Show stoppers

“You pretend I’m Laura and I’ll pretend you’re Christian,” Jamie said, putting her hand on my thigh and leaning into me as we watched a production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at an outdoor theater on the coast of St. Ives, England.

The Atlantic was calm, but brought with it a cool breeze perfect for an evening in mid-June. It was even chilly. Coming from hot and humid Indianapolis, I didn’t mind. Jamie from Jersey welcomed it, too.

We were in and out of the dialogue, only picking up a few aphorisms here and there. Mostly we were cuddling. A blanket was wrapped around our torsos. I hadn’t been this comfortable the whole trip, maybe even the whole summer.

“The course of true love never did run smooth,” Lysander said, embracing Hermia by the gazebo, overlooking the ocean. 

The waves were frequent, but not frantic. They were friendly, almost welcoming. 

Hermia blushed and smiled, flattered.

“O cross! Too high to be enthrall’d too low,” she said.

“Hey, look,” Jamie interrupted, louder than a whisper. Others took heed and followed her outstretched arm, including our families: my mom, dad and sister; her mom, dad and brother. 

Four or five dolphins were swimming close to the shore behind the stage, dancing through the water, and leaping, facing our direction, as if saying hello. The way they acted made me think they knew they had an audience and took pleasure in upstaging the thespians. 

People in the crowd started paying attention to the porpoises instead of the story – some more subtly than others. It didn’t take long for the actors to pick up on it.

“O spite! Too old to be engaged too young,” Hermia said, but as she said it, she noticed her Lysander was distracted.

“Alas, Hermia, it appears we have some friends gathering near the shore. Porpoises seizing a moment.”

This got a big laugh out of the crowd of 60-plus. Playfully, Lysander bowed to the dolphins and shared a smile with his partner, who added her own one-liner.

“A delightful disruption,” she said. “Clearly they have found their porpoise.”

The improv brought the crowd back to the actors, who remained in character after asking the crowd to give the scene-stealers a round of applause. We got the impression this wasn’t the first time marine mammals had interrupted.

As the dolphins swam away, giddily hopping in and out of sight, Jamie rested her head on my shoulder, shutting her eyes for a moment. I leaned my head into hers, trying to pretend she was someone else.

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Moving In

She got off her bike and looked in the direction of the U-Haul. When we locked eyes everything escaped me, the past a distant memory. The moment I saw her I stopped caring about it all. 

Stepping off her bike, she walked my way and gave me a smile, a kind, welcome-to-the-neighborhood expression, her dirty blond hair tied in a ponytail, making it easy to see her brown eyes. 

I was about to start my junior year of high school – not old but not too young to recognize this as a moment. I wanted to know everything about her. I wanted to go wherever she’d take me. I started daydreaming then and there. “Pet Sounds” started playing in my head. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” I was so entranced by her confident, welcoming stride I almost dropped the Packard Bell monitor in my hands. 

I nodded to her, grinned. 

Now I have to say something, but what? Easy, Andy…a little at a time. Not too strong.

“Hi,” I said, wanting to say more, wanting to break the ice.

“Hi, she said, stopping about a yard in front of the U-Haul. 

Stop what you’re doing, I thought. So I set down the computer and casually walked down the ramp to greet her, thinking of lines the whole time. 

No pick-up lines. Be cordial…cordial.

“I’m Andy,” I said, sticking out my hand, hoping it wasn’t sweaty. Colorado in August. Hot but not humid, not unbearable like Louisiana. Didn’t miss it.

“Alex,” she said, taking my hand. Her skin was soft…and electric.

Or maybe the electricity was coming from me. My body could have gone into cardiac arrest then and there, and I feared she knew it. She was blushing already.

Be confident. She knows you’re attracted to her and she’s not walking away. She’s curious about you. 

“Welcome to Sandstone,” she said, letting out a small laugh.

Is she nervous, too? Oh, man, if she’s nervous, you’ve got this…just be yourself and let the chips fall where they may.

“It’s good to be here, Alex,” I said, and, for the first time, I meant it. “How do you like it here?”

“Well, I’ve lived here all my life. There are some things – and some people – that drive me crazy. But it’s getting better all the time. I’m actually excited about junior year!”

She was pretty and positive. What a breath of fresh air.

“Me too!” I said, perhaps with too much enthusiasm. “I mean I’m a junior too. 

She blushed again, let out a giggle I couldn’t believe how cute she was.

“You’ve lived here your whole life and we’re classmates. Want to show me around? Give me the grand tour? I want to know all about where I’ve landed.”

“Sure,” she said, giving me her biggest smile yet.

“Where’d you come from?” she added.

Whoa, I kind of blacked out there for a minute. How long was she waiting for me to say something?

“All over,” I answered, finally. “My dad’s military. He was in Baton Rouge last. Great food, great music, hot as hell. Felt like I was in a swamp half the time. I like being in the mountains, but it’s gonna take me a while to get used to suburban life.

“It can get a little redundant. You just have to create your own fun. I’m good at that. Are you?” she asked, a glimmer of mischief in her eye.

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Remembering (and celebrating) Kobe’s greatness

On May 15, 2021, Kobe Bryant was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Below is an entry I wrote in my journal shortly before the coronavirus changed all our lives. Here is updated version of a journal entry I wrote on Kobe, one of the best we’ll ever see. 

It was a few days after January 22, 2006. I was at home in Louisville, spending some time with my parents, taking a break from the University of Kentucky, where I was more into the Wildcats, playing music, getting wasted and studying journalism than I was the NBA.

But during that visit something happened that would reignite my passion for The Association. I picked up the paper and flipped to the Sports section: Bryant scores 81, second highest total.

“It just happened,” Kobe told reporters after shocking the Toronto Raptors…and the sports world. “It’s tough to explain. It’s just one of those things.”

I was standing when I started reading and had to sit down. I wanted highlights immediately, but this was before the days of YouTube, Twitter or the Score App (which I recommend), so it was harder to access. Visiting my parents at that moment made it extra nostalgic. It brought me back to the days I’d pick up the Indianapolis Star, flip to the Sports page and check out the standings. 

Reading about Kobe’s 81 reminded me why I love the game, the game I’d been distant from since November 2004, when my hometown Pacers got in a melee with Detroit Pistons fans in the Palace at Auburn Hills. I was devastated, disappointed and disillusioned. I lost my love for the league in the aftermath, love that was sparked in May of 1995 when Reggie Miller score eight points in nine seconds against Pat Riley’s Knicks at Madison Square Garden. 

That’s what legends do. And, when you’re rooting for them, there’s nothing like it. 

On January 26, 2020, Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gigi and seven of their friends were killed in a helicopter crash in California. 

The sports world stood still. The sports world and beyond. A dark cloud of grief hovered over Los Angeles, and the nation as a whole. 

Even those disinterested in the NBA felt the loss.

Kobe with his family leaving a Lakers home win against the Spurs in 2008. The game was filmed by Spike Lee and featured in the documentary “Kobe: Doin’ Work.”

For those of us who were NBA enthusiasts, Kobe’s loss was a gut punch.

I respected him, I admired him, I hated him, I feared him and I was amazed by him more times than I can recount. 

When the Lakers met the Pacers in the 2000 Finals I couldn’t help but pull for Kobe. Game Four of that series was perhaps his breakout performance. He scored 28 points and – with Shaq fouled out – led L.A. to an overtime victory, giving them a decisive 3-1 lead.

I wasn’t even mad. Kobe was rising just like he said he would. He was becoming a star, and I wanted to witness it. So did Reggie, although Reggie really wanted that championship. Whenever he was close Shaq was there to stomp his dreams. Shaq or Michael Jordan. And now Kobe, the kid from Philly he mentored when he came into the league. Reggie saw a kindred spirit in Kobe. The fire. The will to work. The drive. The outright obsession for the game.

Kobe was a polarizing figure. He took his alpha status to a level that drove some great players and coaches away. He was relentless, uncompromising, cutthroat and vicious.  That ferocity is one of the elements that made him a 5-time champion and the ultimate competitor who defined basketball – who defined greatness – for a generation. He’s the closest to Jordan there’s been and the closest there will ever be. That’s why MJ called him a little brother in his eulogy.

And Kobe spent 20 years with the same team, commitment practically unheard of in today’s NBA. But Kobe always wanted to be a Laker… the ultimate Laker. Many considered this overly ambitious, especially when he was young. But reflecting now, just a few days after he was posthumously inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame by MJ and his wife, Vanessa, it’s safe to say he accomplished what to so many seemed out of reach.

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Christmas Eve at the South Side Tavern

Torrin finished his second Evan Williams and Coke and signaled Seth for another as he and a few other evening bar dwellers took in Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” from the jukebox.

“This song makes me think of shopping,” Seth said, taking Torrin’s generous tip.

“Reminds me I’m gonna have to make a late-night K-Mart run. Second year in a row. It’s becoming tradition. Hopefully it won’t be a ‘Jingle All the Way’ situation. If it comes down to it I have no problem taking out Sinbad for a toy. Santa always delivers at the Swanson house.”

Seth scratched at the corner of his thick black mustache as Torrin started laughing. It was a distinctive, contagious laugh, one stand-up comics either love or hate depending on whether “distinctive laugh” thought their joke was funny.

Multi-colored Christmas lights hung behind the bar, just over the unimpressive top shelf. A few were flashing, and some didn’t have any light left for this year. Harry, a disabled vet and a South Side Tavern regular, sat a few stools down, one of the only other people at the bar. 

His light had also faded. Those who knew him before Vietnam also knew him sober. 

But Torrin wasn’t thinking about Harry. He’d just broken a heart, maybe his own, as well. He wasn’t sure. He felt shattered. 

Shattered, he thought. I never really liked that Stones song, but I’m feeling it now. 

Seth handed Torrin his third drink, the one he’d promised himself he wouldn’t have. He didn’t want to brace the cold. The three-minute walk home felt like an eternity in zero degree weather. 

There are more excuses to drink in the winter, he thought. 

This was his first Montana winter, and it was starting to get to him.

“You alright?” Seth asked. 

“I’m OK, I guess. I don’t know. I left Megan and I feel like shit about it. No one wants to be all alone on Christmas, right?”

“Well, I’m not the best at comforting people in these situations, but weren’t you just in here last week talking about how concerned you were about the relationship?”

On “Thirst Thursday” last week Torrin was having drinks with Wes, the new assistant volleyball coach for the community college, and one of the few Black men in town. He enjoyed being the “token,” as he said, especially when he’d go “cougar hunting,” as he called it.

“If you want out, you gotta get out before the holidays, dog,” Wes told Torrin, his voice smooth and sharp from his days as a radio DJ in Vegas. “They trap you after the holidays. Ain’t no gettin’ out, man. Shit…I’ve been there.”

And here Torrin was on Christmas Eve, no longer “trapped” and unsure how to feel about it.

“Megan is kind,” he told Seth, “but she wants a family of her own, and she’s ready for it now. No hesitation.”

“Nah, that’s not it. Sounds to me like you’re just not into her.” 

Seth gave Torrin a liberal pour of well whiskey with a few squirts of Diet Coke, a $4 double in a plastic cup. When Torrin moved here he didn’t think it was possible to get a stiff drink so cheap. Not in 2009, at least. Clearly he’d never been to Glendive, Montana, a small railroad town on the eastern side of the state surrounded by the rustic beauty of the Badlands. Torrin had never seen anything like it. He often felt like he was living in the Land of the Lost.

“Hey, don’t worry,” said a young Native woman who had taken a seat next to him. She must have been around 22, just a few years younger than Torrin. 

He hadn’t noticed her. 

Had she been there for a while? Had she heard the conversation? 

“Excuse me?” Torrin said politely, turning his attention toward the girl. She wore a tattered blue and white coat and had jet black hair down past her shoulders.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she said, sliding a free drink token to Seth, who nodded and flirtatiously lifted an eyebrow. She took it as her cue. “A Sea Breeze, please.”

“Torrin, right?”

“Yes, and…”

“Jasmine. We met here a few weeks ago, actually, by the jukebox?”

“Oh yeah, Jasmine…”

He realized he didn’t recognize her because she was smiling this time, even had a glow about her. A few weeks ago she was morose. He kept trying to cheer her up by playing something upbeat and positive, but she just wanted to listen to Mazzy Star’s “I’ve Been Let Down.”

“I don’t mean to pry, man, but, seriously, I was just where you were. I was agonizing over what I did wrong and blaming myself for not being able to make it work, but, you know what? Maybe it just wasn’t the right person? Maybe you’ve been killing yourself to make something work that won’t, and it’s not good or bad. It’s fine. You’re not right for each other. So let it go, learn from it and move on.”

“Here’s your free Breeze,” Seth said playfully, sliding the drink into Jasmine’s hand. He nodded over at Torrin. 

“I was just going to tell that sad bastard the same thing, Jazzy.”

The one-liner was just enough to get Torrin laughing again. Seth had a knack for it.

“There’s some truth there,” Torrin said, looking over at Jasmine. “I just feel guilty, you know? Like I was being selfish.”

“Guilt is a useless emotion,” she replied, getting animated with hand gestures. “Get that shit out of your head, man. Think positive and look ahead. Dismiss all that’s behind you. Everything is in front of you. Stay positive and stay in the moment and you won’t lose what good thing might be right in front of you. I almost missed an opportunity last week. Justin kept asking, and I was apprehensive, but I took a chance and I’m glad I did. We had our first date last night and you know what he did? He took me to ‘The Squeakquel’ and even brought flowers! I couldn’t believe it. Who brings flowers to a movie? I didn’t know where to put them, but it was wonderful. No one had been so sweet to me before.”

“The Squeakquel?” Torrin asked.

“The Squeakquel,” Seth interrupted, his tone cheerful and exaggerated, and he emphasized each syllable with jazz hands.

“Shut up,” Jasmine said, laughing slightly, a bright smile on her face. “It was cute.”

“I’m sure it was, Jazzy,” said Seth. “Justin Long voices Alvin. How bad could it be? Fun for the whole family, really. Chipmunks versus Chipettes. An absurd David Cross performance. It might be forgettable years from now, but my son loved it, and I could bear it. The Squeakquel!”

“Yeah, see, Torrin? Don’t mock it until you try it! Anyway, this is about more than the Squeakquel. It’s about lightening up and being open to getting swept away. There’s someone else out there. Trust it.”

“Yeah, Torrin, trust it. You’ll find your Squeakquel,” Seth added.

Torrin burst into laughter again and looked over at Jasmine, her joyful presence brightening the whole bar. He wouldn’t be surprised if some of those burnt out Christmas lights started to flicker again. He looked over at Henry, who had been listening in. He too looked cheerful.

“To finding our Squeakquels,” Torrin said, raising his glass.

“To finding our Squeakquels,” said Jasmine.

Seth handed his two friends drink tokens and let out a laugh so boisterous he almost snorted.

“I’ll drink to that every Goddam day,” he said. “I found my Squeakquel eight years ago, and we made a little squeakquel of our own. You’ll find your Squeakquel, Torrin, or, better yet, she’ll find you.”

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All aboard the “Zhu Choo”

During the pandemic, ZHU, an electronic dance musician and Grammy-nominated recording artist, has made it a mission to “bring people to a place where they’ve never been.” He’s streamed from the mountains of western Japan, the sand dunes of southwestern Utah, and now Central Montana’s Charlie Russell Chew Choo. 

In the 49-minute video called “Billings Locomotive” – part of the Tito’s Vodka Made to Order virtual concert series – ZHU turned the Chew Choo into an electrifying backdrop for a high-energy concert. It was a vision come to life.

According to ZHU executive assistant Kristin Schaeffer, renting out the Charlie Russell Chew Choo was a concept that came completely from the artist. He found it online and wanted to jump on the opportunity.

“He loves Montana and he loves trains,” she said.

ZHU checking out the central Montana scenery while preparing for the shoot

On September 30, ZHU and his crew arrived at the Charlie Russell Chew Choo, where director Joey Vitalari, drone operators, a full band and others got set up for a four-hour ride to and from Denton. This was no typical ride, as the band recorded a 10-song set along the way, which included remixes of some of ZHU’s standout tunes such as “Faded” and “My Life.” It also included a yet-to-be-released track.

 This modern Western was more than just an escape from L.A. for ZHU and company. It also served a higher purpose: to bring attention and drive donations to the non-profit World Central Kitchen, an organization focused on creating smart solutions to hunger and poverty. It particularly emphasizes helping those affected by natural disasters.

Although ZHU is the focus of the video, the stream is also packed with incredible drone footage of the Charlie Russell train, breathtaking scenery and a gorgeous sunset, providing many unfamiliar with the area with an excellent introduction to Russell country.

ZHU and his crew certainly felt that way, as many expressed gratitude for the chance to travel during the pandemic, to perform on a moving train and to be part of this out-of-the-ordinary experience. It was a pleasure for ZHU, as well, who looks forward to performing in more off-the-grid locations.

“We’ve got to keep live music going somehow,” he said.

Check out the video here.

(As published in the Lewistown News-Argus)

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Talent Scout

I jammed along to Blind Melon’s  “No Rain,” watching from my bedroom window as Adam pulled up in his old Mercedes-Benz.

This was one of my favorite things to do. Rock out and night watch. There wasn’t a lot of activity for a Saturday in the suburbs, but that was typical in this ritzy Hamilton Proper Cul-de-sac. Most of the not-so-modest homes surrounding ours had their lights off. Another quiet night. That’s another reason I liked to stay in my room, where I had my Japanese-made Fender Strat and a Peavey amp. Hendrix was all over my walls, so were Zeppelin and Pearl Jam. Music was one of the only things I cared about.

The rain came down lightly, sprinkling the window and coloring the driveway. Adam pulled nearly all the way up to the basketball hoop, almost out of sight. I saw him and a guy with shaggy hair smoking a cigarette get out of the car.

  I set the guitar on my bed and rushed out of the room. My mom, walking out of the master bedroom in her white pajamas, stopped me as I started down the stairs, tapping on the railing like it was a cymbal.

“Is that Adam?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“He can’t stay long. We’re going to sleep.”

“Alright.”

Adam let himself in without knocking.

“Heeeere’s Adam, he said loudly, playfully, as he walked in from the garage and headed straight for the fridge, humming a Barenaked Ladies song. His muddy shoes left a trail on the tile floor.

“Hey, what’s up, man?” I said. “Who’s with you?”

Adam grabbed a can of Sprite, opened and took a sip. Looking down, he noticed his shoes were dirty.

“Oops,” he said, making an exaggerated clown-like face. He set his Sprite on the counter and started to take off his Airwalks.

“This is the guy I’ve been telling you about,” he said, gesturing at Chad to come in through the garage. He’d left the door open. “You want anything to drink, Chad?”

“Wait, State of Bliss Chad?” I asked

“Yeah. We were out cruising and I thought we’d stop by to see your dad’s guitars. It’s a win-win. Chad’s got to see your dad’s Gibson and you’ve got to hear Chad do his thing. He’s the real deal, Troy. Seriously. You’ve got to hear him.”

After chucking his cigarette butt into the yard, Chad walked through the garage and into the house, introducing himself with a hesitant smile.

“Chad,” he said, shaking my hand.

“Nice to meet you, Chad,” I said. “Adam’s really been talking you up. He says I have to hear you sing.”

Chad didn’t look me in the eyes when he talked, although I could hardly see them through his long brown hair. My comment seemed to surprise him.

“Yeah, I guess that’s why I’m here. No pressure, right?”

Buffy, our yellow lab, greeted Adam cordially, but looked at Chad skeptically.

Petting Buffy, Adam kept talking.

“Chad should play with us at the dance studio,” he said. “He should do an acoustic set, followed by State of Bliss. You ready to make this happen, Troy? Come on, let’s do this.”

I could hear my mom coming down the stairs. Before she was visible, she was audible.

“Adam, it’s pretty late. If you guys are going to play guitars, keep it down,” she said, hardly in sight, but she got her point across.

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Daschle. No electric guitars tonight, just an acoustic set. Troy has to hear Chad.”

“Chad?”

“You want to meet him?”

“Oh, no, no, that’s OK. You boys do your thing. Just keep it down. We are headed to bed.”

“Don’t worry, mom,” I said.

As my mom went back up the stairs, Chad, Adam and I headed into the basement, where we gathered in my dad’s guitar room. Flyers, newspaper clippings, pictures of guitars, travels through Europe, posters of movies and musicians littered the wall.

“This is a bad-ass room,” Chad said, captivated by the montage.

“I love this wall, too,” I said. “My dad put it together, mostly. I found a lot of flyers to help with it. Look at this one. It’s one of my favorites.”

I pointed to a flyer for “Blues, Inc.,” featuring “the guy who played sax on Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street,’” promoting their show at the Golden Lion in St. Ives, England.

“We went to St. Ives last summer,” I said. “It was awesome. That night was actually the first time I got a little drunk. My mom wanted to see how I’d act if I was tipsy. I got pretty into the band, but there were definitely too many sax solos. Like two a song or something.”

Chad continued to look at the wall: B.B. King and Bobby Bland Live at the Star Plaza, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, vintage Beatles and Rolling Stones posters, a Jonny Lang promotional poster and the list went on. Chad put his hands in his pockets, said nothing, and displayed a blank expression.

“I wish I was rich,” he said, perhaps more audibly than he’d anticipated.

In the corner of the room was a Gibson acoustic on a stand. Adam picked it up gently, idolizing it.

He sat down on a stool and started tuning it to itself.

“What do you think, Chad?” he said. “You ready to play?”

“That’s a sweet guitar,” Chad said. “You sure your dad won’t mind?”

“No, man, it’s cool,” I said. “Play me something.”

Adam stood up and held the Montana-made Gibson out to him like he was giving a ninja a samurai sword.

“It’s ready for you,” he said.

“Holy shit,” Chad said, sitting down on the stool, feeling out the guitar, playing it gently using only his fingers. After massaging an E chord for a while, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a nylon pic.

“Play ‘Lucky’,” Adam said. “Troy, you’ve got to hear him play ‘Lucky.’ He sounds just like the Seven Mary Three guy.”

“I don’t know, man,” Chad said. “I haven’t played that one much.”

“But you nailed it last time you played it. Dude, really, come on.”

“Play whatever you feel like playing,” I said.

“No, dude, play ‘Lucky,’” Adam said to Chad, then he looked over at me. I could tell he was getting annoyed. “Really, you’ve got to hear him play ‘Lucky.’ It’s better than Seven Mary Three.”

“Like I said, no pressure,” Chad said, shrugging. “I’ll play it, alright?”

Gently and quietly, Chad started playing, smiling a little as he got showy with his picking, loving the sound of the new Elixir strings.

As he played, his body relaxed, and he closed his eyes. He started to sing.

“Mean Mr. Mustard said he’s bored of life in the district,” he sang. “He can’t afford French Quarter high, said it gets old real quick.”

Chad started to get into it, the veins in his neck showing, the voice straining with the rasp that made a number of grunge singers famous.

“See, Troy, see? I told you he’s good. Doesn’t he sound just like the Seven Mary Three guy? He sounds just like him. You sound just like him, Chad.”

His eyes burning into me, I could tell Adam was proud. I looked over at the big, tall, curly-haired friend and saw him nodding just like he did when he had me hear April, the singer of our band.

“Yeah, you called it, Adam,” I said. “He’s got it.”

Chad kept playing, escaping the moment, escaping his world, losing himself in the second verse. He didn’t even seem to try. It just came naturally. I loved him and hated him for it.

“Divine apathy, disease of my youth, watch that you don’t catch it,” Chad sang.

Adam stopped his celebration and sat down on the chair by the computer, crossing his legs and listening intently, flipping a switch.

I stood by the entrance of the guitar room, mesmerized by how Chad captured and embodied the sound of our era: late-nineties alternative rock. I knew without hearing him try that he could sound like Eddie Vedder or Kurt Cobain, but what I wanted to hear was his own voice.

“Why don’t you play something you wrote?” I asked him.

Knowing he’d captivated us, Chad was confident, sitting up in the stool, the hesitant smile now looked a little cocky.

“OK, man, I’ve got one in mind,” he said. “I just wrote it.”

“Have I heard it?” Adam asked.

“No, man. I don’t think anybody has.”

“A debut, Troy. This is it right here, man. Lay it on us.”

“Shut up, Adam,” Chad said. “Alright, I might fuck it up.”

“Don’t worry about that, man,” I said. “You’re not on stage.”

Chad took a deep breath and started playing a catchy riff that reminded me of Staind’s “It’s Been Awhile” but slower and definitely its own sound.

“If I could turn back the hands of time,” Chad sang, his eyes closed again, as he reacquainted himself with past emotions. “You would still be mine.”

In one verse and a chorus, Chad went from angry to sad, from regretful to pained. He knew where the emotion lived in each breath. Longing. Discomfort. Angst. I couldn’t wait to see him on stage.

“See, Troy, see?” Adam said proudly. “I know what I’m talking about. This is the guy right here. This is the guy!”

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Falling Out

“I wonder how we look to other people,” Penny said. “Do you think we look happy?”

She took a sip of her Guinness and stared blankly into the mirror behind the bar. under a poster for “The Commitments,” a movie we both loved about an Irish soul band.

We were at O’Connell’s Pub on Main Street in Lexington, Kentucky, a bar we’d never gone to before. I’d just returned from a trip to Spain and the same old haunts didn’t seem so appealing, especially since I wanted to talk about the future.

The scruffy bartender hated my Manchester United coat.

“Man U?” he said in a rich Irish accent. “I shouldn’t serve you.”

At first I thought he was joking, but he was stone cold.

He didn’t give two shits if Penny and me were happy.

I looked around the bar. There were three frat guys sitting adjacent to us; there was a couple that also looked college-age playing shuffleboard; a middle-aged man sat at the bar by himself drinking scotch. Between drinks he used his hand to hold his head up.

No one noticed us.

“People are too caught up in their own lives to wonder one way or another,” I told her.

“You really believe that?”

“Usually.”

“Well, what do you think? Are we happy?”

I took a good look at Penny and knew her answer to the question. She took a long sip from her Guinness and looked in the mirror again, brushing her red hair back with the hand not holding the beer. She sat up straight on the bar stool and crossed her skinny legs, then uncrossed them. I got the feeling she was trying to find a posture that would look the coolest. She wasn’t comfortable in her own skin enough to just sit comfortably.

I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin, either. I’d been back for a week and the magazine I was writing for just went under. My lease was up in a month and I didn’t want to stay in Kentucky. I’d decided to flee for Montana and pick up a bartender job. My parents were there and my dad had been encouraging me to get my ass out there since my I lost my writing gig.

Penny didn’t know.

“I’m not happy,” I said plainly. “This place isn’t doing it for me. It’s not the kind of town I want to hold onto if I can’t do what I love. If I have to tend bar I’d rather do it in Montana and figure things out from there.”

Penny was working at Starbucks. She hated it. We’d both graduated from the University of Kentucky in December. It was April now and nothing was tying us to the area anymore. She was from Calgary and I was from Indiana, but our families had both relocated. There was nothing calling us to go back, there were no roots. We were free to create our own futures. We could go anywhere.

In June Penny’s mother – who also lived in Lexington – was moving to Denver. Penny wanted us to join her.

“What happened to going somewhere together?” she asked. “It doesn’t have to be Denver. What about Louisville? There is a culinary school there I like and you could get a job for a paper there. I’m sure you could.”

I was drinking Wild Turkey on the rocks and my glass had been empty for some time now. The bartender knew it, but he didn’t care.

“Another Wild Turkey over here,” Penny told the bartender.

Reluctantly, he grabbed my glass and refilled.

“I don’t want to live in Louisville, I don’t want to live in the Midwest,” I said. “I want a fresh start off the grid.”

“Without me?”

She was persistent, but, like me, she was lost. We wanted to believe we were looking for the same thing, that we were heading the same direction, but we weren’t, and I couldn’t pretend.

“I’m sorry, Penny.”

The bartender set down my Wild Turkey and I took a sip right away, quickly, spilling a little on my thick, fluffy beard.

“This is just about your job,” she said. “It’s not about us, it’s not about me. You’re only thinking of yourself. Don’t you know we’re in this together?”

“We’re not really in this together,” I said. “We’re just too afraid to be alone.”

Her face reddened as she slammed her Guinness.

“I told you I loved you. Do you know how hard that was for me?”

Penny took a deep breath and stood up. She looked around again to see if people were watching us. One of the frat guys was, so was the bartender.

“Finish your drink. I want to go.”

Before I could respond she started walking toward the door, sticking me with the tab.

“You get a new coat and you’ll have better luck with the women,” the bartender said. “Guaranfuckinteed.”

When I stepped outside Penny was standing by my jeep with her arms crossed, pacing. Behind her was a nice view of the new courthouse square and fountain. Downtown had been renovated and cleaned up. Lexington was getting ready for the FEI World Equestrian Games. It had two years to prepare.

Lexington in April was often unfavorable. It was chilly, windy, with a steady sprinkling of rain.

We got in the car and said nothing. Penny grabbed onto me and started crying before I could start the ignition.

I held Penny, kissed her forehead and told her it was going to be alright.

“Can you do something for me?” she asked.

“Of course.”

“Define your love for me. You told me you loved me. What does that mean to you?”

Rain hit the windshield harder as I took in the question.

Penny wasn’t like the other girls I’d met in Lexington. She wasn’t a hipster. We never had a 45-minute discussion about the best Ryan Adams album; she didn’t obsess over Andrew Bird.

She was a writer, and I loved her latest screenplay. It was a western revenge story that exemplified the morals and life lessons from James Owen’s Code of the West, especially “know where to draw the line,” “keep promises,” and “be tough but fair.”

Coincidentally, her screenplay inspired me to head west.

But Penny was different in her writing than she was in reality, and so was I. The headstrong, romantic letters we’d write while I was abroad captured what we longed for but not what we had, and we knew it when I returned, we knew it after we made love. We were cold, distant. confused. We were detached, smoking weed and watching “Deadwood.”

We could pour our hearts out to each other while we were thousands of miles away but had little to say to each other face to face.

I only knew her on the page, and she only knew me there, too. The people we loved didn’t truly exist.

“My love for you isn’t real,” I said. “I love the idea of you, not who you truly are, not who we are. It’s fiction.”

She looked at me blankly.

“You’re running away from me,” she said.

“I’m not running away from you. I just want to take this journey on my own to figure out who I am. I can’t love you if I don’t know who I am. Can you understand?”

“You want me to understand you but you aren’t making any effort to understand me. I want to bust out of this town, too, but I’ve got six more months before I get a chance to get the money I need to be a little more free on the road. All I am asking is that you wait a bit before you run off to Montana. And stop overthinking so much. Who I am on the page is who I am right here, right now. Don’t give me that.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “My mind is made up.”

“You’re going to regret it. Moving to the mountains is better as a thought than a reality.”

“Funny, that’s how I feel about us.”

Penny reached into her purse and grabbed a cigarette.

“Take me home.”

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Senior reporter grateful to be considered family

“You’re family, Charlie.”

That was Lynn Toller’s reaction when I told her I was leaving the News-Argus to take a position with the Lewistown Chamber of Commerce.

She gave me her sad puppy face. Those of you who know her have probably seen it and know she’s perfected it with help from her cockapoo, Sadie Sue.

In November Lynn celebrates 40 years with the News-Argus. That makes my eight years seem like no time at all.

Reflecting on that eight years, it’s amazing to think of how much has changed since I started in April of 2012. I came in not knowing anyone in this town. I’d visited once and hiked the Lewistown Overlook trail, hopped around Main Street and saw the town’s charm and potential. At the time I was a reporter in Glendive. Knowing the News-Argus was part of the same company (Yellowstone Newspapers) I kept the destination in mind.

That was a good idea.

I didn’t know what my goal was when I first clocked in, but the experience has far exceeded any expectations, whatever they may have been.

The community has embraced me and taught me so much. It’s amazing what you can learn from people when you set your intention to listen, and I’ve enjoyed hearing stories from many different walks of life.

There have been many changes in the office through the years. Editor Deb Hill and I have worked with six different reporters, three different sports editors and five different graphic designers. We’ve weathered many storms and overcome a lot of adversity together, and I’m proud to say we’ve been rewarded for it by winning our division’s coveted “General Excellence” award three years in a row.

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We had a great run at the News-Argus, winning many first-place awards for our local coverage.

“Are you sad?” Lynn asked me the other day, giving me the sad puppy face again.

“Yes,” I said.

“You’ll come and see us, won’t you?”

“Of course.”

I’ll miss working with Deb, Lynn, publisher Jacques Rutten and the rest of the gang. There are many fun memories, many of which are inside jokes that are hard to relay here without using up much of my column space for context. We’ve shared a lot of laughs. Believe it or not the newsroom meetings were almost always fun.

It’s never easy to leave a crew you enjoy, but it’s even harder to leave a community you love, so I’m staying put with my wonderful wife, Kari, who I met at an open mic night at the Rising Trout Café shortly after moving here. We’ve been through it all together and I’m continually grateful for encouragement and support.

This will be a big change, but change can be good. It’s not something to fear or avoid. It can be trying, but it’s worth it, because you learn about yourself every time you try something new, and that’s what I’m ready to do here. It will be an interesting adventure at the Chamber and I look forward to working with new director Jo McCauley.

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I’m on a new journey, but I’m not going far, as I’m grateful to stay in central Montana.

Nevertheless, there is much I will miss about sharing the stories of Central Montana. It’s been a pleasure to sit down and learn about your lives and I’m grateful for those times we’ve had together. Thanks for your trust, for your openness and for making this a wonderful place to live.

This is not the end – it just changes our relationship, and I look forward to seeing you around because, like Lynn said to me, I consider you all family, as well.

(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus June 6, 2020)

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Choosing happiness in a time of uncertainty


Looking for something upbeat?

Based on the novel by French writer Francois Lelord, “Hector and the Search for Happiness” is a fitting watch for the moment, as it takes the viewer on a journey to discover what it means to be happy. Hector (Simon Pegg), a London psychiatrist struggling both personally and professionally, impulsively goes on a happiness-seeking quest, which takes him to Shanghai, the Himalayas, Africa and Los Angeles, where he makes new friends and visits some old ones (including his ex-girlfriend, played by Toni Collette).

Hector was looking to get out of a rut. He felt like a fraud. How can he tell people to be happy if he didn’t know what it means to be happy? The shrink lost sight of what really mattered, something that can happen to any of us. This crisis we’re facing, however, gives us an opportunity to hit the reset button, to reprioritize and refocus. It’s a time to ask some of those difficult questions, such as “Am I happy?” “Am I living the life I want to live?” and “What are some things I love that I have neglected?”

It’s so easy to get overrun with commitments and obligations. We can make ourselves so busy we forget what kind of life we were after in the first place. Personally, I feel like there are a lot of blessings when it comes to our current situation. There is tragedy, yes, and there is fear, but there is also discovery…and self-discovery. Now can be the time to work on that project you’ve dreamed of doing, be it writing a novel, building a deck, building a sports car or something else. It’s obviously not the time to travel, but it can be that time to finally read that book you’ve been putting off. If you’re fortunate enough to be quarantined with your family, even better: play “Scrabble” with your wife. Watch movies with the kids. I can tell you our household is grateful for Disney + and Netflix. Hulu comes in handy, too.

We all have different ideas when it comes to happiness, and far too often it eludes us, but that doesn’t have to be the case. What Hector ultimately decides is that he already has everything he needs to be happy, and I’ve arrived at a similar conclusion. Happiness lies in being present. It lies in listening to others, offering compassion and not focusing so much on yourself. Slow down, be mindful, don’t worry so much about the past or the future. As I read in “The Book of Joy,” “We must try to be conscious about how we live and not get swept away by the modern trance, the relentless march, the anxious accelerator.”

This, of course, is easier said than done. It takes practice. It takes continual reminders, but it can be done with intention. As Professor Coreman (Christopher Plummer) says in the aforementioned film, “We should concern ourselves not so much with the pursuit of happiness but with the happiness of pursuit.”

(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus)

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Seeking Solace in Song

“Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul

I want to get lost in your rock n’ roll and drift away”

I’ve always known this comforting chorus, but I never really connected to Dobie Gray’s 1973 smash hit until recently, when my friend Troy in Glendive requested I play it on my live stream.

I told Troy to pick a song – any song – and I’d play it for him so we could celebrate his recent news of remission.

“I’ve been hearing and feeling it lately,” he said. “There’s something about it.”

Music is the foundation of my friendship with Troy. It all started at Reynold’s grocery store when I complimented him on his Bruce Springsteen “Darkness on the Edge of Town” T-shirt. I told him I was a big Springsteen fan, but Troy was a super fan. He knew every song and every album. Through the years he’d send me iconic live recordings, rarities and underrated albums. As a result, I’ve learned a lot about “The Boss,” a lot about Troy and a lot about life.

So when I asked my friend what song he’d like me to play I was certain it’d be Springsteen. It almost was, as he first suggested “Promised Land,” but he quickly changed his mind.

As I gave “Drift Away” a listen, I tried to think of when I heard it first and couldn’t place it. I feel like it’s always been there, often blaring on oldies radio stations. It’s one of those summertime feel-good jams or wedding reception dance numbers. It’s timeless.

There was one moment that really stuck in my mind, when the song took a new meaning. It was my 21st birthday in Bloomington, Indiana, when the mysterious, always well-dressed Curtis Crawford played a Delta-blues-inspired version of the tune at my party. For the first time I was entranced and captivated by the words. Working on the song for the first time, I thought of Curtis – an older gentleman kind enough to share life experiences and music with– and I thought about why he chose that song that day. I thought about why Troy chose it. What is it about this song?

That’s when the third verse spoke to me.

Thanks for the joy that you’ve given me

I want you to know I believe in your song

The rhythm, the rhyme and harmony

You help me along, making me strong

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Playing in Glendive, 2010, freeing my soul

It was music that strengthened Troy as he fought his way free of cancer, it was the music that helped Curtis get through his hard times and it’s music I find strengthening many of us during this trying time for our world. On Sunday night, as I struggled with the loss of my grandfather to the coronavirus, I turned to Casey and Jeff Sanders’ Joy Valley Hymns live stream. As they sang, “Hope has not abandoned me,” my spirits lifted and sorrow subsided. That’s the beauty of music, be it “Drift Away,” Springsteen, the Sanders’ unique contemporary takes on old hymns or something else. If you’re struggling right now, I encourage you to turn on music that brings you joy, something that frees your soul and helps you along. For me, I’ve been turning to Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” and The Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine,” but, really, the list is endless. Put on the music that speaks to you. I hope it brings you comfort.

(As published in the Lewistown News-Argus and Glendive Ranger Review)

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