Writer's Block: On the Airwaves

If you had your own radio or television station, what would it be called and what kind of programming would it play?
I couldn't resist answering this prompt, because I think about my favorite radio and television programming all the time.  In high school, one of my teachers/mentors created a faux radio station as a project for the local broadcasting school he attended and called it KASM, "The Chasm."  "ASM" are his initials, and I'm willing to swipe and modify the idea to KAZM, pronounced the same way but indicative of the first four letters in my last name.  On television, I'd air my favorite classic television shows followed by the modern series inspired by them, i.e. "The Monkees" followed by "American Idol" reruns, or "Get Smart" followed by "Reno 911" (if blundering law enforcement can be considered a genre).  Basically, KAZM-TV would be classic TV Land meets TBS, perhaps even with creator or celebrity commentary that enhances the programming and establishes the connection.

KAZM radio would be more ecclectic.  I'd combine traditional music and talk formats into something fluid and organic, similar to what many webcasts try to do now.  The talk personalities would have to be just as ecclectic, almost ethereal in their ability to segue into topic-appropriate music, much in the way Matt Drudge did when he was on radio.  The music wouldn't buffer segments but enhance them, sometimes even consume them, a true audible montage -- like the echoes in a real chasm.  Yes . . . I love it when a metaphor comes together!

Take Me Home, Because I Don't Remember

First of all, Phil Collins is the Plato of our generation.  Don't believe me?  Listen to his song "Take Me Home," or at least read its lyrics here, then remember Plato's Allegory of the Cave, summarized like all things by and for general consumption at its Wikipedia.  Both contributions to society depict a character that has been "a prisoner all my life," with a "fire that's been burning right outside my door," and that seems content with the delusions that have pervaded his life.  Indeed, adult contemporary radio is the Socratic dialogue of our generation.

I first heard of Plato, Socrates, and the Allegory of the Cave my freshman year in high school, when Mr. Poslaiko introduced them in a discussion about the relevance of learning via our five senses.  Of course, this analogy easily extends and can describe the way one lives his life, as well.  Unlike the victims of Plato's allegory, some people choose to live chained and to behold those vapid shadows as their only understanding of reality.  In one of his dialogues, Plato even explains how one freed from those chains and dragged into the real world might prefer the shadows, as they were his original and thus true perception of the way things should be -- and some people act like that today, as well.

We call these people the Amish.  Kidding . . . That was too easy.

I don't live in a cave.  I live in a tunnel.  At either opening, I can turn to see a different vibrant reality, but right now I'm looking at the shadows they cast on the wall.  These shadows sometimes blend into one distorted image with the dancing shapes of each, depending on the way the fire behind me burns and pops.  Other times, the shadows are cast so far apart, I may as well crane my neck that extra inch to look outside, but then I see the opposing reality in its colorful, third dimensional glory, in stark contrast to that different, static silhouette, and I get confused.  It's enough to make me want to put that that fire out.

I suppose Plato's prisoners had a third option, though I don't think he ever explored it: though their limbs and heads were bounds and immobile, they could've closed their eyes and refused the shadows to create a reality all their own.  The snag in this plan is that the imagination could only conjure and distort what it's already seen, so even their make-believe escape would consist solely of shadow, too -- but in my case, I've seen it all.  I've seen both ends of the tunnel, the shadows they cast, the tunnel itself.  I've seen the ground beneath my feet and can easily tunnel another way out, something I've done a few times before and would rather not do again.  That it's always an option is enough.

Yet keeping the two worlds at bay to remain in the tunnel is not enough; it is, as the Allegory of the Cave insists, an empty existence.  So, what's the answer?  Good student that I am, I consult the Phil(osopher) Collins and his treatise: I feign memory loss, and I demand: Take me home.  After all, I'm not a prisoner; I walked into this tunnel.  Someone lead me whence I came, out the way I'm most familiar.  Take me home. 

  • Current Music
    "Take Me Home," Phil Collins

Featuring My Feature

On Tuesday night I was a featured poet at the "Lee Mallory and the Factory Readings Present . . ." night at the Gypsy Den in Santa Ana, California. The opportunity was overwhelmingly gracious and fulfilling, as I began reading my poetry publicly only less than a year ago, and Orange County seems to have a rich poetry community of which I'm now proud to be a part. Further, the event was promoted on the OC Weekly website, which I've read for years, and at the Gypsy Den, a coffee shop I've frequently wished I went to more frequently.

A few months ago, Jaimes, one of my acquaintances from the open mic I've been attending at the Ugly Mug Cafe in Orange, asked if I'd be willing to feature, particularly since he liked a biting, open letter I'd written and read to some seemingly incompetent Craigslist job posting respondents. I had months to prepare a set list, and, believe me, a fifteen to twenty minute feature set requires a little more forethought than the rattling off I usually do for five minutes or less at the open mic. I wanted to impress with a body of work, and specifically offer a thematic context for my motivation in writing poetry. Of course, I didn't give the night serious thought until last week -- just like an artist, I reckon.

So, scouring over my work over the past few years, I discovered a few common themes: nostalgic reflections or observations of youth; silly, almost nonsensical thoughts about love, sex, and romance (and it's important to note these are three distinct things); commentary on how to live, and effectively how to die. Recognizing these themes as analogous to the life cycle itself, from childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood, I essentially put them in that order, and in a last minute bid to appear eclectic transitioned these "stages" with third party work. While all of these poems aren't available on-line yet, I feel compelled to outline this mentality, if only for my own sake -- so, my original set list looked like this:

I. Childish Ways
1. in Just -- (by e.e. cummings)
2. Where the Luck Goes
3. Cat: A Tonic
4. The Last Ride
5. For Whom the Recess Bell Tolls

II. Adolescent Angst
1. The Censor (by Mason Jennings)
2. The Duality of Woman: A Haiku
3. At Least Somebody's Having Fun
4. Hook-Up
5. Arcade Affair
6. Tiny Little Spot (from the testimony of Monica Lewinsky)

III. Grown-up Breakdown
1. An Open Letter to Craigslist Job Posting Respondents
2. Sound Effects
3. Against the Fall
4. Mr. Webster (my obligatory poetic cover of a Monkees tune)
5. Picking Up the Party
6. An Answer for Everything

The other features last night were singer/songwriter Nancy Sanchez and fellow poet Jeanette Encinias, and I went last, which I likened to a twist in an M. Night Shyamalan movie: "This was really wonderful to watch right up until now, wasn't it?" Since I passed out mini-maracas to shake in leiu of clapping for my poems, and I had a pinata head in my bag to represent the "unseen victims of Cinco de Mayo" (which I asserted with the exclamation, "The streets run red with candy tonight!"), I knew I'd default to silliness in times of onstage anxiety. So, I cut a few pieces, especially "in Just --," "Against the Fall" and "Picking Up the Party," which I replaced with "The Uncanny Exgirlfriends" to celebrate the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Generally, these grasps at humor seemed well received, especially since Jaimes is infamous for his whooping laugh. Really, as the guy that booked me, he was my target audience anyway.

Well -- I feel good about it! I hope I get to do it again, and that I can muster the confidence to write more, and more serious material, depending on the circumstances and the forum. Thankfully, because of the holiday, the crowd was essentially just friends of the features, but I feel like the very context of the night was my audience, what with the OC Weekly and this guilty pleasure of a coffee house, the Gypsy Den, in surrogate attendance. My very artistic ambitions were in virtual attendance . . . and they'd come back for more, if they saw my name in lights again. I hope they'd be joined by a sense of reputation, too.

For the Love of Paper

With an entire afternoon and evening to myself, I went on a whirlwind tour of Southern California creativity yesterday.  It started, as many recent Saturdays have, at the Frank & Sons Collectible Show in the City of Industry, best known as the comics and sports trade show where O.J. Simpson was planning on selling the stuff he was stealing back from the people that stole the stuff from him -- or something like that.  Anyway, ever since I cataloged my comic book collection a few weeks ago, I'm determined to fill in some holes before I take on any new series or storylines, so I was grateful to discover a few gems in the multitude of quarter-priced back issue bins, including Jim Krueger's The Foot Soldiers #4 and The Sword of Solomon Kane #2, illustrated by one of my favorites, Bret Blevins.  Of course, I couldn't resist one or two issues I certainly didn't need, but for their flagrant uniqueness, including Ted Seko's Billy Cole #2, about a talking baby trying to recruit some wrestlers to help him fight the evil in the world, illustrated with the stark black and white contrast of Frank Miller's early Sin City.  Issues like Billy Cole #2 make the craft of comics seem easy and difficult all at the same time -- which can also be said for trying to buy them with scrutiny.

The highlight of the day came at dusk, when I went to a poetry reading hosted by the non-profit organization Beyond Baroque in Venice.  A few of the acquaintances I've made at my local poetry reading were featured, so I went to both lend support to local talent and broaden my horizons.  I wasn't disappointed in either case, as I experienced poets' work I wouldn't have seen otherwise, and as the performers I knew delivered incredible vocal interpretations of their work.  I'm featuring at a local coffeeshop in just a month, now, on Cinco de Mayo, so watching the way others present their poetry has inspired me to take twists I wouldn't have considered before.  Further, in the Beyond Baroque gift shop, I found whole racks of chapbooks and zines that utilized the small press medium in ways I haven't seen for a long time -- not since my last trip to the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco in '07.  In fact, many of those self-publishing efforts exceeding anything I've seen before, not only in the sophistication of their content but in their craftsmanship, as well.  From the use of label makers and envelopes as slipcovers to folding and binding techniques -- I've just now begun to self-publish confidently, with my monthly poetry zine series and my forthcoming Karaoke Comics #1, and beholding these others' works have already inspired me to raise my game.  Now, if only I had a place to put these finished products . . .

In April, it's rare to hear anyone talk about their New Year's resolutions, but I'm proud to be fulfilling mine -- my desire to maintain my creative efforts, and create tangible results.  I've already produced a mini-sketchbook, three poetry zines, a few single page comic strips (called "Vs. Current Events", found at my other blog), and with Karaoke Comics #1 on the horizon, I feel like a viable artist.  The biggest lesson isn't in the output, though, but in the consumption.  The more I'm surrounded by these mediums I love, and the more I purchase pieces of choice, the more I want to contribute to them in some way.  Goes to show, you have to spend a little paper to make something of value on it, eventually.

I Want To . . . Tell You About "I Want To --"

Thanks to the open mic I’ve been attending for the past eight months, I’ve been trying to write more poetry than usual lately. Friends have complimented many of my pieces, and I’m grateful, but you know the old saying, that you’re your own worst critic. To that end, I’ve decided to offer some commentary for my latest poem, not necessarily to “expose its secrets” or overindulge myself in its meaning, but to understand the economy of words and images. Chronicling my mentality here might help with future writing endeavors, and maybe help you understand the motivation of the piece.  In other words, I'm analyzing my own work here, and I hope it doesn't sound as pompous as it seems.


The poem is posted here, so you’ll have to crossover to read it, and for the rest of this post to make sense!


The poem and its first four lines were inspired by an event last Friday night. At work, we hosted a Valentine’s Day event that allowed parents to leave their kids at our program until 10 p.m. For hours, one of the kids bugged me to let him take the trash to the dumpster, but since it was a long walk in the dark, rainy night, I repeatedly told him to wait until I could go, too. Finally, we made the trek, and on the way back to our facility, he looked over his shoulder and said, “Thank you for letting me help!” The innocence of that moment, coupled with the tangibility of his breath in the cold air, seemed poem-worthy to me.


Further, I’ve long sought to personify the inner child as a character in a poem and its ongoing conviction to keep things simple and fun in life. This kid’s energy, made visible in this huffing and puffing that trash can around, seemed like a good example for that. While this poem doesn’t take the direction I had envisioned for my Inner Child Treatise, I’m pleased with the result.


The ongoing imagery is twofold, as I attribute the topic’s body to different obstacles in life. First, from the breath to the arms and legs, this progression travels from the inner to the outer, from a mentality to action. Second, the symbolic obstacles are an allegory, too, for travelling through life. The smelling salts infer awareness, and the canoe denotes finding a place. The fire envisions setting up camp or shelter, and the garden insists on self-reliance or sustenance. (Interlude: The words “hole” and “whole” are awesome, because as homonyms they can either mean an absence or completeness at the same time. If I read this piece out loud, how would you hear it?) Running uphill and feeling an embrace aren’t another leg in the journey (pardon the pun), but an acceptance of one’s accomplishment. Standing atop the hill, the first person is saying, “Look at what I’ve done,” a real king-of-the-mountain kind of thing. Also, I often use hugging to symbolize the orbital sky, for future reference . . .!


The last line is the twist. “I knew you had it in you.” While the poem boasts codependence, the theme is actually independence, that the drive from within can be manifested into results. This is the boundless energy and imagination of the inner child in an adult world of challenge and hardship, and when that little student becomes the teacher. Hence, the title: “I Want To --.” Poets love their titles, and when I read this at the open mic, I introduced it as untitled, but now I think the repetition of those words warrants the headline. The first person doesn’t want to live vicariously through anybody’s strength but his own and is seeking a way to show it.


I recently read that no poem is ever finished, just abandoned. I agree with the sentiment, as I’m often mulling over pieces I’ve essentially completed. I always wonder if another word would sound better here, or if I really need that line there. I wonder if the point really gets across, or if I just strung together a bunch of clever little thoughts. Sometimes, like a child, you just have to play with the toys you have. Sometimes, you just have to trust that everything will be okay.

Going Nowhere Fast

If you live in Southern California and you tuned in to the 10 o'clock news last night, you couldn't help but watch the snail's pace car chase between police and the unknown driver of a rather expensive Bentley sedan.  The subsequent stand-off lasted longer than the news coverage could allow, and at 12:41 a.m. this morning, the driver committed suicide.  According to this article from the L.A. Times, this chase was the fifth in the Los Angeles area in past two weeks, not to mention the second just yesterday.  Ever since I moved to California, I've been fascinated by these spectacles, but not just because of the media hype that surrounds them.  (And yes, last night's chase betrayed shades of O.J., what with its low speeds, and an expensive white vehicle that implied the potential for celebrity.)  I'm drawn to these chases for the same reasons I'm repulsed by pratfall prone underdog-driven comedies like Meet the Parents -- I always project myself into the starring role.

The psychology of the car chase can be evaluated in three stages: (1.) before the chase, (2.) the chase itself, and (3.) the stand-off.  In this case, the four hour long incident began when someone called the cops about the suspect assaulting his girlfriend, and when officers arrived, the guy just drove away slowly, apparently fearing confrontation.  Other chases usually begin when suspects refuse to pull over for traffic violations, and in both circumstances, an obvious conscious decision is made to refuse submission to the authorities.  That's easy enough to understand; the mentality is either, "Screw the police, I've done nothing wrong," or "I'm caught!  I gotta get out of here!"  The safety, security, and presumed anonymity of one's own car make the choice to run that much easier; all at once the car becomes a weapon and a shield.  For the scared and the guilty, it appeals to the basest of human desires -- the need for shelter.

I'm most fascinated by the minutes between stages one and two, when the driver decides to power through his initial sense of rebellion and make it an apparent lifestyle.  As spectators, we often wonder, "Where is he going?  Doesn't he know he can't get away?"  At that point of despair, I don't think the suspect really is fleeing the crime anymore; he's fleeing the decision he made to flee, realizing he's created a situation bigger than himself.  Most times, the chase circles the same area where it started, and in last night's case, it came full circle, to the same street, proving that, for all the ground covered, the real journey was an internal one.  I always imagine, what is this guy listening to on the radio?  Is he analyzing how many miles to the gallon he has left?  Is he crying, swearing, praying?  Does he have a plan?  Or is every time that helicopter spotlight pierces the windshield a reminder of how the very problems that began this pursuit have become manifest into a full fledged media event?

The stand-off is the most tragic part of this process, though, as both the suspect's car and mind stop racing long enough to realize the gravity of it all.  Most adrenaline-drenched imaginations probably picture the worst -- that police will throw you to the ground, beat you, sic the K9 unit on you for fun, and throw you in a jail cell forever.  Sitting in the middle of the street, police at the ready behind me, I know I'd look around the cab of my car, memorizing its contours, touching its upholstery, figuring those moments to be the last of my own for a long time.  How surreal to be in a state that projects the only possible future ahead an eternity in prison, that running was even an option in the first place.  Of course, I know suspects have other motivations and mentalities for fleeing, but the common man caught in an unexpected situation like that knows only what he's seen on television.

Which brings this thought full circle, as to why I'm enthralled by the Southern California car chase.  For every O.J. or Bentley, we see dozens of common folk and beat-up Hondas on the wrong side of the helicopter spotlight.  How close are any of us to the brink of, "Is that a cop?  Oh, screw it, I can outrun 'im!  Who needs a $150 speeding ticket in this economy, eh?"  Are we really just slack-jawed rubber-neckers at the promise of a breaking news story car chase . . . or are we researching our own possible future?

Keep It Up: An Anti-List for 2009, part 4

"There is a subtle difference between a mission and a promise.  A mission is something you strive to accomplish -- a promise is something you are compelled to keep.  One is individual, the other is shared.  When a mission and a promise are one in the same . . . that's when mountains are moved and races are won." -- Hala Moddelmog, President & CEO, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, via "The Way I See It" #299 on my Starbucks cup

When I was in the sixth grade, my friends and I bumped into some younger kids we'd never seen before in the field we usually occupied for fort building.  At that time in suburban Phoenix (and even now in some places), dirt fields were prevalent and undeveloped, rife with the kind of desert landscape and wildlife that came to define my childhood.  Anyway, so we found these little kids on our turf, and rather than bully them away, we opted to help them build their fort, too.  I don't remember the specifics of the day, nor do I think we ever saw those kids again, but the feeling of helping someone younger accomplish something I knew how to do naturally stuck with me.  The fact that I was still very much a child became integrated into that memory, as well, as if my juvenile passions (i.e. fort building!) actually found some significance in befriending and mentoring those smaller ones, if only for the day.

Enter: me, twenty years later.  A geek obsessed with comics, cartoons, and toys, working with and for youth in a non-profit after school program.  I've taken the beginning of this new year (and now this Chinese new year) to realign my multiple blogs with purpose, from a personal reflection on pop culture and current events, to analyzing said work with kids, to my reviewing the comics subculture that so grips me, to this, a simple journal entry, and I'm delighted to discover one thing -- there's little difference between one and the other.  In the face of an inconsistent world, I'm proud to be a reliably consistent person, even if that means my tastes haven't changed in some twenty years.  I imagine myself on that day in the dirt field: helping kids build a fort, then undoubtedly going home to crank up and sing along to the Monkees and play with action figures until Letterman.  While I don't help children build forts, I certainly strive to get them some kind of structure, and though I don't play with my toys much anymore, I take every opportunity to rearrange them on my shelves . . . and my singing has graduated from the bedroom to the karaoke stage.  It's all the same!  How many people can say that, and be proud of it?

The quote on my Starbucks cup today helped me put this is perspective, as I struggled with how to complete my blog-series on the new year.  Having a lifelong mission that incorporates fulfilling a promise to others isn't easy; many people clearly distinguish work from play, their nine-to-five from the rest of their day.  Me, I make a conscious effort to wear the sensitivities of my youth on my sleeve to help others understand the same process in the real time of their childhood.  Don't get me wrong -- this effort often stands in contrast to the responsibilities of adulthood; for instance, working with a non-profit is just that, frequently unprofitable, and when I have to choose between student loans and action figures (it's a harder decision than it sounds), I wonder why I didn't choose a different path in life.  A cubicle job could surely afford both, or at least help keep my chin above water long enough to buy that Aquaman eventually.  Then I wonder, would Earth-Cubicle Russ open Aquaman, or keep him collectible in his clear plastic case?  Would he condemn Aquaman to the same square world of his own cubicle?  I'd rather be the one out of the box, cracking my points of articulation, even if it means leaving Aquaman on the pegs at Target.  My inner child remembers playing with those Super Powers toys, and my imagination will always stay in mint condition. 

People tend to call my mentality a "Peter Pan Complex," like that's a bad thing.  That's just like an adult, to put the word "complex" after something so simple.  There's a big difference between embracing the whims of one's inner child and acting childish.  The inner child is a tamed beast, subject to discipline and time-outs like any kid.  Plainly put, I can turn off my fanboy nature and be a man, an attitude that actually enables the inner child even more, as it puts the lessons he learned in life into practice.  At work, when I explain to children why fighting is wrong, I'm very much an adult using the vernacular of youth to prove a point -- otherwise, I might as well be speaking another language altogether.  Other adults in different work environments practice their old juvenile ways when they talk excitedly about the exploits of their weekend, or the movies they've seen, etc.  This is child-like, not childish, though one may lead to the other if one isn't careful.  "Oh, yeah, well, my Friday night was better than yours, so nyahhh!"  You see what I mean.  Further, I don't mean to imply that mine should be everybody's mission-meets-promise; for some, this synthesis is religion-oriented, or even completely self-serving.  It's the harmony that's most important for contentment, I think -- the whole "getting paid for what you love" thing, or at least having the freedom in experience both equally and painlessly.  Even Peter Pan had to face his fair share of hooks and ticking clocks, but he always did it with an effortless smile on his face. 

Which brings me to the point: I'm making 2009 my year to purge the old ideas that cluttered my twenties to make way for new stories and adventures.  I've internalized this mission/promise for too long, keeping the sketches in their sketchbooks and the poems on their scattered napkins for too long.  This year, I'm taking all of the creative juices I've spilt and bottling them for distribution.  I've currently scanned seven sketchbooks' worth of material to compile a portfolio, and I've already completed a little poetry zine for January, February, and March, with hopefully one to follow every month until December.  Where this stuff is going, I don't know, but it's in "take this" form now, so I'll have no excuse when the new ideas take shape.  No strings.  Believe me, living a life surrounded by all things kid, the mind generates some crazy stuff.  (I can only imagine what it'll be like to have one . . .!)  Compiling it into a format I can hand an adult peer under the guise of creativity will hopefully help him explore those oft ignored recesses of the brain -- you know, the one that had fun at recess.

"Here are some sketches I did, and a few poems I wrote."  It's the closest one can come to, "Surround your fort with tumbleweeds to dissuade bullies, and stones to keep the dirt in place in case of a monsoon," . . . at least at my age.  When you build something vulnerable to the winds of change, you don't let a little thing like grown-ups or age tear it down.  You keep it up.

  • Current Music
    "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" -- George Michael with Elton John

Happy New Year! Now You Die!

My new year began with my best friend's portents of doom, as he very logically explained how America's recent economic downturn may result in a Russia-like disbanding of the United States, effectively creating fifty little, self-sustaining, independent countries -- which, if you consider the mere 400 mile difference between states like California and Arizona, isn't too far a leap of the imagination, as both states retain the most contrasting identities one can fathom between neighbors.  I grew up in Arizona, but I feel like I really became a functioning individual in California, so my perspective of the two states may be mired in my respective state of mind, but that's all I have to go on anyway.  I couldn't elaborate on my friend's doom-'n-gloom philosophy if I wanted to; I know as little about world history and economics as the next idiot Jay Leno manages to find at Universal Citywalk.  Still, his thesis is enough to make you think.  President-Elect Obama is promising change of mass proportions, and everyone assumes it's for the better.  Change is a double-edged sword, as promising as the new year's resolution you never keep.

Identity may be a key component in 2009, as the token news story of the new year has been the Muslim family kicked off an airplane for talking about which might be the safest seat.  The CNN story quotes them: "We were (discussing whether it was safest to sit near) the wing, or the engine or the back or the front, but that's it. We didn't say anything else that would raise any suspicion."  While the phrase has become tragically cliche, in a "post-9/11 America, anybody talking about the safest seat in an airplane raises suspicion.  Unfortunately, if you're Muslim, or you even look Middle Eastern, a constant orange alert cloud looms over your head, and in my opinion your rightful pride in your ethnicity or appearance should include this understanding, not exclude it via the justification of potential prejudice.  If I were Middle Eastern, I'd walk onto every airplane exuding a spirit of conscience peace in an attempt to chip away at that fear.  "We are not inherently evil people.  Look at me.  I'm just here to travel safely, just like you."  By now, the lifestyle should be one of dignity, not perpetual victimization, and taught to children.

Before you stamp "racist" on my head, consider this: When you see an Amber Alert for, say, a dark green Dodge Caravan, don't you stare at every green van on the highway a little longer than usual?  It could a lighter shade of green, or a Ford, or even a camper or something, but you look at it suspiciously, as for the margin of those microseconds, that driver is a kidnapping rapist . . . Right?  Now, consider this Muslim family, who, when they appeared on the news, were very neatly dressed (their kids were even dressed alike), in definitive Muslim garb, -- and add to that the flagrant talk about airplane safety.  I'll take it a conspiratorial step further: they were traveling on 1/1/09, which, backwards and excluding the zero, is 911.  I know!

I'm not saying the family shouldn't feel offended; I just don't think they should feel surprised, and to their credit, they've praised the professionalism of the FBI agents that interrogated them.  It's the airline they've chastised, and the communication between the feds and AirTran.  This is my problem, and why I started my argument with statements about dignity.  Forgive the airline their trespasses, and accept a lifetime's worth of waivers, if you play your cards right.  But understand that one family's inconvenience if worth the sanctity of our country's safety, or at least the illusion of it.

Of course, I'm not Middle Eastern, and it wasn't my family inconvenienced, so this is all very easy for me to say.  Yet, in my quest to understand 2009's potential trend toward identity crisis, seeing things through someone else's perspective is critical.  As much as a California liberal would scoff at those blasted traffic cameras on seemingly every corner in Phoenix, would the same person stuck in traffic on the 101 everyday prefer the smoother freeways and decreased accidents as a result?  To feel the comprehensive soil of America beneath our feet, it's paramount that we try on someone else's shoes from time to time -- even if you have to take them off at the airport, too.  I'm resolving to give it a try, why there's still an America to understand.

Hard to Believe

If you had asked me as a child, “Russ, what would you like to do when you grow up?” I undoubtedly would’ve answered, “Meet the Monkees.” Then, you’d probably right your question by clarifying, “I meant what do you want to be when you grow up?” Then I would’ve answered, “I want to be the guy that has lunch with the Monkees!” As a kid watching reruns on Nick at Nite, I was under the impression that the Monkees were still together, and the best of friends. My family and I went to one of their 1986 reunion shows, which affirmed my hopes, but as I grew up and information about the group’s history became more available on this dang-blasted Internet, I learned otherwise. Tethered to their Monkees image but wanting to broaden their horizons, the guys quickly grew apart, and though they’ve toured and collaborated many times over the years, my childhood dreams of having lunch with all of them has very much faded.


(And incidentally I think having lunch with them distinguishes me from any Teen Beat readers’ fantasies of something more intimate, okay? It’s a hero worship thing, much like but slightly different from a man-crush thing -- and I’ve already established my man-crushes here . . . and here.)


So, what’s the next best thing? Meeting the Monkees one-on-one works for me, and, when I had the opportunity to meet Micky a few years ago, I trumped the concept by buying an original ’66 Headquarters, the first album on which they played their own instruments, for them to sign. I’ve briefly chronicled that Micky meet, and then some months later my trek to Tork. Consider this my penultimate Monkees post: the day I met Davy Jones!


This story began forty years ago, when the Monkees wrote and starred in a feature length film called Head. It failed miserably and essentially ended their two-year stint as the first full fledged American idols. Simply put, the flick is too psychedelic! When I was a kid, I had the film’s soundtrack, featuring some of the group’s best songs, but I had no idea how the soundbytes came together to form a linear plot. When my buddy Wade and I found Head on cable one night, I realized those soundbytes . . . didn’t. Now, I understand that the hodgepodge of mildly amusing skits that make up the whole movie are really pieces of an allegorical puzzle about celebrity; in fact, I dare say that despite its artsy-fartsy vanity Head is one of the most humble movies ever made, and in its rich symbolism one of my favorites with or without the Monkees. That I recognize the four goofballs going from war trenches to dandruff shampoo spokesmen just helps the pill go down -- which, in the ‘60s, probably wasn’t a problem.


So, the nonprofit group American Cinematique showed the film at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater last week to celebrate the forty year anniversary, with a full program that included rare Monkees episodes, a Q & A with music producers Chip Douglas and Bobby Hart, and most importantly, appearances by Peter Tork and (gasp) Davy Jones. I was excited for the whole thing, dubbing it the definitive Monkees event of my generation and all that, but my singular goal was for the Davy autograph and picture, as I’d acquired from Micky and Peter. Now, Davy has a reputation for being more . . . difficult than the others, which makes sense considering how he was the diva of the group. During the Q & A, he was very dismissive of some of the questions, explaining that he doesn’t remember or understand much of the Monkees phenomenon. (I know, it was forty years ago, but for me, it was just twenty!) Davy and Peter’s rapport seemed strained at first, but the more they talked, the more their on-screen chemistry overcame them, and I was pleased to see half of my favorite team working together, albeit briefly, yet completely for my benefit as a fan. Peter even claimed that Davy was one of the most talented musicians he’d ever met, remembering the time Jones picked up the bass for “I’m A Believer” and took to it so naturally. I hoped he would take to my album and camera as easily!


As an aside, Pete seems like the most approachable of the gang, and his tone completely suited fans anxious to hear stories about the old days. When asked if the Monkees experience had in any way marred his overall career, he said no, explaining that exposure to television, film, music, and concert production was priceless. Amen!


So, the Q & A ended, and the mob began. When I met Micky and Peter, the signing and photo session was very organized, following respective concerts, but I’d already warned my girlfriend that this one might be require more . . . aggression . . . in a good way -- more tenacity in the midst of a crowd all intent on the same goal . . . you know. Anyway, we made our way into the orbit of fans around them, and as Davy and Peter parted, we stuck with Jones, patiently waiting as he entertained stories from folks trying to connect with him in some way or another. “My dad drove your limo from the airport to the hotel in the summer of ’67 . . .” or “Isn’t it weird that Peter and I have the same birthday?” In spite my inner child’s persistence, I was more realistic than these fans, completely happy with the ten seconds I needed for the autograph and picture. Sure enough, mission accomplished, thanks to my girlfriend’s height and photographic eye and my seizing the right moment to step into Davy’s personal space. 


“Hey, Davy, could you sign my album, please? And a picture, right there?” Sign. Snap. Done.



“Thank you, Davy.”


I think I enjoyed calling him “Davy” the most, as if we got it like that. I mean, who goes by “Davy” anymore? “Dave” is really more like it. That’s the thing that has assured their fame and corresponding frustration, though: for so many people, the Monkees will forever be the Monkees, trapped in those two years of stardom and seemingly eternal youth. Everyone that cares looks at my pictures with a small glimmer of memory, either from watching the television show or from hearing those old songs, and it cracks a smile, every time. With a legacy like that, it’s no wonder these guys keep showing up to events like this, baggage and all.


Now, Michael Nesmith. Good luck with that one, Little Russ. Papa Nez, as his hardcore fans call him, is a recluse, still producing entertainment but at a long arm’s length from anything Monkees -- at least as far as I see it. At this point, though? Three out of four Monkees in just the past few years, at definitively separate occasions? It’s hard to believe, if you’re not a believer. A kid can daydream, right?


Recent thoughts about California’s Prop 8 and parallel dimensions have made me wonder how I would’ve reacted to the latest circumstances surrounding gay marriage had I pursued and fulfilled my desire to become a pastor.  If I had my own congregation, would I have persuaded them to vote a certain way, and what would I say now about the protests that have ensued, especially if they came knocking on our church’s door, as they have for others across the southland? 


I’d like to think that I would have still voted “no” for the constitution-changing proposition, but for different reasons.  As I’ve explained, the Prop 8 controversy has given gay rights advocates the most media exposure they’ve had in a long time, either as a proactive force for civil rights or as a reactive cry against their opposition’s persecution.  Assuming that Pastor Russ would believe the Bible verses condemning homosexuality (and there are eight of them, if I remember correctly, with four per testament), I think he would’ve voted “no” on Prop 8, permitting the continuation of gay marriage in California, just to get them out of the spotlight.  The more reason they have to fight and the longer they retain mainstream attention, the more people might consider their argument and either change their mind or resort to apathy, which is just as effective against the passionate religious argument.  Once the issue is completely out of government’s hands, the church can tackle it as the spiritual cancer they’ve made it out to be.


I hope Pastor Russ would remember 1 Peter 4:8, which says, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”  If the religious groups that opposed this measure were comprehensive with their scripture, they’d remember this verse and implement it in a “kill them with kindness” way.  For all of the emphasis on missionary work and evangelism, how much easier would it be to spread the good news than by providing an atmosphere of acceptance that invites these “sinners” to come to you without fear of prejudice?  If gays are so open to adopting the tradition of family, religion might not be far behind, if a church let them in.  Shouldn’t that behavior overpower any state constitution? 


Based on what I’ve read and heard, the Mormon church has been specifically targeted by the no-on-8 crowd because it funded 70% of the yes-on-8 campaign, with funds linked to their Utah-based headquarters.  Thus, the concern is twofold: (1.) Should a spiritual entity, with tax exemption status, have the power to lobby so strongly for a civil issue? (2.)  Should an out-of-state entity have the power to lobby so strongly for an issue targeting the California constitution?  See, however else one feels about the supposed separation between church and state, when the line is blurred this way, the effectiveness of both is blurred, as well.  If anyone really wants to combat gay marriage, they should decide whether or not it’s a civil rights issue, or a legitimate spiritual concern.  Otherwise, the opposing argument seems divided, too.


Fortunately, I am not.  In this reality, I’ve decided that the issue is a definitively civil one, with widespread ramifications if continually denied.  Once we decide to amend the constitution for the sake of narrowing opportunity, anyone is vulnerable.  This year, it’s gay marriage.  Religious organizations may be next.  Or various media.  Can you imagine a world that prohibits any facet of the way you live?  How many dimensions can discrimination create?