Shelf Life

Page 67 of the Voynich manuscript in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library's digital image collection.

The Voynich manuscript is a centuries-old document written in a language which no one can understand or even recognize. For most of its time at Yale, it has gathered dust in the Beinecke Rare Book Library, hidden from sight. Recently, however, it caught the eye of some documentary producers interested in making a film about it. The Beinecke librarians are now scrambling to update and expand the manuscript’s profile. The Voynich manuscript wasbrought it to the Sterling Memorial Library’s conservation laboratory. Here, two outside specialists are analyzing the pigments in its ink and carbon dating a tiny sample of its vellum. “There are people who spend all their time thinking about this thing,” explains Bobbie Pilette, who is the head of Yale University Library’s Preservation Department, one week after the testing. “There are entire websites devoted to it.”

For Pilette and Yale’s other conservation experts, the Voynich testing was business as usual, and manuscripts with stories beyond and beneath the marks of their what the ink has to tell are nothing out of the ordinary. The conservation laboratory, with windows looking into the atrium-like Music Library, looks something like a high-school art classroom. There is a sink in one corner, a fume hood, and long yellow fluorescent lights in the ceiling. At a worktable covered with white butcher-paper, Sarah Dove sits with a large and apparently blank sheet of something that she is gently scraping with a small metal tool. “You spend a lot of time looking at the reverse sides of things,” she explains. Dove is a map specialist, and she is removing a damaging adhesive that was probably applied sometime in the 1970s. “You spend a lot of time looking at the reverse sides of things,” she explains. With the encouragement of Dove’s her tool, the adhesive peels away from the back of the map the same way dry Elmer’s glue peels off of a kindergartener’s palms. The other side of the sheet is a map of Nova Scotia that was once part of George Washington’s personal map collection.

To a professional conservator like Dove, however, the map is a complicated interaction of paper, ink, and time. She sits quite straight, her forearm resting on the table, and works with deliberate, dispassionate precision. Her focus is not on Nova Scotia or George Washington, but on removing decades years of decay, wear, and negligence in order to restore the map to its original condition.

In this case, some of the map’s deterioration was actually caused by now-outdated preservation techniques. Today, most of the processes used to repair books can be reversed in case future conservators want to restore the book to its pre-repair condition. “Whatever we do could be undone without further damaging the material,” says Pilette. “You don’t know what future researchers might be looking for.”

For example, if a book’s spine is damaged beyond repair, Yale’s conservators can attach a new binding to the pages of the book with a reversible wheat starch adhesive. This means that they could easily remove the binding if it became damaged again or if a researcher were to think it necessary. “You can literally brush water on this and it will peel right off,” says Ian Bogus, holding a half-reconstructed book. As head of General Collections Conservation, he is responsible for protecting and restoring most of Yale’s collections. Some have been damaged through student abuse, but most have simply deteriorated over time. Besides constructing replacement bindings, Bogus and his assistants’ tasks include designing custom boxes to house more sensitive books. Each box must prevent its contents from warping or damaging under its own weight, so boxes are built to fit books’ lengths, widths, and heights almost as exactly as the green husk of a chestnut encases the fruit itself.

Some books, however, are beyond repair. These tomes, having reached the end of their lifespans, go down the hall to be reincarnated as text divorced from its original material self. While microfilming used to be the most common mode of reformatting, these days, a book’s pages are scanned and and a facsimile is madereprinted on more durable paper, or its the content is added to a growing digital database of book images. At his desk, surrounded by books with dusty and yellowing pages, reformatting specialist Gareth Gibson (last name) is occupied withbusy digitizing issues of the the library’s copies of the Yale Daily News printed during from the World War Two II era. He is ensuring that each article electronically links to its full continuation, and checking for completeness—not even an advertisement will be missing from the digital record. He once stumbled across a photograph a Yale student snapped of the Hindenburg zeppelin as it flew over the Uuniversity on its way to its fateful crash. In general, however, if he starts to read whatever he is working on, Gibson says, “you just get swamped.”

Gibson and his colleagues in the Preservation Department are technicians and scientists, not researchers or historians. “A book is a mechanical object. Whatever you do affects how it will operate in the future,” says Pilette says. There is little content that could excite these conservators as much a certain antique ink called iron gall. Used widely in Europe starting in the medieval period, iron gall was usually a homemade ink, mixed according to family recipes that were already centuries old. An individual would prepare his or her own ink from wasps’ nests in oak trees, and often distillingled the ink with wine or beer according to family recipes that were passed down through centuries. As a result,, iron gall ink is unpredictable, highly acidic, and difficult for conservators to treat.

Christine McCarthy, the Yale conservation lab’s chief conservator, displays a “common-place book” written with iron gall and containing disorganized notes and records that crowd to the edges of each page. The title on record for this book is “Memoranda, historical notes, curiosities, and opinions on various subjects.” Sadly, the author’s reddish-brown scrawl has begun to bleed through the pages, as the acid in his homemade ink dissolves the paper on which he wrote. “There is no right answer for treating something like this,” McCarthy says.

Yet for all their technical expertise, good conservators need something more than chemistry and patience. Their work is “very artistic at times,” says E.C. Schroeder, who oversees all acquisitions, cataloguing, and preservation of materials at Beinecke Library. “It requires hand-eye coordination, good motor skills, and a sense of design and style—a sense of how to preserve the original.” The conservator must be sensitive to the thoughts and intentions of minds many centuries goneauthors long dead, who survive only through the namesas names on the title-pages of the in the books they bound, but that sensitivity must also be matched by consideration of researchers and scholars in centuries to come, who will be the ultimate beneficiaries of the conservator’s work.

Coach Class

The Yale Bowl wasn’t always near-empty on Saturday afternoons. People didn’t always tailgate past half-time; in fact, the very first game of recognizable American football between two U.S. universities—Harvard and Yale—took place in New Haven in 1875. It was a Yale man, Walter Camp, who later became known as the “father of American football,” transforming a brutal form of rugby into a whole new game.

Looking at images of the Yale Bowl in the 1930s and ’40s, Professor Charles Hill says, one gets a sense of the centrality of Yale football games as social occasions and of the Yale Bowl as “where the most prominent people would want to be on a Saturday afternoon.” In those days, Hill says, playing football for Yale “was a test of manhood in America, and a pretty good guarantee of success in life.”

But Yale has changed. With the exception of 2006, Yale has lost every Harvard-Yale Game of the new millennium, and this is merely the latest slump in a long decline. Yale football has been unable to compete with the dazzling ascendency of the major Division 1 teams since the formation of the Ivy League in 1945 and its prohibition of athletic scholarships. Though Yale fielded a strong team during the 1960s, under the leadership of Coach Carm Cozza, the team’s national standing and student support have continued to fall. For the past two years, Yale’s losses to Harvard have been particularly brutal: 10-0 this year, 37-6 the year before. “Last year was a disappointment, I think everybody knows that,” says Ryan Fodor SY ’09, quarterback and graduating captain. “Going into every season, our goal should be to win an Ivy League Championship and beat Harvard.”

No one is more eager to make Fodor’s dream a reality than ex-student athlete, former pro-coach, and current Yale football messiah Tom Williams, who was appointed head coach this January. Williams is Yale’s third head coach in the last 44 years, and the first African-American to fill the position. He replaces Jack Siedlecki, who, after a fairly successful twelve-year tenure, announced his retirement following Yale’s shutout loss to Harvard in the 2008 Game.

With one infectious grin, Williams can fill a room with his enthusiasm for college football and the coaching profession. At a January 29 master’s tea in Jonathan Edwards College, members of the Yale community had the chance to see him in the flesh. Along with a crush of reporters and football fans, I sat chewing cookies as Williams, resplendent in a beige suit and blue tie, eagerly outlined his vision for Yale football. His dapper mustache tilting up to the left as he smiled, he emphasized his commitment to his players as student athletes rather than pawns in an elaborate field strategy.

This focus on students aligns well with the ethos of the Ivy League Conference. With high academic requirements and no athletic scholarships, every football program in the Ancient Eight follows the same rules of recruiting. Having formerly coached at Pacific Ten Conference schools Stanford and the University of Washington, Williams is used to facing teams that are either “haves or have nots”; wealthy schools like USC, for example, are able to attract players with hefty scholarships and thus edge out their smaller rivals. The less competitive nature of the Ivy League approach, Williams explained, encourages a sense of shared mission, almost of family, among Ivy coaches. But to some team members, this is part of the problem.

When a player at the tea asked whether Yale stood a chance of gaining more national recognition, Williams replied, “We can win our conference, beat our rival, and be as good as we can. We’re not going to end up in the Championship. That’s not something we need to be able to do.” The player nodded, but without enthusiasm. The rules of the Ivy League Conference necessarily limit the scope of the Yale football program, making it almost impossible for the team to advance to playoffs. Fodor explained that there had been some interest among the players in pushing for a playoff opportunity, perhaps even a Bowl-style standoff. The downside, he said, would be diminished support for the Harvard-Yale Game, a cornerstone of Yale football tradition since the days of Walter Camp. And Williams, who’s placed beating Harvard at the top of his list of priorities, would be loath to do anything of the sort. Placing athletic competition in a larger perspective, he likened himself to any other professor, albeit one with a “classroom on the practice fields.”

Williams had only been on campus for a few weeks, but he greeted the players at his master’s tea like old buddies. In the ante-room, a square-jawed guy in sweats transferred a slab of cake to his left hand so he and Williams could exchange a bro-shake. “This is one of those places that any college football coach would be interested in,” Williams said. “The prestige, the students Yale attracts—it’s a dream come true.” He wants to ensure that these students have a chance to contribute more to Yale than their football skills, so in order to give his players a chance to be more involved in student life, Williams plans on instituting early morning practices. If the players hit the field at 5:30am, he reasoned, they’ll have time to go to Master’s Teas in the afternoons.

Image: Tom Williams is introduced as Yale’s new head football coach. Associated Press

Lost and Found

If time travel existed, Jesse Thompson and Tony Cwikla would have racked up millions of frequent flier years. They’re history buffs—guys who’d prefer to throw back ale with Benjamin Franklin than with high school buddies, who’d rather watch gladiator matches with Caesar than with Russell Crowe. But since scientists have yet to find a traversable wormhole, Thompson and Cwikla must recover history instead of living it.

When they aren’t working their normal jobs (Thompson as switchboard operator and Cwikla as factory worker), the two men are metal detectorists, or, to put it more romantically, treasure hunters. They scour beaches, fields, and historic sites for coins, jewelry, and other buried relics of the past.

Thompson estimates that there over 3,000 metal detectorists in Connecticut, and at least 100,000 across the nation. Though some detectorists hunt alone, Thompson claims that the most serious belong to treasure hunting clubs: He presides over the Nor’easters Club in Stamford, Cwikla over the Yankee Territory Coin Shooters Club in East Hartford. These organizations provide treasure hunters with a network of hunting partners and an appreciative audience for their finds.

But treasure hunting is not just for would-be Indiana Joneses—Cwikla insists that it’s an easy hobby to pick up. “Really all you need is a detector and something to dig with and you’re good to go,” he says. At the East Windsor treasure-hunting store he operates when he’s not working his normal job, Cwikla sells detectors priced from $75—“no more effective than a child’s toy,” he says—to $1,500. A picture on the store’s website shows him before a row of detectors, his wide grin, glasses, and bushy salt-and-pepper mustache suggesting a cheerful, avuncular spirit. Next to him stands a woman in a tiara and bubblegum-pink skirt suit. “Even Ms. Connecticut was shopping for a detector,” the caption reads.

Not all detectors are created equal, however. As he explains it, metal detectors are like cars: They have different technologies, features, and performance characteristics. Good metal detectors such as Cwikla’s, a White’s DFX model valued at about $1,200, accurately recognize various types of metal and communicate this information back to the hunter through varyingly pitched beeps. Lower-quality detectors aren’t as discriminating and might confuse a balled-up piece of tin foil with platinum. To avoid this irksome situation, Cwikla says, “You have to have a good detector. Really the only things that matter in treasure-hunting are your detector, luck, and research.”

Thompson emphasizes this last variable. “Without research you’re not going to find much of anything,” he says. “You have to figure out where the old residents were and where people gathered.”

Luckily for the Nor’easters and the Yankee Territory Coin Shooters, finding historically saturated places in Connecticut is not especially difficult. “Treasure hunters in other parts of the country drool over Connecticut,” Cwikla boasts. “Think about it: Connecticut is one of the oldest parts of the country, and lots of people have lost things over the years. The chances of finding something old and historical here are much better than, say, in the Midwest.”

And at least for Thompson and Cwikla, happening upon history beats striking gold. “While a few detectorists are out there looking for the valuable stuff, most of us are more interested in history,” Thompson says in a voice that is husky but kind. His club holds their meetings “in the catacombs of Saint Maurice Church,” a testament to its members’ devotion to the underground past.

“For me,” he continues, “metal-detecting is an escape from the day-to-day. Every find has a story and trying to piece together that story transports you to another world. One time, at an Apple Orchard upstate, I found a Spanish real from 1774. Can you imagine? 1774! I remember thinking to myself, ‘The last person to be holding this coin was probably someone who had just immigrated to America and was having a picnic with their family.’”

Cwikla and Thompson have dug up everything from watch fobs and wedding rings to baseball pendants and ornately carved knives. But, like Thompson, Cwikla’s most cherished find is also a coin—Roman, from 79 A.D.

“I was absolutely awestruck when I found it,” he remembers. “I thought it must have been a fake but I took it to an appraiser and he authenticated it. How it got to Connecticut I have no idea. My guess is that some poor kid had a coin collection and dropped it when he brought it in for show and tell.”

But as they say, finders keepers.

Haley Cohen is a Sophomore in Davenport College.

Village Voices

It’s a Tuesday morning in February at the Village of Power, and Josephine is asking the women seated around her in a makeshift circle of chairs what they’ve done this week to turn a negative into a positive. The women, eleven in all, slump back into their sweatshirts and jackets. Although it’s warm indoors, some are still wearing the secondhand winter coats they got from the Columbus House shelter, where many will spend the night. No one speaks. Maybe it’s a little too early in the day, or maybe the question is too difficult for the women to answer just yet. They have come to the VOP, an all-female treatment program run in the basement of the Hill Health Center on Dixwell Avenue, to seek legal, medical, and emotional support as they struggle to overcome the twin hurdles of homelessness
and substance abuse.

Each woman who finds her way to the VOP is at a different step on the road to recovery, but all have certain things in common. All live below the poverty line; many have a history of incarceration, domestic abuse, and trauma; most, though not all, are racial minorities; 98 percent are unemployed. Most of the women suffer from some form of illness, mental or physical, that is often related to their addictions and exacerbated by their poverty: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, HIV, diabetes. Pain of all degrees and all varieties tends to be a recurring problem among the clientele.

Josephine isn’t prepared to accept silence.
As a veteran VOP caseworker, she leads a slew of trauma discussion groups, and she’s anything but shy about getting the ball rolling. “Mary, would you care to tell us one example of what you changed from a negative to a positive this week?” she asks a woman in jeans and a black parka.

Mary responds slowly. “Keeping that right attitude, no matter what happens in my life,” she says. She doesn’t look older than forty, but she’s missing most of her teeth. “I can’t be a good example to my grandchildren and other children in the family if I’m going to be an addict. And I could be sent to jail by my parole officer for using and testing positive time after time.” She pauses, then grows philosophical.
“I could thank my lucky stars that I still have my freedom, and nothing gets better by using.”

“Give her a hand, people,” Josephine calls out, eliciting a round of applause. A woman sitting close to the room’s back wall clears her throat. It’s hard to hear her until Josephine tells her to speak up. Three of her family members have died within days of each other, she says, and she’s struggling with the temptation to turn to alcohol to help her cope with her grief. The woman sitting next to her chimes in. She can understand what it’s like, she says, rubbing her eyes. She still misses her mother, although she died over twenty years before. The anniversary of her death is coming up soon. The women begin to talk at the same time, speaking at once to and over each other.

“You need to write a letter to your mother,” Josephine tells the second woman, cutting through the confusion, and when she replies that she already has, Josephine is ready with an answer: “Write another one, baby, until you feel that peace, ’cause you’re not at peace with that. As time goes on and we get older, we have to come to peace with things in our past,” she explains. “You are judged by your past, and you’re going to have to live with your past some more.”

JOSEPHINE OCCASIONALLY speaks in abstractions,
but her words are grounded in experience. Like many of the VOP’s caseworkers, she herself is a recovered addict, and is intimately acquainted with the irreversible impact that addiction can have on a career and personal life. As she addresses the group, Josephine begins to talk about her own struggle to regain control over her life, to find a new job after her drug-related criminal record made her ineligible for most career tracks. She knows what it’s like to be judged by the past, and she tells it like it is: Recovery is hard, recovery is long, recovery is often lonely. Her voice is sharp and loud, but its sheer persistent force has a relaxing effect over the room. “I know what it is to sit up and cry and be upset about that urge, you know,” she says. “It’s real, something that I fight every day, what is it, seven or eight years?” She pauses, and looks at the circle of women. “And I feel really good about that.”

As Josephine goes on, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish her from a VOP client. She speaks with the authority of a caseworker and the confidence of someone who is sure of her own strength and ability to stay sober. Still, the stories she tells are deeply personal, and she makes no attempt to censor herself, or to pause her own narrative so that others can share theirs. She is nothing like the stereotypical group leader of addiction recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, that warm and fuzzy breed of mentor who speaks only positive platitudes. This, of course, is the point of the VOP’s particular recovery model. The program installs caseworkers who understand their clients’ experiences because they have lived them. Josephine, who wears her enthusiasm for her job at the VOP like a badge of honor, can hold herself up as living proof that it is possible not simply to conquer an addiction, but to go on to lead a fulfilling life. And she’s anything but modest about the achievement.

“Do you mind if I give you a hug?” she asks one of the clients in the group. No one else has spoken for minutes; the proposed hug seems at once a caseworker’s offer of comfort to the women she’s trying to help and a client’s vulnerable appeal for reassurance. “I tell ya, a hug a day keeps the doctor away, it’s better than the apple. And a good smile will brighten a person’s day, too.” People nod. “You know, I feel as though when I walk in here I really add some burst of life to y’all. Get up! Get moving!” The women chuckle, but few move. “No?” Josephine asks.

DESPITE THE FRAUGHT nature of many of its discussion groups, the VOP works hard to cultivate a casual, easy atmosphere. Women will often stop by just to say hello and chat for a minute, and the caseworkers leading discussions and group therapy sessions
call out to them to encourage them to sit and stay for a while, or to join the group and share their own stories. The cinderblock
walls are painted a bright purple, the rooms decorated with clients’ photographs, magazine-cutout collages, paintings, and poems. A large wooden board is cut and painted to look like a woman dressed in African-patterned fabrics. The sign she carries reads: “We are the women of the Village of Power—strong, caring, spiritual, loving, funny, free. Village of Power is the strength for women in recovery learning to overcome in daily battles.”

As the VOP’s founder and director Sue Feldman will tell you, it’s not a fancy place. Even in a normal economic climate, there would hardly be money to spend on things like furniture or décor. The tables and chairs that fill the main room where most of the group meetings take place are strictly utilitarian. But to regular clients, none of that seems to matter. The VOP has a warmth and openness to it that obscures
the windowless modesty of its physical space. It can seem worlds, rather than mere floors, away from the gray sterility of the clinic upstairs.

If there is a model for the VOP, it is the one-room schoolhouse, in which students of all ages and skill levels interact and learn with one another, the more advanced ones nudging the novices along until they become teachers in their own right. The Village of Power purposefully softens the lines between authority figures and clients, the recovered and the recovering. Caseworkers have been patients and talk honestly about the continued challenges of staying sober. As Josephine’s own presence testifies, it’s more than possible for patients to transform, one day, into caseworkers. Even Sue’s office, technically the most official and private room at the VOP, is an open, almost communal space. Clients and caseworkers alike drop by to chat or ask for advice, and the door stays open almost all the time. “Sue does not take a day off,” Josephine says with admiration. “Every time she takes her vacation, she incorporates it into business.”

Talking and listening are important, but doing and making things are equally stressed as practical modes of therapy. Across the hallway from the VOP’s main room is Growing for Sewing, a program devoted entirely to clients’ sewing and crafts projects. Bolts of fabric cover the tables and countertops of the large sewing room, and finished items hang on the walls as showpieces. Colorful wraps and shawls drape next to patterned shirts and pants; a handmade teddy bear or two surveys the scene. Johnnie-Anne and Comelita, two long-time VOP clients, sit at sewing machines,working on new projects and listening to religious songs drifting from the television: I know I don’t deserve him, but I love him anyway. Praise him, praise him, praise him.

Comelita has been coming to the Village of Power since 2006. Although she had known how to sew since she was a child, she hadn’t worked a machine in thirteen years. Sewing, she found, helps to keep her mind occupied and focused on sobriety. She comes to the VOP every day, she says, “so I can get away, and have that free time to myself, instead of being at home with that free time and doing—other things.” True to the VOP’s model of empowerment, she now teaches sewing to other women who come in wanting to learn. Acquiring a skill and being able to teach it, Feldman says, helps women like Comelita believe that there was a point to their suffering—that it has equipped them to understand and aid others like them.

“I just love being in the sewing room,” Johnnie-Anne says. “I just love being here.” Like Comelita, she is a daily presence
at the VOP, and has been coming for eight years. She came in with a drug addiction and a serious violent streak, but she smiles now as she promises that she’ll be here “until Sue tells me I got to go.” If Sue gives her the go-ahead, she plans to start teaching a class in jewelry-making for women who have not yet advanced to the sewing room. The VOP has taught her how to make candles and soaps, and she’s eager to learn more crafts. Johnnie-Anne wants to take her accumulated skills beyond the VOP basement, even beyond the regular crafts sales that the VOP sponsors every Friday, where its clients’ work is sold to fund the purchase of more materials for the crafts-room and any personal items these clients might need, from eyeglasses to bus passes (the women don’t receive hard cash for their work, in case it might trigger a relapse). With the support of the VOP, Johnnie-Anne plans to start her own craft-selling business in the basement of the home that she aspires to buy. Johnnie-Anne realizes that this particular equation rests on a string of maybes, but, she says, the VOP has given her hope that this kind of self-sufficiency may soon be possible.

The sewing room is one of the incentives Feldman has developed to help her clients stay clean. When they first arrive at VOP, many of the women have anger management problems that compound their addictions. But, as they progress toward sobriety, clients who show a great deal of improvement in social skills and professionalism might be invited to work the reception desk. Being asked to monitor the telephone is a sign of competence and responsibility, and Feldman reports that women will often argue with each other over who will get the job. “Rather than focus on illness, like you would do in a traditional therapy situation…our whole approach is, ‘What do you love to do?’” she explains. “Rather than initially focusing on deficits and weaknesses and problems, first we focus on who you are, what are you strengths, what you love to do.”

Feldman refuses to be discouraged by clients who, when they first enter the VOP, claim that they have no passions or skills. She’ll direct them to start stringing beads, something that anyone can do. The modest income that women like Johnnie-Anne and Comelita have begun to earn through the sale of their crafts demonstrates the immediate practical benefits that this kind of creativity can bring, but Feldman points to another, longer-lasting advantage to a work-based approach to recovery. “By finding her own strength and beauty, any woman can grow into age-appropriate tasks: being a parent, being a citizen, being an employee. It’s a developmental process.” She envisions a future for the VOP as a women’s micro-business cooperative, in which each client will eventually be skilled enough to make—and profit from—crafts. “We want to be a movement,” she says with a laugh, comparing the VOP to a company like the Body Shop, which started small and, by marketing a particular kind of natural and eco-friendly product, grew into a massive franchise. “Buy things made by women in recovery who are homeless, because that will make your community a humane place, rather than supporting a big CEO-corporation,” Feldman says. This goal has become a major focus of her organization, which recognizes that even women who have physically recovered from an addiction can’t succeed in today’s world without achieving economic independence. Until about ten years ago, Feldman explains, “the connection between work and recovery was very fuzzy, because programs are always stepped. Policy- makers would say, ‘First get them clean and sober, and address their mental health issues. Then they can go and train and get a job.’ Well, that never made sense to me. What’s the motivation for someone to get well if they’re still poor and can’t support themselves?”

The VOP’s dual approach to recovery is non-negotiable, according to Feldman. Women may come for group therapy sessions
but insist that they don’t want to participate in the crafts making, or vice-versa, but caseworkers will steer them towards both. Even though they have not relapsed recently and describe themselves as stable and happy, Johnnie-Anne and Comelita remain active participants in a variety of groups, from the regular morning meeting,at which clients describe their daily progress, to the spirituality and Bible-reading sessions.

AS SUCCESSFUL AS the VOP’s structure tends to be, there are moments when its sheer flexibility can prove problematic. Women don’t need an official referral to participate in any of its programs, and most come with friends who have told them about the organization. This informality makes the VOP uniquely accessible, but it also means that there are few formal mechanisms in place for ensuring that clients follow through on their intentions to get well. There are no twelve steps here, no regimen of any kind.

The informality and openness of the group sessions also create a complicated dynamic between those who are far along in the recovery process, those who are just beginning, and those who may not have come to the VOP to recover at all. Someone
who has never been addicted to alcohol cannot casually sit in on an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting, but a female visitor who has never suffered from an addiction or from poverty or homelessness will be welcomed into the VOP community with extraordinary hospitality simply by virtue of being a woman. She may be invited to sit in on group sessions without sharing anything personal about herself, and she can even allow herself to be lulled into feeling a degree of comfort there. But barriers inevitably remain. Josephine, friendly and blunt as ever, doesn’t object to the presence of a stranger in most of the sessions she leads, but she takes care to remind all who are present that the only people who can really help each other through addiction and destitution are those who have been there themselves.

“We sit in groups with people who have no idea what it’s like,” she says, her voice rising as she looks me straight in the eyes. “No idea what it’s like to have an addiction.” In a group discussion on recovery skills, a woman flares up at the idea that someone could listen to her personal experiences without sharing any of her own. “I wouldn’t have said none of that if I had known there was a visitor,” she shouts. “It’s not fair.”

Still, the VOP’s flexibility may be its greatest asset. Every woman who visits chooses consciously to do so. Just walking in the door is a deliberate act of empowerment.

“Today is my perfect example of turning a negative into a positive,” says another woman in Josephine’s group, also named Mary. She had come in late, and explains that after missing an important doctor’s appointment earlier in the morning, she thought about going to drink with her cousin afterwards. “But instead, I came right here,” she says. The group applauds.

“Ladies, I think we had a pretty good group today,” Josephine says, jumping out of her seat. “If anybody would like to say the Serenity Prayer with me, please stand.” There is a scraping of chairs, and the women hold hands and recite together: God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. The women applaud again and begin to clear food and papers from the table in the center of the room. Beads are set out in large plastic jars, elastic thread spooled onto plastic plates. The women chat as they begin to bead, designing necklaces and bracelets to sell, keep for themselves, or give as gifts to friends and family. The craft-making has the feel of an informal group session. Someone’s daughter is having trouble in the foster care system. Another is worrying about eviction. A third says that her mother is going into surgery again. She is silent for a moment. “But,” she says emphatically, her voice growing loud, “nothing is wrong with me!” There is laughter, and she continues. “I’m fine,” she says, “I’m fine.”

Talking Shock

The first day Paul was in Vietnam, his company lined up to take pictures with a dead enemy soldier. When Paul refused, they punished him. “They made me bury the guy,” he said. “They weren’t about to let me get away with not touching him.”

The rest of the group—five veterans and a chaplain—listen quietly, sitting in a scattered circle in the third-floor chapel of the West Haven Veteran’s Administration Hospital. Leaning back in their seats with their legs crossed, they are just settling into a weekly interfaith group meeting for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“Our innocence—boy, we sure lost it quick,” says Paul, both hands resting on his walker.

“It’s true, you know,” Jeff chimes in. His head bobs gently as he speaks. “We were in high school, young, we didn’t understand the world then. We didn’t know what other life-paths were like. And then you go to war, and you’re not prepared. Everything you see is so foreign to you. It’s something that rocks the mind. We weren’t innocent anymore.”

Even today, Paul feels a sense of guilt. He says he’s apologized to families in Vietnam, because he feels like he’s the one who broke them apart and needs their forgiveness.

The others nod in silence, but Hernandez speaks out. “Forgiveness, what about it? If they don’t exonerate us, then what?” Hernandez still recalls the first man he saw die, a Marine flipping through the nearby air—Hernandez moves his index finger in a rolling motion to demonstrate. “They say the Lord’ll take care of the guys you kill, sort ’em out, you know, pick the good ’uns and the bad ’uns. Some go to heaven, some go to hell. But what happens to me? What side am I on?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” says Ron. “In war, you make yourself an object, and the other person an object. That’s how you can kill. You detach yourself. And coming home, we had to detach ourselves again, because of the stigma associated with us. But at what price?”

Father Sergei Bouteneff, the V.A. chaplain, addresses the men calmly and indirectly. He tells of something he learned from Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, at a potlatch ceremony, in which a wealthy member of the community treats everyone to a huge feast. One part of the ceremony entails taking a huge copper shield and breaking it apart, giving a piece to each person at the feast. Later, the host collects the pieces and melds them together in a display of unity. “Let’s say this shield takes $1,000 to make,” says the chaplain. “Well, it takes $2,000 to put it back together. And even when you do, it’s not the same. That’s the price we pay. It’s like our innocence. We’re trying now to buy it back, but the cost is high. And sometimes we’re missing a piece or two. We have to go after it. But we pay, we went to war at a price—we pay extra, just like the shield.”

Part of that price is the fight against isolation, as veterans try to piece their broken lives back together.

P.T.S.D.—Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—is a common mental illness amongst war veterans. It is an anxiety disorder brought on by a life experience a patient can’t shake. Its four main symptoms, as described by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, are re-experiencing, avoidance, numbing, and arousal. The organization also estimates different percentages of veterans affected by P.T.S.D. for different wars: about 12 to 20 percent for soldiers who served in Iraq, 6 to 11 percent for those in Afghanistan, up to 10 percent for Gulf War veterans, and 30 percent for those who served in Vietnam.

Elliott Storm, a Vietnam veteran and author who is a regular patron of the West Haven V.A. Hospital, knows the isolation that P.T.S.D. can bring. His latest book, These Scars Are Sacred, features a vet haunted by memories of Vietnam; any little trigger—a slow-moving car, crowds—can set off a flashback that Storm depicts in vivid, sometimes gruesome detail. “People from the outside say I’m raw,” says Storm, whose voice, even on the phone, is frenzied. “But vets say I’m real. They say thank you, for telling the truth. Thank you, for saying what we’ve been wanting to say.” Storm insists he doesn’t write his books for veterans themselves, but for their families, so that they can understand what the veterans
are going through and why so many are afflicted.

When the term P.T.S.D. was coined in 1980, it was initially applied only to Vietnam veterans. Before that, Vietnam vets had noticed common problems—anxiety, bouts of depression, difficulty holding on to jobs, a tendency to fidget, trouble trusting others, substance abuse—but rarely were these cases officially diagnosed or linked together, in part because V.A. hospitals often turned these vets away, but also because the vets themselves were reluctant to speak out.

Storm still believes he went to law school as a way to retreat from popular antipathy toward Vietnam vets. “Lawyers can’t be crazy, can they?” he asks. “That was gonna be a mask I was gonna use. The last thing I wanted anyone to know was that I was a vet.”

Storm’s multiple decorations within the Marine Corps did not make his homecoming
any easier. For one thing, this was the first war from which soldiers were shipped home on planes instead of boats, truncating their transition from front to home front. “One day, I was in the middle of a rice paddy, and I’m getting shot at, and I’m shooting back, and people are screaming and shooting and all kinds of terrible things are happening,” says Storm. “Two days later, I’m sitting in my mother’s house, drinking cold milk, thinking, ‘What the heck’s going on?’”

But what drove Storm’s transitional trauma home was the treatment he and other Vietnam veterans received once back in the States, where he felt that the public did not separate the soldier from the unpopular war, the tool from the wielder of power. “Society turned their back on us,” he says. “People were calling me a baby-killer. That was forty years ago, but you think I’m ever gonna forget that?”

But in the ’80s, he says, as veterans began to be more accepted within popular culture, they began speaking out. “We started going to the V.A., and the V.A. started sayin’, why, there’s a lot of people here with the same thing. That’s when they first called it P.T.S.D.”

Since the early 1990s, the medical community has become increasingly responsive to the psychological and spiritual needs of all patients, and particularly veterans. With more and more people returning from Iraq and Afghanistan wounded instead of killed, and with the survivability rate of the military today higher than it has ever been, veterans’ need for psychological treatment has become impossible to ignore. Hospitals like the West Haven V.A. have responded in kind, increasingly turning to chaplains’ programs, mental health care, and creative therapy. But many vets worry that this won’t be enough.

“How much can you art? How much can you sing? How much can you laugh and write and do any of those things?” says Storm. “A reporter once said to me, ‘Didn’t you find your book a catharsis?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not!’ Writing doesn’t help me….There is no cure for what I have. Sure, there are drugs, but there is no cure. There’s no magic pill.”

Dana Murphy, Storm’s commanding officer within one of Connecticut’s American Legion chapters, agrees that the book is no substitute for medical treatment. “He’s writing this book, but he needs help, too,” he says. “He sees a shrink every Monday.”

Sometimes, the writing and the treatment feed off of each other. When Storm’s psychologist told him to write down a recurring war dream he’d been having, he ended up pounding out 65 single-spaced pages on a typewriter.

But telling the truth can alienate as many people as it attracts. Storm’s wife of 25 years left him when he started re-immersing himself in his war experiences through writing. “It’s called secondary P.T.S.D.,” says Storm. “I rub off on my wife and my kids.” He remembers a picture of him that his son, Christian, drew at age 13. “It was a monster-looking man holding a chain saw and on the bottom it said, ‘What I say go,’” says Storm. “After I stopped crying, I told my son, ‘Draw me a picture of you.’ And you know what he drew? He drew me a picture of a sacrificial lamb.” Regarding his books, his other son asked him, “Daddy? Do me a favor. Don’t use our real name.”

So “Elliott Storm” is actually a pseudonym, yet one so powerful that even his closest friends and his second wife call him Elliott. As for the real Elliott Storm? He’s a cat.

IN THE LOBBY of the West Haven V.A. Hospital is a single quotation, stark and striking above the information desk, in silver metallic lettering: “The price of freedom is visible here.” But maybe it’s not so visible after all.

Storm tells me, “It’s not that you have to understand. I talk to psychiatrists, psychologists. I ask ’em, ‘What are the first things you tell these people who come in to see you, these veterans?’ Is it ‘Oh, we know this or we know that?’ Because that’s not what veterans want to hear. You tell them what you think, what you know about P.T.S.D. and everything, and they turn away from you. You know what a veteran wants to hear? Just two words: ‘Welcome home.’ If I know someone was a Vietnam vet, if they were wearin’ a hat or somethin’, I always go up to them and say, ‘Welcome home, brother.’”

At his office in the V.A., Father Bouteneff tells me, “I don’t try to hide the fact that I never served.” He got an F4 from a medical exam—meaning that he was physically disqualified—and later a Y1, which excused him from duty while he was a seminary student. Still, in his therapy sessions with P.T.S.D. groups, he doesn’t hesitate to use the word “we.” “War is about us versus them,” he tells his veteran patients.

And his patients, many of whom he’s been working with for over twenty years now, tell him, “We served for three years. You’re serving for 25.”

“Spirituality is about relationships,” Father Bouteneff says. He draws me a picture: a messy triangle labeled with Y (You), O (Other), and HP (Higher Power) on top. He draws arrows connecting all three to each other. “You don’t have to understand
right away. But it’s about trying to understand others, to sympathize, empathize.” He draws a final arrow from the Y back to itself in a circle. “And about understanding yourself.”

THE ERRERA COMMUNITY Care Center, just down the hill from the West Haven V.A. and also part of the V.A. Connecticut Healthcare System, is working to change veterans’ perceptions of themselves, and each other, with more than just words. Walking into a brick building with a factory- like facade, I see artwork: photography in memory of a vet. But upstairs, on the second floor, is where the healing really happens.

Dr. Laurie Harkness, founder and director of the Errera Community Care Center, seeks to hire veterans for her staff of peer facilitators and counselors. “These people are mentally ill, have been homeless, even,” she says. “But you would never know it.” When I explain that I am interested in the process of recovery for veterans, Dr. Harkness lights up.

The Errera Community Care Center addresses community integration in a style more hands-on and less structured than most mental health centers could imagine. “Most mental health places, they’re trying to establish more of a medical model,” says Moe Armstrong, a veteran who specializes in mental health work and is writing a book profiling the Center’s 17 peer specialists; he jots down notes even as I ask questions. “They have psychiatrists, nurses,” he explains. “Well, you need that. You need clinical people, but you also need people workin’ with people. Just need people talkin’ to each other. That’s why this place got the best of both worlds, the clinical stuff”—the Center boasts psychiatrists, including Dr. Harkness, who teach at the Yale School of Medicine—“and people trying to get each other. And by having mentally ill people act as peers, that’s therapy for them, too. The future of mental health is here.”

James Murphy and Lewis Andrews are both peer advisors as well as Vietnam veterans; they co-teach a class called HOPE: How One Progresses Everyday. Before taking early retirement, Murphy managed to work on and off for 22 years after he got back from the war. After he stopped working, though, he got mixed up with a crowd that fostered his drug addiction. He was homeless by 2004, when he was diagnosed with P.T.S.D. at the V.A.. “I’m not trying to justify everything with my P.T.S.D.,” he says. But the facts are there: Since his diagnosis, he hasn’t used drugs, and he’s no longer homeless. When he first found out, though, he was scared. “When they first told me I had P.T.S.D., I was like, ‘What’s that?’ I thought they were tryin’ to label me, you know. I was scared. When you get screwed over so many times, when the V.A. did want to help you, you got a bit leery. That why a lot of us stayed out and became homeless. We had no confidence that the V.A. was tryin’ to help us.”

Lew Andrews needs even more help than Murphy: He was blinded by a mine while operating a tank in Vietnam. “This center is tryin’ to help the guys accept the condition they’re goin’ through. Or maybe not accepted, no,” says Andrews. “I mean, more like adjust. I’ve adjusted to being blind, I ain’t gon’ get used to it, but I can work to a positive end.”

When Andrews first came to the Center to work, after getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Gateway College, the administrators asked him, “What do you think you could bring to this center to help?”

“I’m the type of person who needs that type of stuff,” says Andrews. Like many vets, he wants to feel needed.

A typical peer advisor teaches four classes a week on anything from anger management, to social interactions, to finding jobs. Peer-to-peer counseling gives mentally ill veterans a sense of purpose, even amidst difficulties. “Some mornings,
I just don’t want to come to work,” says Anthony Dozier, another peer advisor at the center who specializes in finding
veterans jobs under the government’s supportive employment policies. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s overwhelming. I force myself out of bed sometimes.” But he gets up because he has a responsibility to other veterans. “The benefit of me having a mental illness is that I can relate. A lot of vets”—Dozier served in Iraq—“are like me.” They want to isolate themselves, stay in bed. They don’t like authority. Everything’s a threat to them. They can’t find or keep a job. “Well, then I start sharin’ my story with them. They see that I’m at work every day. That inspires them.” And so, when Dozier looks for jobs for veterans, he considers the conditions he himself faces. When a veteran tells him he is too anxious to have an interview that day, Dozier reschedules with the employer. He explains the situation to potential employers and entreats them to give the vet a chance.

“It’s a part-time job that just gets ’em out of the house,” says Dozier. “The worst thing for mental illness is to isolate. With a mental illness, you hide from the world. If you get ’em out of the house, there’s less of a chance for relapse.” And unlike other job employment programs, Dozier’s support is ongoing. “I don’t want you to just get your thing goin’ on and leave you. I stick with you. I support you and keep coming to check in on you,” Dozier says. “As long as a vet wants me to keep comin’, I keep comin’. And there’s this sense of being part of a team, too—Tony’s team. That’s what soldiers like.”

But since there are just two supportive employment peer advisors at the Center, there’s not enough of Dozier to go around. And as Moe Armstrong points out, this isn’t just a problem in New Haven—there are not enough Doziers or Andrews or Murphys throughout the country. Armstrong, who wants to bring this sort of peer-to-peer interaction and support to mental health institutions nationwide, is working on a national vet-to-vet program.

The mental health system has been slow to accept this approach. “This center, this is it,” says Armstrong, who has visited similar clinics across the country. “60 percent of the people who go through this center don’t return to homelessness. That’s the highest in the V.A. system. Nationally, you’d be lucky if you get half that.”

Armstrong has been working with mental healthcare on and off for twenty years and has two master’s degrees in the field. Before that, he spent twenty years wandering after his service in Vietnam, drifting from place to place, getting high, not realizing how common mental illness was for veterans. In 1984, when he was accepted to college, “the V.A. wouldn’t pay for me to have a degree in social work,” he says. “They wanted me to hide. The counselors were afraid of what would happen if I were to speak my feelings.” So he got a bachelor’s in business administration instead; he says he’ll probably work until he drops dead.

All of Armstrong’s wandering, though, has taken a toll on him. “Sometimes I still feel like the odd guy out,” he says. “Like I’m rough around the edges, you know.”

“Hey now,” says Murphy. “Sometimes the odd guy out is the one that gets the ball rollin’…even if sometimes the ball rollin’ can knock the odd guy out.”

They chortle, but the statement rings true, and this is precisely what the Errera Community Care Center is: the odd guy out, trying to get the ball to roll. And more people are starting to roll along.

KEN HARBAUGH, executive director of the Center for Citizen Leadership, a non-profit dedicated to providing veterans with resources to be “leaders back home,” is one of the rollers. “Even those coming home wounded feel like they have something left to give,” says Harbaugh. “They don’t want to feel like they’re charity cases. So our first thought shouldn’t be, ‘What can I do to help them?’ It’s, ‘What can we do to reengage them productively in society?’”

Harbaugh lives in New Haven, but the Center for Citizen Leadership works nationwide integrating veterans into the community as full-time volunteers for organizations from the National Park Service to Brothers and Sisters or local nonprofits. Many veterans receive subsidies from the CCL as a way to supplement their service checks while allowing them to do community work. As for the organizations for which the veterans volunteer, Harbaugh says, “At first, they really feel like they’re doing these guys a favor. But it doesn’t take very long at all for them to realize that these people have so much left to offer.”

A bill introduced in the Senate in the fall of 2008 as an amendment to the National and Community Service Act of 1990 proposes a strategy similar to Harbaugh’s. Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch’s Serve America Act would, among other things, provide a government-funded veteran’s fellowship that would encourage veterans to engage in community service. The Obama administration has already signaled support for it.

“The veterans’ story is one of continuing service,” says Harbaugh, himself a vet who attended Duke and then Yale Law School after returning from his tours. “These guys have been told by the military that they’ve done their part, they can sit back now and be taken care of, but that’s not a way to live for anybody, much less the kinds of people who were willing to risk their lives to serve.” Harbaugh and, now, the American government, recognizes the role of service in healing.

At the end of the group meeting at the West Haven V.A., one man says he wants to join one of the service projects going back to Vietnam, to help rebuild the place he once destroyed. That will be his continuing service, and part of his recovery.
Another man says he would never be able to do that, to go back there, but that he fully supports the other vet. “And in doing that, in you telling him, ‘I support you,’” says Father Bouteneff to the second man, “a little part of you is going back with him.”

For these veterans, like the pieces of the potlatch shield, recovery cannot exist in isolation.

Poster Child

Yale is covered in text. I don’t always see it and I don’t always read it, but it’s all over buildings, statues, bulletin boards, portraits, and signs. It’s often titular: “John C. Calhoun,” “Nathan Hale,” “James Woolsey,” “Kingman Brewster.” It’s often institutional: “The Yale Political Union,” “Mory’s,” “The Whiffenpoofs.” Recently, it’s often been hateful: “N****r,” “sluts.”

For Jessica Svendsen MC ’09, this text is also masculine, connoting a mostly male institutional history and culture. When, this January, she began printing words on sheets of paper and piecing them into grids on bulletin boards across campus—in Linsley-Chittenden and William Harkness Halls, on Cross Campus, on Old Campus, on Rose Walk—she was re-covering Yale with text she hoped would actively make visual and conceptual space for women.

First, she recalls, she had to blanket a masculinized history with its feminine counterpart. “One of the things that has worried me during my time here is the lack of institutional memory,” Svendsen says, her slow, flat voice presenting her thoughts in an elegant grid. “Yes, we’re only here for four years, but we’re not aware of what has happened to women since 1969. Because there is no knowledge of history or recovering of history, we make the same mistakes.”

In order to assert this alternate history, she combed through Yale Daily News and University archives and read articles and reports related to women at Yale. She then excerpted parts of these articles and, in striking white font, set them on a black timeline from 1969 to 2009. This timeline, which Svendsen printed in 8.5-by-11-inch sections and arranged in 102-by-44-inch displays on bulletin boards across campus, was the first installation of a graphic design project she has titled “Graphic Feminism.”

Svendsen, an English major who takes graphic design classes and designs for several Yale organizations, began work on the project last semester. She obtained an Amy Rossborough Fellowship for service affecting women in New Haven and began rooting through archives, as well as interviewing undergraduate women about their experiences with feminism at Yale.

Svendsen’s project is historically saturated, both with the history of women at Yale and with the history of women in art. In the 1960s and ’70s, as the women’s liberation movement caught fire in the American political, social, and cultural spheres, women began to make feminist art. Art made by women, or even art made by women with a feminist intent, was not new, but this art was different. It was a movement in which, as Washington Post critic Blake Gopnik recalled in 2007, “the message has mattered as much as the medium.” Feminist artists challenged the traditional idea of the sacred art object and began to include voices and perspectives that had historically been silenced. In the field of graphic design, this meant displaying multiple perspectives in one design, breaking down the structured modernist grid to reveal the artist’s subjectivity, and cognitively engaging the viewer.

The message-over-medium approach was—and is—nowhere more present than in the work of the Guerilla Girls, a group of gorilla mask-wearing female artists founded in the 1980s that attacks gender and racial discrimination in politics and the art world using interventionist, often illegal posters, stickers, and billboards. Their designs are not meant to be savored in a museum but rather to catch the eye of a pedestrian and force him or her to think about societal structures in a new way. One of the Guerilla Girls’ most famous campaigns, in 1989, featured Ingres’s Odalisque wearing a gorilla mask and flanking the text: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” The poster is shaded a shocking yellow and purple, its typeface a simple black shot through with pink for emphasis.

Svendsen’s unauthorized postering can’t help but recall the Guerilla Girls, and in many ways, her posters reflect their designs. A key component of Graphic Feminism is its blog, which Svendsen updates frequently under a pseudonym; in person, “Grid Girl”’s cat-eye glasses cut an appropriately graphic image across her arcing forehead. When she tells me about her project, she uses the term “guerrilla” more than once. Having long navigated Yale’s postering policies, Svendsen simultaneously honors and trashes them with Graphic Feminism. University regulations allow one 8.5-by-11-inch poster per item on each of its official bulletin boards, so Svendsen divides her installation into twenty or thirty 8.5-by-11-inch chunks and then staples them over other flyers. “When you take up the entirety of a bulletin board to make people think about women at Yale,” she explains, “that inserts women into the campus space and makes people talk about it. When I post the designs up and cover space, then, in a way, I’m making space for women.” Her posters are often removed by Yale Recycling mere hours after she installs them, but this, of course, is part of the fun.

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, current director of the Yale Art School’s graphic design program, coined the term “feminist design” in the 1970s. After earning her M.F.A. at Yale in 1964, de Bretteville went on to upend the design world, founding the first design program for women at CalArts as well as Los Angeles’s legendary Woman’s Building, a feminist art and culture center, in 1971. When she was tapped as director of Yale’s design program in 1990, becoming the first tenured woman at the Art School, her radical theories prompted the resignations of several of the School’s more traditional faculty members.

Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, Yale had been a center of the International or Swiss Style, often characterized by clean, readable grids and strong sans serif fonts, and developed almost entirely by men. De Bretteville, who had been trained in this style as a graduate student at Yale, wanted to “honor the intelligence of the viewer rather than talking at the viewer,” she remembers. By engaging artist and viewer in a kind of dialogue, de Bretteville called both parties’ genders, and how these genders might affect their perspectives, into question.

“Feminist design looks for graphic strategies that will enable us to listen to people who have not been heard from before,”de Bretteville said in a 1990 dialogue with designer Ellen Lupton. Recalling feminist design strategies she’d pursued in the ’80s, de Bretteville continued, “Having the words and the images contradict themselves also creates a productive tension, by asking the viewer to resolve the conflict and thus bring his or her thinking process and point of view into play.”

Though de Bretteville still prizes the subjectivity of the designer and the intelligence of the viewer, she no longer views these factors through the lens of gender. “When I first began, in 1969, to think about questioning what gender has to do with how women make things,” she recalled recently, “I really enjoyed the question- asking aspect of it because it meant thinking, it meant feeling, it meant really looking at experience as well as what has been written about gender…. At one point in the ’80s, before I came back to Yale, I thought it was useful to call that act ‘feminist design’ because it’s so easy to discount gender as being participant in this discussion. I still think that’s conceptually important, but how you do it now, it’s worth considering.”

How Svendsen is doing it is indicative of a new feminist era less focused on gender differences and more focused on how gender affects the day-to-day lives of both men and women. While her work employs de Bretteville’s multiple-perspective and viewer-engagement strategies, it is also steeped in the Swiss Style de Bretteville was questioning and, as director of Yale’s graphic design program, replacing. Svendsen uses bold, simple fonts arranged on strict grids, and her posters are recognizably crisp and readable, but in no way does she consider these stylistic choices inherently male or female. Her feminism emerges not in the style of her work—the medium—but in its content—the message.

On January 15, Svendsen posted anonymous reader comments taken from the Yale Daily News website. She horizontally anchored her display with the large phrase, “Your comments here.” In a grid set over and around this phrase, she arranged the comments, all responding to last year’s most explosively gendered events: Zeta Psi’s online posting of a photo of twelve pledges standing in front of the Yale Women’s Center holding a sign that read “We love Yale sluts,” and Aliza Shvarts DC ’08’s projected artistic rendering of a series of self-induced abortions. These comments expressed everything from a reluctance to associate with the Women’s Center—“Women constitute 50% of the student body… Please don’t think that just because you are part of an institution that calls itself the Women’s Center you have the right to speak for all women at Yale”—to misogynistic jokes—“How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Two: One to screw it in and one to suck my penis.” The juxtaposition of varying texts and perspectives creates the kind of “productive tension” de Bretteville cited as a way to critically engage viewers and prompt the questions of difference needed to address gender disparity and discrimination, whether or not Svendsen’s style was originally developed by men.

Feminist dialogue these days, both within and without the art world, tends to center on glass ceilings rather than on gendered perspectives. At a much-talked about New York panel on book design, one of the questions submitted to panelists Milton Glaser, Dave Eggers, and Chip Kidd asked why there were so few “superstar” female graphic designers. Kidd broke the awkward silence with a Larry Summers joke, and then Glaser asserted that women miss out on foundational career opportunities by choosing to stay home and raise children.

This incident sparked uproar in many circles, especially within the design world. Michael Bierut, a senior critic at the Yale Art School and moderator of the controversial panel discussion, reacted on his award-winning blog, Design Observer. In a post titled “The Graphic Glass Ceiling,” Bierut acknowledged gender imbalance at his own design firm and contemplated the possibility that Glaser, despite his archaic phrasing, might have spoken a shred of truth.

Jessica Helfand, who founded Design Observer with Bierut and also serves as a senior art critic at Yale, certainly thinks that lifestyle choices weigh heavily on women graphic designers. While designing the New York Times’s first website,  Helfand became pregnant with her first of two children. Wary of endangering her job, she did her best to hide her pregnancy. “I think it’s a very female thing to assume that one thing would stand in the way of the other,” she says, “or that there’s a dissonance.”

A recent Graphic Feminism installment tackled the proverbial glass ceiling within the glass walls of the Bass Library café, one of several places where it was installed. Svendsen, who has worked extensively with the Women’s Faculty Forum, compiled statistics on everything from tenured women, to maternity leave policies, to the number of reported sexual assaults on campus, arranging the numbers in mathematical columns that add up to a blank space next to the words, “Number of Yale students who identify as feminist.”

Svendsen herself identifies as a feminist, thought not necessarily as a feminist graphic designer. In using graphic design to provoke discussion about feminism on campus, she takes a functionalist approach to her art. A recent display on the topic of the Women’s Center was not only cleanly laid out, with asymmetrical space, a central women’s restroom symbol, and striking orange accents—it was successful in sparking dialogue about feminism at Yale. This installation, which displayed anonymous statements from six Yale women who identified as feminists but took issue with the Women’s Center, drew more comments on Graphic Feminism’s blog than any other post. Some of these comments were, clearly, from current or former Women’s Center board members, but many of them were from men or women who chose not to associate with the Center. All were respectful of the other comments—a stark contrast to the YDN comments Svendsen used in her earlier installation—and much of the stream was back-and-forth and regarded specific Women’s Center policy or events. This, for the most part, is the kind of constructive dialogue Graphic Feminism seeks to incite.

Perhaps we no longer need to talk about how gender affects perception and presentation, or, as de Bretteville implied, perhaps this need varies according to an individual’s personal trajectory. But at Yale, today, there is an urgent need for discussion about feminism. There is a need for Graphic Feminism.

Loan Rangers

While the dramatic failures of financial powerhouses like Lehman Brothers and AIG in September, 2008 are often considered the beginning of the current global financial crisis, for New Haven residents, the downturn began three years earlier with a sharp dip in the housing market. Between 2007 and 2008 alone, Elm City home sales dropped by 26.2 percent, well above the 16 percent national average. As the value of New Haveners’ homes fell and the interest rates on their mortgages rose, the result was a record number of foreclosures:165 in 2007 and 360 in 2008, following an already shocking 130 percent hike in foreclosure rates between 2005 and 2007.

In response, Mayor John DeStefano gathered housing advocates from city non-profits, community groups, and Yale Law School clinics to develop a coordinated response to the city’s housing crisis. He unveiled this team, called the Real Options Overcoming Foreclosure (ROOF) Project, at a press conference in City Hall at the beginning of May. “The foreclosure crisis is affecting communities nationwide,” DeStefano said at the gathering. “But in New Haven, we’re working together to minimize the impact, help families before they reach the point of foreclosure and educate our residents about creating wealth, understanding what they can afford, and making trusted counseling services available to families in trouble.” The ultimate goal, DeStefano made clear, was to “protect
the vitality of our neighborhoods.”

The city is fighting an uphill battle. While Connecticut has suffered comparatively less than states like Nevada and Arizona, urban areas such as New Haven and Bridgeport, which have relatively weak job markets and high proportions of low-income housing, have been hit far harder than the rest of the state. In January alone, according to the online foreclosure database, there were 560 newly foreclosed homes in New Haven. Hartford County came in a distant second with 387. By the end of 2008, over 1,000 lis pendens filings—the first legal step in foreclosure proceedings—had been issued in New Haven, at nearly triple the rate of the previous year.

“The effect has been huge,” says James Paley, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven, a local non-profit that acquires and rehabilitates distressed properties in the city and resells them at affordable rates. “Each month is a record number of foreclosures over the month before.”

For Paley, the culprit in this crisis is clear: adjustable-rate sub-prime mortgage loans, or mortgages in which borrowers with poor credit ratings initially pay a low, fixed-rate interest on their loan, which then rises substantially after a set period of time. “One of the things people would be told,” Paley recalls, “is, ‘Yes, this is an adjustable rate mortgage and it will go up after two years, but the value of your property will keep going up and you’ll be able to refinance to a fixed rate mortgage.’ Well, when the housing market is strong that’s fine, but when it drops people can’t refinance and they’re stuck in the adjustable rate mortgage owing more than their house is worth.”

New Haven, as an urban center with a high incidence of poverty and low-income housing, became a locus for sub-prime mortgage agreements. “Connecticut is a fairly wealthy state,” explains Eva Heintzelman of the Greater New Haven Community Loan Fund, a New Haven based non-profit that provides low-interest loans to low-income prospective homeowners, “but there is a lot of inequality. Bridgeport, New Haven, Waterbury—we do have some weak markets where we have relatively high rates of sub-prime arrogation,” she says, referring to banks’ seizure of houses that have defaulted on their sub-prime mortgages.

By the end of 2007, nearly 20 percent of all mortgages in New Haven—or roughly 4,000 loans—were sub-prime, and, unsurprisingly, they were focused in the city’s lowest-income areas. In fact, over 60 percent of all foreclosures in New Haven take place in only six neighborhoods: The Hill, Newhallville, Fair Haven, Quinnipiac Meadows, Beaver Hills, and the Annex.

SINCE MID-2008, the ROOF Project has led city efforts to stem the foreclosure tide. While, in theory, the organization is sponsored by City Hall and the Office of the Mayor, in practice, it is comprised mainly of representatives of local non-profits. Heintzelman and Paley both serve on the steering committee, along with DeStefano (ex-officio), two aldermen, and representatives from Yale Law School, United Way, and New Haven’s religious community. The directors are responsible for determining how to distribute funding allocated for housing recovery—including a recent $3.2 million grant from the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), awarded in early February. Most of the funds end up in the hands of the neighborhood-level non-profits under the ROOF Project’s
umbrella, as well in those of a few for-profit developers. “Money spent on professional non-profits that are in the trenches day in and day out is money well-spent,” Paley says.

Sameera Fazili, a clinical professor and Ludwig Community Development Fellow at Yale Law School and a member of the ROOF Project’s steering committee, is pleased with the mayor’s efforts. “The city has been a partner with us all the way,” she says, but she still believes that community organizations and private developers are often best-positioned to help recover hard-hit neighborhoods. “I think that the best way to respond to the situation is with a combination of non-profits and the private sector,” she says. “Private sector developers are wonderful as long as they are monitored to make sure that they are doing quality work on the houses they are restoring. As for neighborhood-level recovery, the local non-profits know the neighborhoods best, and they’re the ones who are best positioned to help rehabilitate them.”

Much like the organizations that comprise it, the ROOF Project uses many different tactics to confront foreclosure. “We suggest a three-pronged approach,” says Fazili—first, community outreach, “to let people know that there is help out there for them if they get involved early enough,” followed by much-needed assistance and counseling in dealing with mortgage debt, including consulting with HUD-certified counselors and state-sponsored mediation between bank lenders and at-risk borrowers. And then, to prevent foreclosures from spreading, the Project focuses on neighborhood stabilization.

This final tactic is meant to forestall the destructive effect a small number of foreclosures can have on entire residential areas. Heintzelman describes this dynamic as a “tipping point,” when one or two vacant houses lead to a rapid decline in a neighborhood’s property values and an accompanying rise in its rates of foreclosure.

“Neighbors who are paying their mortgages are seeing the value of their property decline,” Fazili explains. “We are going to see a lot more boarded-up houses. You are going to see an increase in crime and a real decline in the city’s tax base if we don’t address this on a neighborhood level.”

If this task sounds daunting, it is. In the short term, with foreclosure rates rising and whole neighborhoods at risk of reaching the “tipping point,” the ROOF Project will be confronted with record numbers of homeowners in need of guidance. One step of the process that is particularly crucial for residents to understand went into effect in July of 2008. Connecticut Public Act No. 08-176, “An Act Concerning Responsible Lending and Economic Security,” grants homeowners who have received
a foreclosure notification the right to request a meeting with their lenders to try to negotiate a settlement. It also instructs lenders not to begin foreclosure proceedings until they have made a “good faith effort” to determine the borrower’s ability to pay. If a homeowner requests a meeting, loan originators are now legally required to sit down with him or her and a state-appointed judicial mediator who will attempt to strike a compromise and restructure the loan so that the borrower can pay it off over time, while remaining in his or her home.

The law was heralded as a major boon to at-risk homeowners, but in practice, it has proved useless unless homeowners are atypically well-informed. Many are unaware of their right to mediation, and they lose that right if they fail to request a meeting within 15 days of receiving a foreclosure notice. Moreover, while the bill requires that banks and lenders meet with homeowners and agree on new terms if a borrower can prove his or her ability to pay, states are not allowed to enforce such terms. Bankruptcy judges, for example, do not have the power to unilaterally rewrite the conditions of loans if they feel a lender is being unreasonable.

So while most advocates feel that the on-the-ground rehabilitation work is best done by community-based organizations, they also want to see the state and federal government work more actively to enforce banks’ cooperation. “The best role the state and federal government can play, in my opinion,” says Fazili, “is to put pressure on banks and financial institutions to modify loans to keep homeowners in their homes, then helping non-profits to buy foreclosed properties, rehabilitate them, and sell them at a reasonable price.”

Nobody is more emphatic on this point than Robert Solomon. A member of the ROOF Project, supervisor of the Yale Law School’s Clinical Studies Program, and former director of the New Haven Housing Authority, Solomon is a man who minces no words. “I teach a clinic on housing and community development and I teach a clinic on domestic violence,” he says, “and I have found that it is easier to deal with a domestic abuser than it is to deal with a bank or an attorney for a bank.”

For the veteran Solomon, as for Paley, the villains in the housing collapse are indisputably banks. After years of predatory lending, mortgage discrimination, and irresponsible securitization of mortgage loans, he says, banks bear much of the blame for creating the current economic crisis but have yet to be held responsible for their actions. “Banks have been wrong-doers throughout this entire process,” he says. “They have been wrongdoers and they are trying to reap the benefit of their wrongdoing.”

As the director of a housing clinic at the Law School, Solomon has had a first-hand look at many of the mediations resulting from Public Act 08-176. “It’s not adequate—totally inadequate,” he insists. “Banks do not do real mediation.” Instead, he says, many loan originators send unprepared attorneys to meetings and do not authorize them to make alterations to loans. “It’s a disgrace.”

Some, like Heintzelman, claim that, though more governmental regulation would be helpful, mediations can garner results. She explains that the Greater New Haven Community Loan Fund has been “quite successful” in modifying a number of its clients’ loans. But Solomon believes that without explicit powers of enforcement, the right to mediation is meaningless. “The judges in foreclosure courts need specific litigation allowing them to rewrite mortgages and to force banks to comply with mediation,” he argues. “Otherwise the legislation does nothing.”

State Senator Bob Duff, Democrat of Norwalk and Darien and co-chair of the Senate Banking Committee, which wrote Public Act 08-176, acknowledges that there may be room for improvement in the legislation but insists that critics like Solomon undersell it. “Can it be better?” Duff says. “Possibly. But we’re only six months old and we have already helped thousands of people stay in their homes through the mediation process. Connecticut is currently the only state in the nation that has a banking mediation program, and I think it’s been very successful.” As for Solomon’s enforcement concerns, Duff is skeptical that giving foreclosure judges the power to rewrite loan terms if they feel loan originators are acting unreasonably is possible, or, for that matter, desirable. “Frankly, I am not so sure judges want that power,” he says. “Granting judges that kind of power is something we would need to study very closely. For right now, though, I think we’re doing very well.”

And the legislation, which has appointed twelve judicial mediators across the state—two of whom are based in New Haven— has seen some success. As of December 31, mediators had successfully kept 57 percent of all mediation applicants, or 681 homeowners, in their homes, usually through mediated loan modifications. But the numbers only tell half the story: While mediation does have a relatively high success rate, not everyone obtains it. In New Haven, according to statistics provided by the Senate Judiciary Committee, 358 people applied for mediation between July 1, 2008, when the bill entered into law, and December 31, but another 969 who were eligible did not apply. “One of the biggest problems we face,” Heintzelman says, “is that people get something from the court and they freak out and do nothing, and then soon it’s too late.”

While much of the Roof Project’s task in the coming years will be to close this gap, some of its constituent organizations have more wide-ranging and long-term plans. Many members place paramount importance on education and outreach, especially in low-income neighborhoods. “Homeowners need continuing guidance on how to manage their mortgages and finances,” says Fazili. In the long term, this would entail not only homeowner education programs, but also government-sponsored shared-equity programs, in which a state or local government would provide financial assistance to first-time, low-income home buyers in exchange for a share in the value of their property. Such guidance might also include Individual Development Accounts (IDA), organizations in which donations from a number of sources are used to match the savings of low-income home buyers in order to encourage homeownership without relying on risky loans, and other public and private incentive programs to provide homebuyers with alternatives to high-interest mortgages. Such programs, according to Fazili, have the double benefit of stabilizing housing markets and educating first-time home buyers.

Paley agrees that, in order to recover from the housing crisis, advocates must encourage long-term financial responsibility as well as guide people through the foreclosure process. “Our whole work for the past thirty years,” he says of Neighborhood Housing Services, which has been providing counseling and homeownership education since its founding in 1979, “has been to encourage responsible borrowing.” NHS currently offers a number of classes in homeownership and financial management, including courses on credit counseling, foreclosure intervention, and budget and financial management. “The whole object of our Home Ownership Center is to encourage homeownership eventually,” Paley explains. “But everyone that goes through our program goes through an extreme homeownership education.”

Another primary long-term goal of the ROOF Project, and one that NHS and the Greater New Haven Community Loan Fund have been working on for years, is to preserve neighborhoods’ market values and improve their community fabrics in the face of expanding blight. Since its founding thirty years ago, NHS has developed 385 units of affordable housing, helped 475 first-time homebuyers purchase
homes, and enrolled 811 applicants in IDA programs. Since 1988, the Greater New Haven Community Loan Fund has originated over $44 million in low-interest loans for affordable housing. Much of the funding for such organizations, however, comes from state and federal grants, banks, and charitable contributions, all of which have been pummeled by the recession. And while NHS, for example, is able to restore about twenty units of housing per year, and the Greater New Haven Community Loan Fund is able to originate about $2 million worth of loans a year, the City recently estimated that New Haven contains 800 abandoned houses and a rising number of evicted homeowners. Ultimately, the crisis may force the city to reconsider its homeownership-prioritizing mentality. “I think that the major ramification of this crisis will be that we rethink the way we push home ownership on low-income communities,” says Fazili.

Asked about his hopes for New Haven’s recovery, Jim Paley remains guarded but not entirely pessimistic. “It really depends on whether the economy can get back on its feet,” he says. “If unemployment remains where it is, people won’t have money and won’t be able to remain in their houses. It’s so critical we have an economic stimulus that works in order to get people working again, and in order to get the consumer confidence index up so people start buying again.”

Ultimately, for Paley and the other representatives of New Haven’s governmental and community-based organizations scrambling to deal with the housing market’s collapse, working “in the trenches” can only accomplish so much. Without effective governmental regulation and enforcement, the foreclosure epidemic could continue indefinitely. “Can we emerge from this without a total crisis?” Paley muses about New Haven’s future. “Yes, but it’s going to take some real leadership.”

Mumbai, Continued

A month after gunmen stormed the Taj Mahal Hotel, I took a long-planned flight to Mumbai, India, to visit family. I hadn’t seen the city in four years, but as my uncle drove us to his house in the suburbs, Mumbai looked the same. The traffic was still terrble; the skyscrapers swelled upward in the late-night sky; the smog was still thick enough to block out the stars. Even this late, some of the shops lining the perimeters of the slums were still open, little tiny places the size of a couple of refrigerators, held together by sheets of tarp and wooden sticks.

Upon my return to Yale after the trip, a friend asked me, “How are people in Mumbai doing these days?” I imagined my uncle’s response. He would have told my friend what he had been so eager to tell me, even as we drove away from the airport that first night: that Bombay (as most of us still call it) has not changed. The day after 26/11, he insisted, in a refrain that I would hear throughout my stay and that I found myself repeating to my friend, people went back to work. Life returned to normal.

A cousin of mine who lost a friend at the Oberoi, one of the hotels targeted in the 26/11 attacks, echoed my uncle’s words. She and her husband live in Bandra West—a suburb in Central Bombay that is a popular tourist destination in itself—but on our first night out, she took us to South Bombay, the area that was hit. We walked along Marine Drive, a road that follows the arc of the coast along the Arabian Sea. Nightlife was as lively as it had ever been: People streamed out of markets and bars and restaurants to perch on the sidewalk railing by the sea, dangling their feet over the water. But the shadow of the attacks was everywhere. “Helmet and Bulletproof Vest Recommended for all Mumbai-ites,”
read a sign posted outside Jazz by the Bay, a famous pizzeria and music club. None of us understood why it had been posted there or why someone had not yet taken it down. When we reached Nariman Point at the southern tip of Marine Drive, my cousin pointed out the Oberoi tower behind us with its boarded-up windows. As we passed the crowded Leopold Café, she turned to me, wide-eyed: “This is where people were shot!” South Bombay wasn’t a ghost town, but we were all seeing ghosts.

On December 21st, the Taj and the Oberoi reopened their doors in a VIP-only event. As actors and politicians gathered for high tea, Indian newspapers trumpeted Bombay’s speedy recovery and celebrities applauded the hotels as enduring symbols of the city’s spirit.

The Taj was India’s first luxury hotel, built in 1903 for a quarter of a million pounds. It has always been one my clearest memories of Bombay and a favorite spot to visit when I go back. Guards in snappy uniforms would open the entrance doors to reveal a richly furnished lobby with marble tables and a ceiling peppered with skylights. Men in dark suits would lounge in plush chairs, speaking in soft voices, probably talking business. I had always loved the restaurant, with cups of tea at 200 rupees (about $4) a pop, non-bottled water that was safe to drink, and desserts with umbrellas sticking out of them. Although I didn’t admit it to myself at the time, the Taj was a haven—a retreat from the outside world, from the smog and the blaring horns and the children selling fake paperback bestsellers and wilted flower bouquets on the side of the road.

We visited the Taj a few days after it re-opened. As soon as we emerged from the auto we saw a long line, of at least fifty or sixty people, stretching all the way down the block. It took us a few minutes to
realize that people were waiting to get past a security barricade and onto the Apollo Bunder, the pier across from the Taj. When we finally reached the front door of the building, a security guard stood beside the front steps, pointing a rifle at our heads, just in case.

Inside, we ordered tea. I wanted to feel normal; we all wanted to feel normal, to talk with ease. But the conversations around us inevitably turned toward the attacks. A person at the table next to us remarked that the gunmen had stormed the place as guests were settling in for dinner. At that point, my cousin excused herself and went to the bathroom. My mother and I followed her.

My mother eagerly hurried inside the bathroom, nostalgic for the days when she was small, when her father would bring her to South Bombay and to this hotel and to this little room, which in a city teeming with dirt and mud was an icon of all things clean. Inside the bathroom, everything is pure white: white-tiled floor, stall doors with a white glossy finish, white marble sinks, faucets plated in white gold. When we had washed our hands, the attendant, a slight, bony-handed woman in a faded sari, handed us white towels to dry them. Unthinkingly I dropped the towel into the wastebasket; she retrieved it before I had a chance to apologize.

My cousin asked the woman if she had been on duty on 26/11. She replied that she had; she had hidden in her corner by the marble white counter for more than ten hours before daring to venture outside. I imagined her peeking outside the door, into a hallway lit with crystal chandeliers, for a moment before retreating. Perhaps she saw the shadow of a gunman’s haggard face or of the barrel of a rifle pass over the portrait of Neil Armstrong, one of the Taj’s many illustrious visitors. The flash of high heels across a wide, rich red carpet followed by heavy black boots. A body, half-hidden from view by a display case with shattered glass doors. She might have seen all this before retreating to her enclave, to the white walls and the white sinks and the white towels.

Just twenty or thirty feet out from the Taj is the Arabian Sea. From other vantage points along the coast, it appears a dirty grey and brown from a mixture of mud and trash. But from the hotel, a bit farther out than the public beaches, the water sparkles like shattered glass. As we walked out of the Taj that day after tea, the tips of docked yachts and cruise ships and sailboats bobbed gently up and down in the afternoon sun. A cluster of triangular flags that distinguished a group of fishing boats rapidly receded in the distance. Authorities have speculated that it was by hijacking such a boat as it left from
Karachi, Pakistan, that gunmen were able to reach the shores of Bombay.

We hired a small sailboat at the pier from an old man with blackened teeth to take us out to sea. Even just meters from shore, the palace wing of the Taj, which will take several months to repair, looked untouched. The Gateway of India, built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to India in 1911, arched impressively to its right. Designed to present an imperial first glimpse of
India to travelers approaching by sea, it now blocked any view of security barriers or policemen. As the sun began to set, we watched tiny lights in each window of the Taj’s palace wing begin to take form.

When celebrities or politicians speak of the Taj as an enduring symbol of the city’s spirit or dignity, I imagine that they envision something like what we saw that night, a palace lit with candles beside a tall and imposing archway worthy of welcoming a royal monarch. The Taj, like the Gateway, is meant to be seen from the water. Imperial visitors could step directly off the dock through its majestic
waterfront doors. Perhaps they never even saw the rest of the city, what lies just
behind the Apollo Bunder, the smog and crowded streets and beggars’ outstretched hands.

How are the people of Bombay doing these days? They’ve gone back to work. The restroom attendant still bends down to pick up the white towels that visitors accidentally throw in the dustbin. Children
still pound on car windows waving fake copies of The White Tiger in the middle of stalled street traffic. The security guard shoulders his rifle and heads to work at the Taj every morning.

What else does it mean to endure?

Photo by Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces

At Last

The first time I didn’t quite see Obama in person, I spent the night alternately watching election returns and feverishly vomiting the full contents of my stomach. It was there, in the Nashua South High School gym, where the then-senator was set to give his “Yes We Can” speech after he lost the New Hampshire primary, that I thought it was all over for both of us. Just half an hour before Obama spoke, I finally succumbed to the flu and passed out while a national campaign staffer standing nearby called an ambulance.

“I’m so sorry about this,” I said while we waited.

“Nonsense,” she told me. “There’ll be plenty of other victory parties to go to.” I thought she was delusional—Clinton had won and this was the end. We’d have to wait a long time to see a party like this again.

I was right about the waiting, at least. As it turns out, we were the ones we’d been waiting in line for. And judging by my trip down to the Inauguration, not even in lines, but rather in endless, vaguely oriented mobs stretching miles around the Washington Mall, itself filled with thousands of furred and fleeced people and unverifiable rumors that there was an entrance in that direction or that Obama’s motorcade had finally left the White House.

We’d been willing to wait patiently even though, once we made it inside, there was absolutely nothing to do. “I can’t see a single thing,” a woman, her hands maternally and inexplicably gripping my shoulders, cheerfully told me while we were standing on the Mall. “I’ll just watch it on TV when I get back to the hotel room.”

Some of us brave souls waited perched atop Port-a-Potties. Others debated whether Lynne Cheney and Laura Bush were truly evil enough to deserve being heckled when their faces appeared on the giant “jumbotron” screen or if they’d just picked the wrong men at the wrong time. One high-schooler tirelessly solicited the crowd: “Since there’s nothing else to do, let’s do the Wave!”

Some of us, to be honest, weren’t all that willing to wait. One of my busmates from Yale explained on the ride back to New Haven that, even though he had a ticket to the Inauguration, to the holy center of the holiest of events, where viewers had a direct line of vision to Obama himself, it wasn’t worth figuring out which of a dozen lines he was supposed to stand on in twenty-degree weather. “We just watched it from inside an Irish pub with a bunch of Hill staffers,” he said. “They were pretty much on the same page as us. We drank Irish car bombs and booed when Dick Cheney came on.”

Some of us were all too willing to
wait. My buddy-for-the-day, Rachel, and I walked past a line half a mile long, five people wide, snaking through a tunnel that passed under the Mall. We speculated on why everyone was so orderly, considering that they literally could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. “I guess there’s a low douchiness quotient today,” we decided. As we later found out, most of these people—who had tickets which happened to be labeled “purple”—nearly rioted because they never made it out of the infamous Purple Tunnel of Doom in time for the ceremony.

But I was the Goldilocks of waiting. I waited for the bus to pick us up from New Haven at 2 a.m., and for the driver to find his way back onto the right highway after getting lost somewhere in Maryland. I waited for Rachel, whom I’d never spoken to before, to laugh at a single one of my jokes throughout ten hours spent standing in the cold. I waited until that guy twenty feet in front of me tilted his head the other way so I could see the jumbotron while the president took the oath. I’d waited a long time for this; I could wait a little more.