So, before I go off on a burst of happiness, I should do this: In the interest of consistency and intellectual rigor, I must adhere to my basic sense that happiness, as an emotional state of being, is highly overrated. It's too reliant on current circumstance to be trustworthy, and the factors that spur it—good news, fortuitous coincidences, pure serendipity, and the like—are too transient to be relied upon. My aim in saying this isn't to knock happiness—if you have it, brother or sister, be thankful for it and keep it as long as you're able—so much as it is to cast a vote for its more durable cousin, fulfillment. If you're fulfilled in where you are, whom you're with, what you're doing, where you're headed, you have something to hold tight to when the transience of happiness is with you and when it's against you. That's my theory, anyway.
That said, I'm pretty (burbly-happy curse word) happy these days. Let me count the reasons ...
1. One night in Big Sky
I'm just back from Big Sky, about three hours from where I live. The board of the Big Sky Community Library chose And It Will Be a Beautiful Life as the community read (One Book Big Sky) for the fall. Tuesday night was sort of the capstone of the event. I drove out, had a wonderful chat with folks who read the book, spent the night, and came home.
It was a soul restorer in all the best ways. When writers and writers gather, it can be a lovely thing (see below), but it can also be a release of the pent-up frustration that only writers know and thus are in position to help each other through. When readers and writers gather, it's straight-up love. How lucky was I to spend an evening with a bunch of people who read my book, read it closely, had such interesting things to say about it, and wanted to come talk with me? The luckiest. No doubt about it.
I rode those good feelings all the way home. The drive from Big Sky to Bozeman is one of the most visually arresting things you can see anywhere in these United States, so there's that, and believe me, I drank it in (figuratively). I made stops at libraries in Bozeman, Livingston, Big Timber, and Columbus, planting seeds for more days and nights like the one I'd just enjoyed. Here's hoping.
2. The blessings of good friends
I think I'm only just now getting my considerable arms around how emotionally bereft the pandemic has left me (and so many other people, judging from what I'm reading and what I'm hearing). Honestly, I thought being chased inside and away from gatherings was a small blessing amid a horrible event, but it wasn't that at all. Now that I can see and meet the people I want to see and meet—while still being careful, of course—I'm realizing how much I craved it.
Just in these past few weeks, I've gotten to hang in Butte, Missoula (thank you, Gwen Florio and Malcolm Brooks), Livingston (thank you, Amy Zanoni and Maggie Anderson), Bozeman (thank you, Betsy Gaines Quammen and Kryssa Marie Bowman), and Big Sky. I've had the fellowship of brilliant writers and thinkers, genuinely good people, and people who lovingly tend to the cultural life writ large. Man. I've needed that so much. So much. Happy? Yeah, I'm happy. But grateful most of all.
3. The work is going well
OK, look, here's where I keep it honest: If my publisher had said, sorry, kid, but your manuscript stinks and I'd received a lot of hate mail and my dog was snubbing me, would I be Mr. Happy? I would not. This, of course, underscores my point about fulfillment vs. happiness. I work to a standard I set so I can know I've done my best regardless of what a gatekeeper says (or, at least, so I'll have the gumption to try again if I find the door closed). I try to approach the world with an open heart because I believe that's how we get past at least some of our divisions. I engage with my dog so he knows I'm his, and he's mine. That's fulfillment. The happiness of it comes and goes.
But I can't deny that I'm really, really enjoying every side of the work right now: The creation of it, when it's just me and an idea and the challenge of getting from here to there. The production of it, where I interact with the publisher I wanted to be with and who wants my work on his list. The carrying it to readers and interacting with them, which can be such an incredible validation of the work put in. The awards, both realized and potential (talk about transience). I'm as energized for all of it, the whole arc, as I've ever been.
In Missoula, while waiting to eat lunch, I happened upon a meeting with a well-regarded poet and fiction writer and a genuinely good human. I don't know him well, but I like him, and even so, in the worst of my do-I-want-this-anymore crisis a few years ago, I deleted him (and a whole lot of other writers) from my social contacts, in a clumsy, flailing attempt at ridding myself of reminders of an endeavor I wasn't sure I wanted anymore. So there I was in Missoula, nonexistent hat in hand, apologizing for something I'm sure he didn't even notice, telling him I was in a dark place. He was kind and compassionate, as I expected he would be. I still appreciate the grace. I hope, the next time I'm on the other side of that conversation, I extend it to someone who needs it.
I'd like to think I've learned something. Certainly, I appreciate that the want-to came back to me, and I'm going to nurture it as much as I can. But what happens when rejection arrives (as it surely will), or awards don't (ditto)?
I don't know. I'll try to remember now and then and remind myself that I can be in both places. Just not at the same time.
3b. That was a lot. Here's an anecdote.
So I'm driving home from Big Sky and I'm talking on the phone—hands-free—with Elisa and I'm saying much of what I said above, only differently, and I'm telling her how energized I am, and I'm hearing how energized she is, and we come around to You, Me & Mr. Blue Sky. It's the novel—a romantic comedy that goes deeper, as Elisa's work does—she and I wrote together in 2018 and 2019. We released it ourselves ... and pretty much let it flop around out there. Our crises of confidence coincided. Those were hard, broken days. We had no energy for much of anything, and certainly not for getting out and trying to introduce a book to the world. We were too adrift in our personal lives to have the fire for the professional. Frankly, there were times I wasn't sure we'd make it.
But we did, and we have, and we're going to. Elisa is back, too, and she said, you know what, we should put a new jacket on that old novel we never really got behind. Freshen it up. It's a story of brightness and hope, and it has this dreary cover that doesn't fit it. Let's give it some love.
OK, she didn't say that exactly, but that was the gist.
And here it is, dressed to meet the readers we hoped it would meet.
Elisa didn't join me in Big Sky because our cat, Spatz, has been ailing. The most recent health issue was one that had a small sliver of hope for resolution and a rather wide, grim likelihood in terms of what we'd have to do. I had an appointment I had to keep, and Elisa decided to stay behind and tend to our girl.
And our girl, not for the first time, has proved resilient. Her issue has resolved itself—or, at the very least, has recessed into a place where she's her old self again for however long that lasts. She was a surprise when she came into our lives, and we've resolved to enjoy her for as long as we have her. That horizon, delightfully, has widened. We're thrilled.
As Elisa is given to saying, she's our Rushmore, Max.
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.
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.
Elisa and I are just back from a two-week vacation, one spent doing all the things one should do when granted such a release from ordinary life. We saw our favorite basketball team (a loss, but whatever), we ate good food, we hugged loved ones and old friends, and we explored a bit of the Texas coast. A damn good time.
And then, to finish it off, we headed to Santa Fe and said goodbye to Jon Ehret. Somehow, the world has kept on spinning since he left us on Aug. 21, 2021. He's often on my mind, always in my heart, and badly missed by everyone who grew to love him. On a late-March day in New Mexico, we raised a toast. It was beautiful. He was beautiful. And it made me wish, again, that he could have been at the table with us, noshing on good food and reveling in good memories.
I met Jon when I was 20 years old. I lost him when I was 51. We packed a lot into those 30-plus years. Just not enough. It would have never been enough.
Saying goodbye, though painful, was a gift. His celebration of life brought out two men I knew at a crucial point—at the same point, roughly, that I met Jon—when I was a youngster who needed some direction and role models in a career I'd chosen but didn't quite know how to get myself into. In 1990 and 1991, I was working as an agate* clerk in the sports department of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Jon, just out of grad school, was an editor on the sports desk, particularly gifted at page design, the discipline I fancied for myself and yet had never really done**. Frank Christlieb was a copy editor on that desk. Steve Waggoner was a copy editor and layout man. All three of them were heroes to me, along with an entire crew I can still mostly name, all these years later. Hille and Ed and Darrell and Dano and Doug (RIP) and Bullet and Sven and Lisa and Susan and Joe Mac and Joe and Coach and Tod (also RIP) and Brian (yet another RIP) and even my stepfather, Charles Clines, though we never made much of our connection while at work; we were too circumspect for that.
So, there I am, Saturday afternoon, waiting outside the venue where we're to say our goodbyes to Jon (dammit, I still cannot believe it), and Frank is the first one I see. It's been upward of 30 years since we've lain eyes on each other, but thanks to social media, it's instant recognition and a hug. Waggoner comes, too, and it's the same thing. Thirty years gone, but time, for a few moments anyway, has stood still and let us greet each other. Ana, his wife, same thing. She was there all those years ago at the Star-Telegram, and she was there Saturday, and it was nothing short of wonderful to see all of them.
And it was the next day, on the first leg of a two-session drive home to Montana, that I realized how Jon had blessed me with another gift. I got to hang out with those folks, to hear their stories and to tell mine, and maybe to impart in some way how much I was affected by being around them when I was a little pissant editorial scrub. Not because they condescended to me (they did not) or because they were especially nurturing (they sometimes were, but they had jobs to do that didn't involve nursing me along), but because they provided an example: Here's how the work is done, here's how you take it seriously, here's the difference between being diligent and being lazy, and here's what it looks like when you've done well. I carried that stuff with me to other states and other newspapers and other jobs***, right up until 2013, when I left the print business. I hucked those lessons onto my shoulders when I resumed my career as a journalist****. I was lucky, indeed, to have such role models at such an age.
And we were all lucky to have a friend like Jon.
As for the celebration of life itself, it was bittersweet, as such things tend to be. Jon was well loved by many, and they came out to toast him. Elisa has a really nice remembrance of him at her blog. You should read that. I gave one of the eulogies, which I'll mostly leave to the air that carried it, but there's one part, at the end, that I need to remember for the next loss that takes me to my knees. You live long enough, and they come:
I could rage against the fates that took him so young—when he had a son to see deeper into life, and a wife who loves him so and with whom he made common cause, and birds to tend to, and veterans to honor, and talents yet to be mined and developed, and chicken wings yet to debone.
And yet, I don’t. I’m not angry at the universe for calling him back to stardust, no matter how unfair the timing might seem. How could I be angry, when it’s the universe that gave him to us in the first place? He is my brother. He has been that since the first day he and I looked at each other and mutually acknowledged, yeah, OK, I’ll take a few spins with this wacky bastard. That was our call, our decision, and the vagaries of life and loss have no say in it.
Jon's still here. He's not accessible in the way that I would prefer, but he's with us. And we are with him. Always.
* — Agate, dears, is the small type you see in newspaper box scores and the like. At a major metro paper like the Star-Telegram in the early '90s, it was a full-time job to compile agate, set it, take call-ins over the phone, make a dinner run for the editors, etc.
** — I ended up winning some nice page design awards in my newspaper career, and I've done the design work on an esteemed quarterly magazine for nine years now. It's nice when aspiration meets opportunity.
*** — I went into all that in a Substack post.
**** — See this.
Hello, 2022 ... and all of you here to see it. It's been a trip, huh?
Just before Christmas, in a final furious week of drafting, I finished the first pass at a new novel, which I'm calling Dreaming Northward. It is, as I expected given the brisk pace of my finishing kick, both a fully satisfying arc and a manuscript that needs a lot (A LOT) of work. That's how these things go, at least for me. I write them to see I can get from here to there, then I spend a lot of time cogitating on what I've done, then I rewrite to more fully expose the story I think I'm trying to tell, then I revise, revise, revise to really hone whatever it is that I have. (Followed, of course, by even more editing if—knock wood—the thing gets published, followed then by a beautiful, finished book that I immediately wish I could have another crack at.)
Anyway, I hope to share it with you ... sometime. Probably 2023. We'll see. A lot left to do.
I mention this because my friend Jeff Deck reminded me of something on Facebook today. Here are Jeff's words, which are much more eloquent than mine:
I'm Random Penguin House author Jeff Deck, and I have an important message for you today:
Getting published by a major house will not make you rich.
It will not pay your mortgage. It will not clear up your skin. It will not get rid of those love handles.
It will not make you a bunch of friends, nor will it get you laid. It will not make your distant parent say they're proud of you.
It won't relieve you of the onus (and cost) of marketing your book yourself, either.
What it will do is get your book into physical bookstores. And potentially improve your chances of getting a second book traditionally published. But mostly it's the distribution thing.
Many people fix their eye — and their hopes, and their self-validation — on getting published by a major house. My wish for you is to recognize the value in your work no matter how it ends up being published, whether via the Big Five (Big Four?), a mid-size or small press, or self-publishing.
Recognize the value in it BEFORE it's published, too. The work you put into your story is real. The time you spent improving your own skills along the way should be recognized, and celebrated.
Goals are important for motivation. But you are "worthy" *right now*. And you will continue to be worthy every step of the way.
Writing is a long journey, even (especially) after publication. No matter which publishing route you choose. Belief in your own value — and a daily celebration of your own work and words — will sustain you along the way.
Every word is absolutely true, by the way. I often tell folks that they should celebrate having done the work as much as they celebrate anything that flows from that work. Sometimes, they think I'm bullshitting them. I'm not. The work is sustaining. The rest is ... the rest.
Received some lovely news yesterday. And It Will Be a Beautiful Life was the bestselling book for 2021 at my local independent bookstore, This House of Books. I'm grateful to the bookstore—where I'm a proud member-owner (it's a co-op)—for being such a wonderful supporter of not just my work but of the many, many fine regional writers who are doing such important work here. And I'm grateful to the folks, near and far, who bought a copy from THoB and kept the oxygen flowing to an independent bookstore. The cultural life in my town is much the richer for its presence.
If you'd like a signed copy of the book, THoB will be happy to fulfill that desire. Simply order online and mention in the comment field that you'd like it signed, and I'll hop into my trusty blue Toyota, drive downtown and sign it for you.
And, hey, if it's a paperback you want, I have good news:
The paperback version releases in May, and you can preorder through THoB (I'll be happy to sign those, too, once they come in), through your local independent bookseller (please!) or wherever you get books.
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.
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.
My friend Caroline Patterson has a new novel coming out Sept. 15. It's titled The Stone Sister, and it promises to be an absorbing, fascinating read. It's getting some fantastic endorsements from the likes of Ann Patchett, Annick Smith, and Kim Zupan.
Here's a book trailer:
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.
... and into the rest of the story, or at least more of it.
I've been on the masthead of Montana Quarterly for the better part of a decade now. But back in 2010, when I had one novel to my name and not much else in the way of published literary work, I was just a guy pitching an essay to Megan Regnerus, then the magazine's editor and now our beloved editor emeritus.
I called it The Small Things, and it was written after my father, Ron, and my Uncle Bob Witte (RIP) ventured out to the Fairfield Bench, near Great Falls, and found the dairy farm that shaped Dad's young life in some pretty horrible ways. I won't say much else here; you can read the piece for yourself, and I hope you will, because it provides a good anchoring for some discoveries I recently made while digging through archives. Long story short: I've always wondered about some of the details my father told me that day on the bench, not because I thought him dishonest about the general gist of things, but because he was 71 years old (he's 82 now), and that's a lot of time for the finer points to get lost.
But he hadn't lost them. Not really.
Let's dig in ...
From the piece: "I’d heard, or maybe I’d assumed, that my paternal grandfather, Fred, had walked out on the family when Dad was two or three years old. But here was Bob, telling me that it had been a proper divorce and that Dad’s mother had rejected the children."
The archives say ... Pretty much dead-on, if Fred's account of it is to be believed. He sought the divorce. He also tried to get the children (Dad, his older brother Duaine, his older sister Dolores).
From the piece: "When Fred showed up to get Dad a week later, Dick locked the little boy in the basement and met Fred at the road. He carried a shotgun, all the better to send Fred on his way. Three children could accomplish a hell of a lot more work than two, and Dick aimed to keep Dad close, be it with a gun or a fist or a horse whip."
The archives say ... Nothing I found speaks directly to this episode. Still, I'm not about to contradict Dad; he remembers it, he's shaken by it all these years later, and trauma has a way of imprinting itself immutably. What I know for sure is that Fred and Della and the man who became her new husband, Richard Mader, had confrontations. Here's the evidence:
I've saved the best one for last. The remembrance of my father that was shrouded in the most mystery was where he went and what he did when he finally ran away from Richard Mader's dairy farm for good. Dad's memory is that he went to work for a farming family near Three Forks. I had no reason to disbelieve him, of course, but Three Forks is a fair distance from Fairfield. I wondered how he got there and whether he might have actually ended up somewhere else, somewhere closer, and just lost the place to the intervening years.
From the piece: "After a few weeks, he ended up on a farm in Three Forks, doing odd jobs and being attended to by a kind family that kept him shielded from Dick, who was still looking for him. After a year or two, Dad told the farmer that he would like to see his father again, and the man agreed to find Fred and take Dad to him. A few weeks later, word came: Fred was in Butte.
"More than fifty years later, Dad’s voice broke and his eyes floated in tears as he revealed what happened next. They were the only emotions he betrayed in telling the story.
“'The farmer told me, "I’ll drive you to Butte and once you’re there, I’ll put you in a cab and follow you to your father’s house. Once I see that he’s come out to get you, I’m gone." '
"In a singular act, that Three Forks farmer, whose name has been lost to the intervening years, did for Dad what no one else could be troubled to do: He acted in the best interest of the child."
The archives say ... Well, just have a look from a newspaper's "persons sought" column:
Getting at the details of my father's life has been a driving pursuit for many of my own days. Part of it is that I'm his only child, and if there's a story to be salvaged, it's up to me to mine it and tell it. And part of it is that I'm so heartbroken for the boy he once was, a clearly smart youngster who was denied so many of the blessings of his age, who was brutalized and stunted and who has persevered despite it all. I know how violence cycles from generation to generation, and I also know that the man I call Dad has refused to spin it on into me. It's the great achievement of his life, and he probably doesn't even know it. I want to drag the shit that happened to him into the light, the best disinfectant for what was visited upon him.
He's not a hero. He is, in fact, a deeply flawed man (as is his son, as was his own father—there's more to that story, for another time).
But he's my dad, and I love him.
Addendum: There's an earlier piece, originally published by the San Jose Mercury News in 2004, that focuses more on finding out what became of Fred after Dad reunited with him in the mid-1950s. That was the last time father and son saw each other. Dad went into the Navy, and Fred went ... well, that's the interesting thing. You can read about that here.
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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