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A boy wrapped in a brilliant blue turban, a child clowning as she rides on a burro’s back, a woman in silhouette drinking from an earthen bowl: Ariane Kirtley ’01, ’04MPH, the daughter of two National Geographic photographers, has her own arresting portfolio of images taken far from home. For the past two years, she has focused her intense photographic vision primarily on the people of Azawak, an arid province of Niger. But for Kirtley, the photos are less about art than they are a means to an end: she wants to see to it that the people in those photos can get the water they desperately need.
Last fall, Kirtley started the Amman Imman project, to finance the digging of water wells in the mostly nomadic Tuareg communities of Azawak—the poorest region of the poorest country in the world. (The project is named for a local saying: “Amman imman, ar issudarr” or “Water is life, milk is hope.”) To help raise awareness and funds, she exhibited her photos at the New Haven Free Public Library in June.
“These were people who, no matter how little they had, constantly showered me with kindness. They would kill their last goat for me, or give me their last glass of drinking water,” says Kirtley, a bright-eyed woman whose own rail-thin body shows the ravages of dysentery, parasites, and other illnesses borne of Niger’s unclean water. “Our success is based on achievement; theirs is based on interpersonal relationships.”
Kirtley, whose American parents first took her to Niger when she was six months old, returned two years ago after finishing graduate work at Yale’s School of Public Health. She had won a Fulbright scholarship to study health behavior and practices among a number of different ethnic groups. When her research assistant, a native of Azawak, told her about the situation in his home province, she decided to go see for herself. She went despite warnings from Niger’s government that the area is full of crime, something she found to be completely untrue. (She believes the government spreads the story to justify its inaction in the region.)
What she found, she says, “blew me away. I thought I knew about water problems in Niger. I had no idea.” The 50,000 people in the Azawak province, a vast region on the edge of the Sahara, have just two wells for the dry season. Only one works regularly. During the rainy season, families send their young daughters to collect water from ponds—which are also used by people and animals for bathing. When the nine-month dry season comes, these young women must travel 35 miles to one of the wells; they can carry back only enough water for their families to drink one glass a day.
“In other regions of Niger, each village has at least two or three wells or more, and many times they will also have a borehole with a hand pump,” said Mustapha Alkassoum, Kirtley’s research assistant, in a letter about the situation. “It is truly an injustice that my people are dying of thirst because there is so little water in the Azawak.”
Kirtley aims to raise $250,000, the amount needed to hire contractors to dig two borehole wells in regional areas where she knows underground streams exist. To date, she has accumulated about $122,000 toward her goal through initiatives like her traveling exhibit, talks to civic groups, a website, and grant-writing. After the wells are completed, Kirtley hopes to persuade international humanitarian relief organizations, such as CARE and Oxfam, to work in the Azawak region. She believes that once Niger can meet the basic needs of its own people, these agencies can establish the infrastructure needed to bring more food, education, and dreams to the country.
“You can’t talk to me about schools when the kids spend all their free time fetching water,” Kirtley says. “These aren’t Africans sitting around waiting for help. They’re working to get it and they’re not getting any.”
Despite the bleak conditions, Kirtley’s photos from Niger display the opposite of despair. Her frames show smiling children playfully pulling fleas off each other at the end of their long water searches; young women cradling their babies, who sip assuredly from large bowls of dirty water; and people enthusiastically poised to celebrate tribal festivals. She views her photography as a means to tell stories she finds interesting and important. “Most of all, I want to use my pictures to help the people and places I document,” she says.
Overachieving: The New Normal
Alexandra Robbins ’98 admits that she is an overachiever. The best-selling author of five (yes, five) books, Robbins talked with Carol Weston ’78 about The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids (Hyperion, 2006).
Y: Your new book describes the lives of sleep-deprived go-getters with abusive AP workloads and micromanaging moms and dads who treat parenting as a competitive sport—or, worse, as product development. Is there a chance for tomorrow’s kids to reclaim childhood?
R: Childhood has become adulthood-in-training. This country has no choice but to give childhood back to kids—otherwise we’re going to end up with a population of depressed, robotic adults. A lot needs to be done to reform the educational system.
Y: What has been the fallout of Bush’s No Child Left Behind law?
R: NCLB has been disastrous for the actual classroom experience. It has stripped students down to their scores and statistics. It has forced teachers to teach to a test. It has forced some schools to eliminate subjects such as languages, social studies, art, gym, and music. It has taken creativity out of the classroom.
Y: You cite a study that 90 percent of high school students cheat, and you write that many colleges cheat to look better in the U.S. News rankings. Have things really gone so Machiavellian?
R: Absolutely. Sadly, kids are being taught that in order to succeed in the real world, lying and cheating have become acceptable strategies. And schools aren’t teaching them otherwise—they are leading by example.
Y: What about sports? You say, “Fewer than 3 percent of high school athletes will play any sport in college.” Yet the lives of so many families revolve around the next game.
R: Sports have become as consuming and competitive for kids as academics. Some parents encourage their student to play while injured, to over-train, and to injure other players because of the belief that sports will give them a step up financially or in college admissions. I’ve had several teens tell me that they’ve faked injuries because their sport became about getting ahead and parental pressure rather than enjoyment.
Y: In The Overachievers, you don’t mention that you went to Yale, and it doesn’t say so on the jacket either. Why not?
R: The book isn’t about me. And I don’t believe that a person should be evaluated by where they went to school and how they did. The book is primarily about the students whom I followed for 18 months.
Y: Some of the students you profile do seem to be everything but happy. You recommend that parents limit kids’ activities, value character more than performance, “ease up, calm down, and back off,” and, my favorite, “get a life.” Please explain.
R: The most important message for parents is that they should not feel guilty about letting their children hone their own drive to succeed.
Y: “Drive to succeed"? I thought you might say, “They should not feel guilty letting kids be kids"?
R: Yes, I agree with that too. The point is that parental anxiety and guilt can backfire and lead to young adults having low self-esteem, a fear of failure, and an inability to make their own decisions.
Y: As a mom, I can attest that senior year is not for the faint of heart. Thousands of superachievers get rejected from top-tier schools every year. How can a well-meaning parent help a child handle disappointment?
R: As one admission director told me, colleges sometimes reject exceptionally qualified students because what the orchestra needs is a French horn player. Admission decisions are not personal commentary.
During the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, a new generation of lesbians and gay men sought to create a new gay culture and subjectivity that would transcend the silence, shame, and invisibility they believed had characterized gay life before them. Dissimulation, subterfuge, and double entendre—if not precisely silence or necessarily shame—had indeed characterized much of gay existence in the 1950s, at a time when highly publicized purges of gay employees from the State Department and police raids on gay bars left most lesbians and gay men careful to try to blend in by concealing their sexual identities from outsiders.
But in the late ’60s and the ’70s, many young gay people broke decisively with this pattern by publicly affirming, celebrating, and even cultivating homosexual difference. Their determination to do so was deeply influenced by black cultural nationalism, which encouraged pride in black cultural difference. Young gay people sought to build a new and radically affirmative gay culture—including gay theater, films, music, and newspapers—which would nurture the development of new forms of queer subjectivity.
The photodocumentary project of Robert Giard ’61 grew out of this cultural ferment. His generation’s determination to overcome the silence imposed on homosexuals gave writers special prominence. From 1985 to his death in 2002, Giard sought to document the diversity of these writers and pay tribute to the power of their words: Adrienne Rich, Larry Kramer ’57, David Leavitt ’83, Audre Lorde, John Boswell, and hundreds more.
Giard also photographed some of the surviving pioneers of the lesbian and gay movement. In the portrait shown here, he captured Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon at home in 1989. Martin and Lyon had founded the first national lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, in 1955; served as the first editors of its journal The Ladder, founded in 1956; and together or separately published influential books such as Lesbian/Woman (1972) and Battered Wives (1976).
On February 12, 2004, almost half a century after Martin and Lyon called the first meeting of DOB, and just a few days before their 51st anniversary, they were invited by San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom to be the first same-sex couple in the city to be married. It was a gesture rich with historical symbolism. The mayor’s decision to open City Hall the next day to thousands of same-sex couples wishing to marry provoked a massive outcry across the nation, reminding us how many Americans still regard gay people as second-class citizens. But his decision also bore witness to the profound transformation wrought in American society by the movement that Martin and Lyon had helped start 50 years earlier, and that Robert Giard so scrupulously documented.
One Use for a Yale Education
To outsiders, Yale can be a mysterious, even sinister, place. And so one of the greatest services of The Areas of My Expertise, the almanac of complete world knowledge compiled by humorist John Hodgman ’94, is to confront the many myths swirling around Old Blue. Take the widely held belief that Skull and Bones secretly controls the world. Not true, asserts Hodgman. He reveals to the general reading public what all Elis already know: Yale enforces its global will via a cappella singing groups.
Hodgman also discloses that the military submarine was invented by a Yale student and that each year an undergrad is randomly assigned to live in a room of solid gold. In other words, despite Hodgman’s prefatory argument that his book betters all other almanacs (and libraries) mainly in being entirely made up, many of its facts are (in fact) verifiable. Some, like the one about the submarine, are simply true. Others draw upon things absurd enough in actuality, like secret societies and singing groups, that Hodgman need only magnify them to bring out the joke. To say that the Old Campus’s Vanderbilt Suite is solid gold just highlights the preposterous fact that the suite exists.
“Even if it is all fake, it has to have a ring of truth,” says Hodgman. Herein resides much of his wit: truths, exaggerated truths, and the most outrageous fabrications all delivered in the same steady deadpan. Whether he’s recounting the Hobo Wars of the Great Depression or alleging that the city of Chicago is a fable, the tone remains the same. It is the voice of “John Hodgman,” a comic character firmly rooted in the living person of the same name.
It can be independently established that the actual Hodgman, like Hodgman the character, did attend Yale and was once a literary agent. The list of jobs offered in the book’s preface as evidence of the author’s varied expertise—dishwasher, cheesemonger, traffic counter—is also real (or so he told me; with Hodgman, it’s hard to be sure). At Yale, he majored in literature, a field of study that introduced him to some of the subversive meta-fictional strategies he now employs to comic effect, like mixing up fact and make-believe and creating a character named after oneself.
This last trick he borrowed from Borges, but also from Harold Bloom. The professor’s outsized personality (“floridly affectionate while totally dismissive”) was on Hodgman’s mind when, in the late ’90s, after a few years of post-college drifting, he began developing his own character in his column for the McSweeney’s magazine website—“Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent.” In 2001, Hodgman brought the character onstage as host of the “Little Gray Book Lectures.” Organized around themes such as “The Animals: Are They Our Enemies?” the lectures involved PowerPoint presentations, sing-alongs, and mostly fake scholarship. They became a cult success. “It would have been my blog and website if I had known how,” he says. “But I knew how to invite people and sell alcohol.”
Late last year, Hodgman found an even larger audience: he appeared on Jon Stewart’s fake-news program, The Daily Show, to plug his book, and two months later he was installed as the show’s “resident expert.” Just as The Areas of My Expertise, with its figures, tables, and cross-referencing footnotes, sends up generalist knowledge and lies-your-teacher-told-you cranks, the concept of a “resident expert” mocks the way talking heads become experts by being labeled so on TV. Yet the book, in its random, imaginative breadth and allusiveness—with useful sections on beards, squirrels, and secrets of successful negotiation—is equally a celebration of unfettered curiosity.
This, Hodgman says, is the fruit of a liberal arts education, the outcome of four years of browsing the Sterling stacks. “If anything, Yale taught me to be a generalist. It may diffuse your focus, but it does help if your career path involves the writing of books of fake trivia. I would recommend it.”
Going to Battle Over the Bard
The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups
In a book overflowing with unedited wisdom, Ron Rosenbaum ’68 rarely quotes scholars, actors, or directors unless he’s had dinner, lunch, or drinks with them. A voluntary dropout from Yale’s graduate English program years ago, having found his native enthusiasm for Shakespeare under attack from the prevailing critical agendas of the day, Rosenbaum may be shoring up his credentials with all those first-hand meetings. Yet if The Shakespeare Wars proves anything—and it proves many things—this book demonstrates the author’s command of all the hits and misses that have marked Shakespeare studies and performance since 1970, the year Rosenbaum’s life was overturned by Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Stratford-upon-Avon.
Rosenbaum calls that event his “induction.” Brook’s Dream acted as “a lifelong love potion,” carrying him into a lasting romance with Shakespeare’s plays in all their configurations. He adores the magic embedded in Shakespeare’s glittering words, but the plays as dramatic treasure chests have also yielded for him an endless supply of scholarly argument.
Rosenbaum’s book is a sprawling trawl through the academic thickets and an instantly indispensable guide to the fractious nonsense passing as scholarship. Such compulsive readings are best summed up by Shakespeare scholar Richard Knowles, quoted usefully by Rosenbaum at just the point in the book where it gets difficult to distinguish the New Criticism hares from the Deconstructionist hounds: Knowles describes the jargon-ridden scholarship of the day as a movement purveying “the immateriality of the text and the immateriality of the author, the indeterminacy of meaning, the relation of literature to power and censorship and other notions.” Or, in Rosenbaum’s version of the story: the texts have been parsed into so much fodder for the “over-pessimism of Theory … squeezing literary judgment out of existence.”
Then there are the biographies that only confuse the messy issues by hanging on tenaciously to another pseudo-theology—that the plays can be read through the lens of Shakespeare’s life, though Shakespeare left scant evidence that he lived at all. Rosenbaum tracks the latest “biographers,” including even such brilliant writers as Stephen Greenblatt (Will of the World) and James Shapiro (1599). With uncommon confidence but barely visible evidence, they speculate on a Shakespeare who “might have” been somewhere, “could have” thought something, or—truly presumptuous—“must have” done something. These biographers can’t disguise the absence of documentary proof for their claims. Like so many Othellos demanding “ocular proof” from Iago, they’re easy prey for false handkerchiefs.
Nor are they alone: Rosenbaum is hell-bent on tracking down all the ocular proof available from the Shakespeare Industry, by now a series of pile-driving territorial wars acting as weapons of mass distraction for those of us—students and faculty alike—who might wish to return to the pleasures of the text and our dreams for transcendent performance. The book’s targets include Yale professor Harold Bloom’s “overblown claim that Shakespeare invented the human.” Rosenbaum reverses this: “It’s really a claim that Shakespeare invented Bloom—a composite character with the brain of Hamlet and the body of Falstaff, … Shakespeare his secret father.” And if this particular thrust and parry isn’t enough, he goes after the anti-Blooms so numerous these days, busily editing warring versions of Hamlet and King Lear, so that by now cautious consumers (we’re scarcely readers anymore) keep receiving conflicting health warnings about the flaws in the Norton, Oxford, or Arden editions.
One miracle revealed by the book is Rosenbaum’s staying power. He has more patience for the territorial gladiators and their scholarly and biographical arguments than is good for him. And he’s always muddling the argument by stuffing it with details nobody needs to know. (God was wrong about the details.) Do we need to know that he lunched with acting coach Cicely Berry at Tartine in Greenwich Village? Or that he met with actor Steven Berkoff in the “bright-lit dining room of the Gramercy Park Hotel"? One of those diversions, however, may excuse the others, since it hints at a delight in words and irony that may be Rosenbaum’s strongest suit: his floridly arcane discussion with English professor Gary Taylor, he tells us, took place in “the Krispy Kreme donut shop in a Tuscaloosa strip mall.”
I’d rather meet Rosenbaum in a better organized, more disciplined book that doesn’t find him falling all over himself to avoid claiming his own territory as a first-rate romancer of Shakespeare and his great plays and astonishing linguistic inventions. Even as he takes on professors and theory-junkies, he treats himself more as a reporter than an idiosyncratic thinker. Yet, for all that, his plainly spoken perceptions, such as “Shakespeare either wrote it or didn’t write it,” are more eloquent than so much of the official story.
“One can get carried away,” he admits, but that declaration doesn’t spare him from digressions or what he himself calls “the seductions of a single controversial textual variation.” Often, he hoists himself on the petard of his own fascination with words. Like the biographers, he can be lured easily into speculation, sometimes about the arguments that still rage over different spellings in different versions. It turns out that, in Hamlet, the air bites either “shrewdly” or “shroudly,” and Rosenbaum can’t get over it, diverting himself from the brevity of his own frequent wit. His use of words such as “polysemous” and “disambiguating” is not much better than the ugly constructions of the dotty deconstructionists he otherwise scorns. The lasting irony of this book is that its tentacular overreaching almost strangles the enthralled, modest scholar who is finally better than the whole pack of them.
Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change
Melting permafrost, vanishing toads, a dearth of icebergs: everywhere journalist Kolbert looked, she found the signature of global warming. In an elegant and accessible guidebook (adapted from her award-winning New Yorker series) the author highlights the attempts to understand and deal with a looming problem.
Gallatin Canyon: Stories
“The old sumbitch and I got along good,” writes McGuane in “Cowboy,” one of ten stories in this collection, most of which are set in the backwaters of the American West. This is territory that the author has worked throughout his distinguished career, and in “Cowboy,” McGuane captures “a dyin way of life” that persists for the seekers in this and the other spare, evocative tales.
The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
Preacher and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher was the Bill Clinton of his era: charismatic, controversial, and flawed. Beecher’s magnetic sermons espoused love and forgiveness. But as historian Applegate relates in this masterful biography, Beecher—who was famously tried for adultery—may have taken love a bit too far.
The Emperor’s Children
Three college friends, approaching their 30s in pre-September 11 New York City, discover that achieving success in their artistic ambitions is proving frustratingly difficult. And they aren’t getting any younger. (One of the trio calls her makeup “remedial spackle.”) In this big, well-crafted novel—Messud’s fourth—plans are forced to change as two strangers enter and upset the friends’ static lives.
More Books by Yale Authors
Stephen Bauman 1979MDiv
Joseph Callo 1952
Rev. Joseph M. Champlin 1951
Robert A. Dahl 1940PhD, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Political Science
Gary Hart 1961BD, 1964LLB
Robin Hazelwood 1992
Steven Hill 1982
Robert V. Hine 1952PhD
Chris Hoffman 1969
Euny Hong 1995
Peter S. Kaufman 1975 and Henry F. Owsley
Matt Kellogg 2004 and Jillian Quint, Editors
Mathew Kuefler 1995PhD, Editor
James Kugel 1967
Richard Lanham 1963PhD
Benjamin Lloyd 1985, 1988BFA
Lisa A. Mainiero 1983PhD and Sherry E. Sullivan
Jeffrey A. Meyer 1985, 1989JD, and Mark G. Califano
Irwin Primer 1961PhD
Rev. Puck Purnell 1993MAR
David Quammen 1970
Tony Robbin 1968BFA, 1968MFA
Jack Rosenblum 1962JD and Corinne Dugas
Jeb Rubenfeld, the Robert R. Slaughter Professor of Law
Aaron Sachs 2004PhD
Esther Schor 1978, 1985PhD
Risa N. Schulman 1993MES, Navindra P. Seeram, and David Heber, Editors
Kirsten Shepherd-Barr 1988
Dorothy G. Singer, Senior Research Scientist in Psychology, Nancy E. Dowd, and Robin F. Wilson, Editors
Carlos R. Soltero 1991, 1994JD
Harvey Starr 1971PhD, Editor
Kevin Sweeney 1986PhD and Evan Haefeli, Editors
Frederick Vreeland 1950 and Vanessa Somers Vreeland
Bruce E. Wexler, Professor of Psychiatry
Rebecca Zurier 1988PhD
Art and Music in Britain: Four Encounters, 1730–1900
Felix Mendelssohn’s 1829 visit to Staffa, an island in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, inspired his overture Fingal’s Cave; a few years later, the British painter J. M. W. Turner visited the same area and painted Staffa, Fingal’s Cave. This dialogue across art forms is one of four that are featured in the British Art Center’s multimedia exploration of the relationship between music and the visual arts. Listening stations allow visitors to hear musical excerpts as they view works from the art center’s permanent collection and period instruments on loan from the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments.
Dave Brubeck is renowned for his jazz performances, but he is also a prolific composer of sacred works, including two oratorios, four cantatas, and a mass, as well as the Gregorian Chant-inspired “Pange Lingua.” The Dave Brubeck Quartet appears in Woolsey Hall with the Yale Camerata to perform “Pange Lingua” and other works, along with a number of traditional jazz favorites. Call for tickets.
Playwright Sarah Ruhl retells the classic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, through the eyes of its heroine. Last season, the Rep premiered Ruhl’s play The Clean House, which went on to become a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Directed by Les Waters.
Memorial for Jaroslav Pelikan
Sterling Professor of History Emeritus Jaroslav J. Pelikan, who died on May 13, will be remembered in a memorial service at Battell Chapel. Pelikan, a historian of Christianity, taught at Yale for 34 years and served as dean of the Graduate School from 1973 to 1978.
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