Personal Meme

Rachel Kramer Bussel has tagged me for a meme. And who am I to deny her? So here goes:

1. I believe I may have written about this before, but in the second grade, I was apparently considered “special” and “gifted” after being asked to go to my elementary school on a very hot Saturday morning and participating in some tests that involved spatial dimensions, memory, and verbal skills. The man who tested me, upon seeing my results, began speaking to me in an extremely quiet and nurturing tone. I saw him speak to other adults, who likewise pointed to me. Frankly, now and then, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I will be the first to confess that I try to do my best, but that it often isn’t good enough to satisfy me. But this did permit me to enter into a GATE program, where I was bussed once a week to another school and encouraged to think and create. But since I was given nothing specific in the way of ideas or guidelines, since I didn’t have nearly as many books as some of the other richer, middle-class students had, I ended up getting an incredible crush on an older girl named Kristin, spending my time combating a horrible diffidence that crippled me for many years. But I did end up experiencing my first kiss — I don’t count the other pecks I received in preschool and kindergarten, which were more predicated upon “girls are icky” games in the schoolyard — after I gave her a box of After Eight mints that one of the men my mother had dated — a New Yorker, who tried to offer paternal advice to me over the phone — convinced my mother to spring for. The box of mints was six bucks. No small purchase back in those days.

2. As further evidence of my incongruous smarts, I ended up on a Knowledge Bowl team in seventh grade, where I was roundly ridiculed for my ratty clothes and how apparently stupid I was. It wasn’t my idea to be on the Knowledge Bowl. My English teacher, who was miffed when I once defended Stephen King’s virtues by stuttering my points in front of the class, had the idea of putting me on the team. I obliged him and I didn’t know why. We participated in the initial round by staring at a primitive computer terminal — a TRS-80, as I recall — that was linked to several other schools over what now seems the flimsiest of networks, but was then cutting edge. There were a few cases where I knew some obscure answer, although I felt tremendously dumb because my geography and science horrible. But I was very good at language, and remembering painters and musicians. And I saved the team from a defeat by offering a few eleventh-hour answers: both through this computer-based contest and during a later one, conducted live in front of parents and other kids. The other kids on the team — again, much richer and better dressed than me — still viewed me as a dork and a dumbass. For all I knew, they might have been right. But I did find a few other misfits who I got along with. In addition to introducing me to The Prisoner, a television series I still hold in high regard, they also taught me how to use a ten-sided die and encouraged me to do something called “DMing.” There, I invented a remarkably complex universe and tried to account for every conceivable choice that the other players would make, creating a document of what-ifs that was somewhere around thirty handwritten pages. (I also had a tendency to create fictitious countries, complete with economies and demographics. I submitted one such country, using a yeast concoction to generate three-dimensional mountains and carefully painting over it, to my history teacher.)

3. Other failed contests along these lines — my efforts debilitated by my unshakable shyness — included getting to the district spelling bee and, with three kids remaining, misspelling “leopard” by stuttering the O (“l…e…ooooooo…p…a..r…d”) because I was so nervous (I whispered “Whew!” into the mike after spelling a word correctly, where the whoosh from my lips would reverberate across the PA system); being invited to perform at a school district choir before puberty and hiding from everybody, until a kind dark-haired girl took an interest in me and told me what a great singer I was and that the choir needed me and somehow coaxed me onto stage; and, in ninth grade, getting very far in a school district speech contest, only to become very nervous because I had a crush on a redhaired girl named Stacey. But she was a Bush supporter in ’88 who hated my guts and was very resolute in letting me know it. (There was also a malicious, dark-haired Republican-in-training named Louis, who did everything in his powers to make my life miserable, including mocking my stutter, ridiculing my Marshall’s-purchased sweaters, and, in particular, not even permitting me to be a third-string class clown.)

4. Politically, I was a late bloomer. It was 1988, when a very tall senior named Chris, son of a very political man and a kind-hearted laidback guy who ran an underground newspaper (and asked me to write for it, which I did) and who showed me the ropes on how to light a theatrical play, asked me if I was liberal and made me understand what being a liberal entailed, that I realized I was an opinionated young progressive lout. I didn’t understand then why everybody was going after Tip O’Neill. And as soon as my liberalism was out, several hippie chicks in my drama class wanted to corrupt me. But I was too shy then to let them do this. I was, as I believe I have imputed in the previous paragraphs, a fool.

5. 1988 was also the year in which something I wrote was actually performed. It wasn’t much — a play called Inspired Lunacy: Or I Think This is a Big Mistake — very much modeled on Douglas Adams, the Three Stooges, and the Marx Brothers. Two other guys helped write this: a short guy named Chris and a guy named Eric who everybody hated. I deliberately took the third credit, because I didn’t know what I was doing. I shamelessly lifted gags that I had seen pulled off in other mediums. But what I learned with this play was that the humor I came up — which, with the exceptions of a few kind teachers and students, I thought pretty crappy — generated laughter, but that the stuff I stole didn’t. This encouraged me to go into crazier areas, such as a literal adaptation of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” a few years later, which set the murderous events over a suburban teenage party. I wrote and starred in that fifteen-minute theatrical piece, but it was the first time I had seen my material directed by somebody else. The director was extremely ambitious, using crazed gel lighting. In my bedroom, I practiced my murderous fall for hours so that it would be fairly convincing, angering the family (“How dare you make that noise!”) with my many thumps. The idea of my theatrical adaptation was to present something comical and end it with something startling and sad. I think this was my way of communicating the unpleasant domestic situation to my classmates.

6. Only a few years after the Poe hijinks, I spent far too many hours examining Buster Keaton’s moves on grainy VHS tapes and second-hand DVDs, trying to fall like him. When girlfriends asked where my bruises came from, I never offered an answer. I was not as shy as I had been as a kid, but I was still ashamed of who I was.

7. One of my favorite bars in my twenties was a neighborhood dive called Kelly’s Bar and No Grill (later turned into Pittsburgh’s Pub under new ownership). I’d spend hours there listening to conversations because I learned fairly quickly that the place was where former convicts would go in and get set up. It was sometimes a rough place. (I once witnessed a knife fight there, which, in my youthful folly and idealism, I actually attempted to stop. Thankfully, I was not stabbed.) But I learned more about people just by sitting there during happy hour and listening. I often went alone. But then friends discovered the place and we played darts. By then the riff-raff had dissembled. And it became a pleasant, but fairly run-of-the-mill dive.

8. My skin thickened considerably when I worked for a particular mean attorney. His personal remarks and observations were often extremely vicious, but I began to see how utterly absurd they were and they melted off my Teflon shell. So I have to thank him tremendously for toughening me up. He also inspired the Businessman character in my 2004 play, Wrestling an Alligator.

Anyway, time to pass the meme on. Here are the rules:

1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
3. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
4. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
5. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

And here are the people I pass this onto (only eight? So unfair!):

Jeff Bryant

Sarah Weinman

Mark Sarvas

Tayari Jones

Jason Boog

Levi Asher

SJ of I, Asshole

Shauna of What’s New Pussycat


  1. Oh helo there. I accept your challenge, and raise you three doughnuts. But probably not until tomorrow.

  2. And PS, I heard a guy talking about “Blade Runner” the other day on NPR and his voice sounded just like yours and I almost pooped myself. Imagine my sadness when it was some other guy.

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