And now, without asking for it and likely not wanting it, I present my grad school application essay. It’s a bit of a longer read, but it is essentially the story of how I was robbed in January and the story is pretty good. I labored so on this piece that my writer’s ego won’t allow me to let it gather dust in Google Docs forever.
Editor’s Note: WordPress doesn’t do footnotes, so I’ve cobbled together a blog version of the two I included; it should be clear. Also: I got into the program!
University of Chicago MLA Admissions
“To philosopher and historian the madness and imbecile wickedness of mankind ought to appear ordinary events.”
– David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature
Kill a man’s family, and he may brook it,
But keep your hands out of his breeches’ pocket.
– Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto X, Stanza 79
For well over an hour I stood, arched over glass cases, chatting with the guys at the fancy pen shop. We looked down at the different models. I learned about barrels and nibs, the difference between this Italian manufacturer and that German one. I was shopping for An Official Pen, the first in my life. I had decided to become a woman of letters even if I was the only one who knew it and I needed the proper tool for the job.
I auditioned several before I found an Italian rollerball made of heavy white resin with gold details and a nice heft. It fit my hand just right and streamed ink onto paper with an almost wanton quality. This sexiness, mixed with the solemnity and significance one expects from An Official Pen, ended the search. I paid, tucked my purchase into my handbag, and my new pen and I sailed through the shop doors onto the street. I do write so many words each day; now the already pleasurable act was getting this insane upgrade. How was it possible to be so happy?
Less than an hour later, my purse was stolen. Just like that, my pen was gone, and I went from bliss to panic. For a time I was inconsolable, but in the hours and days that followed, I considered an argument that challenged my reasons be upset. According to this argument, no one had actually taken my purse: in fact, there was no such thing.
* * *
Had he been at Panera that evening, 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume would’ve patted a hysterical me on the shoulder and asked me to consider the lily.
Hume made many significant contributions to the world of philosophy, but the one that concerns us here is his controversial ‘bundle theory.” Bundle theory is the ontological assertion that there really is no such thing as a lily. What there is is your sense of smell, your perception of flowers, your memory of previous “lilies,” atoms of water and carbon, your understanding of height and weight and how such things are measured, and so on. In other words, a lily is no more than a collection of its properties; without all of these pieces sliding into place, a lily might as well be a hippopotamus, or a war missile, or Greenland, or nothing at all.
There in the cafe (better: there in a square space delineated by slabs of brick and mortar wherein one conceives of ‘soup’ and ‘sandwich’) my purse had been deleted. None of its physical properties were available to me any longer; I had only a memory of them — a pretty flimsy “property,” if you ask me. And though I believed I was adequately describing the purse over the phone to the police, there was so much adrenaline pumping through me at that moment, even the picture in my head was shorting out. Perhaps to the thieves “my” purse still physically existed (was it “theirs” now?) but to me, my beloved handbag was suddenly nothing more than a concept — an expensive black Italian leather one that held the contents of my organized life. What was a handbag? What was any object that could be so empirically with me one moment and gone the next? Do handbags exist, Mr. Hume? Mine certainly didn’t, not anymore. The bundle had left the building and was probably halfway across Chicago at that point.
It wasn’t until I applied Hume’s theory to my situation that I began to feel even slightly better. If the purse was a concept now, it was a concept an hour before the crime as well; I just felt more comfortable with it back then. There was another purse I had yet to encounter that would be attractive to me as a replacement. The pocketbook, the keys, the day runner, the phone — these were all just bundles of properties, I told myself, not items of true substance that existed on their own, certainly not items that I could feel real affection for. (Full disclosure: the Chanel lipstick was tough — I loved my “La Somptueuse” very, very much and of course that particular shade has been discontinued; in the end I had to admit that lipstick is only pigment, water, and sexual possibility; nothing more and not anything less. It’s hard to be actively devastated when you decide to bag emotion and consider objecthood instead. An hour later I stopped crying and straightened up.
My purse never existed. My purse never existed. My beautiful, beautiful purse.
Though I was somewhat less distraught after considering all this — calling my mom helped, too — my inquiry into the nature of material things wasn’t quite finished and now threatened to disturb me more profoundly than the theft itself. In terms of causing long-lasting trauma to a person, I do consider the battle of petty crime vs. metaphysical crisis an even match. As I walked up Michigan Avenue the next morning carrying exactly two personal effects (1), I felt positively weightless. Weightlessness is a feeling with a good reputation, but actually it’s awful. This is because it defies one of the the most fundamental properties of all material objects: gravity. Even if they are all just a big bundle of this and that perception, even if we’re making all this up, blink by blink, material objects (e.g., apples, purses, small dogs), are spooky if they suddenly start floating in the air.
Everything on my body seemed subject to fling off at any moment. I fully expected to be robbed again, was anticipating it, bracing myself for another thief who might divest me of my coat, even the shoes on my feet. My glasses weren’t a given: they might pop off my face and go flying into the sky. What, exactly, was keeping them from doing just that? Wasn’t everything else gone? Hadn’t my fellow man betrayed me once? My previous relation to objects and other humans (more objects!) was now absurd. We believe we own things, that we “have” them, that they exist because we see them; after the purse snatching, these ideas flagged and dropped. Not a very good place from which to go to the D.O.T. for a new driver’s license, but I went anyway, brow furrowed. (2)
* * *
I have replaced my pen.
The shop guys gave me a YPT (“You Poor Thing”) discount and two free ink refills, which was awfully sweet of them. The argument that there is no such thing as a thing, a concept I might not’ve considered at such length had I not been unceremoniously divested of many precious things, did help me cope. But bundle theory, like arguments for or against deism, does kind of end up in a similar, dare I say impotent spot: either there is a god or there isn’t; either there are substantive things or there aren’t; we still have to pay the electric bill. We still have to pee. We still have to make sure we’ve received and read through a particularly strong graduate school applicant’s materials thoroughly.
Are you sure you have everything?
(1) Passport, mint.
(2) A final dispatch from ground zero: As I passed WGN, it seemed the most natural thing in the world that the radio would report the story.z “Popular Chicago resident Mary Fons was robbed yesterday. Police say her Marni handbag, itself valued at over $1500, was stolen at a cafe at Congress and State around 4pm. Cafe staff assisted Fons in placing calls to cancel credit cards, including Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Citibank. A report was filed with Chicago police. “They made me call 311 because this is a non-emergency,” Fons said, “But as a woman’s brain is located in her handbag, I may require an ambulance.”