On Babies

by Oronte Churm

Readers of my regular dispatches for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency email me to say, “Oronte, you’re so erudite, so urbane! Your prose sparkles like a gin bottle at the dump! How is it you’re still just an adjunct?”

To them, I reply: Nothing like a little hot sauce in the old canker sores, so thanks for that. Truth is, the adjunct corps is made up of the bookless, the directionless, the misguided; those with lesser degrees; the insane, the unlucky, the otherwise unemployable; fakes, generalists, masochists, hobbyists, saintly enlightened ascetics; those who don’t interview well, those who do but can’t close the deal, those who love college teaching and would do it over office work at any salary; and spousal camp-followers. In my case, take a little from this category, a little from that.

Lately I’ve been thinking about another group I call babies.
No, not the good kind of baby, who snuggles in to your chest for warmth in the early cool morning and sneezes day-care viruses into your bleary eyes. I’m talking about those seemingly fragile souls who exist on the fringes of academic self-determination in such numbers that one wonders if higher ed recruits them especially for their baby-like qualities, a mix of willful naivete, vulnerability, an inability to plan, and self-centeredness.

One sees them elsewhere, of course. The first baby I knew was Gary (not his real name). We met at a half-billion dollar office-supplies company, where I was a catalog writer and he a graphic artist. He was short and plump, with a grinning pumpkin face, and he dressed in pastels and saddle shoes and bright tartan ties he tucked jauntily into his Oxford shirts. People were often surprised when he talked about his wife. Above all, he said, he valued life-style, which meant he crewed without pay on a stranger’s sailboat, corrected me on the difference between “gourmand” and “gourmet,” and drank any wine at hand, especially if it came out of a box.

Gary had found a tiny condo in the right neighborhood and decorated it himself à la Martha Stewart: the bookshelf held books only with blue covers, and the dining room was paneled with wine corks stuck to the wall with a hot glue gun. He and his wife loved to “entertain,” and I was their occasional guest. Through dinner, two monstrous Irish wolf-hounds that were usually kept in crates, Bacchus and Mondavi, wrestled on our feet. Their concrete skulls banged the underside of the table, making silverware clatter and my ice water slop on my sole meunière. Conversation was in shouts.

Gary’s wife was older, a scientist and lab manager with a very good salary, and she was often gone from early morning to late at night with her responsibilities and a grudging need for overtime. Still, whatever came in was eaten up by the condo, the dogs, two cars for separate commutes, and Gary’s need for beauty and comfort. At work I often found him in a lounge, napping. His soft smile and wispy hair were so like an infant’s in repose that I regretted having to wake him for meetings. He always woke grumpy and frowning, and I tried to speak in a soothing voice.

He called me at home one day, his voice shaking. He said he’d been arrested for driving without insurance, and he couldn’t call his wife, because he’d spent the money she gave him for insurance on waterproofs to wear on the boat. I drove over, stopped to get cash from a machine, and bailed him out. As the booking sergeant handed over my receipt, I jokingly asked if Gary had been wearing pants when they picked him up, and Gary burst into tears. I consoled him and drove him home. He asked me to drop him a block from the condo, so he could tell his wife that his impounded car had broken down somewhere (and that he’d need money for the mechanic).

A few weeks later he was caught stealing a sticker from the license plate of a car in our employer’s parking lot. He told police he did it because he didn’t have the insurance that would allow him to renew his own plates, and he didn’t want to be caught driving illegally. He looked so forlorn, so stupidly innocent, so hurt, so infantile, that while he was fired on the spot, the charges against him were dropped.

Adult babies possess a kind of charm, never lost from infancy, a combination of flirtatiousness and vulnerability that bring people to their aid, so that despite their unworldliness, they instinctually manage to survive. Even now, I want to seek Gary out, make sure he’s okay, reassure him that I think no less of him for being a criminal. And if, and only if, he has a chance to pay me back for his bail, I’d surely appreciate it….
Does academe recruit babies? Or are they drawn by what they perceive as safe haven from an unfriendly world that punishes the imaginative, the sweet, the open, and the delicate?
One of my own professors was a young naïf from a wealthy family. He was gentle and shy and had long curling eyelashes, and he said he became a writer because a water-skiing accident changed his life. Despite a desire to be called Professor, he bridled at employment and didn’t serve advisees well. This was known, but he courted me, and when I told him I was working with a different thesis advisor, he dropped the plate he was holding and cried, “You’ve cost me tenure!” Tears swelled on his lower lids. Over the objections of his department, the college did award him tenure the next year; he took it, then quit in vindication and moved to Europe. That showed ‘em.

Adjunctdom is rife with babies, who never seem to understand—or even care about—the forces controlling them. I have known them all.

There’s Gunga Joe, a middle-aged man in flannel and a scraggly beard, who taught business writing. Hangdog and hurt after being told his contract wasn’t being renewed, he told me his plans to buy an old truck and haul junk from basements around town. His wife didn’t speak English, and she was pregnant with their third child. He couldn’t afford the truck he had his eye on, he admitted, and wondered if someone would publish an article based on his dissertation…or something.

Maybe a good detective novel.

Little Stevie liked Pittsburgh. It was all he talked about, stranded in the Midwest. He hadn’t been there for nearly 45 years, but it had become the ideal place in his mind. Back there, he said, men sat in bars with shots of rye whisky, which was an authentic spirit, though he’d never tried it. “Me and my best friend are going to buy some sometime and drink it,” he said.
Pole, an Irish poet who absentmindedly put books on the shelf in his refrigerator, and his wife, Jillian, the spoiled suburbanite, relished their roles as our own Scott and Zelda—public drunken betrayals and noisy reconciliations—and always, always, hopes of fame.

Adjunct babies can be found among Ph.D.s, ABDs, and MAs, but the greatest number I’ve encountered are droplets in the tidal wave of MFAs with nowhere else to go. Mrs. Churm, who’s a sensible administrator, sits in the lobby of a hotel at the AWP Convention, waiting for me. “Who are these people?” she asks, unaware of how important multiple scarves and arm bracelets for women, and soul patches and cowboy boots for men, are to art and scholarship.

For two years, I served as a teaching advisor to incoming TAs in my department and observed the new generation of babies coming up: Prairie Dawn, whom no one could remove, no matter her uncaring or incompetence as a teacher. She hinted at mental illness, but one administrator who knew her case well told me it was true only if being a pain in the ass was listed in DSM-III. Another advisee was Lukas, who thought maybe he wanted to be a TA and a grad student after all, once November rolled around, and his students had mutinied for lack of instruction.

My friend Frenchy, who recently retired from the Army as a Command Sergeant Major, is fascinated. “This is what all that schooling does for you?” he says. “These people could fuck up an anvil.”

I’d never judge, of course. Weren’t many of my literary heroes some of the world’s greatest babies? Picture Flaubert tucked in cozily at his estate near Rouen, adoring in letters the much older George Sand; Twain with his beloved mother-wife Livy; Proust in sweet maman’s arms. They might have been considered babies by contemporaries, but they were workhorses in what mattered to them and to posterity.

I was getting ready for work today and saw that the shaving cream can was printed with a picture of Gary Hall, Jr., “five-time gold medalist,” and a “Barbasol Real Man.” He was chosen for the ad campaign because he’s not only an athlete, handsome as the movies, but also a diabetic who helps diabetic children. I’d like to be a real man too, but I barely have need of Barbasol, since I can’t grow a proper beard, and I’m still “just an adjunct.” I began to wonder: what if the indignities of adjuncting turn people into babies? Treated as the little brothers and sisters of academe, might we not become them?

Remember that Rilke poem, on viewing the torso of Apollo? How there’s not an inch of the statue that doesn’t look back, judging you? It’s the way with big babies: I look at them, and the babies look into me. Du mußt dein Leben ändern, they say. You must change your life.

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