Categories
Poetry

Orchid Story

by Ally Chase | Poetry | Spring 2021

Image by Katie Frevert

My grandmother told me a story  
about an orchid in her garden.  
She said the orchid is white,  
she said she does not water it. 
She does not move it into the sun, or away from the sun,
never from beneath the sprawling clarity of the kitchen window.
I said I don’t understand, she said she only touches the orchid
to finger the weight of its soft, dense petals. 

Everywhere she turns now, after fifteen years 
in the lush green of her home, there is an orchid.
Some hang suspended from the gnarled branches in her yard.
Some have put down roots in the dark Florida earth, and she
tends to these in a wide brimmed hat,  
bending gently to the soil beneath a solitary palm. 

These are the orchids which have allowed for her devotion,
yet she chose to tell me about the only one  
that receives nothing. I try to make sense:  
there are the orchids she must touch to keep alive,
and there is the one that refuses her hands.  
Together these hands are all my grandmother has to offer,
but somehow it is nothing for her to fold them together,
to accept the presence of wonder with ease.  

She expects the orchid to bloom because by growing,
it has created her faith. How can faith  
keep her hands from wringing over what she cannot give
this anomaly of nature? Instead she trusts that her eyes
see what she knows. She looks at this orchid—a glance
and then a glance away. She witnesses a miracle. 

But a sense of peace, like the white flower, feels so precarious.
Still the story doesn’t make sense, 
and I haven’t seen an orchid since my last visit. 
Now I can only watch through the phone as the miracle replaces
the central act of her hand. There in the window
is the orchid’s final reflection, and there is my grandmother,
ending a life she thought went on without her,  
just by sitting down to rest.

Categories
Diagnoses

The Lucas Effect

by Jemma Johnson-Shoucair | Diagnoses | Spring 2021

Image by Katie Frevert

Hubris, tragic boredom, and the groundbreaking digital effects technology behind one of the biggest letdowns in 21st-century cinema.


I frequently lack the confidence to fail. Twenty-one and a recovering perfectionist, anxiety stays close as I begin any new project. Am I good enough to be doing this? jabs at the back of my skull. If I might be terrible why would I even try? flutters around with thoughts of the pandemic and remembering to feed my cat. But for some people it’s easy. Standing in the public eye, they swagger up to the metaphorical plate, put their dreams on the line, swing, and miss. Strike after strike. Unfazed. I want to learn this technique. To grin in the face of ridicule and trust my gut, no matter how misguided. Almost a year into quarantine, I found an unlikely teacher lurking deep in the Disney+ streaming options.

Normally, I like bad movies, but George Lucas’s writing could drive anyone to drink. It was November 2020, deep in the bowels of isolation, and my friends and I hoped to maintain our sanity by watching all nine Star Wars movies in order. Our last coping mechanism quickly turned into a painful drinking game when we reached the dreaded Episode II: Attack of the Clones. We looked up rules and made some of our own. Drink when a lightsaber is drawn; drink when someone is beheaded; and the one that dragged us through the movie: drink whenever there is an awkward moment between Anakin and Padmé. 

Anyone who has seen the prequels can guess how our night ended. And anyone who has seen the prequels might also have this image charred into their brain: Anakin and Padmé flirting in a luscious, green hillside meadow. Even while inebriated, I knew something was off about this movie. Beyond the terrible dialogue, the computer animation appeared jarring, but I couldn’t place why. The meadow scene stands out as one of the only moments in the movie that seems unaltered—no green screens, no animation—but that assumption would be wrong. To its detriment, Attack of the Clones was one of the first movies made to have every frame of every shot carefully digitally enhanced.

Released in 2002, Attack of the Clones reflects the ideas of its time. New technology was everywhere—in music, phones, film—and people were just learning how to harness it. The general consensus in pop culture was excitement: more is more. More computer-generated images (CGI), more over-synthesized pop music, more drama. The year 2000 marked a new era of entertainment with the creation of digital cameras designed to replace their film counterparts in the movie industry. Attack of the Clones hit the box office charts as one of the first movies ever filmed 100% digitally, pairing digital cameras with digital effects. The result? A revolutionary film exemplifying the importance of failure. It is a product of its time. A product of two years worth of computer animation, bewildered actors in plain blue rooms, optimistic fanaticism, and a couple of very confident white men. 

***

Entranced by the original Star Wars, fans around the world stood in line to watch their favorite characters come alive again in the prequels. Many people left the theaters disappointed and confused, but still trekked with little optimism to sit through the next movie. Soni Gupta saw the original Star Wars as a child.“We had never seen anything like it,” she tells me from my computer screen. She describes the wonder she felt from watching the X-wings race through the Death Star trench, tense and exciting. And how she watches each new Star Wars movie, including Attack of the Clones 25 years later, “wanting to recreate that feeling… and it never does.” But even now, any time another sequel gets released on the big screen, Soni and her group of faithful Star Wars friends journey to see it, still hopeful.

Another Star Wars fan, Hal Sundt, was 12 years old when he saw Attack of the Clones in the theater. Thrilled at the prospect of the prequels, he entered the loud, dark room with high hopes. He returned devastated. Years later he tells me over Zoom, “I do distinctly remember walking out of Attack of the Clones being like, ‘what the hell was that?’” 

Every Star Wars fan I know chases the same feeling. With each new movie there is a moment of stillness when the lights dim, and words slide out across the screen. Your heart lifts as you give in to the reality of aliens and humans fighting for a peaceful future led by a Republic protected by magical monk cops. But the prequels disappoint, with Attack of the Clones the leading offender. Soni and Hal were at very different ages and stages of life when they watched the second Star Wars movie, and they both use the same word to describe it: “unmemorable.” 

***

Haunted by the startling computer animation, I needed to confirm the tugging feeling in my gut that Attack of the Clones held more odd production secrets than your standard bad action movie. Mark McGuiness speaks in a charming northern Irish accent that’s subtle enough for some Americans to think he’s Canadian. He lives in Belfast and is in his eighth year working as a special effects technician in the film industry. It’s about 1:30 P.M. (6:30 P.M. in Ireland) on St. Patrick’s day, and in between statements about Star Wars, he sips his Guinness to celebrate. Some projects Mark’s worked on include Game of Thrones and The Northman, and as a nerd and “film buff,” he excitedly agreed to talk to me about one of the worst Star Wars movies. “Somebody had to kind of do it first for everyone to realize that it’s just not how you really want to make a film,” Mark says, regarding the unique and unfortunate use of CGI in Attack of the Clones. I reached out to him about a month after I began my research, already deep into a rabbit hole, with everything I learned increasing my suspicions that there was something off about this movie. It only took about 10 minutes of geeking out with Mark to confirm my intuition.

With each new movie there is a moment of stillness when the lights dim, and words slide out across the screen. Your heart lifts as you give into the reality of aliens and humans fighting for a peaceful future led by a Republic protected by magical monk cops. But the prequels disappoint, with Attack of the Clones the leading offender.

Attack of the Clones was revolutionary in its use of computer animation, the process of digitally rendering moving images. In 2002, Hollywood animators were just beginning to refine the computer animation technology developed in the late ’60s. Looking back on Episode II, the digital effects are laughable. But the first computer animation was released just 35 years prior. Compared to the slow, shaky lines of the 1967 computer animation Hummingbird, a fully animated Yoda jumping around with a lightsaber rivaled witchcraft.  

Unlike computer animation, green screen is an ancient film technique. Green screen, or matting, consists of using a single-color background to extract the foreground image and then change the background image. Patented in 1918 by Frank Williams, a black-backing matte was used in the ’30s horror movie The Invisible Man, and a white matte background was used in ’20s Disney cartoons. In the ’50s and ’60s, engineer and inventor Petro Vlahos invented the basis for all blue and green screen technology we have today. In the Star Wars prequels, Lucas used matting in a completely new way. He filmed actors inside plain blue rooms and relied on visual effects artists to fill in the rest, a process made easier by the creation of digital cameras.

Sony and Panavision built the HDW-F900 digital cinema camera for the filming of Attack of the Clones. Writer and director George Lucas thought that digital film, with cameras relying on sensors instead of celluloid, looked better, and he wanted to embark on creating a film 100% digitally. Besides the debatably more attractive image of the still-developing cameras, this tech also offered a new speed. Film cameras required scanning the film into a computer in order to render digital effects. The HDW-F900 camera spat out a cassette tape and within 50 minutes the images could be edited on a computer. To a director pining for digital effects in every shot, these cameras were the future.

When George Lucas birthed the original Star Wars trilogy in 1977, he felt constrained by traditional film practices. Shooting on film requires a certain order for capturing and editing shots. Digital cameras paired with CGI allowed Lucas to put together each shot element by element, the way he preferred. In regards to the assembly line-like process of traditional filmmaking, Lucas said, “I don’t work that way. I’d much rather kinda go around, put things together, look at them, then move them around again, then look at them until I get them the way I like them.” Lucas likened this process to painting and cooking. He worked to construct a whole image from various elements, sometimes taken years apart, rather than capture a scene in a single take.

When I tell Mark that the frantic “Droid Factory” scene with Anakin and Padmé, an example of quintessential Lucas filmmaking, took four and a half hours to shoot, his mouth hangs open for a second. “Wow. That’s inSANE. I remember spending 12 hours filming a bush in Game of Thrones… So the fact that they did that in four hours is…” and trails off. In contrast, Lucas directed the Droid Factory scene as a fast-paced action sequence where our heroes, along with C-3PO and R2-D2, fall onto a droid-making assembly line and have to frantically escape without being maimed by any of the deadly looking construction machines. The scene wasn’t even in the original cut of the movie, but Lucas added it in reshoots because he wanted a fast-paced section to cut up all the dialogue-heavy scenes. It was filmed so quickly in part because the set consisted of a single blue conveyor belt on a blue stage. The actors then ran around fighting, jumping, and interacting with their invisible environment. At one point, Natalie Portman, who plays Padmé, pauses from running on the conveyor belt, looks down at Lucas, and says, “This is ridiculous. This is just a mean joke. This isn’t part of the movie at all.” 

Lucas responds with the confidence of someone financing his own movie franchise: “It will look good.”

***

Layering images in film is nothing new. Walt Disney composited animations over people in his first cartoons, and George Lucas used miniature models as set pieces in the original Star Wars. But the editors working on Attack of the Clones added a whole new, well… layer. When I started researching this film, I was under the impression that the movie was created with an insane amount of blue screen. This is true. But many of the indoor sets were also built as scale models. The Kamino set is an example of this. Lucas filmed most of the scenes set inside the buildings on the water planet Kamino in an entirely blue room, giving the actors general guidance as to where to walk and look. Then, the art department built a to-scale miniature of the set. 

For anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, imagine a long, bright glass hallway with sterile white flooring and crossbeams. Once built, the camera shot the interior of the model as if it were a regular set. Then, George Lucas-style, the shots were compiled in a computer where the actors were virtually placed into the model, and the blue screen outside the model was digitally altered with a background that suited the set. Finally, everything in the scene was digitally enhanced to create the look Lucas wanted. To Lucas’s credit, this process does save time and money. But to his discredit, most of the characters in these scenes appear as if they were placed in a strangely lit sci-fi drawing. 

Mark points out that when you watch these scenes, “It’s almost like you’re seeing them pass through [the set]… There’s no texture, there’s no weight.” Weightlessness has an incredible effect on our perception of reality, especially in an art form dedicated to illusion. Humans possess a talent for distinguishing virtual reality from our own, even with the most incredible CGI. So forming scenes with multiple mediums layered onto each other gives us the impression that something is off, even if we don’t know the exact issue. I ask Mark if, in all his eight years of working in cinema and 29 years of film buff-ery, he’s ever heard of another movie produced in this way. He offers up a validating and unsurprising response: “That seems to be very unique to that film.”

***

Much of post-production was dedicated to creating digital characters in a “real world.” Against the keen human eye, visual effects artists must work diligently for a digital character to blend seamlessly into a scene with real people. Included in the film were multiple fully animated characters, including the slender gray-blue Kaminoans, the infamous fully digitally rendered Yoda, and Dexter, an alien with a mustache who is present for one scene. Dexter is a large tan creature with four arms, a saggy chin pouch, scaled head ridges, and a mustache with human hair. He only exists to tell Obi-Wan Kenobi what planet a poisonous dart came from. In a scene populated mainly by extras wearing alien costumes, Dex feels out of place. While the animators were excited to create a completely computer-animated creature, there isn’t much payoff in the film. Not only does Dex move in an unsettling way, but the animators faced a problem when Obi-Wan and Dex hug. During filming, Ewan McGregor, who played Obi-Wan, was instructed to hug the air. When the animators formed Dexter in post-production they discovered an issue: McGregor’s arms didn’t line up with Dex’s body line. Their solution? Animate McGregor’s arms to fit the shape of a digital character. 

People were paid to animate McGregor’s body an unnerving amount of times throughout the film. Teams of animators worked to recreate his entire body for certain action shots from the slippery fight against Jango and Boba Fett outside the cloning facility. There’s even a rumor that his beard was computer-animated in some scenes because the consistency and texture change noticeably from shot to shot. While this could have been due to bad makeup, Lucas deciding to entirely animate Obi-Wan multiple times was a very unusual decision. The use of digital stunt doubles was only popular when a stuntman couldn’t safely perform a task, like the people falling from the deck of the Titanic as it sank. Even now, the incredibly CGI-heavy Avengers franchise opts for real-life actors and stunt doubles rather than digital ones. Lucas’s attitude towards this bizarre choice to repeatedly animate a main character can be summed up by his response for why he only used digital cameras for the movie: “People say why am I doing this? You know, the real question is why not?” 

***

One of the first scenes I mention to Mark is Dex’s diner. He immediately agrees that it’s one of many unnerving moments in the film and points out the fake harsh sunlight dominating the characters’ faces throughout the scene. “The technology really wasn’t there… [CGI] should be used to help further a story as opposed to just building everything around it.” Mark laments that we loved the original Star Wars movies for the characters. Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Darth Vader uplifted our childhoods more than the environments of Endor, Hoth, and Tatooine. So in revolutionizing digital filmmaking, Lucas sacrificed our beloved characters for not-that-impressive backgrounds. We watch characters walking, talking, and sitting for most of the movie to allow for fantastical, unrealistic landscapes. The world grew to accommodate digital effects, instead of digital effects enhancing the world. 

Two years of animation development culminated in one of the most forgettable scenes in the movie. Rooted in Star Wars lore, Lucas wrote the film excited to finally depict the hallowed “Clone Wars” referenced in the original Star Wars film, A New Hope. In the third act, for about eight minutes that feel like 20, we get to see the anticipated Battle of Geonosis. The beginning of the Clone Wars. Rob Coleman, the animation director, describes the scene, saying, “It had everything that we as teenagers of the ’70s and early ’80s saw in those original movies, and that’s what you do it for.” All the directors––of animation, animatics, etc––were ecstatic to finally watch the epic battle play out. Except they were so excited to create the battle that they missed an incredibly important part of Star Wars: the characters. Instead of observing our heroes navigating a treacherous battlefield. We sit idly as CGI clones and droids destroy each other, only occasionally cutting to the reactions of people we care about. Once again, we witness the creators of the film sacrifice our connections to characters so they can use visual effects to play out their childhood space-war fantasy.  

The fact that the men creating Attack of the Clones believed they were doing something incredible is more tragic than Anakin and Padmé’s forbidden love story. My heart goes out to the excited Star Wars fans who went to the premiere of this movie where all they got were dragging CGI battles with confusing context. I must’ve been around 10 years old when I saw Attack of the Clones for the first time, but that didn’t stop me from feeling disappointed. Now, 11 years later, I am incredibly frustrated that Lucas and company passed over an incredible story in favor of unconvincing visual effects. During our interview, Mark sums it up best: “If I grew up in the ’60s and was a child in the ’70s and watched Star Wars, and then was an adult watching [the prequels] I would feel so betrayed.” Unfortunately, the directors were so enthralled with manipulating their current technology that they lost sight of what made Star Wars more than just another action series.

We watch characters walking, talking, and sitting for most of the movie to allow for fantastical, unrealistic landscapes. The world grew to accommodate digital effects, instead of digital effects enhancing the world. 

To be fair, no one should be surprised. George Lucas got lucky with the original trilogy. We could look past the clunky writing in the ’70s and ’80s to enjoy, as Mark puts it, an “operatic space western” filled with tough, relatable, and entertaining characters. But Lucas had help making these films hits. He only directed the first film, and his now-ex-wife was responsible for editing the originals into the series we know today, including the Death Star trench battle and the decision to kill Obi-Wan Kenobi. Now we have the Lucas-run prequels. With the success of the originals on his hands, Lucas himself acknowledged, “Very rarely do I not get what I want.” No one wanted to say no to Lucas––a white man who strides through life with the reality that failure usually has fewer repercussions for him. Ben Snow, the Visual Effects Supervisor, even admitted to feeling like he was part of a weird science experiment in how the animators were pushed to further digital technology. From the start, digital effects were more important than any connection with the story. And so we lose our love for the ancestors of Luke, Princess Leia, and Han. We lose the excitement and tension of X-wings veering across the Death Star, and we lose the feeling of Star Wars. All for one man pushing to revolutionize a field years too soon. 

***

As with most tragically boring films, Attack of the Clones hides heroes in the most unexpected places. The protagonists of this story sat behind computers, drawing tables, and workbenches. Under the misguided direction of George Lucas, a team of 60 animators and 340 artists and technicians labored tirelessly to draw this fantastic failure of a movie into existence. Ironically, thanks to the visual effects staff, some shots had just the right amount of CGI. For example, in the Clone Factory scene where our characters dodge invisible metal stamps and escape from caldrons, you need to look closely to see that our favorite droids C-3PO and R2D2 are computer-animated. In a movie saturated with unnecessary effects, there are about eight shots of subtle reprise: it feels like our Star Wars again. Amid the smoldering pile of  ashes that is Attack of the Clones, the visual effects staff laid a framework for future animators to adopt. It only took failure in approximately 1,992 other shots to get there.  

I no longer want to strive for the George Lucas swagger, swing, and miss. White men have always dominated writing, directing, and starring in action movies. Their presence in this genre is the norm, and it’s an exception for anyone else to be allowed the same visions and mistakes. Lucas and his team of directors pushed the digital frontier bolstered by the prospect of fewer financial and social consequences if they failed. We have Attack of the Clones as a result. A mess of a movie, flaunting the hubris of its directors in our faces as we suffer their consequences. Sure, failure means less when this is your ballgame, your plate. Your fans will cheer you on no matter what. But you lose an important skill along the way. True growth comes from failure, but you can’t learn when the score is rigged for you. 

Instead of a white man kind of confidence, I hope to cultivate the animators’ quiet and passionate determination. It takes a lot of love for what you do to sit behind a desk for hours staring at your hand, wondering how Yoda would move his. Sitting with a problem and trying, trying, trying until something clicks. Advancing technology through something you love instead of acting out of ego and desire for fame. This method of failing is a whole new ballpark. I hold such appreciation for the people who made the harsh lighting in Dex’s restaurant, Yoda’s unnerving wobbly ears, and Ewan McGregor’s arms. They were people manipulating an art form that originated from slow, squiggly lines. We can look back now, laughing and ridiculing their work, only because others repeated their successes and created their own failures. Now, we have faster-moving and better-lit squiggly lines, thanks to the animators, spending hours tirelessly trying to create something new, innovative, and revolutionary.

Categories
Temporal Reflections

Halloween

by Gillian Sutliff | Temporal Reflections | Spring 2021

Image by Katie Frevert

Terror and tedium in New York.


3:20

I can barely hear the gunshots when they go off. Yet somehow, they are the loudest thing in my memory. In the moment, though, what’s loud is Ms. Brando’s voice, desperately trying to keep the class’s focus on the role of the president when there’s only 15 minutes left of 10th period on Halloween. A guy in a giraffe jumpsuit bounces his knee violently, while Batman next to me scrolls through Twitter on his phone. When the shots ring out, Ms. Brando doesn’t stop talking. But suddenly everyone’s heads are up and alert, looking around confused. I twist around in my seat to see Michelle’s face, and mouth, “Did you hear that?” She nods with a furrowed brow. Someone raises their hand to ask Ms. Brando what that sound was. She didn’t even hear it. The PA system crackles to life:

“This is Brian Moran speaking: we are now in a soft lockdown. This is not a drill. Students may not leave or enter the building. Teachers, keep your students in the classroom, even after 10th period ends. We will be back with updates on the situation outside soon.” 

The room doesn’t erupt into panic like we later found out other classes did. We are all seniors and don’t get nervous easily, although maybe we should’ve. We’ve practiced lockdown drills before but it was never something that felt serious. Still, everyone takes out their phones and starts texting parents and friends, trying to figure out what could be happening outside. Ms. Brando doesn’t know what to do with her class that no longer cares about learning about the government. She stands at the front of the classroom until a girl in a witch costume gets up and asks her to pull up news channels on the smartboard. 

3:24

It takes the witch a couple minutes to find anything. It makes sense because she doesn’t really know what to Google. Finally, she finds a CNN blast with an update about two dead in a terror attack. We all stare with blank faces at the smartboard. Two dead? Were those the gunshots? If there was an active shooter outside our building, then this classroom was more like a prison than a safe haven. We are on the third floor; someone could easily aim and shoot through our open windows. I wasn’t the only one thinking this way. A kid in a hoodie slams down the window next to him. Batman is our Student Union President and he ducks out of class before Ms. Brando can say anything. A few minutes later he comes back with a handheld radio. He’s not even supposed to have it and keeps it tucked under his desk. He tunes into the channel the security team uses. Over the line, Mr. Moran says something about a school bus. Batman leans over and whispers to me. From the Student Union room he could see bodies on the Hudson River bike path. 

“I think there’s more than two people dead.”

3:40

there’s nothing to do in this room. I try to read American Pastoral, but it’s hard to give Roth my undivided attention when there may be a terrorist attack outside my school. That’s what the news is saying at this point. It’s all over Twitter. Terror attack in downtown Manhattan. Two dead, four dead, five dead and at least 10 injured. Social media is really a blessing on this day because our school officials have said nothing, besides reminding everyone that we are still in lockdown. Conversations are whispered, heads tilted towards phones with glances up at the smartboard. No one knows how long we’ll be here. Some lament Halloween plans that will surely be called off. Because people have died, and that puts a damper on our chipper Halloween mood. 

3:52

ms. Brando lets me out of the room to use the bathroom. She’s maybe a bit hesitant, but the hallways don’t feel dangerous. The garbage can overflows onto the floor. At the sink I run into Michelle vigorously scrubbing her face with a rough, brown paper towel. I don’t even remember her leaving. 

“I just had to get the makeup off my face.”

It’s then that I notice Michelle was dressed as a skeleton today. There’s not much she can do with the bones painted on her black t-shirt and leggings, but her skull makeup can definitely be fixed. It’s odd how people’s priorities shift when in crisis. A terror attack happened yards away from where we were sitting in class, and she can’t bear to be associated with the image of death anymore. So, she scrubs desperately at her face with something that is (practically) sandpaper. The skull pattern isn’t visible anymore, but her face is tinged a ghastly gray, so abnormal from her usual pink cheeks. When she asks if she looks bad I have to say no, she looks fine. 

4:10

after leaving Michelle, I go off to look for my friends who have 10th period free. They stayed inside because we had wanted to take pictures after school. The halls are empty and washed out in artificial light. I find them in the third-floor atrium, an outlet circling the theater with a ton of lockers. They slump against the lockers, along with at least 40 other students, mostly upperclassmen. But even in this crush of people, the noise is capped at whispers. It’s strange that the administration is letting all these people chill in a hallway when we are in lockdown. It’s strange my teacher has been letting us wander the halls too. I think she doesn’t know what to do either. It’s strange that we know next to nothing about the incident. My friends thank God that they didn’t decide to leave the building. They were about to go to the deli during 10th when the attack happened. Apparently, the security team let kids standing outside the building run back inside. They really shouldn’t have. An attacker could’ve run in with them. But there was a man on the street waving guns, Sage tells me. Did he shoot people, were those the gunshots? She doesn’t think so, but she doesn’t really know anything. We take a couple of selfies in our costumes together, right there in our locked-down school building, but it’s not very fun. 

4:33

iam back in Ms. Brando’s classroom when my phone starts ringing. I assume it’s my mother, but the caller ID says Lina. Lina worked with me at the New York City Aquarium this summer. She just started college at UMiami. 

“Hey, are you ok? Your school is on the news.”

Stuyvesant High School is on the news because it is now the site associated with the biggest terror attack in New York since 9/11. And my friend in Miami knows more about the situation happening outside my window than I do. 

4:40

the PA comes to life. One of the principal’s secretaries comes on the line. She tells us how a man drove a truck down the Hudson River bike path. He got on at Pier 40, the city pier that we use as our home baseball and football fields. It’s nearly a mile away. He killed eight victims, and seriously injured many more. He pulled off the bike path in front our school and promptly crashed into our school bus for students with disabilities. He exited his truck with two guns in hand and ran into the street waving them. Police fired several shots, eventually hitting him in the stomach. Upon investigation, the guns he held were a paintball and pellet gun. He was now in custody and had been since 3:30 P.M. 

4:58

the principal comes on the PA for the first time today. “Due to the situation happening outside, homework for all classes is cancelled.”

It’s a relief because no one can focus anyway. It is Halloween and for half a minute I debate if I could make plans. But that feeling doesn’t last; all I want is to go home. 

5:02

imight hate this classroom for the rest of my life. I hate the trapezoidal desks. I hate their blue rims and gray tops. I hate their U-shape arrangement. I hate the smartboard with not enough information. I hate everyone’s shoes. I hate the yellow wood and thin silver handles of the closets. I hate the posters with the first 10 Amendments, particularly the one about the right to bear arms. I hate the chair I sit on. I hate the people who are dressed up, and I hate the ones who aren’t even more. Mostly, I hate the boredom. Being on my phone feels superficial, and I want to save my charge so I can give my mom updates. Which leaves only my surroundings to entertain me. But after nearly two hours, there’s nothing new to observe. Some people sleep, most just look blank. Nobody knows what to talk about. 

“Due to the situation happening outside, homework for all classes is cancelled.”

5:06

we are stuck in this room. My body still feels laced with adrenaline, yet there’s nothing we can do but wait to be released. Police need to clear the area and secure a route for the 3,000 students to get to the subway so we can get home. And we aren’t the only school on lockdown; there’s also a middle school and a city college within a block. A whole block full of sitting ducks, easy targets. 

5:30

“have you seen Trump’s tweet yet?”

“In NYC, looks like another attack by a very sick and deranged person. Law enforcement is following this closely. NOT IN THE U.S.A.!”

(Later on: “We must not allow ISIS to return, or enter, our country after defeating them in the Middle East and elsewhere. Enough!”

“My thoughts, condolences and prayers to the victims and families of the New York City terrorist attack. God and your country are with you!”

“I have just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!”)

5:33

my mother won’t stop texting me about how I’m going to get home. She keeps asking if I want Daddy to come meet me. He works on Wall Street and could easily get to me. But she doesn’t understand that the whole area is closed. The trains are skipping our stop. There’s no traffic in our vicinity. He could come on foot but I don’t know where we will go once we leave these walls and I don’t know when we’ll be able to leave. 

5:46

a detective stops by. He’s white, maybe mid-’50s. He’s bald on top, with silvery buzzed hair over his ears. He asks if anyone saw or heard anything. We tell him gunshots and he leaves. He promises that they’ll start dismissing us soon. Since we are on the third floor we’ll get out soon. It’s too bad for those kids on the 10th floor, he says, they won’t be home for a long time. 

6:03

out on the street it is already dark. We walk out through the main entrance into a swarm of police and school officials. Students file out in a thin stream and are guided away from the intersection where the truck crashed. If you choose to look over your shoulder, you see the school bus that the terrorist crashed into. All along our route to the train there are police and teachers, a startling juxtaposition of calm people in control and frazzled adults who never expected this when they went to work this morning. 

“Oh, look at the pretty angel!” one policewoman says to her colleague. 

I give a small wave and smile. Because that’s me. I’m an angel. I have a white tutu on, wings that have begun to lose feathers, and a headband with a fuzzy halo attached to it. It all seems silly now. We walk in silence to the subway station—an angel, a boxer, Wanda and Cosmo, a witch, Batman, a skeleton—just a bunch of kids.  

Categories
Literary Fare

The World From Below

by Lilyanna D’Amato | Literary Fare | Spring 2021

Image by Katie Frevert

The best children’s literature sees the world from below; revisiting it as an adult is an act of returning to oneself.


The night after my 21st birthday, deep in the throes of a mid-quarantine identity crisis, I found myself sitting on the floor of my bedroom, surrounded by my favorite childhood books. Fox Tale Soup, I Wanna Be a Cowgirl, Miss Suzy, Sleepy Bears, This Land is Your Land. I had stumbled upon them late at night while digging through the linen closet for a particularly elusive fitted sheet: 15 books crammed into the bottom right-hand corner, wedged between an old school project and a long-unused hamper. I pulled the stack out, carried it down the narrow hallway to my room, and began sifting through the pile. One by one, I read them aloud, embarrassingly pretending to show off the illustrations to some imaginary kindergarten class, relishing the visceral nostalgia and momentary distraction they brought me. 

Halfway through, somewhere around A Story for Bear, I started to think about the person I had become since setting those books down for the last time. Did I like her? Was she all that different from this former me? What, really, had changed? 

When I called my Mom a few days ago, I asked her what she thought. “Well, I think you let other people get in the way now.”

***

During my sophomore year of college, I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In my favorite passage, the beloved, ever-perceptive Mrs. Ramsay describes solemnly shrinking into her interior self, finding solace in her own wedge-shaped core of darkness invisible to others. As a child, I often felt this way: deeply familiar with my inner self, as if we were two separate people in conversation. I’ve always thought we were sort of like friends, this inner me and I. When I was younger, this deep-seated introspection about the life I saw around me allowed me to be curious and imaginative, independent and compassionate. Because of it, I was, for the most part, unafraid to belong to my own life.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve begun to feel increasingly removed from myself, as though I had lost a little bit of that inner dialogue which had, for the majority of my early life, defined my sense of self. It always told me how I felt and who I wanted to be. Growing up meant starting to feel adrift, disconnected and completely out of touch with who I really was.

I had spent the summer before sophomore year and the majority of the fall living with my boyfriend’s family in a small town right on the border of New Hampshire and Vermont. By mid-June, the two of us had fallen into a pattern of waking up around 9:00 or 10:00 in morning, drinking our coffee and reading for a few hours below the pear trees in his front yard, silently working on opposite ends of the long, oak dining-room table until 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon, and then driving through town around 4:30 to take a swim in the Connecticut River before dinner. I was giddily happy, content to exist in a faraway place for a little while. 

But, sometime around the beginning of August, I began to feel as though I was looking out at the world from someone else’s eyes. Instead of hearing my own voice, one that had always been so central to my sense of self, I was hearing his. I wouldn’t have the words to express it until several months later, but that summer I came to devote every part of myself to a life that didn’t really belong to me, rarely engaging with my inner self so as to fully ingratiate myself in someone else’s thoughts and opinions and routines. My self-image had become untenable because I was constantly living out another person’s fictionalized version of me. By the end of September, it became clear that I had become so concerned with belonging to someone else’s life that I had seemingly forgotten to belong to my own. When the relationship ended in November, I was left without any understanding of who I was without it.

A few weeks after, on that night when I sat enveloped by all those artifacts of my childhood, I recognized that my conception of my most authentic self and my innermost truisms were all wrapped up in those books. As I ran my fingers across the front covers of Lili at Ballet and The Adventures of Frog and Toad and The Twelve Dancing Princesses, I imagined myself at four or five years old, my auburn hair poking out from behind my ears as I sat tucked under my father’s arm in the cushy brown leather chair that used to sit in the corner of my brother’s bedroom. I can almost hear the soft rasp of his voice as he reads me Sleepy Bears before bed. Then Baby Bear yawned a BIG yawn. As he reads, I can hear my mother brushing her teeth in the bathroom down the hall, our cats Wonder and Punk mewing below her feet. My brother rustles in bed. The old oak tree that used to loom outside my bedroom window still stands tall. It fell down suddenly in 2007 after being struck by lightning, but for most of my childhood it was the last thing I saw before I fell asleep.

Now, all these years later, once again hearing the rhymes and cadences of my childhood, I felt closer to myself than I had in a very long time. I realized that the books I read as a child have come to represent a time when I was just beginning to understand who I wanted to be and yet, paradoxically, knew exactly who I was. 

I don’t think mine is an isolated experience. Children’s literature is often one of a child’s first introductions to empathy, imagination, and self-awareness. These books influence the way we navigate the lives around us; the way we come to understand the world is entirely shaped by the sites and experiences we explore as children. They offer a vocabulary for children to construct their identities, yet are never deemed especially consequential because of their seemingly elementary lessons. Unlike complex opuses like Steinbeck’s East of Eden or James Baldwin’s Another Country, children’s literature is rarely seen as self-defining. What if we considered Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon or E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web or Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are to be as powerful as any other piece of literature? Could it be that those books were some of the most formative, provocative, and honest ones of our lives?

Instead of hearing my own voice, one that had always been so central to my sense of self, I was hearing his.

In Bruce Handy’s Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, he argues that “the best children’s literature is every bit as rich and rewarding in its concerns, as honest and stylish in its execution, as the best adult literature” because it introduces ideas and stories which often go unexplored by adults. These books deal with deeply personal issues—loneliness, death, and the loss of innocence, to mention a few—in imaginative and honest ways, helping children to broaden and stretch their minds, flesh out the complex bonds they have with those around them, cope with conflicting emotions, understand their role in families and neighborhoods, and define the journey from childhood to adulthood. Even more important, Handy contends, is the act of revisiting these works as an adult. In one early chapter he quotes speculative fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin, who says that while “revisiting a book loved in childhood may be principally an act of nostalgia”—she had known a woman who reread The Wizard of Oz every few years because it helped her to remember being a child—“[in] returning after a decade or two or three to The Snow Queen or Kim, you may well discover a book far less simple and unambiguous than the one you remembered. That shift and deepening of meaning can be a revelation both about the book and yourself.”

***

A few summers back, I wandered into my favorite bookstore in New York City: the wooden cathedral that is the Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street. I’ve always said that buying a new book is one of the most exhilarating experiences a person can have. Curiosity swells and a desire for a new reality percolates just below as you find another world to imagine yourself in. On this particular day, I climbed the winding staircase above the mystery section to stand before the one-dollar bookshelf. There, hidden beside a monstrous poetry anthology, I rediscovered The Little Prince. I had read it once or twice as a child, enjoying its sweet illustrations and to-the-point dialogue, but only as a freshly coronated 20-something did I really discover its remarkable power.

The book begins with the narrator drawing a boa constrictor swallowing its prey whole—only to adults, the drawing looks like a hat. When the narrator shows his masterpiece to the grown-ups, he asks them whether he has frightened them. “Frighten? Why should anyone be frightened by a hat?” When the narrator tries to further explain that the drawing depicts a boa constrictor digesting an elephant, the adults advise him to lay aside his drawings of boa constrictors swallowing their prey whole and instead focus on geography, history, arithmetic, and grammar. Frustrated, he declares that “grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”

American novelist and academic Alison Laurie is fascinated by this moment in The Little Prince. She calls it subversive, because it mocks unsympathetic adult life by looking at the world from below. In her book Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature, Laurie explains that the most discerning children’s authors “have the ability to look at the world from below and note its less respectable aspects, just as little children playing on the floor can see the chewing gum stuck to the underside of polished mahogany tables and the hems of silk dresses held up with safety pins.” These books appeal to the questioning, rebellious child within all of us. Sitting on my bed that night, encompassed by my childhood memories and associations, I came face to face with the reality that I had lost my inner self to the confining realities of adulthood, narrowed my conception of myself and the world around me. Those books were a glimpse into a bygone sanctuary.

But not all children’s literature is as illuminating. The New England Primer, largely thought to be the first piece of American children’s literature, was published in Boston around 1690. It’s prescriptive and condescending, very obviously written by an adult to serve adult  expectations. In one of its numerous editions, the lesson reads:

Love God.
Use no ill words.
Fear God.
Tell no lies.
Serve God.
Hate Lies.

I don’t know any child who would enjoy that. Often, as is apparent here, unsuccessful children’s literature is filled with pragmatism, offering a “realistic” portrait of what adult life is actually like. Unimaginatively and pedantically, these books attempt to prepare children for the rigid, commercial ways of the world. But, according to Laurie, this adult society doesn’t exist: “the world [is] full of hostile, stupid giants.”

***

The most perceptive children’s book authors somehow manage to stay children all their lives, never losing the ability to see the world from below. In an interview with the New York Times, Maurice Sendak criticized contemporary children’s literature for catering too much to parents, going by the “rules that children should be safe and that we adults should be their guardians. I got out of that, and I was considered outlandish. So be it.”

Sendak’s entire children’s book philosophy is dependent upon the idea that children shouldn’t be kept from the world, locked within a safe haven where nothing bad happens. Instead, he argues, children’s authors should simultaneously reckon with childhood innocence and the harsh realities of life. His books deal with the darker sides of growing up, creatively and authentically helping children to process the hardships they face. In Where the Wild Things Are, a disgruntled little boy, Max, is sent to his room without supper. As he stews in bed, a jungle grows around him and he sails off to the land of the wild things, populated by huge monsters with claws. Fearlessly, Max tames the wild things, who roar that he is the wildest of them all and make him their king. Max screams, “Let the wild rumpus start,” and he and the wild things dance in the moonlight and hang from the trees, until Max realizes he misses his mother’s love. Although the wild things beg their king to stay, young Max returns to his bedroom, where his supper is waiting for him. 

Met with mixed reviews when it was published in 1963, the book has since been heralded as a classic, celebrated for its depiction and acceptance of children’s emotions, particularly anger. What I love most about this book, though, is that Sendak doesn’t hide anything. He’s not trying to coerce anyone to be anything other than who they are, or teach someone a valuable lesson. He has no motives other than to tell a story about the way he sees the world. It’s not a very pretty world—it’s full of seemingly cruel people who do seemingly cruel things—but it is real. And not real in the way that The New England Primer is real. Where the Wild Things Are is not prescriptive; it’s not trying to get you to be a better part of society or get you to buy into some larger conventional narrative, it just introduces you to the way you work. To the thoughts you may or may not have when faced with frustration or disappointment. It looks at the world from below, warts and all.

Although Sendak’s work will forever be near the top of my list, E.B. White, author of Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan, and—one of my favorite books of all time—Charlotte’s Web, will always remain my favorite children’s book author. In preparation for this piece, I spent the better part of one Thursday evening rereading White’s transcendent monument to children’s literature. I had coincidentally stumbled upon the book while perusing a public bookcase in Oberlin and realized I hadn’t reread it since the end of first grade. So here I was, a 21-year-old, mixed-up, hungover college student, sobbing her eyes out to Charlotte’s Web at   in the afternoon. I couldn’t even make it through the first sentence without tearing up: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Forget it. I called one of my friends from elementary school and we both started reminiscing about the first time we heard that sentence.

In our class, we would pick a new chapter book every month to read aloud. That April, the majority ruled that after lunch everyday, Mrs. Downs would sit back in the plush armchair in the corner of the classroom, 20 seven-year-olds nestled on the floor at her feet, and read Charlotte’s Web. I think it was the first book that made me cry. Like Sendak, White’s prose is spare, but burgeoning with fearless and beautiful honesty. The book is about death, plain and true and harsh, but it is also full of life and all of the things that make it worth living. In one of the most compelling scenes, Fern, a young girl who saves a newborn piglet from being murdered, confronts her father as she explains the horror of killing the pig:

“But it’s unfair,” cried Fern. “The pig couldn’t help being born small, could it? If I had been born very small at birth, would you have killed me?”

Mr. Arable smiled. “Certainly not,” he said, looking down at his daughter with love. “But this is different. A little girl is one thing, a little runty pig is another”

“I see no difference,” replied Fern, still hanging on to the ax. “This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of.”

A queer look came over John Arable’s face. He seemed almost ready to cry himself.

As a child, Fern sees the world from below, unclouded by convention and cynicism. White’s language is subversive, pointing out the flaws in grown-up understandings of life. Arguably, this moment is more illuminating for adults, juxtaposing the world as it is, as a child sees it, with the warped world we have all come to accept. Charlotte’s Web is about serious, traumatic experiences, and yet, it isn’t hard to comprehend. White’s portrayal of death reminds me of a sentence in Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s book The Dead Bird, which reads, “Every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird and put fresh flowers on his grave.” That’s how you write about death. White and Brown alike get straight to the heart of things, unfettered by wordy ruminations and tangents.

In one of my favorite essays of White’s, his introduction in the third edition of Strunk and White: The Elements of Style, he praises his former college professor William Strunk for instilling in him the case for “cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.” The book, a collection of writing dos and don’ts, hasn’t left my side in the last couple years because I’m so enamored with its vigor and pith. Just like Sendak (and Didion and Vonnegut and Bukowski), Strunk and White don’t want to trick you. They want your writing to be beautiful and thought-provoking and electrifying, but never complicated. Never so difficult that you have to put a book down to understand what it’s trying to say. This, to me, is what makes Charlotte’s Web so important. There’s nothing superfluous; it gives the reader room to come up with how they feel on their own. 

I think this is what makes children’s books, and the act of revisiting them as an adult, so invaluable. In a way, you are returning to a thing and a time that is decidedly simple—and I don’t mean in a stupid or banal way. On the contrary, I think good children’s literature gets to the root of what it means to understand the world and people around you, to embrace selfhood, and, really, to understand the essence of what it means to be human without writing a sentence that is three pages long. It delivers information in no uncertain terms. There is no overwriting or overstating or big, scary, fancy words; there is just the world as a child sees it. There is just the world as it is. To revisit these books as an adult, Laurie says, offers “a way into a lost world, not only of childhood, but of universal power and meaning.”

She encourages readers to return to their children’s books as a way to reconnect with their childhood selves. There, she argues, lies the foundation of our most genuine, fulfilled, and actualized selves. Too often, Laurie writes, “as we leave the tribal culture of childhood—and its sometimes subversive tales and rhymes—behind, we lose contact with instinctive joy in self-expression: with the creative imagination, spontaneous emotion, and the ability to see the world as full of wonders. Staying in touch with children’s literature and folklore as an adult is not only a means of understanding what children are thinking and feeling; it is a way of understanding and renewing our own childhood.”

It is through this act of rediscovery that we begin to sew ourselves up again. Throughout our lives, having endured suffering and embarrassment and rejection, we become fragmented by judgement and cruelty, both readily given and received. As a result, we lose touch with who we actually are, with our cores of darkness. We feel the way that I felt in Vermont: like a stranger, alienated from my interior self. Children’s books help you to relearn and embrace the world as a child does, with levity and resolute selfhood, offering us a vital opportunity to return to the world as it is, without all that complicated, unreadable, pedantic junk flying around. I think we spend the majority of our lives chasing the high of childhood, chasing a time before we let our perception of the world become muddled by the hurt of adulthood. 

Now, as I sit at the desk in my dorm room, again surrounded by piles of my childhood books, I realize I don’t have any new answers. As cheesy as it sounds, I feel as though I had them right in front of me all along. In these past months, having read Fox Tale Soup, I Wanna Be a Cowgirl, Miss Suzy, Sleepy Bears, and This Land is Your Land over and over and over again, I feel as though I’ve returned to myself. I’ve found solace and comfort in this world from below, in this world as it is.  

Categories
Editors Desk

Editors’ Letter

by Nell Beck and Sam Schuman | Editors Desk | Spring 2021

Image by Katie Frevert

In which Sam and Nell say goodbye and hello.


As a collegiate publication, Wilder Voice operates within a set of nonnegotiable time constraints: the 15-week semester, the two-semester academic year, the four-year bachelor’s degree. These limits are helpful, providing a ready-made arc to our work and dictating the steady tempo at which it advances. They’re also, well, limiting. There’s only so much that can be done in a single semester, and with a collective memory that rarely extends beyond half a decade, inconsistency over time is practically baked in. But limits breed creativity; inconsistency is just a synonym for experimentation. (And besides, there’s no motivator quite like a hard deadline.)

Like last semester, the magazine you’re holding in your hands (or, more likely, reading online) took form against a backdrop of specific, coronavirus-imposed restrictions: the abbreviated academic term, the class of 2023’s conspicuous absence from campus, and a student body burnt out by over a year of Zoom-based learning. The rules might be new and different (and worse), but they’re differences of degree rather than of kind. This issue, like any other, is where the ideal rubs against the real. It’s a collective attempt to wring meaning out of, and instill meaning within, transience. A good story is a good anchor: it’s something to hold onto.

***

In the spirit of finding opportunity (and continuity) within limits, we used this semester to expand our website by digitizing previous editions of WV. You can now view any piece published from fall 2017 onward here at wildervoicemag.com. Plumbing Wilder Voice’s recent past has been an instructive experience. We saw names move up the editorial masthead from semester to semester as a generation of Obies shared important reported stories and wrote through perennial and perennially urgent concerns—gender and identity, personal history, family narratives and their multivalent meanings, political activism and performance—with clarity and precision. The pieces differ in focus, from the history of Mercy Hospital to the founding of the ’Sco, from exploring death as exemplified by a beloved family cat to a series of meditations on the body. What ties them together is a willingness to engage and reengage with big questions and established narratives, to examine what’s been received and endeavor to understand it in a new light—or perhaps rethink it wholesale.

To further this commitment to complexity, we’ve encouraged our contributors in this issue to write longer and deeper, giving their voices more breathing room on the page in order to grapple with events and ideas in all of their intricacies. Lila Templin describes their disillusionment with Oberlin’s culture of wealth and the ways that students conceal their class privilege (“Unequal Footing”). Lilyanna D’Amato returns to her favorite children’s books and relearns to see the world in a new way (“The World from Below”). And Jemma Johnson-Shoucair explores hubris in the second Star Wars prequel and the groundbreaking technology behind it (“The Lucas Effect”). As always, their work is presented alongside striking student artwork, including Vincent Zhu’s photo series Cracked and a series of collages from Katie Frevert.

“The Lucas Effect” is one of two essays appearing in this issue under the heading “Diagnoses.” In this new department, writers articulate and interrogate problems of their choosing, exploring the “why” beyond the “what.” It’s not a space for crankiness so much as a space for synthesis through criticism; the intention is not simply to dunk on vexing phenomena, but to understand them.

As the spring semester comes to a close and we enter a summer of optimism and uncertainty, negotiating limits will remain a pressing task. After an unconventional but rewarding year serving as Wilder Voice’s EICs, we are excited to hand off the first-ever summer installment of Wilder Voice to our incoming Senior Staff: Alexander Saint Franqui, Dorothy Levine, Clara Rosarius, and Fiona Warnick. Their talents have already helped shape the magazine, and we are confident that they will continue to make Wilder Voice a home for Oberlin’s talented body of writers and artists.

—Nell Beck and Sam Schuman
Editors-in-Chief, Wilder Voice