My mother was progressive and carefully explained sex to me well ahead of the rest of the kids in school, which was a problem, given my in-built mania to tell everyone around me about cool things I’d learned.
Mind you, I was not clear on the idea that sperm cells preferred to be administered in a liquid medium of a precise consistency and temperature, and I explained to my fellow students, with a tone of wisdom and gravity, that sperm was microscopic, like bacteria and viruses, and just leaked out of boys in a cloud that could impregnate any unlucky girl in the vicinity of a particularly potent boy.
My breathless retelling of this misconception about conception led to a very brief mass hysteria in my class involving all the girls taking to fleeing the boys as if they were surrounded by swarms of yellowjackets, complete with sudden darting changes of direction and wildly flailing fanning gestures.
“What on earth are you doing, Miss Wassman?” asked our teacher of one of the gesticulating young ladies.
“I don’t wanna have a baby!”
“I don’t wanna have a baby! There’s sperm everywhere!”
“Joe Wall said—”
“—Oh, did he now? Mister Wall, can I have a word with you?”
I was honored to be invited to tell a story at the RISK! podcast live show in Baltimore at the Creative Alliance on November 3rd, 2017. I’ve been a big fan of the open, wild, freewheeling storytelling style of RISK! for a while now, which spares no sensibilities in telling things just exactly as they are.
I got to share the stage again with the fantastic KL Parr, who I had the pleasure to meet at my second outing with Baltimore’s own Stoop Storytelling series in February, 2017, as well as Rachel Hinton, Shamyla Tareen, and the illustrious host of the RISK! podcast, Kevin Allison. Three of our stories were featured in the podcast of that evening’s storytelling, available at the RISK! site, and here’s a brief excerpt from mine, in which I describe my failed aspiration to badass status and my infinitesimally short career in the eighties as a fake-smoking male stripper who’d learned to dance by watching Twyla Tharp and Bob Fosse and providing accompaniment by Harry Partch (it did not go well).
Performed a couple stories last weekend with live electronic accompaniment (using the smallest rig I’ve used to date for a minimalist invocation of mood) at the Center For The Arts in Homer, New York, as a participant in a two-day festival of electronic, electro-acoustic, and experimental music. I’m always honored to share a bill with so many amazing artists, and this year’s festival was my first outside of the previous venue in Huguenot, NY.
I’ve been experimenting with ways of telling stories on stage. I’m drifting away from the scripted, the cut-and-dried, and the composed in favor of the kind of stories you tell around the campfire or in a bar, surrounded by new friends and old. I’m using improvisational electronics to score these stories and stepping up on stage with just a single index card with a collection of waypoints to remind myself where I am in case I drift off the subject, and I’m increasingly happy to work in this loose and natural mode. Stories come in and out of focus, I find the point, lose it again, and work my way back. It feels like the kind of thing I’ve been trying to do ever since the first time I set foot on a stage with a synthesizer and a microphone, nearly thirty years ago.
This time around, I was thinking about stories from outside, from just off the beaten path, just beyond the edge of the highway, where we find meaning in unexpected places.
The first purchase I ever made as a member of the working public was a cassette player.It was 1983, I was just about to turn fifteen, and I had a little brown envelope containing seventy-three dollars in cash that Carlo Petrucci handed me after my first week working at Pal Jack’s Pizza in Laurel. I was in Baltimore, visiting my grandmother, and we climbed into her turquoise Barracuda with sticky clear plastic seat covers embossed with little flowers that did absolutely nothing to stop those seat covers from clinging to your thighs like duct tape and headed up the street to Luskins.
In 2010, I sold my Citroën. It’d taken me about eight years to come to grips with letting it ago, and if that says something about me, so be it. I’d put eighty thousand joyous, cantankerous miles on it, all up and down the eastern seaboard, from spending four hours stuck in a solid traffic jam on the Cross Bronx Expressway with the ARRET! light falsely warning me that the car was about to overheat to moments on Route 301 in South Carolina where I did the little mental arithmetic to translate kilometers to miles to confirm that I was indeed doing over a hundred on a lazy old trunk road. I’d lived out a French fever dream, but I went broke, the car developed a few faults beyond my means or technical ability to correct, and I fell into a premature middle age fugue state where I thought maybe, just maybe, I needed to grow up and stop living like a cantankerous continental eccentric.
I drove a practical four door economy sedan for eight years.
Writers and their umpteen wannabees adore prattling on in endless repetition and lazy revisions of quotations, and one of the most head-scratching quips that makes the round is the oft-misquoted line from Frank Norris back in 1915 — “Don’t like to write, but like having written.”
Really? There are writers who don’t like to write,or, in the misattributed and otherwise mangled versions, actually “hate” to write? If one hates writing, why write? It all just reminds me of the panoply of tomes on how to be a writer that are almost nothing but long lists of methods of fending off writer’s block, disregarding the obvious fact that writer’s block means you have nothing to say, so do something else until you do.
I love the moment of writing. I love the anticipation of it, that fuzzy, sizzling sensation of stories boiling out of the back of one’s head, and I love the still space when I am with my writing instruments and a strong mug of tea with milk and earphones full of the kind of music that delivers me to that ecstatic plateau of elevated sensitivity that’s shared in the spiritual, the emotional, and the sexual, when all those channels to the unseen realms open like flaring nostrils in the cold and the fine hairs of the forearms rise and ruffle in electric waves.
I reach in, and it comes and comes and comes, the sound and the rhythm and the little bits of cantankerous play of meaning deconstructed into the chicken-scratching characters in constant mutation in the head and on the page, and it is easily one of the few moments when everything in the world is joyously and almost indescribably right.
It’s after writing that I lose interest, which is why my manuscripts fester in dark corners, because the tedium of marketing is the enemy of the celestial. I know it’s there, I know I need to engage in it if I’m ever going to make a career of writing and performing, and I know that I am very, very bad at it, but despite the urgency of practicality, I’d still rather just set the fires burning again, take the keys, and sear a new path through the world.