First big collection of posts from this year’s Instagram series, which will exist here after I delete it from that horrible app at the end of this year.

Canon Fodder, Week 1: This series is starting a bit disorganized, but for late bloomers like me that just means when it streamlines, it’ll snap into place really well. Right now, though, I don’t have much to show for creativity from the first 14 years—all my dinosaur doodles and hand-drawn maps are buried in a garage somewhere, if they still exist—but I can tell you a lot, and those of you who weren’t there will just have to believe me. Those of you who *were* there will know how incomplete this is [Update 7/3/23: they’re in!]. As a kid I took everything too personally. I had no patience for anyone who didn’t trust me to not be stupid, and had less with myself for making dumb mistakes without learning anything. I had to do something right the first time, or burn out trying. I focused intensely on anything interesting. My brain was a shark, absorbing one thing after another completely—dinosaurs, whales, planets, maps—and moving on right away to survive. No book or encyclopedia went unread.

And that helped; I learned how creativity was done, was never bored, and was always ready to disappear somewhere mentally—into stories, songs, video games, anything—especially when I incapacitated myself with broken bones. Thankfully my family, friends, and teachers were all patient, encouraging, and supportive. It was pretty charmed (even when it didn’t feel like it), and I learned these lessons (among others): You can memorize a piece of music to be first chair violin (above your best friend and your crush) for only about a week. You can be tetherball-court royalty and still hit only .222 in little league (but more on that later). You can do well in school, but end up in GATE programs that only add more homework. You can explore a place best by bike (I was hand-drawing Dana Point’s streets by 3rd grade). Your raw talent has limits (I went to Sacramento for the state Geography Bee, but lost in the first round).

Let’s wrap with some Weird Flexes and Wild Trivia: In 5th grade I played violin at the Ritz with my future prom date. I wrote a fan letter to paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and he wrote back. I helped my mom through rush hour traffic in downtown San Francisco using only a Thomas Guide.

Canon Fodder Week 2 stays in the ’80s/’90s for my dubious time with Del Obispo Youth Baseball (and one never-photographed season of winter ball at Dana Hills High). What does little league have to do with a creative autobiography? Plenty. See, I love baseball and always have, but I was never a great player. That’s far from unusual, but I was way, way too intense to calm down enough for maintaining the mental discipline needed at even the little league level. That’s rarely gonna happen for a kid anyway, and when it does it’s definitely special. So this entry is mostly about learning to work and/or play within limitations: not learning what I needed to at the time, or not thinking creatively enough for the situation, or not even knowing mental abilities were needed or possible, but still (mostly) having fun. Everything I did playing baseball was pure reactive instinct—hitting, fielding, running, whatever—but I was a kid, so it was fine.

I loved fielding, but at bat I either hit the cover off the ball or struck out (despite what the trophy says, I was not an “outstanding hitter”). I stole bases whenever I wanted—until the basepaths grew from 60 to 90 feet. I never learned to anticipate pitches or position situationally or even hit a curve ball. I was *barely* an all-star, but made the “B” team twice. Aside from learning (again) that I could only get so far on raw talent, some lessons learned were: playing outfield is great for getting time to think about what’s happening; showing up for practice every day wouldn’t keep me from being benched in favor of a flakier but better player; I had an unhittable knuckle ball but never got to pitch it.

Weird Flexes and Wild Trivia: I stole home at age 6. I broke my thumb playing catch at age 9. I was only a Padre once, but was a Red 3 different times, and never a Cub (I was also a Pirate, an Oriole, a Cardinal, a Tiger, and…a Dodger). I never homered but did hit the Pony field scoreboard in batting practice at age 12.

Canon Fodder Week 3 gets weird and cringey with this thing, which is very goofy but might be my first print layout design, circa 1989. It’s also a great example of how I tend to bleed my interests dry—getting way, way, way too into something—so much so that it inadvertently defines me to others. I’ve been the Map Guy, the Tight Ship Guy, the AIGA Designer Guy, the I’m-In-A-Band Guy etc., but in middle school for many of my peers I was the Ninja Turtle Guy. I have no idea why these comic book characters got to me the way they did, but they did—and this assignment from Ms Clark’s 7th grade English class at Marco Forster Junior High is the proof. The project was a great idea—learning parts of speech using examples from students’ own interests—and other kids used things like sailboats or whatever, but I went full-cowabunga, carelessly cutting up what few comics I had, and scrawling janky prisma-color cartoons when I ran out of clippings.

Maybe it was escapism? 7th grade is weird for everybody, and I was no exception—my parents were separated, I suffered broken (and re-broken) bones, my group of friends shuffled and re-shuffled itself, math class was hopeless, and I wore Hammer pants—so diving into minutiae about cartoon reptile mutants must have made sense to my allegedly-gifted little brain. It was far from the only tool I had for mental vacations—sports, books, video games, maps, bikes (more on all that later)—but for a very brief time it was a super-intense interest. By 8th grade I moved on, thanks to Dale Carter’s art class and Rick Robinett’s history class, but I was still That Kid to too many other kids. But everyone’s got silly stuff in their past, and I promise this won’t be the last of mine you’ll see. It validates everything else, even when the catalyzing impulse goes overboard. Creative dead ends teach you how to start over and build on something, so you’re not working from a blank canvas, and intensity fuels focus.

Weird Flexes and Wild Trivia: I kept doodling ninja turtle cartoons for years, mostly Donatello. He’s still my guy, because who wouldn’t identify with the unabashed nerd who wears purple, carries a big stick, and tinkers with stuff?

Canon Fodder Week 4: Humor me with one more kid-sports post, because every fall from 3rd to 10th grade, AYSO kept me creative six ways to Saturday and then some. However, aside from being on the goofiest team of 12-year-olds to ever prowl the pitch (we named ourselves something different every week, from Pink Flamingos to Blue Hippos to Generic Brand Team) this creativity was still mostly reactive. I learned to kick with power with both feet, but since I loved playing defense—I was mostly a fullback—I never scored a goal. I did hit the opposing crossbar from the half-line once. I was never a goalie, but I did save at least one goal with my face.

I played hard. At 13 I “creatively” broke my arm twice in like 3 months; the second time was a re-break from playing soccer. At 15 I also very creatively managed to break my left middle toe AND my collarbone simultaneously while playing soccer. Just say no to crutches and a harness, folks. And finally at 16 I creatively deduced that my coach was full of crap when he wouldn’t let us practice-scrimmage a nearby girl’s team, and he said: “You guys just want soft bodies to crash into.” That was dumb and we knew it. All the soccer girls I knew were anything but soft. Several of us called him out, and he relented to shut us up. The next time we scrimmaged that team they beat us fair and square. I’m gonna forego the “weird flexes and wild trivia” bit because I feel like this whole post was all about that. Check back next week when I return to high school.

Canon Fodder Week 5: Not much Keir-creativity happened, identity-wise, when I was in high school. I had good friends and compelling interests but I also just…existed. It wasn’t a bad time, but it wasn’t the best time. My creativity lacked direction and I had no goals, because I was still a late bloomer absorbing things—way too sensitive and serious. The adults called me gifted, but among my peers I felt kinda stunted and oblivious, like the only one not in on the joke of “how to be.” I don’t say this to trash Teen Keir (though he could have controlled his hair and sneered less), because everyone’s laughably naive in one way or another at that age, but I’m still kinda annoyed that so much stuff didn’t click sooner in his brain, and I have no idea what prevented that.

I doodled and scribbled in the margins of homework, but I also read anything and everything, learned to analyze a text for meaning, and explain that in writing quickly and clearly. I really, really wanted a bass guitar. I took only one art class (Regret 1), never joined the student newspaper with my friends (Regret 2) and never did the Baja Outdoor Science field trip (Regret 3). I tried the clubs-activities-school spirit thing for about a year (homecoming float, air guitar, trivia team). I even joined a fake band, the Screaming Mimes. You couldn’t pay me enough to be a teenager these days, but I’d consider it if I could port my middle-aged brain into Teen Keir’s head. I did enjoy the 10- and 20-year reunions, though.

Weird Flexes and Wild Trivia: I “got married” in a rickety replica of the Chapel O’ Love in 1993. I was Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones for two nights in 1994. I wore a pea coat for my senior photo, which apparently made said photo a hot item (though I wasn’t told until *way* too much later).

Canon Fodder Week 6: Perhaps the most impactful project I did in high school was when I was a junior. My AP U.S. History teacher Ron Buchheim assigned our class to interview a family relative about their life and times, to roughly demonstrate “primary-source” history. I spoke to my grandfather Tom Denton (1921-2000) on June 9, 1994 about his father, the Rev. Bill Denton (1895-1982), his own youth in Cleveland and Akron, Ohio; and his and my grandmother’s time in New York, the Midwest, and California. I recorded this interview on a battered cassette-playing boombox, so the audio quality is poor by current standards, but the transcript is as complete as possible (read it all via my link in bio). It was the first real interview I ever did with anybody. I learned several important things beyond what’s transcribed, though:

1) A family’s lore can be both firm and flexible; my mom later said she hadn’t heard half of what her father mentioned here, and Tom himself said “I haven’t talked like that for a long time.” Many stories I thought I knew were clarified or changed. 2) Speaking of stories, TD never let the truth interfere with good ones—at least the first time. He’d let me say what I thought I knew, then happily clarify what *he* thought he knew, which may or may not have been true either. 3) Documentation is a powerful thing. This audio is definitely a time-warp. TD was 73 at the time, and he would only live for 6 more years. The house where we did this was sold 2 years later, and our pets making noise on tape are also long gone. Talking to family members, on the record, who’ve lived through times, or in places, we’ve never witnessed or experienced is incalculably valuable.

Weird Flexes and Wild Trivia: This week, that’s basically everything about TD’s own father Bill. Read the transcript for more—tap the link in my profile, then the “Tom Denton Tells All” link after that.

Canon Fodder Week 7: I think it’s telling that the single most representative artifact from my first two years or so at UCSB is a map I made depicting somewhere else. Throughout that time, for many reasons, I couldn’t focus on my immediate surroundings. I made new friends, but my most important relationships were still at home. Majoring in Geography (instead of Creative Studies, which I maybe should have) at an environmental science school was not gonna get me the social-historical-cultural stuff I wanted to study, but I didn’t realize that. This hand-made map of OC circa Spring ’97 came from one class that briefly did the trick, though. Urban Geography with Helen Couclelis covered demography, microclimates, the works. I loved everything about it except my section TA, who side-eyed my choice of urban area to report on for the term project. Ideally the subject should have been a place I didn’t know well, but I was stubborn, chose my native OC, and made this map.

That TA later taught an Urban Planning class that I got into as a sophomore, despite it being recommended for upperclassmen. I worked my ass off but got a D. It was the last in a long line of dumb face-plants: fall 1995 started awkwardly and ended badly, and 1996 was a complete emotional disaster. I melted down at 20. I was still kinda passively letting life happen to me, instead of making truly active choices, because I still didn’t know what I wanted or what was possible, and was woefully unable to deal with setbacks. I don’t really recognize the Keir in the photos ending this slideshow. He wasn’t ready for prime time.

Weird Flexes and Wild Trivia: At 19 I got myself and my siblings thrown out of my dad’s house at Christmas and I haven’t spoken to him since. I made many train trips (including 3 state-long ones) alone. I got dumped twice and coped by spending Pell Grant money on a bass guitar. I fictionalized it all 15 years later in a novel. Two good things did happen during this time, though. I’ll tell you about the first one next week.

Canon Fodder Week 8: One good thing that happened during my extended emotional meltdown of 1996-1998 was when Jon Neal and I went to a Fall ’96 recruitment meeting for UCSB’s student-run Daily Nexus newspaper. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but Artsweek editor Jolie Lash declared me a Good Writer, put me to work immediately, and I finally started to choose my own adventures. Even so, that choice didn’t involve much time with my Nexite contemporaries. I was pretty shy, mostly flitting in and out of the Artsweek office—just enough time to bash out my pieces on old green-screen computers—and abscond with whatever promo CDs I could score from Jolie’s treasure trove. After 1 feature fictionalizing the ’97 Grammys and a dozen short CD reviews, I got my own column: “Battery Acid Blues,” where for 900 words over 11 weeks I synthesized my personal problems, told tall tales about a band I just joined (more on that later), and indulged in my worst Hunter Thompson impression—spitting out semi-fictional silliness that (all apologies to EIC Marc Valles) I still can’t believe they printed.

In retrospect my Nexus output was pretty thin, but the highlight was interviewing Patti Smith in October 1997. Jolie hooked it up, Patti was very kind and patient with my newbie mistakes, and I spoke to a bonafide rock star about her son’s guitar lessons, processing grief, and how to be “a proud bum.” Nexus HQ beneath Storke Tower didn’t hold my attention much longer, but within that same year I dumped my Geography major for English, because I’d rediscovered that, for me, writing and storytelling was easy, fun, and creatively open-ended—especially when it was about music and when I had a good editor. Thanks to Jon, Jolie, and Marc for helping me get there.

Weird Flexes and Wild Trivia: All my columns had fun cartoon artwork by Nexus staff artists, which I shamelessly swiped for album covers. Despite my skimpy Nexus résumé (read most of it via link in profile if you dare), I was happily welcomed back at alumni reunions by decades of Nexites young and old. I also spoke to the 2018-2019 student staff about design for storytelling, which was a blast.

Canon Fodder Week 9: People can be weird about their first band, and by “people” I mean “me.” But I have reasons! When my brother asked me to play bass (which I couldn’t do well at the time) circa May ’96 in his high school blues band The Mojo Wire (with pals Adam Hill and Kevin Nerison), I knew it was portentious—it was the second good thing during a bad time for me—but that’s a longer story I’ve told better elsewhere (like in the @mybandrockspod episode via my link in profile). When Bryn and Adam enrolled at UCSB and we reformed the band there, we knew we’d never get famous playing wobbly ’60s white blooze and echoey surf in an Isla Vista enthralled by ska, punk, and jam bands—but we had fun anyway. The Mojo Wire was the nucleus around which my late-’90s creativity revolved. Forgive me for treating our initial self-made amateur mono CD-R as a Major Creative Turning Point, but honestly it was.

That album’s truly a first for many things I do now by second nature: creatively collaborating with friends, making music, writing lyrics (badly at first, but better eventually), and designing album covers (in this case stealing a title and cartoons from my UCSB Daily Nexus columns). We mostly just tried to crack each other up, but to this day some of my favorite recordings I’ve ever been part of are on this album. I wasn’t out of the woods yet, mentally—and I wouldn’t be for a bit longer—but this ramshackle band was a life raft I clung to until I felt better. The other Mojos may have found my usual creative intensity a bit overwhelming to deal with, but they managed me better than I managed the band, and we soldiered on. I know I harp on old band stuff like some people do for their high school sports careers, but humor me while I stick with it for a few weeks, because it was formative.

Weird Flexes and Wild Trivia: The Mojo Wire’s first name was The Clap. Our early gigs included 2 on a boat, 1 at a wedding, and 1 at a corporate holiday party. One of the songs on this album has a terrible “Pinky and the Brain” impression. Another is a terrible “your mom” joke. And while things would get worse (tune in next week!) before they got better, the fun never stopped. Except when the keg got stolen.

Canon Fodder Week 10: On our second demo CD-R The Mojo Wire got worse before we got better. Sort of. There are lots of reasons for that, and I explained most of them best in the second @mybandrockspod episode (via my link in profile). The relevant bits for this creativity narrative are mostly about our inspiration running ahead of our discipline, so both ran off track and out of track. Basically we had lots of new toys (from effects pedals to recording gimmicks) and we indiscriminately used them all. What we didn’t (totally) have were songs. One or two were glorious and they showed up in gig sets for long after. The rest either stayed frozen in amber here or underwent huge transformations (with another band) to become better songs. Otherwise “Rocket Fuel” was a clear stopping point for Mojo Wire 1.0, because we’d hit a wall and needed to reset (but more on that later).

In my case, this was a great example of all my worst creative impulses—micromanaging, megalomania, and rush-releasing something/anything—helping to make a perfect storm of “meh.” Sophomore slump is real, folks! However this CD got a bit of new life when I re-released all the Mojo albums for a 20th anniversary, which included substantial design touch-ups of my original cover art and CD booklets. Applying my 2017 pro-design skills to my 1997 amateur paste-ups was a really invigorating project, because it gave these very DIY demos some outward glossy gravitas. The 1998 “Rocket Fuel” cover art was an old cut-up watercolor I’d made of Jupiter in 8th grade, so the 2017 version ran with that, using lots of public-domain NASA imagery for vibes as psychedelic as the effects pedals on this album, and redder than lipstick on a pig.

Weird Flexes and Wild Trivia: Why “Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor,” huh? In the podcast ep I spun up some English-major silliness about the album’s songs “tracing the arc of a hangover” but I honestly don’t remember why. Maybe that’s for the best. The late ’90s were a very goofy time to be an undergrad.

Canon Fodder Week 11: We interrupt the parade of late-’90s band stuff with what I did back then to keep UCSB’s gauchoholic chaos at bay. There was never a real name for this activity so I’ll just call it “Marker Art With Em.” It’s one of the “no-money fun” things we did at the beginning of our relationship that was chill and relaxed and free of whatever melodrama I was fretting over at the time. One of the most liberating things Emily did for me circa spring 1998 was to say “you know you don’t have to worry so much about that, right?” It was obvious and yet really not. “That” could have been anything—school, family, band stuff, breakups (I’d endured two in the previous 6 months) or what other people were saying/thinking about any of the above.

Pulling out ye olde Crayola markers (or sometimes prisma pencils) and scrawling all over whatever we had in front of us was a great study break/stress reliever. I ended up doing that on and off for gifts I gave her, like valentines or mix CDs, for the next 25 years. It may sound hokey or sentimental or whatever but it worked. I felt stable and supported and less afraid of failure and whatever its consequences might be. I learned that creativity could be therapeutic even if it wasn’t cathartic or reactionary (the way my writing so often ended up). I learned that I probably should’ve gone to art school but it was okay that I didn’t, because that would’ve made creativity less fun. I’ve never stopped worrying about what’s next, but I learned how to keep that particular mental cyclone to a dull hum in the background.

Weird Flexes and Wild Trivia: If your first date with someone was to see the movie version of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” would you still be with that person 25 years later?

Canon Fodder Week 12: Back to the Mojo Wire for their third demo/CD-R and my favorite cover design I made for this band, circa April 1999. I gave this one the full podcast treatment in its corresponding @mybandrockspod episode (via my link in profile), because it’s an interesting pivot point, creativity-wise. Like all the Mojo Wire albums, it’s an amateur performance and production, but it’s also a snapshot of us growing as writers, musicians, and people at an odd time where we weren’t what we’d been before, but hadn’t yet become what we ended up being. For me, who’s only ever been semi-literate musically, that meant improving at songwriting and basic chords, plus beginning to get creative with lyrics: language, meter, and (slightly) better rhymes.

Since the whole group upped their game too, it made for a great song sequence. The vibe is a sort of surf-folk-noir mix of Baja and Isla Vista, done in mono to 4-track tape (like all the Mojo albums). The recordings themselves are snapshots that we never replicated; for live shows Bryn switched to drums and we recruited guitarist Joe Zulli, sacrificing some subtlety for extra punchy power. For the cover, I tried to literally meld the stronger lyrics to their settings, stamping backwards, fresh-off-the-inkjet text onto cut-up snapshots of Isla Vista, Avalon, and Dana Point—and fused it all together as lurid color copies at the local Kinko’s. I guess it was design paste-up before I ever knew what that meant, but I played in bands instead of going to art school. Regardless, the visual polish-up for its 20th anniversary digital-only reissue was lots of fun.

Weird Flexes and Wild Trivia: One of my songs on this disc was written start-to-finish in six hours straight, an un-Keir-like feat I never repeated. Two of my better bass lines are also here, as is my whispery-lightweight lead vocal debut, buried near the end. One instrumental is a fun throwaway topped by a pass-the-mic session playing GoldenEye on N64. Another instrumental is an awesome cover of surf classic “Wipeout.”