Saturday, April 10, 2010

If you prick us, do we not bleed?

Here’s a second question that helps us understand how readers and writers connect. Last week we looked at the connecting power of humor and laughter (“if you tickle us, do we not laugh?”). Now it’s time to share a little pain.

Shylock’s speech in Act 3, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice asks, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?” Shakespeare’s topic in this speech is the common humanity of Jews and Christians, but it applies to other groups as well.

Let’s leave the poison and dying aside for now, but think for a moment about one person drawing a little blood from another. “You may feel a little prick,” the lab technician warns us, or the nurse giving us an injection. The word prick comes from an Old English word prica. (Because Shakespeare and the Elizabethans loved naughty double entendres, you have to be on guard whenever the word prick appears in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, but at the moment we're not talking about laughter.)

To prick something is to puncture it lightly. That’s what the lab tech or nurse does as we sit and watch (or look away). We feel momentary pain. If you prick us, do we not bleed? Yes, if we’re human.

As readers, of course, we don’t expect to be reading along in a short story or novel and suddenly feel pain and begin losing blood because of something the writer has written. But when we are reading about characters in pain we often do feel their pain. The writer has drawn characters we care about, then has shown these characters in pain, and so we shed a little emotional blood. We suffer along with the characters, and I suspect along with the writer as well.

I have trouble remembering times when I’ve given my characters physical pain, or made them bleed. As for emotional pain and suffering, oh yeah I can do that. Here’s one formula—give your hero or heroine (or both) a taste of romance, let them begin to fall in love, and then bring in the trouble. Keep them apart, overwhelm them with distractions and misunderstandings, begin to break their hearts. If it’s comedy, we’re heading for a happy ending, but first let’s prick them and watch them bleed for 250 pages. Ah, that’s the ticket.

reading-on-islandReady for a surprise test? Of course not, but we’re writing about pain today. Here’s your test. Name your favorite fiction writer (only one). Then select your favorite book by that writer and hold it in your hand. Now close your eyes. When you open your eyes you’ll find yourself on a desert island. Are you alone? Of course not. You have your favorite book by your favorite writer. You’ve been wanting to reread it anyway. Here’s your chance. Don’t worry about food, you’ll love the tropical fruit and plentiful seafood on your island, but your only companion is your favorite writer. Open the book and begin to read. Prepare to laugh. Prepare to bleed. When you finish the book, just give us a call and we’ll bring you back from the island.

If sharing laughter is one of life’s great pleasures, and connects reader with writer, what is sharing pain? We can see the sharing of pain, the showing of compassion, as further evidence of our humanity. The pain does not give us pleasure. I’m not afraid of needles, but I don’t go out of my way for them (Hey, somebody want to give me a shot? I haven’t had one all day).

Pain is part of life, whether it’s physical or emotional pain. We should be willing to share that just as we share laughter. It makes us human, and keeps us human. What is wrong with someone who never laughs and never cries? Something missing there.

As readers we open a book, begin a new story, on board with the writer. We bring our humanity to the story. The writer depends on that! “If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” These are rhetorical questions. We all know the answers.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

If you tickle us, do we not laugh?

laughterIf you tickle us, do we not laugh? This is the first of several questions I want to begin to explore, with the goal of understanding how readers and writers connect. The tickle question comes from Shylock’s speech in Act 3, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice.

Shakespeare’s topic in that speech is the common humanity of Jews and Christians. Shylock asks, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?” I’m intrigued by the mixture of tragedy and comedy in those lines, with laughter surrounded by bleeding on one side, and dying on the other.

If I put on my reader’s hat for a moment, and reflect on my favorite writers of fiction, I quickly discover that many of these writers do tickle me and make me laugh. Think of your own favorite writers. Do some of them make you laugh? Do you share their sense of humor? Do you share their view of the world? I’ll talk about Shylock’s questions about bleeding and dying at another time, but for now let’s listen to the laughter.

children-laughingLaughter is one behavior that defines us as human. Laughter is best when we share it. There are few moments I enjoy more in life than sharing a good laugh. I may be in the audience, or in a small group, or at times I may be the one telling the joke or reading a humorous scene. The sound of laughter, sharing in that moment, is one of the best ways of bonding with others, right up there with sharing a meal.

But what about those times when it’s just ourselves alone with a book, an audience of one for the writer we’ve chosen to spend time with? We may not laugh out loud, or even smile, when the writer tickles us, but the connection has been made. The writer has given us characters we want to know more about, the writer has put these characters into action, and along the way we are on board with the story, ready to be tickled whenever the moment and the words are right.

We may not think about it at the time, but we have shared a moment with the writer, and, in a way, shared that moment with all those who read the same story. We have connected.

butch-cassidy-and-the-sundance-kid1Let’s close with a laugh, shall we? William Goldman, the author of The Princess Bride, also wrote the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In that film there’s a famous scene where the two train robber heroes, played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, have been chased to the edge of a high cliff by a posse. Their only escape is a long jump into the river below. As they stare down at the distant water, Sundance, the Redford character, has a confession for Butch:

Butch Cassidy: Alright. I'll jump first.

Sundance Kid: No.

Butch Cassidy: Then you jump first.

Sundance Kid: No, I said.

Butch Cassidy: What's the matter with you?

Sundance Kid: I can't swim.

Butch Cassidy: Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

J.D. Salinger, we hardly knew ye

J.D. Salinger, best known for writing a sensationally popular and critically acclaimed novel over 50 years ago, and for never having appeared onOprah or The Tonight Show, or pretty much anywhere else outside of Cornish, New Hampshire, after he ran from his celebrity, died last week at the age of 91.

This news has been rattling around in my head in the five days since he left us (this time for good). My thoughts on Salinger keep returning not to the writer but to his most famous character, the narrator and antihero of The Catcher in the Rye, on his way home at Christmas from yet another dismal failure as a prep school student, but not going straight home, instead spending a weekend underground in Manhattan, searching, lost, the 20th century Huck Finn, and like Huck always on the move—Holden Caulfield.

Everyone who's read Catcher has their own memories. For me, it's summer and I've just graduated from high school. I'm in Saint Louis taking music classes and I've bought a copy of the book I've heard about and I'm sitting in a small restaurant by myself, reading Holden's account of his weekend in New York City.

The book's paperback cover promises that "This unusual book will shock you, may make you laugh, and may break your heart—but you will never forget it." True on all points, although the book gave me more laughs than shocks, and as for breaking my heart, that was something I would have to wait six months for, when my high school sweetheart ran off with a sailor (an event that Holden would probably describe as both "corny" and "crummy").

About six years later Holden is waiting for me again. I need to choose a subject for a master's thesis in English, and I return to The Catcher in the Rye. By this time I've taken just about every literature class I can and I'm armed with all kinds of cool analytical tools to dissect Salinger and his book. When I read the rest of his fiction I am struck mostly by the importance of family in the stories, and not so much parents as siblings. All the Glass family brothers and sisters drive most of the other stories. As for Catcher, it's Holden's sister, Phoebe, who means the most to him and ultimately saves him from his crummy lost weekend. It's for Phoebe that Holden returns home.

So I write the thesis and call it "The Value of the Family in J. D. Salinger." Having finished the project, of course, I move on to other writers, other literature classes, away from Holden andCatcher, although, as the cover says, you will never forget it. Or him.

Eventually I move on to teach college English in Seattle. You would think that I'd include Holden in one of the college English courses, but I never do. I don't know why, I just don't. When I board a United flight one snowy Seattle morning, on my way to a new life in Hawaii, how can I have known that Holden is waiting for me on Maui?

It takes a couple of years on Maui, but on a fateful afternoon at Baldwin High School, there I am in the dusty old book room and another teacher is telling me to "look around and see what you can find." I spy a modest stack of worn, abandoned paperbacks against a wall. I move closer for a better look, and of course it's The Catcher in the Rye. Holden's been waiting for me. Lucky for me, and lucky for my students, there are just enough copies for the one class that awaits a new book. The next day I pass out the old paperbacks, ask the students to open them to chapter one, and then I begin reading aloud:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Nobody speaks. I look up and the students all have their faces in the books. "Keep reading," one of them says. So I do. In the days that follow we live through that weekend with Holden Caulfield. By the time we finish the book the school year is almost over. No time to start another book. I collect some of the Catcher paperbacks (about half of the books have disappeared, and I know that the students who liked Holden best just can't give him up, and that's fine). I return the remaining books to the dusty old book room. They may still be there.

So that's it. I'm ready to move on. I look through the obituary and articles about J.D. Salinger in The New York Times, and I wish him well on his journey. As far as I know, Salinger never met Oprah. He never crashed a White House dinner. He never needed to be famous. But Holden Caulfield takes on the world for him. The book awaits.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A no-huddle approach to writing

Richie’s wife, Noelle, was the one who began asking a series of questions about the Colts and their no-huddle offense, and while Richie was patiently explaining to her how it works, and why Peyton Manning was dancing around before the play and shouting things and gesturing to his teammates like crazy, that’s when I got this brilliant idea that writers can have their own no-huddle approach to writing. At least I think it might be brilliant, although I haven’t told anyone about it. Until now.

Richie and Noelle had walked down the street to my place to watch the AFC championship game between the Colts and the Jets, with a trip to Miami and the Super Bowl awaiting the winning team. The Jets and their rookie quarterback had jumped out to an early lead, but here came Peyton and the Colts at the end of the first half with a touchdown to make it close again. Richie and I assured each other that the Colts would take care of business in the second half. Richie opened another beer and began to explain the no-huddle to Noelle during halftime, and that’s when it hit me, “The Great No-Huddle Approach to Writing.”

To appreciate the no-huddle, you have to think about the old huddle approach first. We’ve all seen it a million times. Eleven guys huddle in a circle; the quarterback calls the play; they break the huddle and jog to the line of scrimmage. Kind of dull. You see one huddle, you’ve seen them all. If hockey players stopped skating and huddled up before each charge down the ice, the fans would riot in protest. On TV they usually don’t even show the huddle, preferring instead to show a replay of the previous play, or a closeup of the coach, or the cheerleaders (Richie’s favorite).

I think some writers do this too. Before they write even one word they go into a huddle, with themselves, and decide how they’re going to tell the next story, or start the next chapter.Yikes, some writers even outline, and readers are lucky they don’t have to sit through that exercise! Get on with the story, the readers insist. And while one writer is outlining, the readers slip away and look for another writer who has a story ready for them.

But the no-huddle? Now there’s an intriguing approach to football, and to writing. Think of it as a form of improvisation. Instead of huddling up to call the next play, the Colts offensive players line up immediately. Then Peyton Manning goes into his act, surveying the defense, looking for weaknesses to attack, then calling out signals to various Colts players, who shift positions and force the defensive players to join the dance and do their own shifting. Some of Peyton’s signals are real, and some are decoys. It’s all rather cerebral. Manning has been called the most cerebal quarterback ever. When will the center hike the ball? Who knows? Only the Colts. They have 40 seconds from the end of the previous down (or 25 seconds after the ball is declared ready for play). Even the 25 seconds is an eternity.

Here comes the truly difficult part. For me, at least. How can the no-huddle offense inspire a no-huddle approach to writing? I believe that the key component is improvisation. The writer is like Peyton Manning standing in the shotgun, surveying the territory ahead. Where shall we go with this story? Let’s move some of the characters around first, prepare them for the action. The play clock on the scoreboard is winding down—20 seconds, 15, 10, 5—time to hike the ball. Time to begin the action. As Hamlet says, “The play's the thing.” Now the quarterback has the ball, the writer has his fingers on the keyboard, and the action begins.

Here’s the fun part, in a football game and in writing fiction.Players, and characters, begin to interact in unpredictable ways. The writer, like the quarterback, must be ready for a little chaos. If the football play, or the story, begins to break down, it’s time to improvise. Like the quarterback, the writer still has choices, although they are different from what they had so recently expected. Like the quarterback, the writer must never panic. Protect the ball, protect the story. Guide the team, and the story, on the path to a happy ending.

Speaking of happy endings, the second half is a great one for the Colts. Richie and Noelle and I are louder and more joyful in the words we shout at the TV screen. Noelle even makes a few enlightened comments about the Colts offense; Richie has coached her well. Peyton and the no-huddle offense put on a clinic for the poor Jets, and in the end there is no doubt which team deserves to go to the Super Bowl.

After the game, Peyton appears at the press conference in coat and tie, appearing unscratched and totally together. But when he speaks he says he’s grateful that he has two weeks until the Super Bowl. He needs the time because he’s tired. His mind is tired.

Of course! It’s not easy being the most cerebral quarterback ever. And it’s not easy guiding a story from beginning to middle to end. At the end you just want to give your mind a rest. Take a couple of days off. Like Peyton, you've earned it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Attack of the killer cliches

Right after Thanksgiving weekend Richie, my friend from up the street, came over to watch Monday Night Football. It's been a great season so far. After another sensational second half comeback the day before, Peyton Manning and the Colts were still undefeated, and we wanted to see how the other undefeated team, the New Orleans Saints, would do against the New England Patriots in the Monday night spotlight. The Saints did just fine, and we knew they would give the Colts a fight if they happen to meet at the end of the season.

But at halftime it isn't the Saints that Richie wants to talk about.Instead he begins telling me about what happened that Saturday night when he and Noelle went out to dinner. I turn the TV sound down and settle back to listen to Richie's latest adventure.

"So there we were," Richie says, "munching on tortilla chips and salsa and waiting for our food, and Noelle starts telling me about the book she's reading, the latest in a long, long line of romance novels. We have an unspoken agreement. I listen to her talk about the romance stories and she listens to me talk about sports. Sometimes at the same time.

But Saturday night I let Noelle do most of the talking. She's so cute when she's in the middle of a romance novel and excited about what's going to happen to the heroine, and she asks me what I think is going to happen to the heroine, and I'm like 'I don't know, but maybe this or that, and she deserves a happy ending,' and Noelle is like 'Of course she deserves a happy ending.'

"And just then, in the middle of the happy ending discussion, this couple sits down at the table next to ours, just to the side. Noelle checks them out, without staring, and so do I. They look like young professionals, maybe in their late 20s. Well dressed, well groomed, and a little nervous. Noelle looks at me and mouths the words 'First date.' Noelle forgets all about her romance novel and we stop talking and eat our tortilla chips as quietly as possible so we can listen in on the conversation at the next table. It's a game we play. No shame.

"Part of the game is that Noelle takes out a pen and begins writing notes to me on napkins. Things like 'Does she like him?' and then 'He likes himself.' I don't write notes, I just nod and agree with Noelle, most of the time.

"All the tables in our section have tortilla chips, and there's a steady chorus of chomping going on, but the guy is loud enough that we can hear every word. He's doing most of the talking, mostly about his job, and the woman is leaning forward a bit and showing him she's a good listener. The guy's job is not too interesting, except to him, but she's hanging in there as he goes on about it. So far.

"The guy's talking about a problem at his officeand he says, 'It is what it is.' And then he begins telling her about another problem at the office and he goes, 'It is what it is.' The third time he says 'It is what it is,' I notice the woman leaning back, her brave smile disappearing. The fourth time he says 'It is what it is,' she cringes. Her hands, resting on the edge of the table, begin to tense up.

"Noelle writes on the napkin, 'Trouble.' I nod and reach for a tortilla chip. Then the guy does a surprising thing. He stops and asks her about her job. He lets her talk for about 20 seconds and then he interrupts with 'That reminds me of this problem we have at my office,' and he's off again. The guy pauses just for a second to grab a handful of chips, and the woman leans forward and says, 'Well, it is what it is.' The guy totally misses the sarcasm and continues his boring office story.

"Then we notice that the woman is writing on a napkin. We can't see what she's writing, but then she holds the napkin in her hand to read it and says to the guy, 'Is it, what is it?' The guy gives her a funny look and she repeats the question, 'Is it, what is it?' This time he ignores her and goes on talking about his office. Noelle writes the woman's words on her napkin, and then writes them in reverse order, so it reads 'It is what it is,' and below that Noelle writes, in big capital letters, 'BRILLIANT!'

"Our food arrives about then, and we kind of tune out the guy at the next table. Noelle writes again and shows me the napkin. 'First date and last date,' it says. I nod and smile at Noelle, who is so good at this listen-to-the-strangers game. I'm thinking the game is over and we can just enjoy our dinner. But I'm wrong.

"The guy at the next table appears to be winding down, running out of office problems to talk about, and he's summing up (thank God!). 'But you know,' he says to his date, 'at the end of the day ...' I look at Noelle. I know this is one of her pet peeves. She looks at me, with that devilish grin of hers. She writes quickly on the napkin, 'Here we go again.'

upset-woman"Now every other sentence from the guy is beginning with 'at the end of the day.' I lose count, but somewhere between a painful half a dozen 'at-the-end-of-the-days' and an unbearable full dozen, the woman does an amazing and wonderful thing. She stands up, stares at her boring date, and says, loud enough for everyone in our section to hear, 'It gets dark! It gets dark!' The guy is like 'What? What are you talking about?

"The woman doesn't answer at first. She looks at her watch. Noelle told me later that the woman looked at her watch because she was deciding whether she had any more time to waste on this guy. So the woman takes a deep breath and tells the guy, slowly and enunciating each word so he will get it, finally, maybe, 'At the end of the day ... it gets dark!'

"Then she picks up her bag and walks away, straight to the front door, accompanied by applause from Noelle, and myself, and a bunch of other people who have been listening to all this. The guy has a kind of shocked look. Then he shakes his head and goes back to eating his dinner. He doesn't talk to himself, for which we are grateful."

"Good story," I tell Richie.

"It is what it is," Richie says. Then he ducks because I begin throwing popcorn at him.

Monday, November 2, 2009

What happens when a character takes over a novel?

So here's a situation for you. Imagine you're writing a novel and it's starting out all right. You've written only the first three chapters, so you're not bogged down in the middle yet. You have a character you call Charley Meyers narrating the story first person and he's easy.

But ... and it's a very large but ... there's this other supporting character, a 19-year-old rodeo queen wannabe with big blonde hair and a bigger personality, and she's just about bursting to take over the story. Do you stop her? Leave her on the sidelines in most of the chapters?

Not me. I surrendered fast. At the beginning of chapter 4 Donna Cooper not only jumps into the spotlight, she begins narrating. Hey, I'm not going to jump in front of a blonde stampede. I let her run with it. Charley still has a number of chapters that he narrates, but Donna becomes the driving force in the novel, and she pretty much narrates any chapters she wants to. That was just fine with me.

Here's the opening scene from chapter 4 of Chasing Cowboys, where Donna decides to tell her side of the story.

Chapter 4: Donna

"Anything you can do, I can do better ..."

You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here, so I’ll tell you. My name is Donna Cooper and this whole writing thing started early on a Friday morning when I stopped by Celia Moon’s new coffee shop, the Stella by Starlight Bakery and Gourmet Coffee Emporium. I just call it Stella’s. That’s where I caught Charley Meyers writing in one of those little black composition books. He tried to hide it when he saw me, but I was too quick for him. I sat right down next to him and made him show it to me. Turns out he’d started writing about Cody West, the new guy at Parker’s, the one who’s really cute but not for me because I’m going with Darryl King and have my hands full at the moment.

“Oh look,” I said, “you’ve got me in the first chapter.”

“You weren’t supposed to see that part,” Charley said, but it was too late.

“Seems pretty accurate, I can’t complain.” I read some more. “Oh, here you are spying on Cody in the store. Did that really happen, when he met that Lacey person?”

“Every bit of it,” Charley said. “You were there, didn’t you notice?”

“Well, I wasn’t putting my nose in everybody else’s business. I did see her, but I was busy trying on hats and practicing my rodeo queen wave.”

“How’s that wave coming?”

“I’m almost there,” I said. “I’ll be ready for the pageant.”

“Good luck, I hope you win,” Charley said.

“Thanks, me too, but if I don’t I’ll just try again next year. It’s hard to win on the first try. But I want to win. But it’s hard. But I want to win so bad.” I looked through Charley’s writing book some more, then Celia brought me coffee and I asked her to surprise me with a pastry, something rich and sweet but not too fattening.

“The shop’s looking great,” I told her.

“Thanks,” Celia said. “How do you like the new sign?It cost a lot because the name’s so long.”

“Don’t change a thing,” Charley said.

Celia smiled. “Can’t afford to,” she said. Then she left to get the pastry. I went back to reading what Charley had written about Cody and Lacey.

“So,” I said, “what is this going to be, some kind of novel?”

“Yep, something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, ever since college.”

“I thought you went to college on a rodeo scholarship,” I said.

“True, but I took a lot of English classes.”

“Well, why don’t you write about rodeo? You must have lots of good stories from all those years you were riding broncs.”

“Maybe I will,” Charley said. “I’ll tell you what, if you make rodeo queen maybe I’ll write a book just about you.”

“Would you?” I said. “Like a big photo album, only with words?”

“Sure, and you can add the pictures. There should be one with you smiling, and one with you waving.”

“Heck,” I said, “that’s only one picture. I can smile and wave at the same time.” Charley laughed. I could always make him laugh.

“So tell me, Charley Meyers, what are you going to name this novel, the Cody one?”

“Been thinking about that,” Charley said, scratching his chin. “I think I’ll call it Chasing Cowgirls.”

“Not bad. How about Chasing Cowboys instead?”

“Depends on who’s chasing who,” Charley said.

“Whom,” I corrected him.

“Say what?”

“Who’s chasing whom,” I said, slower this time.

“Thank you very much.” He said it in a sarcastic way, but he was only teasing. Then he said, “Who’s the writer here anyway, me or you?”

Well, that’s exactly the moment that I got this big idea to write a book myself. Not that I have a lot of free time, what with running for rodeo queen and taking classes at UNR and keeping Darryl happy when he’s not working at his dad’s hardware store.But I thought I could squeeze in a couple pages here and there in my busy schedule. I’ve always kept a journal, ever since high school when Mrs. James had us all keeping journals. My journal is mostly full of rodeo queen stuff you wouldn’t be interested in. I think writing a novel must be a whole lot different though, but I wanted to do it anyway, partly because I’m very competitive and I wanted to show Charley that I could do just as well, or better than him, if I really focused on it. Mrs. James was big on focusing. I’ve been focusing mostly on making rodeo queen lately, but it’s good to take on new challenges in life.

“Okay, Charley,” I said, “you go ahead and write your Chasing Cowgirls book. Just promise me one thing.”

“What’s that?” He looked a little worried.

“No big thing, just let me peek at it now and then.That’s all.”

“Sure, why not?” Charley appeared relieved. “You’ll be my first reader. You can correct all the grammar too.”

“Be glad to,” I said. “Hey, Charley, do you think Lacey has a boyfriend already?”

“I’d bet on it. Lacey’s a city girl, so she probably has a city boyfriend. Hard for a cowboy to compete, especially if he’s not a real cowboy.”

“Poor Cody,” I said, “going to all that trouble. I’d hate to see him get shot down.”

“Let’s just see what we can do,” Charley said.“Maybe Cody will have better luck than I’ve had.”

“I’m not feeling sorry for you, Charley Meyers,” I said, waving my index finger back and forth at him.“Don’t even try it. You told me you’ve known lots of women.”

“Well, there are different prizes in life. Some are better than others.”

“No, no, no,” I said, waving my finger again. “Don’t go feeling sorry for yourself. You’ll give yourself more wrinkles. And you have enough already.”

That shut him up. When we finished our coffee and pastry I said goodbye to Celia and gave Charley a peck on the cheek. Then I got in my truck and drove straight to the nearest store that had composition books. I bought half a dozen, for a start. I figured it would take one or two just to catch up with Charley, and the rest to pass him in the book writing competition.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Romance in the checkout line: Jen ... Cosmo ... and are you drawn to drama

We’ve all been there. The other night it was my turn, again. Waiting in one of the giant Kapahulu Safeway’s hundred checkout lines. It’s an interesting place to read. You learn a lot about other people’s lives, and how life is not so wonderful after all for celebs, what with romance going bad, and Brad having to sleep on the couch and all.

So there I am in line. The shopper ahead of me is having a problem with a debit card, so I have time to listen to the tabloids screaming at me from their racks. I only read two headlines, however, because those two are just about perfect.

“Jennifer Anniston Wants a Baby NOW!” reads the first one, and then, right there on the cover of the tabloid next to it, I see a large photo of Jen with a nice little “bump” and the headline “Jennifer Pregnant at 40!” Fast work, Jen, and I’m thinking that maybe the next headline should read “Jennifer Anniston Wants World Peace NOW!”

My favorite checkout magazine is Cosmo. I have subscribed to this amazing publication three different times in the past ten years, strictly as research. Each article suggests a new character, or a new romantic complication, for my short stories.There’s no end to the romantic complications. Looking for a way to get your character into some romantic trouble? Cosmois there to help you.

When I decided to write a short story about a man who marries a Cosmo girl I didn’t need to invent any of the headlines that appear in the story. In the spirit of the Cosmotitles I called the story “Seven Ways to Tell If You Married a Cosmo Girl.” Here’s an excerpt from the story, which appeared in Bamboo Ridge’s issue #91.

This is way #3, which falls between way #2 (“The Reference Library”) and way #4 (“The Tests Must Be Passed Before Bedroom Secrets Can Be Demonstrated”):

#3: The Cosmo Tests Never End

On Lucy’s night stand, right next to the latest Cosmo, a pocket calculator waits at its post, ready to add up the results of the latest test, and the tests never end. One month it’s “What Kind of Sexy Are You?” (I already know the answer to that one: Lucy is dangerously sexy). The next month it might be “Do You Feel Sexy?” (and if she didn’t feel sexy when she started the test she’s guaranteed to feel sexy by the end of it).

Just last month the test was “Are You Drawn to Drama?” Now I have never thought of Lucy as a drama queen. That’s not her style. She gets enough drama from the two soaps she admits to watching. After taking the Cosmo drama test, however, Lucy must have been intrigued by some of the dramatic possibilities, behaviors she had never tried before. Like the articles that reveal the amazing bedroom secrets, of course, the tests encourage trying new things. So Lucy did. All I know is that the day after she took the drawn-to-drama test I came home to a suddenly more dramatic Lucy.

“Lucy, I’m home,” I called out.

“I’m in the kitchen, Ricky,” came the reply. The kitchen? Not the bedroom? Were we going to have dinner first, preceded by a sophisticated cocktail hour and intellectual conversation? Was my Lucy finally changing?

I strolled toward the kitchen, suave as James Bond, wishing I were wearing a tux, imagining an icy Margarita awaiting me in the kitchen (my drink, not 007’s), Lucy eager to tell me about how she had visited Barnes & Noble that morning and discovered that there were other magazines than Cosmo, and what did I think about this global warning thing, and showing me the real book she had actually bought, and starting to read it to me and … then I reached the kitchen and my fantasy burst.

“We need to talk,” Lucy said. Uh oh. Instead of a Margarita and a book, she was holding … the large kitchen knife? My first thought was that the knife had something to do with salad.But why was it pointed at my heart? I kept my distance, foregoing the usual homecoming kiss.

“Talk?” I said. I looked at her face for clues, then at the knife, then back to her face. Both looked serious. I glanced quickly at the counter. No signs of a salad.

“Yes, I found out something today. Something …” She looked at the ceiling. Was she searching for a word, or was there something wrong with the ceiling? It looked all right to me. No cracks. No leaks. Then she looked back at me.

“Something disturbing,” she finally said. She nodded slowly, waiting for me to react. I looked back up at the ceiling. I wanted to talk about home repair issues, make some silly remark like Tim Allen, but I don’t think the audience was looking for comedy. Instead I began to nod with her. I felt like a bobblehead.

“Disturbing?” I said, still nodding.

Very,” Lucy said, chopping the air with the big knife. One quick chop. Vegetables and husbands kept their distance. Actually the veggies were better off than I was at the moment, safe in their cool bin in the Amana.

“What’s wrong, darling?” I asked. The concerned husband.Clueless as usual, but showing concern. The “darling” part was good to throw in at such moments, of course. I saved my “darlings” for special occasions, and this seemed like one of them.

Lucy moved closer. I backed up a step, but was stopped by the counter. She moved closer. She lowered the knife, away from my heart, but now it was pointed at a delicate spot, just below my belt. I began to feel less like James Bond and more like a zucchini. Still handsome, but green and vulnerable. Lucy leaned in and whispered in my ear. “I found out that someone ischeating.” Then she moved her face in front of mine, staring into my eyes, waiting for my response. I stole a quick look downward and saw the point of the knife no more than an inch from my fly.

Think fast, I told myself. Let’s review. Someone is cheating.That’s not good. Normally I try to agree with Lucy whenever I can, to keep things smooth and calm. But what now? Was I supposed to confess? I had nothing to confess. I wasn’t cheating. Maybe with my eyes, but don’t all guys do that?Okay, I flirted a little with Danielle at the office, but that was completely innocent. Cheating? Not me. Think, dammit, think! What would 007 do now?

“Well?” She was still waiting. Then she raised her eyebrows.“Ricky, you’re sweating.” It’s true. I was.

“It’s the knife,” I said. It was burning a hole in my pants.

She ignored me. A drop of sweat dripped off my chin and onto the knife blade. I thought about zucchini again, how it looks all sliced up and ready for the pan, its length no longer so proud, reduced to a supporting role in a meal that nobody will remember for long.

“Don’t you want to know who’s cheating?” Lucy said. When she said the words “who’s cheating” she got this deliciously wicked look, like one of her bedroom looks, although the bedroom, at this point, seemed miles away.

“Of course, darling,” I said. I was using up my “darlings” fast.Soon I would have to switch to “sweetheart.”

Lucy turned sideways, showing me her profile. She held up the knife and studied its edge. I thought of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. I was no longer James Bond; now I was Michael Douglas. Except that I was innocent, damn it! Lucy paused, then raised the knife. She had my full attention. Then she lowered it … onto the counter. She smiled, an evil little smile. I felt sweat stinging my eyes. I looked quickly around the kitchen to see what other weapons were available to my darling. Ice pick? Blender? Nutcracker?!

Lucy moved in closer now. “It’s Craig,” she said.

What’s Craig?”

“Craig is the one who’s cheating. Keep up.”

“Oh, it’s Craig.” Phew. God help Craig. Was there a nutcracker in his future?

“Who’s Craig?” I said.

“The dreamy guy. I told you about him.”

“I don’t know any Craig. Who’s he cheating with?” I didn’t care what Craig did, or who he did it with, as long as he was the one in trouble and not me.

“Jennifer. Craig’s cheating with Jennifer. And Madison just found out.”

“Jennifer? Madison?” Who were these people?

“Ricky, don’t you listen to anything I say? I told you aboutMadison just last week. Well, today she found out about the cheating. And tomorrow she’s going to do something about it, but she ran out of time today.”

“Ran out of time?” The sweat was slowing down, but now my head was spinning. Lucy had placed it in the blender and pushed the slow speed button.

“Sure,” Lucy said. “They only get sixty minutes a day. She’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”

“Oh,” I said. The blender stopped, mercifully, but my head felt grated. “One of your soaps then.”

“Of course, silly. What did you think I was talking about?” She didn’t wait for an answer. For the next half hour I listened to, and watched, Lucy’s dramatic retelling of Days of Our Hospital,or The Young and the Horny, or whatever it was. The ice pick and nutcracker stayed in the kitchen drawer. The zucchini lay peacefully in the fridge, in one piece, at least for now. The only ones who had to tremble now were Craig and Jennifer.Madison could do what she liked with those two cheaters. I was off the hook, although technically I had never been on it. I looked forward to the rest of the evening with my Lucy. Maybe we would have Margaritas before long. Isn’t that why God gave us the blenders?