I will be at the Chicago Humanities Festival until sometime on Sunday. When I get a chance, this post will be expanded into a write-up.
The Chicago Humanities Festival is in its 17th year, having grown from a small, one-day event for Chicago residents to a multi-week festival that draws students from all over the Midwest. My professor had mentioned it last year, and what fun she had at it, and so when she told me that she wished to nominate me for an ACI Fellowship—basically, a way to cover the costs of tickets and lodging—I said yes. For a while, it seemed as though I wouldn’t be selected: I imagined that as a computer science major, I would be a lower priority than other English, History, or Poli. Sci. majors who wished to go.
Despite all that, however, I received a letter in the mail saying I had been chosen, and a few days later, I received a package of tickets, a program brochure, a dorky name tag necklace, and information about special events. I was going after all.
When the time drew near, I was somewhat leary: the previous weekend had been my 4th anniversary, and I had done enough driving to last me a long time. I was tired. I wanted to spend my weekend sitting in my underwear, drinking coffee and blogging. I knew it was a good opportunity, though, and besides, I had already sent in the forms agreeing to go. I knew that I merely had to overcome my inertia—the sort of mental inertia that prevents me from doing a lot of things and going a lot of places—and I would be fine.
Friday, November 3rd
I drove up to Chicago with my professor, Dr. Marzec, who I have had for a number of classes in the past, including History of the Language this semester. I met her in the parking lot at 3pm, threw my suitcase in the trunk of her Buick Roadmaster, and we headed up 53N. On the way, she popped in a Tom Waits tape (it was my first exposure to Waits: what a curiously fascinating artist…) and we chatted about books we had recently read. I talked about Orhan Pamuk’s Snow and the problems of translation, which led to a discussion of Walter Kaufman’s excellent translations of Nietzsche. She talked about J.M. Coetzee, though the way she pronounced his name (i.e. correctly) was so different from the way I perceived it when I read Foe that I didn’t realize we were talking about the same author; later, when she talked about Life of Pi, I brought up Foe as another shipwreck-centered tale and the truth was finally revealed. In preparation for Sunday’s presentation by Joyce Carol Oates, she talked about some of the Oates novels she’s read, including Zombie, which is a first-person narrative by a serial killer. In response, I brought up Ellis’ American Psycho, and its disturbing questions about narrator reliability1
Once in Chicago, she dropped me off at the hostel, which was to be my accommodations for the weekend. If you know me personally, you understand that the thought of rooming in a hostel, with strangers, made me pucker up a bit, but it turned out not to be so bad. It’s a nice enough place—it was completely redone in 2000—but seemed significantly more quiet and less lively than its website made it out to be (surprise!). There was a cafe attached to it that wasn’t open at any time during my stay; there was little need for it, I suppose, as the hostel was in the middle of downtown, meaning meals were a short walk away.
I got settled in my room, which housed six, and read my book while I waited. Dr. Marzec had invited me to dinner with her daughter and friend, who lived in Chicago, so I was merely waiting for those plans to coalesce. She picked me up at 6:45pm, and we drove north up Lake Shore Drive, getting off on Foster St. Shortly thereafter, an asshole in an RV sheared our car’s sideview mirror on the driver’s side, squeezing past us on the left. Dr. Marzec swore and honked to no avail. I took down the license number and we vowed to file a police report.
Upon getting to her daughter’s2 apartment, which she shared with her twin brother and as many as two others (the living arrangement weren’t entirely clear), we naturally took several minutes to coo over the pets there, which included a very excited pug, and two cats. It soothed me to know that Dr. Marzec anthropomorphizes pets as much as my family does: the rest of the night was filled with stories about their family, pets, and growing up. For dinner, we were joined by Dr. Marzec’s other daughter, who had recently returned from out of state, where she was working on a big assignment.
We ended up at a tiny Thai restaurant. I’ve never had Thai food before, but it’s similar enough to Chinese food that I was unfazed by it—I order Pad Thai and was just fine, even though I couldn’t finish it at all. Once again, those of you who know me will understand that I felt somewhat awkward, being both the youngest present and the most unfamiliar with the family. Nevertheless, both Dr. Marzec and her daughters are affable and charming, so I had a wonderful time.
We were a little late leaving, and I was supposed to attend a special presentation called “Curiodyssey” at the Field Museum at 10pm. I wasn’t sure what to expect: the schtick for this event (which was preceded by an expensive gala where rich donors could get drunk) was that it was secret and mysterious, although once I arrived, late, I immediately regretted even bothering. In actuality, it was a sort of variety made up of truncated performances that would be occurring on Saturday and Sunday. And that was it. When I arrived and quietly entered, they were in the middle of an excerpt of Bill Morrison’s Decasia a movie made from old, decayed film. Then, a professor of marine biology lectured about octopi, and finally a performance artist named Pamela Z did three pieces.
The most aggravating part of the night was trying to get home: Museum Drive is too far from the hostel to walk, especially since it was a bitterly cold night, and there was a very sudden outpouring of people, all of them wanting taxis. So, after waiting probably 45 minutes in the cold, I finally found a taxi and made my way back to the hostel. After a long phone conversation with Allison in the empty meeting room, trying to warm up my frozen hands and running nose, I washed up and hit the hay. One thing I will credit the hostel with: they provide a Navy-style blanket that rough but warm as all getout.
Saturday, November 4th
I was awakened the next morning shortly after 6am by a knocking on the door. I raised my head, noticing my roommates stirring as well. I hopped groggily out of bed and opened the door. I was practically blind, but I could tell that it was the girlfriend(?) of one of my roommates, and I shook him awake to let him know, and then staggered back to bed. He left the room, but came back about ten minutes later and climbed back under his covers. I still don’t know what the hell that was all about.
I slept until 8:30, and then showered and headed downstairs to the dining area, where ACI was handing out donuts and orange in exchange for us staying long enough to listen to their spiel about how great the festival is, and how great we are, and how gosh, they’re just so happy that we’re there. I left immediately after, needed coffee like a smack addict needs his little baggie of powder. Thumbing through my program booklet, I noticed that there was a presentation about war comedies being given at the Gene Siskel Film Center, which was about a block west and six blocks north on State Street. It was a nice day, and so I decided that I would be perfectly happy to walk, which would also give me an opportunity to score some java.
I’ve been to Chicago plenty of times by now, and I’ve certainly walked around enough, but it’s a strange feeling to walk around in Chicago by myself: previously, I’d had either Adam or Allison there with me.
I immediately came across a Dunkin Donuts, where I got a medium hazelnut coffee, expecting that I would not be able to bring it into the theatre with me. Otherwise, I would have gotten a large. Six blocks was a relatively short walk, and I had the strangest feeling that staying downtown, and having that home base of sorts, did a great deal to demystify the bizarre and contemptuously sprawling area that is downtown Chicago. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t do a fair bit of wide-eyed gawking.
The Gene Siskel Film center is next door to a Borders, which itself is basically next door to the Oriental Theatre, where Allison and I were exactly a week before. The presentation I was seeing was entitled “War is Hell(arious),” and while it wasn’t exactly brimming with original theory, it was an entertaining diversion insofar as it included some pretty funny clips. So funny, in fact, that it inspired me to hunt down episodes of Blackadder Goes Forth, as well as the old movies Duck Soup and The Great Dictator.
Afterward, I stopped into the Borders, got a large Seattle’s Best coffee (I have a strange attraction to this brand, which used to be sold in the Cinnabon here before it folded), and browsed all the bargain books for a while. I also checked out the general fiction before I left, noting with some pleasure that this location carried trade paperbacks of all three of Tristan Egolf’s books, which made me smile.
Having nothing else to do, I headed back to the hostel, but on the way, I stopped at a Panera Bread and got some lunch; I managed to beat the lunch rush by a couple of minutes, which was rather impressive. I hadn’t had Panera since before summer, when Allison still worked there. Once she began working a different and much better job at JULIE (the local utility line discovery service), we never went there anymore. The potato soup wasn’t as good as I remember it.
I had two presentations I wanted to see that afternoon at the Harold Washington library, which was really just a block west of the Hostel. After lunch, I headed over there and immediately downstairs to their auditorium. The speaker was Stanley Lombardo, presenting “An Iliad for Today“. This particular presentation was well-attended, but mostly by older people, which was to my extreme dismay: once Lombardo started reading a long excerpt of his Modern English translation of the Iliad, it became clear that his mic wasn’t working properly, and several of the older people got crotchety and either left, ostentatiously, or moved. The organizer of the event had to interrupt Lombardo at one point to set up a better mic, and he looked annoyed and/or embarrassed. I felt bad for him, but I was impressed by his reading: the excerpt he chose was the slaying of Hector by Achilles, which is delightful in a gruesome sort of way. Abou would have loved it.
I then had an hour to walk around the massive library, which I did like a typical tourist, gawking at the shelves and shelves of books. I was able to find all three of Egolf’s books (again), but this didn’t surprise me: the CPL’s got just about everything. I hadn’t been there since I was in the 8th grade, and visited on a field trip, but I’d seen the massive gothic structure that tops the edifice just about every time I’ve been in Chicago.
At 3:30, I went back downstairs, where Derek Collins gave a presentation called “The Iliad as Performance,” which primarily concerned the competitive nature of oral recitations of Homeric texts by ‘bards’ called rhapsodos, something Collins equated to slam poetry. Collins was an extremely vivid speaker, and while one got the sense that he was presenting a formal paper, he was extemporaneous enough that he remained interesting and engaging throughout, fielding a great many questions afterward, too. Dr. Marzec attended this presentation as well, having gone earlier in the morning to a presentation about the Music of the Spheres3.
Afterward, I went back to the hostel and read some more. At 6:45, Dr. Marzec picked me up again and we headed to her eldest daughter’s condo, which is near the Aragon Ballroom (which, unfortunately, had a concert going that night, meaning that traffic and parking was nasty). The daughter, the daughter’s boyfriend, Dr. Marzec, and myself all went to (surprise!) another Thai restaurant. My social disabilities had apparently not put me in the daughter’s bad favor, as she was just as pleasant to me. We discussed a lot of books that night (I’m reading Stones of Summer, and after some explaining, they realized that they had seen Mark Muscowitz’s Stone Reader), as well as travel (the daughter likes to travel, apparently, especially to second- and third-world countries), but I think it was clear that all four of us were pretty tired. I tried the ‘fried dried beef’ with sticky rice and hot pepper sauce, and ordered a pork dish I’d never heard of, and it was quite good, actually. Once again, the restaurant was a tiny little whole in the wall, but Dr. Marzec’s daughter assured us that it was the best Thai place in the city.
Upon explaining to her the incident with the RV from the night before, she suggested that we file a “Hit and Run” with the police. Calling on her cell phone, we were told that we would need to come into the station. With her help, we found the station and filed the report with a sleepy officer at the front desk, who told us truthfully that it was mostly for insurance purposes: when there was no injury involved, these sorts of things are almost never followed up.
Vowing to sleep, we parted ways. When Dr. Marzec dropped me back off at the hostel, there was only one other person in the room, who was getting ready for bed. At this point, I was very tired and had a rather nasty headache (and no
aspiring aspirin in sight…), so I washed up, slid under the covers, and slept so soundly that I failed to ever notice the other four roommates who must have come in at some point.
Sunday, November 5th
I awoke earlier on Sunday, needing time to shower, pack up all my crap, check out, and walk to the Symphony Center by 8:30. Actually, I needn’t have really worried, since I was attending an open breakfast that lasted 90 minutes, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t last in line for the shower, which might have extended my prep time considerably. I had to store my luggage at the security desk, which cost me a measly $2, but which was still a bit irritating.
The Symphony Center is a gorgeous place, smack dab on Michigan Avenue. The breakfast was being held upstairs in one of the small banquet rooms, which I think are used to wine and dine donors during intermission. I grabbed some fresh cantaloupe and pineapple, some banana nut bread, some orange juice, and a cup of coffee, and found an empty table. I was all alone for a while—again, my social skills are not the most sharply honed. There was a group of kids from Illinios Wesleyan University who I vaguely knew from a conference I attended there, but their table looked full, so I sat by myself. At least one of them, a very pleasant girl whose name escapes me, apparently thinks very highly of me. Goodness only knows they probably thought I was a grumpy, sullen-looking git by the end of the weekend. In retrospect, sitting and talking with them would have been a perfect opportunity to make some friends, but dammit, I’m a weak, weak person.
After a while, however, I was joined by an older couple from New Jersey (Daniel and Carolyn), whose daughter Amanda worked for CHF (and who joined us a little later). We talked for a long time about presentations we’d been to, about music, and about very random things in that getting-to-know-you sort of way. It was very pleasant. After 9am sometime, Dr. Marzec joined us, and there were introductions all around. By the end of the breakfast, our tiny table had grown to include a panelist who would present later that afternoon, the panelist’s brother, and a sweet girl from Concordia, named Julia, who appropriately enough reminded me of Julia Stiles. She had a very soft voice, though, and I had a difficult time hearing her over the hushed roar of the hall, which by that point was very full indeed.
The presentation itself was scheduled for 10-11am. There was a lot of hot air by various executives and editors and everything before Joyce Carol Oates came on. As I said, I’ve neither read her nor read about her, so I had no idea what to expect. She’s a tiny little woman, still dark-haired and ravenlike despite her age, who has the gaunt and gothic demeanor of Morticia Adams, but who is absolutely hilarious when she wants to be. I very much enjoyed myself.
I decided to spend my downtime searching out the nearby Powell’s Bookstore. I had seen other kids with Powells bags, and had mistakenly assumed that there was a branch of Powells.com; it turns out that Powell’s Bookstore Chicago is a different thing entirely, though it refers to the Portland-based Powells.com as its “sister site.” I had to kill thirty minutes waiting for the store to open (i.e. reading the paper and drinking tea in a Caribou Coffee, next to the American Pyscho girls), but once it did, I launched myself in. I could have bought so many books, but Powell’s isn’t the cheapest of used bookstores, and so I was watching my wallet. I did, however, buy a hardcover of David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion for $5, and was very pleased with myself.
There was a second presentation at the Symphony Center at
1am 1pm—Louise Erdrich and Taylor Branch was receiving the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland prize. Taylor Branch is a chronicler of the civil rights movement in general and Martin Luther King, Jr. in particular. He was an excellent speaker, as well, and tugged a bit at everyone’s heartstrings. Louise Erdrich, of whose work I’ve only read a single story, was not as good a speaker, though by her own admission she professes to be shy and uncomfortable with such things.
Afterward, Dr. Marzec and I headed to a place called Miller’s Pub, where we ate lunch and drank beer and yakked even more about various things, most notably about food and diet. We were joined, eventually, by Dr. Marzec’s two ladyfriends, who were the sort of bubbly, middle-aged women who act fifteen years younger than they are; one can’t help but smile.
We had to leave them, though, and get to the library again by 3:30, where there was going to be a performance of some sort of Beowolf. I was worried, especially at the beginning, because I thought it was going to be entirely modern dance. Let’s face it: Beowulf has a story like a Jean Claude van Damme movie; it’s real treasure is its language and historical significance. But the adaptation, done by the Metro Theater Company of St. Louis was actually pretty neat, a blend of dialog, narration, and semi-dance.
Neither Dr. Marzec nor I had the inclination or energy to stay into the night. After the Beowulf performance, we picked up my suitcase, walked to her hotel, and high-tailed it back home. We both, apparently, slept very soundly that night.
I wish I had something grand and original to say. I’m not going to flutter my eyelids and proclaim that CHF was a lifechanging event. I have to wonder, for instance, how my experience would have been different had I not spent much of my evenings with Dr. Marzec’s delightful family (and friends). But certainly, the presentations were very interesting, and I was able to attend only a fraction of them, representing a small slice of the festival’s subject matter; of course, it was nice to be paid for, and put up for free. Part of me wishes I wasn’t a senior, so I’d have the opportunity again next year (that wish is quickly squashed by the realization that I’ll be done with school by May).
- Interesting, while in a Caribou Coffee on Sunday, drinking tea and reading the paper, I overheard a group of girls talk about the movie, and whether or not the main character had really killed his victims or just imagine it; I was tempted to join in and mention that the book introduced a lot more doubt than they seem to have gotten from the movie, but I thought better of it and stayed quiet.[↩]
- Although I can’t see why it would be a particular breach of privacy, I’m not going to give any explicit details about many of the people I met; I find it unfair that a total stranger should have the right to broadcast their names, lives, and descriptions on the internet.[↩]
- Dr. Marzec is a published medievalist; hence her interest in the astrological.[↩]