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Photo: Joe Putrock

Who Farted?

In a new collection of essays, local author-educator Daniel Nester explores the comic—and not so comic—limits of inappropriate behavior

By Cecelia Martinez

Daniel Nester has spent a lifetime behaving inappropriately. As a boy, he interrupted Sunday mass by asking his mother “who the big man on the T was.” As a young man in New York City, he bugged Brooklyn teenagers by asking if they had any Grey Poupon. Now, the author, poet and College of Saint Rose English professor claims his status as expert in all things inappropriate in his new collection of essays, How to Be Inappropriate, due out Nov. 1 from Soft Skull Press.

“I realized I was writing about all these inappropriate subjects like mooning, farts, and [sharing] too much information,” Nester says. “I really like Jonathan Frazen’s How to Be Alone, and inappropriate is kind of this word that you use in the workplace and academia and politics. So then I took kind of a right turn into these stories about penises, tanning—all those things I knew that were kooky, inappropriate-type things to do.”

In the essay “An Inappropriate Discourse,” Nester describes his obsession with “exploring the inappropriate,” which he says is about the border between the sacred and the profane. Nester, who wears his impropriety on his sleeve, feels the only time he flirts with cutting it too close to the bone is in the essay “Garden Path Paragraphs,” a more serious piece about his and his wife’s attempts to conceive a child while adjusting to his new teaching position in Albany.

“I hope I got across that it was a very existential problem I was going through,” Nester says. “My wife and I trying to get pregnant, and then asking myself, ‘Am I a good teacher, am I getting through to these students?,’ because it was a culture clash. The students are different than the other students I’ve taught. There was a lot of frustration, a lot of recriminations, a lot of ‘Am I doing the right thing, am I going to get fired?’ ”

“Him opening up about things from his own life makes it easier to share in my writing,” says Alex Tunney, a Saint Rose alumnus who has taken classes with, and worked as an editorial intern for, Nester. “I mean, after hearing the footlicker story, you think, ‘There’s no way my story can be weirder than that.’ ”

The “footlicker story” is a favorite of students, and it seems to come up in almost every one of Nester’s classes. It recounts the story of a woman who admitted to letting a security guard at her workplace lick her feet for $10. An annotated version appears in the collection, in which Nester suggests potential motivations for the footlicker and footlickee, and ruminates on footlicking in general. Nester usually brings it up in the classroom setting as an icebreaker, to let students know this isn’t a typical English class.

“I heard about Nester’s footlicking story from a friend who was in one of his classes at the time,” says student Elizabeth Knapp. “I was like, who is this guy? So I registered for one of his classes, and when I heard him tell it, it totally made sense.”

In Inappropriate, Nester refers to Saint Rose as a “historically Catholic college in upstate New York.”

“They don’t like that,” he says, referring to the college. He still worries about navigating the cultural differences of some students, and tries to remain politically neutral.

“On my Facebook page under politics, it says ‘none of your business.’ [When I lived] in New York City, I was almost considered a neocon with some of the things I would say, whereas here it’s like I’m a blue-cheese liberal. It’s all relative.”

He says he has learned about striking that balance through Frequency North, the visiting writers series he hosts at Saint Rose. The series, heading into its fifth year, brings in poets, novelists, cartoonists, spoken-word artists, and other writers to campus two to four times per semester.

“A big turning point for me was bringing cartoonist David Reese to the college last year,” Nester says. “I mean, here’s this guy who writes this political, satirical strip that’s to the complete left of the spectrum, uses fuck and motherfucker every other panel, and he visited my classes and two students in my class were Iraq veterans. Before he even came, I didn’t need to do this, but I went to them and was like, ‘I hope you’re not offended,’ and they were totally fine.”

While Nester says he was so nervous during the reading that he was “projectile sweating,” the reading and a Q&A session afterward went well.

“Reese was smart enough to know that after that kind of reading you have to have a Q&A to balance,” Nester says. “I learned a lot from him about how to negotiate that sort of stuff.”

Nester wasn’t attracted to the idea of being a professor right away.

“I was this flighty freelancer in New York for 10 years,” Nester says, “so all of a sudden being full-time faculty, it’s a much different role. The teaching is the easiest part of being a college professor, by far. When I’m in the classroom I feel totally safe. Maybe that’s an erroneous thought, but when I’m in front there and I have something—we can talk about commas. Let’s do it. That’s complete joy for me.”

In comparing the students in New York City to Albany, Nester says that students in New York are “a little jaded, and if they’re not they have to act jaded just to get through the day.”

“Here, they’ll open up about their lives a lot easier,” he says.

The book also highlights some of the more quirky joys of teaching, like the essay “Queries,” a collection of comments written on students’ assignments (including: “Why is this dude naked?”), and “My Ass Life in the West,” consisting of profanity-heavy reproductions of The Catcher in the Rye written by six non-native English-speaking students.

“In a way it’s celebrating this cool thing that we do, which is getting together every week and looking at each others’ writing,” Nester says. “You don’t get to do that after college, believe me.”

With his teaching duties and a second child due in early November, Nester says he will have to limit his promotion of Inappropriate to short reading tours of cities around the country. He is planning several readings in New York state, including a launch party tomorrow (Friday, Oct. 23) at 6 PM at Valentine’s (17 New Scotland Ave., Albany). The night will be celebrated with karaoke—he’s a karaoke fanatic—and Nester admits he hopes there will be a totally inappropriate amount of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” performed.

Copies of How to Be Inappropriate will be available, too. Helpfully, the book comes with a whoopee cushion and mooning stickers.

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