Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Mary Files

I have been waiting for the day my master’s degree in literature would return me something.  So far the wait has been very, very long. But still one hopes, unless one is dead. The degree cost me ten thousand dollars and the worst year of my life.  In the morning I would push myself out the door in Hoboken onto its desolate streets, walk half a mile to the PATH station, change trains at Herald Square, rattle up the left side of Manhattan, propel myself through the great black gates of the august university, then into some amphitheater smelling of epochal sweat and filled with the drone of Stanley Fish congratulating himself on being thus.  At the end, a hundred students—my compatriots—would flow outdoors, and disappear.  They vanished into the molecules of breeze that animated in slow motion the leaves of the ancient trees.  I never knew any of their names.  I never figured out where they went.

In the library I would look for the books I needed.  They had all been checked out to members of the faculty years before, never to return.  At the end of the day I reversed the morning’s process, capping it with the sound of the deadbolt on my apartment door slammed home.  I was prisoner and guard both, the sentence solitary confinement.

Those were the days when books were as exciting as restaurants are now, the hard-to-get reservation and overwrought morsel on a Pacific ocean of plate—foam, reduction of berries, moss, possibly small twigs made cunningly edible and written about breathlessly—more important than life itself. The city’s used book stores (the pleasantly dirty shelves of the Barnes & Noble annex, the Strand, visited worshipfully, hopefully) gave me long happy hours.  Still, I couldn’t get enough.  I wanted to go to high church for books.  If college was good, university would be better.

The disabusement of this quaint notion was as quick and violent as a two-by-four to the head: college was indeed about reading books, but university was about reading political currency.  How well can you rephrase the party platform? (The more abstrusely the better.)  This was not what I wanted!  Moreover, I did not want to not do what I wanted in the company of . . . no one.

I had not made it into Yale.  My boyfriend, however, did.  On a full ride.  My visits there were drenched in envy, though I could pretend for a weekend that I too belonged here.  We sat with other students from the comp lit department in cozy booths in the student center, talking for hours; we separated to do work in the library of our choice.  Sometimes I would retire to the Beinecke Rare Book Library, filled with a creamy cool light emanating from the impossibly thin Vermont marble that were its windows; such was the magic of this place that stone could be unstoned, gracefully relieved of its rocky essence.  Sometimes I would find a desk in the magisterial Sterling Memorial Library, a cathedral of books wherein, as described by the university, ”almost every available wood, stone, and plaster surface, is carved [with] a design that will remind the viewer of the dignity and significance of learning in general and of libraries in particular.”  The significance fell on us heavy as fur mantles.  Lined up with precision on the shelves set aside for each class were the soldiers of essential texts: twelve pristine copies of the book I so desperately needed, the single copy of which had vanished forever from Butler Library back home.  I loved Yale, but I wish I had never seen it.

That I chose to write a thesis on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—a work whose words and story both utterly escape me now—seems a testament to my state of mind: lost.  I felt pretty much nothing for medieval literature.  One of the readers claimed she could not understand what I wrote because my grammar was so broken.  So was I.

I had told myself I would write about Moby-Dick in my second year, and finally get my mind back, but there was to be no second year.  The loneliness of it all had done me in.  I would crumple their letter, exegetically read as congratulating me on having passed the first-year hazing, which offered a full scholarship and teaching assistantship to continue on to the doctorate, and toss it into the empty metal olive barrel that was my wastecan.

Even grad students need some wind-down, and at night when I was exhausted from the day’s wrestling matches with public transportation and literary theory, I fell into the consoling embrace of Mary Tyler Moore.  There were back-to-back reruns of the old show into the night on my minute black-and-white TV.  More even than Yale I wished to matriculate in Mary’s world.  Her travails always ended in twenty-five minutes and with much smiling.  She perennially rose to the top, with hair and shirtwaist unmarred.  I fell asleep to her voice.

Halfway through the second term, having one day miraculously found a seat on the PATH train and thus the opportunity to take the strap of my Danish book bag off the shoulder it was excavating, I looked up from my book.  The person standing there had said, “Excuse me.  Aren’t you in my Edward Said seminar?”  (The one in which the teacher had asked, “Who would like to be a generalist?” and I simultaneously discovered I had the only raised hand and that the question had been ironically rhetorical.  Of course no one, only me.)

Jim became the only friend I made that year, but he was the only one I needed, because Jim contained multitudes.  It did not take us long to discover our basic commonality: not that we lived in the same small burg far from our hopes and aspirations, but that we both needed Mary Tyler Moore.  He phoned every morning, and we relived what episodes we had stayed awake long enough to consider for essential life lessons.  When we met for beers at the Elysian to discuss intractable educational dilemmas, we found a shortcut to the answer, always the answer. What would Mary do?

I have long had the belief that someday, although I can’t foresee when, my terminal MA will lift me from a dark and empty sea before it swallows me forever; it will be a lifesaver thrown from a small boat that has happened by.  It had to have been for something, the loan I worked to pay off for years, and the year that almost pulverized me. 

It has not happened yet; there is still time.  Until then, I will remember I have lived many lives, and when one is over another always begins.  I have a witness to this usual miracle.  My friend Jim.  But I have not watched Mary in years, and I miss her.



SalParadise said...

Wow. I love this essay, how it keeps its form and tone as it runs in a broken circle from the “ Terminal MA” and back again. It never sounds self indulgent, more like a master of the craft putting together the pieces. Along the way, you sprinkle in these images, Path trains, libraries books stores, droning professors, Hoboken. I was there then. I think I was going the other way on the Path to Pratt and my 5 year architecture degree about the same time. That's also a useless degree these days, architecture. But you take all these things, and Jim and fry 'em up in a pan and you point us right at the issue; this wasn't the right path for you, its a dead end. I love that you threw away a full ride at Columbia. (I'm not a Fish fan, I just think of him as a guy with a crush on Sarah Palin.) Moby Dick and Sir Gawain? Wow, that sounds horrible. That sounds like the sure way to kill and bury your mojo.

Jim is the enigma in the essay, I wonder if he really was that interested in MTM or was his interest more MHP?I strongly suspect the latter. By the way, I love Mary Richards, and the whole cast of that show. Great essay, you took it to the crux but didn't beat it up too much and you seemed like the voice of Gen X there. I wonder if you have read Shopcraft as Soulcraft. By Matt Crawford. Another one of us who would rather ride and wrench than “rephrase the party platform.” Count me in too. Thanks.

Sal Paradise

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Whew, Sal. Thank you. I hesitated before I pulled the trigger on this post; lately I seem to have lost any sense of what I ought to do, in the moral or the literary spheres. I keep smelling burning bridges behind me these days, but I have no memory of flicking a lighter.

Jim was then, and still is, married: one of those marvels half the population manages to attain, while the other half can only go, How in hell did you manage *that*?

I think you take an architecture degree and build something with it. Something they couldn't possibly foresee in the olden days. Will you/do you?

I deeply, truly appreciate the vote of confidence. So I don't have to be a terminal blogger.

(YES on Mr. Crawford.)

Shybiker said...

Deja vu. Probably 'cause we're the same age and of similar curiosity, I recognize my life when I read your work. Recognize with ferocity.

I not only loved MTM, I relied on it for emotional support. Mary, Mr. Grant, Murray, Ted and Rhoda. (I assume you know Valerie Harper is sadly about to die from brain cancer.) I watched the show, on a tiny TV, viewed through the legs of a ladder for my bunk-bed in law school.

And all of your landmarks are familiar to me. I know who Stanley Fish is (and how he prided himself on not driving a Volvo); who Edward Said was (and how he prided himself on founding an orchestra of both Israeli and Palestinian musicians); and the mixed emotions of your visits to Yale. (I walked across the Charles River, while attending BU Law, to visit friends in their tonier residences at Harvard.)

I'm sorry. Enough about me. Your reflections and recollections are interesting and humorous. What leaps out with prominence is your not uncommon experience of deriving greater value from "low" art (e.g., TV) than "high" art (e.g., literature). Only cultural beliefs on the relative value of creative works can denigrate the importance of the former.

Like you, I derived more from MTM than I did from studying Entertainment Law with then-unknown, now-billionaire Sumner Redstone.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

SB, that's pretty remarkable. More remarkable still, we "met" here, in this bodiless space of electronic impulses. What were the chances?

Education is what grabs us as we're rushing past, ostensibly toward our real education. Listen to the whispers from the margins, though: that's where we found truth.

Sumner Redstone, really? I think you could teach him a thing or two about living!

Charlie Doane said...

Cool. I love finding new authors. Not new in the sense that you just started doing this, but new in the sense that I just found you. Am currently reading your first book, handed to me by a fellow motorcyclist. Am liking it, so I Google you, and bingo! Amazing, isn't it?

Stuff we have in common:

1. Both born in Akron in 1957

2. Motorcycles, though you are obviously a much more serious rider

3. Maybe you were living in Hoboken about the time I was working for the local newspaper there

About Mary: I loved MTM and worshipped her when the show first aired during my high school years. During grade school I had worshipped her as Laura Petrie in all those DVDS re-runs. In my mind I created a narrative that led her from one to the other. The ugly divorce with Rob, the exodus to Minnesota, the unspeakable scandal that led to her losing custody of Richie. Someday someone really must create a show about that.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Charlie: wow. That is weird. And wonderful, in its weirdness. (I'll add another: my dad's name was . . . Charlie.)

Might that paper have been the Hoboken Record? That represented my first ever paid movie review, of "Eight Men Out," by our homie John Sayles. I remember I was paid $25. I have been paid less (read: nothing) a quarter century on.

I nominate *you* to produce that show. Very postmodern. It will be a hit.

Charlie Doane said...

The paper wasn't quite that local. I wrote for one of the countywide dailies, the Hudson Dispatch, now sadly defunct after over 125 years in print.

I was paid a fixed salary of $9K a year for working about 60 hours a week, churning out 2 to 6 stories a day. Practically slavery, but the news we covered was fantastic. It was like living the Sopranos.

Charlie Doane said...

Oops... belay part of the previous transmission. The Dispatch ceased publication after 117 years in print.

Pierre Sim said...

Again, a great text! It made me remember my university years. As a matter of fact, in 1969, I started studying or living at the University of Ottawa. French literature. Later, I studied to become a teacher. Finally, I ended up spending 30 years in communications (Federal Government of Canada). Journalist, Editor-in-Chief of corporate magazines, Director, Multimedia Services and retirement. At the end, I had experience... Those years went fast. Maybe I was meant to be a writer, well this is what I do now, part time, but I keep my words for me. Shy? No. Probably not good enough to be published. I ride my motorcycle, and I observe the world. And mostly, what I like, I read your blog. Continue to please our minds. Too bad I cannot express myself in a better English.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Charlie: Isn't (wasn't) Hudson County considered the most corrupt in the country? That gave you some material, I'm sure.

And of course it ceased publication . . . I await with bated breath the shape of the world once the fourth estate is fully dead. Oh, wait. This is it.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Pierre, you write beautifully! In English or in French, the feeling is there. (Your photos speak an international language.)

Always happy to be the occasion for fond memories, or any other kind for that matter.