This is my story. The story of my life and how I ended up here, in this place that I never thought I would be. But I am.
All writers write what they know. And that is what I am and this is what I do. There is no great American novel in my future. I am not that inspired or that narcissistic. I have done my share of freelance work for some of the mid-level, better known publications. I have published an occasional profile, a few exposés and some satire pieces. You may have read them, but probably not. That work is interesting and exhausting and worthwhile, but it doesn't pay my bills. Quite often those pieces are simply a labor of love. The hours of research alone obliterate any concept of earning a living as writer. It is almost as if you put in a forty hour week and get paid for five. It might could be enough to survive on, but not enough to really live.
Writing manuals is how I make my living. I don't write instructions. I write manuals. So you can get pissed off while putting together your piece off shit IKEA furniture but you won't be cursing at me. No, I am contracted to write employee manuals, software manuals and other materials to promote whatever it is that people want other people to do. It sounds simple. But it's not. People tell me how something is supposed to work and I put it in on paper so that they don't have to. Then they pay me, quite well actually. I can promise you if you could do it, write something that explains a process clearly and completely, you could find work. Lots of it. There is plenty of it out there. If you can, you should.
It is not glamorous. There are no long hours at coffee shops acting like a beatnik contemplating the meaning of life. There are no award banquets or book signings or promotional tours. I get a contract. I spend time with people. I learn what they know and what they want to say and I write it down. Then I leave. Most of my time is spent alone with only my laptop to keep me company.
I am a writer. The most boring kind in the world.
This was not my dream job. Hell, I didn't even know it was a job. It certainly wasn't what I had in mind while studying economics and statistics in college. To be honest, I had no idea what I wanted to do with a degree in either of those fields either, but it wasn't this. I started writing for a living by accident, exactly one week into my first real job.
I had made my third 'mistake' while trying sign up for company benefits. I was trying to follow the benefits manual that was given to me during employee orientation. I didn't think anything of my first two 'mistakes'. I just redid the paperwork. But the third one pissed me off. I was certain I had done it right because I had taken extra care after being embarrassed by the first two do-overs. My outrage led to a discussion with the human resources manager, which led to a challenge.
"If you think you can write it better, be my guest hot shot."
So that is what I did. Over the next weekend, I rewrote the sections of the manual that had caused me to make my 'mistakes'. That led to a rewrite of the all the orientation materials which led to revisions of the manuals from other departments. That led to a recommendation from our COO to one of his golf buddies which led to my first contract which led to my career. And fifteen years later, I still have not used any other marketing than word of mouth.
Unfortunately, I am called to take a pause from that job to write this. All the hard decisions in my life have come at the worst possible times. Why is it that the really tough decisions and the truly hard work always comes due at a time when you are the least able to give them your full concentration?
The view as I passed over the top of the hill was exactly as I remembered it. The mountain range was to the south, lush with green pine and sprinkled with the fall colors only aspen trees provide. The river snaked through the valley below me, the interstate mirroring it's every curve. To the north, jagged rock formations dotted the otherwise rolling plains. And then there was the sunset.
I have travelled to nearly every state in the union and have never seen a sunset that compares to the ones in the Rocky Mountains. Maybe it's because the air is cleaner or the elevation is higher. I honestly don't know. But on every clear day the sky is painted with pinks and reds and oranges in a style that is not seen anywhere else.
I also knew, based on experience that I still had nearly two hours left in my journey. I could see the peak of the mountain range that was close to my destination. Perhaps it was a metaphor for my life. My destination seemed so close. It looked like an easy journey. It looked like it should take no longer than fifteen minutes, but I knew it would take much longer. The road seemed so peaceful and tranquil. But the road to the top was actually long and winding with each curve of the road leading you higher and placing you in more danger. The higher you went the longer the fall to the bottom, a realization that you didn't quite understand until you looked back to where you had started. I certainly understood that feeling much better now.
It was here in this place that I first realized that many of the things that people treat as so monumental were actually so meaningless. In an hour it would be dark, a pitch black reminder that everyone is alone and in need of something to light their path. I often tried to tell people about the difference between nighttime in the city and nighttime near my hometown. It is hard to explain to people, and they don't truly believe it. In the land where one city ends in the exact spot the next begins, the stars are simply washed away. Here the stars would seem limitless and I stopped for a few minutes to catch the reminder of just how insignificant we, and our problems, really are.
My trip came at the best time for me and at the worst time in my life. There was no doubt I needed a break. Life had become intense and painful and here things would be simpler or at least less complex. Or maybe this would just be a good place to hide and pretend that my problems didn't exist. This place, where everyone waved hello as you passed and stopped to lend a hand every time someone needed it, was good for that. It was good at being a place to hide.
It was no surprise that my mother had died. She had given up on the cancer treatments. She wanted to be in her own home. She didn't want visitors. She wanted to be alone. We had long talks on the phone near the end, until she was too weak and tired to have long talks. Then we had short talks, until she lost her ability to speak. Then there were the text messages until she was too weak to type. And then she died. As always, my mother was there to help me.
It is amazing what you learn in the most unexpected places.
I grew up in a town with a population of 900. It was a place where I never quite fit in. Yet, it was a place that I was able to learn the most about life. Things like people make mistakes. Those who are repentant and make amends are forgiven and everyone moves on. Those that aren't and don't are soon outcast for the sake of keeping the rest of the community healthy and vibrant. My mother had often spoken about forgiveness and the important things in life near the end of hers.
I also learned that everyone is in charge of their own happiness. You are only as happy as you allow yourself to be and are only as miserable as you let other people make you. Here in my hometown, people didn't have much. Most people were content to have a home and some friends and lived a meager existence with a smile. But there were a small number of people who were never happy. They blamed everyone else for their problems. Those people were tolerated but usually spoken about following a deep sighing 'here we go again'.
I was never going to return to my hometown after graduating from high school. I knew it, my mom knew it and, honestly, so did everyone else. I wasn't shunned, but I never fit in. I was the kid who was always ordering books from the libraries in the bigger cities. I was the kid who to took advanced placement English, math, science and history as correspondence classes because they weren't offered at my high school. I was the kid without a father, one of two in my hometown.
Don't get me wrong, the people there weren't stupid. Not by any means. In fact if there was something that you needed to know about extracting coal bed methane or living off the land or being a good neighbor, there were experts everywhere you looked.
But that same group of people had no interest in pop culture or politics. They had never seen a politician or a tour bus and therefore had no interest in the outside world or voting for that matter. That was most likely left over hatred based on years of politicians sending their sons and fathers to distant places to die and then returning them draped in a flag and musicians selling albums at concerts dedicated to the same. Their independence from and indifference to the outside world had been earned.
They had no interest in technology. There was only one computer collecting dust at the public library during all of my formative years. There was no cable television and only one massive satellite dish on the Taylor ranch. The Taylors were the wealthiest family in the area after all. No, here the only important things in life would be discussed at the diner on Sunday mornings after church. The evening news was never as important as who in town needed help with something. Here people looked after each other, kept to themselves and said to hell with everyone and everything else.
Applying for credit was as simple as heading to the grocery store with a note from your mom indicating she would pay the bill when she made her way to town in a few days. You could never get away with anything as a kid. People knew you and knew your parents and someone was always watching making sure that nothing got too out of hand.
It was oddly comforting to hear the rumble of the cattle guards as the wheels of my late model foreign sports sedan passed over the top. I felt a little bit of peace creep into my soul as I paused an extra few seconds at the only intersection with a stop sign. My car didn't fit in with the parade of American made trucks and SUVs any more than I ever had. But it was my hometown.
Life is full of coincidences and the world is a small place. There really is no other way to explain it.
My job required me to travel frequently. When I was younger I almost did not need an apartment. I was never home anyway. As I grew older and wiser, my services were more in demand and my prices went up significantly, but the best part was that I could set my own schedule. During the past fifteen years, as my priorities had shifted to more important things, I was traveling no more than 8 consecutive days once a month, spending the rest of my time working from the safety and comfort of my home. The things I cherished the most were there, my friends, my children and, until very recently, my wife.
Still, I was an expert at living on the road. I had learned all the tricks for maximizing the effectiveness of my time spent in airports and hotels and restaurants. I became an expert at packing. I could tell you the healthiest selection to eat at almost every restaurant in every city I visited. I could also tell you friendliest places to grab a beer in nearly every major city in the United States. That Thursday I was in one of those places. That Thursday, when my life changed forever.
Life is full of coincidences. What if I hadn't developed such a knack for talking to complete strangers? What if I didn't have such a morbid fascination about eclectic people and their various habits? What if I had stayed in my room and gone to sleep at a reasonable hour preparing for my early morning flight home the next day? Would I have been better off? Would my life be any better if I hadn't met him?
I attended a small liberal arts college in the upper Midwest with an outstanding academic reputation, a fine music and choral program and pretty shitty sports teams. It was perfect for me. I know that some of the larger universities in the area had an annual attendance in the tens of thousands. Our college had a total enrollment of thirty-two hundred. It may not sound like much, but it was a far cry from my high school graduating class of fourteen students.
College. What can I tell you? It was different. I arrived on campus a kid, on my own in the world for the very first time, farther away from home than I had ever been. To be honest I was scared shitless. From what I know of college experiences mine was pretty average. I was on full scholarship and knowing that if I lost that funding my college career would be over was enough to keep me on the straight and narrow. I joined the choir and was one of only four students, in the history of the school, who secured a place in the top auditioned choir for all four years. I suppose years of being the only church choir participant under the age of 50 on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings finally did pay off.
My school was unique in the fact that choir members were more popular on campus than athletes. When your football team takes a beating every week and the basketball team fails to qualify for its own conference tournament year after year, it is pretty hard for a jock to claim to be big man on campus. But the choir was nationally known and award winning and we performed to sold-out venues on our annual tour. It may seem like an alternative universe, one where the geeks inherit the world, but it was a perfect fit for me. I excelled during my college years and more importantly I grew up.
My good grades gave me confidence and my status in the choir provided a large group of lifelong friends. I wouldn't trade my four years as an undergraduate for anything in the world.
College was the place where I had my first non-dance related date. It was where I experienced my first real kiss and make-out session and blowjob. Don't get the wrong idea. Those experiences were earned over the better part of my first three years. I was no Don Juan. But I grew from a scared child to a decent looking, confident young man. It wasn't my increased height, which peaked at 6' 2". It wasn't my broadened shoulders or improved bench press. It wasn't my improved comfort level with speaking with anyone about anything. It wasn't the praise of my professors or my election as choir president. It really wasn't any one of those things, but it was, when they were all combined into one complete package.
College was also where I fell in love.
Stacy Henderson was a sophomore transfer student and new member of the choir my senior year. As choir president it was my job to welcome all the new members. Our first meeting was supposed to be nothing more than that. It was supposed to be a quick afternoon meet and greet, perhaps over coffee, something I had done dozens of times. It turned out to be so much more.
Only once in my life have I ever felt that comfortable with someone so quickly. It was that day. After only a few introductory questions, Stacy and I spent the next four hours trading life stories and getting to know each other. We had so much in common it was almost kind of creepy. But I liked Stacy right from the start.
We didn't start dating immediately. In fact we never actually started 'dating' at all. I liked Stacy so much that I always made sure she was invited to any event that was happening. I had a large group of friends, male and female, and we were always up to something. I just made sure that she was included. After a short while she was a full-fledged member of the group.
Stacy was the daughter of an air force pilot and part of a military family. Her father had been killed in a training exercise the summer after her high school graduation. I had no memory of my father because he was killed in a motorcycle accident when I was two years old.
She was an only child, as was I. She never felt like she fit in with the children of the families on the many military bases that she had lived on. She had always been a little more academically minded then her peers. I could relate.
She was far from home, though only one plane ride away from her home in Anchorage, Alaska, which was, coincidentally, only about an hour away from my fraternal grandparent's home near Palmer-Wasilla. They both died before I met them, but I had heard stories about the family rock quarry, way up north, from my mother.
Over the course of our first semester together Stacy became one of my closest friends, probably the closest. That is how we started.
When did our relationship change? I realized what Stacy meant to me the first week of classes during our second semester together. She and I spent every available minute together, after returning from Christmas break, chatting about our holiday and catching up. The Friday after our return it started to snow and it kept on snowing. By mid afternoon, there were five inches on the ground and it was still snowing. Classes were canceled and I hadn't heard from Stacy and I started to worry about her.
I can't tell you why I put on my winter gear and started to walk to her dorm room from my off-campus apartment. The roads were too treacherous to drive on and perhaps deciding to walk the two miles across the campus to her room was not my best decision. But I couldn't reach her on the phone and there was no way I was not going to make sure she was OK.
The roads were horrible but the pathways through campus, which had some shelter because of the massive trees that guarded them, were not too bad. Twenty-five minutes later I was standing in front of her dorm and clearly able to see that the power to her side of campus was out.
Walking into the building I had a goal. Find my Stacy and make sure that she was safe. She wasn't hard to find. All of the residents in the entire dorm were huddled in mass in the first floor commons area. I scanned the blanket covered masses until I found her. She looked up at me at almost the exact same time. That few seconds and her smile and the relief that I felt was such a powerful symbol of what Stacy meant to me. I think she felt to same way.
"Stacy, let's grab your things before it gets dark outside. You can stay with me until the power comes back on."
She displayed a tiny smile and almost whispered her reply.
With that our love was born. There were obstacles to be sure. For example, if the campus utility vehicle hadn't been plowing the sidewalks at the exact moment we started our trek back to my apartment we probably would have gotten stuck and frozen to death during our walk.
Spending that weekend with Stacy was probably the most fun I have ever had alone with a woman that didn't involve sex. We spent Friday night watching movies, snuggled under a blanket, eating frozen pizza and drinking hot chocolate. I slept on the couch and Stacy slept in my bed. We made pancakes on Saturday morning, played board games in the afternoon and had a video game tournament that night. I lost and was forced to slave over the stove making our dinner of hot dogs, potato chips and baked beans. For my efforts, I was rewarded with hand holding during our television time that night and a kiss on the cheek before bed. Sunday morning brought clear skies, clear streets and a stroll to church. After the service and brunch at the diner just off campus we held hands on the way back to her dorm.
The hug and kiss that came at the end of our weekend left a smile on my face for days. After that we were inseparable. Our social activities didn't change much, it's just that we were a couple, Jacob and Stacy.
We never discussed my taking a job in Minneapolis after graduation. There were no tears or worries. My apartment would be an hour away from her dorm room, but it was almost as if we both just assumed that we would make it work. Stacy still had two years of college to finish. I had a career to start.