Thursday, December 24, 2009

Fortunate Sons

Merry Christmas!

I've had a poem published at the online journal, Shaking Like a Mountain. It's more of a summer poem really, but I hope you will head over to their site and read it: I'd like to reach 300 views by the new year!

Thanks and have a fun holiday.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Object Lesson

My personification of inanimate objects, and the emotions I then feel toward those objects, takes up more of my energy than it should. When I was a kid, I felt terribly sorry for boardgames that got left on the shelf, often for years at a time. I would play them by myself just so they didn't think I was angry at them.

As a teenager, I named my car, my TV, an my baseball bat. These were pleading, loving relationships, all of which involved soft caresses. My biggest fight, though, was with that television, which still stares at me now, ten years after I bought it. I've even placed him on probation for months at a time, canceling cable as a punishment for his blizzards. And yet, as Homer Simpson put it, the TV remains "my teacher, mother, secret lover."

Lately, I've directed most of my personal scorn at kitchen wares. As a newlywed, I have a glut of pots, and I rail against their pot-lids the way cranks rail against immigrants. I doubt their usefulness, mutter to myself about how much space they take up, grumble about their clamorous, pot-lid culture.

In a pinch, Luigi--the saucepot topper--does make my life easier with his abilities and I smile at his panache. He's one of the good ones, that Luigi.

With these mild frustrations in mind, I was surprised last night that I couldn't muster any anger at my vegetable peeler. Even after he swallowed a cashew-sized swath of my left middle finger, I felt no animosity whatsoever. As a sat in my recliner, Donald--wrapped in gauze and ice and with my arm over my head--I was at peace.

"I put your nemesis in the dishrack," Megan said. "So be careful."

"No," I corrected, like a holy man forgiving his assailant. "He knew not what he did."

Maybe it's the Christmas season that has me in a merciful mood, but I even felt positive feelings for Virgil, as I like to call him.

This strange favoring of something that cuts recalled certain relationships in which I've actually liked people more after they've slighted me. They've shown their fallibility and, maybe more importantly, they now owe me.

So, in some illogical reach of my brain, I expect to return from my Christmas vacation to a bounty of freshly peeled food, to Virgil standing on the counter looking sheepishly at me. He'll hope that, once again, we can be peel pals, and I'll say, "I'd like that, friend."

And I'll be thankful for the time he's saved me; I'll finally have a chance to give that sonuvabitch can-opener of mine a real talking-to.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


My pesky curiosity brought me face to face with a strange blackhole yesterday when I wikipedia-ed Wikipedia. I wanted to know what the first entry of the online encyclopedia had been. I ventured that in the beginning there was God, or, since the site came from computer nerds, maybe Apple.

Where do you start when you want to compile everything?

I've become interested in the origins of the encyclopedia recently because its pages feature a request for donations; and so I've been sporadically considering how much they started with at first and what bit of info got them going.

Usually I think donations that don't fill a stomach or kill a tumor are strangely a-ethical, but I pondered whether I should send Wikipedia a five-spot. It's slowly replaced ESPN as my trivial opiate of choice, after all, and I have respect for its project of democratizing knowledge (even though that project has been roundly criticized. When I look up dogs, for instance, I'm told that the species with the shortest lifespan is the Dogue de Bordeaux--5.2 years. On the page of that particular dogue, however, a second citizen-editor had told me that they live, mostly sans complications, for 8-10 years. Oh well. C'est la vie).

Whether it's wholly correct or not, I like that I can follow the thoughts of Wikipedia's strange brain from Ytzhak Rabin to Albert Schweitzer to The Gabonese Republic to a map of population density to Earth to Outer Space to Paradise Lost to Star Trek to Star Wars to Turner and Hooch to the Dogue de Bordeaux, as I did today. Mind in the clouds, nose on the ground.

Plus, I would never want the encyclopedia to be overcome by ads such that when I check the origin of the phrase "Head-over-heels," as I did recently, I suddenly feel a compulsion to buy some Dr. Scholl's.


When I started out as an English teacher in 2004, we all used to laugh at the student who would quote from Wikipedia, and our bosses derided it as unreliable. There's something to this, I suppose. Students should still learn to look for the most authoritative sources even if that means checking out a book. And yet, part of a strong English education has to do with being able to suss out the truth of things, being able to distinguish fact from opinion. I know I've read falsehood and spin on Wikipedia; I mostly filter it out. It's far from invalid because of the discrepancies.

David Foster Wallace said that being educated "means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."

Taking his advice, I've decided that his Wikipedia page is insufficient and that you might like to go here instead. Then again, you might like to ignore me and the rest of this post, which would also be in the spirit.

Meanwhile, I'm still thinking about what Wikipedia's worth to me. Would I pay a dollar a week? A dollar a month? If I knew everyone was willing to pay 1 cent a day, would I join in? I need to read up on Game Theory.

And I realize that I haven't answered my initial question about Wikipedia's first article. And so I realize that my unrealizing is a perfect way to talk about Wikipedia's main fault: it almost always forces me to lose my focus. I didn't need any assistance with that in the first place, and then along came the easy-accessibility-of-trivial-facts: I was like an infant staring at hyperlinked keys.


Sometimes I get to the end of the day (especially recently, since I've been on break from school) and I can't really pinpoint any accomplishment I've made or experience I've had. Suddenly it's dark, and I've learned a few things about Gabon.

The machinery of distraction that I've set up for myself keeps me from thinking about serious things for the extended period of time they deserve, keeps me from being devoted to a task or a new skill, keeps me from the dedicated leisure that allows many of my friends to happily wallow in movies and music.

Sometimes I get to the end of the day and I feel hosed.

Dogs, it's thought, sense that they can run away from pain and so, when achy or nearing death, will circle and circle as if their hurt is a place.

I'm no retriever, and I've got no serious grievance, but my mental-flitting seems to be coming from the same K-9 instinct. Maybe if I can read enough news or compile enough facts or hop quickly enough from one thing to the next (one of my generation's notable skills), I'll somehow also be able to scatter away from myself.


The first page added to Wikipedia was "UuU," a list of countries that included our fair States.

"Wiki" comes from a Hawaiian word meaning "Quick."

For a time, many dogs in Gabon contracted the Ebola virus but did not appear to be symptomatic.

There is no information immediately available on the way dogs sense their topography of pain.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Theatah Stories - Encore

Dramatic truth be told, my theatre career, such as it was, coincided with my career as an actively single man. I was in plays from February 2000 to May 2004; I was a pre-Megan dater for precisely the same period.

During that time I suffered from sporadic attachments I convinced myself were very deep. Like a lot of people, I had a fling-instinct combined with an endemic sentimentality that made me treat every romantic caprice as a very serious matter.

I remember, for instance, Margaret's name popping up on my computer screen one summer evening. I had a reaction to it and, in the confines of my parents' nothing-happening basement, figured the female-inspired flush had to mean 'meant-to-be.'

I wrote to her, right then. Some trite line. Two minutes prior, I'd been perfectly unaware of my feelings. Now they were so urgent and rich. I'm ashamed that I declared myself electronically; but I'm frequently glad that I don't have to date and break-up in the cell-phone era, when that kind of knee-jerk romantic-ish-ness seems almost inevitable.

Back then, though, I just needed something to happen, always. And I worked to make mostly fake things--plays and hasty love--feel true. It worked, I guess. For a year or so, I gave florid speeches to audiences and to Margaret, trying to win them into my imaginary worlds.

Eventually, she went away to study in Europe and I kept playing repressed gay men onstage. We dated from afar--sometimes happily, sometimes passive-aggressively. But I wasn't going to be able to forgive her one thing: during my era of great-narcissism (is it over?), she withdrew some of her attention from me.


While Margaret was away, I 1) noticed Megan, 2) did nothing untoward.

When Margaret came back, I 1) was fired from my position as her boyfriend, 2) was cast opposite Megan in a silly play called Noises Off.

This next story begins with my pants around my ankles.

I should say before I continue with it, though, that, at the time, Megan and I spoke to each other only in averted glances.

But she already drew my constant attention. . .

. . .Like the smell of curry (though she smells nothing like curry).

Like a “don't-open-until-Christmas” package on December 22nd.

Like someone else's karaoke rendition of a favorite song--say, “Brown Eyed Girl”--that's both pleasant and flustering.

Like a bee in the room, like a bear.

Like a dark window during a horror movie.

Like a deer, or a dare.

Like the last stair on the staircase. Is it really there? I step: my legs buckle.

Such was my world-reordering awareness of SHE: said awareness a murk of non-stop anticipation, novelty, and fear; of beauty-lust and adrenaline; of doubt and knee-tingle.

(Our earliest extant picture)

So my pants were off and we were onstage rehearsing for the big show.

The play, a British farce filled to the gills with slapstick, called for me to sit on a prop-cactus and for her to pull the prop-needles out of my behind. This stage direction, as you might imagine, resulted in precarious perspiration for me.

Nothing else can be said about the placement of my stanky ass vis-a-vis her sweet face besides the simple fact that I was truly mortified. This was, after all, someone I was coming to care for deeply (not just fleetingly). I tried to play it cool, but of course I had to wear costume-room-underpants that weren't washed between rehearsals. And of course the director had to see the scene again, one last time, from another angle.

I assumed the position: my life was an abyss!

After that level of embarrassment, why not just ask her out? Well, I kinda-sorta had, which had gotten kinda-sorta no response, but things were a wee-ish complicated, as they tend to be; suffice it to say, I felt rejected and she didn't even know I'd applied.

Things carried on thusly. I had the distinct lower-hand. I don't want to overstate my romantic anti-heroism, but it was pretty substantial at that point. People were even starting to root for me, as if I was some pitiful movie character. (My brother told me not to let my inner Cusack stand in the rain.)

I bucked up. And began a campaign of being great to everyone she knew. If I could get enough of a buzz going, I thought, she'd have to date me! But we got our signals crossed again when I asked her out for coffee (she said yes, but we never went). I'd never been one to take a hint, but it was dawning on me that I might have to move on.

Until, hallelujah, one more show came around the bend just a few weeks before graduation. A Dream Play was more of an experimental venture. She played a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Jesus. For my role, I had to learn to write backwards (college theatre can't be parodied). At different points in the show I had to give Alice/Jesus/Megan a piggy-back ride, strike amorous tableaux with her, and hold her hand while I told her, "You are the hope of the world."

It was cruel. But we had gotten to what I thought was grudging respect, at least. We even had an intuitive friendship, though we still barely spoke.

The night before the show, we had a dress rehearsal until 4 o'clock in the morning. It was tiring and giddy. We were both asked to stay and help decorate a pillar with toilet paper. It was a ridiculous request and we felt loopy under the psychedelic lights. We conspired to escape together; we'd paid our dues.

Outside, there was a light late-spring rain and the sound of a couple bullfrogs, a light-orange haze from the city of Worcester, a light taste of something honey-ish and thick. I felt possessed, calm, conclusive. She still had on an angel's eyeliner, or an Alice's.

By the college's chapel, I slowed my walk to slow her walk, said "Hey," said "I've written you a letter," said "but I probably won't finish it before showtime," said "It just says, 'You're great,'" said "But you probably already knew I thought that."

I stopped.

Everything was eaves-dropping.

Her half-smile told me, "That's so sweet," which, as any guy knows, can be either good or bad. But the victory was in the declaration. We said, "Well, G'night," and took our solitary ways.

The next day I told her, sheepishly, that she was the hope of the world again. The lights changed and the show ended. I assumed that was that for us: but, thanks to her, there turned out to be an encore, one we didn't expect, one that's still going.

Neither of us has been in a play since that strange dream. We're done with that scene, at least for now. I am still working on her letter, though, and I'm nowhere near finished.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Theatah Stories - Act III

I'd caught the bug.

Though I'd still yet to perform in front of more than 38 people, I knew I wanted to be in more plays--as many as possible, quantity over quality. I'm not sure I even really liked to act that much; it was more the hyper-charged atmosphere that attracted me, the feeling of community and a collective goal.

Standing around backstage for eight hours trading ribald stories with co-stars (though I was more of a co-quark, really) is probably the least difficult way to feel productive, so it was perfect for me, who likes little resistance. I could convince myself that all of it was educational, that practicing spit-takes while dressed in purple tights was my ticket to cum laude.

And there was a lot of waiting around once I broke into school plays. I didn't have any lines that first year, but I still spent most of my time in ludicrous situations being asked to emote, mime, and/or swordfight in the background.

In one critique of my performance, I was told, "David, I'm not sure what you're doing with that broom." My only purpose in that show was to sweep, and I was failing. But learning, too. Things like: stagehands love the singer Meatloaf, unequivocally and all of them; Chekhov wasn't just a character on Star Trek; and purple tights can tend to chafe during emotionally-mimed swashbuckling.

I decided to take my new-found wisdom to the director's chair. There may be nothing more arrogant than calling oneself a director, especially when that title comes with no real skill attached. Yours Truly wasn't One to think lowly of Himself, though. If the Little Rascals could put on a show with only an afternoon's prep (and in a barn no less), I could put one on with a month to spare.

The show was called The Taxi Cabaret, and it badly taxed my leadership skills. I needed six people who were willing to work very hard for basically no reason. I nearly cast an actress named Megan--whose talents had recently caught my eye--as a young woman considering marriage, but we weren't nearly ready to play that scene together yet. (More on plays and that young lady as the situation develops).

I dropped $250 on this play to get the rights and tried to start rehearsals wherever I could--my dorm, the laundry room, the library steps, over the phone. As soon as I'd scraped together a full cast--with promises of stardom or promises of future regrets if. . .--someone would drop out. I felt like a kid at recess slowly realizing his made-up game wasn't catching on.

Adding to the difficulty was the fact that Taxi Cabaret was a musical and I didn't know how to read music. For awhile we rehearsed with a CD. I'd tell people to move certain ways, basically on a whim--whatever I felt like coming up with at the time. I was in over my head.

Two days before the show--we'd gotten a room with a spot-light and everything!--I suffered another defection. My friend Will had gotten a date for the night of the opening performance and couldn't do his part. I frantically called Dr. True's Soup and Read's vice-treasurer (emeritus) and State Photographer, Rob Strong: he'd performed in the same play only a few months before and I hoped he could fill in last-minute.

The next day, I found someone who could play the piano. A small detail. We had 18 hours or so to go.

When another cast member told me he'd be late, I had to shift Rob over and take a part myself. There were two songs I'd have to wing.

The late-guy did end up getting there, the piano started, I had to play a gay stockbroker, and we were off!

Yes, my character slowly realizes he's gay as the show progresses. For some reason, I found myself playing gay guys quite often. In this one, I had a song where I told my dad about my new-found orientation. My own dad was, of course, in the audience. Could be it was one of those moments of parenthood when you ask yourself (I figure there are these) How exactly did I get to this point? And How did he? This sense of wonder might have been made more acute by the fact that I was dressed as Fred Flintstone.

(Notice my loafers)

I sang:

With a spear in hand I fear I'm ineffectual.

But I might just be the world's first homo (. . .)
who's an intellectual!

I love misdirection rhymes! I love feminine rhymes!


I found a real feminine presence I rhymed with not long afterwards. That discovery, unlike my last sentence, was a fantastic transition for me.

We started hanging out--Megan and me--during a show called For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls. She was the Belle. I was her perverted, mentally-challenged son, Perry. Inauspicious, you say? At least I wasn't a gay caveman opposite her man-phobic spinster, but this was not a good portent.

A better one came later in the year when Megan replaced another woman in "A Chorus Line," which I'd been stumbling my way through for a few months. We found ourselves next to each other every day. I had to wear these shorts:

(My legs have never looked better. I was also playing a gay man in this show. Megan played, in her words, "The Ugly One." We were both cast against type: Megan because of her acting strength, me because. . .listen, I just don't know).

We got to chatting. I'd mumble inaudible jokes to her out of the corner of my mouth. She'd keep dancing correctly. It was a solid exchange really. But by the end of "A Chorus Line," she was the only cast member I didn't feel a real connection to. This was the perfect romantic comedy set-up.

We did the show, maybe said "good job" to each other.

But, even then, she had the butterflies in my stomach doing kick-lines.

We took our bows.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Theatah Stories - Act II

As I've mentioned, my stage debut in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat didn't go smoothly. The stakes are pretty low in community theatre, though, and tall, left-footed men trying to step-ball-change and sashay are catnip to local stage-groupies (75 year old women), so I had fun.

My big moment came in the second act. In some performances, I'd said my line--"Napthali"--at the proper time and at others I hadn't; either way, the success of my night always depended on that second act chance.

Having betrayed Joseph, the eleven brothers are wandering through the desert, starved. It was my job to stagger toward the front of the stage--famished, fainting--and fall in a crowd-pleasing heap.

Now, the pratfall is a subtle art and the master of it must proceed placidly and with empty-mind. In preparation, I studied the great tumblers--Chaplin, Van Dyke, Ritter.

(John Ritter as Jack, ahem, Tripper)

Their gracelessness had such a grace!

I considered the Buckle-knee fall, the Damsel-in-Distress, the Banana Slip, the Face-Plant, and the Kansas City Kollapse.

Technically, a pratfall should include falling on the arse since 'prat' means 'buttock.' (See 17th Century British Poet Thomas Dekker's line: "by the Salamon, No Gentry Mort hath Prats like thine.").

'Prat' can also mean 'fool,' though, as in British playwright Melvyn Bragg's line: "He had been looking for the exact word to describe David and now he found it: prat."

Whether mine was an idiot fall or a butt fall, I knew it needed to be a great fall. On the last night of the show, I went for it, spinning on one foot before landing square on my back--a direct hit from noggin to coccyx.

Napthali advances downstage right. He looks very hungry. Lights up on Napthali. He rolls his eyes back in his head and collapses. Actor playing Napthali knocks himself temporarily unconscious. Exit (temporarily) actor playing Natphali.

Lights out.

I imagine my fall got a response, but I'd muddled my hearing, blurred my vision, and lost my wind with the effort. It was an ecstatic feeling, though. And probably the only time I actually did the Method Acting thing, embodying what my character was supposed to feel.

I survived and made it out for my final bow. At the cast party, the guy who played Joseph told me I had quite a stage presence. That was almost definitely a back-handed compliment seeing as how I'd drawn some unwanted attention with my errors, but I took it at face-value and felt my first post-show-glow. I'd made it! I was praiseworthy!


One of the strange things about performance--even on a small-scale--is that people tend to judge your actual character while they're watching you. If I'm a bad painter, it stops at that--I don't have the gift. Bad actors, though, are often considered faulty people somehow, people with little access to truth and humanity.

Think of your response to a terrible high school basketball player versus your response to a terrible high school actor. In the first, there's a head-shake and a smile probably. He's gangly; he can't help it.

In the second, I'll bet you feel some kind of shame (and some kind of anger that this gangly kid has made you feel that way). You may criticize him afterwards. While you'd never say, "What makes that guy think he can hit a free throw?" you might very well say, "What makes him think he can act?"

Sensing that pressure, I'd always been frightened of going onstage. But since I liked my second act moment so much I knew I had to confront the fear. After Joseph I became a double-major in college: Theatre because I'd knocked myself out that one time; English because I'd been head-over-heels for Sally. Both cosmic pratfalls, really.

When I began sophomore year at Holy Cross, though, I was still caught up in community theatre instead of my new acting classes. I'd been cast as a cowboy in a production of Bus Stop, a play about travelers converging during a snowy Kansas night. At the time, the role seemed big enough to warrant a commute from college back home--a 90-minute drive.

(I rehearsed in this get-up in various church basements and sometimes had to lower my voice during the nightly rosary)

My small-potatoes stage "success" also gave me misplaced confidence; I started dating a friend of mine, Margaret, assuming that with enough rehearsal our relationship would be a hit. Though we had some good scenes, that assumption was hasty. Regardless of our future second act problems, though, Margaret and I were off to a solid start that Fall of 2001.

Trouble was, my cowboy character in Bus Stop, Beau Dekker (no relation to British poet Thomas Dekker), had to plant a huge kiss on a chanteuse named Cherry. In the film version of the play from the 50s, Cherry was played by Marilyn Monroe. I couldn't get over the fact that I'd be smooching a proxy-Monroe! I worried that this was cheating, though, finally figuring it wasn't as long as I didn't enjoy the lip-wranglin'.

My co-star Josie, a pretty young mother, said I was doing alright with the kiss but that maybe I could use a little more practicing. She was aware of my new quarter-girlfriend and said this with a wink, but I was shaken. So, I tried to use the logic on Margaret.

"I don't want Josie to be the person I've kissed last," I said to her. "Plus, I need to rehearse." (I puckered). This wasn't a smooth way to upgrade from hand-holding and I didn't get the run-through I was looking for.

But I needed to do something.

So, on my highway journeys home to Josie "Marilyn Monroe" Collins--in the empty-sky days following September 11th--I'd try out different lip configurations, desperate for a little practice any way I could get it.

By the time the show went on, I was run-down by national trauma and by the juggling of two women; for a time, I thought I actually was a cowboy. I remember pacing around backstage talking to myself about chuck wagons and cattle drives. I was going a little bit crazy. But I was glad to be able to act out, to have the chance to kiss the woman I liked (sorta), and at a peaceful middle-American bus stop.

It was good, old-fashioned escapism. Plus, I got to fall again when a drunken sheriff flattened me with a right hook to the pretend jaw. I went with the Face-Plant.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Theatah Stories

From the time I was in fifth grade and played The Narrator in a production of James and the Giant Peach (a role originated by Brando), I wanted to be in plays. My acting career, though, had a few notable false starts.

In middle school, I croaked through an audition for L'il Abner and was one out of, well, one students who wasn't at least made an alternate. (Perhaps my membership in AV club made Mrs. Schneider feel less guilty for cutting me--at least I'd be working the lights).

After a few years of singing lessons and the re-summoning of my crushed, post-Abner courage, I had a two-line solo at a spring concert in high school. My pseudo-debut.

"Maria," I shouted, beginning the song of the same name during my choir's medley of West Side Story songs. Nevermind that I was no Gangland Romeo: I gave it my all. "The most beautiful sound I've ev-ah hea-hd. Ma- Reeeeee- A."

My character was a street-tough from ethnic New York, longing to bed this new bodacious woman he'd met; I, however, sounded like a British castrati singing to his nursemaid.

(Fine, so maybe he sounded like that, too.)

About the same time as my mellifluous "Maria," I tried out for a play mainly in order to hang out with a girl I liked, Dana (I just met a girl named. . .). Even though she was the star-actress in school, she decided not to try-out and, of course, this was the one play I got into.

It seemed I'd be spending another winter cruelly un-girled.

When I think about high school, I'm amazed by how many of my decisions came about in this feminine-induced fashion. Because of them, I tried out for plays, played certain sports, bathed more thoroughly.

In fact, sometimes I think I study English because of the particular cuteness of one girl, Sally.

Warning: I am about to examine my life-path and trace who-I-am-now back to a series of arbitrary decisions I made when I was 16. This will have the worn-out tone of "What if that hadn't happened exactly the way it happened? Where would I be now?"

This sort of logic can almost always be refuted and, unless people have deep knowledge of String Theory, belongs only in vague conversations with the recently redeemed or with fate-obsessed adherents of E-harmony. But I can't help myself. I like the tracing; I like the hunt for my origins--probably because of something that happened to me when I was 8.

So, I was standing outside my Sophomore year English class, which I didn't love, and I saw Sally drinking from the water fountain. Her bookbag was huge for her, which was cute; her last name was styled onto it in huge block letters, which was cute. She was super-cute, which was cute.

Thus began a two-year, mostly-unspoken crush. I knew very little about Sally, but I could glean, mostly from hearsay during choir, that she liked to write and got great grades. Going into senior year, then, I was ready to make my push for her. Would I ask her on a date or get her a card or even say hello? No. I would sign up for as many English classes as possible. I begged into the honors class I thought she'd be in and added a Shakespeare seminar for good measure.

In Much Ado About Nothing, Hero declares,

O God of love! I know he doth deserve
As much as may be yielded to a man

Yes, I thought. Indeed I didth! And yet Sally was in neither of my classes. It turned out she belonged to a secret cabal of English scholars to which I couldn't pretend. They would be studying in England in March; I, un-girled, would be reading dozens of books to scrape by in the double course-load.

That first day of school was bleak, but there have been collateral benefits.

Since then, I've looked back on that moment at the water fountain and those romantic enrollments as the reason I've gone on to study English. Taking the two classes convinced me I was a word-guy, that I liked arguing, interpreting, complicating, bloviating, and being in college for 10 years to learn how to do those things.

And I do like them. So I can only thank my lucky stars that Sally wasn't an Astronomy person. I've never really enjoyed Space, but I might have gone there (twice) for cute bangs.

After the initial disappointment of senior year and Sally, I moved on to Dana. In high school, I was serially-serious about girls and never really without a love-interest. That same attraction to melodrama also led me to try out for the school-play, notably called Compulsion.

I was to portray the stodgy older brother of Big-Man-on-Campus, Trey Stewart, in the Depression-era show. I practiced for months for my big line.

During a party scene, I was supposed to say, derisively, "Russian Jews."

During that time, I could be seen around school mumbling, trying out different inflections.

Russian Jews? Russian Jews! Russian Jews?!?!

Three days before the play, though, Trey, 16, decided to go for a few beers at the local bowling alley. He was suspended and, without its star, the show did not go on.

I had to wait another year and a half before I had lines again, this time in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I'd gone to the theater that summer hoping for an ushering job, but the director had me audition by singing "Happy Birthday."

For the part of Napthali, one of the twelve brothers, it was down to me and a woman named Melody Stankiewicz. Despite my gender advantage and the fact that Melody's extreme vibrato made her head shake like a can of paint in a mixer, she scored the role.

When a better part opened up for her, though, I was their man. Happy Birthday to me!

Opening night arrived. During the first song, I was supposed to jump out from behind a Pyramid and introduce myself: "Napthali!"

I could be seen around the theatre mumbling.

Napthali. NAPTHALI!

Just as I heard my cue, though, I tripped on a styrofoam camel and swallowed my one and only line. I'd done plays to feel like a more exciting person, to be noticed a little bit, but, when my time in the lights finally came, I couldn't even say my own name.

As far as theatre success went, it felt--woe was me--like I just couldn't get over the initial hump.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Plants and Plickas

Dr. True's Soup and Read's Accu-weather Meteorologist Joe Plicka and his wife Emily gave Megan and me a tremendous wedding present: our first Christmas tree--a 5'6" Douglas Fir. We picked it out (along with many other Yuletide trimmings courtesy of the P's) and put it up tonight.

And under your tree tomorrow? The triumphant return, after a three day hiatus, of my circumlocutions and silliness, covered in tinsel, and with a dash of the serio- thrown in, as always. Shake it to see what's inside. Rip a corner of the paper slowly to prolong the excitement.

Monday, November 30, 2009

My Black Planet

Pre-Script: I am white.

About a year ago, I subscribed to BlackPlanet, a social network website for African-Americans. I was doing a (perhaps patronizing) project on the site's discourse community (unnecessary academic term alert--see David Foster Wallace's defense of it here).

Now that you've read the Foster Wallace essay, it's four hours later than it was when you started mine, so let's update you.

I subscribed, la-de-da, project, low-de-doh.

So, as I was saying, I'd set out to study what kind of chat goes on at this Facebook-esque site that's the fourth most traveled of its kind. I was ready to pose, to chat with whomever about whatever.

Embarking on what could be considered an act of anthropological aggression (if not cyber-blackface), I had all of my typical guilt. Was I invading? Was I making exotic a simple social interaction? Had the internet allowed me to do this without me having to own up to the implications?

As with most things in my life, I worried about the BlackPlanet experiment about 6% too much. After I signed on--with the screenname Shameless82 (a description of me coupled with my birthyear)--I had a few casual chats about chili, my engagement, and certain R-rated activities apparently enjoyed by black and white alike.

I did not instigate these conversations, but I won't claim that I'm above them.

It was a learning experience to be enmeshed in a cyber- and cultural vernacular and, more importantly, to be self-conscious--even in a relatively anonymous forum--of my own race. But the project got done and I moved beyond it to the next compulsory social-experiment.

Or so I thought. As it happens, though, BlackPlanet is still a part of my life. As with other networking sites, it's nearly impossible to disengage from it, and so, after a few attempts, I gave up.

Forevermore, I will receive four alerts a day to both of my email addresses about the African-American Zeitgeist and the African-American dating scene. In the last week alone, I've seen alerts titled "Nine Reasons Why Beyonce Shouldn't Have Kids," "Did Chris Brown Call Jay-Z a 'Cornball' on Twitter," and the ever-flattering "You've Received a Friend Invite."

I currently have 72 emails from the site.

Getting them, glancing at them, deleting them has become a comforting ritual. And it's amazing to see how much interest I can attract; an inactive member of the community with a fake name, no profile, and no picture to speak of, I've received hundreds of friend-invitations.

It could be that lonely people, seeing nothing in someone, like what they see.

Oh, pardon, I've just received word: someone on BlackPlanet looked at me. I can't wait to see who.

I have to say, the BlackPlaneters are all so much nicer than those uppity folks on SeniorPeopleMeet. I got kicked out of that place in seconds. And those oldsters never invite me to be friends either, even when I invite them.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


I arose at 5:43am in Greenfield, Mass and arrived--on the drive--in Athens, Ohio at 8:23pm.

This morning, my parents had somehow gotten up before Megan and me and had toasted bagels ready to help send us off, with topping options (a spread of spreads?). They made tea and coffee. There was a yogurt selection. And a to-go snack bag (all of it healthy).

They set the table, got us ready, and came outside for a group hug--gold blue light drip-dyeing into the wee-hour sky.

When we got back here to Ohio, Megan and I bolted a box of Chinese, read our conflicting fortunes, and wondered what it was about our apartment that smelled different.

In one place, there's a wreath on the window. In the next, there's a take-out menu hanging from the doorknob.

Today, a day of day-apart spaces, not at all the same, both home.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


I took a shortcut back from the movie theater today and remembered that the road--half an hour from my parents' house--was the first I'd ever driven on.

The lesson happened in the Spring, with my dad. Off to the right, the Connecticut River, swollen with what used to be winter.

We pulled over, switched seats. My sister, fearful in back, protested mildly.

I drove like a movie character, rocking the wheel back and forth, trying to stay precisely in the middle of my lane. It's a very curvy road, one I've since taken in order to feel like a race-car driver: I cut the corners of the yellow line, accelerate over bumps and down hills (in my family, we call the feeling you get from such a maneuver a "tickle in the toodle," but I've also heard it referred to as a "Thank you ma'am").

Back then, though, I was tentative. I shifted in my seat and swerved slowly.

"Pick a way and just drive," my dad said.

On some level, I didn't want to be able to do that, to master this thing I'd always looked at with a sense of anticipation, this ability that separated the men from the boys. I think I wanted the pedals to be complex or something.

In order to feel like I was piloting the car, I fiddled, to my dad's dismay, with the dashboard (hazard lights) and then the radio (Phil Collins).

I wanted to earn the freedom that came with driving a car by having the learning process be very difficult. Not just P to R to N to D and go. I ten-and-twoed the wheel and held my breath.

I think I've always been a person who's looked for a sea change, something big to surprise me out of how I understand the world. And I expect too much from milestones. I want to believe that the benchmarks we set up--like learning to drive--actually represent a movement from one period to another, emotionally.

When I took over the car that day, I wanted the adventure to make me feel different. Not that I felt all that bad; I just figured there was some powerful experience out there I'd been getting ready for, revving up to.

I eventually straightened out, drove quickly amidst the scattered shadow of newly-grown leaves, past cows chewing wet cud, through Chevys up on blocks--on both sides of the road--being rebuilt from the inside out.

"There ya go," my dad said. I pulled over, put it into neutral. It felt good, but, truth be told, I'd expected there to be more to the shifting than there was.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Pie Fest

Today is the 16th annual Pie Fest, a Wanczyk/Miller family tradition that began the year my grandpa died as a way to honor him with our gorging. At first, we celebrated the fest on his birthday, December 26th, but the eating-event migrated to the day after Thanksgiving, where it's remained for the last decade.

We usually have about 20 pies, and I like to name mine carefully. When I moved from New England to the Rust Belt, I came back with "O-pie-o." Another year, I had "Pa-pie-ya," with the corresponding main ingredient. This year, Megan and I have collaborated on "Pie Do" in commemoration of our slice of marital bliss.

We have tarts, crumbles, crisps, puddings, and pot-pies. The ratio of sweet to savory is carefully maintained: 5 to 1.

Each year, my cousin Katelyn and I are Grand Marshalls of the pastries table and look over the offerings with our keen pie-eyes. Here is the progression of those moments.

(Troubling Hair; delicious pie)

(Covered the hair; troubling beard [perhaps Amish])


(Pies on the table, pies on the wall)

(More of the delicious same)

(Almost normal-looking)

(Not at all normal-looking; post eye-exam, pre pie-exam)

(Note the left picture on the wall. We love ourselves)

The fact that you read this piessay means you are perpetually-invited to Pie Fest. Now I'm off to make my official offering.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Grace and Turnip

As "The New Guy," I was asked to say Grace at Sheehan Thanksgiving dinner today. I delivered some boilerplate and then said we were all grateful to be here with family. (I almost said "friends," too, but remembered that little piece of gold on my finger; I guess I'm in.)

I stammered a bit and thought of the all-time best grace-giver, my friend Dave Grover, who can carry on without seeming either self-righteous or irreverent. This is notable because Grace is a strange moment--it's like a little speech, but on behalf of everyone. It can't be too specific or it seems like the gathered are being left out of a private conversation with God; but if it's too general, the Grace-giver is teased for repeating old standbys, for lacking feeling.

And then there's the question of archaisms. Dost thou use such language over turkey? Dost thou over manwich?

When I was in middle school our daily blessing was, "God bless this food to our use and our lives to thy loving service." I pulled that one out today to get the ball rolling, but what of the 'thy?' I suppose it's appropriate to add a little Puritan flavor to this particular feast. But I'd started with 'umm' and then moved on to my usual extemporaneousness: no thees there. How best to mix the heavy and the heartfelt?

Again, there's the need for gravitas, but how much? At a dinner with strict and not-so-strict Catholics, I didn't want to go over- or underboard.

Once, at a Thanksgiving during a time I was struggling, I'd dropped a scripture bomb: "I hope we can rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep." I've always liked that one, and it seems to be good for remembering (without being a total downer) those who aren't lucky enough to have four kinds of savory tubers on this special day; but I felt like I'd gone too far, like I'd been grandiloquent in front of the embarrassed turnip.

Today, I wanted to strike a similar note, though. Because we've got a sick family member over in these parts and only two moments of collective prayer left to go for this calendar year.

Some things must be remembered to the Big Thy Upstairs.

But I'm not really the one to comment on family business: I'm merely the interloper, the in-law. So I asked for blessings where they're especially needed and even where they're not. (Yeah, that wasn't so bad). My heart beat quickly all the way through my second helping (and then started beating quickly because of it!) But I'd given a B+ performance. And the benediction was delivered, hopefully to some good use.

I like to think we don't care over in these parts if the Grace comes stumbling and improvised, as long as it comes soon.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Eve

I took part in the wonderful American tradition of the multi-state, headed-home-for-Thanksgiving road trip today.

I heard the president pardon the turkey while listening to radio news over-intently--with millions of others--for the East Coast traffic reports.

View Larger Map

I shotgunned a fast-food egg while discussing the suspicious origin of the moniker "English Muffin," as many have before.

I suffered from heartburn (see fast-food egg), an acute case of ultra-stuffed pockets, heel-itis, GPS hate, eye-death, brain-stall, restless leg, and restless spouse (see traffic).

Out there on the roads today we all felt (all 33 million of us) some strange civic unity (positive), and we all--over-tired and bumper-to-bumper--wondered if the true point of Thanksgiving is to consider the derivative nature of human experience (negative), an experience which--bleared by rained-on headlights--seems easy to be ungrateful for.

Headed in the same direction, at 1 mph, with everyone else and his uncle (on the way to his other uncle's house) makes us feel, maybe, like we're out of control of our own lives. In fact, the 19th century writer Charles Lamb--in his essay "New Year's Eve"--went further (even though he lived pre-traffic jam):

"Whatsoever thwarts, or puts me out of my way, brings death into my mind. All partial evils, like humours, run into that capital plague-sore."

I've always thought that was a wonderful description for why some of us get so upset about trifles--we shortcut from slight annoyance straight toward that eternal no-right-on-red.

But, lo, the traffic jam ends. And whatsoever doesn't thwart me--homecomings, well-timed cups of tea, the cessation of spousestration--puts me in mind of what I have to be thankful about: marriage, family, and the La Quinta Inn of Harrisburg P-A (our half-way stop).

But let's see if I feel this good on Sunday, at hour fourteen, at a red light, Ohio-bound and bleary.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Last night, our friend's daughter, Ruby, invited Megan and me to her fifth birthday party, which will be in March. She told us that there'll be millions of kids there and then looked around the room, saw her mom and dad and me and Megan, and counted to four.

"A million kids and four parents," she said.

This was an advance for Ruby. A few months ago, she said to Megan about the kids' movie Bolt, "You shouldn't watch it until you're a mommy. It's pretty scary." I'm not allowed to see it either, it turns out. This led Megan to think that Ruby considered us contemporaries of hers, and that, since we didn't have kids, we, too, must be four years old.

Suddenly, we've aged at least two decades in her eyes and her declaration was a big moment for me personally. I've been called a "man" before by little kids, but this was the first time I've been considered daddy-material.

When I got married in August and declared in church that I was willing to be such a dad, it should have hit home, but it didn't really. That seemed official, spiritual, theoretical. Plus, I still feel in many ways like a kid, and dads are not, in my experience, kids. In fact, I'm not sure my own father ever was one. I imagine he came out of the womb looking something like this:

(Doctors were amazed by the pre-natal spectacles he'd developed)

Still, I'm trying to grow into the idea of myself as a pop by slowly learning what kinds of foods are dangerous for little ones, how many times a day they defecate, whether they can be safely held upside-down during leap year, and so on.

And I've been trying to imagine what I'll feel if I find out I'm about to have a kiddo. I think I'll bust out with a rendition of "Down on the Corner" by Creedence. It's a pretty happy tune. And I'd like my child to learn rhythm early in life. Maybe then I'd set up a game of cribbage and loudly go over the rules; I want my kid to be good at board games, after all, and this could be a solid start.

As long as he/she's healthy (and awesome at puns).

After the high-fives and hugs, though, after Megan's gone to sleep, I'll put myself on trial for the next 8 hours, 8 months. I have a lot of verve to pass on, but a lot of neuroses, too. Can I temper that stuff so that Wanczyk Jr. doesn't (for instance) chomp on his fingernails like they're ears of corn?

Basically, I'd like to carefully hone what this little person will inherit from me. And though that's probably out of my control, I'm glad I have a little time. For now, I can be me without having, toddling around, a be-diapered mirror in which I see myself.

I would really like to see Bolt someday pretty soon, though. I think I'm going to love it. But I'll bet it's even scarier than Ruby says.


Monday, November 23, 2009


Here's a premise for an old-timey showtune: emotions are primary colors.

There are some basic emotions--like red, yellow, and blue--that mix to form the rest.

Love and hate are on the palette, and melancholy too. Love mixes with hate to form envy; melancholy with hate to form shame; and different amounts of love-paint and melancholy-tint come together to create just about every other sensation on the spectrum.

The song might go something like this:

You've got me feeling all yella-green
and ev'ry color that makes me live.
You're all kinds-a shades I've never seen.
And in my heart. . .you're. . .Roy. . .G. . .Biv.

(Verse two rhymes "Schenectady" with "Tweedle-dee-dee," naturally).

This is all to say that I sometimes feel an emotion, when watching a great performance, that I'd like to dub "Gene Kelly Green." It's somewhere far-east of envy, but it's not quite unadulterated love.

See, Gene Kelly is my all-time favorite performer. Whenever I see him tap-dance, croon, and pick-up ladies in 1950s Paris, I feel uplifted. But I wish, for a small second, that I could be just as much of a show-stopper.

(Pardon the lyrics of this song, which may be--somehow--worse than those recorded above!)

I don't feel jealous--I'm always smiling--but I do feel nostalgic, almost, admiring what and how much people can be.

I felt Gene Kelly Green last weekend watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Saturday Night Live. To my great consternation, I can't show you what incited that feeling because the online video has been confiscated; but suffice it to say it's the only thing that has ever made me give my television set a standing ovation.

Here's hoping I can scrawl something down someday that gets me out of my own chair. Right now, I'm stuck, as usual, spinning my roller-skate wheels, trying to come up with a jazzier ending.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Bite-sized Memoriam

Today, Megan and I had an impromptu lunch with our downstairs neighbor, a 91-year-old widow whom we call Mrs. DeLott. (As for her first name, we don't know it. We've heard her called Coletta, Helen, and, just now, Lovey.)

Today, Megan and I had an impromptu lunch with Lovey DeLott and her friend Ruth. We'd brought Lovey/Coletta (noir-ish, either way) some cookies to say 'Happy Thanksgiving,' and she insisted us in, offering sweet-old-lady sandwiches made on bite-sized rolls (you know the ones).

We talked about potato salad, Connecticut, her husband--"that sweet man"--and a new brand of food-container we all love (Snapperware). The conversation was delightful. It was friendly and predicated on roast beef--my second favorite kind of conversation, really, only bested by ones riddled with wordplay and electrified by Trivial Pursuit.

And there was something nice, today, about speaking louder than I normally would. Oftentimes that can be hard with the elderly, but this afternoon I liked being resonant!

Lovey (that's Mrs. Lovey, to me) had laid out too much food for her and Ruth, and so when Megan and I came in, she immediately wanted us to help them with it. I obliged, as I always do when presented with such a lucky task. My own grandmother thought I was the family Hoover and consistently tested the limits of my stomach's capacity with kielbasa and homemade pickles. I loved when she gave me the excuse to make gluttony a virtue.

"Eat all of that for me, David," Mrs. Lovey said, pointing to four coldcuts (rolled in the sweet-old-lady way) and a slice of sharp cheddar. My grandma used to say the same sort of thing to me. Making me eat was her way of knowing she'd cared for me. She could see that care, kindly prepared, disappear off the plate and into my maw.

I knew it meant something to her to see me clean my plate, twice. And I felt the same way today with another 91-year old widow who wanted to care for me--"Eat, eat"--and wasn't quite sure how else to do it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Fight

Amanda Spituvnik leered at me as this kid named Josh held me against some bricks by the foursquare court. (I've found that I don't always get along with Joshes, Jeffs, and Jareds.)

“Why did you kick me?” Josh demanded. See, he'd tackled me right after class got out and I'd nudged him with my foot to get him off of me. My fighting back had brought on what I've since dubbed The Foursquare Fight.

Sometimes kids went down to the CVS parking lot to figure this sort of thing out. But I was on the Geography Team and my mom picked me up from school, so I didn't think much about settling scores.

Then this. Amanda Spituvnik leered at me. She must have been 5'8” in the fifth grade. I hated her.

“Why did you kick me?” Josh demanded again.

“I didn't.”

I didn't,” Amanda parroted in a high voice that was, I suppose, making fun of the fact that my balls hadn't yet dropped. She was Vice-Principal Mrs. Spituvnik's daughter and had convinced everyone she was a good-kid.

Even though she must have looked like a good, little girl at the time, in my mind she's still one-part Courteney Cox, one-part Leona Helmsley, one-part fully-adult insolence.

And so it's important that I repeat her full name. Bullying will out! Recompense shall be mine, Amanda Spituvnik. Note: some names have been changed.

“Do you wanna fight?” (Josh may have been “dating” A. Spituvnik, and they made a formidable team. He had orange-peel hair and wore Ricky Rudd t-shirts.)


No,” she repeated Spituvnikly and spitefully. She is a terrible, terrible person. She is wearing red. Was, I suppose.

I'm realizing now that some things about my personality and my actions--the “I supposes,” the Geography, the complete innocence surrounding body parts (jokes thereof and pertaining to), the fact that during recess football I always picked Matt Kelvis instead of Chad Funderwald (a hard-nosed, 3'11” Josh-sympathizer), my blushing crush on fellow goody-two-shoes and floutist Laura Westbrook (a rival of The Spituvnik's for prime brunette)--probably brought this hassling on.

And so now it had come to pass. Josh jerked me away from the brick and wrestled me around. His Starter jacket added bulk but not agility.

Meanwhile, my backpack, with ruler and colored pencils, gave me some key armor. I held my own!

First, some pre-bout background:

Earlier in the day--during a lesson led by the awkwardly beautiful Miss Auchy, our student teacher and the only person I've ever known who went to Franklin Pierce College (“We Polked you in 1844, we shall Pierce you in 1852”)--Josh had shouted to the class, “What David, you want to kiss Miss Auchy?”

I may have hinted that, yes, but Josh's tactlessness was way out of line. I shot him a fighting glance. That led, I think, to his post-class tackle of me, to my kick, to the bricks, to The Spituvnik.

Josh and I fought 2 rounds, 7 seconds each.

He grabbed my bagstraps and jacket.

My attempt to seize his slippery-puff coat eventually succeeded.

He'd gained a distinct advantage.

We drove each others' shoulders like steering wheels, at ten and two.

The Spituvnik's disembodied head circled mine.

It mocked me and my Laura-like. "Who do you love more? Laura or Miss Auchy," taunted the head.

Josh kicked my left calf and my red sweatpants offered no protection.

Round two.

We re-engaged and he swung.

I lost my balance trying to deliver a defensive response, but held fast to his jacket--Charlotte Hornets.

He jerked me back up.

I thought about what I'd learned from football and went for his legs, unsuccessfully.

He struck me in the ribs.

“Trip him,” Spituvnik directed with a sadistic calm.

He released, and leg-whipped, and the leg-whip landed. End of round two.

With my arms ferris-wheeling, I fell, as if from an inner-tube, into some dirty snow. I walked away wounded toward Union St., which I'd always misread as Onion, toward my mom's salt-caked minivan, which had newly arrived.

Just. . . walk. . . away,” Amanda said, quoting the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) mantra we'd learned that day from a kind policeman. She, I'd decided, was mean.

This was my only fight. I'd had strong competition--a toughie and his goading girlfriend. I didn't do very well.

There was a bright spot, though. I may have inadvertently broken Josh's nose with my backwards-flailing-combination: he missed school the next two days. But it's possible he was just suspended. Had a teacher seen the fracas? Had The Spituvnik ratted on her fighter to save her own skin? Was Josh merely a victim of her deceitful plea-bargaining with her mother, the vice-principal?

Probably. Either way, I didn't tattle, which means more on the schoolyard than it should. Josh and I had a tense friendship after that.

I think we considered the donnybrook a draw. My final record: 0-0-1. No KO's.


When I was 12, a sixth grade Jeff, with orange-peel hair and a Guns 'n Roses t-shirt, lifted my heavy backpack over my head until I had to run forward. Then, dropping it, he whip-lashed me out of wanting dinner that day. No one ever stripped me of my undefeated status, though.

And the floutist, L. Westbrook, ended up liking me for a short time--or so a phone call she placed from a slumber party would have me believe.

So, even though that pre-adolescent romance also ended in a draw, eat it Spituvnik.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Today at noon, I finished teaching my sixteenth class. It's been five years and some change since I walked into my first, and I still remember the pounding nervousness of standing in the hall beforehand rehearsing my opening joke. At 22, armed with a hastily-constructed syllabus, I figured I had little else to offer my freshman students.

(First day of school, 2oo4. I don't seem to have grown into my feet at this point.)

I paced, crossed myself, spurted out a Hail Mary, and went in. The two dozen hooligans that made up my first group looked so old to me, reinforcing my feeling that I was not grown-up enough to be their instructor. They all had the attitude of Catholic School girls who'd just been smoking in the stairwell--even the guys. It was only their first college class, but they already slouched, cynically. It's hard to say who was more uncomfortable, them or me.

The room smelled like radiator heat and spearmint. I forged ahead.

Even now, walking into a classroom for the first time feels like a strange sort of blind date--with 20 people. I try to be charming. They look at me suspiciously. I ask them about themselves. And they, having expected someone different--an animated older woman with skunk-spot hair and a deep knowledge of Shelley, for instance--know that they just have to get through it.

Teachers, like actors, share an adage about that opening-night/opening-class feeling. If you ever lose the butterflies, they say, you know you're in the wrong profession. Based on that conventional wisdom (and the turmoil of my stomach), it seemed as though, on that first day in September 2004, I'd found my true calling.

I pulled out the roster with all their names so I could take attendance. The time had come for the joke that would win them all over. As I took roll, I said, after a dramatic pause, "Okay, let's get rolling."

The laughs were, as you can imagine, not forthcoming. And now the scripted part of my show was totally exhausted!

I blundered forward, in blue blazer, embarrassed. As I trembled through the calling of their names, I felt my credibility dissipate further.

There was some noticeable tittering.

I had them interview themselves in order to buy a little bit of prep-time (nothing like group work to take the pressure off teacher). I wrote "WANCZYK" on the board, breaking the chalk, and sat down.

In huge letters, I scrawled, "THAT WAS CRAZY" in my notebook. I figured if I looked like a loose cannon it might distract them from my general unreadiness, so I muttered to myself. I was like a pitcher who's purposefully wild when warming up just to scare the opposing hitters.

As I took the teaching-mound again, though, I had trouble throwing strikes.

The class was called Writing and Rhetoric 1--in other words, the subject was How to Think. I certainly hadn't mastered that myself, so mostly we talked about books and about their weekends. I determined that my teaching style was something I called "Energy Theory." As long as I was excited, they'd be excited.

Sometimes this worked. Often not.

One day, I asked a question about an essay they'd had to read and, taking my cue from a veteran teacher, waited as long as I could for a response.

"How do you think the structure of this piece works? What's the writer trying to accomplish?"

We sat silent for six minutes. They held their ground. I looked at each one of them imploringly. They folded their arms. There was some noticeable tittering. I grew a zit.

"Ok, then. Let's take a break."

A pop quiz helped me save some face, but they'd earned an early dismissal with their courage.

The next class, I tried to throw a kid out of class for goofing before we'd even gotten started. Marty Gertz. "Get out, Marty," I said. "Get out now." (I'd planned this bad-copping in advance to get some respect back). He apologized and I let him stay. I always do. "Okay, let's get rolling, then," I said.

Later in the term, some of the guys took to calling me "coach," which was mostly insulting but better than nothing. We worked hard on their compulsory papers about social issues. I tried to get them to punctuate correctly; many of them did. There were fewer silences, some laughs, and I didn't have to threaten anyone again. In that class, I claimed very small victories.

I still do. Teaching is a strange job because its benefits are long-term and mostly intangible. I can't know if my students actually think more acutely after they're through with my class. If they remember any of the scenes from the books we've pored over. If they've changed at all.

There's no widget at the end of the assembly line, no healed wound, no million bucks in the bank.

Sometimes I don't even know what my end product is supposed to be.

Early in my career, I had a similar crisis. I was droning on and on before I finally said to my students, “If any of what I'm saying is making you like writing or reading less, then I'm sorry. That's the exact opposite of what I want.”

And I do want them to like these things. But can sharing that enjoyment be a life's calling? Sometimes I'm not sure. I do know I was thrown off-course for the better by English teachers and that I would like to do that for my students.

Now that I teach personal writing, though, that task seems even harder. I say, "Be Honest, idiosyncratic, over-analytical, self-reflective." Sometimes I worry I'm trying to teach them to be me. And while I wouldn't mind if the college offered a minor in Wanczyk, I don't think I'm necessarily the role model who will nudge them toward a productively off-kilter life.

Then again, if one guy starts thinking he likes school because I do PR for knowledge, because I'm an oddball, maybe he starts believing he wants to learn more, be odd, maybe he writes the world's best sentence (something like Keats's "Hedge-crickets sing"), complete with spondees and perfectly-placed hyphens and concise, ecstatic revelation: maybe he feels fulfilled, gets the girl, makes the world--at least his--more tolerable.

If he keeps writing long enough, I remind him, he'll surprise himself. That would be good. It's worth a try, at least.

As a coach, that's the answer I'm looking for. So I keep asking the question, I guess, even though I might have to wait six minutes--or six years--for some variety of hedge-cricket.