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I’m Roland Merullo, the “Pa” of this Substack. I published my first novel, Leaving Losapas, with Houghton Mifflin in 1991, and have made a living only from writing—novels, works of non-fiction, essays, articles, reviews, conferences—for the past twenty-four years. Before that, I worked as a carpenter in northwestern Massachusetts and southern Vermont for the better part of a decade, drove a cab in Boston, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia, worked on United States Information Agency exhibitions in the former U.S.S.R. for 28 months between 1977 and 1990, and taught at various places, including Bennington and Amherst colleges. You can find more details on my Wikipedia page, or my website, RolandMerullo.com. I’ve been married to Amanda Stearns Merullo for 44 years, and our greatest joy in life has been raising our two daughters, Alexandra (Zanny) and Juliana, here in the hills of Western Massachusetts. We all share a love of travel, food, storytelling, and laughter. I once spoke fluent Russian, but I’m rusty in that area now and concentrating on learning Italian.
Over to you, Zan.
I’m Zanny Merullo Steffgen, the “Zan” of this Substack. Inspired by my pa, I’ve kept up a writing hobby since childhood, and had my first pieces published when I was in my teens. After moving to Cambodia at age 20, I landed a contributor position with a publication to write about my experiences living abroad, and soon started my first full-time freelance copywriting job. I kept up with both copywriting and article writing while building a restaurant career (first in Massachusetts where I grew up, then in Cambodia, and eventually in the ski resort town of Telluride, Colorado), and finally returned to full-time freelance writing in 2021. As a kid, I never thought I’d follow in my father’s footsteps, but as an adult I’m sure glad I did. In addition to marketing copywriting, I now focus on teaching freelance writing (through my course site feelgoodfreelancewriting.com) and writing travel and food & beverage articles, and my work has appeared in Insider, Adventure.com, Going, Glug Wine, FanSided, and Scuba Diving Magazine, among numerous other publications—you can see my portfolio at zannymerullosteffgen.com. I live with my husband on the Colorado Front Range, where I fight cystic fibrosis and write full-time to afford our various adventures in the US and beyond!
Hi Zan, Hi Pa
October 1, 2023
HI ZAN: The woman I call “Amanda” and you call “Mom” made an interesting comment the other day. She noted that both you and I are in stages of life that represent transitions and are filled with new opportunities and touched with some anxiety. At 70 (as of a few days ago), I’m moving into the last lap of the long race of life and, at 25, you’re entering full adulthood with all its joys and challenges. Care to say something on the subject?
HI PA: As usual, an astute observation from Mom! I remember asking you as a kid when adulthood begins, and you always replied “at 25.” Even though I took on adult responsibilities much earlier—I worked instead of going to college and have lived away from home since age 20—when I turned 25 I felt like a new level of adulthood began. I’m no longer new to my career, for one, and I’ve noticed that friendships have drifted to the background rather than being the main focus of life. I’ve also been married for three years now, and my husband and I are approaching big decisions like when and where to start a family and how to buy a house. I guess you could say I’m having a quarter-life crisis, stuck in between different phases of life and identities, coming up on some choices and questions that will define my future. Despite insisting in the past that I was a real adult in my early twenties, I have to admit that you were right about the whole 25 thing, Pa! Do you remember feeling that way at my age? Is it anything like the transition period you’re entering now?
PA: I love the ‘quarter-life crisis’! You should copyright it.
ZAN: It’s a good one, but I definitely didn’t come up with it. Sounds like an American sentiment to me!
PA: When I was 25 I was much more confused and much less mature than you are, Zan; that’s just the truth. Mom and I were living together in a junky apartment in the Allston section of Boston. She was fresh out of college and serving (we used to call it ‘waitressing’) at a French restaurant, and I was driving a cab and doing temp work, battling all kinds of health troubles I’d carried home from the Peace Corps, and all kinds of other demons, too. I was broke, in pain, disappointed with myself, trying to figure out what to do with my future. But it was at that low point that I asked myself what kind of work I really wanted to do every day for the rest of my life, and I was able, at last, to admit that my dream was to make a living as a writer. I drove a Checker cab three days a week, twelve or thirteen hours a day, and spent the other days in the Allston Public Library, scratching out words with a blue Bic pen on legal pads, dreaming of seeing my name on the spine of a book. Twelve years later I finally published a novel, and another eight years after that I was finally able to live the dream of working only as a writer.
The transition now feels nothing like that. I don’t have a lot of big dreams besides seeing you and Juliana settled and happy, learning to speak better Italian, and deepening my meditation practice. I feel like I’ve done most of what I was supposed to do in this lifetime: helped build a solid, loving marriage; helped raise two wonderful girls; written some books.
I admit to feeling a certain urgency about doing a good job on the last part of my ‘story,’ an odd kind of pressure to get it right.
I’ve seen friends and loved ones pass into the next world. I’m actually healthier and in less pain than I was at 25, but I definitely feel a gradual diminution of strength and flexibility, and I have enough friends with serious medical problems that health concerns are never too far from my thoughts. While I might—might—agree to trade my body for the one I had when I was 25, I would never in a million years trade the mind I have now for the mind I had then. It took me so long to grow up. I can no longer do some of the things I loved to do—run, play hockey, practice karate. I can’t remember names or where I left my keys, and it’s harder to do the around-the-house carpentry work I love. But I feel a kind of contentment that I simply could not have imagined 45 years ago.
Also, and I guess this always happens, the challenges your generation faces are different from the ones my generation faced. We had “Earth Day”, sure, but really no sense at all about climate change, for one salient example.
How would you describe the joys and challenges of being 25 in 2023?
ZAN: Some of the challenges you faced sound familiar—like figuring out what to do with my life—but there are a lot of different pressures nowadays. I say different not worse because I think no period in history has been free of difficulty. (Haven’t people always thought the world was ending?) Climate change is certainly the biggest of those pressures. This summer especially, it’s seemed like one climate disaster after another has hit communities around the world, which makes the question of where to put down roots even more complicated. I currently live in Colorado, where wildfires raze entire hillsides and we regularly get tornado warnings. Philipp, my husband, is from Germany, where increasingly powerful heat waves have made summer close to unlivable in places. So where do we go? I try to remember that we’re lucky enough to have some say in where we live—millions of people around the world have no choice but to settle down where they were born. As a freelance writer I can work from anywhere, and with American and European passports and the various languages we speak, there isn’t a whole lot of the world off limits to us. But with all of the potential opportunities and all of the unknown factors, the decision of where to put down roots can be overwhelming.
It doesn’t help that inflation and the housing market seem to be working against us. It’s so expensive just to be alive these days! Even with the two of us working full-time, I truly don’t know how we can afford to buy a home, especially somewhere we’d want to live that allows us access to all we need and want: decent healthcare, a livable climate, an international airport, affordable grocery stores, a walkable town, proximity to loved ones…
I’ll admit that when I start to think about the future it becomes way too easy to drown in worries. So, instead, I focus on what’s within my control right now. I am grateful to have work, to have a roof over my head and plenty to eat, to live in a supportive community, to have loved ones around the world. I’m taking steps toward saving for a home, and just have to trust that we’ll find a solution when the time comes. Uncertainty is one of the scary parts of being a human being, no matter the generation!
Does any of that sound familiar to you now? How is your transitional period, similar or different?
PA: Similar in its uncertainty, I guess, though the future is always uncertain; we humans just like to tell ourselves that, because we make plans, the universe has an obligation to assure they come true. Similar, too, in that we’re not really sure how long to stay in our current house—the home where you and your sister grew up and where we have lived for 35 years—and, if we leave, where we should resettle.
But very different in many ways, too. Even though I was working for $6 an hour as a carpenter, and Mom wasn’t making much more than that, it was so much easier for us to buy a house. We paid only $40,000 for our first home, in 1983. It wasn’t much of a house—four rooms and a shaky deck two miles down a dirt road in Pownal, Vermont—but even on our meager earnings, it was manageable. I really feel for members of your generation when it comes to home-buying, because it’s definitely more difficult than it used to be, and there’s no more important part of a family’s financial situation. I often think about those people who, because of their race, weren’t given home loans, or were restricted to buying in neighborhoods where houses increased in value only a small amount over decades.
Uncertainty is a part of life. There’s no escaping that, though there are various ways of dealing with it, everything from denial to terror. “Man plans, God laughs,” is one of my favorite sayings. It can be counterproductive, for people my age and for people your age, to focus too intently on what waits down the road—especially because we don’t really know what that is, what form the future will take, or even how much time we’ll be given. You’re wise to focus instead on what you can control, to stay positive, and, mainly, to remain grateful. We are so very lucky.
I’ve always loved Julian of Norwich’s, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Tough to believe that at times. Very tough. Ultimately, though, I think she was onto something.
Before we finish this opening discussion, Zan, I’d ask you to suggest a specific method we both might use for dealing with unhelpful future concerns. Do you have a mantra, a thought, a favorite saying, a practice that helps keep you positive and in the moment?
ZAN: Honestly, having you there offering these sayings and assuring me that all will be well has kept me steady for as long as I can remember! And a trick of the mind I’ve always used for all kinds of challenges is fast-forwarding to a time when things will be easier, thinking in ten years, this will be behind me.
It’s like our family motto: “We’ll figure it out!”
Roland and Amanda Merullo in front of their first house in Pownal, Vermont in 1983.
Philipp and Zanny Steffgen where they celebrated their 2020 wedding in 2023.
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