We reckon wind direction in Inner Station by which sector of the economy we smell. A bright tang of livestock urine washes down on a north wind; atomized grease from fast-food joints drifts up from the south like a radioactive cloud. The east wind brings a factory stench; and the west wind … well, the west wind blows away the miasma rising from our backyard, where two enormous dogs named for the Tolstoys, Lev and Sofie, crap joyfully in the long wet grass.
The town’s biggest employer, Hinterland University, is relatively odorless but affects everything else here, even the seasons. It’s past the summer’s midpoint now, a fact determined neither by summer solstice nor by maturing crops but by the approaching fall semester. Some residents of Inner Station, whether they work for the university or not, already dread the students’ return.
The majority of students left town in May after spring finals, as understandably eager to flee school and return to what they call “the real world”—sleeping late with Teddy Ruxpins in their childhood bedrooms and working part-time internships with cable providers—as some Inner Station residents were for them to leave.
Instantly, traffic, congestion, and noise were gone, and not just in campus town. No one is currently passed out in our front yard, it’s easy to find storage boxes shaped like milk crates and posters of Alicia Keys at Target, and there are 25,000 fewer people in line at my wife’s favorite frozen-custard stand.
Yesterday we went to a bluegrass concert in the park, where a man I know told me it was “about time to turn a jaundiced eye to them swarming back into town.” Clearly he expected me to agree, since we both work for the school, but I can’t empathize with sour generalizations about students. And as someone who cares about language, I’m bothered by certain phrases.
For instance, here’s one from pregnancy that borrows its diction from science and casual violence: “Let’s go ahead and strip your membranes.” It’s a bad combination. Somebody says that to a loved one, I can’t eat a ham sandwich all day.
Dead metaphors such as “turn a jaundiced eye to …” are bothersome because they’re clichés, shorthand expressions of dubious emotions. What that person means is “My world-weariness is equivalent to the yellow view of my surroundings I would experience with a massive buildup of bilirubin in the sclera of my eyes.” Of course, people do get jaundice, but you’ve never heard this in line at the supermarket:
“Your skin looks great. Bobbi Brown Creamy Concealer®?”
“Thank you. It’s jaundice.”
The fewness of the walking jaundiced makes their symptoms suspect as a metaphor for ennui. Still, jaundiced eyes appear frequently—they’re in a recent song, a website, a film title, and in a certain kind of prose. (Emphasis is mine in both examples.)
“Kapitänleutnant Adelmar Fuchs woke aboard the cruiser Karlsruhe with another inexplicable piercing. Wearily, blearily, with jaundiced eyes, he noted that this latest device was a gold hoop, the size of a ten-pfennig coin, fastened in his foreskin and linked by fine chain to a tiny, perfect, gold anchor with its flukes stuck in the horsehair blanket on his berth. ‘Ach Gott,’ he groaned. ‘Die Amerikanerin …’” (From Heil! Heil! Rock and Roll, 1989.)
“The resort’s only lifeguard, Janet, lifted her jaundiced eyes from the two arms thrashing in the surf to a tramp freighter inching across the horizon. How long had she been doing this, she wondered, and where might her life take her?” (From Mama Knew Neptune, 1997.)
The concert-goer’s harangue about “college kids” made me want to simplify as well: there are people who communicate genuinely and those who are sealed off. There are educators who like students, and those who hate them. But if the deconstructionists taught us nothing else, it’s that dichotomies, like dead metaphors and just about everything else, fall apart when you pick at them like scabs.
Sometimes it’s delicious to indulge in bad habits. (Ever eat a Choco Taco® at 2 a.m. from an Everglades gas-station freezer? O love.) Let me use my acquaintance’s phrase this once to place a few adjuncts on a wider spectrum of attitudes toward students, which I’ll call the Jaundiced Eye Measure:
1) Pollyanna Pew’s vision is not yellowed; it’s rosy. She’s honored that our very special young people permit her to spend a few hours each week in their presence; she just wishes it could be more, and it would be better all around if you said so too. Grades, she believes, are the psychologically harmful byproduct of an imperialist system (her partner is a Marxist) and should be replaced with hugs. (Everyone gets the same number of hugs.) Pollyanna’s teaching philosophy stresses the “decentered classroom,” where she believes in “divesting her authority” and “empowering students to find their own voices,” all of which could mean “I won’t be making a lesson plan for next week.” Irritatingly, Polly is a good scholar and teacher, and a genuinely nice person. It’s futile to hope she’s really on the lam from something horrible and might be flown to Syria on a Gulfstream jet with no tail numbers; the college is full of dedicated, chipper, humorless teachers just like her, and another would merely take her place.
2) Big O pretended to have jaundiced eyes and told me as he headed for class, “God, I am not in the mood for this.” But he wore out 20 pens making comments on student papers every semester, won a major teaching award two years ago, and always got great reviews and “hot pepper” designations on RateMyProfessors.com. He lived in his office and got so many student visitors from past semesters that I began calling them “the cult of O.” When it was clear that his contract wouldn’t be renewed after years of sterling service to the department, O and his wife decided to have a baby, and he focused on family. He gained 20 pounds his last year here, cut back office hours, and had students transcribe graffiti in toilet stalls as an assignment. His evaluations began to read, “Cool guy, but …” His was one of the worst deals in adjunctdom, but he refuses to become truly jaundiced and told me a few days ago, “All I ever wanted to do was teach.” O is sane, conscious, and even-tempered—a rare combination.
3) Gloria Bulgebottom has the jaundiced eye, real bad. When I knew her, she taught a short-story survey to lecture-hall sections, up to 160 students at a time, in a deal she made with administration to stay employed. Her dissertation 20 years earlier was on tropes in Restoration comedies, and she knew nothing about the short-story form. I once heard her say in lecture, and I quote, “Do you remember the fairy tale The Old Man and the Sea? The old man catches a magical fish and brings it home, and the wife keeps wanting more and more and more until she wants to be queen?” (Let’s agree now that Hemingway was more likely to machine-gun a big fish than imagine it as magical.) Dr. Bulgebottom faked a sticky, simpering joy in teaching and told classes they should think of her as a mother figure. Later, in the adjunct ghetto, she complained of them bitterly, and if a student had questioned her coherence, she shouted, “There are people that you wish they’d fucking die in a fiery airplane crash!” Dr. Bulgebottom is now exhorting her lawyer to find new angles in her lawsuit against the university for wrongful dismissal.
The phrase “turn a jaundiced eye to …” was a dying metaphor in Pliny’s day. (And I mean Pliny the Elder.) What we need is a new phrase for an old spiritual sickness still very much with us—the sour, off-color, tainted (all dying metaphors) perception of those whom we teach, learn from, and rely upon for our livings.
How about: “Life smells like a hot wind off the Churms’ backyard. A little help?”