An Excerpt from “Art of Life”: Heartland

Posted by on Aug 11, 2014 in Twenty Years On

An excerpt from the book Art of Life written by Jennifer New. 

As other UCLA students were getting ready for a few weeks of downtime with family and friends over the winter holiday, Dan was headed for a month of dizzying travel, romance, and decision making. Even by his standards, life was more crowded than usual. When he took off for Nairobi, he had no idea that by February he’d find himself not back in Los Angeles as anticipated, but in  a small town in Iowa.

Book-14-HR_009His journey began by meeting up with Mike and Amy in Kenya and then flying together to India. Since Kathy’s departure, the three had enjoyed annual adventures to such far-flung places as Greece and Romania. They all thrived on the challenges that travel presented, whether haggling with a street vendor or engaging in impromptu diplomacy with a shady airport bureaucrat.

Dan and Amy saw the trips as a chance to get their father away from his demanding schedule. Dan and Mike, cameras always in hand, spent much of their time seeking out just the right light, with Dan increasingly providing tips. They loved to photograph the locals, but their favorite model was Amy, who at eighteen was becoming a beautiful young woman. They were forever imploring her to smile just a second longer or to tilt her chin up just a smidge. In Jaipur, Dan coaxed her to the top of a narrow obelisk. “Whip your head around,” he instructed. “You get up here and whip your head around!” she shot back, holding on for dear life.

Back in Nairobi, Dan and Amy caught up with old friends, among them Amy’s friend Soiya Gecaga, home from boarding school for the holiday. The granddaughter of the first black president of independent Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, Soiya was Kenyan royalty. She traveled first-class and was accustomed to being surrounded by beautiful things. She planned to attend a top-notch university and then law school. Dan quickly discovered that he liked to tease her, challenging her prim, orderly life, nearly as much as he liked to photograph her, with her long legs and lean good looks.

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 3.51.37 PMHe dropped into Soiya’s world like a bomb, keeping her up for a late-night rendezvous on his bedroom veranda, distracting her from her college applications, taking her to places on the backstreets of Nairobi that she’d never seen. She was smitten, but she also knew of Dan’s reputation and was determined not to become another of his girls. Over the years, she’d seen Dan get what he wanted and she didn’t plan to follow suit. Toward the end of their time together, both ready to leave Nairobi, she shut down from him emotionally. He was maddened, telling her that her “head kept overly strict exit visas” and he hadn’t “even gotten near her first border town.” The stubborn pair fumed, made up, and tried to consider what the future could hold.

After Soiya left, Dan flew to Moscow with Lengai for a quick adventure via the cheapest flight they could find: a frigid, overnight visit to Red Square and Lenin’s tomb. Dan, unprepared for the cold with only a flimsy, autumn- weight jacket, darted from building to building, his hands burrowed into his pockets. They took a rickety Aeroflot plane on to London, where Dan met up with his mother. She showered him with gifts, a new blank journal, art supplies, and lenses he’d requested for his cameras. They walked around London arm and arm, taking in the carousel set up every Christmas in Leicester Square, a favorite of Kathy’s.

All the while they plotted, each talking about the next big plan. Kathy was hoping to produce a feature film set in Africa. It had been a long, thorny battle to get the money, but it now looked like filming would begin in the spring. She encouraged him to consider working on the crew. A job would surely be available if he could keep his schedule flexible.

Dan was overwhelmed by his options. “I want to do great things in my life,” he wrote to Soiya, while on the airplane back to L.A. “I want the plane to land, so I can start. The only problem is where do I start. What do I do when I get off the plane to do great things? Is university the best place for me? Should I take off with my camera to El Salvador? Listen to what your heart tells you, you say. Well I’d like to rip the little bastard out and interrogate him with a 12-volt car battery.”