In the Form of a Question

Below is the text of some remarks I was supposed to give to the Senior Class at Sewanee this spring but never did–when I arrived to Cravens Hall, the banquet had been called off because of a tornado warning!  How lucky they all were to be spared this torrent of words!

In the Form of a Question: Senior Banquet Remarks

Monday, April 14, 2014

Good evening. I see so many friends here from the senior class, some of whom have written to me even today looking for extensions on their papers. Not to worry! In just a few days none of it will matter very much. While it may be a bit premature, let me offer an anticipatory congratulations to the Class of 2014. Well-done, my friends, well and truly done! I speak for all faculty when I say how proud we are of you. And let me offer my thanks to you, too, for the invitation to be with you here, and the honor of addressing you tonight as we recognize those who have shown such leadership on behalf of the Senior Class Gift Campaign. Let me especially thank the nice young man from the Development office who invited me, the one who was recently on Jeopardy, what is his name … (Matt Farr!) Uh uh uh, “Who is Matt Farr?” Please remember to phrase your answer in the form of a question.

The form of my own remarks here tonight has been much on my mind. After all, a talk like the one I am in the process of giving ought to be amusing, poignant, thought-provoking, and brief. I thought to myself, where could I find inspiration for a talk of this sort? I wracked my brain, I ransacked my book-case, and then turned, as we all seem to do these days, to the Internet, and put “amusing, poignant, thought-provoking, and brief” into the Google search bar. You will probably not be surprised to learn that that search string retrieved close to 9 million hits. Hmm, I reflected. What a world this must be, this world-wide web, so overflowing with amusement and poignancy, that it can generate so many instances of it in the blink of an eye. So filled with thoughts of a thought-provoking nature, 9 million of them! And so brief! So much brevity it would several lifetimes to sort through it all.

Most of you are 21, and so you are just a few years older than Google itself, which was established in the mid-90s at Stanford, and yet I daresay, it is the world—or at least, a world—in which you have all grown up. I’m an old fart, and yet it is also the world I inhabit as a matter of daily life. It is sometimes theorized that, given enough time, a roomful of monkeys with typewriters would eventually produce the complete works of William Shakespeare. I will admit that, as an undergraduate, I put great hope into the infinite monkey theorem—after all, there I was typing away in my room late at night just trying to eke out a passable paper on The Tempest. I wonder sometimes whether my own myriad entries into search engines over the years isn’t something like the work of the infinite monkeys, and couldn’t also be arranged into at least a Bad Quarto.

Now and then, it occurs to me to look, to really look, at the pages of results I have produced with the searches I have input. At times this can be a real revelation. On a single page last week, one of my searches turned up quotations from Tom Waits, Aristotle, and Charlie Chaplin. I was surprised by the Charlie Chaplin quote, because I always think of him in silent movies, but whatever—if a celebrity is on the Internet in any form, there’s a meme with inspirational quote attached to his or her face. There were images, too—there was a map of Milwaukee, there was a Rodin statue, there was a middle finger, there was a multi-colored graph, there was an anti-Obama political cartoon, and inevitably–as every internet search is required to produce by law I think, there was a picture of Scarlett Johansson. I’m pretty sure I book-marked that one.

You have probably produced similar pages yourself. Some of you might be doing it right now on your phones. Perhaps you too have wondered, as I have, What do any of these things on this page have to do with one another? The answer is, nothing really. Yet there it is, this incoherent jumble, the work of my own two hands. It is I that have summoned this meaningless world into being. At times like that, I wonder if you feel as I sometimes do, like a god— not a kind and caring one, though, but a crazy and arbitrary god with a seemingly bottomless taste for videos about kittens.

In looking at this hodge-podge of hits, this mélange of words and images, I wonder about the world you are all about to enter. If this mess were a meal, it would be a really terrible, incongrous meal, the sort of thing you might put on your plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet if you were very, very drunk—maybe a plateful of sushi with macaroni and cheese on the side, lightly covered in Pep-o-mint Lifesavers. (Aren’t you glad you invited me to speak over dinner?)

And if I may continue this meal-related metaphor and introduce an idea drawn from service as a county school board representative, there was a time in our country, once, when our schools had programs of free and reduced meals that were predicated on the idea of hunger. Children couldn’t get enough to eat. In the past few years, that program has had to be re-structured to account for a different sort of problem. It is not that children cannot get enough food to eat, but rather that they cannot get enough nutritious food to eat.

We are no longer dealing with want, in other words, but with obesity. And in a similar fashion, those of us in education are learning likewise to provide an education that does not presuppose a lack of access to information but rather too much. We are needing to think about an education, in other words, that confronts mental obesity. All of which is to say that you who are about to graduate have grown up amidst tremendous technological sophistication, yet what has ultimately been rendered is a universe of information absurdly arranged, a sumptuous banquet of mentally empty carbohydrates.

It is hard not to find all this a little dispiriting, at least at first glance. I was recently reading an editorial in the New York Times by a junior from NYU named Zachary Fine about how immobilizing it can be to live in this age of info-glut. He writes,

While trying to form our fundamental convictions in this dizzying digital and intellectual global landscape, some of us are finding it increasingly difficult to embrace qualitative judgments. … We millennials often seek refuge from the pluralist storm in that crawlspace provided by the expression “I don’t know.” It shelters the speaking-subject, whose utterances are magically made protean and porous. But this fancy footwork will buy us only so much time.

It’s hard to say whether Mr. Fine should be considered the voice of his generation. I sympathize, certainly, with the anxiety he feels in the face of so many competing sources of authority. And yet, I have to say, the way out of his dilemma is right before him, I think—he just doesn’t know it.

Because it is those very words, “I don’t know,” that he will find the answer he has been looking for all along. Some of you will know that I teach Classics; one of the heroes of the Greco-Roman tradition is Socrates, who famously said, “I know that I know nothing.” It is a frustrating statement, and he was put to death ultimately for it. But this statement is the beginning of the Western tradition of wisdom, not because it is frustrating but because it is brave and true. What you are willing to say you don’t know anything about is what you’re willing to ask and learn about.

In a few weeks you will leave us. You will enter into that crazy and incongruous world, and we will be sad to see you go. That too is a true statement. Promise us you will come back, as often as you can. We want to hear your stories of life out there in the wider world. We hope we have prepared you to live good and happy lives out in it, at least a little bit. But please don’t mistake the education we have offered you here as some form of the mish-mash you might have found otherwise on-line. You know a lot more than you did when you came, for sure, but I hope above all, you will know how much more there is worth knowing—and how much, too, is not worth knowing. Come back and share it all with us, because we’re eager to hear what you’ve found. Tell us what you’ve found that is amusing, poignant, and thought-provoking. Don’t let your visits be brief. And what else can I say?  When you’re out there, please try to remember to always phrase—or seek—your answers in the form of a question.

Sewanee seniors jammed into the basement of Cravens, April 14, 2014

Sewanee seniors jammed into the basement of Cravens, April 14, 2014

Posted in Classics, Education, Sewanee, Sports & Games | 3 Comments

Bye Bye Burdies?

The referendum for Scottish independence will take place this week, and I am thinking of a picture that used to hang in the Classics library at Chapel Hill when I was a graduate student there.  There among images of philologists and historians of old hung a framed portrait of Douglas C. C. Young, the Paddison Professor of Greek from 1970 to his untimely death through years later at the age of sixty. Young was a great scholar who produced a critical edition of Theognis, and in fact wrote a book about his thrilling search for the lyric poet’s manuscripts all across Europe entitled, Chasing an Ancient Greek.

Douglas Young © Gordon Wright (image used under strict permission) from http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/douglas-young

Douglas Young © Gordon Wright (image used under strict permission) from http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/douglas-young

Young was extremely learned– there is a story I remember hearing of how, one time in some Oxford Common Room, a historian was going on about a Byzantine emperor’s lineage and said, “And God only knows who his grandfather was!”, whereupon Young leaned over to give the answer and thereafter was nicknamed “God”– as well as extremely witty.  My favorite article of Young’s is entitled “Miltonic Light on Professor Denys Page’s Homeric Theory” (Greece & Rome 6.1  [1959] 96-108) which employs the statistics-based methodology of academics arguing that the Iliad and Odyssey are not by the same authors to prove that there two different Miltons at work on Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained! A reductio ad absurdum of epic proportions, “Miltonic Light” must be one of the greatest satirical works of scholarship ever written.

Quislings+in+Scotland,+D+Young,+1943But as compelling as his textual criticism was, Young was more notable for his fierce devotion to his native Scotland.  An ardent nationalist, Young chastised his fellow Scotsmen as Quislings if they did not actively work for independence.  As leader of the SNP (Scottish National Party), he even spent three years in prison during the Second World War, insisting that the 1707 Act of Union did not permit conscription of Scots into the British military. After the war, Young continued to teach Classics at Dundee and St. Andrew’s, eventually ending up with a prestigious named chair in Greekat UNC, where he died too young. Throughout his life, he remained a force in Scottish politics, and one can well imagine what his thoughts would be this week.

5081221718_ab12104072_zAs the referendum draws nearer for Scotland, the rhetoric has gotten more acid.  In a recent editorial, Labour MP Gordon Marsden, an anti-separitist, writes, “As for the bigger questions about border controls and goods from Scotland entering the UK and all other EU countries without customs controls, the SNP’s cloud-Cuckoo land White Paper simply assumes it would happen.”  The reference to the fairy-tale utopia in Aristophanes’ Birds is one that Young would have relished responding to, with acerbic ridicule no doubt. Among Young’s signal achievements was a translation of this play into Lollans, the Scots dialect employed by Robert Burns among other. I remember once looking up The Burdies in the Chapel Hill library and reading it mostly as a sustained curiosity, but it has in recent years received critical praise.

Alas, I cannot find The Burdies online anywhere, but did find these lines cited form it in an article, which perhaps are most apropos:

O, you that foondit the famed etherial city,
ye kenna hou muckle honour ye win frae mortals,
hou monie lovers are grienan for this county.

ὦ κλεινοτάτην αἰθέριον οἰκίσας πόλιν,
οὐκ οἷσθ᾽ ὅσην τιμὴν παρ᾽ ἀνθρώποις φέρει,
ὅσους τ᾽ ἐραστὰς τῆσδε τῆς χώρας ἔχεις.

Oh you, who have founded so illustrious a city in the air, you know not in what esteem men hold you and how many there are who burn with desire to dwell in it.

I’ll be thinking of Douglas Young as the votes come in, but how the referendum will go this Thursday is anybody’s guess. The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley, as some Scottish poet once said, and that goes for burdies as well.

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Goodbye Little Yellow House

The dogs and I were out for our morning constitutional a few weeks ago, and the air was full of a slow cranking whirr, not loud but not soft exactly, the source of which revealed itself as we turned on to Prince Lane.  A big power shovel truck was digging and dumping the last bits of the old yellow house that had sat on the lot here for as long as anybody had known. “I meant to tell you yesterday,” my wife said. “The bulldozers were knocking it down.” Various neighbors had gathered, all taken by surprise somewhat.  I guess we all knew the yellow house was a goner, but nobody expected it to just happen one morning.

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I drove my boys by the site an hour or so later.  “What!” said the younger one. “Hey, I love that house.”

“Loved,” corrected his brother. “Besides, you were never even in it.”

“So what? It was part of the neighborhood.”

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I mentioned to one of my students, who had worked there when the Community Action Committee was using it, that the house had been torn down.  She fairly danced a jig. “That place was gross, and should have been demolished years ago!” she said with evident glee.  Others I heard from were less happy.  Some feared that the Senior Center next door, which had been an old army barracks in Tullahoma, might be next for an unscheduled visit with the bulldozers. It’s a baseless fear, of course, but the loss of Rebel’s Rest to fire in July, and this old house a month later, has some folks jittery.

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The dogs and I were out again a day or two later. Jerry Smith pulled up in his truck just as we were turning the old familiar corner.  I told him what my student had said.  He agreed that the house needed to come down. “But they might have let us know so we could study it a little beforehand.  Look,” he said, and showed me board or two he’d pulled from the rubble. “These nails aren’t machine-made. From the style, I’d say they probably date to the 1870’s or 80’s. The house itself might be older. It might have been pre-University in fact.”

We walked around a little bit. The debris was mostly gone at that point, and straw had been laid down. I realized that, to get through to the house the trucks had knocked down a tree with an enormous rose-bush growing inside it. Last spring, I remembered, I had cut one of the roses to surprise my wife with. Gone now, along with the house. The dogs rooted around in the straw, and didn’t seem to miss the house or roses much.

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Postscript.  About twelve hours after the dogs and I saw the wreckage originally, the following e-mail came out from the University. 

Good evening,

I want to let the campus community know that the “Yellow House,” immediately adjacent to the Sewanee Community/Senior Center on the corner of Lake O’Donnell Road and Prince Lane, has been torn down. This decision was made due to the building’s structural instability and a very high cost to renovate it. The old house has seen a number of varied uses of late, most recently as a temporary space used by the Community Action Committee of Otey Parish.

An increasing number of issues surrounding the main building systems led to the decision to raze the structure, including significant structural integrity concerns, plumbing failure, an antiquated electrical system, and a failing roof. We hope to have this project completed by August 22.

Make it a great day!

A fait accompli, as they say.  Make it a great day.

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Hogs and Cucumbers

Today is my last full day of being a public official of Franklin County, a position I have enjoyed greatly and felt honored to do.  Tomorrow my friend Adam Tucker will be sworn into office in the courthouse in Winchester Square, as I was four years ago.

franklin-county-winchesterNot very much about th ceremony itself was memorable, as I recall, except that it was followed by a medley of patriotic songs that a local woman sang along to with a karaoke machine.  My greatest regret is that I did not bring my own Bible to put my hand on– I had thought there was some official Franklin County Bible or something, but in fact, nobody put their hands on any such thing.  Still, I wish I had thought to get the Oxford Annotated Bible from my office for the occasion.  I’ve been teaching from it for years, for Honors at Boston College and in Sewanee’s Humanities Program.  It’s heavily annotated, and it would have meant a lot to me to have pledged to uphold the Constitution of the United States on it.

The best part of the event was standing alongside Marshall Hawkins, who was being sworn in for the umpteenth time as a county constable.  A colorful local character, Marshall had for the longest time directed traffic in front of the Sewanee Elementary School.  His grizzled, friendly presence was a fixture of my children’s school-day for years.  As many will know, Marshall died earlier this year (his obituary is here) and a celebration of his life was held at the University Shooting Range shortly thereafter.  He is still sorely missed in the community.

Four years ago, Marshall and I stood beside each other waiting our turn to be sworn in while the hot August sun heated up the county courtroom.  Getting sworn in is not an especially efficient process, and Marshall and I got to talking to pass the time.  Among other things, I mentioned that my wife had seen a copperhead out in the yard, and I asked him how I could keep them out.

“Get a hog,” he replied.

“Really?” I asked incredulously, only remembering later the opening of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “A hog will eat anything. Anything but a cucumber.”

A few moments passed.

“That’s the reason I don’t eat cucumbers. If a hog won’t eat it, there’s something wrong with it.”

While I am not sure that it was offered as such, I have always taken Marshall’s remarks to be a sort of political wisdom– look for natural solutions to any problem, establish a base-line of unacceptable behavior and stay on the right side of it, think like a hog. In lieu of any other advice, I pass this on to my successor. Congratulations to Adam Tucker, as he gets sworn in tomorrow as the fifth district’s new school board representative. I wish you as wonderful a term as I have had, and as interesting a day as I had four years ago in Winchester with Marshall.

 

 

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Rebel’s Rest: Com’era, Dov’era?

I wrote the following post on July 30, but decided not to post it publicly, as it seemed (for lack of a better word) incendiary.  But as the two postscripts indicate, perhaps now is a good time to raise the issues.

When the four-hundred year-old bell-tower of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice collapsed in 1902, the city council voted to restore the famous monument com’era, dov’era, “as it was, where it was.”  It took some time, but a decade later, a replica tower rose on the very spot of the sixteenth-century original.

Last week, one of the oldest buildings on the Sewanee campus caught fire. Rebel’s Rest, built in 1866, had been the home of Major George Fairbanks, and stood on the site where the house had stood of University founder, Leonidas Polk, Bishop of Louisiana and Confederate Brigadier General. Its name, “Rebel’s Rest,” is a conscious, intentional allusion to the Civil War. The structure itself, a log cabin with a red roof that wisteria covered in front, had been used for some time as a guest-house. When it caught fire, it had been undergoing renovation.

Part of the first floor was salvaged, as was the charming porch, but the rest is a burnt and water-soaked wreck. Down the street stands the new and palatial Sewanee Inn, with views of the refurbished golf course.  It is already, though only open a month or so, a successful going concern.

So, the question arises. What to do with Rebel’s Rest? The University has no need of more hotel space. Most of the original building is destroyed. And, to some, the name is an embarrassment. Located as Rebel’s Rest is at the center of campus, the real estate is the most valuable in all of Sewanee. The student body is growing, and dorm space is a desperately felt need.  We have no adequate student union or performance space, and rental housing is at a premium.

Rebel’s Rest.  Com’era, dov’era, or not? 

Postscript 1, 8/15/14. I took my freshmen in the Finding Your Place program around campus this morning. We were welcomed by Rev. Tom Macfie at All Saints, climbed up Shapard Tower to enjoy the views and an up-close rendition of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desire. Eventually we would make our way down to Abbo’s Alley, where Louis Rice would greet us warmly.

But between All Saints’ and Abbo’s Alley, we stopped off in front of Rebel’s Rest and sat on the lawn.  The acrid smell of burnt wood still hung heavy in the air. I pointed out some of the issues above to them, and shared a few pictures.  Then I asked these newly-enrolled first-year students what they thought ought to happen to this site.

Many of them were uncertain. “I stayed here once with my mother,” said one young man. “It was pretty charming. It would nice if they rebuilt it.”  Another student pointed out that it would be a replica–it could look like the same buiding, but it would never be the same building.  “I don’t like the idea of re-producing it,” one of my female students remarked. “This is the middle of campus. I think a student center should go here, not some outdated symbol of the past.” As we walked away, another student caught up to me to say that part of the reason he’d come to Sewanee had to do with the school’s “sense of tradition,” but he wasn’t sure if rebuilding Rebel’s Rest would be “real or kinda Disney.”

Postscript 2, 8/27/14. Vice-Chancellor McCardell addressed this issue in his remarks opening the new school year yesterday at All Saints.  As he noted,

This is probably as good a place as any to provide an update on Rebel’s Rest. All of us were disheartened, to say the least, by the terrible fire that engulfed so much of this beloved, iconic building in late July. Though I know the wait is frustrating and the desire for more news understandable, we are still awaiting final reports from the several investigators engaged to determine cause and extent of damage. The preliminary reports, however, suggest that, while more of the old building has been saved than any of us might have expected – this thanks to the skill of the Sewanee Fire Department – the likelihood of our reconstructing Rebel’s Rest in its old form is becoming increasingly remote. For one thing, any new or renovated building on the site would need to comply with building code requirements. Thus, even if we desired to replicate the old building, we would be prohibited from doing so. For another, the fire appears to have rendered dangerously unstable much of the exterior walls, to the point where they would be unlikely to support, in their present condition, anything we might decide to build within them.

Yet there is likely to be much that is salvageable. And I have been overwhelmed by suggestions of what might be done on the Rebel’s Rest site. On the first point, we are likely to begin soon a very careful removal of what is still standing. We will mark it; we will store it safely; and we will incorporate it into whatever building may rise on that site. On the second point, I am persuaded that any decision about what might be done as a successor building should not be made in haste. This will surprise some and possibly disappoint many, even those of an otherwise conservative disposition whose inclination is more often to allow plenty of time to make careful decisions. And so we will take our time. We will welcome, and consider, many options. The process of sorting through those options and recommending next steps will be inclusive and transparent. No one of us, or group of us, has a premium on the wisdom required to make the right decision for the University. So I ask you to be patient, please, and I promise that we will communicate regularly as we learn more.

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Sewanee Convenience Center Hours

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As the hours are hard to find online elsewhere, here you go.

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The Fire at Rebel’s Rest

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A sore back woke me up in the middle of the night and, looking at my iPhone for the time (“1:39″), I saw a post on Facebook of a fire with the caption “rebels rest dammit.”  It had been posted about 1 AM; shortly thereafter, another friend posted something similar. Now I was wide awake, and decided I would go up to University Ave to see what was going on.

The pungent odor of fire was faint in my neighborhood and covered by a far stronger smell of skunk which receded as a I got closer to the University. Mindful of my wife’s remark, You’ll just be in the way, I parked by the bookstore and walked up to Convocation Hall. The odor was stronger now. There were many flashing lights but, with all the sirens off, the scene was oddly quiet. Small groups of people were gathered on the sidewalk though few were talking.  The fire was over, but the firefighters were still pouring on water. The worst had passed.

My friend and former student Ryan was there with some other people, alumni now back for the Writers’ Conference.  Ryan works at the Inn and had just gotten off duty when he came up–he was still in his uniform. “If you had been here an hour ago,” he said, “you would have thought it was going down. They saved the first floor, and I guess some of the back.”  Some had photos on their phones, which I’ve posted below.

I milled around a little more.  The building had been undergoing renovation, and evidently the alarms were not on.  Someone said that a man walking his dog down University Ave around 11:20 had seen the glow from inside the building. The sprinklers were working, my friend Parker said, and eventually the firefighters had to turn them off when they got in. Chief Marie was there, her efficient and competent self, consulting with them. I saw the VC looking tired and sad.

For many faculty, Rebel’s Rest was the first place they ever stayed at Sewanee.  It had a grand old aura about it, a throwback in time. My friend Ted stayed there once and praised its antique feel “without any damn doilies.”  Under the wisteria on the front porch, I had had many a lively conversation and good laugh. I remember talking with my friend Jim about Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain very well. On the back porch, my student Sarah and I were at the bar set up for a Medieval Colloquium reception and when I asked for Chardonnay, she said, “Not you too!” like I’d just contracted smallpox. I recall driving Stanley Crouch up to the front door and much as he wanted to dislike anything with the word rebel in it, the wisteria was just too charming.  From this morning’s photos it looks like the wisteria might have survived.

I have myself given a talk or two in the living room, most recently on the emperor Nero, who knew something about fires himself, it occurred to me as I finally walked back to the car. My back was still sore, as was my heart. Some of Major Fairbanks’ old house has been saved, but it will not be the same. Goodbye, Rebel’s Rest, and may you rest in peace.

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Postscript. The following is from the August 7, 2014 edition of the Sewanee Mountain Messenger: Members of the Sewanee Volunteer Fire Department respond to the blaze at Rebel’s Rest late on July 23. Photo by Buck Butler/University of the South

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