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.
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.
“Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) is an installation of two identical, battery-operated clocks, synchronized and hanging side-by-side. As ordinary objects elevated to the level of fine art, the clocks undoubtedly reference the Duchampian readymade, and, with their austere forms and serial repetition, Minimalist sculpture. Like all of Gonzalez-Torres’s works, however, mundane materials are springboards for subtle personal and political meanings that vary with their context. The viewer’s response to the clocks shifts dramatically knowing that the artist created the installation while his partner Ross Laycock was dying from AIDS. Gonzalez-Torres acknowledged that clocks would fall out of synch, one eventually stopping first. “Time is something that scares me . . . or used to. This piece I made with the two clocks was the scariest thing I have ever done. I wanted to face it. I wanted those two clocks right in front of me, ticking.”
On the other hand, the clocks exemplify his desire to create works with multiple possible meanings. Although it obviously reflects his own homosexual relationship, the abstract nature of the clocks’ substitution for bodies allows it to be read generally, as a metaphor for love. Gonzalez-Torres explained how he resisted the label of “gay art” during a period of increased censorship and furor over the NEA funding for Robert Mapplethorpe: “Two clocks side by side are much more threatening to the powers that be than an image of two guys sucking each other’s dicks, because they cannot use me as a rallying point in their battle to erase meaning. It is going to be very difficult for members of Congress to tell their constituents that money is being expended for the promotion of homosexual art when all they have to show are two plugs side by side, or two mirrors side by side…”
Gonzalez-Torres often produced multiple versions of his installations, and his detailed instructions for their display became an important element of the piece itself. For “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), the instructions require the commercial clocks to be of exact dimensions and design and that they touch; before the exhibition opens the hands are set to the same time; an essential part of the work is that the clocks can be perpetually reset and, therefore, the work is infinite. A rule around the work is that the clocks can fall out of sync but if one of the clocks stop, they are fixed or replaced, as the case may be. With such directions, Gonzalez-Torres created the basic boundaries of the work, while still allowing for certain flexibility in any given exhibition or installation.
“Don’t be afraid of the clocks, they are our time, time has been so generous to us…We conquered fate by meeting at a certain time in a certain space…we are synchronized, now forever. I love you.”
I have a very foggy, clouded recollection of being born. It was all too bright, scary, cold and confusing. I have attributed those feelings to the act of being born, but I cannot be sure. My first clear memory is of me at six months old, being held by my grandmother’s neighbor. She kept “goo-goo-gaga-ing” me and I kept feeling concerned for her lack of intelligence. I remember feeling too close to her face and untrusting of her.