As a show host, I’ve introduced countless performers over the years. I often ask them to provide me with a couple of sentences that gives the audience a bare minimum of insight into who they’re about to experience. Most performers give too much to read from the stage and I am often forced to edit as I read, denoting the most interesting points from their autobiography.
Three years ago this month, I asked the incredible hip-hop performance poet Kojo Opong-Mensah to write down a line or two about himself before I introduced him as the headliner for my weekly literary open mic in San José. I handed him a napkin and a pen and he went to work. Add to mind he was already a favorite performer among the regular attendees, so I didn’t need much.
I returned to Kojo’s table a little while later and asked him for the napkin, which he returned to me, folded neatly. I put the note in my shirt pocket without reading it. When it was time to bring Kojo to the stage, I pulled the napkin from my pocket, opened it and laughed like a burst of backfire. I expected to read something biographical and self-promotional, but I read this instead:
Being the finest bio I have ever read on stage, it is now framed on my wall.
Noticed some friends posted this “challenge” on social media. Figured I would join in the fun. (Since I am single, I will have to compare myself to a 9″ by 12″ veggie lasagna with zucchini “noodles.”)
How’d you guys meet: I make the lasagnas. First date: There have been SO many lasagnas! How long have you been together: Never more than a week. Married: Not yet legal. Age difference: 45 years and counting. Who was interested first: Me. Who is taller: Me, for once. Who said I love you first: ME… Every. Single. Time. Most impatient: Me Most sensitive: Me Loudest: Me Most stubborn: The lasagna. Very hard to convince it of anything. Falls asleep first: Me, especially after eating the lasagna. Better morning person: The lasagna. Better driver: The lasagna. Funniest: Me, but the lasagna seems to get my jokes. Where do you eat out most as a couple: Wow. Okay! Who is more social: ME! Who is the neat freak: Me Where was your first kiss: Just outside the oven. So hot! How long did it take to get serious: About 1 hour at 375F (190C). Who picks where you go to dinner: Me Who is the first one to admit when they are wrong: The lasagna. Who cries more: Me Who has more tattoos: Me Who sings better: The lasagna. Hogs the remote: Tie! Spends the most money: Me 😦 Did you go to the same school: Not yet legal. Where is the furthest you two have traveled together: Where do I begin!? Who drives when you are together: We use public transit and Tupperware. Post a picture of you and your Valentine: Not yet legal.
One of my favorite song discoveries of the forsaken-year-that-should -never-be-rementioned-by-number (last year) is this 2013 disco-punk rework by The Avalanches. They took Hunters & Collectors’ 1982 song “Talking To A Stranger” and avalanched it into “Stalking To A Stranger.” Both links will take to you their respective 7+ minute videos, of which the latter is also remixed to splendid effect. Both songs are dope and the remix introduced me to veteran Australian new-wavers Hunters & Collectors, and for this I am glad.
In 2005, I appeared on an episode of Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam on HBO. It was an incredible experience. To hear Mos Def say “from San José, California, give it up for Mr. Mike McGee” at the beginning of the clip is still pretty cool. However, my first “appearance” on HBO actually came fifteen years earlier—and 30 years ago today.
January 5, 1991 was the dead center of my freshman year of high school and a week before my 15th birthday. I was in the midst of trying on my new high school uniform: class clown. There was nothing classy about it, pure and simple, as it required an obnoxiousness I had yet lowered myself into (much like Arnold did at the end of Terminator 2—obnoxiousness being a vat of molten metal that would kill some portion of my self-respect), but it was all I ever wanted. I was never going to be popular for sports, academics or good looks, which was fine since I had no patience for any of those traits, as it was. For many months, maybe even a couple of years, I had dreamed of being a well-liked funny person who gets paid to be well-liked, funny and a person.
On this particular Saturday evening, during a break from Desert Storm news coverage, my mom and I were watching Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold on a live HBO call-in special hosted by a very pre-Today Show Matt Lauer. They kept an 800 number on the screen and I had nothing better to do, so I set out to get stand-up comedy advice from 1.2 of the biggest names in comedy at the time. I sat at the phone, finger-dialing the push-button numbers over and over, a skill I developed through dialing radio stations for prizes. I was used to waiting for the busy-signal, hanging up and dialling again. After about 26 minutes and several hundred busy signals, it paid off and the sound of the line ringing on the other end was exhilarating. My mom’s eyes were bugging out of her head. After a dozen or so rings, a staffer answered, took my name and told me I had time for one question, so what was my question? I want to know how to become a comedian! They put me on hold and my mom’s head volleyed the tennis match between me and the television. The audio on the line switched to a live, undelayed feed of the conversation with the trio on TV. After a moment, Matt Lauer answered and prompted my question, “Mike from San José, California, you’re on live with Tom and Roseanne. What’s your question?” I am proud of and love representing San José, California however I am capable.
I could have sworn the conversation lasted about nine minutes. It was actually only 59 seconds.
Everything is on YouTube now, right? It had never occurred to me until recently to search online for video of a show that surely has no business existing beyond 2001. Well, thank you to the person(?) who made sure I could relive an actual moment of my life that has had a strangely wonderful impact. The video here starts a few seconds before my call, but the entire episode is there for your viewing… pleasure?
It has replayed so differently in my head over the years. I forgot that this call-in show followed Roseanne’s HBO comedy special filmed at T**mp Castle in Atlantic City. I don’t remember repeating myself so nervously or stammering at all. I only remember most of what they said to me on the phone. I realize now that I also never saw their reactions during our conversation because I was frozen, staring at our apartment wall the whole time. My mom tried to keep up with my live conversation and the tape delay on TV. They answered my question and hung up. I spent 30 minutes or so dialing that onscreen number and I only remember it because I got lucky and someone answered. These days, it is funny to think that, of all the people in this video, Tom Arnold is now the most likeable personality of the three.
I give Roseanne and Tom a lot of credit for boosting my my teen spirit. But at 14, I was probably already on my way to being a well-liked funny person.
For as long as I can remember, I have been deeply fascinated with calendars. I am sure it is based in part on my deeper fascination with time itself—as a concept, as a construct, and as a constant. I think it may be the false sense of predictability calendars offer—they give a glimpse into the future, but aside from holidays and plans, that glimpse is ultimately always a bit empty and never guaranteed.
Several years ago, I discovered the concept of re-using calendars thanks to their predictable repetition. So far, mine is a new, strange, tiny collection. As years come to an end, I take down the calendars off the wall over my desk and the one in my kitchen, then pack them away to be used again. On the back, I write the coming years in which they will sync up again, giving them the potential for future use for anyone who comes across them.
For example, in place of a 2011 calendar, you could have used any Gregorian calendar from 2005, 1994, 1983, 1977, 1966, 1955, 1949, 1938, 1927 and 1921. That is a great line of available calendars. I am trying to track down a copy of a 2011 Betty White calendar I used to have so that I can use it in 2022. I recycled mine before I fully understood I’d be able to re-cycle it in eleven years. To be clear, your holidays and time changes won’t always line up, but the days and dates will be just fine.
Due to 2020 being a leap year in which February 29 landed on a Friday, this year’s calendar is only reusable three times in the next 96 years, in 2048, 2076, and 2116, when leap day returns to Friday. And only four calendars from the 20th century could have been used in place of one from 2020—those from 1992, 1964, 1936 and 1908. This is the same story for every leap year, they’re spaced apart a minimum of 28 years.
It’s a simple fascination that I don’t spend too much time on. I do wonder, though, if it is possible to build a permanent collection so that I have all the calendars I will ever need. Then again, do I really want a complete collection? There is something so morbidly finite about that.
Here are my two resources on this subject. The best, no frills site for quickly looking up which calendars to reuse is whencanireusethiscalendar.com. And one of my favorite sites to waste time on all thing time and dates, and even repeating calendars is timeanddate.com
I do think it would be a nice trend to write the future years of re-cycle on the backs of our calendars from now on. Even if you don’t keep them, a like-minded collector will be glad you donated them to a thrift store. I now have a 1993 calendar I plan to use in 2021, 2027 and 2038.
To be honest, I am seriously considering burning my 2020 calendar at 11:59pm on December 31. No one should ever have to spend another calendar year with 2020.
I was cleaning my house a couple of years ago when I found a small travel bag I didn’t recognize. Smaller than a fanny pack, bigger than a wallet. Maybe a pencil bag? It had some random items in it, pennies, a gum wrapper, a lozenge, and a few empty film canisters, but one of them included a completed roll of film. It must have been left behind by an acquaintance who attended one of my Kitchen Sessions. This film roll now sits on my desk as a tiny mystery full of possibility. I am certain it is not mine, but I’ve staked a claim on it like finders keepers. Out of sheer curiosity, I want to develop the film inside, but I am worried about being disappointed. What if the images are boring? What if they depict a crime? Will the images tell me who took them?The mystery is likely more salacious than the actual negatives. Another part of me wants to throw it away and enjoy the mystery forever.
I just noticed that the film roll is Kodak Professional black and white…
Back in March of this year, about a week after I went into self-isolation from C19, like many, I was feeling pretty low, lost and lethargic, forcing myself into routines so that I didn’t lose my mind in a vast field of worry. But even though I was flying solo on this journey, I knew wasn’t actually alone. While doing mundane tasks like household chores and sorting of things that I’d put on The Wayside, I realized that so many of the people I love (along with those I hardly know, but who are very lovely) were probably doing the exact same things and quite possibly at the exact same time. I often imagine how many people might be laughing while I am laughing, crying while I am crying, eating toast at the precise moment I am eating toast. The great potential for this sort of banal synchronicity fascinates me. So I jotted down a quick poem and called it “Widespread Orchestra,” a phrase I’d had rolling around like a fat marble in my head for the better part of decade. The poem got a good response from folks, especially from my friend Noah Luna, composer and fellow San Joser, who took the poem and gave it a sound I am incapable of formulating or performing. Over the last several months, he’s built a beautiful song out of my words, which renders me speechless every time I see and hear it. Check it out for yourself.
Noah had asked me sometime in late spring if he could play with it. I love poetry over music, so I was emphatic in my affirmation. Noah asked world class cellist Joshua Roman to play the composition he had written for cello. Then they both recruited a number of vocalists from all over (I’d like to say the world, but I don’t actually know where they’re all located) to record themselves singing and to capture it on video. Through the awesome support of Town Hall Seattle, where Joshua is the current Artist in Residence, he and Noah were able to stitch together all of the vocal tracks and footage to make what you see and hear in the video.
We had a video debut of the song over Zoom the other day a good number of the vocalists joined us. Many of them commented on how it was the first time they had to listen to themselves sing solo for a chorus. Noah commented that is was the first time he’d ever heard every voice in a chorus individually as he put the track together. Very fascinating work.
They made a widespread “orchestra” and turned my little poem into a much, much bigger song. My mind is blown and I cannot thank them enough.
Many, many thanks and kudos to Noah Luna and Joshua Roman for their incredible, remarkable work. Huge thanks to the vocalists who participated in this strange and beautiful endeavor. Major thanks and gratitude to the folks at Town Hall Seattle for their part in making this happen.
Noah and I are already talking about future projects. Stay tuned.
Today will forever be a reminder that I was once the heaviest smoker I knew. I rolled tobacco and smoked constantly. On average, I smoked the equivalent of three packs a day of pre-rolled cigarettes. I smoked my final tobacco cigarette on November 11, 2011, ending my habit just two months shy of 19 years. I realized a little later that day that I had put out my final cigarette at 11:00am, coincidentally stopping my tobacco habit on 11/11/11 at 11:00am. Had I realized the date and time, I would’ve had one more and put it out at 11:11am, although, the last cigarette I did smoke wasn’t very tasty or the least bit satisfying. And it’s much more satisfying to have had the universe schedule it for me without my knowledge.
Growing up, I loved the smell of my mom’s Virginia Slims and my dad’s unfiltered Camels. In my house there wasn’t much of a concentrated effort toward making sure it looked unappealing. I was fascinated with smoking. It looked so cool to me. I was destined to smoke. I recall my grandmother having smoked for 30 years before stopping sometime around 1983. When I was a little older, she recommended I quit before I became too hooked, but it was too late. I had already been smoking a pack a day within the first few months of my habit. I had always thought she had quit cold turkey, but my mom confided in me that Grandma had had a procedure done—she had some sort of small metal BBs surgically embedded over some nerve inside or near her earlobes. Whenever she craved a cigarette, she would rub the BB lump behind her ear until the craving went away. I never confirmed it, but I watched out for ear tugging a la Carol Burnett.
In the spring of 2011 I was in Vancouver, BC for a few shows. My friend and old touring partner Shane Koyczan and I were backstage and I asked him to join me outside for a cigarette. He told me he hadn’t had a cigarette in six months. I was dumbfounded. Gobsmacked. This was a dude who had matched me smoke for smoke, pack for pack in all the days we spent together on the road and at home. The only thing left to fall out of my mouth was, What!? How!?? Shane told me that a few years earlier he had bought the book Easy Way To Stop Smoking by Allen Carr. He kept in his desk and tried reading a few times. The last time finally stuck.
I figured if it worked for Shane then I had to at least read the book. I had wanted to quit, but never saw much light in the possibility of succeeding. I bought the book on my mobile device and I read it over three days on a ferry trip from Vancouver to Victoria and back in BC, smoking the entire time. After completing the book, I smoked three more cigarettes and suddenly knew I was done. The book’s re-brainwashing had worked, but the feelings of anxiety and dread to come were horrible. Nearly everything I ever did throughout my adult life had been followed by or rewarded with a cigarette or three. The book itself is not an incredible example of the English language at its best. It’s redundant and repetitive, but that’s pretty much the prerequisite for brainwashing. Carr included some analogies that really hit home with me and helped me to visualize stopping my habit, including using the word stopping in place of quitting. Once you can see it, you know what you’re looking for. He also used a minefield as a smoker’s map. Once you smoke your first cigarette, you’ve stepped into a minefield. Every cigarette is a step within that minefield. Technically, a smoker never leaves that field and if they are lucky, they never set off any number of disease mines. This worked very well for me, but what convinced me it was time to stop was the realization that I had promised myself I’d stop smoking before I reached five years in, then 10 years in, then 15, then 20. I couldn’t believe I was a year away from 20 years of smoking. I finally kept my promise.
In 1996, my bandmate Kelley Mayne was the first friend I knew who stopped smoking and seemingly never looked back. He was 21 and dead set on discontinuing the habit. We’d meet up for band practice and he would join us outside between songs, just staring at us or into the void while the rest of us smoked. I’d ask him how it was going and he referred to it as feeling like he was in “Gumbyland.” I’d ask him to describe it, but he never could. He would just monotonously reiterate I’m in Gumbyland.
Now, much like my grandmother, I too didn’t quit cold turkey. I never could quite get the hang of having empty hands or a mouth that wanted so badly to suck in smoke, and a trachea that wants to catch it all. After a couple of weeks of feeling like I was losing my mind, a friend recommended that I try rolling herbal cigarettes. Living in Portland, Oregon at the time, there were a few paraphernalia shops that sold blends of smokable herbs like skullcap, chamomile, passionflower, marshmallow, mugwort, mullein, rose, damiana, mint and so much more. All I did that winter was loiter around my living room binge-watching Parks and Recreation, waiting for someone to come over who smoked so I could join them and bask in their second hand fumes. When my friend Eirean came over and realized what I was rolling, he told me couldn’t associate with someone who “smoked tea.”
Now, there’s a certain way a drag of smoke had to hit the back of the pharynx that made me feel like I was getting the full effect of smoking a cigarette. I would wager that most smokers know what I am talking about. I knew a number of especially heavy smokers who agreed that if it didn’t hit the back of the throat just right on the first two or three drags, it was very difficult to fully enjoy the rest of the cigarette. After about five months of smoking my herbal “tea” blend, I just stopped. There was no intentional weaning myself off of it, it just faded away. I had no interest in it anymore and the oral fixation had finally disappeared. I was full-fledged non-smoker by spring of 2012. Shane and my then partner Leia were pivotal in supporting me as I put an end to such a stupid habit, along with my entire family for not commanding me to do it, but simply supporting me throughout. Shane checked in with me a lot to pep me up. He recommended that I start the stopwatch on my iPod, since it would run for a very long time. Then, whenever I needed a reminder, I could see how long it had been since I’d had a cigarette. It helped. Leia may still have my last cigarette butt.
As a smoker, I remember crashing with friends at their fifth floor walk-up in Brooklyn. Taking wheeze breaks half-way up, then spending ten to fifteen minutes catching my breath in their hallway while dreaming of a cigarette. I’d climb out to their fire escape to smoke to avoid the five awful floors to the outside. Within days of stopping, my lung capacity felt greater. Within weeks, I had much less trouble breathing, I slept better, and after a couple flights of stairs I could catch my breath within ten to fifteen seconds.
The winter months following that last cigarette were about detoxing my body from nicotine, tar and thousands of other chemicals, but also, and seemingly moreso, it was about reconditioning my thinking and my hands. What do I do when all I want to do is the thing I no longer want to do? Fifteen years after Kelley tried to explain it to me, there I was in my own private Gumbyland. I wish I could fully describe it here, but the best I can say is that suddenly everything is at about 65% reality. What’s there isn’t fully there, especially thought processes. The realness and truth of anything—consciousness, matter, identity, air, purpose, connectivity, joy—can just suddenly fade to nearly half of its natural state. And there’s an inaudible hum-buzzing that commandeers one’s head, maybe to fill in the desire that cannot be achieved or a side effect thereof. Gumbyland is less a place and more an in-between. Where one might go when a massive bandage is torn off.
Smoking was thoroughly enjoyable to me. I miss it. The aroma of a freshly lit cigarette is one of the most intoxicating scents and it sends me back to great and horrific moments in equal measure. The draw it has on me still is fascinating. To say I was addicted to smoking tobacco is an understatement. I knew it would kill me and I certainly didn’t need added assistance. In 2003, I began traveling a lot on poetry tours around North America and Europe. There were so many times I booked flights based solely on not wanting to have to wait more than a few hours before my next cigarette. I would catch the first leg of a flight, land at my layover airport, rush out of security to the smoking area outside to chainsmoke as many cigarettes as possible. Then I would rush back into the airport, through security to my new gate. I must have reeked of smoke. I feel bad for the non-smoker passengers around me. At nearly every show or visits with friends, I would stand outside of the venue or house because it was more important for me to smoke than to engage with whoever I was there to see.
Funny how the one thing I thought was the coolest thing I could do was least cool thing I ever did. Smoking will still likely be a culprit in my death.
In 2016, I helped convince my father to stop smoking after living 40+ with the habit. My mother has switched to vaping her nicotine; not optimal, but a start. I am impressed with all three of us. If you want to stop, I give you my word that you can absolutely do it. You just need support and all the right reasons to quit.
A Conspiracy of Clocks: An Ode to the Seemingly Useless and Certainly Mundane Biannual Task of Resetting Clocks
It would be so much easier if you got rid of us It’s funny how you only get to change us twice a year running around the house setting us back or forward usually wrong but what’s a few human minutes or seconds off that sub-sub-level of arbitrary we don’t really have time to get into right now yet, we’re always changing you you chase us we change everything We’re there for everything you’re waiting for and YOU ARE ALWAYS
W A I T I N G
even cats and lizards put waiting on pause to soak up the sun and lick their lips you program your phone so it can program you according to a schedule you agree to set by the sun a ball of fire too busy to notice you even exist but we notice, Mike we notice and every time you fall asleep we look at each other across the room and laugh we laugh so much that we lose track of time
Jack McCarthy was very dear to me. He helped me get closer to sobriety, guided me on my stage presence, and was pivotal in helping me develop my stage and page voice, and lured me into streamlining my choices in storytelling.
Jack died January 17, 2013, just 13 days after I moved up to Bellingham, Washington to be nearer to him. I was lucky to see him one last time and say goodbye.
On October 15, 2020, Write Bloody Publishing is releasing his new collection of poems and writings called Allow The Light. It’s a beautiful tribute to a man who was a beacon for many poets of all ages and all walks of life.
I’ll be hosting three online book launch events where a number of special guests will join me in reading selections from Jack’s book.
Jack was the sweetest, yet, most honest person I knew. He was always so patient with his critique, moreso the more one needed constructive criticism. To borrow a phrase from my wise and also-departed friend Lara Ka’apuni, Jack would “issue gentle corrections” to folks who were heading the wrong way. Plus, he only man I ever called with regularity on Father’s Day. 2013 was a doozy for me. It’s gotten easier since, but I often ask myself in times of uncertainty, what would Jack do? Well, a lot of those answers are now in this book.