Wheels!

Big day for my Star Pupil yesterday. Our next door neighbor Wes very graciously bought a bike for him at a local yard sale and the little guy has been in wheeled-transportation heaven since then.

It’s had me thinking back to my first bike and the incredible sense of freedom it gave me – my hunting grounds quadrupled in area by late afternoon of day one. It’s quite a different world now so I don’t think we’ll be quite was hands-off as my folks were, but it will still be interesting  to observe the impact two wheels and a chain bring about in Jaybug’s life.

I Am The Axe-Man!

Ax-man

Every weekend my Star Pupil and I try something new and this week it was use of an ax. It was a skill that really wasn’t on the schedule but a box of tools I recently gave him unfortunately included a sort of multi-tool-on-steroids that inexplicably included an ax blade…and as anyone with kids will  tell you glaciers can be moved by hand before you’ll get a five-year-old boy to change his mind about something like this.

After a safety briefing we spent about forty-five minutes in the shop chopping away and eventually produced the sundered one-by-two you see in this photo. The process could have been faster but one too many roadrunner cartoons convinced him logs literally jump into with one direct chop with an axe held straight on. I’d demonstrate alternate chopping at an angle but then he’d politely correct me and attempt to bludgeon the board in half.

We finally succeeded in parting the one-by-two and now he’s out with his mom visiting friends while I am busy hiding every other cutting implement before he gets back.

Coming Attractions

(Be honest – after reading that title visions of  anthropomorphic movie snacks dancing across the screen while singing “Let’s all go to the lobby…” popped into your head.)

If it seems like new material has been a bit sparse lately you’re not mistaken – I’ve been caught up in some other endeavors that have taken me away from my keyboard.  Some of these activities involve visual art, but my biggest iron in the creative fire is a book project that should see print sometime between now and the Fourth of July. It involves reworking my stories from 1962 to 1967 into a volume dealing with growing  up in Alaska in the 1960s.

More than that I’d rather not say, other than it will be available in both e-book and dead-tree versions. I’m also doing the cover and interior spot illustrations.

I will keep you posted.

Square Peg 2.0

My sister Robin and I both spent most of our teens out of step with our own generation.  I’ve never been able to figure out exactly why that happened – it could have been the frequent moves, our parent’s influence or our own inclination – but at the end of the day it worked out simply that we had more in common with our parents’ generation than our own.

It made for some interesting experiences in the classroom and I’ve often wondered what life would have been like had I fallen in line with the rest of my fellow post-peak Baby Boomer peers. I wonder about that because I see the same thing happen with my Star Pupil AKA my grandson Jayden. He gets more time around grandparents than most kids – a slightly skewed experience that will be even more skewed because of my own square-peg-round-hole experience.

For example – his experience with personal electronics differs from that of his friends. Oh, we still have to use a crowbar to peel him away from phones and tablets, but he also has plenty of non-digital influences surrounding him. Case in point is his tool kit. He’s intensely interested in my activities so in an effort to preserve my own tool kit I’ve made up a set of his own, to include a hammer, pliers, some odd combination wrenches and both types of screwdrivers. I’ve also prepared a two-by-four with pre-drilled holes and several screws of both standard and Phillips flavors.

I think he may come out of my youth a little more “handy” than most kids his age.

JaydenTools1

 

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.

Tuesday’s Reflection on Monday’s Isolation

As much as I hoped otherwise there was a price to be paid for the work we did around the house this past weekend. I woke up Sunday feeling as though an icepick had been shoved through my right knee, and by Monday morning I was wondering if I would ever walk unassisted again in this life (which was a kind of “d’oh!” moment inasmuch as I have been using a cane for well over a decade now). I’ve made a habit of keeping a work-satchel handy but neither the sketch pads or laptops seemed to hold my attention while I forced myself to sit still and heal a bit.

I spent the time thinking.

One of my older friends insists  that I was born out of my time, that I’d be happier in Ancient Greece when ) “people just sat around and thought all the time”. I am partial to things like indoor plumbing, cushioned seating and heavier-than-air flight so I doubt I’d take a trip back in time were it possible, but there is something to be said about living a less-cluttered, less cacophonous life.

At this point I’d settle for just being able to go the corner store and buy a packet of Necco wafers.

 

1971: Subterranean Plantation

There was no end to the surprises that came with a definitive diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis. I was fully aware of the chronic pain part and the chronic, progressive, irreversible parts weren’t all that surprising, but I was taken aback with the genetic aspects of the disease – that  over 90% of the people with A/S have the HLAB27 chromosome with evidence that the  condition dates back several thousand years. It was first described in the 1600’s but we know that a good number of the folks pushing stone blocks for the Pyramids also had the inflamed joints and fused vertebrae of the disease known as Bekhterev Disease, Bechterew’s Disease, or Marie–Strümpell Disease before the medical world settled on ankylosing spondylitis.

In addition to the physical discomfort another source of stress connected with A/S has been the large number of people anxious to share a ‘silver bullet’ for my condition; said silver bullets being one of any number of naturopathic remedies that would completely cure me and eliminate all my symptoms just as soon as I signed up as a distributor and joined someone’s ‘downline’ in one of many multilevel marketing plans. Unfortunately what most of these folks can’t seem to grasp is that with just two exceptions I have little use for alternative medicine, and that antipathy dates back over 50 years when my parents would regularly bypass needed medical solutions for alternative (read cheaper) cures.

I don’t think  mom totally distrusted modern medicine – she had been a U.S. Army nursing corps cadet during World War ll and missed deployment to the Pacific Theater only after the war was cut short after Little Boy and Fat Boy permanently altered the Japanese landscape. She worked as a registered nurse in a public hospital for ten years after the war and continued to stay certified through continuing education clear up into the late 1970s, but when we moved to Alaska she somehow became convinced that between the lack of sunlight, and the amount of preservatives in our food, her children were nutritionally short changed.

She started out modestly with bean sprouts and sun-lamps but by the time I hit high school she was in full alternative mode with a daily regime of “additions” to our diet that seemed to exceed our intake of regular food…but of all the additions she tried three stood head and shoulders about the rest:

  • Nutritional supplements in pill and capsule form
  • Vitamin B-rich yeast mixed with orange juice referred to as “dirt”
  • Almonds

The pills and capsules started out with just a One-A-Day® multiple vitamin but as time went by Mom followed classic addict behavior and began to increase our dosages by the odd pill or capsule, until  my third year in high school saw me knocking back  a small shot glass full of assorted pills, capsules and gel caps containing every vitamin in the alphabet.

‘Dirt’ was our term for a tumbler full of orange juice mixed with a powdered Vitamin B/ yeast compound. I had very serious issues with ‘dirt’ from the very beginning :

  1. The powder wasn’t mixed with real orange juice – it was mixed with Tang, and no matter how you mixed it or how many astronaut jingles  played on TV, Tang was just water flavored with equal parts Orange Pixie Stix and Alka-Seltzer.
  2. If you entertained any hopes for a social life you really, really did not want that stuff in your system as the day progressed. As a bullet-proof seventeen-year-old I could care less about any heretofore undetected problems with my nutrition, but I was extremely concerned with the rotten-egg burp and room-clearing killer farts the yeast brought on in a healthy digestive tract.

Almonds entered the equation at roughly the same point the pill count got out of hand. I never really knew why we were taking the almonds – something about cancer, but as a dyed in the wool cashew man the almonds grew old on the second day Mom dropped them in the shot glass. My normal response would have been to chuck it all in the trash, but Mom was as vigilant about monitoring our intake as she was in providing the stuff. Inmates entering prison for the first time were under a fraction of the surveillance Mom exercised when she issued the pills and dirt. She stopped short of a full body cavity search but once that stuff was ingested there was no opportunity for ejection short of an alien abduction.

It was a no-win situation until my senior year of high school when my mom cajoled the school board into allowing my younger sister to attend eighth grade at school in town. My sister was not a morning person and the resultant turbulence while loading up the car meant I now had time for diversion. Disposing of the dirt was easy enough – I’d grab the tumbler and mumble something about drinking it on the way out to the car when in fact I’d dump it as soon as I got out of the door, a scheme that worked until snowfall when the brown splotches that started to appear between the front door of the house jump-started maternal suspicion1..

The shot glass full of pills, capsules and almonds remained a problem – mom still shook us down before we left in the morning, so I finally came up with an avoidance method that relied on the location of my bedroom. Access to my attic was by a ladder through a hatch in the closet at the end of the hall – which was kind of cool because of the secret aspect of it all. In addition to the water heater the area behind the ladder served as a closet of sorts for clothing and other items I was unable to stow in the scant storage spaces in the loft itself. The space was a mixed blessing because in addition to providing access to the attic, the hall closet provided our only route to the crawl space under the house, and while the ladder was securely fastened in place I was none too sure about the trap door over the hole leading to the depths below.

As we bounced around the house early each morning I made sure to make one additional pass by the door to my ladder  where I’d empty the shot glass between the boxes on the closet floor. Each evening I would take a broom and sweep away the pills I tossed there earlier, either hiding them in the bottom of the kitchen trash or sweeping them through the gaps around the hatch to the crawlspace.

…and then suddenly it was the end of the semester, academic year, and high school. Work schedules didn’t mesh quite as smoothly as school schedules did and Mom’s program of vitamins and supplements dropped by the wayside. As I came and went on my travels as a student, missionary and soldier I eventually forgot about pills, “dirt” and almonds until one summer day several years later when my folks discovered a  noticeable dip that had developed in the middle of the house. My parents asked me to check on the cement  footings under the middle of the main floor, which would take me down into the crawlspace. No one had been down that closet hatchway in years and even though various sisters, nieces and nephews had used my old loft at one time or other, no one had settled in for the long haul, so my collection of stuff was still there.2

There were no permanent lights rigged behind the closet ladder so I had to work by touch, and after cleaning my stuff up it still took some time to clear out the old sheets of cardboard and scraps of carpet that insulated the hatchway. The cloud of musty mildew odor the “poofed” into existence after thirty  minutes of mucking about let me know when I’d made it to the dimly-lit crawlspace, and I was surprised to find that it was dimly lit as fingers of daylight pushed through the random gaps between cement block, poured cement footings, and leafy stalks.

Leafy stalks?

Years earlier in an effort to provide better access as well as elbow room, the area just below the hatch had been excavated an additional three feet. Growing out of the dirt just to the side of this excavation were a half-dozen twisting stalks, each with just a leave or two and looking like something grown in a zero-gravity environment. The leaves were not the healthiest looking I’d ever seen, their color that of Thanksgiving  found in the back of the oven a week after the event but  they were vaguely lanceolate in shape like those of a willow tree. I would have never suspected anything would sprout in the crawlspace but given the plants’ location between the hot-water line to the bathtub and one of the only places that sunlight reached into the crawlspace I wasn’t totally surprised.

…no, the surprise didn’t happen until several years later and several thousand miles away as I was preparing an assignment for a graphic design class I was teaching. The project entailed designing snack-sized packaging for various types of nuts, and as I was assembling reference materials and imagery I was stopped cold by the photos of almonds and almond trees.

Slender branches with long oval leaves that looked like the head of a lance? I shook my head – the time frame between ditching the almonds and finding the plants was much too long for any germination to be possible…but at the same time I remembered that it had been raw unprocessed uncooked almonds Mom had us gagging down. I’d also just read about a research project in the United Kingdom sprouting grain seeds found in one of the pyramids.

The clatter of pots and pans startled me back into coherent thought as my Beautiful Saxon Princess began preparing dinner, and as I gathered up my papers and gradebook I thought of  mom’s nutritional efforts all those years ago, I had cheekily dismissed all her efforts to improve my health with her pills and supplements …and almonds. There never seemed to be any connection, any measurable benefit to the stuff she had us choking down but here I was staring at a plant that was healthy enough to thrive in such adverse conditions – a plant displaying the rigorous health mom had sought for her children.

Clattering pans brought my attention back to dinner and when I confessed ignorance of the aroma my Beautiful Saxon Princess said: “It’s a vegetarian garlic almond quiche”

She went on breezily. “As I recall it’s not exactly your favorite, but it was one of your mom’s favorite recipes.”

“Dish me up a double helping….”

———————————————————————————————————————–



  1. I eventually convinced her the “splotches” were the result of an intestinal disease affecting peninsula moose that I’d heard about on the radio
  2. The stuff ranged from corduroy bell bottom pants to the missing lid of my FIREBALL XL5 lunchbox among other things, and most of the detritus that had to be cleaned up before opening the hatch dated from my tenure,

 

 

 

 

 

 

It All Works Out…

It’s been a good news/bad news type of situation the last couple of days. Good in that I’ve gone almost five months without an upper respiratory infection, bad in that I’ve finally come down with some kind of bug but good (?) in that it is some sort of stomach virus and I’m still able to breathe. I’m not getting as much done as I’d like but I’m grateful to be able to work.

My Star Pupil and his father helped me with installing a shelf in my Beautiful Saxon Princess’ part of the closet. In these types of situations BSP just laughs at me “at the five minute mark I hear you voice slip into that measured cadence and I know at that point you’re in teacher mode again. “