“The Boy who Harnessed the Wind” is a frustrating movie

“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” on Netflix. Written, directed by, and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor. Mostly in the African language Chichewa, with some English.

I’m not sure how I feel about this film. Netflix bills it as “uplifting,” which means, I’m learning, that it is a story about individuals succeeding despite horrible systemic injustices. I found the story troubling, all the more so as it is based on a true story.

In a village in Malawi in 2001, a family of farmers face poor weather and famine. William, the son, is a bright and curious kid, but he’s forced to drop out of school because his family can’t pay the fees. He sneaks back into the library anyway. During his free time he tinkers and searches the dump for parts.

From the description and title we know that William is eventually going to build a windmill to help his village grow more crops. Using irrigation, they can plant a second crop in the dry season. It takes a long time for the movie to get to this point. Late in the film, when William finally does speak up to his father about his idea (he even has a working prototype), he is yelled at and berated and his father strikes him. Eventually the father comes around and the windmill gets built. By this time, everyone is starving and the dog has died.

What strikes me about this story is that the people of this village lacked access or knowledge of mechanical pump technology. William uses an electric pump he found in the dump, along with a car battery, a Dynamo from someone’s bike light, and a bike wheel. He bypasses the idea of a mechanical pump altogether. Wikipedia tells me that windmills used to pump water mechanically have existed since the 9th century in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.

Perhaps I am missing some context here. But it seemed like systemic injustice– the lack of access to technology– was the heart of the problem. It was also a frustrating problem that people didn’t believe in William or listen to him. I am lucky and privileged to come from a family and culture where kids are listened to, ideas are encouraged, and education is free.

Content notes: state violence (against the village chief), dog death, parents striking kids, famine.


Talent is all around

I had my friend Rebecca over to watch the Oscars. She is a skilled artist and during a commercial break, I showed her some of the art and photographs I have around the aparment. In my bedroom, she spotted this wooden box.


It’s a small rectangular box with cut-out art of 3 horses and a foal running joyfully. It is signed “RAR”. Here it is pictured sitting on a window sill.

“Do you know that’s my art?” Rebecca said.

I was confused. What did she mean?

It turns out that she worked for the local company that made these boxes, and she produced 100 pieces of art for them. The company was called “Corporate Custom Products, Inc.”

Wild! I have had this box for a long time and I suspect it was a gift, but I don’t remember who gave it to me. Thinking that it was probably from my mom, I emailed and asked her. She said, “I remember the box but not where we got it.”

The box is a little dusty so I’m going to clean it up well and then have my friend sign it.


Family Tea Set

This is a story about my Great Grandmother, Esther Linn. During the Great Depression, she needed to order some supplies for the winter but had no cash to hand. What she did have, was a dental bridge that no longer fit her. In this dental bridge were some gold teeth.

She ordered supplies using the catalog from National Bellis Hess, a company similar to Sears. She wrote down her requests in ranked order, starting with Long Johns, and filling in more items below. The company would fill the requisition in order until the money ran out. She sent the gold teeth in with the order to pay for it.

Well, not only did Esther get all of the items she ordered, she got change back. Cash! A rare and precious asset during the Depression.

National Bellis Hess also sent a gift to everyone who ordered a certain amount from them, as a thank you for doing business. That year, the gift was a China set, dishes in white and orange, with a floral pattern.

The Long Johns, winter supplies, and cash are all long since gone, but the dishes remain in my mother’s cabinet. She has replaced any missing pieces by looking for them at flea markets and on eBay. They are a reminder of our family history and of a harder time.

A clarification from my mom: “I didn’t have to replace broken items as we didn’t break any! This was not a set we used often, kept for very special events and I don’t remember many of those!
I bought the extras so that I could create multiple sets. ”

tea set

Wisdom from Mariame Kaba

I attended a wonderful lecture by Mariame Kaba, who is a prison abolitionist. She tweets under the handle @prisonculture. Here are some of my take-aways:

–Restorative or transformative justice is not necessarily about love, forgiveness, or compassion. It’s about examining and stepping out of the punishment mind-set. You can be mad at someone until you die, and still not want them to be harmed or locked up. This was an eye-opener for me, and refreshing. It’s not that I don’t believe in love or compassion, it’s just that it’s much harder to get to that point than to start from a place of “no punishment”. I think that respect and honoring people’s dignity, is more important than love.

–Doing this kind of work requires that you have a community, a support system of people you can rely on.

–Dialog is not always a good idea. You can’t have an open dialog when there is a big power differential. (This is especially relevant when well-meaning white people think that having tea and talking more will solve everything.)

–Know who your DA is. They have a lot of power.

–Practice hope as a discipline. Make a concious choice to act out of hope.

–Experiencing bad things does not make us wise. It is the examination and analysis of these experiences that brings wisdom.

Tips for managing pain

A few of my tips and tricks for managing chronic pain.

Specific to facial nerve pain:
–I wear the lightest possible glasses
–I do sinus care things, like nasal sprays, eating spicy foods, taking mucinex, using my inhaler.
–Frozen grapes and other frozen fruits act like an ice pack inside the mouth.
–Chewing gum and snacking and drinking cold drinks can help distract me from the pain.
–Lying down and meditating.
–Sometimes I sleep with an ice pack
–Botox was of some usefulness, but what was better:
–A nerve block every three months or so. My doc targets the infraorbital nerve.

Migraines / Light sensitivity:
–I keep the overhead lights off in the apartment, and rely on lamps.
–I wear a hat with a brim when I go out. The hat needs to be big enough on my extra-large head, so it can be a challenge to find a good one.
–Lying in bed and listening to music or podfic with an ice pack on my head or face.

General pain:
–Compression socks. A recent addition to my life and I like them.
–Good quality shoes with lots of arch support.
–I keep an electric heating pad by my bed, and another one by the recliner, so I don’t have to unplug and move it around.
–Fingerless gloves, for typing.
–In general, staying warm is helpful, so I will for example wear leggings under my jeans in the winter.
–Various pain creams like Icy Hot, Ted’s pain cream, etc.
–The freezer has 2-3 ice packs in it, always. I wrap them up in a pillowcase.
–Loose, comfortable clothes. This can involve cutting tags off of clothes, and cutting notches in the necks of shirts. My favorite kind of shirt is the henley.
–If you can afford it, getting a massage or other alternative medicine can be helpful during really bad pain episodes.
–I play video games to distract myself.
–I rest a lot. For example, do the dishes, then sit down for a few minutes. Take naps.
–I keep a stock of various medications and supplements, though most of these are of limited usefulness for my main problem which is nerve pain. Some of them do help with other kinds of pain. I do keep anti-nausea pills and anti-dirraheal pills handy, because they work.
–Audiobooks and comics are a lot easier to read than traditional books when you have impaired concentration from chronic pain.
–Lower your expectations for yourself. Try not to compare yourself to healthy / non-disabled people.
–Find disability community.
–Ask for help.

Why I can’t write a good personal essay

I feel exactly the same. This is an excellent article.

Tenure, She Wrote

I haven’t gotten a pay check since my fellowship ran out in 2017. Funding is scarce for students in the end of their PhDs and scarcer still for international students with disabilities, so it’s not too surprising that I’ve been turned down for everything I’ve applied for.

Almost 5 years ago, I wrote with regard to applications for funding and otherwise:

Use your story and the survival skills you’ve gained to succeed. I use my escape from rural poverty in personal statements to show that I have incredible drive, creativity, and independence.

But I just can’t do it any more. I can’t make my life a funny, moving, educational story for someone else to judge.

I used to follow my own advice. I turned the ways in which I don’t fit neatly into the world into pat inspiration porn. I talked about disability, adverse childhood experiences, being queer in a…

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Don’t Call Me, Maybe

In the 1980s, my family had a black rotary phone that sat on the wall in the corner of the kitchen. I remember learning about 911, and how we joked that it would be faster to dial 111, as the 9 had to go all the way around the circle and back. The dial made a neat noise, sort of a rattle.

The phone had a little counter where the phone book and various papers sat, and below that, a square metal grate through which hot air came into the kitchen. This was a great place to sit: warm air on my back, a cozy little cubby, and a good view of whatever was going on in the kitchen. My mom would talk on the phone and the long spiral cord stretched out. I’d wrap a bit of the cord around my fingers.

I remember getting caller ID and using *69, which would tell you the phone number for the previous incoming call. For a little while, we had calling cards, for long-distance phone calls. I rarely if ever used a phone booth.

I don’t think I ever really liked talking on the phone the way that some people do. It was fine, just a necessary task rather than a pleasure. In contrast, I took to the internet. In high school and college I made friends on Bulletin Boards, chatted with classmates on AIM (AOL instant messenger), and even made a rudimentary website for myself using HTML. The internet was so visual and colorful; absolutely mesmerizing.

I got my first cell phone in graduate school, when I spent a summer in Iowa doing research in 2004. It was a flip phone, which I loved because it looked like a Star Trek communicator. I learned to keep it on all the time and plug it in at night. I learned to leave it in the car if I went to a movie, because if I turned it off, I would forget to turn it back on. The one phone call that stands out in my memory is talking to my Dad, who had just watched the Democratic National Congress on TV, where Barack Obama spoke. “Talk about the next president!” he said.

I eventually lost my flip phone, and got one that had a keyboard. My girlfriend at the time was pleased, because now I could text her back right away. It no longer took me 5 minutes to compose a text using the number pad. This was 2010.

My last non-smart phone, also one with a sliding key board, started to fall apart from wear and tear in 2018. It permanently turned itself to vibrate-only, and the space bar key wore out. It’s time to get with the future, I thought. It’s time for a smart phone.

My friend got me a smart phone through a program called SafeLink. It’s a free phone. I’ve had nothing but problems with it. A few weeks ago, I came back from the dog park and noticed something going on at the neighbor’s house. My neighbor’s father was having a seizure on the front step. “Please help!” she shouted. “My phone won’t turn on!” I ran inside and grabbed my phone. I ran back outside and dialed 911. The call dropped. (Cell phones, they told us, were the way to go. They’d be great in emergencies!) I was able to call back, and my neighbor was able to get her phone working.

This was an anxiety-inducing event. This event, along with a few other problems, has meant my phone phobia has gotten worse and I’ve developed a hostile relationship to this object. I’ve been largely unable to make phone calls for months, which has been a real problem.

When I started a new job, I noticed that I was able to make phone calls from the desk phone. It simply feels different than using a cell phone. The cell phone disappears from my view when I hold it to my ear, so it feels like I’m talking to the air. It’s the opposite of a visual experience. Talking on a cell phone in particular feels unmoored, distant, adrift; I’m a person that likes to feel grounded.

I admit I do enjoy having a pocket computer (see today’s Dinosaur comics: http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=3319), for things like Google maps, but I don’t enjoy having a “smart phone” because it doesn’t work as a phone. I want to go back to a house phone. Perhaps this is party because I those warm memories of the heating vent and the long spiral cord, of listening to my mom talk to her friends. Of my family gently arguing over who is going to be the one to call and order food. The sturdiness of the object itself, they way you can tilt your head and hold the phone between your ear and your shoulder, if you need both your hands free.

Objects in our lives are imbued with emotion. I want some of those warm emotions around the tools I use to communicate. I have such feelings with computers. Writing to communicate– via email or twitter or blog post– is so easy for me that I barely have to think about it. I imagine phones are like this for other people, though admittedly it’s hard to really imagine what that feels like.