Chicago

Posted in academe with tags , , , on January 7, 2008 by jv

chicagowinter2.jpg

Chicago. Freezing days, below-freezing nights. On Friday morning a blast of horizontal fargohat2.jpgsnow slashed like razorblades across the river. There I was limping down Upper Columbus in my lined trench coat, scarf, gloves, and Fargo hat only to creep down the iron stairway to Lower Columbus, at which point only the open bridge could stop me. It nearly did. Despite the earmuffs, scarf, and collar, the right side of my face was badly clawed. And I nearly fell. How long would I have lain there on the icy sidewalk–this is supposing of course that I would not have fallen over the rail and into the Chicago River–before I was spotted and rescued, or before one of the teeth-chattering homeless folk stripped me to the bone? Yet I could not turn backmlachicago1.gif, not now, having come so far for a cause both noble and good, namely the annual glimpse into academic hell known as the MLA Convention.

It is a long story that begins long long ago in the bosom of the Provost’s family. Do we all remember his dedication to diversity? Let me refresh our memories. In one of my first encounters with our Top Academic Officer, the Dean Himself at his side, he asked rhetorically: “You know, I’m always being asked how a white man from the whitest state in the Union came to be just so determined to bring real diversity to the college campus.” This is an interesting statement that University Diaries could shred to bits far better than I. First, the obvious: why are folks always asking the man this very question? When he picks up his dry cleaning, for instance, or when he’s washing his hands at the sink in the men’s room, or sitting around the backyard pool, who exactly runs up and demands an answer to this question? Next I must point out that the word Union in this context bespeaks the arrogance of the Yankee in the South. Finally, I leave real diversity to its own futility.

The answer is: (1) his parents instilled in all their children, etc.; (2) his older brother once marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. [Hear the awed collective gasp from the academic bobble-heads.]

Now, had my older brother robbed a bank, say, despite all the wonderful core values instilled in him by our folks, would I be entitled to any of the money? Or conversely, should I go to jail? On a more positive note, if my older brother performed an act of heroism on the battlefield, could I claim some of his medals? On the other hand, if my older brother is a rank coward and deserts his command, do I get shot?

What kind of–ahem–man seeks to justify a sincere commitment to a moral or ethical imperative through a kind of Six Degrees of Martin Luther King? Too many questions, I know, but at the moment I am a bitter, bitter man. And I’m distracted by Down by the River by Neil Young.

I will write more on the “real diversity” process instituted that day, but at the moment I must connect my rant to the MLA Convention. The Department sent me and a team of experts to interview candidates for a post left open last year. We were told to think outside the box (yes!), to examine our thoughts like Jesuits in search of hidden racism, sexism, and other isms, and to come back from the hunt with a pedigreed minority in tow. After three days of interviews, only one minority diverse enough for the Provost met with us. One. Naturally, there were many women–in fact, the majority. Only they weren’t the right kind of women. That is to say, we will hire one of the them if at all possible, but unless we win the bidding war for the one “real diverse” minority, we will have failed in our trek through the winter wastes of Chicago.

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Hallowe’en

Posted in childhood, family, Halloween on November 1, 2007 by jv

The one memorable Halloween for me was the last before a storm wiped out most of the town and the first without Little James. We had no idea at the time that this was our last Halloween together, of course, so it seemed the usual silly self-important affair. Most of us were twelve or thirteen, the age when mothers in particular start saying over and over that you’re getting to old to go Trick or Treat but you still really want candy. Somehow the family waited too long before deciding on costumes, maybe because my brother had died earlier in the year, and I ended up a shepherd boy, Leon a mummy wrapped mostly in toilet paper, Weeza some kind of bug, and baby Danny for his first mummy1.jpgHalloween was a red-nosed hobo unawares with two or three black streaks on his face. My four-year-old sister’s costume consisted of a green sack with leg holes and arm holes, also two extra arms made out of pantyhose and furniture springs with cotton gloves dangling at the end. String attached the fake arms to the real arms and when Weeza picked her butt or reached for candy or smacked somebody, usually Leon, the fake arms followed suit and jiggled. On top of that she wore green makeup, aviator goggles, and a pair of wobbly antennas. Mama had wrapped real bandages around Leon’s head and arms, but bandages cost too much, she said, which is how he ended up in toilet paper over his chest, legs, and bathing suit. Mummy footwear provoked much heated discussion at the dinner table leading up to Halloween day, and it was Daddy who came up with the idea for putting a pair of his big old baseball socks over my brother’s tennis shoes.

The shepherd boy must be the sorriest costume ever donned for Halloween. Mama had a foggy notion of what a shepherd boy should like from all the Christmas plays she had seen over the years. But she had set her ambitions on a King David pre-Goliath complete with slingshot and a harp. The slingshot was easy enough to come by in the rural South, but the harp came at a cost. Daddy busted the back off an old dining room chair and laced twine between the fancy curved pieces, a chair Mama had been nagging him for some time to refinish as a kind of showpiece salvaged from her grandmother’s attic

“You couldn’t wait, could you,” she told him with a frosty blue stare. “Anything to get out of working on that chair. You’d rather burn down the garage.”

“Now darlin’,” he said, “you know I hated to do it. Was it my idea to make the boy King David? Was it my idea to have him carry a harp? I was just trying to please you, like always.”

All this while they were sticking corn silk to my face to make me a beard. Trying not to move my jaw I reminded them that David was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to, and nothing in the entire Bible talked about his beard, not until the twenty-first chapter of First Samuel, I looked it up, long after David’s shepherding days were over.

“I have been saving up corn silk for a month,” Mama told me. “Now it’s either you wear this beard or you can go Trick or Treat as a lion.”

“Or a yak,” Daddy suggested unhelpfully. The important thing was to keep Mama’s mind off the wrecked dining room chair, what he used to call her chair-loom, though never when she was around.

He had also made me a shepherd’s crook by splitting a bamboo stalk and fitting the top of a coat hanger into it. Mama worried that it looked papal, but the most embarrassing part of the outfit had to be my sister’s white bathrobe, which was way too small for me, in fact didn’t reach close to my elbows or my knees, and the flaps were held shut by one of Daddy’s old holster straps over one shoulder and around the waist. And even though shepherd boys ran around barefoot in sheep poop and in Nativity scenes, Mama would not allow any child of hers to tear up his feet walking at night where folks broke bottles and tossed lit cigarettes, so King David had to wear flip flops.

Mama rigged up a stupid headdress using a diaper and a gold band. Then they stood me in front of Mama’s sewing mirror in full regalia. The reflection still haunts my sleep.

Let me expand on the picture. I had got into my head—whether because misery loves company or to show Mama by example the folly of her ways—a shepherd boy needed a sheep. After dragging Mighty Bobo the Wonderdog from under the table, I stuck small clumps of cotton batten to his black coat with the same gum Mama and Daddy had used to glue the corn silk to my chin. A couple pumpkin stalks and a rubber band turned into a precarious set of horns, and I put two pair of baby Danny’s booties on the dog paws to keep Bobo from scratching off his wool.

“Why couldn’t Bobo just go as a black sheep?” was all Mama said.

“Like his master,” Daddy added.

Auden today

Posted in Auden, Brueghel, ekphrasis, poetry on October 31, 2007 by jv

After a long dull day and many words with as many people, meanwhile trying my best to be pleasant like they brung us up to do, I will let W.H. Auden speak for me. He composed “The Musée des Beaux Arts” in 1938, if I remember right, on a break from the Spanish Civil War—grunting for the revolutionary side of course, an event that so disillusioned him it’s a wonder he survived at all. First the painting by Brueghel the Elder, dated 1555. Yes, Pieter Brueghel de Oude, the Elder, though the poor guy died at 42 years old. You must click on it to see the detail.

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About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Provosting

Posted in academe, provost on October 30, 2007 by jv

The asylum has a new provost who may at heart be a very nice man and is making the academic rounds to introduce himself and—ahem—to get to know us. Provost means the chief academic officer, although in all fairness the “academic” should provost3.jpgfall in third place, being a CYA or even better a fig leaf to hide the shame of such pupenda as grade inflation, poor teaching skills, worse learning skills, and the fact that we accept fully 25% of students who have no business taking university courses in the first place. But I digress…

In a large department like ours by the time we’re done introducing ourselves, the meeting is pretty much over. Nothing of course is truly exchanged in an exercise in futility. The Head and the Provost indulge in triumphalism (“we being a first-class research institution and rated number 253 by US World and Weekly Coupons”) and a menacing exordium (“but we have GOT to do better”), and then the P for Provost looking at his watch asks if any of us have a concern or two he can address in three-point-two seconds. An instructor invariably speaks up saying she has taught in this department for nigh on thirty years now, OK? and it seems to me having been here that long, that students in general—now I’m not talking about your majors and your minors, OK? some of whom I am told are just fabulous—but being an instructor I teach the required first-year courses exclusively, so I cannot speak personally to the performance of students at the higher level, OK?—but in my almost thirty years of service to this department and to this university, I have never seen a sorrier group of individuals than my 101 students this semester and I—

This, says the P, is a concern that I’m sure we all share. And whether it’s that Generation X has now given way to Generation Me… the one thing to remember is that the world has changed since you and I were students… for the good and for the bad, I suppose… which is one reason technology has become so important in the classroom, so important… but the students and their families want to know, for example, what are we doing to keep up with the times? They see themselves now as consumers and us as offering a service, and the old subject matter doesn’t cut it anymore… they’re not interested in all that… what one student once told me was a bunch of dead white guys. So if we are to remain diverse and on the cutting edge, we’ve GOT to do better, people. We have got to do better…

One time I had the good fortune of sitting at the Twin Oaks with a pork chop sandwich when a church group piled in for barbecue, Disciples of Christ, I think, or maybe Nazarenes. I didn’t know but one or two by name, the point being that here comes Slick Weems who’d been in the legislature since God was young, and leaving his long black Cadillac in the shade he shook hands with everybody before plopping down at one of the picnic tables with the Nazarenes, or maybe they were Foursquare Gospel. It turned out to be some kind of more or less official visit arranged ahead of time by somebody, and Slick shoveled down the barbecue and beans and made the chit and the chat with the folks at his table, managed to squeeze the waitress by the wrist from time to time and call her darlin, and eventually they church group prevailed upon him for a speech. Up he went on his toes before rocking back on his heels, one thumb hooked in his shirt pocket, which was sky blue, and staring at the remains of the dead pig on his plate, he was thinking what to say, you could tell. He smoothed his red-white-and-blue American flag necktie and began to orate like I had never heard before. Every phrase had been honed to perfection, and every phrase had been set like a jewel into its sentence, and there was not one sentence that unrolled through the Twin Oaks without a gulp or a nod from the audience. Slick Weems knew how to say all the right things. Trouble was, the longer he orated, the more it struck me that none of those right things had much to do with all the other right things. He was just reaching way deep into his oratory pocket and pulling out handfuls of lint. And if I had interrupted my pork chop sandwich saying, Scuse me, Slick?—because everyone called him Slick, you had to—what is it exactly that you stand for? He would have bowed his head again, breathed mightily, looked up through his bushy eyebrows, and said with conviction: Absolutely!

I have marveled at such a strange and wonderful gift, and not talking Hitler here hypnotizing the masses or whatever, but the Babbitting of platitudes. And yet Babbitting sounds so pedestrian, so Sunday School and Rotary lunch. Slick did you proud, at least at first. But somewhere between Babbitt and Slick, there is a kind of academese I discovered the other day. And its name is Provosting.

Welcome to the machine

Posted in Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Pink Floyd, poetry on October 29, 2007 by jv

I am old enough to think that song is still cool. It was back in the day when I was a sensitive singer songwriter with long hair and boots and Richard Brautigan in my back pocket and reciting Ferlinghetti on the spot

See

it was like this when

we waltz into this place

a couple of Papish cats

is doing an Aztec two-step


And I says

Dad let’s cut

but then this dame

comes up behind me see

and says

You and me could really exist


Wow I says

Only the next day

she has bad teeth

and really hates

poetry

which is like poem 9 from Coney Island of the Mind © 1955 by Larry himself back in the bland old Eisenhower days (and no, I am not old enough for that). The beatniks as anybody knows after a quick read of Kerouac’s On the Road or Ginsberg’s Howl were not exactly the gentle stuff hippies said they were made of, the main line being literally mainlining, speedballs, and so forth, and while they could always find a critical word or two thousand about the good old U-S-of-A, only the ones who reached hippie-dom actually got political, as I remember. Ferlinghetti last I checked was still kicking around San Francisco, and from time to time I pull out the slender tomes from his 10ferlinghetti2.jpgbookstore-cum-press City Lights, which lay a-moldering on the shelf, sort of the way Proust sips tea, ya dig? Not to mention that I enjoy the rare literary distinction of having Allen Ginsberg himself read and reject a manuscript of mine—talking about the great Tibetan Buddhist Jewish Poet here when he sat among the living—and seeing his fingers actually on the pages typed with these two hands, the silver-tarnish stain of the autoharp which he stroked in those days, and me young and lean and in need of a haircut bad, and this pretty little thing who once did love me, and the Poet tossed the manuscript into his bag and took it with him to read! So then a while later this crummy envelope arrives at the old man’s, it looked like the postman had run over it and then done backed over it again, and inside a plain sheet of paper torn from a pad and on it a pencil scribble scrabble scrawl that basically says NO, and the girl snaked her long arm around me and sighed her condolences, because as writers out there know too well, when a rejection comes it’s like a death in the immediate family, and “I told you,” she said, “you ought to have let the old fart blow you.” Watt yu wuz thankin, sun?

Anyway I get to Ronnie’s place, which he’d just moved into, maybe a block from the beach. The first night I slept on a door we put a mattress on, and the ocean is smelling up the night so thick it lays down a carpet of fog that creeps up to the porch (it’s a real old porch on a sandy road), climbs the sagging steps, crosses the rubber mat, and slips under the warped door. The fog tiptoes about halfway across the front room (two mismatched easy chairs with a table between them, a homemade set of shelves with the all-important number two on the list of life’s priorities, just under oxygen, what we called in them days a damn stereo), sprawls to the double doorway, unrolls a few tongues into the middle room (me and Ronnie perched on the mattress), and is just taking a taste when the space heater wakes up and turns the darkness blue. The automatic fan kicks in and nudges that fog bit by bit right out of the house. We laughed. Nature held at bay. Ronnie makes a break for the bed in the bedroom, the metal springs go off like musical guillotines before his clothes even hit the floor—that’s how cold it is—but somehow in passing he managed to cut on the damn stereo, and instead of falling asleep to the boom and hurrah of the ocean a block away, this tiny synthesizer music gets louder and louder. It is of course Shine on You Crazy Diamond parts 1-5 from the Pink Floyd album Wish You Here, which being a sensitive singer songwriter I had never heard before. After the fifth part everything is sucked away by an elevator that, when it finally opens, is greeted by gales of laughter. Then the machine begins.

Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.
Where have you been? It’s alright we know where you’ve been.

You’ve been in the pipeline, filling in time,
provided with toys and Scouting for Boys.
You bought a guitah to punish your ma,
And you didn’t like school, and you know you’re nobody’s fool,
So welcome to the machine.

By this time Ronnie is snoring in the next room and it’s too dark for me to find the light, which I need to find the album cover, which I need to learn who and what the heck I am listening to. Yeah, yeah, it’s all about Sid, but how is anybody supposed to know that in the middle of the night on a small island off the Georgia coast? Welcome to the Machine is the last song on side one, and after that the ocean sounded more like distant cannons than waves beating against rocks. At some point I fell asleep, only to have Ronnie wake me up three or four seconds later because it was cold and it was almost seven o’clock in the morning and he wanted a ride to the golf course where he worked. I was back home before I woke up.

Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.
What did you dream? It’s alright we told you what to dream.

You dreamed of a big star, he played a mean guitar,
He always ate in the Steak Bar. He loved to drive in his Jaguar.
So welcome to the machine.

I thought of this tonight, and my new job at the asylum, and it seemed the best way to start out this blog. Now a CD of Wish You Were Here is playing, I am totally modern and up-to-date (not to mention that I just now notice that I wrote above about typing a manuscript, for crying out loud, on a typewriter, and here I am keyboarding away on a nifty laptop), but often miss my days gone by. Obviously.