Books and Alcohol

LIGIA COSTA, Contributor

Devouring a Wisconsin sandwich, the English professor, in loose khaki pants and a dark-blue blazer that reveals the bright-purple vertical strap of a sweater between its lapels and the convex prominence of his lower abdomen, stares across the table, frowning with bulging, blue eyes. His loud, deep voice, heedless of the inquisitive glares coming from other tables where students rush to gulp down the rest of their lunch meals, threatens to reach an exclamatory falsetto. Instead, it rumbles across the cafeteria uncovering another of the man’s digressions, “The greatest book of all time… Oh, boy, that’s a really interesting one. So, you mean the greatest book, not the greatest play? Well, I’m gonna go by genre. So, the greatest novel…,” he mumbles and only the persisting words “the greatest novel” can be distinguished, “Ok, so I think the… uh…. hmm… uh… I think,” his voice trembling in fear of an accidental blasphemy, he continues:

“I think the greatest novel of all time is probably Great Expectations.  For me.  You know, it’s Dickens’s great magnum opus.  You know, it’s the greatest novel, but ah… as it were. Why is it? Well, because it’s, it’s about the uh… problem of maintaining a good heart in a cold and disappointing world – the struggle to maintain a good, democratic, open heart.  You know, Pip struggles with that even though he’s been disappointed and deceived and he’s been turning into a snob.  And so I think that to me is a problem of human living.  And then the greatest play I’ve ever read is Othello. It’s my favorite Shakespeare play.  And I think in some ways is the same thing, how do you keep from being corrupted by a deceiving and hateful world?  So… yeah, that’s kind of my favorite play.  And then… hmm… you know, I think my-a…” now muttering, confused, “what would be my-a favorite film?” he remarks:

“See, my favorite poem is Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, which is a carpe diem poem.  It’s a carpe diem poem, it’s a seize the day poem, you know.  ‘Drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.’  And ah… you know, to me it’s my favorite poem because it’s such a funny poem and a witty poem, such an energetic poem.  And it takes on a different problem of human living which has to do with the… the… the whole question of what if virtue makes any sense in a world in which we have very limited time.  So, I think that these poems take on kind of these… kind of first order questions.  And then, you know, my favorite philosopher is Wittgenstein, because I think Wittgenstein helped me understand language better than any other philosopher.  You know, he’s a student of how language works, where languages come from and the limits of language.  So, my great texts are Othello, Great Expectations, and To His Coy Mistress and Wittgenstein’s Uncertainty, one of his books.”

And immediately interrupting the follow-up question, “Oh! And I have to throw in that my favorite thinker of all time is Darwin,” he adds, showing no need to catch his breath.

.  .  .

Tom McBride’s recurrent asides are one of his controversial charms.  His digressions, drenched with energy and sharp rhetoric, expose the brutal honesty of the public speaker and the strong, resolute ideas of a candid personality.  The veneer of Tom’s propriety slowly erodes to reveal progressive ideas, which would seem unmatched by this 66-year-old Texan’s suspenders.  Yet, the professor’s vehement, almost seething delivery of opinions verges on fanaticism.  Tom McBride loves books, and doesn’t restrain himself from talking about them – uninterruptedly.  In his literature classes, it is evident to students McBride’s pronounced sense for the underlying thematics of the texts as evinced in his distinguished literary analysis, sense that is conveyed through the spectrum of debunked theories whose obsolete nature is in fact compensated by their tradition and credibility, in face of the fatuous void or, to another extent, the ill-founded excessiveness of contemporary theories.  Bouncing as he stares at the floor, Tom walks from one end of the blackboard to the other with his hands stuck in his pocket so immersed in his own speech that builds to a crescendo in which his gruff voice bellows throughout the silent halls where multicolored flags quiver with the breeze coming through the door held open perplexed with the rising index finger – the finger that looms triumphantly and solitary over its master’s short-legged eminence while his eyes bulge in accordance with a confirmation-seeking, conclusive pout.

Questions of personal preference left aside, Tom McBride is preeminent in the dying art of lecturing in liberal arts colleges, lecturing skills which will be missed if the professor goes through his plans of retiring soon. “He is a super-eloquent public speaker, he is a great lecturer… Most of the professors now teach where they sit down and students do presentations, where Tom’s style is standing up and talking to the students. I think as professors like Tom retire, we’re losing that skill.  I think he’s inspiring.  I know many alums who are my age… who have been totally inspired by him.  He’s a professor that students come back to.  He’s somebody that really influenced them. ” said McBride’s friend and colleague from the Journalism department, Shawn Gillen, with whom Tom shares an appreciation for irreverent humor and, occasionally, a couple of drinks. “He likes dark humor, [but] he’s a little more playful,” he continued.

The professor’s sense of humor finds escape not only within his cherished friendships with Beloit College professors, but also online. On his recent comic obsession for Facebook, he remarked, “ I like the hit and run quality, where you post something that’s funny and outrageous, and you get all the comments.  I like the humor in it,” and added, “I think it’s a great way to reconnect with former students, this wonderful way to reconstitute my community electronically… What electronic media has done is give us the opportunity to have many more acquaintances.  The danger would be confusing acquaintances with friends,” he concluded beaming. However, the public man façade, although sincere, conceals the fragility of a husband and father, unknown to his students.

.  .  .

Born in 1945 in Mart, a small town near Waco, in central Texas, Tom McBride grew up in where could be called the buckle of the Bible belt.  “Protestant religion is in your pores there.  It’s the way of life. The Bible, Sunday school,” he commented. During McBride’s upbringing in a town of only 3,400 people at the time – in fact, the town’s population is now 2,500 people, his father worked as a railroad worker while his mother was a homemaker. When recalling the memory of his parents, McBride suggests the influence of his mother on his literary devotion:

“My mother grew up in a semi-wealthy family.  They lost all their money in the great depression, so she finished high school, but she never went to college, but she was a very remarkable person, just as my father was a remarkable workaholic.  My mother was a self-educated reader… She loved to read, and at the end of her life, when she was an old lady, she could no longer read because she was legally blind [so] she just listened to books on tape all the time.”

Tom’s satirical impulse throws in the acidic aside of his rebellious yet discerning inner-child:

“They were also kind of pains-in-the-ass because they loved cleanliness.  They were kind of ‘neatniks’, and they were very anal and repressive.  Very devoted to cleanliness, and that was very hard to live with because I’ve always been kind of a slob.  And I never cared too much about dressing up. I just wanted to be comfortable.  I think they were proud of my accomplishments academically and intellectually, but they were always very disappointed in my personal habits.”  McBride’s slightly rebellious inclination expressed itself during his first years of high school, when he played football because he wanted to be popular.  “I began to be a bit of a smart-aleck.  I wasn’t wild by many people’s standards, but I wouldn’t obey my teachers, and my parents would get very disappointed.  I started to get low grades in conduct.  Some of my grades in my subjects began to drop.  It was a very wild time for me,” he explained.

Tom’s insurgent campaign ceased however as he encountered religion as the channel to appease his wild tendencies. “I’m very musical, so I started playing the organ in church.  I sort of became a real goody-two-shoes… It wasn’t a matter of belief or doctrine, but a good place to settle down,” he commented, “people who went to church did their work on time.  They met deadlines. Studied hard.  It was more a way to study harder.”

Suitably, he decided to attend Baylor University, the world’s biggest Baptist university, which was only 20 miles away from Mart.  It was not until he went to graduate school at the University of Illinois that McBride broke away from his Texan roots. “I met people from all over the world.  People from Tunisia, Britain, Riyadh, everywhere,” he contemplated on the student body plurality.  It was also during graduate school when Tom came across his lifelong passion for Shakespeare:

“There was a guy [a professor]… named William Staton, Bill Staton. And Bill was kind of a tragic figure, he was a very thin man, an alcoholic, a chain smoker – he died young.  And he knew a lot about Shakespeare… When you’d get him off by himself, he would tell you what Shakespeare meant to him as a human being, how Shakespeare helped him understand his children, how Shakespeare helped him understand what it is to waste time.  So, he was this guy who was very scholarly at times, you know… but he also had this very charming, ‘what Shakespeare means to me’ side.  That really turned me on.”

In his last year at graduate school, McBride considered going to the University of Texas Law School, but while working as a grader with one of his professors he came to lust after such lifestyle: “I think that once you become a lawyer, or a doctor, you have to play with adults all the time, where, as a professor, you can play with young people.  You’re always able to learn new things.  It’s kind of like being a puppy dog.  You know, they’re constantly curious, learning new things,” he explained,  “that’s kind of been my time at Beloit.  I’ve gotten to read stuff that I never would have otherwise had a chance to read, and hang out with people who are still a little bit rebellious… [So] I decided I didn’t wanna go to Law School, I wanted to go get a PhD, and live the lifestyle.”

On April 18th at 5:52 pm, he stated on a Facebook post: “I should be sad about Dick Clark’s death, and in a way I am. But I can’t help feeling a bit triumphant now it is I who is the world’s oldest teenager.”  The broadcasted promise of his everlasting Neverland transpired after graduate school, in 1972, as a career at Beloit College, where Tom so far embraced 39 years with unrivaled, persisting joviality and fingertips mantled with preserving white-chalk powder.

.  .  .

Tom McBride started working at Beloit College when he was 27 years old.  Two years later, he’d meet at the mailroom his wife, who was a student at the college, and become her typist.  “I was 29 and she was 22… She used to come over to my apartment and let me type her papers.  She wasn’t a very good typist… We liked to make fun of things, and be absurd. We laughed at the same things… She was a friend, then we became more. Uh huh,” he reminisced.  This year, the English professor and the historian celebrate 35 years of marriage.  When asked about the social disapproval of a professor having a relationship with a student, he lazily replied, “In those days it was kind of ok for professors and students to date.  It’s not so ok today.  This was back in the 70’s, sexual revolution was on the way.  In fact, the Provost and the President came to our wedding. That was not considered to be a problem.”

He also remembers the 70’s at Beloit as the time when the college’s party scene was livelier:

“It was pretty wild, lots of drinking, lots of drugs and lots of sex. The other big change is that you didn’t have as much coming in. Nowadays you’ve got speakers coming in, and musicians coming in.  In those days, people just kind of made their own fun.  There really wasn’t much imported culture.  I think the party scene, when I was young, was more happening.”  Tom lived such years of self-liberation as a frequent patron and an occasional guest bartender at C-Haus, then affectionately nicknamed “The Meat Market.”  “In the old days, you’d go home with a different person every night,” mused the professor matter-of-factly.  While contemplating the bar’s former charm, McBride continued, “It was very crowded and very smoky.  There was a big sort of erotic buzz to the whole thing.  It had a very dionysian, bacchanalian sort of thing going.  It was kind of a really, base, grungy place.”

Though he has quieted down since then, Tom still maintains many friendships with students and he can still be seen having a conversation with one of them over a drink at Suds.  “I met them in classes, I met them in the bar, I met them in the Union, just hanging out with them. But, yeah, I have tons of student friends,” he noted, serious. Once, more appreciative of brew, he now subscribes to another process of fermentation, “I like wine now.  I used to drink more beer, but I’m a wine drinker now.  Not much liquor and not much beer.” Not vacillating to return to the subject of his students, he pointed out, nostalgic:

“When I came here students were very much 60’s and 70’s types.  They had very long hair, they were not interested in career goals.  They were not interested in goals, generally.  They were heavy consumers of drugs and alcohol and sex.  They liked to be weird.  Today students I think are much more straight. They’re much more conventional.  Students aren’t really interested in rebellion for its own sake anymore. ”

Changes not only among the student crowd, but also within the college’s academic orientation, Tom witnessed Beloit College’s pedagogical remodeling in the 1980’s, period in which the school almost closed. Driven by the pragmatic motivations of desperate economic sources, students started majoring in practical subjects such as accounting, engineering, and nursery – in other words, the kind of subjects that did not belong to Beloit’s then “hippie” curriculum, as entitled it Professor Gillen.  “It was a national crisis.  Beloit was known then for a curriculum called the Beloit Plan, which was very alternative.  It was known as being kind of a hippie school,” Shawn explained. Recalling the college’s transformation, he continued:

“In the early 80’s people became very preppy, wearing lots of Izod[1] clothes.  So, Beloit had a hard time enrolling students.  It laid off professors and closed programs.  It even apparently sold some paintings that it owned.  Tom survived that phase, but many professors didn’t.  The professors who did survive those years tended to really believe that they had a big responsibility in helping the college remain financially viable.  Tom was doing almost everything for Beloit, and so were the other professors of his generation.  Many of them are retiring now, but he’s one of the last members of that generation.”

Somewhat regretful, Tom rendered the changes in that period, which surpassed the mutation of classes from lectures to discussions, “[Now] they are much more interested in goals…  When I first started here the big emphasis at the college was helping you find yourself.  Now I think it’s much more mixed up with preparing you to go into the job market.  It’s much more practical than it used to be.” He then added,  “When I first came to Beloit, the faculty was much more into teaching and less into scholarship.  Now I think the faculty is more into scholarship.  I don’t mean that they don’t like teaching, but there is more of a balance now,” he finished, gasping for reassurance.

.  .  .

McBride’s frankness, leaving no room for hesitation, reveals the family man behind the fun-loving professor.  Intimate matters are given restricted public access, bringing insight to his home dynamic. As for marriage,  “I think that marriages tend to evolve into familiarity and history, and friendship and common interests.  I think marriages often begin by people being in love, then I think they evolve into more mutual respect, you know, love, but more in a way of friendship perhaps than passion.”  He then attacks the notion that unites marriage and happiness:

“I think that one big social myth is that marriages are primarily designed to make you happy.  In my experience, especially after we had children, marriages were really designed to socialize children.  That doesn’t mean that happiness went out the window, but family life is more of psych or social conflict and tension I think than it is designed to make you happy.  My view is that hot fudge sundaes make you happy, Alicia Keys makes me happy, but –” and beamed like a schoolboy.

Father of a 32-year-old son who is a lawyer in New York City and a 23-year-old daughter who is starting off at a law firm as well, Tom McBride is dominated by unusual conciseness when discussing his children, “They give my wife and me something to talk about, as it were.  You learn from your children,  they give you a different perspective.  What can I say about my children?”  Questioned if being a professor influenced his parenting, he retorted, “I discovered that what I liked about students, which was their irreverence, their rebellion, that I didn’t necessary want that in my children.  I kind of liked smart-alecks in students, but I didn’t really like them at home.”

As the frown lines disappear from his forehead the scholar’s clarity arises,

“Parenthood has been a little bit like dying.  You realize when you have children that it’s no longer just about you. You’re living for somebody else and your privileges and your freedom and your choices are all gonna be limited from now on. Even after they move away you’re still worrying about them.  For me, having children is kind of the death of the ego.  Not the total death of the ego, but the partial death of the ego.”  Two days later, sitting  in a semi-relaxed posture outside of his office on the lounge’s central blue couch, Tom’s answer to the question “What was your biggest failure in life?” bounced back in a confessing tone, “I don’t think I was a particularly good parent to my first son.  I would lose my temper a lot.  I think I was really adjusting to being a parent, accepting this partial death of the ego,” the scholar concluded, nodding with his gazing blue eyes fixed across the room, impassive.

.  .  .

Dory, Ophelia and Charles are Tom’s cats.  Every morning, the first thing he does after waking up at 6:30 am is to feed them.  “They like wet food with little dry treat sprinkles on top.  So, I do that.  And then I get a cup of coffee,” he mentioned and his voice revealed such tenderness as if nurtured by the uncomplicated nature of this affection.  Admittedly a catlover, he beams as he continues,  “I’m very fond of playing with them, having them sit on my lap and go to sleep and singing to them… like ‘who’s the silliest cat in the world,’ and the Scooby-Doo song, you know – except the words are changed to reflect the cats’ names.”

.  .  .

After a long career teaching at Beloit College, McBride is now contemplating his retirement. “The deal I have is that I teach this semester, and then if I want to, I teach next spring. Then, if I want to I teach I can teach the following spring, and then, I’ll leave.  So I have an option to do two more spring semesters. As long as I let the college know by June,” he clarified. Although his reasons merge in a combination of different factors, Tom had only recently discovered his goose-that-laid-the-golden-egg, the Mindset List[2] book, which will facilitate a comfortable retirement. “Last year I decided I was getting kind of long in the tooth.  And also, I had this book, this Mindset list thing, which has kind of become a second career for me.” The Mindset List is a quirky annual compilation of the values that shape and distinguish the worldview of each year’s incoming freshmen.  Even if fruit of a very diverse and “not very well organized kind of research project,” as the co-author himself characterizes, the lists nonetheless reflect the attention to details that excites the reader in its nostalgic, historical nuances.  “We [Ron Nief, the book’s co-author, and I] go back to the year that the class was born and we do everything that we can to live in that year.  We look at microfilm, magazines, newspapers that year.  We look on the Internet.  We look into books about people who were important that year… talk in some instances to people who’d grown up in that period,” Tom observed, explaining the research process.  The product is a book that has received widespread public attention, such as a feature on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and an essay by Nancy Gibbs of Time Magazine.  Fervent advertiser of the Mindset List, Tom comments on the public response:

“I’m gratified.  It’s been a good response… We hear from people all over the world.  Right now, I’m helping a woman write a mindset list for her students in Jamaica. It’s been very gratifying.  We’ve been to a lot of places…  The one disappointment I’ve had has been that, while our book has sold well, it has not been a sensational best seller, as I had hoped it might be. We haven’t given up. It’s being adopted now by some schools.  If it’s adopted as a textbook, it’ll sell very well.  So, I’m still hoping.”

In addition to his reasoning, he also shared a growing indifference towards Beloit’s “petty” politics and even teaching:

“I discovered that while I still liked teaching, it didn’t really give me the same thrill it used to.  And I also discovered that I was very indifferent to the policies of the institution that I had heard these debates about for years… When I was younger, I was much more into the politics of our personnel, and curriculum, and now I’m very bored with all that stuff.  It’s like nothing can be changed… I knew I couldn’t be around for too many more years and I found myself becoming indifferent to these policy disputes, and I thought, it’s probably a good idea that I retire, the thrill and intensity are gone,” and with a hint of doubt behind his excited tone, “But, it’s kind of coming back again this term… Right now I’m inclined to come back for more terms, but what I’ll do after that, I don’t know…  Maybe I don’t need to retire, just go down to half time.”

In face of a possible retirement, McBride does not act as if looking out onto his own catastasis, which could be that of a tragic Peter Pan.  Instead, he comes to acknowledge the work that only maturity yields, “If there’s anything I’ve built here, it’s that I’ve infected lots of students with love for learning, and while maybe someone else might have infected them better than I would have, I’m the one who did it.”  Tom’s lack of false-modesty, determined by his controversial yet resolute frankness, discloses further the professor’s appreciation for what the college has provided to him:

“Beloit helped me by giving me a lot of freedom to teach what I want, do what I want, and it’s also given me a lot of freedom to learn things.  I’ve learned about Darwin, and Wittgenstein and Freud.  I’ve had an opportunity to learn things in order to teach…  If I’d gone to a large research university, I’d be much more specialized.  I’d like to thank Beloit for giving me the opportunity to not be just a narrow specialist.  I sort of keep being an undergraduate.”

Returning next spring or not, Tom McBride’s long-term plans remain unclear. Even so, he has no doubts on what tops his Bucket List, “I’d like to be really rich and famous from the Mindset List.  I’d like to go to Venice.  I’d like to go to Oxford and Cambridge, and I’d like to go to Vienna.”  The fantasies abruptly take on a tragicomic tone when Tom relates his expectations for life in ten years from now:

“I’ll be retired. I hope I’m in decent health. I hope I’m still working.  I hope life is still interesting. I could be dead.  I’d like to be doing something,” and adding off-handedly, “Maybe a Wal-Mart Greeter.  I’ll still be in the US, but I’d like somewhere warmer.  I’ve kind of got this idea about Maryland.  I’ve got this idea of living in a small town in Maryland.  It would be close to Baltimore and Washington.  It would be close to the sea.”

In his final speculative digression, Tom reveals the more ordinary man of unexpected simplicity, “I’m indifferent to where I move, as long as I have books, and cats and that sort of thing.”

[1] Izod is a clothing company that produces dressy-casual clothing and sportswear for men and women, also including fragrances, and accessories. Similar to brands such as Gant U.S.A., Lacoste, and Polo Ralph Lauren (Wikipedia contributors. “Izod.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 Feb. 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.).



2 thoughts on “Books and Alcohol

  1. “Books, Cats and Alcohol,” Round Table.

    Posted by ligiacastro | May 1, 2012, 1:43 am


  1. Pingback: Mindset List: Navigating Cultural References - August 27, 2012

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