Today's little trip through the memory banks requires us to visit late summer 1978, a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas, called North Richland Hills, a neighborhood (and its elementary school) called Smithfield. Smithfield, in fact, was what most folks who lived there called the place back then. North Richland Hills, now a sprawling burg of about 70,000 people, was a relatively new concern in those days, having been voted into its own municipality 25 years earlier when Richland Hills, the now much smaller adjacent community, declined to annex the area. By 1960, North Richland Hills had gobbled Smithfield, a freestanding community to its north.
The census in 1970 put North Richland Hills' population at just a shade more than 16,000 people. We were 30,000 strong by 1980, so you can sort of suss out the math for '78. We were getting bigger britches, for sure, but we were a cozy group. If you were to cleave off the people who thought of Smithfield as Smithfield, because that's what it had always been to them, you'd be left with an even smaller subset.
Anyway, it was a different time and, in its way, a different place from what it is now. I was a different boy. There at the left, that's a pretty good approximation of what I'd have looked like (minus the wicker chair) as I pedaled off on a summer day to our neighborhood school, Smithfield Elementary, to see if the classroom assignments for the coming school year had been posted.
When I saw that I had been assigned to Charlotte Cooke's classroom, I know I was overjoyed, for that's the teacher I'd been hoping to get as I moved on from second grade to third.
So here's the thing: I didn't spend long in Mrs. Cooke's class. Maybe a week. Maybe less. I don't remember, exactly.
What I do remember is that a new third-grade teacher started at Smithfield that year, a newly minted graduate who had been a late hire and was getting her first classroom at our school. As I recall, a class was built for her first by asking for volunteers to shift over from their assigned teacher to this new one. After that, the administration would do it by conscription.
Again, here's where the finer details are lost to me in the intervening 44—holy shit, 44!—years, but I do remember that I volunteered. I do remember being concerned that if kids didn't act like they wanted to be part of this new teacher's class, she would get discouraged and think she was unwanted. I am certain—utterly certain—that given my affection for Mrs. Cooke, volunteering wasn't what I wanted. I felt like I needed to do it. Where such a notion came from, I have no idea.
I've made a lot of stupid decisions in my life. Made a lot of fortuitous ones, too, and volunteering for Donna Spurgeon's third-grade class in 1978-79 is a standout in the latter group. I loved her almost from the get-go—I do recall some initial cold feet about leaving Mrs. Cooke's class that my mother told me I'd have to overcome, having made a commitment—and I've loved her straight through. She later had my sister (twice, I think, after she moved up to a fifth-grade classroom), she changed schools and I kept up with her, I visited her classes a few times through the years, I was able to wish her a "well done!" when her retirement came through, and we keep the conversation going on Facebook even today.
Back then, in 1978-79, I ended up feeling like I got the best outcome possible. Mrs. Cooke still figured into things, teaching me the perilous math of third grade (fractions!) and breaking me of the annoying habit of making my fours look like nines.
But Donna was an all-timer, the kind of teacher I made it a point to keep up with as the seasons changed, for both of us. She started as a teacher (and even raked me pretty hard on my language skills, as evidenced by the report card above), then ended up as a friend.
Doesn't get any better than that.
So what of Mrs. Cooke. Well ...
Sadly, I didn't keep up with her. I liked her, appreciated her, enjoyed her instruction, but time went on and so did I. And so did she.
But let's go back to this idea of Smithfield as a place in time and as a heart's memory, just for a second ...
There's a dedicated group of people who are from where I'm from, who've stayed, who haven't let the idea of Smithfield get too far away even as its time as a stand-alone town recedes. Every year, first weekend in May, there's a reunion. Living several hundred miles away, as I do and as I have for most of the past 35 years, I've never been to it. That's my failing. This year, I sent a stack of books to be included in a raffle, to hopefully play some small part in keeping these annual get-togethers going.
A few days after the event, I got a text message from one of the organizers. She said someone had dropped by, seen the books with my name on them, and remembered me. Charlotte, she wrote. She was Charlotte Cooke, and she's Charlotte Williams now.
Well, I'll be damned. A torrent of memory came on. You can see it, in every paragraph above.
The organizer, LaDonna Powell, and I launched a conspiracy. We'd send her a book. I'd enclose a card. We'd spring a video chat on her. We'd close this circle that's been hanging open since Jimmy Carter was president.
There she is, and there I am, all smiles for our long trip back to each other. I'd like to say I would have known her on sight, on the street, but I probably wouldn't have, and I'm certain she wouldn't have known me. But as we talked—just briefly—I could see the flickers of kindness and care that made her such a wonderful teacher for all those years, one whose classroom I badly wanted to be in when I was 8 years old and rode my bicycle down to the school to see if the luck of the draw had been with me. It had been, and yet I asked to be reassigned, which turned out to be only one of the most consequential decisions of my growing-up years.
Sometimes, it all works out.
What I said to Mrs. Williams, in our chat and in the card I included with her book, is between the two of us. In the broad strokes of it, I can say only that I'm grateful. For the kindness of the teachers I've known, whether chosen by me or for me. For the intercession of LaDonna. For the chance to say thank you, and to mean it.
*—If I'm doing it right, there's both overlap and freestanding territory. For years and years, I didn't do it right.
Facebook, I've noted before, isn't good for much, but it's damn near essential for a few things: easy keeping up with far-flung friends and relatives, recipes, irritating others with your daily Wordle grid, cat memes, birthday greetings (the most heartwarming day of the year, every year), etc.
Increasingly, I'm finding value in the stored-up daily memories, especially the things I don't remember writing or don't remember the impetus for writing. Today (April 18) served up this kick to the hippocampus:
My newspaper career started in October 1988, when Jim Fuquay gave me a job as a part-time correspondent at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
It ended in August 2013, when I left my job as night city editor at the Billings Gazette.
In between, I worked at nine newspapers in six states. Some jobs I took for the adventure (Peninsula Clarion, Kenai, Alaska, age 21). Some I took for money (Dayton Daily News, 1994). I almost always regretted those, by the way. Some I took for escape (Anchorage Daily News, 1995, to get away from Dayton). Some I took because I knew they'd make me better (San Jose Mercury News, 1998). One I took to correct a mistake (San Jose Mercury News, 2000, after bouncing to both San Antonio and Olympia, Wash., earlier that year).
Twice I accepted jobs and then backed out before I was due to report (particular apologies to the Lewiston (Maine) Sun Journal).
I took different jobs for different reasons. Sometimes those reasons panned out and sometimes they didn't.
But most of the time, what I was really looking for in a new job was some new version of me. I never found that. Not once.
It feels good to finally admit this.
Let's unpack this, shall we?
Elisa and I were talking about this the other day, having reached an age at which there's plenty in the rearview to examine and second-guess and (we hope) plenty of road ahead to consider other pathways: If we had it to do again, would we make different career choices? What might we have done instead?
Because those ponderings inevitably run up against the butterfly effect, we ended up in a predictable place: Nope. We're good.
But it remains an interesting thought experiment, if only for the clarity you find about the choices you did make. I ran toward print journalism—and stayed there a good long time—because it made good use of my particular talents and because it was, in my narrow sense of the word, a daily adventure. Within the strictures of daily newspaper production—you have to gather the stories and stats and pictures, you have to edit the material, you have to design the pages upon which it all rests—were wide variables in what you dealt with daily. The news was always different. The pages began, every day, as blank canvases. I loved that.
What I traded for that was significant, though: Friends in other lines of work made more money, enjoyed greater security and stability, had evenings and weekends free, etc. These are not insignificant things.
Who I was and my stance with regard to work, especially in my 20s, are so entirely removed from who I am now that I have to strain to remember that guy. I know that his entire definition of self was wound up in being a journalist, that he went to bed thinking about it and woke up each morning with it on his mind, that he bounced up to the world with that shingle around his neck. I lived to work, and I sought out any chance I had to work extra hours, to get plum assignments, to make myself as close to indispensable as I could (an illusion, of course, but one I willingly bought in those years).
It's what I didn't do that taunts me now. I didn't fall in love in those years; how could I, when the aggrandizement of Craig the Journalist was front and center among my priorities? I get at that idea in the Facebook memory above: In all my wandering around, looking for some new version of me, I carried my old self into each new situation (wherever you go, there you are). I didn't learn to play the guitar or take a judo class or write a novel.
Until, you know, I wrote a novel.
When I was trying to emerge from brokenness and impending divorce in 2014-15, I spent a lot of time with a counselor (highly recommended) and with my nose in reading material aimed at my mental/emotional state (e.g., King Warrior Magician Lover) and my soul (The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart). I wanted to understand what was happening to me, why it had happened, the parts for which I had responsibility (many) and the parts I had to let go (also many).
I also read a lot of shorter pieces, some with resonance and some without. Two that stick out, years after the fact, were written by Mark Manson. I recommend these highly, whatever your situation:
Fuck Yes or No: "Since you’re now freeing up so much time and energy from people you’re not that into, and people who are not that into you, you now find yourself perpetually in interactions where people’s intentions are clear and enthusiastic. Sweet!"
The Guide to Strong Relationship Boundaries: "People with poor boundaries typically come in two flavors: those who take too much responsibility for the emotions/actions of others and those who expect others to take too much responsibility for their own emotions/actions."
I hear what you're saying. Craig, you're saying, this is great, but you're talking about personal relationships now, and you were talking about work, and I'm confused.
No, no, I'm still talking about work. This is the point. In the extreme emotional duress of a divorce—a traumatic thing I do not recommend, unless, of course, it's the thing that will skirt an even bigger trauma—and with the help of a well-trained, compassionate human and the collected wisdom of learned thinkers, I began to unlock some problems I'd dragged into every area of my life: my interpersonal relationships and my relationship with work.
This hard process of dredging up changed me. Better personal boundaries also meant better work boundaries. I'm no less good at what I do—in fact, I'd argue that I'm much, much better than I've ever been—but no longer am I defined entirely by a magazine spread that I've designed, or a report I've edited, or a chapter I've written. What I do is also who I am, but it's not the entirety of the picture.
It was written mostly as a joke, but like any good joke, there's truth inside it. In the sidebar on this blog, I define myself this way:
Craig Lancaster is an author, an editor, a publication designer, a layabout, a largely frustrated Dallas Mavericks fan, an eater of breakfast, a dreamer of dreams, a husband, a brother, a son, an uncle. And most of all, a man who values a T-shirt.
I can live with that.
In some significant ways, what's happening now in the American workforce—this thing they're calling the Great Resignation—is a manifestation of an assertion of boundaries. We've been through a lot: social tumult, a deadly pandemic, a rebalancing and cross-pollination of work lives and home lives. People are reconsidering what they value, how they want to toil, whom they want to toil for, and what price they're willing to accept for those vast swaths of their finite lives. Good. It's healthy in the long run, even if it's upsetting to the status quo in the shorter term.
The last time I moved—packed up my life and my car and my expectations--for a job was more than 20 years ago, when I left Olympia, Wash., to return to San Jose, a place I never should have left in the first place. I can't imagine doing it again, although one of the benefits of growing older is learning that one really shouldn't say never.
My point is that although I plan to strap on the work boots for a good long time—I like to work, a fact that was clear even 30 years ago, if badly applied--where I am and who I am and how I'll share those parts of me need more than just a job. I need a multidimensional identity, too, and at last I have one. That's what I was missing in all those moves cited in the Facebook post above.
The last time I recast how I define myself professionally occurred when I wrote and published that first book and I figured I could finally call myself a novelist instead of just a guy who wished he had one inside him that he could extract. That was nice, too, but it's not everything. Without the laying about and eating breakfast and doting on my nieces and nephews and being a son and a brother and worrying about the Dallas Mavericks and spinning through this life with my wife, in fact, it wouldn't mean much at all.
Love it! What's the next question?
No, seriously, the great Chris La Tray asks some provocative questions and ponders the meaning of National Poetry Month (which we're now in) in his latest Substack piece.
This might be the wrong place to ask this question since you glorious subscribers are obviously anything but ignorant philistines in such matters1, but is poetry really an “important place” in the lives of many people? The running joke when it comes to poets is they are the purist practitioners of literature because they obviously aren’t in it for the money. Which sucks when you think about it. So I have to wonder: how many people really engage with poetry on a regular basis? How many people actually buy it?
The stuff that goes on around National Poetry Month is worthwhile, I just wish it wasn’t relegated to one month. April rolls around and people get all performative with their love of poetry, share links to poems published online or whatever, but where does it go from there? I encounter many people who tell me, “I don’t get poetry.” That’s fair. I didn’t “get” it for a long time either. When poetry had a bag dropped over its head and was rolled in a carpet and hauled off to the ivory towers to be enjoyed by only a stuffy few the connection to its roots was severed. I contend, though, that there is poetry for everyone. Everyone.
I'd like to just endorse all of the above, if I may.
I, too, have heard the "I don't get poetry" bit, and I've probably even said it, although I will say, in my defense, that I was young and inexperienced and kind of ignorant. What I often say, now, when I hear that is, "Well, you listen to music, don't you?" That's poetry, man. And it doesn't have to be Patti Smith or Michael Stipe or Nico—but it should, it should be all of them and many, many, many more. Find the writers and the voices that not only speak to you but also impart something you're not going to find in whatever bubble you live in. Find the words of those who live other lives, have had other experiences, see the world with eyes different than your own. Find something that smacks you in the head with a ratchet. Something that moves you. Once you've got that, everything else is just a matter of form, be it song or sonnet or haiku or slam or whatever.
By inclination and profession, I go to a lot of literary readings, and given a blind choice—go listen to an unidentified poet or an unidentified writer of prose—I'm going to see the poet a hundred times out of a hundred. For the sheer chance of having your doors blown off, of being wowed by the substance and the sonic gelatin that holds it all together, nothing beats a poetry reading.
Seriously, listen to Robert Wrigley here and tell me you don't want more. Tell me you don't want all of it.
One of the luckiest things about living where I do is that the place is thick with great poets. Great poets. Just the other day, we attended a reading by Tami Haaland, former Montana poet laureate (and our friend), and Elisa said it was "exactly what my heart, mind, and soul needed today." Yeah. Mine, too.
My brother-in-law, a well-regarded musician and recording engineer, in answer to a question of mine about what makes him sit up and say "holy (very bad word)" when he hears a voice, said this: "The emotion the musician channels."
So it is with poetry. That's the beauty. We needn't confine it to a month in spring. We need it every damn day.
Go get some at your local indie bookstore. Or use mine.
Dispatches from the staying-in-touch department ...
Will the pig run again?
I've written before about my occasional life in pipeline inspection — an association that inspired an entire novel — and had been looking forward to getting out there again in the spring, after the usual wintertime slowdown. Well, maybe, but also looking like probably not. The company for which I did work recently shuttered, and there's an industrywide slowdown, so I may be on the obsolescence end of progress (or regress).
I can't say I'm particularly heartbroken. Pipelines are a destructive, invasive way of delivering extractive sources of energy, and for the future of the planet, it's high time we develop alternatives that are well within our grasp but beyond our political will. On the other hand, there's a practical consideration: We already have the damn things, and we're using them. The job I did was essential to the safety end of matters. Let's hope that continues until we can pull those things out of the ground and return the land to those from whom it was stolen.
I will miss the travel to exotic (read: remote) locales and the chance to meet people in their natural habitat. But that can be enjoined in other ways, obviously.
I recently did something I should have done a long, long time ago: I joined the Authors Guild.
So here's where I cop to self-interest: I began to consider the possibility earlier this year when, quite apart from any involvement from me, my former agency descended into founder-vs.-founder contretemps and my meager royalties from long-ago books started showing up late or not at all. My former agent, also caught in the crossfire as her old shop melted down, was a champion and an ardent defender of my rights, it should be pointed out, and she got my situation squared away, for which I'm eternally grateful. But it occurred to me—again, when my self-interest was compromised, an entirely human condition that I'm trying to rise above—that in this whole solitary business, you have to grab a little solidarity where you can get it and stand strong with those who do what you do.
I'm also reminded of something wise I once heard said by A.W. Gray, a well-regarded crime novelist but better known to me as the father of my boyhood best friend: "The people who need unions the most are those who don't have them."
First thing: I'd be gratified if you'd go to this link, where my wife, Elisa Lorello, keeps her newsletter. She's written eloquently and emotionally this week about her pullback from social media: why she did it in the first place, ways in which she has come back, and why she'll never return to what her presence used to be.
She gets at a lot of the things I've wrestled with, and she's been far stronger than I have as far as making some of her resolutions stick. If you like what you read there, you might consider going to her website and signing up for the weekly (sort of, kind of) dispatch. A little Elisa in your in-box is a day brightener, and we all need those.
The truth is, we've been grappling with social media and its impacts on us, on how we congregate and communion and deal with each other, for as long as we've been becoming friends with Tom and booking staterooms on the S.S. Zuckerberg. It's just that the more pernicious aspects of an online life have been slower to come to us, and by the time they do, we're already addicted to the cat pictures and the easy reconnection with high school friends and the ready microphone for whatever is on our minds. (On mine, mostly: breakfast.)
Every time I'm about ready to declare social media, on the whole, a net negative, I can feel a "yeah, but" bubbling to the surface. Over the weekend, I shared a table with Tom Harpole (author of Regarding Willingness, a great book you should read posthaste) at a library book sale, and we had a humdinger of a time building a genuine human rapport out of a friendship that had, to that point, been nurtured entirely online. So, if I'm ready to bag social media—and I am, baby, I am—am I also ready to foreclose the possibility of future Harpolian friendships?
What about the genuine, deep love I've come to feel for people from my hometown I didn't know that well the first time around (I went to a big-block-store of a high school, so it was mathematically impossible to do it any other way)?
What about the book club in Virginia who'd all be my besties if we lived closer?
What about a dozen other examples I could rattle off without even contemplating it?
I think the greatest disappointment of social media, for me, is that I thought (naively) it would be a tool of greater connection and empathy, and in its worst iterations, it's been precisely the opposite. I cringe when I look back on something like this interview, in which I extolled the virtues. They're so much harder to see now.
And look, I don't think the problem is the technology, per se. We've leveraged new tools in our communication since human history began, from grunts to cave wall drawings in ochre, from plumes to pencils to printing presses to pixels, from phones that share party lines to phones with long-distance tolls to phones that aren't even used, primarily, as talking devices.
But connection was the point, right? And now, in ugly and pervasive ways, the point is division.
Harp said something while we were together, a grand occasion that I think will leave us demanding more like it to keep oxygen flowing in the friendship, and I haven't been able to shake it since: "The world is getting to a place where an empathetic person will find it impossible to live here." (I hope that's near enough to a direct quote. I wasn't taking notes, just reveling in the fellowship.)
I think that's it, in large measure. Empathy is lifeblood for me. I can't imagine getting through my days without it. I can't imagine living in a way that I don't strive for it. I can't imagine wanting to be here without it. I'm going to try to live where kindness lives, to plant it where I am and where I'm headed. I'll fail sometimes, of course. That's part of the human bargain.
But that ideal has to be the north star, or what are we doing here?
(And, yeah, I get the irony of having pounded this out on a website, the link to which I'll distribute on Facebook and Twitter. We're hardwired for hypocrisy.* All of us.)
(* — Credit to the great Barry Eisler for highlighting the Niebuhr passage.)
Quick programming note
Novelist Jamie Harrison and I are doing this online conversation, hosted by the Montana Book Festival, about fiction and families. I think it's going to be a lot of fun with some interesting insights, and if you have some time Saturday (Oct. 16), I'd be well pleased if you joined us. The event is free, but you have to register here to get a spot.
Craig Lancaster is an author, an editor, a publication designer, a layabout, a largely frustrated Dallas Mavericks fan, an eater of breakfast, a dreamer of dreams, a husband, a brother, a son, an uncle. And most of all, a man who values a T-shirt.
If you like what you see here, please consider a donation (one-time or ongoing, your choice, there's gratitude for everything/anything). It will be used to keep the website aloft, supplies, hardware/software. The necessities that keep a working writer going. Thank you.