July 23, 2014
After almost six months of sharing, we finally leased a new car. Part of my motivation for choosing to take this job in a small town was that I would be able to experience many facets of adult American life. Marriage. A mortgage. Neighbors. Maintaining a yard. And now we have a car payment. Living in cities in my 20s I had experienced the other side. Single life. No health insurance. Little money. Few possessions. Mostly just a bike, clothes and a computer. I lived for seven years without a car. But it’s nearly impossible to exist in rural America without one.
It’s funny how you find ideas that fit your way of life. For a long time I agreed with Didion when she said she didn’t respect people who never left home. Now I’m not so sure that’s a virtue. The people who stay in their hometowns, who face their pasts, who live among family, those people are the tough ones. They’re the ones who are willing to live for something that goes beyond that selfish idea of “getting what you want.” Who ever said we were owed that? Who promised that to us? In our time, everyone knows there is a whole world out there and that all you need to see it is enough money to get on a plane. You don’t have to be brave to leave. You have to be brave to stay.
On Sunday, my boss and the editor of the newspaper talked me into canoeing with him on the North Platte River. He’s part of the Scottsbluff tourism commission and he was looking for new ways to get people to visit our area. The plan was to go from our zoo to the near-dead town of McGrew 17 miles to the east and scout the river. I grew up here and I’ve never seen or heard of anyone trying this, so I figured it would at least make for a good story.
We drove out to McGrew to park my truck as pink sunlight split the sky. A low fog floated over the prairie grass and cottonwoods along the river. Three spotted fawns grazed in the shadow of a bridge. Everything was dewy and quiet.
Back in Scottsbluff, we launched the canoe on the shallow river. The current was steady and gentle. We rowed around a few large rocks making “Deliverance” jokes. Crudely camouflaged primitive duck blinds sat on the banks. Herons alighted from the trees, their slowly swooping wings a locomotion from a prehistoric era — mini pterodactyls calling out in their deep dinosaur voices.
The river deepened and narrowed. When we came up on the diversion dam we thought we knew what to do. We didn’t. We tried to beach the canoe but the bank was too steep. When the bow struck the bank the current pushed the bottom of the boat under us and we tipped. The canoe filled as we tried to hold it. The slow motion disaster unfolded, one second building on the next, like trying to stop on ice as the object approaches, until our control was wrested away from us completely. The canoe went over the falls, landed upright, wedged itself between the dam wall and a cement pile, and drank in the river. Try as we might, we couldn’t move it. We learned firsthand why a river can’t be used for both irrigation and tourism.
The biggest breakthrough lately is realizing I’ve learned how to write when tired, upset, broke, stressed-out, happy, content, well-paid, inspired or depressed. Sit at the desk and focus. That’s all it takes. The only problem is time.
My daily meditation includes listening to Garrison Keillor read the Writer’s Almanac on NPR as I drive to work. Listening to it makes me exactly four minutes late to work every morning, but it’s worth it. Today he quoted Raymond Chandler saying:
“The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off.”
I’ll be thinking about that for awhile.
On top of that is the release of a new Jenny Lewis record. Some of you already know the stories about the times I ran into her in L.A. and Omaha. One of them is funny. The other is embarrassing. I remember hearing her on the television of a Bangkok hotel five years ago. I was feeling a little lost in my traveling, had been away from home for a few years, and listening to “Portions for Foxes” coming through the TV changed my mood for the better. She’s a good one. Give it a listen.