John Roach: The Northwoods inspires deep conversation

John Roach: The Northwoods inspires deep conversation

By John Roach

It was one of those conversations that spontaneously erupt on the annual ice fishing trip up north with the Chicago guys. We’ve been doing this thing for twenty years.

The first evening, after we build the fire and do the cursory check on everyone’s wives, kids and health, the conversation ambles to whatever is on our collective minds. The guys all work in the creative arts as writers, directors and designers; it’s a seasoned lot with plenty of credits and work with the famous and infamous alike. They have seen it all. The conversations are unfailingly clever, funny and, on occasion, profound.

For example, on the first trip, one of the guys went on a solo snowshoe trek across the lake. He returned, stepped inside the cabin, stomped the snow off his boots and announced that he could no longer stay in his deeply troubled marriage. And he didn’t.

Another year one of the guys was in the midst of aggressive cancer therapy. The talk went to mortality and the notion of an afterlife. The friend with cancer was skeptical about a hereafter. So I took him outside on the deck and pointed to the crystalline spray of stars in the cold winter sky as proof that something greater than us must exist; that something so beautiful and vast could not be happenstance. He waited a moment and said, “Yeah. Well. Other than this.”

We still laugh at his line. And he beat cancer.

This year’s trip found most of us at or near our sixtieth year of life. We joked at how we were once young guns and are now the oldest person in every meeting.

And for some reason that is when I told the guys about my recent dream that was the best I ever had.

Actually, it was a nightmare. In the dream it was a spring day in Madison. I was twenty years old, lost and wandering about the UW campus on graduation weekend. Everywhere I went there were joyous parties for all sorts of graduates who had made their way through school. They all seemed to have a clear idea of what they wanted for their lives. Their happiness matched my misery.

For in this dream I was confused, not in school and without a passion guiding my future. The sense of confusion and sadness was overwhelming. I was flat broke, alone and felt like an utter failure. The sense of fear was overwhelming. Fear that I would amount to nothing. Would find no one to love. Would never make my way in life.

And then, as I told the guys, I woke up. And lo and behold I was in a comfortable bed. In a warm home, with a great wife, three cool kids and a gig I loved. I told the guys that the relief I felt knowing that I wasn’t a miserable failure was total and that, unlike with most dreams, this feeling stayed with me for days. I told them that waking from that nightmare actually made me happy that I was sixty, which is not an easy thing to do.

They all laughed.

Then one of the guys who had been through a rough patch during the economic crash started talking. He told how he had to reconfigure his life. Strip it down. Then he said, “It’s pretty cool when you realize how little you really need to be happy.”

We talked about the primal things that bring the most delight: a warm house, a good reading chair, a great partner with whom to share a bed and nightly shelter from the storm, offspring who actually talk to you.

Fishing conditions were tough this year. The snow was deep. The ice was thick. But we kept at it and late Saturday afternoon, we caught two fish.

They made a good meal. One of the guys said, “These are the best fish we have ever caught.”

We asked him why and he said, “Because they were the hardest for us to catch, and there’s only two of them.”

We all nodded in agreement.

I got up to stoke the fire, still happy to remember a nightmare.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at

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