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 university 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.”  When wife Lily pleaded, “Be the man you are.  Be the man I married,” Devereaux replied: “Which?  Make up your mind?

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 skills and ponder the multiple interpretations.  Bodmer assigned “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 flunking Anne Balay’s course who complained of being exposed to the children’s book “Nappy Hair” would have taken this class and, doomed to fail, registered similar complaints about a novel dealing with child molestation.  Would Bodmer’s superiors have had his back or, like with Anne (below, at Cornell), thrown him to the wolves?  They probably would have supported him in the name of academic freedom, although had Humbert Humbert’s victim been a boy, it might have been a different story.

Near the library courtyard I crossed paths with Chris Young, flush 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, who dedicated one of them, a bobby asked his name.  Having secured permission beforehand, he said, “Christopher Young.”  The guard frowned, scanned a list skeptically, and then said, “Oh, you should have said Professor Young.”  Very British, we both agreed.  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.  On September 6 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. 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 (IMH) board members a biannual report.  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 makes splendid use of recent IMH articles, but I was disappointed that he eschewed chronological chapters after the postwar in favor of thematic ones such as “Hoosier Traditions and the Winds of Change.”  For instance, I would have liked one on “The Sixties Social
Revolution and Its Aftermath.”

Madison 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 her perspective on 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” – or the war that followed. 

Bill Monroe, 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 featured a frenetic beat, sophisticated harmonies, and solo breaks to showcase the 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 the blast destroyed or badly damaged hundreds of buildings.  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 Whiting’s BP plant sent smoke billowing. 

In the cafeteria I joined affable librarian Betty Hiemstra and senior William Mabon, who grew up in Gary and was a Milwaukee carpenter 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, a driver who cut into my lane despite having nowhere to go almost sideswiped me.  A great “Leftovers” episode showed what main characters were doing 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 she was gone without a trace, to his astonishment and perhaps relief.

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 middle aged burnout, and the aging feminist poet.

1 comment:

  1. jimbo...what is obama's advanced degree in? where did he receive it? what was he, however briefly, before he became president? he is of the hegemonic culture, not standing in opposition to it...he wasn't going to change anything...i voted for him twice, but not because i thought he would revolutionize the system.