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Eulogy to Sabor

Yesterday, after beginning my day by watching a bit of the Olympics, I walked the one and a half blocks to my favorite cafe. Since I moved to Pasadena three years ago, Sabor y Cultura 2, affectionately known as Sabor, has been my go to place to get some work done. I have come to know the owner, Min, who works there daily. I come in and after some pleasantries he asks if I want the usual. A simple yes and my large latte is made while I glance over the LA Times at the counter. However, on this day I was confronted with a surprise. Sabor was closed, and on the front door was a note from Min that the cafe would be closing. I was and am heart broken. I cannot even imagine how many hours I must have spent in Sabor over the last couple of years. I am not sure what to do with myself.

The coffee at Sabor tended to be good rather than the best, but more than any other cafe, it was my place. It was simply “the cafe” to me. The atmosphere was almost perfect for studying. Outlets were ample. The wireless was reliable. The music neither too loud or too quiet. More than that, most of the people who came to Sabor did so to get some work done or read quietly. While the atmosphere was rarely stale, and conversations were frequent, the noise level hardly ever reached a state of distraction. I and a handful of other people frequented the cafe almost daily. Some of them I got to know a bit, exchanging short conversations. Others remained simply familiar faces. We all seemed happy with this situation. We had a place we could all go to, concentrate and get work done, and be in a small community of others who did the same.

Sabor had another feature that I find so important as to almost be necessary for a good cafe, cheap food. When energy levels began to decline and caloric intake of a more substantive nature became necessary, Sabor was there for me. They had the fancy sandwiches, soups, and salads that could provide a fulsome meal. But for me, avoiding more expense than necessary after my $4 latte, a simple bagel, cookie, or the great grilled cheese sandwich for $2.50 filled me up enough to continue to work a couple more hours. And it was hours that I would spend in this interior, decorated with different paintings from a local art gallery. Four, five, even six hours at a time was normal. Here I could concentrate with minimal distractions for a long period of time and feel comfortable doing it.

I have many fond memories of Sabor and Min. Talking to Min and hearing that he had not taken a single day off for two years. Going over on Thanksgiving morning, with Sabor the only place open, and eating pretty amazing granola with yogurt and waffles, both with servings of fruit. One day I arrived and ordered my coffee only to realize I had forgotten my wallet. I offered to run back to my house to get it, but Min shrugged the suggestion off and said I could pay for it tomorrow. I returned the next day ready to pay for my two coffees, and Min gave me 10% off. It felt odd being rewarded for not paying the day before, but that was just the kind of place it was. On another occasion, I talked to Min about an upcoming research trip, mainly to warn him of my impending absence for a couple of months. Min offered me a free latte as a send off present. It is not often that one can really feel at home at a cafe, but Sabor was one of those places for me. It was my place, and I will miss it and the community it fostered greatly.

Min and Sabor’s exit is a loss for the community of the Playhouse district in Pasadena. I can only hope that Min might find another place to open Sabor. Failing that, I wish him luck and happiness in his future endeavors.


Cafes, Coffee, and Grad School: LA

I spend a lot of my time in cafes with a latte and my computer. This is one of the perks of being a graduate student. No set schedule. No set place that one must be. As long as i get work done, it does not matter whether I am in my office at school, home, or out at a cafe. Sitting at a cafe, I can be out in public, but still have the privacy to sit quietly and get some work done. An enviornment that a recent study argued could increase creativity.

Compared to a relatively quiet environment (50 decibels), a moderate level of ambient noise (70 dB) enhanced subjects’ performance on the creativity tasks, while a high level of noise (85 dB) hurt it. Modest background noise, the scientists explain, creates enough of a distraction to encourage people to think more imaginatively.

Despite the amount of time that I spend in cafes, I am not really all that serious of a coffee drinker. I do not drink coffee for caffeination purposes. In fact, my fear is not that I will be under-caffeinated but that I will get over-caffeinated and not be able to concentrate. I tend to think of coffee as more a ticket to get to sit and work in a cafe for hours at a time.

Espresso drinks are my beverage of choice. Usually just a latte or cappuccino, depending upon the quality of the coffee. I am not a pour over man like Matt. I do enjoy the experience of drinking coffee, but for me, environment often wins out over the quality of the beverage. I would never claim to have a sophisticated palette. I never can taste the mango or distinguish between stone fruit notes in a cup of coffee.

My palette may be limited, but I still enjoy going to more artisanal cafes, so-called third-wave cafes, and just hanging out. In LA, and even just within Pasadena, there are a lot of great places to choose from. LA Weekly put together a list of 10 Best Coffee Shops in Los Angeles, while Eater LA has their own list of Los Angeles’ Best Coffee Shops. There are some worthy places that are missing, such as Profteta in Westwood, but it is a good start. Rell and I have a goal this summer of working through these lists, though we are not off to a very quick start.

Our favorite place right now is Proof Bakery in Atwater Village, which serves Cognoscenti coffee. If you know Proof and Cog coffee, then you should definitely check out this article on the Smithsonian website about the founder of Cog coffee and his work as an architect. The article is part of a whole series on coffee and architecture.

I hope to continue to write more about cafes and coffee in LA in the future, documenting some of the places I like and writing about the overall experience.

The art of upholstery

Matt wrote a post last year about Jack White’s record label. Here is an awesome interview with Jack White that I recently came across about his time as an upholsterer.

My whole shop was only three colors: yellow, white and black. I had this yellow van, and I dressed in yellow and black when I picked up the furniture, and all my tools were yellow, white and black.

Check it out.

Matt’s in trouble

Universities are Political?

The LA Times ran an editorial today called UC problem: When academics are advocates. Unfortunately, it was one of the first things I read when I woke up this morning.

Here is the beginning of the piece:

Political advocacy corrupts academic institutions. Why? Because the mind-set of a genuine academic teacher is in every important respect the opposite of a political activist’s. Academic teachers want to promote independent thought and analytical skills; political activists want conformity. The one fosters intellectual curiosity and encourages opposing viewpoints; the latter seeks to shut it down.

This is hardly a useful definition of political activism. It is very maddening that LA Times continues to give so much space to the attack of higher education. The piece goes on to question a class at UC Merced that dares to question the “aggressive” expansion of the US on the world stage.

It is a fact that the importance of the United States on the world stage has steadily increased since its founding. It’s certainly worth investigating how that happened, and the question of aggressive intent would be one factor to consider against others. But that cannot happen when the only important question has been preempted in the course description.

Really? The only important question. How do you think the US expanded?

Mark Peterson has a good refutation of a similar attack by Peter Berkowitz at The Berkeley Blog. Peterson writes in his post More false attacks on what and how we teach at Berkeley about teaching the Federalist Papers.

Berkowitz’s latest diatribe claims to explain “Why Colleges Don’t Teach the Federalist Papers.” He names Berkeley, as well as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, among the culprits. This, too, came as a shock to one of the undergraduates in my course on the American Revolution, History 121B, as he had been required to read significant portions of The Federalist assigned in the course. He clipped out the article and brought it to me just before the final exam.


A bit of thinking

We should pause to note ourselves in the company of greatness, specifically in the form of our colleague Jake Collins:

In other news, check this shit out from Naomi Schaefer Riley:


This piece and the resulting furor (see commentary and responses in the CHE) is a small piece of the directions in which the culture war has taken vocabularies of identity and victimhood. I don’t want to necessarily endorse the proposition that to question the efficacy of “Black Studies” or any other kind of “Studies,” is inherently racist, although Riley’s blog makes it even harder to imagine what a non-racist questioning of Black Studies would look like (that being said, I would certainly not call Tony Judt a racist for his overall, I think, useful and general critique of American academic culture). The absurdity of Riley’s post was to subtitle a blog criticizing dissertations being done by students at Northwestern “just read the dissertations,” without having read the dissertations and then in a subsequent post not only defending not having read the dissertations, but bragging about it. No amount of money , Riley writes, could convince her to read a dissertation on black midwifery.

Riley’s stupidity has been widely documented and condemned- she is a right wing hack who has made a career out of offering legitimating tidbits for the conservative attack on universities. She calls this journalism and the CHE apparently agrees with her. But I want to focus here less on her overall project, which can be easily laughed at in strictly analytic terms, less so in terms of its seriousness as a presence in our politics, and I want to focus more on the meaning of the statement itself- encapsulated, I believe, in the comment that nothing could justify reading, much less writing, a dissertation or a book on black midwifery (dissertations and books are two different things- a basic fact that escapes Riley and undermines her claim to be a serious journalist on academic affairs).

The action of African American Studies, or Ethnic Studies more broadly, is to recover experiences for human understanding that would not otherwise be recovered. In other words, I take the very existence of ethnic studies departments to be a challenge to the more traditional fields of history, philosophy, political science, and literature, a challenge, that to be rejected, would have to be met, and I find very little evidence indeed suggest that such a meeting of the challenge has been accomplished. To reduce these matters to practice- as a scholar of Jefferson’s legal and political thinking, and so of Jefferson’s place in wider histories of similar activities- the first challenge would be to show how it is exactly that the fact of black widwifery, or African American life on a plantation in general, would be irrelevant to my effort to understand Jefferson’s activities as a theorist. I don’t believe that is a challenge I could meet, even if I wanted to. The second, and I think more serious challenge, would be to show that today we don’t need to be thinking about the history of black widwifery, or to go to Riley’s extent, that to even bother thinking about it is useless and bad for the public interest. This is a challenge that my study of the history of American political thought would leave me even less equipped to meet than the first challenge. What is at stake in Riley’s claim is the idea that there are certain arenas of human experience in time that do not merit the effort to understand them, and that the life of the American slave or the life of the African American or the life of the immigrant or the life of the child with disabilities are examples of these arenas. That the experience of black widwifery for all involved is irrelevant for our collective historical and political thinking today is tantamount to a dismissal of the lives of the people we narrate- the historiographical equivalent of making persons stateless and rightless, as beyond recognition, to say nothing of acknowledgment. This way leads to disaster- to an attempt at erasing the presence of other histories than the one “we” have come to know, and to make way for a politics premised on the refusal to recognize the fact of historical, cultural, and political multiplicity. If my study of Thomas Jefferson has been useful for anything, even if just for me, it has taught me to recognize a refusal to confront and deal with multiplicity as a form of violence that persists in taking many forms and needs to be combatted.

If the usefulness to “Black Studies” comes into question, that will be a challenge for its practitioners to do with what they see fitting, and it is certainly not my place any more than it is Riley’s to legislate how they or anyone else might do so (as Quentin Skinner has recently said, the reason to legislate in philosophy is always to turn it into ideology).  A good standard, though, might be whether a study has the effect of continuing and enhancing or stopping and shutting down the uncertain openness of the conversation of humanity, and enhancing might include questioning the terms or boundaries of the conversation itself, provided that the radical questioner, in this instance, recognizes their own place in taking from and contributing to the conversation. One could imagine a critique of any arena of academic inquiry being not that the discipline had become politicized but that it was not political enough.


On Shitty First Drafts

I am currently in the midst of writing a shitty first draft for a paper that I need to write for an upcoming conference. So it was especially comforting to read a post on the Chronicle of Higher Education by a History graduate student on My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Dissertation. There is a lot of good advice about the ad hoc nature of writing a dissertation, chapter, paper, whatever. I particularly liked the statement:

And it’s much easier to edit a terrible dissertation than it is to edit a nonexistent perfect one.

This is what I am going for with my current paper. I usually write in a pretty linear manner. I may not know exactly where I am going, but I have a good idea. Before I get started with a days writing, I tend to go over what I wrote the day before and make changes. This means that I often do not have that much revision to do when I get to the end of a paper.1

This paper has been different. I was not sure exactly what I was going to write. Usually not a fan of outlining, I felt it was necessary for this paper just so I could figure out what my ideas were.2 I took the main points from the outline and put it in a Scrivener file. This broke up the paper into nine different documents. Now I am just going through and writing in each document, one by one. I am trying to avoid looking at my sources, secondary literature, and even my notes. I just want to get words on the paper, and then I will go from there, look back over the paper and add in the sources.

I am not sure how it will work out. But I am going with the motto that shit is better than nothing.3

  1. This is why I have preferred writing in Mellel, as I stated in Apps for Academics 2: Word Processors. But for the unorganized writing I am doing now, Scrivener, with the ability to just concentrate on the chunk of text you are working on, has been really great. ↩
  2. I used the outlining app Tree, which I hope to write about soon. ↩
  3. Or maybe a shit in the hand is worth two in the bush. But maybe that does not quite express what I want to say. ↩