Categories
Voices

A Lizzy-Shaped Space

by Ally Chase | Voices | Spring 2021

Vincent Zhu, Crack (series)

The Closeness and Hope of Female Friendship.


“First of all:

I am tired.
I am true of heart!

And also:

You are tired.
You are true of heart!”

Dave Eggers

I met Lizzy on the first day of gym class, almost exactly in the middle of high school. Having spent all of my adolescence concerned, and not particularly satisfied, with the ways friendship functioned in my life, making a new friend at this point was like coming to a clearing halfway through a long, uphill hike. As a kid my shelves were filled with stories of forgiveness and generosity, companionship a force so strong in these books that it shimmered above the page. I loved to imagine myself as half of one of those duos of friends who were completely fulfilled by the company of the other person and thus unafraid, even content, to stand together against the rest of the world. When the characters you hope to see in yourself pass loyalty between them like breathing, building secret worlds that resist all time and distance, it’s nearly impossible to keep your expectations from getting lost somewhere among the rafters of the library ceiling.  

Then all of a sudden it becomes true: You meet someone, just as I met Lizzy on that morning many Januaries ago, and it feels like the most fortunate gift of chance you’ve ever received. I know now that luck is only good for the first few minutes; it’s not enough on its own to propel a friendship toward longevity. I couldn’t see then exactly how this friendship would take shape—you reach that depth of understanding only with time. But the class periods I spent getting to know her were pockets of joy in otherwise-monotonous winter days. Fifty-five minutes on weekday mornings turned into eating her Teddy Grahams at lunch and watching The Bachelor on Monday nights so we could whisper about it between yoga poses. And on Good Friday, on the first truly warm afternoon of what I remember as an unusually sunny spring, I took Lizzy’s school bus back to her house and sat around a bonfire with her family to hear stories of their days and lives.

If meeting Lizzy was a gift, each day I know her is a day I get to keep unwrapping it. I suppose we all wish our friends could see themselves in the ways we do, because everything Lizzy touches ends up better than how she found it. Being a witness to this magic makes me more sure of my words before they come out of my mouth, and pushes me to think longer about what is really the right thing to do. Her thoughtfulness forgets no one and nothing; her careful consideration borders on an indecisiveness we share. I hear her words of compassion and insight long after I’ve hung up the phone, but the look of tranquil concern on her face as she listens to me says enough. Devotion can be the simplest thing, so simple that we don’t need words for it. She shows me that a good friendship coaxes out the parts of us we may never see animated if not for a person who has taken the time to understand them. 

All I’ve read has told me that throughout time, friendship has been a room where philosophical as well as emotional exchanges paper the walls and cover the floors. My own experiences confirm this idea; friendship has manifested in exactly the right places and in enough ways to prove itself a necessity that is, like all traditions worth observing, simultaneously changing and continuing. Yet as I’ve gotten older I’ve also seen how abruptly a friendship can shift—one person’s energies get redirected, a very different object of love takes up space where there was none, and time falls away. 

Having a friend means you hope unequivocally, as you know she hopes for you, that the easiest, most comfortable kind of love finds her at the moment she most needs it. Lizzy and I have been there before, where something so wonderful fell into her lap that she needed to hold it with both hands. The hands that had been around my shoulders, that had reached down to pick up anything I had dropped. It was a dazed, disconnected year for me, feeling cut off at the knees, driving home alone after school. Not quite knowing how to carry Lizzy’s bounty and my loss at the same time. 

And yet it passed. We hardly bring it up anymore; that time reflects harshly on us both, and it seems ridiculous, impossible even, considering all that we have now and all I have learned since then. Now, from the other side, I spend time wondering how life would be if we treated friendship and partner romance with the same reverence, two pillars of intimacy meant to bear equal amounts of our emotional weight. I have an idea of what that could look like; my future has a Lizzy-shaped space drawn into it. It’s a relief to know this expectation is not just an intention, but a fact I can take for granted. Now it seems the endurance of this friendship will make the unknown future ahead of us bearable, even welcome. In her memoir Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett writes about her late friend Lucy Grealy: “We were better off when we were together. Together we were a small society of ambition and high ideals. We were tender and patient and kind. We were not like the world at all.” Lizzy and I talk of grad school together, of sharing an apartment, of our children tacking “Aunt” in front of the other person’s name. I have dreams of the two of us at a kitchen table, after all partners and kids have gone to sleep, the last night of a dreamlike summer week. (No doubt we will have deliberated all year between the beach and the mountains, each person hoping the other would just make the decision for us.) We are sitting beside each other in comfortable silence, mugs of tea between us, wondering which of us played every single one of her cards right. 

Lizzy and I have other dreams, too, ones not so much rooted in time but in feeling. Like maybe one day, we won’t have to wonder any longer when it will subside—that sensation of waiting for something, for our directions to line up with our destinations. The gauzy clouds of uncertainty that seem to surround us as we move through our lives will part, and we will find an understanding in the daily goodness of the world and our purposes in it that lets us forget about the looming what-ifs. And one day, the vague and fickle sadness that sneaks in through some drafty window is suddenly unable to push its way through, and the contentment we’ve been searching for will be just there—will have been just out of view this whole time.

As much as Lizzy and I may anticipate whatever lies on the other side of now, the past will always be next to where we stand; it’s true that we may be too comfortable there. In college they teach you that the more you recall a memory, the more vulnerable it becomes. Every time you think of it, that old image of what really happened mixes with your present state of mind to produce a more or less false account of the truth. But much of my time these days I supplement with remembrance; just looking at the way the wind moves through the grass makes me think of riding my bike behind Lizzy on Balcom Street on any given day last summer. And still, sometimes when I eat ice cream, I think of sitting together in the Ben & Jerry’s by the college I didn’t want to go to, the one my parents were silently rooting for, the one Lizzy would enroll in come September, not fully imagining until it was too late what it could have looked like to spend four more years with a person who knew as well as I did that I would always ask for chocolate sprinkles on my cone. 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton said of Susan B. Anthony, “So closely interwoven have been our lives, our purposes, and experiences, that separated we have a feeling of incompleteness.” And while physical separation keeps me and Lizzy apart apart more than anything else (recently we realized there will be a single day between when she returns home from school and when I start my next semester), just layering a moment we shared many months ago onto a day we spend apart makes it complete. It isn’t that I want to remember my way back into the past so much as I hope to bring the past up to meet me where I am. That way, when the sun sets over the river I walk to every week, a hat pulled over my ears and my raw frozen hands stuffed into my pockets, the sky I’m seeing is the one Lizzy and I stared into at the beginning of last July. Each night that weekend we sat with our feet dangling off the dock, watching as a burning sun poured itself out for us in shades of pink against the sky, before it sank down to become the dark smooth ripples of the lake. I figure if such a moment of light lodges itself behind my eyes, why shouldn’t I let it refract onto an otherwise unremarkable instance and paint the whole thing a warm, Lizzy-tinted shade?

Sometimes when I eat ice cream, I think of sitting together in the Ben & Jerry’s by the college I didn’t want to go to, the one my parents were silently rooting for, the one Lizzy would enroll in come September.

In some ways I feel no one knows what it is to have a friend the way I have Lizzy. Yet in other ways it is even more special to imagine there was a version of our friendship that existed between other people long before we came along. Because really, it always happens in the same way—Ann and Lucy, Elizabeth and Susan. First you find someone you can grow up with, and as you two become yourselves alongside one another you can’t help but take in parts of the other person. And the pieces of herself she decides she no longer likes, or has grown out of, or wants to change completely—you put those in your pocket. You keep the endless versions of who she was and who she hopes to be right next to those versions of yourself, so one day when you’re both old women, you can say to each other, “I saved this for you, because I thought you may want it later,” and you can spill everything out onto the table, sifting through the memories you share and the ones you don’t, because at this point it’s all the same. You will find that everything you have lived she has lived, because she has stayed with you in every way imaginable.

So the story of me and Lizzy goes on every day, whether we know we’re writing it or not. Thoreau offers that the language of friendship is not words, but meaning. And while what Lizzy and I do best is talk and listen, we struggled with how to say our most recent goodbye, with how to make the other person understand. Not that we didn’t have any words left between us, but what could I possibly say to express how I sleep better at night knowing Lizzy also has dreams? To express that when loneliness sits down with me at my desk, I imagine Lizzy at her own as if we are looking at the same wall, fixed to the same spot that exists somewhere between here and there, in which the other person is always reflected back to us. Why would I try words, when what I really wanted was to put stars from the summer sky into a jar, for her to take back to the place where it is always winter?  

But that sky was far away now, in a state I won’t be backback to for a while. So instead of trying to make meaning out of a separation that, in the end, severs nothing, I stood on the steps of my apartment and watched Lizzy move farther and farther away into the landscape of a waning January. Just when I thought her back had turned for the last time, thought I wouldn’t see how the cold air flushed her face until the following winter, she would turn around and send out another wave, her shining eyes holding mine, until I had to be the one who climbed the stairs slowly up toward my room.  

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
Graphic Arts

Issue Artwork, Spring 2021

by Wilder Voice Artists | Graphic Arts | Spring 2021

The following works appear independent of any print piece in the Spring 2021 issue.


Categories
Poetry

The Mathematician and the Ant.

by Desmond Hearne Morrey | Poetry | Spring 2021

Vincent Zhu, Crack (series)


I am following an ant, 
watching its shiny black carapace 
scuttle, (patriotically), into battle. 

II 
I’ve read that they smell each other 
(or, whatever an ant’s understanding of smell might be)
and separate themselves from the enemy with olfactory banners.
I myself having no scent of war, 
am invisible. 

III 
My friend tells me: 
“Spiders are fine, they 
don’t know 
that they’re creeping around 
on a creature (a person, 
a whole subjective unit) 
But centipedes 
will fuck you up.” 

IV 
The color of the world (on bright days)
differentiates things, and I find joy in their multiplicity.
The same light reflects, refracts, many times, many ways, 
and I touch these borders of brilliance, 
grasp and rip them from each other, and 
set them up in a little row. 
One thing, two things, three things…


A ladybug lands on a poem. I am 
fascinated and so 
I drop a cookie crumb to her. She 
finds it, tastes it, and 
the sugar is too sweet, 
too much, and she 
runs in circles over it. 
(I, on the other hand, 
have eaten the rest of the cookie) 

VI 
They say (my professors) 
that we must start with nothing (the empty set),
and then continue to add (and 
rephrase, and bound, and contain) itself,
and this is how we reach 
infinity. We start with one 
leaf, and find another 
and soon we have collected 
everything (and more).

VII 
If I flew away from here (on gossamer wings)
and turned back, would I see 
so many colors? The bright reds of 
autumn leaves, the grays and 
yellow lights of urbanity? 

VIII 
I say 
that I walk across poems and 
do not know if the land I love 
is a creature, and do not know 
when one ends 
and two begins.  

Categories
Poetry

Lacuna

by Madeleine Feola | Poetry | Spring 2021

Ava Chessum, Grace

the betta fish is regrowing his fins. they come back frayed and translucent, the slightest edge
shimmering the water around him. we had steeped him in antibiotics that turned the tank green, 
dredged the life from his pores. whatever was eating him alive. 

living is an ugly thing, I’ve learned. at the frayed ends of it you’re making phone calls and
buying medicine. paying hospital bills. 

oh god but it’s tremulous and yours. 

my life used to be large enough to drown in— a cup of blood, a pillar of salt. is this what getting
better feels like? cutting down the heavy flesh that killed you slowly, that made you, until you hit
the bone? 

these days I’m that kind of slender. I walk home in the dark, peering into the corner spaces of 
people who are not me. the cooks locking up, walking past the quiet shadows of tables and
chairs, the boyfriends waiting outside, awkward hands in their pockets. these things mean more
to me now—more than me, maybe, more than you.  

Categories
Poetry

Seedlings

by Dorothy Levine | Poetry | Spring 2021

Ava Chessum, Lemons

Mama picks up maple leaves and ties stems together
the same motion used to tie my shoes and undo necklace knots
her rings shine against dry, freckled skin.
“Isn’t this cool?” She shows the gap between her teeth.
“Yes, very cool.” I smile.
I feel her love seeping through
as she points out each tree to identify.
She wants to plant knowledge in my head
so when I walk through these same trees
lonely and homesick
I know what is around me:
ginkgo, sweetgum, maple—a red one, not sugar—
horse chestnut.
“This one is called an Ohio buckeye,” I tell her.
We pick out two buckeyes 
one for her to take back on her plane
to rest on her nightstand and shrivel up to its hardened core
and one for me, to keep in a pocket until it’s forgotten.
But for now, she holds both in her palm.

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
Diagnoses

(Re)Creating the Past

by Sam Schuman | Diagnoses | Spring 2021

Stella Mulroney, Undoing

The distinction between “correct” and “true,” or what we talk about when we talk about “history.”


In elementary school, I loved few events more than the Scholastic Book Fair. The Halloween costume parade and Field Day were a treat, but they paled in comparison to giving up a whole class period to venture down to the library (or sometimes a requisitioned art classroom) where I could revel in the glossy covers advertising the latest and greatest in kids’ lit. It strikes me now that this is a relatively wholesome way to transform children into consumers, but I digress.

I was a bookworm, always finishing my classwork early so I could head over to the library nook and bury my nose in How to Eat Fried Worms, or an installment of the Boxcar Children. The Book Fair was the logical next step: a whole room lined wall-to-wall with shelves and tables advertising all manner of material for the up-and-coming reader, from the Magic Tree House to Frindle

Every year, I looked out for the 10 True Tales series, written by Alan Zullo. The conceit was self-explanatory: each book contained 10 nonfiction stories organized around a theme. Some topics were intense, but unobjectionable: Young Survivors of the Holocaust, Surviving Sharks and Other Dangerous Creatures. But zoom out a bit, and a recurring focus emerges: Teens at War, Battle Heroes: Voices from Afghanistan (and a similar book for Iraq), D-Day Heroes. Many of these books are essentially nationalist military histories, recounting deeds of heroism committed by intrepid GIs as they fought for the American way at home and abroad. Reading the series as a kid, I hung onto every word, picturing the battles that Zullo narrated at the pitch of fiction. Children don’t read books with a critical eye to ideological framing; Zullo called these men heroes, and I believed him.

Teens at War is typical of the series. The description from Zullo’s website starts out alright: “Ever since the American Revolution, teenagers have risked their lives to serve in every war this country has fought.” A paragraph later, though, some out-of-pocket framing emerges: “In warfare, most underage soldiers showed their zealous spirit and raw courage, but few were properly prepared for the horrors they would experience.” We’ve now entered what seems to be a pro/con list for letting children serve in the military, although we’re never quite told whose judgment is being applied. The next sentence describes these minors, as young as 12, as “warriors.” Scholastic’s publisher’s description labels their military service “patriotic” and their stories “inspiring.”

With the benefit of hindsight, I see 10 True Tales as pretty gross. But, ideological window-dressing aside, these books are, in an objective sense, accurate. The series boasts that it is “based on true events ripped from the headlines or taken from little-known moments in history.” And that’s the problem: these books are sold to kids as “history” because the events are “true,” which tacitly implies that their rhetorical framing as heroic, inspiring narratives is also somehow “true.” Zullo admits to dramatizing events and recreating dialogue (which sometimes includes racial slurs, “for realism”). But there is still a false consonance between factual veracity and narrative validity in how these “true” tales are presented. And while a kids’ author like Zullo might seem an unlikely point of entry for a screed on the blurry line between historical fact and truth, this is exactly where much of the trouble lies: to make the past accessible, works of popular history conceal the process by which masses of historical documents are converted into ideologically active stories. To understand this process, it’s important to ask: apart from telling a “true” story, what does history do, and what is it for?

***

The American historian Hayden White spent 10 years researching and writing in order to offer a possible answer in his 1973 book Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. The book studies a number of influential historians and philosophers, tracing the development of the discipline and the idea of “history” across the 1800s, but its analytical framework is fundamentally atemporal. It is a study of history as a rhetorical practice of writing and storytelling, or a “verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse,” in White’s own heady phrasing.

White is concerned with how history, as a linguistic construction of the past, is created through a specific mode of thinking which he terms the “historical consciousness,” or how past events are strung together to create a recognizable historical narrative. Historical consciousness manifests in the formal aspects of a historian’s narrative, evident in their choice of “emplotment” (what sort of dramatic plot arc does a historical narrative take? Comedy? Tragedy?) as well as their historical “grammar” and “syntax”—in other words, the process by which historians fit the past into a coherent story. This formal question of how histories are structured is fundamental to what White calls the “problem of historical knowledge:” what does it mean to think about something “historically,” and what is the point of doing so?

It’s here that we arrive at the distinction between a “fact” and a “truth”—or, to be snarky about it, the difference between something being “wrong” and “dumb.” Metahistory argues that a historical narrative always implies an ideological perspective by virtue of the way it is told. Any history will have characters, and some of those characters tend to emerge as heroes or villains, at least relatively. Certain historical entities are identified as problems or obstacles, and consequently more or less ideal. To take Zullo as an example: American child soldiers are heroes, and anyone trying to kill them is a villain. Other countries are the problem, and the American military is the solution. A historical story is told through facts, but its “truth” occurs at what White terms the “precritical” level. The historian must decide what kind of story to tell before telling it. 

The historical discipline differentiates between “history” and “historiography.” Catch-all definitions are unwieldy, but broadly, “history” is the study of the past, and “historiography” is the study of the historical discipline and its methodology. A “history” is one story, built on specific historical evidence and most often presented as a linear narrative. It attempts to explain why a particular thing happened in the way that it did. Historiography encompasses many histories, and often explains why many things happened the way that they did. It is, as White held, a fundamentally existential pursuit: a particular historiographical viewpoint amounts to an argument about the way the world works. And it’s at this level that history might be “correct” but also “wrong.” Historical whos, whats, whens, and wheres are often settled, and it’s fair to judge a history as more or less accurate on those grounds. But the historical why is virtually never a provable fact. It’s a product of interpretation and argument.

***

At my parents’ house, there is an entire shelf dedicated to housing a series of nonfiction books that my dad grew up reading in the ’50s called Landmark Books. Published between 1950 and 1970, the series employed well-known contemporary authors, some of them Pulitzer Prize winners and not one of them an academic, to cover a wide range of American historical topics, from Paul Revere and the Minute Men to The F.B.I to a Shirley Jackson-penned telling of The Witchcraft of Salem Village. They’re packaged as factual histories, and their perspectives are exemplary of post-WWII American historiography, with all of its assumptions about American exceptionalism and a triumphalist notion of historical progress. 

The 54th book in the series is Robert E. Lee and the Road of Honor, written by journalist Hodding Carter. According to one biography subtitled “The Reconstruction of a Racist” (note the implied redemption plot arc), Carter had been a white supremacist until graduating college, after which he fought for an end to Jim Crow. Authorial intrigue notwithstanding, the book is essentially a hagiography of Lee, chronicling his life from birth to death as a “great American who was guided by something he believed to be the most precious quality in life… a sense of honor.” The book is researched: it quotes primary-source letters at length and offers plenty of historical tidbits about Lee’s upbringing. It gets the “facts” right. The problem is that those facts are used to turn Lee into a hero. What is emphasized is not his role as the Confederacy’s military leader, but the admirable “sense of duty and honor” to his home state of Virginia which compelled him to side with the South. “Honor”—a term never explicitly defined—is used to separate Lee’s assumed motivations from his actions, trumpeting the former and downplaying the latter. The book’s penultimate page claims that “gallantry is our common inheritance, whether our ancestors lost with Lee or won with Grant.” As with Zullo, the facts are right, but the conclusions drawn from those facts are ideologically blinkered—relative and debatable.

Hayden White offers a solution to this nebulous problem of historical objectivity (or lack thereof) in accepting that historical meaning is ultimately subjective: it is formed, rather than found. History is not and can never be value-neutral. “The historian performs an essentially poetic act,” he writes, “in which he prefigures the historical field and constitutes it as a domain upon which to bring to bear specific theories he will use to explain ‘what was really happening’ in it.” Before explaining what a history means, the historian has to construct that history. The past is only—is always—a product of the present.

This idea was (and perhaps remains) controversial, and critics of White who decry the relativism inherent in his position have raised the polemical “Nazi question:” if historical meaning is constructed, imposed rather than essential, then on what historical grounds is one to challenge fascist historiography or even outright Holocaust deniers? White offers several responses, my favorite being his dry observation that “The Nazis were anything but relativists.” But a more instructive answer is that history is ultimately a moral and aesthetic pursuit rather than a scientific one, so fascist history can and should be dismissed precisely because it’s fascist. White cautions against treating historical revisionists “as if they were engaged in the same enterprise… instead of treating them with the contempt and derision they deserve.”

Historical whos, whats, whens, and wheres are often settled, and it’s fair to judge a history as more or less accurate on those grounds. But the historical why is virtually never a provable fact. It’s a product of interpretation and argument.

There is no objective position within history. It’s a destabilizing idea, one that denies history as a neutral proving ground for ideas. It’s impossible to argue, for example, that the collapse of the Soviet Union is proof that socialism is an unviable economic system, or, for that matter, that the Russian Revolution is proof that monarchy is an unviable political system. Those conclusions are theorized, not merely discovered. It may be true that, as The F.B.I. recounts, J. Edgar Hoover was nicknamed “speed” in high school, and that he chose to put his own life at risk in New Orleans in 1936 when he was among the FBI agents who arrested prolific criminal Alvin Karpi. But those isolated facts only become meaningful or usable as historical “evidence” once assimilated into a broader narrative about the FBI that has its own subjective viewpoint. The book’s ultimate historical stance that “every American, young or old, can be proud of his F.B.I.” is a value judgment, not an objective conclusion.

***

Like 10 True Tales, the Landmark Books series is for kids, and it’s particularly easy to dunk on with the benefit of a half-century’s hindsight. But contemporary histories, even didactic ones, still position themselves as purely expository, containers for information sans angle or bias. My high school history textbook, the American Pageant, certainly did. Like many a history textbook, the AP purportedly offers an accurate history that walks a neutral line through historical debates—as if it were possible to find a stance that is not itself an implicit position. Its 16th edition starts with the “Founding of the New Nation,” and asks, “How did the colonists overcome the conflicts that divided them (assumption one), unite against Britain (assumption two), and declare themselves at great cost to be an ‘American’ people (assumption three—does this even mean anything)?” The answers: “reverence for individual liberty, self-government, religious tolerance, and economic opportunity.” 

Along with this self-congratulatory telling is an acknowledgment of the dark side of the early American mentality (or at least AP’s telling of it): “a willingness to subjugate outsiders,” including Indigenous Americans and enslaved people from Africa. A putative commitment to exploring both the good and bad of history obscures that the American Pageant has already made a litany of presuppositions about what constitutes “good,” “bad,” and “history.” At no point is the reader pushed to ask if there is another way to tell this story.

My high school history teachers were progressive. We read some Howard Zinn, and we were taught from the first day of our Civil Rights Movement unit that race is a construct intended to mitigate class conflict. Liberal critiques of American history were common, even encouraged. But dark historical facts never contradicted the fundamental historiographical truth of American progress, of the strength and wisdom of our institutions. Besides, even if they had wanted to (and I suspect they might have), my teachers couldn’t have strayed too far. The textbook was the textbook, and we had an AP exam to take at the end of the year. To my knowledge, only two teachers in the school assigned the Communist Manifesto while I attended. They both taught English.

I took AP United States History over two years, with a different focus each semester: social movements, war and conflict, economics, and finally a history of Revolution-era philosophy. This last focus, known as intellectual history, was particularly interesting to me at the time, and has since become my primary research interest. How did people think in the past? I learned about the enlightenment philosophers: Locke’s and Hobbes’s theories about people in the state of nature, Rousseau’s social contract, Montesquieu’s separation of powers. We were taught that these were the seminal ideas that led to the American state, and, implicitly, that these ideas were superlatively good, if not flawless.

The buck stopped there. With few exceptions, our history of ideas began and ended in the 18th century. You’d think no one had had a worthwhile thought about government since the ink dried on the Constitution. Our philosophical history was strangely ahistorical, because it had been intensely “prefigured,” to use White’s term, intended to contextualize (and legitimize) American institutions more than to stimulate curiosity beyond the clear predetermined takeaways. Ideological questions were presented as done deals. I got As in history, and I believed that the study of history was important, but I graduated high school unable to articulate exactly why. What was the point of asking questions when the answer was the same as it ever was?

***

In my first semester at Oberlin, I started a history major, and things began to click. Professors could explain clearly why the study of history was important, why it was an urgent task. I learned that the “past” is often not really past, because historical memory is a building block of identity. I learned to look for historiographical slant: If this is the story, then what is its lesson? Hayden White is sometimes taught in Historical Methods, the major’s required methodology course. I finally figured out that the point of history isn’t to be “objective” or unbiased. Historical narratives imply a historical viewpoint, which implies a historical subject, which in turn implies subjectivity. 

Reading Metahistory for my own research this year, I learned that academic, source-based history dates back less than two centuries. Thucydides and Plutarch wrote “history” millennia ago, but their historical consciousnesses were drastically different from those of modern historians. For much of its existence, history has been a branch of politics or rhetoric. In the 19th century, the first recognizably modern historians gave the discipline its own autonomy by claiming that it could be purely rational and objective, scientific in the way that the natural sciences were. From there, history has alternately been defended as “science” insofar as historians deny any distortion of the facts, and as “art” insofar as it doesn’t have a unified formal method. Whatever it may be, our conception of “history” is itself historical. There’s no escape.

Which is all well and good. White wrote that the purpose of history is to educate people of “the fact that their own present world had once existed in the minds of men as an unknown and frightening future, but how, as a consequence of specific human decisions, this future had been transformed into a present.” In understanding how we created the present, we become better equipped to create our ideal (defined subjectively, of course) future. Such an understanding of history doesn’t foreclose upon the importance of getting the facts right. History is not fiction; its claims to reveal something about the real world only work if they attend to things that actually happened in that real world. But the facts are the beginning, not the end, of what makes history “true.” Historical narratives exist because someone wants you to see the past in a particular way, and by extension to feel a particular way about the present—and facts, at the end of it all, have very little to do with that.  

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
Cultural Miasma

Unequal Footing

by Lila Templin | Cultural Miasma | Spring 2021

Vincent Zhu, Crack (series)

Navigating Oberlin’s latent culture of wealth.


I was nine when I was first thrown into the world of wealth—and realized I didn’t belong. I had a playdate with a classmate, a pushy, awkward girl who evened out my quiet, introverted qualities. We spent recesses drawing Warrior Cats with crayons or sitting very still to try and see one of the rabbits that lurked on the edges of school grounds. When she’d suggested the playdate, she insisted I come to her house, and since she was the pushy one, I obliged. She lived in the hills of western Massachusetts, and my mom had to drive me over an hour through the woods until we finally found her mile-long private driveway. As her house slowly rolled into view, I thought I was looking at a statue or moder art piece instead of a home. “Jesus,” my mom whispered as she put the car in park.

It was the true kind of modern mansion—the kind that didn’t look like a mansion at all. Only two stories tall but wide and sprawling, with glass walls and a roof that only slanted one way, like a very expensive mistake. I thought it was ugly, but I was also keenly aware of its difference from my house, or any other house I had ever seen. I could sense, quickly, that this difference was deeper than just the architecture. 

My friend came out to greet me and bring me inside. She had the attic all to herself. The basement was her playroom, but she also took over the home theater when she wanted to. She owned more Barbies, DVDs, and makeup kits from Claire’s than I could ever fathom one person possessing. When she asked if I wanted a snack, she called for a maid (who had been lurking just out of sight) to make us mac and cheese. I felt small, sitting at the island in the middle of the incredibly expansive kitchen that bled into the living room, dining room, and office. My stool was too tall, my shoes dangling feet above the floor. Suddenly, my friend didn’t seem the way she had at school—at school we were equals, given the same desks and books and toys, the same space to play and work in. School had been a neutral place where I always felt we were on the same footing. Here, she towered above me. I was desperate to run back to my mom’s beat-up minivan by the end of the afternoon. 

“It should’ve been fun,” I explained. “But it was just weird.”

“Maybe she can come to our house next time?” My mom suggested.

“Yeah,” I said, even though I knew that would be worse— I would never want her to be able to compare her life to mine the way I just had, and realize how far below her I was. 

Instead, I continued going to her house. Neither of us had many friends, and I kept giving in to her requests. There were countless weekends my mom drove me through the mountains to the cold and unforgiving house in the woods—but no matter how many times I stepped inside, I was always daunted by the cold tile and vast emptiness. I could never make myself big enough to match the space.

We lost touch when we went to different middle schools. She went on to boarding school, and I went to my county’s performing arts charter. True to the arts, it was a school full of passionate and inspired people that was barely scraping by each year. It accepted students from over 30 towns and there were no requirements for admission, so even though we had a performing arts curriculum, many of the students were just trying to avoid their districts’ public schools. Almost all of the student body were middle class or low-income, so even though I worked all through high school, drove a car that was older than I was, and had to thrift my prom outfits, I still felt I was one of the more privileged students. After all, I was one of the seniors who was expected to go to college, even a private one—even, through a miracle of financial aid, a school as expensive as Oberlin. 

***

Oberlin, like elementary school, was supposed to be a neutral space. We were all given the same dorms, classes, food—equal footing. This, of course, was a farce, but I wouldn’t realize it at first. Everything and everyone at Oberlin looked cheap, but was apparently worth quite a lot. I already knew the things—the dinged-up dorm rooms, the classroom chairs with sinking bottoms, the rubbery dining hall meals—had to be expensive, because I saw the bill for them. Slowly, I realized that the people were worth quite a lot, too. Oberlin students were obsessed with looking thrifted, gave themselves messy haircuts, wore shoes with tearing soles, and of course lectured at any given chance about the importance of redistributing wealth. But while presenting themselves, however consciously or unconsciously, as cheap, their wealth was impossible to hide.

In my first month I was eating lunch in the center of campus with a new acquaintance. It was one of those “testing the waters” moments that define the beginning of college. We both smiled too much and made safe jokes, unsure of who we really were or if we would like each other in a week. About halfway through my salad, as we talked about how we were liking Oberlin, I joked, “Thank God for financial aid.” It was a phrase I threw around so often at home, with my family and friends. My lunch-mate gave a forced chuckle—clearly the joke did not land. But instead of moving on from it, they paused, taking on a very solemn expression.

“I… actually have to tell you something,” they said. “I’m not on financial aid. It just felt wrong to laugh about it.” 

They said it with seriousness, and a nervous edge in their voice, as if they were coming out to me and unsure how I’d respond, as if they were revealing some deep and shameful part of themselves. But I was the one who burned with sudden embarrassment. 

“Oh yeah, haha,” I laughed, desperately trying to return to the light atmosphere we had been so carefully curating just moments before. I almost wanted to say, “Me neither!” just to put an end to the moment, but of course I couldn’t. My cheeks flamed, and I checked over my shoulders, both to avoid eye contact and to see if anyone else had seen my humiliation. They mercifully brought up a new topic, and the lunch continued until we both finished our meals and promptly left. I knew we would not become friends. I was careful who I brought up financial aid to after that. 

While direct displays of wealth like that one were not rare, what was worse were the much more frequent occasions when the gap in wealth was addressed more subtly. The girls in my dorm who ordered entirely new spring wardrobes, abandoning their old ones to the free store. The times people told me about the trips they had taken the summer before college, to which I had to tell them I had worked the summer in a sweltering deli with no air conditioning. The people who had brand-new cars, which had been “college gifts” (wasn’t college itself supposed to be the gift?). The time I was put in a five-person English class discussion group where every other student bonded over having gone to boarding school—I obviously had nothing to contribute to the conversation. These incidents were all followed by displays of performative poverty—showing off a funny trinket they had bought at Goodwill, or joking about being a starving artist after graduation. I felt insane listening to two friends debate which form of communism was superior in the living room of a party. I wanted to scream. “I know for a fact you both have trust funds! What are you talking about!” Instead I went to get another drink. 

When it mattered, they didn’t hesitate to use their money: when it came time to buy books for classes, while I scoured the internet for resells; when there was a vintage jacket they just had to spring for; when they wanted to go abroad for Winter Term with no funding. Then, there was suddenly no issue in dipping into that wealth. There were times I was genuinely left out of things, unable to afford a show, get a plane ticket, order an expensive dinner. I felt I had no way to explain this to them without overwhelming embarrassment. To address this fundamental difference between us would be to shatter the illusion that we were equals—after all, we were at the same school, in the same dorms, the same clubs and classes. Oberlin was the same kind of neutral space elementary school had been so long before. The last time I was forced to address the inherent difference between me and my rich peer in the hideous modern mansion, my friendship had never truly recovered. I didn’t want to risk that again.

I discussed all of this with my friends from high school who were now on financial aid at other private colleges—Middlebury, Pomona, Yale.  “It’s so weird,” one of them said when we met for coffee over Thanksgiving break. “It’s like walking through a sea of Canada Goose and Prada.”

I agreed, even though Oberlin wasn’t like that at all. So many Oberlin students, overly aware of their privilege, wore exclusively secondhand pieces, old JanSport backpacks, handmade hats and scarves, and acted as if it absolved them of their richness. Everything looked so familiar, which made it even harder to realize that I was, in fact, intrinsically different from those around me. I almost wished that they did wear their money with pride instead of trying to hide it. The former was upfront—the latter felt almost like a cruel trick. 

So many Oberlin students, overly aware of their privilege, wore exclusively secondhand pieces, old JanSport backpacks, handmade hats and scarves, and acted as if it absolved them of their richness. 

But to complain about it felt privileged and tone-deaf. After all, I was not, by any margin, poor. I had been so lucky to grow up in my lovely little house with my amazing parents who paid for dance lessons and occasional big vacations. I was aware of the financial toll that an unexpected medical issue would take, but never worried where I’d find my next meal. If the Oberlin experience was difficult for me, I couldn’t imagine how it would be for a person below the poverty line. To weep as if my life was so hard because my family wasn’t well-off enough made me no better than the other well-off students who performed poverty. Still, insecurity slowly bubbled up in me over the course of a semester, and I couldn’t rationalize it away. 

***

“It’s not that I feel out of place,” I told my mom over the phone—my mom, who was spending such an unbelievable amount of money, even after financial aid, to help pay for my tuition. My mom, who had always told me I would go to college, and that I would love it there. Who hadn’t gotten the chance to go to a school like Oberlin, and had once told me how jealous she was that I got the small liberal arts experience she’d missed. How could I possibly complain to her about this? I finished the sentence, “It’s just weird sometimes.”

That phone call was in the winter of my first year. Within a few months, the supposedly neutral space of Oberlin’s campus was suddenly gone—COVID-19 forced these simmering insecurities into stark light. I once again felt like I had left the playground and was staring at the huge emptiness of my friend’s modern mansion.

It was immediate and obvious, even through a screen. People who were electing to rent Airbnbs with their friends, or whose families were moving to their second homes. The girl who apologized in a Zoom class because she was outside at her family’s beach house, and you could hear the waves in the background. Safety was also, suddenly, very physical, almost tangible. There were people who could afford to stay quarantined, and those who could not. I, along with many of my friends back home, started looking for jobs once it became clear we were not heading back to campus. Some of my Oberlin friends who I mentioned this to said I was being so brave, and that they would never work in-person with these conditions. I had always had a job—I was not being brave, I was just avoiding the pit of guilt in the bottom of my stomach that grew the longer I went without having one. 

I don’t need to explain and don’t want to dwell on how brutal quarantine was. I moved through the end of the spring in a haze, bombing several of my classes. I was miserable with myself and my work, culminating in a full day of sobbing when my final transcript was released. I was wasting the college’s money, my parents’ money, my future self’s money, only to perform like this? I quite literally couldn’t afford to do any worse—we wouldn’t be able to budget an extra semester. 

The summer, like the spring, was a timeless blur, and then, by some miracle of coronavirus safety, I was back in Oberlin in the fall. I podded with my close friends, so I interacted much less with others. Additionally, many richer students hadn’t even bothered coming back for this semester—they were able to find other, better, more expensive options. I did my strange three months of a semester and returned to Massachusetts. I immediately moved out to Boston to find a better job (I ended up being a barista) and to be in a city with better public transportation (since my high school car was long gone). It was a new place where I wasn’t expecting my insecurities to follow me.

Of course, that was naive. I talked to a few other Oberlin students living in apartments and quickly realized—due to their complaints of having too much free time, and the neighborhoods they ended up in—that their parents were paying their rent. Mine never would have offered, and I never would have asked. As I started working, I became jealous. I knew my parents would always be there for me, but I almost wished they would coddle me in this way. Work was hard, and unlike my working friends who were doing it for pocket money, my paychecks were immediately eaten by food and rent. I knew this would be my future, too, while those who were living off of their parents’ money (without having to live in their homes) would continue to do so as well. They would be able to get unpaid internships and move to big cities out of college. It would undeniably lead to different job opportunities, meeting more important people. Their whole lives were shaped by wealth. For the first time, I truly started resenting that mine wasn’t. 

Boston was where the gap between me and my rich friends was the most pronounced. I tried making plans with an old acquaintance who was also attending a private college and on leave in Boston. We decided on coffee. When I asked where, so I could find a bus route, she offered to drive me. 

“I’m fine on the bus,” I insisted. When she didn’t respond I added, as if to prove it to her, “I like it. Gives me time to read.” 

“But why take it if you don’t have to?” 

I was at a loss, for a second. I knew that her car was the better option—it was faster and safer and meant less work for me—but the bus was mine. It was what I took every day, and having it dismissed as such an obvious inconvenience unexpectedly stung. 

“No, I wouldn’t want to make you do that,” I finally said.

She paused before saying, “It would actually make me more comfortable. I just think it would be safer.”

I didn’t bother bringing up the fact that I took the bus almost everyday. That I worked in a café. That I was never going to be up to her standards. Before, I hadn’t been able to afford to meet my rich friends’ criteria for social activities or trips—now I couldn’t meet their criteria for safety.

Instead I just said, “Oh yeah, of course. Thanks.” We never followed through on coffee—maybe because she put together the pieces and realized that I was always going to be a danger. While the barrier between me and my rich peers had once felt unspoken, it was suddenly physical. I was not able to see them, because I could not live like them. I had always felt a bit out of place, but now I felt truly dejected.

***

I love Oberlin, in spite of and because of its weird rich arts students who want to play at going against the grain. I deeply love the friends I’ve made, the classes I’ve taken, and the experiences I’ve had. But the longer I’ve been there, the more out of place I’ve felt. I arrived as a first-year feeling as if I’d found my new home, and then slowly realized that I did not fit in with my new “family.” It’s as if there’s some piece they all have that I’m missing, and won’t ever be able to find. Of course, that piece is money, the culture of wealth. If I hadn’t realized this at Oberlin, I would’ve realized it later, as I entered the job field, as I started looking for a house, as I had children. But to enter Oberlin assuming I was on the same footing as my peers, and have that illusion slowly peeled away, was an especially jarring experience. 

As a kid I was able to overlook the differences between me and my rich classmates. The older I’ve gotten, the harder it’s been to deny, even when I want to. Now, still, I don’t want to address it for fear of seeming rude, lesser, or self-absorbed. But all it’s done is create resentment. I don’t want to be sour towards my peers. I don’t want to wish my parents could give me more. To say so is juvenile. I always thought of college as the transitional space between being a kid and being an adult—and what is more fitting for this transition than facing hard truths? The facade of a neutral space—the playground, the classroom, the campus—has faded. Still, sometimes, I childishly wish I could see it again.