After the astounding success of Déjà Vu the four members of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young each embarked on solo albums, occasionally crossing back and forth between projects when their particular talents were needed. Songs for Beginners was Graham Nash’s own individual venture and while I really liked the album I was a little surprised at the bittersweet overtones in most of the compositions. It wasn’t until years later I learned the melancholia stemmed his recent break-up with noted folk singer Joni Mitchell.
…and when it came out in the summer of 1971 that bittersweet album briefly became a very appropriate soundtrack to an event in my life.
Katy Christiansen was a Professional Girl – not “professional” as in working in an office or (ahem)street corner, but a Professional Girl as defined by columnist Cynthia Heimel: the girl that all the other girls hate because she is perfect, she knows it and relies on it to get through life.
She was also a member of an extended family group that would descend on our congregation every summer. The Christianson’s were one of the more stalwart families in church, and would host various aunts, uncles, cousins and friends as they rotated through the summers to work at their set net fishing site on the east shore of Cook Inlet. They all hailed from the Intermountain West and the kids were especially a most impressive bunch, every one a varsity athlete, cheerleader, or honor roll student. It was only later that we found that in the manner of all teenagers away from home for the first time they were embellishing credentials to impress the locals.
That wasn’t the case with Katy – she was as genuinely outstanding as everyone else said they were. A natural blonde with finely chiseled Scandinavian features, she was graceful to the point of seeming to glide regally through a room rather than walk. I was interested but doubtful; I wasn’t a bad kid, but not a totally good kid either, but with Katy there was no “wiggle room”. Proper belief and behavior were dominant aspects of her personality and she was troubled by any variation from the standard however slight.
She first appeared the summer after my sophomore year but attempts to meet her were foiled by the cloud of cousins that surrounded her wherever she went. It was August before I figured out how to weasel my way through her familial entourage; the effort left me exhausted and all I could manage as a greeting was something like “Hellorgle borgle argle” before bolting for the back door of the meetinghouse at a dead-run.
It’s amazing what two years can do for a young man’s confidence and when she came back to work the summer after graduation I felt little stress in striking up a conversation. However, as we talked about our respective plans in life I began to wonder why she’d come back North; while I was slated to simply start school at the University of Alaska in the fall she had a schedule of seminars, photo shoots and conferences that seemed to leave little time for school much less work on a fish site. I also learned quickly to avoid any topic in conversation that came even close to variance with church guidelines for youth.
We seemed to get along well enough that it seemed safe to ask her out on a date. There was no ulterior motive on my part; my romantic life was already complicated, and I was just looking for a time-out and an opportunity to relax – albeit with a beautiful blonde – but just a relaxing evening nonetheless. When I picked her up she seemed a little edgy , but during the drive to the theater I finally got her to laugh a bit and it seemed like the evening had been saved.
When we got to the Mall Cinema the film had already started, and the theater packed, so I took her by the hand and led her to what ended up being the last two empty seats in the house. As we sat down I looked over at Katy and was shocked to see a slightly stricken, ill look on her face. She took her free hand and using just two fingers she removed my hand – the one clasping hers and moved it to the armrest between us. There was a theatrical element to her movement – she used just her thumb and forefinger which made the movement look like she was handling a dead fish.
The evening went downhill from there. We left after the first film in a double feature and as I drove Katy back to the fish site the inside of the car felt more like Alaska in January than Alaska in June. On the long drive home later on I replayed the evening over and over but remained totally baffled – it wasn’t until long afterwards that I learned that I hadn’t been a date for Katy – I’d been a project, something to be fixed.1 At some point I had been judged as being defective and she’d lowered herself to spend time with me in hope that some of her “goodness” would rub off.
That stung infinitely more than the dead-fish hand-removal – that somehow embroidered jeans, shaggy locks, a bit of facial hair had made me into a liability, someone to be diverted (but not necessarily saved) from the path to perdition. It was a body blow. I could handle open hostility or contempt, but this?
In the end I sought my usual last resort – I sprawled in the bunk of my loft bedroom and cued up a record on my stereo, which happened to be the aforementioned Songs for Beginners. As I laid there thinking the events of the evening pushed two particular songs to the front in my thinking:
I Used To Be A King
“I used to be a king
But it’s all right I’m O.K. and I want to know how you are
For what it’s worth I must say I loved you as you are
And in my bed where are you
Someone is going to take my heart
But no one is going to break my heart again”
I’ve watched you go through changes
That no man should face alone
Take to heel or tame the horse
The choice is still your own
But arm yourself against the pain
A wounded bird can give
And in the end remember
It’s with you you have to live
And in the end remember
It’s with you you have to live
I also walked away with two convictions seared in my heart:
- No matter what they looked like, how they acted or what they did I would never look at anyone as stereotype or anything as a complete person.
- I would never bother with another “Professional Girl”. When we were dating My Beautiful Saxon Princess would fret over her slight tummy a la Ursula Andress in the seminal Bond flick DR.No. Little did she know that slight (in her mind) imperfection was the “deal-maker” for me
- A few summers (and a haircut) later I heard a first-time-around Christianson cousin loudly enquiring at a church dinner about the “mangy hippy” Katy had gone out on a date with a few years earlier.