9780060391683_p0_v1_s260x420-1“You should read Story by Robert McKee,” Nico said.

This was 2010. Nico had agreed to produce the screenplay version of my first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix–a screenplay I hadn’t started yet–and he was no doubt concerned about what I might hand over. I’d never written a screenplay, but with more than a decade of daily writing under my belt, I felt I had what it took to crank out a feature-length version of my own novel. Still, I bought a copy of Story as insurance. It lingered in a pile of books for a few months, and after the first draft of the screenplay was finished, I sold it back.

The only real point to life is for it not to turn out the way you expect. Think about it. If, at an early age, you mapped out a life for yourself, and it played out exactly the way you wanted, you would be fantastically bored. In fact, if nothing or no one placed obstacles along the preordained path of your life, you would probably introduce those obstacles just to experience a little variety. I think you can make an argument that those of us prone to self sabotage are not necessarily fighting some deep interior hatred of ourselves but simply bored.

We humans also feel a deep-seated need for order in the world that stands in contrast with our desire for conflict. This is probably why we create gods who are all powerful and ostensibly running the show, but presume those gods afford us free will. There is a plan, but we are permitted to fuck it up. Or we look to distant and irrelevant celestial bodies to help us understand who we are, but the interpretation of these stars and planets are left to infallible humans.

This is why I believe most good stories follow a certain template. A character’s life is pushed out of balance and he spends the rest of the story attempting to restore order. Each time he succeeds, new and greater complications arise, creating a back and forth effect, an increasing push and pull effort until no greater threat can be imagined, at which point the character either overcomes his obstacles or is overcome by them. Or some ironic blend of the two.

Of course a novel or a film or any medium may incorporate one of these stories or scores of them, depending on its scope. The threats might be real or imagined. They might be contained within a family or cover the entire planet (or galaxy). But this template functions because it appeals to our inner struggle between order and conflict. Play all you want with a certain medium, introduce new variations on form and structure and language, but do not argue with me about the underlying way a basic story functions. That template is what joins the story with our biology.

Our lives are stories. We are rarely in balance, and even when we are, we seek ways to temporarily push ourselves out of balance. Perhaps the wise among us, as they grow older, realize this and try to reverse field. But I would wager that even our most comfortable and intelligent seniors still look for daily reasons to complain about something.

If life is a story, perhaps its most impressive climax is romantic love. In my opinion, there is nothing in the world more miraculous. Billions of parents around the world might disagree, but intellectually I find romantic love more interesting because of the relative rarity compared to its familial counterpart. Perhaps the love a mother feels for her child is more powerful, but the truth is there is a functional purpose for that version of love, a very real biological source.

You might argue how lust and temporary romantic partnerships are also driven by our genes, that all life is a machine, but my definition of romantic love stands outside that model. Finding a suitable biological partner might amount to nothing more than hip-to-waist ratios in females, or height and breadth combinations among men, and the general health and beauty of both. But coupling those physical attributes with our complex, brilliant, chemical brains is something I’m not sure evolution has grasped yet. Or something we humans can really understand. In the first blush of a crush, it’s hard to separate the physical urges from the intellectual. You can’t really know if the attraction you feel is a biological imperative or the far more complex joining of two individual minds. Most often, the attraction is weighted on one side more than the other, and this is why the most fulfilling relationships are so scarce.

Complicating matters even further is how often it happens that one person experiences the complete picture of romantic love and the other does not. Due to social norms and biological pressures, relationships like this might last a lifetime, but this happens far less often than it once did, at least in Western culture. Today there are too many options available to us, and countless love stories have taught us to accept nothing less than a magical union. Functional relationships burdened with these fanciful expectations often experience structural failure, and millions of people wander aimlessly wondering why they can’t find someone perfect with whom to share their lives.

It’s no secret why love stories are usually written about the chase but rarely about what comes after. The excitement of courting or being courted is the engine that drives the story. The obstacles one experiences while driving toward the climax of admitted and recognized love is the story. The sense of balance one experiences by beginning the relationship is not a story. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s the end of the story other people might find interesting. You don’t write that part in a book or film because the chemistry between those two people is so unique that it likely wouldn’t be entertaining to a wide audience. Who wants to listen to their friend prattle on about how awesome their partner is? Wouldn’t you rather hear her admit how she believed she was important to him, only to find out he’d been using her as a toy all this time?

Maybe it’s depressing to recognize these things about ourselves, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, understanding humanity is a way to make sense of our lives and set expectations. Extended happiness and true romantic love does exist in the world. There are many examples of it. But recognizing the scarcity of these things may prevent you from being disappointed when you don’t find them, or at the very least help you accept something less in your life. After all, the earth will continue to rotate no matter how you feel about it, and your acceptance that every day won’t bring roses will help you make the most of those many sunrises and sunsets.

In any case, since it’s true life rarely turns out the way you expect, it’s also possible the most amazing event of your life will happen tomorrow.

That you can’t ever know for sure is what makes life so beautiful in the first place.

Isaiah seemed more serious than usual when he returned. He slid his lanky frame into his chair and nodded at us. It had only been a few days, but everyone was happy to have him back. “Working in small groups” was always more fun when Isaiah was there. I remained quiet, hoping to be ignored. As one of only a handful of white kids in the whole school, I knew that one wrong word could lead to an onslaught of “cracker” and “honky” comments. I squinted at the huge green chalkboard in the distance and tried to make sense of the white slashes Mrs. McMillan had made across the landscape. There were too many erasure clouds.

“Where’ve you been?” Montrell asked Isaiah, punching him in the arm. High-strung even for an 11-year-old, Montrell’s eyes were practically bugging out of his head.

Isaiah, who was two years older than the rest of us, smiled coolly and folded his arms across his chest: “Man, you guys don’t even want to know.”

“What’re you sick or something?” Montrell slid his chair back with alarm: “Shit, you probably got crabs!” But he was only kidding. We were all were terrified of crabs. I wasn’t really sure what “crabs” meant in this context, but I knew it was something awful. Like cooties, it seemed to me — girls were often accused of having them — but much, much worse.

Hell no!” Isaiah said, pushing his desk at Montrell, who was laughing uncontrollably at his own joke. Isaiah wasn’t interested in horsing around. He lowered his voice and addressed the group — me, Montrell and three other boys. “I’m not sick. But I did go to the hospital on Sunday. I’m not supposed to tell anyone what happened. It was some really bad shit and I’m not supposed to talk about it. The doctors didn’t even know what to do.”

Montrell’s eyes retreated back into their sockets. We all grew very quiet. He had our total attention.

“What happened?” We all wanted to know.

“You guys can’t tell this to anyone. I’m not even supposed to talk about it. I had to go to the hospital because … I coughed up a nut.”

Montrell and the other boys gaped at him. I felt confused — and embarrassed because I didn’t understand.

“Because I’ve been fucking the babysitter too much,” Isaiah said, lowering his voice. “Every time she comes over, we get busy. My mom’s been going out a lot lately, so the babysitter keeps coming over, and every time, she wants to bone. But if you do it too much, that’s what happens. You can cough up a nut.”

“What! Man, you can’t do it too much,” Montrell objected. He had a weird look on his face, like he couldn’t tell if he was supposed to be laughing or what.

“Trust me, you can.” Isaiah looked incredibly serious. “That’s what happens. I coughed up one of my nuts, and I held it there in my hand, bleeding — I could see the veins and everything. That shit was pulsing. It had a heartbeat.”

“You … held … your … nut … in … your …hand?”

Isaiah nodded gravely.

I had a limited understanding of anatomy, and only the vaguest ideas about sex, but still, this didn’t seem possible. Suddenly, there were a thousand questions flying at once.

“You coughed it up?”

“Your nut?”

“It had a heartbeat?”

“The babysitter?”

Montrell looked really upset. “But they’re connected to the rest of your body,” he said. “There’s like a cord there. Some string or some shit.” He groped around at his own crotch, alarmed. “They can’t come out!”

“Listen,” Isaiah said calmly: “You guys are virgins anyway. You don’t even know how to nut.” He looked at me. “Have you ever even nutted in your life?”

In fact, I hadn’t ever “nutted” in my life. It sounded scary. The other guys were always boasting about “busting” their nuts. I didn’t understand what they meant. I knew you could “bust a nut” over and over again — apparently they all loved it — so the busted nuts had to grow back. Or maybe they didn’t bust entirely. I had no idea. In any case, it sounded horrible. I kept quiet and looked down at my hands. The back of my neck felt hot.

I’m not a virgin!” Montrell said defensively. “And at least I don’t need a babysitter. My mom knows I can take care of myself.”

“Yes, you are.” Isaiah smirked at him. “You all are. Besides, she’s not my babysitter. She babysits my little brother. I’m just there when she comes over. He watches TV and we go in the back and get busy. Except we were doing it too much.” He shrugged. “Someday you guys will see. If you ever do get a girl, you might cough up a nut.”

“Yeah right. So what happened to your nut then, huh? Now you only got one?” Montrell looked at Isaiah incredulously.

“Hell no! The doctor put it back in. You think I’d come back to school with only one nut? That’d be some pussy shit.”


“No, Delilah … you don’t gangbang,” I said softly, almost absentmindedly, as I stroked the animal’s soft furry head and underbelly. Curled in my arms, Delilah was purring blissfully — and I was even feeling rather relaxed myself.

“What did you just say?” my mother, who was sitting across the table from me smoking an after-dinner cigarette, said suddenly, an odd look on her face.

It was 1994. I was 14 years old and I had recently discovered hip-hop; rap; well, gangsta rap really. Snoop Doggy Dog and Dr. Dre, Notorious B.I.G., the Wu-Tang Clan — their lyrics floated through my head constantly, a strange but beautiful and fascinating tapestry of violence, bravado and poetry. At that moment, I had been reciting Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage” to myself:

Niggas are the same from Watts to Brooklyn /

I try to keep my faith in my people /

But sometimes my people be acting like they evil /

And you don’t understand about runnin’ with a gang /

Cuz you don’t gangbang …

Staring down at Delilah, her tiny gray head, her squinting, innocent eyes, the calm rumble of her contentment, I reflected on the powerful truth of these words: No, Delilah did not understand about running with gangs — she did not gangbang.

“Oh, I was just joking around with myself I guess,” I said to my mother, who had crushed her cigarette in the ashtray and was staring at me: “I was imagining Delilah in a rap song … I just said that she doesn’t gangbang.”

“Robert, don’t use that word,” my mother said quietly, seriously. She looked uncomfortable, and that was making me uncomfortable. I could probably count on one hand the number of times my mother had told me not to do something.

“Well, I don’t see what the big deal is,” I said quickly, wanting to laugh it off.

“It’s a very derogatory word … very disrespectful to women.”

“What? No — it’s got nothing to do with women,” I said. Clearly my mother was confused about something. Of course, she couldn’t really be expected to understand — what could a 46-year-old white woman possibly know about gangbangers? I had tried to play her parts of Enter the 36 Chambers and some other favorites, but they were beyond her comprehension. I, on the other hand, knew all about gangbangers, original gangstas, studio gangstas, real muthaphuckkin’ G’s — just about any type of G you could imagine, really. I decided to illuminate her:

“Mom — gangbanging means, like, you know, being a gang member. The black guys in the gangs in Los Angeles and whatever — and some rappers, the real ones — they’re gangbangers.”

My mother just shook her head at me.

“Well, what do you think it means?” I said, suddenly feeling defensive.

There was a long, awkward pause. My mother lit another cigarette.

“A gang bang,” she said tentatively, “is when many men have sex with one woman at the same time. It’s very degrading. You shouldn’t even joke about it.”

I suddenly had that same terrible feeling I’d had, years before, when after being tormented on the playground for my ignorance, I’d asked my mother what “horny” meant. Oh dear God. We never spoke about sex, and for it to come up now, in this bizarre context — it was almost more than I could bear. (Delilah, perhaps sensing the horrible tension hanging over the table, hopped down from my lap and dashed out of the room.) My mind was racing — what was my mother talking about? I’d never heard of this before. Why would a bunch of men even want to have sex with the same woman at the same time? Had I been misunderstanding all these rap lyrics all this time? I considered myself a student of rap slang, and it seemed impossible that I could have gotten it so wrong.

“No … I mean, come on … I don’t think that’s what it means. That’s not what they’re talking about. But, well … okay, I won’t say it again. Sorry. That’s really not what I meant.” I rose from the table as quickly as possible and dashed upstairs to my room.

Fourteen years later, Delilah, who was maybe a year old at the time, is still having kittens like clockwork. She’s so fertile that my friends often joke about it: “Man, she’s having more kittens? She’s such a ho! She must’ve had kittens by every cat in the neighborhood.” I always smile and laugh — and, inwardly, cringe. Perhaps the sweet, slinky, and always mysterious Delilah does, in fact, gangbang.