The Gas Giants
[What follows is the second of about 75 chapters of a rather contrived, three-part saga that is entirely fiction, meaning that all of the events and characters indicated therein are only coincidentally related to anything that may or may not have actually happened. That is my story and my legal team is sticking to it. And copyrighted it is, lest ye sinners start taking up with the wrong line of questioning.]
The big meeting of the Academic Senate was scheduled to start at 4:30, but since I concluded the introductory lecture of my art history class early, and since there was no line at the school café to delay my purchase of afternoon tea and cookie, I arrived at the 9th-floor seminar room a few minutes before four. That was the regular location for our monthly faculty meetings. Normally, it was reserved for the conduct of group critiques with the graduate students who had semi-private studio cubicles on the same floor, but it was occasionally used for other purposes because it was large enough to accommodate a fairly large number of people. The room had a grand view of the south side of the Bay Bridge, and its north-facing skylights captured the bright magenta sunsets that were typical of the fall and spring seasons. But on the day of the big meeting, there were no sunsets to be seen, it being a rainy mid-January late afternoon where a gloomy gunmetal gray was the color that was dissolving into cold winter darkness.
Tony Landini sat with his feet up on one of the tables, with the sports page of the Hort-Dispatch cradled in his lap. He was wearing a loose-fitting Hawaiian-type shirt, partially unbuttoned to achieve a comic effect of mock-masculinity, an effect accentuated by a gold plated cocaine spoon that hung from a chain around his neck. As the heat in this particular room had been turned way up, Tony’s casual dress seemed a reasonable move in the direction of comfort. His hair was cut much shorter than the last time that I saw him, and the little bit that was there was bleached bright blond. His skin was tinctured with an eerie orange hue, leading me to presume that his odd coloration was related to a mishap with a tanning machine. When combined with his prominent and highly varicose nose, these attributes made him look like Zippy the Pinhead enjoying a tropical holiday. Tony was the longtime president of our Academic Senate as well as the chair of our so-called Liberal Studies department, meaning that he supervised the class offerings that the state required that we provide so that our degrees would have the all-important imprimatur of being fully accredited. In half an hour, he would call to order the special meeting of the thirty members of the Academic Senate only to hand the actual conduct of the meeting over to Alfred Uhl, our venerable academic dean.
Tony looked up, and in a blasé tone, asked, “How was your sabbatical?”
“Good. How are things looking for the Raiders?” I didn’t know what else he might be willing to talk about.
“They made it to the Super Bowl, but they will get stomped. Gannon will choke. You can bet on that.” When Tony returned his attention to his newspaper, I claimed a seat with a view of the east-facing window.
The tables had been arrayed in a rectangular formation, with the one next to the window set apart from the others. It was here that Tony sat, soon to be joined by “Dean Alfred,” and Danika, who functioned as the group’s recording secretary. Presumably, the two other folding chairs were intended for the new President and an additional mystery guest. Several plastic water bottles were set out at regular intervals, as were a few yellow legal pads accompanied by sharpened pencils bearing the NCSAD logo. Near Tony, there were two piles of photocopies—one for the minutes of the meeting that took place in early December, and another being agendas for what was soon to take place.
I sipped my tea while looking through my clutch of papers. Among these was a hand-addressed envelope containing a note rendered in a polished script:
I hope that you had a great semester off, and I hope that you can help me. I was supposed to get a TA assignment in painting with Mike Loper, but he told me that there must have been a mistake because he never worked with a teaching assistant. If I don’t get a TA position, I will have to re-do my financial aid, and I really can’t afford to take any cut—I am barely hanging on as it is. So, I was wondering: can I be your TA for Art History Survey? Even though I was a painting major in undergrad, I took 7 art history classes and got A’s in all of them. I think that working with you would be a good experience, and it might even help me get a job after I graduate. Let me know.
(P.S. Just in case you don’t remember me, I was in your art criticism seminar last spring. I wrote the paper on ‘Painting and the Technological Sublime.’)”
The note was undated, but my guess was that it had been written the same morning or the night before. I didn’t need to be reminded of Kathy or her paper; she was memorable enough as the most vocal
participant in a seminar that actually had a few moments of lurching past remedial reviews of material that one hoped (in vain, always in vain) had been previously mastered in undergraduate study. I remembered a particularly curious part of her paper exploring the idea that the essence of technology was its ability to amplify narratives, and that all narratives were implicitly or explicitly revenge stories. This contention set the table for her assertion that painting in the abstract mode was the only way of escaping the cycle of triumph and devastation that both animated and crippled all forms of storytelling. I already knew that Michael “the Mule” Loper never accepted TAs because he wanted to teach his painting and drawing classes his way, and didn’t like to explain why he did things the way that he did them to any apprentice. This wasn’t the first time that one of his spurned aspirants needed to have a last-minute reassignment of TA responsibilities, but it was the first time one of them had come my way, so I took the request as a sign of good fortune. So I signed the necessary form allowing Kathy to be put to work doing the tedious parts of the job for which I was being paid.
I looked up and saw Danika glide into the room. She sat down and opened her laptop, while Craig Andreson, our resident Professor of Jewelry Design sat down in a chair a few feet to my left. As was frequently the case, he was dressed in the height of post-hippie chic, sporting a kind of short cape featuring glistening swirls of black and indigo beadwork that was complimented by a matching Phrygian-style cap that looked like the traditional headgear worn by the members of an arctic reindeer cult. He carried what looked like a pike or a walking stick, and this was a sight to behold. It was brightly colored and made of thickly glazed ceramic components that were interlaced atop one another, all crowned with a Rubik’s cube that might have been functional.
Flashing a quick smile from beneath his knotted Fu Manchu-styled facial hair, Andreson gave a polite nod. I had the feeling that he didn’t know who I was or why I was attending the meeting. Sure, I was absent during the past several months, but was that enough time to translate being out of sight into being out of mind? He leaned his long stick against the table and opened one of the water bottles. Then he started to clean out his wallet, wadding up some waste paper before hitting the three-point shot in the trash basket positioned near the door.
I was then distracted by other sounds from the doorway, as Photobitch noisily angled her media cart into a parking position. The cart was a computer workstation and projection mechanism on wheels, and she found it necessary to push it about the building throughout the entire academic workday, taking as much pride in it as any young mother might take in well-behaved twins ensconced in a doublewide stroller. After putting her electronic children to nap, she sat almost directly across the room from me, but her blank, emotionless face didn’t seem to register my presence, or that of anyone else.
Then Vic shambled through the doorway, adroitly positioning himself behind the door as if playing a game of hide-and-seek. At that same moment, a loud and all-too-familiar noise came in advance of the room’s next two entrants—it was that of Ben Simonian, who was shouting obscenities while Mule Loper tried in vain to calm him down. Ben was excitable and could have been worked up about anything, or nothing other
than the opportunity to be loud for the sake of being loud, which was his preferred attention-getting mechanism. Mule’s attempt at talking Ben down from his tirade was failing, and perhaps was even intended to fail, but neither of them seemed to notice Vic, who stealthily followed them to where they would find seats near Photobitch. He was clutching an old-style whoopee cushion in his left hand, with clear intent to reprise a memorable practical joke that he played on Ben a year earlier. Alas, Ben foiled the plot when he spied Vic’s surreptitious advance, loudly shouting, “Fuck you Thorsness! Get away!” With an audible snicker, Vic retreated on tiptoes over to the side of the room where I was sitting. He stopped for a quick sidebar conversation with Pepo McNally, a not-so-recent hire in the dubious area of “advanced media,” which meant that he taught classes in performance and installation art. These tended to generate unconfirmed stories of various antics propelled by art student nudity, but in truth, no one really knew what went on in these classes, and almost everybody concerned was grateful for the ignorance.
With Photobitch now holding the greasy baton of “most recently hired” (which meant “hippest and grooviest” in a “well, maybe” kind of way), Pepo’s purchase on being “advanced” seemed to be waning, and despite his best efforts at looking young and transgressive, the telltale signs of impending middle age were becoming difficult to conceal. The worst of these was not the bit of grey that showed at the temples of his ridiculous looking Prince Valiant haircut, but rather, the visible evidence of his maladroit attempt at coloring that grey to match the rest of his dark brown hair. In keeping with his faith that “the realm of the written should intrude into the realm of the visible,” Pepo was wearing an oversized white tee shirt over his hooded sweatshirt. Emblazoned on the thin fabric of the shirt was the statement “Bread>Circus,” spelled out in italicized helvetica typography. No doubt, this had something to do with one of Pepo’s “social interventions,” but it was unclear whether the shirt was an advertisement for said project or some actual manifestation of it.
The room was now full of the clank and clatter of folding chairs being jostled about, as other faculty members entered and found seats at or near the tables. The two senior members of the Photography Department, Greta Hagarty and Dan Carson, came in and sat next to each other, making sure to not acknowledge Photobitch, whom they despised every bit as much as did Ben Simonian, albeit for murkier and less logical reasons. Dan vaguely resembled Sonny Bono; he was wearing a magenta ski jacket and loose-fitting drawstring pants made out of colorful African fabric. Greta was buried in a heavy overcoat and no less than three purple scarves, one worn as a kind of babushka that partially covering her leonine mane of curly gray hair.
Girlish giggling announced the entrance of Ayalet Sapiro and Tammy St. John, who in normal circumstances could be counted upon to incessantly whisper, snicker, giggle and chatter through any faculty meeting, underscoring the fact that the majority of such meetings were a kind of joke where normal academic business would never be completed because of the promiscuous wasting of time on pointless digressions pertaining to trivial matters. Judging from the stylish knit sweaters worn by “the bopsy twins” (that being another of Ben’s crypto-misogynist nicknames), it seemed that Ayalet and Tammy understood that this particular meeting would not be the best place to display their usual childishness, and they acted accordingly. Also, Ayalet was sporting a new coiffure, which transformed her mound of dark curly hair into a geometric hedge of severe asymmetrical proportions that took the shape of a Buck Rogers space helmet. No doubt, this hairdresser’s mishap contributed to the kind of self-consciousness that stifled the urge to chatter.
Even though she was part of the same painting department that seemed to be completely dominated by Mule and Ben, Tammy was also the much-liked coordinator of the school’s graduate program, which contained about three dozen “advanced” students from all of the school’s other departments. This was a fairly important job because the reputation of the school depended on perpetuating quick and visible success stories accomplished by our recently matriculated master’s degree holders. Also, in her own quiet way, Tammy did a lot to undermine the various pecking orders and general misogyny that were perpetrated by the boy’s club ethos that informed most of the education offered by our private art school. The result of this was that we had a great many female students in our graduate program, making it seem like a bastion of polite sanity in relation to the adolescent behaviors fostered by almost all of the undergraduate departments.
Ayalet was another case. Although she seemed to be Tammy’s sidekick through thick and thin, she also made it clear that she regarded any situation in which she was not accorded some form of special treatment as incontrovertible proof of willful persecution directed at her. Her chief tactic for constantly getting special treatment lay in a tacit agreement that if such treatment were to be forthcoming, she would refrain from orchestrating a campaign of nit-picking, emotional extortion and general annoyance at whoever was in charge of meting out the relevant favors. In general, this strategy worked, but it also created a situation where most of the faculty simply avoided Ayalet, who was always on the prowl for one of those special moments when she could leverage some form of emotional blackmail to her own benefit.
Ben and Mule had their own countermeasures for Ayalet’s incursions: they simply treated her with open disdain and rough abuse, while Vic went so far as to make it publically known that he would never serve on any committee that included Ayalet. I suspected that others on the faculty had voiced similar wishes in private, which partially explained why Ayalet never did any significant committee work, save that assigned to her by Tammy, which was then done for her by Tammy. It was in this way that Tammy was able to run the graduate program as a personal fiefdom all-the-while appearing to be a consensus builder. Ayalet pretended to be involved, and at the same time, owing to the threat of psychic torture associated with any proximity to her obnoxious personality, she managed to chase all other interested parties far away. Any complaint about any graduate program decision would be met with the refrain, “you had your chance to come to the meeting,” and this meant that there were never any complaints. But in all fairness, I had to admit that the program was in fact, very well run because Tammy had a gift for practical organization that was widely appreciated. No doubt, her symbiotic relationship with Ayalet was a consciously considered factor in making sure that the program would continue to function with ease and efficiency.
As darkness gathered over the bay, seats were taken, and the room slowly filled to capacity.
Pedro Ocampo entered the room and took a seat near Mule. Pedro was a kind and gentle soul of Philippine ancestry, and one of the oldest members of the painting department. He was also the holder of the faculty’s most impressive resume, this owing to his amenability in assisting the curators of second-tier art museums meeting their government-mandated cultural diversity requirements. With a mixture of affection and disrespect, students had taken to calling him Mr. Magoo, owing to his uncanny resemblance to the well-known cartoon character, and also to the fact that for years, he had been giving out straight A’s to every student enrolled in any of his classes, regardless of whether they did any work, or even if they ever attended.
Tony asked Pepo to turn on some lights, and when he did, faces were suddenly bathed in a garish fluorescent illumination that mercilessly accentuated puffy cheeks, baggy eyes and a plethora of other alcohol-related facial contortions. Suddenly, smiles turned to squints and sneers, while noses and earlobes seemed to grow longer under the unforgiving light. Ghoulishness was everywhere in evidence. Certainly, the group’s clothing was colorful and even festive, this being a likely result of holiday gifts that had recently come their way. But no matter how much the members of the Academic Senate tried to hide behind sartorial talismans configured to ward off the ravages of father time, it was clear that, with the exceptions of Pepo, Photobitch, myself and a very few others, the room was quickly filling with aging hippies.
Pepo walked over and sat between Andreson and me, saying, “Hey! You’re back! How was it? Did you do any traveling?” Pepo could talk a dog off a meat wagon and had the ability to pretend enthusiasm about anything at any time, but at that particular moment, but I had the feeling that he wasn’t pretending.
While I fumbled for a credible response to what seemed to be genuine interest on Pepo’s part, Vic sat down to my right. Pepo turned toward Craig and politely asked if his ornate walking stick was a baton de commandment. Obviously, having no clue about whatever it was that Pepo was asking, Craig just sat and smiled. Vic leaned over toward me and whispered the words baton de merde, and after I stopped chortling, he made a kind of voila gesture before proclaiming, “Let the games begin!”
A hush came over the room. Alfred Uhl stood at the door, beckoning others to enter. “Dean Alfred,” (as he was affectionately called) commanded a lot of respect from the group, and Vic wasn’t alone in suggesting that, on some deep metaphysical plane of existence, the whole school was a kind of imaginary projection of his grand plan for an ideal community of artists. The common, long-running joke went that, if and when Uhl ever actually retired, the rest of us would gradually dissolve into phantoms and then completely disappear because our lives were but shadows in Dean Alfred’s imagination, this in keeping with an old episode of The Twilight Zone television series devoted to the theme of avatars and virtual characters. Needless to say, this supposed joke was but a frail mask for the anxiety that the faculty felt about their immediate future because Uhl had been old enough to retire for quite a while; in fact, a very long while, and if and when he did, old dogs would suddenly have to learn new tricks, or die trying.
Dean Alfred certainly looked ready to retire on that late January afternoon. His tweed sport coat hung loosely on his spare body, and his posture was a bit hunched. But there was still a twinkle of enthusiasm in his eyes, and he seemed to be enjoying the moment. I found myself hoping that, if and when I reached his age that I would be lucky to have half of his enthusiasm for both work and for life.
It was at that moment that a tall woman with shoulder-length honey-blonde hair appeared in the doorway. She was dressed in what appeared to be turn-of-the-century riding tack, sporting knee-length boots, and a tweed coat tightly nipped at the waist. In one arm she carried a riding crop and equestrian helmet, while the other held a satchel made of matching leather. Even from the other side of the room, I could tell that the stitch and trim of her costume were of very high quality, and it was evident that her hair had been recently coifed by an A-list stylist. She looked about the room as if in a daze, smiling even as her eyes never rested on anything or anybody for more than a quick second. I reckoned her to be about 40 years old.
Tony stood up and pointed to the seat next to him, but the woman shook her head and instead moved toward the opposite side of the room. Two other women followed her into the room, one tall and one short. The taller of the two was thin, dressed in a black shirt and matching black slacks, with sleeves rolled up to her elbows. Her dark hair was cut short, and she wore thick glasses with heavy frames. Her gait was remarkable: While her lower body seemed almost rigid as she moved forward in regular methodical steps that kept her just clear of the back end of the blond woman’s riding crop, her upper body seemed to be disconnected from her legs and pelvis. Her torso abruptly swiveled left and right, and her arms seemed to flop and flail as she swept about. When she spied Photobitch, she stopped for a brief moment to exchange theatrical kisses planted on upturned cheeks. Photobitch suddenly beamed with self-satisfaction, so much so that I thought it possible that her cheek-kissing companion may have whispered the word professor in her ear.
The shorter woman also wore glasses, but they were wire framed. She had long strawberry blond hair that fell onto a light green sweater. Her calf-length plaid skirt was cinched will above her waist, almost masking her plump figure. Below her hemline, I noticed that she was wearing bright yellow boots over green-and-pink argyle knee socks. Her movement was slow and steady, earmarked by a mechanical left/right lurch that underscoring her steady forward progress. She stopped briefly to apologize for bumping into George Chaquet, our resident experimental filmmaker, who was, according to Vic, the only real artist in the group, and not just because his zany films were prized by some members of the Hollywood elite.
I heard Craig Andreson hiss the word Stragoica as if talking to himself out loud. To my astonishment, this almost inaudible sound caused the blond woman at the head of the procession to suddenly stop and glare at Craig. I wondered: how could she have possibly have heard him? In hopes of gaining some kind of answer, I looked over at Vic sitting next to me, but his full attention was given over to the task of drawing pictures of furtive chimpanzees on his legal pad. Some of these scowled while others smirked, and a few were modeled on Mule, Ben, Greta and Photobitch, all revealing the talent of a deft caricaturist.
The three women sat in adjacent seats across the room from where Danika, Tony and Dean Alfred were sitting. A few others came through the door afterward, seeming as if they wanted to sneak into the meeting. One of these was Chet Doyle, who worked with Pepo and Photobitch in the New Media Department. His presence confirmed the significance of the gathering. Chet never attended any faculty meetings, and he quietly dared anyone to complain about the fact. No one did, because he was the only member of the group besides Pedro and George who had something resembling an international reputation built on regular museum exhibitions, and this invoked the unwritten rule that governed our little academy, or any other: famous people don’t have to do any work.
Following Chet were the two members of the 5th floor Printmaking Department. Tom Lawrence, dressed in designer jeans and fashionable hemp shirt, and Willow Nordquist, wearing a cheap wig and dark glasses, leaning hard on an antique wooden cane with an ornamental silver handle. Ever the solicitous southern gentleman, Tom was holding Willow’s arm as she moved into the room, and she needed the help. Several months earlier, she had been diagnosed with a kind of lymphoma often caused by the toxic chemicals associated with intaglio printing, and she was undergoing aggressive chemotherapy. To make matters even worse, she was put on a time-release OxyContin drip to help manage her day-to-day pain. This was delivered via an apparatus worn under her shirt in a kind of shoulder holster, allowing her to make precise adjustments to her dosage. Despite these challenges, she insisted on coming to work every day, lest disability-related unemployment create a medical insurance nightmare. As long as Tom was willing to teach all of the etching classes, she could still function well enough as a lithography instructor, provided that she was assigned a competent TA.
Mule stood up and relinquished his seat to Willow, and then moved to the other side of Ben, taking a seat next to a still-radiant Photobitch, whom he ignored.
A few others came into the room as Tony started waving his arms high above his head, shouting, “can we bring the meeting to order!” Tony was the only member of the faculty who could be every bit as loud as Ben, but unlike Ben, he had the good sense to turn up his vocal volume only when the occasion demanded that he do so. Lectures given to large gatherings to undergraduate dimwits represented one such occasion, and running faculty meetings constituted the other.
Danika began to circulate the minutes from the December meeting, while Tony handed out single sheets titled Agenda.
With arched eyebrows and solemn scowls, the Faculty members stared hard at the December minutes. Since I had not attended the meeting in question, I could simply vote present when it came time to approve the document. So, instead of reading it, I looked up to notice Dean Alfred whispering something into Tony’s ear, prompting a sagacious nod.
Tony raised his voice and said, “Considering the fact that we have some illustrious guests attending this afternoon’s meeting, we are going to hold the approval of the minutes until later. At this time, I would like to give the floor over to Alfred, so that he can formally introduce our new President, Theda Vohn der Pahter.”
An abbreviated round of polite applause took the cue. Dean Alfred stood up and said, “All of you already know that, as of January first, Theda Vohn der Pahder has been named as the school’s new President. Some of you have already met her during the search process that we conducted last fall. But since most of you have not met her, we thought that one of the first orders of business for the new semester should be that we hold a meeting where she could join us and try to answer any questions that the group might have.”
Dean Alfred paused as if trying to remember what he may have left out of his introductory remark. Coming up blank, he looked up and said, “So please welcome Theda Vohn der Pahder!” More weak applause ensued, which Photobitch started and ended. I noticed that Alfred’s pronunciation of Theda’s name was slow and stilted; he strained to make sure that the Vohn syllable rhymed with bone.
The tall blond woman took her cue with the perfect timing of a trained Shakespearian actress. “Thank you, Alfred, and thank you, Tony, for inviting me to come and be a part of the meeting. First, I want to say how thrilled I am to be here, and I want you all to know how much I respect what you have already accomplished. Certainly, Alfred Uhl deserves much of credit for leading the school during the past few years, and I am sure that all of you already know that much better than I could hope to.”
There was another short round of applause, and Dean Alfred made a gesture that vaguely looked like a bow. Then he said, “I would imagine that many in this room are wondering about plans and changes that might be in the offing. Is there anything that you can say about that at this point?”
Theda paused before answering. “Well, some changes have already been made. At the very end of the year, we received an institutional development grant from the Solomon Tsaditz Foundation, and we immediately spent the money on the refurbishment of the lobby that most of you have already seen. That was completed only last Friday, so we cut it pretty close before the start of classes. Part of that refurbishment was the build-out of a new gallery space in the lobby, which will be partially visible from the street. We also spent quite a bit of money on a new, heavy-duty photocopier, which I am sure all of you will appreciate. The gallery’s first exhibition will open next Thursday, and I hope all of you will come to the reception.”
At that point, Greta’s arm shot up, and she quickly started speaking before anyone recognized her. “I walked through the lobby this morning, and I have to say, it really looks great. Can I assume that the faculty will able to show their work in the new gallery?”
Theda smiled as if she were the good witch from the Wizard of Oz explaining a solar eclipse to a confused munchkin. “Certainly! In fact, Pepo McNalley will have some work in the first show, which is titled Propositions in Space: Six Artists. Is Pepo here?”
Pepo fidgeted and then said, “I’m here.”
Theda looked at his T-shit and asked, “Is your shirt part of the exhibition?”
“Well, my part of the exhibition lives both within and beyond the gallery, so you could say, yes and no.”
Greta seemed irritated, so she asked, “Who is deciding what work gets shown in the gallery? Will there be faculty input?”
“Well, to answer your question, we have hired a gallery director. The press release is going out tomorrow, so I might as well say now that we have hired Anita Boby as our Director of Exhibitions. One of the things that we need to do is raise the profile of the school. The exhibition program, combined with the new program of visiting lectures that Anita will manage, is intended to accomplish a sharp improvement in the amount of public attention directed at the school, which we hope will translate into attention from various funders. I am sure that Anita will be very interested in working with the faculty. I had hoped that she could make it to this afternoon’s meeting, but I suspect that she might be stuck in traffic.”
I was impressed with the way that Theda handled herself. She was supposed to bring fundraising ability to the table, and it looked like she was bringing it in big bright buckets.
Greta seemed unconvinced. “Well, I hope that all of the money that is being spent on this stuff isn’t coming out of the tuition that the students are paying. Most of us work in the trenches, and very often, we have to make do with nothing. In the Photography Department, we can’t even get tongs in the darkroom. I had to go out and spend my own money to buy tongs so that I could start my class! My own money! For tongs!”
Greta was getting worked up, and I sensed that we were all headed in the direction of what Vic referred to as a “Greta Hagarty moment,” that being a long off-topic ramble about the eternal difficulties of teaching at NCSAD without support or appreciation. Such soliloquies were always an annoying waste of time, and I always wished that either Tony or Alfred would figure out a polite-but-firm way to curtail her speechifying. In any event, I found myself feeling embarrassed for the rest of the faculty, and I hoped that the new leadership team would withhold any judgment of the whole group that might be based on Greta’s poor example.
Theda smiled and waited patiently for her moment to jump in. “I am sure that your tong problem was just a simple purchasing oversight. Why don’t you bring the receipts to the accounting office and get reimbursement?”
Greta stuttered and fell silent. Looking around, she found a room full of scolding eyes.
Theda took the opportunity to change the subject. “Before we go any further, I want to introduce my two assistants. Their offices are adjacent to mine, on the mezzanine above the new gallery.” Looking toward the tall woman with closely cropped hair, she said, “This is Toby Michelson.” She then turned to the other and said, “This is Rhoda Roby. Toby is going to be my chief assistant for internal management, and Rhoda is going to help me with the Board.” The two women smiled and then turned to again smile at each other.
Silence feel over the room. I looked at Vic’s legal pad and noticed that he was midway through his third page of chimpanzee caricatures.
Theda continued, “Maybe we could go around the room so that everybody can introduce themselves? I really do want to get to know all of you.” She pointed at Dan Carson. “Maybe you can start?”
Dan introduced himself as a member of the photography faculty and said that he was interested in “world beat.” Like Greta, he had a widely-renown penchant for unpunctuated rambling, but sensing that Greta’s prior diatribe didn’t find much in the way of a sympathetic hearing was uncharacteristically brief.
Photobitch spoke next. “Russet Vodavitch, I work in multi-media—we’ve already met!” Theda smiled, nodded and looked at Mule.
“Mike Loper, painting—and I am also the director of the undergraduate studio program.” I wondered what Theda was thinking about Mule’s chosen wardrobe of green plaid hunting vest worn over a red plaid Pendleton shirt. Elmer Fudd on acid, no doubt.
Ben was about to take his turn to speak, but was interrupted when Andreson stood up and shouted, “Don’t you realize what is going on here? Look at all of the money that is being wasted! A new gallery, an army of assistants… to do what? For what? How is this going to help the school? The students come here to be artists, and we have a good thing going here. Are you going to let them take it away from you? Are you going to just sit there? Why don’t you speak up?” Craig punctuated his statements by striking the floor with his walking stick, as if such percussion would amplify the urgency of his words, which sounded very, very angry.
Dean Alfred buried his face in his hands. Ben and Greta smirked like frisky gargoyles while Dan gasped for air. Vic stopped drawing in mid-chimp. Pepo looked about for an escape route. Photobitch looked like she had just had her blood drained, replaced with antifreeze.
A long moment passed before Tony shouted, “Order! Order!” By that time, Theda and her two assistants had already started to gather their papers. In unison, they rose up and moved toward the door. Theda said, “I guess it’s getting late, and you obviously have a lot on your plate. We can continue this later.”
A minute later, Tony brought the meeting back to order. Dean Alfred said, “that went well.” The tone of his voice was sardonic, and he shot a dagger gaze of disapproval over to an impassively defiant Craig. Sensing that this was not the time to challenge anybody, Craig stood up and stomped through the door and down the hall. The sound of his walking stick striking the floor grew faint, gradually becoming inaudible.
Tony chimed in, “Well, we do have some business. Pepo’s term as faculty representative to the Board of Trustees has expired, and we need to elect a replacement. Also, Alfred has an important announcement.”
In a somber tone of voice, Alfred said, “What I am about to tell you has been on my mind for quite a while. After giving the issue a lot of thought, I want all of you to be among the first to know that, effective July first, I will be stepping down as Dean. At that point, I plan to retire from teaching and from the administration. Working here has been the single greatest part of my life, but I really do think that it is time to move on.” Everyone in the room froze like a heard of deer caught in a thermonuclear headlight.
With her characteristic disdain for any moment of prolonged speechlessness, Greta asked, “Well, I hope that we can have a big party celebrating the many years that you have given to this place. Will anybody even try to replace you?”
Dean Alfred sensed the anxiety that Greta was voicing. In response, he said, “Theda wants to conduct a national search. She and the executive committee of the Board have already engaged an executive search firm, and I expect that we will have a shortlist of candidates by the end of spring break.”
Clearly, others beside the faculty were among those first to hear about Dean Alfred’s plan to step down.
Greta was unsatisfied, so she pressed for more answers. “Will any faculty be on the hiring committee?” It was a fair question.
Dean Alfred showed no emotion when he answered. “I would assume so, but you would really have to ask Theda about the way that she plans to handle the search.
An alarm bell went off in my head. When Dean Alfred deflected questions in this manner, we could assume that trouble was near at hand.
At that moment, Tony found it necessary to once again regain control of the meeting. In a loud voice, he said, “We can table some of the other things on the agenda, but we really have to inform the Board about a new faculty representative. Do we have any nominations?”
Photobitch raised her hand and asked, “Can we nominate ourselves?”
Tony said, “Yes, absolutely. Do you want to nominate yourself?”
Photobitch flashed a broad smile and nodded. Suddenly Ben, Mule and Greta became agitated.
Greta said, “Well, Jay is fresh off of his sabbatical. I nominate Jay Fowler.” Photobitch was crestfallen, but others began to nod in bobblehead fashion.
Tony said, “OK, we have two nominations. Is there anybody else?
Photobitch beat me to the punch, and said, “I withdraw my nomination, or should I say, I decline my own self-nomination?” Apparently, she wanted to preempt the impending embarrassment of going voteless.
I groped for the word “decline,” but found myself unable to say it. Every head in the room was turned toward me, waiting for me to respond. Before I could find the word that I was looking for, Tony chimed in and said, “Well then it’s settled. Jay Fowler is our new faculty representative by unanimous consent!”
At that moment, the heat of the room and a sudden and inexplicable drop in blood sugar became my enemy. I began to grow dizzy.
Coinciding with my moment of dizziness, Willow Nordquist fell off of her chair, hitting the wooden floor with a loud thud. Once again, the room fell into silence, but Tom Lawrence stood up and lifted Willow back toward her seat. “Don’t worry, it’s OK. She will be fine–just a medication mishap.” While everyone’s concerned attention was on Tom and Willow, Vic grabbed my arm and said, “let’s get out of here.”
Already light-headed, I stood up, growing even dizzier. Some papers fell out of my SPRING 2001 folder, including a colorful brochure offering a free examination copy of an art history book called Episodes in Art. Its cover featured a reproduction of James Ensor’s Entry of Christ into Brussels, no doubt indicating that the book was funded by the Getty Museum, which happened to hold the original in its collection. Vic picked up the brochure, looked at the image, and remarked, “Ensor… the best clown painter we have ever had.”
M. Louise Stanley says
Love this chapter Mark. Your description of the faculty meeting is priceless. We’ve all been there!