The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

In Memory of Victor

Regular readers of my blog (both of you) know that most of the time, I attempt to be funny and lighthearted. Today we're going to take a slight detour and aim toward "heartwarming and touching."

Today, November 30, is the 20th anniversary of the death of someone who was very special to me. His name was Victor Saginario, and he was the director of the first repertory I worked in. I worked with Victor for four years and loved him dearly, and every year on this day, I take a little time to remember him and drink a toast to him.

Victor was an unusual looking man. He was short and squat and quite bald, with tremendously thick glasses that made his brown eyes look enormous. He sort of resembled a bulldog in a velour shirt. He had a loud expressive voice and had absolutely no problem with embarrassing his actors at top volume.

I first met Victor in 1981, when I was very young and very inexperienced. I was looking into joining his repertory because I was sick and tired of not having any friends and not having a creative outlet. After my first meeting (during which Victor intimidated me greatly), Victor invited me to an acting tournament at the University of Delaware the following month. I honestly didn't think I'd do very well, but Victor seemed insistent, and I figured that if he had been doing this as long as he had, he must know what he was talking about.

I ended up winning first place.

After that, I was the Golden Girl. Victor installed me as his lead actress, and before I knew it, I was getting cast in everything. I was playing across actors much more experienced than I was, in roles that were difficult, challenging, and very intense. I loved every minute of it.

There's no way I can really describe Victor's kindness. He looked out for me with the sharp eye of a second father. He bought me gifts. He took me into New York several times to see Broadway plays so that I could study professionals. He also became great friends of my parents, and the four of us often did social things together. My parents came to love him as much as I did.

Then, on November 30, 1986, everything came crashing down.

One of my best friends from repertory, Ken, was at my house tutoring me in advanced algebra. As we sat at my desk struggling through problems, his mother called and asked to speak to him. I handed him the phone, and in a few seconds, his face went white. He hung up, turned around, and told me that Victor had been killed on the way back from his family's home in Elmira, New York. He had been there visiting for Thanksgiving.

Chaos ensued. As the word spread throughout the repertory, various actors started wandering into my house, crying, hysterical, and confused. Everyone who showed up had new information, or conflicting stories, and I moved through the house like a zombie.

We finally found out what had happened. On a remote highway in New York, Victor's car had been struck head-on by a drunk driver--a nineteen year old girl named Tammy Brewster. Victor had been killed on impact; Tammy suffered...a broken arm.

A broken arm.

We tried to hold it together. For the entire week, the actors never left each other. Finally, five days later, Victor's funeral was held.

The priest, who knew me, asked if I would be willing to do a reading of John Donne's "Death Be Not Proud" at the funeral mass. Of course I said yes...I hadn't really accepted Victor's death yet, and doing this last "performance" for him may help me move on and get past it. So, on the appointed day, with literally hundreds of mourners at the church, I marched up to the altar and read the poem. It wasn't highly dramatic or anything, but it was clear and heartfelt, and I felt a great deal of peace.

Snow fell as Victor was buried. All around me I could hear the soft crying of his friends, students, and family. I still felt unreal. I couldn't cry.

Several days later, we found out the fate of Tammy Brewster, the intoxicated teenager that had killed our friend. It turned out that Tammy's father was a Sheriff in the neighboring town, and, even though Tammy was a known alcoholic, she would be charged only with...failure to keep right. No vehicular manslaughter. Not even a DUI. Just "failure to keep right." She was given a $100 fine and let go, without so much as a point on her license.

And, sitting here writing this, I'm wondering if she knows what today is, and how her incredible stupidity changed the lives of hundreds of people.

God bless you, Victor, wherever you are. I love you and I miss you. This one's for you.

Next time: Back to our usual fun. Promise!

Monday, November 20, 2006

[2x (4xy - 2x) + (6n + 7xy)]

I'm fascinated with a guy at work.

He's in the Math department, which is weird right there...usually I stay away from the math professors like the plague because they always smell of chalk and get all excited about things like quadratic equations and trapezoids. But this guy...he just transcends all that and ends up being ultimately cool.

His name isn't Kyle, but I'm going to call him that anyway, in case he ever reads this (because believe me, he's smart enough to hack in).

As a college professor, I work with many, many smart people. However, in my career I have only worked with a handful of authentic geniuses. Kyle is one of them.

Kyle is 24, graduated from high school when he was 14, and has two Ph.D.s (math and physics). He also has all of his course work completed for a third doctorate in Comparative Religion. This means he managed to cram nine years worth of graduate school into three, which would have made me start screaming and never stop. He has photographic memory, can speed read, and (and to me, this is his most useful skill) can balance his checkbook (and mine) in his head.

The most fascinating thing about him, though, is the way he dresses. He has no problems wearing a pinstriped suit with a paisley dress shirt and bolo tie. He also owns white disco pants, several pairs of bell-bottoms, and a full-fledged zoot suit that makes him look like Johnny Dangerously.

I first Kyle at the Faculty Mixer in the beginning of the year, where we all meet the new faculty and try to make them feel welcome. I felt a weird attraction to Kyle from the start (he's terribly good-looking, but he'd never admit that) and when he started doing differential equations on the cocktail napkins, I was hooked.

I knew I was going to like him tremendously the first time he showed up at my office and was able to read the sign that I have on my door, which is the words to the entrance of Dante's Inferno--in Latin. When I asked him why a math professor would study Latin, he just blinked at me as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

The first thing I did was invite him to our monthly karaoke night, which is really the brainchild of my friend Glenn, who's in the Business department. Kyle claimed to have never done karaoke before, but agreed to go. He wore tan slacks, tennis shoes, a blue sweater-vest and a white tie. Although he didn't sing, he seemed very amused by the rest of us.

He's very quiet (I assume he's always thinking), but after our karaoke night he started opening up a little more to me. I took him out for lunch one day, which caused no end of gossip and giggling in my department, but for some reason, Kyle seemed to find it completely normal.

Several weeks ago, I was sitting in my office when suddenly I heard "Catch!" from the doorway. I looked up just in time to see Kyle lobbing something at me from the door. It kind of looked like a volleyball.

Once I examined it, I saw that it actually looked like a gigantic twelve-sided die that you would use in Dungeons and Dragons. On each side was drawn a face with a different expression. I had no idea what it was.

"I'm not sure what this is," I confessed to Kyle.

"It's a mood dodecahedron," he said, happily.

"Sorry?" I said.

"A dodecahedron," he explained, "is a twelve-sided geometrical shape. I put a different face on each side, so whatever mood you're in, just point that side toward the door."

I thought this was delightful. Most of the time I keep it set to "happy," but I also often use "sleepy" and "hungry." Sometimes I set it to "confused," especially when grading my remedial students' papers.

To thank him for this interesting (albeit bizarre) gift, I made him a music mix, which excited him so much that he proceeded to send me an e-mail after listening to each track, telling me what he thought of it. Neither of us got any work done for about eighty minutes.

Last month, he bought me a hardcover copy of the latest biography of Jack Kerouac, my favorite American writer. He even inscribed Latin.

We keep talking. I keep flirting. He keeps not running away.

We'll see what happens next karaoke night.

Next time: Something serious. Seriously.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Checkmate In Three

I'll admit it...I like chess.

I learned to play chess when I was about ten. Unfortunately, the friend that taught me chess moved away, and for many years I had no one to play with. I had a couple of computer chess programs that I liked and fiddled around with, but as the years went on I was hungry for a real game with another person.

At the very first college at which I taught, I was meandering the halls one day and saw a flyer on the community bulletin board. Apparently, the college Chess Club was looking for a faculty advisor. I considered this for a few moments, wondering if I was the type of person who would enjoy advising, but I figured I might at least get a few games of chess out of it. I wrote a note to the president of Chess Club, a guy named Al, and put it in the Chess Club mailbox.

Two days later, I got a phone call from the mysterious Al, in which he told me that he was delighted that I wanted to work with the Chess Club, and we set up a time to meet in the Student Center when he would give me all the details. He also asked me if I had time for a game of chess, and of course I said yes.

"Wait a minute," I said. "I don't know what you look like. How will I know you?"

There was a brief pause. "I'll be the one with the chess set," he said.


On Wednesday, I headed valiantly to the Student Center, anxious to meet Al in person and learn all about my duties as Chess Club advisor. When I got there, I immediately started to giggle. Even without the chess set, I would have known it was Al.

Seated at a table near the video games was a tall, gangly guy with short black hair and black horn-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a white button-down dress shirt and a black tie. He was drinking a Coke and looked anxiously around. In front of him was a regular, Staunton chess set.

I came in, approached him, and introduced myself. Nervously, he leaped up, shook my hand, and said, "I'm Al, and I'm really happy to meet you!" He sounded so enthusiastic.

We sat down and I asked Al to tell me exactly what the Chess Club needed me to do, as well as when I would get to meet the rest of the club. It was at this point that Al started looking even more nervous and said: "Um...yeah, about that..."

"Yes?" I asked.

"Actually...I'm the only one in Chess Club."

I blinked. "You're the president and the only member?"

"Yes," he said. He then broke down completely and admitted that the whole "looking for an advisor" thing had been a ruse, and that all he really wanted was someone to play chess with. He looked so pitiful that I was overcome with emotion and agreed to play chess with him twice a week. He was very happy about this.

He then proceeded to kick my ass at chess. He stormed across the board like General MacArthur, destroying everything in his path. Before I knew it, I was left with just my King, and I meekly admitted defeat.

That's how it went for several weeks. I would show up, and Al would decimate me in chess. I was so put out by this that I invested in several chess books and studied my endgame at home, furiously. It didn't matter...Al destroyed me every time.

As time went on, Al and I began to become friends. We found out that, curiously, we both liked the same obscure music--in particular, the music of a man named Anthony Newley, a now-deceased British lounge singer/songwriter. I'm sure that, whether you know it or not, you're already familliar with the works of Mr. Newley--he's the one who wrote all the songs in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, as well as the songs in Doctor Dolittle (the good one, with Rex Harrison, not the crappy remake).

Anyway, Al was just mad for Newley, and when he found out that I liked him, too, he proceeded to make me copies of every Anthony Newley album he had--and he had all of them. Al was in heaven--he had finally found someone who liked both chess and Newley.

The day came when Al transferred from my college to another one, and that's when we started playing chess online. He still completely trounced me, only now it wasn't as personal. Finally, one day, he asked me if I would go to Philadelphia with him to watch him compete in a national chess tournament.

Chess tournaments are usually sponsored by F.I.D.E.S., which stands for Federation Internationale Des Eschecs, which is French for the International Chess Federation. Since I wasn't a member, I couldn't compete, but Al was, and he was looking for a cheering section. Since Al had no other friends, I agreed to go.

Sadly, as good as Al was, he was wiped out in the first preliminary round, and ended up coming in 525th. Weirdly, he was pleased about this, because now his name would be published in Chess Life magazine.

However, I haven't yet told you the most bizarre thing about Al.

Al is now 30 years old, and he has never had a job. Ever. He still lives with his parents in an affluent neighborhood, and they continue to support him. They also give him money to go to Atlantic City and gamble with, to get tickets to concerts, and to buy CD's. Because they enable him so much, he has no desire to get a job or become a productive member of society. This was the subject of great debate one Thanksgiving, when Al's extended family suggested that he see a psychiatrist about his "anti-social personality." Al's parents ended up throwing them out of the house and sent the hysterical Al to his room to calm down.

Even stranger is Al's daily routine. He gets up early, puts on a dress shirt and tie, and proceeds to sit down at this computer and play internet chess for eight hours. Every day. Then he watches television for the rest of the day.

Al has never had a date. Not one. And this doesn't seem to bother him, either. He's happy in his own little world of chess, Anthony Newley, and analyzing political races. It's bizarre.

I have often told the BeowulfParents that I'm ditching them to go live with Al's family, so they would support me, too. Hey, at least Al would have a live person to play chess with. However, BeowulfDad has a pool table, and I'm not quite ready to give that luxury up.

An interesting end note is that Al is the one that took me to see Kevin Spacey sing Bobby Darin songs, and when I tried to pay him for pay ticket he just said, offhandedly: "No,'s on me."

"No it isn't," I said, "it's on your dad."

Next time: More classroom randomness