Sunday, June 04, 2006

literature, consumption, john updike, and class: lessons learned from city streets

so, the printers row book fair graced the expansion of dearborn this weekend, much to my delight.

i love books. love reading them. love holding them. love making them. sadly, love owning them, and consequently, buying them.

and one thing i noticed while walking home from the park on saturday via the fair grounds back to my humble temporary home, was how the vendors were storing things for the night: the books were bundled up and covered with nothing more than plastic tarps, sometimes just plastic trash bags, rope, and duct tape. the books weren't locked up, and it looked perfectly feasible for anyone who wanted to, to steal these books in the night. there were no cops around. and plastic and rope are easy to get through. hell, you could even reach under and into the plastic and just have your pick of all the literature left there in the street.

i've seen people's bag lunches at work more well-protected than that.

of course, it had occured to me that i could go back in the night and take whatever i wanted (i had, afterall, just spent about $100 on books that afternoon, and was feeling the dent already), but i would never do it. but i thot to myself, how easy it would be. you could walk away with a lot of $'s worth of literature in one fell swoop.

so why weren't these vendors concerned?

i thought about how few homeless people i saw at the fair all day, even tho there were food vendors abound and pockets aplenty to be picked (that's horrible of me, i kno).

then, it dawned on me: no one who would normally steal would steal a book. that is, (and i am assuming a lot here, obviously), persons who would steal, or rather, those who would need to steal (the homeless, the extremely poor) would have no need to steal a book. what are the homeless to do with literature, when they don't have homes to read them in, no leisure time to devote to what might seem a trivial indulgence? to be able to buy a book and read it is truly a privelege of the rich and well-to-do, the intellectual elite, who can nourish their minds in addition to their bodies, when others struggle to do barely do the latter in this country.

a book, as wonderful as it is to me, is truly a worthless object. it's the ideas that are valuable, but the material object is exactly that, a physical residue of that which you absorb, a vessel which can be discarded like a wrapper or bottle when one is done consuming the sustenance within.

but when so many are starving on the streets, dying from hunger and cold and heat and fatigue, what good is a book to the mind when the body and the soul are dying? what good is a book when you don't know how to read?

they're heavy, bulky, uncomfortable to sit or sleep on, they don't digest well. hell, they don't even burn all that well.

and those who can afford to treasure them, those who can go to these things and enjoy the pleasures of easy consumption, who can afford to browse at their leisure, consume some coffee, and purchase a book or two, even a collectors' item... these people would never think to steal a book left easily obtainable on the street. it just wouldn't be tasteful. it wouldn't be necessary.

just as it wouldn't be necessary for a homeless person to.

what's the point?
it wouldn't be tasty...


" write and publish, to distribute oneself as a kind of confetti shower falling upon the heads and shoulders of mankind... is truly a great privelege."

-john updike


speaking of updike, i went to his lecture today in the chicago public library. there were many people there, reading while they waited in the impressive stand-by ticket line.
as for the talk (or rather, the lamely staged q&a session), i found it rather disappointing.
to be quite honest, i thot the whole thing was a shattering experience. i had never realized how many pretentious people you could pack into a house at once. not a single person i met had actually read a book by him, so when i tried to engage my fellow queuers in an empassioned discussion of his technique, style, message, and ideology (updike is, i've decided, quite the devoted mysoginist and insensitive patriarch. i don't care if the guy's won a pulitzer or two. his views are less than flattering.)
he spoke mostly about his newest book, the terrorist, about an 18-yr-old "religious zealot" of egyptian/irish heritage who i guess has a black girlfriend, who, like so many of his other female supporting characters, is not religious, though she is in the choir.

the more updike spoke, the more he seemed to reveal his less-than-accepting viewpoints. when pressed to share some of his opinions regarding new generation writers, he mentioned how he felt they didn't work hard enough to produce long-lasting careers (the reason, he says, is the way they were raised. he grew up during the depression. he learned to work hard. i guess that makes sense.)
when asked to provide the names of some fellow writers of his generation he admired, they were all (unsurprisingly, to me, but still distressing) men.
then, in the open question session, the first five and last questions were all asked by men. he only called on one woman.

one really low and embarrassing point in the lecture was when the interlocutor (head librarian, i guess, and she was kinda stiff) asked updike about the least likeable character in the book, whom she described as something like a "disgustingly overweight, unpleasant" librarian. she then asked why the least likeable character had to be a librarian. oh this was a barrel of laughs for the audience, and for updike, and one of the more light-hearted moments of the discussion, though what ensued was a distasteful and callous, offensive, and highly prejudiced skewering of the overweight (he mentioned how he decided to make the librarian character overweight because "she wouldn't have to move around much" and how she didn't like to get out of her lazy-boy [this seemed more like a critique of americans in general than the overweight or librarians, but anyway...])
what bothered me was how the whole audience was complicit in enforcing each other's healthism, and with updike at the head of the class, leading us all along, orchestrating the formation of cruel jokes and perceptions that would greatly upset me and sicken me, if i were an overweight person.

and it scared me to realize this, because we had all come into this lecture this afternoon with the aim of getting a glimpse of a famous author. we were all so star-struck by this spectacle, that we were falling victim to his celebrity, mindlessly going along with his ideas and accepting them as our own. i got a vision in that stuffy auditorium of all these pretentious older men and women going home, chatting it up with marge and steve, or the johnsons, over a glass of cabernet, and shooting the breeze, going on and on about how "down to earth" and "realistic" updike was, how amusing, how entertaining, without realizing that his literature is actually laced with a rather generous amount of mysoginy, and spiritual judgement and ridicule, to the point that i find it ridiculous and displeasing.
granted, i can understand how he was a big deal in his time, because his prose and imagery is rather impressive. but that makes me glad for the state of modern literature since, and for feminist movements and for the 60s that have occured in between.

one thing's for sure, literature is indeed a sacred medium, but one that needs to be freed from its bourgeois exclusivity. democratization and freedom of the intellectual ideas and mediums!
form and function must be united!

updike mentioned how the digitization of information perturbed him, because it makes the written word much less sacred, it changes the relationship of author to reader, which is something he values, i suppose. and i understand and sympathize with him on this one, but i wanted to ask him: what does he think the purpose and function of literature or any other creative art is? if the process of digitization of information, or the changing of the form of information is altering the nature of relationships between beings, how might this alter the meaning of ideas, and their function in our society?

i would like to know, because for me, the democratization of media is nothing if not a blessing.

because all of this, literature, the creative arts, the setting of ideas to words on paper material for distribution, isn't about that material result, but about the ephemera of the passing, the ether of the idea, the transcendence of learned and shared existence.

it's about learning to breathe and live and share with one another.

not to keep others away and out and distanced.

that is the distancing of the other.

when all i want to do is bring every one together.

Friday, June 02, 2006

a convergence of excellence

Hello friends and fellow activists!

I'm not sure if this was mentioned already, but it
certainly deserves mentioning, whether for the first
or second time:

The Midwest Social Forum (MWSF) is an annual gathering
of grassroots organizations, community activists,
workers, educators, students, and others committed to
making a better, more just world possible.

The MWSF provides an open space for exchanging
experiences and information, strengthening alliances
and networks, and developing effective strategies for
progressive social, economic, and political change.

This get-together will be held in Milwaukee, WI, on
the campus of the U of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, July 6-9
(Thurs-Sun) and will feature panels, presentations,
film screenings, concerts, and discussions led by all
sorts of progressives, including yours truly and my
friends and collaborators from Chicago IndyMedia

It'd be a thrill to see some of you there, and you can
still register for a reduced price before June 15.
Plus, if you sign up to volunteer, you can get in
totally free (including all your meals)! And, you can
arrange a homestay for the weekend (I did, and
recommend it highly. My future host and I have already
become great friends!)

More information.
A schedule of events.
Register for more.

Hope to see some of you there!
Love, Stephanie

Thursday, June 01, 2006

exploring alternative living options (or, a defense of the homeless)

hi there. did you come here from blOgbuefi looking for more? good, i'm glad.

now, on with the stories.
only this isn't a story.
it's a tirade.

and undeniably, disappointingly true...

"exploring alternative living options"
very few people i know can say they actually kne/ow what it's like to be homeless and persistently aware of their survival and to worry for it all the time.
most people i know, like me, had the privilege and comfort of middle/upper-class childhoods and suburban neighborhoods.

that's the funny/terrible thing about class: it's cleverly invisible, in that it's mostly psychogeographic, rather than physical/tangible. it perpetuates itself in our psychosomata, and what's more, it's something we don't choose, but come to accept and enforce. the poor become poorer, the rich become richer, the gap between becomes a canyon.

we all know the story, so why do we repeat it?

anyway, how this relates to my chicago experience is simple really.
as of yesterday, i am officially homeless in chicago. i am a person without a place, no semblance of a home or a place i own or that owns me.

what does this do to one's perception of self, of belonging, of place and space and familiarity? what do these words even mean, when one is struggling to find a place to live?

i might have to face a whole summer in chicago on the streets, because i was forced to leave my apartment and had/ve no where to go.

but, sadly, there are many more out there in much worse shape than i.
the community of homeless in chicago, like the homeless in any other american city, i suspect, are ignored and stigmatized members of society avoided like diseases or miscreants.
but really, they're people. just like you and me. just trying to survive.

only instead of struggling to make money to pay the bills or feed the kids, they're struggling to find the money to buy the meals to feed themselves, wishing they could have the kids they've always wanted, or lamenting the families they've lost along the way, who they've abandoned, or who abandoned them, because life's troubles are too many to have to handle more than your own share.

it's not that they're lazy. they've walked the whole city on foot and then some, til their soles and souls bled from their efforts, looking for work. but when the odds and society stack against you, what can you do? when people look at you with disdain and recoil away from you, what is one to do?

one individual is easy to ignore, but how about a whole population? a whole city? for that is what we have here, a city full of invisible persons, missing and forgotten,
lost to the trappings of ideology and the wrinkling of time.

and i am now one of them.

the only difference is that i have the capability to talk about it in this kind of free forum. imagine all the others, the hundreds of thousands of other human beings in the world, whose lives are spent in this way. how we ignore our fellow human suffering and somehow go on with our daily business without deep and handicapping shame is beyond me. there are so many who could use our help, so why don't we offer it?

please. i know what it is like. there is nothing more humiliating or lessening to the spirit than having to beg for your life and only be denied, repeatedly and cruelly, every day.

these people greet each day's rising sun, not with the simple pleasure that we, who have the privilege, attribute to them, but rather, with fear and concern, as it brings the heat, the strokes, the pains and struggles of the city.

and things like this only help to worsen the perception of the homeless in america. (compare to more progressive literature, such as this.)

understand, it's no one's fault.
but there is something you can do: help, offer your kindness, your respect, and seek to understand and change.

and love your fellow human beings. it is all we have in this world to give that is free.


Tuesday, May 30, 2006

taking care

the housing situation i am in is a bit awkward, at best. it's been the source of much stress and unwanted displeasure, but, ah, such is life.

three emails, the first written to my pal dylan, the next his response to me, the last a summary of my thots so far, which may give you a sense of the situation i am in...

p.s. you will find as you get to know me better that i sometimes publish emails i send and that others send me. "it's no thang" as my friend katie would say, and please don't be sad to see them here. emails mean very much to me, you should know that. love, stephanie

thank you dylan
hey, how are things going? chicago's going great, tho no luck finding alternative living situations. and my computer got lost in the mail, which sucks.
anyway, later.

Things are going alllright. Don't think I'm going to make it to Chicagofor a few weeks but I think I already told you that. Do you think Haseeb is caving in? Or will he throw a 20 year old girl from Kentucky out on the streets? Was it your computer from school? Did you pay for shipping insurance? Probably got stolen... some postman's kids are looking throughyour music and photos right now..eerie. I'm not finding any alternative living situations either, and my boss is leaving town for four days so Iam excited to have a bed and a place all to my own (if only a temporary fantasy). Did you make friends with Russel yet? Or take your first ride onthe trains? You should have him go with you, he is a formidble thwarter of theives and evil-doers (in the GW sense). Take care,dylan

you mentioned not being able to make it for a while, but will you be coming eventually? i hope so. i need a friend in the city. or, one with a sense of humor anyway.
hard to say if haseeb is going to change his mind or not. it's been really awkward cuz he's kinda uptight or afraid to talk to me or something, which makes me not want to hang around, and then his girlfriend is around a lot too and i don't really like her, or she me. and anyway...
i found this other place close by but the rent is super ridiculous so i'm weighing the importance of comfort and materiality right now... is it worth it to have a place to myself and avoid the awkward situations, if i have to give up my stipend to get it? hmm, i don't know. worse comes to worse, my office is kinda comfy, tho sterile.
ha, no, i had to order a new computer (a laptop) so i could do video and sound editing for my other internship. i think fedex lost it and i'm totally pissed. as is my boss (yikes!)
as for the trains, i had my first expeirence riding them to get to the program get-together. we went to this really silly restaurant called ed debevics (or do you know about it already) where they basically yell and be mean on purpose. i could go if the mood struck me, but at the time, i was not amused. other than that, i've been avoiding the trains, and finding i don't need them as much as i would have thought. i pretty much walk every where, which can be tiring, especially yesterday, when alex visited me and we walked all the way to navy pier and back.
and regarding russell, i like him the best, i think. he certainly is a gentle individual, which i have appreciated, if only because he's dependably so. feras can be nice on occasion and then seems cold the other times i bump into him in the shared living space. and haseeb, tho absent as of late, has mostly been a mystery to me. anyway, i like russell, and think he's my favorite. and i finally met the girlfriend, who seems nice, but i suppose i understand your avoidance of them the past summer. they're loving in an old couple kinda way, and it makes me uncomfortable, but i think i am that way regardless. russ and katie were eating eclairs one day in the kitchen when i happened to be eating dinner, and i had to speed up my ingestion to flee the scene. yes, it is difficult having to watch someone try so hard to be so loving. but so it goes.

i have more stories, but at the moment, work has just ended and i don't much feel like staying in a chilly office any more. off i go now into the humid and ripe chicago outdoors.

how is your work going dylan? when do you leave columbus and return to toledo? and when are you finally going to come to chicago? i hope i am still living with the boys then, but if not, you will have to visit me in my new locale. regardless of where it may be.

no ifs ands or buts about it!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

statement of intent

this will be a blog about my summer in chicago, alone and together and about and throughout about my adventures in the greater urban environment and my rxns to the city and its people, to supplement the pictures and video captures i will accumulate, which can only say so much.

it will be an attempt to remember and document a city, to make it live and breathe, to make it organic, to personify it, to animate it.

it is inspired by my having recently read italo calvino's work, invisible cities.