Saturday, January 20, 2007

5 Things You May Not Know About Me

Another meme, this one thanks to Liam. Also see posts by Crystal and Jeff on the same topic.

1. I Spent the First Part of My Life on a Navajo Reservation

From 6-months old to almost three, I lived on the Navajo reservation. It was the early-mid 60s, and my parents were VISTA volunteers, teaching Navajo and Hopi children in Tonalea, Arizona, near Tuba City. For those who don’t remember VISTA, it was the domestic version of the Peace Corps that began under President Kennedy. Though I was too young to remember the experience, there are numerous photos of me on the Res, and it always fascinates me to look at the pictures and hear the stories. The woman who took care of me was Navajo, and I still wonder what kind of influence I absorbed from her and from the overall environment. For many years after, my mother owned beautiful rugs, clothes and pottery from the reservation, and I could tell the experience meant a lot to her. But I think it probably affected my father most of all. He wound up working quite a bit with indigenous people in the U.S. and Mexico. He also became something of a Shaman, and when La Reina and I first saw him after our marriage, he performed a very moving ceremony over us, lighting sage and blessing us with it. I remember very well the sage smoke, and how powerful that moment was for me.

2. I Saw Elvis Presley in Concert

My Aunt Mary lived in Austin for a while and used to take me to concerts, including Lynyrd Skynyrd, War, Three Dog Night, and America. On one occasion, she made me accompany her to a concert she wanted to see –Elvis Presley. It was at the old Municipal Auditorium, on March 28, 1977. According to, the show started at 8:30 pm, and 6,000 people were in attendance. Elvis wore his “Ace of Spades” suit and performed many of his classics, including “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “That’s Alright,” as well as Gordon Lightfoot’s lovely “Early Morning’ Rain.” We had no way of knowing it then, but that was Elvis’ last performance ever in Texas, and his last concert tour, period. A few months later, on August 16, he died of heart failure. Truth is, I didn’t really want to go see Elvis at the time, but my aunt insisted. I’m glad she did. I just wish I had kept my Concert Program!

3. I Was a Professional Disc Jockey

Ancient Radio Broadcasting Studio, ca. 1980s

I majored in Radio and Television (and English Lit) in college, got my FCC License, and spent three years working on KWSB, an FM station broadcasting to the local community from our campus. My first job after school was as a nighttime disc jockey in Ashland, Oregon. $4.00 an hour. My first evening on the job, I managed to knock the radio station off the air. I had to do three incredibly stupid things within the space of a few moments to accidentally shut down the station, and, somehow, I accomplished the nearly impossible task. To make matters worse, I didn’t have the broadcast sound on in the studio to monitor what was going out over the air, so the station remained off for several minutes before an old woman called up and said in a shaky voice, “Why's the station off the air?” Suddenly the switchboard lit up and the calls started coming in. Luckily, a kind colleague happened to tune in and realized something was wrong, so he called and talked me through the motions to get everything going again. The same night, I played an LP (33 1/3) on 16 speed (I’m dating myself here) and generally had a disastrous night. Amazingly, the owners never knew what had happened (or never said anything about it) and I kept my job.

But I never really clicked with commercial radio and its creative limitations. I have many fond memories, though, of DJ-ing in the free-form environment we had for a while at KWSB. Though I grew up as a rock-and-roll kid, I was always curious about other things and liked finding odd or unexpected combinations: Echo and the Bunnymen back-to-back with Judy Garland, or T.S. Eliot reading “The Wasteland” over the Cure’s 27-minute instrumental track, “Carnage Visors.” I also did a classical show for a while. At 6 am on Sunday morning. Was anybody listening to me, I wondered? I decided to conduct a test and started making up outrageous lies on the air to see if anyone would call up. I said I was doing a special on Italian composers and here’s some music from Antonio Ravioli, the son of a Venetian pasta-maker. Then, Giuseppe Tetrazini, and his “Tortellini” concerto. Rodolfo Lasagna and his “Concerti Fettucini.” Etc. For half an hour I did this. No one ever called.

Ah, radio . . .

4. I Almost Went to Seminary

When I realized that I wasn’t cut-out to work in commercial broadcasting, I decided to pursue my spiritual yearnings and enter the seminary. Though raised Catholic, I knew I had certain earthly yearnings that precluded any real interest in the priesthood. Also, I wasn’t comfortable anymore with the Roman Catholic Church and had begun investigating other approaches to Christianity. I had come to a somewhat strange place where I still enjoyed the liturgical aspects of the Church but was also intrigued by some of the Anabaptist traditions, communities such as the Bruderhof, groups with a strong social action component, aspects of the Charismatic Movement, and a kind of Christian Anarchist/Early Church thing. Basically, I was all over the map. I investigated an Episcopal seminary, an American Baptist seminary, and eventually settled on the New College of Theology in Berkeley, CA, part of the Graduate Theological Union. After being accepted, I traveled out to the Bay Area by train and stayed with them for several days. They treated me very well, and I liked a lot of what I heard and saw. They even paid for tickets to the San Francisco Symphony, where I saw a performance of Ravel’s Bolero, my favorite memory now of that trip. It seemed as though everything were all set. But then, on the train-ride home, I suddenly knew I wasn’t going to go. I couldn’t explain it to myself at the time, and wrestled a lot with the decision; it was just a gut instinct that I had to follow.

The decision to not become a minister upset me quite a bit for a while. I felt like I had failed G-d. Partly because of this, I spent the next year looking into various missionary groups, albeit ones with a social action element, but I never felt comfortable blending evangelism and trying to “help” people. In the end, it seemed disingenuous, too much like Sales. And by then I had started to question what was for sale: the radical, intimate Jesus of the New Testament seemed far, far away, replaced by some kind of banal, middle-class American Social Religion based on Adam Smith and Miss Manners. Looking back now, I realize those two years marked a big shift in my life. I was forced to think and feel more deeply about what I truly believed, about the kind of spiritual path I was supposed to follow. The comfortable behavioral system I had known up to that point in my life, suddenly crumbled. Going to seminary or becoming a missionary may have made me feel like I was serving G-d, but I’m not sure now which god it would have been. Without the trappings of religion, the path became harder, a little more confusing, full of strange twists and turns, and sometimes I’m not even sure there’s a path at all; a lot of it feels like bushwhacking through unexplored territory. But as the poet Antonio Machado said:

Caminante, no hay camino
Se hace camino al andar

Walker, there is no path
The path is made by walking

5. I’ve seen all 31 of Fred Astaire’s Musical Films

I plan on writing more about Fred in the future, so I’ll keep this short.

Some favorites are: The Gay Divorcee (1933), Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936), all with Ginger Rogers; Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940); Holiday Inn (1942), with Herr Bing; The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), which re-united him with Ginger; The Band Wagon (1953), with Cyd Charisse; Funny Face (1957), with Audrey Hepburn; and Silk Stockings (1957), again with Cyd Charisse.

There are many other good or very good ones. Astaire’s sheer talent and joyful screen presence turned even mediocre projects into something worth watching. Some of his films aren’t great, but there’s almost always something great in them, usually his dance routines, sometimes a song or songs (he worked with many great songwriters), and sometimes his wonderful (and underrated) comic ability. In fact, I can only think of two Astaire films that I thought were real dogs: Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and The Belle of New York (1952). And even Belle has some good dance scenes – and Vera-Ellen. And Yolanda is actually a cult favorite for some people, with its garish colors and bizarre Hollywood version of a Latin American country. I haven’t seen Finian’s Rainbow (1968) since I was a kid, but I don't hear good things about it. Interestingly, it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Fred also made three award-winning musical TV specials in the late 1950s. I'm trying to track those down.


Jeff said...

Terrific stories, William. Being a kid on a Navajo reservation really must have been something, as well as being raised in a household of such committed social conscience. Vista... I remember them... Whatever became of them?

I'm jealous of some of those concerts you attended although not necessarily the Elvis one. I remember vividly the day he died. My generation appreciates him a lot more now than we did at the time.

The DJ story was really funny. I bet some of the heads out there really loved it when you played out a 33 1/3 record at 16 speed. "Far out, man..."

Fascinating and moving story about the seminary decision. I took a hard look at going into the Jesuits at one time, but there were two things I needed to admit to myself. One was that I knew I couldn't hack celibacy. The second was a nagging feeling that I wanted to be taken care of in a sense.. that I was looking for a way to get away from responsibilities and a job that I hated.

crystal said...

VISTA - that's inspiring. Interesting too that your father learned about shamanism. I vaguely remember reading the Carlos Casteneda books and more recently, Tony Hillerman mysteries.

So you were almost Father William! A lot of people must go to school at the Graduate Theological Union ... I know one person who went to the Jesuit School of Theology there.

And I like Fred too. Holiday Inn is one of my favorite movies.

Liam said...

Let's see... I knew everything except #1. I knew about your dad and the sage, but I did not know about the reservation. That might explain why late at night at the Grassroots tavern you sometimes begin to curse in Navajo.

By the way, there is a GI Joe Windtalker that speaks Navajo if you press a button. That's pretty cool.

I knew you were interested in going to seminary school, but I didn't know you got that close.

I once played a record speeded up on the air when I was a college DJ, but that was on purpose... Ah, KRRC, Reed College radio...

cowboyangel said...


VISTA became AmeriCorps under the Clinton administration. It's still going. At least according to Wikipedia. Also, Wikipedia says that it was started in 1964 by LBJ, rather than JFK - part of Johnson's Great Society and the War on Poverty. Wow. Remember when a US President cared enough to launch a War on Poverty? Whatever happened to poverty, anyway? I guess we won that war.

I could see you as a Jesuit. Not that I know you well enough to make that judgment. But at least your writing and intellect make me feel a leaning in that direction.

Ah, yes, celibacy. Imagine the Church without celibacy for its priests. How many people like you or I might have gone into the priesthood?

Elvis. Yeah, I think it's cool that I saw himl, probably because it was such an accident. But I've never been a big fan. He's definitely loved by many, though.

cowboyangel said...


The Hillerman books are good. At least the few I've read.

I wouldn't have been Father William - it would've been Rev. William, I guess. Which doesn't sound nearly as cool as Father William.

Yeah, the Graduate Theological Union is pretty big, with several large seminaries involved. I guess the Bay Area's a hotbed of theology!

cowboyangel said...


I wish I could curse in Navajo. Unfortunately, I'm not nearly as cool as you are and can only curse in two languages, neither of which is Latin. I'm guessing you can get up some nice obscenities in English, Spanish, Italian, Latin and maybe Gaelic? Am I missing one? Portguese?

Liam said...

French, German, Catalan, I'm not sure about Portuguese. And yes, I know one insult in Gaelic.

Jeff said...

Ah, yes, celibacy. Imagine the Church without celibacy for its priests. How many people like you or I might have gone into the priesthood?

Quite a few, I dare say. Almost every guy I knew who was serious about his faith considered a vocation at one time, at least briefly. I'd say nine out of ten times, celibacy was the kicker.

It's a topic that's been percolating in my head for a while. One of these days I'm going to put up some kind of post about it when I feel coherent enough for the task.

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