Putting The House Back Together

Note: this essay inspired a poem I had posted earlier on this blog. It was submitted to the Dan’s Literary Prize for Nonfiction, an award I actually won in 2014.


After a tropical storm hit the Hamptons in the early 1990s, a wealthy, but frantic homeowner hired my brother and me to remove the house that had drifted onto his back yard. 

The customer’s waterfront home was more property than house. When we first arrived, it was an unassuming ranch with gray wooden siding. An empty flagpole in the front yard racked loudly in the persistent gusts. But when we went around back we saw an expansive green lawn, nearly the size of a football field. The customer’s private dock was twisted, angling upward toward the sky. And the house that washed ashore was everywhere.

It wasn’t intact, like something out of Wizard of Oz. Half the roof was resting on the ledge between the customer’s lawn and the bulkhead meant to levee the bay. On the lawn itself: a sofa, blankets, three picture frames, a heap of shingles, insulation (everywhere), a broken front door, an oak dresser draped in seaweed, a green painted dresser, a pink painted dresser, the twisted metal of a bed frame, a rack of pool sticks, a boy’s bicycle, children’s clothing, a waterlogged welcome mat folded on itself, three bar stools, the remnants of a brick chimney, and all of it topped with sand and seaweed. As we approached the debris we stepped on piano keys. 

We’d work toward one another. I’d take the east end of the property and he’d take the west. We’d meet in the middle. With our steel rakes and pitchforks and wheelbarrows, we’d eat the elephant one bite at a time. 

The distance between us was fine by me. I was angry at my brother and we had just had a blowout the night before. It was on account of his impending nuptials to a girl he’d met the year before. He was only 21 and I was just barely out of high school. He was abandoning me to my endlessly bickering and troubled parents. They were feeling the sense of impending loss as well. Somehow, between taking care of our lawn and fixing broken vehicles, my brother had evolved into the glue of our household. Lately I got the feeling my mother was yelling to keep from weeping.

The sodden grass beneath our feet reminded us of our Irish ancestry. The McGevnas were once farmers in a small town called Mullagh in County Cavan, in the north. We grew up learning about the bog cutters, whose job it was to cut squares of peat and dry them into bricks for people to burn. 

The bog of this man’s back yard was ideal for turf, but terrible for wheelbarrows. We pushed with all our might to get those wheels across the lawn and dispose of the debris in the dumpster near the street. My brother kept yelling “work the field, boy,” in a fake Irish brogue–a line from one of his favorite films, “The Field.” He was doing it to get a rise out of me and it was working. I kept my eyes down on the task at hand and tried to ignore him until he kept calling out my name. I looked up and he was gesturing to the oak dresser. Some clothes were spilling out of it.

“It looks like our old room,” he shouted from across the yard. That one made me laugh. Growing up we shared a room. My brother was always after me to keep the room clean. So was my mother. One day she stormed in and gave me 15 minutes to tidy up or she’d be back with weaponry. I ignored her at my own peril. When I heard her heading toward our room, I could hardly believe the deadline had passed. “Quick,” my brother said, “everything under the bed!” We worked together and stashed every item of clothing until the floor was spotless. I closed the drawers of my dresser just as she walked in to inspect. 

It wasn’t the only time he would bail me out of tough situations. As I yanked on the handlebar of a sand-buried bicycle, I was reminded of the time my brother had thrown a neighborhood bully’s bike over the fence of a public sump so I’d have time to make a run for it. The American flag that I pulled from under a rafter reminded me of the time my brother helped me collect unused firecrackers from the streets the morning after July 4. 

All of it went into the dumpster as the day wore on. The bay was still churning from the previous night’s storm. There was some talk of another tropical storm headed our way. We planned to load all the contents of the house into the dumpster first and then top it with pieces of the roof. It was like we were putting the house back together the best we could, and even though it was a lost labor, it was a worthwhile labor just the same. There would always be storms. And there would always be the cleanup.

By 2 p.m. we’d nearly reached the middle of the yard, but we knew we’d need to hustle or call it a day and come back. We decided to hustle. We worked in tandem, running the wheelbarrow one at a time, while one of us filled. My brother yelled ‘work the field boy!’ as I made my runs. It felt like old times. We were possessed by a sense of recovery, a sense that we were getting someone’s life back despite the interruption. 

Then…the homeowner came outside. He told us we were making too much of a racket. The shouting and the whatnot. He needed to take a nap; could we cut it out and give him two hours of quiet? 

Still clinging to our plan, we took a walk down the beach. The storm had created a large pool of seawater, separated from the bay, but rippling with current from the wind. We walked along the thin strand of beach beside the pool. Suddenly my brother saw a large bluefish flopping about in the shallow end. His eyes widened like a child’s and he jumped in with his shoes on. He used his boots to shove the fish out of the water and onto the sand. It was 20 pounds at least. Its heft was making it impossible to maneuver back to safe depths. The seagulls had begun to circle. 

With time to spare waiting for our customer to finish his nap, my brother retrieved a knife from his truck. Then he pulled out a lighter and gathered up some dry pieces of reed and driftwood. I started a small fire right on the sand, while my brother gutted the fish. We held pieces over the fire using long sticks retrieved from the flattened reeds between homes. We ate and laughed at our luck. Nothing to serve as seasoning for the fish except for the salt that rode along the mist. 

“Work the field,” my brother said, chuckling. The gobs of fish in his mouth made marbles of his words. I asked her what his bride-to-be would think of this sight. 

“She would join us with a six-pack of beer,” he said. He gripped my shoulder and gave me a playful shove.

We laughed together like we were kings of the beach. We had no bread, no wine, no side of lemon rice. There was nothing we wanted. We ate. My brother tried to pull a cooked piece straight off the skeleton like in the cartoons we watched as children in our troubled house. I saw the ecstasy of disappointment in his face when he failed. A stiff breeze introduced a wisp of gray clouds coming from the west. 

We don’t remember the name of the storm that eventually made landfall. It’s the days between that storm we recall. Those moments where you gather up the pieces that have scattered. And even though they are only pieces, when you put them together they still mean something.  

As we gathered our things and headed back to work, I asked him if we’d get it all done by sundown. 

“We’ll have to see,” he said. “In the meantime we’ll try like hell.” 

Why do so many fairy tales (and Disney movies) have dead moms? And no, it’s not misogyny.



At the risk of rolling out a tired subject, I’ve been thinking a lot about dead mothers. (Sorry mom, I’ll call later today). Namely the Sopranos-level morgue filled with dead Disney and fairy tale moms that, in some cases, make an appearance before meeting their untimely demise (Frozen), and in other cases have been pushing up daisies long before we all got there (Cinderella). 

In the novel I’m working on right now, my main character’s mother belongs in the latter category: disappeared under mysterious circumstances before the action of the novel takes place. What struck me as odd is that my “choice” to kill Findan’s mother off wasn’t much of a choice at all; I did it almost reflexively. 

“Why?” asked my nine-year-old. 

“Why?” asked my wife. 

Economics came to my rescue. Writers are on a tight budget when it comes to crafting our stories; we can’t afford extras. Having mother there when Findan is captured and sold into slavery opens new storylines, begs new questions, muddies the intimate conversations Findan has with his father prior to his kidnap and enslavement, and widens the narrative lens when I need it to be more narrow. 

So there. That’s my official statement. There’s already too many folks in the boat. But that’s not quite it. There are other problems with keeping her alive. And when I imagined the story with her in the picture, I realized it wasn’t just about economy; it was about credibility. For example, Findan’s father runs into trouble with the village church and is condemned to be publicly shamed the following day. When I re-envisioned this plotline with his wife standing before him, I realized how likely she would have intervened and gotten her stubborn husband to mend the relationship before it came to that. When Findan is captured and loaded onto a ship to be sold in the markets, he is discovered by his captors alone, hiding out in a cave and waiting for the raid to be over. I tried to imagine a world where mom is alive and kicking and allows her son to be anywhere near a cave, or alone, or taken without much of a fight. I couldn’t buy it, and, I gather, neither would my audience. 

It’s been said that women ruin fun. Women also ruin most attempts to do something stupid and dangerous. My sons often tell me that if something were to happen to their mother, they wouldn’t survive the week. 

“Is it because I don’t stop you from jumping off the roof to see if a hefty bag makes a suitable parachute?” I ask. Yes, it’s exactly the reason.

My character is pitched into a situation where he finds himself always figuratively jumping off roofs with a hefty bag for a parachute, and I couldn’t imagine he’d be in that situation with mom nearby.

Which brings me back to Disney. My sons have a low tolerance for dead mothers. They look away when Nemo’s mother eats it. (Or, in this case, gets eaten). They ask me to fast-forward the part when Littlefoot’s bronto-Mom dies in The Land Before Time. And they won’t even touch Bambi.  So I wasn’t entirely surprised to find myself in a philosophical discussion about all the sad, dead mothers while we sat together in the COVID-19 fallout shelter, known as our living room.  

Why do so many Disney and fairy tale protagonists have dead mothers? I’d read somewhere that the wicked stepmother trope was meant to discourage divorce. But that only holds up for Cinderella and Snow White. The body count is much higher. The more we talked, the more I became convinced that it boiled down to the credibility problem I encountered with my novel. Some examples:


When a pregnant woman begins to waste away unless she consumes salad made of the neighbor’s rapunzel fruit, her husband’s ill-conceived solution is to go next door and steal it. Back then people borrowed sugar from neighbors all the time; I’m not quite sure why he opted for theft. In either event, the man gets caught by the neighbor, an old sorceress, who strikes a deal with the husband. I’ll let you have all the rapunzel you want, but you have to hand over the child when it is born. 

Why is mom out of the picture?

In what world would a mother make that deal? I couldn’t even get my wife to take an aspirin when she was pregnant because she feared it would harm the baby. Here, mom would have told the husband to run off with a bit of the plant’s root so they could grow their own rapunzel. Then, maybe only he’d be stricken with boils from head to toe, or turned into a garden slug, but the baby would be safe and sound in her bosom. Therein lies the difference in how the man understands his new place when a child enters into the relationship. He probably imagined his wife would make the same deal if he was in bed wasting away. She wouldn’t. He doesn’t realize that when a baby comes along, he falls to second chair. Take heart men. Think of it as a kinder fate than that afforded to male praying mantis. 

Snow White

In the Brothers Grimm retelling, trouble pops off when a vain stepmother enters the picture and needs to get rid of her beautiful stepdaughter because Oedipus. She sends Snow White off with a stranger to be killed, but the attempt fails. Her mirror (think of the worst Twitter snitch getting people fired right now) tells her that Snow White is still alive. She tries three more times and finally succeeds on the last attempt when she poisons an apple. A prince comes along and revives her before he marries her and they live happily ever after. 

Why is mom out of the picture?

Two reasons. The vain stepmother’s vanity would have been sniffed out immediately if mom was dropping in on visitation rights. She would have given her ex-husband a look the moment stepmom opened her mouth and the message would have been received. Secondly, the stepmother initially sends Snow White on a date with a woodsman and they wander off into the forest alone. If mom was alive, how would that play out? She went where, now? With who, now? Oh hell no. 

Let’s take a moment also to acknowledge the complete lack of intellectual curiosity so common in men. The father doesn’t have any questions for his new bride when his daughter goes off into the woods with a stranger? Doesn’t think to inquire where she might have gotten off to when stepmom tries to suffocate her with a bodice? Isn’t a little curious as to Snow White’s whereabouts after she’s gone another night, felled by a poison comb? Doesn’t say, “honey-dear, have you heard at all from Snow White since that night we let her go into the woods with an armed man?” after she ate from a poisoned apple? Snow White is just parachuting with a hefty bag, time after time, roof after roof, and dad is in his chair reading the funnies. 


A street-dwelling thief is charged with stealing a magic lamp at the behest of the grand vizier, but uses the lamp to suit his own ends. He wins the heart of the princess and retires to a life of luxury. 

Why is mom out of the picture?

What drags Aladdin into the current of this particular story is his skill in thievery. He is discovered by the grand vizier pick-pocketing merchants and citizens all over Agrabah. His ability to slip into windows and disappear into throngs of people without being noticed is what qualifies him to get the magic lamp in the first place. The vizier thinks he can successfully cat-burgle the Cave of Wonders. When you go out to your car in the morning and discover the passenger door slightly ajar and all your stuff has been stolen from it during the night, you curse and wish you could have caught that creep doing it. Aladdin is that creep. And he became that because mom wasn’t there with a bit of moral guidance to the side of the head. During the 2015 riots in Baltimore, a video went viral depicting what happened when a 16-year-old boy showed up at the riots intending to throw rocks at police officers. His mother, donned in a bright yellow shirt, grabbed him up and slapped him all the way across the city. His participation in the riot was over. He never even got off the roof with the hefty bag. 

That boy is Aladdin, if Aladdin’s mother was around. 

Not convinced?

I’ll leave you with this assignment. If you haven’t already become a fan during this pandemic, binge-watch The Amazing World of Gumball. In nearly every episode when young Darwin and Gumball find themselves in a fix they can’t get out of, they turn to their inept father. And it gets worse until mom shows up. Without fail. When they get bullied by Tina the T-Rex, mom dismantles Tina’s father. When the neighbors take over their house and turn it into a never-ending frat party, mom not only breaks up the party in two seconds flat, but she has the neighbors clean the house top to bottom. Why do so many fairy tales have dead moms? It isn’t misogyny. Moms know how to shut it down before anything gets out of hand. 


8 Things I Learned At Bull Riding School

Bull Ride 2

This past summer I attended the Let R Buck Bull Riding School located in Victoria, VA. It was a two-day intensive course that teaches students the mechanics and skills of bull riding using both live animals and a stationary barrel. On paper we were charged with learning how to successfully ride a bucking bull for eight seconds. But I learned much more than that. Here are eight things I took away from the experience. A lesson for each second.

  1. I can be capable of great courage. I have not always acted courageously in my life. I’ve backed down from fights by apologizing, passed up on job and travel opportunities and shied away from educational opportunities, like the time I avoided taking AP English in high school, or the time I chickened out on studying journalism in Prague. Who knows what butterfly effect? But on this particular weekend in July I climbed onto a 1500-pound bull that wants only to get you off his back and I rode him. Not successfully, of course, but in the world of bull riding, I also learned:
  2. Success can be measured merely by the fact that you strapped onto the bull in the first place. The slang term for lasting the required eight seconds on a bull ride is “covered.” Of the approximately 25 rides we all took collectively, only one student covered.
  3. Despite feeling impotent and small on something so powerful, you can feel incredibly large. The universe shrinks to a single spot on the bull’s withers, the ridge located just between his shoMatthew1ulder blades. The most successful riders are the ones who stare at that spot and never pick up their head. At one point, the teacher at our school JW, a man who commanded such respect we weren’t allowed to mount our bull until he was there to oversee it, coughed up a wad of spit and let it drop on the bull’s withers. ‘Stare at that the whole time,’ he said in his thick country Virginia accent. When you do…when you listen to him, your chances of staying on the full eight seconds dramatically increases. When you don’t listen, you pay the price almost instantly.
  4. Once you’re on the bull you immediately forget every element of your training. Don’t look up. Keep your chest puffed out. Keep your chin tucked. Move your free hand forward when he rears up and pull the hand back when he drops his head. Keep your heels tucked under his ribs and your toes pointed downward ballet style. Sit on your crotch. Squeeze with your thighs; don’t put your butt down on his back. Use your free arm to correct yourself if you feel like you’re sliding off to one side. Land on your feet! Translation: Chute gate opens. Bull bucks. ‘Oh shit, what do I do, what do I do, what do I do’ Boom! You’re on your back looking up at the sky. The only part of the training you remember is to get up as fast as possible and run (or roll) like hell outMatthew5 of the arena before he comes back round to step on you. What is it about that gap between our preparation and our execution? Why is there such a chasm between what our brain imagines we will do in a situation and what we actually do once the situation arrives? Is it possible our brains are designed to protect us from the matter we encounter? If you’ve ever tried to look at an object through water, you would see how the image (the reality behind the water) is slightly distorted. I wonder if our brains create a plasma barrier between our created conscious and reality. Maybe it’s a necessary function of our brain, lest we never take the chances we have taken as a species. Age and constant training erodes this barrier. Muscle memory drives it into our reflexes. We sometimes call it instinct, but it’s misnamed. The barrier is present when you try something incredibly dangerous for the first time. The consequences reveal the necessity of training and patience.
  5. Bull riding is a young man’s game, but not for the reasons you think. It seems logical with any contact sport, like football or MMA, that young people thrive in it because they have young muscles. Fresh strength. Shorter recovery time. Greater flexibility. Stronger bone density. Quicker reflexes. More energy. All of this is true, of course. But when it comes to bull riding, the greatest advantage a younger person has over an older person is 100% mental. I’m 42. I was the oldest by far in this weekend’s class. There was Allesio, 16, from southern Maryland. His mother, an Italian émigré, clung to the arena fences and held her breath every time her son climbed down into the chute. Allesio was curious to know if he has any raw potential. Then there was Hunter, 15, from Virginia. It was his first time on livestock of any kind, including horses. Joe (nicknamed “Tang) 22, finished his tour in the Army and is chasing a shot at the pros. Colton, 19, told me he “wanted to be a cowboy his whole life.” He was first to arrive at the arena, and lent his hand to feeding the livestock around the ranch in the morning before school started. Levi, 21, was the only rider who covered. Then there was Justin, 23, from Virginia. He’s only been riding for a few months and has already busted his collarbone. When he mounted Jammer (one of the school’s meanest bulls) in the 90-degree afternoon on Saturday, it was his first bull ride since he was injured. He vomited his lunch. He paced around the arena. He buried his face into his hat and cried. His father followed after him and talked him off the ledge of quitting. Then he climbed down into the chute and nearly covered Jammer. He got bucked around seven seconds into the ride. He has already won n amateur purse and assuming he stays healthy, will try to break the pros in the next year or so. Toward the end of the day on Sunday, Colton tied on to the school’s nastiest bull, a white monster named Charlie. About four seconds into the ride, Charlie reared up as Colton lost his posture and fell forward. Charlie’s ight horn clacked against Colton’s helmet. He was bucked off a moment later. Without the helmet, Colton would have likely been knocked unconscious from the horn strike, if not more severely injured. As we opened the gate for him to escape the arena, a fellow rider said ‘that’s why we wear the helmet. Charlie would’ve killed you there.’ Colton’s response: ‘If today was my time to die, so be it.’ Only a 19-year-old would say that with any degree of honesty. Death, for most of my fellow riders, is an abstraction. It can’t happen. It happens to other people. This is why car insurance companies charge higher premiums for teenage drivers. They think they are invincible. But that sense of invincibility, that foregone conclusion in their minds that they’re going to live forever, serves them well in the bull riding arena. Each time I mounted my bull for a ride, I was a bundle of raw fear. I thought about my kids who were watching me. I thought about my infant daughter back in New York, who would never remember me. I thought about how much I still had to accomplish. Mortality for me is real. That band of the plasma protection has worn down. Not with the other riders. I got on my bulls thinking of deBull Ride 3ath. Allesio got on his thinking of fun, thinking of making his ride more successful than his last. Death, or severe injury did not enter the equation in his calculations while he sat in the chute with his left hand raised and nodded for the gate to open. It pervaded my thoughts constantly. It rode with me. Little wonder I was the only rider who got hurt pretty much every time I got bucked off: I could only think of NOT getting hurt. It’s not about strength. It’s a mental sport as much as it is physical. Fear is the enemy of the bull rider. Fear is the enemy of many things, I now realize.
  6. A family emerges quickly in the presence of a common enemy. All of us were different ages and from different parts of the country, with different goals in mind. Yet within hours all of us were like brothers, working the chutes, helping one another get our gloves on, spot checking to make sure our gear was fixed properly, and cheering one another during and after the rides. On my debut ride, the bull, Poker Face, came out of the chute like he was on fire and I cracked my kneecap on the metal side of the chute. Seconds later I was tossed in the air and landed square on my back. I couldn’t get a single gasp of air in my lungs. I could see Poker Face still kicking around me, so I did the only Bull Ride 1 hing I could do: I rolled across the arena until I slipped under the fence to safety. JW was standing over me in seconds, helping me get my gear off. Eventually I caught my breath and they stood me up. When I got to my feet, all the riders had circled me and started to clap. One of JW’s trusted hands at the school, a middle-aged man they called “Geritol,” told me something interesting about this. He said, ‘even in competition, we may be against each other and you may get the better score and the better ride, but at the end of the day, we’re on the same team because these bulls don’t give a shit if you’re hurt, dead or otherwise. These bulls will break your wrist, break your ribs, tear your muscles, knock out your teeth, trample you while you’re unconscious on the ground, and not a single one of these bulls will ever come up to you and apologize for doing it. We root for each other because at the end of the day, all we have is each other.’ If we could somehow harness thatsensation. If we could only decide that, perhaps, our common enemy is unhappiness and unhappiness is a 1500-pound animal seeking to break our teeth and mash our guts. If we could get together as a people and understand that unhappiness, that misery, doesn’t apologize for wrecking our lives and leaving us breathless in the dirt, then perhaps we can be a human family that applauds one another.
  7. I am no longer afraid of anything but unhappiness.
  8. Not knowing the outcome of your decisions electrifies every nerve in your body. Each time I got on that bull I had no idea if I would lift my hands in the air, or be airlifted to the nearest hospital. In the moment it is an awful feeling. In hindsight, it’s one of the purest ways to live. Do things that have unknown outcomes. It pokes holes in the blackness of our unilluminated future.

Bull Ride 2


My 4-Year Old’s First Short Story

In keeping with a promise I made if he sat and completed a story, I present to you, The Attack of Finley, by Dempsey McGevna…


Matthew, Joanne, Jackson and Dempsey were sitting home one day when the big baby Finley attacked the world.


Dempsey grabbed a gun and tried to shoot her, but she was too invincible. Finley grabbed the gun and shot Dempsey and Jackson but they were invincible too. So the Finleynators grabbed a thing that circles around, so we ran out the door and there was a parkour, so we could run out and parkour our way out.

The End.


White Dunes in Rosetta Stone


the-dunes-1Gripped with the sort of panic that seizes just about any man left alone with his kids, I take Dempsey’s hand and lead him into the Tripoli Gallery in Southampton.


An artist from Bali is exhibiting his newest collection, and I want to hear him discuss the work in person.Who brings a three-year-old to an art opening? I have visions of him rubbing his chocolate-covered hands all over the artwork, climbing the mounted stones on the canvas frames, pulling down the tablecloth that serves the wine, and crackers and grapes and bottles of Perrier. I have visions of millennial art enthusiasts casting judgmental looks and sucking their teeth at him. At me!

I walk in anyway. And here’s why.

My father drove a coach for the Hampton Jitney. One of the few perks of driving those runs in the thick of summer weekend traffic that begins at the bottleneck in Hampton Bays and extends all the way to Montauk (there was only one lane at the bottleneck in them days) was that he could let his family ride for free. He used to offer it to me every weekend. I was 15. As teenagers do, I yessed him to death (not today, but yeah, totally some other weekend, Dad).

I should mention I look identical to my father. Maybe I kept brushing him off because I was scared passengers would see the resemblance and I’d be “the bus driver’s kid.” Maybe I was feeling a bit of that illogical shame ingrained in poor people—the self-conscious paranoia that our every move is being watched.

Whatever the reason, my father never relented and finally, one sunny Saturday in August, I acquiesced. I caught his bus route at the western-most stop—in Manorville—and rode in the seat behind him all the way to Montauk.

I got a history lesson as can only be told through the eyes of a bus driver.

“Here’s where I almost ran over Robin Williams,” he boasted. “He skipped in the air and did his little Popeye thing before he saluted me and finished crossing. Here’s where I saw the first break-dancer I ever saw in person. He had a piece of linoleum but the cops quickly moved him along. Over there in the red dress. That same woman meets that same man at the same time every Saturday and they go into that building together.”

Along Main Street in Bridgehampton a couple kids my age ate ice-cream and lounged on the benches and wore flip-flops and pastel-colored shorts.

When I climbed off the bus in Montauk I was greeted by a hive of people speaking different languages. French and Italian, German and Swedish tourists snapped photos and took inventory of their backpacks. I followed a small crowd of them to the ocean. A side-street abruptly turned to sand and we walked between a pair of high dunes that seemed deliberately parted by God. This is how all dead ends should look.

On the stretch of beach just outside of town in Montauk the wind swirled west to east. It carried with it a mist of warm salt. I watched the crowd disperse along the strand, staking out small plots of rented space for their towels and sandals. Two boys immediately went to work raising a volleyball net. Most headed for the crashing surf.

I took off my shoes and waded out into the water. The tourists were better prepared. They had surfboards and wetsuits. They were diving headfirst from every direction, and I watched the sun make speckled diamonds of their bodies as they cut through the rolling waves. Seagulls circled overhead. One landed on the wet sand just beyond the reach of the waves. I waded toward him. Tested how close I could get to nature before it flew away from me. That’s where the projector in my mind runs out of tape and freezes. The sun beginning to drop as a seagull lifts into the air and sails over the heads of

two Swedish men. They are kissing—embracing each other in anticipation of the next wave.

My dad is gone now. I’m forever grateful that he persisted in asking me. That he held me to my promises and told me something about his daily life. That he did the only thing parents can do: he showed me a doorway and gave me multiple chances to step through and experience, for myself, the heartbreak of beauty.

At the Tripoli Gallery, I recognize myself in Dempsey’s resistance. He wants ice-cream instead of artwork. One of the girls at the gallery graciously hands him a printed card that features one of the works on display. Dempsey wanders through the gallery space trying to match the card to the original on the wall. When he finds it, he squeals and calls me over. When the excitement wears off, he is back to wanting ice-cream.

On Jobs Lane Dempsey and I set out to find an ice-cream store. Just outside the shop where he points to every single flavor as the one he wants, I notice the cover of one of those free magazines that are stacked near the steps. A woman is wearing a white, flowing gown. She’s seated criss-cross on the beach, holding her dog. She’s looking directly at the camera, smiling. Her hair is windswept dramatically over her shoulder. Behind her a pair of white dunes swell toward a cloudless blue

sky. We’re supposed to know who she is, but I’m more struck by the dunes. They are beautiful and familiar.

I decide to make a day of it. In a moment of inspiration I strap my son into his car seat and head out to Montauk. We make it there before sunset. I pull into Shagwong, where we park for free, and follow the dirt road all the way to Block Island Sound. From there I hold his hand and we walk to the inlet rocks. On the journey, he runs his fingers through the sand and holds up tufts of seaweed to show me, as if I’m also seeing it for the first time. We watch sailboats slide home to Gurney’s against the reddening sun and we sit on the rocks. Well… I sit on the rocks. He takes years off my life by leaping the rocks in a deadly game of hop-scotch. I look around. Along the white dunes and slim stretch of sand, campers light fires and a large family throws a birthday party on the beach. For a moment I try to guess where the woman on the magazine cover was sitting when the photo was snapped. Not too far from me, children climb an abandoned lifeguard stand and pretend to be King of the Beach. We are all kings of the beach.

Every so many months there’s renewed talk about privatizing the beaches out here. Shutting it off as personal property. I watch Dempsey play upon the rocks and try to imagine explaining this scene to him. Teaching him about beaches or showing him Google Earth images. There is no way

to teach this. There’s no “White Dunes” in Rosetta Stone. He can’t listen to this in the car.

He points to a fisherman casting for blues on the other side of the inlet. He asks what he’s doing and when I tell him, he says he wants a try. A rogue seagull sails into view and lands on the rocks to grab up a piece of abandoned bait. He takes flight once again as the sun drops on the horizon about half way into the water. The seagull frames the picture in my son’s eyes. It sails on the wind with a full belly. Dempsey has chocolate ice-cream around his mouth. Among the three of us, I think: we will never be as wealthy as we are right now.

Poem: The Storm-Corrupted Sod


Side by side we toiled
After the bay broke through, my brother and I
Took up jobs cleaning the scraps of people’s homes
That drifted onto others’ yards.
They rode upon mattresses of seaweed
Bits of shingle, scraps of siding
A cushion somewhere along the journey
Drifted from its couch
The way we drifted from our mother’s faith.
“Work the field, boy,” my brother would cry out in phony Irish brogue
A line from his favorite film.
The storm hit sideways
With slanted rain to serve as archers in the night
It came while we slept
A moment when our breath suddenly stopped
And our eyes blinked open.
It could be that fast, the thunderous crack of death.
Another scythe sweeps by the faulty fields of men.
A thing so fast and careless can’t be in awe of any Creator, we thought
“Work the field, boy!”
And once an owner came out to tell us he was napping
Could we quiet down for now.
We couldn’t, but somehow we did anyway.
Drank coffee in the truck and loved every drop, as only the pious would.
Those moments in our rest when we
Trade rest for glory.
We say: “We’re in our glory now.”
Later we found a pair of bluefish dying in a shallow pool
We fished barehanded, could barely lift above our heads, the heft.
In disbelief, we sparked a fire on the beach
Ate roasted fish without a grain of salt besides what counts as salt inside the mist
“Work the field,” my brother said once more.
This time a mouth of bluefish made marbles of his words
But I could get the point.
Like those cartoons, he tried to pull the meat straight off the bone I
saw the ecstasy of disappointment through the smoke
But those are memories. Man can’t live on those alone.

Guest Blogger P. Casey Telesk presents “CRAFT: More Human Than Human: Writing as an Act of Amoral Revolution

Casey Telesk


Our guest blogger is P. Casey Telesk. This essay first appeared in Hippocampus Magazine in June of this year. 

P. Casey Telesk:

David Foster Wallace once said, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”

What I believe about writing is similar, I think, to what Wallace was saying in the above statement. The act of writing is about discovering what it means to be a human being, to engage in a process of thought that allows for the discovery of what makes humanity tick. I write primarily fiction; however, what I’ll talk about here, as with most of my views on the craft of writing, applies to fiction and nonfiction alike.

The art of nonfiction is the act of writing about our human selves, which is also true in fiction. Fitzgerald and Hemingway, in their fiction, indicated an acute awareness of alcoholism in their characters, but were never able to acknowledge their own addiction to alcohol. In fiction, at least, there is a buffer — because, after all, it is fiction! In nonfiction there is no such buffer, as we cannot hide behind that word — fiction.

“Write what you know” is the most common piece of advice lobbed lazily at young writers. When I first began writing, I wrote about my experience of having lived with my alcoholic mother. This never made for good writing, and still doesn’t. This is because, even though 20 years have elapsed since I lived with my mother, there still isn’t enough distance between my life now and my life then for me to understand that experience to a degree at which I can write clearly about it. I believe a better piece of advice is — take what you know and write about something, anything, in a meaningful way.

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t write about experiences you don’t understand. I urge all of us to write about our experiences, especially when we don’t necessarily understand them, or their meanings, on a larger scale. This is why we write, or why we should be writing — to discover the unknown, about ourselves, and others. As writers, we have an obligation to capture, in some way, the nature of the human experience as we see it.

In his 1953 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner said: “It is [the writer’s] privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.” — a statement with which I could not disagree more. We have no obligation to instill within man a hope for humanity, nor must we help him endure, though it is okay to have hope, just as it is okay to not have hope. I believe that, in order to write anything worthy of a reader’s time, it must be rooted not only in human experience, but also from a specific perspective, on a specific human experience. And, with any luck, by the end, you’ll have come to understand that human experience in some small way, and maybe even have your perspective shift at some point along your writing journey. If you’re really lucky, you’ll be enlightened by the rarest of all human experiences — coming to understand, and accept, that you simply do not understand.

Since the inception of man, we have always had the need to understand all things, creating gods to explain the sun, the moon, and the stars; blaming the Devil for the evil deeds of men; accrediting God for inexplicable happenings. We feel the incessant need to understand, to have reason, and that’s okay — from this need good writing is born. Great writing, however, occurs when we’re driven by that need, while at the same acknowledging that we do not have to understand, as well as accepting that sometimes we won’t. Inherent in what Faulkner calls the “privilege of the writer” is the assumption that the world can be understood in black and white terms, as good vs. evil, and that the great writer is capable of understanding all of it.

I could not write directly about my experiences with my mother because I didn’t understand anything about her, about what had occurred in my life as the result of her actions. I eventually realized this, and stopped writing about her. In 2009, when I began writing my novel-in-progress, I saw it as opportunity to put my mother on display, to show everyone the kind of person I believed her to be. However, almost 5 years later, once I finished the draft of the novel, I looked back over the narrative and had a massive realization; the mother is actually one of the heroes of the novel, but she is also a victim of others’ abuse. This is something I hadn’t been conscious of during the writing process. I realized consciously, but probably had known unconsciously much earlier, that my mother had suffered during her life, too, and, like the mother in my story by the novel’s end, became who she is as a result of her own suffering. Today, as a result of the process of writing the novel, I realize that we are all human, susceptible to our very own humanity, and vulnerable to the inhumane behavior of others.

I understand this clearly now, but never would I tell other writers to feel the same as I do — tell them they must understand that a person at whose hands they suffered is human, to help them, “endure by lifting his heart,” as Faulkner suggests — that’s not my job, as person, or writer — nor is it yours. The fault inherent in telling us that we can do this “by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past,” eliminates the possibility of good writing. The privilege he describes is not our duty, nor should it ever be our purpose in writing. Morality, in the biblical sense, is a very tricky subject to address in writing. Chekhov said that in order to have a good story it is necessary to have “total objectivity.” If we are imposing a morality onto our story, we are imposing judgment.

I believe I was able to capture a vital aspect of the human experience in my first draft — the fact that we all suffer. As a writer, I can share this revelation with my readers, but I cannot tell them what to do with it. Even now that I’m aware of this idea of suffering, I think it is a very simple and obvious fact, but it isn’t. I would have never understood this unless I took what I know, what I’ve experienced, and tried to apply it to my story. This is “writing what you know,” a snapshot of humanity frozen, which we can, and should share. We cannot go out and expect to search and find exactly what we’re hoping to find. Through writing, one should search for understanding, but never expect to find the exact answer you’re looking for.

Abandoning that need to understand, rejecting the “privilege” Faulkner describes, allows us to transcend our own humanity, granting us the ability to understand without understanding, which in turn makes us, for small moments at a time, more human than human — this is the true privilege of the writer, to capture the parts of humanity, good and bad, that are hard to see, or that we do not wish to see. There is a certain atrocity in the idea that we must remind man of “the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.” To suggest that one is obligated to inspire man, “to lift his heart” with only such romantic and selective parts of his vast and complex nature is simply unconscionable, essentially suggesting that history books’ only mention of Hitler be that, “he was a German leader who loved painting and dogs.” What Faulkner asks of us is detrimental to human progress, the kind of thinking held by teachers who tell schoolchildren “Columbus discovered America,” that he was a dreamer filled with a longing for adventure, but fail to mention how he was responsible for the first killings in a genocide that eventually ended with over 100 million Native Americans dead. This is why our only obligation, the only truly moral act we can commit as writers, is to hold a mirror up to humanity and ask them to look, but we cannot tell them what they should see. We cannot control or try to accomplish this; it happens by chance, the byproduct of moments when our egos briefly disappear, and we come to terms with the fact that we are only writers, that we are nothing, that not a word I have written in this essay matters, that we have no obligations or grandiose “privileges,” when we begin to understand that we do not understand anything, that we are human and nothing we believe contains any value — this is when you’ll find yourself holding up that mirror to yourself. The only thing you need to do, is turn it.


P. Casey Telesk published his first short story, an alternate history tale about the assassination of President Truman, in his elementary school journal at the age of eight. His 1999-2005 anthology of bad breakup poetry has not yet found a home. Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he received a bachelor’s degree in English literature from The Pennsylvania State University and is a graduate of the Wilkes University M.A./M.F.A. Creative Writing Program. He enjoys writing about modernist literature, the Death of Affect, and the importance of structure in literary craft.

Print Friendly

Post navigation

Who Brings a 3-Year-Old To An Art Opening?


I do.

Last week I attended the opening reception for Wall-Wall, a bold new collection from artist Ashley Bickerton. The well-attended event was held at the Tripoli Gallery in Southampton.

Bickerton’s work was stunning. A colorful collection of new work featuring wall facsimiles made of oil paint on fiberglass and resin cast rocks mounted to plywood structures framed in aluminum. The paintings were created in Bali, Indonesia, where Bickerton lives with his wife. They are an extension of Bickerton’s wall contemplation fixtures of the 1980’s. According to the press release, Bickerton was inspired while on a trip to Mexico, where he saw brightly colored stone walls painted hot pink and purple. The idea occurred to him that if paintings are meant to fill a wall with color and meaning, what would be more appropriate than a colored wall to hang on a wall? Gallery owner Tripoli Patterson had the paintings shipped to his studio in Southampton from Bali and will be on display until Aug. 8. The gallery is located at 30a Jobs Lane, Southampton. Hours are 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.; Sunday 12-5 p.m. The gallery is CLOSED on Tuesdays.

I’ve been trying to stay inspired lately. Since moving back to Long Island from Queens, I’ve had a hard time surrounding myself with inspiration and creativity. I’m hoping it will jump start this general malaise that has been keeping me from completing the second novel my publisher has been patiently waiting for.

To help manage the chaos of a three-year-old and a five-year-old stuck inside the house wreaking havoc, I took my three-year-old with me to the reception. I was full of dread. The last time I took a toddler to an art museum was when I took my oldest to the MoMA. It was a disaster. He tried to climb over the barriers, touch the sculptures, rub his hands over the Pollocks and I had to reign him in while constantly reading the looks on the faces of childless 20-somethings who all seemed to be collectively thinking ‘who brings a baby to an art museum?’

Here’s the thing. I don’t care. I’m doing it anyway. I’m sorry if that interferes with your plans to wax philosophical about the Monet in your transparent attempt to get laid by the 2nd-year SVA student you dragged with you, but you share a world. Deal with it. (To be fair, I once was that childless 20-something who waxed philosophical in hopes to get laid by the SVA student. But now I’m not. And P.S.: It doesn’t really work. Tell her a good joke instead.)

I don’t say all this to be some sort of maverick, or to merely wind up sounding like the self-absorbed millenials we’re all supposed to hate. But quite frankly: I need this. My three-year-old needs this.

I am not chock full of positive images of my father. He was haunted by addictions and failures and survivor’s guilt from Vietnam, and his demons caught up with him unfortunately before he reached 62. But one lasting image that will always stick with me was his love for horses and the rodeo. He was a semi-professional bull rider, calf-roper and bareback rider. He took us to rodeos all over Long Island, upstate New York and Connecticut. (The arenas that existed on Long Island are now miniature golf and go-cart courses). I remember going to rodeos with Junius Langhorn, from the Poospatuck Indian Reservation, and he taught me how to spin a pistol on my finger. At the rodeos he’d wear an authentic native headdress.

I am fortunate to have been exposed to the life my father led when he wasn’t home being an irritant to my mother. I am grateful that he brought me and my siblings to his rodeo competitions. I’m grateful that he brought us to rodeos even when he wasn’t competing. It laid a foundation for me to understand my father as a unique and passionate person. Rodeo was his passion, and that’s worth something even after he died.

I need the same for my sons. To see me living a life full of art and creativity. I’m a writer, not a painter, but I love my sister arts and I want my children to see me creating a life in art.

Fortunately I didn’t need to rehearse this spiel at the Tripoli Gallery. Tripoli, Bickerton and his wife, Cherry–everyone I encountered at the reception was enormously welcoming and kind to my little one. He was handed a gallery card of Bickerton’s work, which he used to try and find the original on the wall. Tripoli poured him a soda. Employees at the gallery couldn’t have been nicer. It was an awesome experience. After my ordeal at the MoMA, I’m glad I tried again.



Ashley Bickerton (right) and his wife, Cherry, speak to attendees at Wall-Wall at the Tripoli Gallery in Southampton. July 8, 2016.


The Eric Fischl Show at Skarstedt Gallery

Last week I had the privilege of going to the opening of Eric Fischl’s new show “Rift Raft” at the Skarstedt Gallery on 79th and Madison. I’ve been making it a point lately to try and attend events for my sister arts, and I was introduced to Fischl during the intermission of Jules Feiffer’s new play “The Man In The Ceiling” at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor the week before. Eric told me about the show at the Skarstedt and I gave my word I’d be there.

It was stunning. Fischl’s work is brilliant but approachable. I’ve often hesitated to speak with any degree of authority on visual art, because I feared running the risk of sounding like a dolt. I still run that risk, but I feel emboldened by this New York Times review of the show, because it echoed some of what I was thinking as I moved through the gallery spaces.

“Fischl’s paintings portray a fantastical world populated by disenchanted figures,” the article states. “Staring into the voids of their cellphone screens, Fischl’s well-heeled characters remain unfazed by the onslaught of look-at-me colors and purposefully provocative images.”photo (37)

My favorite painting: False Gods, emblazoned on the wall at a gallery, where a young boy in the foreground has his hands down his pants while staring at an old man fast asleep in his chair. His mother (naturally) is too busy leafing through the gallery map to notice her kid’s diddling his privates in public, haha. In the background a gentleman is yapping away on his cellphone, while another man is on his laptop.

Many of Fischl’s paintings in this show depict this idea of raw, primitive sexuality going neglected because of our obsession with making connections to those not in the room. In the upstairs gallery, a massive double-canvas painting depicts an orgy taking place, while others are ignoring it, opting to text instead.

Jules was on hand at the show, along with the fiction writer JZ Holden. Actor Ron Rifkin was also at the reception. Small-world moment of the night: bumping into a former boss of mine at Haymarket Media after leaving the company almost 10 years ago. photo 1 (7)photo 2 (5)photo 3 (5)

photo 4 (4)

Fischl (right) speaks with an admirer.

When A VIP Shows Up At Your Reading


Last week I read at Books & Books in Westhampton Beach, a cozy independent bookstore with affiliate branches in Miami and other places. It was a Thursday night, the calm before the Hamptons weekend crowd storms the gates.

I scanned the small crowd of writing students and faculty members of the nearby MFA program in Southampton. I was having a chat with my book design cover, Casey Telesk, when my eyes fell upon a very familiar face. It was my ninth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Pantorno. She lives in Westhampton Beach and apparently had gotten word of my upcoming reading.


Me, Mrs. Pantorno and Kaylie Jones.

Mrs. Pantorno gave me my first writing award. Ironically, she presented it to me while I was serving my time in ISS (In-School Suspension). I don’t remember the offense. I remember being surrounded by kids you may not have wanted as friends, but you certainly didn’t want as enemies. I remember a lot of pearl-clutching as she stepped gingerly into the hot wooden portables that served as our ISS room. The writing award was a printed certificate with yellow yarn tied around it as a ribbon.

I remember thinking ‘you’re gonna get me killed, bringing that to me in here.’ I wasn’t killed. I was merely ogled. Criminals narrowed their eyes at me. They’d discovered I wasn’t one of them. I was petrified, but excited at the same time.

Of course I didn’t belong there—at least not permanently, as some students had taken up residence. For me it was a perfect metaphor. I was in the big-house, but there was a way out. Writing was a way out.

Twenty-five years later, I still have that award, tucked away in a literal treasure chest I keep in my basement. I think I’ll go dust it off. To remind me. To remind my kids.

Such is the power of a teacher. Without knowing it, she was able to hand me a sheet of paper that I might as well have considered a ticket. It was the first time someone outside of my family and friends had acknowledged that I had some degree of talent. That I should keep at it. That choices existed. It might have saved my life. It saved me from any more ISS visits, that’s for sure. I knew I co  uldn’t show my face in there again, or I’d get shivved.

I’m kidding. But the gesture was no joke. It kept me on the path early. As I’m about to embark on a new professional journey in Brooklyn next week, I’m excited for the opportunity to keep someone else on that path.