The Promenade

Part I:

Dale rubbed his eyes with his clammy, clenched fists. As he pressed his back with some force against the lumbar support of his office chair, he shifted his eyes away from his laptop for the first time in many hours and gazed upon the sunrise with watery, pink-tinged eyes. There were two shades of colour that were most visible to him - the first, an inky blackness that began variegating into grayish multi-hues that had not yet allowed the blue of the sky to penetrate its celestial skin. The second tone gradually revealed itself with the rising sun, exploding into one exhilarating burst upon the sky – oh sweet, rich, vibrant brilliant Syracuse orange!

Dale Bruce had been a professor at Syracuse University since 2008. It was a planned career move for him after marrying his wife Kathryn, and they agreed it was a reasonable, promising and well calculated professional trajectory. In the early days of their idyllic romance, they dreamed of starting a family within a couple of years after Dale could secure a professorship. It took much longer than that. After several years of paying down student loans and establishing their new home, Dale wasn’t convinced that they had put down strong enough roots, or saved enough money, or had developed themselves professionally enough to consider having a child. Consequently, as time passed, Kathryn unhappily continued to work in an administration department at a local law firm and Dale taught Political Science and Economics at university. He quickly became a well-respected member of the academic community that began with his eager participation within the faculty. His youth, energy and willingness to make himself accessible to students, made him a popular figure on campus.

However, after a few years, Kathryn grew tired of waiting for Dale to agree that they were ready to begin a family, and she felt unfulfilled and bored with her tedious clerical job. Her emotional inner turmoil cycled like a full rotation of a spinning wheel that set out with slow, tired bitterness that turned quickly into anger. She slowed down to a quiet passive aggression but when this didn’t net any results, she stopped and dissolved into a shadow world of depression. At times of introspection her depression quickly escalated into a full-blown anxiety that ultimately circled back into tired bitterness. Every time the wheel made a complete rotation, she had exhausted a full range of emotions. Dale, who always prided himself on his ability to rationally understand people and to apply logic and reason to all aspects of his life, grew tired of trying to apply logic to Kathryn’s maternal longings, and he finally agreed. Their daughter, Patricia, was born one year later.

After the birth of their child, the challenging dynamics between Dale and Kathryn subsided for a time and they united in their delight and wonder of their own progeny. Their daughter was such a pretty child with soft curling auburn ringlets and wide blue eyes. She was alert and curious and every sound she gurgled, every smile she made, or every imagined coordinated hand movement, was a subject of animated discussion between them. Dale would occasionally bring some small toy home to amuse her, and one day he went to the campus bookstore and bought a baby-sized bunny-hug emblazoned with the “Syracuse University” logo. The color was “Syracuse orange” and this, of course, was Dale’s favourite colour. He loved the hue so much he felt it was part of his own DNA and he took pleasure that it was the official colour of Syracuse University. Now I’ll explain here that Dale was a person who was deeply invested into his career and he would stop at nothing to defend and protect the integrity of an institution he believed in, and to this end, his convictions were unparalleled. Since he began his professorship, Dale had served on every committee he could join and it took up a great deal of his time and energy. He promised Kathryn that he would cut back on his extracurricular scholarly activities after the birth of Patricia, and to his credit he did his best to downsize several of the lesser appointments and volunteer activities. He was still over-committed and engaged with a variety of boards, panels, course meetings, councils and occasionally, the esteemed university Senate. This caused some tension in their marriage, but Kathryn was willing to overlook much of his continuing absence, focusing instead on the joy of first-time motherhood. So it was that she resigned herself to a reduced relationship with her husband, and accepted with a quiet disappointment, the little time that they did spend together at the end of each day.

Dale turned away from the now gleaming sunrise and regained his focus on the letter that he had been crafting the night long. When sloppy school politics and poor planning were underfoot, Dale could not resist writing a protracted treatise that flowed from his sharpened intelligence and academic mind. As he was thinking and working throughout the night, he felt a pent-up anger toward Kathryn over a dispute they had regarding the competency of Patricia’s pediatrician. Kathryn felt the doctor wasn’t doing a thorough diagnosis of their child’s chronic stomach pains. The doctor’s suggestion that Patricia was mildly “colicky” and a prescription of gripe water was needed, did not sit well with Kathryn. She imagined the problem was of a more serious nature that required further investigation. In a tense, animated tone, she told Dale that perhaps it was “parasites or worse”! Dale, on the other hand, thought his wife was overreacting and protective and told her that her imaginings were somewhat paranoid thinking and not based on rational thought. He suggested that she should just try the gripe water for a time and see if things improve. Most of all, he didn’t like her assuming this and assuming that. Dale hated assuming anything. Their fight escalated to an uncomfortable plateau over dinner the previous night, and if there was one thing that Dale hated more than assuming things, it was feeling unreasonably uncomfortable. He thought his wife was often emotionally charged and therefore this was hindering her own access to logical thought. He gathered his personal frustrations and distress and injected it into the letter he was composing to the Faculty Committee, the Senate, the Board of Governors, and the President of the Student Union with the intent to halt the construction of a promenade at Syracuse University – an agenda item poorly conceived and most recently proposed by the newly-appointed Chancellor, Arthur Kendall. The promenade issue began to consume his every free thought.

“To Whom It May Concern: (the letter began)

Then he looked up and mused …

One could see the letter sitting beneath the weight of at least 80 faculty emails in the “cc bar” in the draft file. The content to follow included links to the “Minutes of Meetings” that were conducted between the Senate, the Chancellor and the student body. The hard documentation and evidence of poorly conducted “fast foolish forward politics” (one of Dale’s home-grown phrases that poked fun at the Chancellor’s “Fast Forward Initiative” with its top priority to build an extravagant promenade), formed the basis of his letter. Yes, it was convincing, justifiable, and beyond everything else, it was reasonable. It was a despatch scripted fierce in its purpose, yet was thorough in its logic and facts – a bullet soaked in Hennessey now burning a hole in Dale’s inbox drafts. If there was one thing you would not want in university politics, it was an academic like Dale out there with an axe to grind. The Chancellor was an arch enemy, an adversary of the democratic majority, and most certainly his nemesis. Maybe Dale didn’t have a complete awareness of the dynamic, but he undeniably thrived on having an oppositional opponent. His intent was honourable and just, and the issues he laid out were to endorse equity, fairness and transparency. He believed passionately that he possessed leadership ability and this principled crusade needed his direction. He and only he offered a counterbalance to the absence of rational thought in a large university administration and its systems of governance.

He slowly nodded his head affirmatively as he contemplated his course of action and felt secure in the fact that it was solidly supported by faculty, students and even community-minded citizens. It was empowering for him to take the reins and there was no doubt that the dispute gave him purpose. He had always wished for such a cause. For many years, he had searched and waited, and perhaps even subconsciously hoped for an injustice at Syracuse U that was big enough for him to imprint upon. Dale had fought some small time-time battles: defending the autonomy of the Student Union, promoting the “Effective Committees Toolkit” as a model for conducting effective board meetings, investigating and negotiating department budget allocations, and all of that was well and good, but he had yet to catch a big whale of an injustice or cause. He felt that he was destined to encounter the kind of conflict that would make front-page headlines, and not just in the student newspaper, The Syracuse Orange, but smack dab in the Syracuse Daily News! National news agencies would take the story, and…well, people all over the country would witness Chancellor Kendall’s misallocation of donations and university funds for the construction of an absurd, purposeless spectacle conceived as a legacy to be named after himself, and cunningly wrapped in the guise of “beautifying and creating recreational space on the campus”. He read his carefully crafted letter again and again to scrutinize absolutely every angle of his strategy and felt perversely pleased with himself.

Dale thought to himself that this informative letter and call to arms would bring dissenters together to organize a protest rally. “Newly appointed Chancellor Arthur Kendall doesn’t have a chance”, he thought with smug satisfaction. He inhaled deeply and slowly, and when he exhaled, he pressed “send”, allowing for a rare release after a night of scripting, that in his estimation, was a masterful letter of dissent.

Dale opened a second window on his laptop and finished watching, for the fourth time, the movie 47 Ronin starring Keanu Reeves. The Hollywood adaptation had become a little guilty pleasure. The film was loosely adapted from a legendary account called “The Ako Incident” that took place in medieval Japan. It was a story that resonated with him and he became fixated on the “samurai code of honour”. He had read extensively the historical accounts about the legend. It was just coming up to the part where the 47 Ronin take their lives and restore their honour by engaging in ritual suicide. Dale thought excitedly, “here comes the scene” -- the Ronin drop to their knees…(Dale’s eyes widened) and then one by one, each plunge a sword deeply into their chests, and the movie faded to black. “Oh God”, he whispered. “Dramatic. Shocking!” The movie never failed to elicit a response from deep within Dale. Despite the morbid ending, such a pledge to a code of honour was admirable to his passionate sense of justice. Such fearlessness, boldness and courage! He thought Keanu Reeves played a fairly believable Ronin.

“Ahhh!” He sat back as he softly quoted a passage from A.B. Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan: “In the midst of a nest of venerable trees in Takanawa, a suburb of Vedo, is hidden Sengakuji, or the Spring-Hill Temple, renowned throughout the length and breadth of the land for its cemetery, which contains the graves of Forty-Seven Ronin”.

Dale rubbed his eyes and suddenly realized that he had to be in class in just a couple of hours and he hadn’t slept. He decided to quietly shower and make himself a pot of coffee, and hopefully he wouldn’t wake up Kathryn. She appeared like an apparition in the kitchen doorway after hearing him fussing with the coffee maker.

“You were up all night! What’s the matter with you?” she asked with gentle concern.

Dale looked at her, somewhat defensive and still irritated over their last argument. He felt an emotional let-down with her confrontation after a night of important strategizing. He answered: “For your information I crafted an incredibly detailed letter of protest to Arthur Kendall and a notice urging faculty and students to join in a rally to demonstrate against the construction of a promenade.” His voice slightly escalated with excitement. “We’re going to take down Arthur Kendall and his enormous ego, along with his self-serving, neo-conservative, authoritarian regime.”

Kathryn was not interested and she only wanted to talk about the health of their daughter. She felt that Dale hadn’t invested enough time with the family, and she began to plead with him.

“Dale, please listen to me. Patricia’s stomach pains are getting worse. She screams most of the day and I am at a loss. I must to go back to work in a month and I need you to help me explore our options. Dr. Gerrard continues to insist that nothing of significance has showed up in her tests. I can’t do this alone. Please Dale. Remember how happy we were when our little girl was born?”

Dale adopted a more tender-hearted approach, and responded to her pleas. “Kathryn, once this rally is over and the plan for the promenade has been halted, I promise I will give this matter my full attention. But you know, I have to do this. There is nobody else who can.”

Kathryn shed one bulbous, salty tear that slid down her cheek with dramatic gravity. She knew Dale’s mind was made up. She turned away and headed back to the bedroom, cloaked in bitter silence, each step amplifying the coldness of her bare feet against the laminate flooring of the hallway. The sound of the bedroom door closing echoed in Dale’s head, even though Kathryn only applied a fragile force.

Part 2:

The morning of the protest rally offered clear blue skies with only a few white wisps on the horizon. Dale felt intoxicated with excitement and filled with conviction that the construction of the proposed promenade would now be halted. He had an overwhelming public response of support for his effort and he was feeling satisfied with himself and how things were unfolding.

He walked along University Boulevard and crossed the road where the proposed promenade would be constructed. At present, it was a busy thoroughfare that provided access to the University Campus from all directions, and there was also a well-placed bus stop for easy access to the main building. Dale found it incredibly unreasonable that, not only was there a misallocation of funds for such a project, but the access to the school would have to be relocated to another area of the campus, creating high density traffic in other already congested areas. In addition, the re-routing of traffic to another area of the campus would add to the expense providing no efficiency or functionality of the space. “And for what?!” he thought. “Just so Chancellor Kendall’s legacy would live on as a vanity project?” He shuddered in horror at the imagined debacle named “The Arthur F. Kendall Promenade” gleaming in solid brass letters styled in the traditional Canterbury font and embossed on an official plaque.

Dale meandered around the campus grounds, which was unusual for him. He rarely walked anywhere without a direct and purposeful intent. As he strolled along, contemplating the day, he found himself standing on a small green space below the “Schine Student Center”, not too far from the Chancellor’s building. There were a few students about, and one of his students greeted him in passing.

“Hi Professor Bruce!”

It was Susan Everett, a smart young woman who attended one of his seminars. She smiled broadly at him in a casual way intended to cloak her deep admiration for him. It is more common than not for a student to develop an idealistic and passionate tendency toward a professor. In Susan’s case, theirs was a strictly professional relationship. She viewed Dale as a mentor and a leader. His values, politics and convictions aligned with her own, and, she mused to herself, that perhaps in another lifetime they would have made a great pair. In the current climate of campus politics, however, they were both invested in bringing to light a transparency of issues, corruption and sloppy politics. She approached him directly, swinging her woven satchel over her shoulder, while holding in her hand a copy of author, Naomi Klein’s book, No Logo.

“Hey, that’s a modern classic”, said Dale when he caught sight of the book.

“Yes, Klein is one of my heroes. I’ve read it once already, and now I am writing an essay on biopsychological theories, so I thought I would brush up on some of her research”, Susan explained.

Dale was impressed and he looked at her with a renewed respect. He thought she was rather pretty. He responded, “You know, Naomi Klein is scheduled for a round-table discussion here on campus next semester. I attended her lecture in Toronto last year. She was articulate and fearless”. He paused and added, “committed – that’s how I would describe her – committed and brilliant. I’m glad you’re digging in, Susan.”

“Thanks, yeah. I can’t wait to see her if possible. She’s done so much incredible research. Speaking of commitment, though, I wanted to commend you on yours for rallying against the proposed promenade. I’ve never witnessed the student body organizing so quickly to support a cause, thanks to you! You have really helped to amp up the protest. I’m sure we’re going to make an impact here today. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Dale looked at Susan’s eager face and wondered why this kind of support and understanding was absent in his marriage. Somewhere hovering between conscious and unconscious thought, Dale wished his wife, Kathryn, would adopt some of his own altruism and dedication that Susan was complimenting him for, and offering support with unquestionable sincerity. He recalled the audible flashback moments from the last argument with Kathryn, and he recalled her saying: “It’s a fucking sidewalk, Dale. Get over it!”

“It’s more than that, Kathryn. It will ruin easy accessibility to the university. It’s the Chancellor pulling the wool over our eyes. That money should be allocated to academic betterment, not a useless promenade.”

In his flashbacks, Dale imagined that he was shouting louder at his wife than he actually did in reality. Truthfully, Dale rarely raised his voice at all. Why succumb to emotional distress, he logically asked himself. He could only shout at his wife in his fantasies that belied his true desire to be heard and esteemed.

His attention returned and he smiled at Susan and said, “Your high regard of me is flattering. Thank you. You know, Susan, your support for this issue shows a great deal of character and vision. See you at the rally at noon.”

Dale wanted to say more, in fact, he would have liked to express a deeper, more visceral attraction for her character, her words and her commitment for the cause. Of course, this was highly unreasonable and not a proper expression for a professor of his stature. He would keep things collegial and light between them, and he offered her a wider than average smile. In response, Susan smiled back and tapped him gently on his left shoulder as she took her leave. This modest physical contact ignited a raw, electric wave of pleasure that pulsated through Dale’s entire being. Though brief, this minor intimacy had impacted him more than any other physical gesture he had ever experienced with his wife. The fleeting moment left him feeling gratified and wanting more. Instead of acknowledging this new and challenging emotion swirling inside of him, Dale struggled to regain his rational self. Surely this attraction would dissipate with denial, and instead he told himself that he would focus on the job at hand. This was a time for war, and there was no room for personal feelings of this nature. Besides, he countered, emotions were often misleading, confusing and often full of whimsical fantasies.

Dale looked up at several waving banners celebrating the football team known as “The Syracuse Orange Warriors”. The flush of his favourite colour, Syracuse Orange, brought him clarity when he needed it most. He was ready for combat with the Chancellor. He stepped off the roadway and stood on the ground just a few feet away from the proposed promenade at ground zero. He dropped to one knee and scooped up a handful of dirt and let it trickle slowly through his loosely clenched fist. He then peered at the Chancellor’s office window feeling self assured. “This rally will put a halt to this”, he thought. “I know it will. I can feel it.”

Part 3:

The protest rally brought much satisfaction to Professor Dale Bruce. It was well attended and there was a momentous feeling of solidarity. The crowd chanted, bullhorns sounded, speeches were given, and petitions were signed. However, here’s the kicker: Chancellor Kendall refused to leave his office to defend his proposed project. Dale believed that despite his cowardly refuge within the walls of the brutalist-style, orange and brown cube, he could not escape the riotous noises of the demonstration. Throughout the rally, Dale felt that this was his finest hour and he enjoyed imagining the Chancellor’s frantic and tortured reaction to the occupation of a section of University Boulevard. He thought that now any illusions the Chancellor personally held to build a vanity project in his name, would now wither and die. He had absolutely no doubt in his mind that the 1,300 or more signatures on a petition would end the Chancellor’s “Fast Forward Initiative” dead in its tracks. Dale felt strongly about the effort and he reminded himself that he did not do this for personal glory. No. He did it as a revolt against injustice and for academic progress. He did it for the spirit of “Syracuse Orange”.

In the short week since the rally took place, home life for Dale and Kathryn improved. Dale followed through with his promise to be more present and helpful as a husband and father to Patricia. He gave his full attention to his family as if nothing else mattered. In the back of his mind he was thinking there would be a waiting period before he would learn of the fate of the promenade project, but he felt self-assured that no reasonable governance would continue with an action that had generated such public outrage. All he had to do now was to sit back, relax and wait for an announcement that he had been victorious. He thought of the “Syracuse Orange Warriors” as they form an organized convoy on the field before the start of each game. They played to win, and Dale wanted to win. Although no official statement had been issued by the Senate, Dale intuitively felt he already knew the outcome.

One afternoon Dale and Kathryn sat in the waiting room of Dr. Gerrard’s office. He was prepared to assert their request for the doctor to investigate a more detailed analysis of Patricia’s stomach spasms. The momentum that he gained from the success of the promenade rally left some residue of confidence and zest in his personhood. He sat with his right arm around Patricia, holding her on his knee, and he put his other arm as if to comfort Kathryn. They looked like a picture-perfect family, waiting patiently to see the doctor. Kathryn gazed at her husband with renewed appreciation and respect for his character, his sense of justice, and his passion for community involvement. Perhaps she should have been more supportive and understanding of the promenade controversy. Maybe she failed him by not supporting him as ardently as she could have. She gave him a pat to his thigh to let him know that she was proud of him. There was even an article covering the rally in the local section of the Syracuse Daily News and it featured a picture of Dale holding a bullhorn.

As the Bruce family prepared to confront their physician with some vigour, Dale felt a buzzing coming from a pocket in his pants. Seemingly un-phased by the buzzing signal of an incoming email, he calmly and casually retrieved his iphone from his pocket. His eyes lit up when the subject line read: “Promenade Update”. Both excited and nervous at the same time, Dale inhaled a reasonably deep breath and opened the email message. To his utter horror the first line read:

“Promenade project will continue despite recent controversy.”

It went on: “Our goal in beautifying our campus has been in motion since the appointment of Dean Kendall as Chancellor last spring. It is our hope to use recent criticisms regarding communication within the University Senate to provide future instances of transparency and respectful….”

Dale dropped his phone and it ricocheted off the ground and hit Kathryn’s foot. She stared at Dale, at first assuming the worst – perhaps a death in the family, an illness, but deep down she knew that this was a missive regarding the promenade. Perversely she almost wished it was a death rather than a disappointment of Dale’s passionate undertaking and crushing defeat that she knew Dale would have to absorb. Dale muttered something under his breath, just audible to those close to him:

“Placating bureaucrats…”

His cancelled eyes just stared. Dale turned to Kathryn and said: “I’ve failed in preventing the construction of the promenade.” He said it in a well-paced monotone, and his breathing became somewhat laboured. Kathryn stared at Dale with an expression of repulsion. It was a look that was one part empathetic toward how overridden and damaged a person could become by an obsession, and one part angry toward the degree of neglect and ignorance she had to absorb for a silly illusion and an inflated importance of a promenade. The strained look lasted a moment when Dale gave Patricia a hollow kiss on the forehead and faced Kathryn and said:

“I’m sorry – I wish I could stay. I have to go now. I’ll call you in about an hour.”

As Kathryn watched Dale walk out of the waiting room, she ignored his promise of a phone call. She half hoped it would never be placed.

Back at the university campus, Dale was deep in thought as he stood on University Boulevard. He had forsaken is own code of conduct. He had assumed that his efforts, the rally, the factions he gathered to protest the construction of the promenade were enough. If only he had remained detached, diligent and sharp, and if nothing else, logical, then he would more easily have maintained his composure. A sense of failure and self-hatred echoed throughout his being. Finally, when he could take it no longer, he started toward Chancellor Kendall’s office. Each step he took carried a heavy gravity – a special brand of failure reserved for only those who are committed so passionately to their convictions.

Inside the brutalist fortress that housed Dean Kendall’s office, Professor Dale Bruce approached the receptionist’s desk. He carried himself with all the grace he could muster, but the pain of failure was not easily hidden.

“Hello”, he said. “I would like to speak to Chancellor Kendall.”

The receptionist was an aging woman with dyed red hair in an almost trendy style, and she stared at him with almost trendy eyeglass frames. She wore a black blouse that shimmered with shades of darkness - a silver pendant hung down from her neck. She looked up and asked: “Do you have an appointment with the Chancellor?”

Dale resented the prestige of the Chancellor’s precious and carefully guarded schedule protected by this gatekeeper.

“I do not”, he responded with an air of dignity.

“Okay. The Chancellor is in a meeting and he should be out shortly. Have a seat and he might be able to see you. May I have your name?”

Dale stood expressionless and just stared at the receptionist’s reasonably organized desk. Her stationery was neatly stacked, a container held an assortment of pens; there was a green stapler, paper clips in a dispenser, a box of Kleenex, a stack of mail -- some opened, some not. Next to the letters lay a long, gleaming pointed gold letter opener that reflected a faint hue of Syracuse Orange from a flag waving outside the window. Dale gave her a forced half smile before turning around to abide by her perfectly reasonable request to take a chair and wait.

Just as he turned his body to face the waiting room chairs, he turned back and faced her like a highly-charged mechanism. He stepped back up to her desk and picked up her gilded letter opener. The hard, strong point of it gleamed in his grasp. The receptionist was startled and said, “Excuse me sir, what are you…” but her sentence stopped in dead air as she watched bewildered when Dale dropped to his knees in front of the Chancellor’s office door. Without hesitation, he plunged the blade of the letter opener into his own heart, now spurting blood onto the taupe carpet. Dale’s expression was at first one of shock as he plunged the sharp object deeper penetrating into his chest and puncturing an artery. As his gaze turned downward, his breath began to slow and sounded like distant sighs. He lowered his gaze to the starburst of orange he imagined was reflecting in the pool of red blood flowing from his chest. When the starburst began to fade, Dale formed a full and blissful smile as he reflected on his colour -- the essence of Syracuse Orange intermingling with the red hues of his own blood. Honour. Code of honour. His mind fought for a conscious thought. “Yes. Ahhh…” Dale fell forward.

“In the midst of a nest of venerable trees… in… Takanawa, a suburb of…of…

Vedo…..hidden…length…breadth…of… Dale felt cold as ice. Fading to black.


Author’s Note:

In case you are wondering what a “laptop” is, or the movie 47 Ronin starring Keanu Reeves, let me assure you that this is a creative story that I wrote to support in the healing of a personal struggle in my life, and to this end, I took a few creative liberties.

I had a dream that later in the 1990s, people would have these small, personalized computer screens on which they could view movies. I call them “laptops” because they can rest on one’s lap. Similarly, I had another dream of even smaller, hand-held computers that function as mobile phones. They were agents of electronic communication and they were called “Blackberry”.

I also dreamed that Keanu Reeves became an expert in Kung Fu and he would go on to direct and star in a series of medium-whelming martial art films. I’ve suffered from insomnia for years and I have been taking the prescribed sleep aid, Trazodone. Sometimes it gives me whacky, unorthodox imaginings and dreams filled with flights of fancy and imagined realities.