A Long Time

Small town life…I has it.

It’s been a while for me, I have to admit, since I lived in a truly small town.  It’s been a long while, but the old memories — and the old skills — they’re still there.

I grew up in what, at the time, I considered a small town.  A small town, yeah right.  65,000 people (at the time), smack-dab in the middle of the LA-metroplex.*

*A relatively small geographic area, I might remind you, that holds better than 10% of the entire US population.

That was not small town life.  Hell, my high school graduating class alone had more folks in it than the entire town I live in now!

My life back east, however…

Back east, I went to college in a town with one stoplight…and that’s pretty much it.  There honestly wasn’t much of anything else.  We didn’t even have a freaking McDonalds, for fuck’s sake!  Hell, “going to the city” meant driving half-an-hour to a town less than half the size of the suburb in which I grew up.

Of course, I’ve lately been spending a big chunk of my life inside Yellowstone, but…

But…

…but, in the 6 months of the tourist-season inside the park, it most definitely is no “small town.”  Better than 4 million people a year visit Yellowstone in those six months.  Even if only a couple thousand of us actually live (and work) inside the park, the daily crowds of visitors make the place feel anything but empty and quiet.

But that’s the summer…

Then you get to the off-season.  The off-season in Gardiner, Montana.  At this time of year, there are 3 (dive-ish) restaurants, 2 stores, and a coffee shop…and that’s it.  The sidewalks are officially rolled up, the tourist-shops closed, the town shut-down, deserted and empty…

I went out for lunch today.  It’s my day-off, and cooking didn’t sound all that fun, so I went to one of the dive-ish bars for a burger and a beer.  Now, the Two Bit is most definitely not an LA kind of place.  Nosirree, not in Gardiner, not in winter.  The Two Bit is the kind of place where your feet stick to the floor; the kind of place where you can taste the cigarette smoke in your food.  It’s the kind of place where 50-cents-a-game pool is a way of life, and teeth are optional.  It’s the kind of place, when you get right down to it, that I used to love to frequent in my old “back east days.”

It was right about 50 degrees (Fahrenheit) today, so I sat outside.  I sat outside and chatted with the staff when they came out for their smoke breaks.  Crap, I was a bartender in my “back east days,” so I know full-well the dynamics of this stuff.  I know, but it’s been a long time since I lived it.

It’s been a long time since the jokes about bar fights and STDs and the stupid shit that late night drunks get up to.  A long time since your own — my own — stories of parties starting at 3:00am, of greeting the rising sun with a world-class drunk on.  A long time since needing the boss to give you a loan because rent and utilities took your whole check.  A long time since the sharing of pain meds, of “borrowing” Vicodin and Oxycodone and Percocet and all the other “wonders” of modern pharmacology from whoever happened to have a current prescription.

It’s been a long time…

A big part of me enjoyed my brief re-immersion in the reality of small town life, enjoyed my dip back inside the lives and world of the locals that the tourists and visitors cannot even begin to imagine.  A little part, however…

A little part was screaming in terror at the memories of my own experiences.

I like small town life, I really do, but holy shit do I not want to dive that far back in.  As a writer, I love the characters you get in a place like this.  I love the dynamics that can inspire you, the reality that can be a basis for so much pure story, but as a person…as a person I want — I need — to keep all that at arm’s length.

A couple of drinks, a game of pool or two — with my feet sticking to the floor — and that’s about it.  That’s all I can take.  As for the rest?  For the rest, the Two Bit can keep the drugs and the STDs and all the bitter regrets…

One of the topics of conversation — a joke more than a topic, really — was a song.  A song that is at least as bad — and as enduring! — as most of the STDs lying in wait on that floor.  Take a listen to that song and let it roll around in your head for the next…oh, weeks, probably…

Welcome to my personal hell.

We Had It All…

What soundtrack do you listen to when you’re writing about the end of the world?

Err…check that.  The end of the world is easy — you listen to this.

But what about when the world shakes?  When it seems like everything is changing in the blink of an eye?

I don’t remember the moon landings.  I don’t remember Kennedy’s assassination.  I don’t remember the beginning — or the end — of WW2.  Hell, I don’t really even remember the end of Vietnam.  But what I do remember…

I remember the explosion of the Challenger.

I remember 9-11.

I remember the beginnings, and the ends, of both Gulf Wars.

90I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Hoo boy, do I remember the fall of the Wall.  It was my first real adult memory, in fact.  The first world-shaking event that was real to me — which is saying something, given that I was a college kid at the time, bent mostly on mostly on drinking beer and meeting girls (not necessarily — but usually — in that order).

I watched the wall fall on TV.  I watched what I thought at the time — what we all thought — was a changing of the world, the emergence of a new future.  Hell, being a kid, I thought it was the end of the older generation, the end of our parents’ generation, and the emergence of ours as the true power…

We would be different, I thought.

We would change everything.

We wouldn’t fuck things up.  Not again.

And now, thirty years later, what do I think?

What a naive little shit was I.

articleLargeI have friends who stood in Wenceslaus Square, alongside so many thousands of other, and shook their keys at the Soviet-backed government to tell them it was time to go…

I know a man, even, who was one of the last to sneak over the border between Czech and Austria.  One of the last to flee home and family to seek for more, to find a better way to live…

I have to talked to them all, over the years, about those fateful days three decades ago.  Over beers and over coffee; in peaceful chats and in heated arguments; in words pensive and wistful, and in words callous and cold; in every conceivable way we have talked about those days.  It matters, I think, that we were all roughly the same age when the wall fell.  Oh, we all lived vastly different lives — both before that point, and after — but we all had the energy and optimism that only really comes in those particular years of life.

With all our differences — with the vast gulf in experiences that exist between an optimistic child of 1980’s America and the bitter cynics who grew up under the Soviets — it turns out that we all felt the same: everything was going to change.  It was all going to be better.  

We were all naive little shits.

As a part of my twin emphases on languages and history in college, I studied my share of foreign relations.  I studied, mostly, how the US related with Central and Eastern Europe.  I studied Eisenhower and Kennedy, Stalin and Kruschev.  I studied Acheson and Kennan.  I studied Kissinger and Brzezinski.  I didn’t just study, I lived Reagan and Gorbachev…

None of that study, none of that knowledge, prepared me for the “end.”  None of it prepared me for the change, and for the hope of what could be.

Sadly, it did prepare me for what actually came next.

Next verse, same as the old verse.

If you dropped one of those guys I studied in college into the modern world, just how different do you think they would find it?  Oh the technology is different…the fringes of society are different…the culture is different…but the realpolitik?  George Kennan could step into the US State Department and feel right at home when he looked at the world situation.

*sigh*

I’ve said it before: humanity can — and presumably will — fuck anything up.

To a young college kid — to my whole generation, really — thirty years ago, we had it all right there in our hands.  We had optimism and hope, we had the future.

And look what we’ve done with it.

So, back to the question of the soundtrack…

I thought about a number of songs; about a number of ways to capture that feeling of three decades ago.  I thought about this, and even this.  I thought about a whole host of songs, in fact, both old and new.  I thought about them, but in the end there was only one choice, only one song that (to me) defined that time and those events even as they were happening:

5 Years

7EB7F853-0F42-44D4-AB08-DEFC3142BB9EThe weather turned good again, here on the borders of Yellowstone.  It turned good enough for me to sit outside and enjoy some of it, as a matter of fact.  Oh, I’m supposed to still be working right now, but I’ve done 10 hours a day for the last seven straight days, so I snuck out a couple of hours early to pursue my third-favorite* past-time…

*Behind writing and, well, you can probably guess what number one is…

2851053C-DA51-4AF5-A93C-B9B3A64EE139This picture, by the way, is the view from the front yard of the condo where I’m staying.  The place where I’m currently staying belongs to the nonprofit I work for in Yellowstone and, well, it doesn’t suck…  A nice drink in my hand, a plate of appetizers at my elbow, and some good reading material to go with the view are just what the doctor ordered at this point.

I’m even trying some new music, for heaven’s sake!  I currently have “Palomino” by Trampled By Turtles blaring in my ears — I’m not sure if I truly like it or not, but that doesn’t mean anything.  It generally takes me five or six sessions listening to a band (and writing while I do so!) to actually make a decision on just how I feel about them.

I do (finally!) have some hope for regular writing thos winter — at least once I get settled into a regular rhythm of life in my new surroundings.  A decent coffee shop, a good (dive-y) local pub, and an interesting cast of characters around me are pretty damned good for my writing-soul.

The park is still open, by the way, and the animals still going nuts.  Every bear and wolf in the place is out eating like mad, and it’s awesome to see.  I watched a wolf pack the other evening.  It’s a fairly new pack, as these things go, which means it is made up mostly of pups that are on the edge of becoming yearlings.  Have you ever watched 3-4 adults trying to supervise and care for 14 1st and 2nd graders?  Yeah, that’s what this pack looked like; the poor adults were freaking exhausted.  They were exhausted, but they had work to do: it is the job of the entire pack to make sure the pups eat and sleep before the adults, so those adults had to get out and hunt no matter how tired they were.

You watch and you admire…then your knowledge of the sad circle of life comes around again, when you study a young pack like that.  It sucks to say — and to know! — but maybe half of those pups will actually survive the winter to become yearlings next spring.

A Yellowstone wolf — all 150ish pounds of it! — could and would live as long as your dog at home…if things went perfectly.   Instead, the wolves live an average of 5 years…

5 years.

The oldest and smartest alphas might make it all the way to 9 or 10.

That’s it.

It’s depressing to think about that — especially when you get to know the packs and the individual animals that make them up — but food and competition/violence and the extremity of the winters here make all the difference when it comes to lifespans.  

Hell, a Yellowstone bison will generally live to be about 20, and a grizzly to about 30 or 35.

But a wolf…an iconic symbol of the freedom of the wilds…

A wolf is blessed to see his or her ninth birthday.

Think about that for a moment; think about the power and the stature and all of the mythology we humans invest in wolves.  Then think about how long (how short!) they live…

Shit, I’m gonna need a lot more sun and booze and cheese if I keep writing about shit like this!

Both David Eddings and Robert Jordan made wolves central to their respective fantasy series…fantasy series on which I grew up, I should explain.  But neither author actually knew a damned thing about the animals, as a matter of fact.  Both wrote based on the mythology and the superstitions, on the almost metaphysical awe and respect in which many humans hold those animals, to make them central to their stories.

Neither talked about the 2-year-old male having to leave his pack to find a mate…

Neither talked about one pack invading another’s territory with the sole aim of killing the ruling alphas in order to take new hunting territory…

Neither talked about the weakness of a wolf alone…

Neither talked about the hopelessness and the all-but-inevitable death of the lone wolf, of the one who cannot find a mate or a new pack in time to save his own life…

2457F1C7-01D2-4AE7-9C36-F60624FC770AIf you have the time, by the way, go watch a NatGeo documentary called “Black Wolf”.  Go watch it, then think about all of the mythology and symbolism and superstition we invest in these animals…

Your Life Won’t Be Ruined

Err…okay…so I probably shouldn’t think about how long it’s been since I wrote a blog post…

No, I don’t need to think about that at all.

What I need to think about instead is what actually got me to wanting to write a post tonight in the first place…

It was a long — and kinda shitty — day at work.  All I wanted was pizza and a beer.  Or beer and a pizza.*

*Amazing, isn’t it, how changing the placement of just two tiny words can change the emphasis and imagery of a sentence…and don’t even get me started on changing one tiny word!  “My arms around her neck…” versus “My hands around her neck…”  Ahem.  Vocabulary and syntax for the writing-win, Alex!

At any rate, pizza and beer.  That’s where I was.  Yeah, that’s it…

I went music shopping tonight, while I was drinking.  Oh, it wasn’t the old-school flipping through albums and CDs that used to be such an important part of my life.  No, this time — as has become my norm — it was mousing through the electronic catalog that is Apple’s iTunes Store.

Crap, I don’t even own CDs anymore, let alone the old vinyl albums that took my music-virginity.  Gah, don’t even get me started on losing the visceral satisfaction of actually “putting on” on a new album!

Okay…crap…talk about squirrel moments…that whole 200-word attempt at an “intro” was one giant squirrel-moment!  But…well…at least it gets me started…

One of the songs I was listening to tonight had a line that resonated.  It was in fact a line that damned-well better resonate!  “You’re life won’t be ruined…” that song said.

Your life won’t be ruined…

Your life won’t be ruined if you accidentally buy the low-pulp orange juice.

Your life won’t be ruined if the Broncos lose by 24 points to the Chiefs.

Your life won’t be ruined if Britain leaves the EU…or if it fails to do so.

Your life won’t be ruined if Donald Trump is impeached, or wins the ‘20 election…or not.

Your life won’t be ruined…

Your life won’t be ruined.

As someone who has fought the twin demons of depression and despair; as someone who has questioned whether any of this shit is actually worth it; as someone who has sat on a branch with a bottle in one hand and rope around his neck; as someone who has known both highs and lows that most folks don’t get to experience, all I can say is this: your life won’t be ruined.

Part of me wants to write this post to reassure my friends and family — to reassure those who have learned, if only through this blog, of my struggles with life — that I “get it”, that I’m not quite as fucked up as they think I am.

But only part.

Most of me, however…

Most of me just wants to speak to anyone who is staring at the same forbidding terrain through which I have spent a lifetime traveling.

Your life won’t be ruined.

In spite of everything the judgmental and the superior and the vindictive can do, your life won’t be ruined.  Second chances are everything in life, and most of the world appreciates that fact.  Shit, most of the world needs that fact.  More than that, however, anyone who doesn’t believe in second chances is far more fucked up than any of the rest of us could ever be.

So go ahead and vote for whoever or whatever you like.  Win or lose, your life won’t be ruined.

Go ahead and try to write that novel or poem, or paint that picture or compose that song.  Win or lose, your life won’t be ruined.

Most importantly, however, go ahead and be YOU.  Go ahead and be honest with those who love you.  Whether they accept and embrace, or turn their backs, you will survive.  You CAN survive.  Your life doesn’t have to be ruined.

If you live in the closet and are terrified of coming out…

If death and suicide stalk your thoughts…

If failure is an everyday companion…

If everyone looks, or acts, or feels, different from you…

You can make it.  You can survive.  It might be hard…it might even be hell, but there is far more to life than now.  To quote a charity/movement I whole-heartedly support and believe in: “it gets better.”

When you get right down to it, your life won’t be ruined.