The Key Is on the Porch

Whenever I attend Christian funerals, I get a little pissed. I was pissed at my Dad’s funeral, and at my ex’s stepdad’s send-off, too. Here’s why: the good minister always says a few comforting words, but I know he’s going to get around to The Pitch, and sure enough, he always does. He says that because the dead person has accepted a Savior, he or she gets to go to a better place, and infers I should, too, or it’s the bad place for me.

This is less than generous on my part, this being pissed. The fact is, I go to a funeral already keyed up and in my own head. Funerals, celebrations of life, wakes, or whatever you want to call them make me think of mortality. I don’t want to think about mortality. I want to think about me. As a mentor of mine says, “I’m not much, but I’m all I ever think about.” I’m scared to death of death. You are, too.

Back to the good minister. I am feeling a little more generous toward him today. That’s a tough gig. See, he has to talk about someone he doesn’t know all that well. He meets with the family and gets some details: “He liked blue, derided what he called phony art, painted, and loved his wife.” Next are words of comfort for the rest of us squirming in our pews in our ignorance (or smug faith) of the Great Beyond. Then, what? He just doesn’t have a lot of material to work with. So, The Pitch. He’s a minister, for crying out loud. What else would he do?

When Sloane called Monday and said, “Kate O said she’d appreciate it if you could write something for Karsten,” my first thought was not at all honorable. It was selfish as hell. I thought, “I didn’t know him all that well. What will I write? What if it isn’t any good? Why didn’t I know him better? We were at parties together. Karsten would engage anyone in conversation. Why didn’t I talk to him more?” And so on. In other words, I went right up in my own head. I am ashamed about that, but it would be less than honest if I didn’t say so up front. I’m pretty sure that as an artist, Karsten would take a dim view of me faking it, as dim a view as I take of The Pitch.

I read a thing my friend Lora posted yesterday, something to the effect of, “I’ve been pulling weeds all day and composing random sentences in my head.” That’s what I’ve been doing, except for the weeds part. Only trouble is, none of the sentences is all that great, and they aren’t really forming a narrative.

It all seems so wrong. This isn’t the right way to go about getting to know a neighbor. You’re supposed to get to know your neighbors when they’re still, you know, your neighbors, not after they’ve hitched up the van and moved to Portland. “Hey, did you know Karsten?”

“Yes, he was awesome. He liked blue, hated phony art, painted, and loved Kate O.”

The last couple of days, I’ve been reading some great stuff by folks who did know Karsten better than I. That helps. Facebook is full of photos. Karsten is fabulously good-looking, virile and mysterious in all of them. Somewhere in my head is this idea that he liked erotica. In the classical sense. The human body can be so beautiful. Look at Kate.

I sat and talked to a couple of other writer types who are squirming in their own upstairs pews, trying to come to terms with all of it. I also have been reviewing the times I was around Karsten.

I don’t have much. He deserves more. I am going to pray that a great many people surround Kate, and share more than this, and make her feel better. I’ll be damned if I know what I’d do if I was confronted with her loss. I usually just get mad at everyone.

Karsten was an artist.

He was drop-dead funny, in the way that people who are really aware are funny. I was at a party once. Justin Seiter had this hideous, cheap, UT-orange-looking six-pack cooler with some beers in it. Karsten looked at it, then at Justin, and said, “That says every fucking thing I need to know about you, right there.” I almost spit up, laughing.

I wrote this in my notebook Monday night, before I’d talked to anyone much about the news: “If you showed a vulnerability, he could find a way to make you laugh at yourself about it.” I don’t really know if that’s true or not. I bet it is.

On blue: Lora told me they’d talked once about his love of it, and Karsten told her that at one time in history, the bright blue hue was a very difficult and special color to produce. I don’t understand that, but since he was an artist, I’ll take his word for it. I could Google more information about indigo, but I prefer to leave it at that for now. I am going to wear blue shoes to his celebration on Friday.

Karsten experimented with a lot of media and different ideas in his art. His studio got hammered in the Great “We Are Nashville” Flood of ’10. It was filled with paintings, and collages, and ideas in progress. It must have been devastating to have all your creative work soaked and ruined. He rolled up his sleeves and went to work putting it all back together. He came to borrow the truck a few times. I always just left the key out. I missed an opportunity, there.

Lucas told me that during a personal bottom last year, Karsten talked him out the abyss late one night. This brings to mind an old AA joke. A guy is walking down the street and falls into a really deep hole. The walls are too steep for him to scramble out. A priest walks by. The guy shouts up, “Help! I need a rope!” The priest throws him a rosary instead, and keeps walking. A doctor happens by and again he says, “Help! I can’t climb out!” The doctor says, “Try this,” and tosses down a prescription from his notepad. The guy in the hole says, “Fuck!”

Then another person comes walking by. Once again, the guy in the hole calls for help. The passerby stops and looks down, then jumps down in the hole and stands beside him. They are looking at each other eye-to-eye, deep in the hole.

“What the hell’d you do THAT for? Now, we’re BOTH stuck down here!”

The second guy says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know how to get out.”

Everyone I’ve talked with about Karsten says how open he was, and mentions his sense of wonder. He asked straightforward questions, the kind that dull people might consider impolite, or politically incorrect. Everyone agrees this was more from his sense of genuine curiosity than a need to jostle the applecart for the hell of it. I suspect there was some of that, though. Artists are always exploring how people react emotionally to this or that situation. My sense is that he probably did enjoy seeing some folks squirm a bit, but never in a mean way. Nobody who’s really comfortable creates much of anything.

Sometimes I would see Karsten riding his bike around dusk in the neighborhood. “Hey, Karsten!”

“Hello, Mr. Redd, how are you?” He was unfailingly polite.

At parties, I would think Karsten seemed like he was in on a joke you were just now getting. He had no sense of superiority about it. He was just a few oar-strokes ahead, moving with the stream. He always looked like he was having a damn good time.

Life is precious, and a gift. I am dangerously close to The Pitch, now. I don’t care. I am going to ask this: how well do you know your neighbor? It’s a hell of a thing to try to get to know a person after he’s moved on. You can get together with the other neighbors and share memories, and that’s a fine and good thing, but it’s not as good as jumping in the hole.

We’re all the time saying we’re busier than shit, aren’t we? Maybe once in a while, we shouldn’t leave the key on the porch. We should hand it over in person, instead.

3 Comments

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  1. I am incredibly moved by the way you have captured my brother in law. We loved and dreaded when he would make us squirm. I tried so often to reverse it on him but he was just too darn smart for me. We are aching here 8 hours away and grabbing onto every post and piece to hold onto what we know we have lost. I thank you for bringing to life one that we are dying to see again. Wishing you peace & love.

  2. Thank you for writing this. My response has mostly been one of regret – it is so easy to let life be too full of activities and run low on quality time with people. I always sensed that Karsten had a depth to him that was worth investing in and yet I missed so many opportunities due to busyness and insecurity. Ironically, we are headed this weekend to spend time with one-time friends with whom we missed chances with to develop a lasting friendship with before they moved; we won’t be able to make it to the memorial service as a result, but I think that ensuring such moments don’t pass me by – to stop being a phony artist with life and love – would be a good way to honor Karsten.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. After the water drained from Karsten’s studio I helped him rip out the walls and floor. We piled the water soaked debris in his back yard. This was the only real interaction I ever had with him (aside from brief chats at parties). About a year later we ran in to each other at Octoberfest. He was a few beers ahead of me. He smiled with that electric blue soul patch illuminated by the sun. “I keep thinking about that time you helped me clean out my basement. That was really cool. Uncommon. Thank you. It meant a lot.” I really wanted to reply with, “It was God’s idea. He likes you a lot and just wanted you to know about it.” That was the truth, God told me to go help him demo that basement – but living in the Christian ghetto of the south makes me hate the pitch too… so I just smiled back at him with my dirty blonde sun-illuminated soul patch and said, “you’re welcome man, glad I could help.”

    I pray he now knows what I knew all along. God loves him immensely.

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