How to Keep Falling in Love
I. On the Feeling
My tenth novel, Dreaming Northward (Gramarye Media), comes out on June 27, 2023. I’m no more impervious to big, round numbers than anyone else is, and the imminent publication of a tenth novel—particularly when I once had serious, serious doubts that I’d ever write, much less publish, even one—is a good occasion for a bit of reflection.
I’ve learned a lot about how to do this, enough that sometimes I’m even prepared to believe I’ve gotten good at it.
I’ve learned a lot about humility, which forecloses any chance that I’ll linger long on “gee, I’ve gotten good at this.”
I’ve learned a lot about what’s fleeting and what’s durable.
I’ve learned that it’s all about love.
What that last bit looks like, for me, hinges on memory and imagination, the crucial elements of fiction, in my estimation, but also fairly punchless without love.
It’s loving the work. Loving the characters who get conjured in the work. Loving each new project with the whole of your heart, even if—and especially if—you must love it enough to let it go. There has been a lot of this, more than I ever imagined there could be. When I get down to diagnosing why an idea didn’t take off the way I hoped it would, I almost always land on a memory to which I’ve insufficiently connected, which bogs down the imagination that is supposed to turn it into fiction, which subsequently demands the love that makes me say “this is not for me.” (If I were as good at that in my beyond-the-page life as I am in my writing life, I wouldn’t bruise so easily. But I digress.)
Conversely, the idea that soars, that becomes something I see through to completion, is almost always built on the back of a memory, slathered with imagination, that becomes something else again. It’s almost magical, that feeling, even as it remains hard, word-rock-busting work to bring it forth. I love (that word again) that feeling.
I chase it. Again and again and again.
II. On Memory and Love
A couple of years back, in an interview with Montana Quarterly (where I’ve been on the masthead since 2013), the great Larry Watson said something so profound that my greatest wish was that I’d said it first. Failing that, I cite this quote endlessly, with all due credit to Mr. Watson:
I write from memory, not observation. Yet my memories are formed from observations, and then memory and imagination distort those observations into something useful for fiction and something that’s also truthful in its own way.
That’s the ballgame, right there. Unsaid, but screamingly evident to anyone who has read Watson’s work, is the part where love comes in. That manifests in doing the work, in riding the work out, in achieving empathy with your characters, in knowing when to make the gradual turn from I’m writing this to engage my own need for the work to I’m writing this for someone to read someday, and thus I must be attentive to what it needs to be.
Love is showing up faithfully. Love is holding at bay the world that will threaten your enthusiasm, your want-to, your ability to separate those things over which you have control and those that are mysterious variables. Love is having a standard for the work. Love is absolving yourself when, say, a pandemic swallows up your work like it never existed in the first place. It did exist. Your love made it manifest.
Love is also forgiving yourself when you could have done better and somehow didn’t. Love is believing that you’ll do right by it the next time. Love is faith, and you’re gonna need a lot of it.
Arthur Miller—I borrow only from the best—knew something about the staying power of the deeply imprinted memory. Perhaps nothing is as creatively propulsive as the blown chance, the missed boat, the shameful moment, the deep regret, the thing you ache to understand, the love you couldn’t hold.
Here he is: Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.
If you’ve had a bit of therapy—and only about eight percent of us have, which means ninety-two percent of us are in deficit—you’ve probably been told that regret is a feeling wasted on the unsustainable belief that you should have been perfect. Insofar as it applies to our lives and how we face up to them, I’m inclined to concede the point. But for the author who mines memory for stories, regret—particularly the right kind, which Miller doesn’t identify and thus is open to personal definition—is creative fuel.
As I look back on ten novels, I see work and characters suffused with what I could give them through my grappling with memory and regret. Neurodivergent Edward Stanton (600 Hours of Edward, Edward Adrift, Edward Unspooled) and his fights with an illogical world. Mitch Quillen and his intractable father (The Summer Son). Hugo Hunter and his clay feet as a fighter and a father and a friend (The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter). The Kelvig clan and their town and the pulling apart of what binds them (This Is What I Want). Sad-sack Carson McCullough and the demise of the newspaper business (Julep Street). Jo-Jo and Linus and the vagaries of attraction (You, Me & Mr. Blue Sky). Max Wendt and the status quo he doesn’t see crumbling (And It Will Be a Beautiful Life).
And now, Dreaming Northward, perhaps the most personal work of them all, one that required me to find the memory—and, always, the love—and enough imagination to make it something more than a transcript. So much more. So surprising in the end. So familiar that it could have kissed me.
I’m in love. It keeps happening.
III. On Imagination and Love
How does this memory-fortified-with-imagination-backed-by-love thing work, in practical terms? I have an object lesson for that, drawn from Dreaming Northward and its ingredients.
If I’m prompted to give a short-hand accounting of who I am and how I got here, I say that I grew up in Texas and found my way to Montana as quickly as I could. The truth is a bit more nuanced. I wasn’t that quick. I got here when I was thirty-six years old, time enough for a dozen places in the interim that I tried, to varying degrees of success to make home.
My first home, in fact, after I was born in Washington state and adopted by my parents, was in Mills, Wyoming, a little bedroom community north of Casper. For the first three years of my life, I lived in tiny clapboard house on an unpaved street, which sat across the road from one of the town’s water towers. After my mother left my father and moved us to Texas, I was largely absent from Mills save for occasional summer visits to see my dad. But the image of that water tower embedded in my psyche. Whenever I would see one like it, particularly in my suburban Texas town, I would feel the pangs of separation from my father.
The imagination, in excerpt form
Ronnie goes down to the floor with his boy for a close-up view of the gas station in miniature. He watches as two round-headed figurines in a car, into which they fit like pegs, ride the elevator up to the top floor and the door opens and the car rolls out and careers down the ramp to the carpet beneath them.
“Ain’t that something?” he says, and the boy squirms happily.
“I got it for Christmas last year,” Nathan says.
“I remember,” Ronnie says, a harmless lie, he thinks. “Hey, I saw that kid Richard, your friend, the other day. He says hello.”
“He’s nice,” Nathan says.
“Yeah, he’s a good kid.”
Nathan bounces up and grabs his father’s hand. Ronnie clambers to his feet.
“Come here,” Nathan says, tugging him.
Nathan pulls him to the window that looks out upon the suburban expanse. “See that?”
“Yeah,” Ronnie says. “Buildings.”
“No, that.” Nathan points, insistent.
“The blue thing.”
Ronnie stares down. “What blue thing?”
“No, there.” The boy redirects his indicator, trying to get his father to follow the line.
“The water tower?”
“Yeah, I see it,” Ronnie says.
“That’s where you live.”
“Yes. I live here. You live over there.”
“No.” Ronnie makes a quarter-turn, facing the wall. He points at the blankness of it. “It looks the same as our water tower, but I live a thousand miles that way. North. Where you used to live.” He turns back to the window and points again. “That over there, that’s east. Understand?”
“Well, come downstairs, Sport, and I’ll try to explain it, OK?”
It starts with what I feel, and have felt, for my father, a love that’s been constant but ever changing, ever shifting depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in. The unquestioning adoration I had for him when I was a little boy got replaced by an exasperated pity the more I learned about him and the more I witnessed. That, in turn, got supplanted by the responsibility I take for him in his dotage, the insistence I have of seeing him off this mortal coil and keeping fear, terror, and pain as far from him as I can. As his infirmities grow and he lashes out, I find myself with more and more days when I love him and simultaneously hope I can find a way to like him again. It’s not for wimps, this love thing.
The water tower the boy points at insistently was, and is, in a Mid-Cities suburb between Fort Worth and Dallas, a town called Hurst. I used to climb into the tallest tree of my neighborhood in an adjoining town and find it on the flat horizon and try to convince myself that it was Mills, Wyoming, and that my father might be there at the base of it. I didn’t know north from east in those days. I couldn’t have envisioned the magnitude of a thousand miles. I just knew blue, cylindrical water towers and that one was in proximity of a man I missed. I tucked it all away. Years later, it came out through my fingertips.
IV. On the Things That Aren't Love
Soon after my third novel, Edward Adrift, came out in 2013, I was making enough money in royalties to grant serious consideration to trying to make a go of it as a full-time novelist. I had the big-time New York agent, a slew of foreign translations, a full calendar, and novels-in-progress lined up on the runway. My then-publisher had feted the onset of our relationship with “we want to be in the Craig Lancaster business.”
That’s something—indeed, I suspect it’s something that most any author not in the one percent craves—but it’s not love. It’s validation, it’s success, it’s the fruits of one’s efforts, it’s unadulterated luck, but it’s not love.
Love is what you give yourself when the royalties dry up, the big-time New York agent moves on from you, the foreign translations are harder to attract, the calendar is empty, and the ideas are taking on rust. When your publisher doesn’t want to be in the you business anymore.
These are all things that can shoot your horse right out from under you. I’m not suggesting that you—or anyone—should just buck up and get through it, as if it’s not there, in your path like a boulder you can’t circumnavigate. Lean on your supports. Get your ass into therapy if you need it (ninety-two percent of us do!). Divert yourself with a hobby or a road trip or whatever. Take some time off, if that’s what’s calling to you. Don’t stop pushing, if pushing is what’s demanded.
And while you’re doing all of that, remember the love.
The love of a memory, an idea, an approach. The love of the work. The love of the characters and the settings and the structure of what you’re trying to create. The love of revising it and honing it until it’s just what you want. The love of taking the finished thing—the first or the tenth or the hundredth—and offering it up with a hopeful, open heart.
I made this. I fell in love. Again.
Memory + Imagination = Fiction
Elisa and I took our new presentation, title above, out for its first spin Saturday at the Stillwater County Library in Columbus, Montana.
(Cool side note: The centerpiece pictured here was on our table at Grand Fortune, a Chinese restaurant in Columbus that we hit before the event. I can definitely say that's a career first for me. For Elisa, too.)
To say that we were thrilled with the response to our program would be, perhaps, to diminish the meaning of "thrilled." We had a group of about 20 people who dug in with us, asked excellent questions and provided terrific insights, and even gamely took on a writing exercise at the end.
The idea was to take The Word—the go-to warmup exercise I've written about from time to time—and apply the principles of memory harvesting to create the short fictional work that resulted. So we had the folks give us a passel of words, then we ran a random-number generator to choose one that would apply to everyone's work. That word: hayloft.
Elisa and I wrote along with everyone else. I had the advantage of my laptop, so I was able to write about 630 words in the 20 minutes of the exercise. As I told everybody afterward, if the current manuscript took on words that quickly, I'd be done with it back in November. Of 2020.
What follows is my effort ...
Mom told me I would be sorry if I didn’t go, if I didn’t see where my grandfather, her father, had grown up. I was dubious, to say the least. I liked our hotel, I liked the pool—the pool was about the only thing that made southwestern Minnesota in summer bearable to me—and I wanted to stay. She insisted that I go. I was nine. Guess who won that debate?
The whole way over, our 1978 Chevy Citation baking on the blacktop, Mom told me that she’d only been here once, long, long ago, when she was a little girl, after grandpa had come back from the war in Italy. “It was like a magical place, Jeff,” she said, and I sat there thinking she should see some better magic. “Tractors. Gardens. Corn you can eat off the stalk. A hayloft, Jeff, with a tire swing. You can launch yourself clear into the rafters and come down in a soft landing.”
I harumphed. Something good was on TV, and I was missing it.
We made a little turn off the two-laner and went down this rutted two-track, between two fields of corn headed for silage. I wasn’t going to be eating anything off these stalks, I figured, but seeing as how I was a civilized boy, I didn’t need anything that didn’t come in a can anyway. But maybe I could slop the hogs and shovel out the chicken coop. Boy, howdy.
At the end of the lane stood my grandfather, all unfolded six-foot-six of him, encased like a sausage in denim overalls and a gingham workshirt. I’d never seen him looking like that before; the guy was a navigator for Alaska Airlines, not a goat roper, but I guess it was the same nostalgia trip for him that it was for Mom, making his way to the place where he’d grown up. Beside him, another couple—that’d be great Uncle Leo and great Aunt Darlaine, I supposed, the proprietors now of the farm. I’d never met them, I didn’t think.
Mom started crying once they came into view, and I shrank down in the seat, both because they were all waving stupidly at us and because Mom cried a lot that summer, and it had become clear I couldn’t do much other than let her hug my neck.
We got out. Grandpa came at us, and Mom collapsed into him, crying at a stronger pitch. He folded her in like the bear of a man he was, and he reached out with a mitt and pulled me in, too.
“We’ve been waiting,” he said.
“I know,” Mom said, her voice muffled by his overalls. “I don’t think I remembered how far out it is.”
Leo and Darlaine, having waited their turn, moved in, too. More hugs. More crying. Pinched cheeks on me, Darlaine’s doing, as she called me a beautiful boy. Torture. Sheer torture.
“Jeff,” Grandpa said, holding me at an arm’s length. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Well, you’ll need to do better than that.”
“Mom says you’ve got corn here I can eat,” I said.
“That we do.”
“Where?” I asked.
“Soon,” he said. “I’ll show you. What do you think of the place?”
I cast a look around, for his benefit. All of them—Mom, Grandpa, Leo, Darlaine—had a look like something major would be hinging on my answer.
“I’ve seen better,” I said. And then, deflation, right down the line.
Grandpa gripped me by the neck, a gesture that looked loving enough but had a little pinch to it. I’d been mouthy. I knew I’d best not be mouthy again.
“Well,” he said, “maybe that’s so. But someday you’ll lose a few things, and you’ll know better.”
Because part of the exercise involves sharing both the memory and how the imagination was applied to it, here's closing the circle:
The memory: Hayloft was a word that led just about everybody to a farm, in one way or another. A word like that spawns more similarities, even in a large group, than a word like, say, forgettable would. I thought of the farm my grandfather grew up on, which I saw only once, when I was a little boy. I grabbed the name of his younger brother, Leo, and Leo's wife, Darlaine, because it was easier than making up new names. But Leo and Darlaine weren't the proprietors of the farm back then. (That would have been Forrest, another brother, and his wife, Margaret.) Everything else is imagination ...
The imagination: Jeff's grandmother is conspicuous by her absence. My grandmother lived until 2017. Jeff's father isn't in the picture. Mine, both of mine, definitely were and are. I can't say I wasn't mouthy, or even that I don't remain mouthy, but I wasn't mouthy like that. I don't remember a hotel. Pretty sure we slept in campground barracks along with the rest of the out-of-town relatives that summer. Soon after that 1979 family reunion, we started losing people, which I'm sure is why it remains so firmly lodged in my mind.
And so it goes. Really cool, unexpected, interesting things happen when I do The Word. It's why I love it so.
If this were a streamlined operation—with a social-media team that optimized content for maximum impact—this post would be going up on the last day of the year or the first day of the next one.
But this ain't a streamlined operation. It's one guy in a basement office (sitting at a brand-new desk, though!) who has to work the swing shift on the last day of the year, so this is getting written now.
If something materially affects what I write hereafter—say, I win the lottery—I'm gonna be so disappointed.*
(*—No, I'm not. Send the checks to me directly. I'll be super happy.)
All right. Here we go: Looking back on 2022 and ahead to 2023, in categorical form for easy reading ...
Proudest moment (books)
Easy pick: Hearing the words And It Will Be a Beautiful Life called out as the 2022 High Plains Book Award winner in fiction.
There's a lot to unwrap here, so briefly: I was proud because I came home to Billings almost three years ago, and this was the first novel published (and so far the only, but more on that in a bit) since I reestablished myself here. The love I felt for and from my town that night, and really the entire time I've been back, was such a rush.
It had been 12 years since I won my first HPBA, when they were a much smaller-scale affair, and I was, and am, awed by the caliber of books that get that recognition these days. The HPBAs are, simply put, one of the preeminent regional literary awards out there. I'm honored that my book was found worthy of one.
I got a lovely note from a friend the day after the awards ceremony, asking if I ever thought I'd win another, after the 2010 Best First Book designation for 600 Hours of Edward. Quite truthfully, I did not. It would be audacious to think such a thing, anyway. It's all gratitude here, not swollen heads.
Proudest moment (work)
An imprecise classification, for sure (books are work), but how else to account for what most writers have to do to keep writing? I'm speaking here of holding down a job.
The thing is, a job—at least for me—can never just be something I do. On some level, it has to be something I am, which is why I've made my way since I was 18 years old as a journalist (initially and again), a pipeline safety worker (much to my surprise), and a freelance editor. All of these things have spoken to the pragmatic desire to pay the mortgage and feed the mouths, but they also have reflected what I really enjoy doing and a broad set of skills that I've accumulated over a long career.
I can't say much about this yet, but early in the new year, I'm changing careers. It's a line of endeavor that came into my life as a bit of a surprise, but I've both excelled at it and found myself feeling deep affinity for it, and in my experience that's the combination that leads to high job satisfaction and high performance. I can't wait to get started.
In the meantime, you may admire my reconstituted office. I'll be spending a lot of time here in the new year.
Scary moment that turned out OK
In July, Fretless the Dog and I bounded into the car and headed south to Colorado. My stepfather had taken ill on a vacation in the Denver area, and the doctors needed a bit to figure out what was wrong with him.
All turned out well. And I got a bonus visit with my folks and my nephew Asher. Plus this beautiful shot of the Wyoming sky near Casper as I drove through just before twilight.
Scarier moment that turned out OK
In December, just a few weeks ago, another medical emergency, another southerly drive, this time to Texas. My stepfather—a remarkably healthy man, but also almost 81 years old and subject to the rigors of the age—suffered the widowmaker heart attack and was one of the lucky few who survive it. Everything was in place for a successful outcome: nearby paramedics, a responsive ambulance, a quick-working team at the hospital, and a skilled cardiologist who was able to get him unblocked and home within a few days.
If you've read And It Will Be a Beautiful Life, you know that my main character, Max Wendt, also suffered a widowmaker and lived to tell the tale:
“Your left anterior descending artery. It was blocked.”
“And that’s why—”
“That’s why you collapsed, yes.”
The man’s matter-of-fact demeanor irritated Max. Another day at work for him. The biggest damn deal ever for me.
“So I’ve got a plugged ticker?” Max asked.
McFeely—Bradshaw!—looked surprised by the question. “Well, no. Not now.”
“Don’t you see?” he said. “You’re here. You survived. We’ve dealt with it.”
“A stent. You’ll be taking Plavix for a while, or maybe forever. Who knows? Not much damage to the muscle.”
“To prevent clotting.”
“You see, Mr. Wendt,” Bradshaw said now, drawing nearer the side of the bed, “the survival is the thing. Without that, the rest is…unnecessary.”
“Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”
“I guess not,” Max said.
The doctor knelt now, eye to eye with Max.
“The widowmaker. That’s what we call what happened to you.”
“Funny,” Max said. “I’m almost divorced.”
So, again, Fretless and I hit the road, a much longer trip this time. And coming back, we got caught in the jaws of a winter storm in Kansas (where we were stranded for a night in a motel straight out of 1978) and endured a bizarre same-day-care visit earlier that same day. (You really, really don't want to know, so all I'll say is that I didn't know that could happen or that it could bleed so much. BUT THAT'S IT!)
Again, all was well that ended well, and I got to tag a bonus visit with my family (and some dear friends, including my junior high basketball coach, Buddy Hamm, at left) onto the end of the year. But still: scary, scary.
Best I never saw that coming
What a treat to have a table read of my full-length play, Straight On to Stardust, performed by the troupe from Yellowstone Repertory Theatre at This House of Books in Billings.
It was a wonderful showcase, and I received some invaluable feedback on how to make it better. Still hoping for a full production. Fingers crossed.
Want to see the reading? Go here!
Best trip (overall)
It seems like a long time ago now, but Elisa and I went to Texas on vacation. It was a long time coming, as we emerged from the worst ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic (although one of us—nods at her—caught it about a month later) and grabbed some moments of normalcy. We saw the Dallas Mavericks play. We went to the coast. We saw family and friends. We needed it, every single moment.
The trip also included a swing out to New Mexico to say goodbye to a friend. I miss him, every day. We celebrated the man we love and mourned the one who left us too soon.
Best trip (with a dog)
Fretless and I took three trips together this year (four if you count the one above), and two of them were missions of medical need, so those don't count.
Our June trip to North Dakota—seriously, North Dakota—was a much-needed getaway for me and a reconnection with a job I used to do and was missing terribly. I was able to figure out what, exactly, I missed. (Hint: It was the travel. It is the travel. However much I'm doing, I need more.)
I'm grateful that I got to enjoy that time with my little buddy. At left, he scopes out the city park in Sidney, Montana, as we made our way home.
Best general gratitude
I alluded to this earlier, but nearly three years after I returned home, I feel as fully connected to my community as I ever felt in version 1.0 of living here. I know who has my back. I know whose backs I have. I have friends in abundance (and am making more all the time), I've repaired ruptures, I've been granted grace, and I've extended it.
I can't remember when I've looked forward to a coming year with such clear-minded hope. I'm not Pollyanna. I'm Craig. And for the first time in a long time, I'm totally cool with being that.
Thanks for being here. I mean that sincerely. And may the year that's coming see you through your hopes, your dreams, and your challenges and deliver love and memories.
As for 2023 ...
This being the blog of an active writer and all, yeah, I hope you'll enjoy the books I have coming down the pike for you. There are two of them: the paperback version of And It Will Be a Beautiful Life (same great story, less lethality if someone smites you with it), which is coming out in late April, and the hardcover release of my new novel, Dreaming Northward (please contrast the beautiful Monte Hurlbert painting on the cover with that shot of the Wyoming sky earlier in this post and marvel at the man's talent). The new one drops on May 9, and we'll have a launch party in Billings on May 13, so keep an eye on my events calendar for more details. You're invited.
I'll play you out with some praise for Dreaming Northward. So grateful to these fine writers for their endorsements:
“Sheer reading pleasure; at turns funny, heartbreaking, suspenseful, and cathartic.”--Jonathan Evison, bestselling author of Small World and Lawn Boy
“With Dreaming Northward, Lancaster taps his rich Texas roots of poverty, displacement, and tangled family troubles in the story of a man who road trips to Montana with nothing left to lose. ... Lancaster’s exquisite attention to his characters’ bad choices makes readers feel seen, chronicled by a tender biographer—even a little redeemed.”--Carrie La Seur, award-winning author of The Home Place and The Weight of an Infinite Sky
“Craig Lancaster gives us the eternal mystery of family and the tangled webs across generations, with a cast of disparate yet wholly realized characters whose various struggles, questions, fault lines and quiet triumphs quickly become our own. Poignant, big-hearted, and as always, beautifully rendered.”--Malcolm Brooks, author of Painted Horses and Cloudmaker
“There is something true and honest on every single page of this right hook of a novel. Craig Lancaster’s Dreaming Northward follows the entwined lives of people who’ve never known anything but hard times and who’ve never known the word quit.”--Giano Cromley, author of The Prince of Infinite Space and The Last Good Halloween
“‘Wyoming is a lonesome poem whispering through the past.’ Dreaming Northward combines superb storytelling and stellar writing—another winning novel from Craig Lancaster. Read this book!”--Cheryl Unruh, author of Gravedigger’s Daughter: Vignettes from a Small Kansas Town
Life has some funny cycles. As I write this, I'm just a handful of hours home from a couple of days in Great Falls, that visit coming on the heels of another Great Falls trip the previous week. Before that, I think the last time I was in Great Falls other than just passing through was ... 2010? 2011? A long time ago. I hope this means I'll be going back sooner rather than later. I like that town.
I was there to take part in a panel discussion of Montana authors, sponsored by the Great Falls Public Library as part of the Big River Ruckus festival. It was a blistering-hot morning, and my planet-sized melon sizzled. As is often the case for literary events, we didn't have a big crowd (I believe the applicable adjectives are "small" and "appreciative"), but we had good times in abundance. I joined poet Dave Caserio (a Billings denizen, like me) and writer Kristen Inbody, and we had a rollicking good time talking about writing in the West, ideas, how place figures into our writing, and much more.
Whenever I do an event, I'm put in mind of a line from a Pernice Brothers song: It doesn't matter if the crowd is thin / we sing to six the way we sing to ten ...
It's a funny line, of course, but the sentiment is dead-on. I've seen everything there is to see at readings, book signings, and the like: small gatherings, no gatherings, full houses, whatever. Whatever you get, you deliver as best you can to whoever was kind enough to show up. It's a charming business in that way. Every hand that's there to shake—or the only hand that's there to shake—is another chance to make a connection. And connections are everything. One person showed up? Great! Take that person out for dinner or a drink. The whole town showed up? Fantastic! Now you've got a party.
Love is love, and we love the stage ...
Before heading home Sunday, I drove out northwest of Great Falls to see the dairy farm my father grew up on. It was only the third time I've been there, and the second was just a drive-by, but I remembered the route just fine. I drove down the long driveway to where the house is, but nobody came out, and I wasn't about to go knocking on doors, so I took a quick look, then slipped out of there quietly.
Here's a nice shot from atop the bench, about a mile and a half from the farmhouse. Sorry for the telephone pole bisecting Square Butte.
When I talk about writing and where it comes from, as I did during our discussion Saturday, I'm apt to talk about how we are born with stories. We're not blank slates. Going to a place that was formative for my father (in mostly devastating ways, unfortunately) is a good demonstration of what I mean. It allows me to put eyes on his life, to process it, and to make sense of my own. Because of the way his life was shaped by his early experiences, he had a story to transfer to me, one that I would start to carry when I came into the world, along with the one I would live out in my own days. The same is true, of course, with my mother, and her parents, and his parents, and their parents before them, and on and on. The stories are inside us, already coded. We draw them out, interpret them, weave them with imagination and memory (in the case of fiction), give them purpose. It's a beautiful thing. Even when the underlying material is made up of mostly terrible things.
"Before you climb the mountain, first the foothills must appear."
It was a long, hot, empty drive home for Fretless and me. He mostly slept. I mostly sang along with the random shuffle of iTunes, something I can get away with when I'm alone. (I certainly wouldn't subject any human to my singing voice.)
On the final stretch home, I received a particular delight when iTunes served up one of my favorite songs but also one that doesn't often swim to the top of the heap. I suppose most songs remind us of something, someone or some point in time. Certainly, this one does that for me. There's a tinge of melancholy, though, because it's a reminder of a friendship I miss. It's been many years since it went by the wayside, and I've come to embrace something I was told a long time ago when I was seeing a counselor while in the midst of divorce: Some friendships are like cab rides. They have a beginning and an end. Indeed, they do.
Anyway, it was nice to hear the song at that moment, with my head where it was (reeling in other memories), to recall good times with someone who was a good friend, and to put out a silent wish: I hope the good life has found you where you are.
It certainly has found me. Coming home—to Billings, to Elisa, to Spatz the cat—is the best arrival I've ever known. It makes the leaving worthwhile.
Great Falls, Adequately
Come October 1st, it will be six years of marriage and about seven and a half years of togetherness for Elisa and me, and let me tell you: That's long enough that most of the stories have been told, mine to her and hers to me.
We scooted away for an overnight trip to Great Falls this week. I had an event at Cassiopeia Books and an overdue acquaintance to make with owner Millie Whalen, and it was nice that Elisa and I could get away, just the two of us, for a little while.
On the trip home, one of those untold stories spilled out ...
Great Falls is where a lot of my family lore resides—my father, born in Conrad, grew up around there, and he and my mother married there long before I showed up—but it's not somewhere I often go. In nearly sixteen years of living in Montana, I've been only a handful of times, far less often than I've been to Missoula or Bozeman or Livingston or Helena or, heck, Miles City or Glendive.
But in 1992, I almost moved there. That's the story that had gone untold.
Now, when I say "almost," some qualifiers are in order. I wanted to move to Great Falls (or thought I did). The sports editor at the Great Falls Tribune at the time, a wonderful guy named George Geise, wanted me to move to Great Falls. The man who could make it happen, a senior-level editor at the paper I'd just as soon not name (but whose name I've never forgotten), made it clear I wouldn't be welcome there.
The reason: I didn't have a college degree, and he didn't think I was qualified for the job without one. (I still don't have a sheepskin, but that's another story.)
Now, let's be clear: This guy was flat-out wrong. I could handle the job I'd applied for (sports copy editor/page designer). I was handling it at a paper of similar size in Texarkana, Texas, and I would go on to handle it at progressively larger, more prestigious papers. I would, in time, become well-decorated and well-traveled. I would lead workshops in editing. I would direct a large sports department at a large West Coast newspaper.
I would ... but I hadn't yet. Not in 1992. Then, I was a 22-year-old kid with some talent and, in fairness to the Executive Who Shall Not Be Named, some cockiness that was a bit out of proportion to the skills I'd honed to that point. And that imbalance, I think, would have been a perfectly valid reason for him to say, "Sorry, kid, not going to happen here."
But that's not what he said. He fixated on the degree I didn't have. I didn't get the job. George Geise was disappointed. So was I. There was personal history to unearth in Great Falls, and I was already well in love with Montana, an affair that goes on and on. I thought I was missing out on something important.
So, stuck for a while longer at a job in Texarkana I no longer wanted*, I made a resolution, one that has stuck for 30 years:
No way was a guy like that going to be right about me.
I made sure of it.
*—In Texarkana, the single most appalling moment of my journalism career, now more than three decades old, happened. When Magic Johnson rejoined the NBA after his HIV-positive diagnosis, I played the story big on the front page of the sports section (as did just about every paper in America). The next day, a copy of the page was in my mailbox, the story circled in red pen, along with a note from an executive at the paper: "Magic Johnson is an immoral HIV carrier, and none of our readers care about him." I should have quit on the spot. It's to my eternal chagrin that I did not. I did, however, start looking for a new job immediately.
Did I miss out on something by not finding my way to Great Falls in 1992? Well, yes. Something. But not everything, and not the most important things.
I didn't make it to Montana and stick here until 2006, when I was 36. Within a couple of years, I was writing books, something I'd have not even attempted 14 years earlier. By the time I got here, I'd already dug into the personal history that was faintly compelling me in my early 20s. I'd found my grandfather and closed an open question. I'd begun to talk to my dad about his life and his memories, so I could find ways to get closer to him. In subsequent years, I'd help, in whatever meager way I could, to put ghosts to rest.
The headstone pictured below on my grandmother's grave (in Great Falls) went in just 15-plus years ago, well after her death, as my father began to forgive her for the ways she'd wronged him, a thawing of feelings that came about because he and I started digging in the hard soil of his past.
On some level, I'm just guessing, but I doubt any of that would have happened the way it did if I'd shown up in Great Falls at the callow age of 22 and burned through that job the way I burned through others during that time in my life. Montana might have been over and done with before I could have gotten to know her. I might have missed the best years I've enjoyed here. The very best years of my life, as it turns out.
So far, anyway.
Who I Am. What I Do.*
*—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.
Like many people, I've come to loathe Facebook in as many ways as I find it an indispensable means of keeping up with close friends and loved ones. Perhaps it's the indispensability that I loathe most.
I also post things there deliberately, knowing that I'll be shown them again, year after year, so I can remember certain days with some degree of precision. Two years ago, March 30 was just such an occasion.
On this day in 2020, the moving trucks showed up at our house in Boothbay, Maine, and whisked away our stuff. By then, it wasn't even our house anymore; we had closed on its sale a few days earlier and were just extremely short-term renters.
We loved that house. We liked Maine. But neither love nor like was enough to hold us. That's old ground that needn't be gone over again.
What's hard to remember now, even two short years later, is just how frightening the whole thing was. The world had closed up. We had moving guys tromping through the house, and we—Elisa, me, the dog, the cat, my dad, his dog—kept our distance and hoped they weren't sick. Hoped we weren't sick. Wouldn't be entirely sure how to know if we were or they were. There was a lot of taking things on faith. There was a lot of handwashing and surface disinfecting. There was a lot of uncertainty about what awaited us on the road.
That first night, we stayed at a hotel in Portland. I, wearing rubber gloves and a paper mask, fetched dinner for everyone and brought it back to the two rooms (guys and dogs in one, woman and cat in another). Same drill for the subsequent nights, in Buffalo and Chicago and Minneapolis and Bismarck. We limited our points of contact. I did all the gassing up for the two cars, which were similarly subdivided with occupants. I wrangled all the meals, meeting Doordash and Uber Eats in hotel lobbies. In the East, where the pandemic initially hit hardest, we stared in wonder at empty turnpikes and rest stops. The farther west we drove, the more lax people seemed about what was happening. In Janesville, Wisconsin, I turned on my heel and left a store after seeing scores of unmasked people there. In North Dakota, a convenience store clerk poked fun at my mask. In Ohio, I asked a guy to move down a urinal, and he reacted with anger: "I'm not sick." "Fine," I said, "but maybe I am."
When we got to Billings, it was more of the same. We were diligent, about our hands and our faces and our surfaces. We were scared. We sequestered ourselves away for two weeks and hoped we wouldn't get sick. The unknown was a menace. We weren't alone in feeling that.
It's two years hence. We're just back from a two-week vacation. We saw loved ones. We hugged old friends. We gathered with thousands in a sports arena in downtown Dallas. We crowded into a banquet hall and said goodbye to a friend.
The pandemic remains with us, of course, but it's different now, too. We're vaxxed and boosted, and soon to be boosted again. In recent weeks, we've begun stepping out again. Our first sitdown meal in a restaurant happened a few weeks before we traveled to Texas. Our first evenings out to see plays (masked), too. We carry the vax cards and the masks, in case they're needed. I imagine I'll wear one forevermore in airplanes and on trains and in crowded supermarkets. I'm cool with that. It's not a burden.
We've been through two flu seasons now without the flu, a first for either of us. Credit the masks. Our doctor surely does. And yet, with the specter of omicron and whatever new variants might emerge, we worry about a scratchy throat or some mild congestion. Just the other day, we broke out a test for Elisa, who was feeling a little poorly. Negative. We've been lucky. No doubt about that. But we've also been diligent. We'll try to stay so, even as we dip further into what used to be normal life.
The point of all this? There is no point, really. Gratitude. Caution.
We've had a hard two years, all of us. We've lost people we shouldn't have lost. We've grown isolated and angry. We've missed things we shouldn't have missed.
May we find grace. May we offer it, too.
Let me tell you a little something about this boy …
As of tomorrow, January 25, he’ll be 3 years old. And because I’m nearly 52 and have learned how fast time seems to go, I have to check myself sometimes against pre-emptively mourning what will happen if the actuarial tables are true for both of us: I’ll have to say goodbye to him and let him go. Most of the time, I can get my head straight, tell myself to enjoy the time I have with him, but sometimes I get fixated not on the past, as is my wont, but on the future. This is one of those times, because he’s hit this milestone.
Contrary to the old saying, he's not my best friend. That is and always will be my wife, as she should be. But he’s my best buddy. I’ve lived to an age—and lived through a pandemic, so far—that has calcified my lack of interest in spending great scads of my time with other people. I’d rather stick to my house and my patterns and our tight little circle here, two people and a cat and a dog. I say again: He is my best buddy. He goes where I go. He hears my thoughts. I check in with him, and he checks in with me. We move around each other like an old married couple, which we're not, but it speaks to the familiarity.
So, anyway, three years ago …
It was Jan. 27, 2019, and Elisa and I were about to step into a movie theater in Brunswick, Maine. Before we did, I checked my email via phone. I had a message from Doxy Den in Mechanic Falls, a breeder (I know, I know—I wanted a dachshund, and this is not a mill; it's a family that loves their dogs):
“The puppies arrived on Friday! We had 5 boys! I have 3 black/tan long hair males available! There are pictures up on our Facebook page. Groot, Drax and Rocket are the puppies that are available. Rocket is tiny but strong and doing well. Groot has a little bit of white on his chin and the tips of his toes.”
I went to the Doxy Den Facebook page, looked at the pups, and made my choice: I’d take Groot (but not the name).
Over the weeks that followed, I watched him grow, from a distance. Because I had a trip back to Montana planned for March, I didn’t pick him up until April 9. He was the last of the five boys to go to his permanent home. The Doxy Den owner’s granddaughter cried because she had to give him up. I cried when I got him to the car on a wintry day, for the long drive home. I'd been waiting on him, and he was finally with me. He spent the better part of an hour and a half trying to crawl from his bed into my lap while I tried to drive. Finally, late in the trip home, he hit the wall (see below).
I’ve had many dachshunds, and I’ve loved them all. Just get me going on Sniffer and Mitzi and Zula and Bodie. I loved them equally, but they came to me at different times in my life, and thus their impacts have been different. Fretless’ importance to me has, perhaps, been a little outsized. My world has gotten smaller these past three years. He’s filling more of it than he might have in another time.
Fretless came to me at a time when we lived in a beautiful place that didn’t feel much like home, and we were still struggling with what to do about that. Fretless and I, almost immediately, began taking long walks in the woods, and he helped me make my peace with Maine. In hindsight, I can see how much I needed that.
Long may he be with me. We're not near done yet.
Back to the Fork in the Road
It's Sunday, September 19, and I'm on Interstate 25 in Casper, the nose of my car pointed north, toward home, a few hours away. I'm tired. My dog, Fretless, lies languidly in the passenger seat. He's had enough after a week away. So have I. Home, my wife, the cat—they all await. We have plenty of gas, had a bite to eat back in Douglas, fifty miles behind us. We have everything we need. The smart play is to get beyond this oil town and open up the cruise control a bit, see what this Toyota can do as we zip back into the emptiness of Wyoming and, eventually, get pulled into the embrace of Montana.
So, of course, I exit the interstate, pick my way through downtown Casper, find CY Avenue—I once called it, in a novel, "the spine of the Casper grid system," which may or may not be true—and follow its familiar path to where I turn off for Mills, a little town north of Casper, and as I do, the well-trod memories come at me again.
What I've come to see has been seen before, many times, and is likely to be seen many times yet, and if this particular side trip is taken as evidence that my life is in reruns, I will say only this in disputing that notion:
Context is important, in all things and especially in this: I find it instructive, or at least perspective-granting, to be reminded of the life I might have had so I can better appreciate the one I'm swimming through.
It's Friday, September 24, the day I'm writing this, and I'm reflecting on a spontaneous turn in a phone conversation with my mother this morning as we talked about other things. We talked, quite organically, about a decision she made for both of us in 1973, my third year. I was a capable kid, even at that age, blessed with an ability to carry on conversations with adults, but this matter was beyond my perception.
She didn't want to live in Mills, Wyoming, anymore. That was surely half of it. The other half was that she didn't want me to live in Mills, Wyoming, anymore. She looked at the present, our life with my father there and what it seemingly held for us, and she projected out her future and mine and didn't like where those lives seemed likely to end up, and she did something about it. She took us out of there, into life with a man she'd met that year, the brother of her best friend, a man who lived in Euless, Texas. Not that it's anyone's business, but they hadn't had an affair. They'd had a connection, a chance meeting at a party that turned into a deep conversation that blossomed into a friendship and has become a nearly 48-year marriage.
We talked about it this morning, Mom and I, this decision that with each passing year strikes me as more and more brave, more and more essential to both of us (and now to so many others—generations of others), more and more the line of demarcation, in strictly selfish terms for me, between where my life was pointed and where it ended up.
I can see now, when I'm more than two decades older than she was then, how much gumption it required for her to do what she did. She was alone there, much of the time. She was 28 years old, and while Dad might not have represented maturity or loving or grace (I love the man, but let's be honest about the limitations), our prospects there were much more certain than they were anywhere else. There was a home well on its way to being paid off, an ascendant business, money in the bank. It would have been all too easy to stay. Many people have stayed for less.
Mom saw the future and she left. I'll never receive a finer gift.
So, you see, Mills, Wyoming, is actually a bit player in this what-might-have-been contemplation. It wasn't Mills we were escaping so much as who was there and what our life was there. It could have happened in Moline or Schenectady or Topeka. Could have, but didn't.
This is, at its heart, a human story, a story of a boy with three parents who've imprinted him in wildly varying ways.
I love my father, a love that shines through my struggles to understand him and his to understand me. It's a love strong enough to withstand my suspicion that my start in life would have been less than it was had I finished my growing-up years in his house. The math of that situation is inconceivable to me, given the way it all went. It would have been Mom and me in some kind of alignment agaInst the gravity of the way he is, the work that was always taking him away from us, and the instability of the home we were living in. I'm certain Mom's decision all those years ago hurt him. I'm also certain, if Dad can access clarity and honesty, that he'd say it needed to happen. For all of us.
And what can a boy like me say about his mother that hasn't been said in better ways by better thinkers? She is pure love when it comes to her children and her children's children, but to leave it at that misses the fullness of who she is. At an age that seems to me, now, to be impossibly young, she was relentlessly wise. She had aspirations for herself (and has them still). To my ongoing gratitude, she could see a time coming when her son would have them, too.
In so doing, she brought me into the sphere of the man who became my stepfather. Back then, he was a 31-year-old sportswriter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a man who had his own broken first marriage, a son, and regrets. He also had a shared hope with Mom that they could make a go of it together. I can scarcely remember a time before his presence in my life, and he has never, not once, treated me as anything but his own. That has made all the difference.
I go back to Mills to remind myself that it could all have gone another way. Could have, but didn't.
So what do I make of Mills, all these years later?
I think it would be presumptuous of me to make anything of it beyond my sliver of experience there. It's steeped in nostalgia and memories and wonder. Its presence on the outskirts of my life has been a professional gift, surely (the old memory + imagination thing), as well as fodder for the occasional facile joke. (One could certainly quip about "welcome to Mills, please set your watch back 20 years" or wax irreverent about how hard the wind blows there.)
The thing is, I've lived enough places and known enough people to realize something important: Most anyplace can be home, depending on who's doing the inhabiting and what they bring to it. I suspect—but don't know for certain—that my life would have harder and less interesting had I grown up in Mills.
It's the not knowing, of course, that makes it such a delicious ponderable. So I go back, and I look around, and I try to imagine who that boy might have been, what kind of man he might have become, where he might have gone and what he might have seen.
And because Mom imagined something else entirely, way back in 1973, I can be ever grateful for the real story that lies alongside the conjecture.
Jon Ehret, My Brother
Not that we’re back in eighth grade or anything, but in the couple of days that this thing has been sitting on my head, wanting to come out through my fingertips even as I had no idea how I would start it or where I would end it or what I would put in the middle of it—and, Jesus, now I’m quoting Seger, what to leave in, what to leave out—I’ve been thinking about a decidedly eighth-grade question:
Who’s your best friend?
Is it your spouse, the person you spend the most time with, the person who hears and tolerates and rides out all the stupid shit you say, the person who’s in bed with you, who knows every embarrassing thing, who shares all the same things with you, who knows where the hurts and the hopes and the hesitations are? That would be a good answer, your spouse. In most considerations, yes, that’s absolutely the answer for me.
Or is it your work confidant? Your childhood friend who has somehow endured? The high school classmate you didn’t know then but are connected with now and cannot imagine not knowing and loving? Your college roomie? Is it your neighbor, the person in the pew every Sunday at church, the father of your kid’s best friend?
Or, maybe, is it someone who has rippled through your life, like a pebble sending slow-moving water rings to the shore? You had something going for a while, then life and distance intervened, then you picked it up and it was just as good as before—no, no, it was better—and then you set it down again, and then it came back one more time and it stuck for good. It has survived decades and losses and different cities and different sensibilities and different marriages and different jobs, and it’s the same thing it always was and it’s also something new, something evolving, something surprising and cherished. Couldn’t the person with whom you share all that be your best friend? Shouldn’t the person with whom you share all that be your best friend?
Jon Ehret was my best friend.
Jon Ehret is gone.
How am I supposed to do this without him?
Before I get into the various specific times and qualities and shared experiences that made Jon my friend, I need to answer broadly the question of why it worked for us, why we latched onto this friendship in the last decade of the previous century and saw it through for thirty years. No offense intended, but I don’t need to answer that question for you. The world can go on spinning if you don’t understand it, and while the world certainly will go on spinning if I don’t answer for me, here’s the deal: In hindsight, I can see it, all of it, what we shared and why it mattered and why it stuck. And hindsight is all I have, now. The drive Elisa and I never made to see him and Laura in their new house in Santa Fe, that’s not happening. His invitation for me to head down and meet him in Utah, where he was picking up a rescue bird (there will be more on this), the one I turned aside with “damn, my work schedule” and “invite me on the next one”—there won’t be a next one, and thus there will be no invitation. The last time I was in Buffalo, N.Y., his hometown (there will certainly be more on this), and invited him to fly out and he turned me aside with “damn, I’ll be at a wedding in Texas.” Yeah, that’s not happening, either.
It’s all hindsight and memories and smart-ass ripostes on Facebook and a text thread on my phone that I will never erase, in hopes that I can someday bear to look at it again.
That’s all there is.
So here’s why it happened and why it mattered and why it stuck, and if this is too abstract, you’ll just have to trust me: Jon and I were the same but different, and this is the second time in a week I’ve used those words to describe the way I’m hard-bonded to someone. And because those bonds were so difficult for each of us to find with other people—there’s nothing like the unexpected death of your best friend to serve as a reminder that you make friends broadly but struggle to hold on to them deeply—we held tight to the fact that we found them with each other.
I think we always knew what it was, but we took a long time to acknowledge it with a nod and longer still to say it and put wind under the words. We did, though. For that, I’m grateful. I have that, too, and so does he, wherever he’s off to.
So, look, I should hope it doesn’t happen to you, but maybe it already has, and the longer you live, the greater the likelihood that it someday will. Your phone rings one bright day, and it’s Laura, and you know it when you hear her voice, because although you’ve known her for as long as you’ve known him, and you love her as much as you love him, he’s still the conduit by which the whole thing goes, and if she’s calling, that must mean Jon cannot, and so here it comes.
This all occurs to you in a whisper of a fraction of a second. It’s fucking insane how fast and final it all is.
Jon died at work, at the bird rescue center in New Mexico where he had found purpose in semi-retirement. He was in his joy, and then he was gone before his coworkers found him. Fifty-five years old. Heart attack, it would seem. No warning, no chance at intervention and another outcome. Gone. I spent the better part of a decade flat-out ignoring a condition that I knew would kill me if I let it. Jon had a lovely day with his wife, then went off to his birds, and never came home.
We’re the same but different.
Laura tells you all this, and you remember another phone call, 1993, Owensboro, Kentucky, to Buffalo, New York, and you were the one piercing the bright day and saying our friend, Brian, he’s dead, and Jon says, “Why?” And you realize that’s one hell of a good question, then and now, because it’s the only question you have:
Nobody fucking knows why.
And you bounce to another memory, Brian and Jon at the center of it, where you’re at work as a sports clerk at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, couldn’t have been later than fall of 1991, and you’re making fun of your boss’ phone manner, because you’re 21 and a smartass, and you pick up a dead phone and say, “Staaaaar-TelegramsportsthisisEd,” because that’s how Ed says it, and all the editors on the desk are laughing, because you’re one funny sumbitch, and you don’t see Ed behind you and he says, “That’s pretty good. Good skill for your next job.”
And here’s Brian: “I just got a warm feeling.”
And here’s Jon: “That’s not a warm feeling. That’s Lancaster pissing himself.”
And here you are, missing them.
We met at the Star-Telegram. Jon was 24, and I was 20. He had a master’s degree from the University of Missouri in hand, and I was steadily on my way to bombing out of college for good.
The same but different.
He liked The Who and King Crimson. I liked Paul McCartney and R.E.M. I was making plans to move to Alaska (for the first time), and he thought that was the coolest thing in the world. I thought he was the smartest guy I knew, a brilliant layout man (we drew them in those days, kids) and someone worthy of emulation. We were big, lumbering guys, often more comfortable in our interior lives than we were on the outside. I covered up with a sort of zany bearing and kept a lot of my deeper thoughts to myself. Jon balanced anger and the most generous heart I've ever known.
The same but different.
Later, the connections went deeper. A weekend with the Ehrets after he and Laura moved to Buffalo, a day trip to Niagara Falls, an introduction to Newcastle Brown Ale, before it went all corporate. A snowy night, the last of the trip, when we ordered in and he urged me to get a cheeseburger sub and when I hesitated, he was all, “Man, it’s a cheeseburger on better bread. What’s the problem?” No problem at all. Delicious. And while we had surely eaten meals together before then, in my memories that’s the line of demarcation where shared food experiences became part of the deal: Jak’s in West Seattle, barbecue in Texas, seafood in Damariscotta, a legendary birthday meal at Walkers here in Billings on a minus-12-degree day, his urging me toward Ted’s Hot Dogs and Duff's in Buffalo, and my going to both, every time I'm there, even though we were never again there together, now much to my eternal regret.
“Buffalo is a great fatboy town.” I say it. I live it.
Jon said it first.
In 1996, I decided, after some consideration, to seek out my birthmother. I told Jon what I was doing, because I knew Jon would have both an appreciation and a point of view, as an adoptee himself. He didn’t tell me not to, but he presented every you-oughtta-be-careful-here he could think of. He said he couldn’t imagine doing it.
I did it anyway.
Many years later, when he could imagine such a thing, I could give him some on-the-ground intel. I could validate the things he got right, contradict the ones he got wrong, and throw up flags around the ones neither of us thought of.
He did it anyway.
And, our being the same but different, we had more to talk about, in conversations that had the width and breadth and depth of galaxies. The kind we had so much difficulty having with other people and yet never had trouble getting into together.
Another night of spotty sleep draws near, so let me just wrap it up this way:
I have four brothers in a family line that looks like a tangle of kudzu more than it does a tree. There’s the brother I inherited when my mother and my stepfather got together. We lost him four years ago. There’s another who was born to that union. And there are two half-brothers who came with the search for my birthmother, the one I pressed forward with despite Jon’s admonitions, just as he pressed forward later with his own quest and his own questions. Neither of us, I think, would turn aside the decision we made after it was done.
The same but different.
Then there’s the fifth brother, the one I chose, and the one who chose me. I know he’s my brother because he told me so, and because I told him so, and because he was the kind of guy who didn’t use words he didn’t intend, and he told me these a long time ago:
If you ever need anything at all, you tell me, OK?
I took him up on it, too, in ways that seemed picayune at the time and register even more inconsequentially now. I was lucky, I guess. I never needed anything substantial and life-changing. A kidney. A roof over my head. A slayer of the wolves at the door. You know, the biggies.
He filled mine. He broke it, too, just the other day. I’ll patch it up. He lives there now.
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.
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