John Sisco was one of my communication professors in college. He was the last of a kind: very tough, demanding, often disgusted. His research agenda had included the bare-knuckle rhetoric of labor unions. He parsed ideas with precision and he didn’t suffer fools. His skin was leathery, his eyes piercing, and his authoritative baritone could stop you in your tracks.
He was on my master’s thesis committee at Missouri State University. During my oral defense, one of the other members asked what my research had meant to me. I spoke for several minutes about how it had reshaped my understanding of rhetoric and epistemology, how I saw conflicting perspectives differently than I had in the past, blah-blah-blah. When it came Sisco’s turn, he held me in his gaze for an unnerving length of time, then growled, “Who really CARES? I mean, who cares what YOU got out of it, what are WE going to get out of it?” It was the kind of question meant to intimidate and wilt the weak of heart. I thought it was funny, and a great question. I told him as much, and answered him in a way that seemed to satisfy. I think he may have even cracked a smile (a monumental achievement!).
Most people didn’t react to him the way I did. Once he and I were at a business meeting for the Speech and Theatre Association of Missouri. Some kind of procedural mismanagement or other form of nonsense had come to everyone’s attention. People were acting uncomfortable, but trying to be delicate in how they approached it. Sisco just boomed, “Is anyone else here as OUTRAGED as I am?” It sent a shockwave through the room, and marked the disappearance of an aging form of discourse, in favor of a more nuanced and politic style. People avoided him because of it, and it didn’t seem to bother him. Even though I didn’t share his approach, I came to respect John and see a complexity and tenderness that others missed.
About twenty years ago we started meeting at Anton’s Coffee Shop for breakfast. He had retired from Missouri State, and I was just a few years into my university career. We would talk about academics, politics, religion, our families. He would speak proudly about his volunteer work with P.E.T. (Personal Energy Transportation), where they built mobility devices for disabled people in developing countries. He donated his entire library of communication journals to my department, and each time we met I’d end up driving the four blocks to Anton’s because he’d deliver heavy bags swollen with the recent issues from his lifetime subscriptions. We only met once or twice a year, so there was always a lot of news to share.
He got sick and died at the age of 86. It happened in 2017, while Betsy and I were on the road in the van. I not only missed it, I missed the immediate news that it happened. It still makes me sad that I never got to have a “last meal” with him at Anton’s. I feel his absence, in more ways than one.
It’s true he didn’t always have a lot of patience, and he could be rough on people. But there was a complete absence of bullshit in him. He was often “outraged,” but if you built a relationship with him you discovered it wasn’t personal. It was passion. He cared deeply about the “art of persuasion, beautiful and just,” and he was easily frustrated when justice was denied. I would describe him as being guided by a love for rhetoric and a rhetoric of love.
Several weeks ago Anton Tasich, the owner of the coffee shop, died. He was about the same age as Sisco, and a good man in his own unique ways. A few days ago, Anton’s widow announced the restaurant was closing after 46 years. They served their last customers yesterday – they were supposed to remain open through today, but they ran out of food. My friend Barak Hill and I made our last visit to Anton’s earlier this week, and it made me sad. I had my regular breakfast special with hot sauce on the eggs, ketchup on the hash browns, grape jelly on the rye toast, and coffee. It felt very final.
I suppose I’m feeling the loss and nostalgia of middle-age when the fixtures of our lives start to fall away. Sure, I’ll miss the checkered tablecloths, the old menus and kitschy pots and pans on the walls, and Anton stopping by the table for a hello and a joke; but I think what I’m feeling more than the loss of spicy eggs and crispy potatoes is the death of Sisco’s brand of outrage. His was an anger usually prompted by injustice and propped up by facts and reason. It was propositional, not personal. It reflected a time when there were rules and a certain nobility in our public arguments.
That’s no longer a fixture in our lives. In fact, it’s a long way from the entitled tantrums of narcissists and nihilists who are incapable of discussions with voices outside their tribes. There are almost no reasoned and thoughtful public arguments anymore. Doubt me? Try this: Go on social media and proclaim something like, “I hate wool socks!” or “That Taylor Swift documentary was surprisingly good!” or (heaven forbid) “I like that thing Joe Biden said.” and watch the comment section divide into those who regard you as their conquering hero and those who now see you as a moron, and an existential threat to the physical, musical, or political ecosystem. We’ve lost the capacity to be hard on each other, while still caring about each other.
I miss you, John Sisco. I miss you, Anton’s. I miss the outrage that comes with the rhetoric of love.