Finding Post-Quarantine Hope in The Amazing Race

Author: Liz Bazzoli

I love travelling. I love the feeling of sand between my toes, the sunshine’s warmth on my skin, the hustle-and-bustle of everyday life mingling with the carefree meander of the tourist. Most of all I love the sensation of newness, that child-like joy for exploration which accompanies travelling. 

From my very first airplane ride, I knew that I wanted to travel to every corner of the world (though my perception of the world was admittedly small, stretching only as far as my grandparent’s house to Walt Disney World). In fantastic, Up-inspired, illusions I dreamed of travelling to every state, every country, every continent, eventually reaching fluency in every language and becoming the most famed adventurer in the world!

For the time being, though, it seems my plans will have to wait. 

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the worldwide quarantine which has accompanied it has paused any travel indefinitely. Massive, tourist-enticing events from Coachella to the Tokyo Olympics have been cancelled, and with COVID-19 cases reaching new records daily, it seems unlikely that anyone will be leaving the confines of their home anytime soon. 

But maybe the thrill of travelling isn’t unreachable, even in our current moment. If quarantine has taught me anything, it’s taught me to live vicariously through my laptop screen. What if I could travel to different countries and a different, not-so-distant past without even leaving my bed”

I present to you The Amazing Race, a lovingly cheesy reality television show that follows contestants through what is basically a world-wide scavenger hunt ending in a $100,000 prize. Each season follows a simple enough structure: teams of two must follow vague clues to various locations around the globe, racing to complete a series of ridiculous challenges ranging anywhere from herding sheep to eating three pounds of caviar. The last team to complete each episode’s challenges gets eliminated. Rinse and repeat. To win contestants must navigate around different time zones, a wide variety of languages, delayed flights, and their own teammates. Needless to say, chaos ensues. 

Junk food television at its finest, The Amazing Race has not only been my chance to travel vicariously to the likes of Buenos Aires or Bangkok, but it also transports me to a moment lost to time: the early 2000’s. Contestants with soul patches and puka shell necklaces book flights on massive cube-like desktops, get around by reading physical maps and compasses, and have to make calls to travel agents on payphones; cellphones are a rare commodity. Competitors journey through the bustling markets of Marrakesh, attend lavish parties in Vienna, and race through the crowded city streets of Tokyo, interacting with the world without the fear of a deadly disease looming over their heads. Everything about the show feels fun and joyful, a time capsule of a lost normalcy. The Amazing Race feels so far removed from this current moment of isolation, but maybe it’s actually a beacon of hope and a testament to resilience. 

The Amazing Race aired its first episode on September 5th, 2001, a week before the September 11th terrorist attacks. The show came to fruition in a time of immense grief and political turmoil, not dissimilar to what America is enduring twenty-one years later. We’re living in a unique and tragic moment, but so were the contestants of The Amazing Race’s early life. By watching the show’s early seasons, you can see the healing of America, and it feels not so far from our current moment. Contestants talk openly about their own loss and trauma, but they also express a gratefulness to reach across invisible borders and connect with people across the globe. Maybe their enthusiasm and their vivacity despite being in the shadows of tragedy and anxiety can be a sign of hope for a post-quarantine world. Travel and human connection seem far away now, but a day will come when we can come together again and share in a global resiliency. Until then, there are still 29 seasons of The Amazing Race on Hulu that are calling out to me, beckoning me to begin a new adventure. 

Pigeons, Walking, Writing, Oh My!

Author: Deyana Atanasova 

If you’ve been referring to pigeons as “the rats of the sky,” you might want to reconsider your perspective.  

That’s precisely what accomplished author and professor Kathleen Rooney asks readers to do when reading her newest novel, Cher Ami and Major Wjittlesey, which is told from two perspectives: an army soldier in WWI and a messenger pigeon. If you want to hear about it more in-depth and better than I could ever explain it, you can learn more about it here from Rooney herself. 

(The cover of Rooney’s newest novel, Cher Amie and Major Whittlesey)

Yet, even without reading the novel, we can all be a bit more conscientious of how we regard and interact with the world, including what we take for granted and what we remember.

In an Honors Speakers event on Thursday evening, January 21st, right after the inauguration, several students from the Honors Program hopped on a Zoom call with author Kathleen Rooney and had the opportunity to hear a live reading and engage in a Q&A. The topics talked about ranged from writing processes, walking as an adjacent activity to writing, buckets of historical knowledge, the publishing industry, and of course–really cool pigeon facts.

For example, did you know that pigeons can actually recognize the alphabet and learn upwards of 60 words? Or that when looking at a group of people, they can actually discern us as individuals? Meanwhile, chances are, if we were to see the same pigeon two days in a row, we would never really be able to tell them apart.

The moral of the story is, we take things for granted. And yes, that’s a truism, but if you asked me whether I would miss the sight of a pigeon under the Adams/Wabash stop by the Brown Line before quarantine, I’m not sure I would have understood the gravity of the question.

And by the way, this conversation doesn’t even include the whole “pigeons aren’t real” discourse which, quite frankly, seems like a silly joke but becomes quite harmful when unpacking the deep double standards of surveillance. Dr. Eric Anthamatten’s philosophical piece “Visibility is a Trap: Body Cameras and the Panopticon of Police Power unpacks this much more (shout out to Dr. Fanny Söderbäck’s HON 105 Philosophical Inquiry class for featuring this reading). So, what does this have to do with pigeons again? Well, you might have also seen all of those Bernie memes with the mittens. There was one in particular where Bernie was photoshopped sitting in front of a bunch of pigeons, giving off that Michael Scott feeding the pigeons in the park vibe. And in fact, there’s even a meme generator where you can photoshop Bernie sitting anywhere in Google Maps Street View.

An unphotoshopped photo of Bernie at the inauguration

I found myself becoming bothered on social media during and after the inauguration as I was trying to come to terms with the idea that yes, the new administration would mean undoing a lot of harm.  But it is not a like a carrier pigeon flew in from a beam of light in the sky with the one-step policy solution to battle systemic racism, the prison industrial complex, implementing universal healthcare, mitigating the pandemic, etc.

To borrow a pun from Rooney on the night of the live reading, I do not advocate for the “pigeonhole” idea that now we can go back to “normalcy” and compartmentalize politics. We need to keep learning, unlearning, and re-learning. We simply cannot forget not just the past four years but the underlying centuries of oppression that led up to it.

If you’ve made it this far into this post, you’ll know that we landed pretty far from where we took flight. But I think that’s part of the beauty in writing, in that you can meander and walk around, connecting checkpoints and making meaning.

If anything, maybe the next time you see or think of a pigeon, you’ll sign a petition or learn more about the local work being done by heroes in their communities right now. Maybe, you’ll end up picking up a copy of Rooney’s novel and reading it, savoring every clever line of and about the dynamics of language. Or, you’ll look up the slightly unsettling amount of figures of speech out there related to pigeons.

In the Q&A portion of the live reading event, Rooney also said something along the lines of “usually, stuff finds a home.” I forget the context given my rushed, chicken pigeon scratch handwriting, but I hope that in some way, shape, or form, you got something from this piece and that it has found a home, albeit even a fleeting one. P.S. In other (un)related news, a pigeon was spared from the death sentence recently in Australia. Lots to unpack there, too.

A Very Special Event: Chicago Manual Cinema’s A Christmas Carol

Author: Jade Ryerson

There are a lot of things we’ve all missed since the onset of the pandemic back in March. Luckily, the innovative team at Chicago’s Manual Cinema has ensured that live theater no longer has to be one of them. In a show suitable for all ages, Chicago Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol combines original music, live performance, and paper puppetry for a remarkably timely and relevant take on the Dickens classic. Although there have been countless adaptations over the years, Manual Cinema offers a night of entertainment like nothing you’ve ever seen.  Honors Program students were treated to a performance of the classic on Thursday, December 3rd. 

Besides Scrooge’s supernatural visitors, stunning visuals and a haunting original score contributed to Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol’s magical quality. Performed by a small yet masterful team, the show consists of seamless transitions between shadow puppetry, miniatures, and live acting. Complex layering of dramatic lighting, transparencies, and silhouettes add both visual and emotional depth to the scenery and story. Some of the best elements, though, are in the subtle details, including a tatted Christmas Present and Christmas Past’s cross-generational banter. 

Although the protagonist, Aunt Trudy, struggles to get into the Christmas spirit, Manual Cinema has no trouble adapting the tale to our time. With both the show’s plot and the audience firmly planted in a COVID-19 world, A Christmas Carol’s themes of gratitude, love, and family have perhaps never felt more relevant. Like other families during lockdown, Trudy reluctantly attempts to translate holiday traditions—namely her late husband Joe’s puppet rendition of A Christmas Show—over Zoom. Despite her initial cynicism, Trudy accompanies Scrooge on a transformational journey that ultimately reinforces the importance of connection in trying times. Even over livestream, Manual Cinema’s ability to speak to our current moment made the performance feel more personal and poignant. In addition to its creative presentation, I was most struck by the team’s thoughtfulness surrounding our collective fatigue, grief, empathy, and need for human connection.

After the performance, students joined Honors Program Director Dr. Jennifer Conary for a discussion about the enduring relevance of A Christmas Carol. With infectious enthusiasm, Professor Conary—DePaul’s resident Dickens-expert—shared her insights about the novella’s various film and stage adaptations and the dire financial circumstances in which Dickens wrote it. In addition to Dickens’ pursuits as a Victorian social reformer, this context enabled students to view A Christmas Carol and what we regard as ‘quintessential Christmas’ in a new light. As Professor Conary explained, A Christmas Carol was transformative, not only for Dickens’ career, but also the holiday festivities we know today. Even over a century and a half after its publication, Manual Cinema still found a way to put an inventive spin on this Christmas classic.
While we can’t gather with family and friends, Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol provides a new way to connect; it reminds us to pause and remember how meaningful those moments and relationships are. With the dawn of the new year comes the promise of a vaccine and hopefully the return of live, in-person theater. Until then, Manual Cinema is hosting live one-hour performances every night from through December 20. Be sure to stick around for a Q&A with the cast and tour of the set after the show.

Athlete A (2020), Documentary Review

Author: Hannah Reed

Content Warning: This film includes graphic descriptions of child abuse, child sexual abuse, and sexual assault. This review mentions these topics.

A new Netflix documentary titled Athlete A, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, tells the horrific tale of mass child sexual abuse at USA Gymnastics (USAG) through the eyes of the investigative journalists who first broke the story.

In Athlete A, Cohen and Shenk endeavor to answer the question people around the world asked when the story of Larry Nassar’s abuse first broke in 2016: How does something like this happen? How can one man sexually assault upwards of three hundred children and teens for nearly three decades without being caught? Through the presentation of the testimonies of the survivors, the reporters who led the investigation, and the prosecuting team of the criminal case, we received a definitive answer.

Cohen and Shenk paint a compelling picture of the wider culture of abuse in elite gymnastics, weaving interviews of former Olympic and national team members into their coverage of the investigation of Nassar and USAG by journalists at The Indianapolis Star. In one such testimonial, Jennifer Sey, a member of the 1986 Olympic team, summarized the root of unchecked abuse confirmed by multiple generations of elite gymnasts interviewed for the film. Sey stated, “in other sports, the athletes are adults. They can reasonably make choices about what they want. I don’t think that is true in gymnastics…the line between tough coaching and child abuse gets blurred.” The subjects of the documentary identify multiple points at which adults at USAG and other organizations affiliated with Nassar could have spoken up to protect these children from his abuse. The film simply shows us why they never did: because in a culture that prioritizes championships & brand status over the well-being of athletes, sexual assault becomes one more abuse to be swept under the rug. 

Athlete A gives the young women who survived that abuse a chance to tell their story, their way. It shows us that while they received justice, hundreds of women had to fight tooth and nail to get it. Any genre of media covering sexual abuse and the institutions that condone it often present these events in ways that are shaming, and supportive of a global culture that diminishes and silences survivors of sexual violence. Athlete A defies that expectation and gives a voice to the strong women who sacrificed their privacy to protect future generations from Nassar and men like him.

Athlete A: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. Available on Netflix.