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Creative Non-Fiction

"He Had a Far Out Decorator"

Courtesy of the author
As 1991 began, I lived north the university. That year, it happened the weather did not get really cold until the end of January. There were patches of ice on the sidewalks near my house, also near the apartment of my friend, Kenneth W. Seward.

Seward was a lighting designer whom I worked with at the University of New Mexico. I had recently graduated from art school. I worked at Keller Hall, in the department of Music. Seward studied in the Theatre department and held a part-time job at the concert hall.

We were friends, collaborating on multi-media projects, discussing literature and music, generally encouraging the other’s reading and art-making. We were both Eagle Scouts; we both played the piano. But while I struggled with the instrument, he killed it–gracefully and courageously hammering out Beethoven while I kept getting lost after a dozen bars.

Listen: In those halcyon days, Ken was dying of a brain tumor. At the end of the previous summer, he had come into my office and complained of numbness in his hands, a dark circumstance for a manipulator of lights and electricity. Concerned, I suggested he go to the student health center.

One thing then led to another. By mid-autumn 1990, he had been diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a deadly type of brain cancer.

By January he had lost the ability to walk and manipulate tools and therefore, to work. His parents were in California. He had become estranged from them for he was gay and they could not accept that fact.

But he had loads of friends in Burque. We pitched in to help him. We all took turns keeping him company, taking him to the UNM Cancer Center, feeding and bathing him while Bartok and Gilbert and Sullivan played in the background.

When his parents finally arrived to make their peace in February, I resignedly noted that his father looked more like Ken than Ken did.

Kenneth W. Seward died on March 6, 1991 while I was eating lunch at the New Chinatown with some deadhead buddies of mine. That day, beautiful puffy clouds filled the sky over dirt city and it rained and rained that night. The next week, the College of Fine Arts held a glorious memorial service for him in Rodey Theater.

I kept a picture of him on the crew bulletin board at Keller Hall. In the picture he looked young and brave and full of life, holding a crescent wrench in his hand, smiling up towards the bright lights that beckoned him.

Soon after Ken died, I broke up with my long-time girlfriend. She was a classical musician. I'd like to believe we drifted apart during Seward’s illness, but the truth was much simpler and profoundly more tragic. I was a hipster; she was L-7.

After all of that, spring came, anyway. It was warm again; the grass was greenly lush at the duck pond. I kept busy by painting large abstract, loathsomely bright pictures and managing the concert hall.

Sometime in late March, some news went around the Fine Arts Center. The Dalai Lama was going to be visiting the university and would be speaking at Popejoy Hall.

I knew little about the man. The organization Friends of Tibet had occasionally visited the college, had brought around a group of touring monks to entertain and perplex the patrons of art and music who haunted the foyer. These followers of the lama performed traditional dances and chants and were magically entrancing to those who had the privilege of attending.

Coincidentally, my roommate, a graduate student in art history, was a devout Buddhist. He filled me in on concepts and events related to Tibetan Buddhism and the preeminence of the fourteenth Dalai Lama.

Anyway, it came to pass the Dalai Lama and his entourage needed a place to camp out before his speaking engagement. These were in the days before UNM renovated the Fine Arts Center. Much of it was an unkempt old joint–that included the Popejoy Hall green room, which was mostly a place the technical crew hung out to smoke and nap.

Owing to the fact that Keller hall was a genteel venue where chamber music and avant-garde compositions were performed, its green room was chosen as a headquarters for the visitors. The Keller Hall Green Room was tastefully decorated, well furnished and looked out onto a small verdant garden.

When the day arrived, the Dalai Lama was driven to the loading dock in back of the UNM art museum. Advisers, a meteorologist with magical abilities, members of Friends of Tibet and a small press corps accompanied him. Though he had recently won the Nobel Prize, he was not nearly as famous as he is now; the issues surrounding Tibet had just begun to creep into the public’s consciousness.

His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso was immediately whisked to the Keller Hall green room, where different dignitaries, including the President of the University, came and went, presenting him with fresh fruit and prayer shawls.

Late in the afternoon, I noticed there was an empty space on the couch next to the lama, so I went over and sat down next to him.

He looked over and remarked, “You are brave!” He put his arm around me, said something in Tibetan to the monk sitting next to him and continued, “Don’t worry,” he whispered, “everything will be fine.” He laughed. It was a deep and happy laugh.

Then motioned to one of his advisers and the two got up from their seats. The lama needed some time alone, to eat and meditate, the adviser told everyone in the room.

The Dalai Lama waved at me, then retired to the downstairs lounge in Keller Hall. Later I was asked by one of his aides to join his procession over to Popejoy Hall. I didn’t have another opportunity to speak to him, though. He and his followers left soon after the event was over.

The rest of that spring and then the summer seemed to zip right on by. I finished a decent painting, figured out a tune by Bartok and then welded together a sculpture that held a bit of Ken’s ashes inside of it. When someone stole it from in front of the Art Building at the end of May, I felt the same pleasure Duchamp must have felt when workmen dropped and shattered Le Grand Verre.

In June, I got the only tattoo I would ever sport–from the legendary J.B. Jones, who decided to paint a picture of the Holy Spirit on my left shoulder. In August, my roommate and I decided to rent out a room in the old, rambling house we shared.

The ad we placed in the Daily Lobo was answered by a group of exchange students from Britain. They were young and brave and full of life. Two of them would end up living in the house and loudly introducing us to a thing called EDM.

The third was a long-haired wandering anthropologist from Wales. In the year that followed, she took me abroad. We traveled through Amazonia, basked on the beaches of lower Antilles, squatted in a shack in Middlesex and finally took a journey to the place where Nepal borders Tibet. In September 1996, we trekked up a river that followed a long, steep valley–into the kingdom of Mustang.

This was the place where lamas dwelt, walking amidst fields of buckwheat and dusty trails. They were in search of light, I remember thinking to myself as the straps from Ken’s old backpack dug into my shoulders and the mountains beckoned us.

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Alex Chilton: "Dalai Lama"

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