Cooper Chronicles: II.1

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

I first came to knowledge of my metamorphosis as I stepped from the train to the platform in Penn Station. I was dressed head to toe in black, carrying a small handbag and wearing sunglasses. My cell phone started to ring, and I tucked my much shorter hair behind my ear to answer it. Suddenly I looked up to see ten other people doing the exact same things, wearing the same things, saying the same things. Hailing cabs and directing the route the driver should take, so they won’t be gypped. Walking briskly to their tiny apartments, checking voicemail and taking off their black shoes to stretch out on their black couches and leaf through the latest issue of Black Book or Wallpaper or Metropolis and see what’s new in the world of style and design.

Maybe it was my summer job working at Tristan & America, a high-end retail chain of slightly overpriced men and women’s clothing that briefs its employees biweekly on the latest fashion trends. I got a 40-percent discount there, and on the last day of my employment was shocked to find myself buying a charcoal gray business suit, something I had needed on many occasions but had never considered actually purchasing before. When I modeled it for Penley later, I found myself spouting off terms like “double vent,” “Chinese collar,” and “raw edged blazer”, all the while wondering vaguely where this knowledge had come from. I actually liked learning about fashion; though it will never be high on my priority list, I found it an interesting exercise to monitor the highly capricious trends and see how quickly each one rose and fell. I learned how easily influenced a certain class of shoppers are by salespeople; if I confided to a well dressed twenty-something that V necks were “fading out” this season, she would replace the three-quarter-sleeve sweater as if it were already dead and smelling up the room. Many of them wanted my opinion. I didn’t see why they would trust it (sometimes above their own!) when my position required me to have another goal besides making them look their best. I was always honest, though, and many times tactfully suggested another style, color or size when it was dreadfully needed.

It could have been the area in which I now live and work: the Lower East Side, right on the border of SoHo with its designer shops, boutiques, galleries and foreign cafes. Every night around nine, I would leave the store and walk home up Broadway, across Prince Street, past the strip of pricey French restaurants and Mulberry Street, which turns into Little Italy in the next few blocks. Most of the shops I passed didn’t even need to be visited; the window displays were enough. One store, which sold designer facial products, was introducing a new cream that contained Vitamin C. In their large, spacious window they placed clear glass tables strewn with small white jars of the cream, and you could see through the tables to the store behind — about thirty times larger than it needed to be, it looked decadent with the wasted space everywhere. Everything glistened chrome, white and transparent in the track lighting. The crowning touch: in the window they hung scores of hollow plastic oranges. There were so many of them, and they set off the rest of the store so strikingly, that I found myself walking in, chatting with the employees and actually thinking about buying the stuff. When I went in for my first interview at Tristan, the assistant manager described the market of New York, more specifically Soho and lower Manhattan, as one of the most competitive in the world. Companies like the Gap give their normally vigorous ad campaigns an extra boost: the Old Navy Stores in Soho and Penn Station are like miniature amusement parks, with drawings, prizes, games and more visual display than can be taken in during one visit. Everywhere are messages to spend, buy, consume. It can get a little tiring, but it’s exciting to watch if you can avoid participating.

Not all aspects of the change have been bad. I find myself more and more interested in the world around me I read the Times almost every day and listen to the news in the mornings when I’m crunching on my granola. I no longer avoid a movie because I think it will be boring; in fact, I go just for that reason, because I know it means it contains something I probably haven’t thought about enough. No, I only avoid movies that are Hollywood. They don’t really interest me, and even a good laugh isn’t worth 10 bucks.

I can’t tell if my initial wonder and awe of this great city is gone; some tell me it is, that I’ve become a bona-fide street-smart New Yorker. If so, my amazement has only given way to a deeper appreciation of the culture that is throbbing and breathing and living all around me.

It’s been a whole year. A year since I moved to New York. I’m writing from the same computer, but a different apartment; instead of Third Avenue, I look out onto Forsyth Street and Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, with its usual cluster of vagabonds sleeping on benches and sidewalks. It’s so nice to be back into the old rhythm of Sunday: church, come home, lunch, and sitting down to tell you, my beloved readers, about my week.

It was good, and bad, to have spent the summer here; it was much more expensive, and I missed being with my family. But the extra time in the city gave me a chance to do things I had been wanting to do since last year when school kicked into high gear: visiting restaurants and museums, catching up on unfinished work from last semester, and watching lots of foreign art films. And I was rid of one more class: Physics, which I flew through with an easy A (something I had previously found impossible at Cooper.) My dad brought up a bike, which makes the trip to school about half as long and enables me to feel safer about coming home late at night. I couldn’t believe that, after six or seven years of absence, my feet remembered exactly what to do when I sat down on the seat. As Penley says, “it’s something you couldn’t forget how to do, even if you wanted to.”

We took a couple of trips to upper Manhattan in the last few weeks, visiting areas we had never been to. Though Penley worked as a guard for the Metropolitan Museum of Art for over a year, he had never visited the other branch of their museum, the Cloisters, located waaaaaaaay up on 190th Street in the middle of Fort Tryon Park. It’s a beautiful area, one in which I would love to live; quiet, safe, and very neighborhoody, with plenty of greenery. Fort Byron is completely open to the public; unlike Central Park, there are no fences or roped-off areas, only carefully-tended herb gardens and flowering plants. The Cloisters, which is dedicated to the art and architecture of medieval Europe, was built with Rockefeller dollars to resemble a Spanish castle. It’s full of sacred statues, stained-glass windows and countless carved objects of wood and ivory, inlaid with gold and precious stone. I’m not sure I approve of the way the statues and crucifixes were taken from their home churches; they look cheap and estranged in a museum case, and since no effort was made to unite the themes  within a certain room, each display is a conglomerate of styles and cultures. Still, the setting is a beautiful place for a museum: stone walls, wooden doors, and gardens that would make Brother Cadfael proud.

Coming home, we took the M4 bus from one end of its route to the other; beginning at 190th Street, it drove through Harlem, across the Park and ended up at Penn Station. The second time there, we got out at 125th and walked through the upper end of the Park, which is delightfully uncultivated. Harlem is much safer now than in pre-Giuliani tines, especially in the area around Columbia University.

On Wednesday, at 7 o’clock in the morning, we once again stood outside the Foundation Building for the annual Desk Run. This time, I was prepared; despite the fact that the members of the Student Council had fixed the competition (handing out “random” numbers to assigned people and allowing some to draw again until they were happy with their numbers) I ended up with a good spot. I had to defend it with ferocity, though, and figured that as long as this barbaric tradition was allowed to continue, the only thing I could do was play along and stake out my territory as if it were the Oklahoma Land Rush.

A couple of days later, Penley and I stopped into the studio just to drop something off; we were shocked to discover a bevy of fourth year students pushing our desks and others’ back so they could have more room. We argued and refused to move, but in the end took pity; apparently, some six or seven upperclassmen had decided not to show up for the desk run, and their classmates were faced with the prospect of sitting on each others’ laps. So we reorganized the whole studio, beginning with the first-year students and ending up all the way at the back, where the inconsiderate no-shows had conspicuously smaller spaces, but spaces nonetheless. In the end, everybody ended up with more space. Surprise: a team of *architecture* students working together can organize space with quite a bit of skill. So why, I wonder, do they pit us as deadly enemies every year, fighting for the same worktables and stools? It was laughable, the way we organized ourselves in a frenzy last year and then, all year long, dealt with the inconveniences of tight space and crowded aisles. Something tells me, though, that no one else took this lesson to heart (at least, no one with power to change anything!) So next year, a whole new crop of first-year students will be trembling outside, fearful of the evil upperclassmen whom they think are out to get them. Sigh.

Classes are barely underway. This year I have calculus, which I was forced to take against my wishes but is looking to be painfully easy. For you math whizzes who are shaking your heads in dismay, this isn’t real calculus but Calculus For Architects, a watered-down version that teaches you just enough to get through the next year of Structures. In addition, it seems I was the only one in my class who didn’t take it in high school by choice; everyone else seems to have stopped at Algebra I., and my teacher has to do problems three, four times before the looks of confusion start to fade. I’m ending up with a lot of reading time on my hands.

My other classes haven’t met yet: Structures I, which is not based on math calculation but on very basic principles of physics and materials; History of Architecture II, which I understand is about three times as boring as last year’s history class; and of course, the monster: Design II. My big-shot professor, Peter Eisenman, is off gallivanting in Europe somewhere, and so the class will not meet until Tuesday, and will not be assigned a problem until the following Monday when he arrives. Along with his design class is a weekly lecture series called Modern Architectural Concepts, which is more philosophy than architecture and requires readings of Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and other key thinkers of the modern age.

I’m actually impatient for the crunch to begin; though I know I will have no sleep, no nutrition and no strength by Christmas, I can’t wait to learn the things that this man knows. Behind his arrogant demeanor lies a true intelligence clearly visible through his writings and work. Eisenman is a philosophical architect, an intellectual. It will be a refreshing change from Abraham’s cursing and volatile personality. Penley put it well: “I know that I will not understand what I learned from Eisenman until years later,” he said. “Right now, all I can do is try to get through it and pick up as much as I can.” 

Today I’m going to see Once Upon A Time in the West: I saw it long ago and wasn’t impressed, but I’m giving it another shot. Then we’re going to the Jewish Museum to see an exhibit on Freud (we tried to go yesterday, and were embarrassed when we remembered it was the Sabbath – duh!) and will probably conclude with an evening run in the park, if it stops raining. I know now to take advantage of these free days.

(Those of you who pay careful attention to detail will notice that along with my maturation process has come a reluctant peace treaty with capital letters. With all the papers I’m going to be writing for Eisenman this year, I think I should get in the habit of writing as the rest of the world does. )

Cooper Chronicles: I.28

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

the brass-colored key slid into the keyhole, making that satisfying sound that keys make when they’re in the right lock.  i reached into my aluminum cubby and collected the various pieces of mail that had been delivered — mostly bills or promotional items for former tenants of our apartment, and one letter for sara.  something for me, too: a printed postcard advertising “ABSOLUTELY FREE emily oren —  VACATION to the CARIBBEAN!  i smiled and started to drop it into the trashcan, when something stopped me and i looked at it again, more closely.  there was my address: “emily oren, 150 forsyth st., apt. 4a.” it hadn’t been forwarded from the post office — there was no yellow forwarding sticker.  whoever had mailed out this card, had known my new address!

i hadn’t been living here ten days, and *someone* already knew how to pester me.  the only people who had my new address were my family and potential employers, and i didn’t think either of them were angry enough with me to give my address to snail-mail spammers.  strange, and mysterious, that they had found me so quickly.  i wonder why these people don’t work for the FBI?  maybe this pays more…

yes, we’ve moved in.  the room that seemed *unbearably* small at first now just seems cozy; sara and i have maximized our space using my dad’s favorite word: CONSOLIDATION.  the rest of the apartment is much nicer, too; my plants enliven the balcony, sara’s computer hums happily from the IKEA desk, and herbie’s TV and couch make our “living area” seem truly livable.  our friends who live at home or in the dorms gaze wistfully at our gleaming tile bathroom, wood floors, spacious windows and pretty dishes and say, “i wish *i* had my own apartment.”

it hasn’t all been fun and games, though; one night, raul sat sara down and had a “talk” that turned into a shouting match.  he slammed doors, accused her of lying and deceiving him about the living space, and threatened to leave instantly without finding a replacement.  sara cried  a little and even yelled back, which impressed me when i heard the story later (she’s generally too nice to yell, even when people deserve it.)  the next night, the four of us sat down, with sara’s mom as mediator, and had it all out.  it felt good to get some stuff off our chests and clear the tense air a little.  all decided  that raul (who hadn’t been misled, but was a victim of several misunderstandings with different parties) would stay through the summer and help to find a replacement for himself, and then move out. 

living with boys is an adjustment in itself.  sara and i exchange That Look quite frequently, and speak in low whispers in our room about the unwashed dishes, the toilet seat that was left up AGAIN, and the constantly blaring TV and stereo that plays salsa music and Jerry Springer.  we’ve learned that some issues need to be taken up immediately, and some “swallowed” and dealt with.

the neighborhood, although sketchy at night, is very much a neighborhood.  unlike the dorms, which were right in the middle of a commercial area, our apartment is near several housing developments and across the street from a family park.  (our balcony overlooks trees and a community garden, satisfying my daily requirements of greenery).  to the west is Soho, with all its designer galleries and shops and cafés, too cute for words.  i nearly had a fit when we were walking one day and spotted a “boulangerie,” a real French bakery with a restaurant attached, where the signs were in French and the waiters spoke with Parisian accents.  the summer heat has brought about increased slowness of life, and even when busy we can take time to enjoy the luxury of stopping somewhere we’ve never visited before. 

life has settled into a pretty comfortable pattern.  i don’t have a job yet, and have spent most of the time i *would* have spent working, looking for work.  my luck with retail stores has been mostly bad; Banana Republic gave me a nerve-wracking lie detector test that i probably flunked, since they never called me back.  the Pottery Barn interviewed me twice and practically gave me a locker in the changing room, and then strung me out for a week before dropping me altogether.  then, a week and a half after giving that end up entirely, another establishment seemed to take interest.  ironically enough, it was the one store that i hadn’t even filled out an application for — just casually left my resumé at the desk — and didn’t know a *thing* about.  it’s called Tristan & America; they’re Canadian-based and trying *very* hard to make a good impression on New York.  (one thing i discovered about retailers — they’re very often obsessed with their stores.  this particular interviewer said, over and over again, “this store is just the GREATEST thing i have EVER seen in my entire LIFE.”  i guess i came across as intense enough for him, because he kept shaking his head — “i am SO impressed.”  but i’m not counting my chickens this time. 

the other end of my employment search has been through a slew of temp agencies, which run from *extremely* ghetto to reputable.  i’ve been to many interviews around the business districts of Wall Street and Midtown.  i love the feeling of stepping out, dressed to kill, and striding purposefully into a ritzy hi-rise office building.  the turbo-elevators in those buildings are incredible.  three seconds (no joke!) and you’re twenty-five floors higher.  i try not to look too wide-eyed, as if i do this every day.  the interviews have been good for me, too; i’m no longer the least bit nervous before one, and i’m getting near-perfect scores on the MS Word and Excel tests.  (yes, they have tests for computer programs; the questions start with “save the current document” and end with “create a template called Sandal, protect it as an Shoe File, and merge it with the databases Sock and Hosiery.”)  and surprise — i can type 80 words per minute!  who knew?  actually, i’ve practically memorized *that* test, too: “keeping customers happy is the key to our business.  in the end, service is all we really have to sell, and service means good customer relations.  it starts with the first contact and is a never ending daily job …”

of course, what complicates my search for work is my summer physics class, which runs three hours in the middle of the day, four days a week.  it’s almost exactly the same as the physics class i took in high school, with the added disadvantage of a not-too-bright teacher who prefers doing exercises from his book of “puzzles” to explaining the guts of physics to us.  also frustrating are the art students, who — i try not to be judgmental — raise their hands and say, “wait, why did you add v-squared to *both* sides of the equation?”  despite these few stumbling blocks, i’m sailing through with a solid A by reading the book and doing my homework every night.  (it’s so easy to stay caught up when you only have one class … )

random funny story: the other day on the train, i overheard a man talking to his friend about how ungrateful his girlfriend’s kids were.  “i take ‘em to the Gap and they like, ‘we’re bored, can we go now?’”  his friend grunted menacingly.  encouraged, he continued: “i told ‘em, ‘we’ll go to K-mart — we’ll keep it real simple.  i’ll buy you clothes.  you gimme a problem, im’a bust you over the head wi’ some Martha Stewart.’”

mommy would be proud.

the weather is generally sunny and hot, making us terribly appreciative of my father’s efforts in installing an air-conditioning unit.  in the evenings, though, it turns breezy and cool, encouraging exercise — penley and i have been running in Central Park a few times — and long walks.  the sunsets are unbelievable — the high concentration of chemicals and pollution in the air heightens the color to  deep, intense oranges and firey reds, and the clouds all around turn incredible shades of bright pink. 

on one such evening, penley and i were on top of the “castle” in Central Park (i don’t know what its function is, but it’s an old stone building with turrets that overlooks a rocky valley — hence, “the castle.”), blowing bubbles.  i almost always carry a little bottle of them in my backpack, especially when it’s such nice weather — it’s a lazy activity that provides maximum amusement with minimum effort.  we were having races to see who could get more in the air at once, watching the air currents carry the bubbles higher and further, and trying in vain to get some of the other park patrons to enjoy this pleasurable pastime.  (who in their right minds would refuse an offer of bubble-blowing, you ask?  well, you’d be surprised.)  later, as we walked past the Egyptian Wing of the Met, we saw a dozen or so figures silhouetted against the glass wall, sitting cross-legged in a row.  in front of them paced a young man, small and wiry, wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts and screaming at the top of his lungs.  i was a little wary, but my curiosity won out and we crept closer and closer until we could see what was going on.  presently another man came around the corner and said something we couldn’t hear, and the first guy screamed, “WELL, THAT’S STUPID!” and began putting on his clothes again.  a dialogue followed, but it wasn’t until about ten minutes later that i realized it was a memorized script.  this was a group of actors putting on a performance for anyone who cared to come by!  we watched until the “end,” when the last two characters left.  then there was some scattered applause from the crowd, which had grown to about 20, and we stood up uncertainly.  “i guess it’s over,” penley said.  they play itself was mediocre; the idea of a spontaneous theater production in the park at night was very, very cool.

with a new season comes change, and for me that meant a new haircut.  it’s been long for years and years, but i decided to spring for a salon and tell them to chop it all off — something the stylist was reluctant to do.  “are you ready for this?” she kept asking.  i was nervous, but i liked the end result so much i didn’t care — it’s above my shoulders now, cool and summery.  i can’t really explain why i went to a salon, except that i’ve never been to one before and just felt like being a little extravagant.  not too extravagant, though — i called vidal sassoon and hung up in a HURRY when told that a woman’s haircut ranged from 85 to 115 dollars.  eventually, i settled for “hoshi coupe,” a salon that’s based in paris.  crystal, my stylist, did a great job.  she was one of those people who look really fashionable and stylish in things that would make the rest of us look ridiculous.  *her* hair looked a little too new-york for me.  (bleached blond spikes; sort of like your prom date, abby.)  well, it went with her thick, glittery eyeshadow. 

one of the neatest features of our new abode is our balcony; it’s small enough to be cute, but large enough for two or three people to sit comfortably out there.  about a week ago sara was out there when she heard a voice above her say, “hey!”  she leeeaned out and looked up and saw a guy about 25 years old, holding out a small business-sized card.  “wanna come to a soirée on the roof?  it’s next friday.”  she showed me the card later — it was very designed-looking, blue-grey with minimal information printed on it, and laminated.  woooowwww.  she, herbie and i went to it; the crowd was mostly older, but they were fun people and we had a good time.  the roof makes its own party; i had never been up there and didn’t know how easy it was to go, but it was amazing.  we could see *everything*.  there were a lot of architects there — in fact, one of the party-throwers was practicing in the city — and i got to hang out with a few of them.  all offered sympathy for me in my plight; and one said of the profession, “if you don’t love it, get the hell out of there NOW.”  he was in it for the money, and sorely disappointed.  thankfully, i do love it — i’m going back for more. 

Cooper Chronicles: I.27

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

EISENMAN, comma, P. the words stared defiantly from the page, exuding a very New York attitude: “here we are, whatcha gonna do about it?” i must have looked a little taken aback, because the secretary glanced up at me: “is that the wrong one?”

“no, this is mine.”  i recovered quickly and made for the elevator.

the words wouldn’t leave me alone.  for the rest of that day, and the next few weeks, they came back every so often, making me put down my drafting brush or vine charcoal or photo paper and think for a few seconds.  (at that point, a few seconds was a tremendous amount of time.)

mentally, i was packing my bags onto the baltimore‑bound greyhound.  my first semester at cooper had been good; the first half of this one had been highly stressful, and the second half was terrible.  i had already written letters to a few schools, telling them i wanted to transfer for my second year.  i was going to stick it out until the end of the semester — and then get *out* of there as fast as the NY transit could carry me.  i felt so strongly about this that i didn’t even want to register for next year, but there i was, at the last possible minute, knocking on the door of Student Services with my yellow registration card.  i had filled in only the basic second‑year classes, since they rarely have time for electives, but there was plenty there to keep me busy.  the killer, of course, is their design course, which fills 99 percent of their time, along with its accompanying Modern Architectural Concepts, consisting of only a weekly lecture and some reading.  then there was calculus, physics, structures 1 (a combination of the two), and architectural history 2.  i hadn’t even thought about it, just watched as my hand mechanically wrote down the information.

the secretary tapped in the course numbers, and a few minutes later the sheet popped out.  at the top was listed “DESIGN II.”  and under the instructor’s name: “EISENMAN, comma, P.

if i left cooper, i would be throwing away the chance to study under this man — this man who is more enigmatic, more demanding, and even more arrogant than abraham (my design professor this year). his approach to teaching is also a world apart.  abraham is primarily concerned with the aesthetic; he wants to see something beautiful.  even if a project lacks an idea, he may go for it. “it has a certain … quality … ” he will say, rubbing his thumb, index and middle fingers together in a favorite gesture.  “there is … something there, no?”  and he will trash the craftsmanship, or the crude way in which it was executed, but if it appeals to his sense of beauty all can be forgiven.

peter eisenman is an intellectual.  his thinking is highly academic, but he does not use unnecessarily long words to communicate it.  consequently, anyone can understand his speech.  (what he is *saying,* however, is often beyond me.)  he doesn’t speak on a whim, or change his mind suddenly, the way abraham and most three‑year‑olds do; every sentence that comes out of his mouth is the product of carefully thought‑out logic.

this year, my class produced drawings done on Stonehenge or Arches, or some other high‑quality paper.  we used three or four kinds of lead, which varied in softness, so that the drawings had a sensitive, transparent quality that translated into depth when viewed from a greater distance.  shading, line weight, and composition were all tools that we used to communicate our ideas.  In theory, that’s how it works; in actuality, we spent most of the year looking for something that he’d like.  we learned the art of what my engineer‑friend pete calls “architectural bullshit”; draw something with a lot of lines and make up an explanation later.

i do not deny that some people understood exactly what they were doing.  i think that i even understood, some of the time.  but when all hinges on abraham’s aesthetic, it’s easy to be misjudged.  he would tell me a drawing was “sensitive” when it was dashed off in two hours; and one that i had worked on for days would be dismissed as “diagrammatic.” diagrams were distateful to abraham. but for the second‑year class, that was their whole focus.  during the first semester, when they concentrate on analysis, they create diagrams of buildings ‑‑ highly complex drawings done in ink on clear mylar, with no room for a sensitive touch.  they were logical drawings, intellectual drawings ‑‑ not easily understood, like Eisenman’s speech, but easily digestible.  when you look at a nuclear physics equation that takes up the entire chalkboard, you may not have even a trace of understanding of the subject, but you can appreciate the beauty of the logical order and the simplicity with which it was executed.  (as abraham reminds us constantly, a thing can be complex without being complicated; often the simplest concepts are much too complex for us to understand.)  this was how i felt whenever i sat in on one of eisenman’s critiques.  fascinated; intrigued; completely in the dark.  when he and one of the other professors got into a debate about some obtuse architectural concept, i was amazed at how much of it i was able to follow, but as soon as they were done it left me, and i couldn’t find words to voice it to someone else when they asked me what it was about.

eisenman is approachable.  on the first day of class last year, he told the students: “if i’m wrong, just tell me: ‘peter, you’re wrong.’”  of course, no one took the opportunity, and no one really called him “peter” (to his face.)  but they had been given the freedom to do so, and he wouldn’t have batted an eyelash if someone had.  the problem is, he’s not wrong very often, and it’s hard to catch him at it.  approachable, but not approachable.  (dialectics?)

i don’t know what, if anything, i’ve learned this year.  it would be nice to be able to point to something definitive and say, “i learned *this.*”  like a calculus formula, or a set of dates in history, or a poem recited from memory.  but what i learned this year, i think, is a different approach to learning altogether.  it was a different way of thinking.

i learned how to be a critic.  formerly, i was much too intimidated by the institution of Architecture‑with‑a‑capital A.  i would venture, “well, i like this, but i’m not really one to say,” and so devalue my own judgment until i was afraid to voice my own opinion.  abraham taught me that my instinct was important.  the best crit i ever received was the only one in which i followed my convictions and did what i wanted to do.  of course, he ended up hating the project, but that didn’t change how i felt about it.  though he was a world‑famous architect, i learned that it was okay to point out flaws in his teaching methods, his logic, and even (gasp!) his buildings. 

i learned that it isn’t possible to get an A in a class just by trying hard, and that sometimes a C has to be an acceptable grade.  in fact, i’m learning to kind of forget about grades altogether.  all i can do is put forth my best effort, combine it with the tools i have been given ‑‑ some from God, some from Cooper Union ‑‑ and learn all i can from the process.  learning doesn’t necessarily mean succeeding; in fact, sometimes it means failing, over and over again.

i learned how to struggle with something until it makes you want to give up, but remain angry enough at it to keep struggling.  i came into my drawing class with zero experience; my first few weeks’ work was laughable, but i improved a lot, very quickly, under one of the best teachers i’ve ever had.  but i wasn’t happy; i’m *still* not happy with my work.  i can acknowledge that i’ve come a long way without being satisfied with my current state.  at my final critique, Gussow raved about my progress.  “oh my GOD, emily!” she said, over and over again.  i had to laugh as she held up my first self‑portrait, from the first week of school, next to the one i had just completed a few days ago.  “Arnea,” she said to the TA next to her, “LOOK what this girl did.”  there was a huge difference, i thought ‑‑ but something in me was still unsatisfied, and will always be, I suppose.  i know i am capable of more.

i learned how to appreciate the beauty of geometry, even the despised cube.  it’s invaded my life; even the other day when i was buying Q‑tips, i picked the container that was shaped like a cube. penley laughed at me for having the Abraham aesthetic.  and i’ve noticed words like “dialectics,” “opposition,” and “tectonic” begin to creep into my everyday speech.  if my conversation partner is an architect, she leans forward and nod eagerly; if not, he begins to get that glazed‑over look. i’m also learning to cope with a little bit of alienation. 

i learned that i have an insatiable desire to study architecture, regardless of my ability.

i learned that sometimes you just have to skip class. 

i learned that first impressions are often correct ‑‑ descriptive geometry never got interesting.

and, thanks to the dean, i learned that architecture isn’t the wrong field for a Christian – in fact, it could be the exact right one.

so, to make a short story long, those two little words and a comma made me think hard for a week, and i quit the ambivalence that had characterized my speech for the last month (“i’m leaving cooper ‑‑ i’m staying at cooper ‑‑ i’m leaving cooper ‑‑ i’m staying at cooper”) and decided to stay. in the midst of the Very Worst Week Ever, i decided to commit myself to another year at Cooper, and all the joys and sorrows (more sorrows than joys, perhaps) that it entails.

i think next year will be easier in a few ways.  i won’t have abraham’s moods ‑‑ which are dependent on the status of his dating relationship and the Yankees’ latest streak ‑‑ to deal with.  i have a year of sketchy Cooper experiences to go on.  i have yet to learn real discipline, but i think having eisenman will help.

i owe you all an apology for my extended absence.  as i said, it’s been a pretty bad semester; i got very depressed towards the end, and i couldn’t think of anything uplifting or witty to write.  in hindsight, it was all worth it; at the time, i just wanted to give up.  i missed these letters as much as you did, and probably more.  they’re good for me; unless i collect my thoughts and form them into a cohesive body, they remain scattered and fragmented and i don’t really learn anything from them. 

and, since a good author never leaves her audience hanging, i’ll try to catch you up.

my final crit went very badly.  abraham tore down everything about my project; especially what he loved last time, which was that it was so intensely personal.  “i can’t understand it.  no one understands it but you.  it’s too personal,” he complained.  oddly enough, i didn’t mind so much; i was very happy with my project.  what upset me was that he was giving everyone another week to improve their projects; this wasn’t really a “final” crit.  so, i had a week to totally redo my project, which had taken me more than a semester to complete.  plus, i had all of my other classes ‑‑ the ones i had ignored all semester long ‑‑ to catch up on.  the daunting thought that i still had to work on this project, after i had built up May 4 as the day i could stop thinking about it, was too much; i totally came apart.  just as i needed to be strong and finish the year, i cried every day for a week, usually about something very trivial (not being able to find my socks, for instance.) i worked on my project, developing ideas, trying to come up with something that responded to his critique; by tuesday, when the professors had started to look at the improved projects, my model was still not completed.  i approached abraham almost in tears: “i don’t know how to say this,” i said, “but my project isn’t finished.  i worked all week on it, but i need at least another few hours in the shop …”  i waited for the inevitable verbal barrage, but abraham responded, as usual, unpredictably.  “well, keep working on it!”  he patted my shoulder.  “we are not time monsters.  If you need more time, take more time!”  i looked at him in disbelief.  “go ahead!”  he said.  “show it to me on thursday.”

i had any number of obstacles.  the shop closed for the summer on wednesday; i had to kowtow abjectly to the “shop boss” for permission to come in early thursday morning, and was almost refused.  then someone threw my half‑finished model away, and i had to start from scratch.  finally, as i soldered the steel together, i attached the wrong pieces and had to melt the solder, sand down and re‑solder them.  the blowtorch wouldn’t work; the solder wouldn’t stick; the feet on my mannequins kept falling off, and one ‑‑ whom i had sawed in half ‑‑ kept losing his head and right arm.

somehow, i finished the project ‑‑ it wasn’t anything i was proud of, but it was what abraham wanted to see.  i had responded to his critique and changed my project accordingly.  Its integrity was lost, but i was too tired to care.  i had to turn my attention to my other classes; my photo teacher was angry with me for missing lectures (i had gone home two weekends in a row to attend a church service and a wedding), my lit teacher assigned two 5‑page papers in a week and a half, and i had four long (2‑hour) drawings and a portfolio to put together for Gussow.  It sounds like a nightmare; actually, it was worse.  i don’t know how i finished it all.  i had to take an incomplete in Descriptive Geometry, but it will give me the chance to complete all the work and end up with a better grade.  the one class i totally bombed was architectural history; i completely stopped attending classes, and i think i knew three out of the ten buildings on the exam.  hopefully, my project will save me.

i’m going to stay in new york for the summer.  i’m taking physics at cooper (it’s free; they won’t accept any other schools’ credits, and i need to get at least one class out of the way) and working ‑‑ probably a combination of a retail job and temp office work.  i found a place to stay ‑‑ with sara, my roommate from last year.  raquel isn’t coming back to cooper next year, but she may stay in the city; i’m renting her spot in the apartment until school starts, and may get to keep it if she decides to live somewhere else.  the other occupants of the apartment are boys; one whom i know, one whom i’ve never met.  i’m not planning to be in the apartment much next year, though; most nights i will probably spend in the studio.

i hear it’s a cute little place; i haven’t seen it, but here i am in the car zooming up to Soho to move in.  i can’t believe this is going to be my summer.  it’s definitely not what i would have expected. but then, cooper has been very different from what i expected.  i didn’t know what i was doing when i went there, or i might not have taken the chance.  i’m glad i did. 

Cooper Chronicles: I.26

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

“Forgive me my frustration!”  Professor abraham shouted at me.  (He didn’t sound very sorry.)  “But in thirty-five years of teaching, this is the worst semester I have ever had!”

I had thought he was going to say, “this is the worst project I have ever seen!” so this was much preferable.  Still, it was a pretty harsh statement to make.  The *worst* semester out of seventy of them.  He had been teaching for roughly twice as long as I’d been alive. 

Although prone to making broad, sweeping statements and using superlatives out of context, abraham generally has a point.  He certainly did here.  The semester had been really, really tough in more ways than one — the project was difficult, our creative senses were worn down, and it seemed that the lower we sank, the less our professors tried to help pull us out.  There was no practical instruction or advice given during the critiques — just general ranting and picking on one or two specifics that annoyed them.  They were grossly disappointed with our performance; no one seemed to be on the right track.

There is one, and only one, consistent piece of advice that I’ve been given by every cooper affiliate I’ve come into contact with at one time or another: full speed ahead, and damn the professors.  If you’re here for them, they say, you’ll learn nothing.  If you’re here for you, you can’t go wrong; failure is not the end of the world if you’re exploring something of interest to you.  At first, I thought this sounded pretty arrogant; later, pretty cool. But it wasn’t until I had left the studio in the middle of class, disgusted with the abraham’s arrogance and the obsequiousness of his underlings, that I realized I was *doing* it.  As I sat in the library, surrounded by books on the construction of shadows, completely disobeying their orders to “stop researching and draw,” it occurred to me that I no longer cared what they thought; I was pursuing something because it interested me, and because I felt it was important to my project.  Their opinions were of tertiary interest.

This both scared and thrilled me.  I called my house at midnight the night before my crit to tell my sleepy parents the good news: “if abraham tears me apart tomorrow, I won’t care, because I’ll know he’s wrong.  I think my idea is pretty cool!”  I thought that even if crit wasn’t the next day, I would be pulling an all-nighter anyway — out of sheer interest in my project.

My first idea for an intervention, the one they had praised only for its spirit, had been on the right track: I had constructed and built the shadows of the cube during different hours of the day, and turned these structures into supporting interventions.  After their critique that it was “too literal,” I had tried and tried to find something that was more conceptual, and each time I fell flat on my face and killed the idea with too much planning.  Now I went back to my instincts.  I abstracted the three bodies into lines and points; with descriptive geometry and the books I had been reading, I constructed the shadows of each body and built them.  And, as a final flaunt to the parameters of the project, I placed each of the bodies *outside* the cube, so that they didn’t intervene at all.  Instead, they intervened through the shadows, which were projected up from the ground into the void of the cube.

The central idea here is the presence of absence.  There are three autonomous elements — cube, bodies, intervention — which, when left alone, retain the memory of the other two.  A shadow is both a presence and an absence; the absence of a body, but the presence of something entirely different and mysterious, which doesn’t even exist until it’s trapped on a surface somewhere.  I love talking about my ideas, but building them always presents a problem.  I didn’t feel that this project was “it,” but it was a lot closer than I’d ever come.  And I liked my idea — I really believed in it.

So, when crit time rolled around on thursday, I was much less nervous.  I knew they’d probably be mad because of all the rules I had broken.  The bodies’ positions were not tectonic ideas, but narrative, theatrical expressions.  The interventions did not support the bodies; they didn’t even touch them.  I was prepared for the worst, but unconcerned.  The worst they could do had been done already.  I was used to the rippings-apart.

I was unprepared, then, for what happened.  They loved my project.  My drawings were “beautiful” and “magic”; my idea was “poetic” and “philosophical.”  At first, they were a bit critical of the narrative bodies, but when I agreed with them, abraham shook his head sharply.  “Now that I think about it,” he frowned, “i don’t think we can tell her to change it.  This project is so personal — she’s created her own world, a magical world.  I want to protect the intimacy of her idea — to force her into a more academic position would be to ruin the poetics of her project.”  He looked at me.  “I want to see more production.  More of these magical drawings.  Explore your idea, your world.”  One of the other professors moved to comment, and abraham shook her off.  “We have set rules, yes.  But sometimes they need to be broken.”

Waltemath told me I had found what I had just barely discovered in my first project, and carried it out to fruition. Gersten told me my drawings were “wild,” which coming from him is a compliment.  Wines commented on the project as I was pinning it up.  “Whew!”  she said in amazement.  But none of these really matter in comparison to what abraham said.

Of course, I feel gratified, but I’m still going to do what I want.  They told me not to change anything, but I think I need to make some adjustments — I’m going to do it my way.  If they change their mind at the next critique, which is the final critique for the year, I’ll take it in stride.  Abraham has given me enough fuel to ride out these next five weeks.

Suddenly, it’s spring in the city!  We’ve rejoiced in the sunshine, warm rain and free, happily sandaled feet of the season.  The words “light jacket” are very seductive after a winter of three or four layers per body part.  And with the nice weather came a visit from a dear friend, anna deal, who brought her sweetheart shawn for a day and a half.  They toured the city, taking in the sights on the itinerary I made up for them, while I stayed in the studio aaaaaaallllll day … ahh, the life of a martyr … that night, though, penley and I took them to our favorite indian restaurant, the one that reminds me of the skit from “how to irritate people” — the staff are so accommodating, one almost expects them to carry out the chairs and burn them when they discover a fleck of dust.  Whenever penley and I order takeout there, they seat us at a table, give us menus to look at, and bring us complimentary cups of spiced tea (although penley grumbles that they never give him that kind of treatment when he comes by himself.)  the head waiter greets us as his best friends every time we come in, no matter how busy it is.

the unthinkable happened during a lecture on melevitch last thursday — my cell phone rang, loudly, in the middle of professor waltemath’s rhapsodizing.  I was mortified, but quickly turned it off before very many people knew it was me.  These lectures are pretty cyclical — we go through interesting and boring spells.  Now I’m really enjoying them.  Melevitch’s work is ambiguous enough to generate a discussion, but straightforward enough to impose some order on the pandemonium.  (Formerly, we were discussing robert smithson, which was a disaster.)  i’ve been to the met several times too — I think I’m finally getting it.  You have to pick one or two and work on them for awhile, or you’ll fry your brain trying to take everything in at once.  I’m always amazed at how long one can study a painting and still not really understand it.  Gussow sent us last week to look at the five vermeers and handful of cezannes in their collection, and they’re so complex that you could easily lose an hour or two trying to figure it out.  Of course, the beauty there is that they will never be figure-out-able.

This morning was Orthodox palm sunday, since we go by the old calendar — also, unfortunately for yours truly, it was daylight savings.  I had no idea this was the case, and by the time I realized it, I was an hour and a half late for church.  As I hurried over, feeling guilty for being uninformed, I passed the ukranian byzantine-rite catholic church right across from the studio, and upon seeing the doors opened (i had never seen this before) I ventured in. With my gypsy attire, I was worried I would attract some foreign friends, but no such luck — they left me alone to gaze up at the domed ceiling and golden mosaics that adorn every inch of the walls, and listen to the choir sing in melancholy harmony, the music drifting high up into the worship space.  Their liturgy was exactly the same as ours, but in another language — church slovanic, I think, because I recognized some of the hymns from my russian parish.  At the end of the service, they dispensed pussy willow branches (no palm trees in kiev!!) and the congregation spilled out into the street, talking loudly and gesturing wildly, the pussy willows creating a strange sort of forest above their heads.  It was, as my photo teacher would have said, a very “photographic” moment, but I think it will live better in my memory.

I must apologize for my prolonged absence in your in-boxes, dear readers — I had a pretty bad week, and it took all of spring break to recover.  You are never far from my thoughts, even when I’m not writing.

Cooper Chronicles: I.25

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

it was One Of Those Days.  two o’clock in the morning, and i stood in the drawing room, staring at my homework: six giant pieces of newsprint with vine charcoal smeared all over them.  a very perceptive (and possibly pre‑informed) person could tell that they were drawings of paper bags, but to me all they looked like was blurred, smudged messiness.  crit was in seven hours, and i wanted to sleep, but i had to finish the rest of them. 

as is typical, my friends and i had entered the room blithely, chattering and being generally silly; we put on some mellow electronica music and started working.  gradually, we talked less and less, until a look of grim resolve settled onto our faces. about an hour before, penley had stood up from his drawing, ripped it in half, and stormed out, leaving his assignment half finished.  One Of *Those* Days.

i glared at the work spread out before me.  the first drawing was all right, but as the hour got later and my frustration increased, they had became more and more unintelligible.  the last one was supposed to be a “nice”, final drawing; but by the time i got to it (about midnight) it was too late to buy “nice” paper.  so i struggled with the cheap stuff.  my professor’s words played over and over in my head as i clenched my teeth in determination: “do it wrong, but do it.  get it down.  look at it, erase it, start again.”  i was *trying* to do it, but it wouldn’t be done. 

we’re working with tone right now, and it’s giving me fits.  just when i thought i was starting to “get” drawing in the tiniest sense of the word, she introduced shading ‑‑ these dark, mysterious shapes that make a drawing beautiful if done correctly but ridiculous if not.  for me, it was usually not.  one stubborn bag just refused to be drawn, and in desperation i made it darker and darker and darker until it resembled a lump of coal. i erased it and drew it again, but this time the newsprint was tired of being scribbled on; the charcoal barely made a mark, and as i pressed harder the paper began to tear.  i wanted to cry, but i wouldn’t give those smirking paper bags the satisfaction.  they knew they were winning this battle, i could tell.  they had awakened all my feelings of self‑doubt and insecurity: “why am i playing around with this? … i’ll never be any good at this art stuff … i should get out of this school and go somewhere i can excel … i’m wasting my time and my parents’ money by staying here … ” i was alone; without anyone else there to lighten the mood, i sank further into my own melodramatic self‑pity and artistic angst.

three hours later, after pinning up and finishing the other part of my assignment (studies of the Old Masters; this week i was working from a Rembrandt), i climbed into my bed, exhausted, and fell asleep in my clothes.  sara woke me up at twenty to nine, and i hurried off to class, dreading  the lecture i knew i deserved.  despite the fact that i had pinned up before anyone else, professor gussow skipped around the room and didn’t come to my drawings until almost the very end.  i stepped forward, a little ashamed to even claim ownership. 

“AAAAHHhhhhhhh … ” that loud, slightly gravelly voice was cut off as she turned to face my work.  she stopped in the middle of sitting down and examined the drawings.  “these are very … different, emily,” she said in an i’m‑impressed voice.  i made a sound that was somewhere in between a whimper and a growl. 

“you don’t think so?” gussow asked.  

“no, they’re definitely *different*,” i pouted. 


“well, i was more frustrated than i’ve ever been.”

“ahhhhh.”  she smiled triumphantly.  privately, we all believe that gussow has some sort of frustration‑detector.  she loves to see the signs of a struggle.  she pointed, as i knew she would, to my last drawing, complete with smudges (both accidental and intentional) and rips in the paper.  “you can see that.  but it works.  you’re finally making yourself do it, and it’s paid off.  i just wish you had had a nicer piece of paper to wrestle with; you might have come out with something better.”  she praised my sense of composition, pointed out places in my drawings that really showed the volumetric quality of the bags and spots where i had used tone effectively and not just applied it in patches, and said that in general they “read” very powerfully. 

sometimes i’m happy with my work.  i know when i’ve done a good drawing and when i’ve done a lousy one.  when i’m content, gussow will compliment me in passing ‑‑ and then upbraid me for something i hadn’t even thought of.  that’s okay; i still feel a sense of accomplishment, and i can see how far i’ve come since the first day.  it’s when i’m angry with myself, though, that she appreciates my effort.  in a completely academic and sincere way, she offers encouragement and makes me want to try again.

the past few weeks have been bad for me in drawing class, and in school in general; i hardly ever feel even slightly pleased with the results of my labor.  i tried to explain it to penley one night: “i don’t think i belong at cooper.  i don’t understand anything; i’m not even sure if i’m *learning* anything.  all i do is become frustrated.  and i’m not used to this.  when i get a challenge, i want to face it head‑on and conquer it.  in  high school, i could handle anything.  all i had to do was apply myself and study hard, and i could get A’s.  why can’t i just draw hard and GET it?  how come when i work nonstop on my design project, i STILL don’t understand?  this is HARD!”

he grinned.  “congratulations, emily … you’re growing up!”

i suppose i am growing up.  planning my own meals, setting my own bedtime (or lack thereof), and yes, even listening to Prairie Home Companion voluntarily.  (it’s actually improving the quality of my drawings.)  and, mostly, learning that some things in life can’t be “gotten” just by studying hard.  it takes a lot of practice and a lot of frustration.  “life is annoying.  art is better.”  gussow said it herself.  and sometimes art can be just as annoying. 

the MoMA held an architecture symposium called “in the works: urban spectacle” on tuesday, and we were allowed to miss class to attend, though we had to jump through some hoops to get tickets.  there were two panels of architects, which included (most of you will be unmoved by this information, but i include it for your edification) libeskind, tschumi, koolhaus, hadid, eisenman, ito and (of course!) my own dear professor, raimund abraham.  i’m ashamed to say that one of the main reasons we went was to see if he would act any differently in front of his contemporaries; we were not disappointed.  he used the same in‑your‑face, quasi‑logical rhetoric that he uses in our crits, and spoke with no more respect to peter eisenman than he did to me.  few others got a chance to speak during his panel’s discussion.  overall, it was somewhat of a disappointment.  we got to see all the “big guns” of modern architecture; even philip johnson was seated in the front row, looking as though a violent sneeze might be the end of him.  but aside from hearing them talk about their work, there wasn’t much of a real dialogue.  mostly, they got hung up on the meaning of the word “spectacle” and played semantic games.  to his credit, abraham was the only one of the eight to attempt to hold a true debate, and he did most of the talking.  it was an interesting afternoon. 

more interesting, though, was the daniel libeskind lecture that penley and had attended at columbia university the precious night.  we had to sneak in, because it was too crowded and the lines were long ‑‑ so we put on our best “architect personae” and marched through the doors as if we knew someone in the front row.  amazing, how well that works … we had to sit on the floor, but it was worth it.  libeskind is a very engaging and fascinating speaker, a piano‑virtuoso‑turned‑architect who graduated from Cooper years ago and is now working from Berlin.  he’s pretty well‑known for his crazy museum designs ‑‑ the “unfolding spiral” V&A museum addition and the Jewish Museum, among others. 

one night eliot and i were doing drawing homework in my apartment when we got into a theological discussion; i was trying to remember the exact wording of a passage from one of the Narnia Chronicles.  so eliot brought in his boxed set, and i looked it up.  however, he forgot to take them back that night, or the next, or the next … so here they sit, a constant temptation.  yesterday, penley and i read most of the Silver Chair out loud when we were supposed to be making models.  well, i know what i’ll be doing next week during break.

this week is going to be another nightmare …  i have a midterm exam and project in history, a design crit, a photo crit, a drawing crit, and a written exam for literature.  looks like that soft embalmer of the still midnight won’t be seeing much of me in the next few days.  after that, though, i have a week’s respite, and then only 6 more weeks until (dare i utter the word?) summer!

i think i can. i think i can. i think i can.

Cooper Chronicles: I.24

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

i’ve lived in new york for six months now.  i can name thirty good places to eat and five *really* good ones.  i can tell you where the most and least aggressive panhandlers lie in wait, and i can find my way to the MoMA blindfolded in a hailstorm.  but i still can’t dress for the weather.

my consistent ability to be dead wrong drives me crazy.  if it’s ten below and windy, i’ll come out in a thin gauzy floral dress and a light sweater; if it’s sunny and mild, i’ll be wearing thermal underwear and three jackets.  from the fourteenth floor, it’s hard to tell what temperature it is, and our windows only open a crack — not enough to stick your whole head out and check.  plus, the temperature in our apartment is misleading.  one of my suitemates continually cranks it up to 90 degrees and still complains that she’s cold.  since the thermostat is in my bedroom, i guard it with jealousy, but many times i’ll open the door and be almost knocked over by the wave of stifling heat.  i suspect she’s trying to roast the rest of us for an upcoming dinner party.

i can’t count the number of times i’ve wished i knew what the weather was like before i got dressed, or changed my mind about clothing at the last minute and regretted it.  this morning as i rushed to get ready for church, i proudly put on my long johns under my dress and got out my thickest coat, remembering how cold i was last week during the ten-block walk; i stepped outside and was greeted with pouring rain.  i resisted the temptation to buy an umbrella on the way there, since i already own four (guess why?)

calling the weather costs money, and i have learned not to trust what others say (“cool” could mean anything from fifteen degrees to fifty.)  and, UNlike my mother, i have not built up a particular attachment to the local weatherman.  so i hope my judgement improves soon.

i thoroughly enjoyed my sixteen hours at home last Sunday.  Forgiveness Vespers was as powerful as ever, and i was really glad i had come home to participate in it.  Lent began (page twelve this year, david) in the middle of the service, and will continue until April, when we celebrate Pascha (the Orthodox Easter.)  for Orthodox Christians, it entails a fast from meat, animal products, fish, wine and olive oil.  so i’ve been sampling lentil soup (i wonder if that’s how they got their name?) and plain bagels at all the restaurants around here.  so far, the winner is Karen’s on Astor, a gourmet vegetarian café that sells wonderful vegan soups — carrot ginger, tomato basil, and veggie chili, not to mention their fabulous lentil stew.  it’s good cold-weather food.

it was also interesting to board the train at 2:00 in the morning.  penley came with me to the station, for which i was quite grateful once we got there — there appeared to be a convention of scary homeless people on the bottom floor.  my plans for the way back, though, were made in such haste that i forgot to ask someone to meet me there — so i got off the bus at Times Square alone.  i planned to take the subway home, which you can do without leaving the Port Authority station, but for some reason it was closed off.  i was herded through a maze of tunnels until i emerged outside, on the “other” side of Times Square.  one word: sketchy.  it was quiet — too quiet — and sprinkled with the kind of moneymaking establishments that my beloved Giuliani *said* he was going to get rid of.  i thought i’d just walk until i found a subway station outside, but after ten or fifteen minutes of freezing temperatures and nervous whistling i asked a policeman instead.  after relating this story to my mother, i wasn’t sure i should have gone into that much detail.  thankfully, though, guardian angels don’t go off-duty. 

one, two, three, four, five, six little slices and an obstinate splinter adorn my fingertips as i type.  i spent most of last week making basswood models for the crit on thursday, and as i grew more tired i was less able to control my Xacto blade.  none are serious, but a little embarrassing — the only band-aids i own are bright green with pictures of characters from the Little Mermaid.  i try to hold my head high.

this week was just one more in the frenzy of activity that hasn’t ceased since i came back after Christmas break.  my personal habits are disintegrating — my room is never neat except for on weekends, and last week i slept twice on a naked bed because i was too tired at 4 AM to put the clean sheets back on.  and on friday, i discovered that i can turn my alarm clock off without knowing it; i woke at ten, an hour late for my class, and rushed over three minutes before it was my turn for critique.  i think my friends up on 58th street heard my sigh of relief. 

our crit, which was done half on tuesday and half on thursday, was a disappointment to all.  for some reason, the professors feel that none of us are working hard enough; though they admit that this is the hardest problem they have ever assigned (hard in its simplicity; bodies and a space are the essence of all architectural principles), they insist we need more “intellectual rigor.”  my crit sounded a lot like everybody else’s.  abraham liked my idea and my model was okay, but he threw a fit (this is typical) over the most minor element of my presentation: a few pages of sketches i had made early in the thinking process.  they were done, alas, in red pen.  then one of the other professors started snapping pieces off my model to see what it would look like.  their ostentatious attitude is starting to get to me, but at least i can still laugh.  in fact, i was emotionally affected the *least* during this one.  the most sound and consistent advice i’ve been given by students and teachers both about surviving at Cooper is this: work for yourself.  accept the professors’ critique only to the extent that you believe in it, and beyond that you can ignore what they say.  go with your ideas and your process, and if you can defend it, no one will stop you.  i’ve decided to do that from now on — working to please the professors is much too time- and energy-consuming, and i don’t need to be worrying about that on top of everything else.  

this weekend, then, was strictly time off for me.  on friday, penley and i journeyed uptown to see a Piranesi exhibit at Columbia university and check out their architecture studios, and shoot lots of film to make up for the weeks behind and ahead when we would have no time for our “fun” classes.  that night we rented a Russian film called “nostalgia,” but found it too hard to stay awake — so instead we watched “transformers: the movie.”  (there will be no comments about my declining mind, thank you.)  saturday, i worked on my next piece for Books and Culture magazine and caught up on the scores of e-mail messages that i hadn’t read in over a month.  let me apologize again to everyone who has felt neglected or cold-shouldered — i’ll try not to do that again!

norman’s sound and vision, the slightly-shady used CD/video store down the street, is having a sale; all of their used CDs are a dollar.  the store is constantly crammed with ferocious beasts who root through the boxes ravenously.  two nights ago, i was there looking for an album i had just heard.   as i approached the employee who was stocking the shelves, he suddenly pointed an accusing finger: “are you from Hard Copy?”  despite the manual camera around my neck, i assured him i was innocent.  “you sure?  i don’t wanna be on the six o’clock news or nothin’.”  playing along, i asked him if he’d mind answering a few questions and turning to the side so i could get a profile shot … the funny thing is, a few hours later, i saw the same guy in Kim’s Video.  “Hard Copy!  she’s from Hard Copy!  watch out!”  he warned the entire floor.  quite an engaging character.

today after church i tried to go and see a documentary about a prison in Angola that was said to be quite powerful and moving — instead (i *guess* it was a mistake) they directed me to one that traced the life and times of an obscenely egotistical dance choreographer.  hmmm, three strikes — maybe i should stop trying to see films at the MoMA?

Cooper Chronicles: I.23

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

when you step off the elevator and enter the third floor of the Foundation Building, you’re taken a little aback at the sight of our “project.”  the giant cube, six feet to a side, has occupied our thoughts since day one of the Cooper experience.  a few steps more to the right, though, and a sudden left turn, and you’re right in the middle of the action - where the actual *think*ing takes place.  the studio.

it’s a long, open room, with four sections of students (first through fourth year; thesis students get private chambers.)  taking in the expanse of it, one sees desks, high drafting stools, and an army of black table lamps.  a closer look reveals the nature of the space as living quarters, not just working ones - there are Chinese food cartons, houseplants, photos of family and friends and other vestiges of the outside world (so that when we emerge into it temporarily, we’re not completely disoriented.) 

everyone likes to joke about it, including the architects themselves.  how we leave when it’s barely light out and return at dawn the next day.  how we’ve forgotten the names and addresses of our own roommates (kinda tough when you actually have *time* to go home but can’t remember where it is.)  how we exist in a permanent state of burnout, confusion and fatigue. 

here, in the studio, we are drained of our creativity, robbed of our social lives, and deprived of our sleep.  but there’s something special about all of that agony.  in a twisted sort of way, we enjoy it.  we must, or we wouldn’t be here.

i can’t tell you how frustrating it is to have an idea - a clear, focused, idea that’s so real you can taste it - and not be able to write it down, draw it or make a sketch model to show your professors.  i can’t tell you how much more frustrating it is to not have an idea at all.  and even if you’ve figured out how to execute your idea, there’s the matter of time, which is never adequate, and finding the stamina to stay up long enough to finish it.  but the frustration, the struggle, is all part of the creative process - you can work it to your advantage.  sometimes being completely blank is a better place to start than having a bunch of little ideas floating around somewhere.

it doesn’t make sense - i know it doesn’t.  that i would choose to spend so much of my time under the fluorescent lights of the third floor, among a hundred other students just as discouraged and inspired as i am.  but that’s the atmosphere that works.  somehow, at Cooper it’s worked for a hundred years or more.  because when i can’t figure something out, it’s a pretty good bet that someone else can.  there’s no ban on sharing ideas or offering assistance.  in fact, it’s encouraged to the utmost degree.

so as i sit at my desk, surrounded by the things i have grown to love - my leadholders, my scale, my drafting triangles and basswood models and the little red flower taped to my lamp, i can’t understand why anyone would scorn the relatively austere and impersonal atmosphere.  

it does get to be too much for us sometimes.  raquel (my roommate) went home last week, saying she needed a break.  when she came back after a week of vegging out and watching movies, she said it was the best decision she had made all year.  penley and i did the same thing on tuesday, but on a much smaller scale — we skipped the first half of studio class and went to Central Park to enjoy the beautiful springlike weather that visited us for a day.  once you’ve made a conscious decision to waste time for a few hours, they become all the more enjoyable.

our crit was postponed for a week, so on wednesday we printed photos all night instead of working on architectonics.  raphael chased sara around the apartment for almost an hour, imitating moves from old kung-fu movies and speaking so that his mouth kept moving after his sentences were finished.  “oh, so you want my fruit then?” he said as he held the tangerine in front of her face.  he moved jerkily, with the peculiar sound that accompanies every punch.  we laughed until our sides hurt.  (i sometimes think college has made us less adult-like than we were before.)  then we went for a walk and discovered the area around 1st avenue that sports numerous Italian delicatessens.  here you can find fifteen varieties of homemade pasta sauce, mounds of fresh mozzarella and cured olives, and fresh ravioli.  then there are the “patisserias” that sell creampuffs, cheesecakes, cannoli, and cookies — not too expensive, either.  such culinary indulgence is worth it once in awhile, as a break from sushi and lentil soup (a normal under-5-dollars-dinner).

thursday i had one of the most amazing experiences i’ve had while at Cooper.  john hedjuk, the dean of the architecture school, gave a lecture.  i had seen some of his work (he is more of an architectural theorist than a designer — publishes books rather than erecting buildings.  in fact, the only thing he’s ever designed and built was the renovation of the interior of Cooper’s Foundation Building.) and was rather perplexed by it.  he’s an extremely devout Catholic, so most of his stuff was composed of allegories that i didn’t quite understand; sketches of crucifixions, bizarre watercolors and poetry.  but hearing him speak — i can’t even explain it.  his work made sense.  he’s not a good speaker by any means; his Bronx accent was an interesting compliment to the intimate and personal poetry he read to us.  although he is built very large (some have called him the brontosaurus of architects), cancer has made him much weaker.  formerly, he ignored the rules and smoked wherever he pleased, in the studio, lobby or library; everyone else followed suit.  now no one dares to light up in the building.  he couldn’t even stand up for an hour to talk to us, and his words weren’t delivered smoothly.  but they were chosen very carefully, and we leaned forward to catch every one. 

he hadn’t given a lecture for fifteen years, he said, but he felt he needed to give one now.  i found out later, much to my dismay, that he wouldn’t allow anyone to tape this one.  i don’t remember very many specifics of what he said, just the power of his words.  he showed some slides — pen-and-ink sketches of chapels he had designed — read some poetry, and talked about growing up in the Bronx.  the structure of his speech didn’t even make very much sense.  but he was so honest that it was all the more compelling that way.

the thing that struck me the most was this: here was a deeply religious man who had committed himself to architecture.  many make architecture their religion; he made religion his architecture.  i had questioned my choice of study in such a secular environment — where the only thing that matters is that you get your very own way.  is this any place for a Christian?  hedjuk proved that it could be, and it was.  his work is beautiful — although i don’t understand why he lacks the desire to build some of his creations, i can appreciate them just as much unrealized.  the title of the lecture was “sanctuary,” and he listed a few things  that were sanctuaries for him: music, books, Cooper Union, and architecture.  he pours his religion into all aspects of his life — in that sense, he’s someone i can look up to and admire.  i’m glad to finally find a positive role model at my school, because i *don’t* want to end up like abraham.

i was much too awed then to go back to the studio, so i went and bought one of his books.  i rationalized the expense because it was the first architecture book purchased out of my own pocket.  i’ve been poring over it every spare minute since.  it was then that i realized something: i really love architecture.  when i came here, it was an interest — just one subject of many that i wanted to study.  now it’s become something i’m totally devoted to.  i travel all around the city to hear architects speak and to see exhibits of their drawings.  most of my photos for photo class are of buildings.  although i’m confused by the problem presented to us by our professors, i work on it until i can’t think anymore, and then some.  i spend my time at bookstores reading all the magazines i’m too poor to buy, and books that make me break the Tenth Commandment.  despite all of the unpleasant experiences i’ve had with temperamental and prima donna professors, i have found something that i love. 

so, on that warm and fuzzy note i leave you.  at 2:00 this morning i boarded a train for home — Orthodox Lent begins tonight with a service called Forgiveness Vespers.  tonight i will forgive all offenses committed against me by my brothers and sisters and ask their forgiveness for my own — which, i fear, are far more numerous.  :)  i will spend the rest of the day here, in the comfort of my own home and my own cat and daddy’s omelets, which are smelling *awfully* good.  mmmmmm.

Cooper Chronicles: I.22

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

it’s a familiar drill: the subway pulls into the station and jerks to a halt, temporarily throwing everyone off-balance.  people squeeze out and squeeze on, and nobody worries about being polite.  sometimes near-brawls ensue as feisty old “pepperpot” ladies fight to the death for a seat.  my solution is to glue my eyes to the floor, ensuring that no one will take offense at my actions, but even then things can get tricky.  (penley once got a verbal lashing from a woman after he *sneezed* on the train.)  it’s more than a little frightening at times, but that’s all part of the fun.

the subway drivers have different tactics for communicating with their unruly passengers.  some speak loudly but unintelligibly, like the drive-thru workers at McDonalds: “bshwaba schomp bishebish.  (pause)  i SAID, BSHWABA … “  some are gently chiding: “let ‘em off folks, let ‘em off.”  then, there’s the occasional psychopath, which we encountered last week.  “you people gotta let these guys on!”  (there was a crew of workers hauling boxes onto the train.)  “step aside!  let ‘em on now!”  we stayed in the station for three full minutes, the doors opening and closing as people pushed to get a spot.  finally, we took off.  as we hurtled through the dark tunnels, he came back on the loudspeaker.  “okay, they gotta load some freight onto the cars at this station too, and if you people don’t do a better job of getting along with them, this train’ll go out of service and you’ll have to wait for another one.  if that’s the kind of people who are ridin’ the subways, i don’t want to be drivin’ ‘em.”  i shared a glance of amusement with the businessman across from me, who remarked, “gee, i’m sorry, dad.”

i have fallen in love with photo class.  in the strange world of late nights and stressful Saturdays, neither of which i’m fully used to, it’s so refreshing to have a creative outlet that’s just plain fun.  on wednesday, i got up early and went to Alphabet City to take pictures.  our theme for the week was shadows and reflections, and i snapped shot after shot of strange metal structures jutting out of windows or furniture laying on the sidewalk for the garbage crews to take away — even junk can cast a stunningly beautiful shadow at 8:00 in the morning.  i was gone for an hour and a half, and when i got back to the studio to find that the film hadn’t engaged and no pictures had actually *taken*, i didn’t mind retracing my steps and taking them again.  playing the photographer is such a fun part — it allows one much more freedom to do and say bizarre things.  (i’m reminded of my drawing teacher, who tells us to mutter and speak foreign languages to avoid inquisitive questioners.)  and there’s no fear of losing my anonymity with so many places to shoot — uptown, midtown, downtown, the park or the bagel place — everywhere in this city is a picture waiting to happen.  the tough part is choosing shots that aren’t so obvious.  ah, oui, j’suis artiste … i take pleasure in stopping suddenly and staring down at a back alley or up at the façade of a building for five minutes solid, while passersby weave around me.  those who start to give me ugly looks stop as soon as they see the manual camera with monstrous zoom lens hanging around my neck.  “photographer,” they say to themselves with a pitying smile.  they don’t know my secret — it’s fun being a weirdo.  in fact, i may take to dressing in pink feather boas and sequins too (kidding, mom.)

developing is one of those enjoyable mindless activities.  wind the negatives, measure the chemicals, time them, agitate the container, wash the reels, cut the negatives, print a contact sheet, choose your prints, fiddle for hours with the contrast, lights and darks of the prints.  and when you’re done, you have these wonderfully huge pictures in striking black and white, suitable for framing, a product of your own two hands and a couple of useful machines.  our photo teacher, while tending towards nerdiness, is at least nice, and (to his credit) he has some work displayed in the MoMA. it’s a little hard to take him seriously  with a name like zeke.  plus, he says things like, “okay, we’ll be dealing with space next week … you guys know about that, right?  space?  architects do things with space, right?”  but at least  he uses no expletives when critiquing our work.  :)

with so many cheap places to eat around here, and so little time to cook, i’ve gotten into the habit of eating out almost every meal.  last week, i confess, i had Domino’s pizza for the first time since moving here.  (i still haven’t visited McDonald’s yet!)  New York pizza is a myth as far as i’m concerned — despite the fact that the slices are the size of small children, it has nothing much to offer besides grease.  but those good ol’ fast-food chains taste the same everywhere.  VeggieLovers was just as good as i remembered it, but one look at the bill reminded me that we were in Manhattan — and that this wouldn’t happen again any time soon.  $15.99 for a medium pizza (which was NOT enough to feed two starving college students) is pretty steep any way you look at it.  i enjoy choosing from the cultural mecca of restaurants — spanish, japanese, ukranian, middle eastern, italian, chinese, malaysian, and mexican.  to name a few.  but it was nice to taste authentic mass production for once. 

maybe someday i’ll learn my lesson about seeing movies at the MoMA … we did it once more on tuesday.  went to see “metropolis,” which was written up (again!) in an enigmatic way, and was supposed to be a classic.  it’s a futuristic story of what would happen to the world if we stopped caring about each other and only pursued money and power — made during the silent film era.  (i was most impressed that there was a live accompanist who played the soundtrack for two hours straight.  WITH NO MUSIC!!)  there was quasi-religious imagery sprinkled throughout, with strains of “Be Still My Soul” in the background.  the moral of the story, flashed on the screen for a full minute at the end of the movie, was “Mediator between the Brain and Hands must be the Heart.”  (it didn’t make any more sense in the context of the film.)

this week was the calm before the storm in architectonics.  we have another crit on thursday, and although i don’t anticipate anything nearly as traumatic as last time, i’m still pretty nervous.  this cube project is starting to go stale, i think — apathy has settled over most of the class, and we’re all hoping that this one will be the last — that they’ll assign a new problem.  working by ourselves has been both liberating and much tougher.  we shall see, we shall see.  mostly, i’m much calmer now because i’m fully expecting to get ripped apart — i can imagine the professors making a list and saying, “okay, we were nice to emily last week, right?  hmm, can’t let that happen again.”  weird school.

this morning, on the way home from church, i heard a loud voice behind me: “EMILY, COME HERE!”  i didn’t think God spoke like an old Brooklyn woman, and i’m at least partially aware that there are a few other people around here with my name.  i didn’t even look up.  the voice grew more agitated — “EMILY, BEHAVE YOURSELF!  I MEAN IT!!”  i continued to ignore her until she spoke right in my ear. “EMILY!”  i whirled around to see a woman carrying her unruly white poodle.  never a dull moment.

pete says we go to a nerd school — i have to admit, it seems so when you spend your entire day off (from 9:30 to midnight) at the studio.  such was friday, and so will be tomorrow.  and now i must fly to take this week’s roll of film (a delightful form of homework) before the light goes …  

Cooper Chronicles: I.21

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

thursday morning, 11 AM.  i hadn’t slept more than 12 hours all week long.  last night, i had pulled my first all-nighter — something i *swore* up and down i would never be a part of.  but i had worked through until 7 in the morning before sneaking out to take a shower and return at 8 when the building opened.  now i had three hours to finish my final drawing, i had no idea where i was going with it, i wasn’t sure about my idea for the project, i had four or five models to present but no clear way of tying them all together, and the thought of standing up in front of my professors and trying to explain to them what the heck i was doing struck fear into the deepest recesses of my heart.  (my thoughts actually sounded this melodramatic.)  i knew that the professors were unhappy with the class in general; they felt that we weren’t working hard enough or exhibiting the same “energy” that we had put forth in the first semester.  so they had split us up; instead of having a group, i was now left all alone.  thirty-four students, thirty-four individual proposals.  thirty-four pairs of knees knocking.

i stood at my desk, trying to clear my head and tell myself it was all hype, trying to finish my drawing.  i drew a line, erased it, drew it again, stared at it for twenty minutes, erased it again with a vengeance.  finally, i threw my pencil down in despair, and did the one thing that made sense at that moment: i called mommy.

i thought maybe if i told her what was bothering me, i would feel better.  so i started to tell her the story of last night, when penley and i had made a food run right before the building closed and gotten caught coming back.  the guard confiscated our id’s and angrily threatened to report us to the dean.  then, this morning, one of my professors (the least important one, but nonetheless an authority figure) called me into his office (his OFFICE!) and warned me about the building’s new policy: no all-nighters, and offenders would be

prosecuted and possibly kicked out.  his words echoed in my mind: “i was surprised to see *your* name on the list, emily.  i didn’t think you’d get caught up in this.”  the thought of disappointing someone, even someone for whom i had virtually no respect whatsoever, was too much for me.  two sentences into the story, and i was in tears.  “and i have a crit in … three hours … and i don’t … want to … talk … in front … of them … ” i managed to squeak out. 

maybe they take classes on these situations in mommy-school — but for whatever reason, my mom has always been an inexpressible comfort when i’m overly stressed.  she diagnosed my problem to a tee — no sleep, nothing to eat, guilt feelings over “breaking the rules,” nerves because of last semester’s grade and my professors’ bad moods.  just hearing her voice was enough to calm me down, and we prayed over the phone — that i would have strength and clarity of mind when i stood up to present, that i would be able to go near the beginning so that i wouldn’t have to suffer while everyone else was being critiqued, and that my words would express my thoughts without earning criticism for not being “architectonic” enough.  (i refuse to adopt a standard of language that i don’t completely understand, and i’m continually getting scolded for failing to pick up the jargon.)

i hung up the phone and cried it all out — something i hadn’t done since i had been here — and then washed my face, decided i didn’t need to finish my drawing, and pinned up my work.  my emotions were no longer rampant; in fact, i felt quite stoic.  if they tore me up, which i thought was probable, it didn’t matter.  i would learn from it, as i had in the past.

precisely at two o’clock, the professors stormed in.  they wanted to look at the work for half an hour undisturbed, and then they would choose a few projects to discuss.  i breathed a sigh of relief; this meant i would probably not be chosen.  we returned to find four scowling faces and a list of thirteen projects: out of a class of thirty-four, only thirteen were found to have “a clear idea that we can have an argument, a dialogue, with.  if there is no idea, you don’t deserve critique.”  they were none too happy about that fact; “i don’t feel like giving a pep talk,” abraham retorted.  apparently, we were beyond help.  waltemath whipped out the list, and as i was sitting next to her on the floor, i saw my name right in the middle.  i would have been terrified, but at this point i was too exhausted to care.  they were sitting directly in front of my work, and each time one paused to take a breath, their eyes rested on my drawings for a moment.  i remained calm.

“emily, since we’re here, why don’t you go first,” abraham said gruffly.  i stood up, being conscious of my posture, body language and nice dress, and cleared my throat.

abraham held up a hand.  “you don’t need to say anything.”  the other professors nodded.  “it’s not necessary — we can tell through your work what you were thinking.  we see your idea.  now we can have a discussion.”

for the next thirty minutes, i stood nodding and smiling as they explained how poetic and beautiful my idea was, and how difficult of a task it would be to transform a shadow from a phenomena to a reality.  i hadn’t done that, but i had tried — and they could see that.  “that’s what i call an idea,” abraham repeated.  gersten expostulated (as he is wont to do) on the virtues of creating a drawing that needs no word spoken by its creator to explain it.  waltemath, with whom i had had a long conversation with earlier in the week, said she could finally sense the direction i was taking and the means of expression i had chosen. 

and, for once, i understood every word of it.  it was nothing short of a miracle.

my crit looked better and better as we progressed through everyone else’s projects; more than once abraham failed to express himself except by cursing.  he told my friend julia that she was headed for “geometrical purgatory.”  (“i was going to say ‘geometrical hell,’” waltemath interjected.)  they hated the drawings; they hated the models; they hated the choice of materials; they hated everything.  they were disappointed in our class, whom they had thought had so much potential.  they wanted us to drum up some inspiration, pick a direction to go in, and follow it.  then they left. 

i was in a daze, but somehow i knew it was a happy one.  i went and called my mom back, and she told me she had called the prayer chain for me — it made sense.  only through the prayers of so many loved ones could i have come through what seemed a lose-lose situation as a winner.

well, now you know what happened to me this week.  i got very little sleep — i made it through one more crit — and i witnessed the power of prayer and the love of my family and friends.  i’m sorry that i have no jokes or witty anecdotes to share — but i think this is enough.

Cooper Chronicles: I.20

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

on Christmas day last year my life was changed irrevocably as i opened one relatively small package; i succumbed to the comforts of Sprintland with “a personal phone, answering machine, and pager *right* in the palm of your hand.”  my parents learned last semester that it’s pretty hard to get in touch with me at school.  if they dared to call before 10 AM, i would answer the phone with something in between a growl and a croak, and would promptly forget the details of our conversation as soon as i hung up; and after that, i was usually at class, in the studio or out with friends until very late.  i didn’t feel right about returning their calls at 2 or 3 AM (once i dared to call at midnight, and the tone of my father’s voice made me glad that i was several states away … ), so sometimes i would go weeks without returning their calls.  they had had enough.  i was joining the majority of Manhattan with a little PCS phone that would put me in touch with the real world.

of course, cell phones are useful.  over vacation, we went to see the van gogh exhibit in DC; when our group left the museum, we were split into three sections, and without the use of two phones, we might still be wandering around out there.  but i have my suspicions.  those little black devils are among the electronic gadgets that appear to be useful, but cause way more trouble than you pay for.  first you have to memorize *another* phone number where you can be reached; then you have to memorize an explanation for why you have a weird area code (mobile units cover a wider range than land-bound lines, so they get codes of their own); then you have to worry about forgetting the phone somewhere, or having it go off during class or on the subway.  once i heard a ring in the train station, and as i looked innocently around pretending that it wasn’t me, i noticed a dozen more people looking equally inculpable.  it could have been any of us. 

when i arrived back at school, my friends were shocked.  i had been branded as the all-natural, no-technology-added hippie girl from the outset; now here i was, as modern as any of them.  raquel looked puzzled the first time she saw it.  “it’s so … not … you!” she observed accurately.  raphael was impressed: “you’re all businesslike and stuff!”  penley mocks me incessantly.  “buy Comsat if it hits 20,” he quips each time i pull it out.  he thinks it would be amusing if i set it up to ring during my next crit and interrupted abraham’s rhapsodizing to answer it. 

i have to admit, it’s nice to be able to call someone back right away.  but at times it can feel like a burden.  the first time i went to a movie with my phone, i realized with a sinking feeling that i could no longer make fun of the onscreen warning to “please turn off all beepers and cell phones.”  i always used have a good laugh at the people who were soooooo social they had to have their phones with them when they went to the movies.  now i just sat grumpily awaiting the start of the film.  darned progress.

our refrigerator is covered with original works in verse; i’ve always been a fan of magnetic poetry, and when i saw the New York edition — complete with words like “SoHo,” “42nd,” “theater,” and “neon,” i couldn’t resist.  the inhabitants and visitors of 14C aren’t exactly typical Romantics, though, so our fridge has phrases like “come and Guggenheim for me,” “Manhattan delis smell unusual,” “eat Greenwiches,” and our tribute to raimund abraham: “produce architecture, you ass!”  seldom does anyone visit without rearranging a sentence or two, and often sara and i can tell who’s been there by the nature of the magnetic comments.

we have discovered the all-night diner culture, something we formerly shunned but now embrace out of necessity.  the guards at the Foundation building have become very strict about closing time with the start of the new semester, and they now force everyone to leave at midnight and turn off the lights and lock the doors.  so if our work is relatively portable — reading or drawing, for instance — we head to Kiev, the Ukranian-owned diner with a bunch of nice waitresses and really good challah bread.  it’s fun to watch people filter in and out, coming from the theater or a party or a bar, full of loud comments and confusing stories to tell.  the local “lite rock” station drones softly in the background.  it’s a great place to have metaphysical discussions over coffee and lentil soup or pancakes (breakfast is served 24 hours).  the staff often conveniently “forgets” an item or two from the tab, knowing that we are destitute students, and we tip generously.  (it’s a very good arrangement.)  Veselka, another Ukranian joint about a block away, is an acceptable change of scenery.  we were impressed when they said nothing about our rather large drawing pads and art books and, after bringing our food, didn’t return to bother us for two hours while we finished our work.  starbucks is trendy, the weather is too cold to be outside, our apartments are filled with distractions, and actual restaurants require the formality of ordering something pricey.  diners offer some of the comforts of home — lovable disorganization, motherly waitresses — at a negligible cost, even for me.  

i’m still in a love/hate relationship with architectonics.  last tuesday the professors called another class meeting, in which they scolded us for “thinking too much” about our projects.  we had stretched the research period out too far, they said — too much discussion, theory and musing.  now they made it abundantly clear that what they wanted was *stuff*: models, drawings, lots of output.  so we halted the research and set to work building some of the things we had learned.  they all but forbade us to work together, so raquel and i agreed on a position for the “floating” bodies and set some parameters of areas to explore, and then set to work on the other components of the model individually.  the “nucleus” can be anything from a sheet (her idea) to a dodecahedron (my idea).  it should reflect the geometry of the cube and the presence of the bodies, and additionally, relate something of what we’ve learned through our research (ours concentrated on studies of light and shadow, time within the cube, and opposition between the two bodies.)  the “armature,” or “interventions,” are concrete objects that relate the bodies to the nucleus in some way.  right now we’re most concerned with the effects of shadow on our ideas.  we’re doing a lot of playing with transparent materials that make no shadow, and choosing positions and objects that will change the way they relate to one another through time and the hours of the sun.  it’s a lot of fun at this stage, but expect me to reach panic by the time crit rolls around on thursday.

i learned how to develop my own film in photo class this week, and we’re supposed to shoot a roll on our own this week.  i can’t wait to start taking my own pictures and printing them — it’s something i’ve always wanted to know how to do, architecture or no architecture, and i can’t wait to stop paying 25 dollars a roll for film and developing (new york prices!)

we had our first architecture history class last week, and i had the eye-opening experience of coming into close contact with a professor who had chip on his shoulder concerning Christianity.  (the chip was so big i’m surprised it fit through the door.)  he began his lecture with “first, a word of warning against the Christian-written primary sources we’ll be reading: you can’t expect these things to be accurate.  it’s well-known fact that the first virtue of Christianity is hypocrisy.  they preach exclusivity but practice accommodation — ” and he went on to tell how the early Church “stole” traditions from the Jewish religion and the pagan sun cults (his explanation of why the churches faced east for so long.)  i was taken aback, but not shocked; in fact, i’m surprised it took me so long to meet a professor like this.  and he was too far off-base to offend me; i just chuckled at his pompous attitude and complete misinterpretation of the facts.  it should be interesting trying to get an A without disowning my religion completely.

on friday night, penley and i gave ourselves a break and went out.  we had dinner at a Spanish restaurant one street over from the school.  the menu looked great; it wasn’t until we sat down that we realized the prices were much too low for the atmosphere and began to suspect something.  all the prices were in two columns, one labeled “tapas” and the other “racion.”  neither of us knows any Spanish beyond “hola,” “mellayma emily” and “cerveza”.  so i swallowed my dignity and asked the waiter what all this meant.  “tapas — like this.”  he formed an imaginary plate with his thumbs and forefingers, about four inches in diameter.  “racion — twice as much.”  he beamed at us, and we realized that we were supposed to order a bunch of these things — a Spanish version of what i used to call a “snacky dinner.”  the food was very good, and very strong — we ate everything along with the fresh bread that they brought to our table about every three minutes.  there was a fish-potato-basil spread, fresh mussels and snails, fried eggplant with paprika and marinated Manchego cheese with spices.  and, despite our fears about the bill, it was shockingly low since we hadn’t ordered any drinks (looking around at the other tables, we could see how they made their money.  yikes!) 

the next day, i told sara about our experience, and she said her sister, who is living in spain for the semester, goes to tapas bars (*that’s* what they’re called!) all the time — apparently, they’re the place to be.  on the cutting edge, as usual.  after the restaurant, we went to see a movie at the MoMA that came highly recommended by the Village Voice, the local liberal-artsy newspaper.  the film was called “the man who shot Liberty Valance” and was hailed as “introspective” and “enigmatic” without actually specifying a subject.  it was free, the Voice has impeccable taste in film, and we were urged to go by a friend, who raved about it.  it turned out to be a plain ol’ cliché Western, complete with the “yer kinda purdy when yer angry” line and the gunfight at the end.  it was the first one either of us had ever seen, and i wouldn’t mind if it were the last.  it was, as my drawing teacher remarked once, “amusing, but not much more than amusing.”

i can feel next week peeking around the corner and grinning at me, so i have to go get a head start before it jumps out and scares me half to death.  (don’t laugh.  it’s happened before.)