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Russell Frank: Now Is the Autumn of Our Discontent

by on September 16, 2011 6:25 AM

Ah, autumn. For some folks, its arrival is heralded by a nip in the air, a yellow school bus on a foggy morning, the Nittany Lions calling three timeouts during their first possession of the game.

At my house, though, we knew summer was over when the first thong sprouted in the ornamental plum tree in our yard. We're not talking footwear here, you oldtimers. We're talking underwear.

How it got there, as Groucho Marx said of the elephant he shot in his pajamas, I'll never know. Here in the land of the Woo people, there's simply no telling what can happen in the interval between when the bars close and the sun rises.

(The Woo people, for those who have just added the course, are the semi-nomadic tribesmen who live communally among us while taking instruction during the years bridging adolescence and adulthood. They are named for the distinctive shouts they use to communicate with each other. Depending on context and intonation, anthropologists of the Woo people believe, these cries can mean, "Behold, I have consumed many fermented beverages!" "Rejoice, for our warriors have vanquished their enemies in ritual combat!" or, "Verily, it is a fine thing to have so much freedom and so few responsibilities!" In light of my recent plum tree discovery, we might add, "Lo, I have obtained the undergarment of a fair maiden!" to the list.)

However the thong came to rest in the tree (and let us hope that if it began the evening on a fair maiden's person, the de-thonging of said fair maiden was entirely voluntary), I have no intention of plucking it. Perhaps, in the mysterious way that a pair of sneakers, when slung over the branches of a tree, will soon attract other sneakers until the host tree has been repurposed into a sneaker tree, my little purple-leaved plum, which after all, bears no fruit, will blossom into a thong tree this fall.

Not a selling point, perhaps, when I put the house on the market, but a fitting symbol of life in Wooland.


Speaking of our three-timeout warriors, I attended their ritual combat against their enemies from Alabama last weekend and O, the lamentations that rose from the throng (not thong) when it became clear that the Tide was going to roll right over them.

"Hey ref, how much did Saban pay you?"

"McGloin stinks! We want Bolden!"

Even, gasp, "Joe must go!"

One grizzled and disgruntled supporter swore this was it: no more season tickets for him. He's probably said that at least once a year for 20 years.

After a while, the complaints about the refs, the unimaginative play-calling and the fershtunkener two-QB system all seemed like ways of avoiding a more painful truth: This is not a great football team.

Nor a particularly entertaining one: I was more inclined to snooze than boos.

Only the guy sitting next to me seemed content. He had worn red to the white-out. His cap had an A on it.


I have to admit, I wasn't so crazy about the halftime show, either. I was all for solemn observance of the 9/11 anniversary. I'm not sure a twirler flinging a baton in the air and a public address announcer calling on us to honor the dead in the same singsong voice he uses to exhort us to honor a great Penn State team from the past qualifies.

You want to pay tribute to the victims and the rescuers? Forget these bloated imperial displays with their flags and flyovers. Spare us, Budweiser, your Clydesdales bowing to the World Trade Center. (I had to laugh when I read Internet postings defending the commercials on the grounds that the Clydesdales are American icons. They're icons the way the Energizer Bunny or the Geico Gekko are icons. Imagine those characters bowing to the Twin Towers in a 30-second spot.)

For me, the best way to pay respects was to go back and read the newspaper coverage of the attacks and their aftermath. I had the students in my feature writing class do this. Most of them were 10 years old in 2001. Now, for the first time, they have an inkling of what those trapped in the towers experienced as they made a last phone call to loved ones, and how it felt to escape; how it felt to watch the towers come down and how it felt to make the rounds of the hospitals hoping that a loved one feared dead had somehow survived. Gripping, heart-breaking stuff.

Like the organizers of pre-game and halftime shows, the news media could not resist going into full overkill mode on the 9/11 anniversary last weekend, but I still point to the storytelling that they did 10 years earlier as examples of journalism at its finest and most meaningful.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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