Last Gig in Missoula, Montana

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After the show, Mike and I found a way onto a rooftop in downtown Missoula. We were always doing things like that, looking for adventure. Ever since high school we’d climb up drainpipes and fire escapes, break into abandoned houses, and try to somehow get into the basements or attics of public buildings. It was kind of a compulsion.

That night we found a series of fire escapes, then a leap to catch the snow-slippery roof ledge. A few moments of feet dangling in the darkness of a four-story drop, then up and over onto the flat rubber roof. We were still amped up from playing a great show. The bar somewhere beneath us had closed after our final set, and the streets were full of drunk college kids in packs or newly-formed pairs, heading home or on to all night diners. Mike and I crept to the edge of the roof by the main street and began tossing snowballs at the late-night revelers. We laughed out loud as people scattered and cursed. We were above everything, invincible, rulers of all we could survey, which was a lot. The city lights spread out below us to the distant edges of town, where the three quarter moon illuminated the sparsely forested mountains rising all around. Far off you could make out the glow of taller peaks, and the stars above went on and on. The music still pulsed through my brain, my fingers repeating patterns struck on piano keys.

Mike and I had moved out west a few years back, not long after I finished college and he was out of the army. We’d formed a band and tried to make it on the local scene. We recorded an album, and thought that we were pretty good. We’d even developed a following in Bozeman, where we lived, and gigged there most weekends.

But tonight was different. It was probably our best show ever– all the band members were in sync, the music felt borderline transcendent, and the audience ate it up. On that freezing cold roof we felt warm and alive in a way that I’ve rarely felt before or since.

In the morning we’d pull ourselves off friends’ couches and floors, grab a cup of coffee, and drive the 3 hours back to Bozeman– 80 miles an hour down the long, empty highway. Over the next few months we’d play some more gigs, but then slowly, inevitably drift apart to New York, Wisconsin, California, Afghanistan.

Mike reenlisted– I guess he’s still seeking adventure. I hear from him from time to time, and worry– we’re not so invincible these days. The rest of us settled into happy lives full of school plays, mortgage payments and riding lawnmowers; but mostly devoid of snowball fights, or dangling from ledges in the night, or playing transcendent music in smoky Montana bars. Without thinking, I sometimes find my fingers still tapping out those same old melodies and chords.

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The Dream

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Every night I have the same dream. You’re not with me in the dream. I dream I’m Odysseus– you know, the ancient Greek guy who spent years trying to come home from the war. All he had to do was sail from point A to B, but he kept getting tangled up with all kinds of vengeful monsters and gods. He lost his whole crew in a shipwreck, and was stranded on a desert island with a sex-starved goddess.

Anyway, in this dream I’m sitting alone on a white sand beach, looking out at the turquoise sea (you’d think it would be wine-dark, but it’s definitely turquoise, or whatever you call the blue-green water of the tropics). Behind me the dune grass is moving gently in the breeze, and farther back there are rolling, grassy hills, spotted here and there with bushy trees. There are cattle and sheep idling on the slopes, but my focus is mostly toward the water– the small waves that rise and fall on the beach, the swooping sea birds, the endless expanse of ocean.

Apart from my legendary cunning, I’m known among the Achaeans for my keen eyesight– for hours on end I gaze outward, searching for white sails rising over the horizon. Or any color sails, or an oared vessel with no mast, or a leaky canoe. But I never see a ship or boat of any kind, just the ever-moving sea, and the ever-still azure sky. I know I’ll sit here the whole day. Nymphs will come and serve me lamb or sirloin for lunch, with some nice cheeses, some exotic fruit and a skin of delicious wine with hints of blackberry and petrol. I’ll eat enough to keep from starving, but it might as well be tasteless to me.

At night I’ll lie with Calypso, whose beauty and grace are unmatched. I’ll feel her throb and cry against my body, and I will play my part. Yet I feel no passion, no ecstasy or joy. I don’t want fancy food, or the love of a goddess, or a day at the beach. I want a ship to come take me away. I want to go home.

I wake up helpless, lost, afraid. There’s an ache deep inside that seeks to pull me down like a sinking ship, to drown me as my men were drowned.

Then I remember that I’m not Odysseus after all. I realize I’m in my own house, lying in my own bed. Then I see you sleeping beside me. I see that it was hot in the night– your damp hair clings to your face, and the blankets are twisted and askew. You’re smiling in your dream. I study your limbs. I watch the rising and falling of your chest. I cling to your breath, and stay afloat another day.

Writing Action

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Just over a week ago, on a sunny afternoon, I was skiing with a friend, about to make the last descent of the day. We’d already had a great afternoon bombing down the mountain, chasing that feeling of exhilaration and grace that comes from a special combination of speed, frictionless motion, and the raw beauty of snow, trees, mountains and sky. I wasn’t tired, sore, or distracted. Yet…

From the chairlift we skated over to the top of a trail I’d been on many times before, one of my favorites– it’s narrow and winds back and forth through the trees, and takes you all the way to the base lodge. I wasn’t quite ready, but without looking or thinking I crested the lip of the trail and started down a steep, mogul-strewn drop that ordinarily takes just a few seconds to ski through before leveling off a bit.

This time it took me longer. Unprepared for the icy moguls, my ski caught and I fell forward, hard. Falling is part of skiing– it shows us the limits of our equipment, the terrain, and our ability, and I usually do it at least once every time out. This fall was different. While my body plummeted forward, my leg, stuck in the ski and rigid boot, stayed in its natural position. My ski popped off, and my freed leg swung around to join the rest of me; but in doing so, everything changed. Almost in slow motion my knee pivoted forward, and I felt something inside it twist and tear just a little too far. I slid a bit further and came to a stop halfway down the steep pitch. I pictured jumping up and walking uphill to grab my ski, and, with a bit more caution, finishing the run. If it were a warm, spring day, we might have wrapped up the afternoon with a beer on a sunny deck. But I knew instinctively that I could not go get my ski, that I likely could not walk at all. As adrenaline and endorphins rushed to my leg, making it feel happy and warm, I realized that something was seriously wrong.

As humans, we seem to be captivated by action, by violence. Perhaps this is a survival instinct of sorts– it is, after all, an active and violent world at times, and we revere those strong, steadfast individuals and institutions that protect us by relentlessly crushing our enemies. This fascination can be seen in many elements of culture, from actual war, to sports, to the movies, TV shows, books, and plays that inform our sense of social identity. I love football because of the athleticism, the adrenaline rush from a well-executed play, the high stakes drama of winning or losing, and above all the chess-like strategizing behind each move and countermove. But another draw that helps make it the most popular sport in America is the hits– the collisions, tackles and sacks that bring a guilty thrill of pleasure, an appreciation of one huge athlete laying out another with power and skill.

In fiction, violence is often noble and heroic. Despite his town abandoning him, in High Noon Gary Cooper stays to fight the outlaws, and we love him for his steadfastness and sacrifice. These days, we apparently can’t get enough of super heroes who single-handedly save our city, world, or universe by beating the shit out of the bad guys. Other times, violence is inconsequential, beautiful, and comic, as in Looney Tunes, or as in Quentin Tarantino and the generation of filmmakers he inspired. Yet the story violence that is most true to life occurs in tragedy, because it has real consequences beyond saving the day or titillating the audience. Macbeth and his wife kill their king out of base ambition; Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter to get a favorable breeze; Stringer Bell betrays Avon Barksdale by having D’Angelo killed; and in turn each of these tragic heroes must pay the ultimate price for their actions.

These stories tell the truth– that violence always has far-reaching consequences. The football player who takes hit after hit may end up with dementia in his 40s; he may die of an overdose, or by suicide, because he simply can’t live with the pain. Endless war in Africa or the Middle East is self-perpetuating, and its roots can go back dozens, hundreds, or thousands of years. Even the smallest event has long lasting effects: falling on a ski slope and tearing your ACL can be portrayed as a vivid instance of drama, but the real story is the week of lying in bed, the hobbling around on crutches, the premature end of the ski season, the necessary surgery and six month recovery. Or perhaps it’s about being thankful that nothing worse occurred, or the relief of finally having healthcare after 15 years without it; or the simultaneous worry over the high deductible, having chosen the cheapest plan based on the belief that getting ill or injured is unlikely. Whatever this story is about, I guess sometimes we need a reminder– as writers, as consumers of culture, as actors in society– that the shiny, transfixing moment of action is indeed only one moment, yet its repercussions will linger long after most people have forgotten it.