- Jim's Corner
Ever since I met Jim, whose last name I can't even remember, I hate plaques. Not plaque as in the white stuff that clings to your teeth, but the commemorative kind. Memorial plaques are a lie, one of the many lies we have tacitly agreed upon as a society to make death less terrifying. Other comfortable lies include the endings of most Hollywood movies (no surprise there), if you work toward your dream it will come true (sometimes it doesn't and you have to settle for less), love conquers all, hope springs eternal, what goes around comes around, the harder they come the bigger they fall, everything happens for a reason, every ending is a new beginning. Nationwide is on your side. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. We'll always have Paris.
I could continue. Go ahead, supply your own. It's fun in a depressing sort of way.
Plaques are evil because they leave the impression that the future cares. Get this: the future doesn't care.
An example: Jim, whose last name I have forgotten. He was an associate professor in the English Department in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I held my first job as an assistant professor when I was 28. A short, stocky guy with a friendly face, Jim stood out in the hall near the copying room smoking and collaring anyone who would listen. Now that seems like the Pleistocene era though it wasn't even 20 years ago. People smoked in buildings! People copied things on mimeograph machines and got high on the smell of the paper. Personal computers were the size and approximate shape of a clown car. [End Page 109]
Jim liked to call me one of the young Turks. I knew what young Turk means, but I really didn't know what the etymology of the term is. As it turns out, the Young Turks were a group of young Turks a long time ago. Of course, they were more than that or else it would be a stupid and meaningless term. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Young Turks sought to rejuvenate the Turkish nation. The Young Turks are not young anymore and not even Turkish. They're dust.
Still, I wonder how this term, so localized and specific in meaning, traveled all the way to the twenty-first century, losing its context and most of its meaning along the way. I suppose such terms as Young Turk are plaques of a kind, commemorating something long forgotten. Not that anyone calls anyone else a Young Turk anymore. The last time I heard the phrase was probably the day Jim said it, referring to me.
I don't remember any of my conversations with Jim. Well, one. He criticized a minor point in a story of mine, the way a child narrator remembered the accent of an Appalachian man. I had written, "Kate." Jim said it would more accurately be represented as "cain't." Of course, he was right. I remember blowing him off, saying something like, "Thanks, Jim. I'll be sure to fix that." And I never did.
The next day, when I came to school, the office staff looked stricken. I asked the front office secretary what was wrong. "Did you hear?" she said almost in a whisper, "Jim BLANK had a heart attack and died last night."
"Jim BLANK?" I said. "Really? That's terrible." I said this because that's what we say when terrible things happen, even if we're young Turks and deep in our hearts we don't really care and are already in the process of erasing the person to whom the terrible thing has just happened.
Everything happens for a reason. When one door closes another one opens.
The English Department, wanting to commemorate Jim in some way, decided that the best way to honor Jim was to commission a plaque, complete with his photo, and install it in the corner of the hallway between the copying room and the front office where Jim hung out smoking every day. The plaque had Jim's picture on it in...