Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Baron Wormser Reading

Baron Wormser will read at Ohio University on Nov. 2nd.

Visiting Writers

This year, the English department at OU will welcome three Visiting Writers--Baron Wormser, Barbara Hamby, and John Bresland.

John Bresland will be visiting Feb. 27th, 2013.

More info to come.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Beep Baseball

Just today, I had an article go up on a great sports website called The Classical. The article is about Beep Baseball, a modified version of baseball for the visually-impaired. It's a great spectator sport and it was fun to write about. I hope you enjoy it, and if you're inclined to enjoy things in a public manner--i.e., liking and/or tweeting--I'd appreciate that very much.


Back to regularly scheduled blogging at some point soon, I hope.

Thursday, May 31, 2012


On a recent trip to a fancy corner of West Virginia, Megan and I found ourselves in a restored hotel from the gaslight era--The Blennerhassett (by all means, check out this .pdf of words that also have at least two pairs of like letters.  Is there a word, like Blennerhassett, that has three pair of like letters?  Plenty, I think.  What about consecutive like letters?  Apparently only "bookkeeper" fits that bill.  This all needed to be a foottnnote, I apologize).

Anyway, I'd always wondered how this independent and beautiful hotel could exist in Parkersburg, which is pleasant but rundown, "one of those Sodoms of the Ohio River," or so it's called by a character from James Agee's Night of the Hunter.

(No Sodom now, Parkersburg's motto is "Let's Be Friends.")

Turns out, The Blennerhassett had been the hotel of a boom period (coal? oil? shipping?), then a flophouse in the 30s and 40s, and was finally renovated within the last few years.

Library with Backgammon board; player piano; guy in the corner who says, "See here."

It was terrific to take a one-night vacation to a place that's less than an hour away.  Prudent opulence, and a good celebration of eight years of dating/marriage.  And besides the hotel, the Blennerhassett's got a claim on an island that's open to tourists, which allowed for some picnicking, animal dodging, and political curiosity.

We found that the Island, which is a short ferry ride from the town, has as strange a history as the hotel.  The namesake, Harman Blennerhassett, had married his niece in England and been forced to flee to the permissive U.S. (This story was nearly made famous in a deleted verse of America the Beautiful).

Once here, H. Blen. set up a manse in the middle of the Ohio and began producing a dank hemp crop.  Somehow--and this is odd considering the fact that the niece-marrying are usually standup guys--he got himself embroiled with noted duelist Aaron Burr, and both men were tried by the government for various treasons after entertaining the idea of a break-away Southwest Empire.

Megan and I didn't see much treason on the island, but we did see a rabid opossum hassling a goose, which recalled to one of us, the one who has a rabid and unkempt imagination, that Burr-Hamilton duel of Bygonera.

Two things got purchased on this weekend away, one which recalls the Harman Blennerhassett era of the eighteen-oughts and one which recalls the flophouse era of the 30s.

The first was a glass bug jar which folks in the early-19th used to hang in their kitchens to catch flies with.  Megan had to buy this authentic West Virginia product (actually made in Massachusetts) mostly because she had guessed correctly when our tour guide asked us what we thought it was.  We picked up the reproduction in the gift shop.

(Shortly before this purchase, I dutifully reported to a clerk that the toilet in The Necessary House, as the in-character tour guides called it, was overflowing.  West Virginia Parks and Recreation workers seemed completely unfazed by this plumbing disaster, maybe because they were concerned with the resurgent opossum, which we later heard tell was carrying a brood of opossi in her opouch.

The bug jar is pretty).

The second purchase was a drink wheel from the Blennerhassett Hotel gift shop.  This doohickey--I should tell you that I just had a nice time typing "doohickey wiki" into my google bar and will report on the history of the word in a moment--this doohickey tells me the ingredients of all sorts of classic cocktails, how to prepare them, and whether to shake or stir, and all of that info's contained in a 4-inch diameter circle of metal.  I realize this thing is probably in every gift shop, but since The Blennerhassett has the air of a classic cocktail, and of Depression-era rule-breaking, the wheel feels like a specific memento.

This is pretty much it.  Meanwhile, a "doohickey" is a mixture of a doodad and a hickey (two parts doodad, one part hickey, with a water back); a hickey is either "a small fitting used in wiring for electric lights, a fixture piped for gas," or it's just something a person can't remember the name of.  The OED is unsure.  It's possible that the Blennerhassett's gaslights were maintained with hickeys, but there weren't any noticeable doohickeys on the premises, besides, of course, The Cocktail Wheel.  A "doodad" is also etymologically vexing, but a "dad" is "a large piece knocked off" of something, as in "a dad of bread."  A "doo" is only a misspelling, as in the puritan Arthur Dent's line, "What a marriage, what a meeting, what a doo." 

I've always wanted to be the kind of person who gets into jazz and knows a little about cocktails, but the former requires listening to hours of jazz, and the latter just involves drinking, so this cocktail wheel has provided me with a project I've happily moved ahead with.  I'm trying to taste the cocktails in the order in which they appear on the wheel, and I have one every time there's a Celtics game on.

This has helped us restock our paltry bar and helped me feel cosmopolitan, which was incidentally the second drink I made, after a nice daiquiri.

I've botched a Brandy Alexander, whipped up a White Russian, ruined a Whiskey Sour with low quality lemon juice, and I've celebrated my Sidecar, which is a perfect drink for me--it emerged from flophouse days, the Sidecar did, and Esquire called it the only good cocktail to be born of Prohibition.  So it's got a story.  Along with a little brandy, a little triplesec, some low-quality lemon juice that I doctored with Tropicana . . . Not bad.

I'm hoping the Celtics win a couple games against the Heat, and if they make the finals, I'll certainly get a shot at a Rusty Nail, a Martini, a Margarita, a Manhattan, a Gimlet, and a Gibson.

Overall, the trip was--and the classy drinking has been--quite a nice time.  What a marriage, what a meeting, what a doo.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Cheer Theory

After President Obama announced his support for gay marriage three weeks ago, Huffington Post popularized a clip from The Golden Girls in which Blanche talks to Sophia about same-sex commitment. In the clip, Blanche is upset that her brother Clayton wants his boyfriend to be more than just “a pal and a confidant.” Clayton wants to put a ring on Doug's finger, and this blanches Blanche. In familiar sitcom fashion, though, a couple of jokes resolve the issue and Blanche decides to accept her brother's union.

The short article makes a big deal out of a decades-old bit of Saturday TV, and rightfully so. The progressive episode of The Golden Girls aired in January, 1991, only a few weeks after three couples in Hawaii challenged that state's law against gay marriage, a challenge which eventually led to the first ruling that deemed such a law to be discriminatory. So, if The Girls weren't ahead of their time on this issue, they were certainly right in line with it, and the show was always willing to address hot-button topics from the hot-comfort of the lanai.

But ten years before that—and decades before Will & Grace, Modern Family, and President Obama helped establish a new norm—Cheers addressed the topic of gay marriage, too. In the show's second episode, which aired in 1982, Coach, played by the late Nicholas Colasanto, deals with a distressed bar patron named Leo. Coach asks him about his troubles and Leo, who is white, responds: “Last semester, my son comes home from college with his new fiance, who's black.” Coach questions, “Your son's not?” and the live studio audience loudly loves Coach's simpleness.

After another storyline intrudes for awhile, Leo again bends Coach's ear, with a slightly more complex story:

“Last semester, my son comes home from college with his new fiance, who's black.”
“Yeah, I've been thinking about that,” says Coach. “And it's a tough one, but I think I got it. Leo, it's a problem of communication. Here's what you do. You get home, you sit the kids down and you say to your boy. . .What's your boy's name?”
“And what's Ron's fiancee's name?”
“You say, 'Rick, Ron'. . . Rick and Ron?” [cross talk] “Leo, if you're that unhappy about it, just throw him out and tell him you never want to see him again.”
“I can't do that. I love the kid.”
“Oh, I see what you're saying,” says Leo to Coach.
“You do? What?”
“If I can't accept the kid the way he is, I'll lose him.”
“Boy, that's good.”
“Well, when you put it that way, what choice do I have. Thanks Coach.”

Interestingly, Leo uses the word “fiance” to describe his son's partner, so we're thinking of the pairing as a potential marriage. It seems like the word is only included so that Coach can misunderstand the situation hilariously, but even if Cheers is more interested in comic misdirection than the direction of social policy, it's still looking forward. And what's notable is how casually the scene deals with the issue and then discards it. Diane, Cliff, and Norm all cheer for Coach's inarticulate, and perhaps unintentional defense of civil rights, and for a minute Cheers becomes a gay bar, or at least a pro-gay bar. Which makes a lot of sense, considering the comforting lyrics of the theme, “You wanna go where people know, people are all the same.”

But then, as though nothing shocking has happened at all, the talk turns to whether or not Sam Malone only dates dumb women, which is the pressing social question of the episode.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Blood Songs

I'm walking around today with only eleven twelfths of my blood--down to about five and a half quarts of the stuff--because I spilled my AB-negative for the common good this past Saturday.  That blood type makes me a one-percenter since only about 1 in 167 people have it.  In the past, I've felt unreasonably special about this distinction even though I had exactly zero to do with the composition of my sanguinity.

I should thank my parents for the peculiarity; they are the rarest (AB-) and third rarest (B-), and they came with me on Saturday morning, down to the Republican Masonic Lodge in Greenfield, to chat with the folks, and to drink cranberry juice. 

 Megan recently met a woman who didn't know what a juice box was.  Which seems utterly improbable and strangely charming.


There, we unexpectedly met, and haltingly sympathized with, a long-lost friend whose 37-year old daughter had just died of cancer.  While we ate restorative pretzels, he reminded us, maybe, of why we were donating our own little drop in the ocean, and how much we interlock, as Whitman wrote, in ways more mysterious than blood.

ON the beach at night alone, 
As the old mother sways her to and fro, singing her husky song, 
As I watch the bright stars shining—I think a thought of the clef of the universes, and of the future. 
A VAST SIMILITUDE interlocks all, 
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets, comets, asteroids,        
All the substances of the same, and all that is spiritual upon the same, 
All distances of place, however wide, 
All distances of time—all inanimate forms, 
All Souls—all living bodies, though they be ever so different, or in different worlds, 
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes—the fishes, the brutes, 
All men and women—me also; 
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages; 
All identities that have existed, or may exist, on this globe, or any globe; 
All lives and deaths—all of the past, present, future; 
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d, and shall forever span them, and compactly hold them, and enclose them.  

1. "God, to Whitman, was both immanent and transcendent and the human soul was immortal and in a state of progressive development."

2.  Whitman was probably gay and would therefore not have been able to give blood, though The Red Cross has petitioned for this restriction to be eliminated.

3. "All beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain." - Walt Whitman

While we settled into our long-lost friend's easy-going grief, the guy who'd been manning the front desk for The Red Cross came in and changed the mood.  Here's how the conversation ran:

"She had eight months to live instead of four and we were glad for that," old friend Fred said.

"Fred, can you take over at the front. I've had a lot of cranberry juice and I've gotta use the facilities," said the other guy, entering, and completely unaware of the previous, weighty topic of conversation. 

"Oh, sure, when you gotta go, you gotta go," old friend Fred said.

I reminded myself that drastic changes of tone don't always feel rude or even out-of-place.  Dire and daily mix like blood and water, and have to.


Before those pretzels and that juice and that peeing, it had felt both ancient and futuristic to lie on a bed, hooked up to a needle, pumping blood at the same time as my parents.  Like we were involved in a Latin ritual, or a rite of genealogy, or some dystopic trial (see Never Let Me Go).  This was both creepy and altruistic.  (Is it obvious that this was my first time donating blood?).  And this feeling was heightened by two things: my slight lightheadedness and the fact that within arms-length there was a prominent Masonic throne.

Some breathless and ridiculous sources suggest that freemasonry involves blood sacrifice, but on this Saturday morning, as I reclined in their sunny throne-room, the odd goblets, and the ceremonial maces, and gavels, and bowling league photos didn't seem ominous.  Only humorous.  "Silly, charitable men," I thought as I was slowly sapped.

Odder than the collection of ceremonial hats was the coincidental soundtrack of my donation.  Greenfield's local radio station, WHAI, blared from a radio between the beds, and "She Drives Me Crazy," that great hit from 1988, came on first. 

My chatty phlebotomist said what I'd already been thinking: "Fine Young Cannibals.  Whatever happened to them?"  (Not much, though their pan-racial lead singer Roland Gift, who turns 50 this week, recently put out this excellent song:


I can't say it scared me to think about cannibals while my blood drained, but it did amuse me, and I can imagine a slightly queasier, slightly more delusional person developing some hypertension during the chorus.  After all, if you try hard, you can almost feel the needle in there, humming thirstily against the vein.  And you can almost imagine that Roland Gift is into some abnormal business.  I can't stop the way I feel.  Ooo-oo-oo.

"That's just stupid stuff I think," I thought, until Tommy Tutone came on the radio next, singing about a girl named Jenny and her very famous phone number.  As I wiggled my toes to keep up my circulation, and mimed half of the 8-6-7-5-3-0-9 dance on my right hand, all of the diseases fictional-Jenny could have contracted in 1981 came to mind.

You'll remember that the plot of "(867-5309) Jenny" has a man in a bathroom stall contemplating a good time with a good-time-girl whose number has been scrawled there.

I know you think I'm like the others before
Who saw your name and number on the wall.

Jenny--as I found when I answered the forty question blood-giving contract that covered the entire span of my non-existent, post-1978, in-Mexico, hypodermic-sharing, sex-bartering bisexuality--would more than likely have been ineligible to donate.

Or maybe Jenny was just an innocent girl smeared by an ex-boyfriend who, laugh-crying in a barroom can, publicized her number with a vindictive bic to destroy her reputation, to haunt her from beyond the breakup.  And maybe Roland Gift never attempted to chow-down on anyone's ruddy flesh.  Who can know the answers to or even understand these big questions.


Old friend Fred told us, after we'd given our blood for future transfusion, that his daughter's last meal had been thirteen scoops of ice cream and that she'd wanted to, and had, seen the ocean one more time before she died.  When they were on that beach at night alone, they thought a thought, I bet, of the clef of the universes, and the interlocking Whitman talked about.

"I'm trying to keep busy," Fred told us, and though there are some phrases you've heard 100 times, they still can sound original coming out of the mouths of people who've been remade with pain.


Other songs I half-didn't and half-did want to hear after "867-5309": Foreigner's "Hot Blooded"; "You've Made Me so Very Happy," by Blood Sweat and Tears; "The Needle and the Damage Done" by Neil Young; The Pretenders' "Night in My Veins"; and "Foolish Heart" by Steve Perry (not because it has anything to do with bleeding or out-jections, but because it is the song I am the ambivalentest about. 

Staying on the topic of "Foolish Heart" for a moment. . . the song would seem to be emblematic of all songs I've heard more than 100 times without ever consciously listening to them.  I'm positive I've even sung, "Oh foolish, foolish heart" without that experience having one iota of impact on my life and times.  But now it seems like a clever thing to write, a song delivered to one's own heart).

"If there was one thing I could say to the fans, it would be for them to protect their lives, protect their health, protect themselves from things and people who might want to take those things away from them. Then you can live, enjoy music and live your life [. . .] Things that can hurt you, whether that's drugs, too much booze, or too much of anything. Just protect their lives because it's a precious gift that they've been given to be somewhere they've never had a chance to be before and to be here and to have an opportunity to see a lot of things and to try to do things with and for their families and themselves. It's just very important to protect themselves from things that can hurt them. I just hate to see people get all screwed up. It sure changes your life when certain things happen to you.  You've got to respect your life a little bit, it's a special privilege that people take too lightly, until it's gone or until it's damaged. If you damage yourself or hurt yourself, you just wish you could be back where you were when you thought you were unhappy." - Steve Perry who, based on his anti-drug stance here, might be able to give blood

None of those songs played.  Not "Foolish Heart," even though it's the type of worn-out and welcome tune WHAI specializes in.  No, the third song of my blood-giving soundtrack was "Funky Town," which I considered twisting to fit the bloody theme somehow.  

It can't be safely done, but I would still like to note that listening to such a song at 10am on a slow, spring Saturday, in the cluttered Masonic Hall of Greenfield, Mass., while calmly giving of my blood-stuff and making a fist in rhythm to the beat (won't you take me to), is a discordant and lovely experience--along with the cranberry juice, the halting sympathy, the cannibals and all--that I wish on the three people who might receive my probably useless pint of rare red gold.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

I Write the Songs

Barry Manilow's "I Write the Songs" (1975) has been glued in my noodle (I'm trying this as a rhymier replacement for "stuck in my head") longer than any song--since 1987.  It's because of the crescendoing, key-changing repetition at the end.  And the fact of this gluing is a shame because Barry Manilow's "I Write the Songs" is terrible.

Here are the lyrics (truncated):

I've been alive forever
And I wrote the very first song
I put the words and the melodies together
I am music
And I write the songs

I write the songs that make the whole world sing
I write the songs of love and special things
I write the songs that make the young girls cry
I write the songs, I write the songs

My home lies deep within you
And I've got my own place in your soul
Now when I look out through your eyes
I'm young again, even tho' I'm very old

Oh, my music makes you dance and gives you spirit to take a chance
And I wrote some rock 'n roll so you can move
Music fills your heart, well that's a real fine place to start
It's from me, it's for you
It's from you, it's for me
It's a worldwide symphony

I write the songs that make the whole world sing
I write the songs of love and special things
I write the songs that make the young girls cry
I write the songs, I write the songs

I am music and I write the songs

So, here's my reading:

1) Barry Manilow is singing a song from the perspective of Music, which is megalomaniacal.

2) Barry Manilow is singing a song from the perspective of God, which is megalomaniacal.

3) Barry Manilow believes that he is music and God, and that he invented rock and roll.  See above.

Further, Manilow's metaphors (penned by Bruce Johnson of The Beach Boys, to be fair) are strained at best.  How does music, in this construct, write the songs?  Wouldn't music be the songs?

I suppose God could be the songs, but certainly not this song.  That's heretical.  And I don't like to think of an old guy named Mr. Music sitting in an office building writing a lot of carbon-copied ditties, or of an old deity named Mr. God inspiring "Copacabana."

And what about these tearful "young girls"?  Why would God (if this song is from the perspective of God, as has been claimed) want young girls to cry?  This conception of God-as-ladykiller is disquieting.

Also, how does Music look out through my eyes?  I don't enjoy the idea that I am inhabited by a creature snooping on all of my friends.  And if Manilow is music, as his song suggests, then why does his character, music, declare the line, "my music makes you dance and gives you spirit to take a chance"?

Isn't this like saying I am weather and weather pours the rain? 

The lyrics force their performer to speak of himself in the third person, or the third-concept, if you will.

Meanwhile, I am criticism, and I write the rants.

All of this having been ranted, I find that Mr. Manilow seems to be aware of the tune's trouble: "The problem with the song," he once wrote, "was that if you didn't listen carefully to the lyric, you would think that the singer was singing about himself. It could be misinterpreted as a monumental ego trip."

I'll consider that an apology.  And turn my scorn to L. Ritchie's "Say You, Say Me."

Monday, April 23, 2012

My Pop-Pop Got an Apple TV when He Moved to Kuala Lumpur

My brother has a website called originalsentence.com on which he collects original, bizarre, and absurd sentences that he and his cohort have overheard.  The most recent is: "Miles Standish [sic] enjoys harpooning dinosaurs."  Though funny, that one doesn't quite have the punch I like from my original sentences; it occurs to me that whoever said, "Miles Standish [sic] enjoys harpooning dinosaurs" was trying to be original, bizarre, absurd about the Plymouth Rocker, and was in on the joke.

To me, originalsentence.com is at its best when it collates the unintentionally odd.  In order to find one of these--a sentence that is more than just a witty, self-aware remark--I go back to May of 2011: "The water has been so high that I haven't been to the mine to pick up my boat yet."  This sort of line implies a backstory I'd like to look into, implies a life separate from me, implies something about the tangly weave of the human afghan that I like to curl up in.  I love it.

An early sentence in the pantheon of originalsentence, similar in its sincerity, was, "My grandfather got a Kindle when he moved to Ecuador."  This was uttered in Washington, D.C. on August 24th, 2009.  (The date is important).  That Christmas, Megan and I had t-shirts made, emblazoned with this sentence, and we gave them to Stephen. (We thought the shooting stars were a nice touch.)


But now for a bit of amateur linguistic analysis, the point of which is to show why that sentence was funny (and why it has become less interesting in the interceding years).  The operative words in the sentence are "grandfather," "Kindle," and "Ecuador."  A normal sentence of that construction might run, "My friend got a car when he moved to California."  All of those words make sense together; a peer has purchased a thing that he will need in a particular place.  

What made the "grandfather" sentence funny was that "grandfather" was a step or two removed from what one might normally hear in this consumer-ish context, and so was Kindle (not a thing we needed back then), and so was Ecuador.  At that time, we weren't all associating novelty electronics with grandfathers, or with Ecuador--an under-the-radar country of 15 million that most conventional pop-pops probably haven't visited.  

So, the Mad-Libs-y mix of nouns seemed gleeful, and my brother and I maybe reveled in the fact that the sentence was probably said by a self-righteous parody of a person we wouldn't want to be seen with (e.g., a person who might also say, "My au pair's Segway was useful in Gstaad.").

Two-and-half years later, none of this seems quite as novel.  Grandparents regularly have Kindles, which now seem like mildly outdated devices.  And though Ecuador is still kinda out-there (or down there, or east of us--my favorite half-fact has it that all of South America is east of all of North America), it's now firmly within the boundaries of normal-living that a grandparent might get a tablet when moving south.  Our own grandmother is on the cusp of moving to Arizona, and it's likely that instead of transporting her books about Irish architecture and Regis-y charmers, she might just trade them all for a Nook.

The speed of technological outreach plus the speed and flexibility of language renders that once-original sentence now somewhat passe, equal almost to the statement from 1909: "My grandfather used a telephone to call Philadelphia."

This is not a criticism of originalsentence.  Instead, it shows that the sporadic compendium of offhand remarks can be a useful diary, and more than a repository for Myles Standish fan fiction.

(Grandma: if you read this on an iPad, please call me).

Friday, April 6, 2012

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Invention Continued

"She became an independent, forgetful little soul, loving from her own centre."

"There was a life so different from what he knew it. What was there outside his knowledge, how much? What was this that he had touched? What was he in this new influence? What did everything mean? Where was life, in that which he knew or all outside him." - The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence.


The one line above is about a little girl, at the age of Elizabeth Bishop in her waiting room. The next is about a man in his 20s, rambunctious in his own curiosity, wondering what he's supposed to do to imagine himself into a new kind of world. But put them together, and you've again got me at seven, the crack-inventor trying to figure out his next big move after the conceptual success of "The Craneraser."

What was there outside this Craneraser? What was this that I had conceived? What did everything mean? Where was the next gadget, in me already or outside me to be discovered?

(And why was I such a forgetful little soul?)

My dad, who is himself still tinkering and whittling his way toward a space shuttle in his basement workshop, recognized my invention bug and bought me The Way Things Work. It was a fantastic book that seemed way over my head. I looked at it once to figure out how to make a radio, but real inventions seemed too practical, and had too many gears.

I was most attracted to magical inventions of the kind my cartoon character friends seemed to enjoy (Handy Smurf was quite ingenious), and I wanted to draw pictures of things and have them work automatically, widgets already churning as they rose up from the paper.

For awhile, draw and conjure is what I did, but even naivete turns to bitterness eventually. I saw that a blueprint of "The-Sister-Blotter-Outer," for instance, would not blotter-outer my sister, whose vast attitude was coming to dominate my life.

So, for the sake of solitude-from-sister, and for the sake of practicality, I re-engineered myself. No longer would I be an inventor. Architecture was the place for me--so, alone in my basement cove, I drew multi-level treehouses, built domed arenas with blocks, and sketched Starfleet Academy based on my extensive knowledge of intergalactic space.

(My design was better than this official drawing, and it set aside a special wing for Stellar Cartography. Obviously.)

From 8-13, floorplans were my creativity. At middle school, I took seven straight terms of Architecture, fizzling out only when we changed from pad and graph paper to computers in 1996 (counting out six graph paper squares, which represented six inches apiece, was a much more satisfying way to create a doorway than anything on the computer could be).

But my transition to architecture didn't mean that invention ideas disappeared completely. The most persistent--probably because I thought about it obsessively while I was trying to fall asleep during long, hot, eventless summers--was The Self-Cooling Pillow.

You've tried ice. You've tried opening the window. You've tried turning your pillow over, again and again. You've tried sleeping naked. You've tried desperately praying the heat away while gnashing your teeth. You've tried pacing insomniatically around your room, begging for sweet release. You've tried swallowing a reptile's cold blood. You've tried circulating fans.

Well, now, try no more. Sleep soundly, and coolly, with The Self Cooling Pillow. David Wanczyk's revolutionary new design uses a tank of freon, the power of gravity, and a network of tiny pipes to keep the temperature of your soft down...way down.

The problem with this invention was that it would retail for $9,000 and might cause extensive liver damage.

I held onto the idea for awhile, though, and consulted with others on possible upgrades to my admittedly rudimentary design. It wasn't an idea that dominated me, but it did seem that some time, far in the future, I'd be cashing in on it, so this signature invention tided me over for a long time, even as architecture faded as a creative outlet (The SCP, I see now, mixed my interests in Invention and Architecture; clearly, I outfitted all of the beds in my multi-level treehouses with self-cooling pillows, three graph paper squares by two).


At about 14, I'd have trouble sleeping because of my hot pillow, and trouble drawing treehouses because I'd pretty much exhausted all of the ways I knew how to put jacuzzis and bay windows on an Elm.

So sleeping and boredom inspired my faux-artistic growing up. Inventor--Architect--Writer.

When the "Night Court" reruns (and the phone sex commercials that came with them) got me down on those hot, eventless nights, I'd write flight-of-fancy stories about presidents and heists and Rome, all of which were nonsensical and thoroughly pun-based (Et Tu Brutal). And every night I stopped, satisfied, thinking that I'd pick up again in the morning to file away the rough edges of my obvious genius. But of course I never actually revised. I'd only start a new soon-to-be-aborted project about Robots in St. Louis during the 1 am "Mad About You."

And then start again. Because something active had to happen, something had to come from my media-asphyxiated nights.


Strangely, all my arttempts (to coin a word) were about planning. I'd draw blueprints in the hopes that an invention would spring from them full-formed, floorplans that anticipated future houses, and writing that called for some future reader, some future payoff. Crafts these were not. Not pots or silkscreen. They were all ways to jar me into a different way of seeing the world, ways to imagine a glassy-glamorous existence that had my name on it, and not John Larroquette's.

Ways to transform: they were mostly futile, and inspired by futility. But they started me doing what I do today, which is still, I hope, a little bit fanciful.

In essays now, I'm usually trying to reinvent The Craneraser by putting two or more elements together that don't belong--here, in case you didn't notice, D.H. Lawrence, inventions, my writing life (such as it is), what it feels like to be eight.

Sometimes the effect is the smeary, Forest-Green sun of noun-barf; but occasionally the abstraction might get pretty-strange, emphasis on the hyphen. And, either way, plotting out a more curious world is still great playtime.


Other inventions over the years:

1. The Washer-Dryer Combination in which wet laundry falls through a trap door and activates the dryer, forestalling the need to move wet clothes. I'm told this exists in Europe. I'm told it wouldn't work here. But I can only think that's because some people have unnecessarily strict methods of laundering.

2. Screen-Clothing. Aren't we headed here inevitably, to a place where out t-shirts can project our status updates? All we need is an affordable techno-cotton that wouldn't electrocute in the rain. Imagine the possibilities of these I-frocks? We could literally wear our emotions (or at least the words for them) on our sleeves; we could walk around like photo albums or art galleries; we could constantly change the direction of the arrow on our "I'm with Stupid" T-Shirts).

3. Nacho-Chip Regenerator. Ever get to the bottom of the bag of corn chips and find the shards there too small for salsa-scooping? Isn't this America? Should we have to put up with getting a mediumly-spiced sauce under our fingernails because the vehicle for said-sauce is inadequate? No, I tells ya. Somehow, we need a way to pour the corn-crumbs into a machine that creates fully-formed chips. I'm imagining a kind of waffle press.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


It might have been because of Inspector Gadget. Or possibly Mr. Wizard.

Or maybe there's some natural phase during which little kids just want to be inventors. Probably when they're around seven, about the time they realize they're their own little selves. About the time they look around and figure out that nothing--in the whole grey, knee-scrapy world--nothing is how it is because they made it that way.

Babies think the outside world is them. If they feel pain, the whole world is pain: joy, joy. Seven year olds, maybe suddenly, see that nothing of the world is them, that everything is impacting and nothing has been impacted.

Maybe they even feel as Elizabeth Bishop did:

I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.

(Looks ever-so-slightly as if she could have come from my mom's family)

And when I became a David of six years and 362 days--on August 30th, 1989--I needed to make something that I could put my mark on, so that I'd stop falling off the meaningless world.

Though I doubt the exact date, I actually believe that I had some existential feeling like Bishop's around that time, spurred on by a Where's Waldo-induced sense of anonymity. But I think it's equally true that an Inspector Gadget marathon and a marathon session of drawing pictures with my crayons on a large roll of butcher paper was just as important in launching my career as an inventor.

Because I hated the permanence of crayons.

Smeary and imprecise as they are, crayons left me dissatisfied with my blue houses and half-suns, my chimneys and robotic dragons, my cities on the moon and my dinosaur butts alike. My drawings were sometimes half-decent, but what I really wanted to do was clean them up. Why I wasn't satisfied starting all over again, I don't know. I still have a tough time abandoning any work I've done, maybe out of vanity. Except I don't need anything to be perfect, I just need it to have a some kind of use. I have an overactive need to be practical (which, incidentally, also slows down my writing instinct), and did then too.

So, if I drew a useless Triceratops ass, I'd have a difficult time convincing myself that coloring was a useful vocation the next time I picked up the Aquamarine (why I drew butts in Aquamarine, I can't tell you). Same goes now for a useless, is-this-worth-it poem (except the difference is I can keep tweaking those).

Crayon drawings were forever.

So, I set to work on what would be my first invention: The Crayon Eraser. I think I'd picked up somewhere that inventors were supposed to identify a problem they saw in the world, and then address it. Crayons (pronounced "crans") and their indubitable indelibility (pronounced in-doo-bi-ti-bull in-del-i-bil-i-tee) were my world's biggest dilemma.

The creativity involved in identifying this problem was not matched by the creativity that would have been required for solving this problem. I had no working knowledge of eraser components, or potentially effective astringents, or detergents, or trichloroethanes, or magic.

I did know addition, though, so when I thought about crans and erasers, I figured 1 cran + 1 eraser = 2 cranerasers. And so I jammed little pieces of Aquamarine and Black, Chestnut and Lavender into the pinkish, parelellogramic pencil eraser I had on-hand and hoped for the best. I surmised that each color I wanted to eventually erase would need to be embedded in that pencil eraser--each bit a kind of kiddie anti-matter that would neutralize wayward outside-the-linesing.

When all was set, I allowed the eraser to marinate for awhile. Then I began my experiment by trying to erase a half-sun, and since you've been patient up until this point, I won't drum up any extra suspense: as you will have guessed, my eraser failed, and it failed miserably. A dappled Forest Green covered that half-sun before my dream crumbled all over the butcher paper.

Alas. I went to wash up before supper.

This had been a cold, blue-black moment.
But I still felt: You are an Inventor!


P.S. I've just read that Baking Soda might be an effective crayon eraser, and so, since my erasing idea has come into being, I'll be taking my next post to expand on the six other invention ideas I've developed since 1989, lest they all be made obsolete by a common household Soda or Starch.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ow, Ow

This week, because I'd been feeling slothful, I took up a physical challenge: on Monday, I ran two miles in 20 minutes, Tuesday brought it down to 19, then 18, and on until yesterday when I ran two painful miles in 15 minutes. I'm no cross country star, and this jogging has made me entirely sleepy.

Today, in the seventh day, I'd planned on trying the 10,560 feet in a mere 14 minutes (754 feet per minute). I calculated that I'd have to average 8.6 on the treadmill and 9.4 on the pain scale.

But I was particularly exercised to do this because Megan tells a story (dubious) about having to run this exact distance in this exact amount of time to qualify for girls' soccer at her high school.

Regardless of the truth of that story, today I wanted to qualify for girls' soccer.

Today, I wanted to run like a Lindsay.

At my own high school, Girls' Soccer was a showy sport. Young ladies who played the beautiful game used to shout out "aoww aoww Girls' Soccer" at assemblies and meals and when they got good grades on tests and, generally, whenever they damn pleased. So "Aoww aoww Girls' Soccer" became a thing my more cynical friends and I said too, in darker circumstances.

Didn't make the trivia team? Year Book has a picture of you dressed as Gandalf? Girl you like is dating a guy named Travis? Aoww, Aoww Girls' Soccer indeed.

Still, I thought that Megan's story and my own memories of Deerfield Academy soccer joy could motivate me. I wanted to make the team.

Though this is far too much setup for what will turn out only to be a moderately successful pun, I didn't quite succeed today, didn't have it in me to break 14 minutes, or really even try after nearly falling asleep on my feet this morning.

And so after a slower, and still sore-making jog, I just keep thinking, "Ow, Ow Girls' Soccer."

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Birthplace of the Tomato

A few months ago, I made this short movie about tomatoes. Right now seems like a decent time for some summer.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Spelling Trouble

Winsome, adj., "Attractive or appealing in appearance or character."

Maybe I was that in fifth grade, maybe not, but one thing's for sure: I was a top-notch speller, and I was often left on my own during Language Arts to compile five words for my extra-special-top-notch-end-of-the-alphabet spelling test, while most of the other students toiled with words like toil and test and trouble.

I'm on W,
I might have taunted. Have fun back at T.

Tasked thusly, I took to the classroom Webster's--which we kept next to the giant black-and-white throw rug we used as a chessboard, next to the Ukraine-less globe, next to our Starter-jacket-stuffed cubbies--to find my words.

Winsome would work. Hard enough to satisfy the teacher, Mrs. Kimball (who sometimes referred to herself as The Dragon Lady for difficult-to-discern reasons), and easy enough that it wouldn't give me any sort of real trouble. Winsome. An attractive word, mnemonically simple. I winsome, I losesome. I get my golden star.

Whydah, n. "Mostly black African weaverbird."

We were studying African-American history--including the Revolutionary era black poet Phyllis Wheatley (W-H-E-A-T-L-E-Y), whose struggles, for difficult-to-discern reasons, caused me to giggle uncontrollably--and I had already started to develop my love of really sketchy tangential connections, so maybe I figured Whydah would work as an addition to our curriculum.

Whydah would also allow me some cursing opportunities, as in Whydahhell not? (I loved to curse innocently and I added "damn" onto the end of any popular song lyrics I could remember--"Say Live and Let Die, Damn, Damn, Damn"--which incited more giggles among my fellow W-word chums).

We were weird.

Wholesomeness, adj., "conducive to or suggestive of good health."

(If I don't know what wholesomeness means I promise I won't know what conducive means, Webster. You don't understand my problems.)

Meanwhile, I was pretty wholesome at the time, as you can probably tell by the fact that I found "damn" to be a most scandalous curseword. I remember tattling to my teacher about a paraprofessional who muttered the word under her breath. (Nothing was done and she was left unimprisoned).

Damn aside, it was in fifth grade that my cynicism started to bud like a useless--totally useless--simile. Take my treatment of former slave Phyllis Wheatley. How could I giggle about her travails: her impoverished circumstances, the fact that her grocer husband, John Peters, was sent to debtors' prison?

I remember that his arrest seemed like a grand hoot of misfortune after my gleeful recess. And I guess I can understand laughing at the most inappropriate thing in class, or at the troublemaker's struggle, or even sneering at what seemed to be the exaggerated opulence of Mrs. Wheatley's pain.

But it seems like all of those reactions require a weird kind of maturity--a recognition of standards--that also should have kept me from being so cruel. Somehow, though, I was old enough to notice the dark humor of desperation, but not old enough to wipe that smile off my damn face, or recognize an actual person's actual damn humanity.

In other (spelling) words, I was edging out of Wholesomeness but hadn't come close to Wisdom.

Wistful, adj. having or showing a feeling of vague or regretful longing.

What was I then, anyway? Shortpantsed spelling champion, or rebellious curser? Wholesome or wise? And where would I be headed in sixth grade? With the kids who already wore deodorant and undershirts, or with the kids who'd always smell forever and ever?

And why couldn't I be wholesome and damn-trumpeting at the same time? For that matter, what was to stop me from saying "shit" on my birthday and still kiss my mother with that mouth?

All of these questions. All W's. Who. Where. Why. What.

I wasn't sure of the answers, but I knew I wasn't what I'd been in third grade, nimrodishly studying long division while somehow still captaining the schoolyard soccer team; powerful enough to institute rules that only benefited my team of jocks while brainstrong enough to semi-master all things quotient.

How had the Davids diverged?

Wistful. It seemed easy to spell.

Whore, n., the same as prostitute.

(If I don't know what whore means I promise I won't know what prostitute means, Webster. You don't understand my problems.)

I don't remember picking this word as a prank, but is it possible I was unaware what a prostitute was? Yes, I think so. Pretty Woman had come out and its ads are among my first pop culture referents, but the meaning of the movie definitely evaded me.

And I think it's possible I thought that the new spelling word was an archaic question--whither, wherefore, whence, whatsoever, wherewith, howsoever, whore. And I wouldn't have been able to conceive that something so naughty could actually appear in a school dictionary anyway.

Mrs. Kimball dealt with all of this very well when I presented my list to her. She said I should find a replacement for this particular W. I wondered why.

"Is it a swear?"

"Not really. It's just not a polite word," she said.


She probably thought she was being duped, the target of a nasty 11-year-old's nasty joke. Either that or she felt sorry for me. I was, after all, about to be fed to the middle school wolves and, as I've painfully catalogued elsewhere, I had a limited vocabulary when it came to crudeness. How would I survive? Would I have to ask what a prick was and be thereafter labeled prick-ignorant?

I replaced whore with whatever.

After I passed my test, the group of us got demoted back to T, task and toil, and I remember having some unexpected trouble spelling trouble.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Spring Lit Fest Update

Fiction Writer Amy Hempel will visit OU for Lit Fest this year.

Amy Hempel is the author of four collections of stories. Her COLLECTED STORIES won the Ambassador Award for Best Fiction of the Year, and was named one of the New York Times Top Ten Books of the Year. It was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Hempel has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a United States Artists Foundation fellowship, the REA Award for Fiction, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction.

Her stories have appeared in Harper's, GQ, Vanity Fair, The Quarterly, The Yale Review, Tin House, Playboy and many other publications; they have been anthologized in the Best American Short Stories, the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, and others.

Her nonfiction has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Vogue, O, the Oprah Magazine and many more.

She co-edited, with Jim Shepard, the poetry collection UNLEASHED, and is a Contributing Editor to Bomb magazine.

A founding board member of The Deja Foundation, she teaches creative writing at Harvard and at Bennington.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


In the book In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust, as every poseur knows, writes about a tiny cookie--a madeleine--which has the power to transport him back to his childhood, or, in the other direction, to bring his childhood into the present. One whiff of this little cookie and back he goes (or here it comes), and he can feel his little-boy cheeks squeezed by all manner of aunt.

When I hear the song "Be My Baby" by The Ronettes, I don't think of my childhood--it was recorded 19 years before I was born--but I do experience an immediate association, a kind of Madeline Moment.

I misspell that for a reason. Because "Be My Baby" puts me back with Madeline Adams herself, a young woman I met in my formative years. This Madeline was very beautiful, almost mythically so, and I've never heard the opening four-beat drum-burst of "BMB" without thinking of her smiling and then riding off on a school bus with me, farther and farther into the distance, oh won't you please.

Fine. So Madeline may have been made-up, a character from The Wonder Years on whom Kevin Arnold had a desperate and scandalous crush, but my cause-and-effect memory of her is very real. Be My Baby = Madeline + the creepy-sweet teen lust she seemed to represent.

I'll make you happy, baby. Just wait and see. For every kiss you give me, I'll give you three.

(Quick aside: until this week, I'd never considered that the title The Wonder Years is a double meaning, encapsulating both nostalgia--the noun--and debilitating adolescent doubt--the verb.)

(Quicker aside: "Be My Baby" was written and produced by notable murderer Phil Spector, a fact which only adds to its haunting nature).

You know I will adore you 'til eternity.

I can't dance about architecture or write about music, but I think what's so effective about the song is the mix of a sweet, intimate declaration--"Be My Little Baby"--with the sultry, invasive backup-singer repetition of that declaration. The speaker of the song is the ultimate crush-come-true who, unfortunately, turns out not to be in full possession of her marbles. She has multiple personalities or, at the very least, she's got some home-girl-voyeurs chanting from her closet, and they all really want you to stay over and make mistakes. Both the angel and devil on your broad shoulders are whispering "Be Her Little Baby," and it's too late to run.

And if I had the chance I'd--never let you go.


In the years since I saw that Wonder Years episode--"Heartbreak" it's called--I've played the soundtracked scene back in my brain--my consciousmess, my wit mine, my thoughtjockey, my grey lady, my me blob, my skullbug--an estaimted eleven times. Kevin and Winnie are on a field trip. They've broken up because Winnie saw Kevin standing with Madeline and because Winnie likes another fellow. They board their buses--K & W are now at separate high schools so they've got separate rides--and the buses turn in different directions. Madeline, the symbol of all this teen-anguish, is still on Kevin's bus and she's still totally smoking. But he doesn't care any more: "Be My Baby" plays: I tingle.

It's all very simple. And it's so cemented in my wit mine--I'm sorry, my brain--that I've told Megan about its effect on me whenever we hear The Ronettes. Or any band I mistake for The Ronettes, including: The Marvelletes, the Chirelles, the Shantelles, the Shrangri-la's, and the Velvelettes). I sometimes share this Wonder Years plotline even when I listen to "Please Mr. Postman," which is the virginal twin-sister of "Be My Baby."

At every rate, the scene is a dominant memory.

When I was a sophomore, I constantly shirked my Chemistry homework to watch Wonder Years reruns from 9 to 10, so I probably saw "Heartbreak" half-a-dozen times (poetic clause). Maybe that constant watching set me up to have some strange romantic expectations. Anyway, I'd just started going to a school that had girls, I was a serial idolizer of them, and, reinforcing that unfair perception, I took doses of girl-next-door-schmaltz in the form of The Wonder Years every night. I was hoping that, just as I tried to jump into the screen, my very own Winnie-Madeline would jump off of it and save me with her virtue.

All that is to say that there was no way I wasn't going to check out that episode when it became available to me on Netflix the other day. I shepherded Megan toward the TV, as she shepherds me toward certain episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I asked her to wait 21-minutes for the knee-buckling conclusion.

First she lightly chastised me for still having a TV-crush on Madeline. I proposed to her that this was an instance of Alex-Mackification; that is, TV characters, like Alex Mack, who were older than us when we first watched their shows will always be remembered as grown-ups, so therefore it isn't totally creepy when we're retroactively fond of their formerly contemporary 14-year old faces.

(Totally more than a year older than me).

Megan mostly agreed with the logic--probably because she still has a crush on Rufio from Hook--and then we found out that Julie Condra, who played Madeline, had been 20 when the episode aired. So I was absolved of any suspected fourth-degree-skeeviness.

Meanwhile, in the show, the buses pulled away, here it came, oh since the day I saw you, I have been waiting for you. . .

And then the Beach Boys' song "God Only Knows" started playing. If you should ever leave me, well, life would still go ON believe me. This was totally wrong. How could a memory so specific and, let's be honest, obsessive, turn out to be invaded by Brian Wilson?

I stammered only for a minute, and then refused to give up on my own Mem-o-matic (again, I'm referring to my brain. Please try to keep up). "Be My Baby" must have been featured in another episode. And I did find, after a time, that "Be My Baby" had played during "Ninth Grade Man," a minute of which is included below.

Madeline appears while the song plays, and it's ominous. I was right. But wrong. And I had to wonder at/about my own memory, which had been sharp enough to connect a pop-song from the 60s with a 20-year-old actress in a 20-year old dramedy, and sharp enough to develop an uncanny association. But it was also too dull to actually be accurate.

Here, we see the beginning of the end of Kevin and Winnie and "Be My Baby" plays. In a later episode, Madeline actually figures in the end of their relationship and it's "God Only Knows" that plays. My patternsmith--i.e., brain--must have decided that the songs ought to have been switched, and would have been even more unsettling if they had been.

Or, more likely, the frazzled traffic cop above my neck--i.e., ibid--just threw up its hands at my memory-jam and said, as Ronnie Spector does in "Be My Baby," wait, oh wait, wait a minute.

Wait a minute.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


Megan came home a couple days ago, surprised. She'd heard from a few local friends that they didn't have fire hydrants in their neighborhoods, and that when the occasion arose, firefighters would pump water from a lake before rushing to the hypothetical scene. This was another reminder of how rural the surrounding area is.

"But, wait," I said, ever the curious contrarian. In my own 0ff-the-sewer-grid childhood neighborhood, did we have fire hydrants?

I never danced in the flow of a broken hydrant on a pavement-shimmering summer afternoon. And I can't remember using hydrants as finish lines in bike races. So I called my mom yesterday to check on the geography of my nostalgia. She couldn't confirm anything.

"We've had fires, so we must have hydrants," she declared, laughing at her logic before she'd even finished the sentence.

And, in fact, we have had some fires on Brookside Avenue, a post-war outcropping of single-family homes about three miles from Greenfield Center. The most ironic one came only a few hours after the decommisioning of our volunteer fire department, a tiny garage at the first loop of Brookside that blocked the path to the Gravel Pit (I never, ever went to the Gravel Pit, which, if my mom was to be believed, is about as dangerous as a motorcycle ride; playing there would result in gruesome dismemberment--or at least some pretty nasty abrasions).

In that tiny garage, a tiny fire truck lay idle, breeding ghosts (besides ghosts, there were also many beetles).

That early-morning fire--The Koblanski Fire--has always been my symbol of Harlot Fortune: HF being the nasty, androgynous world-spirit who plays arsonist just a few hours after anything can be done about the flames.

But besides that attention-getting neighborhood legend--only retold because the Koblanski house was spared--fire was never on my mind. Maybe we didn't have hydrants. Maybe we too would have had to wait for a pumping truck if our fireplace-flue ever got really gunked up, or if a wayward casserole went forgotten in all its blackening-Durkee-Onion-glory.

My belief in my own hydrantless childhood grew.

"Nutmeg never peed on a fire hydrant. And if we had hydrants in the neighborhood, we would have joked about her going on them," I told my mom, with the sort of air-loose logic that might be hereditary.

"Girl dogs don't go on hydrants," she countered, echoing Megan's, "she was a girl dog so she wouldn't lift a leg."

Why must they always gang up on me? I knew my dog. And if there had been a hydrant in her realm, she would have figured out a way to do something disgusting to it. And if she did that, I would remember it, I thought.

But as today's photographic evidence proves, I was wrong:

(This hydrant sits near where an old, excellent VW bug with white window shutters used to hang out. The green house in the background always had very scary dogs. Across the street in a vermillion colonial (not-pictured) lived a witch).

(The opposite curve of our circle was filled with very ancient people, all nice, all with sun-porches).

(I can barely even see this hydrant so I almost refuse to believe in its existence. Even if I stipulate to the pictorial evidence, I assert that this hydrant is a post-2000 addition).

(My mother points to the memory-jogging hydrant. Seeing my breath, enduring my soggy feet, I almost feel Nutmeg pulling me with her flexi towards this oasis of urine. The red house behind it is not ours; the house behind that house is ours. I probably should have remembered this one, seeing as how it's a couple dozen yards from my old bedroom).

Monday, January 23, 2012

English Interlude

Here are some lines from Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," most of which I knew and could quote back during the Wanczytron era. They (the bolded) were sort of my early-college slogan (important to note that Holy Cross was extremely hilly). Now that I read them again in context, they seem even better.

"While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills
, when like a roe
I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all--I cannot paint
What then I was.

I mean, I can kinda paint what then I was, but I take W's point.

Mrs. Megs51015 Wanczytron

For the last many years, I've been a crank about online socialness, but I should always remember my 21-year-old self, churning away at Instant Messenger until 2am, craftily crafting perfect away messages, sometimes in Polish, to project just the right image of me--flippant, unafraid, socially disastrous in that cool way, intelligent, impenetrable.

Impenetrable because one of the great joys of Instant Messenger was the ability to write with candor while at the same time being concealed, to mean what I said without having to own it. IM was a Halloween costume, a foreign language. It topsy-turvied who I could be, and as much as I too-strongly decry facebook for doing the same thing for my self-conscious students, IM may have allowed me to get married.

Explanation: at Holy Cross, Megan was only Megs51015, a pale blue collection of letters that rarely popped up on my screen of their own volition, but which dutifully appeared when called upon. Megs51015 wrote in complete, well-punctuated sentences. Megs51015 seemed to be on my side. Megs51015 also put up craftily crafted away messages, sometimes from British novels.

Megs, the real person, though she was much more compelling than a pale collection of intermittent letters, tended to stay to herself. In the guise of Megs51015, she could interact with Wanczytron. Wanczytron was a fine collection of red letters, perfectly safe. Wanczytron was, after all, easy to turn off. But Dave was an over-tall, overly-stumbling goofball who wanted way too much to type/talk to both versions of Megs. But that would never work.

So, we slowly built up some trust with weekly IMs, mine too-clever to be understood (and so not really very clever at all--those of you who knew me between 1997-2006ish know the sort of interaction I'm talking about).

Her writing, meanwhile, was perfectly patient, full of witty deflections and actual communications about life-stuff, meals, things people actually care about. Really, I'm not proud of the fact that this is how we kept alive a tiny paramecium of friendship, but I can't help thinking that, without those chats, we might not be together at all, might never have become, to continue the metaphor, as close as a Paramecium Aurelia and its bacterial endosymbionts.

In fact, after I asked her out blurtingly over the phone, and then months later, blurtingly in person, it was an IM response that sparked out first date: ice cream at Friendly's, three hours of built-up talkativeness, followed, ultimately, by eight years of built up long-winditude. Now, we never shut up.

So, are technologies that allow for low-impact friendships actually gateways to high-impact, see-your-smile, possibly-make-some-babies friendships? I obviously see how they can be. But what continues to worry me is that most low-impact friendships are actually giving us just enough social nourishment to stay to ourselves. Like images of Italy instead of Italy itself, they give us a warm feeling, just enough to convince us that we're worldly, connected. And, in too many cases, they may not taste as nice as the real gelato.

When the image of Italy encourages the trip, of course, I'm all for it.

And I'm thankful there was a Megs51015. I'm glad there was a Wanczytron, too. But I'm glad they've retired now, traveled to Florence. When I looked at Megs51015, I had to keep staring at Wanczytron, right at all of my silliness. When I look at Megan, there aren't any blinks or beeps, and there's none of my own fooling.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

All of A.D. History, Most of It Incorrectly Thought to Involve Alexander the Great

Can I list something that happened in every century, A.D.? (If you want to try this, too, take a few minutes and then compare your results with mine. You will feel great about yourself, I'm sure).

This shouldn't be hard. There are only 21 spans, and I know at least 21 Red Sox, more than 21 phone numbers, a couple dozen British Monarchs, bazillions of capitals, and the name of each of Megan's 21 cousins (approximate). But I think I'll have a blank spot somewhen. How can that be? I think I've been reckless with my time, and with my time-knowing. But here I go.

1st. Jesus exists. Born, strangely, 4 B.C. (riddle: Who was the only person born before himself?). Did some (sometimes angry) stuff in the temple, made some (sometimes reliable) friends, spent a lot of time alone in the desert, empathized with the suffering of humanity, died (but then there's this really shocking twist).

2nd. And we're finally, after a tenacious struggle to get through the torrential centuries on a raft of facts, overwhelmed. What, oh what, could have happened between 100 and 199? I've heard the Gospels got written quite a bit after Jesus's life, but more than 70 years? I can't be sure. Something undoubtedly occurred in Rome--however, that something is unconfirmed by my dullard, hot-cocoa-sipping synapses. Was there someone once named Theodocius? It sounds like he would have lived around then. I'll come back to it. (Update: I've come back to it with a guess: Paul writes letters to Corinthians. Many future weddings are made pleasantly cheesy by his quilled-in declarations about love and its somewhat vague qualities. Then we all eat shrimp.

I'll check and let you know how I did at the end).

(Was Hadrian's Wall constructed in the 2nd Century? Would I have known that an hour ago?)

3rd. Again, trouble. So, at first glance, there's a good 100-200 years of human history on which I have nothing. When was Alexander the Great? I'm going to have to venture AtG in one of these slots. (Update: last ditch guess: Eli Whitney's ancestors invent grain).

4th. Make that 200-300 common era years of which I have no knowledge. Fine: Alexander the Great plunders world.

5th. Ok, I've got this one. Rome falls to the Ostrogoths, 476. 1300 hundred years later, to the day (unconfirmed), a portion of Britain falls to the Washingtongoths. Alright!

In Rome, July 4th would have been known as Julius IV (unconfirmed). In the Ostrogoth language, July would have been denoted by a series of shield-thrusts and plenty of public executions.

Working backwards, it may be safe to say that Rome was falling for those last 300 years. And is that all I've got?

6th. St. Benedict starts a bunch of monasteries.

7th. Muhammad, in around 622, gets some revelations from God, spoken to him from the length of two bows (what does this mean? I don't know exactly. I read it today. I think it means God spoke to him from the distance that an arrow, shot twice, might travel. So, like a football field? I've never hunted, or received prophecies, or taken a reasonable history survey, but I can guess that God might speak to one from beyond the goalposts); founds Islam.

8th. Well, I'm once again gobsmacked. Council of Something? Battle of Whichway Bridge? Alexander the Great?

9th. Charlemagne had a lot of power in France/Gaul. Yes!

10th. Is it possible Charlemagne was still alive? Doubtful.

11th. Battle of Hastings, 1066. Normans conquer England/Saxony(?).

12th. Genghis Khan born. I know this from a video game.

13th. Genghis Khan takes over much of the world, including Country 12, which is led by Qelkubud. Ibid.

14th. I want to say Printing Press.

15th. Columbus sails the ocean blue, lands on the island brown, stares at the vegetation green, gets a sunburn red.

16th. Shakespeare born and active.

17th. Protestant Reformation. Also, Guy Fawkes invents fireworks.

18th. American, et al. Revolution(s).

19th. John Quincy Adams becomes a congressman after losing presidency.

20th. Cola wars fought in 80s. Sprite gains market share.

21st. (This took me a long time because I was unsure of the tone of the above: am I mocking my own intellect, or the collective intellect, or cursorily exploring how small facts plant themselves, or actually trying to win a self-imposed quiz?).

Regardless: Parks and Recreation debuts; Lady Gaga emerges; Samoa crosses international dateline for reasons of Australian Trade; All of the above.

How'd I do? 1. Jesus! Correct! 2. Obviously wrong. St. Paul lived in the 1st century. 3. Eli Whitney's ancestors did not invent grain. 4. Right number century. Wrong suffix. Alexander the Great was waaaay B.C. 5. Rome fell. Correct! September 4th, not July 4th. 6. Shoots and scores on St. Benedict. 7. Yep. 8. Alright! The Second Council of Nicaea. I answered "Council of Something." 1/4 credit. 9. Sweet. Charlemagne was alive and crushin'. 10. Sour. Charlemagne was long dead (814). 11. This--1066, Norman Conquest--is the fact everyone knows about this 1000 year span. And I know it too. And for a long time anything that cost $9.99 rang up as $10.66, and then I thought about the Battle of Hastings, took my mid-priced bottle of wine off the gas station counter, and felt extremely satisfied. Now, Ohio sales tax is slightly higher and I have no inkling about 1068. My guess is William was still conquering and levying slightly higher sales taxes on his new vassals. 12. Genghis Khan was indeed born, sometime around 1162, but I'm only giving myself half a point because, at the time of his emergence, he was named Temujin (which I should have known from my video game). 13. Genghis Khan did do some business, but I can't suss out the identity of a Qelkubud, either historical or Nintendonical. 1/2 Credit again. 14. Bah! Take away my English degree. Give it back again when I can behave. 15. Columbus. Correct. 16. Shakespeare. Good. 17. Embarrassingly wrong. I was thinking of The Glorious Revolution. 18-21. Correct. Even the thing about Sprite.

13 and 1/4 out of 21. 63. D-. I pass!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Boethius and Bowser

Yesterday, at the public library, grading short papers on St. Augustine's understanding of Original Sin (strangely, it has something to do with the molecular composition of Edenic semen), I found myself stopping every arcane paragraph or so because a middle-aged man sitting at the next carrel over was loudly playing Super Mario Bros. 3 on some new device--an Acer or Pad--and, for some reason, had chosen not to turn the sound down, thereby sending a cascade of coin-twinkles throughout the entire reading room every time his Italian-avatar jumped, boobeepishly, over a mushroom and onto a spinning piece of gold.

When this got egregious--as it did while he no doubt encountered, via pipe, an underground cache of life-giving bullion--I gestured to the air and sighed, muttering, "really, why is this allowed to continue," as if appealing to a cosmic jury. Unfortunately, God, or his twelve small-claims court sub-angels, declared a mistrial.

It is odd to me that this man didn't seem to have any public consideration at all. And it's odd that collecting coins gives you extra life in Super Mario Bros. 3.

"Are riches naturally precious, or are they precious because of some virtue of yours?" asked the character, Philosophy, in Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy. "What is precious about them, the gold metal or the pile of money? [. . .] Riches are miserable and troublesome."

Philosophy might have been surprised to find that by the early 1990s, gold would actually have palliative powers for animated video game characters, giving to the player of those games, as I used to say, "Extra Guys."

I couldn't take the implications, or the noise. Rather than giving life, those video-riches were sapping mine.

So I stood up to approach the man, steeled myself for confrontation, but found that I just couldn't be the one to chastise him even though his behavior was really unsupportable. Returning to St. Augustine, I held my useless tongue. Just as the Bishop of Hippo predicted in the 5th Century, my free will was powerless in the face of sin and Super Mario.

And yet, for Boethius's character Philosophy, "nothing is miserable unless you think it so"; I, therefore, ate my granola bar, grew to twice my size, and stormed through that august stack of freshman papers, undaunted by the local man's considerable and vexatious skill.

Now, my dear Philosophy, spurred by that experience, I'm home. And I'm ready to count my blessings and my coins as I once-and-for-all defeat the offending Nintendo game, alone and silently. "How can glory be great that is severely limited by such narrow boundaries?" you ask. Good question. But for the next 45 minutes, I choose to ignore it.