Tag: distance

The Men’s Writing Group


The Men’s Writing Group


They approach the house in one’s and two’s. Some of them have been coming for fifteen years or more. Still, there is fear, the urge to pee. Instead, they reach down, gather up loops of dirty blue intestines, their own, pieces they have dragged along behind them for years, the result of encounters with other men. They draw in half-breaths to ease the tension, so their wounds can recede like so many snails’ heads. They smooth a hand over a place on their stomachs, just above the other vulnerable place, which rides along shriveled and apprehensive. They knock, open the door, shake off the rain. Like small boys, their eyes are wide and alert, and they hope for the best. They talk in short bursts. They want to feel affection and gentleness directed at them from the other men who are already in the house. But they themselves, the new arrivals, are not accustomed to offering affection, and so little of it is passed forward in either direction. They do not know whether to shake hands, whether to stand up from the sofa for the greeting, whether to proffer a hug, and with what intensity, and for how long, and how close to bring their heads or their already stricken stomachs where there is now no feeling whatsoever. Because there is something profoundly off-putting about a gathering of men, if you are a man, and if you are not an up-and-at ‘em kind of fellow, triumphant in card playing, business, sports and war, or some other kind of plotting and trouble.

 And how is it even possible to gauge openness, if we have not ever really mastered the art of openness, not in the course of forty-five, fifty, sixty or two million years? And why should we really, when we sense, just behind it all, the hidden carcass that one of us may have placed in a cave or the crook of tree or under a heavy rock before entering the house? Meat that will not be shared. And isn’t that the smell of woman that someone has carried in on his clothing, the scent that narrows eyes, flares nostrils and evokes the question: In exactly what place have I left my sling and stones, my obsidian knife, my Navy Colt.45, and am I sure that all seven chambers are oiled, and primed with cap and ball?

 But still, we ease ourselves into our chairs. The smiles seem inviting, but is it just the tendency to over-compensate? At intervals, there is wheezing laughter, snorts, sweet moments of more than a little letting down, when abruptly something changes, and we are brainless beady-eyed chickens again that have spotted a weakness and we begin to peck at the one who through too much exposure and brief forgetting has called attention to himself and immediately becomes the recognizable sacrificial runt.

The boundary between concerned inquiry and beaked irony is obsidian thin. The self-revealing phrase is met with a response that drips with cleverness and irony. And so, it is safer to say nothing. Nothing real like doubt, worry or sadness that afflicts the stomach and the sad little boy place below it. And so, but for an obsidian syllable or two, this time blood was not spilt, because none was offered.

 And when we trundle home and crawl into our dark warm beds and meet our mate’s sleepy inquiries, we are at a loss to explain how our male companions were that night. Was so and so healthy? she asks. Did he mention his woman friend? Did you talk about hope, dreams, fears, illness, death? Sexual tenderness, the miracle of touching, success or failure in closeness with this or that companion, lover or wife? And when our mate begins her deep breathing, a soft engine re-starting at our side, we lie awake and run through the evening again, like old bears who have come back from lumbering through cold forests, where we smelled scat and urine, took in scratch marks on fifty trees and pondered the prints and tracks and sweep of tail of countless other lonely co-dwellers who also wander across hollow, ridge, and swale, looking for food and meaning. We squint out into the bedroom’s darkness and re-measure what we thought we had measured the first time. An unnatural increase in volume, a sudden unexplained movement, a missed inference, the possible intent of all the words uttered. We noted exhaustion, boredom, isolation, pinched souls, perhaps a lover’s bloom. The whole time, behind them we’re sure we see flickering images of their dogs watching us, for now, leashed, but also showing curled lips and yellow teeth and eyes dark with fear. Like us, seeking soft longing in their masters’ generous hands, and in the hidden pulse of hearts beating out, each in a different rhythm, what remains of the five billion heart beats each of us is granted.

 And as we wrote, at the men’s group, we forgot for a while the meat, the scent of the carcass placed in the crotch of a tree, the stiffening hunted flesh that will belong to the strongest of us in the end. But still, I have to say what I am thinking. I do not trust these men. We hunt momentarily together, as if in a truce required by nature, so that we do not die of starvation and loneliness. If the conditions were right and we were fishermen and our boat was sinking, would I give up my survival suit for any of them? Or they for me? I would for either of my children. I would give it up for my mate – the one who sleeps on, leaving behind for the moment her amazement at how little men know about each other.

 Or would I give it to one of them as well? Since each one may be as kind as he is dangerous, as generous as he is treacherous, as much soft as competitive. Then, when the steel plates pop, in the middle of an icy night, as my mate sleeps warmly on beside me, and sixty tons of trawler roars and moans and plunges out of sight, nearly sucking me and one other writer down with it in exactly ninety seconds, you have one survival suit between the two of you, and you say to your companion: No, you take it, your children are young. And he says: No, you take it, you are older than I am and not as strong. And in the end one of us holds the other in his arms, and when he can no longer keep his gaze on you and eyes start to break, you hold his face close to yours, and you say: O my dear friend, I love you, I love you. I have always loved you.

Advice to a Younger Man on How to Choose a Mate

Dear R,

You say you need to make a decision. Quickly. You need advice on choosing a mate. You’re asking me I suppose on the assumption I know something based on the great difference in our ages.

Let me say first, I’m not an expert. But then again, no one else is either. What I have to say–my two cents worth–I like to think applies to a mate of either sex, as well as to a chooser of either sex. Hence, please feel free to interchange the pronouns “her” and “him” when you read what I have to say.

It’s kind of a crapshoot, who you end up with, and I suppose that is why you’re frantic. It could be anybody, and there’s so little to go on. You ask, “How do you know if she’s the right one?” Well, this is what I would ask myself: Do you laugh when you’re around her, is it okay to get an idiot grin on your face and keep it? How about your belly? Is it relaxed, as opposed to tight, and are you policing the muscles in your face when you’re around her?

Look for this. You can say things and not worry a whole lot whether you’re being judged, and it’s okay to just say what you think? In fact, you find yourself quite articulate sometimes, talking about the way you see the world or a particular small segment of it–and you’re not just babbling about yourself.

It’s important to feel free when you’re talking. That means–maybe–she’s not pushing up against the bubble of the world you’re describing. In fact, she’s not pressing at all, and when your bubble is big enough or has been up long enough, it just goes puff, and then it’s her turn, and you listen to her bubble, and you don’t press against it either.

But there are other things to look for as well. Are you bored when you see her on the pillow across from you the next morning? Or is it the beginning of a new scene in the play–lines familiar or unfamiliar that go back and forth with attention and care and respect and a smile?

I think puns and puzzles and conundrums offered back and forth anywhere from 3 AM to 6 AM is a good sign. Are there witty remarks, welcoming hands during joint turnovers in bed when changing the side you’re lying on? Do your limbs, find comfortable resting spots and intertwine easily as you settle into a new position? Is there grace and humor when farts are exchanged at close range, bed clothes clamped down, complaints wailed–but gently, and with love?

Ah, that’s the word. Maybe one that makes more sense when said in context. I like to say, “I know I love you, when….” followed by the context. I don’t begin with that phrase that often, but when I do it’s in a moment of clarity about what it is exactly that I love–and therefore it is a useful way to measure.

For example, I say, “That’s when I know I love you–when you laugh like that.” That’s when I know I love you when you make a stupid joke at 3:45 AM and then roar at your own joke, and it’s cold in the bedroom and it’s winter and dark and desolate outside–except that you push your butt over into my stomach, reach around for my hand, and place it on your stomach or hip or, if your thinking of shocking me a little, on your breast, and I say, “What are you telling me?” And you give a throaty laugh, a wriggle with your butt, and say, “Nothing! Go to sleep, you goon!”

I would also look for someone who is independent, and yet suddenly turns on you and says, “You’re my good friend, aren’t you,” and puts her arms around you. On the other hand, be aware when you are not laughing around someone. A friend once told me about his Mexican mother. Holding her hands behind her, she called him over and told him she had a gift for him. He was just a boy. So he said, “Where is it?” and tried to see behind her. She said, “I’ve already given it to you. It’s the gift of laughter, and if you ever find yourself somewhere and you are not laughing, leave that place immediately.”

Sex? Ah, that’s probably less important than you think, if you have a friend. No one should have to prove anything. Friends can give each other presents, and I think love making, being made love to is like present giving. You give pleasure, you receive pleasure, you wrap the package a little differently each time–a different bow, a different paper, a different image directing your caresses–always being careful to present a gift that you know the other likes, because you have asked her how to give. And being gentle, and listening for the message, in the breathing, the murmurs, the trembling, the racing heart, the opening mouth, the fluttering tongue, the soft sighing dilating pupil.

Do not be too close. Friendship thrives on indirect intimacies, offered in the context of respect. That is the most important word. Analysis kills, questioning is oppressive and limits the other’s freedom. Do not demand loyalty. Such a demand only limits your own freedom. There are no guarantees, ever. Loving comes with a risk. If your mate goes away, you have acted with respect and self-respect. Therefore you are not broken. You knew the risk, and you lived as if you were alive, not fearful and dead. A man or woman upon whom you make no demands other than respect is freer and more likely to be able love you back–and to respect you.

So these are my answers to your difficult question: Are you just as happy to see her in the morning? Have you learned not to make each other over into the image of yourself? Have you put aside the power struggles? Will you avoid giving each other unnecessary pain? Will you continue your affection as you would continue watering a plant?

Are you man enough to face your own aging and therefore be able to face hers? Can you see her watching you be gravely ill or dying, or you her? Can you imagine approaching the challenge of aging and death together? Is she friend enough and present enough for that? Whether you stay together, or not?

Are you man enough to create a group of men with whom you can talk, and who will love you indirectly and be your male family, so that she does not have to be your entire family?

Are you man enough to tell your story each day, without directing sidelong blame at her? Can you insist that she just listen and not try to tell your story for you, or fix whatever is bothering you?

Are you man enough to negotiate meaning, so that you are sure that you understand each other’s commentaries on the world, or on each other? And are there signs that each of you will lead and let himself be led, when you act together?

Are you both wise enough to leave space between you, so that you can go your separate ways during the day, but spoon together with trust, in that warm bed, in this sometimes wintry 3 AM desolate world?

I hope this helps…

Your Friend,


A Letter to the President

I saw you on television the other night, Mr. President, and so we certainly know a few things about you. I just thought I should let you know a few things about me. You know, make it kind of even. And to tell you I am leaving your country and going to another. I thought I’d try Colombia. I like my violence overt. Perhaps if I’d been better at math, I would have stayed closer, perhaps have a brick house in Georgetown, perhaps moor a Herreshoff sloop in some tidal creek in Maryland, swept by the flight of herons.

I am not a bad person. I suppose you could say I am a weak person. If something comes along that makes me famous once-removed for a moment, what’s the harm in it?

And so, to the reason why I am writing you, Mr. President: Renal Lauswald was my roommate in the Fifth Form, at the Regency School, in Bristol, England. My father designed war ships for His Majesty’s Navy. And then for your Navy.

That was more than forty years ago, and I know someone like you might spot it right away, and say that I am an unreliable witness, because of all the time lapsed. And then there’s all the added information your people will pick up eventually, namely that I was repeating the Fifth Form. Still, keep in mind, my mother was an American, and I am therefore also a citizen of your country.

The point is, you just appointed Renal Lauswald–also a citizen, I may point out–to the point of the most secret of secret agencies in your government. (How would I know this? An article in the New York Time’s culture section)—no, not the one we hear about, with three letters. The other one, with five letters. And better that you appointed Renal, rather than me. He was so smart at this school on the sheep-tinkling knoll, with its bees waxed floors and gas wall lamps, and he fretted so much about getting anything less than one hundred percent on everything, that they made him an instructor in math, chess, Monopoly, and, for fun and relaxation, the game Battleship.

I, on the other hand, fell into crisis every time I was faced with a verbal arithmetic question. You know, a train is approaching a stalled car, somebody’s parents, at a crossing, and the woman is pregnant and very much in love (looking like photos of my mother in her thirties), her whole life in front of her, and the question is: how much time will he have, my father, to get her (and the beginnings of me) out of the 1941 Hillman, if the train is going such and such a speed.

Or, like in modern terms, if a Predator drone fires a Hellfire missile at a terrorist wedding, and the missile approaches at 1,400 feet per second, and 3.8 miles away the twenty-year old Toyota pickup truck—the one that’s carrying the bride and groom and is all filled up with flowers and children and garlic and three kabob-bleating lambs—is bouncing along from the other direction at 37.5 mile per hour, and the bride groom, grinning, already singing her the traditional song “I gave you my heart, now I leave it to God”—if he shows his white teeth every nine seconds, how many times can he smile before the wedding is 100% called off and the garlic is overdone?

The point is, Mr. President, Renal would be able to solve that problem in a few seconds, without using any paper, and without displaying even one of the frowns you and I use when confronted by baffling information, such as the Constitution or the Geneva Convention.

In strictest confidence, there is something regarding Renal I should warn you about. After all, he slept two beds away from me, on the other side of Ping Pong Pawley, there under the medieval rafters. His stomach was in constant turmoil over, I suppose, his father’s expectations of him (Isn’t that usually the case; it was in my own), and his breath was so sour because of it, that I was glad to sleep next to the window, which I opened quietly—after his breathing had slowed and his mouth turned to dried snake skin and he tried to force air through his stress-pinched nostrils. How do I know this? Because I would ghost past him at night on the way to the common lavatory)

Mr. President, this is petty, I know, but Renal stretched his blankets and top sheet very tightly, military style, as if in unconscious preparation for his looming career. Then, sitting on his pillows, he would worm his feet, then his legs, then the rest of his body, under the sheet and blankets, like a larva returning to its cocoon. He did this with great precision, so as not to loosen the tuck. (How do I know this? I could look right across Ping Pong Pawley’s bed and see Renal’s rituals) Then he lay on his back, his arms folded behind his head with his elbows out, constrained as if by straightjacket, rigid. Then the vapors began to rise out of his cracked-open mouth, rigor mortis et somni, and I would get up to open the window and let in the night air. While he lay on his back making dry strangling sounds, I lay on my side breathing in fresh black winter air, listening to the last dying pings of the hot water radiator, and trying to remember the principal parts of irregular Latin verbs, fero, ferre, tuli, latus (to carry). Or, in the variation I now prefer: defero, deferre, detuli, delatus (to inform against, betray).

I have no memory of him in the morning when he rushed hollow-eyed out of the room, in his usual state of morning panic.

But the most important the thing, Mr. President, is the conspiracy of his nose and upper lip—the likes of which you can confirm the next time you do a white couch sit-down with him. The package curves out and down, as prehensile as a tapir’s snout, and suggests a generalized tumescence—like something on a mad Roman emperor, or on various members of the House.

I do not go so far as to say that this is a red flag, Mr. President, a warning about character. Plenty of good citizens have big brains and tumescent snouts, but still approve of water boarding and chip away at those things that could restrain us from war. Not that Renal Lauswald has ever taken a public position on any of these patriotic pursuits.

I hope I’m not coming off as a tell-all, Mr. President. I’m not really that type of person.

Renal left no other impressions on me, so he may be okay—and may not have demanded an investigation of Abu Ghraib or opposed the 9/11 Commission—and I like that in a man. He is probably one hundred percent behind you, Mr. President—which is the way it should be. Lock step when it comes to terrorism.

Maybe I ought to have written this letter earlier, Mr. President, but you must be a very busy, as I am, getting ready to go off to Colombia. That’s Colombia, South America, Mr. President, not the university in Manhattan.

In closing, Mr. President, let me thank you for your attention and wish you much success with your new head of the Other Agency. I know it’s curious, getting this information from someone like me, but if you just stand upwind when you make joint appearances at functions, you should have no trouble leading this country the way you have been right up to this point.

One further matter, Mr. President. Because of the underlying confessional nature of this letter, and because I must have seen something of the confidant in you, let me rhetoricize a bit more and ask, as a matter of conscience, was it me, then, finally, who opened the window at night, against his haunted breath, and began the long process of exposing him to things out beyond the lead-puttied window, where darkness conspires to suspend useless law and break the socialist social contract?

Or was it when I crept to his bedside each night after he had fallen asleep, and tightened the bed clothes still more, and lay his extra pi
llow across his mouth, so that he struggled for breath, gasping and calling out in tongues, for the next eight hours, possibly incubating, in part, the very demons we have now let loose across the earth—in the end making myself instrumental in the application of God’s will, such as to visit upon all the wedding parties of Afghanistan our own Divine and Collective Justice?

Yours sincerely,
George Aesop
Princeton ‘76
Hotel Langley Porter
401 Parnassus Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94143

The Curve of the Earth

One day, they say, a man my grandfather knew—actually it was my grandfather—fired up his tractor early and chained on the twelve-by harrow and started across the black earth, in his wake a cloud of crows swooping over the damp soil. He followed the curve of the earth, toward a distant boundary where, as the story went, maybe the lovers were below deck, he peeling her bathing suit off her brown body, exposing white, and curly hair, and sighs, the sea cocks opened, popped inward, and the tractor disappeared from the earth’s round, sailing over the horizon, leaving only the crows, and worms exposed to cries and sun and the sadness of young people’s death, lovers with flowers in their hair and flushed cheeks, dying into each other. That’s what he said, my grandfather.

There were other things, too. It was the summer Grandmother got up on the roof and refused to come down or speak until he promised to keep his hardness to himself, at least to ask first and to try thinking about her the way he first knew her, standing between the sunlight on the counter top and rows of preserved apple sauce, peaches, and cherries. And the flurry of snow, holly trees, and red berries. Didn’t he remember her with lipstick, her chestnut hair in a knot and her lower lip undiscovered, blue eyes unkissed. Did he remember her blue eyes, the sunlight, her white aprons, the arched silver buttons specially sown down her blouse?

When my grandfather disked or harrowed and I sat on the fender holding on, the sun circled about the field like a duck coming in to land–over near the bog with the rushes and herons and turtles and quiet newts. I shouldn’t tell you these things, he used to say, but how will you know if I don’t. You don’t want to be like me in every way.

Well, the dust followed us across the field, before the rains, making Arabs of us, or Indians, unrecognizable to ourselves, sailing across vast plains, lovers caught below with flowers, and preserves and hard things of joy and sighs and bathing suits that fell off just when the tingling reached boundaries, like the far end of the field, and disappeared, just at the curve of the earth.

I saw things drown in the furrows of that sea. Thistles, mugwort and tar, and small flowers, that didn’t know the ship was filling, too much in love, slipping bathing suits, the candles, ice cream, the preserves on the window sill, golden in the last of the afternoon’s sun.

My grandmother stayed on the roof for something like nine months. At least the whole summer. At least it seemed that way. Grandfather said she was giving birth to someone he didn’t know—to a woman who sang not only in church but also alone in the bath tub which she had placed outside at the edge of the garden, overlooking the field so that when he passed he would see her and remember what she could have been but never became, because of his intrusions at night when the fields slept their damp sleep.

When the nine months had passed and the wheat waved in the summer wind like the ocean, with us sailing before the wind on the red-seeded sea, my grandmother—who had not spoken since she first climbed the roof—all at once did speak to my grandfather when he had just switched off the tractor and stepped down over the hydraulics, walked out over the harrow and jumped ashore. She said, “William?” That was his name, and it was a question. He didn’t really hear her because of the seacocks and bathing suits and dust, I suppose. And she said it again, “William?” standing there in the claw-footed bathtub in the garden near the rhododendrons, naked, her hair up in a knot, and, as he tells it, with lipstick on her lips and the sun catching her chestnut hair, no longer twenty, nearer fifty, as I recall. And that was when it struck him, what a wonderful woman she was and he actually knelt before her and cried and apologized for his damn tractor and said other things about seacocks and dust and would she teach him to see her the way she had always wanted to be seen, and other things, a lot of it hard to understand after a world that curved into the distance all the way to the bog, with drowning flowers, thistles folded under, and the smell of tar weed and hope, and crows swooping down over the wake of his red tractor. That’s all I remember really—with variations. Memories that come around like the morning sun, and set, and are never ever quite the same, except that they’re always true.