ve got a long way to go before we can even approximate what we were doing two years ago. I don’t think the before times are gone, but some of them have started to fade. I’m still new at Olin, though, and I’m still learning how to be a part of this place, and I’m trying to remember my glimpses of what it felt like in here before no one was around. One of my favorite memories of that time was when the library rats started showing up. There was one, and then there were dozens, and if you’re a first year or a new employee, you may have no clue what I’m talking about, but you will soon. (I feel an obligation to end this paragraph with “don’t worry, they aren’t actual rats.”)

This academic year has been tremendously hard, and we’re almost to the end of it. There were so many days when I wished we could be open like before, gathered around in a circle, sharing snacks and stories, finding a way to push through like we did on the day we found out we were all being sent home, eating Wegmans cake. One staff member said to me recently that they wouldn’t feel things were “normal” until they saw the library’s front doors opened. I can’t guarantee normalcy, but I do hope one thing that will help us soon in the future is the ability to return to a place where we can all come and process the world together, no matter how silly, tiresome, or abnormal it gets. I’ll prop the doors for you.

Reflecting on What it Means to Scale Change Responsibly

Police brutality. Asian hate. Anti-immigrant. LGBTQ+ rights. Voter disenfranchisement. Rising unemployment. Housing crisis. These are just a handful of the phrases that, when spotted in today’s news headlines, social media postings, and public protests, make me feel a pressing need to do something. However, a question I’ve been grappling with recently is: How can I scale social change responsibly?

Two years ago, I learned that my good intentions are capable of causing significant harm.

When PInT received a well scoped web-scraping project from a nonprofit that uses technology to identify victims of human trafficking, I signed up immediately. I had looked forward to using my technical skills to help others since applying to engineering school, and was eager to get started. After our team’s first meeting with the nonprofit stakeholders, I felt energized, like a vigilante about to dish out justice to the perpetrators of human trafficking.

When we started working on this project, I had little knowledge of the complexity of the human-trafficking space, and the ethical concerns that accompany any attempt at intervention. We met with professors who work in the trafficking prevention space, and researched previous intervention attempts like the SESTA-FOSTA bill, where a well-intentioned attempt to prevent human trafficking led to a policed environment that forced voluntary sex workers into riskier and more dangerous situations (Editors’ Note: This is hyperlinked). Over multiple months of research and deliberation, our team gradually shifted our focus from asking about data privacy risks to asking crucial questions about the power dynamics of the project, and the needs of the vulnerable people we wanted to help. Who decides whether someone is a victim or simply trying to make a living? Are there lasting support networks in place for all victims who are identified?

Looking at the project from the perspective of potential human trafficking victims, I realized that the people with the power to make decisions about their welfare were all ex-military white men, who have only chosen to partner with law-enforcement agencies. These men with good intentions have vastly different lived experiences from those of human trafficking survivors, and left out victims and survivors from their decision-making processes. They communicated in dehumanizing combatant terms like “extract” and “offensive/defensive”, which sharply contrast the compassionate language and values of survivor support groups. Their responsibility ends as soon as they pass on victim information to law enforcement, and they don’t have any accountability for what happens to victims afterwards. Our team had even less experience and contact with survivors of human trafficking, and hypothetically could hand off the technical tool we were asked to make, with no accountability for how that tool would be used.

The project proposal, which had once seemed so straightforward, was suddenly rife with ethical dilemmas. Our job was to cast a wide net in our data collection, and let the police-affiliated nonprofit decide which people were victims who needed help. Once this decision is made, the ‘victim’ has no choice in whether or not their information is passed on to law-enforcement agencies. The people whose data we were told to collect could be selling sexual services voluntarily, trying to make ends meet, or avoiding more dangerous situations. The repercussions of misidentifying someone as a victim without their consent are severe–it could lead to prostitution charges, incarceration, a permanent criminal record, and/or loss of child custody. I realized that an intent to “do good” is not sufficient to prevent causing significant harm to the people I aim to serve.

Due to the many dimensions of risk that our team could not account for, we all felt uncomfortable with continuing to implement this project. When we respectfully communicated our concerns and decision not to proceed to our nonprofit client, they thanked us but did not make any changes. I was initially afraid that by refusing to continue the project, we had failed to validate PInT’s student-driven consulting model. I wished we could have continued to work with the nonprofit to include survivor voices in their process, to

guide the work they are doing. However, as students with limited time and no direct connections with survivors, we were not well poised to be doing that sensitive work.

Looking back, I am proud of my team for making a difficult decision that centered care for the people we were designing for. I have come to realize that there is immense value in modeling for our community of budding engineers that saying “No” is a valid, sometimes necessary action for preventing harm to others and ourselves. I learned from this experience that refusing to continue a line of work can feel futile, but the personal risk the action carries can add weight to my words. There are hundreds of engineers out there who could take my place if I say “No”, but if I keep my head down, how can I expect others to step up, or for any meaningful change to happen? Through my refusal, I can grow my own ethical practice, and potentially influence the practice of others.

After these revelations, my mindset swung from “do good” to “do no harm”. For a time, I chose smaller-scale projects that were closer to home, with less risk of severe consequences, but also less potential for significant impact. I battled a feeling of paralysis that threatened to keep me from experiencing new contexts and challenges. A project-based class called Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship (ADE) helped me feel more equipped to commit to large-scale change, while still being cautious of potential consequences and prioritizing stakeholder needs.

In ADE, I joined a team on a multiyear project with a mission to abolish the carceral system in Massachusetts. This is an important and ambitious goal. In the United States, the carceral system is massive, and the system is racist. Mass incarceration in America has deep historical roots and causes harm to people before, during, and after they are locked in prisons. It’s a complex, daunting problem that no one person, team, community, state, or even political party could take on alone. Our challenge is to protect people of color when finding, scoping, and implementing a specific project that intervenes in the massive system built against them.

When I started the project, the team had already spent almost two years focused solely on learning about the context of mass incarceration in Massachusetts, and connecting to related local organizations, community organizers, and people who are formerly incarcerated. In the human trafficking prevention project, the only voices we initially heard were those of the nonprofit employees, who hadn’t spoken much to the people they served. Meanwhile in ADE, building relationships with stakeholders was and still is our first priority, so that we can center the voices of the people who are directly affected in all of our project-related decisions.

This semester, our goal was to scope and evaluate the impact of a specific project proposal: creating a publicly accessible database of policing traffic stop data, with analysis tools to help public defenders and community organizers statistically prove the racial discrimination they see every day. Given my state of paralysis at the time, I was weary of this project because of the ways in which it could cause harm to people of color. Sharing police accountability data could lead to retaliation in the local community and collecting traffic stop data could put people at risk of employment discrimination if that data is identifiable or leaked.

ADE has us mitigate harm by speaking to people who have relevant expertise, so that we understand the full spectrum of risks we are taking on. For example, I spent a few weeks interviewing data advocacy experts, who asked us where we get data from, who is responsible for storing it, and how it will be shared. If we dove directly into technical prototyping and user testing without answering these questions, we could end up with a useless outcome, or accidentally leak sensitive information to the wrong people. By taking the time to fully understand the problem before trying to solve it, we can make more deliberate decisions that design against harm.

However, given the generally unpredictable nature of humans, we can design for years and some amount of risk will still remain. At a certain point, the only way to learn if a solution will be effective is by testing it in a non-hypothetical setting. The ADE framework encourages us to mitigate harm by trying out solutions at a small scale, where we can easily test our assumptions and measure the effects. Our team will test our new project by collecting a small amount of data to analyze, and sharing it with a group of people we trust, for feedback. The stakes are low, so that if we discover negative consequences or exceptions to our base assumptions, we can take a step back and adjust given that information, or try something else altogether. Reflecting on this fluid process has helped me realize that scaling change can be nonlinear.

If we receive positive feedback, that is a good indicator to expand a little more, to get perspectives from different people. The leader of a local community organizing group working against systemic racism and police brutality expressed that they could make a lot of change with the proposed data tools, but never had the time to create them, given all the more immediately pressing issues on their plate. There is a clear need for our project coming from the people we serve, and our team has that bandwidth, technical skill set, and core mission alignment to be able to implement it with minimal risk. All of these factors indicate to me that in this case, our team is well-poised to be doing this type of work, and should continue down this path.

Similar to a dialogue between people, the act of scaling can expand or backtrack, and change course based on input from people who are directly affected. The fact that all of these are valid outcomes helps me overcome my feeling of paralysis, because it means I can still fail on a small scale, then learn, and grow, to inform a better solution with minimal overall harm. Over time, I can imagine our team making better and better decisions, if we base them on an accumulation of insights from past experiences. However, I still feel a tension between scaling like a dialogue, which is a process that cannot be rushed, and meeting the urgency of issues that are happening in the moment. People are dying from police brutality, and suffering behind bars because of the color of their skin. I don’t think dialogue-scaling is enough for change that needs to happen right now, and I wonder what alternative frameworks exist for making immediate change responsibly. My perspective on change-making has grown a lot at Olin, but I still have a lot to learn about the nuances of balancing momentum and risk in high-impact situations.

Shortbeard Cookies

Tis the season, and you decide to go back to your hometown to celebrate the Holidays. You have a red-eye flight tonight and a few hours to spare before you need to call an Uber to the airport. You are excited to see your parents, siblings, and childhood friends again at the huge annual Christmas party that your family organizes, but there is a lump of anxiety eating away at the bottom of your stomach. You haven’t been home in three years. Your dad warned you about that before you left for grad school. He said that you would rarely see him again, only coming home for short visits that would become increasingly sporadic as you grew older. At the time, you swore that you would visit every few months and always stay by mommy’s and daddy’s side. 

Dad was right, as usual. You drifted away from your family, floating up into a whole new world of adulting. Before you lose yourself in these new heights, you want to visit the ground at least one more time. So you’re going back home with an anchor dangling down, determined to reform a connection with your family.   

It’s easy to be up in the sky by yourself, not having to care about others. Your only obligation is to be in the lab every day for eight hours. At work, there is always another email to write or a new issue to debug. You tackle one to-do after the other until your desk is surrounded by a dark silence. You sit in an empty subway and trek through the darkness before arriving back at your apartment. It’s already close to 9 pm, so you quickly heat up some leftover mushroom pizza from yesterday. Repeating this day in and day out is easy, but it’s boring, like drifting through the same clouds over and over again. At this point, you tried all of Trader Joe’s frozen dinner options a million times.   

You miss those times when you spent the entire day with your brother testing out a “simple” Julia Child French recipe. Beef bourguignon, a rustic farmer’s dish that required every pot and pan in the kitchen. Pêches cardinal, a light summer dessert of poached peaches covered in raspberry puree, which wrecked the Vitamix blender. The two of you would argue about different recipe interpretations, while mom and dad constantly poked their noses into the kitchen, taking pictures and asking for samples. You don’t know if you can get that again when you come home. Your brother just became a father, which puts him on a whole nother level in the family hierarchy. Even so, the closeness and warmth of being home is more than enough to cure your loneliness.  

However, you can’t go back home empty-handed. Mom taught you to always prepare a gift when you are a guest, and until you arrive back home, you feel like a guest, an outsider. It’s taboo to grab something random sitting in your apartment, and your savings are dangerously close to the “will I be able to afford next month’s rent?” threshold. Souvenirs at the airport are so ridiculously overpriced. You chastise yourself for not thinking about this sooner. Maybe you can make something within the next five hours? Parents always like getting handmade gifts from their children even if they are in their late 20s. The living room back home is covered in paintings of flowers and wine bottles, even though your art teacher technically did most of them. Dad constantly shows you the Father’s Day card you drew him when you were five with a sloppily written “I love you” next to a stick figure. The typical “shoot I forgot that I have to make a card” kind of gift. Unfortunately, that tactic no longer flies. You forfeited your position as the family’s cutie pie three years ago. You have to make something that a grown-up lady would. You step into your kitchen and start rummaging through the cabinets.   

You used to bake like crazy, claiming it was your greatest passion. Watching The Great British Bake Off, flipping through baking science textbooks, scrolling through a million ASMR baking videos on YouTube, and scavenging the internet for recipes that you could mash together. You did all of these while dreaming that one day you could make something that looked and tasted just as amazing. Unfortunately, you weren’t super talented. You rarely got a recipe right on the first try. Most of the time, you screwed up a little thing and ended up with a subpar dessert. Accidentally forgetting to peel the apples before making apple butter and ending up with an apple sauce pie instead of a smooth and thick berry apple butter pie. You totally freaked out when the peels refused to dissolve with the pulp, and dad had to fix the blender so you could patch up your mistake. Over proofing your matcha sesame babka, resulting in a nearly burnt bake. Mom claimed that she loved the hard and slightly bitter crust because it reminded her of a treat from her childhood. Doing who knows what wrong with a Japanese cheesecake and having to cover up a large crack on the surface with blueberries. Your parents thought your blueberry decoration was intentional and wanted to take a bunch of photos before cutting the cake. Each mistake weighed down on you, but your parents were always there to encourage you to keep trying. You worked hard, got better, even worked at a cafe for a summer. But baking takes time, especially if you want to do it well, so once grad school started and you lost your cheerleaders, you put away your apron and redirected your determination to your research.

It’s been months since you baked something. Your pantry is quite diminished, but the essential ingredients are still there: all-purpose flour, sugar, baking powder, butter, and eggs. What should you make? Muffins? You don’t have a muffin tin. A sponge cake? How are you going to fit that in your backpack? Cookies? Yes, shortbread cookies are an option! Before your brother left for college, he would bake your grandmother’s shortbread cookies every Christmas. Sometimes, you would help him sift the flour, dig through the cookie cutter box, and coat the tops of the cookies with egg wash before baking them. Your brother constantly forgot to write down the recipe, so every year, the cookies tasted a bit different. Some years were too dry, others tasted like mini cakes. Baking shortbread cookies seemed like the most complicated recipe in the world, especially the part where you roll out the dough into a uniformly thin sheet. Eventually, he stopped baking cookies, and the family tradition went on hiatus. 


When you were back home for Christmas near the end of college, you stumbled upon your grandmother’s original recipe written in German. Your dad helped you translate the instructions, and you adapted your grandmother’s shortbread recipe to your own tastes, cutting down as much sugar as possible without impacting the chemistry. You experimented with different baking conditions and made the recipe your own. After two tries, you were able to reproduce the best versions of your brother’s cookies. Your parents love those cookies, so you decide to go for it. You open your fridge to fish out the butter and eggs. It’s important to have cold ingredients at room temperature, so they would more easily bond together, creating a seamless and evenly textured batter. Additionally, butter and eggs trap more air at room temperature, which would result in a more tender cookie. You pull out a few sticks of unsalted butter and a couple of eggs, leaving them to warm up on the counter while you dig out your little baking notebook. 

The softcover notebook is smaller than the palm of your hand. The pages are stained and wrinkled from various ingredients that escaped from measuring spoons or bowls. You flip to the page with your shortbread cookie recipe and start measuring out the ingredients using a $10 kitchen scale from Amazon. The measuring ingredients game is still as vexing as always. You weigh 250 grams of butter and 180 grams of sugar in two separate bowls. In a slightly larger mixing bowl, you measure out the dry ingredients, 500 grams of all-purpose flour and 1 tsp of baking powder. The baking powder is tricky since it’s even more powdery than flour. You can’t just stick a teaspoon into the container and expect to scoop out exactly 1 tsp. The natural alternative would be to weigh baking powder, but 1 tsp is 4.8 grams, and your scale doesn’t have that many significant digits. So you slowly add baking powder into the mixing bowl and watch the scale hit 4 grams. You add a tiny bit more and then the weight shoots to 6 grams. Urgh! The baking powder is already camouflaged among the flour. You try to scrape off the topmost layer, but the scale stubbornly stays at 6 grams. Ahh! Whatever! You’re out of practice and don’t have all day. You whisk together the flour and baking powder, finalizing the measurements. Your mom would have stuck the teaspoon right in the container and saved all that trouble, but accuracy is needed to create the perfect cookies. 

The last ingredients to prepare are lemon zest and juice. You grew up with a huge lemon tree in the backyard that provided an endless supply of large yellow lemons year round, which meant that all your recipes contain some form of lemon. In Boston, lemons are expensive, but old habits die hard, and you pay the extra few dollars to always have 1-2 lemons in your fridge. You take out your last lemon. The skin is smooth and light yellow, unlike the rough and darker skin of lemons back home. You cut the lemon in half and squeeze each half over a small bowl, carefully removing the seeds. Before throwing away the hollowed-out shells, you harvest the yellow skin with a microplane grater, tightly gripping one side of the lemon as you slide it back and forth.   

With all the ingredients, you follow the recipe step by step, making sure the butter is malleable to the touch before creaming it with the sugar, 2 eggs, lemon, a sprinkle of sea salt, and a dash of vanilla powder. From there, you slowly sift in the flour and baking powder. After dusting the batter with a thick layer of white snow, you force the hand mixer through the thickening mixture at a crawling pace. Sift and then mix. Eventually, the batter becomes a clay-like dough, and you abandon the mixer in favor of your hands, gently kneading until the dry powder disappears without a trace.

To firm up the butter and create shortbread’s crumbly texture, you chill the dough in the fridge. After two hours, you take out the hardened dough and roll it out until it is 1 cm thick. Having made thousands of pie crusts at La Terra cafe, rolling dough into a flat plain is almost second nature. You take a small metal ruler and measure the height of the edges, making sure they are very close to 1 cm. All your fancy Christmas cookie cutters are at home, but you have a practical 12-piece round cookie cutter set, which you use to cut a diverse range of circular shapes. You cover two parchment-lined baking sheets with circles and coat the tops with whisked egg yolk before sliding the trays into an oven preheated to 350°F. You close the heavy oven door with a thud and wait for the cookies to finish in around 15 minutes.

After freezing the leftover dough and washing the bowls, you hover around the oven. You can’t focus your attention on another task, just like when you were a little kid and sat on a stool in the front of the oven, watching the timer countdown. You keep wondering if the cookies will turn out okay and whether you accidentally messed up. Maybe the 1.2 grams of extra baking powder will make the cookies expand too much? Could there be egg shells hiding in the dough? You turn on the oven light and peek through the blurry glass window. You can barely make out clumps of dough on the baking sheet. What’s happening in the oven is completely out of your command. The measuring, mixing, chilling, and cutting that you spent hours on were just preliminary stages to prepare for these 15 minutes in the oven. You did all the hard work setting the stage, but it all comes down to the bake.

Butter melts and releases trapped air and water, which expands air pockets formed during the mixing process. This gas expansion needs to be carefully timed with protein coagulation to create a cookie with both structure and lightness. Egg and flour proteins trap water and form a continuous network that surrounds the expanding air pockets, creating a home that protects the gases from the outside world as they mature. A cozy home with a large lemon tree, cornflower blue walls, and a narrow kitchen filled with enticing flavors. A home with a thousand books, a well-stocked pantry, and a million baking supplies. But children can’t stay inside forever. They have to leave the house to go to college and then find their own air pockets to protect.     

Once the gases grow up, the air pockets are no longer able to contain them, and the support structure ruptures, forming a porous sponge-like texture where gases freely pass in and out. When the dough becomes a sponge, its shape is finalized, and the excited gases surge out of their nests and go on their own adventures outside of the cookie world. The structure builders are left behind in a home covered in doors that are always open for their children. Some gases will calm down and eventually remember to visit their homes. Others will forever remain outside the cookies, even escaping the oven into a whole new universe. With all the empty nests, the cookies lose a lot of moisture and weight. The lack of water forms a dry and hard crust on the surface, a network of scars on the proteins that are left behind. The crust eventually browns from sugar caramelization and maillard browning, forming a sugary lemon scent that spreads throughout the apartment. The cookies are almost ready.

The timer on the oven starts blaring, and you quickly shove on bright-red oven mitts and crack open the oven door. The orderly rows of cookies have a bright orange shine on the surface and a light brown complexion on the bottom. They look perfect. You extract the trays and place them on a towel to cool for a few minutes. The cookies will continue to bake for a while longer. You call an Uber and then rummage through your closet to find the new pack of tupperware you bought from Target but never opened.

To test the quality of your cookies, you eat one of the smallest cookies. The cookie is still warm and part of it melts on your tongue. The sweetness from the sugar and sourness from the lemon dissolves to reach your taste buds. The more complex aromas of vanilla, citrus, and caramelized sugar drift to your olfactory cells. The texture perfectly complements the flavors, a crumbly but soft base with a hint of denseness from a thin layer of egg wash. Flawless, as far as you could tell. You pack the rest of the cookies in the container. You can’t wait for your parents and brother to taste them. With some shortbread cookies, there’s no way they wouldn’t invite you home with open arms.