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Commons Room

A Slice of Campus Life


Ron Magnes illustration


Falcon Crest

Crouched on an outdoor precipice of the Cathedral of Learning, a park ranger waves a cardboard lid above his head, protecting himself and a colleague from a bird of prey that’s rocketing toward them. The falcon’s talons miss the cardboard shield by inches and the bird zooms past the windows of the Babcock Room on the Cathedral’s 40th floor. Behind the windows, dozens of onlookers gape at the scene.

Outside, with the wind gusting, the man braces for another attack. A woman beside him is collecting chicks from their nest, which is why the mother bird is dive-bombing. When the woman gathers all four falcon babies into boxes, the two rangers retreat to the indoor safety of the Babcock Room. It’s time for the birds’ first medical checkup.

The rangers, who are with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, deliver the peeping chicks to Pitt veterinarian Robert Wagner as amateur bird watchers and media flock around the examination table.

Since 2002, when a pair of peregrine falcons began nesting in a box at the crown of the Cathedral, Wagner has conducted physical exams on the broods of chicks that have hatched there. In addition to being chief of surgical veterinary services in Pitt’s Division of Laboratory Animal Resources, he’s also an avian expert and consultant with Pittsburgh’s National Aviary. This year, Pitt invited bird enthusiasts and media to his vet examination for a rare close-up glimpse at the swift raptors.

Everyone coos when Wagner pulls out the first chick, cradling the fluffy white bird in a towel. Puffs of down float into the air as he slides his stethoscope onto the bird’s feathered chest. Then, Wagner shines a tiny flashlight into the blue beak of the young peregrine, which he calls a P-falcon, and examines its throat. Although the chick is cute and well-behaved, its beak is fiercely hooked. Wagner draws blood from his patient, which he’ll later test for signs of disease. Forty years ago, P-falcons were nearly wiped out because of pesticide poisoning. Through nationwide environmental programs, the raptors have made a significant comeback. They’re no longer on the endangered species list but are still protected by government and environmental agencies. Pitt and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy have been working together to safeguard the falcons roosting on the Cathedral.

The birds are keeping humans healthy, too. Wagner says peregrine falcons are sentinels for West Nile Virus, influenza viruses, and other illnesses that could affect human populations. If he detects any viruses in the birds, he’ll alert environmental and public health agencies so they can thwart the problem. So, far, all 22 falcons hatched at the Cathedral have been virus-free.

When Wagner pronounces that all the chicks are healthy, they’re returned to their nest and their mother. In a few weeks, the clutch mates will leave the gothic stone tower, flying into the cloudscapes and traveling sometimes hundreds of miles to establish new homes.
—Cara J. Hayden

Double Take

In darkness, all is quiet except for the sound of people chewing. Justin Honard sits among the strangers, twitching a foot. He was afraid no one would come. But now that they’re here, he’s nervous. Maybe the free pizza they’re eating will keep them happy.

Ron Magnes illustration


The lights come up. In the Cathedral’s basement studio theater, a young couple lounges in a rumpled bed, the girl lavishing praise on her sleeping boyfriend. “He has these tiny hairs on his back,” she sighs. “He doesn’t even know they’re there. But I do.”

While she extols, Honard frets. Is this going to work?

Opening-performance jitters nibble at Honard (A&S ’07). He wrote this play, titled Oh, in a Pitt playwriting class. His work is the first production in the theatre arts department’s yearlong Festival of New Plays. Today’s noontime show is a chance for students, faculty, and staff to take a break from the workday, enjoy complimentary pizza, and get carried away by new art.

It seems to be working. The audience chuckles, gasps, and even stops chewing at dramatic moments during the tale of decaying romance. Honard breathes easier with each positive response from the crowd. “I was afraid people weren’t going to laugh and just weren’t going to connect with it,” he says later.

After the male actor reads a breakup note from the girl, the stage goes black and the 10-minute play seems to be over. But the two actors don’t reappear for applause, and sounds of the set being reshuffled can be heard. The lights come back up. There’s the same bed, this time with two men in it. “He has these tiny hairs on his back,” one of them sighs. “He doesn’t even know they’re there. But I do.”

The two new actors repeat the play, line for line, but change the inflections, tones, and gestures that the other actors used in the first act. After the lights go out on the second breakup letter, the cast of student actors reappears and takes bows to enthusiastic applause. Yet they don’t retreat backstage. Honard joins them for a talk-back workshop with the audience. Producer Kathleen George (A&S ’64, ’66G, ’75G, ’88G), the theatre arts professor who taught Honard’s playwriting class, facilitates the discussion.

Several audience members say they’re fascinated that the script was performed twice. Generally, everyone agrees that the technique is effective, because each version showed different shades of romantic struggle, as well as how actors can alter a play through different interpretations of dialogue. A few people point out scenes that had rough transitions. Honard nods and says he’ll work on them.

As the dialogue continues, this low-budget event is teaching a practical lesson in stagecraft for both writer and audience; the crowd is helping a playwright to hone his craft.
—Paul Ruggiero

Truth Teller

In the middle of the night, a writer from El Salvador picks up the phone and hears his mother’s quavering voice. She tells him that someone has called her—twice—threatening to murder him. The man’s mouth instantly goes dry. Murder? His mother says some people are very angry about the book he recently published. Then, she asks her son whether he will be coming home. No, he thinks. He cannot. Going home is a death sentence.

The writer, Horacio Castellanos Moya, has never been one to shy away from controversy in his books. He received the anonymous death threat in response to his novel El Asco (Nausea), which delves into crimes committed by political leaders. The book also explores the culture and politics of historically violent El Salvador, chronicling some of the country’s uglier characteristics—not something that pleased those in power. Eventually, fearing for his life, Moya was forced into exile.

He landed in Pittsburgh last year as a guest of City of Asylum, a nonprofit program that provides safe havens for those who dare to write honestly about repressive regimes that squelch freedom of expression. He was welcomed by Pitt’s English department, which works closely with the asylum program to connect exiled writers to the community. In addition to encouraging Moya, after years of being silenced, to read his work aloud at public events, the department also invited the writer-in-exile to teach a class.

At first, he hesitated. He was more comfortable writing in solitude, and the course would require conversation in English instead of his native Spanish.

But Chuck Kinder, a professor of English and director of Pitt’s writing program, persuaded the Salvadoran that he could give students an insider’s perspective on Latin American literature, as well as an understanding of the courage that writing requires.

On the first day of the new term, Moya stands in front of a Cathedral classroom, with 15 sets of eyes staring at him. What would happen next in the course titled Latin American Literature: Post-Magical-Realism? After a few moments of silence, Moya does in class what he does in his writing: He tells the truth. He admits that he’s afraid of teaching—and then Moya begins to teach.

Just weeks after that first lesson, the writer sits in a circle with his students, conversing about post-magical realism in Latin American literature. As he leads the discussion, he sometimes waves his arms with enthusiasm, like a fevered symphony conductor, and the students respond, offering their own thoughts and opinions about the day’s readings. It appears the exiled writer has found a second home, after all.
—Sam Ginsburg


The captain shouts, “Stand by to furl the topgallant sail for a sea stow!” ordering several sailors to climb the ship’s rigging and pull in a
billowing white sail. One of the sailors, a hazel-eyed woman wearing a bandanna, hesitates. The topgallant sail is almost 100 feet above the waterline, and she has never climbed that high. Despite her fear, she must obey the captain’s orders. So she scrabbles up the mast’s rigging, her insides churning like the surrounding waves.


Ron Magnes illustration


While she climbs, the wooden battleship lurches in the waters of Lake Erie. When the ship rocks one way, it forces her to lie flat on the ropes and look at the deck. When the ship tilts the other way, it forces her to lean back, grip the ropes, and glimpse the sky. Between swoons, the young sailor, Pitt sophomore Malia Mason, clambers toward the top of the U.S. brig Niagara. The vessel is a replica of a 19th-century warship, an impressive seacraft that might give landlubbers visions of Christopher Columbus’ Nina, or even Johnny Depp’s Black Pearl from the film Pirates of the Caribbean.

Mason is enrolled in Maritime History and the Great Lakes, a Pitt summer history course offered aboard the ship, which resembles the brig that Commodore Perry captained during the War of 1812. For three weeks, Mason and other students are sailing across Lake Erie, experiencing firsthand how ancient mariners navigated tall ships. In between learning knot tying and nautical vocabulary, they’re also studying how Europeans explored the Great Lakes and how the waterway played a role in international economics. It’s an eye-opener for Mason, who’s pursuing a self-designed major of study about the British Isles, the European Union, and international law. She’s read plenty of naval histories in classes but has never sailed until now.

As she climbs higher, the footholds in the rigging become narrower. When she has almost reached her target—the wooden beam that holds the topgallant sail—she slips. Fortunately, she catches herself immediately. But now she’s afraid to move. A sailor who has already reached the beam, or “yard,” extends a hand and encourages her to continue aloft. Below, other mariners cheer her on. “Just a few more feet!” they yell. Hearing the support of the crew, Mason musters her courage.

When she reaches the yard, she stands proudly and gazes at a horizon that seems to travel forever. For a moment she forgets she has labor to do, but her mate keeps her on duty. She shouts “1 … 2… heave!,” and they furl the sail, pulling it around the yard. Then the mate descends down the rigging.

Mason lingers and hugs the swaying yard. From her bird’s-eye view, she can see the entire crew scuttling about the coiled ropes on deck. The nearby port of Erie, Pa., appears surprisingly vast. Waves splash off the bow and glint in the afternoon sun. And while wind whisks across her face, she feels as though she understands what lured sailors to the high seas centuries ago.



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