My Year Away. Again.

First, I went on Sabbatical. Now, I'm beginning My Year Away again as I start my first year of Retirement!

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Whatever you do. Please. Read a Book.

This summer has been the wackiest summer I think any of us has ever experienced. Thanks to COVID-19, all sorts of “are you kidding me?” things have become normal day-to-day occurrences. It took a while, but it looks like we finally have gotten used to the mask wearing thing. I know I reached a new high (or maybe a new low) when I actually looked at a mask a person was wearing and thought “Oh, that’s cute.” Even weirder was when I said out loud to the TV screen while watching the news, “No, that is not a good look on you.” (Seriously. I’m embarrassed to admit I was complaining that the mask did not match the reporter’s outfit.) I’ve discovered drive-up windows for wine. (I hope that, at least, is permanent.) I’ve learned how to size up a restaurant and make a quick judgment on whether it feels safe to eat there. And I’ve learned how to not hug people.

Given how crazy the world is, as I’m preparing to go back to university life in a few days, I took time this summer to read books that swept me away from 2020. While I appreciate why others are drawn to breezy summer beach reads, my fantasy reading this summer has been looking back to a world that was better off than our world today.

Or so I thought.

I started with Jon Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson. I have loved every single Meacham book I’ve encountered. I simply do not understand how he writes as much as he does. It’s like he turns his head and coughs—and out pops an incredibly well-researched, impeccably written tome. It’s impressive.

 As you know, since starting my sabbatical way back in 2014, I’ve been reading presidential biographies. I don’t read them in any particular order, which would explain why I’m only getting to Jefferson now. In past posts, I’ve mentioned how surprised I always am to uncover just how little I know about our presidents and the historical times in which they lived.  However, Jefferson is one of those well-known heroes. Founding Fathers and all that jazz.  I thought I knew him. Whew. The country was even more screwed up back then than I thought. I mean really and truly fraught with political division. Jefferson wasn’t sure the republic would survive. I was surprised to learn that I agreed with some of Jefferson’s decisions, but vehemently disagreed with others. (And I’m not even talking about his reprehensible ideas concerning slavery.) Wow. A flawed human. But, very presidential.

I moved from presidents to an in-depth view of everything—and I mean everything—in the kitchen. Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork was a revelation. Talk about getting down in the weeds. This book dealt with every possible item that shows up in the kitchen. You don’t just learn about what the item does. You learn about the entire history of the item. Fork tines? Well. Turns out the number of tines told the whole story about a person’s status. The fork  chapter just broke the surface. Egg beaters. Ice. Graters. Ovens! (Now the oven chapter was particularly fascinating. It’s a miracle that any cook survived the early years of the oven.)

After spending so much reading time in the kitchen, I needed to know more about the whole house. So that took me to Bill Bryson’s At Home. Sort of like the Fork book, but through a room-by-room meandering journey. Bryson doesn’t just stick with items in a particular room like the kitchen. He branches out and offers an in-depth look at everything that could possibly be associated with that room. The bedroom chapter, for example, moves deftly from the history of mattresses (it’s a wonder anyone could sleep “back then”) to the development of plumbing. I happened to get to the plumbing part just as the hubster and I were struggling with putting in the rough plumbing in our Carriage House. Apparently even in the old days, people had difficulty getting the direction of the plumbing right.

After reading about houses—while working on the restoration of our own house—I decided to move on to my other passion (some might say “obsession.”). Italy. I lingered, savored, absorbed, and utterly adored Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome. This book made me miss Italy even more than I did when I discovered my May trip was cancelled. The book also gave me hope that Italy will be waiting for me when I am able to return. And it got me off my language butt to get back into studying Italian.

I rounded out my summer reading with Wine and War, a fascinating look at the role that wine had in France’s resistance efforts against the Nazis.  For as beautifully written as Four Seasons was, this book is a bit over-written and clunky. But still. It’s about wine. And how wine helped us win the war so what’s not to love?

Sadly, my reading now is more along the lines of frantic bursts of “Will this work?” for the classes I’m teaching starting in just a few days. (Please don’t tell the students that I haven’t found all the readings to go with the lectures. I also don’t have all the lectures yet, but that’s another story.)

As I prepare for the beginning of the fall semester, I can look back on the summer for all its Pandemic uncertainty and all its muscle-exhausting Carriage House renovations, and be thankful that good books surrounded me (thanks to Marcie Hinton’s willingness to share from her library).  As Victor Hugo wrote, “It is from books that wise people derive consolation in the troubles of life.” Lord knows we have trouble right here in River City (and elsewhere). But reading about  troubled times when our country was so young, or when the French had to use their wine to outsmart the Germans, or when tin cans for food preservation were invented before a decent can opener, I realized yet again that the world is tremendously large, history is long, and humans, though at times, are incredibly horrible beings, we are also resilient. Dickens was right. It truly is the best of times and the worst of times.  Reading reminds me that we have hope. Abbiamo Speranza. Tutto andra’ bene!


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What Do the Monkees and Politics Have in Common?

Well, the sabbatical is officially over. The new academic year has begun. As I’ve written about recently, I’m excited about the future, but also nostalgic (a bit, anyway) about the past. So it’s fitting that today I finished reading my last “sabbatical book”—David Axelrod’s Believer: My Forty Years in Politics. (In case your head has been buried in the sand over the last several years, Axelrod is a political extraordinaire who was the chief campaign strategist for President Obama’s election and reelection bids.)

Reading Believer, it was easy to sense that this guy likes to be smack dab in the middle of the hubbub. I get that. But what I loved best about this book was the way Axelrod, by writing his autobiography, explained the significance of politics, the difficulty of doing the right thing, the necessity of making compromises and the importance of keeping an eye on the big picture. He writes this with a kindness and appreciation for those around him that I found downright inspirational.

I don’t really think of myself as all that interested in politics. I’m not registered as a Democrat or Republican and rarely vote a straight party ticket. To my liberal friends, I seem quaint and sorely conservative. To my conservative friends, I am liberal—or at least, misinformed.

Even though I might not consider myself political, I’ll admit I’ve binged-watched West Wing twice on Netflix and cried both times when President Bartlett (my president) says good-bye to his loyal staff. I am intrigued with Tea Leoni’s Madam Secretary, and I was one of the few devotees to Geena Davis as president on the short-lived Commander in Chief. These TV shows, all smartly written, give an inside view to politics in Washington.

But Believer does something more. It quietly shows the dedication and sacrifice demanded from our public servants. Say what you might about President Obama, this book demonstrates in no uncertain terms that our president has worked hard for the country. Axelrod doesn’t put the president on a pedestal; instead, he gives a careful, honest, and meticulous accounting of the president’s achievements as well as his shortcomings. Axelrod assembled a large fact-checking team to work through the nearly 500-page manuscript. It pays off. There are well over 300 reviews on Amazon and most reviewers give the book five stars. Just a handful (fewer than 20) criticize it; a few die-hard partisans even call the book “fiction.” Give me a break.

While the majority of the book relates to Axelrod’s work with Obama, there is also keen look into Chicago politics as well as the author’s early years as a journalist.   Through it all, Axelrod carefully points out that making a lasting difference is hard—but worth it.

Though my impact on journalism education may be miniscule compared to Axelrod’s impact on politics, his reflections resonated. Maybe it’s because we’re the same age, have been married to our first mates for the same amount of time and even have a grandbaby the same age (although mine is cuter). Or maybe it’s because what he depicts in his book is really about life, albeit seen through the eyes of a consummate politician.

And now, I head back into my own little political world: the academic life. But rather than distain the obvious (honestly, how it is possible to have a two-hour faculty meeting and make no important decisions?), I’m going to be a believer. In the immortal words of my favorite band from childhood (the Monkees, of course!) “Not a trace of doubt in my mind…I’m a believer.” Thanks, Axe.


The Path Between the Seas Is More Than a Book About the Panama Canal

As I’ve shared in several previous postings, I’ve been focusing my pleasure reading on presidential biographies. Sometimes, however, circumstances require a detour. On Sunday, I am heading to the Panama Canal. Talk about a detour! So, of course, I needed to read up on the building process. All scholars agree that the final word on the canal is David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas (ISBN #0-7432-6213-1). With 600+ pages, it presents every detail (and I mean every detail) in constructing the canal. As a bonus, it features my current three favorite presidents—Teddy Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson—so it seemed like a no-brainer of a book to read during my sabbatical.

Visiting the canal has been on my bucket list, which is a bit weird since I actually know very little about the canal. That is, until I read Path. Whoa. This book covers everything including “political skullduggery” (thanks New York Times review!), swashbuckling French iconoclasts (Ferdinand de Lesseps, the original canal champ), explanations of economic fortunes (who knew General Electric was basically put on the map because of the canal?)—and Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson to boot.

What people might not realize about this book, however, is that it’s also an excellent primer for learning about university administration. Path boasts vision, but it also celebrates the day-to-day drudgery of getting into the mud, digging all day, returning in the morning to the same mud, and starting all over. Day after day. Year after year. When some of the visionaries gave up on the canal, it was left to the worker bees to take that vision and complete the task.

I’m all for vision. But vision without structure (or the tools and resources to complete the vision) makes a lot of people grumpy. To his dying day de Lesseps preached “We can build the canal.” But they couldn’t. The vision was plumb wrong. The Panama Canal could be built. But not the way de Lesseps’ envisioned it. And he was too stubborn to change. A lot of French citizens’ life savings were swept away with de Lesseps’ vision.

Universities are certainly not immune to skilled bloviators. I’ve worked at four and have dealt with at least one in every school. I continue to marvel at faculty who are willing to believe the hot air. The French should have known better. But many wanted to believe the get rich quick dream. (You’d think a decade into the project with no discernible progress would make people hesitant to continue to invest, but that was not the case.)

Professors are smart people. They, too, should know better. Perhaps we should all swallow a big dose of realism. Let’s face reality. Making progress is hard. You can’t just create a vision and then wave a magic wand. You have to dig deep and get dirty. It’s not all that glamorous. For example, I’m not sure we’d have a Panama Canal without John Stevens, the American engineer who tried to figure out what the French were trying to do, who organized the masses, who found financial support for the doctors who figured out how to control yellow fever, who spent his days at the dig sites making sure everyone was doing the work. John Stevens didn’t start the canal. And he didn’t finish it. Sometimes his name is not even associated with helping to build it—although it could not have been built without him.

During My Year Away, I’ll admit I’ve written some rather cranky posts about administration. Sure, it’s probably a bit of sour grapes. But this post is really meant to be a paean to the hard and important work that administrators do—especially the associate deans, directors and chairs who work in the background. If you find yourself in one of the non-glamorous administrative jobs know that your work is important. Realize that if you’re doing your job well, there’s a chance that no one will notice. But it’s still important. I’m thankful for the behind-the-scenes administrators who stand at the ready to get dirty and do the tough work. One shovelful at a time.

I will be thinking about y’all when I lean over the ship’s railing at the Gatun Locks and marvel at how those behemoth gates still work. I’ll remember that it took an awful lot of hard work from lots of people. That if it weren’t for those willing to work even when the end was nowhere in sight, we’d never have a Panama Canal. That it took both vision and simply slogging it out.   And I’ll tip my hat to the sloggers.