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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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