Friday, March 19, 2010

City books, City hopes


After two days of email seminar I knew I wanted to go to a real good bookstore. Exit one personality, enter another. The transition was hard -- my feet hurt, I was hating the Loop; I almost turned around and crawled back on the train that would take me to the suburbs, where at least the sky is mostly visible. But then Michigan Avenue broke through, along with bright lake sky and "deconstructivism" as embodied by architecture. Refreshed by some warm air that didn't come from a stinky alley and some sun glints off the Gehry decon-band shell thing (what's it called?) I went underground to Millenium Station (millenial I guess, because the train's electric), and a few minutes later I was in Hyde Park -- and I was my whole self again.

Hyde Park is where the University of Chicago lives. With two of its bookstores. I've heard people say things about Hyde Park, "don't go there at night" kinds of things. I don't get it. Why would the area around U of C be unsafe? They can buy more cops if they need them, right? And they do buy a lot of them -- campus safety is everywhere, and I think they're real police officers. At least more real than the ones at my school, who were just bullies who happened to have a key that would get them into girls' dorm rooms in the middle of the night. Anyhow, I think Hyde Park is great. Parks full of kids. Young folks with dogs. Cafes and coffee shops (not intimidating). Used book smells. Sky, sun, warmth. Postage stamp yards under skinny houses. If this is still "the city," then boy do I like cities.

The Seminary Co-op Bookstore is a church basement full of books. Well organized books. New books. Obscure books. All the books on all the U of C syllabi. The ceilings are low, the books are jammed together on cheap wooden shelves. The literary criticism section is in a narrow niche in what used to be the furnace room. The furnace is still in there. They keep a straight-back chair in that cubbyhole, so you can sit and read a little, but not for too long. By the time the chair gets uncomfortable, the furnace rumbling has numbed your head anyway. There's a slim crack between the back shelf and a brick support column. Roland Barthes lives in it. You just kind of have to reach in and grab for him, and see what part you pull out.

Books and Pipes Coexist

I spent an hour and a half all over the store, fawning, drooling, leafing, skimming, hemming, hawing, equivocating. Once I'd finished my pile of wants (I let myself collect about 10), I then pared it down to four I couldn't do without. I needed the two brand new ones for reviews -- I'm writing a couple for the little humanities journal I'm editing. I also picked up a Kristeva reader and a Cixous text, to finally get down to business on some things. I had had, in my 10-stack, a third new title -- Philosophy in the Present, which is Badiou and Zizek yelling at each other about democracy and shit. Sorry guys, I took home the pair of girls instead. For today, lady theorists trump man philosophers. Men suffer too, I guess.

Four books was enough, especially when there are plenty of old things to be read, things that can be found for pennies on the dollar in used and scribbled-on form. And usually with cool 1960s covers, and usually translated by somebody I've heard of. Having no German and only some French so far, I have to know my translators' reputations going in.

One of these new treats, On Eloquence, by Denis Donoghue, is really up my alley (which is not a stinky windswept Chicago Loop alley), and translation is not an issue. It is on eloquence in literature, English literature specifically. I read the first chapter in transit. It begins with reasoned arguments and ends in eloquence. Part of Donoghue's main argument is that eloquence is gratuitous, and that eloquence is not rhetorical. But he can hardly convince us without some appeal to rhetoric (if he convinced us with eloquence he might prove himself wrong). So far he's got a nice mix going.

There's a cat lady on the train! Leopard pants, cat-print roller bag, pink pussycat purse, and you can picture the rest. She reminds me, I was recording city happenings.

After making a sound book investment (damn, I didn't buy any books on sound!) that will hopefully bear intellectual dividends, I made an even sounder investment in something more personal, a kind of spiritual investment. A block from the university, four kids in their postage stamp, picket-fenced yard were having an ART SALE! I jaywalked frantically to get to it. They saw me coming. "Oooh, are you having an exhibition?!" I called out. "No, it's a sale." And so I entered a third personality. I traipsed over their sidewalk chalk messages ("Stop here!" "Buy some ART!") to eye the pieces hanging on the fence, and began babbling to the cute little creatures who had fashioned those construction paper lovelies. Did they know how well they would brighten my day? Upon closer inspection, I realized that around a third of the objets d'art were bookmarks. Those kids are geniuses. I only had a little change on me, so I couldn't clean out their inventory, but I dropped 50 cents on what I selected as the best -- and the one I just knew, by its subject, was the little boy's. A skyscraper, blue, with paned windows and a penthouse protruding on top, all cut out carefully along its well-drafted outline. A perfect reminder of a city trip, and the perfect bookmark.

Now I'm laughing at the perfect blue skyscraper sticking out of The Portable Kristeva. She might ask, "Why is there a phallus protruding from my head!?" You tell me, Julia. I've often wondered the same thing. Anyhow, there is probably nothing in her writings on maternity or the phallic mother that can explain why a mother to a little boy would get so much joy out of purchasing a little cardboard piece of masculine expression from someone else's little boy. I just do.

I asked the kids if they were selling their art to buy ice cream. "If we get enough money!" the oldest said hungrily. I walked back to the train station, past the overflowing playground, past smart looking students, past lots of dogs and grown-up people, and my feet didn't hurt anymore.

Before the semi-narrative leaves Hyde Park behind, I forgot to mention the U of C campus, the very thing that was on my mind this morning on the way out here. (Where is here? I'm on a train again.) I had decided at the turn of the decade that "material conditions" would keep me local for my schooling (at least for right now), a decision that held up no matter how many times I listened to Bob Marley tell me not to "let da system get into ya head again." I had to choose some Chicago schools.

When I met with Mark Walter, my former philosophy professor, the other day, he said, "You applied to University of Chicago, right?" Um... no. I was intimidated horribly by it. Same goes for Northwestern. My first excuse? It's their web designers and department heads' faults. Whoever determines the "image" for the department has someone translate that into a brick wall of a website, or an online writeup of what appears to be an exclusive club, complete with photos of bespectacled, well-off looking mid-twenties students having very serious discussions. These images, coupled with department-head-drafted copy that haughtily boasts things like "we admit five students per year" can frighten a girl from the desert. Add to that anxiety over having transcripts from a community college and a no-name suburban liberal arts school, and those school's images contain a nightmarish amount of the "formidable." It is silly that an image (and I know it's just an image) could intimidate so well (intimidation seems to be their sole aim), and Dr. Walter made fun of me for it, as well he should. I've surfed so many school's websites I should know better. But so should the schools! Today the only way to apply is online, so naturally instead of mailing documents to some unknown location, prospective students will try to find out as much as they can about what goes on at, and how to get into, the school they love before clicking "submit." And they might never click. Why do the schools try so hard to intimidate? Princeton's website is just as snobby looking as any competitive school's, but with encouragement from a friend there, I realized that that snobbery is partially just a front. I ignored the front, and became totally confident that I could get into Princeton -- an Ivy League school! But not the University of Chicago. No way.

Finally, as if I haven't listed enough excuses, anecdotal evidence of rejection from the University of Chicago weighed heavily on me as well. My friend's father works there, and brings home tales of 4.0 GPAs and 99th percentile scores as being the only ticket in. Even with the scores (my verbals have always hovered around the 99th), according to him, a community college transcript will land you in the recycling bin. Or maybe even in the dumpster, just to add insult to injury. (WHAT was that kid thinking!?) Why he tells his daughter these awful things (I know she'd love to go there too, and she totally could) may have something to do with dysfunction, but the bad news has gotten to me now, and that can't be totally undone. My other anecdote comes from a young guy (MA in English holder, law school hopeful) who always chats me up or flirts with me or something at the coffee shop (attention, I feel silly I have to admit, that is heartening to a young mom). The future lawyer's friend has kids and applied to U of C for law. They told him he shouldn't even think about it if he wants to spend any time with his children.

These images, these stories, are horrible. And it's horrible that they have any effect on someone who knows they shouldn't have such an effect.

Mark Walter and Gerald Butters, the history professor with whom I took my Luxembourg trip,as well as my English adviser Dan Hipp, had all encouraged me to try for U of C. My excuse for Dr. Walter was the "intimidation by images." He properly laughed that away, and gave some encouraging words. I am supposed to be in grad school, he says. I definitely have all the qualities I need, and then some, he says. I don't need to worry about anything like that, he says. I guess I trust Dr. Walter best, because he's read more of my work than any of the English professors. And he's something of a celebrity with the current bunch at the DePaul philosophy department. As we walked across campus to the sound art class I talked with his wife (also a student) and used my French to make fun of Kristeva a little. "How can you be afraid of students speaking French at Chicago?" Dr. Walter butted in. "You can do that here in Aurora!" he says. Maybe he's onto something. My excuse for Dr. Butters was the "no kids allowed" anecdote. "You're no stay at home mom!" he says. "You'd go crazy! You have to go there." he says. My excuse for my very supportive adviser was "You didn't get in." 'Cause he didn't.

There's always 2011. This year was hard, from having to back off on big decisions I was excited about, to the subsequent reevaluation I had to make of myself and my abilities. In the panic of application season I had behaved as if I were a superhuman. In the post-graduation lull, too much time has become too much time to doubt.

So yesterday, just like the last time I visited the Seminary Coop Bookstore, I came out of that splendid church door and down the steps to gaze across the street at the sunset playing with the funny little knobs that decorate the spires of all the university's old buildings, at the argyle-clad and bespectacled students who speak French to one another, at the hippie-ish professors talking about their kids' colds, and wished I could be a part of it. Or anything like it.

The bookstore is not owned by the school (it really is a co-op). The campus begins on the west side of the street there. Where those glinty spires and the grassy quadrangle live. It occurred to me yesterday that I've never crossed the street.

A block away, there was a cute house for sale. "Urban Search Realty." It had the requisite postage-stamp yard, tiny basement windows encased in wet looking bricks, and a crooked front porch sagging under the weight of time. I pictured my little guy in that little yard, maybe having a block-wide "art sale" with the kids four doors down. He would try to outdo little David's skyscraper bookmark. Their cars, trucks, balls would roll off the saggy porch and into the daffodils. Think they'd trade for a Cape Cod in Batavia? (The Hyde Park Victorian's worth more than three times as much.)

We're doing pretty well this year, with mama working full time and all. There are cute and modest 1920s townhouses steps from U of C that cost less than my house did, thanks to the magic of cooperatives. I could always just forgo extra responsibilties and rent something nice. We've been schooled in small space living. When Mikey was born he came home to a 450 square foot duplex. If we need more help squeezing in, there's always IKEA's "living in 733 sq ft" (sounds great), "living in 285 sq ft" (god no!) room setups. Plus the elementary school is right next to the university. That's where the overflowing playground lives. Perhaps I could even perform a permanent merge of mother-self and scholar-self in a place like that. I could come in from da cold.

So now I'm thinking practically. For me, that means I might actually do something about something. I don't need that MA from DePaul to get a PhD. A year of writing grad school papers there would do me lots of good. Plus more French classes. We'll see. The University of Chicago isn't going anywhere. Nor are any of the other grand and storied schools who might take me in. There's always 2011. "Oh, sweet life!"

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