Columnists


Photo Courtesy of Columbia University.

Welcome back Columbia! From all of us at the Columbia Lion and from here at Uniquely Human, we hope all your summers were fruitful and relaxing. As we get back into the swing of classes, I wanted to write an update on the future of this column and what to expect going forward. First and foremost, Uniquely Human will be continuing its regular release schedule of every other Monday, starting today, so expect a new release two weeks from today.

As a neuroscience student here, I hear about all the impressive, exciting, and paradigm-shifting research coming out of Columbia labs. But no matter how interesting the research, many average Columbia students don’t know what’s coming out of their own institution. Scientists often only share their research in journals aimed solely at other scientists in their subfields. The most interesting conversations about neuroscience are ones that neuroscientists have with each other.

I want to change that.

This is your university, and this research is mostly paid for with your tax dollars. I think you have a right to understand what discoveries in neuroscience are coming out of Columbia, and how they may affect your lives in fascinating and surprising ways.

I believe the best kind of science happens when it’s in communication with the public. In these tumultuous times, now more than ever it’s critical that everyone knows what valuable contributions neuroscientists are making to how we understand ourselves. I think these kinds of conversations are most interesting when they’re had across disciplinary lines – with other scientists, with writers, philosophers, artists – and you, reader, have a worthy perspective to contribute.

So this semester we’ll be thematically shifting our focus away from our series on education and the brain. In its place, I’ll be reviewing the latest and greatest discoveries coming out of Columbia neuroscience using straightforward language, hopefully humorous analogies, and with an eye for the big picture implications. When possible, I’ll be interviewing researchers directly to get the best information directly from the researchers to you.

As always, the contents of this column are mostly dependent on what I want to write, which means not every column will be about Columbia neuroscience discoveries; there will be stories relating neuroscience to both campus and worldwide events.

As always I am happy to take requests. This is only a column in conversation when I can hear your voice. If you have questions that you want answered from a neuroscientific point of view, I’ll do my best to answer them. I can’t wait to share this amazing research with you all, and I hope to see you here next week for our first true installment in our series.

Uniquely Human is written by Heather Macomber and runs every other Monday. To submit a comment/question or a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.

Image via Stocksnap

It’s finals season, which means it’s time to pull out your finest procrastination techniques. For those of you who have little success with this throughout the rest of the year (I’m looking at you, Butler all-nighters), I’ve put together a little how-to for you, focused on the best way to procrastinate: film.

1. Re-watch the classics:

There are some fantastic new titles on Netflix these days, including the classic Forrest Gump, Diane Keaton’s Something’s Gotta Give (fun fact: my mom based our kitchen off that movie), and the tear-jerking Schindler’s List. On Amazon, you can laugh at Caddyshack, delve into the world of Indianna Jones, or dance along to Footloose. If you’re looking for a two-hour study break, I’d definitely recommend watching one of those great films.

2. Binge a comedy:

If you haven’t watched all of Friends in one full reading week, do you really go to college? And if you have, have you done the same with Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother, Arrested Development, and 30 Rock? By the second season of each, you can just leave it on on the background of your computer while you “work,” and the jokes will just soak into your skin like delightfully comforting rays of sun.  

3. Watch a chick-flick:

I know, I know, you’re too mature for the ridiculously over-dramatic and non-realistic world of chick-flicks. But let me tell you, there’s nothing as comforting as taking a break from your hours of studying to watch Jay Mohr win Jennifer Aniston’s heart in Picture Perfect, or listen to Hugh Grant’s deliciously attractive accent in any of his films. I’m telling you, chick-flicks will make you smile, and I have a feeling you haven’t been doing enough of that this week.

4. Head down to Broadway:

Yes, it’s reading week, but it’s also one of the only times you’re in New York without class, so take three hours to go downtown and see a fantastic Broadway show. This month, Matthew Perry is making his playwriting debut in The End of Longing, and shows like The Lion King, Wicked, and The Book of Mormon are still going strong. For cheaper tickets, check out off-broadway’s Avenue Q or The Fantasticks, which closes this month after over 50 years on the stage. (Protip: download the app TodayTix or head over to the TKTS booth for discounted prices).

5. When all else fails, watch The West Wing:

It’s the greatest show to ever be on television. You’ll thank me.

Have a great summer, everyone! Keep on watching!

Yael

 

Image via IDBD

Gloria Estefan was a trailblazer. She was one of the most successful female artists of all time, the most successful Latin-American crossover artist, and her voice is a force to be reckoned with. So when I took my seat at the Marquis Theater to watch her story come to life onstage, I had high expectations. But alas, I was disappointed.

The show On Your Feet: The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan has all the promise in the world. With songs like “Congo,” “On Your Feet,” and “The Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” the writers had a lot to work from. I practically congo-ed into the theater, eager to dance and clap along to Gloria’s famous beats and ready for Broadway’s liveliest show yet. But instead, I found myself falling asleep.

Broadway has had a history of success with these kinds of musicals. Jersey Boys, which was based on Franki Valli and the Four Seasons, is a smash hit. Mamma Mia!, written around ABBA’s famous songs, has been solidified as a classic. But for On Your Feet, it felt like Broadway gave up.

The opening number of On Your Feet is slow, boring, and actually quite confusing. For the first ten minutes of the show, scenery and time shifts at a mile a minute, and we are left extremely disoriented. First, a young Gloria awkwardly dances with strangers on the street while her mother jokes about the laundry, then solemnly sings to her father who is serving in the Korean War, and then all of sudden she’s all grown up and taking care of her MS-stricken father. Emilio enters the scene incredibly quickly, and before we know it Gloria is singing with his band and they fall in love without even a hint of a glitch. The entire first act happens quicker than you can imagine (and yet still manages to drag on with only the slowest of Gloria’s songs!) The act’s ending number, “Conga,” Gloria’s biggest hit, gave me hope that the second act would be livelier.

But of course, it wasn’t. The start of Act Two continued on in the same way, skipping so many years and milestones. All of a sudden Gloria is the biggest female artist in America, but we are given no details about how she got there or what her life is like. Only ten minutes into Act Two she is hit by a truck and the remainder of the show follows her road to recovery, once again choosing the slowest songs in her repertoire. In the final number, a coda after the story ends, the cast belts out “On Your Feet” and showcases some epic dance moves, but it was only the second number that had me smiling.

Of course, the show did have its highlights. Ana Villafane, who plays Gloria, is fantastic, and her pipes sound eerily similar to Gloria’s. The dialogue is well-written, well-acted, and actually quite funny. Gloria’s abuela, played by Alma Cuervo, is the show’s most entertaining and sentimental character, and overall the show’s arc is gripping. Where On Your Feet fails, however, is in its music choices and rough transitions. Perhaps if it had followed Jersey Boys’ example and blended much more fun with the serious, it might have been more exciting to watch. My Grade: B-

 

The Must-Watch List: If you are looking for a show to see, I’d definitely recommend getting tickets to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s School of Rock. The show will blow your mind with its insane music and witty dialogue, and you’ll be floored by the completely live musical performance by the show’s star children. If you loved the movie, you’ll love the musical even more. My Grade: A

 

Photo Courtesy of The Onion

 

Since my last post was less fun, we’re going to start this week’s column off with a game! It’s like a “pick your own adventure” game from way back when we were kids, with equally disappointing results and a little more abrasive language.

Here is the scenario:

You’re in a lovely dive bar near your campus, just hanging around and enjoying your Saturday with a few beers. Suddenly, a gentleman approaches you. You’ll allow it, as you are well aware that you are looking damn fine. Small talk ensues, and he asks what you do. For purposes of this game, you reply, “Oh, I study political science, focusing on security,” and suddenly, your response opens a floodgate. Vocabulary from basic international relations theory loosely related to current events are thrown into a cocktail of attempts at explanation. It’s like your very own salmon shorts clad Jervis! The explanations and buzzwords keep flowing and picking up pace, and you seem to be trapped! Do you:

a.)   Look desperately at the bartender to see if she can rescue you from your own personal hell with another round

b.)   Politely try and change the conversation to something slightly more engaging

c.)   Attempt to interject your own well-informed opinion

d.)   Get up and leave

Well, as I’m sure you’ve all deduced by now, I found myself in this very scenario! And I’m sure you’re all dying to know which ending I picked.

In reality, I applied all available tactics. First, I gave the “save me eyes” to no avail (side note: gentlemen, you should really learn to recognize this look). When that didn’t work out, I asked him about his internship at a law firm (gag, I know), but not even that could deter him from his professorial path. Finally, I outright said, “Yeah, I actually study this a lot, and I think it’s super fun to apply theory to everyday situations!” I then briefly explained my column to which–I SHIT YOU NOT–he responded, “Doesn’t that kind of delegitimize your knowledge of the subject?” At this point, I opted for Option D from above.

So sir, whom I desperately hope is now reading this, I have two things to say–which is more than I said throughout the entire duration of our brief encounter. First, doesn’t saying something so obnoxiously stupid and crass delegitimize your penis size? Second, fuck you.

Now that I have sufficiently publicly shamed this poor boy, I can get to the actual point of this piece: mansplaining. This scenario expertly depicts what exactly mansplaining is. I’m sure this is a term you’ve come across recently, especially if you’re more inclined to read liberal newsfeeds. But essentially, it is when men attempt to simplify or explain a subject to women because they, for some reason, don’t think the woman initially understood. Now, I’m a pretty passive feminist, but this is something that has increasingly started to bother me more and more. Perhaps it’s because I’m a woman in a predominantly male-oriented field, but it never feels good to be “taught” something you have literally dedicated hours of studying to, by means of slightly condescending words. This is not to be conflated with actual new information, or perspectives, which I welcome regardless of gender.

Still confused on what exactly mansplaining is? Let me Jamie-splain it to you!

Mansplaining is like America telling literally any EU member state how international institutions and organizations work. If America were to childishly lie about what an international organization is and how it could possibly function, without recognizing that international organizations and institutions dominate the majority of EU member states’ political dialogue, that would be equivalent to mansplaining.

Or, even more rudimentary: America explaining to Greece (also known as the founders of democracy) how democracy itself works. Greece, however, could take some notes on basic economic principles, but that is beside the point.

In summary, mansplaining is so very stupid, and in the words of my good friend from that bar, it delegitimizes any point or position you take afterwards. Instead, I recommend that you simply clarify where you are each at in terms of understanding, and then go forth and have exciting and engaging conversations.

Renée Fleming as the Marschallin in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Renée Fleming as the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

“So beautiful,” whispered a captivated concertgoer behind me. Normally, any talking—or sound for that matter—is hurriedly and aggressively shushed by a “serious” audience member at the Met. Renée Fleming, however, seemed to provoke an admissible exception.

Fleming’s whirlwind return to the Met Opera’s season premiere of Der Rosenkavalier (music by Richard Strauss, libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal) electrified the opera community. Last week, Fleming scared many by announcing that she would soon be leaving the opera stage. Fleming has since nixed the retirement idea, but the effect of the buzz was obvious: fans came in large numbers just in case this would be the last time that they could do so. In attendance as well were some of Fleming’s collaborators, who have sung with her over the years–coming to support her previously-presumed last run at the Met.

Fleming, for her part, plays the Marschallin: a middle-aged member of the Viennese aristocracy who sighs in anguish over the cruelness of aging. Fleming knows—and loves—the role. In her first solo at the end of Act 1, Fleming smartly addressed the silver rose—a symbol of youth and forthcoming happiness—with an imploring, wistful tone quality. Shortly after, her sweet, yet innerly despairing voice seized the audience’s empathy.

ROSE_0080a

Renée Fleming as the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

However, notwithstanding the positive aspects of Fleming’s work tonight, I do prefer her 2010 performance of the same role (Columbia faculty and students can find it through CLIO under the keyword “Met Opera on Demand”). In that performance, she lived the Marschallin: solemn tears slowly streamed down her face at the end of the “Mein schöner Schatz” duet in Act 1. Her phrasing and sepulchral tone made for an unforgettable moment.

Tonight’s conductor, Sebastian Weigle, again chose problematic tempos. The prelude, for example, was much too fast. Here, the music is declarative, demonstrative—overly confident and grandiose. Yet, Weigle seemed incredibly anxious, gesturing with extremely quick circular motions (so fast that his arms were just a blur to my eyes). By taking a quicker tempo, the music sounded too hectic and lost its appropriate gusto.

Weigle made a similarly poor decision in the last minutes of Act 3. Here, silvery chords in the high strings, winds, and percussion flutter downward. The descent should be reflective—it is the end of the opera!—and ethereal. However, it felt tossed-off, illy cared for–herky-jerky and uneven. I recognize that I was critical of Weigle’s lethargic tempo decisions for Fidelio, yet here he seems to have gone in the opposite direction. I do admit however, that future runs of the production might produce better results.

The Met orchestra impressed me —as it routinely does—with its stamina. In the middle of the third act, I heard a clarinetist–presumably either Inn-Hyuck Cho or Anton Rist–flawlessly execute a rapid lick that flickered between the clarion and altissimo registers. The passage was followed by a sustained, pianissimo high note. Both of these sections are incredibly difficult to play when with fresh energy. They’re almost a miracle after two and a half hours of continuous music.

Robert Carsen, the producer of the Met’s new take on Der Rosenkavalier, replaces the dusty, Beauty-and-the-Beast-esque setting with a bawdy production set when the opera was written (1911). Topless prostitutes pursue and are pursued by lustful Viennese men; Octavian, the Marschallin’s young lover, grabs his partner’s behind (what a great way to say, “Welcome back, Renée!”); and Sophie, Octavian’s new love, carelessly dances across one of her father’s howitzer (oddly placed in the living room of their modern palace).

ROSE_0907a

The playfulness of Octavian–performed by Elīna Garanča–and the Marschallin–sung by Renée Fleming–on display in Act 1. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Admittedly, I was skeptical when I learned about Carsen’s decision to set the third act in a brothel. Typically, it is staged in an inn, a “house of ill repute.” However, the text—the same one used for the inn setting—actually translates well in the new environs: it is believable that Sophie’s dad Faninal calls Octavian, who is disguised as Mariandel, a slut and it makes sense that Octavian assumes a baser dialect as a working-class Viennese woman (some funny lines include “Whad’ya mean?” and “I ain’t gonna drink no wine.”)

The one aspect of the brothel that felt most uncomfortable, however, was the onstage jazz quartet. Prostitutes pantomimed and synchronized fake playing on the clarinet, saxophone, double bass, and accordion. Not only was their supposed music not like the orchestra’s actual performance, but also the quartet implied 1920s Europe more than the 1910s. The production had a 1920s feel to it elsewhere as well, Octavian’s flapper-like costume in Act 1 being another example.  

I found Carsen’s incorporation of the Zeitgeist—especially Freudian ideas—rather compelling. When Sophie sings about her upcoming marriage, dreamlike clones of Sophie and her groom-to-be waltz behind her. Sophie is bathed in a yellow spotlight—the light of the real world—while the dancers behind her are enveloped in purple—a hue of the inner, thought world. Carsen’s decision illustrates how an individual’s inner thoughts and desires are experienced as real, even while awake.

Elīna Garanča as Octavian and Erin Morley as Sophie in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier swear their love for each other in front of an imposing howitzer. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Elīna Garanča as Octavian and Erin Morley as Sophie in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier swear their love for each other in front of an imposing howitzer. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Although this was seemingly The Renée Fleming Show, there are, of course, more singers in Der Rosenkavalier. Elīna Garanča as Octavian embodied the wide range of conflicting emotions of her character. At the end of the last act, Octavian is caught between the Marschallin and Sophie, unsure of who he should turn to. Here, Garanča’s expressions and voice illustrated Octavian’s distress well.

Erin Morley as Sophie sounded quite warm in the upper register, especially when she built up toward it. Unfortunately, she was sometimes overpowered by the orchestra, especially during a fast, staccato passage in Act 2. Overall, I found that her diction was unintelligible at times, but balance could be to blame.

Günther Groissböck–a holdover from Fidelio–swaggered with pride, aggression, and self-absorption as the predatorial Baron Ochs. In Act 2, he engaged with Sophie in a vocal battle of sorts, his crescendoing vocal presence overpowering his soon-to-be wife (who he caustically likened to an “unbroken foal”). The Ochs is easily one of the easiest-to-hate characters in opera.

But the night was Fleming’s. At curtain call, the audience enthusiastically expressed joy for her return and relief for her operatic stay. It was her voice—combined with the prowess of the Met orchestra—that led my fellow concertgoer to exclaim, “So beautiful.” It is for these cherished musical moments that we go to the opera and for which you should let yourself come too.

Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier runs through May 13, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live May 13, at 12:30 PM, on WQXR 105.9 FM. Information and ticket listings (including student and same-day rush tickets) can be found online at metopera.org.