Dick Dahlgren knows what it takes to enjoy life. He’s skied the great resorts of the U.S. and Europe, gone fly-fishing with celebrities, run with the bulls in Spain.
He also knows about being sick and depressed.
He’s had prostate cancer and a major heart attack that destroyed a third of his heart muscle. He’s had two stent surgeries, surgery to install a pacemaker, breast cancer and a mastectomy.
Yes, men do get breast cancer. It’s rare, but it happens.
“I was scared, bored and depressed,” he said. “Every day was a day of anxiety over my health problems. I had this big black cloud hanging over me.”
Three years ago, he found something that made the black cloud go away. And it didn’t come in a bottle.
“It happened so fast, it seemed almost magical,” he said.
He has a routine. Most days he’s up by 6:30. He reads the Idaho Statesman and The New York Times. He checks his Facebook account and other things on his computer. By then the coffee is made. He has coffee and breakfast at an oak table beside a larger-than-life painting of a rainbow trout.
Then it’s time for work.
If doing what you love can be called work.
He sits down at the oak table, opens his laptop and starts to write.
“Once I start, I can’t take a break. My characters won’t let me,” he said.
Dahlgren, 80, has written all his life. But it was never his profession. He spent 57 years as a real estate broker, 30 of them in Sun Valley. He and his wife have a home in Mackay, an hour away, where their guests have included married actors Christopher Guest and Jamie Lee Curtis, as well as Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones.
“They come there to fly-fish and hide from the world,” he said.
His children joke that Dahlgren has never worked a day in his life.
“I’d get a big commission from a sale and spend the next two or three weeks fly-fishing,” he said.
As he related details of his life, it was hard not to envy him a little. Before his health problems, he did a smashing job of just having a good time. He was a ski bum in Europe for two years and has fished every blue-ribbon trout stream worthy of the name. He’s worked as a ski patrolman and managed a condominium development, where he spent most of his time playing tennis.
“I tried the corporate world for a while, but my buddies who did that all died of heart attacks, so I left,” he said.
When he had time, he wrote stories.
The writing life
In 1972, he wrote a novel, a love story drawn from his skiing idyll in Europe. Three years ago, for something something to do and to take his mind off of being sick, he decided to rewrite it. He made it through 20 pages before switching to a historical novel he’d written in 1982.
“That one was to easier to read through and finish,” he said. “It became an obsession. It completely did away with my depression, my anxiety and my concerns about my health. At night, my characters would talk to me. I’d get up and make notes. The next day, I’d write it all down in the book.
“I’d work for five hours straight a lot of days. I couldn’t write fast enough to put down what my characters were telling me.”
I asked him whether it was anything like what Bob Dylan says about the inspirations for his songs, that he has no idea where they come from.
“Without a doubt! I have no control over it. It just happens,” Dahlgren said. “It’s the same with my artwork. People ask me where it comes from. I don’t have a clue.”
His and other artists’ work grace the walls of his Southeast Boise home. I’ve known people who have hung their own paintings on their walls, but Dahlgren’s actually improve the walls. His painting of his home at Mackay, where he built a replica of legendary Idaho hermit Beaver Dick’s cabin, is striking.
He illustrates his books as well.
The rewritten manuscript he credits with turning his life around is a newly published novel, “Madam Esmeralda Margarita Magruder.” He published it himself through Amazon Books late last year. It might not make the best-seller lists, but it’s gotten some good reviews. It’s the first of several books he has in the Amazon pipeline.
“I’ve been obsessed with writing for three solid years now,” he said “It’s made me forget my problems entirely.”
His wife, Julie, says he’s “not thinking about his illnesses anymore. That’s become more of a back-burner issue with him.”
“He’s more cheerful,” she said. “Writing and thinking about his stories have given him a more positive attitude about living and about the future.”
He’s written three novels, a novella and a children’s book about the decline of Idaho’s salmon and steelhead runs.
The love story set in the Europe of his ski-bum days is his next novel to be published though Amazon, in the spring. A novella about trout fishing and the children’s book are planned for a Christmas release.
His fifth book, “Trout War,” will follow next year.
“I spent eight years fighting the city of Los Angeles for drying up a trout stream. The book will be about that,” he said. “It’s like ‘Chinatown.’ ”
If being passionate about something can improve our mental health, Dahlgren would be Exhibit A in the case for it. He smiles easily and often. His blue eyes sparkle. He clearly isn’t depressed, and thinks he might even be better physically.
“Sickness starts up here,” he said, pointing to his head. “I’m healthier now. I feel better.”
His advice to others battling illness or depression: Find your passion and use it to relive better times, as he’s doing with his writing.
“Focus on a happy time in your life and pursue what caused it. If you love butterflies, join a butterfly society. It can be anything,” he said.
“Think about something you love. Think about the most exciting time in your life and find a way to get involved in it again. It doesn’t matter how or what it was. With me, it’s writing. And what’s happening with my writing is beautiful.”
Tim Woodward’s column appears on the second Sundays of the month and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. He writes about Idahoans with interesting stories and is always looking for them. If you know one, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.