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fascinating fun thoughts

Picture This

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…

While Shannon Harney performed at a Kitchen Session, circa 2017, said mystery film was probably being left behind in my couch cushion. (Taken with my crappy phone.)
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blog Memoir thoughts

Mike McGee, Non-smoker

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.

Halloween 2002, I came to work as The Hunchback of Kinko’s. I was always sure to have a cigarette in my hand whenever a camera was pointed at me. I don’t quite know why I so willingly promoted my habit.

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.

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blog thoughts

BOOK LAUNCH: Jack McCarthy’s “Allow The Light”

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.

Wed, Oct 14, 4pm Pacific: Jack’s East Coast Launch
Thu, Oct 15, 7pm Pacific: Jack’s Pacific Northwest Launch
Fri, Oct 16, 7pm Pacific: Jack’s California Launch

A picture I took of Jack after performing a set in my Worcester, MA kitchen, 2009.

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.

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blog thoughts

Digital Detox (Part One): Leaving Instagram

This began as a response to a comment on my final Instagram post.
I thought it might be interesting as an ongoing series.

Until March, like many self-employed artists, I used social media to promote my events and my work and to stay connected to friends and family. It occurred to me at the onset of the pandemic that isolation + social media were going to be a bad combo for me. Considering I’ve had significantly fewer events to promote, I found myself absorbing social media without much interaction. As addictive as I can be, I find myself unwittingly and mindlessly scrolling and scrolling (and scrolling)… Out of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, I decided I would need to give up one of them, if not two. Having left FB once before, I know I can do it again.

My #1 favorite app is Twitter—it’s where I get most of my breaking news, confirmations, and some of the best things to read and learn about. Twitter is my favorite combo: jokes, news and links to more things to read. It can be interactive, but easy for me to put down. The problem I have with Twitter is that I get very little interaction from followers. I’ve used it pretty consistently since 2008 and all I seem to do is hope people will like my tweets. If I stop using it to interact with folks, it becomes a text version of Instagram or Tumblr (also no longer using) and them all I’m doing is scrolling and liking posts.

My #2 account is Facebook. Most (90%-ish) of the people I love are on FB, whereas the percentages of my loved ones using IG and Twitter are closer to 30–50%. This is the main reason I decided to hang onto FB for now, however limited since I’ve been deleting my pages and promotional tools in an attempt to streamline my use. I can reach nearly anyone I need to either through my phone, email or FB Messenger. I only use FB on a browser having deleted the app from my phone a couple of years ago. This is a critical step in controlling addiction. (It’s the same reason I don’t keep Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in the house.) I get no FB notifications at all except for direct messages. For me, FB’s the most socially interactive of the three and while it can generate negative interaction, at the very least, I can say I’ve met the people I am having that interaction with and “fine-tune” my connection to them thereafter. I have invested time and energy into those friendships. Facebook is where I can just be Mike/Michael and post about personal things and get real feedback or post about events and get the word out in a socially acceptable way..

#3: Instagram. If you had asked me in May 2020 which account I was most likely to hold onto, I would have said Instagram. It’s a wonderful app and serves my eyeballs like no other. I have enjoyed it since the first time I downloaded it. However, no app distracts me more than IG! Isolation and a lot of weird, sad and frustrating downtime has found me scrolling aimlessly on my little phone, clearing my mind of whatever my intended goal was for opening the app. Instagram serves me far less than FB. I am not saying I will leave it forever, but I want to close the account and take a long break. When I left Facebook in 2011, I came back a year later with a renewed focus. There’s nothing like a much needed reboot. Plus, FB already has so much of my data as it is and IG is merely an extension of FB’s data mining operation.

This isolation has been the catalyst for a number of reboots, reassessments and analyses. I have been diligently re-sorting my priorities. I am writing more and starting new projects, so I need to make room. We stop going to cafes when enough people stop showing up or something more inviting comes along. It’s weird to leave a social thing I’ve relied on for eight years, but I left Friendster and Myspace too and I gave yet to regret it.

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blog fun thoughts

You Are What You See

Someone I know recently posted an image of what I assume was their lunch on Facebook with a caption that implied the food pictured was delicious and that anyone who viewed it should be envious. Thanks to the photo, the only thing I envied was their appetite.

I generally don’t post images of food, especially meals I’ve prepared for myself because I feel that in many cases they probably look horrific. Not probably, definitely, because I’ll gladly mix three foods that taste great, but don’t belong together just to conserve dishware. Since the dawn of my own adulthood, every single one of my housemates has given me a look of pity as I plate my meals, like I’m a fat racoon setting down to eat garbage cannolis: tubes of dollar store American cheese slices filled in tapioca, lint and coffee grounds. Believe me, I get it. On more than one occasion I have thought, I know what’s in this meal and that’s THE. ONLY. reason I am able to consume it. There are so many tasty things in the world and yet their appearance would suggest otherwise. In my grumble opinion, too many people take pictures of the otherwise. Dang! I made a tasty thing and I ‘plated’ it ‘just right.’ I have a can opener! I have different salts! I make sauces!! I chef now and I share delicacy with world!

Like flavor, the visual aesthetic of food is a subjective thing and the world would be better off without images of your dish. I say this coming from a place of understanding: I too feel the world is missing out on the incredible flavors I’m constantly inventing with tremendous ease, however, when people who love me aren’t willing to be in the same room with me while I masticate my creations, that’s saying something. Heck, that’s saying two things, minimum.

I make delicious, ugly foods. I have no business taking pictures of my gastric risks so that my followers online may/will lose their appetites. I feel we share images of what we eat with the world via social media for two reasons. First, we share because we genuinely believe we are going to impress someone with our culinary skills/ordering prowess and we want to show off. Second, we share images when we would probably rather share the actual food. I believe most people want to feed others and want others to enjoy the foods with them.

I do know folks who know how to take pictures of food—they understand food prep and presentation. Those are skills most of us do not have. Just because you’re willing to eat it, doesn’t mean the rest of us should have to see it. Like people who love Roman columns on their houses, or paint everything in fake gold, or wear scarves in the heat: Thanks, but no thanks. Just like them, most of us have incredibly poor taste when it comes to how our food looks day after day. The occasional meal might come out looking quite presentable, but if your food receives little to no social media approval, consider that an outcry from people who might actually care about you.

To get a sense of how I feel when I see folks sharing images of their “meals” with the world, I will leave you with with a link to one of my favorite dead blogs. For those of you who get a kick out of judging other people food choices, this link is a goddamn gift. Whoever started this Tumblr has stopped updating it and I miss their sense of humor greatly. They stumbled upon a way of making an inside joke with us as strangers, mocking the food while keeping the chef anonymous. A minor warning: While nearly every image contained within is a picture of edible food, the meals are all very questionable. Each image is one that makes me quietly think Someone Ate This, which is a perfect name for the blog. I am aware that I’m ending a rant on how we should not post pictures of ugly food with a call to visit a photo blog of ugly food. The irony is not lost on me and this is different. And you’re welcome.