Another Nail In The Coffin?

Frank Miele

My friend and mentor Mike Muri says I have to write about him every 10 years whether I like it or not — at least if he lives to pass another milestone.

Since Mike turned 70 yesterday, it looks like I am on the hook for another column. And if for some reason he didn’t turn 70 yesterday, this column gives me a good headstart on his eulogy. (Yes, that is a horrible thing to say, but it’s funny — and if there is one thing you need to know about Mike, it’s that he will forgive anything if there is a punch line at the end.)

By my reckoning, Mike was 36 when we first met, and I was a babyish 28. He was the top-line bartender at First Avenue West in downtown Kalispell, and I was a high-functioning drunk. On far less than that have been built some beautiful friendships. But truth be told, we would probably have been nothing more to each other than ships running aground in the night were it not for the life raft provided by what the writers of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous called “this chip of a book.”

Mike had been sober for little more than a year when we met, and a year after we met I got sober by listening to recovery meditations from a Hazelden book and readings from the Big Book that Mike made me submit to before he would serve me my first drink of the night. I was at a fork in the road — with a steady supply of alcohol and desultory decline down one path, and the chance to lead a happy life down the other. Eventually I put down the bottle and chose the other path — a decision which made all the difference.

For the next 33 years, I’ve been Mutt to Mike’s Jeff. He was my sponsor, but always friend first. We’ve bailed each other out of numerous failed relationships, commiserated with each other over the Seahawks’ many bad breaks, sympathized with each other’s occasional bouts of hypochondria, laughed with each other over our profound insights that somehow didn’t make any sense at all two minutes later, and generally rode that life raft as if it were a luxury cruise ship where anything was possible.

Mike watched me get married (twice as it turns out), have a family, stick with a job not just for two years (my previous record) but 33 years, and generally trudge the road of happy destiny. I, in turn, watched Mike grow and mature as a writer, painter and raconteur to the point where I have started to think of him as an Old Master (well, at least, one of those two things — because despite turning 70, Mike is the youngest spirit I know). What makes all of these things particularly sweet is knowing that we are both living on borrowed time — that our sobriety is a gift made possible by the fellowship of other alcoholics and a higher power that could and would change everything if we had but the humility to ask.

About 10 years ago, I wrote the foreword to Mike’s first novel, “I’m Out of Here,” which recounted his last week of drinking. I was blown away by that book, which deserves a much wider audience than it has received. But in the last decade, Mike has published more than 10 books, including novels, plays, poetry, and books of witticisms he has collected from everyday life.

If that weren’t enough, Mike has plowed ahead with a stubborn determination to prove that he’s as good an artist as Vincent Van Gogh without feeling the need to sacrifice his ear as well. Some of Mike’s best paintings, like his writings, are brutally honest and might make you cringe, but others are sublimely and hauntingly beautiful. The very best are sublimely beautiful and still make you cringe.

Mike’s siblings are hosting a birthday bash for him at the Bohemian Grange Hall (behind Montana Coffee Traders on U.S. 93) in Whitefish. He’ll have paintings and books for sale, but most importantly Mike himself will be on display — one of a kind, full of “love and laughter,” brash, bragging and bigger than life.

As always, I am proud to call him friend.

Frank Miele is managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana. Copyright ©2017 Daily Inter Lake. Reprinted with permission.