by D.J. Palladino
He was happiest, I think, pointing out some ridiculous tissue of lies created by the systems surrounding us. Now that Steve KirkPatrick is dead, so young at 53, I see him in my mind’s eye with one facial expression: a large smile and an incredulous look, laughing and shaking off some preposterous farce he’s punctured with sheer rationality. Not that he wasn’t a regular guy — he loved his children, had great friends, and played a mean game of poker — but he was also my first friend in high school who took an active interest in the American economy, frequently laughing and offering critiques of administration foolishness like the Whip Inflation Now stratagem. His bite was hardest during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter years.
Steve’s ideology was antiestablishment, but not the hippie brand of rejecting materialist rewards. He may have done a long stint at the Renaissance Faire, partying after-hours with crafts folk, but he was also an insurance agent through the 1980s. And that’s a unique late act, even for a baby boomer. A lot of his spiels began, “Look, this is a material world and you need …” He used the phrase to preface the obviously natural desire for accumulation of security and property. He liked stuff. He bought paintings.
Still, he never accumulated much in the way of material goods. In his 40th year, Steve made another role change after what most of his friends assumed was a classic midlife crisis. Besides going through a painful divorce, he also abruptly left the insurance industry and eventually returned to college to get a degree in environmental horticulture. He was working on an advanced degree when a long bout with stomach problems, first diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), turned out to be pancreatic cancer. He then married his girlfriend Kristi Pullen, and they traveled to fulfill last wishes, like people do.
He told me it wasn’t so bad — at least at his age he had truly lived, and he had two children. Dying at 50 was better than giving it all up a decade earlier. Then he got sick a few weeks ago upon returning from Hawaii. The cancer had moved into his lungs early and a case of pleurisy proved fatal, even though he had outlived most of the doctors’ expectations.
Steve was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and spent his early years in the Palos Verdes peninsula. His family moved up here to the Hidden Valley tract, where his parents and wife still live. Steve started at Bishop Garcia Diego High School late in his sophomore year, 1968. We were classmates and became close friends immediately. In those years, debate was a second language in liberal Catholic schools, and Steve held his own in discussions with nuns, priests, and lay instructors. We had a favorite English teacher, Ralph Bliquez, and often classroom discussions would spill over into Ralph’s house near Birnam Wood, usually starring Steve.
He was my first roommate out of high school. We were committed adventurers in an era of indoor exploring, which meant long discussions about logic, music, film, and Alan Watts, amid other unofficial, uncharted psyche experiments. My favorite afternoon with Steve, though, was a long breakfast of talking at the delicious Charlotte’s Coffee House on De la Vina. We suddenly realized we had chatted all morning while being entertained by the amazing Charlotte and glumly hilarious Max, her husband. Steve looked at his watch and laughingly suggested that we order lunch too. So we did.
We traveled a bit. We liked the same girl for a while. We once roasted a whole lamb at the Plaka where we hung out for years it seemed. (Those were the days, my friend.) Besides his skepticism, the thing I liked best about Steve was his intensity. It bordered on the melodramatic, and there is no disputing the fact that his temper could have a hair trigger at times. He made mistakes, but he had the courage of even his crazy convictions, and I bet he would’ve been a great landscape artist or engineer or scientist.
In Steve’s mind, there seemed to be a sharp distinction between the things you did to survive and those acts he liked to call “altruistic.” He adopted certain older people whom he liked, and sometimes spent days helping with deplorably hard chores like moving. He was involved in hospice and other charities. It wasn’t a socializing thing, or enlightened self-interest. He was a materialist and an altruist.
But Steve’s life had many facets, and it would be wrong to say I understood what made him tick. He was a carpenter, a diver, a property management person, and a financial adviser. He was raised on fancy sailboats between Los Angeles and Catalina, and he joined his parents briefly during their long vagabond sail through the hemisphere. He was a lot of fun at sushi restaurants.
The irony of his end was that the animated skeptic in him did not awaken when his stomach problems were wrongly diagnosed. He had gone back to school at a time when his contemporaries were softening into land-owning burgher roles. But Steve in his fifties was living in a San Luis Obispo trailer, working the system the way grad students must, and that includes public healthcare that doesn’t have the time to take time, I guess. I don’t mean to reduce his life to a sad complaint about what’s wrong with the class and health systems in this country (talk about tissues and lies), but I think he would be laughing hard if I suggested that lots of American MDs don’t know how ironic the acronym IBS sounds coming out of their mouths.
I’ll miss his laugh.
Besides his friends, Steve is survived by his children Ryan Carlson and Kieren KirkPatrick, wife Kristi KirkPatrick, his parents Kenneth and Elizabeth (Micky) KirkPatrick, and his bother Ken. To everything, the Byrds song drawn from the Bible says, there is a season. Steve lived through many seasons keenly, though he left too early in his last.