Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Among the obvious falsehoods I've taken to be truth--this: when I was in fifth grade or so, around the time I started getting homework assignments that might take more than an hour, and around the time I started working past my bedtime to finish those assignments, I believed that any human problem could be solved by staying up all night.

I distinctly remember pondering this and deciding that the scientists at NASA must, with concentration and caffeine, design all of their rockets at around 3am, a magical time of creativity I'd never consciously known. Failing that, I decided that even if they didn't design their rockets in schematic-strewn somnambulant sessions, they certainly could.

Staying up into the wee hours and beyond was the ultimate dedication, and I think my faith in the all-nighter was akin to my faith in America's inherent problem-solving abilities. There were people staying up all night--I would soon be one--and there were people making world-altering (and correct) decisions--I would be one of those too--who succeeded through acts of will and sleep deprivation. That was all.

Maybe I picked this up from my brother, who, at 17, was embarking on his all-nighter era. A prolific procrastinator, he'd been known to write 25-page term papers during just a few late-night hours, accompanied by Letterman and, later in the evening, by a mustard sandwich. As I fell asleep and he set off to work, my confidence that we would both be awake-and-okay at 7am was unshakable. He'd polish off an A-paper; I'd get my rest; Cheerios for everyone!

Thus, if I stayed up all night, I told myself, I could surely finish the 63 pages of reading I'd put off on the first female doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell. (Before I zonked out at 10pm, 40 pages short, I might have learned that she had a glass eye, and I mightn't've, I can't quite remember).

Glass eye or no, my Blackwell failure only served to reinforce my idea about all-nighters. Sure, I hadn't tried hard enough, but if I ever did try hard, and if I ever worked through the witching hour and all the way to the finish line, dawn, I'd succeed.

This sort of idea is still a tempting fallacy. Someday, when I've expended all of my effort, done my very-stretched-best, then, yes, on that fair day my pumpkins will turn to carriages (I still tell myself that it wouldn't be that hard to write a novel in a month, or even over night, if someone was threatening me with death or aggressive tickling).

Incidentally, I also remember half-days from school (Wednesdays) seeming like periods of time during which the greatest things could be accomplished. One Wednesday, my friend Cheese and I vowed to complete the most difficult task we could think of. We would beat the video game Destiny of an Emperor (was there such a thing as Beating a Game before Nintendo? Did one beat Badminton, or Solitaire? Did the idea of Beating a Game change my generation's conception of fun? I, certainly, seem more drawn to the accomplishment of leisure than the diversion of it).

Though we reached the final battle, it was not our destiny to Beat the Game. I remember feeling disillusioned about half-days after that; they weren't afternoons of invincibility after all, even if I drank four cokes.

I had four cokes the first time I stayed up all night too, at the Sophomore Lock-in, a slumber party of sorts at my high school's gym. I didn't reverse any universal catastrophes that night, but I did watch Beverley Hills Cop and I did hit five straight 3-pointers as morning came on--a first and last for me.

It was quite something, and though the all-night experience lost some of its imagined luster, it did still seem exceptional, a feeling enhanced by out-of-body fatigue and the sense that those four hours between 1:30 and 5:30 were stolen, were never meant to have been a part of my life at all, sneaked.

2. When Mark McGuire hit his 62nd homerun, I switched channels all night to watch high-lights of the low line-drive over the left field wall.

McGwire's 62nd HR from David Levine on Vimeo.

Stupid Cardinals.

3. When the 2000 election got called and recalled and I kept declaring to my college hallmates, "I'm not going to sleep until there's a president." (As an aside, I don't remember much college-fervor for either candidate on campus, and that seems strange to me, as though that year is way, way in the past, back when it might have still been possible to avoid the forceful inanity which now demands a response).

4. Various scattered daybreaks which evade my memory and me, suns-under-the-clouds; but which I also know--from their small, residual warmths--to have existed.

5. Two all-night drives, one with Rob and Riley, one with Kaufmann. Saw the morning in the rearview.

6. And then there was a night rehearsing a play with Megan, after which rehearsal I tried to design the most glorious rocketship by asking her out, thought I'd failed, and learned that, though I couldn't do anything overnight, I could get big projects going full steam.

Meanwhile, I seem now to over-realize the limits of a day. At age 11, I felt infinity + 1 was a reasonable concept to be reasonably attained. I would do everything in life, and maybe I would do all of it in one, charmed, moonlit stretch. Wednesdays were Neverendsdays. 2am was a clock-stopped playground of achievement and productive mischief.

But as small tasks (like taking care of myself) expand to fill most of my time, and squandering fills the rest, I have to remind foot-dragging me to just start, just build the propulsion system. Figure out the insulation. Brainstorm the anti-gravity boots, though they'll eventually fail--those stupid boots, stupid sketches, stupid words I use to describe those stupid boots!--even if that failure takes more than an overnight.

I try to coax myself to keep imagining--even as they fade out--and keep designing--even as they sputter--my contrails.

English Interlude

Yesterday's reading-draw brought me to some more D.H. Lawrence, specifically his essay "Why the Novel Matters." The gist is this:

"To be alive, to be man alive, to be whole man alive: that is the point. And at its best, the novel, and the novel supremely, can help you. It can help you not to be a dead man in life."

Lawrence believed, maybe grandiosely, that novels give us a chance to "develop an instinct for life."

But in all this he stressed the fluctuations of the self and of the best characters:

"We should ask for no absolutes, or absolute. Once and for all and for ever, let us have done with the ugly imperialism of any absolute. There is no absolute good, there is nothing absolutely right. All things flow and change, and even change is not absolute. The whole is a strange assembly of apparently incongruous parts, slipping past one another.

Me, man alive, I am a very curious assembly of incongruous parts. My yea! of today is oddly different from my yea! of yesterday. My tears of to-morrow will have nothing to do with my tears of a year ago. If the one I love remains unchanged and unchanging, I shall cease to love her. It is only because she changes and startles me into change and defies my inertia, and is herself staggered in her inertia by my changing that I can continue to love her. If she stayed put, I might as well love the pepper pot."

Lawrence painting of a man kissing his non-pepper-pot

"In all this change, I maintain a certain integrity. But woe betide me if I try to put my finger on it. If I say of myself, I am this, I am that!--then, if I stick to it, I turn into a stupid fixed thing like a lamp-post. I shall never know wherein lies my integrity, my individuality, my me. I can never know it. It is useless to talk about my ego. That only means that I have made up an idea of myself, that I am trying to cut myself out to pattern. Which is no good."

I support that Lawrence points out the dangers of rigidity, but I think there are equal dangers in believing oneself to be totally fluid. We sense ourselves to be consistent, and that means something. I also like his idea that we construct public personalities that then become burdens. This contributes to my aversion to Facebook, since I know I would too-carefully craft myself.

Meanwhile, I read the quoted passage to Megan, always-changing, and she said, "Isn't Robert Downey Jr.'s girlfriend in Iron Man named Pepper Pots?" Yes, indeed.

Additionally, the line "a stupid fixed thing like a lamp-post" reminded me of two lyrics: "She sits alone by lamp-post," and "Hello, lamp-post, whatchya knowin', I've come to watch your flowers growin'."

Clearly, I am a very curious assembly of incongruous parts. I constantly try to organize those parts, and I constantly fail--in mostly pleasant ways.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Two Stories

I heard two very different stories this past Saturday, both of which could be fairly termed "grotesque," and I don't quite mean that negatively.

First, The Trans-Siberian Orchestra--a bizarre cultural agglomerate of hair metal, Christmas, and Symphonic Rock--packaged a nice kernel of seasonal joy in some of the more garish wrapping paper I've ever had the luck to observe. The result was a strange piece of Xmas theater, mostly plotless.

TSO, FYI, plays a musical style that no mainstream grandmother likes for 11 months of the year and every mainstream grandmother loves in December. And while the band's Christmas mash-ups are pretty impressive, the rock-opera affectations that accompany those songs--consisting of spoken word narration, soundclips of Martin Luther King, prop-dragons, a gratuitous mention of Darfur, hydraulic lifts, spouting fire (hydraulic lifts spouting fire), an image of Condeleezza Rice, allusions to an angel drinking whiskey, sexy liturgical dancers, a guy dressed as a hobo, more fire, Winston Churchill, subliminal feti, and inexorable lasering--had me scratching my head.

It wasn't the underlying message that befuddled me; I love Christmas, and I even love weirdness. It was the fact that there was a feeling in the arena that this story made sense; that, somehow, the commercialized fever-dream had something to do with the spirit. Again, many of the songs are quite inspired, and I'm not necessarily criticizing the mix of silly and spiritual, Goddy and gaudy. I think what I responded to was that I was being told to feel a certain way--graced--but wasn't really being given the hints as to how or why.

Instead of loving Christmas more, I left thinking that maybe there was something about the audacity of hair metal that I could get behind. Those headbanging, hair-flippers knew they were being ridiculous up there, and they seemed to be having fun. It was only when they nudged me toward feeling something they hadn't earned that I got wary (Martin Luther King? Really?).

But then the Gladys in row 16 banged her head right along with them, her perm awash in pyrotechnic, and I tapped my feet too. On the whole, a fun time with family.


The next story has no moral and made no claim to ultimate truth. It was told to me a couple hours after the TSO concert. There was no flashiness. Winston Churchill made no appearance. It was quietly grotesque.

My friend Dave--a somewhat bizarre personal agglomerate of Joaquin Phoenix, Gumby, and an Elk--told Megan and me about a recent morning when he and his girlfriend were hurrying out of the house.

As they backed out of their driveway, they spotted a deer curled out on the side of the road. Instead of lightly gasping and muttering something about the "poor creature," the two of them had an idea. It seems they'd been interested in a hunting license already, interested in harvesting, in true woodsy style, some venison (Dave's girlfriend grew up a hunter/gatherer of sorts in one of the remoter enclaves of Alaska).

The deer had been dragged to the side of the road by the driver who'd hit her, and Dave and his girlfriend weren't sure what the protocol was here. They had no need for damaged doe, and they'd heard something about New York's regulation of roadkill. But they thought that if they cut into the deer and it was still warm, they might be able to make use of it.

As Dave's girlfriend approached with her pocket knife, she hesitated, he hesitated, and the deer, which had been knocked hard by an oncoming truck, lifted its head and looked at them.

"That must have been horrifying," I said, not because of the shock, but because what they'd considered a possible lucky break was now an ethical quandary.

"And I was running late," Dave said.

They decided to euthanize the deer, but just before they did, their neighbor--a local cop it turns out--approached and asked if they needed a tag for it. I found this part of the story darkly--I repeat, darkly--farcical. In a moment of natural beauty and sadness, delays kept arising, the way they tend to in conscience-testing times.

They did want a tag, they said, and, yes, they did want the compassionate arm of the law to handle the poor creature, which they would treat well and value through the winter, and share.

That's how I came to hear a true, grotesque story. And that's how tonight's supper came to my table.

Spring Literary Festival

May 9th through May 11th, 2012, Ohio University welcomes Denise Duhamel, Terrance Hayes, Amy Hempel, Richard Rodriguez, and Susan Orlean to the Spring Literary Festival.

Denise Duhamel’s most recent books are Ka-Ching! (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), Two and Two (Pittsburgh, 2005), Mille et un Sentiments (Firewheel, 2005); Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, 2001); The Star-Spangled Banner (Southern Illinois University Press, 1999); and Kinky (Orchises Press, 1997). A bilingual edition of her poems, Afortunada de mí (Lucky Me), translated into Spanish by Dagmar Buchholz and David Gonzalez, came out in 2008 with Bartleby Editores (Madrid.) Her work has been anthologized widely, including several issues of The Best American Poetry. (Bio courtesy of the author).

A recipient of an NEA Fellowship, she is a professor at Florida International
University in Miami. William D. Waltz, in Rain Taxi, writes "As I read her work...I feel like I'm taking a sneak peek at the future: Duhamel hints at a poetry that transcends irony and alienation. There's plenty of both here, but she's busy working them over...pushing so hard that the next step may be beyond what is known."


One of the most compelling voices in American poetry, Terrance Hayes is the author of four books of poetry; Lighthead (2010), winner of the 2010 National Book Award in Poetry; Wind in a Box, winner of a Pushcart Prize; Hip Logic, winner of the National Poetry Series, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and runner-up for the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, and Muscular Music, winner of both the Whiting Writers Award and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He has been a recipient of many other honors and awards, including two Pushcart selections, four Best American Poetry selections, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the Guggenheim Foundation. (Bio courtesy of Blue Flower Arts).

His poems have appeared in literary journals and magazines including The New Yorker, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Fence, The Kenyon Review, Jubilat Harvard Review, and Poetry. His poetry has been featured on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Lighthead, his most innovative collection, investigates how we construct experience, presenting “the light-headedness of a mind trying to pull against gravity and time.” In Muscular Music, Hayes takes reader through a living library of cultural icons, from Shaft and Fat Albert to John Coltrane and Miles Davis. In Wind in a Box he explores how identity is shaped by race, heritage, and spirituality with the unifying motif being the struggle for freedom within containment. In Hip Logic, Hayes confronts racism, sexism, religion, family structure, and stereotypes with overwhelming imagery.

Hayes is an elegant and adventurous writer with disarming humor, grace, tenderness, and brilliant turns of phrase, very much interested in what it means to be an artist and a black man. He writes, "There are recurring explorations of identity and culture in my work and rather than deny my thematic obsessions, I work to change the forms in which I voice them. I aspire to a poetic style that resists style. In my newest work I continue to be guided by my interests in people: in the ways community enriches the nuances of individuality; the ways individuality enriches the nuances of community."

A Professor of Creative Writing at Carnegie Mellon University, Hayes lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and children.


Amy Hempel (more information to follow).


Richard Rodriguez, one of America’s most important essayists and a master of the “personal essay,” writes about the intersection of his personal life with some of the great vexing issues of America. (Bio courtesy of Jodi Solomon Speakers Bureau).

Rodriguez, the son of Mexican immigrant parents, grew up in Sacramento, California. He was an undergraduate at Stanford University. He went on to spend two years in a religious studies program at Columbia. He then studied English Renaissance literature at the Warburg Institute in London and was a doctoral candidate at the University of California in Berkeley.

In 1982, he published an intellectual autobiography, “Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez.” Widely celebrated and criticized, this book is today read in many American high schools and colleges. A memoir of a “scholarship boy”, “Hunger” remains controversial for its skepticism regarding bilingual education and affirmative action.

In 1992, Rodriguez published “Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father,” a "philosophical travel book," concerned with the moral landscape separating "Protestant America" and "Catholic Mexico." “Days of Obligation” was a runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction in 1993.

In 2002, Rodriguez published “Brown: The Last Discovery of America.” In a series of essays concerned with topics as varied as the cleaning of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, cubism, and Broadway musicals, Rodriguez undermines America’s black and white notion of race and proposes the color brown for understanding the future (and past) of the Americas.

Rodriguez is currently working on two new books, one that deals with the 'Desert Religions' (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) and their role in the 21st century, and the other about beauty.

As a journalist, Richard Rodriguez worked for over two decades for the Pacific News Service in San Francisco; he has also been a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine and the Sunday "Opinion" section of the Los Angeles Times. He currently works for New American Media in San Francisco.

Many Americans probably recognize him from his television appearances on PBS. For more than ten years he has appeared as an essayist on “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer”. His televised essays on American life were honored in 1997 with a George Peabody Award.

In 1993, Richard Rodriguez was given the Frankel Medal (now renamed “The National Humanities Medal”), the highest honor the federal government gives to recognize work done in the humanities.


As one of the most creative literary journalists of today, Susan Orlean is the author of the best-selling book, The Orchid Thief, which was made into the Oscar-winning movie, Adaptation. (bio courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

Her latest work, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and The Legend tells the story of Rin Tin Tin's journey from orphaned puppy to movie star and international icon. From the moment in 1918 when Corporal Lee Duncan discovers Rin Tin Tin on a World War I battlefield, he recognizes something in the pup that he needs to share with the world. Rin Tin Tin's improbable introduction to Hollywood leads to the dog's first blockbuster film and over time, the many radio programs, movies, and television shows that follow. The canine hero's legacy is cemented by Duncan and a small group of others who devote their lives to keeping him and his descendants alive.

At its heart, Rin Tin Tin is a poignant exploration of the enduring bond between humans and animals. But it is also a richly textured history of 20th century entertainment and entrepreneurship and the changing role of dogs in the American family and society. Almost ten years in the making, Orlean's first original book since The Orchid Thief is a tour de force of history, human interest, and masterful storytelling - something she shares with audiences in her multimedia presentations on the subject.

Orlean became a staff writer for The New Yorker in 1992. Orlean has written dozens of "Talk of the Town," "Profiles” and "Reporter at Large" articles, as well as a series of American popular culture columns, called "Popular Chronicles." The "Chronicles" thus far have included subjects such as an article on taxidermy, umbrella inventors, designer Bill Blass, Harlem high school basketball star Felipe Lopez, the friends and neighbors of Tonya Harding, and D.J. Red Alert, a hip-hop radio star in New York.

Prior to joining The New Yorker, Orlean was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and also at Vogue, where she wrote about numerous figures in both the music and fashion industries. She has also contributed to Esquire, Smithsonian, New York Times Magazine, and many other publications.

Orlean has written several books, including, My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Ordinary People, Red Sox and Blue Fish, Saturday Night, Lazy Little Loafers, and The Orchid Thief, a narrative about orchid poachers in Florida.

Orlean teaches creative writing at NYU and has been a writer-in-residence at several universities. She received her B.A. with honors from the University of Michigan and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. She lives in upstate New York and Los Angeles with her husband and son.

Monday, November 28, 2011

English Interlude, ctd. (plus)

Since last we spoke--over Welsh rarebit and Darjeeling--I read poems by Thom Gunn that I liked and a play by Harold Pinter--The Dumb Waiter--that I did not.

(Aside: a scene from Pinter's Betrayal was among my first exercises in Basic Acting, in 2000. As a freshman, I had to act with a senior named Joanna as we discussed our various infidelities--we were supposed to kiss during the scene, but I'd only kissed one person at the time, so I resisted--until the final, when I gave her a little peck on the side-lip to earn my A.

The Pit, at Holy Cross. Site of many stirrings.

Oddly-structured, Betrayal moves from 1977 backwards in time and is somewhat groundbreaking, or curtain-breaking, or clock-reordering. Yes, it was a clock-reordering triumph.

Inspired by that achrnological movement, I might have first mentioned the Patrick Marber play, Closer, a scene from which I performed as a junior, in 2002. In Closer, I had to discuss various infidelities and perversities with my friend Sara, after having rehearsed with my girlfriend at the time.

All of this was terribly unpleasant--asking these folks if they'd cheated on me and such--and I remember that in the performance of the scene, I forgot one line: "I love you." Which seems somewhat poetic.

Had I shouted for a hint as I stammered onstage, there might have been an awkward moment with the prompter).

Meanwhile, today I'm back to reading my old friend D.H., Mr. Lawrence if you're nasty. He would have relished the above theatricality, enamored of and enabled by Freud.

What a badass!

But I don't want to quote from his poem, "Snake"; better to include a bit from "How Beastly the Bourgeois Is":

"Isn't he handsome? Isn't he healthy? Isn't he a fine specimen?
Doesn't he look the fresh clean englishman, outside?
Isn't it god's own image? tramping his thirty miles a day
after partridges, or a little rubber ball?
wouldn't you like to be like that, well off, and quite the thing?

Oh, but wait!
Let him meet a new emotion, let him be faced with another man's need,
let him come home to a bit of moral difficulty, let life face him with a new
demand on his understanding
and then watch him go soggy, like a wet meringue.
Watch him turn into a mess, either a fool or a bully.
Just watch the display of him, confronted with a new demand on his
a new life-demand.

How beastly the bourgeois is
especially the male of the species--
Nicely groomed, like a mushroom
standing there so sleek and erect and eyeable--
and like a fungus, living the remains of bygone life
sucking his life out of the dead leaves of greater life than his own."


Lawrence isn't pulling punches, by any means, and it's interesting to compare this poem with a book I'm reading, No More Parades, in which Ford Madox Ford also writes pugilistically, aiming to split the stiff-upper-lip of the English, which he seems to believe disqualified many of them from emotional maturity. (By the way, FMF had real gall--he was born Ford Hermann Huefer and somehow dubbed himself Ford Madox Ford, the former sounding too German; for the remainder of this post, therefore, I shall be known as Dave Walter Dave).

This idea about uprightness hindering emotional flexibility seems to have been very important for the British in the wake of World War I (many war poems from the time lampoon the gentlemanly warrior, sipping his tea while the shrapnel flies). It's also curious to note that Lawrence's poem, written just months before his death, was published the year of the stock market crash, 1929, when the undeserved, well-heeled life described above might have seemed particularly odious and particularly parasitic to a coal miner's son.

Himself suspicious of his own lack of emotional pliability and his own nouveau-upper-class tastes--such as anthologized British Literature and Darjeeling tea--Dave Walter Dave is happy to consider this poem, particularly on Cyber Monday.

May I continue to be suspicious of over-hawked Audi's, continue to eschew being "quite the thing." And may I never turn into a mushroom of conspicuous confumption (Dave Walter Dave has coined this word, for conforming consumption, and hereby trademarks it).

--DWD, Athens, Ohio

Thursday, November 24, 2011

English Interlude

For the next 26 days, Wisconsin of the mind. . .

This morning, I looked at "The Metaphysical Poets," an essay from 1921 by T.S. Eliot. Here's a good passage about poets that also works, I think, as a description of the Montaignean essayist (essayer sounds less insider maybe):

"When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


In January, I started a crying journal, not as therapy, and not out of need. I just got curious one day about my own tearing-up because, although I'm pretty steady about most things, I can, in the words of Rob Strong, "get dusty" from time to time. And I thought if I logged those moments, I'd have a calendar of my--what?--lapses.

It'd be a funny-sad kinda journal: Pixar movie, church hymn, Fannie Mae commercial, general depression, general elation, general downbeatedness, guilt, Pixar movie. And at the end of the year, I'd write a funny-sad essay, with dates and stats, about the way I let my emotions get manipulated, about real and periodic sadness, about unexpected, ambivalent joy and overwhelmedness (this is a five syllable word; please read it as such).

The Pixar movie list above is an approximation of the first month's entries--once every four days, a little welling.

Then I forgot about the crying journal, maybe because I suddenly dried up, maybe because I'd gotten too conscious of my own dustiness: since I was paying close attention to the groundhog of ambivalent overwhelmedness, said groundhog of ambivalent overwhelmedness wasn't coming out of its hole anymore.

(You know the old adage: a watched groundhog of ambivalent overwhelmedness never boils. Or is it that the watched pot calls the kettle a racist? I can't remember. Either way, I'd mostly stopped tearing up.)

Anyway, I bring up this journal because I would have had to make three entries in it today, if it still existed. And they would have provided me just the material I would have wanted for that longer essay about emotional manipulation and the like. Because they were weird/typical moments.

First: the new Muppet Movie.
Second: Modern Family.
Third: Reading the sad, reflective words of the sister of a friend of mine.

So, at about 3pm, Kermit The Frog had me dusting all over my shirt collar. Why? Are the emotional machinations of the Muppets so complex, or original, or close-to-home? Maybe. But I think kids' movies slay me because I have a blind spot for simple emotions now, for innocent messages about loneliness or bravery. Thinking I'm beyond that stuff, I get walloped.

Also, cartoons and, in this case, puppets are just enough unreal to do something a little extra to me. If I see a person in a sympathetic situation, I put up all my defenses: don't feel too much, this person could hurt you. Watch out, you're being manipulated.

Plus, I'm still analyzing. Is this a realistic depiction of devastation? I may think. Does Richard Dreyfus deserve the Oscar?

A puppet is abstracted enough to let me wallow. I'm not in the position either to withdraw from a real person or comfort a real person, and so maybe I'm allowed to relate to the cartoon. Somehow, real person + dramatic situation = unreal; while fake frog + dramatic situation = precisely my emotional level.

For the emotionally-calloused (stunted?), The Muppet Movie is a safe place for a little sniffle. And has there been a movie in the last three years that's been sadder than Toy Story 3? I honestly had to stifle an audible sob in the theater. How can that be? My ideas are evolving on this point.


Modern Family, meanwhile, has purely conditioned me to tear up. It's done so with structure and with music. At the twenty-eighth minute of every episode, there's a lesson, often having to do with husbands and wives, with taking things for granted, with seeing beyond one's own needs--in other words, Modern Family is cuttin' onions. And when W.G. Snuffy Walden plays his little theme, I remember hearing that theme from last week, and we're off to the water park--I've been eroded by the cruel pattern of a viola.

Coincidentally, Kermit the Frog singing "Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers, and me" was the first perp of the day, and Jay Pritchett talking about "dreamers and realists" was the second. I'm a softy for dreams today, and somehow made to snot all over myself when considering the co-existence of idealism and reality, of puppets and real people, especially when there's a soundtrack behind that co-existence.

D.H. Lawrence, the most famous writer named David, put this experience nicely in his poem, "Piano": "In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song / Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong."

Elsewhere in the poem, he writes, "The glamour / Of childish days is upon me," which also sounds like an explanation for my Kermit-Krying, my Buzz Light Year bawling. The simplified goodness of a kids' movie and my normal jadedness co-mingle in the graduated cylinder of mine heart to produce a chemical bubbling over--an electron of emotion breaking away in the reaction. "My manhood is cast / Down in the flood of remembrance. I weep like a child for the past," writes Lawrence.

(The only other poem of his that I know is about Tortoise coitus, so let's not think he was a sentimental push-over).

And then I have to wonder why those two pop-culture heartstring-pullers--Kermie and Dunphy--can find themselves in the same league as the last journal-able offense, when I had the eye-twinge while reading my friend's sister's holiday letter: in the last few months, she's had just about all the species of grief and is still able to write an affecting Thanksgiving message about gratitude.

We know this pattern. It's derivative, maybe, but it's not at all worn out. How many times have I been trapped into blubbering as I hear about that crusty, old sailor--perseverance? How many more?

You shouldn't be able to feel that way, that brave, I think. I couldn't do that in your situation. You're strong, I'm weak, so strong, and Fozzy's hilarious, and I love my wife, so Damn you W.G. Snuffy Walden--or I hurt her--, but either way I'm glad you're sort of okay, still a dreamer, yet Happy Thanksgiving--in spite of myself.

English Interlude

For the next 27 days or so. . . Milwaukee. . .and so on and so forth. (See earlier note).

Today, I'm reading poems by Louis MacNeice (a contemporary of Auden's). I'd previously convinced myself this person's name was Louise, so I've learned the gender of a major poet before breakfast, at least.

Here're two sections from his poem, "The Sunlight on the Garden," written in a very peculiar form. Sestina-ish, I think.

"The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon

[. . .]

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden."

A cynic's love poem? Or a skeptic's? Or a Bogart's? Whatever way, it works for me this morning as I recover from a cross-northeast, 15-hour drive that was marked by torrential rain and Megan-fancy.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Boss Hog

I began my training with a pot pie.

Last night in Portsmouth, Ohio, a couple hours from home, plus a biscuit and whipped butter. I figured a 9:30 dinner would satisfy, enough of everything to pull me through a morning without Honey Bunches of Oats, a mid-morning without apples, a late morning without granola bars, and a midday without ham sandwich.

I denied myself those daily treats in preparation for The Boss Hog Challenge, a savory pile of meat offered by Kiser's Barbeque in Athens. In order to defeat this challenge, and win election into the Kiser's Hall of Fame, here is what I had to consume:

Two Half Pound Angus Burgers
3 pieces of bacon
4 oz of cheese
1/2 pound of chopped pork
Lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles - 4 oz of sauce--all on a couple buns.


One pound of french fries, all within 30 minutes.

For most of the day, I felt mystical. Though I used to intentionally and unintentionally fast--for semi-religious and semi-absentminded reasons, respectively--I'm now on a regimented schedule that has me Pavlovian for cereal at 7:16am. So, missing a meal felt weird. I was equal parts woozy and on edge, growing less and less patient with the remaining work I had to do, and more and more pumped for game-time.

Joe and I pushed it back to two, so that we could get really hungry. This felt foolish, a mockery of real hunger, and we decided we'd donate some money afterwards (we haven't yet, but we'll figure out a way to make up for our gluttony).

I felt the same way today that I remember feeling when I had a play to do at night, when I couldn't really focus on anything else the rest of the day. Boss Hog beckoned. I had to go on stage. It had reordered my day.

Please stand-by for a moment of postmodernism as I compare my eating challenge to the poems of Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska in a Smörgåsbord-mixing of low and high culture.

She has a poem called "Clochard" which, to me, describes the feeling of a singular day better than just about anything else. Here she's talking about a guy dozing in public, underneath a cathedral:

"He sleeps with the air of an inventor of dreams,
his thick beard swarming toward the sun

The grey chimeras (to wit, bulldogryphons,
hellephants, hippopotoads, croakadilloes, rhinocerberuses,
behemammoths, and demonopods,
that omnibestial Gothic allegro vivace)

and examine him with a curiosity
they never turn on me or you."

The word "unpetrify" is the one I've remembered for awhile and the one that got me out of my chair to scour my Polish poetry section (one book) tonight. She's saying that there are certain people, events, phenomena that reorder the world such that even the stone creatures on a cathedral seem to be altered, to take notice.

This is a ridiculously lofty way to talk about an eating challenge, but it's a good way to describe the misguided feeling of importance the eating challenge gave me, the feeling, as I said, of a singular day--to wit, the strip mall parking lot, the Used Chevy Dealership, the cineplexes and the duplexes and the stoplights seemed to unpetrify and take notice--that's Dave Wanczyk, they said, and he's about to do something stupid.

But before that stupid thing, still waiting in my apartment, I peed my pants a little while zipping up.

In a rush to get out the door to meet Joe, in a rush of excitement, a rush. So there I was, about to demand the attention of the whole inorganic world, and I had to change my jeans, trip over my shoes, misplace my keys--

But off I was at last. We sat--Joe, James, Zach, and I--for 20 minutes, uttering thinly-disguised boldnesses, as men will do. We were scared of the food-pile.

I felt pressure. I've wanted to do an eating challenge since Man Vs. Food came out a couple years ago, and maybe before that. I pride myself on my pigging abilities and on accepting the rules of arbitrary games (Megan and I are trying to get through November without turning the heat on, just cuz). So, I was pacing a little bit, maintaining my stone-face, the main defense I have against the creepy-crawly, bangy-boomy terrors of the world--and the world's voluminous pork.


We'd been in Portsmouth, Megan and I, because she was talking to Ohio teachers about good ways to educate minds, and I was talking to myself about taming my stomach. Could I meet my limits and say rudely to my limits, Excuse me, but I have a previous engagement with sauce?

Could I make this eating challenge not so much a measure of manhood as a measure of strength in the face of fry? Megan was on my side. She knew what this meant to me. She had tea at Bob Evans.


So flashing forward again to Kiser's. Finally, I saw the sled-ful of food I was set to decimate: 9-inch tall sandwich, acre of potato.

And this is where the story gets hard to tell, because I actually did it, I won, despite the disgusting size of the challenge (and I mean disgusting as it originated--from Latin dis (expressing reversal) + gustus 'taste.') That is, afterward, I was quite concerned that I was about to reverse everything that I'd just tasted, if you take my meaning--and please do. I'm tired and meat-heavy, and I need you to understand without me putting forward too much effort.

My secret to eating: I didn't chew. And, on the first bite, I purposefully got a lot of sauce in my mustache so that I'd feel properly primal. Add to that my aversion to leftover food, my Polish eat-more heritage, and my occasional ability to ignore future pain. . .

17 minutes and the food was all in my upper-gullet, where it still happily(?) resides, churning and churning in the widening gyre.

But I'd done it. I tried to take it in stride, act like I'd been there before. I'm not even impressed with myself, that's how boss I am. I'd made top ten of all time (no one's going to challenge the nine minute record).

I'd gotten a couple claps from some of Southern Ohio's Barbeque fans. I'd accepted kudos from my co-competitors, claimed my free t-shirt, had my picture taken for the wall--I'm sure I'll look my bloaty best.

And when I got home, it was raining, I'd lately urinated on myself, I'd lately eaten an anvil of animal, and I found that I was locked out of my house.

"Boss Hog's Revenge," Zach called it. Yes. And it's the revenge--worth it--that keeps on exacting.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

English Interlude, ctd.

For the next 29 days or so. . .Something about Milwaukee. . .and so on and so forth. (See earlier note).

Today I read seven poems by W.H. Auden (that's Wystan Hugh to his parents. . .see earlier note for related joke).

This morning, I thought it was strange that I'd picked Auden twice already, but Megan assured me the odds were not as against it as I'd figured. 30 slips of paper. I get Auden, who's in there twice, twice in the first six days. And twice in the last three. Calculation please?

Here are some of my favorite lines anywhere, from the poem "As I Walked Out One Evening" (I think Time is talking, but whatever):

O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.

Friday, November 18, 2011

English Interlude

For the next 29 days or so I'm going to be doing a little bit of reading. . .and so on and so forth. (See earlier note).

Yesterday I read two poems and an essay by W.H. Auden (that's Wystan Hugh to his parents, and Wysty Baby to his Karaoke buddies -- 1907-1973).

Auden is maybe my favorite poet. I love "September 1, 1939," and "The Shield of Achilles," which seems to me like a post-war companion piece, is actually terrifying as WHA imagines "An unintelligible multitude, / A million eyes, a million boots in line, / Without expression, waiting for a sign.

And then,

"Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place;
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief."

In "In Praise of Limestone," which is extremely dense, he includes this good line: "The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from, / Having nothing to hide."

The essay "Poetry as Memorable Speech" encapsulates for me why I like this fellow so much. He writes, "The test of a poet is the frequency and diversity of the occasions on which we remember his poetry." I tend to remember him, often.

He continues,

"A great many people dislike the idea of poetry as they dislike over-earnest people, because they imagine it is always worrying about the eternal verities.
Those [. . .] who try to put poetry on a pedestal only succeed in putting it on the shelf. Poetry is no better and no worse than human nature; it is profound and shallow, sophisticated and naive, dull and witty, bawdy and chaste in turn" (2440).


Today, I read some Jean Rhys stories, both of which were better than the novels of her I've read--Wide Sargasso Sea and Voyage in the Dark. The most memorable line--thanks Auden--was from the perspective of an immigrant in London who thought to herself, "I think that sleeping is better than no matter what else."

I, too, am tired. And over-earnest. But a little tea should fix both.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Let me just tear down the curtain. I have two topics today and it's my goal to unite them. Those topics are football and sweet potatoes.

Footballs and sweet potatoes are essentially the same shape, but I don't think that will do to bring them together in any coherent way.

I tend to like both of these entities, but when the only thing a topic has in common with another topic is Me, that usually spells doom for the resulting composition.

There is some internet fact to be found that could probably lead me to a meshy (and messy) essay (meshay) during which I imagine (along with you readers) that Earnest Byner ate sweet potatoes the day of "The Fumble," and that those two things are inexorably linked in American Lore.

This potential post might take a little too long, though, and would be too cute by half a yard.

It wasn't that hard: "Earnest Byner, the Ravens' director of player development, purchased the turkeys.
Mars Supermarkets donated the side dishes, including cranberries, stuffing and sweet potatoes" (Baltimore Sun, 2001).

But, don't worry, I've got it. I can address football and sweet potatoes--together--by looking at the constantly surprising detours conversations take--I'm thinking of a specific conversation I had today that just happened to touch on both SPs and FB. And I can address both topics by asking What makes a thing a thing? In other words, What makes football football? and What makes a sweet potato a sweet potato?

Context: For lunch, the committee for the Propagation of Anglophilia (otherwise known as me and two other teachers who are leading a British Literature class) met for Bangers and Mash, American Style. That is, we all had a sausage dip (such a thing exists, 14-year olds; I understand your grinning). And some of us had fries.

I had sweet potato fries.

Just as in any conversation, an angel passed by at the seven-minute mark.

(As you will see in the latter link, this conversational phenomenon--the idea that groups pause after a certain amount of time no matter the raucousness--has (dubious, but intriguing) evolutionary roots: "It has been postulated that this seemingly impromptu onset [. . .] dates back to pre-historic man, [who was] hardwired [. . .] to listen for the approach of dangerous animals."

Dustin, Matt, and I, having ordered burgers, may have been listening for the approach of delicious animals).

At this preternatural pause in the conversation, Dustin asked me, "Do you like sweet potatoes?"

Now, here's something that's long-preoccupied me. Not sweet potatoes, but the conversational ability to say relatively thankless things. When "Do you like sweet potatoes?" and similar questions cross the minds of most-people--maybe even me--most-people dismiss those questions.

That's not suitable conversation-kindling, we think. Not spark(l)ing enough. Maybe even too personal somehow. He'll think I'm dumb for asking.

I didn't grow up in a family that excelled at chatter of this kind, but now I value it highly. I remind myself that sometimes it's my duty, even when all that's available is a mundane question or a conventional remark or even something that makes me sound a little ridiculous, to keep the conversational beach ball in the air, lest it fall onto the baseball field of timidity and be deflated by the vindictive groundskeeper of awkwardness.

Do you like sweet potatoes? is just as good a place to start as anywhere else, and it led somewhere relatively thrilling.

I said that I did like sweet potatoes--I give the sweet potato a B+; Dustin said that he didn't like them, too mushy (not much in this exchange, admittedly). But then Matt contended, "Sweet potatoes aren't really tuber enough to be potato, nor are they squash enough to be squash." He's not a fan.

Again, this is the sort of Yoda-ish thing I usually say, and it just as usually leads folks to check their watches. But, in my opinion, this kind of declaration is the rich-orange-buttery-brownsugary flesh of the best discussions!

The only problem is that we don't have readily-canned responses to unconventionally interesting statements about sweet potatoes. So, uncannily interesting people, when they make said statements about sweet potatoes, are often left feeling like they've broken some social rule.

But this line of potato-thought must be followed to its roots, and so I, undaunted, asked, "Now, what exactly is a tuber?" Matt readily responded. And, because of Dustin's opening entreaty we were allowed to get to this morsel:

"Matt, are you arguing this afternoon that the sweet potato isn't a potato at all?"

"I think that is what I'm arguing," Matt said. We had defeated the passing angel through a sheer act of collective, yammering will. We had talked about potatoes for eight minutes.

And Matt was onto something, according to Wikipedia: "Although it is sometimes called a yam in North America, the sweet potato is not in the yam family, nor is it closely related to the common potato [. . .] but the name which stayed was the indigenous Taino name of 'batata'. This name was later transmuted to the similar name for a different vegetable, the ordinary potato, causing confusion from which it never recovered."

So sweet potatoes aren't potatoes. Matt was right. And he was right about their tuberousness, too. I'd thought wrongly that all tubers were potatoes, as all squares are rectangles; but sweet potatoes, which are not potatoes, are sometimes referred to as uber-tubers nonetheless. And as for the claim that SPs are squashy, well, there is such a thing as a Sweet Potato Squash.

So, what makes a sweet potato a sweet potato? I guess I'm still not sure, but I know what a sweet potato isn't, and I know they're hard to get really crispy.

When I was halfway through my french-fried batatas, we turned our attention to football--from Tubers to Tebows--and we decided the increase in concussions in the NFL is unsettling. We came up with four policy proposals to limit injury:

1. If a player is guilty of an egregious hit, he should be ejected, and his team should have to play defense with 10 players for the rest of the game.

2. Players should not be allowed to wear masks, and would therefore not lead with their heads.

3. Kickoffs should be throw-offs from the 50-yard line so that Special Teams collisions won't be as intense.

4. Offensive and Defensive Linemen should have to start plays standing up so that they hit each other with less force. No more three-point stances.

Radically, I put forth the idea that tackling should only be legal on first down and that second and third down should be played as flag football, encouraging more passing, and discouraging physical aggression.

"What you're describing is football that wouldn't really be football," Matt said.

And now we were back in sweet-potato-land. Is the sweet potato a potato or a tuber or a squash? Two of those three? None of those three? Is football the strategic advancement of a ball toward a goal-line or is it just collisions?

To save ourselves, and future generations of football players, from headaches, we should just agree that it's about the strategy (plus a dash of hitting) and adopt the suggestions put forth in my controversial conversational white paper.

Incidentally, sweet potatoes can save us from headaches, too. They also make an exemplary meal for wide receivers, and if you do happen to take a hard hit over the middle, Earnest Byner, they're wonderful for bringing down the swelling.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

English Interlude

For the next 30 days or so I'm going to be doing a little bit of reading every day from the Norton Anthology of English Literature (20th Century). There are 30 slips of paper in my old (I should say aged so it doesn't sound like I have an Old Milwaukee hat) Milwaukee Brewers hat; each slip has a name of a writer. . .and so on and so forth. (See earlier note).

Today I read the surprisingly great WWI poems of Ivor Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918), having read the surprisingly great WWII poems of Keith Douglas and Charles Causley yesterday. I say surprisingly great because the topic itself usually overwhelms this kind of poem, and, 65-95 years on, they seem pretty well-worn and (understandably) maudlin.

But these poems are very specific and represent, according to the anthology, the working class, grunt infantry perspective as opposed to the better-known, and pretty good poems of Wilfred Owen, which are from an officer's perspective.

Here's a memorable description of a rat in a trench, from Rosenberg's poem "Break of Day in the Trenches."

"Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life [. . .]"

And now for my daily draw: W.H. Auden. Looks like I'm headed back to WWII.


"Why don't you marry it?"

That's what my first grade enemies used to ask me when I said, "I love ham," in the cafeteria at Federal Street South Elementary School. Every boy in my class was named either Kyle or Josh, and they all seemed to believe that ham was stupid and that love meant marriage (also, that pegging me with a red rubber ball at the red brick wall was the tops).

Now, let me be honest. If I ever did marry a lunchmeat, I'd choose, without reservations, to be pronounced man-and-ham. It's the superior coldcut: salty enough to be familiar; pink enough to seem exotically highbrow.

And I think ham would really get me, you know? Like, we'd make a connection and figure out this crazy-thing-called-life----together. And anyway, I always go for just-under-the-radar attachments. None of that trendy stuff for this guy. I didn't love the prom queen. I don't love turkey. I'm a ham guy.

Quick pause for today's ham-handed half-fact: some people apparently prefer ham that comes from the left leg of a pig--the sinister side--reasoning that a pig scratches itself with its right leg, making that meat tougher. I've always heard, though, that the more an animal's muscle is used, the tastier it is. Not only am I a ham guy, then. I'm a right-legged ham guy, all the way.

So why don't I marry the right leg of a ham?

Maybe I will. What do you think of that, Josh? (That always seemed to shut 'em up).

But besides all of the above, I'm really more interested in why these Kyles taunted ham so hard, or, really, why they taunted love so hard. Let's think about "Why don't you marry it?" as a logical retort, shall we?

The comeback--remember when having a good comeback was pretty much the most important thing, and remember that you probably haven't thought about comebacks for most of the rest of your life?--is obviously meant to insult. You love something? Gross. Then why don't you marry it?

Maybe I was being subtly shamed for having a feeling about anything. Anyway, their mild bullying seemed a little loaded, like they were teasing me for being a sissy, like they were hamophobic.

But if I can be so bold, it seems like these Joshes really had a problem with linguistic inauthenticity, like they were calling me on my pigshit.

Dear sir, I say, I question your so-called "love" for this pork product
(they'd make air quotes with their fish-sticky hands). I believe you to be exaggerating, and it stands to reason that if you "loved" ham as you claim, you'd most certainly want to marry it. Since you don't, I presume, want to marry it--ham--you must not "love" it. I'll thank you to be more precise with your diction. Point for me, what?

First of all, that's clearly a fallacy, Kyle. You love your mom and, even though you're a momma's boy, you don't want to marry her. So, it's clear that one can love someone or something without that love leading to marriage. Second, what you don't understand, Josh, is that, like the many and splendoured varieties of ham, there, too, are many and splendoured varieties of love, and that "love," in this particular cafeteria milieu, is metonymic for "strong preference." I, then, have a strong preference for ham.

Why couldn't I have thought of that then? "Strong preference" would have been a great comeback.

But if I had a "strong preference" for ham then why,
they might have countered, wouldn't I marry it?

Touche. (Those Kyles had me at every turn).

Luckily, even though my feelings were always a tiny bit hurt by their ham-slams, I had my sandwich to soothe me. One slice, on white bread, American Cheese and Animal Crackers.

And I did, in the end, marry a ham.

The best revenge is living well, and revenge is a dish best served coldcut. So pardon me while I enjoy my second ham sandwich of the day.

And, in summation: bite me, Josh.

English Interlude

For the next 30 days or so I'm going to be doing a little bit of reading every day from the Norton Anthology of English Literature (20th Century). There are 30 slips of paper in my old Milwaukee Brewers hat, each one with a name of a writer. I pick; I read. And I thought I'd chronicle that reading here in the form of snippets of text, perhaps related to my own blogposts.

Nov. 15th reading:

"Vergissmeinnicht," by Keith Douglas (1920-1944)

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht. (*means "Forget me not")
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that's hard and good when he's decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tennis Lessons

This fall, I've had a Tennissance.

I've played more in the last two months than I have in the last ten years, and some of the matches have put me back in touch with the eleven-year old me, in short red and yellow shorts (c'mon mom, really?!), who picked up (and promptly broke) his first real, non-hand-me-down racket in the early nineties.

Thanks to my brother, I was pretty good for my age; he'd spent a couple summers beating up on me on our street-court (which had a crack for a net and fire hydrant baselines). And so when I met Mr. Kells, heroic Mr. Kells, I could hold my own, at least when it came to hitting the ball. Finer facets of the game were beyond my grasp, as we'll see.

I had my first lesson (fancy-schmancy, I know) with my friend Cheese (short for "Cheesehead"--origin, mostly unknown). We met Mr. Kells, a 71 year-old-retiree who looked a little like a slim George Kennedy, at his house. On his backyard court, he taught me how to hit with top-spin while Cheese stood idly by thinking about video games and chilling (he works for Google now, so his distant mind was in the right place).

The history channel was new then and I remember that Mr. Kells always had it on before and after the lesson, if it wasn't Wimbledon time. Now I know why. He'd been a P.O.W. in World War II and his interest persisted.

At the time, I didn't know that. He was just the guy who provided my tennis lessons and Sprite once a week during the summer. And, in fact, I didn't know about Mr. Kells's history until today when I searched online for a picture of him. Just this past Friday, a first-person article was published detailing his experience in the European theater. I haven't spoken to him in fifteen years, but his voice was recognizable:

"The squad of Germans (about eight to ten people) were shooting away from our hole, they knew exactly where we were, but the bullets were glancing off the road," Mr. Kells told the writer, Elise Forbes Tripp. "They deliberately avoided killing us right then: they were trying to tell us, We've got you pinned down."

I heard all of this in the sing-songy clip I remembered him using to teach young kids how to serve. "Pronate, now. That's it." And I thought back to a time when I wrongly assumed I could put this old guy on his heels with a well-struck backhand.


From that first lesson with Mr. Kells, I was pretty much a brat. I launched tennis balls over his back fence; I shuffled my feet when it came time to gather up the Wilson 4's and Penn 2's; and, most unforgivably, I smashed my racket almost every time I missed a shot, groaning like the little McEnroe I was. Love-15.

It's safe to say that I was a pretty mild-mannered kid, but I'd always had a temper about sports. And there was something about tennis that seemed unbearably more aggravating than any other game. Especially when I kept losing to Mr. Kells, who, to me, seemed like a beatable older man. Love-30.

Tennis was the first thing I was any good at, besides state capitals. The first thing I succeeded at by myself, and when a game went right, I felt miraculous control, like a wizard. That I was looping pathetic moon-balls over a net to a septuagenarian in even shorter shorts than I wore didn't take away from the fact that playing made me feel huge. I could imagine my beautiful shot, and then imagine it into reality. 15-30.

Andre Agassi was telling me in camera commercials of the time that image was everything, and so I acted all cool and attitude-y. I strode around like a punk (in really clean whites), secretly happy behind the compulsory pissed-off sneering of the Serious Player. 30 All.

Hitting a nice volley felt like timing a punchline correctly. I'd win a point; or, people would laugh. Either way, I'd feel superior, pleasantly contemptuous. I wouldn't smile. Gentlemen don't acknowledge exertion. 40-30.

Let's be clear. I wasn't great at tennis, but I was alright, and I think I can guess that the arrogance I felt is what a lot of players feel. "It seems impossible to succeed at what I've just so easily triumphed at. Harrumph, harrumph, What of it?"

Which makes failing at tennis all the worse. The hard task made easy is complete joy. The hard task that's suddenly difficult again--because the pixie dust that made it possible has abruptly blown away--is excruciating. Tennis felt so much like showing off--still requires so much unearned, and for me unnatural swagger--that when it went wrong I was exposed. Deuce. Ad-out. Game. Set. Match. Loss.


"We got out [of our foxhole], put our hands up, we walked up this little knoll where they were above us," Mr. Kells told the interviewer. And it's odd for me to hear it because I associate him with perfect flowers and a nice tennis court, with everything safe, Sprite-like, in control.

"They had complete control. We're now in the hands of the Germans and our troops are shooting furiously at the Germans and us."


Though I was improving my brattyness, sometimes after Mr. Kells beat me (he was 42-0 all-time), I'd slam my racket, especially if I'd felt I had him on the run.

I mangled a Dunlop and felt pretty terrible when I got a new one for Christmas later in the year--my parents' gift was shamingly kind, and though it might seem like they were rewarding me for my bad behavior, I got the message. They were going to keep giving; but they were going to point out that they shouldn't have to.

"Everyone knows what happened to your last one, so. . .," they'd say. I did. I'd lost it, the racket, because I'd lost it, the temper. It wouldn't happen again.


Mr. Kells, who's 89 now, was the subject of my college application essay. I imagine I wrote about the Respect I had for him--he was a great old guy and we had fun together. I think I said he taught me Lessons (vague, college-application Lessons), showed me how to Persevere (vague, pampered Perseverance). That he was like another Grandfather. That he'd shown me what it meant to be a Good, Charitable person.

I knew what words to capitalize in order to woo a Catholic school's admissions committee.

What I didn't mention, and what I should have, is that he had patience with me, but only up to a point, and that he broke me of my terrible temper, not by yelling, but only by telling me that he no longer wanted to play together if I kept acting that way. "Your racket didn't do anything to you," he'd say, still sing-songy.

Now, when I play tennis I hit shots that I have no business hitting--cross-court masterpieces that someone with a dearth of athletic talent like me shouldn't even attempt; and I hit shots that belong on the blooper reel, too--horrible episodes of botchery during which I threaten my own testicular health, and the dignity of the game.

My opponents will have noticed that I--somewhat bizarrely, compulsively--stare at my racket after both. They might think I'm worshiping it, or blaming it. Nope.

I'm just trying to remind myself that the feeling of control--the addictive tennis emotion--and the feeling of helplessness--the unavoidable tennis affliction--get doled out in equal measure. And, as Mr. Kells has taught me in a couple different ways, they probably always will.

Monday, November 14, 2011

English Interlude

For the next 30 days or so I'm going to be doing a little bit of reading every day from the Norton Anthology of English Literature (20th Century). There are 30 slips of paper in my old Milwaukee Brewers hat, each one with a name of a writer. I pick; I read. And I thought I'd chronicle that reading here in the form of snippets of text, perhaps related to my own blogposts, perhaps not.

Nov. 14th reading:

Joseph Conrad's "The Task of the Artist"

"All art [. . .] appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions. It must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the colour of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music--which is the art of arts."


Today, a new category of day: balmy-November.

It's seventy-five degrees in Athens and the wind seems to be blowing in off of some sea. Has West Virginia become an ocean? Are the mountaineer-sailors shouting “Land Ho” as they float westward past The Omelette Shoppe on Old Sea Route 50 in Parkersburg?

I'm telling you for serious now, for serious, that I can almost smell a body of saltwater and its fishy, tasty death. Columbus, I think, is overwhelmed with oysters.

So, of course, I'm November-sweaty, a new category of sweaty. And thinking, involuntarily, of the word “oleaginous.”

I'm not even sure I know what “oleaginous” means, but its five syllables seem to be actively oozing out of my brain and onto my now-enwettened forehead. (Blast you, Kentucky-Sea air! How are you both oceanic and thick?)

Oily, it means. “Oleaginous” does. From Latin, as most good words are. From French, too, naturally. It's a gross sounding word that both literally and figuratively means slick.

It's hard not to be oleaginous while pronouncing “oleaginous.” I feel like kind of a slimeball just writing it. Same feeling I get when I use the word “epitome,” or “obsequious” (which my really smart boss would be glad to know is actually synonymous with “oleaginous”).

And it's even hard to pronounce “oleaginous” without also pronouncing some spittle with it.

Old Timey Snake Oil Salesmen bring the two definitions of the word together, but I'm not really sure what Old Timey Snake Oil Salesmen were either, truthfully. Snake Oil Salesmen had some physical oil, I guess, and were thought to be slick in their selling of it—flim-flam artists, grifters, gafflers, hustle junkies.

When I was sitting a few minutes ago, overcome by oleagineity and mysterious toe pain, my mind—swell con-man itself—drifted to Snake Oil. What was it? Could it soothe my Itchy Toe? And who was its purveyor, that archetypal liar?

Also, shouldn't the Snake Oil Salesman have come up with a better name for his product? I think if I were attempting to peddle fake medicine to frontiersfolk, I might've called it something much more soothing than snake oil, even if it actually was the oil of a snake. And it was. At least in China, originally. Because the Chinese Water Snake's oils are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Snake fat was also big in ancient Egyptian medicine, maybe Greek too, and it was mixed with “the fats of lion, hippopotamus, crocodile, tomcat, and Nubian ibex into a homogeneous mass believed to cause bald men to grow hair.” So, if snake guts really put hair on a bald King Tut, then I can see why its sellers wouldn't have been ashamed to call themselves what they were. Snake Oil Salesman has a better ring than Nubian Ibex Oil Salesman, after all.

But in America, “Snake Oil” was often made of beef fat.

So, my question still remains. You decide to become a grifter. You get yourself a product. And in a fit of ad-wizardry, you name it Snake Oil? Not Stallion Salve, or Gizmo Juice, or God's Tears, or any other combination of nonsense words that would sound perfectly reassuring to your average Deadwood resident. Not Brahm's Balm or Willard's Wonder Water. Nope, just Snake Oil.

One word, snake, that since Eden itself has meant treachery + a second word, oil, that, especially in the heyday of quack medicine in the early 20th Century, would have brought to mind risky speculation. Sign me up for ten bottles! This toe is getting worse!

But Snake Oil Salesmen, at least some of them, seemed to have believed in their own product and would not have appreciated the derogatory term we now use.

“As I was thought a great deal of by the medicine man,” recalled S.O.S. Clark Stanley in an 1897 book, “he gave me the secret of making the Snake Oil Medicine, which is now named Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment.” Back then, Clark Stanley's medicine was used for “Rheumatism, Neuralgia, Sciatica, Lame Back, Contracted Muscles, Sprains, Swellings, Frost Bites, Chilblains, Bruises, Sore Throat, Bites of Animals, Insects and Reptiles.” (No word on whether it cured Viper's Dance or Scrivener's Palsy or Itchy Toe or Siriasis, but my toe still hurts and it's still 75 degrees in Athens, in case you were wondering).

Back to Stanley. Having learned from the Indians, he set up snake-shop in Beverly, Mass, toured the country with a snake-killing show, and eventually added red pepper flakes and turpentine to his concoction. Somewhere along the line, even though he'd trusted in those Indian wise men and their original blend, his stuff got less snake and more fake.

For peddling snake oil that ultimately didn't have any snake oil in it, he was fined $20 (about $425.70 in today's dollars, or about 851 bottles in today's Stanley's Snake Oil Liniments. But if a sucker is born every minute, he would have needed only 14 hours to make his money back, so that's good for him).

A sucker is born every minute. Someone is selling a “new” Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment sign on Ebay; that does not seem like a safe buy, and yet I'm intrigued.

I don't know the last time I was really fooled badly, so I might go for it. I used to have a reputation for gullibility in middle school, I know, but I don't recall being out-and-out scammed since then, to any large degree at least. I'm pretty often worried, though, that someone's puttin' one over on me (a phrase which doesn't have an immediately discernible origin, if the internet is to be believed). And even now, trying to remember the last big prank I endured, I'm pretty sure that since I can't tell who the sucker at the table is, it must be me.

So I ask myself on most days, How am I being duped? By the culture, by commercials? What are my blind spots? What snake oil have I bought without even realizing the cost?

And usually my mind wanders to those places when I'm reading something about the way Ancient or British folk drank the kool-aid of their own ridiculous ideologies, accepting some pre-ordained oppression or another. I can't be much different.

But the other day, the mind-wandering and the reading came together nicely. I was looking into some required Plato and daydreaming about how I might be getting screwed by the world; and then Socrates said that he knows he's the wisest man around only because he's the only one who's realized he doesn't know anything.

Maybe I've been fooled into believing I can think my way out of all of this. That's how they've gotten me. That's my blindspot (some snake oils are said to cure dry eyes, but not blindness).

Turns out, Socrates used to call his rivals, The Sophists, Snake Oil Salesmen of The Soul. That's a sophisticated line (wait, strike that). Anyway, there's some argument about whether those Sophists knew they were selling spiritual sputum to their audience or whether they, too, bought into their own brand of rhetoric, of oleagiosity. They thought they could talk their way out of anything, think their way around logic. But were they right? Maybe.

And if you believe that, I've got some ocean-front property in Appalachia to sell you.