William James Bly III
I was born in Passavant Hospital on the North Side of Pittsburgh -- the same hospital where Bonnie, the offstage girlfriend of Lyons, the first son of Troy Maxson, the protagonist of August Wilson's Fences, works.
My parents, William James Bly Jr. and Mary Jane Rex Bly, late of Crafton and Ingram respectively, after a short stint in Carnegie (accent on the penult) built a house on a 3/4-acre lot on what was once the Greenawalt's farm, hard by the Mt. Lebanon Golf Club, R.D. #3, Canonsburg, PA. Except for the two years my father spent in the Army (recalled for Korea), my younger sister Lynn and I spent our entire youth and adolescence at 104 Fairway Road, in a housing plan called Clubside Park. (Another family with kids lives there now.)
After giving me tests with blocks and a flannel board when I was five, a doctor of something told my parents that I was intellectually but not emotionally ready to enter the first grade, so I was held back a year. I then skipped second grade, but this time I wasn't given tests first, with the consequence that I burst into tears the first time my third-grade teacher called on me. The following February Miss Kuchinic telephoned my mother to announce that I had laughed out loud in class.
After that I was a glib, lazy student. I was able to play the piano well enough to assist at the spring musicale every year, where I accompanied the third and fifth grades as they sang and played flutophone versions of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" and "The Marine Hymn." Considering the student unrest I was soon to be swept up in, my political activities were relatively tame: I was a founding member of the Chess Club and of a folk music organization with a long acronym I can no longer reproduce.
I went to a small liberal arts college, where my perfunctory study skills didn't work quite as well as they had in high school. But I became an avid chorister, and did learn how to smoke cigarettes and act in plays. Working for a summer theatre after my junior year, I got a hernia from some stage business I insisted was necessary for my character. The doctor at the Health Center diagnosed a third testicle that had just descended. I learned to wear a truss.
My senior year in college was a watershed, as it was for many in those days (still may be, for all I know). I discovered consciousness and its variations, the result being that I needed to try my senior year again. Between the two tries I lived in New York City, where I worked for $75 a month as a second alto in a professional church choir. The rest of the time I simply mooched. Things were cheaper then.
Moving right along, I went back to school and graduated, worked in a huge state institution for the retarded, multiply-handicapped, and mentally ill, got married, had a beautiful baby girl, and went to graduate school, where they let me write plays for two years and then gave me a terminal degree (of which more later). After classes were over, but before the graduation ceremony, I moved the whole clan to New York to seek fame & fortune.
Our extended family, which included my sister & her husband & son and a revolving company of close friends, began urban homesteading, first in a loft on East 53d Street (try to find it now!), and then on the whole floor of a light industry building in NoHo (NOrth of HOuston Street), where we cleaned & repainted & plumbed & sanded & refinished the floors in return for a break on the rent. Our landlord was an evil man, and once our improvements to the space had been made, we were turned out so he could break up our spacious hippie home, full of light, into much more lucrative (not to mention tiny & dark) "loft" apartments.
In the meantime, I'd started teaching at NYU -- at first just to support my habit of seeking fame & fortune, but as time went on with an immature but nonetheless powerful conviction. To my surprise I became a dedicated scholar, at least in terms of whatever it was I was going to have to teach in the morning.
The next decade was crammed with incident: a son was born, I fell in love for the first time really, my marriage broke up, I moved to Staten Island, a play of mine won a contest, and I married again -- the right one this time. Through it all, teaching anchored my otherwise chaotic life, and I began to consider myself a bona-fide citizen of the Commonwealth of Learning, even if I was still technically on probationary status at the University.
But inside I was still that shy boy who couldn't laugh out loud, and though I'd learned to mask it reasonably well with the kind of bonhomie required in the social life of an academic community, I never could find the courage to schmooze meaningfully -- i.e., hustle my butt -- or at least that's how I explain it now.
The upshot was that I didn't get tenure, which effectively launched a mid-life crisis. (This proceeds apace, but I don't want to talk about it.) There followed a futile attempt to do it right the second time at another school, but my terminal degree wasn't in the same discipline as the department I was teaching in, so I got to die from it twice. At this point it was clear that no one would give me a third chance, and I was no longer sure I wanted it, having seen what one has to do (and to be) in order to earn it.
Almost done. In 1988 I discovered the computer, and it changed the way I think -- a subject worthy of its own self-indulgent essay. When a few years later I encountered hypertext, I realized that I had found the intellectual community I'd been restlessly seeking ever since the days of blocks and flannel boards.
[to be, it is hoped, continued...]
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Last updated: 3/8/1999