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.

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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.” 

What Critics Seem To Be Missing About ‘Cancel Culture’

After Harper’s published an open letter signed by many prominent authors, professors and journalists, there has been a fair number of counter-responses and podcast episodes decrying the open letter’s concerns about cancel culture stifling the free exchange of ideas. So far the responses all seem to be employing three or four primary strands of argument, and all of the strands are nothing more than a variation of strawmanning and gaslighting. The fact of the matter is: there is an environment (albeit mostly existing online) of intimidation and fear that is used to silence people who might have a more heterodox, humorous, or contrarian viewpoint about hot-button subjects like race, gender identification, cultural appropriation, sexual dynamics or the relationships between men and women. People who disagree with the above statement, and the Harper’s Letter, more specifically, seem to argue these four basic points:

  1. Cancel Culture Isn’t Real Because Rich People

One of the signatories catching the most flack is J.K. Rowling, author of the “The Bottomless Cash Machine That Wore Round Glasses.” “Harry Potter.” The young adult series and subsequent films have given Rowling a license to print money, and indeed she has. A quick Google search estimates her worth to be somewhere around $750 million. There are other (presumably) wealthy signatories as well: Salman Rushdie, Noam Chomsky, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Wynton Marsalis, Jeffrey Eugenides, ect… I say presumably because I have no idea what’s in their bank account and neither does anyone else. So as an argument that cancel culture doesn’t exist, this one is particularly weak. In other words: stop counting people’s money.

But let’s assume, for sake of argument, that ALL of the signatories are wealthy beyond imagination. So what? While it’s true that wealth provides a parachute, it doesn’t take away the fact that the person is no longer in the aircraft. People are successful at this level because they are passionate and dedicated to their vocation. Many of the signatories are writers, and as a writer, I can assure you, we don’t do this for the money. Most of us recognize that the publishing industry is 98% failure, with 2% of us ripping open the chocolate bar to discover a Golden Ticket inside. Most of us have primary jobs (teachers, journalists, insurance agents) and are writing in our underwear at 1 o’clock in the morning because we care about creating something and offering it to the world. We know full well that most likely, a handful of people will read our books, and three months after publication we’ll drift off into total obscurity having made zero impact on the literary landscape. But our passion, our desire drives us. Having that taken away because of some “problematic” view we expressed on Twitter or Facebook or in our ARCs is petrifying. There are plenty of examples in the publishing world of authors who are not named JK Rowling that have suffered severe disruptions to the things they’re passionate about because a cadre of snitches and schoolmarms launched a campaign to shut them down. That stands for presidents of organizations, volunteers, board members, committee members, or any other role people accept because they love the industry they serve. It’s not just about money; it’s about being able to participate in the communities they care about. The letter speaks for these people, not the prominent and sometimes wealthy signatories who were asked to sign it. 

  1. Cancel Culture Is Just Criticism

Or its variations: “Cancel culture is just accountability culture.” “Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.” “Just because someone is mean to you on Twitter doesn’t make it cancel culture.” All the variations are significantly underestimating the impact these “mean Tweets” have on people who find themselves on the receiving end of this phenomenon. It dovetails nicely with the first dopey argument, because skeptics love to point at Rowling and Noam Chomsky and others as proof that, while they may have suffered some discomfort from being attacked online, they haven’t really suffered any serious damage. This may be true for the signatories, but it’s certainly not true for those of us who experience genuine fear, knowing we don’t have a platform to defend ourselves should the Ringwraiths come for us. For someone like Rowling, maybe it does only sting a little, and perhaps the “consequence” is that she loses a couple hundred thousand fans. But for the average person who wishes to communicate and runs a relatively obscure blog, or is hired as an at-will employee, the “consequences” are often not commensurate with the crime. Allow me to illustrate the difference between Cancel Culture and mere criticism. 

Criticism: 

Person A: “Blah, blah, Problematic thing that might be offensive, blah, blah.”

Persons B through Z: “You’re a creep and a jerk. Fuck all the way off and then go kill yourself!” 

THE END

Cancel Culture: 

Person A: “Blah, blah, Problematic thing that might be offensive, blah, blah.”

Persons B through G: “You’re a creep and a jerk. Fuck all the way off and then go kill yourself!” 

Persons H through T: “Looks like he works for Geico. Do your thing Twitter.”

Persons T through Z: Hey @Geico  Do you realize you have a problematic employee out here denying my existence? Come get your boy.” 

Geico: “Thank you for bringing this employee to our attention. He no longer works for Geico. His words do not reflect the values of our company.” 

Consequences for speech that others find offensive or distasteful or outdated should be that everyone thinks you’re a wanker and doesn’t want to listen to you anymore. You lose followers on Twitter, your YouTube channel goes from 30,000 to 3 views, maybe even your neighbors know what you said and think you’re a douchebag. Those are consequences I think many people would be/should be willing to sign up for if they want to communicate and express themselves publicly. As I write this I am fully aware that the 10 people who read this may drop to 4 next time I post another blog. What shouldn’t happen is that my employer gets bombarded with emails and Tweets, and because they are spineless and frightened, they cut me loose rather than weather the brief storm. That’s when criticism crosses into cancelation, which is what the letter outlines. Any other interpretation is just a cynical strawman. 

  1. My Existence Isn’t Up For Debate

A particularly slimy strawman and the easiest strategy to win any debate. The “My-right-to-exist-isn’t-negotiable” strategy. Theoretically it can be used in just about any scenario. 

Climate Change: “Well, I work for an oil company; that’s how I feed my family. My right to exist isn’t up for debate!”

Abortion: “A child’s right to exist isn’t up for debate!”

Gun Control: “I need guns to defend my family. My right to exist isn’t up for debate!”

Confederate Statues: “My great granddaddy fought under Stonewall Jackson. You’re erasing my existence!” 

Healthcare Reform: “I’m a doctor who expects to be rightly compensated for my labor. My right to exist isn’t up for debate!” “Yeah, well I have diabetes and need affordable healthcare. My right to exist isn’t negotiable!”

This is fun!

I’m not the most versed person when it come to LGBQT issues, I’ve never been the victim of sexual assault, and I have no clue what it’s like to worry about whether or not I’ll survive the ordeal of being pulled over by a cop. But I think there are a lot of cafes and rest stops between the status quo (which isn’t working) and “We don’t think you should exist.” Conversations such as: How should we ensure some degree of due process on college campuses and in the workplace? How do we handle trans individuals who want to engage in combat sports or enter vulnerable spaces such as women’s prisons? What would ‘defunding the police’ actually look like? These are serious topics that we can probably tackle in a way that protects everyone involved while being inclusive and compassionate toward vulnerable members of our population. But some don’t seem to want to even have the conversation. They’d rather strawman the question into a question of one’s right to exist and then intimidate anyone who raises these issues into silence. That’s the most invidious aspect of cancel culture: it puts a stranglehold on conversations, understanding, negotiation and consensus. 

  1. Cancel Culture Isn’t Important Because Trump

When and if you do get a cancel culture skeptic to finally concede that we might have a problem with how we engage one another in public forums, one of their final Hail Marys will be something similar to what the response letter states: “It is impossible to see how these signatories are contributing to “the most vital causes of our time” during this moment of widespread reckoning with oppressive social systems.”

The implication being that cancel culture isn’t a vital issue when compared to concerns such as removing Trump from office, reforming our police system, reforming our criminal justice system, creating equity and inclusion in our industries, and preventing massive rollbacks on reproductive rights now that we have a majority conservative SCOTUS. But I would posit that in order for these issues to be addressed and properly redressed, public conversations, otherwise known as “free speech” need to be upheld until it hurts. Yes, Trump is a human dumpster fire. Yes, we still have kids in cages. Yes, people are being swept off the streets in Portland. Yes, Trump used physical force to clear a path for his church photo-op. Yes, Russia might still be interfering in our elections. Yes, our president might have been aware that Russia was paying bounties for the lives of American soldiers in the Middle East. Yes, these are all major problems that do, in the immediate climate, make getting mobbed by activists on Twitter pale in comparison. But when we talk about cancel culture, we’re really talking about principles. I happen to think that both the right and the left are necessary. The right is there to prevent us from overreaching in our principles and the left is there to prevent corruption from settling into permanent power structures and institutions. It is my sense that we are creeping dangerously toward a one-party outlook, whereby the solutions to our problems can only be solved by either Democrats or Republicans. Both parties can and will become authoritarian under that outlook; history has taught us at least that much. For progress to happen, conversations need to happen between the two opposing forces. Compromise, in some cases, might even be necessary. Instilling fear in people who want to engage in the national conversation, or even make a silly joke about something, is corrosive to the principle of free speech, a free press, the free exchange of ideas. Furthermore, it does little to actually create true change in our society. Think about it: is getting John Doe, FedEx delivery man, fired from his job for saying the n-word on a commuter train going to make him less racist, or just more resentful? Or do you support it simply because it gives you a sense of control over other human beings and their livelihoods? Because, in the aggregate, that might be what we are giving up the most in all this hullabaloo about cancel culture. Maybe opponents of cancel culture, like myself, just don’t want to give random people the tools by which they can control us. 

I sign off with this interesting nugget. Just days before the Covid-19 pandemic shut much of the country down on March 19, the New York Times ran a narrative piece from a female professor who tells a harrowing tale of the absolutely Dante-ian ring of hellfire she went through during a Title IX investigation. The woman was poised to receive a tenure-track position at a new university in a different state where her wife had just received an assignment. Just days from being chosen as the preferred candidate, the hiring university received anonyous emails from a former grad student of the professor, claiming she was subjected to the professor’s unyielding sexual harassment. As is protocol, the university launched an investigation and ultimately decided to go with another candidate, a male professor whom the accused knew personally. As it turns out, this male professor was the author of the anonymous emails. He used false accusations to torpedo this woman’s chances of getting hired, so he could secure the position for himself. When this came to light, the offer was rescinded, and he has been dragged into court for libel, defamation of character and emotional and economic damages. Consequences, right? The NYT piece deliberately did not mention the name of this disgraceful man. However, after the piece ran, a woman with a rather large Twitter following took it upon herself to use context clues, court dates, and the name of the author to unearth the identity of the man and share it with her followers. Apparently, on behalf of this Times author she never met, she wanted more blood than the courts were willing, or perhaps able, to extract. The digital mobbing, which this blue-check user approved, resulted in his current employer being contacted as well as his publishing agent. His agent responded with a statement that they no longer represent him. One of the final, and most chilling, Tweets on this incident occurred just before we all went into lockdown here in the Northeast. A man wrote something to the effect of: ‘Don’t think the coronavirus is going to make us forget about you. We’re coming for you once this is over.’  The woman who started this interrupted avalanche against a man who has been held accountable in court? She was a signatory on the response letter claiming cancel culture doesn’t exist. 

If you took the time to read this, let me know where I’m going wrong. I’m always open to re-think and change my position. Just don’t cancel me.

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

 

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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:

Rapunzle

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. 

Aladdin

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.

attack_of_the_giant_babies_by_whitebearboy-d99mydn

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.

 

5 Stupid Things We Say About Colin Kaepernick

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Colin Kaepernick takes a knee during the National Anthem. In the foreground, heartbroken members of the U.S. military stand there, not giving a shit.

This is not a sports article. I’m not about to delve into QB Colin Kaepernick’s stats. I don’t even know Colin Kaepernick’s stats. I know he led the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl and almost won it. That’s about the extent of my Colin Kaepernick knowledge.

I also know that last year he created a storm of controversy when he decided that he would take a knee during the national anthem while he was on the sidelines during 49ers games. His protest of the anthem is inspired by what he perceives as the unjust treatment of blacks at the hands of police, and the subsequent lack of consequences for those officers who cross the line and abuse their power.

Not satisfied with just the standard knee-jerk, faux patriotism of the “love it or leave it” variety, many people have weighed in on social media with the following philosophical nuggets. I would have put them in some sort of Top 5 order, but they’re all equally dumb.

  1. Playing In The NFL Is A Privilege, Not A Right

The Idea: This sentiment is an answer to the argument that Colin Kaepernick, like every American citizen, has the right to freedom of speech and should not be punished for exercising that right.

Why it’s dumb: Working ANYWHERE is a privilege. (Especially in this economy!) The NFL is not some sacred oasis of occupational bliss, where all the employees walk around on some sort of sweet air, smiling away as they toil. Yes, Colin Kaepernick makes a lot of money. Yes, the NFL is a pretty cool place to land a gig. Yes, playing in the NFL is pretty rarefied air. But so what? This means that players have to put their social opinions in their locker before they trot out onto the field to entertain us slobs? That’s not fair. Besides, there’s no room in their locker; it’s filled with weed and guns.

  1. Private Companies Have A Right To Hire or FIre Whomever They Want

The Idea: Rational people think that companies shouldn’t be allowed to fire somebody because they don’t like their opinions on some particular subject. In the public sector, such as education, there is a thing called tenure, that gives teachers a fair shot at defending themselves if something they say either in the classroom or on social media gets them into hot water. It doesn’t always work, but there you have it. In the private sector, however, no such protections exist, and the NFL is no exception. For the most part they can give you the boot without due process. People who tout this little nugget on social media use it to support his firing and criticize the 49ers organization for not drumming him out of the building as part of the halftime show.

Why it’s dumb: While technically true, it’s dumb because it doesn’t end with the NFL. Living in an America where a boss can give you the axe because of your opinions is the democratic-capitalist version of totalitarian regimes (we purportedly hate) who “disappear” people in the middle of the night for the same reason. I’m not suggesting that we are heading in that direction, but just so you’re informed, there are very little (if any) free speech protections on the books aimed at private companies. The Founding Fathers, when they drafted the First Amendment, were primarily concerned with government’s abuse of power, not corporations. Most of the colonists were business owners and tradesmen themselves, not employees of a company. Fast forward 230 years and some corporations in America (like our beloved Vatican City NFL) have power, capital and revenue streams as large as some small countries in the world. Maybe it’s time we start protecting employees who want to write on their socks. No? Then that’s why this is dumb.

  1. Nobody’s Curbing His Freedom of Speech

The idea: He can say whatever he wants, but he doesn’t have to work for the NFL.

Why it’s dumb: While this is also technically true, it’s also dumb because it basically says that we have two choices: shut up and earn a living, or speak out and starve. It’s important to keep in mind that the NFL hasn’t done anything to Kaepernick–they haven’t fined him, they haven’t fired him, they haven’t slapped him with an injunction. They don’t have to. We are doing it for them and we’re enjoying it! Saying you have freedom to do something and then placing such harsh consequences for doing so is like when our parents would tell us: “Go ahead. See what happens to you.” It’s not freedom; it’s a false choice. We absolutely ARE curbing his freedom of speech. Pointing out that he hasn’t been arrested for taking a knee is a pretty low bar to set on such an important freedom, don’t you think?

  1. He Should Take His Message Elsewhere, Not On The Field

The idea: If Kaepernick thinks the cops are pigs and that America is a racist nation, that’s fine. He should just take his protest out on the street, or take part in a march. So long as he is out of his NFL uniform and not doing it an an NFL stadium.

Why it’s dumb: Name one living black activist besides Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton. Go ahead, I’ll wait. The sad fact of the matter is that if Kaepernick doesn’t use his sideline position at NFL games as his platform to express his views, he won’t have a platform. His knee is a message to white America. White America has a sort of spotty record when it comes to listening to black people when they don’t have a ball in their hand or throwing punches in a ring. It’s also dumb because it basically says that NFL stadiums are special, accepted-speech only zones, and the NFL uniform is like the military uniform: everybody should stand in line and keep their mouths shut. In the military it works because it prepares them for warfare. In the NFL it works because? Well, because it allows us the comfort of watching a football game without those icky reminders of the improvements that need to be made in our society.

  1. It’s Great That He’s Trying to Weasel His Way Back Into The NFL

The idea: Ha-ha, nanna-nanna-poo-poo, you’re back-pedaling! This year Kaepernick is on the bubble of the NFL, looking in to see if he can land a job at some other team. In his interviews, he’s been a bit softer in his approach to the million-dollar question: will he take a knee during the anthem this coming year? Or has he learned his little lesson.

Why it’s dumb: Kaepernick’s waffling will soon be our waffling. Our take away from the fact that Kaepernick is being a bit more obtuse when he talks to the press is not supposed to be: ‘what a coward, phony and a hypocrite he is, now that his job is on the line.’ Our take away is supposed to be: ‘what a sad commentary it is on our culture that someone has to hide their social opinions from plain view in order to earn a living.’ This is sort of like laughing with our backs turned to the ocean after a swimmer gets wiped out by a massive wave. A lot of the joy I’m reading about his situation is coming from conservatives. My question to them is: how will you react when your liberal boss threatens to fire you for wearing a Make America Great Again t-shirt? You’ll take off the shirt and never wear it to work again? Fine. But maybe you should be the one not standing during the national anthem, because clearly you don’t embrace the sentiment behind it. The fact is that scores of police officers have committed abuses of their power by using either deadly force or some other means of violence and intimidation since Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee. Most of those officers have not had their livelihood taken away from them. You know who has? Colin Kaepernick. If we continue to revel in an employee being forced to get up off his knee, it will only be a matter of time before we find ourselves on both of ours.

 

Why Are My Fellow Liberals Burning Books?

 

I can’t believe we have to tell liberals of all people to stop this neo-book-burning.

     In the past few weeks both inflammatory trolls Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter were disinvited to speak at reputable college campuses—the most mind-boggling of which was Ann Coulter’s rebuff at what used to be a beacon of free speech, UC Berkley.

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     These are the most recent, but there are others who have been disinvited, and still others who presented their speech and then were pelted with fists and eggs and everything else on their way out of the building. The alt-right bloggers reacted as expected: calling the protesters “snowflakes” and decrying the onslaught of a “politically correct” agenda. Politically correct, by the way, is generally a person’s way of saying “aw man, I can’t say nigger anymore? I will not stand for this facism!” In short, nothing surprised me about the heat Milo and Ann drew to their event, and nothing surprised me about their response to that heat.

     What does surprise me is the rise of think-pieces, most notably in The New York Times, suggesting that these sometimes violent and certainly mob-like reactions should be celebrated and recognized as our youngest generation “redefining” the parameters of free speech.

     Redefining the parameters? Free speech doesn’t have parameters. Or conditions. That’s why it’s called “free speech.” It’s free. Its properties are implied in the word “free.” A synonym for “free” is “liberal” and yet it’s people who identify as liberal ironically instilling parameters and conditions upon our concept of free speech.

     In the New York Times piece, NYU professor Ulrich Baer suggests that what protesters (and the college administrators who are folding to their pressure) are doing is establishing a type of free speech that protects the greater good, or at the very least, a greater number of people.

     “The recent student demonstrations at Auburn against Spencer’s visit — as well as protests on other campuses against Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and others — should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship.”

“The conditions of free speech.”  The only “conditions” we should establish when it comes to free speech is when speech leads to widespread panic that can cost lives, like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, or saying the city ran out of bike racks in Williamsburg. Even in these cases I’m queasy about acquiescing that kind of interpretive power to the masses. Just a few short months ago, in a conversation with a fellow NYC school teacher, she actually blamed Richard Spencer for getting punched. If Spencer’s views weren’t so abhorrent, she said, he wouldn’t have incited people to the point of violence. The level to which we have become comfortable with justifying violence because we don’t like a speaker’s message astounds and frightens me. The winds can and do change at any point. We have to keep free speech free.

Free speech with conditions isn’t free speech. Characterizing it the way Baer does in the passage above is nothing short of spin. It’s killing women and children and then calling it “collateral damage,” and I think liberals like this NYU professor know it.     

We Live In A Time When We Have More Speech, Not Less

There’s no question that we have a history of delegitimizing whole segments of the world’s population. Baer opens his piece with an anecdote about a female Holocaust survivor who approaches a scholar of the Holocaust. The scholar dismissively says “Madame, you are an experience, not an argument.” Only since the 1990s, Baer asserts, have we began to acknowledge experience as a very powerful form of argument. Fair enough. But in that situation, which occurred around 1985, the female Holocaust survivor had to go home feeling like her voice didn’t matter. Nowadays, that same woman has a myriad of platforms (including college campuses) on which to shout her experiences.

     (Case in point, The New York Times has never heard of me and would never publish this opinion piece, but guess what? You’re reading it!)

     Such is the case with segments of our population who have been marginalized and feel de-legitimized by mainstream culture—ethnic and racial minorities, women, the LGBQT community—there are platforms for all of these voices (including college campuses!) and I think that’s a powerful thing. This can only make for a stronger society.

     So why in hell would we want to put conditions to free speech in an age when technology has allowed literally everybody to be heard? It’s time to ask, who is really being de-legitimized here?

Are We Really Protesting Content?

     Another specious argument coming from the left (I still can’t believe it’s the left doing this) is that there are some topics that are not debatable, or at least not worthy of debate. Topics such as the moral grounds for eugenics, the dangers of miscegenation, or the inferiority/superiority of one race over another: are not up for debate and are not worth discussing. Fine. But are those the topics Ann Coulter or Milo planned to discuss? Or have we decided, simply, that Ann Coulter’s views repulse us, so we’re going to protest them, violently if necessary, and get the intellectual backing of NYU professors in the New York Times? Baer gives these protesters far too much credit. They simply don’t like these speakers’ views (neither do I, for the record), they resent the fact that they have an audience, so they want to shut them down.

     I also take issue with Baer’s premise that speech is intended as a “public good.” Sometimes this is the case, but sometimes it’s not. The Nazi Party march in Skokie, IL did not accomplish any greater good. But it was rightfully protected.

     “The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks.”

     Yes it does. But I’ll let him continue because that’s the kind of guy I am.

     “It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized         members of that community.”

     To which I ask: who was/is stopping these “other members of a given community” from “participating in discourse as fully recognized members of that community?” Those people have every right and every opportunity to speak on a number of platforms. Since when is a college barred from, say, having Ann Coulter speak on a Tuesday at 2 p.m., and an immigrant rights activist, or a transgendered or LGBQT activist speak at 3 p.m.?

     “In today’s age, we also have a simple solution that should appease all those concerned that students are insufficiently exposed to controversial views. It is called the internet, where all kinds of offensive expression flourish unfettered on a vast platform available to nearly all.”

Oh, well that’s convenient. Let’s all thank this man for granting a proper venue for people he doesn’t like to deliver their opinions. How about this: Go piss up a rope. Why don’t you go and chuff your opinions off to the ghettos of the internet? Are we really engaging in this kind of soft-headed approach to the problem, that we’re willing to tolerate speech on the internet, just not on college campuses? Wow.

A Modest Proposal

     Of course the biggest issue with all of this “redefining” and condition-creating is a simple, but large issue: Who gets to decide what’s debatable, acceptable and helpful to the greater good?

     Answer:

     Me.

     I’ll take care of it.

     From now on, all college speeches will be sent to me in advance. I’ll sit down with a panel of people whose judgment I trust, and together we’ll decide whether the speech lends itself to a greater good, legitimizes and validates marginalized people and is therefore worthy for public consumption.

     Sound good? Of course not! It’s insane. So stop it! Stop intellectually burning books and then calling it an act of advocacy for the greater good. We’ve seen this sort of collectivism before. Someone rewind that movie.

    If we’re going to go down this path, let’s not kid ourselves. We’re not “redefining” free speech. These kids aren’t “re-envisioning” the First Amendment. We’re creating a new amendment. Let’s do what George Carlin would have done, and call it what it is. Approved Speech. Free speech is gone. We have Approved Speech. Stop lying to us (and yourselves) with these rationales and euphemisms.

Here’s the Kicker!:

     Baer actually made my point for me just a few short hours after the New York Times published his piece. In the same article where he states “ I am not overly worried that even the shrillest heckler’s vetoes will end free speech in America,” he doubled back to include a legal disclaimer divorcing his views from his employer. Without a shred of irony.

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

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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.
Think.
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.

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