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.


5 Stupid Things We Say About Colin Kaepernick


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.


     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?



     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


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.

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