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.
Dispatches from the staying-in-touch department ...
Will the pig run again?
I've written before about my occasional life in pipeline inspection — an association that inspired an entire novel — and had been looking forward to getting out there again in the spring, after the usual wintertime slowdown. Well, maybe, but also looking like probably not. The company for which I did work recently shuttered, and there's an industrywide slowdown, so I may be on the obsolescence end of progress (or regress).
I can't say I'm particularly heartbroken. Pipelines are a destructive, invasive way of delivering extractive sources of energy, and for the future of the planet, it's high time we develop alternatives that are well within our grasp but beyond our political will. On the other hand, there's a practical consideration: We already have the damn things, and we're using them. The job I did was essential to the safety end of matters. Let's hope that continues until we can pull those things out of the ground and return the land to those from whom it was stolen.
I will miss the travel to exotic (read: remote) locales and the chance to meet people in their natural habitat. But that can be enjoined in other ways, obviously.
I recently did something I should have done a long, long time ago: I joined the Authors Guild.
So here's where I cop to self-interest: I began to consider the possibility earlier this year when, quite apart from any involvement from me, my former agency descended into founder-vs.-founder contretemps and my meager royalties from long-ago books started showing up late or not at all. My former agent, also caught in the crossfire as her old shop melted down, was a champion and an ardent defender of my rights, it should be pointed out, and she got my situation squared away, for which I'm eternally grateful. But it occurred to me—again, when my self-interest was compromised, an entirely human condition that I'm trying to rise above—that in this whole solitary business, you have to grab a little solidarity where you can get it and stand strong with those who do what you do.
I'm also reminded of something wise I once heard said by A.W. Gray, a well-regarded crime novelist but better known to me as the father of my boyhood best friend: "The people who need unions the most are those who don't have them."
The rustling around of some of my writer friends tells me November is coming, and that means National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). And sure as the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano, someone (or several someones) in my circles will openly disdain the whole exercise.
If I wished to be casually dismissive of someone's point of view—to suggest that they haven't legitimately arrived at their thinking—I could certainly do that, but I think not hearing each other has caused us enough problems. My own view is that a communal writing experience, in which thousands upon thousands of people set aside some time and try to create something, is very much a good thing. Perhaps the attendant expectations often get wacky—no, you're probably not going to write a finished novel in a month, and no, laying down 50,000 words and "winning" NaNoWriMo doesn't ensure publication, and no, the act of drafting is not what it's all about—but the expectations aren't the toil or the making of art. You want to spend November trying to pull a novel out of yourself? Bully! Do it!
I won't join you, though, for reasons I'll get into below. And my getting into them might just illuminate what a NaNoWriMo participant can expect from the experience. On the other hand, what do I know and who am I to say? Well ...
1. I've Been There and Done That
In 2008, prompted by my friend Jim Thomsen, I committed myself to a month of writing and had what has turned out to be a dream trip. I drafted my first novel, what eventually became 600 Hours of Edward, in those 30 days. (Actually, it was 25. No, no, wait, it was 17 on account of the off-days; see the breakdown below.)
This, a bit regretfully for me, has become a sort of boilerplate in any account of my subsequent fiction-writing career. It shows up in reviews, gets asked in interviews, etc.: Here's the guy who wrote his first novel in 25 days and got it published and it eventually became an international bestseller and it's just that easy!
It's not just that easy. I've written nine books since then, not a one of them as commercially successful as the first, all of them better pieces of writing (in my estimation), and I've come to view what happened in November 2008 as a one-off, a writing project never to be replicated by me in quite that way again. I had an idea, I gave in to the mania of writing it as quickly as I could because of the format, and I had the good fortune of writing something that has connected more broadly than anything I'd written before or am likely to write again.
I'll take the win and say I've already played the game.
2. For Me, It's About Not Writing as Much as It is About Writing
NaNoWriMo's pitch to prospective participants is pretty irresistible: They say we all have a novel inside us. Commit yourself to finding out.
As far as it goes, a fine idea. And every November, people find their people, fellow writers who are trying to meet the challenge. There are supportive text exchanges and writing get-togethers and coffee klatches, and these are all wonderful things. Writing can be such a solitary, doubt-filled endeavor. NaNoWriMo brings community to the fore.
The thing is, writing novels has helped me learn to embrace the solitude. It's also made me realize that some of the best work I do happens when I'm not at the keyboard, pushing my word count ever higher. It's in the quiet consideration of things, reflecting on the characters and worlds I'm trying to create. It's in feeling the rhythm of the world around me and participating in it. It's in letting the well refill.
All of which is to say that ginning myself up for a writing dash in November is far less important to me than listening inward and doing the things I need to do to stay engaged with my work and with the larger life I have that supports it.
3. The Whole Word-Count Thing
OK, look, I get it: NaNoWriMo is selling "get that novel out," so there has to be an attendant metric by which you measure how successful you were in meeting the challenge.
Word count is just so lacking in so many ways because it puts the wrong objective forward. I can't speak for professional writers who disdain NaNoWriMo—by now, I should be on record as very much pro-the-spirit-of-NaNoWriMo-if-not-necessarily-the-way-it's-sometimes-applied. But many people who've spent a lifetime developing craft, absorbing rejection, trying again, getting better, breaking through will view word count as one of the least important things they do, far less vital than getting the arc right (which will, by its nature, produce the words), clarifying theme, achieving empathy, sharpening the prose, etc. That NaNoWriMo considers 50,000 words success can just feel a little thin when you know just how hard it is to write something worth publishing.
For what it's worth, here's how my word counts proceeded in 2008 (first number is the cumulative total, and the parenthetical is that day's work):
I look at those totals now and feel sheepish that I felt compelled to keep the record and to commemorate it. Why? It wasn't the total that was driving me; it wasn't the prospect of "winning" NaNoWriMo so I'd have a cool pixelated badge I could post here 13 years later. I wrote like mad because I had inspiration on the hook, and having never written a novel previously, I didn't trust myself to let it come to me in a more moderated way. I cannot conceive of an 8,000-word writing day now. I'd probably collapse if I tried it.
But here's the truth: I'm no less excited about my current project than I was about the book that became 600 Hours. I just don't feel the need to sprint. Thus, NaNoWriMo's appeal is lessened.
4. So What To Do?
This ain't a hard question. Do NaNoWriMo, if that's what you're jazzed about doing. Don't if you're not.
Whatever the choice, I'd urge reconsideration of what success is, in literary terms. Success is writing that story, in whatever way you do it and in whatever time it requires. That's it. It's a singular success that stands alone from getting an agent, getting a publishing contract, seeing your story in print, selling a hundred gajillion copies. Success is doing the work. Period. Full stop.
My buddy Jonathan Evison, one of the most talented and generous writers I know, wrote some number of novels and buried them in his backyard long before he broke through to publication. They weren't wasted effort; indeed, Johnny would tell you that work was foundational to everything he does today.
The man speaks the truth.
Several years ago, I would rope my Facebook friends into this weekly crowdsourced writing project called "The Word." The exercise was not my invention. I lifted it from Janet Fitch after I'd read something from her about it, and it quickly became something I did both on my own time and on those rare occasions when I would lead a writing workshop.
It's such a simple concept, full of creative potential: You solicit a single word, then proceed like so: That word inspires a short story that you're to write in a nominal amount of time (say, an hour), and the resulting story must include the word. It's so much fun to give a single word to a large group of writers—say, for example, a group of inmates at the Oregon State Prison, where I led a workshop several years ago—and see the wide diversity of what comes back.
So every week for the better part of a year, I'd say something like this on Facebook: "Give me a word. Any word will do. Give it to me." I'd accept suggestions for an hour or so, run a random number generator, choose the corresponding word, then sit down and write.
Below is an example of a resulting story, taken from my collection The Art of Departure. If I remember correctly, the word that prompted this one was "squab." It ended up taking quite the backseat in the story it inspired.
In September of that year, our neighbor Wayne had this idea that he could get rich by selling groceries Amway-style, and he booted his twelve-year-old boy out of his own bedroom and put up shelves loaded with packages of spaghetti, cans of roast beef, soda pop by the case and other non-perishable goods.
Soon after, Wayne came over to our house and gave my folks the pitch, showed them how, if they just signed up a few friends and those friends signed up a few friends, and so on, they could make as much as $10 million a month, all by making a little bit on every transaction.
“Everybody needs groceries,” Wayne said, mopping sweat off the folds of blubber on his neck. “It’s the perfect plan.”
My pop liked Wayne, liked going out with him occasionally and tossing back some suds, and he paid the ten-dollar membership fee and accepted the tabbed folder that contained the list of goods and prices, as well as several pages of helpful hints for enrolling friends in the program.
“We’ll see what we can do with it, Wayne,” Pop said, showing him to the door. “It’s an interesting idea you have here.”
The old man had said something similar a few times before. We still had a shed full of cleaning chemicals that Wayne had foisted on Pop in an earlier scheme. The stuff was supposed to get rid of deep grime on contact, and sure enough, it performed as advertised. It also ate a hole in our carpet. Pop put the stuff in the storage shed because, I think, he didn’t quite know how to dispose of it, and he didn’t want to hurt Wayne’s feelings. A similar sensibility had driven him to sneak out of the house one night and open the door to the pigeon coop Wayne had insisted he build. The next morning, the flock had flown away, and Pop went across the street and told Wayne that they wouldn’t be making that killing on squab.
“You’re a soft touch, Leonard,” Mom scolded him, and Pop mumbled something about how it didn’t hurt anything.
Mom often said that the old man “enabled” Wayne’s irresponsible behavior; most of Mom’s vocabulary came from the self-help books she consumed with the fervor of the newly touched religious. That idea never seemed to resonate with Pop.
Mom thumbed through the folder. “This isn’t going to work.”
“Why not?” Pop asked. “Seems like a decent idea. Like Wayne said, everybody needs groceries.”
“Yeah, but look at this.” Mom thrust the folder at him. “Now just look at that: Cheer laundry detergent for $2.49. I can get it for a dollar less down at Skaggs. And $1.50 for a two-liter bottle of Coke? I got it for 99 cents yesterday!”
It went on like that for another half-hour or so. After the first few broadsides by Mom against Wayne’s plan, Pop looked for an escape. He tuned in to the Texas Rangers game on the radio, while Mom sat at the kitchen table and lingered over the list of products and prices. Their interplay was a series of exclamations in one room and knob adjustments in the other.
“Two-ninety-nine for Sanka!”
Pop turned up the volume on the radio.
“A buck eighty-nine for Doritos!”
Pop flipped over to Bill Mack on WBAP.
“A dollar-ten for a can of tuna!”
The old man turned off the radio and went outside.
“Rangers lost,” I said. I held open a lawn bag so Pop could scoop a load of early fallen leaves into it.
“Figures,” he said.
I shook the bag to settle the leaves and then tied off the top. Pop fished his smokes from his front pocket and lit up.
“I guess Wayne’s idea has a few flaws,” I said.
“Guess so.” The old man exhaled a string of smoke from the side of his mouth, upwind of me.
“You know, he kicked Ethan out of his own bedroom so he could put food in there.”
Pop didn’t say anything, but I could see his jaws clench. He was chewing on something that was giving him trouble. Whatever it was, I knew I’d never hear about it.
“Men sometimes lose their way, Jon.”
He crushed the cigarette into the brick of the house, behind the hedge where no one would see the mark.
“Come on,” he said. “It’s getting late.”
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.
Originally published December 10, 2020
In the first piece I wrote for whatever this series of essays is becoming, I blithely noted a lifelong tendency toward restlessness. It’s a force that has driven research papers, inspired literature, informed film, and, in real-life situations, has ripped apart families, ended jobs, and launched fanciful and ill-fated dreams by the millions.
A worthy topic, no?
Here’s one small slice:
In my primary career, that of a print journalist, I worked for ten newspapers (1) in seven states (2) over the course of twenty-five years (1988 to 2013). The shortest stint in a job was three months (hello, The Olympian, and the tumultuous year 2000 (3)). The longest stint was the final one, seven-plus years at The Billings Gazette, from summer 2006 to late fall 2013.
In all of those years and all of those moves, I would pull up the stakes and fill the UHaul trailer for many reasons—money (4), status, opportunity, a sense of running to or running away—but the only factor that cut across every decision was this one: There looked better to me than here.
If you read a lot of pop psychology (5), you come across the phrase “Wherever you go, there you are.” It has a subtle efficacy, straddling the line between inane (it is what it is) and something much more profound. In my case—and, I suspect, in many cases—it manifested like this: I could spot another job (believe it or not, newspaper gigs flourished in the early years of my career), I could apply for it and get it (because I was good at what I did), and I could pack up all my crap and haul it somewhere new, put down first and last on an apartment, find a new grocery store and some restaurants that suited me, meet new co-workers and bosses, and make a startling, yet thoroughly unsurprising realization days or weeks later:
I’m the same broken jackass I was at the last place!
It took me a long time to learn that I wasn’t feeding the part of me that required some care, the part that had yet to suss out the important differences between fulfillment and happiness amid the considerable overlaps. Not long after my initial career ended, I was picking through the debris field of a marriage with a counselor’s help, and with a lot of reflection and reading, some of these concepts started to click for me. I said to her: “Jesus. I must be the dumbest man alive not to have figured it out before now. (6)” And she smiled at me the way my mother sometimes does when I am in the vicinity of a realization without actually arriving there. “You’re in your mid-forties,” she said. “That’s when most men get it, if they get it at all.” (7)
I don’t think I’ve gotten it. Sometimes, I think I’m asking the right questions, though. That’s progress.
I followed my stepfather into journalism. The difference between us—and it’s vast—is that the job was something he did, not something he was. I used to think I’d figured out something vital that had eluded him, that by pouring myself into the job and remaining mobile (no kids, no attachments), I was making my career work for me. That was an illusion. Truth was, the job was working me, and I was willingly giving it some of my best years without insisting on my share of that time.
My stepfather, meanwhile, rode out the vicissitudes of employment in a single place. Whether the job was good or bad or something in between, whether the bosses were genuinely caring or ogres, he did his work and came home to his family and his home and his life. He knew the difference between durable fulfillment and transient happiness.
Like many dumbasses, I thought I was so smart.
Let’s get back to restlessness. Certainly, that’s a condition that can lead a guy to choose the fleeting over the sustainable (8), to think he’s improving his lot when he’s really just going deeper into the hole. Restlessness, in itself, is not the problem. But restlessness is a gateway to transformative decisions, and those can be problems.
Restlessness, applied well, can be a good and useful thing. And if restlessness is in you, I believe it’s there to stay, so better to manage it than to be managed by it.
My newspaper career ended in 2013, and in the denouement, I was luckier than most: I granted myself release on my own recognizance. My first few novels had started to sell (9), I saw an opportunity to go, and I went.
That first year of not having any obligation that I didn’t willingly take on, I slowly unwound the spring in my chest. I wrote when I wanted to write, I played golf when I wanted to do that, I traveled, I made merry, I finished crashing my first marriage on the rocky outcroppings of incompatibility and disregard.
And somewhere in there, I felt the old stirring again. I wanted something to do, something to learn, somewhere to be. I was bored, a condition that’s the precursor to restlessness, which in turn is the spark that leads to decisions, good or bad.
This is how I became a pig tracker. (10)
In mid-October 2015, after a few weeks of dropping inscrutable hints about what I was up to, I wrote this on Facebook:
I'm working on a pipeline crew, if I haven't been perfectly clear in my pig ramblings this week. Specifically, I'm a pig tracker. A pig is a tool placed in the pipeline that runs from point to point. Different pigs have different uses. Some clean. Some scan the interior of the pipeline. Some purge. And so on.
A tracker stays in front of the pig—the tracker hopes—and records its passage at various crossings, gathering information on time, speed, etc. On a long, gentle run like this one, where the pig is moving about 3 mph and has to cover about 330 miles, that means the trackers work in shifts, day and night, 24 hours daily, all the time. We've been at it since Wednesday morning. We have a ways to go yet.
I'm on the night shift. Midnight to noon. Then I find a hotel somewhere down the line and I bang out some sleep. I just finished that part.
It's a weird, thrilling, lonely thing to skulk around the pipeline in the dark pitch of night. There's a lot of hurry up and wait on this job. There is, occasionally, a lot of hurry up and hurry up. You have to anticipate. You have to react. You have to figure out time and distance. It's fun. It's tedious, too, on occasion. Three days (nights) in, I'm exploring new frontiers of exhaustion. I'm reinforcing an old lesson, that Super 8's are, in many cases, not so super, and that Comfort Inns are not so comforting. …
What I love is that I'm seeing the America I don't know well. Dirt roads and empty precincts and ghost houses and forgotten cemeteries, and a million other things. …
I'm not doing it for money, although I'll certainly take it. I joke sometimes that I do it to stave off boredom, but that's too glib by half. No, it's something else. A chance to see and do and learn. All my life, I've been touched with wanderlust, that compulsion to see beyond present horizons. But I'm getting older and more rooted … I don't wander the way I used to. I miss it sometimes. Here, I can do it on my particular terms—work when I want it, without a desk on some office island, without some new corporate paradigm being triangulated by tiers of bosses. It's me and my night-shift buddy and our day-shift counterparts and the pig. We all keep rolling on.
Pig tracking falls into the good-decision bucket. It's never been more than an occasional job—too many other things to do: books to write, stories to edit, magazines to design, life with Elisa to savor—but the work speaks to both who I am and what I’m fundamentally interested in. Time and speed and distance, man. Wherever we are, however we live, those are the measurements that build our equations.
Without restlessness tugging at me, pestering me, maybe I never see that in such sharp relief.
(1) Deep breath: Fort Worth Star-Telegram; Peninsula Clarion; Texarkana Gazette; Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer; Dayton Daily News; Anchorage Daily News; San Jose Mercury News (twice); San Antonio Express-News; The Olympian; The Billings Gazette.
(2) Shallower breath: Texas (thrice); Alaska (twice); Kentucky; Ohio; California (twice); Washington; Montana.
(3) In less than a calendar year, I moved from San Jose, Calif., to San Antonio to Olympia and back to San Jose, where I clearly should have just stayed in the first place.
(4) Not too damned much of it, in retrospect.
(6) Hubris dies hard.
(7) Men are in a lot of trouble. More on this later, I’m sure.
(8) Guilty, many times.
(9) Talk about transience. It was glorious while it lasted, though.
(10) The main character in my upcoming novel, And It Will Be a Beautiful Life, is a pig tracker. This is not a coincidence.
Originally published December 3, 2020
Just when you think Facebook has turned you away for good with its money- and data-grubbing perniciousness—and I do think this, on the regular—a friend posts something that commands your attention and sends you down the rabbit holes of memory and easy information, among the few reliable outposts in a pandemic that has separated us from each other.
The compelling headline: “The Rare Humans Who See Time & Have Amazing Memories.” The friend who posted it, Ingrid Ougland, commented: “I see the months of the year as this sphere or oval, with December and January at the top, spring months slide down to the right, the summer months are at the bottom and kind of flat, then we climb back up with the fall months. I can’t visualize it any other way!”
Envy was mine. I don’t see time that way at all. If anything, I see it in the old-timey movie effect of the passage of days, calendar sheets flying off in the wind, and suddenly Joseph Cotten (1) is a grownup standing in a place once occupied by a boy. Seconds tumble into minutes tumble into days tumble into weeks and months and years. Time compresses and stacks up, and I occasionally marvel that a colleague, blessed with what seems to be boundless youth, is, in fact, in his mid-thirties and should probably think now about doubling his 401(k) contribution. I wish I had (2).
I would love to see coming time in colors or shapes, if only to make the inevitable passing of it more interesting.
Upon thinking about it more—and herein lies the gift of Ingrid’s post: subsequent ruminations on time (3)—I realized that rather than seeing the days to come in some sort of order, I account for the days gone by with a storage system that’s varied in its cross-referencing and startling in the level of detail it allows me to access long after the time has slipped my grasp.
It’s difficult to get at proving this thesis with any degree of abstraction, so here is a concrete example pulled from the archives, such as they are.
Summer of 1976
A basic fact before we proceed, as it will clarify this anecdote and, in all likelihood, future writings: My mother and father divorced in 1973, when I was three years old. This is not an event that causes me to look backward in wistfulness, wondering if things might have gone better for me had those crazy kids stayed together. Indeed, things almost certainly would have been worse for at least two of us (my father, alas, never had it so good). So, please, if you feel compelled to pity, exercise it for a freckle-faced kid in some alternative universe who had to grow up in that household under the umbrella of that marriage. I’m fine. Really.
What their breach did saddle me with was a sort of bifurcated childhood—two wildly different existences that I had to stitch together as a whole. During school months, I lived in a suburban house out of central casting, with two and sometimes three siblings (my stepbrother Keith being the wild card there), a mother who ran the homefront operation and a stepfather who worked hard and was present to his family life. Call it Cleaver-esque if you wish. That’s not an entirely on-target assessment—there are a few sprinkles of Yours, Mine and Ours, too—but if shorthand is your thing, I’m not going to let us get derailed on the particulars.
Once school was out, my father would send for me, and I would spend summers with him in remote precincts of the West. Dad was an exploratory well digger, a job that scarcely exists anymore. (Slight deviation for self-promotion: My second novel, The Summer Son, will satisfy even the heartiest appetites for tales about well-digging.) He would drive from job to job with his truck-mounted drilling rig and a crew of helpers (sometimes one, usually two, and when I was around, I’d make three—or maybe two and a half) and would dig test holes that were subsequently detonated and picked over by geologists, whose task was to determine whether the findings warranted further extraction.
These jobs lasted for varying lengths—sometimes a couple of weeks, sometimes a couple of months—and so I have this passel of childhood summers spent in such places as Montpelier, Idaho, and Baggs, Wyoming, and Limon, Colorado, and Sidney, Montana, and Price, Utah. I slept in motel rooms and on fold-out couches in fifth wheels, and, occasionally, in tents. Every morning, I’d ride with my father and his crew out to the fields where they were working, my sleepy head bouncing on Dad’s shoulder as he made the daybreak commute.
We spent the summer of 1976 in Elko, Nevada, and here’s where the cross-tabbing of memory comes in. I remember it was ’76 because Dad’s helpers were my new uncle Barry and my new stepbrother Ronnie (4). I remember because Dad and his new wife and Ronnie and I were jammed up in a Holiday Rambler, often unable to escape each other, and I remember that the fissures in the marriage were almost immediately exposed by such unceasing proximity. I remember because “Play That Funky Music” was ever-present on the radio, and because I told Ronnie that I liked “Silly Love Songs” better and he told me I was just a dumb kid.
I remember because, one day, another family in another trailer pulled in and set up camp, and their kid, a few years older than I was, punched me in the nose, bloodying it (and, perhaps, contributing to my fear of such confrontations). I remember because Dad and Uncle Barry responded to this assault in a way that can be described, only with considerable charity, as disproportionate. They carried baseball bats to the other family’s campsite, waggled the lumber with menace, and suggested those folks move along. Dad still tells this story from time to time, when he gets enough alcohol in him to open the dark rooms of his recall, and he always finishes with a laugh and a “man, you’ve never seen anybody drive away so fast.”
I remember because I have to live with two distinct reactions to that sight, separated by years of reconsideration: In the moment, as a bloodied little boy, being in awe of these men who stepped in on my behalf, as if they were superheroes. And now, much older than either man was that day, wondering what the hell was wrong with them. Forty-four years’ worth of calendar pages have been cast to the wind, and I can sit here today and close my eyes and see the terror on the faces of that man, his wife, and their boy. I am much more in tune with how scared they were than I am with how I felt as a six-year-old who watched the scene unfurl.
Summer of 2006
On Day 1 of my two-day move from California to Montana, I skirted along Elko on Interstate 80, and recall was stoked not just by the name but also by the bends in the highway and by the hills in the distance. I guided my pickup-UHaul combo off the interstate and, with neither GPS nor memory of the name of the campground we had stayed in thirty years earlier, I drove right to where it was. I knew the direction and the topography, I knew the hill it sat upon, and I knew the turns I had to make to get there.
Had it occurred to me that this was unusual, I might have made more of it, but I’d been doing similar things in other places throughout my adult life, and I’ve continued to do it since. Drop me most anywhere I’ve spent an appreciable amount of time, whether as a child or a man, and I can find my way to the places I occupied in some past era of my life. And once I’m there, the time gone by indeed has shape and color. It settles uneasily atop or alongside whatever is happening there now. I can stand in front of my first house, off Poison Spider Road in Mills, Wyoming, as I did this past summer, and I will see the boxy white house with the single-car garage, ever-present in my memories since I last lived there in 1978, and I will also see what it is now: a sort of cinnamon red, the garage long ago converted into more living space, the street out front paved rather than dirt and gravel. I can connect with what was and allow it to coexist with what is. I have to. There is no other choice.
Time is a slow-motion wrecking ball—it wipes out businesses that once existed on corners, housing developments, schools, the names by which we know things. Few human constructions can survive it. But none of that matters if it’s the corners to which you’re beholden and not what sat upon them while you were passing through.
Those corners call to me.
(1) I’m not sure why Joseph Cotten popped out of the ol’ cranium for that example. I’m not terribly familiar with the bulk of his work, although he looms large with me for two reasons: First, Shadow of a Doubt might be the best movie ever, and yes, I’m willing to fight you. Second, I always momentarily confuse him with Josef Sommer, which is thoroughly inexplicable.
(2) Seriously, retirement is a pipe dream. I’m going to have to die with my hands on the keyboard.
(3) I mean, I’m not Proust, but I do spend an inordinate amount of my energy ruminating on the illusions and erosions of time.
(4) While it’s true that I’m an ardent believer in the benefits of a necessary divorce, I really would like to urge those among us who cannot sustain the institution of marriage (in this case, I’m looking at you, Dad) to keep the rest of us out of it. At one point in my young life, I had three brothers and three sisters, thanks to the kudzu-like entanglements of several mergers. And then, with the stroke of a divorce judge’s pen, half of them were gone. I did not get a vote in the decision to add these sort-of siblings in the first place. Nonetheless, I accepted them as my own and loved them. I also didn’t get a vote in their departure. It sucks.
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.