I've realized why I like building haunted houses so much.
For the past several Halloweens, my staff and I have built a haunted house inside our after school program facility, and while the experience is fulfilling on a community-service level, something else about the process has tugged at my heartstrings, and I haven't been able to put my finger on it . . . until this year. About a month, one of my staff was riffling through an unmarked box in our storage room and extracted some twine, asking if we should put it in the arts and crafts room.
"No!" I exclaimed, taking the twine excitedly. "We'll need this for the haunted house!" In that moment, holding the spool of coarse rope, I realized why I love building haunted houses. I'll call it The A-Team Factor.
See, the A-Team was infamous for building weapons out of whatever was handy. Not unlike MacGuyver, but as a team, they often built an arsenal from the most common of things. Remember the time they used air conditioning tubing to make a lettuce head bazooka? Or the time they were locked in a storage room and built an armor out of trash cans? And that was before Jon Favreau's Iron Man! Halloween, specifically its horror component, allows for this hasty, sometimes messy impromptu application. For example, when we black out the rooms for our haunted house, we don't loop the duct tape behind the fileted trash bags; we let the duct tape show, because its presence implies a sloppy precision -- a sense of planned chaos. Twine, the disheveled cousin of yarn, is scary in itself, but when it's used to tie a rubber shrunken head to a fence post, its texture takes on a different identity altogether. When the A-Team built their makeshift weapons, they didn't have time for aesthetics -- just results.
On Friday morning, as I put the last of the AA batteries into the glowing skulls, as I zip-tied the last of the tarps into place, as I tied those rubber shrunken heads to the fence, I didn't see my hands, but instead the gold-jeweled hands of B.A. Baracus. My smile wasn't my own, but that of a satisfied, cigar-chomping Hannibal Smith. And in the end, when the kids ran crying and screaming from our haunted house that night, which in the strobe-riddled dark hid its 99 Cent Store props in a bone-chilling mystique, my thoughts were his, too.
"I love it when a plan comes together."
I've realized why I like building haunted houses so much.
1. Apples. First of all, they're heavy, and they take up valuable bag space. I mean, the surface area of an apple is undoubtedly equivalent to two or three fun-sized Snickers. And I'm not trick or treating for my health. If you're gonna pass out apples, dip it in something sugary first, or at least stick a gummy worm in it. God.
2. Loose change. I'm not a bum. I don't want your money. I want your candy. I can find loose change in payphones and in gas station leave-a-penny trays. Plus, how can I toilet paper your yard later with loose change rattling around in my bag? Now you can hear me coming! That was your plan all along, wasn't it?
3. Religious literature. Of any kind. I don't care what you believe in. Halloween is about one thing: dressing up like restless spirits and devourers of human flesh to beg neighbors for candy. What's so spiritual about that? Actually, I have a solution. Chocolate Jesus. The best part is, one fun size Chocolate Jesus can feed 5000, with a few wrapper-fulls to spare. I just made that up.
4. School supplies. School started two months ago. If I couldn't afford a pencil then, don't you think that food would be more valuable to me now?
5. Candy substitutes. Granola bars aren't candy. Pretzels aren't candy. Potato chips aren't candy. Popcorn balls are good, but they're not candy. If its headline ingredients aren't sugar, chocolate, corn syrup, and partially hydrogenated vegetable, soybean, or palm kernel oil, it isn't candy.
Listen to you inner child. If he wouldn't want it, the kids in your neighborhood don't, either. If you don't listen, beware, because nothing is more frightening than a neighborhood full of unsatisfied children. Halloween would just be the beginning.
A few months ago, I celebrated 100 posts on my other blog, so I thought to begin the next hundred with “KaraokeFanboy 101,” a treatise of my general belief system. As I was writing the first two of these four perspectives, I decided to divide the diatribe in half, mostly because I was due to meet my old buddy Booth and his wife for dinner in the midst of the San Diego Comic Con, but also because the effort was an emotional drain. You try summarizing your life into four concise, meaningful maxims! It isn’t as easy as it seems.
Retrospectively, why four, I wonder? As I wrap up my twenty-eighth year of existence, the penultimate year of my twenties, perhaps my subconscious was trying to divide my life into a neat quartet of quandaries, each with its own proverbial Aesop-esque moral. Does my first point reflect my first seven years, while the second exposes the cumulative revelations of years eight through fourteen? The forthcoming #3 does reference my freshmen year of high school, and, though I was technically thirteen, who says this is a fine science, that we can’t allow for a little overlap? Seven is only the perfect number, and the best things in life come in fours (i.e. the Monkees, the Golden Girls, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles et. al.), so twenty-eight makes for the perfect age to draft one’s worldview. Again, really, you should try it.
Incidentally, this isn’t “KaraokeFanboy 202.” This is “KaraokeFanboy 101B.” I have much bigger things planned for “KaraokeFanboy 202.” It’s an advanced course. Until then, pass this:
3. Your best sense is your sixth: your sense of humor. On my first day of high school, my first period Seminar teacher Mr. Poslaiko asked a terrified room of sleepy-eyed freshmen, "If a baby is born without any of its five senses, would it still know anything?" His inquiry quickly reminded me of comedian Rick Reynolds’ eyeball joke, which had become my favorite anecdote for nearly everything:
“A man is pacing in the waiting room of a hospital. His wife is in the delivery room having a baby. This couple has already had a few children, but they’d all been terribly deformed, so naturally the man is concerned about the safety of his wife and newborn. The doctor enters with a look of consternation on his face and says, “Sir, would you still love your child if he were, say, missing an arm or a leg?”
“Of course I would!” the man replies. “Just take me to my wife and baby!”
“Well, brace yourself and follow me.”
The doctor leads the man down a long corridor and finally they enter the delivery room, where the man sees his wife in bed holding a blanketed bundle in her arms. He walks up to her, kisses her on the forehead, and moves aside the blanket to reveal (gasp) a huge, ten pound eyeball.
“Oh, my God!” the man cries. “How can this get any worse?”
The doctor replies, “He’s blind.”
That joke has it all! Most of all, it combines the cornerstones of humor -- an exploitation of what we can see and the potential ironies of what we cannot understand or control. It’s the observational comedy of Jerry Seinfeld meets the existential tomfoolery Andy Kaufman. It’s “Why did the chicken cross the road?” meets “Who’s on first?”
When I was nine or ten years old, a rather sweaty fat man jogged past our street just as we pulled out of the driveway, and my mother commented with her well practiced sarcasm, “You’re gonna have to jog a little more than that, buddy.” Yes, the poor guy was that fat, and my mom’s quip was so quick and accurate that it instantly instilled in me an appreciation for exploitation as humor. Imagine the lines a real ten pound eyeball of a kid might inspire! “I bet he’ll make a great pupil in school!” “Gross! Somebody put a lid on that thing!” “How are you gonna punish your son, by lashing him?” Yet, the eyeball itself isn’t the eyeball joke’s punch line . . .
No, the joke comes from the doctor’s sudden revelation: “He’s blind.” If you laugh at that cruelty, according to Reynolds, you’re a born asshole, but that’s beside the point. It’s funny because it’s unexpected; as a holodeck-generated Joe Piscopo explained to Data in a second season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, such unexpected, uncontrollable misdirection can be hilarious.
Mr. Poslaiko, I still don’t know if that senseless baby would know anything, but I hope that poor ten pound eyeball would be able to look at itself in the mirror and laugh. Or cry. Probably cry. What else could it do? At least a pack of Kleenex is cheaper than a box of Huggies.
4. Power to the people. Never doubt the power of “the team.” Very few successful ventures are accomplished alone; very few stories star a single protagonist, and those that do often end in tragedy. Childhood tales featuring the perils of Goldilocks or Little Red Riding Hood subtly teach us the dangers of going it alone, while, if you believe in the Bible, even the Son of God needed a good dozen friends to accomplish his mission. Sherlock Holmes needs his Dr. Watson to pen his cases, Vladimir need Estragon to wait for Godot, and Batman needs his Robin -- even after one grows up and another gets blown up, Batman needs his Robin.
(Incidentally, those are the three examples I used in an impromptu speech to win first place in the category at Arizona's state 4A Speech & Debate competition in 1996. The topic was a fortune cookie slip that read: "The best mirror is a good friend.")
My tenure as the director of an after school program reminds me of this lesson most consistently. When I first acquired my job, the negligence of my then-boss forced me to learn many lessons on my own; further, when I was under his wing, I quickly caught the stink of abused and misused power. Pardon the pun, but it was the pits. I won’t taint this treatise with those troubling times, only to say this: no one person is God’s gift to any righteous effort. I could master every activity my after school program has to offer, from athletics to the arts, but what can that knowledge accomplish when 100 kids come barreling down the door? What can even the most capable of us do for such a diverse majority? Sure, I can play basketball with the kids, no problem, but the sport itself isn’t as important as the connection they’d see between a genuine athlete and the game. Also, what of the 70 or so kids uninterested in basketball? Enter the arts expert, the board games expert, etc. The idea is, once I’ve led my team toward a standard of general excellence in our program (the details of which I describe in another blog), my calling in sick on any given day shouldn’t effect its success . . . but if they call in sick? I’m screwed.
To be clear, I’m not talking about a mob mentality here. The quality of the people is just as important as the quantity. Consider the bumpersticker that has hung above my beloved childhood desk since I picked it up in Santa Monica almost ten years ago: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world -- Margaret Mead.” The key words are thoughtful and committed, implying intent and longevity -- quality. Another philosopher put it just as well; the great Colonel Hannibal Smith, at the end of the second season A-Team episode “Deadly Maneuvers,” in which some mutual enemies team up to take down our heroic fugitives as a proverbial anti-A-Team. Of course, the baddies fail, and Smith quips to their leader, “Now the next time you think you want to take somebody out, pal, don’t get yourself a squad. Get yourself a team.” Cue explosion. Best episode ever.
Yet “power to the people” transcends this interpretation and has attained a much more spiritual significance for me, as well. I’ve never really documented this, but when I graduated high school I moved to Southern California to become a preacher. Now, when some teenagers leave home for the first time, they experiment with drugs, or perhaps indulge in promiscuous sex, to deal with stress and homesickness. Me, I turned to something much more dangerous, based on the reactions of my private Christian college’s administration -- I developed a propensity . . . for pranks. My new friends and I pulled off some incredible capers (though nothing compares to Phoenix’s Nativity Nightmare of 1999), one of which got us arrested, and several of which almost had me expelled, and during this disciplinary process, I developed a distaste for “the religious institution.” Considering the frequently touted imperfection of Man, I struggled with how any one man could judge another, from the miniscule musings of a Bart Simpson-like prankster, to the grander schemes of sexual orientation or political affiliation. I guess I projected my sense of betrayal and victimization at the hands of those ultraconservative administrators toward anyone else that might’ve felt a similar (or probably more dire) sense of oppression. I mean, didn’t those deans experience outbursts of antiauthoritarianism when they first left home? So who cares if I put a toilet in the university pool, compared to the other things I could’ve done?
Of course, other environmental factors contributed to my denunciation of religion -- for example, living in a dorm with the same dudes that led our worship services. Try taking anyone leading an auditorium in a chorus of “Our God is an Awesome God” seriously when just the night before you dumbfoundedly watched him tenaciously try to slap his roommate’s scrotum. Because that isn’t worse than my stealing the campus Christmas tree. Also, I read DC Comics’ Vertigo title Preacher, which, among many other things, emphasizes the hypocrisy of a god addicted to love from his creation yet denies them the same chance to be as selfish. Finally, these meandering thoughts found harmony thanks to a line from the Face to Face song “Handout,” which claims, “Why won’t you believe that you’re the same as me?” I’ve since concluded that everybody has the same needs, the need for love and acceptance, for creative expression and comprehension, for establishing a legacy, and honestly religion offers that to many people. Me, while denouncing religion, I was simultaneously discovering my desire to work with kids, which epitomizes these needs in everyone and fulfills them in me just fine.
Which brings us full circle, and right up to today.
As I conclude this diatribe (which took much longer to write than it was worth, but which was also very rewarding in its retrospective introspection), I wonder if any of these relatively simple tenets are subject to change. Is twenty-eight years old too young to claim such a concise, four-fold grip on life? Or perhaps it’s just the opportune time to write down some conclusions, reserving the right to maintain an open mind for change? I mean, I hope I have plenty of life left to change my mind. I mean, who knows what starting a family might do to any of these thoughts? Who knows if one day my own child will read this blog and, whether or not I’ve changed my worldview or lifestyle, get a better idea of who their father was . . . and who they can be, too?
The Southern California sky pulled a Two-Face this morning, clearly divided between the bright morning sun and the thick gray clouds that held it back like sober friends in the midst of a bar fight. The sun got a few licks in, though, and the result was a spattering of multicolored raindrops that unearthed that wet cement smell that takes us all back to the downpours of our youth, those blessed days when opening your mouth toward plummeting precipitation wasn't perceived as puerile or potentially poisonous. It made my wait at the bus stop more enjoyable and dramatic than usual, and the ride to Starbucks a proverbial kaleidoscope of climate, as the sun won a few blocks here, the rain, a few blocks there.
But, like most of America, it's our country's political climate that dominates my thoughts today, as the dust settles from Friday night's Presidential debates, as a troops rally around their lieges for the Vice Presidential debates this Thursday. That the first Presidential debate was on a Friday is critical, as the mainstream news generally hibernates between its 11 o'clock last gasp on Friday night and its pseudo-sophisticated awakening on Sunday mornings, so, unless you subjected yourself to the basic cable/talk radio 24-hour news cycle, you might've been able to generate your own opinion on the matter, void of preplanned partisan positions by pundits well paid to keep their side of the fence painted a fleck-free white. And, no, that isn't a slight toward Obama. It's a metaphor.
In fact, even Obama's "naive inexperience," to summarize McCain's frequent criticism of his opponent, couldn't sway the masses from wearing his name or likeness on a flurry of fashionable shirts and pins this weekend. Granted, my girlfriend and I began our weekend in the Valley, then in West Hollywood, both relatively safe terrain for Obamania, but the sheer volume of stylish support was commentary enough, forget that Hannity or Colmes wouldn't dominate the airwaves again until Monday. We scored an Obama pin from a kindly old couple working a voter registration booth, but I was a little off-put by its "$3 suggested donation." Aren't campaign funds raised to produce these marketing materials? Isn't virtually charging civilian supporters for these materials double dipping? Heck, if I want a pin, assuming I wear it on the economically hard-hit Main Street like a walking campaign poster, shouldn't Obama give me $3 for the rented shirt space?
Speaking of Obama giving money away, I was wondering why he didn't give McCain his two cents about those flagrant "what the Senator doesn't understand" comments from Friday night. A simple, "At least I've traveled around the world, unlike somebody's running mate," would've effectively shushed any retorts about inexperience, I figure. But, Obama isn't running against Sarah Palin -- his running mate, Joe Biden, is. At this point, I see Biden rolling up his sleeves on Thursday night and saying the things his better half of the ticket can't. At the first mention of foreign policy, I'd have no problem with Biden blurting, "Listen, Obama's too good to say anything, but all of McCain's yammering about his naivete? Hey, Sarah, where've you been, huh? What are you bringing to the table of diplomacy besides your pretty smile, Fargo accent, and some years of local political experience now shrouded in scandal and speculation? McCain can name drop all he wants, but with Barrack and me, America is getting a balance of international expertise, so if he bites it, the world is still in good hands. Oh, I'm sorry what was the question?"
Of course, considering Biden's diagnosis of foot-in-mouth disease, he'd probably end any tough guy treatise like that with, "And Hillary could've done the same thing, only better!" so he'd best quit when he gets ahead. It's just like this morning, where, with just a month and a few days between today and Election Day, a casual breeze can mean all the difference between rain or shine, no matter which candidate you prefer. Like my bus ride, some streets are already set on a sunny day, while others are running to their cars to avoid the scattered shower. The streets in between are the ones that we really have to worry about. Right now, the possibilities of America's future really are as divergent as the spectrum of sunlight striking a plummeting raindrop.
It's a stupid little thing, really, but Moore ended his four minute saxophone solo during the song "Lie In Our Graves" with the choral notes from "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." I don't know if he'd practiced and planned it, or if the riff was some impromptu inside joke, but some years later, when I first heard it on the band's "Live at Red Rocks" album, this casual listener became a lifelong fan. See, my friends and I were in the midst of synchronizing Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" with The Wizard of Oz -- by transferring the film from VHS to hard drive in those precious years before the DVD revolution, mind you -- so I was somewhat obsessed with Baum's fairytale brought to life. Little did I suspect then that my friend Nathan's tireless efforts at the computer would come to define my entire worldview now, would develop into an almost spiritual appreciation for the little synchronicities in the universe.
So you might appreciate the fact that exactly thirteen years and three days after that original Red Rocks performance, I was saddened to learn of LeRoi Moore's passing, from injuries he received in an ATV accident. My brother texted me the news around 3 a.m. Pacific Standard Time (so around 6 a.m. his time on the East Coast), but I wasn't really receptive to the news until a few hours later, when I listened to the live "Listener Supported" recording of the DMB fan favorite "#41." In the band's traditional jam style, the song ends with an over five minute musical tete-e-tete between Moore and violinist Boyd Tinsley, and although I myself am no musician and cannot by any means describe the science of their art, in that moment the group's comprehensive competence as performers is completely unparalleled. When I had a MySpace, I described my heroes as anyone capable of working with a team -- I jokingly cited the A-Team as a perfect example. A band is a better one, as their art is essentially effective teamwork in audible incarnate -- equal yet unique parts coming together to create a whole. By this definition, the Dave Matthews Band is one of the best examples. The fact that their live performances, when the most can go wrong, are for all intents and purposes so right is all the evidence I can offer.
It's a combination of this and Moore's subtle influence in my oh-so-critical adolescence that makes his passing that much more disappointing than any other highly publicized celebrity's death. My friends and I spent hours cruising Phoenix's hot summer streets at night, singing along loudly to DMB's "Two Step" or "All Along the Watchtower" cover and, now more importantly, nodding our heads and tapping our feet to Moore's instrumental interludes. We didn't know then that those horns were much more important than the lyrics we competed with one another to memorize, that the bass sax was the proverbial heartbeat of the whole operation. For all of the live recordings and bootlegs, it saddens me most to know that these thousands of recordings are in many ways now the definitive versions of these songs, the hallmark of the "Moore era" of the Dave Matthews Band . . . because of course the band will continue. That's what an effective team does. It endures in the face of changes and challenges.
Times like this make me grateful that some of my friends from that seemingly bygone summer feel the same way, and that maybe some of the others will come around again. That song that started it all, "Lie In Our Graves," says it best: "I can't believe that we would lie in our graves wondering if we had spent our living days well." Assuming my sentiments are just one in hundreds of thousands, LeRoi Moore need not worry about that.
Today, I sold a small but significant portion of my action figure collection to pay for part of a weekend getaway with my gal.
What is this thing that I've become . . .?
Everything I've always wanted to be.
One of the best things about having a new, significant person in your life is the necessity of constantly "explaining yourself" -- a phrase often negatively assigned to apologetic exposition. "You're an hour late! Explain yourself!" No, in this case, I'm coining the phrase quite literally; a new, significant person in your life wants to know who you are and how you came to be, like a comic book origin story. "In this issue: Enter: Russ! Who he is and how he came to be!!" Of course, self-centered species that we are, most people don't mind divulging. I certainly don't. In fact, as a geek that maintains an almost obsessive commitment to the passions of his past, I revel in it. Where did my sense of humor come from? Why do I still collect action figures? I can answer these and almost any other question about myself rather quickly, because, while those definitive moments in my life were retrospectively fleeting, I've thought about them so much now that they've begun to last as long as my life itself.
It doesn't help that two of my favorite fictional heroes, Batman and Sherlock Holmes, kept lairs that doubled as virtual museums to their adventures. From Batman's giant penny, robot dinosaur, and old costume/prop display cases, to Holmes' Irene Adler locket and Richenbach Falls painting -- this is my room, to a much lesser extent. The old pirate busts my Aunt Gloria made, that haunted my grandparents' house until Papa passed away, Mima moved in with Mom, and they became mine. The Principal's Award I surprisingly earned in the eighth grade, under the tutelage of Mr. Burbridge, Mr. George, and Mr. Highland. The Dumbfounded tapes. The S.A.M.M. press release. Oh, I know you don't know what I'm talking about, but I do -- these and dozens of other momentos that have become a virtual incarnation of my most beloved memories, littered around my room in a cocoon of indulgent accomplishment. My own 221-B Baker Street flat. My Bat-cave.
Now, I have an incredible new person in my life to share these adventures with, and with whom to experience more adventures. I won't dub her a Robin or Dr. Watson, though, because she's no mere sidekick. No, she has a personal museum all her own, and we've been swapping war stories. Proverbial, sometimes literal, memoirs. It's as exciting as it is intimidating, as one begins to wonder if the treasures of his life are really worthy of sharing with other people, specifically with the person who might end up living with that junk for the rest of her life. One man's Bat-cave is just another person's trash heap, right?
No, this insecurity can be overcome with the mementos one can never tangibly exhibit -- the lessons one has learned throughout his toy-ridden life. You can't put these lessons on a shelf, rearrange them, tape them down in case of an earthquake. They're just . . . there, and they come out when needed, like the good China. So, since I have all of the tangibles of my life readily available in my new little studio, I've decided to pull out these old lessons, stand them up just once alongside one another, for everyone's sake including my own. Like a complete collection of Bucky O'Hare action figures (and I do have them all), it's good to see them together, just as it's good to pack them away again, because, as I've learned from my tiny new studio, one's complete collection need not be on display to know that they're still yours, that they're still there. Fortunately, like the Bucky O'Hare figures, I didn't have many lessons to collect -- just a quartet of key philosophies that fuel this little life and explain why I've kept all this dusty old stuff in the first place.
Like these thoughts of mine, good things come in four: The Monkees. The Golden Girls. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The kind of play that precedes the real action. So, you know if I'm ready to talk about these first few chapters of my life, I'm ready to move on with the rest of it. It takes an incredibly special person to make one leave the past in the past. To make a manic collector like me clear off some shelf space for the future. I don't feel the need to explain myself to myself anymore. The big picture has never been more clear.
So, am I prepared? Well, it depends on where I am when this crap storm begins. If I'm at home, I'm screwed, because the only "weapons" I have are my action figures' accessories. I don't think the Scorpion's spring-loaded tail missile would faze a flesh hungry zombie. Nor does my cat, named Amazo for the evil android that boasts all of the powers of the Justice League, have all of the powers of the Justice League, so I think he'd be little help. No, at home at be done for. At least I'd die where all of my stuff is, until I was undead, and Amazo turned into a chicken leg like when Sylvester from those old Looney Tunes was too delirious with hunger to see straight.
Now, at work, I'm ready. If you don't know, I work for a facility-based, nationally recognized youth-oriented after school/summer program. The "facility-based" part is important, because this facility is much like a classroom -- well, it's more like a classroom-meets-a frat house, minus the alcohol, in that we have a pool table, a foosball table, and some other recreational equipment boys of all ages like. Can you imagine the damage I could do to a pudgy, gooey, walking corpse with the likes of a broken billiards stick? That's just in the Gamesroom; if I ventured into the Arts Room, I'd have an entirely different kind of arsenal -- the likes of exacto knives and paper cutters. Ever see The Faculty? That paper cutter scene fulfilled my violent childhood fantasies to no end. Ah, those zombies wouldn't stand a chance.
So: home, I'm dead, work, I'm a champ. Goes to show where my priorities are, eh? Yes, now I know what I must do . . . I need a pool table at home.