When I started teaching, I was no longer a very young man but was still charmingly naive. “Why college?” I used to ask freshmen, expecting the kid in the Michael Jackson Dangerous T-shirt to say, “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” Something like that. Students had other notions. One replied, “To learn to do my own laundry.” I was stricken, but now I understand. Like most of us, students desire autonomy.
If individuation can be achieved by joining a group, all the better. Hundreds of student organizations were recruiting on the quad yesterday, and I passed the booth for the Argentine Tango Club on my way in. In front of a card table, two beautiful young women were dancing intimately on a plastic mat marked with footprints. They were no beginners, and they twisted and writhed together in practiced sinuosity. Two male students stood rapt at the edge of the crowd.
“They trippin’,” one said.
“I’m sayin’,” said the other.
They continued to watch, mouthbreathing their lips dry, then licking them slowly.
They repeated this colloquy again, gently touching themselves the way a man feels for his wallet in a strange neighborhood. Thousands of people milled around them in a space the length of a city block, less interested in choosing between the Goshin Jitsu Club and the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Club than in public spectacle. This too is college education.
The dizzying array of extracurricular activities at Hinterland University provides students the opportunity (according to the clubs’ literature) to: promote development in fisheries or promote admirable physiques among engineers, help students appreciate actuarial science as an exciting career, bring medical supplies to Ecuador, become a disciple of Jesus Christ or devotee of the sport of dodgeball. Go ahead: play fighting video games or combat negative attitudes toward LGBTQI members on campus. Revive poetry (somebody give Seamus Heaney the bad news), sing a cappella, or join any of hundreds of other clubs, including the (by comparison) more prosaic Greek organizations.
I slipped through the crowd, enormously relieved that I no longer felt the need to choose among such activities. Instead, I ask students to do it, to become, for a semester, adjuncts. Fifty of them have imbedded themselves, like reporters in Marine rifle companies, in various subcultures around town (e.g., fire station, 4-H club, a Chinese restaurant’s kitchen, ladies who lunch, etc.), and, like those reporters, they’ll freak in the heat of (small) battle and lose their equilibrium. The women’s Rugby team, I’ll read in someone’s paper, sings— gasp —the same ribald songs as the men’s team!!!
I anticipate reading 4,000 to 5,000 pages of student writing by the middle of December. That’s like four Modern Library editions of War and Peace, printed on an ancient dot-matrix printer because Tolstoy’s roommate was supposed to bring a LaserJet back with him from home but his stupid dad said he needed it for work. For this and other duties (planning classes, teaching classes, conferring with students, keeping and tabulating grades, service work, and so on), I will be paid precisely … well, let’s compare. The state’s online system reveals that I get close to the starting pay of guys who ride mowers around campus. Huh. I make $3,000 less than a Publishing Rights Specialist at the press, $10,000 less than the Assistant Equipment Manager for the football team, and $54,500 less than an Associate Director of HR Training. I see now that I even make less than a “Concession Specialist” at ballgames. Hey, don’t I feel like a Reuben. A more astute character might ask, What is the real business of the university’s business?
There are many ways of being adjunct in America, as readers tell me. The artist in the carpet company, the speechwriter whose boss makes them both look bad with his impromptu rambling, the Ph.D.s who staff the museum’s cloak room: many feel adjunct in career, love, or life.
Government can make you feel like an adjunct citizen. A new billboard, sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and the Ad Council, has gone up in the middle of the night on the diminishing road out to the Humane Society. Someone knows more about Inner Station than I do, but they don’t explain. On a clay-colored background reminiscent of a disaster’s aftermath, two lines hint darkly, “If there is an emergency / does your family have a plan?”
We don’t, really, so I’m glad I saw that billboard. I just hope we won’t have to hunker in our spider-filled basement, where a former owner, who died upstairs, carved his nickname—TOAD—in a doorjamb a century ago. (I had to go down there once last year, to get Christmas lights, and found myself whispering, “OK. Quick and the dead. Everybody relax.” The water heater fired up with a whoosh and a pop. “Toad?” I cried.)
Given where the billboard stands its post, it appears the FBI and account execs from Leo Burnett have uncovered a plot to disrupt civil society by liberating stray hounds from the kennel. In a hypnagogic dream I see mixed-breeds of all shapes, sizes, and colors humping each other without the benefit of birth control in a field of wildflowers.
“Cry havoc,” an Al Qaeda operative shouts victoriously. “And let slip the dogs of war!”
Are terrorists interested in Inner Station? Most people aren’t. In fact, there’s something about the entire American countryside that people love to disdain.
“How are you going to keep from getting provincial?” a friend asked E.B. White, who had moved his family to a saltwater farm. “It was such a sudden question, I couldn’t think of any answer, so I just let it go,” White says. “But afterward I wondered how my friend, on his part, was going to keep from getting metropolitan.” The friend implies White’s adjunct status, and the sentiment is not unique. Note my pseudonyms for both university and town.
I should know better. I grew up in a coal town so old-fashioned that friends and I made up a game called horse tag, where two “chasers” on a quarter horse beat the bushes for “runners,” then chased them through the forest. (May you too experience the thrill of flushing Tommy Byers from a honeysuckle copse: he staggers backward, his dirty striped T-shirt riding up his belly; he turns to flee, stumbling on roots, and you run him down on the narrow trail, hooves thundering like fate, and wallop him in the back with a busted tetherball like the junior-high Cossack you are.) It was still 1914 where I grew up: we could hear loud noises from the wider world, but we weren’t ready to join up.
It’s that insularity, or the suspicion of it, we’re expected to denigrate about rural America. A friend snarls about being surrounded by corn, but she’s just back from Peace Corps service in the Uzbek desert. Anyway, it’s not a small town, Inner Station, with its uncountable strip malls and big delivery trucks that rumble along our street so heavy and fast they shake mortar out of the chimney. Industrious meth addicts tap anhydrous ammonia from farmers’ tanks, and there’s a murder fortnightly.
The Midwest, in particular, due to its topography, stands for flatlined emotion, the death of excitement. (How in the world will the Hinterland Hang-Gliding Club “promote safe hang-gliding”?) But the last terrain feature to disrupt bad weather coming across the continent is the Laramie Mountains, a thousand miles away, and we get the thrill, while trying to sleep, of distant storms advancing on us with the flash and crack of artillery. One thunderclap was so violent it triggered all the electronic toys in the house. Toby the Totbot sang “Wheels on the Bus,” Little People cowered in the flashing red lights of a police cruiser, and a toy truck blinked its hyperthyroid eyes and growled, “Rrrready to rrrroll!” I took Mrs. Churm’s arm, stared into the hallway, where things were moving and making noise, and croaked, “Toad?”
Everywhere is adjunct to somewhere better, sometimes for reasons of geography, sometimes by way of attitude. L.A. has its unslakable thirst for other people’s water, Miami wouldn’t exist without Freon, and Frenchy just sold his 75-foot sailboat in Honolulu and moved to the Alleghenies because he couldn’t take “paradise” any longer. As he says, “If you’re not bitchin’, you’re not happy.”
Still, one can find the real thing, often unexpectedly. This morning someone in the music building was practicing the first bars of a Chopin etude. It was cool enough for a jacket, and the bricks of the Georgian Hall glowed in the sun. It’s what a farmer called “suicide weather,” because the loveliness made him dread all the more the long winter ahead. (Similarly, I know one knucklehead, Chaz, who says when he’s skipped enough sessions at his next IT conference, gorged on enough chocolate, and watched enough motel porn, he’s gonna walk off the roof of the Holiday Inn because life won’t ever get any better.)
Sometimes the real thing is generated by the collision of expectation and reality. If we lived on the Upper East Side, I’d demand a physician as urbane as Dr. Chekhov. Here, it’s charming that our pediatrician, prepping our newborn for circumcision, chats about William Carlos Williams doing the same for Hemingway’s son Bumby in Paris. Here, the weatherman talks about rain and beans in Brazil, and how the European meteorological model is predictably conservative for American markets.
When in Friuli, don’t do as the Romans do. We knew when we arrived that we should participate in Inner Station culture in some small way, so we rented a plot for an organic garden. I composted and double-dug it by hand. Seeds in packets, bulb sets, and hairy rhizomes arrived in the mail, and I planted them with strict devotion to instructions. When shoots came up they needed water and mulch, and later I spent entire mornings weeding, until an old farmer showed me that the metal end of the hoe was meant to go in the dirt. In any case, there was time for all this, as Mrs. Churm and I had agreed to wait to start a family, and I needed to ponder Morality and My Novel.
As with so many adjunct ventures, reality trumped imagination. All the tender peas and spinach went to deer and rabbits, the sweet peppers and tomatoes to squirrels. The basil went to Japanese beetles and then to seed. I couldn’t even grow sunflowers. But I proudly brought home the last stunted leaves of butter lettuce, put them in a raspberry vinaigrette with toasted nuts and good English blue cheese, made bread, and poured icy wine. Several of us were enjoying lunch at a small kitchen table covered with a cloth we’d bought in Provence, agreeing that what we were choosing to call country life was the examined life, when Mrs. Churm screamed and ran for the sink. She hunched, gagging, and scraped salad off her tongue. We bent to look in her abandoned bowl, where a very colorful caterpillar the size of a Cheeto squirmed in its acid bath.
(There’s always something of the boy in a husband. We learn early in relationships to stop the practical jokes, the put-your-hand-in-a-dark-place-and-act-like-you’re-being-eaten-alive thing from Roman Holiday. That behavior gets culled, like something noxious growing in an otherwise fine garden. But we can still take secret delight in a caterpillar in a salad not our own.)
I tended that garden on the edge of town two long hot summers, despite its ravishment by wildlife and Mrs. Churm’s new aversion to anything not sealed in plastic by an agribusiness firm. Leo Tolstoy was just a puppy then and hopped through the tall prairie grass, looking for rabbits, then lay panting in the shade of a nearby pine. One afternoon, I was pulling potatoes from the soft rows when something blocked out the sun. I squinted up and was surprised to see the silhouette of Mrs. Churm, who was supposed to be at her office, but who’d been driven mad with baby lust by pheromones in the sweat of her man digging in fertile earth two miles away. “Let’s go home, Mr. Churm,” she said. “It’s time.”
For verisimilitude’s sake, please see the Inner Station Herald, July 29, 2001. The picture on C8, which a photographer took the next day because I was the only one in the plots, shows me with my garden hose in my hand and a dazed, heat-stupid smile. To be adjunct is to hold out hope for the next real thing.