A Commodore Carol


By Charles Dorkins

Once upon a time —of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve— Daniel Diermeier sat busy in his home office, drawing up schemes to ensure Vanderbilt University became #1 in the world, and he, its #1 chancellor. His most recent gambit – slowly replacing every metal spoon in the dining halls with disposable wooden replicas – was a masterclass one-two punch in university management, simultaneously displaying Campus Dining’s commitment to sustainability and decreasing the amount of fork-washing labor hours. As with everything, efficiency was key. Why spend the extra time, energy, and moolah on dishes? There was rice to undercook. The students could certainly deal with shallow tines. 

Suddenly, his phone buzzed with a call. One of the college deans. 

“Merry Christmas, Danny D!”

Diermeier snorted with derision. “Bah,” he said. “Humbug!”

The dean paused, then replied, “What is that, like German or something?”

Diermeier rolled his eyes reflexively. “This is why America is going to shit. Pick up a book. That’s the most English English word there is.”

“Care to explain what it means?”

“It means I don’t particularly think there’s anything to celebrate.”

“So…You’re calling Christmas a humbug?”

Diermeier could hear the confusion in his colleague’s voice. “Yes.” He left it at that.

After a brief but weighty silence, the dean changed the subject. “Well, I just wanted to ask if your family wanted to join ours for dinner. We’re going to have a whole lot of food, and you know, the more the merrier.”

“My friend, I’d sooner see you in hell.”

“Oh. Well, merry – um, goodbye then.”

Diermeier wordlessly hung up. The call, if irritating, had come at a decent time. He’d reached his limit on squinting at his computer screen. It was time for bed. He plodded off to his room. As he slipped under his top sheet, a whoosh filled the room. With a start, his eyes snapped open. An apparition shrouded in smoke stood before him. It took a second for his vision to adjust before he recognized the figure.

“Nicholas Zeppos?”

Nicholas Zeppos, indeed. His predecessor, in ghostly glory, right in front of his bedpost.

“Hello, Daniel,” Zeppos said. He certainly sounded like the real deal, i.e. a ghost and also the man whose namesake dining hall serves tacos for lunch.

There was just one problem.

“Nicholas, you’re alive. I mean, in real life. I saw you, like, two days ago.”

“Yes, this is some sort of chancellor avatar form. Like the ghost of me being chancellor of Vandy. I dunno. When you’re dealing with Christmas magic, you learn not to question much.”

 “Christmas magic?” whispered Diermeier furiously. “You’re not making sense. I must be dreaming…”

Zeppos scoffed. “It’s amazing how you’re talking to a literal ghost and the Christmas part is what throws you off.” With a sigh, he continued. “I was getting to it. This is a very sensitive season for moral transgressions. You go too far, you trigger a lesson. The forces of Christmas have spoken, and they say you’re heading down a dangerous path.”

Diermeier scrunched his brow. “How so?”

“I fear you might be threatening your very position as chancellor. I don’t want you to have to give it up before you’re ready,” Zeppos replied soberly. “Look, I admire your drive. You’ve brought Vanderbilt places already. But there’s more to life than ambition, especially this time of the year.”

Zeppos floated toward the doorway.

“You’ll be haunted by three spirits soon. Afterwards, you’ll understand.”

Diermeier didn’t remember going to sleep, but he awoke in his room, still pitch dark. Scrabbling for his phone, he checked the time. Only midnight. Brushing off what he assumed to be a screen-time-induced hallucination, he turned to his other side and snuggled in again, making a mental note to start following the advice of his countless productivity books. Right then, he was met with a new ghostly figure inches before his face. 


The figure smiled wanly. “Hello to you, too.”

Diermeier thought this spirit looked rather young, like a freshman he might pass on his way to Chipotle. Yet, as he blinked, the lines on the translucent face shifted and wizened, taking on the features of a… physics professor? He didn’t know what to make of it.

“I’m the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

“Why are you here?” Diermeier whispered.

“For you,” the spirit replied.

 The spirit took him by the arm, and Diermeier felt himself dragged from his bed to the window. Passing through the glass into the nippy air, the two began flying overhead Vanderbilt’s campus. As they descended to the ground, he began to recognize the signage. It was fall of 2020, after they’d decided to welcome students back to campus amid the pandemic. 

It wasn’t a great time for anybody. Still, looking back at what he was able to accomplish as the brand new Chancellor — holding the campus together, creating some semblance of normalcy — pride swelled within him. 

The spirit began to guide him to a Commons double where a girl sat alone, bawling her eyes out. Even though she couldn’t see him, it felt like an intrusion. Diermeier turned to leave, but the spirit raised a staying hand. Phone in hand, the girl poured out her soul to an unseen interlocutor.

“I never thought it’d be like this,” she choked out. “No one did, obviously, but I just feel so alone. So inadequate. Like I was wrong for believing Vanderbilt was ever the place for me.”

A pang hit Diermeier’s chest. Belonging, in theory, was one of Vanderbilt’s core values. It was part of what made the university so great. She should have never had to feel like that.

She lifted up her chin and wiped her tears aside. Diermeier could see her face now. He recognized her diminutive build, tight black curls, the steely set of her eyes.

“I feel more grounded now, at least, being involved in the Divest movement,” she said. “Vanderbilt has put hundreds of millions into the fossil fuel industry, but I have the opportunity to be part of something bigger, to create real change.” 

Timothea Cratchit, A.K.A. one of the biggest pains in Diermeier’s rear since his ill-advised session at a spin class. Nothing he couldn’t handle, of course, but dealing with Timothea’s Divest antics was a massive waste of time. Having to answer the same question, quiet the same uproar. He rankled at the memory, and the scenery shifted as if his thoughts summoned it. 

Suddenly, Diermeier found himself in a crowd of freshmen, watching himself on the stage. It was his first in-person address as chancellor, before a bright-eyed new class. A throng of protestors descended behind the stage. He caught glimpses of Timothea’s gaze, hard like flint, as her crude, criticizing sign dipped and swayed in her outstretched hand. The display was irritating, counterproductive, and disruptive, just like he remembered.

So why did he feel another rush of pride?


Diermeier woke up on his bed again. 

This time, he fully sat up. The room was empty, and still dark.

He checked his phone. Midnight.

At this point, it was clear there was fuckery afoot. So Diermeier waited. The minutes ticked by, and nothing happened. He began to question his sanity again.

Then he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, a sliver of light under the door. Strange — he never left the hallway lights on. It was a waste of money. He tiptoed over.

As it turns out, the warm glow emanated from a bronzed spirit, who gazed at Diermeier through their frosty white lashes. 40 inches of dark waves undulated over either side of their face and a get-up only possible to describe as Beyonce concert ‘fit meets HGTV’s Outrageous Holiday Houses. Adorned in red and green, a sequined bodysuit stretched over the apparition’s frame, with miniature ornaments hanging off the edges instead of fringe. 

“Come closer, Daniel,” the spirit boomed.

Diermeier, still hugging the door frame, warily heeded the call.

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,” the spirit declared. “Touch my cowboy boots.”

The boots were snow white and sparkling. With a cautious side-eye, Diermeier obeyed, kneeling.

Instantly, the pair were transported to a domestic scene. A fire burned in the hearth, a lit-up Christmas tree gleamed, and delicious smells swirled in the air. A slightly nasally, familiar tone piqued Diermeier’s ear. 

“It’s so nice to have you all here tonight,” the dean chirped from a cozy armchair.

A gray-haired woman tittered and responded, “We’re always happy to visit you in your beautiful home.” Sounds of agreement followed from every corner of the room.

“So tell us, how’s this year been at Vandy?” the woman prodded.

Amusement twinkled in the dean’s eyes.

“Oh, fantastic. Every time I get the romantic idea we educate the best of the best, I get another email from a student genuinely confused why their professor won’t pass them for doing nothing.”

Laughter rang out through the room.

“No, but seriously, it’s great. I actually invited the chancellor to dinner tonight, but he couldn’t make it.” A slight downturn of the corner of the dean’s lips was the only sign of his omission.

“What’s he like?” asked a young man seated on the sofa.

“He’s a really interesting fella. Great to have a conversation with.” The dean leaned in and hushed his voice, as if somehow he’d be overheard. It was more absurd that he actually was. “But if you take it from me … he sorta gives me evil genius villain vibes.”

Diermeier rolled his eyes. His accent triggering decades of German mad scientist stereotypes in the American cultural consciousness was proof that representation truly did matter!

“Like, for example, he has this lofty free speech scheme, that we’ll revive the art of civil discourse and thereby, American democracy,” the dean explained between sips of eggnog. “The university keeps mum on any remotely political topic and lets the people duke it out, even if it enters hateful territory. Reminds me of Thanos a bit. Sacrificing the well-being of some for the ‘greater good.’ Principled neutrality, we call it. The policy even sounds villainous.”

There was no substance to this, Diermeier insisted to himself. It was a rambling, nonsensical spiel. Still, he began to sweat. 

“He’s got strategies and action plans galore,” the dean went on. “But, for him to have staying power, to anchor down, if you excuse the pun, he’s gotta have heart. Connect on a deeper level.”

Diermeier did not excuse the pun, but annoyingly, the dean’s words had a foothold already in his mind. He was passionate about being the best. Wasn’t that heart enough?

The spirit snapped their fingers, and he brushed the thought aside. Soon, they appeared in another holiday scene. Dim yellow illuminated a table bearing various Christmas dishes, portioned for two. Timothea sat hunched, hands cupping her face. Her fingers played pensively over her fork, glancing her pile of mac and cheese.

Timothea broke the silence.

“Mom… I have news.”

“What is it, baby?”

 Save for some faint fine lines, the woman sitting across from her was practically her clone – same cascading corkscrew coils, deep skin, and small stature.

“My friend got me a job. At ExxonMobil.”

The older woman sat up, ramrod straight. “Where is this coming from?” she said. “Honestly, I wasn’t on board at first with your whole environment thing, but I know now that’s your dream, honey. Not this.”

Timothea’s eyes sparked in anger. “Yeah, but despite Vandy’s ‘commitment to economic diversity,’ I’m in a lot of debt, Ma,” she spat. “Opportunity Vanderbilt, my ass. I can’t find a position doing what I want that actually covers my bills, so I’m stuck using my chemical engineering degree for the exact thing I’ve been hammering Diermeier for: licking the oil industry’s boot.”

“Let me help you, Timmie,” her mother put forward, squeezing her daughter’s hand.

“No, Mom, you have your own stuff to pay off,” Timothea said firmly, shaking her head. “I can provide for myself.”

Her mother nodded. “If that’s what you want, sweetheart. But only if that’s what you want.”

“Well, they gave me until after Christmas to decide. I think I’m gonna say yes.”

Diermeier’s heart sank. The spirit made a sweeping gesture, and the dining room melted away, back to where the night started.


As the spirit faded, a foreboding chill crept down Diermeier’s neck.

Behind him, in his bedroom, was a cloaked phantom.

“So you must be the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?” he murmured.

The phantom made no answer, but beckoned. With trepidation churning in his belly, Diermeier followed. They ended up in Central Library, in front of a group of students huddled around a laptop screen.

“Oh my god,” whispered a girl whose eyebrows threatened to climb to her slicked-back ponytail. “So it IS true.”

“Well, it’s not like anyone didn’t see it coming,” said a dark-haired boy with a sardonic grin, not even attempting to keep his voice down. “After Vandy slid to no. 24 in US News, he lost all his credibility.”

A pit opened up in Diermeier’s stomach. 24? Like fucking WashU? It wasn’t possible.

“He created all this hype,” the boy continued. “He even had journalists saying we were better than the Ivies. But it was all bullshit marketing. Trust me, I’m transferring.”

His legs shook like they were made of jelly, but Diermeier managed to make it to the other side of the laptop.


 The ninth chancellor of Vanderbilt University announced his resignation from the post following a decline in the university’s reputation and a spate of negative press.

He collapsed to his knees. The phantom watched without a word, stock-still like a silent executioner. Diermeier’s breath came in gasps as he imagined a rope tightening around the neck of his career.

“That’s not me anymore. I know now what I must do,” he pleaded. “I’m begging you. Give me a chance, and I promise, it’ll be different. I’ll be different.”

He clutched at the specter’s cloak, but it easily threw him off. It also threw off its hood, revealing a face Diermeier knew well.

“Mr. C?”

The dead-eyed stare of the beloved mascot did not assuage Diermeier’s worries. Its immobile smirk revealed nothing. 

The library’s fluorescent lights dimmed. He squeezed his eyes shut, fearing the worst.

After a few moments of silence, Diermeier opened his eyes. He was in his room.

He hopped out of bed. The morning sun’s rays filtered through the cold fog, streaming a soft white light through the windows. Glancing at his phone, he realized it was dawn on Christmas morning. There was still time to make things right. 

Throwing open his laptop, he typed up an email at 99 WPM, a personal best.

Dear Timothea,

Congratulations! You have been nominated for the prestigious Turkey Fellowship, generously funded by the Turkey family foundation to support climate innovators in STEM. You are a passionate, bright young woman with an even brighter future. No one deserves this more. Though I wish you the best of luck in your post graduation endeavors, I am also so proud of what you’ve done as a Commodore, and this university would not have been the same without you. Should you accept this unconditional award, you should expect to receive a generous stipend …

He wrapped up the email with a request that she respond for more details. He hoped she could see the sentiment pumped into every word: she belonged. She had always belonged. Not only that, but she was the platonic ideal of a Vandy student. Intelligent, bold, but most of all: purpose-driven.

He beelined for his kitchen and began stuffing an old fabric sack. Once it was full, he skipped outside. Diermeier’s cheers of glee created tiny puffs of mist in the frigid air, but he barely noticed the cold. 

“MERRY CHRISTMAS!” he proclaimed.

His neighbor, out with the trash, gave him a firm nod and responded in kind. 

Frolicking down the street, Diermeier found himself on campus. It was mostly deserted, but the odd student milling around received a hearty holiday greeting and a gift from his clinking sack: a gorgeous, shiny metal fork. Eventually, he resorted to distributing them in dorm hallways and scattering them on campus paths, shouting “Merry Christmas!” all the way.

In the days to come, he’d have ample opportunities to spread more joy and cheer, to restore the Commodore spirit, to become the stuff of chancellor legend. For now, there was only one thing left to do.

I’m tabling our meeting in hell indefinitely, Diermeier typed. Any chance there’s still room for me at your table tonight?

After a few beats, the dean sent back, Of course! Like I said, the more the merrier. 🙂

Daniel Diermeier grinned goofily to himself. For once, merry didn’t sound that bad.

  • December 25, 2023