Well, these are it. Yes, it has come to that time we all knew it would be at last. Even in our jibbliest of days everyone could have told you, yes, it does happen that it will end, but the future was so many from then, and how could you count? It has been so good to be your little Jame all of these years, but even the things of the world we love must come to end. My fellow folks, it is time for even me to bid a doo to the little boys and girls of Yale and bid a hello to the big boys and girls of Rest of Life.
Gradulation is almost here, and it means that I will never be a writer of pages like these in the Yale “Daily” News again. But even though I have filled of my bucket with tears, you, my fellow folks, should only smile at your bucket, for we have here in these very words below one more time together — and this time is to be the time of all! I am to give you now one last words, all of the advises I have learned, so that even as I am to gradulate and say goodbye to these times as I enter Rest of Life, you, my little pudgles, can never have to say goodbye to Jame.
And these they are:
• Be kind of creatures. Once I was going upon the field, and I came upon a little anamal. These anamals, though they may be the teeniest or tiniest, make up all our world and, dare I say, are even just like us. Treat them as you would a close pal or fireman to save your life of a fire. You never know if one of them might even save to yours, like hero dog.
• Fall in love to a woman. As Wise Man said, “You are never to be, if you are not love to me.” That is a word to live by, my friend! If you see of one beautiful flower of them to love, take of her in the arms and do sweet nothing to her ear. Though this has not ever once happen to me, I am recommend it to all of my friends. I am trying.
• Remember a glass is only half empty when it is run out of what makes it to make it full. Always, dear fellow folks, there may find a faucet near by you, and it could be a faucet of friendships, or one hundred dances, or even of life itself. Take of it, put it in your glass or pocket, and drink it up like the biddle boy you maybe were once before at his proverbial mother’s teeps.
• Have of no egrets. Do NOT, as it was, look into your passed as if it were a monster that had chased you all of the days. I myself even have looked into my passed, thinking of things I might had did, or if I had did them, if I had did them too much or wrong or in the wrong orders, or if they hadn’t have been done at all, what may have been done instead? I myself have had egret — I once did see of a little dog and it bited of my hand. But later of the day, as I was healing my wombs, I realized that my greatest egret was egretting too much.
• But most important of every advise I know, it is to be together on the people that you love to you, to hug on to them all of the day and every night. Every single one of us is a person to be seen and heard, just as you would your own mother. Give piece a chance to your enemy and friend and birds of the sky a like. They don’t know what they did to you when they did, and neither even did you! To air is human, and to fly away home with all of friends is the vine. Take them in your body and take of them your own. For, if one isn’t to be laughing and dancing in a field, where are you? Truly, that is of it, the morls of life, to be and be and be again with each other and with the world. If you see a hand in need, then a hand indeed.
I am to go now. Its time to gradulate. To Rest of Life. But don’t you worry about little Jame, I am to be fine. Just know to this: Wherever you go, even if it is in the smallest bushes of the land, Jame is there. If you climb to the tallest mountain or boat on the sea, Jame is there. Even in the midnight of the darkest night, where there is to seem no hopes or dreams, and no man or woman will love to you, and each creature of the land will crawl away from you and you feel that you are not right at all, Jame, little Jame, is still with you. Because Jame loves you. All ways.
For Michaela Macdonald ’18, it started in elementary school.
In and out of treatment for a depressive disorder she discovered early on, she was pleased when, after her senior year of high school, she was feeling better. She stopped treatment before starting at Yale, but soon into freshman fall, she picked it back up again. After an unsuccessful stint with a counselor at Yale Mental Health and Counseling, she turned to a therapist outside the University.
Years ago, I went to camp with a girl named Olivia. She was everyone’s friend, or at least seemed that way, and everyone envied her charm. She was the type that could sneak out one weekend to a concert in Boston, get caught in a storm and come back soaking wet and escape the whole episode without getting in trouble.
A few weeks ago, I came across Olivia’s Facebook profile for the first time in over a year. Olivia and I hadn’t been particularly close and hadn’t felt any obligation to keep in touch after camp ended. But, when I came across her profile, the words “Remembering Olivia” occupied the space where just her name should have been, and I had the chilling feeling of encountering a ghost. After all, Olivia had passed away a year earlier from leukemia.
I hesitated to explore any further, as it felt like disturbing a grave. But I read on. The page had become a memorial, a testament to Olivia’s life. Friends still regularly posted photos and messages to her, often saying how much they missed her and reminding her of the empty space she’d left behind. Others wrote messages that didn’t mention her death — her best friend had posted a link to Taylor Swift’s newest music video, and another left regular updates about college life.
After coming across Olivia’s Facebook, I began thinking: What will happen to my Facebook after I die? Or my email accounts, or all the texts and photos on my phone? It’s strange to think of those things as a type of property, something that becomes owner-less at one’s death. We live in the digital age; what happens in the digital afterlife?
With that question in mind, I began doing some research online and discovered a whole range of services offering to help plan your digital afterlife. Google allows you to determine what will happen to your emails when your account becomes inactive, while Yahoo even has a service that allows users to pre-write emails to be sent once the company is notified of their death.
I was more than a little disturbed by this morbid side of the digital age, using technology to extend a person’s existence beyond the limits of mortal life.
But there are other ways to manage one’s post-mortem online presence. In February, Facebook announced a new policy allowing users to designate a “legacy contact.” This person would be able to write one last post on your timeline, respond to friend requests and change your profile picture and cover photo.
To me, this seemed much more natural than sending emails from beyond the grave. Rather than mimicking the person’s presence, this policy allows his or her death to be acknowledged, with the word “Remembering” added before his or her name. Facebook’s inherently social nature provides the perfect forum for people to communally mourn a friend or loved one while celebrating that person’s life, immortalized in a Facebook profile.
When I found out about Olivia’s death, I cried.
The tears startled me, because I’m not an emotional person. I don’t know if I even cried when members of my extended family passed away. I tried to figure out why I was so affected. Maybe it was her youth, the tragedy of a life taken too early. Maybe it was the shock of knowing that even my peers were not excused from mortality.
But I think I took her death hard because I had, in some ways, watched it approach. Facebook had provided a window for me and 800 other Facebook friends to watch Olivia battle her illness.
Although she rarely posted about it herself, Olivia’s sickness was reflected in her profile. In the early days of her diagnosis, during her senior year of high school, her page was flooded with encouragement and support. And for the rest of that year, her life was documented on Facebook with the same nostalgia of any other high school senior. But her illness marked every moment: She received her college acceptance letter while in a hospital bed, and her graduation cap sat upon a head that had lost its hair to chemotherapy.
Through Facebook, we watched Olivia’s life from afar, never personally involved in events so distant that they seemed unreal. But it’s hard to distance yourself from death, so unequivocally absolute that it feels real no matter how far away it is.
On the day Olivia passed away, hundreds of people left messages on her timeline. Friends and relatives posted, as expected, but most people left messages that began, “I didn’t know Olivia well…”
I didn’t leave a message. Maybe that was out of self-consciousness, but I just didn’t feel that I had earned the right to publicly mourn her. Instead, I dug out an old memory card that held our photos from camp, and privately mourned a life lost.
I am going to begin by saying something in poor taste. But I am holding out my hand to you as I say it, and I hope you will trust me.
I don’t much like people. It’s not that we’re too selfish or too boring or too cruel, because how can that be when there’s nothing and no one to compare us to? Rather, it’s that flowers have been kinder to me.
I was told recently that there were no flowers in the age of the dinosaurs. That makes me sad for the dinosaurs, but it also means the world can exist without flowers and therefore can exist without me, who devote myself to them. It frees me to love the flowers without the grandeur of a savior. Although I must admit a bit of disappointment that I am no longer a savior. Disappointment and relief.
I laugh when I think that I might someday be forgotten. The idea that I could keep myself a secret from all of mankind awakens in me a delight in mischief of which I didn’t know I was capable. But the fact that I am keeping myself a secret is also a secret because I still strive to be remembered. So it is even a secret from myself.
Make no mistake: I want to be famous. But even more than being famous, I want to know that I could have been famous but wasn’t. Then my life will have been a magnificent joke. All along I was thought to be just another sleepwalker but that is only because you didn’t see the splendor of my inner kingdoms.
I was about to lie and tell you that I save my best phrases for the flowers so that the world will never hear them, but I couldn’t bear it, I want them to ring in your ears. Anyway, if my joke is to play out, I can’t be aware that it’s happening, and neither can you. So let’s both forget about it.
What I want you to know is this: I am an empty cathedral in search of a congregation — and the song of bells which I feel inside my body is my great call of love. I want to be heard for miles.
But I only know how to be beautiful for the sake of a phrase, not for another person. And even phrases aren’t enough. My writing forgets about me as soon as I put down my pen. When the sun wakes me I am always sad because, though my dreams were populated by splendid beings, my bed is empty except for me. To wake up alone is like waking up to the world after you have died: Everything has gone on without you. Especially when you wake up late in the afternoon, as is my custom.
Ah but I never feel so in love with the world as when I write to it, it is an ecstasy to abandon myself to phrases. I wonder if I am the only one who has visions of a sea of pink peonies? I do not doubt that there are others but I do not know in what quiet rooms they are hiding, all the time telling no one of the splendor of the peonies. Perhaps those whose hearts are most like mine are also those who remain most out of reach.
If you have dreams of pink peonies will you write and tell me so? Or even if you have other strange and wonderful dreams and think from my words that a kinship is possible. Then we can both descend our marble staircases, leave our palaces behind, and meet miles beneath the clouds, speaking unforgettable phrases.
Or am I too delicate to be a human? It is dangerous to speak and be spoken to, the great wings of our emotions thrashing about us as we speak. And the subtler thoughts, too, which flutter lightly about our heads and are so easily crushed if we are not careful. If only we had the delicacy to feel their sacred fluttering against our cheeks.
I have always asked too much of friendship. I have asked my friends to love me when I do not love myself. Although I do love and glorify myself as a writer, I don’t love myself as a person, and it is as a person that I spend most of my time.
As a writer I can say, “I looked out my window by the beach and saw there a sea of pink peonies scattering petals against the shore.” You may find that phrase magnificent or dull, depending on your mood, and your taste in literature, and your inclination towards or against flowers, though if you don’t like flowers I imagine you will have stopped reading by now. If you do find that phrase dull, feel free to exchange it for one you prefer — there are plenty in this essay. Yet to write even the most magnificent sentence is easier for me than to walk down the street and face one thousand nameless eyes.
But I cannot be a writer for more than a few hours at a time. It is exhausting to be whimsical and serious all at once, which I must be, in order to be inspired. I am in pursuit of the intimate and illogical heart of language. Beneath language is the heart of language and in the heart there is nothing but peacocks spreading their plumage. Or something much more luminous but which I do not know how to express, except as peacocks. That is to say, I cannot speak of the heart of language at all, or only in a hermetic phrase. When you look into the heart of language you may not, so to speak, see peacocks. That is not my concern: you will have your own paradisiacal visions.
If you do see peacocks, however, do not forget me. I will be waiting in my quiet room, sitting at my love-letter desk from 1890, surrounded by the scrolls of Qing dynasty poetry I have hung on my wall, and the map of Albany from 1770, and the print of Mount Fuji from the 1980s, and the fairy lights, and my painted mugs from Mexico, and my pillows from France and India, and all my books, young and old, and my perfumes. I am not like a monk despite my solitude—my splendors are as often material as they are spiritual. Often enough, material splendors inspire me unto the spiritual. These artifacts are of so many eras that I may make of them a lineage which roots me to the centuries. It gives me the illusion, at least, that I am part of a grand history. When it comes to emotions it’s the illusion that matters.
But for you this is a feeble illusion and you see through it. Why, you might ask, are you listing your possessions? I must admit I have tried to cultivate a certain sense of elegance; the eclectic elegance of one who knows a story that others do not, one who perceives a harmony invisible to everyone else. If my lineage did reside in a single object, though, wouldn’t it be my fountain pen? I could not have written were it not for the one who, in some distant workshop, crafted this pen from teak and steel; I could not have written were it not for the lumberjack who cut down the tree from which the workman made the pen. So perhaps it would be more honest to write a history not of my disparate possessions but of my pen and ink and paper. Perhaps they are my secret history, and the designer of the pen my true comrade.
But my great-grandfather was a maker of paintbrushes. So perhaps my true lineage does not reside in objects at all, or only obscurely. Perhaps my lineage is in the blood itself and he prefigured my artistry with his paintbrushes.
To return to my subject: I cannot be a writer for very long each day, but I find most conversations dull, or unnecessary. (So that I lie less, I am trying to speak as little as possible. Do not ask me “how are you” because I have learned that most people cannot endure the delicacy of my wings, or their multitude. Intimacy with me is like a swarm of butterflies — an unbearable splendor.)
What, then, is the use of someone like me? I do not know. Do not forget that very few butterflies survive into adulthood. The death of the butterflies is a matter of many more thousands of pages, but I will end my prayer now because I am exhausted and must return to being a person. Amen.
College is widely understood to broaden one’s sexual horizons. For many students at elite universities, high school was a whirlwind of books and extracurricular activities — not a time for the languid afternoons and audacity conducive to sex. At college, it won’t necessarily be dispensed to all, but a comfortable majority will enjoy the spoils at last.
Some college students do end up having lots of sex: at parties, in libraries, on Sundays when others are finishing their essays. But a significant number don’t. Either they have no sex at all or they have some, though not nearly as much as they’d like. The former category often includes people who purposefully forgo sex for personal, cultural or religious reasons; fair enough. But what about those who get to college happily anticipating some sort of four-year orgy, and end up realizing halfway through that their experiences haven’t lived up to the hype?
I did my undergraduate work at Cambridge in the UK, where sex was in the air but seldom between the sheets. You were constantly aware that people were having sex, and regularly, but it just didn’t seem to happen to many people you knew. A few people did the heavy lifting for the rest, having sex three or four times a week and tossing bawdy anecdotes to their sex-starved friends. Everyone would pretend to find these stories unappetizing, but in reality we would delightedly return to them for weeks.
It wasn’t that my Cambridge friends and I didn’t want to have sex; we all did, male or female. It was more that we were cowed at every juncture by feelings of paralyzing awkwardness. How to get from hanging out with a boy or girl in a classroom, to actually having sex with them? How to stop talking to one’s partner at the end of a date, in order to lean in and kiss his or her previously articulate mouth? How to phase banter out of interactions, to make room for sexual tension? The transition from verbal communication to physical intimacy was — is — a minefield. The luckiest of my peers proved adept at bridging the divide, or were such smooth operators that they saw no divide at all. Yet many preferred to give up the pursuit of sex entirely, in order to live the quiet life, unperturbed by rejection and end-of-date key-fiddling. It was easier not to go chasing after sex; for all but the fortunate, the pursuit augured humiliation and uncertainty.
At the heart of the issue, I think, is the hallowed “otherness” of sex. The more it is held up as the great activity we should all be doing, as red-blooded students, the harder it is to actually undertake. They say sex is casual nowadays, and while it is for some, it absolutely is not for most. Asking for it is difficult; dealing with the consequences of it is difficult; knowing whether it was good or bad, once finally done, is also difficult. With sex in the picture, feelings can get hurt, insecurities magnified, friendships tested.
But that isn’t always how it works. Sex can also be a life-affirming and liberating force; it can buoy confidence, not knock it down. Good sex benefits both the mind and the body; it is an efficient way to increase concentration and emotional wellbeing. And I suspect that life would be simpler if we stripped sex of its taboo status — if you could just suggest sex to another person, as nonchalantly as you would ask to borrow their pen: “Hey — do you want to sleep together? If not — cool.”
OK, so maybe it will never be that simple. There are some very good reasons why the social taboo around sex has developed. When we have sex, we expose a side of ourselves that is not brought to the fore when we dance or eat or express our literary preferences. Sex is often at its best when conducted in a familiar environment, with someone you trust and know well. And if the road leading to physical intimacy was entirely smooth, sex might lose its allure, becoming just another humdrum time-passer.
But if social norms loosened up a bit and allowed us to talk about sex more freely, much suffering would be prevented. Think of the time that would be saved — instead of trying to decode text messages and sidelong glances, you would be able to find out swiftly whether physical intimacy with the desired other was a feasible option. We are all aware of what people we find attractive. It seems ludicrous that so much effort has to be funneled into establishing whether they also have feelings of physical attraction for us. So let’s stop being so coy, and start asking — plainly, politely — for sex.
There is a type of Buddhist meditation that requires monks to find a corpse and meditate over its decay. This decay has ten stages — ten “foulnesses” — that a monk can contemplate, beginning with “the bloated” and ending with a dried-out skeleton. To do this, a monk journeys to a charnel ground, a dumping place for corpses, and finds a corpse that fulfills the specific foulness he wishes to meditate on. He then sets about observing its shapes, colors, concavities and convexities in the hopes of eliminating attachment to the physical world and attaining enlightenment.
In my class “Buddhist Traditions of Mind and Meditation,” we watched a time lapse of a decaying corpse. The head turned black, like charcoal, and collapsed into itself while the abdomen swelled, turning the color of a fading bruise, until it too suddenly collapsed — almost like it had exploded. From then on the body seemed to wither instead of grow as ribs and bones became more prominent and skin dried up and was sloughed off. The face had long ceased to resemble anything human.
This form of meditation is ancient, of course, but even contemporary monks contemplate corpses in morgues. More than just examining the body, the goal of this meditation is challenging fears and coming to love and treasure the very thing that first appeared so unpleasant. Reaching this point allows monks to change not only themselves, but also their view of the surrounding world.
* * *
In another class, I watched a documentary chronicling the life and work of Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei. Some might be familiar with his series of photos showing famous landmarks, including Tiananmen Square, with his middle finger raised in a sarcastic salute. In his art and his life Ai Weiwei constantly challenges the status quo: Defacing priceless Neolithic vases with the Coca-Cola logo or smashing them to highlight the fragility of history and tradition are par for his course. For him, even something old or venerated might still need to change. This idea is the heart of his activism against the Chinese Communist Party: with every act and every video recording and every piece of art, Ai Weiwei faces down what he sees as a decrepit, bloated structure. In a country known for burying its mistakes, Ai Weiwei constantly confronts a “corpse” of his own.
In 2008 Ai Weiwei uncovered the names of over five thousand children killed during the Sichuan earthquake because shoddily-built government schools collapsed: five thousand corpses, with names and families, that the government refused to acknowledge to his satisfaction. Later, attempting to testify at the trial of Tan Zuoren, who also investigated theww earthquake, Ai Weiwei was assaulted by a police officer and later required an emergency operation on his brain. He filed claims against several government offices only to be turned away.
In 2011, Ai Weiwei was arrested, jailed and, upon release, forbidden to leave Beijing.
* * *
In the West, it can be hard to understand why anyone would voluntarily stare at a corpse; it often feels like people train themselves to avoid thinking about the “foul.” I know when I’m guilty of this: Avoiding a conflict or an awkward text message is oftentimes easier than forcing myself to examine the situation in its cringe-worthy minutiae. Those aren’t national crises, but they’re the little corpses — or maybe small pieces of one, like a dismembered hand — that I need to face.
At Yale, I don’t think the “foul” is given enough weight. We have the unparalleled privilege of critiquing any aspect of this institution we want, any “corpse,” without fear of reprimand. No police officer will hold us under 24/7 surveillance for months without explanation, like they did for Ai Weiwei, if we question Yale’s mental health policy. As a result, we often look away from the “foul,” accustomed as we are to aimless criticism with no follow-through.
What’s foul at Yale is the “corpse of fine.” As in the typical conversation: “How are you?” “Oh you know, fine.” It’s a cultivated culture of fine-ness: when everyone else seems “fine,” it’s hard to admit when you’re not, even to yourself. Yet for once we’ve done a good job of staring down this foul concept in demanding reforms to Yale’s mental health policies. The next step is to challenge ourselves, face our own fears and corpses. We might not be Buddhist monks or radical artists, but we can smash convention in our own way.
In terms of layout, the house was as bizarre as any I’d ever seen. Its hillside location meant that one entered through the top floor/garage, only to go down into the rest of the house. It had previously been rented out to multiple families at once, so the house had been broken up into self-contained sections. A door with a dead bolt would spring up in the middle of a hallway; there was not one, but two laundry rooms. Additionally, the previous owners had been unceremoniously evicted, and had taken the window provided by their 30-day notice to spray paint every mirror in the house with obscene phrases written in a drippy blood red. The writing was on the wall, literally.
The house would be the site of a different kind of education. This was fitting, as my official education was the reason we had moved. I had been accepted to a high school in Oakland that couldn’t be matched by any of the local schools in San Francisco. We decided to buy a fixer-upper near the school, move in, flip it and use the profits for my tuition. For this to work, we couldn’t pay for contractors. My father and I would be renovating and remodeling the entire house ourselves. He was an experienced builder who had tamed entire bungalow complexes by the time he was sixteen. I was his apprentice. The whole time, my parents told me not to worry about the upheaval, not to worry about my dad’s newly elongated commute, or my mom’s newly strained relationship with her friends, who used to be just down the block. My school and the house were all that mattered.
The rooms all had pockmarked ceilings that I swear to God changed in pattern every time you looked at them. The pockmarks also created a strange, vertigo-like effect where the ceilings appeared to pulsate slightly. When I woke up in the night, I had to remember not to open my eyes or I would spend hours half-awake and mesmerized by the ceiling’s seemingly organic movements.
The house was surrounded on all sides by a thin forest. Deer wandered through our yard in the early morning, eating everything in sight. The roses we had planted as one of our first projects lasted fewer than 24 hours. Squirrels loved the house for its wild, convoluted railings, which jutted out at odd, geometric angles, which for the squirrels made little highways. All day, every day, their scurrying could be heard. One early morning, my mother woke up to find two squirrels on our front porch. Their throats had been torn out by some wild animal. She waited for me to get up and take them to the garbage (my mother is squeamish), but by the time I was awake, the bodies were gone.
The entire east wing of the house, another self-contained unit, was filled with wall-to-wall carpeting and had a massive loft. Tearing up the carpet by hand, my parents and I were shocked to find that the only thing holding it to the floor was a series of small staples, another unorthodox home décor decision taken by the previous owners. I was supposed to climb the loft and take out the carpeting that had been stapled up there as well, but the platform groaned so ferociously that I instantly changed my mind. The whole house seemed to rumble in fury as I descended to the floor.
Some days after we began work on the house, a conversation with the neighbors revealed that the previous occupants had been a sex cult. I wish I was kidding. Suddenly the pervasive wall-to-wall shag carpeting took on an uncomfortable new significance. I started wearing shoes at all times and changing socks while sitting on my raised bed. My mother and I began waking up with our bodies covered in tiny red bumps. I became convinced that we had contacted an STD from the rug. Dad blamed gnats. Work, however, continued.
My great-grandfather, his wife and their family once walked into the New Mexico wilderness and built a house. The floors had been dirt and the walls barely resisted water. He would spend weeks at a time out in the plains, tending to his herd of sheep. He slept under the stars and hunted his food and once defended his family against a rabid coyote. This man had tamed nature and called it home. I imagined him, sepia-toned, gliding through this new house, frowning at what still remained to be done with the place. Qué lástima. Qué lástima.
After a few months in Oakland, we had stripped several rooms down to the studs. The dirty conditions and constant sweat made my face a mess of blackheads and acne. A downstairs television room was revealed to have no insulation, explaining its bizarre temperature differential with the rest of the house. The pipes in my parents’ upstairs bathroom were so rusted that running one’s hand along their surfaces left a thick red coating resembling war paint. I had torn my parents away from home, and the house I had led them to was in full-blown rebellion.
In Oakland, I lived in the only bedroom on the bottom floor. My room was massive. Truly, people came to my house and remarked on the sheer square footage of my room and its sheer square squareness. As one friend put it, “I’ve never seen a room so big, and so square.” They also commented on the tiny, mysterious door in the corner. Someday I would have to pass through it, but I preferred not to think about that. An extra large Home Depot rug covered the immediate area around my bed and desk, still leaving about three quarters of the wood floor uncovered. I had the closets of the type most people only dream about. Two of my room’s four walls were entirely hollow, closets hidden behind floor-to-ceiling sliding mirrors. I filled up about a third of one of them, another daily reminder of my inability to inhabit the house. Similarly, my minimalist taste in decoration resulted in swaths of endless negative space.The mirrors created an eerie parallelism in the already somewhat surreally empty and symmetrical room. I had to deliberately position myself away from them if I didn’t want to see my increasingly acne-scarred reflection at all times.
It had been six months since move-in, and we had been making progress on our renovations. Then it started to rain, and continued to do so for days. Since we needed the porches for work (you can’t cut a closet door down to size in the closet), our various projects ground to a halt. Worse, we were trapped in the house. The entire building seemed to constrict around us. The swirly ceilings became more insistently animate. The floor-to-ceiling windows that dominated almost every space cast the shadows of trickling raindrops across the rooms. Kaleidoscopic silhouettes played across the walls, as though the house was crying.
At some point during all this, we noticed that our various wooden decks were collecting a lot of standing water. As my mother and I, clad in full-body rain suits, swept the decks with push brooms, we could see that the wood had already started to rot. Pulling up some of the paneling to check the structural supports underneath, we could smell the decay before we saw it. One beam had a nest of maggots living in it. As they fell out of the wood like fresh popcorn I recoiled in horror. My great-grandfather had shot a rabid coyote on his front porch; baby insects made me scream. But eventually I noticed they weren’t moving. They had all drowned.
A week later, my mother was demolishing a patch of drywall in her bedroom when she hit a randomly placed bit of springy mesh embedded in the wall. Her hammer flew back into her forehead, knocking her to the floor and shooting a small, Pollock-ian spray of blood across the wall. She lay dazed for half an hour before my Dad found her.
I was not crazy. I was not overreacting. The house was trying to kill my family and I was the pied piper who had led them to die.
Soon the day I had avoided thinking about arrived. I had to squeeze my way through the tiny hatch in the corner of my room (I was the only one who fit) and into the neighboring open space. I would have preferred not to know what I was sleeping next to. Outfitting myself with a headlamp and toolbox, I kept telling myself that my task was easy, that it was just to check that the door hid nothing horrible, like mold or termites or a sex dungeon. Squeezing through the door, using my hands and knees to push myself into the open space, I felt dirt beneath my fingertips. The air tasted stale and the darkness felt cavernous. As my headlamp illuminated small shafts of air in the room, I saw a tree, surrounded on all sides by pitch black. It was a small tree, about my height, growing inside our house, next to my room. It was the heart of the house, the source of its life force. I had found the veins that made the ceilings move. I remembered the dead squirrels and my father’s commute and my acne and my mother’s head, bleeding, and my great-grandfather defending his home against the wild. I seized the tree by its roots, and tore it out of the ground. After that, the house stopped fighting us and I began to call it home.
Edwin Sanchez DRA ’94 is a playwright, novelist, teacher, and mentor. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Bronx, he studied acting and writing in New York before being admitted to the Yale School of Drama. His plays have been produced across the country and in Russia, Switzerland, and Brazil. He has also written television scripts, and a novel awaiting publication. On top of that, he also teaches at the Einhorn School of Performing Arts at Primary Stages in New York City. His play Icarus goes up this week at the University Theater as the Dramat’s Spring Mainstage.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your time at Yale School of Drama?
A: YSD was interesting because I had never [gone to college], so getting in was kind of a surprise to me. And when I got the letter of acceptance I skidded because I was intimidated by the idea of going there. I was sure I would not know anything. My interview was pretty bizarre. They asked me what my favorite Shakespeare play was, and I said the one I read was good. There was sort of a pause, and I thought, “Okay.” But it was because of my writing that I got in. I was very fortunate because of the students that I was with. I bet I learned as much from the classmates as from my teachers there. And I had plays there that continue to have a life. So my time there was very fruitful for me.
Q: What made you want to apply, especially without an undergraduate background?
A: I wasn’t going to apply at all. I was in the Circle Reps Playwriting lab back in the day and the person who ran it was Byron Stitch, who was the playwriting chair at Yale at the time. The thing at the Circle Rep was that they had a reading every Monday, and I would always arrive late because of work, so my comment would invariably be, “The ending really works.” And at the big Christmas party, I thought for sure he was going to tell me if I couldn’t get there on time I shouldn’t do it because it’s not fair to other people. But instead he said, “Have you ever thought of applying to Yale?”
And I looked at him and said [sarcastically], “Yeah, every day.”
And he said, “No, no, you should.”
So I did. And when I got in it was really intimidating in the beginning. But I really came to love my time there.
Q: And where would you say these aspirations to be in theater, to become a writer, come from?
A: I had gone to New York when I was 21, when I first arrived, as an actor. I found that all the roles were for drug dealers, pimps or gang members. And I thought that was kind of limited. So I decided I wanted to write the characters I hadn’t seen. That’s when I started getting into writing. And I really fell in love with it. I had written a bit in Puerto Rico, but that was when it really took hold for me. And then I won a few awards, so that really set me on the path.
Q: You have a very diverse body of work, as you mentioned earlier, between short plays, plays, TV scripts, now a novel. Would say there is any overlap in these different areas? What are some of the differences? And how do you handle the bits of adversity that naturally arise with each style?
A: Well, the first time you do something different, whether you transition from playwriting, to TV, to film, your reaction is to panic. And then you relax. I remember I went to the Circle Reps film lab, and I would think, “I can’t do this or I can’t do that.” But every night they would play movies there, and they had the scripts to all the movies. And after a while I could actually see the pages of the scripts on the screen. And I could see how it happened. I got it. It’s about approaching it with the rules it has. You find where you can play with the rules, where you can bend them.
Q: Where would you say the inspiration for these stories comes from?
A: I got together with a group of dramatists and we were discussing this. What we came up with is that you have a final captive in your head. And little bits and pieces go in there. And then the trigger happens. And you think, okay, now I’m ready to write the play. When I prepared for “Boy With Shoes On,” the trigger was when I read an article in the New York Times about a teenage boy who lived in a single room with his whole family — like five people living in one room. And they asked him where he would want to go to be alone, and that blows my mind. Every play has a trigger. Every play is different.
Q: As a teacher, do you teach these kinds of ideas? And what difficulties do you confront?
A: The most important thing for me when I teach writing is that a) I want the room to be a safe place that you can try something that may not work and that’s okay. And b) it’s my opinion. You have to come in with something you’re passionate about, you want to tell this idea. One thing I also tell my students is you never bring in more than ten pages. I always tell them, in case you get off on the wrong track, you start going down the wrong road, you can always turn back. You haven’t committed this entire journey to one direction and after it all you find that’s not where you wanted to go. And sometimes all you need to do is five minutes, and then you step away. One thing I try to do is to take away the idea that you have to set aside an entire day to write. No! Sometimes you’re waiting in line and a couple of good lines hit you, and you think, “Oh! I want to remember those.”
Q: And what do you find most rewarding in your teaching?
A: I love it when students bring something in that takes you someplace else. That just bowls me over and I get so excited. And they’re all different voices. Every class has different people writing. And all at different levels of their writing. And different stories they want to tell. The fun part is when they get to tell it as honestly as they can. And then it becomes a joy.
Q: And do you see enthusiasm from the students?
A: Oh yeah, tremendous. I remember once a student came in and she had written scene after scene and knocked it out of the park, and we kept waiting for the next scene. And when she came in with another scene, she felt it didn’t work. And she looked to the group she said, “Oh well, they all can’t work.” And I treasure that. That she was that comfortable.
Q: Switching gears, can you tell us a bit about “Icarus”? What are some of the main issues the play deals with?
A: “Icarus” is really my take on “Beauty and the Beast”: when you feel unworthy of love, and two of the characters feel unworthy of love for different reasons. And it’s getting to that point when you allow that vulnerability. And that gives you a certain strength. So it’s really these two people who have nothing to do with each other who end up falling in love with each other, and it’s because they’re so different from each other.
Q: What are some of the challenges you had in writing it?
A: Well, it is a gorgeous production, and that’s why I was so struck when I saw it. Especially by how short some of the scenes are, like two lines. And I look at it and say that I applaud the audacity I had at writing them and also how well they did them. One of the great things I discovered as a writer was that, as a writer, I don’t have to worry about how it’s going to get done. I have a design team and a director and actors who are going to bring it to life. My job is to be as honest as I can on stage. I’m thrilled by the other eyes and the other hands that come into the production. My job is just to write the best play I can, then have everybody come in and add their art to it.
Q: And what would you say allows you to have your project and say, “Here’s my art, now you add what you need to it?” That’s a willingness you don’t see too often.
A: You have to feel like your work is being respected. If you let someone come in and take it apart … then you think they don’t respect the work. If you trust the people then it becomes a joyous experience. At rehearsal you want to be very respectful, and you want to be able to find things. But I want to respect when an actor is stuck in a scene and to see how they will do it. You don’t want to give them a mind reading, that’s insane. Respect their journey. What makes it weird is that as a playwright, you’ve already gone through the journey, and you want to see them go through their journey. They have a map, I don’t want to take their hand and walk them to it, you want them to get there on their own.
Q: And would you say you saw that level of respect and level of ownership from the people at Yale who have been putting on your show this week?
A: Oh god yes. I’ve been very pleased. I thought it was just so beautifully done. No hesitations whatsoever.
I went to see “50 Shades of Grey” on Valentine’s Day. Some friends and I thought it would be funny to watch such an anti-romantic movie on a day devoted to romance itself. “50 Shades of Grey” was expectedly unremarkable: The dialogue was stilted; the acting, mediocre; the plot, vapid. Perhaps the only saving grace of the movie was its distinct color palette and cinematography.
I was okay with those facts given that I’d come looking for nothing more than entertainment, to laugh uncomfortably at the sex scenes and make snarky comments on the character development. When the movie began, it certainly seemed to fulfill this purpose with stimulating conversations such as, “I want you to make love to me.” “I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard.”
Yet as the movie progressed, I began to find it less funny and take it more seriously. I found myself salivating at the square jawline and pock-marked six-pack of Christian Grey. His forceful rhetoric and arrogant tone became enticing rather than aggravating. Midway through the movie, I realized I had fallen for the man I had vowed to disdain.
If you were to read a quick synopsis of the movie, it would read as a disturbing love story of a meek young woman who falls for an abusive, stalkerish, wealthy young bachelor with a penchant for bondage. From this simple vantage point, this story is anything but appealing.
So what has made this story fuel for the private fantasies of so many?
It’s a simple but depressing answer: attraction.
Had Christian Grey been depicted as an old man with missing teeth or even as a young unattractive man, he would have immediately been described as creepy.
Christian acts inappropriately on many occasions throughout the movie. When he first takes Anastasia back after stalking her at a bar, she wakes up to find herself in a completely new outfit that Christian changed her into while she was unconscious. He then proceeds to feed her while she’s in bed, crawling up to her and biting on the piece of toast she is eating.
Later on in the movie, when Anastasia decides that she is uncomfortable with the contract Christian has drawn up, detailing what is and is not allowed during their sexual encounters, she texts him to terminate their relationship. Upon coming home, she finds him in her bedroom with two wine glasses, asking her to reconsider her decision.
Christian becomes progressively more and more controlling. In an initially seeming romantic gesture, he buys her a brand new car as a graduation present but sells her beloved old Bug without telling her. At one point, she tells him she’s going to visit Georgia to see her mother; she arrives, and whom should she run into but the man she was fleeing.
Disturbingly, each of these situations leads Anastasia to fall further in love with him when, in reality, they should serve as a red flag. Replace Christian with an unattractive man and she wouldn’t have wanted to be within a hundred miles of him after their first encounter.
By depicting these scenes and Anastasia’s positive responses to Christian’s inappropriate behavior, “50 Shades” condones emotional abuse. It romanticizes behavior that could have legal repercussions in any other context.
But one can also leave the theater with a different message, viewing the movie as a way to reflect on a disconcerting aspect of human nature: our greater acceptance of illicit behavior when the perpetrators are visually appealing.
I left the theater questioning whether it was I, rather than Christian Grey, that was 50 shades of fucked up.
There is something to be said for the various forms of entertainment available at Yale. On Wednesday night, I caught a breather from the undergraduate madness by immersing myself in another “folle journée”: the Yale Opera’s rendition of Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro.” The swelling presto overture shocked me, an opera virgin, into a state of reverie that would remain unbroken until the end of the performance. While this year marks the 100th anniversary of the historic Shubert Theater, the musicians’ accomplished fingers and the singers’ soaring voices bore me instantly back to the 18th century, when such entertainment was commonplace.
Yet I find uninterrupted music potentially monotonous. Fortunately, “The Marriage of Figaro” is a classic exemple of “opera buffa” or comic opera, injected with just enough witty dialogue and romantic chemistry to complement the instrumentation. Mozart composed the opera as a sequel to Baudron’s “The Barber of Seville,” and it narrates the flagrant attempts of a Spanish count to sabotage the marriage between two of his servants: Figaro (Brad Walker) the valet, and Susanna (Meechot Marrero) the maid.
We watch a day of intrigue, revenge and hyperbolic comedy unfold before us, only to see the opera end just like its prequel: With the union of the count and the countess, leaving Figaro and Susanna free to pursue their own romance. Marrero as Susanna steals the show. She has the most to sing, and I found it hard to wrap my head around the fact that so powerful a voice could emanate from so petite a person.
The entirety of the opera is comfortably vacant, gleefully toying with the roles set forth in “The Barber of Seville”: The count, that story’s hero, is now the undeniable villain, set on spoiling the happiness of his lovable and charismatic servants. More comical than sad, “The Marriage of Figaro” is nonetheless laced with a biting social commentary on the burdens of being a woman.
It’s hard to watch the countess sing that she would rather die than suffer her husband’s betrayal, and her astute observations about the “modern husband” being “jealous out of pride” remain topical. However, there is something undeniably refreshing about the triumvirate that forms between Figaro, Susanna and the countess. It is further edifying when the latter, rather than accusing her maid, lets the blame for her husband’s infidelity fall justly fall on him.
Furthermore, the class struggles explored in an opera where “servants become masters” are of much interest to an audience captivated by television shows such as “Downton Abbey,” which treats similar themes. In an opera written on the eve of the French Revolution, a denunciation of aristocratic privilege lurks between the notes of song and the overtones of comedy.
But however relevant such ideas may be, they aren’t the product of conscious updating. The opera’s stage director, Ted Huffman, maintained absolute fidelity to the original, and in an era when edgy, envelope-pushing adaptations are the mot du jour, this faithfulness is both nostalgic and comforting.
I left the theater with much to contemplate. On one hand, I had witnessed my first opera, and was still in awe of Mozart’s composition. On the other hand, the more I thought about it, the more I understood the political messages tucked between the lines. Together, they made for a thought-provoking but digestible performance.
The authenticity of the adaptation, combined with the finesse of the performers, renders this classic true to the artist’s intention, and makes for a very different, if lengthy, way to spend one’s evening.
You are late to the Second Annual Intercollegiate Iron Chef Competition at wintry UMass Amherst, so when you saunter into the welcoming reception, the eyes of those already arrived follow you hungrily.
And they keep watching, even after hands are shaken and welcomes exchanged. You remember, in particular, the gaze of a French Canadian. His name might have been Etienne. His thick arms are crossed behind his head, and he wears half a scowl on his chiseled jaw.
Before ushering you out of the waiting room and into the commons for dinner, the UMass culinary director explains the many buffet stations on offer: the pizza station, the pasta station, the grill station, the soup and salad station, the yogurt bar, and all the way over there we have the — he hesitates — street food section, you know, Asian food, like Southeast Asian and lo mein. You opt for turkey dinner instead.
You line up with the hoodied and sweatpantsed UMass students already queuing for food. Of course, you aren’t in sweatpants. Nor are you in the right colors (maroon?). And the only other people of your skin color are behind the counters: there is a row of four Asian students working at the bastardized, American “sushi” station.
Back in the briefing room after dinner, student dining hall workers sweep in and replace your now empty plastic plates with printouts of the competition guidelines. As the culinary director at the front of the room reads the rules aloud, you notice that all the participants in the auxiliary brownie competition (120 portions of an original brownie recipe, to be judged by the masses) are women.
You could have spent the remainder of your evening at the UPub. The tab was on the event organizers, as were the microwaved chicken tenders and the pizza, from Famous Famiglia Pizzeria. There was a pool table, but it was being hogged by a rather odd double date (they all looked like they met in biology lab, not on Tinder.) But the clinical fluorescent lights were too bright and the space too well-tiled. So instead, you head downtown for poutine with a friend of a friend, a brother of a sister, and a rockstar.
The next morning filters through gauze curtains at UMass’s on-campus hotel. Over continental breakfast, you walk through your plan of action with your coach. Two dishes, an appetizer and an entree, to be prepared and plated in an hour and a half. The operation was tight. Written out, play by play, player by player. 2:30 p.m.: clean, prep, and smoke fish. 2:40: pickle shallots in whipping canister. 2:50: start dashi. And so on and so forth.
Because all culinary directors at northeast colleges are friends with each other, one can imagine that they occasionally gather to talk about dried herbs, synergy and labor laws. Perhaps they also plan events that are — to a degree — self-indulgent, over-reaching and absurd, but nevertheless a whole lot of fun. Thus, the Intercollegiate Iron Chef Competition: six teams of undergraduates from the US and Canada, vying for “a trophy and bragging rights for one year.”
The competition schedule is staggered to accommodate judging, so you must wait three hours after the 11 a.m. start to begin cooking. And so there’s time to consider the rather strange situation in which you’ve found yourself. When did cooking become a sport? How did this come about? Given that you had only been roped into this a week ago, questions remain. Why are you here? What are you doing? How is Etienne?
He stands beside you, with his arms crossed in front of his chest. The two of you are watching the students from the University of New Hampshire. Though their coach describes their culinary program as the “red-headed stepchild of the school,” they’re making perfect batons out of apples. They could be deboning chickens with their bare hands. You don’t know how to do that. This seems unfair: aren’t students from culinary programs technically barred from competing?
But then the clock strikes 2:15, and you have other things to worry about. You set up your cutting board, prep your cold smoker, polish your knives.
You’re up and the clock starts ticking. Over an hour and a half, you poach flounder filets in butter, you reduce veal jus, you avoid the camera, you nick your finger slicing shallots, you muck up and clarify a shiitake broth, your hands begin to shake, you get told off by your coach, you plate the food, and finally you sit waiting for your hands to stop shaking.
In the end, even though you forget to garnish some of your appetizers and your tenderloin begins to bleed into your mashed potatoes, the results don’t taste half-bad. You win. Perhaps you’re the only one who knows the depth of your own illegitimacies.
And Etienne, who’s sliced open his thumb too — he gives you a pat on the back.