In Nebraska: Old friends, "Mad Men" and chatting about divorce

Trapped in my car hurtling through a wintry mix, I thought about the friend I left behind

By Joan Walsh

Published April 11, 2013 4:00PM (EDT)

I'm driving cross-country with my dog, Sadie.
I'm driving cross-country with my dog, Sadie.

I feel I’ve failed you again, dear reader, in that I’m not discovering roadside kitsch or figuring out why red state people like their guns or (sometimes) think Obama wasn’t born here. This weather spooked me, and I’m driving crazy fast when I’m driving.

It was hard to leave my friend Mary’s house Wednesday morning once we heard there was going to be snow all day across Nebraska. Both fireplaces were lit, there was coffee and muffins, Sadie was happy with her pack, the gorgeous Golden Retrievers Max and Malie, and I was headed to Nebraska? Why?

A word about Mary. I met her through Open Salon, she was one of the fantastic originals, and we connected through our writing right away. She came to our crazy Salon party at the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, where Glenn Greenwald and Duncan Black cavorted with Joe Klein (no, they didn’t cavort, although they were all there) and Arianna Huffington came for a minute and left her lovely sister Agape while she departed in a limo for dinner with celebs (which was all good) and Gov. Ed Rendell dropped by and a bunch of Open Salon people came and they were pretty much my favorites. There was Dave Cullen, of course, my writer on the Columbine school shootings, still a year or two away from his award-winning book, and I’m sure there were other people, and then there was Mary.

We connected. A psychotherapist who specializes in blended families, she had a mordant, deadpan Irish Catholic wit about tragedy, but a wit that cracked things open rather than burying them. She has kids in San Francisco and so I’ve seen her a bunch of times there, and when she invited me during my trip, I said yes.

Aside from our amazing blizzard hike -- for which her friend Chris, an actual incredibly kind former stranger, provided a down coat and size 11 hiking boots I didn't think to bring -- we watched the Louisville-Michigan game and both Giants-Rockies games (she was gracious when my Giants won). We were both shattered by the "Mad Men" season premiere, rewinding to hear dialogue and haunted the next day. Before I left, she swept off my snowbound car.

Then she gave me a road survival kit, complete with an unopened package of salami, almonds, yogurt raisins, protein bars and Red Bull. A survival kit I should have packed myself, except I thought this was a lark.

It is not a lark. It has been snowing and/or raining and/or sleeting and/or blowing like fuck for the last three days. A few times a day I wonder what I was thinking, and why it was so easy 28 years ago -- or why I remember it as easy.

One thing I didn’t have driving west 28 years ago was so many friends in so many states.

I felt so lucky to have Mary. But why was I leaving? Now Sadie was alone. Dogs are pack animals.

Despite the screechy weather reports, there wasn’t snow all day across Nebraska. I found some at Julesberg, Colo., where I got gas and ran Sadie hard.

Otherwise there were occasional flurries, but I didn’t see actual snow again until we got to Lincoln, Neb., and checked in to the dog-friendly La Quinta. Again I threw the ball in an empty parking lot as it snowed. This was getting a little depressing, and then not really: throwing that ball to Sadie, and watching her climb up a hill of gravel and some branches someone had cleared, that felt good. Or at least seemed like it should feel good, especially if someone with a cosmic scorecard was watching me.

Then I went across the street for another romantic carry-out dinner, this time at Mazatlan II. Since Yelp praised its margaritas, I had the Bartender’s Special (just one) while I waited for my order. I was glad I was only across the street. The food was also great, but the restaurant was empty because of the unseasonal snow, and so the staff was especially friendly.

I chatted up a waiter and upon figuring out we were both divorced, he began to tell me that Mexicans had much to learn from “Americans” about healthy, functional post-divorce families. He and his ex-wife don’t speak; their extended families are estranged. But his American friends have divorces like mine: early there's tension, but then folks are functional, everybody’s at everybody’s birthday parties. (Suddenly I wish Mary was here, she's the expert on this!) But I tried to represent: I told him yes, I attend birthdays for Nora’s half-brother, who also spends Christmas with us, even though he’s Jewish. (And if occasionally I tell my daughter, “Shoot me now,” because one of our family occasions is unbearable, she knows I never mean it.)

But sadly, my new friend feels his kids have been given a social death sentence because of the outcomes known about children of divorce. And his family reinforces that. Nobody thinks these kids can do well in school, in life. They're ruined. I'm sad. I tell him it isn’t always easy for a lot of “Americans” – I try the term “white people” but he doesn’t pick it up, he says “Americans,” and I don’t bug him to figure out who he means by it. But clearly things are changing, and he perceives that “Americans” do know it’s possible to have a kind of divorce that’s better for the kids than the bad kind of divorce -- so maybe his people can figure that out too.

I tell him he could be an evangelist for the idea that the less-friction divorce works better for kids. Research shows that, I say, and I promise to send him studies. A popular waiter at a popular Mexican restaurant might do more to change community attitudes than any social worker or politician.

I don’t know if he believes me, but he’s thinking about it. Of course I don’t have data showing that Latino divorces are any more acrimonious or hurtful to their kids than everyone else’s, but he seemed genuinely sad, and I felt I had wisdom to impart: I’m an expert on the good divorce.


I have been trying to hook up with some Keystone XL pipeline opponents down here, including people having their land taken from them nearby, but the weather set me back and it may not happen. In that case I’ll do the interviews via email, and forge on to Chicago. Which will make tomorrow another day of nothing but driving, but I promise to either do or think something fascinating.

I can’t get over that "Mad Men" season premiere, can you?

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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Colorado Divorce Driving Miss Sadie Joan Walsh Nebraska Sadie Snow