Sunday, May 03, 2015

Paging Mike Moore: I Could Use a Title, or Even a Punchline

I’ve written stories since I could write words, even started a couple of novels as early as 3rd or 4th grade, but I’d never finished a book when I met Mike Moore in high school. He’d finished two novels (on a manual typewriter no less). The one I remember best, Bugs Bunny Died for Your Sins, a slapstick send-up of issues surrounding teen pregnancy, including an evil Mother Superior and her black market baby ring. It was good. It was funny. It was like nothing else I’d ever read.

I made Super 8 movies at a young age, too, but mine never became anything more than a nice shot here and there. Mike had made a whole series of shorts by the time I met him, including what we called “The Staff Film,” a remarkably funny pseudo-documentary about his high school journalism class. These films were made in collaboration with best friend Neal Velgos, and most of the work I saw reminded me of Mike’s beloved Hal Roach shorts of the 30s, deliberate slapstick, all the more comical for their prolonged suspense and slow burn reactions.

Mike was the first person I knew who made me realize the limits of my own intellect. While I was a horror movie fan and a rock music fan, Mike devoured great comics (ranging from the underground to the best of Marvel) and comedy (from Charley Chase to Matt Stone and Trey Parker). Still, our passions for movies and books were complementary, and I was always studied at his feet. Mike was not only encyclopedic in his knowledge of all of his favorite subjects but he was constantly coming up with stories—sophisticated plots—based on whatever absurdity we faced in our day to day lives. I wish I could think of an example right now, but that was his brain not mine.

In college, we lived in neighboring dorms, and we’d cross the street to go to the movies and raid Quik Trip for late night snacks. (The Red Hot Beef Burrito was a favorite that I have little doubt contributed to both of us developing early heart disease.) Mike taught me the pleasures of Miller Lite, cold pizza and so many TV shows we watched in his dorm room—especially the early years of David Letterman and the 90 Minute weekend Second City Television. Mike also had a large collection of Super 8 movies, and he’d set up his projector and show movies for the whole floor about once a week. It was with Mike that I first saw so many Laurel and Hardy shorts—“Them Thar Hills,” “A Perfect Day,” “Busy Bodies,” “The Music Box,” and “Brats” as well as the feature Sons of the Desert. And we watched countless Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes, as well as Tex Avery’s cartoons with MGM.

I wouldn’t have gotten involved in the Student Activities movie club without Mike’s encouragement, but together we began to pick movies for the college’s Student Union. We also took part in the school’s film festival together, and I first saw countless movies at his side—Boudo Saved from Drowning, Rules of the Game, Robot Monster, Jules & Jim, Night of the Living Dead, all the original Evil Dead movies, all the original Mad Max movies, Polyester, and the Meaning of Life…. And then we took Dr. Leonard Leff’s Hitchcock class together, falling for then-obscure greats like Blackmail and Young and Innocent. Anyone who knows my habits knows Hitchcock is one of my most private obsessions, yet I first really got to know those movies at Mike’s side.

It was during a lecture (let’s say on the MacGuffin as if I could remember) by the wonderfully unassuming and earnest Dr. Leff that Mike drew a picture of Bugs Bunny with a balloon asking, “Eh, what’s a MacGuffin doc?” He didn’t draw it for me to see it. I just saw it on his paper, and I laughed out loud. Why? Because it was the most inappropriate thing I could do. This would be repeated many times during my churchgoing days with his family. He seemed unable to hit a single note in key, but he sang anyway, which always got my funny bone. The effect was quadrupled by the fact that it was a Catholic church, which meant no one sang very loud in the first place....If my quaking body wasn’t obvious, my occasional outbursts were.

Mike’s mind never quit working, but he did seem to stop putting his ideas on paper. His love of classic comedy was greeted with suspicion by academia. In workshops, he became self-conscious about how others would react to his work and quit sharing it, even if he didn’t altogether quit writing it. I remember occasionally seeing some spoof of an interview he’d written with Daffy Duck discussing the turbulent Porky years, or whatever (I’m not doing it justice), and his stuff would always put me close to tears. A running joke between us was an idea for a 5th Grade Boys Network, a channel that would show the sorts of extreme and offensive programming 10 year olds would actually like to watch, based on our shared stories of our 5th grade note-passing, art, homemade comics, etc. The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead, Tick, South Park….everything from Judd Apatow movies to Adult Swim would have fit in our format, but our format was an idea Mike was developing long before Bart Simpson ever voiced his first “Oh man….”

I may not have ever entered a comic book store if I hadn’t known Mike, but, because of him, I read everything from Frank Miller’s Daredevil to Cerebus to Watchmen and, eventually, Walking Dead. The only time I ever went to a comic convention, I went with Mike, and I learned all about the inking, penciling and writing of Batman during one of its finest periods in the early 70s. In case I haven’t made it plain, my relationship with Mike was a non-stop, generally both fun and funny, learning experience.

Life pulled us in different directions over the past decade or so. I was married into his family through the 90s, and he still lived in my hometown, but if I was back there, there wasn’t much time to see him. Still, his mother lived in Kansas City until just a few years ago, and we’d occasionally go out together when he was here. I remember going to some show one night with Mike and my friend Erica, and I remember they hit it off. He made a point of saying that he hoped we all three get together again, a moment almost out of character. I wish I could remember what movie we saw that night, but I can’t and I have no one to tell me. Mike and Erica are both gone now, as is Mike’s mother who he was visiting. Erica died five years ago. Mike’s mother died two weeks ago, and Mike two days ago. When people leave, they take so much with them.

I’m writing all of this because, on one level, I simply need to say how much I’ll miss Mike and how much of my life has gone with him. But I’m writing for another reason, too. I’m writing because Mike truly was so smart and so talented that, in a just world, I wouldn’t be the one to have to tell you about him. If life was fair, you would know his name. You would know him for one of his books, or you would know him as the creative mind behind the Fifth Grade Boys Network or you might at least know him if you were the sort to read writing credits on your favorite animated TV shows. 

Instead, academia undid Mike’s confidence in his work. Then, after over two decades of service, Mike was passed over for promotion at Waldenbooks, and he wound up taking a job at a Hastings. The last time I saw him before the hospital, he was harried. It was a Sunday afternoon, and he was working the registers alone at Hastings. I stood around the store for the better part of an hour, but he did not get enough of a break for us to have anything approaching even a brief conversation.

The very last time I saw him, he was hooked up to machines and unable to speak. He did, however, manage to make me laugh. When I asked him if there was any good TV in the hospital, he shook his head and widened his eyes in exclamation marks of disgust. He wasn’t joking, but his timing was perfect. That alone made me hope. 

Laughter does that. And that’s just one small reason I’ll miss, Mike, his ability to make me (and everyone else around him) laugh. I could go on about the larger reasons, but, if Mike were here, he’d stop me, probably by doodling a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

The header might say, “Don’t take life too seriously” over a picture of the rabbit smacking on a carrot.

“After all, Doc,” his cartoon balloon might say, “You’ll never get out alive.”

And, of course, he'd get just what he more laugh. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Working on a Building and Thinking about Shame

There's a lot of shaming that takes place on the Internet. Some of it is deserved, but I don't think most of it is. I don't think putting potential allies down does much good. I want us to find more ways to be open about our flaws so that we can learn from each other. I'm afraid too much of this shame that gets thrown around is the by-product of a system that's been built to keep us feeling weak and self conscious. Specifically talking about the way some Black activists talk to other Blacks,  #blkgrrrrl writer Teka-Lark Fleming said on the 27th, "...stop judging people in the same manner corporate America and white supremacy does." I want to generalize that to how all social justice fighters talk to one another. Somehow, we need to balance vigilance and patience. As Fleming writes, "This is a process."

I've got reasons to think most people we're talking to are fundamentally decent. It's a conservative estimate that I've worked with 5400 students at two different community colleges since I moved here in 1987. I'm a writing teacher, so I've learned a great deal about what most of them think about a wide array of subjects. Two impressions up front: while there's a great deal of ignorance in every segment of our society, people aren't dumb, and most are far more open and sensitive to social issues than anyone gives them credit for being. The second is that most are strong potential allies around any human rights issue.

But, of course, like almost everyone you or I know personally, my students tend to be very busy and very stressed. For reasons that seem well established (if in doubt, please check out Brigid Schulte's bestselling 2014 primer Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time), we are living in the busiest era of our lifetimes. If you've ever been underemployed or unemployed like (again, conservatively) about 22 million Americans today, then you know that state of being is no less busy and all the more paralytic.

And this paralysis is at least part of why, when Ferguson brings people out in the streets calling for an end to systemic brutality, many who are sympathetic are not there. This is why most of America is not out in the streets protesting the fact that 30,000 Detroiters have no water this holiday season. This is why people in Kansas City react little to my posts about the Reverend Edward Pinkney, even though he is being threatened with life imprisonment for obviously trumped up charges because he's fighting corporate control of his community in Benton Harbor, Michigan. This is why most never hit the streets over what happened to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. This is why whatever energy put thousands in the streets of KC protesting the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, we don't see that same kind of energy around war 13 years down the road. Meanwhile, the "War on Terror" only fuels new brutal forms of resistance, and most Americans are afraid to say anything that might be mistaken for not supporting the troops. Busy-ness is at least part of why people might be excused for thinking Occupy just went away despite the fact that core organizers are still very active around many different fronts, most prominently in KC around the minimum wage struggle.

My heart is with those folks who are meeting on the Plaza every night at 7:00 and in other parts of the city to protest the Michael Brown Grand Jury decision. I will join these folks at several of these protests as well as a community debriefing next weekend. But I know I will probably go to such events alone and leave such events alone. I will struggle as I've struggled for over a decade to find some meaningful way to plug into the work on the ground. Like many Americans, I struggle to balance the demands right in front of me with the call of street activism, and, locally, my friends in activist circles are increasingly distant relations, not unlike most of my work relationships.

It's ironic because my first core of close friends in Kansas City were all met through activism, specifically a 1987 In Defense of Music event that I helped organize at the Charlie Parker Foundation. That first year, I became close to another recent arrival, Anne Winter who ran Dirt Cheap records. We would meet every Friday at the Corner restaurant and discuss what possibilities might exist for music-related activism in Kansas City. The two of us, along with almost everyone else I knew, helped launch Culture Under Fire by 1989. By the simple fact of world events, that event became, in part, a protest against the first Gulf War. We'd later join forces with the Kansas City Missouri Union of the Homeless, and, by 1992, we held a Break the Blackout Summit, signing an agreement to share media between a variety of national organizations. This was the era of the Rodney King verdict and the L.A. rebellion. We were manic and ever-ready because the world was on the cusp of massive change.

We weren't wrong about that, but we couldn't predict the form it would take or the speed with which it would happen. The world has changed dramatically. Today, virtually everyone carries around computer power that wouldn't have fit in my home when I was a child, and we've seen social upheavals in over 20 Middle Eastern and North African countries and at least another 12 major ongoing protests around the world since the Arab Spring and Occupy Movement of 2011. There's liberating potential in those little electronic devices, but that power also stands as a real economic and social threat to the current system, and the resulting violence shows many signs of developing into yet another World War sparked by a technological revolution that more than rivals the Industrial Revolution that reshaped the world at the start of the last century. There's an obvious, admitted class war against the world's poor already raging, and it's becoming a form of corporate-sponsored fascism in America. Most terrifying today is the fact that we're going into this next period of nationalistic struggles with nuclear weapons we couldn't have even imagined back when we used to watch A-Bomb readiness films in school.

I don't know how it could be more obvious that the status quo is going to rob our children of a future.

So I came to this computer this morning wanting to ask you to use your imagination and help me answer a question. How do we build community in new ways that work with today's new realities? How do we built connections that will be able to forcefully (not just virtually) fight for justice and stand up against these dangers?

I believe we are living in a new era, and we have to find a way to come together in something resembling the 99%, exponentially larger numbers than we saw with Occupy. In the past, America's most successful social movements have been rooted in the church, and I have to admit, that's the best community model I've seen. For about four decades, I've observed the way my father's church comes together for celebration, and they help one another in times of need (they've certainly been there for me); they do elder care and community food programs, and they even discuss contemporary literature on Sunday mornings.

For better or worse, I'm not religious, and I suspect there will only be more problems with the church model in our future. I was always able to explore my spirituality and my social vision more honestly with others in a secular setting, particularly around popular music. The idea of a hip hop collective like the currently reuniting KC group Flavorpak is closer to my sense of community, but it's a cultural event community. And even the potential of a hip hop collective as a force for change makes me wonder about organizing with my other friends who may be rooted in folk music or country music or heavy metal. The first thing I start thinking about with any group is who might be excluded.

To be honest, most often when I'm at an activist event, I feel that I've simply found my way to another group that unconsciously excludes more than it invites. There's a group culture that takes over, and it creates its own top down assumptions. It's usually dry--too culturally cautious, too emotionally narrowed, and too romantically tied to old myths of revolutionary struggle. (I am very loyal to a few groups that are not trapped in these boxes but only because they constantly fight their way out of them.)

And there are many more reasons why my core of friends involved in political work are, for the most part, no longer the people I know out in the streets. My activist life played a big role in killing my first marriage, the part that wasn't killed by the hours of neglect that tend to come with writing itself. I won't blame my first heart attack on this activity, but I will say it makes me more personally cautious today. It's part of the reason I want to underscore that shaming people for any sort of perceived inactivity holds no interest to me. People do what they know they can, like water rising to its level.

Still, I believe we need to come together. There is unique value in ongoing physical fellowship, friendship and camaraderie. I believe people have to go eye-to-eye to talk things through. I believe no individual is smarter than a group sorting through our problems together, and I believe a healthy group best strategizes visible, public political action. Though, as a writer, I probably need to be alone to do my best work, I also know that my best work is only what it is because of the work I do with others. Living in Kansas City, I often feel starved for all of these aspects of community, yet I know it's all around me.

So, I repeat my question as a list of starters. I would appreciate it if you wrote me back with your thoughts. I'll include my email address so that you don't have to blog it. I can compile the results and share them in some way in a future blog. I'd certainly like to talk about what ever responses you have with each of you personally.

How can more Americans become part of a community that can address the challenges ahead of us?

What new forms of community organization would you like to see?

What such activities that don't currently exist would you attend?

What forms of community could enhance and ease the burden of your day to day life rather than make it harder?

What would you want to avoid?

Are new forms even possible? Has it all been done? Is there no need for this kind of thinking when so many organizations already exist?

Any thoughts are not only welcome but needed.

I've been writing on the theme of coming together for a very long time. I need some fresh thoughts about how to move forward. Oh, and you if you think of yourself as outside of this audience but you've read this far, I probably want to hear from you the most. Our biggest problem is that we spend too much time talking to ourselves.

 My email is

Thanks ahead for anything,


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My Two Cents On Ferguson (In the Wake of the Grand Jury Decision)

About twenty years ago, I was leaving a Westport club with two friends when we witnessed a shoving match between two young men, one white and one black. Within moments, the always everywhere Westport police had the black man on the ground in cuffs, while they talked to the white man (who was uncuffed) at the back of his car. The three of us, and several dozen people around us, all saw the same thing. There was no difference between what the two men had been doing. We were shocked and began to raise objections.

Rather than ask us to testify to what we saw, the police told us to disperse. One of my friends, the singer for a very popular local band at the time, refused to shut up or back down until one of the police officers began to fling her handcuffs at his wrists. He pulled away, and we walked several yards back.

“Westport’s closed!” the police mantra went up, along with warnings that we would be arrested if we didn’t leave.

I’ve been in violently tense situations before—in schoolyard fights, in a country bar when a fight broke out, at a hip hop show when a fight broke out, at a variety of concerts when the crowd was being treated like criminals—but this was particularly bad. I wasn’t afraid of the violence so much as I wanted to break something.

I had friends who were DJs who were regularly told to change their music “because the floor’s getting too dark,” my favorite Westport club had been shut down because that end of the street was “getting too dark,” I’d been at more than one raid at some of the most optimistic, integrated events this city’s ever seen, thrown by the hip hop collective Flavorpak.

This booming message--Westport’s closed!  You didn’t just see what you just saw! Go home or you will be arrested!—it was like getting our collective noses rubbed in every indignity we’d ever witnessed or suffered.

It took the three of us a while to quit staring from a distance—blood rushing in our ears, kicking brick walls—and decide, yes, I guess we have to go home.

Our musician friend peeled off, and my other buddy walked with me back in the direction of my car across Broadway. I was parked behind the bank there on Westport Road. We were about half a block away when we saw a crowd of young black men standing around my car. The biggest guy was rocking my little bug of a car back and forth, like he was trying to pick it up.

I got this. I have Johnson County (white flight) plates. That night Westport was clearly sending a signal that it was made for white people only. I knew just the thing to do…run my little white butt in the other direction and let the guy do what he wanted with my car.

But my friend was far braver. He shouted “Hey,” and darted across the parking lot. Honoring guy code, I followed on his heels.

This led to a stand-off, where the two of us just stared at the other guys while they got back in their car. We didn’t say anything, and they didn’t say anything. I got in my car. My buddy got in his (Missouri plated) car.

And we went home.

But I wanted to say something. I wanted to tell the guy who'd been rocking my car I understood. I wanted to say I was on his side. I wanted to tell him I wouldn’t even blame him if he decided to beat me down or take me out.

Whatever I said, though, I knew it would sound empty. Unfortunately or fortunately, I knew what he knew. When things like what went down in Westport that night go down, words don’t mean much.

According to both the Bureau of Justice Statistics and research by P.M Stinson at Bowling Green University, 400 people are killed by police each year.  .01% of those police are ever brought to trial. Though most of those people killed are white and male, a disproportionate number are young black males, who are also imprisoned disproportionately, pulled over disproportionately, questioned disproportionately, and harassed disproportionately.

In that climate, explosions will happen....Nevermind when it seems the whole country might, for once in a great long while, almost be prepared to listen….and then even that gets snatched away.

And from The People's Tribune:

Friday, October 31, 2014

All Saints Day Thoughts on My Halloween Mix

Seven days ago, I wrote a piece on Halloween records for Cuepoint at All week long, while I waited for it to run, I thought about what's wrong with it (of course), but more importantly, I found myself thinking about what more there was to say. In many cases, these things are interrelated.

One tactical thing that's wrong with the piece is that I set Halloween records up in opposition to Christmas records, as if either were taken very seriously in our culture. Novelty records (holiday records of any kind) define one pole of our pop culture, which, on the whole, is not taken seriously even by many of its fans. The two are interrelated, the Christmas ghost story being a very old tradition (Dickens' A Christmas Carol only the most famous example).

More generally, what's wrong with the piece and what's right about it reflect who I am. I'm all unmoored intuition (until I'm not). I speak in contradictions. If I can at once point out that rap and metal are the most gothic of genres and then find only one example from either genre I want to put in my Halloween mix, well, that says something about how I regard the gothic differently than others. My Halloween aesthetic has to do with a certain kind of fear and thrill that involves brushing up against the unknown. While I love rap and metal as genres, most of the more gothic pieces are simply too strong to capture a kind of quiet, primal fear I'm after.

(Similarly, I could have used a bunch of murder ballads, but I instead went for more overt examples of the country music ghost story.)

What I'm find myself thinking about most is why I made the mix I made. I built the article around a playlist, and I made it the way we used to make mixtapes--sitting immersed in all of this music and going from the gut.

So I wound up with interesting demographics that were more accidental than thought out--

On a 20 record mix, I have 5 records from the 50s, 5 records from the early 60s, 1 record from the 70s, 3 records from the 80s, 1 from the 90s and 5 from the past decade, and that was by design, half being what "I" think of as older records....before my time. 15 of the records are from a time before the experience of millenials, and I suppose that impulse comes from the same place my preference for old horror movies comes from--ghost stories are all the more ghostly when they speak from another time. The experience is, in and of itself, interacting with another world.

More important, most of the older music is doowop, and I do speculate about that in the piece. It is also interesting, though, how (well into the fifties) the roles of black characters in fright films was typically racist comic relief, and on these records, black's buddy up to Frakenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, zombies and various other kinds of undead. On the Duponts' great "Screamin' Ball" there's a prototype for the Bootsy Collins' vocal, prefiguring where funk might take all of this a short time in the future.

Finally, I think what's most interesting is how much of this haunting occurs in the presence of deindustrialization and economic collapse. This is true of the Thatcher-era British records, of course, but it's also true of the Los Angeles punk bands after almost a full decade of decline of Southern California manufacturing. Cleveland rappers' Bone Thugs N Harmony's track is two decades into the Rust Belt's economic decline, and shows it with the angriest, most offensive piece to make the mix. The Low Anthem's record is actually recorded in an abandoned Rhode Island factory. Al Spx and Ariana Gillis may be harder to pin down on this issue, but that makes them the only two exceptions, and Gillis confronts the economy pretty directly with both the opening cut and the closing cut of the same 2010 album. Janelle Monae grew up in perhaps the most economically devastated (and crack ravaged) neighborhood in Kansas, and Bruce Springsteen's song closes Wrecking Ball, his response to our most recent recession.

I have no doubt there's more to say, but these are some of the things crossing my mind, and, on some level, the reasons behind the reasons are why I think writing is worth it. All caveats aside, I think the Cuepoint piece reads well and looks nice, and I hope others get plenty out of it. I always want to start a conversation, and the conversation isn't ever really just about the specifics--it's about why we need to talk to each other in the first place, where we might go together.

So, if you haven't read this yet, I hope you take a look and see what it says to you. If you want to let me know, it will only help clarify things. Thanks for reading this far, really.

Happy El Dia de los Muertos!

My Halloween piece for Cuepoint--