Nova Corps Uniforms

2019-07-01 Nova Corp Taylor

I first met Lance Nelson – albeit in passing  – at an LDS youth conference held in 1968 in Anchorage Alaska. Three years later we were classmates at the University of Alaska (Fairbanks);  six years  after that we were classmates at BYU with wives bearing similar names (Laura/Lori) and soon after children of very similar ages. Lance is one of the few people that can call me Dave with any authority and has proven to be a solid friend in every way.

…which means his kids are like niece/nephew to me.  Recently his son Taylor found a wife of his own and I drew this picture of the Marvel hero NOVA for them as a wedding present. I’m not completely up to speed on either current Marvel comics or the Marvel Cinematic Universe so I worked up a version of the Nova Corps uniform from a dozen years ago.

Technical notes: Designer’s markers, colored pencils and gouache on paper mounted on presentation board. The inset graphic design motif was cut from a piece of marbleized paper I made and attached with Series 77 spray adhesive.

Velma Howell 1935-2019

(It seems like the punchline to an old Henny Youngman joke, but I actually was asked to deliver the eulogy at my mother-in-law’s funeral over the weekend.)

Leading the way into any endeavor involves what we referred to as “spiritual growth” in the mission field and “good training” in the Army, both of which are innocuous terms for an experience that will terrify or put you through an emotional wringer. Being the first to marry into the Howell family brought on plenty of spiritual growth for me. The first time Velma laid eyes on me was at the gate in Dulles Airport twelve hours before I was to marry her oldest daughter Lori and I think the prospect of relinquishing her eldest to some wild man from Alaska was causing some concern.

She was quite vocal about the situation and would cycle through admonishing, questioning and teasing me, which was beginning to wear thin when it all came to a head a week later here in Huntsville. We were out buying paper goods and plastic ware for the reception and as we were driving around town Velma decided to share her philosophy on family relations. She said ” I like to think that I have gathered my family into a shiny bubble away from the world and its influences, where we are all happy all the time and nothing bad ever happens.”

As I sat in the back seat all I could think was “This chick is nuts”

It was an understandable reaction, given all the wisdom and insight I’d gained in my twenty-four years on earth as the oldest son in the family that put the “fun” into dysfunctional. Most of my family experiences involving shiny things also included pop-tops or lines on a mirror so I had no way of knowing that what Mom was really saying was

  • She loved her family and wanted the best for them.
  • She loved the Lord and wholeheartedly embraced every aspect of the Gospel

That was the pattern for her entire life. She was born and raised in southern California first San Bernardino then Colton where her family first met the missionaries when she was quite young – a trend that continued until she was almost twenty-one when she snagged one particular missionary by the name of Elder Howell as he was headed home. As a young lady she worked awhile as switchboard operator but once she was married her life’s work was being an excellent mother for her five children and supporting or serving alongside her husband in his callings as stake president, mission president and counselor in a temple presidency.

Outside of her family the Gospel was her whole life and she led a life of worship and devotion that is an example to us all. Look up the term “stalwart saint” in the bible dictionary and you’ll probably find her picture. Sometimes that degree of devotion can cause a person to become overly serious with that stern Bruce R. McConkie eagle-eyed look but Mom was able to keep a pleasant demeanor – and laugh.

She loved to laugh and could be quite a tease – but there were other things she loved as well.

She loved:

  • ice cream,
  • quilting
  • flowers
  • ice cream
  • birds
  • kaleidoscopes
  • Ice cream.

More than anything else she loved her husband Parley and was at this side whenever she could  be there…. in fact the words Parley and Velma Howell should be just one word “PARLEYANDVELMAHOWELL”.

I will miss her laugh and I will miss her.  Regardless of our faith we all have that inner Cro-Magnon straining to howl at the separation of death. But because of that faith we know that Mom is blessedly free from pain and much happier now that she was in the shiny place she always sought in life.

So…Run free Mom. We love you,

 

 

Music: Ghost of A Chance (Rush)

 

Teaching at Lincoln Memorial University was a good news/bad news type of situation. On one hand the school’s expectations weren’t too high, I had a tremendous amount of freedom in the way I handled my class and there were  a few fairly competent students. On the other hand the pay was terrible, the administration gave scant support and most of the art majors avoided my class because I actually expected them to work.

I just told myself I was fortunate to be teaching somewhere.

Capping it all was the miserable commute: while the school was located only 50 miles to the northeast there were several ridges and valleys to transit, and I spent as much time going up and down as I did moving forward. My schedule also had me returning to town in the middle of the evening rush hour which made the last 5 miles as tedious as the preceding 45.

It was a wet, sloppy evening in early November, I was tired and cold, and it was a strain to see through the rain and slow-moving traffic. Struggling to stay awake and alert, I turned on the radio and tuned into the local classic rock station – which like every classic rock station ever had a playlist shorter than a five-year old’s attention span.

I was surprised – instead of hearing the inevitable “Freebird” or “Stairway to Heaven” a young man was talking about Carl Gustav Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, a topic which caught my attention in the same way dog whistle rattled a collie. I’d discovered Jung in graduate school, became intrigued with this work, and worked at integrating some of his concepts into my thesis project but just as I was piecing together what was being said, the speaker stopped, and the song he had been so long in introducing started to play.

Electric guitars shot out a very basic but compelling tune which repeated  like a car alarm, accentuating the tension and stress of the surrounding traffic. Negotiating this nerve-wracking commute had my pulse pounding so hard I could hear it in my inner ear and when a vocalist suddenly started to sing it took me a moment to hear past the thub-thub-thub.

Like a million little doorways
All the choices we made
All the stages we passed through
All the roles we played

 There was no mistaking that voice: Geddy Lee, which meant I was listening to the Canadian rock trio Rush, most appropriate for my situation as I didn’t have the soundtrack for Mad Max in my CD player. Lee continued to sing, his voice getting more forceful and strident:

Somehow we find each other
Through all that masquerade
Somehow we found each other
Somehow we have stayed

 Voice and instrument continued to build to a point of frenzy, then suddenly it was like cresting a mountain or going into free-fall:

In a state of grace

Languid guitar chords lead into a restful interlude devoid of the song’s previous intensity::

I don’t believe in destiny
Or the guiding hand of fate
I don’t believe in forever
Or love as a mystical state

 The cardiac pounding in my ear eased off as I relaxed a bit

But I believe there’s a ghost of a chance
We can find someone to love
And make it last
And make it last

Guitar chords echoed and a feeling of calm continued to envelope me, but then the chaos abruptly renewed with strident vocals and crashing guitar chords once more

Like a million little crossroads
Through the back streets of youth
Each time we turn a new corner
A tiny moment of truth

The quiet, calm returned:

In a state of grace

I believe there’s a ghost of a chance
We can find someone to love
And make it last

This time when the pattern broke  the lead guitar began an improvisational guitar solo that caused my heart to sing as well.  It  also helped me  tune out the lurching/honking/swerving and I was startled to find myself on the last leg from the freeway to my home, free of the tension and chaos of rush hour as the song returned from the solo to the calm of the dreamy interludes:

I believe there’s a ghost of a chance
I believe there’s a ghost of a chance
We can find someone to love
And make it last

…which transitioned into a measure or two of a slightly mournful, slightly wistful echoing guitars. I pulled into the driveway, turned off the engine and sat listening to the tick-tick-tick of the cooling engine. Rush was not a particular favorite group of mine; while I had respect for their talent and dedication, their music and their message usually did not resonate with me … but I had no doubt that at this point Ghost of A Chance was stealth scripture – truth given in an unexpected manner that would have otherwise been ignored, and at this very low point in my life it contained a very important message for me.

Tomorrow morning I would get up bright and early and face another week head on:

  • submitting job applications to colleges sure to ignore me
  • canvassing art directors who routinely told me I was too old
  • worshipping in a congregation that cornered the market on cliques
  • teaching students who regarded study as a process akin to hustling free t-shirts at a concert

….but right now as I walked in the door…

You know I read somewhere that the onion is a distant relative to the opium poppy. Maybe that’s why I felt calm and happy as I walked into the house,  maybe I was getting a contact high as Lori was browning onions in preparation for making soup, but I knew there was more to the warmth I felt. I drew it all in as I shelved my teaching binder and hung up my coat: music was softly playing on the stereo and my sons had their yearbook open, scoping out the young ladies while conducting a post-game wrap-up of the Oldest Game Ever. Wrapped in the warmth of my family I felt the very essence of joy.

It may be that life was getting the best of me, that the academic and creative arenas in which I fought daily were more than a forty-year man could handle, but as long as I had this wonderful home and family as a place of refuge I had a chance, albeit a ghost of a chance.


___________________________________________________________________________

“Ghost of Chance” Songwriters: Neil Peart / Geddy Lee / Alex Lifeson

 

 

Lonely Nights….

Good morning mister sunshine, you brighten up my day
Come sit beside me in your way
I see you every morning, outside the restaurants
The music plays so nonchalant

Lonely days, lonely nights.
Where would I be without my woman?

It was several years before the Brothers Gibb switched to size small jockeys and started shrieking “Ah-ah-ah-ah stayin’ alive” that I first heard their earlier song Lonely Nights. It was the middle of an Alaskan winter, I was a senior in high school in between girlfriends and feeling lonely as only a seventeen-year-old can know…and I had no idea that there would come a day where I daily dealt with an even deeper state of alone-ness.

Please excuse the pun but I am not alone in this matter. The 11 January issue of THE WEEK magazine contains an article that hit very close to home for me, an article entitled:  “An Epidemic of Loneliness”. It cites multiple studies from around the world that all conclude that a LOT of us are lonely and it doesn’t do us one bit of good.

Connections have been found between loneliness and:

  • Mental issues like insomnia, depression and
  • Physical issues like increased risk for heart attack and weakened immune system
  • Social issues like increased political polarization.

There are plenty of reasons for this increased state of isolation to include the breakdown of the family unit, the often-transient nature of work and the emotional pitfalls found in social media. I’ve seen it in my own life – thirty years ago in addition to my family and local friends I had a circle of about twenty people I would routinely correspond with but now contact from anyone other than my Beautiful Saxon Princess and one or two friends is very sporadic.

I’m not going to snivel about how lonely I get slaving away in my studio, but I would like to suggest that you take a moment each day and think about those friends and relatives that might be shut-in or otherwise isolated. We live in perilous times and while so many of the terrors that lurk in our lives seem insurmountable (taking away my old aerosol cans won’t make a bit of difference to the ozone layer) this a problem that individually we can actually do something about.

It brings to mind a story I heard of  a man who’d walk along the beach at low tide to pick up stranded starfish and throw them back in the water. He was told “ You’re just wasting your time – there are thousands of stranded critters! Do you really think you’re making any difference?”  to which the man replied (after replacing yet another starfish):

 “I made a difference to that one!”

OK – so my inner hippie is showing, but please, please pick up the phone, tap at your keyboard or write a letter to that invalid uncle, your old room-mate who’s now a single mom, your high school buddy who’s now a widower – anyone that you know who’s fighting to get through each day alone.

1974: Spring Camp

I was so damn tired.

I was the only man in a two-man foxhole, my buddy long gone to a squad leader’s meeting at the command post leaving me to pull guard duty alone through the night to the next morning. I had never been so sleep-deprived in my life – several times I had to hold back from sounding the alarm after seeing what I thought were giant Neanderthal aliens.1

Welcome to ROTC Spring Camp.

The BYU ROTC program in 1974 was much more rigorous than I’d expected, with a strict discipline that lingered from an earlier time when the looming specter of conscription put teeth into the threat of being ‘dropped from the program’. The abrupt change from the more easy-going first-names-only program at Ricks College threw me off but I quickly got up to speed with spit-shined boots, starched fatigues and an ego surrounded by mental sandbags.

Truth be told I needed something to throw myself into, and the French Foreign Legion was not recruiting at the time. I had been riding high during my last semester in Rexburg, but then in a twist that would make any soap opera proud I went through a broken engagement, a missed application deadline and an equally disastrous rebound relationship that left me marooned in Provo for a semester, living in a dank basement apartment with five strangers and a totally useless line-up of classes at a university that I never, ever wanted to attend.

Looking back it should have been no surprise that I got heavily involved in the ROTC program. It was the one place at BYU that I was able to make friends, it provided my shattered pride with positive reinforcement through the butt-load of merits I earned during tactical lab exercises, and it generally formed a band-aid over the gaping emotional wound left from the break-up. If there was a downside it was the manner in which my overly gung-ho attitude generated antipathy in some of my less motivated squad-mates. I was so caught up in the program that it surprised no one that I volunteered for Spring Camp even though attendance was optional for second year cadets, but to be honest there was little military zeal in my decision. I could see no sense in spending the four days of Spring Break watching the paint dry on the wall of my crappy little apartment.

The camp was held in the desert adjacent to Dugway Proving Grounds and was designed to prepare third year cadets for advanced training at FT Lewis (WA) the following summer. We would participate in a series of tactical problems and training exercises with third year cadets in rotating leadership positions  – and though as a second-year cadet my mission was to simply be someone to give orders to, I surprised evaluators when I proved to be much more than just a body to command. Growing up in rural Alaska had given me an excellent set of fieldcraft skills, and I was also more accustomed to rustic living conditions than my proto-yuppie cadet companions.

The training schedule included seventy hours of various exercises leading to a 24-hour long-range patrol designed to be the capstone of the spring camp experience. For me the patrol was anticlimactic as my peak came the previous morning during a squad exercise involving a hasty attack. As mentioned I was slated to be a redshirt2  during the exercise, so I had slipped my mental gear selector into neutral and let my mind wander while we were double-timing to the training site, only to be startled back to life with:

“DEITRICK! SQUAD LEADER!”

“Huh?” (my snappy come-back!)

A squad-mate hissed “You’re the squad leader for this problem!”

Few things in life have terrified me as much as those seven words did. Lack of experience coupled with complete inattention up to that point started my knees knocking and my internal Stukas dive-bombing. After receiving my assignment I stepped aside to devise a plan and write an order but all I could think of was:

  • Imminent failure and resultant humiliation
  • Swift expulsion from the program
  • Prompt transportation to a military prison or penal colony in South America

I was totally >bleeping<  lost…and found that coherent speech was not my friend as I began to brief my squad mates, but when I opened the session to questions I inexplicably became more articulate. I was momentarily bewildered at my sudden expertise until I realized what was really happening: I was being indirectly coached by my squad-mates, all third-year cadets (some veterans) who knew their stuff and knew that I didn’t. Rather than belittle me they were subtly carrying me; when I opened the briefing up for questions they’d each ask very detailed leading questions which verbally pulled me into devising a good, professional operation order.

I remember one in particular – a third year cadet with prior service named Don Card. I can visualize every detail of his face picked out in sharp detail by the morning sun to one side with a complex expression on his face that was brave, benign and several other “B’s” all at the same time. I was dumbfounded –  competitive grading meant there was no benefit to helping me, yet there he stood,  gently nudging me into competence with his leading questions.

I managed to implement the order and lead the squad in a textbook hasty attack that earned me  an outstanding spot report, but I had little time to bask in my tactical glory – as soon as we took the objective we were hustled back to our bivouac area to prepare for the aforementioned long-range patrol of which I remember very little. Neither do I remember much about breaking camp or the trip back to campus. Oh, I did get some John Wayne points for carrying the radio for the entire 25 kilometers despite twisting my knee early in the exercisebut all these years later the one moment I remember the best was the earlier exercise when the other guys elbowed me towards excellence. That little bit of compassion that in turn led to a little bit of positive reinforcement was just enough to push me through an emotional quagmire that could have easily diverted me down a very bad path.

Any study of military science will almost immediately reveal that there is a minimum level of transpersonal commitment an army must have in order to function or even exist, that without a willingness to forego personal comfort and safety for the collective good any group of soldiers can easily devolve into glorified gang members. At the same time products of popular media like Combat, The Sands of Iwo Jima, and Band of Brothers would have us assume such selflessness would always entail dramatic measures like jumping on a hand grenade to save the rest of the squad or something equally extreme in nature. That sunlit morning in the spring of 1974 taught me that sometimes selflessness measured in very small doses can do just as much good as the grand gestures.


  1. …from the first season Star Trek TOS Episode “The Galileo Seven”
  2. Star Trek term for an expendable crew member
  3. While attending the basic course as a second lieutenant five years later I ran into our cadet lane grader (now an active duty captain) attending the advanced course. He still remembered the incident and my rather coarse response when he asked if I wanted a medivac after the injury. He laughed and said, “Right there I knew you were going to make through the program!”

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.

2018: In Praise of Middles

My father said it best:

“Between the optimist and the pessimist

The difference is oh-so-droll

An optimist the doughnut sees

The pessimist: the hole”

That idea/meme (or slight variations of that idea) have popped up in countless other times and places in my life. My particular favorite version came from engineer and SMOF (Secret Master of Fandom) “Uncle” Timmy Bolgeo: “ An optimist may see a glass of water half-way full while a pessimist see it as being half-empty, but show that glass to an engineer and he’ll see a storage facility with 50% excess capacity”,

I’ve decided that I am neither a half-empty or half-full person.

I like things in the middle.

The thought came to me as I opened a little carton of yogurt this morning. Actually that wasn’t my first thought – my first impression was a feeling of annoyance with the French, because before they introduced their six-ounce containers of Yoplait to America in 1977 we were all happy with hefty eight-ounce cartons. I’ve always wondered if that six-ouncer was passive-aggressive retaliation for all the French jokes we told in New England, but I digress,

Open a carton of yogurt and the first thought is “Do I really want to eat this too or will the poached egg take me all the way to lunch”. Your last thought is mild annoyance as you try to scrape the last ½ ounce from the embossed risers and ribs on the bottom of the cup.

….but in the middle?

Mmmmm!

It’s the same way with vacations. We were blessed with a two-week vacation back home to Alaska during both the summer of 1997 and the summer of 1999. Both visits played out pretty much the same:

  • jet-lag and nostalgia over-dose for the first few days
  • packing-anxiety and teary-eyed anticipation of parting AGAIN for the last few…

…but for four or five days in the middle of our stay it was glorious. We still had plenty of money left in our trip-budget, our friends and family had finally been able to adjust schedules to accommodate individual visits and the specter of departure was too far away to loom very effectively.

I think it makes for a healthy philosophy for life in general. Rather than fuss about what I didn’t get in the past (half-empty) or what riches I might amass in the future (half-full) I think I’d rather concentrate on the blessings I have right now.

In the middle.

The Perception of an Extra Sense

I grew up being taught that humans have five senses:

  • Sight
  • hearing
  • touch
  • taste
  • smell

Since then I’ve read that there a few more such as:

  • balance
  • temperature
  • proprioception 1

(I’ve also seen lists that include pain, thirst, direction and sexual stimulation but I’m most interested in those senses that collect information about our environment)

There’s yet another sense that I have been unsuccessfully trying to identify and name for most of my life, a sense that can be difficult to describe. It involves physical location (including climate, weather and day/night cycle), sounds, and smells that combine with an internal sensation that tickles my brain much like what happens when  I eat foods like Vidalia onions manifest taste in the back of my mouth rather than with my tongue.

For example: It’s a late afternoon in the fall with the sun slanting to one side and there is a storm on the horizon. I start to  get Stukas2 in my stomach, my five traditional senses get oh-so-sharp, and my thinking quickens beyond belief. Add a smell like a trace of wood smoke the air and the effect intensifies; give me a headset with Gordon Lightfoot or the Moody Blues playing and the needle on my intense-o-meter pegs over to the redline.

Bear in mind that there are no chemical influences involved – no alcohol or drugs but nonetheless the feeling almost becomes second sight and I can see the world as is should be. It’s not a particularly happy feeling as in found-a-ten-spot-in-the-couch-cushion happy but rather a sublime feeling of “rightness” much like the feeling I get when I’m listening to beautiful music.

A prime example happened in the fall of 1980 when I was out running the FT Richardson exercise parcours2  with my nephew Erik. It was a gloriously golden day you only get with an autumn in Alaska and as the path ran next to a stream I fell into the physical/mental state I described above.

It all came together:

  • The slight chill of a morning breeze
  • The warm sunshine peeking over the Chugach Mountains
  • The slightly acrid smell of cranberries late in the season
  • The musical sound of the creek
  • Warm memories of FT Richardson when I was the same age as my nephew

For a few moments I was so incredibly >bleeping< happy I thought my head would explode and that everything  – and I mean capital E- Everything in the world was OK3.

I’ve also experienced similar episodes that I later realized were  simple environmental cues triggering old memories but this is different – and very hard to verbalize. It’s also something that doesn’t happen very often or on a regular basis and  I can go years between occurrences.

…and I can’t help but wonder if other people have similar experiences….


Notes

  1. AKA kinesthetic sense or the ability to know where our limbs are in relation to our body. It’s the sense that enables you to touch your nose with your eyes closed
  2. You may get butterflies in your stomach, but the sensation can get pretty intense with me and seems more in line with effect of German dive-bombers designed in 1933.
  3. French term referring to a jogging path with exercise/obstacle stations situated at regular intervals along the trail. In the late 1970’s the concept was Imported from Europe to just about every post in the Army.
  4. A minor miracle as I was still coming to grips with a medical grounding from flight status the previous spring.

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

Music: Songs for Beginners

 

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.

1971

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”

Wounded Bird

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

 

  1. 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.