The Lion


Photo Courtesy of Puffs

“Some people are born with the capacity to do great things. Some people change the world. Some people rise from humble beginnings to defeat the forces of darkness in the face of insurmountable odds. ‘PUFFS’ is the story of the people who sit in class next to those people.”-“PUFFS” Press Release

“Puffs,” “Puff” singular, is the fond shorthand of “Hufflepuffs,” the lovable magical misfits of the Harry Potter world, and also the title of the recent Off-Broadway retelling (for avid fans) of the Harry Potter story from the Hufflepuff House’s perspective. While the familiar story starts with a scarred baby dropped on the doorstep of Number 4 Privet Drive, this adaptation takes another orphan all the way from England to America.

Catchy music and strange (magical) P.A. announcements usher the audience into the richly-curtained, dimly-lit theater; the positive side of Elektra Theater’s small size is that every seat is “a good one,” as one man exclaims. Each member of the audience feels intimately connected with the recessed stage. The closely assembled gallery of spectators  are close enough to gawk over  the 1990’s style slide projecter that opens the set. “PUFFS,” it declares, in sketchy letters cast at an awkward angle across the badger-yellow curtain. The theater is complimented by an equally small, but well-selected, staff of actors and actresses, one of whom throws in an April Fool’s Day joke over the P.A. – using a perfect McGonnagal imitation – to lighten the atmosphere.

This is not the only loving nod to the original series. Just after the set opens, an iconic Harry Potter line, in the style of all things “PUFFS,” is cleverly repurposed:

“You’re a wizard, Wayne.”

The Uncle of our young protagonist declares this in a thick drawl, having regained his wits after the unexpected arrival of a British post owl. Soon enough Wayne is ushered away to Hogwarts, where he contemplates the miracle (and the mess he makes) of magic with his fellow Hufflepuff friends: the previously Oxford-bound eleven-year-old mathematician Oliver (played by Langston Bell) and the angsty Death Eater fangirl Megan Jones (played by Julie Ann Earls). With Harry Potter’s arrival headlining Hogwarts’ gossip chains, however, the good-natured (except, perhaps, for Megan) Hufflepuff clan and their charismatic leader Cedric Diggory, who has wonderful theme music, must fight against the odds to recover the Hogwarts House Cup.

And inevitably fail.

The overbearingly optimistic group continues to strive for success, or at least mediocrity, with the often-chanted phrase “Third [place] or nothing,” fully aware that their final takeaway from the year’s events will likely be fourth place (or nothing) in the House Cup.

Through the (mis)adventures of Wayne, Oliver, and Megan, “PUFFS” follows their attempts to gain house points and a sense of what it means to be a Hufflepuff, with guest appearances from characters like Hannah Abbot, J. Finch, and a marvelously acccurate rendition of Professor Severus Snape.

The vocal dexterity of the cast cannot be denied, as Snape and others take the stage, or even before the play starts, in the half-hour of seating as the actors take turns creating clever and ridiculous school announcements over the P.A.

The chairs are wide and comfortable, and peeking over the edges of the seats, black and yellow scarves and ties make their presence known in every row. Among the Hufflepuff gear, one head stands out in blue and silver. A Ravenclaw sits alone in this out-of-the-way Puff Haven.

…Which takes us to the question: Is “PUFFS or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic & Magic” a play for everyone, or just those marginalized and hardcore (or at least as harcore as they can get) Hufflepuffs? After all, we’re not all cut out to be Hufflepuffs, are we?

The main message of this strange Harry Potter sometimes-parody, which bounces between hilarious and heartrending, is what makes a Puff. Gryffindors tout bravery, Ravenclaws treasure intelligence, and Slytherins anthropomorphize snakes, or blonde-haired “assholes,” depending on which “PUFFS” definition you prefer.  But what did Helga Hufflepuff seek out in her students? A Puff is loyal, hardworking, and, when it comes down to the four houses of Hogwarts, the Hufflepuffs are, well, the “everyone else.”

“Lumos!” Dumbledore may be dead, but the Hufflepuff squad appears to all have mastered the first year curriculum. Photo Courtesy of ?

“Lumos!” Dumbledore may be dead, but the Hufflepuff squad appears to all have mastered the first year curriculum. Photo Courtesy of Puffs

But aren’t we all sometimes the “everyone else?” The narrator, played by A.J. Ditty (featured in Hufflepuff colors above), offered a final assessment that yes, everyone can be a Hufflepuff. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Besides rooming closer to the kitchens (and the whole hard-working/loyal aspect of the Puffs), the Puffs have one other major advantage: they all fail, and, as Cedric Diggory reminds us before his untimely death, “Failure is just another form of practice… as long as you just keep trying.”

Ditty, of whom a fellow audience member claimed “[He] deserves his own Oscar. Perfect inflection, delivery, and interaction with [the] audience without feeling cliché,” offered a parallel to a quote from the possibly-Hufflepuff Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, whose career A.J. Ditty also shares.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” –Beckett

Ditty adds to the question of who a Puff is, “Oh, I learned a lot by doing the show. The Puffs are the kind of people you want to be friends with.” Possibly referencing one of the more lighthearted scenes of the play, wherein Butterbeer makes its first appearance, he adds, “the Puffs are the people you want to have an adult modern beverage with.”

A Hogsmeade scene possibly only outmatched in perfect comedic timing by Cedric Diggory in the bathtub. Photo Courtesy of Puffs

A Hogsmeade scene possibly only outmatched in perfect comedic timing by Cedric Diggory in the bathtub. Photo Courtesy of Puffs

When asked what advice he has to share with modern-day muggle (and magical) Puffs, the “extras” and “outcasts” who are increasingly feeling the pressure of today’s society, Ditty offers, “Keep failing— because it only means you’re going to do better. Even if you fail, it is a key part in growing.”

If Ditty sounds a bit like a Hufflepuff himself, it shouldn’t be surprising. The entire cast seemed cheery and approachable in their interactions with the audience attending the show.

Coming forward to greet me and discuss the performance when the play was over, Ditty paused in his tracks at first.

“Did I high-five you during the show?” He sounded both amused and surprised.

Due to fortuitous seating arrangements, my answer was a definite and mirthful “Yes.”

Later, as I was leaving my interview, I passed by some other cast members signing scarves and programs. The enthusiasm of the crowd had left them one pen short. Reaching into my purse, I pulled out my fountain pen and handed it to Eleanor Phillips, who played Hannah Abbott (and Others).

She paused while signing the first program.

“This writes beautifully!”

The waiting fan laughed, leaning toward me. “Good luck getting that back.”

Eleanor looked confused. “I wouldn’t steal a pen.”

In that moment, she was the epitome of Hufflepuff. Something a “normal person” might not think twice about just seemed absolutely impossible to her. She would never steal a pen.

It was my turn to laugh.

Sure the play is often satirical, but the reituration of Harry Potter’s story from the Puff perspective was cleverly genuine to the smallest detail; even the outside of the theater was decorated with contrived Harry Potter posters and references, papers and designs. There is a whole Harry Potter Hufflepuff world within the walls of the Elektra.

The young woman watching beside me offered her opinion on the “Wayne,” or Neville-esque (Hufflepuff) character’s appearance: “the retelling… was very convincing and tasteful… instead of trying to force the whole ‘Neville should’ve gotten a whole 7 volumes, too!’ Puffs instead faithfully reproduced much of the plot of the series without making it an explicitly different story.”

When the “Yellow Trio” (“Golden Trio” was already taken) come in for a hug. Photo Courtesy of Puffs

When the “Yellow Trio” (“Golden Trio” was already taken) come in for a hug. Photo Courtesy of Puffs

The idea that the play was true to the series and yet introduced a new twist – a story within a story – corresponded with what Ditty offered as clarification during his interview:

“I think there’s a misconception about the show that it’s strictly a parody. It may wink at the Harry Potter series, but it really does tell its own story. I think it’s a really good one. It’s about heroes, and how not everyone is one conventionally, but everyone can be a hero to someone.”

Who needs to be just a hero, or just brave, just intelligent, just an “asshole” anyways? As one of the play’s Puffs questions, “Why be one thing when you can be everything?”

That perhaps was the biggest issue that I hold with “PUFFS.” “90-ish” minutes is not enough time for everything.

In only ninety minutes, the quick pacing and clever utilization of fun props and rapid-fire transitions made the play dynamic and drew the audience in as much as the Dementors did in the third act, but they left little time to go deeper into what playwright Matt Cox crafted as incredibly interesting and multi-faceted characters.

Ditty introduces the third year arrival of the dementors, who are really quite terrible school safety officers. Photo Courtesy of???

Ditty introduces the third year arrival of the dementors, who are really quite terrible school safety officers. Photo Courtesy of Puffs.

The play leaves its crowd of Harry Potter fans wanting seven more volumes.

Kristin McCarthy Parker who directed Cox’s “PUFFS” was clearly aware of this. Her spacing and designation take full advantage of the time the actors do have.

Indeed, the whole play seems very self-aware, sometimes crossing the fourth wall, often nodding to the movie series (“I’m telling you guys, the headmaster looks different this year” and “HARRY! Did you put your name in the Goblet of Fire?”), and often parodying scenes that otherwise require suspension of disbelief (like the lake-watching in the second task of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” or “The Puffs and the Year They Matter”) in a manner which performing artist and Columbia College student Cindy Liu claimed is “delicious.” With full-grown adults playing eleven year-olds (which Mr. Ditty points out with a quirked brow), these are a necessary and graceful concession to the “magic” of theater.

Altogether, “PUFFS” is the Ferris Bueller of Harry Potter reproductions. It is clever and unexpected, with corny humor and philosophical moments; it is an instant classic and has an endearing cast that leads you to question:

“Am I a Puff?”

And after “PUFFS,” you’ll want to find the Puff in yourself.

The Hufflepuff house comes together (and the “PUFFS” Mac & Finch ship finally draw their wands). Photo Courtesy of ??

The Hufflepuff house comes together (and the “PUFFS” Mac & Finch ship finally draw their wands). Photo Courtesy of Puffs

“PUFFS” is not a sixteen hundred seat “Lion King” style, heart-stopping production, but instead an intimate show built on inside references and energetic acting that at least deserves its motto of #ThirdorNothing on the list of shows for which Harry Potter fans should keep an eye out for tickets in the coming months, notably until the end of its extended run by popular demand (July 30th, 2017).
*As a final note, there is definitely a reason for the PG13 rating, so be cognizant of the “PUFFS” sense of humor when deciding who to bring with you.*
Tickets to Puffs can be purchased here with tickets starting as low as $29.

 

 

 

Photo Courtesy of ABC7 NY

As reported yesterday, Shelia Abdus-Salaam, the first African-American associate judge in New York, was found dead in the Hudson River. Abdus-Salaam was a graduate of Columbia, receiving her Bachelors from Barnard College in 1974 and JD from Columbia Law School in 1977.

Prior to joining the bench in New York, she worked as an attorney for Brooklyn Legal Services.

Current New York Governor Andrew Cuomo who appointed Abdus-Salaam to the bench following a vacancy in 2013 posted the following about her passing.

For more information on her life, the New York Times has posted a thorough article on her life and this tragic event here.

Photo Courtesy of the Zuckerman Institute

The neuroscience major is not unlike many at Columbia in that it is co-sponsored by two departments, psychology and biology. In fact, a little over half of Columbia majors share this structure of co-sponsorship. Ideally, each department communicates with its counterpart to design a robust, cohesive course schedule that draws from the expertise of the individuals in both disciplines.

However, a majority of courses in the neuroscience major retain their specific psychological or biologic identities without fully integrating the other, thereby falling short of a true neuroscience curriculum. I would like to emphasize that I do not believe individual professors are at fault, and I have truly enjoyed my time as a neuroscience major. However, I do believe that heightened interdepartmental communication could help improve the experience dramatically.

Despite efforts to heighten cross-disciplinary conversations, departments at Columbia largely remain insulated from one another. As each individual professor teaches their course, they are largely unaware of what material the students are already familiar with when entering their classes. To take a closer look, let us examine the course of a typical student in the Neuroscience and Behavior “Despite efforts to heighten cross-disciplinary conversations, departments at Columbia largely remain insulated from one another.(N&B) major at Columbia.

For a first-year interested in the major, a potential N&B student will likely fulfill their introductory chemistry requirement and take Science of Psychology in their first year. Neither course is neuroscience-specific, and both are lecture-style. While perhaps not ideal, such sizeable and nonspecific courses are typical for first-year students.

As a sophomore, the repetition becomes more readily apparent. On the psychology side of the major, N&B students can either take Mind, Brain, Behavior (MBB) or Behavioral Neuroscience. While both courses technically fulfill the ‘intro’ neuroscience requirement from the psychology side, they are very different.

MBB is the less science-heavy of the courses and is commonly taken by non-science majors to fulfill their science requirement for the Core. The syllabus can vary based on the professor, but in any given year the course content for these two classes has almost 70% overlapping material, plus a good amount of overlap with Science of Psychology. Some refresher material is a good thing and is useful to better understand new material. However, for three courses in the same department, two of which are required for N&B majors, this high amount of re-teaching is somewhat unnecessary when it instead could be spent learning new information.

Material overlap continues to be a significant concern on both sides of the major. In the rigorous two semesters of Professor Mowshowitz’s Introductory Biology course, at least a month is dedicated to neural mechanisms. Meanwhile on the psychology side, in the series of psychology lecture courses a N&B student may choose to take, the first few weeks are spent covering the same introductory material that these students have now encountered at least three times.

Continuing along the biology side, N&B students wade their way through pre-requisites only to enter their first neuroscience class in the year-long Neurobiology I&II sequence. Between these sequential courses a good deal of overlap still remains, with systems-level information taught in the cellular level fall course and cellular mechanisms covered again to teach systems in the spring.

The remaining requirements for the major include a non-neuroscience specific statistics course and a non-neuroscience specific additional biology course — for which a neuro-themed variant has not been taught since Fall 2013.

Overall, a common experience among N&B majors is a feeling of disjointed repetition and lack of neuroscience-specific courses catered to their needs and/or interests. I do not believe such a feeling is limited to frustrated neuroscience students — I have heard the same complaint expressed again and again by friends in various joint majors throughout Columbia College.

So what can be done to fix the glaring issues in the design of the N&B major? Ideally, the whole major would be restructured from the ground up to create a fully-integrated design. Realistically, the bureaucracy necessary for such an overhaul is untenable. Instead, I have a few simple proposals to streamline and vastly improve the experience of N&B majors at Columbia.

The greatest concern, of course, is the overlap of course materials. Luckily, each professor has a fair amount of leeway in their syllabi. Because of this freedom, I suggest that professors, responsible for N&B courses on the biology and psychology sides of the major, set aside one full working day at the beginning of each semester to overview syllabi with an eye for overlap.

I believe a good deal of the issue in being taught the action potential seven times is well-intentioned, with each professor unsure if the students have covered this material before. Such a semesterly meeting would eliminate the interdepartmental uncertainty and go a long way towards eliminating unnecessary repetition in courses.

Additionally, I propose expanding and integrating voluntary courses between the two departments by allowing more cellular-heavy neuroscience majors to focus in neurobiology courses, and psychology-heavy majors to spend more time on the psychology side. Allowing these electives outside of the ‘core’ major courses to be taken in either department would enable a range of students to unify within a single major.

From a scheduling perspective, neuroscience courses at a higher than introductory level must be offered on a regular basis. Here, the psychology department far outstrips biology, offering a wide range of rotating seminars. While still skewing towards psychology, some neuroscience-heavy courses are at least offered each semester from the psychology department.

Overall, I put forward a recommendation that Science of Psychology no longer be mandated for N&B majors, and instead it should be replaced by a comprehensive Behavioral Neuroscience introductory course tailored for N&B majors. With this change, Mind Brain Behavior can more specifically and more accessibly target a non-major audience, and Behavioral Neuroscience can serve as the sole prerequisite for Neurobiology I&II, allowing majors to take this course in their sophomore or junior year and leave space for more seminar-style neuroscience electives as upperclassmen taught by professors in their regions of interest.

With a graduating class of 65 majors last year, N&B is the eighth largest program within Columbia College, and has rapidly grown over the last few years. With the opening of the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, Columbia will only continue to attract the best and brightest neuroscience undergraduates. I believe that professors and administrators want to provide the best education possible to the student body — and that many of the problems within the N&B major can be solved by increased communication between the biology and psychology departments and some simple restructuring.

Made by Meghna Gorrela, SEAS’20

 

If you took Music Hum last year, you likely remember going to the Met Opera to see Madama Butterfly. Currently, “Miss Saigon,” a musical based on this famous opera of Puccini’s, is dazzling audiences on Broadway. The storyline is the same: A doomed romance filled with abandonment and despair. However, Miss Saigon does something a little different — it highlights the harsh realities of the Vietnam War and emphasizes human despair in times of love and war.

Through the heart-wrenching storyline, audiences are immersed in a narrative that is far from happy. An American soldier finds romance in a war-torn country, but he is forced to leave without his lover Kim. He promises to come back, and the woman waits for him while living in shambles for three years. Little does he know that he has a child waiting for him in Vietnam. The soldier, Chris, returns to the U.S. and marries an American woman, only to find out  three years later that Kim is alive and has a son. He goes abroad to Bangkok, where Kim was living after escaping Vietnam, and brings his wife to show her what his nightmares were about. Instead of a happy ending, the audience is left with questions about whether Chris really loved Kim or was trying to find something to keep him going during the war in Vietnam as well as questions regarding the ending. Something to note is that revivals of both Miss Saigon and Madama Butterfly usually include different interpretations of the ending. In this revival, Chris shouts with grief and Kim’s son is wrapped around Chris’s new wife. Does this mean he really loved her? Or was he finally letting go of the past?

The musical highlights choices and how the choices we make shape the rest of our lives, with or without our control. Kim chooses to do something drastic in order for her son to have a better life, something she had hoped would happen with Chris. One is left asking themselves: How far would you go for a better future for someone you love?

“Miss Saigon” not only tells a story of risking it all for love and devotion, but it also explores the naiveté of love and relationships. The incredible staging of the set portrays not only how love can be found in a hopeless place, but also how war destroys any semblance of happiness one can have. Through incredible effects of wind and helicopter sounds, one feels as if they are on stage with the actors who are desperately trying to enter the U.S. embassy. Through a song about the American Dream, humor is slyly incorporated to ease audiences into the difficult ending. The dancers, often times scantily dressed in the “Dream Land” strip club, remind us that everyone just wants to live a good life and have their dreams fulfilled. Unfortunately, this is a reality for few, especially Kim. The stage sets of Vietnam, Bangkok, and America are truly magnificent, and though the story is challenging, “Miss Saigon” is not a show to be missed.

Tickets to “Miss Saigon” can be purchased from here. For more information on how to get rush tickets to the show, message LionBot “How can I get rush tickets to Miss Saigon?”

Photo Courtesy of The Varsity Show.

The 123rd Annual Varsity Show has released tickets today via the Arts Initiative, so buy your tickets to this time-honored tradition before they sell out! There will be four different performances throughout the last weekend in April: Friday, April 28th at 8pm; Saturday, April 29th at 8pm; and Sunday, April 30th at 2pm and 8pm.

Tickets are tiered with GA Cinema/Balcony costing $8 with CUID-BCID/$12 Non-CUID, GA Floor costing $10 with CUID-BCID/$13 Non-CUID, Priority/Front Floor costing $12 with CUID-BCID/$17 Non-CUID, and VIP/Front Row costing $50.

You can purchase tickets here and RSVP on Facebook here.

Image via NBC

I’ve been thinking a lot about NBC lately. I’m directing Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor this semester (shameless plug: come see it this weekend!), a hilarious and partly-true comedy that discusses the network’s decision to cancel the 1950’s SNL-like sitcom Your Show of Shows. In the play, NBC is depicted as a money-hungry corporate machine, and I’ve wondered about this every night when I finish running the show with my cast and return to my apartment to watch one of my many shows on none other than nbc.com.

Is NBC still a money machine? Some evidence would suggest that this remains the case. Take Dick Wolf, the procedural drama king, for example. He’s best known for SVU and Law and Order, but when he created Chicago Fire five years ago, he tapped into a niche market. A show about heroic firemen and women had everyone’s attention, and I was right there with the masses as we rooted for everyone at Firehouse 51– for Severide to defeat his drug addiction, for Casey and Dawson to finally get together, for everyone at the firehouse to save another life. At its beginning, Chicago Fire was extraordinarily entertaining, heart wrenching, and even inspiring (in 2013, I witnessed a car crash, and the first thought that ran through my head was to call 911 because I felt like I trusted the fire department more than I ever had before).

But then Chicago Fire took on a ridiculous plotline– Lieutenant Matt Casey was in a constant fight with crooked cop Hank Voight– and I literally cringed every time Voight took the stage. His character was completely unlikeable, and even since his spinoff Chicago P.D. began that year, I have yet to find a single reason to root for this abusive policeman. But I’ve been forced to watch Voight every week because I want to keep up with Chicago Fire, and crossovers are happening too often to ditch one of the shows.

In 2015, Wolf, always one to build on a franchise, added Chicago Med to the mix, which has surprisingly turned into the best in the Chicago series. Med’s staff has some of the most insightful characters of the whole Chicago franchise, and by now I really only watch any of these shows to see how Sarah helps her mentally ill patients, how Will continues to defy hospital policy, how April deals with her tuberculosis. But again, if I ever want to keep up with Med, I have to watch Fire and P.D.

About a month ago, Wolf iced off the cake with Chicago Justice, of which I could only get through two horrifically written (and acted) episodes before finally giving up. I get it– Dick Wolf wants to make more money– but is it really worth sacrificing this much quality? Chicago P.D. and Chicago Justice are probably two of the worst shows on television right now, and it’s an embarrassment to NBC to continue airing them.

Then again, NBC isn’t all that bad. They still produce Saturday Night Live, the best sketch show to hit TV since Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows itself. They host Late Night with Seth Meyers, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and The Voice. They were home to some of TV’s greatest shows like 30 Rock and The Office. And their biggest hit this season, This is Us, was exceptionally well-done. They thrive when they air comedies and variety shows, and for years Dick Wolf has been their go-to drama man.

NBC’s newest show, John Lithgow’s Trial & Error, also holds promise. I’ve only watched the first episode, but it left me laughing and wanting more. Whoever’s idea it was to pair Lithgow with Glee’s adorable Jayma Mayes deserves an Emmy for that alone. I wasn’t floored with laughter, but I was left hopeful, and the artistry behind the show made it clear that the producers weren’t in this for the money.

So I don’t think NBC has a money problem– I think they have a Dick Wolf problem. Maybe this time he has pushed the line between quality and quantity too far– and is on the verge of ruining NBC for everyone.

 

The Must-Binge List: After learning about the foundation of Mormonism in my religion class, I’m now three seasons deep into HBO’s Big Love, which follows a polygamist family in their daily lives. It’s a relatively old show, made especially poignant now by lead Bill Paxton’s recent death, but its messages still hold true today. While it has its ups and downs (you’ll have to bear with them as they drudge through the middle of Season Two), the show’s overall depiction of true human emotions is definitely worthwhile. Paxton plays the role of father/ husband/ patriarchal authority perfectly, and his three wives (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin) are equally impressive. Where other actors in the show lack (see: Amanda Seyfried as the painfully whiny daughter), the four leads are fantastic. My Grade: B

 

P.S.– Laughter on the 23rd Floor is playing Thursday, April 6th at 9pm, and Sunday, April 9th at 2pm and 7pm in the Kraft Center!

 

Currently, I am far too deep in NPR archives than I care to admit with the taste of stale coffee lingering on my lips, and surprisingly this procrastination trip has yielded fruitful insight that I want share with you.

So, NPR does this super dope project wherein it brings up-and-coming performing artists in to do an acoustic set in a tiny desk space, appropriately entitled the “Tiny Desk” series. In large part due to my avoidant behavior, and a smaller part of me that was looking for a potential reprise from the constant trap music that usually floats around in my head (fun side-note: your boss will in fact call you out if you sing about Percocet at work… just a heads up), I stumbled across a soulful rap artist named Noname. Her melodic, thoughtful words over soft jazz tones were just what I needed after what can appropriately be deemed a “rough week.”

Deeper into the performance, Noname herself elaborates more about why she chose to put these words together in this particular order (i.e. what her motivation was), a highlight of any concert in my opinion, but this particular articulation of her emotions really slapped me in the face. She said, “Thank you for appreciating my vulnerability. We should save the world with vulnerability.”

Noname has hit upon something so simplistically novel with this brief interlude. Maybe it was because I was sitting, staring at the blank research paper in front of me, pitying myself for the stupid decisions I’ve recently made (not just in terms of my biannual midterm crisis, but my personal life as well) but this statement kept lingering with me, begging for me to explore it just a bit deeper.

I think I can best describe her genius by emphasizing my own hesitancy at writing this piece. It’s hard to be witty, and careful, and protected behind trivial sexy words, when talking about a subject such as vulnerability. And saying that “I have recently made stupid decisions” is not something easy to burn explicitly into paper. Anxiety gnaws at the back of my head as I write this, whispering, “Just make sure he knows it’s not about him,” and begging me to not validate said illusive “him” with continued thought and emotion, but perhaps that is why discussing it is so important, so revolutionary.

Ironically, vulnerability has no name. Vulnerability is not that boy who “broke your heart” what seems like ages ago, or the friendship wherein amiability has become hyperextended. No, vulnerability is about you. Vulnerability is something only you can posses. As Noname states, “it is my vulnerability.”  The inherent problem in our society then is that our vulnerability is so deeply ingrained into our persona that when revealed to a wrong “other,” it becomes our own downfall. That’s where Noname’s revelation becomes extremely more complex.

Admitting vulnerability is antithetical to survival. This is a fact serving as the foundation of inter-state reactions: revealing vulnerability allows for the other state to use said vulnerability to its own likely aggressively-backed advantage, no matter what the original intentions of the “other” state may be. Tactically, if I am in a battle and I trumpet out, “Ay yo, I have left City Y unguarded,” my opponent would directly advantage by attacking City Y. Although in this situation showing your hand so bluntly initially comes off as stupid, it may actually be self-advantageous. If you put it out there that you understand this particular facet is weak, the other side cannot take advantage of your weakness with their own aggressiveness in a surprise attack. Moreover, you have made it clear that you are not so enchanted by your own strength to think that City Y could stand against the opponent on its own. You have already self-identified your own weakness, and manipulated it to your advantage, making it harder for the opponent to use it against you.

This is the tactic of vulnerability appreciation that Noname thinks can “save the world,” perhaps just one individual at a time. By recognizing that I cannot do something, while it makes me feel fucking stupid, and humiliated, and embarrassed at first, explicitly stating so will eventually inevitably put me back in control of the situation. No matter the person, if I lay out my weakness, they can no longer harm me by discovering it for themselves. I am not allowing for them to take my vulnerability from me, I keep it, along with whatever power over the situation I initially had. Vulnerability then can only harm me if I become disillusioned by it, if I refuse to listen to it, to engage with the possibilities its unavoidable presence inherently brings.

People are not wars. If I leave you with nothing else then this week, remember that, and go into this weekend with that mindset. Be fucking nice to someone. Appreciate their vulnerabilities. Appreciate your vulnerabilities. And I’ll be damned; maybe we’ll eventually be stronger for it.

 

As a transition from education to profession, college is the place where students have gone through lots of changes, and interpersonal relationships are definitely included. For example, let’s say a young and innocent college kid, Bob, has this feeling that although he is always getting to know new people, it is becoming more difficult for him to keep up with existing connections and friends. Of course, he has some “close friends” whom he keeps in touch with every day, but besides that, how close he is to “non-close friends” completely depends on how lucky they are to bump into each other on the way to Ferris Booth.

AbsentWeakStrong-HiRes-Tie-network

Graphic courtesy of Leadership Close Up

In our society, interpersonal relationships can be characterized as weak ties and strong ties. When you have a strong tie with someone, you keep up with him or her frequently and there are ways that you two meet or connect frequently — just think of someone in your housing group. When you have a weak tie with someone, one the other hand, you might still share a lot of common interests with that person, but for some reason you are connecting with him or her less frequently, and the cause of such infrequency could be unintentional — it might be because you two aren’t in the same class, or because you are living in Wien but your friend is living in Harmony and you don’t meet each other.

However, such infrequent connection could also, if not more likely, be caused by human calculation, and therefore we can actually draw a parallel between friendship and the prisoner’s dilemma in game theory. Yes, friendships can indeed be a game.

Let’s suppose we have two friends, Bob and Jim, and they know each other. One of the assumptions that we apply here is that Bob is a friend to Jim because Bob believes Jim will make him happy, and vice versa for Jim (I’m guessing you don’t to be friends with someone who makes you unhappy!). They both want to be very close to each other, but they are also aware that it takes some cost to keep up, for example if they hang out for an hour they lose an hour of study time, and therefore the more they want to connect, the higher the cost they have to pay to sustain a high level of connection.

In economics, we believe all happiness can be quantified, so we can do a simple experiment here to see how the outcome is derived. Suppose both Bob and Jim have two choices: either to connect the other one frequently or not. There is a special case: let’s say Bob chooses to connect with Jim frequently but Jim chooses to connect with Bob less frequently, what does each other gain out of this relationship? Remember since there is a cost of connecting, Jim will be better off choosing to connect frequently, because he is getting the same care and attention from Bob with a smaller cost. But, on the other hand, it will be hurtful, mostly emotionally, for Bob when he sees Jim is not giving him same attention and caring he deserves. We can characterize the situation in the following payoff matrix:

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If you have taken economic classes you can see what I mean by this matrix, and you know what Bob and Jim will choose to do.  If you are not familiar with economics, the basic idea behind this is that, because Bob knows he will be better off if when Jim contacts him frequently, he contacts Jim less frequently, Bob has an incentive to choose to connect Jim less frequently. But Jim faces the same situation and he will have an incentive to choose to connect less frequently and as a result, they will end up in a weak tie with each other.

It may seem disappointing in the beginning, but such incentives disappear as long as the game of friendship is being played repeatedly for a long time, and for a long time the real benefit of keeping a close relationship will outweigh the advantage of not returning to your friend once, and in such case a strong tie can be sustained. In other words, your relationship ends when you realize that there is an end of it, and upon such calculation from pure reasoning, there is a sentiment of friendship that we cherish.

Image Courtesy of Clara Apostolatos, CC’20

In this modern climate, times are extremely hard for dreamers. Motion pictures released this past year, such as La La Land, have emphasized a level of escapism that is natural for us  to succumb to in such troubling times. Similarly, Amélie not only resides in a fanciful tale necessitated for this plight of escapism, but it also instills a lasting message of kindness and “doing the right thing”: a message that the cast wishes to impart to their audience and one that is more important than ever.

In this whimsical retelling of the Academy Award nominated motion picture of the same name, the life of the titular Amélie Poulain is catalogued from her secluded childhood in the outskirts of Paris to her eccentric yet isolationist adult life in a small apartment in the heart of the City of Lights. Amélie speaks to the shy introvert in us all who is bursting at the seams to try and make life a little easier each and every day.

Stellar performances are exhibited by Savvy Crawford, who plays Young Amélie, and Adam Chanler-Berat, who plays Nino Quincampoix. Nevertheless, Tony nominee Philippa Soo, who achieved fame through Hamilton and now plays the role of Amélie, stole the show as she delivers a radiant performance as the protagonist of this production. As soon as she runs onstage with the characteristic smirk of Amélie, she mesmerizes the audience member with her bubbly, mischievous portrayal of the character. Although Ms. Soo’s interpretation of Amélie is not as reserved as Audrey Tautou’s in the film, she does not have the luxury of a scene-by-scene narrator to illustrate her inner thoughts like Ms. Tautou did. Therefore, Ms. Soo relies on the company of Amélie to exemplify whatever odd thought strikes her.

In some instances, I found this incorporation of the acting ensemble into the mind of Amélie helped elucidate the scope of her inner motives. For example, the ensemble’s mimicry of heartbeats and their reveal of glittery hearts in dull briefcases gave the audience a taste of the tacit love that Nino and Amélie share. At other times, however, the ensemble’s participation was unnecessary and even awkward. For instance, different supporting characters would lose the identity of their own characters to narrate a life event of Amélie and then resume their individual nuances. I’ve seen some musicals that succeed in this aspect, but Amélie’s use of this tactic was a bit clunky, especially in comparison to the exemplary narration utilized in the movie.

With these differences, fans of the movie might gawk at the artistic liberties taken in regard to how the movie has been adapted for the American audience, including the absence of a narrator as well as the notable omission of the French language. There are some hints of this Romance language on the various set pieces, but barely any of the dialogue possesses any semblance of French. Some of the choices actually complement the musical experience extremely well. For example, the two cabines de télé that adorn the opposite ends of the stage mimic the experience of witnessing the telephone conversations in the movie Amélie perfectly. Nevertheless, the changes Amélie the musical utilizes make the musical its own.

Even with these small critiques, when comparing and contrasting the movie and the musical, the creative licenses the musical takes to tell the story of this eclectic heroine culminate in a pleasurable experience that the audience can enjoy.

Tickets to Amélie can be purchased from here. For more information on how to get rush tickets to the show, message LionBot “How can I get rush tickets to Amélie?”

Image courtesy of freshNYC

How would you describe yourself?

Most people can immediately come up with at least a few adjectives to summarize their personalities, and when these people are asked how well they know themselves on a scale of 1-10, the answers are overwhelmingly above 8. When asked to estimate if their ‘core’ personalities have remained consistent over time, the majority agree that while they have indeed changed, certain fundamental aspects of themselves remain the same.

People make important decisions based on the idea that personality continuity often underlies individual growth. You believe that person you choose to marry has essential qualities  which will remain good, that criminals have essential qualities which will remain bad, and that the people in your life all have dependable qualities. When attributing the incredible successes or failures of CEOs, celebrities, or pro-athletes, most tend to credit or blame their personalities.

While this convincing story pervades our culture, modern research indicates that this idea of an individual’s consistent personality is just a myth. A few months ago, the longest-running study on personality was published. Begun in 1947, teachers were asked to rate their fourteen-year old students on six personality traits. Sixty-three years later, researchers tracked down as many of the original participants as they could and analyzed their personalities.

Upon analysis, none of the six traits showed any significant stability across the time-span. While ideas about personality and experimental methods have changed drastically in the intervening decades, more modern neuroscientific research backs up these sorts of long-running surveys with fMRI studies of the changing brain.

While many ‘tests’ of personality exist on the internet, almost none of them hold any neuropsychological weight. This includes the famed Myers-Briggs model, which sorts individuals into sixteen distinct personalities according to four to five traits, each with a corresponding letter. If you have ever had someone tell you they are an ENFP, or INTJ, that’s the model they’re referring to. Though certainly entertaining, such tests have long-been discredited for being too myopic and binning people into binary categorizations.

Although many scientists disagree, the generally-accepted model of personality these days is the Big-Five, which gives individuals a rating from 1-100 on five distinct traits — Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. If you are interested, this is the best way to take it online.

Recently, neuroscientists have begun to examine how high scores on various factors in the Big Five might map onto brain structure. Using structural MRI, one team examined brain volume as it varies with brain region size, finding that extroverts had a larger medial orbitofrontal cortex, a brain region which processes reward. This area is heavily implicated in response to social reward, so it is  possible that extroverts enjoy social interactions because they supply them with a ‘hit’ of dopamine.

Increased scores on neuroticism correlate with bigger brain regions associated with threat, punishment, and negative behavior. It is possible that neurotic people feel the potential threat of a negative event more powerfully than those with smaller cingulate cortices, and therefore are more concerned over potentially troubling events.

Agreeableness correlated with a larger lateral prefrontal cortex, a region that loosely corresponds with planning and higher-order processing. Though they did not find a significant association with Openness, neuroscientists found some possible correlations with parts of the parietal cortex associated with integrating sensory stimuli.

While this study did not use functional MRI to tell us what regions are activated when exhibiting behaviors associated with these traits, there does appear to be some association between the sizes of these brain regions and an individual’s personality.

If psychology research tells us personality changes drastically over time, and neuroscience research indicates that our brains reflect our personalities, what underlying mechanisms in our brains are underlying these changes?

Some potential clues lie in memory research. A large body of evidence tells us that each time a memory is ‘accessed’, it is altered, sometimes dramatically, before going back into storage. As experiences pile up in our lifetimes, the memories we make are incorporated into the ways we face new information, and change the ways we make decisions.

The other massive factor in our decision-making comes from our surroundings — specifically, our social surroundings. The cultural norms which permeate a place can strongly influence how a personality changes over time, as new experiences permeate the neural wiring. With that in mind, it’s hard to think of a more distinct social environment in the U.S. than our home, New York City itself.

When asked what made a person a New Yorker, former mayor Edward Koch put it most succinctly: “you have to live here for six months, and if at the end of the six months you find you walk faster, talk faster, think faster, you’re a New Yorker.”  I have certainly found that a few years here have changed me in more ways than knowledge gained in the classroom — parts of my personality seem fundamentally altered by my time living in Columbia and in adapting to the the unique social norms such a city carries.

In a place as hectic, stressful, and sometimes isolating as New York City, the unconscious effect of environment likely affects us all. Combined with a student population of high-achieving and hard-working Columbians, it’s possible our particularly potent stress culture might be drawing heavily from the city itself for fuel. While we often talk about the culture-shock of NYC on many of our students during orientation weeks, we rarely take the time to analyze how exactly our city might be changing us.

Maybe the pressures of Columbian sub-culture paired with tough-it-out mentality of the city makes us feel busier and more focused, and therefore primes to think faster and act smarter. Maybe some of these changes are positive, learning how to ‘tough it out’ certainly has its benefits. But I’m more worried about the negatives, about how a city so known for indifference may be affecting our compassion and human integrity.

Luckily, any negative characteristics our brains may be picking up from the city aren’t permanent. The same neuroplasticity which hardened us can prioritize compassion again, if we make a conscious effort to make others as important as our busy schedules. We have the ability to change our own culture of Columbia and only let the positive aspects of the city in.