Reading A Wonderful Waste of Time

I started reading son Terry’s book, A Wonderful Waste of Time, right when it came out—of course. But that was in the midst of the chaos—all the disruptions of the pandemic, teaching, union busting, and the general apocalypse of modern life. Once I ascertained, a hundred pages in, that the book was indeed a treasure to be savored, I set it aside to be lingered over—well, dare I say?-—when I had time to waste. And, as SXU duties subsided this year in June, that time was here.

What I like about Terry’s book—in particular, reading it now—is that I feel I am re-entering the world after a weird 15-month interlude. The pandemic brought a sense of doom, and nothing can be the same after our collective descent into the fugue state that has been quarantine. At this time, despite the very real devastation and suffering experienced by some, many of us have emerged unscathed or even improved. It’s confusing. Yet somehow Terry’s recollections of the summer of 2017 resonate–oddly—with both pre- and post-pandemic psychology, all of it overcast somehow with the cloud that was the pandemic itself. The mix in this book—Terry’s wistfulness, his realness, sweetness, misanthropy, simple appreciation, hope, and wry resignation—all of it seems such a good fit for my summer mind this particular summer. I’m doing my reading super slowly, a chapter a day, trying as best I can to synch up the dates of this summer with those of 2017, the year chronicled in the book.

My momentary (but recurrent) takeaway is that there’s a hopelessness to everything about the Frontier League. And yet today I heard Terry describe himself (in the book) as a “Frontier League junkie.” That’s an unusual expression for a stolid fellow like Terry, and in the book, he has put a spotlight on the highs and lows (and even-keels?) of his addiction, not necessarily to say or do or request anything urgent. The Frontier League is what it is. But in the process of being that, we’re learning about this cranky broadcaster, as he gently and rigorously thinks through everything, openly sharing his quirks and not-so-quirkish dispositions and routines: his love of walks (in town, not in games, heaven forfend!), his love of work—of escape from work, of talking shop with colleagues, and—always—of giving and receiving what is expected, whether it is in the making of an accurate, informative call for an anxious fan or in providing lunch and a clean work space for a visiting team’s broadcaster.

One reads, and asks “Why? Why is this story being told?” Answer: It’s a wonderful waste of time. Kinda like this span of 80-90 years some of us are blessed to have. And in this sense, I put Terry’s book in the category of Ken Burns’s remarkable reflection on life shared with Terry Gross at the end of the interview on his Vietnam documentary (coincidentally recorded in the late summer of 2017 (September 27), right about the time that Terry is chronicling). If war is “human nature on steroids,” Frontier League baseball is the “ambivalence of summer on steroids.” In passing the time with us, Terry takes us into the side-roads of his mind, league history, local color, personal stories and rituals, a tragedy here and there, kindness, reflections on motivation, and, in one memorable passage, an image of Gary Cooper/Lou Gehrig at the carnival on a game day(!). It’s wonderfully connected, the hopes, disappointments, and enduring possibilities of all these professionals traveling by bus through the night, across the Midwest. You can take almost any passage to get the feel, and so, here I share a characteristic moment snatched from today’s reading in Chapter 15:

We finish in the early evening and I’m left with a night to myself in Florence [Kentucky]. I decide to expand my horizons and really explore the area by foot in a way that I haven’t before. Florence is famous for its mall, immortalized by a water tower that is visible from the highway that proclaims “Florence Y’all.” The legend goes that the tower originally said “Florence Mall” back in the 70s, but because the mall hadn’t opened yet, they weren’t allowed to advertise for a not-yet-existent business. Rather than paint over it, they changed “Mall” to “Y’all” with the intention of changing it back when the mall opened. The redesigned tower, though, proved so popular that the sign has remained as repainted all these years later. 

Today, I make my first ever trip to this mall that is so famous it needed a misprinted water tower advertisement. I feel like working in the Frontier League has allowed me to witness first-hand the collapse of American malls. Often, local malls are the only place to hang out near the hotel, perfect for getaway days. They also provide the richest array of restaurants. I’ve become a regular mall walker, getting my exercise in by going from one end to the other with all of the octogenarians. When I first started in this league, the local malls were still bustling, full of strong businesses and hearty customers. Now, it seems as though half the storefronts are empty and the mall walkers are sparse. One of them approaches me today and frantically demands, “Do you know what the Enola Gay is?” “Sure,” I tell her, and she sighs contentedly, thanks me and walks away. What a strange encounter. I didn’t even prove to her that I knew the Enola Gay was the ship that sunk the Titanic.

Why I Voted No Confidence in SXU President, Dr. Laurie Joyner

Since her appointment in January 2017, Dr. Laurie Joyner has been a controversial leader. For the first year or so of her presidency, I had access to an unusual amount of detailed information about her performance and approach to leadership—the consequence of various university positions I held (associate chair of FAC, department chair, member of several committees). What I experienced in that time led me to question whether the university was on the right path—specifically, whether Dr. Joyner’s leadership posed a greater threat to the viability of the institution than the challenges she was brought in to address. 

Thus, at a union meeting in April 2018 (fifteen months into Dr. Joyner’s administration), I voted with over 60 other faculty to ask our Senate to engage in a research project—one intended to extend, if necessary, the course of the full academic year, 2018-2019. The goal of this project was to investigate, with fairness, rigor, and thoroughness, the question of whether a vote of no confidence should be taken on Dr. Joyner. Even though by that time, I had concluded that there were serious deficiencies in Dr. Joyner’s approach to faculty, fairness, curriculum, and vision for the university, I realized that my colleagues, for the most part, lacked specific information that would justify such a strong move. But I believed that a dispassionate and thorough look at the facts would build towards a clear conclusion that would be accepted by objective onlookers.

For a variety of reasons—some political, some strategic, some the result of unfortunate divisions in our community, and some the result of the hopeful, generous, and forgiving nature of SXU faculty—the yearlong investigation of the president’s leadership did not take place.

In the intervening months and years, faculty and others have had a chance to see more public evidence of Dr. Joyner’s leadership that has raised questions about her ability to lead us going forward. The turnover of provosts, deans, and important staff leaders, and the reliance on interim appointments, are two indicators of instability and untenable circumstances within her own leadership team. The transformation of the Board of Trustees from a broadly representative group of 20-plus members to a group of less than 10 individuals who show strong and uncritical (and uninformed) support of the president is another troubling indicator. The recent aggressive behavior of the interim provost and deans on a variety of matters—including bylaws changes, proposed program closures, course caps, to name the more contentious issues—has raised awareness and concern among faculty in all three colleges, across disciplines, tenure status, and years of service.

The union busting of this administration is the single most significant breach of trust, and the attempt to change the bylaws is perhaps the most brazen action of the Administration to weaken faculty voice in governance. The rationale repeated often by the Administration and their supporters in the faculty—that the proposed bylaws change was merely editorial clean-up to have our documents align more accurately with our “new reality”—was premised on a falsehood or error (namely, that the discontinuation of collective bargaining with the union was the same thing as the shifting of faculty representation from the Faculty Affairs Committee to Faculty Senate). This matter has yet to be discussed and judged by the full faculty—an omission abetted, unfortunately, by some of our own Faculty Senate leaders. It is not too late for the faculty to conduct this discussion, one that, one hopes, a new leadership team in the university would find both valuable and necessary for the building of a new trust for the future.

The Pro Argument for Dr. Joyner 

President Joyner has succeeded in consolidating her power and cutting costs—both of which outcomes are not dangerous or wrong per se. But the consolidation of power has been characterized by dividing stake holders—faculty and faculty, faculty and staff, faculty and administrators, faculty and the Board of Trustees. The consolidation has created winners and losers. Many disaffected faculty and staff—often key individuals who have built programs and have devoted long and distinguished careers to this institution—have opted to end their association with SXU either through early retirement, a move to another institution of higher learning, or a move out of academia altogether. The consolidation of power has been, in the eyes of many, ruthless (and as prime evidence of this claim, I would point to the pattern of behavior in the university’s march to May 28, 2020, the day the University withdrew its recognition of the faculty union). Many have commented on the president’s micromanaging across the board; some have critiqued her use of “good cop-bad cop” techniques in creating appearances that the source of unpopular changes were underlings and not her. Many have commented on being given directives in private that never were destined to be part of the public record but nevertheless served well to advance the Administration’s agenda.

As for the cutting of costs, Dr. Joyner’s leadership deserves some credit. Under her watch, many expensive professor salaries were cut through various means. First of all, though I’m not sure I would put this in the “credit” column, the emergency cuts of 2015-2016 were made permanent, despite the assurances of the prior administration that the pay cuts were to be temporary. Second, many professors who were nearing retirement were encouraged to retire early under generous buyout provisions, which though defined in the CBA, were completely voluntary on the part of the administration to offer.

Lack of Balance

But how much cutting is too much? With each buyout and reduction in a tenure line, the university both saves money and loses a resource. The most cost saving approach would be to fire all faculty and staff and reduce expenses to zero, but of course, that is not a sustainable financial plan. There is a mid-point, or sweet spot, in the balancing of costs and investments in resources. In the area of faculty resources, the evidence shows a lack of balance in Dr. Joyner’s approach. Or at least the formula is skewed.

A disturbing example of the lack of balance can be seen in the approach the administration took to teacher preparation programs. Clearly, in 2015, there was compelling justification for cuts in faculty and staff and programs. The School of Education was converted to a Department of Education, a move that was arguably correct—or at least defensible. But a closer look shows that the problem solving here lacked proper balance, as the administration moved as quickly and thoroughly as possible to reduce costs, cut programs, buy-out faculty, eliminate lines—all with minimal or no consideration of a stopping point or planning for future investment. The diminishment both prevented not only needed growth/reallocation, but also prevented minimal maintenance of basic operations. Under the watch of Dr. Joyner, the university decided to forego compliance with CAEP, a prestigious accreditation and a mark of excellence for the university that many faculty and programs had already devoted significant resources to secure. 

Given the reduction in tenure lines (from 21 to 3), staff, and programs in the Department of Education, it is hard to avoid the characterization that the teacher preparation programs have been gutted. Whether or not this outcome was pursued with some faculty involvement is not the issue. The main issue is the administration’s lack of balance and wisdom in allowing, much less promoting, such an outcome. As under-resourced as our Department of Education now finds itself, how capable will we be to meet the demand for teachers that has been widely documented and predicted to worsen in the near future?

Another example of Dr. Joyner’s lack of balance comes from a faculty meeting in which she presented positive financial data in November 2017, just some months after the signing of our final Memo of Understanding in which faculty agreed to austere cuts and workload increases for the final two years of our most recent CBA. In a remarkable exchange between FAC Chair Arunas Dagys and President Joyner, the president noted that a $5 million surplus had been discovered once the FY17 books were closed in June. While the source of the error has not been clearly identified, the implication was that the prior CFO (who had not been hired by Dr. Joyner) had some responsibility for the irregularities or errors in bookkeeping. (It should be noted that the MOU which was signed just before the discovery of the $5 million variance was based on a projected loss for the year in the neighborhood of $250,000.) In discussing the surplus, Dr. Joyner made the comment that “we could give the whole $5 million to faculty as FAC wants…” But FAC had never requested such a thing. FAC was arguing for a more balanced approach. Faculty cumulatively had given back tens of millions of dollars over many years of give backs and cuts. In the current situation where there was an unexpected positive outcome, FAC argued then, as they had (and were to do) in many other negotiations, could we not come up with a formula whereby faculty could partake of the benefit, in some kind of partial or proportionate way?

Mercy Values, Academic Norms, Contractual and Bylaws Obligations to Faculty

Evidence of a lack of balance (in the sense of wise stewardship one expects from a president) can be seen in many other areas of the president’s record. The president’s move into the chapel displacing a Sister of Mercy and student organization, along with the expansion of administrative offices in the Chapel, shows questionable judgment in regards to the best support for our mission. 

Throughout her presidency, Dr. Joyner has used task forces, special committees, university fellows, appointees, and favored groups to achieve ends that, while efficient in some cases, often circumvent established governance structures. 

As for the breaches in contractual and bylaws obligations to the faculty, those matters, and the larger story behind the breakdowns in negotiation require a thorough, separate treatment all their own. They necessitate a review of many documents, events, and timelines. Much of the story has been preserved and shared in FAC’s OneNote archive and in faculty listserv emails and other documents. The Administration’s cancellation of meetings, its statements in emails and meetings (some of which FAC considered to be slanderous, misleading, or erroneous); its delays or non-compliance in information sharing, and, more recently, its discontinuation of information sharing—all were part of the process that led to the May 28 action by the Board of Trustees.

Limited Tools/Missing Tools

Saint Xavier needs a president who understands how the university has excelled in the past, how the university can draw on its growing potential (for example, as an Hispanic Serving Institution), how the university could unite all community members to face known and unknown challenges, how the university might recruit and retain talented faculty, staff, and administrators, and—most pertinent, after the experience of the past several years—how the university might act with respect for its workers. Saint Xavier needs a president who is effective, talented, and involved in fund raising. Saint Xavier needs a president who can motivate and inspire faculty, staff, students, and donors. Saint Xavier needs a president who fosters hope and belief that things will get better—not as a result of saying such things, but as a result of genuine displays and actions of respect for academic norms and the people throughout the institution, including faculty.

Dr. Joyner has not shown skills or a capacity for growth in these areas. Her primary skills are the ability to demand budget cuts and to consolidate her power, often by pitting groups against one another in a highly-charged, stressful environment, always under a cloud of impending doom.

While I have argued elsewhere my belief that Dr. Joyner may have good intentions and that she may have helped cut some costs, I believe she has put us on a path of diminishing returns. Our academic mission is no longer—in the view of many of us—on a sustainable trajectory. New, more balanced and collaborative leadership may provide us the adjustments we need at this time.

From the Archives: An Early SSW; A Close Encounter; Family, Friends, and Enemies

March 31, 2021

[Potential spoilers! If you’re not caught up on your Gunsmoke episodes (as of April 27, 1958), go listen to “Squaw.” Then come back here!]

Email to Colleague Suzanne Lee, April 8, 2016

From: Angelo Bonadonna <bonadonna@sxu.edu>
Subject: Yesterday’s Encounter
Date: Fri, 8 Apr 2016 08:53:11 -0500
To: Suzanne Lee <slee@sxu.edu>

Hi, Suzanne—it was good seeing you not once, but twice, yesterday!

I want to share with you a little outcome of our first encounter yesterday. Each week with my freshman writing class, I engage in an exercise I call SSW—silent sustained writing (the sibling of SSR). Yesterday when we met, I was on my way to class, and so you made an appearance in my lead-in to my writing session, which I’ve entitled “Miraculous Intrusions of the Day.”

The whole thing brings me a big smile (and some tears as you’ll see if you read on), and I’d like to share it with you. Thank you for being part of the miracles in my life. Let me know if you want me to track down and send you an MP3 of the Gunsmoke episode in question. 🙂

The writing is not complete or particularly polished, but it does, at the end, touch on grief, and attempts to admire a simple and genuine portrayal of it in the Gunsmoke program. On that level, I want to say again, I’m sorry for […] the sadness around much of our experience these days. But anyway—it was nice seeing you! —Angelo

Here’s the SSW I attached to Suzanne’s emaill:

Miraculous Intrusions of the Day
April 7, 2016:  

 
So much happens in a day that is unexpected. I never would have guessed that I’d be telling Suzanne Lee about George Bahumas running up to me from behind and knocking me down—and how, (at least for the surprise factor), she reminded me of him, though as she said, she hoped there’d be a different outcome than the two of us fighting in the grass. [Comment from 2021: The fight with George Bahumas, (my oldest childhood friend), was the only real, Western-style, fist fight of my life. This was true in 2016, and, somewhat surprisingly, it is still true in 2021, given the the events of the past 5 years at SXU.] 
 
But my surprise conversation with Suzanne is not what I planned to share today. I came to write about another unexpected miraculous intrusion of the day, the Gunsmoke episode, “Squaw,” that I heard on the Old Time Radio station during my morning commute. It caught me by surprise. I’ve never been a Gunsmoke fan, though the show does have some powerful claims on me. The TV version was a favorite of my mother, and I have such warm, simple memories of her watching the show in the basement (?) while she cooked. I have such a devotion to Bonanza, and I think some of the qualities of that show correlate, obviously, to Gunsmoke. Then there’s William Conrad, the great radio actor, maybe the greatest radio voice of all time, but someone destined to become TV’s “Cannon”—such a step down from the Matt Dillon he wanted to play on TV, after giving life to the role on radio. All these, and other, ideas are swirling as I was driving down this morning, listening to “Squaw.” By the end of the show, the tears are welling up in my eyes, unexpectedly. And the tears well up now as I write this. Why? 
 
I’m reminded of King Lear, and the way Shakespeare was able to create a genre—the family drama—a category of experience so powerful, so unique, so important—and so likely to be neglected without the writing and art form, as propelled by a great innovator and artist. King Lear is a tragedy—not of civic matters, or personal ambitions, or tempestuous romances—but rather of parents and children, and their inability to figure out life’s complex ways of putting us in simple, necessary, and fundamental relationships. “Squaw” told of a family conflict, father and son, culture and culture, boy and mother, boy and step-mother—and on all levels, from Freudian sexual motivations, to anthropological confusions, to race relations, to 1950s mores, to fairy tale romances, to current xenophobias, and many swirling dynamics in between—the story strikes a chord.  
 
The boy’s father has remarried—to a Navajo squaw, and the boy is now acting out, getting into bar fights in Dodge. So Matt gets involved, and he and Chester make a visit to the boy’s father. It turns out that the father has married this woman according to Indian custom (where the man “purchases” the woman from the father; note to self: really? is there any accuracy to this thread? is this a case of 1950s racism? but that’s another concern), but he has not married her legally. The boy is living in the shame of being a “squaw man.” His father has disgraced him. The woman is the same age as the boy. So there’s also the narrative of the dirty old man living with the young Indian woman. And one suspects the boy’s attraction to his step-mother causes no little stir to the mix of emotions—the strong hateful emotions he feels towards his new mother. 
 
So Matt and Chester make their trip. They find a woman there—both very beautiful and young, and they further find that, though she can barely speak English, and the father can barely speak Navajo—the marriage is one of genuine love. Kudos to the narrative art of the writers—to “condense” that effect, that impression, in a few verbal exchanges. But the power and authenticity of the love come across to us after all these years and differences, and the woman, in her broken English expresses hope that Matt and Chester will come again—and be fed by her. The sense of hospitality—and the promise of family life is complete in the very brief scene.  
 
Matt prevails on the man to come into town on Saturday to have a legal marriage performed. This will help alleviate the son’s angst—or part of it—or so Matt hopes. 
 
But just what is the nature of the son’s problem? He is very deluded, it seems, about his own motivation—and near the story’s end, after all the horrible tragedy of the family drama has unfolded, Matt Dillon makes the observation about what the son thinks was his motivation. Matt calls out his rationalization explicitly. In doing so, he suggests that the boy was struggling with a mix of perturbed, dark, swirling confusions—about sexual desire, cultural bigotry, family loyalties, the father-kill motive, self-hatred, an Oedipal relationship with his birth mother, and a violence born out of frustrations of efficacy.  
 
So many ideas here—but the tears, I’m sure, stemmed from some simplicities—simplicities of portrayal of the love between these two different people, the father and his new wife who could barely speak to each other. Then there was the portrayal of the grief (spoiler, sorry) of the woman for her dead husband, killed by his own son. The portrayal of grief was twofold. Again, I don’t know the cultural accuracy of the portrayal here, but I do feel the respect that was captured. The woman grieved in a song…and in a way that would not have been offered if it were not genuine. And then there was the knife and the blood—and Matt Dillon’s sleuthing of the crime scene, in part, through his explanation of the widow’s severing of two of her own fingers as an expression of grief for her loss of her husband.

More perspective from 2021

Suzanne Lee was one of those dear friends a professor is blessed to have as a colleague. At every phase of my career at SXU, Suzanne was there—teaching, working on committees, writing articles together, collaborating on teams, and helping me and others adjust to new realities in programs and institutional politics. When she became dean, I felt the School of Education had a chance to recover from its disastrous period of rudderless drift it had endured after the long, slow, and neglected decline of the prior dean. And when Suzanne became provost, I reveled in Rick Venneri’s hallway comment to me, delivered in a nod, with a smile and that confidential gravitas of his, “She’s a straight shooter.”

After Angelo died, she and her partner, Judy, appeared on our doorstep with a pecan pie. I was not there—the family was not there—but sister-in-law Jane was, and she relayed to us later the whole episode—how concerned the visitors were about the pie getting to us, how much they had hoped to be there for us. We couldn’t be there because the whole family had flown to Thailand to recover Angelo. And it now occurs to me: have I ever conveyed to Suzanne how much her gesture of kindness meant to me then, and how much it still means to me now?

It’s hard to blame President Joyner for what happened to Suzanne Lee—i.e., her departure from the university. The two apparently were friends and respected each other. But of course, Suzanne is gone, her career truncated too early at SXU. Whether or not it was Suzanne’s choice to leave, I hold Dr. Joyner responsible, in part, for creating an environment where so many careers have ended prematurely because of, in my view, her flawed vision of who we are, what we should be doing, and how we might position ourselves for growth.

It’s appropriate that, in relaying my impressions of Suzanne’s encounter of April 7, 2016, I thought of childhood memories with George Bahumas. Suzanne’s act was so child-like. She literally ran up behind me—quietly—and put both hands over my eyes, so as to say, “Guess who,” without ever saying it. Can you imagine? How did she have both hands free—wasn’t she carrying anything? Could such a thing happen in the 21th century, with all our sacred notions of “personal space”? Could such a playful encounter occur between a dean and a faculty member ever at SXU?

Update 2021, Looking Back Again, on Angelo, through Suzanne

“Miraculous Intrusions of the Day,” Version 2, would go even deeper into the Angelo archives—before 2008, his year of graduation. Suzanne and I were having a conversation in the second-floor hallway by the stairwell, and Angelo approached to meet up with me for some reason (or maybe not? Maybe it was just one of those chance encounters, where we wound up falling into a conversation because we happened to run into each other? I’m not sure…).

As Suzanne and I conversed, in that animated way we had, I could sense Angelo looking on, maybe too intently, in my peripheral vision. When we finished and Suzanne left, Angelo looked at me, with that grin of his—I mean that really characteristic grin of his that is best described by Virginia Uphues in the documentary (at the 45:29 minute mark).

“What?” I said.

Angelo’s response was destined to become one of my favorite memories of him:

“She digs you!”

And that smile. And then, of course, my smile, because I did not expect him to say that. I didn’t feel a need to explain that I wasn’t Suzanne’s type. It was true that she dug me—and I dug her. Suzanne and I had such a friendship, one filled with sparkling eyes on both our parts and lots of inappropriate language (mostly on her part). Angelo’s observation was one of those moments where you see your kid has not only grown up, but is celebrating a kind of adult thing—here, love and friendship—in a way beyond the silliness and worry of the family drama (to get back to Lear and Gunsmoke). Angelo, in his natural hippie-speak, was being himself, capturing a truth, celebrating his dad, inhabiting the chance moment, but not letting it go till the love was communicated. I put it in the category of another comment he had made a few years earlier, where, after I had driven through the night on the last leg of a long family vacation, he commented (sensing, no doubt, my need for validation of my driving prowess), “You’re a warrior!”—a statement he made without irony, and one that caused (and still does cause) those suffusions of the heart that the recipient (till now) doesn’t talk about. Such power we have for one another as family and friends in affirmations like these. So seldom, it seems, do we (or I at least) use this super-power. It came spontaneously and naturally to Angelo in moments.

I think now of my trollish ways of interacting with loved ones, and I want to do better. And I’ll try.


Another Ride with the Hitchhiker

SSW for March 25, 2021

[Potential spoilers! If you’re not caught up on your Suspense episodes (as of September 2, 1942), go listen to “The Hitchhiker” first. Then come back here!]

The “drive-in” today, like last week, brought another bout with eternity, this time through Lucille Fletcher’s “The Hitchhiker,” a Suspense episode on Sirius XM’s Old Time Radio station. I saw the title as I was flipping through the stations, and I had that immediate thought: “Do I want to go there?”

I knew the story and I knew the effect. Orson Welles. The driving. The narration. The other-worldliness. The common, relatable story of a cross-country trip. The impenetrable story of crossing over—not the Brooklyn Bridge, but the breach between here and eternity. Has Orson, or Ronald Adams, as his character was named, made it to his destination yet? Is he still making that cross-country trek, picking up hitchhiking women, crashing into a field of cows? Or did he, soon after making that phone call home, succumb to the Hitchhiker’s “Hallo!” and find out “who he really was” and where he was going?

My first reflection is the moment of indecision in me to listen to the episode this morning. In a flash of a moment when I read the title on the radio display, all the thoughts above ran through my mind—one of those flashes of eternity in an instant—and I hesitated, not sure it was right, at 5:12 AM, to be entering into reflections of the sort that this story would, yet once again, arouse and confound in my mind and soul. My first thought is: this instantaneous thought process would not have been possible just a few years ago, before the time of radios that sent written messages—words denoting station and program and song titles—across a display screen. So here is how the modern world is separate from the world of the Hitchhiker, the world of September, 1942. Yet, as I listened, my dominant thought was how unchanged our worlds are: a mother saying goodbye to her son getting in his car on a journey. And indeed, there’s so much about the journey and the situation that is unchanged: the sound of the engine accelerating, the highway sights, the roadside cafes, the radio, and the narrator’s drifty and precise observations as he makes his way over monotonous terrain and terrifying preoccupations in his mind. This does sound a lot like my morning commute.

The difference/similarity between 1942 and 2021—the driving, the moment in time, the eternity—is one of those recurrent themes, those instantaneous flashes of big meaning, that appear in my mind, time and again as I make my way through the story. I can’t help feeling I’m somehow with Ronald: we’re both driving; we’re both terrified; we’re both talking our way through somehow (and sometimes, alas, with aggressive thoughts, though mine don’t verge, fortunately, into contemplations of murder, as Ronald’s do, in his time of greatest crisis). My car is very different from his—I with my radio-messaging-display and quiet electric motor—he, with his internal combustion engine and manual transmission accelerating through all the gears. But the internal combustion engine is still in the forefront of my mind: it’s what I think of when I think of cars and highways. Everything about his trip stimulates feelings of familiarity and hominess. His reflection of his mother at the end brings quiet hope and familiar images. He’s read somewhere that “Love can conquer demons,” and he pictures his mom in her “crisp house dress” (that moms wore in the 40s, 50s, and 60s when we were young, when we needed our moms so, when there was such comfort there—both otherworldly and oh so simple and understandable).

Ronald drives, endlessly it seems, across so many regions of our country, with many descriptive details evoking the grandeur and monotony familiar to anyone who has gone on a road trip. It isn’t until he is in a surreal part of the great American Southwest, in New Mexico, with its “lunar” landscape and barren and sublime mountains and prairies and mesas, that he decides to make the phone call. We get the operator, speaking operator-speak, something none of us have heard these many years, yet still so familiar. Ronald has to request “Long distance”—as indeed there was a time, long ago, when local and long distance were different services needing different operators who had to talk to each other—and, essentially, “build” or link a connection across a network or series of networks to reach a place really far away. Ronald was attempting to reach a place far away—but not just physically far. Wherever Ronald was—and it wasn’t New Mexico—he was connecting to Brooklyn, and he did get connected—to his confusion and woe.

But I get ahead of myself. That call, with all the operators, and the coins falling in the slot with the familiar ding, so perfectly inhabited that space between the familiar and the surreal. While the new technologies of electric cars and radio displays did not essentially change the experience of driving and all its attendant fears and possibilities and routines, the new technology of the cell phone, once again, has made narrative drama and suspense all the more difficult for writers. I forgot how dramatic a pay phone could be! Ronald’s call was expensive, even by 2021 standards: $3.85, to be deposited in coins, one at a time: 15 quarters and one dime. We hear each one fall—but not only that, there are instructions from the operator: “After you deposit $1.50, please wait. When I have collected the money, you may deposit the next $1.50.” So, we hear the six coins fall—and the suspense builds through this most quotidian of processes. The operator collects and gives permission to continue. Six more coins, six more dings. Then the final four coins—and that most familiar and most shocking of phone calls.

The story ends, and I have to shut off the radio before there is any disruption to the mood of fear and worry over the eternity—or end—of Ronald’s fate. But I recover soon, as it occurs to me that perhaps Greg Bell has some provocative notes on the story. So I turn the radio back on, and it comes on right away, since radios nowadays no longer use tubes that need to warm up—and it’s Orson Welles I hear. He’s talking about the war effort … in a most visual way that would require its own essay to depict. He pronounces the first syllable of “Nazi” as though it were “gnat” (gnat-zi)—a pronunciation I haven’t heard before. So, the thematic mixture of familiar/other (or different)-worldly continues. Welles is encouraging people to buy war bonds—to lend Uncle Sam 10 cents on the dollar … possibly through a payroll savings plan. He has much to say about it, with a fine statement about the preferability of US bonds over Nazi or Axis bonds—on our wrists. So we’re right there, in September of 1942, just about 10 months into this war, with such a long way to go, an eternity, but still the movement from Brooklyn to New Mexico, and ordinary life and transitions to eternity are happening at home, on the radio, as though no war ever disrupted and took over life as we know it.

The Hitchhiker—strange and right there (always appearing, always surprising)—is a moment in time, and a forever, out of time. Greg Bell comes on and reminds us of Lucille Fletcher’s stature as a suspense writer (she of “Sorry, Wrong Number” fame). I think of her relationship (wife) to the great musical composer of Suspense, Bernard Herrmann, who was, it so happens, the musical composer for tonight’s episode. Fletcher, we learn, wrote the Hitchhiker specifically for Orson Welles, and sure enough, Orson Welles, put his usual genius right there and made it become what it needed to become: a piece of terrifying moment in time, across time, repeatedly casting us into the familiar, made just unfamiliar enough. Ronald describes it when he is traversing New Mexico, near the end. In his loneliness, he looks out on the gloomy landscape and his movement across that country, which he pictures in terms of the indifference of a fly walking across the face of the moon. And then he calls his mom.

Water on Mars, Marcus Tullius Cicero, and Nancy Sinatra

SSW for March 18, 2021

And now Part 2 of this semester’s notebook begins. I reflect: the process is becoming more a “thing,” certainly for me personally: I’m doing what I ask my students to do: think all week about possible topics; plan for a good session; start early so I have momentum; try not to think too much about specific lines of possible development—so as not to forget them by “writing” them (in water, like John Keats’s name); try to keep open to the late discovery of a topic; try to let the discovery energize me; try to get some work done that needs getting done; try to find the meaning in life, as in “what, really, needs to be done?”

I’m still facing the abyss, looking into eternity … trying to make sense of it all … trying to make sense of this single moment in time. I read in the news about water on Mars—there was a lot of it, apparently, but we’re talking about 3 billion years ago. That’s literally something that some scientists have said: Mars was such and such 3 billion years ago (but now all that water has gone somewhere—in the rocks below the surface? Into outer space?). Three billion years ago: That’s so long before any of my three topics of today: vaccine purgatory, Nancy Sinatra, and really going back, Cicero, who, ancient as he is, still is not all that close to even one billion years ago. All these billions of years bang against the limits of my comprehension and imagination, kinda like the trillions of dollars being spent so lavishly and stingily and carefully and crudely in President Biden’s Coronavirus stimulus package. I think of Terry’s comment about how he conceives of amounts like that: he can’t. So, it has no meaning. And we’re probably all in Terry’s boat, as we throw up our hands at the seas of thousands and millions and billions and trillions, and figure it must all work out somehow—whether it’s through making things up (printing money? declaring victory and moving on? Imploding in insolvency?) or just hoping for the best.

My three topics cover some range: the news of the day, the heartstrings of a daughter’s devotion; the connections to eternity and fleeting urgency and eternal resonance—if disguised in continuing preoccupations that have no hope of permanence, despite how persistent they’ve been in continuing on. As for this last, I’m think of Cicero, who both seems so relevant and so completely gone from existence.

A good starting point—a theme of my notebooks lately—is the “drive in”: I drive in on Cicero Ave., so Cicero the man is “right there”—kinda—living on, despite the avenue having nothing really Ciceronian about it. It’s large, I suppose, like the man. I can’t stop thinking of Cicero’s mortality: He was 63 when he died, my age, and he had accomplished so much. How can not every human relate to Cicero? He was given privilege at the start of his life born into the “middle class”; he had family he loved (Brother Quintus in De Oratore); he achieved greatness in oratory, law, and politics. And he died before his time—because he was so important. He had to be murdered. So, he never had the chance of fading away, becoming irrelevant and forgotten. I remember you, Cicero; I read your treatise of “oratory”—one of many you wrote on that topic, and I can see your development in theory, your love of your brother, your admiration for your mentor, Crassus, your nostalgia for an earlier, happier time. I think of the reflective, “end of life” tone of De Oratore, a book written while you were in your mid-fifties—still a man with a lot of living left, but nonetheless, a man who was looking back, looking to teach, looking to create a dialogue of friendly and different voices trying to figure out just what is it about persuasion, performance, public life, responsibility, exploitation, strategy—all the stuff that goes into, surrounds, comes out of effective, responsible, service-oriented speech? I feel you right here, in my mind, Cicero. Yet, I also feel those nagging questions: Why all this effort? Why are we remembering you? Why did you have to be killed, after such a valuable life, at a point in your life when retirement beckoned, with those pursuits away from the forum and Senate—the reading, and math, and music, and leisure you talked about in De Oratore?

Maybe my sadness in reading you this year is my connection to you, at age 63 this year—this pandemic year, when thoughts of mortality are heavy in the air each day, despite me being almost one week into my post first-dose vaccination. Yesterday’s front page Tribune story was about people my age—or a tad older: the 64-year-olds who were too young to be in that over-65 1a group, first to be vaccinated, but who, as folk approaching their mid-60s, were also in a somewhat increased risk group because of age. The article spoke of the state of “vaccine purgatory” some people this age felt—both too young and too old, kinda neglected or not taken care of, as they wait their turn for a vaccine. But who, at whatever age, does not think this way? We are all in purgatory—waiting, uneasy, unsettled. For though we may have led full lives—who knows? Will some Mark Antony put the hit on us?

The article spoke of a couple who had retired last year. The man pictured and his wife were enjoying their retirement, but yet there was this cloud over them. Was it the fear of pestilence and death that was afflicting people like them all over the world, and no place worse than right here in America? It could be. The Page 1 picture was flattering—I looked at that 64-year-old, and thought: Yes, he’s got some miles left on him. If I didn’t know this was a story about his age, I wouldn’t have thought of his age. He had a smile, not too many wrinkles, some hair on top, not too thin and not totally snowy. He looked good—happy—ready for the good life. I thought: how am I looking? In some ways, I’m at my best; I certainly, as I’ve often said, don’t feel any different from when I was 18…. But I am different … by some 45 years. I didn’t have to wait, by the way, for my vaccine—such being the benefits of the hypertension and diabetes that my 45-years-post-18 have brought. So, I’ve acquired issues—but I don’t feel them. I feel connected and disconnected to the man in the paper, and I wonder how Cicero would have felt to be 63 in 2021, and part of me thinks he would have been just the same, and that’s a comfort.

The warmest comfort in this drama of “grasping at something that lasts” in the midst of disappearing-water-on Mars after billions of years, comes, however, with the melancholy confirmation today, on the ride in down Cicero Ave., that Nancy Sinatra, after 14 years of being “Nancy for Frank,” will be airing her final show this Sunday—thus, closing off a significant portion of her life, and concluding this picture she has created of … what? A daughter’s love? A music expert’s analysis? An insider’s look at the context behind the art?

I was so surprised at how touched I’ve been by her show these many years. Have I been an XM customer that long? My first satellite radio predates “Nancy for Frank”; it even predates “Siriusly Sinatra,” as the station was called “Frank’s Place” back then. The station has evolved over the years and across the name change—with all of the changes improvements, with one exception (where are you, O, Jonathan Schwartz?). Nancy’s tenure doesn’t seem to be situated in time: she exists, reflecting “Sinatra,” always there, as indeed she has always been. The first child, the inspiration for Phil Silvers, the daughter, the sister, who, during her tenure on the station had to say goodbye to her brother and mother—sic transit gloria mundi—losses we all felt as family, because that’s what happened in this tenure: we became family. Nancy was herself always, and that honesty made it so easy to be with her. She didn’t need to argue a case for her father, but she lived that case so naturally and lovingly. I’ll leave to others to characterize the art of her programming, but it was artful—playing whole albums, always with attributions and stories, geeking out with Chuck Granata, signing off with “sleep warm Poppa; sleep warm, Frank….”

At first (has it really been 14 years??) it didn’t seem like Nancy—or like her voice. Such a singer she was, and such an alluring young woman—of course, in those boots. I always thought of her with that power—walking (that’s what they were made for, you see) but not only that, but walking over something, on to something. But this Nancy, with Frank, seemed to have gotten someplace—and that place was one of appreciation, love—and scholarship. I found so much more to appreciate in Frank Sinatra through the person he was through the person Nancy is. Such a gift she’s given us, in so many layers and in such beauty. We have the music—her father’s and hers, yes, and we have the context of family and memories and other artists and easy humility and pride about it, because that’s the easy truth of it. Rest well, Nancy. No sleep yet, okay? But warmth, yes.