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by Nick Arvin
Below is the text of my remarks about Cort McMeel, delivered at the Lighthouse’s memorial tribute to Jake Adam York and Cort McMeel, which was held last Saturday on the lawn of the Milheim House as the sun settled behind the Rockies.
I only knew Cort for about four or five years, but he had become one of my very best friends in the world.
Among the handful of smart things I’ve done in my life, one of them was to introduce Cort to Mike and Andrea and the Lighthouse, back in 2009. If I hadn’t, eventually someone else would have, but still, I’m very proud of that.
I could probably talk about Cort all night, but I want to narrow my comments down to two topics. Cort as a storyteller, and Cort as a father.
1. As storyteller.
Whenever I talked about Cort to someone who hadn’t met him, this is the story I told.
So Cort calls me one day. This was back when I didn’t really know him all that well. He calls me out of the blue one day and he says he broke his back. He says he just got out of the hospital and he’s at home in bed and he can’t move one leg and he can barely move the other. He might be dealing with some permanent paralysis. He says the doctors hope it will get better, but who knows. You can hear in his voice that he’s in a lot of pain, and that he’s also kind of loopy on painkillers.
I say, Oh my god, this is horrible. How did this happen?
Cort explains that he’s begun working on a novel about ultimate fighting, or cagefighting. So he found a place here in Denver where they train for this. And he’d only been there a couple of times, before they pur him into the ring with this huge guy. Cort had been a boxer, but this guy just grabs him and lifts him and body slams him and now Cort can barely move his legs.
Well. A couple of days go by. And then I call Cort, to see how he’s doing. I say, How’s your back?
Cort says, Oh, you heard about that?
I say, You called me, remember?
He doesn’t remember.
But his back is doing much better now. Some pain, but no paralysis. He can get around. He’s starting physical therapy. And then he says, It’s amazing you can do so much damage to yourself just by swinging a golf club.
I say, Cort. You told me you broke your back doing ultimate fighting.
He laughs. He says, I’m surprised I didn’t tell you I was fighting ninjas.
Now, in my day job, I am engineer. I grew up in the stoic Midwest. And where I grew up, you don’t mess with the facts. So I was surprised and puzzled by Cort’s flexible attitude toward facts. I paid attention to it.
Most writers can’t sit down at a bar and tell you a good story. In fact, most writers are introverts who are terrible at sitting down at a bar and telling you anything. But Cort was great at it. He was a raconteur.
Several times I heard Cort tell a story about a dinner at a wedding, where he got into an argument with another guest about the merits of Moby Dick. Cort, of course, stood for all that is pro-Moby Dick. Cort’s version of the story about the argument over Moby Dick always ended with Cort so enraged, that he stood up, grabbed the table where a dozen or more wedding guests were sitting, with all their food and glasses of wine and fancy plates, and he roared and flipped it over.
Now Sharon, Cort’s wonderful wife, has always been a little more, we might say, grounded, than Cort. Once, I heard Sharon tell the same story. And I noticed that the table didn’t get flipped over at the end.
But the point, I believe, is that that was how he felt. That was how mad he was, that was much he loved Moby Dick. The table flipping over may not have been factual, but it was emotionally truthful. That story left you with an image, and a truth. Cort was the kind of guy who was ready to flip over tables in defense of Moby Dick. I don’t know if he ever did or not, but he certainly was ready to do it.
Every writer here knows this distinction between fact and truth. It’s at the core of good storytelling. The importance of truth over fact. We writers know it, and we know how important it is in our writing. But most of us leave it there, in the writing. Cort didn’t just leave it there. He couldn’t if he tried. The things that writers struggle and sweat to bring to the page, Cort brought by instinct, to everything.
What I realized was that he was not just manipulating facts in the service of self-aggrandizement. As often as not, his modifications to the facts made him look like a fool and an oaf. This served two purposes. It made the story more interesting, and it disarmed the person he was speaking to. It gave that person room to tell their own heartfelt, embarrassing stories.
When you talked with Cort, he rarely bothered with idle chitchat. He wanted to know your craziest stories. He wanted to know what you were most passionate about. He wanted to encourage your passions.
That, it seems to me, was what his storytelling was really about. About connecting with people, and creating a space where they could be themselves. He worked hard at making those connections and creating those spaces, and he succeeded, and that is why so many of us felt so deeply affected by him.
2. As a father.
At the Lighthouse I think many of you knew Cort as a writer, and a teacher, and an editor, and maybe as a raconteur at the bar. Because my son, Cade, is close in age to Cort’s children, Marlow and Connor, Cort and I sometimes hung out with the kids on a weekend, at home, at the pool, at the museum. And I got to know Cort, as a father, and I want to say a few words about that.
Cort loved both his children, and I know he saw an awful lot of himself in Marlow. But with me he talked about Connor most of all. Connor has an analytical, scientific mind that was a source of both pride and puzzlement for Cort. Since I’m an engineer, I think Cort thought maybe I could help him figure out how Connor’s mind worked. We talked about Connor’s friends, how he was doing at school, the pictures he drew, the sports he was or was not interested in. Connor is quite an expert on various small critters, and Cort loved to tell stories about Connor baffling professors and museum curators with the breadth of his knowledge.
The last time I saw Cort, he was excited because Connor had developed a sudden extracurricular interest in learning German. Cort had told Connor that German is the language of scientists, engineers, and Teutonic barbarians.
Once, after Connor and my son, Cade, had spent some time together, working on an enormous drawing of some medieval battle, Cort told me, very passionately, that those two are really special. “Of course everyone thinks their kids are special, but those boys are really special. I see it in Cade and I see it in Connor and I know you see it, too,” he said. “They’re working on a different level than everyone else. Their minds go to a different place. They’re going to do great things, they’re going to be better than us, better than their dads, and we’re lucky to have them for our sons.”
When he said something like this, he said it so passionately, it helped me to see that I did believe it, that I had believed it all along, although my Midwestern, engineering mind never would have thought to articulate it.
Probably the discussion we had most often about the boys revolved around the stories they were interested in. Connor, with his scientific mind, enjoys studying big catalogs of insects or amphibians. Cort would go along with this for a while, but he found it to be rather dry stuff. He was always trying to figure out a book he could read to Connor to tempt him back into stories. And we talked about the stories the boys told us. Cort was never prouder than when showing me a terrific, illustrated storybook that Connor had created, about a Roman campaign against the barbarians, with wonderfully drawn pictures of the Romans in rigorous formations battling the chaotic barbarians.
Cort said he was sure that the barbarians were a metaphor for himself.
You see how it all comes back to stories.
I am lucky to have known Cort. I learned a lot from him, about how to tell stories, how to be a father, and how to live….
(See also: Remembering Cort McMeel.)