It’s a Year

As I have written before I am beset with several autoimmune disorders, the cumulative effect being chronic severe pain in most of my joints, and while I welcome the chance to lay down at night and take the  load off those aching joints I dread mornings. Mornings are not my friend and when my Beautiful Saxon Princess wishes me a good morning I usually respond with “It’s a morning…”

That’s similar  to what I am feeling this New Year’s Eve. When asked about 2018 the best I can say is “It was a year”. The trip through life this year has been like taking a little sip of water out of a fire hydrant and I feel like a horse that has been ridden hard and put in the barn wet . I really dislike that diving-Stuka feeling I get in my stomach when alternately counting up setbacks and perils so for now my plan is to do my best to be kind, considerate  thoughtful – and to pray/meditate/generate “positive waves Moriarity” that 2019 is a better year for all of us.

I Never Saw It Coming

I’m a product of the Seventies in that both my social sense and my creative vision were influenced a great deal by what was going on in the decade from 1970 to 1979. Economically speaking it was terrible with most of the decade stuck in ‘stagflation’ – a stagnant economy wracked by inflation,  and the country suffered a major geopolitical black-eye in Southeast Asia. At the same time it looked like racial issues were being addressed, and the multicultural bridge crew of the Starship Enterprise more than an escapist’s dream – which made my heart warm. My parents were an anomaly for their generation in that they were color-blind when it came to race, and so the idea of  everyone of all colors getting along and working well together seemed only natural.

I was excited to be studying ‘commercial art’  as well and I loved the flamboyant renderings and splashy color choices of illustrators like Bob Peake that were so popular at the time. I looked forward to working in that design world, so at times it was challenging to have my illustration career on hold for five years while I served in the Army….but when I came out of the Army things were starting to change. Individual art directors were being replaced by committees and group-think tends to shun the experimental. Race relations were starting to change as well and the future didn’t seem as positive as we thought in the previous decade.

One indication of the changes was also one of my signature bodies of work –  the group of uniform designs I created in 1986 and 1987 for FASA’s foil-covered BattleTech House books. It was a marvelous opportunity and a great learning experience: if you line the books up in order of their production you can see a gradual positive change in both my figure drawing and marker technique.

Unfortunately that project is unlikely to happen again with the same results.

Why? Jordan Weismann was the sole art director for the entire project and he pretty much let me run with my ideas  –  in the entire series he turned back exactly one drawing. Unfortunately by the last book Jordan had left and I had to contend with three different people dictating often conflicting changes which made for a drop in concept and quality. I no longer had the freedom to excel.

There were other trends that were disturbing me… Early on in the BattleTech project I was able to keep that Enterprise bridge crew model-mix of genders and races but as the series wound up with the committee in charge, it seemed like all the figures they took exception to had darker skins or only “X” chromosomes. Those committee objections took me totally by surprise (hence the title of today’s post). I’d been tooling along with my Seventies goggles but when I stopped and took a good look around in 1988 everything was very different.

I won’t even go into how I feel about the way things are now, but rest assured that I still prefer that Seventies perspective and I still put more stock in a person’s actions than the way they look.

 


 

This laser-equipped trooper from the Eridani Light Horse happened at the very beginning of the series

Eridani Light Horse 19860001

Re-visualized version from earlier in this decade

Eridani Light Horse Color Rework

Unto the Third and Fourth Generation

Working with my Star Pupil doesn’t always entail slaving over the drawing board. This picture documents one of the many breaks we take in between drawing and sculpting,  though you could refer to this as yet another study session.

Art history –  because we are analyzing a classic television program…

Unto the third and fourth generation

I definitely I learned a lot from this session – as in discovering  the degree to which my hair has gone  thin and white…

Music: Wichita Lineman (Revisited)

 

 

There’s always “the one”, the friend that was either too hip or too nerdy, too edgy or too zealous to fit in with the rest of your friends and or family. You know the one:

  • Their name elicits snickers when mentioned.
  • They are allowed in the house only if an exit strategy is already in place with your folks.
  • Any positive traits seem to be known only to you.

If songs were people Wichita Lineman would be “that” friend.

Maybe it’s because it was too popular too many years ago and when it was popular our parents liked the song just as much as we did. We also have to consider the lobster-in-the-pot syndrome as well –  Americans tend to drag down a star just as quickly as a lobster escaping a pot of boiling water gets pulled back by his companions – and that song made a whole bundle of money.  Unfortunately what it boils down to for Wichita Lineman is that over the years the song has become the poster child for the comically un-hip; ironically touted as aural kitsch, which can be evidenced by its use as Uber-nerd Matthew’s rock anthem on NBC’s wickedly funny ‘90s sitcom NewsRadio.

It most definitely was not viewed so dismissively when it was released in late1968 as yet another hit song penned by Jimmy Webb. Wichita Lineman stayed on the top 100 for 15 weeks and as of Glen Campbell’s1 passing in 2017 it had sold over 350,000 downloads. Back in the day it was covered by a staggering number of A-list recording artists from a wide range of genres, and was praised by British music journalist Stuart Maconie as “the greatest pop song ever composed”.

…but that’s not why I love it.

For most of my youth I lived in areas where the wind blew.

All. The. Time.

With marginal tree cover there wasn’t much to keep the wind from coming off the Siskiyou Mountains and roaring past our home in Little Shasta Valley2. Likewise with Sterling Alaska: our ranch was situated right in the middle of the scrubs, snags and saplings trying to recover some of the 300,000+ acres leveled by the Skilak Lake Fire of 1947.

In both locales the wind blew past the homes, outbuildings, and through the winding lengths of power lines, phone line antennae, and guy wires that surrounded all those buildings, creating a haunting melody that changed as the wind altered its direction and speed. Despite the lack of a Walkman or even a transistor radio we never lacked for a haunting musical soundtrack to outdoor activities be it work or play.

By the use of high-pitched violins and strategically-placed changes in key, the instrumental background to Wichita Lineman comes closer to the sound and feeling of wind in the wire than any other piece of music I’ve ever heard. While the lyrics specifically refer to power company maintenance workers the message applies to anyone who has spent time around power or telephone lines running through a desolate windswept area; people who know that those lines aren’t just making noise – they’re voices talking – or better yet – singing to you.

It brings to mind Henry Farney’s masterpiece from 1904 Song of the Talking Wire.

Song of the Talking Wire

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve found myself standing in this gentleman’s moccasins. This image and Wichita Lineman come  the closest to capturing the essence of solitude on a windy winter night  – especially as I would walk in between hitched rides and listen to the wind and the wire sing. It gave me a sense of connection with something larger than myself – something cosmic.

….which makes this closing clip all that much more cool…in more ways than one.

https://www.bbc.com/news/av/science-environment-46490149/listen-to-the-wind-whistle-on-mars

It’s a very faint, very subtle sound and even with augmentation it’s hard to pick out, but what you are listening to is  a recording of the wind as recorded by the British seismometer package carried on Nasa’s InSight lander as it  detected the vibrations from Martian air rushing over the probe’s solar panels.

At least that’s what the BBC say it is.

To me it’s the sound of the wind in the wire as I’m walking from the highway to the ranch along Scout Lake Loop road.


 

Notes:

  1. It was only when Glen Campbell passed away in August of 2017 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s that the snarky comments began to slow down. It was then that Mr. Campbell, and by extension his work, started receiving the objective appraisal he so richly deserved. Consider for a moment the following list of achievements:
  • Twenty-nine Top 10 hit songs
  • Twelve gold albums
  • Four platinum albums
  • One double album
  • Multiple Grammy awards
  • A hit CBS TV series in the late ‘60s

Most noteworthy was his status as a charter member of the legendary group of session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. The Monkees weren’t the only pop musicians that “didn’t play their own instruments”. Top 40 headliners from the Beach Boys on down would rely on the Wrecking Crew to provide instrumental back-up to their vocals when cutting a record.

2. located in the actively-volcanic high desert of northern-almost Oregon California.

Class Portrait

When NSCC kicked me to the curb last summer my Beautiful Saxon Princess told me that the only thing that had  changed was  the size of my classes. –  before I had anywhere from  25 to 30 students but now I just have one – my grandson Jayden.

I couldn’t agree more. Jayden is just the latest in a succession of kids growing up in my studio. We had a great day in the studio today learning about sculpture and sculpting tools and as  we were finishing up BSP decided to take pictures.

Initial shot

TheGuys2

Attitude Adjustment

TheGuys1

Final version….

TheGuys3

 

Tremors and Dial-tones

Nostalgia rather than fear was the overriding emotion in our home during the March 1964 Earthquake. As we had been living in that howling wilderness otherwise known as Spenard for less than two years we styled ourselves as  temporarily  transplanted Californians rather than locals so the first few tremors brought on smiles and “Hey – just like back home” rather than any expressions of fear. It wasn’t until we lost our television signal (and the closing scenes of the “Invasion” episode of  ‘Fireball XL5)  that I began to feel  any emotional distress.

However things were a little different during today’s quake– I was chatting on the phone with my sister Heather when she stopped for a moment then said: “Oh boy…earthquake!See the hanging lamps? – they’re bouncing all over the place.”

Intestinal Stukas  started churning my insides as I nervously glanced around my own living room,  but I was puzzled to find all our lamps perfectly motionless.

Suddenly the proverbial  lightbulb flashed on  and I made a conclusion of my own:

  • Heather wasn’t asking me to look at the lamps, she was talking to my nephew Zack.
  • My hanging lamps weren’t bouncing around because Heather, Zack and the quake – were 4135 miles away in Sterling Alaska.

For my dad aviation was the best yardstick for measuring the march of progress – he was born into a world with biplanes and lived to see television broadcasts of regular shuttle service to  the International Space Station. For me it’s been phones: 55 years ago a call from Tennessee to Alaska would have been made only under the most dire circumstances, taken the help of at least three operators and would be made using a device that could not be owned by an individual – it  had to be  leased from the phone company.

I’m still getting used to it.

Music “Friends”

 

  • Candle In The Wind
  • Tiny Dancer
  • Philadelphia Flyer

Ask anyone to name their favorite Elton John single and these three tunes will probably place high on the list. One of the least likely choices would be  “Friends” – and by that I don’t mean the TV sitcom Friends but a song from the soundtrack from an “okay” 1971 British teen romance film by the same name that interested me more for the cover art than for the music or any message in the film.

..a 1970 song that  didn’t really show up on my radar until the winter of 1988

When my family and I returned to the Kenai Peninsula my  good friend (Eu)Gene Faa was working as a deejay for KCSY, a soft-rock AM radio station based in Soldotna. He had rich baritone on-air presence with a voice devoid of the reedy quality his voice had when I first met him in the winter of 1971 when we were assigned to the same study-hall table. He was cousin of one of my better friends, so I’d been vaguely aware of his existence, but it wasn’t until I noticed him drawing  historically accurate sketches of German panzers instead of doing his  homework that I realized that there just might be  common ground between the two of us.

He wasn’t  physically striking and was unfortunately overshadowed by two most definitely-striking  step-siblings.  Red-headed, slight of build and equipped with a slight lisp he seemed to fit more into the slightly-annoying sidekick role than the buddy category, but a buddy he most definitely became as we would intermittently bump into each other over the next couple of decades as I would come and go from the Peninsula and the Lower 48. Each time we came back in contact we’d share our good news and bad news – marriage, military service, divorce, discharge, new careers and so on.

In those pre-Internet days I’d listen to the radio while I worked in the studio, and while KCSY was a bit too middle-of-the-road for me Gene would make a special effort to come up with a more diverse playlist if he knew I was listening. I’d try to liven things up by calling up with a disguised voice and requesting some Led Zeppelin or Def Leppard, songs that the programming format would never allow. Gene would give me a mercy-laugh for my all-too-transparent attempts at foreign accents, but during one such call he replied, “ I can’t play “Stairway to Heaven” for you Dave, but I’ve got some early Elton John that’s a decent  substitute.”

…then he played Friends” and I liked it right away. Simple melody with a string accompaniment that joins in about half-way through the song – always a good thing for me. Uncluttered lyrics with a message about friendship that avoids getting overly emotional. I made a comment about it the next time I ran into him at the mall, and from then on he made a point of playing it just before his show as over each noon, and when he did I knew he was waving to me – a “shout out” in contemporary terms.

Gene left the station and the Peninsula around Christmas of 1988 and other than a letter or two in the mid-Nineties  I never heard from him again – other than to find out that he’d passed away from complications from diabetes.

In his book “Thank God for The Atomic Bomb” the legendary academic and literary curmudgeon Paul Fussell made the observation that other than the very famous no one is remembered more than about seventy-five years past their death and Eugene seems to have beat that mark by about fifty years. As I’ve been writing on this piece I have failed to find any kind of record of Gene – even his relatives have little to say about him.

I don’t like that.

Eugene Faa did not exactly set the world on fire. Most of his life he struggled with the diabetes than finally took him  –  also a factor in his divorce and the primary reason he was discharged from the Alaska National Guard.  Gene didn’t command any armies, he didn’t make a fortune on Wall Street and he never held an elected office – but he was a good friend to me, and that’s why I’m writing this today. I’m hoping that publishing this post will get his name saved to enough computers and cloud storage facilities to make sure he’s remembered long past Professor Fussell’s seventy-five-year mark.

Gene was my friend.

Eugene Faa

 

Friend Events!

It’s tough maintaining a social life when you’re stuck in a studio most of the time,  so it’s a real treat when an unexpected  “frent” (friend event) happens in my life. It’s even better when more than one of these “frents” happen in short order, which is exactly what came about this last month.

The first good news involves  Oscar Hokeah, a digital-age friend whom I’ve never physically met but who shares a love for accurately launching words in the same way  an expert marksman likes to hit the “ten-ring”. Oscar just got a book deal and while most writers write because word-crunching is woven into their DNA it’s always  nice to get some of that external validation1.

The other “frent” involves a buddy from years ago,  and by “years ago” I mean decades. Dave Doering was a fellow member of The Happy Valley Space Academy 2 a  loose-knit group of artists and fans living in the Provo-Orem area in the late 1980s. We’d meet once a month to socialize and share our work but Dave wasn’t above about stopping by during the month as well…and more importantly wasn’t above serving as an impromptu model when I needed reference material and the deadline was short.

Dave is a writer/podcaster interested in the fan/mundane interface and since the early 1980’s has been instrumental in both the establishment and conduct of a writer’s conference dubbed Life, The Universe and Everything. Dave and I lost contact when my family and I left Utah Valley in 1987 and I was pleasantly surprised to get a phone call from him during an otherwise dismal week.

Below is an example of a last-minute modeling job Dave sat in on:

 

COL 2.00002

2018: Pushing the Envelope

Much has been said and even more has been written about the “bulletproof” mindset of an eighteen-year old. Granted, there are variations in terminology ranging from “Hey y’all – look at this!” to the more basic “Hold my beer”, but ultimately it can all be traced back to the “It-can’t-happen-to-me” mindset that gives us fighter pilots and cage fighters.

I wish I could say age eventually corrects such dysfunctional thinking but even in my crippled state my inner paratrooper lurks, though at sixty-five living on the edge is more likely to involved hooking one too many plastic grocery bags through my fingers than flying through thunderstorm cells or diving without calculating decompression times before hand. Pushing the envelope usually involves handling actual envelopes while paying  bills rather than test pilots consulting performance charts and the limits indicted by lines on graphs (which is where the expression came from!)

In my case there is one situation when my ego has most definitely been checked at the door : when I first get up – or more precisely try to get up in the morning .  Morning is not my friend and when I first stir in the morning there is a fair amount of weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth and crying-like-a-hungry-puppy coming from the general direction of my over-sized papa-bear chair.

(I started to write “crying like a little girl” but that would be unfair as I wasn’t even close to being as stoic as a little girl would have been)

I keep telling myself that I can still win, that pushups and miles will defeat the disease-dragons I fight each day, but to be coldly honest there is a day coming when I won’t be able to ignore the pain and stand up.

A day coming when I won’t be able to take that next breath.

…but until that day arrives I will keep adding plastic bags to my grip on grocery day.

 

James Albert Smith (1933-2018)

Like so many other rites of passage, the whole idea of “talking trash” to peers didn’t occur to me until fifth grade at Woodland Park Elementary School, located in the wilds of deepest, darkest Spenard (Alaska). Central to the art of verbal dueling was developing a good defense, even if it was something as simple as “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!”, when you were receiving fire, as in  “You were such an ugly baby your mom fed you with a slingshot”. I figured that the anxiety brought on by “words” would ease off as I got older but unfortunately there have always been statements that could definitely shake me up:

  1. “Surface winds on the DZ have dropped momentarily to light and variable.”
  2. I’m sure it’s just a mole.”
  3. “We have some questions about some of the deductions on your Schedule C.”
  4. “I’m going to raise my sons the same way I’ve watched you raise yours.”

That last comment was the most worrisome, and when my friend Delton spoke those words to me I slept poorly for a week, convinced that one or all of his boys would end up in an asylum or jail based on some faulty parenting technique he’d observed me practicing. I always wondered if Brother Smith’s chuckle-in-response was covering up a similar reaction when I made the same statement years ago.

That’s because no other man (including my own father) had as much influence on my growth as a parent as did James Albert Smith. He continued to laugh the idea off, maintaining that he’d never done anything that remarkable while raising his kids, but he never caught on to the fact that it wasn’t the things that he did, but the things that he didn’t do that made all the difference in the world.

He didn’t get a caribou

Growing up on the Kenai Peninsula I was surrounded by hard men – carpenters, mechanics, roustabouts and commercial fisherman who were veterans of World War 2 or the Korean conflict. A moose hunt  with them was more like combat reconnaissance patrol than a hunting trip. I couldn’t help but inwardly smirk as I watched Jim casually load up his boys on a fall morning in 1971, one rifle for the three of them and all of them in street shoes, however as I listened to them interact upon their return later that day I realized that the trip had less to do with steaks and more to do with forging bonds between a father and his sons, that he was spending more time teaching than hunting.

He couldn’t grow corn.

I witnessed Jim’s efforts at vegetable gardening in a sub-Arctic environment over the course of three summers and it never ceased to amaze me that corn stalks always took up a  fair amount of space in his plot. It didn’t seem to matter that the growing season is too short, the soil too wet and daytime temperatures don’t stay warm enough for corn to thrive. It wasn’t until that third summer that I finally tumbled to the fact that his attempts had less to do with having fresh corn-on-the-cob for dinner and more to do with giving a little bit of Davis County ambiance to help his homesick sweetheart cope with the cold and dark  winters so far away from home.

He didn’t kick my fourth-point-of-contact

I have it on good authority that I can be somewhat of a dumb-a** at times, and I was in that mode of thinking when I once caused a great deal of distress for one of his children. At the time I was literally living on the other side of the continent and figured I was home free from any sort of parental retribution. I wasn’t prepared for the flinty stare he met me with when we finally did meet up in person two months later, a flinty stare which lasted all of twelve seconds before he broke into his trademark grin, slapped me on the shoulder and started quizzing me about “those fancy new graphic design classes you’ve been taking”.

It was truly amazing watching him in parental mode.  My own parents were firm believers in the percussive discipline school of child rearing and while my presence no doubt had a tempering effect on his conduct I was always impressed with the positive, low key manner with which he  counseled and corrected his kids…and when I told him that I was trying to adapt those traits into my own parenting style he just brushed off the statement and changed the topic of conversation to a short story he was working on.1Despite time and distance the warmth never wavered – he was the only person I’ve ever known who had a grin that could be heard on the phone.  He was always interested in what I did, though to the very end he kept urging me to switch from design to copywriting2.  When I recently shared with him an illustration I created for The Friend his reaction was to tell me that my work was the best part of the magazine, a comment that meant more to me than all the other certificates and ribbons I’ve been awarded in my entire career.

I just hope when this life is over he’ll say the same thing about my parenting skills.

___________________________________________________________________________

Notes

  1. The plot involved father and son cobbling together a hovercraft out of the wreckage of a plane they’d crashed in.
  2. Writers ae usually paid better and are selected more often as supervisors