Archive: Tue Nov 2012

  1. Mr. Howard’s Frisbee

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    [media-credit name=”Karen Tian” align=”alignnone” width=”300″][/media-credit]We’re in the backyard when Mr. Howard pulls into the driveway. It is 5:15 in the evening; it is Memorial Day; we are nineteen years old, and we have not quite come down from two tabs of acid apiece, ingested around four hours ago. Mark and Daniel are taking turns boosting each other up to grab the lowest branch of the birch tree in the corner of the yard. Mark keeps saying that the bark on the upper branches has a different pattern from the bark on the trunk, and he wants to climb up for a closer look.  I lie on the grass, watching them while waving two fingers in front of my face, fascinated by the spectral trail they leave as they wag back and forth.

    I can hear the rumble of the Porsche as it idles in the driveway. After a few moments, the engine cuts out. I hear a car door open, and shut.

    “I think your dad’s home,” I call out. Mark has pulled himself up onto the branch and balances as it oscillates, hugging the trunk with one arm as he feels for good handholds. I can hear a tiny crack-crack, but the branch holds. I am sure I imagined it.

    “That’s fine,” Mark calls back. He finds a protruding knot in the wood and grips it, forearms taut, hoisting himself up to the next branch. In the meantime, Daniel has kicked off his shoes and removed his shirt. He’s rolling around on the grass — actually log-rolling up and down the lawn, giggling to himself.

    I sit up. “Jesus, Dan, put your shirt on. Mr. Howard’s home.”

    “I can’t stop, man, this grass feels so good. Shit, man, you’ve gotta try this, it feels so fucking good against my back.”

    The grass is rippling in the warm breeze and Daniel looks like he’s floating, buoyed by the undulating ground beneath him. I look at Mark suspended up in the tree and I see gorgeous green leaves rippling all around him, and it’s all I can do not to lay back down and stare at rippling things. Instead, I stand up and walk over to Daniel, who takes a look at me and starts rolling in the opposite direction.

    “Seriously, man, cut that shit out. Mark’s dad is right over there and you’re going nuts.”

    “Tim, really, it’s fine,” Mark says. He is staring down at us, settled on a limb that juts freely into space, some twenty feet up. His legs swing up and down. “My dad doesn’t usually come into the backyard.”

    I can hear footsteps crunching on gravel. I visualize Mr. Howard treading the gravel path which I know winds its way from driveway to backyard gate, clutching a maroon briefcase in his left hand and closely examining the day’s mail cradled in his other hand.

    The sound of a latch, click, disengaging. I turn to face the gate as Mr. Howard steps into the backyard.

    Mr. Howard is not carrying a briefcase. He has no stack of mail in his right hand. It’s Memorial Day — there is no work and no mail. He wears a white polo and maroon shorts. I have never seen Mr. Howard wearing anything except a crisp navy suit, carrying a briefcase in his left hand and holding documents in his right hand.

    He holds an orange Frisbee with both hands.

    I stare at Mr. Howard but he is staring at Daniel, who has stopped rolling in favor of lying facedown on the lawn, uprooting bunches of grass and sprinkling them over his naked back.

    “Hey, Mr. Howard,” I say. I am standing about ten feet away from him, slouching in what I believe to be a nonchalant pose.

    “Hey, Dad,” calls Mark calmly, from his perch in the birch tree. He does not look down at his father. His face is tilted up, towards the highest branches. Presumably, he’s examining the patterns in the bark.

    Mr. Howard sees his son in the tree, and fixes his gaze on me. “Hello, boys,” he says finally, still looking at me. He twists the Frisbee in his hands. It’s a heavy disc with precise curves, not one of the flimsy ones they hand out at promotional events.

    I try to smile politely at him, and then I notice the maroon shorts again, which are slightly too short and which reveal a pair of absurdly skinny legs. Once I notice how thin his legs are in comparison to his torso, I start thinking about proportions and distortions and businessmen holding a meeting in a boardroom lined with funhouse mirrors, and then I turn away and take several casual steps towards Daniel, trying hard not to crack up in the man’s face.

    When I turn back, tentatively, to Mr. Howard, he is still standing in the same spot, holding the Frisbee. I am counting doubles in my head to take my mind off his skinny legs, Mark has resumed climbing the tree, and Daniel has settled into a quiet stupor, prone on the lawn, his long limbs positioned neatly in line with his body. The breeze has stopped. We’ve reached a temporary equilibrium, the four of us, but I can feel Mr. Howard’s discomfort radiating outward in purple-tinged waves. Only Mr. Howard and I share this feeling. Daniel is catatonic. Mark seems unconcerned.

    “How’s your Memorial Day going, Mr. Howard?”

    Mr. Howard stares at me for several seconds. He has a round face, but his features are small — a small nose, small eyes, a small mouth. Right now those features are slightly contorted, and so they are compressed, even less prominent than usual. His brow is furrowed, marring the uniform smoothness of bald men with round faces. I keep my gaze fixed on his watery eyes and away from his legs.

    “It was fine,” he says. “I won this Frisbee at the company picnic.”

    Mr. Howard owns his own company. It is called AutoStat, and it collects proprietary, industry-standard data about the axles of cars, trucks, and motorcycles, releasing a glossy semiannual report filled with charts and graphs. He works with fifteen other people, so Mark tells me, in an office ten minutes away from the house. In addition to the Porsche, he owns two BMWs — a black sedan, and a blue convertible that used to belong to Mark’s mother — a Mercedes SUV, and a Ducati sportbike. I have never seen him ride the motorcycle.

    “What was the game?” I ask.

    Daniel’s father works for a company that makes gourmet potato chips. Daniel’s mother lectures in English at the high school and teaches Thursday night classes in theater and drama at the town library. Daniel’s father doesn’t mind if we sample his good beer on Saturday nights, and his mother brings us lox and bagels on Sunday mornings. Daniel takes after his parents. I take after my father. He is a software architect; in his mind, lines of code have the soaring lines and sleek beauty of a church spire punching through the clouds.

    “What?”

    “What game did you win to get the Frisbee?”

    Mr. Howard is still looking at me, but his eyes have unfocused. He is far away, and I am right here in front of him. “It was a pie-eating contest.”

    Try as I might, I cannot picture Mr. Howard in a pie-eating contest.

    “That sounds cool,” I say, eventually.

    Mr. Howard gives a slight nod. He seems dazed. I might logically assume that he is confused by us — by Daniel lying shirtless on his manicured lawn, by Mark climbing to the highest branches of the tree, by my stilted conversation — but I’m not entirely sure about this, though I can’t explain why. I feel the urge to talk but I can’t think of a single thing to say.

    Then Mr. Howard speaks again. “I heard you boys in the yard when I got out of the car, and I thought I’d come and see what was up.” He pauses for a moment, and continues. “I thought maybe you boys might want to throw around the Frisbee for a while. It’s a nice afternoon to play Frisbee.”

    And so it is. After he says this, the angle of the sunlight appears to shift slightly, bathing the backyard in a warmified, margarine-hued glow. I am disconcerted. Mr. Howard has never shown the slightest interest in playing a sport with us before. Mr. Howard has never shown the slightest interest in interacting with us. I have known Mark since the sixth grade, and the only two conversations I’ve had with Mr. Howard were about cars and The Last Samurai. We talked about how often he serviced his cars (oil change every three thousand miles, tires rotated every six months minimum), and he explained to me, briefly, how machine guns made the samurai obsolete.

    “Cool,” says Mark from up in the tree. I am nodding to myself; I stop.

    I used to have nice conversations with Mark’s mother, Ms. Matte, a thoughtful, quiet woman who bred Portuguese Water Dogs for a living. The house used to be full of those enormous black curly-furred dogs, romping around and barking wildly. Ms. Matte moved out to Virginia last September, two weeks after Mark left for school. She has a bigger kennel out there. Her favorite dog’s name is Karma.

    “What’s cool?” asks Mr. Howard.

    Mark doesn’t know what college his father attended. Mark knows that his father owns a semiautomatic handgun, swathed perpetually in a floral-patterned pillowcase, and tucked carefully into the topmost drawer of his bureau.

    “You won a pie-eating contest. That’s cool, Dad.”

    It was Mark’s idea to take the tabs at his house. He championed its wide grassy backyard and its abundance of good climbing trees and the empty high school soccer field only a few blocks away, in case we wanted space, a massive buffer of air and time separating us from everything and everyone else. So we can breathe properly, he said. I’ve done this before, he said, and it’s important to breathe.

    “Thanks, Mark,” says Mr. Howard.

    Mark is climbing down. Perhaps he finally has an answer regarding the pattern of the bark on the upper branches, perhaps he just feels a little too tall up there; in any case, he is descending, and is only ten feet above us. The tree itself is around twenty feet distant from Mr. Howard and his maroon shorts and the orange Frisbee he still cradles in his hands.

    Then Mark stops. He seats himself on the lowest branch before the ground. It sags slightly under his weight.

    “Throw the Frisbee up here, Dad,” says Mark. He is smiling; his voice rings into the void, and suddenly I am unmoored, I sit down on the grass and strain my senses to track the sound waves as they radiate out from the tree, enveloping the backyard. Mark is smiling and he sounds like someone who has been waiting all day to have a Frisbee thrown to him while he sits in a tree.

    Something has changed in Mr. Howard’s face. His lips are pressed together; they are turning pale, blending into his skin, leaving the rest of his face grotesquely disproportioned as his lips disappear from the world. I can see us from his perspective and the scene is imploding, collapsing to a point of sudden lucidity, an understanding of who we are and how far we are from him, we three people in his backyard. I am surprised that it has taken him so long; my own father would have known right away. My father and I toss around a Frisbee sometimes, in the spring.

    “It’s getting late. I’ll just go inside,” says Mr. Howard.

    “Dad, just throw me the Frisbee. Come on, throw it over,” says Mark.

    “What are you doing up in that tree, anyway?”

    “I’m just hanging out. Toss it over.”

    Mr. Howard shrugs. He looks up at Mark, and for the first time that day, Mark meets his gaze. “All right, then,” he says. He grips the Frisbee and flicks it toward Mark.

    It flies straight at first. I watch the Frisbee move in time-lapsed slices; I record the disc like a camera running at three-quarters speed. It begins to veer to the left. Mark reaches out, grabbing the branch with his left hand as he stretches into space, groping for the Frisbee.

    There is a sharp crack as Mark’s branch splinters, abruptly dipping two feet. It does not break. The Frisbee glides past Mark’s outstretched hand and lands near Daniel, who sits up, mystified by the orange disc that has intruded into his reflections.

    “Oops,” says Mark.

    “Well, that was a botch,” says Mr. Howard. He nods in our direction, and begins to walk away, briskly, impelled by the muscles of those impossibly thin legs. I can see Mark following his father with his eyes, until he passes through the backyard gate and pushes it shut, penning in the dimming sunlight and the golden waves of Mark’s still-ringing voice, which, with nowhere else to go, meld together and fade quietly into the grass.

    “Shit, that’s a nice Frisbee,” says Daniel. Mark has not come down.

  2. X Marks the Spot

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    [media-credit name=”Jennifer Lu” align=”alignnone” width=”300″][/media-credit] 

    The walls of the X, WYBC’s studio at 142 Temple St., are plastered with recent indie-rock tour posters and promotional flyers for the station’s live-music events — “the best aural sex you’ll ever have.” Charley Locke ’14 and Leland Whitehouse ’14 lean over the soundboard into their microphones as they broadcast their Wednesday night show, “Soundtrack to a Life.”

    Each week, a guest on the show shares their life story through a playlist. Conversation with Locke and Whitehouse’s guest for the evening, Yale Farm Coordinator Jeremy Oldfield, is casual — it jumps from the music, to cemeteries, to a recounting of favorite “Portlandia” clips, to the art of pickling. Most of the time, the mics are off as the music plays on air, and the atmosphere is not that of a radio show at all — it’s just a group of friends hanging out. At some point near the end of the broadcast, Locke drops the F-bomb.

    After a moment of discussion, she hovers over her mic and says, “For all 12 of our listeners, if you need an apology, you’re not going to get it.”

    The objective of the 100-plus Yalies who sit at those microphones hour after hour, day after day is essentially to create content for content’s sake. Whether it’s a desire to expound on musical knowledge or develop a ridiculous theme — a show last year centered on constructing a playlist to listen to after bringing someone home from Wednesday night Toad’s — the prevailing mentality is good content first, audience second. Listenership is an added bonus.

    Now, in the first two years following the departure from AM to online broadcasting, the station has established its identity as a free-form platform, one that is unencumbered by FCC regulations, the need to be pigeonholed into any specific genre or, for that matter, the pressure to reach a large audience. Members — students who have undergone a semester of extensive training — come into the studio to share something they’re passionate about or to spend time with the diverse but tightly knit community that has developed. The prevailing purpose of radio may be to reach a large audience, but WYBCX is redefining this model.

     

    Founded in 1941, WYBC initially operated as an arm of the Yale Daily News, which provided the original call letters: WOCD, “Oldest College Daily.” At the time, it ran on a closed-circuit system, broadcasting exclusively to the Yale community. But the bond was short-lived — the station split from the YDN a few years later and adopted its current call letters, WYBC, Yale Broadcasting Company.

    In 1957, the station switched to AM, allowing it to reach not only Yale, but also the greater New Haven community, and it continued to grow when it added an FM channel in 1959. This station, 94.3, still operates today under the WYBC call letters.

    As its audience continued to grow, so did the focus of its DJs. Kevin McKeown ’69 was a member of the station when it served as the “social center for the counterculture” and its broadcasts featured a blend of rock and politics.

    Like it is today, the camaraderie at the station, not just its link to the larger New Haven community, was important. “You could go down at the station 24 hours a day and there would be half a dozen people hanging out,” he says. “It was like having a coffeehouse on top of having a radio station.”

    This progressive rock programming was popular at the station’s peak in the ’70s, but by the late ’80s the organization was in decline, both in student participation and in revenue. By 1994, the station had to join forces with Cox Radio through a joint sales agreement, and most of the operations were handed over to a professional staff. To give Yale students a platform, WYBC purchased a new AM station in 1998, but student interest and participation remained low.

    Part of this lack of enthusiasm stemmed from the absence of a Yale listenership. As technology shifted to favor laptops and iPods, students stopped owning radios. The airwaves that had carried WYBC broadcasts for decades were no longer delivering them to their target audience.

     

    In 2010, General Manager Sean Owczarek ’11 spearheaded the station’s move to The X, also know as WYBCX, Yale Radio’s new internet venue. As he developed the station, he encouraged efforts to build a larger music scene offline at Yale through live music events, like Anti-Fling, an alternative to Spring Fling. “Students, I think, stopped caring about radio well before the general curve,” he says. “There are so many better things to do than listen to radio, but there are some interesting things that you can do over the medium of radio and if you make that your broadcast, then people will be interested in interesting things.”

    After the establishment of The X, membership at the station rose from approximately 30 students to around 120, hosting close to 60 shows. When I visited, these numbers were slightly lower because the station was in the process of inducting new members and electing a new board.

    Allyson McCabe, who is teaching “Styles of Academic and Professional Prose,” a new course that focuses on writing for radio, recognizes the power of the Internet to shape and transform the medium.

    “It’s very exciting, this idea of radio without the radio,” she says. “You don’t have to be [like], ‘Okay, 4:00 on Wednesday is when this show is going to come on this physical object called a radio and I have to be present to be a part of that.’”

    Despite rising interest on the production side and increased access, listenership at WYBCX remains small — some shows attract two listeners, others 40 (these numbers do not account for podcast downloads which slightly expand the listener base).

    Due to this small following, the Internet station is not independently financially viable. It’s supported by its affiliate FM station, 94.3, an R&B and oldies stations which typically ranks #1 in terms of listenership in New Haven and the surrounding areas, with 150,000 listeners tuned in at any given time. Though student on-air participation on WYBC-FM is limited, Yalies maintain strong ties to its DJs and take pride in the station’s success. “When you walk into Durfee’s and Michael Jackson is playing or soulful R&B is playing,” says 2010-11 General Manager Carl Chen ’13, “that’s us. You’re listening to us.”

     

    Visiting the Temple Street offices, which house both The X and the FM studios, on a weekday afternoon offers a glimpse into the convergence of communities. The children of the FM DJs play in the common room alongside WYBC members sprawled out on the leather couches listening to music and studying.

    Whitehouse once repurposed an old pool table as a coffee table for this seating area, but it was deemed unprofessional and replaced with something more corporate. His contribution remains in the room, but is pushed up against a wall, serving no real purpose other than to remind visitors that WYBC is, at its heart, a college station.

    While Yale students can claim full responsibility for the successes of The X, the success of the FM station is due in large part to its director of operations, Juan Castillo. Castillo came to radio looking for a hobby as an antidote to his job in law enforcement working with New Haven gangs. Students at the station taught him to work the boards 25 years ago, and he has been there ever since.

    Castillo values the symbiotic relationship with the students not only because it keeps him young, but also because he says, “I respect them, I like them. I believe in the way the organization is set up because I think that we need to have young people put in these positions more often.”

    He credits the students with keeping the station and its host on the cutting edge, both musically and technologically — 94.3 was one of the first radio stations in the country to switch to Macs.

    The flow of expertise between Castillo and the students goes both ways. As the most experienced DJ at the station, he plays an important advisory role. During my interview with Owczarek, when the conversation shifts to Castillo, he stops to address me by name, as if to make sure I’m truly paying attention.

    “Okay, let me put it this way, Caroline,” he says. “He was my greatest mentor at Yale. Better than any professor I’ve ever had. I’ll leave it at that.”

     

    The community at WYBC is not necessarily about the relationships between the hosts and their small audience of listeners, but that’s not to say that the station lacks a strong sense of community. Rather, the members of the station have formed strong bonds among themselves and a social scene reflective of their ethos which, they hope, is also open to the campus at large.

    Though the station does not aim to be all things to all Yalies, Events Director Nina Wexelblatt ’14 is working to expand the scope of cultural activities and social gatherings hosted by the station. When she began as a freshman, she described WYBCX as “a community in flux.” She’s attempted to lay a foundation for connections between members, as well as between the station and the Yale community.

    Last year, WYBC collaborated with the Yale Film Society to host a film series. This year, record-release listening parties have filled suites with students looking to engage in a musical dialogue.

    As we’re discussing the events she’s planned in the past, Wexelblatt gets a phone call about this year’s Halloween party.  She’s DJing the dance party portion of the night, and the “DIY, decide if it works later,” ethos she’s brought to her position is evident in her approach. “I don’t really know,” she says into the phone. “I’ve never done this before. Whatever works to plug things into speakers.”

    The lack of precedent has been a challenge for Wexelblatt. “The hardest thing is gauging interest and making sure that people know that they’re welcome at these events. I’ve heard from some people — and I just don’t think this is true at all — but I’ve heard from some people that they think that radio is really insular.”

    This seems to be a prevailing opinion of radio — the perceived insularity and aloofness — when, in fact, members bond over a medium, not a shared mindset or a desire to set themselves apart.

    Thomas Rokholt ’14, office manager at the station, pushes back against this belief. “It’s just a lot of people who are breaking that mold in terms of appearances, in terms of opinions,” he says. “There’s no possible way they could be categorized and put in that mold of sort of, ‘let’s label everyone at the radio station a hipster and that way we won’t have to deal with them.’”

     

    “The Radio House,” as it’s colloquially known, with its musty basement and sagging couches, may have in the past contributed to this somewhat unfavorable perception. 216 Dwight serves as the venue for WYBC’s live shows and biweekly dance parties, though currently only two of the six residents at the house are members of the station.

    Olivia Scicolone ’15 had never attended a radio event at 216 prior to moving in. She picked the house for the living arrangements, viewing the shows as a sort of added bonus, the social equivalent of a wood-burning fireplace. This year, whenever there’s a show, she’ll go downstairs before going out. Sometimes it’s only for 15 minutes or so. Other nights she goes down the steps and realizes, “Oh, the music’s great, I’m really enjoying this. I’m here all night.”

    As she gives me a tour of the house, we stop by the stairs to the basement. She tells me that they keep the door closed to keep the mildewy smell out of the house, but “sometimes it seeps in anyways”— an apt metaphor for the relationship between the residence and the venue beneath it.

    Chen, his eyes crinkling with laugh lines behind the thick, clear frames of his glasses, tries to explain the mentality of people who frequent 216. “It’s kind of like, ya! Basements ya! Or like, backyards with fires in them —  ya! You know, or weird shit on walls, ya! Some people are really into it, and some people are a little too posh for it.”

     

    Although the purpose of the X was to pave the way for a more extensive Yale listenership, WYBCX has had more success in building a community off air. But for most members, the focal point of their radio experience is still what happens in the studio, surrounded by the poster-covered walls and shelves with color-coded CDs.

    Chen hosted a dubstep and electronic show last year called “I Never Learnt to Care,” a riff off of a James Blake song. Each week, he would craft his show around a few new releases, matching the content to his mood.

    “The desire is to not be an iPod [or] Pandora,” he says. “You want to add personality to it.”

    He would email some friends beforehand to let them know he was going on air. And that, for the most part, would be his audience.

    “I didn’t really care — ‘I never learnt to care’ — how many people tuned in,” he says.

    It’s more fitting to compare his show to a collection of journals, kept mostly for his own sake, to record moods, thoughts, and ideas rather than something created primarily for outside consumption.

    For Caroline Lester ’14, audience plays a slightly larger role, but its size remains small. Her show is not a diary, but rather letters home. For the past three semesters, Lester and Evan Mullen ’14, have hosted “Gangster Time with Caroline and Evan.” Each week, their show centers on a random theme, usually chosen in the elevator on the way up to the studio — something like, “songs that won’t worsen Caroline’s migraine.” Sometimes, their theme involves their listeners and they field requests through texts, email, and the chat function on the radio’s website. Their peak number of listeners hovers around 40.

    As much as the show is about Lester and Mullen hanging out to unwind on a Sunday night, it’s also family time for Lester, whose siblings and parents tune in from both coasts.

    “Once a week my whole family would be listening and I could sorta talk to them and they would shoot me texts or emails during [the show],” she says. “It just made them feel not so far away.”

    Afterwards, as she bikes home, Lester calls her siblings to recap the broadcast, exchange updates on their lives, and escape from the stress of a Sunday night. It’s this small but important listenership, and the chance to hang out with a friend, that brings Lester into the studio week after week, regardless of how many people are tuning in.

    For Lester and the other hosts who frequent the station week after week, that bond is enough. Even though it’s radio, a medium that seems dependent on listenership, community at WYBCX is not defined by an audience — and they’re just fine with that.

  3. In Excess

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    During one of the final days of reading week last spring, fraternity presidents sat around a table with Deans Marichal Gentry and John Meeske to discuss a touchy subject — the ban on fall rush practices that had been announced two months prior.

    The conversation, however, soon shifted into unexpected territory: new methods for combating unsafe drinking and Yale’s drinking culture in general. “We were all confused by the change in topic,” recalls Daniel Tay ’14, president of AEPi. Though new policy ideas were presented to the body, the conversation was largely left unresolved. Fraternity leaders left that day with only the administrators’ promise to gather their input over the summer. But Tay says that never happened. (Dean Gentry did not respond to requests for comment.)

    Ben Singleton ’13, a former president of SAE, says that, after the meeting, “we all knew something else was coming.”

    And he was right.

    Before most of us had returned to Yale this fall, Deans Miller and Gentry sent out a campus-wide email explaining the newest regulation governing Yale’s social climate: off-campus party registrations. Under this system, students hosting an off-campus party for more than 50 people are required to register the party with the Dean’s Office, and the host now assumes legal responsibility for all guests. In a News article outlining the new policy, Dean Meeske announced that the regulations were “a way for us to have more knowledge about what’s going on … and with more knowledge we can watch what’s going on more closely.”

    With the fall semester well underway, fraternities have been hit the hardest. At a time when most of us had not even finalized our shopping schedule, SigEp was facing one of the earliest impacts of the new regulation. An email that SigEp President Will Kirkland ’14 sent to the SigEp panlist related that on Aug. 23, a party hosted by an “outside organization” in the fraternity’s house resulted in two students being transported to the hospital for severe intoxication.

    The consequences were as promised by Meeske: “We are now facing sanctions from the Yale Executive Committee,” reads the email. (Kirkland did not respond to requests for comment.)

    Those sanctions included a ban on parties hosted by SigEp until the conclusion of fall break on Oct. 29. But, as a junior in SigEp put it in an interview, “Our president really got screwed. He wasn’t even there, it wasn’t even our fraternity’s party, but he took the hit. How is that even possible?”

     

    It’s the type of confusion that has plagued not only the Greek community, but also student groups closer to campus, including the International Students Organization (ISO) and International Relations Association (YIRA). According to Carl Sandberg ’14, president of ISO, the two groups approached Dean Meeske in early September to explain “concerns” that members had about the new policy.

    “We wanted the administration to be aware of how the policy is perceived among students and work to make a clear channel between our members and the administration,” he said.

    For Sandberg, their meeting seemed to achieve just that. “They promised to send out more information on the specifics of the regulations, and they did,” he said. “We all got an email the day after. That’s the kind of path I hope we can continue on.”

    But YIRA soon revealed that, regardless of this new channel of communication, the policy’s consequences were more palpable than ever.

    Niko Efstathiou ’14, a member of YIRA, noted that for years, 168 York Street Café was the organization’s go-to venue for their off-campus events. He praised the management for their flexibility in accommodating student organizations. “Nobody was turned away from a party for being underage, and all carding happened at the bar,” he said. Over the years, he continued, YIRA had formed a close relationship with the bar owner, Joe Goodwin.

    But during the third week of classes, Sophia Clementi ’14, executive director of YIRA, was informed halfway through a party the organization was hosting at the café that this one would be their last.

    “Joe and I were standing at the door, and he suddenly says to me, ‘You know this will be the last time we can allow underage kids in here,’” Clementi said. Given that the majority of YIRA’s members are underage, it seemed clear to her that they would have to sever ties with 168 York.

    Goodwin himself remembers the incident just as vividly. He explains his altered stance on student parties as stemming from a September article in the New Haven Register, one that publicized Yale’s new “crackdown” on student drinking.

    “It was a clear wake-up call,” he tells me. It’s about 11:30 p.m. on a Wednesday in the silent and dimly lit dining room of 168 York. “That article told me that I’d have to be stricter about booking parties. It’s sad, because we’ve become good friends with these kids over the years, but we have to follow the law,” he continues. “But at the same time, those rules seem to take away the possibility of parties anywhere at all. I mean, where are you guys going to go now? The Shake Shack?”

    Bartender Joe Evangelista soon joins us at our table. While the policies seemed well-intentioned, he admitted, he wondered how they would actually contribute to a decrease in binge drinking. “The thing is,” he says, “kids aren’t coming here to get drunk. They’re running in dancing for an hour, and then going on to whatever’s happening next.”

    Regardless, Goodwin does not envision a return to the student parties of the past anytime soon.

    “At this point, there’s really nothing I can do,” he says.

     

    Ben Singleton seems to just be waiting on his own fraternity’s turn to experience a fate similar to that of SigEp. We’re sitting in the living room of SAE, a place that many Yalies have stumbled through at some point on a Thursday night. The room is spotless, and for the first time I don’t have to struggle to walk across a hardwood floor blanketed by a sticky coat of dried beer.

    Singleton laughs at my observation, but the conversation quickly hits a more serious note. For Singleton, the state of SAE during a party is not something he’s experienced often since his term as president.  He then points to the stairs. “I’m so scared during parties now, scared that something is going to happen out of our control, that I usually just stay in my room.”

    In Singleton’s view, the most recent regulations treat the symptoms and not the causes of binge drinking, creating a system in which the administration tries to portray itself and Greek organizations on opposite ends of the battlefield.

    “We’re supposed to be allies, not the cops and bad guys,” he said. “We’re all on the same side here. Everyone wants drinking to be done safely.” But for fraternities, he continued, an open dialogue on drinking and alcohol policy has been swept under the rug.

    “They try to make us feel part of the discussion, but then go ahead and establish the rules without consulting the groups they hurt the most. It’s a war you can’t win.”

    According to Singleton, it’s a conversation we have to have, and fast. He noted that since the passage of the off-campus party regulations, SAE and other fraternities have informally come together to discuss a cutback on parties open to the entire campus.

    Invite-only parties, he said, would offer the fraternities a limited group of familiar faces who wouldn’t hold SAE “accountable” for a phone call to the hospital. He added that, given the recent episodes at SigEp and other fraternities related to the new policy, open parties at SAE in particular have already begun decreasing.

    “I don’t want us to turn into the final clubs of Harvard and the eating clubs of Princeton,” he says quietly. But for now, he says, the administration has not afforded them much of a choice. “Every person that I don’t know walking through that door now feels like a liability.”

     

    Communication and Consent Educator Matt Breuer ’14 chose to spend his undergraduate years at Yale for what he defines as our culture of social inclusivity. But as the new regulations trickled in over the past few months, Breuer began to fear the end of such a culture. For him, the off-campus registration policy sparked a commitment to understanding the many strands of the administration’s new stance on alcohol. But despite delving into Yale’s official policies on social functions and alcohol use, Breuer remains in the dark on many of the specifics.

    “The problem is, I couldn’t give you a one-sentence summation of our alcohol policy today, and that’s coming from someone who has actively tried to understand it,” he laments. “Our communication with the administration when it comes to drinking has completely broken down, and it’s leading to mass confusion for everyone.”

    For Breuer, the time has come for students to recognize their own role in bringing down alcohol-related hospitalizations. He cites a program begun at Haverford College called “Quaker Bouncers,” in which students are paid by the hour to oversee parties in teams of two. The students are required to go through a four-hour training session to understand how to help a fellow student should medical help be necessary. According to an Inside Higher Ed article, over 200 trained students have enlisted their help.

    “When students take a proactive stance like this, it moves the focus to students looking out for one another, instead of just worrying about themselves. As innovative as we are, it amazes me that we don’t even have a standing committee for discussion on these issues,” he says.

     

    H. Wesley Perkins GRD ’79, a sociology professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and director of the Alcohol Education Project, believes that binge drinking can’t be tackled until students have accurate perceptions of how often it actually happens. This has proven difficult at a place like Yale, he says, when data from alcohol surveys and the numbers of hospital transports are hidden from students. Additionally, he says, regulations alone on college campuses usually have very little effect in driving down alcohol abuse.

    “I’m not at all opposed to policy, but the past couple of decades have revealed that we can’t legislate ourselves out of the problem of binge drinking,” he said. “But when regulations are in place, the most important issue is finding out to what extent students actually understand them. The most effective policies are the ones that are built off of student support, and then promoted publicly.”

    Perkins contends that the chief problem behind severe regulations is that they simply shift the context of drinking. Speaking to Yale’s off-campus regulations specifically, he predicts that drinking will just become more heavily concentrated within suites and other places not yet touched by a regulatory hand.

    “What you see happen is that actual consumption rates haven’t changed much. The problems just get pushed somewhere else,” he said.

     

    It’s this concern that causes West Cuthbert ’14, SAE house manager, to question the cancelation of Safety Dance. Silliman’s popular ’80s party was discontinued after a 13-year run when, according to an email sent by Silliman Master Judith Krauss, a record number of eight people were sent to the hospital for intoxication.

    “It shouldn’t be that residential colleges get to dodge the question of drinking safely, while other organizations have to battle it alone,” Cuthbert said. He echoes Perkins’ contention that restricting alcohol in one area would simply drive drinking “further underground.” But there’s potential for progress, he continued, if residential colleges offered more “realistic” options for social events, a way that hazardous drinking could be more easily monitored.

    “But right now, I think we’re pretty far from that. Colleges aren’t offering us many social outlets that don’t involve moon bounces or petting zoos,” he said.

    Hannah Fornero, an organizer of this year’s Safety Dance, seemed to agree in part. “Maybe there should be a more uniform policy,” she said. “In a way, it makes sense. Why should residential colleges be held to a different standard?”

     

    Not too long ago, though, Yale’s social scene was just the opposite, with most drinking rooted within such residential college functions. Steve Olson ’78, who in 2005 wrote an article for the Yale Alumni Magazine on student drinking, recalls his first week of freshman year. FroCos had organized a “sherry hour” in Dwight Hall, and all freshmen were invited to attend.

    “That gathering was much more than something social — it was educational. It was a way for FroCos to send a subtle message about how drinking should be done. As incoming freshmen, we didn’t realize what they were doing at the time, but it taught us a lot,” he said.

    For Olson, a drinking culture more centralized within residential colleges offered the possibility of better engagement with masters and deans on safety. Of course, Olson attended Yale when the legal drinking age was 18 instead of 21. But in his view, today’s regulations seemed to have abandoned the educational aspect entirely. Instead, he said, the primary focus now seems to be disciplinary. “This seems like a far less healthy atmosphere than when I went to Yale.”

     

    The rivalry in Cambridge is as fierce as ever, with Harvard taking an entirely different approach from Yale to combat binge drinking. In early October, Harvard’s Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisors (DAPA) held an open forum for discussion on its own alcohol regulations.

    Nevin Raj, president of DAPA, explained that Harvard’s alcohol policies have been shaped around student input, including focus groups, an online comment box, and several feedback sessions. For Raj, the campus-wide forum was evidence that the administration is “always in open dialogue with the students, and always seeks feedback.” The open forum included a Q-and-A with Harvard’s student life associate dean, chief of police, and alcohol and other drug services director.

    It’s easy to imagine that the problem of binge drinking is simply inevitable. And in some ways, it is: regardless of the legal age, college students will always drink. But this semester has shown an administrative approach that seems to believe the problem can be regulated away. The models of schools like Haverford and Harvard have proven that though drinking may be inevitable, Yale’s response to it does not have to be.

    Branford Master Elizabeth Bradley seems to be planting the seed for a similar approach at Yale, albeit on a much smaller scale. Branford students took part in an event on November 14 at Bradley’s house with Vice President of Student Affairs Kim Goff-Crews. She describes the event as a time for an open discussion on “student culture at Yale, including the use of alcohol.”

    “If the policies are to be effective, it is important to listen and seek to understand students’ experiences concerning alcohol use,” she said in an email. “If students fully understand the problem including the data around it, they may feel more ownership of the problem and enlist to help address it.”

    Will Jordan ’13, who is living in Branford’s God Quad this year, praised Master Bradley’s efforts as a “great way of trying to get better communication” about Yale’s drinking culture. For Jordan, an open dialogue with his college’s master while living in God Quad has been invaluable. “We don’t have to hide parties, and if there are problems — which fortunately there have not been yet — we would feel comfortable getting her help,” he said.

    But in Jordan’s view, the rest of the administration has fallen behind. “It’s difficult because Yale drinking is definitely a culture,” he said. “And to change it, we have to talk about it.”

     

    It’s about 7 p.m. on a Tuesday, and Matt Breuer has a lot on his mind. Even though others are well within hearing distance, he is unafraid to speak clearly, counting off the problems Yale is facing in moving forward on the question of alcohol. Frustration rings in his voice as we talk, and it seems that his concern stems from mere helplessness.

    “You wouldn’t believe how many of us care about this, but at this point, it doesn’t matter. There’s too dark of a divide between us and the administration, and it’s driving me crazy, because I just don’t know what to do,” he says.

    Like every student interviewed for this article, Breuer agrees that Yale, like all colleges, faces the perennial problem of alcohol abuse. Yes, he agrees, some changes need to be made, but he remains convinced that the issue can be approached without scrapping the social culture so fundamental to our school.

    He details the vision behind Yale’s Grand Strategy program, a yearlong program designed to equip students to tackle the biggest issues facing our global landscape. For Breuer, if our administration can entrust us to these incredible tasks, then there’s no reason we should be left in the dark in a discussion about the way we drink.

    “When it comes to a real problem on campus that students can actually grasp, and one that we see every single weekend, it’s time for us to be trusted as a part of the solution.”

  4. Two South Asias

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    [media-credit name=”Philipp Arndt” align=”alignnone” width=”300″][/media-credit] 

    “So on the count of three, move your hips to the left!”

    Fifteen girls mimic each other’s movements while facing a studio mirror. It’s the Ezra Stiles dance room, and we are decked out in our gym shorts and old T-shirts. Bollywood music is playing. Shona Kemari is standing in front of us. She’s in charge of the freshman dance act for Roshni, the South Asian festival at Woolsey Hall on Nov. 2. She knows traditional Indian bharatanatyam dance and is also a member of the Yale Bhangra Team, an undergraduate Indian dance troupe. Currently, she’s trying hard not to laugh at us.

    “Better, but you’ve got to shake your ass a bit more.”

    From a distance, it looks almost routine: Indian girls dancing to Bollywood music. These Indians, however, are not from India. They’re from Louisiana and Texas and California. They are American, right down to the Exeter sweatshirt one of the girls is sporting.

    Except for four girls. They resemble the rest, but they hail from exotic-sounding places: Delhi, Karachi, Lahore.  They’re from the Indian subcontinent — the “real” South Asians. But one of them doesn’t know the name of the song that’s playing. The second is laughing hysterically at the dance moves being practiced. The third wasn’t even on time to this practice. And the fourth is me.

    “Five, six, seven, eight, again!” Shona makes a movement that involves grinding your fist against your other palm. The girl from Delhi, Nitika, can’t take it anymore and has a fit of laughter. She turns to me: “I didn’t even dance Bollywood back in Delhi,” she says.

    “Honestly,” I say, “if someone told me I’d be dancing Bollywood at Yale …”

    “Do you even recognize this song?”

    “Beats me,” I say. It’s not from Pakistan, my home country. “This is from your side of the border.”

    We turn and join the boy from Delhi at the back. His name is Dhruv Chand Aggarwal, and he’s having trouble coordinating his feet. I ask him, “If we’re actually from South Asia, how come we’re the worst dancers in this room?” Dhruv sees right through my question and poses a bigger one. He jerks his head towards the crowd of girls in front. “How are these South Asians more South Asian than us?”

     

    South Asia. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal — obsessed with cricket and nuclear arms, depending on the mood of the region. To a foreign ear though, it would mean a variation of what was happening in the Stiles dance room — Bollywood, colorful clothes, and spicy food. And yes, South Asia is all that too.

    I’m from Karachi, Pakistan, but coming to Yale this semester as a freshman, my identity wasn’t South Asian — my identity was simply international. And so were the other freshmen I knew arriving here from South Asia. They were not, as my suitemate sometimes puts it, my “brown friends”; “brown” and “South Asian” are adjectives I never had to think about, simply because everybody else back home was brown and South Asian too. It’s at Yale that, for the first time, I’ve been put in a situation where this identity sets me apart, where it actually means something. By that, I don’t just mean my identity as a South Asian; I mean my being a South Asian born and raised in South Asia itself.

    Growing up, I had heard of stereotypes for the children of South Asians who had immigrated to the U.S. We knew them rather uncharitably as ABCDs, American-Born Confused Desis. (Desi is slang for South Asian.) Their confusion, it was said, arose from being caught between competing cultural backgrounds — the traditional culture of their parents and the foreign culture they were actually living in.

    I wasn’t expecting to find any confused desis at Yale. And without any conception of what being South Asian meant, I never thought I’d find any sort of differentiation in the South Asian community based on where you were born. On that count, I found I was wrong. I remember a South Asian mixer when the incoming freshmen almost subconsciously divided themselves along international and American lines. I remember, too, that at the elections for freshman peer liaisons for the South Asian Society, a South Asian junior commented on how all the Indian Americans would vote for the Indian American candidate. One South Asian American senior, upon hearing where I was from, neatly categorized me as someone interested in economics, since, as she suggested, only South Asian Americans tend to be interested in medicine.

    And Dhruv’s question on who feels more South Asian — he’s on to something. Many South Asian American communities encourage a sort of engagement with traditional culture that differs dramatically from what South Asian international students experience growing up. For example, Kemari from California and Deeksha Deep from Louisiana get animated talking about Sunday Hindu school in their communities — “Oh my god, do you remember Balvihaar! And yoga, so much yoga to learn!”  In contrast, Anand Khare, a sophomore from India, tells of attending a meeting of the Hindu Society at Yale and finding it “full of Indian-Americans chanting hymns I’d never even heard of.”

    Of course, not all South Asian Americans are so grounded in their roots, as Kemari reminds me. In the Indian-American community, she says, “you have Indians who are raised practically white, and then you have Indians whose parents make a huge effort to preserve their culture.” And for those who do work to preserve their culture, the forms of South Asian culture they pass on might differ from what children growing up in South Asia experience today. Says Deep, “My parents moved to the States 16 years ago, so what they know is India 16 years ago.” In contrast, many of the students from South Asia come from the sorts of well-off backgrounds that seem to put less emphasis on roots and culture. “If you’re coming to Yale, and you’re from India,” says Kemari, “then you’ve got to be rich enough to afford a certain kind of education that means you can come to Yale. I guess that’s what makes them more Americanized [than we are].” By which she means more like the South Asian Americans who are raised “white.”

    It’s those different attitudes towards tradition that explain why Kemari has joined Yale’s Bhangra Team, bhangra being a folk dance from Punjab in northern India, while Zubin Mittal, a freshman from Delhi, is nonplussed by the group’s existence on campus. “Like, can you imagine having bhangra teams and competitions back home?” he says to me. “No man, fuck that.”

     

    It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m attending a barbeque thrown by a couple of Pakistani grad students. Hannia Zia, a Pakistani freshman, is eating chicken tikka when she suddenly remarks, “You know, I really like this. Like I never really thought about this back home, but I’m so glad there are other Pakistanis here.”

    That’s a statement to think about — the international kid feeling homesick suddenly for a community she knows. Have I felt that as a freshman? Not at first, no, and I didn’t expect other international kids to feel homesick either. If anything, I felt a culture shock in reverse when I found out how unusually overrepresented my community and culture are at Yale. And yet even if, like Nitika when she is laughing at the dance moves, or Anand when he’s confused by the religious hymns, other internationals and I tend to find this über South Asian-ness strange, you come to realize it is possible to feel homesick, if only to find that sense of belonging and a community to fall back on.

    Roshni rolled around this November and South Asians across Yale danced, sang and showed off their culture, regardless of whether they were born into it, or it was something their parents taught them. Until the last minute Shona was convinced that we freshmen would somehow become a coherent act with only a month of sporadic practice. American or not, all of us had to fix our two left feet. On stage at least, we looked routine again: a bunch of freshmen hoping to pull their act off. And for a time, it wasn’t just about being Indian or Pakistani or American, or who’s more South Asian or less. We were all just “brown,” even if our identities are so much more complicated than that.

  5. The Garden in the Desert

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    [media-credit id=11497 align=”alignnone” width=”300″][/media-credit]Stacy Spell reaches into a tangle of tomato vines and broccoli stalks and pulls out what looks like a sunken brown baseball. “Cantaloupe!” he exclaims. He cuts open the shell with a pocketknife, revealing the fruit’s orange flesh, then holds out the cantaloupe so I can take a closer look. “It’s a volunteer,” he says, laughing at my confusion. The garden we’re standing in, I learn, uses compost, which sometimes results in these “volunteers”: plants that unexpectedly sprout from seeds hidden in leftover scraps.

    Spell is the founder of the Little Red Hen, a new community vegetable garden in New Haven’s West River neighborhood, an urban enclave located a mile-and-a-half west of Yale’s campus. Near the corner where Mead Street meets Derby Avenue, behind an iron fence and a weather-beaten sign, the square lot boasts over a dozen raised beds overflowing with greenery.

    “When I tell people about this garden, they’re always surprised,” says Michelle Streater, a preschool teacher who lives around the corner. “They’re like, ‘In West River? In the middle of the city?’” According to Spell, some skeptics thought that the logistics of the project were beyond the neighborhood’s reach.

    “They think that people downhere aren’t savvy enough,” he says.

    I quickly realize that, despite my Southern suburban roots, I am the least savvy person here. Tentatively cupping seeds in my hand, I clear a patch of dirt and wave over Shivani Smith, another volunteer. She’s only eight but she holds her gardening tools with ease. Shivani and her two friends stand beside me, giving me directions.

    “Sprinkle the seeds — wait, that’s enough,” she instructs. Shivani, her mother, and her older sister planted the first vegetable bed after the city’s Board of Education approved the West River Neighborhood Services Corporation’s proposal to transform the empty lot on Mead Street into a garden.

    I soon find myself gripping a handsaw, cutting planks of plywood for a new bed. We lay the boards in a rectangle, and Michelle caps the soil, spreading black fabric over the ground. Because pollutants from an old house were found in the soil, part of the agreement to build a garden stipulated that nothing could be planted directly in the ground.

    The soil cap is a reminder of the “urban” part of this so-called “urban garden.” It’s a reminder of the unlikeliness of a garden in the middle of the city. But like an unexpected cantaloupe sprouting where it doesn’t belong, the Little Red Hen community garden has found a way to flourish. A new question has since sprung up — whether the growth of new vegetables could one day translate to the growth of a neighborhood or even an entire city.

     

    The walk from Yale’s campus to the garden takes me through several residential neighborhoods and passes by frequent clusters of corner stores. These “bodegas” line the streets of West River and many other New Haven neighborhoods. In the windows of the George Street Deli and Haven Market, posted next to advertisements for cigarettes and Connecticut Power Ball, signs announce, “We accept food stamps.” Inside, scant aisles stock corner store staples: chips, ice cream, soda.

    West River, like the greater city that surrounds it, is in the middle of a food desert. Food deserts are typically low-income areas where fruits, vegetables, and other perishables are hard to find. The only chain supermarket near the neighborhood, Shaw’s on Whalley Avenue, closed in 2010. Now families without cars have little choice but to take the bus to Stop & Shop, which is farther away, and older women in West River can often be seen boarding buses with grocery carts.

    Steve Driffin, a youth services specialist for the city, believes that a lack of access to healthy food correlates with increased violence and crime. He says that while local youth can buy a drink and three bags of chips for next to nothing, healthy food is expensive and rare. “Some of their best meals are at these bodegas,” he adds.

     

    Stacy Spell agrees. As head of the West River Neighborhood Services Corporation and a long-time resident of West River, he wanted to address the gap that Shaw’s left. He recalls seeing men from the neighborhood returning for seconds and thirds at holiday dinners open to the community  — young, healthy-looking men who, he says,  “ate with no shame.” The people he saw were hungry for “real food.” Yet Spell says that the Little Red Hen sought to address more than just food security.

    In addition to a lack of healthy food, West River has other types of turbulence. At the end of my first workday, Spell drives me back to campus. We pass the West River triangle, where Derby Avenue joins George and Norton streets. This area, according to the New Haven Register, has for the last several years been a hot spot for violent crime. This was where, early in 2011, two shootings broke out within three months of each other — the second took place in broad daylight. Only a few months earlier in December 2010, the Register reported the fatal shooting of a young man at the Dunkin’ Donuts at the same intersection. Outsiders have been known to drive through red traffic lights in West River for fear of stopping too long.

    The Little Red Hen, Spell explains, was created to galvanize a community in need. He believes that a garden that teaches people how to grow their own food will empower residents to have a more self-sufficient lifestyle — to stop depending on cheap corner-store junk. According to Spell, the issues that West River faces, from crime to food security, are all interwoven. As he puts it, “A hungry community is stuck and not prospering.”

     

    As the Little Red Hen develops in West River, New Haven is joining a national conversation about changing the way we eat.

    The New Haven Food Policy Action Council holds its first Food Summit on Oct. 12 at City Hall. Teachers, students, and officials cram around tables and fill the meeting room with a dull roar. Each person has a copy of a draft of the Food Action Plan, an ambitious outline of changes people want to see in New Haven’s food environment. The first of its three main goals is to “increase access to healthy food for all in New Haven.” One strategy? Creating more backyard and community gardens.

    Spell and several garden volunteers are met with whistles and applause as they walk to the front of the room to talk about their project’s progress. The Little Red Hen was established independently, with scant resources, in a neighborhood where most wouldn’t expect to find a garden. Now, in the 500 vacant lots owned by the city, the potential for agricultural growth is emerging, too. Little Red Hen’s square lot on Mead Street is a point of inspiration for greater change in New Haven, and for promoting community development and public safety through food.

    I understand that sourcing food locally bolsters a city’s economy, but how exactly does the way a neighborhood eats relate to its unrest? To the people I meet at Little Red Hen, the community garden seems to be merely that — a community garden. The conversation around food politics doesn’t quite seem relevant. I ask the volunteers if they see their gardening as part of a greater movement towards food security and public safety.

    “For me … this is mostly a social event,” Merrie Harrison says of her time at the Little Red Hen. Harrison started coming to the garden when she moved to West River this summer. She says that the sense of community keeps her coming back. Harrison says that for the women who volunteer there, the Little Red Hen provides an outlet to discuss everything from their kids to changes in the city. Working in the garden reminds her of “colonial women standing by the river washing their clothes together,” she says, adding that she values “the sense of being there for each other.”

    Harrison, a teacher, encourages her students to go to the garden and learn from the older volunteers. This Saturday, Harrison has brought 21-year-old Bobby McKnight, a former student from New Horizons, an alternative high school program in New Haven.

    As Harrison and I work, I ask her if the city’s food movement feels relevant to her life. She’s not sure.

    Harrison thinks that over time, efforts like the Little Red Hen could improve life in West River on a large scale, but she says that it’s too early to know for sure. And that’s not why she comes to the garden. Though she works with at-risk youth and knows what problems the city faces, she volunteers in the garden for the social aspect, not the sociological one.

    Around us, the Little Red Hen shows signs of fall. Orange leaves carpet the ground. The garden is getting chickens soon, so the fence has a new lock. While Stacy Spell believes in altruism, he can’t be overly optimistic.

    Change in West River, like anywhere else, is hard. The George Street Deli was one of four testing grounds for an initiative in 2011 that tried to stock bodegas with fresh produce. But last month the owner told The New Haven Independent that he was losing money, because the fruits spoiled before they were sold.

    Changing the way we eat may be the first step towards a safer society. It’s a convincing and appealing argument. Yet, to those at the core of the changes, the larger implications aren’t always clear.

    Still, the workers of the Little Red Hen have other reasons to return — relationships they form and a sense of belonging. Before we leave, I ask Bobby if he’s going to come back to the Little Red Hen. It’s rare to see young men at the garden, but he says he will. His grandmother, who still looks out for him today, used to garden too.

  6. Neuroscience, Underwater

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    [media-credit name=”Natalie Wolff” align=”alignnone” width=”300″][/media-credit]On the night of June 23rd, neuroscientist Vincent Pieribone knelt on the bottom of the ocean, chiseling off a shard of coral. He was an hour off the coast of Kennedy Island, a deserted island in the South Pacific. The ocean floor was pitch-black, but he knew that all around him were the ghostly ruins of planes and warships sunk during World War II. As if these twisted, hulking metal shapes weren’t creepy enough, the water was also teeming with an endless catalog of things that could kill him.

    “There are serious sharks there — blacktip open ocean sharks that will take a bite off you,” he said. “But in diving, it’s the little things that get you.” Little things like the box jellyfish. Pieribone wasn’t worried about them, because if he were to get stung, he’d be dead too fast to do anything anyway. But he was worried about the cone shells, which inject venomous harpoons into their prey as they scoot along the ocean floor; he was worried about blue-ringed octopi, which come out at night to hunt with their own heart-stopping venom; he was worried about his motorized canoe being ravaged by a sudden squall. And if he were to get stung, or scraped by the infection-laden coral, or even hit by the boat’s propeller, he would have to spend over three hours in two different boats to get to the capital of the Solomon Islands, where the hospital, run-down and flanked by open sewers, seems almost as risky as the seafloor. “It was absolutely petrifying,” he says.

    The reason Pieribone was braving all these dangers was the sliver of coral he was chipping off the reef. It contained a gene that makes the animal shine a brilliant fluorescent red. Pieribone wanted to borrow that gene and inject it into the brain. He was hoping to create a microscopic light show in which every flash is caused by activity in a single neuron, allowing computers to read a person’s intentions flickering across the brain. For people with paralysis, this gene could mean being able to control a robot with their minds, thereby regaining some of their independence.

    Remedying paralysis through nocturnal scuba-diving is hardly the norm for neuroscientists. They are creatures of the lab, where the only kinds of fauna they have to worry about are the fruit flies they experiment on and the grad students they teach. For most of the year, this is true of Pieribone as well. He teaches neurophysiology at the Yale School of Medicine, and examines fruit fly brains at The John B. Pierce Laboratory, a Yale-affiliated research institute.

    Like plenty of his colleagues, Pieribone uses undersea material in his lab — his fly brains are injected with a jellyfish gene which allows him to see how chains of neurons interact. But unlike other neuroscientists, he sees underwater life as more than just a source for the genetic tools necessary for lab work. In fact, his concern for coral reefs rivals his concern for the human brain. Both of these interests have deep roots in Pieribone’s childhood, and it is only now, after decades of neuroscience research, that he is getting to splice them together.

     

    When I meet Pieribone in his lab, he speaks in loops and digressions, taking information-packed detours. To arrive at how dangerous night-diving is, he goes by way of JFK’s 1943 boat crash; to explain the funding of scientific research, he describes the bizarre experiments performed by the U.S. military. He is 48, but has the charming intensity of a kid. He even looks boyish, with a round face, button nose and unruly hair. So it isn’t hard to imagine him as a kid, despite his foul mouth and five o’clock shadow.

    Pieribone was a diver before he even thought of being a neuroscientist: as a kid growing up in Titusville, Fla., he spent his free time skin diving and snorkeling with his brother. “I didn’t legally dive until I was in college,” he says. “You need a license, but when we were young you didn’t, so we’d just occasionally bring down a tank. Nobody cared.” He remembers a holiday in the Florida Keys when the coral was as bright as a Matisse, the pinks and reds still pristine.

    Then, during his adolescence, his focus was diverted from coral reefs to neurological diseases when his father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Such a diagnosis would be devastating for anyone — there is no known cure for MS — but for Pieribone’s father, who had struggled to become a chiropractor, the disease signaled the end of a dream he’d spent his whole life trying to realize.

    “When he was a kid, he had polio and lost a leg,” Pieribone says. “That was bad enough.” But the background from which he came made Pieribone’s father’s trajectory even more difficult. His parents were first-generation Italian farmers; they believed that if your father worked in the fields, you should too. Even when he lost a leg, diminishing his prospects on the farm, his family still didn’t want him going to college. He put himself through chiropractor school and set up a practice anyway. The job was hard enough with only one leg — every day, he was reshaping someone’s spinal cord through a series of quick jerks and prods and thrusts. With the tremors and weakness that characterize MS, performing a chiropractic adjustment soon became impossible. “It infuriated me,” Pieribone says of his father’s illness. “I tried to take that anger and turn it into something useful. Otherwise it would just eat you up.”

    He began to read everything he could find about MS. So little was known about MS that, as a high school senior, he was able to digest all the scientific literature there was on the disease. He ended up phoning a researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, and was disgusted to find that the professor didn’t know much more than he did.

    Even as he buried himself in MS articles, Pieribone kept diving. At that point, the reefs were disintegrating almost as fast as his father’s ability to move. In 1982, when Pieribone went off to New York University to pursue his interest in neuroscience, both his father and the reefs took a turn for the worse. His father became depressed, which broke apart his marriage to Pieribone’s mother. And Pieribone could hardly recognize the coral reefs he’d explored while he was growing up. “There’s algae covering the reefs, this matted algae that grows when there’s too much human feces in the water, too much manure. It’s a dead zone.”

    His father’s situation was becoming even more bleak: he had moved to Coler Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island, which sits in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. “It was a city hospital for people who couldn’t walk and who had no money,” Pieribone says. “After years of different inpatient hospitals he paid for, he ran out of money and ended up there. The whole island was pretty scary back then. Mostly deserted. There were only hospitals.”

    Pieribone visited his father on Roosevelt Island over a five-year period until his father’s death. He can’t remember the year: “I’ve blocked it out,” he says. What he does remember is the anger that flared up. “My father’s death didn’t need to happen,” he says. He believes diseases like MS would be cured if society cared enough to invest more money in research. “It’s insanity that sports and that kind of bullshit gets more money than research.”

    His anger also extends to the disappearance of coral reefs, which are not only fabulous in themselves, but also provide food and shelter for innumerable other species. “You burn a Library of Congress every week, because you take all these genetic sequences that took millions of years to perfect, and you kill that history,” he says. “And there’s no fucking interest in it. If it’s not a polar bear or a penguin, nobody wants to hear about it.”

     

    In December 1997, after years of diverting this double-headed anger into his work in other people’s labs as a graduate student and postdoc, Pieribone was offered a job as primary investigator at The John B. Pierce Laboratory. He now had his own lab, which would soon allow him to connect diving with his neuroscience career, showing just how disastrous the disappearance of coral reefs could be to patients with neurological diseases.

    To explain this connection, Pieribone took me to see his lab, an underground mess of computers and wires and microscopes. Carved out of the towers of equipment is a cramped space where you can electronically navigate the microscopic tip of a needle-like pipette into a fruit-fly neuron. And when Pieribone flicks on one of the computer screens, a tree-like neuron appears, glowing the otherworldly green of a creature out of Star Wars.

    Pieribone made that brain cell glow by injecting it with a jellyfish protein. Under normal circumstances, that green fluorescent protein (GFP) is simply used to “tag” cells: once a cell is glowing green, you can easily follow its path through the body. Pieribone, on the other hand, is using the GFP to see which brain cells are responsible for what. He has fiddled with the protein’s genetic code so that the fluorescence flickers every time this neuron communicates with its neighbors. The language neurons use is composed of little jolts of electricity. “Essentially, we’re translating their electrical language into a visual report,” Pieribone says.

    Right now, to see which exact neurons are communicating to accomplish a certain task, a neuroscientist would have to insert electrode wires into the neuron. The task isn’t just finicky —  it’s also untenable, because scar tissue begins to engulf the wire. “For a few months, maybe even a year, you are able to record cells,” Pieribone says. “But over time, the recordings get really bad, because the brain rejects the foreign body.”

    This problem would be avoided with Pieribone’s modified GFP. He and his Ph.D. student Jelena Platisa are now testing their sensor against electrodes, and their results look promising. Pieribone switches on another computer screen to show me, and up pop two zigzagging lines. One represents the electrical signals emerging from the fruit-fly neuron as read by the electrode, the other the intensity of the cell’s fluorescence as read by a specially designed camera.

    Every peak and valley of the electrode zigzag is echoed in the GFP zigzag, indicating that that the GFP is doing exactly what Pieribone wants: it is flickering every time the neuron says something to its neighbor.

    The accuracy of the sensor’s measurements places it among the most sensitive brain imaging techniques neuroscientists have. For example, fMRI allows scientists to see which general region of the brain is functioning — we’re talking millions of neurons at once — while this protein can show us the function of a single neuron at a time. This detailed level of detection means that scientists could see exactly which chain of neurons is responsible for which actions.

    The implications of Pieribone’s creation could be huge. Imagine a patient who has lost the ability to move. If this sensor were injected into that patient’s brain, a computer could actually read the patient’s intentions as they flicker from one neuron to the next. That computer could then transmit the patient’s intentions to a robot, which could accomplish the movement for the patient. While scientists would have to start with simpler movements, Pieribone hopes that in a few decades a computer could differentiate between the neurons involved in accomplishing near-identical tasks — spreading butter rather than scooping it out of the dish, moving a pen to write “dear” instead of “dare” — and that the robot would be able to accomplish the exact task the patient had envisioned. If you haven’t moved since you were in a car crash, this nifty bit of biotechnology could change your life.

    Pieribone is quick to point out that this sensor isn’t perfect. The tissues in our brains produce a faint green fluorescence that can interfere with the jellyfish’s fluorescence, the way stars can be lost from sight even on a street with a single streetlamp. Red fluorescence would work better: it is not only easily distinguishable from our brains’ green glow, but is also safer and can reach neurons buried deeper within our skulls. It was this image of a red fluorescent protein lighting up our brains that made Pieribone start thinking about diving at night.

     

    In 2002, Pieribone first went diving in the South Pacific for bright red corals. But the decline of coral reefs — and underwater life in general — added an urgency to his mission. The jellyfish from which the green fluorescence was extracted is no longer seen in its native Puget Sound. “The year after it was cloned, it disappeared,” Pieribone says. He is worried the same thing will happen with other organisms before scientists get around to cloning them.

    “We’re wiping all these animals off the face of the earth as fast as we possibly can. What do I do about it? I’m nothing, I’m a neuroscientist,” he says. “Nobody would give us money.” So he finagled his first trip to the South Pacific through EarthWatch, an organization that funds research by having eco-tourists pay to come along for the ride.

    The papers Pieribone wrote about those first dives led to funding for more dives, including this summer’s adventure in the Solomon Islands. His team brought back hundreds of specimens whose DNA is now being combed for useful traits.

    His mission is partly political — he’s still angry that people care more about football than about research, and wants to capture their imagination through swashbuckling science. To that end, he has co-written a book about underwater fluorescence and blogged for The New York Times.

    Despite his anger, he’s never lost the awe he experienced as a kid in Florida. In fact, it has only increased as he has discovered the wonders of nighttime fluorescence. “The colors are like an acid trip, some crazy velvet painting from the ’60s,” he says. “As a scientist, the things you see are so amazing you lose yourself, you forget what air you have, you forget where you are, how far you’ve gone.” And I can see that I’ve lost Pieribone. He’s no longer sitting across from me in a café a few blocks from his lab. He’s underwater, kneeling on the sand, staring wide-eyed at a glowing piece of coral.

  7. Forum: International Affairs

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    With the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, continuing discussion of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s comments on the Benghazi attacks and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s announcement of new powers, international issues have dominated recent news. What do you think the most important international event was over the past week? Hear from our columnists in the Yale Daily News Forum:

    Scott Stern, Staff Columnist | Sophomore in Branford College 
    The most important international event of the last week took place in the Middle East — but not where you think. South of Israel and east of Egypt, you’ll see Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive a car. It’s a country where all women, regardless of their age, must have a male guardian. It’s a country, stiflingly hot, where women must be completely covered in traditional dress and the force of the law.

    But for women in Saudi Arabia, life managed to get worse.

    Saudi Arabia took an Orwellian turn last week, when it began using new technology to track women attempting to leave the country. Now, when a woman arrives at the airport or at a border, an electronic monitoring system will automatically send a text message to her male guardian — even if he is traveling with her. This new policy replaces an already repressive rule, which required women to receive written permission to travel outside the kingdom’s borders.

    Saudi Arabia’s new system makes even harder the only means that women have to escape its cruel regime: fleeing. Now, more than ever before, women are trapped. Saudi journalists are already suggesting that the country might take the next logical step and implant tracking chips in women.

    But Saudi Arabia is an American ally. We ignore its brutal discrimination and rely on its stability in a volatile region, as well as its seemingly bottomless oil supply. To stop its increasingly repressive policies, we must move toward energy independence. We must arouse the international community — as we have against Iran and the Taliban — and use economic sanctions if necessary. International affairs are never simple, but equality is. At least, it should be.

    Xiuyi Zheng, Guest Columnist | Junior in Davenport College
    Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you know about President Obama’s resounding victory over Mitt Romney. What you may not have heard about is the results of the Chinese “election” that took place over the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) about two weeks ago.

    “Who” is out, “She” is in.

    As has been widely speculated for years, a 59-year-old bureaucrat named Xi Jingping overtook the post of secretary-general of the CCP from his predecessor, Hu Jintao.

    Who, you ask?

    Xi, pronounced “Hsi” (it’s close to “She”), is the son of a famous revolutionary leader, and thus born into party politics. He led the party apparatus in the coastal provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang and later Shanghai before being tapped by party elders as Hu’s successor.

    Next in line from Xi on the newly elected Politburo Standing Committee is soon-to-be Prime Minister Li Keqiang. The size of the all-powerful committee was cut from nine seats to seven, in efforts to reduce political deadlock from within and promote efficiency.

    Despite having already established their leadership of the CCP, Xi and Li will formally assume their more general administrative roles as president of China and prime minister, respectively, in the spring of 2013.

    Same Old, Same Old

    While Xi brims with a vitality difficult to find in his departing predecessor, there is little reason to believe that he and the rest of the newly elected Standing Committee members will institute any significant changes to China’s political environment.

    A quick glance down the seven-man list reveals an apparent victory for the conservative faction within the CCP. Five of the positions were reportedly decided by 86-year-old retired party chief Jiang Zemin, known for his political opportunism and feverish devotion to economic growth at all costs.

    As China’s growth inevitably decelerates with its withering exports industry and a dangerously expanding property bubble, to stick to the old doctrine of “GDP growth above all” and continued suppression of mass movements amounts to political suicide.

    The new Chinese leadership faces monumental challenges in the form of rapidly widening social inequality, ubiquitous corruption and a serious developmental bottleneck in its overreliance on fixed-asset investment. While it is clear that China desperately needs bold political reform, it seems that the new leadership will be neither willing nor well-equipped enough to tackle these challenges.

    Cristo Liautaud, Guest Columnist | Junior in Davenport

    The International Energy Agency’s report on future U.S. oil production probably represents the most significant international political development in the past week. According to the agency’s models, shale gas reserves and oil-rich regions will fuel the United States’ lead in global oil production by 2020. By the 2030s, North America should become a net exporter of oil.

    So why does some research publication deserve as much attention as the Israel-Gaza conflict, President Morsi’s power grab or President Obama’s tour of Southeast Asia?

    From an economic perspective, commentators expect a boom in the American natural gas industry, as well as an almost doubling of domestic manufacturing jobs due to reduced fuel costs. Up to 1.5 million manufacturing jobs dismissed as “never coming back” could reappear.

    From a foreign policy perspective, oil independence could signal a strategic reorientation away from the Middle East, due of course to reduced dependence on the region’s oil. Perhaps more importantly, the U.S. could participate in China’s thirst for energy. If tactfully applied, the added dimension to the trade partnership could improve bilateral relations and somewhat ease resource tensions in Southeast Asia.

    From an environmental perspective, experts remain concerned that depressed natural gas prices could stifle focus on green technologies, as well as multilateral urgency to sign emission agreements.

    Why should we care at Yale? In the short-term, the report may not flood our Twitter feeds in the same way as other Thanksgiving developments. In the long-term, however, U.S. oil independence has the potential to reshape some of our campus’s most explored topics, inside and outside of the classroom.

    Want to contribute to the Forum? Email opinion@yaledailynews.com
  8. Yale’s Southern Comfort

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    When I packed away my cowboy boots and sundresses and left Shreveport, La., to come to Yale, I had no idea I was following in the footsteps of two of the most prominent Southern literary critics of the 20th century. Kentuckians Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks also left the South to come to Yale, bidding farewell to Louisiana State University’s English Department and heading north to Yale’s ivory towers, where they introduced a new type of literary criticism and affection for Southern literature that remains a part of the Yale English Department to this day. In turn, Warren and Brooks established a long line of Southern writers who, after studying at Yale, decided to take their knowledge back to LSU.

    In 1935, as English professors at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Warren and Brooks founded The Southern Review — a critically acclaimed literary journal that put LSU on the map. The Review reflected a new type of literary criticism called “New Criticism,” a method that focused on close reading and attention to formal structure, with a reduced emphasis on historical analysis. More than a decade later, when Warren and Brooks were reunited as faculty members at Yale, they brought New Criticism to the university.

    They also brought an appreciation for Southern literature, says Yale English professor Caleb Smith, an Arkansas native who teaches a senior seminar on William Faulkner. Smith says he was pleasantly surprised to discover Yale students’ excitement upon hearing “a Southerner read Southern literature out loud.” It’s hard not to be charmed by the young professor’s smooth drawl, but Smith attributes Yale’s affection for Southern literature to the lasting influence of Warren and Brooks, “two displaced Southerners” who, according to Smith, “helped create Faulkner’s legend.”

    A similar feeling of indebtedness to Warren and Brooks is felt at LSU, says recently retired LSU English and Religious Studies professor Rodger Kamenetz ’70. Warren and Brooks served as inspiration for improving higher education in the South, Kamenetz says, and “LSU created a home for them” by supporting their innovation. According to Kamenetz, Brooks’ legacy as a poet and novelist paved the way for LSU’s graduate MFA program in creative writing, which was founded by Kamenetz in 1984.

    Kamenetz’s former colleague and fellow Yale alumnus James Wilcox ’71 is the current director of creative writing at LSU. Wilcox has fond memories of being a student in one of Warren’s creative writing seminars at Yale.

    “It was one of the most thrilling classes I’ve taken,” he says, and it inspired him to work for Warren’s editor at Random House in New York after graduating. Eventually, however, Wilcox returned to the South, accepting a permanent position at LSU, where he modeled one of his creative writing classes after Warren’s seminar.

    Wilcox’s move back down south has much to do with his nine novels. “I really think the South has been the locus of my writing,” he says. “I don’t think I could have been a writer without having experienced living in the South.”

    Glenda Gilmore, the director of undergraduate studies of Yale’s Department of African American Studies and a Southerner herself, thinks the South’s unique character stems from its tragic history, “a history of white supremacy for over 200 years,” Gilmore says.  According to Caleb Smith, Southern literature is largely informed by this history.

    “People associate Southern literature with a certain mellow, charming, storytelling style,” Smith explains. “There’s some truth to that, but that beautiful voice that tends to speak in Southern literature seems to be haunted by histories of violence and intimacies between black and white,” he continues.

    It’s somewhat ironic that despite Warren and Brooks’ attempt to move literary criticism away from historical analysis, Southern literature — as seen by Yale English professor Caleb Smith — is deeply entwined with its history. Smith acknowledges, however, that the literature of the South is a product of a culture often stereotyped, but seldom understood. Despite the lasting influence of Warren and Brooks, Smith says, to some Northerners, the literature of the South is still “a fantasy.”

  9. Full of Wide Open Spaces

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    My roommate is from the City — which means she’s from New York City, and which, when you say it that way, means that you aren’t from there. On the second day in the dorms we showed each other the places we still call home. On Google Maps, blurry New Yorkers hurry their way out of the corners of the crisp image of her Harlem brownstone. But the address I type in keeps pending and the “street view,” when it finally loads, isn’t a street at all, just dirt and pixelation. This is what Iowa means to Google.

    But it’s not where I’m from.

    7 Glencrest Dr., Iowa City, IA, is a gray wedding cake house with a mowed lawn and seasonally appropriate flower arrangements. There is earth stamped deep into the kitchen floorboards and every room offers its occupants an excess of places to sit. If you zoom in close enough, there is a girl inside who always picks the prickly velvet couch. She loves the craft basement stocked with years of accumulated pistachio shells, back issues of Martha Stewart Living, and hand-sewn Halloween costumes. From the front stoop, she watches her barking dogs send wild turkeys jerking back into the woods, and when the sky turns yellow, she watches the tornadoes come.

    Her family takes road trips across flat horizons to see relatives who bring lemon squares to potlucks and put out specialized bird feeders. She used to love riding a red Schwinn, but it was finally stolen after years of getting left out front. At night, she walks barefoot on endless sidewalks through still neighborhoods, and in the soft light of lone headlights, she almost always feels safe.

    In some ways, this is a map of Iowa, but in other directions the state stretches for miles and miles and she would make a terrible tour guide. Who can really say which parts of this girl with baby-fine hair and dark circles under light brown eyes are Iowan, and how much of her I brought with me?

    It’s funny that the moment when you become from somewhere is the moment when you leave it — you will never again be part of that place the way you would have if you’d stayed. But there are other moments I can’t quite pin down, like every time I left city limits and entered the same suspended scene.

    It only takes five minutes for the road to crumble to gravel and the world to be reduced to a single lateral plane, one vast expanse of rolling hills and rising cornstalks. The air bites like a crisp apple and fills up a sky so big and blue that you feel dizzy and philosophical if you look at it long enough. Barns sit in various stages of dilapidation next to brand-new tractors and cows I’d call middle-aged if I had to guess. My dad and I used to ride our bikes out here. He still does, whizzing past slow-growing rows and gently changing leaves.

    The serenity in this space between towns is a little too quiet — full of what is unsaid: inches of black topsoil stripped from fallow land that can’t grow corn without imported chemicals and foreign oil anymore. Factory farms cannibalize family plots, and the families that do still farm raise kids who would rather be doctors. These kids take longer and longer bus rides to the last schools that haven’t shut down. Hardly anyone touches the curves of the earth anymore. Maybe they miss it, but all they have to say about the farmland is that it’s “flat” or “dry this year.”

    Iowans will stop and chat with anyone about the weather or Hawkeye football, but almost everything else stays nicely unsaid. We’re unused to visitors, and we don’t relate to people in designer suits with nice haircuts. Almost half of our state legislators are not college-educated, and they work as postmen and elementary school teachers when the legislature isn’t in session. We’re amused when presidents roll up their shirtsleeves and pretend to love bratwurst — they call the door-to-door strategy that wins in Iowa “retail politics,” but we know we can’t be bought and we’ll vote for your opponent if you try. All we want is someone talking to us plain.

    Iowans are shaped by emptiness and mowed lawns in the way New Yorkers are shaped by tall buildings. We grew into the people we were at the moment, in June of 2008, that the Iowa River swelled to six feet above its banks and we had nothing with which to stop the flood but sandbags.

    You helped, if you could — stepping over half-submerged caution tape after you got off work.  Everywhere you went there were entire Amish families in little assembly lines, with little girls in long skirts and bonnets holding big shovels in small hands, outmuscling men but never meeting their eyes. They worked by little old ladies with gardening muscles, and by men who are used to rolling up their sleeves. Volunteer moms coordinated home-cooked meals for the displaced. At times, there were more people than could fit around the sand pile, all scooping and knotting and passing, sweating through their T-shirts and chatting more than usual with the people next to them. No one mentioned the futility.

    These nameless people in this forgotten disaster are our hometown heroes. So when my friend Zach Wahls gave an impassioned speech to the Iowa Legislature in support of gay marriage in our state — and then a few days later it had been seen by more than 17 million people on YouTube, we were proud, of course. But we were also a little surprised at all the fuss. And we wondered what he had done, really, except talk. When he got a book deal and was interviewed by Jon Stewart and spoke at the DNC about marriage equality for his mothers, we were excited, of course. But we hoped it wouldn’t go to his head.

    The Iowans with big names, all the ones who think they might be important — they leave. The people that stay are like my best friend Katherine Valde, who wrote in her eighth-grade journal that she dreamed of going to the University of Iowa because she could probably get a scholarship and she’d be close enough to go home on weekends — and although she might go to Harvard for law school, she would end up at a small law firm back in Coralville, Iowa with a house in the suburbs and two kids in public school. You’d have to Google her to find out she’s been interviewed by The Washington Post and CNN for her leadership in the Iowa Democratic Party. Even when she’s old enough though, she won’t run for office, because that would be too much.

    I didn’t tell these people I applied to Yale. When I decided to go, my friends raised their eyebrows and reassured me that I’d find someone like me. My mom, accepted to Stanford and educated at Ripon College in Wisconsin, was startled that people smiled at her when we arrived on campus.

    Most Iowans would never think to come here. They have more modest aims, and their connections are mostly with each other. They are small under the big sky.

    Though they will always be my neighbors, I have many other stops to make on my way home. In the end, it won’t really matter when or how often I make it back — I came from a place that is paced for years of slow growing up, not weekend visits or touristy vacations. The road trips, the sandbags, the rows of corn and the lined-up driveways — those are where I’m from, even though I left.

    You can’t Google that.

  10. Shaking Hands with New Haven

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    [showcase id=”1672″]

    I’ll never forget the Upper West Side moms of my sixth-grade class chuckling amongst themselves while purposefully mispronouncing 50 Cent’s name as “Fiddy.” But as quickly as that early fad in rap music came, its honeymoon at my school was over. On the after-school bus heading downtown, the sound of 50 Cent ringtones disappeared.

    Yet something about the hip-hop aesthetic touched me. Every day after school in sixth grade, I dragged my best friend on a long stroll through the nearby Frederick Douglass public housing projects, where someone was usually sitting on a bench playing 50 Cent from a stereo. And so on my way back to Yale’s campus from Union Station during my freshman fall, curiosity welled up in me each time I passed by the housing development called Church Street South. I wondered what went on just past the convenience store, where the path is hidden from view by the oddly angled buildings.

     

    To find out, I first needed the name of the hip-hop clothing store that served as the backdrop for local online rap battles. I was working on an article about New Haven hip-hop for The Yale Herald. I was looking for a way to understand the city, and the underground hip-hop scene seemed like a good place to start. After guessing the wrong store, it took a day of trudging through New Haven and West Haven to find a contact who could help me. Finally, a few days later I hopped off the Dixwell Avenue bus at the intersection of Dixwell and Henry, a desolate corner surrounded by abandoned storefronts about seven blocks north of Payne Whitney Gym.

    I had been told the store’s name, Fun City, but there was no sign indicating it anywhere. Finally I saw a tiny “open” sign in a window next to photos of famous rappers. The burly man I had come to meet, Twan “Cuzin Twiz” Singleton, had to come unlock the door, and I received a hearty greeting as he invited me in.

    The store was mostly empty except for CDs, videos, and the computers that he uses to edit Cuzin Twiz TV, an occasionally vulgar documentary-style series that airs on Citizens Television. In one of the videos, a local rap battle between two not-very-sober individuals devolves into a brutal beating. After seeing the video, I was nervous to meet the man who had videotaped the exchange.

    As soon as we started the interview, however, I felt at ease. He spoke boisterously of the broad problems facing young men in New Haven, and both the positives and negatives of hip-hop’s prevalence. All my fear was overcome by his charisma.

    While it may just have been his disinterest in details, I did get the sense that Twiz was being careful about secrets. He claimed hip-hop artists from different neighborhoods didn’t have serious disputes, a statement I already doubted based on the videos I had seen. It was only after I slowly accumulated knowledge on the city that anyone was willing to discuss topics like the neighborhood-based violence that often accompanies New Haven hip-hop.

    I stayed in New Haven for the following summer interviewing and eventually drinking with some of the city’s best-known local rappers. I would interview one rapper, and then ask him to refer me to another. I realized that I had come upon something of a solution to the problems of communication between Yale and the city. The local artists had a vested interest in talking to a journalist since they were trying to get more listeners, more viewers for their YouTube videos. This desire overrode most people’s negative feelings about Yale students. I told everyone that I was a Yale student writing a book about the New Haven rap scene, and only a single artist out of the 27 I approached outright refused to talk to me.

    Going from interviewing to hanging out wasn’t a difficult transition. One rapper, perhaps because he pitied me when I misinterpreted the slang word “kis,” slang for kilograms of crack, as actual “keys,” decided to teach me New Haven’s neighborhood handshakes. They’re surprisingly simple greetings that involve smacking hands a certain number of times based on what neighborhood you’re from. Those handshakes alone, which I used at the start of most of my interviews, were usually enough to make my interviewees laugh. After realizing I knew a thing or two about the city, people seemed willing to chill with me, if only so they could tell their friends about the Yale kid who knew the Newhallville handshake.

    By the end of the summer, I put the book on hold as I realized my own curiosity was about more than just hip-hop. It was about the whole workings of inner-city New Haven — the neighborhoods, the economy, the violence — in a way that certainly encompassed music, but also went beyond it. Just hanging out with locals and learning the city’s workings seemed like the right way to proceed.

     

    Hugh “H.G.” Gallman was the first close friend I made in New Haven, and the first person I didn’t have to interview to get to know.

    We spent more and more time together when I was helping start a student group called Middleman that connects Yale students with New Haven residents they wouldn’t otherwise meet, either for projects like interviews and photo shoots or simply to hang out. H.G. helped us take students around neighborhoods, and he introduced us to major underground players in New Haven. In October 2011, he gave a lunch lecture to Urban Studies students about the underground economy in the Elm Haven high-rises where he grew up. We shared numerous informal dinners in the Silliman dining hall, and some friends had to swipe him in for me when my extra dining hall swipes ran low.

    Meanwhile, he asked me to write a recommendation for him on Silliman College stationery, since he was involved in a legal battle regarding narcotic sales. This was a big secret between us — I wrote the letter, but I still didn’t know much about it.

    I spent so much time with H.G. that I grew accustomed to his default expression: a blank grimace that would quickly transform into a hearty laugh, then back to a grimace with no expression in between. After a dinner at a dining hall in November 2011, H.G. invited me and a fellow Yale student to hang out at his place. I admit I felt a bit surprised by how normal H.G.’s apartment was — he had told us stories about selling drugs in the “pissy hallways” of Elm Haven, but his new place was modest and unremarkable. We watched “Homecoming,” a slapstick movie he and some friends had put together about a road trip, on his TV and stereo system. Meanwhile, the three of us sipped on a bottle of Peach Cîroc, a flavored vodka that has gained immense popularity in New Haven.

    At the end of the night, H.G. drove us back to Yale at wildly high speeds in his Honda Accord, and as we approached Broadway, H.G. asked me and my friend what we thought of him. I was surprised by the question, and muttered something inadequate about not knowing him well enough to respond.

    Three days later, H.G.’s friend told me that H.G. had been arrested. There was still a lot I didn’t know about the narcotics charge. I was left with the task of informing Elmseed Enterprise Fund, a Yale microloan organization to which I had connected H.G., that he wouldn’t be able to continue with the application process due to his incarceration. I never got a chance to give him a better reply to his question before his arrest, but I was honored he felt comfortable enough with me to ask.

     

    Despite my relationship with H.G., I was still very much a Yale student. Rappers saw me as such, and wanted me to return their hospitality by giving them a glimpse of campus life.

    One rapper, Jay-Quan “J-Dice” Dixon, was particularly enamored with the idea of partying on campus. So I invited him and his friends to join me on campus at a rap battle in September 2011 between Jacob Sandry ’15 and myself. I figured J-Dice and his friends would get a kick out of seeing two Yale students attempt something resembling hip-hop on the first floor of the Alpha Epsilon Pi house.

    After the battle (which I lost after stumbling on a line), J-Dice freestyled for some friends of mine, but his sexual puns were vulgar enough to alienate most Yale students. As the party developed, J-Dice’s cohort seemed frustrated by the difficulty they had attracting Yale girls’ attention. The party was quickly becoming awkward for us.

    Things got tenser later when J-Dice invited two high-ranking members of Klean Up Krew, a group that almost a year later was the target of a federal investigation which culminated in 105 arrests. The two men — Ronald “Kiki” Bidon and a man named Skeem whose real name I never caught — were shocked to discover it was a Yale party. When Skeem heard about my journalistic interest in local hip-hop, he started interrogating me about how much I knew about street politics.

    I felt I should have known the evening would be awkward, and I worried the encounter could have been dangerous. Still, I was proud that I had made such an unlikely encounter possible.

     

    The night of Sept. 14, 2012, I was planning to go with a few members of Middleman to a Newhallville fundraiser party for a charity group called Ice the Beef, for which I sit on the Board of Directors. Ice the Beef was started by Darrell Allick, a man I met through H.G. who has since become one of my closest friends, to help youth avoid the path of “guns and drugs” that he himself went down.

    That evening, one of the members of Middleman was sick, and another wasn’t picking up his phone, so that left me and my friend, Victoria Sanchez ’13.

    When we arrived at the house in the Ville, we were escorted to the basement, where there was a makeshift bar set up and a small crowd that was gathered around and taking shots. Cups of delicious Ice the Beef Punch were going around. I exchanged warm embraces with the Ice the Beef ladies, as Darrell likes to call them, who make up the bulk of the team.

    Shortly after, Darrell came over to me smirking, and the questioning and pressure began. Besides trying to stop gun violence in New Haven and raise his three children, Darrell has decided he wants to find me a girlfriend. If subtlety were his strong suit, this plan would be fine, but he prefers discussing his designs in a more transparent fashion.

    I tried to explain the situation to him — Victoria and I were just friends. She was interested in New Haven so I had invited her to tag along. I only prayed the blaring music made Darrell’s questions about who my “shorty” was less audible. I also hoped she didn’t understand his designs when he ushered us into the so-called V.I.P. lounge, two lonely chairs a few feet away from the bar.

    As we chatted in the lounge, I couldn’t help but feel like I had made progress from where I started. We had come to one of the more notorious neighborhoods of New Haven to a party to which I had been personally invited. I knew at least a quarter of the people there, and it was easy enough to strike up conversation with the people we didn’t know.

    I’m starting to enjoy Ice the Beef parties as much as Yale ones, and I’m starting to consider myself a New Haven resident as much as a Yale student. Darrell feels comfortable sharing secrets with me, like the details of the narcotics operation that made him famous in this city. And I feel comfortable letting him into my own life.

  11. Wednesday’s Buzz: 11.28.12

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    THE NEWS

    • Yale College Dean Mary Miller and Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard have urged professors not to use take-home examinations in light of Harvard’s infamous cheating scandal, in which 125 Cantabs were caught collaborating on a take-home exam this semester. Miller said she wanted to re-emphasize other options in light of the recent events at Harvard. In-class examinations enable students to better balance their finals schedule and maintain a healthier lifestyle during the exam period because students often say take-home finals take more time than the three hours budgeted for in-class examinations.
    • Yale-NUS College, the liberal arts school Yale will open with the National University of Singapore next year, is now accepting applications from Yale seniors interested in becoming dean’s fellows at the college. The dean’s fellows, who will serve as Yale-NUS student counselors, will live in the Yale-NUS residential colleges along with students. Yale-NUS College Dean of Students Kyle Farley said students with American liberal arts college backgrounds will fill five of the 10 dean’s fellowships, and Singaporeans will fill the remaining five positions.
    • Michael Arad, the lead architect of the World Trade Center Memorial — which opened on the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — came to speak at a Saybrook Master’s Tea on Tuesday afternoon. During the talk, Arad talked about winning a design competition involving 5,201 participants in 2004 and seeing the memorial’s opening in 2011.
    THE WEATHER

    High of 42 degrees, low of 26 degrees, mostly sunny.

    THE FOOD

    In the colleges

    Breakfast: Waffle Bar, Maple Pecan Bun

    Lunch: Thai Coconut Shrimp Soup, Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup, Rice Noodle with Spicy Chili Sauce, Lime & Cilantro Roasted Tofu, Coconut & Green Curry Pork, All-Natural Grilled Chicken Breast, Grilled Garden Burger, Fried Fish Hanoi, Thai Beef Lavash Wrap, Sesame Green Bean Salad, Curried Rice Salad, Apple Cinnamon Walnut Bar, Chocolate Chip Cookie

    Dinner: Korean BBQ Tofu Taco, Lemongrass Chicken, Vegetable Curry, All-Natural Grilled Chicken Breast, Grilled Garden Burger, Stir Fry Pork & Vegetable Rice, Brown Rice & Mushrooms, Sesame Green Bean Salad, Curried Rice Salad, Banana Maple Spicy Walnut Cupcake

    In Commons

    Breakfast: Steelcut Oats, Banana-Walnut Dairyless Pancakes, Waffle Bar, Omelets To-Order, Cage-Free Scrambled Egg Whites, Red Bliss Home Fries, Maple Pecan Bun

    Lunch: Chicken Gumbo Soup, Cream Of Roasted Butternut Squash Soup, Roasted Thai Red Curry Chicken, Spinach Felafel Burger, Penne, Garden Burger, Grilled Cheese & Bacon Sandwich, Pizza Margherita, Vegetable Lo Mein, Chicken & Broccoli, Jasmine Rice, Curried Tofu, Garden Salad Pocket Sandwich, French Fries, Rice Pilaf, Roasted Local Summer Squash, Chicken Onion & Israeli Couscous Salad, Heirloom Tomato Salad, Apple Cinnamon Walnut Bar, Chocolate Chip Cookie

  12. Zimmer ’87 wins science journalism award

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    English lecturer Carl Zimmer ’87 has been awarded one of the 2012 Kavli Science Journalism Awards, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) announced this week.

    Zimmer was honored in the large newspaper category for three articles he wrote for The New York TimesWhen he receives his prize of $3,000 and a plaque at the AAAS annual meeting in Boston next February, he will join an elite group of the roughly 300 writers who have been recognized since the award’s launch in 1945.

    “I was thrilled to win — it’s one of the highest awards a science writer can get,” Zimmer told the News. “The articles that won the awards were three of my stories written for The New York Times – one story was about all the bacteria that live inside of our bodies and that we depend on for our well-being, one was about the evolution of life around [New York City], and the other was about the crisis that science is in right now. Scientists are increasingly cutting corners, and I looked at some explanations for why that is the case.”

    Described by The New York Times Book Review as “as fine a science essayist as we have,” Zimmer teaches students how to write about science and the environment at Yale. He has published 12 books about science and contributed to magazines including National Geographic, Time, Scientific American, Science and Popular Science. His 2004 book, “Soul Made Flesh,” investigates the discovery of the role of the human brain and was named one of the top 100 books of the year by The New York Times Book Review.

    Zimmer has previously won AASA science journalism awards for the large newspaper category in 2009 and in the online category in 2004.