Cooper Chronicles: I.16

(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.)

“life is annoying.  art is better.”

-sue gussow

in many ways, cooper union is a bed of roses; but it’s also thoroughly sprinkled with thorns, earwigs, and other distasteful surprises.  often it can be so intensely beautiful … but occasionally i just want to take a bottle of very strong herbicide and douse the whole thing.

sometime last week (it’s mostly a blur in my memory) i talked to my mommy on the phone.  (when things get really weird at this really weird school, i love to call my house and hear normal things happening there: the piano being played, dishes being washed, the cat meowing, somebody throwing a chair at somebody else.  it’s so comforting.)  i was telling her how moody i had been feeling recently — every day was a rollercoaster.  i hate this school, i’m learning so much, abraham is a jerk, i love my drawing teacher, the program is too strange, i can’t believe i’m lucky enough to be here, i’m so glad i’m in new york, i want to go home.  the overwhelming stress and irritation didn’t matter as much to me as my own ambivalence; i couldn’t stand not knowing how i felt.

i was trying to voice all this to my mom without making her think i needed to go on treatment for schizophrenia, and (as moms *so* do) she understood.  

“i feel the same way about teaching piano lessons,” she said.  “some weeks, when kids practice and play well, i feel so gratified … but when someone throws a tantrum, or won’t sit still, and i feel like i’m not getting through to them, i wonder, ‘what am i doing here?’” 

her words were exactly what i think sometimes.  what am i doing here?  this college is for the intelligentsia, the supereducated.  i can’t hold a conversation with abraham about dialectics or anticipation in form or diametrical opposition or any of those other phrases that they love.  descriptive geometry comes to me, but it takes awhile.  i’m always asking the second-year students how to fill my ink pens or which side of the mylar to draw on or what the professors told them last year, hoping for a grain of insight on what the heck i’m supposed to be doing.  i’m full of insecurities.  but this is my first shot at the real world.  my mom has been a piano teacher for years, and she’s played all her life.  surely she has more confidence than i have.

when i chose architecture, people reassured me time and again that this wasn’t a final decision.  i could always change my mind.  i know that; i tell myself that all the time — but it started to mean something completely different when i heard my mother say it about herself, being twenty-five years ahead of me.  this constant state of flux might actually a good thing — i wouldn’t *want* to know exactly how my life is going to go when i’m only eighteen.

“i’m sure,” my mom said, “that teaching piano is what i want to do.  i have doubts, but that’s part of my maturing process as a teacher.  i love this.”  i’m not nearly as sure that architecture is my “thing.”  but even if it’s not, i’m sure that i’m in the right place for *now*. 

i’m learning.  that’s the good part.

i’ve become increasingly convinced that all of the teachers here (and many of the students, for that matter,) are really characters in an unpublished novel.  you already know gussow, the extremely quotable drawing teacher.  during crits, i keep a notepad and scribble constantly, biting my lip when necessary to keep from laughing.  last week she threw in the “life is annoying” quote, which i thought appropriate to begin this letter.  it could be a bumpersticker — but the fascinating thing is that she really doesn’t think she’s funny. she’s just being truthful.  then there’s betts, the architecture history teacher who gestures constantly and uses oxymoronic phrases like ‘very kind of.’  “this building is very kind of rounded,” she says in her oh-wooooow-ex-hippie voice.  it’s one of those things that isn’t noticeable right away, but once you discover it, you can’t think about anything else. i keep track now — she once said it six times in under an hour. 

the architectonics professors, on the other hand, are just plain weird.  they could easily be the subjects of a modern one-act play.  abraham loves to use words like “immoral” and “sacrilegious” to describe design principles he doesn’t agree with.  last year he called one of the girls “the enemy of architecture” because she designed a modern house.  he philosophizes, waxes eloquent, elbows gersten in the arm at least five times a minute and says, “eh?  eh, david?”  gersten, the yes man, nods stoically.  the one non-architect, who is a painter, is addicted to symbolism — she’ll take it from wherever she can extract it.  and the youngest professor has few distinguishing characteristics, save her bright red Dorothy shoes.  together they make up the peanut gallery.  i respect them tremendously as architects, but as people they make me laugh.  that’s good, though — i think it’s the only way to stay sane here.

thursday was our first crit on this stage of the project.  raquel and i didn’t get an overtly positive or negative rection to our work, but they had lots of suggestions that helped give us some more direction.  we’re taking lots of pictures and doing very conceptual drawings — reducing the human figure to lines, planes and circles.  it’s fascinating, when i can understand what i’m doing.  :)  after the crit was over, an immense sense of relief turned into giddiness, and we spent most of the rest of the night getting rid of pent-up nervousness in strange ways.  (i acted like a lunatic at Smoothie King and then asked the manager for a job application.  he looked frightened.)

next day — friday — dawned warm and sunny.  it had to have been seventy-five degrees, safe to wear my birks without socks for the first time in months.  penley and i walked the whole length of central park, ended up at the Met, and wandered around for hours exploring all the places i had never seen before.  he still knew some of the staff (he used to work there) and remembered the many floors and winding galleries with perfect clarity.  i love the way the Met seems to match *exactly* the personalities of the pieces and the personalities of the rooms they’re shown in — they’re perfectly attuned.  there’s nothing more irritating than a good piece of art displayed in the wrong room, and i don’t think i’ve ever seen that at the Met.  (the one thing that annoyed me was the musical instruments section — hundreds of painstakingly handcrafted violins and pianos and guitars, capable of the most beautiful music, locked up in ugly display cases.  the whole section felt eerily like a prison.)  we had dinner at yet another eclectic, funky restaurant with really good food — they abound in this city, and i don’t know whether to be excited about the prospect of finding more, or desparate because there’s no way i’ll ever get to see all of them.

this morning at church Father Michael told me i looked cool.  “you look like one of my generation,” he explained.  with my black leather jacket, long skirt and orange silk head scarf, i suppose i did.  still, one never knows what to think when complimented by a man in a long black dress.

it’s taken me much too long to write this letter; it was riddled with interruptions, as when sara ordered me to sit still so she could draw me, and the time she and raquel were involved in a major tickle-fight on the bed next to me, and when i was finagled into doing the mr. bean hypnotizing-teddy-bear trick, which they all laughed hysterically at and made me repeat again and again.  ahh, dorm life.  i’m going to miss it next year.