The Twilight of Newspapers in Ann Arbor

By Brian Kuang on January 10, 2017

Washtenaw County Commissioner Conan Smith resigned his elected post in August of 2016, after accusations that he engaged in a self-serving conflict of interest surfaced.

In a letter to the County Board, Mary Morgan, former opinion editor of the Ann Arbor News, alleged Smith was unethically using his position as an elected official to secure a position as Washtenaw County’s director of community and economic development. The position likely would have carried a 6-figure salary.

“The board of commissioners is not responsible for hiring county employees, other than the county administrator,” Morgan wrote. “So there’s no reason for commissioners to be involved in the hiring process for other county staff, much less a single commissioner acting alone.”

Although acknowledging he had been pursuing the position, Smith denied any wrongdoing in an interview with the Daily.

In October, Smith announced his intention to run for re-election to the county commission seat he had resigned from just two months earlier, taking himself out of consideration for the economic development position.

Faced with only write-in opposition — several protest candidates and his board-appointed interim successor — some of Smith’s former constituents said few voters seemed to be aware of his conduct, which they attributed to lax local media coverage of the issue.

“It’s kind of sad how many people don’t know about this situation,” Ann Arbor resident Judy Foy said in an October interview. “He’ll just be the name on the ballot.”

When Ann Arborites turned out en masse for Hillary Clinton on November 8th — Clinton carried 68 percent of the county — Smith’s write-in opponents secured only 9 percent of the vote. Ninety-one percent of voters on Ann Arbor’s west side were either unaware of Smith’s resignation and waffling, or they were content to overlook it.

Some of Smith’s critics would blame a variety of factors, from straight-ticket voting to civic apathy.

"He had the luxury of turning his back on the people he's supposed to represent for a couple months… knowing that he'll get re-elected in November because of straight-ticket voting," local resident Jeff Hayner told the Daily in October. 

Others — such as Morgan —  attributed the scandal and Smith’s reelection to a more systemic problem: The deterioration of local news coverage's ability to ensure government transparency, beginning with the Ann Arbor News’ 2009 closure amid flagging revenue.

“If I had not reported on (Conan Smith), it wouldn’t have been daylighted,” Morgan said. “In terms of things that are happening in our government that aren’t getting covered, that is a good example.”

Death of a Newspaper

On the Monday morning of March 23, 2009, Ed Petykiewicz, then-Ann Arbor News editor in chief, was seen walking out of his office visibly distraught, according to former News copy editor Domenica Trevor.

“(Petykiewicz) looked like somebody had whacked him in the face with a two-by-four, he looked shocked,” Trevor said.

Several minutes later, a staff meeting — with almost 100 attendees despite recent waves of buyouts — was called with little explanation. Many thought a new wave of cuts was about to be announced.

Instead of announcing more staff cuts, Ann Arbor News publisher Laurel Champion, with a pained expression, informed them the newspaper, with 174 years of history and 45,000 daily subscribers, would cease production that July.

The staff was stunned, and most would be out of work in four months.

In a letter to the public later that day, Champion wrote the decision by its owners — New Jersey-based Advance Publications — to close the paper was due to declining print advertising revenue. Champion also announced the shift of the publication’s remaining resources to a soon-to-be-launched platform, AnnArbor.com.

“We have shared with you before in our pages the extreme challenges that our industry and our newspaper have faced over the last couple years,” Champion wrote. “Out of those challenges has come a new opportunity. Our new strategy reflects shifting media consumption habits and advertising revenue in the newspaper business, and particularly in Michigan.”

Though few, if any, Ann Arbor News staff expected an outright closure prior to the announcement, warning signs of the paper’s troubles had been present for years.

The size of the print edition was reduced in 2007 to cut newsprint costs, according to several former staff members. In 2008, Advanced Publications announced the News’ copy desk and several of its other production functions would be downsized and centralized to a Grand Rapids office. The size of the staff — including newsroom, distribution and business — was whittled through attrition and concurrent waves of buyouts, from 400 to 272 by 2009. 

Some left of their own accord in the period immediately before the closure. Morgan left as opinion editor in 2008, after 12 years at the News.

“At the time, you could see they were not investing in the newsroom and that when people left, they weren’t being replaced,” Morgan said. “Generally, it did not seem like there was a vision from the leadership.”

Trevor, seeing poor future prospects for her role as a copy editor at the News, accepted a buyout offer in late 2008, though she continued working through July 2009. She now works as a paralegal and freelance copy editor in Ann Arbor.

“A bunch of people were offered buyouts,” Trevor said. “Any copy editor with any sense took it because there was an ‘opportunity’ for employment in Grand Rapids, but we were being told it’s just not going to happen.”

The Ann Arbor News staff was promised an opportunity to apply for positions at the new publication, AnnArbor.com and about a dozen employees were retained, according to several former staff members. The rest moved to other publications, freelance positions or entirely new careers.

The market trends ending The Ann Arbor News were hardly confined to Ann Arbor. Until the advent of the Internet, most medium-sized cities could support at least one independent daily print publication that could reap healthy profit margins by holding a de-facto monopoly on local classified ad sales.

Although the Internet would begin eroding newspapers’ competitive advantage as a one-stop shop for local advertisers in the 1990s and early 2000s, newspapers were largely able to weather the changing market. Total U.S. newspaper ad revenue would peak in 2005 at $49.4 billion — even when daily subscriptions had been in decline for years — according to Pew Research.

Freefall ensued during the 2007 financial crisis and the subsequent recession. Newspaper ad sales plummeted 60 percent below their pre-recession peak to $19.9 billion by 2014 (the last year the Newspaper Association of America published figures), as advertisers realized they could target audiences more effectively online and slashed their print spending.

The employment prospects of newsroom staff have followed their employers’ tanking earnings. The number of U.S. newspaper employees plunged by 40 percent from a pre-recession peak of 55,000 to 32,900 in 2014.

In the decade between 2004 and 2014 at least 126 daily papers closed, according to industry publication Editor and Publisher, and the approximate 1,300 that remained increasingly had to make do with less. The same year The Ann Arbor News ceased production, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer moved solely online, and both The Detroit News and The Detroit Free Press cut their print schedules to three times per week. With its stock price slipping below $5, the New York Times Co. was only dissuaded from shutting The Boston Globe — one of its properties — when the Globe’s employees agreed to $20 million in concessions.

 

More with Less

AnnArbor.com — which fully merged into the Mlive brand in 2013 — is a leaner operation than its predecessor. The print schedule was cut to twice a week and its copy desk, sales, production, circulation and sports coverage were consolidated into its parent company’s statewide operation alongside seven other local papers.

Individual reporters are saddled with greater responsibilities than their forerunners: They cover multiple beats, take their own photos and run their own social media, according to Jenn McKee, a former entertainment reporter at the Ann Arbor News and MLive .

“Really focusing on your writing and having that be your calling card isn’t enough; you really need to be a more well-rounded journalist and be able to offer all those things,” Mckee said. “That’s a pretty sharp shift for people who have been doing this for a while to make.”

John Hiner, vice president of content at MLive, said the economic realities of the news industry make the scale of old local newspapers financially unrealistic, and traditional media companies must increasingly explore alternate sources of revenue.

“We don’t dream about putting everything back the way it was,” Hiner said. “But I think you can find continued growth in digital revenue.”

Hiner further said MLive has prioritized preserving its reporting capacity, explaining that while about 25 staff members work in the Ann Arbor office — less than 10 percent of the 272 who were in 2009 — most cuts have been to non-editorial positions, like those consolidated under MLive’s statewide functions. He estimated this means the reporting staff is between one-third and half of its pre-2009 headcount.

He also admitted not as much coverage is possible with fewer staff members, but argued that the web-based platform of MLive makes news more immediate to its audience.

“The Ann Arbor News used to be at every school board meeting, every city zoning meeting, every library meeting,” Hiner said. “We still go to those things when they’re newsworthy and important to the community, but we don’t babysit boards and council to the degree we used to when we had more resources.”

Jen Eyer, who held various editorial leadership roles at MLive’s Ann Arbor office until 2016 and is now communications director for gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer (D), described maintaining Ann Arbor coverage as a “constant struggle,” but expressed admiration for the dedication of the remaining staff in the face of challenges.

“It pains me to hear the criticism they sometimes get,” Eyer said. “That newsroom and the whole organization is still filled with journalists who believe in the mission of journalism.”

While acknowledging the efforts of MLive’s staff, many local residents say the consequences of large staff cuts and the reduction of printing to twice a week are difficult to ignore.

Vivienne Armentrout, former county commissioner and long-time Ann Arbor resident who actively blogs about city issues, said the loss of daily print distribution has steeply affected public awareness of local news.

“I was here when we actually had an afternoon paper … we could be sure that virtually every resident of Ann Arbor was reading the same news as you were reading,” Armentrout said. “There was sort of a common community memory, and now a lot of people are pretty ignorant of what’s going on.”

These sentiments were echoed by City Councilmember Jack Eaton (D–Ward 4).

“I have to tell you that (MLive reporter) Ryan Stanton covers City Council very well,” Eaton said. “But the public doesn’t necessarily read everything he writes because it’s only published twice a week and not very many people bother to subscribe to it.”

Both Eaton and Armentrout added that they see less long-form investigative reporting, and it is evident the smaller staff is spread thinner than its predecessors.

“A local person who’s involved, such as myself, kind of has to piece together the news,” Eaton said. “You need to listen to WEMU, because they do fairly good local coverage, you need to hunt down a copy of The Ann magazine.”

From the Ashes

A year after the News’ closing, The Ann magazine, a monthly glossy magazine featuring long-form pieces on local news, was launched.

Jim McBee, creative director of The Ann, has worked at a variety of local papers in California, the Carolinas and Wyoming. However, he found himself increasingly disillusioned as long-term prospects soured.

“While I was still in newspapers, I just felt like I was just riding it out,” McBee said.

As The Ann Arbor News was closing shop, McBee’s former co-worker Kyle Poplin was in Ann Arbor on a Knight-Wallace Fellowship, an award for mid-career journalists to study at the University of Michigan for a year. Poplin saw an editorial void left by the News’ closure — a lack of in-depth longform reporting — and reached out to McBee, ultimately conceiving the magazine.

“Our desire editorially is to do the big projects newspapers used to do,” McBee said. “That’s the idea, to do the big in-depth story … that newspapers have a really hard time doing now because they’ve fired all their experienced reporters.”

In the past year, The Ann has featured stories on topics such as the local startup scene, emotionally heavy profiles of homelessness in Washtenaw County and a piece from Morgan outlining the circumstances surrounding Conan Smith’s resignation. A large portion of content comes from freelance writers, while a core team of four manages editing, production and advertising sales.

Each month, 18,000 copies are printed and distributed through direct subscriptions and a distribution partnership with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, which include The Ann as an insert in local deliveries to respective papers.

McBee readily admits, however, that no monthly publication can fully substitute the day-to-day and breaking news reporting capacity of a daily newspaper. By relying heavily on freelancers, the Ann cannot readily do follow-up coverage on recurring issues, particularly local government.

“I don’t know if I would structure beats the way a newspaper does, but the fact that I don’t have a staff of reporters … is a little frustrating,” McBee said. “Somebody needs to be keeping an eye on government officials, on businesses, on whatever. I think it’s a glorious golden age for graft and corruption.”

Some Ann Arborites were not daunted by the task of holding local government to task, though. When Morgan departed from The Ann Arbor News shortly before its demise, she and her husband, Dave Askins, launched The Ann Arbor Chronicle, a Web-based publication focused on local government, in September 2008.

Aiming to increase civic awareness and participation, the couple sought to fill a vacuum left in local government coverage by the departure of the News. Their site primarily featured detailed chronicles of local government meetings and decisions, while also including original analysis of local policy issues, columns and cartoons from freelancers.

“By covering government the way we did, we could lower some of the barriers to entry,” Morgan said. “The idea was: If people want to know what’s happening so they can get more involved, we would provide them with that information.”

Raising revenue through advertising sales to local businesses and “voluntary” subscription fees — the Chronicle was a for-profit entity — Askins said their site drew between 30 and 40 thousand unique users per month. The couple was adamant, though, that their success be measured not by their readership but by their impact on the functioning of civic life.

Though the Chronicle’s revenue was sufficient to cover its costs and the couple’s living expenses, Askins and Morgan found a fundamental challenge: Covering every public meeting could consume as much as 80 hours per week, even with freelancers’ help.

They determined it would not be possible to scale up the Chronicle’s revenue to hire full-time staff without compromising key elements of their publication. In an August 2014 post, Askins announced the Chronicle would end publication.

“In past columns I’ve compared this kind of labor to running a marathon — with one key difference: There is no finish line,” Askins wrote. “You can never really finish. But as a practical matter you will quit running one day. And if you never decide to stop, then when you do stop, it will be because you are dead. So we’re setting an end date as a kind of artificial finish line.”

That September, a final post was made on the Chronicle: A heartfelt farewell from Morgan.

The Chronicle's departure put residents in the same predicament they felt when the Ann Arbor News began downsizing — a lack of investigative city coverage. Many residents, including Eaton, still remember the Chronicle’s reporting fondly.

“The Chronicle wasn’t really traditional journalism, it was exhaustive journalism where you’d get 15,000 words on one meeting,” Eaton said. “It was a great resource for activists or board members like myself … and I don’t expect a daily newspaper like MLive or anybody else to do that kind of exhaustive meeting coverage.”

New Beginnings

Now, Askins is on his way out of the city he has covered for so long. This week, he filled a U-Haul to move to Madison, South Dakota (pop: 7,258) to start again as a local journalist.

Despite having a population less than one-tenth of Ann Arbor, Madison has maintained its daily print paper — the Madison Daily Leader — which he and Morgan credit to the publication’s ownership by the same local family for multiple generations.

Morgan plans to remain in Ann Arbor for the “medium term,” until she can transition the leadership of her civic engagement nonprofit — the CivCity Initiative — which she began after the Chronicle closed, before joining her husband in Madison.

While acknowledging he would miss Ann Arbor — which he has called home for the last two decades — Askins bristled with optimism for what new adventures would await him out west.

“The work of a local journalist, if you do it well … you make the place you live in better, because it allows more people to participate in the life of the community than otherwise would be able to,” Askins said. “That’s the work I want to do … Ann Arbor’s clearly not the only place you can do it, and it’s not clear to me you can work as a local journalist in Ann Arbor anymore.”

In early 2016, the last two Ann Arbor News staff members to remain through the entire transition to MLive — McKee and Managing Producer Cindy Heflin — were laid off. Heflin is now a copy editor at the Detroit Free Press, while McKee works as a freelance reporter. Today, MLive continues to serve the Ann Arbor news market.

“I harbor no malice against MLive,” McKee wrote in a text message. “They’re just trying to make it through this era, as every news outlet is.”

Correction: A previously published version of this article described the Ann Arbor News as "now-defunct". However, MLive's twice-a-week print edition in  the Ann Arbor area is still published under The Ann Arbor News brand.

 

Hustled Out: Union renovations to strip away 97 years of pool hall history

By Will Feuer on January 1, 2018

 

The room is a labyrinth of ancient tables, antiques still in use. Above each one, fluorescent lights puncture maize and blue stained glass to reflect off the phenolic resin balls. Blue cue chalk stains the hands of the players and permeates the air to create a haze. Chatter is drowned out by the smack of balls. The archaic space heaters moan and the greats who came before us stand watch, framed in timeless wood, nailed to the walls. The scratches and tears in the 16 nine-foot Brunswick tables tell a story longer than most at the University of Michigan have been alive.

Few people know that when the Michigan Union was erected in 1919, it boasted a bowling alley, bar, swimming pool, barber shop, hotel rooms and much more. Over the century since, these amenities have slowly been replaced by a computer lab, Starbucks, Au Bon Pain, fast food chains and other facilities that fill today’s Union. However, one room on the second floor remains virtually untouched, frozen in time and displaying the Union’s winding story. As this academic year ends, so too will the lingering life of the historic billiards hall.

I spent hours every week –– probably every day –– in this room my freshman year. It is where I would unwind after a long day and where I would bring people to understand me a bit more. The green-felted nine-foot Brunswick tables put the ratty seven-footer my dad taught me to play on to shame. This is my refuge, my paradise and my home.

It wasn’t long before I was on the club pool team. Yes, U-M has a team. In fact, U-M hosts the largest college pool tournament in the country, the University of Michigan Team Pool Championships. My freshman year, the UMTPC was the weekend of Halloween. While my fraternity brothers were doing what they do, I was locked in a heated game of nine-ball until midnight against a couple of students from Carnegie Mellon University. I lost, we shook hands and they asked me where the parties were.

That tournament is held every year, and it’s bliss for those of us who crave the intensity of calmly tapping safety shots for two hours patiently awaiting a chance to run the table in one foul devastating swoop.

OK, so it’s not football, but what pool lacks in aggression and physicality, it makes up for tenfold in strategy and tact. Though far and few in between, there is a network of individuals on campus who don’t just love billiards but love the billiards hall. That’s why I question the Union renovations slated to begin this April, which will not only erase the pool hall entirely but also devastate the community surrounding it.

 

*****

When the Union closes for renovations this spring, the University will sink more than $85 million into the project over two years. In planning the new and hopefully improved Union, the University conducted surveys, town halls, intercept interviews and more to gauge campus and alumni opinion on what the Union should be. In total, more than 350 students, 500 alumni and almost 200 staff offered input.

Driven by the results of those outreach efforts, the administration is seeking to expand space for student organizations in the Union, said Susan Pile, senior director of University Unions and Auxiliary Services, who has been active in planning the renovations. The University currently boasts over 1,500 student organizations, but fewer than 80 have office space, all of which is located on the third and fourth floors of the Union.

While creating office space for student organizations, the renovations will expand Counseling and Psychological Services and move some administrative offices to the third and fourth floors. The student org offices will move to the “IdeaHub,” a planned co-working space that will be available to all 1500 student organizations. However, if demand is high, space may become reservation-only.

What is certain is that the IdeaHub will take over the space that has been the billiards hall for 97 years, which has failed to turn a profit in the past decade according to Pile.

“I think folks recognize that we are trying to create a much more inclusive kind of space for student organizations,” Pile said. “We are going to maintain the historical details of the space and we will tell the story of the billiards room in the space to honor that legacy.”

The concept behind the IdeaHub originated in 2011 from the student-run Building a Better Michigan, formed by the Michigan Union Board of Representatives to advocate for improvements to the Union. BBM has significantly contributed to the Union renovation process, communicating directly with the project’s architects.  

“One thing that BBM really does is it helps keep the renovations in a student-led perspective because the University would not exist had it not been for students here,” LSA junior Jazz Teste said, a co-president of BBM.

In 2013, members of BBM spoke before the Board of Regents, claiming to represent all 17,000 LSA students despite being unelected. The Regents then voted to add a semesterly $65 “University Unions and Recreational Sports facility improvement fee” onto the tuition and fees of students to go towards renovating campus facilities, formally putting the gears in motion for the Union overhaul.

“I do regret having to lose the billiards room because it is a gorgeous and iconic place in the Union. However, student leisure activities have changed over the past couple decades,” Teste said.

Teste said it’s unfair for the University to pick and choose which student groups receive the limited office space, and reiterated the billiards hall has been unprofitable. The IdeaHub will eliminate the need to parcel out space among eager student organizations.

“It would come down to evaluating them, which we currently do, but how do you measure someone’s passion over another?” she asked.

Being that it is precisely the administration’s job with these renovations, I put the question to those who care most about the billiards hall.

*****

“This place for me was one of my favorite places on campus. It’s where I spent most of my free time. I fell in love with pool and met a lot of really cool people here,” Greg Webster said, who graduated from LSA in 2016.

“I met my girlfriend here,” he added with a bashful smile.

Webster is a self-proclaimed follower of “The Dude” from “The Big Lebowski,” though he’s replaced The Dude’s passion for bowling with that of pool. His long blonde hair and signature goatee are a testament to his aesthetic, even if the Union doesn’t allow White Russian cocktails. Webster can be found in the pool hall almost everyday. He is one of the first people I met at the University. In my freshman year, he convinced me to try out for the team.

“It is what it is. I’ve kind of accepted the fact that it’s going to be removed from the building … They’re already looking to sell everything,” he said in classic “Dude-esque” fashion.

According to Pile, the University will seek out other homes on campus for the tables before trying to sell them off.

Webster understands the hall has been unprofitable for at least a decade, but he believes there’s value in the room that the administration fails to see.

“If you come in here during the day, you see people from all over the world coming to play and you hear people speaking all types of languages … Most of my friends who I spend hours a week playing pool with are from Asia. I’ve even learned some Chinese. I could go to a pool hall in China and be able to speak to them a bit,” he explained.

Webster was speaking not just about the pool hall, but also to a much broader global trend. While the once-hugely popular game of billiards has steadily declined in the United States, the sport has taken off throughout Asia, particularly China. At the turn of the 20th century, New Yorkers enjoyed more than 4,000 billiards rooms. Today, there are fewer than 30.

Shanghai was home to 200 billiards clubs in 2008, a number that has since skyrocketed to 1,500. Pool academies have been established in major cities throughout Asia and today, six of the top 10 global pool players are from East or Southeast Asia, according to the World Pool-Billiard Association.

“(The University) is trying to create all these ‘global citizens,’ but then they get rid of every sport that’s not ‘American,’” Webster said. “This is where you’re able to connect with people who you wouldn’t normally connect with through this shared interest in pool. This is where our cultures meet and we’re able to bond over it.”

Mengyang Zhang, who graduated last fall from the School of Engineering, echoed that point. Zhang hails from the province of Shanxi in China, and transferred to the University three years ago from North Carolina State University. Discovering the pool hall his first week on campus, the tight-knit community helped him adjust.

Zhang went on to represent the University at the UMTPC for three consecutive years, also competing every year to qualify for the Association of College Unions International Collegiate 9-Ball Championship. As a founding member of ACUI, the University has hosted their billiards tournaments dozens of times, and this past summer they did so again, knowing it would be the last in Ann Arbor. Zhang placed in the top 16, but his favorite part of the game is the relationships.

“Pool is a common interest for everyone who comes here, so from the pool, we then start talking about life and get to know each other, different lifestyles and cultures. It’s the start of the conversation,” he said over a game of eight ball.

The University’s billiards club is the first club Zhang joined on campus and three years later, he still attends almost every weekly meeting, loosely defining the term “meeting.” Members of the billiards club convene every Friday evening in the hall for a tournament. The winner gets a free week of pool. Though Zhang said he only competes to win when he is feeling really good, he enjoys being with all of his friends and afterward, they’ll go out for dinner or a drink.

“If it’s possible, I definitely want this pool hall to be kept. All my memories, all the people I know, it all started here. Even if they just move some to another room, if I see one of the tables I can pick up the memories maybe,” he said. “This is where all my memories are. There’s a story here.”

*****

The billiards hall has welcomed numerous professionals over the years, including Hall of Famer Nick Varner, and the legendary Mike Massey. But perhaps today’s most famous patron of the pool hall is Betsy Sundholm, manager of the Student Organization Resource Center. Sundholm came to the University as a freshman and hasn’t left since. She became a full-time employee of the Union in 1996. Not only is she friendly with every regular, student and non-student alike, but she has also created a huge network across the country of collegiate pool players through her masterminding of the UMTPC.

“I have so many memories of the billiards room. It has played such a big role in the person that I am. I got a job there as an 18-year-old kid and now I’m well into my forties,” she said nostalgically. “I met my partner of 27 years there … he taught a pool class and I was working behind the desk. He was one of the best players in town and I had a crush on him.”

Sundholm struggled to recall other schools with comparable billiards halls, adding that some schools without any tables on campus have a flourishing billiards community, though they face massive hurdles.

“(Students from other schools) come here and this is like Disney World to them,” she added.

One of Sundholm’s favorite memories of the pool hall is when one of the most recognizable faces of professional pool, Jeanette Lee or the “Black Widow,” came to play a few racks in 1998. The billiards room partnered with the Korean Student Association to bring Lee, a Korean-American, to campus.

 

 

When it comes to the pool hall closing, Sundholm has to separate her professional duty from personal feelings. Pile, her boss, sat in on our interview, perhaps to make sure she did so.

“Square footage in Ann Arbor is a premium,” she said. “On a personal level, it makes me sad, but professionally, I completely understand … There will always be a demand to some extent for people who want to play pool, but I don’t think it’s going to be what the billiards room is right now. Student needs evolve, spaces evolve…”

But the evolution of the Union will not just impact students. Whereas the billiards hall is open to the entire Ann Arbor community, the IdeaHub will be exclusive to students. Originally from Ypsilanti, Greg Jackson has lived in Ann Arbor for about 23 years, but he’s been a regular at the pool hall for even longer.

“I started playing when I was 15 years old. All I wanted to do was play pool … I was here almost every day for about 20 years. Almost every day,” he said. “It’s just the love of the game.”

Jackson says he endured a rollover car accident in 1995, which put him in a coma and permanently damaged his brain, but pool has helped him recover.

“I’ve learned to be patient. I’ve learned to accept things … Pool has trained me to think about things in the long run. It’s trained me to take my time to concentrate and not just do the first thing that I see automatically.”

The billiards hall is not only Jackson’s home-away-from-home, but he says pool has taught him how to cope with a chaotic neighborhood at times.

“It’s been a great run for me here. I’ve loved every day that I’ve played here. I never got into a fight here. I never got into so much as an argument here. It’s just a peaceful place. It’s a peaceful place,” he said.

Since it was constructed and opened up to the public,  the pool hall has been a cornerstone of Ann Arbor, Jackson emphasized. He, like others, understands the financial turmoil of the room, but hopes the University can find another public space for pool.

“(The University) is focusing on education and there’s nothing I can do about it, so I have to accept it. I have to accept things I can’t change and I can only change things in certain circumstances,” he dejectedly said, perhaps relaying a lesson he learned from the game of pool.

*****

But it isn't just players mourning the billiards hall’s death. LSA senior Alexandra Ngo has worked at the pool hall since her freshman year as a work-study employee, rising up the ranks to now serve as the facilities and equipment manager.

“I’ve gotten to know everyone who comes in this room. I know everybody’s first name. I know what table they go to. I know what class they’re coming from and what they’re studying,” she said. “There’s a bunch of people who have been here longer than some students have been alive.”

Alex works about 30 hours a week alongside the 10 to 12 other work-study students who earn an income at the pool hall any given year. Over her four years at the pool hall, she has overseen weddings, bat-mitzvahs, bar-mitzvahs, "Sweet 16s" and many more events.

“It breaks my heart because I didn’t even know that the billiards room was included in the renovations until I got back to campus (this fall). And it breaks my heart every time alumni come in and say ‘Wow, this room has so much history,’” she said. “Coming in here and just talking to the regulars or people I recognize is one of my favorite things.”

Ngo pointed out three distinctly modern tables in the far corner of the pool hall and explained they are Diamond Tables — the kind used in professional pool’s most competitive tournaments.

“We just bought these tables. We need a purpose for them … This isn’t something you’re going to see drunk as hell sitting at Circus with people eating popcorn on them,” she said, referencing Circus Bar & Billiards on South 1st Street. “This is something that people literally drive to Ann Arbor to use. We are fighting to keep these in the building!”

Michigan Union employees declined to give the exact amount the University spent on the Diamond tables, but Sundholm says the total amount was less than $20,000. The fate of the tables are also uncertain as the University seeks a new home. 

Almost everyone I spoke to empathizes with the University’s rationale for closing the financially defunct pool hall, but Ngo is unapologetically opposed.

“The University takes so much pride in its history and we talk about tradition and culture on campus, but if we get rid of the billiards room I call bullshit … (The pool hall) is not only integral to U-M’s history, but also the history of Ann Arbor, so fuck U-M if we get rid of this.”

 

 

*****

This past summer I found myself in rural Buriram, Thailand for a weekend. No one spoke English, but everyone played pool. When I got on the table, I shed the role of strange foreigner and became just another player, shooting alongside everyone else. That bar, filled with smoke and tattered pool tables scarred by usage and lack of maintenance, was a far cry from the Union’s billiards hall.

In a few short months, the billiards hall will fall to the shadow of the Union, joining ghosts like the bowling alley and swimming pool; which had been replaced by fast food chains and the computer lab. Pool will always be a part of my life, though that may mean playing more often on the unkempt tables down at Eightball Saloon on South 1st Street. But I will never forget the long days and late nights spent shooting on table 8 overlooking State Street alongside other wannabe hustlers, bonded by a shared passion for pool.

This semester is likely your last chance to shoot some racks in the same room as Michigan’s greatest once did. Use the pool hall late in the semester, and you may be the room’s last.

 

Nevertheless, she tweeted

By Alexandra Niforos on October 14, 2019

I was a sophomore in high school when I first decided to identify as a feminist. 

My English teacher at the time was a charismatic and outspoken man. Everyone wanted him as their teacher because he used iPads in his class and assigned fun projects instead of papers on “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” What I slowly came to realize as a student in his class was how oddly invested he was in his female students, but only in the ones who were sweet, soft-spoken and typically had big breasts. I was unsettled by his behavior from the beginning and actively called him out on it, which (unfairly) had an effect on my grades. I was the first to raise my hand and argue when his analysis of our class readings turned into unnecessarily, oversexualized discussions of characters that weren’t straight white males.

I was also quick to question him whenever I saw him taking pictures of unsuspecting girls on the fancy Google glasses he had recently gotten as a gift. During the course of that year, I saw him constantly stare at my friends’ butts and breasts and heard him say to a group of students that he “could always tell when a girl is wearing a dress with a thong.” 

Someone told me that some of my peers filed a joint report over his harassment to the principal, but the only news that was published about him by the time I graduated was that the school board had given him $75,000 to create a new technology center in our library.

That same year, I started taking voice lessons from a man who prided himself on teaching only the most talented and promising students that my hometown had to offer. I only heard rave reviews about him, and I assumed that if his other students got solos and roles as a result of taking lessons from him, then he could help me as well. He taught out of a practice room in a local church on Sunday afternoons when no one was around — which should have been red flag number one, but I was 15, naive and I trusted the opinions of my peers. 

In the few months I took lessons from him, I improved greatly and started racking up solos for my choir concerts. I never had any concerns about him, and I was blindsided one day when, instead of diving directly into warm-ups at the beginning of my lesson, he sat me down to tell me he no longer wanted to work with me. He said it was due to my “poor attitude and constant gossiping about other students.” Those words were (and are) entirely untrue. I had never said a bad word about any of my peers without his encouragement; the only times I did were because he was trashing them to begin with, and I thought the only way to stay on his good side was to join in.

For the entirety of my 45-minute, pre-paid lesson, this man, who claimed to be a serious professional in his field, told me how bad a person I was while I sat there silently crying. I had nowhere to go — my dad had dropped me off and would not be back until the end. It wasn’t until after I stopped taking lessons from him that I found out that he once told a friend to “shape her mouth like she was giving a blowjob” during vocal warm-ups. This man continued to teach teenagers and garner praise for the next five years. In September 2018, I received a call from my mom, and she told me there was a lawsuit against him. He had sexually assaulted one of my classmates.

Everyone finds their feminist identity on their own time and for their own reasons. Mine so happened to develop as a direct result of two specific experiences of injustice at the hands of men in power, which continues to shape my feminism to this day. 

In my haze to try and process this gross misuse of authority by some men in my life, I started using the phrase “I hate men” — both jokingly and seriously. 

Phrases like this, as well as “men are trash,” “men are scum” and “men ain’t shit,” are commonplace nowadays among millennials and Gen Zs. Tweets trashing men are likely to get favorites and maybe even go viral. The once-#1 song on the Billboard charts has an opening lyric of “Why men great ‘til they gotta be great?” The last Buzzfeed listicle I read was entitled “16 ‘Men Have Underdeveloped Frontal Lobe’ Tweets To Put a Smile On Straight Women’s Faces.” In 2019, it is trendy to rip on an entire gender.

Perhaps this trend is why critics of feminism have taken to saying there is a “war on men.” I first learned about this narrative when former Fox News contributor Suzanne Venker wrote an op-ed in 2012 entitled “The war on men,” criticizing women for being irrationally angry toward the opposite gender and for regarding men as the enemy. 

Most recently, the New York Post published a piece accusing presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren of promoting a feminist agenda that borders on declaring a “war on men.” During a rally at Washington Square Park, she had said, “I wanted to give this speech right here and not because of the arch behind me or the president this square is named for — nope … We are not here today because of famous arches or famous men … In fact, we’re not here because of men at all.” It is also interesting to note that both of these articles were written by women. 

Let me acknowledge some things: The women who wrote these articles might have never experienced sexism or violence or manipulation at the hands of men (although I highly doubt it). There are certainly women out there who identify as feminists and support a platform entirely based around the demonization of men — which I don’t believe to be feminism, but misandry. There are also women who have falsely reported being sexually assaulted by men — though this statistic is reportedly frequently inflated. None of these things give any merit to the supposed “war on men.”

I am not here to defend an all-out smear campaign on the male gender, but what the perpetrators of this narrative do not realize is that there cannot really be a war on a gender that has always had, and potentially will always have the upper-hand — at least for the forseeable future. The difference between being male and female is that men can strike fear into women by just existing. I am vulnerable because I am a woman living on Earth, and that is a truth I will grapple with every day for the rest of my life. 

There is a reason hating on men is trendy, and even socially encouraged, in this day and age: Women are trying to have a semblance of control in this power discourse. If women feel like they will never be able to be equal in society to men, then perhaps joking around on Twitter is one way we can retain some autonomy.

This discussion is one-sided because I only speak for myself and my experiences as a straight, white woman. I cannot imagine how the vulnerability associated with being a woman increases for those of different races, sexualities, gender identities, etc. Maybe I sound paranoid or dramatic, or even anti-feminist, for “letting” men have this much effect on me. However, I know for a fact that all of the women in my life have experienced genuine fear, trauma, and/or pain at the hands of men.

When I first started saying things like “I hate men” as a young, teenage feminist, I was usually greeted with responses of disgust. People — usually men — said to me, “OK, no you don’t” and “Do you really hate all men?” And these people would be right — I don’t. My brother, dad and grandfathers are some of my favorite people in the whole world, and my male friends are absolutely lovely in every way. I have only respect for honorable men that I have worked alongside, worked for, and even those I have not met and may never meet. But what I have come to notice in my 21 years of experience on this planet is that good men who are secure in their masculinity are never actually the ones immediately enraged by a playful “men are trash” joke on Twitter. 

Respectable men do not have to assure other people with their words that they are good; it should be evident in their actions. Men who utilized the trend of #NotAllMen to prove that they were not like other men were probably just like the type of men they were claiming they weren’t. Sure, a large number of the male population are upstanding people, but every single member of the female population will be subjected to some type of sexism, misogyny, harassment or violence at some point in their lives. 

Is it really worth the time to distinguish between who is moral and immoral among men if the immoral are what cause women to mistrust an entire gender? Women on the internet fought back against this insensitive hashtag with creating their own. #NotAllMen but #YesAllWomen, as women on Twitter said in 2014. 

So yes, I do not, in fact, hate all men. However, here are some things I do hate: I hate that 85 percent of true crime fans (including myself) are women because they feel the need to learn how to prevent it. I hate that I remember where and when the first time I got catcalled was, and I hate that I knew it was certainly not the last time. I hate that I have been followed by men while driving before, and that not even the 3,500 pounds of metal surrounding me could make me feel safe in those moments. I hate that a client at my internship two summers ago made jokes about me being a sex worker, and all my boss did was laugh. I hate that I have had to cut off two separate friendships with guys in the past year for either being emotionally manipulative or making repeated sexual comments even after I expressed my discomfort. I hate that I can demarcate the milestones in my life when my mistrust in men as a whole has grown stronger and stronger. I hate that I have built up impenetrable walls as a result of my experiences, and I hate that this has an effect on my ability to date and let down my guard enough to feel any type of intimacy. But the thing I hate the most is that as long as I am living and breathing, I will remain susceptible to further fearful and anxiety-inducing experiences with men.

I am sure it is hard to believe from a man’s perspective — unless they have seen it firsthand — that living as a woman means inherently having to expect the worst as a way to maintain safety and sanity. In fact, the concept of belief is a hot topic as of recent years in the storm of the #MeToo era. And listen, I get it. We are human beings, not puppets who should mindlessly agree with everything we are told. It is perfectly normal to approach things unfamiliar to us with doubt. I can understand why the men who have never personally harassed anyone or been exposed to assault, and even women who have never been sexually assaulted, would proceed with caution when standing alongside women who are outspoken about their traumatic experiences. But being apathetic means involuntarily siding with the non-believers and the supporters of men who are sexual assailants. 

There’s a difference between healthy doubt and plain ignorance. In 2017, former New Republic editor Moira Donegan created an anonymous Google spreadsheet as a place for women in the media to anonymously report sexual misconduct, but she took the document offline only 12 hours after hearing that Buzzfeed planned on publishing the document and its contributors. Prof. Christine Blasey Ford waited 36 years to confess that she was sexually assaulted by Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. Chanel Miller did not step forward as “Emily Doe” in the Brock Turner rape case until just last month, four years after the trial. All of these women revealed their identities in order to expose themselves before news outlets did it for them, an attempt to take back a semblance of their autonomy. It is no wonder that three out of every four sexual assaults go unreported. 

This fear is why humor persists as a socially acceptable way to talk about these real issues that face women. Presenting truths through the form of a funny tweet or a 10-second TikTok or a viral meme makes them non-threatening. After all, that is what jokes are — exaggerations of the truth. They are funny because there is some semblance of relatability in them. We need to stop, as a society, placing restrictions on the way people speak about their trauma. A woman coping with everyday micro-harassments by constantly tweeting jokes about how men are the worst is no less valid than a woman who publishes a serious memoir about her experience with being sexually assaulted. Let’s stop penalizing women for talking about women’s issues, OK? After all, there is no one more qualified.

 

Class of COVID-19: Seniors commune around increasingly uncertain future

By Verity Sturm on March 25, 2020

I skipped my first BlueJeans lecture to buy a pair of shoes.

The sole employee at the Ann Arbor Running Company looked surprised to see me. He kept pulling the wrong sizes and I kept feeling too socially anxious to correct him. It had been six days since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a state of emergency, and we were both a bit rusty on our interpersonal skills. He untied a size-too-small sneaker from a stool rolled six feet away and went through all the correct small-talk motions: How was my running going? Was I a student? What year? President Donald Trump was announcing new restrictions from the flat screen in the back of the store that usually played silent reruns of pixelated cross-country races. 

“This is a bad one,” Trump proclaimed from the store speakers. “This is a very bad one.”

“I’m a senior,” I replied to the salesman while tying up a size-too-large shoe, one eye on the screen.

“Neat,” the guy replied. “Got anything lined up?”

Before the COVID-19 outbreak defined our daily lives, my habitual reply to this dreaded question had been a good-natured “nahhhh,” friendly in its lingering “h,” or perhaps a more optimistic “not yet” if the questioner appeared genuinely concerned about my future or was related to me by blood. But in the Ann Arbor Running Company, while Trump announced we “may be” diving head-first into a recession (but will be “raring to go” by Easter), I began to feel uncertain in a way that resisted friendliness or optimism.

“I, uhh, I really don’t know,” I told him. And I realized, for what felt like the first time, I seriously believed it.

***

Last week the United States Labor Department released data indicating that, from March 7 to March 14, the rise in initial unemployment claims outnumbered that of any week during or since 2008. In a recent New York Times article analyzing this data, Justin Wolfers, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, pointed out that this is unlike a “normal” recession, which typically takes months of joblessness, two consecutive quarters of negative GDP and a bureaucratic declaration to be universally recognized as an “official” recession in every sense of the word. 

“The last recession began in December 2007, but even half a year later, some economists were still debating whether the economy had entered a recession,” Wolfers wrote. “This time, there’s no debate.” 

But other experts have scrapped that vernacular entirely, insisting that the dystopian extremities of the COVID-19 economy cannot be explained with normal jargon. We are living in the most intense bear market on record: unprecedented declines in stock and security due to widespread sentiments of fear and pessimism. 

“What is happening is a shock to the American economy more sudden and severe than anyone alive has ever experienced,” stated esteemed policy journalist Annie Lowrey in The Atlantic last week. “This is not a recession. This is an ice age.”

Right, wrong or indifferent, trauma has a history of changing the way we talk about things, each disaster with its own little vocabulary nebula. McCarthyism, Trumpism, Stalinism, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror — these phrases didn’t exist or matter before cluttering the national (or international) conversation with paranoid frequency during their respective moments. They carry their emotional history with them, grim little linguistic keepsakes fossilized into the way we speak. The alt-right. #MeToo. The dot-com bubble. Social distancing. Flatten the curve. No Record Covid. Economic ice age. 

Another term has squeaked into being amid this century of change: lost generation. Gertrude Stein is credited with coining the phrase, which Ernest Hemingway then popularized in the epigraph of “The Sun Also Rises” in 1926 — “you are all a lost generation.” Just peachy. Stein and Hemingway were originally referring to the generation of people coming-of-age during or after World War I — the first global conflict to trickle down into American daily life in a way that felt personal. 

Since 1926, though, the term “lost generation” has slowly become unstuck from the context of its inception alone. The long-revered Oxford English Dictionary clarifies that the largely historic phrase is “also used more generally of any generation judged to have ‘lost’ its values.” Lexico, a more colloquial collaboration between Dictionary.com and Oxford University Press, gives the term an additional entry below the definition of its literal origin. It reads:

“An unfulfilled generation coming to maturity during a period of instability.”

***

Maggie Li, an LSA senior studying biomolecular science, was breaking up with her boyfriend around the time the World Health Organization named the outbreak “COVID-19.” Li went home to weather the breakup with family, returned briefly to take her midterms and then flew right back home for spring break. She was recharging for the second half of the term, hopeful to return and end her final semester on a high she could ride into the start of her independent adult life. 

“And then right when I got back that Wednesday, they literally announced that all classes are going to be online for the rest of the semester. And I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Li said in a phone interview with The Daily.

“I was just ready to come back and swing into things and, like, get my life on track. And then now, nothing is normal.”

Instead, Li found herself back home in New York for the third time in three weeks, grappling with much more than her lingering breakup.

“I’m taking a gap year before med school, and I’m in touch with a lot of research labs. But I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life because all of the labs obviously are not focusing on hiring right now, which I completely understand. But now my life is on hold.”

Through the phone, Li paused to take a breath. Later in our conversation, she told me that she actually had had a lab contract lined up with Massachusetts General Hospital, but it happened to be in close proximity to her then-boyfriend. She turned the offer down when they broke up, to open her future to positions and opportunities elsewhere. And labs elsewhere — including Mount Sinai in New York — had been really receptive to her application. Things were looking good. Empowering, even. But that was before, as she put it, “this whole thing blew out.”

“Now the MCAT is canceled for quite some time … and if they’ve canceled school (through spring and summer terms), then they’ll probably cancel testing, and then when am I going to take it? Like, am I going to have to take another year off just because of a situation that’s kind of out of my control?”

Rachel Rudd, a senior in the School of Nursing, expressed similar uncertainty about the NCLEX, the nationwide exam for graduating nurses.

“We all have to take the NCLEX in order to get our RN licensure, and we don’t really know what’s going to happen with that, because usually, we take them in late May or June,” Rudd told The Daily in a recent phone interview (note: starting March 25, the NCSBN, which administers the NCLEX, has reduced testing to “a limited number of test centers” according to federal guidelines). “So, it may be over by then and it may not be. So, I think that’s just like a wait-and-see sort of thing.”

While some seniors are questioning the status of their already-scheduled exams, others have been freshly motivated to consider taking them in the first place — the binary tension indicative of a populace near-robotically uncertain about which way to turn. Public Policy senior Elise Rometsch expressed as such in a recent phone interview with The Daily.

“I don’t have anything lined up … and was looking for a job, but I also had plans of going to maybe grad school or potentially law school down the road, and I’m like, ‘Should I hurry those up?’ Because I know when the economy’s not doing well, that’s generally like, ‘Okay, time to go to grad school.’ ”

***

I eventually confessed to the man at the Ann Arbor Running Company that I was a size 8.5, that his 7s and 9s weren’t going to help me meet the sick mileage goals that had become increasingly integral to my sense of self-worth with every day and email since March 11. They had none in stock, which I refrained from reading symbolically. I ended up ordering a pair through the store, making some comment about how I’d rather give my money to them than a third party on the internet. “Thanks,” the man told me, unimpressed, gingerly holding out my receipt.

A week later, I called the Ann Arbor Running Company to check on my order. It was March 23, and when I woke up, Whitmer had issued her “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order, toppling a domino network of tense conversations and packed bags between friends, family and loved ones statewide. 

I too was throwing socks and books into my duffel, phone wedged between shoulder and ear, preparing to move to my boyfriend’s place a whopping block down the street. He and his housemates had decided to use the Whitmer’s order as grounds to self-quarantine their house for two weeks, legitimately, to ensure they didn’t have the virus before going home-home to more immunosuppressed or elderly familiars. I was invited, so long as I followed the sole Spartan rule: No one goes in or out. I was down to confidently delay my own seemingly inevitable breakup for two more weeks, so I agreed.

In or out. Together or not. Life had really gone binary.

Back on the phone, a non-identified male running voice spoke: “Sturm … I remember your name, let me check the book.” It didn’t sound like the guy I had talked to in the store from the week before, which relieved me. “Hmm. OK yeah, order placed, but not in yet. Soon, though. We’ll give you a call.”

“Okay,” I replied, dropping a pair of pink silk pants that I would never wear into my bag. “But I’m kind of moving to a sensitive household, we’re in town but I don’t think I can …”

“We’ll bring it to you,” this anonymous man said, cutting me off. “Of course.”

“Whoa. Like, to the door?” I asked. Mom-and-pop running shops don’t operate like Grubhub.

“Yes. We’ll bring them to you. Doorstep. Don’t worry about it. We’ll give you a call, and we’ll bring them.” 

***

At the time of my interview with Rometsch, my recent Google searches included “GRE,” “GRE when,” “how long writing sample English Ph.D.” and “LSAT casual.” Safe to say, my feet were firmly planted in the same tenuous camp as Rometsch re: continued education. And, as she pointed out, it was economic anxiety that sent me there, not my boundless zeal for specialized study. I went into this year tabling grad school because I didn’t want to waste my time diving so expensively into something I wasn’t 100 percent certain about. Now, I’m just seeking refuge.

Historical data, as usual, tells me this plan is unexceptional. In October 2009, the number of LSAT examinations administered reached an all-time high of 60,746, a 20 percent increase from the year prior — that is, before the 2008 financial crisis. Similarly, the number of Americans who took the GRE in 2009 rose 13 percent from the disastrous year prior, peaking at 670,000 test-takers. 

What that does to the selectivity of the applicant pool, I don’t even want to know. But Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby has studied the pattern and confirmed that interest in higher education has indeed increased during every recession since the 1960s. 

Who can blame us? On Monday, Vox published the “scariest unemployment chart ever,” depicting a projection from Goldman Sachs — 2.25 million new claims — that pushes the y-axis to a point where an illustration is moot. The labor market doesn’t even feel like an option. 

“Most people at our school usually get a job coming right out of college. That’s just, like, how that works. … But is anyone really even going to be hiring people right now?” Stephanie Stan said, an LSA senior studying biopsychology, cognition and neuroscience, in a recent phone interview with The Daily. “It’s not only the people who have a job lined up (who are impacted) or those that won’t make as much money as they would have coming right out. It’s now people who are still applying, or thinking about applying.”

And although Rudd is pretty confident that she’ll find employment upon her RN licensure, she’s wary about the larger labor pattern that will eventually cut into her industry as the pandemic naturally ebbs.

“A lot of people are talking about how there may be this surge in (health care) workers, but then when COVID-19 is over, what are we going to do with all the extra people? I’m not sure if that’s even going to affect me or what’s going to happen,” Rudd said.

The rules we’ve been raised on don’t seem to apply to the class of 2020. Stan is right, the University frequently tells us that most people at our school usually get a job coming right out of college. But that data doesn’t account for an economic ice age. Similarly, labor statistics tell us that nurses are projected to remain in high demand. But job security seems more complicated when entering an industry at a time when demand is so disproportionately inflated.

“Graduating generally is terrifying,” Rometsch told me. “And now, not only are we dealing with classes we’ve never had anything like (before), we have to deal with adapting to new situations. We have to deal with trying to find a job in an economy where no one knows what’s going on.”

***

Like most self-conscious writers, I began to gaslight the validity of my own piece about halfway through my research. What if this isn’t actually happening on an individual basis? Data can say most anything if you just zoom out enough. Am I misreading the signs? Am I going to publish something that stirs more panic for less reason?

As if on cue, I got an email from a publishing firm that I was prepping for a round two interview with, declaring “all summer internships canceled due to the ongoing health crisis.”

I dissociated momentarily before texting my mom “the thing I made second round for was canceled lol.”

She replied immediately: “That sucks. Andrew’s job postponed indefinitely, too.”

My brother Andrew graduated from a small liberal arts school with a degree in aquaculture this past May. He’s been living at home most of the past year, doggedly applying to jobs. He’s on the Asperger’s end of the Autism spectrum — more than capable of doing excellent work, but outside neurotypical. And, of course, job interviews are implicitly designed around (and evaluative of) neurotypicality. 

Andrew works three times as hard for an “average” degree of opportunity, at least according to University standards. He and I have never enjoyed the same amount of agency in this world, especially regarding academia and work.

In late February, Andrew finally got a job offer. Now?

“Oh shit,” I replied.

***

Aside from all the exams, jobs and future plans, graduating seniors are simply reeling at their psychological cores. Benjamin Moy, an LSA senior studying molecular, cellular and developmental biology, likens it to a torturous state of limbo.

“I’m home, or I’m not in the classroom, but I’m still doing school, and then school will sort of taper off,” Moy described in a recent phone interview with The Daily. “And I … don’t really have a ceremony that designates me as being complete. But I’ll be done in six weeks and it will all sort of vaporize. It’s basically moving to the next stage of life without recognizing a definitive end to your undergraduate career.”

Moy is right — the class of 2020 has lost its sense of an ending. With it, we’ve brushed up against the fact that, perhaps, that structure really mattered to us. That we were banking on that closure, that we’ve architected the imagined progression of our future lives around it. We’re realizing that, to some ever-nebulous extent, we’re coming to maturity during a period of instability.

“So, maybe I would say the best word to describe it is some sort of purgatory,” Moy concluded. “We’re just floating around, and you’re trying to figure out what’s going to happen, but you don’t really know what’s going to happen.”

A graduation ceremony, a working economy, any narrative of a tenable plan — we’re losing what we’ve been taught to value. At the very least, we’re drawing some line between what we’ve internalized and that which could now, potentially, apply to us. And the process of drawing that line — the circumscription of some new reality — is a reckoning.

“I feel like I’ve gotten advice about, like, you know, take risks and do something that interests you after college, maybe even go to grad school, and use that experience to figure out what you want to do,” said Rometsch.

“But now I feel like that’s all out the window. Like, no ones’ conventional advice really applies.”

***

I called my brother a couple of nights ago to commiserate about our current states which had, for what felt like the first time, aligned in their uncertainty. COVID-19 brought us down together — the ultimate equalizer. Killed two Sturms with one stone.

But Andrew wasn’t completely on board with my wry pessimism. Although worried about the status of his job, he had found unexpected relief in the recent normalization of social distancing.

“To be honest, Verity, this whole situation hasn’t been all that bad for someone who grew up with so much anxiety about all that,” he told me.

One of Andrew’s oldest and most intense tics is paranoia about hygiene: germs, where they are, contracting them, recovering from them. I began to imagine how much more at ease such a mind would feel in a world where people finally, utopically, maintained their proper distance from one another.

“I’m just trying to enjoy that part of it while it lasts,” he added, further blowing my mind. For a moment, there was just static on the line. Andrew didn’t notice it, one of my favorite things about him. No silence too awkward. 

“But to change the topic, I gave up alcohol for Lent and already lost 20 pounds!” he confessed excitedly. “And I mean, Verity, if I knew it would have been that simple, I would have done that years ago,” he added with a guffaw.

I smiled to myself. Laughing in a time like this.

***

On a recent socially-distanced walk, one of my friends expressed sadness about the lost opportunity to run into all their casual friends and acquaintances around graduation time; to have one final connection with this person they once knew while both of them were feeling so open and rosy about the time they spent here. 

I think the COVID-19 version of this quintessential senior experience must be calling up the classmates you’ve never met before, airing your anxieties to a near-perfect stranger for 40-odd minutes because the bond you share as members of “an unfulfilled generation coming to maturity during a period of instability” is that certain. It’s a social property we now share, something wholly singular about the way this class is exiting the already unusual cultural landscape of college. 

Toward the end of our interview, Rometsch began to sense it, too. “I actually feel like, because this happened, I feel more willing to talk about the anxiety,” she confessed. “Because it feels like people are more understanding and everyone’s going through crazy uncertainty right now.”

At a certain level of stress, we’re driven to candor. In radical stress, radical candor. Whatever it takes to find some purchase in the purgatory. And God bless whatever social survival mechanism it may be because every conversation I had in this piece made me feel a little bit better about being alive right now.

“I feel like this whole thing has definitely put all my recent life changes into perspective,” Li told me. “I’m trying to find the little positives, as cheesy as it sounds. Like the sun coming in on a cloudy day or something. Like the rainbow that comes after the rain.” She paused.

“You know, I was thinking of getting my grades processed, because I’m taking pretty, like, senior classes this semester. But then I also kind of want a memory thing on my transcript, like wow, I went to college during No Record Covid.”

I laughed along with her, amused and emboldened by this person I just met.

“You’re going to fail a class just to put a keepsake on your transcript? That’s a power move.” I replied. “You know what, I’ll do it too.”

“Yeah!” she agreed. “It’s a pact.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *