Monday, November 29, 2010

Remembering Irvin Kershner

Film director Irvin Kershner died today, at his home in Paris. He was 87 years old. I hadn’t seen him since an extraordinary pair of meetings twenty-eight years ago, but he remains one of the most vivid figures I ever encountered in Hollywood.

I didn’t know much about him when the producer of my little family drama movie script set up the meeting, but I could tell he considered it a major coup. I did some research and found out that Kersher had directed some great television shows during what I would refer to as the first ‘Golden Age’of TV (we’re in the middle of the second one, now): episodes of Naked City, Kraft SuspenseTheatre and Ben Casey, before going on to make such extraordinary films as The Luck of Ginger Coffey, A Fine Madness and The Flim-Flam Man. Of course he is best known today for directing what most aficionados agree was the best of the Star Wars movies – The Empire Strikes Back. Indeed he was just coming off that career high success, looking for a new project, when I got the chance to meet him.

It was quite an intimidating set up – the luxurious office on the Warners lot, the giant photograph of Yoda that dominated the wall behind his desk, and the man himself – craggy, bearded, sharp eyed, a true Jedi Knight in his own brand of creative warfare. The rumor about him was that he was difficult, contrary, obstructionist – he could “turn a go project into a development deal” with one meeting. He was tough with me, but I found his criticisms stringent and illuminating, like a semester of film school in a single afternoon.

The main problem he had with my script was the long passage in the middle during which the father character and his oldest friend reminisce and re-litigate their lifetime of conflict over a series of excellent meals and walks on the winter beaches of Nantucket.

“This isn’t a movie!” he barked, dropping the script on his desk liker something dead that had just twitched alarmingly.

“Right,” my hapless producer agreed. “It’s – it’s a play. All that dialogue …”

Kershner turned that beady stare on him. “It’s not even a play! It’s nothing!

There’s no drama, here. It’s just two geezers chewing the fat. A movie is about what happens next. Don’t you get that? Look, I say to you – this script is shit. You can’t write. Get out of the business while you still can. What do you do? That’s insulting! That’s abusive! What are you going to do about it?”

“I,uh –“

“Are you going to break into tears? Run out of the room? Stand up and slug me? I don’t know – but you’re going to do something. That’s a movie! Here’s how EVERY SCENE in a movie should play. Pay attention to me, kid. There’s a nail sticking up out of this desk. I wrap a red rubber band around it and start pulling. The rubber band starts stretching, it pulling thin, turning pink, it’s about to snap, you’re flinching in advance … and then – pow! The nail comes out of the table. That’s what I’m looking for -- that kind of reversal, that kind of surprise.”

He didn’t like my ending, either.

“The father admits the son is talented, and they kiss and make up. It’s shit. It’s a TV movie. Do you watch TV?”

“Sure,” I said “I mean – sometimes, I guess, but –

“Well as long as you’re working with me, you don’t watch TV. Not one second of it. It’s all shit. It’s written like shit, it’s acted like shit, it’s directed like shit and if you keep watching that shit you won’t be able to do anything else.”

A silence fell. My producer, he seemed near tears – he had no idea how jazzed I was – said, “So… we’re done here?”

But Kershner wasn’t done. He didn’t think much of the father son relationship that made up the core of the story.

“It’s all in the past,” he said. “it’s all memory and back story and no one cares.”

“So … what do you think I should do instead?” I asked.

“Give them some real conflict, something that’s happening right now. The kid has a girlfriend – let the dad be fucking her. That should heat things up a little. Write me that draft – and cut thirty pages out of it.”

We reeled out of there, into the dry heat of a Los Angeles September afternoon, and my Producer apologized profusely for his old friend’s rudeness – over a sumptuous lunch at a nearby Taco Bell. He always was a big spender. I told him not to worry about it. I was already framing the re-write in my head and when I met Kershner, two weeks later, I had a new draft that ran 90 stream-lined pages.

He hefted it with a grin “Fighting weight,” he said.

I was dazzled and star struck – I had just seen Sean Connery coming out of his office, wearing a track suit … the meeting before mine. I figured out later what that meeting signified: Kershner was about to direct his own version of a James Bond movie with Connery, a re-make of Thunderball.

His decision had already been made, and I wasn’t even in the running.

I probably didn’t deserve to be.

So I didn’t get a movie made that year, and I didn’t get a screen credit an entrée to the Writer’s Guild or a big slab of screenplay money. But I got a lesson in writing I’ll never forget, and every time I ratchet up the conflict in a scene or somehow manage to pull that nail out of the table, I think of Irvin Kershner and bow my head in gratitude to thewild-eyed genius who played Yoda to my humble Padawan.

It was definitely Kerhner's voice I heard in his movie when old Jedi said "Do, or do not. There is no try."

I was lucky to have met him, and I’m sad to see him go.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In Defense of the MFA

Poets and Writers magazine features their second annual ranking of the top MFA programs in the country, and “new for 2011’ a list of the ten best low residency programs. My school, Vermont College of the Fine Arts, is ranked number one among them, beating such distinguished competition as Goddard, Bennington and Warren Wilson College.

The issue hits the newsstands in the midst of an impressive anti-MFA backlash. This form of graduate education produces a blandly competent but uninspired, academically homogenized prose that just kind of sucks the life out of you – that’s the consensus of articles I’ve been skimming lately. From Anis Shivani writing on the Huffington Post about overrated writers, to one of his prime targets, Juno Diaz, everyone is piling on the poor old Master of Fine Arts degree. Publishable prose simply can’t be drilled or cajoled out of the untalented, that’s the gist of it.

John Fowles compared the teaching of writing to equipping a fisherman – you can have all the best gear, a state of the art rod and fresh bait, but none of that helps if you’re standing in the middle of a cornfield. “What matters is having a river to fish in,” Fowles pointed out.

Well, true enough. But knowing a bit about fishing can’t hurt; and especially if you have a good trout stream in front of you. Sloshing around in the shallows grabbing at them bare-handed just doesn’t work very well.

Trust me, I’ve tried it.

Still, the idea of going to school, particularly graduate school, just to get an education seems increasingly quaint and eccentric. My own original plan was relatively pragmatic: get the degree, publish a book (the most minor publication would suffice), and then take those letters after my name and the ISBN number after the title of my book and get myself a college teaching job. The first part was relatively easy. I got the degree, but I remain unpublished as of this writing. Nor is this a unique predicament. As the nay-sayers will tell happily tell you, few MFA graduates ever achieve substantial literary success. In a world where you read about six-year-old kids getting book deals, this can be mildly disheartening. One of my own professors, Douglas Glover, put it best, in the first lecture I ever heard him deliver:

Now more than ever, it is possible to get a doctorate in creative writing, and it is possible to get degrees in non-fiction writing, editing, playwriting and screenwriting. And, sad to say, it is possible to obtain one of these degrees without writing a publishable sentence, paragraph, story, novel or essay.

Going to writing school has become a bit like take piano and water color lessons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a popular outward sign of bourgeois cultural accomplishment, a commercially available testimonial of creativity, the public stamp of approval. You know how, in The Wizard of Oz, at the end, the scarecrow gets a diploma. Well, here’s your diploma, you are a licensed creator, the equal of Joyce and Homer. But it doesn’t mean you can write a book that is publishable, let alone a work of art or, dare we say it, a masterpiece, a classic, that you read with intensity and wisdom, that you love your tools as if they were your children.

Ironically, it was this lecture that convinced me to attend Vermont College in the first place. Regardless of the statistics and the glum professional forecasts for Master of Fine Arts graduates, I wanted to work with Glover. I was sure I could learn some valuable things from him. Indeed, I already had, just at that first lecture. The bulk of it concerned the use of verbs, and the dangers one verb in particular, the ever-present “To be”, that ghastly centerpiece of the passive voice. Why did Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzales say “Mistakes were made”? Because if he given up the passive voice and introduced a real verb into his sentence, he would have had to acknowledge who exactly made those mistakes. “I made mistakes,” for instance: a much stronger sentence, but not nearly as cunning and vague. Doug called this lecture “Attack of the Copula Spiders” – referring to his habit of putting a dot in the middle of a page and drawing lines to all the ‘to be’ formulations, covering student papers with giant spider diagrams.

Doug is obsessed with verbs. He counts them in sentences and paragraphs, balances them against the articles and nouns, cherishes them, collects them, celebrates them. As F. Scott Fitzgerald pointed out (in a letter to his daughter that Doug quoted in the course of the lecture) verbs carry sentences. An inert sentence like “The rabbit was on the lawn” can become something beautiful in the hands of a great writer. Fitzgerald says:

Probably the finest technical poem in English is Keats’ “Eve of St. Agnes”. A line like “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass” is so alive you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement – the limping, trembling and freezing are going on before your own eyes.

When I say Glover counts the verbs, I mean that literally. He has made a science of it. In the lecture he discusses this text from Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart:

“That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments. These tapped together, or, parting, left channels of dark water, down which swans in slow indignation swam. The islands stood in frozen woody brown dusk: it was now between three and four in the afternoon. A sort of breath from the clay, from the city outside the park, condensing, made the air unclear; through this the trees around the lake soared frigidly up. Bronze cold of January bound the sky and the landscape; the sky was shut to the sun – but the swans, the rims of ice, the pallid withdrawn Regency terraces had an unnatural burnish, as though cold were light. There is something momentous about the height of winter. Steps rang on the bridges, and along the black walks. This weather had set in; it would freeze harder tonight.

This is a landscape opening that also tells the reader where and when the novel starts and what the weather was like which, in turn, establishes a certain atmosphere… astir with life and movement. How is it done? Well, there asre eight sentences, one hundred and forty seven words and twenty-three verbs, verbal adjectives or verbal nouns (Note the one deft use of the passive voice.) You can express this again as a ratio: in this passage, Bowen writes a 23/8 verb to sentence ratio, three verbs per sentence … simple ratios don’t tell the whole rhetorical story, but they begin to tell you about verbs. Beyond the ratio you should immediately notice the quality of the verbs: three copulas (“was,” “is,” “were”), one passive voice (“was shut”), three generics (“left,” “had,””made”) and one slightly abstract verb (“set in”) against fifteen precise, concrete action.

This was a revelation to me. I started counting verbs myself doing it everywhere, even at breakfast. One day, I was reading the cereal box and the milk carton in front of me as I wolfed my morning meal: Alpen and Stoneyfield Farms. It occurred to me that the milk was much more engrossing, so I turned to statistics. Alpen: “Organic rolled oats and crispy whole wheat flakes containing all the bran and wheat germ are combined with toasted hazelnuts and roasted almonds for a rich, hearty taste.” 28 words, one copula (in the passive voice), two verbal adjectives … two verbs.

Stoneyfield: “We started Stoneyfield Farm milking cows and making quarts of yogurt at our little hilltop organic farming school in 1983” 21 words. Three verbs and a gerund.

28/2 vs. 21/3: Case closed.

I know this sounds suffocatingly technical and abstract. In fact, it’s vital – even visceral. But at first this raised consciousness simply paralyzed me, as learning to drive with a stick shift had done, so many years ago – lots of stalling and flooding. Still, I eventually internalized Glover’s analytical perspective, and started to enjoy driving my own prose, down-shifting through its twists and turns, finally starting to take control.

So I applied to the school, got in and followed my girlfriend into the most rewarding and exciting two years of my whole catch-as-catch can educational life. I worked with Chris Noel, author of the beautiful and moving grief memoir In the Unlikely Event of a Water Landing; with crime fiction maestro Domenic Stansberry and with short story writer and political activist Diane Lefer. I went to dozens of lectures during the ten day residencies, worked and got worked over in the workshops, found brilliant poets like Brendan Constantine, extraordinary memoirists like Andrew Hood, word-slinging jazz-riffing novelists like Barry Wightman.

The residencies reminded me of those British holiday camps, sometimes: you never had a moment yourself. The days were packed: the longer you’d been there the more people whose final lectures and readings you had to attend. Not to mention the faculty readings, visiting writer readings, student readings and of course the renegade reading, late at night in Noble Hall, where you could try out anything if you didn’t mind being pelted by ping-pong balls. The sense of community thrilled me. You could sit at any table in the Dewey dining hall and start a conversation with anyone – you all had the same things on your minds, had just been to the same lectures, just worked with the same professors.

Finally, in my last semester, I took the leap and signed up to work with Doug Glover. Here’s what I wrote in my final evaluation:

Doug’s approach can best be described as surgical rigor. His first move was to throw out my original lecture plans, assign me a pile of books and explain the new lecture: read these books, figure how the authors did what you’re trying to do, and write about it. As I worked through draft after draft I was always impressed and inspired by the painstaking relentless devotion to clarity and intelligent analysis his comments revealed.

The same is true for the difficult fiction project I was attempting – a group of related stories actually ‘written’ by the various characters in the novel. As Doug pointed out, first things first: learn how to write one publishable short story, learn the basics of story construction, start from scratch. Doing seven stories in seven different styles and voices will have to wait. So that’s what we worked on: conflict, inciting incidents, image patterning, plot structure. Am I an expert craftsman of the short story now? No, but at least I know what I need to work on, and I have a direction to follow in the years ahead. I think I’ll have Doug’s sharp-witted jovial acidic voice in my mind for the rest of my writing life. If it ever starts to fade, I have the lectures on tape!

In other topics, Doug was always supernaturally prompt with his detailed critiques and we spoke often on the phone, as well as e-mailing at various times. He couldn’t have been more accessible or cooperative.

The faint of heart had warned me about Doug, but the nickname ‘shredder’ reflects a basic misunderstanding of Doug’s methods. That would be like calling me “Chaos man” when I help my kids clean their rooms. We invariably start out by making the mess worse, emptying the jumbled drawers and pulling all the clothes, games, old ipods and Dreyer horses out of the closet, retrieving the food, books, mismatched shoes and long-lost band instruments from under the beds. That’s the chaos part, and it’s essential if you ever want to get organized. Doug works the same way – hey, the Marines work the same way. You have to break down the old bad habits and clarify the problems if you ever want to fix things.

Is this fun? No. Is it an ego-boost? Hardly.

But the truth is I entered for the program for the chance to work with Glover, and I’m glad I took it. I said to someone, doing anything else would be like going to the Labyrinth and not bothering to meet the Minotaur. So: a great semester; a great teacher. I emerge battered and humbled but more enthusiastic than ever about the work at hand; and more prepared than ever before to actually succeed at it.

Since I graduated, the first question everyone asks me is how the degree has affected my finances. Did I get a teaching job? Did I sell a book? Do I have anything – anything at all – concrete to show for the time and money I spent? Well, I did write a much better book than I could have written before, and I did find an agent for it. That’s a start. But my real answer to the question of what I got out of Vermont College remains the stubbornly quaint and eccentric one: I got an education.

I highly recommend it.

9/11 Letters: Rage, Hope and the American Jihad

My memory of 9/11 has been shaped by all the events that happened since – wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Patriot Act and the growing surveillance state that legislation initiated; my greater understanding of the Middle East and Islam; a broader historical awareness of America’s role in that part of the world, going back almost sixty years. But I wrote a letter to my local paper that day, and the paper came out two days later. This was raw, uneducated, unfiltered reaction; I suppose it had to be reactionary. I was vilified by my friends and embraced by people I despised. It was a strange moment. My son, who returned this Spring from studying Arabic in Amman, Jordan, just shakes his head at the overheated rhetoric of this crazy broadside.

But I don’t think I was alone, even among liberals. There was a reason George W. Bush had a 90% approval rating in the angry, war-mongering days after the attack; a reason why he could leverage his own catastrophic blunder into an opportunity to attempt the neo-conservative strategy of imposing our way of life on people who hated it. It’s worth taking a look at this troubling snap-shot of outraged patriotism, if we want to understand how the 9/11 attacks led us to where we stand today, fighting two wars and on the brink of a third. Will Yemen be next? And is there any way to pull back? Maybe, by repudiating the knee-jerk vengeful rage of the first letter that follows.


I don't know what this makes anyone else feel, but I'll tell you what I'm feeling tonight: sheer red-eyed rage and fury. The amputation of the World Trade Center, the violation of my home town, the sheer senseless, blood and cant-soaked religion fuelled hatred of the act make me feel about the whole world of Islam what they have been feeling about us for decades. They want a religious war? I say give it to them. I say let them find out what happens when they awaken this sleeping giant. I say carpet bomb the whole Middle East -- every one of those countries, with all the innocent people in them. This has to be a calamity for them, an act of God, a typhoon, a tidal wave, a rain of toads. They have to learn that they cannot let their lunatic fringe declare war on the most powerful country in the world because if they do we will reach over and crush them like the puny desert bugs they are.

What no American politician has ever understood is that you cannot fight these people in a civilized way. Jimmy Carter never grasped this. He tried to negotiate with a culturally institutionalized mass psychosis. He talked about the energy crisis as the 'moral equivalent of war' and then failed to notice when the real thing actually happened. Iran declared war on us, and we refused to fight it. That sent the terrorists a message they've never forgotten. George Bush Senior only made things worse when he refused to deal decisively with Saddam Hussein. And the same thing is happening again.

George W. is talking about 'hunting down' and 'punishing' the perpetrators. This is just bombastic noise: The ones who committed the act are dead. The ones who gave the orders are impossible to hunt down. It's like finding the one mosquito with the West Nile virus. You don't capture a million mosquitos and give them each a blood test -- you wipe out ALL MOSQUITOS .. or at least you do the best you can. You spray. That's what we have to do.

The sad fact is there's no middle ground between the pathetic nothing of the President’s rhetorical outrage and the ruthless everything of total war. To fight terrorism effectively, innocent people will have to be killed. Beautiful historical sites will have to be destroyed. A whole sick culture will have to go down in flames. It's our God against their God, and Jesus can warm the bench on this play, folks. Because we need the Old Testament God now. We need someone in the White House with the guts to enact the towering rage that is exploding in the American people tonight. If Bush and his geriatric cold warriors can't do it, I volunteer.

It wouldn't cause world war III -- Putin is ready to fight and that's one thing the Russians are good at. If there is a World War III, it will be the whole civilized world united to wipe out this insane cancerous society which has been metastasizing for a thousand years. And we can take out the Taliban while we're at it, and take over the Saudi Oil fields, too. Those towel-heads have been robbing us blind for decades.

The thing that really broke my heart was watching those towers collapse. I know that the actual crash was the true tragedy; the explosion killed the people. But the utter destruction of the buildings just levelled me. It was like ... the terrorist killed your lover, but before that he yanked out her two front teeth. The death is horrible, but the brutalization and disfigurement is worse somehow. That's the thing that gives you the rage to kill in your turn. And I'm in a killing mood tonight. I just wish our President felt the same way.

A wrote a sort of retraction the next week. Its open-hearted optimism strikes me today as even more naïve and tragic than my jingoistic tantrum:

Several people have told me they thought last weeks’ letter in the Inquirer and Mirror was “insane.” They couldn’t believe I was advocating unilateral military attacks against civilian targets in the Middle East. Perhaps I was insane when I wrote those things. But to take a reasonable position on the most appalling attack on our country since the war of 1812 at that moment, before the dust from the ruined towers had even settled on lower Manhattan … that would have been a different kind of insanity. Obviously, I have nothing to do with making military policy in this country. That gives me the luxury to vent my feelings. We all expected Colin Powell and the President to be more measured and – gratefully – they were . But in raving at this murderous outrage I was also trying to articulate feelings that many people shared. My hope was that seeing those raw emotions clearly stated in print might allow others a moment of relief – and a sense of perspective. An aggressive “Right on!” followed by a flinch reaction of “Oh no.”, hate and horror separate but profoundly connected – the lightning flash of bloodlust; and then the slow thunder of rational thought.

I could have written a letter with the opposite viewpoint the next day, and twenty others in the days since. Like everyone else I know, I have felt every possible emotion from helplessness and fear and guilt to the indignation and anger I described last week. The situation is too large and evil and unprecedented for any single reaction, and no one would want the snap-shot of one instant’s emotion to stand as a permanent record of their grief. Even the media, with their relentless ability to hype and exploit and over-dramatize any event, have been outstripped by the reality here.

The tactics I suggested were impractical as well as draconian. We need to find the actual culprits; killing thousands of innocent people in senseless bombing raids would please the terrorists more than anything else we could do. They would love to see us reduced to their level of bloody-toothed grinning barbarism; and even more than that, they would love to see us diminished in the eyes of the world. Because the fact is that we hold the moral high ground against them, for the first time in decades. Even Yassir Arafat is on our side. We have the chance to literally unite the entire globe in a confederation unparalleled in history and unimaginable before the eleventh of September. There might even be greater benefits to be gotten from this alliance than the eradication of terrorism.

Looking up from the smoking rubble of an insane act of war, we can see – if we’re willing to squint through the smoke – the astonishing possibility of a world at peace.

Of course, the future I glimpsed there was quickly and brutally foreclosed by the Bush administration, and continues to dwindle under Obama. I now have little hope and only occasional flickers of anger. A numb despair prevails: buckle into the harness and trudge forward. The situation is bad today, but it wasn’t great when we installed Saddam Hussein in Iraq – or the Shah in Iran. Systems unravel, empires decline. Things get worse; it’s a kind of geopolitical entropy that feels inevitable, now. I feel nostalgia today for the outrage and the optimism that animated those letters. I have very little of either one left … which may be the real legacy of 9/11.

And that’s the saddest thing of all.

Novel (or Memoir)-in-a-Box Contest

My great professor at Vermont College, Douglas Glover, has a website now, called Numero Cinq, and he has been running interesting contests for the last six months -- an aphorism contest, a villanelle contest, and most eccentrically, a translation contest in which absloute ignorance of the language (Dutch, I think) was a prerequisite. You had to make up your own story based on the sound of the words, coaxing out any repititions, finding parallel sentence structures, writing your own lyrics, as it were, to the music of a foreign tongue. Wild. The new contest is below, and Doug says anyone can enter and in my opinion, not enough people have.

My entry (memoir) is at the bottom of this post.

Doug says:

Augusto Monterroso is perhaps most famous for his short story “The Dinosaur,” which is said to be literature’s shortest story. It reads in full:

When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.

In an 1996 interview with Ilan Stavans for the Massachusetts Review, Monterroso recalled some early reviews of “The Dinosaur”: “I still have the very first reviews of the book: critics hated it. Since that point on I began hearing complaints to the effect that it isn’t a short-story. My answer is: true, it isn’t a short story, it’s actually a novel.”

Brevity was, to say the least, an important concept for Monterroso. His essay “Fecundity” is included in The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays. It reads in full:

Today I feel well, like a Balzac; I am finishing this line.

—from Tom McCartan’s Crib notes on “What Bolaño Read”

The Contest

Okay, the long-awaited next Numéro Cinq literary contest, The First Annual Numéro Cinq Novel-in-a-Box/Memoir-in-a-Box Contest. The rules are pretty simple this time. You have to write an entire (don’t cut corners) novel or a memoir (personal narrative) consisting of 9 (a mystic number) chapters and each chapter can be no more than 5 lines long. (By lines, I mean the number of lines that appear on the comment box on the blog.) Fewer lines if you can. Try to remember what a novel is like: at least a couple of characters or more (usually), a conflict, development through a series of dramatic actions, etc. Alternatively, try to remember what a memoir looks like: a first person narrator (and a couple of other people or more), a thematically continuous narrative line often based on a conflict and or theme, development through a series of dramatic moments or incidents, etc. Indicate on your entry whether it is fiction or non-fiction (there will be separate prizes). (Note that in the Monterroso story quoted above there ARE two characters, the guy and the dinosaur.)

The contest is open to any living, sentient being in the universe. It is not limited to people who are already on the blog or VCFA students or former students. Everyone is welcome, and also welcome to join in other conversations or suggest topics.

Entries will be accepted between September 1 and September 15, 2010, and should be written in English (Gary) and attached as comments to this post (the usual practice at NC).

Remember the values we hold dear here at Numéro Cinq: WIT & ARROGANCE. Remember Gordon Lish’s phrase ATTACK SENTENCES!

P.S. Anyone who mentions the insidious phrase “flash fiction” will have his or her comment deleted from the blog. I mean this! Delete it from your minds. This is not a flash fiction contest.


My Memoir in a Box:

(The actual Memoir ran here last year ... this is the Greatest Hits, ADD version ...)


It was finally over Didn’t I know it already? Wasn’t it obvious?She was right, too – I had no business being surprised. We had been in the middle of the unspoken knowledge for years. It was like living in Chernobyl as desperate Russians were starting to do again now: ignoring the obvious and waiting for the symptoms to show.


How did I figure out that Ned was sleeping with my ex-wife? I wanted to sell my wedding ring. Nick freaked. Kim said, “I’ll keep it until he’s older.” So I gave it to her, in front of her friends. She called, furious: it was a spiteful thing to do. Ned agreed. Ned? He had to be fucking her. Only one way to be sure: read her diary.


Why stalk my ex-wife? I wanted to be fully included in my exclusion, in complete control of my helplessness. I found Lisa’s diary in her underwear drawer. Reading it was like a Krav Maga demonstration: pulled by the back of neck into a series of blows, the brutal parody of an intimate embrace. The only solution: walk away.


The agent said: “When are you moving to L.A?” But I had kids. I couldn’t leave them and I couldn’t take them. But I could resent them and I did.. Then Caity got sick and cleaning her puke off the bathroom walls at two AM I realized: this was what I wanted to be doing. This was where I wanted to be.


The advantages of divorce: time off, silence. The dishes in the sink are no longer a passive-aggressive statement. They’re just dishes. And no more nonogomy. A much needed new word: being sexually faithful to a woman who’s not fucking you. Happily married, I was the one guy at a party not smoking weed. Now I’m one of the guys. Pass the doobie.


Maybe divorced men should be quarantined for eight months. The first relationship is always bad – the first pancake you test the griddle with, and invariably throw out. Sasha was a good Catholic girl, so the more obvious erotic encouragements were out of the question. She didn’t want to put anything strange or unusual in her mouth.“I don’t even eat sushi,” she said.


I was happily alone when I met Annie. Solo flights – that was my kind of flying. Solo cups – that was my kind of cup! Han Solo, that was my kind of corny outer space smuggler with a heart of gold! O Solo Mio – that was my kind of Mio. Then we read each other’s work and she kissed me under the Chekhov moon.


So we moved in together. She endured Caity’s pack of friends she battled Nick over his dirty dishes and won. She went to Grad school and I followed her like a horse clopping after another horse. I was no longer living in the past. It was a physical relief, like taking off a bulky coat I should never have been wearing in the first place.


My Mom and my brother Peter came to Nantucket for Nick’s graduation. He walked into the house with a bag of groceries. Mom offered to help. He gave her a baffled look, said “I’m fine Mom,” and started unpacking the food. I said, “I guess that’s a look I’m going to have to start getting used to.”
“Yes,” she said. “But you never will.”

Beach Rules

Looking back on it, the crucial moment occurred when she noticed she was still wearing underwear.

Normally that would have been a good thing -- modest and prudent. She wasn’t the type to ‘go commando’, especially in a sun dress. But the beach trips with her sister and brother in law had developed their own rituals, and changing into her bathing suit at the beach was one of them. After the first time, when she had been caught unprepared for the decision to actually go swimming (the surf was high and it was almost sundown), she had been more careful. On that occasion, she had been wearing bulky shorts and a flimsy t-shirt. She decided to wear the shorts into the water, but she didn’t want to go home in wet panties, so she slipped them off, sitting on the cool sand, and then struggled back into her shorts. The question was: had David glanced over at her during that unguarded moment? She had stood on her knees to wiggle into the shorts, naked from the waist down for a few seconds. He could have seen everything – or did the sightlines limit him to a view of her bare ass? She would normally have said bottom, or tush or even backside … but something in the way David had been looking at her lately, even fully dressed, made the raw single syllable more appropriate.

Bigger question: did she want him to have seen her? She certainly didn’t care any more if Sam looked at her, and she was supposed to be in love with Sam.

More troubling still: the night after that beach day she climbed on top of Sam and really made love to him for the first time in … well, a long time. Too long. So Sam was happy. And so was David: he had certainly been staring at her after that swim, when she bobbed out of the water with her soaked t-shirt clinging to her breasts, as close to naked as he’d ever seen her, stiff nipples showing pink through the pale membrane of cotton.

Funny, she had caught Sam glancing at her in that shirt a few weeks before – it was a little immodest even when it was dry -- and said something like “I’m never wearing this shirt in public again.” Well, so much for that resolve. She hadn’t just worn it, she had sat on the beach a foot away from her extraordinary brother in law, damp and brazen, and let him stare. Carol acted as though it meant nothing. Maybe it did mean nothing. Beach rules were different. You were supposed to show a little skin there. Anyway, David and Carol’s marriage was strong, supernaturally strong, or so it had always seemed. A moment of permissible summertime indecent exposure couldn’t change that.

She had worn the wet shorts home, and the next time she wore bikini bottoms under them. Still, she had to change into the top on the beach. She would have called it another oversight, then; now she knew better. She had stood a little apart, facing away, while David turned and Carol made a note in the margins of her book, and bared her back to him. But she had left her top on the sand and she had to lean down sideways to pick up the scrap of fabric. David’s could see everything. She could feel his eyes on her, memorizing the slight droop of her small firm breasts.

Their eyes met and he didn’t look away.

That was the sexiest thing of all: that he didn’t look away.

It felt strange and spooky and ambivalent. She didn’t want to cheat on Sam; she certainly didn’t want to seduce her sister’s husband.

But here she was, on the way to yet another beach afternoon, with her bathing suit in her big straw purse, along with the sun screen and bug spray and other practical supplies, wearing her sexiest panties, knowing she would have to slip out of them at some point, or go swimming with them on.She could have pulled over and changed; or just put her suit on in the bathroom at the cottage. But she didn’t want to. Her psychiatrist had said, “Find the thing that excites you, and then do It,” when she complained about her dormant libido.

Well, she had found the thing that excited her.

And she was doing it.

Carol was in Connecticut; Sam was working. This was going to be the first two- person beach picnic ever. Just like a date, except of course it wasn’t because David was like a brother to her. It didn’t have to be a problem. She’d just ask David to turn around while she changed. The beach at Squam was always deserted this time of year. She could have her dip in the water, modesty intact.

Except, she wasn’t going to ask; and she wasn’t sure he’d do it, anyway. He wanted to see her strip. Might as well just say it: he was hot for her and that made her hot. And feeling hot made her feel alive, connected to a world of possibilities, even if they were dangerous possibiulities, forbidden ones, destructive ones

Maybe especially if they were.

As to David, God knows why he was interested -- maybe his sex life was as arid as her own. Maybe he was just cool and adventurous. Maybe he had an open relationship with her sister. She had shared boyfriends with Carol before, when they were in high school and college, though they had usually shown the decorum to wait for a break-up.


This is how it happened:

She stood on a chair to reach the picnic basket won from a high shelf, and let him look up her dress; handed it to him and let him look down the front. She let him put his arm around her waist on the way to the car and walked closer to him when his fingers slid down to cup her ass. All she felt at that moment was a raging frustration at the two layers of fabric between skin and skin.

That was the first time he had ever touched her, beyond the occasional brotherly hug or peck on the cheek. Some boundary had been broached. After that, it was easy for him to rest a hand on her knee as they drove, and to slide it upward, gathering the fabric as he bared her thighs.

And then, on the beach, after a glass of wine, she said “I guess I’ll just change then,” and stood in front of him and started unbuttoning the dress. When the two sides were hanging loose, shifting in the breeze from the water, she saw his sharpening attention, and thought about turning around. Instead and eased the fabric off her shoulders and let it fall, glancing up and down the empty beach. They were alone. The sun was warm on her exposed body. She was so white in the private places. It made her pause.

“Go on,” David said. His voice was rough.

She pushed down her panties to mid-thigh and then to her knees, finally letting them gather at her ankles and stepping out of them. When she reached for her bag he grabbed it.

“Let’s just skinny dip,” he said.

She ran for the water as he pulled his clothes off, and plunged into the icy grip of it. He was right behind her, his arms around her again, this time pulling her to him and pressing against the length of her, no fabric between them, skin slippery with the cold water. He was huge and she could feel him growing. He found her mouth and they plunged into a deep briny kiss. They went under for a few seconds and broke the surface laughing. He spread her legs in the dense, charged undertow and slipped into her and thrust once and she was coming instantly, crying out, biting his neck.

Then he carried her out of the water and laid her out on the beach towel. He paused over her for a few seconds, just looking, then lunged into her and her orgasms fell into each other like plush dominoes and she cried out “I can’t stop coming” and he said “Let me join you” and she could feel pulse as he drove himself into her in a last frenzy of lust.

When he rolled off her, he said “That was incredible.”

And she said, “Just wait.”

She slid down his stomach to give him the most intense, committed gluttonous grasping gulping blowjob either of them had ever experienced. She sucked harder when he finally came and he was shouting and screaming as she slipped her finger up inside him and found the spot she had read about in the sex manual when she was still trying to fix things with sex manuals. He arched up like a fish on a deck and twisted and writhed and pounded the sand with his fist.

Finally she slipped him out of her mouth and smiled sweetly.

“You’re mine now,” she said

She knew that she meant it, but she had absolutely no idea what it meant. She was about to find out at least part of what it meant, though. Sam had just crested the dune grass and was running toward them, across the beach.