Thursday, January 3, 2008
We open with two narratives.
Taylor Wemmer traveled to the national collegiate competition in Columbus and returned with this engaging story on a Penn duo who went for a medal. Wemmer is also a member of the school's ballroom team.
Jim Ballas followed the band Liam and Me and wrote a piece on their efforts to break into the big time in the modern world of rock and roll.
Other postings will follow.
Saurabh Jain and Gabriela Cosma were trying to catch their breath: they had just danced 3 minutes of the two most exhausting dances in the Latin repertoire: samba and jive. Cosma was leaning on Jain’s arm as they both looked up at the giant screen projected on the wall in the front of the ballroom.
“Did we make it?” asked Cosma, scanning the rows of numbers on the screen for number 346.
“I don’t see our number,” replied Jain.
“346 is our number, right?” Cosma looked at the piece of paper safety-pinned to the back of Jain’s shirt. It was.
The two looked at one another, disappointed.
“Oh well, at least we made the semi-finals for cha-cha and rumba,” said Cosma, “I’m going to go sit down.”
Jain looked up at the board one more time, just in case their number had been added in the past few seconds. The screen did not magically produce a 346 so he followed his partner’s lead and went to rest up.
Cosma, 19, and Jain, 26, members of the University of Pennsylvania’s Latin and Ballroom Dance Team, have danced together in collegiate competitions along the East Coast for the past two years. This weekend, however, was one of the most important competitions they would attend: The USA Dance National Collegiate Dancesport Championships in Columbus, Ohio.
“How did you guys do?” asked Kathy Tang, a fellow team member.
“We messed up so many times!” replied Cosma, “We didn’t make the next round.”
She pulled out her water bottle and sat down. Jain joined her, but he pulled out a bag of ice instead. He took off his right shoe and held the make-shift cold compress on his ankle.
“I’m happy about not getting a callback,” admitted Jain, “I am in a lot of pain. I was limping off the floor after the jive.”
Jain had injured his ankle two weeks before, but not while he was dancing.
“I don’t even know how it happened! I was at work and it just started hurting,” said Jain.
This injury could not have come at a worse time. The pair had competed at a competition in Washington, DC two weekends before. Their results were good, but they were ready to do better. They were hoping to solidify their routines, put in extra hours of practice, and give their best performance at Nationals.
Their plan was not exactly working out.
“We haven’t practiced for two weeks. I had four mid-terms since the last competition and Saurabh has been injured,” said Cosma, a sophomore at Penn majoring in Biochemistry.
Jain, who was a Penn grad student and now works in Philadelphia, nodded his head in agreement as he took some pain killers.
* * *
Earlier that morning, the girls’ bathroom was a mess. Everyone was scrambling for mirror space to apply their layers of make-up, attach their fake eye-lashes, or squeeze into their Latin outfits. To feel properly attired, a dancer must wear ten times the amount of make-up she normally wears, twist her hair up in a bun coated in hairspray and gel, and be submerged in fake tanner. It may look good out on the floor, but try not to get too close. You may feel as though you are surrounded by dozens of sun-baked circus clowns in heels.
The day had started with the Ballroom dances, which includes the Waltz, Foxtrot, Tango, and Viennese Waltz. These elegant dances required that girls where long skirts or dresses and two and a half inch heels. To compete Ballroom correctly, the couple has to be connected along their right sides in order for the man to lead his partner in the various steps.
As soon as the morning was over, however, the refined dances of Ballroom gave way to the much sexier dances of Latin. The long, stylish ball gowns were put away; suddenly, the skirts got shorter and the heelers got taller.
Latin dancing encompasses a very different style than its counter-part Ballroom. This category includes the dances of Cha-Cha, Rumba, Samba, and Jive. The dance position is very different: partners are connected to one another through a handhold instead of along the body. The outfits are tighter for both men and women. Men wear long-sleeved shirts with deep V-necks, while the ladies wear short skirts that accentuate their hip movements.
Cosma was wearing a short, tight, black dress and satin three-inch heels. She and Jain were one of the many couples in the lobby rehearsing their routines before it was their moment to walk on the dance floor.
“Our frame collapses right here, we need to practice this step again,” said Cosma.
Jain readjusts his position, and counts “rock step, triple step, triple step” so that they start the move together on time.
At six foot one, Jain stands four inches taller than Cosma, even with her Latin heels on. His dark hair is slicked back and held in place by copious amounts of gel.
“This baby ain’t going to mooove!” said Jain, patting his head. Not a hair fell out of place.
The way you look is very important, said Cosma. Your dancing itself cannot change much the day of the competition, but you can control what you wear, how you do your hair, and your make-up.
“Looking perfect can really enhance your overall presentation and gives you confidence,” she added.
Nothing went right on that Saturday, though. Cosma was uncomfortable with her dress because the one she had planned to wear had too many sequins. Costumes with shimmery stones were allowed only for the highest level competitors, so she had to wear an outfit she did not like. Her hair refused to stay pulled back because she had forgotten bobby pins, and Jain’s ankle was simply not cooperating.
After seeing they had not made the semi-final for samba and jive, Cosma and Jain sat down to wait. A few minutes later, the master of ceremonies announced over the loud speakers, “Semi-finalists for cha-cha and rumba, please line up!”
The couple, after a few stretches, joined the other twelve couples in line without high hopes. They walked out onto the floor and danced their routines with smiles despite the mistakes they made and the pain that Jain visibly felt.
With one glance up at the board after the round, they were not surprised to see that they had not made the final. Though disappointed, they were not discouraged. Today was only the
first day of the competition. Tomorrow they had another chance, and they were determined to come back on Sunday with much better results.
The USA Dance National Collegiate Dancesport Championships is one of the largest collegiate competitions held all year. For every couple, Nationals is an excellent opportunity to measure one’s skill level against the best in the field.
“You can really tell how good you are because its Nationals,” said Cosma, “People come from everywhere and it’s generally the good dancers that are willing to take the time to travel.”
“Nationals is a different feeling. You are competing with everyone. If you do well, then it feels good!” said Jain.
This year, the competition was held on November 17-18 at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Ohio. Competitors flew in from the West coast, while other teams opted for the ‘team- bonding’ experience: an eight to ten hour van ride from New York, Washington, D.C., or Philadelphia.
Although it is one of the most popular competitions all year, Penn’s ballroom team must sponsor their competitors in order for them to attend because it is one of the most expensive competitions. Not only is the registration fee high ($70 compared to usually $35), but the cost of travel and hotel accommodations is impossible for a student’s budget.
“For a lot of people, this is their favorite comp,” said Leonore Miller, Team Captain of Penn’s ballroom team.
This competition is unique in that it is much larger than just the collegiate category. During this weekend, professional Latin and Ballroom dancers also compete against each other. Hundreds of people attend the evening events to watch these world-famous dancers, the best of the best, compete for first place in the four different dance styles. Over $135,000 in prize money is awarded in the professional events of Latin, Rhythm, Standard, and Smooth.
“Seeing the professional dancers compete is amazing and the show dances on Friday and Saturday nights are great,” said Miller.
“I was really excited about seeing the pros,” said Cosma, “This was the first time I have ever been to Nationals in the three years I have been competing.”
As two of the upper level dancers, Cosma and Jain are one of Penn’s best couples because they consistently place in the top six at competitions. On Saturday, Penn’s team had enjoyed many successes at the competition. Miller was proud of her team.
“We got second in the team match, so we can say we’re second in the nation!” said Miller, “Gabby and Saurabh looked good. They were definitely one of the better couples out there.”
Two vans of sleepy Penn students returned to the convention center at 7:30 am Sunday morning ready to compete. A few had gone out to party and social dance the night before with friends from other teams; they were clearly struggling to wake up that morning.
Cosma had switched into a blue rhine-stoned costumed and had borrowed some bobby pins from a fellow team member. Her hair was twisted back and anchored in place so it would not get in the way as she danced.
Jain popped a few Advil in his mouth and washed them down with water. He was slowly warming his body up before he ran over the routines with Cosma.
“I did not go to the party last night because I wanted to rest myself and my ankle,” said Jain,“I’m really hoping to do well!”
Today, they were dancing in the Rhythm event which encompassed the same dances as Latin but required slightly different technique.
“Rhythm is basically a sloppy Latin!” said Cosma.
After a short rehearsal, they were ready.
“Rhythm dancers, please line up in the on-deck area!” announced the MC.
Jain reached for Cosma’s hand and walked her over to their place in line. The twenty-two couples walked onto the floor for their cha-cha, the music came on, and the dance began.
This was it. Cosma and Jain had just walked off the floor from the semi-final round. Again, Cosma leaned on her partner for support as they looked up at the giant screen, waiting for the numbers of the couples that had made it to the final to be posted.
“Did we make it?” asked Cosma, scanning once again for 346.
Jain’s eyes lit up when he saw exactly what they were looking for, “Yes! Good job! We made the final!”
They danced the final set of cha-cha, rumba, and swing with confidence and pride as their team members cheered them on and snapped photo after photo. The judges circled the floor, watching each couple and marking down the placement that they felt each couple deserved.
Once the last song had finished, the master of ceremonies lined the finalists up for their rewards. Because they announce last place first, Cosma and Jain were hoping not to hear their number until the very end.
Sixth place went to the couple on their left, fifth to the couple they had danced next to on the floor.
“Fourth place to…, Third Place to…,” the MC announced over the microphone, “Second Place to number 346, Saurabh Jain and Gabriela Cosma of the University of Pennsylvania.”
Cheers erupted from Penn’s team. Cosma and Jain went up to accept their red ribbons with beaming smiles.
Despite all the pain, “it was worth it,” said Jain. “We competed against 22 couples and came second, and that is a really good feeling.”
By Jim Ballas
The crowd stops its murmuring as the stage lights go down. Shadowy figures come onto the stage and get their instruments ready.
“I want you all to dance, 2, 3, 4…”
The spotlight suddenly flashes on Matt O’Dowd, 27, lead singer and songwriter of the band Liam and Me. The 750-person hometown crowd at the Trocadero in Philadelphia starts dancing and singing along with the band. To the band, it’s another Thursday night, another chance to show a live audience why they should be famous.
The room fills with the sound of catchy keyboard hooks and a driving bass and guitar. Liam and Me is a five piece dance-rock band from West Philadelphia that has .been together for three years. Matt O’Dowd is joined by Dan Larkin, 23, lead guitarist and backup singer, Kevin McKenzie, 26, bassist, and Jon Briks, 24, drummer. They recently added fifth member Ryan Petrillo, 23, keyboardist and backup guitarist.
Liam and Me is a band on the rise. They have either been on tour or in the studio for 10 out of the last 12 months, furthering their music and their hopes of one day being in the limelight.
“It’s a lot of hard work, playing music every day,” says Dan Larkin, 24, “but I love it. There’s nothing better than being on stage and seeing the crowds dance to our songs.”
Liam and Me has garnered a following, not just in Philadelphia, but extending far beyond their tour locations, including California and Canada. As the crowds grew, this newfound popularity gave Liam and Me the attention of record labels – both major and independent – in the summer of 2006. These labels offered record deals, tour dates and the potential for stardom.
However, the charismatic Matt O’Dowd would not brag about all this success, especially not at a show. He is six feet tall, lanky and his hair constantly falls in his eyes. When singing, he commands the stage with his impressive range (including a superb falsetto) and his trademark dance moves (mostly gyrations in front of his keyboard).
Offstage, he is approachable, friendly and just a bit mischievous, but this dynamic helps Liam and Me maintain their self-proclaimed band image as “sensible adults with a penchant for rock, drinking, and flirtation.”
The band gets ready to perform their last song of the night. Drummer Briks counts it off and the band starts rocking out. Again, the keyboard and guitar hooks are catchy, and then the lyrics come in.
Take a deep breath, try and relax.
Clear out your head, and take a few steps back.
“He’s singing about this whole experience of ours,” says Larkin, after the show. “We’re not quite there, but there’s this anticipation of what might happen.”
The music fades, the lights go down, and the cheers get louder as Liam and Me walks off stage. They will stay and talk to their fans for about two hours, but they have to hit the road soon. They need to be in Canada tomorrow. It’s going to be a long drive.
“So is the life of a band trying to make it, I suppose,” says O’Dowd. “I mean that in the least pretentious way possible.”
First things first
Touring and interacting with fans is only the beginning of what Liam and Me wants to accomplish. In order for a modern band to take a shot at stardom, it is necessary for them to have a demonstration CD -- or a“demo” as it is known -- , as well as word-of-mouth type appeal.
They also have to learn how to deal with a recording industry that is constantly changing, as are its motives and methods of signing bands.
What do record labels look for? In a single word – marketability. A label needs to decide if they can make money off a band’s look and sound.
“We try to make artistic music that is still fun and easy to listen to,” says O’Dowd. “You could call us a pop-rock type outfit.”
And this type of well-written-but-catchy music is what record labels have been searching for recently.
“It all started with the Killers,” says Briks. “They made synthesizers cool again.”
The Killers are one of many on a list of influences Liam and Me has. The Killers helped start a new wave of keyboard pop-rock when they released their 2004 album, “Hot Fuss.”
“Without a band like the Killers, you wouldn’t have the popularity of this type of music,” says Larkin. “They turned what some indie bands were doing into a whole movement, and now there are clones and mimics and mockeries of the original.”
“I guess we’re just paying homage,” he adds.
Liam and Me’s differences, in both style of music and lyrical content, make them a more upbeat band than the Killers, and with more dance-happy music. It gives them – to use one word – marketability.
However, even when the big record label comes calling, a band must be wary. There are many ways labels protect themselves from losing money – often in ways that can hurt the band.
“A few labels tried to screw us over,” says O’Dowd. “We had to get an entertainment lawyer on top of our manager and agent.”
A common technique major labels use is to sign multiple bands to fill the same niche. They try to find a Liam and Me and nine other bands deemed similar in some way. All the bands record an album for the label. When the albums are finished, the label can decide if they want to release it or not, offering no guarantee of the record ever seeing the light of day.
“[Virgin Records] tried to put a clause in our contract allowing them to buy us out if they didn’t like the CD,” says O’Dowd. “They added that the day we were going to sign, so we decided against that deal.”
“I don’t know if we thought they would actually buy us out, but how could we even take that chance after all of this?” asks Larkin.
“And that’s why we kept looking,” added O’Dowd.
After being offered multiple deals from many different labels, both in America and England, Liam and Me signed with Thrive Records, a California-based subsidiary of Sony/BMG. Thrive is mainly known in Europe and America as a prominent electronica label, specializing in club and dance music. Thrive was looking to jump into the pop and rock game, so they offered the band a great deal, including a $200,000 advance for the record.
It seems that Liam and Me was on the verge of success.
“It’s been an awesome journey with these guys, and getting signed only made it better,” says O’Dowd.
In order to understand where they’re going, the band likes to look back on their past.
“We’ve been in and out of music projects together since 1999,” says McKenzie. “It doesn’t seem like such a long time.”
Liam and Me started as high school punk band in Florida called “Mad Mardigan,” created by Dan Larkin. He later added Kevin McKenzie and McKenzie brought in Matt O’Dowd. They had one summer playing together, and then they went their separate ways to colleges around the country.
O’Dowd attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a member of “the Counterparts,” the same a cappella group that featured R&B artist John Legend. Larkin went to University of Florida in Gainesville, McKenzie to Miami University.
“We were far apart, but we’d get together over breaks or vacations to write, play and record,” says Larkin. “Oh, and to kick out our first drummer.”
“We played at our friends’ house on the Florida campus all the time. There were some big crowds, but it was never too serious,” says O’Dowd.
After a few years of rehearsing, the band was asked to play on the 2002 Warped Tour, an annual touring music festival specializing in punk and alternative rock. This made the band reevaluate how they worked together and created a desire for change. Their location and their genre would both soon be shifted.
McKenzie graduated and moved to Philadelphia. O’Dowd graduated and stayed in Philadelphia. The youngest of the three, Larkin transferred to Villanova. McKenize and O’Dowd both got jobs at business consulting firms, working by day and rocking by night.
In summer 2004, Jon Briks was introduced to O’Dowd by a college friend and later joined the band. With a new drummer and with the change from punk to dance-rock, the band began to click. They started by playing local bars and roller rinks, but moved quickly to opening for bigger artists in big venues.
“It happened pretty quickly,” says O’Dowd. “We got a booking agent who got us a ton of shows, so we were constantly playing.”
In February 2006, Liam and Me released a self-produced 10-song album called “There’s a Difference.” Online music site AbsolutePunk.net, which features many reviews of bands and albums, called Liam and Me “the best band of 2006 that you have never heard of.”
The buzz was beginning, and that meant the opportunities were growing. Suddenly, playing music constantly got in the way of consulting.
“McKenzie and I both quit our jobs a little abruptly, but we had so much traveling and playing that we couldn’t make it work otherwise,” says O’Dowd.
The attention the band was getting, from shows and the CD, led to an increased buzz in Philadelphia and Liam and Me took advantage of this. They were able to get into label showcases – shows which spotlight up-and-coming bands for record labels.
In the summer of 2006, the offers came in. There were major labels (Virgin, Columbia) and minor labels (Thrive, Decaydence) all hoping for Liam and Me. After taking a few months to consider their options, Liam and Me signed with Thrive Records.
“It was a tough decision for us, but we went with a smaller label that would hopefully focus on us more as a band, not just an investment” says Larkin.
Onward and Upward
More and more gigs. Their first cross-country tour. A contract with a record label. Things were looking up for Liam and Me. They were now on a label and they were due to have a record out in the fall of 2007, a little over a year after they had signed. That would give them enough time to rerecord songs they were keeping and still write new ones for the album.
“We wanted to jump in the studio right away,” says Briks. “The more time we had to work on it, the better we could make it.”
Briks, who mixed and produced “There’s a Difference,” was very involved in the production of the new album as well. He contributed many ideas and added many of the minor instruments to the mix, such as other percussion instruments and synthesized effects.
In the spring of this year, after 8 months in a New York City studio, the band was finished recording. The album was now set to be mixed and mastered, so the band could go back to doing what they love to: tour.
Thrive sent Liam and Me on a summer tour, opening for popular artists such as Shiny Toy Guns, Under the Influence of Giants and Young Love. All of this was in anticipation of their debut album, which would appropriately be called “Liam and Me.”
Then came the problems.
“Our album was going to be delayed,” says O’Dowd. “Instead of a September release, they were giving us a December release.”
Thrive knew the band was mad so they gave Liam and Me extra points on the album. A point is a percentage of the money made from each CD. Liam and Me were going to make more money, but they still wanted a finished CD.
“They said they’d have it finished or give us more points,” says Larkin. “Unfortunately, we got the points.”
Months later, Thrive still hasn’t released the record. The album is finished, but Thrive does not have the money to give it the distribution promised to Liam and Me in their contract. The label is claiming bankruptcy. How does the band respond?
“We’re suing them to get our album back,” says O’Dowd, rather matter-of-factly.
The band’s relationship with Thrive went from strained to broken. Instead of touring to promote their new album, Liam and Me is spending time in lawyers’ offices giving depositions. Though Thrive cannot currently release the album, they will not let it go to the band without a fight.
The legal battle currently rages, and Liam and Me is trying only to get their music back, not their contract. They hope to shop it around to other labels now that it is a finished product.
How will other labels respond to this? Liam and Me turned down other offers to work with an independent label that doesn’t have the same resources as a major label. Will a major label take them back now? This setback is more than just minor, but the band is optimistic.
“We’ve been through a lot, and honestly, this sucks,” says Larkin. “But we’ll get through it and we’ll be fine.”
The success of Liam and Me hangs in the balance, with the band members unsure of what will happen or what they should do next. One thing is certain however; they do not aim to give up.
“We’re a band that loves to tour,” says O’Dowd. “We’ll keep playing as long as people are there to keep listening.”
Jamie Callahan writes about the growing number of women athletes who suffer ACL injuries and the research underway to find the cause and a cure.
Erica Tobin writes about the increase in the number of interracial couples, especially among young adults, and tells of the old barriers they face.
Jaclyn Bolno has a new take on an old problem -- domestic abuse. Her story outlines the latest research on the causes of abuse.
Re-watching the game on film was the hardest. She knew what half, what minute, and what play her season ending-injury occurred, and she sat with fear and anticipation- preparing herself to relive it.
And then it came.
There was no one around her.
She just dropped.
“Ugh, I hated watching myself tear my ACL,” Kelsey Nickles, a 21 year-old student athlete at the University of Pennsylvania, recalled. “It just looked… so preventable, you know? There wasn’t even anyone around me. No one pushed me. No one twisted my knee the wrong way. It was just me.”
The disappointment of tearing her anterior cruciate ligament—also known as the ACL -- brought on the larger disappointment of not being able to play field hockey for at least a year. Her ACL would heal after surgery, but she would never be able to get back the time she missed on the field.
Nickles is just one of the number of women athletes that has to feel this disappointment – and recent research has discovered that female athletes are much more prone to this injury than men. The research says that5 are anywhere from 3 to 10 times more likely to tear their (ACLs) than men.
Elizabeth Arendt, MD, Associate Professor at the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Minnesota, said in a medical forum that the rates of ACL tears for male and female athletes in similar sports in the NCAA are unequal.
She reported the findings of a research project in which the injuries of both male and female NCAA soccer players from the years 1989 to 2001were examined:
“The rates for ACL injuries in male soccer players went down significantly over time, while the rate in female athletes rose,” said Arendt.
So what are these reasons that make women more prone to tearing their ACLs?
Researchers admit that all of the reasons are not fully known. There are certain factors, however -- anatomic, hormonal and neuromuscular -- that have proven to play a role in the injury.
These factors are in addition to common reasons that men and women tear their ACL’s. In high impact sports, such as soccer, basketball, skiing, ice and field hockey, lacrosse, and volleyball, the ACL allows for common maneuvers that athletes use during competition: cutting, pivoting, and sudden turns.
Stable knee joints are critical to these actions. The anterior cruciate ligament, which runs up the center of the knee, is the primary ligament that allows the knee to bend in the correct direction: where the leg from the knee down bends backwards.
However, if the ACL becomes weak, it becomes harder to keep the knee bending in a backwards direction, and therefore easier for an athlete to dislocate his or her knee. When an ACL weakens, the leg from the knee down is more prone to sliding into an incorrect position forward, and the ligament tears.
Women, however, have to worry about more than just a weakened ACL when considering their chances of injury.
In the same forum, Bruce D. Beynnon, the director of research in orthopaedics at University of Vermont, said that there are physical differences between men and women that can cause women to be more prone to tearing their ACLs.
This theory, medically referred to as “the narrower femoral intercondylar notch theory” is based on the fact that women tend to be smaller in physique than men. They have smaller muscles and therefore, less strength. This lack of strength in their ACLs is seen as a possible cause for a higher increase of injury in females.
“It appears that the increased rate of noncontact ACLs seen in patients with narrower notches may simply be a manifestation of a smaller ACL,” Dr. Arendt confirms.
There are other factors that join with this intercondylar notch theory in assisting the injury among women.
The menstrual cycle may also have additional effects on female athletes and their performances. In the forum, Dr. Beynnon described a study in which researchers found an increase in the prevalence of injuries during the menstrual phase. The studies showed that certain hormone regimens associated with menstruation weaken the ligament, leaving women more vulnerable during specific cycles.
Finally, in addition to the size of the ACL and the hormone levels, women show a difference in neuromuscular control of their knee joints.
“Three neuromuscular control imbalances are common in women athletes: ligament dominance, quadriceps dominance and leg dominance,” said Timothy E. Hewett, director at The Sports Medicine Biodynamics Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.
Ligament dominance, according to Dr. Hewett, refers to the way women’s bodies hit the ground and the effect it has on their ligaments.
“The lack of dynamic muscular control of the joint leads to increased valgus motion, increased force and high torque that can stress the passive restraints of the knee joint,” he said
In other words, when a woman lands, her knees cannot handle the pressure that occurs when she hits the ground.
In addition, a woman’s thigh muscles are stronger than the other muscles in her legs. This dominance can cause the knee to have a tendency to stay bent at a low angle during sporting events.
“ACL injury nearly always occurs when the knee is near full extension, where quadriceps dominance may put the ligament at increased risk,” Dr. Hewett said.
Lastly, leg dominance --in which there is an imbalance between muscular strength and coordination on opposite limbs -- is seen to be a cause. Not only is the weaker limb at increased risk of ACL injury, but the dominant one is as well.
“The weaker limb is compromised in its ability to manage even average forces [on the knee],” said Dr. Hewett, “… and the stronger limb may experience exceptionally high forces [on the knee] due to increased dependence on that side.”
Finding the cure
The increase in the amount of ACL injuries in female athletes have spurred researchers and doctors, such as Arendt, Beynnon, and Hewett, into finding answers to the problem
But the answers they found posed an even more important question: Can anything be done to prevent this injury?
Dr. Hewett said he was successful at discovering a form of prevention.
He led a study to evaluate the effect that a neuromuscular training program, which trained women more than once a week for a minimum of 6 weeks.
He found that women that trained in the program by participating in mobile stretching, balance, and strengthening exercises had a 72% lower incidence of ACL injury than untrained women.
In the study, he said, “trained women were not different than untrained men.” By incorporating mobile stretching -- or plyometrics -- balancing exercises and weight lifting, Dr. Hewitt found a program that placed women on an equal playing field with men, and the results indicated a decrease in injury risk in female athletes.
The existence of a training program that is proven to prevent injury leads to a question on why all female athletes aren’t asked to participate in such training?
“I had no idea [training programs] even existed prior to my conversation with a sports trainers after I already tore my ACL,” said Allison Ambrozy, a senior on the University of Pennsylvania women’s lacrosse team.
In her opinion, Penn’s athletic department is remiss in its duties of injury prevention.
“There are a lot of weaknesses with our athletic department… it’s frustrating, I don't expect that from them either. There are people on every level that could help change this, trainers, coaches, strength coaches, but no one seems to have enough incentive to change things, and that’s a shame,” said Ambrozy.
No training here
When asked about whether or not he was aware of any program that could limit the tendency for women to tear their ACLs, Mitch Biunno, head athletic trainer at the University of Pennsylvania responded, “I don’t know much about it.”
Biuno did, however, add that, “I’ve heard of ACL prevention programs that involve different types of stretching, but I don’t know to much about the research and if it is in fact legitimate and effective.”
Ten female athletes at Penn were informally asked if they were aware that they are 3 to 10 times more likely to tear their ACLs, and 9 out of the ten were unaware.
“The only reason I do know that is because I tore my ACL in high-school, no one at Penn told me,” Lauralynn Drury, captain of the Penn women’s squash team, replied to the question.
This could be due to the fact that the University athletic department is not educating athletes on this problem, but as Biunno has pointed out in his statement, the athletic department itself is not fully aware of the issues.
In addition to the relationship between prevention programs and university athletics, there could also possibly be a budding relationship between a different ACL program and athletic recruitment.
When asked whether or not, within the female athlete population, there is a way to find out if certain women are more prone to tearing them, Dr. Hewett responded, “yes.”
“Knee motion and knee loading during a landing task are predictors of anterior ligament injury risk in female athletes,” he said.
In a study he conducted in which there were 205 female athletes that played the high-risk sports of soccer, basketball, and volleyball, Hewett studied the way the athletes’ knees dealt with forces of landing.
He predicted that the prescreened athletes with previous ACL injuries would have less control over their knees when they landed, which would predict ACL injury risk.
At the end of the study, Hewett’s results showed that the methods he developed could be used to monitor neuromuscular control of the knee joint, or how the knee deals with impact, and possibly indicate the need for intervention.
“ [The methods] could help develop simpler measures of neuromuscular control that can be used to direct female athletes to targeted interventions,” he said.
So now, not only are the causes of ACL tears in women known, but there are also ways to decrease the risk of injury, as well as ways of assessing the risk.
Testing can tell
A new test that can assess the risk of a female athlete injuring her ACL by examining how she jumps and lands could cause a lot of problems with athletic recruitment.
What if colleges started asking recruits to have their risk of injury assessed before he or she could be considered for admission? The idea does sound logical from a recruitment standpoint, but is it fair?
“I honestly don't know how I feel about this test, in terms of its accuracy, my mental capacity to deal with knowing I'm at a higher risk, and how they would use it to judge incoming athletes,” said Ambrozy.
The risk-assessment program, or test, could potentially be threatening for high-school athletes and their futures in athletics, but it could also be helpful in indicating which athletes would benefit from the prevention programs.
Since collegiate athletes are more familiar with their bodies due to their experiences in strength training, conditioning, and playing, they have the ability to be more in tuned with their physical limitations. High-school athletes, however, are less experienced and lack strength and conditioning trainings. Collegiate level athletic departments may not have caught on to prevention and risk assessment programs because it is the high-school athletes that can more so benefit from them.
“I feel that many collegiate athletes have a strong intuition and understanding of their bodies. The program may be helpful for incoming freshman and I would like to see that program here at Penn,” said Nickles, who is now recovering from her second torn ACL surgery. She began to consider how things could be different:
“I mean, the fact that I could have known I was more inclined to injure myself, and then taken steps as a freshman to prepare my body… I would do anything to be able to get those years back and play hockey again.”
It’s impossible to regain that time, but if female athletes were more educated on the injury, it could prevent the disappointment and regret that many female athletes now deal with.
Not the kind where two people occasionally quarrel. The kind where men set women up to accept physical blows by first beating them down psychologically and emotionally.
How could she possibly take it and still stay with the guy?
To understand why, you have to take apart the relationship, piece by piece, and examine it. Once you do you discover:
“It’s not so black and white,” said Elaine Meyerson, Executive Director of Shelter Our Sisters in Bergen County, N.J. “It’s not a punch and you walk out the door.”
People wouldn’t go to a bar, have a drink, and passively accept a blow to the face. But, relationship violence has a lot more to it.
“People build up commitments in relationships that have to be balanced against the price of being a victim,” said Dr. Richard J. Gelles, of the University of Pennsylvania an internationally known expert on domestic violence. “Domestic violence is accompanied by affection, and love, and commitment. It’s not so simple to walk away from.”
So, why do women stay in abusive relationships? Here are the main reasons:.
Poor self-esteem is definitely across the board.
“It’s like peeling a banana,” Meyerson said. “Somehow they begin to strip your self-esteem little by little and you wake up one day and you have none.”
Robyn, who shared her experience in exchange for having her identity protected, was
always told by her husband what she had to do to be a better person. He beat because he cared.
“He said he did it because he loved me and wanted me to be the best person I could
possibly be,” she said.
Erin Guberman, 22, said her boyfriend used her insecurities and doubts to convince her he was the only one who truly cared.
You’re fat. You’re ugly. You’re stupid. You’ll never find anybody else like me. Nobody will ever love you. Your family and friends don’t love you. These abrasive phrases were used by Guberman’s abuser to make her believe that nobody on the other side loved her as much as he did.
“When you feel like you have nothing left to fall back on, you stay,” Guberman said. “Even though it’s scary, and painful, you stay, because he’s still telling you he loves you.”
Lifelong victim, Tawanda, whose privacy is also being respected, knew her abusers were adding to her problem, but her true predicament was negative self-image.
“My extremely low self-worth and my desire to be loved, accepted, and a part of a family at any cost [made me stay],” she said. “Even if it meant my freedom, my safety, my security, and ultimately my life.”
Janine Latus, author of If I am Missing or Dead, finally worked up the courage to divorce a man who equated love with control, jealousy, belittlement, and sex.
As Latus put it: “Insecure women are more likely to put up with it and insecure men are more likely to do it.”
Battered women literally lose faith in themselves.
“I asked for it.”
Once convinced she’s no good, the rest is easy.
“Somehow they get into a relationship and he makes them feel like they’re nothing and
then they feel compelled to do whatever he wants them to do because they fell in love,” Meyerson said.
Most abusers don’t take responsibility for their actions because they don’t believe they are doing anything wrong.
Latus would be asked, “Why did you have to go and push my buttons? You know better.”
But it’s impossible for victims to know better when abusers have an indefinite amount of buttons that could be pushed at any moment.
Guberman’s boyfriend always found some reason to hit, leading her to believe that she was not doing something right simply because she could not figure out what she was doing wrong.
Robyn did whatever was asked of her to prevent her husband’s eruptions. Yet, “In actuality, anything could trigger a beating,” she said.
“Women just keep trying to do more and more and more to make him appreciate them,” Meyerson said. “In that process, he finds something else that he doesn’t like that she did.”
In addition to the man telling her it’s her fault and she asked for it, Latus blamed certain cultures for sanctioning the idea that abuse would not occur if one was a better wife.
“You absolutely believe that it’s your fault,” Latus said. “You look around you and say, ‘Look at all these other couples, they’re so happy, I must be doing something wrong.’”
She added: “As girls, we’re always trained that we’re the ones who did something wrong.”
This generalization comes from the mouth of a former victim.
Believe it or not, they’re in love.
The beginning is often a fantasy. Abuse progressively gets worse, but it’s the reminder of a once engulfing love that keeps victims hanging on.
Tawanda recalled how her first abuser treated her like his queen, showering her with gifts and telling her all the things she wanted to hear.
Guberman was a princess and her abuser was prince charming. They clicked on every single level. She described her fairytale as exactly that: too good to be true.
“He knew that wining and dining me, buying me gifts, and making me feel so special and loved right away would get me right where he wanted me,” Guberman said.
Victims always hope somewhere behind the rage are the men who once did nothing to hurt them and everything to make them feel loved.
“A lot of the women still love the guy, they just want the abuse to stop,” Meyerson said. “They hold on to hope and hope that it’s going to get better.”
Abuse hurts. Love heals.
“I actually was in love.” Guberman said. “It was the most f***ed up love I’ve ever had in my life, but the only way you can stay in an abusive relationship is if you actually do fall in love.”
“Aww, he apologized…again.”
Violence followed by seemingly sincere apologies creates the cycle of an abusive relationship.
Abusive episodes release amounting tension followed by periods of reconciliation and charm.
“The makeup sex is wonderful and so is the drama afterwards,” Latus said. “They give you flowers, they give you jewelry, they give you presents and it feels good.”
This sense of excessive love gives abusers the upper-hand.
“Apologies give false hope to the victim and lead them to stay,” Guberman said.
Victims can only hope this phase will prevail. It never does.
“I’ll help him change!”
Charm does not prevail because abusers do not change. Even so, many women believe they have the power to adjust his behavior.
“I had a part of my body that was telling me that this is wrong and that this is only going to get worse,” Guberman said. “But there was a part of my body that said, ‘I want to fix him. I want to make him better. I want to be the reason why he is going to change.’”
Abusers chip away at their victims’ self-esteem to a point where many believe that if they modified their body or attitude, he wouldn’t be abusive anymore.
“You always feel that if you were more loving, or supportive, or thinner, or have bigger breasts, or whatever, that you could heal him,” Latus said. “He would be happy now because you’ve made him happy.”
But that will never be the case. The cycle of abuse speaks for itself.
“A bad relationship is better than no relationship at all. Right?”
Even if change was not going to come, many women fear facing the world alone.
“We treat people if they’re alone as if they’re not worthy of a partner,” Latus said. “A partner enhances things, but it’s not the only way to be important and valuable.”
Guberman was terrified of breaking up with her boyfriend. He had worked so hard to isolate her from family and friends that she had to hold on to whatever she had -- if she wanted to have anything at all.
As she put it: “Even though he was the one hurting me, I kept going back because he was always there. Always calling. Always wanting to be with me when I thought my family hated me and my friends did not like me anymore.”
Rather than pushing her away, Robyn’s husband managed to make her increasingly dependent.
“He took away my ability to function on my own with his constant degrading remarks,” she said. “I actually needed him to tell me what to do because my decision-making skills were crippled.”
Simply put: being alone is lonely.
“Support myself? And the kids?”
Women have a lot of financial fear about going out into the world alone, especially when children are involved.
Our culture does much to keep women financially dependent on men. Many men threaten women that they’ll get nothing if they leave. So they stay.
According to Meyerson, some women accept getting beaten up every once in a while if it means getting food on the table.
Even when fearful for her and her daughter’s lives, Robyn stayed because she did not
believe she could take care of her daughter on her own.
Latus tells those women who stay together for their children to separate for the sake of
their children; otherwise they will grow up emulating what they believe to be acceptable behavior.
Exhibit A: Robyn’s three-year-old daughter thought it was okay to hit Robyn when she did not get her way, often mimicking her father by saying: “You’re a bad mommy, you’re no good.”
“Who’s going to believe me?”
Many women wonder who is going to believe them and, more importantly, what they are going to believe.
Some cultures view the end to marriage as a woman’s failure to keep her family together.
Latus feared the humiliation of admitting she was a battered woman to the world. Others may wonder what she did to deserve it or insist they would have handled the situation differently.
“People…will look at me with pity and treat me forever after as a battered woman,” she said. “Or they’ll say…that they never would have…made it…possible for this man…who was known and loved, to beat them up.”
And there’s always that fear of others not believing the reality of the situation.
“Our so-called ‘friends’ saw the engaging, personable side of my husband,” Robyn said. “Who would believe me? Look at this respectful person – he would never do such a thing.”
Reality ceases to exist in the upside down world of domestic violence.
“Part of the reason to stay is because you can’t believe that it’s really happening to you,”
The abuse dominates all that was once known and victims forget how they should be treated.
As Guberman put it: “If you don’t have time to be by yourself, then you don’t have time to even get a grasp on reality and say ‘I shouldn’t be in this. This is bad. This is hurting.’”
The beginning is a fantasy victims long to call reality. But according to Meyerson, it is when you are preoccupied with fantasy that “You get totally absorbed and you realize one day that you’re totally controlled.”
“Women leave an average of seven times before they make their final move,” Meyerson said.
There’s fear the violence is going to get worse if she leaves, fear of the unknown, fear of being alone, fear of custody, financial fear.
“Any time there’s fear, that’s emotional abuse,” Latus said.
Only victims are so used to fear, they sometimes don’t realize that not having fear is an option.
Today there is a better understanding that domestic abuse is a problem and the community is more willing to respond. Shelters throughout the country work to get women back on an equal footing and show them they are not alone, the law is behind them, others can relate. Relationship violence is complicated, but efforts to understand it must be made. Let the effort not stop here.
It was upon these conditions that I was allowed to interview Craig LaBan, Philadelphia’s chief restaurant critic. Over the course of the day I spent with him, I discovered LaBan might have one the best jobs in Philadelphia.
For 10 years, LaBan has been getting paid to eat in restaurants and write about it. On average, LaBan eats about 500 restaurant meals a year, which works out to about three lunches and four dinners a week. By year’s end he has reviewed and rated 45 restaurants in total and these weekly restaurant reviews appear in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer feature section.
When he’s not out dining and accruing all of the material for his reviews, he’s holed up at his desk in the Newsroom at the Philadelphia Inquirer, transcribing notes, interviewing chefs and restaurateurs, attending editorial meetings, and writing his reviews.
In any given week, he’s working on four to five restaurants simultaneously, all at different stages of development. His assignments that appear in the Sunday paper are due every Thursday, three and half weeks in advance, and include the review itself, along with its rating, smaller capsule reviews that appear in the sidebar of each page, shorter “Or Try These” restaurants, and accompanying drink recommendations.
He is occasionally assigned longer features, trend, or product pieces and right now, he’s begun work on his “Year End Bells” piece, a recap of all his reviews for the year, which will run as a cover story in the December 30th Inquirer.
The bell curve
LaBan rates restaurants with “bells” and he certainly sets the bar high.
“Ratings reflect a restaurant’s achievement within the context of its own genre. Since each bell represents such a broad category, the levels serve as a baseline for the restaurants to be recommendable.”
Rarely will he grant restaurants four bell status (Superior) and only a handful restaurants are even awarded three bells (Excellent). For example, this year he has not awarded any 4 bells, only 5-6 restaurants earned 3, and approximately 20 restaurants were given 2 bells. The majority of his restaurant reviews fall into the two or one-bell rating categories of Very Good and Average. Luckily, he rarely finds a reason to give out a no-bell "Poor" rating.
When choosing his restaurants, LaBan always keeps his audience in mind and aims to choose places with broad interest. Pricey, high profile restaurants come with the territory too, but it’s all about striking a balance. LaBan appreciates the benefit of working for the Inquirer, which has the financial resources to allow him to do the job right.
LaBan joined the staff of the Philadelphia Inquirer as its restaurant critic in 1998. A self-proclaimed Philadelphian at heart, he was thrilled to return to the city of Brotherly Love (he’d briefly been a staff writer for the Inquirer in the mid-nineties in the South Jersey bureau), and for almost ten years now he’s been the most influential voice on the Philadelphia dining scene.
In the last ten years, LaBan has had a front row seat to witness the explosion of Philadelphia’s dining scene. Philadelphia has always been a great place to eat, but in the last decade, the number of high-quality restaurants in Center City grew by more than 50
PAGE 3/LaBan Profile
percent “Restaurants are the lifeblood of a vibrant city. They are the first beacons of gentrification. As I review and reveal new culinary talents, I become the very first cultural writer to talk about the city’s new, emerging neighborhoods. I am on the frontlines of social research.”
LaBan feels lucky to have inherited a fertile restaurant scene, one with such a wide variety of restaurants.
“There’s a deep pool of options in Philly and that’s what makes this such a thrilling job.”
By the sea, by the sea
I join LaBan on a Tuesday, his busiest day of the week. We begin our morning with double espressos at the Starbucks on 20th and Callowhill, the first of three Starbucks stops that day. On the docket for today is lunch at Oceanaire, an upscale seafood chain on Washington Square. Today’s meal is a “revisit;” last time LaBan dined here for dinner with his editor Maureen and it was slightly disappointing, earning a “low” 2. He cringes at the memory of a “robotic” waitress and the lobster he ordered steamed, which arrived at his table broiled instead. LaBan usually visits his restaurants at least four times before writing a full-fledged review: one weekday visit, one weekend, and one night, so if Oceanaire makes the cut after our meal today, he will need at least two more visits under his belt.
We breeze into the Oceanaire, modeled after a 1930’s ocean liner, and we approach the maître d'. LaBan has instructed me to request the table for two, so he can avoid any direct conversation with the staff and attempt to maintain a low profile.
PAGE 4/LaBan Profile
To write about a restaurant and its cuisine, he begins by “interviewing the menu”. The menu at the Oceanaire is quite extensive and it takes several minutes for LaBan to deliberate who will order what. He is adamant that we sample the raw bar, so we split a ½ dozen oysters to start. Then he will order the New England Style Clam Chowder followed by the Coriander Bacon-Wrapped Diver Scallops and I will have the Clams Casino and the Chatham Cod with Shrimp and Corn Risotto.
Before our dishes arrive, LaBan explains that when he dines, he needs to “taste” all the food, but that he will rarely clean his plate. The drill when he dines out is that he’ll taste about two bites of everything on his own plate - including sauces, vegetables, and those cute flash-fried sweet potato chips on top, and then he’ll turn to his guests’ plates. During a meal he will often have a hidden microphone on him (although he refused to disclose to me where he actually hides it), but today, he just makes mental notes, many of which he shares aloud with me.
When our oysters are served, even though we chose an odd number of east and west coast, LaBan still lets me have half. His eyes light up after he samples his first.
“Excellent! Clean and fresh – I can nearly taste the bay that these are from!”
The clam chowder that follows is “classic, hearty, homemade goodness” and the clams casino, another classic appetizer, has “just the right balance of garlic and buttery bread crumbs.”
We both agree though that my cod and risotto are sub-par. “The presentation is lacking here. The cod overwhelms the risotto and see how overcooked it is? That’s why it’s so flaky. And, the risotto? Well, no one seems to be able to do a risotto well…”
When the bill comes, LaBan re-evaluates our meal, (“Those oysters are expensive! Very good, but very expensive…”) and then lays down a credit card and pays under an assumed name.
Hide and seek
Among restaurant critics, nothing causes more chatter and debate than the timeless question of anonymity, and in order to do his job to the best of his ability, LaBan goes to great lengths to keep his identity secret, wanting to have the same experience in a restaurant that the average customer would have. He often tries to disguise his appearance, growing assorted beards, changing hairstyles, dressing in costume and using pseudonyms like the one on his credit card. Ironically though, unlike some food writers, LaBan proudly uses his real name when he pens his columns. In the past ten years “Craig LaBan” has become a household name in our city and, because of his power to make or break a restaurant coupled with the mystique of his secret identity, he has managed to earn himself somewhat of a “celebrity” status.
Of course, restaurateurs, chefs, and faithful customers don't always like what he writes, but, “In this business, you learn to expect objections and over time, you just develop a thick skin,” LaBan says matter-of-factly. “Especially here in Philly…people care a lot about food in this town.”
After our lunch at Oceanaire we return to the office and LaBan scrambles to prepare for his live web chat, which he hosts weekly in the Inquirer Chatroom at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays.
LaBan writes a brief introduction and welcome to his chat audience, pausing for a moment before he churns out today’s “Crumb Cracker Quiz” a list of three dishes he sampled at various restaurants he’s visited over the past couple of weeks.
The reader who can match each dish to its restaurant wins a signed copy of LaBan’s book, The Philadelphia Inquirer Restaurant Guide. LaBan spins around to his bookshelf and proudly retrieves a copy to show me. He flips through his guide, which includes 76 of his reviews of popular Philadelphia-area restaurants and over 600 shorter capsule reviews.
It’s 1:57 and nearly time for the chat to begin. LaBan copies and pastes his introduction into the text box, ending it with, “Ready, set…start crumbling!” for good measure. Within minutes of posting his greeting, his inbox is inundated with responses. For the next hour, he sits hunched over the keyboard, filtering through the influx of questions and reciting his answers aloud in a deep, husky announcer voice.
This weekly chat has become an increasingly important part of his life at the Inquirer. Although occasionally he finds the questions are offbeat, many of them can lead to quite fascinating discussions. Today’s discussion, for example, begins with a lively debate about cask-conditioned beer. Sometimes these chats will pique his interest enough to turn them into a longer in-depth piece for the Inquirer, but mostly they are just a fun way for him to touch base with his readers. Every week, the chat is transcribed and archived and available for viewing on the Inquirer’s website and Maureen says it gets the most hits besides sports.
The hour seems to fly by and at 3:03, LaBan has to cut off the discussion. “Well, I’m going to call this week’s chat perfectly cooked. May you all be well and eat something worth bragging about!”
Thanks for your thoughts
The day is winding down and he still needs to get his 80-line introduction for the “Year End Bells” to his editor before he heads home for the night. Before he even begins to type, he leans back in his swivel chair, pulls out a pad and pencil and brainstorms “by hand” first. Twenty minutes and two pages of jotted, illegible notes later, LaBan is satisfied and he starts to type. One sentence in and the phone rings. With a sigh, he throws on his headphones and answers.
All I can hear on the other end of the phone is a woman’s voice squawking away. LaBan can hardly get a word in edgewise, but remains pleasant and patient. He utters a lot of “uh-huh's” and “how terrible's” and then “well ma’am, when you remember the name of the restaurant, please do send me an email…but, for now, I’m under a deadline and must run…” (Rick Nichols, fellow food columnist, passing by, hears that comment and snorts: “Oh, the old deadline excuse!”)
Before LaBan hangs up, he exclaims, “Thanks for the bad fish alert!” He tells me the woman was a disgruntled customer who wanted LaBan to write a nasty review for the restaurant so bad she couldn’t even remember the name of it.
“What an ordeal! This poor woman ordered flounder and now she’s had flounder thousands of times in her life but this was not flounder, this was catfish! So, she wants to know, ‘Craig, how can I prove it?’” LaBan chuckles. “What would this city do without
me? My readers have emergencies? Craig LaBan to the rescue: I will right the wrongs of poor flounder-lady done wrong!”
“It’s usually like this on Wednesday,” he remarks. “On the weekends it can be more active.”
He begins his night already $14 in the hole.
“I’ll probably put in another $20 before the night is over.”
His nightly activities require a sizable buy-in before he starts seeing any money he can call profit. But as a cab driver in Philadelphia, you have to invest more than just time to make a night successful.
Before beginning the night, a taxi driver must rent his car from one of a number of cab fleet companies, provide the gas for the night, and pay for whatever other expenses that may arise.
“You have the gas to fill the cab for the night, renting the cab, and the paper and ink for receipts,” he explains.
“And every parking ticket,” he adds.
Blount knows first hand that being a taxi driver can be risky business. He points to the left corner of his dashboard.
Explaining the situation, “This car I got now has a ‘check engine’ light on, so I’m not even sure if I’ll make it through the night.”
When asked if his car has broken down before, Blount is quick to respond.
“Many a cold nights,” Blount says. “The dispatchers usually say wait for the tow truck to come, but that’s a lot of lost time. What most cab drivers do is call in for a tow truck and try to find a way home. The next day there’s a usually a big argument with your renters if you owe them for the whole shift.”
By around 8:30 p.m. he has earned $60 from five different passengers. Most cab drivers try to average around $100 a night. This will hopefully cover all the previous expenditures and leave Blount with a decent amount of income after a long night.
“I started driving tonight at around 5:30 and I’ll probably be out for 12 hours.”
Taxi drivers know the odds are against them. There are more drivers than available jobs on the streets, and without proper planning a ride can turn into a worthless endeavor.
“Most shifts have their rush hour, at six in the morning and six in the evening,” he says. “So what most drivers try to do is come straight out and make their money during rush hour for their lease, gas, and expenses. And when it slows down, that’s when they try to make money for themselves.”
Ronald goes on.
“If you miss the rush hour, there’s really no reason to come out. So you hope you can make the $60 for your rent, $35 for your gas, and spend the rest of your night making your own cash.”
A light snow begins to fall, which for Blount is a sign of good things to come.
“From June until November the weather is nice,” he explains while peering out the window. White spots start collecting on his windshield.
“Around November is when the weather starts breaking. When it’s colder people rather get home as fast as possible.”
For 25 years of his life, Blount, 42, has been involved in the taxi industry exclusively in Philadelphia.
“Since 1998, the last 10 years I’ve been driving part time,” he explains. Blount rides about eight times a month, or twice a week, to make extra cash and keep his hand on the pulse of the industry. With more taxi drivers out in the evening than during the day, he drives mostly at night and spends much of his time talking with drivers to hear about their current problems.
For the past three years, he has been spending most of his time as the founder and leader of the Taxi Workers Alliance, a loosely knit labor organization hoping to mediate peaceful relations between the Philadelphia Parking Authority, the regulatory body that oversees all of the 1,600 licensed taxi cabs in the city, and the drivers that make up one of Philadelphia’s biggest transportation bodies. He tries to reconcile their sometimes-opposing views as democratically as possible.
“We go out and survey, I don’t just go [to the PPA] and make up some stuff. I talk to the drivers and see how they feel about [the current situation].”
Now, another meter increase demands more action from Blount, as the drivers themselves are concerned how the change will affect the money they make.
“Right now drivers are just getting used to the recent increase that happened about a year ago and we just feel like it’s too soon,” Blount explains. “Drivers are only going to be making about 40% of that increase. The other 60% is going to go to the medallion owner. Other times when the PPA raises the meter, they raise the fines and fees and drivers are really concerned about that.”
Back on the road, Blount is trying to find work. Blount drives into Center City around 2:00 a.m., but things are not looking good.
A dispatcher’s static voice comes over the radio. Every so often a job will be broadcasted over the radio.
“He said there are four jobs. 200 cabs and four jobs,” he jokes. “What they are supposed to do is put the jobs in the GPS system, but they don’t even use it. The PPA charges $18 a month to the medallion owner, but they know the systems don’t work.”
Riding down Broad Street, Blount points out a Dunkin’ Donuts near the intersection of Pine and Broad Street, with three taxis in the parking lot.
“That’s a usual hang out spot for cab drivers. Usually after 9:00 p.m. it’s full of drivers waiting around.”
Blount hopes the recent addition of a GPS system in his car will assist him in his mission. He turns around and enters Walnut Street.
“Look at the [GPS] screen,” he says “Half the time a red light is on, which means you’re not on the radar. When you’re around the city’s tall buildings, that’s when it mostly happens.”
Blount picks up his handheld radio and calls the dispatcher and says his cab number.
The dispatcher responds to confirm.
“Roger,” Blount replies. “I’m just curious if you can see this cab on the GPS right now.”
After close to a minute, there is still no response.
“Not able to find you,” the dispatcher reports.
“When someone calls for a cab,” Blount confesses, “the GPS systems are not picking up the closet cabs because the system isn’t working.”
A mid-20s Asian woman has just entered Blount’s taxi on 26th street near Ben Franklin Parkway. On this night, work is coming in slow but steady. She sits down in the back seat of the cab, and returns Blount’s welcome with a polite smile.
“Where you going?” Blount asks, almost forgetting to start his meter.
“6th and Race” she responds.
Blount nods and begins to drive, taking a shortcut that cuts through Chinatown. The drive is quiet and uneventful.
“That’s my favorite restaurant in this area,” he says to break the silence.
He points to a green awning outside on the left that reads Shaio Can Kung.
“They got the best food in Chinatown”
The cab arrives in Olde City. The cobblestone streets are home to colonial residences built with red brick. Winter is here and the trees are bare.
“Drop me off across the light please,” the passenger directs.
Blount slows the car past a stop sign in front of her home. The woman exits the cab, but not before completing the transaction.
“Okay angel,” he replies. “That’s six dollars.”
The fare is actually $6.30 but Blount usually rounds down for his passengers. She hands Blount $9 and exits the cab as quickly as she entered.
Blount heads to 30th Street Station, the heart of mass transportation in Philadelphia. The tracks leading out of the building are steel arteries pumping the lifeblood that sustains the city. Each train that arrives delivers fresh patrons into the city, while each train departing transports the daily commuters back to the outside.
“Out by the train station you can always guarantee work,” Blount says. “Sometimes [the wait] is long, sometimes it's short. You might have to wait awhile but you can always get a guaranteed fare.”
“We’ll sit here and wait about 15 to 20 minutes,” Blount said with much certainty. “The train is just moving in so it’s going to move pretty fast.”
On a slow night, taxi drivers pull around to the back of 30th Street Station. Waiting on the northern side of the building, they know that an assured fare will come with minimal effort. The sheer amount of cars packed into this locking dock looks chaotic unless you know a few of the unwritten rules.
“See the trick is to remember the cab number in front of you,” Blount explains. He pointed to the top right corner on the back of the car in front, right above the trunk.
“The number for the car ahead is P-1529. That way I know to follow him as the line moves up.”
This is one of a few conventions that governs how the drivers interact with each other. It’s good practice not to tail other drivers or speed up to steal a fare. Also, loads of cabs can flood a street, leaving many drivers out to dry with no passengers to pick up.
Drivers like to spread out as much as possible over the city to maximize the amount of fares they can get in one session. But tonight, even these tricks cannot help some of the problems facing these drivers. Most cab drivers are dealing with far bigger problems than finding work.
Blount parks his car on the left side of the lot, but makes sure to keep his the engine running.
“When I come here I usually try to talk to all the drivers I can,” Blount explained. “Different drivers will tell me different problems about what’s going on what happened to them, how the PPA treated them, how a customer treated them. This is where I get most of my information.”
Blount leaves his car and proceeds to walk down the line of cabs. He walks with a slow, casual gait, seemingly at ease within his surroundings. He knocks on each driver’s window when he passes by.
“Hey man how are you doing?” he asks.
Blount tried to calm the driver down. He offers a few long-term plans the Taxi Workers Alliance are working on to enact change.
“We’ve been talking to these lawyers and we have a lot of positions we can raise in the courts. We’re thinking about having another major action in January. There’s a big convention coming to town and we might strike on that.”
Blount gives the driver a smile and extended his hand into window for a handshake.
“All right, but hang in there okay?” Blount says.
The driver smiles back and returns the gesture.
“All right, we will man. Thanks a lot.”
Blount runs back to his car in order to move it forward. The line must keep moving, and the drivers are getting anxious to get back out on the road. Quickly, Blount found one more acquaintance to chat with before hitting the road.
“Hey, how’s it going? You making money out here?”
The driver, dressed in a black jacket and matching snowcap laughs with a hint of despondency and shakes his head accordingly.
“Making money?” he repeats, as if the question was absurd.
The driver looks out of his window, then back at Blount, with eyes no longer to the road ahead.
“There is no money.”
Zoya Abdikulova writes about how Facebook came to a suburban Chicago high school and changed the traditional culture and the school's pecking orders.
Kofi Darkoh has a story about the latest tech gadgets that are being used in American college, including the University of Pennsylvania.
When Professor Alan Plante wants to find out whether or not students follow his Environment Studies lecture, he does not ask for a show of hands. Instead, he puts up a question on a PowerPoint slide, and students respond using clickers, small plastic response keypads, which allow the professor to see exactly how many students picked which answers.
Clickers are one example of technology that is influencing modern education and the nature of lecturing in classrooms.
“Without the clickers I can only ask one or two people, or one person will respond and when that answer is received, I stop,” said Plante, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Now with the clickers I can ask everybody, and everybody gets to answer. It gives me a better sense.”
The professor also uses the clickers to organize class quizzes, and to collect information on the backgrounds and interest levels of students at the beginning of the course.
More critically, he uses them as a way of maintaining interest during lectures.
“We’ve got a hundred and sixty students in that class, the lecture hall is big, and so people tune out,” Plante said.
In the Sociology department, Professor Melissa Wilde, asks demographic questions at the beginning of the semester with the clickers, and then sorts the responses she gets to social policy questions according to the demographics she collected.
John MacDermott, director for Instructional Technology at SAS Computing, explained how clickers and other technology can change the dynamics of a lecture class.
“We're trying to promote the clickers as an easy and effective way to get students involved,” he said.
“We've satisfied ourselves that it's effective and that it's worth doing.”
Student reports confirm this assessment. In a survey of Plante’s class, 90% said they enjoyed using the clickers during lecture, while 65% agreed the clickers effectively enhanced their learning.
Technology has changed the way several classes are organized. Group work is assigned more often, and students frequently have to give presentations. In some cases, students are being assigned to design posters and make movies instead of writing papers.
The David B. Weigle Information Commons in the Van Pelt Library is the resource center for Penn’s technology needs. According to their brochure, the center “supports collaborative learning using the latest technologies.”
The center has 10 study rooms which students can reserve for 3 hours at a time. There are also 12 booths with laptops, two alcoves with plasma screens, and a seminar room with 20 laptops, a projection screen, and a video recording system.
Three of the study rooms have video recording capabilities with which students can practice and record their presentations. The recordings are then reviewed by staff from Communication
Anu Vedantham, Director of the Information Commons, expects the center to continue playing a large role in education.
“I see a sense that students should be creators of content rather than consumers of content,” she said.
Her view is reflected in the success stories the center has generated, including podcast tours of Philadelphia created by students of Dr. Patrick Wehner, associate director of the Critical Writing Program; and videos of victim impact statements produced by students of Dr. Regina Austin, a Penn Law faculty member.
“The traditional way would be the professor shows the video. Now the students are making the video, so it's much more powerful,” Vedantham said.
Some of the technology at the Information Commons is available in a number of of newer classrooms on campus. Lecture halls in the Huntsman building at the Wharton School have video recording facilities, and the classrooms in the Fisher-Bennett hall have similar audio capabilities.
Technology is present in classrooms in even smaller ways. Almost all lecture rooms have screens and equipment for making presentations. Textbooks now often come with CDs that contain supplementary material, from which professors can lift diagrams and other illustrations into their lectures.
“When it's all done well, it's pretty much invisible during the class session, but it is very valuable to students after class,” MacDermott said.
These new tools present new challenges to lecturing, some of which have the potential of negatively affecting learning.
MacDermott accepted, for instance, that video recordings might keep an instructor from repeating important concepts, knowing students could refer to the recording if they needed to go over some material again.
Some lecturers also expressed concern that preparing their lectures in PowerPoint removed the flexibility they had in determining the course of their lectures.
“It puts me into a rather linear path. The next slide is the next slide and I don’t have a lot of flexibility,” Plante said.
“It forces you to be a bit more linear, whereas, if you’re not stuck with a presentation and a student asks a question, you can follow that.”
This semester, the center held Teaching with Technology Seminars, where professors met to discuss effective ways of teaching with technology.
Bruce Lenthall, the director for the Center, explained how the sessions were organized.
“We try not to spend a lot of time talking about ‘how would you do you do this technically,' but rather ‘why would you do it? What are you trying to accomplish?’” he said.
Recently, two speakers at the seminar shared different ways of using PowerPoint. One speaker had linked his presentation to a live feed of laboratory research which introduced students to ongoing experiments in the material they were studied. In this way he had removed the problem of the static nature of presentations. The focus of the seminars, however, is not simply to get professors to use new technology.
“The challenge for faculty member after faculty member was, ‘I can do interesting things with discussion board, but if it simply makes work and doesn't relate to what we're doing in class, it fails.’”
He gave examples of instances when he has encouraged faculty to consider using chalkboard over PowerPoint. This allows the students to see how the material develops.
“Whether you use hi-tech or not, you have to ask the lo-tech questions: What am I trying to teach? What are the best ways of teaching it? What are my goals for the class?” Lenthall said.
These teaching goals, even with new technology, have not changed. The primary concern of faculty is still how best to educate students.
“Faculty always get more interested in technology when they can see how it will help students learn better,” MacDermott said.
“They're not interested in gadgetry just for gadgetry sake.”
It follows that this is the primary factor the directors consider when selecting what technology to introduce to campus.
Other factors include cost, ease of use, and the presence of facilities to support the technology.
The technology has to have a reasonable learning curve for faculty and the support people. There also has to be confidence that the technology is durable and viable for a reasonable amount of time, MacDermott explained.
The newer technology uses radio frequency which requires only a small USB device attached to a computer. It can be made available in any room with a computer.
Still, the biggest challenge is providing reasons for professors to change their teaching methods to new ones that use the technology.
“What faculty do, and are conscious of, and have to be vigilant about, is to think about their teaching goals first, and not the technology first,” Lenthall said.
For his Environmental studies class, Professor Plante recognizes that the technology helps him deliver more information visually that would otherwise take many words and more time to describe verbally. He can therefore take the time to prepare the material, especially those he can reuse in future lectures.
In other cases, professors cannot make the initial investment.
“Most commonly it's, ‘I don't have the time or attention to devote to figuring out how to re-engineer my teaching.’ That's a very understandable thing and so when we're picking technologies we do try to promote ones that are relatively easy to adopt.”
But over time these concerns are lessening and more professors are including technology in their courses. The Weigle Commons holds tutoring sessions that reduce the time needed for students or faculty to learn new technology. Resource centers, like CTL, educate faculty on using technology to augment, rather than replace their lessons.
“I don't really see that there are too many disciplines that don't use technology anymore. It's becoming so commonplace,” Vedantham said.
With this scale of adoption it is interesting to imagine how technology will be used in classrooms in the future.
Professor Plante already uses real time data in his weekly recitations. He intends to incorporate computer modeling sessions into his class next semester, where students can build simple models to help understand concepts introduced in class.
“In this day and age there is so much data available,” he said.
“To be able to harness some of that for teaching is really useful.”
At least at Penn, a less realistic option is moving classroom lessons completely online.
“The technology is designed to supplement and enhance the residential based, face to face teaching experience,” MacDermott said.
“It is still all based on the assumption that the traditional same time, same place model is at the heart of it, and the other stuff helps support that model.” Lenthall compared the scenario to the 1950s when radio was touted to replace Universities.
“Universities have a function beyond the dissemination of knowledge. Bringing students physically together is a value,” he said.
“There's always going to be a role for sitting down and working through problems.”