The Trip that Changed My Life | Part Two

In California in the early spring
there are pale yellow mornings
when the mist burns slowly into day.
The air stings
like autumn, clarifies
like pain.

-Robert Haas

March 28th-29th
Saturday the 27th we slept outside a truck stop somewhere in El Monte, near the Pomona Freeway and I-605.

Early Sunday morning, the fourth day of our hitch-hike to the oilfields of New Mexico, we caught a ride going south on I-605. The driver was a young Mexican man named Antonio who was driving south in a small pickup full of fruit. He was very friendly, but didn’t speak more than a few words of English. He understood we were headed south as well. He let us off in Anaheim, where we parked ourselves near an on-ramp to I-5. We rode all the way to San Diego with a flashy Mexican-radio DJ who lived in California and worked in Tijuana. He took us to where I-805 meets the 8 going east.

Almost every driver who gave us a ride talked with us, asked about our destination and told us about themselves. Not the next one. He zipped to a sudden stop in his sports car, picked us up and sped down the highway. He was nervous, and didn’t talk to us or even look at us. I thought he must be running drugs or something like that. Then, only minutes later, just as abruptly as he had stopped for us, he pulled over and let us off. We we were a little to the east of San Diego, into some hills, apparently not near anything.

A white Toyota pickup pulled over with a man in his 50s and two younger men. I don’t believe in accidental meetings; I do believe in divine appointments. This is one of the reasons why.

The older man, clearly in charge, said they lived nearby. And as the day was growing long, he could offer a place to stay for the night. We hopped in the back of the pickup and rode a few miles further to the town of Descanso, two miles north of the freeway. To the rectory of a Catholic church.

The man was a priest, a well-known and well-loved one, as I came to learn. His name was Father Ben Carrier, pastor of Our Lady of Light Church, and helping the poor, including hapless drifters like us, was part of his way of life.

“After he became pastor of Our Lady of Light the rectory was never without strangers passing through or staying on for weeks or even months. They included drug users, ex-addicts, alcoholics, felons on parole or just nomads roaming the roads, homeless, purposeless, twentieth century gypsies. “Lost children,” he called them.

- Enid Lanyon*

He treated us with same kindness and respect he became legendary for among transients up and down the highways a hundred miles north and east – so he never made us feel like ‘lost children,’ even thought that’s just what we were.

Father Ben told us he had come to California in the late 1950s, with one-quarter of a lung and six months to live. Here we was, over twenty years later, full of life and receiving every day as gift. He suffered from TB and brochiectesis. Ben was a raconteur, and regaled us with stories. He made us dinner, and let us sleep on a couple of couches in the living room and shower in the morning.Then he made us breakfast.

Over breakfast he looked at me and said, “What did you say your last name is?”

“Dehner.”

“Do you know if you have a relative in San Diego?”

Suddenly I recalled Dad’s next oldest sibling, my Aunt Ada, a Carmelite nun.

“Yes, I have an aunt – “

“Ada Dehner?”

“Yes! Sister Ada. But I’ve never met her. She’s been cloistered for forty years or something.”

“In the the Carmelite Monastery. Ada and I have been the dearest of friends for twenty years. I’m her spiritual adviser.”

“Wow. Tell me about her; we’ve never met.”

“Well, you’re going to meet her today. I’ll take you to there to meet her, if you like.”

Fr Ben Headshot

Fr. Ben Carrier

Just a wild coincidence, right? But it was hard for me to see it that way. Something that day turned in my mind, especially when we entered the reception room and this beautiful sister, who I immediately recognized as a Dehner, appeared on the other side of the grille – something about how every time I turned around for the last year, I was bumping into God and his people, someone wanted to tell me about Jesus, or their religion, or their salvation. Or they didn’t mean to tell me anything at all – I just  knew what they were, or saw it. Back in Seattle, at work alone: Cliff the African-American kung-fu Christian; freshman Huskies center Barney Giles and KT the high school senior, friends and Christians; the Mormon couple and the Scientology Squad… And there had been the Christian peaceniks in Missoula… The Christians at the Poverello center, and the Children of God. I never even meant to go to San Diego, never even thought of my aunt the nun – until that moment. And now I have been picked up by my aunt’s best friend the priest and he’s bringing me to her monastery.

Ada was warm and radiant, and I instantly felt her love. She talked to me as if she already knew me, something so characteristic of my dad’s family. She told me childhood stories about my dad he had never told (she was ten years older), and about the grandparents I never knew. What an unexpected and profound gift. It just came out of nowhere. Or did it? It began to make me wonder.

That day Ben drove us east into the desert, and dropped us in El Centro, where we failed to get a ride, and ended up wandering around until late looking for a place to sleep.

Carmelite Monastery of San Diego

Carmelite Monastery of San Diego

March 30th – 31st

If you don’t die of thirst, there are blessings in the desert. You can be pulled into limitlessness, which we all yearn for, or you can do the beauty of minutiae, the scrimshaw of tiny and precise. The sky is your ocean, and the crystal silence will uplift you like great gospel music, or Neil Young.

-Anne Lamott

We thought we would take I-8 and connect with I-10 in central Arizona, which would take us as far as Las Cruces, NM. After that would be on state routes to Hobbs. But we ended up getting a ride in the back of a speeding little pickup with a cooler full of beer (“Help yourself!”) that headed north at Gila Bend to Phoenix. I don’t remember why, but in Phoenix we decided to walk to Arizona State University in Tempe.  It was about eight miles. It took us three hours. We must have figured we could find a place on campus to crash.

Near some dorms we encountered a group of students who invited us up to their room. They were fascinated by us: real live hitchhikers. By this time, hitchhiking as a youthful fad had already become a thing of the past. It was not as common to see kids our age doing it for fun or adventure. And it was harder to get a ride, because a lot of people were afraid to.

The students gave us some food, asked about our trip and told us we could sleep in a study lounge. In the morning a couple of them got us some food on their meal cards. We ate with them in the cafeteria. We thanked them and left, walking to I-10 to head south again.

From there we hitched to Tucson. We were dropped at an off-ramp at the outskirts, and as we approached a man at a service station to ask some directions, he yelled at us, jabbing his finger at the air.

“You just turn your asses right the hell around beat it back out of town. We don’t have any use for your types here!”

Without a word, we looked at each other and did just as we were told.

From Funset Strip. com

From Funset Strip. com

Before long we had a ride, and and made it as far as Benson. Suddenly it was harder to get a ride. We slept near the road that night. I was always thinking about rattlesnakes and scorpions, both of which I had encountered in central Oregon. To those I could now add my worry of waking up with hypothermia, though it wasn’t actually that cold at night. Finally we got a ride going east from Benson. When they dropped us off, one of my fears was realized: We were left on a remote stretch of the road in the desert. Instead of a hundred or more vehicles per hour, only a half-dozen or so passed by.

The temperature climbed toward 80 degrees. We sat on the edge of the highway, and the occupants of passing vehicles would honk, or roll down their window and yell, “Get a job!” One car slowed down, and then stopped. We hurriedly gathered up our books, packs, sleeping bags, and ran towards the car. And then it sped away, with hands and laughter flitting from the windows.

Time had begun to slow. Today and the days that followed grew long. Mark and I read and talked and slept. But we never brooked the subject of our last months in Seattle. I was reading a book I began there, a history of medieval Europe. It wasn’t exactly captivating, but I would have pored over insurance contracts at this point.

Waiting, waiting…for the next car.

A driver saw us from afar, far enough to decide to stop, not past us, but right where we sat. We jumped to our feet, but before we could approach, he bounced out and over to us. He greeted us cheerfully, and handed each of us a little book.

“Here’s something for you to read over while you’re waiting for a ride. God bless!” With that he returned to his car a drove away. Somewhat amazed and disappointed, we looked at our tiny books. The Gideons’ New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs.

The car disappeared down the highway.

“A ride would’ve been nice.”

“Yeah, we could’ve read in the car.”

Again, silence under the sun. Eventually we pried open our Gideons and read. I was looking for a verse, something I heard long ago, but couldn’t quite remember. I had tried to use it once in something I was writing, but I didn’t get it right. I didn’t know how to find it. Eventually I did, some months later.

This is what I was looking for, in Matthew 5:45. It didn’t say what I thought it said, but it was still good.

“…he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”

—-
*1995. Simply Benjamin. Nashville: Scythe Publications. P. 5

The Trip that Changed My Life | Part One

Kids
When their imagination bids
Hitch-hike a thousand miles to find
The Hesperides that’s on their mind.
– W. H. Auden

How big is a hare-brain, anyway?
My friend Troy left Seattle in October of 1981, breaking the Alliance. About five months later I left, too. So did my friend Mark. He returned to Missoula, and I went to my hometown of Portland. A lot happened during those five months. Mark and I went our separate ways because of what happened. I didn’t know what was next.

I left Seattle in early March 1982, angry over a falling out with Mark that led to both of us leaving town, and feeling guilty and disappointed in myself and my friends. But I arrived in Portland with some hope for a fresh start. After three years I was coming home, and I didn’t feel the embarrassment I thought I would had I gone back to Missoula. I had no idea what I would do. How did I veer so far from the expected high school-to-college trajectory I was on only 15 months before? What now?

Two very generous people, friends of my sister, let me stay with them when I got to Portland, even though they didn’t know me. They asked for nothing from me (I had next to nothing) and fed me. Immediately I hit the streets, going from business to business, asking about jobs and asking for application forms. The answer was ‘no’ at almost very turn. One older man told me unemployment was the worst he’d seen since the Great Depression. I thought he must be right, but I kept looking.

I lived in the Beaumont neighborhood the few weeks I was in Portland.

After a week or two, Mark called me. He had a proposal for me, for us. Even though I was still mad at him, I listened. He said he had been in touch with Troy, and they both thought that the two of us should go join him in New Mexico. Since leaving us in Seattle the year before, Troy had been working the oil fields of the Permian Basin, in SE New Mexico and West Texas. Now living in a oil town called Hobbs, about 90 miles northwest of Odessa, he was earning around $16 an hour working on the rigs (That’s almost five times the minimum wage we were making at our theater  jobs. In 2013 dollars, it would be $38.59 an hour.), and said we should come down. The two of them made the same argument that Troy had made before he left: making that kind of money in a short period of time was the only plausible way of fulfilling the original dream of the Alliance: a trip to Europe.

After hearing all this from Mark and Troy, I reluctantly agreed to go. Mark would come to Portland and we’d leave from there. If what they said was true, at the very least it would be an adventure. But it wasn’t true.

I have an old Washington County tax record Rolodex card, and on the back I wrote, while talking to Troy:

2201 W. MARLAND
TRAILER NO 8   CAPROCK BAR

TOTEM GROCERY

SAN DIEGO   #10
LOS CRUCES
EL PASO

Troy was telling me where he was living in Hobbs, in a trailer park by the bar, and where to meet him when we got there, at the grocery. He also suggested the route for us. Already you can see we’re off to a shaky start: I-10 intersects the 5 in central LA, not San Diego. At the bottom of the card, I’d also written, CORNELL OUT: MAY 22nd. That’s when Anna would return to Missoula from Ithaca. This would have been a major reservation about leaving Portland: that I would be in New Mexico through the summer and not make it over to see Anna while she was home from school.

How was it, after the bitter end to our Seattle sojourn, the acrimony, the ways in which we had disappointed one another – how was it that I was willing to turn around a few weeks later and go traipsing into the unknown with this guy? Why didn’t I tell Mark and Troy to take a hike, without me? First, it was impossible for me to not think of  these two as my friends, the best of friends, regardless of what had happened. Did I hold a grudge? Yes. Was it enough in my mind to disown someone, to walk away and have nothing more to do with them? It wasn’t in my nature. Second, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t really know if it would work out. I thought it might. It would be a venture of discovery, a romantic beatnik quest, to “make the road my home,” to just head out and see what happens. To do here in the States what we had planned on doing in Europe. Third, nothing was happening for me here. In the near field, it looked like another dead end.

Last and foremost:  just like that, the dream I laid to rest was resurrected, the dream of the Old World, of ancient ruins and medieval towns, French cafes, art treasures, Gothic cathedrals and fairy-tale landscapes. It had such a strong pull on me, stronger I thought than on Mark and Troy, stronger than they even knew. It was the very thing that had drawn me into their hare-brained schemes in the first place. Did I want to go? I was already there.

Passport to Nowhere: March 1982

I went downtown and, in a quaint gesture of my faith, had a passport photo taken – but did not submit an application. I didn’t have any valid picture ID for it.

March 25th
We had a flawless plan. Mark arrived in Portland with $30. I had fifteen dollars, but as I was saying goodbye to Nana and Pop, Pop slipped me a $20 bill, so now I was flush, with $35. With our financing secured, we set off to hitchhike the 2000 miles  to Hobbs, New Mexico, make a small fortune as roughnecks and then hitchhike across Europe: yes, a solid plan indeed. What could go wrong? As it turned out, I was beginning what would become for me a journey of over 3000 miles that changed my life more radically than I could have remotely imagined.

My sister Marji drove me and Mark to a truck stop, where we thought we would have a good chance of catching a ride south. We figured we would go down to LA, then take the 10 east across southern California, Arizona and New Mexico.

This was it: we were leaving; I was leaving home once again, even before it had really become my home again. I had a lot of questions that I couldn’t answer. Could the Alliance be put back together after having been so harshly broken? Would we really trust each other? Did we all share an equal commitment to our stated goal, or would would one or two of us walk away again? I was uneasy about all of this, but I decided to leave anyway. Who knew where this road would lead us?

THURS
NORTH PORTLAND TO EUGENE 3/25/82

Electrical engineer from Vancouver on business trip to Salem & Eugene picked us up 10:30. Nice guy about 35. Talked about the best ways of ‘making it,’ real estate, investments, etc. He had an interest in finances… He said frankly that “If I was a few years younger I’d probably go with you guys.”…

“It must be really great to be able to just pick up & take off, go wherever and not have to worry about any responsibilities tying you down.”

“That’s our philosophy.”

Take off, go wherever. That made me feel epic, hearing that in the very first hour of our journey.

He dropped us off at the U of O campus, where we planned to look up one of my best friends from Missoula. She was out of town so we decided to move on. We’ve must have had some trouble getting a ride, or worried that we wouldn’t make it to a good stopping place for the night, because we chose to stay in Eugene for the night. It was raining, so we looked for a place to stay indoors. Neither of us had ever slept in a mission, but we learned that that was one of the few options when staying in town at night.

We ended our first day on the road at a street mission in a house. It was late when we came in. Someone recited the house rules to us and we were told that if we wanted to eat breakfast in the morning we would have to hear a ‘message’ first, something I recoiled at, as tempting as free food sounded. It was a wretched night. There must have fifty men crowded into a living room and dining room without furniture. When we came in, it was already dark and the lights were out. Somehow we found places to wedge ourselves in between the bodies of strangers. I couldn’t sleep. The room stank. Listening to dozens of men snoring, I lay there, cramped, tired and awake for most of the night.

In the morning, we got up early and learned as quickly as possible what we would have to do to get some food. We would have to wait some time. Then we would have to sit through a sermon, then get in line for some grub.

The free breakfast was too expensive, so we left.

March 26th-27th
We got a ride from some scruffy, friendly biker types who dropped us near Curtin, 33 miles south of Eugene.  There, cold and wet, we caught a break: a guy in a pick-up who was driving non-stop all the way to LA. He wasn’t a talker. He drove 75 mph, kept the radio on and stopped every so often for coffee, gas and and a restroom. Twelve hours later (early Saturday morning) we were at his house in Sunland. He said we could crash at his house and later in the morning he would drop us at the 10.

So we woke up in Southern California: golden, promised land, famous, murderous, dreamed-of, end-of-the-Continent California, opposite in so many ways from where I had grown up.

My home is green and rainy, this is yellow and bright. We are towered by firs, well-watered and meet a cold gray Pacific. This is the place of palm trees, dry lands, burning hills and warm safari surf. This was my first real look around, and the beginning of my love-hate dance with the hazy megalopolis built on paved-over, sweet citrus groves. Starting the day in Sunland, met by clear skies and heading for the desert, I thought I was done with the wet. I was wrong about that.

Where we were dropped might as well have been a foreign country. It was Boyle Heights, east of downtown. I remember seeing  the famed LA Corner’s Department, where ‘Coroner to the stars’ Thomas Noguchi worked, and only three weeks  earlier had been asked to step down, on the same day he examined the body of John Belushi. We were dropped from I-5 South on North Mission Road, walked under the overpass to Marengo Street, where we would have spotted the Coroner’s. Heading southeast and then east on Marengo, we would have looked for an on-ramp to the 10. I don’t remember getting a ride. The highways of LA, right near Downtown where we were, are not really the best for hitchhiking; drivers just can’t stop to pick you up. We may very well have decided to forget about the highways, and hitch a main thoroughfare. I think we walked all day.  In any case, by early evening we found ourselves about 10 or 12 miles away, past Alhambra, past Rosemead, deep in the heart of East LA, and now feeling very much – in fact, too much – out of our element. We couldn’t get a ride to save our lives. We felt stranded.

It was clear to both of us that as we walked, or stood with our thumbs out, that our rift a couple of months before was hanging between us. What had happened was serious, it was painful.Two days had passed, and we didn’t talk about it. But it was there.

LA Map 1982As nightfall approached Mark and I got into an argument about how and where to spend the night. Mark wanted us to use most of our remaining money to get a motel room. I couldn’t see spending our food money to get off the streets for one night. After storming off in different directions, and finding each other again, we kept walking east. I believe we were lost, or rather, unsure of where we were. I had a crude motel map with few street names. I guessed that we were in South El Monte. Perhaps we walked east on Garvey Avenue,  a major street south of and running parallel to the 10  – or perhaps it was Valley Blvd., which is north of the freeway.

At some point we gave up on getting an eastbound ride out of the barrio. We decided to head further south. I thought we were near Whittier when we quit for the night. Now I can look at Google Maps and Street View, and I believe we were at Durfee Avenue and Peck Road by the Pomona Freeway – next to Whittier, but still in South El Monte.

We laid out our sleeping bags on the edge of a McDonald’s parking lot. The temperature was dropping, but it wasn’t especially cold. A few hours later Mark tried shaking me awake. I am a light sleeper, and normally just speaking to me would be enough, but not tonight. I looked at Mark and suddenly realized I was chilled to the core. I was alarmed, thinking groggily that if he hadn’t woken me I might have frozen to death. He roused me so we could find a warmer place to pass the night.

It was probably unwarranted, but as I silently rolled my bag, trembling hands brushing away the dew, I was shivering all over and thinking, “I could have died.”

The God Question | Part Two

Warning: drug use, scholasticism.

“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”
-John 4:48

The Knowledge Problem, or Doubting & Thomas

Let’s talk about Sunday mornings. Circa 1976, when I was twelve. There was fighting over the bathroom, lots of hollering. Bickering and jostling in the car on the way to church. Morphing from brat to boy, as we went from the car to the sanctuary.

I would sit through the Mass, bored, compulsively fidgeting, and occasionally entranced by the wondrous interior of the neo-gothic building. I would stare at the brilliant stained glass windows, which portrayed the saints, mostly as they were being martyred. I found the St. Lawrence window a little hard to accept. It showed a large grill ornately carved from solid stone, which I was told was the device on which the saint was, uh, fried, I guess. Broiled? Simmered to taste? They burned him. That seemed very cumbersome to me. Once I said out loud, “Why didn’t they just drop that thing on his head?” Very likely I was more suited to making martyrs than being one. The window of St. Stephen, my namesake, also fascinated me. He was being stoned to death. I had no idea who he was.

The Mass is beautiful, smells good and is gorgeously adorned, but I could make no connection between the rite and my life as it was the moment we walked out of the building back to the car to jostle and bicker our way home.

The warm feelings I often felt during the service were, I thought, the most you could experience of God. The only other time I felt anything like that sense of awe and coziness was watching sunset or the ocean. It was nice, but it didn’t answer any of my questions. It may have hinted at it, but it didn’t put me in touch with God.



Confronted with serious questions about the nature and character of the Catholic Church, at 13 I began to wonder how it was that I was to know anything regarding God. I really did not have anything to go on.

The following year I was back in Portland. Perusing my mom’s books, I first reached for the Bible. I turned to the Gospels, looking for the Jesus that so impressed me a few months before in Jesus of Nazareth. What I found seemed to be in a foreign language, incomprehensible. The words on the page were dead to me.

I put the Bible back and pulled another book out. It was a collection of writings by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), derived mostly from the Summa Theologica, his 3500-page exposition of Christian doctrine. There, in Part One, under his treatise on God, I found his reasoned arguments for the existence of God.

Concerning the Divine Essence, we must consider:
(1) Whether God exists?
(2) The manner of His existence, or, rather, what is NOT the manner of His existence;
(3) Whatever concerns His operations—namely, His knowledge, will, power.

Concerning the first, there are three points of inquiry:
(1) Whether the proposition “God exists” is self-evident?
(2) Whether it is demonstrable?
(3) Whether God exists?

-Summa, Q. 2.

I took it to my bedroom, and struggled with it for some time, trying to draw out the answer, the dawning truth, the solution to the problem of knowing.

Thomas_Aquinas_by_Fra_BartolommeoI answer that, Everything which is raised up to what exceeds its nature, must be prepared by some disposition above its nature; …Hence it is necessary that some supernatural disposition should be added to the intellect in order that it may be raised up to such a great and sublime height. Now since the natural power of the created intellect does not avail to enable it to see the essence of God, as was shown in the preceding article, it is necessary that the power of understanding should be added by divine grace.

-Summa, Q. 12. Art. 5

Thomas holds that apart from God’s gracious intervention, the human intellect lacks the understanding it needs to see the the essence of God. What about seeing, perceiving God himself? How does one obtain this grace?

It seemed like a mirage. I could see the dim outline of what he was saying, but as I looked at it, the tangible and certain truth I needed would fade. I wanted something I could grab hold of, and his logical arguments weren’t giving it to me. His thinking was way beyond my grasping. Even if I could follow him, he could only help if I were trying to reason my way to God.

Too, Thomas was a product of the same medieval church that was so problematic for me. He endorsed one of the singular crimes of the Church, something unique neither to Catholic Christianity, medieval Christianity nor to Christianity at all:

I answer that, With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death. For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life. Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.

-Summa, Q. 11. Art. 3.

People_burned_as_heretics

Of course, not only Christian dissidents but infidels aplenty fell victim to the stake, the sword and the torture chamber: Jews, Muslims, pagans and the falsely accused. Poorly done, boys.

* * *

In the medieval world, called by some ‘the age of faith,’ I noticed that the supernatural was a present reality to those who believed, at times entering the natural realm in the form of miracles, visions and spirits – both good and evil. It seemed to me that if an angel or a long-dead saint, or Jesus himself visited you, your days of doubting and questioning were over. That would pretty much seal the deal. Of course, I doubted whether such events ever took place and did not expect any such visitation, but I did think it would sure be helpful.

This thinking led me to the conclusion that instead of philosophical or theological arguments, what I needed to settle the question of God’s existence and the truth about our faith was an experience, some glimpse of the other side, the eternal, the transcendent – hopefully real enough that my questions would be answered in a moment. It was like wishing I could fly, I sensed, but with a little more hope of the possibility. I was a dreamer, though, and this was likely just another dream. I never even made it a prayer.

In the absence of such a unlikely occurrence, I was left where I was. I wanted to believe, but more, I wanted to know. I remember about this time (eighth grade) reading Thoreau’s statement that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Wow, I remember thinking, I feel like that. I don’t want that to be the way I lead my life. If there was no God, and I never had an answer, and I was left thinking that my life had no apparent meaning or purpose, then that is exactly what my life would be: quiet desperation. The prospect was depressing.

Over the next year or two, I could no longer honestly make any profession of faith. During my sophomore year, Dad had strongly encouraged me, stopping short of insisting, to attend a youth group at the Catholic church that he and Jane had begun to attend. I did so for a few months, but when they stopped attending, so did I. This was the same time that I began to party, drink and use drugs. They were a nice group of kids, and the leader was a guy in his twenties who showed real caring for us but had little to offer someone in my situation. What does an apologetic for the faith sound like from someone who lends little or no authority to Scripture or to the Church? I don’t know. I never heard one.

At 16, I remember telling my girlfriend – who had been raised a Lutheran – that I was an agnostic. I told her my doubts started with the Church. By this time I had undertaken to look beyond Christianity for answers. With my exposure growing up to the counterculture of the 70s, I naturally looked to the East. I read some Buddhist writings. It did not, and never has, made much sense to me. It just did not resonate with me. I was thinking within mindset I was raised with. In fact, it made me skeptical of claims by Westerners to fully embrace and comprehend the traditions of the Eastern mind. It’s really very different. I freely admit: I didn’t get it. But I didn’t give up on it right away.

Further, I was also wary of New Age spirituality. A girl in English class once asked me in a dreamy voice, quite out of the blue, “Have you ever tried astral projection?”

“Have I what?”

“Traveled out of your body to the astral plane.”

“Uh, no,” I confessed. “Have you?”

“It’s like totally intense. You should try it.”

Given my desire for a supernatural experience, you’d think I might be tempted. But I thought she was loopy. I wasn’t entirely sure she had returned from her travels. Besides, I had my own travel plans.

I was going to drop acid. I was very interested, but I put it off for quite a while because I had reservations about it. I wanted to make sure it was safe. After I had already taken two trips, I decided  should consult a travel agent. In the summer of 1981, now 17, I returned to Missoula from Seattle, where I had moved in February. My friend Matt Crowley was a freshman at the University of Montana, studying pharmacy. I asked if he had any information about LSD. He loaned me two or three of his pharmacology textbooks, and I read very word they had about the hallucinogen. There were two things I wanted to learn. One, How dangerous or safe was it? And two, What kind of supernatural experiences had people reported after taking it?

I have only a vague recollection of what I read about the risks, but I concluded that the danger was mostly psychological, and based on my first two experiences, decided it wasn’t a concern.  Instead I fastened onto the users’ reporting they had “seen the face of God” or had some other opening to the cosmos or the eternal. My thinking was right out of the 1960s. What if there was something to it, what Timothy Leary and others have been claiming? What if the effect of LSD is to open an unseen reality to our conscious minds that we cannot see otherwise? Suppose it was the missing ingredient: “some supernatural disposition should be added to the intellect in order that it may be raised up to such a great and sublime height.” As far as my friends were concerned we were all doing it for fun. But known only to myself, I was hoping for something more: a spiritual experience that would lead to knowledge.

I never received the experience I sought. But that summer, I took acid with perhaps five or six friends. We were at the house of a friend who’s father was a minister. I found a small icon hanging on the wall near the front door. And I was hypnotized by it. It was an image of Mary and the infant Jesus. I stood and stared. Perhaps five minutes, perhaps twenty – who knows? In their shimmering faces I thought I was understanding something, connecting with something that reached across time, as if persons thousands of years and miles apart were suddenly face to face and knowing each other, smiling at each other, communicating without words. I believed I was looking into the infinite beyond. It made some kind of sense to me, and I told myself I needed to remember, after I came down, what it was I had just been shown or discovered or felt. But I couldn’t. It completely eluded me.

Is that how it is?, I wondered. Is experience always that temporary? Can it be just as much a mirage as Thomas’ logic, or Zeffirelli’s movie? Does it just dissipate like holy incense on Sunday morning? I know it was a hallucination. But how much more convinced would I be by any other sensory experience? Doesn’t every experience fade with time and doubt? Am I hoping for something that won’t actually give me what I need? Am I looking for the wrong thing?

Who knows?

Detail, The Conversion of St. Paul,by Caravaggio.

Detail, The Conversion of St. Paul, by Caravaggio.

Part Three…Part Four

The God Question | Part One

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
-Matthew 16:18

But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.
-Matthew 16:23

From the age of thirteen to the age of eighteen, I wrestled with what to think and believe about God and the Christian faith in particular. This not a polemic or an apologetic or a critique or an argument. It’s just a story. The ending of it is not here; it will be here in a few months.

I was raised in the Catholic Church during a time of considerable change. It was the Vatican II church of the 60s and 70s, and my parents found themselves in the liberal stream of change and reform. Questioning official dogma, institutions and customs was inherent in the liberal tradition. So was a modernist (as Rome called it), skeptical view of the Scriptures. Eden was allegory,  Noah’s flood a fable. Its history was unreliable, many of the commandments outdated.

As liberals we accepted the conclusions drawn by the secular world: we believed in Darwinian evolution, the Big Bang and Freudian psychology. We went with general drift of the day, and mostly agreed with the cultural shift in values. After all, morality, in some arenas, needs to be updated to modern life. For example, why should premarital sex be considered a sin? Who says birth control or abortion or divorce are always – or ever – wrong? The very notion of sin is archaic. Hell is a preposterous conception in light of a loving God. In fact, psychology, medicine, and political and social progress offered more reliable, rational and scientific solutions to the human predicament than anything prescribed by ancient writ. When we look at the patriarchal, superstitious and pre-scientific worldview that formed the minds of the biblical writers, there is very little of what they wrote that can speak to us today. Yes, there are beautiful passages there, but we have to sift through the text to find what is inspirational and uplifting, and leave the rest. It is not, in its entirety at least, the divinely inspired Word of God.

I have told friends the religion I was raised with was defined more by what we did not believe than what we did. That may sound harsh, but it isn’t meant as a put-down. It’s meant to describe my experience. Though we affirmed many things that corresponded pretty closely with a secular-progressive worldview, when I asked if we believed one Christian tenet or another – the creation, Adam and Eve, the flood -  the answer was often No. But we did believe in God. That was foundational. We did believe in Jesus, and, even if the relationship might be strained, we did believe in the Church.

Where did this leave me? Well, let me spell it out. I have many friends who were raised in more conservative/traditional religious homes, both Catholic and Protestant, including fundamentalist homes. They commonly came to a point in their lives, if not as teenagers or young adults, then later in life, when they had to scrutinize their beliefs – those things that had been bequeathed to them as unquestionable certainties – with a more critical mindset. Usually this will result in walking away from faith or finding it strengthened by making it their own. They might become critical of the way they had been taught their faith, or adopt an easy bemusement toward the quaint backwardness of their parents and their church. I think they might not understand what an alternative would have been like.

So here is one. If the Bible is not a reliable source of information about what I should believe, and the Church is flat-out wrong in some of its bedrock doctrines, then what is my source, my authority? Me? How am I supposed to know anything regarding the faith, or what to believe? What is the truth about the most important things, and how do I discover it? This was at the root of my wilderness wanderings as a teenager.

The Historical Problem, or What if you are the gates of hell?
camelot 67It all began with King Arthur. Over my Christmas break in 1976, I spent a few days with my grandparents. At the time I was living in the country with my dad while Mom was away at grad school. I was 13. I watched the movie Camelot and was absolutely carried away by it. I watched it about three years later in a theatre and hated it, but when I saw it on TV, I was captured by the Arthurian story. When I got back to school, I spent the rest of the year in libraries consuming every book, historical or literary, I could find on the Arthur cycle. This led to an ardent interest in medieval European history and culture that lasted for years. I read up on the Norsemen, the Norman conquest, art and architecture, the Holy Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxon England, the Byzantine Empire and the Crusades. I read the poetic Eddas, the chroniclers, and the epic poems. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Again and again I came up against the ugly character of the medieval Roman Church. It was politically powerful, enormously wealthy, and sometimes callous, manipulative, merciless and cruel. It sought to control the minds of people and the fates of nations. In short, it was a complete bummer.

I  began to think of this problem in a whole new light when I saw something else on TV at Easter: Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. I am not exaggerating when I say this was the single most important thing I ever watched on TV, and it was a singular milestone on the journey I am describing.

Simply put, this was the first time I ever saw Jesus as real, immediate, relevant or alive. Every Sunday morning I beheld him as a dead man hanging on a cross, and we read a mere few words from the Gospels. In six hours, I heard more of his words than I had in my whole life. The experience was profound for me because it was fresh. There wasn’t anything stale or statuary here. The flesh-and-blood man made sense. He answered something now.

The conclusion I drew from this experience would make all the difference in the next five years: If the character of a loving and compassionate God could be known, certainly no one has reflected that character better than Jesus. I still believed this when I came to question God’s existence. If there was a God, I thought, he was like Jesus.

Now I looked at the problem of the historical Church in light of this television Jesus I had just been confronted with. Now, not only the sins of the Church glared at us, but its very nature didn’t bear any resemblance to the small, mostly poor band of followers Jesus knit together with his message of love and hope. The disparity I now saw made the Church – both medieval and modern – seem that much worse. How was I supposed to believe that this was the same thing Jesus established with his own words 1,940 years ago?

That was about as far as my 13-year-old brain could take the problem. You might wonder why I didn’t simply embrace this new-found appreciation for Jesus and carry on. Because it was movie on TV, a fading memory, and it didn’t begin to answer my questions.  I was left wondering where this remarkable Jesus was in the world. In the Roman Catholic Church? In a book, or a miniseries? Is there a forwarding number?

Is he nowhere, dead and buried, and just a great guy with some great ideas? Or was he everywhere, alive yet unseen and actually God in the flesh?

Or is he just one of many standing in the religion pantheon, with Buddha and Mohammed and Moses? Pick your favorite guy and exit through the gift shop?

Who knows?

jesus of nazarethPart TwoPart Three…Part Four

Laugh Your Life | Part Two

Kick over the wall ’cause government’s to fall
How can you refuse it?
Let fury have the hour, anger can be power
D’you know that you can use it?
-Strummer/Jones
Clampdown

Free Radical

Situated with my friends, with a job and nice apartment in Ballard, I wanted to do more than work and watch movies. First,  I wanted to find and join some leftist activists. In particular, I wanted get involved in the No Nukes/antiwar movement. Somehow I was dissuaded. I became disenchanted by the prospect, or distracted, somehow. I only remember two small incidents; I can’t help thinking there must have been something more that I can’t recall. On May 3rd, there was a huge anti-war rally, and all three of us went to it.

Seattle Rally May 3 1981

At the rally, I talked with a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, the same group that had been at the center of a melee I was in the day before at First and Pike.The RCP’s stated goal: the violent overthrow of the US government by the end of the 80s. I wasn’t a communist, but I was certainly leaning toward socialism and was adopting an anti-capitalist attitude that made me at least somewhat sympathetic to ‘mainstream’ communists.  But the RCP’s  program of violence, even civil war, elicited no such sympathy. As my thinking became more radical with regard to change, I also was beginning to see the further one moved from the center, the less freedom was valued. The radical, the ideologue, far enough to the left or to the right, is no friend of the Bill of Rights. Those rights stand in the way of burning down the City and remaking it according to the Perfect Plan. My opposition to violence and basic belief in the Bill of Rights wasn’t going to make me a very good radical.

“Let me ask you something,” I said to him. “You want to take over the government. Make a new constitution.”

“Yes.”

“What’s your position on freedom of religion?”

He hemmed and hawed. “Well,” he said cautiously, “religion is one of the major problems in the current power structure.”

“People in this country wouldn’t  have religious freedom under your regime, would they?”

“No.”

That means forced renunciations or – for those won’t – prison, re-education, death.

“That’s what I thought.”

Turning away, I said to Troy, “At least he’s honest.”

I was thinking, Crap, I’m marching in the same rally with this goon. Someone who’d put a bullet through the head of everyone in my family, if he had the power.

It’s funny. That was a conversation that could just as likely have taken place in 1969. As in Missoula, there was this subculture frozen in time, as if Nixon were still president and bombing Cambodia, and J.Edgar Hoover was spying on them. The world was changing around them and the agents of change had parked themselves in a timeless echo chamber, with street theatre puppets, Grateful Dead concerts and Marxist dogma.

Around that time, I went to the office of the historic underground newspaper, Northwest Passage. I told a guy there my newspaper background and said I’d like to help out. Without showing the least interest, he said maybe I could help with production. I could check back later and he offered a time I could do so.

“Actually, I’m interested in writing, too.”

“Yeah, well, we’ve got plenty of writers.”

I went back and worked an evening on production, although I don’t remember it; I just havenorthwest_blog_pic2 crop letter that says so. In it I also say that all three of us wanted to work there in the fall. We never did, though. I suspect I didn’t really believe that I would get the opportunity to write. Even though the paper was known for accepting articles from readers, and getting a lot of submissions, now I got the impression they had more than they needed.

By themselves, I don’t think either of these events dissuaded me from activism. Perhaps they damped my enthusiasm, though. At 16 I had been welcomed warmly by the small cadre of peace activists at the University of Montana, even though all I had to contribute was my enthusiasm and commitment. But Seattle had thousands of activists, splintered into their little constituencies, none of whom, I thought, would care that I wanted to write for their cause. That’s what most of them were already doing themselves.

That's right: Katherine Hepburn. Letter to Dad & Jane.

That’s right: Katherine Hepburn. Letter to Dad & Jane.

Another factor was the anger and pessimism I sensed. Perhaps I was projecting, but for a town that was firmly of the left, where they held political power and cultural dominance, Ronald Reagan really had a lot of folks in a lather. Things seemed pretty rotten, I suppose, if your goal in life was turning America into one big petroleum-free food co-op with no national defense.

But not so bad if you concentrated on the positive, like getting high and doing The Pogo.

Prior Engagement
My interest in writing wasn’t in any way diminished, and I have a note recording my first serious thought about filmmaking. On April 22, Mark and I had a conversation about writing and making a film. I got very excited about the idea, but I had no idea what it would involve.

April 1981

April 1981

That conversation never developed into a script or anything beyond. But it was the impetus for me to start some screenwriting, which I believe I first put my hand to in the fall. What’s most interesting about my note is that I immediately worried that if we went forward with such an idea (making a film), it could scuttle or delay our Europe plan, and interfere with my seeing Anna. I was trying to stay focused, but having such a hard time!

Mark and Troy both knew that regardless of what I was doing in Seattle, come summer I was going back to Missoula. Classes let out at Cornell, and Anna would be returning on Memorial Day weekend. At some point though, Mark decided he was coming back for the summer as well. Troy and I didn’t care for the idea. We thought it might be hard to make ends meet, especially if we didn’t land summer jobs as we hoped. But he wanted to go, and felt sure he could at least get some work from his mom.

We returned to Missoula on May 28th. Our manager at the King Cinema said we could have our jobs when we came back. She probably couldn’t have promised it, but we did go back to work there when we returned to Seattle.

We had been in Seattle for only little over three months. Already it looked as if our plans had little hope of success. Our earnings did not exceeded our expenses, and our whole plan depended on saving money. Beside that, without any of us knowing it, our resolve was so precarious that only one change of circumstance would be enough to chuck the whole idea aside: something like a falling out, or a girlfriend or another idea.

A better idea.

Laugh Your Life | Part One

Dear Steve, Happy Valentine's Day! I couldn't resist this card! Just want you to know that I love you even though I think you're taking the steps too soon. And - there is a safety net, don't forget. Much love from all of us - Mom

Dear Steve, Happy Valentine’s Day! I couldn’t resist this card! Just want you to know that I love you even though I think you’re taking the steps too soon. And – there is a safety net, don’t forget. Much love from all of us – Mom

Living in Seattle is like being in love with a beautiful woman who’s sick all the time.
-Anonymous

But oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Nowhere to go
-Lennon & McCartney

In mid-February, 1981, I dropped out of high school. The plan my friends and I had hatched was this: move from Missoula to a big city, make a lot of money, then travel around  Europe until it ran out. Pure genius, right? A high school dropout like me would find it a cinch to make and save loads of money in a short time. The only puzzle is why others don’t follow this simple sure-fire plan.
Cosmo Motel SeattleAt first we thought we would move to Boston – I don’t remember why. But we settled on Seattle, in part because Troy’s mom lived there. None of us knew much about Seattle, but that only added to the sense of adventure we had about the move. It was anticipation that distracted me from the consideration that at only 17, I was leaving a place I loved more than I realized, for a place I didn’t know, away from parents and friends.

Cosmo - 1976 map

Before shouting, “Hi, Seattle,” make sure you’re in Seattle. -Mick Jagger

We drove the 480 miles to Seattle on February 19. None of us had a car, so a fourth friend drove us. Between us we had $400. We stayed 3 nights at the Cosmopolitan, at that time a cheap downtown motel situated along the Monorail line on 5th Avenue. (It’s a King’s Inn now, and not to be confused with the condo tower on Virginia Street.) We took acid and walked around downtown, then back to the Cosmo where we passed several hours that swirled with hallucinations, buffoonery and maniacal laughter. My only previous visit of note to the city was in 1978 for the King Tut exhibit that was confined to the Seattle Center. Thus my first look at my new home was through a kaleidoscopic window of imaginary color and light, melting, erupting and shimmering in the cold winter night.

* * *
After the Cosmo, we stayed in the apartment of Troy’s mom, Sharon,  and his younger sister. We were there about five weeks. It was crowded. Sharon was gracious, but it must have grown annoying having us at such close quarters for so long.Troy was first to land a job, and I was second. The difference between the job he was able to land and mine ought to have glared at me as the obvious first clue to the consequences of quitting school. Troy began work proofreading multimillion-dollar contracts for a re-insurance company. It paid an excellent hourly wage for an 18-year-old just out of high school. I went to work at the Ballard McDonald’s. A couple of weeks before that I had been hired to call people while they were eating dinner, try to sell them frozen meat and fish, get yelled at and hung up on. I was humiliated and relieved when I was fired after my first shift.

Mark got a job at a downtown movie theatre. Once one of us had a job and a paycheck, we got our own place. We rented a 3-bedroom walk-up in a four-plex in Ballard, on 20th Ave NW near 58th Street. At $345, the rent was on the steep side, but it was spacious and we each had our own room. Our landlord, whose name was Wen Lee, spoke little English and would come to regret renting to us, we dubbed Obi-Wen, the Jedi Landlord.

Thurs. Feb. 19 – Missoula-Seattle/Cosmo Motel
Fri.              20 – Cosmo Motel
Sat.             21 – Cosmo Motel
Sun             22 – Sharon’s – Dave (our driver) left
Mon            23 – Job hunting begins – slowly.
Fri               27 – Hired – Pacific Meat Co.
Mon  March 2 – First nite – fired
Mon             9 – Troy started work/ my interviews
Thurs         12 – McDonald’s – orientation meeting
Fri              13 – First day. Grueling and grubby.
Sat             21 – Mark starts work at theatre selling concessions.
- my notebook, 1981
* * *
I found Seattle in 1981 glittering and gritty, grass-green and pavement-gray. I saw similarities to my hometown of Portland, but it was bigger and in some ways better: It rained less, at least in that year. It was circled by water and mountains, and I was intoxicated when I caught the salt-sea air. Downtown clubs like Wrex and the Gorilla Room shook with local bands like Student Nurse, the Refuzors and the Fartz. There was so much more than we were used to, especially for Mark and Troy, who hadn’t lived in towns bigger than Missoula, MT or Corvallis, OR. There were art-house movie theatres, restaurants of every kind, music stores that blew our minds with thousands of records. There were Broadway shows, big rock concerts, under-21 clubs and bookstores I could lose a day in.
Seattle Ent 75
But we were broke. So, living in Seattle, for me at least, was like being invited to a banquet but not permitted to eat. I remember standing around outside the clubs, but I don’t recall ever going in. There was a cover charge, and I wasn’t about to pay money to get slam-danced.  I probably missed some good music; mostly I missed the early 80′s Seattle pre-grunge punk scene. Almost any of the interesting things we would’ve wanted to do cost money and we didn’t have much of that.

Theatres & the Absurd
I hated working at McDonald’s. Mark told me I could get on at the theatre, so in May, I applied there and quit McDonald’s after five weeks, when I was hired by the King Cinema. It was a single, 900-seat movie house, supposedly the biggest in Seattle, at 6th & Blanchard (currently the King Cat Theater). I worked concessions mostly, sometimes tearing tickets and cleaning the lobby. We were open all day, opening around noon, and usually not busy until Friday and Saturday nights. The rest of the week, it was very slow.
The Way We Were: the King when it opened in 1974.

The Way We Were: the King when it opened in 1974. It’s the laughter we will remember.

When I started, we were showing Roman Polanski’s Tess, certainly one of the most visually beautiful movies I have ever seen. Two, three, maybe half a dozen patrons would come in, and once the concession counter and lobby were clean, we kicked back until they emerged 3 hours later. It’s good thing we liked movies, because it was the one form of entertainment that was wide open to us, any time we weren’t working. It was at least one table at the banquet we could eat from. All we had to do was have Gigi, our manager, call the manager of most any theater in town, and ask them if we could have a pass into their show. We could see about anything we wanted. Good and bad, we saw dozens of movies. I saw more new movies that year than any other in  my life: Reds, Gallipoli, Prince of the City, Body Heat, Blow Out, An American Werewolf in London, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Time Bandits, True Confessions, Pennies from Heaven, American Pop, Excalibur, Whose Life is it Anyway?, Ragtime, The Hand, Wolfen, Eyewitness, Fort Apache the Bronx, Taps, They All Laughed, Arthur, The Border, Cannery Row and more. If we really liked a movie, we went back and watched it again. We must have seen Breaker Morant five times. (I saw the big summer movies when I was back in Missoula.) And the ones that showed at the King Cinema Mark and I saw over and over, until we could recite large sections of dialog: Tess, Absence of Malice, On Golden Pond, Bustin’ Loose.

We also made it to art houses like the Harvard Exit where we were dazzled by stunning and strange foreign films, including some foreign and Hollywood classics. The two that stand out in my memory: Lawrence of Arabia, and a truly bizarre, wonderful and labyrinthine 1965 movie from Poland, The Saragossa Manuscript. (For a great slide show of Seattle cinemas, go here.) We saw some lesser known films, like Breaking Glass and McVicar. I saw a great documentary on James Agee.Nineteen Eighty-One, in my mind, was and remains the year of the movie. In the year and a half after I left the King, I saw only two movies.

* * *
I’m a little lost lamb
in the heart of the city

-Nick Lowe

At the outset we had no friends in Seattle. The only people we met were those Mark I worked with at the theatre, and they became our new friends. It was a diverse group of people who ranged from about age 17 to their mid-twenties. We had the good fortune of meeting some excellent people who made our lives richer than they would have otherwise have been. Some of them we only saw at work, but at least half-dozen we saw after hours all the time. We went out to shows, and sometimes partied together. Interestingly, of our dozen or so co-workers, three or four identified as Christians,  a young married couple were LDS, and another contingent hailed from the Church of Scientology, including a guy who taught Scientology classes. There was no shortage of lively and stimulating discussions about religion and the meaning of human existence.

In fact, I was thinking about these things all the time. For that, I needed some mental space – a lot of space – and time alone with the these thoughts I was wrestling with. I would not happen upon that kind of space until a year later, but as long as I kept these thoughts to myself, I could manage some reflection.

But Mark, well, he crowded me. He didn’t mean to. He would draw me into long debates that lasted into early morning hours in which I would put up lame defenses of things I may have wanted to believe, but which crumbled under his persistent and unrelenting arguments. When we first arrived in Seattle, Mark had given me Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which I read the first week at Sharon’s. This essay was nothing less than a blitzkrieg against my liberal idealism and fuzzy agnosticism. I came face to face with the flat-out assertion that our existence is absurd, a result of the collision of our desire for reason with an unquestionably unreasonable world. In a godless and absurd universe, the only real question is suicide. Life, death and everything in between leave us without any claim on hope. But suicide is not an option: paradoxically, the absurd man must reject the “invitation to death” in favor of a life lived on his own terms.The only thing to do is rebel against the absurdity of the world, and live life to the fullest, in “my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.”

Of course I could not begin to accept the premise, even if his solution sounded fine. The world is insane and nonsensical on its face, but that does not force upon me a surrender to this fact as the ultimate and defining truth of my existence. Not everything is absurd. Some things do make sense. Many things are beautiful and good, and if nothing else, as rational beings we have survived by constructing a reasonable reality – if even in our minds – that we can cope with.

If I were certain there was no God, then this premise of the absurd might make sense. But if I am not certain, I cannot choose to live as if this absurdity were inescapable: it might be have an escape. I just don’t know what it is. Knowing about God, if that were possible, would sure help.

Despite my rejection of Camus’ statement of the human problem; despite the apparent seriousness of my thoughts; despite the high unlikelihood of success in Seattle; despite my occasional loneliness and fairly constant confusion, I was, in my day-to-day life, taking Camus’ advice: I was kicking at the wall, I wanted to kick it down, I was taking everything life had to offer, I was trying new things, I was looking for a girl to keep me company, I was feeling my passion and letting it rise, I was drinking whiskey and smoking the herb, I was laughing, laughing every day, laughing down the dead-end street, laughing my life.

We all were laughing, that’s just how we were, how we are, the three of us. We looked at the situation we had put ourselves in, saw the absurdity of our own mistakes and missteps, and we thought it was funny. We laughed our lives.

Down? No, not yet, anyway.

sisyphus-1549 titian

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
-Albert Camus

school days with steve albini. part four.

Little things can turn out to be important. You read an article or meet someone at a party or pick up an old book or hear a song. Someone offers the merest kind word when you’re down, or an everyday encounter opens your eyes to suffering in others. You change your mind, or your major, or your priorities; open your heart, your wallet, your home; take a chance, take a look at yourself or the world differently, take a small measure of confidence or courage or new interest — and you’re not the same.

This is in part why I am writing these pieces, and many to follow. I feel considerable gratitude for a great number of small things, especially in my youth, that turned out to be gifts in one way or another – even when I didn’t see them that way at the time. They turned out to matter. This includes the little things I received from the people I see every day, as well as the people I knew growing up. It includes a guy I knew more than thirty years ago named Steve Albini.

#4 Share your talent and encourage others.

Steve was one of those people I knew from time to time growing up who completely baffled me: they were good at stuff.

I wasn’t good at stuff. Or at least I was pretty convinced I wasn’t.

But Steve. For crying out loud. Steve was good at a lot of stuff. The longer I knew him, the more stuff I realized he could do, and he acquitted himself fairly at all of them, and some of them he was, as I say, actually good at. At least in my youthful eyes he was.

The first time I saw Steve was in the fall of 1978, my freshman year. Steve played Snoopy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. His performance, energetic, gymnastic and funny, was the highlight of the show. Good at comic acting: check.

As Snoopy, 1978

The first time I spoke with Steve was at in the summer of 1979 at the Western Montana State Fair. I already knew him as the editorial page editor for the Hellgate newspaper, the Lance – and as Snoopy – but hadn’t met him. By this time Steve was the guy, more than any other, who impressed me with his obvious talent and iconoclastic attitude. I was thinking, “This guy is something else. I should meet him.”

At the fair he was manning a booth for the photo store he worked at. Among the matted prints on display were a few he had taken. At least one of them later showed up in the school literary magazine, the Troubadour. Good at photography: check.

I engaged him about music, since he wrote surprisingly strong opinions in his song reviews. I thought I’d ask about the singer who was currently my favorite.

“What do you think of Billy Joel?”

“Not bad for a barroom singer.” End of conversation. That’s the problem hanging around an iconoclast: sooner or later your icon is clast.

Good at forming strong opinions on most everything: check.

The next time I had a meaningful encounter with Steve was in the fall, after I had started Journalism 1 in the classroom adjacent to the Lance office. At that time the juniors and seniors who made up the staff were still deciding which of the J1 students they could stand being around. The jury was still out on me.

I was sitting in the cafeteria one day, when an assemblage of ruffians grabbed Steve and duct-taped him into a chair. They wrapped tape around his torso and arms and the back of the chair, and taped is legs to the legs of the chair. It was obviously a preplanned attack. They all had a good laugh and walked away. I stood up and walked toward him. He was helpless, and had been left in the middle of the walkway just inside one of the entrances. In other words, people had to walk around him, and they did. To my amazement, nobody helped him.

This was was all due to Steve’s unpopularity throughout the school. And that was due mostly to one column he wrote: a review of a Boston concert, possibly the most popular concert  among teens in Missoula the whole time we were in high school. Steve wrote that the show was was boring, which infuriated Hellgate students who had attended it, and the Lance received angry letters about it for months. Good at arousing anger in mass numbers: check. Good at self defense: no.

Troy Deckert, Lance editor and Steve’s friend, went for help or scissors or something, leaving Steve alone. I walked over to Steve and said, “Want some help?”

“Sure.” He said nothing while I untaped him.

“Thanks,” he said, and walked away.

* * *

The Lance staff, and to lesser degree, J1, were seen by outside students as something of a clique. We denied it, but it was partially true: there was a clique within the journalism classes. I perceived there was an inner circle on the staff, that Steve was in it, and I wanted in. I was hoping to make a good impression.

There was a wall between the office and the classroom. It divided J1 and J2. There were two possible ways for me to get noticed. From the start of the year, we were required to submit critiques of every issue of the Lance. We turned in each issue of the paper, marked up with our comments and corrections. I decided to announce my arrival with my first critique: I filled very bit of white space in the margins and gutters with my somewhat surreal or goofy humor, and some stream-of-consciousness ramblings mostly unrelated to the paper. I drew little cartoons. It was weird. It was me.

The second way to get noticed came later in the year, when we started submitting our assignments for possible publication. But that would have to wait. When our first critiques had been seen by the staff, they were handed back to us. Mine had a note to Mr. Seitz stapled to it.

“Of all the critiques I saw, this is the only one that showed any creativity or original thought. I look forward to seeing what he can contribute. Steve”

That was exactly what I was hoping for, but I didn’t expect to hear back. That it came from Steve elated me.

* * *

It was Steve’s senior year. In the summer he went to Boy’s State. He was on the Lance, in Drama Club, Student Senate, and Model United Nations; contributed poetry and fiction and photos to the Troubadour; scored as a National Merit Semi-Finalist and was in the Top Twenty of his class. I once saw a research paper he wrote lying around the Lance office. It looked to me like college work. On top of all this, someone in a car smashed his leg when he was on his motorcycle, and he started a punk band. Good at looking good on college applications: check. Time management: check. Making the best of what were probably the worst four years of his life: check.

Unpublished cartoon from Steve’s notebook.

Steve now had a different position on the Lance staff, that of In-Depth Editor. Karen Moulding had taken over as Editorial Page Editor. I think this was a position created for (or by) Steve to give him the latitude to use his eclectic writing and drawing talent. Seriously, Steve was good at everything he did on the paper. He wrote music reviews, in-depth reporting (I especially remember a two-page spread he did on teen suicide), a regular column, and drew cartoons. He called his column Paparazzo. While the term paparazzi had entered the English language, it was not as widely known as it became in the 80s.

“What does Paparazzo mean?” I asked.

He replied, “It’s Italian for an annoying buzzing insect.”

“Oh,” I said, “that’s you.”

I submitted some humor columns, before I had a staff position, under the title Guinea Pig Bones, which derived from a song a friend of mine made up when I was probably ten or eleven. But I decided on a self-referential name like Steve’s and changed it to Nowhere Man.

Toward the end of the school year, J1 students applied for the staff positions they wanted the following year, with a first, second and third choice. I can only remember my first: Editorial Page Editor. The graduating seniors on staff would decide in a closed meeting on staff assignments. My friend Dave Larson, a junior, and I were selected as co-editors of the editorial pages. I was interested in three things: I wanted to write lead editorials and my Nowhere Man column, and draw cartoons.

As the year progressed and I put some of my endeavors forward, my confidence as a writer was developing. But as a cartoonist, I knew I had severe limitations. Steve gave me some basic pointers. He talked to me about pens, what to use for what, how to hold them when drawing. He gave me the idea of using brushes as well. He suggested I use better paper than the typing paper from school I was using. He told me I should practice tone-building patterns (such as cross-hatching) and gave me a sheet with with different patterns to try. Last of all he gave me a couple of books on cartooning technique. One of them was excellent and I kept it for years. I wish I still had it; I’ve never found one that matched it.

I was never a great cartoonist, (in fact, if hurried, my drawing was awful) but all of these things made a noticeable improvement in my drawing and gave me confidence to try new things. I had always been a doodler, and especially liked to make my friends laugh with funny pictures. But I had never gotten more satisfaction from it than I did when I started to do it with a little more skill and assurance.

This was also the first time that I found myself getting anywhere through practice. I quit wrestling during my second season in part because I was defeated in every match but one and wasn’t improving. I started that year with next to zero self-confidence in anything I did. At the same time J1 was pointing me to some stuff I might be good at. Working at something – like drawing or writing – and getting better at it was a small revelation to me.

Steve Albini had talent. But not everyone who has talent develops it and exhibits what they can do in a way that others can see and enjoy and criticize. Some people certainly thought Steve, like a lot of us when we were young, just wanted attention, negative or otherwise. But I don’t think that’s fair. Hellgate High School, like every other, was a hive of teenagers, and who would blame anybody for just hiding out for four years, rather than expose oneself to the hormonal mob? Steve was Steve. Steve was a writer of in-depth reporting, opinion, poetry, short stories and songs. Steve was a photographer, an artist, an actor, a raconteur*, a scholar and a punk rocker. He was being himself. He didn’t hide. Me, I was going to hide, but Steve is the person who gave me the idea of not hiding out for four years, so I didn’t.

(Since then he has shown himself good at other stuff: recording records, giving interviews, poker and cooking, to name just a few.)

Understand, this is not gushing over him. He wasn’t Leonardo da Vinci. He wasn’t my hero, or even a role model. However it does help to explain why I remember so much about him, and why I still appreciate what he meant to me at the time.

* * *

There were times I was annoying or obnoxious. Steve too. There was a time or two I got mad at Steve, and I know I got on his nerves occasionally, but I did consider him a friend. We had a more than a dozen friends in common. We went to a lot of the same parties. We went to see some shows together, including Cheap Trick. I remember sitting next to him when a bunch of us went to see Quadrophenia, and Steve having to explain to me the setting of the movie. We went to The Rocky Horror Picture Show a half-dozen times. On top of that, there were the little gestures I just described. And there are a few other episodes better left unpublished.

But the real mark of friendship in my mind is the Friday night at the beginning of summer that Steve called me up to go catch a movie. He picked me up, we went and saw, from start to finish, one of the most pestilent and egregious movies of all time, and afterward he dropped me home. I suppose it was friendship, or companionship at least — or perhaps it was really just the boredom you experience living in a small Rocky Mountain town while deep in your core the Windy City and the Crash of a Thousand Guitars is calling you by name.

Maybe knowing what the movie was will provide a clue.


part one.   part two.    part three.
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*Steve can tell a story, and otherwise verbally engross an audience. To watch a video that perfectly captures his style, then and now, go here.

Autoblography: Introduction

This is not a background bio, or even a conventional memoir. It is more of an experiment I thought of a couple of years ago, and which I’m sure is not original. The thought was to write a memoir over a long period of time, consisting of posts covering different aspects, experiences and observations from my life. It will not be chronological. My idea is to organize posts around themes and threads running through my experiences, as well as episodes, stories and sketches.

I have no idea where this will take me. Wanna come?

Autoblography Page

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Here is a little chronology so you can figure out where the different posts fit into the scheme of things.

1963
Born in Portland, OR

1963-1976
Lived in NE Portland

1972
Parents divorced

1973-1976
Open Community School (Grades 4, 5 & 6)

1976-77
Seventh Grade in Estacada, OR

1977-78
Back in Portland for 8th Grade

1978-1981
Lived in Missoula, MT and attended Hellgate High School

1981-1982
Lived in Seattle; spent the summer of ’81 in Missoula.

1982
Moved to Portland; hitchhiked to New Mexico, then to Oklahoma City

1982-1985
Lived in Oklahoma City

1984
Married Laura Weatherly

1985-1992
Lived in Portland

1986-1988
Portland Community College

1992-Present
Lived in Forest Grove, OR

1992-1995
Pacific University