Wednesday, June 28, 2017

How do you create an "alien" language?

In all of my study and teaching of writing, it may have been my proudest moment.

Allow me to set the scene.

The class was Language, Grammar, and Society. The first half of this English class was an exploration of how the English language came to be, including the forces of race, gender, politics, and culture that continue to influence its evolution to this day. After midterm, the class went "into the steam tunnels" of the language, so to speak. Meaning, we did a lot of exercises to examine sentence structure, parts of speech, and all things mechanical.

Both the students and I attacked the subject the way a small child approaches cold peas.

While essential to an understanding of any language usage, grammar is...well, dry. Boring, in my humble opinion. Compounding our ennui was the fact that we were muddling through the class after hearing that our college, our home, was closing after over 100 years. We reached a point where I could no longer teach the subject and my poor students no longer harbored the energy to get through it. Therefore, I told them we were no longer doing grammar.

Of course that left me with a tidy month's worth of classes to fill. What were we going to do?

Since I would bring the class news stories involving language, I told them about a college student in Brazil who had disappeared. When his bedroom door was unlocked, concerned family members found the walls to be covered in a strange, undecipherable language. I joked that when the time came for me to finally vacate my office, I wanted to leave my walls the same way. Really make them wonder what kind of demented mind once inhabited the place.

Then it hit me. What if we created our own language?

A once dead class immediately came back to life. I saw fiery excitement in these students that had been absent for weeks, maybe longer. But, I cautioned them, we could not simply spew out gibberish. The new language would need a concrete set of grammar rules any language...those rules would have to be consistent. There would have to be a rationale for the origin and etymology of each word. To set the spirit, I played a few videos that described how Tolkien invented Elvish and how the Klingon language came about in the Star Trek universe. In fact, you may wish to take a few minutes and watch this video of Marc Okrand, creator of the Klingon language (for which there is an actual official dictionary):

Speaking of Tolkien, he once said that every language has a story and a mythology behind it. His classic epic The Lord of the Rings is actually linguistic in nature. As a someone in the discipline of composition and rhetoric, I'm always asking about exigence, or what made someone write something? How did it affect their rhetorical choices?

What would be the "story" of our language?

Well, my students decided that their language would be the language of a displaced people. They were oppressed and wanted to develop a way of speaking and writing that could not be easily deciphered by their oppressors. Plenty of examples of that in history and I'll leave you to seek them out. You might also want to look into the history of cryptography. Next, we needed an alphabet.

At first, I showed an example of what is purported to be alien writing. It comes from the recollections of witnesses involved in the alleged UFO crash in Roswell in 1947. Here's someone's rendition of that written language said to have been found on a piece of wreckage from the crash:

The students wisely pointed out that we only had a month before the semester ended and everything went to vapor. Creating an entire alphabet from scratch would take at least a month by itself. Better to go with the alphabet we already know. That way we could jump straight to developing a vocabulary.

The cockles of my little academic heart warmed as I watched the students trace Latin, Greek, German, and Celtic roots of words and create their own variations upon them. They examined how words from other languages continue to interdigitate with cultural realities, spawning new and sometimes rankling words. I reminded them, however, that the language could not exist solely with the proper nouns that they were most interested in, but by necessity would require the common "furniture" of pronouns, conjunctions, and so many words that we take for granted. For example, what would be your word for "with"?

"This is hard!" one of them exclaimed.

Good. They got the idea then. It also made them realize that things weren't going to get any easier when we constructed sets of grammar rules. Difficult or not, my guys rose to the occasion and kicked all kinds of ass.

In a linguistic sense of course.

So what does the language look and sound like? Well, you can see an example of it at the top of the post. No, I won't translate any of it for you. The language is personal, a creation of my students. Sure, any PhD linguist would likely decipher it in no time, but you won't get it from me. I will give you one tidbit though. It's my favorite grammar rule of all the ones they created. To make a word plural, you place an accent over the word's harshest sounding consonant.

Love it.

The students then all wrote messages in this new tongue on flip chart paper and taped them to my walls. Just to make things really interesting, we added a few visuals to numerous screeds:

-I taped up a portrait of Al-Kindi. He was a philosopher and a pioneer of cryptography.

-Aliens. Yeah. A couple depictions of them.

-Weird art. One of my students could create really weird art. So much the better.

Then they really surprised me. My jaw dropped when they pulled out sets of t-shirts they made to commemorate the class.

That hand? It's a word. It means the communal "we." We the displaced people. We the community. We with a capital "W". They even got a shirt for me.

I'm not crying. You're crying.

It may have come from the most dismal and deplorable of situations, but this class ended up being a triumph. These students were able to take what he had studied and use the material...and their minds...creatively. In that final month, they created something truly unique in all of the Earth (dare I say, the universe) that they will forever have with them. So much better than a dry grammar book in my pedagogical opinion.

These students. Wow. They will forever have my love and admiration.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

RIP Roger Moore

I had another blog post in mind, but the news of the day has me changing plans.

Actor Roger Moore has died. He was 89. He will of course be most remembered for playing James Bond. I wanted to take a moment and explore what that means to ESE.

I've blogged several times about growing up in the Cold War. It was a unique epoch in history. I'm not sure how to accurately convey what it was like other than ask you to imagine the kind of "we could die any minute" terror that comes with war but without your country being actively engaged in any shooting. You knew that thousands of nuclear warheads were pointed at you, just waiting for the go code, but looking out the window nothing seemed amiss. That was partly due to the work of an entire "shadow world" of operatives on both sides, keeping the unthinkable from happening.


But as a kid, my only understanding of the spy life came down to two words: Roger Moore. He was James Bond at the time and my introduction to that mythos came through a movie called Moonraker.

In addition to Cold War tensions, the late 1970s was also something of a halcyon age for those of us who love classic science fiction films. It was the time of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Hollywood moguls were blending space themes into their films wherever they could, even if it didn't make sense. I guess they thought it would get geeks in seats. At least in the case of seven year-old Jonny, it worked.

When I came across a promotional article for Moonraker in Starlog magazine, I knew it would be a must-see film. It had a massive space station, a fleet of space shuttles, lasers, a giant assassin named Jaws with a mouth full of metal, and thrilling action of all kinds. I was only vaguely familiar with James Bond 007, but just how much did I need to know? He was a spy, he got all the girls, and this time he was going into space. Why? Because an arch-villain named Hugo Drax had built a base in orbit, poised to wipe out humanity with nerve gas so that he may repopulate the Earth with a master race.

It all ended with a climactic laser battle between men in spacesuits, thus granting me my introduction to the world of James Bond.

Later I would come to understand what real espionage was like and it certainly wasn't like Moonraker. It was more the books of John Le Carre, such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, or other writers like Frederick Forsyth with The Day of the Jackal. If you want an even grittier look at "real life" Cold War espionage, I might recommend the TV show, The Americans. The real thing is nothing like what Roger Moore portrayed and that may be why a contemporary audience responds more to a Bond like Daniel Craig or even to the perennial favorite, Sean Connery. I can see that and I appreciate those two actors in the role in their own way.

I still come back to Roger Moore. Probably because he and the films he appeared in aren't realistic.

His Bond was cool, suave, and unflappable. The stories he appeared in mixed spy thrillers with science fiction (not just Moonraker, but take a look at that "sea car" in The Spy Who Loved Me), reminding me of the Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. comics I was reading at the same time. More than that, there was a underlying kindness and gentility about him. Those may sound like odd qualities for a Bond and in reality I suppose they are, but I think it makes a statement. It was as if the good person Roger Moore was came through no matter who he was playing.

He was fun.

In a day and an age where terrorists have just set off a bomb at a teen pop concert and cyber attacks on our infrastructure are commonplace, "fun" might be counter-intuitive or even repulsive for an espionage story. The post 9/11 palate may demand a spy character to be written more like Jack Bauer from 24. I can see that. At the same time, I don't think it's a detriment to a have a fun distraction from events I can do nothing about.

Roger Moore and his Bond provide that distraction and I thank him for it.

Addendum 1:
I fought this just a little bit ago. The Roger Moore Adventure Book with stories of "true life adventure." Not sure what it is exactly, but it might be the only book I'll ever need to read.

Addendum 2: I really should close out this tribute with my favorite James Bond theme...which just so happens to be from one of the Roger Moore films.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, May 19, 2017


"Every country is home to one man, and exile to another."
-T.S. Eliot

In composition studies, we have this concept called "exigency."

It's a fancy word that basically means "what makes someone write." What is that initial spark that occurs that compels a person to commit the thoughts in his or her head to written language? Exigency can range from the mundane (a grocery list) to the sublime (a literary novel). Right now, I'm considering exile as exigency in literature.

Because I feel as if I've been exiled. Why? Read here.

Back now? Good.

Turns out exile is quite the literary motivator. Without it, we might not have had The Divine Comedy. Dante was banished from Florence in the 13th Century for the duration of his life. At several turns, it must have seemed to Dante like he was "wandering through hell" and thus inspiration for The Inferno. Victor Hugo was expelled from France after tussling with Napoleon. Most of this explosive conflict was due to Hugo's passionate sense of social justice...something of which Napoleon had very little. It's all right. The banishment gave Victor Hugo time to write his triumph, Les Miserables.

Of course one can write a tremendous work about exile without actually having been exiled. It didn't happen to Milton (as far as I know), but Paradise Lost is loaded with it. From Satan's fall from Heaven ("It is far better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven!") to Adam and Eve driven from Eden, it's hard to miss the theme. Me? I have great affinity for Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. In that book, sailor Edmond Dantes is wrongly sent to prison. Just read the passage where Dantes is on a barge in shackles and realizes he's being taken to a grim, island prison. Dumas' description of the shock and despair at this realization is visceral. Even better, the story really focuses on Dantes getting out of the joint and returning to rain revenge down on those who wronged him. Dope.

I could go on with other examples both major and even minor, such as Aeneas in Carthage during The Aeneid, but if you've read ESE for any length of time, then you know I'm not entirely a traditional academic in a tweedy jacket with elbow patches. What of exile stories in America's greatest cultural achievement? What about...the comic book? I put a call out to my boys asking this very question. Here's a few of their responses:

Well, the Silver Surfer is essentially a story of exile from start to finish. He is forever expelled from his happy home, Zenn-La, and was for a time confined entirely to Earth.

My friend Jason also suggested the episode "Superman in Exile" from the original Superman TV series with George Reeves. While it's not a comic book, I will accept it as it is based on a comic book character (arguably the comic book character) and somebody had to write the script. In the episode, Superman shuts down a runaway nuclear reactor. This has the unfortunate side effect of irradiating him. To save Metropolis, Superman sends himself into self-imposed exile to the mountains of Blue Peak. Unfortunately, criminals take advantage of Superman's absence and purloin all manner of valuables from Metropolis. How can Superman return? Let's just say it's a typically cockamamie-but-fun solution involving lightning.

But my favorite example of comic book exile as proposed by the responses?

Yes, Planet Hulk. I like it conceptually if nothing else and it's not without a certain set of...parallels.

A secret cabal of characters in the Marvel Universe, including Tony Stark, Doctor Strange, and Professor X, all meet and decide that the Hulk is just too dangerous to remain on Earth any longer. They of course do not consult the Hulk in any of these proceedings. In a stomach-churning display of deceit and duplicity, they trick the Hulk into getting into a spaceship. At least "the deciders" leave him a recording in the ship to somewhat explain their motivations. This ship then takes him out of the solar system, presumably to a peaceful planet. Of course the hubris-laden minds that put this whole scheme together didn't account for what could go wrong. The spaceship goes through a wormhole and the Hulk lands on a hostile world full of alien monsters.

He ends up as a gladiator in an arena, complete with all of our Romanesque cultural expectations, e.g. sandals, a colosseum, and maybe Chuck Heston as Ben-Hur. No, more like Douglas in Spartacus for Hulk gathers ragtag allies in the gladitorial slave pens. The villagers of Sakaar, the name people of this world call their planet, begin to believe Hulk is a foretold savior, arrived by divine intention to overthrow the world's tyrant ruler, the Red King. Hulk leads a "warbound" pact of warriors and does just that. He even gets a wife and child out of the deal. It would appear that even though it came out of exile, Hulk has finally found his place in the universe and a new life of happiness.

But nothing could be further from the truth. The people of Sakaar take the spaceship and try to turn it into a monument to their newfound savior. Unfortunately, the antimatter warp core in the ship's engine cracks as part of a self-destruct program. The ensuing explosion kills millions, including Hulk's wife. So Hulk does what any reasonable person would do in the situation. He calls together the warbound and heads for Earth to find those who expelled him to Sakaar in the first place. And hell's coming with him...

Thus begins the World War Hulk storyline. "The deciders" face the full wrath of an enraged Hulk, all while being utterly befuddled as to how anyone could think they did anything wrong. It does not end well for anyone.

Will my own exile inspire any literary creation? I have plans and I can only hope so. If you have any suggestions of what I should write or of other examples of great stories of exile, please feel free to leave a message in the comments. In the meantime, here's Iris with a little message:

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017


Found this art on Pinterest. If you're the artist and want credit or it taken down, hit me up.

So I'm back.

Don't know for how long, though. I certainly won't be doing daily posts.

Right now I'm thinking about crashes. And burning.

Why? Well, that all has to do with why I've been absent from the blog for so long. You see, Saint Joseph's College, my alma mater, my employer, and the life of my family for over 50 years, has closed its doors. As for the reasons why...well...Google them. It's something I shouldn't get into.

This past Saturday we held our last ever commencement. It was the finale, the coda to what has felt like a three month funeral. This has been a time of great sadness and loss for students, faculty, staff, and almost everyone in the Saint Joe family. For those of us who worked there, and I'll speak for myself anyway, it has been a time of existential terror. Where will we go? How will we survive?

I felt as if I were sitting in the strewn wreckage of a spaceship crash. You know, the kind seen all over the place in (sometimes) pulpier science fiction? A spaceship plummets to the surface of a planet and the crew members...those who survive the impact...suddenly find themselves on a strange or often inhospitable world. Dazed and wondering just what the hell happened, they try to gather themselves and whatever life-sustaining gear that can be salvaged from the wreckage. First order of business is survival, after all. I once shot a Lego movie about this. I set the tiny space guys in the backyard. They pulled out the reactor core (in real life, a glow stick) of their ship to use as a heat source. It was probably going to give them all radiation poisoning, but it was a question of dying from that or freezing to death. I found it quite existential for Lego.

I imagine any survivors would be both terrified and depressed. Their lives completely upended. Where are they? What happens next? Will they ever see their home again?

Lost in Space is a longtime example of this scenario. I also think of an alleged, "real life" illustration. I've read accounts of supposed witnesses to the Roswell UFO crash who encountered the last living, albeit badly wounded, survivor. The claim is that the alien transmitted a telepathic sense of terror and great loss, knowing that he would never see his home again. If you're not up for melancholy, you could take Chuck Heston's approach. After his ship and crew crash at the beginning of Planet of the Apes, he tells the other men, in true Heston style (I'm paraphrasing): "We're stuck here. The sooner we get our heads around that, the better off we're going to be."

There are other science fiction stories of ruin and survival of course. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood depicts a lone man who might be the last true human remaining after a bio-engineered plague gets loose. The Road, tells of a man attempting to guide his son through the wasteland that is post-apocalyptic America. They try to hold on to a glimmer of humanity because...well, just because. In the classic Dune, the family of Paul Atreides is shattered and he must go into exile in the desert wastes, only to rebuild his life among the Fremen and eventually crawl his way back.

I'm afraid I can't come up with many more science fiction examples. That may be because I mostly tend towards the cyberpunk milieu. If I'm lost in Gibson's Sprawl, then at least I have a mobile device to access navigation, search for instructions, and anything else one can find on the Web.

"Mainstream" literature is of course replete with stories of survival after ruin. Currently I'm reading Moby Dick. The ship is sunk and Ishmael is clinging to Queequeg's coffin in a dark and turbulent sea, but somehow he makes it. He also seems to keep covered a spark of his own humanity. Odysseus, lout though he could be, survived his own calamities (more than a few being self-generated) and returned home. You won't get much succor from Franz Kafka in The Metamorphosis, though. He'll tell you that life will likely cut you down. Camus might say that sure, you could survive, but will it really matter if you did?

While revered by English-types like me in glasses, plaid shirts, and carrying omnipresent coffee mugs, those latter two texts don't seem to resonate with readers as a whole. I wonder if that is because, culturally, we prefer the aforementioned grit of Chuck Heston's "just deal with it and move on" determination? Something like Nietzsche's "ubermensch." "That which does not kill us only makes us stronger." Is optimism hardwired in our DNA? Might make sense. If it weren't, if humans did not have a nigh unquenchable desire to survive despite any circumstance, we might have vanished altogether as a species. As a culture, we might abhor broken spirits and demand that "If you're going through hell, keep going."

I have a tendency to dismiss such platitudes as mere sophistry. Truthfully, I have indeed had dark thoughts these past months. Depression predisposes you to them. Why should I keep going? What is left? They've taken everything. Aren't there circumstances where survival really isn't your best option? Might this be one of them?

Given my discipline and the fact that I'm a writer, you might think I would take my comfort from great literature and I sometimes do. That is not what heartens me, though. To be truly inspired, I run back to my roots. I go to America's greatest cultural achievement: the comic book.

Green Arrow has always been one of my favorites. Oliver Queen is a young, pompous playboy with a selfish attitude. That is until he's shipwrecked on a tiny island in the middle of the vast Pacific. To survive, he is forced to teach himself the bow. He becomes an expert archer and when he returns to civilization, he vows never to be on the wrong side again. He becomes Green Arrow, vigilante against evil and defender of the less fortunate.

Then there's Batman. It's not really the same sort of story, but his is a profile in overcoming loss, of building yourself back better than before. He's been wronged and he's coming after those who commit wrong...and hell's coming with him.

Maybe both of these characters have a message for me. I'm scared, but maybe I need to go through this. Oh do I loathe those offered platitudes of "one door closes..." so on and so forth ad nauseum, but...yes, but...

I might one day look back and say I needed this. Though tragic, though deplorable, though as inscrutable as Waiting for Godot, I might one day find this situation as necessary. Anger may become a gift. It may motivate me to greater ends and somehow march me through this gauntlet. I hope so anyway. At least that's the best coping mechanism I've come up with thus far for this change.
By the way, I look pretty good with a mace.

“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” --Paul Atreides, Dune

"You know you've got to go through hell before you get to heaven." --Steve Miller

That college photo is from commencement, courtesy of Susie Ferek Hayes.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Requiem for a College--a WIP

“Counseling services will be available afterward.”
There is no possible way a meeting can end well with an addendum like that.
Nevertheless, we filed into the auditorium at the appointed time on February 3rd, “we” meaning the students, faculty, and staff of Saint Joseph’s College. Boxes of tissues sat at the end of each aisle of seating. A priest said a prayer at the podium. He thanked God for bringing us together and for “the continuing of our mission.” The Chairman of the college’s Board of Trustees then came to the mic. He wore a blazer and a shirt beneath it with the top button undone. What hair that remained on his head was a dark brown. He bore a more than passing resemblance to former Sen. Bob Dole.
Fear has a distinct smell. I wish I could convey it but chances are you know what I mean. It’s there in that split second just before a car crash or an injury involving sharp objects. It settles in like an ominous cloud in those moments after someone says, “Sit down. I need to talk to you.” I smelled it when the Chairman bent the paper in his hands with slow, thick movements.
He said that in the best interests of the college’s future, we would be “suspending operations” on our campus. “There will be no students here in the fall,” he said, capping off his statement.
I heard the wind go out of several stomachs. There was then a single, sharp wail from somewhere on my far left. A chorus of sobbing ensued. I could say nothing. I could only breathe. Intentional, pained breathing, the kind where you have to force it. It didn’t last long. The wall cracked and I fell onto the shoulder of my brother next to me. We just stood there, saying nothing. We didn’t need to.

Saint Joseph’s College rises up out of farmer’s fields in Rensselaer, Indiana, a town with a population of just under 6,000. As you approach town, the iconic twin towers of the college’s chapel are visible from a distance along with the college water tower and the Jasper County Courthouse. My first memories of life on this Earth are of sitting with my grandmother in front of the fountain and reflecting pond on campus. My father came to the college in 1968 to teach philosophy. He also implemented the college’s crowning achievement, the Core program. It was an interdisciplinary program for all undergraduates, ingraining a cycle of reading, discussion, thinking, and writing. I attended St. Joe’s for undergrad and experienced many of the best years of my life. My brother followed and even met his wife at the college, marrying her in the aforementioned chapel. After our respective graduate work, we returned to campus to teach, each one of us anticipating a “happily ever after” scenario.
But we returned to a college fraught with financial problems. The construction of new buildings in the mid-1990s and renovations in the 2000s burdened the institution with considerable and growing debt. Compounding matters was an enrollment level that remained either stagnant or falling at just under 1,000 students as recruitment and retention efforts faltered throughout the 2000s. Through it all, the business model did not seem to change.
The college began in 1891 founded by the Catholic order known as the Society of the Precious Blood. For many years that followed, the faculty consisted of priests and brothers who drew meager stipends but whose livelihoods were covered. Times changed and it became necessary to hire expert faculty from outside the church. This meant higher salaries and greater expenditures. The 21st Century faculty who believed in the college remained with few raises in their salaries, egregious insurance deductibles, and significant drops in their retirement contributions. It was hoped these sacrifices would be temporary. By working together, streamlining our academic programs, and a full court press of fundraising and recruitment, we could evade the fate that seemed to plague so many small colleges these days.
The Board of Trustees decision on February 3rd 2017 brought a sudden end to those aspirations. The Sword of Damocles fell and so many of us lay scattered in its wake, not having even the first clue as to what was next.
“What does that even mean? ‘Temporary suspension?’” asked Maia Hawthorne, a colleague of mine in the English Department.
I could offer no further explanation other than what the Board presented because there was nothing else. As nothing else came from “the deciders,” conspiracy theories flourished in the vacuum of information. “They’re going to turn the place into a completely online program run out of one building,” said one rumor. “I keep hearing the phrase ‘planned incompetence,’” said another.
“That’s it,” Maia said with a soft slap of her hand on the desk. “I’m going to see about teaching in one of the public high schools.
I asked her if that’s what she really wants to do.
“I’m…geographically bound,” she replied.
She went on to explain about how her husband teaches at history Rensselaer Central High School while her two young daughters attend elementary and middle school in town as well. Maia and her husband just finished building a house last year on land that was left to her by her parents. The Hawthorne family is rooted. Planted. She would have to make the best of what is available to her in the area.
“I may leave teaching altogether,” said Dr. April Toadvine, a colleague in the English Department. “Maybe do online content or admin work.”
Each faculty member would face his or her own challenges in finding new work. Our History Department is a study in the ends of the challenge spectrum.
Chad Turner is second year ABD faculty. He will receive only a small severance. Meanwhile, Dr. Bill White is a 32 year veteran of the History Department. He shook his head and muttered a laugh when he heard the Board thought tenure and years of experience would be an advantage for senior faculty in the marketplace. What is his severance? Well, that’s something of a debate. You wouldn’t think so, but it is.
The faculty handbook states that if laid off, a tenured faculty member is entitled to one year’s salary as severance. The week of March 20th, a letter was issued to tenured faculty by the Vice President for Academic Affairs. It stated that said faculty will receive this severance but should they obtain new employment in the next year, they receive only the difference, if any, between the new and old salaries. This is not stated in the handbook. As of this writing, the tenured faculty are taking the matter to court and Bill White is leading the charge.
“If we win, we are entitled to triple damages plus attorney’s fees,” White said. “That will guarantee no possible resurrection of Saint Joseph’s College.”
It’s safe to say that he is angry. It is not without good reason. Both professors of the History Department, along with the rest of the faculty, must look for new teaching positions at one of the worst points in the academic year to do so. This is in addition to teaching out the rest of the semester. How anyone teaches or learns in this situation is beyond me.
 I asked Ashley how she does it and she said she can’t concentrate on classes. She’s a second semester freshman with long red hair and a ring in her nose. She loves two things, English literature and marching band. Saint Joseph’s College afforded her the opportunity to pursue both those passions and at a location she could commute to from home. This latter point was critical in her selection of colleges. For one matter, living at home would cut the cost of higher education, an already expensive undertaking, by a significant amount. It would also allow Ashley to continue to care for younger sister. That needed to happen because their mother just got her second DUI, cutting off both employment and mobility. For Ashley, St. Joe’s became only way to spin all the various plates of education, home, and work.
She works part-time at Subway and chicken bacon ranch sandwiches will never be the same to her. Ashley was making that sandwich for a customer when her phone buzzed with an email on February 3rd that announced the college’s demise.
“I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach,” she said of when she went to read the message. “I broke down. My future seemed secure and they took my security.”
It’s uncertain where Ashley will continue her degree as much was predicated on scholarships she received from Saint Joseph’s.
“The only comfort is the number of colleges stepping up to help us transfer,” she said. “The employees of St. Joe’s and the people of Rensselaer don’t have that.”
The shockwave of the college’s closing is yet to be felt by the Rensselaer community. St. Joe’s is the third largest employer in Jasper County, Indiana. Steve Wood, Mayor of Rensselaer, reports that the college is a major utility customer for the city, spending $640,000 in the last year. There is a string of stores, businesses, and restaurants like Ashley’s Subway that line the street up to and across from campus. While their existence is not necessarily predicated upon the college, the dip in customer base is not in question.
“Kate” (not her real name) works at the McDonald’s across the street from campus. In her mid-50s and with only a high school education, working at the fast food establishment provided Kate a way to get off of food stamps. What’s more, she even got to know her “regulars,” college students who would come into the McDonald’s on a consistent basis, sometimes daily. She gets to know what they like.
“A few of them I’ll see come through the door and I’ll already have their order in,” Kate said.
Rumors circulated in the wake of the college’s announcement. There was speculation that the franchise location would have to close down. Where would that leave Kate? Everyone wondered about the future of the town as a whole, knowing that many of the nearly 200 employees who were laid off from the college will need to relocate in order to find work. Will Rensselaer become a ghost town?

My earliest TV memory is from around age four. I watched a scene of chaos unfold on a tiny black and white screen. People rushed about, many of them soldiers. There were helicopters on a roof and people boarding them single file, their hair and clothes whipped by the fierce winds generated by the rotors.
“That was the fall of Saigon,” my mother later told me.
Walking around campus now, I can’t help but think of that scene. A little over one hundred different colleges and universities descended on our campus, setting up in the student center ballroom to recruit transfers. Like vultures circling, then dropping down and picking at our carcass. It makes me angry, but it shouldn’t. These people are trying to help our students continue their education after a traumatic event. The colleges are the “helicopters” in this case and we need to make sure all of our students get on them and evacuate.
I wish there were helicopters coming for the faculty.
There are three men walking the grounds between the baseball diamond and the field house. I don’t recognize them. They are pointing here and there at the buildings while stopping at different points to take a look. It becomes obvious to me who they are. They are developers or such “businessmen.” They are here to see what could be broken off and sold, what property could be converted, and so on. I hate these men. I shouldn’t, but I do. They are no doubt “just doing their jobs,” but I can’t help but wonder just how it is that they can sleep at night.
I know our college was never shielded from the realities of the world. Whole lives and communities have been torn asunder by the closings of steel mills, factories, corporate offices, and other industries and there is no reason to think we should have enjoyed any special immunity from such things. Just because I’m an academic, why should that mean I get a free pass? But it’s quite different when it actually happens to you. For me, this is not only the immediate, existential crisis of a loss of income and a far from certain future. It is the loss of an entire community, of an identity, and of an investment from my entire family that goes back nearly 50 years. The seniors of the graduating class of 2017 are the first “orphans” of Saint Joseph’s College. There will be no campus homecoming for them this fall or any other year. They know this as they get asked that most common of questions posed not only to new graduates but now to our underclassmen: “What’s next for you?”

I find myself back in front of the waters of the reflecting pond asking myself the same thing.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Going quiet for a while

I have just received demoralizing news.

I can't go into specifics just yet, other than it's one of the greatest existential crises one can face short of death. Consequently, I don't feel much like writing and besides it's tough to do that on a laptop while in fetal position and cocooned with blankets. Sorry for that less-than-flattering depiction, but that's how things are.

Besides, the things I'd write would be beyond negative and I know nobody needs that right now (not that they ever really did before.) I'm in despair. I'm terrified. Cut loose and lost and nowhere to go. I have daymares of horrific scenarios: I am once more marooned in a row of cubicles with others as we spend 50 hours of our week trying to sell widgets. Not that they know anything's wrong...overfed, vacuous, and eyes glued to their smartphones believing their suburban surroundings to be nothing short of paradisaical.

For me it's a dystopian nexus.

Sounds like complaining no doubt in this "do what you have to do" world. I can see that, but it's also difficult for many to understand how certain milieus can be utterly debilitating to personalities like mine.

I'm supposed to try to relax at this time. I'm not sure that I can. I have great new books to read, like Rudy Rucker's Transreal Trilogy and Greg Egan's Permutation City, but I can't concentrate enough to get through a page. So I put it down. Then a sort of paralysis sets in, leading to exhaustion, then sleep. Then I wake up and the whole terrified/despondent loop kicks in again and I can barely go out and function in the world.

Anyway, I'll be quiet for a while. Just not feeling up to blogging. How long will I be gone? Can't say for sure. I hope not too long but...these days you never know.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets