Me and Ayn Rand

This is the story I'm writing for my memoir class. I'm having fun with this after all.

I am embarrassed to confess the influence Ayn Rand has had
on my life, so I haven’t told this story often. I prefer to think it was all
because of Gary Cooper as Howard Roark.

Saturday afternoon was always movie time. There were five
theaters in walking distance, but we usually went to the Terminal, a Balaban
& Katz 1920’s picture palace, named after the elevated train terminus just
down the block. It was the best theater with almost first run features.
That
day we were seeing The Fountainhead,
taken from Ayn Rand’s book of the same name, about an individualistic Frank
Lloyd Wright type architect who refuses to compromise his work or his ideals,
regardless of the money involved.

Sitting in the dark, totally enchanted by awesome Gary
Cooper and beautiful Patricia Neal, my unhappy, depressed 15 year old self, certain high school was a terrible compromise, totally bought into the idea
of taking action to be true to herself. By the time the movie finished I was so
excited and so convinced I had found a solution to my misery I couldn’t sit
through the second feature. I did not want to think about anything else as I
waited for my friends in the lobby.


Wanting desperately to be an artist, maybe even an
architect, the movie affected me deeply. I was convinced my life until then had
been a terrible compromise; I had to change things. I thought about all my
alternatives and realized there was only one that was acceptable: I could go on
to college after one more year of high school.

My friend Eva, whom I met in classes at the Art Institute,
went to U high, the laboratory school of the University of Chicago. From her I
learned U High was only two years and then students could go on to college at the university. Also, the university would accept students from any high school
after two years. Robert Maynard Hutchins, Chancellor of the university,
believed students didn’t learn anything in the last two years of high school. I felt I was a living
embodiment of his belief.

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. First, I had to
convince my parents, who thought I was too young to go to college. Then, of
course I had to be accepted at the university. My high school teachers and
principal hated the university; I had trouble getting recommendations; Hutchins
arrows had hit their mark. Adding another layer of angst, Hutchins went before
one of the communist witch-hunting committees and defended his faculty,
assuring the committee that being a communist would not be grounds for the dismissal
of his professors. It was a very difficult year, but I prevailed. Three months
after my sixteenth birthday I went to college. I learned how to read critically and how to think. I did not become a communist. I met my husband there, our
daughter met her husband there and now both of my grandchildren are going
there. You can see that Ayn Rand and Gary Cooper certainly influenced my life.

Nostalgia time, again

Sometimes when I fly somewhere I feel like I've entered an altered reality. That's how I spent my weekend. Friday morning, too early, Steve, Robin and I flew to Chicago where we met Renee, who flew in from NYC, and went out to the university for parent's weekend. I spent most of the weekend thinking "it used to be this way" or "I was here when." I really don't like thinking this way, but the university was one of the good places from my past. It's easy for me to go there even though I had to keep telling myself to forget it.

We flew into Midway Airport, Chicago's first airport, unused for many years, now busy, bustling and unrecognizable for me. The first time I flew, in 1953, was from Midway. Those were the days when for entertainment you would park on 55th Street and watch the planes land. I flew to Los Angeles and spent 21 days with Aunt Flo and many other relatives, among them two of my mother's brothers. But that's another story.

Renee and I stayed downtown. There is almost no decent accommodation near the university. We got on a bus to go to the south side; again there was that sense of altered reality. I remember much of the south side of the city as a barren wasteland, destroyed by the urban renewal craze and further devastated by the riots after Martin Luther King's assassination. There are still some blighted areas, but much has been rebuilt. Not for the first time I was awed by new, good-looking buildings.

The bus ride added to my sense of altered reality. Chicago is still a segregated city. We had the only white faces on the bus, and the only white faces we saw until we arrived at the university. Although the bus was not crowded that anonymous, recorded voice kept telling the nonexistent people to move to the back of the bus. I don't want to give the impression Chicago is completely segregated. I think it's possible for African Americans to live where they want and where they can afford. At least I hope so. It seems like it's us, white people (Chicagoans) who don't want to live with them. Pittsburgh is supposed to be equally segregated, but I live in an integrated neighborhood and I enjoy it.

We went to a reception in Charna's dorm at the resident master's apartment. Both the dorm and the apartment were much better than any place either Robin or I lived. My only perk was maid service; Robin had no perks that I could see. We all went out for dinner at a Mexican vegetarian restaurant in another Chicago ghetto neighborhood. Saturday, more disorienting bus riding, then Humanities Day with a full schedule of classes we could attend (keep us out of the kids' hair). Saturday night dinner at Cedars, a Mediterranean place in a shopping center that replaced the building (and many others) R and I lived in when we were first married. I told this to Charna, then realized how silly I was. She couldn't possibly care about something that probably hasn't existed for forty years.

Sunday, Renee and I went to dim sum in Chinatown with Betty, another nostalgia trip; Betty and I, and our spouses did this often. We went back to the university and hung out until it was time to go to the airport. Now it's like it never happened.

Back to school

This was the first week of my new Osher classes. I now belong to two Osher programs: Pitt and CMU. Most of my classes this time are at CMU. I'm taking tai chi with a different instructor; estate planning; Gulliver's Travels; a cooking class; Gigapan photography; and auditing another art history class at Pitt: Women in East Asian art. I volunteered (hah) to give a presentation on Tuesday at the art history class. Keeps me busy.

Originally I signed up for another class: Spanish conversation. I'd really like to learn Spanish. On the morning I was supposed to have the first class I overslept. I took this as a message from my body and dropped the class. Maybe next year. I may drop Gulliver, also. All we seem to be doing is reading aloud to each other. I'll see how the second class goes, but I'd really like something more than that.

Estate planning is good. Not that I have much of an estate, but I found out there are some laws here in Pennsylvania I ought to pay attention to.  Gigapan photography is really special. Did you see the amazing picture of the inaugural that you can zoom in on and see peoples faces and all kinds of detail? A robotic device takes pictures on a grid and stitches them together. We'll get an opportunity to borrow the robot and take our own pictures. Should be great fun.

Monday morning

The class went well. There is a small description of it at Silver Streakers. Since most of you who read this already have blogs I didn't go into detail about how to start a blog. There are several detailed instruction videos on YouTube if you need to know. I think I scheduled too much content for the first lesson and now I'm thinking the next class, about images, will be even worse. I plan to give instructions for downloading Picasa, but we won't be able to do it on the University's computers. Using Picasa and scanning images will both be lectures with no hands on component. Unless I can find good material online I'll make my own screenshots, then email these instructions to the class and post them at SS.

I have been dogsitting this weekend. My family went to New York where Charna is singing with Hazamir, the same choral group she sang with in Baltimore last year. This time I took Darcy to my place instead of moving in with her. I'm going to return her to her home in about an hour, thank goodness. If I ever entertained the notion of getting a dog, she certainly has cured me. She's a little easier to deal with since she's gotten older, but she's certainly not an obedient dog. I fed her and walked her before 8:30 this morning, but she still wants something from me and I haven't a clue.

Classes

I was really looking forward to my class on Fabric Collage at the Center for the Arts, in spite of having to drive out to Monroeville to Joann's to get some of the required supplies. I don't like going to Monroeville, which seems to be a collection of shopping malls, because I'm never sure where anything is. I looked up the Joann store online: the map showed the store straddling the highway, leaving me no wiser as to where it was. They gave an address, of course, but have you ever found any numbers on mall stores? After cursing a lot I finally found the store and bought my two items. Last night I got a call that the class was canceled. I was tempted to wait until today and obviously should have. Sometimes procrastination pays.

I've been taking a class on growing plants indoors, sponsored by the Phipps Botanical Garden. I'm really enjoying it. We were given an orchid as part of our instruction; mine is doing fabulously. All of the buds have opened and it looks wonderful. I'm being very careful about watering it and making sure it has high humidity. I don't know what will happen to it the next time I go away.

My other two plants only need water every 10 days to two weeks. That's always been one of my requirements for plants, the other being low light. Only my first house, many, many years ago, had good light for growing plants. I hated the house and nothing grew there. Maybe my feelings were spilling over and poisoning them.

I'm only taking one Osher class this term: tai chi, but I've been going to all the special, one-time lectures. Next term I will take a class called, How Numbers Work. I think it's geared for math phobes like me.

Finished

I finished writing my paper this morning. It was like an actual weight was lifted from my chest. Now just proofreading and print it out. All of my classes are finished for the semester and I plan to do some traveling in the next few weeks. Friday morning we are driving to New York for Passover–first seder, Saturday night, with Renee, Sunday night with a wonderful rabbi friend of ours. We did this last year, also. I’ll stay in New York for a week. I promise to post more often, even though I’ll be on the road.

Where I live

One of the classes I am taking is called "Reading and Writing the Iron City." Following is the story I wrote for my first assignment.

Meade Place is special—this was the clear message I was getting from Earl, as he showed me the apartment. He told me about the quiet street: the neighbors, Mary the quilter across the street; Sari the artist next door. He made me feel I could belong here. I liked the apartment; it reminded me of my house in Chicago; the only place I left with tears and regret.

Earl didn’t tell me that Meade Place had a special history. Shortly after I moved in Mary came to welcome me and brought a packet of information about the neighborhood. It seems that Meade Place was once the driveway leading to the mansion of H. J. Heinz. A 1999 article from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette described the mansion, how it was built; the additions Heinz made to it; and the many things he collected. The mansion was torn down in the 1920’s; the land subdivided for small homes. Only the coach house and a small building that once housed H. J.’s collections remain, now reinvented as apartment buildings, along with a low stone wall and a decorative cast iron fence along Penn Avenue, the south boundary of the property.

The area is very much a middle class enclave clinging tightly to its civility on the edge of chaos. We prefer to think of it as North Point Breeze, although it’s hard to say where it ends and Homewood, once the home of Pittsburgh industrialists, Westinghouse, Carnegie and Frick, begins. On summer nights we occasionally hear shooting from Homewood. The Westinghouse property, about a block away, is now a huge, open field called Westinghouse Park, where I am not entirely comfortable walking.

Most of the homes are single family. The owners are largely professional: a librarian, a doctor, a social worker, a newspaper editor. The building I live in, and the one to the east are almost identical duplexes. Earl lived upstairs in my building until several months before I moved in. The other duplex, not owner occupied, was converted into three apartments, and was the source of considerable tension in the neighborhood when I first arrived. An unknown number of tenants lived on the first floor. They were noisy, left beer cans on other people’s lawns, left a car on the street for months with one wheel removed. Since they left the street has once again become a model of middle class serenity, at least on the surface. Two women live in the attic of the duplex. We say hello, but not much else. After Christmas, Mary found their picture in the PG, in an article about Christmas dinners supplied by the Salvation Army for people down on their luck. The article said our neighbors lived in Homewood. It all depends on your point of view.

Literary week

New Osher classes began this week. I’m taking one called Reading and Writing the Iron City. We did a fun exercise in class that may inspire me to do more writing. The instructor created a blog for the class, which you can visit here. BTW, the 250 in the blog name refers to this being the 250th anniversary of Pittsburgh’s founding as a city.

On Monday night, Robin and I went to a lecture by Scott Simon, the NPR Saturday morning anchor, who has written a novel about the Chicago city council. He said some of the reviews have called this satire, but he calls it political comedy; he says satire requires exaggeration. I loved the talk. He loves Chicago and so do I; very nostalgic. And, of course, I have to read the book. (After I finish writing my paper for the Japanese art class and read at least two other books: Hiroshima in America by Robert Jay Lifton and Gregg Mitchell, and David Halberstam’s last book, The Coldest Winter.  My paper deals with Hiroshima, but the books are not reference material.)

Last night, Robin and I went to another talk, this time by Dave Eggers, of McSweeney’s, also with a book: What is the What, about Valentino, a Sudanese refugee. Although Eggers talked about the book and his visit to Sudan, most of his time was spent on the project dear to his heart, 826 Valencia, a writing center for children 6-18, now with spin-offs in seven cities around the country.

Have to stop now; it’s time to go to tai chi.

Falcons and Skunk Cabbage

This week is spring break, but I’ve had wonderful OLLI provided experiences, all having to do with that additional level of awareness Alice mentions in her comment to the last post. After the geology walk on Wednesday, there was a class about the peregrine falcons that call Pittsburgh home. There are nesting boxes on the Gulf Tower downtown and the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh,Cathedral_before_cleaning_was_fin_2
both evidently look like cliffs to the falcons. You can see a webcam and learn about the Gulf Tower pair here. There is one egg in the nest already. That website from Pittsburgh’s National Aviary has links to the Cathedral of Learning webcam and to a bird blog written by Kate St. John, who was one of the presenters at our class. Our other presenter was Dr. Tony Bledsoe of the Biological Sciences Dept. at Pitt, who did a great job giving us all the facts about falcons.

Yesterday we went on a bus trip to the Powdermill Nature Reserve, the biological research station of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. You have to understand: I am very much a city person. I haven’t had a lot of contact with "nature," and I approach each event with a mixture of curiosity, awe and fear. I wasn’t sure what I was going to see at this time of year, possibly more mud, but I figured I had nothing to lose.

We spent the morning learning about the sustainable facilities development project and the Marsh Machine, their waste water treatment greenhouse. Powdermill Run is one of only a few streams in Pennsylvania considered excellent quality, never having been polluted by mine drainage. Here is an excellent article from the Post Gazette about the new facility, which, incidentally, uses carpeting made from recycled plastic bottles, counter tops made from compressed paper, flooring tiles from recycled tires.

After lunch, we took advantage of the beautiful spring day and walked on some of the trails at the reserve. I got my first good look at skunk cabbage,

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loved the little ferns just beginning to grow,

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and marveled at the rushing stream filled now with rainwater and melted snow. (Our guide, Theresa, is speaking with one of the members of our group.

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My friends in Chicago used to tease me–I was never lost in the city, but take me out where there are no street signs and I’m immediately lost. I need a lot of help learning to see in the natural environment.


Meeting deadlines

Thank you for your concern Stacie, and all of you who wondered where I’ve been. Just needed to spend time writing other things.

I’ve had two assignments due this week so I’ve been very busy. I decided to write a term paper for my Japanese art class; the topic statement and bibliography were due Tuesday. Since I am only auditing the class doing the work is optional. In fact, in most of the audit classes I’ve taken the profs don’t want me to do the work. It just makes more work for them. But Karen Gerhart is exceptional; she always encourages me to do as much as I can. I came up with a topic that really interests me and which I will post about at a later time.

Thursday, I will give my Emily Carr presentation to the travel writing class. Creating a Powerpoint show with her paintings was simple. Now I’m adding, I hope relevant, quotes from her writing to each slide. I have selected a charming piece about ravens in Sitka to read to the class:

But I do see the barracks flagpole, tall, with a shiny gold ball on its top, and over that ball always, always three or four of Sitka’s great black ravens–circling, hovering, trying again and again, each in turn, to maintain a foot hold on the slithery gilt ball. Generation after generation of ravens has tried; it is a tribal game, old as the flagpole. No resident of Sitka has ever yet seen one raven succeed.                                  Emily Carr, The Heart of a Peacock

Here is the beginning of an outline I will work from as I show the presentation:

  • Emily Carr was born in 1871 in Victoria, British Columbia, an isolated backwater
  • Family came from England and maintained English manners and values
  • Studied art in San Francisco, then England and France
  • Learned her own bold, colorful, post-impressionist style of painting
  • Returned to British Columbia in 1908 and for the next 10 years concentrated on nature and native peoples, realizing that their way of life was disappearing
  • Unable to live by selling her art she spent the next 15 years as the landlord of a small apartment building in Victoria
  • She wrote many stories about her experiences but was unable to get them published
  • Resumed painting at the age of 57 after her work was discovered by an ethnologist working in BC and she was invited to participate in a show of Canadian artists
  • Carr’s reputation today is largely based on work she created after finally receiving this recognition
  • She continued painting until she suffered the first of several heart attacks, then went back to her writing as being less physically demanding
  • Her first book was published when she was 71 and was followed by the publication of 4 other books, 2 of them posthumously