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Archive for March, 2009

A meeting with myself at 24 would be awkward, to say the least. Not as bad as, say meeting myself at 13. I don’t know anyone who’d want to see themselves at 13, in the worst of their gawky adolescent years. My second worst awkward period was in college, when I was trying to find my way with so many landmarks from the past gone.

My first year at the U was just painful. No more high school friends to hang out with, no reference points on campus since I lived at home. So I quietly tried to look intelligent, or at least not panicked, in my classes. I got a job on campus and had a bunch of motherly officeworkers who looked out for me, but I pretty much lived in a bubble that year. And then I went on a mission.

In Mormon culture, a mission is a rite of passage. You enter a geeky teenager, and you exit a young adult ready to start living life with confidence. I didn’t quite feel that way when I returned home to Kaysville in January 1981. Too many things had changed, my parents had divorced, friends had moved away or married, and I was more or less set adrift to figure out my college career.

So I declared a new major, French, and moved in at my grandmother’s house. Rent was minimal, it was a couple miles from campus, and there were just enough comforts to call it home. Grandma Bushman was living in Maryland at the time, volunteering as a genealogical record-keeper at the Washington, DC temple. She came back to Utah a few weeks every summer, and the rest of the year my sister Beth and I lived there and took care of the house.

I found another campus job, started taking French grammar and literature classes, and slowly began to feel at home. But oh, how I cringe to think back at the awkward ways I tried to fit in, or not fit in. I remember my friend Martin, who I met in a linguistics class, pointing out to me one day that I had a look, my own fashion sense. Although I hadn’t planned it, I did: baggy khaki pants and slightly oversized cotton shirts, shirttail always out. I went for neutral colors and lots of textures in those shirts. My favorite would have been the one with a subtle purple, gold, green, and red plaid—much more colorful than the usual grays and blues. It was a kind of “look at me, I’m unconventional/don’t look at me, I hate the attention” style of dress. Both anonymous and near-bohemian. Well, in my mind, anyway.

I made my way through that French degree, and with no better offers, started a Master’s degree with a TA job teaching freshman French classes. At the same time I started my radio career. I had listened to KRCL, the local community radio station, since 1981, and decided to volunteer. I ended up on the air hosting three different radio shows over the next five years. As awkward as I felt, they took me in and I found myself in an incongruous state of broadcasting a couple hours a week, out on public airwaves, and at the same time feeling intensely shy. Not quite agoraphobic, but a solid introvert at best. It made for some odd radio moments, when my inner world collided with the fact that people heard my voice on the radio, all over the state.

In that DJ studio, I could lose myself in the music. But there was always an edge to the experience because I had to stay on top of making station announcements on the hour, playing public service announcements, and talking in between music sets. I was not a great announcer, but fortunately on KRCL the standard was not terribly high. I had a lot of fun, even though for years I had recurring nightmares about being in the radio studio and realizing the music had stopped playing and I had nothing cued up on the turntables. Those were my radio version of the standard “didn’t study for the final exam” nightmares that many people have about college.

My first regular program was a French-language disaster. I had a backpack full of albums I bought in France the summer of 1983, and managed to find a few other things along the way. But really, the French community in Salt Lake City numbered about 50 people, and the show wore thin after several months. Plus, I was not all that comfortable speaking French so publicly.

My second show was ahead of its time, but not because of me. I inherited it from an old Kaysville friend who had been one of the first to try a world music mix. In 1984, reggae and African pop were not all that well known in Utah (although KRCL already had a long-running reggae show Saturday afternoons). Still, it made sense if you knew the host. So let’s back up a little.

I had a month-long job one summer in high school, doing grounds work at a golf course in Layton with about a dozen guys under the supervision of one of the high school coaches. My friend Mark was on the crew, and we met one of the regular grounds crew workers named Michael Huerta. Mike was a true bohemian to us suburban kids, son of a Canadian and a Mexican, with long curly hair under a straw hat and endless stories about his slightly wanton lifestyle. Mike was a sort of counter culture hippy type, listened to all kinds of mid-70s rock/folk/blues/jazz, and was truly a funny guy to hang out with. A few years later, when I lived in Kaysville and rode the bus into Salt Lake to go to the U, I’d cross paths with Mike. One day that stuck with me was when he playfully, kindly teased a Down Syndrome guy on the bus, making an absolute fool of himself as he’d pull down the guy’s hat over his face and then laugh with him. Mike was just open to people and experiences, and he always laughed.

I was a bit surprised when I ran into him in 1983 at KRCL. Mike had restyled himself as Mic Huerta, man about town and DJ of dance beats, reggae, and world music. The hippy was gone, replaced with an urbane, metropolitain guy embracing the hip-hop side of his Latino heritage. His afternoon drive time show was on Tuesdays, and if I was at the station doing production work I’d say hi. Mic was almost legendary for a while there at KRCL, but after doing the show for a couple of years, he started to drift. Whoever was on the air at 3:45 on Tuesday would get a phone call from him that he was running late, and would they mind getting out Gregory Isaacs’ “Night Nurse” single to cue up for the start of his show? It was almost 10 minutes long, and gave him time to get to the studio and gather up some other records.  As his reliability drifted it seemed his interest was waning too. So I was offered his drive time slot, if I’d keep the world music and new dance music format. Why not?

That’s where today’s musical excerpt comes in. In taking over Mic’s Tuesday Drive Time I had a two-and-a-half hour show where I’d play reggae and African pop and dance remixes and 80’s pop and whatever else I could find that had a beat. Quite a stretch, in some ways, because I was painfully uneducated about some of those genres. I’d try almost anything, including occasional rap and hip-hop stuff I’d find at the station. The first two hours would fly by, but by about 6:15, I was usually a little tired and tried a few last songs that might stretch the boundaries just a bit. But mostly I looked for longer songs, tunes to relax to, before Pacifica News started up at 6:30 and I could go home.

This was my favorite show-ending track: Anna Domino, an American who moved to Brussels and recorded a fabulously sophisticated mix of classic pop and electronic beats, sung with that silky voice. It’s a song that takes a minute to get established, but once you’re there, you never want it to end.

It popped up this morning on my iPod as I was driving to work and immediately transported me to a rainy spring evening in Salt Lake City, relieved that my show was done and driving home (now to my grandfather’s house) in my 1972 Dodge Dart, wearing baggy khakis and cotton shirt, trying to figure out where I was headed in life but happy to be here, now, with this gently lulling song playing over and over in my mind.

Anna Domino (self-titled album)

["Caught," from Anna Domino, originally on Les Disques du Crépuscule;
reissued on LTM; available from LTM mail order or Darla in the USA]
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petrichor: The pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell.
Capitol Reef Clouds

Photo edited from Wolfgang Staudt's Flickr collection

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Music can trigger very specific memories for me. This morning I sat down to sort through my music files. I tend to collect lots of stray MP3’s, run them through my iPod on shuffle play, and get rid of the ones that annoy me. So I opened up my Leo Kottke folder, and the first one to play was “A Child Should Be a Fish.” Boom! I’m back in high school, listening on my stereo to Leo Kottke’s Ice Water album, wondering at the mysteries of that song. And if I close my eyes as I listen, I’d swear my friend Mark was in the room, laughing at me.

I met Mark the first week of 8th grade at Kaysville Junior High. My family had moved from a Salt Lake City suburb to the “hick town” of Kaysville the summer I turned 13. It was a shocking change. Our home in Salt Lake was in Olympus Cove, a well-off sort of neighborhood, and I was experimenting with being hip. I know—how hip can a 13-year-old be? But I had let my hair grow long, Neil Young style, parted down the middle, and wore wire-rimmed glasses. I even tried to walk with a sort of cool slouch, looking sideways without turning my head, nodding to the beat of some song running through my mind. Oh, ouch—the early 70s were so pretentious for some of us. I wasn’t exactly hip, but I was definitely not a conservative small-town kid. And Kaysville, in 1972, was a conservative small town, with farmers on the west side and middle class families on the east.

That first day in first-period algebra class, I felt more than a little conspicuous. I saw Mark there, the red-haired, other long-haired kid. We got to know each other, and through Mark I met some other friends, like Bunny Brothers. I never could get used to that nickname, he was really Paul but had been Bunny to his friends for years. The three of us went through 8th grade trying on different personas and attitudes. That’s a whole different story, however. Paul did lose the Bunny thing in high school. Just a bit too childish, I guess.

Mark and I, and sometimes Paul, went to concerts as often as we could find a ride to Salt Lake and had a few bucks for tickets. We listened to loud rock, like Deep Purple, Grand Funk Railroad, and Emerson Lake & Palmer (who we saw in Salt Lake, the first concert where I came away with noticeable hearing loss). Mark grew up in Arkansas and knew something about the blues, so for a while we listened to Billy Preston and Taj Mahal (one of the best concerts ever: Taj Mahal with his band from the Music Keeps Me Together album); we tried out folk music with Jesse Colin Young (also a great concert), Joni Mitchell, and my guitar hero, Leo Kottke. And that’s the memory that woke up this morning when I started listening to “A Child Should Be a Fish”: an amazing acoustic guitar player, two teenage kids listening and laughing about how we’d never be able to play as good as that. We both bought guitars (I got a 12-string due to Kottke’s influence) and we’d  jam now and then, trying out open tunings and slide guitar or just blues licks. But I ended up only being able to play most of James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James album, fingerstyle, learned from a book. I never learned much else. I never even managed the acoustic intro to “Stairway to Heaven,” although I tried.

Kottke was impenetrable. He played open tunings but did things so differently. His chords were masses of contradictory sounds, evocative and elusive. I would spend time in Kaysville staring into the sky, watching clouds or sunsets or snow falling, and Kottke’s music was my soundtrack. His Dreams and All That Stuff album is still in my top 10 of all time, and if I still had a copy, Ice Water probably would be too.

So I have “A Child Should Be a Fish” on my iPod and today it brought back to me how having a good friend in 8th grade was like a saving grace. What a relief to be able to kick back and talk about anything in the world with someone and not be rejected. Laughed at, yes, but not rejected. Mark was a great sounding board because he’d call me on my crap. He was certainly not above laughing at me when I was being stupid. But we understood each other. We talked about existence and nothingness, about absurdities and surrealism, Woody Allen and Salvador Dali. My parents’ marriage was starting to show little stress cracks by then, and as 13-year-olds do, I was exploring the bigger world and caused my parents a fair amount of grief along the way. So having a good friend made all the difference for me in that five-year period of crazy adolescence. Funny how one song can hold that emotional memory with such clarity.

After we graduated, I went to the University of Utah and Mark went to Westminster college in Salt Lake. We saw less of each other that first year, and then I went on a mission. After I came home in 1981, I saw Mark only a handful of times in college. We lost touch. I got married, Mark went who-knows-where, and that was that until sometime in the 1990s, when Mark’s sister Alice found me through e-mail, and we connected again. I was in Orem then, married with three kids, and Mark had married and had a son. Around Christmas we got together at his mom’s house in Kaysville, which astonishingly looked almost exactly as it did in the 70s, down to the coffee table made of slices of rocks. I had spent so many days at that house, it was spooky to see it again, but a joy to see Mark’s mom again, still the same happy Southern Baptist she always was. Mark sent me a few Christmas cards after that, and I may have responded, but I’m a lousy friend when left to my own initiative. I got busy, I wasn’t sure what to say when I did write, and then stopped writing. We lost touch, again.

So I had a particularly happy jolt one day not long ago when Mark sent me a friend request in Facebook. Say what you will about the internet, it does bring people together. And Mark has not changed. He still has a twisted sense of humor, a very particular artistic vision, and a generous outlook on life. He has three kids now, we are both getting older and maybe a little more philosophical about life. Actually, we were always a little philosophical about life. Mark works as a psychologist, plays guitar, and hopefully still paints or does some kind of art. I still have a woodcut print he did in high school, and it’s in the same vein as the warped photo self-portraits on his Facebook page.

What a grounding, happy feeling to reconnect with an old friend and see that some things don’t really change after all.

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In a random moment of unattended thought the other day, I pictured in my mind someone I haven’t thought about for years: a man who lived for hot lead, coffee, and dance floors. It’s rare to meet someone who is so focused on a few things in life, and so happy with those things.

This is, of course, an over-simplification, but it’s how I remember Don. In the mid-1980’s, I got my first serious job in the writing/publishing arena with Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. I had started working in their editorial office as a part-time geek, typing their 3,000+ subscribers’ information onto a primitive IBM PC, one of the first mass-market computers (5-inch floppy drive, probably about 64kb memory, a 10Mb hard drive, and that classic green-only 12-inch video screen).

IBM PC, 1st generation

Over time my part-time job became more involved and I was eventually a full-time editorial assistant, making copies and mailing manuscripts to reviewers and authors, and tracking the progress of each issue.

At some point I met Don, the typesetter. He was in his 50’s, divorced, with a wide smile and slightly awkward manner. He was an old-school typesetter who had spent the better part of his adult life with a hot-lead Linotype composition machine. In the 50’s and 60’s you still saw those monstrous machines in commercial use, but by the 80’s they were a generation old. So Don bought his own and installed it in the basement of his house in suburban Salt Lake City.

hot lead typesetting

This photo shows a much older machine than the one Don used, but it gives you an idea of what it was like. The thing had wheels and arms and a complex series of mechanisms that literally took individual pieces of metal, a letter or comma at a time, and set up printed pages. Don had about three type faces in various sizes and weights (probably Times, Baskerville, and Caslon), and every one had hundreds of individual brass letter molds in trays that sat up above the keyboard. As he typed, each letter mold would drop down a series of slides into a tray, where line after line of type was formed when the molten lead was pressed against the molds. Each slug, a piece of cooled lead, would then be lined up in a page tray, and the galley proofs were made by inking the lead galleys and printing onto long sheets of newsprint. The final pages were carefully inked and pressed onto special paper that held remarkably crisp ink impressions of those metal letters.

This was incredibly labor-intensive, but Don had been doing it for decades. He gave Dialogue a deal on their typesetting because it was regular, bread-and-butter work for him—four issues a year, 100 to 150 pages each. I believe this is where the coffee comes in. We’d deliver one to two hundred typed pages of manuscript for each issue, and he’d spend days in that dark basement room, setting every line of text. He had been doing it for so long, he said he could tell when he typed a wrong letter by the sound of the metal molds sliding down into place. Setting over a hundred pages in a few weeks’ time must have been grueling, but when we asked, Don would just smile and say, “Oh, it’s not much.” He didn’t hide his excessive coffee consumption to stay alert on those long stretches.

The thing I remember most clearly about Don is that he was happy. He had simplified his life down to a few things that he felt passionate about. Hot lead typesetting was an art, and he was a fine artist. He worked for himself, had a niche in publishing that gave him respect. (He typically set books for the University of Utah Press and other publishers.) And every night, Don danced.

One time I took a batch of manuscripts to his house. He was really pleased to show me the typesetting machine, and demonstrated how it worked. But he was even more pleased to show me the wood dance floor he had in his home. Most nights, he’d invite some women friends over and they’d dance through the evening. Don was trim, with a small build, and he liked to boast that dancing kept him as healthy as any athlete. He seemed to have a social network of dancing friends, who’d come to his place or go out on weekends to clubs.

I was never a dancer, and having met Don only for exchanges of manuscripts and galley proofs, I could only imagine what his evenings must have been like. I could see him grinning ear to ear, a dapper guy effortlessly spinning his dance partners as classic 60’s club-orchestra music played on the stereo, late into a warm summer night. Mambo and salsa, lindy hop and west coast swing, fox trot and polka, Don knew all the moves. And he was happy.

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