Town & Gown

Down at the Discotheque

by Gillian Pasley | Town & Gown | Fall 2018

Images from the Fall 2018 issue

Forty years in ’Sco history.

Forty years and hundreds of thousands of wristbands later, it’s remarkable that at first glance the “Dionysus Disco” still looks like an empty room. If you don’t believe me, enter through the double doors early in the evening, before anyone arrives. Hand Shirley your ID, walk across the hardwood floor past the rust-colored pillars and blue high-top tables pushed against the wall, to the bar facing the slightly elevated stage. When the room is empty, nothing about the space asserts its storied history—it’s a blank slate. The ’Sco is humble, perhaps to its detriment. Yet there is a certain magic about the space, for those who’ve known it well—a sense of a chaos and catharsis in its history of late nights and tall tales. There are ghosts in the ’Sco, ghosts that linger onstage and on the floor long after the house lights go up at one o’clock and “Mama ’Sco” yells for everyone to get the hell off the ramp. The stories are in the air there—when you start to see them, it begins to look a bit less like an empty room and a bit more like a vibrant collection of reconstructed memories, gathered over years and years of dancing and drinking and listening. As a booker, I have my own ghosts, my own stories—but the ’Sco has meant something different to each and every person who has worked, danced, or played there. Its legacy is built from all those discrete memories and meanings, some true, some untrue, all largely unverifiable. It’s impossible, then, to construct a “true” history of a place that is so based on individual experience, selective and transformed memory. A linear history is hazy at best. But there are so many stories.

“It will be a place for the people who want to dance,” said Clark Drummond, former Associate Dean of Students to the Oberlin Review. It was September of 1978 and disco fever had hit Oberlin. Drummond noted an instance during the previous academic year when “the music was turned up in the lobby of Wilder [and] everyone started dancing.” So in the fall semester of ’78, a disco opened in the basement of Wilder Hall, forcing a beloved game room to move to Hales. In typical Oberlin fashion, many were unhappy with the move. “These people are behaving like feudal lords ruling their own private fiefs,” wrote a student in the Review. “This new ‘disco’ will be open only three hours a night for several days a week, and the game room is to be ejected to Hales Gym—where is that?” And although it sounds silly in hindsight, the frustrations of these game-lovers make a certain amount of sense. There was no budget, no beer, no real plan to speak of. Nothing but a hardwood floor, some speakers, and the idea of dancing.

It’s hard to imagine the ’Sco as it was—no live shows, no bar. “It was basically just one big empty room,” said Gareth Fenley ’83, who arrived on campus in 1979 to word of the new “disco.” But the student DJs played their music and sure enough, the room became the place for those who wanted to dance. “During that period, it was a dance club, not a music venue,” said Josh Rubin ’85. Jeff Hagan ’86, who worked at the ’Sco from 1983–1986, remembers that “we opened at 10:00 PM and closed at 1:00 AM and in those three hours you had such a cross-section of Oberlin… At about a minute after ten, someone would come over after just studying for hours at Mudd, dance by herself for 40 minutes, and then leave when everyone else arrived. It felt like one of the few places most of the campus came to.” The ’Sco was a place to meet, to hang out with friends in a time when texting was not an option. “The only way you could leave a message for your friend was to write a note and tape it to their mailbox,” explained Chris Baymiller, who worked for 32 years as the Associate Director of the Student Union. “So people would come by, and it would say ‘meet me in the ’Sco tonight.’” Although it was mostly a space for socializing, there were some live concerts in the space during these days, but they were infrequent and mostly Oberlin bands or local acts. There was no money to pay for artists or sound, and people seemed happy enough just dancing. Programming was “just basically DJs,” said Shirley. Shirley has worked at the ’Sco for 33 years. “Fridays and Saturdays we used to have security here, because we’d have lines out the back door,” she remembered.

To make matters even more unfamiliar, Oberlin was technically a “dry” town at the time. The only alcohol that could be sold was “3.2 beer,” which was, of course, only 3.2% alcoholic. The Rathskeller offered beer for students to purchase, but Chris Baymiller saw an opportunity. “We had this keg that was being run by food service,” he explained. “It was pathetic. I kept saying, ‘you guys have gotta do something more than have this friggin’ keg here.’” He urged Dining Services to do more with the 3.2 beer operation, but “they said [they] can’t make money. Who can’t make money on a bar? Come on. So it was like, give it to me, I’ll take it over.” When the town finally began to allow alcohol sales, the ’Sco was quick to meet the demand. “We started getting microbrew beers and everything,” said Baymiller. “The place exploded.”

In many ways, Chris Baymiller was the catalyst in the ’Sco’s transformation into the storied music venue it is today. In the beginning, he says, things were sparse. They needed to build an empire. “We had no money,” he laughed. “We had no sound, we had nothing.” The trick, then, was in the budgeting. “It did help that I was in charge of the budgets,” he confessed. “Within a number of years, we kept pumping up our own budget.” It wasn’t overnight, but a transformation occurred. Eventually they were buying $60,000 sound boards for Concert Sound. “We had systems that were second to none.” Thus ’Sco’s reputation as a venue began to kick off, as Baymiller and his team of student bookers worked to bring national touring acts to the big room in the basement.

We take this for granted now. Concerts are just a part of what the ’Sco is. Sometimes people come, sometimes people don’t. But at the time, what they were doing was somewhat revolutionary. While touring bands would sometimes set up in dining halls or town bars at other schools to play shows, Oberlin was the first to establish what was essentially a student-run nightclub and music venue on campus. “What was cool about it was not only were you the booker, other students that reported to me were doing the sound… That was so unique, nationwide,” Baymiller explained. “There was no college putting on shows like we were doing… It was an all in-house production. It was a great learning experience.” As a current ’Sco booker, I can attest to the magic of pulling off a show—some of my shows have led to my most treasured Oberlin memories. Last November, for instance, I brought Jonathan Richman, my all-time favorite songwriter, who played to a packed house before finding his van had been towed—at which point I had to drive my musical hero to a junkyard in Elyria, where we became actual friends. It’s moments like that that I feel myself mythologizing, even one year out—so one can only imagine how much reminiscing goes on after decades.

These sorts of beloved memories are especially important for ’Sco genealogy—regardless of their factual accuracy. Chip Vhite, a former booker, relayed one such memory, recalling that “the ’Sco was the first place outside of New England that Phish played. This was back in ’89 or ’90 or so. I was on Concert Board at the time, and Phish sent us this janky homemade press kit with a cassette, photo, and one-page write-up of the band. We listened to it, decided they sounded quirky and interesting, and I called up their manager, whose first response was ‘Wow, the mailing worked!’” Of course, if you consult the well-kept archives of die-hard Phish fans, you’ll find that Oberlin was not anywhere close to the first place Phish played outside of New England. But in a way, I don’t think that matters. This story, this memory, this individual or collective idea is part of the ’Sco’s constructed history. If the space is built from memories, it doesn’t necessarily make a difference if the memories are entirely accurate. What is remembered becomes true, becomes legacy. That’s how ’Sco history works.

At its height in the ’90s and ’00s, the ’Sco was hosting upwards of 60 shows per year. Bands like Guided By Voices and The Black Keys packed the house—as an advisor to SUPC, Baymiller liked to encourage bookers to “pull the trigger on [booking] a big band.” But the bookers were also willing to take risks on unestablished artists with promise. “We were able to get really early hip-hop shows, with Common and Mos Def,” said Baymiller. “Other colleges didn’t want them.” As humble as it may appear, the ‘Sco has traditionally been on the cutting edge in terms of booking—for many alumni, the shows they stumbled into might well be the shows they brag about to this day. Shows that became legendary for their importance in hindsight were often not wildly out of the ordinary in the moment. Acts that could now play for thousands were not always easily recognized. When Blink-182 played in 1997, the same week they hit MTV, the “room wasn’t even full,” said Shirley. “People hadn’t heard of them. They’re all over MTV but nobody had heard of them.” Sleater-Kinney, with a little-known band called The White Stripes opening, were famously turned away from a party after their show in 2000, because the house was “too full—as if there were a legal capacity to which they were adhering and only so many rubbery vegan hot dogs and red Solo cups to go around,” Carrie Brownstein wrote in her 2015 memoir. And when Kendrick Lamar played the ’Sco in 2011 before he released his first album, the Review reported that “Kendrick may not have been ready for Oberlin. Sure, he’s worthy of praise, but at this early stage, I think it’s too hard to tell just how much.” Knowing what we know now, I would be willing to bet that the Review reporter might tell that story a bit differently in hindsight.

For a venue with such poorly kept official records, it’s remarkable how every ’Sco patron retains their own version of events, their own ’Sco mythos and favorite, or “top five” favorite shows. And for some, those memories mark life-changing moments. Ashley Roberts ’10 recalls seeing Cat Power at the ’Sco when she visiting as a prospective student—“she had everyone in the ’Sco sit around her in a circle, cross-legged like children, because it made her feel less anxious,” she recounted. She fussed over the lighting, the tuning of her instrument, implored audience members to bring her a beer, which they did. And then she gave this incredible performance, with all of us rooting her on. After that day I remember saying to [my friend who hosted me] ‘you found our people!’ and to the person at admissions that interviewed me later on ‘I found my people!’”

This is what ’Sco history is made of—not a list of shows, not a rise or a fall, but moments like these. A true chronology of the ’Sco cannot exist, because each student, each DJ, each bartender, each booker knows it differently. A show that someone left to smoke on the ramp or go to a party changed someone else’s life. And therein lies the magic. An archive couldn’t do that justice.

The “Disco” began in 1978 as many Oberlin institutions do, in a strategic move from the administration to meet some perceived student need. In this case, the Associate Dean thought that the students needed a place to dance. And dance they did. Over the years, the ’Sco has strived to meet the needs of the students at that time, but I think it’s important to note how much those needs have evolved. For instance, the ’Sco of the ’80s, complete with student DJs playing their favorite records every night and kegs of 3.2 beer, would simply not be viable today—the needs of students are just not the same. Less inclined to stop by to just dance to a student’s playlist on the way back from the library, today’s students are much more committed to creative programming, so the ’Sco tries to evolve with its patrons. With each new cohort of students, each new generation, the ’Sco is reconstructed, and takes on a new meaning. For the most part, students today don’t have any sense of the groundbreaking history of the ’Sco, we don’t have pride in the legacy we’re contributing to, and in some ways, perhaps that’s a shame. This room, this ugly, magic room and all that it stands for and has stood for, exists largely in the memories of the individuals who’ve been here through the years. So while those memories are treasured by many, they often fade from common ’Sco knowledge once a couple of years pass, and are relegated to alumni get-togethers and unintentionally kept far from current students. But on the other hand, there’s something so wonderful about a place that exists only in memories, that is defined only by the people who frequent the room. “I enjoy my job here, I enjoy working with you all because you are fascinating,” said Shirley. “You are some of the most fascinating people on the planet.” Ultimately, it’s these fascinating people who write their own ’Sco histories. The room empties out at the end of the night and is swept and mopped and born anew, ready to take on a new meaning.

So what is the ’Sco, really? It’s a bar, it’s a music venue, it’s a dance hall, it’s a big empty room in the basement of Wilder. These things are all true. But more than any of that, I think that the ’Sco is a collection of stories—and over the past 40 years, there have been a lot of them. But as long as someone’s remembering that time in the mosh pit, that one time at Splitchers, that great show freshman year, that time their world turned upside down and everything felt right, or wrong, or something—the space is alive, and learning, and growing. The stories are in the air there—in the corners, at the bar, on the stage. Try to see them, next time. They fill the room. 



by Madisyn Mettenberg | Fiction | Fall 2018

Image by Brady Marks


In stories where a powerful evil (see: witches, demons, nameless voices crooning from dark pits) sets out to control another (princesses, flutists, scrappy sidekicks hiding untold riches), always of extreme importance is that the evil never learns the name of its target. Once the evil knows what to call the tiny figure quivering at its lip, it will be vested with complete control over them. This has been well documented in fiction.

If I were to build off this with my own fairy-tale logic, I would guess that not all names are equal. For instance, when the voice from the pit rasps And just who are you? and you answer in despair, voice choked in agony: Dana, my guess is that the pit will feel slightly cheated. After leaving the mysterious cavern, you will likely receive a bill in the mail for a cable box that you did in fact return. Many will turn from you in disgust for returning their hellos with “What’s crackin!”—an inclination that before the pit you showed no sign for. Other than this your life will continue in utter banality. No greater evil can be accomplished (and no greater good besides, though the Pit has no interest in this).

This is why the Crooning Pit dreams of girls named Constance or Esperanza or Aurelia; Lydia and Ivy and Cassandra. In its greatest fantasies it has ensnared women named for stars and cities, rivers, luxury cars, empresses who committed suicide as the enemy horde closed in. These are lives imbued with more magic, more potential; these are the kinds of women who can be compelled to end up in books.

The pit subscribes to all baby naming blogs, stays up to date on the Social Security index of most popular names. It gobbles up handfuls of Alexandria and Gwendolyn and spits Sandra from the corners of its mouth like shells from sunflower seeds.


The Crooning Pit scoffs at alternate spellings. It is uninterested in any newfangled portmanteaus—perhaps save for JonBenét, a story morbid enough for its own depraved tastes.

Rumplestiltskin was one of its own; they trained side-by-side at Villain Academy, aced their group final on Maiden Manipulation. But both of them are stubborn, ungraceful in defeat, and since the whole firstborn child debacle, neither have been on speaking terms.


My mom wanted to call me Louisa. Dad didn’t. It was, and clearly remains, a source of unusual angst.

If I were Louisa, things would have been much different. I would have had an instinct for running through wide green meadows laughing and clutching my skirts, eyes shining in the brightness of the sky. I would have innate knowledge for jumpstarting cars, butchering pigs, weaving lilies into my hair. When I cried, it would be rare and profound, and the moment I turned fourteen all the world’s knowledge of flirtation and seduction would suddenly fall into my lap in a brightly-colored box.

When I was younger I asked Dad: Why not Louisa?

Dad’s name is David. Davids are truth-tellers but are very grounded, literal, always stick to their guns.

I knew you were Madisyn, he said.

Yeah, but what does that mean?

He peered at me over his glasses, confused why this was hard to understand. It means, I knew that you couldn’t be anything else.

What if I had been a boy? What would my name have been then?

I knew you weren’t, so we didn’t pick one out.

You mean you knew I was going to be a girl?

No, we didn’t.

So I would have been Madisyn if I had been a boy? That’s even worse than the y.

No. I knew you would be you.

One thing that Davids are not are prophets. They are not soothsayers or oracles; their dreams reveal no hidden doorways or celestial symbols. His insistence on this platitude—that I was always me, and me was always Madisyn—must have come from somewhere else. Normally, I would say my mom—Kathleens see faces in the clouds and feel cold spots floating down halls—but she didn’t insist on Madisyn. She would have chosen Louisa.

Mom’s eyes are always wide, slightly guilty, when we talk about this.

You can always grow up and change it, she says, even now.

But there’s something mystical about the fact that Dad, the truth-teller made of only earth, had such a vision. If there’s any magic in Madisyn, it’s that. 


Aside from devouring the blogs of housewives, scouring book after book, registry after registry, the Crooning Pit is partial to celebrity gossip magazines. In them, it finds the most beautiful the world has to offer right alongside the most unspeakable evil, since the rich and famous always name their children without fear.

The Crooning Pit understands that once you reach a certain annual income, you evolve past the fear of meaning and become entirely devoted to syllables. It hovers over a page: Apple Martin, daughter of Coldplay frontrunner Chris Martin and actress/healing witch Gwyneth Paltrow. Ah-pull. Ah-pull. If you say it over and over again, the small red-or-yellow fruit on an outstretched bough disappears completely, converts itself to air, voice, the still unwritten destiny of a small blonde celeb-spawn. The same goes for Spike Lee’s daughter Satchel, Rick Ross’ son Billion, even the little girl named Audio Science, daughter of now-defunct early 2000s star Shannyn Sossaman—though the fading of her mother into obscurity has lessened the shine of these particular syllables, for the Crooning Pit at least. But still shine they do, since only the children of those straddling the world’s stage have the power to pry sounds from their meanings. 


Of course the world of naming is more than just syllables. There is the beauty of defiance. There is Blue Ivy Carter, the twins Sir and Rumi, Ryan Reynolds’ daughter James, Hillary Duff ’s daughter Banks. There are the Kardashians and the Cruises and the Jolie-Pitts, but they won’t be explored further, since their progeny will one day make up entire branches of government.

The Crooning Pit flicks a page, licks its lips. Sage Moonblood Stallone. Aviana Olea Le Gallo. Seraphina Rose Elizabeth Affleck. Lily-Rose Melody Depp. The Pit laughs, gurgles, sneezes. The pages whir by in a flurry of Onyx and Ever, Lea and Luna, Sienna and Iris and Ivanka.


In fourth grade they teach us about acrostic poems and we all write one using our own names as a template. The teacher asks us to share.

Not nearly shakily enough, I get up before the class. I’ve written an excellent poem. It’s one of the best ever: I’m a superstar, a poet, a young icon. I begin to read out loud. It probably goes something like:

M is for Musical

A is for Amazing

and so on, just like the teacher wanted—I’m looking into myself and recognizing my strengths, my talents, the fact that I have some shred of confidence before puberty comes to snatch it away—and then I get to the y.

Y is for Yearning

From the back of the classroom, Sean McDonald (future reverend, quarterback, breaker of musical props and Allie Claire’s heart) snickers.

Yearning? Isn’t that when you, like, pee everywhere?

To illustrate his point, he stands up, cups his tiny genitals and whirrs around the class-room in an unmistakable sprinkler motion: whoossssshhhhh! The classroom dissolves into laughter. I ball up my poem and throw it at him, storm back to my desk, never even get to the n.

Even if he was wrong, even if the word he was thinking of was urinating and it came to him in one of the many revelations of spite that would seize him throughout the years, it’s possible it was a blessing in disguise. Yearning is expected, cliché; maybe Sean recognized that I could do better, that one day I would have to reconsider and reinvestigate the value of y. It’s an ongoing process.

Y is for:


                                   yacht club!



                     young at heart!

                                    y tho? 



While my name was sacrificed in honor of trend, my younger sister Piper was named for a family icon.

Mom’s maternal grandmother was called Helen Piper, but the kids called her Grandma City. Growing up, Mom and her siblings waited for the weekends they could be whisked away from the sheep farm in Watertown to visit her in Minneapolis.

She golfed, bowled, spoke German, drove a pink-and-ivory car with a figurine of the Virgin Mary quaking on the dashboard. After her railroad worker husband died in 1961, 

she used his benefits to fund solo trips across the United States, to Germany to meet relatives, to Italy to meet the Pope. Framed photos of her travels punctuated her home’s pristine walls, which she scrubbed without fail every spring. She wore bright-red rouge kept in a shiny gold ball in her medicine cabinet, and sometimes when Mom and her siblings pulled up to the neat little house, she would be there, kneeling in the grass, trimming the front lawn with a pair of sewing scissors.

Of course, no one would know until much later that Grandma City adopted Mom’s mother, that she wasn’t blood at all. If I consider my sister Piper’s wardrobe of exclusively track pants an affront to her namesake, it’s entirely imagined. There is no DNA linking my materialism to hers, no genetic predisposition for the women of my family to love pretty things and witchiness.

Piper is slightly taller than me, athletically built, has white-blonde hair that shudders at the thought of dye. At first glance you might not know we’re sisters, or even related. She goes to a school full of frats and jungle juice, always insists on hearing all sides before becoming emotional, once had a seizure waiting in line to win SNL tickets and returned to claim them some scant hours later.

But as she’s gotten older, I’ve begrudgingly accepted the fact that there’s probably no right way to wear a name. The Pipers in my head can’t take the form of batty great-grandmothers I’ve never met, no matter how independent their souls or polished their windows. Instead, a sea of white-blonde athletes raise their chins, quote an ancient Andy Samberg skit, ask if I’ll join them at the gym later.

I won’t. But I know, at least, it’s not because my name is Madisyn.

K. (addendum)

The Crooning Pit recognizes that while men are more proficient at the art of murder, they rarely have names interesting enough to meet the heinousness of their crimes. This must be why so many killers assert not two names but three—John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, Gary Leon Ridgway, Paul John Knowles, John Wayne Gacy—the Crooning Pit has been boiling beneath our feet for millennia. It knows firsthand that men and compensation is not exactly a new phenomenon.

The Pit could consider the pathology of their crimes, the misery of their childhoods, draw lines and find similarities between victims, methods—but it all comes down to that one extra name, the one similarity that makes all the difference. In some places, you get an extra name for acts of bravery or achievement. Schooling, if attended long enough, also earns you an extra title. And of course some people—not always killers, though just as audacious and perverse—go by their first and middle name (add two points to the tally of evil if it’s hyphenated).

So is the middle name tacked on in some kind of title distortion? Or, like the college freshman wanting to rebrand themself as Blaire, is it a grandiose stab towards individuality? Fewer women head Fortune 500 companies than men named John. Perhaps in order to stand apart from the herd—in order to make a name for themselves among all the Jameses and Kevins and Charleses—this extra name became vital.

In a surprise twist of fate, the Crooning Pit does not claim these killers as its own. It finds their crimes predictable, uninspired, lacking connection to any greater purpose—issues that an extra name couldn’t fix, no matter how glorious, not even if it was Edward.

But all those Johns in their high towers, with their exotic potted plants and floor-to-ceiling windows—those are men the Pit holds closest to its black and pulsing heart. At night, as they fall asleep beneath downy blankets and mistresses and sheets of stars, it creeps into their dreams and paints pictures. 


Ode to a Texas Toad

by Charlie Rinehart-Jones | Poetry | Fall 2018

Art by Benjamin Stevens

Thirsty Lizards Invent Trains
Geese, select, oblige, hunt
Frogs want elegant celery
Wings ingest open breath
Kids abide worthless hammers and toys
Waves shake, worthless matter

Greet, spoon, spot, argue
Empty parallels, Direct Beams
Buy chair, “sick wrench”
Greasy rain, thank god
Treasure shame, reflect
Collapse, pathetic volleyball


I Catch Myself

by Grace McAllister | Poetry | Fall 2018

Art by Jacob Butcher

I like to catch myself in a window,
as my form shocks a storefront
or to see my eyes drip down my cheeks
in someone else’s eyeglasses.
In a shadow, my hand
hangs on to my wrist by spit
my expanding-contracting neck
shifting over my dendritic arms.
Car windows tell me
I put myself on the line for vanity,
and lobby doors tell me
my triangle nose points
telling my triangle coat
where to go. 


After Dinner

by Eliana Carter | Poetry | Fall 2018

Art by Brady Marks

we wander downtown to a bar in the
gay neighborhood, block vacant
save for a few cars and a shopping cart,
and take a seat by the window.
The bar is covered in rainbow pinwheels
and Lady Gaga music videos play on the TV.
We sit in silence and flip through a travel brochure.
The bartender, in her most believable accent,
pretends not to know of our youth.
Stiff smiles and a salty bar. Blue Moon, please.
When you leave to go to the bathroom you get stuck
behind the small crowd. I catch your eye from
across the room, heart boiling up in my chest.
Twist the dial to make the colors brighten.
I can’t hear you from across the bar.
It’s gotten so loud between us it’s like we need
a megaphone to shout, How are you feeling?
to yell, to plea maybe. Come back here!
Earlier, at the Thai place, we were caught kissing
in the bathroom and left out the kissing part
when we told the story. Earlier, we tried not
to talk too loud, texts sent in the same room.
I want to take you back to before. Where what we had
was love in clear sentences. Right now I’m slurring my words.
I can’t remember what I meant to say. I think it’s just,
I love you. Louder. I think it’s I’m sorry.


I Put a Spell On You

by Eliana Carter | Poetry | Fall 2018

Art by Brady Marks

In the bowl resting in your palm,
sprinkled in your chicken soup
in between the carrot slices
like pepper flakes, a fairy dust.
Under my breath I repeat it over and over
again. “What’s that?,” you say,
“You keep talking under your breath.
I can’t hear you when you do that.”
“Do what?” I mouth.
Below your tongue
is where you begin to feel it.
It is cold at first (a brainfreeze.)
Then hot (a forehead sweat.)
I count to ten (dizzy, dizzy.) You spin
in circles. On the radio,
bumbling beats on the boombox.
In the garden, a backyard blues.
A firecracker shoots sparks in your soup,
pepper flakes like glitter paint.
Then later it’s a twinkling toe ring
that’s twisted in your palm
which you slide onto my ring finger.
I shake my head and slide it back onto yours
because you are mine.

Temporal Reflections

A Good Night’s Sleep

by Kira Findling | Temporal Reflections | Fall 2018

Art by Benjamin Stevens

There’s a disconnect with elder care in the United States. People are living longer, but nursing facilities aren’t catching up with the need for comfortable and engaging long-term care. My grandpa, Martin, moved into a rehab facility last summer following a series of intense surgeries and near-death experiences. Martin, who I call Papa, loves to nap. In my childhood, whenever I visited his house, I’d find him snoring on the couch, my grandma hitting his arm to wake him up. He seemed peaceful, drifting off in the middle of a conversation or television episode. At the rehab center, however, he struggled to sleep through the night, plagued by anxiety and loneliness. Along with the rest of my family, I tried to visit as often as I could, but found myself trapped in limbo, unsure what to do to help him in the face of a system beyond my control. Like Papa, many elderly people spend their days stuck in routines they didn’t choose, waiting for something to change, regardless of the good intentions of their family members. Among those who are receiving care in facilities, almost half struggle with depression, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But some relatives of the elderly believe that nursing home care offers the best option, while others are determined to take care of people in their own homes. Home care typically involves the work of live-in caretakers, who relieve families of nursing duties and allow for a good night’s sleep. Yet while Medicaid can help pay for this service, the application process can be onerous and inaccessible, requiring many documents and extensive financial information. Limited by government policies and financial concerns, people around the country are forced to make decisions about elder care with very little room to consider individuals’ happiness and specific needs.

In the facility, Papa often gave up and retreated into himself. Sometimes we entered his room to find him in another world, eyes unfocused and voice quiet. When my grandma brought him his favorite ice cream, he shrugged. On those days, his passion and excitement seemed to have evaporated. While some of that came from his poor health, I’m sure that much of it was due to his environment. His rehab center was state-of-the-art, with rigorous physical therapy and a rotating entertainment schedule, but the basic setup of nursing home care promoted boredom and isolation. He didn’t talk much to the other residents, instead relying on my family to visit constantly, to the point that my grandma decided to hire a caretaker after many sleepless nights. Time after time, he’d yell, “Get me out of here,” and we’d sit uncomfortably, unable to give him what he wanted. The reason why the current system of elder care isn’t working for my grandpa and many others? It’s premised on routine and repetition.

A doctor from New York wants to change that. Dr. Bill Thomas has spent his life working to tear down the nursing home system as we know it. In the early 1990s, he spent hours observing patients in nursing homes—patients who, like Papa, sat alone and waiting for hours, only to be wheeled somewhere else to do it all over again. Dr. Thomas began to think of nursing homes like spaceships, devoid of any sense of life or nature. Interviewed on the podcast Reply All, he said, “If our lives lack enough spontaneity, it loses its tang. It loses that sweet edge that comes from talking about that thing that happened, that nobody thought was going to happen. And nursing homes, actually the best of them, are extremely good at wiping out spontaneity—crushing it.” Dr. Thomas’s first big idea was the Eden Alternative. He introduced animals to the nursing home: four dogs, eight cats, and four hundred birds. Within minutes, the old folks began to giggle and chatter. One elderly man who had been unable to speak for months verbally requested a bird. He transformed from someone locked inside himself to someone speaking animatedly with a parakeet. The death rate of the nursing home plummeted and its patients were using significantly less medication. The success of the Eden Alternative came down to its chaotic nature. The elders were now living like they did for much of their lives: with little knowledge of what exactly would happen next. But though Dr. Thomas traveled around the country promoting the Eden Alternative, the initiative’s effectiveness waned when animals were introduced in an orderly manner, and nursing homes once again lost any sense of unpredictability.

The Eden Alternative holds incredible possibility for improving the lives of elderly people like my grandpa. It made care facilities into dynamic spaces with surprises and reasons to get up in the morning. Why bother spending energy when you know you’re living in a fixed, unmalleable environment? The Eden Alternative’s conclusion is that people need unexpected things to happen in life, or they will give up and retreat inside themselves. No one wants to stare at the wall all day. People want to connect, to be together, to talk and debate, to laugh. Dr. Thomas believes that elders deserve more autonomy, and that we have the opportunity as a society to build an entirely new system of elder care.

Last summer, I was always only a thought away from crying, wishing I could leave my desk and drive to the rehab facility. Papa was always confused, spinning from recklessly hopeful to dismayed. He asked my grandma why he was eating lunch at midnight, when really it was noon. One day he got so frustrated that he told us that he could imagine why someone would want to commit suicide after being stuck in a bed with no one to talk to. His caretaker was there for hours during the day, but at night Papa was alone. He woke intermittently to watch infomercials on the TV mounted to the wall, the speaker soft next to his ear so it wouldn’t wake his roommate.

Some believe that no one needs to live in nursing homes because they could get that care at home for the same price or cheaper. On Reply All’s episode on elder care, Tammy Marshall, Chief Experience Officer of the New Jewish Home in New York, said, “There isn’t anybody here that needed to be here. I could literally close this. […] All that we’re doing here can be done in your home.” Nursing homes are extremely expensive in comparison to the cost of hiring home care workers, who work long hours for low wages. Yet families often find themselves in a position where nursing homes seem to be the only option due to specific needs and the amount of energy that caretaking requires. In my papa’s case, he had to be in a rehab facility to access physical therapy. But even with “good” care—his daily physical therapy and opportunities for group activities—Papa felt aimless and missed us when we couldn’t be there. My grandma brought him home as soon as possible to end his feeling of isolation and the exhaustion of driving back and forth to the facility. A physical therapist came to the house a few times, but his treatment wasn’t as intense as it had been. The nursing home offered services that the house couldn’t, because of spatial limitations and availability of therapists. The situation left my family in a difficult position, having to choose between my grandpa’s happiness or physical health. Though Marshall is correct in saying that the services offered in a nursing facility can be replicated at home, doing so isn’t easy. It requires resources and emotional energy that many simply don’t have.

Print by Ian Ruppenthal

Caring for an elderly family member is a deeply intimate experience. Relationships change as power dynamics are flipped and decades-old dynamics disappear. Though caretaking can be a burden, it is a burden that many take on without thinking, out of love. My grandma’s life now revolves around taking care of Papa, but she can’t imagine it any other way. Like most people, she views her commitment to my grandpa as a promise to care for him towards the end of his life. She’ll be by his side. But this vow becomes an undue burden when she finds herself with very few options for elder care and when, despite her best efforts, Papa feels lonely and understimulated.

When I think about Papa’s experience in the rehab facility last summer and his continued support from live-in caretakers, I like to imagine a new world. I think of a system where Papa could decide what would make him feel healthy and supported. His dementia would prevent him from dealing with practical concerns, and we’d still have to remind him that he couldn’t drive or go to the bathroom alone, but he could tell us what he wanted and we would do our best to make that happen. So much of elder care is trying to figure out what’s best for your relative. Each day last summer, my grandma tried to make Papa happy while keeping him safe. But sometimes in the chaos of stress and decision-making, his emotional needs got lost. Papa was most at peace when we followed his lead and played along with the world he was living in, when we went along with his confused trains of thought rather than trying to correct them. For a moment, we would be on the same page, together in his world of endless daylight and imaginary orchestras and protein drinks for dinner, and he would smile.

When I imagine a better system of elder care, it’s based around community support and accessibility. Family members have a variety of affordable and supportive options for their relatives who need assistance. No one has to shoulder the responsibility of caretaking alone. I feel hopeful that, to some degree, that better system already exists. Over the summer, my extended family took turns visiting Papa and helping my grandma with logistics. These days, we all do what we can to make sure she is supported. Everyone—especially those who live close by—pitches in with food, advice, time, and words of support. But in my imagined system, it goes further. Caretaking is accessible and possible for all people, and valued as a job in and of itself. No one has to make decisions that leave their family members lonely and scared. There’s an institutional safety net for people who fall through the cracks. In my imagined system, Papa never stops caring. He’s present, with his family, and everyone gets a good night’s sleep.

One afternoon in July, after hours at the rehab facility, my family went back to my grandma’s house to go swimming. The evening flew by—pizza dinner, a call from Papa’s caretaker that she was leaving for the night. As I headed home, I realized that I had left my sunglasses at the facility. At 10:00 PM, I walked into the rehab center, greeted by the familiar sounds of wheelchairs in the halls and nurses’ shoes squeaking on the floors. Before I entered Papa’s room, I saw that he was pushing the call button again and again. The nurse bustled in and asked what he needed. Papa said, “How are you?” She smiled and adjusted his pillows. He had woken up and didn’t want to be alone. Their conversation was short; as they spoke, I snuck into the room, got my sunglasses, and left. I told myself that it would confuse him to see me there only for a moment, but really I wasn’t sure if I could handle the interaction. I knew it would wreck me to see him so helpless and alone at night. But as I left, I ran into a nurse I recognized. She smiled. “Saying goodnight to your grandpa?” When I shook my head, she gave me a long, appraising look. I poked my head into Papa’s room. He said a soft hello, sweet and tired. I told him that it was late—he had no idea what time of day it was—and that I had to go home, but that I’d be back soon. He nodded, and I kissed his forehead. Papa waved me goodbye all the way out the door. I walked out of the facility slowly, smiling at people in the rooms who were still awake. It still makes me cry to think of leaving him in that bed. That’s the reason I care so much about nursing homes and loneliness. I saw him ringing that call button again and again, and all I wanted to do was talk to him until he fell asleep, and sit by his bed until he woke up and we did it all over again.


Since March

by Emma June Marcus | Voices | Fall 2018

Art by Jacob Butcher

It made no sense that we had a pool in a place named after the Pacific. In school we were taught that our home was a rainforest, a rain-fed wet dream for evergreens and mud puddles. I was born beneath an overcast sky, I learned to find comfort in grey. Daniel, my big brother by eight years, was born Southern California. He was blonde and twisting out of our parents’ grasps as his limbs burned pink.

Our in-ground pool was a lake by any standard. The perpetual rainclouds bred water-bugs and walls covered in slime. I swam until my lips turned blue. Sometimes he would join me in the cold, mostly he would just watch. I’d pull myself from the foggy water, dripping and skinny. I’d make him laugh with my teeth chattering while he wrapped me in a towel that reached the ground. He could never stay in one place very long, busy like big brothers are, but I knew he wouldn’t leave until I got warm again.

I got so good at holding my breath, I could go to the end and back again without coming up once. When Daniel forgave the freezing water he could go twice as far, though. His lungs are bigger.

My father forbade me from jumping on trampolines throughout my childhood, saying that I would end up paralyzed in a hospital bed. So after school on Thursdays I would bike to the Robertsons’ house. They had a big one in their backyard and no rules. I loved myself floating, my clothes full of air. But I hated hitting the elastic black, it would shock me, twist my ankle and take my strength with it. A chemical imbalance, Mom said Daniel had, some days were very high, some days felt low. The day he locked all of the doors in our house and spoke through the screen door: I am going to do it. I’m going to end it.—that day was close to the bottom, his ankles must have broken, he hit the trampoline so hard.

This isn’t about me.

None of it is, really, is what I’m coming to understand.

This is about what violence follows someone being locked up. This is about isolation. This isn’t about me. This is about mobility, security, locks and traps. I have lied so frequently about my family that the formula of falsity reverberates through my skull and comforts me each time I recite it. I think it might be easier because it once was true, it once settled inside the narrative of myself I was trying to sculpt. It fit perfectly—I have two siblings. My brother lives in Portland, still, he is getting his degree from Portland Community College. He was an alcoholic, but he got sober about five years ago. He totally turned his life around. He works with at-risk youth in a public high school outside of the city. He shows them music, he taught them to garden. My brother and I have the same face. We did a face-swap once and I swear to god nothing changed. We joke about who is the more handsome sibling. We hit each other’s arms and chase each other through my parents’ house. All of that was completely true at one point.

I was twenty and drowning, but this isn’t about me. It was a wet spring, 2017, one of the greyest that Portland has seen in years. The trees held water like mouths full, gulping it down. Deep green leaves shook with droplets and bounced like conversations. The northwest was being pummeled with early March down-pours. I would receive calls from my mother in which I could hear her pacing in front of the living room window, holding herself in a tight hug, rubbing her upper arms nervously. The tapping of raindrops from the front yard would weave itself between her words, I knew the grey was beginning to drive her mad.

Portland is a waterlogged city, its winding streets glisten with miniature streams composed of rain. It wasn’t until I moved to Ohio that I experienced an Autumn I could look upwards during without blinking rapidly, pinprick raindrops tickling my lashes. Oregon is a cloud-swirling rainforest, its days brew and simmer with the shaking of rain. 

I don’t let myself picture my brother’s smile. 


Daniel and I, we talked the most when we sat side by side, eyes straight ahead. My family loves the Portland Trail Blazers. Daniel would frequently surprise me with nosebleed seats to home games, inexpensive and impulsive. We’d sit at the top of the stadium, rows beneath us like scales. Amidst the screams and rounds of Let’s go defense, my big brother and I would talk about our parents, our changing city, our futures. He was planning on applying to a university somewhere that wasn’t Oregon when his girlfriend got pregnant. He confessed to me that he felt stuck in our waterlogged corner of the country, his sentiment cut short by an interception from the opposing team. Have you ever wondered—Daniel’s body shot out of his seat, electrified by the play below us. He then sat, bouncing his left leg rapidly, not facing me—have you ever wondered how different you’d be if you’d been born before we moved to Portland? My answer, “all the time,” was clouded over by the rush of people exiting during halftime, pushing towards bathrooms and food stands. There is something meditative about watching basketball. The methodical movement of it, the back and forth, the hush of a pass. Daniel and I would swing our heads in unison, clutching each other’s forearms in moments of tension, laughing hysterically when our team withstood persistent pressure. I felt glorious watching the games next to him. Daniel could recite a game of basketball like poetry. He knew each player, their history, their motivations. He could look at a court and decode it, observing the conflicts and flaying their complexities in front of me. Next to Daniel, I too could speak the game into emotional resonance. We could be poets together, and we would leave games in a flushed burst, lost among the crowds of people spreading from the stadium onto the damp Portland streets. 


My father describes the day after it happened in silhouettes. The large window at the front of my parents’ house hangs above a small flight of stairs. When visitors come and go, they appear in the window in motion exclusively, a flit of a human approaching their destination. My mother often positions her rocking chair to gaze out, onto the front lawn and the steep hill that is a highly trafficked route to the coffee shop a couple of doors down. My father describes the day after it happened through the frame of the window, while he and my mother were sitting in easy silence, sipping coffee at the dining room table. They will spend hours like that, surrounded by newspapers and coffee losing its steam.

My father loves to read obituaries. He finds it stunning, the details that people choose to include about someone who is now dead. Often, when I’m home, before “good morning,” my father will greet my gruff , overslept presence with an excerpt from a dead person’s life. “Listen to this,” he holds an open palm towards me while his eyes remain fixed on the page, “this woman taught preschool for three decades in California, and would get invited to her past students’ weddings. Isn’t that marvelous?” And through my sleep-fogged eyes I am usually able to make out a headline in bold Catherine Carter, Beloved Teacher, is Dead at 85. We relish in the romance of lives which now contain conclusions.

The day after it happened, my parents watched the lanky outline of my brother’s girlfriend ascend the front steps to their door. She knocked, something she had stopped doing months before, when she and Daniel moved in together. When their son was born. When time felt like it was passing comfortably, gaining momentum and taking moments to breathe in the pleasure. She knocked, and my father glanced over top of his paper, “Molly’s here,” which my mother responded to by setting down her coffee after blowing on it but before tasting it, and opened the front door. My father recounts this next part through the punctuated flow of it. Molly took one step inside the living room, her eyes fixed on the floor, and said, “you might want to sit down for this.” They sat on the couch in front of her and watched her pace, backlit by the window. My father lacks patience when information is withheld from him, especially when it dangles itself in the shape of a carrot, or in the shape of Molly, long brown hair swinging with each sharp turn in my parents’ living room. “Molly, what?” I’m sure he asked, although he leaves details like that out in an effort to emphasize the painful: she said it plainly. Daniel has been arrested. Daniel is in prison. To which my parents could collapse against, my parents whose only son was now behind bars, was now being held in a room alone. 

This isn’t about me, and this isn’t about prisons. This is about what happened to a family left behind.

I was many state lines away when it happened, finishing my midterms in the Midwest. I was cooking in co-ops with my friends and getting drunk on Wednesdays and my brother was in a cell, mentally ill and out of control. He had texted me just the day before, “you are the light of my life.” As the timestamp on that message approaches its second birthday, I am left wondering if he knew. If he was sending me a sort of farewell, if the lucid part of his mind was trying to comfort me. The days following his arrest I would hold lie in bed and hold his last voicemail to my ear, shaking as his voice coaxed me into a feverish sleep. I stopped looking in mirrors because all I saw in my eyes were his. Some of the only ways I know how to think about my brother are to imagine him dead. I imagine that I am capable of moving on, of it all getting easier to process.

The thing about grieving someone in prison is that the pain heightens with time. Reality stretches on, and instead of healing, all that awaits me in the depths of my subconscious are visions of my brother throwing his head back and laughing at something I said during dinner. I am forgetting what it felt like to talk to him. Our relationship has been stunted and shredded and bloodied. What you need to know is this: my brother’s brain does not regulate its chemicals like most peoples’. He did something violent and regrettable. And his days are forever sculpted by the biggest mistake he has ever made.

Photo by Bridget Conway

There are parts of your life that will not be affected by this, my parents kept telling me, as if the more they said it the truer it might become. My head pounded with their words for months. I walked to work as morning air wove itself between the strands of my throat like liquid. The sun began to rise and the grass became electric green, how fresh, how fantastic. The fourth floor of the Oregon Penitentiary Prison has green walls. Mint green walls and deep green doors and windowless rooms where the “ten most mentally unstable prisoners” are kept, according to a newspaper article I found online. I crossed the street and there was a stocky man with a sledgehammer, the cement spread open like eyelids.

When the day arrived that marked 365 days of my brother’s imprisonment, I was driving north toward Sedona, Arizona. Against the electric blue desert skies, Sedona’s famous red cliff s look like hungry flames. Three friends and I spent a week in and out of breathtaking canyons, and I began to imagine my brother locked in the chambers of my chest. I took him with me everywhere I went, I showed him the beautiful things—the air fluttering in through the car windows as we flew along I-10, the red rock crumbling beneath my feet as I leapt across a creek, my friends’ faces glowing around the gasps of the campfire.

But he added a lot of extra weight. As anyone who has ever gone backpacking knows, every addition to your pack grates on your bones by the end of each day. And a full-grown man? I could barely walk by the time we needed to set up camp at night.

Everywhere I move, I pull him with me and he remains stagnant. He remains in one place longer than anyone I know. I go to class and embrace my friends and scream when I’m scared. On a Tuesday last December, I climbed into a frost-bitten car with three of my friends and drove into Cleveland. We needed to get out of the same tiny town. My best friend stroked my hair as I led my skull rest against the cool glass of the window, watched the world whizz by, my eyes darting across the thin winter light glitter between empty branches. The sun was lowering itself, hissing its last breaths onto Ohio as we sped along. I have the power to escape whenever I want to. I feel the world piling itself on top of me and I run away, I am finding myself in the patterns of my movements. I am left with echoes of my brother, of the man he was. I am left with what I choose to remember.

His being in prison has designated him one pocket of my mind, I trap him between my everyday murmurings and let him rot there. If I open the door to where he lives, the smell is too overwhelming, I can’t see. So he remains there, and I am left in a roomful of people lowering their heads during a classroom discussion about prison. The State profits off of locking up crazy people, I remember saying, my mouth shaping letters that crumbled out of my lips and scattered on the desk in front of me. The professor nodded and gave me a reassuring smile, or so I assume, but I could not see her because of the fog starting from the corners of my eyesight and moving inwards. The classroom was all sheer white clouds but I continued speaking, fueled by people thinking I had no personal stake in the argument—if someone has done something terrible, isn’t it easy to blame a person who can’t defend themselves? And as the room shrivels beneath me, all I can see is my brother speaking to a person who no one else can see.

I put in headphones while I read the paper one morning and I unplug them after a minute and a half, throwing the earbuds across the table and covering my face with my hands. Andrew Bird lyrics chimed through my brain and as the words reverberated down my spine, I am surrounded by what it felt like to watch Daniel walk into a room. With his sweet-slow crooked smile, people hung onto his every word. I throw my headphones across the table and shudder, scribbling in the margins of my notebook that songwriters should stop using prisons as metaphors. “Prison or hell,” he wailed, “prison or hell prison or hell prison or hell”—It isn’t until about a week later that I look up the lyrics to the song. “Those that can’t quite function in society at large / They’re going to wake up on this morning and find that they’re in charge / But those that the world’s set up for, who are doing really quite well / They’re going to wake up in institutions / In prison or in hell / Prison or in hell.” 

Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Nina Josephson

interviewed by Bridget Conway | Visual Processes | Fall 2018

Nina Josephson, Captured Beast

Bridget Conway for Wilder Voice: Tell me a little bit about your work!

Nina Josephson: So I like to create these sort of weird brightly colored bizarre creatures primarily with papier mâché and with needle pointed felt. And so the sort of thought behind all of this is that I’m trying to represent the weird little beast that lives inside of all of us. And like here these creatures that represent like the various visceral emotions and actions that people take that we’d normally just sort of bottle up; love and sorrow, entrapment, motherhood. I’m sort of just trying to think about how I can draw out the beast within us and focus on this little kernel of truth inside of people through these ridiculous forms. And just one more thing I’ve done because I think that it may be confusing: These forms are so strange and surreal and alien and goofy, my hope is that I sort of hope they’re so unlike yourself when you’re looking at them that it sort of gives the viewer space to connect to them and see themselves in these because they’re so, so bizarre and so out there that you know you’re not necessarily looking for a connection and the connection will find you.

BC: Yeah they look kind of like almost like cartoon characters but from like a scary children’s show or something like that.

NJ: Yeah, yeah.

BC: They find this really nice line between almost scary and and just kind of unsettling but also like I want to pet one!

NJ: Well I definitely like to play along that line of, like, creepy and cute and scary and playful especially now. I feel like now I’m sort of moving out of the gross-out weird pickled pigs and chicken feet. I sort of have moved away from that, chilled out a little bit, but I don’t know I think that’s a really fun sort of dichotomy to engage with.

BC: So other than moving into this more fantastical world how has your work changed as you’ve grown into senior studio and your time just as an art student at Oberlin?

NJ: It’s crazy! I started out printmaking and was just super into printmaking, which is still cool, but I think it was just like the first medium that I was introduced to at a college level and was really pumped about and was, I don’t know, just at an exciting start and then sort of as I started taking more classes and started questioning what makes good art and what I should be sort of working towards, I started moving into the third dimension a little bit. This is the first year that I’ve fully done the 3D stuff but definitely my work is a lot more playful, and a lot lighter. I don’t take art less seriously but I take my own art less seriously and just have sort of given myself more space to just do things that are fun rather than like being like “oh, how will this go over at the critique?” Yeah, I’m happy with the direction I’m sort of taken.

BC: Yeah! Other than just taking more classes why do you think that your scope and motives have shifted?

NJ: I guess just engaging more seriously with the art world and taking myself more seriously as an artist who can actually make things that are actually art. That sort of switch and understanding where you’re like, “Oh, I can create art too.” Taking your work more seriously and placing more value in the things you create really makes you sort of change the style. I guess I’m being weird by saying I’m taking myself less seriously and also taking myself more seriously but I’m having more fun and taking myself seriously. Yeah, that’s what I would say!

BC: That makes sense. You can sense that you were pointing to some of these creatures and explaining what they were—what are you working on here? What’s this creature going to be?

NJ: This guy has six legs and he sort of is like a little daschund and he’s going to have a striped tail. And yeah I think this is sort of a process driven work because I don’t really know who he’s going to be until I’m finished with him. You know, I think their identities and characters sort of develop with the colors and the textures and the story happens as this guy happens so right now I don’t really know what’s going to happen with him, but I think he might have sort of been starting on a little baby for him, so maybe this one’s going to be a mommy too.

BC: Alright, I like it! So in your work do you  find a rhythm in the process? I’ve noticed in a lot of these they have a lot of similarities. So when you start a new piece, how do you decide where you’re going? Or do you just start off with some plaster and go for it?

NJ: I guess it’s like a little bit of a formula that I stick to to keep these creatures in the same sort of realm of existence. Like I like the heads with a rim so it looks like they’re wearing a little suit or something with their heads exposed. And I like the polka dots. And of course the bright colors. But in terms of their form, I sort of just wing it. I work with chicken wire and it’s like really hard on your hands. That’s the worst part to me, making the actual structure and I’m just rushing through it like, “I just gotta get this done!” And then you sort of create more of the form once you add the layers. I guess there’s direction and there isn’t direction. Sort of like a matrix that I’m following but each one is a little bit different. Sort of like trying to make it work as I’m working with it.

BC: Yeah! Are these ones that are hanging and fuzzy, are they constructed in the same way?

NJ: No, so these these are crazy! These ones are really big felted creatures—needle felted, out of that wool stuff that’s sort of like this fluff y wool roving. This has, like, a skeleton with one piece of wire and then you sort of wrap it like poly-fil or whatever and then the wool roving and then you, like, stab it up until it sort of forms a little guy like this.

BC: Another thing I’ve noticed is how those are obviously hanging to the walls and they have this wool felt that looks really inviting to touch and these other creatures are the size of a small dog or something like that. How do you want people who are looking out to interact with your work?

NJ: Oh, I want them to interact with it! Everyone always says that they want to pet these and I want them to, even the ones that aren’t as fuzzy. I think they’re so sweet and just to engage with them and touch them… I mean I make them out of papier mâché so they’re light and they’re durable and they’re not going to break. So yeah, I want people to think they’re like little puppies or babies and I want people to be excited about their bright colors.

BC: And it’s very fun! It’s kind of like they’re living with us in a children’s book.

NJ: Yeah. Yeah! I want to put them in a giant room of polka dots and really get it going.

BC: So you talked a little bit about, like, the reasons your process has changed, but what are some of your inspirations, artistic or otherwise, that inform the work you make?

NJ: Oh, well I definitely have my favorite artist influences. I really like Allison Schulnik who works in clay and also animation and also makes figurative animals but they’re super influential to me and I think about them a lot. Also Louise Bourgeois. Love those little creepy spider guys. I think all these artists who sort of have these weird alien creature animation things, not animations but animated creatures, those are really what I think about. I’m thinking about this whole world that already exists out there and all these different funky guys and I’m trying to sort of add my own into that space.

BC: Yeah like that, it’s very engaging. Is there anything else that you’d like to say about your work or that you want people to know when they look at these?

NJ: No, but I can plug my website! My website is and my Instagram is, and that has my in-progress works!

Cultural Miasma

Camp Magic

by Hannah Tishkoff | Cultural Miasma | Fall 2018

Images by Laurel Moore

Huddled in the only dry patch of the shelter, every clap of thunder is met with a predictable round of squealing from my campers. The high pitch that emanates from their pre-pubescent vocal cords finds a way beyond the birch trees and dissipates into the vast emptiness of this Vermont night. I hold them—not maternally—but as one of their own. A dozen little arms wrapped around my shoulders, grabbing for the comfort of my hands, looking for solace in my eyes.

For the next four days my co-counselor and I are the sole guardians of six seventh-grade girls on a camping trip. The theme of our trip is outdoor living skills, which we know very little about. They quiz me on the “lightning position” which is supposed to keep you safe in a storm, and I fumble my words. When the storm subsides I try to build the campfire I know will aid in marshmallow roasting and the sharing of secrets, but I fail every time. Tending to the fire for too long, my face burning red, my eyes growing blood-shot, my campers tell me that I should take a break. I acquiesce, blaming the failed fire on the dampness from the storm.

The next night I achieve a small flame, but it goes out quickly. They have no idea what the fire means to me. They think I am somewhere between 25 and 45 years old, and I’ve just informed them that no, porn and blow jobs are not the same thing, but yes, there is some overlap. Their presence evokes a flood of my own memories from seventh grade, and I smile, grateful to realize the distance between then and now. At night, finally alone in my own tent, I write in my journal: overfl owing with love for my campers. so special to be privy to their emerging selves, a world few adults are ever granted access to… and having just come out the other side myself not too long ago, the arc of that is so beautiful. They’re about to know everything, but not yet. The convergence of our different levels of knowing… it reminds me of what is important and how I came to know that. Although I only have a handful more years of life than they do, I am their protector during this brief encounter with the wilderness. It is an almost laughable amount of responsibility, and they could not be more oblivious to my ineptitude.

The eight consecutive summers I spent at sleepaway camp comprise some of my most sacred childhood memories. Camp showed me how food grows from the ground, taught me self sufficiency through simple living, and gave me a world where I could discover myself far away from my parents. I believe there is something magical and almost supernaturally special about summer camp, but I was hesitant to cross the divide between camper and counselor. I feared that if I saw behind the curtain and learned how the magic trick was done, I wouldn’t believe in it anymore. When the time came for me to decide if I would become a counselor, it felt important for me to keep the memories of my own camp world separate, and so I chose not to return. Instead, I drove east to Plymouth, Vermont to begin my job at a summer camp called Farm & Wilderness.

The work that counselors performed to cultivate the salience of camp was invisible to me when I was a camper, but during the one month of training prior to the arrival of children, our goal of the summer was made clear: to create camp magic. Naming “camp magic” transformed what I had passively consumed as a kid into something I would have to manufacture as an adult. To me, camp magic encompasses the almost inarticulable experiences that make summer camp—for campers and counselors alike—feel totally exceptional and unique from the rest of the world. Every moment of camp is treated with such reverence, from morning sing at the start of each day to to the teary eyed affirmations of growth presented to each camper before they head home. The extraordinary experiences camp staff are required to provide are complicated, however, by being supposedly authentic yet totally obligatory. For all its virtues, camp is also a product paid for by parents with a certain set of expectations. As the same kids return year after year, staff must find ways to reinvigorate the magic of camp for returners while indoctrinating new campers to its strange culture. The work of the camp counselor is therefore a delicate balance between serving the spiritual needs of children and engaging in a willful performance to maintain the purposefully manufactured world of camp. Nonetheless, waking kids up to pumpkin pie in bed and allowing them to wrestle in pits of mud is priceless and powerfully influential.

To think about summer camp, I first have to think about the powerful fictions it is predicated upon, and how inextricable the origins of North American summer camps are from my own experiences. The traditional summer camps featured in movies like The Parent Trap or Wet Hot American Summer, were created by social reformers in the early 20th century as a nature themed response to rapid industrialization. The free and feral childhood of yore was thought to be under threat by the shift from a natural, agrarian living to a more mechanized, industrial way of life in the cities. Summer camps like Farm & Wilderness and the one I attended in California emerged in the 1930s to provide children with supposedly authentic encounters with pre-industrialized country living. While the intentions are earnest, they remain deeply rooted in distorted conceptions of wilderness and childhood—both strategic inventions created to assure a nostalgia for something lost while eliminating the possibility of ever restoring the real thing. The traditional folk crafts, cabin architecture, farm animals, and lack of technology that define camp culture are therefore conspicuously and intentionally anti-modern. Camp seeks to turn back the clocks of time, to return to a fantasy of free play in pastoral landscapes, unencumbered by machinery. (The motivation to provide this supposedly natural landscape is also mimicked in America’s creation of national parks to provide sites of consumable wilderness.) Farm & Wilderness’ historic appropriation of Native American culture, which renders the symbols of native people into mere signifiers of a bygone primitive past, also finds its origins in this context. Although F&W has adjusted over the years to changing times, echoes of this history are ever-present in camp ideology and culture.

The motto of Farm & Wilderness is “Work is Love Made Visible,” a quote from poet Khalil Gibran. Throughout the summer, when campers complained about washing dishes or cleaning their cabins, a stern look and recitation of this motto was a failsafe way to ensure work was being done with intention rather than resentment. Part of what I believe makes camp so meaningful for kids, including myself, is its emphasis on the moral lessons incurred through labor. The vast majority of F&W’s campers whose parents dish out a couple grand each summer for camp are financially privileged, and often hail from cities like New York and Boston. Although campers are hesitant at first, the communal dishwashing and the empowerment of chopping firewood imbibes them with a sense of purpose that is difficult to replicate elsewhere. The notion that the strenuous life is the path to a meaningful life reigns supreme. Yet camp can’t be too strenuous or children would complain to their parents, or not return. This is one of the central tensions of camp life; the survival skills are more symbolic than practical. Yet the symbolism of outdoorsy skills like fire building, wood working and backpacking have their own tangible weight in reality. For the contemporary camper, the meaning of “survival” becomes more about spiritual or moral survival against the backdrop of modernity than the logistics of making it through the winter. For all its comfort and convenience, modernity lacks in spiritual fulfillment, and summer camp was born to make up for this loss.

Throughout the summer I became increasingly aware of these tensions, and I am trying now to understand how summer camp’s romanticization of rural life remains both so restorative and unsettling for me. The project of Farm & Wilderness, and camp in general, involves intentionally distorting space and time in order to construct an alternative atmosphere of adolescent bliss. Although F&W is near a number of small towns, campers imagine themselves to be situated in a wide open pastoral playground, isolated from any form of civilization. Despite knowing this during the three months I spent working at camp, I felt that I too was living in a separate universe. Staff park their cars a mile up the road, rendering our nightly escape vehicles invisible. Taking a day off is coded as “going to the disco,” which younger campers are told is located through a trap door beneath the dock of the lake. Older kids perpetuate this myth, exaggerating the unlikely extravagences of the disco to the wide eyes of the nine-year-old campers. While kids exchange their iPhones for postcards and recorded music for acoustic sing alongs to the Indigo Girls, counselors secretly leave at night to blast pop music and sip drinks at the local bar. In these moments I felt the space between my childhood myths and the reality of my adulthood most intensely. As a camp counselor, I grappled with the actual loss of my childhood while participating in its imagined recovery. 

“Camp time,” a phrase thrown around during the summer, describes the sometimes refreshing, often disorienting disconnect between the temporality of camp and the rest of the world. Sometimes I’d wonder what what kind of national news would be big enough for me to have to tell the kids. Otherwise, we lived a life of feigned preindustrial simplicity, free of alarm clocks and recorded music. Ephemerality is the nature of camp, and it’s part of what makes it so magical. The whole operation has to be precise enough to pull off life changing experiences in a matter of weeks. During each three-week camp session, I watched children cherish their time with a unique intensity, fearing the end as soon as it had begun. Yet even returning campers from forty years past remarked on F&W’s timelessness, how everything was exactly as they remembered. Camp’s intensity is fueled by its simultaneous time sensitivity and timelessness. The days which became months unfurled almost secretly like the approach of spring, but they were some of the longest I had ever known. Like in any enclosed community, the regular dramas, disappointments, and achievements, any of which could happen in a matter of hours, felt monumental. A day that began at 7:30 AM could easily involve the unanticipated evacuation of an asthmatic camper from a backpacking trip, followed by an ocean-themed banquet for the youngest campers, accompanied by an original rewrite of the lyrics to “Under the Sea.”

The peculiarity of the camp experience resonates long after I left behind behind the mildewy cabins of Farm & Wilderness and readjusted to the comforts of indoor plumbing. What I had perceived to be an organic child-run sanctuary was in fact a highly mediated, studied performance. Yet the realization of this didn’t make it any less special. Adulthood is about letting go and taking hold at the same time; loving the magic trick in spite of knowing exactly how it’s done. The biggest myth of all is that magic and wonderment are novelties reserved for children, that we have to give all that up when we pass the age of camp. As a counselor my job was simply to help my campers realize how much they already knew, while allowing them to help me remember what I was beginning to forget. There is no such thing as pure, unadulterated wilderness, just as there is no such thing as a free and feral childhood.

Sitting under the stars on the last night of our camping trip, my campers and I take a moment to lie in the damp grass and absorb the balmy air. The thunderstorm is long gone by now, but my campers still cling on to my arms. Now the object of my campers’ fear has become much more amorphous. What kind of world would we return to now that we had shared this experience? We couldn’t know—but we lay in the grass to reminisce about what we did know. We were there to count the seconds between us and the stars, between who we were and who we might become. This is the magic of camp: to feel that you are in a world that is your own.