My students seem a little embarrassed to tell me they did “nothing special” for spring break, meaning they stayed home and worked. No one, it turns out, flew to the Bahamas with a suitcase full of Thackeray and Trollope, hoping to catch up in a Victorian-novel class while sitting on a beach. No one abandoned the novels to go scuba diving with a girlfriend who’d never seen the ocean. When they returned to Chicago, no one had to wake her parents to tell them their daughter had the bends, an $8,000 malady that insurance wouldn’t cover. Nor did anyone have to ask their parents for directions to the hospital with a recompression chamber, which is in a bad neighborhood of the city, or to let them borrow their Pontiac Parisienne to get there, so the station wagon wasn’t lightly damaged that night. Choosing banality is sometimes a mark of maturity, and I’m glad I never did any of those things, either.
Mrs. Churm flew to China for a conference over our spring break, leaving me to nurture two little boys, three separate deadlines, and a ruptured lumbar disk. (“The extrusion has the consistency of crabmeat,” a medical dictionary says). Because we felt Mrs. Churm’s absence so deeply, Starbuck and I felt obliged to do something she might not approve of. We discussed (and rejected) digging a hole in the backyard to China (Mrs. Churm might spot us in Chongqing), not bathing for a week (boils), and costuming the cats as velociraptors (bleeding out). In the end we settled for flying a radio-controlled blimp around the living room while we watched cartoons. Then we blasted the Kinks’ “Apeman” and jumped on the furniture.
Umberto Eco says Americans have a horror of emptiness they try to fill with “insane abundance.” That’s why our restaurants serve “steaks four inches thick with lobster (and baked potato, and sour cream and melted butter, and grilled tomato and horseradish sauce)”—and, I would add, a spinach-salad appetizer with candied fruits and bacon and Gorgonzola, and for dessert the Leaning Tower of Fudge.
More typically, we fill the void, as Starbuck and I did, with an abundant banality, which offers its own comforts—and hazards. The only thing worse than the gas from a 3-year-old boy full of SpaghettiOs Sliced Franks and drinkable yogurt is the effluvium of a father who, having finished the can of SpaghettiOs, eats cold pizza, malted milk balls, boiled shrimp, a head of broccoli dipped in ranch dressing, half a party bag of Fritos, two oranges, and some Life cereal.
Some time ago, Mrs. Churm took me to a campus event honoring engineering students who’d studied abroad and the staff who’d made it possible. The dinner was held in “Ballroom B,” and we were seated at one of the large round tables with juniors and seniors sporting Gus Grissom haircuts and difficult neckties. In the absence of polite chitchat, they took turns sipping from their water glasses. None of them seemed to realize that their eyes, moving nervously side to side, could still be seen over the goblets; they thought they’d become invisible at that moment. Heat-panic began to rise in my neck, and I wasn’t sure I’d last.
I was cheered when one of the young engineers finally ventured to say, “Paris is one of the great cities of the world.” It was a perfect banality—hard and brilliant as a Tiffany diamond—and it filled me with hope that someone at the table would strangle him. Instead, his fellow scholar asked, “Do they drink beer over there?” “I guess,” the first replied.
We sat again in silence, and drank our water. Other undergraduates hired as waiters refilled the glasses. Some moments later, the student said: “It’s more of a wine kind of place.” We all nodded in appreciation. He glowed for a while at our response, then added, “A bunch of us from here got so wasted.” In my haste to get up and go—anywhere, to the bathroom, maybe, to relieve myself of all that water—I broke both my knees under the table but dragged myself across the parquet floor, down a flight of stairs, and was free. I still have scars.
Many get awards at Hinterland. I got one once and still wear it around my neck even though it’s a sheet of paper, not a medal. Just before break, Mrs. Churm asked me to another awards dinner for international education, this time at the Faculty Club. Inside, we found several dozen people standing around chatting as waiters passed trays of rumaki and what looked like fried potato wedges. I would have liked a Scotch instead of the sour white Zinfandel I was given, but Mrs. Churm introduced me to some people, and I said hello to others I knew, and I thought this time it was going to be OK.
The provost was there, popping cheddar cubes into his mouth from his fist. He’d forgotten his teeth, so his chin tapped his nose as he gummed the cheese, but he was getting the job done. After a while, he made folksy welcoming remarks and invited us to watch a video on Hinterland’s efforts at “internationalization.” We stood for 10 minutes while it played, unable to hear a word from the tinny speaker, and smiled politely. The Australian consul general stood stiffly to one side, where he couldn’t even see the screen, and I wondered at the sort of person who could do this perpetually.
After the video, I worried aloud to Mrs. Churm that there might not be wine with dinner and asked her if we should stop at the open bar again. Hinterland’s chancellor, who looks like a made man, had sidled up unseen. “Yeah, you go load up on dat free wine,” he said. I think he sneered, though it’s hard to know.
Until I taught at Hinterland, I never suspected a college campus could be banal. I grew up near Southern Illinois University—my dad was a professor—and regularly went to international dinners, graduate piano recitals, plays, and public lectures by Buckminster Fuller, architect of the geodesic dome. The novelist John Gardner taught in the English department, and there were said to be more radical Weathermen on campus than anywhere else in the country. Actual freaks, hippies, and yippies walked the streets; Minnesota Fats hustled college kids in the pool halls. Standing in the campus bookstore one day when I was 8, I read my first R. Crumb comic book, about a guy who falls in the crapper and is flushed into the sewer. A child exposed to that kind of local color spends the rest of his life looking for more.
Systems made to serve as heavily as a Big Ten school—especially one with budget problems, like Hinterland—can’t afford to be quirky or fragile or even wonderful, in the old sense of the word; it’s enough that they safely and efficiently move people through the system. Hinterland has the institutional atmosphere of a clean, well-used, and slightly dull municipal museum. I’m in one of the glass cases.
We were 8. The big woman on the far side of the table, whose nametag read “Pat,” looked like a farm woman and surprised me by listing all the things she hadn’t been able to say or eat or comprehend in Cairo, Calcutta, Bangkok, Moscow, and New York. I turned to Mrs. Churm, who knew my question by the look on my face. “That’s the alumni-association coordinator for international alumni,” she whispered in my ear, and patted my forearm gently.
A student seated to my left introduced herself as Kimmy, an “alumni ambassador” hired to go to events like this, for reasons that escaped me, since most of us in the room were neither alumni nor going anywhere soon. Kimmy had a girlish overbite, a spray-on tan, and the eyes of a fanatic. She too had gotten a thrill from another culture: “The cabbie bumped a concrete barrier coming out of the airport in Madrid, and I was totally on edge the whole week I was in Spain!”
Through the tasteless curry dinner, Kimmy, with the assurance of the third-grade teacher she was about to become, lectured on elementary-school districts scattered around the state’s soybean fields, in places like Plackton and Clackton and Flaxton. Retracton, it turned out, had air-conditioning units on top of their buildings. Fashton didn’t. Shouldn’t Superintendent Marxtun have arranged for them with the school board? Everyone knows late spring in Chakerton is warm. Kimmy’s teeth clacked when she talked. She seemed to assume we all knew the towns, schools, teachers—everyone from Mrs. Anglosaxton to Mrs. Zackingtub. In fact, everyone at the table did know them, except Mrs. Churm and me, and I secretly suspected Mrs. Churm was interested. I glowered at my empty water glass, which could have made me invisible if I had a reason to raise it to my face.
I’m not especially claustrophobic. Once, I was fouled in line on the ocean floor and breathed my tanks dry getting loose; I just swam to the surface and we went to Popeye’s for chicken. But when I realized the awards ceremony was only now about to begin, and that we were trapped at the farthest table from the door, it took superhuman will to focus on the speakers. Midway through the program, the head of the alumni association, who I suppose was Kimmy’s and Pat’s boss, got up to cheerlead. “Go, Ringworms,” she said, invoking the name of our mascot. “Ringworms,” the crowd mumbled. “Go! Wormy-worms!” she yelled into the microphone, setting off squeals of feedback. She spoke for some time, and I wondered why they’d pulled in so many alumni-office goons tonight. “Remember,” she warned at last, “wherever you go, you’re always a Ringworm.” The advertising machine never sleeps, but many there that night did.
In the horror vacui of no discernible identity, Hinterland, like many big universities, fetishizes itself. For sound business reasons, it suggests membership in the club is more important than, say, education, which is always a venturing-out from easy groups. But corporate culture is didactic, after all; it teaches how to be what Vladimir Nabokov calls a philistine: “a full-grown person whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature, and whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideals of his or her group and time.”
As with the lovely predictability of SpaghettiOs, there are comforts to this, such as a sense of belonging. But one of the hazards is that the philistine “becomes an easy victim of the advertisement business … [ads] tend to appeal to the philistine’s pride in possessing things whether silverware or underwear.” Both, of course, are available with the Hinterland logo.
The university becomes a brand that students buy and often worship. Philistinism suggests, Nabokov says, “that the acme of human happiness is purchasable and that its purchase somehow ennobles the purchaser … nothing spiritual remains except the ecstatic smiles of people serving or eating celestial cereals …” Or wearing a sweatshirt decorated with Hinterland Ringworms. That’s why I’m delighted when a student’s native genius evades the trap.
This night’s pleasure, as immediately apparent as a breeze in the doldrums, was in the stories of two awardees. The first was an undergrad from a local farming family, who had studied abroad in Thailand and tried to understand the effects of globalization on traditional Thai farming; in the process, she lived and picked garbage with a family who’d been pushed off their land by developers. When she got back, she raised money to produce a magazine on the difficult issues, which she and others wrote. The graduate awardee wasn’t there, because he was still saving war orphans in Darfur. He’d sent his family to collect the award, and his sister was irreverent about it.
The keynote speaker had been brought from Australia for his award (by Mrs. Churm’s nomination) and described coming to the U.S. decades ago as a young academic with a family and how he benefited from cultural exchange. How moving it was! What simple, direct language! How he stuck it to Hinterland by criticizing short-term study-abroad programs that Hinterland sponsored and even encouraged—even though they’re the student equivalent of a booze cruise—instead of facilitating longer, more meaningful exchanges. He spoke realistically about finding the beauty in the local while taking advantage of aspects of globalization, and he challenged us to live lives of service. It was as if he, like Salieri at the end of Amadeus, had said, “Mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you!”
In the aftermath of all the banality that came before, the sudden invigorating effects of honesty overwhelmed me. The program was done, we were free to go home, but tears streamed down my face, and I embraced Kimmy as she was picking up her complimentary Hinterland gift bag. “You’re a wonderful young woman,” I said, “and I’ll never tell the provost you’re wearing his dentures, never never ever.” Mrs. Churm and I shook hands heartily all around; I was filled with warmth for these unique and wonderful human beings. We’d been through so much together.
Striding into the brisk night air with Mrs. Churm on my arm, I felt glad that teaching, writing, and fatherhood were my chosen pursuits, and I vowed to dig even deeper, assay my skills, and use whatever meager talents I possessed to improve this world. I would rededicate my life, find a modern-project equivalent to Chekhov’s Sakhalin book, in which he exposed the misery of that penal colony off Siberia and things had changed. As an adjunct and an Internet humorist, I knew I couldn’t fail.