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How many readers remember the journey we all made long ago from the easy socializing of kindergarten into the new realm of first grade and the beginnings of our lives in school? This image of young Randy Sartori, a member of Mrs. Starkey’s first-grade class in the A. D. Thomas Elementary School of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, may help stir up some memories.
The young boy seated directly before us is one for whom the transition from the gentle “garden for children” to the new realm of classroom learning is proving to be anything but easy. The diminutive Sartori appears to be somewhat fearful and lost, seemingly adrift with the school desk he’s been assigned to and grasping it as though it were a life raft from which he just might slip away. His short legs do not even reach the floor, and his chin and arms can barely rise above the work surface of his new place of study.
Amidst these awkward circumstances, the young lad has locked a clear and wide-eyed gaze on Judith Joy Ross, the photographer who—in a split second—has just released her camera’s shutter and strobe to illuminate and record her subject’s anxious presence at the center of his new classroom. Sartori’s young peers populate the space around him, rendered in soft focus and busily engaged in writing, reading, and conversation. They are oblivious to the visual dialogue taking place between their classmate and the artist present in their midst.
Behind the students looms a formidable wall on which a clock tracks the time of their study. Above the clock hangs a projection screen, rolled up and at the ready. Bulletin boards below are adorned with myriad posters and images, no doubt representing some of the many subjects that Mrs. Starkey will amplify in her year-long course of instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic.
One wonders, contemplating this classroom and the ill-at-ease Sartori seated within it, how much attention, care, and assistance this boy will be given, and how much he will be open to receiving. Will he, as we all hope he does, ease into his academic studies and find joy and comfort in this new place of learning? Or will he remain lost in the shuffle—for just a while, or perhaps for much longer? This we do not know, and we can only ponder as we recall the beginnings of our own education, when so many of our own hopes and our parents' were entrusted to our teachers and the schools in which they work.
Just So Stories
When the members of the So Percussion Ensemble returned to their old Yale stomping grounds on February 2 for a New Music New Haven concert, they did just about everything rhythmic but stomp.
After an introduction consisting of rapturous praise from So’s former professors, four average-looking guys, dressed more like the tech crew than the performers, ambled onstage. Then they went to work, thumping and pounding with elegant precision in a symphony of antic syncopation.
In six years, So has become one of the most dynamic and acclaimed young ensembles on the classical circuit. The Billboard review of the group’s first CD, in 2004, said that they “play with the genuine freshness and wonder of kids with their favorite toys.” Allan Kozinn in the New York Times called So “inventive” and their recording “fantastic.”
So first got together at the School of Music as members of the Yale Percussion Ensemble. Its origins can be traced to a 2001 New Music New Haven concert of works by famed minimalist Steve Reich with the composer in attendance. Jason Treuting '01MM, So’s sole remaining founding member, recalls that Reich’s Triple Quartet was originally on the bill, but some members of the String Ensemble balked at learning the famously difficult and dissonant piece. Seeing an opportunity, Treuting and three others took it upon themselves to “learn everything by Reich that we could,” he says, with a laugh: they planned to step forward with substitutions if a hole opened up in the program. The Triple Quartet was indeed dropped, and the concert turned into a showcase for the four intrepid percussionists—the future So.
So’s performances aren’t just vital, bold interpretations of contemporary percussion classics; they are visually arresting—almost choreographic—as well. For a grand work like David Lang’s 35-minute The So-Called Laws of Nature (written for the group by Lang, a visiting professor at Yale), the performers position themselves for visual effect, so that when you see them strike tuned bits of plywood, you can see the boards shake. Then they turn sideways in unison so you can watch them play drum kits in profile. Then, for the next movement, they step up on small platforms so you can differentiate among the many small objects they’re hitting. And when So performs, you can see them sweat.
“We do think about the visuals a lot,” Treuting says. “More from the aspect of how to make it real. The audience likes to be entertained—what’s the best way to put it on stage?” That craftsmanship can extend to carpentry: So cut the plywood boards for its performance of Lang’s piece and has mastered the tuning of aluminum pipes and the modulating of pipe sounds by filling them with paper clips or chains.
So’s line-up has changed a few times. The newest member, Lawson White '04MM, made his So debut two and a half years ago. Now So is dealing with the departure of founding member Doug Perkins '01MM, who left amicably in March. “Three different guys are replacing Doug for the next 20 shows,” Treuting says. “We’re taking our time replacing him.”
Jack Vees, a noted experimental bassist and composer at Yale, enlisted So for a performance of his chamber opera Feynman (about the Nobel-winning physicist) last December at the Knitting Factory in New York. “It was really good to work with an ensemble which had done all their homework ahead of time,” says Vees. It’s encouraging that there are young ensembles around that have that degree of not just craftsmanship but integrity.”
Philadelphia Chickens Come Home to Roost
This year’s artistic director of the Yale Cabaret, Jim Noonan, will likely be remembered for two things: the number of times he’s appeared there in drag, and using the decidedly outre performance space for children’s theater. With his March 23-25 production of Philadelphia Chickens, which he directed—and hosted, in the guise of the matronly farmwoman “Miss Auntie George”—Noonan accomplished both at once. He also created a clash of artistic styles over a set of songs about cows and chocolate chip cookies.
Philadelphia Chickens comprises 15 songs co-written by Sandra Boynton ’74, ’79DRA, children’s author and greeting-card superstar, and Michael Ford. It originated in 2002 as a CD of cabaret-style performances by Broadway and movie stars, including Meryl Streep ’75MFA (the baby-talk torch song “Nobody Understands Me”) and Patti LuPone (the brassy, grumpy “I Like to Fuss”), as well as by some of Boynton’s and Ford’s friends and family. The styles range from skipping rhymes (“Belly belly button, you’re oh so fine”) to a plaintive ballad about forbidden treats (“Oh, chocolate chip cookies / So high on the shelf”). The book-CD package became a New York Times bestseller.
The Cabaret reconception added Miss Auntie George, who explains that she'd planned an all-animal production of Oklahoma! but a temperamental pussycat revolted, and they’ve had to settle for a farmyard revue. Noonan also added a few subtle bad-taste Cabaret touches. He chomped on a burger following the chorus line of “Cows,” and he dubbed the tune “Pig Island” (“one perfect place” where “noses are crinkled and tails are curled”) “an homage to Jimmy Buffett.”
“I won’t say that it’s my default aesthetic,” Noonan says of the glib, campy style he brought to Boynton’s jokey, cutesy compositions. “But we wanted to bring in a new audience without losing our regulars.”
The Cabaret, beloved experimental space for the extracurricular whims and revenges of hyperactive Yale School of Drama students, has always been defined by its risk-taking. The archness was not lost on Boynton, who attended the fifth of Philadelphia Chickens’s six performances. “Well, the performers had a lot of heart,” she says. “But there was a gratuitous cynical streak in the framing of the show that I found somewhat disheartening, as it’s completely at odds with what I intend in my work.”
That the Cabaret staged Philadelphia Chickens at all was a real theatrical coup—or is that coop? The notoriously hands-on Boynton says she’s fielded “maybe 30 requests” to stage Philadelphia Chickens, “plus one request for an arena show, and six or seven for film and/or TV.” But she declined them all because she intends to develop the show herself.
But a Yale Cabaret treatment was something else. “When I was a Yale undergrad and drama school student—shortly after the Revolutionary War—there was nothing quite like the glorious, unpredictable, occasionally disastrous energy of the Cabaret. So I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see what would become of Philly Chix at the Cabaret with absolutely no input from me,” says Boynton.
Boynton’s playful round-bodied cartoon style was barely in evidence on the small stage. The nine-person ensemble used drawn-on whiskers, furry headdresses, and snout masks to become cats, dogs, and aardvarks.
But if Boynton was disillusioned, Noonan and his crew were pleased. “For something we threw together in a week and a half,” he reflected after the show’s three-night run, “I’m happy with the results.”
Cartoonist Jesse Reklaw ’98MS is trying, unsuccessfully, to think of something uninteresting.
“A lady juggling a toaster oven and a baby,” he offers.
Reklaw is struggling to give an example of the mundane things he occasionally has to draw for advertisements. But his life is poorly suited to thinking uninteresting thoughts: he sorts through dreams for a living. Every week, dozens of people e-mail Reklaw their dreams. He reads through them, picks one he likes, and draws a four-panel cartoon, Slow Wave, that appears in a dozen weekly newspapers.
Past cartoons include one with a man pursued by an all-knowing ham. And the one where the Royal Hole in the Earth Society discusses an award for the best hole filled with water. Not to mention the one about the man who rode a unicorn to distant mountaintops in search of the world’s only bathroom.
Reklaw has been drawing Slow Wave since 1995. The idea came when he asked friends and family members to give him stories for cartoons, and his sister offered him a dream. The odd, surreal logic of dreams appealed to him, and he began to ask for more. He now receives about 20 to 30 dreams a week by e-mail, from all over the world.
Reklaw was born in Berkeley, California, in 1971. (Berkeley was the only place in the Bay Area where his father, an aspiring filmmaker, could find a doctor willing to let him film the birth.) He grew up near Sacramento, reading comic books and drawing superheroes and monsters. “I was always known as that kid who could draw,” he says.
In high school, he started writing down dreams for a psychology class. Over time, his ability to recall his dreams improved, until it began to get out of hand—he would start to write down a dream, and “two hours later, I’d still be writing.” He occasionally draws one of his own dreams for Slow Wave under a pseudonym.
After graduating from UC-Santa Cruz in 1995, Reklaw moved to New Haven and enrolled in graduate school at Yale in computer science. He earned his master's, but, after six newspapers picked up Slow Wave in a single week, he decided to drop out without the doctorate. “I figured, I can quit and support myself working ten hours a week.”
Surfing the currents of the subconscious is not always as thrilling as it might seem. There are all the teenage boys who turn into monsters or shoot everybody. The teenage girls who dream about being kissed by a cute guy. (“What do you think it means?” they ask Reklaw.) And there is the man in Brazil who repeatedly dreams that he has turned into Britney Spears. (Every time he resubmits the dream, he includes a picture of Spears. Just in case.)
In addition to Slow Wave, Reklaw draws other comics and graphic novels—essentially long, artistically minded comics. A portion of his autobiographical graphic novel, 13 Cats, was recently selected for Houghton-Mifflin’s Best American Comics anthology. He also makes drawings and paintings, many of them derived from hypnagogic imagery—that is, images that appear in your mind as you are about to fall asleep. When tired, he will sit and start to fall asleep, then pop himself awake and draw whatever he has seen: a chicken juggling eggs, a pig riding a bicycle, and a group of four-legged creatures with bald heads and moustaches, called the Willies.
Reklaw has read Jung and Freud, and he has dabbled in the metaphysics of dreams, but he tries not to spend too much time thinking about what the dreams mean. “I try to think like I’m the person having the dream, to be in the moment.” It is, he admits, a strange way to live. “The way I spend time relative to the world is kind of inside out,” he says. “I worry about that sometimes.”
Why does a financial writer turn to thrillers? New York Times reporter Alex Berenson ’94 discussed his novel The Faithful Spy (Random House), a thriller about a CIA agent who infiltrates al Qaeda, with Natalie Danford ’88.
Y: What was your goal in writing a spy thriller?
B: I wanted to challenge myself to take it out of the “boys with toys” genre.
B: Any time there’s a guy dangling out of a helicopter in a book, you’re in that genre. I wanted to write something serious and intense, but not over the top. There’s nothing that Wells [the protagonist] does that somebody who’s quick-reflexed and comfortable killing people couldn’t do. But he’s not Rambo.
Y: Are the book’s descriptions of the inner workings of the CIA accurate?
B: I think I’m right. But I don’t have to outrun the bear; I just have to outrun you. If it smells real to 99 percent of the people who read it, great. I really haven’t dealt with people from the CIA, but for years I was a financial investigative reporter, so I dealt with people from the SEC and federal prosecutors. In some ways, it’s the same thing: those people have an enormous amount of power, and I got to see how they use that power.
Y: When it comes to winning the war on terror, are you an optimist or a pessimist?
B: I’m going to plead the fifth. The situation is very complicated. In the book, we torture a guy and get something out of him, and it turns out to be a lie and work against us. Does that mean we shouldn’t have done it? I don’t have an answer to that.
Y: How did a business reporter like yourself end up in Iraq?
B: I asked to be sent over. In some small way I wanted to do something that I hoped would be in the public service.
Y: Film rights to The Faithful Spy have sold, and Keanu Reeves is involved. Are you hoping for a part in the movie?
B: No, no, no! Well, I can be one of the Arab extras in the background. I have the coloring for it.
Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind
Working as a journalist in Belfast some years ago, I got into a car with a leader of the Protestant paramilitary, a likable, articulate fellow who'd served time for a machine-gun attack on a prominent Catholic activist. He started the engine, and then said, “Normally I check for bombs first, but I parked in a different space today.” Later, he took me to interview other paramilitary leaders, upstairs from an ice cream parlor called Melting Moments. Schindler’s List was in the theaters then, and these violent men all had the same odd take on the movie’s message: they weren’t going to let what happened to the Jews in Germany happen to the Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Even more oddly, my guide readily admitted that his own grandparents on one side were Catholic. That is, the ethnic identity by which he had lived and waged war was largely a matter of choice. A few months later, he died by it, shot down in his driveway by other paramilitaries who had perhaps likewise chosen to be Catholic.
To sober outside eyes, the heightened tribal feelings in hot zones like Belfast or Baghdad can seem utterly alien, if not downright insane. But in Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind, author David Berreby '79 reminds us that we all go through life charged, to one degree or another, with a passionate sense of belonging to a group identity, and typically to multiple identities. We are feminists, or Republicans, or doctors, or Italian-Americans, or Yale alumni, or all of the above, with the strength of our allegiance to any particular identity changing almost unconsciously according to circumstances.
Though Berreby does not dwell on the point, the need to belong is a good thing. It is deeply rooted in human nature and fundamental to our well-being. Despite the mythology of the rugged individualists, we are at heart social primates and have evolved over millions of years to live in groups and tribes. On our own, we wither away and die.
So where do these identities come from? How do we decide which ones matter? What makes them matter so much that people are sometimes willing to kill or be killed for a religion, a nation, a race, or even, good lord, a soccer team?
Perhaps because the sense of belonging is so important to our survival, we often assume that our connections to other members of an in-group are deep and immutable. But Berreby argues that our group identities are often makeshift at best. He informs us that the “ancient” Scottish traditions of kilts, clan tartans, and bagpipes in fact date back only to the eighteenth century, and that the kilt was promoted by English manufacturers with “plaid to sell.” Likewise, the tribal boundaries separating Hutu from Tutsi in Rwanda “are only about a hundred years old.”
Invented traditions work as well as authentic ones because they appeal to our “mental code for groups,” the “specialized bit of mind” built to be constantly sorting through people for potential allies and enemies. Berreby sets out to explore this propensity with the help of research in psychology, neuroscience, and anthropology, as well as from his own personal experience. He recalls, for instance, that the high school he attended had a student body with pronounced divisions by race and class. So administrators cleverly supplanted these problematic group identities with a wholly invented system of grouping students—by astrological sign. “Yes, we were in California, in the 1970s,” Berreby writes. But the new group identities quickly became real.
Berreby’s book is timely, entirely apart from the tribal and religious strife that dominates front-page news. Our quick, automatic, and often unconscious knack for sorting other people and ourselves into groups has the most profound effects even in our ordinary lives. For instance, Berreby cites a study of how Asian American women respond to the stereotypes that Asians are good at math, and women aren’t: “Volunteers who had been reminded of their Asian identity got an average of 54 percent on the math test. Those who had been reminded of their female identity scored 43 percent.”
Unfortunately, Berreby’s book doesn’t do much to clarify our thinking about the tribal mind. His choice of language is often unhelpful. He talks about “human kinds,” instead of “human groups,” which leads to maladroit phrases like “mind science is working on kind-mindedness” and “the human-kind part of the mind.” Despite some pithy titles—“Them We Burn” and “The Heads on the Poles”—it’s often unclear what point he’s getting at in a particular chapter, and the chapters seem to repeat one another. The studies he describes, though sometimes intriguing, seem random, and he omits other research at least as relevant. Mirror neurons in the brain, for instance, make it natural for us to imitate the people around us, a fundamental step to forming a group identity. But there is no mention of them in this book.
More seriously, Berreby routinely slips into a highly negative view of what the “us and them” mental code is all about. This is perhaps understandable given what we see in the news. But ethnic violence and other destructive group behaviors merit front-page attention precisely because they are unrepresentative of everyday life. Berreby cites several studies in cultures worldwide showing that loyalty to one’s own group has nothing to do with hatred of outside groups. But then he goes on to toss off false conclusions like this: “Of course, the existence of good people assumes that others are bad.” And again: “Perceptions of Themness are an emotional license for cruelty and murder.”
The book repeatedly misses the important point that Usness, and even Themness, can be good things. By enlisting in the cause of a group or a team—Branford vs. JE, vegan vs. ovolacto-vegetarian—we fire up powerful competitive instincts and test ourselves and our ideas against our supposed archrivals. And when the match ends, humans have the remarkable ability to form new groups with erstwhile enemies and compete just as passionately against former allies.
For people who are disenfranchised, drumming up a sense of group identity can be a valuable tool for gaining power, or merely for overcoming the crippling sense of social isolation. At one point, Berreby quotes Larry Kramer '57, inspiration for the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale: “I want our people taught about in schools. Our people. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Our people. Yes, we are a people. And we are exceptional. And we have been exceptional since the beginning of time, as sure as any other Adams and Eves.”
All Berreby seems to see here is how badly Kramer has fallen for the “essentialist” myth that certain basic traits endure to unite a tribe or group across the centuries: “Feminists who say that all women innately have a different morality than men do, or dwarves who ask if you know Attila the Hun was a Little Person, are saying about their people what Kramer says about his: something exists that makes us what we are, and it has always existed, and we all share it. So believe!”
While it may be tempting to the knock the wind out of the sails of feminists and Larry Kramer, pairing them with Attila the Hun may not be the smartest way to do it. Especially in a book about the tricky nature of group sensibilities.
Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside
Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee
Flaubert: A Biography
The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa
Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons in the Lives of Migratory Birds
"I Owe You, Mom” Coupon Book: 52 Little Ways to Show I Love You Big-Time
More Books by Yale authors
Daniel R. Abbasi, Associate Dean, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
Yochai Benkler, Professor of Law
Alan Blanchard 1961
Christopher Leslie Brown 1990
Anne Burt 1989, Editor
Antoinette Burton 1983, Editor
Robin Carey 1964MFA
Paul Chiasson 1981MArch
Paula Marantz Cohen 1975
Matthew J. Countryman 1985
Leo Damrosch 1963
Lawrence Douglas 1989JD
Jonathan Engel 1991MBA, 1994PhD
Becky Garrison 1992MDiv
Benjamin Harshav 1960Grd, Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature
Terri Jentz 1980
Sara E. Johnson 1994 and VeVe A. Clark, Editors
Jack Chris Kahn 1958
Janice Kaplan 1976 and Lynn Schnurnberger
Nannerl O. Keohane 1967PhD
Mark Kingwell 1991PhD
Peter Laarman 1993MDiv
Richard Lingeman 1959Law
Lisa Lubasch 1995
Maggie Mahar 1971, 1975PhD
Douglas Mao 1993PhD and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Editors
Ryan Nerz 1997
Martin Austin Nesvig 2004PhD, Editor
Jocelyn Olcott 2000PhD
Joseph Palombo 1958MA
Sally Rosenberg Romansky 1983
Mark Rothko 1925 and Miguel Lopez-Remiro, Editor
Ramon Saldivar 1977PhD
Kem Knapp Sawyer 1974
Michael Scofield 1958
David Slavitt 1956
Joshua Spanogle 1993
Jane Stern 1971MFA and Michael Stern 1969Grd
Roul Tunley 1934
Holly Wardlow 1987
Robert N. Watson 1975
Edward J. Watts 2002PhD
Anne Nicholson Weber 1979, 1985JD
Traci West 1981
Naomi Wolf 1984
An exhibit of some 200 items explores the life and writings of Rachel Carson, the writer, biologist, and activist whose book Silent Spring helped launch the global environmental movement.
Britannia & Muscovy: English Silver at the Court of the Tsars
English silver from the 1550s to the 1660s is extremely rare today, as much of it was melted down during the English Civil War. A display of some 80 items from the Kremlin’s Armory Museum offers a glimpse of the world’s greatest collection.
Norfolk Chamber Music Festival
The Norfolk Chamber Music Festival kicks off its 65th season with a gala concert on June 10 featuring the Dave Brubeck Quartet. To celebrate the centennial of its historic Music Shed, the 2006 festival includes such ensembles as the Tokyo String Quartet and the Yale Brass Trio, as well as a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.
Yale’s largest undergraduate theater group stages Side Show, a Tony-nominated musical about conjoined twins who become vaudeville stars. At the University Theatre.
Baubles, Bangles, and Beads: American Jewelry from Yale University, 1700-2005
Mourning rings, miniatures, knee buckles, bracelets, and other items from the gallery’s collections of precious and costume jewelry reveal Americans' taste in personal ornament over 200 years.
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