The Blue & White
April showers bring Blue & White flowers ...
Claire Shang, CC ’24, Editor-in-Chief
Sylvie Epstein, CC ’23, Managing Editor
Kat Chen, CC ’24, Digital Editor
Tarini Krishna, BC ’23, Publisher
Daniel Seizer, CC ’22, Publisher
Hart Hallos, CC ’23, Illustrations Editor
Madeleine Hermann, BC ’23, Illustrations Editor
Annie Poole, BC ’24, Layout Editor
Benjamine Mo, CC ’23, Literary Editor
Eliza Rudalevige, CC ’23, Literary Editor
Samantha Sacks, CC ’22, Podcast Director
Grace Adee, CC ’22
Dominy Gallo, CC ’23
Cy Gilman, CC ’22
Chloë Gottlieb, CC ’22
Elizabeth Jackson, CC ’22
Nicole Kohut, CC ’22
Sam Needleman, CC ’22
Willa Neubauer, BC ’22
Victor Omojola, CC ’ 24
Sophie Poole, BC ’22
Hailey Ryan, BC ’22
Lyla Trilling, CC ’22
Brooke McCormick, BC ’22
Alexander Aibel, CC ’23
Emily Bach, BC ’24
Zibia Bardin, BC ’25
Cole Cahill, CC ’23
Iris Chen, CC ’24
Michael Colton, CC ’22
Margaret Connor, BC ’23
Andrea Contreras, CC ’24
Cat Flores, BC ’25
Sadia Haque, BC ’23
Jaden Jarmel-Schneider, CC ’22
Anouk Jouffret, BC ’24
Kelsey Kitzke, BC ’23
Miska Lewis, BC ’24
Justin Liang, GS ’24
Will Lyman, CC ’23
Becky Miller, BC ’24
Leah Overstreet, CC ’24
Ellida Parker, CC ’24
Anna Patchefsky, CC ’25
Jai Qureshi, CC ’23
Michaela Sawyer, CC ’25
Sarah Shapiro, BC ’25
Dariya Subkhanberdina, BC ’23
Muni Suleiman, CC ’24
Sona Wink, BC ’25
Maca Hepp, CC ’24
Mac Jackson, CC ’24
Hazel Lu, CC ’24
Vanessa Mendoza, CC ’23
Samia Menon, SEAS ’23
Oonagh Mockler, BC ’25
Rosaline Qi, CC ’22
Aeja Rosette, CC ’22
Rea Rustagi, SEAS ’22
Amelie Scheil, BC ’25
Jace Steiner, CC ’22
Betel Tadesse, CC ’25
Phoebe Wagoner, CC ’25
Maya Weed, CC ’22
Taylor Yingshi, CC ’25
Table of Contents
About life on our campus since lilacs last bloom'd ...
by Claire Shang
by The Blue & White Staff
In Loving Memory by Will Lyman
The Scaffolded City by Justin Liang
Come On You Spurs by Victor Omojola
Much Overdue by Muni Suleiman
Aibel Relabels by Alexander Aibel
Rachel Broder by Miska Lewis
Fergus Campbell by Becky Miller
Micaela Cacho-Negrete by Dariya Subkhanberdina
Kassia Karras by Michaela Sawyer
Between the Virtual World and Me by Iris Chen
Making Mischief by Anna Patchefsky
The Bard at the Circus by Maya Weed
The Faces of GS by Andrea Contreras
On the Will to Party by Zibia Caldwell
The Threat of Masculinity by Leah Overstreet
Anywhere But Here by Will Lyman
Fonsophobia by Skylar Wu
Invitation by Skylar Wu
Excerpt from "Manifestations" by Miska Lewis
by Betel Tadesse
Season 8 by Michael Colton
A Graduating Senior On How To Best "Do" College
by Michael Colton
Would a Princess Do That? by Anouk Jouffret and Becky Miller
In Which Our Hero Embraces Tradition by Elizabeth Jackson
Marianne Williamson by Nicole Kohut
Sharon Marcus by Dominy Gallo
Dean Spade by Kelsey Kitzke
Sonya Horsford by Ellida Parker
by Cy Gilman
by Hart Hallos, Daniel Seizer, & Chloë Gottlieb
Earlier this month, scrolling through Elon Musk–owned Twitter, I came across some 2020 data on the subscription base of Harper’s Magazine. The oldest general-interest monthly in America, Harper’s is as magazine as it gets. Its readers, one-third of which are women, have been subscribed for an average of 10 years. Their average household income is $116,000; 46% hold postgraduate degrees. The replies were of muted, but general, shock. There seemed to be a confusion about who—and what—people think magazines are for.
Technically, The Blue and White has been around since 1890, just 40 years after Harper’s founding. This is not to put us among such high company—though we did seem to be running ads for Harper’s in our hallowed pages in 1892—but to understand that as the American magazine has expanded, evolved, and experienced identity crises over the centuries, being a college magazine only compounds the challenges that come with the medium.
In 1893 we declared ourselves “in every respect a students’ paper.” With a lack of further explication, it’s hard to say what that really means. In our earliest years, for instance, we often read like a propaganda effort to increase school spirit around athletics. And if you were to ask Blue and White staffers now, I think each would have a different answer as to why they’re on the magazine and what they think an undergraduate magazine–the official one, no less—ought to do, be, and look like. Like my predecessors, I’m not even sure I have a completely cogent answer for you. But I think it all hinges on this lack of prescription, and on trying to figure out, as we go, what it is that unifies the disparate experiences of thousands of undergrads. One thing’s certain: We’re all here to learn every day, in some form. I’m of the mind that our April issue embodies this experience of learning something from every encounter.
Our Blue Note writers shine light on places we might take for granted, examining dusty corners and excavating niches. Will Lyman meanders through Riverside Park, reading the dedications on its benches and Justin Liang ponders the history and future of the ubiquitous sidewalk shed. Muni Suleiman thinks about how the NYPL removing fines changes New Yorkers’ conception of the library. Alexander Aibel has a crisis about the inconsistency of Columbia buildings. And Victor Omojola, resident Liverpool fan, ventures off-campus to a space distinctly not his own—a Tottenham pub.
As the class of 2022 approaches graduation, four Campus Characters made the time to talk to our staffers. Dariya Subkhanberdina follows educational equity activist and Depop top seller Micaela Cacho-Negrete across campus; Becky Miller dives into the mind of auteur Fergus Campbell; Michaela Sawyer uncovers the inspiration behind Kassia Karras’ art; and Miska Lewis chats with Rachel Broder about her food stand, farming, and family.
Apparently, the average Harper’s subscriber spends three hours reading an issue. If you have even a fraction of that, you can indulge in our longer-form essays and features. In our Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Anna Patchefsky unearths accounts of the colonial-era mischief of Columbia undergrads while Zibia Caldwell writes beautifully of partying as a meaningful practice of self-care. Maya Weed writes of a campus production borne of the “circusification of Hamlet” and Iris Chen contemplates a virtual reality project intended for its users to experience anti-Black racism. Andrea Contreras speaks to older adult GS students about what led them here. Leah Overstreet indicts Harry Styles on a variety of charges, while Will Lyman reports from the Lerner Party Space on one of our few campus traditions.
This month’s Conversations are all about understanding how the self moves through the world. Nicole Kohut and 2020 presidential candidate and spiritual advisor Marianne Williamson talk antidepressants, selling out, and the value of education; by the end, they both pledge to “be of service to the healing of the world.” Professor Sharon Marcus and Dominy Gallo discuss the relationship between literature, sexuality, and sexual violence. Kelsey Kitzke speaks with alum and mutual aid organizer Dean Spade on the frailty of hope and the necessity to preserve it, and Sonya Horsford provides insight to Ellida Parker about designing the first-ever Black studies curriculum for New York public schools even when “inertia has been so powerful.”
We wouldn’t be a students’ paper without literature—you’ll find beautiful poems by Skylar Wu and a short story by Miska Lewis online—and humor. Michael Colton provides sage advice about scheming, and writes us an instruction manual for the ultimate undergrad experience. To that end, Elizabeth Jackson takes our hapless hero, Verily Veritas, on a quest through Spectator’s 116 Columbia traditions. And in a moment of hard-hitting reporting, Becky Miller and Anouk Jouffret debate the oppression of today’s princesses.
In 1893, an ancestor of mine declared that we would publish “such articles as will, in turn, not merely appeal to, but will merit the support of the students. We shall expect that support, not because of old age, of finely appointed offices, of college advertisements ... but simply because we shall try to deserve it.” Over a century later, I’m working—and hopefully succeeding—at this same goal.
Illustration by Hart Hallos (excerpted from cover)
Claire Shang, Editor-in-Chief: Black cherry Chobani. Hanne Ørstavik, Love. Perfume Genius, “Wreath.”
Sylvie Epstein, Managing Editor: The Dropout (Hulu). Fleetwood Mac, “Gypsy.” Homemade bruschetta.
Kat Chen, Digital Editor: Russian Doll, Season 2 (Netflix). The Sapphires, "I Found Out Too Late."
Tarini Krishna, Publisher: Priya Ragu, damnshestamil. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark.
Daniel Seizer, Publisher: Severance (Apple TV+). Not having Covid.
Hart Hallos, Illustrations Editor: shirtless sleeves.
Madeleine Hermann, Illustrations Editor: Ingrid Michaelson, “Far Away.” Everything bagels. Picnicking with Staff Writer Kelsey Kitzke.
Annie Poole, Layout Editor: Formula 1: Drive to Survive, Season 4 (Netflix).
Eliza Rudalevige, Literary Editor: Jos Charles, feeld. Leith Ross, “I’d Have To Think About It.”
Grace Adee, Senior Editor: Rachel Khong, Goodbye Vitamin. Calling back my mom!
Dominy Gallo, Senior Editor: Luvia Lazo, Kanitlow. Rebecca Solnit, Recollections of My Nonexistence. Britney Spears, “Toxic.”
Cy Gilman, Senior Editor: The 1978 Covent Garden recording of Peter Grimes. Will Tavin, “Digital Rocks.” Leo Gilman.
Chloë Gottlieb, Senior Editor: Rachel Ingalls, Mrs. Caliban. Arnold Lobel, Frog and Toad Are Friends. Befriending an amphibian.
Elizabeth Jackson, Senior Editor: Bruce Springsteen, “No Surrender.” The Lumineers, “Sleep on the Floor.”
Brooke McCormick, Senior Editor: Artem Chapeye, “The Ukraine.” David Ehrlich, “25 Best Films of the Year” Video Countdowns.
Sam Needleman, Senior Editor: Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s.
Victor Omojola, Senior Editor: Lingui, The Sacred Bonds (2021)
Sophie Poole, Senior Editor: Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Story. The Row’s Spotify.
Hailey Ryan, Senior Editor: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays.
Alexander Aibel, Staff Writer: UnoTheActivist, “Limbus 2.5.” Trailer Park Boys, Season 1 (Showcase). Johnny Test (Cartoon Network).
Zibia Caldwell, Staff Writer: Spring fur (faux). Hyacinth flowers as room freshener. David Gray, “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.”
Cole Cahill, Staff Writer: Charlie Hickey, “Nervous at Night.”
Iris Chen, Staff Writer: Moses Sumney, “Don’t Bother Calling.” Mary McCarthy, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.
Michael Colton, Staff Writer: On Cinema At the Cinema (Adult Swim). Vince Staples, Ramona Park Broke My Heart.
Margaret Connor, Staff Writer: Belle and Sebastian, If You’re Feeling Sinister. Squirrels to the Nuts (2022).
Andrea Contreras, Staff Writer: Patti Smith, M Train. Rhaina Cohen, “What if Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life?”. Jorge Ben Jor, A Tábua de Esmeralda.
Sadia Haque, Staff Writer: Abbott Elementary (ABC). Turning Red (2022). Charles M. Blow, “Cory Booker, ‘You Had Our Back.’”
Jaden Jarmel-Schneider, Staff Writer: Robert Massie, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.
Anouk Jouffret, Staff Writer: The Clientele, “Reflections After Jane.”
Kelsey Kitzke, Staff Writer: Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House. Enjoying the sun. Ignoring Responsibilities.
Justin Liang, Staff Writer: The Soft Pink Truth, Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?. Sally Wen Mao, Oculus.
Miska Lewis, Staff Writer: June Jordan, Passion. The chocolate salted caramel cake from Hungarian. Notting Hill (1999).
Will Lyman, Staff Writer: Anthony Veasna So, Afterparties. X (2022). Charli XCX, Crash.
Becky Miller, Staff Writer: Vince Staples, Ramona Park Broke My Heart. Rollerblading.
Anna Patchefsky, Staff Writer: Willie Nelson, “Moonlight in Vermont.” Peanut butter and raisins.
Dariya Subkhanberdina, Staff Writer: How I Met Your Father (Hulu). By the Way bakery’s coconut cloud cake. Miley Cyrus, ATTENTION: MILEY LIVE.
Muni Suleiman, Staff Writer: Gwendolyn Brooks: A Poet’s Work In Community at the Morgan Library & Museum. Collecting friends and postcards.
Aeja Rosette, Staff Illustrator: Ivy Sole, Candid. Duckwrth, Supergood. Pink KN95s.
Vanessa Mendoza, Staff Illustrator: Harry Styles, “As It Was” (Music Video). Madeline Miller, Song of Achilles.
Oonagh Mockler, Staff Illustrator: Jóhann Jóhannsson, “A Sparrow Alighted upon our Shoulder.” John Ortved, “That Cloud of Smoke Is Not a Mirage.”
Jace Steiner, Staff Illustrator: Deva Grace, Vocivos. D’espairsRay, Coll:set.
Phoebe Wagoner, Staff Illustrator: spitballing. chums. wellness.
In Loving Memory by Will Lyman
The Scaffolded City by Justin Liang
Come On You Spurs by Victor Omojola
Much Overdue by Muni Suleiman
Aibel Relabels by Alexander Aibel
In Loving Memory
Reading Riverside Park’s benches.
By Will Lyman
Illustration by Vanessa Mendoza
On a meditative walk through Riverside Park, I came to the realization that a lot of people are dead. I was reading the small metal plaques that commemorate various West Side characters, performing a zigzag maneuver to examine each label on the facing benches. I felt the weight of the tributes—that everyone had someone to remember, everyone had things they wanted to say. As I read, I grew increasingly aware that the park was vacant, save for an idle car on Riverside Drive from which white vape clouds spouted.
While it might’ve been appropriate for me to feel some form of grief in response to these memorials, I was mostly left with a feeling of dissatisfaction. The majority of the dedications merely listed names and broad explanations that the honorees enjoyed the park, and that others now missed them. Generic phrases we inherit and imitate abounded, commenting on courage or love in sweeping, even clichéd, terms. “We know you're looking down on us”; “we won’t be the same without you.”
But I struggled to come up with alternatives, for it is a difficult task to distill a life into four lines of text. Reading many of the dedications, I learned nothing about the person concerned. I clung to any plaque that was uniquely descriptive, that seemed to identify something about loved ones beyond the basic roles they occupied in another’s life: Aunt, Father, Lover.
On one bench I read and reread a beautiful, wrenching tribute to a deceased child. Other benches had plaques scratched with keys or otherwise vandalized. One bench had a paper that read “We’re Hiring!” stuck over a plaque. The ad had disintegrated in the rain, falling onto the ground in wet, white clumps. It reminded me that even memorials are commercial spaces. Later, on the Riverside Park Q&A page, I found that each plaque cost $7,500. With this information in mind, I reconsidered what I had read. Some benches were birthday presents, some were proposals, some were made out to dead pets. These memorials were qualified by money, made more visible, maybe even more memorable, than other forms of remembrance. I thought of everyone who didn’t have their own bench or other tangible claim on the city, of all the loved ones who had no place to visit.
The dedications noticeably lacked most people’s occupations. I wasn’t surprised that, in death, people didn’t find day jobs to be particularly personal. Artists were the exception. Such memorials cast the park as a place of inspiration, for creatives to sit and absorb the world around them. To seek out intensely personal moments in a public backdrop: park benches, rooftops, Low Steps at midnight. These places you go to be somewhere else.
I love Riverside in moments. On sunny Sunday afternoons—smiling at a dog, ignoring its owner. On a Saturday in April, when I came across a band playing jazz to a crowd of passersby. I sat on the stone wall and watched people dance. I like to think I have many such places—sunning at Silver Moon Bakery or stumbling into Suite on karaoke night and hearing a man in khakis belt “Lady Marmalade.” Times where it seemed that I had made a home out of the city.
Most often, the dedications ended with a mention of their authors, a sudden appearance of a “Melissa” or a “Conan.” I’m reminded that the memorial isn’t for the dead. It exists for the people of the park—for people to sit among while they feed squirrels, for pilgrimaging family to visit, or for college kids to write about in their notes apps.
Ultimately, it seems that the purpose of these dedications is to do exactly what they did to me—to give me pause, to make me feel both alone and surrounded in the park, to ask me how and where I’d like to be remembered. Above all, they exist to remind us of our shared experience—of gradually finding our places in this city, making connections to benches and asphalt pathways, and personalizing our experience of a place millions have passed through.
Here are the dedications that I’ll remember:
The man who loved mustard,
Who was married to the woman who always had to be right.”
“Little girl with blond curls holding my hand running on the wall,
Climbing rocks and monkey bars, teetering on a two-wheeler, sledding on fresh night snow, Teddy loping alongside.
Sweet unforgettable times.
In loving memory of Hallie Leland Leighton”
“In loving memory of
Here he sat and sunned and sketched
As buses and birds and birthdays flew by”
who enjoyed the sound of silence.
who loved to listen with him.”
The Scaffolded City
Confronting New York’s sidewalk sheds.
By Justin Liang
Surely it must be classed among the seven wonders of New York, alongside the Empire State Building and the yellow taxi. But the iconicity of the former and the ubiquity of the latter cannot compete with that omnipresent seventh wonder: the unsightly sidewalk shed. In our own backyard, the spindly steel beams, green plywood cladding, and harsh fluorescent glare of these structures have most recently been foisted on the façades of Morton Williams and Lerner Hall. It remains the bane of residents in McBain. Venture into the rest of the city; one finds the same scaffolds inflicted on other unsuspecting buildings. Whether the humble walkup or the storied Flatiron Building, no edifice is immune from its clutches.
Few know that this controversial feature of our urban landscape has its roots in Barnumbia history: One evening in 1979, Barnard first-year Grace Gold was walking with a friend on 115th Street when a chunk of masonry fell from the lintel of a Columbia-owned building, killing her. The tragic case of the falling brick, however, has a much longer history. Over a half-century ago, a man “killed by a falling cornice” was featured in E.B. White’s Here is New York.
In a city as vertical as ours, all sorts of death and destruction rain down from the sky: poorly installed air conditioning units, say, or milder kinds of devastation, like the fecal matter of passing pigeons. But it is the falling brick alone that grants us New York’s seventh wonder.
After the Barnard first-year’s death, the city council passed a façade inspection law mandating that all buildings six stories or higher be examined every five years; if the building failed inspection, a sidewalk shed would have to be erected until repairs were done. Landlords being landlords, many realized that it was cheaper to keep renting the sheds instead of shelling out for expensive repair work.
The façade inspection law is responsible for what is today almost a million feet of sidewalk sheds. The average tenure of these sheds is over nine months, but they can sometimes be in place for years on end. Columbia declined to comment on the average tenure of its own sheds, but the scaffold outside McBain, for instance, has been up since 2018. The city’s record, though, belongs to a shed in Harlem that has stayed up for 28 years. These structures are the unsightly barnacles that mar the face of our city, blighting street fronts, impairing visibility, and obscuring natural light. While ostensibly for safety, the sheds themselves can be unsafe: In 2020, a pedestrian was killed by a collapsing scaffold.
Other dense cities with old buildings such as London or Paris manage to keep pedestrians safe without so much structural flotsam. What then is to be done for New York? One solution is legislative: Councilman Ben Kallos has proposed a law that would force landlords to complete façade repairs within six months and dismantle sheds within a week thereafter. An even more fanciful proposal has been to inspect buildings remotely, using drones. Still, another approach is to rethink the scaffolds: Urban Umbrella, a company that traces its origins to a city-sponsored competition in 2010, offers an alternative with translucent roofing and elegant steel arches. But it is fourfold more expensive than the traditional sidewalk shed, meaning its user base is limited to an upscale clientele.
Or, instead of unsightly temporary sheds, why not make them permanent? It’s a whimsical idea, but a covered sidewalk has its proponents: Some cling to its inviting shade under the hot summer sun or take shelter in a rainstorm. For the street vendor, it is a perfect place to set up shop. For the homeless, it can be the only place on the street they call home. From the arcades of Venice to the shophouses of Singapore, covered walkways are a staple of many vernacular architectural traditions.
Perhaps the answer will one day bring us back to the beginning. The Grace Gold Memorial Scholarship, in honor of the Barnard freshman killed by falling masonry, is awarded annually to a student pursuing the fields of architecture, engineering, or urban design. It is a small but meaningful gesture of hope that New York may one day join the ranks of the world’s other great capitals, finding a way to keep pedestrians safe without obscuring the face of the city. That, then, may be a seventh wonder truly worth its name.
Illustration by Amelie Scheil
Come On Your Spurs
Tears, Tottenham, and the beautiful game.
By Victor Omojola
In September 2013, when Dejan Lovren scored a 53rd-minute goal to beat Liverpool one-nil, I cried. Okay—I sobbed. To be fair, I was eleven and when Steven Gerrard would go on to let the Premier League title slip to Manchester City later that season, triggering the return of those tears, I vowed to never let Liverpool Football Club be the source of such impassioned waterworks ever again. Nearly 10 years later, I have stayed true to my oath. Almost.
A few weekends ago, I followed a friend of mine to Flannery’s Bar, home of the New York Tottenham Supporters Club, to watch Spurs’ league match against Manchester City. Though I went at my friend’s suggestion, the game was of interest to me as well. Beat City and Liverpool would trail the league leaders by only six points with a game in hand.
On the way there, between adamant declarations from my Spurs pal—he’s asked not to be named because “I get cooked by my friends for supporting Tottenham all the time, I don’t need the whole internet on my ass, too”—that Tottenham was Manchester City’s “bogey” team and an upset was preordained, I considered the evolution of my football-watching habits.
Just a couple years ago, I usually consumed Premier League action alone and in bed (a five-hour time difference means early kick-offs). Now,I often have the opportunity to experience this phenomenon surrounded by hate-watching friends of rival teams in the lounges of Carlton Arms; and on this day in particular, I would be in an establishment packed full of patrons fueled by both European lager and an eagerness to experience 90 minutes of the beautiful game.
For Lucas Ho, CC ’24, supporting Chelsea is a family affair. Ho’s home in London is 15 minutes away from the Blues’ stadium, and his parents named his little sister, Chelsea, after the club. At Columbia, however, he is unable to consume football as intensely, and so Ho often watches games with friends in classrooms and lecture halls. “We get to kind of talk about what we think is going on in the game, or whatever.” For Ho, the social component of watching football is key, even if circumstances are less than ideal.
I approached the door of Flannery’s, excited to encounter this same sense of community. But when the bouncer asked me to pay a 10 dollar cover, I almost turned around. The thought of spending money to watch Tottenham was deeply upsetting. Yet, buoyed by the authentic atmosphere bursting beyond the door—it truly sounded like a crowd of hammered Brits rather than hammered Americans—I decided to keep calm and carry on. Still, my entrance was not so simple.
“What do you have under there?” the bouncer asked me.
I parted my unzipped puffer to either side like Superman, revealing the bright red Liverpool kit I donned underneath.
“Zip up,” he replied.
“Okay, I will when I get in there.” No response. “We’re rooting for you guys, you know?” I said, chuckling, still thinking this was some sort of joke to him. He didn’t share in my laughter and remained unmoved, obstructing my pathway to enter. I zipped up and was allowed to pass. The experience makes me concur with Zayd Hammour, CC ’24. “There’s way too many Tottenham fans in America,” he asserts. “What’s up with that? I’m not sure.”
Hammour was born in Syria, is British, and has lived in Lebanon and France. The United States does not exactly measure up in terms of how much football is ingrained in the culture. Still, Hammour is pleased with how much the sport is growing in the States.
Once inside, I saw visceral proof of this growth. Among at least a hundred boisterous individuals with similar delusions of grandeur, my Spurs friend was at home. Even after a sublime Harry Kane goal was disallowed for offside, especially after Kane scored (for real this time) to take the lead for Spurs, and even after City equalized in extra time to make it two-two, he chanted defiantly with his fellow Tottenham faithful: “COOOME OOON YOOOU SPUUURS!”
If Tottenham could just hold on, they would steal a draw and essentially validate my friend’s claim that the London club were City’s bogey. As for me, I would take any points off City that I could get. Plus, I was feeling sentimental. Cherishing the camaraderie of football fans that exists in a place like New York City was reward enough.
Still, the story felt all too familiar for perennial bottlers Spurs. Hammour, an Arsenal fan (so the following opinion is coming from a source both biased and delusional), articulates this history of mediocrity—if there is one at all. “If you mention Arsenal in the streets of London, there’s a bit of a class to the name, you know? Tottenham—there’s no class because there’s no history. I mean, it’s just the truth of it.”
But then something historic happened. Off a blistering counterattack, Kane’s massive Walthamstow forehead headed in a winner for Tottenham at the death. And the place went mad. Decibel levels skyrocketed. Beers sloshed and spilled as fans leaped and soared in unison.
My friend ran out of the bar and into the street, hugging strangers in between calling friends to boast. I could not help but smile myself—not only because the result benefits Liverpool, but because the match and the environment I had experienced it in were both genuinely beautiful. I don’t think I cried, but I came awfully close to breaking my decade-long vow—this time with tears of joy.
Illustration by Hart Hallos
On doing away with library fines.
By Muni Suleiman
Illustration by Rea Rustagi
I have always had a complicated relationship with the library. Even before I could read, the vastness of its collection intrigued and overwhelmed me. Once I gained literacy, I checked out stacks of books almost taller than I was and devoted weeks to getting through them. However, as I grew older, my family’s visits became more infrequent. This was in part because with age came more responsibilities and less time for reading. But it was more than that. Between the six members of my family, we had slowly but surely accrued a significant financial burden of late fees and lost fines. The library of my childhood, once seemingly boundless, was quickly becoming less accessible.
Given that my first year at Columbia was fully virtual, I didn’t return to a library until this past fall. As I navigated Butler, Avery, and the rest of Columbia’s system, the New York Public Library was making major changes to its own. Last October, the NYPL announced that it would no longer issue fines for overdue books, a move that several city libraries across the country have also made. Despite municipal-level trends, fines remain a feature of Columbia’s library system.
NYPL president Anthony W. Marx penned an op-ed advocating to abolish fines in 2017, and held a one-day-only fine forgiveness day for borrowers younger than 18, along with the Brooklyn and Queens Libraries.
This time, however, the change is permanent. Marx cited the pandemic’s impact and the pressures that fines impose on low-income and high-need residents. Until last year, the NYPL blocked patrons’ cards after they accumulated $15 in fees. Unsurprisingly, the policy discouraged low-income New Yorkers from engaging with the library: the 10 branches with the highest percentage of blocked cards were all in communities with a median household income below the city’s average. As fines grow, guilt and shame restrict low-income residents’ access to not only books but also the other services and resources, such as internet access and public programming, that public libraries often provide.
Defenders of library fines often propose that fines teach borrowers responsibility and accountability while providing revenue for the library. Marx challenged that logic in the press release, citing research showing that fines do not, in fact, incentivize book returns. “But, unfortunately,” he wrote in the press release, “fines are quite effective at preventing our most vulnerable communities from using our branches, services, and books.” The public library systems in San Francisco, Indianapolis, and New Haven also reported that fines made up less than one percent of their budgets, further motivating them to abolish the practice. Especially if the economic benefit is virtually negligible, should libraries be prioritizing “teaching responsibility and accountability” over accessibility?
The Columbia and Barnard First-Generation, Low-Income (FLI) Partnership Libraries—or simply the Lending Library—aims to address this quandary in the interest of students like me. The FLI Partnership Libraries Access Form servesFLI undergraduate students while ensuring the confidentiality of their borrowing requests. Moreover, the library has extended loan periods, making them much more lenient than other Columbia libraries.
However, the Lending Library still exists under a general library system that administers fees. Policies vary based on the materials borrowed, if they are lost, and from where they were borrowed, but generally, Columbia suspends borrowing access across all libraries to anyone who accrues over $99 in fines and replacement fees. On top of threats to withhold transcripts or even diplomas, the fine system is intentionally punitive.
At times, I still hesitate to go to the library. Even if I’m not checking out a book or resource, the association between the libraries, fines, and financial security still persists for me and other disadvantaged students. When libraries continue to use fines, equitably enriching their communities with knowledge and resources ceases to be the priority; access to books and other resources becomes based on who can “afford” it. At Columbia, FLI students become, at best, discouraged from engaging with their libraries. By maintaining confidentiality and accessibility, the Lending Library takes great steps toward resolving this issue; however, when Columbia libraries as a whole actively retain fines, they also maintain the association between the library and the potential for punishment, deterring students from seeing the school’s libraries as a welcoming space for expansive learning.
Regarding Columbia's greatest failure.
By Alexander Aibel
To be quite honest, though I’ve been here for over two years, I haven’t entered most buildings on campus. I would estimate I’ve crossed not even one-third of Columbia-owned thresholds. Even from the small sample I have encountered, however, I can assure you that Columbia has made finding one’s way to one’s classroom virtually impossible. Each time I go to, say, Dodge (art) or Dodge (sport), I’m forced to track down clues like a pirate hunting for treasure, except the treasure hasn’t been renovated since 1977. Most painful of all is that for some reason, the geniuses behind the school for geniuses decided that none of their floor labels should make sense. I have never—not even once—entered a Columbia building on the first floor!
As an East Asian Languages and Cultures major, I often find myself in Kent. I rush in for class every day—on the third floor. Now that I think about it, my second-floor class is below-ground. This is an academic problem of the highest order: I need the mental capacity to speak Chinese and sit through class, and the added confusion over what floor I’m on more than certainly diminishes my grades.
Schermerhorn … Don’t even get me started … Okay, I started. Why do I enter on the second floor? Maybe because I’m entering a second-rate building. Are there really three floors below this one? Even if there are, why not call this one—oh, I don’t know—the first floor? Or even the ground floor? Just calling it “The Floor You’re Entering On” would be more helpful. And I am no architect, but I know I could design an extension that’s slightly easier to find than Atlantis. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I slither down the hallway trying to shove open double-doors that look like they were designed for a nuclear power plant. I might even be in a different building by now, but who knows? This maze is kinda fun; but now I am late for class.
Pupin, Pupin, Pupin. Manhattan project, Manhattan shmunkjet! They should have spent a little less time researching nuclear reactions and a bit more time making sure that I don’t have to enter on floor five. Classrooms are on floors two and three, floors from which one would expect a nice view; but no, they are below the ground and windowless. That’s why I got a B in Fro Sci. No windows + confusing floors = Aibel is unable to do physics … and the other three sciences I did not do too well in.
Thanks to the International Affairs Building, I’m also no longer a Poli Sci major. I’m not even concentrating in Poli Sci. Why is the fourth floor ‘street level’ and the sixth floor ‘campus level’? Does Columbia’s U.S. News ranking elevate this school above street level?
I might graduate next year, but if I don’t, it’s the floors’ fault. I know my friends would be cooler and my life would be far more fantastic if I could enter campus buildings on Floor One. My brain’s too feeble for any other system, and so is yours.
Illustration by Betel Tadesse
Rachel Broder by Miska Lewis
Fergus Campbell by Becky Miller
Micaela Cacho-Negrete by Dariya Subkhanberdina
Kassia Karras by Michaela Sawyer
By Miska Lewis
Illustrations by Jace Steiner
I met Rachel Broder last spring, when chance brought us to the same discussion section of our 200-person Anthropology of Climate Change class. Later in the semester, we found ourselves planting flowers together at Barnard’s Earth Day event—a nexus quite fitting for us both. The third time I saw her off of Zoom, she offered me a slice of freshly baked sourdough. As I chewed, I reflected that my humble quarantine-era foray into the bread world could not compare. However, those two months gave me the knowledge to objectively assess that Rachel’s bread had the perfect crust and crumble. When I inquired about her secret, she attributed cooking the loaf at an 85% humidity level. At that moment, I knew she meant business.
Six months later, sitting in the Hungarian Pastry Shop, she tells me about her relationship with food, her thesis, and growing up in her grandparents’ kitchen. When the waitress comes to our table, my order in hand, she chats with Rachel, asking about her day. “It’s like I live here,” she said later, laughing. “My housemate works here, so I’m definitely here a lot.”
Rachel’s voice effortlessly rises above the Hungarian hubbub: a melody of first dates, study sessions, and coffee grinders. Per her recommendation, we drink orange blossom tea mixed with apricot jam. As I take my first sip, she asks if I like it and explains that her grandmother constantly drank the concoction. After our conversation, she texts me: “The first question when you walk into one of my family member’s houses is if you want tea.” With every sip, warmth radiates through the china cup and hints of apricot pollinate my taste buds. As we chat, I am struck by how strongly I can relate to her fondness for cooking, particularly for others. Rachel has a gift for carving out spaces for the practices—and the people—she loves, despite the relentless pace of Columbia and New York City.
Rachel tells me that her mother emigrated from what is now Ukraine to the United States at 22. Her grandparents soon followed, making a home in New Jersey within walking distance of their daughter. It was with her family, especially her babushka, that Rachel discovered her love for cooking. A big part of her childhood, she told me, was “not even really cooking with them, but just watching them cook, and having them show love through food and through preparing food.”
Just like her babushka and dedushka, Rachel infuses and creates a little bit of home in every dish she makes. She smiles while remembering, as a child, watching her grandparents’ hands at eye level as they cooked. When those same hands served a table full of extended family, all under one roof for a shared meal, the idea of food as a form of love clicked for the first time. “I saw how food can bring people together to have a conversation, maybe make things less awkward,” she said.
Growing up and building a home away from home, Rachel’s throughline has been imparting joy through food. The other month, Rachel baked a citrus cake for her friend’s birthday, leading to her first-ever commissioned cake of the same kind: Earl Grey, jasmine tea, chocolate, and blood orange cornmeal olive oil cake, with raspberry jam filling, brown butter cream cheese buttercream, and dried blood oranges as adornment. Hearing her speak, I think about how few college students get the chance to have a cake like that on their birthday, to experience the thoughtful and celebratory nourishment Rachel believes in.
Though Rachel grew up going to her grandparents’ house nearly every day, Mondays were the most sacred. Joined by all of her cousins, she sipped black tea swirled with her babushka’s sour cherry preserves and ate crispy potatoes with tangy cucumber salad. Years later, Rachel would reimagine these dishes for the Queens Night Market, an open-air summer food festival that features vendors of all cuisines with no dish sold for more than $6. The gig involves being on your feet for six hours straight in the muggy July heat. The chance to witness a variety of cuisines in one place for an evening of cultural exchange, however, was one Rachel couldn’t imagine missing out on.
To her, summer nights are now for sweet and sour borscht, sticky syrniki, and soft blintzes stuffed, lovingly, into delicate containers. As one of only 100 vendors, Rachel treated the Queens Night Market as a test kitchen to experiment with Ukrainian food. Despite her family heritage and palette for olivye, Rachel hasn’t always gravitated towards cooking within the Ukrainian tradition. As a child, her first-ever dish was blueberry muffins, placed neatly into a basket with pieces of pineapple. Her grandmother usually served cut fruit with breakfast, and seven-year-old Rachel wanted to do the same. “The pineapple looked like giant chunks of butter,” she explained, laughing at the image.
When the pandemic hit and her family’s most sacred Monday Dinners were put on pause, Rachel began cooking more than ever. FaceTiming her grandmother, she tried her best to replicate the dishes from her childhood, undeterred by the lack of formal measurements. Using her taste as a guide, she made the recipes she remembered. “Making the food, and smelling it, was a very intense experience,” she said. As someone who had always conceived of food communally, living with two roommates who ate at different times and couldn’t share the meals—“doing this project by myself,” as she described it—felt “weird.”
When summer 2021 came around, she channeled this practice toward a food stand, aptly named Monday Dinner, that was at once a small business run with her best friend and mother, a homage to her grandparents, and a testament to her incredible cooking and hard work. “The menu was different every week, except for borscht. Syrniki was my favorite, it’s like a pancake-cheesecake hybrid. It was a breakfast thing my grandparents would make for special occasions,” she explained.
On her feet from six o’clock to midnight,, Rachel served her memories to others, allowing them a taste into her childhood. Her grandparents’ support never wavered. “When I was at the Night Market, my grandparents would stay up until midnight when the market would end,” Rachel remembered.“They’d call and be like, ‘How did it go? What sold well?’”
While she’s unsure if she will continue with the stand this coming summer, she’s spent the semester holding cookie fundraisers, most recently for nonprofits in Ukraine, and finding a similar sense of fulfillment as a Food and Agriculture intern at New Roots Community Farm in the Bronx. A collaborative farm founded to “create a more vibrant, just, and equitable local food system,” New Roots has everything from greenhouses to beekeeping. Rachel spends her days doing a little bit of everything: maintenance, weeding, harvesting, seed-saving, helping with Tuesday farmers markets and their Community Supported Agriculture farmshare.
After working there for a year, Rachel was inspired to incorporate the farm into her senior thesis, which is a research project about New Roots and “growing food as a source of healing and servicing disempowered communities.” Over the summer, she’ll be conducting oral history interviews with farm members and will create a research project that is as much an academic study as it is a cookbook. “I want to tell people’s stories through their food,” Rachel told me. It’s a concept that she seems to have been immersed in since birth. “There’s such a disconnect right now in the food system and I want to do my best to close the gap,” she added. In making these connections, Rachel has built a web of meaning and care with everyone she encounters. You can’t help but become entwined in it the moment you try one of her cookies, buttery and sweet in their simple, skilled perfection.
By Becky Miller
Illustration by Aeja Rosette
The night of the tree lighting—a glamorous Columbia tradition where the whole university gathers on College Walk to watch someone flip a switch—Fergus Campbell, CC ’22, put on a show of his own. Capitalizing on the foot traffic near Low Steps, Campbell and his friends set up a projector and streamed previews of his experimental web series “Sankyo Stream” onto an unobstructed stone wall. They passed out “Sankyo Stream” stickers to tree-obsessed spectators. The stickers came free with a shameless advertisement: “Come watch all seven episodes of ‘Sankyo Stream’ in Dodge 511 at 8 p.m. tonight! Bring your friends!”
At 8 p.m. inside Dodge 511, a small student theater that a professor of Campbell’s had lent him for the night, every seat was filled with friends, fans, and film geeks (I belonged somewhere in between those three categories). As the writer, director, editor, and creator of the project on-screen, Campbell, clad in the “Sankyo Stream” t-shirt handmade by a friend, gave brief opening remarks before the lights dimmed. Campbell thanked the viewers, his extensive network of Columbia student collaborators, and his creatively involved roommates and companions. After a round of topical trivia (in which no player could name all three Haim sisters), seven consecutive episodes of Campbell’s precise, beautiful, and evocative mind-map unfurled before the audience. The theater was dark and lively with human reactions, just as a true cinematic experience should be. (Campbell told me later that he hasn’t watched a movie on a laptop in ages because it’s impossible to simulate the undivided attention one gives to a film in a theater.) I remember thinking in Dodge that this Columbia audience was particularly attentive, present, spirited—I immediately fell in line and cheered, laughed, and marveled with the cool seniors. There was no other way to react to a Fergus Campbell screening.
Campbell began making “Sankyo Stream of Consciousness” as a freshman. His vision was clear: He’d venture on an experimental, interview-based quest to find and interview Paul Thomas Anderson. The final product is an adventure narrative, interspersed with dream sequences and preluded by an iconic title-sequence homage to New York. Campbell shoots about a quarter of the show with a Sankyo MF-606 camera, a retro brand of Super 8 film cameras which acts as the namesake for both the show and Campbell’s main character.
Campbell uses the character of Sankyo—a refracted version of himself—to explore obsession, motivations, desires, and “how something can be about someone and at the same time have nothing to do with them, how the subject can be central and at the same time, completely marginal.” The show is a collaboration between artists of all kinds at Columbia and beyond—the original music, dialogue, acting, dancing, choreography, and design are all contributions Campbell’s friends and peers make for free. He admits his college-long project “masquerades as a club.” He spearheads the organization with stylized visions of cowboy vogue, fish guts, faux French film noir sequences, ballet numbers, live student concerts, animated rebirth, and cityscapes in tow.
Paul Thomas Anderson was the obvious choice for the prize of Sankyo’s treasure hunt—since the show is simultaneously dead serious and completely parodical, the stereotypical “favorite director” of film kids simply had to be Sankyo’s ultimate get. Campbell himself only truly idolizes two of PTA’s movies (Phantom Thread and Punch Drunk Love, three if you count Licorice Pizza as an afterthought), but he adopts PTA’s directorial precision and ideological depth like someone who can quote Tom Cruise’s deranged on-stage monologue in Magnolia word for word. The difference is that Campbell has opinions, and Magnolia does not do it for him.
Campbell loves Oliver (he was cast as Fagan in high school); he is a pop music devotee and religiously listens to Lana Del Rey (on Apple Music, of course); he is bored by the role of Maria in West Side Story (although the Spielberg remake was gorgeous); he’s a big fan of The Weeknd’s new album Dawn FM (but does not find its radio-show gimmick original). Campbell is so self-aware that these takes hold no element of bullshit or appeal to popularity—he’s happy to advocate for cool shit and uncool shit, and even cool shit that’s so overdone it becomes uncool. If he’s into it, he’s into it uncompromisingly.
Campbell’s easy self-possession leads to aiming high and usually scoring. On a whim, he cold-called The New Yorker’s Michael Schulman asking if he could help him out in any way. Now he’s fact-checking Schulman’s book about the Oscars and working as his assistant. In Episode Seven of “Sankyo Stream,” Campbell snagged interviews with a MoMA film curator, mayoral candidate and New York personality Paperboy Prince, and the founders of a queer surfing collective. “People are mostly down to give creative support,” he told me, sipping on a beer at Max Caffe. “It’s also luck,” he added, mentioning the recording studio near his hometown in Northern California that he and a friend borrowed from their high school English teacher to record a forthcoming EP.
With a knack for uncovering the small-but-special underbelly of every place he goes, Campbell’s style is distinct and cohesive across his music, his web series, his animations, and his photographs. A short film he wrote and animated mid-quarantine, Telling George, leaps out at you with the style of a Wes Anderson movie; but its languid rhythm, satisfying sentences, and imagined location (a sunny cave-mansion) are entirely Fergus Campbell. His on-brand, unreleased EP is dedicated to the idea of places: The lyrics are “observational, diaristic, but mundane.” His already-public songs, “Sister” and “Californiana” (both written and sung by Campbell with Vimeo music videos), contain strikingly short, detail-laden lyrics, clearly written by someone who expertly captures moments with a camera; listening to his lyrics feels like watching vivid, intentional vignettes flick across your mind, a measured slideshow that Campbell is controlling.
After the last two “Sankyo Stream” episodes come out this spring and summer, Campbell plans to use other avenues to fulfill his visual urges: filming a docuseries about his friend and pop star Maude Latour, writing a feature film, squeezing songs and words and images out of the places he can’t stop thinking about—Marfa, Texas; Argenton, France; his beloved New York.
When I asked him over a dry chicken sandwich if the country accent he adopts for a song about Texas on the EP was supposed to be funny, he explained, “It’s a little bit pastiche but I’m also completely serious about it.” As with everything Campbell creates, even if it isn’t dead serious, some part of it is in fact absolutely dead serious, which is what makes it both so magnetic and so fun. As an auteur, he is at once central and marginal; as a senior at Columbia, he is at once remarkably talented and refreshingly unpretentious. People can’t help freak out about the guy—he is so singular and visionary that it doesn’t even matter that he doesn’t like Magnolia.
By Dariya Subkhanberdina
As a loyal, if not compulsive, Depop shopper for years now, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat giddy while waiting for Micaela Cacho-Negrete, CC ’22, in the lobby of Wien Hall on a blissfully sunny Thursday. As one of the most successful 2,400 sellers of 18 million, Micaela holds the exclusive title of a Top Seller on Depop—an online platform that endows a vintage e-commerce marketplace with the adornments of social media. That afternoon, Micaela strutted out of the elevator and greeted me with a warm and unreserved hug, giving the impression that she is always in a bit of a hurry and yet will still make time for sincere endearment. It felt only fitting that her hands were full with a few packages.
To say that Micaela has great style is an understatement. The subtleties of her coordination—the green in her eyes even mirrors the emerald gleams of her bracelet and cartilage piercing—convey an attention to detail paralleled by few others. Immediately, one can sense the infectious pleasure, even childlike wonder, in her self-expression. When we met, Micaela wore a blazer and mini skirt co-ord set in lemon yellow, black booties, black tights, and a black turtleneck. Her chiffon ruffled socks, accents of both gold and silver in her jewelry, and black satin headband read like an homage to fictional fashion darlings like Clueless’ Cher and Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf. With nearly waist-length, straightened blonde hair, feathered brows, dusty rose lipliner, lush lashes, and expertly executed winged liner, she emits a campy, celebratory call toward girly glamor and 90s nostalgia. “My boyfriend tells me sparkly isn’t a color, and I tell him in my world it is,” she joked. But Micaela is not all fashion and sparkle. She’s also a former basketball player, the former head manager of Columbia’s women’s basketball team, a self-proclaimed tomboy, and a sneakerhead. Everything about her demands not to be placed in any particular box.
As a Barnard student who had never before stepped into the Mail Center, I’m somewhat taken aback by the faster pace and institutional feel of the space. It came as no surprise, however, that Micaela greeted the workers behind the counter with a sing-songy “hello” and some chummy banter highlighting the close relationships she’s fostered with them. She laughed to me about how these are the people who know her best on campus; each time she’s down here, there’s always a spirited repartee of compliments and mutual appreciation for each other’s outfits and makeup.
Native to Los Angeles, Micaela grew up in close proximity not just to fashion but to thrifting specifically. For as long as she can remember, she frequented yard sales with her grandmother. Today, she’s sold almost one thousand items on Depop. She sources each and every one from online auctions, thrift and upscale vintage stores, and estate sales in LA. Listing True Religion, Juicy Couture, Von Dutch, and Coach as brands she keeps an eye out for, Micaela shared that she is particularly drawn to articles with a story behind them or to pieces that will make people feel good about themselves. Affordability, sustainability, and empowerment lie central to her values as an entrepreneur. “Understanding what makes you feel good is a part of learning,” she told me.
This commitment to empowerment runs deep for Micaela, surfacing in the parts of her life beyond Depop. “When you live in LA, what’s important gets skewed sometimes,” she remarked. But her own hold on the values most important to her seems unfaltering. A mold of her two matriarch grandmothers, she speaks about her family with an immense sense of gratitude for grounding her in the people-minded person she wants to be. She currently serves as Publicity and Digital Presence Liaison at Freedom and Citizenship, a Columbia-run nonprofit working to increase higher education access. Micaela has also volunteered for an English-learning center near campus, interned for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, and worked for the mayor’s office in Los Angeles on its homelessness and economic development initiatives.
We make our way across campus to Café East, an everyday staple for Micaela. Waiting for her delightfully purple Protein Punch shake, she intuitively bounces my own questions back at me with genuine, eager curiosity. When I ask about the factors contributing to her Depop success, she explains how she replies to each message she receives to personalize the experience for every customer. With her work at Depop and Freedom and Citizenship both relying on digital identity and publicity, I’m surprised to learn that she’d actually deleted her personal social media accounts a year and a half ago. “I got really tired of wanting to look and seem perfect all the time,” she told me.
With a high-heeled boot in two worlds that seem so far apart, Micaela bridges her passions for fashion and education equity so naturally that the two feel made for each other. An American Studies major, Micaela’s academic interests are as unsurprisingly intersectional as her style and passions. She knew early on the department was right for her, she said, because all her classes focused on finding creative solutions to contemporary problems.
It was in an American Studies course that she first learned about Freedom and Citizenship. When she talks about the program, her delivery is irresistibly compelling. Gushing with adoration for the high schoolers she’s worked with, she values relationships above all not only in her personal life but in her professional pursuits, too. The day has grown even lovelier as we sit on one of the sunlit stone benches outside Hamilton Hall, our conversation at once leisurely and animated. Micaela’s so excitedly consumed with providing the fullest answers she can, I notice she’s barely had time to drink her Protein Punch. “I’m an all-in person for better or for worse,” she tells me, “Freedom and Citizenship should be a household name … and I can explain exactly why.” I can’t help but smile as she does exactly that, noting to myself how rare it is to meet somebody who believes so fiercely in the organizations they belong to.
Micaela’s next steps involve a bit of everything. Having had it on her bucket list since she was 12, she’s headed to London to study abroad, where she will complete her Columbia career and graduate a semester late. Having also taken time off from school to work in Hawaii last year, she illustrates her commitment to living one’s life as expansively as possible.
We end our time together in the American Studies office in Hamilton Hall where she shows me the department’s library—a homely conference room doused in natural light. With its discreet view of 114th and Amsterdam, it is a safe haven of sorts for Micaela. Reflecting with uninhibited openness about being made to feel, throughout her life, as though she’s too much, she articulates a feeling I can’t help but deeply relate to. “My brain is a freeway where everyone’s going 120 miles per hour,” she laughed.
Here at Columbia, she’s found a community that celebrates the breadth of her passions and the largeness with which she cares for the people and projects in her life. Some days she wants to be president, some days she wants to be CEO of a fashion company, and on others she even thinks about having her own talk show one day. Her Columbia peers love her precisely for this capacity to dream, intensely and simultaneously, about all these different things. “There aren’t going to be any roles, I’m just going to do it my own way,” she told me. I hug Micaela goodbye and leave our conversation with a firmer appreciation for all the seemingly contradictory sides of myself. Half an hour later, I can’t resist purchasing a couple of items off of her Depop.
By Michaela Sawyer
Illustration by Oonagh Mockler
Kassia Karras, BC ’22, used to be known as “Mrs. UnlocktheSwehg.” These days, she sports the username “Purified Smoke” on Instagram. Whichever moniker you associate with her, Karras is a campus illustrator whose art instantly demands attention. A brisk scroll through @PurifiedSmoke unlocks a childlike thrill in me. Each of Karras’ pieces is adorned with bright colors, intentionally skewed perspectives, and stark outlines that evoke late-night viewings of Cartoon Network mainstays such as Dexter’s Laboratory or The Powerpuff Girls.
Karras identifies cartoons as seminal inspiration for her work today. “I always start with cartoons because that's what I grew up watching a lot,” she said. “I was kind of a latchkey kid and only child.” Though she’s transparent about taking cues from ’90s animation, Karras makes a deliberate effort to imagine beyond her creative catalyst. “I realized it’s cooler to create your own characters. You can really make up the whole world and personality.”
While visually familiar, Karras’ characters simultaneously seem to operate in their own vivid and particular cartoon universe. In her mini-comics “In the Catsino” Part 1 and Part 2, Karras’ furry friends escape from their sheltered home environments and embark on an odyssey to the hottest casino for cats. This comprehensive picture of feline nightlife shows Karras’ knack for worldbuilding—a talent she honed throughout a childhood spent in speculation and wonder.
Karras’ only-child existence and her parents’ encouragement both worked to refine her expressive ability. “They’ve been really supportive,” Karras said. “My dad’s an architect. So he was the one who bought me art supplies, and encouraged me to try clay one day or fingerpainting another.” She emphasizes how her father pushed her to experiment with a resolute confidence. It takes immense focus and persistence to evolve a blank canvas, screen, or even t-shirt into a dynamic narrative, and Karras has channeled her original visions through a variety of mediums since her days in the sandbox. Her father also instilled a practical sensibility in young Karras: “As an artist, you gotta know when to stop. He was telling me as a four-year-old fingerpaint[er]: ‘Wow. You gotta stop … you gotta know when a piece is finished,’” Karras told me. “I think that’s the main sign of an immature artist is that you overwork it and it gets muddy where the composition gets ruined.”
Her mother exerted a different kind of influence as she developed her imaginative world. Karras explained that her mother, a scholar and journalist, “very much does not understand the impulse to create, but she does understand the impulse to read and learn.” Throughout her childhood, Karras’ mother shared formative stories of her own upbringing in Beijing. She remembers “hiding books in floorboards” and being accused of being a Chinese-Russian spy by one of her professors while she was in college. Her mother’s crusade against these obstacles encouraged Karras to be a “student of life” and to transpose everyday circumstances into her world of illustration.
By high school, Karras had directed these influences towards O.K FUN, her clothing brand. A self-proclaimed graphic tee enthusiast, Karras decided to screenprint her drawings on hoodies and t-shirts that she feels display her art more effectively than any gallery or Instagram account. With this initial foray into merchandising, Karras found herself delighted by the creation of art that her peers could share and wear. A one-teenager show, Karras shepherded her designs through every stage of the design process: creating characters, applying them to clothing, and finally marketing them. The primary goal was to find an interactive way to exhibit her work: “[I] realized not a lot of kids put art on their walls because it’s their parents’ homes, but people wear art. I thought that was an easier way to distribute my drawings.”
Karras has since plastered shirts with the spirited characters from her prints. During the 2020 presidential election, Karras drew on a blend of animated caricature, pop culture, and PSAs to create a Donald Trump & Cop Co Clown Graphic. The t-shirt depicts Trump’s disembodied head alongside a hoard of police costars, all clad in clown makeup and wielding Bibles. Karras wanted to use her platform to make a stark and striking statement about American political theater and Christian hegemony. “Political cartoons are another huge influence for my art. I really like visually translating geopolitics into art,” Karras said. However, she was reluctant to characterize her art as exclusively political: “Recently, I kind of steered clear of direct political cartoons and focused on subtlety.” Her work is never far from the cultural commonplaces of modern life: she infuses popular topics like cultural appropriation, Zoom meetings, and mask mandates into her pieces with refreshing color. Many have commented on the difficulty of only seeing half our friends’ faces during the pandemic, but one of Kassia’s radiant prints focuses on a silver lining: We discovered the under-appreciated beauty of the “homies’ eyes.” She managed to transform one of the most disenchanting aspects of pandemic life into an exceptional opportunity to appreciate the intimate details of our friends’ faces.
Karras is in the final year of her architecture major at Barnard. She hopes to eventually work for a design firm in a major city. Though her academic schedule hinders her ability to constantly create, she champions her impulse to “consume” every day, whether that’s listening to Gram Parsons’ country music or reading about the Soviet Union’s material culture. “My friends always roast how unorganized my desktop is but I’m always saving things that interest me,” she said. “Whenever I hear about something I want to watch, read or listen to, I write it down.”
This consistent media consumption shines through in Karras’ work, which injects the dullness of daily life with electricity and creative consciousness, uplifting the most mundane scenes into lively tales worth cataloging. Her art operates in perfect harmony with Gen-Z pop culture while maintaining a distinctive voice. Never shying away from a novel subject, Karras defamiliarizes the familiar, imbuing everyday characters and objects with surprise in ways that simultaneously reflect and expand our culture.
Features & Essays
Between the Virtual World and Me by Iris Chen
Making Mischief by Anna Patchefsky
The Bard at the Circus by Maya Weed
The Faces of GS by Andrea Contreras
On the Will to Party by Zibia Caldwell
The Threat of Masculinity by Leah Overstreet
Anywhere But Here by Will Lyman
Between the Virtual World and Me
On the corporeal experience of racism and the pedagogical possibilities of VR.
By Iris Chen
Illustration by Rosaline Qi
Within the world of virtual reality, it takes all of three minutes to become Michael Sterling. Look down and see that you now wear jeans and a knitted turquoise sweater. Raise your hands and look in the mirror across the room. You now inhabit the body of a Black man.
Michael Sterling is the protagonist of 1,000 Cut Journey, the brainchild of Dr. Courtney D. Cogburn, an Associate Professor of Social Work at Columbia. In the visceral 12-minute virtual reality film, which first premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, users experience three pivotal moments of racism in Sterling’s life. First, playing with blocks in elementary school, the teacher implies that you are aggressive and will hurt the other children. Later, as a teenager, you wear the same outfit as a wanted Black man. The police stop you, forcing you to kneel with your hands up. Finally, when you are 30, you walk into a job interview and the hiring manager walks to the white candidate, asking him if he is the interviewee from Yale. He is not—you are.
Most non-Black people are likely familiar with these circumstances as a spectator rather than as a victim. They might feel bad. Yet as Cogburn emphasized, feelings without action rarely bring about justice. Much of modern racial discourse is subject to her criticism: It tends to minimize the schema of insults, violence, and discrimination with calls for solutions like ‘racial justice’ that are amenable to intellectual discussion but fail to prove their relevance in the situations that 1,000 Cut depicts.
The juncture between conceptual and corporeal experiences of racism is one of the linchpins of modern racial scholarship. In Between the World and Me, writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates articulates racism as the “visceral experience” of violence unleashed upon the body, one that spectators are incapable of understanding.
Virtual reality has the potential to reconcile the conceptual and corporeal. Over the past two years of Zoom teaching, various VR projects have begun to redefine Columbia’s milieu. Parixit Davé, the director of Columbia University Information Technology’s Emerging Technologies Consortium, collaborates directly with professors. Last year he worked with Dr. Brent Stockwell, a professor of biochemistry, to create a teaching space in VR. “It forces you to be present,” Davé noted from his half of our Zoom call. Walk away from the device or check another browser and Stockwell would be able to see.
In other instances, dental students can learn to inject novocaine in a virtual world with haptic feedback tools that build muscle memory; surgeons can overlay a VR-facilitated CT scan over the body before cutting open real patients. There are pedagogical possibilities for children as well: Davé’s seven-year-old daughter who wanted nothing to do with the solar system has become “hooked” to a space VR program—in part because it lets her throw objects on different planets and in part because she can customize her avatar. “It’s a reflection of who she wants,” he said.
Our Stories Were Our Lives
David Kalinoski’s orange hoodie is the first thing I see when he logs onto our Zoom call. It is only later in our conversation that I become aware of its significance.
Kalinoski, Cogburn’s former Master of Social Work student, explained that “My mom would forbid me from wearing a durag. I would rarely go out of the house with a hoodie, not because I didn’t have hoodies, but my mom was just like, ‘You cannot be having hoodies as your daily wear.’”
Kalinoski’s relationship with his mother recalls Cogburn’s TED Talk, during which she discusses the days after the death of Trayvon Martin. Many of her pregnant Black friends felt anxious about bringing their children into the world. She, too, has a young Black son, and wonders when strangers will stop “oohing and ahhing” and begin to perceive him as a threat.
During the research process, the team often sat down over dinner to share their experiences, mapping them onto a storyboard to create a blueprint for Michael Sterling’s life. Kalinoski worked on 1,000 Cut Journey as a research assistant from the fall of 2016 into the spring of 2017. “Our stories were our lives,” he said.
When he was a college student in Philadelphia, Kalinoski was accosted by police officers for “walking down the street, basically.” In the moments that followed, he was slammed against the hood of a car and forced to the ground. “There are folks within this last decade, and just historically who are Black, that do not make it out alive,” Kalinoski said, matter-of-factly. He considers himself lucky. Despite putting his hands in his pockets—a “mistake,” he added—the police officers did not do more than command him to stop moving.
Dominic Cathey, a 2017 graduate of the School of Social Work, also worked on 1,000 Cut Journey as a research assistant. He described a similar experience in which five police officers entered his home, assuming he was a suspect they were pursuing, and put him in handcuffs. “To be in that moment and not feel heard and not feel seen, similar to what Michael Sterling experienced, was traumatizing to remember.” Like Cathey’s Black friends and family, Michael Sterling also knows the familiar retinue of life-preserving habits that Black parents teach their kids: to keep your hands in visible places if stopped by the police, to avoid driving in dim spaces or wearing certain items of clothing in public. For that, he feels real.
Cathey remembers growing up and facing different treatment as one of the few Black people in all-white classrooms where “there was this hypervigilant observation of Black bodies.” In a more recent experience, he described how he applied for a job with other classmates but was denied despite his similar, if not superior, qualifications.
Anecdotal experiences like Kalinoski’s and Cathey’s are subjective, but they are supported by empirical evidence. In New York, for example, 48% of arrests from 2006 to 2019 were of Black people, who make up only 24% of the population. Such data contextualizes Kalinoski as just one of countless Black individuals brutalized in a similar manner by the police. Likewise, Cathey’s hiring experience is common among Black men—for instance, Black men with criminal records are hired statistically less often than white men with similar backgrounds.
In creating 1,000 Cut Journey, the team understood that experiences similar to their own exist across the Black community. While attempting to define the Black experience in three instances may seem reductive, America’s racial caste system subjects Black men to a sheath of comparable threats. As Cathey explained, these are experiences that Black people have across their isolated, individual spheres.
In such tense situations, Kalinoski described how “you’re just your pulse, you’re just your bodily reactions.” He continued, “There’s so many expectations of what to do in that moment. You’re not thinking clearly of anything. You’re just trying to survive.”
Oftentimes, violence against Black Americans is justified by the flimsy defense that perpetrators feel ‘threatened.’ However, without having experienced police brutality themselves, such individuals fail to understand that these behaviors are defensive responses to external threats: instinctive and uncontrollable. 1,000 Cut Journey fills this experiential gap. Preliminary evidence shows that physical reactions in a virtual world parallel those of our world; heart rates speed up, hands become sweaty and sometimes limbic systems go into “overdrive.” While one’s mind may know that the virtual world is not real, the body is almost certainly fooled.
Scholarship shows that visualization aids performance and informs behavior. And indeed, virtual reality experiments that focus on color blindness and age gaps show that users who inhabit color-blind avatars become twice as likely to go on to help color-blind people. In Experience on Demand, Stanford psychology professor Jeremy Bailenson describes another virtual reality program that stimulates tree-cutting; afterwards, subjects used 20% fewer napkins to clean up a spill. 1,000 Cut Journey endeavors to prompt similar behavioral changes within the domain of race relations, allowing bystanders to experience racism on a physiological level.
Creating the Journey
Cogburn had a working relationship with Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, before virtual reality’s involvement in the project. After securing a Magic Grant from Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation, she reached out to him.
Over the next several months, the team flew back and forth between their lab at Columbia and Bailenson’s lab at Stanford where they tried out different VR programs. In one, the team went through an obstacle course. In another, they endured an earthquake. “That really gave me a foundation for what was possible, for somebody else to put on the headset and experience Michael Sterling at the time,” Cathey noted.
When the project first premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, most of those who experienced 1,000 Cut Journey were white liberals, Cogburn’s target demographic. In talks on the project, she often emphasizes the difference between not being racist and actively being anti-racist. The boundary between these two states is most apparent among white liberal audiences who wash their hands of racism but benefit from its infrastructure. At Tribeca, Kalinoski watched users try the experience. Some cried; others emerged with blank stares. Kalinoski admitted that it was always interesting to be faced with “white tears.” He was unsure if he should “coddle” them or “just let that ride out.” As a researcher, he had a responsibility to maintain his neutrality, but even so, he could not “remove” his skin and was aware that just by being there, he could influence the way users answered his questions.
“I'm more or less elected to let it ride out, let that sink,” Kalinoski said. “If I can experience this at any given moment, at any point of my life, then as part of the social agreement to doing this experiment is, you sit with that and you process and do the work.” Indeed, it often falls upon oppressed individuals to comfort dominant groups when they encounter injustices that upset their curated state of stability. But ultimately, the project of behavioral change must be self-instigated. It must persist continuously through not just isolated pockets of self-awareness but persistent, behavioral change. As Cogburn, Kalinoski, and Cathey all make clear, 1,000 Cut Journey can be a vital instigator for change but it takes a “willingness to still go ahead” after having uncomfortable moments to make such change enduring.
VR at Columbia and Beyond
Considering Columbia’s commitment to classical ideals and aesthetics, the metaverse perches rather awkwardly atop the shoulders of Virgil and Milton. On campus and beyond, serious conversations about virtual worlds are rarely entertained for long before heads begin to shake and obvious criticisms unfold. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that few of us know what to make of this new frontier. And if history is any indication, VR’s logistical developments will outpace the public’s ability to discuss them cogently.
It is comforting to find people like Cogburn, Cathey, Kalinoski, and other like-minded researchers and educators constructing the virtual world. Currently, VR’s power structure is monopolized by gaming corporations that have the resources and capital to invest in networks large enough to accommodate communities of new users. There are few fresh eyes in such a consolidated industry. Cathey recalls the limited array of hairstyles, clothing, and even skin tones that the 1,000 Cut Journey team was able to choose from. Because they had limited familiarity with VR, Cogburn’s cohort was better equipped to identify these shortcomings.
It becomes even more important to include interdisciplinary perspectives like Cogburn’s when considering that developers have potentially unrestricted possibilities for creation with little oversight. VR world-building no longer becomes an arena for creative freedom but a moral cesspool where developers possess dominion over users’ psychological development. Consider then what it means to create an avatar, perceived as an autonomous actor who willingly enters their position of deference. Without the presence of social workers, psychologists, philosophers, doctors, and other professionals devoted to the healthy, equitable, moral development of human societies in spaces of virtual-world creation, one cannot help but be concerned about the future of human connection.
The current virtual–real-world binary that defines VR discourse implies that people are either in the metaverse or out of it—that the metaverse will bifurcate the world. However, proponents of this view forget that privilege in the real world buoys one’s entrance into a virtual one. And once one enters the virtual world, real-world crises persist. Perhaps conceiving of virtual worlds as an appendage to real ones will allow for a better understanding of the possible merits and harms of the medium.
It has been four years since 1,000 Cut Journey premiered. Now, Cathey works as the senior director of student management of Excellence Community Schools, a charter school network in the Bronx. 1,000 Cut Journey brought Cathey into the virtual world; in his new academic space, he prioritizes computer science education—something he sees as equally important as the arts and traditional curricula. As an educator, he admires Cogburn’s teaching style. While Cogburn was the one who facilitated their research conversations, she was able to create a space where “our voices got to be the experts in the room.” Cathey tries to replicate this environment when working with his students—to see them as “knowledge keepers” and “knowledge developers.” As VR usage increases, he is optimistic that some of his students will be sitting at the table.
If 1,000 Cut Journey proves anything, it is that some structural issues in the real world have too many burrs for real-world solutions alone to meaningfully resolve. Virtual spaces offer creative, experiential solutions that can fit between the spikes. Speaking to Cogburn’s democratic, pragmatic approach to the project’s creation, Cathey explained that “when you relinquish control of the outcome, something magical gets to happen.” VR programs like 1,000 Cut Journey propose the benefit of doing just this—setting aside biases against virtual worlds, long enough to be able to entertain their other face.
Columbia’s history of minor mayhems.
By Anna Patchefsky
In 1771, Columbia underclassmen Thomas Shreve, Isaac Abrahams, and Cornelius Bogert stole a set of teacups from another student’s room. For their petty crime, the trio was grounded to the College Hall of King’s College, a schoolhouse, library, dormitory, and landmark of 18th-century lower Manhattan.
One imagines these teacups stacked along a windowsill overlooking the Hudson River. Like a first-year’s collection of cheap liquor, the teacups scream “I’m newly independent. I drink.” In reality, the crime was less devilish—the teacups contained but tea. Perhaps the bounty was more symbolic, with these Columbia trouble-makers longing for tokens of their cinnamon-spiced nights.
The teacup incident gives us a hint that, over the course of 250 years, college behavior hasn’t changed much. Thanks to The Book of Misdemeanors Of King’s College, New York, Shreve and Co.’s misconduct is sealed in a tightly-bound leather book and tucked away in Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The Book of Misdemeanors, also called the “Black Book,” is a compendium of accounts from January 1771 to August 1775 documenting Columbia’s earliest mischief-making days. In 1931, Milton Halsey Thomas, editor of the first published edition, described the original leather volume as College President Myles Cooper’s imperfect attempt to enforce a rigid system of Anglican discipline. With entries logged by Cooper, university instructors, and other Columbia presidents, it upholds the record-keeping tradition of Cooper’s alma mater, The Queen’s College, Oxford.
Illustration by Oonagh Mockler
After 1775, when education ceded to revolution, it seemed as though Columbia’s accounts of petty crimes and roguery might disappear into the historical void. (When the school reopened in 1784, Cooper’s log was not revived). But in 1901, The New York Times printed an article about the “curious volume,” which kept its legacy alive. According to the Times, the teacup thievery showed that “the modern college boy comes honestly by his sign-stealing propensities.” It took the book’s contents as fact and concluded that it offered an unvarnished (albeit tea-stained) look at pre-revolutionary college life.
It was not just kleptomania for which colonial Columbia punished its students—dishonesty was their primary peccadillo. Shreve, Abrahams, and Bogert may have been penalized for stealing teacups, but the University faulted the trio most for “denying they knew anything of them.” Shreve’s frequent appearances in the Black Book’s pages earned him the title of “most culpable” among the three, as his track record of deceit approached pathology. Shreve was the mischief-making monarch of campus, consistently peeving the administration with his absenteeism. His distinct style of roguery and its predictable stunts tired even the author of the Book. When Shreve was reprimanded by the Board of Governors—alongside his buddy Bogert—the Black Book does not give the “different heinous offences” committed by the Columbian the dignity of a full account. Likely there were too many to list, or else their severity was overwhelming. Months later, on Dec. 23, 1771, the Board of Governors lifted his consequences in full and Shreve could return to class. Given his penchant for truancy, this Christmas present probably seemed more severe a penalty than his previous sentence.
On Saturday, Aug. 5, 1771, Cornelius Bogert decided not to come to class. Rather than memorize the first three chapters of the Iliad—a task required of all King’s College boys—Bogert absented himself. Basking in the sweltering August heat, he was surprised when President Cooper arrived on horseback to reprimand him. Dreading classroom tasks that awaited him, including translating the Aeneid into English, Bogert refused to return. According to the Black Book, Bogert later declared that “he did not know” he had been sent for. The Board of Governors, not fond of his deceit, caught him in the lie, but eventually, the record would show, even he was “absolved.”
Bogert and Shreve reappear in the book on May 4, 1772, a big day for Columbia’s mischief-making scene. On April 28, Beverley Robinson, an indolent peer, had “spit in the Cooks’ Face, kicked, & otherwise abused him.” On May 4, his punishment was issued: to stay within the confines of the famed College fence, commissioned by Cooper to keep college boys in and prostitutes out. Despite the magnitude of Robinson’s offenses, the judgment committee could not neglect Bogert and Shreve, who had skipped prayers and forgotten their homework. For these sins, additional exercises were ordered, at the behest of the president. Apparently reformed, Shreve would go on to become a prominent reverend of an Anglican church in Nova Scotia.
These three were not the only boys with klepto tendencies. James Douglass, perhaps seeking to practice his John Hancock, stole eight sheets of paper and a pen-knife. For this, he was reprimanded before the entire student body. After the porter stripped him of his gown he was made to kneel and read an “Acknowledgement of his Crime.” Columbia’s disciplinarians denied Douglass his uniform cap and gown for an entire week. Why was the pen-snatching Douglass subject to public humiliation while Robinson, who beat up the campus cook, was merely detained within campus walls? The Black Book contains no notes about the background of these boys. Was Robinson tantrum-prone and overindulged as a child? Did Douglass lack pen and paper of his own? Administrators similarly did not explain, within the book’s pages, how various punishments were decided; punishment, seen as necessary, did not invite scrutiny.
The Black Book brims with whimsy. On July 9, 1772, Jacob Remsen was doomed to translate four chapters of Jean Heuzet’s Selectae e Profanis—a social history of English life including a wealth of travel accounts, diaries, maps, and charts—for skipping class “under pretence of sickness.” In fact, Remsen had skipped school to fish. (He had also punched a peer the week before.) Remsen’s misdirection is complemented by the book’s other examples of attempts at escapism. On June 17, 1773, James Davan locked himself in his room when summoned by the president, and the ensuing hunt “caus[ed] four Doors to be broke open before he could be laid hold of.” Eventually, he was found in the room across from his own, which he had accessed by way of a false key. Davan later reappears in the Book for stealing a “very large Quantity of Vine out of the president’s garret.” Some of these crimes are so antiquated they resist translation. Yet, even today, we recognize their motivating impulse.
One hundred and eighty years after the book’s last entry, history professor Dwight Miner directed attention back to the Black Book. Miner, who earned the sobriquet “Mr. Columbia” for his immense love for the school, gave a lecture on colonial campus life to a packed auditorium of undergrads, and was met with roaring laughter. One student fell out of his chair. Modern students made punchlines of their colonial forebears to contrast college experiences across centuries; yet, in joining a tradition of humor and lightheartedness on a campus known for its rigidity, Miner’s audience may have had more in common with their mischievous ancestors than they would’ve liked to imagine.
The boys of the Black Book are not famous. They have no apparent effect on our lives today; their prose inspired no literary movements and their theses supported no scientific theories. Nothing more than the classmates of Alexander Hamilton, they remain uncelebrated Columbians. They have no building dedicated in their honor; cursive scribble in a tea-stained book is all the archive of their time here. Still, these conspicuous, once-condemnable moments of their college years live on in Columbia’s library. Glimpses into the quotidian elements of 18th-century Columbia reveal a history more tangible than the exalted narratives of Columbia’s consolidation that we are so accustomed to hearing. The Black Book defies our institution’s myths of excellence, and honors, instead, the profound—at times, severely punished—plainness of every student. From its pages, we learn that college has always been a place for trouble-making. Since the beginning of American education, pupils and disciplinarians alike have understood that where there are rules, there are misdemeanors. And while not everyone can be the next great alum, all of us can make a little mischief.
The Bard at the Circus
Cast and creatives on the “Circusification of Hamlet.”
By Maya Weed
Psychotic spiderwebs, chalk-circle love letters, electronic remixes of “To be, or not to be”—a typical day in Denmark, as far as Columbia students are now concerned.
Last semester, the hottest ticket to an on-campus performance belonged to the Columbia Circus Collective’s inaugural Cabaret. Seats sold out in the blink of an eye. Those that were lucky enough to squeeze their way into the Glicker-Milstein Theatre exited with jaws agape from gravity-defying trapeze dances and sore throats from, hopefully, whooping cheers. After such a soaring debut, a question emerged: What will the circus do next?
Their fall Cabaret shared the GMT space with King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe’s production of Macbeth, performing on the same nights, back to back. This spring semester, the two groups have continued to share the stage—now collaborating on the economically dubbed Circus Hamlet. Shakespearean drama and circus art are both highly stylized forms of entertainment with loaded histories, dating back to the 16th and 18th centuries respectively. In spite of their longevity in our pop-cultural landscape, detractors often conceive of the two as acquired tastes—one typecast as haughty and academic; the other dismissed as crass and frivolous. One is filled with dense, poetic language; the other is movement-based, with little to no spoken dialogue. Often, each must fight against these preconceptions of style to inspire excitement among modern audiences. Their unique union in Circus Hamlet presents a paradoxical interplay of tradition and innovation, at times discordant with one another but, ultimately, euphoric and harmonious.
The Circus Collective was founded by Sam Landa, CC ’22, and Emma Owens, BC ’22, fulfilling their first-year dreams for such a club. The Collective’s campus presence finally blossomed in the fall of 2021. Co-presidents Owens and Landa both came to Columbia with extensive circus training and performance experience. In her interview with Ratrock Magazine, Owens speaks about her summers spent at Circus Smirkus in Greensboro, Connecticut. Landa has worked professionally in circus performance for years, recently as an aerial consultant for Moulin Rouge on Broadway, and studied at the National Circus School in Montreal. There, he was involved in a circus adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—a seed idea for this production.
Landa remembered the “many emotionally charged moments in that show” and how they “really lend themselves to dance or circus.” Shakespeare adorns his work with sword fights, lovers’ quarrels, metadramas, supernatural visitations—iconic tableaus and narratives that have become embedded in the collective knowledge of theatergoers over time. His vivid poetry and high-stakes dramas provide ample material to translate into heightened languages of movement. Inspired by his schooling in Montreal, Landa included in the constitution of the Columbia Circus Collective that their spring production should be a narrative, interdisciplinary, and theatrical experience.
If one were to adapt a Shakespeare play into a circus performance, one may initially think of The Tempest or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, populated with spirits, gods, and fairies. Hamlet, often considered one of Shakespeare’s gloomiest works, does not seem like the obvious choice—which became the selfsame reason it generated unprecedented intrigue within the student theatre circuit at the start of the semester. Since the story of Hamlet has been performed and adapted countless times, Landa hedged that a two-hour adaptation of a three-and-a-half-hour text would remain coherent and satisfying. In order to integrate the circus components, he found that about two-thirds of the text needed to be chopped. Landa’s initial pitch to his collaborators was met with a rapid “no way,” but he continued to defend that physicalizing the characters’ “descent into madness” would be intensely exciting to explore through “different styles of movement.”
Landa, who choreographed Columbia Musical Theatre Society’s production of Rocky Horror Picture Show this past fall, continued working with many of the same theatre artists this semester for Circus Hamlet. Caroline Egler, BC ’24, the dramaturg of Circus Hamlet, suggested that the connection of these two forms—circus and Shakespeare—made the show “more than its original intentions for both, deconstructing that original low-brow or high-brow stereotype or sensibility” that is imposed on them. She refers to the historical context in which circus performance and Renaissance dramas began: Shakespeare plays were written for a common audience (to satisfy the groundlings) as much as the Globe’s royal mezzanines, despite modern assumptions of pretension and elitism assigned to Shakespearean texts.
Landa, too, observed how circus and Shakespeare walk a fine line between past and present interests, noting, “They're both aged forms, and they both can fall into really bad stereotypes really fast—of the boring Shakespeare player, the circus with the clowns and the animals. We all know that's not the reality of either of those forms, but that's what people think of it.” In production meetings, design concepts, and the rehearsal room, then, the challenge was to unite these two forms in ways that not only complemented one another but also dug them out of their dusty traps of obsolescence.
Members of the Circus Hamlet offered out-of-context spoilers about the show that felt anything but tired—moments that tickled them in rehearsal or bits they thought would pique the curiosity of potential viewers. Actor John Howley, CC ’25, who played Claudius, spoke, in the fashion of a Lewis Carroll riddle, of “a water bowl that is also used as a doorway.” Curious, indeed. Nina Dia, CC ’25, who played Ophelia, shared an inside joke around the layered meanings of the phrase, “What ‘slayeth’ Polonius?,” calling the father of her character “circus incarnate.” As portrayed by the adeptly funny Shayan Hooshmand, CC ’23, Polonius is a shrewd clown, attempting to juggle between scenes of sabotage. Choreographer Julia Patella, BC ’25, warned that “multiple people will be falling out of the sky,” while Landa teased, “Probably the sexiest character in our show is the one that you would least expect to be the sexiest … And I think that will make sense when people see it.” Already from these answers, the gleeful ingenuity and playfulness that fueled this team’s creative process was apparent. They dedicated themselves thoroughly to finding the originality and modern fun from Elizabethan iambs and aerial silks.
Egler recalled a moment in rehearsal with the actress playing Hamlet, Ry Spada, CC ’24: “We were talking through where we wanted to take Hamlet, and there was a point where we were like, ‘What music would Hamlet listen to?’ and she was like, ‘Oh, hyperpop, obviously.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, totally.’” The questions then became: “Do we want it to have a very contemporary feel?” These thoughts opened up a world of possible aesthetic and character choices, such as leaning into the “Big Brother” presence of Claudius, or the reality-TV persona of Gertrude, played by Josie Bourelly, CC ’23—all while remaining grounded in a stifling and abstracted Elsinore. Egler described the Ghost in their play as “much less literally Hamlet’s father and much more an embodiment of the revenge that his father felt.” As the Ghost, Angela Zhang, CC ’22, ethereally floated from aerial silks while accompanied by the intentful lyrics of Nina Simone ballads, then later returned to smile with sinister amusement as bloodshed and vengeance overtook the stage.
When abstracting Shakespeare outside of its original time and place, the levels of specificity can vary. Patella, who also worked with Landa and Egler on Rocky Horror, described the aura of the show as “edgy and dreamlike at the same time,” finding that “it feels beyond reality.” This adaptation, aesthetically shaped by the drama’s emotional and psychological contours rather than a concrete historical context, gives space for the relay race of text-based scenes, dance numbers, and circus acts to switch off as organically as possible. Landa did not shy away from mixing mediums, also incorporating film projections that overlaid the chic, austere set design of Kristian Woerner, CC ’22. The footage ranged from live playbacks—of Claudius’ face during the players’ performance, for example—to black-and-white psychology lessons from the 1950s.
To make this structure succeed, Egler and Landa worked diligently to achieve the proper ratio of text to movement—conducting rather significant surgery on the darling of Shakespeare’s Folio. Their text evolved throughout the casting process and rehearsals, allowing for discoveries in the room to inform the final script. For instance, Landa found that rising emotional stakes would often trigger the transitions into circus performance. “I’m matching that risk with physical risks,” Landa explains. “Matching that escalation of energy with the escalation of the physicality is the logical way to do it.” On a few occasions, text that initially survived the cuts eventually proved to weigh the circus and dance performance down. Landa mused that there is a “heightened sense of risk that circus has that other art forms don’t have, and that’s what makes it circus. And I think … that with Hamlet, the stakes are high. And so it makes sense to match it with a higher-stakes performance element.”
Not long before our interview, based on several weeks of rehearsal, blocking, choreography, and music, Landa had an ‘aha moment’: They needed to add a circus double for Hamlet. Ophelia was already tripartite, with an actor, a dancer, and a contortionist working in tandem to portray her. Spada’s Hamlet, by contrast, had begun as a figure that primarily operated within the text-based mode of the show. After devising daring, energetic circus numbers for the production, it became clear that Hamlet needed to join that world of heightened physical expression.
Circus performer Maia Castro-Santos, CC ’25, became the vessel for Hamlet’s inner anxiety when it exploded beyond the bounds of words. The flexibility to make bold course corrections was of paramount importance throughout this development process—flexibility of limbs as well as language. Necessary changes to the script piled up with each passing day. Patella employed this adaptability in her choreography, as the cast inspired motifs and energies of dance for their characters. For Hamlet, Patella took note of Spada’s “jagged edges,” detailing that “there’s a really interesting way that she holds tension in her arms. And so I created a phrase of movement that centered around her.” For one sequence, ensemble dancers adopted Spada’s tension as a manifestation of Hamlet’s deeply wound-up body and soul.
With her aerial skills and intricate hula-hoop choreography, Castro-Santos brought to Hamlet’s portrait a “kind of wildness to the way she performs circus choreography,” Patella affirmed. To signify their connection to one another, Castro-Santos and Spada held a hoop between them and, as through a mirror, reflected their gestures with precise synchronicity. After establishing their bond, Castro-Santos stepped into the spotlight, splitting from Spada to perform dizzying routines at climactic moments throughout the show: for Hamlet’s harassment of Ophelia, panic post-murder of Polonius, and duel with Laertes, for example. This additional layer of embodiment required a skillful manipulation of tension and release, resembling the push and pull between the modes of Shakespeare text and circus arts, as well as Hamlet’s seeming composure and madness.
The fusion of acting, dance, and circus performance also inspired unique readings of this well-worn text, tailored to each performer’s strengths in storytelling. As Claudius, rising star Howley participated fairly little in the production’s circus acts or dance scenes, staying grounded in the playtext and looming over the action (actualized by projecting his face onto the back wall of the stage). And yet, his delivery of Claudius’ soliloquies garnered just as much applause as the airborne circus tricks. The character’s firm fixture in the text came in part from Howley’s facility with Shakespearean language, but also from how the team developed an understanding of the character during table work and early days of blocking.
“I think the reason he doesn’t engage in the circus and dance of it all is because he’s putting on this kingly façade,” Howley theorizes. “He is a deeply insecure and anxious man. He’s not a sociopath ... He’s a very regretful person who’s just trying to get him, and his wife in particular, out of this mess.” With interiority and emotional turmoil at the fore in this production, Howley noted that Claudius’ and Gertrude’s genuine love for one another added considerable pressure to his character’s composure—a love that varies in authenticity with every incarnation. His usurper is much more anguished and on high alert than, say, the coldly shrugging Sir Patrick Stewart in the 2010 RSC film. The circus and dance that swarms around Claudius “is part of the chaos he is trying to subdue,” according to Howley.
Nina Dia, the actor behind the acting-dancing-circus Ophelia trinity, played another major Shakespearean lass as Lady Macbeth in the fall production of Macbeth. She stressed the great difference between working on these two characters: the scheming Scottish queen and the short-lived Danish daughter. Dia said that all three Ophelias discovered that her character “is very much an internal person” that possesses an “inner hurricane.” She continued, “Instead of keeping that bottled up in me, having to pull overtime to try and make that internalized turmoil read, I’ve been given these amazing tools of the circus and the dance Ophelias to expand it in a way that gives Ophelia her due when it comes to what she’s really feeling and what her complexity is.”
Patella performed as dance Ophelia in addition to her choreography duties, while circus Ophelia was played by Alex Bilder, BC ’24. Before auditions, Landa did not anticipate casting multiple performers for Ophelia, but the vision for the character to exist in all three realms of expression led to this creative solution when three talented performers presented themselves. They all discussed and explored the character together from the early days of rehearsal, ensuring everyone was on the same page. Patella delineates the three of them as the “stages of her descent into madness.” She explains that “Nina’s role in Ophelia is more subdued, and when I enter the picture, I start to physicalize tensions that are bubbling up under the surface.” Then, “when we transition into circus Ophelia, to Alex Bilder’s contortion, now we’ve reached the point of resignation and final decision.” Each of their performances informed the next, especially as they found common gestural languages to extend between the three of them like a connecting thread.
To signal to the audience the moment at which one Ophelia spawns another, the performers walk in precise lockstep before splitting apart, all adorned in delicate pastel dresses. Ophelia’s death traditionally occurs offstage, unseen. Here, by the time Bilder entered the frame, a water basin had emerged onstage, looming as Ophelia’s watery tomb. Dia, Patella, and Bilder stepped in and out of the shimmering water, one after the other, until only the latter remained—the last shard of Ophelia’s broken world. A skilled contortionist, Bilder performed a beautifully anguished movement piece, her body and spirit wrestling with the water. With Gertrude’s famously lyrical account, which concludes with a blunt reminder of “muddy death,” the overlay of circus and poetry expressed the complex and oftentimes horrid beauty found in this tragedy.
On its own, Ophelia’s character(s) epitomizes the complex trade-offs within the production’s Shakespeare-circus relationship. The structure may at first seem disorienting and disjointed, but at its best, it transcended these expectations to prove immensely effective in forwarding the tense, psychological themes at the heart of Hamlet. This celebration of sharp, unique talent, however, only ran for three days in a campus black box theatre, and did so on a student club budget. Landa made sure to applaud the GMT staff, which includes student workers, who offered a generous amount of time and energy to execute the production’s steep technical demands. Without giving away details or making promises, Landa and Egler hinted at their hopes of reviving this project beyond its GMT lifespan. Those who waited in vain in the ticket line that wrapped around the Diana Event Oval may want to keep their eyes peeled for future announcements.
The rest may not be silence … quite yet. Rather, the reverberation from this bold duet of verse and circus may inspire subsequent student artists—resonating with that central quality of circus Landa earlier defined—to take another risk.
The Faces of GS
The particulars of the School of General Studies.
By Andrea Contreras
In the liminal space of Lucas’ Zoom screen, I saw that he was not sitting in his adolescent bedroom as I was. He was in a nursery: cradle in the corner, glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling, pale green walls.
During my first semester at CC, I peered daily into the seemingly distant, middle-aged world that belonged to Lucas, to whom I’ve given a pseudonym. Sometimes, his wife would come into the frame to rest their baby onto his lap. He would participate in our breakout room conversation while absentmindedly stroking the head of his child. On the other end, my awkward cap-and-gown photos were fresh off the printing press.
My knowledge of Lucas’ life would never extend beyond this casual observation. I often speculated about his past—was he a Navy Seal? Professional chef? Former Broadway star? The ambiguity of the “nontraditional General Studies student” Columbia boasts went unexplored by my classmates and I, substituted for a vague admiration for his intrepid curiosity and frequent participation. Unlike me, Lucas had little skepticism for the course material, read every text with zeal, and shared candidly. The semester ended, and while I had heard the cries of Lucas’ child and noted his opinions on postcolonial Algeria, I was no more clear on General Studies, the project for adult education, or what had encouraged him to return to school with a bunch of abashed 19-year-olds like me.
Every semester brought new grown-up faces, and each looked different. The more I puzzled over how to describe and qualify the non-traditional GS student body, the more I realized that they are a population that is uncategorizable; anything but general. Here are five such stories from older adult GS students.
I met Anthony in Joe Coffee in Dodge Hall the Tuesday before spring break. He speaks quietly in a subdued Auckland accent, and wears Air Forces with highlighter blue and orange laces surely inspired by Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Customizing shoes is a hobby he likes to share with his children, who are 12, 9, and 6 years old.
Now that Anthony is a student at GS, he has new activities to share with them: homework on the dining table, conversations about history. Inspired by Ancient Civilizations, a class taken to fulfill the Global Core, he’s currently on a mission to direct his oldest son’s attention to the Egyptians and Nubians in his social studies class. The academic subjects he contemplates with his children range from archaeology to war and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“It’s like having a conversation with a friend,” he told me.
Anthony began to pursue his first degree, in part, as a statement to his children: It’s never too late to do anything or to learn something new. In part, of course, it was for himself. After years of traveling and photographing the world, starting his own digital production company, raising three children, and getting a divorce, the 47-year-old wanted to try something different.
Growing up in New Zealand, young Anthony had no particular love for school. The allure of skateboards and cameras always held more sway than that of chalkboards and pencils. Once he secured a job, no social pressure from those around him kept him from dropping out of high school. Decades later, as his children were growing up, Anthony began wondering how to emerge from the domestic sphere. It was then that Anthony heeded his therapist’s advice to return to school. What started off with an academic writing class at Harvard’s Extension Program became deep exploration of language, leading to the linguistics degree he is pursuing here. Anthony is now one of the many proverbial Front-Row Question-Askers. He takes any class he’s interested in. He’s invited his GS classmates over to barbecues at his apartment. He goes to Mel’s.
Although he doesn’t have a clear path for post-graduation, Anthony tells me that education inspires every aspect of his life—and leans in to explain just how. He is an artist, he says, who feels inspired by the flaky blue paint on a building, and now he wants to paint the world.
Veena’s birthday was the day after we spoke. She was turning 30, and the guest list was overflowing: her University Writing professor, her mom friends, her 20-year-old friends in Barnard and CC savoring their first semesters of independence. She hadn’t expected to make any friends, so it was all a welcome surprise. Some she met from her brief stint at the Columbia Spectator, while others unceremoniously slid into her DMs (a result, perhaps, of her seamless ability to blend in as a CC student).
The birthday party would be a merging of her “double life.” In one, she’s at the doctor with her son, talking to her landlord, rushing to her daughter’s school. In the other, she’s competing for unpaid internships against 20-year-olds, listening to CC students’ Hinge stories, dealing with a midterm grade, talking to The Blue and White. Veena sometimes feels a cognitive dissonance in processing her two lives—or at least that’s what her psychology classes would call it.
Veena decided to major in psychology to understand her own experiences. She spent her childhood dreaming of a career in theoretical physics while being nurtured by a cancer-researcher mother and first-generation Indian family. Pregnant at 20, Veena dropped out of college to get married and abide by a traditional notion of feminine domesticity. Her decision to retreat into matrimony was not a sixth-wave post-feminist statement on motherhood, but the result of a period of intense psychological manipulation that culminated in a conversion to Mormonism. “It’s a lot,” she warned me a few times, between hesitant laughter. I didn’t doubt her.
In her era of pious domesticity, Veena was perpetually restless. She wanted to leave the house, volunteer, study, work. As soon as her husband moved out, Veena enrolled in community college—which eventually led her here. Initially, she struggled with guilt over the periodic absences from her Connecticut home that her academic pursuits required. Now, however, these feelings are overrun by a feeling of pride in her accomplishments, and the knowledge that she wasn’t meant to be a stay-at-home mom. She definitely doesn’t look the part, with her small but bold tattoos decorating her arms, her dry, witty sense of humor, and an unapologetic openness. Veena’s daughter has a Columbia sweatshirt she is obsessed with, a symbol of the impact Veena’s education has had upon her children. Before, Veena’s daughter used to talk about growing up, getting married, and having kids; now she talks about going to Columbia like her mom.
Veena doesn’t “do things halfway.” When she’s in, she’s all in. She’s writing a book right now, a deal made after an online reader serendipitously sent her Spec article to an editor. She’s raising three children, she’s graduating this summer, she responds to DMs, and she’s wearing sequins to her birthday party.
Phil’s favorite word is fuck. He swears in a bold Italian-American accent, lending his speech a boisterous enthusiasm—a quality that rushes to the forefront when we talk about GS. He told me it’s because he’s a Leo. It makes perfect sense to me—Columbia’s mascot is a fucking lion, after all.
He is sitting in his recording studio on Zoom with me. His location matches his look, which is evocative of a Sicilian DJ Khaled. He pauses occasionally to take a puff of pain medicine, a necessity after a nearly fatal accident in 2018. Last semester was his first semester back at Columbia since his medical leave, and his first time navigating campus as a disabled individual. He is taking it as it comes.
At 40, Phil still wants to be a celebrity. He almost became one, during a lucrative career in sound and audio engineering that landed him Hollywood award nominations. His trade school certification in audio engineering came after he heard a radio ad on Hot 97. A self-described asshole/football player/hotshot/bully/troubled-teen high schooler, he found the program a welcome alternative to college. The audio world was fun, but maybe too fun. He wasn’t ready for the high-intensity party scene in the post-production world, and he was soon caught in a whirlwind, costing him his job and sending him to rehab. Phil told me that in the process of getting sober, he identified that a major driving force of his addiction was a feeling of existential dissatisfaction: He felt that he had never reached his full potential. Going back to college was a way of proving to himself that his intelligence and potential wasn’t confined to his past.
Lingering over his degree, too, is Phil’s knowledge that his industry peers witnessed his fall from grace. Through gritted teeth, he tells me that he wants to make up for these mistakes and enter that world again. This time, he would be picking up where he left off, now sober, mature, and bolstered by the academic preparation and distinction that Columbia could give him.
Phil explained that a consequence of addiction is that you remain emotionally stunted at the age you start using. At Columbia, Phil turns this into a good thing: He feels he has the maturity of a 23-year-old, which makes him approach the classroom environment with a youthful abandon and an open mind. Gone are nearly all traces of Phil’s former centrism, thanks to a riveting sociopolitical atmosphere that challenged his beliefs. Although he remains firmly opposed to Marxism, Phil says that Columbia has converted him, in the words of his family, into a certified snowflake.
I met Mario in my creative writing class. He is the oldest person there, and probably the most talkative. Mario sits in the front of the class, next to our professor; he asks thoughtful questions, he contemplates the material unpretentiously, and isn’t afraid to open up to the class. A few weeks ago, he told us that he had reached his 12th anniversary of sobriety. Surrounded by strangers, he expressed a profound pride at overcoming the alcoholism his father and grandfather had passed down.
Mario told me in private that his decision to get sober was due to “grace from God.” In a drunken tirade one night, he professed to the sky a need for help (fashion photographers have a flair for the dramatic). And lo and behold, help appeared, in the guise of a man sitting behind him. The stranger was an alcoholic too, and was currently completing a 12-step program. Did Mario want to come with him to a meeting? Mario is now 41, sober, and ready to share his journey with the younger students in his class.
Growing up, school was a matter of socialializing—joking around with his classmates, learning about other people. He had a hard time engaging in course material. Once in a while, Mario still feels that he isn’t really cut out for school. He occasionally still feels like the poor kid from East Brooklyn, and finds himself wondering if academia is too self-congratulatory.
But when he forces himself to go to honors ceremonies, he relishes the accolades. He’s showing himself that he can be an honors student at 41, and that he could have been at 20, too.
Years in fashion photography makes Mario very personable, easily winning friends across GS and CC with his wide smile. So while Mario still interprets his position in school as a social experience, he does so in a different way. Now, instead of serving to entertain others, he feels he is in a position where he can mentor others. He can relate to the CC students who are struggling—with their coursework, with their personal lives—and shares the wisdom he’s picked up inside and outside the academy.
Before, Mario had always felt as if his life had been a collection of things that had just happened to him. Photography picked him, as if by chance. Alcoholism was embedded in his genetic chart. Even sobriety, to him, was simply the stars aligning. Education is, perhaps, Mario’s first deliberate choice.
Bill’s mom told him that he would never go back to school. He assured her he would.
At 58, Bill is taking introductory classes towards a second bachelor’s degree. His first degree, in computer science, set him up for a decades-long career as a software engineer—but physics has always been his true passion. Before enrolling in GS, he had been trying to teach himself the material through textbooks and Brian Greene’s lectures on Youtube. But he decided he needed a classroom and a professor to fully master the material. Bill is still working full time while taking one class per semester, meaning that it might take him at least another six years to complete his degree. He says it’s going to be a while before he can meaningfully contribute to new physics research. But he’s not in a hurry.
Bill’s college experience the first time around was painfully rushed. He was preoccupied with paying off his car, getting a job. College was a means to a degree, which in turn was a means to a career—all of which needed to be squared away in the shortest possible span of time. GS, for Bill, is a different world, one defined by an appreciation for the entire academic project: the process of learning. In quintessential physics-major fashion, Bill tends to think about time and experience in transcendental terms: He now insists that “academia is more the real world than what they call the real world. It’s actually truly the pursuit of truth, knowledge and understanding.”
It doesn’t feel strange to him to be older—he feels like he fits in. He can’t sprint as fast as he used to, and he doesn’t idolize Ronald Reagan anymore, but he’s “young again and back in college.”
Bill’s nephew is a sophomore in high school, an athlete who aspires to basketball stardom. Bill doesn’t talk to him too much about college, because he doesn’t want to “chew his ear off.” But the other day, Bill got an email from his sister-in-law: His nephew wanted to study physics, just like him. He hadn’t expected his nephew to be paying so much attention to his experience, assuming the two occupied entirely different realms. Of course, this knowledge makes Bill swell with pride. Wow, he thought, I wonder where that came from.
Illustration by Taylor Yingshi
On the Will to Party
Getting from one side to the other.
By Zibia Caldwell
Photo credit: Zibia Caldwell
Content warning: This essay contains references to sexual violence.
The first party I remember going to was at the Marriott on Canal Street. I was thirteen and very excited to be going to a hotel party.
The little I knew about hotel parties I’d gleaned from a conversation the summer before with a girl a year older than I was. She was a Brandy Melville model with long, perfect brown hair. She told me she went to a lot of hotel parties, and she talked a big game. So I went into this one expecting the glistening affect assigned to people onto whom one has projected one’s insecurities, and was a bit shocked to walk into a damp double bedroom that smelled vaguely like clams and Washington Square weed. When I arrived, there had already been two noise complaints and the speaker was broken. It was the summer of “Bodak Yellow” and someone was playing it on their phone and enthusiastically rapping along.
Before we were kicked out (because we were always kicked out), I remember very clearly standing in front of the sliding pane windows and looking out at the sun setting on Tribeca. It was June or July and probably only seven or eight, and the sky had gone full Michelangelo. I paused and photographed it.
What is the will to party? Where does it come from? Within what systems of thought and need does it operate? Thrown out with the recycling, floating with the dark blue-black of the sky at 4 a.m, is the question of why I do this and not something else.
I started writing this essay with an earnest, even academic intention: to explore the social phenomenon of partying in the way that people explore the social phenomenon of the opera; to conduct an ethnography of how Columbia students party, why we party, and where we do it. I wanted it to be sage, because I’ve been to lots of parties and acted perfectly outrageous and I would like to believe that it’s made me weathered in some way. I don’t think it has. No matter how I twist it, I’m still young and fresh like a 5-a.m. city street, recently rained on, the sky above still a very light blue.
I started partying in a more intentional way about three months ago because something happened to me that made me not want to be in my body. My body was the site of a breach in trust and I felt marked by it. People talk about trauma as something that we carry around inside of us, and I felt that acutely. And sexual assault is a particular kind of trauma; it is in you, on you, with you, you are it. It is not like the memory of the cruel thing that X said to you, or the time that you saw Y, because in those instances you walk away and the aggressors stay in their place. You associate the location of the trauma with the event of the trauma, and the location is not yourself. You walk by the spot where Z broke up with you, where X told you they could never forgive you, and you shudder and avert your eyes, but then it ends. When the location of the cruelty is your own body, it can feel like an end is entirely out of reach. It sounds concerning to say, but parties have helped me in this way.
I never went to another hotel party, and I don’t think I ever will. My subsequent partying differed wildly from its genesis, and that night at the Marriott was not an accurate gloss on what was to come. I found myself at clubs in the Lower East Side, at raves in the Bronx, at house parties on 72nd Street, in increasingly bizarrely decorated brownstones (think oversized plaster sculpture of two truncated knees) in Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope, in the bowels of the Financial District, and on quiet corners in Fort Greene. I would throw parties in my own home and others at venue spaces and I’d attend more ticketed events than I care to admit in print. I have learned to understand the night as a machine. It hands us back to ourselves the next morning diced, crushed, in our composite parts. We reassemble; like children at the dinner table, we blindly bat a chubby finger at the velveteen crush, try to find what was yesterday whole. Coming up empty, we have no choice but to improvise.
I think most people have some kind of release. I know someone who makes French onion soup, another who cuts her split ends off with a nail clipper, another who runs the length of Manhattan on Saturday mornings. Others just do drugs, and others meditate.
And others, like me, find release in partying. I like to think that I party in a way that is somehow sophisticated or legitimate, but that’s probably to be determined. Illegitimate partying is marked by insecurity, by needing to prove something about yourself. Many of the parties I went to in high school were illegitimate. I wasn’t going for myself, I was going because I wanted to seem intrepid, and this was New York, and we all felt an intense need to “make a name for ourselves.” I can remember, with a clarity that always clings to particularly uncomfortable memories of social events, an almost debilitating sense of being out of place at those parties.
I recently went to one such illegitimate party. I have felt awkward and unpopular many times in my life, but feeling that way at a party is always visceral in a different way. The party promises a singular and collaborative togetherness, and I think it almost always makes good on that promise—at least, for some. At every party, there is usually one group experiencing that togetherness, though what proportion of the guests are in that group is another question. But to stand outside of that togetherness is deeply uncomfortable. So deeply uncomfortable I wonder if this might be explained, in part, by something biological, something rooted in our history as pack animals.
Parties make certain promises to us, and these promises are highly conditional. This is what makes going to a party exciting—one wonders at these promises and their intricate social conditions. When the social conditions on which these promises rest align, we find ourselves in a social nirvana. When the social conditions on which these promises do not align, or rather, align destructively, we find ourselves in a very special kind of hell.
Seeking out social nirvana is a norm of, if not a prerequisite to, human experience. And yet partying (or even worse, partying too much) has a deep connotation of shame. We find ourselves at a familiarly puritanical crossroads: The will to party is clearly a natural one, and yet in our cultural understanding it is inexorably, irredeemably tied with guilt. I seek to unhook guilt from our idea of parties. I propose a vision of parties as a space of healthy undoing, a radical form of self-care.
I have a recurring dream about a party that I went to about three years ago. The apartment is sprawling, seems to go on for miles and miles. I drift from room to room. Through the walls, I can vaguely hear the song “Everything Now” by Arcade Fire. As I move through the apartment, I pass what feels like exhibit after exhibit of my friends in love. Platonically, romantically, personally enraptured. In one room, they dance and play guitar and piano; in another, they play dress-up by the bed; in another, they sit on the floor, eating Chinese take-out. It is a fantasy of sociality in this place of no needs. Everything that we could possibly want has been thought of and provided. Every song that comes on is exactly right, precise, tailored to the shifting mood.
This party floats in my mind as a case study for everything I think a good party can be: a site of ecstasy. The word ecstasy comes from the Greek “ekstasis,” to stand outside oneself, and it is this particular valence of the word that I am referring to here. A good party is a trap door. An Irish exit which leads out of your life and into what your life is not.
A note in my phone dated a week or so after the assault: “I am where the world isn’t. Sun touches my leg and I know it is my leg. I know it is mine but I feel so small inside myself. Like a child cloaked in the long trench coat of a father. I went to the aquarium yesterday and wanted to be on the other side of the glass.”
In the months when I felt that my body was a thing that had been hung over me like a sheet caught in tree branches, the only body I felt I had came from walking out of the trap door and into a party. The assault had orphaned me from myself. The party gave me admission out of that body and allowed me to map out a new one, a body that could hold what happened to me and also get through a day. In this way, the party is a means of transportation: It is a ferryboat, and it deals in time. That is to say, the party can give time back to you.
There is a feeling that comes out of a good party that I have never been able to define. Perhaps this is because it feels so much larger than I am. It comes on imperceptibly; I was late, you called and asked to borrow my jacket, I left my keys at home, I got there and I couldn’t find you, and then, suddenly: a feeling of walking out of a thicket and into a clearing. The world and I are moving at exactly the same pace, like a mirror image. It is like being in love, only it is not directed at any one person or thing, but rather the fact of all these people and things, the light in the window across the street, your nimble hands gesticulating, bodies jumping in and out of one another like the staccato of cicadas, the smell of tobacco and cake. Every gesture and word that is directed at me feels like a gift.
Admittedly, the will to party, despite its myriad benefits, is of dubious validity. I wanted to leave my body because being inside it was unbearable, and while the party alleviated that sensation temporarily, it could not make it go away. Aside from partying, most of what helped me to function again was my community. My argument here is not that the party is a means to an end, but that it is a means. A good party will never heal your wounds completely, but it can begin to show you why your wounds might be worth healing.
In the mess of bodies I get jumbled like the words of an introduction. This feeling: the opposite of being asleep and the opposite of being awake. I stood on a chair looking for you and I only saw the back of your head, maybe 10 feet away from me and talking to someone else, but I felt you, felt you, felt you. Skinless, veins swinging around me like hair, the morning appeared to me like a sandbar and I let myself get washed up on it. When I woke up, I was alone on the beach where I first learned to swim. It felt like August in the middle of the winter and I swear I’ll never be able to understand how that can be.
Even hangovers, and maybe this is an optimistic vision, can be an invitation for reinvention. Hangovers act as a final (and embodied) step in the emotional transition parties offer. Every time I go to bed past 4 a.m. I wake up after two or three hours of sleep feeling vaguely nauseous but somehow full of adrenaline, and begin to clean. As I do, I replay the highlights of the evening and consider what needs doing in the coming day. I load myself back into myself. However, within this process, I find that something is always gained. I can never put things back exactly as they were, and the next day when I am coherent again I am slightly changed, as if the weather inside of me has shifted a few degrees, as if I had come home and found all my furniture moved a few inches from where I’d left it.
Six years old at the window of my bedroom, I remember screaming at my babysitter that I wanted to go home. I remember her looking at me with an expression of genuine confusion and saying, “But darling, you are home.” I did, in fact, know I was home, but I was talking about that other thing home can be: metaphor.
What I was too young to articulate then but acutely understand now is that the body is more of a home than a house could ever be. The body defines our comfort with the world, our ability to hold or let go of things, to know when we have had enough, to know when we have had too much. After the assault, I felt my body had been stripped of its capacity to hold itself. I felt I had come home and found no one there. It was only at parties, when I was delirious enough to feel nothing except my heart beating low in my stomach, that I began to recover a sense of my body. The magical power of the party is its almost uncanny ability to get you from one side to the other. The more I went out, the more I slowly began to realize how wrong I had been, how I had mistaken my body for an emptiness that was not my own.
The ending to this piece eludes me. Everything I have been taught about writing encourages me to deliver a clincher, but I find myself aphasic. I cannot tell you how the story ends, because I haven’t found out yet. Today is Thursday, the beginning of the weekend. The ferryboat laps at the shores of the coming hours, twinkling. Is it the River Styx or the East River? Impossible to tell. Here are the two things I know: I am wide open like a radio without a dial, and all I can see in front of me, stretching in every direction for miles and miles, is open ocean.
Illustration by Rea Rustagi
The Threat of Masculinity
On skinny white boys in skirts.
By Leah Overstreet
There is a specific kind of shame associated with doing something “like a girl.” To run “like a girl,” to fight “like a girl,” to dress “like a girl” is to be inferior. It is a signifier that you have failed to fulfill the blue-faced demands of the heteropatriarchy. But things are changing. Now, there are fluffy-haired white boys dancing in schoolgirl skirts and maid outfits on TikTok. Your local indie soft boy has traded in his boner for Tarantino in favor of a new favorite pearl necklace, chipped nail polish, and “Intersectional Feminist” tote bag. Men are evolving! Gender norms have been transgressed and obliterated; we are now living in Liberal Heaven where Harry Styles rules with a well-manicured fist. We did it!
Except that’s sort of simplifying the issue, isn’t it? While straight dudes teasing a lil enby vibe our way is fun and even maybe a step forward, visible queerness from actual queer people is still not getting the Harry Styles treatment. It is historically dangerous to be assigned male at birth and present in any feminine way. Yet in 2022, fashion that steps outside of the binary seems to be everyone’s marketing strategy of choice.
For the TikTok generation, proximity to queerness has become a form of social capital. This supposed flouting of gender roles may not be an innocuously good omen of Gen Z’s rocket launch into progressivism, but rather another run