Friday, August 29, 2014

Straight Men

“A liberal arts dean in a good mood is a potentially dangerous thing.  It suggests a world different from the one we know.  One where any damn thing can happen.”  Richard Russo

IUN dean Mark Hoyert includes the above Russo quote on his email correspondence.  The main character in “Straight Man,” an academician, admits in the Prologue: “Truth be told I’m not an easy man.  I can be an entertaining one, though it’s been my experience that most people don’t want to be entertained.  They want to be comforted.  And, of course, my idea of entertaining might not be yours.”  Like William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the protagonist in “Straight Man,” Hoyert can be exasperating but is always entertaining.   In a time of declining revenue for higher education, when campuses are moving away from IU’s traditional commitment to being, first and foremost, a liberal arts institution, his is an unenviable job that has frustrated and overwhelmed several predecessors. 

Straight man can refer a heterosexual, one who does not take drugs or an honest soul who says what he thinks, as in straight shooter.  In comedy duos the straight man sets up a partner to deliver the joke.  In Russo’s novel the antihero usually delivers punch lines at others’ expense.  For instance, when a snobbish colleague says, “I hear you don’t write anymore,” Devereaux responds, “Not true.  You should see the margins of my student papers.”  Told that’s not the same as writing a book, he replies, “Almost identical, both go largely unread.”

I received a letter from the Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs thanking me for my commitment to IUN after being named on a student survey as one who had made a positive impact on a student’s “personal and/or academic development.”  I bet the source was someone from Anne Balay’s Gender Studies class although I also made appearances in classes taught by Chris Young, Jon Briggs, Nicole Anslover, Steve McShane, and Chuck Gallmeier.  I wonder if Anne got a similar letter – probably not since she’s no longer at the university.  If so, it would probably further embitter her rather than cheer her up.

Dave Serynek told me that his last IUN class before graduating was Twentieth Century American Literature with George Bodmer, so, in his words, he “went out with a bang.”  Dave loved the instructor’s wit; and although the marginal comments on assigned papers were at times sarcastic, they motivated him to improve his writing. He read “Lolita” (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov, about literature professor Humbert Humbert, obsessed with a 12 year-old “nymphet” whom he manages to seduce after becoming her stepfather.  One wonders what might have happened if the women failing Anne Balay’s course who complained of being exposed to the children book “Nappy Hair” would have been in this class and registered similar complaints about a novel dealing with child molestation.  Would Bodmer’s superiors have had his back or, like with Anne, thrown him to the wolves?  They probably would have supported him in the name of academic freedom, although if Humbert Humbert’s victim been a boy, it might have been a different story.
Near the library courtyard I crossed paths with Chris Young returning from a Colonial America class, who told me about experiences in London while researching Abraham Lincoln monuments.  At the Parliamentary Archives to examine the papers of David Lloyd-George, a bobby asked his name.  Having secured permission beforehand, he said, “Christopher Young.”  The guard frowned, scanned a list for skeptically, and then said, “Oh, you should have said Professor Young.”  Chuck Gallmeier joined us and, a graver, mentioned Karl Marx’s impressive burial site at Highgate Cemetery in north London.  On any given day, large crowds pay their respects, especially on May 5, the anniversary of his birth.  In contrast, a nearby marker for Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, once the darling of America’s Robber Barons, lies untended and virtually unnoticed.
Arcade Fire with Marky Ramone (on drums) and Mavis Staples
In Brooklyn recently, Marky Ramone joined Arcade Fire on “I Wanna Go Down to the Basement” and “I Wanna Be Sedated.”  For Arcade Fire’s Chicago appearance the great Mavis Staples sang the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time” after opening up with a few bars of the Staples Singers’ “This Could Be the Last Time.”  While tempted to check out Arcade Fire’s “Reflector” from Chesterton library, I opted instead for two Spin Doctors CDs.  They’ll be at the Valpo Popcorn Festival.
I learned from Brenda Ann Love that Lafayette, Indiana, police basically censored a graffiti-style portrait by Aaron Molden of an officer in riot gear.  Inspired by events in Ferguson the street art piece was part of a citywide project entitled small spaces: Lafayette.  Under intense pressure the woman in charge decided to paint over it just one day after it appeared.

During the Lane Fantasy Football draft son Dave entered my selections and gave me advice in the later rounds.  I picked second and snatched up Eagles running back Sean McCoy.  In the second round I opted for Cincinnati wide receiver A.J. Green, followed by more running backs and receivers.  I waited until the seventh round to take a quarterback (Cam Newton) and, unbelievably, the Patriots’ Tom Brady was still available in the eleventh round. I also have the top ranked defense (Seattle) and kicker (Jason Tucker) plus decent tight ends in Jason Whitten and Martellus Bennett, despite waiting till the tenth and twelfth rounds to add them to the roster.  Jimmy Graham, far and away the best at that position, went to Garrett Okomski in the first round.  As always, much will depend on injuries, but I am defending champion and feel confident.

Eric Sandweiss sent Indiana Magazine of History board members a biannual report.  I am pleased he took my advice and will include a Roundtable on James H. Madison’s “Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana” in the December 2014 issue.  Madison himself thanked me for my blog comments, as well as “all your work that helped make the book.”  He made a special effort to include material about the Calumet Region and starts the Great Depression chapter with a quote from Whiting resident Betty Gehrke gleaned from John Bodnar’s path breaking “Our Towns: Remembering Community in Indiana” (2001).  Gehrke, interviewed in 1990 when 79 years old, summed up the 1930s in this manner:
“In our generation, we knew how hard it was to come by things and make money last . . . it was something that stayed with me because I realized how quickly it could all be taken away.”

Madison added: “Gehrke’s generation never forgot the worst economic depression in American history.”

Thanks to Madison, I learned that Bill Monroe, often referred to as the “Father of Bluegrass,” came to Whiting in 1929 at age 18 with brothers Birch and Charlie to work at Standard Oil Refinery.  He and Charlie started performing as the Monroe brothers on local radio stations WAE in Hammond and WJKS in Gary.  Monroe went on to form the “Blue Grass Boys, which by the mid-1940s included Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt.  Monroe, who played the mandolin, pioneered a genre that included an up-tempo beat, sophisticated harmonies, and solo breaks to showcase he proficiency of members such as fiddler Chubby Wise.  Elvis Presley sang Monroe’s most famous composition, “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” on his first record.
Whiting, Indiana, August 27, 1955
John Hmurovic has been collecting recollections of the 1955 Whiting Standard Oil Refinery Explosion.  John was not yet three years old on August 27, and his first memory is of his mother clutching him tight as they stared out their living room window.  The Region’s worst industrial disaster, not counting the 1982 Cline Avenue Bridge collapse, it showered debris over a quarter-mile radius and damaged hundreds of homes.  Some thought an atomic bomb had gone off.  Amazingly, only two people died, but hundreds of buildings were destroyed or badly damaged.  According to resident Gayle Kosalko, “that explosion caused Whiting’s population to go from 10,000 people to 5,000.” Describing the scene, Jerry Davich wrote:
  “Without a flicker of warning, a series of explosions ripped apart the Standard Oil Refinery’s 250-foot tall hydroformer unit 700.  On that warm, quiet and otherwise typical Saturday morning, something went terribly wrong when the hydroformer was restarted and, as witnesses recall, all hell broke loose.”
Hmurovic compared the event to Pearl Harbor, a day one never forgets.  Exactly 59 years later, an explosion at the BP plant sent smoke billowing into the ski. 

In the cafeteria I joined affable librarian Betty Hiemstra and senior William Mabon, who grew up in Gary and was a Milwaukee carpenter for many years until work dried up during the 2008 Bush economic debacle.  Mabon remembered me from Richard Hatcher’s Minority Studies class; we discussed how the Obama administration should be doing more for depressed cities.  After lunch I took him to the Archives and gave him “Gary’s First Hundred Years.”

On Route 20 to avoid Labor Day weekend traffic I barely avoided a driver who cut into my lane despite having nowhere to go.  I watched a great “Leftovers” episode that showed where main characters were when loved ones mysteriously disappeared, including a fetus inside Kevin’s wife Laurie, who went on to join the Guilty Remnant cult.  Kevin had just finished screwing a stranger when suddenly there was no trace of her.

I am a straight man in some ways and not others.  I love Russo’s affectionate yet acerbic portrayal of academic types, including the wimpy junior member, the absent-minded senior professor, the middle aged burnout, and the outspoken feminist.