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Theatrical costumes are so much more than clothes. The best ones tell stories, using hemlines and fabrics to let us know exactly what world we’re entering when the lights rise on stage. For instance, consider what we would know about a production of Romeo and Juliet if the entire cast bounded on in cowboy hats and jeans.
Among current sartorial storytellers, few are more lauded than William Ivey Long ’75MFA. A veteran of almost 60 Broadway productions and the winner of five Tony awards, he is renowned for dazzling work that is as witty as it is sumptuous. North Carolina’s Cameron Art Museum has given its current exhibition of his designs—which runs through October 14—the cheeky title “Between Taste and Travesty. ”
Long’s costumes for the Broadway musical Hairspray gleefully straddle that divide. The story of a winsome, overweight girl named Tracy Turnblad, who battles racism in 1960s Baltimore by integrating a local teen dance program, the show itself soars over the top—insisting that unrestrained enthusiasm can change the world.
The outfits support the message. As they croon and shimmy their way to revolution, characters grow increasingly glamorous in mod assortments of boas, ruffles, and primary colors.
Early-sixties fashion means the most to Tracy’s mother Edna (originally played by Harvey Fierstein). Before she gets hip, she slouches around her apartment in an old housecoat, ashamed of her large frame. However, in a girl-group number called “Welcome to the Sixties, ” Tracy convinces Edna that the world not only has room for her, but also wants to embrace her for who she is.
The result? A mother-daughter shopping spree that finds the ladies strutting in matching paisley gowns. The dresses have a psychedelic color scheme, blue and purple feathers on their sleeves and hems, and a massive flower blooming from the center of each of their bodices.
For audiences, Edna’s costume signals her liberation from self-loathing. One of the most touching effects of the dress is that unlike her restrictive housecoat, it actually moves with her body, letting her seem graceful for the first time. Her external freedom mirrors her internal growth, and her costume becomes a portrait of her bright, paisley heart.
You may not know it, but you are made of corn.
These days, it isn’t just Midwestern farm boys who are corn-fed. Almost everything we Americans eat comes from corn: corn-fed beef in our burgers, high-fructose corn syrup sweetening our sodas, the fermented corn that gives a kick to our beer. Which is why scientists have found that most of the carbon in our bodies comes from corn.
King Corn, a new documentary by Ian Cheney ’02, ’03MEM, and Curt Ellis ’02, is a thoughtful, good-humored look at this now-ubiquitous crop that has reshaped the way we eat, and possibly our waistlines, too. Their film, which will have its premiere in New York on October 12, followed by theatrical release in other American cities, argues that maybe being corn-fed isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Cheney and Ellis were roommates at Yale, where they shared an academic and gustatory passion for food. After they graduated, they linked up with Ellis’s cousin Aaron Woolf, an experienced documentary filmmaker, to make a movie about the American food system. (Woolf is the film’s director, and Jeff Miller ’03 is editor and co-writer. )
Their research into the American food system yielded two discoveries. The first was that corn has quietly become the dominant crop in the American food system. The second was the discovery that they had more in common than they realized. While travelling through Iowa, Cheney and Ellis figured out that their great-grandfathers—Melvin W. Ellis and Clair Eugene Cheney—had both grown up in the tiny town of Greene, Iowa, current population 1,015. And so they decided that their film would be about moving back to Iowa to grow one acre of corn.
Cheney and Ellis rented their acre from Chuck Pyatt, a native of Greene and a board member of the American Corn Growers Association. The acre was a small patch of a vast field of corn covering thousands of acres, all of it farmed by one of Pyatt’s neighbors.
Pyatt became their landlord and their Squanto, schooling them in the intricacies of growing corn in the modern world. His first lesson was that the real work of farming these days isn’t field work. It’s paperwork.
“Every time we went to see him, he asked us how our subsidy forms were coming, ” says Cheney. “That’s what he wanted to talk about, and we, as sane human beings, did not. But he really taught us—subsidies are the economy out there. ”
The federal government spends billions of dollars a year on a vast array of loans, subsidies, and price supports to encourage farmers to grow corn. In fact, Pyatt explains in the film, federal subsidies are often the only way that any farmer can turn a profit. These subsidies are in large part the legacy of Earl Butz, himself a farm boy from Indiana. In 1973, as Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, Butz created the modern farm subsidy system, which pays farmers to grow more and more corn, even as the price of corn has gone lower and lower.
Meanwhile, actually farming an acre of corn in Greene has become quick work. Cheney and Ellis diligently climbed into their neighbor’s tractor to plow in the fertilizer, plant the seed corn, and spray their crop with herbicide (with a little help from the neighbor). Each step was over in a matter of hours, or even minutes. After that, there wasn’t much left to do but sit and watch the corn grow.
It’s a far cry from their great-grandfathers’ time, when power was mostly provided by the farmers and their horses. In a sense, both Earl Butz’s subsidies and the neighbor’s tractors stemmed from the experience of Clair Cheney, Melvin Ellis, and other men and women of their generation who knew farming as backbreaking labor, and who worried about having enough food to eat. Subsidized industrial agriculture is the achievement of their dream—cheap, plentiful food that is easy to grow.
With little to keep them down on the farm, Cheney and Ellis spend the majority of the film on an extended educational road trip about where their corn will go once it has been harvested. They visit Colorado feed lots, make corn syrup in their kitchen, and illustrate the history of U.S. agricultural policy using stop-motion animation and a Fisher Price toy farm (all to a superb soundtrack by The Wowz: Simon Beins ’03, Sam Grossman ’04, and Johnny Dydo). They even track down Earl Butz himself, now a frail 98 years old and living in an Indiana nursing home, his door adorned with an ear of corn.
Butz is still proud of his cheap-corn policy. “It’s the basis of our affluence now, ” he tells Cheney and Ellis. “You see those tremendous fields of corn out there, corn as far as you can see—that’s the age of plenty. ”
In a sense, Butz is right. According to the film, we spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than any generation in history. King Corn gives him a respectful hearing. But Cheney and Ellis aren’t convinced we’re getting a bargain. Many of the scientists and academics they meet suggest that all of the cheap, empty calories in highly processed corn may have a lot to do with America’s skyrocketing levels of obesity and type-2 diabetes.
King Corn follows in the footsteps of films like Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me and books like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma in questioning whether our industrial food system has health and environmental costs that haven’t been reckoned. But it isn’t clear that Americans are prepared to accept higher costs at the checkout counter, either.
Neither King Corn nor its makers claim to have the answers. “We went out there curious, ” says Cheney, “and we left puzzled.”
You Can Quote Them
In this column’s first installment (March/April), I listed some of the most famous quotations by Yale alumni. Among them was Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s characterization of pornography: “I know it when I see it” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964). In reply, Ray Lamontagne ’57, ’64LLB, sent a letter:
You might be interested to know that the Potter Stewart quote was actually provided to him by his law clerk, Alan Novak ’55, ’63 LLB. Justice Stewart was a great justice and I do not want to take anything away from him. But he was stuck on how to describe pornography, and Novak said to him, “Mr. Justice, you will know it when you see it. ” The justice agreed, and Novak included that remark in the draft of the opinion. Whichever way you might want to attribute the quote, it came from a Yalie.
I spoke with Lamontagne, who said he is a close friend of Novak’s and had heard the story directly from him many years ago. Then I contacted Novak. He declined the honor of being named author of the famous line and sent his own account by e-mail:
After several days reviewing with the other court members the materials related to the ’63 Term pornographic materials, Justice Stewart came to the office for a Saturday stint of opinion writing. I was there alone when he arrived, and we visited together to discuss his reaction to the case. … I had been a Marines officer; he a Navy officer. We discussed our experiences with material we had seen during our military careers, and discovered we had both seen materials we considered at the time to be pornographic, but this conclusion was arrived at somewhat intuitively. We agreed that “we know it when we see it, ” but that further analysis was difficult. The justice went back to his office, and shortly thereafter produced a draft concurring opinion, which has by now become somewhat famous. I am sure he never expected, intended, or desired notoriety for this element of his work. But, as someone said about Hollywood movies, you never know.
Supreme Court justices have long relied heavily on the help of clerks freshly graduated from leading law schools. There are other famous judicial quotations widely known to have been fed to judges by these junior assistants. Until now the most prominent example was the landmark Footnote 4 in the 1938 case United States v. Carolene Products Co.:
Nor need we enquire … whether prejudice against discrete and insular minorities may be a special condition, which tends seriously to curtail the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities, and which may call for a correspondingly more searching inquiry.
This footnote, which laid the groundwork for modern interpretation of the “equal protection” clause of the Constitution, was written by Justice Harlan F. Stone’s clerk, Louis Lusky. Perhaps Lusky should now be joined by Novak as a preeminent clerk-quotesmith, or at least quote collaborator.
Even in literature, a few unsung quotational heroes stand in the shadows behind the official authors. T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia” ) was a brilliant writer, but when he decided to open his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom with a tribute to a dead beloved, he turned to Robert Graves, who wrote a dedicatory poem beginning with this great line:
I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands and wrote my will across the sky in stars.
Are there other literary quotations that were, or may have been, ghostwritten? I would welcome information and ideas from readers. In the meantime, my next column will address perhaps the most prolific category of quotation ghostwriters: politicians’ speechwriters.
I am sitting in my living room as I write this, and my father, here on a visit, is seated nearby—eyes closed and breathing quietly. He reminds me of an old snapping turtle, basking in the light to eke out a few last units of warmth from the fading day. He’s 86 years old, often charming (particularly from a safe distance), witty, erudite, and yet also entirely capable of lashing out viciously at anyone in reach. Nobody has ever been foolish enough to quote that “rage, rage” poem at him. But occasionally, I troll out Hillary Clinton just to see some of the old lunge speed.
Less often lately, though. A few months ago, my father became reacquainted with the varicella-zoster virus, which he first experienced as a case of chicken pox when he was about six. This would be in 1926, heyday of the gangsters in New York City, back when my father’s family used to earn cash selling chow puppies to Legs Diamond and his ilk as presents for their chorus girl companions. The chicken pox went away, and the virus went dormant somewhere in my father’s nerve tissue, only to roar back to life 80 years later in the age of YouTube and Al Qaeda. This time, it caused a wicked case of shingles, with street-fighting scabs across one side of his face; pain that was variously burning, stabbing, or throbbing; a maddening itch; and debilitating fatigue. (Clinical note: lunge speed unimpaired.)
I mention all this because the two books before me are both about time and the human body, a highly pertinent topic—pertinent particularly in an alumni magazine, where we are regularly reminded of just what’s afoot here by the Necrology, and by the relentless retreat of our own bright, hairy cohort toward the sketchy front end of the Alumni Notes.
The enticingly titled Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream is framed around “A Day in the Life of Your Body,” starting with the din of the alarm clock and ending back at that last peaceful instant of night, when the day still lies before us ripe with promise. The Art of Aging examines how those days and years pile up, to the point when “promise” sounds way too ambitious, and “fulfillment of the reasonable” will do just fine. One author, Jennifer Ackerman ’80, contemplated medical school but called it off at the last minute after a dream about “diving off a bridge and landing headfirst in a slough of mud. ” The other author, Sherwin B. Nuland ’55MD, made the plunge, becoming a clinical professor of surgery at Yale and also the National Book Award winning author of How We Die.
Ackerman, who became a journalist, provides us with a genial introduction to the science of “chronobiology, ” which is constantly revealing new ways the body’s “circadian oscillations” affect “everything from blood pressure to heart rate, sperm count to allergic reactions. ” We grew up, for instance, thinking that a body temperature of 98.6 was normal. But chronobiologists say normal is 97 degrees in the early morning, and 99 or 100 is fine later in the afternoon.
Here and there, Ackerman gives tips on how knowing this sort of thing can make our lives better. If you want to minimize the pain of visiting the dentist, for instance, schedule your appointments for the afternoon, “when the pain threshold in teeth is highest. ” Likewise, some oncologists have recently figured out that they can do less damage to healthy tissue and more damage to cancer cells by timing chemotherapy to the body’s daily cycles. And, on a happier note, the best time for a drink is between 5 and 6 p.m., “when the liver is generally most efficient at detoxifying booze. ” Ackerman relies heavily on scientific studies, and her reporting about them is admirably accurate and thorough. But I also sometimes wished she could shake off the tight, fact-driven limits of her background as a magazine writer and tease out some of the deeper questions. (To wit: is detoxification really the point?)
Reading these two books together reminded me how often we act as if biology were something we have moved beyond, or could overcome with a little will power and the right pharmaceuticals. Thus in the 1950s, Ackerman writes, the Air Force tried “sending pilots out to their jets on the tarmac overnight so they could sleep in their cockpits and be ready to go at an instant. ” But the pilots had an unfortunate tendency to wake up and crash. Small wonder. Everybody knows the bleariness of “sleep inertia, ” which can last from ten minutes to two hours after waking. A 2006 study found that the cognitive skills of people on waking were as impaired as if they were legally drunk.
So we know better now, right? No, says Ackerman, school systems still routinely force teenagers into what one prominent researcher calls “biologically inappropriate” schedules, by starting high school far too early in the morning. And parents, me among them, routinely let their high schoolers roll out of bed and get right behind the wheel, when their brains are still clearly on their pillows.
Maybe we get in the habit of denying biology because we have learned to fix so many things with a scalpel or a pill. So it seems as if we can fix anything—and should. Some scientists predict that with DNA-tweaking and other extreme intervention, we may eventually be able to triple the normal human lifespan. (I suppose that would make 210 the new 70. But the new dead sounds sort of like the old one. ) In The Art of Aging, Sherwin Nuland argues that this kind of life extension would be a disaster individually, socially, and environmentally. His aim is simply to help people live as well as possible for “the lifespan that nature has granted to our species. ” And if the challenge is to pay more attention to our biology in youth, before the consequences of neglect catch up with us, the trick in old age, paradoxically, is not to get obsessed with it.
Nuland argues that the way we respond to the physiological insults of aging is more important than the insults themselves. He introduces us to heroes great and small, among them Hurey Coleman, a New Haven machinery operator who managed to get back to his job just four months after a paralyzing stroke at the age of 48. “They kept telling me something negative and I kept telling them something positive, ” says Coleman’s wife. Likewise, Arthur Galston, a celebrated professor of botany at Yale, has treated stroke and cardiac arrest as “little roadblocks on the way to what I want to do. ”
Unlike many doctors who hand out anti-aging advice about eating less and exercising more, Nuland has been hitting the gym himself for the past ten years. He admits, though, that the motivating incident had to do with vanity more than health. (A callow youth—his son, naturally—advised him to wear longer tennis shorts, to conceal the paltry state of his quads. ) He is also perfectly happy to exploit the vanity of his patients, noting, for instance, the way smoking turns the facial skin into a fragile web of fine wrinkles. “We need to approve of ourselves, ” he writes, “to take pride in what we have become, to feel a vibrancy in our moral sense—we must, quite simply, be happy with what we are.”
This admirable focus on positive attitude has one unfortunate side effect. Nuland has a tendency to fawn over the people he admires, when a balanced approach might have been more engaging. At other times, he worries aloud that he may be “waxing ponderous, ” or dishing up “a confusing mix of caution and advice. ” And readers will, in truth, be tempted to skip through chapters full of familiar admonitions about staying intellectually active and cultivating close connections with other people.
On the other hand, he comes up with a brilliant quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing. ” And I was particularly touched by Nuland’s correspondence with Ruby Chatterjee, an elderly reader from India, who wrote to him for advice about how to kill herself in a way that wouldn’t cause pain for the people around her. Nuland advises her to “live for the sake of those who love you, because they need you … in ways that you may not really appreciate. I would have been devastated had my grandmother taken her own life in her mid-seventies. ”
From this start, a rich correspondence unfolds over the years, with Mrs. Chatterjee clearly recovering her sense of joy in life. But then she announces her plan to visit Connecticut. And despite his admonitions about cultivating personal connections, Nuland is reduced to panic and evasion: “To me, the impossibility of physical closeness was an essential ingredient of the emotional closeness we had achieved. ” But the dreaded meeting comes to pass and proves delightful. Their correspondence continues, via e-mail now, through the writing of this book, with Mrs. Chatterjee sometimes wondering if “death has perhaps forgotten me, ” but adding that “life still has its charms. ”
And Nuland concludes, “death forgot her because she forgot death.”
The Death of the Grown-up: How America’s Arrested
Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization
“The civilization that forever dodges maturity will never live to a ripe old age, ” writes West, a pundit for the Washington Times and other publications. In this critique of much of contemporary culture, West castigates the Baby Boom generation for its embrace of political correctness and its refusal to say no to its spoiled children. “The parental backbone has joined the tailbone as an evolutionary remnant of what once was, ” she laments. Forever young, West warns, can be fatal.
Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man
Seventeenth-century Chinese historian Zhang Dai was living the good life until the overthrow of the Ming Dynasty in 1644 forced him, at the age of 47, into a life-changing exile in the Chinese countryside. “It all seemed as if the world had been cut adrift, ” Zhang wrote. But he soon found his bearings and completed important histories of the Ming period, as well as essays and poems. Spence mines Zhang’s remarkable writings to offer a vivid portrait of a China transformed.
Henry Kissinger and the American Century
“From Germany to Jerusalem, Kissinger offered policymakers in multiple societies imperfect but practical options for dealing with a troubled world, ” writes Suri. “He provided a path for policy beyond slogans. ” The historian (and occasional Kissinger critic) offers an even-handed examination of the controversial statesman’s successes and failures. Suri also explores why Kissinger came to his policy positions—and “why so many people invested this German-Jewish immigrant with so much power.”
Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle
Over Global Warming
In the wake of Katrina and the 2005 hurricane season—the most active on record—science journalist Mooney, a New Orleans native, examines the issues and people involved in meteorology’s current controversy: the notion that human-caused global warming is “making the deadliest storms on Earth still deadlier. ” The result is an informative and sobering look at science and scientists, and at how policymakers handle (and mishandle) disagreements among researchers. “We don’t know precisely how global warming will change hurricanes, ” Mooney admits. “What matters is that today, we know enough to be worried.”
The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America
“The choice educated, idealistic young people now face—to be a sellout or a saint—has no place in a prosperous democracy, ” writes Brook. In a hard-hitting polemic, the journalist shows how student debt and the desire for even a modest middle-class lifestyle have made working for the public good almost impossible. Brook analyzes the evolution of this counterproductive situation and calls for a return to Jefferson’s ideal: a society in which talent does not go to waste.
Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America
Native Americans were already hunting whales when English adventurers began exploring New England in the early seventeenth century. From modest beginnings, whaling became “a powerful force in the evolution of the country, ” writes Dolin. In this fascinating history, he follows “iron men in wooden boats” from whaling’s shadowy beginnings up to the moment when the last wooden whaling ship, the Wanderer, ran aground in Massachusetts in 1924. Says Dolin, “much of America’s culture, economy, and in fact its spirit were literally and figuratively rendered from the bodies of whales.”
More Books by Yale Authors
Ian Ayres 1981, 1986JD William K. Townsend Professor of Law
Amy Bloom, Lecturer
Mike Bouscaren 1969
Robert F. Bruner
1971 and Sean Carr
Benjamin L. Carp
David Cole 1980, 1983JD, and Jules Lobel
Joseph B. Entin
Michael Folz 1969
Michael Gates Gill
Nick Harding 1991
1972PhD, 1975JD, Sterling Professor of Law
Robert D. Morris
Holt N. Parker
Stephen C Schimpff
Susan Smulyan 1975, 1985PhD
Josh Swiller 1992
Stephen G. Waxman, Bridget M. Flaherty Professor of Neurology, editor
A Kind of Eden
In the mid-1990s, British photographer Jem Southam discovered this pond near his home in the Devon village of Upton Pyne. The “Black Pit, ” as it was called, had been created during an eighteenth-century mining operation. Later, after the mine closed, houses were built in the area and the residents used the pond as a dump. When Southam found the pond, a local man was trying to clean it up and landscape it. The photographer returned periodically to photograph that rehabilitation effort and a subsequent one. Southam’s Upton Pyne exhibition is at the Center for British Art through December 30.
A Field Guide to Sprawl
A display of 48 aerial photographs by photojournalist Jim Wark reveals patterns of poorly planned developments in the American landscape. Textual commentary by urban historian Dolores Hayden, professor of architecture and American studies.
The Very Picture of Transgression: Visions of Pirates Since 1650
Printed documents and original art from the Beinecke’s collections illustrate the evolving image of the pirate and its multifaceted role in music, theatrical arts, adventure tales, and reportage over the past three-and-a-half centuries.
Art for Yale: Collecting for a New Century
An exhibit of more than 300 works of art—all acquired in the past decade—celebrates one of the most exuberant periods of growth in the gallery’s 175-year history.
Evan Yionoulis ’82, ’85MFA, directs Richard II—Shakespeare’s exploration of power, its misuse, and revolt.
Gustav Holst: The Planets
Timothy Weisman, Andres Pester, and Raymond Nagem perform The Planets, transcribed for organ by Peter Sykes and performed in its entirety.
The orchestra, under the direction of Shinik Hahm, performs the Elgar Cello Concerto with Ralph Kirshbaum, cello; and the Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D minor with the Yale Camerata.
In the first concert of a yearlong celebration of the new Taylor and Boody organ in the Divinity School’s Marquand Chapel, Martin Jean performs the world premiere of Matthew Suttor’s Syntagma. In addition, the Yale Schola Cantorum and Piffaro Renaissance Band perform a Te Deum for four choirs by Hieronymus Praetorius. Free admission; call for reservations.
Poetics and Politics in Yehuda Amichai’s World
An international conference celebrating Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000) brings together scholars in poetry, comparative literature, and Hebrew culture and literature to discuss the work of the most widely translated Hebrew poet since King David. Amichai’s personal papers and literary archives reside in the Beinecke Library.
Sacred Space: Architecture for Worship in the 21st Century
Scholars, architects, and clergy discuss the roles of sacred spaces in a changing and secular world. The keynote speaker of this conference is Robert Schuller, founding pastor and chair of the board of California’s Crystal Cathedral.
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