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May 14, 1998

Pitt's own 'White Married Male" takes a comedic look at just about everything

"Have you ever known someone who seemed to be born with a comedy gene? No matter the subject, trivial or profound, sacred or profane, the way he or she talked about it made you laugh. Mark Collins, associate editor of Pitt Magazine who also teaches composition and literature in the English department, demonstrates this quality again and again in a just-released collection of essays, "Married White Male In Search Of…," published by Ligouri/Triumph. Collins's writing style is casual, easy-going, feigned extemporaneous. And it's that way whether he's writing about the birth of his first child or remembering "every nuance of numerology connected to my first car: a 1969 Olds Delta 88 Royale — an eight cylinder three-speed with a 454-cubic-inch engine. Two-barrel carburetor. Yessir." Mostly he writes about life at 40 and about men and his perceptions, borne of experience, of what makes the carriers of the Y chromosome so complicated, even paradoxical. "We guys seem genetically incapable of sharing our fears with others. For whatever reason (hubris? upbringing? not enough fiber?), we're cast alone in our little oceans, afloat in our tiny, homemade skiffs, trimming our sails to life's capricious winds, always unable (or unwilling) to seek better navigation….

"And yet that same deranged arrogance allows us to weather lousy bosses, erratic cars, rip-roaring hormones, petulant toddlers, and incomplete dreams." It is those incomplete dreams that, taken as a whole, shade this self-effacing study and punctuate the social commentary throughout the collection. His humor allows comfortable access to the darker regions of men's lives, struggling "in a world top-heavy with war, caste, poverty, tyranny, Astroturf, and weirdo cults," even as he proffers generalizations, which, without the personal, this-really-happened-to-me context, might pass for stereotyping, or worse, sexism. Politics aside, however, the essays are thoroughly entertaining.

And what about this introspective man, who happens to be married and white and the father of three girls? Well, he writes about marriage, his kids, his family, his friends. He writes about God and love and lust and pain and sickness and death. But he also writes about cars and sports, vacations and work, cursing and drinking, and his need to "recreate the past." For example, he plays dek hockey, trying to recapture his less athletically challenged youth. He's discovered that "adult males have lousy eye contact. Oh, sure, when the conversation hinges on work or cars or the Knicks, they'll look at you dead-on. But raise the emotional level — birth, death, love, mothers-in-law — and they look away. Suddenly, they'll search the floors for answers, or stare at the cabinets, the ceiling, ESPN — anything but the questioner's eyes." He's learned that "kids aren't just milestones and events but an evershifting series of moments, urgent and alive every day.

"That's the thing about childhood: it takes forever to go by so quickly." Reflecting on his own behavior, he allows that "nothing has been as horrific as watching myself turn on those I love — my wife, my kids, my friends….

"I have exploded with the swiftness of a terrorist grenade, sending young children to their rooms ahead of the verbal shrapnel. I have chased rude drivers for three miles on the highway, just to yell at them for cutting me off in the previous time zone." In the best of the essays, he shares his mid-life angst. "…I have become my father. Had you told me this twenty years ago, back when my hair was long and my tolerance short…I would've laughed so hard I'd have spit up my illicit beer….

"Well, I'm not just like my dad, I am my dad. OK, I'm a few decades younger, have a goatee, and vote Democrat, but other than that we may as well be clones….

"At what point do we trade our sedans for station wagons and minivans and start drinking decaf? I don't remember passing a signpost; one day I woke up, looked in the mirror, and saw my father wearing a goatee. (I had two thoughts: First, what's my father doing in the mirror? Second, he oughtta shave that thing. Looks like a caterpillar crawled around his mouth and died.)" In his more confessional moments, Collins admits to bouts with depression. "To be depressed isn't to feel disillusioned, but enlightened. It's as if you've discovered just how hopeless and black the world really is. While the rest of your little universe celebrates birthdays and Stanley Cups and you, desperate to fit in, smile along with them, hoping some hope rubs off on you, you know the truth. There is no exit." The collection also pays homage to an underlying faith in the divine that helps this consistently bewildered man go on being bewildered, but go forward nevertheless. The essays are not sermons, not morality plays, but personal testaments of how, in the midst of irony and human frailty, one's experience can provide glimpses of the Almighty. "The same God who allows me to see the world's grandeur also turns my head to see the pain. I am often rocked by this imbalance…. I teeter through this life, a tipsy correspondent in emotional free-fall." But the essays prove that this married white male correspondent's free-fall, really, is carefully arranged and well-crafted, despite the chaos that may be its source. "I write because…well, because I can't sing or dance. Whatever talent I have — presumptuous, I know — seems neither an aptitude nor a burden, but part of who I am, as immutable as my height or eye color." Or, perhaps, his comedy gene.

Readers familiar with Pitt Magazine will recognize some of the reprinted pieces. Collins previously published "On the Road to Emmaus" (Liguori Publications, 1994) and is co-editor with Margaret Mary Kimmel of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood: Children, Television, and Fred Rogers" (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996).

–Peter Hart

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