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The silence of the suburbs

Posted in Culture, Stories by Alex L. on January 30, 2011

A close-up of "levels", a painting by my friend on doodlemoose.com (click to see more)Although I wasn’t born anywhere near it, I grew up and live in the sleepy Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove. Located about 45-minutes’ drive from the center of the city, Buffalo Grove is a sort of stopping place to (hopefully) better things for a great portion of its residents. Tucked a dozen or so miles away from the elite club of prestigious suburbs such as Lake Forest, Highland Park, and Wilmette, whose private beaches hug the coast of Lake Michigan, Buffalo Grove is ever conscious of its not-quite-there-yet status. If it ever forgets, the sister-village of Long Grove, with its quaint antique shops, wooded estates, and 18-holed country clubs, is nestled right alongside it as a constant reminder of the truly refined suburban life.

I have never met anyone doggedly devoted to Buffalo Grove in the way some people are patriots of New York City or even of their small towns (which isn’t to say that such fans don’t exist, I just haven’t spoken to many of my neighbors). Needless to say, there are neither buffaloes nor groves left in Buffalo Grove, while some items like sidewalks and park benches are a mere formality in a place where anywhere worth going to for anyone is reached by means of motor transport.

There are almost never people walking about. One warm summer evening last year, when the weather was perfect and the air was almost fragrant, I was driving through my neighborhood and marveled at the half-dozen or so small groups of residents I saw promenading and enjoying nature’s graces. In the backyard of one house I saw a small crowd congregating around a campfire, and I think I even remember spotting a guitar in their midst. This was a rare sight indeed.

When one who has lived in this neighborhood of densely-packed quarter-acre properties stops and thinks about all of one’s neighbors and for how long one has gone to bed night after night, year after year, in a brick-and-drywall abode only yards away from their brick-and-drywall abodes, sat in the dark evenings by the flickering lights of a television only yards away from their solitary lights, when one considers that despite all of this proximity one knows neither the names of one’s neighbors nor even the sight of their faces, it seems like some marvelous aberration of  a yet-unknown law of nature. An impression then emerges that the silence of the suburbs is not akin to something like contentedness or calm, but is the stupefying experience of creation without a story, like the rippling of the face of the deep in Genesis before the spirit of God moves across the waters.

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“The Marketplace of Ideas” by Louis Menand

Posted in Academia, American, Culture, Reading, Stories by Alex L. on June 8, 2010

Parents, friends, university professors, family members, esteemed colleagues, and new acquaintances: we are gathered here today to answer a very important question. Why did a young man who has been passionate about the study of history his whole life, who has majored in history in college, excelled in its study, and wanted nothing more than to teach and learn about the past for the rest of his life, decide not to go to graduate school?

Let me leave that question hanging in the air of the (empty) auditorium, shrug off the narcissism (it was me speaking about myself, in case anyone had hoped otherwise), and step down from the podium.

The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University by Louis Menand tries to answer the question of how American universities (more specifically, the liberal arts departments of those schools) have become the weird places that they are. For those who pursued a liberal arts education at a large university and don’t agree that they are strange beasts, I present the following observation of Prof. Menand’s:

It takes three years to become a lawyer. It takes four years to become a doctor. But it takes from six to nine years, and sometimes longer, to be eligible to teach poetry to college students for a living. (157)

Why? Menand, in his insightful book, answers the How? by tracing the history of the modern American university from its roots in the late-nineteenth century orientation toward research, through its gargantuan growth during the Cold War with the help of government funding, through the turbulent decades of the late-twentieth century and their epistemological crises (what are we doing this for? why are we here? and what right do we have?), to the current university that we see today.

But . . . Why? Why must a student devote nine years of his life to learn to think and talk in narrow ways, and then spend the rest of his life educating the public whose instincts (for better or worse, but usually for the better) cringe at the sound and sight of this narrowness? (more…)

‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ by Dave Eggers

Posted in American, Culture, Literature, Storytelling by Alex L. on May 23, 2010

I never thought of the Chicago suburbs as a place worthy of literature. Books, on the contrary, are something suburbanites use, like drugs, to escape the reality of their environment – a dull, slow, lonely locale, without the drama of a big city or even a small rural town. As Dave Eggers notes in his book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (hereafter referred to as AHWoSG), often under the veneer of a safe and calm neighborhood, the spirit of a suburbanite dies slowly.

I’ve had this book since high school, just sitting on my shelf. I began reading it when I was eighteen, but, coming off of English classes focusing on Faulkner, Camus, and Sartre, I was sick of authors who played fast and loose with the rules of language, especially to evoke depressing thoughts. I just graduated high school, was looking forward to college, and didn’t need these heavy stories. So I stopped reading after skimming the first few pages.

Six years later, I tried reading AHWoSG again, and finished it in the course of a week. I did not realize until this latest attempt to read AHWoSG that a good portion of the book takes place in Lake Forest, IL. In fact, the author grew up there. One of the most influential novels of the decade was written about one of the most boring places on earth.

I was inspired by this, this entering of the Chicago suburbs into literary history. There is some beauty here  after all, if one has the eyes to see. (more…)

“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac

Posted in American, American, Culture, Literature, Reading, Storytelling by Alex L. on May 4, 2010

"On the Road" cover - Penguin Great Books of the 20th CenturyWhen I was younger, I used to love reading a good book so much that I never wanted it to end, never wanted to say goodbye to its characters. Now, in my relatively more mature years, I rarely get this feeling, though I still love to read good books. Reading the last page about Dean Moriarty, I felt little sadness.

Beat writer Jack Kerouac writes in the last pages of On the Road,

So Dean couldn’t ride uptown with us and the only thing I could do was sit in the back of the Cadillac and wave at him. The bookie at the wheel also wanted nothing to do with Dean. Dean, ragged in a motheaten overcoat he brought specially for the freezing temperatures of the East, walked off alone, and the last I saw of him he rounded the corner of Seventh Avenue, eyes on the street ahead, and bent to it again. Poor little Laura, my baby, to whom I’d told everything about Dean, began almost to cry.

“Oh, we shouldn’t let him go like this. What’ll we do?”

Old Dean’s gone, I thought, and out loud I said, “He’ll be all right.” And off we went to the sad and disinclined concert for which I had no stomach whatever and all the time I was thinking of Dean and how he got back on the train and rode over three thousand miles over that awful land and never knew why he had come anyway, except to see me.

Reading On the Road, I wondered whether the spirit of the character of Dean Moriarty had suffused itself into American culture – I saw it everywhere. The incessant traveler, lover of sights and people and smells, rubbing his belly for joy, sweating, American Odysseus without a home, Walt Whitman re-incarnate. Without Dean Moriarty, the journeys that author Jack Kerouac wrote about that he took with Dean would never have taken place. Dean was the leader. (more…)