Guest contributor: Kristen Keckler

Bad Advice Wednesday: The Ex Factor

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Randy and me

I have this ex who demanded a mutual photo-destroying ritual. He was marrying me, and thought that in starting this new chapter we should purge ourselves of all photographic evidence of our exes (this, of course, before digital cameras, iPads, and Facebook.) I balked, reasoned, begged, and he pouted, whined, and bullied, and so I did what any self-respecting writer might do: I lied. Hid the evidence in my parents’ garage, two thousand miles away. I treated this red flag like a napkin I neatly folded into a swan. I wasn’t about to destroy my photos of a four-month-long, cross-country camping trip and National Park extravaganza just because some of them featured my sweet, shy college boyfriend. WTF?

Years later, post divorce, I have a more secure and understanding significant other, one who realizes that I write nonfiction (duh!), and thus all the people of my past and present are fair game, potential fodder. Scott texts, “Have fun and say hi for me,” and I’m off to Brooklyn to meet up with the nature boy of my past—now a wedding photographer based in Williamsburg.

It’s been a year since college beau and I last hung out, and we instantly resume our easy banter, like two Woody Allen characters:

“Lemon looks tangerine today,” I note of his pet canary (“Lemon”), and he says, “Yeah, she’s like a mood ring sometimes.”

College beau has less hair and I have less collagen, but we’re both still lanky, vegetarian dreamers. After we geek out on Apple products, he shows me the sights of his Brooklyn hood—orthodox Jews walking about like modern pilgrims, housing projects made famous by Jay Z—as we make our way to the photography studio he runs with his ex-fiancé, then up and down the hipster streets. He points out vegan comfort food eateries he knows I’ll approve of, and buildings that have either disappeared or been re-made since the last time he looked.

Then, we duck into a Mexican cantina for a beer.

“Remember those mountains?” he asks wistfully, reverently, twirling a lock of hair, a sort of deep thought gesture he’s retained through the years.

Old Ben

Who could forget? For four months in 1996, we climbed Colonel Bob and the Olympics, the Cascades down to the Sierra Nevada’s and across the Rockies. When I Google them now, I see the ranges within ranges spread across the West—Bighorn, Absaroka, Bitterroot, Sangre del Cristo—all once our playground. We were twenty-two and chasing the ghost of our favorite writer, Richard Brautigan, who’d been lumped in with the Beats but whom no one we knew had really heard of. We’d liked it this way, to have an off-the-beaten-track literary hero, one who was just as tragic yet less cliché, and we looked for towns and landmarks he wrote about from Montana to California in his semi-autobiographical prose and poetry. After camping in Point Reyes Peninsula, a place Brautigan aptly romanticized, we’d wandered around San Francisco, quite lost and out of sorts, and found ourselves in Washington Square Park with bitter, overpriced coffees (we were former baristas and in-the-know). Suddenly, I’d looked up and saw the looming statue of Ben Franklin, as was featured on the cover of Trout Fishing in America! It was a cool moment—to discover Brautigan without even trying.

We pitched our tents and tarps wherever we could find a spot in a National Forest or in our book, “Camping Across the USA for $5 or less a day.” We cooked over an open fire, real meals from fresh veggies we picked up from farm stands and Safeways, plus canned beans and our box o’ spices. Sometimes we sat in beat-up lawn chairs in our makeshift living room along a gurgling stream with brush lush with salmonberries,

Outdoor living room

listening to the outside world on a little transistor radio. We gathered wood, built fires, secured tarps, wrote poems, and recorded minks, mule deer, big-horned bison and species of plants and birds in our hard-covered field guide. We bathed naked in cold creeks, went to bed early and rose right after the break of sun, when the tent grew hot and stuffy.

“Thank God your dad slipped those bottles of wine in our trunk,” he recalls now.

“We barely drank at all that summer,” I marvel as I swig my beer.

“I was trying to be a gentleman,” he laughs.

California lighthouse

We once got thrown off course in California—wildfires. When you hear about forest fires on the news, it’s hard to imagine what’s really going on if you haven’t experienced it. It’s petrifying. They cause crazy traffic, and not LA-style open freeway traffic, but on all those small winding roads snaking through hills and valleys where you can’t see what’s going around the next bend—that’s the scary part, not knowing—but can smell the sharp, acrid, fragrant smoke. The fires threw us of course to the point that the only camping spot we could find was way inland, called “Cow Mountain”, a recreational area littered with charred beer cans and chicken bones and signs warning of recent mountain lion sightings. Though it was mid summer, the campground was oddly and eerily deserted. I got so freaked out by the rustling noises in the night (animals or serial killers?) that we abandoned the tent and slept in the car: a first. The next morning, eager to get the hell out of dodge, we drove along the dirt road that suddenly ended, dropped off.

Ahead, we saw a work crew, bulldozers and cranes. This road, apparently, had been closed for a week, but we’d missed the notices as we’d arrived right before dusk.

Rocky Mountain High

“Boys, we have to build a road for this little car!” I say now, to my ex, who nods, smiling that same dimpled grin, remembering that’s what the guy with a hard hat had called out to the crew. And the crew filled in the hole they’d just emptied, flattened it out for us with a bulldozer, and waved us on our way.

I’m glad I still have all those old photos and the memories. Before I leave Brooklyn, my college beau and I have been up half the night, telling stories. He tells me, “keep writing!”

His advice to me was great, but leads to my bad advice to you: look up an old flame, someone you are on speaking terms with, preferably. Don’t treat this rendezvous like an interview or sap fest, or try to work out issues of your past lives, just relax, catch up, revisit the awe and wonder of your youth, and listen to the stories that emerge as the night grows its eleven o’clock shadow.


Williamsburg, 2013

[Kristen Keckler writes from memory, and teaches at Mercy College]

  1. Peter Peteet writes:

    This is good advice for not just writing,but living.I’m pretty sure Ginny D. meant “clue”rather than “glue” as to what someone who wants your past erased is after-though “glue’ fits as to gumming things up and being poorly and temporarily attached .I’ve only been married once (28 years now in the eyes of the law)but the people I’ve loved and lived with gave me cherished moments (and the poems and photos,paintings that bring them back)and I’ll certainly not be burning them-they are part of me.Four years ago I began corresponding with an old flame and we co-wrote this song using also a poem from her brother who passed away many years ago.
    To her sister’s son-now a 30 year old man-I said“I held you when you were a baby,”and told him he was in fact the first baby I’d ever held as an adult.That ability to hold the deep past simultaneously with the present and get thereby a glimpse of what the actual future holds is crucial to writing non-fiction of course-but it’s also what defines an examined and appreciated life.Don’t think there’s anything better.

  2. Ginny D writes:

    Great advice…on many levels. Cherished moments are few and meant to be remembered not destroyed. Anyone who would ask you to erase your past, is providing a glue to your future relationship.

  3. katherine fritz writes:

    This is gorgeous and dead-on. I’ve just come from coffee with an ex, and I’m so glad I read this first.

    • Kristen writes:

      Thanks, Katherine! Hope you had a fun coffee! I feel people (in general) are always talking about “burning bridges” but not so much about maintaining them… there are good ones too, the ones we work to keep in good repair 🙂

  4. Krystal writes:

    I love this! I think it’s great advice, and I am happy that you kept those photos.

    • Kristen writes:

      Thanks, Krystal…I’m so happy I have those photos, too. I get a sort sick thinking about what if there were digital cameras “back then” (like the trip was 6 years before there were digital cameras, lol). I’d have so many more of this trip! I guess that’s where “memory” comes in, though. 🙂

  5. Elizabeth Hilts writes:

    I’m sorry but I just don’t see this as being bad advice; this is great advice.
    And I really envy you that four-month odyssey (though I hate camping with a passion).
    Thanks for this and for “Writing Life Stories.”

    • Kristen writes:

      Thanks, Elizabeth. Nowadays with all our smart phones and apps and stuff, I’d probably do an odyssey using air bnb 🙂 The problem is the 4 months off part… or finding someone else who had 4 months off, lol. Thanks for reading!

  6. Kristen writes:

    Thanks, Bill. Now I want to go re-read the memory chapter of WLS! That’s too cool! Glad that you got to visit with her this summer… and that someone out there is on a “rambling sweethearts-on-the-road trip” because there is no better type 🙂

  7. Bill writes:

    I visited Dave’s class at Harvard quite a few summers ago, in which he’d used our book, Kristen, Writing Life Stories. And during the Q and A a young man said, “I think you knew my mother.” And I asked her name. Nope. He tried again. Nope. Then he tried her unmarried name. I knew her, all right, and had mentioned her in, I think, the memory chapter, which is where he’d picked up on it. “I held you when you were a baby,” I said.

    Anyway, this summer, she came to visit with her 2nd husband and dog in the midst of an extended, rambling sweethearts-on-the-road trip they’re enjoying. She’s exactly as beautiful as ever.