Family Archeology

There were not many places in San Diego where a person could count on seeing seals, but one of them was (is) La Jolla Cove. Unfortunately on the day pictured in the featured photo there were no seals in sight. It was a fun drawing, anyway.

One afternoon soon after my mom died and her stuff came to my house in San Diego, I was cleaning out her old photos, and I found a photo of my dad. It took me a moment to register that my dad was sitting on a railing at La Jolla Cove. My dad does NOT look happy in the photo, and I would love to know the story behind his expression — other than the sun being in his eyes. Since he is facing south, I am pretty sure it was taken in the winter. He was probably 18 or 19. The historical moment would have been WW II — obviously.

I felt a little strange when I realized where he was. I was sure he’d told me he’d been stationed in San Diego — somewhere. Then I put the pieces together. I remembered him telling me about getting drunk in Tijuana, being busted down to buck private, and put in the brig while his “outfit” shipped out. I remembered he’d told me stories about being out at the Salton Sea about 100 miles east of San Diego and where, during the war, there were radio towers (all I knew). The pieces begin to click into place.

Then, I found this:

The drawing cracked me up. I’m sorry for the guy who died of thirst, though. I like the word valley in quotation marks, too.

I spent a lot of time out in that desert when I lived in California. I never saw it like THAT but I could still recognize it. Based on the little compass at the bottom I could see my dad was looking north and in that direction are the San Bernardino Mountains, Mt. San Jacinto the most visible from there when atmospheric conditions are right (winter). He’s drawn a low range in front of the San Bernardino and those are the mountains that ring the desert. His drawing is a little like these photos put together. He’s drawn the ocotillo and cholla cactus.

Only a couple hundred years ago, we couldn’t take photographs and people had to draw the scenery they encountered on their travels. I guess my dad and his fountain pen entered that tradition.

Posing with Pictographs in the Anza Borrego Desert sometime in the 1980s.

No Way, Dad!

One of the amazing things about color is that it doesn’t even really exist. What we see is the way light is reflected from a surface. Light is the thing.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by color and when some science fair (fifth grade?) came around, my dad decided it was time for me to learn the difference between color in light and color in pigment.

Back when I was a kid my dad loved a particular catalog. It wasn’t very interesting for a kid to look through. It was mostly words and black and white drawings. I think it was the Edmunds Scientific Catalog.

He ordered red, green and blue transparent colored gelatin slides like those used in theaters, and we set about making a project with them. I was HIGHLY skeptical that three colors could equal NO color (how I viewed white at the time) but my dad said it would. He also said red and green would make yellow. Huh? I’d already learned THAT made brown!!!

“There is no brown in light, MAK.”

Right dad. Whether he was telling me the truth or not remained to be seen (ha ha).

We made a black box out of some boxes (the cardboard box is the foundation of much childhood architecture) set up the slide projector so there was a bright light we could shine through the colored slides. When I saw it with my own eyes, I was amazed.

“This is the science of optics, MAK.”

He’d also ordered some prisms so I could see that the angle at which light hit the prism made rainbows. My display was going to show all these mutations of color including a demonstration of mixing paint. It had a big sign that said, “Optics.” Well, it was my new word…

As you might expect the display we put together wasn’t very fancy. “It’s what it DOES that matters!” was my dad’s philosophy all the time about everything. It was also very technical. It wasn’t something you could just stop and look and go, “Wow, that’s cool. That kid is smart.” It involved demonstrating things. There was only ONE demonstration time in the fair and I had WAY too much to demonstrate.

Dad and I were also ahead of ourselves all the time. Enthusiasm pushed us to want to say EVERYTHING. Thinking about it now, I think the project probably needed an hour of class time, not a ten minute demonstration by a kid. A cardboard box, masking taped together, and painted black with tempera paint is not very inviting even with a couple of slabs of glass sitting in front of it.

No one even stopped to see except the judges who just wrote their checkmarks on the mimeographed papers on their clipboards, veni, vedi, vinci or something. It was disappointing, but as you might expect at this moment in my story, the important thing was doing the project with my dad — and what he taught me.

Parental Advice

I don’t know how many girls get relationship advice from their dad more than from their mom, but I did. My dad had only ONE piece of advice and it found many ways to give it — little talks when we were in the car together, pop songs, at the supermarket, probably more. His words of advice were, “With men, MAK, follow the Monroe Doctrine.”


“Well the Monroe Doctrine, honey, established the policy that the United States would not enter into binding contracts with foreign powers. It would form ‘no entangling alliances’.”

“What’s an ‘entangling’ alliances?”

“It’s an alliance that you can’t get out of. Remember, MAK. No entangling alliances.”

My mom, on the other hand, when she DID give advice, just said, “Your dad doesn’t understand that women are different.”

I think he’d figured that out, wink wink.

Then this song came out and my dad bought me the 45.

WW II Coyote Dog of the Salton Sea

My dad spent some of WW II out at the Salton Sea east of San Diego working on radio towers. His best war stories came from those days. Most of the other guys in his “outfit” were from Puerto Rico, and he liked them a lot. He was just a kid — 18 or 19 — and had missed his “opportunity” to ship out a couple of times because he was “in the brig” after getting drunk and picked up by the military police in Tijuana. I guess it was a long way (in more ways than one) from Montana to San Diego.

The Salton Sea is an extraordinary phenomenon, a rift lake, that is fed by the Colorado River which, over the millennia, depending on its flow, has left the Salton Sea filled with fresh or salt water or left completely dry. Naturally, this has been altered by modern humans farming in the Imperial Valley north of the lake. In “olden times” a person could navigate from the mouth of the Colorado River to the south, where it empties into the Sea of Cortez, up to the lake, but that’s pretty challenging now.

They lived in big barrack tents out there in the desert. I know that there was a Navy base at the Salton Sea. A lot is written about it. The Navy tested sea planes in that remote and easily concealed location, but I have found nothing about the network of radio and radar towers my dad told me about.

In my dad’s stories the one that fascinated me most was the story about the coyote/dog they found as a pup. They brought him into the barracks tent, fed and tamed him. My dad loved him. Every story my dad began to tell me about the war resulted in the story of the coyote/dog.

When I moved to San Diego in my 30s, I started hiking in open chaparral just east of the city. Most of that area had also been a military base in the war, in fact, before the area became Mission Trails Regional Park, the Navy came in and did a very meticulous search for unexploded ordinance. I began to imagine that my dad had maybe trained on the very trails on which I walked. I also spent a lot of time out in the same desert in which my dad had been stationed. I saw for myself the “Chocolate Mountains” and the Salton Sea. It was eerie, haunting, and wonderful all at the same time.

The chaparral is coyote Heaven. The first coyote I saw was a big surprise. A friend and I were walking down a hill and the friend, who was behind me, went, “Sssst!” I turned around, to see why and my friend pointed. My dog, Molly, and I looked in one movement, and there was a coyote, watching us. After that I saw them very very often. After awhile, I thought of them as the wild dogs I would connect with on hikes.

I’ve written all my coyote stories elsewhere but if you’d like to read them, I’ll post them here. 🙂

Featured photo: My dad posing in front of La Jolla Cove near San Diego.

February 29, 1972

On February 27, 1972 I was at Winter Park with my friend Susie and her family. They were from Chicago, had rented a large cabin and we were all having a GREAT time. The next day it snowed heavily, and I was gripped with a terrible and irrational apprehension that we wouldn’t be able to get back to Denver that day. I had an exam the next day, as I recall. Still, it shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. I was bossing everyone around, putting cardboard under stuck wheels and generally being a pain in the ass. We made it back to Denver and, safe and snug in my dorm room, I went to sleep.

The next morning — a bright and shining day — I went to my 9 am history class. About 30 minutes into it, someone from my dorm called out my prof and he came back and asked me to come with him. I walked with this woman back to the dorm office where my Aunt Martha was standing. I knew everything just seeing her there.

“Martha Ann, you dad passed away last night. It’s for the best.”

I couldn’t argue that it wasn’t for the best. He’d suffered a lot during the last two years from deterioration caused by MS. My aunt went up to my room with me and I packed.

I didn’t feel anything until I saw him in the casket at the mortuary. I reached into the casket to hold his hand as I had innumerable times at the nursing home when he was in one coma or another. The hand was cold, unbelievably cold, and then I knew that all my love really COULDN’T save his life. My aunt Kelly and uncle Johnny were with me and took me out of the room and sat with me until I calmed down. After that, I held it together, helping my mom contact family, taking clothes to the mortuary, even reading from my dad’s favorite poem during the service in Colorado Springs. I was pretty OK until the funeral in Montana when the casket was placed in the ground when I lost it again. Fortunately, my grandmother was there and we sheltered together in the limousine.

My dad died at 45. I’m 23 years older than he was when he died. Sometime in my late 30s I realized I was about to live the life my dad couldn’t. That meant something to me.

When this day rolls around every four years I’m a little messed up. Luckily, this time, I was here in the San Luis Valley, and it exerted all of its magic for me today. I had reason to write a blog post that meant something to me. Then I went to the Rio Grande County Museum with some notecards to sell, but also to see how the new show — Colorado and the Suffrage Movement — was doing. Louise, who runs the museum, is an amazing woman, and I sense we share a common heart. She told me about some of her new discoveries and then her husband, Alex, came in. Alex has lived here forever, his family has lived here forever. He’s a pretty incredible person, too. We talked about runaway horses, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the ventilation of potato cellars and much, much more. I love learning about this place, and I left feeling a little intoxicated.

From there I drove west to take a photo of another potato cellar I hope to paint, one that’s in terrible condition. I went to the store and came home to find that one of my stories (originally published here in my blog) won first prize at a contest I entered in December, a contest held by the Alamosa Library’s literary magazine, Messages from the Hidden Lake. There was a party last week, but I forgot about it. 🙂

After lunch, I took Bear to the golf course so she could roll in whatever snow remains (there was some). On the way I stopped to talk to the kids and their mom. I heard yet another amazing story about her dad, on horseback, in the mountains, going over a little ravine and his horse fell on him. His dog — a dog like Bear — Zip — stayed with him and protected him until help came more than 12 hours later. Zip even wanted to get on the helicopter.

Bear and I took a wandering ramble nowhere in the world of smells that is Bear’s somewhere. Fifty cranes flew over us, calling to each other. On the way back, the little girl was in the yard and we had a long talk about little brothers. She told me that sometimes she and her little brother (two years younger, just like my brother and me) have terrible fights. I told her my brother and I did, too.

“What do you fight about?” she asked me.

“Oh, you know, ‘Get out of my room!’ ‘That’s not YOURS! It’s MINE!'”

She nodded in profound understanding and told me about a time that her little brother helped her clean her room.

“Yeah, that’s a good brother,” I told her.

“Once my brother hurt my feelings. He said he didn’t love me.” She looked sad.

“He didn’t mean it. That’s just little brothers. You know, my brother was my best friend.”

She nodded. “Yeah, but someday we will have our own families and won’t live together any more.”

“He’ll still be your brother.”

She smiled and launched into a wonderful long story about a game of pretend they’d played after seeing Frozen. It was wonderful, involving, as it did, an evil snow man and an enchanted forest.

All this has been the gift this miraculous valley has given me on this day that comes every four years, a day on which I cannot help but feel sad.

Featured photo: My dad and me in his basement office. We built the shelves together, framed and paneled the whole thing. I was 12. In the photo below, I’m 11. You can see I reached my adult height early. My dad was 5’8″.

My dad looks kind of pissed off, but he wasn’t. 🙂 Bellevue, Nebraska, 1963

“I Have No Idea What’s Going On”

^ is the most beautiful excuse for missing class I ever read, so I saved it. English 65-01 was a high school level remedial English class I taught at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, CA. 1995 would have been my first or second year teaching there. Luis turned out to be a good kid who worked hard. I always had a soft spot for a kid that could call the office and tell the secretary he missed class because he was confused. ❤

Once upon a time I had the idea that the grown ups knew what was going on and they were keeping the truth from me. Stop it. Stop laughing. I bet you had a similar idea about things. I bet you thought that one day you’d grow up and all the words and all the everything else would make sense FOREVER.

I guess I was in my late 20s when I had the profound realization that “Change is the only constant in the universe.” Of course, at that time, I thought I was incredibly deep and wise and finally had it all figured out. All I had was a sentence that made sense, nothing more than that.

My dad loved math because it has rules and the rules were REAL rules. Within the boundaries of a mathematical problem there could be only a finite number of outcomes. OF COURSE within that scenario, the variations might be immense, but who was he to split hairs? He specialized in game theory which is basically the mathematics of uncertainty. He applied his knowledge to the national defense.

Game theory is basically defined as “…the study of mathematical models of strategic interaction in between rational decision-makers.” It’s a lot like throwing the dice. It is the direct application of probability theory to objective reality. People playing chess, and anticipating the moves of their opponent are applying game theory. People in love are ALWAYS doing it.

“What did it mean that he didn’t call me for three days?”

“It could mean he didn’t was busy, or didn’t want to seem too eager, or lost your number, or lost his phone, or or or or…”

There is a finite number of possibilities but the obvious and easiest one is the most likely. That isn’t always easy to identify.

The assumption of rationality raises the hackles of skepticism for me at this point in my life. Things — and decision makers — can so quickly go off the deep end. One of the things “rational decision makers” do is lie. They can also be hungry, tired, drunk, high, scared — all kinds of things compromise “rationality.”

Sometimes I think we’re more like pinballs than chess pieces. Our lives are circumscribed by the box that is the pinball machine. Someone at the low end is pushing buttons and flipping flippers, hoping to get us to the end of the game in good time, but stuff happens in between all the time. I don’t know who’s operating the flippers — I think it’s our genetics.

Like a week ago, I was just walking along a flat, soft and comparatively even path. I was wearing hiking shoes. I wasn’t running or doing any dangerous movements. I was just WALKING. Recently I’ve been pretty happy because I’ve been walking with comparative ease and freedom. Suddenly, for no reason that I could identify I sprained my foot, not the ankle, but some tendon in the metatarsal area. WTF? How? Why? My first thought, “Walk it off, Kennedy, walk it off.” But I knew that wasn’t a likely outcome in the game. I turned around thinking, “You have to go home. You’ll have to walk slowly, but you’ll make it. I don’t think it’s broken.” I didn’t really know, but I still had to get out of there. I think I set my foot down hard on a rock that was half-buried and covered by grass, but I don’t know for sure. It is the most likely explanation for the event.

A sprained foot was not on my agenda at all, but there it was, and here it is. That’s why I consider South Park’s Towelie (high though he is) to be kind of a sage. Like Towelie…


I was never very good at arithmetic or math when I was in school. This was rough because my dad was a mathematician. I struggled more, I think, than my parents knew or my teachers knew. Now I know there is a learning disability — discalcula — that makes it difficult for some students to read a number problem. When we got to algebra, I was screwed.

But in 9th grade we had one six-week unit on a different kind of math. I didn’t just love it, I got an A. It was a unit on theoretical math and it included topology. That was completely fascinating to me. Here were bottles that had no inside or outside, maps that couldn’t be drawn (but had been), and the Möbius Strip. I already knew about this wonderful thing because my dad and I had built some.

“Here’s the symbol for infinity, MAK,” said my dad. I loved infinity.

I think my dad must have been happy when I cam home excited about math rather than despairing. I wanted to talk to him about all the cool stuff I’d learned — about Pascals triangle, probability theory, Klein bottles, the whole shebang.

It was our custom to do the Saturday shopping together without my mom. Now I understand it was a way for my dad (who had MS) to enjoy a walk around the grocery store aided by a shopping cart. We had our method. We went up one aisle and down the other. It was an inside joke between us. When my mom was a teacher, she’d assigned the usual fall essay, “How I Spent my Summer Vacation.” Her school was in rural Montana, so she couldn’t have expected much, but one kid wrote. “I hoed beets. I went up one row, and down the other. Up one row and down the other.” He filled the paper with this.

And my mom told this story over and over…

One Saturday my dad and I headed to Bakers (the store). Dad had a list, but we often bought stuff off the list. At the end, it was a race between me and the checker to see if I could keep up with her or even get ahead of her. Back then, prices weren’t scanned, they were punched into the cash register key board.

My dad and I were waiting for the people ahead of us. As the groceries were carried on the conveyor belt, my dad suddenly said, “You know what that is?”

“Conveyor belt?”

“Most conveyor belts are Möbius Strips.”


I tried to fathom this by imagining a little paper Möbius strip in my mind.

“It has no sides, honey. Remember? By using a Möbius strip as a conveyor belt, no ‘side’ wears out before the other. It wears evenly.”

“Wow.” That this strange stuff was actually useful seemed miraculous to me.

“Still haven’t found a practical use for the Klein Bottle, though,” laughed my dad.




“C’mon MAK. Let’s go for a ride.”

“Where are you taking her?” My mom was angry at me again for something.

“There’s a record at the music store I want to look at, Helen. C’mon, MAK. Get your coat.”

I put on my ski jacket. It was the early 60s, I was 14, and the jacket was pure — and new — fashion. It was reversible. One side a flowery pattern in mostly orange, the other side — the usual side for me — black because I didn’t like orange.

“Listen, MAK,” my dad said turning the key in the ignition. “Stay away from your mom when she’s been drinking. Some people are funny when they’ve been drinking. Some people are mean. Your mom’s mean. When she’s like that, just get away.”

We backed out of the driveway.

What was he talking about? I was already living in the disconnect a lot of kids of an alcoholic parent live in. But from then on I took my dad’s advice and got out when the fireworks began.

In the wings of our lives was a move from Nebraska back to Colorado, my dad’s soon-to-be-rapid physical decline from Multiple Sclerosis, my family’s disintegration. That night we stood in the neon-lit music store in Bellevue, Nebraska and bought an album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. Most of my generation knows this one, grew up with this one, but one song was particularly important to my dad.

Cleaned Out

I didn’t expect it to be fun. I even expected it to be painful sometimes, going through all the boxes of my parents’ lives. Most of the time I just went out to the garage, filled up the trash can and then put everything back. When the trash can was empty again, I attacked another box or two. Some boxes I hauled unopened to the thrift store when I knew what was in them and knew I didn’t want them — my mom’s crystal, my aunt Martha’s fancy clock.

It’s funny that the last box held my own past. Fitting and kind of cosmic, sort of saying, “OK, MAK, deal with your own life now.”

I lost my dad when I was 20. He was my best friend, my confidant, my teacher, my hero. He was funny and iconoclastic, brilliant, but, above all, brave. He had Multiple Sclerosis back in the day before Interferon and the other drugs that exist now, before they knew anything about autoimmune diseases, maybe before the term even existed. I was there for him, beside him and with him through all of it. When he died, I wasn’t really allowed to mourn. My mom was an extremely envious and possessive woman, very jealous of my relationship with my dad. My Aunt Jo told me this and that just corroborated what I already sensed, especially when my mom said, “Shut up. He was your dad, but he was MY husband.”

A lot of feelings got stuffed down, and I wrestled on my own to understand what had happened to my life. Thankfully I had friends and other family who were by my side and on my side as I went through it.

There is something, though. I wish I could have known him once I had grown up as I have some other members of my family. As I’ve gone through all these things, things that I did not myself pack or even know about, I’ve seen a little bit of my dad through my very adult eyes.

One of my dad’s most personal artifacts was in the second to last box, his wallet. Inside were the usual things — pictures of my brother and me as newborns, a photo of his parents in their 40s, a photo of my mom holding me when I was 1, identification for the government places where he worked, even his army discharge papers and a copy of his birth certificate. But this…

Dad's wallet

It took me a little while to figure it out. Then I realized it was my dad’s way of reminding himself that no matter what a crappy hand he’d been dealt, he wasn’t going to whine about it. He didn’t, either. Toward the end, he got very frustrated and angry sometimes, raging over the question of continuing to be alive when his abilities had been abridged dramatically, but he never — that I remember — played violin music.

I was not really prepared for the intensity of my reaction to these artifacts. Last night, it had all so penetrated my mind, that when I saw a friend outside when I began my walk with the dogs, and invited her along, I said, “The light on the Beartooths is beautiful in the evenings, I mean the Sangres. I’m in Montana in my mind, I guess.” I felt awkward and disoriented for a moment.

All today I’ve felt exhausted and sad. I don’t think that’s so strange. I’m glad I’m finished with this, I’m glad I did it, it was the right thing to do, but most of all, I’m most happy that I will never have to do it again. All that’s left is one last trip to Montana.

Lemon Tree

When I was a girl, my dad had lots of advice for me, maybe more, even than the average dad because when I was 2, my dad was given a death sentence. He was diagnosed with MS in 1953. The doctors gave him 10 to 12 years; he got 18.

I don’t know the circumstances, but I know that back then, there was not as much knowledge about auto-immune diseases. I’m not sure the term even existed. They knew how MS worked, but not why. There were theories, but no answers, and the only certain diagnosis came in an autopsy. Many other conditions present symptoms similar to MS.

My dad and I were close. We really just simply (beyond loving each other like dad and daughter) we LIKED each other. He encouraged every little interest I had; he encouraged my independent spirit.

Among the advice he gave me was advice about luv. “Make no entangling alliances, MAK. Follow the Monroe Doctrine.” I was seven. What did I know about the Monroe Doctrine?  He told me.

Based on his advice, and songs he liked and recommended to me, I suspect my dad was disappointed in love. He’d married my mom and that was enough to disappoint anyone. She remains to me a mysterious creature who seems to have had a bitter love/hate relationship with pretty much everything, especially with those who loved her most.

Two of the songs are “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” by Gale Garnett and “Lemon Tree” by Peter Paul and Mary. I don’t know how many dads tell their daughters to follow the messages contained in these songs.

I’ve been cleaning out the garage believing that I would end up having to have the thing pulled down and rebuilt. I’m happy that is not the case. In the cleaning, I’ve found some surprising things. Yesterday, in a little old leather notebook my dad gave me in which to keep my poems, I found tucked and hidden away, two poems of his. I believe he wrote them to me. Both of them are advice for me, how to live my life when he is no longer with me.