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I met Katja Tukainen a decade ago when I went on an art expedition to Finland as a guest of the Finnish Embassy. We spent a delightful afternoon in her studio talking about life, art, and everything. She was generous and unpretentious and I loved the esthetic of her work, an explosion of pink whimsy that masked a sharp social commentary underneath. Later that week, I went gallery hopping and discovered her solo show at one of the most important galleries in Helsinki, Galerie Forsblom. Unbeknownst to me, Katja was kind of a big deal in Finland.


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Image by Olga Shmaidenko for @wow.woman.official on IG

I went to Alaska this summer to spread my dad’s ashes after he died two years ago. I hadn’t been able to do it sooner because I’d been traveling so much for work the year after he passed and the pandemic grounded me the year after that. Then, in a frenzy of quarantine cleaning, I found a forgotten letter he’d sent to me in 2005 with a key to a bank safe deposit box in Oregon taped to the back. I had no idea what was in the box and I had no recollection of him having sent me the key. …


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The first person I saw when I arrived before dawn at the Central United Methodist church in Atlanta was a big muscle-y guy with a gun holstered to his hip. What had I gotten myself into when I volunteered to be a poll observer for the Georgia Senate runoff race? I showed the polling place manager my credentials and then counted the number of voting machines and poll workers, reviewed handicap accessibility and signage, and checked off the rest of the task list that I had been given to ensure a smooth and easy voting process in the run-off election.

I’d be spending the next 14+ hours in this church basement so I introduced myself to the guy with the gun. He was a self-proclaimed foodie so we bonded over our love for eating good food. He recommended a popular local joint called Slutty Vegan, which I silently dismissed because I didn’t consider vegan food to be foodie food. Later in the day, I saw an Instagram post from Stacey Abrams at the Slutty Vegan so I decided to give it a try after the polls closed. …


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Nothing changed on New Year’s Day after we smashed junky guitars that my friend and artist Bud modified to represent 2020. Covid claimed another 2,000 lives. Mitch McConnell inexplicably called $2,000 stimulus checks “socialism for the rich” and torpedoed any effort to get money into the pockets of people who really need it. Members of Congress in both houses persisted in undermining democracy with futile, performative efforts to reverse the results of an election for which no one seems able to present evidence of significant fraud.

The first time I smashed a guitar was in 2013, also thanks to Bud. In hindsight, that experience felt personally transformational. I didn’t know it at the time, though. Looking back, I can connect the dots of how I got from there to here. But I couldn’t have predicted this path looking forward. I have said yes to a lot of dots over the years and trusted that some of those dots would eventually connect and everything would be okay. Some of those dots did connect and everything did turn out okay. Better than okay, in unexpected and unpredictable ways. Nothing appeared to have changed that night either. Something imperceptible shifted, though, and I could see that shift only from the distance and perspective of time. …


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I met Patty Rhule, VP of Content Innovation at the Freedom Forum, outside an elementary school in Lancaster, PA, on election day when we were helping to protect one of our most sacred rights in a democracy: the right to vote. Turns out, Patty was also an advocate for another one of my favorite rights, the First Amendment right to free speech. …


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“She’s not like other people.” That’s how a friend’s dad recently described me and he meant it as a compliment and I took it that way. I don’t want to be like everyone else. That hasn’t always been true, though. Growing up as the only Asian-looking kid, apart from my little brother, in a small Southern city, I desperately wanted to be like the other people I saw around me. I wanted to feel like I belonged.

Our hometown was clearly divided between black and white people. I looked neither black nor white, so I belonged in neither group. My half-Asian face and physique also did not look Asian enough for “real” Asians, so I did not belong in that group either. They could see the difference at first glance and treated me as an other, the same way black and white Americans treated me as something apart from themselves. …


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“The Pink Line Project Project” art piece by Jeffry Cudlin. Image by Josh Cogan.

At the beginning of the quarantine in March, I decided to take a short break from sending out the Pink Line Project’s weekly newsletter. All the art events I’d normally have highlighted had been cancelled and, to be honest, I needed a breather. I’d been sending my weekly art picks to thousands of art curious folks in the DMV for years. I figured I’d be back in action in two or three weeks. A month tops. Nine months later, the pandemic continues unabated and things won’t get back to “normal” for a while.

Even when some artists adapted their work to online presentations in super creative ways and a smattering of artists performed IRL while the weather was still nice, with appropriate distancing and mask wearing, of course, I still did not restart the newsletter to highlight them. Keeping up with knowing what’s going on around the city took a lot of time, even during our currently sparser era, which was probably why people were always asking me for suggestions and why I’d started writing the newsletter in the first place. …


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Are you dreading the possibility of a blowup at Thanksgiving dinner? I was on the the Kojo Nnamdi Show sharing tips on how to have nonviolent conversations when you gather with your family tomorrow. I was a little off my game, though, which I will blame on having been sick with Covid back in March. Ever since I learned that the effects can linger for months after you recover, I blame Covid brain fog for all incidents of excessive stammering and an inability to complete thoughts. Now that I’ve gotten all my pre-excuses out of the way, I will now share the episode with you. …


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Illustration: Lucy Jones

The lie at the heart of the Pham family ‘pass to freedom’

In August, my mother forwarded me an email. “Trump administration taps Vietnam refugee as new ICE chief,” it said. I opened it, and learned that my cousin, Tony Pham, had just been appointed to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Tony’s ascent to this position instilled great pride in my family, especially among the older members who skew politically conservative. I, however, was appalled that my cousin allowed his identity as a refugee to be used as cover for the enforcement of increasingly cruel and dehumanizing immigration policies. …


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First day of first grade

I made a new friend in Arkansas named Joe Wilson. He’s the founder of the World Champion Squirrel Cook-Off in Bentonville and he is the president of Steaks For Sheepdogs, which honors fallen police officers by cooking steak dinners for their families and the community. Joe organizes these massive passion projects outside of his full-time job. I met him last year when I was organizing my passion project Looking For America in places all over the country, including Northwest Arkansas.

On the surface, we are unlikely friends. He’s a conservative white man who hunts animals, lives in what some call flyover country, and takes great pride in being a country boy. …

Philippa PB Hughes

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