Welcome to Bar\Heart, y’all.
What is the Bar\Heart Bulletin, you ask? It’s a weekly newsletter exploring what it means to belong in America. Through essays, reportage and intimate conversations, we’ll discover the people and places that define us.
But Bar\Heart is also my family’s brand.
My grandparents were sheep ranchers in eastern Oregon, and you knew Haimerl livestock by the \ ♡ branded on their flanks. That was a long time ago. When my grandparents sold the ranch and moved to Colorado -- where I would eventually come into the picture -- the brand went with it. But my dad, Dick, always signed his love letters to my mom with that telltale mark:
\ ♡, D.
Today, my dad and I own the last Bar\Heart branding irons. Mine sits on my fireplace mantle, entangled in red chile pepper lights, as an object of decor. It ended up here in Detroit with me because nobody wanted it when my grandmother passed away. For them it was a relic; but for me it is a reminder of who I am and where I’m from — even if I am not always sure I belong there. Or if I belong anywhere, really.
For most of my life I’ve been stretched between worlds, trying to hold them together. My rural roots made me too country to be city, but my New York City life made me too city to go home. Growing up, I was too poor. Now, I’m too middle class. Too liberal; not the right kind of liberal. Always on the outside looking in. Always longing for belonging.
I even wrote an entire book — Detroit Hustle — about moving to a new city and rehabbing a historic home. What I didn’t realize when I wrote that story is that it was actually a meditation on belonging. What is home? How do we build community? Who is an "us" and who is a "them"? What is our American future?
As we come out of the Covid pandemic and re-engage with our communities, I think those questions are even more urgent. This newsletter is about those big questions.
In President Biden’s inaugural address, he spoke of “the common objects we love that define us as Americans.” He suggested that ideas like respect, liberty and opportunity are what bind us together. But those are amorphous concepts. I’m interested in the tangible things that transgress boundaries. Is it our pets? Shared meals? The very nature of our stories? Can we find empathy through knowledge of each other?
I hope to tell the stories from unseen parts of the country. Recently, I read an essay in the New York Times about the journalist John Gunther, who wrote the bestselling book, Inside U.S.A., in the 1940s. Gunther travelled the country telling the stories of America in that era. I ordered a used copy and am excited to read what he discovered.
So I’m setting out to discover the stories that make up a modern-day Inside U.S.A. And if there's anything I love, it’s a road trip. I come by it honest (1). When my mom and I met the man who would become my dad, he drove truck (2), pulling long hauls between Colorado and California. Mom wasn’t interested at first; she assumed he had a woman in every port, so to speak. But he didn’t. He always came back … and always bearing little trinkets and stories for me. Eventually he began taking me on the road with him. I love the rumble of an engine thrumming through me as I lean against the window, watching the world rush by in a stream of telephone poles at a rate of four to the seventh power (3).
Some of these trips will bring us to Colorado, where I’m chasing the ghosts of nostalgia, trying to understand my own family and figure out who still gets to call that place home. But I’m also deeply curious about places like Mackinac Island, for example. It’s a tiny island in the waters where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron crash together. The 300 year-round residents go from utter isolation in the winter to being overrun by tourists and seasonal workers in the summer. What does it mean to be from, or belong to, that place?
Every Tuesday, you’ll find a blend of reporting, storytelling, essays that attempt to help us understand who we are as Americans and how we belong together. And on Fridays, subscribers get a special Cocktail Hour edition filled with drink recipes, book recommendations, advice and other detritus I've picked up on the Internet that week.
I hope you’ll subscribe (it's free for now!) and join me on this journey.
But before you get in the truck, I should probably tell you who I am. At my core, I'm just a poor kid from rural Colorado who feels survivor's guilt about making it to the middle class when her family — like so much of the country — has not. I’m the first in my family to go to college, and I have degrees in journalism and economics. I'm a lover of pitbulls, cowboy boots and camouflage. Deep Space Nine is the best Star Trek, but I have a place in my heart for Kirk, Spock, Uhura and the gang. (My mom and I would watch the Original as we shelled peas and snapped beans together on blistering hot summer afternoons in my hometown of Fruita.)
Today I live in Detroit and am married to a boy from Tennessee who doesn’t have a Southern accent but whom I call Lovey. And since everyone else does, too, that’s what we’ll call him here. We met in a dive bar in Brooklyn. I like a good bourbon and am picky about my iced tea. (Unsweet!) I write, but I don’t consider myself a Writer. That seems like a title too far. We have a dog named Hank the Tank, who is 130 pounds, and two cats, The Overlord and June Carter Cat.
If you’re looking for my on-paper bonafides: I teach journalism and entrepreneurship at Michigan State University; I write about small business mostly for the New York Times; and I run a literary group called the Shady Ladies Literary Society, which brings emerging women authors to Detroit for unforgettable literary experiences. I helped friends start the Jackson Free Press in Mississippi, and I sit on the board of advisors for the Mississippi Free Press. Both publications are focused on solutions journalism and deep public-interest reporting.
In the beginning, this newsletter will be focused on the areas I know intimately. Of course, that is only the narrowest sliver of the American experience. I hope that you will share your stories with me and tell me about the communities and places where you belong. Eventually, I plan to add other voices telling us about their America.
Thanks for taking the journey with me. If you need me, hail firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
(1) Yes, honest; not honestly. In this newsletter, I’ll often use the language of my people. If you’re a grammar nerd, this newsletter might not suit you.
(2) Yes, grammarians, this is correct. In the parlance of the road, you “drive truck.” “A” truck or “the” truck would be too specific. This is a state of being.